January 5, 2018
Ecclesiastes is one of my enduring favorite books of the Bible. Even when I was younger and possessed more optimism (I will harness life and make it what I want! I will manage, control, organize a good life!), when I saw things with more black and white definition, this book spoke to me wit its sometimes circular and nihilistic poetry.
It felt like truth, even when I wanted truth to look more like the Proverbs with its conditional if/then wisdom. If you do this, then this will follow, a prescription for living.
Utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless.
God, how these two sentences have provided comfort and confirmation in my life, over and over and over again. And when I feel bad about my natural skepticism, my glass half empty perspective on things; and when I wonder where a person like me who struggles and fights against anxiety, negativity, and cynicism (inside myself and in the world) while still seeking beauty and all that is good, fits in a spiritual community; and when I sit down to write even though all has been said (Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body, Eccl. 12:12, there is nothing new under the sun, Eccl. 1:9) the book of Ecclesiastes is a lifeline.
It assures me I am in good company. The nihilistic flavored Ecclesiastes is included in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for very good reason. It's a real human experience. And truth is found in our lived experience.
I'm a big fan of Richard Rohr's work. I subscribe to his daily meditations. Reading these daily emails has been my most consistent "devotional" practice in many years.
(If you are old-school evangelical you'll probably have an experience like mine of being taught the importance of "daily devotions". Finally I've found something that interests me enough, rings true enough in my experience of God, that I'm actually motivated and drawn into a practice of daily inspirational reading.)
One of the phrases Rohr uses often, and a title for one of his books, is, Everything Belongs.
Ecclesiastes is one of the books in the Bible that confirms this reality. All of our life experiences belong in our journey of personal and spiritual growth (to me they're the same thing).
We belong. In all our various stages of doing and un-doing, making meaning and unraveling, success and failure, highs and lows.
This time of year is full of people reflecting, planning, resolving and attempting to change their lives for the better. Oh my gracious do I ever understand the motivation. There are some things in my life that absolutely have to change.
I have found the road to these changes is often long and fraught with unforeseen difficulties and consequences. I resist this truth almost daily. Is there not an easier path?
And then there are those changes that happen in the blink of an eye, that we didn't plan, didn't anticipate. Tragedies and accidents. And our life pivots in an instant, and not for the better.
No wonder life feels like a game of dice played by the Fates. And still we dream, we hope, we plan.
Rohr is a contemplative and has introduced me to other contemplatives and mystics. My people.
He (and many others) often quote Julian of Norwich. A very popular quote, I'm sure you know it.
All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.
Something I'm learning over and over and over, like coins dropped in one those spiral wishing wells is this.
All shall be well is true not because it is within your power to wrestle that baby to the ground make it well. It's true because you learn to accept pain, discomfort, and struggle. And experience God there.
And yes our New Year's goals and planning are one way we try to chart a path out of that discomfort, totally get it. But it's not our ability to change our diet, quit drinking wine, lose 10 lbs, get your kids to listen, find a new job, find a partner, get out of debt, or declutter your closet that ensures all shall be well (those are great endeavors), it's finding God in everything.
It's back to everything belongs.
There's a paradox here because we are wired to strive, to improve, to survive. It's what moves the whole human race forward. Our striving and our efforts are often what improve our circumstances.
And yet all shall be well is a spiritual truth not a physical reality. Like the hymnist writes, "it is well with my soul", or the apostle Paul says to the 1st century church in Philippi:
Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.
Paul, the mystic.
This is an "in spite of" truth not "because of" truth. All is well in spite of circumstance, not because of.
I am a truth and beauty seeker, a do-er and get-it-done person. I think my quest for truth and beauty is a search for wisdom because if I gain wisdom I'll have the answers to this whole mess. And with those answers I'll know the best course of action, so I can do and get-it-done. And with the best course of action I'll minimize the pain and struggle, the unknowing and uncertainty, the hard work of living.
(Yes, I've written about this a bazillion times on the blog. It's my thing, my struggle.)
Instead, it seems, according to the author of Ecclesiastes at least, that wisdom isn't about sidestepping or ninja-fighting your way around the struggle, meaninglessness, and the folly of much of human enterprise and striving.
Wisdom is seeing life for what it is (a lot of meaninglessness, folly, mistakes, and failures), and showing up anyway for the nugget of beauty in the trash heap, the moments of insight in mundane drudgery, the community and connection in shared struggle and sorrow, joy in the small victories after a season of defeat.
And so starts a new year, and summarizes the last year.
