Last week on Facebook someone commented that I must have Alzheimer’s. It’s a testament to my age and intermittent memory lapses that the first thing I did was reread my previous posts, certain that outrageous typos must have prompted this diagnosis. Of course, that wasn’t it at all, and when I sent the person a message asking what he meant I received replies full of vitriol, accusing me of distracting people with things that did not matter (like personal concerns about how to be whole and healthy and offer who and what we are to the world) while “the world is on fire” and on the brink of Armageddon. I attempted a little dialogue, but he had no real interest in conversation.
I knew there was certainly something off about these messages, and not just because I am particularly sensitive to someone using the term Alzheimer’s as a pejorative which does not honour the real struggle of folks like my father who are living with this horrible disease. But there was also something to consider, something I have struggled with my whole life: When there are real problems in the world- problems of environmental destruction, massive social injustice and suffering- how do we decide how and when and to what degree to use our personal resources (time, money, energy) for our own individual well-being?
In the church of my youth the slogan was “Live Love” and the emphasis was on living our faith by alleviating suffering in the world. I did international work for social justice for years. It is only recently that I understood fully the flaw in the way I had been taught to approach my responsibility in the world- hard work was demanded in Every. . . Single. . . Moment. Small victories could only be celebrated fleetingly, because there was so much more to do, so many others who were suffering. It was perpetually exhausting and disheartening.
I can honestly say that when I get close to people who share the undertone of my early training- those who are, with complete sincerity and more than a little desperation, continually articulating all that remains unresolved in the world- I sometimes feel like hiding. I know I cannot go back to this kind of constant striving and trying, to the bottomless pit of real need that dwarfs any advances and joys with the knowledge of how much is left undone.
On the other hand, I do not want to simple focus inward and forget the world. I cringe when I hear someone say, “Those folks must have chosen to be born into or have drawn to themselves this poverty or violence or injustice because their souls needed certain lessons.” Not only does this claim to know something we cannot know and show a stunning lack of compassion, but it is a very convenient and self-serving point of view for those of us with more freedom and resources. Furthermore it completely ignores both the physical and metaphysical truth of our inter-beingness. Poverty, violence and suffering in one aspect of our community, in one place on the globe, will and does effect on us all. Our interests are interwoven even as our lives are inter-dependent.
There are no easy one-size-fits-all answers on discerning how we do both our inner work and decide where and how it is appropriate for us to respond to and participate in the world. But there are three things I know that help me navigate the on-going challenge of being both an individuated soul and a participant in a larger wholeness:
The first thing is, I no longer expect the tension between inner and outer work to be resolved. I consciously bring the tension of this consideration into questions around how I spend my time, energy and money. It is a creative tension that is not always comfortable. Sometimes it makes my heart ache because I want to be able to do more or because I have over-extended myself. And I’m okay with that, okay with my heart sometimes aching for both the world and my own humanness.
The second thing I know is, to the degree we are unwilling to be with our inner world and listen to the messages of psyche/soul, we are a danger to others and the outer world. There are serious consequences to not being able or willing to listen deep within: we agree to things we do not want to do, making promises we do not have the resources to fulfill; we cannot recognize that which feeds our heart and soul, and so often becoming exhausted and resentful; we cannot discern and speak the truth because we are out of touch with the truth within; we are reactive and so limited in our response to the world’s needs; we project aspects of self we reject outward and do not see others or the world clearly. As a result we end up trying to do good, badly, despite our best intentions.
And finally, the tension between personal needs/desires and the needs of the world is most easily held in community. It is in community that I realize that it is not only impossible for me to do it all, it is also not necessary or desirable. Community- whether a circle of friends or something larger- is where I can be gently challenged when I am living in a way that is individually or collectively unsustainable, a place where I can be supported in my efforts to find my way of offering compassion and care to myself, others and the world.
When we continue to deepen our understanding of who we are- our strengths, limitations, motives, needs and deepest desires- we can give what is sustainable for us to give because we discover what enlivens us and utilizes the gifts we have to offer. This is best done with an appreciation for what is most needed in the world so we can shape what we have to offer into a meaningful and effective contribution.
Building and participating in community, we each spin and hold one thread, interweaving it in the tapestry we are co-creating. And together we weave the world into a sacred wholeness, again and again. This is both our responsibility and our joy.