This isn’t heaven, so don’t expect it to be.”
Has anyone ever said that to you? Or have you ever said it to someone?
My response to both questions is “yes.”
My mother said it to me more times than I care to remember . . . always after she warned me that something would not turn out well for me, I didn’t listen, plowed ahead, and then came home dejected, disappointed. True to the ages-old conflict between teen-age daughters and their mothers, I swear that sometimes she enjoyed being right. I can still see her standing in the doorway to my bedroom right here in this house, with her hand on her hip, scolding me. “Well, really, Jane, what did you expect?” (She called me “Jane” when she wanted to be sure that the salt went straight into the wound because she knew how much I hated that name.)
I’ve said it to myself more times than I care to remember after trying to achieve something that I knew from the start was most likely unattainable. In particular, I chastised myself with that phrase when a couple of romantic relationships went sour. “Well, what did you expect?” I asked myself while looking in the mirror. “Did you really think that _________ could ever be (or stay) interested in you? Did you honestly thing that things would work out between you?”
I’ve said it to other people a couple of times, although I don’t recall ever doing it gleefully. In particular, I have asked the question of a couple of friends after they returned to unhealthy relationships and then came to cry on my shoulder when, as predicted, they had their hearts broken yet again.
If someone tells you enough times that you are not worthy, not deserving, not capable, not competent, not important, not valued, not pretty, not attractive, not desirable . . . after awhile you begin to believe it. If the people in your life tell you enough times that you will not succeed — or you tell yourself that — it won’t be long before your list of failures becomes quite lengthy.
How then do we infuse our lives with the optimism needed to set and attain goals, tempered by realistic expectations — of the world around us, the people in our lives and our own ability to reach those goals?
How do we reach for heaven, all the while knowing that we are living here on the imperfect earth?
In one of my all-time favorite books, The Road Less Traveled, the late Dr. M. Scott Peck posited that we must obtain a valid “map of reality” exposing ourselves to the “criticism and challenge of other map-makers.” We must be willing to live a life filled with personal challenges in order to live totally dedicated to truth. We find balance in our lives through the exercise of discipline. About achieving balance, he says, in part:
One measure — and perhaps the best measure — of a person’s greatness is the capacity for suffering. Yet the great are also joyful. This, then, is the paradox. Buddhists tend to ignore the Buddha’s suffering and Christians forget Christ’s joy. Buddha and Christ were not different men. The suffering of Christ letting go on the cross and the joy of Buddha letting go under the bo tree are one.
So if your goal is to avoid pain and escape suffering, I would not advise you to seek higher levels of consciousness or spiritual evolution. First, you cannot achieve them without suffering, and second, insofar as you do achieve them, you are likely to be called on to serve in ways more painful to you, or at least demanding of you, than you can now imagine. Then why desire to evolve at all, you may ask. If you ask this question, perhaps you do not know enough of joy. . .
A final word on the discipline of balancing and its essence of giving up: you must have something in order to give it up. You cannot give up anything you have not already gotten. If you give up winning without ever having won, you are where you were at the beginning: a loser. You must forge for yourself an identity before you can give it up. You must develop an ego before you can lose it. This may seem incredibly elementary, but I think it is necessary to say it, since there are many people I know who possess a vision of evolution yet seem to lack the will for it. They want, and believe it is possible, to skip over the discipline, to find an easy short-cut to sainthood.
There are no “easy short-cut[s] to sainthood.” That’s a powerful statement and reminder. Jesus took no shortcuts. So why should we think that we are entitled to take any?
Every time I have found myself being asked, “Well, what did you expect?” the answer to that question has been at odds with the truth and, hence, the outcome. Each time, the question was posed only after I reached for something that I could not grasp, but my “map of reality” inched one step closer to accuracy because of the feedback received from others or my contemplation about why I failed. Each time, I learned from the experience. And each such experience helped me fine-tune the identity I am forging for myself. Each time, I was ultimately happy that I had tried, even though I failed, rather than give up at the outset on the dream of winning.
And sometimes, of course, I have succeeded and it has felt like a little glimpse of heaven.
But just a glimpse.