Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Wild at Heart

FOR MOST OF MY LIFE, I've placed a relatively strong emphasis on the importance of obtaining and transmitting wisdom.

Ironically, having children -- the very people to whom we traditionally transmit wisdom -- has made me rethink my overemphasis on bookish wisdom. They "turn off" the instant I enter lecture-y/wise-old man mode. My son, 6, bemoans "Daddy's boring lessons" almost as soon as they begin. 

And, it makes almost no difference whether I am delivering the message kindly or harshly. The bottom line is this: Once the Wisdom Train edges out of the station, kids see it a mile away and run for the hills.

By contrast, they instantly open up and draw near when I am fun and playful.

Most want to be at peace, to find the secret to tranquility.  Yet, this need does not seem to be satisfied by simply sitting endlessly in front of a book or at the feet of an elder, drinking from the Font of Pure Wisdom.

In this vein, I'm reminded of a cool story about Abba Anthony, The Desert Father, and first known teacher of monks in Christian history:

A hunter in the desert saw Abba Anthony enjoying himself with the brethren and he was shocked. Wanting to show him that it was necessary sometimes to meet the needs of the brethren, the old man said to him, “Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it.” So he did. The old man then said, “Shoot another,” and he did so. Then the old man said, “Shoot yet again,” and the hunter replied “If I bend my bow so much I will break it.” Then the old man said to him, “It is the same with the work of God. If we stretch the brethren beyond measure they will soon break. Sometimes it is necessary to come down to meet their needs.” When he heard these words the hunter was pierced by compunction and, greatly edified by the old man, he went away. As for the brethren, they went home strengthened (1).

We all need some level of recreation and excitement. 

Otherwise, like the bow, we break.

Some satisfy this need through sports, e.g., competitive distance running, pick-up basketball, kick boxing, mountain climbing (and some through cycling, but we won't talk about Those People).
Joseph Elsakr qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials, 
running an astounding 2:18:57 while working toward an MD
and a PhD at Vanderbilt University (2).   

Others, not finding a healthy avocation, satisfy their needs for excitement through high-stakes gambling. Further still, some satisfy this urge in the sexual realm.

Most pathetically, some satisfy it by playing politics in government or Church. 

Purveyors of self-help products would have us believe that the only antidotes for bad habits are books and seminars geared to help us zone out and calm down. But the hard truth is that many of us have to do the hard work of finding a healthy satisfaction of the need for excitement.

After hearing confessions for 40 years, Fr. Thomas Hopko (+2015) distilled his life advice into 55 short maxims. They include:
20. Have a healthy, wholesome hobby.
21. Exercise regularly (3).

Through prayer and self-awareness we can each find the right wholesome hobby.   


(1) Ward, Benedicta (trans). The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Anthony, 13

(2) See his guest post, "Hidden Treasure."
(2) Hopko, Fr. Thomas. "55 Maxims of the Christian Life"

Monday, December 2, 2019

If It Feels Good?

In the early chapters of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde puts the following sentiment on the lips of one his chief characters, Lord Henry Wotton:
The aim of life is self-development...People are afraid of themselves, nowadays...The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion--these are the two things that govern us.    
...The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.  Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.
Sentiments like this always give me pause, mainly because they contradict my personal observation and experience. They also oppose both Orthodox Christian teaching and what I have gathered from a wider study of Philosophy and Religion. They present the opportunity to stress test my beliefs, which I always welcome.

Wotton strikingly accuses religion of scaring us into supplanting what is natural and good with an unnatural, restrictive and suppressed mode of life:  It was the invention of God, he posits, that made people afraid to give in to their desires.

However, a careful a study of "godless" religions, e.g., Zen Buddhism, shows a strong emphasis on checking the desires, of not letting passions govern us. In the long run, there is a catastrophic consequence for the person who is overrun by her desires.

Science, too, tells us that habitually giving in to impulses generally leads us down a dark road. Excessive sexual stimulation, over-eating, excessive processed sugar in the diet, etc. all contribute to the slow exhaustion and destruction of the body. In many cases, the consequence is non-infectious disease, e.g., diabetes and/or heart disease.  There are the mental health repercussions linked to compulsive porn consumption to consider, as well.

To Oscar Wilde's credit, the consequences of a life devoted to vanity and self-indulgence are colorfully and dramatically shown as the story unfolds.

William Irvine puts it well in A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy:
Indeed, pursuing pleasure, Seneca warns, is like pursuing a wild beast: On being captured, it can turn on us and tear us to pieces. Or, changing the metaphor a bit, he tells us that intense pleasures, when captured by us, become our captors, meaning that the more pleasures a man captures, "the more masters will he have to serve."
Consider too, the words of Lamar Odom, expressed in his memoir, From Darkness to Light: 
I could not handle the lethal cocktail of the spotlight, addiction, a diminishing career and infidelity.  Oh, did I mention the paranoia, anxiety, depression … I couldn’t keep my [sexual desires in check] or the coke out of my nose. 
My point is not that all pleasure is bad (it certainly is not), nor that self-denial for its own sake is a worthy end.

Rather, I hope we each take pause before accepting the thesis that a life abandoned to unchecked pleasure is "the good life," and that God is merely an invention that stands in the way to that life.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

But, Who Will Be There?

RECENTLY, a group of friends and I had a really good discussion about the importance of “being there” for our friends. A friend is both available and approachable, ready to listen compassionately and offer thoughtful advice.

No doubt, these are marks of true friendship, especially in our era of ubiquitous “friends.”

However, this morning I read something from St. Neilos which gave me pause:
How, then, do they rashly take upon themselves the direction and cure of others, when as yet they have not cured their own passions (1), and when they cannot lead others to victory, since they have not yet gained the victory for themselves? First we must struggle against our own passions, watching and keeping in mind the course of the battle; and then on the basis of personal experience we can advise others about this warfare, and render victory easier for them by describing the tactics beforehand (2).
So, as critical as it is for us to “be there” for our friends, we must ask an important question: Who, exactly, is it that is “there” for my friend? The quality of the “who” that I bring dictates the quality of my listening, the quality of my advice.

Training partners Mo Farah and Galen Rupp
pushed one another to Olympic gold and silver, respectively. 
That is, the value of my friendship depends on the quality of the person that I offer.

When, with God’s help, I work on myself, it is for my self initially. But it seems to me that this “work” is ultimately for all those whom God puts in my way.

Happy New Year.

(1)The “passions” are harmful and destructive impulses (e.g., hot anger, hatred, the rush to judgment).

(2) St. Neilos. “Ascetic Discourse.” The Philokalia