I seem to have a foot in two camps, these days. Or maybe I should say, I have one foot on the pontoon and the other on the vessel that is slowly moving away from me, so that I am afraid I might just end up plopping embarrassingly into the water between my feet.
On the one hand, I am steeped in a spiritual tradition that teaches that to lose one’s life is to save it. The grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, so that it will ultimately bear lasting fruit. The one that would save her life lays it down. We are taught to die to self, to sacrifice our ego-driven motivation so that we can become who we were truly meant to be. We learn that this way of hidden humility will indeed save us.
The man Jesus is, of course, our ultimate example of this self-giving way of life. Rather than force his own agenda and take the most obvious route to establishing a new kingdom, he chose to surrender to another way. A way of pain and loss, a way of betrayal and self-sacrifice, a way that seemed dark rather than full of light. As we follow this God-man we are invited to step ever more deeply into this experience: we lay aside our ideas about the most obvious route towards ‘the good life’ and learn to embrace that which is lowly, humble, hidden and determinedly not obvious.
On the other hand, I dabble in the world of health and fitness. The many voices of the industry really sing from the same song sheet as the self-help ensembles. And there is truth in their message. According to this tradition, you get to choose the life you will lead. You connect with your desires for ‘the good life’ - whatever that means to you - and you set goals that will take you there. If you choose your attitude and consistently follow your dreams, you will arrive in the promised land of health, prosperity and success.
I honestly believe that the determination to choose your attitude is a life skill we all need. No matter what our circumstances, we can choose to be grateful, to hold onto hope, to believe the best. Truly worthy exemplars, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Corrie ten Boom to Dallas Willard and Ann Voskamp, have taught us that the daily practice of setting our attitude and intention will impact not only that particular day but the arc of our entire lives. This inner awareness and strength is something I long for my kids to develop (once I’ve got a handle on it myself, obviously). I know it will massively impact their journey.
The truth of this message is mixed in with another very subtle and not-so-true message. This is where I feel at risk of losing my balance and dropping into the water. As well as choosing my attitude, the self-help-healthy-lifestyle crew tell me that I get to choose the outcome of my life. And this is true … but perhaps not in the way they mean.
I’m thinking of the dear friend whose husband had a life-threatening bleed in his brain. Unspeakably grateful that he survived, she told me ‘Our lives have become very small, and I am learning to be okay with that.’
I’m thinking of someone else close to me who chose to stay with her husband even though he repeatedly left her for periods of time and even tried to take his own life on more than one occasion. She told me ‘I have surrendered my heart to the Lord and allowed Him to keep me moving forward.’
I’m thinking of those friends who worked for many years in a remote part of west Africa, raising their kids there. And when they left, it seemed as though their presence had wrought nothing of significance. Until they were gone and others arrived to nurture the fruit of goodness sown quietly over nearly two decades.
I’m thinking of our co-worker who is currently held hostage in the Sahara region, whose safety is far from guaranteed. And although we haven’t been able to speak to him, I’m almost certain he would say that he’d do it all again for the sake of the nomadic people he has lived amongst for nearly thirty years.
It is absolutely right to have our hearts fixed on this desire, hardwired within us, for ‘the good life.’ It is right to think that we were made to be utterly marvellous, to live lives shot through with significance and beauty. We hear echoes within us that remind us that to be human is to be made in the very image of God. However indistinct those echoes are, they are the truest thing about us.
And yet to think that I can get myself there is a deception that will land me in deep water.
Richard Rohr said that “One of the best-kept secrets, and yet hidden in plain sight, is that the way up is the way down. Or, if you prefer, the way down is the way up.” Our human-centred worldview has tricked us into believing that life can be an experience of more or less consistent ascent. If only we choose our attitude, believe in the power of positivity and work our arses off, we can create the good life that we know is part of our birthright. Look around you at all the beautiful people who are living proof that this works! If they did it then so can you! Yes, many of them had challenges to overcome. If you too encounter obstacles, this is how you surmount them: get your head in the game, think positively, know you’re worth it and then get to work!
And when this doesn’t in fact work, we feel that we are somehow to blame. We didn’t think positively enough (you are, in fact, a whiner). We didn’t believe that we were worth it (remember all those doubts). But most of all, we just didn’t push hard enough on the door of success and prosperity (you know you gave up too soon).
But what if my life is not, in fact, my own? What if a really big part of what is going on in my life is not actually seen by me?
I want very much to follow the path of self-determination. I want it to be true that I get to determine what my life looks like. I know I have enough willpower and resolve to get myself there. I’ll be honest, I want my life to be significant, I want to know that I have done something important. I very much want to know that all the investment I have made, in terms of hard work and sacrifice, has been worth it. I want others to see that I did a good job, dammit.
And yet I sense that there is another way at work. Jesus must have been the most positive guy ever to walk the planet: If anyone had hope in a better future, it was him. If anyone was confident that their birthright was significance and authority, it was him. If anyone had a secure sense of self-worth and personal identity, it was him. And if anyone was familiar with hard graft - working for many years with wood and construction, trudging along many dirt roads, sleeping on countless hard floors - then it was surely him.
So much of what would finally be called successful about Jesus’ life, though, was never seen while he was alive. Let’s be honest, when it comes to charting a path towards his goals, his closest friends thought he was a walking disaster. There were unseen things at work that were barely glimpsed at; good things - the very best - that were hidden.
Is it possible for me to embrace the fact that my life is being judged by a reckoning that is almost completely at odds with our culture’s checklist? When my life appears to be going down, can I hold onto the hope that it might in fact be heading up? Can I let go of my strong desire to take hold of the reins and to make things happen in my way, in order to hold on for something of far greater value?
There is nothing wrong with beautiful, successful people. There is absolutely nothing wrong with our desire to build a good life. When Jesus said he came to give us life in all its fulness, I hold my hand up and shout, ‘Yes please!’
When I search my heart, though, I find I cannot subscribe to the idea that I am the governor of my own life. In some crazy, topsy turvy way, my heart feels its way towards an ancient, hidden truth. It is when I give up my right to success, to significance, to prosperity that I find a deeper, truer, more eternally precious reality.
I want to choose my attitude, I just don’t know if it’s possible to straddle the water without falling in.