It’s taken me seven decades to learn the wisdom of looking down. This Piscean Joseph ‘dreamer’ was born with his head in the clouds. So looking down with affection at the dust and dung of daily routine has not come easily. I’m a slow learner.
So I felt enormous affinity for author, Parker Palmer, when reading his autobiography, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (2000), where he tells of his mental breakdown, hospitalization and near suicide, revealing that finally what saved him was soul-work teaching him the dignity of looking down. He describes his neurosis as feeling that Life was pressing him down, crushing him against the earth. Psychotropic drugs only turned him into a zombie. Nothing in conventional psychiatry helped. Until one day a new therapist, sensitive to spiritual dimensions of the psyche, gave Parker a new perspective. He said, “Perhaps Life isn’t trying to crush you, only trying to bring you down to earth; perhaps your life as political activist, theologian, and academic, a life pursuing theory and great ideas, needs balance: your soul may be telling you that your head, so long in the clouds, needs the gritty reality of feet solidly on the ground. Perhaps the hand of fate you perceive as crushing you is Life’s helping hand holding you on the ground so you don’t fall from lofty heights.”
That re-framing of the situation changed Parker Palmer’s life. It speaks to me too about the value of looking down not just up. I’ve missed so much of the heartbeat of life over the years by living inside my head, my head in the clouds. Perhaps the most practical object lesson my Scotties-on-four-inch-legs embody for me is to stay close to the earth, to stay grounded, to look ‘down’ naturally and gratefully.
But recently I had to laugh at myself and Parker Palmer when I got a rude reminder that failure to look up carries penalties too!
I had mucked the barn, navigating through the corral to the compost heap an over-size wheel-barrow load of donkey poop. The day was blazing hot and unusually humid, and I was trying hard to “show up” for the task. I mean, I was conscious I was engaged in a ritual of “looking down” at the very earthy side of life with animals.
I was looking down alright: at the manure heap, at the heavily loaded wheel-barrow a bit unwieldy in my hands, at the spot where I chose to empty the load.
Where I failed to look was UP at a head-high broken tree branch which bloodied my bald head before I could say “squat!”
I thought of Palmer and his ‘helping hand’ bringing him down to earth and then, just as quickly, gained a new appreciation for circumspection which looks UP as well as down!
“Heads UP!” it turns out, is not airy-fairy; it’s a useful mantra not to be neglected in the compost heap of Life.
Joseph Harvill, publisher Great Scots Magazine