As the year recedes, may you begin to gather your thoughts of the loving kindnesses that have been given you in 2012. For what more powerful recollections can we focus upon than those of the many times the Lord’s grace has taken form for us through the loving intercession of one of our kind?
Even though these human, grace-filled moments have no doubt been many for each of us in the year passing, most all of the people of the world lie outside the bounds of our lives. Have you ever looked at a stranger on a crowded street and marveled, “I will never see this person again—what truth am I missing in that loss?” We may have to miss the details of his/her soul’s perspective, then, but we know that that man or woman passing by embodies all manner of dreams and aspirations.
Many people are of means, but want more. Some do not possess material wealth and seek much more–or seek little. But each hopes in equal measure to be treated kindly. Remember to pray daily for all souls, living and deceased, as they are strangers in name and necessity only. And so, on to this year’s message, Fill Your Life with Resplendent Goals.
“With the spirit of her people who would not know defeat, even when it stared them in the face, [Scarlett] raised her chin. . . .”
“I’ll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. . . . After all, tomorrow is another day.”
–Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind (1936)
Scarlett O’Hara may have been the spoiled daughter of a privileged family. But she was also a survivor, an individual of great resilience. For many around the world, being a survivor is all too familiar. Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett’s creator, observed that in every upheaval, “Some people survive, others don’t. What qualities are in those that fight their way through triumphantly that is lacking in those [who] go under?” When Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, she first composed the final scene, then wrote the 1,000+ pages of events leading up to it.
Perhaps she realized that to survive in dire times, we need to retain the hope that the future is open and thus can bring better times. In some ways, Scarlett was a seer. And an optimist, a particularly American type! She understood that our world exists exactly in the ways we manifest it— literally mind over matter! She had the courage to believe that if her tomorrow should unfold, she had the grit to manifest a new and brighter reality—and that the manifestation would take place on her own land, Tara. While she might not be able to control all that had occurred and that would, she had control of how she perceived the state of her life. That landscape of perception then goes on to make a reality we actually live in, day to day.
How we dialogue with life’s tenses is related to how we perceive the future, but even more tricky is how we regard the past and how we think it best to regard the past—that vast “place” bathed in golden, yet sometimes darkened tones. Some folks attempt to salve their fears of present and future by “living in the past.” What a contradiction in terms–for who can live in a state that doesn’t exist? A state nowhere on planet Earth, not in the Maine woods, not Inner or Outer Mongolia, not Murmansk or Tierra del Fuego! As one of great wisdom notes: It’s OK to look back, just don’t stare.
People who long to live in the past are cursing the present. It’s akin to thinking that a departed neighbor still lives next door. Gazers backward fail to understand that the essence of suffering means wanting the present to be different from what it is. There may come a time very late in life when present and future radiance is reduced to shadows, but a third party cannot be deputized to illuminate our choice to live in the here and now; we only enhance life’s plights if we jettison our free will, setting it precariously on the edge of the nightstand .
Through God’s infinite mercy we may be granted additional “present moments,” for surely the healthiest place to be is in the present. Yet staying mainly there is not always easy. We can find support for doing so in what we’ve weathered before and what we hope the future holds, but only if we recognize that hope is not a passive state of mind. Hope requires the will and the way to make the future unfold in the ways we . . . well, ways we hope it will.
Life’s burdens, however, sometimes blot out our seeing much to be thankful for. At any one time, it is true we see only a small measure, a snapshot of our true bounty–the blessings given in abundance. The famed lexicographer Samuel Johnson told James Boswell, his biographer, that gratitude needs to be cultivated. For gratitude is, after all, a trait and a way of behaving. As such, it must be learned and practiced, like putting a napkin in your lap at the table and not singing while you eat. If you aren’t in some ways grateful for aspects of this moment, why do you think the future will be magically transformed into a more hospitable abode?
Scarlett’s resilience gave her the power to bring a sense of promise to what was to come. Joel Osteen, an author and senior pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, calls it “staying in the game,” having the faith to know that if we persevere, we can fashion a new beginning every day. Some think such advice is corny, but do this if you will. Think of someone that you really admire–a friend or family member or a global leader such as Nelson Mandela or the Dali Lama or a person that history venerates, such as Abraham Lincoln. What is common to most all of them is that they stayed in the game.
I have a dear friend who is a consultant and speaker. Her business has grown greatly in the last year. We met for lunch recently and I congratulated her. She chuckled and said “Yep, it only took me ten years to become an overnight success.” She understands that when it comes to engineering a successful life, we are always at ground zero! And that the term “engineering” is just a metaphor for what we’d like to be able to apply to the progress of our lives. Help is needed to succeed, but before you look around for help, you need to turn inward for strength and faith to stay the course, as my friend did. It also helps to be infected with a chronic case of self-confidence and optimism, both of which require a healthy imagination.
