One of the great challenges of the virtuous life is dodging the doubts that creep into our thoughts. A speaker I heard yesterday named some of them:
You’re no good.
If people really knew the truth about you, they wouldn’t want to be with you.
You can’t do that.
When I was eight, I came to love Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the Pastoral, because it told a story plain as day without paint or words — using only musical instruments. I told my funny grandfather that I wanted to be a composer when I grew up. “Don’t bother,” he said, “all the good songs have already been written.”
Fast forward to now. The doubt that visits me most is, “You’re not as good at this as other people, so why even try.” Writing and giving talks gives me joy because I get to share with you the treasures I have found pursuing the virtuous life. I have found clarity, peace, and freedom in learning to think and behave from a place of love instead of fear. But, still, there are tons of people more qualified to communicate this than I.
To the rescue comes Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007) in A Circle of Quiet. After reading something she wrote, her husband commented, “It’s been said better before.” How to recover from that?! Her reply to herself (and us) is, “Of course. It’s all been said better before. The thing is, it has to be said by me….We each have to say it, to say it in our own way.”
This frees me to say and do what has been said and done before, better, with everything I bring to it and everything I lack. The choreographer Martha Graham (1894-1991) said, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
Our dance is to live out what has been said and thought and done before in the way that only we can do – while remembering that it is not our words and actions that are the core of the dance, but rather who we are. “Who we are” is what we bring to every situation and it would be sad to listen to our doubts and fail to nourish that core however we can. How sad it would be to miss out on our own life!
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) wrote, “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”
The key is in the last line “with too high a spirit.” This high spirit that overcomes the regrets of yesterday, doubts of today, and fears of tomorrow comes from plugging into the Holy Spirit, for whom there is no yesterday or tomorrow, but only the eternal, creative now.