Tag Archives: Dallas Willard

2012: A year in books

I haven’t blogged much lately. Most of what I’ve written in the past five months has filled the first half of my journal and the margins of the books I have read. This post is a digest of those books.

Books, some readIn 2012, I discovered that reading is more enjoyable as a hobby than as a job (big surprise). As a student for 16 years, I learned to resent the books that were assigned to me for book reports, essays and those dreaded Accelerated Reader (AR) tests. I watched as my hobby became points on a chart, grades and boxes to check. Most books I read during high school and college were left unfinished or skimmed at the last minute to meet deadlines and find quotes. Of the photo to the left, I probably finished a few.

Since finishing books wasn’t much of a priority, I did a little happy dance for each of the first three books I finished last year: another milestone. The authors of these books have since inspired me to read more authors in new fields. Following their suggestions has made for a delightful rabbit hole full of entertaining stories and thoughtful prose. These books have also reminded me that my childhood was full of days spent lost in the joy of books. I am thankful, once again, to be a reader.

This is the list of books I read in 2012. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s a first for me and hopefully a sign of good things to come. Enjoy:

Isaiah

I still have a hard time spelling the word, Isaiah. Every time I write it, I have to sound it out and double-check. After spending almost a year reading this book of Old Testament prophecy, that just about sums up my knowledge of the book as well. While I didn’t always know the context of the prophecy, I appreciated the content of each chapter and verse. Often, Isaiah caught me off guard with romanticized highs and lows. What was once beautiful is destroyed, the place we loved has been defiled, and great skill has been corrupted by great delusion. I could say more, but it’s probably best to read it yourself. Along the way, this book inspired me to write two blog posts: “Delusions” and “Haunted Houses.”

The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I read this book last year. It’s not that I’m ashamed of the book, it’s more that I’m ashamed at my lifestyle. While I read and appreciated this book (strong recommendation), I’m just barely beginning to apply the spiritual disciplines to my life. As Willard writes, “If we refuse to practice, it is not God’s grace that fails when a crisis comes, but our own nature. When crisis comes, we ask God to help us, but He cannot if we have not made our nature our ally.” This book inspired me to write a blog post about silence: “Our Haunted Selves.”

Integrity: The Courage to Meet the Demands of Reality, Dr. Henry Cloud

My grandfather, Orville Rogers, gave me this book when I graduated from college. When I started it in May of 2011, I realized it was nothing like the books that I had read all my life. It was not “heady” or theoretical, it was practical and wise. While it took me a year and three months to finish, it sparked something in myself I never (ever) expected: an interest in business management books. Also, reading this book gave me more of an appreciation for Dr. Henry Cloud and I highly recommend his work. While reading this book, I wrote a blog post on decisions, “Gamble and Risk.”

Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, Susan Scott

This book is out of control. When I finished my yearlong internship at Church Hill Activities and Tutoring (CHAT), I mentioned to one of the board members that I wished I’d had more difficult conversations. “Oh,” he said picking up a book beside him, “you might be interested in this book my daughter’s team at Capitol One has been reading.” A year ago, I would have said forget it, but Cloud had already softened me on business books and two weeks later Susan Scott changed my life. This book is a hard-hitting, unpredictable look into your relationships and the conversations you have each day. If you’re avoiding it, Susan Scott will be sure to let you know and tell you how to have the conversation in a productive way.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, David Brooks

This book says so much about who we are and how we develop from toddlers to adults. In typical David Brooks fashion, this book highlights the incredible connections that scientists are making between the brain and human behavior without being boring. Brooks trades science jargon with fiction and tells the story of cognitive science through the story of one couple from infancy to death. That’s not a spoiler, it’s all about the journey.

Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward, Dr. Henry Cloud

Not every ending is necessary, but determining when something needs to end is a hard process for all of us. This book taught me that if we don’t end things in life well (from jobs to friendships) we can’t move on in a healthy way. Cloud calls this process “metabolizing” endings and I think it’s the best description I’ve ever read.

The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–And How to Make the Most of Them Now, Dr. Meg Jay

Forget everything you’ve read in the tabloids: the twenties are an important decade of life. That’s pretty much the message of Meg Jay’s new book that’s been taking over my social networks since it was published. For me, it all started when my brother Steven sent Will and I a link to an interview with the author titled, “Thirty Is Not The New Twenty: Why Your Twenties Matter.” Since then, Eunice read it, Will read it, I read it, Nina read it, Stacy and Stephen read it, Elizabeth read it … it’s out of control. Read the book — It’s not always necessarily right, but it’s good and helpful.

The Five Love Languages Men’s Edition: The Secret to Love that Lasts, Gary Chapman

I am selfish. That’s pretty much the biggest takeaway from reading Gary Chapman’s often referenced (and suggested) book about the ways we give and receive love. One thing that was fun about reading this book is that tons of people talk about the 5 love languages, but most people I know haven’t actually read it. It’s practical, thoughtful, and entertaining. Especially talking to all the fellas right now, you will not regret reading this book.

BUMBLE-ARDY, Maurice Sendak

From the author of Where the Wild Things Are comes a book about a pig who wants to party and a domineering aunt that doesn’t see the point. Bumble-Ardy follows in line with other works from Sendak as creative and childish with a depth of human understanding. As in the case of Wild Things, when you read about Bumble-Ardy you simultaneously become the child and the adult: reckless and responsible. I love this book for it’s cadence and rhyme scheme and a reminder not to let control prevent me from enjoying a party. In an interview with an  aging Sendak, Terry Gross noted a section in particular where Bumble-Ardy is punished for his party and makes a profound commitment to get back in line:

“Okay smarty you’ve had your party! But never again!”

Bumble-Ardy replies, I promise! I swear! I won’t ever turn ten!”

Here’s to another year.

P.S. I’ve been collecting books in my Amazon Wish List (a service I highly recommend) that I may or may not ever read.

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Our haunted selves

Back in February, I wrote that I had begun to see each of us as “haunted houses.” I had been reading through Isaiah when I realized that, if each of us is the house of God, we are definitely houses with cob webs in the windows and dubious stories. We are haunted houses, I thought, and we need to be able to embrace ourselves, to walk the dark hallways and revisit the old “memories that haunt the mind.” After all, when you finally get the courage to walk through a haunted house, you realize that your fears, while not unfounded, were overstated. We have pasts, we all had a childhoods, but we are merely human.

At the same time that I wrote these posts and processed these thoughts, I was also reading Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines. It really is an excellent book. In it, he spends only one chapter actually listing the individual disciplines, and only three pages on the discipline of solitude, but that is not a marker of its importance. “Solitude frees us, actually,” he writes. “This above all explains its primacy and priority among the disciplines. [emphasis added]” It was so odd to read this because I had always been taught that reading the Bible (study) and prayer were the most important disciplines. Ironically, in this American brand of Christianity, I was taught that the two most important spiritual disciplines were two of the “disciplines of engagement” rather than “disciplines of abstinence” such as silence and frugality. And even then, the word “abstinence” doesn’t usually have a good reaction among people who were raised in the church.

But indeed it is solitude, writes Willard, that prepares the heart for engagement, not the other way around. “It takes twenty times more the amount of amphetamine to kill individual mice than it takes to kill them in groups.”

But there is also a dark side to the discipline of solitude and this is what brings me back to my thoughts about haunted houses. “In solitude,” he writes, ” we confront our own soul with its obscure forces and conflicts that escape our attention when we are interacting with others. Thus,

Solitude is a terrible trial, for it serves to crack open and burst apart the shell of our superficial securities. It opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us … [and] discloses the fact that these abysses are haunted'” (Louis Bouyer).

