Life’s a Stage

Richard Rohr asks me to ask: How would I acccurately describe the stages I’ve gone through?

He posits two formulas or flow-charts to consider. The classic hero’s journey — which is timely, since I just finished “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” last night — of simple consciousness, to complex conciousness, to enlightened consciousness.

“We could say it this way, too: as we grow older, we live, love, sin, fail, forgive, read, wait, struggle, and search, presuming that we have to get it right all by ourselves. Finally we discover both the Source and the guidance, and when we place our trust in that larger reality, life becomes simple again.”

I’m not sure it’s so simple, but perhaps it is simpler. Or, more likely, I am not “there” yet, and never will be, but am ever in the process of getting there. Becoming enlightened — becoming sober — is like the stock market, except that it is nothing like gambling and everything like the reality of walking, chopping wood and carrying water.

In my younger days, life was simpler. I can only thank God that I can say this. My family was loving. My frustrations and fears were prosaic, quotidian. While not in a chaotic environment, I still sought equilibrium and safely explored — and largely developed an inchoate unified field theory. I longed for magic and imagination made real. I was a child of The Hobbit and A Wrinkle in Time, before Harry Potter was born, and I enjoyed as much of the fantasy and science fiction as I could find, before these genres had exploded in young adult literature and their adult companions had not yet blurred the lines of adolescence and maturity.

So I could readily convince myself that I could talk to animals and that they could understand me. I sometimes still wonder how much of that is true, knowing even then that I was using language for my own sake, as a way of channeling whatever emotion or intention for myself that would communicate to a bird or a squirrel. (Squirrels, though: you just can’t talk to ‘em. They have zero attention span.)

I had, at one time, a small army of imaginary friends whose names I have largely forgotten, but among them was a wizard (stolen straight from the pages of Tolkien), a horse? unicorn? I forget which. I vaguely remember and elf and a dwarf. I needed a “one” of everything, nearly — I was half of a Noah — and I think I may have even tamed an orc in my mind.

Even in elementary school and certainly in junior high, when I began to think more overtly about God and Jesus and my spiritual life, it was easy (as I would later read that C.S. Lewis had done) to translate my thoughts about magic to larger analogies about the Spirit. I remember two insights, one of which I came up with nearly on my own, and the other which I’m sure I borrowed from some bowdlerized John Donne text or another:

Nothing is good or bad except thinking makes it so. Okay, in truth, that isn’t how I thought it, which is how I know that I came up with this one on my own, and only later applied the insights of Hamlet to my own realization. For some reason, my insight had to do with desire and obtaining, and store windows. And sofas. Maybe our family was buying a sofa at the time, and if so, we would have gone shopping first and foremost at Sears. I can remember nearly nothing in our house that, if it wasn’t inherited from family, didn’t come from Sears — the piano being perhaps the sole exception. And, maybe, an Ethan Allen something, only because I remember being in that showroom, but I think I was older by that time.

But I remember having the insight that whether one saw a sofa on display and imagined oneself already owning it, or if one purchased it, brought it home, and it was in the living room, it was in either case the image of the sofa in the mind that delivered the satisfaction, regardless of where it was. I’m not sure I managed to extend this “power of the imagination” to the distinction between actually sitting on the sofa and merely thinking about sofa that one could sit on — i.e, it doesn’t quite explain the power of consciousness and living in the moment — but I still think it was a profound enough insight for a pre-teen to have that it has stuck with me. Not as being profound, but as being among the first applications of imagination and mental images to emotional life. Is one necessarily happier once one has purchased the sofa? Why? Is it not merely that one has supplanted one mental image (“the sofa on display that I could imagine in my home”) with another (“the sofa in the living room of my home”)?

Two admissions I only realized much later: My concerns and consciousness were still very much rooted in materialism. And while I had a growing awareness of an emotional life — to the extent of identifying emotional reactions to physical phenomena, as in the sofa — and spiritual life, it nearly always grew out of wanting a thing, place or person. It was noun-based living, which is a good introduction to reality and even epistimology, but will only get you so far, in that “getting so far” isn’t a noun but a verbal phrase.

