You Can’t Take “It” With You; But You Can Pass It On
By Jane Tawel
January 1, 2021
So, this is what the start of a new year looks like and frankly I am unimpressed. We woke up today, thinking somehow the worst year on record for most of us would be immediately left behind. We all had such high hopes for 2021, because let’s face it, anything had to be better than 2020. And yet is it? Is it really? And then it hit me that every year we go into the start of this new day as if suddenly we are going to make big changes, keep inspired resolutions, be all that we can be, and just do it — and yet, today is merely the start to a new year because we say it is. Many other cultures choose different days to reboot, to restart, to call it on the last year, and call out hopes for a new beginning. And while I felt a deep sense of both ennui and sorrow today when I realized that nothing much had changed — I was still living in a world of raging dictators and raging viruses and rushing humans and roaring need and of course, worst of all my own peccadilloes and broken pieces. But at the same time, by being a day like any other, it meant that I could choose to make it a new start for myself no matter what the date said. And I could also choose to accept that all the things in my life that were part of the “old” life, the past, the previous, and yesterday, were things I could choose to embrace or not.
I mean, I might not be able to change any of it, but I could look it all in the eye and say, “okay, take a seat at the table”. Whether you are a past part of my life like a stinky, yucky, rude guest, something like a mega-virus or bad relationship or the death of someone I so loved; or you are a sweet, clean, polite part of my life like that lovely meal I once had in Provence or the births of my babies, or that student I taught who thought I was a great teacher — no matter what –Today — I will accept you as a vital, living entity appearing in the crowd of that which surrounds who I am. Mr. or Ms. Part of my Life, whether good or bad, I accept that you may stay as that fork in my road, that stone in my path, that mountain I climbed, or river I easily floated down. You, no matter how good or bad, are a part of my journey here on earth and you may enter. So, this morning, I opened up the arms of my soul and said, “All that has been, I will welcome you”.
And that is the moment, when Grace appeared. Grace didn’t show up because I wished or prayed it into being. It wasn’t because I had a religious epiphany or made a conscious choice to believe it. Grace appeared despite everything then and now. Grace appeared because I felt it. I simply felt that Grace was also there at the table of my life. Grace was being offered as a Gift. I could choose to welcome it, or I could refuse it, as I so often have.
And Grace meant that all that had come before no matter how awful, painful, unjust, evil, boring, irritating, angering, hateful, or just plain bad; it could all be made good in my own life if I let myself welcome Grace. I didn’t need to know how or why, I just needed to hold the gift of grace close to myself. But I also, because I was supposed to be thinking about the future on this randomly chosen new start to a new year, had to anticipate the gift of Grace for the future. I had to accept that Grace would also be there waiting in the bend up ahead. Grace would be plentiful in the future, even if today felt just as fearful and overwhelming and boring and plain bad as yesterday was. Grace would appear and it would wait for me to pick it up and unwrap it and accept it. Grace would be there tomorrow, even if I didn’t see it, or feel it, or accept its offering. Grace would be the gift that keeps on giving.
I am generally very bad at accepting gifts. I could go into all the psychology behind that but for now suffice it to say that I am as bad at accepting compliments, help or gifts from humans as I am at accepting gifts or grace from God. To accept Grace feels uncomfortable to me. Grace makes me feel my unworthiness and at the same time an anxiousness. In the same way that I don’t like even the people I love most in the world giving me a present or telling me I look nice, I don’t like Life cutting me slack or God giving me grace. Grace appears to me as an unreality; something I can not understand. It’s a problem. Of course, that is why, as I realized today, Grace can only be felt, be imagined, be dreamed while awake. Because Grace is not a part of the reality we create and live, it is a part of the reality that only the Divine and the divine inside us can create and gift to others. Grace is the gift of the gods, the gift of the Earth, the gift of god-ness in an individual, and the gift of the God Who Loves.
This year my children gave me a wonderful gift for Christmas. Today, on New Year’s First Day, their gift has helped me understand a bit better how truly my life has been filled with the gift of Grace even when — perhaps especially most when — I didn’t even know it. My darling adulting children gave me a beautiful little pottery jar with little bees pictured on it and the words, “Bee Happy” and inside they had each written on little slips of paper a host of their favorite memories of being with me. I was instructed to pull one out each time I needed to “Bee Happy”.
