"Because our value is a gift, we don’t have to prove ourselves, only to express ourselves, and what a world of difference there is between proving ourselves and expressing ourselves.”
-William Sloan Coffin, Credo
“Each one of us has to ask ourselves, What do I really want? Do I really want to be Number One? Or do I want to be happy? If you want success, you may sacrifice your happiness for it. You can become a victim of success, but you can never become a victim of happiness.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
AT SOME POINT IN MIDLIFE (and hopefully before), we confront the inevitable What’s-it-all-about-Alfie moment. We question everything we’ve done and everything we are and everything we want to be. Even the great ones do it, like Anne Morrow Lindbergh who said; “There comes a moment when the things one has written, even a traveler’s memories, stand up and demand a justification. They require an explanation. They query, ‘Who am I? What is my name? Why am I here?”
These are good questions, but for most Westerners our automatic pilot tends to be stuck on: How much have I earned? How does this compare with my peers? What about status? Awards? Applause? On a more virtuous note, we comb through the past looking for some solid, statistical evidence that we did in fact “make a difference.” As we look back, we automatically rack up our life accomplishments like billiard balls, each one round and shiny and solid. They have a pleasant sound when they click together, like a community of self-congratulation.
But now, on the downside of the half-century mark, I’ve come to think about all this differently. The problem with racking up our accomplishments in terms of outward success is that no matter how many billiard balls of achievement we rack up, it is never enough. Never. There is always someone else right next to us who has done way better and there are those who have done far worse, so we are caught between painful jealousy and smug arrogance. Not to mention, those seemingly solid trophies and accolades don’t generally last anyway, as racked balls eventually disappear from the table, one by one, into the black holes of history.
At this time in my life I think about such things, especially now that I have retired from my day job. But retirement comes with a price. I have discovered that when life slows down and the outer clutter is cleared away, the bullies from the basement of the mind take this as an invitation to step up into the limelight with, “Ah, we’re finally alone! Well, how did you stack up? What have you got to show for yourself?” And then marches in the What Might Have Beens and the Should Haves and the If Onlys.
This is torture, not what I signed up for when clearing my schedule.
These taunting, ill-mannered basement people are not our best selves, but skulk up from the shadowy depths and prowl about the mind. They really get going about 3:00 a.m. when resistance is futile, but they are known to barge in at any time, especially when we’re tired and discouraged. They lecture us on what a total failure we have been and if only we had done this or that . . . These uninvited guests are rude, crude, and socially unattractive. I don’t want to listen to them, so I try to watch television or read a book. But then I remembered that Jesus entertained publicans and sinners, so the least I can do is listen. And learn. Ironically, these inner bullies can also be backdoor friends, for by the discontent they stir up in our psyches, they force us to re-evaluate and question and find a larger harmony within our souls.
There’s no getting around it. At some point we need to confront these ill-mannered guests squarely until we understand the deep wounds they represent. If we don’t acknowledge them and give them their due, they will run wild, raid the fridge, invite other lowlifes in for beer and pizza and leave the place a wreck. So we approach them with a calming cup of tea, a little mindfulness, a little prayer, a little meditation, and many, many, many pages of journaling. This is how I do it, anyway. Having confronted the rude guests one by one, I know that I am enlarging my soul by learning to invite in the unsavory as well as the pleasant, to face and forgive, and to think differently about the meaning of life.
In my inner dialogue with these serenity crashers—the If Onlys in particular—I have discovered the curious power of perspective. I mean, when you’re looking backwards at your life of over half a century, the whole picture looks different. Totally. Like a parable of Jesus—the way he would stand things on their heads—tiny mustard seeds getting the limelight, or the poor inheriting the earth. It’s like that, a discombobulation of everything formerly understood as the way it is. Suddenly, I see so clearly at this age what I never could grasp before, the startling wisdom that the only truly important accomplishments in life are the accomplishments of the soul.
I am tempted to think that this “aha!” moment is something brand new, but Carl Jung was on to this years ago when he identified and analyzed this unsettling midlife passage. Jung said that the first half of life is all about developing a “persona” for the outer world—wearing different masks so that we fit in—while the second half is about peeling back the persona in search of the “true individual.” The goal, he said, is to transcend our ego and become more authentic, a kind of “widening out” or being more “rounded.” In this view, midlife is a metamorphosis—the sloughing off what binds us in order to refine or rethink or even dramatically rebirth ourselves.
If we peer into the meaning of midlife, everything inverts. We judge ourselves with a whole new rubric, the rubric of the soul—that growing, blossoming authentic self that gets short shrift in the madness of competition. We move from the pressure to prove ourselves to the freedom of expressing ourselves. We switch from “how big is my bank account?” to “how big is my soul?” We learn to embrace the “roundedness” of ourselves (which for many of us includes accepting a more rounded physicality, too). We learn to befriend the dark corners, to integrate, to understand, to accept, and, finally, to love—yes, love—the whole complicated muddle that we are. We begin to grow up and forgive and let go, and most importantly, we see this inner work as the mark of true success—something that can’t be racked up and measured, but can be felt and experienced as nothing short of spaciousness.
Now it all seems so obvious! It’s all about the soul. And clearly, some of our greatest soulful accomplishments happen in the aftermath of abject failure because we are forced to reckon with ourselves and face our demons with courage. At such crisis points, unwelcomed questions arise that require us to flex our spiritual muscles and grow in self-compassion. Conversely, winning a prestigious award might shrink our soul if we choose to put too much importance on it and forget we are but dust.
It’s not that outward success is unimportant. We need to celebrate and savor the moments of “Wow—I did this!” if that success is an expression of our best selves and not a way to prove our value or impress others or beat the competition. The pathological need to prove our value is universal and human and seemingly mandatory in a highly competitive society, but does not come from our true self. It is an ill-conceived story; it is a lie. Our true, spiritual self tells a different story of how our value is already there, intrinsic--a divine imprint of unconditional love and acceptance that no sin can erase and no achievement can improve upon. We are deeply, completely, and eternally loved by the very Soul of the world. This is our true story. Start with this premise, and everything begins to widen out in joy.
This divinely drenched part of our nature—our creative, ripening, widening-out soul—would ask about the achievements of the inner life. Has my soul grown bigger and more resilient in the face of life’s disappointments? Or has it shrunk back in fear? What about the quality of my relationships? Have I learned to forgive? To embrace life with gratitude? To be mindful of the darkness within, and care for it with compassion? Is my capacity for love bigger or smaller? Am I being myself or what someone else wants me to be? Am I trying to express myself or impress others? How am I adding beauty to the world?
This last question is important. I have come to the conclusion that the larger purpose of life has to do with adding some small measure of beauty to the world, something of our own, something of ourselves—an expression of who we really are. The philosopher A. N. Whitehead says, “The teleology of the Universe is directed toward the production of Beauty.” He says that Beauty is the dream of God in the world—and that we are the co-creators of such Beauty. In this sense, Beauty is much wider and deeper and more cosmic than the usual sense of the word. Beauty is not good bone structure, but rather how we create our lives out of the bones and structures that we have been given.
The result of stretching toward Beauty is this: One morning we find that our souls have become so large that they randomly burst with gratitude at the sound of a blackbird singing in a tree outside our window. In fact, we don’t see much difference between ourselves and the blackbird and the tree, as the planet with all its creatures becomes a kind of extension of our own soul. Our own bodies become temples of Soul, worthy of respect and care.
Once our soul gets this big, it breaks the belt of ego constriction—and when this happens we become less self-conscious, less concerned with what people think of us, less given to racking up our value in terms of what we have achieved or the way we look or how much money we have. The If Onlys and the Should Haves and the What Might Have Beens lose their power and slink back down to the basement, leaving us free and unfettered. The complicated past is sorted out and forgiven; the future fresh and open. Letting go of the need to prove ourselves leaves us firmly planted in the present, ready to spread our branches up and out into the wide blue spacious sky.
The widening of the soul for the sake of Beauty is at the heart of what I have come to think of as “fat soul spirituality.” Big is beautiful in this inverted sort of world where it is never too late to be a success at what really counts. Of course this goes against the grain of everything we’ve been taught—like Jesus, who absolutely refused to turn stones into bread to impress the devil. He wasn’t interested in proving anything, but rather in expressing his own unique self. What if we gave up our need prove ourselves and gave ourselves over to expressing our true selves? What if we taught this to our children and grandchildren? What could be a better goal in life but to increase the size our soul? To add a measure of beauty to the world? To become fat souls? When it comes down to it, that’s all that really matters. Everything else is just dessert.