The retreat leader said, "I want you to reflect on one thing. Ask yourself this: What do I find in my life today
that I can love?" The question perturbed me. It wasn't the direction I anticipated the spiritual retreat for men in mid-life crisis would take. Moreover, I didn't want to ponder who or what there was to love in my life that day or any day.
Along with a dozen other men on that weekend retreat, I wanted remedies for dealing with the stress of daily living and a rapidly descending spiral into burnout. I wanted help with understanding the frustration and sadness of growing older. I wanted to know I wasn't alone in realizing I probably wasn't going to attain all the goals I was so certain I would reach when I planned them 20 or 30 years ago. I wanted to freshen my withering spiritual life.
Here was a priest suggesting that each of us take a look at what we can find in our lives today to love. Cynically I wondered, "How is that going to help?" The truth was, on that day, at that moment, I couldn't think of one person, place, or thing in my life that I sincerely loved.
I was 52 years old and had been laid off from a quality engineering job I enjoyed for nearly nine years. After seven months of unemployment, I finally found another job, but as a technician. I was earning less than three-quarters of my previous salary, and I was doing laboratory tasks akin to work I had done in the early 1960s.
|For much of my adult life I was mired in the negative, focusing on the shortcomings of others and, in effect, how I wanted them to change.|
There was tension at home too. Married for more than 30 years, my wife wasn't who I thought she should be. It was easy to blame her for anything that went wrong: bills that were too high and a bank account that was too low. I magnified trivial matters, blew them up dozens of times bigger than they deserved to be, and created pain-filled and bitter arguments.
The retreat leader asked his question a second time, only this time it was on a sheet of paper. Added to the phrase, "What do I find in my life today
that I can love?" was a list of suffixes:
--about my wife,
--about my children,
--about my friends,
--about my job,
--about my country,
--about my God,
--about my life.
There was one additional line on my page. It read, "Then love what you find in your life and grow in trusting the faithful and generous God who has given you all these gifts."
My reaction to the list on paper was similar to my reaction the first time he asked the question. At that moment I couldn't perceive anything I could say honestly that I found in my life or on that list that I felt I loved or that I wanted to love. It felt like there were padlocked solid-steel doors over my heart.
Then he challenged us further. "Take this list," he said, "find a place apart from your companions, and write an answer to each question, at least one sentence long. Be sure to answer each of them." I went back to my room, and pondered the list for many minutes before I even considered picking up a pencil, let alone writing an answer to any of the questions.
Praying silently, and not necessarily wanting an answer or believing one would come, I asked God's guidance in approaching this assignment that my heart wanted to resist.
Studying the paper, it came to me that I should read complete questions rather than just the last three words of each question. There is a mighty difference, at least for me, between "--about my wife" and "What do I find in my life today that I can love about my wife?"
Each man felt God had helped him look into his heart. He pulled back a curtain, or opened a door, so each could experience what he already knew but seldom verbalized or even recognized. It was a sharing of insights more than answers, since we each got to look deeply inside ourselves to see what was really there.
My life didn't change that day or even during that weekend retreat. But the process of change had started--a changing of attitude and a season of spiritual growth; a time of coming to recognize God's remarkable gifts of people, places, and things all around me.
For three months after that retreat, usually several times a week, I would write out those eight questions and answer them. I still use this exercise regularly, and it still helps me to listen to God's gift of insights.
I can't say it was, or is, always easy to see a positive answer to each question. This is especially true when I write about my job, my God, and my life. On more than one occasion when writing, "What do I find in my life today and that I can love about my job?" the only answer that came was, "It provides an income." Yet the day after my older sister died from cancer, I answer the question about my job this way: "I work with an understanding and loving group of people who care about me in my pain."
When I made complete questions out of each item, it was suddenly easier to answer them. "What do I find in my life today that I can love about my wife?" I wrote without hesitation, "She hurts with me, and wants to ease my pain."
Some of the other answers that came freely included:
What do I find in my life today that I can love about my children?
"They are adults now, they aren't dependent on me, they have lives of their own."
What do I find in my life today that I can love about my God?"
"I want to blame Him for my unhappiness, and He lets me."
What do I find in my life today that I can love about myself?
"I'm trying to grow spiritually and emotionally."
A couple of hours later, when we returned to the next retreat session, each of us was asked to share some of what we had discovered.
"I don't always feel Him, but He is always near" was the answer I wrote one day when searching for what I find to love about God. Another day I wrote, "He gives us life, one day at a time; He lets us live life, one day at a time." It surprises me how this little exercise became, and continues to be, a catalyst for change and growth.
For much of my adult life, I was mired in the negative, focusing on the shortcomings of others and, in effect, how I wanted them to change. I thought my unhappiness was directly related to the behavior of others. As Sister Bea, a recovering alcoholic nun, says of her life before sobriety, "I had this little chant in my head: 'If they'd shape-up, I'd feel better.'" For years, I had used the same lament.
By pondering for a few minutes, "What do I find in my life today
that I can love?" in relation to people, places, things, and events, I am usually shown something lovable about of each of them. I get to accept them just as they are, even if they never change.
As this process continues, an incredible thing has happened: It has become easier to love my wife, children, job, and life just as they are, and to put them into God's hands, under his protection and love. In other words, I have been taught to "Love what you find in your life and grow in trusting the faithful and generous God who has given you all these gifts." The other remarkable thing that has happened is that others start perceiving me as lovable and start expressing their love for me too.