The Stories We Become

StoriesView:aurelien-romain-1092002-unsplash

“The stories we live by are made, not found.” — Dan McAdams, The Stories We Live By

Are we a project or a discovery? Do we make ourselves or are we disclosed to ourselves? The question has been for me a touchstone of sorts, something I return to with intensity in liminal moments—those thresholds we cross that change how we see the trajectory of our lives.

As a college student in the 70s I was drawn to existentialism, especially the kind that Albert Camus lived out. Somehow, he brought together elements of Stoicism and Romanticism into a resolute philosophy of life that emphasized commitment to principle along with a sensuous enjoyment of nature. Being brought up by English grandparents in California in the 60s, in a home that was religiously devout and loyal to the church, oddly enough, paralleled that outlook and even converged at some points.

My grandfather was English, from Yorkshire, average in height, stoic in his perseverance without complaint, and quietly consistent in his gentleness and understanding. His commitments to principle were unwavering, but his ability to forgive was just as strong. God was a presence he rarely named, but he lived in gratitude for how he had been led that expressed itself in moments between us, especially as we talked while wrestling boulders out of our volcanic soil under the heat of a California sun.

Camus, on the other hand, refused God, but never managed to turn his face away completely. Since his only perception of God was that portrayed by the Church, he was inevitably disappointed. It seemed to me that he lived as if he wished God were real. He saw life as a beautiful tragedy, something that appealed to my adolescent romanticism.

But above all, he believed that we made ourselves through our decisions and actions. Life required commitment, faith in each other, a willingness to sacrifice for principle. Dr. Rieux, in Camus’ novel, The Plague, daily faced death as he worked to relieve the suffering of his patients, simply because it was the right thing to do. That sense of duty to principle is where the Adventism of my grandparents and the humanism of Camus overlapped. There was a cross-pollination that has influenced me to this day.

Because of our strong heritage from one of the founders of our church, Ellen White, most of us of a certain vintage have grown up with phrases like being “as true to duty as the needle to the pole,” and “Everything depends on the right action of the will.” In effect, most of us were raised as Kantians, with a strong sense of duty, manifesting a kind of “disinterested benevolence,” to use another of Ellen White’s maxims. We were encouraged not to trust our emotions, since they could easily be swayed, but to trust in Scripture, our spirit of prophecy, and the moral precepts we derived from both.

The idea that we “make” ourselves can go in several directions. We could think of it as a by-product of duty, not something to be sought after, but not something to be dismissed either. Or we could choose, like Aristotle advocated, to seek a higher end or telos, through cultivating the virtues, a choice that we make through reason.

Yet, as Adventists, we are conflicted about trying to become virtuous. It seems presumptuous to us to imagine that we could pursue such an end, even one directed to God. It seems to emphasize works over faith, as if we might work ourselves out of the need for a savior or somewhere along the way, slough off the Holy Spirit. We want to be virtuous, but we don’t want to look like we’re trying to be. There is also a virulent strain of perfectionism in current Adventism that is curiously hostile both to virtue ethics (because it relies on philosophy) and to grace (because it’s not rigorous enough). So, an understanding of how we might be nourished and strengthened by practicing the fruits of the Spirit and the virtues, for instance, is timely and welcome.

There is another way that we make ourselves and that is through the stories we imagine for ourselves about who we are. Dan McAdams, in his ground-breaking book, The Stories We Live By, calls them “personal myths,” and defines them as “an act of imagination that is a patterned integration of our remembered past, perceived present, and anticipated future.” Over the course of years, from adolescence to middle adulthood, McAdams says our personal myths should reflect increasing coherence, openness, credibility, differentiation, reconciliation, and generative integration. These six “narrative standards” are the elements of a good story in human identity, one that reflects who we are and lures us onward to what we may become.

As we become more differentiated in life, we face conflicts and paradoxes. Our personal stories become richer, more textured, as we learn to cope with suffering, disappointment, and conflicts. We seek reconciliation and harmony between the conflicting elements within ourselves and between ourselves and others. Reconciliation, says, McAdams, “is one of the most challenging tasks in the making of personal myth,” and psychologically, we’re not prepared to face it until in midlife.

McAdams’ research is original, but in some respects roughly parallels James Fowler’s Stages of Faith. Fowler argued that faith was a universal in human existence, and that one did not have to be “religious” in order to have faith. We look for order and patterns in the universe, and we live by what we find. He identified “faith as relating” and “faith as knowing,” and it is the latter that McAdams understands as contributing to our personal myths. McAdams sees the stories we construct for ourselves as developmental stages, “qualitatively different structures of religious belief and value.” He separates these into four positions, A through D.

Position A understands faith as specific rules about good behavior and has only vague notions about God, nature, human identity, and so forth. While it can be authentic, there is little reflection on meaning and even less on putting one’s thoughts in order. Nevertheless, it’s a beginning.

Position B, what Fowler calls “synthetic-conventional” faith, gathers up beliefs into a systematic creed or system, whether it be provided by the Church or the scientific enterprise. These are the positions, typically, of adolescents and young adults. There is structure within a system, but little questioning, either of beliefs or of the organizing principles.

