Some land on their feet, some land staring up at the stars
Do you remember the day when they introduced you to negative numbers. (-2 + -2 = -4). Huh? When you hear them from a teacher, you have to take those things as facts, but they really don't make any sense. You feel disoriented. Or the day when suddenly a girl is in the group of boys that you play with. What kind of games do you play now? Play doesn't make any sense. Or the day you realize that religion isn't about a list of dumb rules. Fortunately that last transition is a slower process, and you usually don't wake up one morning saying, "Huh?" and feeling like the world no longer makes any sense.
Sharp transitions can make us question every aspect of our lives. They put us into "limbo," and sometimes that is where we stay because we can't make sense of our lives in the old way anymore, and we don't have a replacement set of beliefs.
This is the area where psychology can be somewhat helpful in helping us find another interpretation, but psychology really isn't about giving us beliefs. This is an area where philosophy can be helpful in sorting it all out, but philosophy doesn't hand us beliefs either. This is an area where religion can be helpful... but it is often religion that is the problem - we don't believe the same things anymore. Often it is things said by a new pastor that creates the problem... so you may not feel you can go talk to him.
Why do we not believe the same things? Because we mature and our beliefs are stretched to the breaking point, or they are not credible in the face of reality, or not at all helpful, or we see other's conduct that we can't reconcile with any beliefs, or some new religious leader says things are a different way.... The reasons are actually endless. We are forced into not believing what we believed before. We are placed at a point where we have to grow spiritually to meet the challenge, or atrophy. Things that atrophy dry up and go away.
Part of the difficulty is that religious denominations tend to be very pedantic in what they say they believe. They can tolerate each other, but they can't be reconciled with each other. Reconciliation with God is what religion is primarily about. Hmmm.
Landing on our head
Lots of times it isn't an intellectual idea that bombs our peace, it is life changes. They are endless. We moved to a farm, and suddenly I had all kinds of new possibilities, but I left a lot of social things behind. I (we) got married. Marriage was a new and wonderful experience.
We argued. We learned to compromise, but we never had our own way again. We moved. My wife developed a friendship. We moved again. We moved so often my wife hardly made any friends. Moving is isolating. Isolation is difficult to cope with, especially when you have kids and need support.
My wife realized after several career changes that she really was fulfilled being a homemaker, not a work-a-day robot. I realized that I wasn't the technical person I had become. I finally realized that I needed the more social aspect of life.
The kids left home. The house became an empty nest. Now what for my wife? What has meaning and purpose without kids?
I got laid off. Usually I'm the last to go, but if you are a communicator you show up early on the list of people to let go. What then, when you no longer have the ability to bring home the bacon? It can be a loss if identity... maybe even loss of manhood for some. I will probably never retire, but many people do. What's next without a career identity and a fulfilling purpose. We too often allow ourselves to be defined by what is outside of us making demands on us.
So there we are, head on the ground and feet in the air, wondering what can put us right.
Landing on our arse
I can hand people buckets full of meaning and purpose. Sometimes, especially for the short term, we are happy just to have something to do that makes a contribution to the world or our family. But the thing is, as my wife reminds me, the "givens" in life aren't necessarily fulfilling in the long term, nor are the things that are forced on us. Some things do kind of grow on you. I get very interested in technical things, business, economics, politics - all things I doubted I would ever like. They are great if they are part of the contribution I make, or enable it. But I wouldn't want to be a full-time economist - it would make me nuts.
We tend to lose ourselves in the givens, and it gets continuously worse until the kids leave home.
Losing ourselves is a process that begins early in life. We want to do certain things, such as get a cookie from the jar whenever we want, and take toys from others when it looks like they are fun to play with. We learn to repress those desires to be part of the community of kids and stay in good graces with our parents (or not get punished).
Soon we find ourselves in school. We learn a lot of social behaviors that go against the grain. We learn to sit for hours and concentrate on things that have no practical meaning in our lives at that moment. We learn to be quiet. If we're disruptive, we're likely to be labeled ADHD and drugged into submission.
For a moment in our youth we try to regain our equilibrium. Around age 12 we really want to fit in and "be like everyone else," but we also want very much to have an identity that stands out and distinguishes us from others. And while we have the illusion that we get to follow some of our own interests, mostly we just continue to repress what we want, to belong.
Religion doesn't help much. Religion encourages "losing yourself" in dedication to the cause of Christ. Honorable goal.
By the time we reach college, we can do marathon stints of quiet learning and social conformity... even transparency. We have successfully repressed following our interests in favor of prescribed learning, and successfully repressed our behavior in favor of belonging.
When we marry, we gain an entirely new list of things to repress. Before we get good at it, we have children, and by the time they are 12 we have successfully converted ourselves into non-being machines that dutifully carry out our obligations to our families and work, with not a moment to reflect on who we are or what we might become if given the chance to explore.
