Balancing effort and “trying too hard”

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I have conflicted feelings about effort. As a young adult, effort was my mantra. And effort, coupled with an adolescent zest to save the world, was perilous. In my early 20s, I stumbled my way through so many “good deeds,” it is painful to look back. The time I began buying food for a physically challenged, low-income woman and her teenaged daughter, then was unable to continue after one month, despite creating an impression of commitment. They welcomed me into their tiny apartment kitchen where I unloaded the groceries I’d brought onto near desolate shelves, feeling awkward as hell. Or the time I invited a homeless youth to family Thanksgiving, then had to un-invite him when someone close to me became enraged by my actions. I wanted to save him, but couldn’t see the limits preordained by my own life chaos. These experiences are among my deepest regrets.

I wanted so badly to think I was a good person, I acted from self-absorption and tone-deafness.  People got hurt. I had not learned that being good is not striving to find ways to prove oneself. True helpfulness involves sufficient openness to sense when one is guided to an action, then acting with care and conscientiousness, aware of one’s shadow and potential to be a bumbling ass.

As a young woman, I worked so hard to pursue goodness because I didn’t fit the description defined by the context around me, a picture of sexual purity, obedience, female submission, and commitment to traditional understandings of religion. In these ways, I learned, I was not good, and had to compensate for resulting feelings of shame. Instead of proving myself in moralistic ways, I put effort into other measures: such as my ill-conceived “good deeds,” or good grades, artistic skill, intellectual achievement, attractive appearance. Most often my efforts led me farther from center where the shudder of silence could speak and I could see the prerequisites of my own unskillful heart. My striving resulted not only in blinding hubris, but in exhaustion and humiliation and sickness.

Thus I reached for voices emphasizing surrender, listening, letting go. Like one drowning, I reached out to them: Thomas Merton and Frederick Buechner, and eventually, Thich Nhat Hạnh and Natalie Goldberg. I learned to stop trying so hard.

I appreciate the quote by Bruce Lee: “The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be.” It is like a koan, a revelation to which I must open myself. It sounds mysterious. I know it is true only because I’ve lived it. In fact, I have learned that not only does Eastern philosophy and religion teach a sort of non-effort (sometimes called “right effort” in Buddhism), Christian tradition has nuanced, beautiful ways to speak of non-effort. The theology is complicated, and thus often misunderstood. In epistles like Romans, Paul writes magically about the power of effort to do exactly what it did in my life. Namely, effort is life-changing precisely in how it reveals to us our inability to achieve goodness by striving. It drives us, by virtue of our failure, to open to Spirit and fall into grace. Then, as Spirit has access to the heart, real transformation and guidance begin.

This leads to my mixed feelings on effort, to a big on the other hand.

On the other hand, I am taken with M. Scott Peck’s definition of love as being willing to exert ourselves on behalf of our own, or another’s, spiritual growth. So love is about exertion, or effort? The interpretive key, I think, is love. It creates a loop, another revelation, like the Bruce Lee quote. Love is effort, but that effort is motivated by love—love focused on the growth of another.

One aspect of Peck’s definition that resonates with me is how love of another is focused on the other, but cannot be separate from one’s own spiritual growth. Again, he writes, love is being willing to exert ourselves on behalf of our own, or another’s, spiritual growth. A true posture of love (love for a beloved and for oneself—the lover, which must co-exist), promotes the spiritual growth of all involved. It is not about personal gratification—despite gratification of needs being the key aim of love according to popular culture. Love doesn’t act out of ego. If it did, it would not be conducive to the spiritual growth of the one giving love.

The effort of love that extends oneself for another’s spiritual growth depends on openness to Spirit. How else is one to know what the spiritual life of the beloved requires? The heart of holistic and efficacious love-effort can be found in humility and listening.

I also wonder if small efforts are more helpful than grand ones. If one pictures degrees of change, small turns can, given time and the full arc of an action, take one to unique and wonderful places. Grand changes, on the other hand, often take one too far from course.

“Not all of us can do great things,” said Mother Teresa. “But we can do small things with great love.”  To me this speaks beautifully to the balancing act of effort, and of love. The ballast of love has a way of indicating just the right effort needed in a given moment. And when effort and love are balanced, we do the next right thing, without noticing we’re doing anything at all.

{Excerpted from Season of Wonder, Frederick Press, 2016}

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