Betty Duffy

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"I did my work, time went by..."

(--Edwin O'Connor)

I organized my husband’s sock drawer yesterday. It had to be done, all those mismatched and threadbare tube socks emerging from the drawer making it impossible to close. I also went through his undershirts and put the dingy off-white ones in the washer with bleach. I might have made a bleachy paste to remove the underarm stains, if I knew how to do that. I could have looked on the internet for a bleachy paste recipe, but it seemed more prudent to stick to the task at hand until I saw it completed, and that would not happen if I allowed myself to drift off into internet never-land.

I’ve been following Bearing’s posts on The Devout Life by Francis de Sales, and I’ve been inspired by Bearing’s (and Saint Francis’s) methodical approach to effecting change, whether in weight loss, reading, or improving one’s soul. I’ve decided it’s time that I, too, embark on the devout life, or at least on reading the book with her. Actually improving my soul is such a scary prospect.

Saint Theresa of Avila wrote, “I cannot understand what it is that makes people afraid of setting out on the road of perfection.” Well, Dear Saint, I think I might know. That way leads to eschewing fun on the internet for organizing the sock drawer. Isn’t it exactly as I feared, that if I kept beating on that glass ceiling of my mediocrity, I’d one day burst through into the realm of holiness where all the holy people scrub the corners of their houses with toothbrushes and listen to classical music, and read only books written before 1945 with an imprimatur?

Isn’t what’s kept me from pursuing a more devout life, the mistaken (and arrogant) assumption that I must actually be terribly close to perfection, and that reaching that final benchmark, that cap where there’s no where else to grow, means spending the rest of my life in a grim martyrdom of boring quotidian tasks offered for all those people still stuck on the other side of the glass in mediocre-land, wasting their time browsing the web, flirting, reading fun books and listening to pop music?

Except deciding to organize my husband’s sock drawer wasn’t like that at all. One could argue that the impetus for the task was fifteen years in the making, as so many of those socks were older than our relationship, and even the most placid temperament must someday say, “Enough is enough. It’s time to close that drawer.” But it wasn’t that either.

Inch by inch, reading the book, doing about a meditation a week, saying the Rosary, showing up at Mass during the week—practicing devotion—the decision to organize the sock drawer was somehow a manifestation of a new freedom—freedom from my chronic “No.”

How many times have I passed that sock drawer, considered doing something about it, and argued with myself that it’s not even my drawer; those are not my socks; if I do it once, he’ll want me to match his socks all the time; and I barely even fold my own laundry. I might unwittingly become a slave to him. Well, I’m too smart for that, I say. I’m not going to organize his drawer; I’m just going to live with the chaos—Ha!

And as a consequence, I maintain an oppressive status quo—the slavery to my “No.”

The “road to perfection” sounds so binding and final. I get hung up on that word, “perfection” and overlook the fact that that’s just the name of the road. Hence, taking that road is actually an unbinding—the freedom to go a different way, not the habitual way—and it goes on for a really long time.

I wouldn’t write this post if I didn’t have other evidence of a personal unbinding, most of which are manifest in acts of huswifery because the house is my battle ground. At the same time, all of this is probably imperceptible to anyone but me.

We are at a time in our lives when it’s necessary to spend a lot of time sitting out in the yard doing nothing. The baby likes to be out there wandering around, and it’s good for him to do so. He has acres on which to wander, but there’s always a small chance that he’s going to go to that one place where he’s not allowed to play. It’s human nature after all, so I have to be on guard. I can’t read, because I’ll become too absorbed. I can’t laptop because my battery doesn’t work for long.

In my “no” phase, I might have been annoyed with the situation, because there’s a crapload of work to be done inside, and if I’m doing nothing, I at least want to do nothing on the internet. But the freedom to do nothing--nothing but feeling the breeze, roasting in the sun, watching the leaves and the putterings of a little boy who doesn’t need to be convinced that doing nothing is really wonderful--is really wonderful.

But from the outside, I imagine this profound internal shift just looks to others like a woman sitting around doing nothing, which is, of course, exactly what it is. The great relief and surprise about the devout life, is that it looks similar to the not so devout life I was living last week, except that I smile more, because I am free. I’ve said it before; It’s not that I’m unhappy with my life, it’s that I’ve been divided--divided by concepts that I have created.

