“This ‘answer’ has come to be the watchword of my faith, my touchstone to tap in the midst of problems, unhappiness, confusion, or even joy. It brings focus and perspective to me, and it helps me to be more at peace with all that I cannot change, showing me that life encompasses everything at the same time, all the pieces that make up the whole. The longer I live, the more I feel in my bones the Yin and the Yang, the Good and the Bad, the City and the Country that are in all things.”—Jerry Zimmerman
Squibs & Blurbs
By Jerry Zimmerman
. . . is it possible to keep alive in ourselves our most authentic and precious capacity, which is questioning?” —Dr. Michel de Salzmann,” On the Way to Self Knowledge”
Editor’s Note: This column first ran on Weekly Hubris in February 2015.
TEANECK New Jersey—(Weekly Hubris)—February 2020—Many years ago, my first wife, Sara, and I were part of a group of people studying the ideas of G. I. Gurdjieff, the Russian philosopher and mystic (1866-1949), a man I never met but whose ideas about mankind’s predicament as human beings and our possibilities for transformation are original, difficult to unpack, and hard to shake once you’ve experienced even the smallest new insight from being exposed to them.
Part of the studies my wife and I were involved in entailed traveling to a large estate in Westchester, Connecticut on weekends to spend an entire day in various hands-on experiments, endeavoring to “be present” while working on very normal tasks. We either went together or took turns, spending an entire Saturday or Sunday away from home almost every weekend for several years.
At the time this was taking place, we were raising our three young children, all of whom were then under the age of ten. I was a freelance illustrator and Sara had quit her job to be home with the kids while they were young. I worked primarily in a studio at home, so we were both around most of the time to take care of Kay, Doug, and Noah, something we both treasured.
As time went on and our weekly trips continued, I became quite agitated about being away from the kids so much. No matter how valuable I believed my personal work was, I was more and more miserable being separated from our three little ones on such a consistent basis.
I brought this up during a meeting I was having with one of my teachers, an older woman named Mrs. Margaret Flinsch. Mrs. Flinsch was a long-time devotee of Gurdjieff’s system of ideas. I found her to be a remarkably wise and humane teacher and I had, and continue to have, the greatest respect for her and her teachings.
Mrs. Flinsch heard me out, my plaint of wanting to continue my studies in Westchester and wanting just as much to be at home with my children those extra days: what to do? After a quiet moment of contemplation, she calmly looked at me and said, “I once knew a woman who lived in the countryside and she was raising two small children by herself. The only job she could find was in the city, so she had to leave her children in the care of someone else while she lived for long periods in the city to work. Every day away, she missed her children and constantly thought of them. Sometimes, your head is in the city but your heart is in the country.”
I was stunned. This was an answer? I was confused and I was annoyed . . . and unhappy not to have got a precise, direct, and beautifully wise solution to my dilemma.
I went on my way, thinking I was exactly where I had been before I even asked my question. Eventually, I arrived at a point where I knew it was best to stop my weekend travels and return to a home-based schedule: it turned out to be an easier and clearer decision than I had anticipated. It seemed I had needed to simply live with my distress until the answer became apparent.
This conversation with my teacher happened over 30 years ago, yet it has never left my mind. What I asked back then, and the answer I received, have proven to be profound: both question and answer enduring turning points. My question was about living, a question about my life, and life itself, a question encapsulating our human condition.
How to live with uncertainty? How to make decisions? How to understand what can and what cannot be changed? How to know what is best for you at what time?
“Sometimes, your head is in the city but your heart is in the country.”
This “answer” has come to be the watchword of my faith, my touchstone to tap in the midst of problems, unhappiness, confusion, or even joy. It brings focus and perspective to me, and it helps me to be more at peace with all that I cannot change, showing me that life encompasses everything at the same time, all the pieces that make up the whole. The longer I live, the more I feel in my bones the Yin and the Yang, the Good and the Bad, the City and the Country that are in all things.
This developing sense of living (with some degree of comfort and acceptance) with conflicting or opposing situations doesn’t solve all my problems. I am still working my way through life, tackling obstacles, having successes and failures as I go. Yet, not having an answer for all my problems doesn’t knock me for a loop as much anymore: I am able to accept the difficulties in life alongside the joys with a new equanimity, allowing me to move along with more ease and grace.
My children are adults now and I have two grandchildren. In some ways, my original quandary remains: they all live in different states; two, very far away, and I have the same need to see them more often than is possible.
Mrs. Flinsch didn’t give me the solution to my problem, but she did give me a gem to carry with me: the gift of understanding that the question is often more important than the answer.