My naughty “little” children love to give me something that makes me cry with a joy I feel I don’t deserve but which overwhelms me, so you might imagine when I opened this gift surrounded by masked pandemic-protecting kids and kids faraway in presence but never in thoughts appearing on Zoom — I broke down in tears of — well, I realize as I am writing this — I broke down in tears of heart-felt, soul-felt, overwhelming acceptance of the feeling of Grace. Because I will tell you frankly — I was not a perfect mom, and still am not; but the gift of it all is that my children still love me and have enough good memories of me to fill a jar –and that, my friends — that is Grace. That indeed is grace for me and, oh, my mother’s heart! — that is also, grace for them.
Grace is like the bees — miraculous, common, un-holdable, free and absolutely vital. And the problem we have is because we can’t earn grace and can’t keep captive grace and know we don’t deserve grace, we often don’t acknowledge or accept grace.
It is Grace that has allowed me such joy as those four kids and their father have given me. It is grace that I have had some wonderful coworkers and nice neighbors, some good friends and generous bosses. It is grace that I survived childhood and had my own loving mother and got to go to school and Sunday School and learn and play and work and travel and snuggle and enjoy and grow — and well, all of it, right? ALL. OF. IT. And what has held “it” all up and held “it” all together and been there without my effort or ability or even mostly my acknowledgement — has been Grace.
The Gift of Grace has been there for my taking all along and even when I clenched my fists or refused to hold out my arms to accept it, it infused my whole life like a sweet-smelling incense. Grace has lighted my way through the tough times and the darkness, like a thousand candles appearing miraculously along the way. Grace has been there, as well, in all the positives; it has been the constant gifting throughout the whole arc of my life, un-thanked, ungraciously ignored, a gift in every good thing, and every good person that has ever happened to me. Grace gave me new beginnings even when I thought I was stuck in the ruts of yesterday. Grace gave me hope even when I thought there was none. Grace has no boundaries and no end because it comes from a God and from the God-ness in each of us that has no boundaries and will have no end. Grace, like Love, remains forever pulsing throughout the universe, as a divine, unknowable, but un-refusable gift.
So, although we are told we can’t take anything with us, we can pass things on. And that is the greatest grace of all. We may think we work hard to leave a legacy of some kind or other, but all that “stuff” will pass away. The Grace of Love and the Love of Grace are all that we leave and all that we have ever really had. Today, this first day of 2021, I resolve to myself and others, to believe, that tomorrow, and perhaps, even for an eternity, we will also have available for the accepting, the Gift of Grace. Today I will let myself simply feel the gift of grace.
Rather than make resolutions that I won’t keep or be able to keep; rather than try to outguess tomorrow or rectify yesterday; I will be here and now just for today and be open to the Gift of Grace. I will think about who I have been and who I am and be content that some of that has been good enough to pass on to my children and husband and friends and coworkers and neighbors and strangers. And I will accept that I have passed on many bad things and wrong ways to those others, (and we do pass on the bad as well, don’t we? Especially mostly to those we love most and would rather not pass on anything bad. But we do. Oh, yes, we do.). I will accept that passing on bad things are just part of being human and I can resolve not to pass on so many bad things in the future, but I know I will need a lot of grace to keep that resolution.
But I will also try to accept in my heart of hearts, that when I leave this life, even though I have passed on bad things, I won’t be able to take those bad things with me any more than I will be able to take the good things along. I will try to “feel” that even though I left those bad things behind for and in the people I love, they, too, will find the gift of grace when they need it. That is a gift of grace I want to welcome deep into my soul today — not to know, but to dream a dream that when I leave “my people” to wake on another shore, that I will find that grace lets us leave the bad things behind and go into the future with arms wide open to accept the unreal, unimaginable reality of Grace.
Today, I will let myself open up my hands a little more and make my arms a bit wider, so I can graciously accept the gifts of others, the gift of being alive, the gifts of my past, present and future; and the gifts of a Gracious God, Who Is, and Who offers each of us the Power of Grace-filled Love.