I just finished reading “The Edge of Sadness” by Edwin O’Connor. It’s the best novel I’ve read in a long time, about a priest who’s been through a period of spiritual aridity and finds at the end of it, the freedom to embrace the life he’s been living as opposed to the life he always thought he wanted. When Father Kennedy finally acknowledges that what he wants is not the warmth and regard of other people, but love and truer devotion to God, his conversion works out like this:

“The mighty changes, of course, did not take place—or if they did they remained invisible to me. Which was natural enough…since a slight increase in the zeal of one man produces no miracles—unless the one man is himself one of the extraordinary few who can and do change history. But nothing like that was involved here. I did my work, time went by…”

And so it does.


Lizzie said...

I love this post so much. Can't think of any more to say at the moment as I need to sit with it and reflect but beautiful, beautiful stuff...Thank you!

Diane said...

Thank you for putting these thoughts of yours down. This post touched me, and has given me a lot to think about. To me, perfection always seems too overwhelming to even shoot for-the very idea of it paralyzing. But small, perhaps outwardly imperceptible change is not nearly so terrifying. When I get right down to the core of my own faith, I believe that God understands our fears and pride, and that the small steps are all He asks. In other words, enough really is enough. Yes, what freedom!

Catherine said...

My husband's sock drawer is so full that I put a basket next to it to catch the overflow. We call it the 'sock annex'
(he won't let me throw any of his socks away)

Hope said...

I am going to come back and reread this post - so much to glean from it! In AA I've heard the saying often of 'doing the next right thing'. I often have thought I want to do the next right exciting thing not the daily next right thing.
Somewhere I read once about someone eating a bowl of cereal and the next right thing was washing the bowl. Sometimes I am amazed at how the simplest things can totally go right over my head. I would never have thought the next right thing was to wash the bowl.
Have you read anything by Gunilla Norris? She has a lovely little book called Being Home. I gave my copy away as a gift and have yet to replace it. I like all her books that I've read.
Now there you go. Reading a book could so easily always seem like the next right thing to me! :)

Young Mom said...

I think the main reason I fear to strive for perfection isn't being afraid of trying, it's being afraid of failing. Over and over and over.

Jamie said...

This post is SO timely. I was in the adoration chapel yesterday reading a book about lukewarmness and thinking about what utter abandonment to God might look like. I was surprised at how resistant I was to the idea -- well, yeah, maybe I'd have more joy and peace but who KNOWS what else might happen?

Anonymous said...

I have a 4 yr old, adopted a year ago, who forces me to "do nothing" nearly all the time. It is so frustrating, has been driving me crazy. We bought a new house last month and it needs a lot of work to get it ready before we can move in, but I can't do anything over there because the little one can't be left unwatched for even 5 minutes without something awful happening. I can't pack our stuff for the move. When she finally goes off to sleep around 8:30pm I'm right there with her. I really need to figure out how to resign myself to doing nothing at this time (other than keeping her alive and keeping her destruction at a minimum).

lauren said...

Ah... Betty Duffy, are you following me around again? How do you know to write exactly what I need to hear?

bearing said...

Glad you're enjoying the series... I get so few comments on it that I'm never sure anyone is reading along... but it's definitely been good for me to write about it. It's a really amazing little book.

Kimberlee said...

This is a beautiful post. I love the line 'freedom from the chronic No'. The path to heaven is indeed one tiny yes after yes after yes. Many blessings to you on your journey with the saints.

Sally Thomas said...

I'm reading that novel right now! As for the rest of it . . . still digesting, but as always, a terrific, need-to-read post.

meg said...

I love the idea of thinking of perfection as just the name of the road; it's so overwhelming that way. Thanks for that, it's helpful. But also, deep down inside I know part of my resistance is that if I perfect myself, I'll be ready and God will take me. Neurotic, I know; I live in fear of irony.

meg said...

Sorry - meant to say "less overwhelming that way", of course. Should've used the preview.

Sally Thomas said...

Oh, my goodness, now I'm really ready to talk about Edge of Sadness. I think I want to talk about Father Danowski more than anyone else . . . if ever there were a truly brilliant "minor" character, it is he.

Christina said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you...