How will I be a companion to myself this morning? How would I be a companion to another if another were here? I can’t visualize in my mind how I would be, or what I would do, but I can think about it in words. I’d wake up before her and heat up the kettle for tea. I’d go to the study, turn on a lamp, and begin my work. But as I worked my thoughts would return to her, and I would work as if in love with what I was doing, for the one I loved was in the next room, a bright star asleep in the night-sky of my heart.
Can I work with that love now? No one is with me, but why should that stop me from being with myself? The little self, when no one is with it, gets lonely and frightened. It feels unreal without another or without the longing for another that drives it when it’s alone. Where are you being driven, little self? There is a larger self that can be with that little self, be the other that whispers in its ear, ‘be still.’ The little self struggles to relax on its own, and so it can’t relax, for to relax is to give up the struggle. This lonely little self, when it listens to the whispers of the larger self, does not lose its loneliness, for its very nature is loneliness and a deep searing need for something greater than its own fear and confusion. But it may lose its tendency to despair whenever it begins to feel lonely. It may begin to learn that only if it feels the full depth of its loneliness will it be led toward the hole into which it must fall again and again, to learn how it shattered in the first place, what has been lost, and why it still feels so far from whole.
It is hard to be the little self alone, out of place in time. Each of us is here to be much more, and to be much less. To be forgotten enough to remember that we’re not here to be remembered, but to be forgotten. Only then will we remember ourselves. I remember these things this morning. How could I ever have forgotten them?
What is the ‘much more and much less’ that we are here to be? Maybe I’m not ‘here’ enough to say what we are here to be. I’ve got to be here to stay, and stay close to the silence in my inner ear, to hear what I want and why I want it, and what my eternal wanting has to do with my reason for being here.
Most places I go I hear a low groan, and I want to know what that means. Am I the only one who hears it? I sit alone outside in a restaurant overlooking the water. There’s a group of four people around my age at the next table over, and they seem to be in good cheer and robust health. Their attractive faces rarely stop smiling; no one shows any visible signs of discomfort. Yet why do I sense the groans behind their grins? Why is the air pervaded with a tense quality, humid and claustrophobic? I get up, go past them to the car, and drive away. I roll down the window to feel the warm wind and hear the tires groan as they spin along the asphalt. I pass cars and see tired and sunken faces, drooping eyelids, clammy hands on wheels, bodies locked like myself within polished steel frames, each machine sleek and shiny, fat and happy and filled to the brim with gasoline. The untiring Florida sun glints off the glossy hoods. I keep driving. I always feel like a fugitive on a busy road. It always feels like I’m getting away just in time.
I get away from some evils, only to be reintroduced to some of my own, and first amongst these is the desire to get away, get to safety, get rid of everything that bothers me, get across the moat and inside the well-defended castle walls from which I can look down upon the evil world. I look down and out, but another part of me looks back at the one who looks out. The little self, who does not like his sins to be seen for what they are, has been spotted.
This self does not like his spots, his unmistakable marks of imperfection. He does not care to realize that they arise out of his own self. They are of his own making, though they make him into something he is not. He is not the spot, but what he is not is capable of tying his heart into knots, and chaining his soul in the basement of the castle he himself built. He wants out, but each day he adds another brick to his cell wall.
Outside the window, pine trees sway in the wind. The trees are strong, though they have no power over what moves them, what moves through them. Still, little can move them from their strong center, their solid foundation. And if a tornado does come to rip one from the ground, the loss is no tragedy. Another tree will grow in its place, no more a part of the forest than the last, yet no less.
Why am I here in this cell within this castle? Why should I ask God why I am here, if I returned here on my own two feet? Real work is the work of returning, but nothing real can live except in the open air. Anyone can return to the castle, cross the drawbridge that connects to nothing that connects to anything else. The toil of building the castle is futile. Each brick placed in the wall is a wasted hour. I would not recommend the fruits of this labor to anyone. I do not like where it has brought me. But now that I am here, I have time to see why I cannot be. Though no hand of God created this building, even so my living here has not been for naught.
We are here to be much more, to rise up or descend as the case may be, to return to the tree; but only if we are content to be much less, just another leaf on that tree, with singular veins. Sometimes we feel like we are one of the bigwigs; more often we feel like a broken little twig. It is the wish to be one way or the other, or for others to see us one way or the other, that keeps us going the way we have always gone, keeps us in our own way, feeling broken or invincible, or not feeling much of anything at all, or feeling like the single twig that’s been severed from the tree, subject to the power of the human foot, snapping again each time it is stepped on.
The twig doesn’t know what it is. Case in point: it thinks it’s a twig. It doesn’t know where it’s come from. It doesn’t understand that anything ever happened to it other than the apparent tragic injustice that is happening to it now. It doesn’t remember that it was once on a branch in a tree it no longer even perceives as real, and so it feels no need to return anywhere but to the castle in the sand it has built so proudly with its own two hands, that it can see so clearly with its own two eyes. It feels no need to awaken to any other sound than the alarm, which it can hear with its own two ears, that rouses it each monotonous morning. It feels no need to hunger for anything but the meat it can smell cooking on the grill with its own nose, no need to thirst for anything but the sweet wine it can taste on its own tongue.
It doesn’t remember where it was; it recalls only how it has lain for so long on the ground, being stepped on and snapped into thousands of pieces, strewn about in every direction by the wind. If only it could remember that it was once a part of a great tree, with roots extending far down into the earth, it might remember how to return there.
Real work is the work of returning. I return from the world, a particular part of the groaning world where the soul has a chance to express itself in its present state, however clumsily, without fear of rejection. This place is often a basement room, but here in Florida it is an outdoor porch, in the shade off the highway by the Intracoastal Waterway. On this porch sit those who were once restless and insatiable, who could not get enough of what they imagined finally made them feel like enough, until they were so taken by their thirst for this thing that they had nothing left to call their own, until they had finally had enough. They find shade here and the strength to keep working. Call them by any name you wish. Once they may have been called seekers after truth; now they are linked by another name. I am one of them. I am just another leaf on a branch of a great tree seeking to remember what I am meant to be. Not the twig I became after I fell from the tree to the ground and was stepped on and tripped up for years by countless feet, not least my own, but what I am when I return to the tree.
Real work is the work of returning. I am meant to return, and I mean to do so. I mean to be who I’m meant to be. Great tree, help me start by being a companion to myself this morning. Help me contact your root that connects me to everyone else. Help me find an everlasting freedom in that chain.