People sometimes ask me about spirituality with a kind of bemused, other times cautious look on their faces. It surprises me how often people launch into confessions of their own faith, or lack thereof; how frequently I hear about the churches people grew up in, and left; how they feel ‘spiritual, but not religious’; how ‘Life’ has come to replace concepts of god and divinity, or serenity and purpose, for them. “That’s life”, people say, where I think it used to be more common to hear “that’s god’s will”. And always, always, with a shrug of resignation. As though we must simply endure our lives, not live them.
It isn’t that we can’t find our purpose, but that we won’t. To say that we can’t is a bit like saying we can’t breathe, or we can’t relax, or can’t concentrate. Of course, we all have difficulties concentrating, breathing, and relaxing. But given the right conditions, any one can relax. In certain areas of our lives, we know powerful concentration. Finding that current or bedrock of meaning in your life is not reaching a different state of consciousness or different circumstances, it is an assent to being where you already are, and some level of awareness about how you are.
Oddly enough, it is often the people who are most ‘religious’ who seem least willing to be themselves, to take responsibility, or to accept things as they are. By delegating all power and all purpose to a god, there is a danger of slipping into excuses, apathy, intolerance, and escapism. There are few things more resentful or vengeful than the belief bad folks will get whats coming to them. Few things more passive than the thought that the whole purpose of your life somehow occurs after life.
There are millions of us, billions, who thus walk around living as though we had half a heart, only one lung, and the world is the worse for it. It is a kind of atrophy and shallowness. It is a forgetting of who we are and what it means to live. It is a mistaking of independence for something like entitlement and privacy – which of course accords with our patriotism and consumerism very well – but neglects the better half of what it means to be a human. Full emotional maturity, real love, ethical life, or any kind of life worth living is a more nuanced sense of independence: one in which we know and accept our selves, and the role the self plays in the world. To be human is not simply to grow old and die. It is also to touch and be touched. To create. To give birth. To have brothers. To admit of faults and work to better them.