A Life of One’s Own

One of the most influential books in my life is Marion Milner’s A Life of One’s Own1. Milner was a British Psychoanalyst. She lived from February 1, 1900 (we share a birthday) to May 29, 1998. When Milner was 27 years old, she began keeping a record of “what kinds of experience” made her happy. Seven years later, Milner published her findings and described her method:

(a) “To pick out those moments in my daily life which had been particularly happy and try to record them in words.”
(b) “To go over these records in order to see whether I could discover any rules about the condition in which happiness occurred.” 

Regarding her enterprise she said, “The need for such a method in these days is obvious, a method for discovering one’s true likes and dislikes, for finding and setting up a standard of values that is truly one’s own and not a borrowed mass-produced ideal.” I’m guessing, if this was true in the years 1926-1934, it may be truer today as we’re bombarded with ideas about how we should live and how we should think. Do we know what we like? Do we know what we think? Do we know what makes us happy? Or have we embraced some sort of “mass-produced ideal” and simply absorbed what others believe we should think.   

Milner did not write a book about how to be happy. Instead, she presents a methodology in which we can discover what makes us happy and to find our own life. She moves the emphasis from the common self-help approach of “you must do this” and asks the better question “what happens if you do this?” — and then became attentive to the results. You become an observer of your own life and gather raw data from your “lived” experience and your senses verses the conscious or unconscious acceptance of the way everyone around you thinks or lives.

Her approach is certainly not a rejection of learning from others, but a way to make our own thoughts and feelings part of the learning process verses the quick run to a book or the expert. We can think too!2

Her starting point was observing and recording.3 What do I think? How do I feel? What do I like? What do I dislike? What causes me anxiety? What preoccupies me? What brings me happiness? What do I want? The objective is to gain a better understanding of who we are, what values are important to us, what do we believe, and what is our opinion instead of borrowing these values from everyone else. It’s important to have “A Life of One’s Own”. 

A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley. All quotations is this post are from this book.

2Obviously Milner was not promoting a lack of learning or study as she was extremely well-educated with a thriving career as a psychoanalyst.

3 This is not a quick process: Milner’s effort took seven years, several hundred pages to summarize, and along the way – involved “doubts, delays, and expeditions of false trails”.

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There Must Be Some Way Out of Here

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.” (Gandhi)

The Lyrics from Bob Dylan’s 1967 All Along the Watchtower1 sound like a haunting commentary of 2020:

“‘There must be some way out of here,’ said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.'”

A year later, Jimi Hendrix infused this song with some sort of unexplainable energy that created a time warp and slowed the rotation of the earth — while adding even more power to these prophetic lyrics. As Hendrix played, you could hear “the wind began to howl”. And somehow, mystically, we knew the growling wildcat was no longer “outside in the distance” but close by and silent. STOP! LISTEN!

In 2020, some see only futility: “There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.” But, All Along the Watchtower also possesses an optimism in its less quoted lines:

But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate”

The way of 2020 is not our fate. This brings me to the book of Isaiah and a simple line hidden away in its 66 chapters:

Your builders outdo your destroyers. (Isaiah 49 – NRSV)

In today’s world, it can feel like “the destroyers” are winning. Certainly, the damage is immense and in no way do I want to minimize the tragedies that have happened and the obstacles we face. But I also say:

Our builders will outdo our destroyers.

We see COVID ravaging our country and many other parts of the world. But I say, we will see the triumph of the human spirit, the human body, science, and common courtesy and respect.

Our builders will outdo our destroyers.

We watch our politics and wonder if we can find the truth. Can we even have a fair election? But I say: Our builders will outdo our destroyers. Democracy will once again prevail and enough people will see enough truth to put us back on track.

We see violence and hear of warnings of more violence. The horrible sins of racism and discrimination are once again becoming brazen. And the destroyers seem to be winning again, but I say:

Our builders will outdo our destroyers and “love your neighbor” will triumph.

Support builders! Celebrate builders! Be a builder! Choose the way of “truth and love” and we will “outdo the destroyers”.

We know the destroyers: “for a time, . . . can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”

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1All Along the Watchtower. Album: John Wesley Harding. Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-1985 (p. 262). Knoff Publishing. 1973, 1985.

