- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
Now in my later years of life, I have come to realize that, like many people, I spent the first half of my life walking around with an invisible sign hanging from my neck that read: pay attention to me!
As I little child I thought of myself as the center of the universe. Then, over my years a student I wanted my teachers to recognize me for my great accomplishments so that I would advance in my education. Later, as a college professor I wanted everyone to value my competence and excellence as a teacher and as an ordained priest I did my best so that that others would pay attention to my many gifts as an accomplished preacher and administrator so that I could build my career and move up the ladder of success as my life life progressed. Thankfully, all that has changed now in my second half of life
In this season of early springtime, the evenings here in the desert where we live are especially stunning. The air is cool and the skies at night seem to be brighter than ever. Last evening as I went outdoors and gazed in wonder at the clear-bight nighttime cosmos, it struck me that in my later years I have been given the gift of being able to remove the heavy burden of that “pay attention” sign - it has been a refreshing spiritual relief for me. I also realized that living out here in the desert has been a great help in allowing me to do so.
When I look up into the stunning splendor of nighttime skies or when I hike out into the vast, silent horizons of the desert wilderness I always feel so small and tiny standing in the midst of such great enormity; and yet paradoxically, I also feel so tenderly connected to it all. Yes, living here has given me a sense of belonging to the universe, an intimate connection to the beautiful, totally wild and uncontrollable world of nature - it has also helped me realize how relatively unimportant “I” am in the larger scope of things.
One of my desert wisdom books explains why this happens:
Deserts confront us with a vast horizontal edge,
a horizon of emptiness into which we find ourselves absorbed and lost.
The desert is intrinsically hostile to the ego,
threatening to swallow it up in its endless expanse of nothingness.
The ancient 4th century Christian monastics known as The Desert Mothers and Fathers left the cities where they had once lived and moved out to live in little mountain caves in the vast desert wilderness of Egypt and Syria. They did this in order to grow in wisdom and to learn how to be more faithful followers of Jesus. In their various writings they would often say that the greatest gift given to them in their desert life was what they referred to as The Gift of Indifference.
In the desert they leaned that, while they were valued and significant, no one of them was especially important. In fact, the great spiritual joy they found in their life in the desert was to learn that, as individuals, they were essentially ignored. Each person was simply part of the vastness of it all, embraced by an all-abiding Holy Presence but never the singular focus of attention. The desert is “intrinsically hostile to the ego” and when the ego doesn’t thrive, the true self can blossom.
But of course you don’t have to live in a desert to appreciate the value of this “gift of indifference.” In fact this gift may lie at the very heart of everyone’s spiritual journey.
My book about desert wisdom puts it this way:
So often people presume themselves to be at the center of everyone else’s attention,
performing for an audience that isn’t even there.
Their chief loss in the process 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 have spent way too much time and energy in my life weighed down by the burden of that “pay attention to me” sign, always imagining what other people were thinking about me and then acting accordingly. The narcissist in me had convinced myself that “I” was important enough for others to be constantly paying attention to what I did. But the truth is that, for the most part, most of the people I know or have ever known hardly, if ever, spent much of their time thinking about me at all.
The realization that “I” am being ignored is such a joy to me. “We are saved, in the end, by the things that ignore us.”