List Makers

Americans are obsessed with observable, trackable progress. I’ve noted this for many years in martial arts. For any of you familiar with martial arts you probably know that the system of ranking by colored belts is an American invention. In fact, since I started practicing twenty years ago, the number of belts has increased while the time required between them has decreased. When I started most schools recognized white, yellow, green, blue, brown, and black belts, and there was generally anywhere from three to six months between tests. This time increased the higher you went, so you might wait three months to test from white to yellow, but a year to test from brown to black.  Today I know of many schools that recognize white, yellow, orange, green, blue, purple, red, brown, and black belts, and some schools require less than a month to test from one belt to the next.

This is not what martial arts used to be. I briefly attended one school in Virginia Beach that used an archaic Japanese ranking system. When I started the first thing the instructor told me was that I had to understand that there were no belts in his class. I was a student until he told me to go start a school, at which point I would be an instructor. I had senior students (everyone else in the class), and I was the most junior student. Outside of this there were no ranks, tests, or obvious format of progression. I loved this system, and if I hadn’t moved away, I’d probably still be studying there.

I mention this because it is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in American culture: we want to be in control. Whether it is making a bucket list for the week/month/year, making a detailed list of short/long term goals, or making a list of qualities that we want to see in a spouse, we like to try to control our lives and the world around us. I’m not saying that having a list of goals or desires is a bad thing. It can help keep you on track, help you focus, and help you say no when you need to say no. I have a short list of long term goals that I’m working towards (I’ve posted this before). I have a short list of things that I’m looking for in a future spouse:

1) I want a wife who is a committed Christian with a visible desire to grow closer to Christ.

2) I want a wife who is intelligent and capable of carrying on an interesting conversation.

3) I want a wife who is kind-hearted and compassionate: who consistently puts others before herself.

4) I want a wife who is beautiful to me and to whom I am physically attracted.

5) I want a wife who is between 5 and 11 years younger than me (6-10 ideally, with 8-10 being the real ‘sweet spot’). Right now I’m actively against dating anyone who is more than 11 years younger than I am, simply because it’s been a habit that lead to very painful results in the past.

6) I want a wife who desires me and is willing to pursue me as hard as I pursue her.

7) I want a wife who is a virgin.

I know that I want these things, and I ask God to bring this woman into my life on a regular basis. However, in all of our planning and list-making we often forget one very important detail: we aren’t in control. My life is not my own, it belong to Christ and he can do with this life whatever he desires. God does give us the desires of our heart, but sometimes they don’t look the way we want them to, sometimes he asks us to do insane things, and sometimes he puts us through the ringer before granting those desires. If you don’t believe me, then read Isaiah 19-20, where God makes the prophet walk around naked for three years. Or read Ezekiel, where God makes the prophet lie on his side for a year and a half eating only bread cooked over dung. Or read Jonah, where God makes the prophet go and preach to the people who have oppressed, terrorized, and slaughtered his people for years. Or read Hoshea, where God makes the prophet marry a prostitute and accept children that are most likely not his own. Or read the gospels, where the father commands the son to suffer, die, and pay for sins that are not his own.

We don’t get to control our lives. This is true of everyone, the control that we are looking for is an illusion we create in the hopes of protecting ourselves from fear. However, in the Christian it should be especially true because we actively give up control over our own lives when we choose to follow Christ. Our purpose and highest goal is to glorify him in everything, and that should trump every other desire or goal that we have. Because of this all of my life-goals, all of my desires for a wife, everything that I could list out and say ‘this is what I want’ is negotiable. My will is to be subsumed in Christ, and anyone who thinks that Ezekiel wanted to lie on his side for a year and a half eating dung-bread hasn’t actually read the book. Ezekiel talked God down from making him eat bread cooked over human dung (bargaining with God anyone?), Christ begged God to ‘let this cup pass’ from him. We don’t see these kinds of objections recorded in Isaiah or Hoshea, but it isn’t difficult to imagine the difficulty the prophets had obeying the commands of God.

