Sunday, September 26, 2010

Saying Yes to Life

The 90’s cult movie Trainspotting opens with a famous scene called “Choose Life.” As Ewen McGregor is chased through the streets of Edinburgh Scotland, the following voice over is heard, (minus the expletives):

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a whopping big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed- interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase in a range of fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing sprit- crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, wasting your last days in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish brats you have spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future. Choose life…

But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who need reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

It’s a stark movie with the main characters all trying to escape their addictions but the alternatives aren’t inspiring enough to lure them out of their self destructive lifestyles. In the end it was easier for them to self medicate than face the drudgery of meaningless conformity. Like other movies of its genre (for example, Pulp Fiction, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), it uses absurd violence to show that violence is absurd as well as making a mockery of social conventions. While watching, you wince and laugh within minutes, as they play with your assumptions and leave you wondering if there is meaning in life at all.

Why am I beginning with such a depressing thought? Aren’t you reading this for a little hope and inspiration?

You want to choose life and to have it in abundance. But here’s the thing- abundant life isn’t an escape from life. Abundant life is abundant only if it offers something meaningful to the troubled waters of life. Choosing life is about saying “yes” to all of life, the good, the bad and the ugly. Life doesn’t consist of events and circumstances that happen to you. Abundant life is the ability to respond to each moment with conviction. You can’t run away from life. Wherever you are, there life is. You are either awake or asleep in each moment. Choosing life is another way of saying that you are awake to life. You say to life, “Bring it. I’m ready. I can’t control circumstances, but I have control over my responses.”

This is good news because you have your own life challenges and pain. But you are persisting, and you are choosing life, better than you give yourself credit for doing it. You are shaken but not stirred by circumstances. You want more from life than survival. Drifting through life, going through the motions and taking no risks is no more life affirming than drug addiction. You don’t want to mindlessly inject the latest cultural expectations and societal norms into the bloodstream of your psyche.

Choosing life just might entail a full scale revolution, an overturning of the yes sir, no sir culture of mainstream media, political maneuvering, robotic religion and blind consumerism. When people choose life, things get shaken up. When people choose life, grief turns into new strength. When people choose life, oppression is overcome. When people choose life, addictions are faced head on. When people choose life……

Choose Life

Choose life. These are two of the most empowering words recorded in the Bible. (Deuteronomy 30;19 ) It’s ironic that these words are often used by the “Right to Life” anti abortion movement because they appear in the middle of a blood curdling section of the Bible that would even make Stephen King blush, where God makes clear that all who are disobedient will be unceremoniously smitten. The God of Deuteronomy shows no hints of believing in the sanctity of life. If you read these texts literally, you are left to reconcile an angry, jealous, and violent God who shows little regard for the lives of men, women, children or the unborn.

If you liberate yourself to read it seriously but not literally, the text does not point to any “right to life” but it does point to the consequences that you bring on yourself if you don’t choose life. It suggests that if you look for answers outside of yourself, you will be frustrated. No one else can live life for you. No drug can breathe life into you. No cultural norm or religious expectation can fill your life with meaning. There is no promised land to take away your troubles. There is just your engagement with each moment and living with your choices.

The greatest danger to religion is not controversy but complacency. It has been said that the worst aspect of the exile for the Israelites was the fact that they became used to it. Complacency and indifference were their drugs of choice. They confused peace with standing still, and lost the passion to choose life. Choosing life is often about tapping into the untamed heart beyond conformity and conditioning and blazing new trails.

Choosing Life as the Deepest Yes

Choosing life is another way of saying “Yes” to life. We all want to live our lives with a giant “YES” stamped across our chests. We want to be positive people and make a positive difference in the world, but sometimes we have to say “no” in order to get to the deeper yes. Most of us struggle to say “no” due to guilt, and we get locked into guilt because we haven’t woken up to our deeper yes. I came across a book called The Power of a Positive No by William Ury. It has been very helpful for me and I want to share the main idea. Over the next few weeks I will apply the thesis of the book to a couple of different situations. My hope is that it will empower you to say yes to life long enough to stay open, and liberate you to say no to circumstances that are not consistent with your deeper yes.

Most of us struggle with no, and yes isn’t much easier. How do you say “yes” to a child without creating an attitude of entitlement? How do you say “no” to a child without crushing their spirit? How do you say “yes” to a friend without losing your own power? How do you say “no” to a friend without harming the relationship? How do you say “yes” to a client without setting up false expectations? How do you say “no” to a client without losing their business?

Ury says that when you live from your roots, both your yeses and nos are positive and empowering ways to choose life. A positive no comes from understanding the roots of a deeper yes. The best analogy to describe Ury’s main idea is to think of your life as a tree. Your deepest yes to life is the roots of a tree, grounded and strong. The trunk is the surface of your life. Too often we live from the trunk rather than the roots. When the trunk lacks awareness of the roots, life becomes a series of knee jerk reactions. When we live from the trunk, we either use ineffective and unsatisfying “nos” or else we stoically say yes out of fear. Both our nos and our yeses become problematic when we live without roots.

Ury suggests a three pronged, yes/ no/ yes plan to healthy communication. The initial yes comes from your core values, your roots. The no is in service of your deeper yes, and this no then opens up possibilities to choose life. The branches are your healthy relationships and the fruit is the positive effect you have in the world when you live from your roots. When you live from your deepest values, you are choosing life no matter what circumstances arise.