Today I resolve to leave behind that which I can’t take with me. Today I begin to feel and welcome the gift of grace alive in the world and in me. Today I pass on, the very real dream and hope of a New World filled with the gifts of Grace.
There are going to be a lot of family firsts this year, most of them foisted on us, or chosen by us for the newest “reason for the season” ; the reason being The 2020 Worldwide Pandemic. I was lying in bed this morning at 3:30 a.m. deciding whether or not to get up AGAIN! to let-out the old senile barking -for -no- reason Daisy the Dog and then wondering afterwards whether I should just stay up or try to fall back to sleep before starting my at-home temp job answering phones and taking payments for grumbling scared people (who just don’t have quite enough this year to make those payments but if they don’t they lose their job but I usually end up after we hang up feeling that at least they reached me and I am a good listener and empathizer so there’s that, so….) since I can rarely fall back asleep after rising any time after about 3:00 am, I decided — well, here I am, aren’t I?
As the coffee gurgled, and the old dog ate her third treat, one from the TJ’s Advent Calendar for dogs that I bought this year, I started thinking about how many things were going to be different for me and for my family specifically this year. Starting with the dog. This is the first year Daisy will not have her evil step-sister, Jolie, the Golden-Coyote, to fight over Christmas stocking treats with. We helped Jolie across that Rainbow Bridge this past June and it was a sorrowful time. We miss that crazy coyote so much. (And yes, we did a DNA test if you can believe we would spend that kind of money on it and she is indeed, as we always knew half “Wolf, Coyote, CanFam”. Jolie was a street dog we rescued from the pound and she never got the “wild” completely out but we loved her almost as fiercely as she loved us, so….). Our first Christmas in fifteen years without Jolie, will be a couple of big black chalk marks on the negative side of life’s score sheet for all of us. On the plus side, we don’t have piles of shedded hair to clean up daily, a terrorized mailman, the hard times of watching Jolie be in pain, and Daisy gets to keep all her treats without getting beat up and bit, so…. Pros and cons but man, do I miss that crazy old coyote-dog.
So I started making a mental list, as any good mixed breed mongrel (I am part Native American, Scottish, Irish, German, English, and Godonlyknowswhat pronoun-ed she/her.. And no, I haven’t done a DNA test because my husband’s greatest nightmare is for him to be falsely imprisoned and somehow he fears that if my DNA is on record, he will somehow be arrested for something he didn’t do, and no we are not first cousins and yes he is a scientist, so go figure, but anyway…..) Here are some other firsts I thought of at about 4:00 am while the coffee perked and Daisy farted (another sad thing about old dogs is they really have a lot of gas and it smells like the worst meat packing factory you could possibly imagine spewing fumes constantly in your very own living room but The Guys at my house swear that Daisy’s farts actually smell likewhat- ever we ate for lunch or dinner that day, and they are scientists, you know so I have to accept that as fact, and I feel for my sake and Daisy’s that from now on I will only eat rose petals or lavender bud so Daisy’s farts will smell like that, according to “The Guys”, so….). And so it goes, and so here is a short list I made this morning while the rest of the world slept-on, with pleasant memories and dreams of Jupiter and Saturn kissing (See!? A year of firsts!)
Firsts of 2020 Christmas
(which I hope mostly not to repeat except for maybe a few of them but mostly no, so…..)
We did not buy a Christmas tree this year. With a pandemic on, there were very few places to buy a tree and my adult kids were unavailable to go along and play “Who Picks the Tree we Buy this Year? Race”. Raoul and I went to Home Depot just the two of us, and he was fairly excited, knowing he would win this year, but when we saw the prices for the scraggly little Charlie Brown trees and the even bigger prices for the decent looking trees, we both balked. We thought about it for a few days and decided this year we would not get a tree. (Sad, but on the plus side, I am working down to the wire this year, and even though I am working from home, I don’t have the motivation or really the time to decorate the tree all by myself and pretend the rest of the family helped me because I make whomever is around put a few ornaments on so we can pretend everyone helped and I dread having to undecorate it all by myself, and that’s a positive, so….). But we love the lights and the smell of real tree. So I strung a bunch of lights inside on our windows and bought some pine and balsam scented candles –and Bob’s your Uncle! Win-win. And on the super duper plus side – Raoul and I decided that money we would have spent on a Christmas tree? – we will give the money to a charity like The Bail Project or Feeding America. For Pete’s sake, I said to myself when I felt a bit teary over no Christmas tree in my home for the first time in over 35 years, “Jane, Old Girl, there are people starving in, well, in your own backyard today and people who are in prison at Christmas time because they can’t afford bail, I think you can go without a Christmas tree this year, right girlfriend?”
