The myth of the self-made person and the true demand of discipleship

A week ago, I sat among a circle of women at the local county jail. The fluorescent lights shined brightly overhead as we discussed Bible verses and prayed together, as we marveled about the challenges of being good. We laughed, nodded and spoke vulnerably with one another about how tough it can be to be our best selves.

Then, one young woman stunned me with a confession. “I have been using drugs so long that I don’t really know who I am without them … I don’t really know how to figure out who I am really meant to be, either.” Her dark, thin face became emotional as she admitted her struggle.

All week, as our democracy once again seems to be corrupted by fears and accusations, by a lack of compassion and hope, I have been thinking about this woman. It’s an awful time for our nation, for democrats and republicans, for the pro-life movement and for those who are victims of sexual assault and abuse. It is an awful time for women, for advocates of peace and justice — for those who want every person’s dignity and story to be respected and honored.

We are all characters in this story and it’s a good time to ask: who are we really? Who are we becoming? Who are we made to be? And, what are the blocks that get in the way of us knowing the truth?

From my vantage point, it seems that a particular American myth is deeply enmeshed in the public and private pain: we can all become whoever we want to be. Anyone can make themselves.

All week, I have been thinking of the woman I met in the jail who said that she doesn’t really know who she is without her addiction, as I have been thinking about my discernment and growth. I realized after the fact, that I didn’t really respond the right way to her comment. I said “yes, it’s a struggle. I am still figuring out who I am … it helps to figure out what we’re passionate about; it’s good to think up dreams and goals and work toward them.”  It seems that although I haven’t struggled with a drug addiction, certain things have blocked me from coming to know the truth of who I am, such as false beliefs.

For example, for several years I believed in — and promulgated — the idea that every person can become who they want to be, that we all ought to dream up hopes and then work toward them. Somewhere along the way, I became convinced that this was the path to success and accomplishment, to joy and peace. I taught this to teens and struggling young adults. I insisted that they all make up lists of life goals and dreams, that they imagine who they wanted to be and then work to build up that life.

This is the privileged myth of the “self-made man.” This is the pursuit of the “American dream.” This is not in line with what it means to truly be following Jesus.

So, the Spirit got a hold of me, shook me down and taught me the truth. Eventually, I learned that life isn’t so much about what I want, but God’s way. “You may not do what you want,” Galatians 5:17 insists. For good reasons too. If I did whatever I wanted, I’d be a very selfish, greedy person who would probably not be so interested in serving the needs of others, in pleasing God. I am not saying I am scum, but I am, of course, a work in progress who struggles with being sinful as much as the next person. God’s ways are better than my ways.

Discipleship is about following, not creating oneself. Perhaps this is an impact of living a vow of obedience, of discerning with my sisters how my gifts and talents can best serve the common good, of trying to listen and obey the Spirit’s encouragements to move certain directions with my life.

Discipleship demands discovery, not the building of oneself. We discover who God is making us into and inviting us to be. We don’t have to assert our own agendas and dreams.

And amazingly, in my experience, following the Spirit’s invitations, saying “yes” to God’s ways, leads to more joy and self-discovery, to a deeper understanding of one’s own giftedness and struggles. Yes, knowing our desires and interests is important — those are parts of how God created us. But life is ultimately not about what we want, but God’s will. Life is a walk forward into the mystery, a submission to God’s designs — a masterpiece in process of which we somehow get to be a part of.

Put another way, it’s about listening and bowing to the beauty that is beyond us, to seeing how we are part of the bigger story, as Mark Nepo describes in this poem:

“Understory”
by Mark Nepo

I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.

Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.

We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.

The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.

It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.

When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.

The woman in the jail and I are both coming to know an important part of being human: we can discover who God wills us to be by seeing how we are meant to be part of a bigger story, a story made up of more than what we want. Then, along the way, we will come to discover who we really are.

Photo credit: Callum Shaw, Unsplash.com

trusting fire’s power

The fire of God is burning and we gather to praise and rejoice.  No barriers divide us, no division separates us.  God’s mystery connects us through the diversity of language, origin, world-view, culture and class. We are together, glowing with the heat that can only be experienced by the fullness of humanity.

Fire is beautiful, enlightening, strong.  We can become mesmerized and tempted to play in it and with it, teasing the limits.  With deep wonder, we can get too close to the power, only to be burned and scarred.  If we dance with God’s designs, we can’t stay the same.

In fact, the elements of God’s designs instill in us great lessons about the mystery of God’s nature.  Fire is fierce, dangerous, destructive.  Without our attention or understanding, the sparks of elements and energy ignite flames in fields and forests.  Dry air and strong wind force rages for miles, destroying life, homes, security and control.

We lament at loss and grieve our lack of understanding.  It feels like an injustice, it’s definitely a mystery. How can we love and have faith anymore?  How can we believe and trust?  How are we supposed to accept that this is Love’s Way when we feel so hurt?

Nature tells us, though, that with time life comes back brighter and stronger after a fire sweeps through.  In my childhood, I remember being confused about how my parents would start brush fires in our pastures to renew the grasses for something better. It made no sense to me, just as I now don’t understand my Divine Parent’s fire-y ways.

I try to trust, despite the struggle.  I’ve been hurt by the sudden death of a colleague and I am trying to live through painful good-byes; I’m ending my ministry in Chicago and moving to Wisconsin to be near the motherhouse. On Tuesday, another student told me that someone he knew well (his cousin) was shot and killed.  A foot taller than me at fifteen, I suddenly fell onto his chest, sobbing at the injustice.  He stood there like a pillar of stone, trying to comfort me through his own stunned grief. “It’s OK, Sister.” he muttered.  “No, it’s not!” I said.

Somehow, I must be faithful to my call to be an itinerant Franciscan and say good-bye to my students who are in so much pain.  Somehow, I must trust God that things will really be OK.  I must trust the mystery of God’s glorious fire, because I have no other choice. And, I believe that Love is truly stronger than any other energy, even the energy of non-understanding.

Deep in the dark, I shall snuggle up to the coals of God’s comfort with my community, family and friends.  The force of the Spirit shall heal and transform all of us, together, to be united as one body: the fire of God’s love. May it be so, Amen, indeed, Amen.

The Golden Sequence

Come, Holy Spirit,

send forth the heavenly

radiance of your light.

Come, father of the poor,

come, giver of gifts,

come, light of the heart.

Greatest comforter,

sweet guest of the soul,

sweet consolation.

In labor, rest,

in heat, temperance,

in tears, solace.

O most blessed light,

fill the inmost heart

of your faithful.

Without your grace,

there is nothing in us,

nothing that is not harmful.

Cleanse that which is unclean,

water that which is dry,

heal that which is wounded.

Bend that which is inflexible,

fire that which is chilled,

correct what goes astray.

Give to your faithful,

those who trust in you,

the sevenfold gifts.

Grant the reward of virtue,

grant the deliverance of salvation,

grant eternal joy.

Amen, Alleluia!