When you see yourself, there is nothing in your mind.


A Few Grains of Sand

It is often said that as lead­ers we ought to devote our­selves to some­thing larg­er than our indi­vid­ual inter­ests or pas­sions, some­thing larg­er than our­selves. This would seem to cre­ate a near spir­i­tu­al dimen­sion to lead­ing, some­thing that keeps us teth­ered to a strong sense of ser­vice to the world as well as a sense of humil­i­ty. The ideals of ser­vant lead­er­ship are tied to the larg­er cause of what we give to oth­ers rather than take from them self­ish­ly. One only has to con­sid­er the Civ­il Rights reck­on­ing, for exam­ple, or the incred­i­ble sac­ri­fices of health care workers.

We are all too prone to think about our pur­pos­es from the lim­it­ed van­tage point of our own, unique sin­gle life, one that inevitably will end some­day. We tend not to think of the place of our own life­time in any larg­er history. 


I learned this notion from John S. Dunne, an Amer­i­can priest and the­olo­gian, teach­ing a class in 1973 com­par­ing the lives of major reli­gious fig­ures, based on his book, The Way of All the Earth. For Dunne, time had the hor­i­zon­tal dimen­sion we com­mon­ly expe­ri­ence as the pas­sage of time in our lives. We’re born, we get old­er and we die. Things hap­pen to us and then we’re gone. But there is also a mys­ti­cal ver­ti­cal dimen­sion that taps into eter­ni­ty at every moment of our awareness. 

Dunne was soft-spo­ken, I recall, as he paced an aus­tere wood­en stage and taught to a scat­tered room of stu­dents, a reflec­tive man full of extra­or­di­nary ques­tions and visions. If we want­ed to under­stand some­thing of the lives of Mohammed or Gau­ta­ma Bud­dha or Jesus, he sug­gest­ed, we would have to go beyond think­ing of just our self-lim­it­ed hor­i­zon­tal his­to­ries. We would have to expe­ri­ence the place of our lives in the larg­er his­to­ry of the earth and humankind and real­ize the ver­ti­cal expe­ri­ence of eter­ni­ty rem­i­nis­cent of William Blake’s lines about see­ing the world in a grain of sand.

That class was near­ly fifty years ago and yet it comes to mind today as I look out my office win­dow that frames a cot­ton­wood tree, the cold lake and rain beyond. It is clear Dunne spoke as a mys­tic far beyond the trans­ac­tion­al real­i­ties that have occu­pied most of my own life — my con­sult­ing prac­tice and dai­ly busi­ness con­duct, con­tracts and projects and fig­ur­ing out the insights I might add through my work. Ulti­mate­ly it’s about a very bound­ed self. In truth, some days the work is ful­fill­ing, and some days it can also seem a lit­tle futile.

I went through a time in my late 40’s when I real­ly strug­gled with that sense of futil­i­ty and all the mis­takes I was mak­ing. It got bet­ter when I dropped the need for every­thing to be explain­able and start­ed to remem­ber the larg­er qual­i­ties that life itself is about. There was a seed of a mean­ing­ful life with­out hav­ing to scrape for the mean­ing of it all. 

I hope for those who feel deplet­ed today, who feel that futil­i­ty or who are expe­ri­enc­ing depres­sion because of the pan­dem­ic, anx­i­eties about mon­ey or pol­i­tics, or who know the ter­ri­ble pain of inequity; for those who won­der about get­ting through the next day — or next minute — that this thought offers hope: what­ev­er you are doing, clear pas­sion or not, larg­er cause or sim­ply an inten­tion to sur­vive, there is your human­i­ty in it, your voice and your truth; there is dig­ni­ty and good­ness in your life. Maybe only as grains of sand are we tru­ly broth­ers and sis­ters. But our lives, hor­i­zon­tal­ly and ver­ti­cal­ly in time, do hold worth, kind­ness, sin­cer­i­ty, cre­ativ­i­ty and pos­si­bil­i­ty. One moment of good will toward anoth­er can be, to fol­low Blake’s poem, very much a way to expe­ri­ence heav­en in a wild flower or eter­ni­ty in an hour, a salve for the many wounds we and oth­ers car­ry. And that’s very much some­thing to hang on to. 

On Sat­ur­day, my first grand­child was born. My son now has a son of his own. I wish that sweet lit­tle boy all that is good in life and all the love in the world.



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