Becoming Real People

May 4, 2010 by admin  
Filed under Thoughts

zI remember coming across a timely poem in my high school American literature class.  At the time, reading it was only an assignment, but for some reason it has stuck with me over the years.  It is titled Richard Cory, by Edwin Arlington Robinson:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

I guess what makes this bit of verse so vivid to me is that it points out a significant contradiction in the way we live:  We know the futility of status, wealth and charm in themselves, and yet we crave them relentlessly.

All of us know a Richard Cory or two: those who seem to have made it and have everything.  They are rich, beautiful, successful and admired.  They drive their sports cars around in perpetual sunshine with the convertible tops down, while we blunder through the fog in our clunkers.  The Richard Corys of the world represent the ultimate goal of so many people: to make it, whatever the cost.

Yet, from time to time, we hear the unsettling news that some celebrity or jet-setter has ended his or her life, either deliberately or through some kind of substance overdose.  We hardly know what to think at such times.  This person seemingly had it all, but threw it away.  What could have caused such despair?

Thinking a little deeper might alert us to the warning this is for all who wish to trade places with Richard Cory.  The person who makes it to the top so often goes to bed with the sinking realization that everything they have is– in itself– empty.  Beauty, wealth and popularity give only temporary satisfaction and leave a long-term hunger for something more.  Hence the never-ending search for deeper pleasures, a more impressive record, an enhanced body, more extravagant vacation or just more stuff. When these things fail to satisfy as well, leaving that gnawing hunger for fulfillment, people sometimes decide that the pain is unbearable.

Fortunately, there is an antidote to such futile living.  It can be found in the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 6:19-21, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”.

In these words, Jesus gives us a piercing insight into the workings of our own souls.  He tells us frankly that earthly treasure does not last: it can be eaten up, rusted through and stolen.  He teaches us that we can diagnose the state of our soul by examining the type of treasure it craves.  When we examine ourselves according to Jesus’ words, we may conclude that we have been seeking the wrong things most of our lives. Jesus’ answer?  Acquire incorruptable treasure.  In other words, exchange the desire for temporary, shallow things for that which is ultimately fulfilling.  But how?

It starts by getting real with ourselves.  The truth is that we desire unfulfilling things simply because they make us look and feel good without inner change.  They promise that we can bypass the struggle required to actually deserve the admiration of people and the fulfillment, which comes from an approving conscience.  In other words, a focused desire for wealth and status points out our insignificance and smallness of character.  When it becomes clear that this is what we really are, then we must repent.  Repent: such a harsh and unpleasant word.  But there is no real shame in this.  It is a universal human condition.  The sooner we get there, the more quickly we may actually become something and acquire that which will really satisfy our souls.

Then we must seek from God those things, which can give us real significance and make us truly admirable.  Things like: the ability to love people; an inner contentment regardless of circumstances; joy which cannot be suppressed by the fickleness of life; and the knack of living in and by the grace of God.  The great thing about asking God for things like this is that he is very good about giving them.

Despite his wealth and position, Richard Cory never really lived because he was just a shell.  But then, often so are we.  Jesus invites us to become truly alive and truly fulfilled by drawing our life from him: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  John 14:6

Michael Bogartz

Believe Your Way Into the Future

September 5, 2009 by admin  
Filed under Thoughts

How Convictions Affect Your Life-Outcomes

crossroadsEven though it has been many years since my high school graduation, I still remember certain things very clearly. I can recall how I felt: excited about the future, yet somewhat apprehensive about what lay ahead. Like most young people, I was full of ideas about how to make my future a good one. My goals involved making and spending some money during the coming summer and then off to college in the fall. But at the time of my graduation, the future was still a big blank. Would I do well in college? Would I have to go to Viet Nam like some of my older friends? Would I be getting married? Would I like the job or career that I chose? Would I have any fun?

All members of graduating classes think similar kinds of things about the future. There is a generous mixture of excitement and sorrow; hope and fear. In pondering about life in general over the past few years, it seems to me that life tends to progress through three stages after high school is completed. At each stage, there are some perks and some uncertainties. How we do in each of the stages is directly influenced by what we fundamentally believe. As I see it, the three stages of adult life are as follows: 1) Getting Started; 2) Mid Life; and 3) The Downhill Slide. I offer the insights I have gained in the first two stages of my adult life as a gift to those just beginning the journey.

Before I outline the stages of adult life as I have observed them, I must explain what I mean by fundamental beliefs. At any point in life’s journey, we operate from the basis of certain rock-solid conclusions we have come to about the way reality is. Obviously, personality and early training will have already shaped those deeply-held convictions. Religious commitments will also have contributed to the formation of how you see the world.

But along with these shapers of a person’s world view, are certain key choices all of us have made as we have encountered the mixed experiences of our lives. For example, we have chosen to believe that the outlook for our lives is basically hopeful or basically dark; that people can be trusted (more or less) or that they probably cannot be. We have chosen to believe that there is a God who is good and caring and wise or that whatever beings or forces there may be are not particularly interested in our welfare. We have also chosen either to follow along with what we have been told by others about these matters, or to think for ourselves. All of this is what I mean by fundamental beliefs. These beliefs will act as a compass as we navigate the uncharted seas we must cross into the future.