And so I began to connect the dots between my own times of solitude this year and my newfound understanding of myself and my past. I was so social for the last eight years of my life, always moving from event to event, that I didn’t stop to see myself. I knew that there was stuff I didn’t like, but I didn’t slow down long enough to see past the surface. When I finally did, when I saw the depth of my depravity, I began to see everyone’s depravity. I took everything more seriously: every act, every word spoken, every story, every choice. While I began to believe more seriously that we are incredibly valuable, I also began to realize more profoundly that we are incredibly self-destructive.

And why? I think that much of it stems from our desire to ignore ourselves. Willard writes about solitude like it’s dangerous. He writes that many of us will not be able to embrace extended solitude in a healthy way because we still feel the need to have other people around for guidance. Sometimes, the pain of solitude can be too great and we have to respect ourselves and each other in the process. In my own life, I believe that solitude is actually a process of detoxification. When I am alone, the same old songs play on repeat in my head, I start to stress about the future, and I start to wish I were more comfortable. In these moments, I don’t think of myself as distracted, but instead I think I’m just slowly getting rid of all the habits that I’ve learned in my time with others during the day. All the gossip, all the comforts of life, all the habits begin to emerge.

In solitude, our humanity is restored in ways that are both painful and empowering. While we don’t always like what we find, at least we are finally giving ourselves some time and attention. Solitude, writes Willard, “is the primary place of strength” because we are left to reconcile life and to remember what we believe to be true. In solitude, we engage our haunted selves, but we also remind ourselves, quite plainly, that we are not of our communities and we are not of this world. We are not trapped by our surroundings and we are not limited by our own lives which we begin to see in sharp clarity without the noise of conflicting opinions.

This is where Willard claims we are to start our Christian walk, but this is actually a radical shift from much of what I hear today. He is saying to do this one thing before you worship, before you read, before you give, or go: give yourself some time to breathe and space to think. Just sit in silence and wait.

The rest of life can wait as well.

7 – 3 – 1: My Journey Through the Enneagram

 “One of the great dangers of transformational work is that the ego attempts to sidestep deep psychological work by leaping into the transcendent too soon. This is because the ego always fancies itself much more ‘advanced’ than it actually is.”
 

The quote above has become one of the defining quotes of my year. To me, it means it’s not enough to talk about practices for healthy life, you have to be willing to submit yourself to a process. You actually have to do the work.

This idea comes from a book about a system of personality types that has, in some ways, become my current practice of self-knowledge and discovery. For those of you who may be worried, it’s more psychological work than spiritual practice. The Enneagram has in no way usurped my Christian faith, but, to the contrary, has led me to a deeper understanding of my personal brand of depravity (in other words, how I personally manifest brokenness) and given me a vocabulary for understanding myself and my behavior. Also, when I talk about the Enneagram, it is through the lens of one book, The Wisdom of the Enneagram. To my knowledge, it’s the most thorough one of its kind.

I almost can’t imagine my life before the Enneagram, the book, and the quote.

For those of you who haven’t heard of the Enneagram, it is a vastly complex system for understanding different personalities. Unlike the Myers-Briggs and others, it does not prescribe static labels or obscure beaver-otter-retriever metaphors. It contains nine personality types that have somewhat recently been placed on the ancient nine-point symbol of the Enneagram.

Beyond the nine main types, each type has “wing” personality types of the immediate numbers (e.g. “9 with a 1 or 8 wing”) which does not define their dominant motivators, but is still highly influential in their way of life. Furthermore, each personality type assumes the negative or positive qualities of another personality type when the person is unhealthy or healthy respectively. Thus, a domineering eight becomes more helpful like a two when healthy and more controlling and secretive like a five when unhealthy. So there are nine types, 18 sub-types, and the ability to “catch” you at any stage of development along the way to maturity.

Now, take a deep breath.

When I first learned about the Enneagram I was surrounded by two good friends who also happen to identify as sevens. That’s me! I thought, as one friend read the description of the “busy, fun-loving” personality type I so longed to embody. This seemed to explain why I was always distracting myself by looking for cool articles about my passions, stop motion videos and infographics on the internet and sharing them with my friends. I’m just a scattered seven, afraid of my past and searching for newer, more exciting experiences to assuage my pain.

But then people were like, hold up. I sort of act like my friends that are sevens in social settings, but there are some aspects of my life that don’t match up: My car is organized and vacuumed, I have a LinkedIn, and I talk about adventures way more than I actually go on them. And then it all made sense, you’re a three! With a two wing! You’re “the charmer,” always looking for another way to help someone and improve your image. And at the time this seemed to really fit.

As I started to look at my life, I became painfully aware of the fact that I have spent countless hours crafting an image for myself whether on social network sites, through this blog and in my personal relationships with others. I hated myself because I began to perceive all my pursuits (my hobbies and jobs) as mere image maintenance for my troubled ego. I started beating myself up for caring so much about what other people thought about me and this made me care even more about what other people thought than I had before. All about image and success? I wondered to myself if all my work were just to create a name and a desirable image as the three is prone to do.

Then all the sudden I had this realization: Work? Beating myself up? Passions? None of these tendencies fit either of the two personalities that I had previously considered for myself. Sevens are way too carefree to think that what they’re doing is work (“life’s an adventure!”) and threes are too busy fitting in and receiving awards (of the traditional sort) to really beat themselves up for failing to meet personal standards. Besides, if my desire were to have a good image, I wouldn’t type blog posts longer than 1400 words!

At long last, after about eight months of wrestling with this whole Enneagram idea, I found a personality type that describes me so well it hurts: I am a one.

My girlfriend (also, almost definitely a one) and I laughed our way through the entire section on this type, its tendencies, and our own stories from the past. We would read the first sentence of a paragraph, have an entire conversation, then realize that our conversation was almost identical to the rest of the paragraph we were on. The one is the personality that is essentially trying to prove its worth, its reason for existing. One’s are also impatient, think they know the right way things should be done, and, when healthy, champion reform throughout society.

Who would have guessed it? Probably all of my friends, family, and acquaintances. It’s so obvious now looking back on my time in college. If I wasn’t ranting about the administration I was organizing to get sidewalks built or developing plans for the student composting system. Always. Always. Always looking at what could be fixed/changed rather than what was going well. I also realized that I was sometimes so perfectionistic in my work that if I couldn’t do it perfectly, I would give up and do it poorly last minute. Then, I would beat myself up for not living up to my expectations of myself and fall into an emotional tailspin (ones move to fours under stress) and feel like I had lost myself entirely.

Conversely, some of the most difficult moments of growth in my life continue to be the times when I realize I am impatient with someone else’s way of doing things. I also realize now that my personality is to feel self-righteous and to orient myself away from other people in an attempt to feel personally just and good. That is, after all, what my personality is striving to be: good. But since no human can reach their personal standards of perfection, as I gradually mature I find more value in other people’s standards and processes while also transitioning from judgement to discernment. Rather than rely on a good-bad dichotomy to deceive my guilty ego, I develop more internal self-confidence and open myself up to more external disorder. I learn to embrace the grey of life.

Why have I put myself through this process? Because the Enneagram has forced me to examine my behaviors, thoughts and instincts in way that I would have never done otherwise. Furthermore, what I have learned has also been supported by other books I’m reading, most specifically Integrity by Henry Cloud and The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. One of Cloud’s quotes in particular seemed to encapsulate this realization:

“This process is called assimilation and accommodation. Which means someone has graduated past childhood levels of information processing and can adapt to reality and make external reality their own. I will repeat that for emphasis: it is the ability to make external reality one’s own reality.”
 

This sort of maturity does not come easily. We all have delusions, but it is knowing our delusions that will allow us to operate in the complex world effectively and honestly. Also, it is only “deep psychological work” that will force us to remember the parts of our lives that we desire to forget (our weakness and shortcoming) and integrate these into our more realistic and honest identity.

Thanks for making it to the end! You deserve a prize. And that prize should be a copy of the Enneagram book … and friends to share the journey.

As always, and most definitely, more to come.

Opening quote: Don Riso and Russ Hudson. The Wisdom of the Enneagram, 10.
Second quote: Dallas Willard. Integrity, 135.
 

Haunted Houses

Yesterday, I published a post titled, “The Memories That Haunt the Mind,” and today all I can think about is “haunted houses.” I see now that in many ways we are vessels of the past, old houses carrying memories of ghosts into the future. We are haunted houses.

I know this is a bit of a stretch, but I am, after all, a spatial thinker. It usually helps me to understand concepts if I can map them out in three dimensions. So when I encounter descriptions of places, I often read them as metaphors for life. Perhaps that is even the foundational process of this blog, but I digress. This morning as I read through Isaiah 64, I was struck by the language of lament for lost places. Babylon has invaded and destroyed all that was loved in Jerusalem and her people are mourning the loss. Verses 10 and 11 read,

“Your holy cities have become a wilderness; Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised you, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins.”
 

I feel in these verses such a nostalgia for places as they once were: the idealized past. This nostalgia also points to the attitude of the refuge struggling to find meaning in a foreign land. Of course, there is certainly the desperation of a prophet in exile: crying out to a God to which he has committed his life’s work. But most of all, as I moved through this passage, I sensed the sadness and defeat of desecration. At the time, the Jewish people believed that God actually dwelled in these places that were endowed with a holy purpose. The tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem. This place was everything. Losing the city and the temple was likely more devastating than anyone could have imagined.

I was most profoundly struck by one phrase:

Our holy and beautiful house.”

Just stop for a moment and think about the attitude of these words. “There was once a perfect place,” they seem to say, “and we have lost it.”

Then my mind began to wander through some old thoughts about Christianity. I began to think about how the death and resurrection of Christ was supposed to have replaced the need for physical places of worship. When Jesus died on the cross, it is said that the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom. The centralized era of this faith had come to an end.

Now, we believe that the human body itself is indwelled by the spirit of the Lord.  In I Corinthians 6:19-20 it states, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your body.” Additionally, Matthew 19:20 reads, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Thus, we collectively constitute the holy places of worship in this decentralized era of the Christian faith. Forget the buildings, we are the church.

And then it hit me: everything in this passage in Isaiah can be read as a description of people’s lives on earth. I am the temple. Human civilization is the city. We are the “holy and beautiful house.” And we have been defiled. Created with a purpose, we have been invaded and torn down.

We have lost our dignity, hope, joy, confidence, heritage, tradition. Foundations have cracked. Collectively, we are Zion: struggling, wandering people far from each other, far from home.

And I immediately began to embrace this idea of desecration in myself, my family, my friends, my students, my community, my country. Every day I see people engaging the weight of life. They fight, they embrace, they give up. Every day. We may not fully comprehend our personal shame. Perhaps we don’t think that we were created for any sort of higher purpose. Perhaps we don’t think we have been desecrated. But as I continue to engage the darker side of life I see that we have a deep need to be restored to each other.

We need to painfully return and embrace ourselves: chaos and all.

We need to walk the halls of this haunted house, to run our hands over dusty railings, to notice what has been broken, and perhaps to even find that our fears were unfounded. Haunted houses, after all, are just houses with a stigma. But as the stigma pervades, the house deteriorates. The structure fulfills the prophecy of the stigma … and the cycle continues.

So my thought for today is this: Seek restoration or you may begin to believe the lies that you have been told about yourself. Your life may then follow the lies and become their conclusion. Restoration is not a quick process — it may take a lifetime — but I feel that it is the only proper response. As Dallas Willard writes in The Spirit of the Disciplines, “The very substance of our bodies is shaped by our actions, as well as by grace, into pathways of good and evil.” The spiritual disciplines, Willard would say, are the daily habits which continually align our lives to our purpose.

I don’t have answers (see the Rilke quote at the end of my previous post for my opinion on answers), but as I continue to engage my questions, I continue to find that we often have more need for healing than we desire to admit. I am a prime example of this.

At this point, I am thankful for where I am in the context of where I could be. Now, I continue to hope and pray for continual restoration in myself and in others.

That is all.