If you could go back in time to re-live a particular stage in your life, not for the purpose of undoing past “mistakes” but purely for the joy of living that stage in life again, which would you choose? I once asked my wife and a friend that question and we all came to the same conclusion: our college years. As we thought out loud about why our college years were the most enjoyable, we concluded that the high amount of free time, independence, and
But we realized something else with the next question: If you could live your college years again, but at the cost of erasing all the life wisdom you’ve gained since then, would you do it? And again we came to the same conclusion: No, we wouldn’t. And I think we were all a bit surprised by our answer, because it made us realize that as much as we long for the days when we had more free time, less responsibility, and less stress, there is something we all value even more than fun: the wisdom of life experience.
As we continued our discussion, we came to a couple more conclusions: first, that we gained the most wisdom and grew in the most meaningful ways during the most difficult periods of our lives; and second, that as much as we value the wisdom we gained during those difficult years, we wouldn’t want to re-live them. And we laughed about our discovery of yet another of life’s paradoxes: we wouldn’t want to re-live our most enjoyable years at the cost of losing our wisdom, but we also wouldn’t want to re-live the difficult years that gave us that wisdom.
When I thought about that conversation again recently, it reminded me that fun and play make life enjoyable, but gaining wisdom gives life a sense of purpose and meaning.
Education & Miseducation
When I watch our one year-old toddle around our living room with his insatiable curiosity, trying to get his hands and/or mouth on literally everything, it reminds me that we humans are biologically wired to be learning machines. Starting in early childhood, we’re put into schools and churches to direct our learning. And whether by trust or coercion, we go along with the secular and religious education programs we’re given.
The quality of our education depends almost entirely on the quality of our teachers. The great teacher doesn’t just teach her students information; she teaches them how to think. Most importantly, the great teacher doesn’t teach her students to think just like her; she teaches them how to think for themselves. Like the good doctor whose goal is to cure his patient so completely that she no longer needs his treatment, the greatest teachers enable their students to become their own teachers, leading their students from dependence to independence.
Unfortunately, we don’t always have the great fortunate of having great teachers. Some teachers merely teach us to memorize and repeat, or to adopt the teacher’s own paradigm. Although those teachers probably have pure motives–they probably think they’re helping their students–they do little if anything to help their students achieve intellectual independence.
Losing Our Training Wheels
“[I]t is good to be born in a church, but it is bad to die there. It is good to be born a child, but bad to remain a child. Churches, ceremonies, and symbols are good for children, but when the child is grown he must burst the church or himself. We must not remain children forever.”
Vivekananda considered churches to be like training wheels: they help children avoid falling while learning to balance on their own, but they shouldn’t be permanent fixtures. At some point the training wheels need to come off.
Some of us intentionally remove our spiritual training wheels when we come to feel we’ve outgrown them; when we feel confident, independent, and ready to be our own spiritual guides in life. But it seems most of us get our spiritual training wheels knocked off through sudden disillusionment that we neither wanted nor expected. And that sudden disillusionment leaves us feeling disoriented because although the institution we’ve leaned on doesn’t seem dependable anymore, we don’t yet feel ready to be our own spiritual guides.
The disorientation we experience when we lose faith in our church is a symptom of our former dependency on it. And it’s worth recognizing that this dependency was not created by accident. Unfortunately, many churches intentionally instill a sense of dependency in their members through indoctrination; by requiring them to memorize and repeat the “right” answers; by prescribing the times, places, and methods of worship; by telling members what to read and not read; and by asserting control over their members’ social and family relationships.
When Vivekananda spread his message of spiritual independence throughout the U.S. in the late 1890s, his lectures were often picketed by the clergy of local churches who warned passersby to steer away from the lecture hall to avoid being corrupted. In one Texas town, Vivekananda was literally run out of town by horsemen brandishing pistols. Creating a sense of dependency in one’s flock is good for business; a message urging people to seek spiritual independence was the last thing those clergymen wanted their flocks to hear.
The Guru in the Mirror
Overcoming spiritual dependence always involves growing pains. It requires, in the first place, developing confidence in one’s own spiritual discernment. This can be particularly difficult for people who were taught from early childhood to defer to the spiritual discernment of religious authorities whenever it conflicted with their own. But we can see through the illusion of our spiritual dependence when we recognize that ultimately each of us is, always has been, and always will be, our own guru (teacher) in life.
Just think of what it means to recognize truth. “Recognize” means to identify something from having encountered it before; to know again. We are able to re-know something is true because we already knew it to be true. And how did we already know it to be true? By our life experience.
For example, when I read Jesus’ admonition to refrain from judging others, to focus on the beams in our own eyes rather than singling out the motes in others’ eyes, that ethical principle rings true to me because it resonates with my life experience. I’ve been on the receiving end of being judged and it isn’t pleasant; likewise, I’ve experienced judging another person and later realizing that I too am guilty of the very same thing for which I was judging him/her.
No matter how disoriented you may feel during a faith transition, know that your moral compass is still very much intact because you always have your life experience to rely upon. The most simple yet profound ethical rule—do unto others as you would have others do unto you—calls on each of us to rely on our life experience to determine right from wrong behavior. For example, our life experience tells us that it’s wrong to kill, steal, lie, etc. because those actions hurt people, and as human beings, we know what it’s like to hurt. We also know by experience that being compassionate and charitable makes us feel good, deepens relationships, and helps others. And we know that because actions have consequences, we need to choose our actions wisely to create positive consequences and avoid negative consequences for ourselves and others.
Even if we make mistakes along the way, which we inevitably will, it will all ultimately inure to our benefit. As Vivekananda told a London audience in 1896:
“As for me, I am glad to have done something good and many things bad; glad I have done something right and committed many errors, because every one of them has been a great lesson. I, as I am now, am the result of all I have done, all I have thought. Every action and thought have had their effect, and these effects are the sum total of my progress.”
Whether you’re hiking in the woods or doing chores at home, sitting on your couch or on a meditation cushion, your greatest teacher is always within you.