Making it Count – The Inheritance of Private Ryan

Saving+Private+Ryan+7

For some reason I spent the last weekend watching two movies centered around World War II.  The first was “Hacksaw Ridge.”  It was indeed an incredible movie demonstrating how a person can be true to their core values even when there seems to be contradictions between them.  In this movie the main character Desmond holds the religious belief that to kill another human being is morally wrong yet he also believes it’s not fair other men must die for the freedom to have such religious beliefs.  His pacifist views and patriotic sensitivity collide, yet he is able to reconcile them in a way that permits him to serve the army as a medic.  He shows great valor and courage by rushing to the front line of a horrific battle to save wounded men who would have been left behind enemy lines to die.

The second movie I watched was “Saving Private Ryan.”  Most everyone knows this story, but perhaps not everyone recognizes it’s another example of a collision of values and beliefs.  The characters in this movie want to know why one man’s life (Private Ryan’s) is so important that others must risk theirs to pull him from doing the very job he signed up to do as a soldier in the United States Army.  In fact, in the end, because private Ryan refuses to go with them and is determined to do his duty, most of the men sent to retrieve him get killed.  The final words of the captain sent to bring private Ryan home are exceptionally powerful.  The wounded captain looks at the young private and with his dying breath says to this young man, “Make it count.”

I wonder if that’s not a message we should all embrace.  Make it count could be interpreted in many ways, but ultimately what that dying captain is asking of this young private is to live a good life making a positive difference in the world because people have died so that he may live.  Many sacrificed it all so he could go home.  That’s quite a burden this young man had to carry with him his whole life.  The funny thing is, it’s a burden ALL of us really need to carry because if you think about it, many have given their lives so we may live.  Our lives are an inheritance from those who lived before us.  I’m not just talking about the military men and women who died for our national freedoms, I mean your ancestors, the people from the town, country, and region where you live and were raised.  People have gone before us and have scratched out an existence so we can live a better life; people who have given us examples to learn from and traditions to carry on.

I am the son of Italian immigrants and hard working blue collar Americans from Western Pennsylvania.  The Italian side of my family gave up the benefit of the human need for consistency and familiarity to embrace a new home where the food, language, ways of interacting with others, and simplest human tasks were foreign and difficult to understand.  Coming to the United States with nothing, through hard work in labor jobs and factories they eventually acquired a home and enough wealth to meet the standards of the American middle class.  Those blue collar Western Pennsylvanians likewise overcame the American depression and labored in steel mills, factories, and coal mines to  become middle class Americans as well.  These are the people who gave their lives that I may be who I am.  This is my inheritance.

With this inheritance comes a great many good things as well as difficult things many of us want to run from or hide from other people.  Alcohol seems to have been a problem in my family, but hard work and sacrifice are part of it as well.  Perhaps my family struggles to spread its wings and venture out from their small Pennsylvania home, but they’ve always given me the love, support, and encouragement to chase my dreams.  Like all human ventures there’s good and bad that mix together, but in the end, with the grace of God, the good rises to the top.

I guess what touched me most, and what I hope to inspire you to consider in relation to your own life are those words the captain whispered in private Ryan’s ear, “Make it count.”  Ask yourself if you’re doing that.  Don’t let circumstances dictate what motivates you. The main character Desmond in “Hacksaw Ridge” found a way to live by his values and make life count by sacrificing his safety for his fellow human beings.  I frequently ask myself hard questions just to be sure I’m making it count.  I ask myself things like, “Am I loving my family enough, my neighbors, and those God placed in my life in a self serving way or in a way that inspires them to be better people?”  I ask myself, “Am I developing into a man of character and virtue or squandering the inheritance I’ve received for selfish purposes?”  When I die it’s my hope all those good people who lived before me, shaped me into the man I am, and sacrificed so I could live well will be proud of who I’ve become.  But more importantly, my hope is those I leave behind will be better people because I was in their lives.  After all, making it count isn’t really about the life I live for myself, it’s about how the life I live makes the lives of others just a little better because they spent some time in my company.

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Forget The Great Spiritual Masters – Embrace Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood!

