Your Unfinished Life

By Lawrence J. Danks

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Copyright © 2009 Lawrence J. Danks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-615-24207-1

Chapter One

Kindness and Happiness

"People often asked me what is the most effective technique for transforming their life. It is a little embarrassing that after years and years of research and experimentation, I have to say that the best answer is - just be a little kinder." - [Aldous Huxley - Quoted from The Power of Kindness - Piero Ferrucci]

The search for happiness is a universal quest. It seems only logical it should center around us. Instead, it really centers around others. As English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham said: "Create all the happiness you can create, remove all the misery you can remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom; while every sorrow which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by a beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul." - [Quoted from Happiness: Lessons From A New Science - Richard Layard]

How often are people called to our attention and we think that somebody else will help or that it's not really our concern? It can be as simple as giving or lending money, cutting someone's grass or listening to a friend's problems.

A decent, thoughtful man was walking home late one night and saw a pathetic drunk laying in the gutter. Suddenly, he found himself under a horrific attack of cynical thought and said to himself: "God, why do you let this man lie in shame. If you truly exist, why don't you help him?" And into this man's mind came this sentence: "I am helping him. I just brought him to your attention." - [Power Thoughts - Robert Schuller]

Opportunities for kindness present themselves daily. By developing an enhanced sensitivity to our social environment, we'll notice things we haven't seen before. More people will be helped. And we'll make ourselves more authentic and happier people in the process.

How To Have A Happier Life

You are the prospective parent of your own fulfilled self and your happiness. Dr. Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, in his book Authentic Happiness says this about true happiness: "The pleasant life, is wrapped up in the successful pursuit of positive feelings, supplemented by the skills of amplifying these emotions. The good life, in contrast, is not about maximizing positive emotion, but is a life wrapped up in successfully using 'signature strengths' to obtain abundant and authentic gratification. The meaningful life has one additional feature: "using your signature strengths in the service of something larger than you are."

Mother Teresa was of the same mind: "I wouldn't touch a leper for $1000, but I cure him willingly for the love of God." It doesn't necessarily have to do with God or religious faith. It simply has to do with doing something worthwhile for a higher purpose.

Benjamin Disraeli, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, who as a Jew faced great religious and ethnic discrimination, rose to the top by "climbing the greasy pole" as he described it. He noted: "Life is too short to be little". We should focus on doing important things. How big or little is your life? What else could you be doing that is truly important to you? By changing our focus, we can change our life.

Students in Dr. Seligman's classes wondered if happiness came more readily by extending a kindness or by having fun. They were asked to engage in one pleasurable activity and one activity involved with helping others. Dr. Seligman reported that "the pleasurable activity paled in comparison with the effects of the kind action." Kindness or service is not the sole road to gratification, but it clearly meets the standards of being an important source of it.

To determine what your own personal strengths are, read Authentic Happiness and take Dr. Seligman's VIA Strengths Survey. A version of the test is also available online at Reading his book will provide an improved understanding of your strengths and how they may be best applied in leading you to a happier and more satisfying life.

Take the long term view. Robert Schuller said that we should plan as if we are going to live to be one hundred. Whether we get there or not, having a plan will help us maximize what we're going to accomplish in whatever time we have left.

Kindness As A Strength

Kindness is an important strength all of us can practice. It allows us to focus on something outside ourselves, something larger than we are. Being kind usually isn't difficult. It requires no special training or equipment. It only requires attentiveness and willingness to help.

While sixty, seventy or eighty years of life may seem like a long time, time for all of us is finite. Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood Church in Houston notes: "Life is a mist. We're here for a moment. Then we're gone ... Don't just make a living. Make a life." We have limited control over how long we live, but we have a great deal of control over how we live.

Our own life, when compared against the expanse of eternity and the generations that have preceded us, is startlingly short, but nevertheless it can be productive. How productive have we been so far? How meaningful are we going to be in the time we have left? Are we going to leave a legacy worth remembering? Maria Shriver puts a fine point on it in And One More Thing Before You Go: "You want to feel good? Then do good." Joel Osteen mirrors that thought in his self-help book, Your Best Life Now: "You will never be truly fulfilled as a human being, until you learn the simple secret of how to give your life away."

Kindness produces insight and creates an improved sense of self-worth. Get to know the real you. As James Hollis says in Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: "Deconstruct the false self ... Live your life to produce greater substance ... Don't be afraid to be who you really are. Don't be a false self. Be authentic."

Many self-help books, including the blockbuster best seller A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle, have emphasized the importance of living in the present moment because that's also where our future lies. All of us should be challenged by "the fierce urgency of now" to produce the positive change in our lives that Martin Luther King spoke of in a different context.

Touchstones of Kindness

How do we know what to do and when to act? Jean Guibert in his insightful work, On Kindness, provides a memorable guide for kindness when he says, "wherever there is misery, there it speeds."

Your Unfinished Life provides commentary on two classic, and largely long lost works: Jean Guibert's On Kindness and Frederick Faber's Kindness. Guibert was a French priest. His inspiring words are his legacy. Faber was a British priest and poet, best known as a hymn writer. Kindness is a major avenue toward happiness. These highly perceptive works provide guidance and sensitivity on how to best extend it, and even when it might be a kindness not to extend one. It might seem as if no one would need a "how to" guide for extending kindness, but you may agree after reading their words, that it can only be improved by implementing their insightful recommendations.

Some readers may become a bit impatient with the slower pace as they read through these two chapters, but the wisdom contained in their writings is both affecting and timeless and is well worth the trek. They provide a great treasury of thoughts for reflection. They also contain charming language from a time gone by. No one could read these summaries without seeing themselves and others in them. They will speak to you in magical and eloquent ways that I never could.

