THE CENTER FOR THIRD AGE NEWSLETTER – JANUARY 2015
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
2. THE PROBLEM WITH MEANING
3. AGING AS A NATURAL MONASTERY
4. LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK
5. THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS
6. GOING BEYOND THE ROLES WE PLAY
7. WHAT I KNOW AFTER 25 YEARS OF MARRIAGE
8. THIS MONTH’S LINKS
QUOTES OF THE MONTH – DEREK HARVEY, RONN WILLIAMSON & MARK OLKEN
DH: “…I have just been walking on the beach with the youngest of the grandkids who are visiting from Chile. I was pondering my response to you and realized how matter of fact I am and how simple I try to keep my life. I do not spend much time thinking about the spiritual. I just want to exist within my circle of family and friends. By doing this I do admit to myself I shall have followed Jesus’ teachings, and, even though I rarely go to Church, He will let me Into His Heaven if it exists because I have been a good guy.”
RW: “…I thought David Brooks hit the nail on the head about struggling for the wrong thing in a different way when he said: “Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.” Is that a great quote to trigger a discussion about finding meaning/purpose or what?”
MO: “You are several years ahead of me in age. But much more importantly, way more serious about such issues as the meanings in our lives. Perhaps I will get it as I get a bit older, but right now I think not. Meaning is not something I get.”
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
January greetings, Dear Friends…
This turns out to be a very focused issue. It initially was inspired by this month’s articles which I was going to precede with these QUOTES OF THE MONTH…
“The life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.” (Parker J. Palmer)
“We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” (Joseph Campbell)
“I’d chosen the regret I could live with best, that’s all. I’d chosen the life that belonged to me.” (Sue Monk Kidd)
But then I received feedback from three CTAL colleagues that turned my head around, and I saw more than I’d glimpsed before. The result is, I think, a deeper and truer appreciation of Third Age’s paradoxical gifts. See what you think about how this might all fit together…
It was my friend, Derek Harvey, who drew my attention to the Brooks “THE PROBLEM WITH MEANING” (#2); you might want to read it first and then return to these Musings.
DH: “Hi FW – think you’ll find this Brooks’ column interesting…”
FW: Thanks much, Derek, for this. While I share Brook’s concern about the individualistic interpretation of moral codes, I also remain very wary of institutionalized versions. It seems to me the quandary is a true paradox that requires a choice be individually made, especially at critical moments in life. And, unfortunately, my experience of our species is that, at the vast majority of those ‘critical moments,’ few of us are able to do so – myself most certainly included.
Whether institutionalized moral codes that lead to genocide as well as community well-being are superior to individual ‘meaning’ is unknowable to me without definition of each specific situation – and may remain so even when I am well aware of the context. How do you come down on this one?
DH: “I related to the individual sections of the column. I liked the distinction between happiness and meaning. I agree with the simple notion of happiness is receiving and meaning is giving.
“My life has been built around loyalty to friends and family particularly to my children (and now grand children), but also to my brothers, uncles and close friends.
“Loyalty and giving provide me with my bedrock. I have never sought the spiritual, my guiding light is to do what I can for people within my orbit.
“I feel that I have a bond with the core tenet of Christianity as preached by Jesus. This is how the individual and society are interconnected. Without organizing principles Hobbes Leviathan would exist.
FW: I like and respect Brooks for how honestly he shares his own paradox as a personally responsible conservative and a caring, empathetic human being. Not a simple one. I identify and have erred toward both extremes being an Any Rand/Fritz Perls devotee in my 20’s and 30’s who morphed into a humanistic psychologist/spiritual seeker thereafter. While I still live the full range, I know my primary ‘Direction of Error‘ is toward being too demanding and impatient.
I, too, too have built my life around my children and family as well as a few close friends, but ‘loyalty’ is not a word I’d use for me. I give generously in the material sense, but I am quick to resent when I feel ignored or taken for granted. I’m getting better by talking with Donna, Nancy and the rest of the family when this happens, but loyalty in those moments is pretty non-existent until I can find myself again. I’ve always admired how consistent you’ve been with Mary and your kids.
I also ‘have a bond with the core tenet of Christianity as preached by Jesus’ and many others I admire, but see a difference in kind between those who actually have what Maslow called ‘peak experiences’ and the succeeding generations that attempt to institutionalize them. The latter consistently err in the direction of the letter, rather than the spirit, of that experience.
Now to return to your distinction between happiness and meaning. The simple notion of ‘happiness is receiving and meaning is giving’ also makes sense to me – and it is expanding for me in these last few years. More and more I move away from the intellectual homeland I’ve occupied for most of my life into another realm hard to describe(even if it doesn’t show in this).
