The Movement toward Openness

Today in this series on eight ways we grow into greater authenticity and greater faith, we shift from looking at the things we’re moving away from to focus on what we are moving towards. The first of these is openness.

I love how wonderfully vague this is. The very word is itself open. For me it brings to mind ideas like receptivity, expansiveness, inclusion, and integration, but also possibility and potential.

This rings a lot of uncomfortable bells for me. For a long time, I was living far more in constriction than openness. For a number of reasons of nature and nurture, I am the kind of person who sees the 95% chance something will fail and not the 5% chance it will succeed. And when I did take chances in life and they didn’t pan out, learned helplessness set in pretty quickly and reinforced this sort of “fundamentalist realism.” All this is to say that cultivating openness has been a difficult journey for me.

As I’ve described it here, there are two sides to openness: first, the ability to receive and integrate more and more information about the world — including contradictory, confusing, and challenging information; and second, the ability to perceive and accept the reality of possibility and potential.

The first side of this rests at the heart of integral theory: Growth happens when we can see, accept, and incorporate as much as possible in our understanding of ourselves and the world. On the personal level, growing into openness often involves a lot of ‘shadow work’, which means working with the parts of ourselves we struggle to accept. (For an explanation of this kind of work and my journey with it in sorting out my experience of race and privilege, see the post “My White Shadow.“) On the level of our interactions with the world around us, this growth is about staying with our discomfort with challenging facts until we can integrate them wisely into our worldview. This is hard because we all have a knee-jerk preference for data that corroborates our beliefs and a tendency simply to deny data that contradicts it. It takes a lot of mental and emotional labour to work with this discomfort and come to say ‘yes’ to more of what the world is telling us.

If the first side is about accepting the world as it is, the second side is about being open to the world as it could be. This might best be described with a story from my own life. I remember the moment when I realized just how deeply restrictive my vision about what was possible for me had become. I was doing some coaching training and one morning the trainer did an exercise with a volunteer from the class around her feelings about starting her own business. It was an exciting exercise, and the volunteer’s energy was palpable — and infectious — as she talked about her dreams and her passion for her business idea. But all through the rest of the day, and all through that night, I felt awful. As I worked through what was going on, I realized that I was reacting to the assumption of possibility in which the exercise had been grounded. It assumed that if something was possible, it was possible for her. By extension, if something is possible, it is possible for me too. And that was a deeply triggering idea for me. All my automatic negative thoughts and internal narratives railed against it. But I also knew, deep down that it was true. Something that wasn’t going to happen 95% of the time was going to happen 5% of the time and there was no reason why I couldn’t be in that 5%. Even the most stubborn fundamentalist realist part of me couldn’t deny that. And so, I set off to cultivate this sense of possibility, to allow myself to be more open to the world and what it might have in store for me.

Okay, but how is any of this spiritual?

What I’ve come to see is that being closed to the world is essentially an act of arrogance and sinful pride. It is a way of putting ourselves above God’s creation and insisting that we are able judge it and define it, rather than accepting it as it is and learning from it. If the evidence shows that living things evolve and have been evolving for millions of years, we do ourselves no favours in denying it. For not only are we rejecting the world, but we are also perpetuating false beliefs about the God who created it. If the evidence shows that our well-intended public policies are harming our communities instead of helping them, we do ourselves only harm in continuing them. And, if we are in fact not the simple “good people” we think we are, but are actually complicated persons full of internal contradictions and competing impulses and priorities, we only serve to harm ourselves and our relationships if we deny this reality. I’m a big believer in orthodoxy, but no orthodoxy — religious, political, or psychological — is worth preserving if it does not reflect reality.

It demonstrates a shocking lack of faith if we insist that God, or our religious tradition, is not big enough to withstand the truth of the world.

In its own way, the same is true for denying the possibility inherent in our world. It’s easy to put a pretty pious bow on it — “I’m just going to be content in all humility with what God has given me” — but deep down it is also a way of giving up on God and life and letting ourselves off the hook. If I’m honest with myself, in hindsight, my own “fundamentalist realism” contained within it a fair bit of “Trying is hard and it hurts too much when things don’t work out, so I’m going to stop trying.” Our Scriptures are filled with stories of people who were called to hard, even impossible things. Abraham was called to leave everything he knew and venture West. Sarah was called to have a baby long after menopause. Moses was called to stand up against the greatest power his world had ever known. Mary was called to carry her impossible pregnancy to term despite the risks to her reputation, safety, and life. A group of depressed and fearful fishermen was called to change the world.

How dare we set a limit on what is possible for us! How dare we close our hearts and minds and eyes to what our infinitely creative God can do!

Cultivating this sense of openness is not easy. And in the final three posts in this series, we’ll see that it requires trust in ourselves and in God, and accountability to do this well. But, it is an important movement of growth. May God help us to see all that is true and good and beautiful in the world as it is, and in our lives as they may be.

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