What is getting ahead?

Americans tend to view getting ahead as acquiring more stuff. Houses, cars, furniture, appliances, vacation homes, boats, motorcycles, and more define where we believe we stand measured against other people. As Roxy and I were taking our walk today we met two little boys and their mother. The boys asked if they could pet Roxy, and I readily agreed. I told them that while she wouldn’t lick them, she would “sniff” them. One of the boys exclaimed, “she blew on me!” His brother told me that they just got a new basement, and it was important for them to clean up their toys every day so that it would stay nice and if they didn’t clean up their toys then it wouldn’t stay nice and so they were going to because they wanted it to stay nice. I told him that my wife made me clean up my toys every night, so I knew it could be hard but that it was important, too. Sensing, I suspect, that more secrets were about to be revealed, their mother told the boys they should let us continue on our walk.

Imagine if we could return to that view of life. What if we decided that the measure of whether or not we were succeeding at life was whether or not we cleaned up our toys before we went to bed at night? We would almost certainly collect less detritus, not wanting to add time to our bedtime cleanup routine. We would either stop being so competitive or the nature of our competition would shift from getting ahead at each others expense to doing the best job possible putting our toys away. That would by much healthier than the current system, because there is nothing about me being the best at cleaning up before bed that could possibly destroy another person’s life.

The problem we have right now is that we tend to see each other as obstacles that stand in the way of our happiness. Seeing each other as an obstacle is very different that seeing each other as human beings. It’s the nature of an obstacle to be overcome, eliminated, defeated, or destroyed. Human beings don’t fare very well if they are overcome, eliminated, defeated, or destroyed. If we see human beings as obstacles standing in the way of our goals we quickly dehumanize them. After that, we quickly find that we don’t care if they live or die as long as they are moved out of our way in the process. At that point two hundred thousand people dying becomes an abstract concept that we will be incapable of mourning. Imagine having to clean that mess up before bedtime!

Wallowing in Feelings?

I was listening to a podcast today in which a group of four spiritual leaders in a particular tradition were discussing a scandal that hit their tradition a couple of years ago. Who they are and what there tradition is are really unimportant because I believe there is a larger trend at work in this discussion. They are in their thirties to early forties, two males and two females, and ethnically diverse. Except for the fact that they are all spiritual leaders in the same tradition, they area pretty decent cross section of that age group in America. What I heard astounded me.

As they discussed how they were faring since the scandal hit two years ago, to a person they said they had spent the time getting in touch with their feelings about the scandal and processing them. Clearly, they are still engaged in that process. It’s important to note that none of them were victims of any misconduct, though they did all witness their tradition crumble around them. What remains of that tradition is anyone’s guess, and what the future might be is not yet apparent.

Now, to be sure, when something like this happens there is a grieving process that needs to take place. Many of us have worked through that grieving process as institutions sacred and secular we had come to depend on crumbled around us. With covid, there will be more and more institutions crumbling. It is certainly true that no one can tell any of us how long grieving should take. Generally speaking, though, if you are still trying to sort your feelings out two years after a loss, it’s probably time to find a therapist.

As I reflected on this it occurred to me that this talk of staying in our feelings is very popular in certain circles. We have almost set up a cultural requirement in touchy-feely circles that processing feelings is a full time career. Instead of working through things, we just park the car and sit in the midst of them. I suspect that many more Americans, if they are going to go off course in the feelings world, repress their feelings and don’t process them at all. What I want to say is that both approaches avoid the issue at hand. Whether I am repressing my feelings or making a career out of them, what I am really doing is avoiding them.

In some circles, this is known as “spiritual bypassing.” Spiritual bypassing happens when I assume what seems to be a very spiritual posture but in reality that posture is a way of avoiding my issue. Processing our feelings can become spiritual bypassing if we are still processing them two years later. Presumably, long before two years are up, we will have identified what are feelings might be and determined what action they are calling us to take next. It’s certainly true that as we move into action there may be times we need to do more processing, but we need to remember that processing is a way station on the journey, not our destination!