Committed to What?
We’ve been talking about depth of commitment for three weeks now. But one question has not yet been asked:
What exactly are we committed to?
Is it our art, our career, our family, our nation? Lemme take the long way around by flashing back to an earlier era in my own life.
For years I was committed to nothing. I mean nothing. I suppose if you tied me to a tree and threatened to bayonet me, I would’ve tried to talk you out of it. But even that, my own life, I wasn’t particularly committed to.
I was bored a lot in those days. In the midst of otherwise exciting events, even in physical danger, I was still bored. I cared about specific things in the moment, but overall? Why? What for?
In other words, I had no concept of being committed to anything. The idea of commitment never even crossed my mind. At one point I found myself living in a basement room in a halfway house for mental patients in Durham, North Carolina. Here’s the passage from Turning Pro:
Then one night I had a dream. In the dream I came into my room and found that my shirts had all folded themselves in the drawer (instead of being mashed together in their usual jumbled mess). My boots had crawled out from under the bed where I normally kicked them when I took them off and had set themselves upright and tidy. They had shined themselves.
When I woke up, I thought, “I’m ambitious! I have ambition!”
That dream was a turning point. The idea of “having ambition” was something I had run away from for years. I thought ambition was wrong. It was evil. People of ambition were the ones who were screwing up the world.
Now suddenly I saw things differently. What “ambition” meant to me in that moment was embracing my own life and trying to do something with it.
I thought, “I can’t keep living this way. I have to do something.”
Which brings me back to depth of commitment and the question, “What, then, are we committed to?” Here’s how I answer that for my own life:
I’m not committed to any specific endeavor. Not a family or a cause or a field of enterprise. Not an ideal of service or sacrifice, not an art, not a people or a calling.
My commitment is to the spirit inhering within me.
Is an acorn committed to becoming an oak? An acorn can only respond to the imperative of life within it.
That’s my commitment too.
I live in this body. I inhabit this mind. I didn’t choose them. I don’t know what they are, or what they mean, or how I came to be united to them. I don’t even know what “I” means, or why an “I” exists that’s distinct and separate from my body and mind.
But I believe (and experience has demonstrated to me) that there is an intelligence beyond my ego that does know. If Socrates were still around, he’d call it “soul.” He might use the Greek word daimon. Or even the Latin word genius.
My job, I decided after that dream, is to wake up. It’s not to “make the most of” my life in the sense of achieving or maximizing the experience of pleasure, happiness, power, whatever.
My job is to look out and look in, to keep my eyes open, to ask questions of the world and of myself. Who am I? Why am I here? What does it mean to be alive?
I realized after that dream that I had harbored ambition all along. Tremendous ambition. But I had been terrified to admit it to myself—and paralyzed by the thought of attempting to live it out. That’s why I was bored. That’s why my life felt so shallow. I had made it that way by the way I perceived it, as a means of protecting myself against striving and failing.
I know, I know, you have to be pretty high on the Maslow Pyramid to even be lucky enough to think about this stuff. But here we are. I’m there, and so are you.
What are we committed to?
It may be our calling, our family, a cause, a tradition, an ideal. But underneath it’s to our one-of-a-kind spirit, whatever that may be and wherever it may lead us. When we possess depth of commitment, we are no longer bored with our lives or living them in a state of narcosis or ironic detachment.
When we possess depth of commitment, we are aligned with our Muse, our soul, our Self (or we’re at least trying to be aligned).
The concepts of “amateur” and “pro” are just another way of asking ourselves how committed we are to conscious participation in the discovery of our selves. Is it a part-time gig? Or are we in it for keeps?