If the self remains in its citadel, anxious to control and heavily defended, it declines in the sources of vitality. To lay the citadel open, however, is to court danger: a danger inseparable from the enhancement of life.
-Roberto Mangabeira Unger, from “The Religion of the Future”
I am visiting my university student daughter this week, and today had the opportunity to attend one of her classes—a lecture taught by Professor Unger.
In today’s class, Professor Unger was tackling an issue we all face—how to encourage self-invention and at the same time create a healthy society. How do we maintain a sense of individuality without become narcissistic? How do we work toward a healthy society without conforming or becoming a prisoner of the thought police? The answer is that there is no one answer. A Hegelian at heart, he believes in the continual dialectic, that life is a process of constantly renewing, reinventing, rethinking ourselves and our place in society, and any religion or philosophy—he believes—that posits a utopian or all-encompassing theory fails.
It was clear from many of the questions asked in class, that the students were unsettled by Professor Unger’s lack of resolution. They wanted an answer, some sort of proof that all of this philosophizing led to something, some sort of world-view, or economic or political outlook. But, Professor Unger would not assuage their fears; instead he encouraged them to continue to ask questions.
When I was in my early twenties, listening to similar lectures at college, I also wanted answers. But now, I am much more comfortable with the questions. I recognize, as Unger’s quote states, that to lay the citadel open, however, is to court danger. This is the danger of uncertainty, of risk, of rebellion. It is the danger of not knowing or perhaps discovering something new that rocks your worldview. But this danger is what keeps us alive, keeps us growing. So actually, it doesn’t seem so dangerous; rather it seems exciting, beautiful, even sublime.
Nothing can ever happen twice.
In consequence, the sorry fact is
that we arrive here improvised
and leave without the chance to practice…
Why do we treat the fleeting day
with so much needless fear and sorrow?
It’s in its nature not to stay:
today is always gone tomorrow.
With smiles and kisses, we prefer
to seek accord beneath our star,
although we’re different (we concur)
just as two drops of water are.
-Wislawa Symborzska, from “Nothing Twice”
Symborzska’s poem reminds us to stay present. Why? Because, as she writes in the first line—nothing can ever happen twice. This moment happening right now is irreplaceable.
Faced with this truth and with the precarious and often unpredictable nature of life, how do we respond? Symborzska offers two possible answers. We can either treat the fleeting day with so much needless fear and sorrow or we can with smiles and kisses…prefer to seek accord.
But, these two choices offered to us are highly nuanced. I don’t believe that declining fear and sorrow means that we deny our feelings and thoughts and need to make plans. The problems only arise when our concerns propel us out of the present, and we become anxious about the future and obsessed with the past.
And similarly, seeking accord with smiles and kisses doesn’t mean that we ignore the real challenges in our lives. It doesn’t mean that we stop locking our doors and embrace someone who means to do us harm. Rather, I think the smiles and kisses reflect a mindset—one that is open to the moment and present with whatever is happening.
So we have a choice; personally, I choose rainbows and sunshine and colorful art painted by my daughter, and puppy kisses–even on days like today, when it’s cold and my body aches, and I miss loved ones. Soak it in; it never happens twice.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
-Shakespeare, from Sonnet XIX
Continuing with last week’s theme of remembering, these final words from Shakespeare’s nineteenth sonnet evoke a sense of the eternal nature of memory. Memories are not relegated to dusty attics, or shoved back into the recesses of our mind; rather, as Shakespeare says, they “ever live young”.
And why not wax poetic from time to time? Why not remember moments that are frozen in time—the birth of a child, a wedding, a meeting with a significant person, a fabulous adventure…?
We may plead with old Time to let these moments linger, but they do not. They pass away. The moments in time pass away, but they live eternally inside of us. And by recalling them, we rekindle the fire they first lit—in some sense reminding us, as Anne Lamott says, I’m all the ages I’ve ever been.
Last summer’s reeds are all engraved in ice as is your image in my eye; dry frost glazes the window of my hurt; what solace can be struck from rock to make heart’s waste grow green again? Who’d walk in this bleak place?
-Sylvia Plath, from “Winter Landscape, with Rooks”
Sometimes—usually in the winter—I feel drawn to Sylvia Plath, and to this poem in particular. Sometimes I recognize that, while certain challenging times have passed and they no longer define me, I want to remember them—not re-live them or dwell in them—but remember them.
Sylvia Plath wrote this poem in 1956, the same year she married fellow poet Ted Hughes. Her poem explores the twofold process of exploring one’s pain—awareness of suffering, as evidenced in the bleak winter landscape, and the desire to flee one’s suffering, seen in the image of the rook—a bird seeking escape through flight.
Plath ends her poem with the question, Who’d walk in this bleak place? She, obviously—by the mere writing of this poem—is walking in this bleak place. But, is that such a bad thing? Sometimes it is helpful to walk in a bleak place, to remember one’s pain, to remember the loss of a loved one, to remember moments of sadness or depression. And then, to cease walking in the bleak place, and fly away and see—from above—the bleak landscape fade. To see and remember that we are no longer in that bleak place.
