I read Dave Pollard’s post this week — What We Care About, Not What We Believe, Drives What We Do — and wrote this in response:
I’m in somewhat the same boat as Dave is, a person on the Earth with very little I have to do.
There is a way of living that I am feeling for, blindly, like an infant, co-creating it as I go, based originally on a mere inkling of some shadowy knowledge that I couldn’t articulate, formulate, or even envision beyond the very first step, which was, for me: stop.
When I was about 29 — now almost 20 years ago — I was working full-time then in a job I liked, a lot, with co-workers I liked, a lot. I was part of a group of creative and loving people who met weekly for several hours to explore informally but with focus the life of the spirit. I was successful (though financially living paycheck to paycheck) and satisfied in my career, as well as socially, spiritually, intellectually.
At the same time, I glimpsed, tasted, touched and intuited another way of living that left me longing. I couldn’t have described it then, much less now — I couldn’t even have said that I felt something was available. I felt the merest, slightest ache, something fleeting brushing against my heart, and I wanted to explore it though I didn’t know anything about it or how to do it.
A musical group called disappear fear sings: “You don’t go looking for love when you come from it. We are love.” This is what I felt, from time to time, and yet most of my life was and still is a testimony to the opposite.
At first, I longed for “free time.” Big blocks of uninterrupted free time, not just a few hours in the evening or on weekends.
I had a list of things to do come 12 June 1992, my first day of life after full-time paid work. Among them: learning Spanish and French, gardening, cooking, running errands, writing poetry, doing crafts, travelling, perhaps working part-time or volunteering. (I still have the list.)
I did some of that — but that list, as you may have guessed, was actually a justification for not working, a way to feel industriously busy, an holographic expression of the pervasive American value of progress and continual self-improvement.
It was a defense against those who thought I would fill my free time by sitting on the sofa eating bon-bons and watching soap operas.
My reaction to their predictions was to determine what worthy — productive, interesting, self-giving, self-improving — things I would do. This is akin, I think, to Dave’s list of planned retirement activities.
I spent most of 10 or 11 years justifying my existence in this way. I volunteered 40 hours/week or more for much of that decade. I worked occasionally for money, at a part-time job and two temp jobs. I raised vegetables and created many other gardens. I cooked. I cleaned, decorated, studied financial investments, took language classes, learned about herbs, published a community newsletter, spent a week here and there with family and friends who wanted support, and in short, worked to make myself valuable, under the appealing twin guises of “doing what I wanted” and being altruistic and civic-minded.
This was how I lived out at that time the part of Pollard’s Law that says we do what we must. I think the way most of us do what we must, beyond putting food on the table and a roof over our heads (my husband agreed to be the one to do that), is by doing whatever it takes to make us feel our existence is justified.
For some people, parenting or other intensive care-giving takes care of this. For others, it’s accolades at work. Or working to discover a cure for cancer. Or doing political, religious, environmental, civic or other activism or evangelism. Or being a social butterfly, always in demand. Or simply keeping very busy. There’s a long list. For Dave, maybe it’s ‘saving the world.’
My way of justifying my existence at the time was volunteering and trying to be useful — working to match my skills and desires with what’s needed in the world. It’s a recipe many believe creates a satisfying life, including the minister Frederick Buechner, who said that vocation is “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I think that’s true in a way, but the perspective most of us take on it — certainly I did — is to focus overmuch on the world’s need and then try to figure out how to meet it.
What happened for me was that for some years, volunteering in a rather low-key way seemed to offer what I (and my local world) needed. Then, I realised along the way that it didn’t. I saw and felt that it was yet another protective layer that could be shed. I came to see it as another way that I was feeding my ego, shoring up my identity, building my list of qualifications as a good person.
I want to make clear that I’m not condemning volunteering — nor am I condemning creating a garden, learning a language, housekeeping, parenting, being good at work, or writing a blog. I’m saying, quite personally, that for me, doing what I was doing felt substitutionary. I came to feel that I was surrogating myself with an idealised, sanitised and mitigated version of myself.
I felt bored.
I was good at what I was doing, and I was doing something that the world seemed to really need, but I knew that love and life were not breathing through me. I was neither inspired nor moved. I felt I was acting alone rather than within the flow of abundant life; I felt that I was pushing or forcing action, rather than letting love move me along.
Simply, I felt then that something — something completely unknown but glimmering and shimmering around me — would be revealed if I shed that layer, too, and I wanted to see what it was.
The next 8 years were a process of dismantling and listening. We moved to another town; at first I looked around a bit for volunteer opportunities, and then I stopped, already weary with the thought of it.
‘No’ to kids, ‘No’ to job, ‘No’ to earned income, ‘No’ to volunteering. One by one, I’ve dropped the activities that society tells us justify our existence on the planet.
