I know now that these conquerors, like many others before them, and no doubt like others after, gave the speeches not to voice the truth, but to create it.
-Laila Lalami, “The Moor’s Account”
While Laila Lalami’s beautifully written fictional memoir about a Moroccan slave explores the themes of racism and greed, what struck me when I read this sentence, was the power of storytelling, the power of the stories we tell ourselves.
We think our thoughts are true. But are they? Certainly not all of them. Not the ones that shame us or blame us or make us feel icky and lost and confused. But those are most often the ones we cling to.
But what if we stepped back for a second, and thought about some truths we’d actually like to believe, ones that are filled with hope and confidence and love? Is it so hard to think positive thoughts? To create truths that make us feel good?
No, I don’t think it’s hard, but too often we have the habit of seeing the worst and believing the worst and making stories out of these things.
Let’s change that! Let’s see our lives as blank slates. Let’s see every moment as a golden opportunity to start anew. Lets challenge ourselves to feel good by saying good things to ourselves. And maybe, baby step by baby step, we will create new beautiful stories, new beautiful truths.
I used to spend my nights out in a barroom
Liquor was the only love I’ve known
But you rescued me from reachin’ for the bottom
And brought me back from being too far gone
You’re as smooth as Tennessee whiskey
You’re as sweet as strawberry wine
You’re as warm as a glass of brandy
And honey, I stay stoned on your love all the time
-Chris Stapleton, Tennessee Whiskey
We’ve all looked for love in the wrong places. In fact, I think we spend most of our lives looking for love in the wrong places.
We think that the love of another or the perfect job or even the feeling we get from a chemical addiction will satisfy a deep craving for love or meaning. But anytime we look outside ourselves, we will never be satisfied.
The only sustaining love and sense of wellbeing can be found within. Our regard for ourselves, our love for ourselves, our sense of what is right and wrong can only be found within—not at the bottom of a bottle or in the arms of another. So maybe it’s time to dig deep within and stay stoned on your own love.
Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrow, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallize and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the pictures of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss.
-Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
I think many of us belong to this clan—the one filled with deeply-feeling and empathetic people who are affected by their surroundings, by the feelings of others, by sights and smells, and by world events.
But is this necessarily a good thing? Does it actually serve us to be so affected by so many things?
Compassion is one thing; it’s a conscious choice to care for another. But oftentimes, for those of us in this clan, our wellbeing is not a conscious choice, and is as ephemeral as the weather. We wake up in the morning, open the blinds and ask—will the sun shine today? Similarly, we wake up in the morning and ask—will I be happy today?
As if we have no part in the matter. But we do.
We can choose our thoughts. We can choose our emotions. It’s not always easy, especially if there is a lot of trauma from our past or if we have the habit of feeling powerless. But just as we have to exercise our muscles and work our way up to push-ups and sit-ups, we can also exercise our positive-talk muscles.
We can remind ourselves that life is a beautiful journey, a glorious and mysterious gift. We can remind ourselves that the glass is half-full.
…When you move
I’m put to mind of all I wanna be
When you move
I could never define all that you are to me
So move me, baby
Shake the bough of a willow tree
You do it naturally
Move me, baby
-Hozier, from “Movement”
This morning I watched a man hug trees.
Just north of Gordon Beach, there is a part of the boardwalk that is lined with palm trees. Yesterday, I watched as a man went from tree to tree, hugging each one for about ten seconds. Surrounded by body builders and joggers and volleyball players and alterkakers playing chess, this man quietly hugged his trees.
What struck me most was how others responded to him. Either he was ignored because they were engaged in some beach-related activity, or they seemed curious, respectful, and kind. There were no looks expressing, “This guy is nuts!”
Later in his song, Hozier sings, When you move I can recall somethin’ that’s gone from me; when you move Honey, I’m put in awe of something’ so flawed and free. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was put in awe of this man. There was something flawed and free in his tree-hugging.
And I felt inspired to dig deep within and rediscover parts of myself that felt gone or inhibited or stuck. Our perfectionism–even well-intentioned–can often disconnect us from our authentic selves. So maybe hugging trees isn’t your thing, but ask yourself what would make you feel flawed and free, and explore how to nurture that part of yourself.
Trouble, trouble, trouble all about my soul
As soon as my feet touch down
I won’t be in trouble no more.
