Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
Who shapes my life? Who determines my day? Interesting question, isn’t it? Here we are at the beginning of any day, hopefully full of interest and motivation, life and energy, whether 37 or 73. Obviously we have commitments in family and marriage, career and community which yield an immense influence on how we will spend the hours.
And we must admit that there are realities that shape us over which we have no control — the genes our grandmothers gave us, the pollution we endure driving to work, the parents we were stuck with, the breaks we get or do not get.
But there are other influences, forces which press upon us to do this, be that, buy this, try that, dress like this, think like that, which we do have something to say about, have a measure of freedom to say yes or no.
Some of these are benign, harmless. Fashion, for example. All of us tend to conform here, and thank goodness we do. Too highly creative dress would be a distraction in the place of work or learning or worship. So most of us take our orders. Someone somewhere in the deep mysterious dark of the fashion world decrees the look of the season, and to some measure we all tend to respond.
Not even those strange costumes that walk past each morning on the way to high school are individual works of art. In high school the only non-conformist is the first one. I have a fantasy that somewhere a few years ago, a sophomore girl appeared at breakfast one morning her midriff bare. Her father must have asked sarcastically, “Well, is that how the girls are all dressing in school these days.” “No,” said his daughter, “But they will be.” And they are.
But there is danger here as well. Why do we conform? Why do we let the culture dictate how we shall hold our fork and what we shall drive? What emblem rides over our heart? Why do we drink what we drink? Why do we diet as we do? Nobody has ever convinced me of the practical purpose of a tie. Isn’t it, often without much reflection, simply because we want to fit in, feel secure in our acceptance by others, our sense of belonging. Feeling peculiar, isolated, different is uncomfortable for most of us. And so we do what is necessary to blend in.
But then what is the danger? The danger is that the dictates of culture and crowd may not always be so innocent. For example, there are groups at high school and college who are more than happy to welcome and affirm, provided the initiate plays by the rules of the group, which may involve ritual abuse of alcohol. Studies indicate that a great many young people learn to abuse, not because they care that much about drinking, but because they care very much about belonging somewhere.
One mother capitalized on this need to be part of the gang. Her 17-year-old son had started being just late enough each day to miss the school bus. She would have to drive him and then rush to get to work on time herself. One morning, instead of heading for school, my friend chased down the school bus, honking frantically until it stopped. She pulled her little car up to it nose-to-nose so, of course, all eyes were on the two of them. As her son got out, she jumped from the driver’s seat and gave him a motherly hug and kiss. “Good-by, sweetheart,” she called loudly. “Now you be careful at school today.” Her son never missed the bus again.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Dear Richard, many, many thanks for the weekly sermons received this year. Believe me they not only have inspired me, but have given me a great deal of scope with my own weekly Sermons which I too have to deliver. Being a full time priest; time gets so consumed with all things apertaining to the running and Pastoral care of a Parish I often run out of ideas for good Sermon delivery, so thank you for inspirational writing and offering the alternatives as well.”
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So the first commandment in the youth culture is “Don’t make a fool out of yourself. Fit in at all costs.” But it is not just the young people. Where do we think the young get this obsession with fitting in. There are adults in our neighborhoods whose attitudes and energies are absorbed by cultural pressures dictating a fairly specific lifestyle. The right symbols, social circles, sets of attitudes are adopted almost unconsciously and without any real reflection. And if we really live up to some of the scripts the culture is pushing around here, we are going to have to neglect some other pretty basic realities. There is a price to pay when we let the world around us too much shape us and our way in life.
If, as persons, we are shaped from without, by the pressure of culture and custom, family, friends, fads, we may well end up pretty empty and unreal inside. If we live as if with attennae on our heads, finding our way by responding to the smiles and frowns, the applause and pressures of the crowd around, we may end up of little substance and inner strength.
Arthur Miller, who died recently caught this tendency in his first and, in my judgment, best play, “Death of A Salesman.” The central character, Willy Loman, was dominated by the insatiable need for social acceptance. That, for him, was the guarantee of financial success. He says to his boys at one point, “I thank Almighty God you’re both built like Adonises. Because the man who makes an appearance in the business world, the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance. I never have to wait in line to see a buyer. “Willy Loman is here!” That’s all they have to know and I go right through. At his funeral, his son, Biff stands at the grave and says sadly, “Dad never knew who he was.”
The only way to be whole and real, to have a sound center as a person with character and confidence, be comfortable with ourselves and happy with life, is to take responsibility for our lives and decide whom we shall be. “See I have set before you this day life and death, therefore choose life that you may live.” I find those ancient Biblical words interesting. Of course the faith pushes certain convictions and commands, certain laws, a certain lifestyle. But it never tries to coerce us, pressure us, force us. It always insists upon free and responsible decision. As if to say, only as you make up your own mind, will your faith and life have real integrity. Only so will we be our own person, know the integrity and consistency and self-respect that are real life.
