The Leaning Soul of … Us!

Let’s revisit perhaps the most famous bell tower in the world, the “Leaning Tower of Pisa”:

Leaning_tower_of_pisa

In one of my earlier entries I posted a picture of this tower, and mentioned that it is actually a freestanding (freeleaning?) bell tower, or ‘campanile’, adjacent to the Cathedral, or Duomo, of Pisa.  It was built primarily in the 12th and 13th centuries, but further adornments and other work was added over the following two centuries as well.  The tower actually began leaning shortly after the work began, in 1173 A.D., as the weight of the marble and stone structure was much too heavy for the sandy ground on which the tower was built.  Fortunately, the work was interrupted soon thereafter, as the Republic of Pisa became frequently engaged in war with surrounding city-states in the late 12th and most of the 13th centuries.  Thus, no work was done on the unfinished tower for nearly 100 years, which allowed the soil undergirding the tower to fully settle and firm.  Once wars ended and the ground seemed more stable, the builders decided to carry on to completion, relying on God to keep the tower from toppling.  So far, stand it has!

Actually, two past efforts to stabilize the tower have been successful.  The last effort, made by digging down under the lower edge of the tower and pouring concrete down underneath to stabilize, and then using expansive lifts to straighten the tower, decreased the tilt from 5.5 degrees to 3.99 degrees.  In fact, the engineers believe they could have fully straightened the tower to 0.0 degrees tilt, but it was felt that this would severely cripple tourism, which would greatly impact the economy of Pisa and the Tuscany region of Italy.  I would agree.  Unless you’re like me and have an unnatural love of bell towers, would you go out of your way to visit the Non-Leaning Tower of Pisa?

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Please consider a few quotes regarding the soul …

“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”  Aristotle

“The reason it hurts so much to separate is because our souls are connected.”  Nicholas Sparks

“What Is Love? I have met in the streets a very poor young man who was in love. His hat was old, his coat worn, the water passed through his shoes, and the stars through his soul.”   Victor Hugo

“Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.”  Marilyn Monroe

“Whatever you are physically – male or female, strong or weak, ill or healthy – all those things matter less than what your heart contains. If you have the soul of a warrior, you are a warrior. All those other things, they are the glass that contains the lamp, but you are the light inside.”  Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel

“Whatever satisfies the soul is truth.”  Walt Whitman

“Inside us there is something that has no name; that something is what we are.”  Jose Saramago, Blindness

“Prayer is not asking.  It is a longing of the soul.  It is daily admission of one’s weakness.  It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”  Mahatma Gandhi

“What is soul?  It’s like electricity – we don’t really know what it is, but it’s a force that can light a room.”  Ray Charles

“I simply believe that some part of the human Self or Soul is not subject to the laws of space and time.”  Carl Jung

“Why do you hasten to remove anything which hurts your eye, while if something affects your soul you postpone the cure until next year?”  Horace

“Be careless in your dress if you must, but keep a tidy soul.”  Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar, 1897

“You are a beautiful soul hidden by the trench coat of the ego.”  Mike Dolan

“You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”  St. Augustine

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We (I?) concluded during our last rendezvous that a belfry, while being primarily distinguished from other similar architectural structures by the necessary inclusion of a bell, really cannot be reduced to the bell(s) alone.

belfry in kenai peninsula

The essence of a bell tower consists of the entire structure, including the bell.

oslob_belfry05

Thus, the walls, the floor, the roof, the windows, the rafters, the bell, the ropes and pulleys attached to the bell, and some crazy bats are all necessary parts of a belfry.

Bats roaring out of the belfry!

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Is a human being similar, or different?

By way of reminder, in my last entry I spoke of a quote by C.S. Lewis:  “You don’t have a soul.  You are a soul.  You have a body.”

Lewis’ assertion is that a human is actually, in essence, a soul.  That “soul” is then intrinsically linked to and possesses the body that we associate with that particular human being.  By extension, then, anything else that makes up that human being would therefore also be a possession of that same, central soul.  This would include the brain, which allows us to “sense” or perceive the world around us, to think, to remember things, and to feel emotions.

Now, what do you think about this line of thinking?  Is this so?  Ought we to think of ourselves as primarily a “soul”, whatever that is, walking around “clothed” in a fleshly body, and possessing a brain capable of consciousness, rational thought, and emotions?  And if so, and if we think in this way, would this change the way we live?

My answer to these questions is … “Probably”.

Taking things further, though, can any of us define the “soul” in words?  Ray Charles admitted in one of the quotes above that, like electricity, he couldn’t really tell you what a soul is, but he knows it sure can light up a room!  Jose Saramago says it’s the part of us that has no name, but it is who we are.  Carl Jung stated that he believes it’s that invisible part of us that “is not subject to the laws of space and time.”

