Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hide and Seek

“You say you seek God, but a ray of light doesn’t seek the sun; it’s coming from the sun...Because you don’t know that who you are is one with God, you believe all these labels about yourself: I’m a sinner, I’m a saint, I’m a wretch, I’m a worm and no man, I’m a monk, I’m a nurse. These are all labels, clothing. They serve a purpose, but they are not who you are. To the extent that you believe these labels, you believe a lie, and you add anguish upon anguish. It’s what most of us do for most of our lives.” Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land

The Altar Guild are after my daughter.

Last year, the cadre of parishioners--mostly elderly women--who oversee the linens, chalice, paten, altar book, candles, flowers and other arrangements for Communion at our church approached Allison and me about recruiting our then-five-year-old Clare to help out. Somehow, without our noticing, they had marked how meticulous Clare is, how attentive to the environment and interested in things being “just so.” We ultimately decided that, flattering as it was for them to ask, she was a little young to be committing Saturday mornings to helping out in the sacristy. I still wonder if we made the right decision about that. But the incident got me thinking about how much we rely on the old ladies to keep things running.

Many years ago, I remember sitting in the park in Lancaster, watching a group of elderly women volunteers tending the flowerbeds. And young and callow as I was, the question still forced itself upon me: who is going to take care of things when the old ladies are gone?

I’ve been thinking about this because I am in a golden position to be a helper-out. Having quit my job with no immediate prospects in view, I could simply make up my mind to being one of those unsung people who make things keep happening. I could devote myself to my home and family, working on my music and volunteering. Under any kind of rational scrutiny, this course emerges as a true win-win. But here are the two big barriers I face:

1) Most of my friends are not in a position to give up their jobs and devote themselves to pursuing a combination of parenting, creative work and good-doing. It seems ridiculous not to be stoked red-hot for such an option, but there it is: I feel guilty.

2) The extent to which one can be utterly mistaken about oneself is astonishing. The realization that one has altogether bought into a value system which one has always believed oneself to reject takes some serious adjusting-to. But I cannot escape the tinge of shame that comes with not being gainfully employed and living on my wife’s salary. I thought I was above that sort of thing, but apparently not.

Let there be no misunderstanding: I have friends who have given up jobs to be stay-at-home dads, and I have cheered them on. (Of course, during the most demanding time of babyhood, the girls were in daycare while I taught, so I can’t claim full Mr. Mom credit in any case.) And I have crusaded against the insidious fallacy that only work for which one is paid has any value. But something far deeper down in my makeup than belief chafes at not bringing in any money, at not “advancing” in my career, at not “using” that expensive Ph.D. And unfortunately, I’m not any better than anybody else at considering the lilies.

The fact is, I don’t really have very much faith. Or at least, not the important kind—and here is another area in which my reality is discontinuous with my professed positions. I have always said that belief in is more valuable than belief that. One can believe that God lived a human life and died a human death in Jesus of Nazareth, and give reasons for it; one can accept as true a certain constellation of factual statements about a thing and give one’s rational assent to them. That’s what doctrine is all about. And I do, more or less. But I’ve long believed that doctrinal/creedal belief—faith as assent--is less important that faith as trust. If I say, “I believe in you,” that isn’t shorthand for a list of factual statements about you to which I subscribe—it means I trust in you, I rely on you: I have faith in you.

And I don’t.

I’m too much of a control freak; it is very important that I be on top of things, that I be moving myself forward and leaving nothing to chance. Which is--if only by the measure of results, if nothing else--preposterous.

Of course, I have matured a little over the years in this respect. For instance, although I have never gambled, I fully understand the addictive quality of it, because I used to be addicted to applying for things. Every competition, call for scores, grant or any other opportunity that came along, I had to apply for it, because the one I didn’t apply for just might be the one I would have won. Just one more and I’ll quit.

I don’t do that any more; the constriction of time and resources that comes with parenthood, along with enough ding letters to paper the living room, have taught me the folly of blindside applying-for. But one can’t really call that faith, any more than avoiding a two-by-four upside the head because one knows it will hurt.

So lacking faith in God, I find it hard to have faith that whatever my hand finds to do can have value simply because I do it with my might. I still feel like any time not spent getting ahead is stolen time. Man, if only I didn’t have this laundry to do, I could be working on yadda yadda yadda.

But even if one resolves to devote one’s life to worthwhile pursuits, how does one find the measure of worth? Is working on the parish podcast as worthwhile as taking food to the homeless? Is writing letters for Amnesty as worthwhile as visiting the sick and imprisoned? Is my personal growth as important as making a measurable impact on the world? How much time can one take from volunteering and give over to reading and studying and writing music before one ceases to be the salt of the earth and becomes a privileged nabob? Don’t I have to actually retire from a job before I’ve earned the right to work in the garden during the workday? Behaving like a retired person at 45 smacks of failure, and carries a frightening presentiment of reaching retirement age without anything to retire from.

