Will you ever bring a better gift for the world
than the breathing respect that you carry
wherever you go right now?
Sometimes we seek refuge from our pain in the habits of life, as if sheer routine can put our wounds to sleep. But the habits of life can make us all a little squirrelly, and soon enough, we don’t want our little nest messed with. We don’t want anything unexpected or different to disrupt the little box we live in. We don’t want anything to unearth the pains we’ve buried. And just about the time we’re most inflexible, some great wave of love or suffering crashes over our little box, opening us to the unalterable fact that all the little boxes we construct are tiresome illusions. There is only one home, only one sea in which we all swim. That home is the common, eternal heart we are all a part of. I’ve always found more comfort and strength in that common sea than in all the habits I surround myself with.
I was amazed to learn recently that as we form in the womb, the first sign of our arms, known as arm buds, grow directly out of the heart. Before we even arrive, our arms are small branches stemming from our heart. This is why when we feel love, we have the impulse to reach and touch.
Surviving the Great Wave of love or suffering is how we begin to make our way. Once tossed about by life, we seek out those who speak the language of the Great Wave. Then we greet each other with offerings of truth and compassion: Was the Great Wave kind or harsh? What did it break down or open in you? What did it give you or take away? What have you chosen to rebuild with? Who did you reach out to? Who showed up? Who ran away? Who keeps muffling the questions? Who wants to know what you see?
A quest of mine has been to learn what it means to make our way and to love what we do. We begin to engage the world by committing to a life of questions and swimming through our pain and sorrow until we make a career of awakening. In time, we may become skilled at the art of being sensitive, which can help us move past insecurity. Making our way means having faith in the authority of being that informs our soul. This leads us back to solid ground. Though we’re blind and sighted by turns, though we stumble through the trance of our fears and the intoxication of our dreams, we remain touchable and capable of love. Ultimately, making our way means staying very close to life, until we begin to feel intimate with all things.
And bringing love to what we do, no matter what is before us, is an act of courage that can right-size our pain and sorrow and worry. Loving what we do may or may not bring us success, but it will reanimate our kinship with everything living, and this will restore us.
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Love in Action
Kurtis Lamkin is a poet praise-singer from Charleston, South Carolina, who plays the kora and the jinjin, stringed instruments of West Africa. But mostly, Kurt plays his heart. I fell in love with Kurt the first time we met. Watching Kurt play the twenty-one strings of the kora, his eyes closed and his head back, I knew I was witnessing someone who loves what he does. So much that it was hard to know where his fingers stopped and the strings began. Centuries of living came pouring through his praise singing.
As I got to know Kurt, it became clear that this is the way he loves everything and everyone. He’s one of those who glows, a lamp to everything he touches. And loving what he does is what keeps his lamp lit. This is a great lesson. When we can love what we do, it keeps our lamp lit, which lets us bring light to everything we touch.
Whatever we touch bears the mark of our heart, because our hands and heart are forever connected. I was amazed to learn recently that as we form in the womb, the first sign of our arms, known as arm buds, grow directly out of the heart. Before we even arrive, our arms are small branches stemming from our heart. This is why when we feel love, we have the impulse to reach and touch. This is why when speaking from the heart, we tend to speak with our hands. And when having a heart attack, we feel the pain in our arms.
Our hands carry whatever we feel into the world. We can’t know the tenderness of touching another without taking the risk to be touched. We can’t know care unless we let the care in our heart spill out through our hands. We can’t know love from outside of loving.
The visionary educator Parker Palmer suggests that vocation is that which calls us into who we truly are. Underneath all the professions and job descriptions, our vocation is to embody our authentic self and, then, to live that self in the world. In this way, our vocation—our call—is to find what we love and to love what we do. The philosopher Howard Thurman said:
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Yet how do we discover what we love to do? How do we maintain it? How do we recover it when it changes? Loving what we do involves a continual alignment of inner with outer, a commitment to place our care in the world. When we can bring enough of ourselves to bear on what we do, the smallest task will open its drudgery and show us its seed of truth. It’s the depth of our care that rinses the drudgery from what must be done.
