Friday, March 12, 2010

The Squirrels Have the Conn

It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.  –C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

It was happening again.  After several weeks of living in a sort of energized serenity, enthusiastic about my goals and confident in my ability to move toward them, I felt as though my brain’s remote control had been hijacked by hyperactive squirrels. I found it immensely hard to concentrate on anything, and couldn’t seem to find the time for any of the things I was supposed to be doing. The squirrels kept changing the channel in my head.

I used to think these occasional hijackings were a simple periodical phenomenon, like biorhythms, but I have come to believe they have a definable cause.  It’s like this: A few years ago Jerry Falwell and Barry Lynn, the director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State appeared together on CNBC’s Capital Report.[i] For several months, Falwell had been attempting to embolden conservative churches into endorsing candidates by persuading them that the IRS had no power to enforce tax law.  As evidence, he asserted that his Old Time Gospel Hour ministry had never had its tax-exempt status revoked despite plenty of overtly partisan politicking.  When Lynn attempted to expose this canard, Falwell called him a liar. 

After the CNBC debate, Lynn obtained a copy of the 1993 IRS document comprising Falwell’s agreement to pay $50,000 in back taxes.  It seems the IRS had retroactively revoked Old Time Gospel Hour’s tax-exempt status for 1986-87, when Falwell was using the program to endorse candidates.  The document bore Falwell’s signature.

About a month later, Lynn and Falwell were again debating, this time on the Fox News Channel.  When Falwell again denied having ever been penalized for improper political activity, Lynn produced the IRS document.  As soon as he realized what Lynn was about to show for the cameras, Falwell went berserk, shouting at Lynn and the host and attempting to prevent the paper’s being filmed.

This is what happens inside my head.  As soon as I get too close to seeing something in there that my inner Jerry Falwell doesn’t want me to see, he cries havoc and lets slip the squirrels of war.  And gives them coffee.  And they start changing the channel every few seconds, drawing my attention toward memories, anticipations, fantasies and daydreams, “conversations with people who aren’t there”[ii]—anything, in fact, but the man behind the curtain, that thing they are charged with keeping out of my awareness.

Maybe it is actually the Devil in my head, masquerading as Jerry Falwell.  As a matter of fact, I am coming to believe that if “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God”[iii] have an objective existence, it is as a sort of psychic parasite on our own minds, exploiting our self-deceptive tendencies from within.  Marianne Williamson said that one of her friends had tried to persuade her that the Devil was all in her head.  “That is the worst place he could possibly be!” she rejoined.  “That is not good news!  If he were either stalking the earth somewhere…or between your ears, where would you rather he be?”

So how do we disempower the Devil and his army of squirrels in our heads?  If the way to defeat a blackmailer is to come clean about whatever he is threatening to expose, and if these squirrels are working in collaboration with my own self-deceptive desires, maybe the approach should be the same:  come right out and confront the things that the squirrels and I are hiding from me.  I think I know what some of them are:

·     I never advanced beyond a middling point in academia because I am a mediocre academic. “Our duties are determined by our deserts to a much larger extent than we are willing to grant."[iv] Maybe I wasn’t robbed; maybe I actually got what I was fit for.
·     If I had applied myself more in school, I would have a fulfilling career now. Plenty of people who worked harder, not smarter during our school days are now in a position to hire me.
·     I can’t get my classical music performed because it’s just not as good as I think it is.  As cartoonist Adam Green put it, “Is there anything more knee-slappingly hilarious than the delusion of one who believes they will be paid for their meager so-called talent?”[v]
·     Even if anything should work out for me now, I’m too old at this point to make something of myself anyway.

I made this list, and it rings true as far as it goes; before my latest attack of squirrelophrenia, I had caught a glimpse of these conclusions, and the sudden violence of the attack seems to indicate that it was meant to keep me from going any further down that road.  After all, if I “give up all hope of fruition,” as the Buddhists say, the Squirrelmaster loses one of his most powerful means of keeping me miserable.

