You are you. I am me. You are who you are. I am who I am. The problem is that you don’t want to be who you are, and I don’t want to be who I am. We want to be thinner, and taller (or shorter), and richer, and better looking. We want different parents and different points of origin. I’m, frankly, tired of wishing I had different parents, so I put myself up for adoption last week. My plan is to keep doing that until I find the parents that are right for me.
We don’t want to be who we are, where we are, what we are, how we are, why we are. We want to be someone else instead. Teachers want to be singers, singers want to be movie stars, movie stars want to authors, authors want to be lecturers, lecturers want to be gurus, gurus want to run pubs… There is no end to it. No one wants to be who they are. But, here’s the deal. You ARE who you are! I AM who I am. Trying to be who we are not is the essence of sin, using the old terminology.
Sin is exactly not wanting this, but wanting that instead, until we get it. Then that becomes this, and we no longer want it, but want something else instead. The spiritual path, journey, trek, task, and all the spiritual practices and disciplines are about the return to the self that we are. The search for the Holy Grail is about the search for the life that is our life to live. “What I do is me,” says Gerard Manly Hopkins, “for that I came.” Bingo. That’s what needs to be done.
But, it is not easy. There is a reason things are the way they are, you know. There is a reason for everything, you know. And, the reason is that it’s easier that way. We have to give up our dreams for ourselves to be the self that we are. We have such beautiful dreams, it’s hard to let them go. And so, one of the themes of the spiritual path, journey, trek, task is Death and Resurrection.
All of the old Biblical themes fit right into the search for the self, the search for the life that is our life to live. Bondage and Freedom. Sin and Salvation. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Guilt and Redemption. Repentance and Deliverance. On the spiritual level, the truth is always true. And, there is always hell to pay.
Hell comes about when we try to have “all this and heaven, too.” Trying to have it all is hell, and choosing to not have it all is hell, and we have to pass through hell to get to heaven. The angel with the flaming sword stands guarding the gate to Paradise. All the heroes and knights encounter monsters and demons and great tests of spirit. Dying is easy, living is hard. We don’t just wake up one day and say, “Starting to day, I am going to be who I am.”
I know this is not what you want to hear. I’m sorry to be the one who tells you, but, I’ve looked around. Made inquiries. Done the research. There is no one else. Everyone else is in the Joel Osteen camp. Joel Osteen is every mother’s ideal child. Joel Osteen is who you become by listening to your mother. He is what happens to you if you follow her advice, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” But, the truth is it is not a light trip to the light.
Now, I fully understand that I’m not supposed to say things like that to you. I’m supposed to tell you good news. You feel bad enough everywhere else in your life. You come here to be uplifted, relieved, revived. You come here to lay your burden down. This is supposed to be the place where you hear about the bright sides and the silver linings.
The church of our experience has existed to make us feel better about our life, our lot. Heaven has been held out to us as the place where it will be made up to us. Where sorrow and sighing will flee away and tears will be no more. Where the great reversal of fortune will take place, and the have-not’s will have for eternity all the things, and more, that they didn’t have for the thirty, or sixty, or ninety years that they lived upon the earth. “So, children, don’t even think about the misery of these days,” we were counseled. “Just concentrate on the glory that will be yours when the role is called up yonder, and your name is on the list.”
Religion’s place in our lives is to enable us to feel better, if not good, about the way things are. “Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobbie sang the blues, feeling good was good enough for me, good enough for me and Bobbie Magee.” Feeling good is not always easy, but it seems to be always what we seek. We want to feel good about our lives, about life, and living, and being alive. And, there is much, it seems, to feel bad about. “We get by with a little help from our friends.” Our friends, of course, are amphetamines and hallucinogens and Jack Daniels, and Bobbie Magee. We need help because it’s hard, but we need the right kind of help from the right kind of friends.
It’s hard because we stand squarely in the middle between life as it is, on the one hand, and life as we wish it were, on the other. We cannot get out of that middle no matter what we try. Here is the way it is. Here is the way we wish it were instead. There you are. That’s it, for the rest of your life. We cannot expect to feel good about life being what it is and not what we wish it were. And, we have to make our peace with that.