It might seem as if kindness just operates by instinct. Often it does. But like many other things in life, some guidance can be helpful in producing better results. A principal purpose of this book is to selectively bring some of the beautiful thoughts from these works to the light of day again. They were deemed necessary by their authors a century ago when times were far simpler. How much more must they be needed today?

Since Fathers Guibert and Faber came from a Roman Catholic tradition, not unsurprisingly God is mentioned in their writings. Their books are about doing good and extending kindness. This book isn't intended as a religious book. It's goal is to be inspirational and spiritual in a broader sense. Its principles are applicable to all people of any faith, or of none.

Their thoughts have been supplemented by excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations on living a worthwhile life, by the insightful words of Mother Teresa, and by the quotations of many other wise observers as diverse as The Dalai Lama and George Foreman.

You probably haven't always been kind. I certainly haven't. I've done some unkind and insensitive things, sometimes out of thoughtlessness, other times out of selfishness or immaturity. Other times there were omissions, things in retrospect I wish I had done, but didn't do.

Kindness never ceases to be a challenge. It is far easier to talk about and write about, than it is to extend it. Famed opera singer Beverly Sills said we should all ask ourselves: "How do you take a life and make something of it?" An answer Gandhi proposed was to "be the change you want to see in the world."

Moving Your Life In The Right Direction

We all have something to give, whether it's time, money, expertise or other gifts. It may be helpful to imitate the example of others, but the best gifts we can give are uniquely ours, as the following tale suggests: Joseph, a Jewish man, goes to heaven and meets St. Peter. Joseph says to him: "Tell God I wish I had been like Moses or Abraham. God told Peter to say to him: "Tell him I'm sorry he wasn't more like Joseph." Model after others if it motivates you, but be uniquely yourself.

We should give as often as we can. For some of us it will be frequently, for others only occasionally. It all helps. It might take us a while to get there, but as with any other worthwhile direction we're moving in, we don't always have to be running or walking toward it. It's ok to crawl sometimes too.

When done frequently enough, it might allow us to gain the same surprising insight that Walt Whitman did: "I am larger, better than I thought. I did not know I held so much goodness." In The Power of Kindness, Piero Ferrucci similarly states: "I did not know I had inside me, like everyone, so many precious goods. When we can live this revelation, it not only helps others, it can help us discover what's missing in our own lives." There is always time. As the highly talented actor Sally Field remarked: "It's never too late to become who you might have been."

Stephen Covey, in his best selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, mentions a story about two men standing by the casket of a deceased friend. One said to the other: "How much did he leave?" His friend said: "He left it all." No matter how wonderful something tangible is, you can't take it with you.

In a material and self-absorbed society, it's easy to focus on ourselves and our own egos. Marcus Aurelius' Meditations furnishes us with a vivid perspective on the folly of selfabsorbed acquisition and of manufactured self-importance: "All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as to the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer's words: "they are lost to sight and hearsay alike."

Take it from someone who grew up in a funeral home, truer words were never spoken. A pensive walk through any cemetery reminds us that regarding anything of the world, it all comes to a screeching halt at a piece of stone and a small patch of earth, even for the wealthiest, most glorious and egocentric among us. But what then is lasting? All we can really take with us is the good we've done for others. This obituary appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, September 15, 2002: "Salvatore Altchek, 'the $5 Doctor' of Brooklyn, Dies at 92." He saw patients until two months before his death. He gave up house calls, which he made on foot at 87, and charged $5 or $10, or nothing at all. One woman said: "He wasn't out to make money; he was out to help people." Another said: "He is a physician who treated the poor [as well as lawyers and longshoremen], and never asked for money from the oppressed community. They paid him when they had it, and he treated them as if they were Park Avenue residents. For more than fifty years, he began his workday at 8AM, took half an hour off for dinner at 5PM and closed the office door at 8. He then made house calls, often until midnight." Most of us can't be physicians, but all of us can be Dr. Altcheks by following his example.

Writer Charlotte Forten pondered: "I wonder why it is I have this strange feeling of not living out myself." Have you ever had this feeling? That part of you is missing? That you're not fully being who you really are?

Joseph Campbell, the famed lecturer and writer tells us: "The banality of our current life is always waiting to yield a greater story ... Too many of us accept the sadness of inauthentic lives ... The best way to help mankind is the perfection of yourself." This book is about trying to authenticate lives, yours and mine, through kindness and the creation of happiness. As playwright Arthur Miller said, reflecting on the inspiration that spawned the Brooklyn Bridge: "You too might add something that could last and be beautiful."

The End Game

The Dalai Lama, remarking on the role of kindness in life said: "My religion is very simple: my key motivation is love. My religion is kindness ... All religions [and the ethics of any good person] share a common root, which is limitless compassion. They emphasize human improvement, love, respect for others and compassion for the suffering of others. Insofar as love is essential in every religion, we could say that love is a universal religion." [The Dalai Lama's Little Book of Inner Peace]

In the French film, The Barbarian Invasions, a dying man, who led a selfish life, searches for meaning in his final days. Near the end, he thinks of himself as a failure. He says he wants "to leave a mark, so I can die in peace."

What mark will you leave? Will you die with the peace you want? What is the meaning of life after all? It's the meaning we decide to give it. Deathbed enlightenments, like the one in this film are better than none, but they're hardly a substitute for a valued life, well lived. We may not achieve all the success and happiness we seek, but we certainly don't want to die a failure because we never tried either. This book is all about making the attempt....


Excerpted from Your Unfinished Lifeby Lawrence J. Danks Copyright © 2009 by Lawrence J. Danks. Excerpted by permission.
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