Holy Experimenting

For Lent this year, I decided to give up needing to do it right, “it” being pretty much everything.

The need to do something right begins with the giant assumption that a right way exists. Then I invest substantial time and energy in locating that way and pause at each step to assess its accuracy. But life is not a math test. The imaginary line I so often try to walk simply doesn’t exist.

It’s easy for me to confuse doing things right with doing them well. Even when working toward a specific outcome, we can rarely fully imagine the end product at the beginning, and we certainly don’t know how we’ll get there.

Being right is so useful in creating our own identities rather than letting our God-given identities come pouring through us. It allows us to claim an idea, an outcome, a process, a way of thinking as our own and imbue it—and therefore ourselves—with importance.

When I get stuck in trying to make the perfect choice, my ego is in charge. It’s focused on being liked and blameless, not on serving others or contributing to whatever effort is taking place.

I work with scientists, and one of the things I admire about them is their dedication to experimenting. They aren’t looking for the right way; they’re trying to discover the way things are.

An experiment that doesn’t support a scientist’s hypothesis isn’t a failure. It answered a question, and she knows something she didn’t before.

This approach can free us to explore the truth and beauty of life. When we don’t need to be right, a wide array of possibilities opens up. We can travel in our intended direction and trust the twisting path rather than seeing that natural meandering as a series of wrong turns.

This holy experiment called life is inviting us into discovery every day. Let’s see what wonders it has to teach us.

Share the Music

My mom and I went to hear Itzhak Perlman play this week. In other words, the best violinist in the world played music for us this week—exquisite, rich, transcendent music. He gave us an astonishing gift by doing what he loves to do.

How remarkable that music is designed to be shared. No one practices an instrument with the goal of sitting in her room and listening to herself. Musicians play hours of scales and arpeggios so that they can perform, so that we can hear each perfectly formed note. They do all this work with the express intent of giving away what they create.

And they’re not the only ones. People don’t make scientific discoveries and keep them secret or develop medicine to heal only themselves. They don’t build buildings that no one else can enter.

My ego, on the other hand, operates in direct opposition to these examples. It has a single message, which it trumpeted loudly this week: I, or more exactly it, am the only one that matters. It’s much too smart to say this directly. It has learned the art of subtlety. It says that other people get everything they want and I don’t—during the same week I heard the best violinist in the world!—or it’s too hard to be loving and generous or I’m messing everything up.

At the concert, Perlman was joined by pianist Rohan De Silva. During the opening movement of the first piece, I thought the piano was too loud because I sometimes couldn’t hear the violin that well, but part way through, I realized that one has to listen to the two instruments together. The music is written for both of them—sometimes the violin is the main character, and sometimes it plays a supporting role. As I listened to the interplay, the relationship between the two strands of notes, a new and more beautiful whole emerged.

My ego doesn’t recognize that there’s a symphony going on in this life. It believes it can create security and control for itself, but there’s no music in that approach. Existence is shared.

I think composers must hear all the instruments supporting and taking off from one another as they write music. Symphonies must arrive as a package deal. And so do we.

The Terror of Now

Not all learning by experience is pleasant. Like when your mom tells you that the melted, unsweetened chocolate that smells fantastic doesn’t taste good and you don’t believe her and so she tells you to try it. And then you believe.

After a few such incidents, we realize that we can learn from others’ experiences, and we don’t actually have to eat a large piece of horseradish root to accept that it’s kind of hot. OK, some of us do.

Taking others’ word for it is not quite the same, though. There are plenty of things we accept but won’t truly understand until we experience them, everything from just how scary the wicked queen in Snow White is to the level of sleep deprivation an infant subjects her parents to.

Many people—including most recently for me Richard Rohr—have said that we spend most of our days living in the future or the past because our small self, or ego self, is terrified of the present. The current moment is always beyond the ego’s control, and it doesn’t much like that. The people saying this are smart and deeply spiritual, so I have been happy to believe them. I could certainly verify that I spent little time in the here and now.

Then, for a few weeks, I focused on bringing myself back to the present as often as possible, which consisted of a lot of bringing back and not a lot of staying. Even so, my ego freaked out, as if the wicked queen/hag were standing directly in front of me with an irresistibly red apple.

Terror is not difficult to recognize, and when it shows up while doing the dishes or cooking breakfast—in my kitchen, absent saber-tooth tigers—ego protection seems a pretty reasonable explanation. It’s fascinating to watch when I can remember to watch it and not run away immediately.

It’s even interesting to watch myself run away, which I’ve done for the last week or two, under the guise of needing to get things done. Now that I can recognize the running away, though, I can at least choose whether I have the oomph at any given moment to confront my ego fear. And maybe, when all is said and done, that fear is really no more threatening than unsweetened chocolate.

We’re Already There

I had a bad case of the wanting-to-be-importants earlier this week. For me, this generally takes the form of wishing that I had achieved something so impressive that the whole world—or at least everyone I was ever likely to meet—knew of my accomplishments, was favorably impressed by them, and considered me in the top 100 or so human beings of all time. I am not exaggerating.

This model presents a few logical and operational problems. For example, this definition would yield a thousand or two important people out of seven billion. Given that every one of those seven billion people can probably think of at least one person who is personally important to them, the math is a little off. Not to mention that it’s pretty rare to find something that the whole world agrees is a worthwhile accomplishment.

The real danger, though, is not logistical but spiritual because this world of importance is not only all about me but the me it’s about is an external-to-me creation. It’s like seeking to save myself through universal applause.

Salvation has already been taken care of, not because I am Christian but because I exist. As Richard Rohr says, “Incarnation is already redemption….The Earth is good” (from “The Eternal Christ in the Cosmic Story,” an interview with the National Catholic Reporter). That doesn’t mean we don’t do terrible things to each other and to the Earth, but we do them precisely when we are trying to create some version of ourselves rather than get in touch with the reality of ourselves, which is God.

We say this in a lot of different ways in a lot of different faith traditions. It’s impossible to articulate because it’s impossible to say what God is. It doesn’t mean that you or I created the universe single-handedly, which tends to be how we think of God. For me, right now, it means something like this: the very atoms of the universe—including our atoms—are made of God-stuff, and there is God-spirit in each of us connecting us to each other and all of creation and God. And if that doesn’t make us important, nothing is likely to.