As human beings, our behaviour is purposeful. Our primary purpose is to ensure that our needs are met. We speak and act so as to achieve what we want to achieve, and that is generally a good thing, or something which we perceive as beneficial, but in any event something that we believe will serve our purpose. Whether or not other people hear our words and see our actions quite as we do is, of course, another matter entirely, but in our own minds we are usually doing the best we can in the circumstances.
This is true of all our concerns and activities, from our everyday chores to our highest ambitions. We enter into agreements, take on responsibilities, accept obligations to other people and remain committed to causes beyond ourselves because at some level of our being these tasks, contracts and relationships meet a need in us, as well as enabling us to meet the needs of others. Our life in the world is a process of constant interaction with others in which we trade what we can offer to them with what they can offer to us. We are all engaged in a never-ending dance of “give and take”, and, generally speaking, most of us succeed in keeping our balance most of the time.
Does this mean that human beings are “only out for what they can get”? No, because we are also “out for what we can give.” Our richest relationships and experiences are those in which we effect an exchange; a giving and receiving of equal value or worth. This is the kind of relationship we long to have with all those around us: parents, children, partners, friends, colleagues, companions. It is when this process becomes seriously out of kilter that problems arise.
If, over a long period of time, we are giving out more than we are receiving in return, we will become stressed, unhappy and ill. Even in the short term, we cannot give out across many different relationships, or in many different contexts, all at once, without needing to draw substantial support from somewhere else in order to keep going. And ideally that support needs to come from a variety of sources, rather than from one particular relationship, because if we are taking from any one person more than we are giving back, and if this situation continues for a considerable period of time, then however much they care for us, they will feel the strain.
By means of this “dance of exchange” we seek, each day, sufficient resources to ensure our survival. But while we are content with “enough”, we always prefer, if possible, to have an abundance. As with food, so with the other resources we need to sustain us: our ideal is a combination of quantity, quality and variety. This is because, with an abundance, we can look beyond mere existence. We can look ahead. We can think beyond the status quo. We can begin to build a “better life”. We can aspire to a “good life”. We can dream dreams. We can pursue ambitions, visions and goals. We can challenge our limits, reaching out to the horizon and beyond. With an abundance we can work to establish something that will last, something that might outlast us, something that will leave our mark on the world, something by which we will be remembered.
The truth is, we want to live. Not just survive. But live. We want to live well. We want a fulfilled and contented life. We want to live fruitfully. Abundantly. We want to live on. We want to live forever. This will is strong and expansive. It is the voice that asks “Is this it?”, the voice that challenges us to do more, to be more, to create more, to give more, to better ourselves, to make something worthwhile, to leave something for our children.
We all have our own personal version of this expansive longing within us, and we should not feel ashamed of it. It is this instinct that makes us human, and which continues to make us ourselves. It is God-given: “God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion……..’” God is Life. God is alive and creative, always generating more life. And we are made in God’s image, as living beings, full of the breath of God’s life, and, like God, capable of generating life, multiplying life, magnifying life. We are life-givers and our creativity is life-giving. This is what we were born to do.
The stories of the Fall do not tell us that this longing is intrinsically evil, only that it too easily becomes distorted. We become distracted from life-giving purposes and dissipate our energies in behaviour, projects and life-styles that do not serve us. Our perceptions, thoughts and actions become corrupted and we use our energies to manipulate, destroy and lay waste. We pursue noble ends by ignoble means, and when our achievements crumble, we become savage in our attempts to save them.
Because while we want to live well, fruitfully, creatively, contentedly, abundantly and for ever, it is also true that we find it hard to choose life, and to keep on choosing life. There are so many forces ranged against us. Indeed, it can seem as though we are having to battle everything and everybody, and that we are our own worst enemies, too. The apostle Paul wrote of how “when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand.” While in his mind, he delighted in the law of God, his body appeared to obey its own rules, a “law of sin” that held him captive. “Wretched man that I am!” he exclaimed, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Or, as my grandmother used to say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
This “law of sin” that makes it so hard for us to “choose life” and to keep on choosing life, is forged in the intense years of our early development, and then reinforced by our passage through adolescence. We are shaped by our experience at every stage of life, but the influences and events of these two periods are often particularly powerful in structuring the story we live by, laying down what we believe about ourselves, our character and worth, our place in the world and the way that life will treat us.
This “story” - and these “beliefs” - can govern our thoughts and words and deeds more fiercely than any religion. However, the first step to freedom is the discovery that whatever our experience in the past, we retain the power to choose. Whatever our experience in the present moment, we possess the power to choose. Whatever our fears for the future, while we remain conscious at all, we will still have the power to choose.
