Unknown unknowns

If there is one lesson I am learning at the moment it is that we don’t know what we don’t know.

It is the unknown unknowns that blindside us.

Each phase of life has its own unknown unknowns. I have always taken pride in the fact that I have been able to direct people much older than me on individually guided retreats. I also enjoy genuine soul friendships with a number of people who are significantly older than I am.

It is with some humility then that I have to admit that I really didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know that the mid-life transition can be significant and turbulent. I genuinely thought that as I had been quite deliberate in my choices since my early twenties that I would sail through the mid-life transition relatively smoothly.

For me, it isn’t so much about the questions of what have done with my life and what I am doing. As much as it is the stripping of pretense. The sugar coating I had unconsciously used to cover my real motivations has been stripped away. I am left naked; vulnerable and defenseless.

I see my woundedness, and I am beginning to be able to name the force which drove me. I have no idea of where this journey is taking me. I have no idea what I will need to lay aside. All I know is that there is only one way through and that is to allow myself to feel the rawness and grief.

It is almost impossible to articulate because I don’t quite know what I am grieving, and yet here I am. I am in a space I didn’t even know existed. It is humbling indeed.

I am tremendously grateful that I have the time and mental space to allow myself simply to be here – my sabbatical came at just the right time!

Thomas Merton

Today is 100 years since the birth of Thomas Merton. His writing and his thinking have been profoundly influential over a great many of us.

‘My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following you will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I am seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.’

This famous prayer from his book ‘Thoughts in Solitude’ speak to me both of humility and faith. This willingness to step forward in uncertainty resonates with me.

Faith is not about certainty. It is not about knowing. And yet it is about trusting.

I have no idea where my own life is going, but I know that the only way to get anywhere is to continue to be discerning, continue to trust my discernment, and to continue to be aware that I may be wrong.

To take each step in humility and ultimately to trust not in anything I do, but in the grace of God.

Acceptance

Perhaps the greatest challenge in the journey of life is the acceptance of myself as I am.

At least this is my greatest challenge.

The seeking of authenticity means that I need to be authentic to my own inner experience. This doesn’t mean that I need to be a slave to my own selfish pettiness. And act out of that regardless of consequence.

Rather it means noticing those parts of myself I do not really like and would rather not admit to – and acknowledge them. Once I am able to acknowledge how I feel and perhaps articulate it, the power it wields diminishes. I am freed to consider my response rather than simply reacting.

And the response is also an authentic part of myself. It is no less authentic than the reaction would have been.

The stripped down self is not pretty. It is less than I would have liked in so very many ways. But it is real.

At least the glimpses I get of it feel more real, more gritty, but perhaps a little braver, and just a touch more compassionate.

Knowing my own weaknesses, my own faultlines, my own capacity to be less than generous – I am far more likely to give the other the benefit of the doubt. Maybe their hurtful actions are not as brutally pointed as I presumed. Maybe they are struggling in a way that I do not understand or do not see.

Any journey can be dressed up as a journey of the soul. But if the fruit is not a growth in humility and compassion – it is probably not headed in the right direction.

For now, I simply have to accept my poverty of spirit and trust in the grace of God.

A way into humility

“We must be willing to be completely ordinary people, which means accepting ourselves as we are without trying to become greater, purer, more spiritual, more insightful. If we can accept our imperfections as they are, quite ordinarily, then we can use them as part of the path. But if we try to get rid of our imperfections, then they will be enemies, obstacles on the road to our ‘self-improvement’.”

Chögyam Trungpa From The Myth of Freedom

I came across this quote on my Facebook feed last Thursday and I find myself returning to it again and again. It is clearly resonating with something deep within.

To me, this is humility. The willingness to be utterly ordinary. To live in my small sphere of influence and to offer what I can is exactly what I am called to. And I am called as I am, with the parts of myself I wish I could shake and the parts I quite like. I am called to accept the whole package. To acknowledge my limitations, and to trust that if I am able to live with them amicably that grace might just flow in these spaces too.

If we can get to that place of self-acceptance we will discover real interior freedom. At the heart of the Christian message is the idea that we are loved unconditionally by God. In my experience it is through the experience of the love of God that I find access to my own self-acceptance. But it isn’t an instant thing, it is an ongoing conversation, an ongoing discovery. So it is through the taste of freedom that I am able to be more self-accepting. It is through noticing God’s compassionate gaze that I discover self-compassion.

Too often in our attempts to help one another become ‘good Christians’ we cut through that dynamic. Putting conditions and expectations on each other, and propping ourselves up by a constructed image. If we could let go of the ideas we have of ‘right living’ and get instead with acknowledging that we are simply ordinary people trying to live in relationship with God, we may be pleasantly surprised both by ourselves and our communities.