In the film, Ground Hog Day, actor Bill Murray awakens each morning to the same day – February 2 – and does the same things over and over. At first it’s fun. Then it’s maddening. Indeed, a whole string of days finds him committing suicide in an attempt to stop the repetition, only to awaken again to the same day. In conversations about the film, the writer-director Harold Ramis suggests that the “day” repeats at least 10,000 times. As the story develops (repeatedly), Murray begins to adapt to the project, slowly working towards a perfect day – finally getting everything right.
The film has become a classic, both on account of how well it is done, but also because of its universal theme. Who doesn’t want to get everything right? 10,000 chances to live through “what if?”
There are no do-over’s in the real world. There are, of course, the tormenting thoughts of “what if” that drone on for far more than 10,000 days. Regret is a terrible, unforgiving master.
Of course, behind all of this is a reality: we never “get it right.”
We are hard-wired for caution and a bit of fear. In the normal course of a day, that hard-wiring is useful. It reminds us to look both ways before crossing a street and tells us not to follow too closely the car in front of us. In that the world is always a dangerous place, a lack of caution and the absence of fear would be a ticket to sudden death.
That same hard-wiring is also the source for many of the torments that dog our thoughts. Any number of life events have a cumulative effect of turning up the volume on our caution and fear. For many people, the noise and nagging of caution and fear become a steady back-drop for the whole of their daily lives. Their minds replay their failures over and over as the accompanying shame swallows up hope and threatens to control their whole world.
But…we never get it right.
Over the years I have come to the conclusion that arguing with such thoughts is useless. They are not rational judgments. Instead, they are like pain signals. Imagine arguing with a sprained ankle.
One of the reasons that we “never get it right,” is that getting it right is the wrong question – the wrong approach to our life, particularly our life in Christ. Where does the language and thought of “getting it right” come from? I would suggest that it comes out of our school-days. It is the language of a math test, a spelling bee, indeed, it is often the language of shame. We imagine that “getting it right” will make us “be right” ourselves. The two, however, are only kin to one another in their bondage to shame.
I find it deeply interesting that the language of St. John, both in his gospel and in his letters, uses imagery of a different sort when speaking to sin and the spiritual life. It is particularly strong in his first epistle.
“But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have communion with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)
St. John makes “walking in the light” the primary point of our lives. Additionally, he extols this as the means for having “communion” (koinonia) with one another. He notes, as well, that as we walk in the light, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from sin. Casting the question of “sin” in terms of light and communion (their absence), St. John gives us a very different way of thinking about ourselves and God.
We ask, “Did I get it right?” which phrases the question with the emphasis on ourselves. We become the center of our attention – which misses the point. That point is better stated as, “Am I walking in the Light?” In this, the focus is on Christ who is the Light. If I fail, then I fail within the light. The point is not my failure (for, if I walk in the Light, then the blood of Jesus cleanses me from all sin) but the Light. Christ is everything.
St. John takes great pains to remind us that we will sin:
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” (1 John 1:8–10)
It is of interest to me the role played by shame in this dynamic. “Did I get it right?” is a question posed by shame – but a question that does not bear the shame. Instead, it seeks to rid itself of shame, seeking performance as a faux shield. It is of note that one of the primary personality wounds that can be found with toxic shame is “perfectionism.” (There’s lots of other personality disorders – but this one is common). Christ was consistently confronted by Pharisees who seemed to have trusted in a kind of religious perfectionism (as St. Paul the Pharisee said, “Concerning the Law, I was blameless”). It is not surprising that these same personalities crucified Christ “out of envy” (Mark 15:10), a predictable outcome of a shame-bound personality.
St. John’s words confront the reality of our lives: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” Perfectionism is not the same as “getting it right.” Indeed, it itself is sin, or one of its many symptoms. We need to be healed of perfectionism, and not become its slave (which is misery).
St. John centers his thoughts in the reality of communion.
“He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me.” (John 6:56–57)
“Walking in the Light” can be seen precisely in the eucharistic life. Following St. John, we can say, “I live because of the Eucharist,” or even, “The Eucharist is the cause of my being.” The eucharistic life of the Church presumes confession and repentance. It does not presume that we “got it right.” But, in that we struggle to walk in the Light, it calls us back to our right (Light) mind. For years, the phrase, “Whosoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood, abides in Me and I in him,” has been my whispered prayer as I take communion. Returning to the Cup is returning to the Cause of my being. Christ’s Body broken, Christ’s blood shed, poured out for many, is His gift to the discipline of our lives.
If we understood, we would move heaven and earth to be able to receive communion as often as it is offered. This echoes the teachings of St. John of Kronstadt who had much to do with the practice of frequent communion in Orthodoxy (which was the ancient practice in the Church).
That eucharistic life is what “getting it right” actually looks like. Walk in the Light as He is in the Light. Eat. Drink. Pray. Repent. Repeat.