Living in the World

D. H. Lawrence

When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
and when we escape like squirrels turning in the
cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.
Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like
burnt paper.

(from The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. © Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994.)

This is a poem about transition, and reorientation of life around a compass that is directed by an interior understanding of ourselves, an understanding that arises out of time spent in nature that allows us to re-see and revise who we are in connection to that understanding. I was especially drawn to the lines that say, “and old things will fall down,/we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like/burnt paper.”

Today I am rereading the piece again, and exploring the words that imply that our egos–the desire to become someone, or somebody–to be important or powerful, is a trap. In our culture and society we are encouraged to rise, compete, gain importance and control of whatever it is we are learning or doing. Lawrence is suggesting, however, it is something very different that makes us feel alive.

He names the forest as a place to rediscover ourselves. A walk in a forest places us in a much bigger life system, a system outside of the orderly and familiar–a place of awe if you will. This forest doesn’t necessarily have to be a literal forest, but any place that gets us out of our self-containers where we allow position, power, and control of knowledge to define us. Lawrence is suggesting that we let go of these so that in that the definitions of ourselves open to redefinition. This allows us to step into a place where things are likely to be unpredictable and not particularly comfortable or hospitable. In taking this step, we will then be able to encounter another self–one that doesn’t make up stories, one that opens to what it really is that makes life meaningful. All the fake versions of who we are, Lawrence suggests, will fall apart in the face of this knowing. We will see the flimsy nature of that self for what it is and laugh at it. Institutions may prop up something of who we are, but our true selves aren’t really found there, according to Lawrence. Our true self is something more complex.

I am reading the poem again, and wondering about how to live in such a way that I am not afraid to go into the forest Lawrence writes of. Some people have come to a new kind of understanding of themselves in relationship to the world through such ventures, and it has reorient them to open to a new way of viewing both themselves and the world. After this, though, remains the difficult work of how to live within that understanding while still being a part of the world’s social-economic structure. This is the scary part because it’s difficult to do.

Gandhi said, “I do not know any religion apart from human activity. It provides a moral basis to all other activities which they would otherwise lack…” There are people who would like to participate more fully in helping others in their communities, who want to do work that doesn’t contribute to environmental problems, to work on a small organic farm, for example, or people who want to write, do art, or help address issues of injustice–these are the interests and skills they want to offer to the world. The economic structure we live in doesn’t make it easy to make a living wage while doing this work, however. Other work must be taken up in order to make one’s way in the world. Bill Moyers cites The Economist in 2008 on his website, ‘“After you adjust for inflation, the wages of the typical American worker—the one at the very middle of the income distribution—have risen less than 1% since 2000. In the previous five years, they rose over 6%.”’ You might want to do the work your heart told you was the right work for you went to the forest, so to speak, but you would have a very difficult time getting by in the world.

In deed, it is difficult for the majority of people to make a decent living in America these days. Why is that, and how can that be changed? Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stilglitz in his recent New York Times article, “Inequality is not Inevitable,” explains, “The true test of an economy is not how much wealth its princes can accumulate in tax havens, but how well off the typical citizen is — even more so in America where our self-image is rooted in our claim to be the great middle-class society. But median incomes are lower than they were a quarter-century ago. Growth has gone to the very, very top, whose share has almost quadrupled since 1980…If we spent more on education, health and infrastructure, we would strengthen our economy, now and in the future.” Change is not the result of a single action within ourselves or in society. It is the result of practice over time, the values we come back to over and over. In our culture, we believe our safety net is whatever it is we can create ourselves through our work and activism. These are certainly needed. We are part of each other, and as Stilglitz indicates, spending more on education, health and infrastructure have a larger strengthening effect on the economy, and I would add, the morale of people as a whole.

So, what does this mean for those of us who have walked out into the forest, felt the cold, and watched institutions curl up like burnt paper? We participate in making the reality we live in. This leaves us with the need to both work on our own self-awareness, and development of wholeness and a peaceful life for those around us. Out of that place of individual practice and understanding regarding what it takes to develop that inner balance we can ask ourselves how it might lead us to act to help create those conditions for others as well.

Stilglitz described in his article the economic reality of how the greed of wealthy few has a negative on society as a whole, and how spending more on educating people can strengthen the economy as a whole. Similarly, there is a spiritual economy. When we strengthen that base of self-awareness and humility through regular practice, we can develop better relationships with ourselves and with those around us. The two are connected. Lawrence has titled his poem “Escape.” Is this how it works–the walk into the forest is a way to escape a false reality, but couldn’t it also be a way to put us in touch with reality so that we can hear the voice that calls us to be and do what we are put on earth for?

I have more listening and learning to do.

Presence, spirtuality

Confronting the Essential

Washington TreesSome time back I remember listening to Naomi Shihab Nye talk about what it’s like writing a poem on Bill Moyer’s Language of Life series. Sometimes you set out to write your poem and you think you know where you’re going. “You think you’re going to church,” she explained, “but instead your poem takes you to the dog races.” When writing, you have your ideas, you practice writing, but you also don’t want to make a  habit of forcing the work. It’s also a good idea to follow where the muse leads, and  sometimes a more powerful piece of writing results. You want to pay attention to the inner voice that suggests, maybe this other thing is a better idea.

Recently, I’ve been noticing how many other kinds of situations in life arise that are similar Nye’s description of what happens when sit down to write. You go to work each day enjoying your job, for example–finding it interesting and productive, and then people come along with a different ideas–a whole new system, for instance, of how things should be done. Suddenly your plans, your way of seeing things, are altered. Or perhaps you are out exercising regularly, doing what you can to stay healthy, then you go to the doctors for your check up and discover you need a biopsy for what might be cancer. Another possibility is that you spent your life working at your job, being responsible and saving your money for your last years so that you can spend them enjoying your retirement, but then one of you has an accident and the other one spends his or her final years caring for the one who fell ill. The business you work at might unexpectedly be sold and  you might suddenly find yourself out of a job. A different possibility might be that the person you’ve been married to for 20 or 30 years, had children with, the person whose life history you know and whose foibles you love and accept comes home one day and tells you, “I don’t think this marriage is going to last.” All these stories and more like them have happened to people I know. You think you’re on track, you know what you’re doing, but then something else happens and you’re heading for the dog races. What then?

