results and intimacy

If your life is anything like mine, I often feel like I’m engaged in endless activities: clients to call; books to read; meetings to plan and facilitate; lawn to mow, house to maintain, writing to do; family time, yoga classes, haircut, doctor visits, and so on. It is challenging to find the thread connecting it all, not to mention how tiring all the busyness can feel.

Yes I have goals and responsibilities; results to achieve, relationships to nurture and interests to pursue; in short, I have many good reasons for doing what I do. Yet good reasons often beget more good reasons to do more things, to take on more projects. This sense of strain and stress is something I hear about from a great many of the people with whom I work. And this state of affairs leaves me with a nagging question: What if all our effort comes to nothing and our lives, our organizations, or the world, doesn’t get better despite all the advances, successes, and best intentions? Yet, it isn’t as bleak as this sounds.

 

French philosopher Gaston Bachelard says that there is no greater value in our lives than intimacy. What about artistic and scientific achievement, moral courage, heroism, altruistic acts, or work undertaken to effect social change? Don’t these offer greater value? There is no doubt that each of these offers great value to the world and to us. I don’t’ really know what Bachelard had in mind by there being no greater value than intimacy. However, I take his statement as a provocation to look more deeply into what I do.

Even during moments when I am solitary, such as writing this blog, nothing matters more to me than to be brought into deep connection with others. To experience that solid space of belonging, of being at home with place and with others. Even my refusal to rest content, to risk accusations of excess on behalf of my obsessions – with writing, with large system change – is not a turning away from others. It is rather what makes some of us adventurers on behalf of us all.

A number of years ago, Thomas Merton – acclaimed poet, spiritual writer and social activist – wrote a Letter to a Young Activist in which he says: Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on … you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the truth of the work itself. And there, too, a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually as you struggle less and less for an idea, and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.

Results, without intimacy, quickly pale. As Merton says, personal relationships save everything.