Ross Douthat has been on a book tour with his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.
He argues that even though people have been abandoning traditional churches in droves, we are just as “religious” as ever. We have just moved away from the old churches to what he calls “heresies,” whether it is one of those “Churches of Prosperity” where the good Lord has some cash waiting for you or some version of a New Age Spirituality where we can learn to harness the great energies of Cosmic Love. Truth is, it is pretty likely people will always be believers in something.
We need a story to believe in. We are storytelling creatures.
We need a story because we think in language. Thinking in language is a double-edged sword. There is little doubt that if we suddenly lost our language skills, depression would all but disappear. If anyone has not seen Jill Bolte Taylor’s Ted Talk about her journey, thanks to a stroke, into the blissful realm of experience without language, I cannot think of a more worthy twenty minute video on the web.
Blissful as it might be, if we didn’t have language skills, we would still be naked and living brief and savage lives. That is a bit of a trade off. I am not sure which life I would prefer, but I guess I am stuck with my storytelling brain for now. So what’s your story?
“Just the facts, mam’.”
That’s one approach. We can try to see the world for what it is as best we can. We certainly need to do this to some extent. If you don’t, you are going to end up on the roof with a cape believing you are a flying super hero. That is unlikely to go well for you.
Seeing the world for what it is can be troubling too. To quote from the scene at Elvis’ grave in the movie Spinal Tap, there is such a thing as “too much perspective.” Taken as “objectively” as possible, the world can be seen as a pretty terrible and, at best, indifferent place. Even those “real life” Hollywood Ending stories are only triumphant if you stop following them when they reach that “happily ever after” moment. Keep reading and things often don’t go so well.
“Yes Johnny was a big star at last, but then he got older, beauty faded and fashions changed. Now the money is gone and he is doing reality TV’s has-been circuit.”
Many a great mind has been lost trying to come up with a way of dealing with the overwhelming tragedy of our brief lives in an indifferent universe. This is not a great story to tell yourself in the morning if you want to get out of bed. According to this story, you have already lost.
“Lying for the Win!”
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” ~ Bertrand Russell
The fact that you can find very similar quotes on this topic from Yeats and H.L. Mencken suggests this is hardly a new phenomenon in the world and is unlikely to change anytime soon. The rub is that even though the world really is terribly complex and usually way beyond our comprehension, those that “delude” themselves into thinking otherwise usually win.
This, of course, has had disastrous results in politics as practical solutions that try to address the very real complexities of an issue are, more times than not, swept aside in favor of the simple program built out of idiotic certitude. There can be little doubt why the black and white worldview of Fox News annihilates MSNBC’s more nuanced “liberal” view in the ratings. This isn’t just a numbers game that backs that common conceit of the intellectual that there are simply a lot more “stupid” people.
On a more personal level, people guided by certainty and a good dose of self-deception tend to triumph over realists and doubters. Psychologist Joanna Starek did a study of competitive swimmers that showed that swimmers that lied to themselves swam faster than those who did not. There is a great episode of WNYC’s Radiolab that highlights that story as well as many other fascinating aspects of lying and how lying can make people happier and more successful.
So, perhaps the story we should tell ourselves shouldn’t necessarily be “true.”
There have been plenty of studies to suggest that people who involve a personal god or spirituality in their story tend to do better in life as well. Many great battles were won because the soldiers on one side had a compelling story that allowed them to cast aside their doubts and fears and throw themselves completely into the task at hand.
Belief in a higher purpose is an essential ingredient of self sacrifice.
Perhaps having a god or some sort of “spirituality” on your side can not only give you some direction but also confidence to move forward in an often frightening and dreadful world. I see nothing wrong with that in itself. The problems arise when people fashion tyrannical gods imbued with our basest and most petty qualities.
There are two religious or spiritual paths. The high road and the low road. On the low road, the gods are there to serve you. Because of your devotion to them they will champion your causes. They will bring money and love into your life. If you remain faithful enough they will even deliver you from death. Sadly, this is the road “more traveled.” It is a veritable superhighway compared to the high road.
On the high road, you know you are sacrificed. Instead of retreating to the empty promises of the low road, you accept the sacrifice even if puts nails through your wrists (or, in our slightly more civilized age, plastic handcuffs). Of course, not everyone is meant to be a political or religious martyr.
The high road is all about following the journey of the heart.
You know this path already. It is the deepest and truest story of all the stories you tell yourself. It is much deeper than our selfishness. It is a story that is open to the world, that involves the world and seeks to elevate it, even if only in a small way.
You might say, “Wait a minute! Where’s the reward? By starting out admitting that you are sacrificed and then giving yourself up, are you not just telling yourself that dreadful ‘realist’ story?”
That is the beauty of it. It is a “true” story.
Where is the reward? It is in the life that is really lived. When you admit you are lost, you can throw yourself into your life completely. You have nothing to lose by living as full as you can. You are free to “follow your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell would often say.
By completely immersing yourself in your life you can experience the fullness of it: the ecstasy, bliss and terror. You are no longer down here on earth contemplating the sacred. You are sacred and every moment of your life is sacred (though, no doubt, some moments will be more sacred than others…). It’s a beautiful story, but remember life is a pretty epic and complicated novel. There is plenty of room for subplots. So, go ahead, write the rest your own way.
Give yourself plenty of room for happy endings. Write in gods and goddesses too if you like. Just make them higher Gods and Goddesses that embody beauty, justice and love. Leave some room for the rest of us and our stories as well. That is all I ask. Maybe we will even write a chapter or two together.