And then I remember the year we got a call from Raoul’s dad that his mom was worse, and we had to literally toss our Christmas tree out on the stoop so it wouldn’t die inside our house and maybe catch the house on fire (okay, so not too rational in our frightened worry and while gathering up our two kids with another one on the way, quickly packing clothes and dashing to the airport) and we left a message for our neighborhood teen, Robin, who used to baby sit our kids, to ask if she could sometime come over and take all the decorations off the stoop Christmas tree for us because we were rushing across the country to see Raoul’s mom who had suddenly had a very bad turn from the cancer and so then, twenty-five years later — I remember what family is all about and how much I miss those who have gone on before us and how very much and how very many people will be missing loved ones for the first time this pandemic season, and well, not having a dead tree in my living room is small sacrifice to pay if instead this year I instead put some live people ahead of my traditions. Because while I love traditions, I hope, when asked, to love people more.
2. Our family of six will not all be together this Christmas. This is the big cry, the big waaa-waaaa for me and for my husband. Our eldest is stuck in North Carolina, a gazillion miles away during a no-travel pandemic. We have not seen Justine for over a year, having to cancel our plans to go there last spring and her plans to come here this summer, even for her big birthday event this past June. And while this makes me super-duper sad, I am so very, very grateful that all six Tawels are still alive. We have survived a year of a pandemic. And we all have jobs, and more than enough food to eat, and roofs over our heads, and no one is being conscripted into a war, and we aren’t being hunted down and persecuted, and as long as we wear masks we can walk our streets safely, even at night. So, to keep the world a little safer and my own family a little safer, not traveling, not gathering is a small price to pay, isn’t it? And when you think about the prices so many have paid and are still paying in this life to keep their own families safe, who am I to complain?
To be alive and able to say to Justine and all of us – “we will wait, and we will hope”, that is a wonderful spiritual gift when I think about it. That is the idea that Christmas is actually supposed to be about, not getting, not even giving, but “waiting and hoping”. Too many people have to live lifetimes with nothing but waiting and hoping to keep them going. For me to do it now in 2020 is a time to engage in more reflection, more empathy, and more “owning” of what being fully human in community with all humanity should be like – and isn’t that the message of the Christ baby who came to be human with all of humanity? Isn’t that what the God of the People of Jesus kept telling them: “Remember. Wait. And Hope.”
3. The rest of my list of firsts pales in comparison after the biggie of missing a family member, but here goes:
We will not share a fondue this year on Christmas eve (leaning over a communal pot with sticks is not advised I imagine, by Dr. Fauci and his ilk. Besides my daughter Verity who is our family’s Pandemic Health Czar has forbidden it, which is another positive thing about changes because your adult children sort of gradually take over bossing each other and their parents around and maybe they will forget all the bossy things you pulled on them as a parent when they were young, so….). And we will read our favorite Christmas stories wearing our pandemic masks (“The Nativity” with illustrations by Julie Vivas, “Wombat Divine” by Mem Fox, and this year, we will definitely add the classic version, not the movie version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” because he really almost did this year for a lot of us, so….). We will gather with just our little family and sadly not be able to invite our various friends and “spares and strays” that we love to include in our feasts and our lives. We will wear masks when we talk and when we play Christmas trivia and Christmas bingo. We won’t snuggle except in our individual house pods as we watch Christmas classic movies and later I will sanitize all blankets used. We won’t pile into the car to go see Christmas lights, but we may take a walk around the ‘hood to see the lights.
