January 3, 2007
The only eyes through which we have ever peered into the world are our own. There are certainly times—many times—that we feel an empathy and connectedness to other persons, yet for all of that, any connection we share has to be realized through the “interface” in which we interact and connect with the world.
Our bodies are themselves a necessary shell for our stay here on earth because through them we are both known and make ourselves known and are able to interact with other things and people in our environments. Being human beings, there are certain predictable ways we react to our environment that are common to our species. However, there are also little quirks and behaviors that we share with no other. These points are important to our discussion today for one reason: while feelings may rise in our response to the world around us, they are nonetheless things that exist within our own being, not in the external world. Being human beings, it is very natural that the pain we experience in regard to death, separation, sickness, and other factors out of our control is entirely appropriate and fully understandable: invariably we mourn the loss of good things: good health, good friends, lovers, family, and all those elements that make life here on earth most enjoyable and worthwhile. It is certainly not wrong to mourn such things and it would be unhealthy not to do so.
Yet a great many more of the negative emotions we experience fall much more in our own laps. We are entirely capable of taking wounds—real or imagined—and nursing them, along with grudges and a host of other toxins that quickly reduce us to our lowest selves if left unchecked. These feelings are almost exclusively the product of our own thought processes and have little to do with the outward environment at all, save how we choose to respond to it. Put another way, these factors have very little to do with sensation and a great deal to do with perception, where sensation refers to the data that streams into our sensorium and our perception to the interpretation we supply it. We could fairly say, then, that many of our negative emotions—loneliness, depression, boredom, anger, hostility—stem from our response to the world, at least during those times we are not grieving the loss of health or loved ones. That much we have heard before and can be summarized quite beautifully in the classic Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,the courage to change the things I can,and the wisdom to know the difference.
What we do not hear so often, however, is that in a very similar manner, contentment is also an “inside job.” It is the human tendency to think “if only I had this person or thing, then I would be contented.” But again, contentment is an inside job: it is not located in the external world but inside our own perceptions. The Apostle reminds us of the same in Philippians 4:11–13 when he speaks of learning the secret of being contented in all things: he has discovered it is not a matter of what we have, but Who. The Apostle again instructs the Corinthians in the second epistle to take their thoughts captive, subjecting each one to the obedience of Christ (10:5).
We have heard all these things before, most of us. Many of us have sat under sermons that seemed to delight in beating us over the head, reminding us how naughty and sinful and awful and dismal and small and unfortunate and pathetic and failing and unworthy and ungrateful and blackened and twisted creatures we are. And, after enough such sermons, we have stopped listening. No one can blame us, really: such things ring with a level of inauthenticity—they smack of someone who has himself or herself forgotten what is it to live life in the trenches. But we also should not walk away from the truth of such apostolic admonitions like learning the secret of contentment or taking captive our thoughts, no matter how trite and tiresome they begin to seem, our familiarity breeding undue contempt. In fact, often the simplest truths are the very ones we most need to hear, if possible with fresh ears and a fresh heart, unworthy creatures, yes, but penitent too and filled with hope which in its season yields joy.
I was remarking to a friend a few days ago that I do not think many of the classic arguments for the existence of God are tired: I think we are tired. We are heavy-laden with a yoke of care and our burdens are far from light. And for me, there is no greater proof of God and the inherent meaning of life—however often the argument may have been used before and how many more times again—than the reality of my own existence. Even in my days of utter disbelief and agnosticism, even in the midst of current doubts, my existence is the one thing with which I cannot argue or deny. Certainly there are those who do—we looked at some of the philosophical conundrums associated with the existence of a self before, for example—but it does not change the reality. It is a bit like the discussion our Wednesday night crew had about Zeno’s paradox. Zeno of Elea, we may recall if we took any introductory courses in philosophy, was a Greek mathematician and philosopher from the 5th century BC famous for his logical puzzles regarding motion. The paradox I personally find most compelling to contemplate is his description of the arrow: how is it that an arrow travels through the air? For in order to travel one-hundred yards, it must first travel fifty yards. But in order to travel fifty yards, it must first travel twenty-five yards. But in order to travel twenty-five yards, it must first travel twelve-and-a-half yards. And if we keep up this kind of thinking, we shall soon see that logically the arrow should not travel through the air at all, in spite of what our senses tell us.
