We have to start somewhere, so let’s start with the assumption that we all want to do it well, do it right. Life, that is. We all want to enjoy the satisfaction of having lived well. Who is to say what constitutes a well-lived life? Who sets the standards? Assesses the effort? Determines the worth? How do we gauge success?
There are models all over the board. Abe Lincoln. Winston Churchill. Gregory Peck. Donna Reed. Martin Luther King, Jr. Gandhi. The Buddha. Jesus of Nazareth. Rosa Parks. Helen Keller. Anne Sullivan. Albert Schweitzer. Oscar Romero. Groucho Marx… The list is long. Whose name would you add to the collection? What sets them apart? The people on the list lived very different lives. Some of them took vows of poverty and lived as, and with, the poorest of the poor. Some of them enjoyed the opulence of wealth and celebrity status. What is it about each of them, all of them, that suggests successful living? How would we decide, looking at them, that here are people who did it well, who did it right?
Whatever it is, it comes in different packages. It is expressed in different life styles. It comes out in different ways. They all don’t wear a robe and walk in sandals wherever they go.
We have the idea that there is a mold, a form, our lives have to fit into if we are to live well. There is an ideal that we have to emulate. Service we must render. We have to forget, abandon, neglect self, for instance, and live for others. On what level? I’d say both Gandhi and Winston Churchill forgot self and lived for others, but they did it on very different levels, for different periods of time.
Not many of us are truly comfortable with the response we are making to the call to “live well.” We are sure we aren’t doing enough. We are sure we should be doing more. We should be more “that” way and less “this” way. We think we should be doing it like they are doing it over there, or like they did it back then. We do not think anyone should do it like we are doing it. We have some strange ideas about “successful living.”
The Ideal Christian Life used to mean “everything in moderation” and no smoking, drinking, gambling, cussing or carousing. Now, you can cuss if you want to, but you have to be involved regularly in service/mission projects to the poor and underprivileged. And, you cannot drive an SUV, or eat real butter. You have to experience “the joy of giving.” Yet, how much of a gift is it if you have to give it? You can’t ask the question. And, you can’t think of yourself as a “successful Christian” if you don’t comply with the ideal. But, who sets the standard, and how is the standard changed? How do we decide what we have to do in order to live successfully, whether as a Christian or not?
Who do we admire? What is admirable about them? How do we come to value “these” attributes and not “those”? We are flirting here with the idea of “the cultural ideal.” The cultural ideal—and the culture can be “the west,” or “IBM,” or “Christianity,” or one of a thousand other sub-cultures within The Culture—is there from the start. “We,” collectively, have an idea of how it ought to be done. “We,” individually, feel more or less guilty and uncomfortable with our perception of how far we fall from achieving the cultural ideal. It is one of the functions of “the culture” in our lives to keep us pointed toward “how we ought to be.” It is one of the tasks of maturity and spiritual development (And I do not know how those two things can be separated. I cannot imagine an immature person with a well-developed spirituality) to stand apart from the cultural ideal and decide for ourselves who and how we shall be. As we do that, we are creating a “counter-culture.”
Spirituality is necessarily “counter-cultural.” Spirituality says, “Hey! Wait a minute!” about very nearly everything. Everything passes in review. Everything comes up for evaluation. We don’t do anything just because it’s being done all around us. And, we can’t do any of this on our own. Alone, we can be anti-cultural, but not counter-cultural. We need a culture to counter the culture! Which means that we have to find people who are able to ask the questions that need to be asked about the cultural ideal, in order to ask the questions and form “our,” collectively speaking, own ideal, and live to align ourselves with it.
Who, and how, is it important to us to be? Who are the people with whom we can talk this through? Think this through? Where do we go to figure out, to decide, who, and how, it is important to us to be? Who represents the counter-cultural force in our lives? Who helps us resist the common assumptions of the day and create alternative models of the life well lived? To what extent do they value our voice, enable us to “speak our mind,” and encourage us to develop our own ideas of the ideal—our own ideal of who and how it is important to be? We need to hang out for a while with the people who help us in these ways—if we are fortunate enough to know any of them. If we don’t know any of them, the plan is to “become what we need”—to be as much like them as we can be—and see who is attracted to us. We create community according to the Zen maxim, “When the flower opens, the bees appear.” We “bloom where we are,” to the extent that is possible, and see what happens. There is a lot of waiting around, and very little hurrying along, on the way to living the way life ought to be lived.