The Gift of Enthusiasm

One of my favorite sportscasters was Jim McKay of ABC Sports. One of his duties over the years was to host Wide World of Sports on Saturdays. What impressed me about Jim was his capacity to be enthused about any sport. I remember once he was covering the world barrel jumping championship with genuine enthusiasm. His excitement as someone prepared to beat the world record for barrels jumped was real.

I don’t have the gift. I remember when I first realized that.

Back in 1984 I had been clean and sober for about a year, a gift for which I was and am deeply grateful. At that time, however, I felt my life was tepid. I realized that I lacked enthusiasm. I recalled a popular phrase in recovery circles: “Fake it til you make it”. In other words, perhaps I could act as if I were enthused and perhaps it would take.

But what to be enthused about? I felt it couldn’t be something too important like world peace. I felt that, for the experiment to work, it needed to be something less significant. At that time, I had just had a supporting role in a production of On Golden Pond. In that play the main character is a baseball fan, reading the newspaper and bemoaning the fate of the Detroit Tigers. That was it! I had been a baseball fan when I was young but had drifted away from following it.

But you can’t just be enthused about baseball. You have to root for a specific team. Who to root for? As much as I liked Mickey Mantle, it couldn’t be the Yankees. Nor was I drawn to either home state team from Philadelphia or Pittsburgh. Then it came to me. I’d grown up in Scranton PA which at that time had a Boston Redsox farm team. The first autograph I ever received was from a Redsox player named Jimmy Piersall. And my Uncle Joe whom I dearly loved was a Redsox fan. So There it was. I went out and got a Redsox hat and began checking the papers daily, cheering for a victory or cursing a defeat.

The experiment worked and actually had some unexpected additional benefits. It created something I could share with my four children and now is something I share with my grandchildren. To quote Jim McKay, I have experienced the thrill of victory (2004) and the agony of defeat (1986) and so has my family.

Enthusiasm comes from the Greek and translates roughly as possessed by God within and manifesting divine fervor. Thus, enthusiasm is a spiritual gift, a gift whereby we get a glimpse of God’s passionate relationship with all of creation.

I like the idea of an enthused God. It stands in meaningful contrast to the stern judgmental Old Testament God of my youth. A God that gets excited about Yosemite or Big Bend. A God that smiles when beholding a Van Gogh painting or listening to the New World Symphony. A God that laughs with a child. A God that celebrates faithful love-making. A God who sings. This too has been one of the blessings of my experiment with enthusiasm. It helped me meet the God of Enthusiasm.

Here then is one of the greatest moments of my journey of enthusiasm thanks to the Redsox.

Reflection: Where does enthusiasm fit in your spiritual world?

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Reading the Bible Yet Again!

I just finished reading the Bible again for the sixth or seventh time. Not sure. I remember the first time I read To Kill A Mockingbird. I enjoyed it so much that I immediately reread it. I would be dishonest if I were to say that I enjoyed the Bible that much. But I am indeed back in Genesis.

I am a very undisciplined person and so reading the Bible offers a degree of spiritual discipline in my life. It offers a way of showing up that does not feel like an obligation.

I do wonder how many so-called Christians really read the Bible. There is lots in there that is confusing. At times I am as bored as when I tried to ready The Ambassadors by Henry James or Portrait of the Artist by James Joyce. (Thanks be for Cliffs Notes!) There is of course great drama. The Book of Ester alone would make an amazing miniseries! There is bawdy humor (see David’s wife upset with him for flashing the family jewels as he danced his victory dance in public). There is payback. There is madness. There is a great deal of violence. And there are many different images of God.

The Bible has been quoted to justify all kinds of politically questionable activities to include war and financial inequities, as well segregation and child abuse. I have heard too many politicians quoting the Bible as part of their quests for power. For years, the New Testament was used to justify anti-Semitism.

Such free-wheeling interpretation and selective reading can reach an absurd level. Take Ezekiel’s vision, for example. This has long been quoted as “proof” of extra-terrestrials. Yesterday I read someone claiming that it was also proof that we have in fact been visited by space aliens!

