This is an excerpt from Good News for Bad Days
by Father Paul Keenan. Reprinted with permission from Warner Books.
"I have all this success. What I don't have is a life!" The young executive sitting across the dinner table from me was the picture of prosperity. Youthful, handsome, in radiant health, he appeared to be enjoying the good life. No one among his closest friends or business associates would have dreamed of his uttering those words. To be sure, he was the envy of many of them. Yet there he was, candidly admitting that something very important was missing. What was missing, he was telling me, was his life.
As I listened to him, I knew what he meant. I have at times watched my own life spin away from me in a flurry of appointments, deadlines, trains to catch, programs to prepare, things to do. There have been times when, like my dinner companion that evening, I too have wondered, "Where is my life?"
When that question rears its ugly head, I often feel like I am caught in one of those nightmares where I try and try to get out of a burning room or to run away from a monster, but I cannot find the knob to open the door. The harder I try, the closer to danger I feel. I want desperately to get to safety, but the message of the dream haunts me "You can't get there from here."
How do we get to the place called soul when we feel trapped in our lives?
One of the most important discoveries of my adult life has been the discovery of my having options. I was in my thirties, I guess, before I began to become aware of that ongoing feeling of defeat that comes from a sense of being trapped. For a long time, I couldn't put it into words-it was just there. As time went on, I became angrier, more irritable, for no apparent reason. When I was finally able to find the words to express what I was feeling, I realized that I had spent my life doing what other people wanted me to do and not doing what I wanted. What did I want? I didn't know. I honestly didn't know. All I could tell you was that I wasn't happy.
Looking back on this experience from the vantage point of fifteen years, it is easy to see where it was leading. Now I know that I was being led out of dreams of academia, out of my life in the Jesuits, into the life of a parish priest in the Archdiocese of New York, into communications and radio and public speaking and writing, into a life of real freedom. But back then, I didn't have a clue about any of that.In fact, had I, in my unfocused anger and dissatisfaction, up and changed my life to the one I have now, I still would not have found my soul. The real change had to be made within. And as I can see fifteen years later, it had to be made in a very special way, not by arbitrarily changing everything all at once.
At the time, however, I had no such clarity of vision. I felt that I was groping around in a pea soup fog. I felt like a failure, and I felt that others thought of me as a failure. Would I ever be able to get out? Would I ever amount to anything?
The key that opened the door to my soul for me was the realization that I could make choices and that I had options. Now, that sounds like the silliest thing in the world. Of course I had been making decisions all my life. No one had walked beside me through life holding a shotgun to my head. But telling myself that my feelings were silly did not make them go away. I had to take time and find out what they had to say.
As I listened to my feelings, I realized that over the years, I had developed a lack of confidence in my ability to make choices, and that more often than not I had learned to make decisions based on the strong beliefs of others as to what was right for me. Deep down, I had come to the point where I felt that I could not change my life, that I was stuck with it, that I had to suppress my own wishes. I did not know clearly what my own wishes were.
The most important learning for me was that in almost every situation in my life, I had a range of options I could consider. When I was asked to do particular things, there was a variety of ways for me to respond. I learned that in order not to feel trapped, I had to stop and ask myself, "What are my options here?" and look for two or three different ways to respond. Down the road, this helped me a great deal in making the important decision to leave the Jesuits and to become a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. Before, I might have sulked angrily and held on, or at some point thrown everything over in utter frustration. Now I could slow down, take my time, look at various ways of dealing with my situation, and decide calmly and serenely what to do.
The upshot was that I made better decisions. In the long run, something even more wonderful happened. Instead of being resentful and angry, I discovered a growing peace of soul.
When we are stuck in life, feeling angry and resentful and trapped, we can ask ourselves, "What are my options here?" Doing that, we can make our world open up, with new horizons. Plus, we get in touch with the movement of our soul deep within us.
It is sad that more of us do not realize that the soul has a voice that calls and guides us throughout our lives. The good news is that more people are turning within for soulful guidance. The soul is the Godlike aspect of ourselves whereby we can say that we are made in God's image and likeness. When we feel trapped, stuck in our lives, the feeling is a cry for help. It is the cry of a soul that is being muffled. When we feel abandoned by others, abandoned by God, often it is our soul crying to be unshackled.
What are some of the symptoms of that cry?
One symptom is fatigue. We find ourselves tired, exhausted. Our energy is being taken in the wrong direction, or is trapped in a vicious circle. After a while, we become spent. Our energy is blocked. Often we find it difficult to sleep and to replenish our energy, and we find ourselves turning to artificial means of stimulation in an effort to replace the energy that has been spent.
Anger can be another sign of being stuck. When we are caught in a pattern of activity, of habit, of need, we may find ourselves increasingly frustrated over our situation. We may feel we are working very hard and getting nowhere. We may feel that the goals we strive for are eluding us while other people are achieving theirs easily. We may begin to blame others for our apparent lack of success and may find ourselves becoming easily impatient or hurt by the words or deeds of others. We may feel that life is unfair, that we are getting bad breaks, that people are out to get us. We are angry, and if our anger is deep-seated enough, it can become blind rage.
Another sign of being stuck is restlessness. We speak of feeling "at sixes and sevens" or "at sea." We are adrift in life and do not know where to turn. Desperate for a safe port or haven, we may find ourselves making foolish mistakes, turning to substances that or people who in the long run do not prove helpful to us. We experience a lack of direction, almost as if we do not know where we come from or where we are going.
