What I Mean by “Faith”

“Are you religious?” is a question I am often asked, and one that I ask others, too.

It would seem that this question has always contained significant signalling power. It is in a sense a way of ask “are you like me? do we have common ground to discuss certain topics, or would a discussion be more or less a waste of time?”

In my case, however, I don’t ask it for this reason because with rare exception, I know that regardless of the answer, there is unlikely to be much pre-existing common ground. I ask the question rather to get an understanding of what a person thinks religious faith is rather than to determine of we share a religious faith. The nature of the answer is more telling in most cases than the substance.

Back in Arkansas, where I was born and spent the first 22 years of my life, the question would often meet with incredulity–as in “how dare you assume I might not be religious!” and those who were not religious tended to be more stridently so than they might have been had they been living in say a New York intellectual circle. In Chile, the answer is often “well obviously I’m Catholic, but I’m not very religious.” That’s one of my favorite responses, and is a stinging critique of a century of stagnation of thought at the Vatican and in Roman Catholicism.

In the intellectual and entrepreneurial world, however, the most common response is agnosticism followed by “spiritual but not religious” with a vocal minority of unreserved atheists. The more I move in increasingly diverse circles, I am encountering more answers, but the foregoing nevertheless still represent the majority view.

In a certain sense, though, there are really only two religious/spiritual views and everything else is just a matter of detail. Those two views are humility and arrogance.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster crowd and the Flame-Throwing Southern Baptists are essentially the same people, arrested in their need for certainty where none exists, and inventing one instead. At least the atheists are honest about their lack of faith–the hyper-conservative evangelical Christians are in denial about it. Faith is simply unnecessary if you are certain. Indeed, there can be no faith without doubt, and no strong faith without strong doubt. If you walk into the average Southern Baptist Church in America, though, you will be told that you need to “know that you know that you know that you are saved,” whatever that means. But it pretty decidedly means that you are supposed to know something for sure.

The doubting crowds, however, from all walks of life, are in a sense full of faith. Agnostics are in a sort of via negativa way the most faithful of all. The implicit view of agnosticism is “I don’t know if there’s a God or not, but if there is, I assume he’s not out to zap me and wouldn’t damn me to hell for eternity for not believing in him.” This is a rather potent form of faith.

Faith, then, in my estimation, is a form of trust rather than about holding “beliefs” about the validity of truth propositions. Christian faith is not about believing, in a rationalistic sense, the truth proposition of the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection, but about trusting that the world is organized in such a way that doing unto others as you would have them do unto you works out in the end. Christian faith is about trusting that if you submit yourself completely to the Law of Love, that you are going to be better off, even when at the margin there are strong incentives to do otherwise. Christian faith is about trusting that if you take up your cross and follow the path of Jesus, laying down your life in sacrifice for others, that YOU will, in the final judgment of your life, in that moment before your death, say “I have no regrets.”

This sort of faith is precisely what is characterized by St Paul’s definition of it being “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It has nothing to do with beliefs in truth propositions at all, but hopes for that which has not yet transpired, contingent upon a certain way of living.

But I would go even further, at least in my own personal case. I would say that for me, the Christian faith is about a vocation, a calling to become Christian. A calling that cannot be answered with words, but with actions, and one that is never actually answered entirely, for it is a calling that I am ultimately incapable of answering perfectly, and therefore requires of me daily humble submission to that which is greater, that all-encompassing God of Love, against whose backdrop I am a small and selfish finite being. The Christian vocation for me is a calling to transcend my finitude and my biology, and attempt to live not just marginally differently, but radically differently.

St Paul writes that each person must work out their faith “with fear and trembling.” There would be no need to do this if there were demonstrable certainties. Indeed, the right use of religious institutions ought to be to provide a framework for each individual to do this difficult work, a place to share the struggle, and a few basic shared principles by which that shared struggle may be continued unceasingly, even in the face of dire hardship.

It is for this reason that St Augustine gave his famous admonition “in essentials, unity. in non-essentials, liberty. in all things, charity.” Yet contemporary religion and atheism alike have turned all things into essentials. There is little room for liberty of thought without the shrieks of judgment. There is no room in most intellectual and scientific circles to ponder the concept of YHWH and the compatibility of this transcendent everything-ness with mathematics and physics. There is no room in most intellectual circles in the West today to question whether the Tinder hook-up culture is really good for the spirit or not.

There is no room in most conservative Christian circles to question whether the institution of marriage as it is currently defined has out-lived its practical usefulness and is instead damning millions of people to misery and lack of fulfillment in their lives. There is no room in most such circles to say “you know, it seems that anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and science have a lot to say about our religion–maybe we should start questioning everything in light of 2,000 years of discoveries in these fields and update our maps of reality accordingly, while preserving the essential tenets of our faith: love and mercy.”