Mister Rogers

I grew up in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in the early 70’s at a time when cable television was nonexistent and the best children’s shows were found on PBS.  Like most children of my generation the two premiere shows were Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street.  My grandmother always enjoyed my imitation of Mr. Rogers.  I would take my shoes off and put on sneakers as well as a cardigan sweater just like he did at the beginning of his show.  Mr. Rogers was a strong influence in my life as a young boy.  As an adult, I moved to Greensburg Pennsylvania, a city just outside of Latrobe, the home town of Mr. Rogers.  I also attended St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe which is the home of the Fred Rogers Center.  It seems Mr. Rogers always found a way to press himself into my life.  That’s why I had to read the book The Simple Faith of Mr. Rogers by Amy Hollingsworth when it showed up on my Kindle recommendations.

There are so many wonderful things to take from the book.  I think anyone reading it will find Mr. Rogers was probably more of a spiritual master than some of the ancient sages we hold in such high regard.  I love that the author presents key points from the life of Mr. Rogers that highlight the way his Christian faith informed everything he did both on and off the television set.  I want to touch on one of these points because it speaks volumes about how human living can be so simple yet powerful.  I want to talk about being authentically yourself.  In the book Mr. Rogers is quoted as giving the following response to a child that asked him if he liked being famous:

“I don’t think of myself as somebody who’s famous.  I’m just a neighbor who comes and visits children; I happen to be on television.  But I’ve always been myself.  I never took a course in acting.  I just figured that the best gift you could offer anybody is your honest self, and that’s what I’ve done for lots of years.  And thanks for accepting me exactly as I am.”

Think about that for a moment.  The best gift you could offer anybody is your honest self.  In this simple response Mr. Rogers echoes the great spiritual truth that much of the work done through spiritual practices is simply an attempt to rediscover our “honest self.”  We spend so much time developing our social selves (A social psychology term meant to describe the fact we’re constantly presenting an image that meets the contextual social expectations) we tend to lose touch with our honest self.  This means every time we engage in relationships the “Me” we share with other people isn’t a true “Me” but one we’ve learned to display so we’re liked, accepted, etc.  Mr. Rogers found a way to be comfortable sharing his honest self; a self that was comfortable being vulnerable to others scrutiny because he was loved by something greater than social acceptance, he was love by God.  Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from Mr. Rogers.  Perhaps we can learn to be our “honest self” again, just as we were when we were children.   In that way, the person we share with others in the relationships we establish isn’t some cheap knock off but a real person that will love and accept others for who they are just as we will be accepted for who we are.

They say imitation is the greatest form of a compliment you can give someone.  Maybe I need to be just like that little boy I was in the 70’s but instead of merely imitating the external trapping of being Mr. Rogers (i.e. the sweater and the shoes) I could adopt the simple practice he demonstrated his whole life of being his honest self.  Maybe we can all just stop for a moment and instead of seeing Mr. Rogers as merely a children’s show that lacked the technological advancements of today’s productions and recognize it for what it is; a lesson in the great spiritual truths that make living life well a matter of simple profound spiritual truths like living authentically, finding sacred space in the relationships we establish, and loving sacrificially and unconditionally in the most vulnerable ways.  Thank you, Amy Hollingsworth, for a great book and thank you Mr. Rogers for walking in the way of the great spiritual masters by just being your “honest self.”

Yeah! Religion is Dead, So What’s Next?

Religion Flier

It troubles me when people applaud the decline and fall of the religious sense in humanity.  People read how Europe is more secular than ever, Britain is more and more a nation of unbelievers, and that religion in America is in decline. Then, like cheerleaders on the sideline of a football game, they applaud this condition as if it’s something moving humanity toward enlightenment.  I’m not bothered by this because I want everyone to worship and pray as I do, I’m bothered because people are taking great joy in the loss of something very near, dear, and important about human living.  It isn’t necessarily religion itself that human beings require, but there’s an aspect of it that’s certainly very important for healthy human living.  That very core aspect is the fact human beings are transcendent creatures who constantly need to make meaning and find purpose in what they do.  Religion is one mechanism that provides this sense of meaning and purpose.  There aren’t too many others, at least none that are as explicit.

