Your Swan Song and The Antidote to Busyness

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Do you ever struggle with the challenge of trying to balance all the different commitments in your life like work, family, personal development, spirituality?  You perhaps want to pay equal attention to every area but then feel frustrated and sometimes guilty that you simply don’t have the time or energy to do it all good enough?

In an article in the latest Inc. magazine, Nancy Rosenzweig, a serial entrepreneur and CEO and the mother of two small children shared a profound insight.  That fact that she also devotes significant time to volunteer work has sometimes caused tension at home.  In responding to criticism about the potential of neglecting the most important things in her life by simply being too busy, she paraphrased the poet David Whyte and said, “The antidote to buyness is not rest but rather ‘wholeheartedness.'” She says that her community commitments, for example, don’t deplete her – they energize her.  “Nurturing ourselves by doing things we’re passionate about in turn allows us to ‘wholeheartedly’ nurture others – including our families and our companies.”

It does raise the significant spiritual question, How are you replenishing your body, mind, heart, and spirit?  Is there anything you’re involved in that you’re engaging in  “wholeheartedly?”  Are you paying attention to what really energizes you, to what taps into your deep passion?  Or are you simply going through all the right motions in all the areas of your life, giving whatever you have to give to all of them, but your heart and soul are not being utilized or plumbed or stimulated?  You’re working really hard (lots of activity) but you still don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere?  You’re dissatisfied deep inside?  Are you simply busy, working diligently and with great effort, trying to be successful in everything, but experiencing a slow burn leading to a slow death inside?  You’re losing track of who you really are?

David Whyte, in an excerpt from “Crossing the Unknown Sea,” describes this reality with the words, “Your exhaustion is a form of inner fermentation. You are beginning, ever so slowly to rot on the vine.”

What a tragic picture.  The grape is designed to grow on the vine, to mature to the point of being able to be harvested and ultimately turned into something that brings great joy and satisfaction to others.  But if it is left too long on the vine, it experiences a slow rotting from the inside out.  And ends up being discarded.

The word courage in English comes from the old French word cuer, heart.  You must do something heartfelt, reminds David Whyte, and you must do it soon.  Which begs the question, what are you doing in your life that is truly heartfelt?  What are you doing that speaks both to and from your deepest soul, expressing your inner longings and desires and God-given passion?  To do that takes courage – a movement in the heart to bold action and risk.  That’s why so few people truly possess courage.  It’s sometimes easier to simply maintain the status quo and not rock the boat and try to please everyone.  But that kind of heartless living ultimately leads to a busyness that little by little destroys the soul and ends up useless to blessing others.  It’s not easy living with courage.

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.
(Rainer Maria Wilke, “The Swan”)

In commenting on this poem, applying it to a friend who comes to see him, Whyte says, “You are like Rilke’s Swan in his awkward waddling across the ground; the swan doesn’t cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. He does it by moving toward the elemental water where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything. But you have to let yourself down into those waters from the ground on which you stand, and that can be hard. Particularly if you think you might drown.”

No wonder the word courage means “heart.”  Much of what we do in life (and God knows we are all extremely busy doing much) has nothing or little to do with our true powers, our truest sense of self, our God-given purpose to which we feel empowered to devote our whole heart.  We often relegate those issues to impracticality (“that’s just not the way life is; we can’t afford that luxury!”).  We judge people who try to live their heartfelt passions as neglecting real life, shirking responsibilities, trying to live in a fantasy world, or having a midlife crisis.  So we end up going through life like a swan that refuses to enter the water and simply waddles around on dry ground – awkward, expending unnecessary effort, and worst of all, not living out its true purpose.

But when the swan chooses to step into the water the whole picture changes.  We use the swan as one of the ultimate symbols of gracefulness, coining the phrase, “as graceful as a swan.”  It’s a picture of inspiring beauty when a swan behaves like a swan.

What are you and I robbing the world of when we don’t have the courage to live the way we were designed by God to live – a life of wholehearted purpose?  What are we robbing ourselves of?    We all need something to which we can give our full powers.  And only we individually know what that is.  Our heart, our deepest soul will tell us if we stop long enough to listen to the swan song.