In Praise of Multiple Fidelities


A commencement address given to the graduates of Parkland Health & Hospital System's CPE residency program.

Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

It's almost comical to stand up here talking to persons who have devoted their lives to spiritual care and to have chosen a scripture that most of you know quite well. Who, better than clergy, understand the mutual exclusivity of serving two masters, let alone serving God and wealth? Few of you chose this vocation in order to become the next Mark Zuckerberg or Oprah Winfrey. This passage has been used so frequently that it has an almost axiomatic quality to it. We hold its truth to be self-evident. As Soren Kierkegaard once wrote, "Purity of heart is to will one thing." I don't know about you, but I can't remember a time in my life when I willed one thing. Even narrowing it down to two things would be pretty difficult for me. If I were to have you take a fearless inventory of your current inner life, chances are good that you likely want a number of things. A job, a second chance, forgiveness, revenge, a stable and loving relationship, to embrace or be embraced, or the space to simply be in solitude. If we were to ask ourselves to rank these wants according to their importance, I trust that we would quickly find ourselves having stumbled upon the outskirts of competing loyalties. If only life were as simple as our dualistic text for this morning. Rarely do we choose between two competing loyalties. Instead, we carry many fidelities in our lives, often at the same time.

I was listening to a podcast recently with writer and Zen practitioner Natalie Goldberg who was talking about how she had spent a number of years studying under her teacher Katagiri Roshi. One day he challenged her to either choose her love of writing or to choose the path of becoming a Zen teacher. For her teacher, these were parallel tracks that could not cross in some future expanse before her. For Goldberg, however, it mattered little for she knew in her being that these were not mutually exclusive commitments but mutually interpenetrating ones that both deserved her wholehearted attention.

When I look at my life and hold it before my eyes as if it were a snow globe, I see the variety of roles I hold, each of which gives me identity and meaning. I am a father who cares for three small persons more than they will ever know, and I am an intimate friend to persons who have earned the right to hold my story. I am a professional who attempts to bring as much of myself to my work as I can so that through the art of paying attention, others might catch a more compassionate and competent glance of themselves and their work that reflects greater wholeheartedness. In this reflection, I hope that they can then offer this gift to patients, families, and staff. Finally, stripped of these outward social manifestations, I am a self. In my better moments, I have found great solace and adventure in exploring the terrain of my own soul, the depths of which are at times even a mystery to me. Yet, when I am tired or, as you all described yesterday, when I have passed exhaustion and am on my way to burnout, I quickly lose sight of the three dimensionality of my fidelities and see my life as a pie with eight slices. This week I spent six on work, one on relationships, and one on myself. Last week I spent seven on work and one on relationships. There was no time for me last week. Seen through this lens, life is a constant negotiation among competing commitments that feels like a zero sum game at the end of the day. When we look at our lives in this way, it's no wonder we run around feeling constantly depleted and apologetic that we cannot live up to some unrealistic standard we've been carrying since our elementary years. If we're not careful, we begin to live our lives as if we are servers at a restaurant who are always on the lookout for the empty glasses in our spheres of responsibility. While we fill up the glass of work, the glass of our relationships with others remains empty, and with it the glass that represents our self. For someone like myself, an Enneagram 5 who can compartmentalize with the best of them, this way of looking at life is a recipe for disaster. I would imagine that even for those of you who are not prone to compartmentalizing in this way know all too well what I'm talking about. The pitcher eventually runs out of water, and we and those to whom we are connected bear the burden of this unquenched thirst.

We desperately long for work/life balance, but how do we balance those areas of our lives that oftentimes demand our complete commitment? David Whyte writes:

We should stop thinking in terms of work-life balance. Work-life balance is a concept that has us simply lashing ourselves on the back and working too hard in each of the three commitments. In the ensuing exhaustion we ultimately give up on one or more of them to gain an easier life.

For the purposes of this address, I will be talking primarily about what David Whyte calls the three marriages: marriages or partnerships between people, our marriage to our work, and our our marriage to our self. As he writes:

We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and…they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously…To neglect any one of the three marriages is to impoverish them all, because they are not actually separate commitments but different expressions of the way each individual belongs to the world.

It probably goes without saying that a marriage or a partnership is the first loyalty we think of when we think of commitment. For those who have stood at the altar, joyously and nervously sliding a ring on the hand of a loved one, it was a grace to both of you that you had no earthly idea what you were promising to one another. As the philosopher Alain De Botton writes, "Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over knowledge.” The work of committed love is to see it as a container within which we run into ourselves over and over again through the eyes of another. And perhaps, through the patience and steadfastness of our partners, we begin to see past our historical projections and encounter the otherness of the other for his or her own sake. Marriage, if it is anything, is an educational institution that--at its best--challenges both partners to bring their full selves to the table with enough solidity to hold one another firmly and enough malleable non-attachment to give both partners the space to continually reinvent themselves over time. This is no small feat, for it requires a measure of self-awareness, self-sacrifice, a short memory, and a willingness to change that becomes emblematic of the kind of fidelity required by our marriage to our work. 

