I did a forty day memorial recently for a woman who died at a relatively young age (by today’s standards) who had been an immigrant to Canada from a war-torn Orthodox country where she had been raised in near abject poverty. As young adults this young woman and her husband immigrated to Canada, worked very hard and raised two very successful children. Both have become doctors, one at a major research university. After the memorial service, the surviving spouse, let’s call him Theo, kept repeating to me: “She was a very good woman. Both of our children have become doctors because of her encouragement.”
On one level, I have to agree with Theo. It is an amazing thing to come from dire poverty, immigrating to a country where you don’t speak the language and working hard to provide a home and every academic advantage to two children who both grow to become what most people would consider very successful adults. It is an amazing thing what this couple has done.
And yet on another level, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad. Isn’t there anything more important in life than success–especially as we remember someone who has departed this life? As we contemplate what is most worthwhile to leave behind us when we depart and what is most important to impart to our children in this life, isn’t there anything more important than material and social success?
So much of what we consider success in this world has to do only with what can be seen and measured. But you can have it all and still be miserable. What makes us happy and what gives meaning to life are those things that cannot be seen nor measured. Love cannot be counted. Satisfaction cannot be bought. Peace cannot be earned. All that is longed for has nothing at all to do with how much status or money or power someone has. And yet we continue to pursue these things and teach (and sometimes drive) our children to do the same.
In “The Christian in a Changing World,” Archimandrite Vasileios says that the devil has a very limited vocabulary. He is always telling us the same lies. There are no new lies (though technology is changing, what life is about in this world is not changing at all). The devil tells us the same lies he told our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents all the way back to the Garden of Eden. The devil tells us the same lies our whole life long, even though we have, through our own personal experience, come to know that they are lies.
We have come to know that wealth does not bring happiness, yet we continue to hear the same lie whispered in our ear. We have come to know that success does not bring love, but we hear the same lie whispered in our ear. And we have come to know by our experience that owning newer and bigger and better things does not bring satisfaction–yet the same lie continues its monotone drone in our ears: “Buy this and it will be enough”; “accomplish that and you will be loved” ; “If you only had a few hundred or a few thousand or a few million dollars more, then you would be happy.” They’re the same lies over and over again. We know they are lies, but we are still seduced by them.
Someone once observed that people will believe whatever they hear repeatedly, no matter how ridiculous it is. A casual look at the quickly changing social landscape of North America over the past fifty years can confirm the truth of this observation. If we are not attentive, our minds are changed by the mere repetition of ideas. And herein lies the devil’s power: his very limitedness. The power of the evil one is that the he whispers in our ears the same lies over and over again.
How do we escape? How do we overcome this human weakness? The first step is to admit that we have this weakness. We must admit, confess, that we have these thoughts. We must confess that we do indeed hear a drone, a continually dripping lie as from a slowly leaking faucet saying in our mind: do this and you will be happy; do this and you will be loved; do this and you will be satisfied. The specific form or forms of this lie that each of us hears differs depending on our personalities, backgrounds and the specific weaknesses that we have been susceptible to in the past.
Some hear a whisper: “look at this pornography, and you will find relief form your boredom or stress or loneliness.” Some feel an urging that would translate into something like: “eat a little more or have another drink or get high one more time; it will be worth it, it doesn’t matter, you will feel better.” And some have an impulse or a driving idea: “If I just had the newest model, if I only had the latest fashion, if I could only accomplish this higher goal; then it will be enough, then I will be satisfied. And even among the religious, the devil has his few but ever repeated phrases: If only you prayed more, if only you were more disciplined, if only you hadn’t made that mistake, then God would love you and bless you and be near to you.
Lies, lies, lies–and yet through repetition we believe them. The first step to get free from these lies is to confess them, to confess to God, to yourself, to your priest, and to whomever God has put in your life to help guide you out of darkness and into the Light. Confess that you do indeed experience these thoughts and urges and feelings and although you know they are lies, you are still somehow drawn by them; you still somehow find them attractive.
Having confessed, the next step is to recognize that you are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings or urges. You are a human being who has thoughts and feelings and urges, but you are not those thoughts and feelings and urges. You are the one experiencing these things and deciding what you are going to do. Just because, for example, you have the thought that a hamburger would taste good right now, doesn’t mean that your body needs a hamburger. But if that thought lingers in your mind, soon your body will begin to sympathize with it. The thought of eating a hamburger will generate a feeling of hunger. But even a feeling of hunger doesn’t mean you are actually hungry. We know this by experience. Most of us have experienced at some time in our life the feeling of being full after a wonderful meal, but wanting to eat more and so eating more until we make ourselves uncomfortable or even sick.
Similarly, most of us have experienced buyer’s remorse. The new thing we just had to have, once we acquire it does not do for us what we expected, but on the contrary, becomes a kind of burden (and something else we have to figure out how to pay for). And then there is the illusion of success. Every goal achieved only reveals a higher goal. Every record broken only raises the bar of expectation: now I have to work harder to keep pace and strive even more to break into the next level.
However, those desires and thoughts and feelings are not me. The desire to have the newer, better car or boat or house or outfit is not me. I am not the sum total of my desires and urges. My identity is not found in the records I break or the goals I achieve. These are all things I may do or feel or experience, but they are not me.
But if all of this jumble of thoughts and feelings and urges is not me, then who am I? Ah, now we are asking a vital question, now we are beginning to make progress in our salvation. Who we are, or better, who we are becoming has not yet been revealed, according to St. John’s first universal letter. But what we do know is that what we are becoming looks a great deal like Jesus. Who I am becoming looks like Jesus and yet still looks like me. Who I am is someone who is becoming, someone who is growing and changing. I am someone who is becoming myself. And all of the thoughts and feelings and urges that I experience provide a kind of context, a proving ground if you like, a place where I can become myself, my better self, my more Christ-like self.
Human beings were created as noble creatures, creatures worthy to be filled with the Spirit of God. However, human beings also participate in and experience an animal life; and human beings can, if they are not attentive, become like mere animals. As the Psalmist says, “A man being in honour did not understand; he is compared to the senseless cattle and became like them.” In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given the charge and authority to rule over all that is animal, but if we are not careful, if (as the psalmist puts it) we don’t understand, then we will compare ourselves to, or make as our standard, the senseless animals instead of comparing ourselves with our God and making our Creator and His calling for us our standard.
Certainly it is important to work and contribute to the social and merely animal aspects of our life in this world. Yes, it is much better, if you are able, to be someone who contributes to society, someone who helps others rather than someone who merely takes. (But in reality we all give and take–some giving is more noticeable or considered by society to be more valuable, yet we all give and take). However, if we merely succeed on this animal and social plane, and fail to become full of the Spirit of God; then can we consider ourselves to have been successful at all? Didn’t Jesus ask the same thing when he said, “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world but lose their soul?’
Just like the animals, the animal aspect of our life will one day pass away; and with it will pass away all of the social success we may have attained and the possessions and the power and the wealth we may have acquired. Then, on that day, who we are will be revealed. What we have become will be known. May God grant us to keep that day in mind and to consider success to be the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, to be mastery over our animal passions, and to be victory over the demonic lies that perpetually bombard us. This is success: to become, by Grace, God-filled human beings, to become all that God has called us to be.