To paraphrase from the article linked below, spirituality in the 21st Century is is a one-person-show. You tap in, you tap out. You are the curator of the experience; you are in the pilot’s seat. Self-betterment. Self-discovery. Self-awareness…. Spirituality in the 21st Century is a singular, self-focused pursuit. You are your own god, attempting to build your own island paradise. Sounds like a dream.
That dream is a attractive to a recluse like me. As a child, Robinson Caruso and My Side of the Mountain influenced my impressionable psyche at an early age. Thoreau captured my imagination as a still impressionable, but disillusioned, teenager. Of the major world religions, Buddhism spoke to me as an early college student.
Retreating from the messy cacophony and harried competition of modern life seemed like Nirvana to me. Back to nature, isolated on my own island paradise, beholden to no one but myself, released from external duties and melting into the oneness of all life seemed like a laudable and desirable goal.
My inspiration comes from a blog I follow by a lovely lady and Christ follower. You can read the original blog post here: Eavesdropping on a Plane. She calls to mind the siren song that beckoned me up to a point in my life.
As I sit here in self-imposed quasi-quarantine (for the sake of others, not myself this time), some 40 years after a paradigm shift in my life that changed the trajectory of my journey, I recall the allure of that dream, and I am also convinced it’s a mirage, an unattainable state of illusory bliss.
We are social creatures, created for relationship with God and each other. The ordered, but largely self-regulating, isolation we now experience as we fight the threat of the alien invader, COVID-19, proves the point: we are uneasy, restless, and missing the regular, personal contact we need and thrive on.
As I think on these things, it occurs to me that we do need alone time, just as we need interaction with people (and with God). “No man is an island” (as John Dunne said), and proof of that is in the fact that Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Caruso and Jean Craighead George wrote My Side of The Mountain. Who did they write them for?
Henry David Thoreau retreated to his natural Eden and wrote. We know of him because he was a writer, and he wrote for an audience. Even in his seclusion, he was compelled to write and to invite others into it.
Even in our seclusion and isolation, we yearn for interaction; we yearn to have an impact on other people. We are made for interaction and for relationship.
The problem is that we want that interaction and relationship on our own terms. We want to control it. We want to define the boundaries of it. I can attest to that desire, but not without some degree of awkward and painful self-realization. Even today.
It’s a double-edged sword: we are made for relationship, but we all want to control the terms of our relationships (even with God). That’s why the divorce rate is so high. That’s why we have tension in our relationships. That’s why living in close community, even with other Christ followers, can be so hard. That’s we people stray from God.
This is especially true in relation to people who are “not like me”. Playground cliques, bias, partisanship, racism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia are all forms of this reality. The Bible simply calls it sin.
Yes, I know that we tend to think of sin as an archaic, anachronistic construct related to rules and rituals, but it isn’t that at all. When Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets to the religious people of his time, he exposed their lack of understanding:
Love God above all things, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Even today, we fail to understand. We think of sin as an artifice of a Bronze Age construct that has no place in modern vernacular or enlightened sensibility. In doing so, we fail to see that the essence of sin is a failure in relationship. And our modern track record reveals that we are no more advanced in our relational nature than our Bronze Age ancestors.
We are tempted, even in our religious inclinations, to focus on the self. We gravitate toward self-absorption, thinking that we are the saviors of our own souls, the captains of our own ships, the redeemers of our own loves. We fail to see that this is a tendency toward exclusion and seclusion and isolation – when what we really need, what we really long for, what will really fulfill us, is relationship with others and with the God who made us.
We want to be our own gods, but we can’t deliver what we need. It’s an illusion, a mirage. It takes us to a dead end. It takes us in the opposite direction of where we need to go to find what we long for.
The obstacle is our very selves. This is why Jesus said we have to take up our own, individual crosses to follow him. He didn’t mean asceticism and self-abasement. He meant getting past ourselves; putting ourselves second, and considering God and neighbor first, so that we can enter into the relationships for which we were intended.
The oneness that Jesus offers is the true Eden. When Jesus prayed this prayer, he was thinking of us:
“[T]hat they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, … that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one…. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am…. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17: 21-24, 26)
The way to that oneness, that Nirvana that we call Heaven, is not in losing ourselves into cosmic nothingness, but in getting past ourselves so that we can have true oneness with God and our our brothers and sisters who are also children of God. We don’t so much lose our individuality in this oneness as we gain relationship and community that is impossible when we focus on self.
The uneasy isolation we are experiencing in response to COVID-19, perhaps, will help us understand the purpose for which we are created as we recognize the yearning of our hearts for relationship that is temporarily curtailed. As we take stock of these things in the social space that has been created, may we renew our resolve – not for more isolation and focus on our selves – but for getting past ourselves into more intimate and real relationship with others (and God).
This is where our true heart’s desire lies. Though it means denying the self, and even dying to self, it promises true relationship in which we ultimately find our true identity in relation to others and to God.