As simplistic as it may sound, happiness, in the deeper sense I’ve evolved to experience, now is meaning for me – there is no dichotomy or separation. And this seems, more than anything else, to be a function of aging and solitude. I joke about having my own ‘monastery’ and being the only monk, but the joke is also truth for me…
DH: “Thanks for this dialogue. I have just been walking on the beach with the youngest of the grandkids who are visiting from Chile. I was pondering my response to you and realized how matter of fact I am and how simple I try to keep my life. I do not spend much time thinking about the spiritual. I just want to exist within my circle of family and friends. By doing this I do admit to myself I shall have followed Jesus’ teachings, and, even though I rarely go to Church, He will let me Into His Heaven if it exists because I have been a good guy.”
FW: And thank you, too, Derek. Your wisdom of wanting to keep your life simple and to exist within your circle of family and friends fits perfectly for me, too.
And it seems we may be significantly different in our emphasis on spending time with children and ideas, but both are important to us. For me, two or three video Skypes with post-adolescent family and occasional playfulness with the little ones suffice while you seem to be much more present in person. As is obvious, I love playing with ideas about how things really work for us evolving humans and spend a lot of my time dipping into the ‘spirituality pool’ along with my enjoyment of ‘puttering.’ This is what I mean by “keeping my life simple and being matter of fact.”
But I’m no longer seeking personal meaning or cultural moral codes; both have in common the mistaken belief that a ‘right way’ can be found either internally or externally. What I do is play in growing peace with my limited puttering, thinking, relating and just being. So I feel I am shifting in similar ways to you as I also enjoy what Jane Thibault calls AGING AS A NATURAL MONASTERY (# 3)…
The second of the exchanges was with Ronn Williamson, one of Garrison Keeler’s fellow Minnesotans…
RW: “Father William! Congratulations on celebrating your 25 years of marriage to Donna and your 25 years of Third Age personal growth – not just a coincidence of timing but probably a clear connection of the two experiences, right?
“I remember our colleague and CTAL Co-founder Bill Sadler offered us a number of paradoxes that Third Age can help us resolve. One that stands out was the seeming choice necessitated by the reality of ‘Self and Other.’ In earlier life it seemed this division meant we had to choose EITHER ‘independence’ OR ‘dependence.’ But in Third Age we’ve both discovered we can have BOTH ‘independence’ AND ‘dependence’ by opening to and living the synergistic possibility of ‘interdependence.’
“The Huffington Post article about 25 years of marriage reminded me that quite a bit of personal and relationship growth occurred through both our Second and Third Ages. And while many could not make relationships work in our Second Age, our Third Age growth has obviously been very beneficial for our continuing partnerships with Donna and Karen.
“What was a paradox in our earlier life is not one now!”
FW: I couldn’t agree with you more, Ronn, and couldn’t have believed earlier I could and would turn out to be as mellow and easy to live with as I am…
RW: “On a personal note, while the first four articles this month all indicate our need to search for the ‘right’ life or the ‘meaning’ of life, I don’t feel that need to search for anything right now. Karen on the other hand is struggling with “retirement” and so is her sister Jane. Karen was explaining her longing to still contribute the other night, but also mentioned her frustration about how she still doesn’t know what she wants to do at this stage of her life. I said that I don’t have a longing for purpose or the frustration it brings and am simply content with my life right now. I asked her if she was not content. She quickly agreed that was the gist of her consternation.
“Pastor Rick Warren’s “purpose driven life” is just one of many well-meant but intimidating directives for how to live, right? We need to find purpose – we need to find meaning! So, on the one hand, are we supposed to (sadly?) struggle to find purpose or meaning as Karen and Jane seem to be doing or, as Maria Popova suggests below, are we to simply find contentment through letting our lives speak by “Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess”? I think the point of these great articles is to suggest something a little different than we have been hearing lately.”
FW: The quotes and articles suggest something very different than I’ve heard for my entire life beginning with toilet training and my religious childhood that made it clear I was to be and do ‘right’ – and look to others constantly to see if I was being ‘right’ enough. Then came puberty and the counter-dependence of my teen-age years when I thought I was really changing that childish game. The truth was I didn’t change the game at all; I just changed the content from worshipping clerics to worshipping James Dean, Marlon Brando, etc. What I mean by not changing the game is that I still sought to be ‘right’ but just switched to different models to follow and imitate. This pattern continued until into my sixties with only the models (like Ayn Rand, Summerhill, Marshall McLuhan, Carl Rogers, Fritz Perls, Synanon, Stephen Covey, ad infinitum) rotating through the same unchanging process of finding ‘the right way’! Why would anyone in his right mind pursue such absurdity for so long?
