“Sit In Your Cell As In Paradise”

I recently ran across the Brief Rule of the Camaldolese order, part of the Benedictine family of monastic communities. The first Camaldolese community was established by St. Romuald, an Italian monk, about a thousand years ago.  I was particularly struck by the first line:

“Sit in your cell as in paradise.”

I have traveled a fair amount this year. I’ve been to Israel and to several states in the US. I’ve seen some places that have some semblance to paradise, especially the desert waters of En Gedi, the tree-burdened hills of the San Juan Islands, and the peaceful perfection of my friend Collette’s suburban meditation garden. I don’t spend time regularly in any of these places, though. None qualifies as my cell. Of course I don’t have a literal cell equivalent to a monk’s residence, but I do have a room where I sleep, read, write, and pray. What would it be like to regard that place as paradise?

Peter Wenzel, "Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden"

Dictionary definitions of paradise emphasize two aspects. First, ‘paradise’ can refer to a special place created by God where humans receive blessings not available in everyday life, particularly the Garden of Eden or heaven. Neither a monk’s cell nor my room meets that standard. Perhaps an element of paradise as a special God-given place can be present in these mundane locales, though. Perhaps St. Romuald was expanding the notion of paradise to refer to any place where the monk could feel God’s presence and experience spiritual betterment. That sort of paradise certainly can take place in my room–in fact it does so regularly. Every morning I take a little time to reflect on the previous day, focusing on where I felt the divine presence, what concerns that presence brought to my attention, and how I responded. I write a paragraph or two describing whatever this examination of the day brings to mind. The few minutes I take to do this are time spent in paradise–time spent with God that edifies me.

Second, dictionaries define paradise as “a place or state of bliss, felicity, or delight,” as Merriam-Webster puts it. I’m not particularly prone to experiences of bliss, at least not ecstatic ones. For me, felicity and delight occur more often. Felicity can be a synonym for happiness, and can also refer to any condition that produces happiness. When I am too busy to spend time alone in my room–remembering, reflecting, and meditating–I feel out of sorts, as if some part of me is missing. Retreating there for a half-hour or more is felicitous for me; it results in contentment and happiness throughout the day. As for delight, that emotion occasionally occurs during my time in my room, especially when my review of the previous day brings to mind memories that are joyous or exhilarating. I may have had some delight when the event I’m remembering originally occurred, but in the moment delight is usually fleeting. I savor such things more when I’m alone, in my room.

So, “sit in your cell as in paradise,” whether in God’s presence or in the company of your own thoughts and reflections. Be at peace, and take that peace with you throughout the rest of your day.

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When Your Adult Child Won’t Talk to You

“What to do when your grown child won’t talk to you?” asked a recent article at Next Avenue. The author, Jill Smolowe, states that she takes the following approach to close relationships:

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt that the best expression of my love is to convey a keen and sustained interest in my loved one’s life, pursuits and concerns. To do that, I ask questions, try to give the responses my full attention and ask more questions.”

Unfortunately, her strategy of asking questions and listening attentively doesn’t work so well with her 22 year-old daughter. It hadn’t been working for a while, but this wasn’t a major issue when her daughter was away at college. Now her daughter has moved home and there is much more tension. Jill describes her daughter’s attitude about being questioned as follows:

“Far from experiencing my interest as love, she regards it as a disrespect for and violation of her personhood. To her, parents are to be seen, not heard.”

Jill is trying to accommodate her daughter’s dislike for being questioned. This is really difficult for her, though:

“I am trying to stay on my side of the line. But not expressing interest, let alone concern, when I perceive that my child is distressed feels about as natural to me as not breathing.”

It’s hard to tell from the article whether the distress Jill senses in her daughter is genuine or whether her daughter has only minor moodiness that Jill misperceives as greater than it is. Jill does seem to be pretty anxious about her daughter. That’s not uncommon for those who are parenting young adults. It’s much more difficult when a child of ours (whatever her age) encounters obstacles that we can’t resolve than when, as often occurred when she was young, we could do something to help her. Parenting young adults involves constantly feeling powerless.

Self-determination theory, a psychological theory about human motivation, posits that well-being and optimal functioning come from experiencing autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Jill seems to be focusing on relatedness with her daughter. However, her daughter may feel that mom’s questioning threatens the other two foundational needs, autonomy and competence.

