Finding Courage

I receive weekly messages in my box from Joan Chittister, of Monasteries of the Heart, and this past week when I received her message, I couldn’t help but think she was speaking directly to me as I am seriously asking what am I meant to do with my life. Here are Chittister’s words:

“We are all on our way to somewhere, however undefined, however unconscious. Without really knowing it, perhaps, we spend our days looking for the way out of the maze of indecision, of discomfort, of unfinishedness that can so easily become the soul’s permanent residence. We struggle for the way to an egress that is not there. We live looking for something that beckons but is not clear. Why? Because we can feel it within us, that’s why. It never quiets; it never sleeps. It just keeps urging us on. But to where? Answer: to nowhere I know, to do nothing I can see right now. Sometimes closer than others, always tantalizing, always just out of reach; the feeling of being in the wrong place gets so strong it can be painful.

The problem is that without clear intention, without ever stopping long enough to determine where we will end up if we stay on the road we’re on now, the purpose of life can sink into the routine of routine and little more. We simply go along, turning with the turns in the road but never plotting a course of our own. Never facing the single greatest question of life: Why was I born? Meaning, what am I meant to be? What was I made to do?

If those questions are never dealt with, never answered, then we may be breathing but we are not fully alive.

We must come to understand that the residual dissatisfaction with life as we have shaped it for ourselves is the very essence of what we name “call.” Clearly, it is at the moments of dissatisfaction with life as we know it now that the door to the future swings open for us. There is something missing in the making of who we are meant to be that we are being goaded to pursue.”

I have chosen to be a teacher, and have truly loved what I do, but something is goading me these days from inside, making me wonder if I am really giving to my life the fullness of all I can be, all I am here on Earth for.  When I listen closely, I am hearing a still, small voice rising up saying there is something more to become and do, what you have been doing so far has just been the preparation. There is another life in the making, working its way slowly toward birth.

If you look at the flowers after they go to seed, like the lettuce that is currently turning to seed in our window box, you will see that before death, there is the seed. The seed can give birth to new life once planted. What especially intrigues me in Chittister’s words above is that the answer she gives for where to go when we are searching for our new direction in life. Of course most of us want that place we go to to be somewhere concrete and tangible, somewhere secure, but Chittister tells us the place we go to is “to nowhere I know, to do nothing I can see right now.”  This is the existential leap, isn’t it–the faith or courage to step out when you can’t see?

Anais Nin said, “Life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” Learning to live with courage is a bit like rock climbing. My husband Michael took me rock climbing in the early years of our relationship. When I did my first climbs, I wanted to cling to the rock and pull my body in close to it. The rock seemed so solid and safe, but in reality, to keep my balance when climbing it was better to stand up on my toes and give myself a bit of distance from the rock. That was non intuitive and a bit frightening, but when I did it, I could see how much easier it was to climb up the rock’s face.When we reach out for this new place we want to go with our lives, it seems intuitive to want to hold on to something secure and solid. Maybe this is the right thing to do if you want another version of what you already have, but what if you want a whole different way of living and being?

I don’t know. And I don’t know if I’m ready for the big leap into the dark at this point. Change that endures is, or needs to be a process of organic growth, a slow process of change over time. Can a person become more courageous through practice? I don’t know.  But I can practice going toward a place of change in small ways. I can use my mind and imagination to stretch out into the unknown. Arms open, I can sit quietly saying to the universe, “Here I am,”  practicing opening to a new way of living in my heart. I can lean in to life and listen for the way I should walk. As the Thai proverb says, “Life is so short, we must move very slowly.” Slowing down purposefully each day can help me to listen to what it is my life is telling me. I can pause purposefully each day and come home to myself in an attitude of openness to what it is I am being called toward in those areas I feel dissatisfied with, and simply listen for what is surfacing.

Since all of life is a journey and the process is just as important, if not more important than the end of the journey, while waiting to understand what the next direction of my life should be, it is important, in the mean time, that I go to work and let myself dwell with the questions and uncertainty as an important part of the process. There is deep value in living out the questions, as Rilke pointed out in his letters to a young poet, until you someday live into the answer. Living with the uncertainty in this way allows for the answer, when it eventually becomes clear, to be understood from the inside. The work I have now, and the way I give myself to that work is the seed of the work I will be able to do in the future, when I have transformed into a different way of working, living and being.

Though part of me wants to know what the next phase of my life is, I recognize that I don’t need to know the plan. I can just walk step by step toward knowing. I don’t have to become all at once. At our wedding ceremony, Michael and I had a friend read the passage from The Velveteen Rabbit where the rabbit is asking the skin horse about what it means to be real and the horse tells him, “Real isn’t how you are made…It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long, time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” Maybe you need to love your questions, need to live with, walk with and love them, so that when you live into the answers, you can speak them from the heart.The journey is as important as the destination. We have the gift of time to learn. Each day is our gift. I want to see the questions as a gift.

Buddhist priest and author, Thich Nhat Hahn in a conference for educators here in India in September of 2008 spoke about how important it is that headmasters at schools take care of the teacher in order to take care of those they are educating. I am not a headmaster, but I want to discover more of what I can do as an educator in order to take care of myself so that I do not pass on to my students a sense of over-activeness. Deep understanding arises from a calm mind. Feeding the mind, body and spirit the nutrients and qualities it needs in order to nourish our own spirits and those of who we meet–that is the foundation I want to act from.

In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton, quoting Quaker professor and theologian, Douglas V. Steere said:

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is itself to succumb to the violence of our times. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.

I belong to a culture of activism where doing is important. But perhaps there is too much of life given over to doing. Without pause, without a balance of being, the doing looses impact and meaning, and I want to live a life of meaning–to live with more weight given to being. I can’t learn how to live this by myself. I am not strong enough to pull against the tides of culture. There are others who seek greater balance between doing and being. How can we together walk our way toward a different way of living?

Today it is hot, the air, still, as I look outside my living room. But the monsoon wind and rain is sure to arrive soon.

2 thoughts on “Finding Courage”

  1. For me, courage and faith are two different things…having lived with faith in many small things, but as an agnostic in big things, choosing the right path is always an act of courage, because each step requires me to feel its rightness. The only way to trust that feeling is to make space to listen to the stillness within that guides my choice. Production follows peace, and is grounded in place. But place is the peace within, and allows me to be productive and at rest no matter what I do, or where I am. Love and joy on your journey.

  2. Beautiful Liz…and what a true blessing you are as a sister-in-law ..
    .I think everyone’s “place of peace within” varies with an individual’s place of balance. This peace within is a constant “teeter totter” of highs and lows, ups and downs, but OH! when I use to sit with my friend at the end of a seesaw and set a balanced table to have tea…it was the best feeling physically I can ever remember…We would play “pass the sugar please” and we would slightly tilt the seesaw downwards as my friend would slide down the imaginary sugar to my end of the seesaw…After the sugar reached my end we would have to make the table balanced again as we drank our imaginary tea! Then my friend would ask for a cookie and I would pass her the pretend plate of sweets…we would play in this ritual for as long as we could maintain “balance.” If our feet touched the ground, our party would be over! And who wants a party to be over:-}
    much love to you on such a worthwhile pursuit….

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