Some years ago I saw a movie in which an older man advised a teenager to be careful about what he was doing, because he was in the process of creating, by his thoughts and actions, the man he would become — his future self. It stuck with me. Things do that. They plink down into my head and sit there until sometime later, often years later, when they pop back up like a jack in the box. The popping up is generally triggered by something else plinking down there into the dark, over-stuffed old luggage trunk which is my mind.
The truth about this idea — that a young man is in the process of creating the man he will become — is that it’s actually a universal truth. We’re all in the process, always, of creating our future selves.
Now, I’m not a fan of the new flock of self-help books being flogged by various talk-show hosts right now. You know the ones I mean — the ones that say if you visualize your dreams and desires hard enough, constantly enough, and using a set of tools purported to be ‘ancient secrets,’ that you will attain your heart’s desire. Phooey. Magical thinking of the worst kind. What if I happen to want, say world domination, or that harm should come to someone else, or even something like, say, a Pulitzer Prize? Apart from being either a bad thing to want, or the sort of thing that I can only get if someone else’s dreams are disappointed, such thinking does not allow for God (and yes, I happen to believe in God, although if you’ve read this blog before, you know I my God is one of immanence and utter mystery and not a guy with a beard who’s going to fill my stocking with stuff I want). Such thinking does not allow for the possibility that not getting what I’m so desperate to have that I’m making visualization boards about it, may in fact be the best thing for me. Such thinking does not allow for humility, which I define as the ability to remain teachable.
Which is why my favorite prayer is Thomas Merton’s prayer —
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Merton sounds like a better, smarter, more serene version of me — the sort of ‘me’ I’d like to become. I don’t know where I’m going. I’m blind to the future, and to many of my own character defects, I suspect. But I also believe that the best prayer in the world is one which conveys the idea, may Thy will, not mine be done. Which is what Merton’s prayer does so beautifully. Of course, I’m not quite as spiritually developed as Merton was. I’d like to trust and never be afraid, but I’m a beginner. Still, the idea that I might not be the greatest judge of what’s good for me certainly applies. Heaven knows, my own best thinking eventually led me to a state of drunken despair, only remedied by admitting I was powerless over booze and trusting the advice of people who had my best interests at heart.
In fact, I’m not the first person (surprise, surprise) to consider the possibility I might not be prescient enough to tell what’s good for me and what’s bad. Paul Jeanes, the Rector at my church, told a great story the other day. It’s an old folk tale, and worth repeating, so here goes.
One day, a poor farmer looked out into the field and saw that his only horse had run away.
“Oh, how sad,” said his neighbors, “you poor thing!”
“Well, might be good, might be bad,” said the farmer. “We’ll see.”
The next day the horse returned, leading a herd of wild mustangs he’d lured from the mountains.
“Oh, how wonderful,” said the farmer’s neighbors. “What a great blessing.”
“Well, might be good, might be bad,” said the farmer. “We’ll see.”
The next day, the farmer’s beloved son tried to break one of the mustangs. The horse threw him and he mangled his leg.
“Oh, what a tragedy!” said the neighbors. “What a nightmare!”
“Might be good, might be bad,” said the farmer. “We’ll see.”
The next day, the army arrived in the village to conscript all the young men for a horrible war. They couldn’t take the farmer’s son, because of his broken leg.
And so on.
Whereas I’m not a fan of those books I mentioned, I am a fan of the wisdom found in sacred myths and folk tales. Like the resurrection story in the Bible. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have trouble with taking miracle stories literally. Because I believe in immanence — that creation and all that’s in it is ‘God’ — the idea of a transcendent god who sits outside the story and pops in from time to time to change the rules seems odd and unnecessary to me. But never mind. There’s wisdom in them there myths. So, what does the story of Christ’s resurrection have to tell us, if we don’t take it literally? (Of course, if you do take it literally, I’m not saying you shouldn’t, only that it isn’t the way my mind and soul work.)
Well, perhaps this sacred myth tells us that what we think of as endings, might not be endings at all. What we think of as great tragedies, might have something good in them as well, might in fact lead to unimagined joy. Perhaps the teaching is that it is possible to experience death and find life afterward. For isn’t it true that we experience death, the end of things, in ways both large and small every day? And isn’t it also true that we live a number of lives — as children, as adolescents, in marriage and in divorce, as parents, and widowers, in a number of professions — over the course of a single ‘life?’
When I got sober, it was a kind of death, since my old life was clearly over, but one which presaged a much larger, more wonderful life afterward. When my life in Canada ended, I found my voice in France. When my marriage ended, I entered a new life, and eventually found another man to marry, one who has become my Best Beloved, my north star, my joy. When a manuscript I had worked years on remained unpublished, still-born, I descended to a deeper understanding of the writer’s life, and discovered a new voice, and so on.
And this leads us back to the original thought, you know, the one that plinked, about a young man in the process of creating his future self through thoughts and actions. It makes me wonder, what actions am I taking at this moment, what thoughts am I thinking, and what sort of future me I am creating. The future will come. Death will come, in all sorts of ways. There are any number of things over which I’m powerless (alcohol being just one of them), but that doesn’t mean I can’t make choices, and if I make good choices experience has taught me my future self will be one I am comfortable with. In AA they talk about how every action is either a step away from a drink or a step toward one. Maybe that’s the simplest way of putting it. Every action is either a step toward the person I would like to become, or toward becoming someone of whom I’ll be ashamed. Even if I don’t know where I’m going, I can monitor my intentions. Even in the midst of death, which seems close this week, as one friend has passed and another is gravely ill, I can choose attentiveness to the sacred world around me, and do the next right thing.
I’ll tell you what just popped into my mind. Cary Grant. Born Archibald Alec Leach, once famously said,“I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person. Or he became me.” Fair enough.