Life as a Work in Progress
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” Thomas Merton
I try to live my life in alignment with my core beliefs. My work, my faith, my art all aim to serve that bottom line. I love FIRST because of its focus on transforming culture in a way that elevates and empowers and celebrates youth for doing important, intelligent work. I love LI4E because I’ve been able to exercise nonprofit creativity with it, experimenting with intellectual performance art like TEDxYouth and Mini Maker Faire, and working to bring things I believe are good for communities – accessible learning, makerspace projects, free resources – to more people.
I love my church because it helps keep me centered, informed about and focused on the things that ultimately matter to me, and which all the other things I do ultimately serve. I love writing and photography because they’re vehicles for self-expression, and give me opportunities to turn ideas around and inside out, visually and verbally, and to look at things from different perspectives.
And yet I struggle continuously against myself: against the baser, less noble aspects of my being, against my short sightedness, my impatience, my foolishness, working to keep self-righteousness, expectations and judgment at bay. Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. Always I am aware that I could be a much better person than I am, that I could be a better wife, mother, aunt, daughter,co-worker, and friend.
In a wonderful class I took recently – Everyday Practical Buddhism, an introduction to the Rissho Kosei-kai school of Buddhism which is grounded in the real world – practical – aspects of the faith, the idea that we are always working to overcome ourselves and that these struggles are part of the journey, resonated with me. Rather than look at personal backsliding as failure, it becomes simply an opportunity to practice being better. If practice does indeed make perfect, then I’m going to need a lot of practice, so I can expect to have frequent set backs. The idea is to shorten each failure, to experience more time between them, to become more aware of each of our thoughts and actions, more intentional and less reactionary in our responses. There’s no reason to beat ourselves up over our failures, just acknowledge, move on and try to do better next time.
It’s not easy. People like Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and the every day good people we encounter who make serenity and compassion look so elegant, if not easy, are constant reminders to me of what I could be, of what we all could be, if we just put others before ourselves more routinely. If we – if I – had more patience. More compassion. More love. If I could really let go, un-attach, stop the cycle of self-imposed suffering caused by the expectations I have of the way life ought to be as opposed to the way life is.
And then today I encountered Thomas Merton, and pulled up short at the quote that presented itself:
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
It’s not the “worthiness” part that galvanized me so much – I know better than that. When you get right down to it, I could say I’m not worthy of all the love and care I’ve received all my life. I’ve done nothing to do “deserve” it. It’s that third line – “What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. “ It’s not that all of us deserve love, which makes it a need-based experience, but that all of us are called upon to love, which puts the idea and the practice wholly in our own hands and within our sphere of influence.
I’m not sure how I missed Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in the scope of my searching and learning. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for him before. The son of artists, whose own journey of self-discovery in his short life took him from Catholicism to communism to monasticism, Merton’s body of work includes some of the earliest interfaith dialogues and studies in the U.S., encompassing some of the first Western conversations with the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among other Eastern religious figures.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going, “ Merton believed. “ What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Well that’s a good thing! Especially since just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it becomes quite evident that I don’t.
“What we have to be,” he said, “is what we are.”
My life is a work in progress, but I’m increasingly aware that I tend to over complicate things, to over think the moment in which I would do better to simply be. I want to fix and help and improve, when all I really need is to be open, caring and accepting, of the moment, of those in my life at any given moment, of whatever experience envelops me at that moment.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times,” Merton observed.
Conversely, he said, “It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from the effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting any immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.” (No Man is an Island)
Can I do that? I don’t know.
As my work with both FIRST and LI4E take me into new circles of relationships and influence, it can be easy to lose sight of the whole point of doing it all, to get caught up in the excitement of success and forget the bottom philanthropic line, the mission and goals at the heart of it all. As my adult children take their own paths through life, it’s natural to want to point out perceived hazards or errors of choice, to try to keep them safe and help them be successful, when all they need is the freedom to make their own mistakes and enjoy their own successes, my unconditional love and an open door. When I have to share my life with someone I find unpleasant, it’s easy to fall into resentment, when I could simply let go of expectations and judgment and exist side by side, making better use of my existence, and more joy in theirs.
I’m a work in progress. No promises. But if all I’m really called upon to do is love, I can certainly try.