“I’m home – just going upstairs to change”, my usual greeting coming in the door at the end of the day. “Into whom?”, my wife’s typical and wry response as we share our little chuckle. Indeed. But it does beg the question . . .
Usually ones to do our homework and heading off to St. James’ Cathedral this week for Evensong, we’d wanted to be well-prepared for the start of a series of homilies on T.S. Eliot’s poetry. Having somehow ‘skipped over’ Murder in the Cathedral – must have been in one of the many books my dog ate during college days – Nicola and I re-watched Becket (the 1964 film with Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole) and listened to a dramatic reading of Eliot’s 1935 work. And found myself musing over the same question: can, do people change – really?
The film and poem examine any number of conflicted relationships, most particularly that between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, culminating in the latter’s murder in December 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral as the now Archbishop prepared for evening prayer. Becket, a Saxon ‘survivor’ of the Normans’ conquest of England a century earlier, had become a close companion and ‘playmate’ of the young Norman king, as the pair drank and womanized their way through these turbulent times. Henry marveled at and envied Becket’s wisdom and cool, non-reactive demeanor, recognizing (and exploiting) these characteristics for what they were – elements of wit and temperament that set Becket apart from not only the boorish barons (who would eventually murder Becket) – but from Henry himself as he blustered and railed his way through the early part of his reign; alienating even as he secured what he thought would satisfy himself. Henry’s coup de grace, ill-conceived as it turned out, was to have been his appointment of his friend to the role of Archbishop, already having named him Chancellor of the Exchequer (essentially, minister of finance). Then watching as his bawdy buddy appeared to take his new job entirely too seriously, attempting to enforce the Church’s position and, in the bargain, cramping Henry’s authoritarian and largely arbitrary style.
Henry of course, viewing this as the clerical equivalent of biting the hand that fed, became enraged, eventually ordering Becket’s murder; but never reconciling himself to his awareness that the very elements of his friend that had so enthralled him in their early days, were the self-same ones that would frustrate him at the end: compassion, honour and integrity, planfulness and calculation, loyalty and homage to a ‘higher power’ – be it secular (king) or spiritual (God), and the relegation of ego to secondary status. Had Becket changed? Not at all. He’d simply found a vehicle more in consonance with his pre-existing value system – and Henry knew it! Henry too, for his part, remained what he ever was – expedient, opportunistic, self-serving, and political – having Becket canonized, establishing churches, as ‘penance’, etc. – essentially trading on his former friend’s death. And hating Becket’s infernal holding up of the mirror to his own twisted visage.
I had occasion to meet with a friend recently who had endured a number of significant losses in the past few years. She described her hard-fought resolve to come to terms with elements in her temperament and style that she felt had mired her in her sadness and had both hindered her healing and tainted her outlook for the future. The principle ‘villain’ it seems was a co-dependency, sometimes seen as a self-defeating predilection toward inadvertently supporting the very circumstances in one’s relationships against which one most struggles. The vehicle that often mediates this process is the act of enabling – wherein one becomes overly invested in particular outcomes, develops porous interpersonal boundaries, makes oneself responsible for the behaviours of others; and is, of course, ultimately angered, frustrated and disappointed when ‘nothing changes’. My friend had worked long and hard at eradicating this trait, when she was emailed a ‘personality test’ that purported to evaluate an individual’s ‘type’ amongst a choice of nine. “Damn! I’m still the ‘caregiver’”, her disheartened awareness.
So whether Becket (or Henry), my acquaintance, or even Popeye (“I yam what I yam” – with apologies to God and Moses), my answer to my wife’s query must be: “Just the clothes – the rest of me stays the same”. And having fessed up to that truth, just what is our work, how do we address those pieces of ourselves that (karmically) continue showing up at our door – until we get it right. (Think Bill Murray in Groundhog Day!) What do we do with those predispositions that continue to direct us, explicitly or worse, in background?
I believe we do have some options, generally focusing, in one way or another, on two elements: increased self-knowledge (to coat-tail on last week’s posting) and increased self-acceptance. Becket, if we’re to acknowledge Burton’s interpretation of the man, was acutely aware of his earlier limitations and lack of fulfillment, experienced repeatedly as an inability to return love, no matter how deserving the person or persons might be on the other side. He struggled chronically with the ‘too easy’ solution (remaining a carousing pal to Henry, a ‘sheltered’ monk in France, or a token primate). Eliot’s poem so eloquently examines Becket’s awareness that, until fully accepting of his role as martyr, he would be destined to repeat his past ‘experiments’. Infuriating to Henry was Becket’s clarity (and readiness to speak it) on this point.
Mindfulness practice is but one of many vehicles facilitating this two-fold process. Regular practice promotes an opening to (self-knowledge) and an allowing of (self-acceptance). It lobbies against a compulsive need to be someone else, somewhere else. Clarity of thought is more available as one hones the practice of letting go of attachments (those controlling, obsessive preoccupations that consume us; or those much-desired outcomes which, when left unrealized, leave us sadly disappointed); and avoidances, the need to defend against an inevitable. We are who we are. Get used to it. Better yet, work with it.