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Religion vs. Relationship (10/30)
I had a fascinating conversation this evening.
A close friend introduced me to the idea of “religion vs. relationship.” Unlike other clear dichotomies, the meaning of this one was far from obvious, at least for me. I’ll do my best to summarize.
The example he used did a great job of illustrating the idea. Imagine you recently turned sixteen and got your driver’s license and your parents gifted you a new car. A few weeks later you get into an accident and total said car.
Within the context of ‘religion’, you would be fearful of your parents’ wrath. They generously bestowed the car upon you and you wrecked it. You’re scared to tell them what happened because your transgressions will become known and your inadequacies will come to light. Your parents, who possess knowledge and power, will pass judgment on you and will likely issue punishment.
You screwed up. As such, you should feel remorse and shame.
Conversely, in a healthy ‘relationship’, you know in your heart that your parents are, for better or for worse, on your side. They ultimately want the best for you and understand that you’re a wonderful and flawed human being. Rather than feeling fear and shame when you total the car, your first instinct is to call your parents because you know that when it matters most they’ll unconditionally be there for you.
This analogy was used in a podcast to discuss the guest’s relationship with God. He grew up seeing God within the framework of ‘religion’ — all knowing, all powerful, all judging. The perception was dominated by fear. However, once he started viewing God within the context of a ‘relationship’ and viewed this higher power through the lens of an unconditional supporter, the dynamic changed. He stumbled upon a newfound freedom and purpose that guides his life to this day.
I found this particularly interesting because it underscores multiple facets of the human condition beyond religion itself. In particular, I’d like to focus on two:
Self-talk: The internal dialogue we have with ourselves in endlessly fascinating. In the future I may devote an entire post to this, but right now it’s 10:39 PM and I have a blogging commitment to uphold. In short, this ‘religion vs. relationship’ dichotomy could be a useful framework for examining how we talk to ourselves. Most of us speak to ourselves religiously. If we don’t live up to our own lofty standards — which are often unrealistic and misguided — we feel shame and remorse. We repent with a counterproductive exercise of self-flagellation that serves to leave us even further from our ideal selves. While it’s easier said than done, I imagine that having a ‘relationship’ with ourselves and cultivating a default response of compassion and understanding would be a much more effective strategy for self-development (and would be a lot less painful).
Work: Anyone who reports to a boss — which is effectively everyone, because if you’re an entrepreneur then your customers are basically your boss — likely views the boss within the context of ‘religion’. If you make a mistake or show any weakness, you expect to be judged and punished. A professional setting is no place for shortcomings. This is why our résumés and LinkedIn profiles say “strategically developed multiple key accounts within a specified region” instead of “knocked on a bunch of doors in my neighborhood trying to sell shit.” We cultivate of aura of intelligence and infallibility in a futile attempt to stay ahead when all we’re doing is inhibiting our own development by refusing to admit that we just don’t know and could really use some help. In reality, we — and all other stakeholders — would be much better served by starting with a candid acknowledgement of our own limitations.
Now that I think about it, the theme here seems to be that the religion vs. relationship idea is really about vulnerability. Under the guise of religion (as it’s defined in these examples, not conventionally) it is catastrophic to show weakness or imperfection. The relationship framework, on the other hand, assumes unconditional support and paradoxically allows us to pursue development more freely and organically because failure is a natural and acceptable outcome. In this sense it’s analogous to having a growth (religious) vs. fixed (relationship) mindset.
This concept applies to many different areas of our lives and could serve as a useful lens through which to view our conversations and relationships with ourselves and others. I’m excited to try it out.