Letting Go of Certainty

“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides.” — Tony Schwartz

On a bitterly cold morning this week, I saw a woman walking toward the large garden at my workplace. I couldn’t believe that a volunteer was actually planning to work in the garden in that cold, despite clearly being bundled in many warm layers. So I watched her and, sure enough, she went right up to the garden gate. As she was lifting the bar that holds the gate shut, a sudden blur of movement rushed past: a deer at full gallop ran behind the woman, not more than a foot or so behind her. A second deer, also at a full run, followed. My heart skipped a beat – they passed so close to the woman that, had she stepped backward while opening the gate at the same moment the deer ran by, they would have collided. Luckily, the deer ran so swiftly that they were out of sight by the time she swung the gate open.

My cry of warning died in my throat. It had all happened so fast I hadn’t even managed to shout. What struck me most powerfully in that moment was that the woman’s bearing and demeanor gave no sign that she had any idea what had just taken place. She had missed both the beauty and the danger of the running deer.

Later, when she came inside to warm up, I told the woman about the galloping deer. She was astounded. She said, “I didn’t hear anything, or even feel any vibrations! Must have been all these layers.” She was torn between disappointment and a kind of retroactive fear.

This incident with the deer seems an apt metaphor for a phenomenon many have been experiencing lately. In our increasingly polarized world, we move bundled-up against the cold world in the certainty of our opinions and beliefs. Certainty feels protective; it offers us a group identity among like-minded people; it gives us a sense that we’re standing strong and prepared against any swiftly moving forces that might seek to knock us down.

Our certainty also has a negative side, though. It prevents outside stimuli from reaching us. We don’t hear the approach of other ideas, other ways of knowing; we remain untouched by perspectives that might increase the keenness of our perceptions or the compassion in our hearts.

Certainty keeps us from feeling vulnerable. When we are certain, we feel protected from having our hearts broken by the world and events beyond our control. Parker Palmer suggests that, being human, our hearts will break regardless of the false layers of protection we attempt to wrap them in. However, he believes that the heart can break in two ways: one is into the hurtful shards of brokenness we typically think of, while the other way is that of the heart breaking open in order to take in new ways of experiencing and seeing the world. To illustrate, Palmer tells these stories:

“A disciple asks the rebbe, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks and the words fall in.”  The same point is made by the Sufi master Hazrat Inayat Khan: “God breaks the heart again and again and again until it stays open.” (from The Broken Open
Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap)

If we hang on to our certainty at all costs, whatever else we’re holding must remain near our hearts at best, unable to enter inside. Our hearts remain closed: unbroken, therefore, unopened.

“A bird in hand is a certainty. But a bird in the bush may sing.” — Bret Harte

 

 

 

 

 

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Re-Calibrating My Heart

“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.” — Ted Hughes

Lately, I have been feeling a bit sheepish. Here’s why:

Most mornings, I stumble out of bed and, after a quick stop in the bathroom, head downstairs for coffee and a brief perusal of social media before getting ready to face the day. I’ve read numerous articles about the fact that getting on the computer, checking email and social media, first thing in the morning is the wrong thing to do if I want to be a productive and successful person who meets all my goals for the day. But this isn’t what has me feeling sheepish.

It’s the fact that I sit at my computer and cry.

One morning, I wept while watching a video of a little girl with a prosthetic leg joyfully receive the gift of a doll with a prosthetic leg “just like me”. Another day, tears leaked out while viewing the latest installment of Carpool Karaoke because…Les Miz! (Sorry, I’ve yet to fall completely under the “Hamilton” spell, but I’m sure it will happen!) I cried reading the letter from the young woman in the Stanford rape case; when I read a post about yet another pedestrian killed by a careless driver while crossing the street in a crosswalk with a “walk” sign. Happy, sad or moving for inexplicable reasons: I cry.

This is a little secret I’ve kept to myself for quite a while. I’m sharing it so that you will know that I do this, just like so many of you. Like so many others, I get caught up in the emotion of things far removed from me – the stories and experiences of people I will never meet – every day. And this is not a bad thing.

But it is a thing that concerns me. We expend a great deal of compassionate energy responding to social media these days. (And, yes, some people expend a lot of energy being trolls, but that is a whole different topic.) Whether we sit quietly and cry at our kitchen tables; whether we click “comment”, “like”, or “share”; whether we write an impassioned response that our friends quickly agree with – we are essentially engaged within a closed loop that we sometimes mistake for actually doing something.

