It’s no wonder that thoughtful people who are trying to live for God come to regard self as the problem. After all, we often tend to experience our self needs, our existential needs, as a raging, insatiable fire that inexorably drives us into self-destructive behavior, or into the mistreatment of those around us. Our drives are too big for us to manage, and they wreck everything. Or at least I should speak for myself. For me, every interest becomes an obsession, and the fear of my need to be admired has kept me my whole adult life from trying to share with a wider circle of people the fruits of my creative work.
Thomas Traherne speaks to my soul very deeply when he affirms that this insatiability is a good thing:
“It is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable. For he hath a Benefactor so prone to give, that He delighteth in us for asking. Do not your inclinations tell you that the World is yours? Do you not covet all? Do you not long to have it; to enjoy it; to overcome it? … So insatiable is man, that millions [of worlds] will not please him. They are no more than so many tennis-balls, in comparison of the Greatness and Highness of his Soul. The noble inclination whereby man thirsteth after riches and dominion, is his highest virtue, when rightly guided; and carries him as in a triumphant chariot, to his sovereign happiness. Men are made miserable only by abusing it. Taking a false way to satisfy it, they pursue the wind: nay, labour in the very fire, and after all reap but vanity. Whereas, as God’s love, which is the fountain of all, did cost us nothing: so were all other things prepared by it to satisfy our inclinations in the best of manners, freely, without any cost of ours. Seeing therefore all satisfactions are near at hand, by going further we do but leave them; and wearying ourselves in a long way round about, like a blind man, forsake them.” Centuries of Meditations, I: 22, 23
I am coming to realize that my hunger to be someone great and glorious is completely met by God’s free gift of Being to me. While there is nothing that I can claim or appropriate, there is everything that I can receive and enjoy.
I ask, then, what are the motions of grounding my self transparently in the power that established it? (Remember, this is Kierkegaard’s formula for freedom from the torment of gnawing self-dissatisfaction.) As I understand it right now, they are so simple as to almost be absurd. Can something transformative come from such a simple return to rest?
This coming down to the ground that I am trying to describe is for me the simple recognition that I do not have to try to be something that I am not, that underneath my being lies the great, steady, supporting rock of God’s being, and that from this ground the streams of his love well up into my depths, satisfying me with Being, shaping and informing who I am and molding me into who I long to be.
This does not feel passive to me, as some of the varieties of religious effort that I tried over the years did. Yet it is very much like weaving a new and healing narrative over my life, so much so that I find with shock that I have come full circle. Does it really all come down to, “Change your mind, and believe the good news, and you will be saved”? In a sense, I am now reclaiming for myself words like “faith”, “gospel”, and “grace” that I had at least partly given over in suspicion during my deconstructive period.
I’m resonating more deeply with the metaphor of sleep used in George MacDonald’s fantasy, Lilith, to describe this rest and regrounding of self in God. Because, while I believe that “death to self” is not the answer to the problem of self, I do think that the kind of death described in Lilith is the answer.
This is no the death of trying to repress our desires and suppress our individuality. No, our need to know ourselves, and know ourselves as good, cannot be avoided. Rather, this death is a leap into the arms of our Most Significant Other, the Source of our being, our divine Lover, and an absolute entrusting of our being to him, the choice to know ourselves only as we are known by him. George MacDonald describes these motions beautifully in one of his diary poems:
"But love is life. To die of love is then The only pass to higher life than this. All love is death to loving, living men; All deaths are leaps across clefts to the abyss. Our life is the broken current, Lord, of thine, Flashing from morn to morn with conscious shine— Then first by willing death self-made, then life divine." Diary of an Old Soul, March 17
The juxtaposition of opposites, “Love is life… love is death”, is exactly fitting here. It is both at once, because love requires at once the abandonment of control, which we experience as a death, and the opening of a connection to another heart, which we experience as an inflow of life. As I wrote in my last post, most of us haven’t experienced, either growing up or in adulthood, the depth of confirmation of our being that we need from the people most important to us. Most of us, instead of finding the fullness of what we need in God, the Source of our being, instead live lives full of worry, frantic effort, and impotent rage, trying to control our supply of “Being-food”, that is, confirmation, or meaning.
I think it is very important for people as immersed in Christian culture as I am to realize that we are not called to give up this control out of shame and guilt that we are such idolaters. A great deal is made in popular Christian thought, and always has been, as far as I can tell, about how our efforts to “fill the hole” from other sources constitute despicable and damnable idolatry and treachery against the one true God.
I’m not trying to deny the possibility of the analogy. Potentially, I can still see us still bringing a great deal of meaning to the great story of the love-struggle between God and his people in the Hebrew scriptures by reading idolatry as this basic human turning away from our true Source. The problem, at least for people like me, is the guilt and shame part–especially when it is deliberately used as a self-motivational tool, or, worse, as a manipulative tool by other people.
I spent so many years beating myself up over my “idolatrous” heart. The only thing that this does, as I realize now, seeing it through the lens of The Sickness Unto Death, is to exacerbate the disease of self, despair. And in more recent years, while still struggling greatly with obsessive and compulsive behavior, I have become increasingly aware of just how much compassion God has on our poor, starved selves. We make the wrong choices, for sure, but we do make them for understandable reasons. We are trying to cope with needs that overwhelm us, and it takes a long time for us to even understand them, let alone understand how to handle them.
I’m not trying to justify selfish behavior. Our addictions do hurt the people closest to us. We’ve got to get free from them all. But God floods us with such mercy! And as George MacDonald clearly saw, it is only right for him to do this.
Back to the paradox of love. “All deaths are leaps across clefts to the abyss.” What a miraculous line! Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” may have become proverbial, but it is too often used as a suggestion that faith is opposed to reason. Actually reading about the “leap into infinity”–and very importantly, the subsequent landing–as Kierkegaard describes it in Fear and Trembling, is breathtaking. It seems to me that this is precisely the leap that MacDonald describes here, and, I believe, in Lilith.
The leap into the arms of divine Love is essentially a loss of control–as are all human loves–because no connection to another person can be opened without trust. There must be a going outside ourselves and into the Other. And this entails a cessation from our endless efforts to fill ourselves. We believe that the Other has only come to us to nurture our being, to speak the goodness of who we truly are into us. We believe that we are in good hands. And that is trust.
Yet, most often, this is not some great, heroic leap, but a simple relaxing into rest. After all, God holds our beings without interruption or cease. And it is remarkable to me that these motions of intentional grounding, which start so still and so small, can ever lead to us having enough to face, let alone conquer, the tumult of our days and weeks. Yet I find that the trickle of God’s life that I allow to well up within my depths really does inevitably swell into a powerful current that carries me.
I have spent so much time over the last twenty-five years trying to spiritually psych myself up to a level of energy that could be sufficient for me to face the day, and face my work. It was exhausting. And it never really worked.
As I finish this post, it is a Sunday noon, and I still have many hours of mind-numbing grading in front of me as only one of the things I need to do to get ready for the upcoming school week. I used to deal with this by losing myself in mindless entertainment, or in obsessive pursuit of one of my own interests, until my lack of preparation time became a true crisis, and I started the week both guilt-ridden and sleep-deprived.
Now things are feeling just a little bit different, in a good way. Life is in me. It will accompany me, and I may just learn to participate peacefully with my Source in the time I have, and leave aside what I cannot do, without regret or panic.