“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Shakespeare, As You Like It
Many writers have spoken of the power of seeing your life as a story. Joseph Campbell has devoted much of his life to exploring how our myths shape us. Paulo Coehlo teaches that each person must discover their own “personal legend.”
I too believe that a vital part of the examined life, the successful life consists of seeing your life as story. Why? I see three distinct benefits. One is rooted in the past, one is anchored in the present, and the third is planted in the future:
1. Seeing your life as story lets you see how far you’ve come, the chapters you’ve already accomplished
2. Seeing your life as story gives you clear direction and focus for what actions you need to be taking now
3. Seeing your life as story gives you hope for the future, that there will be ever greater & more exciting chapters in store for you
To see your life as story, one useful technique is to think of your life as chapters. In each stage of your life there is a major challenge or conflict, and a major way that you need to grow to overcome the challenge, win the conflict, climb the mountain until you reach a new vista of awareness, strength, maturity and opportunity. What’s more, the lesson learned, the growth obtained in one chapter both paves the way for the challenge of the next chapter and equips you to successfully surmount it.
I can see these truths so clearly in my own life. Looking back over the past fifteen years of my life, I see four major chapters that I have lived. Each chapter has had its own challenge & growth, and the close of each chapter has opened the next. Now the chapters have overlap– it’s not that I was in chapter one for exactly four years and three days, and then chapter two started, but they have certainly been distinct passages I have traveled through.
The first chapter, starting about fifteen years ago, is titled “Man Experiences God.” In my early thirties I was still stuck in the foolishness, immaturity and self-centeredness of youth. Although I was outwardly successful as a physician, and though I had been active in church all my life, God was more a theoretical concept than an active reality in my life. I knew quite a lot about God, but I didn’t know God– His love, His acceptance, His presence, His guiding spirit.
Looking back, I see that is why I had made little progress spiritually. I was like a seed that had seen water, knew what water was, but had never actually experienced water, the water of life that a seed must have to start the process of growth. My encounter with God’s love and presence becoming a vital reality in my life was like how Jesus described the wind in John 3– you can’t put a label on it, but its effects are unmistakable.
God’s life-giving presence opened the door for my second chapter, “Man Explores Himself.” During these years I went beyond many of my preconceptions and fixed ideas about who I was. I discovered my passion and talent for writing. I did mentoring and teaching. I did the unthinkable and ran a half marathon. I read dozens of books on spiritual and personal development. I pushed, stretched, and explored myself in a dozen different ways, and in doing so truly became the man God originally envisioned me to be.
As exciting and necessary as that chapter was, it only drove me into my third chapter, “Man Wrestles With God, Himself, & His Path.” Just like Issac of old, coming to grips with who I was and where my path lay was a process & a struggle. Many refer to going through a “mid-life crisis.” Although I never suddenly started wearing gold chains or driving a Harley, exploring who I was forced me to take a hard look at what I had done with my life, where I was, what God wanted for me, and where my future path really lay.
For many people this triggers disillusion, disappointment, and self-destructive behavior. But for some it can be a catalyst for radical positive change. For my friend Richard Iammarino, an honest exploration of who he really was led him to walk away from a secure academic appointment as a pathologist to go back to school to become who God had created him to be– a counselor.
For me, wrestling with God has largely confirmed that I am where God wants me to be, but with a renewed passion & focus on being a teacher & mentor, developing wisdom & loving well. But going through this chapter, and honestly questioning who I was and where my path lay, was an essential chapter to my story that I could not skip.
So now I see myself transitioning into a new chapter, “Man Confidently Walks His Path & Creates His Life.” I am to the point where I know who I am and my big questions about my life are answered, and I am ready to plow ahead with becoming the best me I can be, growing, maturing, creating, serving, loving along the path that God has laid out for me. I turned 48 years old today, and I feel excited and invigorated, looking forward to the years ahead, looking forward to my approaching sixth decade on this planet.
