Dissatisfaction Myths - thrive UMC Official Blog

Dissatisfaction Myths

  Religion Recovery (2)

If you had been with us at all last month, you would have noticed that we’ve been talking about the very, very broad topic of religion in the twenty-first century.  And last week in particular I had made what seems to be a rather unpopular suggestion, which is that no one is really non-religious.  Now, as quick a disclaimer up-front: I’m probably going to say a lot of stuff that you all don’t agree with in the upcoming months. In fact, I might even say a few things that I don’t agree with, because I understand my role to be to challenge all of you to try to look at things a little differently.  After all, that’s how we learn and grow, and I hope this is a place of learning and growing.  Therefore, if you think somethings I say sound wrong or crazy, that’s fine.  In fact, as we found out last week, I was blatantly wrong about in thinking there hadn’t been a presidential ad about ‘our best America yet’ –because the world is too big for any one person to have everything all figured out on their own –which is why we need each other. We need each other to inform and support and challenge us to keep going.  Which, by the way, is kind of the whole point of religion in the first place. Hence, why we’re talking about it.  So, again, you don’t have to agree with me, or see things the way I do; but at the end of the day I hope we can talk openly on the subject and challenge one another, without feeling like our relationship will be adversely affected. I hope we’re building the kind of community that’s strong enough to handle a little disagreeing, and even some arguing, if it comes to that.  End disclaimer.

So, I had said last week that I don’t think that anyone is truly non-religious.  And that may not sit too well with you because you might know someone who says they’re non-religious, and you feel pretty sure they mean it.  Or, you might feel pretty non-religious yourself, and I’m not in any way suggesting your feelings are wrong.  I’m only saying the way you’re expressing your feeling is wrong.  Because you’re not giving up on the whole religious enterprise –no one gives up on having faith, or loving, or hoping, or finding truth or goodness –not really.  We’ve just entered an age where lots of people have given up trying to do that in groups that span generations, cultures, language, and personal experience.  In short, we’ve given up on trying to do those things together.

Last month, I tried to share a new understanding and definition of what religion is and is about with all of you.  And that definition is simply this: religion is the shared response to the question: ‘how shall we live together?’  And for the people who go around claiming to be non-religious, they’re still about living –and they still probably have some ideas about what’s real and true and good.  But this last word –this together– that’s where things get really messy, isn’t it?    Because the ‘together’ part means you have to do stuff with … them, right?  The crazy people.  The stupid people.  The evil people.  The people with foul-smelling bodies and spirits, who are hard to share a room with, let alone a share in the public image that defines you.  ‘They’ are lurking in every religious institution, every cult, and every community, aren’t they?  And sometimes they even creep into the leadership!  Ack!  I mean, just think about Westboro Baptist Church!  Just think about the scandals with kids in the Catholic Church!  Just think about the divisions and the bad rules and the bad rulings in the Methodist Church!  Then think about the Holy Wars, and the faith-fueled terrorism, and the crazy, unbelievable stuff in the old sacred books –with the violence, abuses of power, struggle, strife and doubt!  Just think about all the problems that seem to happen when all of those religious people get together!  Why would I ever want to be involved with those people when I could just leave?  I could just not deal with the drama anymore!  I could just sleep in on Sunday morning, and not talk to anybody else about it and not worry about being judged.  I could just do my own thing, at my own pace, in my own way –I could just live my own life, for me –and life would be better.

That story sound familiar to anyone?  I bet it does, because I bet if we all sat around a campfire here and got real honest with ourselves and each other, that story has circulated through all of our heads at one point or another.  And I would bet that a good many of us have gone ahead and given up for a little while.  I bet some of you have gone so far as to leave all the religious stuff behind for a season of your life –maybe it was a week, maybe it was a decade or more.  Can we get a little honesty in here, how many of you have tried that before –tried just leaving?  [Show of hands.]

Now, can I ask you a question: how well did that work out?  [Very brief: Take responses]

When you left the church, or whatever, did you succeed in leaving all of the crazy, lazy, and foul-spirited people behind?  Did you manage to find that missing group of like-minded, Good (with a capital G) people, who are always fun to be around, and never cause you any serious trouble, or make hard demands of you?  Did you manage to find that satisfaction from life you were looking for and expecting to find outside the suffocating walls of ‘religious’ spaces?  Everyone who successfully found that anywhere that’s not your immediate family, or just a small handful of friends, raise your hands. [Show of hands.]

Of course, we’re bound to get some pretty loaded answers if we were to have that discussion here.  But I am genuinely intrigued to know about other people’s thoughts and experiences about how they deal with serious cases of dissatisfaction in their own lives.  When something essential to your world doesn’t work, or feel good, or make sense, what do you do? What’s your go-to when the experience of life itself is dissatisfying for you? And furthermore, what are some trends and recurring themes in your behavior, and that of the systems or communities you’re a part of?