Through the act of remembering, we honor loved ones we lost, we honor times in our lives we have survived, we honor states we have surmounted. We remind ourselves that we are strong, that we are survivors, that winter can be cold and bleak and at times frightening, but spring does come, as do buds and flowers and joy and warm hugs and watermelon, and linen sundresses.
There are times when it is beneficial to walk in bleak places, remembering that we—like the rook—can always soar.
Thinking is only a small part of our consciousness.
Most of us would agree with Descartes statement: I think therefore I am. The unconscious process goes something like this—when a thought arises, whether it is as simple as I really want another piece of cake or as reproachful as I’m a horrible friend, we usually accept it as truth. Then, when enough similar thoughts accumulate, they turn into feelings, and before we know it, our general emotional and mental state is fixed! And then we believe that we are good, fat, friendly, smart…fill in the blank.
But what if Eckhart Tolle is right, and not Descartes? What if, instead of being our thoughts, we are the awareness of our thoughts, the consciousness behind the thoughts? What if every thought could be questioned?
Then we would gradually stop being our own worst enemy, and the conscious process would go something like this—when a thought arises, we would step back and look at our thoughts as one looks at clouds in the sky. We wouldn’t instantly accept the thought as true, and instead we would ask if this thought were true or relevant or beneficial. Then, we’d make our decision, and go from there. And instead of being anxious or angry or frustrated, there would be more flow, more ease, more peace. And probably a lot more laughter…because some of the stuff our mind comes up with is down right hilarious!
He did not know that the new life would not be given him for nothing, that he would have to pay dearly for it, that it would cost him great striving, great suffering. But that is the beginning of a new story—the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life. That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.
-Fyodor Dostoevsky, from Crime and Punishment
These final lines of Dostoevsky’s novel come like a much-needed glass of water to a parched throat. The book, which begins with Raskolnikov’s horrendous act of murdering a pawnbroker and her sister with an axe, explores his mental, psychological and spiritual downward spiral. It’s a painful read! But if we can endure Raskolnikov’s pain, not to mention a few hundred pages of Dostoevsky’s exploration of the negative ramifications of nihilism, utilitarianism and anything espoused by Nietzsche, we see that just maybe there was a point to all this suffering.
That’s my big take-away from Crime and Punishment. I’m not advocating that we willingly become martyrs, which too many of Dostoevsky’s characters do. I don’t think we get any points for intentionally placing ourselves in self-harming situations, but it does seem to be that the greatest growth is a byproduct of some of the most challenging times in our lives.
So maybe a question to ask is—what is your new story? We, our world, our environment are all in a state of constant flux. However good or however bad today is; tomorrow will be different. So, what is your new story? How can this moment—however painful or pleasant—propel you to the next chapter of your story? You’ve got the pen and you’ve got the paper, so maybe it’s time to start writing.
I don’t know where prayers go, or what they do. Do cats pray, while they sleep half-asleep in the sun? Does the opossum pray as it crosses the street? The sunflowers? The old black oak growing older every year? I know I can walk through the world, along the shore or under the trees, with my mind filled with things of little importance, in full self-attendance. A condition I can’t really call being alive. Is a prayer a gift, or a petition, or does it matter? The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way. Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
While I was thinking this I happened to be standing just outside my door, with my notebook open, which is the way I begin every morning. Then a wren in the privet began to sing. He was positively drenched in enthusiasm, I don’t know why. And yet, why not. I wouldn’t persuade you from whatever you believe or whatever you don’t. That’s your business. But I thought, of the wren’s singing, what could this be if it isn’t a prayer? So I just listened, my pen in the air.
-Mary Oliver, “I happened to be Standing”
This is one of my favorite poems written by one of my favorite poets—the late Mary Oliver, who passed away last Thursday.
Mary Oliver’s life was definitely not the unexamined life. And her poetry reflects her lifelong examination of life’s deepest questions and yearnings. While she usually wrote in first-person singular, the “I” for her was less reflective of her personal experience, and more an invitation to the reader into deeper self-examination, encouraging the reader him or herself to become “I”.
So when I read this poem, I feel as if I am being invited to explore my notion of prayer. It is something only done in a place of worship? Is it a combination of words written by few and memorized by many? It is found in nature? Is it of my own making?
Mary Oliver doesn’t tell us what prayer is, but from the poem’s title, we are given some clue as to where or how she thinks we might find our answer. Perhaps, if we stop for one moment, and take in all that is in our midst, we might find that prayer is an unfolding, constantly evolving conversation with life itself. So maybe next time you happen to be standing, you might take in all that life is communicating to you, and lean in, and be ruthlessly curious.
Everyone you see, you say to them, ‘Love me’.
Of course you do not do this out loud, otherwise
Someone would call the cops.
Still, though, think about this, the great pull
Why not become the one who lives with a
Full moon in each eye that is
With that sweet moon language
What every other eye
In this world is
The 14th century Persian poet Hafiz ends his poem “With that Moon Language” with a suggestion. Since all of us, he says, want to connect, maybe we can shift our focus from receiving to giving.
But, let’s think for a second—where do we usually place the focus of our interaction with others? On how we treat them or how they treat us? Maybe that snarl on the lady at the post office could be softened by our smile. Maybe the driver that cut you off doesn’t need you to sit on your horn. Maybe your friend just needs a hug.
Okay, BIG DISCLAIMER HERE: I’m not speaking at the level of the #Me Too Movement. That stuff is real and should be called out and no one should be anyone’s doormat. I am not talking about abusive relationships or misogyny or racism or homophobia. I am talking about our interactions with our family, our friends, and others we encounter at work, the grocery store, and yes—bad drivers.
And in these interactions, maybe we could soften our hearts, come out of ourselves a bit, and recognize the universal need to connect. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., whose life and work we honor in the US next week, An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity.
The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.
I have far more questions now in my forties, than I did in my teens and twenties—when I was convinced of so many things. Robert Hughes, an art-critic and writer, was referring here specifically to the artistic process, but I think there is something here for all of us.
Doubt can be frightening. Questions can leave us unsettled. To be convinced of something is, in many ways, much easier. But then we might be limiting ourselves from living fully—exploring new passions or dreams, challenging our ideas about ourselves, and maybe opening ourselves to new relationships.
Whether you are an artist or not, that which makes us feel most alive is that which is most authentic—not that which we copy or follow. That is the consolation prize Hughes speaks of. But rather, it is through doubt and questioning and venturing into the uncharted territories of our hearts and minds, that we create the masterpieces of our lives.
After having been standing by the gate of the garden for a long time, Siddhartha realized that his desire was foolish, which had made him go up to this place, that he could not help his son, that he was not allowed to cling to him. Deeply, he felt the love for the run-away in his heart, like a wound, and he felt at the same time that this wound had not been given to him in order to turn the knife in it, that it had to become a blossom and had to shine.
-Herman Hesse, from Siddhartha
Yesterday, my yoga teacher asked us to think back on 2018 and reflect on something positive we had learned. I immediately thought about boundaries and how to have a healthy balance between self-love and self-care and loving and caring for others.
I recently re-read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I find myself returning to the books that shaped my young adult life. And I find that, by seeing them with different eyes, different themes present themselves to me. Whereas the young me was drawn to the spiritual journey awaiting the burgeoning Buddha, the mid-life me is drawn to the life-worn Siddhartha, the man who has been shaped by his loves and losses, by his risks and failures, and by the lessons he is able to draw from the life he has lived.
And this quote in particular stuck out to me. Here is the aging Siddhartha, who discovers that he has a teenage son, only to lose him. And he wants to cling, to hold him close, to heal him, to love him back into relationship. How many of us have felt this—the desire to live another’s journey, simply to spare that person from pain? And did it ever work?
What Siddhartha learns, and what I learned in 2018 is that it never works. And not only does it not work, it actually causes harm—to ourselves and to others. Healthy love recognizes the autonomy that exists for us as sentient beings, recognizes that we all come here with a journey that can only lived by us, and recognizes that sometimes the best we can do is be silent or give space.
Before shedding the old to embrace the new, I invite you to explore what you have learned this year, something that changed your life and maybe something you want to carry into 2019.
Many blessings for a wonderful new year!
See you in 2019!
How you love yourself is how you teach others to love you.
It’s that time of year again—when we gather together with family and friends to celebrate, reminisce, and enjoy egg nog and mulled wine. It sounds pretty romantic, and sometimes it is, but sometimes it definitely isn’t.
Sometimes we can be overwhelmed by competing needs and struggle with our boundaries being threatened. We can revert to that child we worked so hard to heal and allow the inner critic to creep into our thoughts.
This is when some self-love and self-compassion are called for. How can we expect others to honor and respect us if we don’t honor and respect ourselves? It’s up to us to teach others how to treat us, how to love us, how to honor and support and nurture us—by honoring and supporting and nurturing ourselves.
So take some time every day—and especially at this time of year—to honor and nurture and care for yourself. Show others how valuable you are by valuing yourself.
There are many ways we grow as human beings; but two that have always been there is that we are broken open or we willfully shed, and usually it’s a mix of both.
Every day when I walk my much-loved dog Riley, I see the trees become more and more bare, and I see soggy yet colorful leaves covering the sidewalks and roads. And I think—I am also part of this process.
Very often, I’m blindsided by life and I am broken open. Experiencing my eldest go to university was not easy. Losing loved ones in the past few years has been painful. And the challenges of getting older have really surprised me. But as I walk with Riley through the wintry streets, I feel the need to willfully shed—to let go of the past, of old patterns, of things that no longer serve me, and of a stage and age that has come and gone.
Now is the time to dwell in this quiet cocoon of winter—reflecting on all that has been shed, and preparing for the mysteries that will blossom in spring.