Monday, May 14, 2007

Engage the Clutch

by Troy Chapman

I have a picture in my mind of my older brother Wade sitting behind the wheel of his Olds Vista Cruiser. Wade loved fast cars, and the Vista Cruiser — with a 455, four-barrel and four-on-the-floor — was fast. Wade would sit behind the wheel and race the engine just to hear the sound of it. The heavy station wagon would rear up on its shocks with the torque of the big engine, but despite all that power the car wouldn’t go anywhere. That’s because Wade had the clutch disengaged. When he wanted to go he simply had to release the foot pedal and engage the clutch, which would convert all the power of the 455 into motion.

Good will is a lot like Wade’s Vista Cruiser in that it also has two modes: engaged and disengaged. No matter how powerful our good will is, if we don’t engage the clutch, it just sits there, racing and sounding good (and maybe annoying the neighbors). I used to think you either had good will or you didn’t, but in watching myself and others over the years this further distinction between engaged and disengaged good will has become a much more important question for me. I’ve found that people who have active ill will are really a small number in our world. There’s certainly not enough of them to create the kind of world we find ourselves living in. Far more in number are people — too often including myself — sitting around racing their good-will engines but never getting around to popping the clutch.

How many Americans want kids to go hungry and without basic medical care in this country? There are a few, I’m sure, but there are many more who just don’t think about it. But far bigger than both of these groups put together is the number of Americans who want every kid to have food and medical care. The reason it hasn’t happened is that our good will is disengaged. Imagine if every person who felt that way wrote one letter to their own representative and the president with the message: if you don’t fix this, I will vote against you in the next election.

Why don’t we? There are a number of reasons. We don’t believe anyone else will; we don’t believe it will matter if we do; we’re afraid of that kind of hope, that kind of engagement or we’re just tired and want to be left alone.

Whatever the reason, the cost is that our good will goes unexpressed in the world. And that robs not only the world but us as well. I believe good will is the calling and fulfillment as well as the song of our spirit. And when we don’t live that calling we slowly begin to separate from ourselves. The only way to bridge this separation is to begin facilitating the expression of our spirit. In other words, begin engaging our good will.

So how do we do this in a way that doesn’t feel like just another burden or obligation, adding to a life already swaybacked with burdens and obligations? The first thing is to find our own expression. We’re too quick to adopt other people’s expressions like second-hand clothes that we force our good will into. The result isn’t a true expression of our goodwill, but just another cause that drains us and makes us feel guilty when we abandon it. Find something you care about, something that thrills you just to think about it. You’ll know it by the fact that dealing with it doesn’t tire you out like so many things (even good things) do, but actually wakes you up and invigorates you. When you find it ask yourself how you can express your good will in a way that’s related to this thing.

We’re not talking “activism” here — although there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s actually yours, not someone else’s expression. Your expression might be something as simple as a love of birds that translates into painting them or writing about them. Or a special compassion for sick kids and a love of music that translates into performing at a local hospital. And if you can’t play or sing maybe you organize the musicians. It’s truly limited only by your imagination which, if you find your thing, will come alive and start feeding you more ideas than you’ll ever need.

I watched this happen recently with Maryann and knitting of all things. She and I have been engaged for several years in a partnership to express our passion for a better world through writing and trying to create dialog. But when she took up knitting, she started lighting up around it. She studied different types of yarn, learned new stitches, took a class and talked my ear off about it. Which I loved. But it wasn’t a replacement of her passion to be a beneficial presence in the world. It was just a more perfect expression of this passion for her. In fact, she slowly started — I can’t resist — knitting the two together. First she got involved with a project to knit caps for poor kids. Since then she’s connected with a network of engaged knitters and gotten into other projects that I want her to tell you about at some point.

The point is, she found an expression for her good will that fits her and, when we do that, it starts generating its own energy and all kinds of new connections start pouring out. The way letting out the clutch takes you to a thousand new roads and all you have to do is pick one and effortlessly turn the wheel when you see one that calls you.

Painting by Troy Chapman

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