Charlie is the son a dear friend, and was doing a senior year Kairos Retreat. His mother asked me to write him a letter, to be read during the weekend, and at first, I thought I had no idea what to say. Then, in the writing, twenty years of retreats and seeking of my own found voice. I received such positive comments on the letter, I thought perhaps it would speak to a wider audience than one 18 year old boy.
One of my very favorite songs, and the accompanying video, is Kenny Chesney’s “Don’t Blink.” This is one of the moments he sings about. I’ve known you for all of your nearly two decades and it feels as though it’s gone by like a speeding bullet train. Thus, my first thought for your Kairos letter is “don’t blink,” because sooner than you can even possibly imagine, you will be 47 and wondering how all those years have gone by so fast, and very much wondering what you might say to your 18-year-old self that would contribute to – and perhaps ease – the journey ahead.
I’m touched and honored that your mom asked me to be one of the people to write you a letter for your retreat. I wasn’t familiar with the Kairos tradition, so I’ve done a bit of reading about the intention for these weekends. Like all true intellects, I began with Wikipedia, which suggests that the Kairos retreat “focuses mostly on helping one find his or her own personal relationship with God during a few days of discerning and discovery.”
One of the many books I read along my own journey is called “Visions from the Heart” by a truly marvelous cultural anthropologist named Jennifer James. In it, she studies and distills the vision traditions of many different cultures, and in the end, they all share 20 consistent “vision steps” that help to nurture and unfold a deeper insight into one’s self, one’s God and one’s role in the world.
I went through these steps via a “Vision Quest” many years ago, which is somewhat of a Native American equivalent to what you are doing now. It is a going fully away from your life in order to seek – and hopefully to find – your more true, authentic life. You literally enact dying to your old self so that your new self can be born. You bring the vision for your life that comes from your quest back into the world where it is interpreted by a tribal shaman. And the one and only rule is that visions cannot be for the benefit of you alone. The vision you receive for your life must be of benefit to your community for it to have authenticity.
My path of “vision steps” led to days alone on a rock in the middle of a Utah canyon with no food, questing for a vision for my life from the native peoples’ concept of an Infinite Spirit. Yours has led to a Kairos retreat with your schoolmates looking for a deeper connection to a Christian-centric God. In their essence, however, the road is the same. Only the vehicles are different.
I can’t travel even an inch of the road for you, but I can tell you that you must make the journey, and I can tell you from experience that understanding what is to come will make it easier, and make the pathway nearly obvious, as unlikely as that may seem to you now.
In developing the ability to recognize your path as it unfolds, another understanding of “Kairos” becomes essential:
“… kairos is "a passing instant when an opening appears which must be driven through with force if success is to be achieved."
E. C. White, Kaironomia
I can’t recommend strongly enough that you read Joseph Campbell to understand this notion of “kairos”; of being prepared for crucial openings that will come your way so that you recognize the moments when they appear and you are prepared to act. Come they will – in their time, not yours -- and you mustn’t miss them. They are critical moments in your life’s journey when you are called to leap into the unknown and become more than you think possible.
I will send “A Joseph Campbell Companion” for you to read in the months ahead. Digest it in small bites, and tuck away the awareness so that when the cliffs present themselves, you jump without second thought. Note that I don’t say “without fear.” You will almost certainly be afraid; in some instances, terrified. Teach yourself to live with fear so that you leap anyway. I have a little piece of paper in my wallet that says, “Leap. The net will find you.” It will. But the only way to learn to trust that is to make your first few leaps without being quite so sure.
In the meantime, in no particular order, following are some things I’ve learned along the path I’ve traveled. These are current understandings. I may learn something tomorrow that changes everything, but these are some things I’ve come to believe and understand. Of note, sharing my own experiences may or may not prevent you from learning the same lessons the hard way, of your own accord and in your own time.
• What you’re seeking is seeking you. People – and places and situations -- worth having in your life will value you as much as you value them. Don’t waste a moment of your energy, your self-esteem, your LIFE wondering when you will find “the one” perfect person/job/home whatever. What is meant for you will appear in its time, and you will know it when you see it if you are paying attention. Even more importantly, don’t try to “burn wet wood.” Some relationships are never going to catch fire, and wasting time trying to force them is just that… a waste of time.
• Practice acceptance. Accept that your parents (and friends) (and siblings) (and grandparents) (and girlfriends) are human. They’re going to get it wrong. They’re going to monumentally disappoint you. They’re going to incense you like nobody’s business. They’re also going to love you through all the times you’re also human and you also get it colossally wrong. A few friends will “stick” along the way – but not so many, and few will be there for you like your family when your ship hits a reef. “When” – not “if.” You will hit speed bumps, large and small. You may get by a tsunami, literally or figuratively. Life is full of curve balls. You will need love and support. Be aware of this, and allocate your attention accordingly. Invest in maintaining your family, and have the courage to let go of people who don’t feed you. You’ll know them – you’re exhausted by their presence instead of energized.
• Do what it takes to heal your own broken places. This might mean books. It might mean church. It might mean therapy. Only you will know where your life isn’t working and where you hurt and where you’re repetitively sabotaging your own intentions. And only you have to power to decide to be disciplined enough to find a way to let those things go. I’ve read an ocean of books and I have full faith in an infinite being, but I am a huge proponent of therapy when it’s needed. You get to talk about anything you want and there are no hurt feelings or broken relationships when you leave the room. Find a way to put down pain – it’s too expensive to carry with you, and your attempts to avoid it will muck up everything else.
• Actions speak louder than words; believe them. Even when you don’t want to believe them, believe them. Great quote from an old 70s hippy poetry book I read in college: “People are always telling you the truth, even when they’re lying.” You will save yourself a whole lot of grief in life if you don’t make up stories to excuse people’s poor behavior. One of the most transformative ideas that ever crossed my path was this: You can get to a place in your life where you allow other people to suffer the consequences of their own decisions.
• There’s a monumental load of mediocrity out there in the world. Some of the mediocre will loathe you for trying to be excellent. What. Ever. Just go be excellent at what you care about.
• Learn to deal with conflict. It is 100% not possible to avoid conflict in your life. If you learn to face it, understand it, resolve it, and move on from it, you will be miles ahead of most people who spend much of their lives trying to avoid having the honest conversation. If you know you avoid it, make the effort to learn different skills. It’s kind of critical: if you don’t know how to solve a problem, you’re always going to have problems because they’re never going to get resolved. By avoiding them, you consign yourself to carrying them around with you. Another epic waste of time and energy.
• Contentment is highly under-rated. Figure out how to feel okay about yourself and your choices and your lot in life. This will take years. It’s okay. If you choose to work on it, you’ll get there, and when you do, you will be grateful every day for the lack of inner doubt and conflict.
• Kindness is important. Most people are hurting on the inside, and small things can make a big difference. This also matters to your own self worth and contentment. See above.
• Life matters. Not human life. Life. All life. Differentiating is a fool’s game. Exhibiting unkindness or indifference to creatures just because we don’t speak dog or crow or dolphin or tiger or mouse is illogical. We keep proving across all species that the pathetically little we know is due to our own limitations; not due to other creatures’ astonishing ability to communicate, organize, empathize, attach, and suffer just as we do. Be consciously aware of this. Make choices accordingly. Speak for creatures who can’t speak for themselves.
• Make peace with loneliness. You will be lonely sometimes. Flailing around looking for cheap company to avoid feeling alone doesn’t work. Lonely has nothing to do with lack of people around you, and everything to do with feeling a lack of genuine connection with people who matter to you. Sometimes that connection is missing for awhile. You can choose to be okay with that, and trust that you’ll find connection again in due time, and you aren’t going to die in the meantime. It just might feel that way.
• Push your edges. Otherwise, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. Go out of your way to do things that scare you, or at least challenge you. Not stupid shit like jumping backwards off a cliff into shallow water to impress your friends. Cool, interesting, smart things that offer the opportunity to see or do or learn something you don’t already know. The worst thing that will happen is that you will have new information about something in which you don’t wish to invest your time. The best thing that will happen is your entire perspective will change in a way you can’t even imagine and your life will never be the same.
• Get very, very clear on needs versus. wants. People ask what I learned on trek for a month in remote areas of Nepal and Tibet. I learned many, many things, but mostly, I gained a visceral understanding of the difference between needs versus wants. We have profoundly few needs – food, water, shelter, companionship, health, love. Nearly ALL the rest is wants. All of it. Particularly in the US. “Use your words” as they say to children. Learn to be careful in your expressions of what you actually need, versus what you merely want. For example, after a month in Tibet over fifteen years ago, I am still viscerally grateful all the time for the sheer luxury of indoor plumbing. I don’t need it – I could live without it. Paying attention to this one distinction keeps me conscious to the million little ways that my life is incredibly blessed and fully aware of how pampered my life really is. Plus, when I don’t get my way, or something breaks, or I lose something – c’est la vie. It’s almost never that important anyway.
• When evaluating opportunities large and small, ask what you would otherwise do with that time, and then ask whether the proposed endeavor holds a higher or lower possibility to change your life for the better than doing what you would otherwise do with that time. Voila. Instant answer.
• The more you grow, the more people you will outgrow. Accept this before you start. It’s okay. You won’t miss them. I promise.
• If I could do it all again, I wish I’d done nearly everything I did but I wish I’d had the guts and good sense to not drink. Name one person you know whom you think more highly of when they’re drinking vs. when they’re sober. Yeah… not so much. If it’s not fun or funny when you’re sober, then you might laugh like a hyena when you’re drunk, but it’s usually just not that great. Drinking makes you say and do things you’re ashamed of, and shame is a very, very (very) expensive self-indictment to carry around. Everyone who got a DUI, smashed up their car, fucked up a relationship through boozed-up words or choices, etc etc. etc. thought they were able to handle their liquor. So will you. Odds aren’t in your favor that you’re going to be the shining exception. At minimum, be honest with yourself about the risks.
• There are true sociopaths in the world. See the good in everyone, but learn to recognize people who are unable to interact with you with genuine empathy, good will and true care and respect for you as a stand-alone individual. Don’t try to understand them – you never will. Seriously – you can’t. Just get away from them. I’m dead serious. This is really important. If you allow them access, they will wreak utter havoc on your life mentally, emotionally, spiritually and often, physically. Suffice to say, I learned this one the hard way and I (unfortunately) know of which I speak. This applies to co-workers, bosses, friends, coaches, girlfriends, wives, family, etc. Everyone is not a nice person. Learn to recognize the bad ones and be careful out there. Don’t waste one hot second blaming yourself for getting sucked in and bitten by a vampire; just get the hell away from the vampire.
• Pay attention to what I call “the rule of three.” If something catches your attention or crosses your path three times, pay attention. Give it focus. It has something to teach you.
• Remember that every book in the world about God was written by humans, who often have an agenda whether they’re aware of that or not, and even if they’re 100% perfect channels for spirit’s intent, those words have generally been rewritten sixty ways from Sunday over the centuries, which is well documented in the history books. This changes nothing about the truth about God. I believe the Buddhist notion that you must find spirit for yourself. Don’t trust me, don’t trust books, don’t trust anyone else’s interpretation for you. Earn your faith yourself. It takes work, but it’s there to be earned.
And so we come to another perspective-altering quote, this one from “A Course In Miracles.”
Faith is when you stop reserving the right to change your mind.
You must earn your faith. And once you have earned it, you must be disciplined enough to trust it, even when it surprises or challenges you.
Have you seen the movie, Contact? Jodie Foster is a researcher, searching for signs of life in space, and what she finds is her father – who is dead in body, but, as it turns out, not in spirit. She then tries to bring that message back into the world of her research colleagues and Congress, and you can imagine how well that plays out. The tension in the movie becomes all about trusting what you know to be true even if other people can’t see it.
There is a scene where Matthew McConaghey’s character says to her, basically, “Do you love your father?”
She says, flabbergasted at the stupidity of the question, “Of course!”
And he says: “Prove it.”
This is a touchstone in my life. I can’t prove MOST of the most important truths of my life any more than I can prove love.
Once you’ve come to a place in your life where you know the hand of God is at work in what is unfolding, you don’t get to change your mind when what unfolds isn’t what you had planned. Or when it seems unpleasant. Or when you are asked to bear something that seems unbearable.
In “The Book of the Vision Quest” it puts it this way: “The vision is not under our control – and never was.”
Do the work to find your faith. Question everything – the answers will come. Believe them when they do. If you’re not sure, ask your angels to reiterate so you know you’re getting the message clearly. And then, walk through what is asked of you with as much kindness and love and dignity as you can muster, trusting that God has the map, and that if He’s directed you down a given road, it’s where you need to be. Remember that if you spend your energy asking why you’re there, and judging what’s unfolding, you won’t have enough energy left to be open to whatever lesson awaits on that portion of your journey.
Last, but not least at all, I’m going to float the possibility that your angels have had a hand in this letter. When your mom asked me to write it, I had no idea what I would say, and yet these were some of the easiest words I’ve written in a very long time.
I hope some of this makes sense to you now. I suspect some will seem more relevant later. And I ask only that you take what works for you and leave the rest. Your path will reveal answers of its own.
I wish you a life that is authentic and meaningful to you, and most of all, an unshakeable certainty of your own value.
I am so glad to know you.
Much, much love,