The Shade of the Cross We Bear

“Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.  For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?  Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Mark 8:34-37

We are motivated by two things in life: finding happiness and staying alive.  However, these two motivations are often at odds with each other.  We can see that the drive to make money is rooted in our own survival instinct to eat and stay warm.  Certainly, making more money affords us greater material comfort and pleasure and many people equate these with greater happiness.

However, while wealth may allow us greater comfort and pleasure, it does not always guarantee greater happiness; moreover, the path to wealth is usually riddled with anxiety and a great deal of physical, mental, and emotional strain.  In many cases, people make a decision at some point in their life to either primarily pursue their own happiness or to achieve financial security.  Both paths come with their own challenges.

The path of financial security comes with the anxiety of forcing yourself to repeatedly do something that gives you no joy or peace—for example, working for someone else’s company that is largely structured to enrich the owner.

The path of seeking happiness makes us willing to cut the cord of material security and at times walk down less travelled paths.  We don’t know where help or rest will be found on these paths but the sense of living is heightened by the thrill and uncertainty of walking through the unknown.

No matter what path we choose, almost all of us end up working in order to feed ourselves and to provide a lifestyle sufficient to our desires, however great or small.  This necessity motivates us to discipline ourselves and to work repeatedly at something that we might not do otherwise.  But is there a reward for this work?  Is there a purpose to this cruel reality of life?  Would life be better if the requirement for work ceased to exist and we could simply live according to our pleasure?

Every soul has its lessons to learn in this world.  The mechanic learns to organize his mind and think more intricately and, in that way, develops a greater intelligence.  A musician, through repeated discipline and practice, learns how to express the beauty of the mind in a way that we can enjoy almost physically and, therein, can offer a spiritual light to the world.  A carpenter learns how to apply his will in a patient and persistent way in order to create something of value and thus learns that strategic thinking, discipline, and precision yield fruits of great and lasting value.

Farmers learn that God’s will is greater than man’s because all of his labor and intuition count for nothing without the right weather to ensure a good harvest.  A teacher learns that some students can be molded like soft clay and learn easily while others are as hard to turn as a palm tree, but that even the tree can be influenced and taught but only slowly and with deep patience.

Man’s labors are often bitter like medicine, but bring their own lesson and allow us to keep growing and evolving.  We are driven to work by the need to keep ourselves alive.  And this thorn in our side galls our pride.  But without it, life would be sick and empty—like a diet consisting of only sugar.

We think we want to only enjoy life and to feel the pleasure of great meals and good company—to have the time and resources to do what we like and to enjoy our personal interests and hobbies without end.  And we do want these things and they do bring us a measure of happiness.  But what we also want—even more deeply—is the fulfillment of learning life lessons and the rich flavor of growing mature and strong as human beings.

Work gives us this opportunity.  Within the context of this fulfillment, we can enjoy our interests and hobbies and life’s pleasures.  Without this foundation, however, we fall sick and begin to feel empty.

We can even say that Life brings us the work we need in order to learn the lessons we are meant to learn.  And if we are unfulfilled in what we are doing, it’s because we haven’t dedicated ourselves to the learning in front of us.  Much like how we could hate the curriculum of the 8th grade, but until we learn it we cannot move on to high school.

So instead of asking ourselves: “what do we need to find to be happy?” we ought to be looking at what unfinished task or unlearned lesson is right in front of us.  And instead of scattering our energy by looking for happiness in novelties to excite us and to fill our time, we would be better served by concentrating our energy on the study and mastery of what is already in our lives.

This could be taking care of what we already have (e.g. our apartment, our car) in order that we be worthy to have something better.  If we are looking for better friends, we could start by treating better the friends that we already have.  If we are looking for a better job, we could either quit the job that is making us sick with anxiety and find another one, or, if the work suits us, we could commit ourselves more whole-heartedly to the task at hand in order to make ourselves worthy of a better, more challenging, and more engaging job.

And if what we want is to be happier, we could start by seeing what Life has already brought us.  Very likely, we can find the secret to greater happiness in the shade of the cross that we already bear.

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