What Works?

We are here to grow up. That is the essence of the spiritual journey. It is the work of a True Human Being.

Growing up is squaring up to how things are. It is facing up to the conflicts, contradictions, dichotomies, discordances, polarities and opposition that go to the very heart of life

Carl Jung said, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” There is no growing up without coming to consciousness. There is no growing up without pain. We have to bear the pain of our conflicts and contradictions. We have to bear the pain of the trials and tribulations produced by our conflicts and contradictions.

We square up to how things are, and what that means for us, and what we need to do about it. We step into the conflicts and contradictions all of this implies, reconciling what can be reconciled, and living consciously within the tension of polarities that defy reconciliation, and must simply be borne. We do this in each situation as it arises all our life long.

What works in one situation may not work in any other similar, or dissimilar, situation. What works here may not work there. What works now may not work then. The shoe that fits today may pinch in a month.

We grow up by putting ourselves in accord with our life on two levels—walking two paths at the same time. We have to do what it takes to pay the bills, and we have to devote ourselves to what we pay the bills to do. We have to live the life that is uniquely ours to live within the life we are living. There is conflict and contradiction aplenty in this setting.

When we grow up, we realize how things are, and how things also are—which is how things are—and we do what needs to be done about it, on the level of our life and on the level of our other life. When we grow up, we realize what works, and what doesn’t work, on both levels—and we do what works—taking everything into account that can be taken into account on each level.

It’s dreadfully tricky business. What works to make peace in the family may not work to make peace in our soul. So we have to decide what “works” means, in each particular situation, and do it. “Negotiation and compromise, Kid. Negotiation and compromise.” “Sacrifice and acquiesce, Kid. Sacrifice and acquiesce.”

How are we going to work out what works for us, and what works for someone else, and what works for society as a whole, and what works for all of the cultures and nations worldwide? We work out what works in each situation as it arises. No eternal principles. No abiding policies. What works is as temporary as here and now. What works here and now, may never work anywhere again.

Growing up is deciding what it means for something to “work,” in each situation as it arises, and being right about it, and paying the price to do it. Part of paying the price is knowing that what works for the antelope doesn’t work for the lion. If the antelope’s life is working, the lion’s life is going to all to hell.

What works for our soul doesn’t necessarily work for our children, or our grandchildren, or our parents, or our job. We have to work out the conflicts (see the paragraph above about negotiation and sacrifice).

It seems to be a law that when something is working on one level, something is not working on another level. Consciousness has to recognize, and reconcile, the conflict—or bear consciously the agony of a conflict that cannot be reconciled. Recognizing and reconciling conflict, integrating opposites, and working things out is not our preferred thing to do. We deny, escape, and pretend our life away. Denial, diversion, distraction, and addiction work to free us from the burden of deciding what to do about our conflicts—but. They don’t work for our good, over time.

The spiritual journey is the search for what works—for our good, over time–for what is important, and how we might align ourselves with it. The spiritual quest is for how we should live what remains of our lives. We are looking for ways of realizing that which is truly good in our lives—both in terms of perceiving it, and in terms of embracing and expressing it. We are looking for the Good. We are seeking to serve the Good, the Good of all sentient beings, the Good of all there is.

But, how good is the good we call good? We can’t fool ourselves here. The prime requirement for the spiritual journey—and the life of a true human being—is that of living transparent to ourselves. We have to be mindfully aware of who we are—and what we are doing to express, or conceal that—at all times.

So, what’s Good, and how do we know? We don’t know. We live by hunches, nudges and guesses—and change our minds in view of the evidence uncovered by living in light of what we determine to be good. We can be wrong. We can say, “Cocaine is Good!” and live for cocaine. Our view of the Good can be skewed.

Life is the process of changing our minds about what is good—about what is important. We grow in our ability to discern, and do, what is important in the time and place of our living. If we live long enough, we see things differently. How many lifetimes would it take to see the Good in every situation and circumstance? Seeing is not automatic. We don’t just turn a corner and see, or see differently. We have to see our seeing if we hope to see—and live with our eyes open to the impact and outcome of our living, open to the way we see life being lived around us. We cannot assume that the way we see things is the way to see things, much less the way things are.

“How do you know what is important?” I asked a friend as we walked for a bite to eat. She stopped, leaned down, and pointed to a daffodil growing by the sidewalk. “It’s like this,” she said. “You can look at this flower, and see it or not see it.”

As it is with the daffodil, so it is with all of life. We can look at it, and see it, or not see it. We can look at what is important, and see it, or not see it. Our assumptions about life, about living, about what is important, can keep us from seeing the things we look at. We have to see our assumptions about the thing as well as the thing. We have to see what we don’t see—what else, what all, there is to see—if we hope to see at all.

