Nothing about my upbringing would ever have suggested the direction my life has taken. Early on, I looked around the world of extraordinary “privilege” I was growing up in and saw, in the midst of so much plenty, so much suffering. Mansions, luxury cars, world travel, designer clothes…and hardly one happy person!
I formed this question: if this “best of all possible worlds,” which almost everyone outside it is trying to get into (and everyone on the inside keeps saying is so great) doesn’t work to create a happy, fulfilling life – which it clearly doesn’t – what way of living will work?
Here’s what it was like: Sent to a competitive and demanding prep school for girls for thirteen years, I marched between classes in my little green plaid uniform in straight and silent lines starting in kindergarten. It was an education that gave me many gifts – but learning how to both be true to myself and live in the world was not among them.
In sixth grade the principal strode briskly past me sitting alone on a bench and curtly asked, “How are you, Cathleen?” I was feeling a little lonely and ventured a semi-truthful answer: “Oh, I’m okay, I guess.” She turned on her heel and confronted me, “You are fine!” she announced. “Under all circumstances, when asked, you are fine! Do you understand?” “Yes,” I said. “How are you, Cathleen?” “I am fine.” “That is correct!”
Through lessons such as these, I became a hardworking achiever with a stoic, self-disciplined outlook. Times of relaxed enjoyment were all too rare – and had to be “earned.” My own feelings and needs were on the table last…if at all.
I didn’t forget my question, what will work to create a happy, fulfilling life? I just thought choosing a life of unselfish dedication to worthwhile work would be the answer.
It wasn’t. Not that I didn’t collect degrees or wasn’t successful in my career as a college teacher helping struggling students learn to write. I was. Even national honors came my way. It was more that, underneath those successes, life didn’t really work. The joy, meaning, ease and fulfillment I longed for – both personally and professionally – often seemed just out of reach, attainable over the next horizon, after the next problem was solved.
On the outside, when tension or conflict arose, neither deferring to others nor trying to get people to “see reason” really worked. When I tried to impose solutions, it only fueled resentments that led to apathy or argument before long. On the inside I lived in the daily pull between my “shoulds” and my “wants” – my values and my needs – both at home and at work. Both restless and chronically overworked, my dreams often featured crashing into walls. I was definitely burning out.
I entered seminary in mid-life more determined than ever to discover how to live in way that keeps us deeply connected both to ourselves and others – opening us to giving our best gifts in service to the world and those we love – while truly fulfilling ourselves in the process. I was no longer willing to settle for less!
Today, my answer is clear. There IS a way to orient our lives that opens us to the joy and fulfillment we have always deserved! There is a Spirit (name it how you will) moving through us. In any given moment we are either fully tuned-in, which feels wonderful, or a little out of alignment, which feels like tension or conflict – within ourselves, with others or both.
This is not bad news. It’s just news – it shows us the next step on the path.
There are spiritual practices that reliably guide us in moving through tension and conflict in ways we can feel great about – reconnecting us to ourselves and others in ways that affirm our values and our needs, including staying true to what matters to us most. Let’s explore together how you get there. The Path of Joy awaits!