Anthropologists have noted that every culture they’ve ever encountered has a religion (Or religions) associated with it.  It doesn’t matter how remote the location of the culture, people in these cultures have a religion or practice some form of spirituality.  This speaks volumes to the human need for transcendence, in particular transcendent values.  In a PBS documentary about what is commonly called “The Nones” (i.e. people who don’t have any formal association with organized religion) you can sense this need for transcendence in what many of them say while being interviewed.  For example, one of the participants said this about his need to be grateful for what he has:

Every day my girlfriend and I sit down to dinner. I am insistent that we say a grace, and that grace is not necessarily a religious grace. It’s just a moment that we can both sit there and reflect on how lucky we are.”

Something inside this young man compels him to be thankful for a life that transcends his everyday experiences.  He talks about meditating, a higher power, and a multitude of other transcendent needs he has as a human being throughout the interview.  Interestingly, a branch of psychology called “Positive Psychology” recognizes how practicing gratefulness, as well as a myriad of other transcendent values such as forgiveness, charity, and the other items he mentioned, helps people flourish and is something people need to function in a healthy well-adjusted way.  The scientific findings in positive psychology speak profoundly to the human need for transcendence.  It isn’t just people who believe in a spiritual nature that feel this need for transcendence, a number of atheists who call themselves “Spiritual Atheists” believe in some transcendent quality of the universe as well.  Take the following quote that comes from “The Center for Spiritual Atheism”:

“For Spiritual Atheists, being “spiritual” means (at the very least) to nurture thoughts, words, and actions that are in harmony with the idea that the entire universe is, in some way, connected; even if only by the mysterious flow of cause and effect at every scale.”

The above statement reflects the human heart crying out to find transcendence in the midst of a completely materialistic worldview.  People aren’t comfortable existing in a world where there’s nothing transcendent (or as those of us who are more traditional might say, spiritual) about it.  Those who adamantly state there’s nothing more than a material world rarely live that way.  After all, do you believe you’re only attracted to your spouse because he or she provides the best genetic makeup for you to propagate a more perfect offspring?  Do you believe the only reason you care for your children is because you’ve been biologically determined to help your genetics progress  into the next generation?  Does love exist in a world like this?  Nobody lives like any of this is true, not even the most profound atheist.  Without transcendence there’s no sense of justice for the least among us, no reason for helping other people unrelated to us, and there would be no real need for hope, charity, meaning, and purpose.  The key point is no one lives like that, we all believe in some level of transcendence which is a key part of what religion and spirituality provide when taught and practiced in a healthy way.  The United States of America states in the Declaration of Independence, the document justifying our separation from another sovereign nation, that:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If we have no sense of transcendence, then none of this is true or even matters.  People need transcendence.  It’s the stuff meaning and purpose are made from.  Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi Prison Camps came through that experience with the belief that human beings must exercise the transcendent experience of meaning making or else they die in despair.  Even in the worst of conditions, those who could transcend the experience and find meaning in their suffering survived; those who couldn’t, died.  Frankl sums up this idea in the following way:

“I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system.  I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self transcendence of human existence.”  It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -be it meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter.  The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

I hope we will no longer cheer the loss of religion, spirituality, or faith in our fellow human beings because the sad fact is so few of them are filling that place with anything other than food, drugs, booze, video games, distractions, etc.  Virtues that transcend our human experience are what make us human.  The spiritual life is that part of being human that allows us to transcend being mere animals.  If we are anything less than human beings with transcendent natures we are only evolved animals and that my friends is what allows us to treat one another in the most horrific of ways.  You don’t have to be the same religion as me, but please adopt the transcendent values that lift the human condition above the sludge of materialism so we may see the dignity each of us carries within.

What a Dying Old Dog Teaches Us About Life

Boston-Terrier

We have an old dog who is probably not going to live the rest of the summer.  She has been a wonderful companion for the past 13 years and it saddens the family to think she will soon be gone.  She struggles to get up, has difficulty standing by her food and water bowls, and most days just wants to sleep in her bed.  She’s blind, can’t really hear much, and while she shows no signs of pain, you can tell the everyday things in life are getting tougher for her to endure.

