* 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

Monday, August 18, 2014

Isaiah 38-39: Living in the Present Responsibly

Isaiah 38 and 39 contain two more stories about Hezekiah, both of which are also recorded in 2 Kings, although the version in Isaiah includes a song that does not appear in 2 Kings. Although 2 Chronicles also contains a version of the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib (which we explored last week), including some of the strategic preparations Hezekiah made as the Assyrian army advanced, the Chronicler records only a summary of the story of Hezekiah's illness and leaves out the story about the envoys from Babylon altogether. Perhaps the Chronicler didn't want to record anything that made the Judean king look bad, or perhaps the stories evolved and circulated in such a fashion that the Chronicler didn't have the same information as the authors of Isaiah and 2 Kings. Historically, it looks like Hezekiah fell ill and then recovered at a certain point in his reign. What is more interesting is what the stories about the king might help us see in our own lives.

Out of the varied versions of Hezekiah's illness, Isaiah is the only one that suggests a glimpse at what Hezekiah was thinking. 2 Chronicles suggests that Hezekiah was too proud after recovering from his illness, and that his pride brought suffering on himself and his kingdom; only his humility spared them. Without any details, we can only derive that pride can be dangerous, especially for those in positions of power. More details about applying figs to the king's boils and the shadow on a sundial miraculously moving backward appears in 2 Kings, as it does in Isaiah. There is nothing explicit in 2 Kings to accuse Hezekiah of pride, however. Only in Isaiah does the author include a poem or song that reflects Hezekiah's grief that he would die "in the noontide of [his] days," and his subsequent exuberance about regaining his life.

The poet of Isaiah 38:10-20 observes a few things worth acknowledging. First, there are some things we can't control. There are some illnesses no amount of medicine will cure, and yet sometimes people recover through no conscious or intentional action on their part. There are some decisions that we cannot influence, and yet sometimes we are the unexpected beneficiaries of other people's decisions. Second, when we are miserable -- even if we are not so sick that we aren't likely to survive -- we often wallow in our misery and act as though that misery completely fills our future. We are sometimes overwhelmed with hopelessness in the midst of temporary hardship. Third, we can't celebrate once we're dead, so if we have reason for celebration, we should express it while we are alive. The dead are not grateful or hopeful, and they aren't selfish or hopeless either. If there's something that matters to us, we have to tend to it while we are alive.

To the first observation, there are some who will point out that Hezekiah's illness in the story actually was cured because of something he did; he was in control of his own well-being. Surely, this is often the case in our own lives. Our own habits are often the causes of our misery. If we are willing to change what we do, we might create greater well-being in our lives. In Hezekiah's case, perhaps figs have a curative property that alleviates certain deadly boils, but we know that prayer in and of itself doesn't have any effect on reality. As has been pointed out, wishing for something and asking a supernatural to accomplish it for you is no different from magic. In the absence of any supernatural, we must conclude that we have to do something different if we want our reality to be different. It is this practice of acting in accord with our prayers or wishes that actually changes things. When we are willing to act in accordance with what we want, we change our lives. If prayer or some other religious practice prepares us for acting in accord, then so be it, but in this case it is still human action that makes the difference.

Even then, there are limits to what we can control. When we accurately recognize the limits of our control, we are less likely to be miserable. When we accurately assess the magnitude of our hardship, we are potentially less likely to wallow in our misery. Sometimes, our feelings of hopelessness are completely justified, and our emotions are always true, whether they are actually warranted or not. The more we are able to step back from our own circumstances and see a larger picture of our lives and of the world, though, the more we are able to place our own experience in perspective. This surely takes a bit of practice.

Having some perspective could also help us find things to celebrate. The poet of Isaiah 38:10-20 suggests that just being alive is something worth celebrating, and I'm inclined to agree, even though I haven't just recovered from a deadly illness. It might even be that every moment of our lives is ripe with things that are worthy of celebration, if we are just willing to look for those sources of joy rather than the ubiquitous reasons to feel miserable. There is something to be said for living in the present moment with gratitude for what we have.

Being fully present in the moment cuts both ways, then. If we dwell in the past or focus entirely on the future, we miss our opportunities to act and to create. We often hear that we should strive to be awake to the present. Yet, without any perspective at all, we could lose sight of a larger context. We could get overwhelmed by our temporary misery. We could make foolish or naive decisions that don't contribute to the kind of lives we want or the kind of world we want. In order to be fully present in each moment, we have to understand something about what matters to us -- we have to know our general trajectory at least. Otherwise, we might keep making the same mistakes over and over again, or we might keep veering off course from the things we care about most deeply. Balance and perspective are important.

As an example, we have one last story about Hezekiah, told almost exactly the same in 2 Kings 20 and Isaiah 39. Some Babylonian envoys pay Hezekiah a visit, and the king shows them around to all his treasures. After they leave, Isaiah warns the king that Babylon will one day be a great empire that will abscond with all of those treasures as well as Hezekiah's own descendants. (This is an indication that the story originated after Hezekiah's death during or after the time of the Babylonian exile.) Hezekiah, thinking only of the present moment and his personal experience, is grateful that there will be peace during the rest of his lifetime.

Living in the present could have some negative long-term consequences if we are not conscious of a larger context. Our lives are like threads in an enormous tapestry, and our actions determine our connection to all the other threads. Littering might make sense to someone living in the present, and yet it creates a less habitable world for other people. Large scale pollution from industry would follow the same logic, except that its effects on future generations is exponentially greater than a litterbug tossing a fast food bag out of a car window at a stoplight. Being fully present in the moment without any sense of the interconnectedness of our our lives and actions can be profoundly irresponsible. While we cannot predict the future well enough to know the eventual results of every action we take, we can at least consider some of the obvious consequences of our actions. We cannot consider the long-term well-being of ourselves and the people around us, however, without some sense of perspective. We might be much more prone to seek out quick fixes to our anxiety if we are just attuned to the present moment. Thus, while we strive to be fully present in each moment so that we can most effectively act in accord with what we want for our lives, the lives of others, and the world we all share, we have to spend some time thinking about how our actions in the moment fit into a bigger picture.

One way that we can do this is by connecting with other people, particularly people in different circumstances from us. We might do this just by walking around our neighborhoods and introducing ourselves, or we might get involved in an organized effort to improve the well-being of a certain group of people. For instance, through tutoring primarily Latino students in a local GED program, I was able to connect with people who are taking steps to improve their lives -- and the lives of their descendants. I gained a greater appreciation for the sorts of sacrifices some people make in order to provide for the basic needs of their families, and I became more aware of how challenging the current system of bureaucracy can be for some of those people. They have to confront challenges I have never had to confront. I have a different set of challenges in my life, and a different set of sacrifices that make sense in the context of the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life I want to live. Connecting with people who seem different from you on the surface can help provide a more informed sense of perspective. It's easier to be aware of how your actions affect the lives and well-being of the people around you when you are more deeply connected to those people.

Another advantage of our time is the ease with which we can gain information about the world. It's also true that we can get lost in internet rabbit trails, and we must be ever more discerning about the biases of the information we find. Still, we have the potential to understand a great deal about how the patterns and habits of our lives affect our own well being, and how our actions impact the lives of people on the other side of the world. We don't have to learn all that there is to know, and we don't have to learn it all at once. The willingness to continually place a little bit of new information into our worldview can keep us conscious of a larger context in the midst of our moment-by-moment decisions. It bears repeating that this willingness to take in new information also comes with the responsibility to make sure that information is valid, to the best of our ability. Since everyone has biases, all of the information we find has been influenced by someone's biases, and our interpretation of that information will be influenced by our own biases. Even so, being aware of a larger global perspective can help us live in the moment more responsibly.

There are probably dozens of ways that people could maintain a larger perspective while striving to be more fully present in each moment. I'll mention one final way, since it so clearly connects to topics from previous chapters. When we know our guiding principles, it's easier to make decisions. When we are conscious of our values, it's easier to know what to do in the moment. Our values and guiding principles are necessarily big-picture kinds of ideas. They automatically connect us with a larger perspective. They are tapestry-sized concepts. When we spend a little time each day reminding ourselves of our values, the principles we want to guide us, or what we envision as a best possible version of ourselves, moments of anxiety have less potential to send us into a tailspin. Our temporary misery is less likely to overwhelm us when we know what we stand for. We are less likely to sabotage our ability to express our deepest most noble selves when we regularly spend time being aware of how we want to show up in life. Once we have identified our values and our guiding principles, a few minutes is all that it takes to tune in to ourselves and be reminded of those deep truths about who we are.

Our lives are threads in an enormous tapestry, and our moment-by-moment decisions determine how we connect with all the other threads and the tapestry as a whole. In order to make the most of our opportunities, we strive to be more fully present in the moment, and yet our sense of integrity suggests that we maintain a broader perspective. We can do this by building connection with the people around us, developing our knowledge about the larger world we inhabit, and being more deeply aware of the values and principles upon which we want to base our lives. In this way, we might recognize our limits and boundaries with greater clarity, more often prevent momentary misery from overwhelming us, and more frequently recognize all that we have to celebrate.

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