The Bible poses some other types of challenges. What, for example, do I make of the Book of Revelations? Is it indeed some sort of prediction things to come? The results of someone’s vivid imagination? A highly symbolic portrayal of the Dark Night of the Soul?

Being a confirmed Doubter, I of course encounter many questions. Some are merely logical. (Where did Mrs. Cain come from?) Others are more substantive. Is it me or does God never really answer Job’s demand for an explanation? Still others are central to my journey. As I read the Gospels, what of Jesus’ teachings makes me uneasy?

I’ve learned that my experience of the Bible is enriched by what Jung called active imagination — putting oneself into a scene to discern some spiritual issue within. I may not always like what I see. If I put myself in Gethsemane, for example, sadly I can see that I too might have run away when Jesus was captured. I too might have passed the stranger by the side of the road. I too might have wanted to see His wounds so I could believe.

I’ve never attended a Bible study and I suppose I don’t really study the Bible. I just read it. It’s not that I don’t see value in studying aspects of the Bible. I do. I have been greatly enriched by studies such as Harold Kushner’s piece on the Book of Job. I know I have something to learn from such great minds and spirits. Yet I also believe that I am invited to figure out what the Bible says to me directly, not through someone else’s filter. I am invited to ponder. I am invited to question. I am invited to laugh (Balaam’s Donkey) and cry (St. Dismas).

So I find myself back on Noah’s Ark. (Did you ever try to imagine the smell?) I find myself amazed at Noah’s faith as well as his frailty. (After all, he does get drunk fairly quickly after the flood). I expect this time through, I’ll be struck by something I’d missed before or perhaps experience a story in a new way. I may even be surprised as I was the last time through when I found that I was not bored by Jeremiah and found him to be less negative than I originally thought.

The journey continues.

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On Asking Questions

Rabbi David Wolpe once wrote that being human includes asking the important questions, asking them again and again and not letting go. The religion I grew up with wasn’t big on asking questions so I was often left to entertain them alone. I started at a a young age and haven’t stopped. As I work me way into elder years, I don’t seem as bothered by not having answers. I’m beginning to think that what matters is not being afraid of the questions.

Some of the questions I wrestled with earlier in life were somewhat theological. If it’s a sin to be angry, then what about Jesus in the Temple? Is sex really that bad? What happens if I get killed on the way to confession? These are from a time when I was caught up in the legalism that was a big part of my early journey.

Thankfully our questions seem to change over time, undoubtedly modified by life experiences. These questions led to valuable shifts in my belief system. The negative judgment of the Church against gays was called into question and rejected thanks to some very extraordinary gay people who chose to share their journeys with me. People of divorce helped me come to see that these folks should be welcome at the Table of the Lord, not turned away. My work with veterans solidified my belief that war is not acceptable, thereby rejecting my Church’s position of “justified war”.

Some questions have no answers but nonetheless provide illumination if I continue to wrestle with them. I learned form the writings of Viktor Frankl how important it is to pursue a sense of meaning even in the face of tragedy. Thus, when I question a tragedy in my or a loved one’s life as to why it happened, while this question is sometimes spoken with anger, it is probably the question that has been with me all my life starting with the deaths of my sisters. I still don’t have an answer but the wrestling has had much meaning. and I have learned much from others who have shared their struggles with the why question.

As I struggle with my questions about the afterlife, I hear stories that suggest there’s something there, a presence that sometimes reaches out to comfort. But the question remains.

My struggle with the ultimate question of whether there is a God and, if so, how do I view Him/Her also remains with me but, as I have wrestled with that question, it has opened up a level of belief quite different from the legalism of my youth. Now when I contemplate the complexities and wonder of the human brain, I cannot attribute that to chance. When I stand in Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend or at the tip of Yosemite Valley or on a deserted beach on the Irish coast, I sense a presence that I don’t often find in churches.

Those three questions, then, remain. Is there a God and, if so, what is His/Her nature? What happens when we die? Why do bad things happen to good people much less good things happen to bad people?

