The monkey’s paw as values clarification exercise

Say what you mean.  Mean what you say.

I am often understood to be saying something, which I would not say on purpose because it is hurtful or in error.  I hate to be misunderstood.  It is one of the things in life which really brings me pain.  I have said things I thought were innocent, which ended in the wounding and offending of someone I care about, and that is something I try to never do purposely.  To further poison the parting glass, which is the misfortune of unintentionally injuring the pride of my loved one, I add my own guilt, embarrassment, and pain at being misunderstood to the noxious cocktail and it becomes all the more potent and inebriating.  Like a drunkard I stumble about looking for an exit, slurring my hasty apologies.  I apologize a lot.  It pricks me very deeply to hurt other people’s feelings with my thoughtless words.  It hasn’t always.  Now that I am a bit older, it is important for me to take my time to choose words carefully, especially when I risk hurting a loved one or spoiling a special moment.  To avoid doing so, (and when I am not in my flesh) first, give myself half a moment to comport my emotions with reality.  Next, I check my words for sharp barbs and bludgeoning wallop.  Then I take a deep breath and speak gently.  Needless to say, I am diligent to go as far out of my as needs be, in order to use words to bless and imbue virtue.

I think it is really important to say what you mean.  I try very hard to use words well, so that my exact meaning is transmitted, with as little room for misunderstanding as possible.  This means choosing the right words!  Mark Twain once said that,

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word, is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.”

But, before you can choose the right words, you must really know what you mean. It is almost impossible to say the right thing, when you aren’t sure what you really believe.

Sometimes we imagine that we know what we are trying to say, when really we don’t.  I have been flustered, and felt kind of incompetent, when I have tried to explain certain things.  For instance, I have recently had to have a talk with my wife about our investment strategies.  I found that I wasn’t able to explain certain subtleties.  This probably means that I don’t understand them very well myself.  I was feeling flummoxed, hot under the collar, and irritable.  How can I convey to her a sense of ease and confidence in our investments, when I don’t even hold a tight grasp on all of the complexities?  This reminds me of one of the rules of philosophy and science; you can’t give others what you yourself do not possess.

In other words, if a hat holds 3 gallons of tea, you can’t get 4 out of it.

So, you must first hold a comprehensive knowledge of the thing, before you will ever be able to give that value to anyone else.  I often find that if I look closely, I don’t really know why I want something.  I find in myself a desire, which I can neither account for its root or heritage.  It is neither moral, physical necessity, nor utilitarian.  I’ve posed this line of thinking to others, sometimes in the form of asking for a definition of cool.  We don’t even know what cool is, but we want to be it; especially as young people, among our peers.  To be thought highly off, seems to be universal human desire.  But, I do not see how it helps you to do arithmetic, earn a living, garden or live a holy life.  I’m a grown man, and I wish I could say that I do not care one iota about looking cool.  Whose approval am I soliciting anyway?  Is it God’s or men?  What could I possible do with my “coolness” once I got it? Is coolness currency?

There is a popular folk tale in which a man and wife use a magical talisman in the form of a monkey’s mummified paw to wish for their dead son’s return.  Of course, they did not choose their words with care, so the shuffling, decaying thing which returns from the grave is a misery and terror to them.  The whole thing ends in torment and sorrow.   They had to experience the fear of the dead thing, which had once been their beloved boy, in order to appreciate that some things are worse than death.  This was a values clarification exercise.  It proved that they would only be able to keep their son, so long as he remained an honored dead, rather than a living thing of reprehensible rot and putrescence, which was in no way their beloved boy.  It is a paradox for us as well; that the only way we shall be able to keep our lives is if we lose them.  But, mark those words well, for they come from the Master and Keeper of Life.  We conclude (along with every other moral tale of persons having their yearnings at long last fulfilled, only to find that they thing they had wanted could not ultimately satisfy their souls) that, indeed, one must be careful what one wishes for.  Is it clichéd?  Certain!  Is it the base truth of all desires?  Most certainly!

Every person must do a values clarification exercise to discover why it is you want what you want.  Without knowing why you have these desires, you will forever chase the latest fads, fashions, and affirmations of others.  Like a dog chasing its tale, you’ll never catch what you’re really after, because you’ve never taken the time to really figure out what’s worth having.  Everyone I’ve ever met has wanted something, but few have ever been able to explain why.  They simply feel it.  They know it in their core.  Actually, I am satisfied with that response about certain things.  But, it simply won’t do for many of the things we say we want.  Consider the following experiment.

Ask a student why he wants to do well in school, and he will almost without fail answer you, “to get into college”.  Ask the young man why he wants to go to college and 9 times out of 10 he will say, “To get a good job”.  (This is the answer he has always been given by his peers, and usually the only reason he had ever been told by his parents to pursue higher education.)  Ask him why he’d like to have a good job, and, invariably he will look at you incredulously and say, “Duh, to make lots of money.”  (I do not have space here to explore that he takes it for granted that the “good job” is the one which makes “lots of money”.   Then ask him why he would like to “make lots of money”.  At this point he will probably be flustered, and unable to cogently discuss his desire for lots of money, because he has taken it for granted that making lots of money is an end unto itself.  Possibly, if he is a decent sort or planning for a family, the young man will reply, “to take good care of my wife and kids.”  If you were to push further, and ask him why he should want to “take good care of his wife and kids”, he might respond, “I don’t know, that’s just what you’re supposed to do.”  He simply feels it, without being able to explain it.  I said before that gut feeling can suffice as explanation for some desires, but I do not agree that the filial responsibility to take good care of one’s family is one of these.  Although, I do feel in my gut the responsibility to take good care of my family, I do not find it to be an end unto itself.   When we mentally allow means unto an end to substitute as ends unto themselves, we have departed from the Truth.

The Christian’s response to any one of these questions, and indeed should be the response to the very first question (and every other one along the way) is to glorify God.  I want to do well in school to glorify God.  I want to go to college so I can glorify God.  I’d like to get a job to glorify God, and my desire is to glorify God with the money I earn there.  I want to raise a family which will glorify God into the ensuing generations.  Clarifying your values should begin with glorify god… ask the question how does this praise the lord, advance his name, bring Him what he’s due?

Clarifying values gets to the heart of desire? It answers the question, “Is this vain ambition, foolish conceit, frivolous acquisitiveness, or something ontologically solid?” I am constantly asking small children, “Why do you want that?” You can’t even prove it would be good for you, let alone worth the money. But, children don’t really care about those properties. They care about what their primal brains tell them to care about. Disregarding logic. Casting away all dignity. Shamelessly squawking their felt needs. The child has no need, nor indeed no ability, for explanations.

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Fill in the blank on the following sentence. This year for Christmas, I would like (blank). Now, let me ask you, does (blank) provide you with more silence? Does it bequeath more solitude? Does it promise simplicity (you know, the kind one experiences while sitting beside the lake or stream, and gazing at the gently passing clouds). If it doesn’t do those three, or at least 1 of the 3, then you want the wrong thing. If it doesn’t give you prolonged periods of silence, solitude and/or simplicity, please stop desiring it.

Balance: The art of staying true to center

Next-Steps-SLIDERI have often watched as Olympic gymnasts prance, leap, flip, and dance on a balance beam.  They seem so graceful, so lithe… almost weightless.  I realized that these seemingly pixie dust possessing, feather-light athletes are in actuality muscular dynamo’s thrusting the full weight of their force down through their meaty legs and into the beam. They are able to affect this gossamer illusion of floating on air, only by concentrating their power inward toward center and downward towards the support.

Staying balanced means having a firm footing, even if a narrow one, and the strength to reign in wild flailing appendages.  If the gymnast’s arms spread akimbo, she is off balance and loses points.  If she leans to one side of the other, she is not centered and may fall.  It is her mastery of the center, and her ability to conduct her force down onto the beam which holds her.  It is using gravity, not fighting it.  Gravity can make her fall off, or, if she uses it correctly, it can keep her centered and graceful.