Then we go about our days, feeling harassed and angry at other drivers, at the slow people in front of us at the checkout, at the coffee shop when someone doesn’t know before their turn what they want to order, for crying out loud! In the workplace, we complain about everyone else’s lousy work ethic or bad habit of bogarting the copy machine. We duck into doorways or restrooms to avoid that emotionally needy coworker (you know the one). We don’t engage with people whose political or religious opinions differ from ours, thereby making it easy to maintain strict boundaries between “US” and “THEM”. When faced with people who need our compassion – at the corner or in WalMart or as we drive through a particular neighborhood and suddenly think to lock our doors – all we feel is irritation, disgust, or fear.

I worry that one of the pitfalls of social media engagement is that, while it opens our lives up to a wider reach of people and stories, it also allows us to spend our compassionate energy without actually having to open our hearts and/or join our hands with others IRL. I worry that we prefer it this way, because we don’t get dirty or uncomfortable or risk vulnerability and rejection. We prefer it because it isn’t hard.

The truth is, our hearts are meant to be broken, which is not easy. Hearts broken open allow others to walk right in and find space to curl up and be safe. Hearts broken open let our love and energy to flow outward to touch real people with real needs. They aren’t meant to merely click a thumbs-up button and move on. Hearts broken open don’t press share and write, “I’m just going to leave this here.”

In his novel, The Book Thief, Markus Zusak says “Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.” With the exception of the sociopaths among us, we all feel the itch to make a positive difference. We all feel ourselves called to scratch that itch. And we all fear what might come leaking out. Still, our hearts are intended to leak in this way; we are meant to face our fear in order to add to the good of this world. I believe this with my whole broken-open heart.

And I worry that I am letting that good, compassionate leakage express itself in tears that fall on my keyboard and nowhere else. If, as Ted Hughes claimed, the only calibration that matters is how much heart we invest, I need to invest my heart in the world outside my kitchen, connected to me by something other than fiber optic cable or a wireless router. I think its time for a heartfelt re-calibration.

Breaking: Apart or Open?

Have you ever looked at the first card in the tarot deck, The Fool? In many decks, The Fool is setting forth on a journey. He has packed lightly, a small bundle slung over his shoulder. He looks ahead, not down at the path which, to onlookers, appears to be a precarious one. A dog nips at his heels (or in some drawings, his bum) but he appears unconcerned. In fact, he sets forth with a face full of joy and hope, blithely unaware of the dangers that await wherever he is headed. The Fool appears foolish, indeed.

What an apt image for us as we set out into our lives – especially as we set off into the uncharted lands of relationship. We rarely see what is before us, even when there are markers in place (I once dated someone who told me on our first date that his favorite song was “Love the One You’re With”. Perhaps I should have read that marker.) But often, there are no easy-to-read road signs. I don’t know about you, but I am cautious by nature, and it is rare for me to put my feet to a path I can’t see the end of. So, I have ventured out into the territory of love relationships timidly, afraid of the unknown future ahead and of the possibility of experiencing emotional pain.

Which brings me to the topic of this post: broken hearts. Despite my caution, my heart has indeed been broken a time or two. No one, I think, really experiences life without heartbreak. In the throes of real emotional pain, I have wondered, “What am I supposed to do with this? With this broken thing that was my heart, with these feelings that have nowhere to go now that they have no one to be invested in?”

In one such moment recently, I read the following paragraph, and it gave me some much-needed perspective:

“But there are at least two ways to understand what it means to have our hearts broken. One is to imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about — a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid. The other is to imagine the heart broken open into new capacity — a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome.” (Parker Palmer, from A Hidden Wholeness)

When I read this, it immediately reminded me that I have, in fact, experienced my heart being “broken open into new capacity”. One such experience was a trip I took to Ireland a few years ago. I had never travelled overseas, and had dreamed of visiting Ireland – then got the opportunity to travel with a group from the university. I fell in love with Ireland, and with the person I became on that trip — a person who lived as fully as possible in every minute, who didn’t leave a drop or a crumb behind. It was amazing. When we boarded the plane to return to the States, I put my jacket over my head and cried for two hours.  But the experience of leaving that perfect moment broke my heart open. A love of travel and an image of myself as fully alive were the new capacities born of that experience.

When our hearts break due to relationships not working, not going where we want them to, ending, it is difficult to accept. To then, on top of learning to live with the brokenness, expect or hope for something new and good to be born of it almost defies us. It feels beyond our reach, and yet…perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps we’re meant to learn that looking like a fool isn’t the end of the world. Perhaps we’re meant to discover that hearts are resilient muscles — and like all muscles, they get stronger the more you use them. And perhaps the capacity that will be born is the ability to love without reservation, because you begin to understand that the journey itself (rather than its end) is what makes it worthwhile to do so.

And so you, The Fool, journey on. You feel your feelings, especially the ones that hurt. You look for the good, for the things you may have learned or discovered in yourself. You flex your heart muscle and find that it still works. And eventually, as a Missy Higgins song puts it, “you’ll wake to find, you’re a little unbroken.”