To live successfully is to be true to yourself within the context and circumstances of your life. Successful living is being true to yourself, without destroying the relationships that constitute your life. Successful living is being true to yourself while living in ways that exhibit the values that are at the heart of life, among them: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, mercy, self-discipline, hospitality, justice, compassion, grace, good-faith and good-will.
Once you think you have it down, have any of it down, gracious living for instance—once you think you have gracious living down, take the show on the road. Go visit your family of origin. Take it home with you. See how long you can live graciously while being true to yourself with your family of origin. That’s the true test of successful living. See how true to yourself you can be while exhibiting the high values within your family of origin. If you pull it off there, go visit your in-laws for a week.
Or, just take your sister out to lunch. You know the one I mean. See how lunch goes. Talk to me about how much you have it down, being true to yourself while living graciously, after lunch. Nothing quite like having lunch with the people who push our buttons, and get under our skin, to put us in our place when we begin to think we have it down. Or, invite the sister to come stay with you a month. Then come talk to me about how much you have it down.
How true to yourself can you be when you are always putting yourself aside for the sake of the relationship? How can you tend relationships that require you to deny yourself, and be true to yourself? Now you’re getting it, the tension of the spiritual life. You are also beginning to understand—I just know that you are—why the spiritual masters live in the desert, or on mountain tops, and why Abraham left home, and why Jesus said, “That woman ain’t my Mama,” or words to that effect. It’s just easier that way.
In order to have a chance, we have to have living room. We have to find a place where we can be genuine, authentic, real, and true to ourselves—without having to constantly defend, explain, justify, and excuse the way we see, the way we think, the way we feel, the things we say, the things we love, and the things we do. We need the right people around us to bring out the best in us. We cannot be who we are just anywhere. Neither could Jesus. Or the Buddha. Or Gandhi. Or Confucius. Or Lao Tzu. Or Mohammed. And yet, that’s the test.
The test is to be who we are—to be true to ourselves—“just anywhere,” without having to defend, explain, justify, or excuse. The test is to be who we are, graciously, with kindness and compassion, without having to have anyone’s permission. The test is to be who we are with good humor, and gentle presence, and loving acceptance of those who don’t see how in the world we can be this way, and who give us the hardest of times for it.
It takes practice to become so comfortable with who we are that we can take the show back home without having to deny ourselves for the sake of those who live there—and without stiff-arming our way through the room every time we enter a room. To be able to smile with genuine warmth and say, “I don’t know why I see things the way I do. I guess I’m just crazy that way.” To be able to live with those who are nothing like us without condemning them, converting them, cold-shouldering them, or excommunicating them. That takes a considerable amount of awareness and maturity of spirit, of soul. We don’t get there overnight, by reading a book, or hearing a lecture. That’s why it’s called spiritual practice.
The practice consists of being true to ourselves with gentleness, grace, compassion and peace in the company of those who don’t understand, who don’t get it, who aren’t like us and never will be. Can we honor them? Can we hold them in high regard? Can we see the Christ within them? Can we treat them lovingly anyway? Can we live respectfully with them even if there is nothing much to respect about them? While defining ourselves as clearly and compassionately as possible, saying the truth as we perceive it, in each situation as it arises, all our life long? And, can we keep ourselves safe—off limits, so to speak—and immune to their invasive slurs, and intrusive forays into our business? And, can we leave when we have had enough? And, not go back until we are ready?
We are working to achieve emotional distance, working room, with the people who make it difficult for us to be true to ourselves. That is the distance required for you to be you, and me to be me. Some people expect us to be who they want us to be. We might expect them to be who we want them to be. It takes healthy “I’s” to compose a healthy “We,” and if you can’t have two healthy “I’s,” you better have one—because, while it takes two people to have a brawl, one person can keep a disagreement from becoming a really awful mess.
In order to be a healthy “I” we have to know where “I” stop and “you” start. We have to have a clear sense of self, of what it means to be true to ourselves. It takes emotional distance to attain that perspective—the perspective of one’s self in relation to other selves.
It is very difficult to achieve emotional distance apart from physical distance. We probably have to step, or move, physically away from our family of origin—and other intrusive relationships—in order to develop a healthy sense of self. We have to associate with the right people if we are to have a chance of being right ourselves. We have to step out in order to step in. We have to physically get far enough away from those who want us to be as they are, in order to have a life of our own. It doesn’t help if we move away, and keep associating with people like those we left because we are afraid, and don’t know what to do, or how to live, or what to think, on our own.
At the same time, physical distance does not necessarily equate with emotional distance. It may help to enable it, but it doesn’t guarantee it. We have to do the work of separating ourselves emotionally from those who push our buttons, flip our switches, and stir our emotions, in order to be independent and self-determined “I’s” who are capable of forming a healthy “We.”
It is easy to blame the people who won’t let us be true to ourselves, when the truth is that we are terrified that we might not have a self to which to be true—when the truth is that we would be lost and alone, and without hope in the world, if we were suddenly cut off from those whose idea of us, and how we ought to be is the organizing principle in our lives. We don’t know how to be true to ourselves—we don’t know what to do to be true to ourselves. We have been dancing to someone else’s tune for so long, we don’t have any idea what our own song might be.
The search for the self is no more difficult, or different, than the search for God. We only have to open our eyes—that’s the only requirement. Our “problem” is the Zen “problem” of a man wearing his hat looking for his hat, or a woman holding her keys, looking for her keys, or a frog in a well wondering how it is ever going to find a well, sitting, as it is, at the bottom of this hole. How to wake up is the question. How to realize that the path we are looking for is under our feet, is the question. There are two places we can begin.
We can begin with what we like, or with what we don’t like. Everybody likes something and doesn’t like something else. Start your search for the self you are—for what it means to be true to yourself—with what you like, or with what you don’t like. Do more of what you like, and less of what you don’t like. See where it goes. See what happens. Find ways of incorporating what you like into every day. Find ways of reducing the amount of time you spend each day doing what you don’t like. Live toward what you like. Live away from what you don’t like. See where it takes you. See what happens. This is not difficult. It could even be fun.
As you do this, notice where the opposition arises. Where do you meet resistance? Is it internal, or is it external? Whose interests are being served by the resistance? What are the forces keeping you in place? What are the forces encouraging you to step out and experiment in doing what you like, or think you might like? Where is the pathology in your life? Where is the health and life? What would you have to do to live away from the pathology (and it could be internal, remember) and toward the health? What’s keeping you from taking a chance on life? What do you need to summon the courage to take a chance anyway?
When you have two voices within, one saying, “Stay!” the other saying, “Go!” Which voice is the true voice of your Self, your Soul? How do you know? There is a saying: “Columbus took a chance.” Live toward your best guess as to which voice is the true voice of your Self, your Soul, and see what happens. And, don’t discount the possibility that if you sail off the edge of the earth, it was your Soul at work, leading the way, satisfying its curiosity about what would happen if you sailed off the edge of the earth. Just because your ship wrecks, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t more life in the wreckage than there was back there in the harbor where everything was calm, and your future was just more of the same forever.