The Over-examined Life ()Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons, February 24, 2013
Part of the Misc. series, preached at a Sunday Morning service
The home videos of my kids are pretty much all exactly the same: the scene opens with the two of them playing drums or singing together or doing something cute. Half a second later, they’re both racing toward the camera shouting, “I want to see the video! I want to see the video!” Then you hear my voice saying, “There’s nothing to see yet. You have to do something on the video before there’s any video to see. Why don’t you go back and play the drums some more and then we can watch it.” Then you hear them, off camera by this point, saying, “No, I want to watch it anyway!” and then my sigh of resignation, “Okay, let’s watch it.” Cut.
It seems silly – their eagerness to watch themselves doing something prevents them from doing something watchable. But it’s not just 2-year-olds who have this affliction. We all have trouble outgrowing it. Have you ever been in a relationship where all you do is talk about the relationship? And by the time you break up, you realize that you never really had the relationship because you were so preoccupied with analyzing and negotiating it? Relationships can become completely self-referential – not about anything outside of themselves. Those relationships, in case you’re wondering, are doomed.
Organizations do this too sometimes. I haven’t noticed that we’re guilty of this here too much, but some organizations are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating themselves, doing surveys and questionnaires, laying groundwork, re-writing strategies and missions and visions, so much so that they never actually get down to the business of doing whatever it is they’re trying to do. We humans have a fascination, if not an obsession, with watching ourselves.
And it’s not just watching, as in observing. It’s analyzing, evaluating, judging, staring, tinkering, adjusting, intervening, re-starting. We all do it sometimes, with our jobs and careers, school programs, projects, and even with our own kids. The examining of our lives takes on a life of its own and becomes an end in itself. Socrates famously said that the unexamined life is not worth living. That’s a pretty strong statement: that if you just lived, and never examined, it actually wouldn’t be worth it. I wonder what he would say about the inverse – if you just examined but never really lived. Would an unlived life be worth examining? In theory, you would end up like my kids, where the only record of your life would be an endless loop of you racing toward the camera to try to see yourself living.
Of course no one just examines and never lives, but many of us I think over-examine. It’s a defensive strategy for experiencing a thing indirectly, at one safe level of remove. By keeping one foot out, we hope to avoid investing too much of ourselves and getting hurt. There’s a wonderful cartoon in this week’s New Yorker that illustrates this point. The caption says “Zero Dark Thirtysomething” and it shows the team of Navy SEALs stealthily approaching Osama Bin Laden’s compound with all their gear and machine guns. One of them has a thought bubble over his head that says, “I don’t know – is this truly the right career path for me?” Over-examining strikes in the most inappropriate times and places.
And it is nowhere more pervasive and problematic than in our approach to faith. When I say “our,” I’m talking about many Unitarian Universalists but also the growing group of people Peter Morales referred to as the “nones” – the people who check the box marked “none” in questionnaires about their religious affiliation. So many of us modern and post-modern children of the Enlightenment are extremely reluctant if not incapable of turning off the examining, analytic mind when it comes to questions of God and Spirit. We see no reason to approach spirituality with any less intellectual rigor than we approach anything else and we see plenty of reasons not to.
Some of us were raised in religious traditions that we experienced as oppressive, dogmatic, and anti-intellectual. Questions and thinking were discouraged or even punished. So when we finally broke out of that psychic straightjacket, we swore to never again fall prey to “magical thinking” and “superstition.” Others of us here are the children of those people and so we were raised “nothing” or Unitarian Universalist. We drank skepticism in our mother’s milk. Where our parents were forbidden to question, we were required to question everything, all the time. The intellect became the gatekeeper to every other part of our being.
Of course there are people in this room who don’t fit into either of those categories, but on the whole we tend to pride ourselves on our rationality, our intellectual independence, our “living the questions.” It is part of our UU culture to refuse to be sheep, blindly following the crowd. I remember when I was a kid I used to enjoy drawing pictures of a sheep in a red circle with a line through it.
While this constant examining is great for some purposes, like scientific research and financial investing, it is absolutely lethal to spirituality. When you’re approaching God or the mystery of love, like Navy SEALs approaching their target, it is exactly the wrong time to be asking whether you’re doing it right. Spirituality can come in many forms. It can be raucous and rambunctious, loud and joyful; it can be as delicate and fleeting as a butterfly. But spiritual experiences can only happen when they’re not being examined. Try to analyze and evaluate the stirrings of your own heart in real time and they will be dead on arrival.
The late UU minister Forrest Church wrote extensively about his own over-examining of spirituality and his journey to embracing a larger sense of God and faith in his life. In the magazine UU World, he wrote:
I believed most avidly in that which I could parse and thereby comprehend. …I approached creation as a taxidermist, not a worshiper. Even the most fragile and beautiful manifestations of creation I examined as a blindered lepidopterist might a butterfly. I netted, chloroformed, and mounted them for observation. After long study of my favorite specimens, I could only conclude that butterflies don't fly.
…To give my Universalism full play, I had to make room in my theology for a more capacious, if unfathomable, power. I had to clear a place for mystery on the altar of my hearth, which before I had crowded with icons to knowledge. As a parish minister, this should have come naturally, but it didn't. In some respects, I know religion too well to be anything but suspicious of its answers. God is on the label of every bottle of religious snake oil I have ever tasted. Before I could animate my own Universalism, I therefore had to re-imagine God.
While I don’t recommend buying every bottle of religious snake oil that comes your way, I do invite you to open yourself to the possibility of faith and direct experience of – call it God or not – a presence in your life greater than anything your rational, examining mind can grasp.
To cultivate this kind of awareness you will need to suspend disbelief, just a bit. You need to run some experiments in spiritual practice without second-guessing them midway through. Pick a spiritual practice and set yourself a goal that is substantial but attainable. The great mystical teacher Zalman Schachter-Shalomi recommends starting with a half hour a day and then two hours one day a week. If that feels like too much, try half that: 15 minutes a day and one hour a week. This worship service could even count as that hour if you can fully participate in it and not be thinking the whole time about why the little shelf in front of you that your hymnal is supposed to sit on is still broken.
It doesn’t matter too much what spiritual practice you pick, although some are certainly more efficient than others. Some entail more reps and some entail more weight. A high rep practice might be whispering a quick blessing or statement of gratitude before every meal and snack. If you’re really skeptical about God, you could try a high-weight practice, like talking to God, out loud, for 15 minutes a day. This specific practice is also recommended by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. You talk out loud about whatever is on your mind, just keep going and don’t stop, even including out loud all the doubts that come up. You might say, “This is really stupid and I don’t believe in you anyway, God, and this is a waste of time and I just hope that that really hot individual across the street thinks I’m just talking on a cell phone instead of crazy.” The trick will be to not let your examining of it interfere with your doing it. Just do it. And see what happens. Not see what happens after one time. Don’t race to the camera to look after one time. Look after many times. See what happens.
Even if the heavens never open and God never dialogues with you from behind a thundercloud, this approach to spirituality can be a template for a way to engage with your world as a whole. To open yourself to the possibilities of a universe beyond examination is to take an expansive, playful approach to life. It is risky because you may, in fact, invest in something that’s a dead end. There may, in fact, be an opportunity cost. But it’s much more likely that in embracing what life hands you, you will find that you are unexpectedly following a curriculum that you could never have imagined or planned for yourself. Instead of constantly re-evaluating your self-referential life, you just take the curriculum and you someday you look back and discover that you’ve actually been living.
Your job, your partner, your singlehood, your congregation, your home, your kids – this is what life has handed you right now. It’s all part of your curriculum. Don’t waste your time constantly leafing through the course catalog and wondering if you should change your major. Take the curriculum. Of course, I’m not recommending that anyone stay in an abusive relationship or a job they hate. By all means, if it’s that clear, get out. And striving to improve our lives is the hallmark of being human. But in most cases, you can’t possibly know the value of what you have and what you’re doing if you are constantly checking to see how it’s going. It’s ironic but sometimes the things we love can only be experienced when they are not watched. A relationship with a lover, an experience of God’s presence, a sense of wonder and awe can only flourish if the examining mind gets out of the way and lets it happen.
I have faith that some day my children will know that life is about playing the drums, not watching yourself play the drums. My prayer for them and for all of us is that, like Forrest Church, we can learn to make room in our hearts for a “capacious, if unfathomable, power;” that we throw ourselves fully into the curriculum of our lives, humble before the academy of the infinite universe. In the words of the songwriter Jim Scott, “May your life be as a song, ?resounding with the dawn to sing awake the light, ?then softly serenade the stars?ever dancing circles in the night.”
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