Every morning when I get up, my mind races to the things I have to accomplish for that day. I make an ambitious to do list replete with the steps to the grand life projects I have planned for myself. In fact, in American society we have made a science out of planning, organizing and phasing out steps to a lofty goal. Books, seminars, tv programs, Ted Talks, life coaches, efficiency gurus–they have made a good living teaching us how to break down our lives into manageable steps, how to tap into our inner strengths and translate them into achievable goals. An entire multi-billion industry is founded on the art and science of fulfilling your dreams.
I am no stranger to this American obsession of getting things done effectively, efficiently, of not wasting a dull moment. America instills the wide open sea of limitless possibility, vast vistas of dream accumulation. “You can do it” is the slogan. “Just do it,” is another. You have the power. You are the master of your destiny. You are made to believe that somehow if you don’t accomplish your goals, if you wind up living a life less than what you have imagined, then it most probably is your fault. You are not trying hard enough. You have not taken the right number of classes; you went to the wrong school you don’t know the right people. You haven’t planned your life right. Many times when you are not able to live to the grand plan you have sketched for yourself, you wind up feeling miserable dissatisfaction, “What’s wrong with me?” I am a failure.
I fall into this Western way of thinking very often. My random ruminations–of what I haven’t scratched off of my to-do list; of what I haven’t become, put me into a funk.
But then I remember I have an Eastern side. It is the wisdom of the deep Greek East that sits me down in a pew during a three hour liturgy and has me realize the root of the of Jewish saying, “Man plans and God laughs.” It is a sin of subtle pride to think you can plan your day and can create your life out of your own ambition. It is a fallacy to think you are the center of your own life and that you can steer it this way and that. Mortal fool, God/the universe laughs at you, you think it was your doing but it was the universe that led you here all along.
The people of the East have a different understanding of plans. “If God wills,” the Christian adds on when making arrangements in the future. A devout Muslim utters a prayer at the door of her house upon leaving, asking that she might be granted God’s favor to return. She is humble enough to understand that every step, every breath is not a given. A Zen saying states, “The obstacle is the path.”How profound! How in total opposition this thinking is. That it is not even the path that you carved out for yourself that is where you must go, it is the very stumbling block that creates it.
And when I meditate deeply on the course my own life has taken, the Greek East undoubtedly captures the more complex truth. It was the struggles and the suffering that propelled me to the path I walk now. I never wanted to be a teacher of emotionally disturbed at-risk youth. I wanted to be an international correspondent. I never wanted to go to a city college but after I lost the scholarship to an Ivy League because my mentally ill father had a breakdown and moved us back to Greece that was the path open to me. That college turned out to be the largest producer of teachers in the state.
Sometimes as the Western and Eastern sides of me wrestle in the tortured arena of my mind, I don’t know how to go about doing things. “Why are you doing nothing!” the Western half berate. “Don’t waste your time! do something to advance your career.” “Don’t resign yourself to fate. Your life is a composite of your choices.” I whip myself for not having a successful business like my friend down the block. Why haven’t I advanced in my writing career. What about that not for profit that flopped? I didn’t do the homework. I didn’t get enough contacts. It’s me. I have to work harder. I obsess over myself because I actually believe I have control over my life.
But I don’t. As I grow older and wiser, I realize how much is out of my control.
I am limited by the way my mind is wired. That’s not in my control. I am limited by the circumstances of my birth, the place and time and my social class. Those are not in my control. I am limited by the nuances of my temperament and personality. Those are out of my control. I cannot control macrocosmic events that I am vulnerable to–economic recessions, war zones, natural disasters. I cannot control the manifestation of trauma or the after-effects of accidents on my psyche. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why some with less intelligence and talents and less moral turpitude wind up making it in the eyes of the world while others with more smarts and more wind up struggling.
Indeed as I huddle under the warm flame of a candle, the only thing I can control is my attitude towards the uncontrollable. Considering how many things I have no control over, I thank God the universe that I am standing here today. God has taken care of me regardless of the disappointments and myriad failures of my not satisfying the plans for my life according to my terms. If I surrender to the greater Wisdom of the universe and allow the Grace to move through me, I can accomplish more than ever I could have schemed. Even with my wayward plans, the universe has corrected me and I wound up being OK. Perhaps if I was so hell-bent on getting the course for my life down pat to my will, I would have really messed it up. The universe has done a pretty good job of taking care of me in spite of myself.
That still does not stop the western vs eastern thoughts from wrestling in my Greek-Amerian soul.