Saint Benedict once said: “Daily keep your death before your eyes.” In May of 2015, luminary Parker Palmer took the stage at Naropa University (an liberal arts college in Boulder, Colorado that emphasizes Buddhist teachings of enlightenment) and gave one of the truest commencement addresses of all time. Echoing the wisdom of Saint Benedict, his message was: in life, lean in or lose out.
To lean in is to embrace fear and uncertainty. In Palmer’s Words:
Clinging to what you already know and do well is the path to an unlived life. Be reckless when it comes to affairs of the heart…Be passionate about some part of the natural and/or human worlds and take risks on its behalf, no matter how vulnerable they make you. No one ever died saying, “I’m sure glad for the self-centered, self-serving and self-protective life I lived.”
By leaning in, we experience failure, and can then learn to embrace the duality in ourselves:
As you integrate ignorance and failure into your knowledge and success, do the same with all the alien parts of yourself. Take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself. Let your altruism meet your egotism, let your generosity meet your greed, let your joy meet your grief. Everyone has a shadow… But when you are able to say, “I am all of the above, my shadow as well as my light,” the shadow’s power is put in service of the good.
We may also experience suffering, but that too can be transformed into strength and positive energy:
I’m 76 years old, I now know many people who’ve suffered…At first they go into deep grief…But then they slowly awaken to the fact that not in spite of their loss, but because of it, they’ve become bigger, more compassionate people, with more capacity of heart to take in other people’s sorrows and joys. These are broken-hearted people, but their hearts have been broken open, rather than broken apart.
So, every day, exercise your heart by taking in life’s little pains and joys — that kind of exercise will make your heart supple, the way a runner makes a muscle supple, so that when it breaks, (and it surely will,) it will break not into a fragment grenade, but into a greater capacity for love.
Palmer concludes in Benedictine fashion:
If you hold a healthy awareness of your own mortality, your eyes will be opened to the grandeur and glory of life, and that will evoke all of the virtues I’ve named, as well as those I haven’t, such as hope, generosity, and gratitude. If the unexamined life is not worth living, it’s equally true that the unlived life is not worth examining.
So lean in. You will win, and you will lose, but you will never lose out.