And so, it will go, like a lot of things this past Pandemic Year of 2020, this Christmas Season, a lot of things will change; there will be a lot of firsts I didn’t plan on. They aren’t the fun exciting firsts of a new car or a new house or a new baby or a new citizenship. But if I can change my perspective, I can maybe shift my worldview into something more truly True and more worth leaning into and living out.
A lot of families will have much, much harder and more sorrowful firsts to lean into this year than we will. Far too many will have the loss of jobs and income, the loss of a place to live, the loss of the hope of gaining citizenship, the loss of a town and a place one grew up in, the loss of a place to worship, the loss of one’s health, or the loss of a loved one. So, I tried to make my list of “Firsts in a Year of Pandemic Christmas” seem as inconsequential and small as they are in comparison, and add a little bit of “Jane-humor” besides. Because in the scope of things, my own year’s changes, both foisted and chosen, are rather small when I compare them to how very, very, very much others have suffered and suffer, and how very, very much I have had my whole life and continue to have even in these strange and mind-bending, heart-rending times.
And just one more thing – when I think about a season of firsts this year, I realize that is what Christmas and the Coming of Jesus, the Messiah of God is all about. It was a first for Jesus, a first for his World Parent, Adonai. It was a first for human beings and a first for angels and the devils alike. Jesus came and for the first time the Son of God was without a Parent, without a home, without power, without a healthy environment, without resources, and without any security for future survival. Remember, the “first Noel” was to “certain poor shepherds who slept rough in the fields.” And even in all those “firsts”, he brought hope. He brought joy. He believed that “the first would be last and the last first” in a new Kingdom of Humans centered around the Divine Love that humans were meant to live out. The Christmas Child grew into a human being and brought a new way of looking at life and a new way of living this life. When Jesus first became a human, he became one of us; and he lived and suffered among us, and he laughed with us and celebrated with us and he wept with us and he loved us.
I hope that is what 2020 Pandemic Christmas can teach me, and maybe enough of us to make a different world. I hope we can learn first, how to be more fully and divinely human; how to first, love more with less; how to first, care more for others than for myself; and how to not just be more grateful but to be more responsible and more worthy.
Some habits are hard to break and some habits are hard to make. In so much else that we have lost in terms of ethics and morality, I think we have lost the idea that there is a difference between a mistake and a sin. And consequently, we have lost this idea that good personal qualities are not a matter of hoping for them but of practicing them.
A sin is anything we know to be less than good or right and something that can hurt ourselves or another, and we do it anyway, purposefully or carelessly. There is also a difference between a feeling, a character trait, and a virtue. A virtue is something that we create, nurture, act upon, not out of whole-cloth, but out of that which every human being has the possibility of knowing and striving for. One of the most commonly known vices is gluttony, and yet while we may easily see it in others, we rarely see it in ourselves until after we’ve eaten the giant bag of Red Hot Doritos, swilled it down with a six-pack and we get the stomach-ache we deserve, at which point we still don’t see it as a sin against our body as much as a “mistake”. A common virtue is patience and yet we judge our boss or teacher for being impatient with our ignorance, while we attribute our own snapping and losing patience with the faults of the other person or just being “tired or hungry”.
We, at least in our Western world of privilege and ease, have mostly lost the idea that while we cannot control the feelings of an instant, we certainly can control the actions that come out of those feelings. But we can only do so, if we have practiced controlling and shaping and substituting bad actions for good actions. Much like working out with weights to increase one’s ability to perform at a sport, we must make the practice of good habits part of a daily routine (with time off for good behavior or Sabbaths or rest). And practicing to be good is important, much like practicing a sport or an instrument is important to be ready to sprint or perform when the moment of action arrives. You can’t hope you’ll win or flawlessly play, you have to have made habits that allow you to respond without thinking. Deciding to choose to live virtuously is a life-long commitment; much as professional musicians never stop practicing scales, we must see our lives as any artist would see her abilities to create. The glorious and divine thing about being human, is that it is never too late to start being creative with who we want to be. Today is another day in which I can see myself as the artist of my own life, worthy of practice in the virtues that make me the best creation I can be. If we focused on the idea that humans are truly creatures of habit, then we might understand the insidiousness of the habits we form for evil and the habits we form for good. Then we can understand the truly divine power we each have to break and make habits.
