Choosing the Depths

As I was running late to work one day, my mind calculated and recalculated the fastest route, as if I could predict where the slow cars would be or when the traffic lights would turn. Not to mention that the time difference would, in reality, be negligible no matter which way I went.

An interior voice wanted to take a route that I was sure was not the fastest. The voice insisted, though, and off we went. About halfway to the freeway, a blue heron passed overhead. Its majestic, unhurried flight took with it all the melancholy and anxiety that had been gurgling around inside me.

I won’t claim with certainty that I was meant to go that way to meet the heron. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it’s not, and generally speaking, the world is more complex than we can account for. But I will say that the experience made it clear that I so often choose a course of action based on the wrong criteria.

Choosing to go the way in which we will encounter the beauty of our fellow creatures or lessen the suffering in the world is so much more important than making it to work one minute earlier.

I spend a lot of time on the innumerable daily equivalents of that one minute. They come in so many sizes and flavors—which task to do first, which type of olive oil to buy, what the right answer is. Their very quantity makes them seem important when actually they’re distracting.

To make choices that are worthy of us, we need questions that will take us to the depths of our lives where we long to be—is it loving? Is it kind? Does it bring joy to me and others?

We need to remember that we are these depths and that we are here to keep falling more deeply into them.

Choosing What Is

I spend a lot of time with the “should”s and the “have to”s. They’re not the most fun group to hang out with, but they’re very insistent.

In a recent meditation, Richard Rohr wrote, “Trapped people have to do what they want to do. Free people want to do what they know they have to do.” I’m quite adept at turning activities I enjoy into tasks that carry some vague but ominous consequence if not completed. I have to go to farmers market. I have to email my friends. Or what? I’ll buy vegetables at the grocery store, God forbid, but I invest that event with such power to define me.

On the other hand, I have a few friends who are caring or cared for loved ones with various health problems with great good will. I’m sure they have their moments of frustration and despair, but they maintain and return to an underlying gratitude for the other person and for being able to care for him or her. Though they choose their actions, the deeper choice is in how they continue to live out these relationships in their hearts.

“You are only free when you have nothing to protect and nothing you need to prove or defend,” Rohr says. He is describing how to live in the present. Protecting, proving, and defending our ideas of who we are prevent us from showing up as ourselves. If we are trying to be someone or something else, we cannot enter into what’s actually happening.

What we are is freely given love, and what’s happening is a movement of love constantly creating all that is. The only true choice is to choose what is, a dialogue facilitator once said. When we choose the love that we are, we will see that all we have to do is love, and we will want nothing more.

None of us are capable of living this way all the time, or perhaps even much of the time, but we can practice, we can remember and return. “Admittedly, it takes a while to get there,” Rohr says. It’s a journey worth setting out on.

A Choice Called Love

Sometimes loving is hard. Perhaps that’s because love is a choice, not an emotion, as Richard Rohr says. He also says love is who you are.

I sometimes look at my own thoughtlessness, jealousy, contempt, or self-centeredness and wonder how this can be so, but maybe we miss the point when we confuse these tendencies for our selves. As Jim Finley puts it, there is an invincible preciousness at our center that nothing we or anyone else does can touch. “Nothing less than love has the power to name who you are,” according to Finley.

Even when we believe that Love is bringing us into being, accepting the reality that love is our being requires a terrifying leap. Our faults are knowable, measurable, and don’t change that much. This self is in control and controllable.

Love is infinite, eternal, ever constant and ever changing, ever evolving, ever giving itself away as new and different forms. It is unknowable, unpredictable, unexpected, mysterious.

It’s easier in this world to stick with what is known. Easier but deadly because what is not love is not real. I am that am, God says. Love is. So anything that is not love isn’t.

What does it mean to make the choice that is love? Nothing less than a conscious participation in our own becoming, which is an inextricable part of the universal becoming. Every smile, every kind word, every nanosecond of patience with an exasperating child—given or received—creates the world. Every act of forgiveness; every thrill at the beauty of a tree, a song, a painting—given and received—creates us.

Love is an ever-present invitation. The preciousness at the center of our being and of all being calls to us. Every moment offers another chance to choose to listen.

 

A Lot of Choices

I just activated a new credit card, and the helpful, robotic voice on the other end of the line said, “Thank you for using [our bank]. We know you have a lot of choices.”

