The Best We Can Do

Sometimes, we have little alternative but to watch ourselves do stupid things, such as practice anxiety, to pick a random example that couldn’t possibly have happened to me this week. At these moments—or days, weeks, months—it’s helpful to remember that watching is so much better than turning our eyes away.

Tuesday morning I realized at 7:17 that I needed to give Tux, my cat, his new hairball medication. Catching the vanpool requires leaving the house by 7:18. Trying to hurry, I got the gel in his fur and on his whiskers and of course missed the van anyway. That evening, preparing to give him another dose, I read the label more carefully: administer ½ tsp. once daily, meaning the entire morning escapade had been unnecessary.

Usually, I would have laughed at myself, but not this time. For unknown reasons, much of what I had done during the week had appeared in my mind doomed to failure—earth-shattering failure, not just any ol’ run of the mill failure—and this imagined imminent demise had buried my sense of humor.

I’ve been reading The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and so I tried during these days to take their advice on how to cultivate joy. Over and over, I expanded my perspective and tried to have compassion for others who, like me, thought it important to mess with their own minds, or people with more serious problems, such as hunger or war. Then I forgot. Then I practiced gratitude. Then I forgot.

Breathing exercises, energy exercises—nothing prevented me from jumping back onto the mental hamster wheel of fear. But by some grace, I saw my mental gymnastics and didn’t mistake them for reality.

The universe does come through if we wait long enough. This week, help arrived in the form of this email from my mom: “When I search boat toilets, I only get boat rentals. When I search portable toilets, I get large porta-potties. When I search bedside toilets, I can’t find any rentals. When I search sr. incontinence, I get Depends.”

And then, in the immortal words of Paul Simon, nothing was different but everything changed. I laughed. Out loud. By myself. In looking for a portable toilet to take camping, we’d discovered an entire world of waste products, all but the one we needed. Thank God for the dependability of bathroom humor amidst the impermanence of all things.

The Other Me

I realized this week that the person I most often compare myself to doesn’t exist. More importantly, she never will—at least not in this universe.

This is one of those moments to pause and appreciate the depth and complexity of one’s own psychoses. Comparing product reviews on Amazon: good idea. Comparing oneself to other people: bad idea. Comparing oneself to a fictional character: priceless.

This imaginary version of me really has the whole life thing figured out. She always goes to bed on time. She enjoys reviewing HOA bylaws, and she has much better fashion sense than I do. Whatever I have just done, she did it better. I’ve never known her to make a mistake.

Where did she come from, this other me? On the one hand, it’s not mysterious. Our culture markets discontent with impressive frequency and pervasiveness. On the other hand, it’s interesting that a being woven of “should have” and “if only” has such substance that, until now, it never occurred to me that she’s not real.

I think she convinces me of her existence by appearing to be possible, but she’s not. It’s like wanting every blossom on a tree to be in full and perfect bloom at the same time (yes, I do this) all year round (thankfully, I don’t do this). Not gonna happen. As the Tao Te Ching says, “Sometimes things are ahead, and sometimes they are behind.”

The tricky part comes a couple lines before that, though: “The universe is sacred. You cannot improve it.” That means the real me is the sacred one, even on days when I only get six hours of sleep, binge watch superhero shows on Netflix, and eat too many store-bought cookies while wearing pants that don’t fit right. Somehow, that was my best for the day—“You cannot improve it.”

I’m not suggesting we don’t put effort into learning and growing, but as Richard Rohr says, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Of course, we are advised to love our enemies, so perhaps I should take my imaginary perfect self out for a hot fudge sundae and corrupt her a bit.

How to Cultivate Pervasive Unsatisfactoriness

This week, my life kindly provided a perfect demonstration of what Buddhist teaching calls “pervasive unsatisfactoriness.” Sometimes this idea is translated as “suffering,” but not being satisfied better describes my habitual state of mind so much of the time. The Buddha does not recommend this state, in case you’re wondering.