There is an old Zen story about a farmer whose horse runs away. All the neighbors tell him, “Oh, such bad luck! That’s terrible.”

The farmer’s reply is, “Maybe. We’ll see.”

Next thing you know, the horse returns to the farmer’s land, and not only that, he brings seven more horses with him.

“Wow, that’s wonderful,” his friends and neighbors tell him. “Look at what you have now! You’re so very lucky.”

The farmer hears their words, and simply replies, “Maybe. We’ll see.”

Because the new horses were wild, they needed to be tamed, so the farmer’s son went out to tame them. In the process, he was thrown from one of the horses and broke his leg. “Why, that’s terrible,” the farmer’s friends and neighbors said as they gathered together in the evening over tea. “What bad luck you have again,” they said. “How are you going to get on now?”

The farmer just looked at them and said, “Who knows? We’ll see.”

A short time afterwards military officers arrived in the village looking for able-bodied young men they could find to fight in a war the government was involved in. They looked throughout the village for all those young men who were fit and conscripted them into the army. When they came by the farmer’s house, they saw that his son had a broken leg and couldn’t fight, so they passed him by.

Yet again, the neighbors gathered round the farmer to tell him, “How lucky you are! Your son doesn’t have to fight in the war.”

Once again, the farmer replied, “Maybe.”

As you can see, this story could go on at some length, event after event looking first good, then alternatively terrible. I think there comes a time in all of our lives when we are confronted first with things that look absolutely terrible. Maybe we will lose our sight, or the use of our limbs some day. Maybe we will get Alzheimer’s. Maybe we lose our house. Maybe the country we are living in is suddenly moves toward a situation of unrest, or a natural disaster occurs that is devastating. We develop our plans for our lives. We have our dreams, and we want things to go a certain way. What can we do to prepare ourselves for loss, for enormous change, or even just inevitable change? How can we be open, however, to the possibility that when our future or even our day takes to the dog races instead of to church, we will know what we need to hold on to, and what let go of?

Maybe you have heard of Sue Austin, a woman in a wheelchair goes diving. To hear her speak is inspiring, and to see the photos of her swimming underwater is truly beautiful. You can watch her TEDTalk, and you will see for yourself. Ms. Austin’s goal is to change the way we see a person in a wheelchair, and to show how a wheelchair can also liberate and open up new possibilities in a person’s life. As the tale with the farmer illustrates, what looks so terrible might not necessarily be as bad as it seems when put into a different context. Maybe the thing that looks like the worst thing that ever happened to us could become the thing that saves us, similar to how the farmer’s son didn’t have to go to war because of his broken leg.

On the other hand, it could be that what happens to us might be worse than we could ever imagine. Nevertheless, again, as the story illustrates, things always change, even the terrible things can change. It’s true that we could lose our jobs. It’s true we could lose our health. These kinds of difficult changes make me wonder: what am I doing with my life? Am I living the way I want to be living in order to be accountable for the gift of life that God has given me? What motivates me? What is calling to my spirit to follow it? Am I bold enough to pursue it? What would happen if I did?

There is a wisdom of the heart, and there is practical wisdom. What is the wise thing to do? What do you want to get to the end of your life and say you lived for. Henry David Thoreau went to live at Walden pond as an experiment in living simply, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I am thinking very seriously about his choice. How much of what I am doing is noise and clutter getting in the way of what life is really trying to tell me about? You hear or perhaps have seen or known people who have had what has been termed a mid-life crisis where they are asking themselves what they are really doing underneath all the actions and choices they have made thus far in their lives. What have they built with their lives, they wonder? Who am I? Maybe we need to be asking ourselves these question all along in our lives so that we can live more authentic lives throughout our lives and not have to come to the point of a crisis.

We want to live our lives from the center of who we are, and that means taking time all along to know who we are, to listen. This is why it’s valuable to take time each day to pause, to offer gratitude, to reflect. Richard Rohr in his CD Healing Our Violence Through the Journey of Centering Prayer says, “All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not. Then, when you can get little enough and naked enough and poor enough, you’ll find that the little place where you really are is ironically more than enough and is all that you need. At that place, you will have nothing to prove to anybody and nothing to protect.

That place is called freedom. It’s the freedom of the children of God. Such people can connect with everybody. They don’t feel the need to eliminate anybody . . .”  In some way, most of us are afraid to let go of the security of our jobs, our houses, our hometowns–the things that have formed our identity. Rohr, in Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer has an interesting insight, however, regarding those who leave the beaten path, those who begin their experiment in living to confront the essential facts of life in order to live intentionally. “The people who know God well—mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God—always meet a lover, not a dictator.” Is this true? Seamus Heaney’s final words to his wife were “Don’t be afraid,” and losing the one I most love is going to be the hardest, most fearful thing some day. ““The most common one-liner in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.” Someone counted, and it occurs 365 times,” says Rohr in Falling Upward.

photo-20Things change. What we think we are standing on may move. At some point we are going to lose everything–we will lose our own life and the ones we love. But we don’t have to be afraid. How am I going to get to that space? I’m thinking hard these days about what I’ve held on to thinking that it will bring me happiness. But what is real? What are the essential facts of life, that if we learn them when we come to die, we will know we have lived? That is what I want to have the courage to live for.