This morning during breakfast, I was catching up on some articles I have missed reading in recent issues of Friends Journal, a Quaker magazine which indulges my scribblings from time to time. (Translated into twenty-first century English, that means I am a regular contributor.) The January issue has a piece by Stephanie Wilder, about her work teaching in a juvenile correctional facility in North Carolina. The boys she teaches are all gang members, all incarcerated for violent crimes, and have life experiences that most of us cannot even contemplate. They do not see a need for literacy, do not see a need to change themselves, and cannot even contemplate a future for themselves; they expect to die violently before reaching full maturity.
Stephanie discusses what it means to work in such an environment, to teach in such a culture, and, using a phrase I have heard before, but never so poignantly, says, “I have learned to let go of attachment to outcomes.” She goes on to say, “I cannot ask myself if the boys have learned enough each day or if the discussion in the classroom went well, but I can look at myself and assess if I have done my best. Did I maintain a positive attitude all day and find something to laugh about? Did I recognize each boy in the course of the day and find something to praise? Did I stay calm and relaxed in the midst of stressful situations that inevitably arise? If I answer affirmatively, then I consider my day a success.” The article ends with these words:
We can’t have an attachment to outcomes, and we can’t always expect to get a thank-you. We must act because we can, and because it’s the right thing to do. The world can be a dangerous, violent place, but with each of us trying in our own small way to effect a change, maybe we can make a difference. Let us witness to the love locked inside our hearts and tap into that strength beyond our imagining. (Emphasis added.)
There is a traditional Quaker phrase that probably doesn’t need an explanation, and applies here perfectly: she spoke to my condition. I found myself thinking about what it is that I want, expect, or need from the rest of my life (which, given my medical history, is like looking a gift horse in the mouth) and came up with the phrase, “to lead a useful life.” But then, I quickly wondered if the better phrase wouldn’t be “to lead a meaningful life.” (If you are wondering why this distinction would be important to me, then you are even newer to the world of blogging than I am.:) )
So I started wondering, how do we compare and evaluate these two phrases? Suppose two men retire at the same time, after lifetimes of work that was neither exciting nor boring, fulfilling nor demeaning. The first man joins a community group, and spends every morning working for the improvement of nearby Clark Park, so things will be just a bit more pleasant for his neighbors. Then he has lunch, takes a nap, and goes to help kids with their homework at the after-school program.
The other man has taken the notion in his head that the sound of the cello is the most beautiful thing ever devised by humankind. (No, I don’t mean to dispute, he could be right.) For months, he spends his days learning to play. When he feels he has achieved competency, he spends his mornings in practice, meaning to stretch and expand his meager talent and skill from competency, all the way to proficiency. He has his lunch, takes a nap, and lugs his cello down to Clark Park, where he sits on a bench near where the children are playing, closes his eyes, and makes music. So far as anyone can tell, no one ever notices.
Now, one of these lives would be regarded by most as both meaningful and useful. The other would probably be conceded to be meaningful, but not so useful. Is this difference real? Is it important? Can we say one is better than the other? Or are these questions that one can only answer for their self, based on what their heart tells them?
Does the equation change if one day, as the cellist sits on the park bench, the stiff fingers of his left hand attempting to dance on the neck of the cello, right hand gliding in long, unsteady pendulum sweeps, a small voice says, “Hey Mister”? He keeps playing, but opens one eye to see a seven-year old boy, small for his age, skin the color of milk chocolate, small glasses sliding down his nose. “Hey Mister! How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” He laughs.
The man opens his second eye, and growls, “Practice, practice, practice!”
Grinning so hard you’d think his face would split in half and fall off, the boy closes his eyes and begins to sing.
(I’m going to sit with this a bit longer. I invite you to do the same, and then post your comments.)
What a good thing! Good luck with the blog!
I love the imagery with the little boy but I don’t think he ultimately matters to the question — although he’s certainly welcome to remain in my worldview!
The question you so innocently pose with your cellist obviously extends to the eternal question: What is the meaning of life? Which is nicely linked with Stephanie’s talk of her outpouring of love coupled non-attachment to outcome. Meaning is a process; with love providing the motive power, which seems to work intuitively with me — I’m happiest when I’m busy with others in projects I deem worthy — or meaningful — the latter comes back in on itself. I’ve been grappling recently with meaning in life; I’ve discovered that viewing it as static is very dangerous; it can come back and bite you. Not necessarily in an angry way — just a gentle nip to warn you.
I came across, by way of an interview with the poet Li-Young Lee, Shelley’s belief that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Lee buttresses Shelley’s argument by asserting that even poetry that remains unpublished transforms the universe in ways we cannot know.
As unlikely as that assertion seems, it is one I am coming around to believing. Increasingly I find myself responding to the authenticity of an act over its outward form. A small, nearly invisible act of love seems more worthwhile than grand, globe-sweeping measures carried out to occupy an emptiness in the heart. What meaning could there be in such gestures? And isn’t this what Jesus was trying to tell his disciples?