Ego is an obvious answer – “I” wanted to be “right” because then “I” would be “superior.”
But this is too pat, too easy. Now I can see “I” was simply scared to death most of the time – poor “I” actually just wanted to be safe. And he’d been brainwashed to believe being “superior” would bring him that.
RW: “I thought David Brooks hit the nail on the head about struggling for the wrong thing in a different way when he said: “Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.” Is that a great quote to trigger a discussion about finding meaning/purpose or what?”
But maybe there’s an upside here. Now that I’m here in my ‘natural monastery’ puttering and, as Elder Ed would say, “relaxing into participation,” I can see how inappropriate I might have been knowing this at an earlier age but not having the maturity to guide that knowledge. It would have been very difficult, probably impossible, to get me to travel those paths that did bring me understanding and wisdom. I might still be living off relatives!
So many thanks, Ronn, for getting this dialogue rolling. You’ve gotten me to drop another bit of earlier brainwashing…
“We grow too soon old and too late schmart!”
It does seem that technological cultures are replacing respect for maturity and wisdom with cravings for youthful ‘schmarts’, wealth and power…
Years of experience, plenty of talent, completely obsolete
Silicon Valley has become one of the most ageist places in America. Tech luminaries who otherwise pride themselves on their dedication to meritocracy don’t think twice about deriding the not-actually-old. ‘Young people are just smarter,’ Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told an audience at Stanford back in 2007. As I write, the website of ServiceNow, a large Santa Clara–based I.T. services company, features the following advisory in large letters atop its “careers” page: ‘We Want People Who Have Their Best Work Ahead of Them, Not Behind Them.
…and that such dismissals of experience and wisdom are major threats to the future of our planet. Of course I do not suggest that age equals wisdom. It is one thing to experience thirty years of learning; it is quite another to repeat one year of experience thirty times.
As Richard Bach wrote in “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”…
“It’s good to be a seeker,
but sooner or later
you have to be a finder.
And then it is well
to give what you have found,
a gift into the world
for whoever will accept it.”
And what old FW has found is that paradox is a more mature and useful way to view reality than my youthful EITHER/OR righteousness. And in response to my CTAL colleagues and the articles included, I offer my latest learning – to help us all balance BOTH supporting respected cultural moral systems AND finding our own unique paths as we mature.
Few do this better than my friend, Mark, who can BOTH know who and where he is AND be open to different worlds that others inhabit, too…
MO: “You are several years ahead of me in age. But much more importantly, way more serious about such issues as the meanings in our lives. Perhaps I will get it as I get a bit older, but right now I think not. Meaning is not something I get.”
So thank you Derek, Ronn, Mark, David Brooks, Jane Thibault, et al., for helping me unfold more of my evolving meaning in life…
Much love, FW
2. THE PROBLEM WITH MEANING
BY DAVID BROOKS, THE NEW YORK TIMES, JANUARY 5, 2015
FW NOTE: This piece by David seems to dispute the validity of the two that precede it, but I see it as presenting more fully another dimension of the paradox of BOTH opening to subjective meaning AND living lovingly in community with others. See how you put three articles together for you…
Not long ago, a friend sent me a speech that the great civic leader John Gardner gave to the Stanford Alumni Association 61 years after he graduated from that college. The speech is chock-full of practical wisdom. I especially liked this passage:
“The things you learn in maturity aren’t simple things such as acquiring information and skills. You learn not to engage in self-destructive behavior. You learn not to burn up energy in anxiety. You discover how to manage your tensions. You learn that self-pity and resentment are among the most toxic of drugs. You find that the world loves talent but pays off on character.
“You come to understand that most people are neither for you nor against you; they are thinking about themselves. You learn that no matter how hard you try to please, some people in this world are not going to love you, a lesson that is at first troubling and then really quite relaxing.”
Gardner goes on in this wise way. And then, at the end, he goes into a peroration about leading a meaningful life. “Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you. … You are the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life.”
Gardner puts “meaning” at the apogee of human existence. His speech reminded me how often we’ve heard that word over the past decades. As my Times colleague April Lawson puts it, “meaning” has become the stand-in concept for everything the soul yearns for and seeks. It is one of the few phrases acceptable in modern parlance to describe a fundamentally spiritual need.
Yet what do we mean when we use the word meaning?
The first thing we mean is that life should be about more than material success. The person leading a meaningful life has found some way of serving others that leads to a feeling of significance.
