Friday, February 19, 2016

The Price of Anger

We should restrain not only the outward expression of anger, but also angry thoughts. More beneficial than controlling our tongue in a moment of anger and refraining from angry words is purifying our heart from rancor and not harboring malicious thoughts...When we have dug the root of anger from our heart, we will no longer act with hatred or envy. 
-St. John Cassian (1)

HOW OFTEN have we fired harsh words or over-reacted to the smallest provocation, much to our own embarrassment and surprise? 

Looking back, we'll find that the reaction was based on something that was festering inside for a long time. St. John invites us to periodically reflect, identify anger and address it while it's sm
all.

He continues,
No matter what provokes it, anger blinds the soul's eyes...Leaves, whether of gold or lead, placed over the eyes, obstruct the sight equally, for the value of the gold does not affect the blindness it produces. Similarly, anger, whether reasonable or unreasonable, obstructs our spiritual vision (2).

Understandably, some may consider this to take the point too far.

Essentially, his thesis may be taken as this: anger -- in and of itself -- is ultimately a bad thing and cannot be justified. I am not so sure that's exactly what he's saying. He seems to be referring to a blinding rage that may in some some way have a rational basis, but clouds reasoning, so that the outcome is ultimately negative. At the very least I think we can agree that, when we are blind and overwhelmed by rage, it's very hard to address a situation properly or even to see it properly in the first place.

I can be right and still play the fool.

In this vein, Seneca the Younger, writing to his buddy Novatus, notes,
Anger is a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes. That you may know that they whom anger possesses are not sane, look at their appearance; for as there are distinct symptoms which mark madmen...(3)
Jospehat Machuka was not pleased.
He adds,
Some think that the best course is to control anger, not to banish it... 
In the first place, it is easier to exclude harmful passions than to rule them, and to deny them admittance than, after they have been admitted, to control them; for when they have established themselves in possession, they are stronger than their ruler and do not permit themselves to be restrained or reduced. 
In the second place, [once reason] mingles with [the passions] and is contaminated, she becomes unable to hold back those [passions] she might have cleared from her path. For when once the mind has been aroused and shaken, it becomes the slave of the disturbing agent. (4)
Again, some may take this as wimpy talk. To me, it's utterly practical. In theory, anger may be "leveraged" for good. But, in real life, it is best to make an emotional habit of keeping anger at bay, so to speak. In a given circumstance, we'll probably find other, less dangerous tools at our disposal.

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(1) Philokalia, On Anger
(2) Philokalia, On Anger
(3) Letter to Novatus on Anger, Book I, Ch. 1
(4) Ibid., Book I, Ch. 7

Monday, May 11, 2015

Getting Unblocked

The more  I see, the less I know, the more I like to let it go. - Anthony Kiedis

I hear you. - Socrates 
I need to get something out of the way.

I've not posted in several months, and it's because I have a special kind of writer's block. It is not for lack of subjects or content.  It's for lack of, what's the word? Audacity.

When I began this blog, several years and 350-ish posts ago, I didn't have a job or a family. So, naturally, I knew everything about everything: from spirituality to youth ministry to "meaningful" work to parenting even! Gosh, had I entered a monastery -- as originally planned -- I'd have been a veritable genius by now!

Every day, life has taught how little I know.

And, for that reason, I have felt less and less "fit" to blog on spirituality and life. And yet, and yet, I just can't let this thing go.

So, to get myself unstuck let me clear the air: I don't get it, and I probably get it less than you do. With that off my chest, I can chase my passion: Drawing links between timeless principles and contemporary life.

I read, write and run, I hope, to be a better man for myself and those around me.  

I'll not lie: It still matters a lot to my satisfaction to know people read this and get something out of it. Maybe, one day, it won't.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Hidden Treasure

Today's entry is a guest post by Joseph Elsakr. Joey is a 2:24 marathoner and studies at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. 

Running is kind of a hidden treasure that isn't very well hidden. 

Everybody knows about it but only a few people truly understand it. And those who do understand it are usually in love with it. They may run 50, 100, or even 150 miles a week. They sacrifice energy, time, hanging out with friends, just relaxing after a long day, and sometimes even work or sleep just to do it. When people hear that somebody runs 10-20 miles a day, they usually think they're crazy. When I hear that, I usually want to be their friend. 

I know why they do what they do. I know how joy and fulfillment can come from cruising on a mid-week 13 miler, totally unplugged and uninhibited, completely free. I know that when running is tough and uncomfortable and you struggle to accomplish something that should be well within your limits, you still end the day with more than you started with. The workouts that drain you are really fuel for your training, your mind, and your life. That is why when I meet someone who knows that I get excited. I know instantly that we share something special, something only a few of us understand, a common love, a hidden treasure. 

