How Eileen Flanagan Turned a Midlife Malaise into a Life with Purpose.

Eileen Flanagan

Eileen Flanagan

What do you do when you reach middle-age and realize you’re living a life that is far less fulfilling than you expected? When you become aware of the fact you’re not living the simple and idyllic life you once imagined, but something that more closely resembles the consumeristic, upward-striving lifestyle you were trying to avoid.

Well, if you’re Eileen Flanagan, you reexamine your life and you do something about it. In her new book Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope, Flanagan points out a common problem among those of us in our 40s and 50s, which she alternately refers to as “midlife despair” and “midlife angst”. She sums up her own uneasiness this way:

How the hell did I become a woman who has a big house, a chemical peel appointment, and stock in a fracking company? How did I become so sucked into the American mainstream, and what can I do to create the kind of life—the kind of world—I really want?

The funny thing is at this point in her life, Flanagan has all the external trappings of American success. A big house, two cars in the driveway, a family with all the latest electronic gadgets. Yet when she begins to talk to friends she discovers she’s not the only one wishing she had “less house and more freedom”. She comes to the realization that:

At the very least, everyone I knew had too much junk in the basement and too many e-mails. Those who were lucky enough to keep their jobs through the recession often worked longer hours than they liked to pay for stuff they were not sure they needed. Many of us yearned for a different way of living and a sense that our lives mattered.

For Flanagan, her angst comes from the nagging sense that she was not fulfilling her own life’s purpose and that her life was “out of sync”. She believed she was not doing the thing she was put on this earth to do. In her words:

When I confided to friends that I felt I wasn’t fully using my gifts—that I was meant to be more than I had become so far—many sighed in recognition. Their lives had not turned out as they had expected either.

So how did Flanagan find her raison d’être? She didn’t have to look far, for it came from a specific place and time that informed who she was today. In her young adult life, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana, Africa, helping others in a poor community and learning to live simply. She compares that time of her life to where she found herself many years later:

(In Botswana) there was always time for a cup of tea, a song, or to spend time with a friend. Being able to watch the Southern Cross traverse the night sky was entertainment enough. At the end of my first year, I wrote in my journal, “I think I might be content being poor for the rest of my life.” 27 years later, when I reread my journals in the office of my new five-bedroom house in Philadelphia, that sentiment felt painfully naive.

So Flanagan retraces her roots, making a return trip to Africa to visit with old friends and find “something to infuse the next part of my life with meaning, some inspiration to carry me home to my family and a more committed life”.
She finds it, rediscovering a sense of purpose. And at the age of 49, she returns home and quits her job as a professor at a small university, becoming active in causes that are near to her heart.

She is helped along the way by her faith, which she sees as “not just something you trotted out on Sunday morning but a compass for how you lived every day”. As a young adult, she had become a Quaker and there is an interesting passage where you can see why the religion, where everyone has the power to directly access God, appeals to her.

The first Quakers believed that the religious institutions of seventeenth-century England had lost touch with their spiritual source, so they stripped away anything that distracted them from God—stained glass windows, gold candlesticks, bishops, fashion, and gambling, for starters. They waited in silence in “meeting for worship” to directly experience God without a priest or ordained minister. The “Inward Light” or “Inward Teacher” could be accessed by anyone, they proclaimed, regardless of gender, race, or even religion.

She had now come to believe that the core Quaker values of simplicity, equality and peace were all threatened by climate change and she makes it her mission to “keep the planet habitable”. So she becomes an environmental activist, helping to organize and lead a group called EQAT, the Earth Quaker Action Team.

She works to stop mountaintop removal coal mining, participates in marches against companies that are fracking, gets arrested in D.C. for civil disobedience while protesting climate change. By the end of her tale, she has again learned how to find the value and freedom of living a simple life.

I realized, you had to trust that if you only had one pair of jeans, you’d be okay if they got ripped, that if you didn’t stockpile onions, you’d be able to borrow one when you needed to. You had to trust that your worth wasn’t measured by what kind of car you drove or whether you owned the latest computer.

Flanagan finishes the book saying that she now believed she was “part of the many, connected to a spiritual force greater than ourselves”. She was “moving forward with hope”, her life and actions now connected with her core values and sense of spirituality, her midlife malaise a thing of the past.

