Out of the Mouths of Babes

There’s an interesting thing about wisdom.  It’s fairly universally assumed to come with age.  We look to our forebears to tell us what they’ve learned through their lives so that we don’t make the same mistakes they did, and we expect those younger than us to respect our opinions on account of our age and experience.

This forms the basis for most of our religions and spiritual practices.  We have more respect for older traditions and consider them to contain great wisdom.

The weird part of all this, though, is that the very mechanism assumed to impart this wisdom is the experience of change.  We realize that those older than us have been where we are and lived far past, that they’re different now than they were at our age, and that those changes have taught them things.

But then we completely disregard the changes which have imparted a far different kind of wisdom on the young.

If I were to be given the choice of seeking wisdom from either someone from the past or someone from the future, I would speak to the person from the future.  They will have experienced a reality built on the experiences of generations beyond myself, and that kind of wisdom would be earthshattering to us now.  The past?  While I’m sure there are many ideas and nuggets of wisdom which have escaped documentation and fallen away from collective memory, the most important lessons and wisdom of the past forms the foundation upon which our reality is built.  We have it already, if we choose to access it.  Not all of it is particularly relevant anymore.

As we get older, though, we actually have access to future wisdom all around us.  The younger generations grow up in a different reality than we did, one built on our own widsom.  And yet too many of us are too quick to dismiss them.  We expect that they will grow to understand reality just as we do, disregarding that that has never consistently been the case before.

And the change which makes each subsequent generation’s reality different changes the environment in which our spiritual lives occur as well.  Shouldn’t we put a little more value on the insight of the young?

Becoming the Hero

There was one particular period in my life that I consider a turning point towards becoming a fully integrated human being.  I won’t tell the whole tale, as it’s long, but the short version is that I finally realized that other people and other things could not be blamed for the fact that I made the same destructive choices over and over again throughout my life.

In our heads, we get to tell ourselves our own life story.  We do it often.  And because we are both the storyteller and audience, we get to paint whoever we want as villains and heroes, victims and saviors.  And since we’re living out the plot of that story as we tell it, how we choose to characterize ourselves within the narrative makes a huge difference in how the rest of the story unfolds.

Until that point in my life, I painted myself as the victim waiting for her moment to become hero.  I was a good character, one with good characteristics and good intentions and dreams which ought to dramatically come true to formulate a happy ending.  When my day didn’t arrive, it was because I was still stuck in the early part of the tale, like Cinderella scrubbing floors and being oppressed by her stepfamily.

After finally tearing through much of the artifice and defensive walls I’d built up in my life to allow me to tell my story that way, my viewpoint changed.  I figured out that I couldn’t leave the difficult, unsatisfactory, darker parts out of my story because I’m not a Disney character.  I wasn’t the princess waiting for an invitation to the ball.  If I ended up in the same situations, the same predicaments, over and over again, it was probably because I made the same mistakes and poor choices over and over again.  If I didn’t change the pattern, I would never see a different outcome.  I was the protagonist of my own tale, yes, but whether it ended in triumph or tragedy hinged more on my own choices than outside plot twists.

I didn’t want my life to be a cautionary tale.  So I dug down to the plot device that kept leading me astray, the choice I continually made to undermine my own chance at success out of fear of failure, and centered the story instead on a struggle to choose differently.

And that’s when lots of things changed in my life.  Taking responsibility for my own choices, good and bad, completely altered the landscape.

How do you tell yourself the story of your own life?  Are you the hero?  Will you be the hero in the end?

Once Upon A Time…

One of the most uncomfortable experiences in life is that moment when the people around you express views and opinions which, unknown to them, negatively target you or someone close to you.  It’s one thing when the subjects are benign, when the act of revealing the way you identify with the subject of their ridicule is low-risk.  For instance, if you’re chatting with someone and they make a joke about fans of a certain TV show, and you reveal that you’re a fan of that show, it’s awkward but unlikely to fundamentally impact your life or theirs.

But when we’re talking about ideas and identities which run much deeper, it’s not just awkward.  The prospect of revealing your vulnerability in a context which has already been made threatening is terrifying.  It’s what keeps people in the closet.  It’s what keeps minorities of all kinds silent and hidden.

And in our current cultural climate, it’s something which desperately needs to change.

How much different would our world be if those of us who occupy minority positions told our stories openly?  How much different would our culture be if people knew, when they said these things, that they were staring into the eyes of the very people they were about to belittle and ostracize?  How much better would the world be if people knew from the start that their friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors were living examples of great diversity in all kinds of ways?

