Beyond the Futility of Defiance
My wife, Linda, has a way with children. I marvel at the way she's able to connect so easily with them, how she seems to understand intuitively just what they're thinking and feeling, so that they instantly feel at ease and comfortable opening up to her.
By now most of you know we have two granddaughters, one named Autumn, who will be turning seven this month. Autumn is a bright, sweet little girl, inquisitive and full of zest for life. And I'm completely taken with her. But because she has a healthy sense of self, as they say, she can have, as do all children, her "moments."
For reasons entirely unclear to me, I remember one such moment in particular. While babysitting a few years back, she had a 'minor meltdown.' The problem centered around her desire to have chicken fingers at Friendly's - at ten in the morning - something not even possible at that hour but something we wouldn't have agreed to anyway. As a consequence of our outrageous, one might say even, flagrant refusal to comply with her wishes, and because a nap was long overdue, she had a mild tantrum and announced to us, and in fairly dramatic fashion, that she was now "grumpy."
Linda, quickly assessing the situation, asked her how it feels to be grumpy. Is it a good feeling? Does it make you happy? Isn't it much better to choose happiness over being grumpy? And isn't being happy what you really want anyway?
Somewhat taken aback, but seeing the unfailing logic of Nana's line of reasoning, Autumn agreed that she would work at not being grumpy, and try to be happy instead.
Children are always testing the boundaries, always trying to figure out what choices work and don't work. Of course, on their own, they lack the capacity and life experience to choose well, so they are dependent on adults to guide and direct them. In fact, left to their own devices, they invariably make any number of bad choices, choices that frequently leave them feeling not only lost but frightened. Even when they are getting exactly what they think they want, they can end up out of control - which, for them, is actually terrifying. At such times, they desperately need adult intervention and adult-imposed boundary-setting.
How often have you noticed that when you take the time to talk to children as they are acting out, if you really push them to focus and be honest, you can actually see in their eyes how anxious they are for somebody with authority to put a stop to their chaotic behavior. So often, after the tears and the dramatic behavior have subsided, after they have earnestly said they are sorry, they actually get calm and become, perhaps ironically, happy.
They become happy because they now feel secure, cared for, knowing that somebody else with greater wisdom and power is in charge and who, more importantly, is looking out for their best interests. In a very real sense, their resistance to discipline and boundary-setting is fraudulent, an act - the end of which they actually welcome, even if they don't always recognize it as such.
Over the courthouse in Worcester, MA, there's a motto that reads: "Obedience to the law is freedom." Such paradoxical language easily can be observed when a child submits, however reluctantly, to adult authority. For in this they find security and, yes, freedom to be themselves.
But it is not just children for whom this is true.
I recently was talking to an old friend about aging, about the changes life puts us all through. I told him something my mother once said. She said she'd never want to go back to being young, that she was much happier being older, wiser and more aware of life's deeper meanings.
It seems to me that life, in a manner of speaking, has a way of "beating us into submission," meaning that, in living, experience has a way of helping us to separate the wheat from the chaff, distilling, if you will, what is meaningful from what isn't, what is true from that which isn't. As a youth, you tend to think that you can be or do anything, that the possibilities for the future are endless, just there for the taking. In maturity, you discover as time goes on that certain doors invariably close, which may at first be experienced as painful, but in time comes to be understood as a blessing. When I think about the things that were important to me in my youth, I'm often embarrassed, as well as grateful that what I wanted then no longer is a heartfelt desire today.
Lent is a season that is greatly misunderstood. For typically it is thought of as mere deprivation, doom and gloom, of un-redemptive and altogether unnecessary suffering. We are asked to "give things up," to go without, to punish ourselves with fasting and self-sacrifice. What's the point, if after we're through, we feel worse about ourselves, and inattentive to the more positive things in life?
Several years ago, when our son was in college, a friend of his asked him why so much of sacred music, from Gregorian chant to medieval and renaissance polyphony, sounds "so depressing and life-negating." Isn't the point of religion to help us to affirm life and experience joy, he wondered? After all, we get enough depressing messages from everyday life!
He raises an important point. For yes, the point of religion is to help us to affirm life and experience joy. No question about it. Then again, how God accomplishes this in us is not always done in the way we would choose. For like children, most of all, we want God to affirm our choices and desires. For we feel certain that in this we will find happiness. Only in maturity, though, do we discover - at least hopefully - that happiness and a sense of well being are accomplished in ways often surprising, even unwelcome, at least initially. For God's ways are indeed, as Proverbs puts it, not our ways.
The point of Lent, as with much sacred music, is to disengage us from our busy, worldly distraction, the maladaptive habits, obsessions and addictions that cling to us and diminish us, so that in letting go of these things we might find room for newer and better things - godly things!
In Lent we are confronted with the need to repent. Too often unaware that repentance simply means to "change one's mind" or "to turn around," we focus on the means rather than the intended result. We forget, in other words, that repentance is merely a process of unburdening ourselves of the things that leave us weighted us down and unhappy - guilt, anger, feelings of unworthiness, etc. - in order to replace these with God's spiritual grace and peace and calm. Repentance, then, seeks to replace the "grumpies" with genuine security and inner serenity.
In an exercise I've used often in grief recovery groups, I have asked participants to cup their hands, close their eyes, and imagine all their cares and burdens, all their disappointments and failures, all the dark, heavily weighted things that bear down upon the soul, and imagine them placed within their cupped hands. Then, at an appropriate time, they are asked to allow their hands to fall away, releasing as they do all these cares and worries, giving them instead to God. They then are asked to re-cup their hands, and this time imagine God's light and grace and peace filling up their cupped hands, at the same time filling their whole being with the light and spirit of God. It is surprising how many people experience this as being remarkably comforting and releasing.
The fact is we all yearn for the same thing - peace, calm and order. In our better moments we know that getting what we want ultimately is less satisfying than the security and clarity found in obedience to God's benevolent and intelligent design for human life. We rebel and defy foolishly, like a child's confused and misguided efforts at omnipotence and control. Yet paradoxically, also like a child, we find peace in ourselves only in obedience and reconciliation, in this case with God, for only in God's love and wisdom can there be true peace and security.
How we rob ourselves of the peace of mind readily and at all times available to us!
The rest of the day, we had a joyous time with Autumn. We witnessed the delight and wonder in her eyes as she discovered the simplest of things, like learning to catch a little football - over and over and over yet again! We also witnessed that purity, that light, that sparkle of the soul, manifest in an innocent child at peace with herself, so alive, so buoyant, assured as she was of our unyielding love for her.
Stubborn pride and ongoing rebellion could have ruined the day. But as it turned out, it was a slice of heaven, filled with laughter, play and the kind of trusting love that can break your heart.
In Lent, we are given the opportunity to yield our pride, our guilt and our burdens to the God who seeks only to forgive us and to surround us with merciful, unyielding love. Lent, then, is but a simple invitation to a godly joy that lies just beyond the futility of defiance.
Let us choose obedience - and life.