Anne Lamott on the monkey house
Last night, at Arborlawn United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, the last of 14 cities on the book tour for Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope, and Repair, a woman in her late twenties raised her hand and asked, “What is the big picture? I do a lot of things that I love and value, but don’t have a clue what it all means.”
The crowd was actually hushed, as if I might have the secret launch codes, and could answer this for all time.
I said, “Welcome to the monkey house,” stealing one of Vonnegut’s titles. Everyone of every age roared with friendly laughter, because we’re all in the same boat. We ALL think we missed school the day that the visiting specialists stopped by our 2nd grade classroom to distribute the pamphlets on what is true, who we are, how we are to live with the great mystery of life, how to come through dark times, how to awaken. We’re all sort of winging it, trying to learn self-love and respect, trying to be here, now, sometimes, and live lives of meaning and joy.
You do a LOT of things you love and value? That’s the big picture.
You’ve learned about radical self-care, and putting your own oxygen mask on first, yet also have discovered that we can only be filled up by service, by giving? Are you laughing enough? Are you saying “No” enough? Have you taken to heart that “NO” is a complete sentence? That no one over 40 must EVER again help anyone else move to a new house? That no one over 50 must EVER chair a yard—or-parking lot-or garage sale—for a church, or a high school sports team?
Ram Dass said he thought that when it was all said and done, we’re all just walking each other home. That’s the meaning, I think. That’s the big picture.
You’re not squandering your time racing around all day doing meaningless bullshit, multi-tasking, and always feeling like you’re behind on your homework? If not, that’s what it all means. Rest is a spiritual act.
My pastor once told us that you can trap bees in jars without lids, because they look straight ahead, muddling around, panicking on the floor of the jar, bumping into the glass sides, because they don’t look up. If they did, they could fly to freedom.
You’re learning NOT to chase the mechanical rabbits at the Greyhound Race Track, of fame, drama, achievement, ownership? You’re pursuing a creative call of some sort, now? You’re not pretending that you are going to get back to writing, singing, dance, as soon as this or that happens—ie as soon as you graduate or retire, or your youngest leaves home? You’re doing it NOW, badly, herky-jerkily, as a debt of honor? That is the bigger meaning of it all: creation.
You’re living as if you may have a year or so to live, and want to make the most of it, savor and be filled, by spending time with those you love most, much of it outdoors in the beauty of our Mother? Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
So are you out there, shaking your head with amazement, smiling about the earth’s wild sweet beauty? That is the bigger picture. That is the meaning: wonder, presence, immediacy, being HERE. Like my teenage friend Mason says in Stitches, “I had brain cancer. I was in a coma. Then I was HERE again.” Are you here?
That’s the big picture.
#”when it’s all said and done, we’re all just walking each other home” is the new #swag
There are, Phillips maintains, two ways of dealing with this terror: acceptance or denial. Acceptance is the good way. We acknowledge our need for other people and are open with ourselves about the vulnerabilities this inevitably engenders. Indeed, only by this degree of openness can we ever hope to have our needs actually met. For having needs met requires having needs in the first place; helplessness is a precondition for being helped.
But for those for whom vulnerability is too much of an ask, for whom even the acknowledgment of their own fear is itself too frightening, denial is experienced as a safer bet. Better to have some emotional locked-in syndrome – masked by charm or wit or pretend empathy – than face the terror of vulnerability. It shows the extent to which our popular culture has become so fearful that this feels very much like a description of what it is to be “cool”. Giles Fraser, "When we deny our own vulnerability, we cope by being cruel to others," The Guardian (via andrewtsks)