We live in an age of extremes. Most of us are a bit hypnotized by our smart phones overflowing with the stream of urgent trivia as well as vital information that impacts our work, our families and our lives. Our brains and emotions were not designed for this constant onslaught of stimulation.
At the same time personal meditation has gone mainstream. More and more business organizations are teaching their employees the disciplines of mindfulness and encouraging them to meditate, even at work. Yoga has never been so popular.
Extremes also dominate our inner life of meaning. Religions struggle to resolve their old doctrines that create tribal beliefs while the world culture simplifies spirituality into universal love.
Humans are designed to wrestle with the big questions. We seek certainty in an uncertain world. We want the light of unchanging truth as we try to make good decisions in the dark.
There are many big thinkers who believe that we are transitioning from a religious age through a secular age to a spiritual age. Time will tell. But I believe what really matters is that each of us wrestle with our theory of life until we arrive at a world that helps us to be the best person we can imagine becoming.
There is nothing more personal than our inner theory of the meaning of life. Even in the most ‘doctrinaire’ religions each individual creates their own personal theology.
It is inescapable. According to Gallup surveys a large percentage of avowed atheists sincerely pursue humanitarian ideals because they believe in a vague but real source of empathy-based morality… “The Golden Rule.”
So what is your theory of life? How do you derive meaning? Research suggests that there are three main theories:
- I can control the events of my life through perfect obedience to moral rules. (This is the common belief that if you say your prayers and eat your Wheaties that bad things won’t happen.) Although this mindset is obviously flawed, millions of people hang onto it as their only strategy to control things that evidently can’t be controlled. This is very stressful and creates a crisis of faith. After all, when a loving God allows really bad things to happen to really good people it makes you wonder, “What the hell is going on?” Psychological research tells us that this theory of life creates a lot of inner fears and anxiety.
- Life happens…deal with it. This theory suggests that life is ultimately meaningless and random. Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is the only rational approach. The problem with this theory is that seeking pleasure does not fill the hole in our hearts that can only be filled with deeper meaning. Most often when we see people who have lived their lives on the pleasure maximization principle, those like Hugh Hefner, and we feel sad for them or disgusted.
- Life is for learning. End-of-life research reveals that people who have this life theory are most satisfied. This mindset allows for life’s undeserved ups and downs as a means to personally grow into a better person. Again, at the end of our lives what most happy people have wished for is that they have become wiser and more loving. (Not richer or more famous.) This theory of life is very optimistic and robust because it trains our inner voice to tell us that we can learn something beneficial from everything that happens to us. It infuses meaning into everyday life. It makes our setbacks sacred. And it makes us grateful for our successes. When people say everything happens for a reason what they are acknowledging is that we can benefit from all of life’s experiences… if we choose to. That’s the inner story that will make you the most stress resilient and satisfied.
So now some thoughts on the meaning of Christmas. For a minute let me separate the message of Christ from Christian religions. But before I do, let me give you a few thoughts on religion. Contrary to popular belief most wars have been fought over land and money not religious ideology. Much, much good has been done by both individuals who are devoutly religious and by religions themselves.
However, when hard power, competitive people, who are almost always men, claim to have an exclusive relationship with God it brings out the worst in them. It legitimizes mind control, bigotry, slavery, holy war and terrorism. So, its also true that lots of very terrible things happen in the name of religion.
Religion can also serve a great human purpose by helping people gain impulse control and self-discipline, which are vital tools on the path to personal fulfillment. And it also turns out that people who worship together are psychologically happier and live longer. This is true even if they don’t believe exactly the same things. There is something potent about communal celebration of a belief that life has purpose, love is the supreme value, and that our choices and actions matter.
Today there are thousands of Christian sects so Christianity is more of a tapestry of beliefs with thousands of individual threads. Some Christians try to strip away the centuries of added dogmas and doctrines that obscure the message of Jesus. Sometimes these are called “Red Letter Christians” because in many New Testaments the words that are attributed to Christ are printed in red. These folks tend to downplay the words of Paul in his epistles as well as theologians, founders of religions and others who claim a special power to speak in the name of God. (Or for that matter to speak for the universe… or the force…)
The reason that Red Letter Christians like to focus on the words of Christ is because they are almost universally words of inclusion, non-judgment and forgiveness, even for big whopping moral flaws. Instead of commandments Christ gives us the Beatitudes. In fact he says the whole moral law can be reduced to one big idea. We need to actively love each other. Complicating things more than that destroys the power of universal compassion.
Of course we need to love each other wisely. Love does not mean co-dependence or allowing selfish, evil-acting people to cause suffering for the rest of us. Real love is not weak… it is strong. Christ did not hesitate to condemn the religious establishment of his time as being power-mad, greedy and mean.
My point in all this is that it doesn’t matter if someone says Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or nothing at all. The spirit of Christ’s message is that loving-kindness really matters. When our personal characters are drenched in loving-kindness guided by wisdom we are becoming the best person we can imagine.
I have one last Christmas time thought. Some of you might find it disturbing but I find it exciting. The Christian mystic and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg writes that heaven and hell are really states of mind. The states of mind are so powerful they literally create our experience. And we actually create either heaven or hell right now through our conscious awareness.
Although Swedenborg does not actually seem to say this, the implication of his mystical experiences is that we are currently living in hell. That’s why bad things happen. That’s why life is so uncertain, so often unfair. That’s why when people relate near death experiences they often say they don’t want to return to a world full of undeserved pain and sorrow.
This point of view gives rise to the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds. If there could be any less suffering or uncertainty, there would be. What I find comforting about this possibility is that instead of being frustrated and angry with all the injustice we experience and see innocent others’ experiences I can be grateful that my higher self has an opportunity to make things just a little bit better. It also helps me relish all that is good in my life. It makes me want to strive to bring the conditions of heaven into my life and the lives of others in anyway that I can.
Maybe I’m goofy. I don’t pretend to know what I don’t know. And I don’t know a lot of things. But what I do know is that loving others wisely is my path to meaningful happiness. Loving makes me a better person.
I like to think about that Christmas time. Be happy.