I think most of us would allow that, if soul exists, then it is something that:  is not physically visible or “touchable”; is not infinite (that is, that I have a soul “assigned” to “me” and to me alone.  In other words, we don’t all share the same infinite, spiritual soul); and is something that lies underneath all the physical and mental “stuff” in our own consciousness which we are most aware of most of the time.  It has to be something that is at our “core”.

So, a soul would thus be an invisible, intangible, spirit-world entity.  It would travel around “inside” one’s body, but would not be something you could find in a surgery or autopsy inside that body.  But, there must be more to it than this, I would submit.

Let’s consider something:  I have long had the belief, since my days of consulting in nursing homes, that persons who are born with profound intellectual disabilities, who have extremely limited or even non-existent ability to communicate with other humans, still have a soul.  If this is true, what can or what does that soul do within those persons?  Well, in my way of looking at it, their soul is the spiritual part of them that:

–  is aware of God and other human souls;

–  can connect with others, beginning with their Creator, at a level deeper than conscious awareness or language.

The soul connects (or not, if it so chooses) in ways other than words or language of any sort, in ways other than physical touching, or even than “emotional” touching.  I don’t believe that, even though your brain may be highly limited in intellectual capacity, or in its ability to speak or to understand speech, your soul must also therefore be “limited”.  In fact, I believe, if souls do in fact exist, and I believe they do, that THEY are the things in humans that are “created equal”, NOT our bodies or brains.  Does that make sense?

Do souls “think”?  I don’t know, but I don’t think so.  I also don’t believe the soul “feels”, either.  I believe they simply “know”.  They are “aware of” things, and others.  Mostly others.  (Because, in the end, even though we are meant to be good stewards of the natural world we live in, including plants and animals, life is mostly about God and Us.)  I believe souls operate within one primary sphere, along one primary axis:  to yearn for, and lean toward, stronger and deeper connection with God and/or other souls, or to lean or push away from those connections and thus to pursue isolation and “self-satisfaction” alone.

To me, this is the “root” of the soul – connecting with other soul beings, or avoiding that connection.  The connection doesn’t have to be verbalized, such as getting to know someone better by conversing over a cup of coffee; nor does it have to be physical in any way.   But, as Nicholas Sparks noted in his quote above, our souls nevertheless can and do connect with one another.  And when they do, and it’s a good connection, it can be very strong, and have a great effect on the quality of our lives.  Because the soul is not infinite, though, being physically apart, or being unable to communicate with someone with whom we share a connection, can hurt.

The soul, then, is the very deep part of us that, moment by moment, decides either to lean toward a humble yielding to our Creator, toward joyful connection with that One, or lean away from that kind of connection, and thus rely on itself as it goes through life.

The soul therefore “leans”, much like certain bell towers!

Hearkening back to the biblical account of “The Fall”, in the Garden of Eden:  The soul was the part of Adam and of Eve which chose, at the time of the Serpent’s deceitful sales pitch, to pursue its own goals on its own terms, to “be God” within those two lives at the moment of choosing to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  It’s my view that the information coming into Eve’s brain/mind from the serpent, that she would NOT die if she ate the fruit, but would rather become like God, wise and knowing many things, and then from her eyes, seeing how tasty and beautiful the fruit looked, all filtered its way into her soul, which then decided to “lean away” from God and the boundaries God set up to provide peace and joy for her.  This “leaning away” was a decision thus made by the deepest part of her in that moment.  This decision, now working its way back, led to her mind rationalizing how good this choice to eat the fruit would be, her emotions already starting to feel a “high” at the delicious thought of biting into it and then being flooded with new wisdom and insights.  From there, her “will” – the executive part of her mind and brain – directed her body to carry out the act of eating the fruit.  Thus, information came in, was believed, and filtered down into her soul.  The soul leaned in a new, different direction, which then percolated back up through her mind, emotions, and will, working out in her physical life the inner leaning of her soul.

A little while later, Adam went through essentially the same process, the only differences being the serpent’s words came to him through Eve’s mouth, and the fact she had not died once she ate the forbidden fruit was, I’m sure, a boost to his confidence!  Otherwise, it was exactly the same, with his soul’s change in leaning again being the critical driving force.

I chose the story of the Garden of Eden and the fateful fruit choice because to me it illustrates and symbolizes perfectly the constant dilemma and choice that our souls face in life:  whether to lean toward, and ultimately to “lean on”, our loving Creator, or to lean away from the Creator and toward our own self-directed motives, and thus choose to lean only on ourselves as we journey along through life.