And yet, something seems missing; the list feels incomplete.  I can’t shake the feeling that there is something larger, some overarching truth that embraces all of these and better explains the Herculean labors of the squirrels to distract me. Moreover, although I suspect that the above statements are to a greater or lesser extent true, I can still posit mitigations to all of them—they are all relative, and therefore still open to amendment and clarification.  There must be some absolutely simple, clear and incontrovertible truth whose power for change is great enough to move the Devil to arm his collaborators in my head in order to keep it out of the light.

As it happens, recent events brought this latest attack to an abrupt end.  I had scheduled a root canal for the morning, after which my family had planned to drive down to D.C. to visit my wife’s mother and stepfather, who is in the last stages of cancer and is not expected to live more than one to three months. As I drove around looking for a parking space, I saw the flashing lights of a police cruiser in my rearview mirror and pulled over.  As I sat in the car waiting for what seemed like a long time, a second police car pulled up.  Trying to look nonchalant, I pulled out my license and registration, and discovered that the latter had expired.  And things were destined to get worse, as I could tell by the flashing lights and radio sounds all around me. 

I should explain that I ordinarily drive our Toyota Rav 4—the “kid car,” as my children call it—since I do the lion’s share of the family driving.  On this particular morning I was driving our Saturn wagon, which generally sits by the curb waiting for my wife to take it, rather than the train, to work.  So because I hardly ever drive this car, its paperwork had developed what Douglas Adams called a “Somebody Else’s Problem Field” (S.E.P. field for short) around it. 

So I am pulled over one block away from my endodontist’s office, twenty minutes before my scheduled root canal, and I have no idea how long this is all going to take.  When I learn from the officer—who had somehow seen from his car as mine went by that my inspection was past due, which was what precipitated the whole thing—that my registration, inspection and emissions were all expired, I decide to call my wife to let her know what’s going on and ask her to call the endodontist.  Unable to get my phone out while sitting down, I stand up next to my car and dial the phone.  The cop starts screaming something about getting back in the car unless I wanted a pair of handcuffs.  (Why do they act like that?)  I got back in and, when he inexplicably stalks over anyway to yell at me to get in, I ask if I should call off my appointment.  All he will do in response is yell “Get in the car” again. Understand that I am in the car at the time.  (Why do they act like that?)  Hands shaking, I call my wife and tell her what’s going on.  She does her best to calm me down, and says she will let the endodontist know I will be late.

Ultimately, they tow my car away.  Fifteen minutes later, I am sitting in the chair with a anesthetic swab between my cheek and gum and my car on its way to the police impound lot, about to have a root canal before my wife picks me up to go visit my dying stepfather-in-law.

We finally got to DC and saw him. My mother-in-law showed us pictures of him from earlier in the week, sitting up in bed alertly talking with an old friend who had come in to town to see him.  It was hard to connect the person in those pictures to the sallow, semiconscious figure on the hospital bed in the living room.  It’s astonishing how steeply and abruptly a person with cancer can decline. It makes one acutely aware of one’s mortality.

As I prepared for bed with the Compline, or Night Prayer, service from the Book of Common Prayer, I actually felt more thankful than anything else, strangely enough.  I had been in the present all day, and notwithstanding the state of the present--which teetered between the somber and the surreal--it was a good day.  Far better than the squirrels would have arranged.  Once outside my own head, I was beyond their reach.

Which didn't stop strange things from happening inside my head. Some weeks later I had what now appears to have been a migraine aura—a strange visual disturbance that made it seem as though someone had smeared living, squirming Vaseline all around the periphery of my visual field, while shimmering zig-zag lines occasionally floated into view.  I also felt a little dizzy and shaky. And while none of these symptoms may seem particularly alarming, I had never had a migraine before (that I knew of) and didn’t know what an aura looked like—neither did I know that they are more common in men than in women, or that they tend to occur “later in life.” 

Now, in spite of carrying some extra weight, I am in pretty good health; my blood pressure was 116/63 last time I had it checked, and my resting pulse 64. But when a doctor who happened to be nearby began asking me questions about funny smells or tastes, numbness and tingling—questions that made it clear that he suspected a stroke—I began to panic a little. So many of my aunts and uncles succumbed in their fifties to heart attacks while I was growing up—one of my cousins was thirty years old when she died—that an infarct is more or less my go-to fear.  (That, and the cancer that killed my mother.)   Frightened that I was having a stroke, I became so pale and alarming that my friends called my wife to leave work and take me home.  (It must sound by this point that I spend most of my time being picked up by my wife.  I don’t.)

Of course, I felt ridiculous on the surface—I was, after all, just fine—but deeper down I knew I had something very important to learn from the incident:  I am not reconciled to the inevitability of old age, sickness and death. 

I think this must be the real truth that the squirrels have been charged with hiding.  Don’t let him think about it, they’ve been told. You know what Samuel Johnson said:  When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. If we allow this guy to come to terms with his mortality, he will be unstoppable.  Where’s that remote?

I heard Bhagavan Das tell a story about a sea turtle in the depths of the ocean who comes up and, as if by chance, puts its head through a small wooden ring floating on the surface.  The probability of this happening, he said, is the same as the probability of a human birth.  So a human birth is an immeasurably precious thing, and there are both a staggering opportunity and an immense responsibility bound up with this earthly life.  Consider the familiar Parable of the Talents:
(The Kingdom of Heaven) will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.
        After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.' His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
        The man with the two talents also came. 'Master,' he said, 'you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.'  His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'
        Then the man who had received the one talent came. 'Master,' he said, ‘… I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'
        His master replied, 'You wicked, lazy servant!...
Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.'[vi]

The servants, of course, represent all of us—this is the situation in which we all find ourselves.  When we come to give an account of our lives, what return will we be able to make on the talents with which we have been invested? 

I took my children to a maple sugaring festival along with a friend of theirs from school.  Run by the city, the festival is an impoverished affair without any music, so as I often do I brought along my concertina.  As I sat on a bench and played some old American tunes, a few curious children and their parents stopped to listen.  Off to one side, I heard a mom drawing her little girl’s attention to what I was doing.  “Look at that, honey—do you know what that is?” she asked.  “An old man?” the little girl replied.


Now, any normal forty-five-year-old person might think this funny, in a cute, Art Linkletter sort of way.  But it bothered me. A lot. And it still does.  I’d like to say that I couldn’t tell you why, but it wouldn’t be true.  When I heard the words “old man,” the old man that came to mind was the one Walt Whitman wrote of, “who has lived without purpose, and feels it with bitterness worse than gall.” 

Thank you in advance, but don’t bother telling me this isn’t true, because I know it isn’t.  I have two fantastic children and a wonderful wife who puts up with my mishegoss; I am still making music and doing my best to alleviate the suffering of my fellow creatures. But in spite of everything I have always thought I believed, I still struggle to find peace with the fact that I am probably more than halfway through my life without anything to show that I am, in any worldly sense, a “success.”  I haven’t set the world on fire! I haven’t “made a difference!”  If I were George Bailey, I’d have gone to jail!

Insufferable, I know.  And yes, I am mentally ill.  But I don’t believe I am alone in this.  Isn’t our whole culture frantic to keep us distracted?   There are now video screens at the gas pump. We can watch movies on our phones.  A former vice-presidential candidate is apparently pitching a reality show.  Shopping malls surpassed historical sites as tourist destinations years ago.  The interactive TV walls Ray Bradbury envisioned in Fahrenheit 451 have become a reality (as have many other things in that remarkably prescient book.)  News has degenerated into entertainment, while entertainment has been elevated to news. 

Of course, the circus master Sleary in Dickens’s Hard Times was right:  people must be amused; they can’t always working, nor always learning. But we as a society are, as sociologist Neil Postman put it, “amusing ourselves to death.”  What are we as a people trying so desperately not to face?

Yes, we don’t want to think about death.  And there are a lot of frightening things afoot these days that are hard to confront, from climate change to resistant disease germs to transforming demographics.  Our children will inherit an unstable world from us after we die, which will not be very long from now. 

