*I began this post in early February but only now was able to finish it. It speaks from a mid-winter perspective, but hopefully it will still resonate as we enter March.
"The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak."
In the Home
In the deep winter months of January and February, holiday decorations put away, I am struck with an urgent desire to simplify, to streamline, to adopt a prevailing policy of minimalism. I yearn for a clearing of clutter. I know many others share this new year decluttering habit. As I take measures to strip our home down to barer essentials, I often call upon William Morris' (British textile designer author and poet) guiding principle:
"Have nothing in your houses
that you do not
know to be useful
or believe to be beautiful."
A lovely concept: to "eliminate the unnecessary," the "un-useful" to make way for the useful.
To clear away the ugly, the dissatisfying, the poorly designed, to give space for beauty, for craftsmanship, for delight. When approached from this perspective, removing items from the home feels like a gift rather than a loss.
You have only to glance in our barn to know that we have a long, long way to go before Morris would proclaim our home a model home for manifesting his principle, but still, we make progress, and each room that is cleared even by a quarter of its excess debris becomes a space of greater serenity and pleasure.
In the Heart
In addition to this yearly physical purging of our rooms, I find I live perpetually in a state of wanting to "eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak" in my life, my heart, my head. I am
continually seeking to discern the best use of my time and energies, desiring always to get to the essential purposes for which I am designed. Some of this is in my makeup. I am an "INFJ" personality type, according to the Myers-Briggs assessment, and I am struck by the accuracy of the INFJ description:
"INFJs are guided by a deeply considered set of personal values. They are intensely idealistic, and can clearly imagine a happier and more perfect future. They can become discouraged by the harsh realities of the present, but they are typically motivated and persistent in taking positive action nonetheless. The INFJ feels an intrinsic drive to do what they can to make the world a better place."
I am predisposed to make decisions based around personal convictions and ideals. Therefore, I spend a lot of time trying to align with that to which I am called. Henry David Thoreau famously wrote in Walden:
"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
I remember how deeply those words affected me when I first read them. "Yes! This!" I thought. I share this desire to get at what is fundamental and not, when it comes time to die, find that I have not really lived.
In her poem entitled, "The Summer Day," Mary Oliver gifts us with the question:
"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?"
I rise each day seeking to be able to answer this question assuredly, robustly, and joyfully.
With a wry, unsparing observation, George Bernard Shaw puts it powerfully:
"This is the true joy of life; the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that life will not devote itself to making you happy."
You have to smile at his description of a "feverish little clod." No one wants to be a "feverish little clod." Amusing image aside, Shaw's comment is a prevailing inspiration in my life. What is the purpose I recognize to be mighty in my life? And how can I continually bring my life actions, my heart, and mind into a unified, devoted channel towards this end?
This I find myself praying Psalm 119:37a: "Turn my eyes from worthless things." I want to root out that which is distraction to make room for intention. Last Sunday, one of our pastors spoke on how, if we generally are consumed by maintenance activities, fueled by anxiety to get things done, we will never summon up the energy or find adequate time to pursue our true purpose and passion. How wise and how true.
All That Matters
So what have I found really matters? For a post about trimming away the extra to make room for the necessary, I feel I need to prioritize concision, and so I will focus on the two essentials to which I keep returning and that I think perhaps I am beginning to more fully embrace with practice.
It's this simple:
Jesus added the commandment to love others to the existing commanded to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5).
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another" (John 13:34).
"Jesus said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40)."
Having grown up in the church, I knew all this backwards and forwards. On an intellectual level, I knew these were important. I am grateful in recent years to be arriving at a very real, personal understanding and practice of these two principles. The truth and value of these commandments are bringing forth joy in my life.
I am learning the value of self-forgetfulness. To love others well, I set myself aside for a while; I forget myself and my own cares, goals, desires, and worries. I get out of my own way in order to love and serve another. The freedom this brings and the joy is unlike any pleasure I might have derived from a selfish pursuit, a pursuit sought after only for my own enjoyment. This is not to say that I can never pursue something that pleases me, nourishes me, or edifies my spirit and lifts my soul for my own soul's sake. In fact, some attention to filling the well like this is necessary to be able to give out to others. I derive my nourishment from the Source when I seek out soothing and inspiring experiences in keeping with my passions and with what matters most. From that place of satiation, I am able to be a conduit of love and creativity.
I am learning that sacrifice is not the drudgery I used to fear it was. I no longer dread a life sprinkled daily with sacrifice. Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, "We must learn to adorn every day with sacrifices." Yes, Emerson was a great intellectual thinker and keen observer of society. Yes, he was a man of deep, transformational thought and gravitas. And yet, he was also a man who humbly recognized that a life spent only in intellectual pursuits or only in activities that edified the individual for the individual's sake, was at best a half-life. He does not say, "We must gird ourselves daily to make dreaded sacrifices." He chooses the word "adorn," a word with
beautiful connotations of choice, of joy, perhaps even of healthy pride. When we adorn something, we add value and beauty. We add an adornment not by compulsion, but for the joy of it. And often, after adorning, we step back and feel a sense of healthy pride and satisfaction. How true this is when I adorn my day with sacrifices large or small.
Emerson also said, "Self sacrifice is the real miracle out of which all reported miracles grow." Truly, self sacrifice is a miracle. Our selves are so naturally bent towards self-preservation, self-conservation, and self-edification that when we triumph over that bent, it really can be seen and felt to be miraculous. The results it produces in us underscore the miracle.
This week I read these words by John Greenleaf Whittier, who, as a poet from Haverhill, Massachusetts, the town next to the one I grew up, has special resonance for me:
"So to the calmly gathered thought
The innermost of life is taught,
The mystery dimly understood,
That love of God is love of good;
That to be saved is only this --
Salvation from our selfishness."
Add to this the words from William Law that I also read this week:
The Spirit of Love, wherever it is, is its own blessing and happiness, because it is the truth and reality of God in the soul...Would you know the blessing of all blessings? It is the God of Love dwelling in your soul, and killing every root of bitterness, which is the pain and torment of every earthly, selfish love. For all wants are satisfied, all disorders of nature are removed, no life is any longer a burden, every day is a day of peace, everything you meet becomes a help to you, because everything you see or do is all done in the sweet, gentle element of Love."
When near death experiencers return to tell their stories, they return again and again with this message: "Love is all that matters."
Love is all that matters.
These truths are, to me, "the necessary." I fix my mind upon them, pruning away thinking that doesn't align with these truths, allowing space and energy for the "necessary to speak."