Young adults are often motivated to defend their newfound autonomy. Most have had prior experience with a parent’s question leading to advice or pressure, so even the most innocent inquiry can make them squirm. Young adults are also striving to prove to themselves and others that they are competent. Parental questions often convey an unstated assumption that the child really isn’t capable of handling things independently. This latter issue was explained to Jill when she went to a therapist to ask how to handle the situation with her daughter. The therapist told her the following:

“The transitional moment into the adult world is ‘terrifying’ for a lot of college kids. A parent’s offer of help, large or small, is often heard as a ‘vote of no confidence’ in her child’s ability to figure it out for herself.”

When they become adults, young people face many problems that they have to resolve on their own. Some welcome parental input in the form of questions and even suggestions, but others don’t. It’s useful for parents to be mindful that their adult children need to experience autonomy and competence, and to be careful not to undermine these. Our children need relatedness, too, but they won’t choose to relate to us if they feel that we are threatening their autonomy or competence. Respecting our children’s autonomy and affirming their competence when they are in the transition from adolescence to adulthood increase the likelihood that we will have affectionate and peaceful relationships with them.

With my son Elliot. He was 30 when the picture was taken. Our relationship was good then and remains that way now.

With my son Elliot. He was 30 when the picture was taken. Our relationship was good then and remains that way now.

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Lessons from a 93 Year Old

Carolyn at Beauty Beyond Bones recently wrote about an encounter with an old man at church. He arrived late, sat next to her, and created a fuss while trying to settle in and get caught up with the service. Carolyn helped him, but was unhappy that he had intruded and fearful that others might associate him with her. Things turned around for her, as you’ll see when you read the post. There is an innocence and guilelessness about the elderly that enables them to be an icon, a window into the nature of God. I hope that, should I become an old, befuddled man some day, I can be the sort of blessing to others that this old man was to Carolyn.


I had one of those experiences last night that’s going to stick with me for a long time.

Sunday night. 7:30pm. And I was going to a church I had never been to.

I moseyed in the back and found a seat in the second-to-last row, just off the aisle.

Mass started. We were about 15 minutes in, and the priest was giving the homily.

And this old man hobbled in. He was at least 90, hunched over his cane, shuffling along. And he plopped down right next to me.

Now, how can I put this delicately…his entrance was not…shall we say…discrete.


As an elderly gentleman, his hearing was obviously going, because what he thought were whispers, actually were yells.

Is someone sitting here!? What day is it!? September 4? What’s the page number?

Now, if you’ve never been to Catholic mass, disruptions are…rare and…unwelcome.

People were looking back…

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Bloom Anyway


This spring, I planted sunflower seeds in my mom’s yard. I planted them in three places: in the backyard, alongside the driveway, and in a mostly-fenced garden area. The seedlings soon pushed their heads out of the dirt, then grew little by little. All was going well until the stalks were perhaps a foot and a half tall. They were large enough then to attract the attention of the deer who periodically wander through the yard. The deer sampled the young plants, found them to their liking, and ate the top off every plant except those in the garden area. It looked like we weren’t going to have much of a sunflower crop.

The half-eaten plants by the driveway soon died, as did a couple plants in the backyard. A couple more, though, clung to life and started growing again. They eventually got a couple of feet tall, only to be eaten by the deer again. They made another comeback, were eaten again, but still wouldn’t die.

Eventually the plants in the partly fenced-in garden area bloomed. The stalks in the backyard were pitiable–thin sticks waving a couple leaves, the original stem amputated and no longer growing. “I should pull them up,” I thought, but didn’t get around to it.

Then, about a week ago, I was startled to see that a tiny flower had appeared on one of the side stalks. I hadn’t been paying attention, so I hadn’t noticed that a bud had formed there. The plant had bloomed in the only way that it could, off to the side, just two feet off the ground.