But I think there is more to it than that. I believe that not only do we not want to think about death—we don’t want to think about life, either.  We have a high calling, we humans.  When my children try to sneak away from the table without drinking their milk, I remind them that a farmer and a cow worked hard to make that milk, and it won’t do to waste it.  Well, the universe has labored to make us, and yet we let ourselves go to waste.  Though we don’t like to think about it, “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."[vii]  And in order not to face the charge we have to keep, we allow the squirrels to direct our attention here, there, everywhere but the present moment—which is, as they know, precisely where the treasure is. Now is the day of salvation.[viii]

In the midst of life, we are in death, the Book of Common Prayer tells us.  Our lives are precious, and they are finite.  Work while you have the light.

So I’m going to stay aware of the squirrels; they can change the channel, but they cannot make me watch.  They cannot hide themselves along with the things they’re trying to keep me from seeing.  Even in the midst of distraction, I’m going to keep doing my best to redirect my attention to the present moment and the revelations it contains. Life, as poet R. S. Thomas put it,

…is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

The squirrels got nothing on that.

[ii] A nod to Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird
[iii] Baptismal vows, Book of Common Prayer
[iv] Vivekananda, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga.  Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1982.
[vi] Matthew 25: 14-29, edited for length
[vii] Romans 8:22

Friday, March 5, 2010

Participation Trophy

(Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (Colossians 1:15)

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.                     (Genesis 1:27)

“Realized there are 10 movies nominated for Best Pic,” read a friend’s Facebook status. “Looks like all the kids who got 'participation trophies' are now grown up.”  The implication being, I suppose, that receiving ‘participation trophies’—or simply growing up in a culture that gave prizes to kids just for showing up—has turned a generation into entitled hellions.   But while there may be a cohort of young people out there with an inflated sense of what they have coming to them, I think the trophies have become a lightning rod.  First, where older kids are concerned, they hardly seem capable of inflating anyone’s self-concept.

…(T)he expression “trophy kids” misses a rather important point: It sucks to get one of those participation trophies… Every time I looked at them, I felt embarrassed. They were reminders of my ineptitude, because I knew I didn’t earn them. No young athlete with any sense of perspective would mistake those trophies for genuine celebrations of accomplishment. My classmates and I joked about them; we rolled our eyes when they were passed out at end-of-season pizza parties.[i]

Second, some people still think the trophies are good for the littlest kids--especially those who come from less-nurturing home environments.  If you’d never been told in your life that you were good at anything, imagine what a difference a trophy could make.  It’s fashionable to grouse that self-esteem has to be earned--“Self-esteem does not lead to success in life,” said one anti-trophy pundit;[ii] “Self-discipline and self-control do”--but no one can earn anything if they don’t believe they have any personal capital.  Kids need to believe they have a self worth controlling.  You have to prime the pump a little.

Having said that, I’m not prepared to weigh in on whether we ought to give participation trophies or not—but I do think the controversy surrounding them is beside the point where self-esteem is concerned.  If a positive self-image is the goal, these trophies are decidedly downstream ministry.  (Downstream ministry, as I heard someone put it once, “reaches into the river of despair and pulls out drowning souls,” while upstream ministry “finds out who’s throwing them in and makes them stop.”)  I’m interested in why kids come to school needing a plastic trophy to feel good about themselves in the first place.

I’ve known people who actually believe that self-esteem is a bad thing—that we really are caught in a Calvinist nightmare in which a keen sense of our own depravity is all that can save us from self-indulgence, indolence and moral decay.  And while of course an appropriate sense of our shortcomings is essential if we are to overcome them, the sins that I-am-a-worm-and-no-man self-loathing is meant to forestall are not the result of self-love. We take it for granted, for instance, that over-indulgence of others is not really showing them love, yet automatically identify self-indulgence with self-love.  But that’s not what self-indulgence is.  Anyone who’s ever been or known an addicted person, for instance, knows that people don’t indulge themselves out of self-love, but in a desperate bid to fill the “god-shaped hole” inside them. People are lazy because they do not believe industry worthwhile, immoral because they see themselves as bad.  Self-esteem is the foundation of self-discipline and self-control, not a hindrance to them. 

