Choice Reflections

30 03 2017

When I was in college, I had a job in the student accounts office. Every afternoon, it was my responsibility to reconcile the day’s receipts – to make sure that the total of cash and checks in stacks on my desk matched the ledger of payments made. It was meticulous and systematized work. And it had to happen every day. It was inexorable: I knew that every afternoon I would clock in precisely at 3:00 and spend the next two hours with my pencil, adding machine, and a stack of account ledgers.

One spring afternoon, late in my junior year, a friend convinced me to skip work in favor of a trip to the park. This was completely against my sense of responsibility. It took a lot of cajoling and needling on my friend’s part to convince me to be truant. Once I agreed, however, I felt something akin to the spring sap in the trees coursing through my own blood stream and I was lost to the glee of the moment. I had no excuse, so I didn’t call my boss to tell her I wouldn’t be in. I just didn’t show up.

We had a great time at the park – I felt a bit guilty at first, but that soon gave way to the exhilaration of playing with abandon. In that world before cell phones, no one knew where we were, no one could reach us with sober responsibilities: we were free!

Returning to campus later, everyone I saw asked where I had been. “Mrs. Peacock was looking for you. She was worried when you didn’t show up for work.” It seemed that every student on campus had reason to stop by the student accounts office that afternoon, only to be questioned by a concerned Mrs. Peacock about whether they had seen me.

I spent the next day with my stomach roiling from a soupy mess of anxiety, dread, and regret. I had no idea what would happen when I arrived at work that afternoon, but I felt certain that I deserved whatever consequences Mrs. Peacock served  up. A tiny part of me resented that this awful feeling was the price of one carefree afternoon. I  felt remorse about causing concern and extra work for my boss, along with a generalized shameful flush of self-loathing: I was a bad person for shirking responsibility – people of character don’t just skip work to have fun.

All these years later, it doesn’t really matter what happened when I was finally face-to-face with Mrs. Peacock.  Obviously, I survived.

This could be a story about learning to accept responsibility, about showing up when you’re counted on, or about facing the consequences of your choices. OR, it could be a story about throwing off the shackles, making the best choices for yourself regardless of censure from others, choosing to live life fully in the face of pressure to conform to rigid social norms.

It could be a story about one perfect, pure afternoon of sunlight and laughter at Flora Park: a last gasp of childhood before fully facing the realities of the adult world.

It might be none of those.

That is the gift that time bestows on our choices: we can reflect upon them and see them from a variety of perspectives. Many of life’s stories can be crafted with multiple meanings, constructed as metaphors for a wide range of life lessons.

It is infinitely harder to construe meaning, much less multiple possible lessons, from the choices we are living with right now. We make choices and we live with those choices. Often, we must live with those choices regardless of how stressful or difficult or unfulfilling they turn out to be. In a world rife with inspirational quotes and “blame yourself” memes (“Everything you do is based on the choices you make. It’s not your parents, your past relationships, your job, the economy, the weather, an argument or your age that is to blame. You and only you are responsible for every decision and choice you make. Period.” – Wayne Dyer) we learn that it isn’t ok to be unhappy with the consequences of our choices. Suck it up, buttercup – or make a different choice.

But what if it isn’t that simple? Just yesterday a friend commented, “…things are more stressful than I would like. And I see no way to change the choices we’ve made.” What if the choice is right, but the consequences, what we live with right now, are painful? What if, regardless of whether we chose rightly or wrongly, choosing differently now is out of reach financially, or prohibitively impactful in the lives of others who depend on us (children, elderly parents, etc.)?

Sometimes, the resources required to change the choice you’ve made are not simply inner resources – they are real resources you don’t have – like money, time, or knowledge. Lack of those resources might be insurmountable in this moment. What now?