Christians are obsessed with the little miracles like Jesus healing the blind or turning water into wine and they miss the tremendous miracle that when faced with death he could have called his followers to arms and started a revolution, but instead chose to die painfully and ignominiously as the Prince of Peace.

Most people who identify themselves as Christians are just Greek Pagans who believe in Zeus and think of Jesus as being born from Zeus’s forehead like Athena, rather than grasping the actual message of Christ that God isn’t some guy up in the sky meddling in the lives of humans for his own amusement, but is rather this overwhelming force of Love and Good who moves and works inside of the heart of each person, and whose power can be manifested by all people, even though very few will do the work to see it happen in their own lives.

–that we are all adopted as Sons and Daughters of God, all of us, equally brothers and sisters to Christ himself. It is odd how this clear and powerful teaching of Paul is shoved to the side while sanctimonious moral legalists condemn gays and lesbians for a biological reality they themselves cannot even possibly imagine living.

No, no, the Christianity we see today is just a Paganism that has adopted the names and trappings of Christianity, and has made idols out of customs and two-dimensional characters. It is a sad cult of nationalism which bears no resemblance to that blessed and historic religion whose highest ideal was the brotherhood of all men, the service of each other in love and humility, the sacrifice of the self for others, peace to everyone, and a spiritual mode of living rather than a materialistic one. For the evangelical American churches, their only God is their belly, and their hatred of their fellow human–immigrant, refugee, and Muslim–is a shame to the faith of the martyrs.

And yet I cannot claim to be a Christian. I am not one. I want to become one. On my best days, I am trying to become one. But most days I am sliding right back toward my nature and away from that goal. My faith is that this attempt of becoming will not be in vain, and that even though I will likely never reach the goal, my path toward it will yield for me a better life than any other path would have. It is a faith that cannot be proven or disproven until after the fact, in hindsight. Only looking back will I be able to determine if it was a faith well-placed or not. And that is the risk of taking what Kierkegaard described as the “leap of faith.” It is gravely risky. It might not pay off. But I’m trusting that it will, and I’m trying to organize my life on the assumption that it will.

I want to close by sharing a prayer that I think could only have been prayed by somebody with such a view of faith as this one–the prayer is entitled “For Order a Life Wisely,” by St Thomas Aquinas.

O merciful God, grant that I may
desire ardently,
search prudently,
recognize truly,
and bring to perfect completion
whatever is pleasing to You
for the praise and glory of Your name.

Put my life in good order, O my God.

Grant that I may know what You require me to do.

Bestow upon me the power to accomplish Your will,
as is necessary and fitting for the salvation of my soul.

Grant to me, O Lord my God,
that I may not falter in times of prosperity or adversity,
so that I may not be exalted in the former, nor dejected in the latter.

May I not rejoice in anything unless it leads me to You;
may I not be saddened by anything unless it turns me from You.

May I desire to please no one, nor fear to displease anyone, but You.

May all transitory things, O Lord, be worthless to me
and may all things eternal be ever cherished by me.

May any joy without You be burdensome for me
and may I not desire anything else besides You.

May all work, O Lord, delight me when done for Your sake
and may all repose not centered in You be ever wearisome for me.

Grant unto me, my God,
that I may direct my heart to You
and that in my failures I may ever feel remorse for my sins
and never lose the resolve to change.

O Lord my God, make me
submissive without protest,
poor without discouragement,
chaste without regret,
patient without complaint,
humble without posturing,
cheerful without frivolity,
mature without gloom,
and quick-witted without flippancy.

O Lord my God, let me fear You without losing hope,
be truthful without guile,
do good works without presumption,
rebuke my neighbor without haughtiness,
and–without hypocrisy–
strengthen him by word and example.

Give to me, O Lord God, a watchful heart, which no capricious thought can lure away from You.
Give to me a noble heart, which no unworthy desire can debase.
Give to me a resolute heart, which no evil intention can divert.
Give to me a stalwart heart, which no tribulation can overcome.
Give to me a temperate heart, which no violent passion can enslave.

Give to me O Lord my God,
understanding of You,
diligence in seeking You,
wisdom in finding You,
discourse ever pleasing to You,
perseverance in waiting for You,
and confidence in finally embracing You.

Grant that with Your hardships I may be burdened in reparation here,
that Your benefits I may use in gratitude upon the way,
that in Your joys I may delight by glorifying You in the Kingdom of Heaven.

You Who live and reign, God, world without end.

Amen.

And the Word Became Flesh

“In the beginning there was the WORD, and the WORD was with GOD, and the WORD was GOD, and then the WORD became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

Words are pure information. They are abstract representations of concepts which signify something meaningful to us that permit us to communicate, not only with others, but also with ourselves. Without words, consciousness as we know it would not be possible. When we develop new words to describe previously indescribable concepts, we become more conscious, and therefore more in control. By having a word for “anger,” I can understand feelings of anger when they arise, I can bracket them, I can channel them, I can calm them. Where we have words, we are empowered to be better, to become more. Where we have no language, we wallow in ignorance.

