Robert Wicks says, “I do darkness for a living.” By that he means that he has helped countless men and women emerge from the depths of a darkness that has overwhelmed them because of sometimes horrible trauma. Part of his expertise, for example, comes from working with returning veterans.
Now, in a series of remarkable books, Robert Wicks is helping all of us—whether our darkness is deep or perhaps is more of a daily struggle like crawling out of bed and facing a new day. His latest book is a terrific choice for holiday gift giving.
(AND: In our Monday story, we provided links to our coverage of Wicks’ earlier books, as well.)
Wicks introduces his new Streams of Contentment: Lessons I Learned on My Uncle’s Farm by reconnecting his own high-profile, urban life to his rural roots. More specifically, he is reconnecting his own professional role as a noted scholar with the kind of grassroots wisdom that surrounds millions of us—if we only recognize the connections that are possible close at hand.
In Wicks’ own words from his introduction: “Now in the fourth decade of my clinical practice, I can look back and realize how a country psychology has formed what I believe, how I think, and the way I live my life. It has helped both me and those who have come to me to find or regain a healthier sense of perspective in order to live a more meaningful and satisfying life.
“Life is simpler than we make it. Knowing this can encourage us to focus more direclty on what is truly important and essential in life. Adopting a psychology, philosophy, or spirituality that supports and fleshes out this way of living can be learned. And that is what the following pages are about.”
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH DR. ROBERT WICKS
ON HIS NEW STREAMS OF CONTENTMENT
DAVID: Let’s start with the cover of your book. Is that your family farm?
ROBERT: No, but it’s an image similar to the landscape I knew so well. The image tries to pull together the concept of simplicity, and gratefulness, and the idea that life is something more than just competition to see how much we can achieve in terms of wealth and success. There were about 20 cover designs that were considered. I love the beautiful inspiration of this image that was chosen.
DAVID: Readers familiar with your work think of you as a big-city expert. You show up in network TV interviews. So, seeing you writing about “a country psychology” and your family farm—that may surprise some readers.
ROBERT: I was born and raised in New York City, but every summer my brothers, our Mom and I would go up to a farm that was owned by three uncles in our family. When I was a child, it was an active farm. I had a chance to really experience farm life. I walked through all of that acreage. And, in many cases, I was off on my own because of the different ages of the three boys in my family. On that farm, I discovered “mindfulness,” long before I even knew that term. To this day, if I pass a newsstand and see a copy of an outdoors magazine, I recall waking up early on the farm, putting on waders, walking out into a stream and casting out as the sun was rising, the mist was clearing and the bass were jumping.
DAVID: So what is “a country psychology”?
ROBERT: It starts with a real sense of simplicity, then faces things directly and carefully throughout the day. After I earned my doctorate in psychology, I wound up traveling out to work at a clinic in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is Amish country. And my work out there didn’t go so well. Turns out, they didn’t want Sigmund Freud. They wanted a country physician—someone who would help them analyze issues, look at resources available to them and then work out a prescription for how to handle things. In the city, I could do more long-term therapy, but there’s a much greater focus in the country on practical, short-term solutions.
SAGE ADVICE: ‘PRUNING’ IS BETTER THAN TRYING TO HAVE IT ALL
DAVID: There is a strong tried-and-true principle that runs like a backbone through this new book. A lot of what you are recommending is well known. It makes good sense. However, I don’t want readers to think they won’t find some real surprises. So, let’s talk about a surprise I found in the opening section of your book. You say that people should respond to three basic callings in their lives. Self-awareness and transformation are callings one and three. Readers probably can guess what you’re describing there. But the middle call is “pruning.”
You write that, in your experience, pruning “worked quite well. It produced the same results that we see in nature when a bush or tree is properly pruned at the right time: more fruit is produced!” But—wow—that runs right in the face of the notion in our popular culture that we can do everything in life. We should try to be talented in all phases of life—be all that we can be. That’s what we hear all the time. Instead, you’re recommending pruning—cutting back and focusing on our life’s core vocation.
ROBERT: Yes, and I think this message sounds more appropriate now that people are being forced to downsize because of the economy. Pruning now makes more sense than ever. In fact, this basic message of seeking contentment in life is more important now than ever. You are right to think of these concepts as counter cultural. We know from working with plants that, when you prune something, it doesn’t blossom less. It blossoms more fully. But that’s not what our culture prescribes for our own consumption.
DAVID: We can only cut so far, though. We need a basic living wage.
ROBERT: Yes, but once we are making enough money to meet our basic human needs, money doesn’t contribute more than half of one percent to your happiness. That’s from actual studies done.