Second, a meaningful life is more satisfying than a merely happy life. Happiness is about enjoying the present; meaning is about dedicating oneself to the future. Happiness is about receiving; meaningfulness is about giving. Happiness is about upbeat moods and nice experiences. People leading meaningful lives experience a deeper sense of satisfaction.
In this way, meaning is an uplifting state of consciousness. It’s what you feel when you’re serving things beyond self.
Yet it has to be said, as commonly used today, the word is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.
Let me put it this way: If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.
Meaningfulness tries to replace structures, standards and disciplines with self-regarding emotion. The ultimate authority of meaningful is the warm tingling we get when we feel significant and meaningful. Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity.
It’s a paltry substitute. Because meaningfulness is built solely on an emotion, it is contentless and irreducible. Because it is built solely on emotion, it’s subjective and relativistic. You get meaning one way. I get meaning another way. Who is any of us to judge another’s emotion?
Because it’s based solely on sentiment, it is useless. There are no criteria to determine what kind of meaningfulness is higher. There’s no practical manual that would help guide each of us as we move from shallower forms of service to deeper ones. There is no hierarchy of values that would help us select, from among all the things we might do, that activity which is highest and best to do.
Because it’s based solely on emotion, it’s fleeting. When the sensations of meaningful go away then the cause that once aroused them gets dropped, too. Ennui floods in. Personal crisis follows. There’s no reliable ground.
The philosophy of meaningfulness emerges in a culture in which there is no common moral vocabulary or framework. It emerges amid radical pluralism, when people don’t want to judge each other. Meaningfulness emerges when the fundamental question is, do we feel good?
Real moral systems are based on a balance of intellectual rigor and aroused moral sentiments. Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the NutraSweet of the inner life.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 6, 2015, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: The Problem With Meaning. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe
3. AGING AS A NATURAL MONASTERY
JANE MARIE THIBAULT, ASA’S FORUM ON RELIGION, SPIRITUALITY & AGING, VIII (3), 5
FW NOTE: Jane’s thinking has had an enormous impact on my Third Age, and I can’t thank her enough for it. As a First and Second Age extrovert, it has helped me accept and understand my metamorphosis into Third Age lover of solitude…
An increasing number of my days are spent encouraging and accompanying adults on their spiritual journeys. When I was first invited to engage in spiritual “companioning” and counseling with elders, I had a traditional paradigm of spiritual growth in mind. I had been trained experientially and cognitively from an early age in Carmelite spirituality, specifically through studying the works of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila and my own experience of Carmelite spiritual direction. Later I added Benedictine and Ignatian concepts and James Fowler’s theories of stages of faith development. I was oriented to a linear approach to developmental stages of faith and spiritual growth and was rather dogmatic in my thinking that the spiritual life “should” be a lifelong process of increasing awareness and experience of the transcendent within and without, culminating in a specific, ongoing sense of union with God in later life. Colleagues joked that I was trying to “make mystics out of out people” and I retorted with, “Why not? Can you think of anything more exciting to look forward to?”
With that thought in mind I began and intense search for elderly mystics. I wanted to see how mysticism “played out” in later life. I was sure I would find many models among aged monks, nuns, and devout lay people of all faiths. I wanted to hear the stories of their inner experiences and understand the influences on and patterns of their development.
What I found was at first very disappointing. Not one person told of experiencing those phenomena described in the classic literature on mysticism, such as the sense of luminousness, a deeper sense of reality and meaning, a feeling of “oneness” with God or reality. In addition, most of the people I interviewed did not seem to be able to relate to the words I used. For example, the question, “have you ever had what you felt was an experience of God’s nearness?” met, more often than not, with blank stares. I could not understand these responses and the seeming lack of “mystical” signs and symptoms in people for whom the spiritual had played a large and significant part in their lives. In addition, there seemed to be a concreteness to their spirituality that even seemed “anti-mystical,” if there were such a thing. What had happened to these people—had they not grown into the later stages of mystical development as described in the literature? Were there no elderly mystics? Was mysticism an obsolete concept in the final years of the 20th century?
Disappointed, I went back for a second look, this time throwing away my preconceived notions of what constituted “mysticism” in later life—or any other time of life. What I found was far more refreshing that visions and ecstasies and profound, isolated experiences of union with God. What I discovered were people who had ceased reflecting on themselves and even on God, but who definitely had the Zen-like ability to enter into an experience of the immediate moment. For these people, all of life was present to them in what the late theologian Karl Rahner termed “everyday mysticism.” For these people, late life had become a kind of “natural monastery,” where all the changes that the young rail against and describe as losses and diminishments had become opportunities to clear away the obstacles to experiencing and appreciating each moment with its own special beauty and/or pain. It was as if life had been stripped down to its barest essentials, so that the real could shine through and be appreciated, even if the real involved pain and suffering.