With Position C, the individual moves beyond the conventions and begins to fashion a more individual and personalized faith structure. There is questioning of the conventions of the previous position and a good deal of soul-searching. We attempt to find something that is both authentic and truly expressive of who we think we are. And when we reflect on our faith and our conventions we may ultimately reject some and accept others—but the ones we accept will no doubt be those we reason are most honestly ours. We try to reconcile inconsistencies between our beliefs and those of other people through reason and logic. We wish the world were as reasonable as we are.

Position D, however, understands that reason is not enough. “A very small number of people,” says McAdams rather wryly, “beginning probably in mid-life, reorganize their beliefs and values in order to accommodate paradox and inconsistency in life.” In this phase we may gain a renewed appreciation for the simple stories of faith we grew up on, while at the same time recognizing that life is more complex and multi-layered than it first appears. James Fowler calls this “conjunctive faith” because it allows a person to join together ideas and images that are usually kept separate. It makes room for paradox and irony, qualities that are needed to think about the mystery of evil or the redeeming characteristics of our enemies and the darkness of our heroes. It lives with ambiguity and paradox. Some of its most articulate expressions are found in Soren Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton, and Parker Palmer.

It’s what I would call “innocent experience,” the quality of perception that comes after we take a fall from innocence into despair and knowledge and are forgiven and raised to a point beyond our innocence. If we’re fortunate enough to belong to a community, and humble enough to recognize our constant need for honesty, then we can live with paradox and uncertainty—and press ahead with faith.

If Position C—questioning and rejecting our conventional mores and theology—is the prodigal leaving home, Position D is the prodigal returning: wiser, humbler, and armed with a no-nonsense BS detector. The prodigal leaves home innocently arrogant, crosses over into weary cynicism, and returns with the gifts of openness and empathy.

In the summer of 2015, after the GC Session, I posted the following observation on my Facebook page. I think it applies now more than ever, especially since Annual Council 2018 (Battle Creek edition) presents us with an opportunity for authenticity, a way to re-imagine our faith together.

“It may be that in the post-San Antonio era, with another five years under Ted Wilson, many who have been Adventists all their lives, and many who may never have questioned church policy, procedures, and prejudices, will quietly realize how little they need to look to the church structure for their spiritual strength. They may see their friends, their pastors, those they have met online, their non-Adventist and non-Christian friends, as their spiritual community. They may understand that it’s possible to be in the church, but not of the church, that we don’t have to be hindered by unjust practices and blatant mismanagement to the extent that it blinds us to who Jesus is for us today. If we want, we can carry the invisible church within us every day. It will be exciting to see how we may grow and learn through adversity. We need to hold our fellow travelers close on this journey.” — Facebook, July 2015

Costumes and creeds do not a faith provide, but we can write a new story that does.

“Cease to dwell on days gone by

and to brood over past history.

Here and now I will do a new thing;

this moment it will break from the bud.

Can you not perceive it (Isa. 43:18,19)?”

Photo: Aurelien Romain, Unsplash.com

Attention Deficit

DistractedWoman:ehimetalor-unuabona-270319-unsplash

Men have no eyes but for those aspects of things which they have already been taught to discern. — William James, Psychology

In April 1931, George Orwell wrote a short piece entitled “The Spike” for a magazine called Adelphi. In it he describes time he spent as a tramp. He became a tramp, a homeless person, partly of necessity and partly because he wished to understand the particular forms of suffering that tramps go through. One virulent irritation was boredom. Orwell came to think that boredom was the worst of a tramp’s burdens, worse than hunger and worse than the feeling of social disgrace. “It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel,” he said. “Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement. Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds.”

Today, Orwell would be accused of elitism and would be made to tweet an apology. But Orwell was nothing if not honest and having lived the life on the street could speak with authority. One need only pass through any metropolitan area to see the homeless on benches, median strips, near metro stations or on corners, many of them slumped against a wall, sleeping huddled against the cold or in a quiet corner of a coffee shop. Their days unwind with agonizing slowness, each minute trudging after the next. In this essay, Orwell recounts how he was saved from the ten hours of daylight boredom in the spike (homeless shelter) by the blessed reprieve of working in the kitchen. Even so, one suspects that with his powers of observation and his interests in literature, politics, and history, Orwell would not likely suffocate in boredom.

There are two elements at work here: memory and attention. Memory, because we are hardly human without it, and attention because it is necessary to learning of any sort. William James devotes a chapter of his seminal work, Psychology, to attention, describing it of two kinds. There is the effortless, involuntary, and passive kind, and there is the active and voluntary kind. Involuntary attention occurs when we follow a train of thought that is interesting as a means to an end or when the mere association with the thought burnishes us with a sense of satisfaction.

