I got up early on my day off this week to go on a little hike in the park since it's finally getting warm and sunny in these mountains (knock on wood). There certainly is something about alone time in nature: something that makes us think and reflect, meditate and sit with ourselves in real time.
It's pretty amazing when I look at my life over the past decade and think of what has changed in ten years. About this time ten years ago I was being discharged from a hospital after suffering for most of my teenage years with severe depression (among other things), and being too self-negligent to live without medical supervision.
I'll spare the details, but I was quite far from as joyful as I am now. The years between have taught me- often by pressure, suffering, fog and refining fire- a lot. I've had to confront a lot, get humble with a lot, and get very well acquainted with suffering- so much so that I can actually talk about it now as though it's not a fundamental piece of who I am. The chains, so to speak, are broken. There is freedom.
I think as a matter of being an internal processor, a thinker; quiet, observant, and certainly creative, I let the world and my circumstances overwhelm me much of the time when I was younger (to be fair, I guess, they were sometimes very overwhelming). But those tendencies- to think, to analyze, to process- have also pushed me to seek things in life that, now as an adult, I see many others around me, my age and older, have not.
I always joke that I had my mid-life crisis when I was about 18. But I'm thankful: I'm sure I'll suffer again, I'm sure life won't make sense again at some point, or I won't be sure what the universe is doing; but I'll always have purpose, meaning, and peace of mind- and with these things, what is there to fear? Life does go up and down- but our character doesn't have to.
Years past were, as cliche as it sounds, of existential confusion, lost-ness, sadness, purposelessness; wondering and wandering without a particular aim; believing that life would be better if only I could think better, make my thoughts more positive; 'be with myself lovingly and respectfully' to make my life happy and fulfilling, try, try, try to appreciate the little things.
But the years of growth between then and now have taught me a different truth than I once thought, and have shown me a more profound wisdom than I could have found in my own power: human beings are at their core defined not by what they think, or know, or even believe: they are defined by what they worship.
They are defined by what they believe is the most valuable thing in life, what they keep in the center of their hearts.
You have to think about it carefully: what we worship. I think many people aren't even aware that they worship anything at all, but what I mean by worship is this: whatever we hold absolutely nearest our heart, whatever we exalt the highest, whatever we value the most, whatever we behold as the most important thing we could possibly have in this life.
Whatever people would have to pry out of our hands because we're holding it that tight.
Maybe it's a habit. Maybe it's money, security, or comfort: something we haven't even considered may not be the most important thing in this life. Maybe it's us, ourselves: looking out for our own needs and happiness.
Maybe it's some silent vice or unprocessed grief we won't admit to anyone because it brings us a sense of shame we'd rather not talk about- or don't believe we can overcome.
Maybe (probably, in some form) it's validation for something.
Maybe even it's something that seems innocent enough: being intelligent, getting good grades, getting into the best college. Excelling at something we're gifted at. Chasing a well-intentioned goal or desire. Being an artist or sharing good with the world.
But even these things need a foundation on which to be built that does not leave us desiring most highly what is good for ourselves. For right, optimal living, they should glorify something else.
Psychiatrist and philosopher Viktor Frankl said: "Don't aim at success- the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one's dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself."
This is also true of happiness. In the long run, unless you are working for a cause that posits more than just yourself at the center of your efforts, things will never ultimately work. If you have a 'god'- an idol, an ultimate cause that is centered around self-knowledge and self-want; around you- success (and the happiness you want) will always permanently elude you. We're designed to be in touch, intimacy, and relationship with something more than just ourselves our whole lives long.
The degree to which we realize this determines the depth, joy, and substance of our relationships and our own personal sense of contentment.
We have to, every day, remember not what we think, what we want, or even what we are. We have to remember what we worship. I've learned that this determines everything. We have to inspect what we think is the most important thing in our hearts, the thing we would give anything for.
It's an opposite economy of wisdom than what most of the world wants to believe: putting self-love, thinking of self first and foremost, is a dead end.
Or to be more in-depth, it is not nearly enough. If depression has taught me anything (if any kind of struggle teaches anybody anything ultimately transformative, I'm sure), it's that we do need to learn to see ourselves differently that most of us do: we are not our mistakes. We are not our failures, addictions, vices, shortcomings, or even thoughts about ourselves.
Those things don't define us; they absolutely do not have to ruin us or limit us. What has been done to us is not reflective of who we truly are.
We have to love ourselves, yes- but we also have to love beyond ourselves, and to be on the receiving end of a love that sets us free. It's the sort of 'finally liberating' piece of the puzzle.
It is not enough- over time, in the long run- to convince ourselves that we are worthy or deserving of love. You can stand in front of the literal or metaphorical mirror for a lifetime and self-affirm, but that's never the thing that changes you inside. Mental self-affirmation is popular, and may even work for a time, but it does nothing to change or evolve your ultimate identity, your sense of who you are without having to think about it.
There is a very real miracle in the discovery of grace: you can be set free going forward as though nothing bad had ever happened. It is the true, real, and actually miraculously liberating act of living in the moment: the past has no more chains on you. And it is possible only with forgiveness and love which- before we think we can fabricate it ourselves- we must first be open to receive.
We can only give out what we are getting.
So let's go back to worship. If we worship self- if we believe we are, and our happiness is, the most ultimate aim of life, the thing with the most ultimate value- we have to admit something else that that perspective brings: that real love and genuine compassion cannot come out of us.
Love and compassion will be synthetic- fabricated and imitated at best- unless we have an object of love which is greater, which is higher, than we are first. Unless we have something noble and beautiful for which we would lay our lives down. This is the brand of selflessness that makes marriages work, that makes relationships work, that makes the most general and everyday interactions tick properly and most genuinely.