DAVID: Let me stop you right there, because the message is loud and clear in our culture: People with the most money lead the happiest lives. But I’ve reported on these studies for years, myself. Back in the 1990s, Juliet Schor was writing books like The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. Her research showed that the more we earn—the more we’re anxious about having enough. Schor’s research turned up that most of the people earning more than $100,000 per year claimed they did not have enough money “to meet the necessities of life.”
ROBERT: That’s right. I’m saying: If you’re earning that much and you still feel your basic needs aren’t being met in life, then more money is not going to add anything to your appreciation of life. People think its! People spend far too much time worrying about their wealth, the status of their 401K. But that preoccupation causes a lot of stress and grief. And, it can lead to a postponing of life. I’ll work even harder, right now, until I’m sure I have made enough. The truth is: You never will. The recession that hit all of us finally is convincing a lot of people that the old assumptions about accumulating wealth aren’t going to lead to happiness.
DAVID: And that’s why your book isn’t aimed at “Oceans of Wealth” or “Seas of Success.” This is a clear-eyed plan to achieve something much more likely for most of us: “Streams of Contentment.”
ROBERT: The theme of contentment in this book is to help people lean back and not confuse their endless wants with their basic needs. When we make that confusion in life, it causes a great deal of stress.
THE CHALLENGE: FINDING A ‘RENEWING COMMUNITY’
DAVID: Many authors we interview encourage readers to seek the help of the community around them. In fact, that’s a huge part of this new Guide for Caregivers project that ReadTheSpirit is unfolding through 2012. And, you make a very important point in this book: Not all communities are healthy for us. It’s crucial to discern a “renewing community.”
ROBERT: That’s right. There are a number of levels of community. There’s a community within you—the balance within you. It needs to be mirrored in the community outside of you. When you find a healthy community, you rejoice. This community encourages us in our lives and, when things go wrong, they support us in the midst of our discouragement. This community also is vital when our daily lives are simply running along without big ups or downs.
I tell people that there are four types of friends—or four types of voices—that we want and need in our lives: The first is the kind of friend that most people really don’t care for—but we need—and that’s the prophet. No one wants to hear what the prophet has to say, but the friend who is a prophet asks us the hard questions: What voices really are guiding you right now? Who are the invisible puppeteers in your life? The prophet makes us look at the hard questions. Then, the second kind of friend we need is the cheerleader, the supportive person who just thinks we’re wonderful. When we’ve had a rough encounter in life, we can call the cheerleader. Then, the third is a kind of harasser or teaser, the person who helps us laugh at ourselves. On the way to taking important things to heart in our lives, we often make a detour and wind up taking ourselves much too seriously. That’s when the teaser is very helpful. And, finally, we need spiritual or inspirational friends who call us to be all that we can be spiritually. If we have that kind of balanced community of friends—that whole range of voices around us—then we are much more likely to wind up finding contentment.
CUT IT SHORT! BUT, KEEP RUNNING THE RACE FOR 30 DAYS
DAVID: Wow, at this point, we’re actually in danger of violating the advice in the final section of your new book! You give readers a 30-day shake-down course in becoming more spiritually healthy. And, you insist that nothing you list in that section should take more than “a few minutes” each day. Describe this very practical final section of your book.
ROBERT: I like that 30-day process I outline at the end of the book because these pieces are so extremely short. The normal source of resistance people throw up to improving their lives amounts to: I don’t have time to do this. I can’t go off on a retreat. I can’t read something so long. I can’t pray for an hour every day. So, the final section of this book completely sidesteps those objections. These final 30 pieces in the book can be read in about 30 seconds, each. Then, what I propose in these pieces is quick, too.
I hope that people will read through the whole book so they have a sense of what I am saying about simplicity and contentment overall. Then, those insights can form a kind of nest in your daily life—a nest you build day by day doing these simple things at the end of the book. We’re reinforcing these concepts on a daily basis.
DAVID: We keep hearing from readers nationwide that they want simplicity and a quick way to respond. That’s one reason we’re currently running very short challenges ourselves in this new Guide for Caregivers project. One recommendation we have right now is inviting readers to go “Like” the Caregivers new Facebook page and simply add the name of 1 song that boosts their spirits. Everyone has time for that!
ROBERT: I don’t know! (Laughs!) Sometimes even little things aren’t as simple as we think! I led a retreat for some Methodist ministers and I suggested that they take 2 minutes every day to wrap themselves in solitude and gratitude. So, the next morning, one pastor comes up to me and asks: “Do you really do that 2 minutes a day yourself?”
I said: “Yes, I do. Every day.”
And she said: “Well, I tried it this morning—and 2 minutes is a loooong time!”
REMEMBER: You can order the new Streams of Contentment: Lessons I Learned on My Uncle’s Farm very quickly by clicking over to Amazon right now!
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.