One of the primary reasons that young people choose to live in monasteries—even in this day and age—is to act on a desire to strip their lives of as many external obstacles to God as possible. Their lives are deliberately physically circumscribed, with emphasis on minimizing rather than maximizing outer experience. To do this, hey practice forms of self-denial that include simplification of lifestyle and relinquishment of ownership of (and concern for) may things. This is thought to free them from hectic, everyday harassments so they can contemplate and experience transcendent reality that shines through natural things, simplicity of lifestyle, deep presence to one another, solitude and quiet.
In a very real sense the experience of old age, especially frail elderhood, is an experience of living monastically. Solitary life in one’s own home or common life in a nursing home is an experience of winnowing, of paring down to the barest essentials. One 90-year old woman shared her life with me in these words:
I really don’t think about God very much any more, even though I used to. In the past my spiritual life was very complicated, and a distinct compartment of my life as a whole. I was always wondering if I were pleasing God, always concerned that I wasn’t doing God’s will “just right,” always thinking that I was not quite good enough. As I look back on it now, I realize that what was important to me was how I was performing for God. The emphasis was really always on me and what I was doing, even though I thought it was on God.
Now, in my very old age, I’ve given up all of that performing stuff—probably because I don’t have the energy for it any longer. I can’t do much any more and I can’t even think much, either; I forget a great deal. Now all I can do is look out at my little world—my house and cats and my dog and the people who bathe me and bring me food and the sky and everything, and I just spend my time loving them. I just look at it all and I love it. Even though my eyesight is bad, in my mind’s eye I see everything. It is all so very beautiful, even the bad things somehow get washed in the beauty of everything. I am so grateful for it all, grateful for all of my life, even the little things like—please excuse me—being able to have a bowel movement. Am I neglecting God because I don’t think about him much anymore? I don’t think so. Somehow, I feel that my looking and loving is enough for God—that that’s all God ever really wanted from me in the first place, to love what he gave me. Don’t you think so?
Jane Thibault (1993). A Deepening Love Affair” The Gift of God in Later Life. Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, p.95).
4. LET YOUR LIFE SPEAK
BY MARIA POPOVA, BRAIN PICKINGS, DECEMBER 2, 2014
FW NOTE: Thanks again to Maria Popova for distilling this wisdom into an essence we can grasp in these too busy times. Palmer’s life and learnings certainly echo mine – and I imagine many of yours as well…
WHAT IT TAKES TO LEARN TO LISTEN TO THE TIMID WILD ANIMAL THAT IS THE SOUL
“Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney,” young Vincent van Gogh wrote in a letter as he floundered to find his purpose. For the century and a half since, and undoubtedly the many centuries before, the question of how to kindle that soul-warming fire by finding one’s purpose and making a living out of meaningful work has continued to frustrate not only the young, not only aspiring artists, but people of all ages, abilities, and walks of life. How to navigate that existential maze with grace is what Parker J. Palmer – founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and a man of great insight into the elusive art of inner wholeness – explores with compassionate warmth and wisdom in his 1999 book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (public library | IndieBound).
In his own youth, Palmer had come to know intimately the soul-splitting rift between being good at one’s work and being fulfilled in one’s purpose. As an aspiring “ad man” in the Mad Men era, lured by “the fast car and other large toys that seemed to be the accessories [of] selfhood” – something supplanted today, perhaps, by the startup-lifestyle fetishism afflicting many young people – he awoke one day to a distinct and chilling realization:
“The life I am living is not the same as the life that wants to live in me.”
Speaking to the notion that a large part of success is defining it for ourselves, and defining it in terms as close to Thoreau’s as possible, Palmer reflects on his youth:
“I lined up the loftiest ideals I could find and set out to achieve them. The results were rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque… I had simply found a “noble” way to live a life that was not my own, a life spent imitating heroes instead of listening to my heart…
“My youthful understanding of “Let your life speak” led me to conjure up the highest values I could imagine and then try to conform my life to them whether they were mine or not. If that sounds like what we are supposed to do with values, it is because that is what we are too often taught. There is a simplistic brand of moralism among us that wants to reduce the ethical life to making a list, checking it twice – against the index in some best-selling book of virtues, perhaps – and then trying very hard to be not naughty but nice.
“There may be moments in life when we are so unformed that we need to use values like an exoskeleton to keep us from collapsing. But something is very wrong if such moments recur often in adulthood. Trying to live someone else’s life, or to live by an abstract norm, will invariably fail – and may even do great damage.”
