Relentless self-improvement is a roaring growth market in the U.S., recession or no. According to Inc. magazine, “Americans spend more than $11 billion each year on self-improvement products and services, including motivational-speaker seminars, networking and wealth-building instructional DVDs, and spiritual guidance books” (“Best Industries for Starting a Business”). In fact, even though many industries will continue to contract over the next three years, the self-help sector is expected to grow by 6.2% annually. In the process of researching this post, I looked up a book called The Dark Side of the Light Chasers, thinking that it would be a critical analysis of enlightenment-obsessed self-help products. Instead, it was yet another “enlightening guide” (literally – from the book!) presenting “the steps to wholeness and transformation,” and even offering helpful online courses and coaching.
“Epiphany” is a word that is in vogue in the self-help/psychology industry. In the current usage, it means ” the sudden realization or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something” (Wikipedia). It comes from the Greek epiphaneia, meaning “manifestation” or “striking appearance”. Epiphanies seem to appear like a blazing star “out of nowhere,” after a very long haul of dogged work on a particularly intractable problem. The classic example, of course, is the myth of Sir Isaac Newton under the apple tree, suddenly “discovering” gravity after being hit on the head by a falling apple. Epiphanies are coveted by every thinker, writer and tinkerer. We all crave that moment, when “all of a sudden” everything falls into place and makes complete sense, in a completely new, different (and hopefully lucrative) way.
Well, all you light chasers are in luck this week, because this is the Feast of the Epiphany on the Church calendar. The Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the adoration of the Christ
Child by the magi from the East, led to Him by a bright star shining over His birthplace. Even though popular song and memory has recorded them as “three kings”, the text does not enumerate them or give them a title other than magos, “wise men” – most likely philosophers or astrologers. John Wesley noted that the magos were “The first fruits of the Gentiles. Probably they were Gentile philosophers, who, through the Divine assistance, had improved their knowledge of nature, as a means of leading to the knowledge of the one true God. Nor is it unreasonable to suppose, that God had favoured them with some extraordinary revelations of himself” (Wesley’s Notes on the Bible).
Many people make the mistake of thinking that, if they hound the star of enlightenment and inspiration to death, it will come shine upon them. I once knew a choir director who was (ironically) obsessed with the idea of “sacred silence”. He detested applause during church services. He padded about the church during services in sock feet so that the sound of his footsteps would not tarnish the golden silence between songs as he went between the organ and the choir loft. He was a very accomplished choir director – and also a rather dour one.
There was one time when the church choir gave a grand performance that was accompanied by dancers and even acrobats scaling the columns inside the church to soaring music. The event was recorded for posterity. My partner and I were there with a group of blind people, for whom we were narrating the visual parts of the performance. Their guide dogs also came with them, obediently tucked underneath the pews. During one especially powerful piece of music, there was an interval of stunning sacred silence at the climax … during which one of the guide dogs emitted a long, basso profondo GROAN. My partner, I, and half a dozen blind people promptly doubled over in poorly-stifled laughter. Our blind guests fortunately missed the look the choir director gave us, which could have fried meat. “There are none so blind as those who will not see” – Matthew Henry, English Presbyterian Minister. Or hear, we might add.
The point of all this is that the more we hound the light of God’s chesed [Hebrew: unconditional, Covenant-backed Love], the more it eludes us (and the hounds will have none of it!) If the light we are chasing does not lead to unconditional love, but rather to cranky perfectionism, we are missing the point. When we make ourselves in charge of our own and others’ perfection, we are (as one professor of mine said) “putting the Holy Ghost out of business”. In the course of pursuing our New Year’s resolutions, let us remember that the light only points the way – to the birth of unconditional love. It’s fine to strive toward a goal, but let’s let God get a word in edgewise while we’re at it. Happy New Year and God Bless.