If any of you have had a dog long enough to experience the full range of its life, you understand the process I’m describing.  You’ve experienced the puppy stage, the vibrant “adult” stage and as time marched on, the later declining years.  What makes a dog’s life so interesting is you experience all these developmental stages in a short amount of time.  With our family members, it’s impossible to see the full life span.  We either fall between generations never seeing our parents’ youthful years or our children’s aging years.  With our siblings and peers, we go through the stages with them so we are unconscious of the key points these stages present because like them, we are too close to the experience.  We can see the stages of life come and go in a comprehensive way when raising and caring for a family dog.  Sure, they are significantly different than human stages, but they still can teach us a thing of two.  Watching our dogs grow old can be quite a life lesson and teaches us how to live life in a fuller way.  Here are some thoughts on how the life of an old Boston Terrier has enlightened me over the years.

First, we need to keep track of time.  If we consider the statistics provided by the Center for Disease Control, as of 2014 the average life expectancy in the United States is 78.8 years with women living slightly longer and men slightly less.  That means if all goes well and you remain in relatively good health you can probably count on reaching the age of 78, give or take a few years. The most sobering thing you can do is take your current age and subtract it from 78.  In my case I subtract 51 from 78 leaving me with about 27 more years to live.  I’ve actually lived longer than I ever will again.  Why is recognizing your mortality so important for living well?  It reminds us how much time is left to create the life we want.  It motivates us to think about what we hope to accomplish in the time we have left.  Recognizing how much time most likely remains in us leads us to the second principle I’ve learned from watching our family dog grow old.

The second thing my dog has taught me is to savor the moments that make up life.  Recognizing you only have so much time left before breathing your last breath is important when it comes to setting goals and performing tasks to reach them.  Yet sometimes that gets in the way of savoring and enjoying each day we live.  Our dog has always been mindful of the present moment.  It might be a treat she was given or a fallen table scrap she recovered.  Whatever it was she was doing she savored that moment.  Even now, in her very old age, each time she is held she takes that moment in with everything she has.  G. K. Chesterton is quoted as saying, “The aim of life is appreciation.”  Savoring is that everyday appreciation for the good, the bad, and whatever else comes your way.  Fred Bryant and Joseph Veroff are the leading experts in this aspect of positive psychology.  They describe savoring with terms like relishing, cherishing, treasuring, marveling, and delighting in something.  Discover what these things are in your life and do the best to be intentional about savoring them.

The third important characteristic of living well this old Boston Terrier taught me is to be patient with life.  Again, noting what little time we have left compels us to rush toward our goals but that keeps us from savoring life, being grateful for what we have, and taking the necessary time to create meaning and purpose out of our life experiences.  One thing my dear old dog is able to do is to be patient.  She sits for hours and sometimes just enjoys laying in the grass.  Even in her crippled state she sits patiently waiting for someone to pick her up to do the simple things like go outside to relieve herself or eat something.  Being patient and taking our time allows us to “dwell in the moment” and enjoy, make sense of, learn from, and appreciate life as it comes.

My dear old Boston Terrier has just about lived her life to the end.  That said, she really has had a good life.  She has indeed, “Lived life well” in a way that I try and teach others, but she has done so in the most basic and simple way, a way we should imitate.  In her short but full life, she has taught me to be intentional about living, to savor the moments I have, to take my time and be patient, and in the end, to grow old with dignity.  This last point is an important one to learn.  Growing old with dignity is something none of us plan to do but all of us must do.  My dog has become content on relying on other people and letting them help her with the most basic aspects of living.  We do it lovingly for her, because she has always been a loving pleasant dog for us.  In the end, what matters most is the people you share your life with.  The most profoundly spiritual aspect of living life well is living it with and for others.   After all, 78 years goes by quickly, why not fill those years with loving relationships so that when it’s time for you to move on you do so in the loving embrace of people you cared about and who cared for you.  That’s the main lesson my old Boston Terrier has taught me.  She has taught me to love others and receive love because after all, that is what we were created for.

