The next level

One time I read a book, a best-seller in the self-help genre, in which despite many good ideas being dispensed, the author seemed to have an awfully short fuse with his children. It turned me off to the point where I almost didn’t finish the book.

I expect abstract truths to result in contentment and practical wisdom. I expect the understanding of platitudes to make for a better life. And when I hear a sermon, I expect myself to be a better person for what I’ve learned.

In that regard, I’ve decided it’s time to level up.  The difficult experiences we’ve had in life need to count for something, and we have all had plenty from which to learn. Recently, I reflected on some of the more harrowing moments of my life.

  • The time I was eight years old and was put on a bus from North Carolina to Georgia. This included a stop in Charlotte where I couldn’t find my ticket and tearfully thought that would mean I’d forever be stranded.
  • A night in a seedy motel in which my mother passed out from a handful of barbiturates while my brother and I tried to occupy ourselves for more than a day.
  • Many times when my father’s voice and fists came violently thundering down on the people who I depended on for my welfare.

I’ve long since come to understand these situations for what they were. I appreciate the perspective they have given me, the ability to empathize with others, and the inoculation from any temptation to similar chemical excess. In the last 15 years, I’ve also learned there’s a difference between survival and truly living.

It’s time, though, to ascend to the next level. If we don’t fully learn from our past, we do dishonor to the Providence who trusted us to be big enough and wise enough to derive all we could from our circumstances.

How might that look? It would look like worrying less about how I might appear and more about what I do. It would mean becoming more stingy about giving time to the negativity and trivial matters which so occupy our world. (I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis said: “Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it’, while really it is finding its place in him.”) It would mean being there for others even if it requires sacrifice of comfort and money.

The reward for this conscious effort to level up is the integrity of matching what I believe to how I live. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about a repentance from a prodigal life. I’m already pretty straight-laced by most standards. But we should raise a red flag on ourselves if we begin to get satisfied with our current state.

I want to take more time each day for being grateful; to be a better listener; to give a smile and maybe a hug to someone who could use it; to offer help to a young person who could use someone to review his or her resume and offer suggestions; to let my co-workers know how much I appreciate them; to tell my children I love them.

This business of becoming your best self is delicate. Push too hard and you miss out on the beauty of grace. Enjoy too much comfort and you fall short. Only you know when you have the capacity to be better, to have your words and deeds and thoughts match. The good news is that the opportunity is never lost, always coming around again. For me, that is now.




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