One of my favorite Bible stores is the one about Jacob wrestling with the angel. Jacob keeps wrestling until the angel tells Jacob his name. Jacob gets injured in the battle but doesn’t let go. I plan to go on wrestling the angel as long as possible.

REFLECTION: What questions have informed your spiritual journey?

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Poems as Spiritual Teachers

One of the beauties of the spiritual journey is that we have available to us an abundance of teachers. I have been blessed with many great ones. Spiritual mentors ranging from Henri Nouwen to Abraham Joshua Heschel to Thich Nhat Hanh. Paintings such as Van Gogh’s famous Starry Night. Plays such as Our Town. Movies such as A River Runs Through It. I have had some unexpected sources for spiritual growth to include baseball. And, in the therapy room, I have met some extraordinary teachers and have been taught some extraordinary lessons. Some of the lessons have also come to me through poems.

There are certain poems that have stayed with me from when I first came across them. These have been small beacons that have offered me simple guidance in facing various life challenges.

Certainly one of the best known of all poems, rich in imagery and guidance, is the 23rd Psalm. It is a poem to which many have turned during dark times, reassured that, even as we walk through the Dark Valley, we are not alone. It is a special comfort for those of us who battle addiction and a gentle reminder to “let go and let God”.

Other poems that have been spiritual teachers have taught me important life lessons. Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” has illuminated my struggles with major decisions and has encouraged me not to look back, not to dwell on the Road Not Taken but rather to focus on the path I have chosen.

Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred is a powerful reminder to me of the crushing devastation of poverty and racism. It also forcefully challenges me to honestly assess what dreams I have deferred and what impact that has had on my mind and soul.

Of course I include a baseball poem here, the wonderful “Polo Grounds” which speaks to me not only of the passage of time but of the challenge for me to pay attention

Finally I would share Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go gentle Into That Good Night” which captures for me both the attitude with which I wish to face death as well as my own grief over my father’s passing.

Reflections: Do you have a poem that has lighted your way. If so, what poem and how?

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Further Thoughts on Memorial Day

A combat veteran recently said to me “I hope to God nobody says ‘Happy Memorial Day’ to me. I’ll cuss ’em out!” Indeed this is not a happy day for many. Starting in late April/early May many combat veterans look on the approach of memorial Day with mixed feelings. Yes, they want to honor their fallen brothers and sisters. But it is a time that also stirs up haunting memories and intensifies deep grief.

As some veterans reflect on losses in war, some struggle with guilt. One young man wept as he told me the story of a battle buddy who took his place on a mission only to be killed by an IED. “That should have been me sitting in that seat”, he said. Another person told me a story of his father who had been at Pearl Harbor. As he and others ran to their planes to fight back, two soldiers on both sides were shot down while my friend’s father survived. As many veterans say “Why did I come back and they didn’t? Is there a reason that happened?” I don’t know about you but I don’t have any answer to that question.

Viet Nam veterans will wonder why some losses still bother them over 50 years later. Trauma has no sense of time. So this weekend some veterans will relive the death of a friend. Others will relive unimaginable terror that will disturb their sleep. Some, as they listen to “Taps”, will simply relive too many military funerals.

Other families and friends will suffer more silently for their loved ones did not die in combat but died as a result of the mental and emotional scars of combat. These are the veterans who ended their lives. Some were never able to find their place after service. Others were haunted by memories. Still others were broken by guilt. Their families and friends will be thinking of them this weekend, struggling to understand and to forgive.

What I have learned about combat veterans is that they will talk but only if they perceive that a person is genuinely willing to listen. Many of these veteran do not share their stories with loved ones, choosing to protect them from the horrors the veteran has faced and the death heshe has witnessed. Others will be silent simply because they believe no one wants to listen.

So don’t wish “Happy Memorial Day” to any veterans or families of veterans you know. If you’re willing, ask instead “How are you doing this weekend?”. But only ask if you are willing to listen.