Active, voluntary attention is that which we make a determined effort to accomplish by bending our minds to it. James remarks that it is a feeling which everyone knows, but which is indescribable. We sense it when we try to discriminate between sensory experiences or attend to one voice near us against a babble of other voices. It is an effort whose accomplishment slips through our fingers like water. James says, “There is no such thing as voluntary attention sustained for more than a few seconds at a time (his emphasis).” He describes a process that sounds like the building, layer upon layer, of a pearl around a grain of sand. The mind, finding something interesting, comes back to it, turns it over and over until the novelty wears off, then drifts away, only to return for the feeling of both familiarity and the stimulation of finding something new. And here is the sentence that lit up for me like a Jumbotron: “No one can possibly attend continuously to an object that does not change.”

We pay attention to what matters to us, says James, in a statement that seems so self-evident as to be trivial. That is, until you realize what it implies: that so much of what we overlook, do not see—not to say, ignore—is a result of us just not caring enough.

Actually, that’s not quite true: to say that we don’t care is to suggest that we somehow rank the sensations and ideas coming to us on a scale from exciting to dull, and we jettison everything that doesn’t bend the needle of our interest. But James’ research led him to what one of his sources called preperception, ”the imagining of an experience before it occurs.” In other words, there must be a memory, an image, an association already in us in order for something to become the object of our willed attention. While shiny and colorful objects may momentarily grab our attention, such eye candy cannot hold us for long.

The kind of intellectual attention needed for concentrated study or contemplation seems to be a combination of external sensation and internal preparation which, comments James, “always partly consists of the creation of an imaginary duplicate of the object in the mind.” To put it another way, when we give our attention to an object of thought we hold an image of it in our mind going forward. Not only that, but the image remains as a hook to snag passing thoughts, perceptions, even emotions, so that we can take up ideas where we left them in memory because we have something almost tangible to return to.

When we form such an image and it fills our attention we cannot unnotice it. James again: “But who that has once noticed the identity can fail to have it arrest his attention again? . . . Every bonnet in the street is momentarily taken by the lover to enshroud the head of his idol. The image in the mind is the attention; the preperception is half of the perception of the looked-for thing.”

We pay attention to what we have already been taught to discern. That is both good news and bad news. The good news is that what we’ve been taught has some chance, however slight, of catching our attention again. The bad news is: What would it take to have us care enough about what we don’t know to pay attention long enough to form an image in our minds? In the end, this is an epistemological question, a question of how we know, what can be known, and what we do with what we know. Inevitably, it is a question of learning—and teaching.

“I see everything,” says Robert Downey, Jr., playing Sherlock. “That is my curse.” But for most of us our curse is not seeing enough of what we are paying attention to, narrow though that slice of life may be.

Attention must be paid! To pay attention reveals the cost of focusing with intention on something. When we focus on something, says Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, we select some things and leave the rest as a blur. What we select literally becomes our reality, so that in a very real sense I have my reality and you have yours. The fact that much of our realities overlap means that we can communicate with each other while experiencing reality from singular perspectives. But I digress . . .

We select that which stands out—a red cardinal flitting through the trees, a hissing snake—whatever is new or different in our environment. Gallagher calls this “bottom-up attention,” the kind which keeps us in touch with what is going on in the world. It’s necessary, sometimes crucial, for our survival, but it also includes a host of unnecessary distractions. Think of dogs and squirrels and you get an idea of what life would be like if this passive form of attention was all we had.

The other form of attention is the “top-down” intentional and focused variety in which we concentrate on what we want. This active attention requires hard work and energy, but despite our intense focus it will likely quickly fade. That’s the cost we pay for attention which can give us direction and purpose—a meaningful life rather than a jumble of confusing stimuli.

***

Given all this—given the fact that we have what Buddhists call ‘monkey mind’ that flits from one thing to another like a monkey swinging through the trees—how do we focus our attention upon God? Every religious tradition has sought ways to quiet the mind long enough to hear the still, small voice within the hurricanes and tremors of daily life.

There are techniques for quieting oneself, methods of breathing, ways and means for being truly present that people have used for thousands of years in this pursuit of God. All of these have their place; my purpose here is neither to endorse them nor diminish them. What I’m trying to grasp is how I might have the mind of Christ or pray without ceasing or meditate on the Lord both night and day. All of these states of being assume that we can still brush our teeth, put on our socks, drive our cars, and carry on conversations. Whatever it means to focus one’s attention on God it cannot necessarily mean that we isolate ourselves. “Christ comes alive in the communion between people,” writes Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss. “What this means is that even if you are socially shy and generally inarticulate about spiritual matters—and I say this as someone who finds casual social interactions often quite difficult and my own feelings about faith intractably mute—you must not swerve from the engagements God offers you.”

These may come in the form of people who do not look like God. We might not even see them because they are not usually within the scope of our attention. On the other hand, we may constantly be with people who seem wholly self-sufficient, confident, amiable enough—people much like ourselves—people for whom God is an article of belief rather than a mystery of faith. Nevertheless, those whom we meet are, in every case, an offer of communion from Christ.

God approaches us in the person of others: “the least of these,” the one-percenters, the strangers within our gates. Our attention, divided though it may be, honors God in this way.

Photo: Ehimetalor Unuabona, Unsplash.com