My quest, I see now, involves integrating history, spirituality and something beyond what I knew into a world of love, compassion and affirmation, the Kingdom of God. Answering the call of Jesus, I need to ask new questions, and stay with them. I want to tell a theological history of my life through spiritual questions. What is a human being? What is love? How do I define myself? What are the experiences of true freedom? How to live?
The American philosopher, George Santayana tirelessly quoted, “Those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it” offers insight into the dangers of escaping history. No amount of negating the past can negate the past, hence, the problem. The more we aim to change the past, the more we remain within our same old self. We just have a better wardrobe. The past will make an appearance with or without our acknowledgment. Unacknowledged history risks controlling us like a marionette. You think your life is your own; only to find a sled named “rosebud” pulling your strings all along and making you dance to unheard music. A baritone whisper of your last words makes your life a black and white spectacle beyond your own control. Taking Plato’s advice, to examine your life means you have to enter your history with awareness. Exploring the Spirit’s questions through my experiences and finding the divine working within my life drives me into the deepness of history and not away from it.
The five questions shape a skeleton where the meat of my story can attach itself. They are all theological questions. The reality is that the last question was the one I needed answered the most. The first four form the foundation of answering the last. These questions are personal as they are universal. Theology’s valuable must be contained our experiences of life. We meet Jesus at the well gathering our daily water. I avoid practical theology, which uses theology in living, rather theology to illuminate living. For too long, theology disconnected itself from living. Augustine wrote both Confessions and City of God. One was about his life, and the other about God. If I am to see God in the center of life, theology must speak to my experiences. The proof of God must be in my story and my future. Any theology, any talk of God for me exhales in the act of my daily breathing. I ask these theological questions through the hard contact lenses of my life.
My first hurdle in my spiritual odyssey—just what the world needs: another overwrought, overwritten story blaming parents, God, Country, fellow humans, Prozac, or whatever else is handy for their own failings; all the while trying to create a new self out of the wreckage. What use is taking a wrecking ball to ones history? Am I trying to join that most American of past-times, reinventing myself? Am I trying to rewrite my history? Shattering history? If I am to live within a home in myself, then I have to overcome the tendency of blaming. Furthermore, if I am asking you to journey with me for the hours and days of reading, how boring will it be for you to spend it with me continually whining. I cannot escape my freedom and responsibility by retreating into excuses from the past. I have to acknowledge this tendency within the culture and more importantly within myself.
Today, the negating of personal history and culture of a self-creating stifles us. Reinventing one’s self has moved from the exclusive fare of celebrities, politicians, and authors and has gone mainstream. We see it on TV everyday. We all can have a makeover, and the cameras keep rolling. I must admit that most of these stories bore me. The self collapses into fashion. A frumpy librarian, pluck off the streets on her way home, becomes a glamorous woman who looks like a movie star. We see her get a new haircut, and a new wardrobe. In extreme cases, we see flesh hacked off her—nose reshaped by scalpel, and fat sucked out. She is revealed as a new woman in a moment of happy transformation. Her friends and family, surprised by her transformation, gawk over her as if she were a newborn. Interviewed, she raves about how her new look changed her life. Men with six-pack abs swoon over her. Women find her fascinating and line up to befriend her. Style has finally shined on her and resurrected her life.
Presumably, her worldview has not changed. If she were a Catholic, then she remains a Catholic. If she were a democrat, then she remains a democrat. She has not fallen off an ass on the way to Damascus because the voice of God called her. She is not physically blind for a few days, needing the help of other believers. Her beliefs are still intact, but she claims to be different. No, her conversion comes from costumes and repackaging. She, with her new image, can now be shelved at eyelevel with the best products. Her salvation and new life arrive as a hip hairstyle and up-to-date wardrobe. Her thoughts and ideas, her story, and her passion, none of it matters in the creation of her new life. She is Jay Gatsby without the tragedy, a blockbuster movie with a feel-good ending. How sad that all she needed was so superficial. Could it mean her life was always superficial? And still is?
Hers is the final negation of story in preference for style. Her history is unimportant, and easily ignored like street people pleading for money or food. What matters is the moment of her reception as a new self. The source of her happiness lies with her packaging, and not her thoughts, feelings, faith, or anything classically conceived as a human being. Her life turns out to be less important than her happiness. Supposedly we want to be like her, wait our turn when we will be swept away in black vans and have our history made irrelevant by slick hairdressers who know the secrets of ecstasy and eternal good hair days. All the while, the cameras roll capturing the only transformation left us. I, uninterested in being like her, find it worthless turning myself into the new and improved self, the new me. To negate my story does nothing in affirming my life. It is ugly in all of its seductive beauty.
It does tempt me. Escape from the Egypt of my past, and make myself into a sweet tasting soda of a man. Ironically, the American tendency to ignore History has its origins in American History. Americans seldom reflected upon the implications on reinventing of self. America, founded by groups wanting to escape the violence of European History, remain untrusting of History. The founders came from places like York, London, and Amsterdam. They set up cities and colonies like New York, New Haven, and New England. They unwittingly started the cult of new. They wanted to reinvent the old Europe into a New Jerusalem, or a new aristocracy. “New, new, new…” became the beat of our new country, and still is.
Later, waves of immigrants also followed in attempting to escape their own history into the land of opportunity. The asking price was the loss of the old way of life. The push westward was a push passed History into new possibilities. Our historical process is escaping the past. The delicious irony, our past conditions us to deny our past.
The larger historical process finds itself into how Americans live their personal lives, and hence my temptation. We admire self-made men. We will want to get a new start after a personal fall; we brush off the past’s dust off our jeans. We ask for feedback about the “… new me.” Freedom for us means both freedom from the past and freedom to create a new future. Freedom based solely on actions. Family, friends, places, home, all are malleable and changeable. Any American can become rich and famous or even the president despite their background. It is our greatest historical myth, even as most of us recognize it as unrealistic. Yet, we believe this myth as the source of our freedom. Could it also be our unrecognized prison? Our concepts make us slaves to a false freedom, and to the crushing self without a history. Jay Gatsby dies in his attempt. Daisy dies a spiritual death in her marriage. The greatness comes in the telling of the tale.
We believe we can simply cast off the old self by reinventing it through negating the past. The first act of reinventing is destroying what came before. It is no accident that the largest section in our bookstores is the self-help section. Here, we can find any number of books promoting the hope of escaping from our pasts and starting over. These books, enclosed in the thousands of colorful covers, advice us on how to repackage ourselves into a shiny new product. We can rebrand ourselves. The self-help industry neglects the main trap of erasing your past, which even fashionable clothes remain helpless to transform. Denied history morphs into a recurring future of that same past. We diet to lose weight only to gain more fat on our frames. My past is part of my life, and to destroy it in the name of new and improved remains unworkable.