In honor of my fallen brothers and sisters, to include those whose lives ended by suicide, I offer this beautiful tribute. Its title “Mansions of the Lord” refers to one of my favorite Bible passages: “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions. I go before you to prepare a place for you.” Perhaps this weekend some veteran and family members can find comfort knowing that a fallen beloved warrior is waiting for them.

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Mothers in Movies

Just as in literature, motherhood is a popular theme in film. Granted, many of those portrayals of mothers are not flattering. Some mothers are portrayed as deeply wounded (Amanda in The Glass Menagerie). Others are deeply disturbed (Mommie Dearest).

Here is my personal list of great film Moms. Granted, they all fit what I suppose is a traditional view of motherhood. But each in her own way reflects a level of strength found in a humble way in many of the mothers I have known, including my own mother and my wife.

Here are some clips that reflect those mothers of film that have deeply touched me:

A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of an African-American family trying to grow and prosper, to include integrating a white neighborhood. The great Claudia McNeil (who should have been nominated for an Oscar for her performance) is the matriach of this family as she struggles to help them stay focused on a strong set of values. After tragedy strikes, she confronts her daughter:

How Green Was My Valley is set in Wales (homeland of my grandmother) and tells the story of the Morgan family. Towering as a figure of strength is Beth, played by Sara Allgood. She negotiates the joys and pains of life (death, sons leaving) with great strength and faith. In this scene, she has recovered from nearly freezing to death and reconnects with her youngest son and then with her other sons who had moved out after a conflict with Mr. Morgan. Her love of family fills the screen

Sounder tells the story of an Depression-era family of the South faced with an unjust imprisonment of the father. Rebecca plays the family’s mother as she struggles to survive and maintain hope. Cicely Tyson plays Rebecca in one her greatest of many great performances (sorry I couldn’t find a clip. The preview gives you a good overview and includes one particularly moving scene

Finally, my personal favorite film Mom is Ma Joad from The Grapes of Wrath. In a film that is actually quite timely, Jane Darwell gives an Oscar-winning portraal as the mother of the Joad family. She tries to keep them together as they migrate West to find work and through it all endures loss as well as fear and hunger. At the end in this scene, she sums up the philosophies of all great Moms of strength:

By all means, please feel free to comment on your own favorite film Moms!

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Survivors of Suicide

This week I spoke with two survivors of suicide, one dealing with the suicide of a colleague, the other dealing with a family member. This is a silent often overlooked population, sadly becoming more common these days. The suicide of a loved one is such an unimaginable tragedy that many don’t want to be reminded. And so survivors of suicide often find themselves on their own when it comes to trying to heal.

I believe we should all look upon those who have committed suicide with great compassion, not judgment. And yet there is the hard reality that suicide leaves a terrible legacy. I have dealt with and continue to deal with many survivors of suicide. Without exception, they are left with guilt and with unanswered questions.

The guilt centers around either “I should have recognized the signs” and/or “If I had only done/not done X they’d still be alive. The burden is especially heavy on parents. We all make mistakes as parents but parent survivors look at each of those mistakes and wonder “what if” –what if I had not said/done that, often looking back years. The burden of guilt can be unbearable.

Similarly, survivors are left with many unanswered questions, the main one being “Why?” Professional can give explanations about intransigent depression, devastating trauma, etc., but such explanations are rarely a comfort for the “why?” questions centers around a desire to understand and to deal with the exquisitely painful reality that sometimes love is not enough.

Survivors of suicide often feel anger toward the suicide victim yet also feel great guilt about feeling angry. Yet anger is a likely emotion when any of our loved ones does something that makes no sense and hurts us.

Survivors of suicide may also struggle with spiritual questions such as “Why did God allow this to happen?” Again there are no simple answers. Similarly, some may fear for a loved one in the afterlife. I have indeed been asked “Do you think my loved one is in hell?” What I believe at this point is that the afterlife is a place of healing and that those who commit suicide suffered enough in this life.