And so, if the views I’m presenting here are true, how does one get his or her soul to change the way it leans?  I can tell you what I believe, though I freely and humbly admit that I am not as effective or as diligent with this as I wish to be.

I believe the soul is most closely connected to the “heart”, which in my view is partly based in the body and partly based in the soul (so, part flesh and part spirit).  The heart represents and contains the deepest yearnings we have.  It is the part of us that contains our inner motives, as pertain to ourselves and others around us.  It is the part of a person that, as Jesus taught, serves as the “root” of the tree that is our life, and will thus lead to our lives producing either good fruit or bad fruit.  It is through the heart, I believe, that the soul can then be influenced to change its leaning.  The heart can be “opened up”, or made willing, to receive influence from new, truthful information, in many cases coming from other persons whose own hearts and souls have opened and are now leaning toward healthy connections.  By opening up, the yearnings of my heart can then change, from selfish motives to more selfless ones, as I seek after and discover these “truly true” insights in life.  This then finally can lead to a directional change in my soul’s leaning, allowing me to connect with God and others in that deeper, beyond the physical, way that we discussed earlier.  From here life can become more giving, less contentious, more joyful and contented.

Unfortunately, this can also go in the reverse direction.  When we begin to receive and then to believe and accept information that is false, but we (want to) think it is really true (i.e., delusion), this filters down into our hearts and then we tend to “close off” the heart to all other information which might contain real truth.  This false information then reinforces more self-centered and selfish motives and intentions, and tends to then pull the soul away from life-giving sources and connections, and toward isolation.  This eventually leads to a more insecure, more frustrated, more taking, less satisfying life.

I certainly hope that with all the material above I have not been too confusing.  I doubt I could explain my thinking any more clearly at this point in time, but I am still pondering these things and am sure this may evolve over time.

Again though, for me, the things I want now, compared to before I came across the quote from C.S. Lewis about truly being a soul, are:

–         to be more aware that I AM a soul;

–         that my soul, in harmony with an “opened-up” heart, and from there working out through my mind (seeking to discern truth from falsehood), my emotions (enjoying the people and things in life, but not “running the show”), my brain, and my body, can thus “lean” my life in better directions;

–         that the first direction I want to lean in is toward my Creator God, and from there toward others, seeking to connect with them and to give to them.

These paths are the ones I hope to follow, the ones I hope we all can more diligently follow.  Leaning, therefore, might not be a good thing for a bell tower, but is a very good thing for your soul, so long as your soul is leaning in the right direction!  Peace to you.

Craig Meek, M.D.

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb … ” Isaiah 11:6

 This belfry is located on the beautiful campus of Radford University.  It sits atop a small, older building at this 100 year old school in the New River Valley of western Virginia.  It’s a bit of an odd bird on the campus, as nearly all other buildings are of brick and stone, much larger, more impressive, and more imposing.  Just going by appearances, this clapboard-sided building and its aging belfry stand out like a sore thumb, in my opinion.

I took this picture while my family and I were touring the campus following our daughter’s dance audition.  My cell phone camera did not do this belfry any favors, as you can see, and I’m obviously no photographer.  But, in my mind this illustrates something interesting:  this building, surrounded as it is by much larger buildings that are considerably more appealing and more impressive to the eye, still stands.  It offers little to the overall ‘feel’ of the campus, yet it stands.  It could have slunk away long ago in shame over its diminutive size and odd look, but it stands.  It is not defeated, and you get the sense that it will never let itself feel in any way inferior.  It is “who” and what it is, and is perfectly okay with that.  It is NOT in competition with any of the other gorgeous buildings nearby.  It knows its role, and plays it well.  It knows that what is on its inside is a heckuva lot more important than what it looks like on the outer surface, and it agrees with me that any building with a belfry is in the cool club anyway!

So let’s return to where we left off when last we met.  Competition.  Today I want to talk about how I would distinguish between healthy, or “positive”, competition, and the destructive, “negative” types of competition.

First off, the title of this post comes from a passage from the Old Testament of the Bible that is very often misquoted.  Most times you will see or hear it as, “And the lion shall lie down with the lamb.”  Isaiah 11:6 actually reads:  “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.”  This is a picture of how things shall be in the new Kingdom that God will establish in the next age on the earth.  Do you deduce anything from this verse?  Do wolves and lambs, or leopards and goats, or calves and lions, or little children and wolves, leopards, or lions, cohabit in our world peacefully?

This is obviously a world in which competition, as well as the food chain, have been rendered obsolete.  This is “The Ideal”.  Utopia.  Heaven.  God’s Magnum Opus.  No more tears.  No more war.  No more pain.  No more sickness.  No more competition.  No more, “Thrill of Victory, and the Agony of Defeat.”  God’s peaceable kingdom.