The problem is that sometimes the future arrives in ways that don’t favor our aspirations. Our situation sometimes changes in nasty and surprising ways. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about events that are highly consequential but unexpected–occurrences he calls “Black Swans.” Taleb believes that history demonstrates that no forecasting tool regardless of its sophistication can predict such events. Rather, what is needed is to be prepared to weather—perhaps even flourish in–times of dramatic change. Coming through adversity often results in a far healthier outcome than we expect. “We all know that the stressors of exercise are necessary for good health,” Taleb writes. “But people don’t translate this insight into other domains of physical and mental well-being.” In modern times, he adds, “We are obsessed with comfort and cosmetic stability, but by making ourselves too comfortable and eliminating all volatility from our lives,” we make our bodies and souls “fragile.”
We also need to recognize the difference between our dreams and visions. My dear friend Brian Stiller explains it this way, “A dream catches my interest; it is a fantasy fabricated of self-interests but not that which drives my life. A vision is compelling, that which absorbs my thinking and is linked to capacity.” Brian tells this story: “A fawning fan of the pianist Paderewski gushed after a concert, ‘Sir, I’d give my life to play like that.’ To which Paderewski replied, ‘I did.’” (Find a Broken Wall, Castle Quay Books, 2012)
Native American cultures believed that the way to find oneself and the intended direction of one’s life required a focus on the spirit life and the acquisition of the power of perception. Such a journey often took the form of a “vision quest.” In the magnificent book Sacred Legacy–Edwin S. Curtis and the North American Indians, Joseph Horse Capture, a member of the A’ani (Gros Ventre) people of Central Montana, writes, “On the plains, it has been said that a person starts to gain an understanding of this world as he or she approaches the age of forty, reinforcing the idea that spirituality is a lifelong learning process.” Visions might embrace dreams and songs. Dreams may include appearances of supernatural helpers. Appearances of such helpers indicate divine or supernatural favor that the believer could call upon in times of distress. In a similarway, when we, too, find ourselves in dire circumstances, angels may intercede for us at precisely the right moment.
Martin Amis, one of England’s greatest living novelists, mused that “Perhaps the world isn’t getting worse, but it is incontrovertibly getting less innocent.” Elsewhere I’ve read that “Innocence gets harder to hold onto as the world gets older, as it accumulates more experience, more mileage, and more blood on the tracks.” True, but don’t most days start with a sense of innocence? And even its cousin, humor? I can remember being in an elevator one morning when a colleague asked, “How is your day going?” “Great!” I responded. “So far they haven’t laid a hand on me.” Want to improve on your remaining days? Try to keep innocence and humor with you a little longer each day!
As adults, we make mistakes and hearts are injured, making it difficult to hold onto our innocence and sense of the sacred in all things everywhere and at all times. After that, it’s not always easy to pick the right navigational beacons that life does set out for us. Yet we can hope that the future holds the opportunity to forgive another and to seek redemption. Thankfully love comes in many forms, but there is none more powerful than forgiveness and redemption. Never forget, we are given a choice as to who we like–how we select life’s pals. I believe that we lose our way not when we lose our sense of innocence but when we are not mindful of the significance of human choice. But we are seldom given a choice as to who we love. That feels preordained, one of the soul’s mysteries.
We are wondrous creatures. In fact, according to Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, we were born to be good to each other. He has learned that when we show compassion to someone, our nervous system files away a remembrance of what we did. Keltner calls it “common humanity.” In our state of common humanity we are each uncommonly unique. This summer, while walking in the Wyoming woods, Jean and I came upon a small field of wildflowers. I marveled at the perfection of each blossom!
But would their nature have been any different if I had not noticed and spoken of the excellence of their creation? Of course not. We each grasp onto any words of praise–any indication of a job well done, in order to validate the worth of our existence. But with or without any such affirmations, are we not like each of the flowers? Perfect in His eyes? The perfection of The Lord is beyond dispute and were we not created in his image? That we are creatures of immeasurable worth is beyond question. And that is an article of fact and of faith that we must each take into every day on this sphere and for all eternity.
Have you ever wondered what paradise will look like? I haven’t a clue but it must be in all ways perfect. The Kingdom of Heaven—Paradise–is the celestial harbor where Our Father first grants us the faculty to comprehend the magnitude of His love for each of us. And there is one more thing–I am certain it is a very big place. The creator of the universe thinks big! And that leads to another lesson for each of us.
The Lord wants us to dream big–so that we don’t live life small. So that we live lives filled with joyous curiosity. For those tomorrows that hopefully await us, He prays that we don’t inhabit the outskirts of our existence but rather that we travel through the broadest possible vistas of the opportunities life offers. He hopes we pay homage to the glory of our creation by fervently seeking what lies ahead. For what else is a greater adventure?
And yet, as the Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell enjoyed reminding friends, there are some among us who may never appreciate the wonder that the future may provide: “The late F.W.H. Meyers asked a man at dinner what he thought would happen when he died. The man tried to ignore the question; but on being pressed, replied, ‘Oh well, I suppose I shall inherit eternal bliss, but I wish you wouldn’t talk about such an unpleasant subject.’”
As you read this letter, a small measure of the future has materialized! Yes, and isn’t how that happens a magical process? So my final bit of advice to the dinner guest who did not want to consider what the future might bring, even if it included a ticket to paradise, and to all of you, my friends: Never postpone doing anything that may bring you joy! Not because death awaits all of us, but because the Lord intended joy to be the state of mind and body and soul wherein we live each day.
With love and blessings, your friend,