Humans are strange creatures. We habitually seem to cut ourselves off from those situations we know might change us, and yet, we long for change. Terrified by the uncertainty of it all, and lulled to sleep by our well worn paths, we often take only minor variations on the same personal and cultural patterns, beliefs, assumptions, and postures, whether or not they are bringing us into fullest, truest life. We get stuck dancing with the Devil that we know, even when we hope or believe that God might be at the party. Here’s a small example that has wedged itself into my brain:
Back when I worked for a ministry amongst homeless youth, people would frequently say to me: "Wow, I'm glad you are doing that. I could never do that.” It was certainly a sentiment that was meant to be encouraging, as if to say “you are a good person,” and yet, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach every time someone said it. What I heard was: “that’s just a part of reality I won’t get close to. I’d rather not have to experience what it is like to do your job, because I’m pretty sure I know already and I haven't been endowed with the proper attitudes.” Weirdly (or as you might expect), many of these people hadn't had extended experiences with homeless people, let alone homeless youth, let alone my particular friends on the street. So, usually, when I heard this kind of statement I felt sad and I felt angry—for my friends the street, but mostly for my friends who didn’t think they were strong or able-spirited enough to handle presence to an entire group of people. But, more than sad or angry, I felt a stuckness, an immobility—nothing would change here because there was no interest in change.
Now, am I saying that these people should work amongst homeless youth? Am I saying it is bad that they are overwhelmed by the reality that is homelessness? Am I saying I am better than them? Nope. Nope. Clearly no. What I am saying is that every time I heard it, all I could hear was a striking unwillingness to encounter reality, reified into personality traits. What I heard was a need to keep a tight lock on the door of identity so that no stranger could enter, bearing the strange truth of our collective reality. Maybe it was polite conversation—and I don’t mean to lack generosity here—but speaking quite practically, it also cut out all openness to change through encounter. The belief that they "are who they are," was actually a choice they were making to not have to transform. And I get it, because any significant transformation is scary--none of us is exempt from that.
L.A. Paul, a philosopher at Yale, recently wrote a book called “Transformative Experience.” In it, she argues that we can’t make rational or secure decisions when it comes to transformative experiences. Transformative experiences are those that have the capacity to fundamentally change our assumptions, beliefs and values, and which affect how we understand ourselves, others, and the world. If an experience could affect you in such a way that after you have it, you value different things, then it stands to reason that before you have it, you may not want to have it and there is no rational way to decide if you want to. But, after you have it, you might be glad you did in ways you couldn’t have appreciated prior. Said simply: you have to rely on the revelation within the experience, and not on your ideas about what it might be like, because you can’t know what it will be like.
If there is no possibility for predicting with any certainty what it will be like to be transformed, then the interesting question for Paul is: “are you interested in seeing who you become?” The meaningful decision isn’t about the experience itself, but how you will posture yourself towards that experience. It is a question of what you value—will it be protection or discovery? Will it be secure ideals or revelation?
All this having been said--you might have a really clear idea of who you want to be and what you want your life to look like. But the question is whether or not you can both keep those clear and certain expectations and also be interested in who you are becoming. I don’t think you can. You don’t have the freedom to become whatever you want. But, you also don’t have to be trapped by the personality you've attached yourself to, especially when it is stunting your transformation by sealing you off from what truth might be revealed. It means that the super highways in your brain don't determine what reality is actually life--it means you can grow through interaction and connection. It means revelation is necessary because you aren't the Isolated and Almighty Creator Holder of Your Destiny. And would you really want to be? There is a lot you can’t and don't know yet—and that’s scary, but it’s good. If you can’t believe it will be good yet, then at least turn your eye towards analyzing what you are being told is good, what you should value. Don’t buy what your are being sold. You can’t have your #bestlifenow and also submit yourself to powerfully transformative experiences that ground you in a really real reality that you don’t know yet. You don’t know what your best life is, because you only know what you know, and lives are narratives that take time. And they happen by invitation. You can listen for the invitation, but only if you are interested your life in the present moment.
But, are you interested in who you are becoming? Who are you listening to about who you are? Who are you encountering? And what are you being invited into? One of Thomas Merton's famous prayers was "Who are you, Lord God? And, Who am I?" Amen. You don't have to know yet. But, perhaps you are a person who is waking up with interest.