Writing Class – Submission 1/3
“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”Anne Lamott
When we are still children, we begin the journey of mastering the art of resolving dilemmas. Substitute the synonyms “predicament” or “problem” and my meaning becomes strikingly clear.
Mommy told me “no more cookies” then left the cookie jar in plain view and left the room. Will sneaking a cookie make me a bad person?
The most popular boy in school wants me to smoke pot (or do drugs) with him. I want to be part of the “in” crowd. Drugs violate my moral principles. What do I do?
My marriage is in trouble. I work with an attractive, vivacious lady who seems attracted to me. I’m sick of the isolation in my home. Do I approach her?
My boss tells me that if sales numbers don’t improve, he will lose his job. He wants me to modify some numbers. The chances of being discovered are nil to none. What do I do?
I’m terminally ill and in unbearable pain. I’m completely dependent. This is not life. This is not living. Legal euthanasia is an option for me in my state of residence. What to do?
Whether it’s deciding to sneak a cookie or cheat on your spouse or opt for self-imposed end-of-life physical death, resolution is heart-wrenching. Making it harder, serious dilemmas must be resolved in the solitude of our own souls.
We seek advice, but we quickly learn that there is no angel that will appear in the night. No guide that will force us into a given direction. In the end, we alone must decide the path we take.
This is the stuff of sleepless nights and lost appetites. This dark night of the soul force feeds us a nightcap of anxiety. Confiding in a trusted friend gives us strength and courage, but ultimately we, alone, choose our course.
Endeavoring to live a spiritual life grounded in any faith – or just live a good and moral life grounded in kindness and integrity – promises a lifetime of dilemmas. No one is exempt. It goes with the territory.
I have been troubled by a spiritual dilemma throughout my entire adult life. I felt guilty, whichever way I sought to resolve it. It always felt like “damned if I do and damned if I don’t”. But that’s the nature of the beast we call Dilemma.
The people who planted the seeds of my life-long dilemma loved me. No one meant to harm me or cause me to struggle. They just didn’t understand how fertile the soil of my young soul was. It wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t mine. But it became my reality.
I was nurtured and reared in an evangelical church. The denomination is irrelevant because it could have been one of multiple protestant denominations. It was a church that defined the Christian mission in very literal terms.
From infancy through adolescence, I listened to sermons from countless ministers behooving the congregation to “go into all the world and preach the gospel”. As Christians, they declared, this was our calling. Our responsibility. I absorbed stories of people living in spiritual darkness. And their darkness was not their problem; it was mine.
I was schooled in the art of sharing my testimony with the message of God’s love and inviting (pressuring) the “unsaved” to “accept Christ as their personal Savior”. Often – either because I volunteered or was asked – I gave my testimony of what God had done for me to large congregations or privately to a treasured friend. I was articulate, sincere, and truthful. I believed every word I spoke. I believed that I was fulfilling my responsibility, my mission, my life’s purpose.
My childhood teachings combined with my naturally outgoing personality were a perfect blend. My hands may have been icy cold with nervousness or my stomach in knots when I spoke, but I believed in the message, and offered it with confidence and certainty, warmth and love.
As a new student to both the city and the school, I was part of a teen social group that pressured us to carry our bible to school as a witness. I did, but I struggled. My stomach still grabs remembering my embarrassment and then my guilt over my embarrassment. My heart was neither manipulative nor insincere. Misguided as this expectation was, my intentions were without guile.
But as happens with all of us, as an adult I began asking myself serious questions about this perceived responsibility of mine. Was it the message of God’s love I was responsible to share? Or was it the message of God’s judgment? Of heaven or of hell? Of eternal life or eternal damnation? What was my unsolicited, and often unwelcome I am sure, witnessing really about?
I sought to be brutally honest with myself. Transparent with my intentions. And I was amazed by what my feeble attempts at re-thinking childhood lessons did for me.
I admit, in consternation as opposed to shame, that I was motivated more by fear of hell. This new awareness was a significant paradigm shift — a shift that has slowly evolved into transformation. It gifted me with recognition of an invisible boundary that existed between my personal spiritual responsibility and the independent life of another person.
I remembered being 13 years old and believing that if a person I knew died then went to hell, and I had not witnessed to that person, I bore full personal responsibility for their eternal fate. Heavy responsibility for a 13-year-old to carry! Heavy responsibility for anyone. But, this was the lifelong dilemma that haunted me.
“When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”the Buddha
It was the 2002-03 school year, and I was hired into a tenure-track position at a university near my home. I was ecstatic. My dream job. I had made it! Furthermore, this position offered me the opportunity to combine my love of both traveling and teaching.
I applied to present my research at a reading conference in Kampala, Uganda, Africa. When I was accepted, a lifetime dream was realized. As a child, I had dreamed of being a missionary to Africa. I was beyond ecstatic.
And then reality hit. Hard! I was not traveling to Uganda as a missionary, but on the university’s dime to present academic research. The old dilemma and its attendant struggle returned like a brick being hurled through a window. How to balance this? What is my role? Can I serve two masters?
I turned to my mentor. An elder. A wise woman of the tribe. A woman gifted with rare insight and wisdom. A Christian woman who came from my same background. She would understand.
Sitting in her living room one sunny, autumn day, I pleaded with her. My anguish was palpable. “What do I do? What do I do?”
I knew the final decision was mine alone, but I had matured into an awareness of the power of shared problem solving. Seeking the insight of wise elders.
“Honey,” she said so gently. Tenderly. Sensing my dilemma. Feeling my pain. “God called us to be a light … not a mouth! There are too many mouths and not enough light”.
I was stunned. That was not the response I expected. She had come from the same world that I had. A light … not a mouth. I think my chin may have dropped!
It had taken my lifetime for me to awaken to the self-righteousness of my learned spiritual code of behavior. I had been oblivious to the arrogance. Blind to the spiritual superiority subtly concealed within the inherent assumptions.
And to my astonishment, the gradual result was liberation. Transformation. Not guilt or shame but clarity and insight. I found peace as I unwound my soul from the well-intentioned but mistaken idea that the spiritual soul’s direction of another person was on me. I just needed to be a light – not a mouth.
I still struggle. I still find myself violating the spiritual boundaries of others, inserting myself and my opinions uninvited into their life challenges. Childhood lessons are hard to unlearn. But I’m working on it. I will never be perfect at it, but I am trying.
A light, not a mouth. What a simple lesson. Why was it so hard for me? Why did it take me so long to learn that? And why do I still struggle?
Perhaps because childhood lessons take a lifetime to untangle. And perhaps because the hard dilemmas of life – all of them – take time to resolve.
It is vital that we are patient with ourselves. Gentle with our hearts. And that when we backslide into old habits, we forgive ourselves and move on.
“When we know better we do better,” we are told. It is hard, yes. But not impossible. It requires clinging to the belief that … when we are ready, … the teacher will come.
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