Thursday, December 16, 2010

Your life koan

What do you do when you don't feel like doing what you think you ought to do? 

Do you do like my father, and push yourself?  To him, the alternative was "being lazy."  As I see it, that turned out sadly for him.  In particular, when he came back from the big war and went to Youngstown College on the GI bill, he found he liked his American Literature class, especially poetry.  One of my fond memories is of him reading aloud at the kitchen table "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," a rhythmic poem, rhymed, absorbing to a child.

But poetry was for sissies - or softies - how did he think of it?  He told me it was an easy A.  So he majored in engineering, pushed himself, almost quit, but pushed himself more.  He went on to a lifetime white-collar job as a defense engineer (designing weapons) with Firestone, where he ascended beyond his abilities, and ultimately felt cheated of what he thought he deserved. 

After he died, I found on his desk a poetry anthology.  The bookmarked page was the poem, "Crossing the Bar," Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem about death.  His last years had been difficult and discouraging, and I think he was quietly, by himself, thinking about death.  It was poetry he turned to.

What if he had followed his inclinations in college, and majored in English, studied literature and poetry?  he would have been a good candidate for grad school, very bright and well-spoken.  He would have liked being a professor, holding forth.  What if he had relaxed into what he liked, and not done what he thought was the smart thing, the right thing?  Maybe he would not have been so mean, so driven and unhappy.  I don't know.

But looking back on my own life, I know that whenever I had to push myself to do something, I would have been well-advised to go on a retreat, maybe a long one, and ask whether that was the thing to do after all.


  1. It is always interesting looking back at our parents and their choices, especially once we are now at those same junctions in our lives that our parents were. For me it has softened my own attitude in regards to my own father and some of his decisions.

  2. Melanie G, Austin Zen Center practitionerDecember 20, 2010 at 10:47 AM

    The process of making decisions and taking action is something that I've been looking at since I started practicing a year ago. How does one decide to act? Where does motivation come from? Who is acting? Right now I have more questions than anything.