The younger of the two men had asked me if we might talk. He approached me at the end of a weekend conference for men, where I had been the speaker. My subject: resilience.
My talks had been wrapped around what I called "the critical question." I asked the men at the conference: "Do you have the spiritual stamina to run the entire race of life and cross the finish line with the kind of `kick' [a burst of speed] for which so many great runners are known?"
The question apparently provoked this man who wanted to get together, and he concluded that he needed some help. We met for breakfast the next morning. Once we were served I said, "Tell me where you think you are in your life-journey."
His answer came after two or three minutes of silence while he doctored his coffee. Looking up, he said, "Your talks this weekend? They hit me hard. I feel as if I'm going nowhere."
"OK," I responded, struck by his bluntness. "What's inside those words?"
He thought for a minute and then started "streaming" his thoughts. "Well, my marriage sucks to begin with. I know my wife doesn't respect me. We've been married for twelve years now, and the only thing keeping us together is the kids."
"I hate my job. I have no idea if I'll even have work in the next few months, and I don't know what else I can do."
"My wife and I became Christians when Billy Graham came here about fifteen years ago. And she's taken it pretty seriously. She's in a Bible study and teaches kids in Sunday school. But...I don't know...I just kind of do church . . . come to things like these men's things. I guess I'm not into Bible study or anything. She wishes we'd pray together..but, you know, it's just not me."
"You're pretty hard on yourself," I said.
"But I deserve it, I guess," he said back. "Really, you know I'm just surviving from day to day. I've become a dull person going through motions. Know what I mean? I see my wife excited about the things she's doing. I see some of the guys I grew up with going places. And then there's me. I'm just plodding along, trying to keep my head above water, and my life seems to be going in circles. Maybe it's going someplace, but don't ask me where. See what I'm saying?"
That's my clearest recollection of our opening exchange.
"Any chance you're depressed?" I asked.
"Nah, I went to the doctor, and he said there's nothing wrong with me. I've just never had much willpower. Know what I'm saying?"
I asked lots and lots of probing, nosy questions. I suggested various ways of making a new start. I talked about the extreme makeovers (from the inside out) that happen when a person gets dead serious about following Jesus. But each question and each suggestion was parried by disappointing comebacks. "I've thought of that." "You know, I tried, but..." "That's not me." "Wouldn't work for me." "Don't want to."
"When was the last time you ever took a look at your life and determined that you would change something about it?" I wanted to hear about just one area of his personal life where he took a step forward.
"Oh, I think about things I'd like to change all the time. But I never end up doing anything about it. I'm just lazy I guess."
"So, who are your friends?" It's the last question I could think of.
"Hmm..." His answer took some thought. "Well, I..." He paused. And then he named a couple of men. "But they're really friends because they're husbands of my wife's friends. And if the women want to get together, the guys hang out a bit. I guess they're about the best friends I've got."
I begin to realize that my breakfast companion was seeking some "silver bullet" that would make all the indecision and inaction go away. He wanted someone to provide him with motivation and energy and capability, and do it cheaply, quickly, and painlessly. What he didn't want was for someone like me to tell him that he has a heap of personal work to do, and some of it was going to be difficult.
I had run out of things to say to him. It occurred to me that I had begun to take on the responsibility of finding a way to get this man's life in order and convincing him to do what I thought was best. That's a no-no in the world of counseling and is probably one of the reasons why I'm not that good a counselor.
But I am frustrated when I see a man wasting his life and unwilling to do anything about it. And I saw the possibility of myself in this man. l could have become the kind of person this man describes himself to be, I thought. He's me...if there had not been men and women whom God sent into my life, like Marvin Goldberg, to push me hard until I got jump-started in a reasonably right direction. Maybe that's why I kept pushing at this man. Because others did it for me. But in this case, nothing was working.
Finally I said what I was thinking and surprised myself with my candor. "You know, I want to say this respectfully...man to man. I've run out of things to say. I have no more questions; I don't have any more answers. You've obviously considered every idea I could suggest, and you don't see any of them as useful ways to address your dilemma. All I can tell you is that if you keep on this track, the second half of life isn't going to be much fun."
"Yeah," he said. "You're probably right." Strangely enough, he was not offended at me for being so confrontational.
"Why don't we arm wrestle for the check and be on our way," I said. "Let me think about what we've said to each other; perhaps I can recommend some other, smarter people for you to visit with, but I've told you everything I know. And I fear that the solution to the issues in your world really begins with you and what you think Jesus is asking of you, not with someone else's solutions."
He thought about that for a moment and then said, "OK. Well, I really appreciate the fact that you listened, and I'll let you know if I want you to look up any of those other people you mentioned. Thanks for getting together with me."