We must relinquish our need for control in our own lives and in the lives of others and learn to accept the things that God chooses for us. This is the path to true happiness, and this is the path to greater, truer, and more meaningful relationship with God.

It’s Impossible I Tell You!

I have a superman complex. Especially when it comes to romantic relationships. Show me a young, broken, hurting woman who is not ready or willing to commit to a serious relationship and I’ll pursue her for all I’m worth, convinced that I can heal her wounds and we’ll live happily ever after. So far this hasn’t worked well for me, but I think it’s symptomatic of a more significant problem both in me and in American culture as a whole.

As a culture we push for the impossible. This is evident in our entertainment media, in our heroes, in our attitudes, and in the things that we pursue. As a culture we strongly emphasize pursing and doing things that should be impossible. I’ve talked a lot about doing hard things, and I think that it is important to do the things that are hard. The things that challenge us, stretch us, and push us are also the things that grow us as individuals and as a community. It is important to challenge ourselves, to push ourselves, and to set goals the require us to rely on God and on others. That being said, it is equally important to set goals that are realistically achievable.

Actually, one of the foundational keys to success is to set achievable goals, and this is something that we aren’t often encouraged to do. American media and culture encourages us to ‘reach for the stars’, ‘believe in the impossible’, and ‘trust that we can be whatever we want’. However, this has led to a patent and pervasive denial of realism. A few days ago I spoke with a friend of mine who is currently frustrated with waiting for her boyfriend to be ready to commit. I challenged her to set a realistic goal concerning how long she would wait, and her response was ‘I’ll wait for him forever’. While this certainly sounds romantic, it never actually works. We hear stories about the few people who can do something like this, who wait for their beloved for 10, 12, 15, or 20 years. I once knew a man who pursued his ex-wife (who had left him) for sixteen years before finally winning her back. I have to admit that there is a part of me that wishes I could do that, but I can’t. I’ve tried. I can last a few months, maybe a year… but my record is two years before finally giving up.

The attitude that ‘I can do anything’ is clearly and utterly ridiculous. For instance, as an extreme example, I can’t walk out the door of my favorite coffee shop and fly away. I am limited by my physical capabilities. I will also never be an astronaut. I am not mathematically minded enough nor committed enough to truly succeed in this career. Thankfully, I’ve never particularly wanted to be an astronaut. However, the principle is sound. We are all limited by our physical, intellectual, emotional, and psychological abilities, and while it is important to expand those abilities, it is equally important to set goals that are achievable within those abilities. Through hard work, determination, and commitment I can successively set grander and more difficult goals. However, those successive goals must be representative of my expanding abilities (i.e. they must remain achievable).

All to often the attitude I see in myself, and in others, is that I can do anything without effort. I set grand goals for myself (like healing a broken heart or waiting for years for someone) that are not even remotely achievable within my current capabilities. Often I see the same in my students. I can’t count the number of students who have declared to me, in grammatically atrocious (barely understandable) English, that they are going to get a Ph.D. in whatever their chosen field may be. Some are willing to do the word it takes to improve their writing and thinking abilities, but many are not, and this makes their goal clearly unattainable. Doing hard things doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, effort, commitment, and a willingness to suffer in order to obtain even minor steps towards our overall goals. The impossible isn’t easy, and it shouldn’t be easy. It it was, then it wouldn’t be impossible.

Where Do I Want to Be in Five Years?

I’ve been avoiding this question for a long time. Not because I don’t know the answer (honestly the answer hasn’t changed much over the past decade), but because I didn’t believe it was possible. This question has been a source of pain to me, and so I ran away from it. Now, however, I find that the answer is changing. Not entirely, there are some aspects that are still the same, but others have been added, and some have been removed, and the priorities have shifted some I think. So, where do I want to be in five years?

