Comfort for the Wanderer

… this feeling came over me that I had strayed back onto the right path of my life. It was as if in all my years of wandering, even when I had been most uncertain or lost, I had been crossing back and forth across my path as if now and again I had seen a sign, “J. CROW’S PATH,” but without an arrow.

[Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry]

Last night I dreamt I had a conversation with Elizabeth Gilbert about the book, Jayber Crow.

I had watched this beautiful talk she gave:

Elizabeth Gilbert

(yes, I confess, Oprah supersoul sessions are my current happy place)

The talk reminded me of how much I had identified with Jayber Crow’s journey to freedom from the pressure that he ought to “make something out of himself”.  I had loved how, when reflecting on his life, this fictional barber could see how his modest job had, in fact, been a calling – despite all the twists and turns in his journey, despite the times he felt lost.  I loved how he could see that the important opportunities, and relationships, of his life had come from this modest job, this job that he had not chased, or planned.

And I discussed this with Liz Gilbert, in my dream.

I had watched her talk twice.  Once while Imogen was napping and once in the evening, pausing to scribble bits down on my yellow writing pad.

She talked about her life’s one passion – writing- a calling she had not wavered from since kindergarten; a passion that burned within her through obscurity and failure.  She followed her passion and it worked for her.  When she became successful people put a microphone in her hand and put her on stage.  She says she preached “passion” to audiences across the world: “You have to identify your passion… what you were born to do”.  She says she did it with ENORMOUS SINCERITY and believed she was helping people.

One night after speaking in Australia a woman wrote to her saying: “because of what you said up there on stage I have never felt worse about myself as I feel in this moment.”

I love Liz’s response to this – the “WHOA”, the “WHAT?!”, the listening.

The lady communicated how she felt embarrassed, like a failure, like something of essence was missing in her because people like Elizabeth Gilbert kept telling people like her follow your passion, follow your passion, and she DID. NOT. HAVE. ONE.

She was sure Elizabeth Gilbert was really nice, sure she didn’t mean to do it BUT: “I came to you tonight seeking guidance and you just made me feel like the biggest loser in the world.”

WHOA.

Liz Gilbert listens, steps back and has a reckoning. And she gets it.  She gets it because she thinks of the people she loves and admires most in the world, whose biographies she knows intimately and she realises NONE of them had known and followed their passion since kindergarten.  Their lives were not these single, direct, clear, purposeful straight lines, “which hadn’t stopped any of (them) from living gorgeous, rich, complicated lives full of… whole-heartedness”.

This was true of her husband.  True of her best friend.

She thought also about all the people she knows and loves who are still on the search – some of whom are at ease with the shape of their journeys, but many of whom ARE NOT, who “carry that anxiety about the fact that in a culture that fetishes passion and fetishes certainty they are uncertain… and it makes them feel stressed.”

Liz says she knows this because they’ve told me.

Over and over again she says “I know this”, “I should have known”, “I should have seen this before”.

She wondered how many people she had left behind, hurt and excluded by the things she said into a microphone.

It’s a stunning response.

Liz describes herself as a Jackhammer – driven, persistent, efficient, loud – but she values the hummingbirds who create rich, complex lives, cross-pollinating the world, and she says don’t ever let a “Passion Bully” like me try to push you around again.

These days she tells people to follow their curiosity instead of panicking, trying to chase a passion they aren’t even feeling.

Liz said at the start of the talk that she believed what she had to say would bring a measure of comfort, particularly to some people.  I am one of those people.  And if you are, too, maybe watch the whole thing? (30 mins). Watch it at nap time, or in the kitchen, or hidden away if you would feel judged for watching Oprah.

*

So we had a good chat about Jayber, in my dream, but I woke up before I got to tell her that her speech also reminded me of Church.

Don’t we sit in churches, sometimes, those of us who are Jaybers, hummingbirds, those of us who are uncertain, and what is said up front, into a microphone, makes us feel like the biggest loser in the world?  Makes us feel like we are missing something of essence?  And don’t we carry anxiety that in a church-culture that fetishes passion and fetishes certainty, that we are uncertain, and it makes us feel stressed?

And instead of feeling any peace about where we are in our faith journey, and simply taking the next honest step, we panic, trying to chase a passion we aren’t even feeling?

I suppose, I wonder, if the people who rally-call us to great, certain things (with enormous sincerity) wouldn’t also say, that in real-life, when they look at the people they love and admire, that many of their faith journeys don’t look like this?  And that they know this because they walk beside them, they know because they have told them?

I have rarely had a face-to-face conversation with someone about faith and been made to feel like a loser.  I have usually found my honesty met with understanding and encouragement.  But I haven’t always felt like that in group conversations, haven’t always felt it from the pulpit and don’t usually feel it from bumper stickers, twitter feeds or triumphant status updates.  I suppose what I am saying to the sincere speakers of faith, whose audiences we want to be in, whom we come to seeking guidance – if you know our stories, because we have told you, please bear them in mind when you speak into a microphone.

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2 thoughts on “Comfort for the Wanderer

  1. Sharon, my head hurts because there is so much in this piece that is making me think…
    Perhaps (!) the church has not always been the most honest place of community and so, for many, the invitation to claim our own stories of passion or redemption or indeed uncertainty has not been extended or considered- in fact, this radical part of the journey has often felt difficult or inappropriate in some way…
    Anyway, much to ponder. Thank you x

  2. Love this. Felt like I spent a significant amount of time chasing my sort of passion. When that season came to a close, I wrestled with a feeling of failure and then lostness. The failure hung around for longer….

    But in this new season, I definitely love and appreciate a good ‘hummingbird’. I’ll look forward to listening to this talk I think. Thanks.

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