May 30, 2008
You Walk (with God) Wrong
Do our spiritual practices insulate us from the benefits of pain?
In a recent issue of New York magazine, Adam Sternbergh accuses, "You Walk Wrong." And I can't help but think that his insight into feet has spiritual application for Western Christians.
As the title suggests, Sternbergh claims that none of us walks correctly. But it's not our fault; it's shoes. "Shoes are bad," he claims. In fact, he cites researcher William Rossi as saying, "Natural gait is biomechanically impossible for any shoe-wearing person." After comparing the feet of 180 people from different cultures, along with a few feet from 2,000-year-old skeletons, researchers concluded that feet were healthier before shoes became fashionable (the skeleton feet were better off). And people who don't wear shoes - Zulus, in this case - have healthier feet than we Westerners. Athletes who wear cheaper, less padded, shoes have fewer injuries. Elderly people with back, knee, and hip problems report less pain when barefoot. This is, to oversimplify, because feet absorb shock better than shoes (because they flex) and because we walk lighter when barefoot (because we can feel the ground).
Growing up, I loved the feeling of shag carpet and cool mud between my toes and feeling the earth as God made it, with all its points and sharp edges. So I was particularly pleased at Sternbergh's conclusion: that our feet - and the rest of our ambulating parts by extension - are healthier when we avoid the temptation to wrap them in foam. Lacing up to avoid the momentary discomforts of walking unshod causes long-term problems, because although our feet adjust to walking without shoes, our joints never adjust to walking with them.
Now for the spiritual application.
Our culture is determined to mediate its own experiences, so that we feel what we want when we want. That explains my frustration with NetFlix. Who knows what kind of mood I'll be in by the time I get a movie in the mail? Will I want to laugh or think or cry on Friday evening two weeks from now? Or to take another example, when my wife brings up a difficult conversation (like the family budget) at an inconvenient time, I'm tempted to say, "I can't deal with this right now." It's as if I have some right to determine when to face difficulty and what emotions to engage.
This impulse appears in broader Christian culture. The title of a book by the bestselling author of Boundaries (Zondervan, 2002) says it all: Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren't (Zondervan, 1996). We've learned to protect ourselves with spiritual gifts inventories: "I'm afraid I can't help in the youth group; it's not my gift." We consider things edifying if they reinforce what we think, not if they unsettle us (I had this conversation with Christians concerning Pedro the Lion.)
Churches, too, can further insulate their members by catering to these tendencies. Instead of encouraging parishioners to submit to the congregation, an elder, or mentor, churches often teach them to self-diagnose and self-prescribe their spiritual formation regimen. Or they offer a variety of service times and styles to prevent congregants from making difficult (and formative) decisions about priorities.
When you walk without the insulation of shoes, you don't have the privilege of deciding when to tread rocky ground or cool mud or warm sand. But that's just what makes our feet resilient. We take the rough terrain when it comes and learn balance in the process. Similarly, if I lived without spiritual insulation, I would learn balance by adjusting my stride to account for difficulties when they arise, not by avoiding them until I'm ready to face them. My spiritual feet would toughen and I would be healthier for it.
What's the solution? Spiritual disciplines are a great place to start. We can slip off our shoes and maneuver uncomfortable ground through fasting, silence, and giving. Over time - according to the saints who do this sort of thing - you find the periods of discipline more natural than indulgence, and your feet stay bare more often.
For myself, I've found liturgical worship and following the Church calendar to do much the same thing. Pentecost Sunday - regardless of how I feel about my finances or family issues - is a cause for celebration. I may not feel the presence of the Holy Spirit, but I am directed to rejoice in it nonetheless. Conversely, whatever my personal victories, Good Friday is a time to mourn.
In The Gift of Pain (Zondervan, 1993) Paul Brand (with Philip Yancey), explains that insensitivity to pain has serious medical consequences:
Without this chorus of pain, a leprosy patient lives in constant peril. He will wear too-tight shoes all day. He will walk five, ten, fifteen miles without changing gait or shifting weight. And?even if sores break open inside his shoe, he will not limp.
Does the same not apply to our souls? What do we risk by ignoring the "indispensable protection of pain?"