Landmarks of a Transforming Life

The Self-Help section is one of the largest at Barnes and Noble, and without a doubt high on the profitability scale.  The idea of an accessible and simple formula for lifetime success has now even seeped into the biography section.  There was a time when one read biographies to view from the long end of history how a life had been formed by experience, choice and belief.  Not today.  Today, the majority of “biographies” more accurately stand as mid-life memoirs (some earlier than that) and they don’t intent to map out the story of life so far, but instead to manipulate the events of an unfinished life into the few short platitudes which can create tips for a ravenous public. 

Today, unlike any other day in existence, young people under the age of 30 are expected to “know who they are,” “find their calling,” and other such fantasies.  This—of course—is not entirely their fault as they come from a generation of men and women who believed that self-actualization and self-awareness were the highest moral goods. Character was secondary to consciousness.  We live fully in the “Know Thyself” Age. The two-word phrase—originally enscribed at the Greek temple in Delphi, was an admonition for temperance and humility.  Today it is a moniker for the right of all sentient beings: a consistent stream of experiences and knowledge which authenticate my preferred sense of self.

We see this in chronic but often unnoticed ways.  The questions we ask reveal the kind of people we are, and we are a people of the self:

  • How do I find a career that fulfills my passions?
  • Why does no one appreciate me for who I really am?
  • When will I really get to be myself with my partner/spouse/lover?
  • Why can’t my children find what makes them happy?

And so many more. The work of identity is no longer the work of who we become, rather: who we already are.  No longer an effort at formation, but an effort at appreciation.  Everything is marketing now, a way to package ourselves to get more likes, likes we have come to believe we deserve.

This way of living is—of course—methodically destroying us. Despite all our efforts at self-appreciation, the majority of us live with a dull hum of self-rejection which we demand the reactions of the world resolve. We measure success by the fullness of our inbox versus the fullness of our character.  Our children don’t know how to have a good day without a check of the Snapchat or Twitter feed, a check on their followers or a count of how many texts they’ve received today. We are connected, aware, meta… and afraid.

Our new ways of defining human thriving have so denigrated our ability to stand in our own skin and to relate to each other with love and respect that anyone with an objective view would jettison these views in an instant.  But without a meaningful alternative, an attainable counter-narrative to the way to life, the deep and addictive rut of the status-quo will continue to hold us in its sway. Thankfully this counter-narrative is not far off.  There are signs for optimism.

For anyone who has read my writing, you know that I am calling for a reinvigoration of the “old magic.” Deep in the wisdom of Jesus—particular as practiced by strains of the faith not immediately familiar to the church in the West—are practices, ways of being, flightpaths to the eternal which have the power to ground us in the world, encase us in a comprehensive narrative, and remake the characterological crumble on which we attempt to stand.

The “Journeys” section of ThirtySixWords (once fully complete) is designed to be a roadmap through this maze.  In this article I will attempt to hit the high-points of the seven-fold way through the journey and to answer a basic but all-too-elusive question: What is the Work of a Transforming Life?

A transforming life is not trapped by the experiences of the past, nor is it anesthetized by the emotional promise of an idyllic future. A transforming life is firmly grounded in the present, stood to its feet by a bias for action. This uncommon life is marked by its commitment to the slow yet powerful work of integration, moving from a life of reaction to a life of purposeful and self-distinct engagement with relationships, ideas, causes and cultures. Sound too good to be true? It is not, for I have lived it (in doses) and seen it (in spades). It is the Old Magic, and we can all find it if we know the way.

Journeys: The Seven Landmarks a Transforming Life

First, transformation is work.  It is effort.  We are made new by the grace of God which comes to us free. We cannot earn it, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t going to have to scrape our knees a little on the way. Grace in the West has become samples at Costco: easily accessed and completely lacking sustenance. True Grace is an opening up of the Divine Life that one cannot earn into, but must walk into.  So let’s get down to walking:

To live transforming must begin by living awake.  Awake to the deep desires of the heart: intimacy, purpose, meaning, connection, adventure.  Longing is fundamentally about tension, one that we—in our time—are all too ready to release.  We are familiar with our surface wants: more ease, more appreciation from others, less frustration from our chosen professions. But these are signposts deep into the inner life.  The inner world of an awakened person is brewing with tension, of deep longing for a better life and a better world, much of which they don’t feel they have the categories nor the skills to resolve.  There is no transformation without this tension.  We must live awake to it, not squelching it by various idols, addictions and quick fixes.  This tension between the now and the not yet should wake us in the morning and be the source of our ultimate surrender to God – “I trust you! Help my distrust.”

Whether we wish them to or not, the longings of our deepest heart are driving. Like a man driving an elephant our rational minds think we are steering the beast, but the heart makes the decisions—even when we don’t know it.  The journey of transformation often begins when this giant pachyderm of desire steers us straight into something our rationality thought we could avoid, and we find ourselves suddenly awake to the inner workings of the heart.

Where we stand determines what we see. This is a truth of the Mind (what we think and feel about), the Loves (who and what we swear allegiance to) and Culture (the people, time and place in which we stand). The greatest influence on how we choose to resolve Longing is Placement: where we stand on the mountain determines how we see the valleys, caves and precipices.  What books do we read (if we read at all)? Who do we converse with (if we converse at all)? What communities do we claim membership in? All of these things will abut us with ideas, beliefs, biases, idols and imaginations about what is wrong with the world and how it might be resolved.  In short, our where, what and who all offer us gospels and among those gospels we assimilate a sense of hope our lack thereof.  If we do not choose our where, what and who’s wisely, we will succumb to ways of resolving our longings which are numbing at best and completely destructive at worst.

Even when we land in the fertile soil of transforming people, thoughtful philosophy and encouraging culture, we are often thwarted.  So many times I’ve seen individuals in environments which should (all other things being equal) have been deeply transformational for them, and…nothing.  Sometimes worse than nothing. Contempt and defensiveness escalates, openness to fresh perspective eclipses, addictions and insular thinking take hold.  People clench old beliefs and constructs: “This can’t be true.” “I should go back to what I believed all along.”

The primary culprit here is the transformational requirement of Jesus’ Gospel.

That which makes us heaven-ready often calls out how the ill-fit of our past philosophies for living.  Our existing life demands deconstruction, rending of an old narrative, so that we might be released from its grip.  Our experiences and what we choose to remember about them have entrapped us in stories which feel true but are seething with self-deception.  We have to remember that our best ideas got us here, and more often than not, here is not so great.  Deconstruction is an entry into the unknown and requires ultimate humility.  It forces us to imagine that what we think is so simply ain’t so opening us to a replacement system of ideas and decision-making grids. These new opportunities for action will not present themselves readily until the old walls have fallen around us. 

In the beginning, deconstruction can be fun.  It has an adolescent flair where we can revel in the thought that our parents were wrong, the past is firmly behind us and we can “let go” and move forward.  There is a passivity to allowing old beliefs to slid off us like ill-fit clothes and imagine the wonders of a completely different life.  This often happens when deconstruction is triggered by a completely new place.  A new relationship, a new church, a new favorite writer… you get it.  Everyone around us gets tired of hearing about the blog we love, the Bible study that’s revolutionary, or how great moving to LA was and how glad we are to get out of South Dakota.  Regardless, the joy of initial deconstruction is a necessary fuel, not to stay trapped in the thrill of adolescent rebellion (Isn’t it fun to disagree with the powerful people I once submitted to?!?!?) but to engage deeper the real cost of deconstruction and where it must lead if we are to be made whole. 

Once we release the easy pieces of the past like old furniture, we recognize that the brokenness of our habits are more structural.  The patterns are in the walls, in the wiring, in the plumbing of the house and we’ve got real work to do in order to face the world with more Grace, more Love and more Hope.  We have to engage. Ask questions, surrender our strongholds, give Jesus permission to act wherever He feels necessary.  This often is where the work of a comprehensive set of spiritual practices does its job.  We have to lean into the chaos and risk and to use repeatable habits of spiritual awareness through solitude, prayer, silence, Bible study, service and submission to spiritual mentors and friends. This leaning in here (pulling from all the raw material of Longing, Placement and Deconstruction) draws out the wounds of the past, the wily wrongs of others and ourselves, plunging us into the pool of Grief: the only place where true transformation can do its work.

