Go in Fear of Abstractions

by Patricia Spadaro

“Go in fear of abstractions.”
—Ezra Pound

Abstraction: an idea or concept that is hard to understand or is theoretical, not practical.

It’s easy to talk in abstractions as we stand on our soap boxes, erupting passionately in front of the evening news or in the break room at work or at dinner with friends. It’s easy to be abstract while we’re pontificating or complaining about the latest atrocity in local or national or company politics. But do we walk our talk?

Actions always speak louder than words. The effects of our actions, our behavior, our attitude—how we treat ourselves and others every day—are what tell the tale of who we are when all is said and done. That will be our memorial and the monument to our life.

What good is it if we say we stand for peace or compassion yet don’t connect with others peacefully and compassionately?  How can we advocate generosity if we sarcastically put down everyone who doesn’t agree with our approach to solving problems? How can we claim to have a more “enlightened” point of view when we haven’t even stepped across the aisle to listen, without prejudging, to what others are concerned about so we can find some common ground?

A good question to ask yourself:  What memorial am I building and what will my monument look like?

A good analogy to help you reflect on that question: Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and how Wren was “memorialized.”


What Will Your Monument Look Like?

I’ve been to London several times and seen St. Paul’s Cathedral from different vantage points, elegant amid the busy city landscape. But not until my latest trip there earlier this year did I explore the secrets inside this magnificent work of art.

When you stand inside beneath the incredibly beautiful dome and look up, you cannot help but be awestruck. Christopher Wren designed the cathedral after the catastrophic 1666 fire in London that destroyed over 13,000 houses and 87 churches. The original church had been standing for one thousand years before that fire.

The foundation stone for the new cathedral, a symbol of hope to the devastated city, was laid in 1675. Thirty three years later, on Wren’s 76th birthday, the final stone was laid by his son. Wren lived beyond 90 years of age and designed 51 other churches and many other noteworthy buildings in his stellar career, but St. Paul’s was his masterpiece.

He was buried there in the lower level of the cathedral. Without fanfare on the wall near his tomb—and now also on the church’s floor beneath the looming dome—is a very simple inscription in Latin that speaks volumes: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”

Oh yes. That is what gives me chills. A simple and sublime truth for all of us.

Our lives and our legacy are defined by what we do, not what we talk about. In other words: “If you want to truly know me and what I stand for, look around me. Look at what I am doing, at the people whose lives I have touched, at the impact my heart has made on others. There you will see my monument, the story of my life, my work of art.”

Each of us has the opportunity to leave behind our “monument,” the evidence of what we have stood for. Tangible, not abstract. Beyond the chatter and bluster to what’s real.

The poet William Blake spoke of this too. He wrote that the good we do is measured only in specific, definite ways:

He who would do good to another, must do it in Minute Particulars,
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite & flatterer . . . .
The Infinite alone resides in Definite & Determinate Identity.

Mohandas Gandhi echoed the same sentiment. When someone once asked him to send them a message, he simply responded, “My life is my message.”

Your life is your message. It will become your monument. Don’t let it be an abstraction.


Through the Smoke and Flames, What Stands Tall?

The history of St. Paul’s teaches us other lessons. One is memorialized in the famous image of St. Paul’s surrounded by smoke and fire in the 1940s. During World War II, when this photo was taken, the survival of St. Paul’s was threatened again, especially during the Blitz—eight months of sustained attacks and bombings on key cities.

Churchill ordered St. Paul’s Cathedral to be saved at all costs. While fires raged all around the City of London, fire battalions and volunteers with hoses and sandbags worked around the clock to save the cathedral. It was hit at one point, but miraculously escaped largely untouched. Once again, St. Paul’s—standing tall midst the smoke and fire—became a symbol of hope and the nation’s resurgent spirit.

This image is a wonderful analogy for our own lives. When things seem to be crumbling around us or going up in flames, there is something that remains. Look through the smoke and you will find it standing tall: your monument—what you stand for, who you truly are, your resilient spirit. Build on that to rise again.


Reflect on This: 

“If you seek his monument, look around you.”

  • Look around yourself at those you interact with every day. What story does your life tell?
  • What are you passionate about? What do you stand for? How does it show in what you do and who you are?
  • Do you treat yourself and others in a way that is consistent with what you value?
  • What will the lasting “monument” of your life look like?


Do you have some thoughts on this?  Share them with us…

The Razor’s Edge of Self-Esteem

by Patricia Spadaro

Self-esteem’s a funny thing—a fine balancing act. You’ve got to believe you are wonderful just as you (because you are) AND you’ve got to keep on trying to improve yourself (because you can reach higher and be more).

That’s perhaps the ultimate razor’s edge of life—balancing confidence with humility. Knowing when to stand up for yourself and when to back down because you have something yet to learn. Taking care not to beat yourself up whenever you make a mistake and, at the same time, not becoming so arrogantly close minded that you shut out the message and the messenger who has been sent to teach you a thing or two about yourself.

As tricky as it can be to balance both sides of the equation of self-esteem, it’s refreshing too. Knowing that self-esteem and humility are necessary partners in your life gives you permission to honor the wonderful in you AND honor what is still waiting to be awakened.

Truth is often a paradox, and that both of these states can coexist within us at the same time—the wonderful and the as-yet-unawakened—is one of life’s greatest truths.

The Zen of Self-Esteem

The Zen masters knew a thing or two about the tricky paradox of self-esteem. The teacher Shunryu Suzuki simply expressed it this way to his students:  “All of you are perfect just as you are . . . and you could use a little improvement.”   (I don’t know about you, but that makes me smile and I see a playful twinkle in Suzuki’s eyes as he said that.)

I found the same sentiment put another way in a novel I read recently by Michael Koryta, where one of his characters, a high school football coach, talked about the balancing act this way:  “The attitude you needed to win football games was a difficult balance. Confidence was crucial; overconfidence killed. Success lived on the blade’s edge between.” 

In the game of life, it’s no different, is it?


Some tips for the balancing act:

If your pride (your ego) is hurt, acknowledge that and try this:

  • Ask yourself: Would I do better and feel better if I admitted that I have something to learn in this relationship, professional setting, or way of interacting with others?
  • If so, what specific advice is this situation trying to teach me so I can become better at navigating situations like this?
  • Stand up, close your eyes, spread your arms as wide as you can, and consciously open to the message or lesson waiting for you. What do you hear or see?


If, on the other hand, you feel yourself melting into a puddle from the heat of your own self-criticism, try this:

  • Remind yourself that the problem that’s happening right now does not define who you are. The labels people have given you—and the negative names you may call yourself—are not the real you.
  • Imagine a line on the floor, the fine line of self-esteem separating self-condemnation on one side and arrogance on the other. Physically take a step to stand right on that line as a way of reinforcing to yourself that you choose to wake up to the inner reality that is you and get back into balance.

Share your ideas here. How do you remind yourself of the paradoxical truth that you are wonderful AND you still have some things to learn?

 

The Names We Call Ourselves

by Patricia Spadaro

What’s in a name? And what names do you call yourself? First, the story of two kinds of Pepper A few years ago, I met a young teenager who was bagging groceries for me. I saw from her name tag that her name was Pepper. “That’s a very unique name,” I said cheerfully. When she […]

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What’s Your Self-Esteem Quotient?

by Patricia Spadaro

Your sense of self-worth—how you value yourself, your innate value, and your gifts—guides your life. It determines how others see you and treat you, what kind of people show up in your life, how you act and react. Your self-esteem determines how you make choices and set priorities moment by moment, every day. What does […]

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