Because, as I’ve studied religion over the years, I’ve noticed two strong trends in dealing with dissatisfaction from a religious standpoint.  In other words, there are two primary systems or stories for handling dissatisfaction in religion, and they’re by no means mutually exclusive.  By the way, when I use the word dissatisfaction here, I’m not talking about a simple grievance, like the hamburger you ordered was over-cooked or something; but I’m talking about how to respond with what I call an ‘existential’ dissatisfaction.  And an existential dissatisfaction isn’t just that you don’t like the one particular hamburger, but it’s the kind of dissatisfaction that comes from the fact that it’s almost impossible to find a hamburger that isn’t by default served with onions on it, and nowhere can you find a burger that tastes like juicy angus beef wrapped in bacon, but has the nutritional value of a brick of kale. Like, ‘ugh!  Why don’t we live in a world where food both tastes amazing AND is good for you?’ –that’s what I’m talking about when I say ‘existential dissatisfaction.’   And the first system sounds very simple: if it doesn’t work, go ahead and try it again.  But if it still doesn’t work the third, fourth or tenth time, then you need to go somewhere else to try something different. And the second system has shorter instructions, but they’re a bit trickier to execute.  The second system, in the face of dissatisfaction says: if it doesn’t work, try changing.

Now, is everyone with me?  That’s not too complicated, is it?  We all get this, right?  If you’re dissatisfied with your life, you can change jobs, cities, spouses, friends, activities, or whatever.  Or you can stay put and try to figure out a better way to approach your job or all of the other things.  In short, you can change your location, or you can chance your stance. (This is what The Clash song, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ is about: existential dissatisfaction –Stranger Things anyone?)  If you have some power in your own life, you can do something about your own dissatisfaction with the way things are: you can either move your body or you can let your heart be moved.  And all of us make this choice; but for some of us our pattern of choice has been so consistent that the choice turns around and makes us.   (There is, of course, a third option, which is to stay there, change nothing and wallow in your misery –but I’m glancing over that one for the sake of time.)  But when it comes to movement, there are really two options: outward or inward movement, and we all decide for ourselves which one becomes our first-response.  But of the first two, most of us can probably think for just a second or so about ourselves and our past choices and recognize one of those trends being stronger than the other, right?  Can I get some head-nods?

Would you all be willing to give a show of hands on which is which? How many of you deal with dissatisfaction roughly according to the first system?  If something’s not working, then we use our energy to change our surroundings.  Maybe it’s something as radical as picking up and moving across the country or finding a completely different partner.  But maybe it’s as subtle as just redecorating, or getting a new car or gadget, or watching something different on TV –maybe you switch from mysteries to documentaries, just to ‘shake things up’ a bit. How many of us have that as a trend for our lives?

How many of you deal with it roughly according to the second? When you’re dissatisfied with life, you try to approach the dissatisfaction by a change in posture or stance.  Instead of trying to change the world around you, you work very hard to change your attitude.  Who among us tends to fit in that camp?  And again, here it’s important to think in terms of trends and routines –not just isolated incidents.

So most of us, if we take the time, can identify some trends in the choices we make.  For that, we just have to pay attention (which, let’s face it, is a challenge in itself).  But here at thrive, we try to dig a little deeper, so we’re going to introduce –or really reintroduce– the art of myth-making.

First of all, I have to clear up a bit of rhetoric.  Most of us, when we hear or use the word ‘myth’ think of something that’s not true.   For instance, someone might say: ‘hey, did you know that the moon is made out of cheese?’  And someone might respond ‘No, you’re wrong; that’s just a myth.’  And actually that’s not wrong.  But the bigger truth of that circumstance –and that part we miss when we don’t get the context- is that there are actually several mythical stories about someone who sees a reflection of the moon on the water and mistakes the sight for a wheel of cheese –and those myths use that story to demonstrate that the one who makes that mistake isn’t very bright.  Therefore the purpose of those myth-stories is to illustrate for us how we see and know about the universe, and how we sometimes get that wrong.  Because the purpose of myths, within the religious context, is that they are creative illustrations that are used by communities to teach us about things we can’t talk about more directly. So a myth doesn’t need to be based on historical truths to be true.  In fact, if you understand what myths are, you’ll very quickly see that their truths are elsewhere. Their truths are much deeper than what simply happens on the surface.  And we say that we don’t believe in myths anymore, but our culture today has more mythical stories than any other culture ever.

For instance, the story of Captain America is a myth for us –whether you appreciate it or not.  It’s a nationalistic myth, birthed out of America’s involvement in World War II to boost our national confidence in the war effort against Germany.  And that myth is still alive today.  In fact, they just had an updated retelling of the story that should arrive on Blu-ray any day now, it’s Called “Captian America: Civil War;” and it’s a myth about our traditional national values being in conflict with our guilty-conscience over the negative effects our technology has had on our global-world.  So of course Captain America and Iron Man aren’t true in the sense that they literally exist, but what they represent, and stand as symbols for, are absolutely true and relevant.  And the myth of their interaction is a tool we collectively use to process our relationship to our country and to the rest of the world.  So again, it’s not true at the level of event-reporting; but it’s true in its depiction of the way we struggle with political responsibility.