Will there be another chapter in my life beyond this one, one whose title is right now known only to God? I hope so– maybe even several. But seeing this story of my life, stretching from my past, grounded in my present, and reaching into my future, I can live today with confidence, excitement, peace, & joy. Carpe diem!
Peace of the soul is often looked on as a destination in life’s journey, something that we aspire to and may someday reach if we are wise enough or spiritual enough. After a recent vacation in Rome, I now see peace not as a destination, but as a beginning, as the best place to start each journey of my life.
I had arrived in Rome in a travel group of fifty high school seniors and parents, the last stop in a whirlwind tour of Europe. I was exhausted, still battling a raging stomach virus and losing. I had already lost my day in beautiful Florence to the bug, lying half conscious in a darkened hotel room.
And now my mind was in turmoil. Do I try to push myself out the door and hope that I can keep up with the group’s frantic pace to take in Rome in a day, or do I resign myself to missing my only chance to see the Eternal City?
Although you may never have been sick in Rome, I’m sure you’ve been exactly where I was at some juncture point in your life. When was the last time you felt turmoil in your soul? Was it a financial decision, a work situation, or a relationship quandary? Did you have multiple alternatives competing for your attention, or did you like me seem to have no option that avoided disaster?
So often our temptation when faced with any decision dilemma is to hurriedly choose one path and plunge forward, to avoid that uncomfortable no-man’s land of uncertainty. We choose a path before we’re at peace with it, and then hope that the calm that our soul is craving will show up along the way.
Let me suggest a better way: be willing to stay with the question, with the indecision, until peace comes, because what true peace brings is worth the wait. Let’s be clear: I don’t mean giving in to fear to avoid making a decision, like the gutless man who waits a decade or two to make sure the woman he loves is the one he wants to marry. And I don’t mean giving in to doubt or laziness to avoid all risk or any work.
But when we have the bravery and wisdom to patiently stay with the question until the mists clear, we reap multiple benefits. That morning in Rome, I was able to stay with the question until my mind settled down, and I came to a complete peace about staying behind and resting. A simple decision, yes, but an important one, and letting my soul come to rest and being okay with staying back poignantly illustrated just how valuable peace is to be the beginning of any journey.
First, I saw how peace brings a life nourishing emotion instead of a life draining one. Like it or not, every emotion we experience either nourishes us or drains us. Peace is a supremely nourishing state of the soul, and I immediately felt like a weight fell off my shoulders when I moved into a peace about my decision. Whether I had stayed or went, I could have ruined my day with resentment, doubt, despair, or anger if I had not first let my soul come to rest. Such negative emotions can grow and spread, infecting your entire outlook on life. The remedy? Not allowing them to start by being completely at peace with whatever path you take.
I also realized how peace releases you from following destructive paths. In my case, had I felt compelled to go out, it would have been disastrous. Looking back, I am sure I would not have been able to keep up, and would have been forced to take a cab back to the hotel or worse. But coming to a peace, being okay with acknowledging I was just too sick, released me from my own expectations. How many times do we see people going down wrong paths for them because they feel pressured by society or family or their own limited conceptions of what is best? Peace releases you from that prison.
Likewise, peace gives you the freedom & space to choose wisely. Have you ever had the misfortune of being in a high pressure sales pitch like to buy a timeshare? Whenever a salesman says you have to make a decision right then, he is counting on the fact that people tend to choose foolishly when they don’t have the time to find peace. But when your soul is at rest, you experience freedom that you can achieve no other way.
Along with freedom, peace gives you new vision & clarity. With negative emotions and pressures out of the way, our mind is relaxed and able to fully consider new alternatives and options. After resting the whole morning in the hotel, I had new options open to me, and I chose to venture out at my own reduced pace. This proved to be an excellent decision, letting me see part of Rome without tiring me out. No matter the situation or decision, having peace before you take that first step will vastly improve your decision making ability at every step.
