Why Didn’t God Make Us More Significant?

Last year I turned 60. That’s two-thirds of the way through my natural lifespan, if my genetics are any indication. The milestone led me to an insight that likely hits most people at some point:

When all is said and done, my contribution to the world will be tiny. Very, very tiny.

That’s true for all of us, or nearly so, when we look at ourselves through the vast arc of human history and the ever-expanding universe. A select few have altered the course of humanity: Jesus, the Buddha, Mohammed, Martin Luther, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the wheel. Even our most brilliant scientists—Einstein and Newton, for instance—have revealed to us what has always been true.

Please note that I said tiny. Not zero. I’ve come to believe that every last one of us, from prophets and monarchs to the destitute to the unborn, have some kind of effect. Most of the time we never know what effect we’ve had; half the time we don’t even know we’ve had an effect. And yet even the random smile at the right moment may accomplish more than we can imagine.

For me, St. Monica is the role model of this. Her main achievement in life was to pray for and shadow her wayward son. She took this humble mission and made a life out of it. We might never have heard of Monica were it not for the writings of that son: Augustine, one of Christendom’s greatest theologians.

This does leave us with a question, though. Assuming the existence of a God who created the world and all that is in it—including human beings—why didn’t God make everyone like Augustine? Why isn’t everyone significant? Can you imagine how much more progress we would have made by now as a species?

Several answers come to mind. You can take the atheist’s approach and say this is one more bit of evidence against the existence of God. You can wonder whether God did this to instill humility in the very fabric of our existence. Given how essential humility is to our survival—it fosters cooperation, empathy, love, and other good things—this argument may have legs.

But what haunts me is another explanation altogether: God is just not that into efficiency.

This strikes me as liberating. If God is not efficient, we don’t have to be efficient either, not with the general course of our lives. We do not have to climb a ladder to achievement or success. In fact, maybe nothing much “of substance” has to happen at all. What we are called to—as I’ve been learning, oh so slowly, for years now—is not results, but faithfulness; not the achieving, but the doing.

This gives us the freedom to screw up, to explore, to follow God where we hear God leading, to not worry whether it’s “going anywhere” or “moving forward.” It aligns us with the larger reality of our tininess: because our impact will be small, our boldness in taking initiative can be great. We don’t have to hesitate at a big change or decision as though the course of history depends on it—because it probably doesn’t.

Yes, there are things we must attend to: matters of justice and mercy and the everyday stuff of getting through another day. This too is part of our tiny place in the universe. If we can embrace that tiny place, we’re looking at a life that is far more joyful.

We’re the Product of Many Forces, but We Are Not Helpless

For the months of March and April, I’d been in an odd place spiritually—not traumatic, just unsettling. Sorting through it took some serious work: a number of journal entries, an intense session with my spiritual director, an intriguing metaphor or two, a great deal of turning over the situation in my head.

Also for the months of March and April, winter kept threatening to stay through summer.

Two weeks ago we had our first warm, sunny day. Poof. Odd place gone. Euphoria washed in. I was happy as a clam. It was just seasonal affective disorder. All that inner work and mental energy wasted.

Or was it? Not quite. The reality was more complicated—and more beautiful—than that.

For one thing, the sparkling sunshine reminded me of a humbling truth about us humans. Our lives take place in a context, consisting of myriad systems that affect us profoundly and are beyond our control. The weather impacts our moods and lives. So do our genes, the state of our health, our birth order, the places we’ve lived, the political/media climate, etc., etc., etc.

Buddhism has a fascinating way to think about this, summed up in the phrase causes and conditions. The way Buddhism sees it, there’s no such thing as a permanent self, or a permanent anything: we are just the product of the ever-changing causes and conditions that shaped us and continue to shape us.  

So…did your parents suffer from depression? That could account for your dark view of life. Are you an only child? That may impact the whole way you deal with self and others. Do you live in Indonesia? You’re almost guaranteed to see the world differently than if you’d spent your life in Sweden.

I find this oddly comforting. It fosters humility: a clear-eyed view of who we are in a very large and complicated universe. It tells me that I can’t take myself too seriously, that I must embrace what is true about me.

Perhaps that sounds fatalistic. But it’s not.

Even if winter-in-April did factor heavily into my malaise, I can still learn from it. All that journaling and spiritual direction and reflection is practically a requirement for contemplatives anyway. Paying attention to the work of the Divine Spirit in our lives is what we do.

And we don’t do it just for ourselves. What we learn inwardly can equip us to make a difference in the lives of others. It’s part of how spiritual direction operates: the profession calls us to spend time on our own inner work, so we can more deeply hear the inner work of our directees.

Buddhism also notes that we can affect the causes and conditions, as well as the other way round. No wonder one of the “eights” in the Noble Eightfold Path is right action (inspired in part by right mindfulness, which is closely connected with contemplation).

A whole complex of causes impacts us. But we can reflect on what happens in that complex. And because of that reflection, we can act more clearly, more decisively, more effectively for the good of the world.

Discomfort with Easter

I have never liked Easter.

Deep down I’ve known this for years but couldn’t admit it, even to myself. After all, Easter is when we Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ from the dead and all it implies: new hope of a new life, God’s victory over death and evil. We sing hymns with words like exult and joy and especially alleluia. What’s not to like?

I never had a good answer to that question. For decades I went through the motions, hoping for some real joy to emerge. I attended church on Easter and sang like everyone else. I meditated on the resurrection to glean what meaning I could. Nothing really took hold.

This past Sunday, while driving to church, the reason for my discomfort with Easter suddenly hit me:

It’s all too tidy.

Total victory for the forces of good. The devil loses, God wins. The details are still playing out centuries later, but a joyous ending is assured.

I’ve seen movies with endings like this, and they make me crazy, because life doesn’t work that way.

From everything I’ve seen, life is messy. Good people do stupid things, sometimes with catastrophic results. Nasty people do heroic things out of the blue. We strive to get along with co-workers and neighbors and relatives who stir up ambivalence in our hearts. We compromise in so many places to get through our days. The most tragic events of our lives can bear fruit in our souls—but they’re tragic nonetheless.

The Easter story is not like this. So I don’t trust it.

But here’s the rub: I am devoted to a faith that declares the resurrection to be true—one of the foundational truths of the whole tradition. If I want to align with my home faith tradition, and I do, I can’t just toss the story out. I have to stare it in the face, to hold the tension between the centuries-old truth and my decades-old discomfort—not trying to resolve it, but seeing what emerges, even letting the story change me.

I have no idea how this will come out, or how long it will take. In the meantime, I’m riveted by the resurrection story in the gospel of Mark (16:1-8)—the original text, without the satisfying ending glommed on. Jesus doesn’t make an appearance in this passage. We simply read of a young man in a tomb telling three women that Jesus has risen from the dead. And how did they react? “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Terror. Fear. Amazement. Questions, undoubtedly. That’s one hot stew of emotions. Like my own.

The solidarity I feel with these women and their reactions gives me a shard of hope. Maybe my response to Easter is not abnormal or abhorrent, but simply human. That’s what the Christian story does so well: it reminds us of our humanity in all its lovely tangled mess—including the joy that, every now and then, rises to the surface.

Downsides of the News Blackout

Two months ago I wrote about my latest idea for a news blackout. (It’s more of a dark-brownout, really.) So how’s it going?

Well, my blood pressure’s probably down. My anxiety level certainly is. I’m more focused on what I’ve been called to do: prayer, writing, spiritual direction, the occasional money-making project. There’s also an emotional buffer in place: I can scan the news these days with more resilience than I could in the past.

Lately, though, I’m seeing some downsides. For one, I catch myself thinking things like “Seems like the president has calmed down in the past few months.” Or “Congo is in trouble again? Who knew?”

Of course, it’s not that the president has become more stable, or that the Congolese conflict popped out of nowhere. It’s just that I haven’t read about them.

Even more distressing: On two compelling, heart-tugging stories of the past month or so—the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the package bombs in and around Austin, Texas—I barely noticed until several days into the crisis.

That does not sit well with me. These are teens we’re talking about. I have friends in Austin.

Beyond not sitting well, this newfound obliviousness presents a larger quandary. My faith tradition calls me to stay engaged with the world, to care about the lives of all people, especially the most vulnerable. (I’d put high school students and Congo’s poverty-stricken masses squarely in that category.) If there’s one theme in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures that’s almost impossible to ignore, it’s God’s passion for the poor and at-risk.

And yet…and yet…there’s the lower blood pressure. The easing of anxiety. The healthier state of mind, which not only benefits me personally but equips me to engage with others more deeply.