“I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor,” said the hard-pressed Puritan in Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible. “Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.”  Proctor was lucky; those who see no shred of goodness in themselves do not bother.

“Self-love, not sex, is his woe,” screamed the headline about the sports analyst in the wake of a sex scandal.[iii]  But grow men don’t cheat on their wives with 22-year-olds because they love themselves—they do it because they see no shred of goodness in themselves to keep white.

It would probably help if we had a more precise word for “self-love.”  The Countess Olivia in Shakepeare’s Twelfth Night told her killjoy steward Malvolio (also a Puritan) that he was “sick” with it—but Malvolio’s supercilious self-righteousness, browbeating and social ambition are really the stuff of self-loathing, not self-love.  If he really had a healthy love for himself, he wouldn’t need to look down his nose at everybody.  We are called upon to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

If a biology professor in Alabama[iv] punches a fellow restaurant customer in the head for taking the last booster seat, all the while screaming “I am Dr. Amy Bishop!” it isn’t because she loves herself too much;  if she loved herself, giving up the last booster in the IHOP wouldn’t diminish her personally.  She uses her name, and whatever accomplishments and human value it supposedly represents, as a kind of kryptonite against those she perceives as a threat and, alarmed when it doesn’t work, lashes out violently in order, not to get a booster seat, but to avoid facing the real emptiness of that carefully-constructed identity.  If she later shoots six members of her department who have denied her tenure, again, it isn’t because she loves herself too much.  She doesn’t even know who she is, and the possibility that the self she built out of academic ambition and a fudged résumé may not be real or meaningful terrifies her.  She will kill to defend that self, rather than face the emptiness she fears underneath it.

“Go down low, low, low as you can go,” said accused anthrax mailer Bruce Ivins, “then dig forever, and you’ll find me, my psyche.”[v] Human beings made in the image of God mistreat each other because we think, not too much of ourselves, but too little.

The more I become aware of the real being that I am, the easier it will be for me to see the real beings that others are.  My perception of the world, or the way I relate to the world, depends on my perception of myself, the way I relate to myself…If I don’t see that I am a child of God, it will be very difficult for me to see that the person in front of me is also a child of God.[vi]

This is the real problem that participation trophies—and all other worldly awards and rewards--fail to address.  People who really know that they are God’s children do not need prizes, orretail therapy”, or need so badly for things to be a certain way that they will scream at a public official in a town hall meeting, or need a drink, or dismiss rural people as “shitkickers”, or need the acceptance represented by tenure so much that they will kill if denied it. A kid who knows she is the Image of God does not need a participation trophy, while a kid who doesn’t will not be helped by one where help is needed most.  And I worry that we are teaching kids to want tokens of recognition—which are not bad things in themselves—as a substitute for teaching them who they really are, which is the Pearl of Great Price. The things we want are notoriously bad stewards of our identities and happiness.  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.[vii]

The importance of self-esteem to spiritual growth may be hard to see because so many stories of saints and ascetics often appear at first to be chronicles of masochistic self-loathing.  But I have come to believe that self-denial can actually be a sign of a true and healthy self-love.  We deny things to our children because we love them, to teach them to delay gratification lest they trade in what they want most for what they want now.  Though Madison Avenue would have us believe that we should indulge ourselves because we’re “worth it,” that isn’t actually why we indulge ourselves most of the time.  We indulge ourselves because we think the desired object or experience will fill our inner void.  But when we are really on our game, knowing that we are “worth it” can lead us to practice loving self-denial. 

Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel St. Francis includes a number of incidents which, while they never actually occurred in real life, are much in keeping with the spirit of Francis and his followers.  In one alarming episode, Francis’s disciple Brother Giles stands up in a public square with a basket of figs and announces that he will give one to whoever slaps him once, while anyone who slaps him twice will receive two.  Things fall out as you’d expect, and Giles rapturously reports to Francis the success of the experiment.

