Sometimes personal reinvention is less about appearances and more about finding out where our True North moved to.
I’m an atheist so it might seem surprising that one of my favorite authors is the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton. There are a lot of reasons to love his writings, and given his popularity there is little I can add to the admiration of his spiritual teachings and reflections.
Which, ironically, I came to secondarily. My first exposure to Merton was through his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain. The title, if you were not aware, refers to the mountain of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, honestly, but the impact it had on my was profound.
Not, obviously, because I am called to a religious life, or even religion. While I’ve done two significant “Searches for God” in my life, I’ve always come back around to atheism.
Merton’s autobiography had an impact because of the journey he took, not the destination he came to.
His life was that of a privileged young white man whose life fluctuated been middle class and upper middle class. Graduating from Columbia University in 1939, could have easily gone on to get a masters/PhD and tracked to become a tenured professor somewhere, living a life of comfort and stability.
Instead he had an epiphany and threw his whole life over to become a monk.
He simply let go of everything that had previously anchored him and assured him social success in order to follow his calling. That was what hit me when I read the book, and what stays with me now. I find that one of the most courageous acts I’ve ever encountered, and for that reason, it still haunts me.
He did it voluntarily, too. There was no precipitating, horrific crisis or tragedy, just a “normal” life filled with unexceptional highs and lows.
It’s easier to swallow the need to “reinvent” ourselves when under severe duress, and it’s also easy to say we’ve reinvented ourselves by changing our personal wardrobe style but little else. Reinventing your appearance is not the same as dropping everything to change the essence of who you are in your daily life.
The choice to fundamentally rearrange our entire life is a terrifying one to confront, and few of us do it voluntarily. The ones I know who have done just that often have to wreck serious havoc doing do, as much as they try not to. They, like Merton, felt a calling to live a different life, and they could not avoid that calling without seriously compromising their own identity and the life they had previously built around it.
I have never done that. My changes have always been incremental, usually in response to crisis/tragedy, and I’ve always been resistant to them. Yet, when I finally get to the point where I’m in the midst of change, I have such a feeling of elation about it: Change! So amazing! Wow!
These thoughts about Merton and his choices creep up on me as I look around at my very settled, very complacent life. I know, I strive for a lot, but the past couple of years has seen me striving in the sense of peddling fast on a stationary bike, expecting to go somewhere new and exciting.
I’m not at any point where I can or should throw over this settled life, leave my homestead and traverse lands unknown to me. But I have the itch to do so, and instead of holding that down in the sink to drown it, I think it is time to stretch out my fingers and grab a’hold of it.
Also published on Medium.