I’ve gotten used to the fact that I often miss the blatantly obvious. Maybe most people are like this (or maybe not, I don’t know), but sometimes it takes just the right words presented in just the right way at just the right time, and in my mind I’ll think, “Oh. Of course. Exactly. Geez I’ve heard people talk about that for years, and it never really struck me.” Maybe that’s part of the reason writers write and teachers teach; the hope that someday you’ll say something in just the required way for some person to “get it” and that it will make a difference in his or her life. It isn’t that you’ve said something new, it’s simply that you’ve said it in a way that strikes a chord with somebody.
I was reading something this week in the news, and it mentioned the situation of people in relationships who don’t allow for other people to express honest opinions without retribution, and it said this is abuse. Upon reading, I had one of those moments where I realized I’d never really thought of that in the proper way before. I mean, I’d thought about “emotional abuse” in terms of people who constantly berate and insult others, but I’d never thought about the dynamic of controlling another person’s expression of self as being a form of abuse. But I see now that it is; that it’s a wielding of power in a way that is unfair in terms of human respect and dignity, among other things. (Now that I’ve made the mental connection within my brain, later in this post I’ll include a quote from in our poverty the book manuscript, that helps to make it clear just what is so completely wrong with this type of abuse.)
I’ve known and know people like this, and most of us do. Most of us know somebody, a colleague or boss or spouse or partner or parent who takes control of the emotional tone or intellectual direction of a verbal exchange and without exception makes sure they are the “winner.” They will make a point, as if it’s the whole point that is proving you are in the wrong and the entire reason they are angry, and when you question it or try to explain things from your side, they’ll get even more angry and deftly twist your response, like a prize fighter deflecting a blow and skillfully returning a solid jab. This may be a fifteen second exchange, or it may go on for hours. I’m inclined to wager that in some cases, it’s pretty much a constant state of affairs. In the long run, the only choice you have is to listen sheepishly, admit that the other person is absolutely correct, that you are absolutely wrong, that you deserved whatever he or she dished out, and that you will do your utmost to change yourself or else face whatever corrective action he or she deems necessary in the future. The real sickness in this is that more than likely, you will end up being considered to be the one who owes an apology. The physical parallel is, “I’m so sorry I said the wrong thing and made you hit me. Can you forgive me?”
Now, I readily admit that I’m not a person who likes to argue, and I do not like confrontation, and I will avoid it when at all possible. But also, I’ve come to realize that there are people with whom you simply cannot openly disagree and hope to have a mutually productive outcome. They have to win; it’s the way they are. They don’t care about anything but controlling the conversation and you in the process. They are absolutely willing to devalue your thoughts, opinions, feelings and self identity; these things are of no consequence to them whatsoever. Although they would never raise a fist to strike another person, the fact of the matter is that they are intellectually and emotionally violent. They are analogs of the physical bully who confronts you, throws a jab, and waits for your reaction. If you defend yourself by covering up, he’ll see it as a challenge to simply place another blow more strategically. If you defend yourself by throwing a jab in return, he’ll simply hit you much harder. The only real difference is that in a physical fight, it’s possible that the other person will be hurt bad enough that he will reconsider, realize he has lost, and quit fighting. I can’t say that I’ve never seen this in a verbal match; the last punch always belongs to the person who considers words to be weapons. Such a person believes that being right is proven by—or is synonymous with—silencing the other person.
So why do I mention this? The constructive reason is to note that given the right situation, we all possess the dangerous power to be, and therefore the grotesque possibility of being, one of these people ourselves. We each have a capacity for emotional and intellectual violence. How are we going to remain aware of, manage, and control, that capacity? Perhaps each of us can start simply by being aware of the possibility. Who do we have verbal, emotional or intellectual power over? Our kids, for sure. Less experienced, less knowledgeable, or less respected coworkers, too. A boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse or partner; anyone who genuinely loves us. The shy and soft-hearted. The intellectually challenged. Those who don’t express themselves well in words. Those who have been wounded before, and a host of others. We need to sit and take stock of ourselves as we relate to the people around us. Who could we hurt? Upon whom could we commit such violence? The list is almost certainly longer than we might think.
As mentioned before, once I finally grasped the connection between this behavior and abuse, I was reminded of a more fundamental reason that we need to consider just how harmful it is. From in our poverty the book:
SINCE I find myself in God and I find God in myself, and since God is free from all falsehood, I will never know God well as long as I continue to deny who and what I am. I cannot carry an armload of lies into the midst of pure truth and suppose I am somehow going to get anywhere by holding on to them for dear life.
Yet this is exactly what we do every day of our lives, and it is what we encourage everyone around us to do as well. As long as we hold to the belief that it is better to appear moral or loving than it is to be our selves openly and honestly, we will be severely limited in our ability to know God. As long as we do not allow our neighbor to be open and honest about who she is without receiving our smirks, our judgment and our wrath in return, we are a stumbling block to her knowing God. One of the most regrettable things about nominal Christianity is that it is supposed to be the one place where people can be themselves, where the truth will set them free, but instead it is the one place where people hide themselves the most from other people—other people who, in theory, love them with the love of God.
God can fully love me only when I am fully myself, and so my universal right to choose God’s love grants me the freedom to be myself. This freedom is mine to claim via ontological means, and via the practicality that my existence would have no point if it was not to be myself. Nothing is created without purpose, and how can I fulfill the purpose I was created to fulfill if I am busy trying to not be what I was created to be? No factory creates an automobile and then asks it to be a sailboat. It does not build trains because it needs airplanes. God does not make me a unique individual and then ask me to be a different person than he created, or to do things I was not created to do. If God wanted that person, he would have created them instead of me. So isn’t it about time I started being myself, instead of trying to be somebody else?
