Raising the Next Generation – Teaching Independence in an Interdependent way

One of the most important things a family can do for its children is teach them to function on their own as adults, find a vocation allowing them to work and experience meaning and purpose in life, as well as form an identity of their own outside the family unit. In psychology this is called differentiation. Healthy families do this well. Yet, while it’s important for that young person growing up in the family to make an independent transition it’s just as important for them to have a grounded identity and heritage to call their own. They need to see themselves as part of an ongoing story of people living life as best as possible in a difficult and sometimes unpredictable world. Families need to share a family narrative with their children concerning the strengths, weaknesses, struggles, and victories their ancestors experienced as a way of handing on the wisdom gained in one generation to the next. Even if family dysfunction kept you from experiencing this family narrative, you can start that narrative with your experience of family life. This gives children the opportunity to continue the narrative and take the hurt and pain from your past and shape it into a story about how mom or dad overcame their difficult past handing on to them the strength to flourish and be succesful.

Sharing the family narrative provides the support and grounding your children need to know they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Additionally, it assures them they aren’t trapped and consumed by this family identity but rather a contributor to it through their own unique qualities and personalities. Young adults must be permitted to weave their story into the the story of the family but to do so they need to know it. Basically, they need to become their own person while recognizing what they become emerges from a supportive group of people connecting them to an important past.

I’ve been a therapist for a long time. Often, the young people walking into my office are struggling with becoming their own person while maintaining a connection to their family of origin.  Sometimes families consume a young person and use them as instruments to maintain family peace, care for sick family members, or provide financial support for other family members. While helping family is healthy, enabling families to be dysfunctional is not. Young people need to be young people, not parentified individuals taking on the roles of mothers, fathers, and other adults refusing to fulfill their family role.

If there is any advice I can give to people considering starting a family it’s to reflect on your family narrative, understand how it helps you be the person you are, how it needs changed, what it emphasizes, and what it filters out so you’re comfortable with your role in this developing story. Then, make sure you know your insecurities, struggles, and difficulties so these don’t become an excuse for drawing the young people you will be raising into the drama of your unresolved issues.

Being a parent is a “Sacred Trust.” You’re participating in the development of the next generation of people who will significantly impact the world. You can either help shape men and women of character with strong identities and an understanding of their purpose in life or you can psychologically deform your child to be a creature meant merely to serve your immediate needs and soothe your anxious fears.


Finding Individual Happiness in the Midst of Others – Don’t Do It Alone!

serviceProblems surround us everywhere.  As good pragmatic Americans we recognize problems are things best approached with solutions.  I was listening to a podcast called Invisibilia that discussed how our approach to mental health problems in the United States often leads to overly institutionalized situations where people never really flourish but rather become medicated zombies.  They’re stuck in ritualized daily activities of breakfast, medication, lunch, television, dinner, more television, more medication, and then sleep.  We think institutionalization and medication are solutions to a problem that we quite frankly can’t solve because there is no real solution.  The solution to “no solution” is to isolate the mentally ill keeping them from the greater social setting.

I teach Abnormal Psychology as an undergraduate psychology professor.  As we discuss a number of psychological disorders students quickly notice we have very few solutions for the psychological problems people experience.  Each time a student makes this observation I say, “Yes, we are not in a place where we cure most mental illness, rather we help individual’s struggling with the disorder cope with the effects of their disorder.”  In short, we have no real solution to the problem of mental illness and often turn to institutions like those discussed above to isolate the “solutionless” problem from the greater society.  There is another way to respond however, and that’s to accept those dealing with mental illness and seek their wellbeing from within the context of our community.  That doesn’t mean taking them off medication or eliminating helpful treatments they need, but it might mean accepting them for who they are and finding a way for our happiness to include their wellbeing.

There is a town in Belgium called Geel.  Geel accepts the mentally ill in a radical way.  Instead of institutionalizing them, the mentally ill are given foster families where they live for a long time.  These families accept their “boarder” and make them members of the family.  Even more importantly, the community of Geel accepts these individuals into the community’s life.  You find them walking the streets, interacting at the market, and some work in the shops and restaurants of the town.  They live like everyone else.  Many of us shutter at the thought of allowing mentally ill people to roam the streets because our first thought is they may hurt themselves or perhaps someone else.  The truth is they don’t, at least no more than those of us considered “sane” might hurt ourselves.  Besides, if you don’t think mentally ill people are walking the streets, you never really took a look at the homeless population.    More importantly is the fact the mentally ill in Geel flourish.  They live better than those institutionalized in the American mental health system or walking the streets as homeless people.  By being permitted to live life the best they can in a community of acceptance they flourish.  Yes, it takes work on the part of the community to accommodate these individuals, but in the end, the common good of all people increases.

