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…

Beating the Doldrums

by Patricia Spadaro

P1050957Put a little wind in your sails…

The dreaded doldrums. We’ve all been there—feeling stagnant or stuck, down and out or depressed.

Did you know that that word doldrums also describes an area of the world just north of the equator where the trade winds meet. It’s a place that can be either very calm or have very severe weather. In the still weather, with no wind, the progress of sailors can be delayed for days or weeks—sending captain and crew into the doldrums.

Whereas those sailors can do little but wait, fortunately we can do something about our own case of the boring doldrums. That’s especially true if you just don’t have a clue why you’re in a slump.

Of course, I’m not saying there is, or should be, a quick fix for the deep problems that throw us into a funk. But sometimes when we’re feeling gloomy or down or uninspired, it’s just a matter of giving ourselves a little self-prescribed kick in the pants. And it’s often completely counterintuitive. Here’s what I mean:

If you have a serious job with lots of responsibilities, push yourself to be playful. Go take a break where there are lots of children. Play some games. Watch a kid’s movie and let yourself laugh.

If you are constantly around a lot of people, schedule a solitude date—with yourself, by yourself—in a quiet place.

If you tend to sit a lot (in front of a desk or the TV), force yourself to move. Take your friend up on their invitation for a free guest pass to their zumba class at the gym. Or just turn on your favorite radio station and dance your heart out.

Lost your taste for life? Tickle your taste buds. Treat yourself to a totally different kind of food than you normally eat. Try some Indian tikka masala or a Thai curry (grocery stores often have jars of premade ethnic sauces, so it’s not hard to do).

If you’re a literature enthusiast, pick up a copy of Popular Science or Field and Stream. Soak your brain in something entirely new—something that is the very opposite of what you are habitually attracted to.

You get the idea.

If you want to sail out of the doldrums—or even to stimulate your creativity during a dry spell—you need to give yourself a jump-start. You have to jump out of the molds you find yourself in day after day, night after night. You have to get yourself into a new groove.

When you’re in the doldrums, you have to be daring.

Put some wind in your sails by choosing to do something completely different today. What will it be?

For your inspiration:
Here’s some advice on getting unstuck from the ever-wise Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Nature abhors the old. . . . In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit. . . . People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

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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10 Tips for Coping with Criticism

by Patricia Spadaro

“Pay no attention to what the critics say; there has never been set up a statue in honor of a critic.” —Jean Sibelius, Finnish composer (1865 –1957) We all get hit by life’s slings and arrows from time to time. These can come from a resident critic—a family member, friend, or coworker who always finds […]

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