Last month I wrote a piece (“The Torch Is Passed”) straight from my heart on the passing of my mentor, colleague and dear friend, Margaret McElroy. Later, at her memorial celebration, I had an interesting conversation with someone who kiddingly chided me for misquoting President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address in which he stated that “the torch has been passed.” I replied that I didn’t misquote Kennedy, because I didn’t quote him at all. Instead, I chose the title “The Torch Is Passed” based on the title of a book (published in 1964) about his assassination. I chose that title because Kennedy’s speech used the past tense while the book title was in the present tense, a difference that is probably meaningless to many people, but not to me. But in the middle of this conversation, I had the rather odd realization that spirituality is much like potato salad, and that is why the tense of the verb is important.
As I write this article, the Labor Day celebration in the United States is only a few days away. Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer and the informal beginning of autumn, even though the autumnal equinox in the northern hemisphere comes nearly three weeks later. It is a time for families to celebrate summer’s “last big fling,” and is often marked by outdoor picnics with (generally) way too much food. Such picnics are often “pot luck,” in which attendees bring a favorite dish to share with everyone, often with little or no coordination. Consequently, it often happens that there are several different versions of “Jello” salad or multiple baked-bean dishes to choose from, even if no one thought to bring paper plates or something for dessert! But (in the United States at least), what’s a picnic without the ubiquitous potato salad? No matter what else is on the picnic menu, potato salad is almost always present. And though few people realize it, potato salad is also a tasty metaphor for spirituality.
Potato salads come in many different styles and flavors, and their adherents (both cooks and consumers) are often fiercely loyal to one recipe above all others – even without tasting them for comparison. I have observed family picnics at which sisters-in-law (and especially sisters!) vie for unofficial recognition of their potato salad as the best potato salad at the picnic. I remember watching some of my aunts “casually” keeping track of who put their potato salad on a plate (and how much) versus competing potato salads. Woe to the errant husband or disloyal child who strayed from the “correct” potato salad in favor of a second helping from a different salad bowl! All for the sake of recognition and praise at having produced such a wonderful dish – unfortunately, much like “spirituality” for many people.
And for those who do try a taste of a “different” recipe, they sometimes do so furtively, hoping they won’t “get caught” eating the “wrong” potato salad. All based on fear – unfortunately, much like “spirituality” for many people.
Then there are those who sample a little of this salad and a little of that salad primarily for the sake of “not offending anyone” regardless of their personal preferences or tastes. In fact, they seem not really to enjoy any of them because of that very fact. For them it is more important to be “eclectic” – or rather, to put on a public display of approval evidenced by one’s selection rather than living their own truth. Oh yeah, that’s also a variation on fear – unfortunately, much like “spirituality” for many people.
Habit is often quite prevalent in determining one’s choice of potato salad. I’ve noticed that some people seem to gravitate toward the familiar in favor of something new and different with comments such as “What’s that green stuff in this one? If I don’t recognize what it is, I’m not going to eat it!” Pure conditioning – unfortunately, much like “spirituality” for many people.
But there are those picnickers who genuinely enjoy a particular potato salad recipe. They repeatedly visit only one salad bowl because there just couldn’t possibly be another potato salad recipe as good as their favorite. That’s okay. Everyone is entitled to their own truth. But sometimes their enthusiasm approaches zeal, especially when they attempt to proselytize others to their own choice as being the “correct” or “best” choice – unfortunately, much like “spirituality” for many people.
Then again, there are those picnickers who genuinely enjoy a particular potato salad recipe and always have at least one helping of it, while allowing themselves to sample other gustatory perspectives on potato salad – often to their great surprise and enjoyment. They may add it to their list of favorites or even incorporate some of its ingredients into their own favorite recipe for future picnics
– fortunately, much like “spirituality” for some people.
But unless one arrives at the picnic late – after the potato salad has been passed and the bowl emptied – there is always a choice of which potato salad and how much potato salad to put on one’s plate. You can always ask to have whatever potato salad you choose to be passed to you at any time. But if you are very late, you may have to settle for Jello to have any salad at all.
So what does any of this “potato salad” business have to do with choosing between President Kennedy’s quote or using a book title for a spiritual article? Just this: Kennedy chose the words “The torch has been passed” (past tense) to reflect what was to come after or as a result of his inauguration as President of the United States. The American voters had already made their choice for President and it was now up to his administration to carry out the ideas and policies – the platform – on which he ran. The choice had already been made and now only needed to be carried out – unfortunately, much like “spirituality” for many people.
I chose the present tense of “The Torch is passed” to reflect the fact that the choice to act in one way or another is always in front of us NOW, in each moment. Just like potato salad, we can choose to sample one, some, all, or none of the choices before us in each moment. Having chosen one or more recipes initially, we can choose the same or a different potato salad for second helpings, and so on. The choice is always before us in each moment – for whatever reason – just as it is for spirituality. The “reason” always reflects our own truth (whether we are willing to admit it or not), and that is sufficient. There are no “right” or “wrong” reasons, only choices that ultimately reflect our own “truth.” Each of us is exactly in the right place for our own individual purposes, whether it is potato salad at a picnic lunch or “spirituality.”
When one decides that a choice has been made and that is the end of the matter, it is often, unfortunately, a decision to avoid or to stop growth. Even deciding not to make a choice is a decision, but it is a permanent decision only if we choose to make it so! Yes, many decisions in life have consequences that, unfortunately at times, cannot be undone, but there is always another decision available in any given moment of NOW. In everyday life, that new decision is often not to repeat the initial decision. That is called “ learning”, or “ growth”.
In my truth, every moment always gives us the opportunity to decide to learn, to change, to grow beyond where we were at some time in the past. The particular kind of spirituality you choose (like a potato salad recipe) is not nearly so important as the ever-present choice of whether to continue your growth in each moment or to stop it. That is the underlying reason why almost all spiritual teachers emphasize living in the “NOW. ”
But maybe you prefer a different kind of potato salad. Great! Come on over – it’s a BIG picnic table. Just bring plenty of potato salad to share. Who knows? – I may want a second helping of it!