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ORDERING YOUR PRIVATE WORLD
By Gordon MacDonald
Nelson BooksCopyright © 2007 Gordon MacDonald
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Sinkhole Syndrome
The residents of a Florida apartment building awoke to a terrifying sight outside their windows. The ground beneath the street in front of their building had literally collapsed, creating a massive depression that Floridians call a sinkhole. Tumbling into the ever-deepening pit were automobiles, pavement, sidewalks, and lawn furniture. The building itself would obviously be the next to go.
Sinkholes occur, scientists say, when underground streams drain away during seasons of drought, causing the ground at the surface to lose its underlying support. Suddenly everything simply caves in, leaving people with a frightening suspicion that nothing-not even the earth beneath their feet-is trustworthy.
There are many people whose lives are like one of Florida's sinkholes. It is likely that at one time or another many of us have perceived ourselves to be on the verge of a sinkhole-like cave-in. In the feelings of numbing fatigue, a taste of apparent failure, or the bitter experience of disillusionment about goals or purposes, we may have sensed something within us about to give way. We feel we are just a moment from a collapse that will threaten to sweep our entire world into a bottomless pit. Sometimes there seems to be little that can be done to prevent such a collapse. What is wrong?
If we think about it for very long, we may discover the existence of an inner space-our private world-about which we were formerly ignorant. I hope it will become apparent that, if neglected, this private world will not sustain the weight of events and stresses that press upon us.
Some people are surprised and disturbed when they make such a self discovery. They suddenly realize that they have spent the majority of their time and energy establishing life on the visible level, at the surface. They have accumulated a host of good and perhaps even excellent assets such as academic degrees, work experience, key relationships, and physical strength or beauty.
There is nothing wrong with all of that. But often it is discovered almost too late that the private world of the person is in a state of disorderliness or weakness. And when that is true, there is always potential for the sinkhole syndrome.
We must come to see ourselves as living in two very different worlds. Our outer, or public, world is easier to deal with. It is much more measurable, visible, and expandable. Our outer world consists of work, play, possessions, and a host of acquaintances that make up a social network. It is the part of our existence easiest to evaluate in terms of success, popularity, wealth, and beauty. But our inner world is more spiritual in nature. Here is a center in which choices and values can be determined, where solitude and reflection might be pursued. It is a place for conducting worship and confession, a spot where the moral and spiritual pollution of the times need not penetrate.
The majority of us have been taught to manage our public worlds well. Of course, there will always be the undependable worker, the poorly organized homemaker, and the person whose social capacities are so immature that he becomes a drain on everyone around him. But most of us have learned to take orders, make schedules, and give directions. We know which systems best suit us in terms of work and relationship. We choose proper forms of leisure and pleasure. We have the ability to choose friends and make those relationships work well.
Our public worlds are filled with a seeming infinity of demands upon our time, our loyalties, our money, and our energies. And because these public worlds of ours are so visible, so real, we have to struggle to ignore all their seductions and demands. They scream for our attention and action.
But there is this private world in every one of us. A world that may be as infinite in size as we perceive our public worlds to be. But often the private world-like the depths of the ocean-remains unexplored, full of surprises, ambushes, emotions, and dreams.
In a past season of the popular television series Survivor, one of the finalists, Jerry, talked about the pressures she faced as she tried to avoid getting voted off the island. When asked if she had surprised herself in her drive to win the million-dollar prize, she said, "Honestly? I had no idea that this was going to be as tough as it is. I have woken up in the morning and gone through an entire day wondering who I am. Things come out of my mouth in frustration and hunger and ... stress that, after they come out, I want to suck them back in, because it's not the same thing I would normally say or [do] ... so, yeah, I've surprised myself in a lot of ways."
Although Jerry describes life in a contrived (made-for-TV) world, she speaks like a fast-tracker. As life heats up, she seems amazed to discover traits of personal character that she really didn't want to own.
In a real world similar to Jerry's, there is a temptation to ignore the existence of our private world because it does not shout quite so loudly when neglected. It can be effectively shortchanged for large periods of time before it gives way to a sinkhole-like cave-in.
Oscar Wilde, author and playwright, was one who paid scant attention to his private world. William Barclay quotes Wilde's confession:
The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease ... Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber, one has some day to cry aloud from the house-top. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.
When Wilde wrote, "I was no longer the captain of my soul," he described a person whose inner world was in shambles, whose life was caving in. Although his words reach great heights of personal drama, they are similar to what many could say-many who, like him, have ignored their internal existence.
I believe that one of the great battlegrounds of our age is the private world of the individual. There is a contest that must be fought particularly by those who call themselves practicing or observant Christians. Among them are those who work hard, shouldering massive responsibilities at home, at work, and at church. They are good people, but they are very, very tired! And thus they too often live on the verge of a sinkhole-like collapse. Why? Because although their worthwhile actions are very unlike those of Wilde, like him they become too public-world-oriented, ignoring the private side until it is almost too late.