Our power to choose allows us to decide how to respond to each moment as it comes along, and how we want to handle what that moment contains. There will always be voices around us and within us that seek to persuade us that we have no choice, but this is a lie. We always have a choice. We can always choose to respond, rather than react. We can choose to examine our options. We can choose to examine all our options, and not just the ones that are obvious or easy or “realistic”. We can choose the option which is most life-giving. We can choose the option that will generate life, not only for ourselves, but also for others.
Most of the time, we do not practise this level of self-awareness. We may not even believe it is possible to do so. Certainly, it takes practice and commitment, like most things that are worth doing well. But as soon as we begin applying it, we receive its benefits. And the more we practise it, the more natural it becomes, and the more benefits we receive.
What we are doing is learning to respond, that is, to take responsibility for our actions. We are learning how to live as mature, responsible adults. We are learning how to live from the centre of our story, how to take charge of the narrative of our life and be more pro-active. We may not see ourselves as heroes, but each of us is called to be the protagonist in our own story. The protagonist is not entirely at the mercy of the plot. The protagonist takes action as well as being acted upon. The protagonist has the power to alter the script. And uses it.
In the same way, as we learn how to choose life, we are owning - and using - our adult ability to create a life that is more like the life we want to live. Only as we do this do we discover the extent to which we tend to blame others for the way our life has worked out and for the way our life is. Only as we do this do we notice the huge amount of time and energy we waste in regret: beating ourselves up for the decisions we have made, the opportunities we have missed, the chances we have never had, the work that was done badly, the task that was never completed.
It is always easier to blame someone else for what has gone wrong: our parents, our family, our enemy, “them” (whoever they are), “the Church”, “the Government”, our childhood environment, Adam and Eve, the devil, God. But however powerful the forces at work upon us, they do not remove from us the power to choose how to respond. To our last moment of consciousness, we retain the ability to choose how to respond to life and the hand it deals out to us. This freedom is the source and spring of the Spirit within us, and of the creative power that the Spirit gives us to use in the world.
Paradoxically, another way of avoiding responsibility is to blame ourselves for what has gone wrong in our lives, and keep on blaming ourselves long after the choice has been made or the event has happened. By carrying a burden of regret and guilt for our past choices or deeds, we keep our minds focused there - focused on the past, rather than in the present. But the past has gone. It is here and now, in the present moment, that our response is required, that our choice must be made, that our action is needed.
We indulge in inappropriate and prolonged self-blame because we are afraid that if we take action now we will repeat the mistakes we have made before. We fear that it will all go wrong again, and that we will have made matters worse. But why should this be so? Yes, we have made mistakes (who hasn’t?), but that does not make it inevitable that everything will go wrong again. Yes, it is possible that our actions will not achieve all the good we intend, or all the good we long for. But that is only one possible outcome. There are also others. The circumstances may be similar, but they are not identical. Life has moved on. There are factors at work in this situation which were not present before. And one of them is that we have changed. We are more alert and aware than we were before.
Jesus teaches that it is not the food we take into ourselves that defiles us, but the things that emerge from within. Although the context of his words is a dispute about food, the way in which his words are recorded makes it clear that he is describing a dynamic which has a much wider application. It is not the forces that work upon us from the outside that defile us - the food we eat, the actions of others, the environment we have come from or the context within which we must operate - but rather the forces that arise from within. We are not helpless puppets. We are not the victims of our circumstances. We do not have to be overcome by events. Nor need we be enslaved by our hidden impulses and intentions. Our experience of life may make it hard to live honestly, generously, compassionately or justly, but we still choose how to respond to what is going on inside us, and to what is going on outside. We choose to act either for or against what is good and right and true. We choose what of ourselves we will realise, live out and make manifest.
Conversion is the process of becoming more self-aware; of learning how and why we make the choices we do; and of learning - where necessary - how to choose differently. This need not mean that we become control freaks, stripped of all spontaneity, or fearful of acting at all unless we have thought everything through for hours on end. Rather, it challenges us to examine our own behaviour and to question the way we respond to people and situations - especially those that distress us. Conversion is the continual invitation to reflect on our experience so as to improve our self-awareness and discernment.
The immediate benefit of this is ours, but the blessing soon spreads beyond ourselves. None of us lives in a vacuum. Our choices and responses are absorbed by others. What we see, believe, choose, say and do impacts on those around us. In turn, their responses dilute - or magnify - ours. When our choices are magnified by the choices of others, the ripples from our words and deeds can spread far and wide. History and social development, context and environment - all can magnify the dynamic further. One choice, made by one person, can resonate around the world - for good or ill.
Question: Do you see yourself as having a choice in the way you respond to your context? Your work? Your relationships? Your environment? If so, what are the factors which make it hard for you to consistently “choose life”?
Reflection: Deuteronomy 30.6-14
I choose life.
To live fruitfully.
I choose life.
To be fulfilled.
I choose life.
To be content.
I choose life.
To be at peace.
I choose life.
To live abundantly.
I choose life.
To live forever.
I choose life.