In recent years, there has been a breached interest in self-discovery: a search to uncover the secret to the inner self in hopes of procuring purpose, meaning and abiding happiness. And so many have taken to scouring the self-help sections of bookstores — online and off — to essentially unlock the secret to being. A few years ago I went through my own self-discovery phase. I had just ended a long relationship with a woman and now had the time and freedom to explore myself in ways that I hadn’t before. Here I was, single and in my mid-twenties, wondering what my next step in life should be. I had come back to my faith only a few years prior, and so there was so much I yearned to explore about God, the spiritual life, and myself.
So I dove in.
To be sure, in many ways it was a rich and necessary experience. Being able to peel back the layers of my unacquainted self was exciting, fascinating and informative. I did this in a host of different ways: Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinder and charisms tests, endless books and articles on discernment and vocation, conversations with friends and mentors, time spent in prayer, even by taking “What Movie Character Are You?” quizzes featured on my Facebook feed. I didn’t discriminate. If it could lead to greater illumination, I was all for it. And much of it did indeed prove to be illuminating: tools that helped me understanding who I was and what role I might be called to play in the world. But at times it also became limiting and stressful, not to mention spurring an obsessiveness that worked against my efforts for clarity. On my less-than-stellar days, I spent hours analyzing every gift and flaw, affinity and quark I had, with the subconscious expectation of wresting a comprehensive, nicely buttoned up understanding of myself. When this happened, my quest for self-knowledge turned sour, an egotistical exercise in concocting a falsely comforting illusion. Continue reading
Recently, students across the country, donned in black caps and gowns, prepared for their descent from the guarded and secure microcosm of higher education into the “real world,” as they call it. These commencement ceremonies mark an occasion for celebration, excitement and unbridled hope. And while we extend a warm congratulations and heartfelt “good luck” to all graduates this time around, we’re now doing so to the last remnant of the Millennial generation. According to the “experts”, those born around the mid-nineties or later now constitute the next generational installment known as “Generation We” or “Generation Z.” And so, the world prepares to welcome the very first members of this generation into adulthood.
Unexpectedly, Generation Z is often compared to the Greatest Generation due to its members’ work ethic, independence and (at least compared to their Millennial older siblings) much more grounded expectations and goals. Mind you, this is a generation with only a few pre-9/11 memories. It’s a generation that witnessed their parents and relatives lose their jobs and houses during the Great Recession. It’s a generation that has grown up in the midst of school shootings and terrorist attacks—harrowing events that are now instantly accessible and gruesomely detailed on the account of technology that previous generations could never have dreamed up by even their most creative and prescient members.
It’s interesting to observe the “experts” point out the similarities and differences between generations: “X” generation is better than “Y” generation, pun intended, because of this or that. And while there are surely differences, there are some fundamental attributes that rear their head from the crowd of every generation. Regardless of our time or cultural milieu, we all wonder why we’re here and what—if anything—we’re supposed to do about it.
In lifeless bold letters across a slab of concrete, the word “Indifferenza” (“Indifference”) is etched at Milan’s Holocaust Memorial. The somber word, heavy with plaintive meaning and tragic history, serves as both a constant and cautionary reminder of the grave horrors that can befall humanity if we give into such a state of apathy. The museum stands where Platform 21 used to, a train station that 70 years ago was secretly used to load Jews onto trains headed for death camps. The museum opened in 2013, and in taking seriously the writing on the wall, recently has sheltered and accommodated foreign refugees: an influx of men, women and children who have fled war, hunger and persecution in northern Africa.
Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winning novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor, knew well the consequences of a world lulled by the nefarious pitch of indifference:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
Wiesel’s words conjure a sobering passage from the Book of Revelation in their indictment of those who stand detached, disengaged and disinterested with the world and the suffering of those in it:
From a very young age we’re taught the value of accruing knowledge, relationships, popularity and success—a storing up and clutching onto good things that can help us sail effectively toward a happy life. We’re groomed not to dispense of anything we own or acquire that has value, but instead to cultivate it, protect it, hold onto it with tireless resolve. What we have and collect—our education, gifts and talents, intellect, possessions—we are expected to use strategically to our advantage. We become hoarders so we can navigate the world and be victorious within it.
From a rational vantage point, it makes complete sense. It seems an absolutely necessary mindset to have in order to be successful in the world. These things, in their goodness, can point to God and allow for happiness. When I review the many good things in my life—my family, group of friends, job, health, home in San Diego, access to delicious food at will—sometimes I’m met with an overwhelming sense of comfort and contentment. For me, such a realization invites me to thank God, acknowledging that such things can work as refreshment on life’s journey. These moments, as good and nourishing as they can be, though, also have the capacity to dim my reliance on God. I can easily take comfort in the things around me, becoming resistant in handing them over to God should he ask for them.
