We have to do the work of becoming conscious of, making our peace with, reconciling ourselves with, squaring up with, becoming comfortable with where we have been and what has happened to us and how we have responded and how that has impacted our life, for better or worse. The work is to make our peace with the life that is ours to live. It’s called growing up. It’s also called the spiritual journey. It is a continuing process of coming to terms with our lives that covers the entire span of our lives.
This process of growing up, of the spiritual journey, of coming to terms with our lives, involves us in living out our idea of ourselves, of who we are and what we are about. We have to keep faith with ourselves by living in ways that are commensurate with our idea of ourselves, of who we are and what we are about—even as we do the work of aligning our idea of who we are and what we are about with who we actually are and what we actually are about.
We aren’t free to just make something up here. We have to be true to ourselves. There is an essential reality, a specific, individual identity that we have to take into account and accommodate ourselves to. We have ourselves to consider. We have to be who we truly are in the world, and live so as to express the proclivities and inclinations, aptitudes and abilities, the calling and gifts that are ours to express. We have to do the work that is ours to do. We have an appointment with our life. No matter where we have come from, we still must live our life. Part of that work is continuing to deepen and expand, to clarify and express who we are, so that our idea of who we are increasingly coincides with who we actually are, and we live with integrity and are at-one with ourselves in the world. This is growing up, the spiritual journey.
At every point along the way, we have to be confident in our own ability to know what is right for us in any situation, to know what the next step is here and now. And, we have to be patient with the process of clarification, of knowing what we know at that point, with the information available to us. We can only act on the basis of what we know at the time. As we gain experience and our perspective expands, deepens, enlarges, we may well change our minds about what is right for us, about what needs to be done. We may misstep all along the way. But we remain confident in our ability to make the corrections necessary to get back on track and in the center of life as we need to live it, one step at a time. “We know when we are on the beam and when we are off it” (Joseph Campbell).
When something “rings true,” when something resonates with us, we know it. That is foundational, essential, knowing. That is the knowing that guides us through our lives. Yes/No is the fundamental choice. “Is you is or is you ain’t my constituency?” Soul wonders. Whose side are we on? When we stand apart from ourselves, from our agendas and aspirations for our lives—when we get out of our own way—we know what is right for us. That’s the knowing we need to know.
This knowing suggests that there is an unchanging essence about us all, an unshakable foundation of goodness and life, which can be counted on as a reference point through deep nights on churning seas. The truth abides: we have what we need and will not be left bereft, abandoned and alone. There is “a very present help in time of trouble” that we can trust to see us through dark times and difficult places. In seeking the stability we yearn for in the external world, we are like a woman holding her car keys looking for her car keys.
That being said, there is something attractive about lives with a comfortable, and comforting, sameness about them. Marriages that remain vibrant through the years, houses with flowerbeds that have been tended over time, places we return to for their continuing ability to nourish, nurture and sustain. We need actual, tangible, physical reminders of that which is stable, reliable, durable and dependable within. “As above, so below.” “As out there, so in here.” We have what we need, but that doesn’t mean that our lives will be smooth and easy with nothing but “ups, and ups, and ups” (Lucy in the comic strip Peanuts). Soul doesn’t care about smooth and easy.
What does Soul want? Not very much, it seems. We have our, Ego has its, eye on the displays of success, achievement and arrival, on wealth, prosperity and having it made. Soul is happy with the aroma of fresh bread and digging in the dirt of spring. Soul wants the simple experience of being alive and the straightforward expression of its interests and gifts in the world. Neighborliness. Conviviality. Grace. Compassion, Hospitality. You know the list: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, Generosity… Doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. Living in the service of life. Bringing life to life in the time left for living. Walking the straight and narrow.
Oops. Now I’ve done it. Walking the straight and narrow. We’ve always understood this as the way of moral rectitude. Being a straight arrow. But the straight and narrow is exactly the way of compromise between Ego and Soul/Self/Psyche. It is the fine line between the interests of both sides of ourselves. It is the Third Way between submission and defiance. It is the way of working it out. Of deciding together with ourselves what is being asked of us and how we will respond, of knowing what is needed and what must be done. We do not know this beforehand, intellectually, rationally, apart from the anguish and agony of the struggle with anxiety, ambiguity, and ambivalence. Sometimes we only know it well after the fact, and have to repent, turn around, redeeming what can be redeemed, and bearing the pain of the burden of what cannot be redeemed. Not being sure about what needs to be done or what to do about it is the cross of life, borne by all who would be alive.
Oh, but, we want more than being alive. We want to be rewarded. We want to be recognized. We want accolades and commendations and prosperity. We want the effort to be who we are to be worth our while. We want to get something out of it beyond being ourselves, alive and open to the wonder and glory of life. We want something to show for it. We can’t settle for being awake, aware, and alive. We want to be rich and famous. Celebrity status. We can’t just be who we are. We want to be Somebody. You see the problem.
What does wanting know? We can want what we have no business having. We are in the mess we are in because of wanting. Wanting, and doing what we wanted, got us here, now. And doing what we want will lead us on. What are we going to do? What we don’t want? That puts us in the position of wanting what we don’t want. We are still doing what we want, even when we do what we don’t want. Even when we do what someone else wants. We have to do what we want whether we want to or not.
Wise wanting is wanting that remembers, imagines, anticipates, intuits. Growing up means honing our wanting, discerning what to want and what not to want, getting better at wanting the right things. We want to avoid investing ourselves in the wrong things. What are the wrong things? There you are: The task of life, discovering what is worth our time. The surest way to find out what the wrong things are is to invest ourselves in them. We figure out how to live by plunging into our lives and experiencing our experience. But, we prefer lectures and books on experience. We want to do it right. We want to avoid investing ourselves in the wrong things. We can imagine our way around some things, but some things we have to live with for a while in order to avoid them in the future.
Wisdom is known by her children, and what is right becomes apparent over time. In the moment, however, there is only feeling, sensing, intuiting, hunching, guessing. We can be wrong, and often are wrong, and we cannot let that keep us from guessing again, from going again with what feels right, even though it may be wrong. The hope is that we will guess our way to becoming better guessers.
Being wrong can lead to the deepening and expanding of our perception of truth and self as surely as being right can restrict and limit our perception of truth and self. We can be wrong in the right way and right in the wrong way. Impact and outcome have to be assessed over time. Sometimes, wisdom is known by her grandchildren. Sometimes by her great grandchildren. The jury, as they say, is out.
What works is the question. What does it mean for something to work? Works in light of what? Does it increase the level of grace, mercy, and/or peace in the world? Does it lighten loads, enhance joy, produce gladness? Does it bring life forth? Does it work to make the world a better place to be? Does it make you a good place for others to be? Is anyone blessed by it? Does it serve a good that is greater than your own good? Do the things that infuse you with life, bring you to life, enable you to be alive. Live so as to be alive in the time left for living. Evaluate the life-potential of your choices, and go with life wherever it takes you.