By Neal Lemery
“What should I be doing with my life?” a friend asked me the other day. I echoed the cliché about following your passion and left it at that. But that’s not much of an answer. It was incomplete, and not respectful of a sincere question, one I still come across in my own life.
I recently read an essay about a young person’s path of self discovery from an elementary school teacher, to musician, and now, reformed, changed up to a teacher of song writing and music.
“I don’t recall any defining moment of decision to focus primarily on teaching music over performing it. I think it revealed itself in small steps, one choice at a time. It reminded me of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1903): ‘I want to beg you, as much as I can … to be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves … Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’
“I don’t make a living from songwriting, but writing songs is critical to living my life.” Her songwriting “brings me closest to myself. By allowing myself deeper self-knowledge, I found I was able to follow the breadcrumbs from there. And I still am —songwriting continues to allow me to stay centered and take whatever next step feels right.”
That said, I must admit, I squirm when anyone says: ‘Follow your passion and you can make a living doing anything.’ Clearly these folks underestimate the sheer amount of effort and dumb luck required to make this a true statement.
“Whatever your passion, go ahead. Follow it. By that I mean: be aware of what grounds you most, start there, and be flexible.
“What is the meaningful work in your life? What grounds you? Where do you feel most recognizable to yourself?’ ‘Live the questions,’ as Rilke says, to which I add the path lies in asking them, not answering them.” (Avery Hill, What Does It Mean to Follow Your Passion? Local Lore newsletter, Portland Folkmusic Society (Sept/Oct 2020)
My own roadmap through life is a series of questions and slogans, ones I come back to and reflect on in a quiet moment. I crave those small slivers of life I’ve tried to find for myself during the day, the ritual part of some of the disciplines and practices I’ve sought to establish for myself. Perhaps I, too, am trying to live the questions and not worry too much about having the right answers.
Part of my brain likes to see the world in terms of “either/or”, a process of sorting out options in convenient, systemically ordered piles. What brings me joy? What doesn’t bring me joy? Those questions, that approach to looking at life, can eliminate the boring, soul-killing tasks and obligations that don’t advance what I value as good uses of my limited time on Earth.
I’ve been trying to be around my chosen family, who aren’t usually the biological relatives. I want to avoid toxic people, their poisons often putting me down, diminishing me, which is often a slow chipping away of my goodness, my purposeful direction. Knowing that I can choose my family and friends liberates me and expands my potential. I strive to be a better manager of “family time” and take nourishment from those who enrich me and challenge me to excellence.
I’m an advocate for finding purpose and meaning in life through service to others. I try to reach out and practice small acts of kindness and charity. I work on my empathy and my self-actualization through kindness, volunteerism, and my creativity. Even a few minutes of gardening, picking up a piece of trash, or saying a few kind words to someone at the coffee shop or the store are forms of service and community building. You change experiences and attitudes, and bring the proverbial ray of sunshine into an encounter. Your attitude can be contagious and transformative.
Another dichotomy in my life is to decide to act either out of fear or out of love. I can cringe through life, my sword in hand, obsessed with seeing the world as a disaster waiting to happen, my role in it as the continual failure, fulfilling my expectations as one who is inadequate and “no good”. Or, I can flip that, seeing the world and my experiences as acts of love, as the possibility to do good, and to advance the values and ethics that I cherish, and build a better world. That work always starts in my little corner, with my own two hands and my own heart and voice. Words and small acts of kindness do make a difference, and become the tools of my trade, a builder of a better world.
When I have a clear intention, good actions follow from that.
I strive to be my own best friend, being kind to myself, helping myself across a busy street, or sitting with myself in a challenging situation, offering myself comfort and solace. I can be an advocate for myself, a calming presence, a voice of reason and support, and offer myself a big hug and a shoulder to cry on. I can pull out the handkerchief and lovingly wipe away the tears. Those are transferable skills to be present with others, but I often benefit from practicing that good work on myself.
I practice self-care. I’m my own best nurse. I can plump up my pillow, put on the extra blanket, make myself some comfort food and find my teddy bear at the end of a hard day. The idea of “holding space” for others, by simply being present and attentive, also applies to me. The rest of the world’s insanity can be swirling around me, which is a reminder for me to hold some space for myself and be self-caring, to be the caretaker.
I do best at problem solving when I can see the Truth. Truth is often elusive, and others who seem to want to do harm to me, or use me, take my time and money, will manipulate the truth, bending and distorting it to their own advantage. I’m prone to be a people-pleaser, and default to thinking that others are always genuinely caring and kindly with me. But, that action by others is often manipulation and deceit. It really is my task to know what is the truth, and to recognize deception and truth bending for what it is, a means of lying and fraud. In that truth seeking, I need to hold my own self to the fire, to be self-critical, evaluative, assessing. I need to be aware of my own self-talk, my own ways I sabotage myself. It is a question of self-actualization, self-esteem, honoring and valuing my own friendship with myself. It becomes self-advocacy and self-assessment, self-love.
I need to see myself as unique, special, one of a kind. I do best when I deeply discount other people’s opinions about me. What others think of me really has nothing to do with me. They are caught up in their world, and their thoughts about me only help them explain their own perceptions of themselves, their own belief system. They don’t really know me anyway, especially the part of me that is the precious, unique parts of my soul that are God’s special gifts to me. The judgments of others are simply opinions, and really are uninformed opinions, not based upon Truth. My own value, my own place in this world really is none of their business.
I try to declutter my life. That can start with things, but that work becomes especially effective in managing my relationships and encounters with the world. It goes back to the “does it bring me joy” question.
There’s also the “three gates” approach for managing what comes out of one’s mouth: is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?
I’m a verbal guy, opinionated and outspoken. I share my opinions, probably too freely. I’ve been trying to apply the “three gates” practice in my interactions with others. I’m trying to tamp down the judgmental aspects of what I say, and apply these “filters”. In that, I am working on being a better listener, and actually welcoming the times of quiet, of being present, and holding space for others.