Seeing

“I really liked Richard Beck’s latest blog post, The Kingdom of God is Seeing.

If you’ve heard me talk over the last two years you might have heard me talk about how the kingdom of God is perceptual rather than moral. Specifically, the kingdom of God isn’t a matter of becoming a good person. The kingdom of God is a matter of seeing. If you see clearly then the goodness–right action–follows as naturally as breathing.

He describes a moment of revelation that Thomas Merton experienced in Louisville KY (one that merited a historical marker!), and then writes:

My observation here is that Merton doesn’t, in this moment, need to try, through an act of will, to “be a good person.” Instead, having come to see clearly, right action is easy and spontaneous.

This hints at what has been a guiding principle for me for many years, though even now I don’t understand it well enough to put it into simple, clear words. All I know is that seeing clearly, whatever that means, is somehow the key to the good life.

The good life is fundamentally a matter of doing the right thing. The best life is the one where the natural response to any circumstance is the right one. Doing things right means we have to be able to do the right thing, which requires a determination to do the right thing, i.e. to become a person who always acts rightly. But prior to that is the need to perceive what is right. And I think if you perceive clearly what is right, you will be drawn irresistibly (and joyfully) along the path that ends in a life of naturally does the right thing.

Years ago Doug Jones shocked me by writing that faith is a sense, a way of perceiving what is real. Perhaps it is the only way to perceive what is real. Suddenly most of what the Bible had to say about faith and faithfulness made sense to me.

I’m tempted to make a small adjustment to that well-known passage from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding”:

We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And see the place for the first time.

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4 thoughts on “Seeing

  1. Ok, but then where does character fit into it all? I think of the biblical description of the evil I do not want I do, and vice versa. If I am not acting rightly, does it follow that I am not seeing rightly? In fact, in most cases, I know what is right, but in many I have not been able to capitalize on the knowledge.

    To take a mundane example, I know that I am not a person who can fall out of bed and go to work right after that. I need a 45 minute wake time. I just don’t wake up quickly, and I can be mean if someone pokes the bear. This makes me wince. So I try to guarantee a situation in which I always go to bed on time and always get enough sleep so I always rise at the correct time and thus can behave like a mensch when I do rise and encounter people. This is my goal anyway. I know this is right, and I know it leads to right action. But I would say my motivation toward is primarily a painful one; that is, I can’t stand myself on days that I don’t do this. I feel out of control, and more importantly, unable to stop myself from behaving badly. I see rightly, and I try to behave rightly. But what brings me to behave rightly is not what I see about this stiuation (“I see that when I behave this way, I am better at treating people rightly”) but rather my desire to avoid pain over what I know will happen (“the consequences of not behaving the right way are so severe that I don’t want to bear them if I can avoid it”).

  2. Servetus,

    Seeing isn’t sufficient, but I think it’s essential to assembling the pieces (including the exercise of will power) successfully. There may be something even more fundamental, namely the shift we experience when we decide (?) to proceed along a certain path. Or, maybe bettter, whatever it is that happens between knowing which path to follow and taking that first step. But even there seeing is a critical aid—the more clearly we see the rightness of following the path, the easier it will be to take that first step—see clearly enough, and taking the step will be the most natural thing to do.

    I should also say that I don’t see this as a stepwise process—first see, then proceed. I agree with Anselm (“I believe that I may understand”) and C.S. Lewis (“Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”). Much of what needs to be seen can’t be seen from the outside, we need to be in the midst of it.

    And this works both ways. As we “behave as if”, we will come to see goodness more clearly—and badness as well. Part of the reason I’m very (but not totally) comfortable with my decision to leave the institutional church behind is that I spent 25 years on the inside, living out the experience as if it were the right thing, but always evaluating as well.

    But what brings me to behave rightly is not what I see about this stiuation (“I see that when I behave this way, I am better at treating people rightly”) but rather my desire to avoid pain over what I know will happen (“the consequences of not behaving the right way are so severe that I don’t want to bear them if I can avoid it”).

    I guess I disagree—but you’re the expert on you, so point out what I’m missing! It sounds to me like both seeing and pain-avoidance are happening here. You see what you should do, but not “clearly” enough to make it the natural path. Fortunately (!) you also see the pain clearly enough to use it as a spur to get on with embarking on that path. I’ve been in similar situations, using anything at hand to goad myself into doing what I knew needed doing but didn’t want to do. Often it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It worked best when, once in the situation, I came to appreciate the goodness of it.

    The main recent change for me is maybe a subtle one—now in such situations I will actively and diligently try to understand why I find any aspect of the path unnatural or uncomfortable. Sometimes I can actually “see” my way to getting comfortable. Sometimes I can only work towards pinpointing the sources of discomfort, but at least I can deal with them specifically rather than just being vaguely uncomfortable.

    And sometimes I can see very clearly that my discomfort was well-grounded. That happened when I recently pushed myself to go to a weekend meditation retreat, and ended up leaving very early in. Did I write about this? Anyway, the short version is that I didn’t really want to go but knew I should, so I did—and being there allowed me to see clearly why it was the wrong path for me to follow. I couldn’t have known for sure otherwise.

    One more example. I’m still struggling with eating properly. I’ve struggled with this for fifty years now. I’m actually very good at employing willpower in this area—I’ve stuck with diets for multiple years and lost 50-100 pounds several times in my dieting career. But the weight always came back—which is to say, I always returned to eating badly. My most recent diet began at about the same time I returned to studying character and ended 20 months ago, just about the time I started studying mindfulness.

    The post-diet time has presented the same old challenges, but this time around I’ve found myself doing a new thing—each time I eat badly, I ask myself: why am I doing this? I still don’t have good answers—sometimes I don’t even feel like I know how to ask the question properly—but looking back over those 20 months it seems to have helped in ways I don’t fully understand. Such as: for the first year after the diet was done my weight was pretty steady, but when my Dad died I ate badly for a few weeks afterward and put on around 10 pounds, pounds I then tried to re-diet away but for whatever reason couldn’t. Then my weight started to creep, adding another 5 pounds before I finally said enough! and got “serious” about the diet. I was faithful and comfortable with it for three weeks.

    Then the meditation retreat happened, and for a full week after that I ate compulsively—not gorging, but repeatedly eating things not part of the diet when I wasn’t hungry. But at least I was aware enough to use the situation, and so each time I did that I spent as much time as I could looking at why I was doing what I was doing. Even now I only vaguely understand the reasons, but the looking itself seems to have helped—in any case I stopped doing it and for five weeks have been pretty faithful without any sort of struggling.

    Wow, sorry for dumping so much here! It’s not a very precise answer to your question, but I hope there’s something in it that indicates how I see things.

  3. It’s interesting that the example you cited is also about disciplining the body. What I seek in the end is a situation in which I don’t even ask myself about the right action, because then I have to persuade myself (and I know the reason I don’t go to bed on time regularly is that I’m not tired at the time I need to go to bed); rather, I’d like not to have to persuade myself to do the right thing (just as you’d probably prefer not to struggle with your eating habits), but just do it automatically.

    I agree that it’s not stepwise (although we might perceive it that way) — it’s more like warring impulses and at one time one approach might be better than at another time and so on.

  4. it’s more like warring impulses and at one time one approach might be better than at another time and so on.

    Servetus,

    Right. With the goal being not to get to a particular place, but to continue moving in the right direction. If you constantly measure yourself against a worthy end goal, muscling through what a friend calls “the ugly part of the learning curve” is just too daunting—that early section is so long, the rewards are so few, and the payoffs so distant. But find tiny, manageable goals which will inch you towards the larger one and suddenly the landscape opens up—the risk of failure is low, successes come early and often and are gratifying enough to spur you on, failures become less discouraging and can be used as opportunities to learn, fine-tune, or even rethink the larger goal.

    One more example, just to add data points. I was not born a cheerful person, but I am one now—but not because I set out to become one. My early outlook was never sour, more like fierce and austere, the sort of person who valued truth over people’s feelings. And I could have cultivated that to my profit, like many people do.

    Instead, I embrace a few key qualities beginning in the late 80s—humility, empathy, contentment, selflessness—and worked hard to ingrain them. Cheerfulness was not one of those. A related one, joyfulness, might have been if I had understood how to achieve it, but that was beyond me at the time.

    I worked on the qualities I understood, and twenty-five years later I think they are firmly established in me (not that there isn’t far more work to do!). And I think taken together the work has made me a joyful person, though I still don’t understand joyfulness well enough to make an objective case. But I can make the case that I’ve become a cheerful person. I am the one in the household who bounds out of bed when the alarm goes off, wakes everyone else up, keeps the mood light through positive outlook and constant joking, gently teases without ever shaming, owns up to mistakes quickly with self-deprecating humor, encourages, only ever points out the bright side, and on and on.

    Being that sort of person in a household provides an important counterbalance to all the sour discouragement that everyday living encourages. More important, it shows another way to manage the vicissitudes of life, one rarely seen up close, and lets others seriously consider it as an option. It verges on disturbing how children will take their cues from adults on how to react to a situation, e.g. falling down on the playground, but plenty of times I’ve seen our kids brush something off after looking at us and seeing that we thought it was no big deal. My mother was eternally cheerful, and though she didn’t take the extra step that I do to use it as a child-rearing method I have to think she laid important groundwork for me in that area.

    Anyway, I bring it up as an example of how one can develop an important and valuable character trait without ever setting out to do it, without even considering it important and valuable (at least in the beginning), by setting a general course and sticking with it for many years.

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