The Prison of the Self

imagesWhat is the common characteristic of life’s failures?  What do neurotics, psychotics, criminals, perverts, problem children, and other misfits have in common?

All of life’s failures are failures simply because they have not been able to get beyond themselves.  They are self-centered and lack social interest.

Most of the evils of mankind would not be possible if the ego did not persuade us that we were somehow different, somehow better, somehow more precious than others.  It is the ego that draws the line between “us” and “them” and deludes us into thinking we can go it alone.  It is our ego that leads us to believe that we can live untouched by the problems that plague the rest of humanity or that our problems are of a different magnitude, severity, or degree.

At its worst, the ego can persuade us that our smallest desires are more important than someone else’s life, the gratification of our immediate needs more important than another’s well-being, or that our view of the way the world should be is more important than the integrity of nations and the lives of thousands.

Conversely, John Ruskin observed, the first test of a truly great man is humility. “I do not mean by humility doubt of his own powers,” Ruskin said. “But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not in them but through them.  And they see something Divine in every other man.”

Ego is the enemy.  It keeps us apart. Any activity based on ego and human ambition is a delusion and an obstacle to grace.  Ego separates us from those we love and those who love us. It imprisons us in ourselves.

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Mother Teresa’s Legacy

images“The very fact that God has placed a certain soul in your way is a sign that God wants you to do something for them,” Mother Teresa said. Her order, The Missionaries of Charity, was founded on this truth. I am one of those who can testify to its power.

I had the privilege of meeting Mother Teresa in l985 when she was in Washington for the opening of one of her homes. I had some vague notion of helping her raise money for her work. To my surprise she didn’t seem at all interested in what I could do for her. Without exaggeration, I can say that one meeting changed my life

But my contact with Mother Teresa was incidental compared to that of Bob Macauley, founder of AmeriCares. Bob worked with her on many occasions.

On one of these occasions a few years before she died, Bob was on a plane with her on the way to visit one of her homes in South America. They were seated side by side in the coach section of a regional jet, this powerful, but small lady and a massive man – Bob was 6’ 4” – with about l00 other passengers.

Shortly after the flight took off, the cabin attendants began meal service. When the attendant came to Mother Teresa she held up her hand.

“How much does this meal cost?” she asked.

The attendant said she didn’t know exactly, but probably about $5 American.

Mother said, “If I don’t eat the meal, can I have the $5 for the poor?”

The attendant did not know how to respond. She said she would have to ask someone. Dutifully, she went forward and reported Mother Teresa’s request to the pilot who then contacted the company representative on the ground.

In a few minutes, the attendant returned with the happy news. “Yes, Mother, you may have the money for the poor.”

Mother Teresa smiled and returned her tray. Bob immediately followed her example and handed his tray back, as well.  In short order, everyone on the plane followed suit.

“I thought we had done pretty well,” Bob said, “until we got off the plane. Then Mother Teresa turned to me and said, ‘Get the food, Bob.’”

When Bob asked her what she meant, she said, “The airline can’t use it now. Get the food and we will take it to the poor.”

Bob found the airline’s representative and repeated Mother Teresa’s request. In a few minutes, he returned with the news they had agreed to let her have the unused food as well.

“Now get the trucks, Bob,” Mother Teresa said.

When he looked puzzled, she explained, “We can’t deliver the food without trucks. Ask if we can use their trucks to deliver the food to the poor.”

Bob often told this story to illustrate how focused and relentless Mother was in her service to the poor.   “We create poverty,” she said, “because we will not share.”

“The greatest challenge of the day,” Dorothy Day wrote, “is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.”  Mother Teresa understood that challenge and sought in her quiet way to spark that effort.

There can only be one Mother Teresa, but her truth speaks to us all. God has given each of us the capacity to achieve some end necessary to others.  Each of us has the power to increase the sum of the world’s happiness.

Every little deed counts.  Peace begins with a smile.  Salvation can be found in the simple act of extending a hand.  The humblest among us can, by shear act of will, help create heaven on earth.

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Tuning Out

I wrote about a news story I saw last week (see below). The bodies of an elderly couple were discovered when the sheriff’s department showed up to evict them from their home. The story really touched me and I just wanted to write about it. Anyway, not sure if you take contributions to your blog, but if you do and if you like it, please feel free to share.

Jamie White


Tuning Out

 On Thursday, October 2, 2014, just after 1 PM, deputies from the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s office repeatedly knocked on the door of a townhome in a quiet subdivision. There to serve an eviction, deputies forcibly entered the premises but too late to save the elderly couple inside. The septuagenarians died in what police believe was a murder-suicide. The husband was dead on the scene from a self-inflicted gunshot wound and his wife died later at a nearby hospital, also from a gunshot.

