Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tending the World, Caring for the Self

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.


  1. Have you seen this video by Courtney Martin? I think you might enjoy her paradoxes and personal story.

  2. ah, such a huge topic to tango with. but i love it! all i can think of is "as above, so below". when we care for our inner, individual world, we care for the whole world. i imagine this to be our first responsibility to humanity. when we care for ourselves well, we access the most potential energy we can to then turn our sense of wholeness outwardly, engaging in service. but the dance is an endless one. as long as we are embodied we must care for our precious physical gift of life. i honor your work in caring for self and all of us through your service of writing and honestly sharing Oriah!

  3. It's a complex question, and one which you're too wise to give a simple to. I certainly know those who have burned themselves out trying to save the world. (And at times, I've been among them.) I think of the years in teaching, a wonderful profession which always lures you on with the thought that you could do more, and a bit more after that.

    For me the answer sits in energy choreography. We need to heal the world, both morally and creatively. But I need to find ways of healing it that build my energy up, and give me more energy than I came into the action with. Certainly as you say, community is one way of achieving that: a group of friends sitting around writing letters to Stephen Harper is likely to be more sustainable than separate individuals doing so (whether it's to thank him for the fine job he's doing, or not: no judgements implied here ;-)

    If all I do is read about how bad things are, and bemoan that, that is harmful to both me and the world. We need to pass on that approach!

  4. Hey Oriah, thank you for personally responding to the comment someone made. I do believe that the person was out of line and violent in how they approached you, but they do make a good point about 'waking up' or living consciously and the illusion of enlightenment in the midst of societal struggle. I am attempting to balance this my self as someone working in the helping profession. Dass&Gorman's book "How Can I Help" tackles this challenge in such an awe inspring way that I recommend it to you and anyone else. On other note, I couldn't help but notice that your essay broached the topic of seeing the world, but it wasn't personal. You used a vague story in the middle and ended with a series of statements of "we.." "we...". I'm not critiquing, I just know that when your used to writing to an audience. Its easy to say we, when the question was actually posed at "you" and not us. You mentioned struggling and doing "social justice" work... but then abandoned the story for a philosophical position.
    Lastly, I would like to say that these days my solution to this issue is "conservative" in its concept, but important in its premise. Taking responsibility for how we love/ and what we love. As, Martin Luther King said, a love that has no feet is anemic(paraphrase). He says this, which is my favorite quote: Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. -MLK Jr.

    I think this quote speaks to progressive folks to owning the power they have, w/o becoming paternalistic(a dance)

    too long message. sorry :(

  5. A most timely post as I attempt to balance my own physical needs with my desire to reach out and help a friend. I sometimes feel like a tightrope walker, but I know that listening to my own body and soul, now has to be my first consideration. If I don't take care of me - then I'm not very useful to others. This is not easy, is it?

  6. mg- while I appreciate your criticisms, both choices were made deliberately. I did not include a story of my work for social justice because I did not want to muddy the waters of the central question here (how we discern how to distribute our resources between inner and outer work) with particulars that may or may not be what some think of as effective social justice work. The final paragraphs originally said "I" - but that was replaced with "we" deliberately to emphasize the point made- it is in community, as part of a "we" that we can be freed from the burden of thinking we can or should attempt to do it all as a single individual. I would quibble that the writer of the post, although he directed his comment at me, did so on a public thread and so hoped to raise the question for more than just myself. If not, it was certainly my intent to make it a more shared concern- again, because "we" live here together in an interdependent reality. :-)

  7. Oriah, your journey in this respect is such a mirror of mine, down to the church background (and I'm an Aussie - much less common here!). My father was a pastor who sacrificed all (including me) for his curious mission to "save the world" and I carried this mantle from my youth into my early adulthood until my world came crashing down as the cost of this unsustainable and guilt driven pace began to take it's toll. I honour and admire your wisdom and ability to turn your eyes inward without closing them to the outside world completely. I believe as much is achieved in the evolution of an individual soul through self reflection as through lobbying to protect a rainforest or feeding a hungry child. All are holy and beautiful acts of love, and love begets love. Thank you for your reflections here as they stir something deep within me, reminding me of my own journey and it's struggles and joys.

  8. Hi Oriah,
    I met you several years ago during a retreat you led at the Crossings in Austin. Your post seems particularly timely right now as I've spent hours today watching the updates on the earthquake/tsunami/aftershocks in Japan.

    My husband works for a Japanese-based company, and so many of his colleagues have been impacted, so we've been discussing this very issue - how do we respond with generosity at the same time we're having financial challenges ourselves? And I realize it's not just about money, but where we place our priorities, time, energy, resources. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your post.

  9. Gena, I remember that time at the Crossings with such fondness- such a great group and beautiful site. And yes, it is in some ways an impossible decision for us to make re: where to put our resources when others are in dire straits- and yet, make it we must, from our hearts, to the best of our ability.

  10. Hi,
    I just read your poem - "The Invitation".
    Can be a nice process to change all of the "You" there into "I" and "Me".

  11. Have often used the format of the poem to do just that- with myself, to go deeper into what has feeling value for me, and with others in both sweat lodge prayers and writing exercises- again to take things a step deeper. O

  12. I did not read the comment on Facebook but I did find it very hurtful to read what you wrote about it here. I'm sorry Oriah that someone could be so unkind and so thoughtless. I was also shocked by this as well.

    My mom had dementia for many years before she passed on, 3 years ago. it was the hardest time of her life (I think) and of mine (I'm sure). My heart goes out to you at this difficult time. Your parents have your love and concern and deep down, they will always know that and love you in return. I found that out in the most amazing of ways, time and time again with my mom. I'm tearing up here but suffice to say, in times of sadness and true despair, miracles also appear to us.

    Hugs my dear and take care, thinking of you and wishing you a good day, G