As many of you have likely gathered, I love quotes. In my apartment, you'll see little handwritten quotes taped up all over the place—walls, doors, mirrors. One quote I recently read struck me so profoundly I might make it the "theme" for my next few letters.
Artist Georgia O'Keeffe said:
"I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free."
We live in a world that constantly says: Don't settle!
On one hand, I do not believe in settling. That is, I don't believe it's ideal to throw in the towel, lower your standards, and live the scripted life everyone is tacitly telling you to accept. (I wrote on accepting back in volume 4.)
On the other hand, I think settling within yourself is one of the healthiest (and most difficult) things you can do. Getting to a place where you are self contained.Where you can confidently say, as the Beatles sing in Across the Universe, "Nothing's gonna change my world."
When we hear the societal message of "Don't settle!" it is often infused with striving energy. It's pitched in this package: Don't settle! Keep pushing! Keep striving! Work harder! These messages often inherently imply you shouldn't settle while working toward accumulating exactly what society says you should want. And that, for this, you should sacrifice everything (your time, health, energy) to push, push, push. Never settle. Never be satisfied. Always get more.
And honestly? Fuck that.
Or, as Jesus (who, to my knowledge, was never recorded dropping any Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek F-bombs) puts it in Matthew 16:26, NIV:
"What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?"
Still, our society is essentially obsessed with striving to gain "the world." We collectively worship the Alexander Hamilton mentality. I assume most of you are familiar with the musical Hamilton. (If not: slight spoilers ahead. Since they happened IRL in the 1700s and 1800s I don't feel bad for mentioning them. ;)
Hamilton (a founding father of the U.S.) is this go-getter who always wants more. He's never satisfied; he works nonstop. His mindset is mostly celebrated and treated as noble.
To be clear: I love the musical. I saw it in Chicago, I've listened to the soundtrack a million times, and I think Lin-Manuel Miranda is a genius. Yet, I am becoming less and less enamored by Hamilton's striving mindset.Because I think at the core of this ethos of dissatisfaction is an internal sense of not being enough on the inside unless you can accumulate power on the outside.
And I just don't think that ever actually works. I no longer believe in the promise of the external "power" that is acquired by striving.
In The Seat of the Soul Gary Zukav says:
"You are striving for external power. By striving for this reward and that reward, you ask the world to assess and acknowledge your value before you can value yourself. You place your self-worth in the hands of others. You have no power even if you win every gold medal that the world can produce."
Hamilton cared a lot about external power. He didn't have enough money, he needed a rich wife. His wife was not enough, he needed an affair. It's wasn't enough to tell his opponent his feelings, he needed to duel.
Recently, I'm finding this steadfast commitment to never settling (externally) very unsettling (internally). It is, arguably, this energy that led to Hamilton's early death.
But what if the idea that we must work really hard and struggle and strive in order to be powerful (and, therefore, fulfilled) is all a giant fallacy?
For most of my own life, I was addicted to striving.
I started with grades and sports. I was the valedictorian of my high school; I got nearly perfect grades in college; I played Division 1 basketball on a full scholarship and spent years trying to run faster, jump higher, lift more weight, score more points, get more rebounds. More, more, more.
Then, after graduation, I shifted this striving energy straight into the corporate world. More emails, more clients, more money. At my last software consulting gig, I was making $95 an hour.
Yet, a chasm was growing within me. I knew deep down that how I was spending my days was not how I wanted to spend my life. I was not being true to my core; I didn't truly desire what I was "gaining." I could feel myself getting farther away from inner peace each day. It's almost as if I could feel the energetic equivalent of Jesus's words: "What good is it to gain the whole world—and lose your soul?"
This spring, I turned down a contract extension, and haven't earned a dollar since March. I do not regret it. My soul now feels more aligned than it has in my entire life. (Though there are still some shifts and some inner settling left to work through.)
Recently, while practicing aparigraha I was going through an old box of papers and found a folder with my "Strengths Finders" assessment I did for a class in college. I'd been moving around this folder with this packet of my five "strengths" for nearly a decade. (From PA > WI > NY). My very first strength, my allegedly strongest attribute, was "Achiever." I tore the piece of paper to shreds.
I'm no longer interested in external achievements; I'm interested in settling on the inside, on reckoning with my soul.
I am interested in this: What if I could be so settled within, so self-contained, that I fully believed I already had everything I needed? Could I be so settled that flattery and criticism always flushed right down the same drain? Could I say, John Lennon style: Nothing's gonna change my world?
"There is a basket of fresh bread on your head,
yet you go door to door asking for crusts.
Knock on the inner door. No other.
Sloshing knee-deep in fresh riverwater, yet
you keep wanting a drink from other people's waterbags."
What if you drank the water of your own soul instead of working so so so hard to get water from the external world?
What if you stopped striving and started living?
Would you, then, be satisfied?
Would you be free?
with Love and with Light,
p.s. Georgia O'Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. (Fun fact for my Wisconsin friends!)
p.p.s. The striving mindset implies living in the future (for the result) rather than living in the present—which reminds me of the arrival letter I wrote in April.
p.p.p.s. My favorite Hamilton lyrics: "Look around, look around, how lucky we are to be alive right now." Applicable constantly, if you're willing to be present and look around. :)
p.p.p.p.s. Across the Universe features Sanskrit. (Jai guru deva om.) Namaste, homies.