30 November 2023

Retirement. (No, not that kind.)

Panther Pond, Maine.

I've never forgotten a post I read back in 2007 on Contemplative Scholar's blog:

On Being an Animal


July 12, 2007


As a human being, I am an animal too. And so are you.

This summer I am feeling moved not to travel much. While my main plan had been to get back into my academic writing, I'm having a really hard time with that. I think I am just profoundly tired. Plus, my support system has been seriously diminished over the past year: from the ending of my music group, to the departure of two people in my life who have been really important mentors and guides.

After my busy year and these important losses, I'm now mostly focused on trying to reestablish a basic discipline of taking good care of myself. No one else can do that for me anyway. More and more I realize that this is a deep and fundamental animal responsibility we each have. It is exactly for ourselves, but not selfish. We are not just our own private property. We matter to others in the world. And so if we don't take good care of ourselves, we can bring considerable grief into others' lives, because they can do little to restore health and well-being if we are not ourselves cooperating.

I have come to realize this in myself, but I also see it from another perspective in my relationships with others. Those who are good at taking care of themselves are happy and healthy and their lives are in balance, which means that they have lots of energy to attend to others as well.

As philosopher Immanuel Kant points out, we have a basic duty to be happy, so that we are not so distracted by our unhappiness that we fail to attend to our other moral duties!

The key marker for my own self care is exercise. Happily, I am running again. This is a very good sign. This year, I will place this as one of my highest priorities. No matter how busy my life gets, I will try to regard this as essential as eating and sleeping and going to Meeting! (Hold me too this, my faithful readers!)

So I've made the radical decision not to worry about how "productive" my summer is. I'm going to live my days as aimlessly as I need to. I'll attend to anything urgent that crosses my desk. But other than that, I'll just do what I feel moved to do from moment to moment. I haven't had a real vacation as such in a long time. I hereby declare the rest of this summer to be the first really extended vacation I have ever in my whole life let myself have.

I feel open and in a data-gathering mode. What gives me life? I want to experience the world in a new way. I want to let the world fill me with healing and renewing energy. I want to pay full attention to everyone I see, but refrain from agreeing to anything that establishes a controlling dynamic in our relationships. I refuse to expect anyone to do anything for me in particular; and I refuse to agree to anything that means that others expect something of me.

(I must emphasize that this is purely temporary. When the academic year begins again, I will have no choice but to enter back into that complex network of relationships dominated by controlling dynamics going in both directions.)

But for now, I just want to be a wild animal, quiet and shy, alert and tuned mostly into the pure present moment. I want to eat and sleep and run in the woods. I want to watch beautiful sunsets and let them work their magic on my soul.

The summer, after all, is beautiful. The sun. The breezes. The freedom to walk straight outside without the fanfare of coats and hats and scarves and gloves and complicated shoes slipping on icy walks. This is the time store up health and hope.

The other things I care about will come to fruition in their own good time. Let me finally honor the wisdom of the structure of the academic year. Let me finally trust in the natural rhythms of life and nature.

At some point I posted a link to this essay on my own blog, but soon after that, Contemplative Scholar had decided to close public access. The Contemplative Scholar blog remains closed to this day, although the Scholar gave me permission to republish this post here.

(The author said that it's also possible that the blog will be reopened in the future. I'll be sure to let you know if that happens.)

Maine Botanical Gardens.
Water vole, Klamath Falls, Oregon.
Panther Pond, Maine.

Maybe you've already guessed, at least in general, why I've found solace in this post at this particular moment, even though my own life cycle isn't academic anymore. For me, the winter serves as something of an equivalent to Contemplative's summer. And yet the coming winter season in the Northern Hemisphere promises even more cruelties among vulnerable people than we witness today. How can we justify ever averting our eyes?

On one of our online Quaker meetings for worship, with our attention focused on Ukraine and the Holy Land, one of our attenders drew our attention to this "Invitation to Sit Together for Peace," with its guided meditation in the Buddhist tradition taught by the late Thich Nhat Hanh. I found points of contact on a communal level with "On Being an Animal."

(Dear anxious members of my Christian family, I'm very willing to discuss what might make you anxious about this meditation, but not here.)

