I look at you all see the love there that’s sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
It was a late spring day much like today. The wind was gusting, whipping the trees about the canopy. It made a powerful rushing, rustling sound as it blew through the virile new leaves. Bright sunshine made me squint. My chair was oriented toward the sun, but I dared not move, as I was facing my teacher.
I was an awkward teenager preparing to be vaulted into the maelstrom of life. I had asked him what he thought I should study at college. “How about art school?” he suggested, adding, “You’re creative.” This sounded OK, but I wasn’t satisfied.
After a pause, he asked, “What do you like?”
“I like meaning,” I said. “I want a meaningful life.”
He looked at me for a long time, emanating a stillness in contrast to the buffeting wind and beating sunshine of the day. An atmosphere of calm began to form around us as we balanced precariously on wooden kitchen chairs on the grass.
“To have a meaningful life,” he began, “is to be generous with your life. You are given life in order to give it away. Your life is not for you.”
“But what about happiness?” I asked dumbly. “To be happy I have to get the things I want, right?”
“Happiness is not the issue,” he replied. “You need direction. True happiness is a measure of what you give. The task is to be a conduit for life. Giving creates a vacuum. The more you give, the more you are given to give.”
“But how do you know what to give, and who to give it to?” I asked.
At that moment, his wife pulled into their driveway. She stepped around the car and opened the trunk, which held several bags of groceries. My teacher looked at me and said, “Excuse me.” He walked to the car, kissed his wife, and helped her carry the grocery bags into the house, disappearing for several minutes.
I was baffled by what he had been saying, and at first I felt annoyed that he had left the thread of our conversation dangling. But as I watched him walk slowly back across the lawn I realized that he had just demonstrated what he was talking about. As he sat down, I felt ashamed of my initial irritation. Not seeming to notice my conflicted state, he continued as though there had been no pause.
“What you need to give is apparent if you have your eyes open. Needs are presented in every moment. Noticing a need is a gift from the absolute. It means you have been given a task to complete—a mission. But you must be ready to obey.”
“Obedience is forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. It is bending to someone else’s will,” I complained. “That wont make anybody happy except a slave or a soldier.”
“That is ordinary obedience,” he explained. “Real obedience is connected to the root meaning of the word, which comes from the Latin audire—to hear. With true obedience there is no gap between the hearing or perceiving of the need and the response to it. It is consciously chosen, not compelled. Obedience is a joyful dance with life.”
I could see that the conversation had gone far beyond what to study at college, but I still wanted to know what to do.
“So what should I study at college?” I asked, dully.
“If you want a meaningful life, don’t go to college. Just practice what I’m telling you. Start with the small things. If you see a piece of paper on the floor, pick it up and consciously put it into the wastepaper basket. If you see that a person needs your help, drop what you are doing and help them. In that moment they are an agent of the absolute.”
“But I want to do something important,” I said. “How will picking up trash and helping old ladies cross the street make me anything other than a do-gooder?”
“To serve in a meaningful way you need to build a capacity for service. Starting with small things is practice for larger tasks. If you follow what I’m telling you, the absolute will give you very big things to do. But that’s a long way off. Begin where you are.”
Departing from our meeting I walked along a familiar street but I felt lost. All my previously burning questions were cold, and the hopes I had hung on a college life were deflated. But as I considered the task I had been offered, something stirred. I saw a scrap of paper rolling down the gutter. I stooped to pick it up and dropped it carefully into a garbage can. I was happy.