Let’s talk about one of the parts of who I am that weakens the bond of love between us and inches me more toward a bond of love with myself. I don’t have to go through all the clichés (right or wrong) about how it is important that I love myself because not only am I lovable to You, but I cannot love others unless I first love myself. I know this is promulgated as foundational. But this is not exactly what I’m talking about. One of the parts I am talking about is the "me" that insatiably craves appreciation and recognition. I do a great deal of outward masking of this sometimes. Only You and I know how imminently it lurks. I don’t just want to be the best or do the best, I want to be recognized and appreciated as such. That’s what gets in the way. That’s the impurity. That’s the "pat on the back" I’m looking for (as my wife so astutely observes).
As frequently happens, I hear You through this letter. It is the being the best and not the expectations of gaining appreciation or recognition for it that is the purer form of my bond of love with You and with others. This "dross" is very hard to get rid of. I need Your help. Make me see what I need to do to just be and forget about the accolades.
If there’s one thing that runs like a theme through all my years of writing You letters it’s my struggle with my "self". My "self" inevitably stands out in everything I do. Even the fact that I’m here now writing this is because I wanted to do it. I want to pray. I want to spend more time in solitude. I want to do things for the poor and homeless. I want people to like me. I want to be a good example. I want to be a good husband, father,
brother, son. I want people to like me. I want to avoid the world! It’s becoming clearer as I get older that the more I insert my will the less I do Yours.
I was impressed by an article I read recently about the lady millionaire, Ann Miller, who gave up everything at the age of about 60 and went into a cloistered convent and is very happy there. But then I think, is it just what she wanted or is it what You wanted? It seems like the only way to get rid of the "I" is to take on the will of others and do what they want - total service! But if I was to pick that, wouldn’t it be just because I wanted it? It’s very confusing, Lord, but I do know the denial of "self" is key to replacing me with You.
Despite the fact that, at times, my relationship with You is a wedge between me and my family, I nonetheless get the feeling that my own family is becoming more and more a primary channel through which You speak to me - especially in regards to erasing my "self". I’ve always been a long-range planner with ideas and ideals fashioned after specific images in my own mind. When my wife, son or daughter (or all of them at once) point out to me that most of my ideas and ideals are about something I want, it gives me pause - especially when I think about it and realize the ideas and ideals of others are left out of my picture.
Life appears to be a conflict of "selfs". One either imposes oneself or one erases oneself. Through them you are helping me get better at erasing my self. So taken up am I with the things I want to do that consideration for what the members of my family would like to do often eludes me. Such lapses of consideration are not conducive to erasing "self". They affirm and punctuate my "self" with a giant boldface exclamation mark. It comes from this more clearly now that "to give is to receive". This is a powerful tool in erasing the "self".
I’m not so sure that being able to see yourself as others see you would be such a pleasant experience, though I often find myself wishing I could. In just about everything I do I believe strongly in the power of example far beyond that of words and, generally, I try to live by that. There is a dilemma here though which, I’m sure, is perceived by others when they picture me. The dilemma has to do with how phony and hypocritical some of my actions performed for the sake of example actually are. Am I really as good a person as I’d have others believe? The answer is known by You and me only, except that I think many of those closest to me can see through it. So, if it’s occasionally an act, then what am I really? Why should I bother going through much of that when I don’t believe it myself? Must I do it just for the sake of appearances? Maybe! But now I sound like I’m defending myself.
The truth is that I can’t stand myself when I don’t practice what I show by an occasional action. I fall down on making certain things a real lived part of my everyday life. Your actions are all based on what You really are - love. So, why can’t I be as You are? I guess that’s a part of the divine/human mystery. I need Your example to weed out actions that are phony and hypocritical. Help me to present myself to others as I really am. Make my example purely You.
The drive in human nature to seek our own happiness is strong. There is a selfishness in this that runs contrary to the Christian ethic yet seems quite natural. If someone asked me about the ultimate purpose of my existence there would be little hesitation in my answer - to be happy here and, ultimately, in heaven. But as I think about the overwhelming influence of the self in this, the whole idea becomes the ultimate characterization of our fallen nature. I want to be happy. I seek my own happiness. All the commandments will be obeyed, all the works of charity and mercy performed, all the money given to the poor, all the forgiveness granted, all the prayers said for others, all the self-denial, virtuous living and use of the sacraments - all for one seemingly very selfish thing: because I want to be happy. Because I want to make the goal. Because I’m worried about me.
In a larger sense, what is even more frightening is the honest answer to the question: Do I love others because I am ultimately concerned with my own happiness? Indeed, do I love You only because I’m concerned with my own salvation.
Jesus, there seems to be so much of this impurity in me. You made me to know, love, and serve You in this world in order to be happy with You in heaven. It’s the "in order to" part that encourages my selfish love. If I did not have the threat of losing You hanging over my head (and You are my happiness) then would I care about the commandments, a virtuous life, the poor, loving You or others? This is genuinely scary, Lord. Never before has this all struck me this way. When I say, "Why do I love Thee?", why does my answer keep coming up, "because I love me"?
Despite the daily distractions that seem to fly about in my head, I cannot help coming back continually to the thought that You are calling me to something special, and, if I could only get my self out of the way, I could see it more clearly. My self is my dross. How can one be in the world and empty of self? How can one be human and empty of self? Is it possible? At times, like now, I really feel that You are forming words like this in me and are leading me to something on a plane beyond my comprehension. If I can but empty me of my self, I could fill me with You. In fact, it is me who keeps You away. The shackled spirit fights the bonds of the body, of the world and of the self. Is this the good fight, the race St. Paul speaks of? Is life to be, on the one hand, a fight against the self and on the other a race run in the most strategic manner with all the speed, endurance and calculation necessary to claim the prize?
The hardest part about taking a step back and, with stark candor, trying to see oneself as others see you is divesting yourself of your own eyes. This is nearly impossible for even when I say I am trying to see through the eyes of another, I am still doing it through my own eyes (or in my own mind’s eye). The best I am able to do is to imagine what I think is seen by the eyes of others. When I do this, what immediately occurs is an attempt to see my self through the eyes of a particular person like my wife, my children, my parents, my brother, my friends, etc. This, for me, is very apropos because I believe I present different images (not just in the perception, but in the actual presentation) of myself.
The individual presentations and perceptions are not what I’m trying for here. Rather, I’m trying to capture an overall honest view of me in the eyes of the "generic other". This would have to be a secret other whose observations I do not see and who is not affected by a particular presentation of my self. What I wonder is if I am lovable in the eyes of such a one. I would like to conjure through such eyes a man ardently trying to blend his life with Your presence and one who is possibly overly concerned that others close to him do the same - but frustrated at not knowing how to facilitate it. In fact, it would seem he denies others the choices he has made because they have not made them. He is accustomed to a high degree of planning and organization and takes notice of minute details. He is strong-willed and used to exercising control over those situations and people not in conformity with his world-view. He desperately wants to be loved by others but is fiercely independent enough to allow for a lack of that so long as he maintains the knowledge that You love him and accept him as he is without condition. Despite some apparent strengths, there are some fundamental weaknesses in this man. The flesh and material goods often sway him. His time is often predicated upon his own interests and he often has a tendency toward a spiritual luke-warmness that he mistakenly identifies as something more. He is good-intentioned, though very possessive of what he loves. Yet, above all, he is truly a man deeply in love with You and fighting the rest of the world in his own improvised way, relying on You to forgive all his mistakes.
In the interest of getting some handle on the answer to the mystery of who or what I am, I think it’s time for me to take an honest look at a powerful motivational engine that drives my life: it’s the question " will the fact that I lived on this earth make any difference whatsoever?"
There are three critical fronts from which to approach this, namely the difference to myself and the difference to others. Overriding both of these, of course, is the difference to You. Let’s talk about this first, because from this comes the greater justification for my existence.
It is a great source of hope that You willed me to be; that You love me, teach me and sustain me attests to my value. That You forgive me and die for me makes me the pearl of great price. But it is precisely within the context of Your love and expectations for me that I measure what difference my life will have made. If my whole life is a cloistered uni-directional hymn of love, then my life makes a difference to You because I become Your bosom companion, one who forsakes all to be among the closest of the close to You. This would be precisely the difference my life would make - if it were true! But my life is filled with other people and with my self. So, when I talk of my life making a difference, the terminology of my thoughts is predicated upon the difference to myself and to others. More specifically, what will others think of me and what do I think of myself - and, does either really make a difference?
In the final analysis my life here seems to make very little difference to others. In the sense that the world judges success, I am a failure. Other than the fact that I have fathered four children, my life makes little difference to anyone. In the way I would wish to have made a difference in others’ lives, I have failed. Yet this failure is indeed because of the very "self" which, failing to deny, I hold up as the criterion for everyone else thus making me a failure to myself. My "self", therefore, while it seems to make a difference in my life to me, is crippled and ineffective because it gets in Your way, and it is only You through the instrument of me that will or will not give a meaning to my life that will make a difference to others and to my self. As long as I regard my self rather than You as the key to whether my life makes a difference for others, I am a failure.
Isn’t it interesting that we the living often agree that those whose lives really made a difference are those who divested themselves of self and served others? If I do this; if I rid myself of self and serve as You taught, then my life will probably continue to make no difference to others and, ultimately, this seems the ideal. For it is in this way that my life (Your gift) will make a difference to You - the only One for whom it is important that it does make a difference.
I must seek to discover not so much the me I have made of myself but rather that unique gift of self that You have given me which is the ground of my being. When I can manage to peel aside all the wrappings and get to the actual gift You’ve given me, I must give it back to You by giving it to others.
I may be a good father, a good citizen, a good husband and a comfortably secure all-around nice guy, but if I do not seek justice and give of my gift - my self - I am not choosing the narrow door. If the first shall be last it is because they have always put themselves first. Their "self" must be served first; and if the last will be first, it is because they have given away their gift and their self is left to be considered last to be served.
When I am very peaceful and look up into the night sky, I can almost physically feel the necessity of shedding all the excess "baggage" of a lifetime of putting my self first - and it is an overpowering feeling of waste.
I’m so glad for this time when I’m able to write You. I nestle silently in my chair (the lap of God) and pour my heart out to You. I become very jealous of these moments and anytime circumstances rob me of them, I miss them exceedingly.
Again, while reading St. Francis of Assisi recently, I was struck by how true joy, then as well as now, goes against the grain of contemporary culture and values. He says there is true joy to be found not so much in what one gains or accomplishes but in what one is able to bear.
We in this society don’t think much about bearing anything, only about avoiding having to bear anything. Like so much else that is of real value, this is very difficult; but it seems almost anything of real spiritual value is difficult in the eyes of the times.