I believe in being joyously unsettled, in being open to the coming of new and even foreign ideas and in pursuing life’s better possibilities.
I’ve heard that those who defect from a formerly embraced vice can become the most fervent and ill-natured critics of that vice. Years ago I helped a friend strip wallpaper in his new house. He had assembled as much help as he could, which included his decidedly self-righteous brother-in-law, Stan. Stan couldn’t stop talking about the vices of this or that rock group on the radio. Whether it was the alcohol and drug abuse of a group like Nirvana or the womanizing of the Stones, Stan couldn’t stress enough his utter opposition to such a lifestyle, an opposition that burned so hotly that he insisted on silencing the very conduit of such vice, the offending radio. He gave the impression of being morally outraged and even nonplussed that such behavior could so much as exist in the world.
I wasn’t surprised later to find out from my friend that Stan, before converting to Christian fundamentalism, had been a devoted drinker as well as an enthusiastic pursuer of unattached and attached women.
I mention Stan not to take a sideways stab at fundamentalism, but rather to mount a frontal assault on self-righteousness, especially when such conviction shows up in my own thoughts and actions. There’s no question that I’ve had a little Stan in my own life, and precisely in the area of religious attitudes. As a young college graduate, I was smugly convinced that discourse on religious matters was either meaningless or dishonest. As such, what was the point of studying the works of religious thinkers? It made no sense to me, and therefore there must not be any sense in it. End of story.
My Stan-ness became unsettled and profoundly challenged when I began reading the works of Søren Kierkegaard, a thinker who has a knack of sneaking up behind the self-righteous reader and then shoving a mirror in front of his or her face, displaying all-too-clearly how one’s conceited self-righteousness conceals a merely cheerless narrow-mindedness. Kierkegaard had caught me red-handed being a Stan. Reading Kierkegaard didn’t lead me to Christianity, but it did lead me away from a certain lazy and contented attitude about my beliefs. I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson that “People wish to be settled, but only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”
This unsettledness in spiritual, intellectual, and moral matters is what I now strive for, not as a kind of pinched and free-floating relativism that dares not judge anything for fear of being unfashionably small-minded or bigoted. Rather, I believe in being joyfully unsettled as a recognition that I am but a human being, finite and flawed to the very core, and yet growing, expanding and incorporating more and more of the world so long as I can remain open to life’s sacred coming.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.