To paraphrase: “Putting yourself first is to be a fully functioning adult. An adult has needs, wishes, and desires and knows the difference. An adult is firmly grounded in reality. An adult has a strong awareness of how she or he ‘fits into this world.’ An adult is aware of his or her relationships and puts them in their proper perspective. An adult gives his or her relationships the respect they deserve. An adult is able to balance competing issues and resolve conflicts. An adult knows that taking care of herself or himself allows her or him to take care of others. An adult loves him or herself unconditionally and knows that this is what allows him or her to truly love others.” These aphorisms were given to me by my friend Bill. (1) They contain pithy reminders that I create my world and I must be responsible for its negative or positive outcome. I see the world through my five senses. It is thus my perception of reality that is reflected back in my attitude to life and in my ambition to discover my personal mission or goal.
Joy and happiness are concomitant concepts that we all identify with. To be bathed in their warm glow is a deeply sought after goal. The traditional question, of course, is what constitutes joy and happiness? If we follow the capitalistic dream, it is to achieve maximum physical wealth. This includes a plethora of things: money, cars, houses, boats and multi-faceted consumer goods. There are others, however, that eschew this model and seek spiritual fulfillment. They spend their lives in solitude and prayer. They aspire to attain a level of nirvana and oneness with God or the gods. The dilemma is which path truly brings peace? As we enter adulthood, few of us are given a choice as to which trail to take and thus choose to take the religious “chemin” much later.
Many years ago, when I went to school in Poland, I had a truly unique experience: I visited a Trappist (2) monastery. A young female friend took me to the outskirts of an imposing monolith. It looked like a medieval fortress from days gone by. It was approached by a footpath that led to a massive door. My friend stopped and refused to go any further.
“Why won’t you come with me?” I inquired. “The monks don’t allow female visitors,” came her curious reply. Surprised and somewhat perplexed, I set off on my own. As I approached the portal, the stone walls on either side of the path became higher and higher. The net effect was that, upon facing the door, I felt totally isolated from the outside world: it was as if I had entered into my own time machine. I frapped at the gnarled wooden gate. Nothing! I knocked again: the sound of soft footsteps punctuated the quiet. The door creaked and opened; a slender figure in an “uncarded” woolen habit, his head shaved in a tonsure, (3) appeared before me. He inquired as to my purpose; I explained that I wanted to get a glimpse of his world. With a broad smile, he bade me enter. Once inside the expansive walls, you were immediately struck by the coolness of the air and the isolation of the environment. You could have been in any part of the world. He guided me across a large flagstone courtyard into a magnificent Baroque church. We genuflected and sat down in an ornate pew for several moments of prayer. This was all done in the type of silence that I can only associate with a public library or a reading room. Then he gently tapped me on the shoulder indicating that I was to follow. At the back of the church, there was a door that led to yet another courtyard. This, in fact, entered into a large and lush park. The brilliant sunshine and warm weather made it especially inviting. Radiating out from opening to the edges of this enclosure were twelve identical white-washed cottages. The monastery held 12 monks and hence twelve tiny houses, each having his own living space. Life was one of work, prayer and controlled conversation. My guide explained that he was forty-two and had been in his personal “state of grace” for twenty-one years. The garden was used to grow almost all the food that the spiritual community needed. They were virtually self-sustaining: contact with the outside world being limited to four public invitations a year. We returned to the basilica and descended into the catacombs. Once again we genuflected and began our personal prayers. Unbeknownst, praying beside me was an elderly monk deep in meditation. He seemed to be an eerie apparition; this only magnified my overall perception. My chaperone then showed me his personal crypt which had already been prepared for the end of his mortal life. He subsequently escorted me to the main doorway and the outside world. I thanked him and walked straight ahead. In that brief sojourn, I had decided as to which direction my life was to take. I did not look back. I had made an additional choice, however. I promised myself to strive for excellence in my life: my view of greatness, not the enforced, value system of someone else. The writer, philosopher and humanist Wendell Berry (b.1932), a member of the charity Temenos Academy (temenosacademy.org) leaves us with a thought: All ancient wisdom tells us that work is necessary, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis – only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy. (Parts of this article were first published in February 2012)
A closing thought: To escape wage slavery, we must thus embark on a discovery of the self. This is the one and only, unique self that each of us is given at consciousness. The more we work on the self, the less patience we will have for laggards and apologists. We will have empathy for those addicted to substance abuse, but little sympathy. To grow and mature in life is not easy, nor should it be. Excellence at anything requires effort and time. We can all be free and live fulfilling lives if we accept the givens (4) and keep “fighting and striving” towards our perfection.
To sum up: This week, we wrote about faith in the self: in oneself. Our erudite friend, Bill, gave us some thoughts on being an adult and what it means. I shared a personal story on making life choices. Each of us is obligated to do the same. We very much believe in the concept of logotherapy: (5) man’s search in life is not for pleasure or for power, but for meaning, for purpose.
A small joke: Mr. Smith was a forgetful type of man. This placed a lot of strain on his marriage for he was always forgetting birthdays, weddings and the like. His wife’s special “pet peeve,” her greatest annoyance, was that he always forgot his umbrella. She was, therefore, constantly buying him a new one. One day as he was getting off the train, he spied his umbrella, quickly grasped it and got out of the coach. When he got home, his wife said, “You were lucky that it didn’t rain. I see that you forgot your umbrella again. You left it in the coat rack when you left for work.”
This week, please ponder how you view your own uniqueness.
Every day look for something magical and beautiful.
Quote: I must appreciate and admire my own gifts and uniqueness, whether they are large or small. My life mission is to polish my raw diamond into a brilliant jewel.