In that day, all will know that they are perfectly ‘OK’.  All will know that they are perfectly loved as they are, and there will be no more perceived need to puff myself up, or put others down.  No longer will anyone need to be in control, to demand respect, to cast aspersion through gossip or social scheming, or to keep up with the Joneses.

Can we get there now?  Well, given that we are all indelibly flawed and fallible human beings, and given that we are all on a long journey through life hoping to better and better learn to depend on one another, to love one another, to help one another, to not fear or worry but to trust in God and safe people around us, but also knowing that we will likely never completely get there this side of the grave, it’s doubtful.  But, that is not to say that we can’t achieve progress.

Real progress, however, can only happen beginning with me and with you.  I know … sounds corny, but it’s truth.  Each of us can, a little at a time, grow closer and closer to the knowledge that we are OK.  Completely, just as we are, with all of our mistakes, all of the things we do selfishly or with hurtful attitudes.  We are still OK.  We are loved by our Creator.  No matter what.  Believe that … I mean really KNOW that truth … and then there will be nothing anyone can say to you, think about you, or do to you that can take your peace away.   Believe that, and there will be much less need for worry or fretfulness.  And once we know we are OK, then we can live the serenity prayer we looked at a couple of weeks ago.  Loving ourselves, our Creator, and one another will be easy.

And what does all of that have to do with the idea of competition?  It has everything to do with it.  Starting with a solid foundation of “OK-ness”, no longer must any form of day-to-day human competition cause us fear.  Now, I’m not speaking of military warfare or dealing with burglars or muggers.  Perfectly normal to feel fear in those situations.  But in any other typical form of ‘competition’ – academics, business, clothing, social, sports-related, etc., etc. – fear of “losing” does not any longer have to be a part of one’s normal experience.

Healthy vs. unhealthy thus becomes, not the actual competition itself, but all about my own attitude.   Healthy competition is anything that causes me to strive to be my very best, to give my best effort, to play fairly, to examine my strengths and weaknesses, and to build on those.  It leads me toward greater and greater teamwork, to become more interdependent with others, to not fear sharing things I’ve learned with others in order to help them.  Healthy competition can result in some “pain” if I “lose”, but not the kind of pain that leads me to want to get back at the winner, or to beat myself up, or to be ashamed of myself.  Rather, this is the kind of pain that can still enjoy the experience, love and have fun with the “winners”, but then look at ways I can, with God’s help and assuming that we believe it’s our Creator’s will that we even be involved in this particular competition, improve myself and further improve my mental health and attitude.

Unhealthy competition is, likewise, mostly about my own mindset and approach.  If I believe that winning the pretty girl’s approval, or getting her to go out on a date with me, or catching the eye and attention of that very cute and popular guy, is all-important for me if I am to be “worthy” or valuable, then this is not healthy.  If “winning” makes me feel better about myself, but losing makes me feel there is something terribly wrong with me, that’s not healthy.  If winning makes me laugh at my opponent, or losing makes me hate or resent the winner, that isn’t healthy.

Two different women who worked at two different women’s domestic violence shelters here in central Kentucky have each told me that when the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team loses a game, they have notably higher rates of women being admitted into the shelters within hours afterward.  Something is horribly wrong and unhealthy when competition, not even involving me personally, becomes so important that I get angry enough to lose all control when I lose.  We’ve all seen reports of fatal fights and brawls following NFL and college football games, and during and after soccer games in Europe and elsewhere.  We’ve all seen MANY cases of violence and murder involving “competition” between men and women, when one someone leaves another someone, and finds a new mate elsewhere.  The jealousy and anger we can feel about competition is boundless … IF, again, we base our worth and self-esteem on coming out ahead vs. losing.

So, in conclusion, we again see the truth that being healthy people, especially in any situation in which we are vying with others, involves first and foremost our own attitude.  Knowledge that we are not more or less valuable or worthy, no more or less loved, no more or less OK, whether we win or we lose, must be the foundation.  Then, taking the attitude that I am only ever going to measure myself against myself, against my own self’s very best, in preparation, practice, effort, and resilience.  I can look to others for inspiration, for tips and wisdom as to how to do things better, but never to let myself fall into the trap that when, not if, someone out there does things “better” than I that therefore I simply don’t measure up; that I am a loser.  Hogwash.  Please, let us all move from that kind of mindset, day by day, toward the truth that, just as in Special Olympics, we can and should all strive to win, but also to be brave, to give our best, and to celebrate all participants when the results are announced!

Thoughts?

Craig Meek, M.D.

One day at a time!

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

Reinhold Niebuhr, 1926

First off, is that an ornate belfry or what?!!  Wow!  This bell tower sits atop the San Tomas church in Haro, a town in northern Spain.  And I just gotta say, it would be one lucky shrink who was allowed to live up there!  After all, Haro is known for producing very fine red wine, and the weather is said to be quite nice.  Wonder if there are any bats hanging out in there?

Moving on, it’s time to tackle the rest of the serenity prayer.  In my view, the second half of the prayer, reprinted above, simply gives color and detail to the first portion, which we’ve looked at in the last two posts.  But, again, my opinion is that this prayer serves as a very elegant picture of good mental health; that is, living in a mentally healthy manner.  And as such, both parts of the prayer are necessary to paint that picture for us.

So what do we see?  Well, first off, as this post’s title indicates, a major key is that life is best lived one day at a time.  Interestingly, as many of you may know, the “one day at a time” phrase drawn from this prayer has been a widely-used motto of encouragement within AA and other recovery groups for decades.  As many old-timers within AA will tell us, that motto has helped innumerable members of their fellowship to remain sober when stressful winds picked up, and cravings seemed unbearable and irresistible.  Just getting through 24 hours sober can be a doable task when you realize that you don’t have to do the whole rest of your life all at once.  Just one day.  As Jesus said, let’s deal with today’s concerns today, and let tomorrow take care of itself.   Seems like a healthy approach to me.

Actually, though, the point is not so much that we are to live one day at a time.  This is really just Niebuhr’s way of calling us to stay in the present.  This is illustrated further with the very next line, “enjoying one moment at a time”.  As we live, a ‘moment’ is actually not a defined unit of time.  It signifies the present, without really assigning any particular or specific time length to it.  A moment, to me, refers to events, thoughts, encounters, choices, things people say to us, things we say to others, things that happen in our lives.  And in those present moments is really where our “mental health” is tested.  We are, at any given “moment” either mentally healthy, or, in varying degrees, we are not.

Please don’t overlook the word, “Enjoying”.   Easy to do so.  We may actually want to overlook it.  How does one ‘enjoy’ every moment of one’s life?  I’m not sure anyone ever has.  But, within the context of this prayer, perhaps it is possible.  Again, partly dependent on “God“, partly dependent on my own attitude.  Trusting, positive, never letting our expectations of life get too high, never thinking too much of ourselves, seeing life as a grand adventure that will NEVER destroy us.   If we do those things, and really look forward to whatever might come next with excitement and anticipation, then life can be enjoyed one moment at a time.  It really can happen.

The next line is hard.  “Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace.”   A very simple and easily understood phrase.  The question it leaves unasked is also very easily understood.  Can we truly accept the stress?  Can we accept frustration?  In some cases, even in our modern world, can we accept illness, fatigue, loss, heat, cold, rain, floods, storms, drought, pain, fire, war, bankruptcy, injustice, abuse, death?  Can we?  Will we?  I am certainly in no position to answer, having been largely sheltered from most of these things in my own journey, thus far.  But, as the author of the prayer states, hardship, if accepted and not cursed, is a path to being at peace in one’s core, at peace with life, at peace with the Giver of all good things.  If we are prepared for it beforehand, I believe we can accept hardship, and even welcome it.  Doesn’t mean it has to be our friend, but we certainly can always ask of it, what would you teach me?  What can I learn from you?

“Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.”  As one reads through the Gospels of the New Testament, one is struck by how Jesus did not try to proclaim His message to all the folks within His reach.  In fact, He often demanded of those whom He healed to keep quiet about the miracles He had given them.  Several times there were seeming opportunities to wield dramatic change in many around Him, including any number of persons who were highly skeptical, those in leadership positions, those who often abused and oppressed others, but He seemed bent on revealing Himself only to those whose hearts were open, were truly needy, were humble and contrite;  i.e., the “poor in spirit”.  As for those whose pride and power were too blinding, Jesus seemed to simply “pass”, and move on.  So, following His example:  Taking the world as it is, and letting go of my own hopes and dreams for the people around me, the “world” as I would have it.  Again we come back to that powerful concept and drive:  Control.  Are we in a place to set it down, to lay it aside, to let it go?  Are we ok with others being different from us in any number of ways?  Are we ready and willing to meet any other person where she or he is, and not immediately and automatically “sizing them up”, judging and categorizing every person we encounter?  If we are, then we are taking and accepting the world as it is.  A very healthy stance.

