Being Yourself

I have a friend that I deeply admire. She’s actually a barista at my favorite coffee shop, but I’m there so much that I consider most of the barista’s friends at this point, or at least close acquaintances. This particular young woman, let’s call her Michelle, impresses me because she is always herself. I… am not always myself. Don’t get me wrong, I always try to be myself, but there are times that I wind up being someone else, or trying to be someone else, to impress someone, or to hide some insecurity, or to protect myself from getting hurt. I think that I can honestly say that I am usually myself, but not always.

I’ve never seen Michelle be less than herself. She has a unique personality that is inspiring both in it’s confidence and in it’s openness. I can’t say that she’s not afraid to share who she is (I don’t know the inner workings of her mind), but if she is afraid, she doesn’t let it stop her. Michelle doesn’t seem concerned with impressing people, and in being unconcerned she is impressive precisely because she isn’t trying to be unconcerned. I’ve written a fair amount about striving. Striving for success, for coolness, for likablility, for wealth, for attraction, for godliness, for… whatever… we strive for the things we want, we push, we fight, and weep, and we are never satisfied. Michelle strikes me as a person who is simply satisfied.

I’m probably wrong in this, at least to some degree. I’m sure that she has her share of problems, and I’ve certainly seen her on off days when she wasn’t particularly happy with something. I’ve seen her on days when she’s down in the dumps, on days when she’s still asleep, on days when she’s bright and chipper, and on days when she’s just plain frustrated with something. I’ve seen her struggling with problems she didn’t know how she was going to handle. So I’m not trying to say that Michelle’s life is perfect, or that she handles life perfectly. However, I can say that she handle’s life honestly.

I am forced here to think of another young woman I met at this coffee shop, a very pretty young woman to whom I was quite attracted… until I spent a little time talking to her. I honestly don’t even remember her name, but we’ll call her Red Dress… it was what first attracted me to her… unlike Michelle, my few conversations with Red Dress have seemed… less then genuine. She strikes me as a person who forces herself to be happy, even when she isn’t, because it’s the Christian thing to do. I remember one of my first conversations with Red Dress, she put on one of the most plastic smiles I’ve ever seen, and told me that I too could be filled with unbelievable joy… the only thing I could think was that if the ‘joy’ I saw in her was the joy she was offering, I didn’t want any part of it. Michelle is joyful, even on her crap days she exudes a sense of wonderment about God and the world around her. Red Dress is… fake.

One of the most important things that any of us can do is to be honest with ourselves. If we are not honest with ourselves, then we cannot be honest with others. If we cannot be honest, then we cannot be ourselves. We will put up fronts, masks, falsehoods without even realizing it, and all to often, people can see through these into our actual selves. Masks are a natural part of being. A natural part of living. That doesn’t make them good.

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Getting What You Ask For

Taoism provides an interesting philosophical trap. I think that it is a good trap to fall into, but it is a trap nonetheless. Taoist teachings promise great authority and ability at persuasion, the ability to bend the world to your will and to make people do what you desire. However, to achieve these abilities one must truly, thoroughly, and permanently give up any desire to have authority, any ambition of the will, and any pursuit of power. In leaving off these things the ability to bend the world to one’s desires becomes obvious, but one’s desire to bend the world is gone. I think I’ve rather over-simplified this argument, and I have no doubt that both Laozi and Holmes Welch (the author of the book on Taoism I’m reading) would shake their heads in consternation at my inability to effectively express these ideas.

Nonetheless, reading today had me thinking about the many biblical promises that God will grant our every desire, and how they form the same wonderful trap. There are many places in scripture in which we are told that if we abide in Christ then we may ask whatever we desire and it will be granted. Note the italicized phrase there… it’s really important and I’m going to come back to it.

I used to work for a ‘Christian’ ministry company that prayed with people over the phone. People would call in and ask for prayer about something, and we would pray with them. Needless to say we had a lot of strange calls… I actually still have a list somewhere of 1400+ of the strangest prayer requests you’ve ever heard. Someday I plan to publish it… I should do that actually…. Anyway, the point, that I seem to have ambled away from rather thoroughly, is that the vast majority of the callers wanted magic. They believed that if you said the right words, in the right way, and with the right person that God has to give you what you ask for. We all tend to do this to some degree.

Richard Cavendish, a historian and occult author, defines magic as the manipulation of supernatural forces to achieve the magician’s temporal ends. This is a good definition, although my personal definition of magic is the illusion that man can control supernatural forces. In either definition the power is a reality. I am always amazed at people who believe in miracles but not in magic, or people who believe in God but not in demons.  However, the mistake that many Christians make is the attempt to control God. Whether we do so through bargaining, words of power (often scripture taken out of context), or ritual, the goal is the same: we want to make God give us what we want.

However, this is not what the New Testament promises. The New Testament promises that if we abide in Christ then God will give us what we want. However, when I am truly abiding in Christ, then my desires are few. Primarily, my desire is to know and pursue him more fully. Other desires fade away, or at least become unimportant by comparison, and when my desire is to know and pursue Christ more fully, then of course God is going to grant my desire. It is a beautiful trap, and it is a trap that seeks to and succeeds in making us both better and happier. Laozi said ‘Let me have few desires and be happy’ (I’m paraphrasing here). I think I agree with him.

Love, Hate, and Taoism

I’ve been reading a book about Taoism that has helped more clearly understand Taoist concepts and their relation to Christian concepts. I’ve written about the concept of Wu Wei before, and I think I’m still somewhat enamored of the idea, but perhaps not as much. Laozi puts forth the idea that being is better than doing. This idea, as Holmes Welch describes it in the book I’m reading (Taoism: The Parting of the Way), is the concept that attitude is better than action. Laozi’s argument, in its essence, is that when we act we provoke reaction, and the reaction will often be in opposition to the action that we take. Laozi’s answer to the evils of his day was to take no action to stop them, oppose them, or even address them, but to simply ‘be’ good. His argument was that in being good one’s nature would naturally stand in opposition to evil without actively opposing that evil, which would create a strong reaction from said evil. Laozi argued that no one can fight with the sage simply because the sage refuses to fight. Mahatma Ghandi’s life was an excellent example of this principle in action, as was Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement.

This same concept can be seen in portions of the scripture (i.e. if a man strikes one cheek, give him the other), but Laozi takes the concept further than scripture allows us to do. Laozi argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Doing and Not Being (i.e. true attitude is better than hypocritical action), but he also argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Being and Doing (because action causes reaction). However, scripture commands both Being and Doing. 1st John is an excellent example of this. John commands us throughout this book to an attitude of love (agape). He juxtaposes love with two possible opposites though: first he tells us that a man who hates his brother does not love God. Here Love (i.e. a deep emotive concern for the well-being of another, even at the expense of one’s own) is juxtaposed with Hate (i.e. a deep emotive concern for the harm of another, even at the expense of one’s own well-being).

It is important not to confuse this Love/Hate juxtaposition with the Love/Hate juxtaposition used in Paul’s legal terminology. Paul tells us that God ‘loved Jacob, but hated Esau’. Does this mean that God had a ‘deep emotive concern for the harm of Esau’? Of course not. This is a legal use of the terms ‘love’ and ‘hate’ that reflects a covenantal choice that holds no emotive value. God did not wish Esau harm, but he did choose Jacob through whom to continue the spiritual line of Abraham, a place for which Esau was rejected. This is important, but entirely different from the emotive love/hate juxtaposition that John creates in his letter.

However, John does not simply juxtapose love to hate. He also tells us that ‘he who does not love his brother does not know God’. Thus, love is also juxtaposed with apathy. Hence it is not enough to show love by not hating another, but we must also show love by showing a deep emotive concern for another’s well-being. This concept is necessarily active in nature. While the love/hate juxtaposition could potentially reflect a non-active attitudinal love, the love/apathy juxtaposition cannot. This is also reflected in James’ exhortation that ‘faith without works is dead’. Thus a very, very important difference between Laozi’s philosophy and Christian philosophy is the necessity of action. Scripture certainly argues that Being and Not Doing is better than Doing and Not Being. However, scripture absolutely argues against the concept that Being and Not Doing is better than Being and Doing.

The other area of major difference is that of ultimate goal or purpose. Laozi’s writing was ultimately concerned with the temporal (though not necessarily material) world. He sought an answer to the warfare that was rife in China during his lifetime (which was probably somewhere between 60 and 200 years, if he existed at all… I must confess that I cannot bring myself to argue that Adam lived 900 some years, Abraham 180 years, Moses 120, and yet completely reject the notion that Laozi may have lived for 200 years). Ultimately, Laozi’s argument is that through Being and Not Doing we can more effectively implement our will in the world than through Doing and Not Being, or through Being and Doing.

However, the ultimate goal or purpose of the Christian is not to implement our will in the world, but to glorify the Godhead (I’ve said this many times) in part by implementing his will in the world (though this is not our only means of glorifying him). Thus, Laozi’s philosophy and Christian philosophy again find themselves at odds simply because of the source of the will that they seek to enact. There are many good things in Laozi’s philosophy, and his concept of Being as primary is one that I think many American Christians need to embrace. However, ultimately, the differences, as well as the similarities, must be addressed, and it is never enough to only examine one or the other.