In the interest of a better world, perhaps it’s time to begin more freely telling our stories to those around us.  Not just the benign stories, the ones which make us feel vulnerable.  The ones which reveal the things we have been afraid to reveal.  The ones which align us with the groups we wish were more accepted by the world around us.  The ones which refute the generally accepted picture of what is normal, what is acceptable, what “good people” do and think.

If every single one of us committed to telling just one more story about ourselves, to revealing one secret we’ve been afraid to reveal, think of the shift in cultural consciousness which would result?  If those of us who have hidden parts of ourselves and our existences in the shadows for fear of the reaction of the masses brought those parts out into the sunlight, how much more accepted and strengthened would we all feel?

Our shared stories are what shape our understanding of the world around us, and they are the foundation of our culture and spirituality.  Our religions and spiritual paths begin with stories:  myths, fables, parables.  They begin with narratives which describe how things are, how things were, how things ought to be.  And when we withhold or exclude certain narratives from that process, we diminish ourselves.

So, that’s my first challenge to everyone in these tumultuous times.  Tell your story.  Reshape how the people around you see the world.  Enrich the narrative.  Don’t allow your own experience to be shut out of the collective mythology.

A Change of Image

We often undertake spiritual practice for the purpose of impacting who we are inside, at the soul level.  At the very least, we go into our spiritual existence hoping to change how we feel and what kind of person we are deep down.  A lot of practices seek to change our inner being through specific behaviors and practices.  

But how often do we seek to change our outward behavior via spiritual means?

I certainly wouldn’t say it never happens, but by and large I see more concern over the inner effects of spirituality rather than outer changes.  It seems, in fact, that many people think it’s possible to change oneself inside and still be difficult, overbearing, judgmental, or negative on the outside.  

What we seek to be on the inside should be reflected on the outside.  In fact, I think what we are on the outside is a better indicator of what we really believe than our perception of ourselves.  If our spiritual pursuits can’t aid us in becoming to others the person we wish to become, has it really changed us or done us good?

I often hear people talk about other spiritual paths or religions negatively in terms of how they treat those outside the faith, how the adherents of those traditions express their faith to others.  And yet, when it comes to looking at their own attitudes and behaviors, the judgment is often far less harsh.  I firmly believe that our spirituality should be grounds for judging ourselves first and most deeply.

Irreversible Changes

A few days ago I posted about death and the afterlife, but mostly about how it shouldn’t really be the thing which preoccupies our spiritual thoughts.  Spending one’s life focused on what happens after it’s over is like not fully focusing on school because you’re focused on what your job will be like when you graduate.  You end up ill-prepared.

I’ll be the first to admit that I have a strange relationship with death.  My father worked for several years as a funeral director, and both of my brothers took grounds-keeping or night guard jobs at the funeral home as teens.  Even when my father went back to preaching, he continued to be a resource for the funeral home whenever a family didn’t have a minister or musician in mind for their service.  I grew up with a white board magnetized to the fridge with a list of “Dad’s Funerals” for the week on it.   Death was a nearly daily event, even if I never really experienced the grief or knew those who passed.  Still, the process of death became just another part of living.  Caskets are chosen, bodies are processed to look nice, people come together to cry and remember and lean on each other, and then they roll sod over the new grave and everyone goes on living.

Because I have such a weird connection to that part of death and grief, I think maybe that part isn’t as important as we make it out to be.  Not that it isn’t important at all.  The ritual of burial and remembrance, the formality of finality, that is an exercise in human emotion.  I do think we need some way to mark the end of a person’s life, the loss of a piece of our own, in a way which makes it easier to let go of.  We have to do something to force us to accept the finality, the reality of loss, or we build a whole life afterwards of delusion and acting.

But after that, when we’ve reached the point of acceptance, the rest of the roadmap of mourning is a journey of adjusting to something missing.  Like this blog post pointed out, the actual process of mourning, of adjusting, means taking a look at the reality of our lives, the reality of our relationships, the reality of ourselves.  When you get a flat tire you can try to keep driving as if it weren’t there, as if the rest of the good tires and the newly changed oil will make up for the missing part, but eventually the car will be undrivable.  

And mourning, most of all, means making changes.  It’s a process of adjustment, not just a process of getting progressively less sad.  We make changes to fill the gaps in our existence.  We find new people to fill the roles of those we’ve lost.  We learn to do things others used to do for us.  It means thinking about the loss, thinking about the person you no longer have with you, not as an ideal but as a reality.  