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A Place and a Name

In 2009, we traveled to Israel. We had a private tour guide for this trip. At the end of the first day, Abram (pronounced Avram) said, “you seem like an open-minded people: I can give you the Catholic Tour, the Protestant Tour, or I can show you Israel (and make sure you see the important Christian sites)”. We opted for plan three.

We fit easily into a mini-van. This gave us incredible flexibility as we made stops since we didn’t have wait for 60 people to unload and load back onto a tour bus for each site. We spent the next 10 days traveling with and listening to the wisdom of Abram. He was in his early 70s and seemed to have more energy than all of us combined. Abram lived in Israel since 1948. He served in the military as an officer, spent years in business, and then became a tour guide in retirement — a position requiring two additional years of training. He possessed a rich set of experiences and wealth of knowledge about the country he lived in for the past 60 years.

On one of our stops was Yad Vashem: The Holocaust Museum. Prior to this, Janet and I had also been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Janet noted the museum’s goal in Washington D.C. was to, as much as possible, connect you with the experiences of those who went through the Holocaust.

At Yad Vashem, as a non-Jew, you were an “outsider”. As you walk through the museum, you see the mounting evidence that much of the world was complicit with the Holocaust. The world knew what was happening and refused to take action. Certainly, Israel held the Nazi’s responsible for the death of six million Jewish people, but they also held the rest of the world accountable for letting it happen.

We each went through Yad Vashem at our own pace. Abram did not go through the museum each time he did a tour. It was too painful since he had lost family in the Holocaust. When I came near the end of the main museum, Abram stopped me. “David, I want to show you something.” He took me into a circular room. “In here is the name of every Jew who died in the Holocaust. That’s why they call the museum ‘Yad Vashem’ — a ‘place and a name’. Here, we remember and honor all those we know who were lost in the Holocaust.”

“Follow me!”

Abram said, “Now look back down the hall of the museum.” He explained the architecture is very important. It represents a tunnel. The beginning was narrow and widens as you go through the museum. As you progress through the museum the rooms on each side of the hallway also get larger. You are also walking up an incline.

“Follow me!”

We walk to the edge of the “tunnel” to a majestic view overlooking all Jerusalem. Abram said, “You see David, as a people, we were in a very dark tunnel, but we have come out of this tunnel. As we exit the tunnel, we pause to remember those we lost. You saw the room where the names are kept. The museum is ‘Yad Vashem’: ‘A place and a name.’ We remember the past, but we are not people of the past. We do not stay in the tunnel. We are people of the future“.

And then he turned and directed my attention to the spectacular view overlooking Jerusalem. “Now you know why we don’t count on the rest of the world. We learned we couldn’t count on them. This is why we invest so much in education, science, and agriculture. We have to care for ourselves.”

I have been profoundly influenced by Victor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, my trip to Washington DC, Yad Vashem, Abram, and once again, this week, as I’m finishing a remarkable book by Holocaust survivor, Dr. Edith Eger: The Choice. It’s essentially the same message: We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can choose how to respond.

At some point (or periodically) we face a very big question in life: Do I remain a prisoner/victim of the past or do I take a responsibility for my life and choose a different response to what happened? We do have a Choice!

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My thanks goes to Victor Frankl and Edith Egers for publishing their remarkable stories. Thanks to Abram for sharing his wisdom and insight. A special thanks to my daughter and son-in-law (Lindsay and Dave) who provided not only the trip of a lifetime, but in ten days, the education of a lifetime.

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Do You Want to be a Prophet?

The prophetic voice speaks with insight about our present reality. It finds hope in the midst of chaos. It finds the chaos and deception in perceived stability. While I call it the “prophetic voice”, it doesn’t always “speak”. You will find it in books, movies, and art. The most likely place you will find it is in poetry and music. For example, much of the prophetic literature in the Bible is communicated through poetry.1 Poetry is a powerful medium reaching beyond our intellectual reasoning to engage our emotions and imaginations.

And our regret has remained unconfessed.
Novels and essays serve but will not last.
One clear stanza
[of poetry] can take more weight
Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.2

When I talk about a prophetic voice, I’m not talking about predicting the future. It’s not necessarily religious. The prophetic voice is not possessed by an elite few — it’s more common than you think. Most of the prophets I know don’t even know they’re prophets. Intellectual study may provide background, but you can’t “learn” your way to having a prophetic voice. It’s usually developed and cultivated in silence, solitude, and trials, but most of all by “listening”, paying attention, and reflection.