Even the most therapeutic of minds would likely consider Grief a necessary evil.  In our modern worldviews we believe that the goal of life is to eradicate negative feelings, or at most, get through them as one gets through the flu.  This is not view of the ancients, and certainly not the view of Jesus.  In the view of Jesus, honest grief and lament are necessary players in a liberated life.  This starts with a premise about emotion: Feelings must have their day, and until they do, they will undermine, skew and commandeer our ability to make decisions.  Burying emotions are like feeding the Gremlins after midnight: they multiply, get meaner and more destructive.  Grief and mourning allow us the freedom to be true to what has happened to us and the costs we’ve paid.  When we weep over losses, are angered over injustices, sit exhausted at the expanse of our own emptiness, we are choosing to tell the truth, thus clearing out the attic and opening up space for transformation.  Our feelings tell us the difference between what we wanted and what we got, both of which need desperate evaluation.  Our wants must be evaluated and our current situation must be understood, the pathway to both passes through the woods of grief. 

For most Americans, our most poignant griefs are old, molding and difficult to put into words.  They are fermented into vengeances, rigid boundaries, complacencies and addictions which know not their source. When situational emotion flair which do not seem to match the needs of the moment, this is a sign of old wounds.  Wounds which must be allowed to breath (grief is the breathing) before they can heal. A full-cycled grief experience usually leaves us facing the cavernous emptiness our losses have left us. And in this tomb of emptiness, much like a garden tomb after a crucifixion, new life can be borne.  

The purpose of demo is reno.  We don’t tear down and grieve the old for fun, we do it to open ourselves up to new construction.  New mansions in our Father’s house.  Here, the ground work of Deconstruction and Engagement come back to do their work.  The ideas and people which sent us on a work of transformation, now are present to us in a new way.  Where before hardness and defensiveness kept even the most winsome of opportunities at bay, now we have cleared away the rubble and distraction of the old narratives and cares of the past to reveal fresh soil.  Suddenly we have the energy and the passion to attempt new practices, to see people in new light, to believe Jesus in new ways.  That which came to us in a purely intellectual way through the process of Deconstruction can now find its home in us through the process of Renovation.  In many ways, Renovation is a self-triggering event.  All we need is the post-Grief soft soil and the fertility of loving ideas and people and new life automatically takes root.

New ideas, new perspectives, new relationships are all beautiful things.  Essential things. But Renovation is not the end of the journey.  Imagine a house where room by room beautiful work had been done, but the transitions, the door frames were all missing.  Worse still each room was in such a divergent style that going from room to room felt disorienting and destabilizing.  This vertigo sensation is reminiscent of what it feels like to talk to most people about their beliefs, views, and actions.  It all rings a little…hypocritical.  We all do.  The ultimate work of transformation is Integration, rubbing our best thoughts, actions, feelings and relationships against all the others and seeing where the friction is. It raises the key questions like:

  • Can I believe this new thing and still continue this old action?
  • Can I have Hope A and still continue to hold to Shame B?
  • Can I hold to this old narrative while saying yes to this new (to me) theology?

These tensions in the end push us back into new transformations, beginning the journey again, reopening the gyre, drawing us into new life. 

The journey of transformation, like all human experiences, is not linear.  We don’t go marching from I to II to III and so on.  We taste bits of III (Deconstruction), double-back to II (Placement), sprint to V (Grief) only to find ourselves in need of better tools and more consistent effort in Engagement (IV).  And when a journey of transformation takes hold and begins to Integrate (VII) into the rest of our lives, we find ourselves back at I (Longing).  The secret is to choose the journey.  To believe that there is no such thing as “the way things are,” on the way we’ve accepted them and our deepest opportunities for thriving lie at our place of greatest surrender. 

Each journey ends with gratitude. Thankfulness to the Son of Man Jesus who drew us into the human life in ways we didn’t know possible, and in doing so opening up a new creation.  The surest sign of our journey’s work is unshaking love for Him and the courage accompanying to begin the journey again.