Wednesday, August 16, 2006

“Way Opening” vs. the Bad Luck Blues

Every time I open my refrigerator (or turn on my dryer, or unlock my front door, or turn my shower off, or drive in my car, or travel and actually find my luggage upon arrival), I think back over last year’s spell of bad luck, and find myself grateful that this year has been better. I’m still not entirely sure what last year’s spell of bad luck was really all about, but it did make me more aware of how much I was letting myself be pushed around by demands from the world outside of me, and how much I was letting self-determination recede.

Sabbatical has been good for me.

First I was inundated with lots of requests and felt “set upon” again; then I adopted the simple policy of saying “no” to everything. The world seemed to protest a bit (the requests shifted from “Can you do ___?” to “I know you are on sabbatical, but can you do ___? It won’t really take a lot of your time, and it’s really important!”) So I had to say “no,” and then I had to say “no” louder and more insistently. And this was hard on me, but finally it started taking effect. At last the requests tapered off, and finally vanished. After all, this world could survive perfectly well without me, thank you very much.

I moved to deeper and deeper levels of reflection: on the world, and on myself. Who am I really? What am I called to do? To what extent do the world’s requests tell me my calling, and to what extent are they temptations away from my calling? How do I discern?

Time opened up, and took on a new feel. I’ve lived in a new way: less driven by schedules and a chronic sense of urgency; more defined by my being than by my doing. Time was no longer passing. I lived in the eternal now, watching the world shift and change around me.

I cannot begin to describe how amazingly restorative such a state of being can be.

Still worried about the state of the world, alarmed about new developments, and eager to do something that would help, yet I felt detached from it all, but in a healthy way. I felt like I was observing from a distance, and needed to observe from a distance. I felt a deepening new understanding of the expression, “in the world but not of it.” I didn’t want to take on false blame and responsibility for all that is going on. That energy that lashes out with blind fury is not me. That energy that “produces” with frantic, environment-destroying and soul-destroying urgency is not me. I want to live a new way into being. I represent a different way of life, and I am outraged at a world that keeps trying to loop me into its destructive ways. I will no longer pretend to be guilty of what is not of my making. I hereby vow to stand solidly in a new way of life.

And I am not alone. My friends and Friends are with me.

Those who devote their lives to bringing forth beautiful music are with me.

Those who devote their lives to teaching peace are with me.

Those who develop new, earth-friendly economies are with me.

Those who are sensitive and gentle of spirit are with me.

Those who heal; those who cultivate; those who create; those who love are with me.

We all are living a new kind of life into being.

But will this sense of clarity and strength last as the academic year begins and my life gets intensely busy again? New requests will descend upon me (indeed, they’ve already started to appear). Do I trust myself not to get pulled back into the frantic energy of manufactured urgencies?

Saying “no” feels so negative. But is there a way of saying “no” by saying (a different kind of) “yes”? Before saying no, I need to remember what are the fundamental “yeses” that define my life and being. If a new request helps give those yeses more effective expression in my life, then I can say yes to it; if it takes energy away from my defining yeses, I must say no: but then saying no is to re-affirm the yeses that define my life. Such a “no” is therefore positive instead of negative.

As I’ve slowly learned to do this, way is starting to open up for me. I cannot yet give any concrete examples, because at the moment it is a subtle shift in my soul and in my attitude. I feel hopeful, though I cannot really say why.

After a long journey into and through distrust, learning that the world is not God and that human beings indeed can do great harm, I’m finally finding my way into a new and deeper kind of trust. I’ve always trusted God, but I’ve struggled to find the right ways to trust people. I’ve too easily been fooled into thinking that I can recognize what is God within them, and what is not. I’ve felt too hurt by people, when it is really my own discernment that has been at fault.

Very slowly, I start to perceive people differently. No longer do I implicitly demand that they be God in my life. They muddle along in their brokenness as best as they can – as do I. We need each other’s help and support: humans are interdependent creatures. But at the same time, it is wrong to expect too much of each other, or even of ourselves. Our fundamental grounding should not be in human society, human institutions, or human relationships (though all of these partially constitute our lives), but God.

What does it mean to live this way, from this kind of center? The answer is deeper than words. I cannot answer for another. I cannot even answer in words for myself. It is a quest. It is a journey of the soul. I feel the way with my feet in the dark. I take off my shoes.

Standing barefoot on the ground of God: my new way of being. Am I sure I’m really there yet? Can anyone ever claim such a thing without risking dangerous self-delusion?

But if God really is the ground of all being, all of us are already there. The question then is whether and how we recognize and trust and live from that ultimate ground that is God.

Each of our lives offers a unique answer to this question.


  1. CS,

    Great post. The testimony of simplicity refers most of all to being faithful to the few things we are really called to do and learning not to run after all the things the world seeks to distract us with. I hope you are a member of a strong Quaker meeting where you are at. If you are you should be able to find someone locally to discuss these things on a semiregular basis. Discernment works best as a communal process. In my own life I rely very much on my wife to help me figure out what's important for me to do and what I should just let go. It really helps to be married to someone who shares your spiritual quest, I've been really lucky in that. I don't know if your local meeting has kept up the tradition of naming elders--probably not few Meetings do these days--but helping Friends in their process of discernment is an elder's main function. Even if your Meeting doesn't name elders try to figure out who around you might have that gift and make use of it.

    By the way my daughter convinced me to try blogging on my own so I settled on "Pangloss" since Leibniz is one of my philosophical favorites.


  2. WOW!! The last four paragraphs really struck me at a deep level. I wish you the best in following your new
    path (or maybe it's your old path with new clairty). If the only thing that you came into clearness on your sabatical was "our fundamental grounding should not be in human........but in God", I would call it sucessful.

  3. Thank you for this testimony, CS. You have lived into Thomas Kelly's Testament of Devotion, and extended it... The idea of saying "no" so as to support what you have already said "yes" to is a process I need; thank you for naming it so clearly.

    Yes, take off your shoes. (Exodus 3:5: "Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.")

    -- Chris M.
    Tables, Chairs & Oaken Chests

  4. Wow -- thank you all for your very kind comments!

  5. Chris M. speaks my mind. "Take off your sandals, for you are on holy ground."

    This is such an important and sacred transition you are going through, CS. You have already discovered the gift of saying No (because it means being able to say Yes to other things) and the worth of establishing a personal sabbatical.

    It sounds like you are also learning the gift of being faithful and of leaving enough space and time for God to speak to you.

    Do your best, for as long as you can. And if necessary, just start over: Begin where you are. (I think I'm paraphrasing Thomas Kelly there, too.)

    Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

  6. Thank you as well, Liz. It is really wonderful finding a sense of clarity settling over me. I feel like I am entering into a new way of discerning, and this positive conceptualization of saying "no" has been very powerful for me. In recent days, it has been tested anew, because as the academic year approaches, the Requests to Do Things start rolling in. But I have been much clearer about how to make decisions about these requests, and I have been responding very quickly, and I no longer feel guilty when I say "no" because I think of the energy that contributes to the "yeses" I am already working on.

    I also appreciate your saying, "And if necessary, just start over. Begin where you are." I have a feeling I will very much need this wisdom too once the busyness fully descends!

    Thank you!