I had a strong, and strongly ambivalent, reaction to this story.  On the one hand, the apparent unbridled self-hatred of it is appalling, especially when portrayed as an aid to spiritual progress.  But on the other hand, I found—and still find—the story powerfully compelling.  I was convinced that there was some genuine wisdom in it (and in similar events in the actual lives of the early Franciscans) but, couched at it was in such off-putting terms, I couldn’t get at it until many years later, when I had a personal epiphany about suffering and self-worth.

I was in the kitchen (as I often am when I have epiphanies, my other revelatory venue being the shower) with my infant Sophie screaming her head off on my shoulder, and my toddler Clare wrapped around my leg crying “Uppy!  Uppy!” with all the apocalyptic pathos of which toddlers are capable.  Having frantically tried everything I could think of to make the screaming stop, I suddenly stopped myself, as the dawning realization lit up within me:  It just doesn’t matter what I want! 

When that thought came to me, I stood still and laughed out loud.  My children were not going to stop screaming no matter what I did, it didn’t matter that it was making me miserable, and it was all OK!  We expend a staggering amount of psychic calories in self-assertion, in defending our right to exist and be right.  If people don’t do what we want, we assume that it means something about us.  We need to win in order to prove that we are good.  This is the real root of self-will:  not self-love, but insecurity and self-doubt.  It doesn’t have to matter so much what we want if we know who we are.

“Everything that we do has a kind of basic mantra behind it, like “What about me?”[viii]”  It’s exhausting and, like beating your head against a wall, it feels so good when you stop.  But the absolutely indispensable thing that enables us to stop the mantra without falling into despair—to really believe that we will continue to matter after we stop inwardly screaming that we do--is self-esteem:  the unshakeable realization that we are Children of God, made in God’s image, and nothing bar nothing can change or diminish that.  Your slap cannot touch me; here’s your fig.

After Paul and some other apostles were hailed before the Sanhedrin and flogged, they left “rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.[ix]”  This passage astonished me when I first read it, and still convicts me of pettiness and ingratitude whenever I catch myself sulking because someone has failed to show me what I consider due deference. The apostles knew that their real selves remained untouched by flogging, and that “disgrace” in the eyes of the Council did not make a particle of difference to their real lives, “hidden with Christ in God.”[x]  If that isn’t self-esteem—being beyond the dirty devices and brute broken nails of the world--I can’t imagine what is.

Maybe it would help if we used the Sanskrit word maitri in preference to the loaded “self-esteem.”  Maitri, as Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön explains, “is translated in a lot of ways, maybe most commonly as love, but the way (my teacher) Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche translated it was unconditional friendliness and in particular unconditional friendliness to oneself.”[xi]

We can be unconditionally friendly to someone without indulging them, or failing to hold them to account, or telling them flattering untruths.  I think the early Franciscan cultivation of radical humility was, at the same time, an affirmation of maitri.  You may slap me, and it doesn’t actually mean a thing.  My children may continue to scream, and it doesn’t diminish me in the least.  Maybe Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek because He knows who we are better than we do.

A friend of mine used to be absolutely frantic for “success” in the pop music world.  One morning as we drove to a festival we were performing at, he attempted to stick a label on a demo CD to give to someone he had heard might be there.  The car hit a bump, and the CD was ruined.  My friend fell into dejection;  a potential opportunity had been lost!

Some five years later, I walked into his studio and congratulated him on being named Artist of the Month on one of the XM radio stations.  He shrugged; “It’s not like my life is any different,” he said with a rueful smile. During those intervening years, my friend had learned where his self-worth actually lay.  He still works hard and is still doing well, but the desperation is gone. “Succeeding” is just a matter of making a living in his chosen field, and no longer a matter of proving his personal value.

The trouble is that we look for the trophies—we take the world so much at its word in its estimate of our value.  Happily, a little distraction can help draw our attention away from our carefully-constructed identities and what we believe are their needs, allowing us to remember who we really are.  For instance, a college classmate of mine who has built a successful career as an actor told me how much perspective fatherhood has given him.

