Being Here Now

It was there. I could see it, just for a moment this afternoon. I was standing under a tree in the park with my puppy Joy sniffing around happily at my feet, and gently, ever so gently, I caught a glimpse of reality as Katie describes it: simply, truthfully what is. All of the pressures that I've been putting on myself to publish, to be Someone, to have a house/more children/more money, to get a promotion, suddenly, if only for a moment, fell away, and I could sense how happy I would be without all the thoughts that I have about who I "should" be as opposed to who I am. Alas, alas, why is it so hard to hold onto this thought? Or not-thought? It was so clear!

The shoulds, the shoulds, the deadly shoulds! "I should publish more." Is this true? Yes, if I want to get a promotion. But is it really true? Who needs all of our academic publications? Is it not, in a very real sense, simply feeding the machine to produce simply in order to, yes, produce? I remember this insight, even if I can't express it clearly now. It suddenly occurred to me how much our profession depends on a model of, yes, consumer production (as opposed to say, aristocratic leisure or monastic prayer). We are expected to produce (note the metaphor) in the same way that factories produce widgets, simply in order to keep new widgets pouring out into the world at a steady, production-line rate. Okay, not a new insight in academia, but newly mine: who says that the meaning of human life is solely to produce? Maybe (mirabile dictu!) it is actually to contemplate God; that is, as Katie would put it, to be in love with reality. Maybe all that I was supposed to be doing in that moment was standing under that tree, being in the moment, accepting it as real.

But now that was hours ago and I'm having difficulty recapturing the moment. Which, come to think of it, is probably precisely the problem. I'm not in that moment any more, I'm in this one. And in this one, I am sitting in the living room with my laptop on my lap, my son on the couch across the room with his laptop on his lap, and the puppy asleep under the rocking chair, dreaming puppy dreams. Should I be doing something perhaps more "academic"? Well, no, because if that were the case, I would be doing it. So clearly this is what I am supposed to be doing: writing this blog post about saving my soul. Hmm.... I didn't expect to put it exactly that way, funny how these phrases tend to trip off the tongue. But, truth to tell, it is my soul at stake, which is to say, my life. Am I going to spend the rest of my life fighting reality or loving it? Reality is that I would seem to have something to say about what it means to struggle to find spiritual insight, but that I have difficulty expressing this struggle in what others recognize as properly academic terms. Or do they? I don't know, I've never really tried. Except here on my blog, of course. Which is, now that we're talking about it again, very definitely real because it is what I'm working on right now.

I had another insight as I was riding my bike later this afternoon to a dentist's appointment. I had been reading excerpts from a series of thirteenth-century sermons intended for those about to set out on crusade, and I was thinking about how much I enjoy that style of thinking, the style of exegesis (i.e. commentary) used in the Middle Ages to talk about God. What if--I suddenly wondered--I stopped fighting myself and simply wrote something in that mode, a mode I already enjoy? Not as a forgery, as it were, or simply to copy the style, but out of that type of engagement with the scriptural text, not to impress anybody or make some great academic claim, but simply (notice how many times I've been using that word?) for pleasure, writing just to write. That is, what if I stopped censoring myself and said what I really wanted to say? Again, I wish that I could convey how exhilarating I found this thought (or not-thought). It was as if the whole world had opened itself to me and I could see for the first time in such a very long time (if ever) how doing the work that I am actually drawn to is the only thing that I "should" be doing. And how, after all, do I know that my colleagues won't be impressed? What really, really matters is only that I am.

Just as suddenly, I started to think about all of the people, including certain editors, who have been trying to convince me to do just this: write something other than a properly "academic" book. So what if I did? Sure, it might not get me that promotion I keep talking about, but am I really so sure that that is what I want? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Reality is that I haven't gotten it yet, so worrying about whether I should is, you guessed it, simply a recipe for pain. Joy is letting go of the thought that I need a promotion in order to be who I am. After all, I already am who I am, right now! Nor do I really need to worry at all about publishing, well, anything. I can do the work that I enjoy--say, translate the pseudo-Bonaventuran psalter of the Virgin Mary or write a commentary on the Song of Songs--simply because I want to, and if the World decides that it wants it, well and good; if not, well and good, too. I will have done what I should as myself.

This latter thought carried me all the way to the dentist's in a euphoria that lasted well into the process of having my teeth cleaned. But, again, here and now I am having trouble recapturing it. And yet, I know it was right. I know it was real.

Comments

  1. I would very much embrace the model of aristocratic leisure. Certainly, praying Matins and Vespers everyday with a group would be cool, but I wouldn't want the entire monastic life. I cannot imagine a greater life than a wealthy gentleman scholar who spends a few months every year in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

    The production model prevails because we have to demonstrate our usefulness in economic terms.

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