The point of this post isn’t to advocate for mental health change even thought this is a worthy cause, it’s to highlight that living life well often means being accepting of each other regardless of the differences existing among people.  If what matters most for our community is the common good, we must in good earnest seek what’s best for the community along with what’s best for us.  We need to say to ourselves, “How can what I do help me and my neighbors find the greatest sense of happiness?”  That’s a profound position to adopt.  It allows you to psychologically seek what’s good for you but in the context of the many relationships in which you exist.  Husbands and wives need to ask themselves, “What can I do today to make my life and my spouses life better?”  Parents can ask a similar question.  They can ask, “What can we do that’s best for us as well as help our children flourish?”  Then families might ask the same type of question regarding their neighborhoods.  Neighborhoods can begin to ask that question in relation to cities, cities to states, etc., etc.  I think you get the point.  Instead of allowing extreme individualism trap us into thinking what’s best for me at the cost of others is most important, I see myself in relation to others and consider how my happiness is connected to the happiness and success of others.  The people of Geel have been asking themselves since the middle ages “How can I live well while making the lives of the mentally disturbed better at the same time.”  This philosophy has transformed their community.

If we only seek what’s best for us we find ourselves trapped in what I call “Collectivist Individualism.”  It’s a state of existence in which we say we’re looking out for what’s best for our community but we do it subconsciously at the cost of others.  We forget our success depends on the success of other communities.  Collectivist individualism is a dangerous extension of only caring about yourself at the cost of those around you.  We have to care about other people and we have to seek what’s best for us in relation to what’s best for others.  We can “Make America Great Again” but if we do that without considering the fact we live in community with others we only make ourselves mediocre at the cost of being a positive influence in the lives of others.  What’s a more promising future.  Is it flourishing while being a positive force in the lives of others or being a lone ranger who finds himself standing in line for medication just before an afternoon of television.  I will take the Geel approach to life living with others in a tolerant healthy way that allows me to flourish with others and not at the cost of others.  I hope you will begin to see your happiness is not something that comes at the cost of others but rather is built on the happiness and success you foster with them.

Walk With Me….

Walk with me

“Come and walk with me.”  This is a profound statement with deep spiritual implications.  It’s an invitation to spend time and space with another human being and to know the paths they travel.  It opens the door for two people to know one another at a deeper level; a level that goes beyond the usual platitudes of “How are you” and “I’m doing fine.”  To walk with another human being is a way to draw in the same air they breathe and feel the same stones under your feet they feel under theirs while walking beside you on the rocky path of life.  It’s a time to feel the coolness of the evening setting in because both of you are walking the same path at the same time going in the same direction.

I’ve spent over twenty years providing therapy and pastoral care for hurting people.  In that time, I’ve come to understand there is a deep mystery in the human experience we often overlook.  When I listen to people share their toughest and most difficult experiences, I’m reminded of the profound uniqueness of that experience for that particular individual.  Yet, at the same time, I marvel at how our common humanity allows me to know something about what they’ve gone through.  They may be struggling with divorce and I may have never experienced the pain of such a disruption in life, but I know what it means to feel unwanted, unappreciated, and left behind.  Two different human souls engaged in a dialogue with two different life experiences, yet at the root of these two different experiences is the transcendent reality that human life requires love, acceptance, and the need to connect with another human being.  When someone enters into a real dialogue with you, not one bereft of true human expression, they are in a sense asking you to “Come walk with me.”  If you want to help that individual flourish, you will accept that invitation and walk with them.

Walking with someone takes skill and the willingness to take risks.  It’s not as simple as merely listening to what they have to say and then stating your objective opinion.  It means entering into their world, experiencing their pain, and simply “walking,” not running, skipping, or standing still.  You must walk with them, breathe with them, sincerely engage them.

If we want other people to flourish, recover from their pain, and develop into people of character, we must be willing to walk with them.  We must also remember we cannot push ourselves into their stride, we must be invited to walk with them.  In my love for my children, the people who are my friends, my wife, my students, and every other Christian soul I meet, I make sure I intentionally make myself available to them so that when they give me the invitation to walk with them, I’m ready to do so.  It’s the only way to connect with others and it’s the most profound way to help carry their burdens allowing them to see a new path.  I pray all of us learn to walk with others and be a companion to those in our lives needing it most.  Remember, Christ did not impose his divine presence on us and overwhelm us with his glory, he chose rather to “walk with us” by taking on human flesh, suffering with us, and living like the very souls he came to save.  Go and do likewise, and “Walk with others.”

When Love Means “I Hurt For You.”

Broken Hurt Heart SMS Text Messages in EnglishI like to write a great deal about love.  I find it such a fascinating and rich topic.  We experience love in so many ways yet struggle to really be able to communicate its essence in all its diversity and richness.  It’s also something exceptionally important for human flourishing and well-being.  Without love we wither and die.  Love seems to be at the core of who we are and the driving force for all we do.

