My life, like yours, has had its ups and downs. More than once I have seen my cherished plans unravel. When I was in my twenties, I dreamed of an academic career. The way seemed clear. I made plans and began to make them a reality. And then life happened—a war, a life-threatening illness, a move to a new city. I felt like a door had been slammed in my face.
The Quakers have a wonderful saying: “Way will open.” More than once in my life I have gotten stuck because I kept trying to go through a door that had closed. My attempts to stick to my dream (which had become a fantasy, really) prevented me from seeing other doors that were open all around me. First I had to let go of my plans. Letting go sounds so easy, but it is so very hard. I had to stop pounding on a door that had shut. When I let go of my plans I was able to look around and see other opportunities and new possibilities.
When I finally explored new ways open to me, I was able to see all kinds of paths—paths that turned out to be better for me than the path I had planned to follow. The ministries of community journalism and then ordained parish ministry opened before me. The door that slammed turned out to be a blessing.
Buddhist teachers talk about how we cause ourselves suffering by attaching ourselves to things we desire. They also talk about the futility of trying to prevent change. Change is at the very heart of life; it is the essence of life. This is a variation on the spiritual lesson of the Quaker teaching that way will open.
If attachments to our plans blind us and cause suffering, so too do our myths about a golden age of stability, harmony, and tranquility. The truth is that the golden age (whichever golden age you find attractive) never existed. We idealize periods (just think of the kind of nostalgia Downton Abbey and other costume dramas have produced). The real lives of most people in these periods were oppressive.
Perhaps the most painful are our own personal golden times—times when we were passionately in love, times of great success and recognition. How many people do you know who cause themselves and others enormous suffering by trying to relive or recreate a personal golden age that has passed forever?
We cannot live by looking backward. We must not live trying to open doors that have closed. We live in the moment with our eyes fixed on the real choices we have right now. This is true whether we are adolescents or facing the certainty of death that will come soon.
What is true of each of us is also true for our faith. We should be proud of our past. I am proud to live in the tradition of Emerson, Parker, and Channing. I am proud of the abolitionists, Susan B. Anthony, the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, and of publishing the Pentagon Papers.
Yet we live in a new time. Clinging to the past has never served us. Doors close. Way opens. I love the fact that ours is a tradition that has always looked for the way that is opening. We were open to biblical scholarship, to teachings from Eastern religions, to the discoveries of science.
What ways are opening in your life right now? Look around. Way is opening. What ways are opening for our faith? Life calls us on.