There are two stages of life: the first is when we are aspiring to perfection, the second is when that is no longer viable, and we begin to look within. — David Brooks
Commencement speakers often encourage young people to dream big. I don’t remember who spoke when I graduated from UCSB years ago, but I had big dreams. My plan was to work six months and save enough money to travel in Europe, where I had a connection for a job. After a year I’d come back and begin law school. By age 40 I was going to be a millionaire — then retire and travel more.
I knew it was possible. I’d heard stories about people who had done things like that. If it happens for some people, why not me?
It didn’t work out that way.
It took me a year to earn the money I needed. My time in Europe was cut short when I was denied a work permit. I completed one year of law school and then withdrew, got married and became a father.
I thought marriage and parenting would be easy.
It didn’t work out that way.
Marriage, it turns out, is a lot of work. Parenting as well. “Perfection” turned out to be elusive.
By my late 30s I was depressed. My net worth was zero and my professional path seemed empty. I had friends who seemed to be thriving, which made it worse. I’d been living with unrealistic expectations and was now painfully coming to terms with the harsh facts of life.
This polarity is something the writer Parker Palmer knows well. Having gone through his own journey, he learned how to live with the tension between high hopes and hard realities. It’s a life skill he calls, “Living in the Tragic Gap.” Here’s how it works.
Many of us start out with lofty hopes and naïve expectations, but eventually encounter disappointments and dead ends.
When this happens, we can be faced with two temptations.
One temptation is to keep chasing those hopes at all costs.
“Look at that guy making a lot of money – he seems happy. I am going to keep pushing to succeed, no matter the cost.”
“I deserve to be happy and satisfied every day. If I’m not, it’s clearly somebody else’s fault, not mine.”
“As a parent, I’m going to read all the books and do the right things. If I do that, my kids – and I – will live a worry-free life.”
“Aging will never happen to me. I’ll find a program, a surgery, a diet or a guru that will keep me looking and feeling young.”
We can become completely absorbed by unrealistic ideals of how life “should” be. Parker Palmer calls this, “irrelevant idealism.”
The second temptation goes to the other extreme.
When the realities of work, marriage, and family life fall short of what we thought we deserved, we can become bitter. We lash out at other people, society, God or ourselves. Or we feel broken and ashamed and withdraw into depression and resentment. This is the temptation Palmer calls “corrosive cynicism.”
But there is a third path, one that avoids the two temptations: “Living in the Tragic Gap.” The “gap” can feel “tragic,” as we must accept the fact our ideals may be impossible to fully realize. But accepting the gap and negotiating life within it is the beginning of wisdom. We don’t give up hopes and ideals but begin to balance them in the context of life’s realities. As David Brooks said, once we are done “aspiring for perfection,” we “begin to look within.”
Little is really known of Jesus’ life before he was 30. But it was probably after a long period of looking within that he emerged with his compelling vision of the kingdom of God. He encountered ordinary people struggling with life. Through him they experienced a new, grace-based way of seeing themselves and the world. This was not an escape from the realities of life but instead gave clarity and meaning to life as it is.
The classic story of Buddha’s life is similar. He was rich and healthy. He was carefully protected from suffering, living the first part of his life in the equivalent of a privileged, gated community. But he sensed something was missing. He went out to see the real world and found the harsh realities of sickness, aging, and death. But he kept pressing for a realistic way to make sense of it all. In time, he experienced enlightenment and passed his insights on to countless others; “problems” will never stop arising in life, but we can develop an awareness that keeps us from being absorbed by them and instead find a boundless source of compassion within.
In my work, I’ve met many people who became aware that perfection was no longer an option and were hungry for an alternative. I met them in my role as a pastor over the years. I met many when I was Director at La Casa de Maria Retreat Center. People were looking for something more, some way to stand between high hopes and hard realities. And when they’d find their footing, it was as if real life began. They became humble, but also caring. They took responsibility for their life choices and learned from their losses. They found a certain kind of quiet courage to go on.
Hospice of Santa Barbara has a long history of supporting people of all ages in the grief process. When I was serving there, I was particularly struck by the work with children and teenagers who’d lost a parent. One group support session ended with a time for the participants to create a work of art that expressed how they felt and what they’d learned. A 15-year-old boy painted a picture of a heart broken open with blotches of red coming out of the broken space, growing larger as they emerged. He wrote: “Death is like a broken heart. It hurts and is sad, but you get through it. Your heart is twice as strong.”