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my carrie bradshaw imitation

12 February 2004

On my way to Borders Bookstore Wednesday I saw a church sign that said: "Only God can fill the hungry heart." Not five minutes later I pulled up behind an AT armored vehicle bearing the company motto: "The system is the solution."

These messages struck me because they fit in so well with the ideas preoccupying me during that drive to Borders.

The train of thought got started the night before, during a religion discussion at work. I felt I had failed — once again — to get my point across, a situation that always sends me back to the mental drawing board for hours or days until I come up with a formulation that makes more sense than the one I had before.

This new way of looking at things goes by the ungainly name of "psychological heliotropism."


Before your eyes glaze over, let me define "heliotropism." It describes the way plants follow the sun during the course of the day and through the seasons, turning to expose themselves to the best available sunlight for maximum strength and growth. The original sun worshippers, they respond to those rays with every fiber of their being.

So "psychological heliotropism" describes how a person turns, body and soul, toward the thing that lights up his or her life. For some it's reading and writing. Other people favor music or movies. For some it's marriage and family. For other people it's playing or following sports. Others like hiking and cycling — or cooking. A few lucky people really love their work. And for some people it's religion. There are many ways to fill the hungry heart — "God" is only one of them.

So the sign lies. It's propaganda, a commercial for dogma. It's trying to tell you that your personal enthusiasms are empty if they're not connected to something beyond your own soul. As if you could tell.


I also heard a wonderful song lyric during that drive: "There's something about you — baby — so right."

That's a powerful testament from a hungry heart that's turned toward the light of his life. The singer is not saying he can describe that "something." He's not trying to give reasons for his head-to-toe response; he just knows it's "so right" that he wants to sing about it and tell the world. And when we've found the thing that inspires our interest and devotion, we know it, too. We strain toward it with every fiber of our being.


But a problem occurs when we start to think that our good thing is good for others, too — way better than what they found on their own.

This prompts us to put up signs that say, "Only God can fill the hungry heart." Or maybe we try to explain to someone why our music is superior to theirs. Or maybe we disrespect the sports fanatic as being shallow because he'd rather watch curling than read a philosophy book. We think we have found the "one true thing," and that others will be better off on our path. And so we start to preach about it.


There are a variety of points to make about this attitude.

First, I think it's incredibly important to find a source of deep and enduring inspiration; it floods us with energy, interest and enthusiasm and makes us feel at home in the world — and our own skin. And it's natural to sing its praises.

Second, I think it's important to realize that we probably don't know — and so can't really proclaim — why we are so profoundly attracted to something. It would seem that such passion and devotion come from the hidden depths of our complex characters, and that reasons come later as justifications for our friends and relatives.

Let's realize people don't get excited about things because of intellectual reasons and justifications but as a result of mysterious psychological factors, and let's not try to defend long into the night the "importance" of our personal passions. If anything, people should be encouraged to follow their own passions.

DISCLAIMER: If your passion is for gambling, alcohol, drugs or sex with children, you're not "inspired," just addicted: get help.


Third, this need to justify and preach our passion sometimes relates to thinking that "the system is the solution."

The system — usually organized religion: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and so on — is obviously attractive to many people and brings them some wonderful results. But to get things turned upside down and believe religion is inspirational because "it's true" is to misunderstand human psychology.

Indeed, if we equate truth and devotion, we'd have to conclude that all religions are true. But how could that be? Or is it that human beings are profoundly poor judges of the truth? Is the placebo as strong as the real thing? Is "I'm right, you're wrong, case closed," the best we can come up with, or is there something more to understand about belief? Or in regards religion, does the truth of the matter matter? (That was my Carrie Bradshaw imitation.)

I have on a few occasions said to a religious person, "I'm glad you enjoy your religion so much; I'm glad it works so well for you." And while I meant that as a sincere compliment it was taken as an insult, a trivialization, and the angry response was: "What do you mean 'works' for me? 'Works' has nothing to do with it: I believe it — and it works wonders — because it's true." And so we have a person stuck on the surface of literal belief, unable to grasp the power of human devotion to all manner of things that feel "so right."


One of the problems with religion — and all other types of absolute thinking, philosophical and scientific included — is that it systematically blinds people to a deeper view of human psychology.

In regards passion and inspiration, does the truth of the matter matter? Maybe not that much. As usual, the system is not the solution.


“Great doubt: great awakening. Little doubt: little awakening.
No doubt: no awakening.” — Zen proverb