People have always struggled to understand love.  This is most evident when we look at human language.  Many languages, unlike English, have multiple words to describe the human experience of love in order to capture its complexity.  For example, Greek uses words like philia, storge, eros, and agape to capture the ideas of family/brotherly love, friendship love, romantic love, and God like love respectively.  English uses the word love for all of them, yet English speakers intuitively know when we say we love our husband or wife we don’t mean we love them in the same way we love our new laptop computer, pair of shoes, or lawnmower.  Because language often reflects how people think I find it fascinating how easily English speakers confuse certain phenomenon not related to love with love.  For example, in my counseling practice I may be working with a client going through a difficult divorce or break up and they’re shocked the other person in the relationship left them.  “After all,” they say, “We had such a great sex life.”  They confuse sex with love and the fact our English language doesn’t capture the difference between passionate erotic feelings and deep self-sacrificial love we often confuse sexual attraction and behaviors with relationship love.  Love is a difficult topic and it often transcends our language.

I was listening to a podcast called, “Invisibilia.”  I love this podcast and recommend it to anyone interested in psychology.  The topic being discussed that day had to do with human emotion.  One of the people they talked with was an anthropologist who lived with and documented the Igorot people of the Philippines.  The podcast was mostly about how this anthropologist captured the essence of the various emotional experiences of the community.   What captured my attention was his description of the Igorot word for love.  The word they use actually translates into something like “I hurt for you.”  That definition struck me because of how uniquely it captures the many dimensions of love in such a concise way.

When we think about romantic love we think about an all-consuming passion for the other individual.  That passion causes us to “hurt” for the other person because we just can’t be with them enough.  Yes, this feeling will dissipate over time but it’s a very real feeling for those initially in love with one another.  This hurt is part of the romantic experience but if the relationship matures, that hurt transforms into something other than unbridled passion.  The hurt doesn’t go away, but it becomes a different kind of pain for the other person.  It becomes empathy and compassion.  While we may not feel the hurt of longing associated with the absence of our romantic lover, we certainly hurt for them when we see them struggle in life, suffer from an illness, or experience disappointments.  We hurt for them because we love them and this love causes us to be uniquely connected.  Painful longing for one another, birthed from romantic passion now becomes compassionate sorrow, a pain experienced by two souls that have somehow become entwined with one another.  As the relationship continues the hurt for one another does as well.  This love that hurts for the other continues to be a part of our experience when the ones we care for pass away.  This isn’t the pain of romantic passion that can’t be quenched nor is it the pain we feel as compassionate and empathetic partners journeying through life together.  This is the pain of emptiness one feels because the person they loved is no longer with them.  The Igorot people have beautifully captured the holistic experience of love by associating that word with the definition “I hurt for you.”

It would be easy to twist this idea into something ugly.  Someone might argue this association of hurt and love perverts the idea of love into this concept that to truly love someone is to cause them pain.  However, if you look closely at the way the definition is stated that’s not what’s being said.  The phrase is not “I make you hurt” but rather “I hurt for you.”  It’s pain I feel because of a romantic desire I have for you.  It’s a sense of empathy and compassion I have for your situation because we are connected together in love.  In the end, its the sense that because you’re gone I’m no longer with you and I miss you.  Passionate Love is the connecting force drawing human souls together.  It matures into companionate love that intimately connects people with one another allowing them to share one another’s pain.  And in the end this love leaves us with hurt, reminding us when the one we love leaves us, we’ve lost the presence of a good friend.  Love truly is complex and requires us to be vulnerable to one another.  Vulnerability sometimes means we hurt for those we love.

It’s interesting that Augustine of Hippo, a great Christian saint and writer once argued that sin is nothing more than disordered love.  If we look at his statement through the eyes of the Igorot people what Augustine is telling us is that sin is hurting for the wrong things.  Sin is pain in our lives caused by a disordered affection to the wrong things.  How true that is!  How I pray all of you think long and hard about the very things you long for; the very things causing you pain.  It’s these things you’ll become attached to and these things that will distort your sense of love.  If you don’t order your love toward God and one another you’ll have a life of empty pain because of your attachment to that which matters very little.  However, if you love God, you will find that it’s actually less you who hurt for God and discover in the face of Jesus Christ a God who is willing to “Hurt for you.”

Making it Count – The Inheritance of Private Ryan


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.

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


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


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.



