My Most Important Learnings
Edward C. Anderson
The two most important things I have ever written have never been published. They are both letters to my son.
I wrote the first letter to Michael the night after he was born. It was in response to one alarming thought: "What if I die before Michael gets to know me?" I didn't want anyone else explaining who I am or what I am like. So I wrote several pages explaining the kind of person I was, my feelings towards him, and my hopes and dreams for his life.
I never told Michael about that letter until he was a high school senior. By that time a lot had gone on, and a lot had gone wrong. I realized I had failed to be the kind of father I wanted to be. I had become overly consumed with my life, my career, my advancements and my pleasures at the expense of investing the time in him that I should have, and then wished that I would have!
My misspent days during my son's youth also involved obsessions, compulsions and addictions that I could not see. In retrospect I can't believe I was so stupid and so blind!
In the summer before his senior year, I had a Spiritual experience and entered twelve-step programs to address the causes and symptoms of being addicted to alcohol, nicotine, various foods and over-eating, and the residuals of codependency - fractured relationships, perfectionism, workaholism and the "control" disease."
During my son's senior year, which was also my first year in recovery, I became aware of how much I had let my son down. How could I have done it? I had counseled thousands of other people, shared the best I knew, and yet I failed to be the listening ear, personal support and open book my son needed. But by this time, Mike was busily involved in senior year activities, his friends, working and athletic competition.
Realizing he would be going away from home to work that summer and then off to college in the fall, I frantically searched for what I could do to make up for my failures. I wanted to find a way to give him the best I had to offer from my life experiences.
Then I had the idea of writing him a second letter. As I began to form the letter, what surfaced were learnings I had come to from my life experiences. Realizing that I had failed miserably, I wanted to give my son the very best, most important learnings from my life. At least I wanted Michael to have something of substance from me to bounce his own experiences against, and hopefully form a better basis on which to build the rest of his life.
What follows are the most important learnings of my life. Some were presented to my son five years ago and others have emerged in the interim. The intent remains the same: To let others use the learnings of my life as a foundation to build their lives.
I've counseled thousands of people, individuals who were entertainment celebrities, multimillionaires, authors, college professors, sports celebrities, ministers, CEOs, college presidents, writers, TV personalities, doctors, lawyers, educators, students, and people from virtually every ethnic and cultural group. From this exposure to people at their core, I've come to one conclusion: "nobody is smart enough to know how to live his or her own life."
This conclusion is also a part of my personal reality. I now realize that I will never be smart enough to know how to live my own life! My lived experiences continue to teach me this! What other explanation can I give for my regrets --- particularly since I have a Ph.D. in counseling psychology, am a licensed psychologist, teach at a major university, and have read and studied extensively about the issues of life and how to live from a psychological, religious and philosophical point of view. And yet, I must conclude that I am not smart enough to know how to live my own life! Even if I got ten more Ph.D.s, I don't believe I will ever be smart enough to know how to live my life!
However, I would quickly say that there is great freedom in this learning. If no one is smart enough to know how to live his own life, it is highly unlikely that anyone would know how to live mine or anyone else's life! Therefore, there is no reason to feel obligated or constrained by the opinions and control tactics of other people. After all, since they don't know how to live their own life, they surely wouldn't know how to live yours, so why be controlled by their opinion? Thus you are free from social opinion, peer pressure and individuals who want to control and manipulate.
No matter how authoritative a person may appear, I don't believe that anyone is smart enough to know how to live his own life. When such a person acts as if he does know how to live or tries to tell you how to live your life, the "would be expert" is probably projecting his own faults, unfinished business, and problems on to you rather than facing the truth about himself.
So you need not be a slave to other people's opinion or to gaining their approval ... Again: no one is smart enough - and they never will be!
If it is true that no one is smart enough to know how to live his own life and if it is true that no one else knows how to live your life either, then you are in a real fix unless there is a God who does know and is available to give you direction.
Putting it personally, I have concluded that I will never know how to live my own life, and that is exactly why I need God! As I think about it in terms of the most important learning of my life, I put it in this way "No one is smart enough to know how to live his own life and that is exactly why you need God!"
Stated in an affirmative: "I need God because I don't know how to live my own life and I never will!"
3. The third most important learning of my life is that we all have one thing in common: Ultimately we all want the very same thing! Our most basic need, drive, motive is simply this: We want to be alive!
