It is surprising to me that after 61 years of living on this planet that I should still be learning such simple things as how to wake up. I’ve been doing it, to varying degrees of success, all of my life. It never really occurred to me to do it in a conscious way. Usually I’ve just been trying to get conscious in the first place.
Some Good Days
I’ve been a snoozer, starting my day by setting goals that I plan to put off for another ten minutes. I’ve been a worrier, dragged from my few miserable hours of much-needed sleep by the continuation of yesterday’s waking nightmare that fitfully turned into actual nightmares at 4:00 am.
I’ve awakened in anger at perceived injustice done to me and actual righteous indignation over very real injustice done to those I love. I’ve woken up with the sad realization that today will be as miserable and hopeless as the day before, pulled from my covers by duty and obligation without possibility of change.
And I’ve had some good days, waking up to exciting possibility with all of the beauty of the world stretching before me and a new adventure laid at my feet; barely able to get to sleep the night before in anticipation of the glory of the coming day.
Then, while reading C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity for the first time since college, I read two pages that stopped me cold – the last two pages of chapter eight to be exact. I have been re-reading those two pages every morning, ever since.
. . . the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.
We can only do it for moments at first. But for those moments the new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because now we are letting Him work at the right part of us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye or stain which soaks right through…
C. S. Lewis: Mere Christianity
At first I went back to make sure that I understood it, then to remember it, then to make sure that I never forget.
Those two pages started a fire in me that is only burning hotter. It ignited the possibility of real change in my life. At my age, that’s not just surprising, it’s downright shocking. Here’s how it connected with me.
Science has known for a while that our thoughts are constantly re-wiring our brains. As we think, new connections are made. The term they use is plasticity – as in moldable like Play-doh.
This is how someone with a mild stroke can get much better with therapy. A friend of mine had a small stroke recently and has improved to the point that it’s hard to tell he ever had a problem. The doctors said they expected full recovery. Full recovery!
The way it works is intentional training forces the brain to grow new connections and wire its way around the problem. It’s hard. It takes a lot of work. But the fact that doctors now consider this kind of recovery normal shows how far we’ve come in our understanding of the human brain.
So, what does this have to do with C. S. Lewis? It’s how brain science connects with the phrase,”now we are letting Him work at the right part of us.” When we say that what we think rewires our brain by making new physical connections, one scientist put it this way – our thoughts are creating matter!
That’s part of why change is so hard. Our fleeting thoughts are slowly set in the concrete of our physical brain. We physically become our thoughts. These thoughts become what we call “ourself,” our personality, our identity.
And our brain puts an awful lot of weight on those past thoughts because that is what helped us to survive this long. Our brain wants to get up every day and do the same thing as yesterday because, from a survival standpoint, it worked.
But the obvious question is was what we did yesterday really the best thing we could have done? Or are we just stuck in a loop with success being defined by the fact that we woke up the next day? And there’s an even bigger question. Is what I did yesterday really who I am?
We Are Not Who We Think We Are
I was once and foremost a crier. When things went in a way that I didn’t like I simply took a long deep breath and began to wail until my face turned bright red and things got better. That was who I was. Thank goodness this was not last week. When I was an infant without speech or experience to know what was wrong or how to fix it, I just screamed until things got better. And that worked for awhile because I had a mother. Thanks, Mom.
But now, thankfully, I no longer define myself as a crier. I have grown bigger than that. I am more than that.
At one point my life was limited by doorknobs because I couldn’t work a doorknob. I could have just given up and said I am a person who lives on this side of the door. That’s all there is to me. I am only this. We all can see what a limiting line of thinking this would be. It would be self-imprisonment.
When we add the fact that I can grow and learn and become more, everything changes. Doorknobs turn. Limitations fall away. Unimagined possibilities become everyday facts. So, what I think is me, – my personality, my self – isn’t what I thought it was.
I Am More Than My Brain
It becomes obvious that, if I’m thinking my brain into existence, rewiring my brain by my thoughts, there is more to me than my brain. There is a spiritual part of me which transcends my brain. Who I am is more than just the physical. I am also spirit.
This means changing my mind is more than just behavior modification techniques. It is more than mind control and habits. It is essentially a spiritual task. That puts it squarely in God’s domain, which should be no surprise to me since God is the ultimate changer of lives and thoughts. There is no one better.
This means that if I seriously want to change my brain for the better, I should ask God for help. I should pray,”Lord, change my brain.” In doing so, I’m asking God to change who I am.
