Friday, September 14, 2012

White Knuckles

Recently, I have experienced some upheaval in my life. Type-A person that I am, I respond by writing lists, making new goals, charting tasks, and the like. But during this time, my spouse has started talking to me about meditation more and more. He tells me that my hyperactive brain needs to do less, not more, if I am going to stop stressing out. I have heard him saying such things before, so I filed that under "things to put on the backburner" in my mental filing cabinet. Then I stumbled across some articles that brought me back to some of the same ideas.

Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest, posted an article on the Sojourners blog, "It's Time for Baby Boomers to Cede Control." A Boomer himself, he writes about how Boomers' failure to share power with younger generations may be tied to a fear of aging. Behind the fear of aging is fear of loss of control, loss of independence and self-sufficiency, and ultimately fear of death. As a young person living in a church full of folks who are older than I am, I have sometimes felt resentful of those who would not share responsibilities and decision-making with me. Now I see that some of this behavior is motivated by existential fear. I can give a lot more grace to others, because I know that I share the same fears, even if I don't know it yet.

Another article caught my eye this week. It's by Star Foster, a pagan blogger featured on the well-known religion blog central, I was surprised by the title, "Reducing Stress, Increasing Joy: The Stoicism of Epictetus." Stoicism isn't known for being the security of philosophies. But she boils down this ancient Greek philosopher in a way that really put things in perspective:
"There are things you can control, and things you cannot. Happiness comes from recognizing this, and from letting go of that which you cannot control while taking charge of the things you can control. Do well, expect the best, do not worry about what you cannot change, and master yourself."
Wow. Most of this is what my spouse, the sage in basketball shorts, has been telling me the entire time. If I want to transcend my stress and find happiness in the midst of the storm, the solution is not white-knuckling life. Clinging desperately to a few details that are insignificant in the long run only creates the illusion of control. The best thing I can do is let go: of other people's actions and attitudes, of realities I don't like, and I especially must let go of the future.

Letting go of control- or really the illusion of control- feels a lot like the first time I let go of the trapeze mid-swing as a child. But in reality, it's less like a shock of complete terror and more of a gentle release, like letting up on the final note of a piano piece into perfect silence. Perhaps there's something to this meditation exhortation after all. If I gradually let go of my thoughts, especially the ruminating ones, I may be able to release myself from the psychological prison of stress and worry.

Perhaps this insight can be generalized for those living in the grip of existential fear, facing aging and death, moving and upheaval, and even just the chaos of life in this entropic universe. It is not only important to learn to stop white-knuckling the details and sweating the small stuff in life. It is also important to stop white-knuckling life itself. If we cling to life, and by extension to illusions of youth, self-sufficiency, and control, we never fully live. Trying so hard to avoid death, and everything that symbolizes death to us, prevents from truly enjoying the beauty of life in the present.

Our American culture, unfortunately, makes it difficult to release our fears. It conflates busyness with personal importance, values an extreme version of self-sufficiency, and idolizes youth. All of those attitudes and values make it difficult to see our fears what what they really are and release them. Learning to see those values as false and to critique those attitudes is the first step to resisting them. Then we can start to set priorities, including spiritual practices that help us to release our death-grip  on life. God made life for us to enjoy it. It's time we got off the hamster wheel and did just that.

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