If you are a survivor of suicide, seek help. Two Internet resources that are worthwhile can be found at <survivorsofsuicide.com> and at <suicidology.com>

If you are friend or loved one to a survivor of suicide, understand that the desire to talk about the loved one doesn’t go away over time. Survivors for suicide often don’t want to burden friends and often recognize the discomfort others may feel when the survivor talks about the tragedy. Taking the time to listen and not to provide pat answers matters. Knowing that someone remembers and recognizes that loss to suicide is not a tragedy that goes away can be a source of comfort.

I recognize as a therapist that words don’t make guilt evaporate. I wish they did. But I believe there is value in letting a survivor know that someone remains aware of the burden the survivor will carry for the rest of their days. I will leave you with this clip from the film Wind River. I have shared this clip in an earlier piece. Both fathers in this scene have lost children. Jeremy Renner’s words to his friend could easily be spoken to anyone surviving the suicide of a loved one.

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My Good Friday Walk

Here is a piece I had published recently in the on-line magazine Spirituality for Today. Enjoy!

     I have long been drawn to the theme of the journey. Stories ranging from “The Snow Leopard” to “Lonesome Dove” have always drawn me with their theme of finding inner truth while travelling. As such, I have also been intrigued by pilgrimages – journeys that typically have a religious focus or goal. Whether exploring the well-known Camino del Santiago or lesser known pilgrimages such as the Cistercian Walk in Wales, I am intrigued by such spiritual experience. Unfortunately, I do not either have or make the time for such adventures. And so, each Good Friday I walk home from my office. The distance is about 11 miles and it takes me 2.5 to 3 hours to complete. My Good Friday walk has become my annual pilgrimage.

     Some have asked me why I do this. Like most pilgrims, I am seeking a deeper connection with the God of my understanding or perhaps some deeper understanding or insight to light my way. What often happens, though, is that I receive a reminder to let go.

     Letting go, however, is only one piece of the spiritual puzzle. The other piece was given to me on my latest Good Friday walk

     Somewhere further along, my mind wandered from Good Friday to thinking about “mindfulness”, a very popular notion in my field of psychology. Mindfulness basically refers to focusing on the present moment. Ironically, as I pondered mindfulness, I almost missed the gift.

     Something or someone whispered that I look to the left. From the eaves of a home were hanging seven or eight bird cages, each with several canaries. The birds were singing away, oblivious to the passing traffic or to the silent observer. Their singing was beautiful and transported me to another concert I’d been privileged to witness.

     Some years before, my good friend Lou came to my office for a visit. He brought with him two covered cages. When he removed the covers, each cage housed 2 canaries, all of whom immediately began to sing. Within a few short moments, their singing became synchronized. It was mesmerizing and very peaceful.

     Months later, I visited Lou as he lay dying of AIDS. He told me he’d written some thoughts that he’d like for me to share at his funeral. I was touched and deeply honored.

     Lou’s last words used Isaiah 26:19 as a point of meditation: “The dead shall live. Their bodies shall rise. Oh dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy.” After sharing his spin on this passage, Lou said: “I know what I am doing right now…I am singing, with the simplicity and fervor of the canaries I raised…Singing with loved ones that went before me…If you listen very carefully, you will be able to hear me singing.” Lou then reminded us that we each have a song within us: “That unique song of yours is the best gift you could ever give me, yourself, and your universe.”

     What a beautiful image! Music has been a significant part of my life and especially of my spiritual journey. One of my earliest memories is sitting next to a Victrola (Record player!) playing records, seeking comfort amidst the deep sadness in my own home during those days. Music since then has continued to comfort me. It helps me articulate deep feelings. It expresses profound moments spent with dying loved ones. It affords healing and connection. Thus, nothing speaks to me of death the way Holst’s “Jupiter” does. Nothing captures my spiritual journey like John Denver’s “Looking for Space”. And Perry Como singing “Bless This House” captures my love of and gratitude for family.

     Lou’s thought suggests that within each of us are qualities that are profound and beautiful – just like music. A true song! Each of us is challenged to find that song and to sing it with vigor, indeed making a joyful noise. We are challenged that we not let that song be silenced by self-doubt and judgment. We are invited to awake and sing!