So it looks like neither extreme—near-total news blackout, near-total news immersion—will work for me. But I’m wondering where the middle ground might be, and whether it’s too delicate a balance for any human to hit with precision. If I let a little more news in my life, it’s almost automatic to let in a little more, and then even more. Before I know it, I’ve reopened myself to the toxic maelstrom that our public life has become.

I’ll probably continue to tweak my current approach. At the same time, I can’t ignore the longing that maybe we all have: for a less intrusive world, a less chaotic world, less toxin in the news stream.

What about you? How are you managing the news these days?

What Would Happen If You Dropped Everything?

What if you were asked to drop everything and go in a different direction?

It’s amazing how often this crops up in ancient stories. To wit:

  • The Hebrew prophet Jonah preaches destruction to the Assyrian city of Nineveh; the inhabitants drop what they’re doing and repent of their wickedness.
  • Jesus calls a couple of fishermen to follow him; they drop their nets and go where he goes.
  • Wealthy Indian merchants encountered the Buddha, heard his wisdom, and instantly joined the Sangha (the community of his followers).
  • A young Jewish man named Saul persecutes the followers of Jesus—until a heavenly vision inspires him to drop everything and become a follower of Jesus.

What gives here? It’s hard to make sense of these stories when seen through the lens of 21st-century America. Even if we sensed a need to switch directions, most of us would consider it carefully, weigh options, draw up pro-and-con lists, consult family and friends, pray or meditate on it, and draw a conclusion. That’s a pretty mature way to do it. So why all the drop everything bit?

I have no idea what these stories say about decision-making techniques specifically. I do, though, hear a larger message that the immediacy of the stories dramatizes: this thing—whatever you’re dropping everything for—is more important than anything you’re doing, so stop NOW and pay attention.

To put it another way: every now and then, something—or, I would say, someone—breaks into the routine of our daily lives, no matter how good and virtuous those lives are, and commands us to listen, reflect, rethink. On occasion it changes our lives, whether immediately or (more often) over years.

If that sounds scary, well, it is. The good news: we always have the option to say no. The better news: there’s one great reason to say yes—one thing that turns the uncertainty of it all into adventure, and the worry into joy.

That one thing is the essence of the One we’re dealing with here: God, the Universe, Emptiness, whatever term you use.

In short, we’re dealing with Love itself, or the Reason to love. So wherever we go, whatever path we follow, we follow Love. Wherever Love leads us, it may be bumpy, it may be challenging, it may terrify us, but it will be good—for ourselves and whatever corner of the world we influence. No wonder the Bible’s First Letter of John tells us that “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).

Many people have done this sort of thing, more than you’d think. It’s what moves a New York financial executive to become a monk, or a successful copywriter to write more fruitful things for much less pay (no one I know, I assure you ; ), or a young gourmand to follow Jesus into the wildest wastelands of the Algerian desert. Sometimes it’s not even as outwardly dramatic as this: the new direction might look “normal” but represents a profound shift for the one who’s called to it.

Has this sort of thing happened to you? How did you respond? What difference has it made in your life?

Finally, an invitation. I’m starting to collect stories of people like this for a book project. If you’d like to share yours—or if you know someone whose story might fit—feel free to get in touch.

Dialing Down the News Intake to Sane Levels

I didn’t make New Year’s resolutions. That’s because, well, they sort of made me, bubbling to the surface early in the morning of January 1. And they quickly coalesced into a catchy slogan:

More zazen. Less input.

Zazen is a form of Zen meditation in which you sit and focus on the breath. We can talk about that some other time. Today it’s the less input that occupies me, because it drew my attention to an aspect of media that drives people crazy—and, possibly, a simple way to manage it.

I like news. Typically, my wife and I would wake up to NPR, check headlines during the day, and settle down in the evening to our daily dose of BBC World News America and The PBS NewsHour. In between we’d read our excellent local newspaper and a newsmagazine or two.

Last year it all became too much. The daily drama. The endless coverage of the daily drama. The extraordinary depth of punditry over a presidential tweet.

For someone who’s hypersensitive to mental overload, this was like a tidal wave. So when less input came to mind as a resolution, it pushed me to consider ways to reduce the input. And I realized something about today’s news reporting:

There’s a lot of repetition.

Take the current Russia investigation. In a hypothetical week, media outlet X might kick off Monday by reporting what happened over the weekend. On Tuesday, you hear analysis of the latest developments from a U.S. senator. Wednesday brings three historians drawing on the lessons of past investigations. On Thursday someone from the White House leaks a small detail relating to recent developments, and reporters interview other reporters to find out what it means. To wrap up the week, the president tweets about the investigation, and the analysis machine goes into overdrive.

Does your head hurt yet?

Very little of this is bad in itself. Each bit of reporting can be invaluable to someone, sometime. But no one needs all of it.  

So I’m trying a different way to consume news—to stay aware and save my sanity—by eliminating the repetition.

In this new regime, we’ll focus on a concise weekly summation of the world’s news from The Economist. If something calls us to dig deeper, there’ll probably be an article on it in that week’s issue. Or a segment on the NewsHour. We can lightly scan the headlines, educate ourselves on local news, and screen out the rest.

These are guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. I’m sure we’ll vary it once in a while. And obviously, I don’t know if this approach will work. But it’s simple to try. What do you think?

The Day God Became Not Special

Dear Reader: this post is about Christmas, and it may strike a chord with you especially if you struggle with Christmas. Or if you’re struggling in general. It’s dark at first, but if you know dark like I do, that won’t faze you. The second half gets brighter.

This past year, I’ve been led repeatedly to one big lesson.  I didn’t think of it in terms of Christmas till this morning.

The big lesson is, weirdly enough, summed up in the words of a bumper sticker: Always remember that you are wonderfully unique…just like everybody else. It’s the everybody else part that’s captivated my soul this year. Despite all my delusions to the contrary, I keep coming back to the truth that I am not special. I am just like everybody else.

Two-thirds of the way through my natural life span, it seems likely that I will live out my years like everybody else—breathing, sleeping, eating (preferably at diners), working, taking up space, trying to make my one-person’s contribution to the world. When I die, I will almost certainly fall into the category described by the writer of Ecclesiasticus:

 There are some who have no memorial,
who have perished as though they had not lived;
they have become as though they had not been born,
and so have their children after them.

In other words, not special.

Now here’s the breathtaking part. The Christmas part.

Christians believe that in an average backwater on a contentious fringe of the Roman Empire—in a stable, no less—God became a human being.

In other words, God became not special.

Think about that. We’re talking the Source of all that is, the Ultimate Reality, the One who is special in a way no other being can possibly claim. Becoming not special.

That’s pretty amazing all by itself, but there’s more. Having become not special, God knows what it’s like to feel one’s not-specialness in one’s deepest self. So we can peer into our own not-specialness and sense that God is with us in it.

It is hard to express how much we need this withness.

You see, our not-specialness can lead us to despair. We’re born, we live, we’re average, we die. Ultimately, we do a lot of this alone. What’s the point, especially when life is so difficult?

The Christian tradition has answers for that—good answers—but they’re not part of our story today. The story today is that God responds to the question, to our temptation toward despair, with withness. With a connection, a communion that is closer to us than our own breath.

No one wants to be lonely. We all want to be with. This is being with at the core of our being. Being with the Source of all that is. The answer, in so many ways, to the deepest longings of our hearts.

We could hardly ask for more.

Joyous Christmas, everyone.

 

 

Can the Truth Set Us Free in the Trump Era?

This is the story of a weird Bible interpretation and the unexpected wisdom it holds for us today.

Recently I came across the gospel account of Jesus and a Jewish sect called the Sadducees. As the story goes, some of these Sadducees came to Jesus with a theological question: if a woman is married seven times, who exactly is her husband when the resurrection happens?

The way I read it, there’s a lot of chutzpah behind the question. Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection, so this group was just trying to bait Jesus. I wouldn’t have blamed him for rolling his eyes and walking away.

Instead, he gave them a straight answer—starting with the actual question (“in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage”) and then countering their core belief. He defended the idea of the resurrection with an ingenious interpretation of Hebrew scripture.

But why did he bother? Why no eyeroll instead? I think the answer is in the last verse of this passage: “When the crowd heard [his answer], they were astonished at his teaching.”

The crowd. There were other people there. If Jesus doesn’t respond to the Sadducees, maybe the crowd members walk away with the idea that the Sadducees’ question is legit, that they’ve got the answer right. Maybe Jesus realizes he must put the truth out there, so the crowd can distinguish truth from cynicism.

That brings us to the Trump era.

I’ve written elsewhere about my partial timeout from conversation and dialogue. The tenor of U.S. public life for the past two years—the coarseness, the viciousness, the bone-deep cynicism about every institution—left me wondering whether I needed a new way to be present to the world. From what I’ve heard and read, I’m not alone on this, not even close.

Many months into my timeout, I’m starting to think this “new way to be present” has something to do with truth: speaking it, ferreting it out, committing ourselves to the idea anew.

(I’m definitely not alone on this. For a clear, eloquent, unblinking look at what’s been called the “post-truth era,” check out this article.)

I still believe dialogue is terribly important. But in some types of dialogue—especially those where facts play an important role, like political or scientific controversies—it’s difficult to converse meaningfully when you can’t even agree on the facts or, worse, when one person asserts facts and the other instantly cries “fake news.” Partners in these dialogues must agree to seek truth and accuracy, then come as close to finding them as they can.

A few to-dos can help us get closer to truth. We would do well, for example, to be more rigorous in checking the truth value of news stories, to “balance our media diet” with respected sources across the spectrum, to take time for reflection before we knee-jerk-react to the latest story. (I talk about some of this in my book about dialogue.) We can be more willing to acknowledge the shortcomings of our own side—and give our adversaries grace to do the same.

We can also find ways to open our hearts. A wide-open heart relaxes our iron grip—our attachment, in Buddhist terms—to things other than the Ultimate (God, One, Reality, Emptiness, whatever term you use). That, in turn, frees us not only to pursue truth, but also to love everyone regardless of what they believe.

This seems important. If I’m reading that gospel lesson correctly, there are times when letting cynicism go unchallenged could be corrosive to our social fabric. Now feels like one of those times. Jesus’ example may be relevant in ways I’d ever imagined.

If You’re Concerned About Listening, and You Want to See Dublin…

I just wrote this for an email list I participate in, and I thought some of you might want to know about it too:

If you’re concerned about the future of listening in today’s noisy world, think about joining me at the 2018 International Listening Association Convention, June 20-23 in Dublin, Ireland.

Travel to Dublin may be more affordable than you’d think. I’ve found airfares in my area (via Norwegian Air) around $400 round trip.

If you’d like to know more, by all means email me.

 

*ILA members come from academia, business, education, healthcare, spirituality, even music, and live in 19 countries around the globe. I’ve also found them to be remarkably warm and welcoming to new folks.

Our Manifold Sins and Wickedness, Reconsidered

There’s this old prayer of confession in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition that feels, well, out of step with today’s world. In older versions, we “bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” Even in today’s Book of Common Prayer, “we do earnestly repent, and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable.”

By and large, postmodern folks don’t think this way anymore. We regard it as shaming, twisting ourselves into a pretzel of self-flagellating guilt. As children of the psychotherapeutic age, we’ve seen—and often felt firsthand—the corrosive damage shame can cause, so we naturally recoil from prayers like this. I think that’s a good instinct.

But what do we do with our dark side? Many of us still feel shame for our failures, though perhaps in a more generic, secular way. Because of that shame, we often suppress our shortcomings in any way possible.

Or, perhaps more accurately, we ignore them. We choose not to think about the way we use people, or the times we compromised our values and shouldn’t have, or the lies we’ve told. Instead, we present a pleasant façade to the world.

Over time, we may even come to believe the façade ourselves. We bury what Carl Jung famously called our shadow.

I think there’s a better way, and it came up in silent prayer recently. It goes like this:

It’s OK to look at our own failings and shortcomings and simply accept them as part of ourselves—at least as part of ourselves for now. It’s an acknowledgment of the hot mess within us that makes us human.

So when I say, “I often keep quiet to avoid conflict when I should speak up,” I’m not speaking from low self-esteem, or looking for comfort. Rather, I’m acknowledging a painful truth about myself—honestly, with sadness, but without shame. Do I wish I didn’t avoid conflict in this way? Absolutely. Do I hope to be better? Yes. But is this me, right now? Yes, it is.

This is the kind of thing that Holy Cross Monastery (the place where I’m an associate) talks about when it describes the virtue of humility: “Humility is not self-denigration; it is honest appraisal. We have gifts and deficiencies, as does everyone else. We start from there, remembering that God loves each of us with a unique but equal love.”

When we do this, we are closer to our true selves—all of our true selves.

We are also closer and more compassionate to one another. When I see myself honestly, with clarity, without shame, I realize the deep truth of that wonderful bumper sticker (based on a quote allegedly from Margaret Mead): always remember that you are absolutely unique…just like everybody else. We see our humanity in all its aspects, which enables us to see one another’s humanity in all its aspects. The more we identify with someone, the more we can empathize—and love.

And God knows we need more love in the world.