I’ve been thinking a lot about free will and choice in these days of such tribulation. I’ve pondered, studied and applied (to the best of my ability) the lessons of the story of the Garden of Eden that speaks of the origin of free will and sin. In short, a choice was made to defy God and eat of the tree of knowledge, and innocence was lost…and if I’m truly honest, I’m OK with that. I would rather choose God, choose my path and choose all that comes with human fallibility on my own than live in a world of perfection without having the choice to be there. I say that because it means everything when you choose something for yourself, and not have it imposed upon you. And with that freedom comes a responsibility to accept the consequences of those choices, because that is how I evolve. I also embrace the help that God offers, in humility, because I acknowledge the limitations to my human perception and ability to move as far forward on my own as I would like. I believe that whatever I put out into the world comes back to me tenfold, which gives me care and pause to keep me on the straight and narrow road I choose to walk on. We are all fallible, flawed, and yet free to move in the world in the way we choose even within the limitations of circumstance and physicality because no one controls our souls or thoughts. Even how we choose to follow God, at its core is a personal responsibility. We can’t hide behind God to justify our behavior any more than we can blame the devil…because we have the freedom to choose. WE ARE RESPONSIBLE for every choice even in the midst of horrible circumstances, not knowing better or even in the midst of enslavement. (which, in the story of Adam and Eve, God says: “See! They have become like one of us, knowing what is good and what is bad!”) While in any given circumstance our physical choices may be restricted or limited, we always have the freedom to choose how to respond to them. We can choose goodness, or not.
With that said, I fully realize that the freedom to choose our physical destiny fully is not available to everyone on this planet, its just not. I think the choices to restrict freedom are being imposed out of fear and all the ramifications that come with that choice. There is a part in the story of Adam and Eve when they realize they are naked, and they hide. I think of even the most powerful people in the world in that position in front of God, when stripped down to just their nakedness not protected by wealth or status or embellishment would feel the same way as Adam and Eve did. I know I do, and I am thankful for that…I, in truth, really am. The reason? Because, sensibly, I know we all have flaws that we cover with a variety of subterfuge because of a skewed belief that if we do that the rest of the world won’t see how flawed we are, except that the rest of the world is flawed also. I find it tragic the length to which people will go to fake who they are or make excuses for who they are not. I refuse to do that. Instead, I choose to be a work in progress, flaws and all, give credit to God for the blueprint that is me and work desperately hard to make sure my choices are good ones, and when they aren’t, take responsibility for them and move on.
So, in the light of free will, I choose to celebrate that sacred fault of the Garden, choosing more to see it not as original sin, but the ability to recognize good and evil and then consciously, to the best of my knowledge and belief, choose good, choose God…which differs based on an individual’s perspective. And because we all have a different perspectives, work within those differences unless and until I think goodness is threatened and find ways to rectify it. I think this is why the tone of Jesus’ message is based on love, and not a regimented set of rules or judgments. Loving God with all your strength, treating your neighbor as you would yourself, and loving the least among us, and being prayerful, helps us recognize that while others also have free will and face circumstances we may not understand or appreciate, and the choices made may have a ripple effect outward, there is a good way to respond to them and an evil one, even if those choices are not black and white but on a spectrum. At our core, unless you are a sociopath or severely mentally ill, knowing what is good and what is evil is the burden of free will, and simply hoping you are doing good does not make it so. To abdicate responsibility for your status by blame, by excuses, by rationalizations, by out right lying is choosing against goodness. And while none of us can equivocally define what goodness is all of the time, in time, if we choose to evolve, we should get better at recognizing it. Lastly, Good and Evil are not shaped by public opinion…that is the truth.
The first thing that popped into my head on the day of the Orlando shooting? This was a tortured man, most probably gay, who lived within a culture who condemned who he was with such ferocity that he grew to hate those who freely and joyfully embraced who they were, so he took their light in one horrible action. Then, in a last ditch effort to cover up who he really was, claimed to be a martyr for the religious extremists who condemned him in the first place. As more information came out, I feel, sadly that my assessment was correct. Since then, beyond the empathy I feel for the LGBT community, the deep sadness that comes with yet another mass shooting, and the anger for those who are using this tragedy for their own agendas…I am, yet again, standing on the precipice of a darkness that wants to swallow us whole.
You see the thing about true darkness is that we seem to be convinced that it must be fought against with guns blazing. We seem to be convinced that it can win. Darkness is dissipated by light, by love. Jesus lays it out clearly:
No one who lights a lamp hides it away or places it under a bushel basket, but on a lamp stand so that those who enter might see the light. The lamp of the body is your eye. When your eye is sound, then your whole body is filled with light, but when it is bad, then your body is in darkness. Take care, then, that the light in you not become darkness. If your whole body is full of light, and not part of it is in darkness, then it will be as full of light as a lamp illuminating you with its brightness.
So how does the light in you become darkness? How about when you are told that who you are is a sin? When you are dismissed as unimportant and ostracized by a world that is obsessed with external perfection? Or when you are taught that you are of a special group and that unless you conform, you are condemned. Or when you believe lies that are perpetuated to feed the fury of fear. Jesus has an answer to that too, in what happened directly after his lesson on light:
After he had spoken, a Pharisee invited him to dine at his home. He entered and reclined at table to eat. The Pharisee was amazed to see that he did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal. The Lord said to him, ‘Oh you Pharisees! Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you’
Give alms, meaning give charitably to others, whether it be materially or providing capabilities (like education). What cleans one’s inside is extending one’s light out to others. Nothing more. Just simple charity. And when the scholars of the law twist it into depriving you of your God given light? They doom you to darkness, a darkness that will spread to others by continuing the distortion of the law, ending in the death of the light. We see it played out in suicide and murder. Too many, everyday…when all we are asked to do is love the Lord with all our hearts, soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. When you are taught to hate yourself, you cannot fulfill this fundamental premise of our faith. When you are taught to hate others, you serve the darkness.
He exposes these scholars for their hypocrisy and ends with this telling phrase:
You have taken away the key of knowledge. You yourselves did not enter, and you stopped those trying to enter.
And what that key is, is that each of us is a light, each with a specific purpose and God given gifts to fulfill that purpose. When we subscribe to the belief that any light is not of God, and in any way large or small snuff out that light, darkness spreads. When Jesus died, and sacrificed himself for our transgressions, the key to everlasting life was given to us. The Kingdom of God, though, is within. And it cannot house fear, or hatred, condemnation, or doubt. So here I stand on the precipice of darkness and allow my light to shine, and pray that others will come to stand with me, trusting and celebrating their own light will do the same.
One of my own first experiences of following my sensibilities occurred early on in grade school. One day, when my teacher made an innocent mistake in pronouncing a classmate’s name, I raised my hand and corrected her. Much to my complete amazement she was furious and made me put my head in the desk to “suffer the humiliation of Eve.” The point of this little story is that my behavior was labeled “bad” for a reason that was rooted in one of the most pervasive assumptions (and one I was constantly plagued with) of all time—women are responsible for original sin, and as part of the punishment we should know our place.
The concept of Original Sin continues to slap women in the face in one form or another constantly. For the most part, my time in Catholic school was a testimony of penance for that very belief. For example, a priest once wrote my address on the board when I demanded to know where hell was. Please save the explanations. There is no parallel universe anywhere where treating a child like this would ever be acceptable.
So let’s take a look at the story that describes humanities’ fall from grace. Did Eve’s choice to eat the apple from the tree of knowledge warrant plaguing womankind with that kind of burden? Yes, she was disobedient, and yes, she convinced her mate to follow suit. What about Adam’s culpability, though? Eve had to contend with the serpent, pure evil; Adam just did what Eve asked him to do—how weak is that? (Remember that old maternal adage: if your friend jumped off a bridge would you as well? Well, Adam did.)
Eve suffered for her curiosity and then some, and Adam suffered for his weakness. There is no inference that Adam was charged with dominating Eve, the two of them were considered one body. According to the first Genesis story, man and woman were created at the same time and God gave dominion over the earth to both of them. It’s curious that most people only pay attention to the second creation story, where Adam is king of the world and Eve is made just to keep him company. It is clear that part of Eve’s punishment was that she would have an “urge” for her husband and be mastered by it—that appears to be an independent struggle for woman to contend with, not an excuse for gender subjugation. If anything, Adam’s punishment is the clearer representation of slavery; he is destined to toil and sweat until he returns to dust.
Perhaps Eve and Adam knew intuitively that it was time to move on to a place of individual choice, and with that choice they lost their innocence. Isn’t that the whole point of growing up though? In order to mature in wisdom we have to leave our childhood behind and take what we’ve been taught and try it on for size. So rather than getting too wrapped up in original sin and having woman bear the greater portion of it, perhaps it would be more productive to admit that both Eve and Adam made a choice that we have been living with ever since. Even from the church’s perspective that may not be such a bad thing. The Catholic Mass at the Easter Vigil has this to say about original sin: “Oh happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!” It is curious though: when the “sin” becomes a good thing, Adam gets credit for it and Eve isn’t even mentioned?
Focusing so much on the sin detracts from the great responsibility that humans were given: to subdue and cultivate the earth. The direction of the game of life had been set down. In order for humanity to be successful, it appears to me anyway, that men and women would have to use their inherently unique talents together: the power of dominion coupled with the grace to nurture the ordinary things that God made. The formula for this cosmic union is contingent upon male and female rising above fighting over which perspective is right, to embrace both perspectives as necessary to fulfill, successfully, the charge of God.
Another reason I bring up Original Sin as a fundamental assumption that desperately needs critiquing is that it still fuels one of the most pervasive myths that plague culture: that women are weaker and thus inferior to men. There are those of you who may think that statement is inaccurate, but really, look around you; there is evidence everywhere of that belief regardless of what level of consciousness you’re coming from. How many women are in “high places,” positions of power? Even if you really believe that the place of women in the world isn’t inferior just different, you need only look at the way the law has treated woman in this country. One need only recall what some of the great jurists (even the fathers of our country) did to women legally, especially in terms of rights. Rather than assume that the subjugation of women is the natural order of things, I choose to believe it is not. But if not, how were masses of people led to believe that it was?
While studying theology as an undergraduate, I was aghast at some of the opinions the church’s greatest teachers had about women. Thomas Aquinas (the guy who pondered the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin) said in his Summa Theologica, that every woman should have a man as her personal master, because her intellect is no better than that of a child or an imbecile. What is up with that? History has demonstrated that statement to be inaccurate. In all honesty, there have been more than a few men who’ve crossed my path that have defied accepted boundaries of stupidity. St. Augustine, one of the most influential of Latin Church Fathers and whose work created the foundation for western Christendom, had this to say about women (and it’s a gem): “women should not be enlightened or educated in any way. They should, in fact, be segregated as they are the cause of hideous and involuntary erections in holy men.” My response is the same one given to my sons when they point the finger at each other: “Don’t blame someone else because you can’t control yourself.” My utmost favorite though, is a church writer named Tertullian who said this about women: “You are the devil’s gateway, you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree, you are the first deserter of the divine law, you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack, you destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die”. Methinks there was a bit of sexual repression going on there. Even Martin Luther, a great reformer, believed that women were made by God to be wives or prostitutes. And don’t even get me started on the Puritans.
But what does a young, female theology student feel when she finds out that many of the founding fathers of western Christendom had pretty skewed views of womankind? Well, indignation at first, but there was also conflict because much of what these great men had to say was also brilliant. It was at this point when using common sense, my innate sensibility, regarding the truth of the matter was essential: 1) there are plenty of men who are less intelligent than me; 2) it certainly is not my fault that men cannot control their sexual appetites; and 3) an entire gender, who, by the way was also created in the image of God, isn’t the gateway to hell. These church fathers had great minds and were brilliant, yes, but like me were creatures of culture and human experience which made them most undeniably—fallible.
Herein lies the problem with our concept of great leaders and rule-makes: a majority of folk take every word, hook, line and sinker of what they say without using any discretion at all. Generally speaking, their edicts for their supporters are sacrosanct, and those who oppose them are often vilified. It’s black or white, with no amount of grey in between. There seems to be a certain amount of infallible mysticism that surrounds the rules they create. If they are brilliant and/or holy, then everything they say must be right and we must never disagree or criticize them. Later, when we’ve evolved beyond them, or we tire of them and a flaw or two is exposed, we chew them up and spit them out, or, if they die before we tire of them, we make them saints. Given that kind of attitude, how can the voice of a common student compare to the voice of the Church Fathers? Well, if David could defeat Goliath, why not? Seriously, if the names of the men who said those horrible things about women had been left out, wouldn’t it have been easy to write them off? There have been plenty of times when I thought the men in my house were demons sent straight from hell, but that is my problem and no reason to make it a sweeping generalization for the rest of mankind. We often vilify what we don’t understand, agree with, or are afraid of, because somehow on a deep level we do want to subscribe to the “there is only one true perspective” rule. I, however, find it necessary to dispel this fundamental assumption when ever the spirit moves me—needless to say, the humiliation of Eve never quite stuck.
It is by questioning assumptions that we often have to contend with many conflicting perspectives, some of which seem to fit and others that do not. It is during the process of questioning, though, that we can begin to recognize that inner voice, one rooted in being a completely unique person whose perspective is of no greater or lesser value than anyone else in the universe. What I share with others doesn’t have to be right or better than anybody else’s perspective, it just has to be mine. Have you ever been in conversation with someone and they pull out a masterful source from the Bible or the Constitution just to prove how right they are and how wrong you are? Ultimately, both of the sources mentioned have always been subject to interpretation. It is a rarity to hear someone say, “I believe this way because it serves me personally” and just leaves it at that. Even though my inner voice may be inspired by my faith, it doesn’t mean that I have a better handle than anybody else on the mind of God or what God says to them. It is the process of sharing our ideas that keeps us moving forward. Sharing different ideas, regardless of who you are, should be encouraged rather than discouraged because you never know when another person’s perspective may be the needed ingredient for germinating an idea in someone else. When personal truths are shared, the world becomes a better place.
Let me tell you something else I learned about some of our rule-makers out there: that many of them are completely and utterly crazy. Throughout my life I’ve witnessed the amazing power crazy people have in establishing rules by which they demand others to follow. Most often people, (including myself) side step around them to avoid the scenes they create when we don’t follow the rules they set down. They come in many shapes and sizes, from some of the priests and nuns I had in school to people with substance abuse, or people who are generally miserable people and want to make sure the rest of us are made miserable too. None of us are on this planet long enough to abdicate our person freedom and follow the rules of crazy people who sap away sanity like syrup from a tree. Curiously, though, there is an upside to having crossed paths with all you sap suckers out there, because you gave me the opportunity to use and thereby hone my native good judgment.
So, back to the rules in respect to men and women, why can’t there be two equally respected perspectives? Why can’t we simply appreciate that reality is divided into two equal parts, like two sides of a coin? Well, besides equality and balance being absolutely no fun at all, with balance there is also no difference, no discord, and without difference there is no perceptual universe. If there were never any conflicts what reason would there be for any of us go beyond our limitations? If there were no darkness, could we truly know light? It’s the same dilemma with good and evil. Although the rules that I choose to follow may not be the same as yours, and many people in other parts of the world live according to a different rhythm, it doesn’t give me license to “live in my own private Idaho.” My own growth depends on bumping up against other rules and ideas that often run contrary to mine. That may sound a bit like I am contradicting myself, but just bear with me.
While studying Constitutional Law in law school, I was aghast at the lack of discussion that was encouraged about controversial issues, and in Con Law, there was a new one every day, from abortion to affirmative action. What saddened me most was that many class mates had their minds made up about an issue already and refused to even entertain the possibility that in actually listening to the “other side” they may be gaining a greater truth. The atmosphere became not one of learning, but of debating who was right. Inside the walls of a law school should be a forum for good intelligent discussion, a place to exercise the skills we were learning: to conflict with each other and in doing so achieve a greater understanding. Sadly enough, there may be a legitimate reason for societies’ mistrust of lawyers. The one thing I regret most about law school is that I didn’t take enough time to tell those students and teachers who had thought provoking things to say that I appreciated their insights because it challenged me to look at issues a little more broadly.
So although inequity exists and may be the natural order of things, it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be my goal to abolish it anyway and actively engage in conflict with the intent to create harmony, even if the harmony is only internal. Because it was during my biggest struggles that truth often exposed itself and led me to seek an ever greater truth—inevitably leading to another conflict. Again, it all turns on perspective. One person may want to win and have their perspective prevail and happily remain ruler of their own little hill; another person may want to clash just to see what there is to learn in the process. It makes the most sense to me to choose the latter. The most important reason not to be too concerned about any controlling perspective is not only are they fleeting, regardless of who claims to be right at any given time, truth has a way of eventually prevailing anyway, like a phoenix rising out of the ashes. There is so much more out there that we, as human beings, have yet to discover that no one person can ever claim to have any complete answers. I believe that God has them, but the rest of us are a far cry from being “in the know” like God is. We simply have to get over the fear to engage in conflict.
As a result of not being in the know, here is another fundamental assumption about the game of life that proved to be inaccurate: that the rules should never change. The fact is that the rules change constantly, whether we want them to or not, as they should. As long as humanity keeps moving, discovering, inventing, loving, and hopefully evolving, the one thing we can be sure of is change. The ending of the game I play isn’t etched in stone; that is the great thing about free will. The rules I live my life by now are not the same as those that guided my life in my teens, twenties, thirties, forties and yes even my fifties. There may be a consistent theme in the rules I follow, but I’ve learned not to rigidly hold on to rules that no longer fit my life.
Let me stress that although there are certain fundamental rules that are necessary they aren’t always obvious. I’ve usually discovered what they were the hard way but at times there were a few people who were older and wiser that held my attention. And although there are lines drawn for the kinds of rules that help our world vs. destroy it, I can’t say, unequivocally, what they are. Throughout my life though, (usually by running smack dab right into a brick wall) I have picked up on some universal themes which are laid out at the end of this chapter. I am also aware that I can’t change another’s perspective any more than I can make pigs fly—with any level of concentration. For example, the men in my house won’t be transformed into clean freaks simply because I choose to believe that dirty underwear doesn’t belong on the kitchen floor. And although my opinions are made known to the men in my house, picking up underwear, laughing about bodily functions, and carrying the burden that it will always be my job to replace the toilet paper are things I’ve simply accepted, one, as a means to preserve my sanity and second, that men and women will always exist together and it would behoove us to try and get along.
So before you continue reading, let me offer a challenge: if you want to free yourself from the chains that bind you then suspend all your beliefs for a moment and try living by the seat of your pants for a bit. The Upanishads (Hindu scripture) says, “Whether we know it or not, all things take on their existence from that which perceives them”. When you’re done reading, go for it. Put on your old beliefs if they fit, but in order to see if the rules you are following fit the movie in your head, you should be willing to, at the very least, entertain the possibility that everything you think you know for sure right now maybe nothing more than a shadow created by someone else. Only you can bring to life the movie that is in your head. Then it becomes life as you see it, not how it has been told to you. Oh and one more thing, once I chose which rules I was going to follow, the responsibility of achieving my dreams was on me. Like the parable of the talents, God has given me a treasure, and it was up to me to go and make something out of it. That may sound like a big responsibility, but I try to think of it more as a golden opportunity.
Things that I know are true:
1) Things are not always what they appear to be, so pay attention and don’t judge too quickly—and by all means, have a sense of humor, especially when you’ve judged incorrectly.
2) Shit happens—and that can be a good thing.
3) One need not be perceived as an influential person to be a powerful influence.
4) What goes around comes around, or a slight variation: what ever you put out there comes back to you tenfold.
5) Love (or God) is a constant (like in math) and is greater than and is never changed by our perception—love is separate from and not defined by our expression of it.
6) The opposite of love is not hate, but fear
7) What is essential is invisible to the eye; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly.
8) Fame is not necessary for me to shape the world in a powerful way…no one, not even me need be conscious of it.
9) Real power has nothing to do with control.
10) Having faith demands that I let go (not give up) of an outcome; and doing that will almost guarantee things will work out.
11) Just because I cannot understand “why” now, doesn’t mean that I will never understand, sometimes I have to be open to looking at an issue from a multi-dimensional perspective.
12) Unexplained phenomenon is simply proof that I am continuing to evolve and that I don’t have all the answers yet.
13) Vengeance never brings peace.
14) Money is never a reason to do, or not do anything.
15) I may not control all that happens in my life, but I do control how I respond to it.
16) Destruction and death are essential elements in growth and life.
17) Things gained without lessons learned are empty successes.