A bad action, whether it is over-indulging ourselves or gossiping about a neighbor, becomes what we might call a sin against self or sin against another, when we let an action become an un-examined habit. As an example, from my own life, over the past several years I have felt a responsibility to know about the evils and lies of our political leaders and to speak out against those things. However, lately, reading and thinking and worrying and angsting over those things has become a habit, something I cannot seem to stop doing, even with the hope of change around the corner, even as it has effected my peace, even as it has eaten up time that could be better spent in other pursuits. There has become something perversely pleasurable in wallowing in the doo-doo of others. This is ultimately not good for me, so when I keep indulging in it, I am sinning against myself. It is also however, not good for my brother or sister, when I keep beating my head against the wall of their stubborn stupidity or unethical choices to try to change or help them. I am a habitual “helper” but when you try to help someone who doesn’t want your help, it is a sin.
To break these bad habits, I have gotten myself into, I have to try to form different habits. So rather than beginning my morning with the various newspapers I subscribe to, I spend it reading spiritually invigorating books or by some time with silent meditation and prayer. I don’t turn on my computer. I find a space with a small lamp’s circle, a pencil for making notes, and a “teacher” whose written words energize my understanding and determination to make the world a better place and make the places in my own soul better as well. Getting outside and walking in the beauty of Nature is also good. Doing something anonymously for someone who is hungry, in prison, or lonely is also good. Practicing non-aggrandizing kindness, especially to those who make me mad or grumpy or who won’t appreciate it or praise me, is an excellent way to form a different habit of kindness and helpfulness. Actions that help me break habits that hurt me or hurt others are choosing to become ethics in action. Those actions become virtues when they become habits. Otherwise, they are too often “one offs”, reflective of how I feel, what I’m “in the mood for”, how much I care, or whether any one else is “looking”; and so they are not forces “at the ready” when I am “not feeling it”. Virtues are good habits that take over even when we do not will them to.
The other thing that for me is completely necessary is to truly return to an idea that I am not only not alone in the Universe, I am being watched. We have lost the idea of the “Constant Onlooker”. This may be because we think a belief system is enough to “save us” no matter how we behave for some future reality; but of course we should be humbly reminded that “even devils believe in God and Goodness and tremble”. It may be because we have never felt there is anything other than our molecules existing in a particular meaningless space and time with other molecules. But whether it is the foolishness of a morphed and broken religion or the sadness of an atheism, to have lost the idea that there is somehow something Divine that takes notice of us humans and our Earth, is a great tragedy and has much to do with how we have devolved to this place in time on our poor beleaguered planet and our insensitive, insensible, irrational, and sinful treatment of the planet and all creatures living on it.
Whether my Constant Onlooker is a God, or the Cosmos, or my Passed Relative, or the Angels, we have a great throbbing need to feel watched over with care. And when we think we are so very alone and that No One is watching, overseeing, caring, — yes — even judging or orchestrating us to live out a better way — when we choose to idolize the primacy of self-satisfaction and momentary feelings, of one-upmanship or passive/ aggressive complaining — then we truly choose to be alone in a Universe screaming for us to recognize that there is an Onlooker of human behavior, down to the very individual that you are and that I am.
It is often difficult to fight the depression that I feel when I feel that I do not matter, but there is another way. I can form the habit of worshipping That Who, that El Roi who sees me — ME — little old who I am but more importantly who I can BE — ME. To be seen is the first step away from breaking the habits of vice and towards making the habits of virtue.
Vice is about me, myself and I alone in the Universe. Virtue is about a Community of Reality in which I am not only not alone, but I am so important, so valued, so looked after, so much a part of The Whole, that my every singular thought and deed matters. While my individual mistakes and sins may not matter in the long run, the habits I form and whether they are formed for Good or for Evil, matter in a Grand Scheme of that which I can only glimpse and imagine.
To get started: This chart of Virtues and Vices is attributed to Aristotle. I could meditate on just the titles for hours.