These are the places where we get stuck, and there are no easy solutions for getting unstuck. Since there are no easy solutions, perhaps it would be best if we merely tried to withhold judgment – of ourselves or of others. From the outside, life might look static, like we are simply living inside the painful choice we’ve made. But on the inside, what if it could feel like we’re proactively holding space for what will emerge? If we replace self-loathing (the roiling stomach of anxiety, dread, and regret) with self-loving-kindness, with compassion, for the flawed, human person who made these choices?

Eventually, someone will emerge from the painful choice-cocoon we’ve constructed for ourselves. There will be time, then, to craft meaning and construct metaphors and life lessons; to articulate how our choices helped define the someone who emerged. Clarity tends to come upon reflection rather than in the immediacy of now. And because the attribution of meaning is one of – if not THE – great gifts of time, we have to wait for it. It can’t be rushed.

 

 

 





Unfolding: Rilke, a paper crane, and me

5 09 2013

Image 2I don’t know the official name of the garden. I had seen it from my bike as I rode past. It looked like a quiet place to sit and think, across the street from its showier cousin, the Rose Garden. It wasn’t until after I had admired the little waterfall that I thought to notice the copper statue of a stylized crane, green patina-ed from the weather, or the boulders surrounding it. Each boulder contains a plaque, also weathered, with instructions for folding an origami crane. The first plaque begins, “Spirit of Peace: Fold Your Desire for Peace into a Paper Crane…”

I had come to the garden to contemplate a poem which came to me through circuitous routes, and which I knew upon my first cursory reading would require quiet and space. Here it is:

“I Want to Unfold” by Ranier Maria Rilke
 
I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m to small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing —
just as it is.
I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones —
or alone.
I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.
I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.
 

In the art of origami, a simple square of paper is folded in such a manner as to be transformed into something else, something other than itself. These days, I feel tightly folded, holding myself erect with the artificial strength of reinforcement from bent and pleated layers. I may appear to have wings, like the crane. But that is an illusion: I am earthbound, folded tightly in upon myself as a protection from all my self-doubt and fear.

I want to know my own will, and to move with it. That was, after all, the whole point of the changes which led me here. I felt I had a firm idea of it in April and May, but as the summer passed it slipped more and more from my grasp. August and it seemed to disappear altogether. My days are peaceful on the exterior, but inside they are a turmoil. I have folded my desire for peace, let alone to know my own will, so deep I can’t quite get my fingers on it.

I want to unfold. Let no place in me hold itself closed, for where I am closed, I am false. Closed equals hidden, equals secret. Why choose folded, to remain closed? Fear, shame, guilt. Fear of my own inadequacies; shame that after all of the grace and the love I am still much afraid; guilt for the ways (large and small) that I know I am failing the gift of this time.

Unfolding. Unfolding equals exposing, unearthing, truth-telling. Exposing my vulnerabilities (the snivelling coward that lurks in my heart); unearthing through careful toil my hopes and dreams; telling the truth about my uncertainties and shortcomings, but also my talents and courage (which share space with that coward).

I want to unfold. Because, unfolded, I am myself: a plain square of paper, open to the sunlight. Able to breathe because I am no longer tightly crimped. My pride wants me to “be among the wise ones — or alone”, but truthfully, I am content to be alone and small enough for this world. It’s only on my bad days I think, “Any smaller or more alone, and I would disappear.”

As I sat in the Peace Garden, contemplating the Rilke poem through the oddly curved lens of my current life-in-limbo, I wasn’t thinking about the Divine, or Rilke’s obvious desire for deeper connection and relationship with God. I wan’t thinking of peace. I was thinking about the falseness of being closed – of pretending to be less needy or more sure than I am. Of the artiface, not the art, of origami.

Image 4

And then I saw it: one tiny white paper crane among the plantings. Fragile and pure, untouched by the dirt it rested upon. One wish, not the famous one-thousand, for peace. One tiny, fledgeling hope for something better. And I laughed, realizing that while a person should take care to remain unfolded, it is fine for paper. The paper crane was made more by folding, while I was less. Yet both of us yearn for peace – the peace that comes with understanding and compassion.

That peace must find a beginning in my own heart.

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