If gays are going to hell, are gluttons going too?

949285_40326566-e1432306788902-217x300A few days ago, here in my home state of New Jersey, a story appeared that irked me. The Director of Campus Ministry at Seton Hall University, Warren Hall, posted a pro-LBGT (Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/ Transgender) remark on his Twitter account. In today’s day and age, it seemed fairly innocuous: LGBT ‘NO H8′.

Who can argue with a no-hate message? But the next day Mr. Hall was fired from his job. Now, you should know that Seton Hall is a Catholic University and Warren Hall is a Catholic priest. (I myself am a lapsed Catholic.) And it appears his firing was made not by the university, but by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark which made the appointment at Seton Hall.

But you’ve got to wonder: during a time when Pope Francis himself has been quoted as saying “If someone is gay…who am I to judge?” it seems that the Archdiocese of Newark is doing a lot of judging. And it has decided that by making a statement supporting the LGBT community, Warren Hall was taking a stand that was against the church’s principles and beliefs.

It reminded me of another story I recently heard, as told by the American pastor Shane Willard during a sermon titled “We Are Not The Masters of Good and Evil”. (Special thanks to Patheos reader Jim Smith for pointing this video clip out to me.) I will paraphrase it here:

While Willard was ministering at a small church, he ran into an obviously upset congregant. The man walked up to Willard and practically shouted at him: “What are we going to do about the homosexuals in our church?” Willard asked why this upset the man so much; he responded that homosexuality was a sin, it said so in the Bible.

Pastor Willard then asked the congregant if he knew how many times homosexuality was mentioned in the Bible. The man did not know, and the pastor informed him it was only a handful of times, maybe three or four.

He then asked the man if he knew how many times the Bible mentioned gluttony as a sin or portrayed it in a negative light. Again, the congregant did not know. And the minister replied that gluttony was mentioned at least 25 times. (For some back-up to this claim, click here.)

Pastor Willard then asked the man if there were any gluttonous, or overweight people who were members of the church. “Yes, there are many,” the congregant had to admit. The pastor then mentioned the church’s long-time usher who had what my mother-in-law politely calls “a large body habitus”. He asked if he would say the usher was gluttonous? Yes, replied the congregant.

“Do you think we should kick our overweight usher out of the church for being gluttonous?” asked the pastor. The man did not respond. Willard followed up this question up by asking, “Does he make you want to go out and eat—eat so much that you will become a glutton yourself?” “No,” the usher sheepishly replied.

“We don’t chastise the overweight for overeating,” remarked Pastor Willard. “So why are you casting the gay people in this church in such a harsh light?”

The congregant thought about his words. He had to admit he had perhaps overreacted. The minister then left him with an important piece of advice:

“It is our job to love. It is God’s job to judge.”

The pastor went on to say that we are not called to be “the masters of good and evil’. That is not our role, and in fact, we are terrible at it. We should not be determining the worth of others. We should be using our resources to address the real problems here on earth and be “masters of love and life”.

It is our job to love. It is God’s job to judge. It is a message I thought about as I read the Seton Hall story I referenced at the top of this column. And I believe it is an idea that the Archdiocese of Newark should take to heart. After all, doesn’t this message reflect the true teachings of Jesus?

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call at Patheos, May, 22, 2015.

The puzzling Jesus parable—and a minster’s perfect response.

Byzantine icon of the fig tree parable

Byzantine icon of the fig tree parable

It was a few hours after my daughter was born, and I was sitting in chair in a small local hospital, as my wife and newborn child slept peacefully nearby. On the nightstand next to me, I noticed a copy of The Holy Bible, Contemporary English Version and picked it up.

It was the first time I had opened up a Bible in years, and as I flipped through the pages I was surprised to find it was not the medieval-sounding “King James” version I had glanced at in hotel rooms in the past. This bible was written in a modern-day tongue. And while I can’t say that any one passage stood out to me, I was struck by how surprisingly readable it was.

Several weeks later, to appease some old-school family members, we began planning a baptism for our new daughter. I contacted our small town’s only religious institution, a quaint Methodist church, and made plans to meet with the minster and schedule a baptismal date.

This got me thinking it was an appropriate time for a quick refresher on the teachings of Jesus—and I knew the perfect place to turn. I tracked down a copy of The Holy Bible, Contemporary English Version and over the next several days I read the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John from beginning to end.

While I found a few passages that I underlined for further reference, it struck me that trying to find meaning in the Bible was similar to panning a river for gold. On occasion I found a shiny nugget, but more often than not, I sifted for meaning and came up empty. Some of the parables were like roads lined by pleasant scenery that led me to dead ends. I even found a few passages that didn’t just puzzle me, they troubled me.

One passage that I couldn’t quite figure out was the “Curse on a Fig Tree” in Mark 11:13 and :14. It reads like this:

Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”

What? Taking this passage at face value, Jesus comes upon a fig tree bearing no fruit—for good reason, it’s out of season—and in what appears to be a spasm of anger, declares that the tree will never grow fruit again. The next day, Peter remarks that the “fig tree has withered”; it’s apparently dead. Which baffled me, for if Jesus had the power to bring the fig tree death, why didn’t he simply give it a jolt of life so it could bear the fruit he was looking for?

As much as I tried, I couldn’t figure out the lesson to be gleaned from this passage. So I waited until my meeting with the spiritual leader who was to baptize our daughter, the now retired Reverend Donald Marks, and I asked him to explain the fig tree parable, whose message seemed contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

He did not give me the definitive answer I thought I would hear. Instead, he paused in thought for a moment, then looked me in they eye and said something that surprised me:

“You know Tom, that passage has often troubled me, as well.”

He went on to stress the importance of finding the Bible passages that had meaning to me personally, for that was where I would find the greatest inspiration and guidance. And for a question that seemed to have no good answer, his non-answer felt right.

Many years have passed since that incident, and I must admit to finding greater spiritual guidance in the intervening time from other sources, including here and here. But I still think back to Reverend Marks’ words, as it reminds me that no one religion has a monopoly on the truth and we can never be so arrogant as to think we know all the answers.

I believe that while we may find a religious or spiritual text that can point us in the right direction and lead us down the right path, we must ultimately take the final few steps on our own. It is here that, left to our own devices, we come closest to truly knowing the power and infinite love of the enigma we call God.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, May 10, 2015.

Life is too short to be “busy” all the time.

pedestrians-400811_1280-300x198I recently listened to a podcast with a great riff by the author Tim Kreider on how we seem to pride ourselves on our “busy” lives. Tim points out that while this busyness makes us feel important, there’s also a huge downside to our nonstop activity—it takes away from our ability to be lazy.

Now, one man’s lazy is another man’s downtime, and Kreider is no slouch. He’s an accomplished author, who writes at least 5 hours a day before indulging in more leisurely pursuits. He refers to this downtime as a necessity, because when we’re idle it allows us to step back, survey the world and figure things out before moving on to our next order of busyness.

There’s just one problem for many of us: As much as we’d like to, we don’t have time to be lazy. We’re busy with kids, never-ending “to do” lists and time-eating 50-hour-a-week jobs. So how do we squeeze more out of our busy lives? How do we live a more fully engaged and spiritual life, when our hectic schedule is always threatening to overwhelm us?

If we can’t escape all this busyness, perhaps we need to start looking at life with a fresh set of eyes—alert to the positive things that are happening within our daily activities. That means paying greater attention to moments we often view as busy-work and/or a waste of time. This awareness is crucial, because as poet Ivon Prefontaine points out:

We only live in one space: the present. It is important to live where we are at this very moment as fully as we can.

So what’s it like to live fully in the moment? An example comes by way of James Martin in his book Becoming Who You Are. Martin tells the story of the writer Andres Dubus and his reflections on encountering the holy in his daily life. It started innocently enough when Dubus was making lunch for his children one morning—what most of us think of as a chore—and sensed that there was more to his actions than what it seemed. He discovered that:

Each moment is a sacrament, this holding of plastic bags, of knives, of bread, of cutting board, this pushing of the chair, this spreading of mustard on bread, this trimming of liverwurst, of ham. All sacraments.

Finding the sacred in sandwich-making is a hint as to how we might look at many of our “I’m busy” activities. Might giving your kid a ride be a chance for conversation and bonding? Might washing the dishes be an opportunity to engage in silent meditation? Might even the dullest workplace be a chance to connect with others who share similar problems, hopes and dreams?

Like Dubus, in his groundbreaking book A Religion of One’s Own, Thomas Moore also talks of consciously partaking in sacraments in our everyday lives. He tells us that Henry David Thoreau believed that “just getting up early can be a sacrament, a spiritual act.” Moore advises us to plan for these moments each day, tacking them on to our regular schedule:

Instead of just letting your days unfold spontaneously or being at the mercy of an inflexible, busy schedule…set up a few regular activities, like meditation before breakfast, listening to music before lunch, being quiet after ten p.m., eating simply in the morning and taking a quite walk afterward, if only for five or ten minutes.

Returning to Tim Kreider, he offers a wise piece of advice: Choose time over money, for our best investment is in spending time with those we love. And who can argue with the notion of choosing downtime over work, especially when it involves being with those closest to us. (As the story goes, no one has ever been on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at the office.)

But if you, like me, can’t escape a long workweek and have a ton of obligations outside of the office to boot, there’s just one option. Start getting more out of each moment, being mindful of each step and each action you take. We are best served by remembering the words of the Persian philosopher Omar Khayyam:

Be happy for this moment, this moment is your life.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, April 25, 2015.

Napoleon Hill on getting ahead in life: with sex.

HillSuccessful people tend to be highly sexed. ~Napolean Hill

Have you ever read Napolean Hill’s Think and Grow Rich? One of the strangest and most curious parts of this self-help classic is found in a chapter titled The Mystery of Sex Transmutation. I’m sure it raised a few eyebrows when it was first published in 1937, because it tackles the subject of sex—and how it can effectively be used in the workplace.

The sober Hill isn’t talking about sleeping your way to the top, but in using what he calls “sex emotion” to get ahead in business and in life. In 1967, an 84-year old Hill again weighed in on the subject of sex in a sequel to his classic, Think and Grow Rich with Peace of Mind. There, the title of the “sex” chapter more closely mirrored his intent: How to Transmute Sex Emotion into Achievement Power.

Writing during the height of the sexual revolution, Hill claimed that “young people often make the mistake of seeing only the physical side of sex”—not that there was anything wrong with that. But Hill thought we needed to take a broader view of sex and the fact we can “use transmuted sex energy to add value to everything” we do. He proposed transforming our sex drive into a “dynamic drive which brings success”.

Hill was ahead of his time, and maybe even our own, in that he saw sex as something more than physical passion but as a unique kind of energy that can be repurposed. In his words, “It’s an energy that can be directed into many channels. Anything you do can be electrifying and positive and profitable when it is infused with sex emotion”.

The key to success is the “transmutation” part, which is defined as the action of changing a state of being into another form. So, in essence, sex transmutation is the ability to switch a desire for physical contact into a positive energy or enthusiasm. Hill points out “when the energy is being transmuted, there is no desire for the physical act” of sex. “Something else that is very vital and important can be accomplished with the same energy.”

So what happens if you can successfully pull off this transmutation? According to Hill, transmuted sex energy can “add warmth to your handshake, strength to your voice, attraction to your personality.” Hill believed that the thing we call personal magnetism is in fact rooted in sex, and those who have it have successfully pulled off the transmutation.

In Hill’s view, sex energy can be used to do just about anything you do better, as it adds an extra dimension to your work. He writes: “Great artists know how to channel their sex energy into their artistry. Great orators use sex energy to sway their audiences. A great scientist uses the same dynamic force to solve the problems of invention.”

Of course, the hard part is taming the beast we know as our sex drive. But maybe the issue here is our preconceived, compartmentalized notion of sex. Hill points out that “sex does not exist in a separate compartment in our lives, but permeates our entire existence.” He sees it as a magnetic energy we can effectively put to use not just inside the bedroom, but outside of it as well.

Note: I previously wrote about Napoleon Hill and his take on work/life balance. You can read more here

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, April 13, 2015.

The powerful prayer that was forgotten about for centuries—and its amazing comeback.

La_Saeta_by_Julio_Romero_de_Torres_part-150x150What do you do when it feels like your prayers are going into a deep, dark void and aren’t connecting you with the Divine?