Why Should we Live a Good Life?

living well

Everyone wants to live a good life.  The problem is no one appreciates why living life well matters.  Most writers on this subject begin by telling you what a good life is (i.e. living a healthy life, having money, developing a spiritual life, etc.), but I think we need to ask ourselves a more basic question.  That basic question is why should we live life well, particularly if it means not satisfying our need for pleasure?  Instead of defining what living life well is, we’re going to start our discussion by thinking about why living life well matters at all.  Let’s remember, there really is no mandate stating you have to live life well.  In fact, if you follow your heart, living life well might even keep you from living a pleasure filled life.  If living life well means living in a way that promotes physical health, you may not be happy with that plate of vegetables and prefer to just have ice cream for dinner.  Sure, eating those vegetables is living life well, but it certainly isn’t living life happily, at least not in the immediate sense (Unless you prefer vegetables over ice cream, and in that case, we need to have a serious conversation about savoring life’s treats).  So why should we live life well?

First, it provides us with a sense of meaning and purpose and allows us to function as we were intended.  Human beings are meant to live life well because living in a way that’s more than just surviving is what humans do.  We’re living creatures and therefore living creatures should live well.  We’re not merely like the other creatures in the world, we’re human creatures.  A human life is one lived in such a way that it has meaning and purpose and transcends the mere natural laws and instincts of our bodies.  My first suggestion is you spend time thinking about the meaning and purpose of your life.  Too often we just float through existence without ever paying attention to the fact we indeed have a life mission.  For me, its teaching and sharing psychological and spiritual wisdom to help people live balanced, resiliant, and passionate lives.  That’s my life mission and it drives everything I do.  Spend some time reflecting on what yours is.  You have talents, the question is what is your personal vision statement that focuses those talents to make the world a better place?

Secondly, we live life well so we can be resilient people.  We know living in this world is going to bring trouble, sorrow, setbacks, and disappointments.  Just look over the span of human history, there’s never a period in time that human beings don’t suffer.  We’re vulnerable creatures and natural disasters, human ignorance, hateful people, and a myriad of other causes of suffering find their way into our lives.  Yet, amidst this suffering we have two choices.  First, we can just take it and allow life to beat us down to be victims of our circumstances.  By surrendering we have in a sense elected to die and sometimes that death is nothing more than a slow soul killing experience in which the body continues but the rest of who we are has been buried in a deep cold grave.  Our second option is to meet our challenges head on and find creative ways to shift our perspective from being a victim to being a survivor.  Resilience allows us to adapt to the situation, be creative, muster our courage, and do something other than just allow life’s difficulties to destroy us.  Living life well helps us be resilient people.

The third and final reason why living life well is important is it creates balance and harmony in our life.  We are holistic creatures consisting of a body, mind, emotions, relationships, and spirits.  Each aspect of our life impacts the other.  If we don’t care for our bodies we can’t think well with our minds.  Poor physical health can limit the amount of blood flowing to parts of our brain thus impacting our ability to create and recall memories, process information, and perform a number of cognitive functions.  Also, our emotional life can impact our physical well being.  If we’re highly anxious we create a cortisol excess in our blood stream negatively impacting our bodies and leading us to suffer from disorders like PTSD.  Living life well provides us with a balanced approach to cultivating health in all five of the previous mentioned dimensions of being human.

A life is lived well so we can live with meaning and purpose, balance, and resilience as holistic creatures.  Creatures provided with a body, mind, emotions, relationships, and a soul.  The greatest lie most people believe is that human life is only different in degree from other forms of life.  Don’t buy into that argument.  We’re capable of so much more than the rest of the natural world because we’re different than any other living creature on the planet.  Some might call this a type of arrogance, but perhaps it’s a type of healthy arrogance that’s good for us in the end (if there can be such a thing)?  If we see the value and uniqueness of human life, and I mean “ALL” human life, perhaps we’ll be less inclined to view other people as objects and be more willing to treat them with respect and dignity.  If having some level of arrogance about who we are facilitates the humility required to love other people, maybe, just maybe we can say that’s okay.  Slavery might be less attractive if we view people as something different than domestic animals, prostitution might not be as attractive because other people are seen as something more than an object to be used.  

People will have a unique dignity that animals don’t because people are unique.  In the end people don’t want to simply live life well, they want to live a “Human” life well; a life transcending  natural drives and laws; lives filled with virtue, truth, goodness, and beauty.  This is what the great thinkers of the ancient world believed and I think one we need to recapture.  Ask yourself this, are you comfortable believing your life is nothing more than one reflective of an advanced animal ?  If so, why do you live your life so differently than other animals and why do you want other people to treat you as if you have some higher dignity?  Live a human life of virtue because in the end it creates a better world for you, others, and yes, even the rest of the planet.  Let me close this reflection with the words of one of litterature’s greatest poets, John Milton who wrote the following about human beings in “Paradise Lost”

“A creature whom not prone and brute as other creatures, but enbued with sanctity of reason might erect his stature and upright with front serene govern the rest, self-knowing and from thence magnanimous to correspond with heaven.”

Are you merely an evolved ape grasping at fruit in a tree or are you “magnanimous to correspond with heaven?”  I believe we need to live life well because we were created for so much more than we think ourselves capable.