I began searching local news sites to find out more. I wanted to know if the couple had children and grandchildren or neighbors – somebody shocked and saddened and outraged about their deaths. I turned up with almost nothing on that front. However, several folks had also been touched by the news and posted comments after the story ran on a local paper’s online site. A common thread among the comments highlighted a growing lack of compassion for others, especially those struggling to survive. I’m not sure I totally agree with this sentiment. I really believe that most people are fundamentally good and very compassionate. I have no choice but to believe this since I have been the recipient of radical kindness and generosity many times. Perhaps the couple’s tragic demise does not illustrate the callousness of our society but something else entirely.

In initial reports, none of the neighbors interviewed even knew the couple and were completely unaware of their apparent financial struggles. I live in a neighboring county and I am ashamed to say that I only saw the story on our local news because I was waiting for the Wendy Williams Show to begin, so I could fill myself with a daily dose of celebrity gossip and a BLT. I rarely watch the news because it can be super depressing and anxiety provoking. But I’m glad I was watching last Thursday. I’m glad my eyes were wide open to what’s happening around me. I would venture a guess that many people are also “tuned out” to varying degrees. Not necessarily on purpose either. We are busy working and attending school and raising children and caring for aging parents and trying hard not to have eviction notices tacked to our own doors. But being so occupied with our own problems and desires sometimes means not seeing our neighbors, not seeing the needs around us.

Maybe today a stranger on the bus needs me to stop texting and have an encouraging conversation with them. Perhaps a co-worker needs me to ask how they are doing (and really mean it). A neighbor might be immensely grateful for some homemade cookies left on her doorstep. An elderly relative might need me to listen patiently and attentively as they share a favorite memory and show me old photographs (again).

I don’t know all the details of the couple’s story. Besides the humiliation of having their personal belongings set out on the curb to be picked through by onlookers and the threat of being homeless, they may have been facing myriad obstacles. But I just hate that they felt so alone and so hopeless that a brutal death was the best option. I suppose I don’t want their deaths to be meaningless. I want to remember them and others like them whose names I don’t know. The only solution I’ve come up with is to resist the urge each day to tune out.

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What’s Real?

images-1Everything material emerged from the immaterial. Every building is constructed on a design. Every design is based on an idea.

As Emerson observed, “thoughts rule the world.” A thought precedes every action, change, or motion.

In this world, things only have the value we give them. There is no intrinsic value to the jewelry we wear, the cars we drive, the things we buy, or the coin and currency we use to make these transactions. The value of these things is supported by faith and a belief system that provides a symbolic value where there inherently is none. In different cultures, the same value is assigned to a different symbolic currency.

The words we use to describe things are as inexact and conceptual as the things they describe. In other words, the words we use to describe things are not the things they represent. Words merely stand imperfectly for the things they represent in our minds.

Much of the confusion of our day-to-day conversations is a result of this process. The word “table” conjures up a flat surface supported by legs, but the image that comes to mind – the shape of the surface, the contour, height and even number of legs – is determined by our expectation and experience. Yet, when we say the word ‘table’ we all assume we are seeing the same thing.

We have it reversed. The material is immaterial. What is real is not what we can see but what we sense. Buildings crumble. Success fades. Flesh decays. We are not immortal, but our thoughts are.

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Independence Day

searchMost of us are descendants of people who have come to America from some other place. Many endured great hardships to do so, leaving everything familiar behind, taking with them only the clothes on their backs, a few meager belongings and their hopes and dreams.

You have to wonder – what is so compelling?

Patrick Henry said it was the greatest of all earthly blessings – liberty, which John Adams defined “as to be the power to do as we would be done by.”

In paraphrasing the Golden Rule to define liberty, Adams makes a fundamental point. Ours is the first society to define itself in terms of both spirituality and human liberty.

De Tocqueville said it this way:

“The American character is the result of two distinct elements, which in other places have been in frequent hostility, but which in America have been admirably incorporated and combined with one another. I allude to the spirit of religion and the spirit of Liberty. Religion never more surely establishes its empire than when it reigns in the hearts of men unsupported by aught beside its native strength. Liberty regards religion as its companion in all its battles and its triumphs – as the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims. It considers religion as the safeguard of morality, and morality as the best security of law and the surest pledge of the duration of freedom.”

The same understanding led Thomas Jefferson to say, “If there ever was a holy war, it was the one that saved our liberties and gave us independence,” and justified Benjamin Franklin’s claim, “Our cause is the cause of all mankind.”

Liberty is not just an idea, an abstract principle.  Liberty is power – the power to do specific things, the power of acting.  Therein lies much of the secret of America’s success. The more liberty a nation can claim, the more powerful it becomes.

“Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in us,” President Lincoln said.  “Our defense is in the spirit which primed liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere. Destroy this spirit and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your door.”

The spirit of liberty is the key. Judge Learned Hand said it this way:

“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other man and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him, who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten: that there is a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.”

It is that spirit we celebrate today. Happy Independence Day!

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