Try this exercise today. Think of a change you made in your life that led to a new path, a better life, more joy. Think on the ways you adjusted your plans, made concrete changes, worked hard to become a better you. Maybe this transformation was spiritual and inner-directed. Maybe a mentor or friend provided the wisdom and guidance to lead you to that better place. Maybe you read one of the thousands of self-help books that opened your eyes and heart to a different way of handling your life’s challenges. Somehow, some way, you made a change, and improvements were obvious to all concerned. Good on you!
Now try to imagine another person, someone like you, challenged by the same circumstances, trying desperately to escape the predictable outcomes. One day s/he shares this frustration. How did you respond? I hope you shared the wisdom that carried you to the other side. Any friend would love to know how you did it, the steps you took, the things you learned, and the ways that life expanded in your very midst. But as you share this life-lesson always keep this in mind, that you are one person among billions and billions who lives on this planet. You are one person from one culture, one spiritual path, one demographic, one gender, and one ideology. And repeat after me, “I cannot possibility know the exact answer to every other person’s problems. I cannot assume that my path to transformation will work for everyone.”
When I am seeking suggestions, advice, wisdom I make it clear I am open to ideas and life-stories. I listen carefully to what I hear and consider how this new information may be something I can use in my own life. But I never assume this person, however wise, smart and gifted, can possibly know the exact way to deal with my unique set of challenges. I will say that when a person is telling me what to do, passing me a book and saying, “you MUST read this”, demanding I “write this down”, I feel my spirit withdrawing immediately. This kind of certainty, a one size fits all approach, is antithetical to my understanding of how God works in the world. I think diversity implies a method to God’s intention, that we learn from the varied ways we make sense of our world, that we glean bits and pieces from a variety of wisdom sources, piecing it all together in a spirit of adaptation and creativity to find the path that makes my life better, that helps me be a better person for and with others.
As a Minister people come to me with questions all the time. They want to know how to find wisdom, how to make sense of challenges and setbacks, how to seek God’s guidance and move forward. I never ever hesitate to share what I have learned in these 52 years, the mistakes I made, the changes I attempted, the joy I have found. BUT all of this is shared in a spirit of humility, “this worked for me”. Also, if in listening to a person who is very different than me I will share a story I learned from someone completely different than me in hopes that this other story will trigger a transformation. It does not have to be my story or my wisdom that connects to the other’s need. Understanding and appreciating difference allows me to collect stories that may not have worked for me but could work for others.
Of course there are paths that are always destructive and painful and full of dreadful outcomes for all concerned. These paths need to identified and strongly named. While I believe with all my heart that there are many, many, many paths to joyful living I also believe there are a few paths that never work. Releasing one’s self from the arrogance of certainty is not an excuse to remove one’s self from moral discernment.
Together we can find a way. That is why we were made for community.