I went to church this last Sunday… ish. I can’t quite bring myself to say that I went to church because to me church has always has a negative connotation. I have, admittedly and historically, considered it to be a place where people who are politically conservative and generally narrow-minded go, congregating to pass judgment on both themselves and others and where fear and ignorance runs the show. I acknowledge here now that I didn’t know this for sure, having never actually been to church. But I was pretty sure I was right. I further acknowledge here that my assumption about church and church folk was undeniably close-minded and judgmental. One point for a God-deity-thing. Or maybe that’s two. Anyway, point taken.
But a year ago my mother’s husband passed away after a surgical feat no short of miraculous, tried unsuccessfully to remove a large brain tumor attached to the base of his brain stem.
And over the past year I have watched my mother progress through the many stages of grief and to find refuge and solace in the Unitarian Universalist Church.
For those of you who don’t know much about Unitarian Universalism, it’s sort of a “believe whatever you believe and you will be welcomed here” kind of semi-religion that promotes social and environmental justice and activism. Not surprisingly, one of the largest UU churches is right here in Portland.
My mother’s side of the family is Unitarian, my father’s is Jewish. I was raised neither, my parents both assuming that some day I would seek out a spiritual path and, well, see where it led. But into my early thirties I still defiantly and steadfastly refused to explore my “spiritual side” if, in fact, one existed. Don’t get me wrong here. I have a healthy appreciation of nature (though you will probably never run into me camping) and believe that meditation is just great. Very calming.
Especially when it’s guided by some harp filled new-age music or whale song. But I simply could not buy into more than that. Nor did I see any reason to. Nonetheless, I sucked it up and I went to the UU church-ish place with my mother to support her in her time of grief and to help bridge her transition into a life in Portland, where she moved shortly after her husband’s death. And a year later, I still go there. Not every week. Sometimes not once in a month. But when I do go there, I have to say (rather sheepishly), I like it. I feel good when I am there and I leave with new ideas and a greater sense of love and responsibility.
To get to my point.
At non-church this Sunday the un-sermon was about how to recognize it when desire and ambition prompt good, healthy choices and when they prevent us from appreciating with gratitude what we already have right here and now. Hmmm. There was some real meat to this, I thought to myself. Then I experienced it, the “Yes! That is exactly what I have been thinking about lately. How did you know?” moment, that presumably pretty much everyone else there simultaneously experienced. Or at least the people from the East Coast did. Let me clarify. Portland is not know for its ambition or drive. It is not known for its aggressive or even assertive people. I love this about it. And it drives me crazy. But this minister-man-person was not from Portland. He was from New York. So while ambition may not be a driving force for many of Portland’s under-40-somethings, desire is. And thus it was that we all, old and less old, West Coast, East Coast, and somewhere in the middle born, felt the shutter of self-recognition in his words. Desire is by definition the want of something that you don’t have. The roots of the word I learned, trace back to the Greek for “heavenly bodies”, things that are forever out of reach for us mortals.
Desire, in my humble opinion, can be a wonderful thing. Something that gives us vitality and a reason for being, something that makes life more passionate and complex. Desire can motivate us to do all sorts of creative things and to follow dreams that eventually lead to achievement or product, thus then squelching the particular desire that motivated their doing or having.
Until another desire crops up. The down side then of desire becomes the “always” part. The always wanting something more or someone else, if I can use desire in its sexual or romantic embodiment, the one people most often feel the word suggests.
So then, the counterpart to desire must be gratitude. The acknowledgment and appreciation of what you already have. To take this further, I feel that this also suggests the spirit of mindfulness, or being fully present in the moment and then taking the time to give thanks for it. This too, can be an amazing feeling, a wonderful experience. Perhaps even more so as there is no anxiety associated with this non-judgmental observation, no focus on the absence or lack or something.
Indubitably our society promotes the constant churning of desire. Whether it be for sex, money, beauty,or success, we here in America love to focus on the individual rather than the collective, suggesting that we could always have more and implying that more will lead to happiness – itself a vague term that is never directly addressed. Why this focus on desire? I suppose because it keeps the world moving forward in the way it has been for centuries. But would it not continue to do so even if we were to shift our focus just a bit towards gratitude? Would we all become blissfully complacent? I don’t think so. But I do think we would probably all be a whole lot happier.
Balance. Aren’t well all just really looking for balance? That incredible feeling of having the “just right” amount of each ingredient to make the perfect you-cookie. Most of us experience this for moments only. Like our internal level found the perfect straight line of values, beliefs, feelings, corresponding 100% with actions. God-deity-thing help me, I would die if I didn’t feel desire anymore. But I can keep it in check, stay aware of what’s prompting it. Make a choice about whether it’s something that simply distracts or whether it’s something worth taking the risk inherent in pursuit. Sounds like the right mix to me.
Alyssa K. Siegel, MS, LPC, CGAC II, The Dance of Therapy
First published on Alyssa’s counseling blog on October 14, 2011.