Friday, June 11, 2010

Stepping Back, Stepping Out, Stepping Up

There are moments in life when it becomes necessary to leave certain parts of one’s previously-established self behind, in order to make space for something new. So it is with me, at this moment; and this week I have been engaged in that sometimes painful necessity.

Let me explore, first, the positive aspect of this moment of transition. Since the publication, at the beginning of this year, of “Persist: In Praise of the Creative Spirit in a World Gone Mad with Commerce,” I have watched a new path opening up for me. In a couple of months as of this writing, I will be celebrating my 74th birthday—embarking, then, on my 75th year, my third quarter century on this planet—and I consider myself fortunate indeed at this moment to be at the start of a new adventure.

What the book has done for me is to create a whole new sense of myself as a writer. As I have reiterated on many previous occasions, I have known since the age of twelve that this was what I wanted to be—that this, indeed, was what I was supposed to be doing with the life I had been given; but like so many of my fellows—like the vast majority of creative people, I fear—I chose other paths to earn a living, pay the bills, raise a family… those things that constitute a rich and a full life. After a privileged education, I went into education. I climbed the academic ladder until my fiftieth year. Then I quit. (I seem to do these things by quarter centuries!) I chose to be the writer I had nurtured only as secondary to my academic profession.

This is another privilege granted me: I have been that writer ever since. Along the way, I have been other things—I have been an active member of a fine organization of men, growing in the work of understanding first myself, then, more and more, others and learning how to be of service to them. I have been a student of the dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. I have become a grandfather, three times over. Above all, though, I have been a writer, both happy and in many ways successful in that role.

What has led, then, to the change of which I speak? I have published enough books to know that, when a book comes out, the person most fully responsible to make it known is none other than its author. No one else will do it for you, or will do it as well. And this time that responsibility took the form of offering myself as a public speaker, in forums in which I could pass on the book’s message—and, of course, hopefully get a few copies sold.

I dreaded the prospect. I love the engagement with words, but I have always sat at a safe distance from my audience, behind the typewriter for many years and, more recently, behind the computer screen. I could change and edit, get the words right. By contrast, even during many years as a teacher, I never learned to be comfortable standing up in front of an audience and speaking. When invited, I would read, not speak. I offer that explanation to my audience at the start, that I am a writer, not a speaker: for this reason, I choose to read what I have to say.

Well and good. But the very first sponsor of my post-publication events made it clear to me: you’re invited to speak. We have a sophisticated audience, and they do not like their guests to read from notes…

The familiar panic set in. I prepared pages and pages of notes. I tried to get so familiar with them in advance that I could virtually “read” them without looking down. And then… the miracle happened. I began to discover—and more so, once I had a few speaking gigs behind me—that my pages of notes shrank to fewer and fewer. I began to discover that I could actually do this well, that it was actually a thoroughly enjoyable experience. (My “educated” English accent helped! Friends assured me that it really didn’t matter what kind of nonsense I was talking, people would believe it to be admirably intelligent just because it sounded that way, to American ears!) I discovered, in a word—no pun intended!—a whole new medium to work with.

I have a mission. I discovered, back when I started with the men’s work in which I have been involved these many years, that it was important to formulate that mission in an actual statement, a nutshell summary of the work we are assigned to do when we are given the lives we lead. My mission statement has been modified over the years, but I feel comfortable with its current formulation: I mediate harmony in the world by getting to the heart of the matter. My medium for realizing this mission is the skill I have learned with words. For my whole life until this most recent publication I have exercised that skill a writer. Now I have discovered that I have a whole new medium at my disposal. I can speak.

This, then, is the new adventure I am embarked upon. And let me be clear: it’s not just the speaking, it’s the dedication to the message that, I hope, has been made clear in the preceding paragraphs. Because the new talent I have discovered so recently results not only from a carefully honed skill with words but also, more importantly, in my belief in the truth of what I have to say. If the words come easily, it’s because they come not just from the rational, thinking brain, but from the heart.

To return, then, to my starting point. This new adventure, this new self requires time, space, and energy to blossom into its full potential. It’s not just the minutes in the day or the hours in the week—though that’s a part of it. I’m talking about a kind of mind-space, an identity space into which a new, and hopefully more fully evolved person can be born. For that to happen, I determined that I needed to abandon certain parts of me that were occupying the space that was now needed. I needed to divest myself of certain cherished identities, certain assumptions about who I was, in order to become the new person that I am now striving to be. I realize that this might sound confusing, but I can’t explain it any more clearly, even to myself.

