“ANY CULTURE TELLS YOU HOW TO LIVE your one and only life: to wit, as everyone else does.” — Annie Dillard1
“What Do I Want?” is not a conversation I could have had with myself as a child or even for a significant period of my adult life. I grew up with a shame-based core2 and lived in an impoverished world: not impoverished financially, although there was some of that, but impoverished in mindset. While I had a vibrant imagination and dreams, I wasn’t capable of designing an executable vision or purpose beyond the horizon of my present circumstances. Even if I could see a better future, I didn’t believe I “deserved” a better life because of the limiting effects of shame. Instead of seeing myself equal to others, I was “programmed” to believe I belonged near the “bottom rungs of the ladder of success”. Success in my situation was staying off the bottom rung where the so-called “losers” were.
When you start at this place in life, people relate to you in a way that reinforces shame. This reinforcement came from teachers, neighbors, other kids, and even family members. You also “teach” people not to respect you because you don’t know how to command respect from others — or feel you even deserve respect. (I’m also fortunate. I had influences in my life telling me I was more than my circumstances and they believed in me. Much of this wouldn’t take root until later in life, but it mattered more than they know.)
When I was 21, I became a Christian (or embraced Christianity at a much deeper level). I had an unfathomable transformation of my life. In this “mystical” conversation, I was accepted by God, restored to my true self, and released from shame. I was fueled with a desire to grow and become something more in life. The vast majority of this transformation, God did independent of human intervention. I still can’t fully explain this experience. I just know it happened.
I used to try and reflect on how much God did for me. I gradually realized God didn’t do that much for me other than the abundant grace he gives many of us. He did something better. He released me from the shame-based prison and the impoverished mindset saying, “Now live your life!” I didn’t fully understand what he was doing at the time and was drawn back into the familiar world of shame. The return to shame came shortly after my “conversion” when I became fundamental/evangelical Christian. (Note: As I continue with my story, these are my experiences and how I intersected with the fundamentalist/evangelical culture. I’m not intending this as a commentary on either of these overlapping cultures.)
I experienced a number of positives from evangelical/fundamental Christianity, but there was also a “dark side” to my experience. The perpetuation of shame along with the belief that we don’t deserve anything better in life was “Christianized” and reinforced. This was compounded by accepting “powerlessness” as you should “wait on God” and trust leaders instead of taking action to manage your own life. You should also acquiesce to the whims and selfish behavior of others including leaders. This acquiescence was bolstered by the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. You shouldn’t think for yourself because the Bible has all the answers. (Technically, you could “think for yourself” as long as you arrived at the same conclusions as the leaders and doctrines of the church.)
The creative self was regarded as selfish and unnecessary, unless it fit within the rigid definitions of what constituted “art”. The suppression of art chipped away at personhood. Ultimately, I found my experience with the fundamental/evangelical culture very similar to the shame-based world of my childhood. You’re powerless to change your life, but it added a “spiritual” and authoritarian element to help you become and remain powerless.
An essential part of the human existence, including Christianity, is to appropriately ask “What do I want?” and “What do I want from God?” and “How should I live my life?” Here are a few things I learned along the way:
Figure out what I really want:
“For what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values.3
Find a healthy culture, but preserve your identify:
A “culture” can be healthy or unhealthy or some combination of both. A healthier culture has a symbiotic relationship that benefits the “we” and frees and preserves the “me”. A healthy culture will ultimately help you find your identity, not absorb it.
God is interested in what I want:
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)4
Find our own life, no matter how wonderful our present circumstances are:
John Quincy Adams had remarkable parents (John and Abigail Adams), yet, he didn’t simply want their life. He saw things differently and had the confidence to pursue it: “The family I am in, presents as perfect a scene of happiness, as I ever saw: a life of Tranquility is to them a life of bliss. It could not be so to me. Variety is my Theme. and Life to me is like a journey, in which an unbounded plain, looks dull and insipid; while it affords greater pleasure to be surrounded by a beautiful valley. altho’ steep and rugged mountains must be overcome, before it can be got at. I know not whether my Choice is the wisest” and it is possible I may live to change it; but such it is, at present.” (Emphasis mine) 5
Break the rules: When we’re exploited or beaten down, break the “invisible rules” that oppress us and fight for ourselves:
I’m taking more risks now
I’m stepping out of line
I put up my fists now
Until I get what’s mine (Laura Marling)6
There are times where it’s important to stand up for ourselves.
Ask God for what you want: (Just don’t assume God will do for you what you can do for yourself, but he will bless your effort.)
Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked. (I Chronicles 4.10)
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7.7-8)7
Find Our Own Voice: One of the greatest contributions to our own lives and to others is to find our own voice. People want to hear from YOU. In this remarkable Old Testament poem, at a time of oppression, freedom and egalitarianism break through:
of the gardens,
of the voice
friends listen for,
will you let me hear you? 8
Your life belongs to you, not someone else. Figuring out what you want out of life is not selfish. It’s part of being human and it’s part of being a Christian. I encourage you to become YOU!
1 Annie Dillard: The Abundance. Narrative Essays Old and New. This is the Life. HarperCollins Publishers. p. 117.
2 “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Brene Brown: The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden Publishing. Center City, MN. 2010. p 39.
3 A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley.
4 Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches. HarperCollins Publishers.
5 John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779-1821. David Waldstreicher, editor. The Library of America. Penguin Random House.
6 Laura Marling. Short Movie. How Can I. 2015. Virgin Records. Producers: Laura Marling, Matt Ingram, Dan Cox.
7 Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches. HarperCollins Publishers.
8 The Song of Songs. Marcia Lee Falk. HarperCollins. 1990. Poem translated from the Song of Songs by Marcia Lee Falk.