Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Being Happy: The Power of Suffering & Un-Positive Thinking

I ran a half marathon last weekend. And it can be a funny thing when you tell people you have decided to pay money and run for 13 miles as fast as you can. Most find it a combination of impressive and insane. Some understand. Others seem humorously disgusted.

The truth is, I think a little like all of those people. Which is why I ran a half marathon.

I've learned in the past few years of my life that there's something important about doing things we're not inclined to want to do: things that don't necessarily make us 'feel good,' things that cost something- and don't give us satisfaction immediately

It's in doing these things that growth happens: not just physical, but mental, and emotional, and cognitive more so.

It's counter-intuitive, but there's something very empowering about learning to become self-motivated in pursuit of a cause that doesn't necessarily immediately serve or gratify desires of the self. 

And as I think about it, there's an extensive list of things to which this principle applies, things I really didn't like doing when I first started, that I now find very satisfying but definitely didn't at first.

Painting. Running. School. Working. Travelling. Being alone. Building my life.

Painting was no fun at first because I was bad at it. And running, because I was slow at it. And college, because you don't know everything all at once- and change, transition, and sticking with something for your future is hard; and it was not only easier but more natural, more instinctive, to think of excuses for why it wasn't necessary (at least for me).

Working, because- like anyone who's started a new job knows- there's a learning curve, and no one likes struggling with things they haven't yet mastered.

And travelling, because when you head outside your comfort zone for the first time in your life, your assumptions get challenged and you have to reassess things- your world, and yourself. And that can be a lot of work. (The reward is very big, yes; but you don't know that upfront. Which makes starting the hard part.)
Same with being alone. Same with building a life. But where we look at it- with our limited, self-centric perspectives confined only to the time we're in- God looks at it with an eternal, bigger, more authentic perspective. With faith, our suffering, setbacks, and hard, less-than-ideal moments are guaranteed to serve a purpose.

The catch is that that 'purpose' isn't us.

And what do setbacks and hardships and suffering have in common? Well, they are hard. They are not always enjoyable to endure. They are not easy processes to undergo- no less voluntarily.

And they all- each one of them- put us face to face with the ego we try (partly totally consciously, partly in complete self-blindness) to pretend we do not have.

That's really the hard part. And that's why I run.

And paint, and move across the country if need be, to take a step in the direction of growth, even if it means leaving comfort behind; and believe and have faith; and write, and read, and take time to learn.

Because amazing things happen to the human soul (more powerful than to the human mind, even) when we move for something, for some cause; when we finally realize the ultimate personal power and freedom that commitment to the Lord- to something higher than self-advancement- brings. (In a world, no less, which often tells us that 'personal freedom is commitment to nothing,' that makes 'free-spiritedness' synonymous with 'lack of conviction for anything in particular').

No truly free spirit is not alive for something, burning for something, evolving in something higher than self or self-knowledge.

A certain amount of fear goes away, I think I've found, when we get on course and stick to it. A lot of fear, actually- and there's an abundance of freedom in that. It's not so much the 'thinking of happy thoughts,' or 'being positive'- these appealing ideas that are very attractive- that create a life of peace and contentment. It's something else, I think. It's something bigger.
I was sort of thinking these thoughts during my race, letting these realizations flow. I think you start to notice something about the limitedness of the human attitude when you start to challenge yourself to do things that are truly bigger than it can handle, visualize, see, or even believe in. 'Positive thinking' or 'a good attitude' are not really the things that carried you through on mile ten, when you want to stop.

They might have been the things that motivated me to sign up for the race, but they're not the faculties that made a difference when I wanted to quit. Faith is like that too. You have to have a hope beyond you.

A good attitude and happy thoughts are not really the things that build your character through life.

And this idea actually reminded me of an interesting analogy I heard at church a few weeks ago: that to chase after faith, to live a life wholly committed to God (to knowing Him, serving Him, loving Him; and submitting to Him instead of ego), believers must have what our pastor referred to as a runner's mentality:

a strength, endurance, and stamina to committedly pursue something when the rewards are not immediate, and 'good feelings' for the self are not the ultimate goal.