Another impulse to reprint "On Being an Animal" came from a letter I just got from a friend of mine in the UK. She wrote, "... I am due one of my biannual deplugs ... so from Nov 25th to Dec 25th that's it—no news or views on the present day (...history will be permissible)."

There is something in me that resists the idea of unplugging, as if I am somehow letting humanity down if I give up, for a time, my obsessive attention to the deeds and misdeeds of the Powers That Be. How much worse off everyone would be if I withheld my awesome influence for good!

If you sometimes feel the same way, but know down in your bones you really do need a time of retirement, consider some of these thoughts:

Consider that you, too, are an animal. Contemplative Scholar does not advocate inattentiveness, but a different, more creaturely kind of attentiveness. There is no break from reality, only a break from a set of stylized behaviors that we humans esteem much too highly, given that they are all elaborate variations on the same behaviors that all mammals display—data-gathering, marking territory, distinguishing friend from threat. We are wise to be aware of the ways human myths and conceits impact us and our global neighbors, but let's dedicate some time to resting quietly with our Creator, aware of the present moment, before returning to those demanding arenas.

Back in 1990, I made a tour of about thirty communities in southern India that, at the time, were active or potential partners with Right Sharing of World Resources. My first visit was to a non-governmental organization in Chennai. One of the most helpful and liberating pieces of advice that the director gave me was this: "Never believe (or allow people to convince you) that you are indispensable. The communities were there before you ever showed up and will be there after you leave."

(More about this conversation here.)

The kind of retirement I see in "On Being an Animal" is very different from simply quitting in disgust or becoming cynical. However, if you feel those temptations to quit altogether, a period of retirement from the deluge of difficult news may be just what's needed. Everything we have to offer is rooted, not in our own undoubted competence and cleverness, nor in our righteous anger (though it's sometimes exactly right!), but in the everlasting and universal love of God.

But the Lord did stay my desires upon himself from whom my help came, and my care was cast upon him alone. Therefore, all wait patiently upon the Lord, whatsoever condition you be in wait in the grace and truth that comes by Jesus; for if ye so do, there is a promise to you, and the Lord God will fulfil it in you. And blessed are all they indeed that do hunger and thirst after righteousness; they shall be satisfied with it. I have found it so, praised be the Lord who filleth with it, and satisfies the desires of the hungry soul. O let the house of the spiritual Israel to say, 'His mercy endureth for ever.' It is the great love of God to make a wilderness of that which is pleasant to the outward eye and fleshly mind; and to make a fruitful field of a barren wilderness.

— George Fox (Journal, Nickalls ed., pages 12-13), 1647.

I'm still collecting responses to my survey: Which term do you prefer, Friends or Quakers?

A letter from Ramallah Friends School students to the U.S. Congress, posted by the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Related note: the three young Palestinian men shot in Vermont last Saturday, Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid, and Tahseen Ahmed, were all graduates of the Ramallah Friends School. 

An Orthodox priest writes to Christians in Russia who are not in unity with Orthodox officialdom on the war in Ukraine. (English. Russian.)

And how other Russians learned to stop worrying about the war.

The Russian Supreme Court bans the "international LGBT social movement," ruling it "extremist." More coverage from Meduza. Friday update from Meduza.

One more link, in a very different direction... May we welcome Jesus as Mary did. Beth Felker Jones on the miracle of consent.

Most of these links are wildly inconsistent with observing a period of "retirement." Let's see if I do better next time!

Mark Stutso's wonderful vocals, Gino Matteo on guitar, and Jason Ricci on harp: "It's My Own Fault."


Donna L said...

Hi, Johan:
Thank you for posting the essay on taking care of our animal self--I needed to be reminded of that. The letter from the students at Ramallah Friends School is very moving, and it's so sad to learn that the three young men who were killed in Vermont were graduates of the school. I was wondering whether it's alright to post the letter to social media, as well as share it with some other friends. Thanks so much--hope you and Judy are doing well. Donna

Tory Rhodin said...

Fortunately the three young men were not killed (they were shot -- two are still hospitalized in Burlington, one has been released from the hospital.)

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Donna and Tory.

Donna L said...

Thanks, Tory--I'm so glad those young men are recovering. So much free-floating rage in our country, coupled with so many weapons.