Yesterday morning I was sitting back in my Lazy Boy chair and trying to quiet my mind in order to become attuned with God. I have not had much success with this in the past partly, I think, because it is very hard for me to turn off the chatter which goes on non-stop in my brain at such times. At this moment, as I sit at my desk scratching pen over paper writing a draft of this post, my mind is focused on the task at hand. Remove me from this desk, place my rear end in that chair and expect me to continue with any kind of focus and you, or more to the point I, will be sorely disappointed.
Such was the case on this particular morning. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes, tried to focus on God, and my mind instantly flew to what I wanted to get done that day. The list was long, and included working in two gardens that I tend, writing letters to friends, looking at carpet samples in order to choose one to replace our old and worn carpet with, and many other things. All of these were good things to do, but it was obvious even to me that I could not possibly do them all and that I would end up scrunching in as many as I could, doing none of them well, and then lamenting that I could not do the others and feeling guilty about that fact. Eventually I would shrug it off and drink a little wine while watching an episode of Sherlock Holmes, not giving the topic another thought.
While all of these ideas were grinding around in my head like stones being rolled in a lapidary’s tumbler one thought managed to bubble up to the top: what should I WANT to want to do today? The rough list of the day’s wants was nearly endless, but if I could narrow it down by selecting a shorter list based on what was really worth doing (which was most things on the larger list) and why they were worth doing in the first place, I reasoned that I could thereby produce a more manageable list of tasks to accomplish that would be of greater value, releasing me to enjoy my evening wine and movie without having to feel guilt about the tasks not completed, or having to ignore them as if they weren’t worth considering in the first place.
But how should I decide which of my many wants I should WANT to want? Here it gets tricky. If I rely entirely upon my own reason I am not materially helped. I will choose tasks for the day based primarily, or even exclusively, on gratifying my own pleasure, and while there is nothing wrong with enjoying oneself there is simply more, much more, to life than gratifying one’s pleasures. I will invariably tend to the self-centered activities in the short term over and above the activities which offer more benefit in the long term. Before I get to selecting my wants I must first establish the criteria which hem in and define my WANT; that which motivates me to pursue my wants in an orderly and focused manner. And what, then will suffice to form the WANT? Perhaps it’s another, larger and more focused WANTWANT, or “WANT squared”, and so on ad infinitum, but I do not think so. At some point I believe we must arrive at a proper source of WANT, and I believe that such a source is found when WANT bounces up against Need. In and amongst all of these competing wants there must be a Need which drives the WANT to chose which wants are most profitably pursued and which should be postponed or shelved entirely, guilt free for sanity’s sake.
It logically follows, to me at least, that this Need which will shape my WANT to prioritize my wants and forgives me for those that I have chosen not to accomplish that day must not come from within me. If I make the choice exclusive of any external input of what does or does not merit being done on a given day my WANT only becomes another of my wants. Or rather, I will elevate each want to the level of WANT, thereby justifying my own mind doing that which I have chosen to do regardless of whether or not it was something done in the place of something which was more worth the doing or even something worth doing at all. An internal yardstick only gives me a tool with which to justify my own actions, and will not accomplish anything good in the long run. My yardstick then, my Need as it were, must therefore come from outside of me.
That’s the point at which God reentered this conversation which raged inside of my head while I was trying to quiet things down. God says that I need to love Him (or Her, if it makes you feel better. God is truly bigger than all of that however) with my whole being and after that to love others as much as I love myself. God is thereby saying that He is my yardstick, and how I prioritize my actions and even my desires should be based on that relationship of love between me and Him and me and my neighbor (who happens to be everybody else in the world). If I will order my thoughts in that direction God will steer me towards the right choices among competing wants and grant me happiness for those accomplished and peace about those left undone. Condensed to it’s basic foundation then, my Need must arise from a love of God, my neighbor, and myself.
But God will not force this upon me. God, the ultimate independent personality, by creating me in His image has made me to be an independent personality as well. I am perfectly free to pursue any want that I choose. I believe that it was the French philosopher Sartre who said that slowing down to allow an old woman to cross the street had no more value than speeding up in order to hit her as regards expressing one’s individuality by an act of the will. Maybe he didn’t really say anything that idiotic but he was certainly capable of doing so, and if he didn’t say it somebody else equally idiotic assuredly did. In any case I am free – scot free – to make choices. If I should want to make good choices however I must have some sort of yardstick, and if I want to consistently make the best possible choices I must have a yardstick not of my own making; one which has the force to convince me of the advisability of using it. That yardstick is God’s want, which in turn becomes my Need which drives my WANT to choose wisely among the many options which present to me on any given day.
So how has this discovery played out in my life? Hardly at all! Heck, I only laid back in that chair twenty four hours ago, so give me a break. I can say that yesterday I ordered my wants so that I gave pleasure to myself, my wife, and a couple of friends while postponing writing to other friends and placing a phone call to a beloved brother, and I feel very good about the whole thing. I even managed to enjoy that glass of wine and episode of Sherlock at the end of the day. Ultimately, I believe that God feels pretty good about it too, except for the parts where I screwed things up. But I’ll keep trying, I won’t beat myself up over those failings, and God loves me anyway, so it’s all OK.