“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” from environmental scientist David Orr’s book Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World.
Last year at one of the final PTA meetings, one mother had the job of announcing and introducing the newly elected members of the Executive committee. A few weeks earlier, I had actually been asked by the nominating committee (yes, this is all taken quite seriously) if I would agree to being nominated for the position of Financial Officer-to which I immediately declined before the asker finished her question. Firstly, financial astuteness is not my strength, and secondly, I already feel overwhelmed enough as an only parent, and need any energy I have for raising my daughter and carving out a life for us. While most of the involved parents in this upper middle class town I find myself in are established, settled, have husbands with banker jobs, large colonial homes, three kids and a dog, I rent an apartment and am starting my life over at middle age. While many of the women have left corporate jobs to stay home with their children and now want to offer their time and talents to the school, I am in job search mode, the sole provider of my family.
As I sat in my squeaky upholstered wooden seat in the old auditorium, I wasn’t prepared for the full-length bios that would be read about each new officer followed by a round of applause. She has a PhD and lives with her husband and three children, volunteering for Girl Scouts, etc etc. This one graduated from an Ivy League school, has worked at a top corporation, and in her spare time, she runs a business selling crafts on Etsy etc etc. She lives in town with her husband and their four kids. It went on and on. I couldn’t help feeling the stark contrast between my life and theirs. What if I had gone ahead and been nominated as an officer. What, I wondered, would they be reading about me? With the dark sense of humor most young widows I’ve met share, I imagined my bio something like this: “Julia is a young widow living on social security, renting a small apartment with her daughter. She suffers from anxiety from post-traumatic stress and has little energy for anything extra. She keeps a blog and calls herself a writer.” I admit, by the time I got home to relieve my parents who were babysitting, the pity party was on.
But later that night, before bed, my self-talk was a bit more positive. I told myself that all of those things on a resume are great, but there are many things about me that are mostly invisible- good things that have been hard-won, but simply have no place in a witty bio. Everyone seems to have one of those quippy profiles these days- the woman who blogs prolifically, the ones who you can find painting in her studio and running around after her three year old, and oh, she loves coffee. Why does everyone have to be a comedian these days? It’s a result of social media giving us a platform to be witty I think, rather than the awkward pauses and flails of live, in-person communication. I’ve found even church websites have these kinds of bios for their staff members. as if to say, “Look! I have personality! I’m not some boring church person. I drink craft beer and go rock climbing!” But I find I don’t really trust in those bios, in their carefully crafted sentences and wit.
And in the months that followed that meeting, I’ve just kept my ears attuned for any more nourishment on the subject. And it just kept coming.
In April, I read this article on J.K. Rowling’s new book, Very Good Lives, taken from her Harvard Commencement Speech in 2008. “So given a Time Turner,” she says, “I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.” She’s right- life’s journey is not simple or logical. Narratives don’t always make sense from a worldly perspective. But next time your CV doesn’t measure up, ask yourself, what are your qualifications? Not your qualifications for a job interview or a “blurb” that sums you up in a few sentences- but for the grit of life itself- for living and loving well. What are your qualifications?
Also in April, I was reading Henri Nowen’s “Life of the Beloved” while I was on spring vacation. Nowen writes, “Don’t you often hope: ‘May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country, or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.’ But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.” I understood what he meant right away- that feeling of being busy with all of the things the world tells you must be done, but also feeling like you’re not tending to the things that actually matter. Nowen proposes that the reason we pursue the praise of the world and its measurable achievements is because we’ve forgotten that we are the Beloved. Once we remember who we are, we will have the inner freedom to turn from the world’s measurements and manipulations.
Arianna Huffington, in her book, “Thrive”, also points out that everything on our resumes “lose all significance as soon as our heart stops beating.” Instead, she focuses on what will be said in our eulogies as a springboard for focusing on what really matters: “It is very telling what we don’t hear in eulogies. We almost never hear things like: “The crowning achievement of his life was when he made senior vice president…” Or: “While she didn’t have any real friends, she had six hundred Facebook friends, and she dealt with every email in her in-box every night.” Or: “His PowerPoint slides were always meticulously prepared.” Our eulogies are always about the other stuff: what we gave, how we connected, how much we meant to our family and friends, small kindnesses, lifelong passions, and the things that made us laugh.” She challenges us to think, not about the kind of job we want, but about the kind of life we want. What an important distinction.
