Friday, March 28, 2008

Choice and Necessity in Life Truly Lived

My senior year in college I spent a semester studying the novels of James, Ford, and Conrad. I was dismayed to discover that this coterie of writers believed that the definition of a well designed character is one whose actions are finally inevitable. It seemed untrue to life that one's destiny is sealed. That one is locked into a fate with no chance of change. As far as I could tell, one always has options. One just needs the courage to deal with the consequences.

Six years later I found myself grading blue books in grad school. It was a beautiful day, and the window was open. I hated grading exams. It filled me with dread. I was never sure who was right, the student or me. And calculating points was a tortuous process. Suddenly, as if an angel had landed on my shoulder, I heard a voice say, "You don't have to do this." I got up, walked out, and never looked back. From that moment on I knew I'd never be a professor. I made the choice to change the story line of my life.

This was a transformative moment for me. I recognized that I had a choice in my career. I didn't have to follow the plot I was given. Or even the one I wrote for myself. I got to change the narrative whenever I wanted. As long as I was ready to handle the fallout.

The fallout was massive but utterly vitalizing. I finished my doctorate, took accounting and finance, temped to support myself, and moved to California -- in hopes of pursuing a career in entertainment. I had little savings, no job, few friends, and a rusted car. I was starting a career from scratch at age 30. But I was chasing what I wanted and leaving behind what I didn't. That alone was worth the losses incurred.

It took a decade from my moment of epiphany in the library to settle on a career that made sense for me. In the interim I was a Kelly Girl, a would-be producer, and a developer. I learned what it felt like to work in an office, to option a script and pitch a movie, and to buy land and build apartments. I discovered the exhilaration and anxiety of doing deals. I got a huge dose of the reality I longed to experience. Then I was ready to explore something new.

When I realized that I didn't have to be a professor, I discovered that what seemed necessary was actually optional. This freed me to ask myself what truly felt good and on the basis of this feeling to change my career. Though I didn't realize it at the time, my paradigm had shifted. I stopped following my head and started following my heart. Not only in what I did but also in how I did it. And not only professionally but personally as well. It was only an illusion that my destiny was sealed. Once I saw the illusion it ceased to exist.

Over the years I have come to the shocking conclusion that very little in life is actually necessary. We don't choose to be born, and we don't choose to die. But much in between, within absolute limits, is in many ways within our control to negotiate. The challenge is to be mindful in the choices we make -- while recognizing that at best they're no more than good guesses. As long as we can accept the consequences of change, we can continue to exercise our option to choose. To choose lives that feel right despite our thoughts and fears. To choose lives of courage, and freedom, and change. To choose lives that continuously surprise and confound us with the unfolding mystery of who we really are.

Friday, March 7, 2008

From Loving Perfection to Perfecting Love: A Matter of Acceptance

Many years ago, out of the blue, my girlfriend asked me if I liked her . . . body part. This created an immediate dilemma. I had never really thought about whether I liked it. As far as I was concerned she was a beautiful woman. But once she posed the question, I didn't know what to say. I looked for some standard by which to measure its quality. On a scale of 1 to 10, how did it rate? Should I compare it to a model's? To an athlete's? To an actor's? Needless to say, I made a mess of the moment. Only now do I understand what she was asking.

I recently took a course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a secular approach to Buddhist meditation based on the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. MBSR claims that we are perfect the way we are, but at the same time it encourages long lasting change. Initially this appeared to be a hopeless contradiction. Eventually the contradiction resolved into a paradox when I realized that MBSR redefines the term perfect.

The conventional meaning of perfect is "without flaw or blemish." It derives from the Latin perfectus, the past participle of "to finish," and in this sense means "finished," "lacking nothing," "complete." This definition of perfection is based on performance. Anything or anyone who is conventionally perfect has met the highest standards of possible achievement. They've reached a level of excellence that's as good as it gets. They lack nothing in their capacity to realize their goals.

The unconventional meaning of perfect is "worthy of love." This has nothing to do with the etymology of the term and doesn't appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. But the claim that we are perfect just the way we are means that we are worthy of unconditional love. No matter how flawed or incomplete we may be, we each deserve love because it's a birthright. To be loved, in other words according to this claim, is a right to which we are inherently entitled. We needn't do anything at all to deserve it.

What's stunning about this unconventional definition of perfect is that it quietly undermines an entire way of thinking. It takes a term that describes the performance of the few and revises it to describe the birthright of the many. It takes a term that entails rigorous comparison between contenders and revises it exclude all reference to others. It takes a term that evokes social stratification and revises it to make everyone equally worthy. By redefining the term perfect as "worthy of love," MBSR dismantles the foundation of the paradigm by which value and love are based on achievement.

What it means to be perfect just the way we are is to be worthy of love regardless of achievement. To be worthy, this is to say, of unconditional acceptance, of empathy for our pain, and of compassion for our suffering simply because we are part of humanity. This kind of love is radically inclusive. It holds all people together regardless of difference in a universal embrace of mutual acceptance. This does not however mean that other people must like us, nor does it mean that we must like them. But it does mean that if we could learn to love others we might be able to achieve a depth of understanding that would allow us to live together in relative harmony.

What's true between people is also true for oneself. To accept oneself as perfect just the way one is is to manage to love oneself regardless of achievement. To accept oneself unconditionally, to empathize with one's pain, and to have compassion for one's suffering keeps one together regardless of conflict in a self-sustaining embrace of internal acceptance. This does not mean that one must also like oneself. But it does mean that if one could learn to love oneself one might be able to achieve a depth of understanding that would allow one to live in relative harmony with oneself.

To accept others and ourselves just the way we are is also the best hope for the depth of understanding that makes possible both collective and individual transformation. Only by understanding our differences with others and only by understanding our differences with ourselves is it possible to find practical solutions to conflict. Moreover, when we attend to the differences at play we already put in motion the process of change. This is because attending is a transformative act. By shifting the emphasis from opposition to acceptance, replacing critical judgment with compassionate discernment, the simple act of attending invites new information that generates insight and lays the groundwork for change.

The change that is made possible through total acceptance can lead to greater health, smoother functioning, and more contentment. It can end wars between people and end wars within ourselves. And it can lead to a more vital experience of life. It cannot, however, make us any more or less perfect, at least not in the unconventional sense of the term. Because no matter how much we do or don't change, we are always just as equally entitled to love. This is what it means to be perfect as is. Worthy of love no matter what.

When I look back at that terrible moment years ago when my girlfriend asked suddenly if I liked her body part, I now understand what she really was asking. She was asking if I accepted her just the way she was. Without condition. Without comparison. Without requiring any change. She wasn't asking if I liked her body but rather if I loved her self. I only wish I could have answered, "You're perfect just the way you are." But it has taken me a lifetime to understand what this means.