It is significant, therefore, that St John describes the Incarnation as a process of WORD becoming flesh. The Greek word he uses here is LOGOS, which comes from a root that means “to say, to speak, a telling.” The Christ was an embodied telling of the Love of GOD, that ineffable mystery for which we not only do not have language, but cannot have language. The only adequate words for GOD are those that confess openly our inadequacy, our own ignorance, our own finitude. The only proper words for GOD are actually words for ourselves which communicate the fact that when we speak of the Infinite, we actually don’t know what it is we are talking about.

This great Divine Mystery, this YHWH, this “All that Is,” the great “I AM THAT I AM,” which contains all of physics, all of mathematics, all of the information that is or ever was, out of which all things were made, this LOGOS…to think that its core information is manifestable in human formation is the greatest mystery of the Incarnation, and therefore of the Christian faith. All of the supposed miracles of the Christian faith pale in comparison to the miracle of the Incarnation itself.

And yet there is perhaps a greater mystery. The greater mystery is that this Incarnation is archetypal–it is exemplary.

Irenaeus, the 2nd Century Church Father, writes “Do we cast blame on him [God] because we were not made gods from the beginning, but were at first created merely as men, and then later as gods? Although God has adopted this course out of his pure benevolence, that no one may charge him with discrimination or stinginess, he declares, ‘I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are sons of the Most High.’ …For it was necessary at first that nature be exhibited, then after that what was mortal would be conquered and swallowed up in immortality.”

Echoing Irenaeus, Athanasius of Alexandria declares more forcefully “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”

Though any one man should die in his fleshly formation, so God should live eternally through the selflessness of his sons and daughters. So long as this information is passed on, the death of any formation is of no report. Hence, it is the sacrifice of the Lamb upon the Cross toward which any person with a Christian vocation is called. It is only in the embrace of “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” that the Christian may embrace her LORD.

The question of the season, then, is not fundamentally about a person who lived 2,000 years ago, but about where that LOGOS lives today? Does it live in me? Am I the WORD made flesh? Shall I bring healing to all people, or do I reside in my lower nature sowing divisions and discords? For the WORD is dead which does not manifest in action, to paraphrase the observations of St James.

Oh how inadequate I am in the face of that Archetype. Oh how far I must yet travel. But how thankful am I that I at least know who to try to imitate. At least my example is worthy of being exemplary!

“Greater love hath no man than he who would lay down his life for his friends.”

Merry Christmas to all–peace and good will toward all people, toward all creation!

 

Music and Life

From my journal this morning:

Turning on classical music transports me to another realm–a land of beauty and possibility. Music is timeless because it is an aesthetic derived from mathematics itself. It is a harmony deeply embedded in the nature of Nature. The operations of chemistry and biology, even physics are less pure than music. Only mathematics is perhaps more pure, but music is superior. It can be appreciated not only by all humans, but by plants and animals too. It is not necessary to understand music in order for it to inspire awe and wonder.

For this reason, it is the most Divine of all sensory experiences. It does not fail us by familiarity, as tastes or sights. It remains ever youthful, ever fresh. It yields an endless spring of joy and a limitless fountain of peace. The wonders of modern technology reached their apex in the ability to deliver at near zero cost what was previously only accessible to Royals and the exceedingly wealthy.

Should I be forced to choose between sight and hearing, I should at once surrender my sight if but for the chance to hear Biebl’s Ave Maria in the hour of my death. I should wish for my last moments of consciousness to be flooded of this immeasurable beauty.

In music nothing of perfection lacks, and so our whole lives should be modeled after it. Truly great music knows when to be loud, and when to be soft. It keeps silence when needed. It is forceful and shy, dramatic and humorous, serious and playful. Music celebrates and mourns. It dances, laughs, as well as weeps. It magnifies and expresses every emotion, every state of mind. It animates every dream and consoles every disappointment.

And what is music if not motion?

All that music does is motion. Symphonies and concertos are divided into “movements.” What if we so described the periods of our lives? What if we saw our life so beautifully changing as to not get caught lingering on the last note or too eagerly anticipating a future one? The beauty and fullness of the resolution requires the preceding dissonance.

What would we think of the pianist who merely rushed to the conclusion of the phrase because the dissonance caused discomfort? What would we think of the conductor who cut the symphony short because the dissonance was just too much to bear?

Imagine the scene!

The whole orchestra in the conflict of their notes and the conductor shouts “I can’t take it!” and runs off the stage. Or worse, sets fire to the whole stage because he says the players have caused him such pain in playing their notes!

And so it is with life. The story of existence has moments of dissonance–which we call problems or pain–followed by resolution. We lose tho whole plot of the thing when we think the moments of dissonance are the totality of the symphony. The notes are already written, in some sense. The Godhead, or the Universe, or whatever you want to call it, is imagining all the possible combinations of notes in an infinite symphony unfolding all around us. We are living out one such possible combination, a combination which includes every free choice and decision we make–it’s all included in these notes. The trill, the bravado, the breathing, the accent–all up to us.

