Sometimes the way up is the path down

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Does life always have to be about addition, or is there a place for subtraction?

Western society has molded us to always need to be going up, or getting more. We must always seek that next promotion, or get the bigger house. This, people tell us, is the path of success.

But where does this end? How far up is high enough? How much more is more than enough?

Of course, the answer is never.

This so called path of success is actually a path to endless dissatisfaction.

So what’s the alternative? Is there an alternative?

Does life always have to be about addition, or is there a place for subtraction?

What if, instead of focussing on up and more, we chose down and less?

This is so countercultural, it’s tempting to think it’s not even possible. But that says more about how entrenched the capitalistic, Western mindset is within our own lives.

I found this passage from Richard Rohr’s recent daily meditation challenging on this issue:

When C. G. Jung was an old man, one of his students read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and he asked Jung, “What has your pilgrimage really been?” Jung answered: “In my case Pilgrim’s Progress consisted in my having to climb down a thousand ladders until I could reach out my hand to the little clod of earth that I am.” That’s a free man. We aren’t really free until we’re free from ourselves: our ego, our reputation, our self-image, our need to be right, our need to be successful, our need to have everything under control, even our need to be loved by others — or to think of ourselves as loving.

It’s not that success or accomplishment is wrong. It’s not that having nice things in life is something terrible. But to be free in life we need to free ourselves from the need for these things.

The danger of only ever having an upwards trajectory is that we never learn humility. Our ego is forever unchecked. Our self-image becomes attached to the wrong things.

Some things in life can only be learnt and appreciated when we take steps down. Whether through choice or circumstances, we need to discover who we are away from the trappings of so-called success.

So my question today — to myself as much as anyone reading these words — is what might my life benefit from having subtracted right now?

What downward steps do I need to take to embrace humility, keep my ego in check, and make sure my self-image isn’t attached to unhealthy additions?

Photo: Jamie Forrest

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