PART VI: WHAT WE THINK WE DESERVE
So, this might be the part where you hate me even more. And that is OK. I'm okay with that. I'm not trying to take away some dream you have of a better life. I'm just trying to get you to see that you can make the life you're already living feel better, simply by adjusting your perspective. You know those Magic Eye pictures that just look like television static, until you shift your eyes a little, and suddenly it's a prehistoric scene with a brontosaurus? That's what this is going to be like. And what I'm hoping is that, like I did, once you see the order in the mess, you won't be able to UN-SEE it. You will be able to see the beauty and the happiness that is right here, right now, no matter what's going on outside. Once you can change your perspective at will, making lemonade becomes second nature, and that's when you really start appreciating the opportunity to be here, alive, now, no matter what happens to you.
Okay, we're almost there, so let's talk about one more thing: What You Think You Deserve.
All of us, I believe, have this idea about what we think we deserve. Whether it comes from our parents, our friends or coworkers, even our popular culture, this singular notion - that there is a life we should be living, that we, in fact, have a right to be living - controls most of our attitude towards our daily experience. If we’re living the life we think we deserve to live, or something close to it, we’re pretty content people. If we’re not living the life we think we deserve to live, though, we find ourselves a) depressed, b) angry, and/or c) discouraged. We then ask ourselves WHY we aren’t living that life (because, we think, there must be a reason), and what do we do? Being the storytellers that we are, we start to build a case. And what is the first thing we do when we start to build a case? We look for evidence.
Sometimes, the way we build a case, and the evidence we look for to support that case, is entirely based around a dogma - a belief system with rules, guidelines, and established consequences. A strong believer in Catholicism (which is one dogma) might make a case that he is not living the life he deserves to be living because God is in charge of making things harder or easier for him, and if he is “sinning” or not praying enough, or breaking any number of rules set forth in the Bible, God will withhold this “good life” that he deserves. And so, our Catholic prays more, he sins less, he goes to church... but still, he lives a life that is not as full as he wants it to be, as rich as he wants it to be, as beautiful as he wants it to be. He prays more, he sins even less, he goes to church even more, and still, life remains a challenge, never getting to a place where everything comes easily to him. He's following the rules of his dogma; what's the problem?*
Typically, when a dogma is not working out for people - when its logic does not produce the results they want - they either switch dogmas, or they re-examine the evidence and adjust it to fit their dogma. In the Catholic’s case, he might get angry at God and decide that organized religion is a bunch of hooey. He might become an atheist, or a New Age crystal-worshipper, or a Pagan - all, of course, with the same intent: to gain access to the life he thinks he deserves to be living, as if the "right" religion will somehow become the combination to a safe where it's kept.
Personally, I think there are two ways to believe in a Higher Power. The first is to believe that a Higher Power is somehow more powerful than you are, but that you can somehow control its decisions by adhering to a set of rules. Sacrificing a fatted calf, in this sense, is really an attempt to control God by following His rules. Is this what you are really doing when you pray? Rubbing a lamp to release a genie that will grant you wishes? This kind of religion, sadly, is self-centered - reflecting only our own desires, focusing on those things in our lives that are not the way we want them, never entertaining the idea of a higher order that is not dictated by our desires, but by the need for balance in a large and complicated universe.
The second way to believe in a Higher Power begins with the acceptance that the world is, for the most part, uncontrollable. Initially, this recognition is terrifying, especially for a mammal running from a saber-toothed tiger (it might even be terrifying for a financial adviser who’s just passed his Series 7 exam). It is the truth, though, and the sooner we start accepting it, the more we can appreciate our lives and the gift we have in being able to live them. When you accept the inevitability of surrender in a world that will disappoint you (but, also amaze you) time and again, religion is no longer a dance for rain. By acknowledging the world's unpredictable nature, your supplication can become an attempt to find peace in life's chaos through faith.
Let’s say that the Catholic doesn’t want to believe in another God. He turns to the Bible (again, looking for evidence to build his case), and he reads the Book of Job. Job faced trial after trial, losing nearly everything. Throughout it, Job is baffled. His friends say he must have done something bad, that Job should petition God. Only Elihu points out that God is God, and can do whatever He wants. God Himself finally appears and agrees, telling Job and his friends that they weren’t there when He made the world, and that their job is not to tell Him what He should do, but to trust Him, because He is God. Finishing the chapter, the Catholic might decide that the case he has been building - for why he is not living the life he wants to live - is missing a key piece of evidence: God’s will. Perhaps the life he is living IS the life he is supposed to be living, and the sooner he accepts it, the happier he will be. Instead of focusing on having the life he wants, he can focus on wanting the life he has. Instead of feeling deprived, he can feel attended to; instead of feeling like there is nothing he can do to access the live he feels he deserves to live, he accepts that what he thinks he deserves and what God thinks he deserves are two different things, and that his best route to happiness is to trust God to know best.
Thinking about this, you might conclude that I am saying there is no difference between accepting the world as an unpredictable, uncontrollable place, and believing that it is, in fact, controlled by the will of an unpredictable, uncontrollable Higher Power. You would be right! Perhaps the Catholic has simply adjusted his dogma to fit his situation? EXACTLY! He has told himself a different story to make himself feel better. It is no different than a wolf telling himself that lost grapes are sour. BUT, if believing there is a benevolent force in the Universe, that ultimately has your long-term happiness in mind, makes it easier for you to make your way through this unpredictable, uncontrollable world, does it matter if you are "right" or "wrong"? As long as you’re not hurting anyone over your dogma, as long as it gives you peace of mind and makes it easier to manage the ups and downs of life, I don’t think it does! We get wrapped up in ideas of "right" and "wrong," forgetting that we may never know what is right and wrong, or that right and wrong change every hundred years! Whether it is the truth, or some psychological construct we retain to make navigating our existence easier, believing that things happen for a reason can make dealing with lemons easier, and telling yourself a story that enables you to use your lemon to make something refreshing, like lemonade, will dilute the bitterness in your life. Awareness about the stories you tell yourself, especially the ones about what you think you deserve, are the first step in changing your perspective.
*Note: ONE problem might be all the messages he's getting about how his life could be better. See Chapter Four ("Magic Pants")