-Cary Ann Heart, from “Trouble About my Soul”
A few days ago on my morning walk, this song appeared on my playlist. A suggestion from my daughter, I’d never heard it before, but the song resonated profoundly—partially because I heard the lyrics incorrectly.
I heard: as soon as my feet touch Zion, and there I was—walking on the beach in Tel Aviv. How did Cary Ann Heart know how I felt? How did she know that I feel so right being here—in Israel, by the sea, smelling the salty air? How did she know that my morning meditation is walking here by the sea and somehow, I feel peace in my soul?
Well, she didn’t know, and even I didn’t know—the correct lyrics, that is. But, it got me thinking about the fact that we all resonate differently with places. Some of us feel most at home in cities, others in nature; some in forests and others by the sea; some love the cold and others a dry desert.
I’m not sure any one place is more holy than another; I think God is everywhere. But, we can only be one place at a time, and there are definitely places that speak more to us than others. And these places, when we truly find them, can become holy for us. They can be a place where we feel close to God, where we can pray more easily, and where, we won’t be in trouble no more.
He had never been so anxious for the arrival of a woman he did not want to see.
-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
It’s difficult to find a more visceral description of the horrors of addiction than in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
Wallace’s character is frustrated with his addiction to marijuana, so he repeatedly tried to quit—which amounts to smoking up the rest of whatever he has and getting rid of all paraphernalia. But that lasts only so long, and he ends up going out again, buying himself more weed and a pretty new bong.
But, this time is different. He’s going to buy really good stuff from the woman he did not want to see and smoke it all till he gets so sick that he won’t want to smoke ever again.
Addiction comes in so many forms. Whether it’s binge-watching Netflix or gulping down M&M’s or the need to be loved or the need not to be needed, we all have ways of avoiding the present. And, as Wallace shows us here through this gut-wrenching portrayal of addiction, it doesn’t feel good. Whatever we do to avoid our lives never feels good long-term. Yes, it might feel good as we swallow the first M&M or watch the first episode, but our lives are always there—waiting for us at the bottom of the bottle.
Sometimes the present moment is just downright dreadful and frightening and sad. Sometimes it’s boring and sometimes it’s exhilarating. But, regardless—it’s all we’ve got, and no amount of chemical alteration can change that fact.
Perhaps then, the best thing to do is befriend the present, welcome it in, even if begrudgingly at times. Maybe we can lean in, ask questions, become curious, and inquire as to what this moment has in store for us and what it is here to teach us. By softening into the present, and seeing it as our teacher, we lessen the need to escape into some form of addiction, and we can begin to take baby steps toward a more expansive and peaceful life.
I’ve been watching stars rely on the darkness they resist. And fish struggle with and against the current. And hawks glide faster when their wings don’t move. Still I keep retelling what happens will it comes out the way I want. We try so hard to be the main character when it is our point of view that keeps us from the truth. The sun has its story that no curtain can stop. It’s true. The only way beyond the self is through it. The only way to listen to what can never be said is to quiet our need to steer the plot. When jarred by life, we might unravel the story we tell ourselves and discover the story we are in, the one that keeps telling us.
-Mark Nepo, from “Understory”
When my children were very little we had a Ukrainian nanny who absolutely adored our children. And when they’d misbehave, I would ask Lessia, a wise mother with a Master’s Degree in Psychology, if this particular act was “ploko”, Russian for bad. And she’d always answer, “Nyet, eta khorosho, dazhe ochen khorosho”, which means no, it’s good, actually very good. She would see defiance as a sign of strength and clutter as a sign of creativity.
Lessia had a way of seeing the whole picture, understanding that all these tiny things we fixate on are part of a large, loving, intelligent design, and that challenging situations lead to greater and better things.
My kids aren’t so little anymore and Lessia sadly lives a continent away from us, but her words remain a constant mantra for me. They remind me that good awaits us, even if at the moment we don’t feel it or see it.
So when I came upon this poem by Mark Nepo, I was reminded of Lessia’s words. I was reminded that maybe the best thing we can do is get out of our own way, go beyond our beliefs of what we need or don’t need in this very moment, beyond our ideas of “good” and “bad”, and connect to the greater story that is good, actually very good.
The soul selects her own society.
