Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Self and Universal Humanness

To what extent are personal experiences universally shared (or potentially universally shared) among all humans?

Is it valuable to write about self, because personal experiences might be relevant to others? Or is it "self-indulgent"? Can we write meaningfully about anything else? Might it in fact be more humble to write only about one's own experience, and arrogant to claim to know anything more?

Is it better to write in more general terms about one's own experiences, because the more you move to particular details, the less likely what you write will have relevance to others? Or does including the particular details make it more interesting?

Lately, I've been writing in very general (and, yes, vague) terms about processing a new emerging leading. I have wondered whether writing in that very general way is useful, or is just maddeningly cryptic. I am starting to think that it might be more maddenly cryptic than helpful. And so I apologize. (I will probably be sharing more of the details as the leading unfolds.)

I myself really like to learn about people's inner struggles with life: how they process leadings; how they deal with anxieties and fears; how they pray; what their spiritual experiences are like; how they decide what to do, or how they decide what is right and what is wrong. I like the honesty of facing experiences directly and fully. I like to see where people struggle to understand something on its own terms, instead of being quick to throw over it a ready-made interpretation borrowed from our commonly inherited patterns of thinking. I find it most exciting when I see people taking those commonly inherited patterns of thinking, and holding them up to actual lived experience, and asking: "does this really fit?" Very often the answer turns out to be, "not exactly," and it is the exploration of the parts that don't match up that often yield the new insights that have the ring of authenticity.

My sister and I once said to each other as we were catching up on each other's lives: "Life is not at all how I expected it to be." We both found this a bittersweet realization. At the time, it was more bitter than sweet. But over time, I have found that I bear the bitter parts better, for the most part, and this is a relief. It doesn't shock me any more, like it did in those earlier days of first venturing out into the world beyond that of my upbringing.

But I have been surprised, lately, to find myself going through new hard times, just as it seems things should be opening up for me, and even lightening for me. I feel clearer than ever before about a lot: who I am; what I am called to do. I've had very important insights about my relationship to my work, and my relationships with people. And yet I feel more powerless than ever to change in ways that I think would be helpful and healthier.

I think what I am learning is something important about the relationship between individuality and culture. I think I am feeling the press of my culture's power upon me. I think what I am really learning is how very hard it is for individuals to stand against strong cultural pressures.

So much is expected of me -- and of us all. Our world is demanding and complex. Most of us, I think, feel embedded in networks of competing demands.

What are some effective spiritual survival techniques? How do you stay centered and compassionate in this complex and demanding world?


  1. You're asking so many good questions, it's a bit intoxicating (in a gooooood way) to read them.

    You ask, "Is it better to write in more general terms about one's own experiences, because the more you move to particular details, the less likely what you write will have relevance to others? Or does including the particular details make it more interesting?"

    My reply, which may only speak for me: I love the details; they're a great corrective to my own cerebral tendencies, and they help me see you as a real person, not a bundle of ideas on legs.

    But we don't need to cover all the bases every time we write. Sometimes you'll probably want to lead us into contemplating a process of discerning and evaluating a leading--any leading--and at other times you'll want to know how we walk through the day as that process is underway, who we are drawn to consult, what we're reading, what we're telling and asking God.

    Dialogue is not a serial, synchronous or binary affair. Sometimes we have to ramble, and approach a thing from several angles, before we begin to put together the larger picture that I could never assemble alone. So I'm blessed by whatever dimension of your process you want to reveal, whether general or detailed. As for myself, I find it very hard to give specifics, even as I advocate others doing it! My post a while back on my mental prayer villages was probably the first thing I've written in a decade on how I pray. And I overcame a fair amount of resistance in writing it.


  2. Thank you, Johan, for your encouragement! I too value details. And so it is ironic, and yet understandable, that we both admit to difficulty in putting this into practice in our own writing! But I agree that we have to discern on a case by case basis when is the right time and forum to share more. Some things unfold more gradually than others. And, meanwhile, each level has value.