An Upholder’s Confession

This one comes to us from friend and contributor Lindsey Hepler: In her recent book […]

Mockingbird / 8.10.16

This one comes to us from friend and contributor Lindsey Hepler:

last-days-of-disco3In her recent book about habit formation, Gretchen Rubin describes four types of people: obligers, rebels, upholders, and questioners. Without ever taking her short quiz, I already know which type I am: an upholder, through and through. Upholders, Rubin says, respond readily to outer and inner expectations. Basically, we are rule followers and rule lovers.

On the positive side, being an upholder often contributes to success in school, where being a good rule follower is essentially seen as the same thing as being a smart/gifted child. An adult tells us what to do, and we do it, gladly. And, because we upholders maintain a strict code of internal expectations, every task is done well (upholders tend to be perfectionists). But you can see that being a rule-following upholder stinks of law— which we well know will eventually turn into accusation.

I know this, and yet, sinner that I am, I continue to seek out rules to follow, boxes to check, shortcuts to a life of happiness and ease.

This rule-writing and rule-seeking happens in almost every aspect of my daily life, from the foods I should or should not eat, to the books and magazines that I should or should not read, to the time I should go to bed and wake up each day. It has even played a role in the style of yoga I like to practice (Ashtanga), where each movement has a corresponding breath and a corresponding count and a corresponding point of focus for your gaze as you move through a pre-set sequence of postures.

Ashtanga+Yoga+34+Pose+Part+2And yet for the past few years, a funny thing has been happening. I’ve noticed it, perhaps most clearly, through a conversation I seem to have once a week with my younger sister, in which I reassure her (thereby reassuring myself) that she is doing fine, great even, despite the “milestones” her friends are checking off of the list (marriage, houses, babies, etc), while she sees herself as lagging behind. I assure her, time and time again, that there is no rulebook for adulthood, despite how much we wish for one at times when we face particularly hairy situations. Increasingly, I have realized how exhausting it can be to constantly live by the “rules” (both those externally imposed upon me and those I create for myself). I have recognized my need for a new framework. Such rigid rules and demands for perfection are clearly not going to be sustainable. They will lead only towards burnout and disappointment.

Seeds of an alternative framework were planted in graduate school, through poetry, specifically the poetry of Wallace Stevens. One of my professors regularly used his “Man with the blue guitar” as an image and a metaphor in her writing. Another professor designed her entire course around Stevens’s “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.” My personal favorite of his poems was (and still is) the final stanza of “Six Significant Landscapes”:

Rationalists, wearing square hats,
Think, in square rooms,
Looking at the floor,
Looking at the ceiling.
They confine themselves
To right-angled triangles.
If they tried rhomboids,
Cones, waving lines, ellipses —
As, for example, the ellipse of the half-moon —
Rationalists would wear sombreros.

Wallace_StevensIn all three of these poems, Stevens shows that we can look at things with fresh eyes, that we can build new frameworks, new ways of seeing the world. He doesn’t tell us how to see the world, he just encourages us to look again, to see it in another way. As David Brooks wrote in the New York Times last week, “artists make their mark, by implanting pictures in the underwater processing that is upstream from conscious cognition. … [Artists’] real power lies in the ability to recode the mental maps people project into the world.”

This is exactly what “the Man with The Blue Guitar” is about—an artist, in this case a musician, playing the world in a different way:

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

Stevens’s poetry implanted itself in my mind, and, slowly, over time, worked on those mental maps.

This summer, I find myself returning to poetry. In the midst of a life transition that is bringing a high degree of uncertainty and anxiety along with it, the ambiguity of poetry seems to contain a powerful balm for the soul. Poetry helps me to let go of the rules, let go of the law, and to open my heart to God’s grace.

As Bryan J wrote back in 2010, “the spiritual life becomes wrestling with the implications of grace, and as that happens, we may just find that the implications of grace are the only things that bring the heart change that discipline tried, but never could, achieve.”

When I think the rules will save me, what I really need is grace. What I need is a near-constant reminder that, “The rules are, there ain’t no rules.” What I need is a savior who says: “you do not need to earn love, nor forgiveness, nor salvation.” A savior who says: “There is nothing more that you can do.” A savior who says: “It is finished.”