I have taught myself to deal with rejection.
I have developed a robust philosophy to handle disappointment.
But no previous training prepared me for the shock delivered by this crushing message from a literary agent:
“I have a story from a client that’s way too close to [yours], so I’m going to have to pass.”
As an inveterate ‘catastrophizer’ — akin to Nostradamus — I immediately conjured images of this “client” stealing my thunder at a crowded book-signing event and dealing a death blow to more than a year’s worth of painstaking work with a triumphant flourish of his pen.
I give up! was my knee-jerk reaction.
With a dry clap that sounded as irrevocable as the final closing of a coffin’s lid, I slammed my laptop shut and stormed out of the house to seek respite in my habitual early-dawn walks in nature.
Oddly, just a few days earlier, I had mailed my monthly letter to my patrons talking about the subtle but crucial difference between seeking calm and preserving equanimity, or an even spirit. In the letter, I quoted Alain de Botton, who posits that angry people are just horribly optimistic… that their greatest furies spring from events that violate their sense of the ground rules of existence, and, lacking faith in their own capacity to survive frustration and recover equanimity, they are also deeply scared.
Calm should begin with pessimism, Botton counsels. “We must learn to disappoint ourselves at leisure before the world has a chance to slap us by surprise.” Personally, I told my followers, I prefer the mindset proposed by Albert Schweitzer who said that an optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere while the pessimist sees only a red stoplight. Only the wise are colorblind.
I ended the letter with this quote from Maria Popova:
“What grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult, but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet.”
I wasn’t being particularly wise, colorblind, graceful nor elegant that morning. My mood and outlook were blood red.
The deepest measure of our character, Popova adds, is how much we go on giving when what we most value is taken from us — when a loved one withholds their love, for instance, or when the world withdraws its mercy.
Was the world still bent on testing my character and resolve by continuing to withhold its mercy? I wondered, as I stopped to contemplate the first flush of dawn and waning moonbone in the sky.
Who was asking this question anyway? Who was the one feeling stung by rejection and wallowing in self-pity and childish indignation? Whose life, I mumbled, would seemingly come to an end if his book never got published? Questioning the questioner felt unearthly, as if I were witnessing a dialog between my body and soul.
This is not an existential threat, I assured my whole Self. While considering my book to be of utmost importance to the world, the possibility of it never seeing the light of day would not be the end of me. Why then was my body responding like a hunted animal? Why the pounding heart, the constricted chest, the shallow breath?
I realized it was all Ego, the slobbering beast and slavish pursuer of esteem and material rewards that is still at work despite my efforts to vanquish it.
Having reached the river that meanders across McLeans Wildlife Refuge, I sat on its sandy bank and watched the trees surrender their last autumn-colored leaves onto its slow moving and gently-rippling surface.
What thirst, O God!
to be a fresh, innocent river flowing
in ignored and exuberant solitude;
or be wind, rock, or nothing at all,
and not this accursed flesh harrowed
by the craving claws of life. — Augusto C. Coello
To be “nothing at all,” as Coello pines for, would surely avoid “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” But it sounds unheroic to me, like raising a white flag just to protect a fearful and timorous ego.
Surrender then… Is that the key to equanimity? Not in the sense of ‘giving up,’ but ‘giving oneself up’ to something greater than our accursed flesh.
The ancient Greeks had a better term for it: Kénōsis, or the act of self-emptying — the arrestment of one’s will and desire. In Arabic, the word for “surrender” is islam. In Christian theology, kénōsis is the ‘self-emptying’ of Jesus’ own will to become entirely receptive to God’s divine will.
“He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” — Philippians 2:7
The root of the word “hero” is *ser-, from which we get the word “servant.” I, on the other hand, was behaving like a victim and making a mockery of my claim that I consider my work, not as ‘work,’ but as an ‘ofrenda,’ Spanish for work done in gratitude, love, and service to others; work dedicated to a noble cause.
“Focus on the good of your cause and not on its material rewards” is one of the precepts of the Medieval Knightly Code of Chivalry. Given I am writing a book to help boys develop the strengths of character needed to live spirited lives of noble purpose, it behooves me to navigate this gauntlet with the grace and elegance Popova suggests.
Kénōsis is a mysterious paradox. ‘Emptying oneself,’ in fact, fills the person with divine grace and results in a union with God… or the Cosmos, for those of secular bent.
Giving oneself up — in life, love, or art — without expectations or strain of will, is to live with grace.
Ask a river if it feels useless because all it does is flow in the same direction and it will answer, “I’m not trying to be useful; I’m trying to be river.” And while it loses its name as it empties itself and unites with the vastness of the sea, its essence remains.
Ask a child why she paints and she’ll reply, “I don’t know… just because.” You will then understand what Jesus meant when he said that unless we change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
“I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.” — Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī
“One doesn’t sing because one hopes to appear one day in the opera; one sings because one’s lungs are full of joy.” — Henry Miller
I write because the thought of doing anything else feels like a death sentence.
Surrendering is also the wisdom of patience. Harvest a fruit before it’s ripe and you’ll eat bitter. “In the dead leaves that rustle around one,” said Franz Kafka, “one must try to visualize the young fresh green of spring, compose oneself in patience, and wait.”
As I walked back home, I thought it possible to surrender my ego’s cravings without giving up on my soul’s joyful passion. Under a brightening orange sky, I vowed to never quit trying to get my book published, not because of the potential material rewards or recognition, but spurred by the possibility of changing boys’ lives — even if just one. If other writers share my concern and feel equally compelled to lend a hand, so much the better.
Back inside from the chill, I lit a fire and opened my laptop to compose my response to the literary agent:
“Thanks for considering my work. I am thrilled there are other voices addressing this urgent issue. Boys need all hands on deck. If there is any way I can help your client’s project, please provide him/her my email address.”
My book might never see the light of day, but it won’t be the end of me. With lungs full of joy, I will keep emptying myself in passionate surrender.
I might die a nameless river but will leave behind rich sediment to nourish those who stop by to drink my essence. My creative fount will remain inexhaustible so long as it bubbles from the depth of my being and not from the shallow surface of my ego.
I will keep writing and bide my time, agreeing with poet Rainer Maria Rilke that every experience has its own velocity according to which it wants to be lived if it is to be new, profound, and fruitful. To have wisdom means to discover this velocity.
I may never earn a penny from my words, and that’s okay. I much rather assay their value in mended hearts, changed lives, rekindled passions, and renewed hopes. I will continue to give myself up to you and others through my stories which are simply trying to make a tiny part of the universe a little better and make humans enjoy life a little more, just like Frederick the Mouse.