When we talk about being married to our work, we usually say it pejoratively under our breath in relation to that person who seems to care more about their job than about the rest of their life. Perhaps you grew up with a parent (or parents) whose sense of fidelity to their job gave you the impression that they were unfaithful to you or your family. At its best, work carries with it considerable potential for serving as yet another important container through which we embark upon a pilgrimage of identity formation. It can become the locus of our connection with our vocation and the place where we unite our meager and noble intentions and actions to something bigger than ourselves. For the most meaningful work, as in meaningful relationships, the horizon that stretches out before us is there to attract our vision so that we are constantly captivated by the challenge of the journey itself as opposed to the rather naive expectation that we will reach the end. Work, as in partnership, is always unfinished and full of potential. At its worst, work can decimate the human spirit through the monotony of job descriptions, roles, mindless repetition, and arbitrary responsibilities, just like a marriage between two people can rather easily devolve into a shared living arrangement consisting of chores, division of labor, and that feeling that you've had the same conversation literally thousands of times before. David Whyte writes:

Work is a constant conversation. It is the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.

We have often joked that we spend more time together than we do with our own families, and this is true. Perhaps we have made unspoken vows to one another unawares. That would certainly help make sense of the anger and betrayal we feel when a colleague doesn't follow through on a promise or when a referral is left undone. And yet even these fidelities to our partners and to our work are not sufficient for meeting the needs of that less visible marriage, the one that most often goes neglected in times of weariness, stress, and burnout: the marriage to the self.

There is perhaps nothing that breaks my heart more completely than to meet someone who has not yet woken up to or who willfully ignores the vast inner landscape that stretches out within him or herself. In marriage to a person, we can lose touch with this inner reality in the process of trying to meet another's needs, of running the business of the relationship, paying bills, cleaning the house, making meals, watching Netflix, raising children, and, for God's sake, remembering to change the air filter every once in while. In our marriage to work, we lose touch with the soul by allowing authorities define our work activities in ways that cheapen or trivialize its deeper meaning, by embracing a work ethic dictated by the tyranny of urgent, by losing ourselves in tasks that deaden our awareness of the basic relationality of our work, and by sacrificing the soul to the gods of productivity that would have you believe that more is inherently better. Is it any wonder that it feels like there is no time to take stock of our inner marriage? Yet, there is perhaps no more important fidelity than you have to yourself.

Take a deep breath. Feel your feet on the floor. This is the only container that moves with you. You cannot divorce yourself in order to get away from yourself. You cannot fire yourself or take another somatic position elsewhere. You are stuck with you. This is exactly why it is so important to begin to befriend yourself, to see yourself with self-compassion, to delight in the idiosyncrasies that make you unique, and to wonder about how those unmentionable shadow sides that you work so hard to contain still find a way to express themselves despite your hard work to repress them. To lose oneself to the process of meeting others' expectations, whether a spouse or a boss, is to run the risk of severing the very commitment that might breathe new life into those visible, social fidelities. As David Whyte notes:

We find ourselves unable to move in these outer marriages because we have no inner foundation from which to step out with a firm persuasion. It is as if, absent a loving relationship with this inner representation of our self, we fling ourselves in all directions in our outer lives, looking for love in all the wrong places.

Of course, learning to honor the vow to the self means finding a space within which we can commune with it. This requires a time for going away on our own, whether to a mountain, a desert, a shore, or a place of meditation where we can sit still long enough in the silence to hear the still, small voice that has its own autonomy. If we are honest, placing ourselves in such liminal spaces whether literally or figuratively puts us in touch with our finitude and our smallness in the grand scheme of things. It recalibrates our propensity for self-centeredness and re-situates us within the natural order in ways that are both comforting and terrifying at the same time. But as we breathe in these places, whether in concert with the wind that tickles tree branches or moves mountains of sand or in emulating the rhythmic inhale and exhale of the ocean's wave, we experience resonance between inner and outer and can begin to hear what our life has been trying to tell us all along.

Perhaps it is true that you cannot serve two masters, that fidelity to two things is not possible. At least for today, however, I am asking you to consider not two but three fidelities, each of which demands your complete commitment, each of which offers you a container within which to grow in maturity and lovingkindness. I promise you, you were created for so much more than work/life balance. You are here to live life to the full. You are here to experience wholeheartedness in each of these marriages. If this feels impossible, then you are in the right place.

Hope would not have it any other way.