Souls are like athletes

Posted in: Applying Wisdom

Souls are like athletes, that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers, and rewarded according to their capacity.

– Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

Training grounds for the soul

My daughter needed surgery last year when she was four months old. The condition we were treating with surgery was not life threatening and the surgery itself was relatively low risk, but it was still terrifying as a parent. I couldn’t help but imagine the worst happening.

I wasn’t in the habit of praying but I said little prayers to whatever God or gods were out there.

Fortunately, the surgery turned out great and Sloane is currently a healthy and opinionated toddler.

The Today Show is not enough

There’s a truth that all parents know that non-parents find annoying to hear, which is that having a kid dramatically increases your capacity for love.

Not only am I overwhelmed by love for my own child but I also care much more about others. I can’t even watch TV shows or movies where something bad happens to a kid anymore, the feelings are too intense.

Basically, I’m a pile of mush now.

But “pile of mush” doesn’t adequately describe the transformation I’ve gone through in the last 19 months.

Unfortunately, modern secular culture offers limited language and processes for describing these deep interior movements.

The self-help gurus talk about “living your best life” and being your “true self” but this discussion seems shallow. The language is centered around figuring out your own desires and meeting them.

Or perhaps the morning shows (the Today show is the Davidson’s choice; love you Savannah!) feature someone who experienced something tragic and used that experience to start a wonderful non-profit that helps people. Inspirational and moving, but not prescriptive.

I suspect that during the pandemic many were looking for ways to both process what they were feeling but were unsatisfied with what modernity offered.

The language and deep practices of the soul

We recognize today that clinical depression is not the same as “feeling blue” or temporarily sad. To use that language would trivialize it, and more consequently, lead to ineffective treatments. 

If someone is sad you take them out to a party or a spa day or something. If someone is severely depressed you get them to a psychiatrist.

Similarly, it is also critical to use the appropriate language with the right gravitas to diagnose matters of the soul.

Jesuits practice something called the daily “examen” which is an end-of-day prayer/reflection.

It is a five step process that has you reflect on your day to find “God in all things.”

For example, the second step invites you to reflect on your sins.

The second step in the examen is asking for the grace to “know my sins,” to see where you have turned away from the deepest part of yourself, the part that calls you to God.

Father James Martin S.J., The Jesuit Guide to (Almost Everything)

This language of souls, sins, grace, and God has the right depth and nuance to engage with the full range of human experience. 

Perhaps more importantly, the examen in particular offers specific instruction to engage with your life in a more attentive and meaningful way. Paying attention in this way can move you to live the life you were meant to live.

Of course, the Jesuits are not the only group that offers the deep language and practices to engage with the soul. You can find them in other ancient wisdom traditions as well. 

For example, Buddhist meditation can offer you deep intuitive insight into the nature of the self and help you pierce the illusions of your mind. 

These ancient practices are sophisticated and appropriate to cultivate the soul and have a far higher probability of getting you to lead you to live your “best life” and be your “true self.”

Practical applications

I’m certain that becoming a father has changed me in some deep, fundamental ways. What I’m less certain about is how this change should impact me beyond parenting.

One small way my wife and I changed our behaviors was to give a little more to a few charities that would help kids. I hope to continue this practice.

But another interior movement I’m noticing is my feelings towards the industry I’m in. 

I’ve been working for an intelligence agency for a long time now and while I’ve always been disillusioned with the bureaucracy part of it, I’m now feeling a bit of…something about the entire “war machine.”

My particular work is back office type stuff, not spying or anything. But when I think that I work for the government that accidentally killed seven kids in Afghanistan as one its last acts in that war, I feel uneasy. 

It’s harder for me to now just brush it off as part of the “fog of war” when I can more viscerally feel the suffering of those childrens’ parents.

I’m not sure where this stirring will lead me. What I do know is that it’s important to treat it with a deep, time-tested process.