I’ve enjoyed the large sunflowers in the garden area. My favorite flower, though, is the little sunflower in the backyard clinging to its ravaged stalk. To me, it’s a metaphor for growing old. Most of us have spent our years not in a sheltered garden but out in the open, vulnerable to whatever misfortune might come our way. Most of us have been chomped on (figuratively speaking) at least a few times, so we bear the scars of life’s vicissitudes. We may have been tempted to give up, like some of my snacked-upon plants eventually did. But, like that stalk that eventually flowered, we started out with the potential to bloom, and haven’t forgotten that that’s what we were made for. We will never look perfect or produce blooms suitable for a magazine cover, but that’s not what matters.  If we’re tenacious enough, we may surprise the world by flowering when all hope seems lost.

So, don’t give up. Bloom in whatever way you can!


P.S. After I wrote this, the deer finally ventured in the garden area and ate the plants there. The little flower in the backyard is still blooming.

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Retirement and the Post-Olympic Letdown

The quadrennial glut of athletic excellence known as the Olympics is over. The sports fans among us are going through withdrawal–our televisions have been emptied of cyclists, runners, rowers, sailors, wrestlers, swimmers, and the like; no one is counting metals; we don’t check each morning to see how our countrymen fared during late-night competitions. The readjustment to ordinary life will be easy for most of us, but not for those most affected, namely the athletes themselves. A recent article in the Atlantic describes the post-Olympic letdown that plagues many of the competitors. In some cases, the letdown is more than just the usual dip that tends to follow an emotional high. It can spiral down to clinical depression.

Allison Schmitt--She wasn't smiling after the 2012 Olympics.

Allison Schmitt–She wasn’t smiling after the 2012 Olympics.

The most well-known cases of post-Olympic letdown are the high-profile athletes who were particularly successful at the games. The article mentions Allison Schmitt, a swimmer who won five metals and set a world record at the 1012 Olympics. She had no idea why she was so blue, but couldn’t lift her mood by herself and sought counseling. “I didn’t want to ask for help,” she told an interviewer, “but in this situation I found out … that I couldn’t keep fighting it by myself.” Then there is Michael Phelps, who in 2008 won eight gold medals. “I took some wrong turns and found myself in the darkest place you could ever imagine,” he recently told Bob Costas. It took a DUI in 2014 before Phelps finally turned himself around.

I thought that a quote in the article from Caroline Silby, a sports psychologist and former competitive skater, was particularly insightful:

“The instant idolization of their achievements can lead to intense and constant worry about rejection, criticism, and being ‘found out’ that they aren’t as good as everyone thinks—or that they themselves think.”

Successful Olympians are lauded as heroes–praised for their strength, speed, courage, or endurance. Perhaps they are elevated even higher than that. After all, the original Olympians, the mythological residents of Mount Olympus, were the gods of ancient Greece. We are inclined to apotheosis–to regarding others or ourselves as something that is godlike (though, unlike the ancients, we stop short of actually proclaiming that humans are deities). What young athlete, no matter how successful, can live up to that? And the attention and fame are likely to be fleeting. They’ve gotten accustomed to the adrenaline high of the world’s praise, and will have to go though withdrawal when the world turns its attention elsewhere.

In thinking about the post-Olympic letdown, I couldn’t help but also think about those who have retired from the workplace. Most of us attained nothing equivalent to winning a gold metal. Yet we had our share of successes–top salesman, highly regarded manager, highly proficient doctor or lawyer or teacher. We were at it long enough to develop considerable expertise, and we received recognition as a result. We may not have climbed as high as an Olympian, but our time of elevation lasted considerably longer.

And then it was time to come down. Most of us have adjusted remarkably well to leaving the workforce. Yet there can be a tendency to look back wistfully at past glories. Some have considerable difficulty handling the change. One man I know retired a year and a half ago and has been utterly miserable ever since. He doesn’t miss the hassles of his job, but does miss the recognition he received. He sits around the house lacking any sense of direction, ruminating bitterly that he has so little to show for his years of hard work.

His identity was tied to his job, and he hasn’t figured out who he is besides a hard worker. This is the same issue that many ex-Olympians are faced with. They gave their all to their sport, and it came to define them. The advice that sports psychologists give to their clients pertains to retirees as well: find an identity beyond what you’ve been doing up to now, remember that you’re more than what you achieved. Sports psychologist Kristen Keim offers the following to her clients:

“If you’re transitioning out of something, you should always have something you’re transitioning into. You should always have future goals. Even if it’s just setting up trips to go travel. Because stopping cold turkey, that’s a slippery slope.”

Good advice for both ex-Olympians and retirees.

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Do You Need to Grieve Your Unfulfilled Expectations for an Adult Child?

Relationships between parents and adult children can be rocky. Image from mainstreet.com

Relationships between parents and adult children can be rocky. Image from mainstreet.com

As a therapist, I work regularly with people who are grieving some sort of loss. One of the most difficult losses handle is death of a child. Families used to be much larger than they are now and, prior to the development of effective treatment for infectious diseases, it was common to lose one or more children to illness. Grief was a common experience for parents. Fortunately, most of us haven’t had a child die. We may have had to grieve a child for some other reason, though.

Even before a child is born, it’s natural to have hopes for that child, and those hopes can engender expectations–that the child will develop certain qualities, make certain choices, achieve certain things. We tend to steer our children in the direction of our expectations, but children don’t always follow the path we had envisioned. Our hopes may sour, and in our disappointment we may do things that in turn foster resistance or resentment from the child. Both adult and child can get stuck in a negative feedback loop.

Sometimes the characteristic that must be grieved appears early in a child’s life, such as a chronic illness or massive disability. More commonly, what needs to be grieved doesn’t appear until later, in adolescence or adulthood. I’ve sat with parents distraught over a teen or adult child abusing drugs, acting violently, defrauding others, or taking foolish risks. Some adult children avoid working,  instead continuing to depend on their parents for food, shelter, and transportation long after they should be providing these things for themselves. Fortunately, in many cases things eventually improve, whether through treatment, learning from consequences, or the gradual process of maturation. When negative characteristics persist unchanged for many years, though, it may be that they will never change and need to be grieved.

A couple I know often argue over an adult daughter (let’s call her Amy). As a teenager Amy regularly snuck out of the house to party with friends. She eventually developed a drinking problem and, at age 16, became pregnant out of wedlock. She dropped out of school. She is now is 28 and has had two marriages, both of which ended in divorce. She has had several jobs, but typically either quit or was fired within the first six months. She’s working now, but her bills are delinquent and she finds it difficult to provide the basics for her and her children, in part because she spends too much on alcohol or drugs.

The parents disagree on how to deal with Amy. The mom believes that Amy is trying and just needs a little help to turn the corner. “It would be a real setback if they got evicted again,” she says. “We can help out a little with rent once in a while and can buy a few groceries. We’ll just do it a little while until she gets her act together.”  The dad is an advocate of “tough love” “She’ll never mature if we’re always rescuing her,” he says.

Both mom and dad were assuming that, if they just found the right strategy, Amy would change and become a responsible adult. What if she never does, though? Their efforts to change Amy are accompanied by subtle and not-so-subtle efforts to control her, and that in turn leads to conflict. “Why does she resent us?” They wondered. “We do so much for her.”

In all likelihood, there is nothing the parents can do to change Amy. She may continue to make bad decisions about relationships and jobs; she may continue to seek short-term pleasures that cause her long-term pain. Both mom and dad may need to grieve their expectations for Amy, accepting that the hopes they  have for her may never be fulfilled.

Grieving unfulfilled expectations for a child is not meant to be a strategy to change the child. Sometimes when, after grieving, a parent no longer conveys expectations or tries to control, the child may start being more responsible. Behaviors and attitudes that occasion a parent’s grieving are deep-seated, though, and the child may continue on as before. The goal of grieving is not to change the child but for the parent to become free from the anxiety, turmoil, and sense of desperation that the child’s behavior occasions. And it’s not just parents who may need to grieve. Grandparents also have unfulfilled expectations and have to go through the same journey from denial to grief to acceptance.

When I work with clients whose adult children aren’t doing well, I ask them whether the child’s behavior not only is disappointing but also makes them feel anxious or desperate. I ask whether at times they put their lives on hold because they are so preoccupied with their offspring. I also ask whether they are trying to figure out how to change the child. If the answer to any of these questions is yes, I conclude that they would probably benefit from grieving the hopes they had for that child. They–and anyone in a similar situation who is reading this post–are captive to their unfulfilled expectations, and can be freed by grieving those expectations.