The argument in particular we were discussing that evening was that of the tortoise and Achilles, not unlike the tortoise and the hare from Aesop’s fables. The tortoise is given a head start, yet Achilles should logically never quite be able to catch up in spite of what our senses actually tell us. My other friend found this argument incredulous: how did it create a logical puzzle in the first place, much less a convincing one? The fact is, the argument not only did not seem compelling, it was a gross affront to common sense. Now certainly the calculus of Newton and Leibniz put to rest such arguments even on a theoretical basis, but the fact remains that for centuries there was a logical conundrum created between common sense and “higher” reasoning. (It makes me wonder, though, how many skeptics are working with flawed models: non-linear modeling alone has opened up amazing new possibilities to those with truly open minds.) It was very apparent that Achilles—or any other Olypian for that matter—would summarily defeat the tortoise in a foot race and that arrows do, in fact, fly through the air: just ask the hundreds of thousands and beyond who have died over the centuries as a direct result.
Arguments for the existence of God are not quite as transparent, perhaps, though it is interesting that the greatest defense against them appears to be one of jadedness or pride: such arguments, it is said, are tired. And indeed, because many of us are jaded and tired (and proud too), such things do not long affect us after their initial hearings. But in the quiet of the night when I am questioning all that I hold dear, I sometimes recognize that I am questioning! (that is, that there is an “I,” that I is me, and I am questioning, much like Descartes): I recognize that I am real, I am a center of consciousness, I think, I feel. It does seem incredulous to me—as incredulous as my friend’s reaction to Achilles and the hare—that there is no greater significance to my existence than a brief flame: that my life is merely a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Granted, proof is person-particular, but it seems to me apparent during such times—as close to proof as this life affords—that there is in fact a great deal more to this world and to this life than we often recognize. And that fills me with hope and hope in turn bolsters my faith. Perhaps the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), in the spirit of St. Anslem, said it best in Aids to Reflection: “To believe and to understand are not diverse things, but the same things in different periods of growth.”
Sometimes, I fear, I am so lost in the mire of believing, I never get around to understanding things like taking my thoughts captive or being contented in all things no matter my circumstances. The life of faith, however, is not one of believing what is seen (which comes easily enough) but in choosing instead to believe that which is unseen: it is a matter of recognizing the provision of God and living accordingly, even when walking in the dark.
We have spoken of contentment and our ability to choose it: it seems that old hymns have been going through my mind recently, Count Your Blessings being the latest. (It is worth reading/re-reading if you are feeling the need of a gentle reminder):
When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,Count your many blessings, name them one by one,And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
In light of such “aides-mémoire,” I realize just how much of an ingrate I really am much of the time and how much this factor contributes to my overall level of unhappiness. What is more, it also helps put into perspective sources of true pain and unhappiness like sickness and loss: such things can be seen for what they are without the added “depression about being depressed.” In the end, it is certainly far better to have less and be contented than to have much but no real happiness. The Proverbs and wise sayings of the Hebrew Bible are chock full of such reflections; here are just a few:
Better is a little with the fear of the LORDThan great treasure and turmoil with it.Better is a dish of vegetables where love isThan a fattened ox served with hatred. (Proverbs 15:16–17)
Better is a dry morsel and quietness with itThan a house full of feasting with strife. (Proverbs 17:1)
Here is what I have seen: It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage. As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor—this is the gift of God. For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart. (Ecclesiastes 5:18–20)
There is a great deal we cannot change in this life; let us pray for the serenity to accept these things. There is also a time for everything: a time to mourn and a time to refrain from mourning, as the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us in the third chapter. Let us truly pray for the wisdom to know the difference. But most of all, let us more consciously take our hearts and minds captive to the obedience of Christ, recognizing His grace, provision, and sovereignty even when it appears that things are going entirely to the contrary. We carry a lot of undue baggage around, not only because we do not carry everything to God in prayer, but because we do not stop to count our many blessings either. In many ways, contentment is a choice: an inside job. And as for my New Year’s resolution? I resolve to smile more. :)
“But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”
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