This all-permeating, most basic drive to be alive is more than merely the drive to exist. It is more than the survival instinct. Our most basic drive is to be fully alive. We want to experience life in a vibrant, enthused, inspired, energetic, growing, and developing manner. We want to maximize our fullest potential in personally meaningful, fully alive ways.
We want our lives to be lived and experienced with a sense of personal aliveness rather than mere existence or deadness. We want to live meaningfully alive lives!
Usually it isn't until some crisis, some tragedy, some chaotic event, or our mid-life crisis hits us that we finally realize that aliveness is what we want more than anything. Then the question of the mid-life crisis shouts with thundering force throughout our whole being: "Will I ever come alive before I die?"
It is this question that existentially challenges every aspect of our personhood and forces us to realize that more than anything, we want to be alive, and we want to experience a sense of personal aliveness.
The beauty of this aliveness drive when combined with the previous two learnings is that no one is smart enough to know how to live a life of aliveness and that is exactly and precisely why you need God!
As the source of life and life itself, what we ultimately need is to have God alive within us so that we can experience the aliveness we crave. Thus I must conclude that it is the living Presence of God that is ultimately needed to satisfy our most basic desire. We must have the living Presence of God, alive within, in order to experience the aliveness that we want most of all!
All addictions, whether they are to substances or a lifestyle such as workaholism, have one thing in common: they are our own attempts to produce the sense of aliveness which we want, desire and long for.
The reason we become addicted to certain substances, behavior patterns or lifestyles is simple: They work! They do the job! They do generate the momentary sense of aliveness we are "dying" for! The only problem is that they are momentary! - They don't last, moreover, they are progressive and damaging to our health and quality of life.
So the tragedy of all addicts is that they are people, like everyone else, who are "dying to come alive," but tragically they are "killing themselves trying to come alive." And even more tragically, the addict doesn't even know he is doing it. He doesn't see that he is addicted or how he is killing himself through his vain attempts to come alive. The process of denial and the addiction cycle that interjects the addictive substance to block out awareness of inner deadness, lostness and emptiness, creates a synthetic sense of aliveness which blots out awareness of the deadness and inner emptiness of all addicts.
Likewise, the obsessions and compulsions which go along with addictions are the ways we have learned to distract ourselves from our sense of deadness, lostness and emptiness.
Another trick comes through an adrenaline rush resulting from some risky activity or some sense of urgency "to do our compulsive thing". This generates a momentary "high" that produces another false sense of aliveness and distracts our attention from the unbearable reality of our deadness!
I know what I'm talking about because the battleground of my last six years has been on the playing field of my addictions, obsessions, and compulsive behavior patterns. I am absolutely convinced that my addictions and obsessions and compulsions were simply my attempts to create moments of aliveness and/or distract my attention from the unbearable reality that I was dead, lost and empty inside in spite of the fact that I had all of the trappings of achievement, success and looked as if I was living the good life.
But, Praise God! There is now a victory flag flying over the battlefield where once I fought the life and death struggles to be fully alive. And that victory flag isn't mine! On the playing field of my life there is one solitary white flag of surrender! But high above the stadium floor, God's' victory banner now casts a shadow in which I can rest, relax and recover. I am now experiencing more moments of aliveness on a daily basis than I would have let myself imagine ten years ago! And that aliveness is not coming from me. It is purely and simply the result of God's Holy Spirit living His Alive Life within me. Strange as it may seem, the aliveness I am now experiencing is in me but not from me.
Thank God, I can now stand with those old transformed drunks who wrote Alcoholics Anonymous and say with them: "The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way that is indeed miraculous." (pg. 25)
There are no two ways about it. My aliveness, the aliveness I have longed for all of my life, is being experienced by me, but it is not produced by me! I just humbly and gratefully report: "My Creator has entered into my heart and lives..." And it is He who produces, and it is He who is my aliveness!
5. The fifth most important learning of my life involves the most important decision you will ever make. This all-important decision must be made each and every day. It is the ego-surrender versus ego-defending decision. Will I or will I not surrender my ego? What's it going to be? My will or God's will?
I once thought and was taught that the "my will versus God's will" decision was a one time choice. But, I find that it must be made daily! I'm heartened to see throughout the Bible that all of the people from the earliest Hebrews through the Saints in the New Testament also faced surrender decisions multiple times in their lives.
