Thursday, March 10, 2011

Choosing the "Filters" that Help Us To See and Choose Life

In today's first reading from Mass, Moses reminds the Israelites about the promises and obligations of the covenant and tells them, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). This seems straightforward enough, right? However, were that it was so easy! If it was so easy to simply "choose life", much ink wouldn't have been spilled writing the rest of the Old Testament, which tells one story after another about how the Israelites failed to keep the covenant! What accounts for such categorical failure for humanity to consistently "choose the good", even when we know it is in our best interests? While there are no doubt many and varied reasons for this, one in particular may have to do with recent theories in the field of psychology.

Psychology has demonstrated that much of what we choose in life has to do not simply with moral or ethical uprightness but is attributable to the conscious or unconscious "filters" that we perceive life and the world through. Throughout our history, messages or beliefs about life and the world are stamped into our awareness through parents, peers, friends, experience, religion, the media, and culture (among others). These messages or beliefs form lenses or "filters" through which we than subsequently interpret our world and life. Some of these lenses or filters are "good", functional, or helpful; others may be indifferent; still others may lead us to the suspicion that the world and life are not to be trusted nor lived in a spirit of openness, honesty, integrity, and vulnerability. It makes perfect sense to suggest that we make choices for "the good or the bad" based largely on our underlying and secret (meaning, unconscious) filters or beliefs about ourselves, others, God, life, and the world that surrounds us. If our filters are a bit "off" and we wish to "retool" or altogether replace them, we might attempt to explore our unconscious in the hopes of identifying the problematic beliefs that we have so that we can than choose healthier options. However, there is another way that we can begin changing our filters.

By reading, reflecting on, mulling over, and pondering at length the great stories of scripture, we can begin appropriating and integrating symbols and metaphors that will, over time, become filters that help us to choose "the good." Many of the stories in scripture are universal in the sense that they capture experiences common to nearly every person who has ever lived. Motifs, symbols, or metaphors such as "Garden of Eden," "Exile," the "journey to the promised land" resonate with nearly every person and can therefore be integrated into a person's life as filters that help one not only derive meaning, but also make choices that lead to life. For the Christian, the "filter" par excellence is the Cross of Christ. In today's Gospel Jesus tells his disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself 
and take up his cross daily and follow me. 
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
 but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
 What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
 yet lose or forfeit himself?” (Luke 9:23-25). This is quite a tall order! In order to choose the "good" of carrying the Cross and voluntarily loosing one's self (which is quite contrary to prevailing cultural notions about what constitutes the good life), one must simply become so familiar with the Master's life that his teachings, stories, parables, and very life becomes one's own. For, before we can choose the good, we must be able to recognize or see it. In order to do this, we very often have to change one set of filters for another. Pat, TOR