A family on a neighboring street was among the many that experienced flooding in their homes this past weekend. I dropped by today to see how I could help, and they handed me a pick axe.
I knew right away I was playing in the land of the Pareto Principle; but determined to help in some capacity, I started swinging away at the water-ruined wooden floor. The mission: completely remove the floor and its ridiculously-powerful adhesive from the concrete. A meticulous job requiring abundant patience, with a willingness to not see tangible results with any sense of immediacy.
It would have been easier emptying the ocean with a t-spoon. A quarter-sized chunk of skin was hanging from my left palm within 10 minutes. But I slammed that axe into the wood again and again, and by the time I needed to leave there were a few less splinters glued to the concrete and I had sort of made some new friends.
As seems inevitable for me, metaphors abounded during the process. I thought of the spiritual walk, for example, which can be viewed as an equally arduous task. Through ongoing examination of character and cultivation of qualities such as love, compassion and service, the spiritual sojourner regularly swings away at the habits and states of mind that undermine peace and transcendent purpose. The glue that keeps such thinking and doing stuck to the soul is strong and difficult to dissolve. If such glue could be poured into a bottle (okay, if you must, cue the Jim Croce song), it might be labeled EGO.
The ego is indeed a sticky character. It demands recognition, stays wrapped in insecurities, loves to find the faults in others, and generally nibbles on the narcissus plants that grow freely at its shorelines. We swing the axe of desired change with great effort and intentions, and on some days we are more precise than others and a chunk of dead wood loosens itself from the glue and is no longer a part of who we are.
Many other days we do not see tangible results right away. Sometimes others grab the axe and swing it for us, when our arms get a little too tired or the skin is peeling a bit too rapidly.
And there are other times when we simply must set the axe on the ground, and—counter-intuitively—stop working so hard to win the battle against ourselves. These times hold the greatest promise of transformation.