Now, wise people have said since forever that the most important work is the work that needs doing here and now.

There are some who are really the salt of the earth, who work for work’s sake, who do not care for name or fame or even to go to heaven…a man who can work for five days, or even five minutes, without any selfish motive whatever, without thinking of the future, of heaven, of punishment, or anything of the kind, has in him the capacity to become a powerful moral giant…If you want to do a great or a good work, do not trouble to think what the result will be…The only way to grow is to do the duty near at hand, and thus go on gathering strength till the highest state is reached….When you are doing any work, do not think of anything beyond. Do it as worship, as the highest worship, and devote your whole life to it for the time being. (Vivekananda, Karma Yoga)

In fact, my malaise isn’t entirely attributable to what I am doing or not doing. Part of the discomfort—maybe the largest part—is that one’s identity becomes so bound up with what one does for a living. If I’m not working as a teacher, and I’m not precisely retired, and neither my composing nor performing are paying the bills, what account can I give of myself? What am I?

I knew a lifelong academic who was dying of cancer. She had held on for a long time to the possibility of returning to school, but when it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, she looked at me and said, “If I’m not a teacher, what am I?” I know I don’t want that to happen to me.

You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. The official, paste-up Potemkin Village me—job, social roles, professional accomplishments, consumer preferences—is not the real me; its life is not my real life.

So maybe the way to grow and gather strength and find value in the work at hand is to disentangle identity from profession once for all. The Altar Guild ladies are doing good even if they never held a job, and neither the altar, nor the flowers in the park, nor the letters one writes nor the sandwiches one delivers are a badge of identity. Our life is hidden, and what we do is not who we are.

And if I can find the requisite faith, I'll find out if that's as true as all the wise people say it is.


  1. As a (slowly) recovering control freak myself, I'm going to pass on the most important lesson I've learned.

    The most important moment in your life is the one that you're in RIGHT NOW.

    See there's no way of knowing WHICH of the moments in your life will be the one that changes your life, your childrens, or the life of someone you've come in contact with. So the only thing to do, logically, is to live each moment as if it's the most important one. Be fully present in the here and now, because really, that's all we've got.

    I know, it's easier sad than done, which is why I still call myself a recovering control freak, but I've learned in 14 years of nursing and almost 9 years of parenting a special needs child, that those life altering instances don't come with trumpets. They're small, quiet, subtle, and easy to miss.

  2. Thanks, Peg; reminds me of Elijah in the cave: first there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; then there was a wind strong enough to tumble boulders, but God was not in the wind; then there was a fire, but God was not in the fire; then there was the sound of gently flowing water/a gentle breeze or. most traditionally, "a still, small voice." (I'm glad it's not my job to translate ancient Hebrew!) As you say: no trumpets--and when they are, they are probably a distraction.

  3. Jennifer Hanshaw HackettJuly 15, 2009 at 1:28 AM

    Boy, I hear ya'. The problem with freelancing my way through life is that I'm always at most one manuscript away from unemployment. Sometimes toward the end of a week without work I'll start to think about my net consumption vs. production during that week and feel every bite of food I've eaten and every watt of electricity I've used as a little sting. I'm lucky to have a husband who fully lives the "what's mine is yours" philosophy, so the guilt is entirely self-generated, but it's still there.

    My father-in-law has said that there are jobs he'll do for free that he would never do for pay. Church life is full of these, and I have often wished that I were paid for editing the church newsletter just so that I could have the satisfaction of saying, "You know what? This isn't worth it," and quit. But I'm not, so I have to weigh the value of my time and aggravation against something else, something that's harder to quantify. One part of my compensation comes in the form of humility, and the reminder, as I put aside my work on a book by the Presiding Bishop to edit an article by the head of St. Luke's prayer chain, that one of these authors is no less a part of our church than the other and I should just get over myself already.

    As for Clare being assimilated into the Altar Guild...I agree that five is a bit young, but don't rule it out forever. Morgan's been an Altar Guild member (with Sean and me; St. Luke's does it by family) since she was about eight, and she's been an acolyte for almost a year. I can't describe the feeling I get when I see her zip around the church, setting up the altar for mass or laying out the priest's vestments, completely comfortable yet always reverent. Whether it's because I'm a latecomer to the Episcopal Church or because I have an innate ability to feel self-conscious in almost any situation, I'll never be at ease in the church the way she is. It's her home, and she knows where to find the big jugs of wine and the paper towels. I'm sure Clare is already very involved in your church, but Altar Guild is a wonderful way to become a more active participant.


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