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On Not Being Good

I like to knit, but I hate the beginning of the process. Because I am not a standard size, and because I often knit from homespun yarn, I can never simply take a pattern and knit it according to the directions and hope it comes out right. I have to knit a gauge swatch, and then measure it in several places, and do the math. I have to do the match for how many stitches I get per inch, and then again to figure how many stitches to cast on, to add or reduce or how many pattern repeats come closest to the right size for my project (which, as I said, is never standard), and then I need to re-measure once I've knit three or four inches up from where I cast on, and again before I cast off, and...

You get the picture. I have learned through bitter and sometimes comical outcomes the absolute necessity to do the math. In life, too, as in knitting, I've learned to take as much control of any project as possible, from the very beginning.

Always Do the Math. Even if you hate it. Especially if you hate it. Life has taught me this.

But for the past nine years, my spiritual life has been encouraging me to let that go, and do the unthinkable: surrender the math. Accept that I am not in control.

This back injury of mine seems to be saying the same thing. Let me explain:

When I first became Quaker, in the initial flood-tide of my peace testimony, I would sit in worship just braced for a series of powerful demands from Spirit. I expected I would be told to turn my life upside down, and to rededicate my life to activism. And, while I was not eager for this to happen, I was at least ready for it.

And that's not what I heard. Week after week, when I would center down and listen in for God, what I heard instead was something more like, "Go slow. Breathe. Be here." And most of all, I heard the unthinkable: "Do less."

Do less? You're kidding me, right?

But I was hearing all these things about not outrunning my leadings, and teaching school was consuming more and more of my time, energy, and creativity anyway. I tried it. How faithful I was to that leading is difficult to say, actually--being told to walk barefooted over hot coals would have been something I was better suited to, constitutionally. But I at least tried.

Week after week, I would come in to Quaker meeting, slow down, center down, and listen for God. And after a while I began to feel present in a way I hadn't felt present in my life in a long, long time. I began to feel small inside, but in a good way. I began to feel a sense of trust, in God or in Something, that I hadn't let myself in a long time. And after a while, it was as if I was hearing a voice, saying to me, "You don't have to be smart. You don't have to be strong. You don't have to be brave. You don't have to be good. All you have to do is be here. Take my hand; trust. It's going to be All Right."

It got so that, sometimes, I'd find myself repeating those words to myself like a mantra at the beginning of meeting for worship. I don't have to be smart. I don't have to be strong. I don't have to be brave. I don't have to be good. And a feeling of relief would wash over me in waves.

I don't mean that Quakers, or people generally, don't need to summon strength or courage on occasion, or that becoming a better person isn't part of what we're hoping to do. And on one level, the words of my mantra are confusing to me, like the message to Do Less. (What do you mean, "I don't have to be strong?")

But there's a part of me that somehow has gotten into the habit of thinking that, without my help, the sun won't rise each morning, spring rains won't fall, and bread will forget how to rise. It's more than trying to be the leaven in the loaf--part of me thinks that I am the loaf, the whole thing.

It's kind of a burden, having to make the sun rise every day. And working so hard at, it, focusing so hard on being strong and brave and clever and good, tends to blot out whatever else Spirit may be trying to tell me.

I'd thought I was doing pretty well with this lesson, on letting go and trusting Spirit a little more. (After all, it's not as if I enjoy doing math all day long.) But I'm learning it again, or more, or deeper, since hurting my back.

Last week, in meeting, I settled into worship in my special chair--not really a chair, the Lafuma tilts effortlessly back into the approximate position in which infants sit in car seats, with as little strain on the spine as possible. It takes up a lot of room, and a lot of members of my meeting have gone to significant trouble to rearrange our entire meeting room--not just for me, no, but for me and the two wheelchair users and three Lafuma occupants who attend Mt. Toby. Benches have moved, and people can be very attached to where they sit in meeting each week. My settling in required a certain level of "unsettlement" on the part of others.

And I move slowly when I first emerge from a car. I physically can't get to the members of the various committees in charge of this move to double-check that my chair is correctly placed. I have to trust: trust Peter to set it up, trust Jan or Nancy or somebody to let him know if it's not in the right spot, if it's going to block access for somebody else or cause a problem.

All I get to do is sit.

I can't do the math. I can't be sure I'm right.

I have, in fact, lost the option of trying to rush ahead of the consequences of all my actions and all my choices, double-checking and thinking everything through. I rely on others, and we may get it wrong, and all I can do is say, "Thank you."

And, again, as I was sitting in my chair, trying to get beyond my fear of my own inadequacy, I could hear that Voice of Spirit, reminding me," I don't have to be smart. I don't have to be strong. I don't have to be brave. I don't have to be good."
My meeting loves me anyway. And so does God.

