Everybody believes in something, being happy, keeping up appearances, rocking the boat, or not rocking the boat, staying away from edges, jumping off edges… The list is long. How does what you believe help you live your life is the question. How does it help you be who you are—how does it help you be fully, wholly, wondrously alive in the time and place of your living—within the terms and conditions of your life is the question. At least, I believe these are the questions, which underscores my belief in being who we are and being alive in the time of our living.
Ephraim and Minerva (“Nervy”) Bales believed in plenty of things: having children, for instance. They raised nine of them in a two-room log house, one of which was a kitchen, in the Roaring Fork area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee from 1890 to 1930. They farmed, if you could call it that, on about 30 acres of poor topsoil four inches away from granite rocks and boulders. They had pigs and chickens and a cow or two, and raised enough corn to feed themselves and their livestock most years.
I walk, occasionally, through their house and over their land, wondering about their lives and what kept them in place there. What made that a good-enough existence for them? Why did they think that was the best they could do?
Two things come to mind: fear and shame. I imagine that they were afraid and ashamed. Ashamed of their ignorance. Ashamed of not knowing how to move smoothly through the larger social and cultural world beyond their two rooms and thirty acres in an isolated corner of an isolated region in the south. They were ashamed of their lack of social skill and of themselves, and afraid of being shamed in a world where they didn’t belong or fit in. They believed in their inability to live in a world beyond the world with which they were familiar and in which they were safe and comfortable, if you could call it that.
Of course, all of this conjecture is entirely projection on my part. I’m giving Ephraim and Nervy the roles of Will and Nan Hamilton, my maternal grandparents in Itta Bena, Mississippi. I expect that there is a high probability that I am right in making that connection and the judgment that goes with, but I’m still imagining the Bales as an extension of me and my impression of my experience, transferring where I have been to where they were. I could be wrong about it all, but I cannot get out of the impressions I’ve formed in order to form different impressions. If you think that’s easy, give it a turn around the block. Think of some of the ways your life has impressed you and cook up a different impression. Once the impression has taken hold of us it’s hard to shake. The way we see things, you see, becomes, in short order, the way things are.
Our impressions are among the most invisible, we could say “unconscious” things about us to us. We can see them best when we react emotionally, either positively or negatively, to someone else. Our reactions to others disclose who we are. This is the nature of a projection. We project our unconscious impressions onto someone else and see in them what we cannot see in ourselves. I see fear and shame in Ephraim and Nervy Bales because I would stay on those thirty acres for thirty years out of my own fear and shame.
Compassion, as you know, is a way of identifying with another’s feelings. It is feeling with another, bearing the burden, you might say, of the other’s experience along with the other. With projection, we give another our feelings, our reactions, our impressions, our needs and see him or her as though he or she is who we are. When we fall in love, we see the other as having the qualities that are missing from and needed in our own lives. We fall in love with what we feel like we are deficient in, and try to find in another what is so absent in ourselves. So a question we might ask ourselves when we fall in love is what we might be asking our new true love to do for us that we need to do for ourselves.
On the negative side, we despise or pity in others what we cannot admit or face in ourselves. I am not proud to say that I would be afraid to leave a hardscrabble life in Tennessee because I would be afraid of my ignorance and lack of social skills and my insecurity would keep me stuck. But where do you think stuckness comes from? Fear, insecurity, anxiety. We stay in a hole in Tennessee because we are afraid that something worse might happen to us if we leave. Is there anything sadder in the entire history of sad things than to be stuck with something that is killing us because we are afraid that something worse might kill us more dreadfully?
We are stuck wherever we are stuck because we do not have what it takes to step voluntarily into an unknown world and learn different skills and different ways of living. It has to be forced on us. We have to be thrown out of one world before we can step into another one.
Maybe it was that way with Ephraim and Nervy Bales, and maybe not, but my bet is that more misery can be laid at the feet of a failure of nerve than any other cause. We are a fearful lot. How else can you explain the proliferation of bad religion over thousands of years of hard evidence denying the assertions of bad religion? Bad religion doesn’t have to say anything that is true in our personal experience because we want so badly for it to be true we explain away the fact that it isn’t. We are that afraid, and insecure, and anxious. We are afraid to call the gods out. We are afraid to say there is nothing to them. We are afraid to step unprotected into the rawness of life.
Here’s the truth for you: Everything is always on the line. Everything rides on the choices we make. Playing it safe is just another way of betting the ranch on red and giving the wheel a spin.
We yearn for reassurance and affirming guarantees that our lives will be what we want them to be: safe, reliable, comfortable, certain, secure. IF we do our part, obey the rules, stay carefully within the prescribed limits, and step in the black footprints all the way to the grave.
Life laughs at our timid ways, and comes at us with fearsome ruthlessness no matter how we try to ward off its intrusions with our charms and nostrums. Life smashes through our defenses, demanding relentlessly, “Stand up and show me what you’re made of!” And we cower, and whine, and plead incessantly for the protection of the gods. Surely, there is a god somewhere who will give us what we want if we believe the right beliefs and offer the proper propitiation! And bad religion prospers with its empty promises and sham directions to the land of milk and honey.
We have to get over it. Grow up. Stop looking to be rescued, delivered, taken by the hand and led to the lemonade springs and the popcorn trees on Big Rock Candy Mountain. What we do with our lives cannot be governed by our desire for safety, security and a trouble-free existence, or determined by what we fear. We have to listen to the deeper voices, leadings, urges, intuitions and inclinations and override the tendency to inertia and sameness and death.
Being alive is an ordeal, a test of the spirit and will. The question is always will we go to the trouble? Will we have what it takes? Being alive asks us to follow our soul’s lead, but we hold back wanting it all spelled out in advance. How do we know? After all, we can justify anything, talk ourselves into anything. Fooling ourselves is what we do best. No, telling ourselves what we want to hear is what we do best. No, shooting ourselves in the foot is what we do best. How is soul to break through? How are we to know when it does? Is it a white rabbit, or a red herring, or a wild goose? We only know after the fact. Wisdom is known by her children, sometimes by her great grandchildren. We make our best guess and take our chances.
There is no such thing as happy growth and development. We suffer our way to wisdom. The spiritual journey is a painful path. Sorry to be the one to tell you. We buy into the spiritual quest thinking it is the way to get our lives lined up with all that is right and good, which, of course, will qualify us for abundance and prosperity and easy living and happiness ever after. The truth is there is nothing in it for us. Being spiritual is just being alive in the moment of our living for the simple sake of being alive in the moment of our living. Don’t take my word for it. Ask any of the spiritual giants what they get out of it—Sister Teresa. Ask Sister Teresa what she got out of it. Thich Nhat Hanh. The Dali Lama. The Buddha. The Christ.
All they get out of it is being alive in the moment of their living, in this moment right now just as it is. How much of the moment are we aware of? How much of the moment is going unnoticed? We can gauge how alive we are by noting how present we are in the moments of our living, how open we are to what is present with us. Be it fear and anxiety, shame and insecurity, or love, joy and happiness. Welcome it all, and be open to what is being asked of us, make your best guess, take a chance. May as well, since you’ll be taking a chance no matter what you do.