The much anticipated next installment to the Star Wars saga, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, has finally made its way to video. The film, carefully and effectively piloted by director J.J. Abrams, crossed the $2 billion mark worldwide at the box office only two months after its December 2015 release. Of course, no one is surprised. Disney spent $4 billion dollars acquiring the franchise and they knew—without any doubt—that they would earn their money back and then some when all three films were said and done. No force required to see this one.
Overall the film garnered positive reviews. The biggest criticism, with which I’m partially sympathetic, is that it was too redolent of A New Hope: an obscure, though unknowingly gifted desert-dweller, the Death Star-esque weapon with the capacity to obliterate entire planets (or in this case planetary systems), the sinister—though vastly less iconic—relative of Vader with the same propensity to force-fully threaten his incompetent underlings. Still, and maybe because there is nothing like sitting in a packed theater, the smell of buttered popcorn and Milk Duds thick in the air, and having that famous score burst in my ears while watching bold Franklin Gothic Demi typeface glide out into space on the screen, I enjoyed it. I just can’t shake its nostalgic charm, I guess. Continue reading
Silence. It can be a reservoir of flowing peace and nourishing grace. It can call to mind our cherished identity, compelling us to respond to God and others with that same, first love he has shown us. Or it can be cold and sterile, a state of abandonment, loss, frustration and sorrow. It’s in the silence that we can choose to trust in his loving presence or his aching absence. We all know of people—maybe even ourselves at times—who turn away from God because in a time of great need they were met with the cold, bitter sound of only their own cries and tears. It’s an experience, I imagine, we can all relate to on some level.
Submitting to God, and the mystery of his sometimes peculiar and painful ways is a sobering challenge, one we can’t escape as we journey back toward the Kingdom of God in this life. God gives us enough grace and light to have a reasonable, firm and joyful belief in him, but so much of our lives remain unclear—we’re asked to trust in his plan even when it appears chaotic, unfair, or meaningless. When the eyes of our bodies are darkened, we are called to rely evermore on the eyes of our faith. This trusting in his will gradually and—at least on our worse days, suspiciously—throughout our lives is hard. And we experience moments in our lives when we cast a full-throated cry to God in words that echo those same ones from Job himself:
Once a widowed friend of mine shared with me her experience of witnessing God’s presence in her life. Her eyes gleaned of a vague sadness, though her wizened smile emanated joy. Despite a life of tremendous difficulty and suffering, she maintained a luminous peace. She recounted how when walking once by herself along the beach she prayed for God to make his presence known. She desired ardently for God to make visible what she believed with resolute faith—that he was ever-present. As soon as she finished her modest petition a silver dolphin breached the surface of the ocean exactly where she was gazing. I watched her reclaim the memory with delight. She smiled at me with bright and wide eyes.
It’s easy, though, to be dismissive. I could feel the temptation surfacing just like that marine harbinger she had spotted to shrug it off as a favorable coincidence with smug skepticism. But she knew otherwise with a steadfastness and calm that couldn’t be questioned. The more she spoke of her love of God, the more I knew she had indeed seen his face on the boardwalk that day.
Our ability to choose how we see in this life is a great mystery. We have been given frightening power. We can choose to gaze at the shadow of God and spot his presence “indistinctly as in a mirror”—or turn a blind eye. We can choose to see the intricate and beautiful marks of creation and identify them as God’s fingerprints—or not.
For a long time, institutions of higher education have been heralded as guardians of intellectual progress—precursors to a life of success, worth and greater happiness. Most would agree that when it comes to at least the nation’s premier institutions, a college diploma offers admittance to the good life: hefty Roth IRAs, spacious homes, coveted careers and a slew of invitations for the head of the societal table. However, recently, this long-held belief has come into question by even secular members of society. Higher education, if not blatantly under fire, has drawn the aim of quite a few barrels.
Although our universities churn out some of the nation’s brightest and most promising students—many of whom go on to do wonderful things in the realm of technology, medicine, science, law and so on—there seems to be something missing. Students are graduating full of promise but emptied of meaning. Continue reading
According to an article by that title in The New Yorker, written by David Kushner, the answer is definitely yes.
Kushner’s family endured a horrific event when his 11-year-old brother was kidnapped and murdered in a rural small town in Florida. Although Kushner was only four at the time, he explains that as he grew up, he struggled to understand how his parents were able to carry on — giving both him and his other brother happy and normal lives while they still harbored the aching memory of something so awful. Continue reading
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