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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Blessed Life

It is often the case that our own ill-conceived strategies for life often make us the most unhappy. The world is a chaotic place, and we develop strategies to cope. These strategies evolve into habits, many of which we are not even aware of. There are times, though, when we run into problems in our lives that confuse us, that cause us to step back and reevaluate ourselves. The idea of reaping what we sow seems to have to do with this very thing—ill-conceived strategies for life, lifestyles and habits that come back to cause us grief and pain.

Here in the U.S., we are nearing nearly a decade of war, our economy is in the midst of “the Great Recession,” and we are in the process of dealing with an ecological catastrophe. It may be a critical time in the history of our nation, a time to ask the most basic of questions regarding our way of life: is it working for us?

Clearly our choices of lifestyle have had a devastating impact on the environment. From an economic perspective, it is a matter of debate whether we can continue to push for more growth. But more to the point: our economic push for expansion and growth is coming into conflict iwht our environment’s ability to sustain it. This is due in part to the fact that our deconomy depends so heavily on iol. Eventually the supply will run out. Additionally there is the concern about global warming. Can our environment sustain the impact of all of the world’s carbon emissions? In the meantime, we deal with the oil spills and the environmental destruction from drilling on land.

But let’s bracket these concerns for a moment. Let’s assume that these natural resources are unlimited and that extracting them is not a problem. (After all, most people continue to live as though there were no problems—even those who believe that our way of life is devastating to the planet.)Let’s assume global warming is not happening and that the resources are unlimited. Let’s ask a fundamental question: are we really happy? Do we live a blessed life?

The biblical texts speak a good deal about the blessed life.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “Blessed are the merciful.” “Blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers.” “Blessed are the pure in heart.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

As I understand them, the basic premise is that if a person or society walks with integrity, then they will be blessed; conversely, those whose ways lack integrity can expect negative consequences to come their way. This is certainly not an absolute formula for success, and those who use it as such will find themselves disappointed. For example, there are those who walk with integrity but are exploited, abused, die of disease, are pushed off their land, etc. This is historical fact. Still, there is something important about living a blessed life, about being blessed, and it isn’t about living out a formula for a successful life.

What is the standard for a blessed life? Material possessions might be our first response. Or we might perhaps associate blessings with entertainment or other sensual stimulations. Further, we might define success (and blessedness) in terms of achievement—building a career, establishing a ministry, attaining personal goals, or having an accomplished family. Perhaps also we might define a blessed life as some mix of the above.

My understanding of the biblical texts, taken as a whole—the Hebrew scriptures along with the Christian New Testament—is that the blessed life is one that is lived with integrity. The word “integrity” having to do with an “integration”: that all of the activities and relationships of one’s life work together in a harmonious, beautiful, and virtuous way.

For example, we admire a business man or woman as a “person of integrity” if this person is consistently honest in all of his or her dealings, whether professional or personal. If a person is religious at church, but they are dishonest in their work life, we say that such a person lacks integrity, that they have not integrated their values into a harmony. Similarly, if a member of the clergy has a public persona of virtue but a private life of vice, we would say that this inconsistency is evidence of a lack of integrity.

If the blessed life is seen in this way, then we realize that success, achievement, or even survival is of secondary importance. Integrity has a profit all its own.

If the blessed life is a life of integrity, then how does the U.S. fair? The outlooks is certainly bleak. I would say that the reason for this does not necessarily have to do with evil intentions by the majority of average citizens, but more to do with a way of living and a system that promotes fragmentation. Fragmentation is the opposite of integration, or the reverse of integrity. For example, if we want to own a pair of running shoes, we go to Foot Locker or some other chain store and buy a pair. We do not usually think farther than this. But what if our shoes were made in an Asian sweatshop? What if our shoes were produces with exploited labor? Even children? “Well,” we might respond, “how should I know? I’m not deliberately trying to screw Asian workers, I just want a pair of shoes.” But you see, this response presumes that our behavior (buying a pair of shoes) can be an isolated event. We isolate this event and fragment it from any other considerations and from any of our life’s values. We live in a sort of willful ignorance of where our products come from. This is a breakdown of integrity because it is a failure to integrate our values (things like fairness, goodness, kindness, etc.) with our purchase of a pair of shoes.

This kind of thing, though, is a part of life in the U.S. We purchase most of our products without knowing their source, even our food. We work for companies and corporations that isolate us into departments, cubicles, and offices, to do isolated tasks without knowledge of whether our work is contributing to a virtuous cause or causing suffering in the world.

We live in a system that encourages fragmentation, that refuses to allow us to live integrated lives, lifestyles of integrity. And more and more we are seeing the impact of our lifestyle on other people, animals, and the environment. This means that the general public is being confronted with the fact that we have not been living the blessed life.

And are we even happy? Do we live fulfilled and satisfied lives? The advertising industry, which is the force behind so much of our drive for economic expansion, by definition creates dissatisfaction in consumers. If everyone were satisfied with their life, then there would be no reason to buy the latest ipod, purchase a larger television, invest in a larger house, get that second car, or keep one’s self dressed in the latest fashions. Who in the U.S. is truly content? Who is truly satisfied with what they have? It is almost true, by definition, that we are unhappy.

It is also my belief that living a fragmented life without integrity is itself dissatisfying on a deep spiritual level. We see this in the sarcastic and bitter cynicism that many people have toward working in isolated offices and cubicles. The Dilbert cartoon satirizes this approach to life. How can one feel satisfied working in a glorified assembly line that we call an office space? We are often bored and fragmented, and our entertainment industry is so wealthy because it serves to distract us from this deep spiritual discontent.

To live with integrity. To live a contented life. This is the blessed life. This is the life that can extend itself outside of self and engage the world in a meaningful way. A person who is content and lives with integrity does not need to be another consumer in the market to find happiness or some measure of peace, for peace is found within and as a result of one’s virtues put into action. There is an abiding strength of soul and spirit, a renewed “inner person,” and this transformed individual is free to integrate their values with their lifestyle. And it works in reverse: the person who has transformed their behavior in the world can experience an inward satisfaction and freedom from being bound within the consumeristic cycle of discontentment.

There is freedom in this life. This is a pilgrimage that is not of this world, and yet so deeply engaged in the world so as to challenge its deepest darkness. This is the blessed life.

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