The last few lines are the key to being able to do all that is laid out in the preceding lines.  We must … 1) trust in God to take good care of us, and “make all things right” in God’s own timing, as we 2) surrender to God’s will;  This is very hard.  We were all raised to follow our own path.  We have all been taught that we are the ones responsible for ourselves.  We are “in the driver’s seat!”  But … do we have to be?  Must we be the ones always deciding, usually quickly and in a hurry, about goals, destination, directions, route, speed, maintenance, etc., etc.?  Or, is it ok, and perhaps a much better way to live, to yield to that soft inner voice when it’s telling us to hold on, to wait, to allow God’s wisdom to flow into us, to patiently pause until a clearer direction is laid on our minds?  Is it ok, and perhaps much better, to allow for serenity to envelop us when hardship and frustration arrive, or to allow courage to move and stir us to action when we’d rather just whine and complain, to speak up about injustice, in our life or others’?

I think it is far better to trust and surrender, to wait and be right and peaceful, than to react and either create more trouble, or to do ourselves and all others around us absolutely no good, since we “always know what is best”.   It’s a tough dilemma, mostly because we are unaccustomed to yielding to any other way than our own.  And, despite the fact that we’ve seen for as many years as each of us has been alive that when we are following our own will exclusively, more often than not we are on collision course with other people and other forces, we still hurtle on, head down, bent on stubbornly pushing our own agenda, whether that is to rush in and run roughshod, or to aggressively pull away, isolating and quarantining ourselves into our own little prisons where no one can hurt us, and no one can be helped by us.  May God grant us the grace necessary to allow His wisdom, His serenity, and His courage to move in our lives, trusting in God, surrendered to the Higher will, knowing that all things will work much better if and when we do!  All will be better, all will be more peaceful, all will be more joyful, all will be happier.

Will we have it, though?  One day at a time will tell … join me in trying, please.

Craig Meek, M.D.

Are you losing your grip? Maybe that’s a good start!

“Speak when you are angry, and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

Ambrose Bierce

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All of us have heard and read many times about the fact that we can control very, very little in life.  Entire volumes could be filled with such wisdom.  And yet, so few humans have found a way to really let go of the drive to be master puppeteer to the little corner of the world surrounding each of us.  We all seem to believe that it is not only possible, but necessary, to ensure our utmost security by being as much in control of our lives and the things that “happen to us” as we can.  We waste so much needless energy, and carry around so much harmful stress, all in an effort to be prepared for anything, to prevent anyone from disliking or disrespecting us, and to keep our paths as free of pebbles and puddles as possible.  This striving after control inevitably leads to frustrated anger, and that leads to reactions in word and deed that are almost always (by decent-hearted people) regretted, or to a “stuffing” of that anger, which only eventually eats us up from the inside out.  All because we have to keep life on a leash.

It’s hopeless!

And deep inside most of us there is a quiet voice telling us so … but still, on we go, hoping against hope that the next day will FINALLY go smoothly, that no one will add anything more to our 4-page ‘to do’ list, that people will somehow know exactly what we want without being told (and will actually give us those things!), that love and peace will be ours without interruption, that all our dreams will come true.  And we somehow believe WHEN, not if, these things do not come to pass, it’s because our efforts to control everything and everyone failed, and we just need to somehow get better at it.  Alternatively, when we’ve tried and failed so many times that we simply feel beaten down, we give up, and begin expecting life to dump on us continually and forever.  Somewhere along the line, we absorbed and assimilated the belief that life should be relatively easy; that things should go our way.  If it isn’t, or if they don’t, then it’s either our fault, or it’s the other guy’s fault, or it’s God’s fault.  Such a setup for anxiety, depression, anger, and constant frustration!  For many this leads to seeking all kinds of escapes from their daily stress and distress, and in some cases those escapes become addictions, at times from which they never recover.

M. Scott Peck began his pivotal book, The Road Less Traveled, with the line:  “Life is difficult.”  He goes on to explain how, when once we truly and consistently accept this great truth about life, it actually becomes easier to live.   I think in his “Serenity Prayer” Reinhold Niebuhr saw the same truth (the ‘hardness’ of life), and lays out a set of attitudes, or mindsets, which can help to steer us through life’s difficulties, and for which he is then requesting of God.  In these qualities or attitudes – serenity, courage, wisdom – lies the secret to a balanced, or mentally healthy, way of living.

The core truth here is, again, that life is very hard.  I have very little control over what happens in my life.  But when things do happen, I can respond:  I can first distinguish which things can and should be changed, and which things cannot or should not be changed.  Then, for the first category I can attempt to change those things, conditions, circumstances.  For the second, I can accept them.  The first response, evaluation and discernment, requires wisdom.  The second, an effort to change something, requires courage.  The third, acceptance, requires serenity.

