I continue to work my way slowly through Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World. I find it to be engaging. She is an eloquent writer who is helping me look at my world and notice things I have never seen. She is helping me see how to develop new disciplines out of my ordinary way of living. Her subtitle gives more clues: A Geography of Faith.
In her introduction Taylor shares her hopes for what she wants to accomplish in her book. “My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, more trusting that there is no way to God apart from real life in the real world.” (xvii) Taylor offers a number of practices that help us “save our lives” through the normal living of our life.
Each chapter outlines a particular practice. One of the chapters I found very helpful is entitled, “The Practice of Encountering Others.” When I read this chapter, its truth resonated with me. I realized I have been doing this for years, but never called it this. And I did not think about understanding this practice as a kind of spiritual discipline. In effect she has given me a new way and some new language to see and talk about what I already have been doing.
As I read the chapter, I was caught by a sentence that likely would not be a focal sentence for very many people. Taylor says, “The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed.” (91) I am sure I was pulled into this sentence because for decades one of the key issues for me has been to learn how to live a meaningful life. To me this is far more important than fame or fortune.
In a way Taylor’s distillation of the great wisdom traditions is simple. But as I learned a long time ago, simple does not always mean easy. She says a life of meaning results from a life that is not self-absorbed. At the end of the chapter, Taylor articulates the main point with a sense of humor. “The assignment is to get over yourself.” (105) I really wanted to end that sentence with an exclamation mark! I can just hear some old sage tell me: “Alan, get over yourself!” Such is the path of wisdom.
As I ponder this, I realize I have wandered into the land of paradox. In order to save myself, I need to become more human so that I can trust God even more in the ordinariness of my life. And then she adds ironically, the main impediment---the big problem---of living a life of meaning is being too self-absorbed. I laugh. To have meaning in my life is to get over myself. The most important thing I want from life is not about me. No wonder so few of us ever gets to this point. But I want to persevere.
Taylor is not telling us that we don’t matter. To the contrary. I am confident she wants us to know we matter so much that we won’t know the meaning of life until we know how much we matter. We are people of worth. We are worthy people---each and every one of us. But we get to this truth only by paradox. We get to this truth by getting over ourselves.
There are many ways to develop this, but let me go this direction. We get only by giving. Of course, I know we can get by scheming, working and getting what we feel like we deserve. I can “get” in the sense of fame and fortune. I can even make a name for myself. But ultimately this will be seen as shallow and unimportant. There is no lasting meaning in this. We get by giving. And the best teacher of that is love.
Authentic love is the place I think I best understand how getting comes from giving. I know that is not true of all kinds of loves. We all know love can be selfish and possessive. I am sure I have manipulated people to get love. But most of us also know the purer forms of love. Maybe it gets easier as I get older. I had a ton of people help me. Friends have been a godsend. My own kids were a laboratory for me to learn a little about love.
Now I have grandkids to practice on. Love with friends, kids, grandkids and others is the crucible where I try to get over myself. They all come in my ordinariness. They are there when I am high and when I am sick. They see me all dressed up and when I am undressed---emotionally and maybe even physically. They are the ones I have sinned against and, if there is hope, labor with me in the school of becoming a saint.
Authentic love allows no place for self-absorption. True love is always self-transcending. But transcendent love has a way of looping back. At its best, it is circular. What I give I get back in a form that is good for me. This is hard to trust. Real love is always a leap of faith. But with my faith in God, who is love, I am willing to trust. I am going to keep trying to get over myself---come what may.