And second (and the one that I must have read or heard somewhere and internalized enough to not even remember where I heard it, but I’m pretty sure it was in a church context): I have something to learn from each person I meet. It may be that I remember thinking this because I remember Jim Tenney and Paul Prather thinking I was a pious prig to say it. And they were largely right. I was nearing my teenage years, I was already at the cusp of adolescence, I think, and I saw a huge tsunami of a train-wrecked metaphor headed my way in the form of sexuality, popularity, self-determination, social pressure, and a fear that, in an effort to protect me, my parents and church had sold me a bill of goods, and God actually was a vengeful God. I began to suspect, based largely on the inner life I was beginning to discern in those around me at my age and the adults I came into contact with, that I could only earn God’s conditional love by loving others unconditionally. I did not, at that time, see that this meant loving myself conditionally — a perversion of “to love as God loves” in my adolescent mind. But somehwere between 4th and 6th grade, I ate of the Tree of Knowledge, and thereby produced my own Fall. Even now, knowing better, it is still a daily challenge to be “in this world, but not of it.”

And so I entered that phase of life where I would “live, love sin, fail, forgive, read, wait, struggle, and search, presuming that we have to get it right all by ourselves”: Dear God, I would pray, help me get it right. Help me to be better in your eyes (I don’t think I was ever so arrogant as to think I could be the first perfect person, the Second Coming of Christ) by being perfect in the world’s eyes. I wanted both: acceptance and admiration of the world, and God’s approval for having sought it. Therein lies madness. Or, to be less melodramatic about it, therein lies the seeds of alcoholism. And probably nearly every other human failing.

Enlightenment. Can I say my relation with the world and with God coheres better now than when I was 43? Than when I was 13? I think so. I’m not drinking to avoid the incongruities, at any rate. I’m learning to accept myself, rather than learning to hate myself — which was true at 43 as it was at 13.

For me for whom inaction, reflection, and inertia are default modes, it is a continuing struggle to move from life as a collection of nouns — of people, places, and things — to a collection of verbs — of living and loving. To learn that being a human being can and should also be a human doing. I need to “be still” and know that God is God, but I have to actively seek out that stillness, that time, that relationship. I can’t just drift and expect it will happen in God’s good time.

I have to act. I have to move. I have to do in order to feel myself be. The question is never “whom am I to be?” for the answer to that must always be “myself.” And finding out who “myself” is requires active participation in my life, even if that is taking time, like now, to mentally and emotionally reflect upon it. (Brooding is neither meditating nor writing; it is merely brooding.) The question is “what am I to do?” “To do the will of God”; “to do the work you have given us to do”; “the courage to change the things I can”; “to do the next right thing.”

Act, and the motivation will follow. Move a muscle, change a thought. If not immediately, then over time. If I am always going to seek equilibrium as my default, I need to reset my default — take my engine out on the highway and open it up regularly to get all cylinders pumping. If my problem becomes “I am taking on too many important commitments and stretching myself too thin” — as, in past years, I did, along with ridiculous obsessions I didn’t need to satisfy, but did — I can actively seek to find rest and restoration if I am at least in a mode to be active. I take finding alternatives off the table, however, if I never turn my switch to “on.”

Enlightenment is a process, therefore it is a journey, therefore it can only occur through verbs. I have largely eradicated the negative verbs from my life, that led me deeper into darker verbs and even a growing desire to end all of my verbs prematurely. I have, I think, reset my nouns by replacing my verbs. — to fear, to lie, to obsess, to please, to personalize, to resent, to self-destruct — with some easier but more helpful verbs: to walk the dog, to go to meetings, to help, to pray, to forgive.

To be more like God is the opposite of being static, inert, and dead. God is alive, creative, fecund — and invites me into living, creating, and fecunding. (Blush!) “I AM,” says God. Existence exists. But as R. Buckminster Fuller said: “God is a verb.” I need to conjugate myself in my present tense that I might be more like God in my future.