Millions of souls are in trauma this week. Headlines are heralding: Deadly fighting in the Middle East, Ukrainian troops battling separatists, a mass shooting in another American community, militias killing innocents in Africa. And, next week? Tragically, the headlines will replace these locations with others.
Here is help: Psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wicks is known around the world for helping to restore lives traumatized by such conflicts. He has served in the wake of massive tragedies, such as conflicts that swept across Rwanda and Cambodia. He regularly helps aid workers, medical professionals as well as men and women serving in the U.S. military.
But, this week, as we prepared the text of this interview about his new book, Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm, the author Debra Darvick reminded us of a fresh viewpoint on his work. In her review of the new book, Debra writes from the perspective of a nearly overwhelmed young mother in a typical American home, crying out: “I just want to have perspective! I want to know that everything is going to turn out OK.”
Alas! Perspective is more elusive than ever. In 2014, most of us assume that our powerful global media network allows us to look into any event anywhere. Not too many years ago, Americans were hard pressed to find any news reports out of Africa. Today, Americans can tap on our smartphones to zoom into Africa and—in just one example—we can choose from hundreds of news reports on the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.
But our access to information is not the same as … perspective. In fact, psychologist Dr. David Myers writes this week that many of our daily choices about who we choose to associate with can wind up contributing to a loss of perspective. Myers’ column examines tragic divisions within Islam—but the four principles he outlines can help all of us bridge divisions.
In this time of crisis, we need new perspectives. This summer, Dr. Robert J. Wicks is holding out his hand and offering a small volume that shows a girl on the cover standing on a shoreline. Look at the book’s cover for a moment. Is that girl enjoying a vacation? Or, is she contemplating suicide? Is she a rich American teenager at her family’s summer home? Or, is she a refugee dreaming of a ship that might carry her away and save her life?
What you see in that book’s cover is all a matter of … perspective. In this new volume, Wicks isn’t playing games with readers. This book is built like a Craftsman Tool Chest, inviting you to pull out the drawers packed with the particular kinds of tools you need right now.
In her review of the new book, Debra Davick also writes, “Wicks structured this clear and useful book so that it is rich with bullet points, questionnaires for self-reflection, and carefully honed text bytes that can form the basis for a lifetime of step-by-step personal transformation. In addition to explication, educative text and recollections drawn from his own life and that of other seekers, philosophers, and authors—Wicks shares insights culled from the most up-to-date research in cognitive behavioral therapy and the psychology of optimism.”
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Dr. Robert J. Wicks. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DR. ROBERT J. WICKS
DAVID: This new book brings together new insights in many fields of research—from psychology and therapy to spiritual direction—on effective ways to survive after we pass through life’s inevitable waves of suffering. I’m going to describe it as a toolbox of ideas for rediscovering a fresh, healthy and hopeful perspective on living. How is that as a summary?
ROBERT: Good! That’s exactly what I wanted to do with this book. The core point in the book is that it’s not the amount of darkness in the world, in your country or your family or even within your own life—it’s how we stand in the darkness. How we view something can be the pearl of great price. There are people in the world who have so little and yet they are able to focus on the world in such a way that fulfills them, and also puts them in a position to share freely with others without expecting anything in return.
DAVID: As a journalist, I’ve covered the ongoing research into Americans’ growing sense of “necessities.” The list of what we think we must have for a happy life has grown extensively over the past half a century. Your book points out that the solution to restoring a healthy perspective doesn’t involve wealth. You can’t buy “perspective.”
ROBERT: There are three illusory pathways in life. One is that we need “more.” Frequently, when people feel they need more, they go out and get more—but then they simply feel they need even more. It’s an illusory pathway.
Others may think they need something “different,” but once they get that different thing—it quickly begins to feel the same. Still others wait for “perfect” to come along. And while they are waiting for this illusory perfection, they allow life to pass them by.
Rather than those three dead ends, I ask people to look at what they already have and how they can access it even more. In doing that, I’m not saying people shouldn’t get something more or something different or something better than what they have right now, but I am saying that the real question for each of us is: How do we access what we already have in ways that will deepen our lives?
