The Most Important Thing.
When I was a young boy I remember being obsessed with finding the one thing. I blame Jack Palance. In his Academy Award winning role in the movie City Slickers (1992) Palance plays a wise Cowboy named Curly. While guiding a group of city dwellers through the wilderness of the western United States, Curly often refers to the one thing. It’s the most important thing. It’s the thing that if you find it, hold on to, and set in its rightful place, all else will work itself out.
Finding The One Thing
And so my work was set before me. I began to believe that there was indeed one thing that if I could articulate, find, hold on to, and remember to set in its rightful place, all else would work out. There is actually one thing that underlies everything else in life, affects everything else in our lives, and frames how we see everything else. Call it a worldview, a philosophy, a faith or belief system, or call it what you will – we all have our one thing. Some of us are drawn to drilling down and finding more about our one thing. Some of us jump from one thing to another as we search for the one thing that we can settle into. Some of us take our one thing for granted. At least I did.
For many years, I took the understanding of faith that I had been given for granted. I took the physical abilities I had developed over years of practice for granted. I took the love of my parents for granted. I didn’t think the pursuit of physical virtuosity was as important as finding my one thing. I thought that pursuing my one thing was enough of a practice of faith. I thought the love of parents was simply fuel to be burned in the pursuit of this one thing. As romantic as I was about this pursuit, I even choreographed a tap dance piece for Cats Paying Dues, to this song by Finger Eleven.
I was wrong. Nothing should be taken for granted. No ones love, no matter how generous or unconditional, is simply fuel for your journey. If you are given the collective group of talents that can yield physical virtuosity, you better use them, lest they whither away. And whatever anyone believes demands testing, and learning, and growth. Not just a sign post with a label.
Then I read Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. A book about living life, written by a man diagnosed with terminal cancer. In the book, filled with beautiful personal advice, he wrote this:
“I was raised by parents who believed that faith was something very personal. I didn’t discuss my specific religion in my lecture because I wanted to talk about universal principles that apply to all faiths – to share things I had learned through my relationships with people.”
(Randy would go on to discuss a key conversation he had with his minister on the day of his diagnosis.)
When I first read this, I remember being struck by the line Randy chose to draw. The separation between the personal and the relational. I was curious as to what he would have said about his own faith – how he had come to understand it, apply it, and how it framed each one of the universal principles he had so beautifully shared. It honestly bothered me that I felt Randy didn’t feel that his personal faith had a role in what he had learned through relationships with people – and by extension was inappropriate to share. Or more so, that he felt a public expression of his faith might be offensive enough to undermine the expression of universal truths he wanted to share.
I immediately looked at myself. How many times had I thought that my faith was personal (I grew up in a pretty private family, too), and therefore not completely relevant? How many times had I thought it inappropriate to speak about what I believed? How much did I actually know about what I believed? And if this is the thing that underlies everything else, and can in fact change everything – the one thing I count as most important – why aren’t I talking more about it?
Randy Pausch’s book was a beautiful offering that I’ve kept on my bookshelf for years, but something was missing for me. We live in a culture that takes politics and religion immediately off of the conversation table for fear of offending others. This is because these particular topics in application have the power to affect our lives deeply. With such power we tend to defend our own political and religious beliefs vigorously for the sake of stability. If there is such power in these topics shouldn’t we be talking more about them, not less? Shouldn’t we be learning more about how they work? I’m not only talking about the specific policies here. Rather, wouldn’t a conversation about the principles of governance (relationships of power), or the nature of spiritual things (or lack thereof), be edifying?
There are a few things that need to happen in order for any of this to take place:
- We need to give ourselves permission to talk about the things we think are most important.
- We need to have a space to talk about these things.
- We need to be willing to speak from our own knowledge and experience (not that of rumors).
- We need to approach these conversations with a disposition of curiosity and teachability.
- We need to being willing as a community to unveil the things that are hidden, often “the why,” so that we can truly speak in honesty.
As I’ve walked through these four precepts I’ve been deeply changed. Here’s how:
The granting of my own permission to speak about these things has lead me to become the pastor of Graffiti Night Church, a small gathering in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Every Sunday, and now throughout the week I find myself with opportunities to speak on the nature of the faith that frames my life.
The vision of the need for a space to talk and a communal approach to the solution, has lead to the development of The Table – an ongoing gathering for the practice of principled conversation.
The practice of speaking from my own knowledge and experience has changed my own ongoing learning practice. I’ve rededicated time to the study of sacred texts, and other primary resources, and tested my understanding in conversation with those who are more specialized in these areas than I am. This has also become the standard by which I curate my intake of news. I prefer the text of the law currently being debated, not the headline, summary, or interpreted application. I prefer the quoted text from a sacred book (in context), not only the report of how a community has expressed its beliefs.
The disposition of a good conversationalist is steeped in curiosity. I’ve seen a good question spark a light in the person responding, as if to say, “I’ve always waited for someone to ask me that question.” The curiosity here is not for the sake of the asker as much as it is about giving the permission for someone to share who they are. In the asking we have the potential of bringing to light the journey of a fellow human being. There is immense beauty in a life willingly shared. Curiosity in this context is an outgrowth of love.
And isn’t a complete love the one thing we’re trying find, hold on to, set in it’s rightful place, and ultimately express?
If you’re working in these areas, I’d love to learn about what you’re doing. Share in the comments section.
- I love this word. It is more complete than education (which can feel distant and impersonal at times), in that it speaks to improvement and uplifting in intellect and character of a person or people. ↩