Ury offers the brilliant example of James Burke, the CEO of pharmaceutical company Johnson and Johnson. When a handful of people died from using Tylenol capsules that had been laced with poison he was faced with a tough decision. He was told that it was a very isolated problem and he came under heavy pressure from his colleagues not to do a national recall. He reflected on the root values of his company and reminded himself that the health of his customers came before profits. At a cost of 10s of millions of dollars he not only ordered a national recall but offered to exchange capsules for tablets where people had Tylenol in their homes and refused to relaunch Tylenol until they were completely sure it was safe. Many people wondered if it would be the end of Tylenol, but when they relaunched it with more effective safety caps it quickly regained its stature as a safe and effective product. He said no to his colleagues because of a deeper yes and the result was the belief of the public in the integrity and credibility of his company.

Choosing Life and Inclusive Spirituality

Let me now relate the same point to inclusive spirituality. I want to do that by telling a story about a very difficult time in my life about 13 years ago. I had just begun at a new church, and our first child was 3 years old. Meg became very sick, so sick that for a while her life was threatened. It was one of those times when you question and doubt everything. I tried everything I knew to stay grounded and eventually attempted to pray. It was in the process of praying for Meg’s recovery that I realized that if God could make Meg well, then God must have also made her sick. I went into a spin, the end result of which was that I could no longer believe in a theistic God who would make people sick, allow some to recover and others to die. It felt like this God was playing Russian Roulette with human life. Believing in this God didn’t help me and it didn’t make sense to me. Through a difficult process, I said “no” to a theistic God and considered whether to stay in the church. Here is the hope you have been waiting for. It was only after saying “no” to the theistic God that I could say a deeper “yes” to the God beyond names who is all and in all, life itself, the very essence and source of life.

Was it easy? No. Was it a straight line of certainties and clear cut answers? No. It was like parking in the D and W parking lot, with all the odd angles and tight lines. It presented challenges to our relationship and to my relationship with the church. But now I say “yes” to my experience of that which is greater than all and yet present in each, best described with adjectives and exclamations and questions. Having said “yes” to the universal divine source, I am free to say no to an angry and tribal God and yes to inclusive spirituality. Once you say “no” to the God of one group over and against another, and say “yes” to the universal source of life, then the branches of new relationships are exciting and yield the fruit of peace in the world. As for prayer, once I said no to prayer as a wish list and instead thought of prayer as grounding me in my deepest intentions and core values, I could say yes to prayer once again.

Are you choosing life when it comes to your spiritual perspective? Are you saying “no” to all the old beliefs that compromise your core values and “yes” to new ways of experiencing the sacredness of life?

Say “no” to a male God in order to say “yes” to gender equality. Choose life. Say “no” to a theistic, creator God in order to say “yes” to science and evolution. Choose life. Say “no” to intervention in order to say “yes” to self responsibility. Choose life. Say “no” to narrow beliefs and “yes” to your core values.

Choose Life

At the base of your challenges and frustrations lies a basic existential question. What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose in loss? Where is the hope in grief? Let me end with a story that gets to the heart of the existential question. It comes from the Sunday comic strip Opus.

Opus is a restless and cynical penguin. He is sitting out under the night sky looking up at the stars with his human friend Auggie. Opus says, “Auggie, ol’ buddy…ever wonder how all of this came to be?”

Auggie says, “You don’t believe in God, Opus?”

“I’m a penguin. We’re not sure what we believe in….except purpose. We believe in having a purpose. Also lots of squid.”

Auggie counters, “That’s ridiculous. If you think this is all just a cosmic accident, you’re left purposeless!” And Opus retorts, “I’m not purposeless!”

As Auggie lies down in the grass, Auggie mutters, “Yeah, well, if we really are merely atoms bumping around by chance, there’s little hope for finding meaning in life.” He yawns and, quickly falls asleep.

In the next frame, a few big fat rain drops are falling. Opus looks up at the sky, catches a raindrop in his hand and says, “Ah. LIFE’S MEANING.”

Next, we see Opus gently placing his big puffy hat under Auggie’s sleeping head for a pillow, and then Opus takes his coat off and covers Auggie with it.

In the final frame, the rain is pouring down and Opus is standing in the rain, holding his umbrella over the still-sleeping Auggie. Opus concludes, “Maybe meaning is not so much found as it is made.”

Maybe the meaning in life is not so much found, as it is made. When you choose life, and live from your deepest values, you find meaning by living meaning. Say “no” to definitive answers about speculative matters, and enjoy the freedom and responsibility of your deeper yes in an evolving and dynamic universe. The reality is that roses have thorns, clouds have storms, some people are born with addictive personalities and we all deal with our own demons. You are dealt certain cards in the hand of life, but you choose how you play them. Step into the void left by saying “no” to old beliefs, and create meaning with life affirming, open ended, compassion filled responses. Choose life. Namaste.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful article. It really spoke to me. Made me cry. Thank you.

Susanna said...

Whew - what a wonderful piece. This insight is precisely what I needed today: "sometimes we have to say 'no' in order to get to the deeper yes." Thank you for this!

Srivilasica said...

Wonderful! Thank you!

Coach Sue said...

Ian you are spot on with your revelations. If you "no" to something you are actually saying "yes" to something else. Powerful piece and I applaud your ability to share your written word with others.