I’ve become convinced that all of the great wisdom of the world — whether it be from philosophy, religion, psychology, spirituality, or the school of hard knocks — ends up saying mostly the same things, just from different angles.
In the past couple years, one of those seemingly universal truths has come into clearer focus for me. Everywhere I read, it seems to pop up.
Said in my own inadequate way, it’s this: we all have a tendency to write “stories” for ourselves — stories that we will grasp and claw and fight for. And even though we fight so hard for them to be true or to become true, they prove ephemeral or fleeting — impossible to realize in any real perpetuity.
These stories have been called different things in different traditions: ego, false self, form, unconsciousness, or simply wrong ideas.
And to the extent we don’t let them go, we are living something less than the greater, messier, brighter and darker and fuller life that God, the universe, or destiny would have us live.
Here’s philosophy professor and theologian Adam Miller:
Like everyone, you have a story you want your life to tell. You have your own way of doing things and your own way of thinking about things. But… As the heavens are higher than the earth, God’s work in your life is bigger than the story you’d like that life to tell. His life is bigger than your plans, goals, or fears. To save your life, you’ll have to lay down your stories and, minute by minute, day by day, give your life back to him. Preferring your stories to his life is sin.
Here’s spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle:
As long as the egoic mind is running your life, you cannot truly be at ease; you cannot be at peace or fulfilled except for brief intervals when you obtained what you wanted, when a craving has just been fulfilled. Since the ego is a derived sense of self, it needs to identify with external things. It needs to be both defended and fed constantly. The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance, special abilities, relationships, personal and family history, belief systems, and often also political, nationalistic, racial, religious, and other collective identifications. None of these is you.
And Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr:
There is a necessary suffering that cannot be avoided, which Jesus calls “losing our very life,” or losing what I and others call the “false self.” Your false self is your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments. It will and must die in exact correlation to how much you want the Real. “How much false self are you willing to shed to find your True Self?” is the lasting question. Such necessary suffering will always feel like dying, which is what good spiritual teachers will tell you about very honestly. If your spiritual guides do not talk to you about dying, they are not good spiritual guides!
And finally, Jesus:
Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?
Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:
And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
It’s been a hard week for me, and I think it has been for most of you. As I walked with Aubrey yesterday, we talked about what’s made it hard: uncertainty, anxiety, isolation, fear. But she narrowed in quickly on what has been bothering me most: the sense that my stories are slipping out of my grasp.
Each step I’ve taken as an adult, both personally and professionally, has been part of a plan I’ve made for myself — sometimes written with quite a bit of specificity, but always imagined in enough detail that I can instantly recall what I expect about the work I’ll do, where I’ll live, how I’ll spend my spare time, the activities my kids do or will be able to participate in, the health I’ll enjoy, the house we’ll build and the car I’ll drive. These stories of mine have reasonably specific timelines — “By the time I’m X, I’ll definitely do Y.”
My stories include other things as well: how I want or believe people perceive me, the impact I believe I’ll be able to have, the groups I do and will associate with, and so on.
Your stories are no doubt different than mine.
You might have finally purchased tickets for that big vacation you had been planning for years, and now it’s off.
Maybe you were saving up to buy a home, and now your savings are going to necessities.
Maybe you just started a restaurant, only to be forced to close.
Maybe you were going to graduate college in front of your family, and that graduation is now virtual.
Maybe your high school or college reunion was coming up, and your classmates were going to see your beautiful family, or your professional successes.
Maybe you were finally going to get to stay home with kids, or finally going to retire, and now it looks like you’ll be working forever.
Maybe your business was finally going the way you wanted, and turns out to be highly cyclical.
Maybe your child had taken the long way to prepare for a service mission, and now it’s on hold.
Maybe you were going to get married.
Maybe you imagined many more years with a loved one, and now their very life is at stake.
There are as many stories as there are people, and they’re not just about the future. They are all the layers of metaphorical makeup we put on; not just to influence the way other people see us, but to influence what we see when we look in the mirror.
In the past two weeks, it seems everything has gone topsy-turvy. The things, activities, associations, and timelines are all no longer clear. The spreadsheet I’ve made with all my plans, the one that lets me pretend I’m in control, suddenly looks irrelevant, even silly.
The more false authority we’ve put behind a story, the harder it is to see it slip away. We think that God or fate has either given us our story, or endowed it with unique status or inevitability; and when it appears that our story is just that — our story — an entire superstructure of identity falls apart.
And now, the good news. None of those great wisdom traditions stop there. Once the story falls apart—with or without our approval—we find that there is something much more substantial, something much deeper, something infinitely more wholehearted in the raw, newly exposed foundation that is not made of a story, but made of us.
Of all the quotes above, I think Jesus’s is my favorite: Even Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these. Solomon had all the best stories. He had the greatest riches and the most prestigious associations. But those stories, in the end, were insubstantial; they were not him. And, as Jesus points out, none of us, Solomon included, can add a cubit to our stature, no matter how much we wish it.
The “lily of the field” stands in contrast.
It represents a life unencumbered by stories, or by the illusion of powerfulness; a life of simple beauty, a life of gratitude for what we do enjoy — until we no longer enjoy it and it’s replaced by something new. It’s a life of now-ness, incapable of worry about the future or guilt about the past, recognizing that neither exist. It’s a life that recognizes and appreciates the cycle of death and rebirth in just about everything.
This is not to downplay the very real suffering the loss of those stories and others causes. In Richard Rohr’s words, “such necessary suffering will always feel like dying.” Feel like dying should give us a sense for the gravity of pain involved here; the very real night before day, and the very real winter before spring.
If your stories have died, if they’ve slipped or are slipping through your fingers, as I find some of my most cherished ones are, then we should mourn them. And then, once we’re done, let’s let them go. Let’s recognize that the fact that they could die tells you that they were just that; stories, false self, ego.
If you believe that that which matters is that which lasts, then nothing of real value has been lost. And in fact, by losing our stories, we may have gained a privileged and early view into a much richer us that’s been waiting to be found.