Becoming Self-Directed 9/13/15
Deitrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, wrote from a German prison during the end of World War 2, that from now on Christianity would be lived in a world “come of Age”. He saw in Nazism the features of a completely secular society. His phrase has been suggestive ever since. And we have become more a world come of age than he could have imagined.
We’ve had at least two Promethean moments since then, the first when we created the Atom Bomb. It marked the first time in human history that we had the ability, that any species had the ability, to destroy all life on planet earth. The architect of the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, upon seeing the very first mushroom cloud rising over the desert in New Mexico, quoted the Bahagavadgita, the god Shiva actually, who said “I have become death, the destroyer of worlds”. Oppenheimer did not say those words in triumph but with genuine pathos about the responsibility that would inevitably attend all of us in the Atomic age.
The other Promethean moment, almost unnoticed in the popular press, was mapping the genome. We became the first generation in human history, of any species that we know of anywhere, who can directly, intentionally, alter our own evolution.
When Prometheus discovered how to make fire, the gods worried that humans wouldn’t need them anymore. We would be too independent, too self-directed. The truth is that we need the Holy Spirit more than ever, but in quite a different way, from the simple world of the bible. For we are a generation whose technical prowess far outruns our moral imagination. We have more power than we know how to deploy and the gap is growing month by month.
Our informational interconnection continues to evolve so rapidly that we buy new devices every year to keep up. More than that, we know that we are leveraging our knowledge base so dramatically that it is changing our social order- witness the Arab Spring and the revolutions that followed it.
Indeed, in one generation, we can see it changing our consciousness. I read in the paper that the average High School senior spends 8 hours a day on the computer- and that is not counting our boys on Xbox and Gameboy. 8 hours a day is a lot of time. You realize that when they were born, the average high school senior spent 0 hours a day on a computer. No one can say how all of this ‘interconnection’ is going to affect human consciousness but we know that it is. And it is a change we are imposing on ourselves.
Increasingly, we live in a world “come of age”.
Jack Miles once suggested that this was the original logic of the bible too. He meant the Old Testament read in the original order that the Jews wrote it, called the Tanach. In the first 5 books of the bible (The Torah- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), God speaks quite a bit. God appears to Adam and Eve, to Noah, to Abraham. God appears a few times to Moses.
Then, in the original order of the bible, next comes the Prophets. And God speaks through the Prophets so to speak.
But then comes Job, the problem of evil. Job is an innocent man, a righteous man, beset by all manner of misery. Job has the temerity to ask God ‘why do innocent people suffer? Why would you create a world where bad people can thrive and children are the refugees of war, famine, disease and early death.
It is a Promethean question because people ever since have said, “If God can’t stop bad things from happening what do we need God for?” Job, as you may know, is a play and it closes with Job alone on stage asking God, “why has my country been ruined by war? Why have my children died? Why?
God never answers the question. The last line of the play is the booming voice of God from off stage saying to Job, ‘where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?’ In other words, ‘who are you, Oh Mortal, that you would question God?’ Job never gets an answer to his question. And, here is the interesting observation that Miles makes. That is the last time, we hear from God in the Old Testament. That is the last active voice we have of God, a non-answer to the question of evil in our world.
Job is the next to last book in the bible.
The last book of the Jewish scriptures, what we call the Old Testament is Esther. Esther is an interesting book to end on because it is a completely human drama. Esther finds herself in a foreign country, Persia, among a people that worship a foreign God or no God, and she has a complicated problem with no easy solution. One of the bureaucrats that works for the King is about to kill many of her fellow Jews and she has to figure out how to save people in a morally complicated situation. She just has to take the wisdom from long, long ago and figure out what to do. She is on her own now.
Miles says that is the whole point of the bible really, that now it is up to us to figure out how to live authentically, humanely, with integrity. We draw up the Spirit of God that guides us through the traditions of our ancestors. But, the point is we have to figure out how to use that to make a positive difference in an all human society.
And there is a parallel in the New Testament as well. We have the story of Jesus, a fantastic story about a man that was so spiritually filled that we said of him, ‘surely he is the Son of God’. He teaches us that God loves us, what God is like and what God wants from us. He exhibits miraculous moral courage and even shows us how to die. People that he meets are simply healed of physical maladies, emotional distress, and the corrosive low self-esteem of having been branded an outcast.
But eventually, even the resurrected One must take his leave. And the disciples are all quite nervous and agitated about what to do. In the end, Jesus simply breathes upon them and tells them, “Receive the Holy Spirit”, “May Peace be upon You”. “That which you have seen in me, go and do likewise”. “I shall be with you even unto the close of this Age”. “Go therefore, to the four corners of the world and make disciples.” We, too, draw upon the wisdom of our ancestors. We meet to invoke the Spirit of God in our midst.