Thirty years later, he arrives at a deeper, more ennobling, hard-earned interpretation of the old Quaker phrase after which the book is titled:
“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
To be sure, this way of relating to life isn’t about passivity or resignation or an illusory belief in fatedness, but about deconditioning our tendency to try to bend the world to our will and instead hear the quieter, deeper voices that speak to us from behind the ego’s proclamations of will. In fact, the disposition Palmer advocates is something akin to Jeanette Winterson’s notion of “active surrender” – the same paradoxical state we need to attain in order to experience the transformational power of art appears to be the one needed in discerning our true vocation. Palmer writes:
“If the self seeks not pathology but wholeness, as I believe it does, then the willful pursuit of vocation is an act of violence toward ourselves – violence in the name of a vision that, however lofty, is forced on the self from without rather than grown from within. True self, when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth. Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions.”
Listening, Palmer suggests, is a matter of shaking off the tyranny of “should” – whether socially imposed or self-inflicted. He offers a beautiful definition of what vocation really means and what it stands to give:
“Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling the who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my own identity, not the standards by which I must live – but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life.”
In a sentiment reminiscent of Thoreau’s famous lament about borrowed opinions and one particularly poignant in our culture of confusing repetition and regurgitation for reflection and integration, Palmer adds:
“We listen for guidance everywhere except from within.”
And yet, Palmer cautions, what we hear might not always be a mellifluous serenade by our highest selves – but giving voice to the parts of ourselves we least like is essential to the process:
“My life is not only about my strengths and virtues; it is also about my liabilities and my limits, my trespasses and my shadow. An inevitable though often ignored dimension of the quest for “wholeness” is that we must embrace what we dislike or find shameful about ourselves as well as what we are confident and proud of.”
Let’s take a necessary pause here to acknowledge that few words in our culture elicit more cynicism when mentioned publicly and more profound longing when contemplated privately than “soul.” We wince at soul-speak as the stuff of misguided mystics or, worse yet, motivational speakers. And yet hardly anyone with even the slightest semblance of aspiration toward happiness can deny the existence of this delicately sensitive, stubbornly resilient core of our humanity. What makes Palmer’s writing – Palmer’s mind – especially enchanting is the tenderness with which he holds both sides of this cultural duality, yet remains unflinchingly on the side of the soul:
“In our culture, we tend to gather information in ways that do not work very well when the source is the human soul: the soul is not responsive to subpoenas or cross-examinations. At best it will stand in the dock only long enough to plead the Fifth Amendment. At worst it will jump bail and never be heard from again. The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, and trustworthy conditions.
“The soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient, and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”
With gentle compassion for our tendency to begin twenty years too late, Palmer writes:
“What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been! How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity – the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation.”
He issues an especially passionate admonition against buying into the myth that a vocation is something bestowed upon us by an external force, some booming voice outside ourselves that does the “calling.” Instead, echoing Picasso’s proclamation that “one must have the courage of one’s vocation and the courage to make a living from one’s vocation,” he dismisses such misleading models of externalizing the quest for a calling:
“That concept of vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be “self-ish” unless corrected by external forces of virtue. It is a notion that made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life, creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to close the gap.
“Today I understand vocation quite differently – not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be.”
And yet, Palmer is careful to acknowledge, accepting that innermost gift “turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else” – overwhelmed by its demands, we often hide or flee from it, bury it in busywork, or simply ignore it. But, reflecting on his granddaughter’s distinct personality even as a baby, he assures that this gift is in each of us awaiting discovery:
“We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then – if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss – we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.”
Let Your Life Speak remains an indispensable read. Complement it with philosopher Roman Krznaric on how to find fulfilling work and some thoughts on making a living of doing what you love, then revisit Palmer on the art of inner wholeness.
5. THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS
BY MICHEL WEBER, ESSAI SUR LA GNOSE DE HARVARD, 13 FEB 2012
FW NOTE: Here Weber shows how this perspective is very similar to Palmer’s in #1 and Paul’s in #5 because I do believe in the importance of seeing that many paths do lead to the same mountain top…
In the Thomas gospel, Jesus is presented as a spiritual guide whose words (when properly understood) bring eternal life (Saying 1). Readers of these sayings are advised to continue seeking until they find what will enable them to become rulers of their own lives (Saying 2) and thus to know themselves (Saying 3) and their legacy of being the children of “the living Father” (Saying 3). These goals are presented in the image of “entering the Kingdom” by the methodology of insight that goes beyond duality. (Saying 22). The Gospel of Thomas shows little or no concern for orthodox religious concepts and doctrines. Scholars have traditionally understood the Gospel of Thomas as a Gnostic text because it was found amongst other gnostic texts, was understood as being prone to a Gnostic interpretation by the early Church, and emphasized knowledge as the key to salvation, particularly in Saying 1. However this view has recently come under some criticism by suggesting that while it is possible to interpret the text in a way that aligns with Gnosticism there is nothing inherently Gnostic about the text itself.
The Gospel of Thomas emphasizes direct and unmediated experience. In Thomas saying 108, Jesus says, “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become as I am; I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to him.” Furthermore, salvation is personal and found through spiritual (psychological) introspection. In Thomas saying 70, Jesus says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” As such, this form of salvation is idiosyncratic and without literal explanation unless read from a psychological perspective related to Self vs. ego. In Thomas saying 3, Jesus says,
“…the Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty.”
In the other four gospels, Jesus is frequently called upon to explain the meanings of parables or the correct procedure for prayer. In Thomas saying 6, his disciples ask him, “Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give alms? What diet should we observe?” For reasons unknown, Jesus’s answer is found in saying 14, wherein he advises against fasting, praying, and the giving of alms (all contrary to Christian practice of the time), although he does take a position similar to that in Mark 7: 18–19 and Matthew 15:11 that what goes into the mouth will not defile a person, but what comes out of the mouth will. This is just one example in Thomas in which the hearer’s attention is directed away from objectified judgments of the world to knowing oneself in direct and straightforward manner, which is sometimes called being “as a child” or “a little one” through the unification of dualistic thinking and modes of objectification. (For example, Sayings 22 and 37) To portray the breaking down of the dualistic perspective Jesus uses the image of fire which consumes all. (See Sayings 10 and 82).
The teaching of salvation (i.e., entering the Kingdom of Heaven) that is found in The Gospel of Thomas is neither that of “works” nor of “grace” as the dichotomy is found in the canonical gospels, but what might be called a third way, that of insight. The overriding concern of The Gospel of Thomas is to find the light within in order to be a light unto the world. (See for example, Sayings 24, 26)
In contrast to the Gospel of John, where Jesus is likened to a (divine and beloved) Lord as in ruler, the Thomas gospel portrays Jesus as more the ubiquitous vehicle of spiritual inspiration and enlightenment, as in saying 77:
“I am the light that shines over all things. I am everything. From me all came forth, and to me all return. Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”
In many other respects, the Thomas gospel offers terse yet familiar if not identical accounts of the sayings of Jesus as seen in the synoptic gospels.
Michel Weber has attempted, in his Essai sur la gnose de Harvard, a Whiteheadian interpretation of the Gospel of Thomas.
6. GOING BEYOND THE ROLES WE PLAY
BY MACK PAUL, AWAKIN.ORG, 13 JANUARY 2015
FW NOTE: It has taken this old man a lot of years to see most of the roles he believed were real when he played them. Mack Paul suggests, “We can only observe the endless stream of stories and witness our desire to believe them without actually believing them…”
We seem so very real. But our bodies are really not our own and we have no control over either their coming or going. We have roles that we play and try to convince ourselves that they are real. It is illuminating to watch this process in kids because with them, the process is very transparent. They try on identities like they are trying on t-shirts. When they find one they like, they identify with the narrative that supports it and then they split up into mutually antagonistic groups. Adults do the same thing but adult identities are covered up under thick layers of justification that appear reasonable.
Shakespeare had it right it when he said that “all the world’s a stage and all the men and women are merely players.” Roles are a good thing that give us structure and purpose. But when we really begin believing in the roles we play we become more and more willing to sacrifice ourselves and others to them.
Sports are a perfect example. They are popular melodramas that are absolutely meaningless and of no consequence whatsoever. We invest huge amounts of emotion in them involving a relatively mild form of human sacrifice. Thankfully, we don’t drag people up on an altar to cut their throats and tear out their hearts any longer but we do dress them up in football uniforms and cheer as they beat their brains out. I saw a picture of Brazilian fans after their World Cup loss to Germany. Had I not known better I would have thought they were watching their children being torn apart by wild dogs.
The purpose of religion and spiritual practices is to see beyond our individual dramas to a greater, transcendent truth. Everyone who practices a religion understands this. Nevertheless, the practice of religion largely consists of bitter fighting over competing mythologies.
