The only goal is to accept the present
What happens when reality won't budge?
Two weeks post Achilles heel surgery, I'm doing fine. I wrote a completely different post, about sitting on the couch or laying in bed for 22 hours a day unable to walk, but with the current news (Dobbs, Congressional hearings on January 6, mass shootings), I started over again.
Curiously, the title of the post remained the same:
“The only goal is to accept the present”
I have a lot of friends enraged and grieving this week. Without diving into the legal or political aspects of the Dobbs decision (which you can get from a lot of places), I wanted to offer something from journalist Oliver Burkeman’s newsletter:
[W]hen you grasp the sense in which your situation is completely hopeless, instead of just very challenging, you can unclench. You get to exhale. You no longer have to go through life adopting the brace position, because you see that the plane has already crashed... And you come to appreciate how much of your distress arose not from the situation itself, but from your efforts to hold yourself back from it, to keep alive the hope that it might not be as it really was.
I think back at all the suffering I had in my life and so much of it has been resistance to reality. Most vividly, I went through a terrible breakup fourteen years ago. Terrible in the sense my heart couldn’t accept that it was over. For years, I couldn’t shake a terrible depression and quite frankly, I didn’t know if I was going to make it. I would not say I was suicidal, but there was a large part of me that did not care of I was alive or dead. The only relief I had for years was playing soccer and seeing my spiritual director.1 All my suffering came from a wounded self, unable to accept the pain, wishing that reality would somehow become different than it really was. And reality would not budge. 2
Good times, bad times
“Optimism is usually defined as a belief that things will go well. But that’s incomplete. Sensible optimism is a belief that the odds are in your favor, and over time things will balance out to a good outcome even if what happens in between is filled with misery. And in fact you know it will be filled with misery. You can be optimistic that the long-term growth trajectory is up and to the right, but equally sure that the road between now and then is filled with landmines, and always will be. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.” -Morgan Housel
I’m reading a wonderful book, The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel. It’s really smart and well-written. One of the major lessons from it is that our lives are mostly good, with occasional awfulness. But the long-term trend line has been going up for a long time. Since 1850,
the stock market has dropped more than 10% from a recent high at least 102 times.
At least twelve times, stocks lost a third of their value.
Annual inflation exceeded 7% in 20 separate years.
All the while, the standard of living in America has gone up twenty fold.
Like the stock market and our economy, life is long stretches of goodness punctuated by moments of terror. Since 1850, the Civil War, WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the Cold War. My friend Steven Fletcher’s grandma, who lived under Jim Crow, would say: “These are the good ole days.” And she’s right: you definitely want to be living today, not 1850.3
Barack Obama was fond of quoting Martin Luther King Jr, who was quoting the abolitionist Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”4 We have a evolutionary tendency to focus on the bad, and critically, the possible, imagined bad.5 But if you reflected your life at the day-to-day, the everlasting present, would you not say it’s been a good life?6
Attachment to your ego
Attachment to the melodrama of your ego is what keeps you from being here now. This model of who you think you are and how you think the world is constantly brings you down into separateness. - Ram Dass
If I’ve learned anything from psychedelics, it’s letting go. Letting go of being in control, of doing good, of being successful. Letting go of the tight grip we have on the life we’re supposed to have, or what our political system should be, or (my pet issue) that we should stop climate change. I’m not sure one can let go by choice. Our egos always want to be in control. But life intervenes.7 It’s the “bad” things in our life, the things we spend so much emotional energy, mental effort, and money on avoiding, that force us to surrender. The breakup. The death of someone we love. The job or career loss. The Supreme Court decision. Then we find the truth of the matter: our control has always had a flimsy veneer about it. When you go past the illusion, you find freedom.
“The bad news is you're falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there's no ground.” ― Chögyam Trungpa
The real letting go is the letting go of expectations. Letting go of the demands we place on life. Things must be this way in order for me to be happy/content. As anyone older/wiser will tell you, it’s our expectations that cause our suffering. Nothing else. If we are upset, the easiest thing to do is to examine our expectations. I’ve lived under a liberal or moderate Supreme Court my entire life. Did I expect that always to be the case? This week I’ve been reminded of the story of the Taoist farmer. There is a truism in business: the best time to start a business is in a recession. Similarly, the best time to create the change you want to see is after a loss. That goes for both sides of the aisle: the current wave of conservatism on the Supreme Court started in 2010, when the right wing decided it had to do something different because President Obama was elected so convincingly. What will the Left do post-Dobbs?
You can’t let go by yourself; your ego won’t allow it. As the Greek, Christian, Zen, and Sufi mystics suggest, you have to “die before you die.” And no one wants to die. But life offers a bunch of “little deaths” that we can practice with: the lost dream, the financial setback, the torn Achilles, the adverse Supreme Court decisions. All practice for accepting, or even embracing, what life has given.
“Human maturity is neither offensive nor defensive; it is finally able to accept that reality is what it is.” - Richard Rohr
All wisdom is is learning to love reality. There is a freedom in accepting that I won’t play soccer for a year. There is freedom is accepting I will live under a conservative Supreme Court for many years. Christine Valters Paintner describes pilgrimage as “an intentional journey into [an] experience of unknowing and discomfort for the sake of stripping away preconceived expectations.” We just need openness to life’s unfolding, and having what NBA basketball executive Sam Hinkie once describes as, “having the longest view in the room.” There is freedom in unclenching because the plane has already crashed, we can let go of the hope that it might not be what is really is.
I’ve spent many years learning how to fix life, only to discover at the end of the day that life is not broken.
There is a hidden seed of greater wholeness in everyone and everything. We serve life best when we water it and befriend it. When we listen before we act.
In befriending life, we do not make things happen according to our own design.
We uncover something that is already happening in us and around us and create conditions that enable it.
Everything is moving toward its place of wholeness always struggling against odds.
Everything has a deep dream of itself and its fulfillment. - Rabbi Rachel Naomi Remen
The arc of the moral universe is long. Full of landmines. But in the long run, it bends towards justice. Everything is moving towards its place of wholeness, always struggling against the odds. How could we not be grateful?
My experience with my spiritual director, Jack Kennedy, was the reason I have become a spiritual director.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying: “the three things I cannot change are the past, the truth, and you.
You don’t want to know my research on what they would have done to someone like me with an Achilles injury in 1850
Back in 2016 I wrote a political joke book about this! Happy to send you a copy if you write to me.
“I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” - Mark Twain
Well, not always. As an student of history will tell you, in the long run, civilizations collapse. Money becomes worthless, wars start, people starve. While I’m sure that will happen at some point to the U.S., expecting it in your lifetime is a sour way to go through life. But yes, there is a rumble of terror beneath it all.
I call it “dark grace”: the things the you least want, that also help you surrender.