Monday, July 6, 2015

You Haven't Lost Your Soul? Then You Haven't Lived!

Studying at Books-A-Million
I probably spend too much time at my local Books-A-Million. I love to study and read outside of the house, but since I still need to fulfill my needs for air-conditioning and coffee I find myself at Books-A-Million for hours at a time. I sit, I read, I study, and I also browse. One of the sections I enjoy browsing most is the travel section. I'm a sucker for a book with a title anything close to "1000 _____ You Have to Do Before You Die". Luckily, there is never any shortage of these books to be found.

The company Lonely Planet alone puts out 1000 Ultimate Adventures, 1000 Ultimate Experiences, and 1000 Ultimate Sights. Not to be outdone, National Geographic has compiled 5000 ideas to do in over 100 countries and author Patricia Shultz has put together a book of 1000 Places to See Before You Die. These books are just a small sampling of an industry that thrives on compiling and showcasing every possible travel experience (best walks, drives, hotels, holy places, buildings, etc.) one could imagine doing. I often browse through the books and find myself taking notes, literal not mental notes, of the sights and experiences I'd like to visit in my lifetime. One page turns into two and eventually I have a dozen pages filled with possible destinations. 

What is on first discovery a treasure trove of wonderful and inspiring literature eventually becomes an overwhelming mass of possibilities. My initial excitement for what could lay ahead slowly, but inevitably, transforms into an existential depression over the impossibility of enjoying all that is available. One one hand, I am so grateful that advances in technology and the sharing of information has so wonderfully advanced that I can now see all the wonderful things our world has to offer. However, the more I know what is out there, the more I realize I will never be able to experience it all. How am I supposed to be happy with a trip to a local beach when I now know it's not even a top 100 (or 500 for that matter) beach in the world? How am I supposed to enjoy a once in a lifetime trip to a foreign destination when I now know I can only see 10 of the 100 amazing sights it has to offer and will be missing the 1000 other cities I need to see?
A 2003 trip to Vatican City in Italy
This isn't just a phenomenon in the travel world, the explosion in information sharing has led to the awareness of all sorts of experiences our culture now considers "essential" to living that the majority of people never even considered generations ago. 

Travel: "You've never gone island hopping throughout the Greek Isles? You haven't lived!"
Movies: "You've never seen all of Kubrick's films? You haven't lived!"
T.V: "You've never binge watched all of The Wire? You haven't lived!"
Books: "You've never read the Top 100 classics list? You haven't lived!"
Music: "You've never listened to all of Bob Dylan's early stuff? You haven't lived!"
Food: "You've never eaten fresh caught maine lobster perfectly steamed? You haven't lived!"
Drink: "You've never tried this prestigious brand of whiskey aged 100 years? You haven't lived!"
Clothes: "You've never gone out on the town in luxury designer clothes before? You haven't lived?"
Sex: "You've never tried this position before? You haven't lived!"
Cars: "You've never driven this car on that road before? You haven't lived!"
Art: "You've never seen the Mona Lisa in person before? You haven't lived!"
Theme Parks: "You've never visited all the Disney Parks in the world before? You haven't lived!
Friends: "You don't have the perfect friends with the perfect combination of personalities? You haven't lived!"
Experiences: "You've never sky dived before? You haven't lived!"

Sometimes, many of these categories are all added together. Here's a comical example: "You've never eaten a cannoli from Little Italy in Manhattan while driving with the top down in a convertible across the Brooklyn Bridge with your gorgeous blonde girlfriend on your way to the port for your worldwide cruise while wearing your designer suit and listening to 'New York State of Mind'? You've never lived!" If someone tried to accomplish all these experiences  (listen to all the music, read all the books, travel to all the places, eat all the food, etc.) twenty-four hours a day, everyday of the year, I'm convinced they would still not accomplish it all.

"True humility is contentment."
-Henri Frederic Amiel

There is nothing wrong with listing out all the amazing pleasures our world has to offer. I believe that God has given us a world where the possibilities for enjoying it are endless. There is a certain existential cynic in me that does desire to fault God in this way: "Why would you give us such an amazing and pleasurable world, then give us a life where we can only enjoy a fraction of it?" In fact, even though I'm not technically wealthy, I know that I've gotten the chance to enjoy more of it than most people. Yet, I'm still unhappy. However, the problem doesn't lay with the giver of good gifts. We would not fault a restaurant buffet for putting out too much good food for us to enjoy, yet that seems to be what I want to do with God.

The problem, as far as I can discern it, is in how we've (I'm included) come to understand the enjoyment of this multitude of pleasurable experiences as an "essential" part of the human experience:
- "Pizza is great, but you really haven't lived until you've tried New York, Chicago, Detroit, California, and Hawaii style...not to mention the original Naples Italy style!"
- "Your enjoyment of that waterfall in the Appalachian Mountains was nice, but you really haven't lived until you've seen the tallest waterfall, the widest waterfall, and the biggest waterfall by volume!"
I have often convinced myself that those who experience more of these things are somehow getting a fuller human experience than I am; or at least a happier one (
Social media has certainly helped to encourage this mindset). Now, there is SOME truth to that. I'm certainly not arguing that those sitting in solitude all their lives are getting as much of the human experience as those globe-trotting and experiencing everything. However, there is a limit somewhere.
“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”

― Socrates
I've experienced more of the world in my 32 years of life than most humans in history experienced before me. Yet, I'm still not satisfied. I've made my own lists of experiences to have, sights to enjoy, adventures to take, movies to see and foods I'd like to eat, but I know I'll never realistically get a chance to fulfill them. As a Christian, I'm plagued with the knowledge that spending my life (time, thoughts, money) in a quest to fulfill these pleasures is not what I was created for. The cardinal principle of the Christian life is not pleasure and happiness, but sacrifice. The model Christ demonstrated for his followers is not of serving ourselves, but in serving others. Deep down, in my heart of hearts, I know that seriously following Christ means giving up the hopes of even coming close to fulfilling that list; the list of my wants. 

Christ, the ideal human, demonstrated for us how we are meant to define our human experience in how he lived his life. The most telling moment is in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42) before Christ is captured and sent to his death on the cross. Christ, knowing his future fate, pleads before God that the cup of suffering would pass from him; this was his list of wants. Christ follows this request with, "Yet not what I will, but what you will." Putting down his own human wants, Christ embraced the will of his Father. This is my model for the human experience. I am not here to fulfill my own wants, but to do the will of the Father. This is what it means to follow Christ.
Christ praying in the garden of Gethsemane

This command seems and feels counter-intuitive when placed against our current culture, of which I've let influence more than I care to acknowledge. The first objection that comes to my mind is, "So I'm just supposed to mindlessly serve God and never fulfill my wants? That doesn't sound like happiness, it sounds like misery." I sympathize with this objection more than you know. However, I don't believe it to be ultimately true. Christianity does not claim that if you deny yourself and follow Christ that you will lose yourself and become a mindless and miserable robot. Paradoxically, Christ claims that if you deny yourself and follow him you will actually find yourself and a fuller and more abundant way than you could ever think of. In my experience, I have found this to be true...even if it must be learned anew everyday.

Am I willing to be content to follow Christ and trust that in doing so I will gain something far greater than if I were to accomplish everything on my sights, adventures, films, and food list? Am I really convinced that it is far greater to keep my soul than to gain the whole word? Completely convinced I am not, I'm weak and often choose the world. However, by faith I believe Christ is right. Though I stumble and wander at times, I daily try to lay down my list of wants and look to God and say, "Yet not my will, but yours be done."

"Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: 'Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?'"
-Mark 8:34-37 NIV

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