Advice from a Monk about Ambition, Spirituality and Aging…
A few days ago, I came up with a great pitch for a marketing project—and then just when I was about to reach out, reality settled in. A few years ago this would have been a no-brainer. I knew just who to call, why they would listen, and how much I would get for my idea. If the first taker didn’t go for it, there would have been my spare, my stand-by and my last choice.
But when I sat down to put together my list, the anticipation fizzled. All the takers on my list had already been moved on or out: retired, downsized or “reinventing ” themselves into new roles. And in any case, their replacements, if their position let alone company even still existed, live on a different planet where the Boomer demographic for whom my project was intended, is no longer of interest. And don’t even get me started on the layers of complication added by the latest technology, new legal considerations and my hunch that even if I were to find the needle in the haystack who still cared about what was once the staple of my livelihood, whether they still pay for such things.
It wouldn’t be fair to say that all the doors in this particular case had been slammed shut in my face for one simple reason. I didn’t even bother to knock. This is a first for me, so characteristically sure of myself, confident in my ideas and calculating my potential for success. And it’s not that there aren’t still plenty of things I aim to do and have a reasonable chance of succeeding in. But still, this is one of those markers along the way I’m encountering in the wild space beyond midlife that I would just as soon do without.
Thomas Merton’s “7 Storey Mountain”
That said, I had a most excellent way to tend my wounds. At least I had plenty of vital energy in reserve, having been wise enough not to waste it all banging on doors that won’t open. Recognizing a precious opportunity for self-nurturing, I turned to Thomas Merton’s memoir “7 Storey Mountain”, about becoming a monk.
I knew much of his story, especially that he had ended up one of the most respected monks of our time. But until I picked up his book, I hadn’t realized how far he’d come. His youthful rebellion against anything overtly spiritual had taken him deep into the shadows of the world. Through college and beyond he struggled with ambition, greed, vanity and many of the 7 sins.
Eventually, he found his way back to personal integrity, spiritual meaning and inner freedom. The key for him was to find a way out of the shadows that neither denied his shortcomings and life’s disappointments, nor that engulfed him in a false spirituality of grandiose apologies and self-involvement. A key turning point for him was spending time as a guest in a monastery. There, he encountered men who centered their lives wholly not on self-love but on love of God.
Writes Merton: “The Poor Brothers of God, in their cells, they tasted within them the secret glory, the hidden manna, the infinite nourishment and strength of the Presence of God…And grace, overflowing in all their acts and movements, made everything they did an act of love, glorifying God not by drama, not by gestures, not by outward show, but by the very simplicity and economy of utter perfection, so utter that it escapes notice entirely…You felt that the best of them were the simplest, the most unassuming, the ones who fell in with the common norm without fuss and without any special display. They attracted no attention to themselves, they just did what they were told. But they were always the happiest ones, the most at peace.”
Becoming Fierce with Age: Spirituality and Ambition
Whether by choice or by fate, I identified with these men and Merton’s observation that they were “lost in the picture.” But instead of seeing this withdrawal from the world as failure, I saw through Merton’s eyes that there is a definition of success that is “the complete opposite of the logic of the world, in which men put themselves forward, so that the most excellent is the one who stands out, the one who is eminent above the rest, who attracts attention.” And what is this alternative? To withdraw from that which no longer nurtures to become “not less himself, not less of a person, but more of a person, more truly and perfectly himself: for his personality and individuality are perfected in their true order, the spiritual, interior order, of union with God”
This is a principle of perfection to which Merton aspired, and to which I have been introduced. But already, it is giving new meaning to my recognition that one door has closed. Rather than a failure, the deeper meaning is simply cthat I am being called elsewhere. This is a glimpse of a new freedom, with the promise of possibilities beyond anything that even the highest points of my marketing career could have ever offered.
Writes Merton: “The logic of worldly success rests on a fallacy: the strange error that our perfection depends on the thoughts and opinions—and applause of other men! A weird life it is, indeed, to be living always in somebody else’s imagination, as if that were the only place in which one could at last become real!”
Yes, it’s true that I didn’t knock. But nevertheless, God heard and Merton answered.