Here is an ironclad prescription for personal misery: Attempt to keep everything, every person, every detail, and every moving part of your life, family, job, health, or schedule in precise working order as you would have it, without modification. Demand total compliance without flexibility, adjustment, or concession and you can be assured of never having a minute of peace for the rest of your life.
Understandably, it is good to have a place for everything and everything in its place. But things don’t stay in place. That’s the nature of life, and that is why there is no peace in trying to master others or other things. There is nowhere to get off the hamster wheel; there’s no place to stop and say, “Mission Accomplished!”
So if we can’t learn to live with some level of acceptance of the chaotic reality around us, then life becomes a constant exercise in finding only those things, people, and situations that will comply with our will – and everything else will be winnowed away. Such an approach to living reduces life to a tiny space, space not much bigger than a coffin, I would say.
For the sake of easing our anxiety (mistakenly thinking that control will equate with peace), we risk driving away, alienating, and otherwise distancing ourselves from some of life and love’s greatest gifts and experiences. Obviously, peace must be accomplished some other way.
In the New Testament both Jesus and the Apostle Paul forbid Christians from worrying or being anxious. Neither Paul nor Jesus take a Utopian view of worry, as in “don’t ever worry about anything under any conditions.” The focus is actually on self-obsession. It is a fidgeting anxiety created within us when things aren’t going our way, when things feel out of place, and we can’t control the circumstances around us.
This is a self-manufactured anxiety, created by our efforts to fix things, manage people, and create situations that match our unyielding standards. This is a kind of worry produced by overreaching. This is why every great spiritual tradition speaks of letting go, denying self, surrendering, and detaching. For when we outdo and outwit our capabilities, we are left with uneasiness, not contentment, the very opposite of what we seek.
This is vividly illustrated with a description I recently heard, a description new to me, but one I’m going to sear into my memory banks and no doubt pass on regularly. It’s originally from Jean McLendon, a long-time therapist in North Carolina, but a phrase now used in 12-step work, organizational management, and family counseling. I’d like to apply it to all facets of life – especially spirituality. The phrase is: “Stay inside your own hula-hoop.”
McLendon suggests that we are all working through life with a hula-hoop; round and round it goes, representing our life’s labor. But we are certain to let it fall to the ground when we attempt to leave our space and hula-hoop for someone else’s.
We see their ring slip off the hips and fall to the ground. We want to fix it, so we go intervene. Someone else is hula-hooping far too fast, so we go to slow them down. Another person has her hoop up dangling around her head – completely unacceptable – so we attempt to put it in its proper place.
What happens? McLendon says, “You can’t hula someone else’s hoop without messing up your own efforts. You can observe, advise, cheer, and offer support, but as soon as you try to do it for someone else, you get into trouble yourself.”
This is much more than “minding our own business,” though that is a helpful, albeit rarely followed piece of advice in its own right. This is actually a healthier, far more peaceful way to live. After all, peace is not accomplished by the proper arrangement of our circumstances, as if we could impose our personal will on the people and things in our orbit. Peace is a path we follow, a discipline we practice, and a restful space we maintain – inside our own hula-hoop.