I aspire to evolve, to develop myself through my spiritual pursuits.  But this concept isn’t without its problematic aspects.  Exactly what do we envision when we are told to strive to become a higher or better version of ourselves?

Having taken up social justice as a focus, I’ve been having more and more conversations with friends and acquaintances about our own unrecognized biases.  And as I was contemplating a response to a question recently posed by a friend, it became suddenly clear to me how much of our assumptions about what constitutes “bettering oneself” carries the taint of prejudice and privilege.

If you think about the goals to which you aspire, how accessible are those goals to others?  Do you think the skills you aspire to learn are as valuable to and of use to others as you believe them to be?

Of course, many of our goals and aspirations may be entirely private and self-focused, but in the spiritual arena we often hope to make a difference in the world through our own betterment.  But are we called to be heroes and saviors?  Or are we just called to be of aid?  How often have we contemplated the difference?


Becoming the Hero

There was one particular period in my life that I consider a turning point towards becoming a fully integrated human being.  I won’t tell the whole tale, as it’s long, but the short version is that I finally realized that other people and other things could not be blamed for the fact that I made the same destructive choices over and over again throughout my life.

In our heads, we get to tell ourselves our own life story.  We do it often.  And because we are both the storyteller and audience, we get to paint whoever we want as villains and heroes, victims and saviors.  And since we’re living out the plot of that story as we tell it, how we choose to characterize ourselves within the narrative makes a huge difference in how the rest of the story unfolds.

Until that point in my life, I painted myself as the victim waiting for her moment to become hero.  I was a good character, one with good characteristics and good intentions and dreams which ought to dramatically come true to formulate a happy ending.  When my day didn’t arrive, it was because I was still stuck in the early part of the tale, like Cinderella scrubbing floors and being oppressed by her stepfamily.

After finally tearing through much of the artifice and defensive walls I’d built up in my life to allow me to tell my story that way, my viewpoint changed.  I figured out that I couldn’t leave the difficult, unsatisfactory, darker parts out of my story because I’m not a Disney character.  I wasn’t the princess waiting for an invitation to the ball.  If I ended up in the same situations, the same predicaments, over and over again, it was probably because I made the same mistakes and poor choices over and over again.  If I didn’t change the pattern, I would never see a different outcome.  I was the protagonist of my own tale, yes, but whether it ended in triumph or tragedy hinged more on my own choices than outside plot twists.

I didn’t want my life to be a cautionary tale.  So I dug down to the plot device that kept leading me astray, the choice I continually made to undermine my own chance at success out of fear of failure, and centered the story instead on a struggle to choose differently.

And that’s when lots of things changed in my life.  Taking responsibility for my own choices, good and bad, completely altered the landscape.

How do you tell yourself the story of your own life?  Are you the hero?  Will you be the hero in the end?

Hard Earned Gains

What do we get for the time and effort we put into faithful adherence to our spiritual traditions?

Some promise salvation, a future reward for choosing the right side.  They operate like an insurance policy, where your faith and works are taken as payment to ensure a future payout.

Some promise enlightenment, a state of being you can achieve if you work hard enough and make the right choices.  They operate like a personal trainer, where you are guided through systems and decisions and the repetitive perfection of skills in order to become different than you were before.

Some promise power, access to resources and skills that others don’t know how to use.  They operate like a discount club, where your adherence and practice get you a membership card, and you’re promised access to the skills and knowledge you need to get what you want.

As for me, I’d rather be part of one that promises development, a combination of knowledge and opportunities for learning which can be used to improve yourself.  One that operates like a university, where you get to choose your own path towards self-improvement enabled by people who know things you want to learn.  One that provides guidance and instruction, but also provides opportunities to contribute to the larger body of thought and information.

What do you get for what you put into your own spiritual path?

A Change of Image

We often undertake spiritual practice for the purpose of impacting who we are inside, at the soul level.  At the very least, we go into our spiritual existence hoping to change how we feel and what kind of person we are deep down.  A lot of practices seek to change our inner being through specific behaviors and practices.  

But how often do we seek to change our outward behavior via spiritual means?

I certainly wouldn’t say it never happens, but by and large I see more concern over the inner effects of spirituality rather than outer changes.  It seems, in fact, that many people think it’s possible to change oneself inside and still be difficult, overbearing, judgmental, or negative on the outside.  

What we seek to be on the inside should be reflected on the outside.  In fact, I think what we are on the outside is a better indicator of what we really believe than our perception of ourselves.  If our spiritual pursuits can’t aid us in becoming to others the person we wish to become, has it really changed us or done us good?

I often hear people talk about other spiritual paths or religions negatively in terms of how they treat those outside the faith, how the adherents of those traditions express their faith to others.  And yet, when it comes to looking at their own attitudes and behaviors, the judgment is often far less harsh.  I firmly believe that our spirituality should be grounds for judging ourselves first and most deeply.

The Golden Rule Revisited

Despite the fact that so many religions include it, the Golden Rule is apparently a difficult concept for humans.  It’s a simple concept, but proper execution requires one to understand that it is to be applied across the board, not just to those you care about.  It means being honest about the things we do and say, actually realizing when we’re treating others in ways we would hate to be treated ourselves.  

What if, every time we asked someone for their time, their sympathy, their agreement, their resources, we committed to giving the same to someone else?

What if, every time we found ourselves laughing at someone else or judging someone, we committed to sitting down and making a list of all the things we’ve ever heard someone laugh at or judge us for?

What if, every time we complained about something wrong with the world around us, we committed to changing something about our own life?

What if, every time we preached at someone, we committed to sitting and truly listening to someone else’s sermon?

Would the idea be clearer then?  

Give and Take

I’m fairly sure nobody makes it through life without needing help from others.  By the same token, most of us follow some kind of philosophy or tradition which calls upon us to offer help to those around us who need it.  One thing that we have finally started to understand, however, is that those who offer or accept help aren’t always giving and/or getting the help needed.  What masquerades as help is sometimes manipulation, either on the part of the helper or the person in need.

We all know that, when we are really in need of something, our willingness to bend our own personal standards and preferences increases.  I remember once after I lost my job and was extremely short on funds that I suddenly found myself willing to go on dates with a guy I honestly could barely stand being around just so he would buy me dinner.  It happens to all of us.

Still, knowing that we can all be pushed pretty easily to that point, we have a tendency to use that knowledge to get what we want by putting our desires between someone else and something they need very much.  

On the other hand, we’ve all had times when our compulsion to help others causes us to give beyond what we think is appropriate.  Our relationships with others become leverage which allows others to tip our hand.  I think this mostly happens in dating relationships or marriages, when our love for someone else makes it difficult to say no.  

And yet, even though we’ve all been in a position of feeling coerced into giving more than is reasonable or healthy, we’re also prone to using our relationships with others to get more than we need from those who simply desire to help us.

How do we achieve a good balance between not using our ability to offer assistance as a way to manipulate others to do what we wish and not allowing a person in need to twist our generosity into enabling behaviors?  

First, I think we need to disconnect the call to help those in need from the call to change the hearts, minds, and behaviors of others.  The stronger we feel about how others should believe or act or think, the more likely we are to justify using an offer of help to manipulate those in need.  Second, we all need to get better at saying no when we know we ought to.  

Sometimes help means not giving someone what they think they need.  And sometimes really helping someone means not getting what you want in return.  Maybe if we were better at drawing a line between wants and needs, between giving and exchanging, we’d not struggle so much with achieving balance.  

But If You Flip the Coin…

I recently posted about how relationships we choose and nurture run far deeper than those based on blood relation.  My point was not that family isn’t important, but that family bonds have to be nurtured as well.  Sharing genetic material does not serve as an excuse to treat other people badly.

It’s interesting to see how people react when they find out that you are, willfully and by your own choice, estranged from a portion of your family.  For those who have gone through the experience of having a detrimental relationship with a family member and choosing to walk away from it, the responses are encouraging.  For everyone else, the prevailing opinion is less supportive.  

I came across this interesting blog post, and being the adult child who has broken contact with her parents, it was actually somewhat frustrating to read.  The idea that the parents are generally right, that the choices a child makes which lead them away from their parents’ ideals are probably wrong, and that the secret to maintaining a relationship with children in such cases depends on the parents addressing the lapses in judgment in the right way are, well, somewhat infuriating.  I read the example about the parents completely taken aback by their child questioning the existence of god and not wanting to follow their chosen path, and my heart went out to the kid.  

The thing is, there are two sides to every coin.  The sad stories of parents whose children have rejected their upbringing and left the nurturing fold of family to go ruin their lives are sometimes balanced on the flipside by the stories of fed up children whose parents set them on very narrow paths and had no tolerance for other ways of thinking or choices which fell outside their very small worldview.

In my case, I’m sure my parents tell their friends of a daughter who ran off to a liberal college and had her head filled with crazy ideas that led her away from god and family, despite the fact that they were nice to her partner and never disowned her.  But I tell the story of parents who put more importance on their pseudo-religious political ideas than the wellbeing of their daughter, who think it’s fine to say hateful things about gay people in general as long as they don’t say it to my face, and who, when told that it isn’t okay to refer to whole groups of people as “them” like they are some sub-species of human, heap a nice dollop of racism on top of the hate sundae.  

Another page on that blog says that estrangement is synonymous with alienation.  That estrangement is essentially the replacement of love with cruelty.  And I take issue with that.  Distancing yourself from a relationship which doesn’t contribute positively to your life is never something we should shame someone for.  Walking away from someone who claims to love you but doesn’t demonstrate actual understanding of what that means is not an act of cruelty.  It’s not the removal or replacement of love.  It’s an act of self care.