     As I walked on from the singing canaries, I realized that the birds were the gift for that day. They served as a reminder of that inner song and as a challenge to allow that song to rise and fill my days.

     Months later, I visited Lou as he lay dying of AIDS. He told me he’d written some thoughts that he’d like for me to share at his funeral. I was touched and deeply honored.

     Lou’s last words used Isaiah 26:19 as a point of meditation: “The dead shall live. Their bodies shall rise. Oh dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy.” After sharing his spin on this passage, Lou said: “I know what I am doing right now…I am singing, with the simplicity and fervor of the canaries I raised…Singing with loved ones that went before me…If you listen very carefully, you will be able to hear me singing.” Lou then reminded us that we each have a song within us: “That unique song of yours is the best gift you could ever give me, yourself, and your universe.”

     What a beautiful image! Music has been a significant part of my life and especially of my spiritual journey. One of my earliest memories is sitting next to a Victrola (Record player!) playing records, seeking comfort amidst the deep sadness in my own home during those days. Music since then has continued to comfort me. It helps me articulate deep feelings. It expresses profound moments spent with dying loved ones. It affords healing and connection. Thus, nothing speaks to me of death the way Holst’s “Jupiter” does. Nothing captures my spiritual journey like John Denver’s “Looking for Space”. And Perry Como singing “Bless This House” captures my love of and gratitude for family.

     Lou’s thought suggests that within each of us are qualities that are profound and beautiful – just like music. A true song! Each of us is challenged to find that song and to sing it with vigor, indeed making a joyful noise. We are challenged that we not let that song be silenced by self-doubt and judgment. We are invited to awake and sing!

     As I walked on from the singing canaries, I realized that the birds were the gift for that day. They served as a reminder of that inner song and as a challenge to allow that song to rise and fill my days.

As with this walk, my Good Friday walks have always humbled me, in part because of the guidance received and in part because of the gentle reminder to listen. If my Good Friday walks remind me of anything, it is the words of my favorite Psalm: “Be still and know that I am God.”

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The Best Is Yet To Be: Spiritual Challenges of Growing Old

“Grow old along with me/The best is yet to be.” So wrote poet Robert Browning to his beloved Elizabeth. It is a warm sentiment that can be a comfort to those of us facing old age. In contrast, though, to that beautiful sentiment stands my mother’s observation: “Growing old is not for the feint-hearted.”

     Aging presents the obvious physical challenges of health problems. It presents the mental problems of fading mental abilities. It can present emotional challenges to include depression. But growing old also brings with it some powerful spiritual challenges.

     The Bible clearly calls us to honor our elderly and to care for them. There is even the poignant missive to be patient with repeated questions and stories, a lesson taught to me by my 95-year-old Aunt Peg. I went to see her at the nursing home where she spent her last days. At one point she asked ‘Richard, how old are you?” I was 48 at the time. When I told her that, she threw her arms up and said with her lyrical Irish accent “Oh my goodness!” A few minutes later she asked the same question and had the same reaction. And then again one more time before the visit ended.

     The greatest emotional/spiritual challenge of growing old is fear. Some fear the afterlife. Others fear the process of dying. Most fear becoming disabled to include the loss of mental capacity. Sadly, most elderly folks don’t have an outlet for voicing that fear.

     The Christianity of my youth was heavy on sin and damnation. As such, the idea of death was accompanied by a great deal of fear. Some of us never get beyond that fear-based spiritual world. I’m fairly sure my father struggled with that. Before dementia set in, he told me his belief that his strokes were punishment for his sins.

     Most, however, are more afraid of becoming disabled. It is not uncommon for me to meet with someone who has experienced a recent memory lapse that has them frightened that they are on the road to dementia. Some fear becoming a burden to children. Others fear abandonment in a nursing home. Many fear losing their past and their sense of identity. After all, we are all made up of our stories and to lose connection with those stories can feel like another terrifying form of death.

     Growing old can also bring into sharp focus wounds that need to heal. I see many Viet Nam veterans who fear they are going crazy because events of 50 years ago are coming up in their memories. It is no coincidence that these wounds arise after retirement because veterans now have time on their hands and wounds that were set aside so that a veteran could work and raise a family now demand equal time.