This is not necessarily our human nature: but I have learned that with the Spirit of God, it is our spiritual one. As humans, we like good feelings. We're pleasure-seekers by nature- and our 'change your life, be happy now' culture loves to capitalize on that much more than it loves to vulnerably face a harder, more eternal truth: that our constant want for simply 'happiness' is always the thing that robs us of it. 
But having a 'runner's mentality' in faith has taught me how to go about any other situation. Pushing through to make it as an artist. Pushing through to make it through a race. Pushing through when it's hard and difficult and things don't feel good.

'Positive thinking' sort of makes it okay for us to have a generally bad, cynical, or hopeless response to most things, as long as we can sort of 'create' thoughts (however unnatural) to counteract such thinking. So in theory it seems good, but it doesn't change us on the inside at all. It's merely management of our badness- which is not the same as seeking the thing that contains our only hope for goodness.

Over time it could become a way for our hearts to stay pretty hardened, hurt, jaded, or complacent while beliving that even though that's the case it's good enough (for us and for others) if we just appear positive when positivity seems needed. The change is still external; the spirit isn't free. Nothing's changed at the root. Until we lose ourselves and seek something higher- seek Him who is higher.

Everyday, knowing what the ultimate goal of life and existence itself is, means that any other thing I choose to do with life is met with that same mentality (not religion, or set of rules, or philosophy, or way of self-talking, self-monitoring) of moving intensely and contently toward a goal. Faith brings a new reality about the meaning of life, a new lens through which all of it is viewed. It is not merely a coping strategy.

Being in pursuit and awareness of God, the giver of all life, daily means that we've dedicated our whole life to pursuing something more than our happiness and our self, so it makes it a lot easier to suffer happily: to have a joy and a peace which is rooted in something other than our own ability to stay positive, think happy thoughts, or feel good all the time. It means we realize our roots must go much deeper.
Which of course doesn't mean life will get any easier. It doesn't mean my legs hurt any less after a long race. It just means that having my eyes (and life) fixed on an ultimate goal and set on an ultimate love (for God, for Christ) means my spirit is now free permanently and forever- not just when I'm thinking positive thoughts or feeling good. 

Knowing the source of life has provided stability that knowing merely methods for handling it cannot.

There is much freedom and joy in the realization that your life and all its trappings don't belong to you, but to God. It's a literal realization that means that you know: in the end- be it the end of a race, of a season, or of your life- it was never you who was sovereign or ultimate. 

Mine was never the strength I was designed to rely on.

All worry; attachment to and obsession over pain and suffering; sense that life is all about 'me' and my feeling good instead of really about God- this is always the thing that causes me any blindness or pain. C.S. Lewis said: 'all that we call human history- money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery-is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.' 

What a sobering thing to discover: my heart is the place where that history continues as is- or rewrites itself. 

And I continually come to find that that is exactly it: ego says otherwise, but a person who is not full of God is- even if he says he's not- full of himself, or some version thereof. 
I discover it, as I get older, in everything. Every instance of suffering or less-than-delightful feeling- be it a race, a relationship, a season of waiting for some fruit- becomes an analogy for the importance of staying more fixed on God than I am on me. God the distinct, knowable, relationship-seeking, incarnate Creator. Not my idea of god, or what what I want my god to be in any given, self-seeking moment- but the God of Scripture which the depth of my heart confirms.

It's been a strange transformation (that I know is hardly over): the non-desire for happiness, for that feeling of the self-perceived (and in many ways self-deceived) protection of my own ego. 

Belonging is a possessive emptiness- we all want to belong to something, someone, somewhere- and that's what we look for in the world much of the time: a place to belong. A place to finally feel happy and surrounded by what brings us comfort. We seek it out all the time: our comfort, and the avoidance of our discomfort. 

But it is only ever in Christ that we fully find it. It is only ever truly obtainable by realizing where we come from and where we are going: not just as a final reality but a constantly pervasive one, one that is ingrained in character- who we are designed from the inside out to be. Not what we think. 

The mind says, 'I'll strive to be to be happy.'

Character says, 'I am.'

I am because of who He is.


No comments: