In a well-known passage from the King James Bible, the story of Jesus at the home of Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, there is a story that is often interpreted as a parable about two ways of living the spiritual life:
Now it came to pass, as they went, that Jesus entered into a certain village, and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister named Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? Bid her therefore that she help me.” And Jesus answered and said unto her, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things. But one thing is needful. And Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”
Martha’s way embodies the active, busy life of engagement in the world while Mary’s approach is the contemplative life based not on doing, but on being: Martha is “cumbered about much serving . . . careful and troubled about many things” whereas Mary apparently knows that only “one thing is needful;” she “hath chosen that good part.”
This story holds meaning and relevance to both Christians and Buddhists, as well as anyone with an interest in the depths of human experience. There is a wisdom here that transcends any particular religious tradition.
I recently thought of Mary and Martha while reading What Are Old People For by Cornell University gerontologist Dr. William Thomas. Thomas writes in the book that our secular society assigns a near-exclusive value to the “adult way of living,” which is defined by doing.
“Doing is what happens when we come into relationship with and manipulate the visible, material world that surrounds us,” he writes. “This emphasis ensures that work will result in discrete, measurable, and sometimes profitable changes in the environment.” According to Thomas, “the purest expression of doing” is found in the tools and technology that we create because “they engage and manipulate matter and energy with visible, measurable results.” Technological gadgets such as computers and smartphones have us virtually addicted to doing, and Thomas characterizes our modern, adult way of living as machine-like—efficient and goal-oriented, focused on results, and obsessed with our own creations.
I teach a class at Hartwick College that requires students to volunteer at a hospice. One of their biggest challenges is sitting with dementia patients, who are often either incoherent, mute, or asleep. “What should I do?” the students want to know. “There’s nothing to do,” I say. “Just sit there. Just be with your patient.” To simply sit quietly with another person—to be present without doing anything, without serving, without scrolling on their phones—is alien to them.
Thomas contrasts the adult obsession with doing with what he calls being:
Living, as we do, in the Age of the Machine, it seems slightly suspect even to ask, ‘What is being?’ The very question suggests a woolly-minded lack of seriousness. Whereas doing is visible and quantifiable and generates useful, real-word results, being concerns itself with things that cannot be seen. To be is to create and sustain relationships with the invisible and the intangible . . .
The invisible and intangible will not submit to our desire for control: I can order another person to do something and easily determine whether she follows through, but I cannot command that same person to be something. In particular, I cannot require another person to be in love. “Love,” Thomas says, “is a product of the intangible being and as such cannot, itself, be physically sensed or measured.” And if the obsession with doing defines the “adult” way of living that characterizes our machine age, then being defines what it is to not be an adult. Human infants embody being: they accomplish nothing in the world, and whether they are asleep or awake they have the capacity to draw us into a web of interdependent relations where getting things done is no longer the guiding concern.
Human relationships emerge simply from being together. Some of the most miraculous moments of my life have been spent lying on the couch in the sun with my infant son or daughter asleep on my chest.
My son Sam was 3 years old when he taught me something of what it means to be cumbered by serving. It was a beautiful summer day and I had planned on taking him to the park. We only got as far as the driveway before he bent over and started examining the gravel, sifting through some small stones. After a moment he plopped down on the ground so he could see more clearly and give the pebbles his full attention. Meanwhile I was standing over him, a bit agitated, urging him on, focused, in my own way, on the goal I had set for us: to have fun together in the park. But Sam was no longer interested. He was entirely captivated by those little stones. I was about to pick him up when I realized, with the force of a small epiphany, that he was already “having fun.” So instead of rushing off to the park, I sat down next to him and let him show me the perfect stones he had found right there in our driveway.
My children are now grown. Sam left home a few years ago; he’s a musician living in Philadelphia. His sister, Katie, is away at college. Nowadays, when I want to cease being troubled by many things I will sometimes lie on the floor with my dog or we’ll lie outside in the grass together. I feel him breathing next to me, the warmth of his fur and the smell of leaves and damp earth. Dogs have much to teach us about what it means to no longer be cumbered by serving.
This ability to simply be survives infancy and continues well into childhood. But being isn’t valued in the adult world. Contemporary American society is dominated by the forces of corporate business, science, and technology, which place primary value on people who get things done. As parents, we are increasingly anxious to move our children as quickly as possible into the adult world. We educate them to be active citizens who set and achieve goals and encourage them to forge an identity based on their accomplishments. Then, as we get closer to death, our depth of being returns. Thomas points out: “It has been said, and with good reason, that dying people never wish they had spent more time in the office. Doing matters little to the dying. As death draws near, it is relationships—with family, with friends, with God—that hold the greatest appeal.”
The Plains Indians of North America traditionally see children and old people as closer to Wakan Tanka, a Lakota phrase that is best translated as “The Great Mystery.” This Great Mystery lies at the heart of being.
If we, as contemporary adults, have become alienated from this mystery, then what are we to do? You see the problem?
There is only one way to approach The Great Mystery. We must give up on the whole idea of doing. The compulsive search for explanations and reasons must end, for it is always linked with a desire to do something, to have something, to make something happen, when what is called for is humility, reverence, and unconditional self-surrender.
This is made explicit in a 14th-century Christian manual of the spiritual life, a beautiful little book called The Cloud of Unknowing. Written by an anonymous English priest, the author teaches us how to search for God:
When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a Cloud of Unknowing . . . Do what you will, this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God, and stop you both from seeing him in the clear light of rational understanding, and from experiencing his loving sweetness in your affection . . . For if you are to feel him or to see him in this life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness.
