Why You Never Want To Be Alone in the Lead

We all have ways in which we manipulate others to do what we want.  

My wife does this thing where she pretends to be so helpless that other people will feel compelled to help her out when in reality she’s totally capable of doing whatever it is herself.  Like when she’s trying to make the bed and seems to have so much difficulty with the fitted sheet that she could be starring in an infomercial for a miracle bedsheet product.  Eventually, she knows someone will either have so much pity on her (not me) or get so frustrated with her lack of progress (that’s the one) that they’ll take over the task.  

Me, I developed a knack for asking for things in ways which put some kind of social pressure on the person to give in.  For instance, if I know my wife isn’t going to be super excited about going somewhere, she’s far less likely to object if I bring it up around friends who will seem excited about it because she won’t want to be the whiny one in front of everyone else.  

One of our cats does this thing where, if he wants something, he’ll dig it out of its hiding place and eat it.  Later he pukes it up on the floor.  

But I suppose that’s irrelevant.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all learn something similar.  Those methods we develop for getting what we need (and eventually what we want) are rooted in our early years, and by the time we’re adults they are second nature.  

What we don’t learn until we’re closer to adulthood is how to react when other people try to bend us to their will.  It might even be that the better we become at manipulating others, the less equipped we are to function when the tables are turned.  If my wife and I are typical, our natural inclination is to kick the manipulation up a few notches until we either give in or get what we want.  

But what’s the point?  

People who always get their way are absolutely horrible to be around, and those who always give in aren’t any better.  

The thing is, these skills are useful.  We learn them for a reason.  But another thing we don’t learn right away (and some people never seem to learn) is that there is a time and place to break out the big guns.  Generally speaking, you don’t win points for always being the one to decide where you’ll eat dinner.  Your chances of gaining respect and admiration are better if you’re always the one who stands up for the rights and dignity of others.

You’ll know you’re on the right track when people you admire stand with you, rather than resist you.  

All By Myself

One of the biggest challenges about being on an undefined spiritual path is that you end up essentially alone on that path.  While I have a lot of people in my life who I consider like-minded and extremely knowledgable, their paths are not precisely the same as mine.  When I’m down to the real substantive part of my spiritual life, I’m in it alone.  

Because of that, I would say this particular path isn’t for everyone.  That’s not because it’s particularly lonely or difficult to practice alone — most spiritual traditions encompass some element of personal observance and practice.  Solitary prayer and study are parts of just about every religious tradition out there.  

But most traditions also have the social elements, the public roles to play for those who wish to play them.  There are gatherings and services, leaders and those who contribute as featured participants in rituals.  When I was in the church with my family as a kid, I was expected to attend two services on Sunday and one on Wednesday, plus summer events and special holiday services.  I chose to sing in choirs and play the organ.  My siblings led groups and taught Sunday School classes.  Those events and roles are important parts of spiritual expression and development to a lot of people, and when you’re going off the beaten path they simply don’t exist.

On the other hand, for some people this solitary, off-the-beaten-path form of spirituality is enticing.  Where there are events and roles to play there is also pressure to participate.  Not everything asked of you in an established, community-based spiritual practice will be within your personal comfort zone.  I remember being asked to lead prayers without warning, which was definitely beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone.  Practicing alone allows you to build your spiritual traditions well within your comfortable boundaries. 

I admit, I do sometimes miss that opportunity to be a valued participant in a spiritual community.  On the other hand, without a well-defined spiritual tradition, the idea of a spiritual community can be extended to include a lot of things.  For instance, although I don’t share specific practices and beliefs with everyone there, participating in a pagan discussion group fills part of that missing space for me.  Finding extensions of my practice in the form of charitable work or community activities which are expressions of my spiritual goals and values also result in finding roles to play within groups.  

At the same time, the freedom to write my own practice, to do my own study and come to my own conclusions is immensely more spiritually satisfying than my previous spiritual lives have ever been.  

In the end, if our spirituality is really all about nurturing that part of ourselves which seeks to understand and create and connect, the extent to which we balance communal practice with solitary practice is a matter of personal determination.  We don’t all need the same things, and we don’t all thrive in the same environments.  Our minds and hearts aren’t inspired by the same experiences, and it is those experiences we should be seeking in our spiritual lives.

About the Books, Part 2

I’ve talked about my primary book project (two chapters written at this point, and I’m now in a research phase more than a writing phase), but I didn’t touch last time on the second project.  It’s smaller, and will definitely be done first.  In fact, the goal is to have it published by the end of this year.  

While I’m researching the spiritual history of mankind and waxing philosophical on what this history means for modern spiritual seekers, I’m also putting together a companion book.  Also not yet titled (ideas have surfaced, but so far most have been quite silly), it’s a collection of what I would call devotionals for the spiritually unsettled.

For those who grew up in different religious cultures than I did, a devotional is a short written piece which (in the Christian tradition) usually includes a bible verse, some exposition on what that verse means for daily life, often an illustrative story or anecdote, and a prompt for thought and prayer.  Essentially, it’s supposed to give one a bit of spiritual inspiration to ponder and pray on in order to further develop one’s faith.