The Apostle Paul writes to friends in Rome, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold.” “Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world.” “Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this age.” “Do not model yourselves on the behavior of the world around you.” But why?
To what end. He goes on, “Let God remold your minds so that you may prove in practice what is the will of God for you, what leads to the goal of true maturity.”
We are to resist the siren calls of culture as well as impulse and immediate desires, to the end that we may live by the will of God. But I hasten to point out that this life by the will of God, is no pious platitude in the mind of Paul. Even to ask about the will of God, provides us with a critical stance, over against the calls and pressures that press upon us from without. On the basis of what we know about God, especially in Jesus, we respond or reject the demands of the world around on whether they are appropriate or superficial, on the basis of whether we have the time to do justice to them, and whether they are the best use of our time and energy. Even to ask the question whether it is the will of God that I spend three or four hours in front of the television, is already to know the answer.
This is one of the most profound paradoxes about life. Only as we day by day thoughtfully and deliberately place ourselves at the disposal of a higher will, do we enjoy freedom from the pressures of culture and crowd, the seduction of impulse and desire: do we truly become our own person. Life by the will of God is not surrender of our own mind and will. It is in fact liberation of both. Says the old hymn “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free.”
Furthermore, not only does the conviction that there is a will of God provide us with a critical principle with which to judge all the other pressures and pleadings coming at us, from within and without. It gives us a way of approaching positively and with hope the twists and turns of our own particular and often mysterious story.
The will of God does not mean that there is a plan all mapped out, which we need only discern and follow. The will of God is not something God will hit us over the head with. The will of God is not a script or blueprint we can know with any kind of certainty. It is a search and quest and adventure we must with wits and courage live ourselves into. “That you may prove in practice what is the will of God.” Both Jesus and Paul seek to do the will of God in their lives, but that will is often even for them hidden and difficult to know.
Until the last days of his life Jesus is not clear exactly where God’s will may lead. And Paul insists that living the will of God requires the reflection and resolve to do the right thing no matter what happens and to do the caring thing no matter the cost.
In this connection, I ran across the other day the results of a study reported in the Harvard Business Review, to wit that resilient people possess three characteristics: a staunch acceptance of reality, a deep conviction that life is meaningful, and an uncanny ability to improvise. And I received a letter recently from a friend, a marvelous letter which beautifully exhibits these qualities of person.
She writes: “I journey through some uncharted personal territory following being unexpectedly relieved of my duties after 23 years at the bank as part of a large cost cutting exercise. I learned of this development in early December but have only begun to see and embrace the gift that I may have been given as an opportunity to really explore my true talents and see if I can open my ears and spirit to a call, any call, from above as to what I should really be doing with my life. I think as one goes through the daily overwhelming number of tasks as a full time working person with large managerial responsibilities, as well as a family and spouse, it is impossible to find the kind of reflective time required to really open your heart to a change in direction or to your true self according to God’s plan. Once you find yourself with the time, especially if unplanned, you are plunged into the process of finding another job quickly while dealing with the grief over the loss of comfort and security of the known career.
“What is amazing to me is that it has also become painfully apparent to me that I have been ignoring many important aspects of my spiritual self, my relationships with my family and friends, and I may not have been using my true talents and creativity in my work, perhaps for many years! This is more than I bargained for having to deal with a mere job change. Fortunately, I have ample opportunities to immediately resume the hectic life with its financial rewards, but I am hesitant to aggressively take up this life again….
“I wonder what it might feel like to just lay open … to the word of God and the new purpose I might have. How long can I stand it? I don’t know if I am as strong as Abram to just forgo the norms and lifestyle which we have built around ourselves. I feel as though my family and friends would think me quite insane! But I know that the life I choose and the work I choose must be more closely aligned with my spiritual calling and my true self, whatever they may be. To be open without a plan is particularly difficult amidst the bills and obligations of life, and involves letting go of some of the fear of the unknown. On the other hand, I am reconnecting with old friends and even my children in ways that delight me. Why was I not able to be there for them before. I am drawn to forms of spiritual meditation that feed my desire to be ready to hear the call when it comes. What if I miss it? Stay tuned.”
For a Christian this life-discipline, this will of God means Jesus of Nazareth. My understanding over the years of what we are called to be, has been shaped pretty decisively by him. He does give us a moral vision and the courage to try and live by that vision. He does give us the desire to work in the world as intensely as he worked with the confidence that we do not work alone. By his example, He does help us to keep on when the way ahead seems clouded and uncertain. And above all, he does help us to keep the central things clear and not be fogged and broken down by the accessories and secondary things. And I am convinced that when we commit ourselves to learning his way of seeing things, living as he lived, however inadequately, such a decision and life leads to the ultimate freedom and peace, satisfaction and joy.
So at the beginning of your day find a time to think, a time for renewal of your minds. In the quiet, reflect again on what he offers as a will and way for your life. For in his will, is our peace.
Copyright 2005, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.