* 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, October 12, 2015

John 20: Our Resurrection and Meaningful Hope

We blew right past a lot of the mythological details in the passion narrative. Some believers focus much more on the details of John 19, and there are legendary tales regarding the mystical powers of the spear that pierced Jesus' side. Since this is rather like spending time dwelling on the actual powers of a harp played by the Norse god Bragi, we've quickly arrived at John 20, which is a somewhat altered resurrection story than what we find in the synoptic gospels. Again, we need not worry about comparing the details of who arrived where first and who said what; these are authorial creations intended to tell a story a certain way. We can turn our attention in other directions.

Most importantly, there is a resurrection. We observed previously that the suffering of the crucifixion was a result of remaining self-differentiated and maintaining integrity in the midst of anxious people who allowed fear to drive them. Here we see that suffering was not the end of the story. The outcome of suffering for the Jesus character is that he rises and assumes an exalted status. Perhaps we too might expect that on the other side of our suffering is a sense of renewed life, not on the other side of the grave, but while we are still alive and walking around.

The persecution we might face for creating a life that aligns with our deepest, most noble selves is painful, but we also gain something greater than that suffering -- namely, the more fully alive life that we create. We gain alignment with our deepest, most noble selves, which is a way of being that allows us to be more fully alive -- as the Jesus character seems to be in the resurrection story of the gospel of John. He is barely recognizable to people who knew him well, just as our way of aligning with our deepest, most noble selves may be barely recognizable to people who knew us when we were less fully alive.

There are a few other details in the story from which we might also draw some meaning. For instance, Mary arrives at the tomb, sees something she doesn't expect, makes some assumptions (based primarily on fear), and runs off in reaction to those assumptions. She finds two other people, who hear her anxious conclusions and run off in reaction to her story. These two people make their own assumptions and -- without fully understanding what is happening -- go home, satisfied with the reliability their conclusions. At this point in the story, none of these characters know what is happening, but they all are convinced that they have a full grasp of the situation. They aren't happy about it. In some cases, they are overwhelmed with anxiety. But they believe that they understand the situation fully.

We don't ever understand a situation fully. We might understand things accurately in part, but we can't know all that there is to know about a situation. There are historical events that contribute to a situation and yet their connection might remain unnoticed. Each person in a situation brings their own perspective and baggage into it, and we can never know fully what goes on in another person's head. Before our anxiety carries us off into Autopilot Reaction Land, it's worth remembering that we don't know all that there is to know. If we can remain curious and ask questions, we might just short circuit our anxiety, even if we still fail to grasp a situation completely.

The second portion of this passage from the first half of John 20 has a lot of mystical implications, which were probably very important to the community for which the gospel was originally written. The dialogue between Mary and Jesus indicates that the community thought some very specific things about a post-resurrection Jesus. These ideas are not based on factual data, but rather on the assumptions of a community -- what made sense to those people at that time. We follow the same process too, often arriving at strange conclusions.

For the community in which this gospel was written, it made sense for Jesus to be unrecognizable and to say, "Don't touch me because I haven't yet ascended." They essentially made things up about what a resurrected person might say, based on their assumptions about the world. Some people today think it makes sense to conclude that wild conspiracy theories have merit, or that alien visitation is a viable explanation for some experience. These conclusions make sense to the people making them, even if they don't hold water under objective scrutiny. People today believe a literal interpretation of biblical stories, even though such an interpretation is incompatible with what is demonstrably true about the world.

Anxiety can make us forget things we actually do know. When we are anxious, our brains find it easier to latch onto any explanation -- even explanations that don't make a lot of sense -- because we want our anxiety to go away. When we think we understand something, we feel like we can have some control. We can put tin foil on our heads to protect our thoughts. We can amass a stockpile of resources in a fallout shelter to prepare for a societal breakdown. We can do something based on what we think we know, forgetting that there are pieces of contradictory evidence we aren't considering.

Sometimes, we hold two mutually exclusive competing ideas in our head without even realizing it. We think that our bosses hate us no matter what we do, yet we keep trying to find ways to please them. We think that our spouses love us, yet we behave as if they are our enemies. We believe that we are part of a religion founded on unconditional love, yet we pronounce hateful judgment on people who seem different from us. Somehow, these contradictions make sense in our anxious mind.

Our anxiety makes us forget what we know about people or about ourselves or about reality, and we go off on some fear-driven tangent without even realizing that we aren't acting in accord with what we believe most deeply. If we are willing to stop and think through our behavior, based on a deeper connection with our clear guiding principles, our actions might more often align with our vision of a best possible version of ourselves.

Now, there's no way to know what the characters in this story believed most deeply. One thing that is clear, however, is that there is some emotional volatility at play. Their anxiety is powerful. Yet, at the end of this particular passage, Mary's behavior is very different from the ending of the gospel of Mark, in which the women run away scared and tell no one what they've seen. Mary finds a sense of hope and runs to share that hope with others.

Obviously, hope is more uplifting than fear. Our hope can still be based on unrealistic or dishonest beliefs, though. In the story, of course, Mary accurately identifies a resurrected Jesus. This is just a story, not a historical account. In our own lives, we might be tempted to invest a lot of hope in things that we know aren't likely to happen. Hope in the impossible is not useful hope. In fact, hope in the impossible is most likely an anxious reaction in disguise. We feel powerless, so we place hope in something beyond our control.

An overwhelming majority of parents think that their high school athletes will have a career in professional sports, when it's obvious that only a minuscule percentage of high school athletes will go pro. Often, we expect that people in our lives are going to change into the people we want them to be. While we will surely influence people, we can't control how they will change as a result of our influence. We might hope for a mystical experience with something supernatural outside of ourselves, but every piece of evidence we have points to the conclusion that what we consider to be mystical experiences happen inside our own brains. We mistake internal chemical reactions that we don't understand for external supernatural experiences -- which we somehow believe we do understand.

It's important for us to share our hope with others, and it's important for us to maintain a sense of reality in the midst of our hopefulness. Realistic hope can prompt us toward actions that align with that dream of what could be. And it's important for us to share our anxiety with others too, if we're conscientious enough to share our anxiety with people who will help us shift out of autopilot and back toward a more intentional approach to how we manage our anxiety. Mary is a great example of connection in this passage. Everything that happens, she runs to tell someone. She isn't a great example of personal responsibility, though. We can forgive a fictional character in the throes of grief for not being grounded and centered. In our own lives, we can strive for a sense of connection with ourselves even as we foster connection with other people.

We can draw a lot of lessons from these short paragraphs, then. First -- even though our integrity may be seen as sedition and anxious people may persecute us for our intentional alignment with our deepest, most noble selves -- when we engage in fully alive lives, our experience might be beyond what we ever dreamed life could be.

Second, our anxiety can convince us that we know things we don't know. It's important for us to remember that we can't know everything. Our sense of curiosity can help us manage our reactivity.

Third, our anxiety can make us forget things we do know. We can become sharper about examining our beliefs and identifying when we are holding two mutually exclusive ideas in our heads. We can choose to follow the belief that aligns with our deepest values and let the other one go as a product of our anxiety.

Finally, hope is important, and it's most powerful when it's balanced with reality. When we hope for things that are impossible, we can't move toward them in any meaningful way. When we hope for things that are possible, we can act in accord with that hope and create more meaningful lives for ourselves and for the people around us.

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