Now this is where it begins to get more interesting.  Again, what is the mentally healthy pray-er doing here?  As I approach life in a healthy stance, what features stand out?  First, thinking back to the last post, my first acknowledgement is that I need God.  Life is far too complicated, far too fickle, far too uncontrollable for me to handle on my own.   More importantly, my mind is far too complex, far too embued with so many false beliefs, so many unhealthy habits, so many tendencies to react, rather than to respond, to all the slings and arrows that life throws in my direction, for me to ever be able to do this on my own.  So, with humility I ask for the grace necessary to allow the mind-states of wisdom, serenity, and courage to be born in me with each new encounter that life and I will have today.  I ask trustingly, with the openness and the willingness to change and be changed.  I ask, knowing that I don’t deserve this grace, or power, but expecting that a loving, compassionate, God or higher power will cheerfully and freely bestow it upon me.   As this grace comes and begins to grow within me, within my mind, the mind-states and attitudes we need to be healthy livers of life also grow.  As they grow, our ability to change our normal actions and reactions, our normal choices, grows as well.

The actions and choices we listed above, distinguishing, accepting, changing, are a job for my mind, my “will”, to choose and to do.  That is my part.  The part that comes from without, via grace, are the wisdom, serenity, and courage.  I do not yet possess these qualities in sufficient amount in order to become and to stay healthy, day by day, moment by moment.  Therefore I must ask for them and be open enough to allow them to come in.  When once I do possess them, the discernment, the accepting, the acting to change will come much more easily.

Recall that we talked about how vital it is, even though we are trustingly asking some higher source of power to give us grace, wisdom, courage, and serenity, for us to think often about these things, these states of mind.  Why?  Well, as one example, sports psychologists have seen their clients achieve great improvement in their athletic performance by helping those men and women visualize themselves performing at higher levels.  They use their mind’s eye to ‘see’ themselves accomplishing higher jumps, faster runs, more graceful leaps, and smoother, more accurate shots.  By doing so, with eyes closed in the quiet of an office or within their home, and by repeatedly practicing this mental imagining, their confidence and comfort levels grow, and they become more likely to actually do the things they have visualized.  In the same way, we also can form “grooves” in the wilderness of our minds by meditating on the mental qualities grace will give us; by picturing ourselves as wise, as serene, as courageous.  As grooves form, it makes it not only easier but also more likely that the wheels of our mind will follow those grooves, in the hectic give and take of an average day.  So, we can see ourselves stepping back to consider whether the fact that someone just pulled out in front of us, forcing us to hit our brakes to avoid a collision, is really worth doing something more, as in some kind of angry words or gesture or threat.  We can see ourselves perhaps deciding that this is a situation best accepted, as we ease up on the brakes, knowing that it’s better to be safe and at peace, perhaps even arriving late to our destination – how terrible!! (wink, wink) – than to allow some anonymous driver to steal our mental health.  We see ourselves actually having the internal peace needed to accept it when we lose a beloved pet, or when the boss puts a last-minute project “request” in our box on Friday afternoon, or when we feel very lonely late at night.  We see ourselves having and using the courage to speak up for ourselves or for others to whom an injustice has been done, or to set clear limits and boundaries to protect ourselves, even when there’s a good chance it will hurt another’s feelings, or that the other person won’t like us very much anymore.

There is thus a place for these kinds of meditations and visualizations.  It can be very helpful, and in fact necessary in many cases.  As noted last time, it’s a way for our mind to lean, or incline itself, toward a new way of responding to life.  It’s a way to “loosen our grip” on life, and in so doing allows our mind to live a more free and full existence.  We acknowledge that life is very difficult, that it is a long series of problems to be addressed, obstacles to be navigated, and that a healthy mindset and attitude are far more important, and far more possible to possess, than control.

Next time we will look at the rest of the serenity prayer, with its simple but wonderful recipe for living a joyful, peaceful, and free life, come what may!

Serenity Now!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Serenity Prayer (original form):

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), 1926

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The “Serenity Prayer” is, in my way of thinking, as beautiful and simple a way of encapsulating mental health as has ever been spoken or written.   As you may know, Alcoholics Anonymous and most other 12-Step recovery groups have long recited the first two verses of this prayer at the opening and/or closing of their meetings, and many, many a recovering addict of various kinds has found solace, courage, and peace through praying the prayer, and meditating on the concepts it describes.

The version most people know is an abridged version of Niebuhr’s original:  “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Albeit longer and more difficult to memorize, I prefer the original form, mainly because of the one line, “courage to change the things which should be changed”, but also because I like the thought of using an author’s actual original words.  After all, if you’re going to plagiarize, might as well get it right, right?!?