No math required.


e said…
WOW Thanks for writing this.
I started attending a Quaker meeting about a month ago. I read quite a bit about them before going. Although much of it felt like who I've been my whole life - in other words, an amazing fit - like you, I was and still am hesitant about activism.
I cannot begin to describe the profound peace and love I felt the first time. I had a similar experience as you. I didn't experience nothing, which is what I was concerned about, nor did I experience any call to action. What I felt was loved. I am not even talking about the people. Sitting in silence, waiting for the light within, I experienced a strong shoulder to lean on and encouragement to do so.
It all sounds so strange to write it but it is true. Whoever .... whatever .... I connected to, knew what I needed the most, knew what the most healing thing for me would be.
I cried that meeting, in spite of myself,s and also the following two.
At the end of the hour, I find myself not eager for it to be over but eager for it to continue. It is very difficult to leave that communion with the light. Try as I might throughout the week to recreate it, I cannot come close.
Thank you again, for writing this. Now I know for sure I did not imagine my experience or fabricate it.
That was a lovely post, Cat.

But I've got to break into humour here: wherever do we get the idea that God is in control, always strong, always over any situation?

God certainly can do maths - but not, alas, arithmetic, which is where most of Us come undone.
God is not in control. God is involved. In the doing, creating, uncreating, fearing, joying, paining and singing of all Our Life.
And it's Who we are. God.

Terri in Joburg
Yewtree said…
Thanks Cat, I needed to hear that. I really did. Specifically the bit about not having to be strong, and good, and all that. I had a profound experience recently in which the universe told me in no uncertain terms to relax and let go of outcomes, and to trust the process - but it's good to have it reinforced by similar messages.

Terri - yes we are all God, but each of us is only part, not the whole - I think that's what Cat is saying. I tend to substitute the word universe for God if I feel uncomfortable with the G-word. I also agree that God is the process, not a person outside the process.
Actually, Yvonne, I'm ducking the whole theology question on this one. I know regular readers are aware of my (deliberately) inconsistent use of the word God: uppercase vs. lowercase, used with feminine pronouns, described instead as Spirit or Ain Soph or... etc.

But on this one, I just wanted to present the small slice of insight I got in meeting. In a different context, I might try to communicate something more clear or specific about what I mean by "G/god(s)." And in another context, I might talk about the Quaker concept of perfection as a real experience within Quaker discipline--which certainly sounds like a total contradiction in terms to what I've written here.

Context is everything; this is the message for today. So I'll just say, Terri, Yvonne, I'm not sure what I mean by "God" in this post, and this is one of the places where I'm not trying to imply a lot beyond the obvious.

E, I'm really glad you found something in my post that speaks to your condition. Quakers, of course, are just people, and every bit as pissy and flawed as people anywhere. But that feeling of deep and enfolding love... that, to me, is the feeling of a "gathered" meeting. And I think that it is the living presence of the Spirit that Quakers try to follow that is the heart of that experience.

I also think that, in our attempts to follow and be faithful to that Spirit, Quakers (and others who have found that Spirit elsewhere) often become better people, better able to practice kindness and live peacefully together and in the world. Whatever of that love is within us gets magnified as we go along.

It is strange to write about this stuff--our society has room in it for sentiment, and for intellectual analysis of the religious experience. But we have not much room for actual encounters with God--a shame, because it would be hard enough to find words for such a thing if we were able to speak openly and freely about it. (It's just hard to express in mere words--hence the confusion about words like "God.")

Whew! Too many words on my part here. Sorry if I'm less than coherent... and thank you all for stopping by.

Blessed be.
Anonymous said…
My favorite Psalm Verse is: "Be Still and know that I'm a God". When ever I starting getting out in front of myself, I hear the inner self giving these words.
Love Cat
Michael, from the place that shall not be named
Thank you for the psalm quote! I had heard it before, but never in a context that let me hear it so clearly.

That's going to stay with me for a while.

Blessings, all.
Anonymous said…
I've also been feeling the lack of urgency, Cat. I think of it as the Cosmos saying, "Everything is O...K". A dear Friend Betty Clegg used to say this in meeting a couple of times a year. Finally learning it!

This is also why I like the opening chapters of Ecclesiastes. The teacher is urging us to live life fully with our work, family, and friends, but in the end it's all ephemeral - so relax and enjoy it!
Anonymous said…
This really resonates with me right now. It's good to know someone's at the same place I am; I feel less alone. Thank you.

- Courtney
Anonymous said…
A wonderful reminder. Thank you--and Happy New Year.
Bright Crow said…

This is SO helpful!

Thanks, and
Blessed Be,

Michael Bright Crow
Karen said…
I am going through the opposite right now; after years of chronic ill health forcing me to be still, to hand over control, I am well enough to be paying attention to the ways in which I need to have a still core from which to move, to determine the shape of my life, to explore my boundaries, and literally and metaphorically "do the math".

I believe that I go through many mini-cycles of learning to move, and to be still, to let go and to take hold. Those cycles seem to run inside larger cycles of health and ill-health, losing and taking control. It seems to me that the cycles are getting smaller as I shed unhealthy ideas and beliefs and behaviours, trying to move me towards balance.
Tarot said…
I LOVE this post! Great job! I do like your input it's complete and clear. Thank you.
Ria said…
This is one of the most inspirational posts I have ever read, and that's no lie. Sometimes we do just need to sit down, be quiet, and let the world run itself for a little while, while we remember how to just run ourselves without running ourselves into the ground.

Come to think of it, you may have inspired me to write a post of my own on a few spiritual topics. They certainly fall in with my blog's theme of simplicity, after all.

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