Loneliness is felt most profoundly when are alienated from ourselves, when we are disconnected from our soul. And though we may ignore its quiet nudging and whispering in our ear, our soul is always there–inviting us back into union. And just how does the soul do this? By, as Dickenson says, selecting her own society. The soul knows what she needs, what environments are nurturing, what people are loving, what situations are in alignment with our purpose. There is far more flow and ease in life than we realize, if we would just let our soul lead.
So perhaps in the busy moments of our days, we can grab a few moments and be quiet, perhaps put our hand on our hearts and connect to our soul, and ask where she wants to lead.
Our job is not to expose the mystery; it is to participate in it.
Mysteries can be very threatening. They shake our supposed firm footing and supposed understanding of ourselves and everything around us. And we often think that things have no purpose if we can’t categorize them or draw profound life lessons from them.
In response, we expend a great deal of energy struggling to find answers and sometimes restricting our lives to the familiar, known and safe. And in doing so, we unfortunately limit the fullness of our experience.
Life is always speaking to us, always inviting us in, just that much closer—through the big things and the small things, through the illnesses and losses and the joys and blessings. And perhaps, if we could soften our gaze, unclench our jaw, and let go of our need to control every outcome, we would begin to taste the beauty of being.
There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.
We’ve all got them—fears, pain, triggers, bad memories, hopes and desires. This is part of what makes us human, and what has kept our species going generation after generation.
It’s not the presence of challenges or even our dislike of them that is the source of our suffering; it is our resistance to the present moment. It is our saying no, this shouldn’t be happening. But here’s the thing—it is.
And we’ve all become experts at saying no and we all have our coping mechanisms—substance abuse, withdrawal, perfectionism, just to name a few. So, what do we do?
Well, we don’t beat ourselves for being human! We don’t tell ourselves we shouldn’t desire or feel fear or be sad. What we can do is what Tara Brach calls learning to pause. Rather than habitually slipping into those patterns that make us and those around us unhappy, we pause and check in and find out what is really happening, what wound is being touched, where we feel it in our body, and we wait, and we breathe.
This might not sound as fun as binge-watching the latest Netflix series or downing a few vodka shots, but in the long run, it is much more fulfilling, and as Tara Brach says, wonderfully bold and liberating.
In the critic’s vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotations of polemic or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.
-Jorge Luis Borges, from “Kafka and His Precursors”
Most recently, it was author Christopher Booker who espoused the belief that there are seven basic plots, and every story is a retelling of one of these plots. So, is there nothing new under the sun?
Borges, in the above quotation, is telling us yes, and no.
What has not changed is human nature, which is why the Ten Commandments are just as relevant now as they were thousands of years ago. What changes, on the other hand, is our personal experience with the seven plots. We are, Borges is saying, unique and at the same time an amalgamation of all that came before.
Stepping back from art a bit, I think we can extrapolate this into the wider sphere of society, into the older and younger generations, into the political right and left, into religion and gender and race. We all had precursors and we will be precursors. So, maybe rather than righting off the past and throwing the baby out with the bathwater, we can try to see history as one long chain of influence and growth, of pitfalls and tragedy, and hopefully we can learn to find peace in wholeness rather than exclusion.
A man can be himself only so long as he is alone. If he does not love solitude he will not love freedom, for it is only when he is alone that he is truly free.
We are persistently inundated with external influences. If you live amongst others, it’s inescapable! We can’t avoid being affected by our family of origin, the values of our country, our peer group and colleagues, not to mention social media, Hollywood and pop culture.
That is why it is so important every day to spend some time alone. Solitude is a key ingredient for self-actualization and self-empowerment. If I am to have my own voice, my own dream, my own journey, then I must find it on my own. I must risk isolation and even ridicule. I must take the steps required to listen to that inner voice and respect its wisdom. But I can only hear that voice if I spend time alone, away from the buzz of my busy life and the wants and desires of others.
However, I disagree with Schopenhauer that man can only be himself when alone. Human interaction is essential, and we can only truly grow as individuals when in relationship. But the depth and health of our relationships depends largely on our own sense of self—which can only be attained through moments of solitude and self-reflection.
But I do agree with Schopenhauer that, at the end of the day, we are alone with ourselves, and we must be right with ourselves, and only when we can accept and love all of ourselves, can we be truly free.