We live on the boundary between yin and yang, you know. We live between the hands: On the one hand this, and on the other hand that. We live in the tension between what is true and what is also true. Ambivalence, ambiguity, uncertainty, indecision meet us at every turn. We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. We have a public persona and a shadow side, and wonder who we really are. We want to avoid the incessant conflict and just have someone tell us what to do, how to be. The bad news is that we have to live the contradictions and bear the pain.
One of the essential, fundamental, contradictions is this: We have to be responsible for our own lives, AND we cannot make it through the experience of being alive on our own. We need one another IN ORDER TO BE responsible for our own lives. But, we want to be independent and irresponsible.
We keep looking for someone to take the rap, for a fall guy, or gal. We want someone else to be responsible for us. It’s our parents’ fault, you know. Or our spouse’s. If we had only married someone else. Or had a different job. Or different friends. Or more money. That’s it! If we only had more money!
Look. It’s like this: This is our life. As it is. How are WE going to live it, with all the givens that impinge upon it? Look. It’s like this. Photographer’s don’t get to dial up their scenes. I walk into Peggy’s Cove and there is a hurricane on the way. I don’t get fog. I don’t get sunshine. I get ugly white skies and high winds. Other photographers, at different times, get fog. Other photographers, at different times, get sunshine. I don’t. I don’t get to choose my scene. I get to choose what I’m going to do with this scene exactly as it is. We don’t get to choose our choices. We don’t get to choose the choices we wish we had.
We don’t get to choose the context and circumstances of our lives. Think about your life. It is not what you dreamed it would be. It’s certainly not what you wish it were. You were in it all the way, doing what you thought was the best thing to do at the time, and here you are. Smack in the middle of what you would not have wished for with a million wishes. We don’t get to dial up our scenes or our lives. Our lives, you might say, have a life of their own. Things don’t work out like we think they will. And we look for a fall guy, or gal. For someone to take the rap. For someone to relieve us of the responsibility of living this stinky old life just as it is. Won’t somebody help us? Someone? Anyone?
The help we get isn’t the help we have in mind. That’s a spiritual law if there ever was one! We want deliverance, escape, happy days. We get a day’s worth of manna, that is, what we need to meet the day and do what needs to be done there.
There is no escape from the matrix, the pattern, the karma of us, of who, and how, we are. We carry ourselves with us wherever we go. We have to come to terms with who we are and how it is with us, and let it be so, because it is. Things begin to change once we allow them to be what they are. They may not change enough to suit us. We can always imagine a better world than the world we live in. But living well always requires us to live as well as possible here and now in this world that we are in. We don’t get to choose our choices, and these choices are, this life, just as it is, is all we have to work with.
When we get married and step into the work of being married, something has to give. Something has to go. It will either be our marriage or our idea of marriage. Same thing goes with our lives. When we step into our lives and begin living the life that is our life to live, something has to go. It will either be our life or our idea of our life. We cannot have it the way we want it to be. The help we get isn’t the help we have in mind. We can always imagine a better life than the one we have. This gets us to the crux, as they say, of the matter.
The spiritual journey, task, path is growing up. That’s all there is to it. There is nothing beyond growing up. All of the metaphors, enlightenment, awakening, realization, the search for the Holy Grail, and any others that there may be are all about growing up. And growing up is about stepping into your life right now just as it is and doing all that can be done with it. What can you do with your life right now, just as it is, using only the tools that are at your disposal? Go do it. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Oh, and do it again tomorrow. And every day thereafter. For the rest of your life.
Spirituality is nothing more than how we live our lives. All of the parables of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, and any other teachings that he passed along all come down to how we live our lives. The essence of spirituality is not the contemplation of grand ideas that encapsulate us in blissful delight and wonder. It is how we live our lives. These lives, right now, just as they are. How do we live these lives? How do we treat one another? Here, now? It isn’t enough to know, for instance, that love is the answer. We have to live lovingly, even when we don’t feel like it and don’t want to.
We cannot do that well, we cannot live well, treat one another well, without coming to terms with the life that we are living, being responsible for our own lives, and receiving the help we need to do what needs to be done. That means growing up. The things that go into growing up are all the things that go into spirituality at its best. The things that go into being grown up are all the things that go into being enlightened, and awakened, and aware. They are all of the things that go into being a true human being. They are all of the things that go into Buddha-hood and Christ-like-ness. We can’t be grown up without being whole, complete, centered, grounded, integrated, at one with ourselves and the universe, true to ourselves within the context and circumstances of our lives. Everything we are seeking in spirituality is found in growing up.
And, we can’t do it on our own. We can’t grow up alone. We need one another. For support and encouragement. We need an encouraging word, supportive presence. We need to be cared about. We need the sustaining concern of those who care about us in the right kind of way. It takes all of us to see everything. Our perspective is expanded, deepened, enlarged by the perspective of others. We grow one another up. Growing up is a communal undertaking. No one grows up alone.
But, as you all know, this growing up business is not all goodness and light. We don’t grow up by being coddled and cuddled and buffered from the outlandish realities of our lives. It takes the outlandish, you know, and the appalling, to wake us up. To call us beyond ourselves. To require us to take into account the world beyond the world we want to be. And, so we need the opposition and antagonism that our life provides in order to do the work that wakes us up, grows us up, and makes us whole.
Joseph Campbell reminds us that “It took the Cyclops to bring out the hero in Ulysses.” We don’t grow up without dealing heroically and well with the unwanted aspects of our lives. Who—what—is there to call us beyond ourselves? To ask more of us, expect more of us, than we think is there? Who—what—is there to wake us up? To suggest that we owe it to ourselves to find our what we are capable of? To urge us on? To send us off—as equipped as we are—to joust with giants and tilt at windmills? Without that influence we disappear into the middling muddle of existence and settle for what has passed for life for generations.
We are never far from the waking influence of the unwanted. And, that is as it must be because we are never fully awake. We are always waking up. And it takes conflict, confrontation, opposition to wake us up. We do not wake up willingly, gladly. We do not rush to wake up, as though waking up is all sweetness and life. It is life, of course, but it is life after death. We have to die first. We have to give up the way we have always seen in order to see. We always wake up against our will. It is always a shock to us to wake up. We resist it every time. Sometimes, we resist too much, and remain asleep.
What we are talking about is death and resurrection. Nobody lives without dying. Grows up without going through hell. Awakens without resisting all that it takes to awaken us. There are no shortcuts. No easy streets. No smooth seas. No quick, quiet rides to realization, enlightenment, awareness. It’s hell all the way.
And so, the mantra of the journey is: Bear the pain! The pain of life. The pain of not getting your way. The pain of taking no for an answer. The pain of being able to imagine a world you cannot live in, a life you cannot have. The pain of stepping aside, moving over, making way. The pain of accommodation, and acquiescence, and acceptance. The pain of letting come what’s coming and letting go what’s going. The pain of the way things are. The pain of working things out with your life, with one another. The pain of negotiation and compromise. The pain of doing what it takes to change what can be changed and living with what cannot be changed. Everything rides on how well we bear the pain, and allow life to be what it is, and allow others to be who they are.
There are compelling reasons to not like what we don’t like. How well can we allow others to be who we are not? To not be who we are? How well can we accommodate ourselves to different ways of seeing, being, and doing things? How often do we put ourselves aside for the sake of the other? To seamlessly merge into relationship with the different other?
Strained relationships strain at the point of differentness. They don’t do it our way and we cannot let that be. We do not do it their way and they cannot let that be. Divisiveness is always the result of a lack of grace. Growing up, being spiritual, hinge on the question of how gracious we can be.