This I Believe: Laurie Kigner (2004)

As I prepared for this Sunday I found myself immediately drawn to memories of my first philosophy class in college.  I remember going home on break, waving my personal ethics paper, the final draft laboriously pounded together on a manual type writer assisted with many packets of those little slips of whiteout paper.  I was anxious for my father to read it, to find out who I was, who he had raised, hoping, I think, that he would approve of my thoughts and beliefs.  And, of course, I was sure he would be reading profundities he had never fathomed.  Writing that paper was an exhilarating experience.  I had not quite realized until then that I was free to determine who I was and could be and would be.  It was then, during that class, that I truly began my spiritual journey.   I had dutifully attended 18 years of church, gone through confirmation without outward protest but certainly with inner, shielded uncertainty (and many yawns).  But now, I was off.  I devoured philosophy and world religion courses.  I switched my major from a science background to fine arts.  And I began the pilgrimage I continue today, the pathway paved with questions.

I continued for a decade feeling little desire for organized religion, going into and through a dalliance with the cosmic, exploring the medium transmitted teachings of the spirit Seth, attending a channeling session, following Shirley McLaine through her quest, and wishing I could become cosmic enough to enjoy an out-of-body experience.

I pondered Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism.  I found affinity in the spirituality and arts of native peoples on all continents, grounded by the connection with the earth, the air, the natural world. I contemplated alternate realities, altered states, and additional dimensions.  I failed efforts to meditate, I yoga-ed, I exercised into endorphin induced states.  I sleep with my husband and a stuffed bear who is well on his way to becoming as real as the Velveteen Rabbit.

I’ve married, birthed children, loved family and friends.  I have hurt and been hurt.  I have laughed and cried, forgiven and been forgiven.  I’ve been sick and have healed.  Throughout this journey I have grown to believe, with certainty, that community, that connection, that love, is the core of this small, short, and probably inconsequential life that I lead.  I put my trust, faith and belief in the value of the positive, the energy that it creates, and the incredible enabling power that emanates from it.  I believe in the innate goodness of each individual.  I have seen that when someone can center and open themselves up to their possibilities, their realities, and feel supported, believed in, and (so importantly) believes in themselves, the potential for achievement is endless.  I am not referring to successes on a grand scale, but triumphs that can (and do) easily get lost in the daily whirl of minutia.  It could be the child who brings the garbage cans in without being asked, the spouse who greets her mate with warmth in her eyes and a hug as opposed to a status check on item 17 from the mental list scrolling through her head.  It could be the student who finds the magic of learning, the joy beyond the grades.

We are connected, fully dependent on and depended upon, inextricably intertwined and interwoven with one and all.  The energy that derives from each individual combines and builds with that of others.  It merges with the energy of the natural world.  It unites with the cosmic energy of our universe.  We are all a part of this cosmic force field.  And within this we each have the ultimate responsibility for creating our own reality, for managing our destiny, and for knowing that we ultimately affect, though perhaps only minutely, the destiny of the universe.  While fate may play a part, while bad things will always happen, the choice of a response is fully owned by the individual.

Phillip Simmons, who recently died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, shares similar thoughts in his book Learning to Fall:

We do not have a say in all that befalls us, but we do have a say in the shape of our own character…

Increasingly as we reach adulthood, we come to see character as a matter of choice.  We choose practices and principles that shape our character, building either a sound vessel or a weak one….

In our daily work, in our roles as caregivers and providers, in our manner of receiving the gifts and good works of others, we can be disciplined or not, mindful or not, responsible and responsive or not, but always our actions both shape and are shaped by the vessel of character…

Life throws things at us that we cannot predict and cannot control.  What we can control is who we are along the way.  We can… control how much energy, compassion, and integrity we bring to our journey…

What we’re after is equanimity, the poise that allows us to accept gracefully the blessings and burdens that are beyond our control.  What we’re after is the ability, regardless of circumstance, in the face of disappointment and happy surprise, in the face of tragedy and bliss, to return home to our true selves and our highest natures.

On the other hand, while it is clear to me through my Pollyanna-Rose-Colored glasses that caring, empathy, reaching out to others, responding to others, and love should be at the core of the choices I make each day of my life, what of all the times that I fail and my small, petty, self-centered needs ascend?  Where is my strength when my black moods smother my smile, when crisis overrides all rational thoughts of how I should be and my entire well of positive energy is drained away, dissipated by personal pain?  Wasn’t Phillip Simmons telling my story when he wrote the following (again from an essay in Learning to Fall)

No wonder, then, that at the end of the day it’s such a relief to get home.  Only when we get there do we remember that it’s the people we live with we are most desperate to avoid.  Funny how I can miss my wife terribly all day until the moment I walk in the house.  We have a wonderful marriage, but some days it seems that the whole point of long-term relationships is to give people time to learn to torment one another efficiently.  We become athletes of insult, proud of our ability not just to inflict pain but to do so with minimum effort.  We know a relationship is fully developed when with a single lifted eyebrow we can ruin someone’s entire day.

I recently bought my son the book Life of Pi by Yann Martel since it was about a 16 year old boy in a life raft with a tiger and sounded like a riveting adventure story that might catch the interest of a high-energy teenage male.  I’ve since snatched the book for myself and found that the first portion explores the dilemma the boy faces as he converts to and practices Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam simultaneously.  As the boy tries to understand, within himself, why the religious men cannot tolerate his universalism, he states:

For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out.  The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena, but the small clearing of each heart.

As I attempt to work through this battle, I find it requires listening, always listening to the quiet voices within me and to the often unspoken voices of others.  I must be patient on those days when my heart is heavy, when it actually feels that the right and left ventricle are so weighed down that the pressure on my abdomen forces me to sink to the floor to lesson the burden.  I must listen and be patient when direction is unclear, until there is a feeling akin to weightlessness created by the gelling of rightness.  And until then, I tell myself, pick the path that factors in a reaching out.  Pick the path that can perhaps balance my individual needs and the needs of others.  Pick a path while trying to know what ‘enough’ is.  Pick the path that may be hard, may require change, but the path that will also provide an opportunity for growth.  And when I cannot answer any of those questions that day, and there are many days like that, I try to make the decision for the next moment, drawing from the best person I can be at that moment, all the while listening deeply within myself, as deeply as I can go at that time, all the while trying to find patience as I put these small, small decisions together with the faith that small, good decisions can and will build into a wisdom of some sort and they will be the best that I can be.

In one of my current favorite books, The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd, one wise character says:

“When you’re unsure of yourself, when you start pulling back into doubt and small living, she’s the one inside saying, ‘Get up from there and live like the glorious girl you are.’ She’s the power inside you, you understand?”

A bit later, she is talking of the difference between knowing what matters and choosing what matters, and goes on to say:

“The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.”

And that, today, this moment, is what I believe, is how I frame my day, my week.  I try, however imperfectly, however many times I have failed before, with the power inside me and the power outside me, to choose what matters, and to frame that choice with the question of how my choice might lift a person’s heart, maybe not in that exact moment, but in some moment.  And hopefully, each of these choices will naturally combine with a bit of joy, some lightness, or perhaps an inward smile.