Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen
Two writers, born around the turn of the 20th century, became famous for their predictions of the future. The most famous of the two may have helped prove himself wrong. The English writer, George Orwell, in his novel 1984, predicted a world-wide totalitarian state in which “Big Brother” monitored and controlled all humans through threat and torture. As I say, his major contribution may have been in alerting us to the dangers of totalitarianism. He played a role in insuring that the year “1984” did in fact come and go without the human race succumbing to that kind of fate.
A contemporary, another English novelist, also penned his prediction of a coming totalitarian state. But with a difference, human beings would invite this one gladly. Aldous Huxley, in his work “Brave New World,” drew a picture of a future in which people submitted to totalitarian control not through force, but because of a happiness drug which turned them into a docile and subservient people. They would be easily controlled with no desire to rebel or assert their individuality because they were so comfortable and content. One wonders now if Huxley may not have been closer to the truth. Millions now use drugs, legal and illegal, to dull the pain of living and lend mindless euphoria to their days. Millions of Americans use television as a kind of drug, on average seven hours a day of it, providing comfortable escape from critical thought and struggle.
Question: would it be a good thing if we could attain happiness, peace of mind, self-esteem, personal efficiency from a pill or picture? Would it be good for us if tube or medication could still all anxiety, leave us comfortable and content? Is it possible that life is becoming altogether too easy, and we are too addicted to comfort for our own good?
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Edwin Bliss, a sociologist, writes, “We live in a culture that worships comfort. During this century we have seen the greatest assault on discomfort in the history of the human race. We have reduced drudgery with machines and computers. We have learned to control pain, depression and stress … Most of this is to the good, but unfortunately it has created an impression that the goal of life can be to attain a blissful state of nirvana, a total absence of struggle or strain. But is it not the difficult challenges in life that are ultimately the making of us. They’re worth taking on not because they are easy, but precisely because they are hard. And it’s the hard journeys that are always the ones that matter.”
Why do the hard journeys matter? They shape us into strong, mature, resourceful human beings. We all know this is the case with the physical world. Without exercise, discipline, physical effort, we easily become lazy and less efficient, prey to disease and deterioration.
We are contemplating the possibility of the Olympics in Chicago. What if some scientist came up with genetic engineering that could turn everyone of us all into world class athletes? No long years of strenuous exercise and training. No early morning hours punishing the body and focusing the will. Just a minor procedure and we all become superhuman acrobats or speed demons. It would take the meaning out of such contests, would it not. Hence the opposition to steroids. Our fascination and admiration is directed toward the struggle and self-discipline that these athletes have had to go through to get where they are.
And I hope we recognize now that this is equally true of intellectual endeavor. We now know that the mind is a muscle no less than the others. If it is not stretched, exercised, it too atrophies. Half the reward of human learning and discovery derives from the struggle of the human mind to conquer seemingly insurmountable barriers.
The Biblical writers certainly understand this approach to life. Again and again they appeal for the strenuous life, they call to the life of effort and endeavor. “…endure hardness. Run the race. Accept discipline.” Paul writing to his adopted son, Timothy, certainly mixes the metaphors. He talks about the suffering of the good soldier, then the disciplines of the Olympic games, then the hard labor of the farmer, but the thrust is clear. The real life is the strenuous life, the life of effort and endeavor.
But he is not talking about the physical and intellectual. He speaks of the growth and development of our inner world, the world of spirit and character. What if inner peace, equanimity, self-esteem, strength of spirit, authentic enjoyment of life, come not as the result of a quick read from Borders or a weekend retreat or a bottle of pills. What if the spiritual growth and maturity that bring real peace and satisfaction in life, come only as the result of endeavor over years every bit as strenuous and demanding as intellectual or athletic accomplishment? Because this is what the Biblical metaphors are all about, not military service, nor Olympic games, nor even the struggle to survive. The apostle talks about being strong in the grace of Christ, about accepting the suffering of a good soldier of Christ. He is talking about a life bent on the growth of a spirit and character like that of Jesus of Nazareth.
So what does it take to achieve a truly healthy and accomplished spirit like His? What does it take to establish and sustain a strenuous and stretching life amid the siren calls to softness in the contemporary world. It takes two things really. It takes a clear sense of destination beyond ourselves and it takes disciplines appropriate to that destination.
We grow, we become strong as our lives take on meaning, when we know what we want to become as human beings “A soldier does not get mixed up in civilian affairs,” writes the Apostle. He knows what he has signed up for. He knows what is required of him. He is not diverted by extraneous matters.
Now I recognize that many of us are not indolent, lazy couch potatoes who make no effort, engage in no struggle. Many of us are compulsives that go at life with a vengeance. But even for us, life without some clear-cut focus for our effort and endeavor, so easily becomes fragmented and splintered into a dozen exhausting directions, stressed beyond our capacity to endure. But stress in and of itself may not be the problem. Part of the problem may be that we lack focus and sense of mission.
Dr. Raymond B. Flannery, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. He writes, “Who are stress resistant people? I became interested in this question as a result of some personal experiences and observations. One Saturday evening, after I had myself spent a frazzling day working with ‘stressed out’ people in a walk-in clinic, I turned to a nurse who was also working there and said something like, ‘Everybody and his brother went through here today.’ She answered, ‘You know better than that. Some people never come here.’ I started to wonder what such people were like.
