Self-esteem depends upon how we feel about what we do. No kidding. How we feel about ourselves and our lives depends upon how we feel about what we do. It works like this. If our expectations outstrip our achievements, no matter how high our achievements are, our self-esteem will be low. If our achievements don’t amount to much but are higher than our expectations, we will feel better about ourselves than those who achieve more but have expectations that are higher than their level of achievement. We cannot raise anyone’s self-esteem without adjusting the ratio between their achievements and their expectations.
It’s all very complicated, and my suggestion is that we leave it alone. It’s like this. Most of you that Julie Strope had a triple by-pass two weeks ago. All of you surely know that you can’t have a by-pass without sustaining as much physical trauma as anything ever in the history of physical trauma, and she was absolutely beaten up by the deal. The good news is that on the other side of the next four-to-six months, she is going to have a better life and a better future than she has had in the last ten years. The bad news is that she can’t fast forward past the next six months. All she can do is wait it out. The process has its own rhythm and flow, and can be assisted, but not hurried. The best she can do is relax herself into it, into the healing process, do what is asked of her, and wait it out. Resisting, opposing, rebelling; insisting, commanding, demanding (even noticing, minding, caring) are useless and counter-productive. We can only cooperate with the process and wait it out.
Life is like that. We cannot arrange the life of our dreams; life like we think it ought to be. Whether we are talking about applying the right amount of self-esteem, or hurrying up and getting well, we cannot force our way. We do not sit at the controls of our lives. Just try to feel better about doing what you are doing, about living the life you are living. You can think up all the reasons you should feel better, but you cannot make yourself feel better. Any more than you can make yourself well.
We cannot maintain the right ratio between expectation and performance. We will always feel better or worse about our lives than we have any right to feel. We will never feel “exactly as we should feel,” at least, not for very long. How we feel is just how we feel. It will be different tomorrow, or next week, or in the next fifteen minutes. One thing is sure: feelings change. Never do anything in the grip of a mood. Wait until morning, or until next Monday. Sleep on it. Sit with it. Mull it over. Toss it around. Put it on the back burner. Forget about it. Come back to it. Think some more. Wait.
We don’t give waiting enough weight in our lives. We don’t think much of it. It has no place. Yet, waiting in the right spirit, in the spirit of waiting, is the most important thing we can ever do. We have to wait to see what to do, what to think, how to respond. We have to wait for clarity, for inspiration, for revelation, for confirmation, for affirmation, for insight, enlightenment, understanding, awakening, awareness. We cannot hurry awareness. We cannot “get it” before we do. We have to wait. Productively. Expectantly.
Productive, expectant, one might say, pregnant, waiting, watchful waiting, is waiting with our eyes open. Like a cat waiting on the robin. Even if it doesn’t see a robin. Native Americans on “vision quests” are waiting for a robin they don’t see. Productive, expectant, pregnant waiting is a very active kind of endeavor. It just looks like we are doing nothing. In truth, we are ready for anything, for everything. We are alert, open, attentive, seeking, searching, looking, seeing, imagining… Fully alive to the moment and its possibilities. We cannot be fully alive to the moment and its possibilities if we are living in the service of our will for the moment.
To be fully alive to the moment and its possibilities, we can’t have a particular agenda for the moment. We can try to guide the moment toward our idea of the good, but the moment may have different ideas. The moment has a life of its own. Our lives have a life of their own. “Just ’cause you want it, doesn’t mean it will be so.” Can you participate in your life on its terms? One small step into the by-pass experience, and you have no voice whatsoever in the twists and turns of that experience. You can assist the outcome, or delay it, but you do not control it.
We could look at our life as a by-pass experience. Our options and choices are limited. The nature of our life up to this point is going to restrict the nature of our life from this point. Can we be cool with that? Our life can be different than it has been, but it probably cannot be as different as we would like for it to be. Our expectations/desires are going to mess with our performance, with our outcomes. Which is something else for us to be aware of, as we wait, and watch.