“I’ll be waiting to go into an audition,” he said, “and I’ll suddenly remember:  ‘Oh, right—this isn’t the most important thing in the world!’”  Fatherhood is. So he relaxes. And interestingly—as many of you reading this can probably attest—this kind of knowledge of one’s true value and identity is, far from being a handicap, actually an asset.  Nothing makes the universe hide the keys like desperation.  A person who has seen the Image of God in himself doesn’t get hooked as easily, doesn’t need so badly to fill up any internal void—and it shows.

Growing up, I was always told how brilliant I was.  Although I was a classic underachiever, IQ tests and the like seemed to bear out those early assessments.  As my later life failed to deliver the trophies that all the early prognostications seemed to have promised, I became increasingly desperate to succeed at something, anything; it became unthinkable that I should never have anything to “show” for all those brains I supposedly had. 

My wife hates it when I put a pot of tea in the oven to keep warm, because it’s such an inefficient use of energy.  I often identified with the oven:  though I never lacked for work to do, it never seemed like the work was worth all I had to give to it.  I had placed all the eggs of my self-worth in the basket of success, and not until very late did I begin to believe that I could be happy without setting the world on fire.

This is why we need to stop telling people that “God has a plan for your life.”  For most of my adult life I have felt like Willem in the movie Mallrats, staring at a Magic Eye picture in which everyone can see the hidden image but him.  Where’s the plan, I said for years;  show me the plan!  It all seemed so cruel;  if God has a plan for my life, why does one thing after another not work out?  “Do you even believe in God any more?” my wife finally asked.  “It would hurt a lot less if I didn’t,” I told her.

I have come to believe that God doesn’t have a plan for my life any more than I do for my children’s lives.  All I want for my children is to know that they are a part of me and I love them—that they are the Pearl of Great Price, made in the image of God.  I just want them to be happy whether they set the world on fire or not.  I want them to have maitri and be at peace with themselves. If God has a plan, that has to be it.

When my mom, dying of cancer, was coming to grips with the impossibility of returning to teaching, she said to me, “If I’m not a teacher, what am I?”  A Woodrow Wilson Fellow, she had for years been offered lab assistant and other low-status jobs because of her gender.  By dint of brains, unremitting hard work and sheer doggedness, she became head of the biology department at an upstate New York college.  An adult child of alcoholics, she had, I believe, spent her whole life establishing the self-worth that her childhood had failed to give her.  Even with her strong Christian faith, she had allowed her identity to become bound up with her profession to the extent that no longer teaching left her in danger of thinking herself a non-person.  If I could have that moment back, here’s what I would tell her: 

You are a Child of God; you share spiritual DNA with Jesus, the Image of the Invisible God in Whose image you are also made.  You are a seat of the divine spark.  You are beloved of your family and respected by your peers and those are very good things, but they are not who you are.  You have your trophies, and you earned them, but they do not matter.  You are the Pearl of Great Price. And I would tell her what Joshua Ben Levi, a Rabbi of the Talmud, said:

A procession of angels pass before a human being wherever he or she goes, proclaiming, “Make way for the image of God.” 

[i] Bosch, Torie, in Slate,
[ii] Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, quoted in “What happens when everyone's a winner? Some ask whether feel-good trophies are actually good for children” by Mike Reiss, Boston Globe, February 23, 2006

[iv] Dewan, Shaila et al.  “For Professor, Fury Just Beneath the Surface.”  New York Times, February 20, 2010.
[v] Shane, Scott, “F.B.I., Laying Out Evidence, Closes Anthrax Case.”  New York Times, February 19, 2010.
[vi] Swami Tyagananda, lecture on the Kathopanishad, Vedanta Society of Boston, February 9, 2007.
[vii] Matthew 6:21
[viii] Swami Tyagananda, lecture on the Kathopanishad, Vedanta Society of Boston, February 9, 2007.
[ix] Act 5:41
[x] Colossians 3:3