A simple, yet profound question I received from a friend in Romania. A world apart, yet don’t we all search for love that is real and pure, and someone to share it with.
Q: What is the best way to show love to someone?
A: Love is best shown through humility and service.
Q: And to someone that doesn’t accept our love?
A: The same. True love is patient and will continue in humility and service regardless of the reception. Of course, that might mean we love in silence, praying for that person, practicing the deepest humility.
Q: Can you tell me some titles of books that changed your life?
A: “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankel
Despair equals Suffering without Meaning: an equation for life and mental health from Viktor Frankel’s powerhouse book. Life ends in death and our quest on the journey from birth to passage of life should be one of meaning. This book taught me that whatever our circumstances, we always have a choice to live with meaning and purpose.
From the book:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.”
“People of The Lie” by Scott Peck
No book I’ve ever read better describes the spiritual condition of modern mankind. So few people live in truth, so many succumb to the lies of selfishness and insatiable desires that work to cloud our humanity and empathy for one another. As dark as this book can get, it leaves one with hope that we can impact the spiritual condition of ourselves and others.
From the book:
“When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life — particularly human life — such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may “break” a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head.”
“The Philokalia” collected saying by St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth
This taught me the deepest workings of the human spirit and mind. It opened my eyes to the journey that is faith and the broad pool of wisdom offered by the earliest holy fathers who lived away from the world in the desert, both literally and figuratively.
“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”
“Do not claim to have acquired virtue unless you have suffered affliction, for without affliction virtue has not been tested.”
“Let all involuntary suffering teach you to remember God, and you will not lack occasion for repentance.”
I want to be home.
I am on the road teaching my class, “Veterans, Police Officers, and Communities in Crisis: Responding to Trauma,” and as I was hitting the hotel’s elliptical machine I began to reminisce about the 19 years my wife and I have been married. Really, it had begun on my flight from Indianapolis and intensified as we landed in Orlando and I walked through the insanely busy Orlando International Airport. There were people from all over the planet in all stages of life, rushing to and fro at the world’s amusement park capital. My only thought, I want to be home.
For my wife and I, life has been love, nine kids, many hopes and many trials. Many, many trials. Some of which endure until this day. It is tough on my love as she must run a household while homeschooling a mess of kids from seven months to eighteen years old while I travel speaking and teaching. I don’t know how she does it. And I do not remind her enough of her remarkable effort. It is soul-crushing – my selfishness when l’m gone and usually forget about the immense task she shoulders. Still, she keeps us all together and even when hundreds and often thousands of miles separate us, in spite of my sins, we are ever connected. That is the thought that hit me as I reached the resort where the class was being held, unpacked in my room and then headed for the gym. We are ever connected and nothing else matters.
Breathe The Air
Breathe the air with someone long enough, share a bed, start and raise a family, curse and kiss, you will understand how deep girded love is far more than an emotion. It is a cable running through the earth that holds everything above it secure in the worst of storms. It supports like the roots of a tree buried deep, not seeking attention to itself.
Our roots began on a trip to Elvis’s Graceland in my mom’s car not long after we had first met over twenty years ago. It propelled us to California, back home to Indiana, and now we have spawned a tribe of homeschooling, morning praying, Jedi trained warriors (At least until they are old enough to know Jedi’s aren’t real and neither is my training! Then they just humor me.), sports, music, bb guns, living room brawls and more concurrent talking than you could ever imagine. Yet, in spite of all the wonder and authentic living, all too often I allowed myself to become consumed by the anxiety of bills, lost opportunities, failures, mistakes, poor decisions, and an untold number of other choices I can never get back.
A Talisman of Fire
What fights regret as one ages and looks back on life? So mysterious is mankind, I can only speak for myself. My talisman is the fire of love for my wife and family, its breadth sustaining and life bringing. As I closed in on the final minutes of my 45-minute workout all worries faded into the light of those faces. What comfort is their grace. Many years from now when I draw near the passage of this life, their radiance will eclipse the pain, regret, and sorrow that can sometimes seems unquenchable.
And so it was I returned to the room after my workout and texted my wife a simple message: “The greatest story I will ever tell is mine and yours.”
Her reply was like honey dripped on fresh bread.
“I would hang on every word.”
Hold dear the roots that gird us when the storms of life take our eyes off that which matters most. And if you are alone, be brave. Walk from your darkness, reach for another, and hold on like your life depended on it, because it does.
Our Burden’s Odor
“It is said that a newly made vessel will preserve for a long time, perhaps permanently, the odor of whatever was poured into it at that time. This can also be said about the atmosphere surrounding children.” St. Theophan the Recluse from The Path to Salvation.
I read this quote from Saint Theophan when my wife was pregnant with our oldest son Isaac. I remember a dark, invisible force crushing me into the ground as I read. All my sins and shortcomings came rushing upon me. A dirty metallic taste filled my mouth. It was a virus, swelling my tongue and throat. I choked on the thought that Isaac would be born into a world draped with my stains. O Lord, what burdens would my son be receiving because of me?
