Today I attended a morning service at the nearby Protestant church, Gamle Aker, the church from 1100 AD that I have written about before in this blog. The last Sunday in October in the Scandinavian Protestant church is called bots-og bede-dag, literally translated penance and prayer day. It is a day to take stock of one’s failings, to ask for forgiveness for them, and to promise to atone for one’s sins. The priest who led the service, who happened to be a woman, talked about how no one wants to focus on sin and personal failings anymore, but that despite this, the realities of sin and personal failings remain. She also encouraged folk to take charge of their own lives and not to rely on others to direct them or to entertain them. She talked about how we can sometimes close doors to others, to opportunities, to love, to many good things, and instead choose to live in passivity and fear. In doing so, we will never see the open doors before us, that could perhaps lead us down new paths and to new ways of living.
I believe in synchronicity; the Encarta dictionary defines it as the coincidence of events that seem related, but are not obviously caused one by the other. This is relevant because the priest’s talk focused on ideas that have preoccupied me for much of my life the past half year--the desire to open new doors and follow new paths, about the fear related to changing one’s life, but also about the exhilaration of knowing that one wants to. But it is not enough to mean well or to want to. That is what the priest meant; she meant that we must act on our good intentions. We have a saying, at least I remember it from growing up—‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. Another (less ominous) way of putting it is ‘if not now, when?’ When are we going to do those good things that we think of but never act on? When are we going to listen to our heart’s desire? When are we going to acknowledge the existence of our soul? The priest reminded us that we do not have a lot of time on this earth. We do not live forever. Our mortality is not a distant fact many thousands of years in the future. For some it is the fate they will face next year, for others many years from now. Nevertheless, death is the great equalizer. It is man’s fate. It is the ‘blight man was born for’, to cite Gerard Manley Hopkins. Another wise person said, ‘live each day as if it were your last’. It sounds perhaps depressing to say this, but it is not. It is a wise way to live but not an easy one. That level of awareness can make one sad as well as happy. We need the balance. Perhaps there has been too much focus on happiness at all costs with no discussion of the importance of sadness in our lives. The yin and the yang as Mara says.
Taking all of this into consideration, I know I cannot be happy with, nor was I ever happy with, a passive life. I do not confuse a passive life with a content or sedate or peaceful life. An active life, filled with choices acted upon, filled with the life and energy that comes from having made decisions about how to live one’s life, leads to peace and to contentment. But the periods of passivity, of anxiety, of angst about making the necessary changes, are also positive in their own way. Rollo May wrote about finding the meaning in human anxiety in his book, The Meaning of Anxiety. He was a psychiatrist, an author, an artist, an activist, and a family man, whose personal values and beliefs shone through in nearly everything he did. He lived a full life and I think I understand what that means now. He described different development stages, one of them being the creative stage, which he meant defined what it meant to be a genuine adult. He stayed true to his heart’s desires and he did not seem overly preoccupied with status or prestige. I believe these two things kill one’s desires and good intentions faster than anything else in both a work and life context. It is hard to stay true to oneself and at the same time be climbing the career ladder to satisfy the wishes of others around you. It is hard to stay true to oneself and to be networking with the ‘in-crowd’ that will ensure your rocket flight to the top, because you may have to do some things that go against your beliefs. What are you willing to give up, or compromise on? I guess we all compromise to some extent, but it becomes more problematic when we approach issues that test our ethics.
Penance and prayer day gives us a chance to look at our failings and our successes, as well as our passiveness and our activeness. It does not mean that we have to condemn ourselves, to walk around feeling guilty, to be unable to forgive ourselves. We cannot be perfect beings on this earth, but we can at least attempt to find the paths that will move us toward living a life that is in harmony with our heart’s desire. We will always be ‘in development’ and unfinished. The important thing is to actively make the journey and to make it a memorable one.