Living in the meantime
As I write this, we have begun a new year. Winter outside my window is cold and crisp this morning – clear and commanding. Rain, they say, is coming soon; but this morning’s visibility extends far into the distance, and the details of the world seem achingly etched into a severe and windswept landscape. The view over this past year also seems unambiguous and uncompromising, while the year ahead appears unsettlingly vague, and uncertain.
I think of Marc Antony’s words upon the death of Julius Caesar: “The evil that men do lives after them; / The good is oft interred with their bones.” The same eulogy may be given for this past year, which many of us are already bitterly relieved is over – and we are eager to get on with quick retribution and recuperation. We want a clean start, which is not possible. What has happened must be accounted for.
There was in fact great trouble this past year, and recovery is gradual. But let’s bury this past year with a proper grief – not just for the damage we have suffered, which was not our fault – but also grief for what was lost when it was offered because it went unrecognized, which was our fault, though unintentional. We were not ignorant on purpose, for we are not evil – we are simply human, and faulty. While we spent time resenting the troubles, we ignored what we could have been doing in the meantime.
There once was a sumi artist in Japan known for his skill in creating the image of a dove in flight, with a spontaneous gesture of his hand. It seemed the dove simply appeared there on the paper, caught in mid-flight. A visitor came to his studio, offering a hundred dollars for such a drawing, and the artist asked him to return in an hour. The visitor, puzzled, asked why wait an hour when it can be done in a moment – but the artist only replied, come back in one hour.
The man returned at the appointed time and doubled his offer, placing two hundred dollars on the artist’s table. Without looking up, the artist said to come back that afternoon. “Why wait until this afternoon,” he asked, “when your dove can be drawn in a moment?” But the artist only replied, “Come back this afternoon.” The story goes on this way for days, months and years, each time the amount offered was increased, and each time the artist increased the time he had to wait.
Eventually, at the end of the story, an aged visitor arrived with a great deal of money, asking once again for the spontaneous image of a dove. The artist took down a sheet of paper, and with an unerring hand and eye executed a perfect dove in flight, his hand moving faster than the eye could possibly follow. The visitor was astonished, and asked why it took so long to do something that took no time at all.
The artist jumped down from his stool, and led the man into the next room – an enormous room, the size of an airplane hangar – where every surface of every table was covered with stacks of instantaneous doves. He turned to his visitor and said, “To be spontaneous, one must be disciplined.” This word discipline has the same origin as the word discipleship, which speaks of a practice that is based upon a constant, deeply held personal conviction. Not that of another’s, upon their journey, but yours, upon your own. And discipline is what you do in the meantime, with a deep belief in your own direction.
What matters most is not attaining an achievement, but committing to continue living life well, for as long as it takes. This is a devotion, a practice. In 18 months I will be 80, and so I’ve begun an 18-month program based upon my intention to be where I will want to be by then. It’s not a matter of time; it’s a matter of what I will be doing during that time as I move along toward my distant goals. You and I have a full year ahead, and more – but more important is what we will do throughout the time we are given.
As I began writing this, the world outside my window was clear and cold, and it seemed I could see forever. Now – a few days later – the rain has come to soak the ground, the sky is closer to the land, and the distant hills have become obscured by a more immediate weather; much like the year ahead. The time between the first words I wrote and these final ones has been filled with considerations that put these words before you. May they provide considerations of your own – and may this next year we are given be filled by that which you’ve found worthy to believe, and pursue.