Although it may still be fashionable in some circles to look down on clichés, I confess to love what I instead see as compelling aphorisms and archetypes that have somehow become deeply ingrained in the human experience. For me, the trick is not to discard the overly familiar, but rather to look at it with new eyes.
The clichéd idea that attracts my attention this week is that our human character is shaped by our encounter with adversity. This idea forms the basis of an incredible amount of fiction and motivational speeches and provides the narrative arc of any interesting biography. It’s how we sometimes console loved ones or even reflect back on our own lives. It strikes me as noteworthy then that most industrialized societies seem to expend incredible energy on the avoidance of adversity. People don’t want it for themselves, and parents don’t want it for their children. Perhaps it is natural to avoid as many hardships as possible, knowing that plenty will come our way regardless. On the other hand, if the human psyche did not crave struggle on some level would so many of us engage in sports or other challenging hobbies?
Perhaps Nietzsche’s second most frequently deployed quotation—after, “What does not kill me makes me stronger”—is that “when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” Often taken as an expression of nihilism, could it instead be a challenge to live decisively? The abyss stares at you to see how you will respond to it: are you somebody who will jump into it, fly over it, or walk away? Will you try to fill it one teaspoon at a time, or carry its memory with you wherever you go? Such an abyss—or the vast ocean or sky—shows itself to us and dares us to show ourselves as well.
As Lent draws to a conclusion, we can imagine Jesus at the end of his 40 days in the desert, haggard and pushed to his very limits. Was it all necessary? Perhaps it was absolutely essential. God the Father revealed Jesus’ identity as Beloved Son at his baptism, but like any person entering a new phase of life, Jesus could not simply accept his identity as handed to him by somebody else… he had to actively discover and claim it.
In becoming human, Jesus temporarily renounced his divine power and privilege in order to be one of us. Through his suffering in the desert, and later on the way to Calvary, Jesus gave up even his human power and found strength in the resulting weakness. Stripping away all comfort during his time of fast helped him to find his identity and self-strength necessary to become an empowered preacher. Ultimately giving up his life allowed him to enter into the glory of the Resurrection. Who would he have been otherwise?
Those who seek to save their lives will lose them. In giving up our lives, and particularly in doing so for the sake of others, we find ourselves in a powerful way.
I know several people who have found themselves through difficulty (or ad astra per aspera as the mottos of Mount Saint Michael Academy in the Bronx and Saint Joseph Academy in Brownsville have it). I also know some for whom the very act of self-encounter will be (or has been) a painful act. If we truly believe that we each are God’s uniquely beloved creation though, getting acquainted with this self might just be worth the effort though. Even if it hurts.
On the obvious level, this week’s “ear candy” poses the question of identity by repeatedly stating the song title, “Who Are You.” However, attention to the verse lyrics reveals a situation shaped by a combination of bad luck and bad decisions from which the protagonist must emerge if he is to emerge at all. This ties nicely in to this week’s “brain food” in which David Brooks reflects on the seeming paradox that true personal greatness often begins with failure rather than with success.
Ear Candy: “Who Are You” by The Who
Brain Food: “The Moral Peril of Meritocracy” by David Brooks
Come back next Saturday for a new post!