"The Only Goal is to Accept the Present.”
I have a lot of friends enraged and grieving this week: Dobbs, Congressional hearings on January 6, mass shootings. I wanted to offer something I read in 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.”
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.” We have an evolutionary tendency to focus on the bad, and critically, the possible, imagined bad. Mark Twain once said, “I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” My friend Steven Fletcher’s grandma, a Black woman who lived under Jim Crow, wouldn’t talk about the past, saying: “These are the good ole days.” And she’s right: no matter who you are, you definitely want to be living today, not in 1920. Life is so much better now.
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 that we should stop climate change. I’m not sure we can let go by choice. Our egos always want to be in control. But life intervenes. 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 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.
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 decision. All practice for accepting, or even embracing, what life has given.
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, Rabbi Rachel Naomi Remen suggests,
“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.”
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.
Douglas Tsoi is a spiritual director and personal finance teacher. He is gratefully a three-time MEA alum.