We might look at these vices and virtues side by side with the words of that other great sage, St. Augustine, who among other things said, “I “Sin” / Err, therefore, I am”. To be human, to actually be the best human we can be, is to understand that we don’t just “goof up”, but we sin, and sin boldly and sin habitually. When we recognize that there is Someone, that some of us call “God”, who is creative and imaginative enough to give humans the ability to choose Life — life abundant and whole and free — then we recognize that same Being Who Loves us enough to perpetually create in and through us, is a SomeOne Who is watching over us, is looking out for us, is there and here for us, and is trying every which way to point to The Way — The Tao. There is Something in the Universe that cares about my every action; and rather than letting that be a heavy burden or a fear of judgement or a way for those in power to control me as organized religion and political powers have so often done and still do, I can allow that wisdom to free me from vice and habits of negativity that can ruin my life and the lives of others. Then I can open up my heart and soul, my body and mind, and my actions, deeds, and words to replace the negative habits with positive virtues and the good habits that will create new life in me and open up more room for love, both for myself and for others.
It is not enough to recognize the vices in others, even if we have worked hard not to allow those same vices in ourselves. The lack of a vice is simply a lack, a negative sum, not a positive one. I must of course look firmly at any habitual negative action or thought I have and try to pull it out by the roots and toss it in the dung heap. But I must also see any open spaces or blank lines in my ledger and replace the emptiness with virtue. It is not enough not to sin, but we must seize our responsibility for action and make it a habit; for as The Great Teacher said:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The theologians and the leaders in power — go ahead and do and observe whatever they tell you, but do not do the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They foist on others heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, churches, and halls of power; and they thrive on greetings in the marketplaces, news coverage, and being called important titles by others. But you are not to be called by important titles, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. And call no man your father/priest/leader on earth, for you have one Father/High Priest/Leader, who is in All the Universe, all the Heavenly Places. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (paraphrased slightly from Matthew 23)
I have lately retracted the finger I have had pointing towards others and tried to focus more on the four fingers pointing back at myself. Rather than being a negative experience, making me feel bad about myself, I find it energizing, comforting, and oh so very hopeful of all I can still accomplish and be within my very little own self. Much like when the weather changes and I can do some serious “Spring Cleaning”, I am ready to clean out some space in my heart, mind and soul, in order to make room for something better, cleaner, brighter, truer, and nobler; and to practice intentionally the greatest virtue of all — that of loving both self and others. And in this way, I long and desire to become more in tune and loving of The One Who Sees and Cares.
I know it is awfully old-fashioned of me, but to see the tendencies of making and breaking habits as something as eternally important as choosing vice or virtue, makes me feel much less alone in The Universe. The more I see my own sins and broken pieces, the more I hold out hope for Wholeness. The more I see the errors on my life’s page, the more I sense I am a part of a Great Story of Our Humanity, in which I play, if only a small and unknown character, a still quite valuable part. Like the character who is a catalyst in a novel, I hope to not understand but simply obey and do that which is my own ethical, virtuous-leaning part to play in The Story. Like tuning an old piano, I hope to change the dissonance of certain vices and make in-tune new habits of virtue. In this way, I do not play a solo performance, but am part of that great Orchestra lead by the Director of All Directors. Today, I shall practice creating more harmony in my own life, and humbly, prayerfully, hopefully in the lives of others, and I shall listen to and add to The Song.
These past months as I have been reading and circling through the deep treasures in books by Victor Frankel, Abraham Joshua Herschel, Shane Claiborne, Gary Wills, A.W. Tozer, and Chief Joseph Riverwind, I have been filled with the paradoxes of longing/knowing, seeking/ remembering, learning/ yearning, and wondering/wandering. I have also felt myself taking spiritual baby-steps, and as another favorite of mine, C.S. Lewis wrote, heading a bit “further up and further in”.
My readings led me to rough-draft through a slight meditative acrostic. As the old adage goes, “writing is never finished, it is only due”; and maybe if we thought more that way about each day, each life, each person, we’d be a bit more joyful, caring, kind, and hopeful in our life’s journeys toward meaning. Aren’t writing and communication always really just today’s rough draft in expressing who I think I am, what I think the Big Themes are? Isn’t each day of life, just a bit of a second draft on yesterday, and another rough draft today, with hopes for perfection, or at least a passing grade, for tomorrow?
