When I stand before the mirror in the morning, after trying on different frowns and testing out my witticisms for the coming day, I sometimes ask my reflection, “What do I stand for?”
Reflection: I don’t know the point of the question.
Me: Well, and I don’t know where it comes from. Maybe the culture has told me it’s an important one–or maybe I have just been forced to consider it.
Reflection: We all stand for something. What movies we eat and foods we consider locate us in certain places in this land of free-consumption. We are labeled by the signs and seals on our clothes, food packaging, tables, wooden spoons, bathroom towels, shoes, phones, and skin (if you believe in that sort of thing).
Me: I don’t, but I believe some people do. Anyway, I guess the pessimist can say that we stand for what we consume. Every individual is a pastiche of what he chooses to keep around himself or put inside for safekeeping. Watch your mouth about Nickelback; I grew up on that stuff.
Reflection: Hey, that’s funny. But I don’t know, I don’t know! Maybe if we slightly inverted the pessimist’s position, we could say that we stand for what we do with our consumption. This moves the definition from things held to things done. We stand for what makes us move, not what keeps us in place.
Me: Ah, and that again shifts the meaning of standing-for-something from consumption to location. That feels better. We are getting closer.
Reflection: Yes, but let’s invent a situation. Let’s say that if standing-for-something means you stand someplace, then what happens if someone stands for something, but is very far from that thing? In this situation, the heart of standing-for-something would be movement. It would be movement towards what the person stands for.
Me: And here, we thought that standing-for-something meant we did not move at all! Of course, if someone is moving toward a place to stand, then the resolution of someone’s desire to stand-for-something is to be in the place where he can stand for it. Again we find that standing-for-something is less an issue of belief, but more of action.
Reflection: Okay and if there is moving intrinsic to this action–if someone finds themselves far from where they wish they were–then there is actually energy and action intrinsic to it. Once we actually get to where we’re going, then, we still retain that energy, only then, we are actually standing, not moving.
Me: So can we say, then, that to stand for something is to put your energy into staying in a place?
Reflection: Yes, that’s it! So with that in mind, what do you stand for?
Me: …I don’t know. I’m going away from you you now. You always make me self-conscious, always make me wonder if I suffer from a secret sin of vanity. Sometimes I want to make a vow of avoiding all mirrors and reflections–you!–for a month or so. It’s so hard, though.
Reflection: Oh, come on man. Why even think of doing it if it’s so hard?
Me: Because anything worth doing is not worth doing at all.
Me: No, me. I just said it, didn’t I? And quit keeping me here. You can’t live without me. I can live without you. I always did prefer talking to your cousin, Thought.
Reflection: That hurts. I am secretly jealous of him.
Me: Get over it. And if you just told me, it ain’t no secret.
When I finally walk away, disengaging from Reflection to say “hello” to Thought, I ask him, “Well, Thought, what do I stand for?”
Thought: It’s tough to say, dude. I think (hah!) that your Conscience pulls you in two directions– both good ones, might I add–but one is the direction of duty, the other privilege.
Me: Hey, hey, hey, don’t bring Conscience into this. I only bother with him when he bothers with me. He’s too exhausting–especially for a casual conversation like this. He is always wanting to inspect my deeper and sinful motivations. I keep trying to tell him, hey, not everything is about sin.
Thought: I think he might have a point, but fine, I do what you say, dude.
Me: Most of the time.
Thought: Sure, most of the time.
Me: So, if I am pulled in two directions–one of duty, the other privilege–where do those two directions pull me towards? I just got done talking to your brother about what it means to stand for something.
Thought: Ask Imagination.
Imagination: I have been here the whole time, like the spirits of our ancestors!
Me: Great. What do you have for us? Where does duty pull me? And where does privilege pull me? By the way, Thought, I really like the juxtaposition between duty and privilege. You could have gone with responsibility and privilege–or maybe need and want. Your choice even sounds more nuanced.
Imagination: [interrupts] I see you wanting to live out your whole life in the suburbs. You want to move back there, but you are unsure why. There is a deep conviction in you that you ought to let your roots grow deep. And you think that you should go back home. Your duty is tangled with your sentimentalism. You look at the past with caution, but sometimes you tell yourself, “For a moment, I’ll indulge. For a moment, I’ll listen to an old song.” I speak for the rest of us when I say that it gets pretty interesting in here when you look back at the past.
Thought, Reflection, Conscience, The Old Man, Love, etc: Amen!
Me: Good to know…do you want me to do it more often?
Imagination: Everyone is nodding your head up here. Yes.
Imagination: Anyway, your sentimentalism crosses two ways–Thought, do you want to help me with this, I have trouble with stuff like this–
Thought: Sure. Sorry, I asked for you too early. Yes, your sentimentalism crosses two ways. You are only occasionally sentimental about the past. But the future? Conscience knows more about this, but you think about the future a lot. You enjoy planning and taking different routes with it. You like to follow different possible narratives of your life–Imagination, ask him–
Imagination: This is me nodding my head. It’s always a wild ride.
The Old Man: I second that notion–
Conscience: Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!
The Old Man: So shrill today. You did good at the mirror, but there is still so many times today when you could slip and–
Conscience: Not listening! Not listening! Quick, everyone think of someone else!
Love: My question is: why does this guy still stick around? Why don’t we all just ignore him? Or kill him? Killing him would be better.
Imagination: Let’s jump on his back from behind when he’s not looking and stick a knife in his chest, repeatedly, until he falls on his knees, his kneecaps splitting, so he can mutter his last words, “Let them…remember…I…never gave up.”
The Old Man: I am always watching. Go ahead; try to catch me when my back is turned.
Love: Ever heard of death, buddy?
Conscience: Shut up! Shut up! Thought, you were saying something.
Me: You guys really tire me out. You give me headaches sometimes.
Conscience: Well, when was the last time you prayed?
The Old Man: Pfft, he hasn’t prayed at all this week. Unless you count his distracted plea for repentance before his Cinnamon Toast Crunch on Wednesday.
Conscience: Does God count it?
The Old Man: How should I know? Why are we even talking? What is truth?
Love: Hang this devil from a tree!
Imagination: I have the rope.
Thought: I’ll watch.
Conscience: I hate being the shrill one, but everyone, would you please keep on topic and shut up!?
Me: I think I’m going to go.
Thought: No, no! I was just about to make a conclusion!
Me: Ugh, hurry up.
Thought: Yes, anyway, you think a lot about the future. And when I say that duty directs part of you, that is not to say that your duty is separate from you having fun. You have fun with almost everything–it’s a principle I concocted for you about two years ago, remember?–or you should have fun with everything. Taking up duty, for you, is an opportunity for fun. You would have fun pursuing duty. Duty, however, always lies somewhere in the future for you. You feel very little duty for the present. Conscience told me that’s a problem, but I don’t know. He is very skeptical of your intentions.
Me: I don’t know. I appreciate it sometimes, but other times, no.
Thought: Well, it annoys the heck out of me. It keeps me from getting into work flows. He is always–
Conscience: Inserting myself? SHUT UP!
Thought: You are going to feel guilty for interrupting me.
Conscience: (slowly nods my head)
Thought: Anyway, your conviction of duty is fun, futuristic, and abstract for you. When you pursue duty, you are really pursuing the cultivation of further theologies and ideas you hold deeply. If you pursued duty, you would have fun with it, but I think the abstract would be a problem. You would probably find that the abstract ideas of suburban redevelopment and monasticism and cultivating a certain Christian culture would be very difficult to keep abstract. And when the abstract ideals turned physical, my guess is that they would be poisons for you, not tall glass of water.
This is important.
It is my prediction that there will always be a collection of ideals that you will hold closely, but will never live out. You will probably never pursue culture or redevelopment as much as you would like. All of this, I should add, is tied to community. This is yet another distinction between your duty and your privilege, because your highest privilege is that of the loner.
If you pursued privilege, you would not pursue abstract ideas, but instead a lifestyle. Imagination can give you some specifics.
Imagination: Privilege for you looks like a large property in the Palouse fifteen minutes from Moscow, Idaho. It looks like a house with electricity and gas, but no internet. You would have a home phone and nothing else. You would build a library and wonder at all times, “Is this selfish?” You would open your house to as much charity as you could. You would call your house the Abbey, because you always did flirt with monasticism (but you never pulled the trigger; how sad).
Privilege for you looks like eating your meals seasonally. In the winter, you would never leave your house. You would stay in, reading in a recliner in the corner of your office, writing at your desk next to the big bay window looking out on the Palouse. You would stay in, trying out different recipes, ones that people might have eaten one hundred and fifty years ago.
You would wonder to yourself all day long, “I am alone and at peace and in silence, but at what cost?” but you would look at your library and the books you wrote and say, “A very small one.”
Sometimes, however, Conscience would come in and accuse you of being too obsessed with your own holiness, while disregarding the needs and wishes of others. You would defend yourself, maybe, with the books and the knowledge and the wisdom. “All the parts of the body do different things,” you’d say, “and some of them aren’t called to live for others so explicitly. I work for others from a distance.”
But you would always wonder to yourself, “At what cost? Wasn’t I always a people-person?” But the question would bug you, because your Thought would get didactic. You would try not to answer questions about yourself–you would accuse yourself, then, of introspection–but really, if we don’t inspect ourselves, who will? You would say, “God inspects us.” But how does he do it? Through others, always.
You would then tell yourself, “I need more people in my life.”
You would have people work for you, who would come out every weekend to do work on your land. An assistant would come and give you a list of who is going to call or visit in upcoming weeks and when. You would be excited to meet them, to discuss new ideas with them, but when they left, your isolation would take on a deep oppressive feeling of loneliness. Because we are the loneliest when we are around people.
And really, the whole reason you pursued privilege was for other people. You would wonder all day long, in your house alone, your sweater, coming up the stairs with your hand on the banister, the neatly-decorated Christmas tree glowing in the middle of the front room, naked without its girdle of presents, almost clinical, as if it existed there to demonstrate some personal achievement of festive order, not the jubilation of an international and cross-chronological Kingdom, you would wonder if it has just all been idols the whole time. You would feel emptiness deep in your bones, not loneliness, but contempt for yourself–not the sort of contempt that makes someone want to end their lives, but one that makes them want to change everything about it. You would feel like you had to change everything, from the foundation of your personally-designed home to the innards of your private cogitations.
But you would keep going, growing weary of your skepticism and wishing that you could just think with some clarity again, the piercing clarity of your youth.
And you would die and instead of being a sweet victory, it would be a sort of gasp, a relief from the oppression of contemplation.
But duty? Duty would take you into the suburbs, unsure of your intentions–Conscience would believe them to be sinful, of course–and when people would ask you what you were doing with your life, you would say, “Whatever God asks me to do.”
Duty would put people into your life, people you could not or did not choose, who were always distracting you from what you really wanted to do. And in your mind, you would think, “But it’s all fun. The pain of patience is fun.”
You would have trouble believing it and you would die unknown, released not from yourself, but others. You accomplished nothing of what you ever wanted to. At the end of your life, remembering all of the clear ideas you started out with, like small stacked boxes tied to the back of a city bike, what ever happened to all the clarity? When and why did God get rid of the clarity? You would tell yourself, “Well, that was before I ever tried anything.” And you would be right. Life has a way of plunging us into the dirt of what we had always longed for.
What a mess you would be. A glorious mess. You would look at God in your private moments and ask him, “God, I have always called you Father. But why have you given me a serpent instead of a rock?”
Me: So what? I’m walking to school. Can you finish this up? What should I do? What do I stand for?
Love: I have an idea.
Conscience: I always love your ideas.
Love: Har har.
Me: Go on, go on. I’m ten minutes late to class. Hurry up.
Love: Here’s an idea; don’t plan. Don’t even play narrative games with Imagination. It might be fun, but it’s self-indulgent and I can’t stand that. It leaves nothing for me. Live your life by helping other people. If someone asks you to do something, say yes. Always. See where God takes you. Be open. Shut your mind – for once! Don’t be a cave for bats to fly in and hang out. Close it like a sore mouth. Live by what you see and hear and touch and smell and taste. Get your life plans, not from thinking about life, but from living it. See and receive. Hear and receive. Touch and receive. Smell and receive. Taste and receive. To close your mouth and to sense, they are the same. Close your mind, not your love. Let your Father grow your life through your loves, through the places you end up in. It may have never been your choice, but it is your choice to serve. Pray always for gratitude. Pray always that temptation keeps its damn fingers away from your mind.
And start getting to class on time.