Composted by Life

My friend, Leslye Rood, was kind enough to pass along a recent essay by Parker J. Palmer, who many know from his seminal book of several years ago, Courage to Teach. The essay was written on the eve of Palmer’s seventy-eighth birthday, and though I’m quite a few years younger myself, much of what I read really hit home—were things I had been thinking about a lot lately.

Parker Palmer

“Coming to terms with the soul-truth of who I am — of my complex and often confusing mix of darkness and light — has required my ego to shrivel up,” Palmer wrote. “Nothing shrivels a person better than age…Whatever truthfulness I’ve achieved on this score comes not from a spiritual practice, but from having my ego so broken down and composted by life that eventually I had to yield and say, ‘OK, I get it. I’m way less than perfect.’ I envy folks who come to personal truth via spiritual discipline: I call them ‘contemplatives by intention.’ Me, I’m a contemplative by catastrophe.”

I’m also a contemplative by catastrophe, I guess. I also would like to be rid of my ego, but, like Palmer, I’ve come to accept that only time will truly move me along that road. I have my halting attempts to pray and meditate, but the truth is that my flaws and self-centered delusions will only be “broken down and composted by life.” To that end, life is certainly an effective and persistent teacher.

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In the last several months, I’ve posted some thoughts here and there on Facebook, but this my first blog in more than a year. It’s been a difficult time for our family because of a serious illness. (Much good news and healing on that score.) There was also a ton of writing work that needed finishing.

But I also made a conscious decision to go quiet for a while, to turn inward. The last several years have been a quite public and gratifying time for me—continuing to share the story of my friendship with Fred Rogers, and publishing a novel. But something was telling me to take a pause and examine my motives. Was my public life an attempt to satiate my ego, or an expression of an inner truth? This seems to be the answer: It was a combination of the two. Always has been. Probably always will be.

I’ve also spent a good bit of time these last several months—with the companionship of many trusted others—getting better acquainted with my dark side. It’s broader and deeper than I had previously known. The anger, the fear, the self-centeredness, the arrogance and judgment of others. Yet such self-reckoning is an exercise I strongly recommend, painful as it might be. I think our lives make a little more sense when we better understand the shadows we all carry within. We’re less likely to be blindsided by them, for one thing. And understanding the universal shadow might inspire deeper compassion for others in our seething world.

So I’m no longer so ashamed of or frightened by my own inner darkness. Fred Rogers once told me, “There is a loving mystery at the heart of the universe that yearns to be expressed.” I’ve come to believe that the Loving Mystery to which he refers lives in both the darkness and the light. In fact, I believe that the Loving Mystery IS both the darkness and the light.

I now plan on taking up the blog on a regular basis. Several will concern a new book, coming in July, that I think will be as impactful and meaningful as I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers. It is a groundbreaking work on grieving and authentic living from my therapist friend and brother, Patrick O’Malley. I was honored to serve as Patrick’s co-author.

I will also write about music and my musician friends, hockey, Mister Rogers, other books, wise people that I know, hockey again, and whatever else comes to mind. As Fred said, “anything mentionable is manageable.”

But let me apologize in advance. My words will be the product of both my stubborn ego and my inner truth. Until I am wiser, more fully “composted” by life, I’m afraid that’s the best I can do.