But if you want to try it out and your unsatisfactoriness is not pervasive enough, if you feel enlightenment creeping up on you, here’s a quick way to fix that. Start by getting attached to an outcome, say, catching the van to work. Any outcome will do, but if you want to try the advanced track, choose an additional outcome that makes the first one difficult to achieve, say, sending a particular email before leaving the house. Now—and this is the tricky part—base your happiness on attaining both of these outcomes. Finally, sit back and watch as your peace of mind evaporates.

I had front row seats at this show while driving to the van stop at the last possible minute. For one block, the SUV in front of me drove at a glacial twenty-eight miles per hour, and my life was ruined. Then he turned, leaving the road empty before me. The sun burst from behind a cloud. The bluebirds lined up to sing a chorus in the magnolia trees. Life was looking up. Then I checked the clock and returned to panic.

The lightning quick change in my outlook showed me that we really are making it all up. In the space of a few seconds, I went from crushed to rejoicing and back again. Our states of mind and emotion are often no more lasting, no more substantial than that, yet they’re so convincing that we mistake them for reality.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t have emotions or that we shouldn’t recognize the emotions we have, but we might not always want to take them so seriously. Sometimes they indicate a deeper reality, and sometimes, like this time, we use them to keep ourselves dissatisfied.

“Right now, it’s like this,”—as an unattributed quote I saw recently said—is the only road toward satisfactoriness. We need to remember both parts: “right now,” not forever; “like this,” not the way we wish it were. From that place, we can act effectively and—here’s the tricky part again—leave the outcome to God.

Warning: Prophet Ahead

Habakkuk is one of the more succinct prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. He thinks the world is pretty much of a disaster at the time he’s writing. I’d summarize his brief story this way:

Habakkuk: WTF? Seriously?

God: Wait for it.

Here’s the thing, God doesn’t say that Habakkuk (let’s call him HK from now on) is waiting for a five star meal and a cushy retirement. At the end of the book, HK basically says, even though I might starve, “I will rejoice in the Lord.”

What could inspire someone to say that? No fruit, no olives, no flock, no herd—not usually the moment people throw their hands in the air and shout, “Hallelujah!” But that’s what HK says he’s planning to do, no matter what.

HK is apparently a little more stable than I am. Some things that throw me off of the whole rejoicing in the Lord thing with remarkable ease and blistering speed: missing a deadline at work, wondering what my purpose in the world is, letting food spoil in the fridge (yes, seriously, planetary destruction starts with one rotten jicama).

Abraham Heschel suggests that HK sensed God and so encountered “infinite goodness, infinite wisdom, infinite beauty” (The Prophets, p. 183). That sounds good. I could go for that, preferably not while starving.

HK would tell me to get over the “preferably” part, that starving or not starving is not the most important thing. That doesn’t mean God wants us to starve. It does mean there’s something else going on all the time that we’re often not paying attention to.

Jim Finley says, “God protects us from nothing while sustaining us in all things.” According to that master of etymology dictionary.com, “sustain” comes from a word that meant “hold” or “uphold.” We are held in goodness, wisdom, and beauty all the time, regardless of our outer circumstances, regardless of whether or not we notice.

I react to this idea with resistance, but think how much it might transform our lives if we really, really believed it, if we took HK seriously. That’s why you have to watch out for prophets.

Which Show Is Going on?

This is the week it all falls apart. By which I don’t mean, this is the only week in my life things have ever fallen apart, but rather, this is a fine exemplar of the type.

Here are some possible distinguishing characteristics of this type of week:

  • The second week back from vacation
  • The second week into trying to establish new habits
  • The week I realize a deadline is much closer than it seemed only a few days ago
  • The week I get caught up in getting things done
  • The week I start to believe I can impose a routine of perfection on my life
  • The week there must be some cosmic explanation—like solar flares—for my moods because I sure can’t figure out why I’m being so difficult

Here is how the script goes: I think I am pretty on top of it, as in, walking around with my own theme music. For example, this week, a friend said she was feeling anxious, and I thought, oh, I have these great new habits that could help with that. Then reality happens. For example, I count the number of days until a deadline. Music changes to Psycho theme.