     Other wounds may involve regrets. We all have them. When we grow old and our health begins to fail, the tomorrows that we long counted on no longer are there. Whatever we put off until tomorrow now seems out of reach.

     We may regret choices made or at least find ourselves reflecting on certain choice points with energy spent on wondering “What if?” We all know we can’t change the past but that thought doesn’t automatically eliminate regrets and what if questions but we often in old age are at least curious about the what ifs? Sadly, though, many elderly spend time berating themselves not so much with what ifs but with I-should have-nevers. “I should have never gotten married.” “I should have never dropped out of school”. “I should have never taken that job.” These and others are some of the regrets I hear others voice as they age.

     Given the elusiveness of the idea of God’s will, I have also dealt with some who fear that they did not live out God’s will for them. The question of purpose is an important one that overlaps with one’s understanding of God’s will. If I am in my 70s and believe I never figured out what God’s will is for me, I can become afraid, especially if I believe God’s will to be narrowly defined.

     I remember talking to one woman who found it comforting when I suggested to her that perhaps God’s will for us is painted in broad strokes rather than specifics. I told her that, in my own case, I believed that God put me here for a reason and that was to be of service to others. I shared that I didn’t believe that God was particularly invested in me practicing psychology in El Paso TX.

     One’s sense of God’s will can also be challenged by retirement. The only piece of advice I have for people considering retirement is “Make sure you’re moving toward something and not just away from something.” Many folks retire and their sense of purpose comes to a jarring halt leading to anxiety and depression. God is not done with us just because we retire!

     Growing old may also challenge people when they realize they are angry with God. Some, when faced with a life-threatening illness such as Parkinson’s, may feel an outcry such as “I’ve tried to live a good life. I’ve gone to Church, raised my children in the Church, tried to honor the Commandments. This isn’t fair!” The harsh reality is that living a “good” life does not guarantee a peaceful, illness-free leave-taking. That harsh reality makes some angry. That anger can be especially troublesome if the person judges himself/herself for being angry with God.

     We may also be angry with God when we helplessly watch an elderly loved one suffer. There are many Christians out there who are angry at the God they believe has permitted COVID and allowed it to strike down an aging loved one.

     As we grow old, we may also be confronted with doubts, especially regarding an afterlife. As one person asked me, “Suppose there’s nothing there?” Some have lived their lives enduring suffering to include the loss of loved ones by finding comfort in the thought of an afterlife where suffering ends and we are reunited with loved ones. As the end gets close, some struggle with a fear generated by a sudden doubt about the reality of after-life.

     Others may fear that spiritual choices they made along the way will prove to be wrong. I have long believed that it is all right, even necessary, to feel anger toward God. One woman of deep spirituality who had tragically lost a son listened, nodded, then said “But suppose you’re wrong?” I paused and said “Well, if so, then I guess when I got to board the bus to Hell there be a lot of people waiting for me with clubs and tire irons!” But privately her challenge has stayed with me.

     Finally, there is the spiritual challenge, especially during this time of COVID, of isolation. Some spiritual lives are enriched by community. As we age and become disabled, access to community can be limited. As one woman said, “I miss hugging my friends. I miss singing together.” Old age can cut us off from our spiritual communities.

     Some cultures continue to honor their elderly and view them as a resource for wise counsel. Sadly, our American industrial achievement-oriented society seems to have moved away from that.

     Have you ever had the benefit of sitting with an old person and listening to their stories? I remember my great Aunt Margaret talking about being in Paris when Lindbergh landed or seeing Babe Ruth play baseball. But I especially remember when she asked me about the Viet Nam War. “What do you think of this war, Richard?” I responded to her that I thought it was a bad war. “So do I” she said. Then she slowly shook her head and added “So many young men.” I realized then that my Aunt Margaret had lived through 5 wars counting Viet Nam and so had seen too much loss of life. It remains the finest anti-war sentiment I’ve ever heard.

