Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Blessed Indifference

"Mountain Majesty"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Having been away for the holidays, I decided that I would take a nice long walk yesterday to re-acquaint myself with my desert home. As I walked along a familiar wilderness trail, immersed in the enormity of the beauty, I laughingly said to the snow-capped mountains looming in the horizon, "I bet you didn't even know I was gone for the last few weeks." Living in a desert has that effect on me - I always feel pretty insignificant out here, while at the same time intimately connected to something that is far greater than my own individual self.

That's probably why my spiritual ancestors, those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers, left the cities and went out to the fringes of the institutional church to live in the middle of a desert. They committed themselves to living simply,  in accordance with the core teaching of Jesus - loving God and loving one another with all their heart and soul and mind, and the wilderness offered them the gift of "blessed indifference" so necessary for living this spiritual life.

The quest of those early desert monastics was to be ignored - social status was totally unimportant to them, a place of honor in the church, so highly prized by many, was incidental to them, even a dangerous impediment on the spiritual path.

Living in a desert they were ignored- that's what a desert does to you, it ignores you. The vast immensity of the wilderness is indifferent to the individual ego - in a desert you feel very small and yet it is also a place to be connected to something very big.

I heard a story on our local NPR station a few days ago. The person was saying how much she hates going to work because she spends every minute of her day thinking about what her fellow workers are thinking about her and then devotes herself to living up to what she imagines to be their expectations.  Just listening to her describe her life at work made me feel exhausted.

My guess is that a lot of people live their lives like this - not only at work but in almost everything they do or say.

When I think about my own life I see now that in the past I spent far too much time and energy worried about what other people were thinking about me. In my later years, especially now that I live in a desert, I have come to understand that for the most part, most of the time other people hardly think about me at all. They may care about me, but they certainly aren't always thinking about me. 

It is my narcissism that leads me to believe that I am so important that people actually spend their time with "me" in mind, and narcissism leads to a dead end on the spiritual path. 

I came across this little piece of wisdom the other day while I was reading one of my books about "desert spirituality."

So often people presume themselves to be the center of every one else's attention,
always performing for an audience that isn't there.
Their chief loss is missing the gift of blessed indifference
that was being offered to them all along.
We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.

I pray that 2015 may be a year of blessed indifference. 


  1. Thanks, Paul. When I'm feeling particularly self-conscious, I like to remember Samuel Johnson's comment: "The truth is, that no man is much regarded by the rest of the world. He that considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others will learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself. While we see multitudes passing before us, of whom perhaps not one appears to deserve our notice or excite our sympathy, we should remember, that we likewise are lost in the same throng, that the eye which happens to glance upon us is turned in a moment on him that follows us, and that the utmost which we can reasonably hope of rear, is to fill a vacant hour with prattle and be forgotten."
    Johnson: Rambler #159 (September 24, 1751)