The prophetic voice may communicate a warning, but encouragement, hope, and transformation typically lie beneath the surface. Many times the prophetic voice reinterprets the prophetic voice of the past and applies it to a modern context. The inability to reinterpret is why much modern day preaching and teaching is sterile. If Jesus had bound himself to the hermeneutical laws governing some of today’s preaching, we probably wouldn’t listen to his words today. Reinterpretation, of course, is not a license for ignorance or carelessness, but it is infused with imagination and grasps what’s happening in the “real world” to “real people”.

The prophetic voice will ultimately encounter opposition in one form or another. The prophetic voice will be ignored, stifled, attacked, silenced, or ridiculed. But this can be where the prophetic voice becomes strengthened and sharpened if it doesn’t shrink back. The opposition itself awakens the power of the prophetic voice.

Then the prophetic voice:

Speaks Courageously
I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me
3

Is Prepared and Persistent
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
4

Exposes Violence and Injustice
I count no one, hold nobody’s ear
I sold you my hand once and you hit me in fear
I don’t stand for the devil
I don’t whisper in ears
I stand on the mountains and call people to hear
5

Shrewdly Conveys the Truth
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies . . .
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
6

Avoids Agendas
Well I’m the enemy of treason
Enemy of strife
I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life
I ain’t no false prophet
I just know what I know
I go where only the lonely can go
7

Learns to Filter Out the Garbage
And I listened because I hadn’t found my own voice yet
So all I could hear was the noise that
People make when they don’t know shit
But I didn’t know that yet
8

Of course, you need to find your “own voice” before you can properly find your “prophetic voice”. Once you find your own voice, your prophetic voice will be honed by listening, reflection, the arts, and your own trials. You will discard agendas and refuse to simply be the voice of others. Then you will shape your “own” message rooted in the prophetic tradition.

The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
    the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
    wakens my ear
    to listen as those who are taught.
9

1 Notice the poetic typeset in much of the Prophets, Psalms, and Revelation.
2 Cheslaw Milosz. A Treatise on Poetry. 2001. Translation Robert Hass. HarperCollins Publishers Inc. New York.
3 Leonard Cohen. Anthem. The Essential Leonard Cohen. 2002. Columbia, Sony, Legacy.
4 Bob Dylan. A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Columbia Records. 1963.
5 Laura Marling. Night After Night. A Creature I Don’t Know. 2011. Virgin Records. Producer: Ethan Johns.
6 Emily Dickinson: Tell all the truth, but tell it slant —
7 Bob Dylan. False Prophet. Rough and Rowdy Ways. 2020. Columbia Records.
8Fiona Apple. Fetch the Bolt Cutters (song and album). Epic Records. 2020.
9Isaiah 50.4. Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches. HarperCollins Publishers.

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What Do I Want?

“ANY CULTURE TELLS YOU HOW TO LIVE your one and only life: to wit, as everyone else does.”  — Annie Dillard1

“What Do I Want?” is not a conversation I could have had with myself as a child or even for a significant period of my adult life. I grew up with a shame-based core2 and lived in an impoverished world: not impoverished financially, although there was some of that, but impoverished in mindset. While I had a vibrant imagination and dreams, I wasn’t capable of designing an executable vision or purpose beyond the horizon of my present circumstances. Even if I could see a better future, I didn’t believe I “deserved” a better life because of the limiting effects of shame. Instead of seeing myself equal to others, I was “programmed” to believe I belonged near the “bottom rungs of the ladder of success”. Success in my situation was staying off the bottom rung where the so-called “losers” were.

When you start at this place in life, people relate to you in a way that reinforces shame. This reinforcement came from teachers, neighbors, other kids, and even family members. You also “teach” people not to respect you because you don’t know how to command respect from others — or feel you even deserve respect. (I’m also fortunate. I had influences in my life telling me I was more than my circumstances and they believed in me. Much of this wouldn’t take root until later in life, but it mattered more than they know.)

When I was 21, I became a Christian (or embraced Christianity at a much deeper level). I had an unfathomable transformation of my life. In this “mystical” conversation, I was accepted by God, restored to my true self, and released from shame. I was fueled with a desire to grow and become something more in life. The vast majority of this transformation, God did independent of human intervention. I still can’t fully explain this experience. I just know it happened.

