Top
Spiritual Practices

Doing for Others, Seeing for Ourselves

Getty/MarBom

“sometimes we have to make pilgrimage to live in the open in order to have a view of the vastness of life, and sometimes we are in debt to those before us for what we assume is a birthright.”

A tribe migrates west because they are being persecuted. They emigrate into the mountains. They settle on a plateau and, together, they clear that part of the forest and build their homes, creating a settlement, which the elder of the tribe names Crestview. In time, their children are born where they have arrived, into a place where they wake each day in a clearing with a view of the vastness.

The paradox at the center of this small story is that sometimes we have to make pilgrimage to live in the open in order to have a view of the vastness of life, and sometimes we are in debt to those before us for what we assume is a birthright. Sometimes, we have to stand on the commitment and hard work of others. Yet, there are other passages in life that everyone has to journey through by themselves.

We can call the first process progress and the second incarnation. In our long walk through time, we experience both. Progress offers the rewards of one generation’s efforts to the next. My father didn’t have to climb a mountain in the Rockies to see the sunset over the continental divide because he could look at a photograph. And I can get even closer by watching a video that I can find on the Internet.

But something is lost for not making the climb ourselves. And so, incarnation offers us the unrepeatable inner experience of direct living that helps us inhabit what it means to be alive. While we can benefit from those who have lived before us, no one can enter or make sense of this life but you.

Some people forego progress and become naturalists, believing that progress adds a layer to our living, which separates us from our basic nature. They return to the simplest form of outer living in order to refresh their inner experience of being alive. Others, like me, find a form of creative life to devote ourselves to in order to experience the same refreshed sense of being alive. As Claude Levi-Strauss said, “The arts are the wilderness areas of the imagination surviving, like national parks, in the midst of civilized minds.”

Questions to Walk With

  • Describe a time when doing something for others deepened your ability to see for yourself, and a time when seeing for yourself deepened your ability to do for others.
  • In conversation with a loved one or friend, each tell a story about someone you admire for what they do for others, and a story about someone you admire who sees for his or herself. Discuss why you admire these people.

There is nothing inherently flawed about progress or incarnation. The ethic at the heart of progress is service—doing for others. And the ethic at the heart of incarnation is authenticity—seeing for ourselves. At our best, we can live an authentic life of service—doing for others, while seeing for ourselves. During times of pain, fear, or confusion, we often try to impose what we see on others and do only for ourselves. When beaten up by the uncertainty of life, we can give our birthright of seeing for ourselves away to a dominant parent or partner or to an orthodox tradition.

The spiritual inventory, then, on any given day is: Are you doing more for others or yourself? And are you seeing through others or for yourself? Are you grateful for the progress you were born into? Are you directly living the one life you have been given? Are you teaching those around you how to see or to see what you see? Are you teaching those around you the difference between doing for others and doing for yourself? Are you learning the balance between the two?

It has also been my experience that doing for others has deepened my ability to see for myself and that seeing for myself has deepened my ability to do for others. This tells me that authenticity and service are inextricably linked, that being authentic empowers us to do good in the world and that doing good in the world, in turn, restores our authenticity. This reveals the ongoing bond between who we are and what we do, which is commonly known as integrity. I only know that I have grown from helping and being helped. I try to speak to this bond between giver and receiver in my poem called “Tell Me You Have Come.”

The mystery is that

whoever shows up

when we dare to give

has exactly what we need hidden

in their trouble.

Like everyone before us, we each must find our own path into the clearing, where we can build a home near the vastness of life. And we each must pass on what we can so that those who follow will have the chance to awaken their own lives, which no one but they can live. Like everyone who will follow us, we are each called to reveal and enliven the twin ethics of doing for others and seeing for ourselves.

This excerpt is from Mark’s book in progress, The Long Walk Through Time.

In November and December, Mark Nepo will be offering online webinars and workshops. For details, visit live.marknepo.com and marknepo.com.