The Spirit of God may be all that we have but it is all that we need. The point is that it is now time to grow up, take what we have learned, and create a more humane, inclusive world that celebrates the great tapestry that is our global village. And with the very difficult and challenging issues at hand, to draw upon the Spirit and figure it out for ourselves, for our generation.
Apparently we are hard-wired for self-direction. It is just about the first thing that gives us pleasure. Babies want to be warm, safe, dry, and eating. But almost immediately, they want to suck their own hand. And for the next year, they will practice their one or two little skills that they have learned over and over and over and over and over again.
I have a grandson, aged 15 months, and he will throw a ball at me over and over for an hour. How can you do something like that, whatever it is, for an hour? And the answer is, self-control and self-mastery are just intrinsically fulfilling. It is a primal fulfillment.
It is the first thing we pick up and it is the last thing we put down. That is one of the most difficult parts of growing old. No conversation is more awkward than the one where you ask Dad to turn in the keys to his car. The very last chapter of life is a test of dignity to keep control of at least a few things in your life. As they get fewer, you can just see our elders regress. They hate it. Their children hate watching it.
One psychologist wrote “Our desire to control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control is so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable…People feel more certain that they will win the lottery if they can control the number on their ticket, and they feel more confident that they will win a dice toss if they can throw the dice themselves. People will wager more money on dice that have not yet been tossed than on dice that have already been tossed but whose outcome is unknown.”[i] The list goes on and in every case, their actions make no sense except that they believe they have control over an uncontrollable event. We just come with a deeply imbedded desire to steer our own boat.
Certainly, it seems that is part of what we are seeing play out our TV’s for this decade across the Middle East. Beginning with the Arab spring, ordinary people in all these backward, cut off countries, are awakening and what do they want? They want more self-determination. They want to direct their own futures. They want a stake in the game.
And it will keep happening for the foreseeable future.
Meanwhile, we in the self-directed West, have an overload of choice.
One of my fraternity brothers sent around the new list of chores for your best friend in the internet age, first among them, “erase the history button on my internet search engine in case of death or prolonged illness”. In our era you can watch anything, what are you going to watch? As you know, some astonishing figure like 70% of all internet sales remain porno.
And we know that as powerful as our sexual drives are, and as malleable as our sexual identities can be, what you wire yourself to respond to is not so easily unwired. I read a book review last week that was on a series of studies that show how growing up with a background of Porno is shaping the sexual imagination of our children. It is all out there, why wouldn’t it shape them? What do you do with all that choice? It is a challenge for our generation.
When you talk to High School and Middle School educators, their biggest problem is cheating and plagiarism. I seriously doubt that our children today are any more conniving than we were when Robbie Jenkins writing answers between his fingers. No the main difference is that we had to actually look over Roberta Tomkins shoulder which wasn’t all that easy if you recall.
Today, our children are in the quiet of their bedroom at night, no one is around like Mr. Helms who could scare a hardened criminal straight with his glare. They aren’t only alone, they can download like a veritable dissertation on Huck Finn that has some really great insights that they missed the first reading. At 13 or 14, we’ve loaded them with enough anxiety, taught them over and over that they need to get an edge, and then we leave them alone to self-direct. But their brains aren’t formed enough, they just aren’t mature enough for all that self-direction.
When you talk to our High School and Middle School educators, they are very concerned about cyber-bullying. I seriously doubt that our children today are any more cruel than we were, as I remember Robin Hittman getting all the girls in 7th grade to shun Pat Curly and make her life miserable because she had kissed too many boys that year. No, the main difference is that back then, you had to do it in public somehow, someway.
Today, our children can pull out their phone, capture some embarrassing video of their friend falling down drunk, half naked, take it home, and post it late at night after their anxiety has gotten the best of them and poor decision making kicks in. They don’t have to worry about the Principal, Mrs. Edwards, charging into the girls bathroom to break up the take down. Now, not only is their friend embarrassed, eventually their friends Dad sees the video at his office and the whole parental generation has to deal with the crap of middle school.
In a very short amount of time, we are going to have people running for higher office in our country that will to have to explain their break-up at 17 which got very ugly and very public one summer they been trying to forget about ever since. Lord spare us from all this choice!
We have two broad spiritual challenges around choice in our lives.
Self-direction begs the question of integrity, of authenticity.
We already exercise a more integrity in our daily lives than we even realize. One of the reasons that Americans report such high satisfaction with their lives compared to other countries is a very high percentage of us believe that we are largely responsible for our own destinies. We believe that we exercise control in our lives and that we have chosen our careers and we have elected our government.