The noted psychologist Rollo May said that "...we repress the sense of being... [man's] experience of himself as a responsible individual, his experience of his humanity..." We repress ourselves to the point of dehumanizing ourselves.
Rollo May continued in the same pages: "I believe Nietzsche and Kierkegaard were more accurate when they described man as the organism who makes certain values--prestige, power, tenderness--more important than pleasure and even more important than survival itself. We conform. We give up part of who we are to "belong." "One's own meaning becomes meaningless because it is borrowed from someone else."
May, Rollo. The Discovery of Being, 1983, p15 - 17.
So there we are, on our arse, wondering how life ever got this way, and what does it all mean anyway?
Landing on our feet
With all of this repression of who we are because we are so busy, and because we must conform to belong, and because our belief and meaning paradigms are formed more by our society than ourselves, is it possible to land on our feet? The short answer is yes.
If we were wandering in the woods and there was no one else in the world, there would be no meaning except survival and trifling interests. We would be begging for just one person to give our lives meaning. Without that meaning framework given to us by others, we could find no fulfilling purpose.
The things we give up about ourselves are not what makes us who we are. We trade things about ourselves for things of greater value. We can look for the child within for years only to discover that we grew up and our interests changed. So we once hated math and boring things, and now suddenly we like economics, and it means something to us. Where our feet and minds go, so goes our heart. We lose aspects of ourselves and gain the world.
Sometimes we repress too much, and it takes a psychologist or a major change to sort it out. Sometimes we trade too much, chasing after illusions that are temporal and not lasting value, such as false pride, riches, fame, power, material things, sex... and it takes a minister or a difficult spiritual experience to pull the curtain aside and let us see the true worth of these things.
Getting out of limbo
The really difficult situation we sometimes find ourselves in is we have been trapped for so long that we lose a sense of our own individuality and being. We cease to be people who chase after their interests and become worker bees and followers. Then one day we have time to realize the endless chase we have been on, and we want to regain that sense of our own being, and follow our own fulfilling purpose.
It isn't always easy to dig our way out. But no matter where we are in life, a young student, or a young woman at home with young children, or someone with a 24 hour a day job, or someone in a nursing home in our last days, or someone sitting in a jail cell, we can still find our way to enjoy the creative, enriched person that we are, the unique being that God created us to be, with the unique fulfilling purpose that He can lead us to.
Is this just blather? Consider the scientist Steven Hawking. He sits in a wheel chair because of an affliction, attended to by others for his every basic need, unable to speak except through a touchpad communicator in which he types with his mouth. But he is one of the world's greatest and most respected scientists.
Consider Joni Erikson, the opposite end of the spectrum from Hawking, but similarly challenged. Paralyzed in a diving accident in 1967, she has been unable to move her hands and legs. She helped others with similar conditions, wrote a best-selling autobiography which was made into a film, painted really good pictures using a brush in her mouth, started a wheelchair reconditioning program that uses inmates to recondition for the needy, and in 2002 she received the "Radio Program of the Year" award from National Religious Broadcasters, for her radio show and is the author of 35 books. (I don't always agree with her theology, but I wouldn't want to stand in her way. : )
Consider my friend from a past church. At 90 she amazed everyone by going on cruises to far off lands where she had to endure the elements and walk long distances on rugged terrain. Well she astonished us by going to Antarctica! Many of our constraints slow us down or limit us, but some are just self-imposed.
Realistically all of us are constrained in some way. We never have total freedom. We often have to give 200%, instead of 50%, for our families and other things. Finances are always a limiting factor. I know many people who have sacrificed themselves for decades at a time, and simply found it unbearably frustrating to consider their own needs.
Women bury themselves in serving a family and career. Men bury themselves in making a living and career. It happens. But if it isn't too frustrating, at least we can understand who we are and begin to change the course of our future. For example, if you bend a stick slightly at the end you hold (indicative of the present), the free end of the stick changes drastically (indicative of where we will be). A small change in the present creates future large changes.
The religious thing about losing yourself in dedication, we can get rid of right away. It doesn't mean becoming a non-person. In becoming conformed to the image of Christ, you don't lose who God uniquely created you to be - it is simply a re-orientation of priorities so that you balance other's needs against your own. God asks us to accept His leadership, and he transforms us in the way we treat others. You don't hurt others to get your own way, and you go out of your way to help others - it requires some sacrifice, but the end result is more fulfilling than getting everything you want.
Rollo May, from his experience doing psychotherapy, tells us another thing that is very important. He cites theologian Paul Tillich to say that we must have "the courage to be." That means over-looking the discomfort of other's expectations of us, to be comfortable with ourselves and understand what we want.
May, Rollo. The Discovery of Being, 1983, p27.
So if you have the courage to be, then you can get out of limbo - that place where life has no meaning and you are simply a robot serving others, often doing nothing that is personally fulfilling... at least so we think - these things often become very fulfilling later. Argh! I just wrote another article on politics and economics. It was important to me. Argh!
Next: Nitti gritty change and strategies for change.
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