Spirituality According to Pop Culture

by Jack McLean

Gulf Islands Driftwood, 1997

During the last two decades of the 20th century, “spirituality” became something of a fashionable word. Spirituality lies, of course, deeper than fashion, just as beauty is more than skin-deep. But the steadily rising interest in things spiritual points to more than just a quirky, short-lived cultural phenomenon. The lucrative mass market that offers publications in self-help spirituality, the amazing variety of faith, body-mind, healing and meditation groups, the thriving host of teachers and gurus of diverse persuasions, both eastern and western, spiritual and material, and the phenomenal success of Oprah’s talk t.v., which has mainstreamed spirituality to the North American public—and made her as rich as a queen in the process — all indicate that the interest in this phenomenon is more than passing fancy.

One intriguing manifestation of spirituality according to pop culture is the way that select individual words and phrases, reflecting a heightened moral-psycho-spiritual awareness, are creeping into the language. Not all of these expressions are positive. Some are damning; others will become passé. But the fact is that these verbal indicators can be interpreted to signify that minds are gradually becoming aware — and with the negative expressions below, need to become more aware — of the spiritual dimensions of life. Let me try to make a little more sense out of seven of these familiar sayings. There is a moral every bit worthy of Aesop in every one.

(1) “Life is a Journey.” Journeys are purposeful. They have beginnings, stages and endpoints, bends in the road, wondrous sights to be seen along the way. They also contain scenes of trial and trauma. The purpose of the journey is to attain the final goal, to experience the homecoming. But what we learn along the way is crucial. Without the knowledge of the way, we cannot attain the desired end. As we journey on, we become more fully aware of the Divine Presence, of the divine purpose in our lives and the importance of being guided aright. As the beatnik poets of the 1950’s said: “The trip’s the thing.”

(2) “Closure/Moving On.” People like closure. An expression that is found originally in literary criticism, it is favoured because it indicates that an adverse situation has been overcome or perhaps abandoned. Without closure we become stuck — stuck in our situation, stuck in our mind-set, stuck in failing to deal with unfinished business. Spirituality, on the other hand, is the expression of all that is vital, dynamic, alive, growing and changing. Closure or moving on may mean being open and receptive to what is unfolding now, to what is looming up in this next moment, to being attentive to what is required of us in the present situation. Or it may mean that a new page on a chapter of sorrow or regret has just been turned. Closure and moving on allow us to experience the spring-time that follows the winter of discontent, the break with living in the past and being caught in the blind repetition of old patterns. It signifies the release of useless baggage.

(3) “Get Over It!” This blunt expression is used as a crude exhortation to help a struggling individual master a situation that runs the risk of sticking to our skin like a fly sticks to fly-paper. Getting over situations and/or persons can have two meanings. In one sense, it means overcoming a hurdle or surmounting an obstacle that has been standing in our way. A keen sense of accomplishment results when getting over something really happens. But some situations and persons we do not simply “get over” as we would any old obstacle. There is wisdom in the companion — although cognitively dissonant — aphorism: “The best way round is through.” We can get best get over something either by going through, as in engaging in a process that leads to resolution, or, it may seem strange to say, by absorption. Once we are able to absorb, situations or people are “digested,” so to speak. The dramatis personae in our lives or unusual situations mark or shape our destiny in significant ways and become integral to our personal history and contribute to the script that becomes our life-story.

(4) “I Need Space.” Usually spoken in the context of the relationship game, needing space may express a real spiritual need, a requirement for solitude, a longing for peace, a desire for reflection, for stepping back and sorting things out, for doing what the great psychologist Carl Jung called “soul work.” Needing space calls for a moratorium on present circumstances. But it may also indicate subterfuge or evasion, a failure to deal with a situation, or seeking an easy way out.

(5) “A Wanna Be.” This disdainful expression refers to those individuals who haven’t quite “made it,” at least in the eye of its user. This phrase indicates that judgmentalism is still alive and well, feeding the ego of those who need to feel superior to others. In a way, it condemns its user, for it implies that worldly success is valued above all. But turned on its head, or held up as a mirror, this glib label raises a question well worth asking: “What do I really wanna be?”

(6) “The Me Generation” Ours is a generation grown sickeningly materialistic, one that indulges in conspicuous consumption, immediate self-gratification, coddling, pampering and lavishness. All of us seriously need to rediscover the concept of service, the nobility of self-sacrifice, the pleasure of self-discipline and restraint, the sudden wings that spontaneous love and affection can bring, the value of patience, the enduring, sterling value of good deeds, and to experience the deep satisfaction that comes with bringing joy to hearts other than one’s own. Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s notion of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” would serve well here. “The We Generation” would be preferable. It suggests a whole other meaning.

(7) “Nice Guys Finish Last.” Now somewhat dated, and originating with the tough-minded, this sardonic expression is based on the analogy of the race. In my view, healthy competition tends to promote excellence. But we have managed somehow, in postmodernity, to slip into a pathological mind set that demands winning at all costs. Start early, it says. Make baby a winner. But making it to the top of the heap should not include the open disdain of a competitor, the neglect of our families, the ruin of our health, the flaunting of rules and moral codes, and the slippage into crime. Winning is not winning to kill. The greatest victory we may ever celebrate is winning the battle with self. That’s the Great Jihad.

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