Almost all of the things that make a musical performance beautiful are up to the performer. The score is just the basis on which everything plays out. But how it is played out is up to the performer. Why complain about the score, then? Why wish it were written differently? Does it get us another score?

Should I be like the petulant critic who once asked to Mozart if he thought there were just a few too many notes?

The whole symphony is written out, and we are playing it as we choose. But we should see that some people are supposed to be repeating the inventions on the theme from the first part of the movement while others are to foreshadow the new themes of the next movement, and not see each other as enemies. The violinist shouldn’t get angry at the oboe for playing a conflicting note if that’s what’s written to be played. Maybe it’s not, maybe in rehearsal we have to talk about it.

But we should never forget we’re all playing the same symphony.

Don’t try to be the composer. You aren’t up for that job. I’m not up for that job. How can I think to rewrite the measure I’m playing now when I don’t know what measure comes next? So I must play what’s there, measure by measure, as beautifully as I can muster.

So there are just two roles for us mere mortals: conductor and player. We must practice both roles with diligence, for at times life calls us to be one and not the other.

When you find yourself as conductor, lead your orchestra through the moments of dissonance with calm confidence–show them you know it will resolve. And when you are playing, don’t focus so hard on the black ink on the page that you fail to hear the beauty you are creating with every breath.

The Escape of Believable Unreality

History has seen man move toward ever-more believable unrealities because man does not want to contemplate the truth of existence. From anthropomorphic gods to Theater to Disneyland to Oculus Rift, we see that imagination leads technology in our attempt to escape the brutal truth that existence itself has no explanation, that life is suffering punctuated by death, that all nature (including and especially human nature) is violence upon violence, and that there are no answers to any of this in 10,000 years of philosophy, theology, and science that can adequately and satisfactorily explain it all.

So rather than struggle with and (eventually) transcend these questions, we escape. Either we escape by trying to evolve out of the struggle, toward the techno-cyber-utopia of the Vulcans, or backward to our primate origins through sex, alcohol, base amusement (or its rejection, through moralistic traditional religion). The same sort of primate impulse of categorical, unexamined thinking that leads to the “drink & fuck” mentality is at the root of traditional religious moral absolutism. The people who embrace the sex/alcohol free-for-all as a rejection of religious moralism and think they are “progressive” have merely made a lateral move, just as the original religious moralists of history only made a lateral move (with the exception that their approach at least probably promoted public health and economic productivity a bit more).

Only a few people, in a couple of small sects of three or four major religious traditions in all of history have ever embraced with full force this painful state of man and overcome themselves to a degree sufficient to actually be of service to their fellow man.

On History and its Symbols

History is a long and tortured story of hatred, violence, racism, starvation, and misery. There are no exceptions. There are few good guys. Gandhi molested young girls. Thomas Jefferson slept with [probably raped] his slaves. Martin Luther was an anti-semite. There might have been three celibate popes in 2,000 years of church history. Name a hero, and I’ll show you a flawed person. Show me a “great nation,” and I’ll show you a group of hateful bigots.

“A celebrated people lose dignity upon closer inspection.” -Napoleon

That’s because we are all hateful, bigoted people inside. We have inherited our bigotry from thousands and thousands of years. If there is anything that truly approximates “original sin,” it is this: the lack of compassion we have for other people.

Open-minded progressive types are bigoted against people of conservative religious views. They often seethe in their anger and frustration with the ignorant. The Russians hate the gays. The Polish hate the Russians. The Muslims hate the Americans–and the Americans hate them back. The Greeks hate the Germans, the Germans hate themselves, and everybody hates the French.

The world is full of hate. Every human symbol has been used as a symbol of hatred for somebody, somewhere, sometime. Every one of them. From the Cross to every national flag. Because people do heinous things in the name of symbols. They want salvation at other people’s expense. They think that if there is a heaven, there must be a hell, and it’s their job to send somebody to it–just to keep the universe balanced. Whether that hell is here on earth or somewhere after death is an irrelevant detail. Some want their enemies to live in both. Some express their hell-lust with insidious language of “love.”

In the Genesis narrative, the story that is told after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden is of Cain killing his brother out of envy–a grand metaphor for understanding our native impulse to react with violence against our fellow human–against our brothers and sisters for disgustingly trivial reasons.

I think envy is deeply misunderstood. It is simplistically conceived of wanting something somebody else has, but I think envy is more complex. I think envy also includes a desire to see somebody else involuntarily deprived of something they have–it may not even be a thing desired by the envious.

