Kurt Vonnegut said, in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Imagination forms action, shapes character. Want to be different? Think differently. And hang out with different people. Don’t think you can be a different person thinking the same thoughts and running with the same people. And don’t think you can think differently without hanging out with different people. The people we spend the most time with restrict the thoughts we can think.
“Who do you think you are?” they say, when you do something “out of character.” “What’s gotten into you?” “You’re mighty uppity all of a sudden!” “I don’t even know you any more!” Our running buddies give us our role, hand us our script, make sure we come in on cue and exit on schedule, and see to it that we read our lines correctly. It is essential that we get those lines down.
Religious fundamentalists—and political revolutionaries—have their lines down. Their rhetoric is well-rehearsed, unedited and unquestioned. It is Party Line all the way. You cannot deviate from the rhetoric and be a religious fundamentalist or a political revolutionary. You can only repeat what you hear. You cannot think about it. You cannot challenge it. You cannot correct or improve it. And, you certainly cannot make fun of it. And, you most absolutely, positively, cannot make any of it up as you go along!
There is an old saying among iconoclasts: “Sacred cows make divine hamburgers.” But, you can’t say that saying in the company of those who worship the cows. You can’t say it twice, anyway. If you want to think outside the box, you have to get outside the box. You have to distance yourself—physically and emotionally—from those who condition your responses to life, who control your thinking, who keep you bound to the Party Line.
How varied is the thinking, do you think, in a group of Hell’s Angels? In a college fraternity of sorority? In a country club in Mississippi or Connecticut? In the church of your choice? How is your thinking restricted by the company you keep? What are the thoughts you never think? The things you never say? What are the thoughts you have to think? The things you have to say? You think that’s “really you,” don’t you? Well, change your crowd and you are a “different you.” So, who are you Really?
The question is not who are you really, but who do you want to be? How do you want to be? What is the personal ideal to which you aspire? “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” And, here’s the important point Vonnegut left unstated: We must pretend to be something. We must intend something, live toward something, imagine something worthy for ourselves.
The most miserable people I know are trying to live away from something. They aren’t living toward anything. They hate themselves. They have failed themselves, or their lives have failed them, in significant ways, and they can’t get over it. They are hung up on, stuck in, what happened to them or failed to happen, what they did, or what they failed to do, and have only a terrible past to bemoan. They have no future at all.
They dread to see a new day dawning because it is only going to present them with additional opportunities to screw up somehow, or a new palate of awful things that might happen to them. They live wishing for a different life. But, they have no clear vision regarding who they want to be instead. They think pretending to be somebody else is delusional and escapist. They don’t understand that the people who have it together got there by pretending to have it more together than was ever actually the case.
In AA terms, we “fake it ‘til we make it.” We pretend to be who, and how, we want to become. Who, and how, do you wish you were? Act as though you are already there. Pretend you are your ideal. Before long, you won’t be able to tell if it’s real or if it’s Memorex. But, in order to pull off the transformation, you’ll have to change your running buddies.
In order to pretend to be anything other than what we are, we have to distance ourselves, physically and emotionally, from the crowd we identify with. “This old gang of mine” won’t let me be different than they have grown accustomed to me being. They are bound to keep me unchanged and unchanging forever. What happens when you go back home? Did you, at one time in the long ago and far away, like Lemon Ice Box Pie and Bread Pudding? Guess what you’ll get, even though you are twenty-five pounds over-weight and trying to avoid the carbs. They will call you what they called you in your youth and ask you how’s the fishing in North Carolina, even though you haven’t fished in twenty years, and accuse you of being a traitor to the tradition if you tell them as much.
Do you think Dick Vitale can stop saying “Baby” and still be a color commentator? Do you think Rosie O’Donnell can start being nice and continue to be whatever it is that she is? We can’t change without changing our lives. Sometimes, without moving away. Distance is essential to growth. We have to put space between us and that which would keep us as we have always been.
Can you begin to see how silence is the foundation of integrity, of living in ways that are integral to that which is deepest, best, and truest about us? Silence is a way of working distance into the framework of our lives. Silence gives us breathing room, frees us to become aware of how it is with us and what needs to change in order for us to change. Silence is as important as the right kind of company.
The right kind of company is the kind of company that listens closely to us, and inquires gently of our understanding of what is good, and holds before us the mirror of soul and spirit. In the presence of the right kind of company, we see ourselves, not as our company thinks we ought to be, but as we are. And we decide for ourselves if that is who, and how, we want to be. And, if not, we are enabled by the right kind of company to imagine who we want to be instead, and encouraged to pretend that we are that way until the “is” and the “ought” become one.
Of course, this means there is a certain degree of emotional distance in, and among, the right kind of company. The right kind of company is not enmeshed and co-dependent, with everyone minding everyone else’s business, and controlling everyone else’s lives, and tippy-toeing around everyone else’s feelings, and walking carefully as though on egg shells so as not to upset any apple carts or rock any boats. We cannot honor the Christ and the Buddha within each other without allowing each other the freedom to form our own thoughts and know our own heart, and live toward our own ideas of who we ought to be.
“Who do others say that I am?”, asked Jesus of his disciples. And then, “Who do YOU say that I am?” On another occasion he asked, “Why don’t you decide for yourselves what is right?” This from a man who is also said to have said, “The Father and I are one,” and “My meat is to do the will of the one who sent me, and accomplish his work.” It is not a “far stretch,” as they say in the deep south, to conclude that when we are most truly ourselves, we are most fully divine—that when we are “as we are,” we are “as God is.”
Ah, but! How do we get to who we are when we are so much the product of the company we keep? It’s called “spiritual practice.” Spiritual practice is anything that helps us toward clarity, that provides us the opportunity for focus, reflection, inquiry, and openness. Spiritual practice is anything that gets us out of the box and enables us to think about the box, to see the box, and to see ourselves seeing the box. Spiritual practice is not indoctrination. It is not absorption into a body of perceived truth. It is the path to a perspective that takes itself into account. So that we think about our thinking and intend what we pretend to be in light of what is deepest, best, and truest about us.
Here is where the Search for the Holy Grail, the Spiritual Journey, the Spiritual Quest and the Process of Maturation become the one thing that they are. As we grow into our ideal self, we grow into Christ, into Buddha, into God. As we do the work of integrating our holy depths—that which is deepest, best, and truest about us—with the practical necessities of life in the world, we incarnate God in the ordinary exchanges of the day-to-day.
It begins with our pretending to be more than we are, with our working to align ourselves with a compassion beyond our compassion, a grace beyond our grace, a gentleness and kindness beyond our ability to be gentle and kind. Then, when we go home, we can turn down the offer of Lemon Ice Box Pie and Bread Pudding, and show the guys at the Post Office our photographs of Death Valley and tell them the canoe has become a camera, and take them out for a beer. Because, while some things change, some things never do.