I’ve been taken aback these last few weeks by all the retrospectives and their universal declaration that the “aughts” were an awful decade. Objectively, it’s hard to argue as they trot out disaster after disaster, setback after setback. And when pressed, I recall that as the decade began I had a six-figure salary at a high-flying dot-com, millions to come with the genuinely likely public offering, and a beautiful girlfriend. I had none of those things within a few years. But I need to be reminded of the losses and setbacks and derailed career, because my perception of the story line of the decade is entirely different. For me the aughts weren’t awful; they were awesome.
You see, for me the key events of the decade are: reclaiming my sobriety, my conversion and baptism, and feeling and answering the call to return to writing, with a new focus on spiritual work. The past decade has in many ways been the most joyous of my life. It has been a period of spiritual growth, of expanding community, and of a radically increased sense of usefulness and purpose.
There’s an obvious connection here. As I said in my column, “Losing your footing and finding the ground“, losing the material things that define our lives can shake us into adjusting our focus, our priorities.
But mine is not a neat and tidy conversion story of: “My life was pointless and painful, then I found God, and now everything is rosy.” For me, the life stripped away by the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11 did matter and, in many ways, was good. I looked forward to going to work every morning and figuring out how to bring more music into people’s lives. My work was both creative and challenging. I lost a good thing. And the same was certainly true of my relationship.
Once was lost but now am found
There is a different conversion story arc that does apply: the one found in the Luke 15 parables of the Prodigal Son — “this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” — and the lost sheep — “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” — and in Psalm 119, “I have gone astray like a lost sheep.” Or as it’s rendered in “Amazing Grace”:
I once was lost but now am found.
Was blind, but now I see.
A frequent metaphor in both Christian and Hebrew scripture is the path or way, straying from the path, losing one’s way. The Hebrew word “shub,” often translated as repent, literally means to return. “Convert” comes from the Latin, meaning to turn around. Our internal compass knows which direction leads home; we need to decide to follow it.
Or clear our vision so we can see it. Throughout the mystical literature of many different traditions, you find the metaphors of being asleep or dead or blind, and the potential of awakening or being reborn or seeing. I have spent much of my life sleepwalking, not fully alive, lost, so to speak. Wonderful gifts have come and gone, and I’ve enjoyed them, and I’ve mostly been good to others. But it was all through a haze of disconnection. In the 00’s, I woke up; I reconnected; I found God and myself; and through this I became a new person; I was reborn.
It’s not that I never sensed the divine before that. As I’ve recounted before in bits and pieces, I have been practicing Centering Prayer since the early 90s; I’ve been a regular member of a Christian church since before that, a lay leader even; I’ve stood in awe of the divine in nature — the fragile warbler and the overwhelming redwood, the otherworldly octopus and the common housecat. But these were glimpses.
What I lacked then was a regular sense of connection, communion, a sense of groundedness. I feel alive now, and I experience the connectedness as love — the sense that no matter what happens, the world is ultimately driven by Love and that we’re all connected through this love, to one another and to God.
Choosing what matters
Now this is where it gets tricky. Because in a sense, what I’m saying is that if you choose to see the world as good, it will be good for you, and if you choose to see it as bad, it will be bad for you. I’ve encouraged you here before to turn off the news. This is not denial. It’s choosing what to focus on. Watching the news is letting someone else tell you what matters.
This is what matters to me: friends and loved ones; people I am helping stay sober and others to whom I’m giving spiritual counsel one-on-one or through writing; cultivating love and beauty in my life through connections with people and nature and quiet contemplation; the Centering Prayer group I lead; you, dear readers; and all the myriad ups and downs of daily life — mine and my friends’ — what Ani DiFranco once described as “the quaint tragedies we invent and then undo, the stupid circumstances we slalom through.”
My New Year’s challenges to you
So, here’s my first New Year’s challenge to you: Make your own day, week, year and decade — and, ultimately, life. Don’t let other people tell you that you should be unhappy. To hell with them, because that’s where they already are. Milton said in Paradise Lost:
“The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
We are surrounded by people who are choosing to be miserable. And who will tell you why you should be too. Ignore them.
And don’t listen when people tell you that you should be happy either. If there’s a tragedy in your life, by all means mourn; let go at your own speed. If there’s an injustice in your world, work to right it. If you experience a dark night of the soul, don’t cover it up with platitudes, work through it to deepen your faith. Just don’t let these things define you. Honor them, and then turn your attention to ways you can be useful and enhance your connection to God.
And that’s the underlying challenge that will inform the first, and make it easy: Enhance your connection with God. Instead of chasing after symptoms, go to the root. In the year ahead, explore new ways to bring yourself into closer union with God — whether it be through contemplation or working with others; in your faith community, at your workplace, with friends, within your family or in solitude. Whatever and wherever, look for new ways to quiet the clamors of the material world and focus on what really matters: Love.
Happy New Year, readers. Let’s make the decade to come awesome, for each of us individually and for the world!