The power that comes from loving what you do waits inside the doing, which means we have to enter what we do and not just handle it. As long as we force the wrench to fit the pipe or worry the saw through the lumber, the world remains a problem to be solved. Once we can feel the pipe through the wrench and feel the lumber opening as the saw and our hands are one, then we join with what we do—and love begins to show itself.
I remember picking corn with Ed, my former father-in-law, in the August sun. I didn’t care for it at first. I trailed behind him feeling very inept. In one motion, his old arthritic hand swiftly snapped each ear of corn from its stalk and tossed it in his canvas bag. I couldn’t keep up. Finally, I just watched him for a while. I noticed a tender hesitation before each snap, as if he were quietly thanking the corn for growing so tall. This was his love affair with the earth.
Later, I watched him eat the corn he grew, and thanked, and picked. There was a big grin on his face, which others thought was because the corn tasted so good. But having loved him enough to watch him in his care, I could see that he was eating the earth, the rain, the seed, and the sun that were all wrapped together in these juicy kernels. Ed was always more himself during corn season. It was tending the corn that kept his lamp lit.
Yet because we live in a disposable age obsessed with the new, we seldom put our hands in the earth or hold the objects we build and give to each other. Though it’s easier to throw something out rather than repair it, we lose the history of objects and tools and the presence they accumulate, when we toss them away without a thought.
It’s the depth of our care that rinses the drudgery from what must be done.
As long as we remain instrumental—that is, intent and fixed on using whatever we touch to gain us some advantage—we won’t be open to the life that moves through whatever we touch. The vitality of life reveals itself when we can be present enough to become a conduit for other presence—like Kurt when he’s playing his ancient instruments, and Ed when he’s watering the small stalks of corn.
Every tool has a story of what it’s fixed, every stone in a garden wall that’s been hoisted into place holds the story of those hands, and every pair of earrings has heard all the secrets whispered in its ears. The objects of the world are like notes of music on a page, silent and waiting for us to play them.
So when you can, pick up an object, any object, and hold it as you would a beautiful shell you’ve found by the sea. Feel its edges, hold it to your ear, and listen for its story. Love whatever you hold so it can reveal its history and its presence.
Everywhere we turn, we’re asked to remember that our hands have grown out of our heart. With everything we do, we’re asked to enter what’s before us with immediate hands-on effort. By loving what we do, we invoke the effort to stay present, the effort to restore our trust in life when we lose it, the effort to open our heart especially when pain and fear close it, and the effort to do small things with love, as Mother Teresa would say. These offerings of heart through our hands keep our lamp lit.
There is no greater healing agent than loving what you do. My father, lifelong craftsman that he was, worked in our basement whenever he could. He was always covered with sawdust. In the midst of all his tools, with an irrepressible smile on his face, he’d say, “If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life.”
Love whatever you hold so it can reveal its history and its presence.
Seeds to Water
- Bring to mind and heart someone you admire who loves what they do, whatever that might be. In your journal, describe in detail this person doing what they love. Describe the motion and rhythms of how they work. Describe the nature and music of their love.
- In conversation with a friend or loved one, describe this person and tell the story of their doing what they love. Follow this by describing in detail something you love to do.
Excerpted from The One Life We’re Given by Mark Nepo. (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster 2016) MarkNepo.com ThreeIntentions.com
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Mark Nepo will be at ABC Home/Deepak Homebase in New York City April 6 & 7 for a Two-Day Workshop Loving What You Do.
Friday 4/6, 6:30pm – 8:30pm & Saturday 4/7, 10:30am – 6:30pm
For registration info, click here
April 13-15 Mark returns to Pine Manor Retreat Center, near Lake Elsinore, in southern CA for a 3-day retreat, The Gift of Deepening and The Radiance in All Things. The weekend goes from Friday night @ 6pm – 2pm Sunday.
For more information, please visit PineManor.com
More events and info at: MarkNepo.com ThreeIntentions.com