My Aunt Ailene died last week. It was a remarkable death, not because she and I were particularly close – we weren’t; I hadn’t seen her in more than thirty years – but because she was the last of her generation in my family. I didn’t attend the funeral, but I know what would have happened if I had.
Within about five minutes of being surrounded by all those cousins, I would have fallen into the pattern of relationship that was ingrained in me when I was a child. My accent would have reverted to the cadence and inflections of northeast Arkansas and west Tennessee. Even now I sense the place I occupied in the family pecking order then and in some ways still do. Not only can you not go home again; you don’t need to. All of us carry some part of home with us no matter how long we’ve been away.
You’ve probably seen the old cartoon or can easily imagine it. A dog tethered in the front yard sees a car drive by, starts to chase it, reaches the end if its rope, and comes to a break-neck stop. Same thing happens in the next three panels. Finally the dog is untethered, sees a car drive by, starts to chase it, and just where the rope would have stopped it in the earlier panels, is jerked to the same sudden stop. Conditioning, especially conditioning that happens early in our lives, exerts a powerful control over us.
My early childhood conditioning works on me in lots of ways. My mother and both of my grandmothers still influence how I relate to my family today. My father, who’s been dead half a century, still influences how I approach the world and how I deal with authority. My early socialization in the communities where I lived still exerts its influence. Growing up in the Mid-South in the 1950s, for example, wove a thread of racism into my psyche that I still have to resist today.
Every waking moment, every moment when I’m conscious and present to the tapestry of who I am, I’ve got to choose, from among all the influences in my life, which ones I will deny and which I will affirm. “Do I contradict myself,” Walt Whitman asked in “Song of Myself”? “Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” I, too, contain multitudes, we all do, and those multitudes in me are not always in happy relationship with each other. They compete for my attention and obeisance. Every day is full of choices, and in every moment, I make them, whether I’m aware of it or not.
We’re always making choices. Being busy is a choice; being distracted is a choice; being joyful is a result of our choices; the kind of stress we carry is a choice. Everything in life is a reflection of the choices we make – maybe not all the circumstances of our lives, for many of them are imposed on us, but our response to those circumstances is a choice. What we value in life is a choice. Where we give our attention and the value we place upon our experiences and circumstances: these are choices we make.
In the middle of the first century, the church at Philippi was sorely tested. Opposition to their way of life was fierce, and suffering had become a constant. They must have been tempted to give up and fit in and settle for living like everyone around them. Every day they had to choose how to live, what values to embody. And in the midst of their ordeal, Paul wrote about what to choose.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:4-9).
This was no Pollyanna prescription or emotional sedative. Making the choices he urged would do little if anything to change their circumstances in life. But choosing how they responded to their circumstances would change their experience of those circumstances. It would free them from living on autopilot, free them from captivity to their social and cultural conditioning, free them from living as the world taught them to live, free them to live in “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”
The choice the Philippians had to make was not easy. It was a difficult choice because what was at stake was of ultimate importance. It was the hard choice Moses challenged Israel to make before they entered their Promised Land. It was the distressing choice between blessing and curse, life and death (Deut. 30:15-20). But as W.H. Auden observed, “The distresses of choice are our chance to be blessed.”
We face the same choice today, a choice between blessing and curse, life and death, in which we must always be choosing the life we will live from among all the many possibilities before us. And it demands something of us. After the New England Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers to advance to the Super Bowl, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was asked what makes his team so special. His answer was short and to the point: “Mental toughness.” Not exceptional physical strength, not training, not even superior talent. Mental toughness.
We need a kind of spiritual toughness to make the choices we must make every day between life and death, if we are to enter our own promised land and know “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” We need the same kinds of things that every winning sports team needs.
We need training and preparation, of course, the kind that doesn’t stop with our baptism or confirmation but continues throughout our lives. We need the consistency that comes from daily personal and corporate spiritual disciplines that keep us focused on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Most of all, we need a spiritual toughness, a steady moment-by-moment commitment to the way of life we’ve chosen – or that has chosen us.
You’ve heard the old saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Tom Brady and the Patriots exhibited a mental toughness that made them Super Bowl champions. St. Paul showed a spiritual toughness when he faced his own tough times. He reported being flogged, stoned, beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked and adrift at sea, betrayed, hungry, anxious (1 Cor. 11:24-29), and at least once he despaired of life itself (1 Cor. 1:8). And finally he could say, “I can do all thigs through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
We face choices every day, some of them extremely difficult and messy – choices between blessing and curse, life and death – and we might wish we didn’t have to make them. But that’s what freedom is. It’s painful, messy, ambiguous, and frightening. But in the distresses of choice is our chance to be blessed with a peace that surpasses all understanding. Pay attention to how you choose.