When it comes to deciding who we ought to be—to knowing what we ought to do and how we ought to do it—to what, exactly, constitutes Right Seeing, Right Thinking, Right Doing, and Right Being—my recommendation is that we throw out all the rules that we have been handed. Forget what your mother told you, and your father, and your Sunday school teacher, and your preacher. Don’t have anything to do with the Ten Commandments. Nobody ever lived a full life of high quality with an eye on the Ten Commandments. Who in your experience was worth spending any time with who lived his or her life based on the Ten Commandments? See what I mean?
And don’t even think about living so as to win the approval of those with Moral Rectitude and a fixed since of how it ought to be. You want to stay away from anything fixed, rigid, unyielding and absolute. If you are going to do it right, you are going to have to dance a little, sway with the music, swing your partner, cut a rug.
Here’s my suggestion. If you want to do it right, the way it truly ought to be done, pick out the people who have done it right, who are doing it right, and do it like they did it, like they are doing it. Copy their style as the first step in developing your own. Have an image in mind. Become a character actor. Assume a role. Play a part. Place yourself in the shoes of those who do it the way it ought to be done. Act out their way of doing things in your life. Imagine how they would do it, and do it like that. Get “in character,” and step into your day, or into a particular situation in your day. Let your vision of them doing it the way it ought to be done become the way you do it.
We cannot hope to do it right, to do it the way it ought to be done, to be who we ought to be, without the guiding images of those who have done it right, with us and before us in our lives. If we cannot think of anyone who has ever done it right, who has ever done it the way it ought to be done, who has ever been who they ought to be, we may as well go down to the soda shop and have a milk shake or two and wait for the undertaker to come lay us to rest, because it’s all over for us. Without a sense of those who have done it right, we don’t have a chance of getting it right ourselves. Without the image of those who have done it the way it ought to be done before us, we are flying blind, dancing with our fingers in our ears, driving in the dark with our eyes closed, walking a tight rope with an instruction book in hand trying to read directions about balance and strategy. It won’t work.
What works is doing it like the people who do it right would do it for as long as it takes for us to develop our own sense of how it is to be done. Apart from the compelling influence of our personal guides, we are lost and alone in the darkness and gale force winds, trying to find a match to light our way. We have to forget matches and find those who know what they are doing, and do it like they are doing it; and live as they are living.
So, who are they? Who are the people—real or fictional—in your experience who have done it the way it ought to be done? The way you wish you could do it? You know some of the people on my list. Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof. Zorba the Greek. I would add the poet Mary Oliver, the writer Annie Dillard, the actress Donna Reed. Lao Tsu, Jesus of Nazareth, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Yogi Berra. To mention a few.
Who is on your list of personal guides? Who has done it the way it ought to be done? The way you would be proud to have done it? The way you wish you could do it? Don’t step into your life without your guides. Not only will they help you along the path, they ARE the path! More than that, they are YOU!
Okay, don’t let me get too far ahead here. Let me take you back to the spiritual task. It is nothing more than being you in the world. The spiritual task is connecting with yourself and living as yourself in the world. Doing it the way it ought to be done is doing it as you would do it. It’s like, say, arranging your hair. When you arrange your hair, you don’t ask your parents, or your Sunday school teacher, or your preacher if that’s the way you should wear your hair, if that’s the way you should like your hair. You just arrange your hair the way you like to wear it. Your hair is you. And, in order to get it right, you look in the mirror. It is hard to know without looking whether your hair is right or not. The same thing applies to your spiritual development.
It is hard to know what is “you” without looking in the mirror. The people on your list of those you admire most are your mirrors. They reflect you back to you. They help you see what is important to you, about you, the way an actual mirror helps you see your hair. Invite them all into the room with you. Sit among them. Get to know them. The things you like best about them reflect the ideal you. They help you see clearly, specifically, how you are to be in the world. They live with you as reminders, as models, through-out your day, of how to do it. The people on my list show you and me things about me we might never guess would be true. If you want to know me, get to know the people on my list. If you want to know you, get to know the people on your list.
The spiritual task, journey, path, quest is simply a matter of surrounding ourselves with the best people, real or fictional, that we can imagine, and emulating, incorporating, modeling, copying, stealing, identifying with, their best qualities in living our life in the world. As we become who they are, we become who we are. We become ourselves in introjecting the best we admire of those we admire.
And, if you think this copy-cat approach to spirituality sounds anti-American and heretical in light of our cherished doctrine of the rugged individualist, I will ask you two quick questions. What do you think was the point of the Marlboro Man if not to make everybody like him right down to his choice of cigarettes? And, what do you think we in the church have been doing all these years ingesting the body and blood of the Christ? We eat the God to become like the God. We call ourselves “Christians” which means “Little Christs.” We understand the wisdom of John the Baptist who said, talking about Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease.” We become who we are when we become as Jesus was, as God is. And, we do that, not by laying aside all that is good, and true, and valuable, and worthy about ourselves, but by envisioning those things, embracing those things, exhibiting and embodying those things. We lay ourselves aside and become ourselves. It’s a little paradoxical, but you get used to it after a while.
I become myself, not by being Zorba in the finite details of his life, but by using what I admire about Zorba to expose, reveal, reflect what is valuable to me and about me and my own life. In becoming who Jesus was (and who God is), we don’t give up anything essential about ourselves, but come to a clearer understanding of what is essential, and live to express that in the world, not as robots living from a script, but in ways that are uniquely, beautifully, wondrously, individually “us.”
The qualities we admire in the people on our “most like to be like” list are the qualities that reside within us as latent, undeveloped, perhaps unrecognized and unacknowledged, aspects of ourselves. They are “also us,” and need only to be consciously recognized and incorporated into our actual lives in order to become real. We admire in others what we cannot recognize in ourselves.
Of course, we also hate in others what we cannot allow ourselves to see in ourselves. So there is another list, a list of people we most don’t want to be like. Those people on this other list have qualities that are “also us.” And, we have to recognize that latent potential as well, and integrate it with our positive qualities, consciously working out the “reconciliation of opposites,” in developing our character, which is the spiritual task.
We are shaping ourselves here. We are forming ourselves. We are molding ourselves. We are birthing ourselves. We are becoming ourselves. That is our spiritual practice. We practice being who we are, by recognizing who we also are, working to integrate the opposites, and living to bring into focus, into existence, the best we are capable of being.