Is youth “wasted on the young,” as some have said? No, it is not. I have learned through my experience and that of others that we carry our youthful amazement within us all our life. It simply gets buried under our adult concerns.
We go from a sense of “I am” – a small, evolving part of Creation, well beyond our youthful comprehension – to the adult challenge of “Who am I?” adrift from that early youthful amazement. If fortunate, we find our way back to the Wordless Knowing of our youth and feel once again connected with Creation. But how do we get there?
We have been created as animals with the capacity to wake up, show up, and be present to the moment. We are able to be silent and still, listen and observe without judgment. We can learn and reflect before choosing and taking action. We know of nothing else in creation that obviously demonstrates these abilities, except perhaps domesticated cats, which we sometimes say “have a mind of their own.”
A spiritual program I practice advises us to seek progress, not perfection, in searching to know more about ourselves and the world we live in. We are not saints. We never “arrive.” Follow those seeking Jesus, some say, and run fast away from those who say they have found him. If you meet the Buddha on your journey, kill him, some Buddhists say.
Sports medicine experts say we hit our peak athletic performance at around age thirty. We cannot improve our raw physical ability after that. We can only maintain it, perhaps fine-tune it, through continuing physical practice. In contrast, our human understanding and perspective can indeed improve with time.
Britain Yearly Meeting’s Quaker Faith and Practice suggests that what we believe to be true in our lives is changed when we learn by listening to and observing others in silence and stillness without judgment: “Our diversity invites us, both to speak what we know to be true in our lives, and to learn from others.” It’s that last part that is a bit tricky. Learning from others without judging them or what they say is a challenge.
I have come to believe that while each of us is born in a specific family, tribe, clan, culture, time, and place, we are each called to grow beyond our beginnings and to practice the three human capabilities that distinguish us from the rest of Creation as we know it so far:
(1) our ability to observe and listen without judgment or reaction,
(2) our ability to leave our mind clear, allowing ourselves to experience unplanned thoughts that we call “intuitions,” as great inventors, artists, and athletes do before taking action, and
(3) our ability to then choose the positive, productive, creative intuitions on which to base our actions, while acknowledging and leaving negative intuitions to expire. Ancient wisdom suggests that life becomes what we choose to think it is and that we become who we choose to think we are.
In a sentence familiar to many Friends, George Fox described the fundamental choice we face: “I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness.” (1647)
Similarly, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. . . . Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (1946)
Frankl chose to respond in the positive. He survived years of imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, and went on to found a school of psychotherapy that describes the search for life’s meaning as the central human motivational force.
As human beings, we can learn through practice to wait and later respond, rather than immediately reacting. We can learn to give ourselves time to call upon all our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual resources, given to us by Power greater than us.
When I practice the three uniquely human abilities, I play a part in Creation rather than in Destruction. I create with my own tiny positive actions a better world for myself and others. We are each like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings in a distant deep forest. Our tiny positive choices set off invisible waves that can lead to positive results far beyond our imagination when we practice what some call the principle of “Letting go and letting God.”
By reading, listening to, or observing people I have come to admire, I learn new ways of thinking and acting. I seek to imitate their attitude towards life.
Although Shakespeare advised, “To thine own self be true,” I can’t do that until I find out who I am.
I have come to believe that certain questions – Who am I? What do I want? What can I do to say “thanks” for this free gift of life I have been given? – are signposts on the way toward learning what role I have been called to play in Creation. I have found such questions particularly helpful when I write my answers down, reflect on them from time to time, share them with another or others I trust, and ask that person or those persons what their answers are to the same questions. As I continue to learn from others, my own answers to these questions evolve. I have found this experience so valuable that I turned a set of questions like these into a workshop, Life Reflections, which I have been leading for Quakers in Germany, Belgium, Ireland, and England over the past eight years.
I have come to believe that it is through the slow, steady, relaxed, repetitive practice of choosing positive attitudes and actions in all my affairs, while acknowledging and rejecting the negative, that I come into increasing peace within me – the peace that surpasses understanding.
Suddenly, I am that ten-year-old lad once again, joyfully flying my kite high into the Light of a gorgeous spring sky in San Francisco, in the late 1940s, with Wordless Knowing.
My youth has never left. It is still within me.
Daniel Clarke Flynn is a native of San Francisco, CA, citizen of Ireland, resident of Belgium, and a member of Belgium and Luxembourg Yearly Meeting. After a career in international Human Resources, he is performing a variety of services for Médecins Sans Frontières, Initiatives of Change, and a consortium of local charities in Africa. For information on his next workshop online, contact him at daniel_flynn39[at]yahoo[dot]com.