There is a conversation that seems to keep coming up about how to live well. Do I say I’ll do better when everything calms down? Do I need to live a celibate life in a monastery to truly live a spiritual life?
There is paradox in loving yourself while acknowledging foibles and desiring growth; a paradox that takes practice holding. How many of us will admit to not being perfect and then guilt ourselves heavily when that imperfection manifests in some mistake? It’s easy to love ourselves when we are doing well and easy to get down on ourselves when things are rough, my experience has been that the real meaty challenge is in loving ourselves when we’ve screwed up and questioning our motivations and assumptions when we are experiencing lots of success. There is a saying that speaks to this, “It’s easy to be a saint living on the top of a mountain.” The top of the mountain is when everything is flowing beautifully in your life…. during times of stress and fear perhaps it becomes difficult to take what we perceive as risks or challenge ourselves to both be better and love ourselves at the same time.
There is reason we attribute greatness to those who in spite of horrendous circumstances make choices that reflect their deepest values and principles. Think about all those war movies where the hero has to make some incredibly difficult choice involving personal sacrifice for a principle and the greater common good. This simple scenario repeats in all kinds of popular culture and story-telling because it feels good to witness difficult choices made with integrity. Witnessing these moments of challenge makes us feel alive. Though we do not live in the midst of a war (how awful that I can honestly say that while knowing that there is a war our country is engaged in that destroys people’s lives every day) I feel we can witness that and feel more alive every day by bringing that attitude into our own decision making, regardless of the complexity of the choice. Perhaps because these small decisions do not seem to change the course of humanity we play down the power invested in each of us, we can feel like our choices amount to nothing. Well, they amount to nothing, and they amount to everything. My whole life is made up of this moment making a choice about how to live. You don’t need to be holding a gun to be making a decision that takes courage. I’ve also heard it said that every virtue taken to its extreme manifests as courage, and I believe that to be true, i.e. having the courage to be patient in complex and uneasy times, having the courage to be honest when it means the possibility of losing something of great value (relationship, job, respect, friendship, deal, etc.).
What am I trying to say. Life presents us with infinite opportunities to create ourselves to be the kind of person we want to be. Courageous? Honest? Humble? Great? Generous? None of these qualities or descriptors are reserved for saints, and saints are made all the more accessible by their acts in the midst of a complex and difficult world. I want to no longer feel shame around “failures”, simply an ongoing sense of opportunity to create and be. What I seek to do in this life when I am striving for something is not simply the accomplishment of a goal, the goal is just an idea that will lead me into the unknown, give me an ongoing opportunity to take risks that scare me, put me in uncomfortable and challenging situations, to be polished like a pebble and initiated by fire. To never find a limit within myself or the world that remains untried, even if I do fail.
I feel like I’m spouting off, does all this sound arrogant anyway? Perhaps there is an arrogance to it, to the idea, to the life attitude… but arrogance implies that I feel special about my choices, about my philosophy, and in truth, I feel humbled by it, and it’s not mine. All this comes from reading, asking, and from many inglorious moments of doubt, bad choices, mistakes, and days where I wondered if I was who I thought I was. Through all the muck that comes from rooting around in your psyche and digging for life (or digging for fire, like that pixies song), I have slowly disarmed the fear that I will undo myself and my identity by letting go of all the parts that aren’t me and finding the essence of life that is me, and that is each of us. And I fall, but the disorientation now feels like a roller coaster in which I’m relatively safe, rather than falling from a plane without a parachute. You still get the stomach traveling around in your abdomen, you just trust it will return to it’s proper place.