Mindfulness isn’t about what we believe. It is the simple act of paying curious and non-judgmental attention to the present moment. The present moment sounds pretty good. We hear that and imagine a state of bliss. Then we spend a little time in the present we find that is mainly made up of one thought after another. We hate that and complain that we can’t get the mind to stop. Minds don’t stop. Minds think. We can only observe the endless stream of stories and witness our desire to believe them without actually believing them. That isn’t so easy.
7. WHAT I KNOW AFTER 25 YEARS OF MARRIAGE
BY SHARON GREENTHAL, HUFFINGTON POST, NOVEMBER 24, 2014
FW NOTE: Just as we must work at our relationship with our Self/Soul, so must we work at our relationships with loved ones, especially partners. Old FW is about to celebrate 25 years of his fourth marriage with Donna. She has helped me finally understand and live what Sharon describes here…
Have you heard the joke that goes like this?
I’ve been married for 25 years. It’s been the happiest 6 months of my life.
Like most good jokes, there’s a kernel of truth in that statement. Much of marriage isn’t simply about being happy, just like after the age of about 11, much of life isn’t simply about being happy either. Most of us, if we’re not either incredibly wealthy or incredibly irresponsible, spend much of our lives in the most ordinary of pursuits, the most pedestrian of activities — and while we may have moments, hours, even entire days when we’re giddy with happiness, for most of us, being happy all the time just isn’t possible.
There’s too many other things we have to do.
The same goes for marriage. Being happily married is not the same thing as being happy all the time. Being happily married is understanding that marriage is a contract and a commitment. Being happily married is putting the success of the marriage above either person’s individual needs or desires. The marriage has to be bigger than either person. The marriage has to take priority over anything else in your lives — at least most of the time.
– I did not know this when my husband proposed to me one Friday night, drunk and naked, having bought me a ring that afternoon (he’s such a romantic).
– I did not know this 25 years ago at our wedding, at a yacht club overlooking the Pacific Ocean where we were not members (we have never owned a boat, much less a yacht).
– I did not know this when, three weeks after our honeymoon, I discovered that I was pregnant and my husband could barely speak to me for three days (like it was all my doing).
I did not know this for a long time.
We were so caught up in the whirlwind of our lives — wedding … baby … house … another baby … that the reality of us being a couple was almost an afterthought. We went from newlyweds to new parents in eight months. We went from two of us to four of us in three years. We never had those years “before kids” like most couples do — in fact, between his demanding job and pursuing his MBA at night, I didn’t really spend much time with my husband the two years we were together before our wedding.
Maybe that’s why he fell in love with me. Maybe a little of me goes a long way.
Becoming a family so quickly did not get in the way of our growth as a couple, it just took it in a different direction — one we both loved. We loved being parents (we still do).
But here’s the thing — we really didn’t know each other very well. For as much intimacy as we shared, as much love as we felt for each other, for our kids, we were just starting to get to know each other about five years in. Maybe that’s true for lots of couples — I don’t know. I remember suddenly realizing how different we were, how differently we were raised, how much I didn’t know about him. It was kind of shocking. And I’m sure I was a bit of a surprise to him, too.
When we were dating, we went to see the film On Golden Pond. This scene has always been one of my favorites…
I remember looking over at my husband (then my boyfriend) and thinking, “Yes. I can see feeling like this with you.”
There have been days … even months … when it’s been rough. There were moments we weren’t so sure we’d made the right choice — and sometimes we felt this way at different times. Not a lot of moments, but we’ve had our share.
The most challenging things we’ve been through together — the deaths of our fathers, the stomach-clenching thrill ride of owning a business, raising two wildly different children, our personal ups and downs — those are the things that have brought us closer together, have taken us from being two people to being one couple. The wonderful moments — the days our children were born, the family gatherings, the vacations, the football games and choir shows, the amazing friends … those things have given color and shape and background to our lives. But the most difficult days, the ones that exhausted us and kept us up at night, that scared us or made us desperately sad — those are the days that made 25 years possible.
Those are the days that, oddly enough, I appreciate most of all, because those are the days when I learned the real secret to being married:
You have to be there for each other, no matter what. No. Matter. What. There’s no choice. The moment you hesitate or turn your back, you’re doomed.
That’s what makes me happy. Knowing that he’s there for me, all the time. Knowing I can always count on him to come through, to be my “Norman,” my knight in shining armor. Knowing his hand is there to hold in the middle of the night. And knowing I can — and will — do the same for him.
Previously published on Empty House Full Mind
8. THIS MONTH’S LINKS:
THE ANIMAL THAT WOULDN’T DIE…
JONI MITCHELL VINTAGE 65-70 & SUPERB DOCUMENTARY 2003…
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT “IT”…
KIDS LEARNING (SORT OF) WHERE BABIES COME FROM…
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