I’d like to walk through this wonderful prayer with you, and see if I can explain what I mean when I call it an excellent description of a mentally healthy lifestyle.  Again, if you’ll recall back to my last post, I talked about how I like to think of mental health as a ‘way of living‘, as the mind’s way of ‘doing life’.  If you look at it in this way, then it prevents mental health from being defined as “the absence of mental illness“, which I don’t really find useful for most of us.

The very first word of the prayer is “God”.  In my experience, we often overlook this word as we pray and think about the prayer, but in my mind it is THE most important part of the entire prayer.  The prayer for Niebuhr begins with a call to God.  Mental health, to me, begins with a call to God.  Must this be the Judeo-Christian God?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  Niebuhr, a Lutheran minister, certainly saw God as such.  But who am I to limit God or other people’s views?  I do believe that mental health MUST begin with an acknowledgement that I as a frail, limited, fallible, and flawed human being, am in complete need of reliance on some power greater than my own in order to navigate life, to discern truth from falsehood, and to find serenity, courage, and wisdom.  “God”.  Some say that all of life, in the final analysis, “is a God thing”.  I do believe that simple faith or trust, even if it’s only a very small seed of hope, in some concept of a personal God, a God who is both able and willing to give gifts to us, God’s created children, is the basic cornerstone of living a mentally healthy life.

What if someone out there does not believe in a God-being?  What if that person or another would like to open him or herself up to the possibility of an infinite and good Creator being there, but is simply not yet ready?  Can these persons find or “possess” mental health?  In my view, yes, but it still requires trust in some kind of force or power that one does not possess internally.  But I also think that such persons would find even more joy and fulfillment in life were they to let their guard down and take a small leap into faith in a God-person.  I know that my life went from Eastman to Kodachrome when I fell through faith, by God’s grace, into my Creator’s arms.  I know that my relationship with my Creator, my Power greater than myself, makes my life an adventure, rather than just a way to pass the time en route to my body’s demise.  Yes, that adventure is often rough-and-tumble, and how many times have I shoved God out of the way so I could stubbornly retake command of my own ship, or wandered away from The Shepherd’s side to pursue tasty-looking wild berries over in the thorny woods, only to have to be rescued from the brambles, and carried back to the path torn and bleeding!!!  But I would not ever go back to a life without faith, not when I’m in a healthier state.  It is humility, not shame; contrition and healthy dependence on God, not a crutch; this is what I’m describing here, and what the Serenity Prayer is illustrating for us.

Starting from the view of humble, upward-looking, expectant trust in one’s Higher Power, the entire prayer thus becomes a series of traits one asks for, hopes for, and acknowledges that we cannot give ourselves.  Knowing this, keeping this in mind, we can still benefit by going through these characteristics, these “mind traits”, and reflecting on them.  How so?  Well, even though we admit they must come from God, or at the least from outside ourselves, as we look at them and meditate on them, our mind “inclines itself” toward these traits.  We lean toward them, as we face choices moment by moment in how we’ll respond to things we encounter, events we experience, things others do and say around or to us.  And as we incline toward these mind-sets, it becomes, in my view, much easier for God’s Spirit to create them within us; in our day by day beliefs, attitudes, reactions.

What is the first thing for which the pray-er of this prayer asks God?  “Give us grace.”  Grace?  What happened to serenity, courage, wisdom?  Yes, they’re coming.  But, we first need grace.  So, what is grace?  I’ve seen a lot of definitions of the word, many of them confusing and in some cases contradictory.  But, there are a few consistent themes that run through most definitions of grace, and so here is my distillation:  to me, grace is a state of being, compassionately and freely given by God, in which one has the ability to live according to the highest principles of purity, peace, love, and justice.  I believe that we can have more of grace at times, less at others, depending on the current state of our mind and our heart (or, soul).  Regardless, though, it is all founded on the basis of God as the giver.  So, when we pray, “God, give us grace …”, we are humbly asking God to grant us the abilities to do the things that are laid out in the rest of the prayer.  My own personal belief is that, while God has always given gifts to us humans through history – rain, sun, food, air, water, the ability to communicate, the strength to do work, the reasoning powers to invent and to find better ways to do things, etc., true grace, meaning the ability to be in a vibrant relationship with our Creator, and to live in a way fully pleasing to that Creator, entered into the world and into history through the life of Jesus Christ.  Others may disagree, but that is my stance, and I believe there is good evidence to support it.

That said, if I have not lost you yet, we’ll continue digging into the rest of the prayer and the model of real mental health it represents, next time.

Thanks!

Craig Meek, M.D.