And then in May, I read a beautiful column by David Brooks entitled, “The Small, Happy Life.” Brooks had asked his readers to send in essays about their purpose in life and how they had found it. Again and again, what he found was that many people found purpose, not on the grand scale of success, but in the small things. Elizabeth Young said this in her essay, ““Perhaps,” she concludes, “the mission is not a mission at all. … Everywhere there are tiny, seemingly inconsequential circumstances that, if explored, provide meaning” and chances to be generous and kind. Spiritual and emotional growth happens in microscopic increments.” Microscopic increments. Kim Spencer said this, “Now my purpose is simply to be the person … who can pick up the phone and give you 30 minutes in your time of crisis. I can give it to you today and again in a few days. … I can edit your letter. … I can listen to you complain about your co-worker. … I can look you in the eye and give you a few dollars in the parking lot. I am not upset if you cry.” Terence J. Tollaksen, another reader, had this to say, “I have always admired those goal-oriented, stubborn, successful, determined individuals; they make things happen, and the world would be lost without them.” But, he explains, he has always had a “small font purpose.””
And there is one more writer’s words that reminded me of the things that really matter. If there’s anyone who knows not to trust in those catchy bios, it’s writer and friend, Rachel Macy Stafford of Hands Free Mama. On the surface, she was someone who appeared to have it all together, but much like Nowen’s description above, she got the feeling she was missing the things that really mattered. “Before we know it,” she writes, “we lose track of what matters most in life, only to later realize we’ve accomplished much but lived little.” Her chronicling of her efforts to change all that became the NYT Bestseller book “Hands Free Mama,” and now she has a second book entitled, “Hands Free Life” which she graciously sent me to preview a few weeks ago.
In this book, I find out that this is a woman who turned down an interview with NPR about her writing to keep her designated tech free time with her children. I cringed a little when I read that hoping that they offered her another time slot- but they did not. She is choosing the meaning over the bio. Living a Hands Free Life is, in Rachel’s words, “an invitation to live by heart rather than by societal standards.” If the stories she shares of her daughters are particularly poignant, it’s because children are already pros at this- the living by the heart. Towards the end of the book, Rachel shares a particularly moving story about her older daughter donating just one dollar to an old babysitter who was adopting a Ugandan orphan. Her daughter knew, she writes, that “hope didn’t come in the form of six-figure checks or expensive packages with gold bows. She knew hope came in handwritten notes with misplaced commas and poor penmanship. She knew hope came in the form of small, loving gestures that inspired others to act in kind.” Resumes do not speak of this kind of simple hope.
Ignatian spirituality looks for God to speak to us in the small and everyday, and since the PTA meeting where I myself felt small, and rather “unsuccessful,” God has been speaking to me. It may seem I’ve used an overabundance of quotes by other writers and authors, but this is the way that God most often speaks to me- through words. It seemed everywhere I read, I came across this same theme: You are not small- you have a small-font purpose. Your resume could use some polishing up, but your “microscopic increments” have been exponential. You don’t need an impressive resume or a blog-worthy bio to reach out to others- hope can come in handwritten notes with misplaced commas or on a simple blog like this one. Nothing fancy. Nothing to boast about. Nothing that would garner the applause of an auditorium. You do have qualifications; you are qualified to call or write the newly bereaved, or to sit with her while she cries and not be uncomfortable. You are qualified to hand her a crumpled tissue from your purse and not look away. You are the Beloved.
***If you want to head towards this kind of hope, this kind of living by heart- you can pre-order Rachel’s book and if you use this link she provided me, you’ll even get a free download of her NYT Bestseller, Hands Free Mama. Hands Free Life isn’t a self help book with ten steps, and for that I’m grateful. It’s also not a book that makes you feel sentimental but frustrated at your inability to cherish life every moment. But it is a realistic guide to holding on to the things that matter, to genuine connection with our families, and to small acts of kindness in our communities. And if you chew on it, bit by bit, declaration by declaration, story by story, you will feel your perspective and perception changing, and that is a gift. ***