Well, 700 years ago a Christian mystic had an answer, an alternative to traditional prayer that he believed offered a direct connection to God. The Roman Catholic church shunned the practice and for centuries it was largely forgotten—but in the past few decades, it has made an amazing comeback. (Though in some Catholic circles, it is considered dangerous.)

It’s now widely known as centering prayer, though it was originally referred to as contemplative prayer. While its origin may date back to early days of the church, religious scholars point to the 14th century as the seminal point of this spiritual invocation. It was then that an unknown Catholic mystic wrote a book called The Cloud of Unknowing that set the foundation for this practice. It included guidance like this:

This is what you are to do: lift up your heart to the Lord, with a gentle stirring of love desiring him for his own sake and not his gifts. Center all your attention and desire on him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart.

So why did contemplative prayer fall out of favor for so long? According to Father Thomas Keating, one of the great modern proponents of centering prayer, “a negative attitude prevailed with growing intensity from the 16th century onward” when the Inquisition began to expand and the practice was deemed heretical.

But when the church began to lose members to Eastern philosophies and the lure of meditation in the 1960s and ‘70s, a small band of renegades on the fringes of the church began reintroducing the idea of contemplative prayer. They were inspired by the Trappist monk Thomas Merton who wrote “the simplest way to come into contact with the living God is to go to one’s center and from there pass into God”. So the practice became known as centering prayer.

So what is centering prayer and how does it work? 

Essentially, it’s a prayer without words, or more accurately a prayer with a single word. Its aim is to help you establish a deeper relationship with God (or for some practitioners, Jesus) to the point that God becomes a living reality in your life, available to you at all times.

Thomas Keating explains the powerful effect of centering prayer this way:
It is the opening of the mind and heart—our whole being—to God, the ultimate mystery, beyond thoughts, words, and emotions. Through grace, we open our awareness to God whom we know by faith is within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking…closer than consciousness itself.

I have written previously about an excellent book on the subject titled The Path of Centering Prayer by David Frenette. The author describes the practice as “a state beyond walking, sleeping or dreaming.” With help from his writings, I’ve developed a six-point “how to” guide on centering prayer.

  1. Choose a one-or two-syllable sacred word such as God, Jesus, amen, love, peace, stillness, faith or trust.
  2. Sit comfortably and with your eyes closed. Silently introduce the word as the symbol of your consent to allow God’s presence within you.
  3. Repeat the word over and over, moving deeper and deeper within your self.
  4. As in meditation, if your mind wanders or becomes aware of anything else, gently return to the word.
  5. Rest in God “as if you put your head back down on the pillow after waking”. Sense the presence of God within you.
  6. As your prayer ends, let go of the sacred word and rest your mind for a minute or two before going about your business.

As with most things you want to be proficient at, the key to success in centering prayer is practice, practice, practice. Another modern day expert on the subject, M. Basil Pennington, recommends two 20-minutes sessions a day. “The first in the morning, introduces into our day a good rhythm…the second, after 8-10 hours of fruitful activity, is a period of renewal to carry us through.”

The next step: Praying without words.

Frenette writes that the next step is to engage in centering prayer without any words, to just rest and simply be in God. He says that the sacred word or symbol you use is really like a life preserver you might need when entering deep waters for the first time. He recommends that as you become better versed in centering prayer you “let go of the life preserver and just float”.

It’s easy to see the parallels between centering prayer and secular meditation, a subject I’ve written about before. But while the calming effect is much the same as meditation, there’s an added element in centering prayer. It’s the sense that in the vast nothingness within, there’s a presence, one that’s part of the soul but greater than the soul. And that presence is what many refer to as God.

This post previously appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, March 29, 2015.

Making the world a better place: one kind act at a time.

Pink Sherbet Photography, USA

Pink Sherbet Photography, USA

You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you. ~John Bunyan

Want to feel better about yourself? I can think of no better way than by engaging in a “random act of kindness”. It’s a gesture that not only makes the recipient feel better, it has a funny way of making the initiator of the act feel good as well. So it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

There may be no one who exemplifies the spirit of “random acts” better than the amazing Chris Rosati who, while suffering from ALS, has just begun his latest kindness initiative. Out at breakfast one morning, Rosati saw two girls at the table next to him and gave them each a $50 bill with a simple instruction—do something kind with the money. He forgot all about it until he got an e-mail several weeks later that included pictures from a village in Africa with people holding signs that read, “Thanks a lot for spreading kindness—Chris Rosati.”

