Rock star, Janis Joplin, was once asked, “What’s it like being a pop idol?” Her answer: “It can be awful sometimes. You have no idea how hard it is to go out on stage and make love to 20,000 people and then go home and have to sleep alone!”
That’s a remarkable comment. What she’s describing is not simply the rarefied angst of a famous pop star, but a pain that, deep down, afflicts every one of us by the very nature of our being specially blessed by God.
And specially blessed we are. All great religious traditions have the idea that human beings carry a special, almost god-like, dignity. The Judeo-Christian scriptures call this “the image and likeness of God in us” and tell us that, because of it, we are special, unique, creative, blessed.
But this is often imagined in a way that’s dangerously simple. What exactly does it mean that we’ve been made in the image and likeness of God?
We tend to be overly-romantic about this, simplistically imagining that somewhere deep inside us there is stamped, like a beautiful Russian icon, some imprint of God which then gives each of us a wonderful dignity that may never be violated, endows us with a marvellous creativity, and makes us, among all the creatures of the universe, special. Because we are in the image and likeness of God we are specially called, loved, and blessed.
All of that is true, but something else is true as well. To walk this planet in God’s image and likeness isn’t just a question of standing before the world, feeling a great dignity, bursting with creativity, and saying: “Look at how wonderful, unique, and talented I am!” It’s also, and equally, a question of carrying the burden of all that creativity and divinity. God, as scripture assures us, isn’t an icon, but a fire that can never be tamed, and we carry that fire inside us, both in the marvel of our positive energies and in the punishing madness, restlessness, and jealousies that rage inside our frustrations. It’s not easy, and sometimes far, far from romantic, to walk the earth as gods and goddesses. That we are blessed also makes for deep struggles.
Why? Why do we struggle with what’s highest in us?
Here’s the algebra: Deep down, all of us know we’re special, that we’re not just accidental, meaningless little chips of energy falling off the conveyor-belt of cosmic evolution, indistinguishable from billions of others. We know we’re unique, precious, have meaning, and are made for a special destiny. We know too we’re lying if we deny it.
But, and this is the point, this sense of being special doesn’t just set off holy and altruistic energies inside us. It also inflames us with narcissism, grandiosity, a sense of entitlement, jealousy, rage, boredom, restlessness, and (ironically) the sense that God does not exist.
Put into simple language, there’s something inside us that says: “If I’m in the image of God then I too have a right to be the centre of the universe, I too have a right to be an object of supreme adoration, and I too am entitled to drink in everything, own everything, and sleep with everyone. Everything is mine by right! And, if I’m nearly a god myself, why do I need to believe in any God beyond me?”
We all struggle with this, whether we admit it or not. In fact it’s when we don’t admit it that we become most bitter in life. When we’re most enraged it’s precisely because what’s divine in us is not being recognized, acknowledged, and properly honoured by others and, not least, by ourselves.
We get a privileged glance into this struggle when we look at the lives of many artists, pop stars, intellectuals, and other high-achievers. Often what’s evident in the life of such a person is that, first, he or she is highly attuned to creative energy, to what’s divine inside the world. However, often times by the same token, he or she is also a person who has to struggle, and mightily sometimes, simply to fit into the flow and the discipline of everyday life, to be “normal”. The person who is highly sensitive to creative energy is often too, by that exact same energy, driven towards addictions, sexual entitlement, jealousy, pathological disquiet, deadly boredom, the rejection of God, and sometimes, sadly, towards self-destruction.
And this kind of struggle should not be seen simplistically, as is often the case, as the result of somebody being a spoiled brat, a child- deity in a high-chair, who’s never had to discipline himself or herself to fit in with the rest of the human race. What’s illustrated rather is a universal struggle, just more clearly choreographed, to live out the fact that we’re made in God’s image and likeness.
We’re born into this world with divine fires inside us. Inside those fires lie seeds of every kind, both for self-destruction or for greatness.