* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

1 Kings 19: The Still, Small Voice of Your Self

Obvious folklore qualities aside, 1 Kings 19 expresses a captivating spiritual idea: that truth and guidance appear in stillness more easily than in bombastic activity. The surrounding material also has a few other worthwhile points to consider.

Elijah is on the run (after he committed, or at least oversaw, the mass murder of 850 people), and long-term survival seems unlikely to him. He wants to give up. He wants to just die, but he's not really out of options. Even when things seem desperate in the moment, Elijah has choices. We will rarely be on the run after killing hundreds of people for believing something different from us, and yet there are times when we want to give up. We aren't likely to have angels come to us and provide food and encouragement, though. If we are fortunate, we may have friends stand in for Elijah's angel, but the decision to keep going is always ours to make. Elijah accomplishes quite a bit after this episode of despair. In this sense, our lives are no different. On the other side of despair, more satisfying options always await us. Even amid our desperation, our presence can still do some good in the world, even if we aren't in a position to see it.

The portion of this chapter just after Elijah senses the gentle whisper obviously "foretells" historical events in a way that affirms for the Jewish audience Yahweh's control over all things, including leadership of other peoples. Elijah's detached attitude during the calling of his successor Elisha is also notable; his confidence that he doesn't need to exert control over Elisha reflects an admirable quality of leadership. Before expounding on the still, small voice, it also bears pointing out the similarities between the angel coming to feed Elijah and the temptation stories of Jesus. Likewise, Elisha's call is reflected in a brief gospel story of would-be disciples who want to return home before joining Jesus. Unlike Elijah's calm detachment, Jesus proclaims, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Perhaps Elijah was able to tell that Elisha just needed to take care of a couple of things so he wouldn't be tempted to "look back." Or maybe it's just a story.

Regarding this business about stillness, though, there have been volumes written from an abundance of different perspectives. It is a very necessary and important topic that stands in stark contrast to the way many of us go about our lives. There are those who want to see God at work in every mudslide, hurricane, and tsunami, punishing humanity for one thing or another. There are also those who, even in the twenty-first century, expect divine guidance to come in some blatant, over-the-top, undeniable package like a lightning bolt or an earthquake. Some people alive today, misinterpreting Carl Jung, encourage looking for synchronicity at work around us -- "coincidences" that are linked meaningfully to reveal some deeper truth to us if we are willing to see it. This could presumably be somewhat quieter than an earthquake or a fire, but it still amounts to looking for signs outside of ourselves for guidance. 

While we might receive guidance from other people, and while some situations might offer opportunities for us to do something meaningful, there is nothing outside of ourselves guiding us into anything -- not God, not the Universe, not "Life," not our ancestors, not fairies, not aliens. The meaning that we find in circumstances comes from within ourselves. We read the meanings into the "synchronicities" of our lives. That isn't a bad thing at all; it helps us take notice of what's important to us in lives that are increasingly busy with surface-level activity. But it comes from within ourselves, not someone trying to send us secret messages. If it seems like our ideas are coming from outside of our own brains, it is  possibly because we spend so little time actually listening to ourselves -- considering what makes sense to us, what we really value, who we most want to be, what we yearn for in life. This is why stillness is so important.

There are many earthquake-sized voices in our society. Everywhere we turn, we can find someone screaming about what we must do in order to protect ourselves against all sorts of things. Everywhere we turn, it seems that someone is trying to convince us of something. It's a wonder we can ever think for ourselves with all the racket we have grown to tolerate. As loud and passionate as those voices may be, however, there is often very little meaning or value in all of the noise. It is very difficult to find truth in the throes of anxiety, and our culture does not inherently promote thoughtful response that comes from an inner stillness. Instead, we are told to act quickly, to fear being left out or left behind, to be impulsive, to defend our rights (which are always somehow under direct attack by something). If we are to be thoughtful individuals who know themselves and live with integrity, we must be responsible for our own stillness.

In stillness, we can find which threads to pull to unravel our anxieties -- the lies and assumptions that hold together our irrational fears about ourselves, other people, and the world around us. In stillness, we can dig beneath our surface level activities and recognize what matters most to us. In stillness, we can acknowledge what we are doing that we absolutely hate, just because we have convinced ourselves that we must. When we realize that there has been some perceived synchronicity or message from Life or God, we can look into ourselves and discern what our subconscious is trying to bring into focus. The meaning we place on coincidences has value -- profound value, since that meaning is coming from within our own psyches. If we are perceiving something as divine guidance, some part of ourselves is trying to make that "message" important. In stillness, we can ask ourselves why.

Without stillness, we ignore the things that matter most to us in order to do the things that seem most urgent. Without stillness, we act in ways that are incongruous with the people we claim to be, and we may not even notice it. Without stillness, we react impulsively to people and situations that challenge us, with no regard for the long-term consequences. In thoughtful stillness, we can tap into ourselves and discover who we are and what we believe apart from the anxiety around us. Through making time for a bit of stillness in our lives, we can be our own best representatives in the world. We can come closer to living like our authentic selves. Stillness brings us closer to integrity, if we allow it.

So, this snippet of Jewish folklore is revealing. If we want to search for something to call divine, we won't find it in the flashy, loud, anxiety-producing racket of the world; we will find it in stillness. It's not always easy to see in other people (or in ourselves) the beauty and creativity and value and dignity that defines us as human beings. It's not always easy to see that there are things in our lives more valuable than money, more important than convincing people to think like us, more compelling and awe-inspiring than our fears. Stillness helps us see ourselves more clearly, so that we can see other people and the world around us more clearly.

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