The Summoned Self

How will you measure your life?  This is often the question that we Americans ask ourselves when we move forward with major and even minor decisions. This line of thinking, as termed by David Brooks in a recent New York Times article, is considered the Well-Planned Life approach. Promoted by Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen, this approach is about creating a strategy to come up with an overall purpose, and making decisions about allocating your time, energy and talent. Christensen reminds us that people with a need for high achievement tend to focus on tangible and near-term accomplishments (such as closing a sale or finishing a paper) instead of aspects of life that may not yield fruit for some time – such our relationships, family and health. Just like any successful business project, focusing on both near and long-term goals will lead to success. When following this model, life comes to appear as a well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition.  Sounds so nice doesn’t it? But if you’re like me there is something about that approach that just doesn’t feel right at all!

Brooks moves on to discuss an alternative view of life, one that is not as prevalent in American society that he coins The Summoned Life. This view approaches life with a completely different perspective, believing life isn’t a project to be completed; it is an unknowable landscape to be explored.

Short of quoting the entire article (its short, just read it!), the Summoned Life is about emphasizing, What are my circumstances asking me to do? over the What Should I do? approach of the Well-Planned life. 

These are questions answered primarily by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning. Moreover, people who think in this mode are skeptical that business models can be applied to other realms of life. Business is about making choices that maximize utility. But the most important features of the human landscape are commitments that precede choice — commitments to family, nation, faith or some cause. These commitments defy the logic of cost and benefit, investment and return.

Brooks believes that the first vision is more American, while the second vision is more common elsewhere and that ultimately both are useful to combine into a Well-Considered Life, where Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause.

This article really touched on something that has been incubating inside of me for the past couple of months, since my return to America. My life prior to 2009 was clearly a Well-Planned life; a life centered around achievement, accomplishment, career, possessions, hobbies, etc.  A fear of commitment to certain things (read: relationships with women) always existed because they clearly add a variable to the well-planned life that could not be controlled to produce the desired result.  I think I’m not alone in this, as I see so many people around me driven by this project of life: completing tasks, improving their situation, moving up. The problem is that this entire approach is rooted in Ego. When Ego drives, the feeling is that the world is separate from you, therefore you act from it and by default act in self-interest. This may have the temporary effect of improving your financial or material situation, but from my experience will not satisfy the burning questions in life – those like: Why am I here, What happens when I die, What is my purpose? Why do I suffer? How do I find (lasting) joy? 

Having a tremendous amount of time to myself recently, I am fortunate to be able to watch subtle patterns in my consciousness, see the roots of emotions rising and visualize more clearly my own habits that are rooted in various schools of thought.  This process can’t be viewed through traditional lens, its one that requires an element of quietness and an element of stilling both my external activities and the activities of mind. This combination has led me to the sensation that I alluded to earlier, one of standing still as the rest of the world rushes on by. A lot of this has been beautiful – friends and family growing and changing, people finding new careers, welcoming new babies into families, new relationships beginning, others ending to allow a new exploration. Outside of my immediate circle, the patterns of the world do something similar – the wars continue, as does the poverty, the materialism, the nationalism, consumerism, etc, etc.  Yet my perception of the world shifting. These things aren’t grabbing hold of me, entering into my way of thinking and consciousness.  They are becoming more like background music in a beautiful play where the main actors are Beauty, Love and Compassion.

Yet, the Ego is an elusive fellow.  I have felt a tremendous amount of self induced pressure to produce the results of well-planned life through a summoned life. This is clearly an effect of the remnants of the Well-Planned life construct– projects (life) have targets and goals, and there should be measureable progress along the way.  However, measuring the immeasurable is simply impossible to do. I constantly have to remind myself of this before getting mired in self-judgment and doubt, which unfortunately happens more often than I’d like. The reminder is that this beautiful gift of a human life is a process, one with no beginning and no end, completely timeless and by its very definition, already perfect.

That’s all I have time for today – soon I will be discussing the realities of such an approach in the modern world.

2 thoughts on “The Summoned Self

  1. When we have enough time to hear ourselves breathing.. its then that we can finally recognize ourselves as consciousness and not just a body that needs burgers and more-money-always and success and sex! 🙂

  2. So difficult to do, at least I’m finding it so! A friend forwarded that NYT article to me as well, so it was nice to see your post. Prior to 2009, my life was certainly well-planned, so linear, a clear stretch of road ahead, with no major twists or turns in the horizon . . . or at least I foolishly thought so. I realize now, among other things, that this way of viewing life was fear-based, rooted in my ego’s need to control. But, I still don’t have it figured out.

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