Giving Up Myself
In this way I have, for the first time, a real chance at becoming a better me, not merely by my efforts but by the one who created me. But this seems a little scary at first. I don’t want to give up who I am. That’s all I have. I don’t want to become a mind-numbed robot, a clone doing another’s bidding, a cultish, unthinking slave. I’m afraid of this.
But God isn’t interested in making me the same as everyone else. All I have to do to reassure myself is look around. This is the same God who creates individual snowflakes. The one who makes fingerprints different – even between twins! He is creative beyond my wildest imagination. He would never want a stamped-out, assembly-line, production-model person.
It would be like asking the world’s greatest artist to spend his days running a photocopier.
What I Get Back
When I give my brain to God, I get something far, far better in return.
I turn in my beleaguered, battered brain that has been pounded into submission since childhood, hammered into conformity in middle school, melted into societal molds in high school and carefully ground into sameness in college. It has been filled with oft-repeated lies and discouraged from serious thought. It has been bedazzled and video-gamed into a stupor by vapid entertainment. It has been dipped into Facebook and polished by the abrasion of relentless political correctness into a work of avant-garde art.
But what I get back is reborn. My brain has come back to life. Instead of being conformed, it has been released.
At this point in my life, I am discovering a capacity for love that I never knew. I find myself having patience. In traffic! I didn’t work and fret and train myself into patience. I didn’t go to a patience seminar. Instead, I find it hidden there. I find joy and music like a thawing mountain stream in springtime. It’s an amazing discovery, an exploration of the me I could have been all along.
I’m Not Perfect
It doesn’t really need saying that I’m not perfect. You know this. But I am becoming someone I didn’t think I could be, and in fact, couldn’t be in my own strength. My perspective is slowly changing. My courage has sparked into flame. Hope has begun to melt my cynicism. I am not so judgmental of others.
Instead of working very hard to beat myself into submission until I can eek out a smidgen of love for the unlovable, I find myself loving them and seeing myself in them. I understanding how unlovable I am and how amazing it is that someone, like my wife, could love me when I don’t even like myself very much.
But it is not something I’m doing on my own. I’m no longer alone in the weary task of trying to better myself under my own power. I am relieved by humility. The weight of pride is lifted away.
listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.
This certainly feels better than trying to carve myself into a new creature from the outside in.
When He said,”Be perfect,” He meant it. He meant that we must go in for the full treatment. It is hard; but the sort of compromise we are all hankering after is harder–in fact, it is impossible. It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
Please, do not miss this point. As of this summer it has been fifty-five years since I first accepted Christ. I have taken it seriously.
My parents had me in church before I could say “Da Da.” Sunday School, Sunday night services and Wednesday prayer meeting followed as steadily as the Earth turns. I accepted Jesus at age six in Vacation Bible School. Church choir, youth musicals and mission trips led to contemporary Christian bands. I majored in Bible at a Christian university where I met my wife.
We were married in church and in turn delivered our own children almost straight to the church nursery. We taught Sunday School classes and our church, with grace and determination, carried us through our darkest hours. I prayed regularly. I studied my Bible.
I say all of that only to point out this.
What surprises me is that, at sixty-one years old, I find myself still being re-born, from the inside out, not who I thought I was! I am a stranger to myself in the best possible way. At this age, I am new. And that is good news.
Birth Of A New Brain
All I did was ask God to change my brain. All I had to do was ask each morning. At the birth of a new day, I am also reborn. God’s quiet, daily object lesson is not lost: sleeping and waking, night to light, brand new day.
He gave me the strength to shove back my many plans, to fill my early mornings with intentionally inspiring music, read my Bible and listen for that quiet voice. I’m not just beginning a new day; I’m beginning a new me.
Now some part of me is embarrassed at discovering such life at this age. My relentless inner critic reminds me that making so much progress shows how far I have not progressed until now. But age is no guarantee of maturity. And C. S. Lewis was 54 years old when he published Mere Christianity, just a few years younger than I am.
So maybe growing up at all is the trick. And maybe the fact that there is still so much to learn of this great mystery means life will never grow dull. And maybe, compared to what is to come, we’ve barely begun to learn at all.
What we have been told is how we men can be drawn into Christ––can become part of that wonderful present which the young Prince of the universe wants to offer to His Father––that present which is Himself and therefore us in Him. This is the only thing we were made for. And there are strange, exciting hints in the Bible that when we are drawn in, a great many other things in Nature will begin to come right. The bad dream will be over: it will be morning.
Perhaps it is to this dawn that I am slowly learning to wake. Practicing here for that day, that first good morning, when the snooze will be forgotten and coffee will not cross my mind.
Photo by Aris Sánchez via Flickr.