We do have a lot of choices, and I often confuse the important ones with the unimportant. Should I push the snooze alarm? Can I wear brown boots with a black jacket? Will I miss the van if I take the time to put on lotion? And that’s just the first hour of the day.

When I got back from China, I was overwhelmed by the entire aisle of salad dressings in the typical American grocery store and the immense selection of deli meats. I almost ran away without my meat when the kind person behind the counter asked me whether I wanted cheese with that.

Because we experience such an onslaught of this type of decision every day, it’s easy to confuse the trivial with the essential. Even those decisions that often seem the biggest—what house to buy, what job to take—will not shape our lives as profoundly as the essential choices, as in, having to do with the essence of things.

Some true choices we face every day:

  • Will I practice forgiveness?
  • Will I be kind?
  • Will I be patient?
  • Will I do whatever I am doing with love?
  • Will I listen to my mental tapes of self-destructive messages?
  • Will I accept help?
  • Will I let others love me?
  • Will I believe that there is something bigger and more hopeful than I can see at this moment?

The list goes on, of course, but our attention to this kind of question truly determines how alive we are. It is so, so hard to believe this in a culture that constantly asks us to quantify ourselves based on whether we selected ham or turkey. Clearly, there was a right one and a wrong one and we better have picked the turkey.

Personally, I answer “occasionally” or “sometimes” to most of the above list, and those may remain my answers until I die. But that’s not important either. What’s important is to keep asking the real questions.

Choosing Gratitude

One of my many talents is the ability to be dissatisfied in the midst of astonishing abundance. Case in point: last weekend’s retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur.

In years past, you called the hermitage for a reservation, and they assigned you a room. Now, with their new online reservation system, you choose your own room. That’s where the trouble began.

One of the first things I noticed on arriving was a tree partially blocking my view of the ocean. I started to picture how superior the views farther down the line must be and to wish I had chosen differently.

Allow me to clarify exactly how ridiculous this reaction was. The hermitage overlooks the Big Sur coastline, some of the most dramatic in the world. Every room opens onto a vista—in reality, you could see a tree when you looked at the ocean; it would have taken a forest to block the view.

Luckily, I heard myself being ridiculous and did not spend the weekend resenting that beautiful place. I did, however, begin to understand why monastics willingly give up many of their choices. When the rooms were assigned, I had never compared or judged them but had considered each one a great gift.

We often get caught up in evaluating our choices to ensure that we have the best rather than realizing that what we have is incredible. In another room, I wouldn’t have seen the quail rustling the rosemary bushes in the evening or the blazing red flowers of the New Zealand tea tree. I wouldn’t have heard the drone of bees—the loudest I can remember—coming from the giant pollen gathering festival taking place nearby.

I’m not suggesting we forfeit our choices. There are too many places in the world where people literally have no choice, and the resulting suffering can be immense.

I’m simply proposing that whichever road we choose, we remember it is strewn with gifts that are not better or worse, only different.

Not to Clean

Labor Day is not usually life-changing for me, but this year, I learned something extremely important: cleaning takes time. Others may have grasped this concept much earlier in life, but I’m pretty excited about it.

Let me unfold the revelation for you. I played soccer all day Saturday. On Sunday, a friend and I went to an art show and then some other friends had me over for dinner. Monday morning I looked disconsolately around my house and wondered how another weekend had gone by without any scrubbing, vacuuming, or mopping taking place. No hope beckoned as most of the coming day was slotted for eating pancakes, giving my dad a birthday call, buying groceries, and hanging out with my mom.

Then, while describing my weekend to my dad, divine inspiration descended: I realized I could have cleaned only if I had done it instead of all those fun things. True, this is a bit like mastering a kindergarten-level mathematical concept while doing your Ph.D., but I had never accepted the either-or idea in this context before.

I always felt as if it should be possible to do it all—the fun stuff and the cleaning—as if everybody else knew some secret technique. But no, they were actually spending time with sponge in hand. That’s the problem with this whole finite thing, every moment can contain only one action, no matter what we like to think about multitasking.

I have a quote from Mastercard above my desk at work. It says, “Not having to choose—priceless.” It’s there to remind me that the people who say I can have it all are selling me something and that the freedom to choose is a great gift.

So if I have to decide between a soccer tournament and a clean bathroom, the bathroom will lose every time. And I’m OK with that now. Mostly.