We have to consciously bear the pain of the contradiction between the requirements of the life we are living and the requirements of the life that is ours to live.
We are born into a certain context. The time and place of our birth—the family, the society, and the culture we are born into—the intellectual and financial resources that are ours to access and utilize—place restraint upon us, and lay out opportunity before us, and we are, to a large extent, who our context tells us—requires us—to be.
Not only that, but also there is something necessary and essential about remaining as we are, and working with it—and allowing it to work its magic on us—in bringing us forth, growing us up, and eliciting the qualities of character that lie latent within us, awaiting external circumstances to stir them to life, and call them out. The Biblical injunction to “remain in the state wherein you were called,” and the old saw, “Bloom where you are planted,” speak to this point. Our role in our life is not without its place in the work to bring us more fully to life. So, let the teachers teach, and the nurses nurse, and the doctors doctor, and the cab drivers drive… And let the roles we play play their part in the production of ourselves in the life that is our life to live!
We have to step out into the life we are living—unfolding, emerging, there into the life that is ours to live. For, in addition to our context and our role, we also have a spirit, a soul, a heart and mind that are unique to us. We have gifts, proclivities, perspectives, interests, talents and abilities—the combination of which makes us unlike anyone who has ever been born, or will be. We are more than our family, society and culture (or even ourselves) expect us to be, or imagine that we can be.
We live out our life between who we are and who we also are—between who we are expected to be and who we have within us to be. And, we have to work it out.
Working it out is the task of life. Walking two paths at the same time, living in two worlds in a way that allows each world to play off the other, to bless and grace the other, so that together they make possible more than either could ever be without the other.
Joseph Campbell said (In The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers) that we have to live in to worlds—the inner world and the outer world—in such a way that one compliments the other, and is just what the other needs to be itself, complete and whole in its own right. He said we are born into the culture and society and family we are born into, and have to honor the terms that greet us upon arrival. But, he said, we must not allow this world to dictate to us how we should live. We have to follow our own heart, which may do violence to the structures of family and culture. Indeed, it’s the opposition that pulls us forth, enabling us to define ourselves over against the definition that is handed to us.
We shape who we are by knowing who we are not, by knowing what does not resonate with us, and by seeking our own family, society and culture, which may be quite different from the one we were born into. We may have to “leave our parent’s house,” and find our own way in the world—clarifying our values and discovering what is meaningful to us along the way.
Campbell speaks often of the central place of a clear system of values in living so as to bring forth the life that is ours to live within the life we are living. He said that “the commonality of themes in world myths, (pointed) to a constant requirement in the human psyche for centering in terms of deep principles.”
Those “deep principles,” are the stuff of literature and spiritual writings through the ages and religions of humanity. All the themes are found there: Guilt and Redemption, Death and Resurrection, Sin and Forgiveness, Lost and Found, Bondage and Freedom, Truth and Falsehood, Attachment and Loss, Suffering and Salvation, to mention a few. Campbell noted the shift of attention away from “the literature of the spirit,” and the wisdom of the ages, to the information technologies that create the world we live in this moment of our living—without reference to, or regard for, the worlds that may have preceded this one at this very time of our life. But, he said, humanity does not come from the computer, “but from the heart.”
Campbell said, “The one thing that turns the human beast of prey into a valid human being is compassion. Just living with one’s heart open to others in compassion is a way wide open to all. The thing to do is to live in your period of history as a human being, holding to your own ideals for yourself and, like Luke Skywalker, rejecting the system’s impersonal claims upon you. Follow your feelings, trust your feelings! Are you going to be a person of heart and humanity—because that is where the life is, from the heart—or are you going to do whatever seems to be required of you?” (The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers)
We stand between the roles we are asked, no, required, to play, and the values that are worthy of us, and settle for what Adam and Eve settled for, wanting this, and wanting that, and wanting that over there: “So when they saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,” they picked the fruit and had their fill (or words to that effect). Only to discover we can never get enough of that which cannot satisfy.
Seeking satisfaction, we chase after what we want, from shiny beads, to silver mirrors, to oceans filled with treasure islands—running from one thing we want to another all our life long, looking for, for—what was it now that we are looking for? We don’t know. We never stop long enough to name it. “Fortune and glory”? Maybe that’s it. We know only that we don’t have it, and we want it, and we can’t pause to talk about it, because we might miss it if we do, so off we go, to the pony with the braided tail and the golden saddle, and the house on the hill with the grand piano we cannot play, and the sailboat in the harbor we don’t have time to sail…
Children are asked by adults, “And what do you want to be when you grow up?” Like wanting knows something. What does wanting know? Only what looks enticing. Yet, it guides our boat on its path through the sea, ricocheting from one wonderful nothing to another, until we run out of fuel and drift in despair for having lived all our life long, and never once found anything worth living for.
We can want what we do not value—what has no value. This is a problem. How do we find our way from wanting every pretty thing to the central ground of that which is both valuable and meaningful? This is the quest of the spiritual journey.
The full scope of that journey is the distance from living in the service of what we want to living in the service of values that are valuable. This is the meaning tucked away in the old prayer, “Thy will, not mine, be done”—and the meaning of Jesus’ words: “Whoever seeks to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life in the service of that which is greater, and wilder, and deeper, and more outlandish and absurd than anything they are capable of wanting, or imagining, or doing, will save it” (Or words to that effect).
We are left with laying wanting aside, and taking up the work of valuing the values that are truly valuable—and at the heart of life and being in all religions worthy of the title: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-discipline, compassion, truth, honesty, dependability, dedication, loyalty, grace, justice, good faith, respect and civility…
Aligning ourselves with—and living to express, exhibit, and make concrete—the values that have always been honored as valuable, puts us on the path the saints and bodhisattvas have traveled before us. And, it has nothing to do with what we want, but with what is wanted of us, with what is asked of us—and it would be a lasting wrong to turn away from that path in the service of some attractive nothing.