Thursday, April 11, 2013

Willingness versus Willfulness

As I was on retreat in March I started reading Decision Making and Spiritual Discernment by Nancy Bieber.  One portion of the book that really caught my attention was her discussion of willingness versus willfulness. Willingness according to Bieber is saying yes and opening oneself to the Holy, to the mystery and to possibility   It involves embracing a certain amount of unknowing and being open to possibility.  Willfulness on the other hand is the "yes, but."  It is the relying solely on oneself and one's own will - it is not open to mystery, to unknown, to a trusting that all will be well. (Bieber, pp.21-22) This fits nicely with Parker Palmer's definition of vocation, "Vocation does not come from willfulness.  It comes from listening." (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, p. 4)

I find this distinction between willingness and willfulness very helpful to me as I have been trying to listen for vocation and remain open and willing to what is next.  I realized on retreat that I have spent much of the last few years trying to will things to happen - not in an open, trying new things, see where they go sort of way but more of the if I just keep at this it will work out. I have spent years believing that it all depends on me.  There is not much room for God there - not much room for the holy.  I realized on retreat how much time I had spent resisting God, resisting trusting God, being open to God.

As I reflected further on this - not just as to it applied to me personally - I realized that Unitarian Universalism can strongly contribute to willfulness versus willingness.  It is understandable really - often the language of relying on God or the Holy can come across as we don't have any responsibility or don't have to "do" anything - we just wait for God to take care of it.  It can be misinterpreted to mean that God will just step in and clean up the messes we make (an attitude my father-in-law recently expressed in talking about climate change).

Yet in my own experience when it is only about my will or "yes but," there is a limiting of possibility.  If I am saying "yes but" then I am saying no before I even fully explore the yes. Willingness is about openness and paying attention.  I actually have to be more involved, more connected because if I am not then I may miss something.  If I am not trying something - saying yes to something - then I may miss it all together. On the flip side if I am being willful then I am so busy trying to keep it all going, making it all happen then I may miss the very thing I am looking for.  Minimally I am not looking for new possibility because I am so busy keeping the current situation going.

Our focus on the individual sometimes over the collective contributes to willfulness, a do it all on my own pattern. It is exhausting.  No person can do it all - no parent, no minister, no worker of any kind, no person can do it all on their own.  We can extend this to no congregation can do it all either. We are relational beings and our strength as human beings have been in the ways we have worked together.  We also don't do the spiritual journey alone - we need one another and we need a connection to that which is bigger than ourselves - known by many names - Spirit of Life, God, source of all - the name is not nearly as important as it is to realize that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, possibly more popularly known for his work Self Reliance, writes in The Oversoul,  "I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine."  Willfulness gives us the illusion that we are in charge, that we are in control.

I think Unitarian Universalism as a whole could use a whole lot of willingness - of saying yes - and less willfulness   Less we can do this all on our own and more being open to yes, to possibility.  More connection with one another and less we each have to do it on our own.  Clusters and regionalization could be a part of this.  Can we live into it?  Can we risk saying yes without the but?  Can we learn to trust not just one another, but trust that we are part of something larger than ourselves?

It won't be easy. It isn't easy for me - to trust, to say yes, to remain open.  It isn't easy to acknowledge that I am not in control and that I need God, I need other people. Yet right now, in the midst of this transition, I need God and I need others more than ever.  I know that what is next for me won't come unless I risk, unless I am willing, unless I am open to the unexpected.

Each day may we say yes, embrace willingness.  May we embrace mystery and the Holy.  May we stop trying to hold it all together and trust that we are part of God, part of creation, part of something we can only catch glimpses of.

May it be so.