Act II: This could go many ways. I could look at the week’s distinguishing characteristics and realize none of them are actually a big deal. I could breathe in God loving me through and through and through, Psycho music and all, as Jim Finley would say. I could go for a walk or do something creative.

But I like to save all of that for Act III, heighten the suspense, build dramatic tension. Act II consists of confusing my self—hidden with Christ in God—with any number of exterior, ego-driven criteria. For example, why am I so bad at ironing or keeping plants alive or meeting deadlines?

If I choose to argue with the voice asking that question, I’m doomed. We’ll never make it to Act III because the voice will not have a logical conversation. It will simply place me again and again at the beginning of Act II.

If, on the other hand, I can remember that my life is not about me, that I am part of a much bigger Whole, then I can see that the show is already going on and inviting me to join in.

Making New

In other parts of the world, it is still spring. A friend who lives in the Colorado mountains posted a beautiful description of the new life frolicking outside her window: baby foxes, cranes, and birds.

I easily fall into thinking that nothing really changes, or perhaps more exactly that I am not making things change fast enough or am incapable of doing so at all. The thing is, as usual, it’s not me who changes things. “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God says in Isaiah.

Fr. Bruno Barnhart, OSB Cam., looked out at the beauty of the Big Sur coast and wrote, “Within us…is to be discovered a free, imaginative power which has been given us so we can actually bring forth the beginning of a new creation” (from his essay “The Big Sur Coast—Sixty Miles of Music to the Eye”). So how can this bringing forth be both within us and not from us?

It is not our power, as in something that belongs to us. It has been given to us, Fr. Bruno says, not the way we’re given a set of cutlery to use every day but rather the way we’re given the gift of baby foxes playing outside our window.

We didn’t do anything to make it happen. We can’t do anything to make it stay. We can’t use it to do whatever we want to because it’s a “free, imaginative power.” It’s never separate from us, but we can’t hold onto it. It works through us, sometimes in spite of us; it both does and does not need our participation.

If you’re thinking right now that this doesn’t make any sense, I agree. This power is not especially interested in making sense—it’s interested in making new. And it’s important to remember that we, too, are part of the new creation, that we are being brought forth, continuously, from the inside out.

Grace in Many Forms

Some days, you are wondering what to write for your blog. Then you drop your sweat-soaked underwear in the very public hallway at work after playing soccer at lunch and your young, male student assistant picks them up. And all of a sudden you have something to write about.

This is a moment without pretense. You cannot act as if you meant to do that. You cannot pretend that you’re in a position of authority over this person who, in the daily hierarchy of things, reports to you. Though not particularly graceful, this moment forces you to be quite present to reality.

“Nice,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said, with astonishing graciousness. I held the bag of exercise clothes open, and he dropped the underwear in. Did I mention that they were bright orange?

The night before I had been listening to Jim Finley talk about his teacher, Thomas Merton’s, writings on solitude in his book Disputed Questions. Finley commented that as we come upon an awareness of our true selves, we are less and less able to give an account of what’s happening either internally or to anyone else.

I spend a lot of time explaining myself. In my head. To people who aren’t there. On topics that no one has asked about and probably never will. Apparently I want to be sure that if anyone ever questions me about anything, I have a reason that it was not my fault.

The underwear moment was a moment without explanation, without excuse. I’m not suggesting I had a deep revelation of my true self in God there in the hallway, but I did have a moment of consciously deciding there was absolutely nothing to do except be OK with what was happening. Maybe it was graceful after all because my student was kind enough to do the same. Perhaps we both took a tiny step toward the solitude Merton says unites us all.

Here is another moment of presence, perhaps gentler, perhaps not, the final poem for National Poetry Month.

After Work
by Richard Jones

Coming up from the subway
into the cool Manhattan evening,
I feel rough hands on my heart—
women in the market yelling
over rows of tomatoes and peppers,
old men sitting on a stoop playing cards,
cabbies cursing each other with fists
while the music of church bells
sails over the street,
and the father, angry and tired
after working all day,
embracing his little girl,
kissing her,
mi vida, mi corazón,
brushing the hair out of her eyes
so she can see.

-From Good Poems, edited by Garrison Keillor