It seems the two girls, who were only 13 and 10-years old, knew about a village in Sierra Leone where the residents had been working to fight Ebola. So, to put their money to good use, the girls paid for a feast so the local community could celebrate being Ebola-free. Rosati calls this act the “butterfly effect” and it sparked his new kindness campaign: he is now giving out hundreds of $50 “butterfly grants” to “any kid who wants to change the world”.

Also worth noting is a nonprofit group that is turning kindness into a movement. It’s called the Random Acts of Kindness foundation and its mission is to educate and motivate all of us to engage in kind actions. Their Web site is filled with real life stories of kindness, like the man who each Valentine’s Day visits a local nursing home to give each woman there a red rose. There are also ideas on how to add acts of kindness to your everyday life, with actions as simple as “smile at 5 strangers today”.

I think there are two broad ways to look at providing kindness to others, listed in bold type below. And I didn’t have to look far to find recent examples of both, because they came from people close to me—my brother and my wife.

Look for opportunities to surprise and delight strangers.

I recently traveled with my brother to Florida to catch a few Spring Training games, and during our last night there we treated ourselves to dinner at the Rose and Crown pub in EPCOT Center. We were enjoying a couple of post-meal pints of Guinness when we noticed something odd.

A girl wearing fuzzy mouse ears had been seated at the two-top table next to us, and as she quietly spoke to the waiter we heard him issue a hearty “happy birthday”. He walked away and we fully expected the girl’s Mom or Dad to appear at any moment and sit down next to her. Only they never appeared.

We watched as the waiter returned with a glass of ice water, and then with a fish and chips dinner. The girl ate her birthday dinner in silence alone. She looked to be no more than 15, 16 tops, and we both sat there wondering what events had transpired to cause her to dine solo in such a convivial, family-friendly place.

As I paid our bill, my brother handed the waiter a small wad of cash. “Please pay her bill for us”, he requested and the waiter said he would gladly oblige. We left without saying a word and were long gone before the girl with the mouse ears discovered her birthday dinner had been paid for by someone she did not know.

Look for kindness opportunities in everyday life.

My wife teaches fitness classes at a massive local health club and several elderly people had recently become members. They tended to congregate by themselves in a far corner of the main exercise room and appeared to be disconnected from the rest of the gym, out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

Though it’s not her job, she decided to go over and talk to these seniors and see how they were doing—and she now makes it a habit to stop and chat with them each day she’s there. She tells me how much they appreciate her outreach efforts and I know it makes her feel good as well. It’s further proof that we can derive just as much joy from giving, as we can from receiving.

As always, I believe my spiritual mentor John Templeton has some wise parting words I’d like to share. If you want to add a few random acts of kindness to your life, consider this a call-to-action, a reminder for the days ahead:

Shift your awareness outside of yourself to others. Surely, someone whose life you touch can use your gift of kindness.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, March 17, 2015.

What makes us happy? (It’s not what you might think.)

By Faisal Akram from Dhaka, Bangladesh

By Faisal Akram from Dhaka, Bangladesh

In the United States, we place a premium on being happy. (Cue the Pharrell Williams video.) Yet, a recent study shows that not all cultures approach life the same way. In a story titled “Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy” at Scientific American, social psychologist Jennifer Aaker points out that our perception of happiness varies according to where in the world we live.

Aaker mentions a Victoria University of New Zealand study that shows “the desire for personal happiness, though knitted into the fabric of American history and culture, is held in less esteem by other cultures. It seems there are many parts of the world that view personal happiness, defined as “experiencing pleasure, positive emotion, or success”, with suspicion.

When Taiwanese and American students were asked about the meaning of happiness, American participants considered happiness to be the supreme goal of their lives, a primary reason for their existence. But Taiwanese participants placed an emphasis “on attainment of social harmony” or a sense of community and belonging.

