I’ve been pondering the
question lately: How much of life do we really control? We tend
to think that we are in charge of lots of things. And then our
teenager starts acting bizarre, a parent develops memory issues,
we see our net worth cut in half and so forth.
If we are truly honest
with ourselves, we are amazed at how little control we actually
exert upon much in our lives. Yes, we plan things. We do things
that give us the feeling that we are making progress on our list
of objectives in life, but it always seems that at every corner
there is something that will force us to recalibrate success or
think through what is truly important, all reminders of how vulnerable
we are. Occurances that randomly say to us: "sorry,
you don't have the power you thought you had." I am thinking
this morning about a couple, life long friends from days of study
together in Switzerland and Oxford. Recently, both of them have
faced serious battles with cancer, repeated challenges of virulent
mold in their house requiring them to vacate, and job uncertainty,
just to name a few of their array of difficult problems. These
are wonderfully kind and intelligent people wanting to make a difference
in our crazy world. So why them? Why now? What control do they
actually have over anything happening to them?
One of my favorite
books is Man's Search for Meaning, penned by Holocaust survivor
and psychiatrist Victor Frankl. His thesis, formed from observations
acculmulated during his time in Nazi death camps, was that man
has little if any control over circumstances. But—and this is a big but—you do have control over
your attitude toward what is happening to you. This observation
about one’s attitude became Frankl’s means of survival.
Attitude and mindset are a part of one’s interior landscape,
safe from intrusion.
So back to the initial question: how much of
life can we really control? The answer is… I am not totally
sure. Upon consideration, one could conclude that the best strategy
when facing challenges is to hide until the storm passes. And yet
it doesn't seem to work that way. So we get back to Frankl's notion
of attitude and mindset.
All of us have met people who are living
with incredible challenges and yet seem to be at peace, grateful
Thanks to good friend and former Congressman
Don Bonker and Ambassador Erlan Idrissov from Kazakhstan we recently
screened the film, A Gift to Stalin. This quite remarkable independent
film demonstrates the truth that great humanity and deep human
care can indeed exist in the very midst of the most awful of circumstances.
The film artfully shows how all of us are tested and are forced
to make decisions that require us to consider who we are and what
we believe. Many circumstances are not of our making (some certainly
are), but all must be lived into and sorted out. Will they destroy
us or make us better people? The film highlighted how beliefs influence
attitudes and ultimately actions. The key figures in the film repeatedly
faced and dealt with situations that could break the human spirit,
and yet, just like my two friends struggling with cancer, these
people kept looking forward, thankful to live another day.
do we develop a mindset that enables us to withstand the inevitable
storms of life? In my view, drawing upon a solid belief system
rooted in a living faith is usually a good starting point. As the
philosopher Nietzsche mused: "He who has a why can
endure any how." So the question for me and for you is this:
What is our why? Why are we living? Why are we giving? Why are
we caring for family and friends? Why are we building companies
and giving money away? Why do we forgive others? Why do we try
to help those in need? I recall former Senator Mark Hatfield asking
Mother Teresa how she remained hopeful with the daunting challenge
of working with the ‘untouchables’ in Indian society.
Her reply was rooted in her own why: Because every human being
is a child of God and deserves to be cared for if only for a few
hours before they fade from life.
Mother Teresa had a clear why. How
about the counterpoint to such a 'highminded' why? If you recall
any of the writings of the 15th century political theorist Machiavelli,
you will remember his notion that the "ends justify the means". He and Mother Teresa
would not be happy with one another if they were to share a glass
of wine. He had a very cynical approach to politics and many see
his work The Prince as the basis of modern politics. He had a much
debased view of character in opposition to the classical affirmations
of humanity and goodness that were found in Plato and in the Hebrew
scriptures. His perspective was rooted in a view (or why) that
efficiency and success were the true goals of governing, and he
saw leaders as cunning and self-centered with an eye toward their
own self interest. His conclusion was that virtuous character is
totally irrelevant since it can (sometimes) stand in the way of
desired results. Whew! That is hard to take in. I suspect this
guiding philosophy works well for a season. Imagine then trying
to live with yourself in the aftermath of such a self-centered
approach to life…and then consider your end drawing near
and leaving such a self-centered legacy to your heirs?
Many of us
have a theoretical why that is based upon personal histories and
experience yet have never actually been tested real time. Typically
a wake-up call occurs (you name it...health issue, child or marital
issue, financial crisis, depression, etc.) It is then in our terror
that we look for a worldview or set of beliefs that helps us make
sense of our new circumstance. The why question is no longer academic
but vital and deeply personal. And frankly, this is often a good
thing. How many times has someone said, "I
would never have wanted to go through what I endured, but having
survived it, I am no longer afraid and think I am a better person." Ironic,
huh? But at such moments we discover the real why of our lives.
following poem written by a young, unknown Confederate soldier
demonstrates a quite amazing capacity to see the value in understanding
that once we go beyond what we can see and control, there is a
solid why that carries us. carpe diem. Doug
I asked for strength that I might achieve;
I was made weak that I
might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for help that I might do greater
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches
that I might be happy;
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I
might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness that I might feel
the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that
I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for but everything
I hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among
all men most richly blessed.