So that what I set out to do this past week. It was not easy. I wrote to a small number of people to whom I had made commitments, or near-commitments, for commissioned texts for art catalogues, and withdrew from my commitment. One of the lessons that was drilled into me as a child was that you unfailingly keep your word, you do not “let people down.” I had to struggle with the knowledge that I was, indeed, letting people down by reneging on an agreement. It was not easy. Why not, you may ask—I asked myself—why not simply fulfill these last commitments before moving on? The answer I found when I consulted with the inner oracle was at once irrefutable and difficult to accept: I had already moved on.

An identity that was harder still to step out of was the one I have carried, with great reward, for many years. It was exactly eighteen years ago, to the month, in June, 1992, that I experienced the training weekend that literally changed my life and led me to the place in which I stand today. I arrived at that weekend, as one participant later described it, “shrink-wrapped.” I left like a cracked egg, already in the process of being hatched. In the intervening years I have sat in numerous circles of men, safe spaces in which I have learned immeasurably about my fears and joys, about the potential of a life examined rather than a life that skims the surface. I have led such groups, I have discovered powers and skills I never knew that I possessed. I have served on staff at numerous training weekends like the one I went through, with an increasing measure of responsibility and respect. I have given of my heart and soul, and received in even greater measure from the men that I have worked with.

Early in the week I called the leader with whom I had made an agreement to serve in an important capacity at the coming August weekend and withdrew from the agreement. This is an old, very good, very dear friend, a man who had served on the staff at my initial weekend. He could not—did not try to—hide his disappointment. Mid-week, I sat with the small circle of men, a fairly recently formed group of which I have been a member this past year, and announced my intention to withdraw not only from the group but also from the larger organization. I asked for a “hot seat,” to be challenged for the integrity of my decision, and was granted that opportunity. With my feet held to the fire, I was constrained to recognize, uncomfortably, the dark side of my intention—the part that operates in shadows of consciousness, not wishing to be seen.

Just yesterday, I received a call from a leader in the Los Angeles community of the ManKind Project, a deeply personal call in which he expressed regret that we had somehow never served together on a weekend, along with the wish that it might happen, yet, in August. I found myself challenged yet again, in the best possible way: could I not at least fulfill the commitment I had made, and retire from the work with the dignity of having, so to speak, completed my current obligations? The shadow rose again—that old fear of not meeting the expectations of others and the risk of losing their respect and love. My friend did not allow me to get away with it. I was obliged to take responsibility for my decision without excuses and without regret.

So yes, there is a shadow side to this, and I need to keep it in front of me, where I can see it. I have learned that if I allow it to fall behind me, out of sight, it can control my actions without my knowing it. Here’s my story: my name is Peter. I was called Peter by my Anglican priest father because I was born on the Feast of St. Peter’s Chains, and the name is more to me than just a name. The Biblical Peter, if you recall, was both “the rock”—on which the church was later built—and the betrayer. His shadow emerged with a vengeance on that night in Gethsemane. He realized it too late, only when the cock had crowed three times.

This is my truth, then: I have both Peters in me, both the rock and the betrayer. My struggle is not to deny the latter, but to keep him constantly in mind. With decisions of the kind that I have made this week, at moments of transition, it’s vital to step from rock to rock in this stream of life. It’s vital, stepping away from those identities that have served me well, to commit myself firmly to the new one. What does the rock have to teach us if not, surely, to “persist”?


Anonymous said...

Peter, let me be the first to say what a fine essay this is. It belongs in the book - which doesn't make sense, because it would not have been written (nor the actions taken) were it not for the book.

Of course it could be a starting point for another collection of of work.


AuntieAnne said...

Peter, you inspire me ... to at least consider making a change or two of my own. Thank you. And best wishes for this new life ahead of you.

richardbruland said...

As the ancient Sufi proverb says: 'you cannot hit two targets with one arrow'.
Bravo Peter. Your aim is true.

TaraDharma said...

I was particularly struck with your discovery that you had already moved on. That's exactly it. It's encouraging to know that even as we grow into the years we have been taught are stagnant, profound growth is still possible.

PeterAtLarge said...

Paul--yes, it is. I'm beginning to put ideas together, some essays already written... Thanks for the good thought.

Thanks, Anne. And good luck with the changes you need to make!

Richard, thanks for stopping by. It would be interesting to talk more about this, over coffee, perhaps?

Yes, Tara, it's a recognition. And it's a thrill to know that change has happened, and to be sure that it will continue to happen... not matter what we choose!

Kadira said...

Peter what an amazingly raw, honest piece of writing you have given us straight from the heart. You are an inspiration to others in your age group where so many of them seem to have given up and hung up the hat and got out the pipe and slippers so to speak. I commend your courage - I too have trod that path of disappointing others to follow my own heart and remain true to myself - it can be incredibly painful, but what can be more important than honouring ourselves and finally following the path we were born to?