Wayne Muller writes:
The busier we are, the more important we seem to ourselves and, we imagine, to others. To be unavailable to our friends and family, to be unable to find time for the sunset (or even to know that the sun has set at all), to whiz through our obligations without time for a single mindful breath, this has become the model of a successful life.
Our Western cultural values have helped to blind us to this tendency. We are naively inclined to believe that the most publicly active person is the most privately spiritual. We assume that the larger the church, the greater its heavenly blessing. The more information about the Bible a person possesses, we think, the closer he or she must be to God.
Because we tend to think like this, there is the temptation to give imbalanced attention to our public worlds at the expense of the private. More programs, more meetings, more learning experiences, more relationships, more busyness; until it all becomes so heavy at the surface of life that the whole thing trembles on the verge of collapse. Fatigue, disillusionment, failure, defeat all become frightening possibilities. The neglected private world can no longer hold the weight.
I bump into a man who has claimed Christian faith for a number of years. In the course of our conversation, I ask him one of those questions that Christians ought to ask each other but feel odd in doing so.
I say, "Tell me, how are you doing spiritually?"
He responds, "Interesting question! What's a good answer? Oh, I'm okay, I guess. I wish I could say I was growing or feeling closer to God. But the truth is that I'm sort of standing still."
He gives the impression of wanting to pursue the matter, and so I throw in another question.
"Are you taking time regularly to order your inner life?"
He looks at me inquisitively. If I had used an old Christian term such as, "How's your quiet time?" he would have known exactly how to answer. That would have been measurable, and he could have responded in terms of days, hours, and minutes, systems and techniques. But I had asked about the order of his inner life. And the key word is order, a word of quality, not quantity. Now he shows discomfort.
"When does a guy ever get to order his inner life? I've got work piled up to keep me going for the rest of the year. I'm out every night this week. My wife is after me to take a week's vacation. The house needs painting. So there's not too much time to think about 'ordering the inner life,' as you put it."
He pauses for a moment and then asks, "What is the inner life anyway?"
Now that's a showstopper of a question. Think of it! Here is a professing Christian who has "done church" for years, has gained a Christian reputation for doing Christian things, but has never pondered the possibility that, underneath all the action and well-meaning religious noise, there has got to be something solid, something dependable. That he sees himself as too busy to maintain an inner world, and that he is not sure he knows what it is anyway tells me that he may have missed by a significant distance the central point of a life in touch with God. You could say that we had a lot to talk about in the following hour.
Few people wrestled with the pressures of a public world more than Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles, the famous aviator. And she jealously guarded her private world and wrote some insightful comments about it in her classic book The Gift from the Sea:
I want first of all ... to be at peace with myself. I want a singleness of eye, a purity of intention, a central core to my life that will enable me to carry out these obligations and activities as well as I can. I want, in fact-to borrow from the language of the saints-to live "in grace" as much of the time as possible. I am not using this term in a strictly theological sense. By grace I mean an inner harmony, essentially spiritual, which can be translated into outward harmony. I am seeking perhaps what Socrates asked for in the prayer from the Phaedrus when he said, "May the outward and inward man be one." I would like to achieve a state of inner spiritual grace from which I could function and give as I was meant to in the eye of God.
Fred Mitchell, a leader in world missions, used to keep a motto on his desk that read, "Beware of the Barrenness of a Busy Life." He too understood the potential collapse that follows when the inner world is ignored.
The Florida sinkhole is a physical picture of a spiritual problem with which many Western Christians must deal. As the pressure of life continues to grow in the first years of the twenty-first century, there will be more people whose lives resemble a sinkhole, unless they gaze inward and ask themselves, Is there a private world beneath the noise and action at the surface? A world that needs to be explored and maintained? Can strength and resilience be developed that will bear up under the growing pressure at the surface?
In a lonely moment in Washington when John Quincy Adams was overwhelmed by homesickness for his Massachusetts family, he wrote them a letter, addressing comments of encouragement and counsel to each son and daughter. To his daughter he wrote about the prospect of marriage and the kind of man she should choose to marry. His words reveal how highly he regarded an ordered private world:
Daughter! Get you an honest man for a husband and keep him honest. No matter whether he is rich, provided he be independent. Regard the honor and moral character of the man, more than all other circumstances. Think of no other greatness but that of the soul, no other riches but those of the heart. [italics added]
Memo to the Disorganized If my private world is in order, it will be because I make a daily choice to monitor its state of orderliness.
Excerpted from ORDERING YOUR PRIVATE WORLD by Gordon MacDonald Copyright © 2007 by Gordon MacDonald. Excerpted by permission.
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