How’s that for a tip, during this holiday time of year? No, I’m not on a crusade to convert you to my branch of Christianity. I am rather encouraging you to look at your underlying beliefs about life and to change them, if need be, into something less deterministic, legalistic, and oppressive. This can be done within any of the great religious traditions. So you’re safe on the score. But too many people adopt an attitude about their religion that’s simply not very helpful.
Robert Farrar Capon, a retired Episcopal priest, has written clearly and cogently about this theme for many years. He defines religion this way: any system that guarantees success in life(or death). Most systems, he points out, revolve around conduct (what we do),creed (what we believe), and/or cult (what we sacrifice).
With this definition, Capon argues that religion can be either sacred or secular. It is not confined to the great religious traditions of the world. Politics can be a religion: elect me and all will be well! Success can be a religion: make money and all will be well! Work can be a religion: work hard and all will be well! Self-help can be a religion: eat tofu, practice meditation, or organize your clutter and all will be well! Obviously religion itself can be made into a religion: believe this and all will be well! Live morally and all will be well! Sacrifice your first-born male child (or at least 10% of your income) and all will be well!
I use those exclamation points to indicate that most proponents of a religion do so with great enthusiasm. Ever meet someone who’s recently quit smoking or lost a lot of weight? They can be excruciating. Everyone had better get on board, or else, because their system guarantees success.
Success, of course, can be defined in many ways. Some religions wait until “death do us part.” Then and only then, when we go to heaven or get reincarnated, do we end up successful or not. Most religions also offer something in the meantime, such as health, money, or love(the title of Capon’s best book on the subject, now out of print, is Health, Money, and Love: And Why We Don’t Enjoy Them). There’s usually a simple formula • do this, believe this, and/or sacrifice this to get the goods.
The problem, of course, is that there are no guarantees. There are no laws of the universe that guarantee health, money, love, or any of the myriad targets of human ambition and endeavor. We’d like there to be such laws, of course, an inclination that Capon argues is built into the insufferably anxious constitutions of human beings. But just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, life has a way of reminding us that we don’t. We play by the rules (whatever they may be) and we still end up sick, broke, brokenhearted, or dead.
So what’s the point? The point is to live in the present moment without making it contingent on some future reward. Forget the system. There is no deal. Live now as though it may be the last now you’ll ever have. Learn to appreciate the biggest prize of all: life itself. If you run, run for what it means to you now. If you work, work for what it means to you now. If you fast, fast for what it means to you now. If you write, write for what it means to your now. If you give, give for what it means to you now.
Does this mean I’m against self-improvement? Hardly! That would put us coaches out of business. It simply means that self-improvement needs to be kept in perspective. First, there is no magic bullet, no one thing (or several things) that you can do to make everything come out all right. You can improve your chances, but that’s about all anyone can say. Second, there is no future reward that makes pain, suffering, and self-denial in the present moment all worthwhile. They may be worthwhile, but that worth has to be found in the experience of doing them rather than in the promise of collecting on them.
Are you working 60, 70, or more hours per week with little time for your spouse, partner, children, family, or even yourself? Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re doing it for them, for their future, or for some great unseen reward. Do it, if you do it at all, for what it means now. Enjoy the stressful ride or don’t do it at all. Are you going to church? Training for a race? Going to school? Drinking filtered water? Living a moral life? Tutoring a child? Investing in the stock market? Memorizing the catechism? Saying, “I do?” Whatever you’re doing, thinking, and/or sacrificing, avoid turning it into a religion. There are no systems that guarantee success. But there is the present moment to be fully mindful of and grateful for the mystery and wonder of life.
Enjoy the holidays! The next tip you’ll receive from me will come about three weeks from now, when we can all breathe a welcome Y2K sigh of relief.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC