Rumi's Field

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
— Rumi

Perhaps only after we’ve done something substantially wrong or harmful, do we realize the full importance of Rumi’s field, that exists beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing. Rumi’s field becomes the place of salvation when your own self-concept has been ground to dust, and the humility born out of this process makes you wake up to the world in a different way.

A dear friend recently sent me this On Being blog post, written by the Quaker elder, Parker Palmer called, “Meaning Changes as Life Unfolds.” He begins the post with the poem, “Thanks Robert Frost,” by David Ray, which starts like this: 

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
Mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
Not able to be, perhaps, what we wished...

Palmer, who was in his mid-seventies when he wrote this post, reflected on the poem saying, “The past isn’t fixed and frozen in place. Instead, its meaning changes as life unfolds…I’ve made mistakes and often failed to live up to my aspirations, but I don’t need to look back with regret. Instead, I can see all my mess-ups as humus or compost for the growing I needed to do.”

I quite agree with Palmer, that the past isn’t fixed or frozen. Only, since the advent of social media we have a new format for publicly crystallizing snapshots of our history that can make it harder to thaw out the past and move forward.

I was on the job search this spring. The faculty in my grad program advised us all to “clean up” our online footprint. This is pretty basic advice. In the past mistakes and transgressions weren’t so heavily documented. Privacy was possible, and as such future employers could only judge you on the limited information you chose to share with them. Now, we’ve collectively ceded privacy (for the most part) in order to participate in social media, and windows into our lives and our pasts are more accessible than ever.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the NY Times published an article stating that new technology had allowed them to see through the brown paper Anne Frank had pasted over two pages of her diary that she’d wanted to keep hidden. An example of digital tentacles reaching deeper into the carbon world. 

Following Facebook’s recent privacy violation and subsequent knuckle wrapping, I’ve been getting emails from various online services all spring telling me how they care about my privacy and what they are doing to update their settings. Fine. The truth is, I don’t buy it. There is no such thing as true security in the carbon world, and thus it follows that I have a hard time imagining that there could ever be true security in the digital world. Part of the human experience is fundamental insecurity and uncertainty and change. I don’t think we as a culture have any capacity to contain the digital world. 

I used to rail against technology and social media. It was my soap box issue. I clung tenaciously to my flip phone until 2015 and had a several year sabbatical from social media. And then I stopped swimming upstream, because there were ways in which it was isolating me from people I loved and from the world I live in.

I no longer spend so much time or energy wishing for a way to return to yesteryear when technology was less ubiquitous and social media didn’t exist. Instead, I hope that alongside all the darkness that I so easily can see attached to this digital dawn, that there is also a real capacity for human growth. Most of us are self-publishing a public diary of sorts these days through our social media accounts. And most of us are trying to curate a very positive spin on our lives. While there are a few brave souls willing to be more vulnerable and share the full scope of their experience, I believe that with time, even those of us who have curated a shiny, happy review of our lives will look back, and our pasts will give us pause.

Facebook launched fourteen years ago. The initial users can scroll back to 2004 and see the benign, “what was I wearing?” mistakes to the more significant questionable things they wrote or captured in photos years ago. And perhaps as this experience becomes more universal, we as a culture get to move closer to Rumi’s field, which is the place of ultimate forgiveness. Perhaps we get to view our past selves, in a more charitable way, like Parker Palmer. And instead of cringing at our faux-pas or shrinking with guilt or shame from the things we once did that now feel unconscionable, we get to be kinder to our past selves, and to the past selves of people around us, precisely because we get to see that mistakes are universal. And maybe instead of mistakes making us shrink they will be, as Palmer suggests, "humus or compost for the growing we need to do." 

It feels like we’ve got a ways to go before we arrive to Rumi’s field. We are living in a call out culture at the moment, where mistakes can crucify you, and it’s never been easier to make a public mistake. There is a reckoning underway that is vital, only all too often it feels devoid of forgiveness.

Forgiveness starts at home, at the level of your own life. I wrote a blog post two years ago called, “Regrets,” where I talked about the things I had done in my life that made me ashamed to remember. The ways in which I’d hurt myself or someone else. In his blog post, Palmer writes, “Regret shuts life down. Humility opens it up.” Perhaps my own growth gets to be setting those old regrets down. Letting them rest. Truly believing, that they were “mistakes made by the self I had to be, Not able to be perhaps, what I wished.” That those mistakes were grist for the mill, shaping me into the person I am today. That the mill grinds on, and that my future self perhaps won't just grudgingly accept my present self, but will be grateful for who I am today, mistakes and all.