Second Sunday of Advent: The Unlived Life
'Could it be that self-knowledge is a form of self-denial?' As Adam Phillips poses. To know one’s self is to limit one’s possibilities. To say, ‘my character is thus’, is to imply one might act one way but not another, choose one path but not another, and so we close doors upon ourselves. For one’s character implies a way to be and act in the world, and therefore the road ahead narrows. There are those things we care about, and then those things we care about more. One commitment excludes another. Whenever we permit ourselves, we are forbidding ourselves something else. Convictions, commitments, and strong beliefs necessarily narrow our mind, and therefore perhaps stunt our development. Another way to think about this is that we all have our lives, but we can all imagine, or fantasise, or even beat ourselves up over the life we could have had, or should be having, or would like to have yet. And in a way, each one of us is our lived and unlived lives. That is what it is to know a person: to see all the forks in a person’s life, the person they are, and the person they turned away from being, whether they chose to turn, or circumstances forced the turn. We are all haunted by the people or things we were persuaded to exclude. In each one of us there is a desire for something else, what we would like to have, and this desire within us shapes the people we are, and the relationships we have. To know a person is not simply to know their life, but to know their frustrations. To know a person is not simply to know what they have, but also know what they would like to have, what yearning stirs within them, occupies their thoughts, fantasies, and dreams.
Sometimes these wants, if they go unfulfilled and unexpressed, express themselves not in our thoughts, but in our aches, in our stiff necks, and in our fatigue. Carl Jung speaks about the significance of the unlived life. It is so powerful that it can be carried by our children, even if it is never put into words. So, here we are in the in-between place, in between the person we are, and the person we would like to be, the person we would enjoy to become. We are forced to act in this world – forced to choose – and in making these choices we are stuck in a place of unknowing. We must act, but it’s never clear how we must act. Our choices ultimately begin feeling quite arbitrary. Condemned to our choice, and condemned to our freedom, some of us fall into one of two traps. On one hand, the trap of inertia, unable to choose, refusing to choose, we fall into depression, or cynicism. Or on the other hand, overwhelmed by choice, we delude ourselves into believing that, in fact, the choices are obvious. We appeal to authority, and allow the simplicity of black and white to clear everything up. Herein lies the temptation towards more conservative religious paths, the temptations towards allowing some authority to tell us how we ought to act, that we can be assured we are doing the right thing as we do so. But here we are in the in-between, confronted by a world which demands action. But what action? To be human then, is to live in the in-between, in-between who we are, and who we would like to be, in-between needing to act, and not knowing how to act. No wonder it induces anxiety within us.
It’s like when little children throw big temper tantrums in the supermarket. They know what they want, but reality denies it them. Inside, we’re not that far removed from the little child throwing a temper tantrum – we’re just most calculating, and more savvy. We delude ourselves into believing that if we could just get what we wanted, we would be happy, we would be fulfilled. But reality gets in the way. If only we could get rid of pesky reality, oh the bliss that would be on offer… But in actual fact, if we could get everything we ever wanted, whenever we wanted it, we would not be in heaven, we would be in hell. If the quest, or process, or journey, is stripped between here and our goals, the pleasure is stripped with it. The value of completing something, of building something, or writing something, of going somewhere, of climbing a mountain, is lost if we can simply teleport to our desired destination. The ultimate wish, the ultimate fantasy, or guarantor of meaning, the get-out-of-jail-free card which many cling onto, is often termed ‘God’. The higher-authority which tells us how to act and be in the world. But of course, it does not work. The religious person who wants to project their religiosity is merely repressing their fears, repressing their anxieties, and their unknowing, repressing their doubting and questioning, and that is not good for us. It’s a deception we play upon ourselves and others. People like Richard Dawkins and the new atheists look at this wish-fulfilment God, this ‘I’m right and they’re wrong’ God, this fantasy God, and say how silly that is. Quite rightly, they want to reject that type of God. But then they turn right around and turn other things, other disciplines, or material things, into their gods, into the guarantors of their meaning, into their get-out-of-jail-free cards. And therefore, they blunder in just the same way. Atheists are rarely good at being atheists, because they don’t really get rid of God, they merely replace him. Proper Christianity is not about this fantasy God. The magical God, for all intents and purposes, is dead to us. We should not be about escaping the in-between place, but embracing it. We are in a world that demands action, and yet we don’t know how to act. Good! That is where we should be. It’s absurd of course, but that’s life, to embrace the absurd. We are torn between the person we are, and the person we wish we were. Good! That is where we should be. We are torn between what we have, and what we would like to have. Good. That is where we should be.
We are in Advent. We await the coming of Jesus. We prepare our hearts for his coming. But what does a Jesus in the manger mean? It can sound a lot like we are waiting for our guarantor of meaning, that perhaps for a brief moment, at around Christmas time, we will forget ourselves and imagine that magic is real after all. That in Jesus’ coming, pesky reality will fall away, and we will be left wholly in ownership of those wants, dreams, and fantasies. But this is precisely what Jesus comes to reject. Jesus comes into the in-between with us. He asks us to locate the focus of our intention not on magical beyond realities, not on idols beyond our reach, but on manifesting the Kingdom in the messiness of the in-between. Once, Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.’