Our most alive times: Escaping the hells we create
Johann Christoph Arnold
We must change, or die. That is not only a biological fact, but a truth that holds the key to solving the great riddle of heaven and hell in our personal lives. Circumstances can't always be changed; other people, even if we may try to influence them, are still other people; the future is impossible to predict – even tomorrow is a mystery. In short, our best efforts cannot make heaven out of hell. But there is one thing we can do, and that is choose - to be selfish or selfless; to burn with lust or with love; to defend our power, or dismantle it. And that is why, instead of taking on the futile task of trying to change the whole world, we must, as Gandhi once advised, be the change we wish to see in it.
Real transformation is the opposite of self-improvement. It is one thing, for example, to spruce up an old wall by covering it with a new coat of paint; quite another to check for dry rot or termites and replace every damaged board. The cosmetic solution costs less, at least upfront, whereas the structural one, which requires far greater changes, also requires far more labor and time. But if that is what is needed, that is what must be done. Even if the new paint is shiny, the surface will soon prove itself insufficient to save the wall, and in the end, more will be lost than was temporarily saved.
As with the house, so with each of us. We can – as today's advertisers seem to have successfully seduced our generation into doing – spend the greater part of our lives repainting ourselves: Upgrading our computer, replacing the old car, shedding those extra pounds, going to the hairstylist to try the newest look. Deep down, however, we all know that none of these changes can bring lasting happiness. Deep down, all of us sense that to some extent, the hells of our lives are related to the brokenness of our own hearts and minds, and that this brokenness is the most vital thing we must examine and fix.
How we go about doing this is another story, for knowing that a problem exists does not mean knowing how to solve it. We are by nature divided; our souls are fissured, and we cannot bind or heal them any more than the victim of heart disease can carry out surgery on himself. And thus our transformation depends not only on us, but on another power, and on our willingness to submit to it, just as the patient submits to the surgeon's knife.
Because we fear pain [who looks forward to surgery?] most of us do everything we can to avoid it. And not only literally. To be inwardly cut to the quick – to have one's false fronts torn away and the lies behind them exposed, to have one's rough edges chipped away and one's ego cut down to size, to be "pruned," as the Gospels put it – simply is a painful thing.
That's why we often settle for more convenient, more comfortable ways to change. We aim to fine-tune our marriages, improve relationships at work. We work at being a better team player, a better listener, parent, or friend. We choose something we don't like about ourselves and resolve to do away with it, or at very least change it. But no matter how many such timid efforts we make, they will not help us any more than painkillers, which suppress symptoms but do nothing to truly combat disease. They simply cannot bring us the much greater relief that comes from having signed up for surgery, and from being able to emerge after it with a clean bill of health.
How different transformation looks to someone who grits his teeth and opts for the full treatment! Such a person knows the exhilaration of undergoing a thorough upheaval, and even if he later reverts to his old self – to weariness, boredom, sickness, or sin – he never forgets the experience so completely that he won't long for it again.
To use a familiar image from the natural world, we must undergo the same full-fledged metamorphosis as that of a caterpillar before it becomes a butterfly. Inside its chrysalis or cocoon, a caterpillar loses all of its defining characteristics: its skin color, shape, mouth, and legs. Even its internal organs and systems are altered during the pupal stage, and its appetites and habits as well. It loses everything that once made up its identity. It ceases to exist as a caterpillar. But that is not all. In submitting to the destruction of its old body, it is no longer confined to crawling on the underside of a leaf, but captures the eye with its beauty and its ability to flutter and float and soar. Whereas previously it could not reproduce, it can now mate and lay eggs: its [transformation] allows it to bear fruit.
What does it mean to "die," be transformed, and experience rebirth? First and foremost, I believe it means letting ourselves be dismantled – not partially, but completely. That, to me, is the crucial first step – giving up our dreams and ambitions, our worries and fears; yielding control over our social, political, and economic agendas; surrendering our most personal plans; even revealing our darkest secrets.
Equally vital is letting go of our goodness. Not surprisingly, that is difficult. In fact, having talked with countless people at critical moments in their lives, I've found that this is often the biggest sticking point. All of us want to change, to become better people, to get rid of the negative baggage we drag after ourselves. But when it comes down to the brass tacks, most of us are just as eager to preserve every inch of our old selves, or at least our good parts. Having gladly dropped everything we didn't like about ourselves, we still cling desperately to the rest, refusing to believe that it might be tainted, and hoping that it can still be rescued. Yet the fact is that even the most sincerely held virtue can be a great obstacle to transformation. That is because a subjective view of our own goodness is rarely in line with reality; that is to say, few of us are really as pure as we might imagine ourselves.
Simply put, rebirth is impossible for those who are in love with themselves in any way, and that goes for a "religious" person as much as anyone else. Confidence is one thing, of course, and no one can truly live or blossom without it. But the self-love of complacency – the sort that leads people to talk about how they are "saved" because they were "born again" (or how they are "enlightened" because they have "seen the light") – is quite another. In fact, it seems to me that those who claim such things are among the worst enemies of rebirth, if only because their smugness is often coupled with the assurance that the rest of the world is damned. Maybe that is why Jesus reserved His harshest words for His most pious countrymen – rebuking them as a "brood of vipers" and comparing them to "whitewashed tombs. It is surely why He also warned them – and us – that “whoever saves his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life will save it.”
There is another ingredient to finding new life, other than merely “letting go,” and that is repenting. Unfortunately, to many, the word implies hellfire and brimstone. In fact, repentance is just another word for remorse, or, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, for laying down our arms and surrendering, saying we're sorry, realizing we're on the wrong track, and moving full speed astern. Repentance, he says, is "the only way out of a hole.”
This is excerpted from Johann Christoph Arnold’s article, ‘Our Most Alive Times: Escaping the Hells We Create,’ from Bruderhof Community.