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A blog for everything bookish

Thursday, 4 September 2014

On acceptance and aspiration: a dichotomy


We were recently camping at a campsite near Sherwood forest; a beautiful place edged by a shallow stream, a magnet to swim-suited children with fishing nets and Frisbees, with a plentiful spread of mature trees casting pockets of soft shade on the grassy banks. Perfect for sitting and reading while listening to the burble of running water and the distant shrieks of children, distracted only by the dazzle of electric-blue damselflies as they speed across the water, the scent of fire and charring meat, the buzz of an occasional wasp or bee. There is something blissful about having nothing to do but lounge in the soft grass, book in hand, a web of sunlight piercing through the gaps in the tree’s canopy, where the most pressing demand is the grumble of your stomach.

All this lounging time makes for great thinking time. There is something to be said for doing absolutely nothing, gifting ourselves some time in which to be non-productive, lazy, drifting, unengaged. It is something which is an anathema to Western society, in which all labour saving devices, the speed of the internet and cars and other technologies, has freed our time only so that we can fill it with something else, something ‘productive’, a means to an end. Even in our gap times, like travelling, there are now ways to fill it with something. On trains you can answer your e-mails or make an important business call, waiting in airports you can schedule business appointments. There is always something to do, and those days of staring out of the window, watching the clouds and the world go by are somehow frowned upon. What’s the value in clouds? One of the great things about camping is how, in the absence of all that technology and expectation, there is little else you can do other than while away the hours thinking, observing, sharing a conversation or the company of others. When it gets dark there’s little else you can do, and sometimes this makes me nostalgic for the days before street lighting, in which the family would gather around the fire and share stories, or snuggle together in bed and wait, sleeping or sleepless, for the next day.

For some people camping is boring, grubby, uncivilised. For me camping is a reset button. Camping helps me to recover who I am from all the noise that is otherwise happening around me. Camping helps me to remember what is important to me.

One of the things I was thinking about on this most recent camping trip was dichotomy. The word ‘dichotomy’ means “a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different” and the specific dichotomy I was setting my mind to was that of acceptance and aspiration. These are two things which are often set against each other: the idea that if you aspire for something more or better, to be better or different or to want something extra, that you cannot then be accepting of who you are and your situation in life. It is a criticism which is often levelled at Buddhism which teaches acceptance and humility: that through its teachings people learn to accept injustice and suffering and fail to challenge the ‘bad’ elements of human nature.

As I was walking along the side of the stream watching the clear water gush over the stones and the brightness and greenness of the weeds just beneath the surface, the flies buzzing just over the water, sunlight shattering and reverberating on the glassy surface, I felt at peace. I felt that all was well in my life, that I am fortunate to have a good situation, that my husband is a good and intelligent man, that my children are vibrant and happy, that I have a good job with good work colleagues, that I have a nice home in a great community, that I am in good enough health that I can walk for a long time by the side of this stream and feel good, that I live largely in the absence of pain and suffering and that if that was all my life was it would be a good life. In that moment I felt I could accept my lot, I could accept who I am as a human being in confidence, that I did not need or want to be anything else, I did not aspire to great riches or ownership of property, I did not want to be beautiful or a great leader, I did not want to be famous or infamous, I did not want people to look up to me or seek me out as a source of knowledge, I did not need to be a great writer. My life is good, and I’m grateful for it. I reached a place of acceptance.

At the point of reaching acceptance I also thought that perhaps this did not mean that my life’s work was over. I still want to learn Japanese. I would like to be kinder and more giving. I think that there is a lot of wisdom which is still out of my reach, which I will seek and grow into as I carry on my path through life. I would like to be wiser, and to share whatever wisdom I glean. I would like things in life to be better for women in general, though I think I am blessed with many advantages I know this is not the case for many women in the world or, in fact, for many women around me. I see disadvantage too often to ignore its existence. I would like to be able to communicate more creatively. I would like to be more considerate, a better listener. I could be a better parent and a better life-partner. When I look at my life, I do not think I have finished refining who I am as a human being. I still have work to do.

In conventional wisdom these aspirations negate my acceptance. Yet I still feel accepting and I do not think that one cannot exist without the other. I think it is possible to achieve acceptance and still hold aspirations. I think this is the danger of dichotomies, of reducing the complexity of life to a binary. That we must choose this or this. That every decision, every desire and every action we take in life is a choice between one thing or another. I wonder if this is a source of much conflict in the world: that we must choose between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’, that we must choose between Israel and Palestine, that we must choose between men and women, between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, between ‘capitalism’ and ‘communism’.

In thinking about aspiration and acceptance, it occurred to me that it is possible, as I felt it was possible in my case, for these things to co-exist. Co-existence, for whatever reason, seems to be considered an exception rather than the norm and yet we see co-existence everywhere and experience it every day. Perhaps it is the danger of being surrounded by so many stories which tell us we have to root for the ‘good guy’ and deride the ‘bad guy’. Perhaps it is inherent in the religions that people embrace that our life is reduced to a choice of belief or non-belief, of righteousness and wickedness. Perhaps it is in our political structures which set ‘liberal’ parties against ‘conservative’ ones, sometimes physically in the way the parliamentary buildings are set up. Perhaps it is something about the simplicity of language that forces us to choose between being selfish or selfless, kind or unkind, forgiving or judgemental. Yet in my experience few things fit so neatly into those categorisations. A selfish act can result in a great act of kindness for another. An attempt to be kind and giving can result in suffering. You can judge someone’s actions as being unworthy and yet still forgive them. Is it the intent the matters or the outcome? And what if the outcome is mixed (or the intent, for that matter)?

Life is complex, people are complex, the idea that they can be reduced to a simple either/or choice seems odd. Yet it is something that is done every day in the news, in seats of government and in households. Perhaps it is something we learn as children and never quite let go of. Yet here I am, accepting myself and letting go of this desire to put things into neat little boxes. A dichotomy? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.