DAVID: You describe many kinds of trauma in your book: death of a loved one, cancer, destructive storms, financial disaster, war, abuse and chronic pain. As I finished your book, I understood you to be saying: Some form of serious suffering will come to each of us and, broadly speaking, whatever you are suffering—there are some general principles that can keep our minds and spirits clear and functioning in healthy, hopeful ways.
ROBERT: Yes. What happens is that we think of life as acute. We’re facing one difficult thing right now and we want to solve that problem in front of us. If we face that problem, we may be able to solve it, and then we think that we’re fine. That’s if we think of life as acute.
But spirituality and now psychology remind us that life is chronic. We will always have peaks and valleys, some higher and some lower. It’s what we do with the chronic ups and downs that defines our lives.
When I think of this, I think of the contemplative Thomas Merton who one day was passing a room where he saw an old monk. Merton went in and asked how he was doing.
The old monk said, “I feel awful! I may be losing my faith.”
Merton smiled at the old fellow and said, “Courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.”
We need patience and that’s not really sold to people today. We need perseverance and we need courage. Those three elements come not just out of the air, but out of discipline. This comes from things like carefully planning to take alone time, which is one of the examples I write about in the book.
‘THE PEARL OF GREAT PRICE’
DAVID: I love that Merton story and this message you’re describing is summarized on the opening page of your book, where you first mention this metaphor of “a pearl of great price.” Let me read a few lines from that page:
“When someone gains or regains a healthy sense of perspective, it feels like pure magic. The person sees more clearly and experiences greater freedom. Unforeseen possibility surfaces. New peace and joy are seeded.
“The situation hasn’t changed. Unwanted occurrences aren’t denied or minimized: Instead, they are faced and explored differently—not with unrealistic expectations or the projection of blame, harshness, or self-recrimination, but with a sense of intrigue. There is a realization that whatever ‘darkness,’ suffering, confusion, or potentially addictive attraction may be present in the moment, it is not the end of the story. It is not the last word.
“And so, having the passion and tools to continually seek out a healthier perspective is not simply a good idea. No, it is much more than that. It is actually a determining factor as to how life can be enjoyed more completely and shared more fully every minute of one’s day. Having a healthy perspective is tantamount to possessing the psychological pearl of great price.”
I think millions of Americans could find help through your new book. That especially includes Americans who have served in the armed forces—or have veterans in their families.
‘A LOT OF GHOSTS IN THIS ROOM’
ROBERT: That’s one of the major audiences for this book. I work in an ongoing way with the military. I was a Marine Corps officer myself. I recently got back from a speaking tour on four bases in England where we have stationed some U.S. Air Force personnel. I also spoke to members of NATO and to some of the people who are involved in the troubles in Africa. When I speak to these groups, it’s clear that they have gone through a lot of both acute and chronic suffering. That’s true for their families, as well. When our military personnel are deployed overseas with their families, we need to remember that we are deploying a whole family.
I remember before one speaking engagement, a colonel pulled me aside and said, “Be careful as you talk. There are a lot of ghosts in this room with us.”
One thing that has struck me: I am overwhelmed by the sense of generosity and gratitude from the military people I work with. They have a sense that, when their military service is ending, they want to integrate that service they have been providing into new ways of paying back society. I’m so glad that the president and others are encouraging Americans to hire veterans. When you hire a vet, you’re hiring experience and depth of personality.
‘WE DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO THINK’
DAVID: I want to ask you about a major theme in the book—to give readers of this interview a sense of the kinds of topics they’ll explore with you in these pages. I was most impressed with your section on “mindfulness.” There’s hardly a more over-used word in spirituality, these days. Yet your book does a great job of defining it in solid ways. One conclusion you draw that may surprise readers: Mindfulness is not religion.
ROBERT: No, it’s not. It’s an attitude that we almost take for granted. We assume that we’re attentive and aware in our lives—but, for most of us, that’s not true. I had the privilege of speaking to some members of the U.S. Congress and their chiefs of staff. A senator talked about the greatest challenge facing Congress today: “We don’t have enough time to think,” he said.