When I sat down to write this post I had planned to revisit the highlights of 2017 and share a few goals and plans for 2018.
Meh. I just couldn't summon the emotional energy to do so. To look back with grace and to look forward with hope.
I'm currently experiencing the perfect storm of two things: 1) my natural hibernation tendencies this time of year, and 2) transition. In this confluence of two strong forces (surprisingly, no menstrual hormones seem to be involved) the desire to withdraw is strong. To draw inward to both protect myself, so I can work through my stuff; and to protect the people around me, from me, while I work through my stuff.
To look back on the year with an open mind and open heart, instead of the closed cageyness I feel, and recall all the goodness there is just too much emotional energy. Energy I need to conserve so I can shown up and be present and maybe even kind (or as kind as possible) to my loved ones and do the work of living - my new job, grocery shopping, bill paying etc.
The highlights of the year are already gel-pen underlined in my journal. I'll muster the energy, later, to write a point form summary of the year, but I probably won't publish it here. (Maybe I'll share on IG?)
Time keeps moving forward and there are other things I want and need to write. Sometimes we miss the window of opportunity, and that's that.
The window of opportunity in my life is right now, this moment, today.
By the grace of God - which is evidenced in the beating of my heart and the regular breathing of my lungs - I do have the emotional, spiritual, physical energy for this one day.
Truly, we never have more than this anyway. The past is gone, though we carry the memories in our hearts. The future is just that; nothing more the potential for something, whether good or bad. I don't the energy or answers for what tomorrow will bring.
I have this moment. I'm still here and though there is an inherent meaninglessness (apologies to the optimists, but you guys have lots of upbeat New Years fodder to keep you happy, I'm writing for the rest of us) in so much of our striving and living, this moment seems ripe with possibility. I can do something here.
When I sat down to write this post I wasn't going to share my word(s) for the year. I was actually feeling pretty bitchy about the whole thing (have you noticed?); full of cynicism for everyone's optimism and good intentions. That perfect storm I mentioned earlier will do that. It brings out parts of me I try to keep hidden from folks most of the time.
Thankfully it takes me days to write, edit, and publish a post. And so my heart and mind are able to spin through quite a few iterations of hope/cynicism/hope/cynicism over and over till I even out, in a wobbly sort of way, landing just a tad on the side cynicism but still within reach of hope.
After a few spins around this cycle I feel good about sharing my word of the year. Two actually.
Here's what I mean by those words. I want to be awake to the present moment, the potential of each breath and the power I have to choose how I live, respond, love, and act right now.
The other part is to be amazed. Life can so hard moment by moment but it can also be incredibly beautiful. Each moment carries the potential for both. Even my skeptical self believes this. I want to choose to be amazed.
So many things seem unattainable to me. I don't know how to achieve them. I don't feel wired to see the world that way. I'm talking more about mindsets here than matter.
I don't identify with people who truly see the world through a positive lens. I was not given that natural gift. I was given the gift of disaster mitigation by foreseeing all possible negative outcomes. I can answer the question "what could possibly go wrong?" six ways to Sunday.
Joy? Happiness? Contentment? I have hard time defining those, and experiencing them seems elusive and erratic. Paul, like many other mystics and spiritual teachers, says he has learned to be content in all things (to which I sometimes snort in disbelief).
I don't have it in me to muster these states of being or emotional responses in difficulty. Also I know I can't construct my life to ensure these outcomes. Trust me, I've tried. But I want them and so I'm hacking the system to come at in a way that feels doable for me.
I'm learning to be awake. This has been the "point" of pursuing contemplative practices in my life. Activities, that for many years, have been compelling to me and called my name, that I am now learning to recognize as contemplative living, and practice in earnest.
(Someday I really want to write a post on being an angsty contemplative. Sounds like a great comedy sketch.)
And I can choose to be amazed. Funnily enough given my skeptics bent, I can be amazed - by beauty, humor, the human spirit and resiliency, the power of love - without irony or significant effort. Maybe because I'm always bracing for the worst and so when things aren't "worst" I'm pleasantly surprised.
Amazement seems like a path to gratitude, but through slightly different means than thankfulness. (Or maybe one comes before the other?) You're probably getting to the same mindset, you're just taking a different route there.
To be awake and amazed feels like a truth I can live. Truth without sentimentality, without cynicism. I'll take it.
After writing this post I listened to an OnBeing podcast where Krista Tippett interviews Br. David Steindl-Rast. The subject matter of that podcast, entitled The Anatomy of Gratitude, is very relevant to this post, I highly recommend it.
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