July 10, 2012

Staying the Course.

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…I am in blood
Stepped in so far that should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er. 

~ MacBeth, Act III, Sc. 4

Mullah Nasruddin spent a long day traveling by donkey, and by late afternoon was famished and very thirsty.

He met a man selling what looked like juicy, delicious fruit, and paid everything in his purse for the whole basket. Upon closer examination, he realized that he bought not fruit, but hot peppers.

Some miles later, one of his neighbors saw him, choking down one hot pepper after another, eyes streaming and sweat pouring off him.

“Mullah, what are you doing?” the distressed acquaintance asked. “Why are you eating all those hot peppers?”

“I’m not eating hot peppers,” the mullah replied; “I’m eating my money.”[i]

About halfway through my doctoral studies I came within a whisker of quitting. There just didn’t seem to be any point to getting a degree in classical music composition. But I decided to tough it out; since I already had the debt, I might as well get the degree. So I ate my money.

In a way, the degree was only the last pepper in the basket. Ever since childhood, my real loves had been folk and devotional music; I had always preferred “singing with” to “singing to.” But for some reason that therapy has not yet been able to ferret out, I was convinced that the music I loved to make was merely avocational—that my true calling was to the more “significant” world of concert music. So without any spectacular talent, by dint of brains and sheer doggedness, I choked down those peppers for a long time.

Of course, if I hadn’t finished the degree, I’d never have had 10 years of university teaching work; if I had gone on the road as a folk musician, I’d never have met my splendid wife nor had my wonderful children. So I’m not presuming to know better than whatever karmic forces may or may not have been influencing my life decisions. But I can’t help wondering what life would have been like had I listened to the healthy part of my heart rather than the diseased part, and pursued what really made me happy rather than what I had, for some reason, decided was “legitimate.” I sometimes think a conversation like this one (from Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage), put into musical rather than painting terms, might have been the best thing that could have happened to me:

“You have a certain manual dexterity. With hard work and perseverance there is no reason why you should not become a careful, not incompetent painter. You would find hundreds who painted worse than you, hundreds who painted as well. I see no talent in anything you have shown me. I see industry and intelligence. You will never be anything but mediocre.”

Philip obliged himself to answer quite steadily.

“I’m very grateful to you for having taken so much trouble. I can’t thank you enough.”

Monsieur Foinet got up and made as if to go, but he changed his mind and, stopping, put his hand on Philip’s shoulder.

“But if you were to ask me my advice, I should say: take your courage in both hands and try your luck at something else. It sounds very hard, but let me tell you this: I would give all I have in the world if someone had given me that advice when I was your age and I had taken it.”

Now, if I were the only one who, having taken a wrong turn, ignored both personal discomfort and external evidence while barreling all the faster down the wrong path, there would be no need for stories like the one I began with. But the sad fact is that Mullah Nasruddin’s behavior is more the norm than not.

For example, the U.S. federal government spent over $15 billion dollars in 2010 on the War on Drugs, at a rate of about $500 per second.[ii]  After adding that to everything we’ve spent on this “war” since the Reagan era, you’d think we’d have concluded by now that it wasn’t working, and it was time for another approach. But what we do instead? We double down.

When we don’t find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, what do we do? We “stay the course”—for no other reason than fear of what it would say about us if we were to “cut and run” (the only possible interpretation of any alternative to “staying the course”). Why won’t politicians depart from, or even revise, their entrenched positions on issues, even in the face of new evidence and changing circumstances? They fear being accused of “flip-flopping,” which has apparently been added to the list of Deadly Sins. Has the worldwide uproar over pedophile priests persuaded the Vatican to soften its position on the ordination of women as priests? Don’t bet on it. Too much has been invested, and the authority of privileged old men is at stake. The peppers must be eaten.

Remember that scene in Chasing Amy when Alyssa lit into Holden for telling her he was in love with her? She had invested so much into her social identity as a lesbian that a romance with Holden had become unthinkable, even though she wanted one. So to protect herself, she lashed out at him and told him to “go home.”

Why is it so hard to change course? Are we in the grip of Stockholm Syndrome to “the devil we know”? We make decisions about ourselves, and our identities harden around them.

Sometimes these decisions are based on “shoulds” and “oughts.” For years, I filled my music collection with “classics” I believed that I, as a classically trained musician, “ought” to have in my collection. (Some of them I actually listened to, and still do.) It wasn’t until, in the throes of a midlife crisis, I quit my teaching job that I was able to fill a garbage can with CDs I didn’t care about and devote myself to the music I actually like.

Screwtape, the senior demon in C.S. Lewis’s novel The Screwtape Letters, advised his young nephew Wormwood—an apprentice demon out on his first temptation assignment—about this very tendency in people:

The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which the Enemy has furnished him.  To get him away from those is therefore always a point gained…it is always desirable to substitute the standards of the World, or convention, or fashion, for a human’s own real likings and dislikings…You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the “best” people, the “right” food, the “important” books.

Even more often, I think, our decisions to ignore the inner promptings of the soul come from fear–which may be part of the reason that Jesus said, “Do not be afraid” more than any other single thing.

“Fear,” said Pema Chödrön, “is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”  It almost seems as though we would rather regret having never met ourselves than go through the ordeal of the meeting.

Looking back on a lifetime of regret, the poet Yeats asked:

Does the imagination dwell the most
Upon a woman won or a woman lost?
If on the lost, admit you turned aside
From a great labyrinth out of pride,
Cowardice, some silly over-subtle thought
Or anything called conscience once…[iii]

I think Yeats had it half-right; we turn aside not only from “the labyrinth of another’s being,” but from the labyrinth of our own. We are made no less uncomfortable through over sharing with ourselves than through someone else’s over sharing. Most of us would rather just go on eating the peppers, and invent all manner of silly over-subtle thoughts to justify our inertia.

But it won’t do—not if we are to grow into the people God made us to be.

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.[iv]


Visit Scott at Open to the Divine!


[i] Mullah Nasruddin stories are told all over the Islamic world.  I heard this particular one from Ted Richards at a retreat with the New Seminary for Interfaith Studies, where I am studying for ordination as an interfaith minister.

[ii] http://www.drugsense.org/cms/wodclock

[iii] W.B. Yeats, “The Tower”

[iv] Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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