And we literally have thousands and thousands of myths today.  Every single movie is a story set in the genre of myth.  Every tv-show, every ‘fictional’ novel, every comic book, every ballet, and song, and painting –they’re depictions of beauty, truth, power, relationships, and good and evil.  They’re all suggestions about how to be human in the world.  And yet, we live in a society that tries to tell us we don’t do myths any more –which, by the way, is a kind of myth itself.  It’s crazy to me.  We have myths all over the place.  In fact, we have so many myths, that we don’t really know what to do with them, or how to process them.  Once we’ve exposed ourselves to one myth, we simply move on to the next one.

So, a quick recap: a myth is simply a cultural story about the human experience.

Now, what I really wanted to introduce today is our current myths concerning how we deal with existential dissatisfaction.  Because there are two basic arch-types of myths when it comes to human dissatisfaction.  And the first, as we said before, is to change the scenery.  And the second is to allow our attitude to be changed.  And what I want to show you today is that these two options both have very strong historical precedents.  In fact, they have categorical names, which most of us have probably gone our whole lives without realizing.  Simply because we didn’t ‘connect the dots.’  So I wanted to give you names for them so that you might grow in becoming more intentional about your decision-making process.  Because the name of option number one is a myth branded by polytheism.  And option number one is branded by monotheism.  In other words, this is a math problem.  And the math on here is simple: how many sources and solutions are there to all of life’s problems?  Is there one problem, and one solution?  Then the problem that’s making you dissatisfied is your dissatisfaction.  I don’t care who you are, or what you think you believe, if you meet your dissatisfaction at the level that it is your dissatisfaction, so you need to adapt yourself to relate to the one world and universe, then you’re a monotheist.  You believe in the unity and connectedness of all things.

If, on the other hand, you believe that every problem is a semi-isolated event, and you can simply go somewhere else where that one problem over there doesn’t exist anymore, then you are a polytheist.  You approach your dissatisfaction in the exact same ways that the ancient Romans, and Babylonians, and Greeks, and Egyptians, and Mayans did. If one cult isn’t working, you try another one.  You’re poor and your crops aren’t going, then you give to the god of the weather, or the god of the ground, or the god of growth, or the god of wealth and prosperity.  If your god of war loses to another god of war, you switch sides and go with the one with more power.  Or if, for us, the angel of Netflix –servant of the great god Media- isn’t fulfilling your bliss, then maybe you need to wander over to the refrigerator and bow down for a little while at the altar of Ben and Jerry’s.  Or maybe you need to take a second to see what imminent news the prophets of Facebook or Huffington Post have to proscribe to you.  Or visit the alter of truly unconditional love in the pet you hold hostage.  Or maybe you need to pour out a libation to the god of craft beer, or vintage wine, or prescription meds.  Or, better, yet, worship them all at once!  This is America after all!  And we have lots of options!  So many options promising to solve your dissatisfaction that you’ll be dead before you could ever try them all, which would probably disturb you if you weren’t so busy chasing all the things.  So after all, how can you be sure that the next one won’t be the one to actually fix it?

This is what we do with our myths.  In America, we don’t stick with any single myth long enough to see if it’s true, or for it to teach us anything.  For us, in order to tell the myth of America, we’d have to get out whole huge boxes of DVDs, or comic books, or decades of footage of news-feed; because we don’t have a unified story by which to understand ourselves.  Instead we just have these fragments.  We don’t have a central narrative.  Because we don’t have a religion.  We have many religions.  In addition to Christianity, and Islam, we have the cult of Consumerism, and the ethos of Achievement paid in sweat and hard work; and we have all the competing cults of Pleasure.  And we spend our lives bouncing from one to the next, to the next, to the next.

Yet, in contrast to America, the people of Israel had a single, central narrative: and it was the narrative of being set free from slavery.  This is their narrative from Exodus, chapter 20, starting in verse 22.  This happens right after Moses receives the 10 Commandments from God. These are their instructions for worship.

22 The Lord said to Moses: “Say this to the Israelites: You saw for yourselves how I spoke with you from heaven. 23 Don’t make alongside me gods of silver or gold for yourselves. 24 Make for me an altar from fertile soil on which to sacrifice your entirely burned offerings, your well-being sacrifices, your sheep, and your oxen. I will come to you and bless you in every place where I make sure my name is remembered. 25 But if you do make for me an altar from stones, don’t build it with chiseled stone since using your chisel on the stone will make it impure. 26 Don’t climb onto my altar using steps: then your genitals won’t be exposed by doing so.”

Brothers and sisters, you don’t need to spend your time chiseling stones and building high and lofty altars, for everyone else to see you and witness how faithful you are.  In fact, you don’t need to go anywhere.  In fact, working so hard to alter the world around us –to transform it into something other than what it naturally is, and what it was created to be- only diminishes it.  And it diminishes your experience of it.  You only need to find some fertile ground, and give thanks for what you have.

Let’s pray.