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Attempts to illuminate our brief mortal existence

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Learning to Just Do Something

You're watching a movie. Better yet, you're watching Lost. Shannon is lost in the jungle, and there's a suspicious noise coming from... somewhere. The camera whizzes in a circle, barely focusing on any particular spot, seeing everything and nothing, giving us a dizzying sense of impending but invisible doom, until she drops in an exhausted heap.

This is a pretty good picture of the way that I sometimes feel while trying to make a decision about the veracity or viability of an intellectual assent and the lifestyle choices that inevitably follow. Sometimes I feel so over-warned, so attuned to all the dangers of every point of view and possible consequences of every action that I just want to drop in a heap and wait for the monster (uselessness, lost potential, "depart from me, I never knew you,") to come out of the trees and eat me. Unlike some people, I don't seem to be able to narrow my vision enough to simply pick a likely path and follow it, trusting that if I am off course I will eventually be corrected. Either I don't choose (II Timothy 3:7, anyone?), or I hold myself back, stopping short of wholehearted commitment, so that if (when?) it becomes obvious that I chose wrong I can say "I always knew it!" Reticence about jumping to conclusions serves me well in some cases, but it too often runs beyond intellectual caution into mere self-protection. Why, in this day of so many choices and resources, would I act like this? And is there any hope of overcoming this tendency?

In examining the "why", I discover that part of my problem lies in the very existence of these many options, each with their own inadequacies. Reading on my own coupled with a good Bible college education has given me at least a broad, if not always deep, understanding of a lot of theological (and to a lesser degree intellectual and philosophical) positions. It has also exposed me to a lot of different viewpoints on those positions and traditions, with one person taking apart what the last person presented so favorably. Most dangerously, for my particular weaknesses, I have heard story after story of personal spiritual damage that came about in the context of a person's adherence to, or upbringing within, almost any Christian tradition. This is what I mean when I say that I am "over-warned." In every good thing I see the potential danger.

"Potential danger?" you say, "but all that you have to do is avoid the extremes. Learn from the example of other people and avoid whatever leads to the unwanted result." This is sound advice; unfortunately, two more tendencies that play into my "why" make it difficult advice to follow. First, I spend much of my time seeing double. The action part of me wants to evaluate things in black and white, while the decision making part is seeing them in shades of grey. I want to find ideas and positions to which I can commit myself unquestioningly, but have as yet found none that are safe for me to embrace wholeheartedly. I want to be given absolute lines and categories on which to base my actions, but at the same time I recognize the failures of every single human system of absolute lines and categories. Second, I see "unwanted results" in almost every person's life. I can't seem to determine a fool proof way to avoid one person's error without realizing that that course of action would place me in the way of a different error all together. And therein lies a whole new but connected aspect of my difficulty with decision making.

I have a problem with unknowns. I want to see the whole road before I start walking down it. Before I declare myself to be beginning down a path I want to know exactly where and how I'm going. I want a full knowledge of any objections that anybody could have to a belief or course of action, and all the applicable refutations. This means I don't naturally know how to accept a learning process. I don't want to just start walking, confident that the Holy Spirit won't let me stray too far on one side or the other. It's not enough for me to know that it's okay if I fall down as long as I get up. I want to study until I know how to do it right the first time. This is obviously an impossibility, and I know it. I want to be able to move past this, into a joyful acceptance of trying and failing, doing it wrong so that someone who knows better can teach me to do it right, and realizing that growth sometimes means outgrowing things. I want to, but I'm held back by two more obstacles to my free exercise of choice: fear of man, and a frantic fear of failure.

Yes, I'll admit it: I am afraid of what people think. Not all people, just people whose opinions I care about, and people who might be able to argue with me. I'm willing to hold a position against the crowd as long as I feel like I have the superior position, butI have a desperate fear of getting into an argument and not being able to answer the objections thrown at me. This is especially true when the issue is one where I know that I don't agree with them, but can't marshal my defenses at a moments notice. It's not just an inability to prevail in debate that I fear. I have a particular dread of developing what my Dad has termed "blind spots"; areas where everybody else can see that you're wrong, but you just can't see it yourself. I've seen these develop in individuals, and I believe that churches and denominations have them as well. I don't want somebody else to be able to look at me and say "Wow, she's sincere and does well in some areas, but she is totally missing the boat on these things here." I think that this could be an honest fear if I were afraid for God's sake, and for the sake of His Holiness. Then it would drive me to more prayer and greater humility. Since, however, I am mostly afraid for my own sake it simply drives me to frantic mental contortions as I attempt to be certain that whatever I'm about to do or profess to believe doesn't leave me vulnerable in any areas. This is why stories of people's personal wounds at the hands of the devout are so potent for me. They illustrate the results of blind spots, and feed my fear of falling into them.

My fear of man and my fear of failure are connected. After all, to fail is to fall short of someone's standards, necessitating the existence of a "someone." But my fear of failure is a little broader than simply a fear of looking foolish or ignorant; it's a fear of ultimately getting it wrong. Just as I don't mind holding an opinion in the face of a majority if I believe the evidence to be solidly on my side, I don't mind looking a little nuts to people as long as I know that my end result will validate my choices. Unfortunately, this is a little like knowing how to avoid every possible danger on any particular path. Usually it's simply not possible. This is what really makes me frantic sometimes; knowing that when I look back on life, my feelings of fulfillment or regret will be the sum of the choices that I'm making now. Right now. And I hate regret. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a fool proof way of avoiding it in this life.

Throw all of the above together and you have the recipe for frantic immobility. So many options, and so many possible ways to get it wrong. Is there any hope? Can I at least begin to see a way out? Thankfully, yes.

I am beginning to realize that the key to my way forward in these moments lies in recognizing what should be my worst fear. In all of my options, one contains not just a likelihood, but rather an inevitability of regret: not choosing. If I don't choose something, I actually choose to walk the path of least resistance. I've been there, and I know where it leads: duplicity of personality, unsteadiness of conviction, and a desperate need for distractions. This is what I am fighting against when I come to these moments. Experiencing this paralysis is one of the worst feelings that I know; in that moment I feel completely helpless and utterly alone. Memory tells me, however, that it is not the worst thing that could happen to me. I've had a tiny taste of the worst, and these moments are actually evidence that I'm going the right way. They mean that I'm fighting back instead of letting myself be seduced into oblivion.

Not only am I learning to see the positive side of my struggles, but I'm learning that I can fight back. I can take stock of my bedrock realities: God is there, and I'm moving toward Him. I can remember the things that I have decided for sure, and use those as a measure for these lesser decisions. And I can remember that there is grace. Grace that I can only be aware in the times when I need it. Grace that I can lean on when I don't know for sure if I'm choosing the right way, grace that grants me the faith to know that as long as I'm moving God can be ordering my road so that it brings me to Him.

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