This is a tangent loosely related to a poem I wrote the other day, “What Now“.
I’ve always been struck by a turn of phrase in Mark’s Gospel. After the baptism of Jesus, he is tempted in the wilderness. As other writers tell the story, Jesus was led into the desert. But Mark has it this way: “Immediately the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness.”
The thought startles me.
Many of us feel driven. [Perhaps not in the same sense – I'm not offering an interpretation of the biblical passage here as much as observing the odd word choice.]
We feel as if a force compels us to do things, pushes us, strives with us, refines us.
Sometimes that force is internal – echoes of conversations we had long ago, recordings we play to ourselves. We imagine if we just do this or that, we will BE worthwhile. We will be what we’re supposed to be.
Sometimes we want to prove the ones who doubted us, who disparaged us, who were unkind and judgmental, wrong. Objectively, absolutely, unarguably wrong. We want to stop that voice – that only plays in our head.
Sometimes we want to have meaning.
Sometimes we imagine the good we do will overwhelm the bad. After all, that’s how we usually judge. King Lear’s complaint carries an instinctive appeal: “I am a man more sinned against than sinning.” Sure, I’ve done wrong things, I’ve erred, I’ve been unkind or worse – but not as bad as the things others do every day … and if I’m just good enough, they’ll fade away. Scrooge wants to sponge the writing from his grave by doing better things.
Sometimes we have a reputation to maintain. You’re only as good as your next game. What you did in the past is the past. Each attempt must be more, must be larger, must be better. If you’re not moving up, you’re falling back. We seek perpetual improvement, call it evolution – that sounds better than greed, after all.
And then there is absence. There is some lacking in us. The thing that makes us alone. Some attribute it to the fall, but I’m not sure that is at all true. There is this nothing, that, if we do something grand enough, we fill.
Sometimes we berate ourselves for laziness and failure.
It’s even in our literature – the journey archetype, the spiritual journey. How many stories start with someone being ordinary and attaining greatness? We have some familiar tropes – a hero is usually chosen, gradually grows into self-awareness, has teachers he or she must surpass, survives trials – but ultimately is driven by destiny.
I have often felt driven – since I was small. I always concoct great plans; I usually reside in that space of laziness and failure. It is a dual drive, though. Part of it about absence, part of it is about value, part of it is about making good – and all those faulty motivations. But part of it stems from things in themselves.
If I write something that has never been before, the thing itself is worth the effort – regardless of how it affects me. If I play music that would not be otherwise, it is compelling. If I teach, and people’s lives are made better – happier, more complete – and something wonderful enters the world as a result, that is good in itself – again without regard to me.
I could compare it to giving Lego to a young child. <I must confess, no longer a young child, I would still consider Lego a great gift.> You want to see what she or he will build. What they will do with it. It’s never about the child’s worth, it’s about the joy of doing. The joy of being.
But what about contentment?
I titled this drive and grace because I want to talk about grace. Not as a religious concept – though I believe it – but because of its implications. I don’t think we often understand or follow through on the meaning, the logical consequences of grace.
Nietzsche got it. [As an irrelevant tangent, I've always found Nietzsche to be the most appealing of philosophers because he's a clear and easily accessible thinker.] As an unfortunate rule, Christians shy away from Nietzsche without realizing that he offers some of the deepest insights into Christianity. I suppose this is natural because of his unremitting hostility toward Christianity – but unlike many, that hostility was born of understanding and rejecting rather than ignorance.
His critical observations about Christianity fall into three categories. First, he levels the dread charge of hypocrisy. That is facile, mostly irrelevant, but often accurate. Second, he rejects Jesus as a heroic type. That is sound: in the sense of the heroic in the ancient world, even in many of our stories now, Jesus is different in kind. Here is a man who blesses meekness, who tells his followers to turn the other cheek, who acts like a servant, who teaches non-resistance. These are not the actions of a classical hero.
Probably the most hostile thing Nietzsche is charged with is suggesting an alternate term: idiot. It would be a grotesque mistake to imagine this was an attempt to say the nastiest thing he could think of. While obviously intended to offend, the thought behind the concept is true. He is speaking in the Dostoevskian sense. Jesus lived as if the way the world is were a complete irrelevance. That is unarguable. I would say he recognized the way of things, but lived by a different way entirely – and taught others to do likewise. Nietzsche claimed neutrality to this perspective. But in that he lied.
Nietzsche detested grace. Nietzsche seems to have failed to see the relationship between the life and teachings of Jesus and the doctrines of Paul (and later Luther). He was quite clear in his loathing of those doctrines – grace makes everyone equal. It destroys the possibility of personal greatness. It kills the chance for apotheosis. It is, in fact, the opposite of the heroic ideal. Worse, it casts humans as inherently flawed and that classical heroic ideal as wrong.
Here again, Nietzsche is spot on. But what he detests, I love. I believe it right.
So what does that have to do with drive?
We have this notion that we are what we do, that we gain value through accomplishment, that we can be better than others, that our actions make us worthwhile. But (if, as I believe, grace is true) that notion is false.
There is not betterness – at least in the sense of being more worthwhile. Nothing we do, nothing we accomplish, nothing we think or produce makes us worthwhile. We already were, or we never will be. (I go with we already were.) We don’t have rank.
Having said that, drive for those rank reasons – the quest for perpetual improvement, the search for worth, the pursuit of greatness, the desire to silence our critics and their voices in our heads – are all silly.
But drive still remains. Often intensely. Actions are good or bad in themselves. Actions are worthwhile. We have compulsions – there are things we instinctively know to be worth doing in themselves. I seek the grail because I actually want the grail – not the glory of finding it. (I mean who the hell remembers Sir Galahad anyway?) The two drives that remain are to do things for the love of them, and to do things for the joy of them.