Getting Clingy

I received a number of lovely and kind emails this week, each of which I read and, ten minutes later, read again, not so much to enjoy them as to reassure myself that I am loved and appreciated. Because, you know, the pixels might have rearranged themselves to make different words

I think this is what Buddhists call clinging, something Thich Nhat Hanh does not recommend in his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Instead he suggests getting up close and personal with the appreciation of impermanence. After all, think what would happen if some things were permanent, like mosquitoes. By now Earth would be so full of mosquitoes that we’d have figured out intergalactic travel.

There are other things that most of us do want to be permanent, though—a really chocolatey chocolate ice cream cone (or vanilla if you happen to be one of those people), our health, that feeling we get when someone expresses her love for us. Apparently we don’t get to pick—clearly a universal design flaw.

In looking into the source of my obsessive email re-checking—another of the Buddha’s suggestions relayed by Thich Nhat Hanh—I found a lack of trust in the abundance of the universe. We live in a remarkably abundant place, from the number of mosquitoes to the number of galaxies—there is a whole lot of stuff here. And a lot of love and nice emails. I’m not saying we’ve worked out the distribution system particularly well among us humans, but that may have to do with this clinging, which I think is related to greed.

The reason greed is called a mortal sin is not that we are extra bad people when we are greedy but that it will kill us and others. We harm ourselves by trying to provide what only God can truly give, whether food or fulfillment, and end up feeling empty. Then, because of that feeling, we start hacking into other people’s inboxes and stealing their best emails. Or simply having too much to eat when others have not enough.

Trust doesn’t mean sitting on the couch and expecting the bag of potato chips to fall into our laps; it means recognizing that we are not the source of our existence, which can be difficult because it’s not what we’re taught. Paradoxically, though, when we don’t worry about when the next kindness will arrive, we can enjoy the present one a lot more.

Going It Together

The problem with the seven deadly sins is they are so easy to commit. Avarice, for example.

A couple of weeks ago, I was admiring a basket of goodies someone had put together in that Martha-Stewart-has-nothing-on-me style that no gift I give will ever resemble. It’s highly unlikely I’ll even think of using a basket.

I said to whoever was there, “That is not a skill I have,” and someone replied, “Don’t be greedy, Rachel. You are very talented.”

I used to believe I had to be good at everything, even though I clearly wasn’t. I should have had the moral fortitude, for example, to be happy as a bus driver. Never mind that driving large vehicles terrifies me; clearly, this psychological weakness needed to be overcome. Luckily, I only beat myself up about not overcoming it rather than calling one of those “We’re hiring drivers” numbers on the back of a big rig.

This hyper-self-sufficiency is very American but not very helpful. We can get so focused on pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps that we fail to recognize that others are doing much of the heavy lifting (as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers).

Releasing the need to be good at everything has allowed me to appreciate people who excel in the areas that confound me. I can more easily see the beauty of others’ work when not putting energy into feeling insufficient instead. Becoming a little less greedy has also freed me to realize that my talents truly are talents, not just something all those doctors and lawyers could do if they chose to stop doing their more impressive work.

The best part of recognizing and accepting this diversity of gifts is being able to celebrate the reality that we actually need each other, that this whole life thing is way too big to be undertaken alone.