Asleep in a Sleepwalking Society

In the next two posts I want to address a struggle I have. I don’t think I ‘m alone in wanting to be known, liked, approved and even praised by others. I struggle with this because it seems to me that I ought to live for what is truly good and right regardless of what other people think. I ought to seek truth and never be satisfied by mere appearances. But the desire to be appreciated by others wants to dominate. I ought to want to please God more than I want to please other human beings. But how do I do this? I cannot guarantee that I am pleasing to God simply by becoming obnoxious and rude to human beings and acting as if I don’t care what others think. How can you associate with others and care about them without becoming addicted to their judgments about you? Perhaps, I ought to be overwhelming aware of God’s presence at every moment. That would certainly help. But how can you maintain awareness of God when other things are so close and so loud? In these posts I give you some thoughts I’ve had as I’ve tried to work this out:

On a recent hike I had the experience of realizing that I had been walking for some time completely absorbed in the movements of my body and the passing scenery. I had been totally unaware that it was I who had been having these experiences. What a strange feeling! It’s as if you had vacated your body and mind and become dispersed in the flow of things outside but now you’re back and you can’t remember what happened while you were gone. I’ve experienced this more than once, and I don’t think it’s rare in others. You suddenly realize that you exist here and now in relation to this particular environment and you have to take responsibility for what you are doing. You have a vague memory of having been absorbed in thought or in remembering the past or anticipating the future.

Have you ever caught yourself staring at an object that at first appeared to be something meaningful but soon became simply a meaningless focal point that holds you in a “blank stare”? After a while something will draw us out of our trance and force us to distinguish ourselves from the flow of sensation. Why is the feeling of coming back to oneself, of realizing that we are here now, so strange?

When we become so absorbed in an object or thought that we lose consciousness of ourselves, we lose a sense of time, of our relatedness to the object and of the relatedness of the object to other objects. We are so lost in the present moment that we have no sense of the present moment’s being present. The present moment feels present only because of its relationship to the past and future. Hence the experience of breaking the hold of the object over our minds is the experience of the present becoming really present in vivid distinction from the past and of becoming aware of our existence as our existence in clear distinction from the existence of other objects. I like to call this experience “waking up” because of its similarity to awaking from sleep, in which dreams seem real and time is distorted.

Perhaps the experience of waking up feels so strange because we are so seldom awake. In those strange moments of awakening we become aware of a reality that had escaped our minds previously. It is strange to discover that you had forgotten you exist! We now feel our finitude and temporality because we have disengaged with mere ideas and the flow of feeling, which have a feel of timelessness about them. In daydreams we can do anything and never die but in waking up we realize what sleep obscures. So waking up is a shock.

In observing others and myself, I’ve concluded that most people live much of their lives asleep. Our senses are taken over by what goes on around us and our consciousness is absorbed into the flow of events external to us. Our feelings and emotions are driven by events without. And waking up is a shock.

We live in a society of sleepwalkers. We play roles, live out narratives and read scripts others write for us. We desire what we are told to desire and we hate what we are told to hate. The need for approval and admiration from others is too strong. Hence, the desire to please others, to seek admiration, to be in other people’s minds approvingly can easily become the dominating force in our lives. Our consciousness becomes totally focused on the attempt to place the right thoughts of ourselves into the minds of others, and our thoughts of ourselves become totally determined by what we think other people think about us. A conscious life absorbed in striving to create an image of ourselves in other people’s minds and attempting to discern what other people think of us differs little from sleep. We live only in our imagination of the image we want others to see in us and in the dreadful doubt of what the crowd really thinks.

What would it mean to wake up from this dream? We would suddenly become aware of what we had been doing: wishing to be someone worthy of love and working so hard to discover what the crowd loves, to be what others like and to convince the crowd that we are that person. To wake up involves becoming aware that we were wishing so intently to be someone else that we forgot who we actually are and failed life’s simplest task, that is, to be ourselves, to take responsibility for our own existence. And the crowd consists of individuals doing exactly what we are doing, living to please others, so that by imagining that they really are pleasing to others they can think well of themselves. It is a house of cards, illusions supported by other illusions with no basis in truth.

But what can wake us from such a mutually interlocking set of illusions? An overwhelming experience of beauty? A brush with death? An unexpected kindness? We need something to make us aware of our God-relation—something outside the flow of sense, a word beyond the predictable script society hands us. Even a little word, such as “Wake up! You have been asleep too long!” might prepare us for that huge Word: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph. 5:14).

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