I recently heard Marie Howe, Poet Laureate for the State of New York, respond to a question asking her to explore a deep and provocative statement she had offered in a lecture a few years earlier. The words she’d pieced together in that talk were ironic and stunning, something you’d expect from a master poet. I sat upright, glad the interviewer had made this query. I waited to receive a profound truth. Instead, Marie laughed at herself dismissively. “Oh, what a thing to say” — and Marie laughed more, like she had genuinely cracked herself up. “I have no idea what I meant with that.”

I wish those of us who stand behind a pulpit would follow Howe’s example more often. “Wait, everybody. I have no idea what I just said. That sounded good on paper Thursday, but let’s be honest – that’s just ridiculous.”

I wish more of us who put words to paper would be easy with this kind of humility. Since there’s nothing at stake for us, there’s no need for all the shame when our words fall flat and no need to hang our every hope on the validation of … I don’t even know who, I’m so confused these days.

But many of us — and I only use examples from the world I know best — are too busy pimping our words. We’re frantically rubbing our words together like two damp sticks, desperate for a flicker, desperate for someone to notice a spark. We are striving, striving – and we are exhausted.

I wish more of us who put children to bed at night and kiss our lover at day’s end, more of us who work to pay the mortgage and piece together a life, could walk slowly into the present grace, receiving whatever comes, be it brilliance or banality. I wish we would know the joy of receiving the one whiff of fresh cut grass, the one wave of a son looking out the window as his mom drives him off to school, the one hour that asks you to sit a while. To stop all the striving and sit.

But strive we do. Our world’s eaten up with it. We are so fearful that we will be forgotten, that we will be alone. We are so fearful that, after all our efforts, our life will be sand slipping through our fingers. We are so, so fearful. We do not need to be afraid. We do not need to grasp. There will be enough love for us.

When I’m given to jealousy over those who receive more or when I’m left in the corner to doodle with the children while the adults laugh and clink drinks, my impulse is to strive, to fight, to yell all the louder to get attention. This is not the way of love. This is not the way of rest. This is not the good life.

Whatever I’m given will be enough. It will be enough. As Mary Oliver says, “It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot or a few small stones…”

When we push and pull to craft a name or a platform or a bank account, we end up with less, always less. St. Augustine offered a sobering word to our age: “By striving after more, man is diminished.” I see the world around me diminishing at a frightening pace. I pray to God it will stop. I pray I will stop.

20 Replies to “Striving”

  1. oh Winn. this reaches me in a deep pit today. and even though i mourn, i wonder if it is worse desecration to strive for the untimely absolution of the sadness. that perhaps by surrendering to the music of this very dark hour, i learn something greatly strengthening – to hear Beauty in the minor key.
    i don’t read much in times like these, but yours is a place i know i will not come upon words unfitting for the heavy days. thank you.

  2. I just wrote to Him the other day in my prayer journal, “I want to lean on You; only You. If everything else fell away, You would remain.” It’s a humble thought from a too often proud heart. Thanks for these words, Winn!

  3. Interesting that you chose the word humility. At first I thought honesty would be more accurate. But I suppose you cannot be honest with out being humble enough to accept truth. Pride is a great deceiver. But in accepting the reality of this world all of those strivings can really be great comedy if we could only change our perspective.

    1. Hey, CJ. I’m betting honesty or humility would both work. And indeed, great comedy. It would be good if we’d just laugh at it all.

  4. Wow. I listened to Krista Tippett’s interview with Marie Howe just this morning, how moving. Then along came your post.

  5. Winn, my 6 year old was just talking to me this week about Striving. He was telling me that I was striving for things and that was bad. He told me his Dad had said this about me, but when I asked him he said he didn’t. But my son’s words followed this internal battle I’ve been having with feeling the need to be significant beyond what I am now, to have more than I have now, and to do more than I’m doing now. However, I never voiced this struggle to anyone. In many different ways the Holy Spirit has been speaking to my heart, telling me to be still, be patient, and be satisfied with where I’m at, and with what I’m doing right now. In essence — stop striving. So then I happened to read your post today and I’m stunned by it. Again, this message hitting me square in the face. Thank you for sharing it. And, it was so beautifully put. I guess I really should pause and listen…

    1. Your 6 year old grandson has an advanced vocabulary – and likely advanced wisdom too, huh? Some days I have a hard time telling the difference between good desire for more, for impact, and the clamoring that I must be more, do more. The kicker’s in the energy, I suppose – and whether or not, beneath it all, I’m grounded and resting in love, believing that really there is no needfor more.

  6. Yes Winn, we see glimpses of that “advanced wisdom” in our son. He’s been described as an “old soul”. I know he’s been put here to teach this even “older soul” a few things about life. Thank you for sharing more of your insights on this issue of Striving. Once again, you’ve given me more food for thought. Be blessed!

  7. Can I express a different point of view? While your words touched me, I just couldn’t help but think that I have to strive. I suffer from depression. I don’t consider my striving noble, I consider it necessity. Some days, if I don’t strive I won’t make it out of bed. Striving is what helps me hold a job. I would love nothing more than to sit, but I might never get up again. God has given me so many gifts and I struggle with the knowledge that I can’t always use them. Isn’t it okay to strive? Just a little? When I need to?

    1. Hi, Susan. I’m glad you put your thoughts down. Perhaps I’d say that when I use the word striving, I’m talking mainly about a posture of vanity and labored self-focus, a frantic life lived in fear that if we don’t accomplish more, we’ll come to naught. I suspect you’re talking about the sheer fact that life is often hard, deep and tedious work to simply get one foot in front of the other. It sounds to me like you’re being courageous, fighting to live. I’m in your corner. If courage and refusal to lay down in life is what striving means for you, then strive away. And I pray that God’s rest somehow finds you amid all of it.

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