The Life of Simplicity – A Spiritual Virtue

simplicity

One of the most profound ways to live your life well is to simplify it.  Our natural tendency is to complicate life.  We fill it with a multitude of things we don’t need but are convinced these things are necessary for our happiness.  These complications aren’t just in material things, but can be ideas, emotional experiences, and a multitude of distractions impacting numerous dimensions of our lives.  If you’ve read any of my research, attended any of my workshops, or taken a class with me you know I believe human beings “exist” in five dimensions of life.  We are physical creatures, emotional creatures, cognitive/thinking creatures, relational creatures, and yes, spiritual creatures.  We clutter these dimensions of living with stuff we really don’t need because someone tells us these things will make us happier.  Instead, these excesses cause us to live overly complicated lives.

If we think about our physical existence, we often fill our lives with more food, clothes, toys, and other physical objects than we really need.  I must confess I have way too many things cluttering my life.  If you just consider electronic devices (One of my worst vices) you’ll find I have a smart phone, a laptop computer, two kindles, a nook, an iPad, multiple Bluetooth keyboards and mice, as well as an iPod, Chromebook, MacBook air, and so much more that it pains me just to think about it.  I have enough “things” to entertain me and feed my technology obsession for multiple lifetimes.  I really only need something to do online work like blogging or online teaching, but with all these devices I keep myself constantly busy and entertained.  When it comes to physical pleasures, like many of you, I have an abundance of things I don’t need as well.

It’s not just physical things that burden us, we complicate our emotional lives as well.  Whether we admit it or not, we like drama.   Drama causes us exciting emotional highs and lows keeping us in a consistent agitated state.  We like to participate in gossip, perpetuate negative comments about other people, and do whatever it takes to get ultimate thrills and pleasure from the many things we “feel.”  Emotional highs and lows fool us into believing we’re living life powerfully when what we’re really doing is filling our emotional world with junk.  This emotional drama is generally associated with relationship drama.  We like to complicate our lives with relationships that are generally unhealthy and steal our inner peace.  Obligations, internal covenants we make with ourselves, and a multitude of rules we create complicate our relationships.  A natural human connection with another person becomes a complicated array of “shoulds and shouldn’ts “ getting in the way of one person loving and caring for another.  How we think, what we feel, what we do with our bodies, the relationships we forge, and in the end, the spirituality we practice becomes complicated simply because that’s what people do to the most profoundly simple things in life; we fill these five areas of human living with junk.

In one of my favorite books, Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster we find a great summary of the mess a complicated life creates.  Foster writes:

“Contemporary culture is plagued by the passion to possess.  The unreasoned boast abounds that the good life is found in accumulation, that “more is better.”  Indeed, we often accept this notion without question, with the result that the lust for affluence in contemporary society has become psychotic: it has completely lost touch with reality.  Furthermore, the pace of the modern world accentuates our sense of being fractured and fragmented.  We feel strained, hurried, breathless.  The complexity of rushing to achieve and accumulate more and more frequently threatens to overwhelm us; it seems there is no escape from the rat race.”

We need to rediscover the spiritual virtue of simplicity.  Simplicity frees us because it gives us a right perspective on the world surrounding us.  It provides a healthy perspective about who we are, our true needs, and the grace of life.  Foster states that discovering simplicity does the following:

“It allows us to see material things for what they are – goods to enhance life, not to oppress life.  People once again become more important than possessions.  Simplicity enables us to live lives of integrity in the face of the terrible realities of our global village.”

The spiritual virtue of simplicity frees us from being ruled by the complexities of life.  To live simply though, requires a great commitment.  It requires us to find ways to quit feeding the black hole in our hearts with more things, emotional thrills, overly complicated concepts, dramatic relationships, and complex spiritual rules created by human beings to oppress other people.  Simplicity is best discovered by merely reminding ourselves the importance of human connectedness ignoring the disconnection all these complications create.  If what I have, think about, feel, etc. creates a division between me and the people God places in my life, it needs to be eliminated.  Love is a powerful force.  It connects us to the very thing we have affection for.  If that love is directed at anything other than God first and one another next, we have complicated our lives.  Simplicity is a virtue that lets us say no to the many lies whispered in our ear about what we need so we can focus on who we must love.  Make a promise to yourself to “declutter” the things in your life, the negative emotions you feed on, the damaging thoughts you replay in your mind, the bad relationships you maintain, and the oppressive spiritual practices you use to placate a god you created in your image.  Remove all these things and live in the peace of a simple life.  By doing so you capture a sense of what true peace is about.