THE ACTUALITY of experiencing our salvation, of working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, is a constant becoming in a process of continually discovering, accepting, and loving our true self. Jesus told us that he who wants to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life will find it. In this essential observation, Jesus is referring to our worldly, false self and our spiritual, true self. We can only save one of them, and we must make a choice as to which one it is going to be. We must choose between a self of pride, ego, public opinion, vain ambition and material orientation, and a self that is the real creature God had in mind when his hands lovingly formed us.
Making such a choice is an extremely difficult thing to do; not so much in theory, but very much so in actual practice. It is no problem for me to make an intellectual assent to the idea that I must be my true self, and to choose to do so. But how on earth am I to figure out what that self is, and then be it?
Once long ago, as the story goes, the Buddha sat to deliver a lesson to some of his followers. He silently presented a golden flower blossom and raised it into the air for all to see. After a while a single student smiled in understanding, and with the enlightenment of that single student being enough, the Buddha departed—his lesson completed.
Imagine reading an entire book centered about the idea of being our selves. At the end, after much discussion, the next to final chapter ends with the words, “And now the end of the matter is at hand. The following chapter provides the full path to arrive at being.” Turning to the final chapter with great eagerness and anticipation, we find sixteen blank pages. Do we understand the meaning of this last chapter, or do we return our copy of the book to the bookstore, demanding that it be exchanged for a copy that was printed correctly?
Although the point of the Buddhist story is multi-layered, it shares one point with our rather frustrating book—that being is, quite simply, what it is: being. A flower blossom does not spend its moments on earth striving to be anything but what it is. It is what it is, and it is perfect and beautiful, simply by being what it is—simply by being.
There is nothing to do, that can make us be, for we already are, and we are becoming. Being is simply being. For the majority of Christians this entire idea is foreign, and therefore easily and condescendingly rejected not just as nonsense, but as devilish—because it is not contained within our doctrine of instructions, standards, measures and rules for what we must and must not do.
There are great traditions in Christianity that would readily accept and well understand without hesitation the idea of being, although these traditions, too, would be rejected for similar reasons. Few fundamentalist Christians, at least, are ready to admit that long ago various forms of Christian mysticism ascertained a vital spiritual truth that is virtually absent from mainstream Christian doctrine.
Yet, when God told Moses to go to the Israelites and lead them out of Egypt, and Moses asked whom he should say had sent him, God answered, “I Am Who I Am… Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.'”
Who or what is God? In the only possible terms available to human language, God is what God is. Stated more succinctly, God simply is. God exists as an existence unto itself. The fundamental identity of God, if forced to translate itself into human terms, is the notion of his existence—period. The exceptional purity and exquisite beauty of this idea, penned thousands of years ago, escapes most of us. We are far too concerned with trying to define God in other terms; apparently overlooking the fact that he could not do so himself—even when sincerely asked.
What we must consider, then, is that we are created in God’s image. In him we live and move and have our being. Our being lay within God’s being. The idea of a divine Christ incarnated as a human Jesus is inextricably coupled with the mystery of human and God being united in their very being and sharing the very incomprehensibility of existence itself.
If then we as Christians accept Jesus not only as a model, not only as one to follow, not only as one to emulate, but as true brother in God and “joint heir” of all that is God’s, if we accept that the spirit of God is left for us to lead us to “even greater” things, and if we remember that Jesus prayed for those who believe in him to be one “as he and the Father are one,” we must ascend to the idea that we are able to share in this mystery and incomprehensibility as well. The idea of salvation and rebirth cannot be understood without the realization that they are matters involving the enigma that our being resides within God’s being. Salvation and rebirth rest in the sharing of the direct experience of fundamental, elemental existence—that is, of God.
The great and practical importance of all this is that it gives us some kind of direction in the working out of our salvation and rebirth, and some kind of clue as to the nature of being.
God is Love, and if we accept this as an axiom of our faith then we must realize that the fabric of all life, the nature of existence itself, the ground of reality, is Love. Whereas a biochemist might note that physical life as we know it is carbon-based, analogously we can say that spiritual life is Love-based, except on an even more elementary level, for it is Love that defines, drives, and explains all of existence. When all of life is reduced to its fundamental existence, Love is what remains.
Therefore, the direction of my salvation and rebirth is towards becoming this Love. Finally, the clue to being is that it is manifestation of Love and Love alone—and to be specific, in my being rest the unique manifestations of Love that are solely mine. The mystery of my salvation, rebirth, and being resides in the discovery and living of those particular ways of demonstrating the fundamental reality of existence in ways that I and I alone can. My single responsibility on earth is to manifest, by way of my fundamental being, God’s Love—and to do so in a way that by design is solely my own.
It is absolutely essential, therefore, that I am left free, by myself and by others, to be who God created me to be. Any opposition, either internal or external, to becoming my true self is an inhibition of all that God wills. To impede a person from being who they are in God is to stand against their salvation and against fundamental reality and therefore against Love and therefore against God. To attempt to take from another his or her true self is the greatest crime possible. Yet, we are continually trying to turn ourselves and others into something else entirely, and we have the prideful audacity to do this in the name of God. Such a thing can only be said to be inspired by all that opposes God; it is evil.
My encouragement for all of us is simply this: to stop forcing our views on one another and demanding that other people be what we alone believe they should be. Don’t get me wrong; certainly there are times in life when people lose their way, and in those times we should do our best to humbly help them get back on track. But please let us not presume that a person has lost his or her way simply because he or she does not walk the same road we do. Perhaps he or she knows the way of a very special path, to which they alone have been given a map.