Living without a Why
If you have just been named the Superbowl MVP, what do you do for an encore? I haven’t watched the Superbowl in years, but I gather it is still a post-game tradition for the most valuable player on the winning team to announce he is heading next to Disney World. This, of course, is the secular equivalent of going to heaven – and the best part is you don’t have to die to get there. Even though I was never a Superbowl MVP, I have been to Disney World, and I wouldn’t exactly describe it as going to heaven. I seem to recall standing in long lines while “It’s a Small World” played over and over from loudspeakers hidden in the shrubbery. It wasn’t long before the kids got cranky and wanted to go back to the hotel and swim in the pool, which we could have done at home.
Once you have been to Disney World, what do you do for an encore? If you are the Superbowl MVP, you need time to heal your mangled body and hope your mind clears before you have to go back on the field to do it all over again next season. The rest of us go back to work and dream about what we will do on our vacation next year. Until the day comes when we actually do die and go to heaven, or wherever it is we go when we die. Our hope is our final destination will involve no standing in line with piped-in muzak noodling away in the background.
Hope can be deceptive, spurring us on when the sensible thing might be to call it quits. According to Greek mythology, hope was hiding away among the evils in Pandora’s box (actually a jar). We might think that the gods stuck hope in there to serve as an antidote to all the nastiness that was loosed on the world when curiosity got the better of Pandora, and she removed the lid. However, this was probably not the way the Greeks saw it, and neither did Nietzsche, who wrote, "Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man."
If we abandon hope, what will sustain us during times of adversity? The medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart argued that we must live in utter detachment from every outcome in life, a process he described as “living without a why.” Normally, if you ask people why they are doing something, they are able to provide a plausible explanation. They work because they want to earn money. They risk being pummeled by 300-pound linesmen because they want to win the Superbowl and perhaps earn a free trip to Disney World. They do good deeds because they want to go to heaven when they die. And so on. To live without a why means you act spontaneously, without motive and with complete indifference to the outcome, whether good or bad. This does not mean you become passive; as Eckhart expressed it, you act because you act.
This approach raises obvious questions for those who seek God in their lives -- questions that help explain why Eckhart eventually ran afoul of the Inquisition. All the prayers and practices that are normally recommended for this undertaking are ruled out – not because they are bad in themselves but because you don’t need them. The reason you don’t need them is that you are already rooted in God. “In him,” said St. Paul, “we live and move and have our being.” Once you realize that, all striving ceases, and you become indifferent to your fate. St. Paul again: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We might naively assume that finding God brings an end to our suffering, but all it really brings is acceptance, which is something else altogether. It is that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus embraced not his divinity but his mortality. Knowing that he would soon be taken away and killed, he prayed, “Let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." There are all sorts of romantic notions about surrendering to God’s will, but it really boils down to this: you are abandoning hope. As long as you still imagine your life to be your own, you can always hope for something better. Then comes the realization that what is happening right now is God’s will for you at this moment. So what better alternative do you envision for yourself?
“You seek perfection and it lies in everything that happens to you – your suffering, your actions, your impulses are the mysteries under which God reveals himself to you,” wrote the 18th-century Jesuit spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade. In abandoning hope, we are essentially abandoning the future, which throws us back upon what is happening right now. “It is necessary to be disengaged from all we feel and do in order to walk with God in the duty of the present moment,” de Caussade instructs. “All other avenues are closed. We must confine ourselves to the present moment without taking thought for the one before or the one to come.”
There are echoes in this of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself.” To which he added, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” This came at the end of a sublime passage in which Jesus urged his listeners to be like the lilies of the field that “toil not, neither do they spin,” yet “even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Certainly Jesus could not be accused of sugarcoating anything if he ended on such a down note: sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. There’s plenty of evil to grapple with today, thank you very much; no need to worry about tomorrow’s evil. And so it goes, day by day, until we die. And then what? Are we to be denied the consolation of heaven after all that?
Jesus had curiously little to say about dying and going to heaven. He is quoted as using the phrase “kingdom of heaven” only in the Gospel of St. Matthew. But it was meant as a euphemism for the “kingdom of God,” which did not refer to a place where you go when you die. Jesus’ whole message was that the kingdom of God was not to be found elsewhere, in some other time or place. "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed,” he told the Pharisees. “The kingdom of God is among you.” This latter verse is sometimes translated as: “The kingdom of God is within you.”
So here’s the deal: you abandon hope, you abandon the future, you stop looking elsewhere for some magic kingdom. You take Jesus at his word when he said that the kingdom of God is at hand. By “at hand,” he meant within reach – right here, right now, always. You don’t need to go anywhere or to do anything; no special prayers or practices are required. You just need to pay attention to your life -- not life as you wish it to be but life as it actually unfolds from moment to moment. This is God’s kingdom. And the best part is, you don’t need to die to get here.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
Meister Eckhart, The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart
Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment