06/17/2013 02:48 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2013

The Power of Dependence

"Christianity describes the capacity to accept dependence as a mark of moral and spiritual health." What Alain de Botton says is true -- but is dependence really good? Is admitting weakness a sign of strength? Doesn't it undermine the idea of taking responsibility, which is also a sign of psychological health? And what do we mean by "Christianity," which has as many flavours as an ice-cream emporium?

I will lay my cards face up. I believe in the first-century Christian idea of dependence, which is a specially qualified attribute, combining vulnerability with the ambition to reach our full potential. The model is, I think, open to people of all religions and none; and it prefigures modern psychological insight in an amazingly anachronistic way. It is the key to a happy and fulfilled life.

The essential psychological characteristic of Christianity, before it got that name, was summed up in ten syllables by Saint Paul: "I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me". There is no surer manifesto for dependence, because the self is surrendered to God. Yet there is also no surer manifesto for achievement, because if God lives in a person, you'd expect the result to be extraordinary.

Now, before we go any further, let me assure you that this is not a Christian apologetic. I am profoundly agnostic about religion and the existence of any God. And yet, I believe that the early Christians were on to something incredibly useful for our lives today, something that has been obscured by nearly twenty centuries of dogma and organized religion.

By removing the striving that goes with self-dependence, we can mobilize all our energy in a cause that is greater than ourselves. Our dependence liberates a great sense of freedom and purpose.

Yielding -- whether to God, or other people, a cause, or, as I prefer, "the universe" -- has a number of benefits that make us more content and useful. Perhaps the most important benefit is that surrender makes it easier for us to love ourselves, because we are not the sole authors of what we do. If we do bad things -- as we all do -- we recognize this and cast ourselves on the grace of God or the universe or our fellow humans, to help us control and transcend our bad side. If we do good things -- as again we all do -- we recognize that these come partly from surrendering ourselves to something bigger, sparing ourselves the need for unattractive pride and arrogance. Whatever good we do, in any case, comes in one form or another from the universe around and within us. So we no longer need to keep score regarding our moral performance. If we believe that what we are surrendering to is good, we are putting ourselves in the care of the ultimate source of love, truth and beauty. There could be no better home.

The second advantage from surrender to goodness is that it makes us more effective and creative. The story goes that Jesus was "thrown out" into the wilderness by the Spirit of God. The Spirit then convinced Jesus that he was called to do great things. As H. A. Williams, one of the most insightful Christian commentators put it, "The Spirit is ourselves in the depths of what we are. It is me at the profoundest level of my being, the level at which I can no longer distinguish between what is myself and what is greater than me." By surrendering ourselves, we feel alive and in contact with the deepest forces in the world.

This is extremely close to the phenomenon which psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls "flow." When in the "flow" or the "zone," we feel part of a creative unfolding of something larger, something beyond us that sweeps us up in its path. Flow experiences, he says, are when we feel time standing still. His research asked subject when they felt happiest. It turned out that this was when they undertook specific activities, which banished worry and consciousness of other events. We feel in control, yet also we feel part of something bigger that makes us more than we were before. As Tom Butler-Bowden admirably summarizes Csikszentmihalyi, "Each piece of knowledge absorbed, each new refinement of a skill, enlarges the self and makes it more highly ordered." This leads to "an increasingly extraordinary individual," but also an increasingly connected person. When in the flow, we appreciate how we fit into the universe and our links with those around us are intensified. Change the vocabulary a little, and throw in a few abstractions such as "Christ," and it would be impossible to tell Csikszentmihalyi's words from those of Saint Paul. They are referring to almost exactly the same experiences.

The third blessing from surrender, and the most paradoxical, is that it accentuates our unique attributes and personality. Jesus told a parable about "the pearl of great price" -- "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant, seeking excellent pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it." Clearly no believer in investment diversification, the merchant staked all on one asset. Interpreting this story, Harry Williams asked how we today can find the one pearl of great price. His answer: "Only thus: by refusing to be satisfied with anything less than what is totally satisfying. I don't mean what should satisfy us, but what in fact does." We become what we can be, by allowing a force bigger than us to make us unique, to discover the depths of individuality we have by reaching out to the depths of our being and to the universe in which we are grounded.

Now this might sound highfalutin, but what is undeniable is that in the generation after Christ died, something turned uneducated and semi-educated folk -- fishermen, tax collectors, tent-makers -- into powerful and unique characters utterly brimming with spiritual power and eloquence. In their own words, they surrendered to Christ; and in our parlance, that led them to their full personal potential. Yielding up their selves did not lead to passivity, but to mastery, to life-changing and world-changing results.

Surrender, then, is a moral act, providing we surrender to what is life-enhancing rather than destructive, as long as we yield to love and not hate or fear. According to Williams:
Fear, in the New Testament, is considered to be the root of all evil. It is fear which makes men selfish, it is fear which makes them hate, it is fear which makes them blind, it is fear which makes them mad. Fear casts out love, as love casts out fear.

We can't decide to follow love by willpower, because the idea of striving in this way implies that our will is fighting against another force of similar power, whether that be inertia, fear or our weakness. Again, we need an external agency to rescue us from ourselves, and we can only do this by giving up our ego and pride. Williams again: "What I need must be given, and that is more light, deeper perception, a less clouded vision of what life is about. How am I to get it?" Only, he says, by "faith, a confidence, that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, life is on my side and not against me. This is the confidence which Jesus brought."

If we don't believe in Jesus or any other religion, where does this place us? I think, in exactly the same place. We have to have faith in the universe, in our destiny or even in our luck. Psychologist Martin Seligman has shown that optimism is functional, that "positive psychology" works wonders. Optimism is the same thing as faith. The sceptic may say, that optimism, our trust in the universe or in our future, is not warranted by the facts. The sceptic is right. That is why faith is necessary. But if empirical research shows that this makes our lives richer and happier, in a way the decision to have faith in the good is justified by results, if not by logic and data. To take an analogy, I may not know why, when I switch my computer on, it starts to work, but I would be viewed as grumpy and unreasonable if I therefore refused to turn it on. That seems to me the position of someone who refuses to surrender to the force of goodness around them. It is like failing to notice the smiles of people in the streets, and noticing only the bad things around.

H. A. Williams closes one of his sermons by asking, "Am I organized to accumulate or to receive? It is the most important question we shall ever have to answer." It is the same question as whether we are striving to make our way in the world by our own efforts, or whether we are willing to surrender to the force of good in the universe, even though we cannot prove that such a force even exists. Those of us who have tried both ways are in no doubt as to which makes us happier, more useful and fuller people, even though we may doubt everything else. But yielding is hard for ambitious people. We often choose unhappy pride; we accumulate rather than receive. Williams' question has to be answered day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute.