I’m Trying

Adult: Pick up your shoes. I’ve told you three times, you need to clean up your room.

Teenager: I’m trying.

Adult: Yes, you’re very trying.

The first definition of trying is “difficult, annoying, hard to endure.” The conversation above is spot on, as it were. To try is to make an attempt or endeavor to do something. To make an effort. The depth and breadth of the effort is generally left open to interpretation by the listener. The word try comes from the old French, trier, or “sift.” It was virtually unknown before the 17th century and meant something very different to the English – it meant to adjust to a level surface by using a plane or other tool. In the general sense, it means an attempt to use or do an action. It is not a guarantee of success.

In most cases today, in North America, it is generally used to mean “you want me to do something for or with you, and I don’t really want to do it, but I’m going to tell you I will make an attempt because it will make you leave me alone.” Certainly, this is a pessimistic point of view, but, let’s face it – it’s generally true. According to Oxford word usage metrics, the word has increased in usage 10x in the last 50 years, generally in relation to attempting to do something rather than an archaic form of testing something.

ballThe word is detestable. Like a reformed smoker, a person who has given up the word “trying” in favor of actually doing becomes irritated at every mention. Yes, me. “Are you coming to my party?” “I’ll try,” is tantamount to “I want to appease you but as for myself, I am not going to commit, and no, I probably won’t be there.” It smacks of falsehood, either to oneself or to the other, and it is disingenuous. We shun the words “yes” and “no” because we know so little about ourselves. I am a horrid pessimist about “I’ll try,” so this may sound more like a rant than an exploration. I hope you bear with me.

In a recent conversation with someone, this word came up in a context of not attending a regular study group. The woman has had several medical issues and has a difficult time remembering things. She’s not one to generally make excuses for herself and she’s worked through various adjustments in her life to make life work. Yet, she still settles into old habits, especially later in the day when she is tried and forgets to attend the study group. In this recent conversation, she said “I’ll try to commit to attend.”

Being the reformed “trying” person, the hairs on the back of my neck rose, the small muscles in my neck twitched, and I swallowed several times before answering. Slowly, calmly, I answered, “I hate that word, ‘try.'” I did my best to remain calm but I knew that the edge of irritation had escaped. “I’d rather you say that you can’t be there and if you show up, you show up. Or, be non-committal.” She did not understand what I was driving at because she wanted to please me. I couldn’t communicate clearly enough to her that I’d rather have her know herself and communicate accordingly rather than please me with an ‘I’ll try.’ We both went away slightly frustrated until a little later when she had digested it further and I was able to be clearer.

I know that when we say we will try, it means that we won’t do it. We are not committed enough to do it. Yet, we work hard to fool ourselves and others that we really will make an attempt but if anything gets in our way, it’s over, finished, done. There’s a certain sense of self that is lacking, a falsehood that taints our words when we’re not honest about how we feel or what we’ll do. We are not even able to come up with a “maybe,” and provide excuses. The first words generally blurted out are “I’ll try,” with rationalizations and excuses afterwards. The reformed “try” person knows all of this and that is why they hate it so much.

tree-frogs-on-a-branchIn the quest to be a better Freemason, this was brought to my attention early on. It was brought to the fore by two people, one another Freemason and one not. In both cases, the message was the same. Don’t tell me you’ll try something: either commit one way or another or stay silent. I’ve never been the silent type, so this took me a lot of trial and error to get right, especially for one who wants to please others. Little did I realize that by “trying” a great deal, I was more trying than pleasing. Clearly, the actions that I wanted to perform were to please others and not taking care to understand who I was, what my limitations were, and ultimately living in integrity. An older Freemason said to me once not that long ago, “stop trying to please others. You want everyone to like you.” This was a little frustrating, after having thought that I had surmounted the idea that I wanted to be everyone’s friend. What I didn’t see, or see the subtlety of, was the lack of concrete responses was my way of attempting to please others and not be honest with myself.

Being honest with yourself, sitting in that silence and listening to your “realest” thoughts, can be difficult. We believe we are far better than perhaps we really are. Listening to yourself can be ugly, and we don’t want others to discover our ugliness. We don’t want others to discover we might be lazy, xenophobic, tired, cranky, struggling, or desiring silence. We want to be accepted and loved. In general, though, we forget to treat ourselves with exactly the same kindness or honesty. It truly does start with ourselves.

From the 1934 Walley translation of the Tao De Ching,

To understand others is to have knowledge;

To understand oneself is to be illumined.

To conquer others needs strength;

To conquer oneself is harder still.