Historically lots of gods were involved in such envy. Some people had a god, other people wanted to take that god away. “No, no, ours is better.” Such attitudes are derived from a form of envy. People envy others’ freedom. They say “you can’t be free to be left alone to do something I won’t do because it makes me look stupid or wrong or I actually want to do it and am angry that I have imposed on myself arbitrary restrictions. So now you have to convert to my way of thinking–OR ELSE!”

Now we like to mix it up a bit. You don’t want to adopt my political views? To hell with you! [Literally]. We don’t like which piece of cloth you fly over your government buildings–you must die! You don’t eat vegan–eternal suffering to you! Your people have old symbols and remnants of something we despise–we destroy them! We have a dark spot in our history that you keep reminding us of–sanctions against you!

The thing is that the way I’ve written the foregoing paragraph, I could be writing about ISIS destroying the Palmyra shrines, the Confederate Flag controversy, the Armenian Genocide, or a whole host of other recent news headlines. Today, if you go to Washington D.C.’s Dulles International Airport, you can see the Enola Gay on display–a symbol of the worst single instance mass murder in all of human history.

If all of our symbols are so full of hatred and violent past, what do we do–destroy them all?

This has been the view of every radical project of Modernity–from the French Revolution to Fascism to Communism to ISIS. Destroy every reminder of the past. Replace everything with new language and new symbols. [It is ironic to see American Christians today bemoaning ISIS’s destruction of the Palmyra shrines, which were built to none other than the Old Testament idol Ba’al.]

This doesn’t seem to be a positive way forward. The cultural heritage of the past–regardless of what it represents–should be preserved in some way as a reminder of where we have come from, and why we don’t want to go back. There was no golden age in the past where people were virtuous and life was idyllic. None.

The Coliseum represents slavery too, and a brutality anathema to modern sensibilities, yet [I hope] nobody is calling for it to be torn down as an offensive symbol.

Here we arrive at our problem. Should we display the Enola Gay, but not the Confederate Flag? Should we tear down the Palmyra shrines and the Coliseum?

There appear to be no clear or easy answers.

If it were up to me, the Confederate Flag would come down, and the Enola Gay would be displayed with photos and stories of the evil perpetrated by the American government against thousands upon thousands of Japanese civilians. The Coliseum and the shrines, and the Buddhas in Afghanistan would all be preserved because we have so few old things left in this world, evidence and reminder that we humans have been doing things for a little while–a very short while admittedly–that we have been coping with this thing called existence in different ways, and we still haven’t figured it out.

Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe I’ve arbitrarily drawn the line in the wrong place. That’s the thing–it’s not simple to draw the line. There’s no right place to draw it. So wherever we draw it, we have to do so with humility and respect–especially respect for people we vehemently disagree with. Respect for precisely those people who in our genuinely honest moments we would say “the world would be better off without them.” Because we have to inhabit this planet with each other, and we aren’t doing a terribly good job of it.

But what we shouldn’t do is look at any of these past symbols of violence and bigotry and say “look how far we’ve come.”

We haven’t really. We are still so hateful to each other. So bigoted. So cruel.

I literally weep almost every day, scrolling through my Facebook feed because of this cruelty. From ISIS drowning people in cages to Baptist preachers lustfully envisioning the lake of fire for gay people to Donald Trump spewing filth about Latin American immigrants to the way people interact with one another in the comments to all of these things. I weep at the fact that I myself spent so much of my life with these same cruel intentions and feelings toward so many of my fellow humans. I weep at the fact that all too often I react with unthinking cruelty to perceived offenses.

There is a difference of scale between these things, but essentially they are the same, with the same roots, and can lead only to the same outcome–poisoning ourselves and each other.

“A man is not called wise because he talks and talks again; but if he is peaceful, loving and fearless then he is in truth called wise.” –Gautama Buddha

“A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.” –Lao Tzu

“O Almighty! May there be Peace! Peace! Everywhere!” –Ishawashya Upanishad

“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.” –Rumi

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” –Jesus of Nazareth

My final thought is this: whatever we do with our symbols of hate from the past, let us strive to cease creating new ones in the present.

Time, the Rolling Stream

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

-Isaac Watts

A year is not a year.

-Venkatesh Rao

No question vexes me more each day of my life than the question of time and our mortal relationship to it. I last wrote about this issue three years ago to the day, which was my 29th birthday. That day could be said to be the most critical turning point in my life, the day that I decided–to borrow Emerson’s words–not to postpone my life, but live it already. I decided not to wait until circumstances were ideal to begin what I have long thought of as my life’s real mission. I decided not to wait until I had enough money, the right people, the right support. I decided not to straddle the fence of my calling anymore, but do what I couldn’t imagine myself not doing.

As Andrew Marvell wrote to coy mistress, I heard “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” and was determined to outrun it, even if for a short while. If I had known then the events that would unfold as a consequence of that truly fateful decision, I would have flinched–I would have hesitated. One of the blessings of human finitude is that we cannot peer into the future–we can barely peer into the past. We have only about three seconds at a time that we can live in the present and everything else is warped recollection or speculative fantasy. Thus, I did not have the opportunity to flinch. 

Primitive man, fleeing into the forest from a larger predator likewise could not foresee the snake or the spider in front of him due to the feeling of the warm breath of the lion behind. Likewise I ran away from the specter of death’s pursuit and into a forest riddled with snakes and spiders. The lion intends to eat us all–the snake bite merely needs urgent attention when it occurs. When we fully embrace the reality that time, like that ever rolling stream will bear us away too, we must resolve to act, to do something in the world, to make something of ourselves. 

Three years ago I was angry with myself for all of the time I had lost, all of the time I had wasted chasing things I didn’t care about in order to be thought highly of by people I didn’t respect and prove myself to people whose standards were not my own. Even as I had had the courage to strike out on my own and do my own thing from the time I finished university, I was merely taking a personalized path to someone else’s finish line. This may be the singularly most pernicious unacknowledged disease in entrepreneurial culture today. At the end, too many entrepreneurs are vying to win the same phallic measurement competition as the rest of the world, and are sacrificing their calling–and often their principles–in the process.

I was angry with myself for another reason, too–for all of the years I had lost not pursuing the kind of deep personal relationships and connections that can only be forged in and through the process of building real community. A life full of only fractured relationships, with no sources of healing, no mutual commitment to reconciliation is nothing more than a torture, and yet, we accept it as normal. So normal in fact that we fear the alternative–we look upon relationships characterized by honesty and acceptance with some degree of suspicion–even “too good to be true.”

I realized that most existential suffering in life is derived from these two phenomena–doing work that is out of alignment with our calling and broken relationships with other people. From within this personal hell and its attendant pain I determined to set out to do something about it, both for myself and for others. Such deep and fundamental pain can only be resolved by addressing the human spirit. It cannot be purchased or bartered for. It cannot be taught or even described. It can only be experienced–and if it is to become a new reality–practiced over and over each day. It must also be accompanied by an acceptance of a mystery, namely the mystery of the deep compatibility, even fraternity, between Self-Reliance and Community.

Only when we live truly to ourselves, embracing and loving ourselves and our uniqueness, accepting ourselves in our shortcomings and yet never losing the resolve to grow and change; only when we are clear about our individual callings and the sacrifices we have to make to pursue them–only then can we accept others for theirs. Only then can we relate to each other genuinely, without pretension or expectation or judgment. But the mystery flows in both directions, for our individual callings require the support of others to be realized fully. We need the ongoing support and influence of other people to become what we have the potential to become.

Here I do not mean superficial or two-dimensional “moral support” when we are depressed or encounter some obstacle, but a deeper, more committed form of support. We need the friction that authentic relationships engender in order to be dedicated to truth. We need to be constantly comparing our maps of reality if our understandings of the world around us are to be accurate enough to pursue and achieve our goals. We must be challenged every day by other people to maintain rigor in our lives–both in our beliefs about the world and in our interactions with it. To be open to challenge is to be open to growth–to be vigorously challenged is to grow vigorously.

We do not have these conversations very much in every day life. Questions of the “spirit” are almost taboo or off-limits, conjuring up ideas of religion or new age woo woo silliness. But the spirit need not be connoted with metaphysical claims. The spirit can be discussed without the need for heaven or God or gods or doctrine or anything else of the sort. The spirit, the mind, the psyche, whatever term one prefers to use, is the non-physical part of our existence. That part of our identity that we might not be able to easily define or explain, but we seem to know it’s there. The thing that makes me uniquely me and you uniquely you–the only truly private part of life to which only we ourselves have direct access.

You may ascribe it further, higher metaphysical qualities or merely see it as the collection of our thoughts, perceptions, and desires–it matters not your particular definition. We do not have to have the same one. Indeed, we certainly and almost by necessity cannot have the same one. We cannot even understand each other’s definitions of it fully or accurately. It is central to our existence and experience of life. And yet, we have no place where we can discuss such questions openly or honestly.

All of our institutions demand of us some sort of orthodoxy. We must believe certain things or deny certain things. We cannot wonder too openly about certain questions in intellectual circles without being deemed anti-rational. We cannot question too openly certain doctrines in religious circles without being deemed heretics. Our institutions purport to love truth, but they are less in love with its pursuit.

This is what rankles me about the movements to have “church for atheists.” It really is church. Certain ideas are ok and others are not. Just like religion.

But I also think I’m not alone in seeing that exclusive attention to the spirit and spiritual growth neglects the fact that we are not spirit and body as separate entities, but our minds exist in the context of our physical bodies in a physical reality that puts certain demands on us in order to survive. We have to eat, wear clothes, have shelter, and so on–the rubber eventually does have to meet the road.

It is easy to pursue a life of the mind in abject poverty. It is easy to pursue a life of wealth and pleasure in abject poverty of mind. But the full experience of life is only achieved with a complex and nuanced understanding of the deep interplay between the physical and the spiritual. 

