I recall a friend of mine saying, many years ago, “it wasn’t the Romans who killed Jesus, it was conventional thinking.”
A major deficit of conventional thinking is that, in an important sense, it isn’t really thinking at all. It’s more a series of assumptions about the nature of reality and truth delivered by an external authority or broad social agreement. To the extent that we accept in without seriously questioning it, it’s more like un-thinking.
That’s not always a bad thing. A strong container at the beginning is important. Babies are happier when they are swaddled tightly. Some plants don’t flourish until they are root-bound. Strong boundaries provide the developing child with a manageable and safe version of the world when she needs it.
As one of my teachers says, “everything belongs.”
The path of personal development, spiritual growth, or whatever you call the growing of a soul, often begins with a sense of dissatisfaction with conventional thinking. The strong boundaries that protected the child now restrict her. One senses the emperor may actually not be wearing the beautiful suit that some insist he is. Or, we find the solutions or the meaning offered to us to make sense of our lives too thin – too weak to hold the truth we’re experiencing. Perhaps we look up and out to the horizon, only to find the road we’re traveling leads to a cliff which everyone around us seems willing to pretend isn’t there.
Now the choice is before us.
If we are lucky, someone showed us early on that the path of least resistance often leads nowhere interesting. Perhaps our parents, grandparents, or a teacher opened a window onto a richer world.
Once we recognize our dissatisfaction with conventional thinking and the status quo, we begin to reorient toward other possibilities. Oftentimes, taking up the new requires putting down the old first.
The longer we carry that initial load, the harder it can be lay it down in exchange for something more robust and life-giving. But if we can even begin to see the possibility of letting go of what is too small for us, and in which we have invested so much, and to which we have grown so attached: letters in front of or behind our names, possessions, successful careers, sometimes even family and friends – what once was unconventional, unthinkable, even insane, becomes the lure.
It’s not about blowing up a life, although that happens sometimes. It’s about recognizing when the thin gruel we were told would satisfy us is not enough. Not because we are unfettered consumers or perpetually dissatisfied (though we may be those things), but because the soul does not live on bread (or thin gruel) alone. We crave more. The really real. Truth. Wisdom. Beauty. Nothing less will satisfy.
For many, the price of letting go of what does not really satisfy is steep. Some decide it is too much. For many others, the cost of hanging on to what was is even dearer. Cashing in conventional wisdom for the currency of the soul reveals that the former’s value is no longer worth much. Which is okay. Because, by the time you are ready to make the exchange, you already know that. That’s why you’re there.
The problem with conventional thinking is not that it’s wrong, but that it asks nothing of us. Conventional thinking can be correct – or at least the best we can collectively do for now – but we only know that when we filter it through our own experience, or test it in community. Once we do that, we can replace “conventional” with “our.”
Hopefully, we could also insert the word “provisional” – in the sense that our minds and hearts stay open to the possibility that we are wrong, that greater understanding and better thinking could always lie just around the next bend. The containers that give children structure must be stretched, re-shaped, even broken, on the way to adulthood, or else they ossify into fundamentalisms and ideologies.
If we are open to the possibility that wisdom, power, and internal freedom come through subtraction and not addition, decrease and not increase, we learn to appreciate the value of “alternative currencies” that mean more than bitcoin: relationship, truth, beauty, time…
External freedom is essential for everyone; until all of us a free, none of us are free. But external freedom is insufficient because it is inadequate for the growing of a soul.
That we find failure inside our victories and victory inside our failures points us toward a deeper truth: life is more than conventional thinking would have us believe. And so are we.
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