I enjoy word puzzles, but then I think that everything we human beings say or do or write are chock- full of puzzles — puzzles of intent, puzzles of consequences, puzzles of meaning. We are after all the species who speaks, the critters who communicate; we are the beings who are perhaps, just a little lower than the angels, but constantly fighting our own worst demons.
In general, I adhere to the wisdom that in writing, function should always come first and come first from the heart and later the head. But sometimes it is useful to start with form, and then find function in the very strictures imposed. I thought perhaps that was an especially interesting philosophy to play around with when looking at some of what we call the issues and ideas I have about “Life’s Meaning”. So, I started with the form of an acrostic to see where it led me about the function of expressing thoughts on what “it all” means, this Life. I also liked this idea since a form of acrostic is a form of poetry that was used in some of the Psalms of Judaism and the ancient Hebrews; and those are poems I have long loved, because they express still the universal human longings for meaning that all people have.
We are constantly in the rough draft stage of writing our own life story. But we are never meant to go it alone. We may look inwards, outwards, upwards, and beyond for hints and clues. We will have good and bad “teachers”, fans of our story, critics and foes; helpful and harmful life-story editors, sacrificial helpers, guides and mentors, promoters and beneficiaries. It is, always, however, at the end of each page, my story to write. And it must be my decision about who and what I will keep in, and what I will edit out, in order to form the great themes in my own life-story.
Every life-story is looking for meaning and each is the same as all the others, and each is completely unique and separate from anyone else’s. This is the paradoxical puzzle of You and We and I.
So back to acrostics and writing one. In all writing, we may start with form and hope function follows. Or we might embrace function and trust the form will naturally evolve. I think it more likely, though, when all is said and done, that every story, like every life, is a patchwork of form and function, not seamless, but beautiful in its complexity. Maybe when we are most in touch with our search for meaning, we ebb and flow between form and function, perpetually and poetically in motion. Like a river. Like a breeze. Like a baby being rocked in the arms of a Loving Parent. Like the whole world circling towards Tomorrow and coming back around to Now. Like a Story that will have no End.
I think it is important however an individual chooses to do it, that he chooses intentionally, purposefully, with great wells of deep hope — to work on the puzzle of his own life’s meaning. By searching for and finding my own meaning, I find The Meaning of all human quest and all human concern. In this way, my part of The Puzzle, is connected to all the parts of The Puzzle, and I am connected to all others in time and space in this great experiment God has granted us. The earth experiment that we are part of, we participate as subjects of it. At the same time, it is the experiment we humans on Earth are researching and overseeing, supervising, hypothesizing about, and reaching conclusions by which to live. We are both the supervisors and the substance of The Grand Experiment of Creating a Meaningful Life.
Find your puzzle today, whether it is a book whose themes you wrestle with to decipher; a relationship with someone you try to understand better; or a task that makes your brain sting and sing. Formulate your questions, and don’t rush the answers. Enjoy each day as a rough draft, that will only get better in tomorrow’s version. But for today be content to sit awhile with the great mysteries in the heartbeats of your very own little puzzle of a life.
And whenever possible, as The Good Parents always advise their children to do: Whenever you are puzzling out meaning? Try to use your words.
F ollow the Leaders of Light and Servants of Hope.
E mbrace Mystery. She is Wisdom’s Helpmeet.
’ Pause and Punctuate the Moments.
S eek Eternal Values found outside the temporary storehouses.
M ates and moments are more precious than money.
E njoy the journey. Take one step at a time; look around at everything; look ahead with imagination; look behind with forgiveness.
A gain and Again, Time is our Current. Time is the Tide flowing backwards and forwards, until it becomes The Circle, covering over, revealing; an endless ebb and flow of the Big Questions, and the Last Mysteries.
N ice-ness in narcissism is a fool’s paradise; but Truth in Love is heaven seeking earth.
I n the care of the soul, perfect calling meets greatest need.
N othing can separate us from The Love without our permission. Grant Love permission to have the last say and the ultimate power.
G od asks only for enough faith to do Good.
S halom; and in Wholeness is Beginning and Ending.