On the Necessity of Following One’s Still, Small Voice

July 30, 2010 at 1:03 pm | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Spirituality and Religion | 1 Comment

Changing one’s life — addressing the most thorny issues of a given existence — would be a lot easier if you could just follow a handful of strict rules unwaveringly. Or, better yet, if others would enforce good behavior. Sometimes change does work this way, of course: Kicking a chemical addiction is the most obvious example, since you cannot use at all when you’re in recovery.

So often, though, our problems stem from relationships — whether to things or to people — that we need to modify, but can’t eliminate. People who have problems with overeating do eventually have to learn to eat responsibly, for example. Even radical gastric surgery leaves most people with enough latitude to fail. For many people, sex, too, must be controlled. If you’re in a poisonous sexual relationship, you can cut off a given lover. Most of us aren’t called to chastity, though, and eventually we must learn to moderate this most primal urge without denying it entirely.

We know in our hearts what we need to do. To put it in Christian terms (which I prefer to the language of psychotherapy), we know where our sin lies. In his Mere Christianity, a brilliant explication of fundamental Christian beliefs, C.S. Lewis points out that living a blameless life is not a matter of following clear-cut rules. Even the Ten Commandments require a surprising amount of interpretation. (That interpretation remains abstract to me, since I have never had any potentially legitimate occasion to kill anyone.) How much more difficult, then, is the fundamental Christian requirement that we love God and our neighbors as ourselves. I am sure I’m not the only person who has little idea what loving God entails, and the difficulty of figuring out who counts as our neighbor provides the subject of many a sermon in my parish church. The law, religion, and ethics will always disappoint when we try to apply these blunt tools to our muddy, intricate lives.

The solution is simple, but it isn’t easy. It’s our duty to discern in our hearts what is right, and to act accordingly. As Kierkegaard was fond of pointing out, right behavior may look radically different in different people — for one man, it might mean marrying a woman he loves, while another might be called to abstain from marrying. Social norms are not a reliable measure of what each of us needs to do (though, of course, any decision to violate laws — or, to a lesser extent, conventions — requires the highest possible level of self-scrutiny combined with willingness to accept the consequences).

It is incredibly hard to behave well even 60 percent of the time, I think. Every day we make hundreds of tiny decisions — to put off a boring task or a potentially uncomfortable confrontation, to refrain from eating nasty food, to maintain even the most minimal spiritual discipline — and, sad to say, I’m often not conscious I’m making a decision. When I am aware of what I’m doing — procrastinating, say — I still often talk my gullible self into all sorts of self-indulgent behavior. I do have some ingrained good habits — I am unfailingly prompt, and am disciplined about emptying out my email in-box regularly — but those good habits live under a deep, cold drift of accumulated tendencies to laxness.

More later.

Love to all.


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  1. On the Necessity of Following One?s Still, Small Voice…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

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