It took me many years to learn I couldn’t make deals with God. It had worked pretty well throughout my teen and young adult years. God got me into the college I wanted and convinced my parents that I was worth the room and board my older brother somehow didn’t merit. That one cost me daily mass and communion for a year. Request granted, debt paid.
When God came through with the career opportunity I had sought throughout my early professional years I was pretty much certain that he and I had a pretty good working partnership. Sure there had been some disappointments along the way, some unfulfilled requests, but all in all my big objectives were on the destiny track.
When the career I knew I was born for went south instead, I struggled with our relationship. “WTF?”, I questioned, as angry as I was confused. After all, that job was the perfect situation in which I could do God’s work. How could He miss that obvious point and allow it all to come crashing down?
My gradual escape from that way of thinking is difficult to trace. I can’t remember any “aha” moments. It’s much more likely that there were hundreds of “oh, yeah” moments. Going back to the philosophers whose wisdom had escaped me in college certainly helped, and reading some pretty good literature helped pave the road to my brand of enlightenment.
I slowly learned from reading Eastern philosophy that perhaps the best way of living is to simply avoid making the judgments that cause our spirits to alternately soar and crash. I have mostly come to learn that the world can be a pretty remarkable place if I can see it as a movie unfolding before my eyes – a story whose outcomes I can accept better because I’m not so attached to them. Each reel brings unexpected events and changing relationships that the hero, me, has to deal with. But I’ve learned that once I choose the best course of action I can sit back and watch the future unfold.
One character from literature who helped crystallize this for me is the reformed preacher Jim Casy in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Casy tells Tom Joad that he’s no longer a preacher because he’s lost “the sperit.” ”Ain’t got the call no more,” he says. “Got a lot of sinful idears – but they seem kinda sensible.” Casy’s ideas didn’t strike me as sinful at all and were indeed very sensible. What the preacher had discovered for himself was that “maybe there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do … “
I applied Casy’s insight to my own particular case. Maybe, I thought, there’s no such thing as good and bad either, or success and failure; maybe there’s just things that happen to people. Maybe none of the occurrences of life actually mean anything. Maybe, after all is said and done, the little black bumper sticker is true. Shit Happens. Isn’t it actually just we who give the events of our lives their meaning? A raise is a good thing; a divorce is a bad thing. We declare these things. We smugly make them as true. But in fact, we could reverse the meanings of those two events if we wanted to. We could make a raise be a bad thing if it isn’t what we think we deserve; and a divorce can be a good thing if it enables two people to fulfill their greater promise.
I discovered gradually that the biggest piece of the freedom pie is the freedom to control our own minds. On a daily basis, most of us set ourselves up for pain and suffering by the judgments we make about the people and events of our world. Just as easily, we can set ourselves up for serenity through acceptance, by simply allowing people and things to be. Have I perfected this way of thinking? Not by a long shot. But with the help of some great writers and thinkers, I have come to realize that our peace and our misery are in our own hands.