Up to this point in the book, we’ve been exploring a lot of stuff related to the problem that people are faced with. We’re all going to die, we all know it, and we just can’t seem to stop hurting each other in the quest to avoid it. It’s heavy stuff, and as I’ve been reading through the book and blogging my thoughts about it, I have to admit that it’s gotten harder and harder to keep going, because every chapter, while certainly interesting, has opened up a new facet in how we continue to screw ourselves over because we’re afraid of dying.
It’s probably fair to say that there’s an additional personal dimension going on here, as I’ve been sorting through the recent news I got about what subject I’m going to be teaching at work in the coming school year. As I’m writing this it’s been about two weeks since I heard about the change, and it still sends me into dour fits when I dwell on it. The thing is that I was given a choice about this whole thing. Without going into details, my boss explained that I could stay where I was, or I could move positions so she could hire someone else who I’ve been trying to help get a job for a while. I said that if she needed to move me to hire that person, then I’d do it.
I think I’ve wondered every day for the last two weeks why I didn’t tell her I’d rather keep my old job.
So clearly, that’s been coloring my perspective as I’ve been writing this series, and I suspect it’s been a large part of why diving back in for each entry has been so difficult. You can only take so much reminding that your anger over losing a job you wanted to keep is coming from that fact that you want to be thought of as significant because you’re afraid to die.
I suppose while Beck’s been talking about the language of demons (which I’ve complained about before) I’ve been wrestling with my own.
Fortunately for everyone involved, this chapter turns from the problem that Beck’s been so thorough in laying out, and begins discussing the solution.
About the first third of this chapter recaps the problems of death anxiety and how submitting to the principalities and powers only feeds into that anxiety. It’s a good, brief refresher if you’re like me and reading this book slowly.
The real meat of this chapter comes when Beck begins discussing first the problem of societal standards of “excellence.” This is an extension of the principalities and powers discussion from the previous chapter, but here Beck gets into the constant pressure we feel to give more to things that we think are of value: our jobs, our hobbies, our churches. The problem with this pressure is that it relies on us buying into a model of sacrifice where the altar is whatever principality we’ve chosen to follow in our rush to avoid mortality, and the sacrifice is our time and resources that could be spent on other worthy pursuits. I actually wrote briefly on this topic last summer, and it’s interesting to look back at that post now in light of what Beck’s discussing here.
What Beck points out is that most of the time we’re lying to ourselves about what we can accomplish. We have expectations that we’ll constantly improve and every year will be better than the last. It’s the typical kind of doublespeak most people are familiar with when it comes to work: we have our annual performance reviews and we’re supposed to have goals for the year to reflect what kind of growth we want to have. God forbid you say that you’re content with your current performance and that you’d just like to maintain. Beck points out the cost of constantly growing and improving in one aspect of life means that you inevitably sacrifice resources that would go to other aspects. A promotion means additional responsibilities, which means more time allocated to work, which, if you don’t have any spare time in your work week, comes from personal time that could be spent with family or pursuing other interests.
The point that needs to be reiterated here is that these sacrifices of time are all in service of death denial, and therefore, in service of death itself.
Naturally, this realization can make us angry, and we want to fight against it. Like I said, I’m teaching a subject I don’t want next year, and I’ve been angry about it because it’s felt like a setback in my career. I want my old job because it was mine and I lost it. I’ve been wallowing in what Beck describes as possessive identity. According to Beck’s reading, preoccupation with possessive identity is something that Jesus warns against in the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.
– Matthew 6:19-21
This warning about putting stock into material things is typically used in many branches of evangelicalism as evidence for a focus on otherworldliness (set aside the fact that a renunciation of the material world falls into Gnostic territory). What Beck’s suggesting here is that instead of that traditional reading, we consider Jesus’ words as an excoriation to move away from the possessive identity into what Beck terms the “eccentric identity.”
The eccentric identity is a focus on putting one’s identity outside oneself and letting it rest in one’s relationship to God. It’s a comforting idea, and one I think I’ve come across before in reading one of Donald Miller’s books (I think it was Searching For God Knows What), although here Beck goes further by pointing out that the benefit of the eccentric identity is that it allows a person to center themselves in a way that they eliminate possessive feelings about their own identities. Without possessiveness, we’re free of the anxiety that comes from knowing what we own will die.
It’s this freedom from anxiety that characterizes Jesus’ life and ministry. He represents what it means to live fearlessly in relation to God, and how that fearlessness enables true acts of love, the kind that can be personally very costly.