I just read a line in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World, that probably would not strike most people as being profound. Somehow it hit me in the way that profound things do. And that is the point in some profundities. Some things are not inherently profound. But they become profound when they take on significance for someone.
The line comes from a chapter Taylor calls, “The Practice of Carrying Water.” What is ironic about this whole matter is that chapter was not the most interesting one from the book. Generally, I have found Taylor’s book to be amazingly good. But this chapter felt like it labored too much to make an interesting point. Perhaps that is because I have dealt with the subject of the chapter as much, or more, than Taylor.
Essentially the chapter is about the electricity going off after a big storm. Of course, that changes the nature of life for all of us comfortable Americans. Almost tragically, we cannot watch television or do anything that requires “juice,” as electricity is often labeled. Most of us take this juice for granted. Our lives are built around its ever-present reality. It is so common that we take it for granted. And then, boom, a storm happens or something that disrupts. That was the experience Taylor was describing.
Let me quote the passage that spoke to me so profoundly. Taylor comments, “Having no power, I discovered how much I could actually do. I was made to exceed my self-interest for a while, expanding my circle of concern to include every living thing in my vicinity.” Having no power---the electricity was disrupted---changed life for her and her husband. They were living on a little farm. I lived on a big farm. The disruption of power is a big deal---especially when you have a large herd of dairy cows whose milk is delivered by milking machines. For me disruption meant milking by hand!
Without power Taylor was in a position to discover new things and, perhaps, old things in new ways. I like how she puts it: “I discovered how much I could actually do.” Again on the surface, this does not seem profound. I should think that she, like all of us, know we can do more than we actually do. If I had no car, I know I could walk more and walk further. But she means more than this. She points me to something more profound.
The next line is what knocked me over. She claims, “I was made to exceed my self interest for a while…” That is profound. It jolted me in good ways. If you are like me, most of my life is secure in doing what I want to do---I am comfortably within the range of my self-interest. People who are in jail, who are quite ill or suffering other maladies are not comfortably within their self-interest. This caused me to go back to Taylor’s sentence.
I appreciate her honesty. She was “made” to exceed her self-interest. She did not choose it. Most of us don’t sit around deciding to “unplug” from electricity. Because it is always on, we take advantage of it and operate within the comfort of our self-interest. I can have the lights on, the television on, my furnace on, etc. My self-interest is to be comfortable, entertained, etc. Mission accomplished.
The key to Taylor’s profundity is not an argument for or against electricity. The key is how we see our self-interest. That is a simple concept. Self-interest is whatever I am interested in. I suppose it is as simple as looking at what we normally think and do when we have a choice. If I am honest---and this is what Taylor’s words forced---I am a little disappointed with my self-interest. I realize how easy it is for the spiritual piece to fall out of the picture. My spiritual life is not electrified. There is no on-off button. It is not a click away. In fact I realize how easy it is to ignore my spiritual life because there is so much other interesting thing that I do with myself.
Too much I realize my life is connected with all the stuff in my life---my self-interests. Connecting with God requires an intentionality that does not seem necessary for all the normal things in my life. I realize how habitually I turn on the lights, turn on the tv, turn on the computer, iPhone, iPad, iWatch, etc. They almost always work. They work powerfully because they rob my interest and imprison me for hours, for days, for years and potentially for a lifetime.
I may be so normal that it will take a blackout to “make” me exceed what I normally do. Again Taylor puts it well when she describes the “expanding my circle of concern to include every living thing in my vicinity.” That is what awareness, attention and acting in new ways could allow any time I want it to happen. I put connecting with God in that category.
The key to spiritual growth in this arena is choosing to exceed my self-interest, rather than passively waiting until I am “made” to do so. Maybe this is exactly what the spiritual disciplines are designed to do. Spiritual disciplines are a choice to blackout my normal routines and to exceed my self-interest. I want to do this because I know I want my self-interests to include that living, deep relationship with God.