I used to try and reflect on how much God did for me. I gradually realized God didn’t do that much for me other than the abundant grace he gives many of us. He did something better. He released me from the shame-based prison and the impoverished mindset saying, “Now live your life!” I didn’t fully understand what he was doing at the time and was drawn back into the familiar world of shame. The return to shame came shortly after my “conversion” when I became fundamental/evangelical Christian. (Note: As I continue with my story, these are my experiences and how I intersected with the fundamentalist/evangelical culture. I’m not intending this as a commentary on either of these overlapping cultures.)

I experienced a number of positives from evangelical/fundamental Christianity, but there was also a “dark side” to my experience. The perpetuation of shame along with the belief that we don’t deserve anything better in life was “Christianized” and reinforced. This was compounded by accepting “powerlessness” as you should “wait on God” and trust leaders instead of taking action to manage your own life. You should also acquiesce to the whims and selfish behavior of others including leaders. This acquiescence was bolstered by the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself”. You shouldn’t think for yourself because the Bible has all the answers. (Technically, you could “think for yourself” as long as you arrived at the same conclusions as the leaders and doctrines of the church.)

The creative self was regarded as selfish and unnecessary, unless it fit within the rigid definitions of what constituted “art”. The suppression of art chipped away at personhood. Ultimately, I found my experience with the fundamental/evangelical culture very similar to the shame-based world of my childhood. You’re powerless to change your life, but it added a “spiritual” and authoritarian element to help you become and remain powerless.

An essential part of the human existence, including Christianity, is to appropriately ask “What do I want?” and “What do I want from God?” and “How should I live my life?” Here are a few things I learned along the way:

Figure out what I really want:
“For what is really easy, as I found, is to blind one’s eyes to what one really likes, to drift into accepting one’s wants ready-made from other people, and to evade the continual day to day sifting of values.3

Find a healthy culture, but preserve your identify:
A “culture” can be healthy or unhealthy or some combination of both. A healthier culture has a symbiotic relationship that benefits the “we” and frees and preserves the “me”. A healthy culture will ultimately help you find your identity, not absorb it.

God is interested in what I want:
Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.
(Psalm 37:4)4

Find our own life, no matter how wonderful our present circumstances are:
John Quincy Adams had remarkable parents (John and Abigail Adams), yet, he didn’t simply want their life. He saw things differently and had the confidence to pursue it: “The family I am in, presents as perfect a scene of happiness, as I ever saw: a life of Tranquility is to them a life of bliss. It could not be so to me. Variety is my Theme. and Life to me is like a journey, in which an unbounded plain, looks dull and insipid; while it affords greater pleasure to be surrounded by a beautiful valley. altho’ steep and rugged mountains must be overcome, before it can be got at. I know not whether my Choice is the wisest” and it is possible I may live to change it; but such it is, at present.”  (Emphasis mine) 5

Break the rules: When we’re exploited or beaten down, break the “invisible rules” that oppress us and fight for ourselves:

I’m taking more risks now
I’m stepping out of line
I put up my fists now 
Until I get what’s mine  (Laura Marling)6 

There are times where it’s important to stand up for ourselves.

Ask God for what you want: (Just don’t assume God will do for you what you can do for yourself, but he will bless your effort.)

Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm!” And God granted what he asked. (I Chronicles 4.10)

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7.7-8)7

Find Our Own Voice: One of the greatest contributions to our own lives and to others is to find our own voice. People want to hear from YOU. In this remarkable Old Testament poem, at a time of oppression, freedom and egalitarianism break through:

Woman
of the gardens,
of the voice
friends listen for,
will you let me hear you?
8

Your life belongs to you, not someone else. Figuring out what you want out of life is not selfish. It’s part of being human and it’s part of being a Christian. I encourage you to become YOU!

Notes
1 Annie Dillard: The Abundance. Narrative Essays Old and New. This is the Life. HarperCollins Publishers. p. 117.
2 “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Brene Brown: The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden Publishing. Center City, MN. 2010. p 39.
3 A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley.
4 Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches. HarperCollins Publishers.
5 John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779-1821. David Waldstreicher, editor. The Library of America. Penguin Random House.
6 Laura Marling. Short Movie. How Can I. 2015. Virgin Records. Producers: Laura Marling, Matt Ingram, Dan Cox.

7 Holy Bible. New Revised Standard Version. 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches. HarperCollins Publishers.
8 The Song of Songs. Marcia Lee Falk. HarperCollins. 1990. Poem translated from the Song of Songs by Marcia Lee Falk.

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