Freemasonry tells us the same thing, in so many different ways. We are reminded, in rituals and charges, that the thing we must strive to do is continue to learn, mostly about “the knowledge of yourself.” The trick is to figure out how to do this practically. As Lao Tzu said, “to conquer oneself is harder still.” Why? Because we fear the loss of other’s opinions, favorable judgements, and good will. We want others to like us, because that means we are good people. It’s living by the judgement of others and not the judgement of ourselves. Perhaps we don’t trust ourselves to make an honest assessment of our person, so we let others do it for us. Whatever reason that dishonesty was born within us, there is no reason it has to continue to reside there. In fact, it seems as soon as we find it, it’s probably a good idea to let it go. No rationalizations, no dishonesty, no dodging, no worries: own what you will not do, own what is not priority or what is not as important as other things and then move on. I guarantee the rest will move on as well. It’s far better to not try.

As Yoda so eloquently put it, “Do, or Do Not. There is no Try.” With this in mind, the world becomes a far simpler place to navigate, as do the recesses of our own hearts and minds. And don’t fear – good brothers will hold you to that task.

Ego and the Freemason

ego-kissI have to say, I love my Lodge’s Study Groups. They bring up all kinds of interesting subjects in relation to all aspects of life, and more particularly, life as a Freemason. We recently discussed how Ego affects our lives, and what our particular work is as Freemasons in regards to the Ego. These study sessions give me an opportunity to explore not only my own experiences with the topic but also what I think about it objectively – form an opinion, as well as be able to articulate that opinion. Since we all have an ego, it’s easy to have experiences with it. It’s harder to form objective opinions. After all, isn’t the ego involved in forming those opinions?

One of my first college classes as a fresh-faced 18 year old, was Psychology 101. This was predated by Western Philosophy, both having an extremely big pull for me. These were classes that my high school did not offer, a whole new world of living that was and still is exciting. We learned all about Freud and Jung’s theories of the Ego, amongst other things, but nothing really “stuck” with me after that class. I never really went back and explored ego until it came up so often in religious and metaphysical studies years later. I identified most closely with Jung’s writings and I often go back to read up on him when questions of psyche were, and are, involved.

In his writing about ego, “One of Jung’s central concepts is individuation, his term for a process of personal development that involves establishing a connection between the ego and the self. The ego is the center of consciousness; the self is the center of the total psyche, including both the conscious and the unconscious.” The reference goes on to say, “For Jung, there is constant interplay between the two. They are not separate but are two aspects of a single system. Individuation is the process of developing wholeness by integrating all the various parts of the psyche.”

ego-face-masksThe most interesting part of that statement is the fact that the ego and the self are different entities that must be integrated. How did they get dis-integrated in the first place? How did something that was whole become separate, linked, and our goal is to try to integrate the two? Is it birth that separated them? If so, what are we before? And is that the state we are trying to achieve? It makes my head spin to think that we might have been integrated in the womb (or before?) and dis-integrated at birth, and we spend our whole lives working toward integration. What happens, then, if you integrate earlier than dying? Is that perhaps our goal? Do we evolve as a species if that happens?

Hurts your head, right? Well, it does mine.

I imagine a binary star system, two bright points of light circling each other, embracing each other as only two fiery systems of gas and elementals can – never touching and continually burning each other. Love that consumes and renews itself. Yes, that must be the ego and the self, in Jung’s world.

If the ego and the self are inseparable, then it seems to me we have to learn to live with both, separate and equal parts, calling and screaming at one another all the time. How do we reconcile? Do we even try? Since we cannot unequivocally say where the mind resides, perhaps these two things are part of the overarching mind that controls us. And, logic gives us, that if as above, so below is representative, does that Divine mind have a self and ego, too? Does the Divine even have a mind? Maybe that’s a weird question, but maybe not.

I do know that Freemasonry simultaneously chooses to subdue our egos and find our “self.” Perhaps one of the binary stars must be dominant, and in that dominance is where we find the traits of a person – arrogance or humility, graciousness or rudeness. In the balance between the stars, we find the nature of the gasses they put off. It is difficult to be of service to your fellow Masons and at the same time be immodest and arrogant. There’s little room for others when you fill the room with your ego. Perhaps that is also why we learn to subdue passions – the passions of the ego – and develop the passions of the self – the connection to the divine. One star must dim to have the other shine. The Roche Lobe of Personality. I kinda like it.

whitedwarfIn the past, I wondered why we, as Freemasons, pin medals on our chests
and put numbers at the end of our names, or added titles when we attain certain Masonic
degrees. I think this is another of those tests – do we do it for prestige? Do we wear our outward jewels as a “brag rag,” as I heard one brother call it long ago? Or do we wear them to honor the Work we’ve completed and bring to the gathering? Do we shine our ego brightly to make our “self” fade? Intent is everything and nothing; we must be clear about what the outward trappings mean in order to not fall into the trap itself, yes?  Is one degree better than another? What have we really attained? I think about these things often. I do my best to remember the duty and cautiously regard the glitter. It seems to stick to everything.

Does Masonry feed the ego? Or help one subdue it? Maybe it’s an ongoing dialogue rather than a simple, solitary question.