The lesson is clear: God can only be known through unknowing. Within this Cloud of Unknowing we find the miracle of our own being.
This Cloud of Unknowing holds the possibility of endless wonder, as mystery—when recognized, invoked, and appreciated, rather than explained away—deepens into miracle. And the greatest miracle of all is found in what is most ordinary. It is the miracle we knew as children, when summer vacation was a timeless eternity. I remember when I was a child I owned a book with the inspirational title Where Did You Go? Nowhere. What Did You Do? Nothing. To go nowhere and do nothing is to bask in the heavenly light of eternity. This is the miracle we lose sight of as we take our place in the adult world. It is the miracle of the ordinary that we encounter, once again, as we move from the busy-ness of adulthood into the relative quiet of old age, which seizes our attention and focuses it, with burning intensity, on what it means simply to be fully present right now. No goals. No future. Only the present moment, because when we are old—just as when we were children—the present moment is all that matters.
And here, then, is an answer to the question posed by William Thomas in the title of his book, What are Old People For? They are here to remind us of the value of being.
More than once, I have discovered some hint of the value of being in the testimony of people who are approaching death, many of whom apparently find something they could never have anticipated. Listen to these words lifted from the journal of an old man, dying of esophageal cancer, which appeared in Ira Byock’s article “The Meaning and Value of Death”:
To live in the bright light of death is to live life in which colors and sounds and smells are all more intense, in which smiles and laughs are irresistibly infectious, in which touches and hugs are warm and tender almost beyond belief . . . I wish that all your stories could have a final chapter in which you are given the gift of some time to live with your fatal illness.
The gift of some time to live with your fatal illness, he writes.
To be means there is no longer any compulsion to get what I want and to hold on to it. To be means to be content with what is given. Being is the source of love because learning to love means learning to be content with the life you have been given. Being fully present to what is—without judging or evaluating or wanting something different—is the most basic act of love.
Love is not only a kind of offering of the self to another person, as when my students sit quietly with their hospice patients. Love is ultimately about unconditional surrender to what the writer Wendell Berry calls “the miracle of life.” To love in this sense is to surrender the compulsion to make things better, to let go of the need to explain, fix, or do anything. It is to experience this world, this life, as good enough. To find in this world, in this life, a place to rest. A home.
It’s in this peculiar sense that in becoming old we are often able to recapture the freshness of the world that we knew as children, to see the world we have learned to take for granted as if we were seeing it for the first time.
What might it mean as an adult to encounter the ordinary world as if for the first time? To enter The Cloud of Unknowing, The Great Mystery, where one is no longer “troubled about many things”?
In Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, Annie Dillard describes a remarkable experience that hints at this quality of being, of encountering the ordinary world as a place of miracle and wonder. She had been reading Space and Sight, a book about the era of pioneering cataract surgeries. Many of these operations were performed on people who had been blind from birth and were now able to see for the first time. One girl in particular captured Dillard’s imagination. When the girl’s bandages were removed, she was led into a garden and saw a tree for the first time. All her life she had known trees only by touching them or hearing them or smelling them. But now she was able to see what she described as “the tree with the lights in it.”
Dillard writes that after reading this book she became determined to see for herself the tree with the lights in it. “It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring, for years.” She searched and searched, until, at last, she gave up trying. This is how she describes the experience:
One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all, and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The first flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.
The Great Mystery is blazing forth in Annie Dillard’s backyard cedar.
Experiencing the miracle of the ordinary doesn’t have to be so intense, however. In fact, such intensity is probably too much for most of us to handle. There is another way.
There is a poem by the Taoist poet T’ao Ch’ien, written in Chinese over 1500 years ago, that is the perfect invocation of Mary’s quiet and contemplative approach to spiritual life, which is much less dramatic than Dillard’s vision but much more enduring and every bit as profound.
T’ao Ch’ien lived during one of the most chaotic and violent periods of Chinese history. After abandoning an active life of government work in the capital where he had most certainly been cumbered by serving and troubled by many things, T’ao Ch’ien moved to a secluded farm to live a quiet life with his family. His poetry celebrates a simple life of life of pulling weeds, raising children, drinking a glass of wine, and settling into what is known in Chinese as tzu-ran: the natural, spontaneous perfection of being.
Here is his poem, Reading the Classics of Mountains and Seas (as translated by David Hinton):
It’s early summer. Everything’s lush.
Our house set deep among broad trees,
birds delight in taking refuge here.
I too love this little place. And now
the plowing and planting are finished,
I can return to my books again and read.
Our meager lane nowhere near well-worn
roads, most old friends turn back. Here,
I ladle out spring wine with pleasure,
and pick vegetables in the garden.
Coming in from the east, thin rain
arrives on a lovely breeze. My eyes
wander Tales of Emperor Mu, float along
on Mountains and Seas . . .
Look around. All time and space within
Sight—if not here, where will joy come?
So, am I suggesting that we all quit our jobs, move to the country, and take up subsistence farming? Not necessarily—though if you do, you have my blessing. But that’s not my point; nor do I think that is the import of T’ao Ch’ien’s poem. What is important is to remember that the miracle of the ordinary is as close as the cedar tree in our backyard and the stones in our driveway—if only we can learn to let go, even for a moment, of our obsession with doing, with making things happen, controlling, explaining, manipulating, thinking.
The Great Mystery is always here, waiting, if only we busy adults can find a way to remember what we so easily forget, a way to “sit quietly at the feet of Jesus” with reverence and humility, unencumbered by serving and completely absorbed in that one needful thing.
That good part, which shall not be taken away from us.