A few weeks ago I sang with my church choir. We sang a hymn that was one of my Dad’s very favorites. Whenever I hear it, I can see him sitting, eyes closed, at our beloved Chautauqua Institute, leaning his head back as if to take in the sound fully. Getting through the piece without tears was a surprise and a welcome signal that I am coming into the time when I can remember my Dad with joy in addition to my sorrow for the loss.
There is a line in the hymn: “No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that rock I’m clinging…” The arrangement we performed really swells and sweeps in this moment and it feels like both storm and strength. I can see it, the figure in the water holding onto that rock amidst the cresting waves and the dark sky. The hymn reminds us of the joy, the peace that can be found using love as our rock, our foundation.
I know, not just from my own experience, but from so the stories so many others have shared with me, that love is not always the rock we cling to. We cling to all kinds of rocks hoping to weather those storms. We cling to tradition (or at least the “way we’ve always done it”); we cling to rightness; we cling to stability; we cling to stories.
What I’ve found is that there are many rocks that will help us SURVIVE. In times of trouble, we can turn lots of place to muddle through, to endure, to get by, to get through, to get past. But some of those rocks, they leave us cut and bleeding, wounded by the clinging rather than by the storm.
Some of those rocks are old stories we have about who we are. “I couldn’t possibly do that. I HAVE to do XYZ. I really SHOULD or SHOULDN’T.” These are the guideposts we develop when things get tough, and sometimes they really do help us. The thing is that once they are in place, they sort of become furniture, or bricks, unquestioned in purpose or validity. It’s there; it should be there. It’s ALWAYS been there. It is truth and when I suspect it’s not, I am wrong; I am bad. I am flawed and a failure because I can’t live within the story I’ve created for myself. And yet we cling. We cling to those stories.
We cling to those rocks not because we are stupid. We cling to those rocks not because we don’t want better. We cling to those rocks because we are scared. We are scared to question what we know. We are scared to do things differently. We are scared to try on a new story because the outcome is unknown.
And so we cling to those rocks and get cut and bruised and hold on with our teeth chattering from the cold. We stay stuck because it feels safer. We stay stuck because it’s what we know. We stay stuck because for us or for someone we love getting unstuck means breaking the rules. We stay stuck because we are afraid we’ll lose everything if we imagine a new way. We’ll lose our friends and family. We’ll lose the community and relationships we’ve cultivated. We’ll be that outsider – unwelcome in the ring of humans around the fire. Cold, alone, abandoned.
It’s old this coping mechanism. And by that I mean it’s human evolution old, not just you personally old. Our tendency to define our possibilities using a pretty narrow scope and a shallow field ensures our acceptability in the tribe and we need the tribe to survive, even if it means everybody in that tribe is clinging to their own brutal rock.
It’s a grim picture, but being somewhat drawn to the image, I want to extend this metaphor just one step farther. If you are clinging to a rock that hurts, I want to know if you’ve tried to touch the bottom with your feet. I want to know how convinced you are that you can’t stand up. I want to know what would happen if you just let go? Even I, a confirmed “sinker” in a lifetime of swimming lessons, can float with the occasional small maneuver. What would happen if instead of clinging to that brutal rock, you just let go and see where the storm takes you?
There are some things I can tell you about storms on the water. First and foremost: they always end. Secondly, they bring up all kinds of miraculous and beautiful things (just ask any shell collector). Thirdly, when they are over, the beach is there and the sun emerges, and more often than not there is someone who will help you find your towel.
Maybe it’s time to trade in your rock, or maybe it’s time to just float.