The spiritual challenge in the self-determined world is living from the inside out, to live from intrinsic motivation.
In a self-directed world, we live more and more like we are always on. This is the Wiki-leaks world, the Ashley Madison world of expose. All your communication is public and retrievable theoretically, even your private correspondence.
We have the moral challenge in different ways from the time we are quite young, dealing with peer pressure, whether we will simply follow along with what the group is doing regardless of its integrity or whether we will begin to develop our own internal compass, our own values, our own commitments.
Peer pressure never goes away but is compounded when we are young adults by the material quest and we stay in the acquisitive phase for quite a long time. What will we choose for our careers and why? Why do we do what we do? Is it only about the money? And what do we do with the big pile of money that we make? What is the vision of the good life for us as a couple, a family? What difference will we make where we actually live and what contribution will our families make to our community?
And if we are successful, acquisition gets eclipsed by the moral question of power and responsibility. At some point, you start you have enough authority that you realize that you could always game the system if you wanted to. The Bernie Madoff option is always possible because most every business venture is actually built on trust and reputation and you can abuse that, yes you can.
But once you abuse it and you are caught, game over. Exit Cousecu, exit Milosovic, exit Saddam Hussein, exit Gadaffhi, Mubarak, and soon Assad. Reputation is everything. Reputation is pretty close to being the only thing. The court of world opinion now extends to Libya, soon it will bring pressure to bear on the most remote island in the Fiji’s, in the mountain villages of Iceland.
The Spiritual challenge is to develop a life that you live with integrity from the inside out. And that is also the most fulfilling life.
Right now, we read interview after interview with young people in tech start ups, that are remarkably fulfilled. They don’t have a job. They live a life.
Perhaps they make a lot of money because they are channeled in entrepreneurial ways. Perhaps they don’t because they are devoted to a kind of artistic expression or they have chosen service and place themselves among the poor. But they exude an internal creative impulse. They don’t need a time clock because they are doing what they are supposed to be about. Whether they made a lot of money or not they would be doing something pretty close to what they are doing now because what they do expresses who they are. So the dull parts of their work are not drudgery to them.
And the line for them between working and retiring is more like changing a chapter than like changing a way of living. Both of them are filled with self-expression. Not surprisingly, we are discovering that this is also a happier, more fulfilling way to live your life.
And the second broad challenge is closely related to the first. It is finding your signature strengths and practicing them, hopefully with those you love. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, says that we are most fulfilled in our lives when we are able to practice the thing that we do best and family and friends around us appreciate what we do and encourage us to do it better.
Sounds like St. Paul, when he describes the Holy Spirit moving in love in our midst..
What is that you do? What gift do you have? What did God make you with that the world needs? You have something, several strengths, what are they?
Eric Lidell, the Olympic track runner from Scotland, had a wonderful line about his incredible athletic ability. He said, “when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” He is doing what he was made to do. What is it that you were made to do?
You have character strengths that you can develop into excellence. Some of you are curious and love learning; some of us are critical thinkers; some of us are creative and original; some of us read social situations astutely; some of us are brave, courageous human beings; some of us have tenacious perseverance; some of us are models of integrity and genuineness; some of us simply generous with our lives and our assets; some us can teach others about love and being loved; some of us have real insight on justice and fairness; some of us model leadership; some of us demonstrate balance and self-control in our lives; some of us are filled with an inspiring sense of hope and optimism; some of us have lived the divine life of forgiveness and mercy; some of us have developed a deeper sense of purpose and what the meaning of life is all about; some of us have an infectious passion, humor and enthusiasm for our life and our world.
What is it that you do? What strength do you bring to the group? How does the Spirit of God use you?
Let your light shine and let is shine here. Marianne Williamson speaks to our challenge. She says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same.
My brothers and sisters, claim your signature strength, practice it here with all of us. May we make each other more substantive, more authentic, and may we stumble on the way to make our world more spiritually rounded and interesting. Amen.
Curiosity, interest, love of learning, judgment, critical thinking, open-mindeness, ingenuity, origninality, street smarts, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, perspective, valor, bravery, perserverence, industry, diligence, integrity, genuiness, honesty, kindness, generosity, loving others, being loved, justice, fairness, citizenship, duty, teamwork, loyalty, leadership, self-control, prudence, discretion, humility, appreciation of beauty, appreciation of excellence, gratitude, hope, optimism, forgiveness, mercy, spirituality, meaning, purpose, faith, playfulness, humor, zest, passion, enthusiasm.
[i] Gilbnert Meilander Stumbling Upon Happiness (New York: Vantage, 2007), p. 23, 24.