Monday, March 8, 2010

Under The Influence - America and a Lenten Struggle

In the autobiography of the great American Fredrick Douglass, he painted vivid portraits of, not only slaves, but also some members of the slave-owning families and how the institution of slavery had deeply penetrated and changed lives. He also detailed how knowledge not only changed his life, but the absence of it for others made life noticeably, even if inexcusably horrible, more bearable. Point being, there are a great many influences in history and in life, and they oftentimes play roles that we do not seek and may not expect. 

 To add to that, there are those we may not even recognize. When I was much younger, my mom wanted me to spend less time with a certain friend. Her reason was that she feared he was a bad influence on me. To that I retorted perhaps I was a good influence on him and that he should not be deprived of such. I cannot remember the finale to that exchange, but I will always remember the concept. Truth be told, I’m sure we were both right, only she was doing her duty as a mother, and I mine as a friend. 

In any case, we as individuals like to think that we are in control, if not of the events of the world, then at least of ourselves and - ultimately - who we are; that may not be so. The term “under the influence” generally refers to a state of psychological and/or physiological surrender to a substance such as a drug or alcohol. Depending on the situation, a human is either impaired or accelerated toward or away from certain behaviors while under the influence. Basically, an added variable fundamentally changes human events. 

 If we look beyond the limits of chemicals, we will find that there are also people, events, ideologies, religions, weather, and institutions that also routinely influence our lives. Knowledge, conscience, perceptions, greed, duty, tradition, culture, and even ignorance control the paths of our lives as well. And, then there is love, or so I am told. These are all influences, yes, but to be under the influence there would need to be some kind of voluntary or involuntary surrender of control. Frederick Douglass was under the influence of knowledge. Hamlet was under the influence of revenge. General George Washington was under the influence of revolution. I have a feeling that Hitler was under the influence of several things, among them – intolerance. Martin Luther King, Jr. was under the influence of a dream. Clearly some of these predicaments need not be cured, yet others can be construed as Satan himself. 

Perhaps the only answer lies not only in nourishing the healthy addictions and extracting the malignant ones, but in identifying them and then dedicating to those of supreme value. In the season of Lent, Christians are reminded of when Jesus spent time preparing for His death by denying Himself worldly comforts. In this time He was tempted by the Devil in several ways, but He was revealed to be under the influence of a divine purpose. The purpose of a retreat or a fast is to clear and focus. In denying oneself of worldly and evil things there is liberation. In liberation there is clarity and opportunity to exert greater authority over human events. The problem with being under an influence can be that the human spirit is conquered, and in fact enslaved. In liberation, the human spirit can thrive, conquer, and indeed triumph. As a person, that may be the healthiest state. As a people, just as we have eliminated slavery and moved toward a "dream", we may all need to liberate ourselves to conquer the demons ahead.

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