Christianity, like running, is also kind of a hidden treasure. Everybody knows about it, few really understand it, and those who do are usually in love. They make sacrifices for it, get excited about it, talk to their friends about it, and are always happy to meet someone else who shares their treasure.

Though the view of running as a hidden treasure may be unique to me, the same view of Christianity is not. Jesus goes through a series of short parables where He gives us an idea of what heaven is like. One of them is as follows: "Again the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field."(1) 

I've always thought that this verse sounded a little weird. At base level, I think it makes sense. Jesus is telling us that heaven is valuable, desirable, and should be sought after. But what about this guy in the verse?! He literally sold everything he had just so he could have this field with the treasure in it. Doesn’t that seem a bit excessive?

Maybe it seems excessive because I just don’t understand the treasure, like a non-runner hearing about a guy who runs a ton and loves it—it sounds weird to him or her. But even then, that doesn’t explain it. I love to run, but I would never sacrifice everything for it for a couple of reasons. First, the sacrifice would be too great. There are other things in my life that, collectively at least, are worth a lot more than running. And second, even if, in some strange world, I wouldn’t lose everything or didn’t have anything to lose or something like that, I know I would never be completely satisfied with just running. Without a doubt I love running, it gives me fulfillment and joy that is very real, but I couldn’t live with only that. I’m not sure how to explain this as clearly as I feel it, but I need more.

In the past couple of years I’ve become a pretty big fan of a man named Fr. Meletios Webber. He is an Orthodox priest, former alcoholic, has some very inspirational sermons on youtube and an awesome book (admittedly, I am only one chapter in) (2). He has this theory that the natural state of the human mind is a state of depression. The mind is constantly aware of its mortality and recognizes that everything it experiences is fleeting and will eventually be lost -- relationships, hobbies, Chipotle, everything. So how do people function and not live in a constant state of despair if this is the case? Because the mind is very good at keeping us distracted. Each day, it can find a reason to wake up, something to look forward to, a purpose that keeps us going.

Recently, I feel like I’m becoming more and more aware of this in my own life. Whenever something goes poorly, or something I value is lost, I usually just divert my attention to something that’s going well. Most recently when things weren’t going well, I started leaning more and more on running. 

Training was going great and I was in the best shape of my life. But as any runner knows, nothing is guaranteed. My peak race a couple weeks ago, for unknown reasons, went absolutely terribly. And what I found on the other side was a whole lot of sadness. I had invested so much of myself into something I thought could make me happy but was really fleeting and fragile. Throughout this time, I think God (in large part via Meletios Webber) has been trying to teach me an important lesson: You won’t find true happiness by merely keeping yourself distracted.

This brings me to an important difference between running (or whatever your hidden treasure may be) and Christianity: “Christianity is not a philosophy, not a doctrine, but life.” (3)  While running is certainly a gift that can provide a lot of great things -- most significantly, in my opinion, an idea of what God’s hidden treasure is like -- it can also become a distraction of the type I’ve just mentioned. We cannot completely rely on running or any other earthly treasure. I think deep down we all know that, which is why the story of the guy who bought the field seems bizarre. Maybe it seems bizarre for a reason though. Perhaps Jesus is trying to highlight the idea that heaven is not like any earthly treasure, that it is actually worth giving up everything for.

What is the result of completely relying on God, or investing everything one has into Christianity? Unfortunately, I cannot speak from personal experience here. But from 24 years of listening and reading and watching and learning, I think the result is a feeling of complete fulfillment that all of us are trying to find, even though we are usually looking in the wrong place. If we gave up everything for God, we would find that we end up with more than we ever head. This idea is hinted at John 10:10 (having life more abundantly through Christ) and Matthew 16:25 (He who loses his life for Jesus’s sake will find it)(4). 

So how can we get to the point where we are completely invested in God? I think that is the topic of another post (by a much smarter author), or maybe a book, or perhaps more likely a lifetime of reading, learning, and participating in the life of the Church. But I think recognizing that this is where one wants to go is the first tiny baby step, and it is the step that I’m currently trying to take. 

Thanks for letting me share.

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(1) Matt. 13:44 (NKJV)
(2) Webber, Archimandrite Meletios. Bread & Water, Wine & Oil: An Orthodox Christian Experience of God 
(3) Webber, quoting Archimandrite Sophrony
(4)The most striking example of this I’ve seen recently is the guy (and his mom) from this video. This is someone who has truly invested everything in Christ and, as a result, is unshaken by even the most terrible situation. Instead of a great loss leading to a state of depression, it becomes an opportunity to demonstrate the amazing magnitude of God’s love.