Mindfulness is an attitude that’s really worth trying. We have to carefully think about and find ways to take a breath each day. Maybe that’s in the shower, during a walk at lunch, in a visit to the library. This is essential, especially if you’re involved in intense work. Most people don’t stop to think about how contaminated they are every day and they’re not planning for ways to deal with that contamination.
‘YOU NEED TO DECONTAMINATE’
DAVID: I am struck by that word “contamination” and I think it’s a helpful word for readers to consider. So, please talk a little more about how you use that word.
ROBERT: What happens is that, during each day, we encounter a lot of thoughts, emotions and actions in our life that have a negative side to them. We can begin to feel helplessness, doubt, anger, fear, shame—a sense that there is no meaning in life. When we experience these negative thoughts, actions and emotions around us, each day, we need to do something about it so that we don’t remain stuck in them ourselves. If we do, we will carry them around with us and contaminate others.
Think about the sign in a restaurant’s washroom: “All employees must wash their hands.” Those signs hang in hospitals, too, reminding us to sanitize our hands throughout the day.
I like to take that kind of medical metaphor and apply it to the psychological and spiritual. Stop and think about how you go home after a full day of work. Think about this if you’re a caregiver—especially if you’re someone caught in the sandwich generation caring for both your children and your parents. Before you reach home after a hard day, you need to decontaminate. We need to reflect objectively on the peaks and valleys of the day and subjectively on how we reacted to those experiences. Without taking time for reflection, we just move on with our lives and we carry contamination with us as we go.
For me, mindfulness, alone time, time in reflection—these are ways to decontaminate ourselves. When I have intense interactions in my day, I always build time into my schedule so that I don’t take carry these experiences on to the next person I encounter.
‘LOVE IS REALLY AT THE HEART OF LIFE’
DAVID: Compassion is a major theme that runs throughout your book. I want to point this out to readers, because loads of popular books on spirituality and psychology are selling skills that claim to provide a selfish kind of success. Look around and you’ll see book after book promising that you’ll “win” or “make money” or achieve “success” through the techniques the author is hawking.
You’re aiming at a different goal: Compassion.
ROBERT: I believe that people lose their sense of balance, a key element in perspective, if we don’t have a sense of true compassion: giving to others and expecting nothing in return. We might call it a sense of mitzvah.
Even a lot of people who we consider to be religious aren’t really using their prayer time to be alone with God; they’re using the time to be alone with themselves or to try to get something for themselves from God. They lose the realization that they’re part of something much bigger.
Without balance in our lives, we run the danger of hedonism that masquerades as social justice. We think: I deserve this! I should get this!
A lot of publishers today aren’t interested in books that are about serving or helping the other person. They think that people will only buy books to help themselves feel better—or books that will tell them how to go out and get more. Thinking of the other person becomes a counter-cultural message. That’s why I appreciate publishing this book with Oxford, because they’re open to counter-cultural ideas like this.
When we become narcissistic and egocentric, we fail to see that a spirit of humility is key to gaining a healthy perspective. I emphasize this because, when you take knowledge and add humility, you get wisdom. And when you take that very wisdom and add compassion, it becomes love. And, love is really at the heart of life.
People who have love at the heart of their lives can maintain a healthy perspective no matter what is going on around them.
CARE TO READ MORE?
- GET THE BOOK—Click on the cover, above, to visit the book’s Amazon page, where you can purchase either a Kindle or a hardback version.
- ReadTheSpirit’s REVIEW OF ‘PERSPECTIVE’ was written by author Debra Darvick, who regularly writes about family issues.
- THE OurValues SERIES THIS WEEK IS “Why wait?” Columnist Terry Gallagher looks at why Americans seem to have so little patience.
- PSYCHOLOGIST DR. DAVID MYERS writes about psychological principles in the Sunni-Shi’a conflict—principles that apply to other kinds of divisions in our communities.
- VISIT DR. WICKS WEBSITE where you can read about his other books and his long career. It’s at http://www.robertjwicks.com/