I know that for me, I must start each day with a process that leads to the surrender issue. And it remains a daily issue because by nature I don't want to surrender to anyone or anything! All of my natural inclinations are toward my will and what I want to do. This is one of the reasons that I am so encouraged by the life and example of Jesus Christ, because even He had to struggle with His will versus His Father's will. - So if He had to struggle with this issue, it makes sense that I might also have difficulties.
Clearly the previous learnings help me resolve this struggle. After all, if I conclude (a) that I am not smart enough to know how to live my own life, (b) that only God knows how I should live my life, and (c) that only God is a permanent source of the aliveness I crave, then it is easier to make this surrender decision. But it continues to be a struggle - particularly when I become afraid and start to worry. Surrender of my ego and my will continues to be a one-day-at-a-time, daily decision.
The writings of John Powell also helped me see that God wants my happiness and well being even more than I do! And, He knows what will bring about my happiness better than I! But, this conclusion does not take away from the fact that I must be willing to surrender each and every day to His will - and some days I'm so screwed up, I have to remake that surrender decision multiple times during the day - even multiple times an hour!
It is when we love that we really come alive. Loving is such a unique phenomena. When we love, we direct our full attention to that which we love. We want him or her to rise to greatness, to experience the fullness of life, and to gain maximum benefits and maximum pleasure. Thus, the ultimate intention of loving is to bring about the ultimate experience for the one we love. And what is that ultimate experience? The ultimate is to experience aliveness, fullness of life.
When you are fully alive, one emotion characterizes the experience: Joy! Joy is the emotion of aliveness! Joy is the experience of being fully alive!
The amazing thing about loving and being a lover is what happens to both the person who is loved and what happens to the one who does the loving. Clearly the one who is loved is brought to life and flourishes because his lover is investing time, energy and resources in this "active process of seeking to know, understand, care and responding to the needs of another," which defines love. But the truly amazing thing isn't what happens to the one who is loved. It is what happens to the lover! When a person decides to be a lover and to make loving his/her life orientation, the lover is transformed! This transformation involves a total shift of life orientation from self-centered strivings to a creative determination to bring about the best for the person being loved, out of which flows meaning and purpose, and thus an "alive" life for the lover.
Of course being a lover is very emotional. All lovers are passionate about what they love. But this too, is part of the transforming power that the act of loving has on the lover. When you are passionate about someone you forget yourself. You virtually "loose yourself" in the person you love. Thereby you transcend the major character defect which kills us: self-centeredness! And self-centeredness must be overcome because it ultimately leads to deadness and isolation.
So for the sake of that which you might love and ultimately for your own sake, being a lover and living a loving life is our best life orientation! Loving is "life oriented" and therefore loving is the best organizing principle to live by and strive towards.
Personally, it has been important for me to find an area of study that I love to investigate, learn and think about. Accordingly, it has been important to find a career that I love ... one in which I can live out my sense of mission, use and develop talents, and fully experience the gifts I have been given. Also, it has been important to focus on something that I am absolutely passionate about - something that stirs me to my very core, such that I transcend my inherent self-centeredness.
Finally, it has been important to fully love other people and to love a few very special people without reservation. In loving these very special people, I am challenged and brought to the fullness of living because when you love someone completely, you want the very best for them. But, sooner or later you learn that you don't know what is best for them, and even if you did know, you probably couldn't provide it! At that point of humility, you are literally driven to your knees! And for me, I have only found an ultimately meaningful life when I have been on my knees. It's been when I have been on my knees due to how much I loved someone else that I found personal meaning for myself. It was when I was crying out for Divine Wisdom, Divine Power and Divine Intervention for someone else that I found meaning for myself! For it is when we are on our knees, seeking Divine help for the sake of someone else that we gain enough perspective to see that the ultimate purpose in life is to let God love other people through us!
Whereas wanting to be loved comes naturally, being a lover required an "unnatural" choice because the essence of loving requires a decisive act of moving away from our instinctive self-centeredness. But, this is only one aspect of why loving isn't easy.
Loving and being a loving person isn't easy because of what often happens to us when we do, in fact, love other people! Oddly enough some of our mot painful experiences occur when we try to love and try to be loving people!
The most important insights I have had about the challenge of being a loving person are as follows:
(a) Those who are afraid to love will reject you!
(b) Those who are afraid of being loved will also reject you!
(c) Those who are afraid of being revealed as unloving persons by your loving will seek to destroy you!
Fear is the greatest separator! Being afraid separates us from each other. And, the person who cannot trust enough, who can't have faith enough to overcome his fears, has no hope of having an intimate loving relationship! Such a person, because of fear, will reject the very thing he needs most! He will reject the love that could heal him!
For the person who has committed him/herself to being a loving person, it is extremely important to realize that when you and your love are rejected, it usually has nothing to do with you - unless your loving is only a mask for intentions to control, manipulate or get someone to love you.
If you honestly try to love someone and are rejected, it is probably because that person is afraid. And those who are afraid to love or be loved will reject you - not because of you, but because of themselves and the fears that imprison them!
But we also need to be aware of the fact that some people will try to "kill" us, "kill" our reputation, or at least "kill" our spirit.
From my experience, those who try to "kill" us do so because our loving exposes and reveals them for the self-centered people that they really are! And rather than being exposed and revealed as self-serving by the contrast of our loving, these individuals will try to devalue us and destroy us... if for no other reason than to distract attention away from their failure to love!
Again the challenge: will we be loving people in the face of rejection and threat? Will we transcend our natural inclinations and be truly loving people?
Seen from this perspective, it is clear that love is a choice! And the ultimate result of that choice will either be deadness or aliveness! But even in the aliveness of living the life of a lover, we must not be naïve or else we may give up. Some fearful (fear-filled) people will reject us! And deceitful people will try to "kill" us if we are truly loving persons!
Making needed changes and experiencing personal growth are all part of being a fully alive person. But, it is discouraging when we can't seem to change, when we want to change and when we know we need to. It is depressing when we can't seem to grow, change or develop even when we want to.
I am convinced that in order to experience lasting change and experience lasting growth and development, we must change our identity - the way we picture who and what we are.
The paradoxical thing about a change of identity is that acceptance of who we are now must come before the change can occur! This is perhaps the greatest paradox of all because it would seem that acceptance of who and what we are now would lead to remaining stuck in some pattern of defeat. This is where Alcoholics Anonymous and other spiritually based efforts have profound lessons to teach us. For example, the prime characteristic of addicts or alcoholics is the denial of the fact that they are addicts or alcoholics. There is simply no hope as long as they stay in this world of denial with statements of "I use a little" or "Yes, I like to drink, but I can function and I'm not on skid-row, so I'm not an alcoholic!"
But once a person says, "yes, I am an addict!" Healing has already begun!
Accepting who and what you are now, frees you to change and to grow and develop towards the person you want to become!
It is in the change of your identity that real change occurs! And, a positive change of identity usually requires an acceptance of some unflattering aspects of who we are right now!
Whereas the world around me imposes many images and identities for me to assume, I have found that the most healthy and spiritually sound identity for me is that of being a child of God, who is deeply loved by Him. Being a deeply loved, precious child of God isn't something I can take much pride or credit for because I haven't done anything to earn or deserve the status or identity. You see, this identity isn't a result of my loving or being a lover. This identity comes to me because I am loved. The only thing I can do is accept or reject God's love, and therein accept or reject my "Precious Child of God" identity.
Now I am placed in the position of being the acceptor or the rejecter of love and being loved. Now I am placed in the position of confronting my fears about loving, being loved, being seen and being revealed! Now the spotlight is on me as I confront my own contentions that those who are afraid to love will reject you; those who are afraid of being loved will also reject you; and those who are afraid of being revealed as unloving will try to "destroy" you. Only now, I must confront my own fears and ask:
Am I so afraid to love that I would reject God?
Am I so afraid of being loved that I would reject God?
And, am I so afraid of being revealed that I would seek to "kill," wipe out or otherwise dismiss God from my life?
Tragically, I have wasted most of my life being afraid! But now I have the best identity anyone could ever have. I know that I am a Precious Child of God!
The profoundness of this new identity starts with realizing that I am so loved, so precious, that God seeks to be with me and live in me. But, He does not expect unreasonable things from me. He knows that I am a child and that I will always need a Father. I will always need guidance and direction because I'm just not smart enough to know how to live my life, and I never will! I will forever need Him!
But as His Precious Child, I know God delights in me living a fully alive life. He wants me to be a lover and to love deeply and passionately. Moreover, He is ready and able and desirous of living His life through me so that I can be fully alive and so that others can be made alive, and therein, I can experience a full and meaningful life!
No wonder I can say that these are the very best days, filled with more moments of aliveness than I have ever known! It isn't me living the alive life I am experiencing! God is the one who is living His life through me, who is generating my experience of aliveness and joy!