When we are stuck, we often find ourselves being fearfull. We are afraid of losing what we have. We are afraid we won't get what we want. We are afraid of what others will think of us. We are afraid of success. We are afraid of failure. In time, we become afraid of our own shadow. Fear keeps us stuck in our ruts. We are afraid to get out, and we are afraid that we will not be able to get out.
Stuck in our ruts, we may find ourselves becoming bored. Being stuck, our horizons are limited; and after a while we begin to feel we have nowhere to go. There is no escape, no exit, no matter where we look. Worse, there seems to be no point in our pursuing anything else. Boredom of this kind can lead to depression.
If those are the feelings that are associated with being stuck, what might be some of our reactions to those feelings? A prime reaction is denial. Just as there is inertia in physical objects, so there is inertia in souls. We do not want to know that we are on a dead-end street. Having worked long and hard to get where we are, we are certainly not inclined to be told that all our efforts have landed us in a cul-de-sac. "It's just a passing phase," we tell ourselves. "It's only a slump. Everybody has them. Things will pick up in a day or two." We will do almost anything to avoid having to change our present patterns in any kind of deep way.
Sooner or later, denial gives way to a vague murky feeling, an obscure malaise. Something is not quite right, and we are beginning to feel it. Strange, we are doing the same things we have always been doing; but now there is no satisfaction, or certainly less satisfaction. We find ourselves sort of mucking around in life, kind of restless, at odds and ends. At this point, we have to come to a decision about what is going on with us. Either we are going to live with the restlessness and the present situation, or we are going to do something about it. Living with it will eventually lead to a kind of cynicism or even depression, the feeling that we are on the short end of life's beneficence. The bounty of life, the realization of the heart's desires, is something that happens only to other people, not to ourselves. Believing this, we can become jaded, feeling that somehow life is out to get us. For a long time, this can be a vague belief that we just live with. Eventually, it may become a firm belief, one that we acknowledge and defend. "One of these days, we'll win the lotto," we tell ourselves. But we really don't believe it.
When it gets to this point, we have a decision to make. Either we are going to accept our malaise as an ongoing confliction or we are going to perceive it as an invitation to change. And indeed, there is the rub. When we find ourselves getting stuck, we eventually have to make a decision about where that is going to take us. Will we stay stuck, or will we look for options?
When we choose to listen to the messages that we are receiving from our soul and pay attention to the ways in which we have been reacting to those messages, we awaken to our possibilities. Instead of mucking around, doing the same old thing and growing ever more hopelessly tired of it, we unshackle the soul and allow it to be free.
When this happens, an interesting change takes place. Whereas before we ignored our symptoms or viewed them as obstacles to our getting anywhere, now we treat them as important messages to be listened to, as potential bearers of clues for our journey in life.
There is a story in the Book of Genesis about a stranger who commences to wrestle with Jacob. Jacob appears to be winning, so the stranger proceeds to dislocate Jacob's hip. Since he is still losing, the stranger begs Jacob to let him go. Jacob replies, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." Jacob then learns that he has been wrestling with God.
There are two remarkable things about Jacob's story. One is the tremendous strength with which he defends himself, a strength that does not go away when Jacob suffers. How often our suffering brings out a strength in us we did not know we had. The other is that in the midst of his wrestling and his suffering, Jacob refuses to end the match unless he receives a blessing from the one who is wrestling him.
When life wrestles with us, what if at the same time we were to wrestle with all our might and ask a blessing from the one we are struggling with? Viktor Frankl, suffering the horror of the concentration camps, finds strength in Nietzsche's words "Anyone with a why to live for can put up with almost any how," and finds a meaning for himself even in the depths of darkness. St. Lawrence, in the midst of being martyred on an excruciating grill, tells his torturers, "Why don't you turn me over now? I think I'm done on this side," and finds humor as well as sanctity in the flames.
Whether it be in the loving commitment of a parent raising small children, in the constant bedside presence of a wife to a dying husband, in the struggle of a professional man or woman to remain honest at work as he or she struggles to make a living and support his or her family-wherever suffering rears its head and demands sacrifice, there Jacob wrestles, and there Jacob asks a blessing before the battle can end.
Stuck in suffering-as we will find ourselves at least once in our lifetimes and perhaps for an unbearable length of time-we become unstuck only when we face the suffering for the messenger that it is, engage it, and ask it to bless us.
Looked at from the viewpoint of soul, being stuck in suffering has a special importance, a special place in human life. It teaches us that, viewed rightly, our symptoms and our soul can work together.
Rather than being occasions of panic and discouragement, our points of being stuck are what we bring to the table of life. They are the data of our lives, no more, no less. The experience of being stuck gives us the opportunity to pause, to reflect, and to map the journey we have been undertaking, and to seek our options. And that is a very important thing for us to do. When we experience ourselves being stuck, instead of digging ourselves ever deeper into the trench, we can take time to examine where we have been and to ask ourselves whether there are new options for us. Have we accumulated more and more dead weight in our souls? Are there some things, some persons, some places we need to release? Are there patterns of behavior that we need to change? What possibilities for new life lie ahead?
The feeling of being stuck need not be a destructive one. In and of itself, it is no more than a record of what has happened in our lives, and a cry for the future. We can take the opportunity to ask ourselves what limits we want to surpass, what new directions we want to pursue. It can be a call to adventure, to new horizons and new life. You can get there from here.