Of course, I don’t really have a faith, per se.  And I don’t pray.  And I’m not really interested in bible verses.  But the idea behind a devotional is, I think, a good one.  It’s intended to prompt daily focus and development, and does so in a simple, manageable way.  As elements of personal practice go, it’s one I think most anyone can find a way to work into their lives.

The ones in this first installment raise questions regarding the purpose of spirituality in your life and how it fits with who you are and who you want to be.  They consist of short fictional anecdotes to illustrate the ideas, with a bit of exposition on why it’s relevant to one’s spiritual life and a few questions to inspire thought or to use as journal prompts.  The intent is not to guide anyone towards a specific spiritual path, but to ask questions which can help a person become more clear about what they want and need from their spiritual life.

Once Upon A Time…

As anyone who knew me (or ran into me briefly in a social situation) during the late 90s and early 00s can tell you, I spent a summer studying architecture in France.  They can tell you this because apparently every other sentence issuing from my lips for several years started with some variation of: “When I was in Paris…”  

Oh, your legs are sore?  Let me tell you about how sore I was after climbing the steps to the top of the Arch de Triomphe.  You get up the spiral ones and thank all the deities that you made it, only to turn the corner and find MORE STAIRS!  And then you have to walk back down.  

That street reminds me of this time we found this really visually interesting alley between two buildings in this random neighborhood in Paris.  And we all crammed around the space between the buildings taking photos.  We looked so strange to the locals, who couldn’t figure out what was going on.  Was there a dead body or something?  Was there someone famous down there?  It was hilarious!

We tell stories like this for all kinds of reasons.  It’s a way of trying to form a connection with others by relating something you’ve experienced to something they’ve experienced.  It’s a way of giving other people information about you in order to shape their opinion of you.  It subtly lets other people know what your values are, what you like and don’t like, how you see the world.  And if we entertain others, if we prove ourselves good storytellers, it makes us socially valuable.

That’s why we all tell stories, why we’ve always told stories.  Humans are social animals, and we need to connect and bond with other people to survive.  We navigate the complex social landscape by telling and retelling our stories.

We also create our own set of myths and legends by adopting the stories others tell us and telling them to other people.  Just as the stories we tell about ourselves are a way of telling others who we are, the stories we appropriate and repeat are a way of telling others about our “people”.  It defines our “culture”.  We don’t retell stories to which we are indifferent.  We repeat tales which made us feel something significant.

Of course, we don’t really think of it this way when we’re doing it.  

How many times, though, have you had a friend or acquaintance tell you a story which was originally yours, only they’ve forgotten that you were the one who told it?  It always comes back to you a different version than the one you heard, with details omitted and exaggerated and names changed.  Probably you are taken aback by this, and probably you correct their “mistakes” and assert your authorship of the tale.  And maybe you’re mad about it.  Maybe you’re amused.  

But, in the end, the way they tell the story, the parts they keep and the parts they change, are a window into what that story meant to them.  The new story is now a legend.  It is living the same life all legends live, the same life our sacred texts and most treasured myths lived in the beginning.  

That is the nature of myth.  It doesn’t really matter where the story originated or if the version we have is “correct”.  The stories which are important to us are important in their current form.  They don’t contain absolute truth, but they contain information about what we value and believe to be important.  

What stories do you tell?  And what do they say about you?

Your Beliefs Are Bad and You Should Feel Bad

It’s odd how prone we are as humans to believe some things not because of the evidence we see in front of us, but in spite of it.  

I once tried to explain to a lottery player that it didn’t matter how many winners or losers had just been sold out of the pack, the odds for winning on the next ticket remained exactly the same.  It’s called the gambler’s fallacy.  It’s a misunderstanding of the way odds work.  I pointed out that, if there were a system which would allow a person to determine when the next ticket was a winner, there wouldn’t be anyone working at stores who sold lottery tickets because all of those employees would have spotted the pattern and used it to become wealthy already.

And yet, despite the fact that these “lucky” systems have not worked to make these players as rich as they want to be and that it is highly likely they cannot even name one person they know who has succeeded at getting rich off the lottery, the belief that their system “works” persists.  Trying to convince an avid lottery player otherwise is not generally a productive endeavor.

So is there even a point to trying to convince someone that the world doesn’t work the way they believe it does?  Those who believe that they have a “lucky system” for winning the lottery will always perceive the world in a distorted manner which favors their belief.  Likewise, those who believe that they can convince others of the error of their views are similarly delusional.  Overwhelming evidence tells us that telling others they are wrong does very little to change their minds.

Back to the lottery player, then.  Why did I even try to tell him he was wrong?  Well, it’s because I wanted him to stop playing just then.  I was annoyed.  It didn’t really matter to me in the long run if my explanation actually made him rethink his gambling strategies.  I had no real investment in changing his belief in luck or chance or whether the first ticket on the roll was lucky or not.  I just wanted, in that particular moment, for him to go away so I could get on with what I was doing.  

Is that why we do this, then?  Is that why we confront others and dispute their worldviews?  Is it more an act intended to push them away and put comfortable distance between us than it is to change their minds?  

Is it an effort to get them to shut up and go away?

If so, I think we should be prompted to take a moment to think about what we’re doing when others challenge our views and beliefs.  Are they trying to convert our thinking, or have we imposed on them to the point where they just want to make us go away?