Everybody understands this at some level, whether they acknowledge it or not. Everybody feels impoverished by the inadequacies of one or two dimensional living–the ignored calling, the broken relationships, the lack of contemplation, the dearth of action.

Even in the most ideal of circumstances it is difficult to pursue all of these things. It is nearly impossible to do alone. Ultimately this is why I founded Exosphere–to have a place to pursue these things with other people. I wake up every morning dedicated to the work to make it become a force for social change the world over. The world has had too many small ideas in recent years. It is time for a big one.

That brings me to my other thought on Time. While it is certainly the case that death comes to all, and Time is its agent, the most important development in thought I have had in the last three years, is that we have a lot of control over how Time comes to collect its due. I am forever indebted to Venkatesh Rao for his book Tempo, and for his insights on time in general and in particular that “a year is not a year.”

All of my anguish over lost years, my own Proustian search for lost time has fallen away by understanding the power of narrative time. Indeed, the last year of my life has felt longer (in a good way) than the other 10+ years of my adult life combined. I have experienced more, achieved more, and seen more facets of my work grow organically and unaided by me in 12 months than in the previous 120, far more than I thought possible. We can indeed make up for lost time. We can reclaim those “wasted” years, but we have to think about time differently. 

We have to understand our experience of time and reality with new intentionality to maximize whatever literal units of time we have left to live. Since few of us know that number, we can construct for ourselves new narratives that will allow us to experience more, achieve more, and most importantly, enjoy more life than we may even have left. 

We can cheat death, even if we cannot escape it. 

We cannot reverse the flow of the ever-rolling stream, but we can row against its current. 

For all of you who are rowing with me at Exosphere, thank you for your support, for helping me grow, and strengthening me to be more than I could ever have been on my own. We have countless not-years ahead of us to keep disturbing the universe, and I know I couldn’t possibly be in better company.

A Sad Song

The heart understands not its void
Incessant seeking
Expecting deliverance
Dangerous assumption.

Soaring hope near-touches the moon
Misses by a thread
And the longed-for embrace
Is grasping for shadows.

Enigmatic, impenetrable
The Soul resists capture
Though enemies besiege
Though lovers assail.

The rib may be shared,
But an eternal flame
Burns not from two wicks–
A Soul in captivity perishes

Like a Lion once caged
Roars in despair,
Not deadly but dead,
Living, but no longer alive.

Infinite consciousness
Bound in finite shackles:
Fear, envy, the self-awareness
Of Adam; shame in nakedness.

Sing me a melody, a song
Of a Soul enthroned in flesh
Abiding deeply in gentle repose
Finding nothing, already found.

Sing me with harmony, a song
Of that Soul’s light
Emanating in every direction
Finding everything, renewed.

Bolted gate and shuttered door
Open not easily
With grievous knocking,
The pathetic love-song

 

Of a half-souled beggar
Though adorned with silver
Thinks himself poor, in need.
He wails in the streets.

Bolt and shutter fall away
When hawkish observance abates
As the fairies of the wood dance
When watchers avert their gaze.

The Soul’s programmed disease
Is psychosomatic–
A phantom emptiness
Though nothing was amputated.

The tiniest threads ensnare
Until She arrives for dinner–
Venomous desires,
Deadliest appetizers.

Stones lie restless in a river bed
Dry.
Mountain boulders look down
Dry.

Particle Kings reigning over
Dry stones and fossil hearts:
Slumbering Souls,
Suicide victims.

Pursuing and Relinquishing

The pursuit of one’s calling in life requires a constant process of letting go. Many of life’s possibilities are incompatible with my calling, and others are incompatible with yours. The ongoing effort of discernment is the way in which we discover these incompatibilities, and the work of depression is the labor required to let go of them. 

But each time we let go of such an incompatibility, even though there is first pain, it is followed by intense relief, for it is a realization that we no longer have to worry about it. It no longer needs to cloud our judgment or figure into our already difficult calculations about how to allocate our time and mental energy.

To achieve our full potential in life, to do what only we can do, we must let go of so many things. We must mourn their loss over and over, without lingering in our mourning. Then we must rejoice in the clarity and freshness that follows the dark cloud of the work of depression. For who I am and who I am to become is made perfect by shedding anything that is who I am not, and which makes me into what I am not meant to become.

You are the embodiment of the qualities required to produce a Mozart or an Einstein, but are held down by the attempt to retain or gain qualities that are not. Mozart was not Mozart because he was special. Mozart was Mozart because he was nothing else than Mozart. He did not endeavor to be Caesar or Da Vinci, but removed all of the half-formed qualities of Caesar and Da Vinci which prevented him from being fully and only Mozart!

What we could be, in the minds of others, is a fixed idea based on an only partial and incomplete perception of our talent, a dim peek into the cavernous depths of our soul which reveals little true and honest insight to the observer.