In the end, the rest of the world, including us, is supposed to go on.  The sun rises and sets, the seasons change, and the demands and joys of life are still out there for us.  And most of all, no matter what we do, death is a change which cannot be reversed.

I Used To Believe…

I used to believe that the reason I had troubles feeling like I belonged, feeling accepted by others, was because the world was flawed and people were too judgmental.

This presumed first of all that I had no impact at all in how others reacted to me, that my view of my interactions with others was not at all distorted.  Second, it presumed that the rest of the world wasn’t like me, that there are actually people in this world who are comfortable with everyone and never need to worry about what other people think of them.  Also, that those people were bad and needed to change.

I used to believe that there was something wrong with me because I could never maintain a habitual spiritual practice or even keep up any kind of daily ritual.

We make a big deal out of people who take time to do yoga every morning when they get out of bed, monks who go through elaborate daily routines of prayer or fasting or silence and never waver or complain, bloggers who manage to post every single day without fail and never have to post the “sorry I got sucked into reality for several weeks” apology.  I have a long, long history of setting myself on a new routine or ritual (diets, fitness routines, praying the rosary every day, intense journaling, meditation, cleaning lists) with some great purpose in mind, and then not maintaining it past a few weeks or months.  And I felt like I’d be a better person, a more functional and productive person, if I could only find the secret to making those routines stick.

I used to believe that my life was somehow not like everyone else’s, that I was missing something, that most other people had things more under control.

It would seem to be so obvious that, in most ways, none of us are that unlike everyone else.  Our personalities may be as unique as snowflakes, but our problems and concerns are not that special.  And maybe it’s because I grew up in the tradition of “everyone is unique” that I grew up to think that my lack of satisfaction with my life and the state of the world was unique as well.  

It doesn’t help that so many spiritual traditions support a mindset of “us against the world”.  If only the faithful have the truth and the rest of the world hates the faithful, then suffering is to be expected.  

But that’s no longer how I view spirituality.  My spiritual life isn’t focused on something outside me, it’s focused squarely on my own spirit.  When I turned my focus inward and started examining the way I thought, the way I felt, the way I reacted to the world around me, so many of my old beliefs began to fall away.  It wasn’t pretty or comfortable, but I began to see the truth of things.

I am not so obviously wonderful a person that I can stand in the midst of a crowd doing nothing and expect anyone to embrace me.  If I want to connect with others, I have to reach out.  I have to give other people a chance to react to me rather than operating on my own flawed predictions about how they will react.  If I want to find a place to fit in, I have to actually go searching.

Attempts at perfection will almost always fall short.  If everyone had the ability to do only good things every day without fail, we wouldn’t revere the ones who manage to pull it off.  And falling short of perfection doesn’t negate the benefits of trying.  Those pursuits we undertake to make our lives better, to elevate our spirits, don’t require flawless execution to work.  

Taken as a whole, we are all special and unique.  But when you break us each down into thoughts and feelings, attributes, interests, problems and successes, none of us stands alone.  

Give Of Yourself

I’m not the most tidy person of all time, but I do believe there is something especially valuable in the ritual of cleaning and decluttering.  I’m not just talking about routine chores like washing dishes or mopping floors, but the deep Spring Clean or complete overhaul of a storage system.  Even someone like me who, to be honest, has little problem navigating piles of clutter feels different when their living space has been freshly cleaned, organized, and purged of unneeded items.

 

Certainly there are spiritual parallels to the process.  Many traditions include rituals meant to cleanse the spirit in some way.  A focus is often placed on finding those thoughts and behaviors within ourselves which cause negative consequences and purging them from ourselves.  And part of the idea of feng shui is that the condition of our environment has a direct impact on our thoughts and actions.  Clearing the spaces around us of clutter and useless objects creates a space more supportive of a focused and positive life.

 

Now, of course, that’s the ideal.  Just like some aspire to daily meditation or prayer or other consistent and lofty spiritual goals.  Those are great.  I’ve never been particularly successful living up to that kind of expectation, but that’s a blog post for another day.  
Still, for those of us who are seeking meaningful ritual with spiritual subtext, a regular ritual of removing things from our physical existence which serve no positive purpose is a simple and meaningful one, especially when combined with the act of donating those things to those who can benefit from them.  Cleansing our own lives and elevating someone else’s in the same action is a ritual with a really profound positive lesson:  just because something isn’t useful to us doesn’t mean it’s worthless to everyone else.  Things aren’t good or bad, they just are.  It’s how we use them that matters.