“I’ve sat and watched the tide go out
But I did not chase- no I did not doubt
The water would return to shore
And meet me once again.
And I’ve known the truth and understood
Or thought I did, or thought I could
Be satisfied with points of view
But I’m tired of the din.
I never want to be satisfied.”
~ Pray for Rain, Satisfied
From a return to some of the wilderness sources of life, I have returned to daily routines. Over recent years, my intermissions have been far too occasional, yet always substantial departures from the ordinary. Extended stretches of hard work do lend well to building up a hearty appetite for retreating. Indeed, I’m one of those people who really enjoys a good travel, including driving very long-distances. Part of the enjoyment is in getting ready for an adventure. As with Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, my journeys are preceded and accompanied by anticipation and aspiration. With concerted preparation and movement, I find varied environments and ideas. Experiences and imagery enrich the trove I am able to draw from, as with a reader adding to their personal library of prized tomes. And in the authentic spirit of pilgrimage, the return voyage is as integral to the adventure as the outward expedition. My gratitude for the witnessing of new places and acquaintances is often matched by thankful homecomings. When I sense some currents of disappointment upon returning, noticing myself let down by differences in contrasting settings, I’ve taken to making note how the pilgrimage of the spirit never really ends. Though pace and terrain fluctuate, the quest proceeds as surely as I breathe. Why not savor the quotidian? Getting away provides opportunities for re-approaching the familiar.
So I am making the effort to revel in the routine. Some of those daily and unspoken habits are actually pleasant and rather stabilizing. Beginning each day early, washed and caffeinated, with a few paragraphs to set forth down the granite stoop and out into the swirl of things. Tasks that make the day complete, whether necessary- such as workplace housekeeping and formalities, or the needed “unnecessaries”- such as lunch hours spent journaling in cafés. Puddle-jumping between blocks of work hours, to be able to regain a good book or a stream of written consciousness, offers modest rewards through the day’s portions. The rhythm can oddly resemble the monastic divine hours interspersed with the chores of employment. Integrated well enough, the two components actually inspire one another. As for what appears from a homecoming distance as drudgery, the best thing for me is to not look at such things in generalizations. If all is viewed as “routine,” the day’s graces are clouded over, and workdays revert to looking up at mountains in the fog. Find the enjoyable details, and even take note of what goes smoothly. Those subtle gems help offset matters that try our patience, that divert our paths. If I’m really awake to what I experience, I can derive something useful from the roadblocks. I once had a job which included some machine repair and a whole lot of maintenance. It was expected that all the intricate mechanisms operated as required. But, indeed, once something occurred as simple as two cogs falling out of alignment, everything would get thrown out of whack. Abrupt sounds of friction attest to opposing components “speaking,” demanding immediate attention. In so doing, there is reckoning to be done and something to be learned.
A re-approach accompanied by even a slight discord, draws my thoughts. Indeed, delineating the specifics from broad-brushed generalities is the same as evaluating a singular situation or method, away from cluttered collages of the past. Without rescinding some healthy idealism, yet refusing cynicism, I wonder about what I’ve come to deem as “acceptable” or sufficient. Perhaps the perspective an adult is supposed to have includes developing a satisfaction with measures of deficiency. Haven’t we all heard our elders invoke the “could be better, could be worse” expression? My reflex that challenges what is presented before me, and the responses are founded upon past situations tolerated too long. Memory is both a deepening wealth of reference points and an incessant force with waves to be tamed by stealthy navigation. Looking for purpose in experiential lessons causes me to question routines that are either unpleasant or resistant to improvement. Spiritual life implies a questioning of status quos, however this endangers generating a judging mode that causes more hurt than help. What is sufficient? What suffices? How much dissatisfaction should we expect to tolerate? Here is where expectations themselves must be specified and evaluated against the givens and the variables. Perhaps some new possibilities can be found. In these considerations, I start to think about standards- a word that’s been overused by this culture as if representing some type of vertically-moving discretionary threshold. However they may need to be adjusted, projected personal standards need to be realistically based. That surely means looking beyond self; the more isolated the person, the more impossible are the standards. Discord demands re-tuning.