To let our every interaction and relationship exalt something higher than our wants and need for validation is true love.
If the past ten years have taught me anything, it's that it's short-sighted to believe that true, ultimate love begins and ends with us.
This isn't what psychologists tell you. It certainly isn't what your culture tells you, it's not what academia tells you, and it's not what self-help books tell you. It's not what spirituality that moves with the times tells you. It is what spirituality that touches your heart, soul, and the longing for eternity within you tells you. It's a truth bigger than you; bigger than anything.
We don't call Christianity truth because everything outside it is a "lie"- we call it truth because it provides a foundation which is fundamentally ultimate, because is it has to do with the foundation on which we know it- psychologically, logically, emotionally, spiritually, and humanly- to be the most pure derivative of real and applicable love.
It is an understanding of where life flows from; it is the offering of a narrative that aligns with the design for which we were made to function most optimally and authentically from the inside out. It is the firm foundation.
If we seek to understand the foundation on which our worldview rests, we never have to manage it. We never have to 'strike a balance' with it. Life can stop being lived on the exhausting premise that 'the harder we work' or 'the more knowledge we gain' or 'the better or more successful than the next person we become,' the better life itself will be.
Our worldview is our root system. If the overriding, the ultimate, worldview we hold is that we are loved (this is the Christian worldview), then we can love. It is an understanding that your value and worth- just as other peoples' value and worth- does not change because of actions, thoughts, failures, sins, or inabilities. It is the understanding that value and worth are unconditional. They are given by the grace of God: not out of deservedness, not because of our goodness.
The very fact that we exist is, to the aware heart, not a gift because we like to think it's a gift (even though most of us do). It's a gift because we're convicted enough to give the Giver a proper name and let Him be that thing that we ultimately, most fully, most highly love.
We don't have a choice in regards to whether we suffer. We do have a choice in regards to whether we suffer with hope, and with a secure foundation beneath us that knows 'I am fundamentally not my pain' because I already know fundamentally who I am by the grace of creation, it is possible to live with hope everyday.
And that is at the heart of depression: what do I believe ultimately to be true about myself? And what, at the end of the day, do I worship, do I hold in highest regard. Depression meant I didn't know the honest answer to either of those things. And it meant that other people, mostly subconsciously, assigned me a role that wasn't true- but since no one ever told me about a higher truth at all, I simply believed that 'what I was handed' was somehow 'ultimate,' the 'truth.'
My identity then rested on circumstances, on misgivings, on flaws and hurts and wounds and everything I was that was not good enough. If I had known sooner to focus more on the pure love of God, my ultimate worth- as opposed to trying to 'work on myself' or 'better myself' or 'conquer myself,' I could have been wiser and happier much sooner. But of course, God's timing is not always ours. And His vision is always much better.
Now I know something different. When we've chosen God first, as our ultimate, it's not that we've chosen to live a suffering-free, painless, sunshine-and-roses kind of life. No one can choose that. It's that we've chosen to always know where the light comes from even when it's dark. It's that we've chosen to worship- love, hold in highest regard- ultimate good when things are bad- and even when they're good. That's gratefulness.
It's that the foundational narrative of us being loved does a lot more to eradicate our self-perceived failures than us trying to convince ourselves that we deserve it.
It's that we know what we are worth to God: our worth is fixed, so that we don't have to place it in things like 'how much we are achieving' or 'how much validation we are getting' or 'what other people think' or 'whether or not we are doing 'good enough.''
All of this requires self-surrender, yes. But there is no liberation- and no love- unless we do it. Only if our foundation is built on Love- which is the very character of God as exemplified as the man of Christ- and not self will anything we do in this life thrive, let alone last.
C.S. Lewis wrote: "Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man."
Our culture doesn't tell you that: egotistically, it tells you that the most progressive man has the most followers, the largest reach, the best appearance, or the trendiest, most appealing truth.
But that is what the Christ follower has done: stopped his own sense of progress- however intelligent or logically mapped it may have seemed- and turned back around. I know in my own story this is how I have made any real, forward-moving progress at all. I know if it seems in any way like I am a successful, confident, happy artist or human being, it has not been because I have insisted on getting my way, but the opposite: laying it down.
Humility is an important part of the equation and unless what I did pointed to something higher than myself, it would be empty of meaning, depth, integrity, or longevity.
Inherently, it is not wrong to want others to see, appreciate, and affirm us. It is human. As an artist, it's totally awesome when people love what you do. But it off-centers our hearts- and weakens the foundation of who we believe we ultimately are- if we interact with each other (publicly, privately, relationally, or otherwise) hoping to prove something, or self-amplify, or gain validation that glorifies us.
There's a totally freeing beauty, grace, and truth about the selfless example of Christ, the following of which makes us better not in our 'religious' life, public life, marital life, or social life, but at our foundation- which in turn adequately holds up everything else.
So that's the great teacher, the great secret: it is to not only let go of who you think you are, but to also give it to a higher purpose that has nothing to do with personal gain or glory. The narrative of Jesus is that he who humbles himself to nothing will be given everything.
The narrative of Christian life is that in the end it is the man who surrenders his pride who wins. Not 'wins over others' (because he's not competing), and not 'wins the esteem of the world' (because he doesn't care and isn't looking for it), but wins the unshakable peace and meaningfulness in the whole of life that everyone seeks.
In many ways humility means listening to more than self-doubt. We may have pain and suffering (scratch that, we will have pain and suffering), but it will never be able to take a stronghold over a person who knows who they fundamentally are.
If I could assure anyone anything, it would be that God is in the business of collapsing personal kingdoms for a reason, and part of that reason is to redeem: to save us from ourselves, to bring us to the place we're supposed to be when we're on the wrong road. To give us a new foundation, and to make us a new creation.
"As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete." -Luke 6:47-49