The author wonders if we, in America, don’t have our priorities out of whack, focusing too much on the self and our own personal happiness. In Aaker’s words:

Perhaps we need a more balanced approach to happiness in American culture. Personal happiness is beneficial in some contexts, a limitation in others. In some moments, we may need and benefit from feeling good, but in other moments, we might be better served anchoring on a balanced, meaningful life focused on others.

Further evidence of the importance of focusing on others can be found in a story on Business Insider, “Does success bring happiness? Or does happiness bring success?” The article cites a Harvard researcher, Shawn Achor, who looked at people who were highly stressed, in this case, students in the demanding and competitive environment at Harvard University. He found that many of the students who “burned out” had cut themselves off from one of the greatest predictors of happiness: our social interaction with others.

He discovered that the students who “increase their social investments” during moments of stress—those who worked with and supported others—actually coped better and were more successful and happier. He found the exact same thing was true in a study of Fortune 100 companies. His advice:

Want to resist stress, increase productivity and get a promotion? Then don’t just seek social support — provide it to others.

This theory seems to be backed up by a recent story in the Wall Street Journal that asks the question “Can Money Buy Happiness?” Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, conducted research that found while earning more money “tends to enhance our well-being, we become happier by giving it away than by spending it on ourselves.”

The takeaway: happiness is found not in our own self-centered actions, but by reaching out to, connecting with, and helping others. But it’s an idea that seems to run counter to the American concept of looking out for number one.

As I often do, I looked through the writings of my spiritual mentor, the businessman turned philosopher John Templeton, for additional insight on happiness and success. And Templeton, writing in his book The Worldwide Laws of Life, shares a similar sentiment:

The greatest happiness in life comes not from the comforts and pleasures that money can buy but from the investment of the days of our lives in a purpose that transcends purely personal interests.

Templeton points out that we need to commit our resources—ideals, love, talents, time, energy, money—to the activities that support our larger purpose. And I believe this purpose needs to be a continual pursuit, something we incorporate into our lives each and every day.

Helen Keller once said, “I do not simply want to spend my life, I want to invest it.” And maybe that’s what it’s all about. Investing ourselves not just in our own selfish pursuits, but in the lives of those around us. We’ll feel better and be happier because of it.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, March 2, 2015.

4 Life Lessons from the Minister who helped win a Super Bowl.

Jack Easterby

Jack Easterby

If you’re even a casual football fan, you probably know by now that the New England Patriots won the 2015 Super Bowl. But you may not know about the man called “a critical part of the team’s success”, though he’s not part of the coaching staff and has never played a single down.

His name is Jack Easterby and he’s the Patriots’ team chaplain. In that role, he hosts regular Bible study classes and has an office in the Patriots’ complex where he counsels players and their wives. Interestingly, Easterby doesn’t push religion. He considers himself “a character coach” and his goal is to help the football players become better human beings.

Easterby was featured in a recent story on ESPN and one thing that becomes clear is that he has established close personal bonds with many of the players. He is known as a “hugger” and when he meets people “he pulls them in for an embrace, raising their handshake to his heart”.

He’s available to the Patriots’ players 24/7 and it is said that “when he’s not listening, he’s texting, when he’s not texting, he’s writing individual notes”, recapping the players’ personal goals and reminding them of how thankful he is to know them. One player says, “he just wants to love you, to be your friend”.

One message that Easterby has passed on to the Patriots’ is that they need to keep their jobs, as professional athletes, in perspective. He tells them that “football is temporary” and to never forget how blessed they are to have the ability to earn a living playing a sport. He reminds them to “focus on their gifts—their beautiful wives or girlfriends or children”.

During the season, Easterby talked frequently with Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and it seems to have had an effect. During Super Bowl week, when Brady was being peppered with questions about whether or not the Patriots cheated (in a minor scandal called “Deflategate”), he had this even-keeled response:

“Everyone will say, ‘God, it’s been a tough week for you. But it’s been a great week for me, to really be able to recalibrate the things that are important in my life and understand the people that support me, and love me, and care about me.”