Deena Metzger said, “The response determines everything that follows.” Well. It certainly influences some of the things that follow. If we always see the same things in the same ways, our response will always be predictable, routine, contrived and shallow. That is no way to live.

We have to live as Jesus did. Jesus didn’t do anything that was expected of him. He didn’t do anything by the book—or the same way he did it last week. And, what has the church done in the name of following Jesus? Worshiped the book! Jesus threw the book away—the church enshrined it. The church covered it in leather, and highlighted the words of Jesus in red. Everybody in the church does it the way it is supposed to be done—predictably, routinely—“decently and in order”—“as year succeeds to year.” The church is a dysfunctional family, with everyone playing the part assigned to her, to him, saying only the things that are supposed to be said, in unison, on cue.

No four letter words, please. And, if one slips out, make sure it is of the mild variety, like hell, or damn, and then be quick to say, “Pardon my French,” and twitter a bit. And, no questions allowed, certainly none questioning the way things have always been thought and done.

You can’t be honest in the church. You can’t say how you feel, if it isn’t the way you are supposed to feel. You can’t say what you think, if it isn’t the way you are supposed to think. You can’t say what you believe, if it isn’t the way you are supposed to believe. The church may say, “All are welcome,” but it has a way of making people feel as though they don’t belong if they don’t do the things that are supposed to be done the way they are supposed to be done. People can be excommunicated overnight, by common consent, with no one making a motion, or leading a discussion, or taking a vote.

There is a very narrow range of acceptable responses in church, as in any dysfunctional system. “The response determines everything that follows,” but when you can only respond in certain predetermined ways, everything stays nicely in place, “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end, Amen.”

That’s exactly the situation Jesus stepped into. And he stirred things up, made waves, rocked the boat, turned over apple carts (and the tables of the money changers), radically offended everyone who could be offended, said what he had to say, and lived out of accord with every Book of Order of his day. That’s the way to do it! We have to destabilize dysfunctional systems if there is to be any hope of things changing. We have to respond in ways that are not expected. We have to do things that have never been done. We have to shock and appall, cause consternation and turmoil. We cannot come in on cue, and read the lines as they are written in the script we are handed, and expect things to eve be different.

Ah, but. Drop a fully-functioning person into a dysfunctional situation, and the band quits playing. That is what happened with Jesus. Jesus said things that weren’t supposed to be said. He did things that weren’t supposed to be done. He thought things that weren’t supposed to be thought. And the Keepers of the Traditions did everything they could think of to get him in line. When he refused to cooperate, when he would not play the game the way the game was supposed to be played, they killed him, decently and in order.

When we live out of our heart, with a good faith commitment to do what needs to be done, things change. They change in unpredictable ways, in ways that are out of our control, but they change. “The response determines everything that follows” in the sense that things will not be what they would have been with a different, more predictable, response. But, the response does not control anything that follows.

We cannot be so smart as to live in this moment in a way that controls what happens in the moments following this one. We can influence all the other moments, but we cannot manipulate them. We cannot have life unfold according to our blueprint and design. Neither can God. Influence, not control, is the watchword of heaven. It is to be our own mantra, as we fashion our responses to the events and circumstances of our lives in (here it comes again) each situation as it arises.

We would be wise to evaluate our response before we release it onto the world. This is much better than just counting to ten. What compels us toward our initial, impulsive, reaction? Is that the best we can do? How are we seeing the situation that compels us toward this reaction, and not a different one? How else might we see the situation? How else might we respond to it? In light of what are we living? Toward what are we living? Whose good is served by the good we call good? Can we imagine a good better than the one we call good?

What works? “Experience and reflection, Kid. Experience and reflection.” Do something you call good. It will have an impact. Something will happen in response. Do what you think is good in response to the response. See what happens. After several rounds of this, step back and consider what has been going on. Think about it. Reflect on your experience.

Joseph Campbell said, “Reflection on experience produces new realizations.” New ideas of the Good come to light when we think about our old ideas of the Good. We see things differently with time—if we keep looking. It takes a lot of looking to be able to see. And nothing shuts seeing down as fast as thinking we see—and stop looking.

Published by jimwdollar

I'm retired, and still finding my way--but now, I don't have to pretend that I know what I'm doing. I retired after 40.5 years as a minister in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving churches in Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina. I graduated from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in Austin, Texas, and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. My wife, Judy, and I have three daughters and five granddaughters within about twenty minutes from where we live--and are enjoying our retirement as much as we have ever enjoyed anything.

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