Finally, having peace will allow you to fully enjoy each moment. Having peace meant that I was able to actually enjoy resting in the hotel, being grateful for a comfortable bed and a quiet room and the opportunity to let my body heal. Having peace allowed me to enjoy navigating around a foreign city by myself for the first time in my life, and enjoying the simple beauty of a fountain, of a meal, of walking down a lovely street.
Don’t consider peace merely as a desirable option in your life’s journey, something to pick up somewhere along the way. The benefits of peace are worth your time and effort, worth your patience, worth your commitment to seek it until you find it. The journey that begins in peace will end in joy. May you find peace and joy in all your journeys.
I love a good salad bar, because it is not just about eating but about creating. You have all these ingredients– different flavors, different sizes, different textures, different colors — and you get to decide which to use and how much of each to use. No two salads are the same— they will all look different and taste different. What will be the perfect salad to you will be revolting to someone sitting right beside you. What fun!
So, what are the principles for making your ideal salad? First, know your ingredients– what tastes sweet, what tastes tangy, what is crunchy, what is syrupy. Second, know yourself– what are your likes, and what makes your tummy unhappy. Third, don’t get tied down by any supposed rules or what other people think– who says you can’t have pickles and beets on a Caesar salad? Fourth, experiment, try different things and different combinations, don’t be afraid to go back to the bar again and again until you have exactly what you want on your salad. And lastly– relax, have fun, and enjoy.
Now to me, life really is like a salad bar. There is all this enormous variety spread out before you– different jobs, different places to live, different hobbies and friends, and a million different ways to combine all those to produce your ideal life. You can live in an apartment or a country house, work alone or with a team, like reading or going to the movies, buying NASCAR box tickets or opera box tickets (or maybe both!), having a bust the house open party or just a few friends over. It’s all your choice as to how to create your ideal life.
And guess what? The best way to approach creating your ideal life is a lot like creating your ideal salad.
You have to know what “ingredients” are available, and what your likes and dislikes are. Do you need supervision and structure in your work, or do you need to be a free spirit? Do crowds drive you crazy, or give you energy? Are you a beach or a mountain person? Part of becoming wise is being able to take an honest inventory of who you are and what your needs and desires are, and what dreams and opportunities meet your individual needs and desires.
Wisdom is also realizing where you are limiting yourself by saying “Oh, I can’t do that.” You can’t go back to school when you’re 60? Who said so, why not? You can’t live on a South Seas island? Well, if you know what other things you have to give up and your heart still sings, why not? Oh, I can’t do (fill in the blank) because (fill in the blank) will think (fill in the blank) about me? Whose life are you living, yours or theirs? Take a hard look at where you’re setting limits in your life– do they really need to be there?
Wisdom also knows that life is a process, a journey. You will always be trying new ingredients, finding new things that are tasty to you, and finding that some things that were tasty ten years ago may not be a good fit any longer. You’ve been a marathon runner for ten years, so you have to keep doing it? No you don’t. Never run a marathon, so it’s too late now? No it isn’t!
Finally, wisdom knows that all this craziness we call life is not meant to be endlessly analyzed and brooded over, is not meant to be taken so seriously, but is meant to be lived— to be enjoyed, moment by moment, day by day. So look at your life and its ingredients— keep experimenting, keep blending, keep living, and enjoy your handcrafted creation of life every day.
There is an old computer acronym called GIGO, which stands for Garbage In, Garbage Out. It means no matter how good the computer program is, if you feed it the wrong data, you will get the wrong answer.
The GIGO principle works in our lives too. If we feed our minds and our hearts with “input” from a mixed up, self-centered world, we will end up thinking, feeling, and acting just as mixed up too. We wonder why we see so many young people getting in trouble, so many people getting divorces, so many struggling with addictions, and yet we never stop to consider whether thousands of hours consuming television, movies, books, & music that falsely glorify God-rejecting values & behavior might have anything to do with it.
But we have the option of using an even more powerful principle: God In, Garbage Out. The power & presence of God is far greater than any garbage in our heart, and it is only a love for Him that can rid us of a love for the world. The 19th century Scottish pastor Thomas Chalmers taught this in his famous sermon titled The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. He wrote,
How impossible it were for the heart… to cast the world away from it; and thus reduce itself to a wilderness… the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one.
In other words, simply telling yourself, I won’t sin, I won’t do this or that which I know is wrong but I desire to do, is doomed to fail because the human heart HAS to desire, has to attach itself to something. You can’t simply tell a wrong desire to go away, you have to overpower and overwhelm that wrong desire with something infinitely more desirable— the love of Christ. God In, Garbage Out. It’s the only way to change from the inside out.
Jump Off by April Gazmen via Flickr
I had a friend tell me that he was “100% trusting God.” I smiled, and thought to myself, “Boy, I wish I could trust like that, one hundred percent.”
But then I thought, how would I rate myself? Ninety eight percent? Eighty percent? How much trust do I have?
Although I like living in a world of grays and probabilities, trust is black or white, all or nothing. You either trust or you don’t trust. If you jump out of an airplane, you can’t 86% trust that your parachute will open. You either trust and jump, or you don’t trust and stay in the plane.
That’s what trust really is: a choice that determines action. It’s not that you have eliminated any possibility of another outcome: every jumper knows there is a small chance that his chute will fail. But what separates the guy that jumps from the one who stays in the plane is that he has made a conscious decision to act as if the outcome were certain. It is the “leap of faith” that Kierkegaard spoke of: the bridge between logic & life.
You can’t spend your life waiting for a parachute with a “100% Absolutely Guaranteed” to magically appear on your back. There is an area right now in your life where you need to trust, where you need to make a conscious decision to act. Grab your parachute, open the hatch, and jump!
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day…
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real… It doesn’t happen all at once. You become.” –from The Velveteen Rabbit
I took a few minutes yesterday to write a short encouraging email to a friend. It was a simple thing, really, something I do often and that I enjoy doing for people I care about. I soon got the following reply:
I love you John. Thank you for sharing. You warm my heart with your words.
Just like the Velveteen Rabbit, I am becoming real. And just like the Velveteen Rabbit, it is because of love. No, not the passionate, heart-stopping Hollywood stuff, but the ordinary give and take of simply loving people in simple and ordinary ways, and being open to receiving their love too. I like to think that’s what living a real life is all about.
But it’s not always so easy, is it? There seems to be two big traps that crowd out real life: fluff and drama. By “fluff” I mean things that easily occupy the time in our day, that seem to be engaging and life-giving, but that really don’t have anything to do with the real business of life, giving and receiving love. Spending hours watching entertaining television, surfing the net to watch the latest cute kitten video, watering vegetables you can’t eat on Facebook— they all certainly seem to be enjoyable, but do they help us become real? Are they paths to giving and receiving love, or are we just pointlessly spinning our wheels, going nowhere?
The second trap is what I call drama: anxiety, worry, focusing on what others think, power, bitterness, greed— there are so many things that suck us into a whirlpool of drama that consumes our time and energy without giving us any life in return. Whether it’s that nagging thought of whether we really look pretty enough or a resentment that fills every waking thought, every second of drama in our life is one second less that we have to abide in love.
So, once you cut out the fluff & cut out the drama in your life, what next? Fill your life with pathways to give love, according to your unique gifts and your unique place in the world. How do you love? I love best when I use words to encourage, teach, & give wisdom, when I listen, when I laugh, when I hug, when I help people with their health concerns. Spend time thinking about how you love best, and use your list to structure your time & priorities.
And how are you loved best? I am loved when I am open to God’s presence, when I am open to receiving gratitude (& hugs!), & when I immerse myself in life instead of being on the sidelines. Don’t be afraid of a life filled with both giving and receiving genuine love.
Do you want to become real? It’s simple: live a real life, a life filled with love. Start today.
“Operation”– one word takes us back to a childhood memory of sweating bullets to remove little white plastic pieces from a guy with a big red nose. Think about it— why did we get so worked up over that game? The diseases you were supposed to be curing were fake, the little crevices were WAY too small, and even the penalty for failing wasn’t your patient REALLY dying, but just a little red light & an annoying buzzer. But still the game sucked you in, and before you realized it your whole life was focused on removing that tiny wish bone.
But isn’t it so easy to live our lives just like that game? We see our lives as one “operation” after another, where we have to sweat through completing this task exactly right, or acting exactly right in front of our boss, or behaving exactly how another person wants us to behave, or meeting some internal flawless standard we impose on ourselves. We are constantly looking over our own shoulder, and if we make the slightest mistake a big annoying buzzer goes off in our head. BUZZ– you should have done that instead. BUZZ– you should have said that to him instead. BUZZ– you forgot that. BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ.
And if that wasn’t enough, some people are trying to play operation with not only their lives but our lives too. They have us squeezed into their little box of exactly what we should say & do & think & be & not say or do or think or be. Their mental eyes are constantly watching & the minute we violate their rules then BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ.
There’s a better way to live. First, be gentle with yourself. In Psalm 103 David reminds us that God has compassion on us, for he knows that “our frame is like dust”– that we aren’t capable of perfection. Have compassion on yourself. Forgive yourself. Life is not meant to be an operation game, with a buzzer constantly going off.
Second, don’t let anyone else be pressing a buzzer on you. They have no right to judge you, to pronounce that you have stepped outside their little box of what your life should be. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 7 that your life is between you and God alone. Let your wise Father guide you in His love, and ignore anyone else with a buzzer in their hand.
Third, take a look in your own hand. Are you holding a buzzer over someone else? Do you have this picture of who they need to be to meet your needs, or to meet some definition in your mind? Holding that buzzer in your hand isn’t helping them, & it isn’t helping you.
Let go of the boxes, let go of the buzzers. Live in freedom & forgiveness, both for yourself & for everyone in your life.
2010 has been such a good year. I feel so blessed to have been a part of so many people’s lives: patients, friends, & family. It was a blessing to help in their challenges, share in their sufferings, & rejoice in their joys. And I feel I have grown in so many ways this year too.
As I was reflecting on the year, I wanted to share some quotes on life. They come from a variety of sources. Many I have scattered on the walls of my office. Yes, I know they are all generalizations, and some are more on target than others, but all of them have reminded me of important truths about life. I hope they can do the same for you.
Life consists not in holding good cards, but in playing those you hold well.
Each day comes bearing its own gifts. Untie the ribbons.
Don’t live in the past— you’ve already been there.
How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
The best things in life aren’t things.
When suffering comes, do not resent it or resist it, but welcome it, for it brings depth & richness & wisdom to your life, just as beauty.
No Winter lasts forever, no Spring skips its turn.
Do not regret growing old. It is a privilege denied to many.
Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.
Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like dew on the tip of a leaf.
Smiles reach the hard-to-reach places.
You must let go of what you are to become what you can be.
One hundred percent of the shots you don’t take don’t go in.
When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.
Tension is who you think you should be; peace is who you are.
Between the “don’t know the reasons why” of the past & the “don’t know what lies ahead” of the future lies today. Today is where God wants you to live.
You never lose by loving. You always lose by holding back.
What you don’t experience positively you will experience negatively.
To the extent that you give the world your gifts you will feel joy.
A visionary is someone who realizes that they can choose how they will look at the world & how they will interpret every event.
If lessons in life were easy then they wouldn’t be lessons.
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.
Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.
You’ve got to say no to some things to say yes to others.
Take life for what it IS and what it CAN BE, not for what is was or what you wished it would be.