What do you think he discovered? Those with the least illness were also personally committed to a goal, a mission. The goal might be completing a college career, building a business, being a better parent, advancing community activity. But in any case these people were doing something that provided a sense of challenge and direction from beyond themselves, that enhanced their sense of meaningful participation in life.
A recent report of UNICEF ranking countries in terms of the best and worst places to grow up as a child, found the US next to last just above Britain. They used such measuring sticks as kids’ relationships with peers, time spent with parents, drinking and drug use, and the kids’ own assessment of their happiness.
Commenting on the report, William Falk says, “It would be comforting to shrug off the report as pure anti-American bunkum. But as the parent of a teen and a tween, I cannot. I’ve seen firsthand the emptiness that haunts so many middle-class kids. From an early age, they re taught that life is a pitiless pursuit of individual gratification and success, requiring above-average brains and above-average looks. There is no sense of context, or community, or, above all, higher purpose. It’s hardly surprising that so many of them are taking antidepressants, meds, or other pills. Many more hide their sadness in eating disorders, drugs, or meaningless hookups. In our rush to give our children everything,
I’m afraid, we have forgotten to help them answer a question that won’t be ignored: What is this all for?”
Without clear cut, heart grabbing goals, life becomes drift and loses its sense of meaning and urgency. There is a little vignette in Chaim Potok’s story of The Chosen which I love. The Rabbi is trying to urge commitment to life upon his son who has lost the sight of one eye in an accident. “You are no longer a child, Rueven,” my father went on. “It is almost impossible not to see the way your mind is growing and your heart, too. You do not see it. But I see it. And it is a beautiful thing to see. So listen to what I am going to tell you.” He paused for a moment, as if considering his next words carefully, then continued. “Human beings do not live forever, Rueven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value there is to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?” He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on. “I learned a long time ago, Rueven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning. Do you understand what I am saying, Rueven? A man must fill his life with meaning. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying?”
So ask: what are the goals that give our lives meaning and depth, goals that excite us, organize us, discipline us, grant focus, goals that will stretch us on into the years to come. No clear cut destination – no growth, no satisfaction, no real happiness, no reason for being here.
Real life, life of spiritual growth, no less than physical or mental, calls for clear destination. But then by its very nature it also requires daily disciplines appropriate to that destination. Dreams and fantasies alone are not enough. The farmer has to plow and plant, weed and harvest. The Olympian has to train exhaustingly day after day. The soldier must suffer the indignities of military training.
And if we would grow into lives of spirit and courage, of character and stability, of integrity and impact on the world around us, we too must submit to the disciplines that grow that kind of life, the disciplines of solitude, reflection, planning, prayer, common life, service of others in need.
Preparing for a talk on our experiences in East Germany, a very much Orwellian state, I fell to thinking again about Reinhold Schmidt, a friend and very much model and inspiration when it comes to a sense of mission and discipline. In 1945, Reinhold and his family fled from what is now Poland before the advance of the Red Army, hitching rides on military trucks heading west, and then on a train from the Oder River to Berlin. In the confusion and crowds Reinhold, then only 14, was lost from the rest of the family for two weeks, but then reunited in West Berlin where he grew to manhood and studied for the ministry. There he met Ingeborg and they welcomed to their life three children.
During his first pastorate, the Bishop of Berlin appealed to the clergy in the west to consider going to the Russian Zone where there was a terrible shortage of clergy. After much conversation and prayer, Reinhold and Ingeborg decided to make the commitment. Not long thereafter the wall went up on Berlin, separating both of them from their parents and siblings in the west. One visit a year to family in West Berlin was permitted to them, one at a time.
But for twenty eight years they gave themselves to the nurture and encouragement of Christians in that alien land, first in a pastorate and then in addition as Church Superintendent of a band of 12 to 16 clergy serving forty congregations in the county of Seelow on the Oder River. Most of the churches had been destroyed in the last battle before Berlin. Reinhold hovered over patch and repair to provide primitive places for services. But not for a moment did Reinhold express regret at having made this sacrifice, giving himself faithfully to the needs of a beleaguered people of faith, visiting them in their needs, meeting with them wherever they could.
And what I admired most about Reinhold was the incredible discipline, necessary discipline with which he approached his days, without which he, undoubtedly, would not have survived physically or spiritually, visiting the congregations in homes and hospital, preparing sermons, long and vigorous walks for his physical well-being, working their garden without which they would not have had enough food, the Bible readings and prayers at their table, equally important food for their spirits. Not long after the wall fell, he contracted cancer, and went to be with his Lord, remembered by a great host of friends and followers. He did, indeed, “Endure suffering as a good soldier. Like an Olympic runner kept the rules, strong in the grace of his Lord all the way to the end.”
His picture is on my work desk to this day, and, although I shall scarcely manage his incredible discipline and sense of mission, he shall remain a model and inspiration for the rest of my days. Take your share of hardship. Abide by the rules. Take strength from the grace of God. And…..THINK.
Copyright 2007, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.