Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Spirituality Is Hard

On February 20, 1962, 50 years ago, John Glen blasted off into America’s first orbital space flight.  Only seven months later, John Kennedy spoke at Rice University and committed the country to landing a man on the moon and safely bringing him home “by the end of the decade.”  It was a heady statement given such limited success and proof-of-concept to date.  Why take the risk and go?  Obviously this was yet another battlefield in the running cold war with the Soviet Union.  But as Kennedy famously went on to say, “We choose to go to the moon … not because [it] is easy, but because [it] is hard.  Because this goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”  Doing the hard thing demands of us to focus our energies, explore the real depths of our creativity; it moves us from dreamer to doer, from “wanna be” to “being.”

Living spiritually should be easy.  Spirituality is knowing that we are, at our core, a good human being.  That we live responsible to and interdependent with other forms of life.  That we should live as a positive impact on ourselves and others.  That we live within a source, a presence, an energy greater than just our self, a form of being that exerts some level of influence in how our life unfolds.  That we are the object and outcome of a creation, and we have likewise within us a creative capability.  That in some manner or another, our life will transcend, if not extend, the life we are experiencing at the moment.

Given all of these positive affirmatives, it would seem that living spiritually should be easy, natural, and consistently rewarded.  But it is not easy.  It can, in fact, take all the energy we can muster.  External adversity comes our way.  Others in our interconnected web do not live spiritually in their interactions with us.  Living spiritually requires constantly making choices among options about what to do, what actions to take, what to conclude.  But there is seemingly little time left in the day for such reflection and judgment.  The thoughts we do have seem filled more with old concerns, rehashed memories, and disturbing feelings than with calm clarity of thinking.

Most of the time it is easier to just drift along, spontaneously reacting to what comes at us than expending effort truly thinking about what we should be doing.  It seems easier to just do “something” quickly, check it off the list, and move on to the next demand-of-the-day than to stop and figure out the best right thing to do.  It is easier to be content with where we are than to challenge ourselves to shed old beliefs in order to incorporate new learning.  It is easier to believe we are right than to assume there is something more for us to learn – about ourselves and others.  It is easier to stand pat than to challenge ourselves to reach for the stars.

The actor Martin Sheen has been an engaged activist for social justice all his life.  When asked how he manages to stay committed to “the cause,” he replied, “You fight for social justice not to change the world.  Not even to change your family and your friends.  You do it from inside of you.  Because you cannot not do it.”  So it is with living spiritually.  There is always not enough time, not enough energy, not enough …  But at some point in your life, you simply do it anyway.  Without excuses.  It becomes your true priority.  All else drops to second position.  You do what is hard, because you cannot not do it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

In Pursuit Of Perfection

“Perfection is not attainable.  But if we chase perfection we can get excellence.”  (Vince Lombardi, legendary NFL coach.)

Perfection, like most things in life, can be a double-edged sword.  Our pursuit of perfection can help to stimulate our energies and focus our concentration so as to move beyond mediocrity, beyond just getting by, and help us to extract the full measure of possibility available within a task.  Yet when we put an expectation on us of achieving perfection we can be demoralized when that perfection is not achieved, and be blinded to the good we have nevertheless done.  Where do we set that bar of perfection, and where do we position ourselves towards that bar?

For the ancient Greeks, perfection was an idealized state, rising above one’s inherent flaws, separate from the reality of how things actually are.  Hence human, animal and inanimate things were portrayed in an unnatural way – how things were imagined should be.  This perspective permeates the thinking of Western humankind in its judgment of “quality.”

On the other hand, for the Buddhist perfection is a state of absolute reality.  Things are inherently perfect just as they are, as they were created, with no need to add to them or make them something else that they are not.  We need only to understand what things truly are versus their distortions that we see.  For the Greek, symmetry – rarely found in nature – is all important in design; for the Buddhist, symmetry is a jarring unnaturalness in conflict with nature.  The Greek loves angles; the Buddhist loves meandering curves.

For many, God (by whatever name) is the only perfection.  In God all things are correct; from God all things are intentional, without shortcomings.  Yet the danger in believing that God is “perfect” is that we attribute a static-ness to God, that in being perfect God is fixed and unchanging.  Someone once wisecracked that “an expert is someone who thinks there is nothing else to be learned.”  We risk that same trap when we equate perfection with “nothing else to learn,” that perfection is absolute, that God is perfection and unchanging.  Change does not imply that the old was wrong; change simply brings us the next phase and understanding of what can and is intended to be.

I personally believe that God is not perfection in a “fixed” sense of being.  The one constant in the whole of the Universe is that nothing is static; everything is always changing, evolving.  If the Universe is God’s ultimate creation and intention, why would God be separate from this fundamental truth, this basic physical / metaphysical law?  So I believe that God also learns, changes, and grows in wisdom just like the rest of us.  It is just that God starts from a much broader and more knowledgeable starting point of wisdom.  Which is why I am undisturbed by the seeming conflict in the God of Genesis, of the Gospels, and of Revelations.  The distinctions simply reflect God’s own growth over time, of God’s extreme excellence from a pursuit of perfection even now not yet achieved.

Perfection is not a destination or endpoint.  It is not a standard of measure or judgment.  It is an important moving vehicle on which we travel on our human journey, through which we fulfill our possibilities and perhaps inspire the journeys of others.  All is perfect at its creation; all is perfect when it remains true to itself; all is perfect when it moves to the next level, as is intended.