In order of importance:

1) I want to be stronger in my relationship with God. To put a more specific goal on this, I would like to be entering St. Teresa’s sixth mansion. St. Teresa of Avila wrote a book called Interior Castle or The Mansions in which she delineates the spiritual experience of the Christian into seven ‘mansions’ that she describes in depth. At a guess I think that I am somewhere in her third or fourth mansion right now (not sure about that though, it’s a very subjective judgment and I don’t entirely trust myself). In five years I would like to be at least at the doorway to her sixth mansion, if not inside it.

2) I want to be content with wherever God has brought me. This could wind up precluding all of the goals that follow it, honestly. God has taken me many places that I didn’t want to go over the past thirteen years, and I don’t really expect that to stop. However, wherever God has me in fives years, whatever he has me doing, I want to be happy about it. I’ve written before about the fact that happiness has never really been a goal in my life. Well, now I’m making it one. However, as I said then, happiness doesn’t come simply from getting the things I want. I want to have eudaimonia, wherever I am.

3) I want to be married. I’ve said several times that I’m finally happy being single, and that’s true. God has me in a time of romantic solitude at the moment, and I’m finally learning to be okay with that. This is a wonderful thing. However, the desire to have a mate hasn’t left me. I am content to be single, but I still believe that God has someone for me, and that I will find that person someday. I hope that in five years this time of solitude will be over and God will have brought me that person. Maybe not, and if not then see goal number 2, but I hope that he will.

4) I want to be teaching. I’m already teaching, and I love teaching. This is a goal that I’ve already achieved and I don’t want that to change. However, as a sub-goal, I would like to be consistently making $30,000 a year teaching. Given my degrees that’s a little bit harder :P. We’ll see if that’s what God has planned for me. If not, then I think I’m already okay with that. Eudaimonia is not based on income. As another sub-goal, I would like to be out of debt on my credit card (this is actually a short-term goal), and have a significant portion of my student loans paid off.

5) I want to be in the middle of a doctoral program. Given my current academic standing I think five years is a realistic goal for this. I am sure that I’ll need to do a second master’s program before I can even be considered for any of the doctoral programs that I want to pursue. However, a two year masters starting say, fall of 2014, would land me in my second year of a doctoral program five years from now, if things go well. Again, I’m not entirely sure if this is where God is taking me. I want it to be, and there are a few people pushing me in this direction, but I’m not sure if it is. If not… well, I guess see goal two above.

So, this is where I want to be in five years. As I said, goals 1 and 2 trump everything else, and I am fully aware that achieving goal 2 might mean giving up goals 3, 4, and 5, but I have peace with that (right now at least). Making long-term plans is, in all honesty, difficult for me. I’ve seen too many plans and goals turn to dust, and I can’t explain how painful that is. Honestly, I’m not even going to try. Still, God has used that pain to make me a better person, a better man, and a better Christian.

Have you ever read the book Dune? It’s a phenomenal novel. Honestly, I’d argue that it’s the best science fiction novel ever written. Anyway, in Dune there is a prayer… well, they call it a prayer, really it’s more of a mantra… that the Bene Gesserit sisters use:

“I will not fear. Fear is the mindkiller. It is the little death that proceeds complete oblivion. I will let my fear pass over me and through me, and I will turn my inner eye to follow its path. When my fear has gone, there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

I use this mantra on a regular basis, and with a little adaptation it can be equally applied to either physical or spiritual pain:

“I will not hurt. Pain is the mindkiller. It is the little death that leads me to oblivion. I will let my pain pass over me and through me, and I will turn my inner eye to follow its path. When my pain has gone, there will be nothing. Only God will remain.”

God leads us through times of pain and fear in order to stretch us, to grow us, and to draw us to himself. This is, after all, the primary goal of the Christian life, and so I will rely on God to scare me, to hurt me, and to take care of me when he does. I want to achieve the goals that I’ve listed above. They represent my hearts deepest desires. I often think of them as roses that I’ve sheltered and cared for through many terrible storms. Honestly, there have been times when they withered to the point that I thought they would die, but slowly, and with a lot of help, they’ve always been nurtured back to health. However, I have yet to see them bloom, and I truly, deeply want to.