Monday, December 25, 2017

Wrestling with God

Status: experimental

Jacob became Israel, which means “he who struggles with God”. His descendants became the nation of Israel, who struggle with God down to this very day. According to the stories, Jacob actually, physically, wrestled with God, or an angelic representative thereof. Apparently Jacob had some pretty good technique, as he held his own until sunrise, when the angel declared the match a tie but then touched Jacob’s hip, laming him. It’s as if to say that God allows you to wrestle him, in fact it might be the Right Thing To Do, but he’s still going to exact a price. You can’t just swing on the supreme monarch of the universe without penalty, he’s a cocky sonuvavirgin.

The outcome of Jacob’s wrestling match with God was a lame hip, a new name, Israel, a promise that his descendants would become a great nation, and a badass story to tell at the watering hole. 

I hadn’t thought about the story of that Jacob for a long time, when Jordan Peterson started covering it on his podcast. That’s when an uncanny parallel came to me. I’m a Jiu Jitsu fighter, which is wrestling, but pursued with the meticulous mind of the Japanese, and perfected through the gauntlet of Brazilian male competitiveness. If Jacob were alive today, he might go to my gym.

Jiu Jitsu is how I struggle with God, if you take the mystical/psychedelic leap of identifying God with his creation, and especially his conscious, human creation. In Jiu Jitsu, I come to face the reality of my limitations and my response to them. The emotional high of imposing my will on a sometimes stronger, larger opponent is mirrored exactly by the existential horror of having my face pinned to the floor by a sweaty, hairy chest, while the air is crushed out of my lungs by my opponent’s weight. In this moment my whole body shouts  “no!”, unified from nerve to sinew in the belief that there is something wrong with the universe. But what am I to do about it? Pray? The lord helps those who help themselves. 

The process of improvement in Jiu Jitsu is the same as in any difficult endeavor. It involves trial and failure, and more trial with the knowledge that you will certainly fail. It involves suffering, including a lot of physical suffering, which is somehow not the worst kind. At least physical suffering leaves you with a cool story to tell at the watering hole. It involves self-doubt and criticism, listening for and seeking feedback. It involves periods of obsession, when your conscious mind, anticipating the next roll, gorges on every bit of knowledge it can. It involves periods of rest while your subconscious mind consolidates knowledge into movement patterns and instincts. It involves injuries, as you learn your limits. It involves shame, as you learn the unwritten rules by breaking them, but only once. It involves feeling like an outsider as the higher belts ignore the beginners who mostly wash out in a few months, anyway. 

The process of improvement at Jiu Jitsu hinges on one of the most important virtues: the ability to tolerate suffering. It is great practice for other endeavors that require the ability to tolerate suffering, which happens to be everything worthwhile. The suffering of Jiu Jitsu is more mild than some other kinds, like an inoculation with a weaker virus. From experience, I can say that running a startup or losing a close relationship are far worse. 

Jiu Jitsu is culturally dissonant in the circles I run in, which are more interested in peace and love than the battle of two wills through the medium of limited violence. That’s one of the things I like about it. When I go to Jiu Jitsu class, I say to myself “I’m doing this for me”. It grants me no social status, it wins me no points with the ladies. It is this weird thing I do on my own, off to the side, in isolation. It is where I train my will to struggle with God. If I gave up, nobody would care, except for me and perhaps God. That’s one of the keys to struggling with God, the motivation to do so has to come from within. 

I wonder if I would have more peace had my parents named me differently. As a Jacob, my destiny is to struggle, so I might as well get good at it.

There is another way in which I have long been the one who struggles with God. I struggle with God through struggling to understand reality. I refuse to close my mind to any possibilities, and the result is an internal battle between conflicting ideas. Sometimes I’ll hold a belief for a while, and I’ll battle other people with it. Inevitably, my mind becomes aware of flaws in the beliefs I hold, and I am too honest to unsee them. The flaws worm their way through the edifice of belief, and the whole thing comes crashing down. 

I guess I’m looking for something to believe in. 

When I was a teenager, my belief in God crumbled. Several nights, I got down on my knees and prayed with all my might that he would help me believe in him. God grant me faith, or a miracle, or something unexpected. Sometimes I cried in anguish, like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. My parents and friends were disappointed in me when I left their faith. I wonder if they realize how hard I tried. I wonder if they understand how God failed me. 

Lately, the battle of ideas feels less like a struggle. Maybe it’s a Buddhist/Taoist influence, but I feel a lot of openness around these eternal battles. I’m okay with finding truth in several conflicting worldviews. It seems to be the natural state of the world. I find myself perpetually confused and curious, having lost faith that any things can really be “figured out” the way I used to want to. I was a mathematician in college. It took me a lot of experience before I could let go of trying to figure out the optimum social order or morality like a logic puzzle. 

Now I find it easy to believe in God or not believe in God. Perhaps through the use of visionary medicines, perhaps with age, my brain has become excellent at pattern recognition. It can weave meaning out of facts if I let it. That’s what made the loss of a long term relationship so hard. I could see how it fulfilled the narrative pattern of my life in a beautiful way, and its loss was dissonant, jarring, pointless. It’s a change in genre, as if Sin City turned into a family comedy halfway through. 

With an overactive meaning-making capacity, I find the icy spirit of nihilism banished at last. It is not a danger for me. However, the drastic reorganization of meaning is still very painful. My danger is now clinging too tightly to meaning, rather than not having enough. We are all dancers in the water of life, and we should not pretend that its meanings are more or less solid than they are. 

The Taoist symbol of the yin and yang means a lot to me. I find it easy to believe in God or not believe in God, but impossible to do either fully. I’ve become accustomed to this pattern of opposites that cannot escape each other. Do I believe in determinism or free will? Utilitarianism or virtue ethics? Scientific materialism or Christianity or Buddhism? The answer is yes. Fluidity is my natural state. 

Jacob was not just a wrestler. He was also a mystic that went off into the desert by himself and had visions. When he came back from his vision of the ladder to heaven, he found his fixed point, and laid a stone pillar at Bethel. That was what he believed in. I am also a mystic. When I went into the desert and had a vision, I found a fixed point in Chamomile tea. “In the beginning was the taste…”. But that's a Burning Man story that I'll save for another time. 


  1. I know this doesn't help, but I think BJJ is super-cool. I'm glad that it hasn't become cool in our circles, though. Too much mixture dilutes all cultures into worthless blah. I'm not ready for that heat death.

  2. My name is Jacob too. When you spoke about weaving his story into the moments of life I saw my name again for the first time. Thank you.