What I’ve been doing for the last few years is more and more of the last bits of Pollard’s Law: we do what’s easy and we do what’s fun.
In truth, I have rarely found it fun to sit on the sofa and eat bon-bons (except with friends, and potato chips would be better). The time I am most likely to do something like that is when I am so spiritually spent or overwrought that I feel too wiped out to be anything but a couch potato, absorbing entertainment. The paradox seems to be that when I spend more time doing those activities that flow, and which give me a real sense of ease and wonder, I spend less time doing what’s easy but not really fun.
There are of course still things I must do: laundry, dishes, cleaning, planning, yard work, finances, family business and travel, shopping, dog care, health and hygiene care, etc., some of which I also enjoy and find easy or fun at times. For the most part, though, what’s dropped away are not only many ‘must do’ activities, and a restrictive timeframe for doing them, but also the compulsion to justify my existence. I’m still prone to be drawn toward those things; now I notice that tendency.
I often respond with “No” when asked to do something worthwhile. I realise that may seem backwards and entirely selfish. I was thinking recently about how Jesus seemed to almost always say “Yes” when people asked him to do things.
Yes!, I’ll heal you! Yes!, I’ll feed you! Yes! I’ll die at your collective hands to help you see how the single victim mechanism works! :-)
Was he just another human who couldn’t be busy enough, who couldn’t make himself worthy enough, who spent his waking hours trying to please and impress others so that he could feel he was good, to the point of sacrificing his life?
I guess a case could be made for that conclusion.
What I imagine, though, is something else, inspired by the way I feel in liminal moments: perhaps Jesus said Yes! because he could, freely, not because he had to, under compulsion. He didn’t have to relearn how to be fully alive. He knew that even death wouldn’t diminish life.
I can imagine that Jesus was fully available in each moment to love, regardless of who asked, regardless of outcome or response. He didn’t, perhaps (at least by the time we meet him as an adult), have to stop trying to please or impress others, have to stop feeding his own ego, have to stop acquiring value and substance over and against other people, have to stop justifying or defending his existence on the Earth.
He didn’t have to stop or say “No” because he wasn’t in violent mimetic rivalry to start with, and I am.
I imagine that he knew — maybe he felt it all the time — that he comes from love. He was in touch with that feeling so much more than I am, and yet I feel it, too, and knowing that it’s available is what inspires me, each ordinary day, to play, to find delight, to explore, to wonder and wander, to let the day unfold — because nothing specific has to happen.
I am saying “Yes” to some small things — watching tadpoles, listening to a woodpecker, getting to know someone new, eating candy, walking alone, sitting with someone who’s dying, basking in the sunroom with a book, a drink and a dog — and maybe eventually, I will come back around to saying “Yes!” to other things, too, maybe. I still don’t know anything.
I want to know if you can disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy
(from The Invitation, by Oriah)
In corresponding with a friend about all this, I realise I didn’t make clear that I take Pollard’s Law to be descriptive, not prescriptive. He’s not saying this is how it should be — do what you must, then what’s easy, then what’s fun. He’s saying that this is how it is for people.
For me personally, right now I am still letting go, I think, of what seems to feel unnatural, and/or compulsive, and/or a justification for being here. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a compulsion from a calling; I think both leave one rather restless if one doesn’t follow.
Several people have said that they do things that they think should be done, not because they are forced to but because they want to, even when it’s not fun or easy. Examples might be taking care of a sick relative, working out, doing a difficult job that helps others, perhaps even raising kids much of the time.
So far, my response to that consideration is two-fold:
1. I think that sometimes the things we “must” do are the things that we feel we should do, because they seem right, good, just or compassionate to us, a duty we want to fulfill though we don’t expect it to be easy or fun. But — to NOT do those things would be harder for us and cause us to suffer more than to DO them does. In other words, they may not be easy to do, but to do them is easier than the alternative, not doing them, which might result in guilt, interpersonal conflict, shame, confusion, a sense of failure, a diminishing of self-respect, etc.
2. Secondly, I think that sometimes the things we choose to do that aren’t easy or fun in the usual sense of the words really are easy, or become easy, because they flow from a sense of calling that connects us to what is most abundantly alive and completely in love. The tasks at hand may be arduous or challenging, but the overall feeling may be one of ease.
An example: Recently I visited with my father while he was dying. I felt no inner compulsion or desire to do this — as I have said elsewhere here, I felt that we were good, psychically, and I didn’t feel I could help anything by being there. But when my sister said that she really needed me there with her, in person, I had no hesitation about saying Yes. (And maybe if I had myself felt a compulsion to visit Dad, I would have said No to my sister.)
Most of the time I spent there was actually ”easy.’ All the parts about being with Dad were easy, though sometimes deeply sad.
So did I go because I would have suffered more by saying No to my sister? I probably would have, incrementally. But in the end, what started out perhaps as a minor “must” because a true “easy” activity.