Doing The Right Thing
Driving with my wife shortly thereafter I pondered to her, “You know, the hardest thing in the world is just being good, doing the right thing. If we can teach Isaac to do that, we did well.” She stoically nodded in agreement. No doubt, she had been bearing the responsibility of impending motherhood while reflecting on her own shortcomings to be conquered.
Well, how do you teach “be good, do the right thing”? By doing the right thing of course. Or at least trying, and being honest with yourself when you fall short. And you will fall short. Often. Your greatest tool in overcoming these stumbles will be forgiveness, one of the most powerful tools for life that we possess. Forgiveness includes ourselves, otherwise we let regret consume us.
The Complicity of Parenting
Eighteen years and eight more children later (yes, you read that correctly, we have a total of nine children) my fears have been realized. My anger, my pride, my sloth, and my many other faults can be seen in their faces as they grow and learn to be human. Sometimes there are brief glimpses, other times it is deep rooted behaviors that my wife and I struggle to correct and extract out of them. The hardest part, accepting our complicity in their stumbles.
Yes, they make choices, we all do. In fact, one lesson all children must be taught is that we are not hostage to our circumstances. We use all our experiences, good and bad, as fuel to move forward and make decisions that exercise our freedom of will. We teach this lesson with action. Regardless of how old you are or what life has thrown your way, you can make a decision to use all of that experience as a foundation for moving forward. Tell a child to move forward while you are static, you will have no credibility. At best they will ignore you and at worst they will despise you.
When You Fail, Keep Aiming High
For you young or expectant parents, do not be afraid to set lofty goals for your children. To fly, you must aim high. Make your home a place of safety from the world and a vessel that allows your children to look upward toward the eternal. Eighteen years after the birth of Isaac, our family prays together every morning. We eat most meals together. We worship together, we sit around and ask the tough questions on life and faith. It can be done, and it is worth the effort. Even when you fail and question whether you have done enough.
I’ll ease to the finish with another quote from St. Theophan:
“But the chief form of moral perfection which belongs to one who has preserved himself whole in the years of youth is a certain unshakeability in virtue for his whole life.”
The greatest gift we can give our children is the moral character to enter the world unshakeable. Aim high parents, Aim high.
Our Lives Are Deep And Wide
The psychologist Erik Erikson literally wrote the book on childhood and human development. A towering figure of modern mental health study, his writings on the stages of human development were a watershed moment for understanding our human psychology.
In his book, Childhood and Society, he says something incredibly profound in a mere sentence. It should make us all think deeply about the goals and purpose of modern psychology, especially in a culture where it seems that every day a new drug is being approved for “mental health”. It should also remind us of what a deep and wide existential path we have been allowed to live and create for ourselves.
Life’s Journey Is An Introspection
Erik says on page 424 of my copy of Childhood and Society: “The “psychoanalytic situation” is a Western and modern contribution to man’s age-old attempts at systematic introspection.”
What truth that is. We should all be aware that the journey toward mental health is one of introspection. It is an age-old principle at the core of understanding our identity. What do we find when we look inside? Poor/Incomplete/Tragic/etc. answers to the following questions and others like them are what lead to most mental health issues of depression, anxiety, and damaged emotional intelligence:
Where did I come from?
What happened to me as a child that influences my thinking today?
Why do I process thoughts and information the way I do?
Why do I do things I don’t want to do?
What is my purpose?
Why am I anxious?
Does my life matter?
Am I alone?
Look For The Cause Of The Symptoms
“Systematic Introspection” is not something we should leave to the field of psychology. Especially since the modern practice of psychology has continued to move away from deep, long-term introspection and more towards symptomatic treatment, i.e. drugs and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy type tools. Tools for treating the symptoms of psychopathology in themselves aren’t bad and are in fact incredibly useful for many people, but we must not let tools blur our vision in regard to the root causes of our mental pathologies. Critical introspection is a necessary part of any healthy, individualized life.
Individualization, as the psychologist Carl Jung would say, is the process in which we develop from the soup of the collective into a healthy “individuated” human-being. It is a life long process whereby we understand our place and purpose in this world and constantly search for the path of meaning. Jung influenced Joseph Campbell whose writings influenced George Lucas to create the mythic Star Wars film series, more specifically, Campbell’s book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Like it or not, in a world that always ends in death, we are all on that hero’s journey. When we face the truth and wonder of that fact, we are empowered to look at ourselves critically and introspectively. Here, searching within, with wisdom and guidance, the answers to our mental condition are found.
Look Within And Journey Forward
There is more I could say on this and I will in the future, but for now, I encourage you to begin and continue the process of thoughtful introspection. It can take place anywhere — alone at home or at your favorite park, in church, in a counselor’s office, with a good book, coffee with a friend or even a friendly looking stranger. You might allow the works of Carl Jung or Erik Erikson to guide you, or heck, even me, that is what my book, Who Am I?, is all about — introspection, the journey, answering the question “Who am I?”
Life surrounds us with pain, grief, and death. The meaning we find in the midst of these is what allows us to grow and become fully realized. This cannot be done by merely treating symptoms. We must look inside, explore, and give ourselves the gift of embarking on our own heroic journey, the great expedition to know one’s self.