You’ve seen the slogan. You’ve read the bumper sticker. You’ve bought the cereal. You’ve collected the action figures. WWJD is everywhere.
It’s a global trend, a widespread meme, a constantly repeated rhetorical question, which exists primarily – it sometimes seems – to give atheists something to chuckle over, and marvel at the asinine, fantasy-driven approach that some people take to solving their problems.
Against the trend, I think there’s a really powerful idea buried in the cliché, and it’s odd how unnoticed it tends to go.
The baggage that comes with invoking Jesus is obviously a big hindrance. In some ways it renders the question moot, because Jesus never existed.
Or, I dunno, maybe he did. Different historical scholars seem to have different ideas on this. It may well be that the science is settled, and the controversy is an entirely artificial one which relies on people like me being bamboozled by the way both sides seem to have a significant presence, despite one of them being utterly wrong (cf. intelligent design). It doesn’t remotely matter.
There’s also the question of whether the character of Jesus is really such a wonderful example of the sweetness and charity he’s presumed to exemplify. The God of the Bible is a malicious, spiteful tyrant, after all, and it was Jesus who introduced the idea of sending people to Hell for calling your brother a dick (I’m translating for a modern audience).
The result of which is that most people (including me until, like, this week) don’t really get any further in their considerations of WWJD than being mildly amused that anyone might seriously use what Jesus would do in their situation as a guiding principle for their actions. Even moderate Christians often distance themselves from the phrase, finding their more extreme counterparts bothersome for all the same reasons we do.
But I think the basic idea behind it could do with a reboot, and a closer look.
WWJD comes from an awareness that we don’t always meet our ideals, in our natural, everyday behaviour. We plan to get things done, but flake out. We promise ourselves we’re going to tidy the house, but end up sitting and watching TV all evening. We make grand plans to eat healthily and work out, and then remember how much effort it takes to actually do all that. We want to resolve a dispute with a friend or partner, to apologise and make everything right, but find ourselves getting so wound up and infuriated that we end up shouting, or saying deliberately hurtful things to score a point and make ourselves feel better.
Very few of us can claim to be the person we really want to be. But we usually do have an idea of that person, a concept of the creative, industrious, charitable paragon of virtue we feel like we could be. Even if we regularly fail to live up to that construct in the moment, when it comes time to actually take action.
We could all be doing better. And maybe there’s a useful way to prompt ourselves to do better. If there’s anything about the current direction of your life in which you’re not entirely satisfied with your own performance, ask yourself:
If I were a better person – if I were the diligent, patient, paragon of virtue I wish I could be – then how would I respond to this situation? What would I be doing now?
If you have the time to pause for just a moment, and ask yourself the question… and if you can come up with an answer (which is generally the easy part)…
…then why not just do that thing, instead of whatever inferior thing you were going to do instead?
There are limits to this notion’s scope, obviously. It might be clear that the ideal you would punch out a bear that was threatening your family, or play a heartbreaking violin solo, or solve a quadratic equation for complex values of x – but simply knowing that fact doesn’t help you achieve any of those goals, if you aren’t already physically capable of them.
But surely some of your goals are more attainable. Maybe the ideal you would converse with arse-grobbling shitgibbons on the internet without spitting bile at them about what arse-grobbling shitgibbons they are…
And so maybe you can, too.
Maybe the ideal you would have more patience with the sonofabitch who cut you up and made you slam your brakes on that time, and make allowance for their various human failings without writing them off as a waste of atomic matter and bearing a grudge for the rest of the day…
So maybe you could start doing that now. You already know you’d rather do that than your usual thing.
Maybe the power to be awesome was inside you all along.
Of course, it can be really, really hard to remember this kind of thinking in the moment. When you’re angry or frustrated or frightened or upset, the natural thing is to do what feels, well, natural. Which is generally something other than positing a hypothetical version of yourself and planning a response around that. There’s a way you react to things which feels like the kind of person you just are. It’s not easy to remember to think things over when you’re busy reacting.
Which is why people wear those goofy wrist-bands and stuff, I guess. To help them remember the person they want to be, even – especially – at times when their instinct is to act like the less awesome version. The idea is to cultivate that more thoughtful reaction, the one you wish could be the way you react to stuff, until it becomes such a learned habit that that’s just the person you are.
It’s a really powerful idea… if you can just get past the whole Jesus thing. It’s a shame when religion makes good things so inaccessible.