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Hang-Gliding and Mudwrestling: The Spiritual Life

During my workshops I like to use two metaphors for different ways of thinking about spirituality: hang-gliding and mudwrestling.

Some think of spirituality as hang-gliding high above your troubles and the troubles of the world, giving you perspective, so that, like God in that popular song years ago, you can see everything “from a distance.” And there’s some truth to this; spirituality can give us perspective in which we see the larger picture, the grander scheme, the wonder of it all.

But spirituality, to me, is often the task of mudwrestling, in which we wrestle with the powers that be, whether within our own psyches, within families and faith communities, in the workplace or the public square. We also wrestle with suffering and failure and disappointments, with disabilities and limitations and challenges. Some few wrestle with success or wealth or attractiveness. And this shapes our souls for good or ill. But whether they warp or enlarge our souls is the choice of the conscious spiritual life.

For many of us, religions in which we were reared caused the very pain with which we struggled. A friend, brought up as a biblical literalist, felt compelled to burn all of his family Bibles to embrace a new way of understanding scripture.

Yet I believe it’s in the Bible that we find people and a God willing to wrestle with one another. The spirituality of the Bible is more mudwrestling than hang-gliding, from the depiction of a God who wrestles mud into human shapes in Jewish scriptures to the depiction of creation itself groaning in childbirth in Christian scriptures.

Most obvious is the myth about Jacob wrestling with God in the middle of the night. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” Jacob tells God. Thus Jacob is renamed “Israel,” which means one who strives with God.

I thought of this story one Sunday morning when reading The New York Times Magazine, featuring stories of how “Health is All in Our Minds.” Daniel Smith wrote about his and his brother’s lifelong struggle with debilitating anxiety in an article entitled “The Maniac in Me.” He eventually concludes with Kierkegaard that his anxiety is his “best teacher”—but not of itself, rather because of his “lifelong effort to think clearly and act well in spite of it.” He writes:

My brother and I grew up in a Jewish but largely secular home. Each of us had a bar mitzvah, but we managed to emerge from childhood with little understanding of, and littler faith in, religious texts. [My brother] is convinced that our lack of religion has handicapped us psychologically. “It’s not really fair, when you think about it,” he told me…. “We’re surrounded by people who came into this world with these portable little bundles of certainty, these neat foundational texts. They don’t have to go rooting around for comforting words. What do we have? What did we get? Nothing. A handful of movies and a few of Dad’s jokes. We’re at sea. We’ve always been at sea.”

On reading this I immediately thought of all the great characters in Jewish scriptures these anxiety-ridden brothers could have identified with: the stammering Moses, the reluctant Jonah, Jeremiah with feelings of inadequacy, Isaiah of the “unclean lips,” but especially the struggling Jacob.

That’s what I saw in the Bible growing up—people like me, wrestling with God, wrestling with the powers that be for acceptance, respect, equality, justice, and compassion. My own struggle shaped the soul I am today, shaping a spirituality within me of acceptance, respect, equality, justice, and compassion. What I wanted I now am better able to give. And I daresay many of you will identify with that sentiment. That’s probably why you’re reading this.

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