Getting Started. Your fundamental beliefs determine how you will face the uncertainty and the challenges of beginning your adult life. In the first five-to-fifteen years you will begin a life that is very different from the one you have known in your teen years. Some will begin to pursue higher education. Others will enlist in the military. Still others will enter some sort of employment. For a significant percentage of high school graduates, marriage and family will accompany these things somewhere along the line. You will find yourself stretched and challenged on levels you may not even imagine at the moment.

Along with the thrill of these new experiences come certain questions: Who am I now? Can I survive the new set of expectations placed on me? How can I prepare myself to succeed? Am I enjoying life in this phase? Are my relationships working as I want them to? At the time, there are no answers to those questions: only time and the choices you make will provide them. What you profoundly believe about the nature of things will directly determine the choices you make and the manner in which you react to the circumstances you will face. Your fundamental beliefs will make all the difference between success and failure in how you start out. They will color the way in which you define success and failure.

The Mid Life. What you profoundly believe to be true will determine how you survive the inevitable disillusionments of middle life. After fifteen or twenty years, the bulk of the new beginnings will have been made. You will probably have completed your education. The aspect of marriage and family will have at least been attempted. Careers will be proceeding along their course. You may find that you are doing very well. But watch out for this: you will probably wake up one day to realize that you are forty years old (much to your dismay) and, amazed, you will ask yourself how this could have possibly happened.

Then life gets busy again and you find that you are approaching that huge milestone of your fiftieth year. It will seem impossible that so much time has passed. Somewhere in there, you may experience what has been called a mid-life crisis. Besides feeling the effects of getting older, certain questions you have not been willing to face now must be answered, such as: Have I spent the past couple of decades wisely? Am I making any significant impact on those around me? Have I been a contributor to the world or a merely taker of what the world has to offer? Have my choices made me happy? Can I afford to make a significant change at this point in my journey?

It may be that you will find yourself in a job or career that is very frustrating and you can’t see yourself going on with things as they are. Maybe your family life is falling apart and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to stop it. You might experience health problems or the loss of someone very near and dear. You may have failed in some area of your life to which you have devoted much of your energy and ego. When things like this happen, many people ask, “Is this what life is all about? Is this what I must accept as the result of all my preparation, plans and effort.”  The middle phase of your life allows you to truly experience life in its reality.  It is also in this phase that you realize that some of your youthful dreams will never come to fruition.

The Downhill Slide. Again, what you believe will guide you through the your final years. OK, so you get through the midlife eventually, finishing your career and raising your family. The open road before you now is nearing its end.  As you savor your accomplishments and rewards, you are beginning to evaluate your journey. Here is a typical scenario: For the most part, the younger generation will not bother to come to you for your advice or expertise. It is very likely that health problems will suddenly increase. More and more of your friends and loved ones will die, leaving you feeling very much alone. In some ways, the sadness you may have experienced periodically before this will become a much more prevalent theme.

As you realize these things, a new set of questions rises in your mind with some urgency: Have I spent my life well? Did I truly love anyone? Of the things I regret, are there ways I can still make some of them right? What comes next (if anything)? If you are a believer in God, you will also wonder whether he is pleased with you.

Obviously, what you firmly believe about the way life is, makes a huge difference in how you answer those questions. It can make the difference between an embittered old age, or finishing your productive years as a blessing to those around you. Your convictions can either take away the fear of death or leave you looking at the end of your life as just that—the end.

So, what are the options? In a society like ours, where we are free to choose, the options are many. I can’t begin to even mention them all, nor would I particularly want to. My own choices have included the decision to believe that God is good and that whatever has befallen me has been within his loving plan. That means that I believe my life has a purpose, which I may choose to fulfill or not. For me, it has meant that loving as God loves (expressed in Christ) is among the supreme virtues, that success in life is defined very differently from the definitions of others, and that I can have a sense of contentment not available to those whose beliefs may be different from mine.

Basic beliefs do matter. They make all the difference in how you face things; how you go about dealing with things. Beliefs make a difference in the goals you set and how you fulfill them. They make a difference in how you evaluate your life at the end. No one would expect an eighteen-year old to have a fully-formed set of convictions. The process of forming convictions may continue for some time into adulthood. Certainly your beliefs as a young adult will be sharpened and perhaps modified through the ups and downs of your future. But now is a good time to take stock of what you do believe, at least so far. There is always time to adjust, adapt and learn as time carries you forward. It is never too late to decide to trust a benevolent God, despite what the circumstances of your life may be saying at the moment.

My wish is that your life may be full of joy and goodness and love. I hope you have some fun along the way. I urge you to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Don’t forget your family and friends. The years will get away from you before you realize it, so at least settle your basic beliefs now. Yes, we can set goals and, to some degree, influence the course of our lives. But there is a side of life that cannot be planned or directed by anything we may choose. In some ways, life will just happen to each of us. When it does, the only choice that remains is how we will think about these circumstances and how we will behave as a result. In those times, what you deeply believe makes all the difference!

Michael Bogart

This essay was originally given as the speech at my eldest daughter Andrea’s baccalaureate service as a part of graduation week at Lemoore (California) High School, June, 1999.