Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Chaining ourselves to better things

In what is becoming a frightening routine, the other day I found myself talking with someone seemingly hell-bent on making herself miserable. I was very confused by what I was hearing, failing to understand why they hated themselves so much, why she was determined to continue the behavior that was, by her own admission, causing her so much grief. I wasn’t trying to lecture her about her awful choices, I was just asking questions about them, hoping that if she was listening to her own answers she could convince herself of the advice I knew she would reject if she heard it coming directly from me.
Well, it didn’t work, and I left the encounter feeling like a bystander at a railroad crossing powerless to stop an imminent train wreck.

Reflecting now on that horrifying conversation, I am saddened by how so much of her misery had been so self-imposed, the extent to which her current suffering was by her own hand, holding her down. She positively despised herself, and consequently made a point of pursuing behavior that guaranteed she would continue to find reasons to dislike herself, offering ongoing justification, I suppose, for treating herself so badly. She was denying herself, in a seemingly systematic and calculated manner, reasonable chances for a long and happy life; establishing instead as narrow a set of options as any prisoner faces in confinement.

I suppose that everyone places themselves in a cage of some sort, all of us digging some kind of hole of our own making; no chains placed upon us can weigh as heavily as those we can choose to place upon ourselves.

Like so much of the human experience, however, this trait can be used to enable good ends or bad, and not automatically one or the other.

For instance: as I get older I look at my father’s lifelong choice of career with renewed respect. It was not the most ennobling way in which to earn a living, nor was it the fulfillment of any childhood dream. Judging by his hobbies it’s obvious that his passions were always somewhere else other than his professional occupation … yet it was a steady income, granting an even steadier base from which to raise a family. Therefore he stayed at his chosen career decade after decade, denying himself the risk of pursuing a chancier profession, one less stable, but one that he would undoubtedly have found far more personally rewarding. This self-sacrifice was a chain he wore with grace and dignity until he recently retired late in life, forbearing any complaint; if he had good days or bad days at work, we children would never know about it, as he would always come home to his family in the same cheerful mood.

As I round the bend in years myself, I begin to recognize how I should live up to his example, and stop griping about the less-than-perfect facets to my own current profession. I should grow up, and adopt, as he did, the perspective to see both ends of the chain. Maybe one end of our lives does get shackled to an unpleasant occupation; all the more reason to ensure that its other end links to as pleasant a connection as possible. And what could be more rewarding than connecting with other people? Why not behave, then, in a way that best serves the others with whom we would closely share our lives?

We used to teach our young people that the traditional attachments of faith, fortune and family were targets worth aiming for; that these were trophies worth casting our fishing lines into the murky waters in search of; that it was in our best interest to connect ourselves to as limitless a source of strength as possible. Life is already hard; why act in ways that guarantee to make it harder still? The weight of earthly matters, our commitments to the physical things necessary to sustain us, come at such cost to our physical selves, clipping away the years with its stress and strains. We had better ensure that this chain is therefore attached to as worthy a connection as possible, for otherwise we work and live… for nothing.
No wonder some people become trapped in a self-hating, self-perpetuating decline; their chain ends up redoubling back on itself, both ends linking to the same weight, crushing their ability to rise. As any prisoner grows to hate their jailer, those trapped within that loop find themselves in a noose, being tugged ever tighter, as they take revenge upon their tormentors…:

Their very sense of justice demands they continue treating themselves badly. What a trap!

In trying to reverse such spirals we tend to forget, because it can prove so hard to remember, that what we chain ourselves to are mostly empty containers, which we fill with whatever we can summon the willpower to bestow upon them.

Our lives may change, as our physical shell changes, life getting easier or growing harder; but the choice remains, to make of it what we will. Ours are lives of clay, and we are free in large measure to be our own sculptor.

To breathe a good life into this empty shell, to justify the chains as natural as any umbilical cord, surely this sense of self-worth can only be felt by choosing to live for a higher purpose than the physical one at imminent reach… living for more than just oneself.

Would this not be the most effective way to bear the professional burdens that we shoulder, through the labor that we engage in; to get a little bit less of what we’d want, in order to provide ever so much more of what someone else may need, at the other end of the chain… isn’t that the very essence of “professionalism”..?

Now I think I know why I wasn’t able to be of service the other day in the conversation I mentioned earlier; I didn’t see how similar her choices for her life were to those I make for my own… I hadn’t yet begun sufficiently following the very advice I hypocritically felt only applied to her, and not to me. I should practice more what I preach, so that I can be of service through the expediency of example, as my father has been for me: live a life worth living, and attach the chain to heights sufficient to help sustain me above the weights that earthly gravity, with its earthly concerns, tend to drag us down to, one and all.

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