January 30, 2016
“All the questions that are fundamental to human happiness arise when we ask ourselves this excruciating question: Where am I? Where am I in relation to God, to myself and to others? These are the basic questions of human life.”
– Thomas Keating, “The Human Condition”
He describes the questions as excruciating. That is where the challenge is for me.
It’s easy to enter tunnel-vision and see the things I want to see, take the turns I want to take and to focus on where I think I’ve done well. That is not, then, an excruciating question, is it?
To ask, “Where am I?” in such a way that it is excruciating is to acknowledge that there could be, is even, a better place for me to be. The question itself isn’t the excruciating bit, it’s instead the embrace of why the question is necessary that is the most excruciating. And the danger in that embrace is to continue to focus on my doing. What must I do to get to that better place? Doing is likely what got me to the place where I am… in this very excruciating moment. I must cease my doing, then.
“Where am I in relation to God?” Yet another poignant moment of jaw-dropping, cliff-hanging honesty. If I am nestled in, snug and safe, what could be so excruciating about that question? If I am comfortable and relaxed, all must be well with my soul. And if all of these are true, something must be missing for we do not see in the gospel, or in the prophets, or in the journeys of Abraham and Moses and Joshua that the Promised Land ever comes, in whatever form, in any sort of comfortable fashion. Each of the many followers that we encounter struggled, wrestled, doubted, ran, begged, denied, or betrayed. So it is, and excruciatingly so, that we must also confront those tendencies in ourselves to answer this question.
“Where am I in relation to myself?” Perhaps the most excruciating of all, and the most necessary. Not because we find ourselves within the society-of-me, but because the person with whom it has always been hardest, through all of human history, to be honest with is the self. “Where am I in relation to myself, indeed?” The answers to each of the others are irrelevant so long as we avoid answering this one.
“Where am I in relation to others?” I find this one easy to answer quickly, but difficult to answer deeply. As we respond, naming those closest to us and likely proud of our answers, our support and our investment in their lives, we are quickly reminded of those that require, even deserve, more of our efforts. As we can easily name the favors done, kindnesses paid, gifts given and apologies accepted, we are slowly reminded of all that we haven’t repaid, all that we haven’t responded to and all that we haven’t repented for.
These may be the basic questions of human life, but there is nothing basic at all about responding to them.
Where am I, indeed?