William Butler Yeats said, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” Years ago I borrowed the quote and exchanged “Being Irish” for “Being a Mets fan.” If you look up “longsuffering” in the dictionary, you will find there are no words defining it, just a picture of a group of Mets fans. The Yeats quote still resonates. Nowadays I might say, “Being human, she had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained her through temporary periods of joy.” Life is good, but it is not easy.
James Hollis suggests that the two great existential threats faced by humans are overwhelmment and abandonment. The first arrives in childhood and reminds us of our relative powerlessness in this capricious world. While that feeling never fully dissipates, our capacity to deal with life’s capriciousness increases with age and maturity, though it is an easier journey for white males who unknowingly enter a world tilted in their favor. Women and minorities have a tougher time.
Regardless of race or gender, we all struggle with the fear of abandonment. It causes us to chase after achievement so we can experience the reassurance that comes from the accolades of others. The fear of abandonment is also why people remain within the confines of fundamentalism. We hold onto outdated theologies in ways in which we would never hold on to outdated medical procedures. We acquiesce to all of those primitive rules and prejudices because we want the security the tribe provides. In the process we might be selling our intellectual integrity, but at least we won’t be abandoned.
For many who remain in fundamentalism, intellectual freedom is not worth the price of abandonment. I understand. Having been abandoned by my religious tribe (though not by all the individuals within that tribe), I know the psychological, spiritual and emotional toll of having been abandoned. It reenforces that abiding sense of tragedy Yeats was talking about.
The fear of abandonment can cause us to stay loyal to that which we have outgrown. We only move beyond those boundaries when something beyond the need for security demands our attention. We move beyond those boundaries when we finally realize we have been called to something larger and that if we ignore that call, it will be at our own peril.
We cannot answer the call to authenticity without a death of some kind. We have to leave behind the world that has become too small for us. We must abandon the maps that lead to decisions that diminish our lives and develop new maps that lead to decisions that enhance our lives.
It is paradoxical that even though we may really, really want to grow, we are still reluctant to abandon those old maps. They no longer work and leave us stuck, but they are our maps dammit, and we cling to them. That is why as much as we might want to grow, usually we do not move forward until our old maps are taken from us through an unwanted divorce, or being fired from a job, or forced out of a career. Even though we know it is past time to abandon them, those maps have to be ripped from our hands by a force greater than our own egos.
No one changes maps without spending time in the desert. While those of us who really want to grow might willingly undertake a few brief forays into the desert, we will always return to the land we know until returning is no longer an option. An old adage says suffering is the fastest course to completion. Authentic suffering forces you forward, through the desert. No wonder it is a journey we resist, given the virtual guarantee of overwhelmment and abandonment.
If you read this blog, there is a good chance you are a person who has said yes to the desert. In the desert I sometimes awaken with a feeling of overwhelmment and the abiding sense of tragedy Yeats wrote about. But as the sun rises over the ridge east of my house and slowly makes it way to the mountains of Roosevelt National Forest, I am reminded just how sacred and holy this journey is. And as I so often say, it is for the greater good.
Living authentically is the best gift we can give our children and grandchildren and the generations still to come. It is courage and endurance that allows us to make our way forward, through the desert, in the direction of the warm and life-giving sun. And yes, we will experience tragedy on the journey, but I dare say that if we are willing to go through the tragedy, we will discover that it is joy that truly abides.
12 thoughts on “Always Forward, Through the Desert”
This may be my favorite piece you’ve ever written. You so vividly describe my experience.
Thanks so much Marty. The James Hollis book, Living an Examined Life, has given me so much to think about.
I read and reread this article carefully. It clarifies so much.
For example, “The fear of abandonment is also why people remain within the confines of fundamentalism.” This makes me re-examine my sixty some odd years of ministerial searching. When I write something, I will definitely link to your blog.
Thank you for you continuing enlightenment.
Thank you so much Warren.
Oh, Paula, as always you inform my heart and mind with thoughts I feel but haven’t words for. Thank you once again for writing, for sharing, and for being your authentic self.
Oh, thank you so much Sally. More than anything else, that is what I hope to do – to speak the thoughts others have had but cannot find the words for.
I have a discussion forum for transgender and intersex people. I was wondering if I could have permission to reproduce the full text of this blog post along with your name and source link?
That would be fine, Katie.
Happy New Year. Another interesting story
A wise woman once told me my feet were designed to go forward, not backward and you have definitely agreed with here. Thank you for a wonderful essay.
So beautifully put! I think there is a fallacy in thinking that living an authentic life is somehow easy all the time. In reality, it’s like stepping out into Oz…beautiful but terrifying at times.
I recently have become a trusted confidante of a young couple who is grappling with the husband’s recent admission that he is, in fact, transgender. He, now she, is wrestling with this desert of authenticity as is her wife. They are seeking out therapy together to navigate this time but won’t be able to start that until next month. I’m wondering if you might have some resources that you can recommend to pass on to them.
Thank you for your kind words. I generally do not have any specific resources I recommend other than finding a good therapist knowledgeable about issues related to gender dysphoria.