Freedom is a state of mind, and so are joyfulness and fulfillment. These are states of spiritual being, states that can be enjoyed independent of external circumstances. Life is a riddle, and our emotional and creative temperatures don’t always align with current situations. We can be happy with little, and we can be miserable with much. We can be inspired and soulful during dark times, and we can feel blunted and rudderless during the “trouble-free” times of our lives. The secrets lie within.
The keys to the existence we want are inside of us—living in a globally connected world makes this no less true—that’s one of the lessons I’ve learned as I approach forty years of age. As the winds of autumn begin to swirl, I’m hit by an annual urge to reflect and share, so here are several lessons I feel I’ve learned over the past months (and decades) regarding spirituality, contentment, and emotional well-being. Take what you will from them.
The complexities and challenges never stop coming, so don’t wait for the “perfect” time to be happy. This sounds cliché and basic, but I swear, every year of my life I fall for the same trick. I start plotting and planning The Perfect Time, the one where all of my career, fitness, spiritual, and emotional goals will be realized. I think, When the Perfect Time arrives (and it's almost here), then I'll finally be able to relax and experience full happiness. But lo and behold, while I’m planning and waiting for that Perfect Time, some snag always occurs (be it money-related, health-related, or career-related), and I’m forced to accept that nothing will ever be perfect. Life will only happen one day at a time, and it will be unpredictable every time, so we might as well just enjoy the little pieces of happiness that we have RIGHT NOW. Perfect timing usually means living in the moment more often.
If God doesn’t feel like a personal thing, then something is missing. We don’t have to “do” anything to earn salvation, but finding a life free of anger, guilt, and jealousy takes work. Spiritual redemption is free, but spiritual fulfillment is not. We have to actively accept our own forgiveness and work to actively be patient and forgiving with others, too. We have to be conscious participants in Jesus’ metanoia (change in vision) in order to experience the freedom of mind and spirit that salvation brings. The kingdom of God—that eternal, guilt-free, shiver-inducing state of enlightenment, joy, and wholeness—is within us, because we are individual works of the Divine and God wants to be personal with each of us. Other people can offer us advice and techniques and interpretations that will educate us and take us closer to the freedom of mind and spirit that we seek, but until we connect with that freedom on a personal level—until we connect with God on an intimate level—an affecting spiritual life will prove elusive.
Anger is toxic: anger at your spouse, anger at your coworkers, anger at traffic, and anger at a rigged society run by corporate interests and bloated, blathering politicians. Anger eats away at our souls. I have experienced many unpleasant sensations over the course of four decades of life, but few are more disturbing than the feeling of being consumed by anger, that feeling where every cell and fiber is restless and explosive and ready to rage through unproductive periods of ranting. There is righteous anger, and that can be productive, of course, but then there is selfish anger, the kind where we are projecting our own pain, and that just turns back toward us and makes us hurt even more (while hurting others in the process). When anger starts creeping up, I’m starting to learn that it’s simply best to get moving away toward something else—exercise maybe, but I’ve also heard “a state of gratitude” suggested, because it’s supposedly impossible to feel grateful and angry at the same time.
Physical fitness is spiritual. Gyms are not. There are few things more spiritually cleansing—more profoundly soulful—than a nice run, walk, or bike ride outdoors—outdoors, where you are breathing in the fresh air and taking in the wondrous sights of God’s creation. And then there is the gym, where you are breathing in stale sweat and watching other people stare intently at their own biceps, quadriceps, and butts as Fox News blasts political buffoonery through the myriad overhead television screens. I go to my local gym when I need to lift weights or when the weather is horrifically difficult (although I did recently go for a long outdoor run alongside a tornado), but I think that, for the rest of my life, I will always choose outdoor workouts over the gym when possible. There simply is no comparison.
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Everyone has ghosts from their youth, so we might as well make peace with them and use them as allies in our personal development. The teacher who said you were worthless? The clique that humiliated you or ostracized you? The coach who laid into you with an obscenity-laced rant that would embarrass Andrew Dice Clay? The pastor or priest or nun or counselor who implied that you weren’t good enough for God? Yeah, we all have those people, and they can continue to walk alongside our thoughts for a lifetime—who knew?—so we need to make peace with them by loving and valuing ourselves and by using any negative opinions they expressed as a fuel to achieve greater and greater things in our adult lives.
Facebook can be useful—a great tool for social change and connectivity—but it is mostly a scourge on our modern society, and it will gradually erode the emotional and spiritual well-being of future generations. Okay, maybe that’s a bit over the top, but we’ve all experienced Facebook jealousy (Wow, everyone else is always happy and financially stable and I'm not!), and I would venture to say that we’ve all gotten caught up in the “like”-counting game as well (What, I spilled my soul for three "likes" and her picture of a cheeseburger/his picture of his bench press is already up to 655 "likes"? What's wrong with our world!). So, just remember to put Facebook World into the proper perspective the next time it’s agitating you, and remember to make your family step away from it completely at times. Not every tender moment and road-trip adventure needs to be thrown out for public consumption. There is something inherently soulful about having a private life.
When the stress of the world is crashing down on you—when the sky is falling and you feel under attack by negative circumstances or opinions—remember the people (and God) who love you. When I’m feeling underappreciated by the world at large and unsure of my worth, I remember that fantastic line that John Candy uttered in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles when he was feeling rejected and insulted by Steve Martin. “I like me. My wife likes me,” he said. And I would also add to that, “My God likes me.” (By the way, this could say “My brother/sister/best friend likes me.” Whatever, just focus on where your true worth/support is coming from and remember that you don’t owe the rest of the world much of anything in the way of explanations or tap dances.)
The most useful things in life are anchors. Life will always be a mixed bag of new experiences, unforeseen circumstances, and confusing storms—some days will be smooth and others rocky, and some days people will love you and on other days they won’t hesitate to agree that you’re a fool or a monster—so you’d better focus on the things that are centered and real in your life: your family’s love, your God’s acceptance, and the butterflies-in-the-stomach thrill of entertaining your passions and dreams. These are the anchors of existence, the things that will be with you during both the high times and the low valleys. These things will be by your side and near your heart always, even if you find yourself in a hospital bed or jail cell. Remember what your anchors are and carry them with you every day.
The lessons in life keep presenting themselves—and the scenery of the classroom changes from year to year—so I don’t know exactly how the above sort of list will read when I’m turning forty-five, but for now, this is my advice to you: be happy with today, focus on the opinions of the people who love and value you, stay close to your God and your passions, try to get away from selfish anger, remember that Facebook isn’t the real world, make some peace with past nemeses and heartaches, and get outside for a good workout in the fresh air whenever possible. These are a few of the keys to living a free and content life, and you hold them in your hands right now. We all do.
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MICHAEL PRIEBE is the author of THE LOVELY GRIND: SPIRITUAL INSPIRATION FOR WORKDAYS (90 Devotions for Stress Relief & Personal Growth). The book released June 6th and is now available in both print and Kindle versions. Get the book here, and sign-up for The Lovely Grind's mailing list to receive all of Michael's blog posts and better-living ideas.