It is easy to know what is good for someone else. It is difficult to listen and let them define themselves.
Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily
The Walton’s. I faithfully watched the show growing up, longing for a John-Boy, or maybe more truthfully, hoping that I was the John-Boy in my own family. I wanted that multigenerational experience that celebrated the bond of love despite each member’s individual expressions of living. Contrary to that close-knit household on television, in my mind, I separated myself from the woes of my own family. While I pretended large with my Aunt Bessie’s discarded elegant dresses and high heels, spray painted silver for my garage variety shows, I was suspect of her vivid storytelling, and the way she arrived at our house: her hulk of a car carelessly pulled up on the curb and her fifth of vodka safely tucked into her generous purse. As a teenager, I never wanted to not be in firm control of my life, as I perceived those closest to me who, like my Aunt Bessie, reacted to or escaped life’s tenuous balance.
It is easier to watch the show that is someone else’s life and to think that I know for certain how I would live that life, while not giving attention to my own.
I’ve been slowly working through Joan Chittister’s Wisdom Distilled from the Daily: Living the Rule of St. Benedict Today and reflecting on the weeks I’ve spent with each of my adult children over the past few months. The Rule involves listening to others needs and also teaches us to listen to the circumstances of our own lives.
I know how to meet life’s basic needs. I cooked and cleaned and consoled the weeks I stayed with my son and then my daughter during their own transitions. I also admit that I struggled to not say how I would manage any number of daily dilemmas that inevitably surface when you spend a few weeks with someone else. I am also aware of how I listened to the other person’s account of his or her day and made hidden judgments about the why or how or when or how much and all the while I was struggling to figure out my own why and how and when and how much.
Now that I have returned to the other world of my own house, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I anticipated coming home and renewing my intention to live in the abundance of this, my new home. I was reminded of the beauty of this island as the plane circled before landing. I thought I was ready.
I had (and have) plans to explore this unique city, to visit the Benedictine sisters on Shaw Island, to pursue a volunteer opportunity at The Contemplative Society, and to inquire how I might respond to a request to support the youngest readers at the Chinese church preschool. I do relish the opportunity for my own reading and writing and pondering, but also recognize the inwardness that I’ve hidden inside instead of seeking community.
All is not lost, though, in the days since my return. I have rearranged our dresser drawers, cleaned out and organized one kitchen drawer, did the laundry, and cooked one suspect and one glorious new recipe. We attended our first Rabbie Burns Day Dinner (Scottish immersion) on Saturday and I was enveloped in the care of church folk who celebrated my return on Sunday. I’ve been invited to coffees, dinners, and an artsy group in the coming weeks. Yet, the truth is that I don’t know how to lean into this new life I’ve been given.
My truth is that I know how to keep knocking on the closed doors of the past year and I know how to worry about the definition of my family that has also been re-invented in recent months. I’ve been trying desperately to survive the changes. I’ve been figuring out what is good for other people instead of listening and letting them define that for themselves. I’ve been figuring out what is good for other people because I don’t know quite what to do for my own life—this isn’t the same path I have coerced my way through the past few years.
One my plane trip home on Thursday, I was astonished by words that I’ve read before, yet heard for the first time. I cannot define or live another’s life and I am perplexed, again, how my human best tends to be at odds with the holy best.
To do for yourself the best that you have it in you to do—to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at it’s harshest and worst—is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still. The trouble with steeling yourself against the harshness of reality is that the same steel that secures your life against being destroyed secures your life also against being opened up and transformed by the holy power that life itself comes from. You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can even prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own… the one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept, even from le bon Dieu himself, a helping hand.
The Sacred Journey
I cannot manage nor imagine “more wonderful still.”
I wasn’t just the oldest child in my family, like John Boy Walton. I thought I was the only adult, many times. I had to take charge of my own life.
Maybe it’s time to soften my jaw, to unclench my teeth, and to listen to and let be—all kinds of relatives.