For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will
--Luke 9:24 NRSV
For most of human history, we humans were so focused on survival we had little time for introspection. Indeed, in many places today, people live in conditions where daily survival takes all the energy they possess. For those of us, however, who are privileged enough to have our essential needs met, we get to work on self-actualization. If you spend much time studying religion, philosophy, psychology and so on, much of the wisdom of the world boils down to finding answers inside of yourself, at times a difficult task since a consumer-based capitalist society insists in millions of ways what you need can only be found in what you buy and possess. In Christian terms, this process might be called discovering who God created you to be or the “image of God” inside.
This week, I am reflecting on Anne Lamott’s book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. In a chapter titled “Inside Job,” she writes, “There is almost nothing outside you that will help in any kind of lasting way, unless you are waiting for a donor organ. You can’t buy, achieve, or date serenity. Peace of mind is an inside job, unrelated to fame, fortune, or whether your partner loves you.” This disappointing news comes with a corollary: “Horribly, what this means is that it is also an inside job for the few people you love most desperately in the world. . . They have to find their own ways, their own answers.” In other words, most of what we fill our days with—trying to “fix” ourselves and/or “fix” others—accomplishes little to nothing.
Lamott notes most people develop two tactics for survival in the world: constructing a success-based personality and hoarding as much as possible. Both tactics ignore our inner world. She describes them as looking for nourishing bread in the hardware store. “I can live on Paydays and Corn Nuts for only so long.” If we are fortunate, along the way we discover “spiritual bakeries” where we are truly known, connected to the world and valued for who we are. In such spaces, we find belonging “in new friends, communities, the most ordinary elements: we break the bread, bless the cup, and share.”
In relationships and communities of belonging, we discover the truth about ourselves: we have value. Lamott asks, “Could you say this about yourself right now, that you have immense and intrinsic value, at your current weight and income level, while waiting to hear if you got the job or didn’t?” If we are enough right now as we are, if we cannot add value to ourselves by finding something out there “for sale or to achieve,” where is it? Lamott answers her own question, “It’s everywhere, within and without, around and above, in the most ordinary and trivial, in bread and roses, a glass of water, in dawn or midnight. All you have to do is want to see.”
Accepting one’s own value comes with a price: accepting everyone else is enough as they are too. “Even the horrible relatives you can’t stand.’ Accepting the truth that nothing outside of anyone else will “fix” them means accepting your efforts to “help” them won’t work. By “help” Lamott refers to the “unwanted help or helping them when they need to figure things out for themselves. Help is the sunny side of control.”
Lamott has written extensively about the family she was raised in and her parents’ alcoholism. She is a recovering addict and so are her brothers. Surrendering to her higher power, God as known in Jesus Christ, was painful and difficult. Accepting the fact that she could not do the same for her brothers, that they had to do it on their own, was excruciating. When her son’s addictions became evident, Lamott couldn’t resist trying to save him.
She shares, “Grace helped me throw in the towel. Or rather it helped pry it out of my cold, dead hands. I got help—for me. I stopped routinely giving my son money and a place to sleep. I accepted that he might end up dead and that I absolutely could not save him. It was the very, very worst time of my life.”
Finally, when her son ended up in jail, she refused to bail him out. She “found the strength in the old formula of failure, terror, impotence and grace, the terror that if I fished my kid out again, this person I had loved far more than anyone else on earth would die. I had gotten him an apartment, a good used truck, a credit card, and I could see he was worse.”
Her “default setting” of saving and fixing her alcoholic son resulted in her spending tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of sleepless nights until she hit bottom. She says, “I became a recovering higher power.”
The good news is that when she stopped trying to save her son, he ended up hitting his own bottom. He found the help he needed in an AA group where older sober men offered him the support he needed. Her son is alive and in recovery, but she still counts the months, weeks, days and hours since his last drink.
Letting go of the illusion that we can buy or achieve something “out there” to “fix” ourselves is a lifelong struggle. Letting go of the illusion that we can “fix” the ones we love instead of letting them find their own way is an even more difficult lifelong struggle. Yet, with God’s help we can get better and better at it along the way. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” When we discover the “life” we are losing isn’t really life but just a bad imitation, we begin to discover what true life really is.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.