A little while ago, I posted a reflection about repentance based on a really old story. At the end of that reflection, I wrote: "But those two things -- the internal work of repentance, and the external actions of repentance -- don't happen in isolation from each other....They go hand-in-hand. And when we're hand-in-hand...well, it's a lot harder to hold on to violence, isn't it?"
And I wanted to share a bit about that internal work I've been doing, or at least, the landscape in which that eternal work is taking place. Which for me, comes down to a bit of a conundrum I have, which I suspect many of you have as well:
How do I confront the sense that I'm not doing enough, without falling into the trap of thinking that I'm not enough?
For anyone just arriving on the scene: there is a simple fact about my emotional life, and my mental health, that is important for me to keep in view. When I don't keep it in view, bad things happen. Breakdown things. Hospital things. Avoiding those things, and all the practices and habits that avoidance entails -- including visits with my counselor and my psychiatrist -- is a big priority for me.
And the thing I need to keep in view is the simple emotional fact that "I'm just not doing enough" can become a really toxic message for me.
By "toxic," I don't mean, "bums me out." I mean, "sends me into harmful spirals of self-hate and potentially even self-harm." I mean, "is bad not only for the intangible contours of my emotional, mental, spiritual health but for my concrete physical health."
It could be argued that such a consideration is a privilege, and indeed, as with many aspects of my life, privilege plays a role. But I would argue that ignoring such things is a privilege in and of itself; that it is only within the remarkable privilege of the post-industrial "West" that the insistence that "doing more" is always the best way forward coheres; that it is the privileged few rather than the oppressed many that tend toward "functional atheism," a term defined by Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer as
...the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us. This is the unconscious, unexamined conviction that if anything decent is going to happen here, we are the ones who must make it happen -- a conviction held even by people who talk a good game about God.Oppression and violence are, of course, also bad for the health -- physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual -- of their victims, and need to be opposed for this among many other reasons.
But as, at the beginning of this new year, as I reflect on myself and on those things I need to turn from and toward, I am conscious of living in a tension between the very real sense that I am not doing enough -- enough to confront racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, or violence, or mendacity, or oppression -- and the reality that this sense can be quite harmful, not only to myself but to those around me.
Tension is a word I use often, and it's one whose meaning is easy to lose sight of. Think of a rubber band, which only does its work by holding tension between two poles. If the band is pulled too much, it might break; but if it is not being pulled at all, it serves no function, no purpose. The purpose is in the tension.
And so here is the relevant tension, the two poles that must be pulled against each other if any work is to be done, if anything is to be held together:
It is true that I am not doing enough. This is true because of the simple fact that, short of the eschaton (a topic I'm going to take up in a series of podcasts this month, by the way), there will never be a time when enough has been done, when the work is finished, the struggle won.
It is also true that I am enough. This is true because I am, and you are, made in the divine image, breathed into by the Spirit, loved madly and wildly by a God who creates in and through love.
If I only look to "I am not doing enough," then more than burnout happens to me. Personal collapse happens to me. And my actions and activity come from a frenetic, desperate place of trying to prove to myself and others that I am, finally, doing enough. Which is often ineffective and sometimes very harmful.
But if I settle down into the interior space of "I am enough," then not only may I actually accomplish more, but I am less likely to cut others with the jagged edges of my ego that I am trying desperately to force on the world in the guise of "doing more."
Brene Brown, in a passage I share often because it is worth sharing, writes:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It's going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn't change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.So here is the landscape of my internal work, here at the start of a year that is going to be marked, I think, with a lot of struggle and a lot of rolling-up-of-sleeves:
I am turning, again, to the practices of "enough-ness." Not to indulge myself. Not as part of some sort of feel-good escapism plan. But because it's by sinking downward into that enough-ness, rather than climbing up to the peaks of "doing more," that the real work gets done.
The work, not only of my own repentance, but of the transformation of the world into a true reflection of God's justice, compassion, and peace.
I may not ever be "doing enough."
But I take a deep breath and remember: I am enough. And that is where we begin.
The Parker Palmer quote is from Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (John Wiley & Sons, 2000), pg. 88.
The Brene Brown quote is from Daring Greatly (Gotham Books, 2012), pg. 10.
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