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Death Then and Now: Providential, Suicidal, or Just Regrettable?

A few months ago I read Thomas R. Cole’s book The Journey of Life. I was especially interested to learn about attitudes toward older people throughout U.S. history; here are a few thoughts about the topic. In reading Cole, I noticed that attitudes toward the elderly are closely related to attitudes towards death, so I decided to write a post about that as well.

How should we look at death? Should we welcome it or fear it? Is death a blessing or curse? Are all deaths equal or are some better than others? Does death come regardless of what we do or do we have control over when and how it happens? Contemporary discussions of death often consider such questions, but such questions have been around for a long time.

The Puritans and other Calvinists thought that death could intrude on life at any time. In fact, God followed no discernible order in plucking people from this life and depositing them in the next–young as well as old, rich as well as poor, and healthy as well as sick are regularly death’s victims. Thus, no one should presume that they would have many years remaining. Everyone should prepare for death so as not to be caught unawares. Though in the book of Genesis humans lived hundreds of years, in modern times God rarely bestowed humans with such generous life spans. Late-eighteenth and early nineteenth century Calvinist minister Nathaniel Emmons put the situation like this: “we have great reason to conclude that God has most commonly deprived mankind of the residue of their years, and never allowed one in a thousand or a million of the human race to reach the bounds of life which nature has set.”

Though he was writing less than two hundred years ago, the view of death that Emmons represents is very different from current attitudes. Change was afoot, though. Other writers began suggesting views  of death that are very similar to some 21st century thinking. This alternative view emphasized taking control of one’s health rather than waiting passively for the grim reaper to make his appearance. Cole lists several related movements–“physiological societies, sexual reform, dietary reform, preventive medicine, hydropathy, phrenology, and the initiation of hygiene and physical education in the schools”–that were responsible for such new thinking. This approach optimistically proclaimed that a long and healthy life is within the reach of everyone. What is required was knowledge about health and self-discipline regarding diet and other salubrious practices. Recommended practices included many that have fallen by the wayside but others that are still in use: “vegetarianism, phrenology, temperance,  water cure, sexual restraint, fresh air, and exercise.”  It was generally agreed that “tobacco, coffee, tea, alcohol, and sexual indulgence overstimulated the nervous system, leading to premature exhaustion and death.”

So if you eat right, avoid excess, and exercise you’ll live a long and healthy life. Many experts give essentially the same advice today. The nineteenth-century reformers differed from current thought in some ways, though. For one thing, there was the notion of a “natural death.” The person who took good care of him- or herself would not only live a long and healthy life; death itself would be better, once the time for that eventually came. The person would die naturally, which was thought of as “the orderly, peaceful culmination of a well-ordered life.” The person would die not of some disease but of old age itself, and death would be free of pain and anxiety. I don’t think anyone now makes such a promise; if you want to die without pain or anxiety, current thinking seems to go, don’t die a natural death. Use drugs instead.

Another way in which the nineteenth-century health enthusiasts differed from current health-promoters is that for them long life was not only desirable but was something everyone is morally obligated to pursue. Here, for example, are the words of the phrenologist Orson Fowler, writing in 1847:

“Each of us has but a single life to live. Hence…it should be spun out as long as the laws of nature will allow, and everything which tends either immediately or remotely to induce disease or shorten life, is, to all intents and purposes, murder or suicide.”

Offering guests sugar- and fat-laden sweets? Murder. Skipping the gym and instead being a couch potato? Suicide. Nutritionists and personal trainers nowadays can be nags, but at least they aren’t accusing us of homicide. Sure, injunctions to take care of ourselves are often accompanied by blaming and guilt-induction, but at least the message is toned down somewhat from the nineteenth-century version. That’s something to be thankful for.

Couch Potato: Doing Oneself In.

Couch Potato: Doing Oneself In.

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Amazing Love

Robertson McQuilkin. Image: Columbia International University

Robertson McQuilkin. Image: Columbia International University

I recently learned of the death of  Robertson McQuilkin, former president of Columbia Bible College and Seminary (now Columbia International University). He resigned from his post in 1990 to care fulltime for his wife, Muriel, who had Alzheimer’s.  He was 88. Thus, he must have been about 62 when he left the presidency of his institution. His wife died thirteen years after he resigned to care for her.