Today, I’ve been reminding myself that presently I am not yet what I will become. Observing an undercurrent of discontent may be turned positively toward my desire to do better. The drive to improve can make wise use of past errors, however I must always keep in mind the reality between what was and what’s hoped for- and- what presently is. The idea of satisfying circumstances, in this society, entangles matters like remuneration, convenience, and intellectual rewards. Such thirst drives many to achieve and exceed with every step, but the dark side to motivations like this is the way it plays into egocentrism. Ironically, with each self-defining embellishment we are permitting the culture in our midst to define who we are. There are fine lines and edges for those who navigate between this consumptive, amnesiac world, and life in the Spirit. The latter sends us back into society. Now, there’s nothing to disparage about ambitiousness, and constructive ways to act upon hopes. Almost intangibly, there’s a force than compels any one of us to arise, look ahead, and seek inspiration- with enough motivation to propel a person along a quest into the unknown. Yet, even well-intended ambitions can present pitfalls, among which is that unquenchable desire to prove one’s “worth,” to impress well enough to belong, to be “acceptable” to others. Being in the midst of a culture that relentlessly conditions us- even steering us to posture and to claim titles and identities, it’s easy to get drawn into the ways our egos emphasize how we want to be seen. Thomas Merton often referred to the “false self” as a self-imposed autonomy that rejects all interaction with God, creating upon the bases of social myths and games of superiority. I call this the “performing self,” and I try to keep that inclination in check by challenging myself not to make the whats of life into who I am at my core. The crossroads are marked at places along the voyage when we must choose what we identify with, bringing me to merge contemplation with street smarts.
The silver lining of dissatisfaction is in a willingness to challenge and explore. But we must drive out of ruts, and choose not to park in them. This morning, I asked myself about what I felt to be soul-satisfying. Being in the stream of progress- of learning, of meaningful accomplishment; of partaking in something that brings me to a better place and mindset than what I’d departed from. (With journaling there is surely a way of verification.) Expectations are never far from aspirations. The heart of the struggle, around which these words revolve, is whether I expect in realistic ways. I grew so accustomed to living up to high expectations that my own for myself have rarely been forgiving. Setbacks have been historically more captivating than assurances and acknowledgments, and a little self-compassion remains a major undertaking. The mercy I practice has been resoundingly more outward than inward, and until fairly recently I began to reconsider regrets as practical lessons rather than as condemning mistakes. If each day confronts the decision to take to the sanctified inner road, indeed there must be a consistent renunciation of what fuels that “false self,” which at once judges and alienates. It is a repudiation of disingenuousness. In Contemplation in a World of Action (my favorite of all his books), Merton commented, “we renounce our alienated and false selves in order to choose our own deepest truth in choosing both the world and Christ at the same time.” If there’s an expectation that stokes up the false self, it must be that of perfection. Who among us mortals is perfect? Exacting it of ourselves and others is potentially destructive and surely unrealistic. And what of those purported high standards? Well, rather than to seek some sort of “perfection” in flawed situations, perhaps the more attainable sense of satisfaction is found in concept: in perspective and in philosophical outlook. These are transcendent of place and time limitations.
Thoughtfully reconsidering my expectations is certainly not a lowering of personal standards. Seeing the broad picture makes it possible to weigh situations and objectives in context, and thus I am in much less conflict- if any- with my surroundings. If there are even the simplest hopes, there will be expectations in some form. I expect to continue learning and growing in grace, though it is a combination of consciously reaching and of openly and effortlessly receiving. I might also say that I expect my coffee-maker to operate according to its design. Expecting the courtesies that I enjoy practicing, in all situations, I must not be mortally let down either, if I experience rudeness or if my coffee-maker doesn’t cooperate. It may be naïve and unrealistic, but I’ve never questioned my expectation of fairness- even though over and again I am shown how this world, by and large, does not operate that way. Yet I expect it. Perhaps it’s an expectation blended with hopes that “good must always prevail,” expecting others to be as I try myself to be. Is that absurd? There alas, enter those high self-expectations of flawlessness. Livable expectations seem a whole lot more merciful to me! Letdowns and situational disappointments remind me that there is much more distance to be covered- and happily so. Perceptions are always to be renewed. And I must always remember the vitality of spiritual liberation and the treasure that is not subject to corrosion, and there will my be heart also. On one occasion, during some community volunteering, I described how a new project was dauntingly slow to start, but I believed in its potential. The director responded with, “God simply calls us to be faithful, that’s all.” Within the wealth of wisdom enwrapped in that little phrase is the ease of doing the next good thing. Faithful is surely more tenable than perfection. What a relief.