FOUR LIFE LESSONS I PICKED UP FROM JACK EASTERBY

  1. Keep Things in Perspective. Easterby reminds us that our jobs are secondary to the important things in life—like the care, companionship and appreciation of our loved ones and friends. Jobs are temporary while our relationships can last a lifetime and are really what life is all about.
  2. Always Give Thanks. During Super Bowl week, Easterby texted players that he was grateful for “another opportunity to serve” and “blessed to have a chance to impact”. I believe a daily prayer of gratitude is the best way for all of us to recognize the good in our lives. Best of all, giving daily thanks has a funny way of opening the door for even more blessings to enter our lives.
  3. Communication is Vital. Easterby is continually checking in with the players who seek his counsel, making sure they’re on the right track. He calls, he writes, he texts. Ask yourself: who in your life could be better served by your regular recognition, encouragement or praise?
  4. Be Humble. “I’m so humbled to be a part of this,” says Easterby. In the words of John Templeton, “without humility, we may become too self-satisfied with past glories to launch boldly into the challenges ahead”. We must continue to strive to move the ball forward, never resting on our past accomplishments or laurels. Today is a new day with new opportunities to serve those around us.

This post previously appeared on my Patheos column Wake Up Call, February 17, 2015.

A Look at Non-Stop Prayer—and a Very Doable Alternative.

prayer-150x150I’ve always been fascinated by the simple edict found at in the New Testament to “Pray without ceasing”. Perhaps because, I have several times come across people and religious groups that take this proclamation quite literally.

A few years ago, I read about a group of young Christian men, who began praying in their local church, morning, noon and night. They stopped only for food and bathroom breaks. As I recall, they had troubled pasts and were hoping their non-stop petitioning would make Jesus a constant presence in their lives, a companion in their every activity. I can find no trace of the story now but I imagine that after a few weeks, one-by-one, they grew weary of their endeavor and returned to the secular world with varying degrees of success.

Taking a slightly easier route to fulfilling Thessalonians 5:17 is the Salvation Army. At this moment, in locations around the globe, “Salvationists” are engaging in a year of “Boundless Prayer” that extends through July, 2015. The site informs us that it is a “24/7/365” effort that basically moves “from one territory to another” with the goal of getting “the whole world praying”1.

Looking at the Army’s calendar it appears each territory commits about a week to the cause. For instance, there is currently a non-stop prayer-athon happening in Iceland. It appears to be more of a tag-team approach, whereby prayer happens in small groups working in shifts, with replacements coming in as needed to keep the invocations going without pause.

So is it really possible to engage in non-stop prayer? I know from vast experience that it can be tough to focus on meditating, or engage in centering prayer, for a solid 20-minute stretch. But praying hour after hour, day after day?

Well, according to one Christian site, it’s not that difficult. There is an online group called “Got Questions Ministries” that talks to ceaseless praying and makes it sound relatively easy. It does this by linking prayer to each breath we take. According to their Web site:

For Christians, prayer should be like breathing. You do not have to think to breathe because the atmosphere exerts pressure on your lungs and essentially forces you to breathe. The fact is that every believer must be continually in the presence of God, constantly breathing in His truths.

For those of us who believe this is a little too much prayer, it may be easier to follow the lead of the yogini Sara Courter. On her blog Body Karma, Courter makes the notion of on-going prayer sound a lot more doable by advising us to find triggers throughout the day that remind us to give a quick blessing.

For instance, Courter mentions passing through a doorway or stopping at a traffic light as possible prayer cues. I would also suggest passing along a silent blessing with each new human encounter you have, or, if you’re a coffee or tea drinker, saying a prayer at the start of each new cup.

The cues make it easier to remember to quickly pray or give a blessing and can be worked into our everyday lives, as opposed to ceaseless praying where prayer is our life.

The good thing about this approach is there’s no planning needed, unlike a life where ceaseless prayer becomes your raison d’être. And it’s a task that, with a little practice, can easily be mastered. In Courter’s (lightly edited) words:

If you wake up one day and decide to start blessing every doorway you pass through, or deciding to say a prayer of gratitude at every red light you hit during your commute…it will take an adjustment period. But, in time, the act will become an art. The new habit awkwardness will steady into skillful execution. There will be a grace and fluidity about it, because you will have become it. No longer will you have to think before blessing each doorway, no longer will there be an “oh yeah,” before giving thanks at a stoplight.

And, best of all, you can start engaging in this practice today.

This post originally appeared on my Patheos Wake Up Call column, February 2, 2015.