     Listening to an old person’s stories takes time and a little bit of patience because some stories do get repeated. I’ve had the privilege have sitting with elderly people and learning what it was like to be a black man in the Army in the Second World War. I’ve heard what it was like to grow up in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood yet crossing paths with Jackie Robinson at Church on Sunday. I’ve heard stories of incredible courage in the face of combat. I’ve heard the stories of a friend who survived Auschwitz and went on to become a psychologist. The value of being old even came to me once when I walked into the therapy room to see a new client and she smiled and burst out with “Thank God you’re not young!” She went on to explain that she wanted to speak with someone who had lived life long enough to mistrust simple answers and formulaic solutions.

     Mark Twain once said “Age is a question of mind over matter; if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” We may not be able to change the fact that we age but we always have a choice as to how we face it.

     As I continue in my own old age journey, then, I will treasure the words from Job: “Those who are older should speak for wisdom comes with old age” and will rejoice and hold my head high with the Proverb: “Gray hair is a crown of glory.”

Reflection: What are your thoughts on growing old? Has that fact challenged you spiritually?

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Unanswered Prayer

My brother asked me an interesting question the other day. “What is the most frequent unanswered prayer?”, he asked. His opinion is that the most frequent unanswered prayer is “Lord, let me win the lottery.” He might be right.

I remember some years ago there was a Garth Brooks song about unanswered prayers. Garth runs into an old high school girlfriend at a football game and recalls how, when they were younger, he’d prayed for God to make that girl his. Garth doesn’t elaborate on why. He’s just glad God didn’t answer that prayer.

In the same vein, I prayed for a pony for Christmas when I was five. That was my earliest experience with unanswered prayer.

Sadly, both personally and professionally, I’ve had far more serious experiences with unanswered prayer. Personally, I wonder if the most frequent unanswered prayer is “Lord, heal my loved one from this illness” or even “He/she has suffered enough, Lord. Please take him/her.”

Similarly, I have sat with good people and listen to them question the quality of their prayer. “Maybe I didn’t pray correctly or maybe I didn’t pray enough”, agonized one woman when trying to grasp the death of her daughter from cancer.

And yet I continue to believe in prayer. I pray every day for the health and safety of my loved ones. And so anyone who believes in prayer has to also come to terms with the reality of unanswered prayers.

The most common explanation has to do with God’s will. This position holds that everything happens for a reason. However, that reason may not be clear and in fact may never become clear. This was the explanation my mother held in the face of the deaths of her mother and my two sisters. It is the explanation held by a man dying of Gehrig’s disease. It is an answer that takes great courage and faith to embrace.

Others would argue that some of the bad things that happen in life are not God’s doing. This is the position suggested by Rabbi Kushner in his wonderful book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. This positions argues instead that God does not cause all tragedies but is there for us in the midst of those tragedies.

Still others argue that God does not run a candy store where He/She doles out goodies. Rather, they argue, prayer allows us to experience God and especially God’s love in a direct manner.

There are those who say that God is not involved in the day-to-day details of our lives. Thus, there is no point in praying that God help me find a parking spot in the Walmart parking lot. As George Burns as God says in the film Oh God, “I worry about the Big Picture and leave the details to you all.”

And finally there are those who give up on prayer and God completely because of an unanswered prayer

I don’t have an answer. At this point, I rather doubt that God is involved in the outcome of a lottery or, for that matter, in the outcome of a sporting event. (I am convinced that many Red Sox fans believe that Dave Roberts stealing second base in the 2004 playoffs against the Yankees and turning the tide in favor of the Red Sox was an answer to prayer!) And yet prayer does seem to have some power to it. Perhaps as Abraham Joshua Heschel said “Prayer doesn’t save us but it makes us worth saving.” Perhaps when I take a prayerful attitude, I may more easily embrace the need for me to stop trying to control that over which I am powerless. And, for certain, I know when I pray I am more strongly centered in the love I have for others. That alone makes prayer worthwhile.

Reflection: How do you deal with the reality of unanswered prayers?

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