His story has interest to me because I left my full-time teaching position at age 64 to help care for my dad. I didn’t make as radical a change as McQuilkin did, since my mom was dad’s main caregiver and I just assisted with what she couldn’t do. I continued to work part-time. After two years, dad had deteriorated sufficiently so that this arrangement no longer worked. He spent the last three months of his life in a nursing home. What would it have been like to do what McQuilkin did and stop working entirely to care for someone? The limited change I made was nothing in comparison to his sacrifice.

McQuilkin said at the time that it was not a difficult decision. He cited his marriage vows, his promise to be there for his wife “in sickness and in health . . . till death do us part.” He also said the following, as quoted in Christianity Today’s notice of his death: “She had, after all, cared for me for almost four decades with marvelous devotion; now it was my turn. And such a partner she was! If I took care of her for 40 years, I would never be out of her debt.”

In his resignation speech at Columbia McQuilkin said “It’s not that I have to, it’s that I get to.” I, too, saw caring for dad as an opportunity rather than a burden–at least I did on my good days. On my bad days, I lost sight of the privilege it was to care for the man who did more than any other to shape who I am. McQuilkin said. “It’s a great honor to care for such a wonderful person.” My thoughts exactly.

What was it like for such a highly regarded professional to leave his career entirely–not just cut back, as I had done? Six years in he wrote the following:

“What some people find so hard to understand is that loving Muriel isn’t hard. They wonder about my former loves–like my work. A college freshman heard that I had resigned as president of Columbia International University to care for my wife. “Do you miss being president?” Scott asked as we sat in our little garden. I told him I’d never thought about it, but, on reflection, no. As exhilarating as my work had been, I enjoyed learning to cook and keep house. No, I’d never looked back” (Christianity Today, Feb 5, 1996)

Robertson McQuilkin, on behalf of caregivers everywhere, I salute you. We all aspire to show to those we care for the sort of unselfish love that you showed as you gave of yourself to Muriel.

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A Mentor From Hell

Dante and Virgil with Brunetto Latini. Gustave Doré

Dante and Virgil with Brunetto Latini. Gustave Doré

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, a mentor is “an experienced and trusted person who gives another person advice and help over a period of time.” We turn to mentors to get some sense of what lies ahead and how to handle it. Often a mentor is someone we hope to be like in the future. I have been a mentor to a number of college students and younger psychologists. I am going to be trained as a mentor for ex-prisoners. I’m looking for a retirement mentor to help me with the transition out of the workforce. We tend to think of mentorship as always being a good thing. Does everyone who acts as a mentor actually offer something valuable, though? Would we sometimes be better off rejecting the advice of someone who speaks with the voice of experience?

These questions came to mind while reading Rod Dreher’s How Dante Can Save Your Life, his account of the wisdom he gleaned from reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. As Dante is descending down through the levels of hell, he is surprised to encounter Brunetto Latini, a great Italian statesman and man of letters whom Dante had admired when Brunetto was alive. Brunetto speaks warmly to Dante, offering him fatherly advice. In particular, he advises Dante to follow his star, saying he will achieve success if he does so. Brunetto is essentially advising Dante to pursue his self-interest. The problem is that Brunetto is telling Dante to do as he had done when he was alive, and following that course had put him in hell. Dreher comments:

“Brunetto is a vain man, a writer and public intellectual who thought the way to pursue immortality was to serve his own cause in his work–and a spiritually blind teacher who, one suspects, sees Dante’s progress as an artist chiefly as a means to hitch himself to a rising star. For the damned, it is always about themselves.”

Dreher contrasts the path that Dante is learning with the one that Brunetto had taken during his life:

“Dante is beginning to see the world through spiritually renewed eyes, but Brunetto, in the eternal desert of hell, will always view things through the eyes of worldly glory. Brunetto thinks he sees clearly, but he is not the sort of man to question his own perception or the story that taught him what to look for in life.”