The task of life is coming to terms with the terms and conditions of life. The great work is putting ourselves into accord with the way things are. The spiritual task is to live, really LIVE, on the boundary between denial and despair. Seeing, knowing, understanding exactly how things are, and living as those who are fully, joyfully alive anyway, nevertheless, even so. The word for that kind of life is hope.
Hope is not optimistic, remember. Hope sees things as they are, peers straight into the red eyes of the monster called Reality, and smiles. Hope is not afraid of how it is. Hope doesn’t care what its chances are. Hope just does what is to be done, what needs to be done, what is there to do. Hope enables us to be who we are—to be true to ourselves—within the terms, and conditions, and context of our lives.
Being who we are is all there is. Living the life that is ours to live within the terms, and conditions, and context of life as it is, is it. You are you. You are who you are. What keeps you from being who you are? What keeps you from doing what is yours to do? You want to know where joy is to be found? Be who you are. Do what is yours to do. This is the essence of spirituality and life, abundant life, joyful life. But, we cannot be who we are and live any way at all. When we are being who we are, we are living in ways that are aligned with, in synch with, the integrity of our being, of our lives, of the life that is ours to live. “We know when we are on the beam and when we are off of it.” Yet, fooling ourselves is what we do best. There you are. The crux of the matter.
Who is running the show? Who is directing the action? Who is determining what we do with our lives? Who decides what constitutes the life that is our life to live? Who says who we are? We can want what we have no business having. How do we know whether we have any business having what we want? We have a mind of our own. How do we identify, surrender to, and serve the mind that is our true mind, the mind that knows who we truly are? How do we get to the place of living out of the spontaneity, out of the authenticity, of our being? Of being aligned with who we are and why we came? How do we find our way to ourselves?
The search for ourselves, for the integrity of our lives, is the search for the Holy Grail, the spiritual journey, the spiritual path, the spiritual task. We get there by asking, and answering, the Grail questions. The first Grail question is “What is the problem? What’s the matter? What’s the trouble? What ails you?” Or, to put it another way, What do you have that you don’t want? And, What do you want that you don’t have? That’s it. Get to the bottom of that and you have it made.
The problem is solved by getting what we want or by changing what we want. But, we don’t what to change what we want. We want what we want. That’s the problem. We are the problem. “We have met the enemy and the enemy is us.” We want to find the Holy Grail, and we stand in our own way, and won’t give way. Stubborn to a fault. Life on our terms or not at all! Something has to give. There is no making it easy. There is no talking you into what must be done. Either you can take it, or you can’t (the pain of surrender, that is). Either you have what it takes, or you don’t. Asking the first Grail question takes you to the heart of the matter. The problem is you. What are you going to do?
In Christian terminology, this is the point of conversion, of submission to the will of God. It is the point of handing ourselves over, of surrendering our ideas of how things ought to be, and accepting God’s will, using the old terminology, for our lives. “Thy will, not mine, be done.” The problem, of course, is, who is to say? Who is to say whether this is “God’s will” or our will that is being done? Is it our life we are living or our ideas for our life? We do, of course, we say, and that tilts the table dramatically in our favor. So, in the showdown with ourselves, we have the clear advantage. Even if we have the best of intentions, and really, truly, mean to embrace and submit to the life that is ours to live, never mind what we wish it were, fooling ourselves is what we do best. We can tell ourselves we are giving up what we want in order to live aligned with the life that is our life to live, without anything changing about the way we think about our lives or live them.
We must not push too quickly past this point of confrontation with ourselves over who is in charge and whose wants and wishes and desires are governing our choices and determining our actions. In Christian terminology, this is the place of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. It is exactly about who is making the calls about the way life is to be lived. In the Gospels, Jesus’ opponent is Satan. Today, we can understand the Great Satan to be ourselves, our wants and wishes about how our life is to be run. And, that Satan Self is never far away. We do not distance ourselves from that self, but carry out the conversation about who is in charge and who decides how life is to be lived all the way to the grave. It has to be the right kind of conversation, carried out in the company of the right kind of people, or we wind up kidding ourselves and telling ourselves exactly what we want to hear. The search for our authentic self is a search for authentic selves who can help us along the way.