Yes indeed, I have the best identity anyone could ever have: I am a Precious Child of God! - And that is something I've not only learned! I have experienced being a Precious Child of God! In fact, right now I am experiencing being a Precious Child of God!
I imagine that we have three sets of ears - Three sources of hearing, three points from whence we can hear. If we are fortunate, we have a set of ears on the outside of our head that allows us to hear and perceive messages from the world outside of us.
I also imagine that we have a second set of ears located inside our head. These are the "ears" that allow us to "hear" and be aware of our thoughts - and in my case what is in my head is a whole committee of "voices" talking and arguing and most of the time worrying and being afraid of something.
I also imagine a third "ear" that can hear what is deepest within me - at the very core of my being. This third ear seems to be located somewhere inside of the middle of my chest - in my heart, my very heart of hearts.
Listening to your heart, or if you will, listening with your heart, is a strange and profound experience. It isn't as if I actually hear words, but rather get a "sense" of thoughts and direction. Listening in my heart of hearts, I experience what has a "rightness". In my heart of hearts, there is a flow of right ideas, right thoughts, and right directions. Sometimes I seem to hear the name of a person or sense a course of action. Then I am challenged to be "true to" what I hear and sense in my heart. This challenge sometimes involves doing something such as reaching out to the person on my heart or taking some action based on what I "hear" or "sense" in my heart of hearts.
I know that to some, what I am trying to articulate may seem "spooky" or "off the wall". But if you have ever experienced being true to the deepest core of your being by following the lead of something that just seemed right, or following through on some intuitive impression that seemed to come from the essence of your being, then you know what I'm talking about!
I'm trying to articulate a radical way of living. It is "living from the inside-out"! And this inside-out form of living is not easily explained. From a secular perspective I would be called "spiritual" living or "intuitive" living. And from a "Spiritual" (God living within) perspective it might be called "Spirit of God led living"
In many ways this tenth learning is the most important learning of my life because the very best things I am experiencing and the life of aliveness that I am so fortunate to be living are coming about as a direct extension of listening with my "third ear" to what is on my heart and following the course of action that seems most right, honest and true to the deepest core of my being.
Please understand that this listening and being guided by what I hear in my heart of hearts is not some personal, self-centered, ego trip! My attempt to listen to the deepest core of my being isn't an attempt to "hear me" or even to become aware of what I want at my core. I am trying to hear God because I am convinced that I am not smart enough to know how to live life and I need God! Listening with my third ear is all part of my surrender to God and seeking to know and do His will - because if all I wanted to do was do my will, I'd simply listen with my second set of ears and be guided by my thoughts, my desires, my lusts, my compulsions, and my dreams.
The act of trying to listen with my third ear and being true to what I sense and hear in my heart of hearts is all part of trying to do God's will for me, being a lover, loving other people, and letting God love other people through me.
But I must quickly report that this listening with your third ear, this living from the inside out is how I have come to experience my greatest joy! It has been in response to and even in the process of, following through on what I have sensed and "heard" in my heart of hearts that I have experienced my most profound moments of aliveness!
From my experience, the greatest moments of aliveness are when I feel as if I am living a personal sense of destiny. In these moments, I sense that I am where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to be doing. In these moments of "rightness" I am fully alive!
This brings up a dilemma: how can I find my sense of destiny? How can I find my way to the times and places where I sense that I am "where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to be doing"? - My one and only answer is to surrender my will to God and listen with my third ear to the deepest core of my being!
Finally I must reiterate something I alluded to above. The net effect of the above learnings and experiences is that I have made one gigantic decision and come to a massive discovery. The gigantic decision is an extension of the "my will - Thy will" decision which I have to make each day. That gigantic decision was to ask God's Holy Spirit to live in my heart and to live His Aliveness through me!
The massive discovery stemming from this gigantic decision is that the frantic search, which has characterized most of my fifty-three years, is over! I am not looking or searching for anything anymore! The search is over! And the reason that the search is over is that I have the Living Presence of God alive in me! And with the Living Presence of God within, there is nothing to search for! The inner emptiness is filled with God, loving people, and the meaningful life He has guided me to. And I am never alone, anymore, ever again! - Even when I'm by myself, I am never alone!
Whereas most of my life has been "lived" in a state of being "dead, lost and empty", I must now report just the opposite" I am Alive, found and full! And I get no credit for this most marvelous reality. God has guided me to everything that I am experiencing through my newly found Alive living!