You can either accept what is, resist what is, or change what is, but regardless you must deal with what is.
There will always be pain. There will always be joy. Choose joy.
The only way to live a life fully saturated in love is to live a life fully saturated in God.
The events of life aren’t important; the meaning we choose to assign to them is.
There is only one happiness: to love & be loved.
I was at an ice rink last week, watching people of all shapes & sizes strap on skates & push out onto the ice.
Amongst the chaotic mass of wobbling legs & flailing arms there emerged two young girls. They were like two serene swans gliding among squawking ducks on a pond. Both of them flew across the ice like they were born with skates on, but their skating styles could not have been more different.
The first, who could have not been more than eight, possessed extraordinary skill. She was performing jumps & camels with such precision & beauty that I was astounded. However, as I watched her for half an hour, I realized her movements were more than just precise. It became obvious that she was going through a predetermined sequence of moves. She was doing her daily practice drills, even while she was on vacation. She was indeed beautiful, a beauty born out of hundreds of hours of intense work & dedication.
There was another young girl that was beautiful in an entirely different way on the ice. She darted & glided, turning on a dime, chasing & teasing her brother. She was untouchable: flying across the ice wherever her heart led, with an effortless fluidity that showed that her skates & her soul were fully one. She was born to skate, & the beauty of her gift was a joy to behold.
So I pondered, gazing at two kinds of beauty, one borne out of determination & focus, the other a natural expression of a gift. These two girls were a microcosm of the two kinds of beauty present within all of us. We all have “left brain” beauty, beauty that comes to fruition after long hours of study or practice or just patient determination. All of us also have “right brain” beauty, that which is simply an extension of our innate nature, heart, soul, & body.
But we don’t need to artificially separate these two. They can work as one. The skater with natural gifts can grow & develop them even more with instruction & practice. The focused, determined skater will be even more beautiful on the ice when she lets her heart flow free.
So it is with you and me. Whether it is skating or writing or cooking or working or loving, we can be both art & skill, both work & play, both spontaneous & planned. It is when we embrace both sides of ourselves & live fully in them that we will show the world all the beauty that we have to offer.
Okay, quick, list five things you REALLY want—
How did you do? What’s on your list? A dream vacation, car, or house, or job? Brimming over bank account? Physical health or healing? A spouse who is always there for you? Children or grandchildren? A grande mocha latte?
So, now, take your list, and consider this: for each thing on your list, do you really want the thing itself, or do you actually want what you think the thing will do for your soul?
Look deeper. That dream job– you really want what you envision that job’s status, accomplishment, and fulfillment will do for you, don’t you? That deep need to feel loved & cherished, isn’t that what you are really desiring from that perfect relationship? That bank account means security & freedom from worry to you, doesn’t it? In fact, if you dig down deep enough into your soul, you will find that for each & every material reality you desire, there is a spiritual need that is fueling that desire.
And guess what? Although material realities are given to us by God & are meant for our enjoyment, they aren’t meant to fill spiritual needs. No thing, no person, no accomplishment, nothing in this world can give us true & lasting peace or contentment or security or acceptance or joy. That’s not what material things are for. (You might even say that’s like putting Pepsi in a gas tank… )
Jesus taught his disciples, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” He knew that even the best things in this world are only material, and that the material can never bring us the spiritual things that we truly desire.
Look at your goals, your dreams, your desires, the material things you are striving for, worrying over, clinging to, frustrated about. They are not what you REALLY want, and they can’t get you what you really want.
Peace, joy, contentment, acceptance, security— you don’t have to hope for, strive for, work for any of these– they are freely & instantly available, they are our birthright as children of God. You really can have what you really want, not someday, but right now, if you are willing to turn your eyes away from the things that cannot give them to you. All you need to do is turn your eyes & open your heart toward the One Who can give them to you. Your heavenly Father is eager to give good gifts to you, His beloved child. Receive, and be blessed.