I’m sure part of the fault lies with me. I’ve been asking broad, open-ended questions all this time. Maybe I should have rephrased them as simple yes/no questions to avoid the confusion – like when you consult the Magic 8 Ball. Somehow, though, I suspect that even if I had I would still get something inconclusive: the cosmic equivalent of “it is possible.”
Andre Gide says we should trust those who seek truth, but doubt those who have found it. If so, I am one of the most trustworthy people on the planet. All I have to show for 30 years of deep introspection are a load of clichés found most often on bumper stickers and kitchen magnets. I am absolutely certain that they are true, but somehow they don’t provide the sort of comfort I had been hoping for.
I had been hoping for something like a cookbook: take 2 parts material success, 1 part satisfying relationship, add in equal parts community involvement and family traditions, then dust lightly with spiritual experiences (helpful hint: use the generic – it works just as well as the name brands). Instead, I get a Zen koan wrapped in an Hassidic tale with a dash a seltzer in the face.
Sometimes, I get the joke and can laugh right along. But usually there is this longing to actually know; to be sure – one way or the other. “Ha ha. That’s a good one,” I say, “no, but seriously, what’s the answer?” In the end, maybe that is really the question I should be asking: what is this longing for certainty all about?
In Genesis, eating from the tree of knowledge casts us out of the garden – the knowledge of right and wrong. It seems to me like the problem isn’t that we ate from the tree, but that we only got a taste before we got booted out. We got a hint that there is something like good and bad, right and wrong, but we didn’t get any good directions on how to apply it to everyday living. It feels like the distinctions often melt away as soon as you try to actually get a hold on them. Sure, poverty is wrong, but is giving money to a homeless guy just feeding a cycle of addiction or showing compassion?
In Why God Won’t Go Away, Newberg suggests that once our brains developed the handful of abilities that mark us as unique among other animals – the ability to see dichotomies (like right or wrong), or cause and effect, among others – we also developed an almost compulsive need to use them all the time. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Is this need to know just an example of a child’s fascination with a new toy? Because we have an “either / or” brain, we want to live in an either/or world? Unfortunately, we actually live in a both/and one. Are we free agents able to make our own choices or determined by the forces of nature, history and fate? Yes. Should we hold our children close to us or push them out into the world? Yes. Are we redeemed through faith or acts? Yes. Is there a god? Short answer ‘no, with a but’ – long answer ‘yes, with an if’.
It is enough to make some people give up. Some surrender to anyone willing to provide them with a cookbook, whether the recipes work or not. Some just pick a side; Darth Vader or the Rebel Alliance, they both have their appeal. Some embrace a radical relativism, assuming because it’s never all good or all bad there is no good and no bad. I can relate. I want to surrender, too. I just haven’t found the place I’m supposed to turn myself in yet.
This compulsion wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t get in the way all the time. Just like cliché #157 asks, “Would you rather be right or happy?” It seems like the answer for most of us is clearly “right.” If I were content to be happy, I would let go of what it means to live a good life, and focus on how to live a good day. I wouldn’t worry that I have no idea what love is, and instead seek out more loving moments. I wouldn’t try to provide a concise definition of connection, but would revel in how it magically transforms my mood when it happens. In fact, I would say I’m actually sure that all those clichés combined are the answer. Pretty sure. 75 percent sure. Well, I’d give it better than 50-50 odds.
So, then, what is holding me back? Why do I spend so much energy standing in the way of what I am pretty sure is true? When I dial into this “truth-ish” stuff and have a little faith, I feel better, I get more done, and doggone it, people like me. Why do I constantly beat that deep, persistent voice that sounds so calm and sure into submission with reasoning and rationalizations? Why am I so afraid of being wrong that I am willing to deny myself happiness until I’m absolutely sure?
In the end, I think it comes down to a fear of appearing foolish. Sure, we concoct all sorts of horror stories about what might happen if we are wrong. No one will take us to the prom. We’ll end up living in our parents basement. God will kill kittens. But in the end, in the big picture, we die*. OK, that may not be the kind of pep talk you want to give your kid when she’s lost her favourite doll, but in a way it is the ultimate “get out of jail free” card. There is no prize for longevity and no penalty for early withdrawal. The things of this world will pass away, whether you are Bill Gates or the faceless homeless man you just ignored. Failure truly is impossible. Your successful passing is ensured. So, the time you have here is free to use as you choose.
Maybe that’s all it is. Our overactive forebrain, that shiny new toy of self-consciousness, prays to God the Father – the big guy with the white beard and all the answers – to save us from foolishness. “Send me to hell, if you must,” it says “as long as you promise there IS an answer.” But I think the Jester is really in charge: the juggler that keeps everything up in the air; the acrobat who dances on the edge of the beam; the fool who speaks crazy truth; the trickster with the wink and always that mischievous twinkle in his eyes. And he answers our prayers by sending us fractals and quarks and romance.
So, maybe looking foolish is really what it means to be made in God’s image. And laughing along is what it means to pray. Maybe the thing we need to surrender is the need to look proper, upstanding, legitimate. Maybe the lesson is to learn how to quiet that adolescent forebrain, or at least to mostly ignore it like any parent who has survived a toddler has learned. Of course, I might be completely wrong about this.
* Sorry to be the one to break this to you. You were bound to find out sooner or later.