Being human and ordinary, we will often fail
to love the whole, the dark, and the difficult parts.
We will always try to avoid something.
We will tremble. We will be blind.
We will e uncertain. We will continue to hurt
one another and miss the essential.
We will always need mercy and compassion.
— Gunilla Norris
When I was a child, I learned early on that people were very pleased with me if I was the person they wanted me to be—polite, kind, generous, good-tempered, quiet. But while I could be those things, I was also, like all children, much more than that — talkative, moody, shy, selfish, unkind. Being a pleaser, I strove hard—at a great personal cost—to be the things that people liked, and to bury the things they didn’t. Later as a young adult, that habit disguised itself inside my authentic yearning for spiritual meaning. Inside that virtuous veil, it became an even more insidious, self-destructive force. The doctrines of most theologies, when listed through the filter of childish yearnings to please, sound exactly like the voice of our parents: be good, be kind, strive for right action, be quiet, be slow. God is said to be in heaven, and all things holy are above. And so, with my map and compass in hand, my GPS set to ‘up’, I became, not a finder, but a seeker.
At first, seeking is a noble journey. But at some point, if the journey doesn’t provide some kind of finding along the way, a beautiful view, a small shrine decorated with flowers on the roadside, an undiscovered glade of fruit trees, then the seeking takes us farther from home. Poked and prodded along by words like transformation, evolution, change and the big banana—enlightenment, we become what non-dualist teacher Ramesh Balsekar called ‘miserable seekers’.
Part of what keeps us feverishly seeking, never allowing us to rest and delight in the miracle of what is, is a tiny yet incessant voice that dogs us—a terrier at our ankles, biting and barking, telling us we are not quite good enough as we are, we are not the person we should be. We must be more light, more open, more ‘up’ there. Shamefully carrying our satchel of all things dark, this voice is nothing but violence in saintly clothing.
At some point, if we are lucky, we take a small quarter turn and listen to ancient wisdom not with the ears of a child, but with a heart perhaps weary from constantly trying to fly skywards. ‘The way to God is down,’ writes Quaker and educator Parker Palmer in his book Let Your Life Speak – Listening for the Voice of Vocation. ‘…the self is not set apart or special or superior but a common mix of good and evil, darkness and light; a place where we can finally embrace the humanity we share with others.’
What if we have already arrived. What if this is it? That our unique combination of gifts and challenges, strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices were, not only enough and ok, but perfect. To some, this may feel too radical. How can we do good in the world if we don’t curb our laziness, or our greed, or…? But think about the times we’ve forced ourselves to give love when we had none, or give time when we were out of it, or be something we are not. Parker continues, ‘Some may say that this embrace is narcissistic, an obsession with self at the expense of others, but that is not how I experience it. When I ignored my own truth on behalf of a distorted ego and ethic, I caused others pain…I now know that anything one can do on behalf of true self is done ultimately in the service of others.’ What if real service means to recline into the person we are, learn who that person is, love and accept him or her, and live humbly from the gentle holding of all that we are in one open hand?
Recently I attended my first private yoga session with a gifted instructor, Sonia. I was moving into and out of a pose—doing it ‘right’, breathing slowly and deeply, moving slowly into position. Noticing that I was becoming dizzy and out of breath, she stopped me and asked me to move instead at my own pace. I can be by nature, fast, and my breath, at least at that moment, was more shallow and quick. ‘You must meet yourself where you are at’, she said. ‘When you don’t, everything goes haywire.’
I rolled my eyes. ‘Story of my life,’ I said.
Jesuit priest and gifted writer Anthony de Mello’s final recorded words before his sudden death in 1997 were these:
Don’t change. Change is impossible, and even if it were possible, it is undesirable. Stay as you are. Love yourself as you are. And change, if it is at all possible, will take place by itself when and if it wants. Leave yourselves alone. The only growth-promoting change is that which comes from self-acceptance.
But before you head out the door, cast your morality aside, and turn self-acceptance into a new stick with which to hit yourself, remember what poet Gunella Norris wrote above. We’ll continue to do all things, right and wrong, including fail to love the difficult parts of ourselves. So in the end, all we can do is ask for mercy, from ourselves, from each other and from Life itself.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.
(Illustration by Kumari Ellis, with thanks)