Looking for inspiration this morning, I began reading and came across an essay by Ali Schultz in which she wrote the following:
As we bury ourselves in “busy,” devote ourselves to mountains of purpose and strive — overtly or subtly — for external fiscal, material, social markers of success, we hold our deck of cards close to the vest, refusing to glance at our own dealt hand. Even when we’re immersed in work that draws us all in and provides meaning and purpose — after years of deep focus on that sole object and mission — that becomes one card in the house we build.
Ultimately, this keeps us aloof. Our ways become our own familiar territory, keeping out what we don’t like, what we don’t believe in, what we have disowned, what scares us. In our striving, we feel alone, isolated from expansive sense of connection to the quiet, profound, and intimate magic of the world around us. We forget that we are not Atlas supporting the world; the world is supporting us…
The beautiful simplicity of Schultz’s language made me wish I had written it. This was not the only instance of such envy this morning — no, I felt the same after reading another essay on suffering, pain and shame by Omid Safi.
The title of Schultz’s essay is “Beyond the Myths We Tell Ourselves, Big Love is Waiting” a title which I honestly didn’t much care for, but her “house of cards” metaphor built itself effortlessly in my mind. Further, I considered the ways her observation that we construct these delicate prisons for ourselves out of the flimsiest of building materials applies.
Lost in a dark wood?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the poet Dante not as a historical or literary persona but as an actual flesh and blood human being. Must be a mid-life thing. Up until this past year, I don’t think I’ve felt “middle aged”. For Dante, he was in his early thirties when he penned Inferno and in his time that was strictly the midpoint of a person’s surviving through the 14th century. The Inferno, and perhaps even his entire Commedia, exists as some response to personal crisis while facing the proverbial crossroads.
In all honesty, I can’t say I see much of a crossroad when I look back over my shoulder. My thirties came and went — nothing. My forties came and went — nothing, well mostly nothing. Now, at fifty I’ve taken a look and realize that I may have inadvertently built a fortress out of many, many decks of cards.
While I am certain that this is not uncommon for most of us, I did have an epiphany of sorts in my office before the semester ended. IT installed a large (and I mean large) LCD monitor and docking station for my laptop and the monitor blocks the tack bird behind it. I grade all of my students work electronically — no paper — so I’d been glued to that screen for at least two hours before taking a break. When I did take a break, I stretched, and realized when I looked at the board that it had not changed the entire time I’ve occupied that office.
For over a decade the back of that desk has been decorated the same way: a picture my youngest daughter colored of a monster from a coloring book using two different green crayons, a photocopy of Picasso’s Don Quixote, and a school photo of my youngest. There was a family photo taken by a friend around 12 years ago that I kept but the sun bleached it out and I have yet to replace it.
Seems I rarely look at the tack board despite it being right in my face.
Look up more often and consider “decorating” on a more routine basis.
Listen, I know that it is just an office desk so let’s not imbue it with too much existential drama. I’m just saying, as Schultz points out, we put our heads down and grind away at the day sometimes forgetting why we are grinding away in the first place.
One reader, Jennifer commented on my last post saying that setting “mini-goals” seemed a better way to achieve a larger goal than trying to tackle the goal itself. I think that notion fits here because it means seeing not the daunting and delicate house of cards we’ve built around us, but the actual cards that we’ve taken and the decks from which they belong.
If one can accomplish that, then maybe the resulting awareness might become more like emerging from a chrysalis and less like breaking forth from an impenetrable shell. In that way maybe the house of cards can fall rightly, and in falling create openings through which we might venture into newer territory free of old patterns.
No, as Schultz suggests, we are not after all Atlas. And the pillars propping our world up are porous at best. Yet we see them as more relevant than the thing those columns support. In this way we become prisoners to a ideal rather than participants within a reality.