Yet how much stock do we put in the opinions of the observer? How much do we judge ourselves against such alien measures? How much do we injure ourselves with the broken shards handed to us by other imperfect, struggling beings who can barely manage themselves? If we do not let go of these expectations, if we do not drop these jagged shards, we bleed ourselves to death trying to please one and all.

Let go of all that is outside of you. Far from the vanity of solipsism, the search inside of your own soul is the antidote to vanity, for it is the ultimate repudiation of any concern for how you appear to others or what they might think of you. Only when we succeed in such a repudiation can we truly also be present to others as a healing force for their lives and their pain.

It is not, however, a permanent state of affairs, for our nature is inconstant and indiscreet. The cheap reward of external approval is always in the offing, and it lures us away from the deep reward of what springs eternally from within.

If we hide within ourselves, we will be robbed of everything human. If we seek outside ourselves, we lose our identity, that ungraspable quality that makes us unique in all the ages of man.

Let go of the need to please others, and you shall be gracefully pleasing at all times and in all places. Let go of the need to imitate others, and you shall imitate the greatest souls who have ever lived. Let go of the need for perfection and you shall help to perfect the world.

Let go of every fear which immobilizes you, for when you fear you are guaranteed to suffer at least once. With fear you suffer all the pain of the worst possible outcome even before it happens. With courage you suffer at most once, and only when the worst comes to pass.

The stern courage to be you, to pursue your calling to the exclusion of other callings is the wellspring of any lasting joy, any persistent peace you can hope to find in this mortal life. Find that courage and make it your chief counselor, your ultimate confessor, so that you might not falter under the weight of doubt, or be conquered by a new genesis of fear.

The soul of the world is calling, and the answer to that call is inside of you. Ready yourself within, and proclaim that answer without–every remaining day of your life.

The True Friend

The time I spend explaining
Struggling to justify myself
To win approval from friends
Who want to display me on their shelf,

What waste, what squander
Of precious health and time
On shallow acquaintances who
Would deny me at mere rumor of crime.

‘Tis sweet the rare encounter
Of soul with soul when
“All is well, all will be well”
Assures without, assures within.

Keep Slogging–Then More

You want to do a start-up?

You want to write a novel?

You want to be a social revolutionary?

You want to do anything meaningful with your life?

Imagine your goal–what does it look like? Who is with you?

Now, imagine your path to that goal as if it were a movie. Tell yourself the story, scene by scene. Envision yourself in the middle of the action–dealing with the problems, rushing in to meet the needs of the crisis, and then reaping the rewards of your success.

I’ve had these sorts of daydreams ever since I was a child. I would go through in my head the way I wanted my life to go. Unlike many daydreamers, I imagine, I always built in crises and difficulties into my daydreams. I never liked when I got to the end of the story, in fact. Reaching my goal was the worst part of my daydream. I always imagined the thrill of the process. I did, however like moving from step to step. I like the process, but only when it was progressing.

slogging

Let’s go back to your daydream, though. Play it through in your mind again. But this time imagine it playing, but with somebody hitting the Pause button on and off and on and off over and over and over. Think of the frustration of living out your daydream that way.

Well, that’s reality. If you want to do anything of merit in life, it’ll be just like that. It’s a lot of slogging. Inevitably you will have a great day–triumphing over some near-disaster. Rarely will you even have time to enjoy it for a minute. Then some other facet of reality sets in, or a new problem arises.

Scott Peck writes in The Road Less Traveled that “life is a series of problems.” Nothing truer has ever been written. It is a hard truth to confront–and an even harder one to accept.

In order to accept it and continue pursuing your calling in spite of it, you must learn to love what you are working toward more than what you are working on. Invariably, what you are working toward will require you to work on many things that you find tedious, boring, or downright miserable. There’s no outsourcing this misery. You can hire employees to do the work you don’t like, but then there will be new things you don’t like.

Every solution creates new problems. Progress more describes a process than a result. Progress is simply the willingness to solve an ever-more difficult set of problems in succession. It is harder to solve the devastation of the world’s fish stocks than it was to solve the problem of catching fish more efficiently. And yet, those solutions made the world a better place in spite of creating a new set of problems to solve.

Acceptance of this succession of problems should not lead to resignation, even though it will always be tempting. It’s easy to say “well if we do this, then we’ll have to deal with that, and that, and that.” Undoubtedly, but that can’t be a reason not to act.

You must learn to solve today’s problems today–and tomorrow’s problems tomorrow.

As the ancient wisdom reminds us, “sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Two more thoughts in this same realm of lessons learned:

Worry more about what will debilitate you than what will kill you. If you are dead, you won’t care. Much worse to be alive and helpless.

and

Get some Italians in your life–especially if they are from the South. They’ll make you smile and laugh even when you don’t want to. And that might be just the levity you need to pick yourself up and go back to the slog.

 

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