What kind of mentor should I try to be? Warmth, encouragement, and the gift of my time are all important, but, if the example of Brunetto is to be believed, they aren’t enough. In addition, I need to think in terms of what is best for the person, not just assume as did Brunetto that they should follow the course I took. It’s also essential that I have enough wisdom to point the way not to the shiny baubles of fame or wealth but instead to what has enduring value. Dreher suggests:

“How much happier would young people be if they began their careers thinking not of the fame, fortune, and glory they will receive from professional accomplishment but rather the good they can do for others.”

According to the Apostle Paul, nothing lasts forever except faith, hope, and love. I would like nothing more but to foster these qualities in those I have the privilege of mentoring.

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Look Around. Your Family Consists of–Surprise!–Complex Human Beings

I recently read Rod Dreher’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher wrote the book when he was struggling with depression resulting from family problems. Decades earlier he had moved away from his family in Louisiana and established a successful career as a writer, only to move back again following his sister Ruthie’s death from cancer. After his return, he was perturbed to learn that his sister had been highly critical of him to others. Another problem was that his father expected Rod to change everything that made him different from the rest of the family and was critical of him when he resisted. Rod was quite hurt that his family didn’t accept him as he was. At first, he thought that his dad and sister were entirely to blame. However, his reading of The Divine Comedy revealed that the situation was more complicated than it seemed.

I particularly like the following passage, conveying Dreher’s growing realization that the things he doesn’t like about his sister and dad are closely connected with what he values in them:

[A]ll that is best in my family cannot be easily separated from the worst. The Ruthie who trash-talked me behind my back for leaving home and getting above myself is the same Ruthie whose love of our Louisiana home and its people inspired me to return. The father whose steadfast refusal to recognize the limits and the harm of the family code and its ideology of family and place is the same father who made a good, loving home for Mama, Ruthie, and me. (p. 174)”

Both his sister and father valued close family bonds, tradition, and loyalty. These characteristics were appealing enough to Rob that he gave up his settled cosmopolitan life to return to Louisiana. However, these same qualities prompted Ruthie and his father to react negatively to Rod when in their judgment he failed to embody them.

Rod Dreher. Image from CNN.com

Rod Dreher. Image from CNN.com

Rod came to recognize that his sister and father weren’t all good or all bad, but were instead complex human beings who had both good and bad features. Each of us starts life unable to understand such complexity. The infant reacts to the parent as either all good (when that parent is meeting the child’s needs and wants) or all bad (when those needs and wants are being frustrated). Early on, the child can’t see both sides, but flips from “mommy is good” to “mommy is bad” and back again, depending on what mommy has done most recently. Some people never get past such part-person perceptions. Learning to see the whole person, including both liked and disliked qualities, takes psychological maturity, and that takes time. In midlife, Rod was achieving that maturity.

I wrote earlier that “we all need to recognize that there is more to our parents than their parental role if we are to fully be more than just their children.” Dreher’s point is much broader than this. With all family members–not just our parents–we need to see them in all their complexity. They have both good and bad qualities, qualities we like and qualities we don’t like. And many of their qualities, as with Dreher’s father and sister, are neither totally good or totally bad, but have both negative and positive aspects.

In one sense, we don’t want to see all these nuances. We, like Dreher, wish that things were simpler:

What I expected, it was becoming clear, was a return to the innocence and wonder of childhood. I wanted to regain that sense of primal unity with my family, where things were rightly ordered by my father, and to climb into daddy’s lap with Ruthie at day’s end and feel loved and secure. (p. 174)”

Such childhood relationships probably never were as straightforward as we imagine them to have been, and, even if they were, we can’t go back to the former simplicity. I lived most of my adult life several hours away from my parents and siblings, and at such distance it was easy to ignore their faults and appreciate their strengths. My views of them didn’t change much during all that period. For almost four years now, I’ve spent most of my time back in the house where I grew up, helping my parents and having more contact with my brother and sister than I had had for years. As with Dreher, once I was in closer proximity to the family I noticed more faults, shortcomings, and oddities in everyone. I noticed more good qualities as well. I remind myself that I wasn’t the only one who saw more detail when the distance diminished; my faults, shortcomings, and oddities became much more visible to them as well.

My relationships with family members have grown more since I returned home than they did in the years I was away. That’s only been possible to the extent that, with Dreher, I see each family member as the complex human being that he or she is. I hope I’ll continue to be able to accept them for who they are, and hope they have the grace to do the same for me.


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