Here comes the next moment of our living, of our life, how can we assist it toward the best possible outcome? What can happen there, in the next moment? What are the possibilities? What are our options, our choices? In every moment, we live toward the best in light of what’s possible. And, that is simply it. That is all that can be asked of any of us, that we live toward the best in light of what’s possible. But, it is essential, crucial, that we do that much. Nothing matters more than our willing participation in each moment of our lives, in the service of the best in light of what’s possible.
Did you catch how easily we slipped back into the matter of expectations and outcomes and how we feel about our lives? Taking up the service of the best in light of what’s possible is going to mean that we won’t always feel so hot about our lives. Too often, what we want, what we expect, what we desire will not be possible. We will have to settle for less than we can have. We can imagine, remember, a world we cannot live in. If that doesn’t depress you, you’re dead. We have to make room for feeling bad. We have a to wear the blues like a badge. It shows we are paying attention. We know what we are up against. And, we aren’t letting that stop us in the work that must be done. We will not let how little can be done stop us from doing what can be done. Don’t think Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks were thinking about themselves. They were thinking about their children and grandchildren. It couldn’t have looked to them like much could be done, but that didn’t stop them from doing what they could.
So, we dream up a dream, and live toward its realization. So, we imagine a worthy future and work to create it. We envision a better world and serve that world as agents of change and transformation in this world, just as it is. We live in this world, within the restrictions and limitations of what is possible, in light of that world. Our expectations must always surpass our outcomes. Which means we have to learn to feel good about feeling bad, as we live in the service of the best we can imagine, no matter what. We cannot stop when we begin to feel better about our lives. Feeling better isn’t the goal. Living in the life-long service of the best we can imagine is the goal. We are not about feeling better about ourselves; accepting ourselves and our lives; and “letting be what is.” Racism “is.” Sexism “is.” The oppression and denigration of homosexuals “is.” Injustice “is.” Poverty “is.” The list is long of things that have no business being. Our work is cut out for us, and we will not live to see its completion. That makes the time that is left to us all the more important, all the more precious. We cannot waste a minute of it, because we don’t have enough of it to throw any of it away. We have to use every moment in the service of the best we can imagine.
Who do you want to be in the time that is left to you? How do you want to live? What will it take to live well in the time that remains? Everything rides on how we answer these questions, on what we envision, on what we intend, on what we mean with the life that is left to live. We cannot live without meaning something, without intending something. We cannot just live from one thing to the next like a nuclear powered ping-pong ball whose life is slowly winding down. What is our sense of who we want to be?
Here is the origin of good and evil: We become what we think about. We become the focus of our own intention, will, desire, imagination. We serve the good we think is good, so we better be right. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is beautiful, whatever is just, whatever is exactly as it should be… If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” We have to surround ourselves with the best we can imagine. We have to mingle with the best people. We have to read the best books.
We have to go to the best movies and the best plays. We have to listen to the best music and view the best art. We have to make it our life’s goal for the rest of our days to associate with the best, experience the best, resonate with the best, immerse ourselves in the best, so that we might express the best, exhibit the best, emulate the best in the time that remains.
And, you are wondering what all this has to do with Advent. And, you can’t for the life of you see how it relates to the sad, soulless couple in American Gothic. It’s like this: If we don’t intend the best; if we don’t will the best; if we don’t associate with the best; if we don’t consciously, deliberately, dependably live toward the best—no matter how we feel—we will end up like the couple in American Gothic. That couple doesn’t feel like doing anything differently than it’s been done all their lives long. Advent is the hope that we will do what needs to be done, exactly as it needs to be done, regardless of how we feel. The spirit of the Christ does what must be done in spite of how we feel about it. Advent says, “Don’t let your feelings stand between you and what is important!” Do the good when they say it is immoral! When they call you a heretic and a blasphemer! When they say you should be ashamed, and ask you who you think you are! Lose yourself in the service of the best you can imagine, and don’t let feeling bad about what you are doing keep you from doing it! That’s the message of Advent, from Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus to us, and the couple in American Gothic.