A Better Life for George
In Season 5, Episode 22 of Seinfield, George realizes that every decision he has ever made was wrong, making his life the complete opposite of what he wanted it to be. So, in a moment of inspiration, George decided to do the opposite of what he would normally do. In doing so, his life was completely transformed.
I read some trivia that the actor who played George, Jason Alexander, said friends came up and told him how the episode inspired them to live differently. George wasn’t the only one whose life didn’t turn out how they wanted. Perhaps we all have aspects of life we wish were different. George shows us how those areas can be addressed.
I was surprised to learn that George, without knowing it, started following a spiritual practice called agere contra, which is Latin for “to act against.” Agere contra is going against the tendency to have thoughts and practices that aren’t life-giving. St. Ignatius of Loyola included agere contra in his spiritual exercises, knowing the importance of going against non-lifegiving behaviors.
Let’s face it, for many of us, there are habits, attitudes, views, assumptions, and practices that simply aren’t helpful and some which are sinful. We know we get in our way all the time. We allow thoughts and behaviors that don’t bring life to drive us, getting in the way of the life Jesus offers. Some of these we’ve had for years. We know they aren’t helpful and may know they are harmful, but we continue doing them year after year.
We can be attached to patterns of behaviour that seemingly make us feel safer, be they our insecurities, doubts, or unwillingness to be pulled out of our comfort zones. They prevent us from living our lives fully in the way the Lord intends.Edmund Lo
Steps toward Agere Contra
The first step toward transformation is observing practices that get in the way and are non-lifegiving. As I have been writing about the Enneagram, one way the Enneagram can help is by pointing out blind spots of non-lifegiving behaviors, assumptions, and thoughts. Without observation, these practices remain hidden from us.
The second step is recognition. We observe and recognize our tendencies and blind spots. We can even name them and say, “Oops…I’m doing it again.” Observation creates space between what happens and our response to it. Instead of reacting, we choose how to respond.
The space between our observation and response is where transformation happens. When we observe our behavior, standing back from it and not judging it, the created space (or time) allows us to choose our response. We choose whether to follow the same non-lifegiving behavior or do something different. When we allow Jesus into this space, we are empowered to “act against” the practices that keep us from fully loving Jesus and others.
The third step is to practice agere contra, just like George did. Well, a bit different from George’s approach since we don’t do the opposite just because life isn’t the way we want it to be. We do the opposite because we know our current tendencies get in the way of following Jesus.
For example, let’s assume your neighbor annoys you. You tend to avoid this neighbor as much as possible. Jesus, however, calls us to the way of love. So, you decide to agere contra when you encounter this neighbor and show love, grace, and compassion. As you do, you see this neighbor differently. When you allow Jesus to occupy the space between observation and response, you begin to see the neighbor through the eyes of Jesus. Who knows what might happen when we allow Jesus into our observations and responses?
Edmund Lo points to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who did that with a nun who bothered her. Everything this nun did annoyed Thérèse. However, she decided to show this nun love and compassion. What was the result? She writes:
One day she said to me with a beaming face: “My dear Sœur Thérèse, tell me what attraction you find in me, for whenever we meet, you greet me with such a sweet smile.” Ah! What attracted me was Jesus hidden in the depths of her soul – Jesus who makes sweet even that which is most bitter.
Thérèse was able to see Jesus in this woman because Thérèse chose to do something opposite from her tendency. We don’t have much control (if any) in this world, but here is one place we DO have control! We can control our response to people, events, disappointments, etc. Once we recognize our tendencies and blind spots, we can move in a different direction. Over time, these new choices can become habits and, hopefully, dispositions.
Please note that we aren’t simply using our willpower in some self-help project. Paul tells us that we are to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling because God is at work in us (Philippians 2:12-13). In commenting on that passage, John Wesley said, “For, First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works, therefore, you must work. (From his On Working Out Our Own Salvation).
The point is that God empowers us, so we can choose to do differently.
In season 5, episode 22, George put on a new life. Things were going well for him because he chose to do the opposite. However, in episode 23 of that season, George returned to his old self, reminding us that willpower only gets us so far. We need Jesus.
When we follow the self-help path, the changes are limited. When we allow Jesus to empower us and we invite him to lead and guide us in this journey, we experience true and deep transformation.
May Jesus guide you as you seek to follow and become more like him!