Why do I mention gymnasts, in relation to balancing your personal and professional life.  Because, I think it is hard work, takes much training, can make you a champion, and when done well can seem effortless from the perspective of lookers on.  By no means, have I attained any kind of real and lasting success at work life balance, but I think I am beginning to be on the right track.  I share here my humble observations and discoveries.

A bit about me:

I own a salon and spa in S. Tampa, with my wife. I love working with her, but it is difficult to have any alone time. It is hard to not talk about work. Seems like many of our convo’s revert back to talking about our business (you know, bills, the future, our staff). This has happened even when we are on vacation or visiting family out of state. My wife and I are equally likely to steer the conversation toward work concepts. We need help~!

I do a lot of blogging, reading, and listening to Christian or entrepreneurial pod casts on iTunes U. So, the ideas I am interacting with, and getting excited about, revolve around business or my work with GodlyCulture.com. Needless to say, I want to talk with her about them. But, this can get tiresome. Other times, she is doing the billing, while I am relaxing (or just disengaged from work things) and she will want to ask me questions about this or that line item.

It is frustrating for both of us, because humans need to have brain breaks. We are working on it, but we have a long road to hoe.  The Bible teaches that humans need Sabbath.  We have to quit working, thinking about working, planning to work, and that this is good and honoring to God. Jesus made the point that Sabbath is given to mankind as a gift, otherwise we would self enslave and be totally devoted to bottom line. I have come to realize that my business isn’t totally dependent on my abilities, in fact, I can hurt my business and my blog by making it the central focus of my efforts.

On the other hand, if I don’t focus on work, while at work, then I am slacking off. If I don’t focus on my faith, when I am supposedly engaged in “disciplines” then I am committing the deadly sin of sloth. If I don’t focus on my family, when I am at home, then I am neglecting a wonderful gift/responsibility God has given me. If I focus on work at home, not good. If I focus on my personal affairs, when I am supposed to be devoting time to God, not good. If I am taking time that has been set aside for work time, and get distracted doing ministry tasks, not good. My pastor taught me that “great boundaries are necessary for great relationships.” To put it another way (much more convoluted); setting up walls that divide this responsibility from that, is essential in order to prioritize time, reach goals, and maintain the integrity of the divers realms of human activity. We make boundaries so that we are free to pursue our full potential.

Boundaries help us achieve our goals, by limiting our attention to certain things. When we put limitations on ourselves, we actually free ourselves to do something excellent. The pianist who limits his time spent online gaming, so he can devote to practice his concerto, frees himself to be an expert. The martial artist who limits himself to only practicing one form, guarantees that he will be a master. While there is something to be said for diversification, to be an expert or industry leader means intensive commitment to one discipline.

With that in mind, I suggest creating concrete baindaries between work and home (especially if you work from home, have a family owned business, are a small business entrepreneur, or simply can’t help but import your work life into your personal life.) For instance, make a commitment to each other that on Sundays, you will not answer the phone, email, or check in on the office. No talking business at the dinner table. When you go on a date night with the wife, hand her your cell phone. Take a brain break every afternoon, and simply go outside for a walk around the block. You are not bringing your best self to the office or to the family room, when you have not made time for self-renewal. I think of this as re-calibrating back to a position of normalcy and wellness.

Of course we should expect that some categories will bleed into each other. For instance, I believe that i can honor God, by being excellent at my business. Or again, my family life will suffer and diminish if our business flounders and dissolves. There is room for overlap, but one must be careful. As with all things, single minded devotion to your professional, personal, or spiritual life, can leave cavities which invite decay. The Scripture is clear that 1. he who finds a wife, finds a good thing, and B. the married are to focus on their spouses, even at the expense of ministry. (Proverbs 18:22 & 1 Corinthians 7:33) It is also clear, that he who does not work should not eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10)

The bible has wisdom to teach on every facet of human existence. Work? Yes! Marriage? Check! Raising kids? Right again! Personal finance? Business ethics? Politics? The Arts and culture? All of these and more! It is the answer book for human thought, moral practice, spiritual disciplines, and personal salvation. Read it!