What Works?

We are here to grow up. This is the essence of the Spiritual Journey. It is the work of a true human being. And we grow up against our will all along the way.

Growing up is squaring up to how things are, and what is called for in response. It is facing up to the conflicts, contradictions, dichotomies, discordances, polarities and opposition that go to the very heart of life and being. We cannot do this without bearing the pain of being alive.

There is no growing up without bearing the pain of that growth, of the realization of how things are and of the way that clashes with the way we want things to be. We bear the pain of our conflicts and contradictions—and of the trials and tribulations produced by our conflicts and contradictions.

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

What works in one situation may not work in any other situation. What works now may not work then. What works here may not work there. The shoe that fits today may pinch in a month. We live in each situation by walking two paths at the same time. For instance, there is what we do to pay the bills and there is what we pay the bills to do. We have to live the life that is ours to live within the life we are living. How we work this out is the essence of the Spiritual Journey. Working things out, integrating opposites, bearing the pain, in the service of balance and harmony IS the Spiritual Journey!

The spiritual journey is the search for what works. For how we should live what remains of our lives. For what is important, and how we might align ourselves with it. 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.

And someone’s good is someone else’s bad. What works to make peace in the family may not work to make peace in our soul. What works in any situation will not satisfy/please everyone in the situation. We decide what “works” means in each particular situation, and do that. “Sacrifice and acquiesce, Kid. Sacrifice and acquiesce.”

We work out what works in each situation as it arises, with no eternal, absolute principles, and no abiding policies. What works is as temporary as every here and now. What works here and now may never work anywhere else. Being right about what needs to be done, and paying the price to do it is bearing the cross Jesus told us to pick up and follow him.

It seems to be a law that when something is working on one level, something is not working on another level. Conscious awareness has to recognize and reconcile the conflict—or bear consciously the agony of a conflict that cannot be reconciled. Recognizing, reconciling, conflicts and integrating opposites and working things out is not our preferred thing to do. We deny, escape, and pretend our life away. Diversion and distraction work to free us from the burden of deciding what to do about what and how, even though they do not work for anyone’s good over time.

We are seeking to serve the good of all sentient beings, the Good of all there is, but how good is the good we call good? The prime requirement of the Spiritual Journey, and the life of a true human being, is that of living transparent to ourselves and “transparent to transcendence” (Joseph Campbell). We live to be mindfully aware of what we are doing to express, or conceal, who we are at all times.

So, what is good and how do we know? We don’t know. We live by hunches, nudges and guesses—and change our mind in view of the evidence uncovered by living in light of what we determine to be good. We can be wrong. And when we are wrong, we have to realize that and make amends, “turn the light around” (A Taoist phrase) and make another choice.

Our life is a process of changing our mind about what is important. We grow in our ability to take an increasing number of things into account in discerning and doing what is important, what is good, in the time and place of our living. If we live long enough, we see things differently over time. How many life times would it take to see—and be right about—the good in every situation and circumstance? We grow in our ability to see what we look at. We cannot assume that the way we see things is 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 either see it or not see it.”

As it is with the daffodil, so it is with our lives. We can look at life and either see it, or not see it. We can look at what is important, and either see it or not see it. Our assumptions about life, about living, about what is important, about what is good, can keep us from seeing these things. 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 there is to see—if we hope to see at all.

Deena Metzger says, “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. A predictable, routine life is not worth living.

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 aftermath of Jesus? Worshiped the book! Jesus threw the book away—we enshrined it. We 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. 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.

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 authority—and authority in the church is not usually the minister or the governing board. It’s often a Sunday School class, or a women’s group, or those who are thought to contribute the most money.

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 you feel as though you don’t belong if you don’t do the things that are supposed to be done the way you are supposed to do them. You 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.”

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, lived out of accord with every Book of Order of his day, and said what was on his mind. 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. We cannot come in on cue and read the lines as they are written in the script that is handed to us and expect things to change, ever.

Ah but. You know what is going to happen if we live like this. Drop a fully-functioning person into a dysfunctional situation, and it all goes to hell. 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 as much compassion as we can muster for the way life is being lived around us, 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 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 that 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 better Good even though it might not be good for us?

What works? “Experience and reflection, Kid. Experience and reflection.” Do something you call good. It will have an impact. Something will happen in response. See what happens. Respond to it as you think it needs to be responded to. After several rounds of this, step back and consider what has been going on. Think about it. Reflect on your experience. Sit in the silence and see what arises, emerges, “of its own accord.”

Joseph Campbell said, “Reflection on experience produces new realizations. New ideas of the good come to light when we think about our ideas of the good in light of our experience. We see things differently with time—if we keep looking, evaluating, reflecting, experiencing. It takes a lot of looking to be able to see. And nothing shuts seeing down as quickly as thinking we see.

You have heard me talk about doing what needs to be done in each situation as it arises with the gifts of your original nature that you have to work with. You have not heard me talk about doing what is good there. The good is philosophical ideal that is rarely an option– a possibility–in our actual life, because the good is not an Absolute to be realized anywhere in the cosmos. The good is always good in relation to something that is bad. It is always better than something else. Not good forever in and of itself.

The good is always good for some things, and not so good for other things. A 747 is good for transporting you across the country, but it is not so good for mowing your lawn. And what is good for the lion is not so good for the antelope, and vice-versa.  In some situations, there are no good options. In those situations, we say “We are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.” The choice there is to be damned and be done with it, by flipping a coin, perhaps, and dealing with the outcome.

We do not get to choose our choices, and when there are no good choices to choose from, only variations of bad choices, with unwanted, or unlivable, results, we are left with going with what we consider the best of the bad, and making the best of the fallout from that choice.

In all of this, we bear the pain of being unable to do better than bad. We may bear it forever. We bear it knowing that any other choice would have been bad as well—and we look for ways of redeeming what can be redeemed by living to make all the good choices we are capable of making from that point on.

We live toward the good in every situation even though that may not be possible in all situations. This is called “living anyway, nevertheless, even so” toward the best we are capable of being and doing throughout what remains of the time left for living–even as we bear consciously the pain of being unable to do better in numerous times and places in a world where too often what we get isn’t worth having.

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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