Three secular books for the Christian spiritual life
Recently I’ve come across a few books that I picked up just for fun but that ended up having a very positive impact on my spiritual life. In general, I prefer to read books for Christians and by Christians if my aim is spiritual growth. However, these three books taught me valuable lessons that I hadn’t seen covered (or, at least, not covered in quite the same way) in the Christian market. Since each of them has had a lasting, positive impact on my spiritual life, I thought I’d share.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
This is a powerful book. It’s a field guide to spiritual warfare, written by bestselling author Steven Pressfield (The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire). In it Pressfield lays out everything he’s learned about fighting what he calls Resistance, that mysterious force that tries to prevent you from creating anything great (which Christians would call the Devil). Pressfield points out that whether you’re trying to craft the Great American Novel, start a business, or simply begin a new exercise routine, “any act that any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity…[will] elicit Resistance. He starts by describing what it feels like:
A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. We can’t get no satisfaction. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves.
Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing.
Pressfield emphasizes the importance of work. Just do it. No excuses. Once you’ve discerned what you’re called to do, stay focused on getting the job done. Resistance is a powerful, cunning force, and you’d be a fool to mess around with it. Referring to someone who’s committed to overcoming Resistance as a “professional,” he writes:
The professional…respects Resistance. He knows that if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow. The professional knows that Resistance is like a telemarketer; if you so much as say hello, you’re finished. The pro doesn’t even pick up the phone. He stays at work.
He then offers a wealth of practical tips, such as this one on taking criticism:
The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page. Nothing matters but that he keep working. Short of a family crisis or the outbreak of World War III, the professional shows up, ready to serve the gods.
Remember, Resistance wants us to cede our sovereignty to others. It wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of others to our work. Resistance knows we can’t take this. No one can.
In the end of the book, he muses about the source of the inspiration for all great endeavors. “Clearly some intelligence is at work, independent of our conscious mind and yet in alliance with it, processing our material for us and alongside us,” he writes. “This is why artists are modest. They know they’re not doing the work; they’re just taking dictation.”
Needless to say, as a Catholic, I saw a few parts where I thought Pressfield missed the mark. I kept thinking that I’d love to sit down over a cup of coffee and tell him all that I’d learned about the role of grace and the power of Christ in the spiritual life — I couldn’t help but think that he’d find that it jibed amazingly well with what he’s experienced in his battles against Resistance. All in all, though, this book is fantastic. It is an absolute must-read.
Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson
I actually discovered this book through Steven Pressfield’s excellent blog, and I’m so glad I did. I read the slim little volume over one weekend, and it really inspired me to make some positive changes in my life. Madson is a theater professor at Stanford, and shares what she’s learned from her decades as a teacher of (and participant in) improvisational acting.
In one chapter, for example, she talks about how important saying “yes” is in the improv world — if you’re up on stage and your acting partner starts taking the show in a new direction, it’ll ruin the whole thing if you fold your arms and refuse to go along with it. Applying that to life, she writes:
Saying yes (and following through with support) prevents you from committing a cardinal sin — blocking. Blocking comes in many forms; it is a way of trying to control the situation rather than accepting it. We block when we say no, when we have a better idea, when we change the subject, when we correct the speaker, when we fail to listen, or when we simply ignore the situation. The critic in us wakes up and runs the show. Saying no is the most common way we attempt to control the future. [...]
The spirit of improvising is embodied in the notion of “yes and.” Agreement begins the process.
(Was any one else reminded of Ann Voskamp’s year of Yes?) At the end of each chapter Madson offers practical exercises for putting these ideas into practice. I loved the one at the end of the Say Yes chapter:
Support someone else’s dreams. Pick a person (your spouse, child, boss), and, for one week, agree with all of her ideas. Find something right about everything he says or does. Look for every opportunity to offer support consider her convenience and time preferences ahead of her own. Give him the spotlight. Notice the results.
The book is full of gems like this one. I found it to be a great source of inspiration to work on paying attention to the present moment, cooperating with others, and, ultimately, trusting in the Holy Spirit to work stuff out when we let go of control. Like with Pressfield, there were moments where I thought that her advice could be even more powerful if she know about the work of grace, the Holy Spirit, the power of Christ, etc. But, overall, I think Madson hit the ball out of the park with this book.
Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi
The author of Never Eat Alone is a dear friend of ours, so it’s hard for me to separate what I learned from the book from what he’s taught me in person. Keith is a master at networking, and his view of building social networks and involving other people in your projects has had a huge impact on the way I see the world. The three biggest principles I’ve taken from him, which he details in Never Eat Alone, are:
- When you discern something you’re supposed to do, think of the path to get there in terms of other people: As a typical American, when I used to set out to accomplish something, I’d think of it in very isolationist terms: I am going to do this all by myself. Keith encouraged me to involve other people in my projects, to look around and see whom I know who might enjoy helping me through this process. Since my conversion, this advice has really helped me embrace being part of the Body of Christ, all of us working together to support one another.
- Don’t hoard your personal connections: Too often, when people know someone who might be able to help someone else, they hesitate to put the two people in touch — especially if the person whom they’re asking for a favor is in a position of power. “I don’t want to bother Mr. Important,” the thinking goes. “I need to save my connection with him for a time when I really need it!” Keith’s view is that building a social network and getting to know people isn’t about hoarding impersonal connections so that you can amass more power for yourself — it’s all about generosity, and getting to know people on a personal level. Be generous with your Rolodex, and everyone will benefit.
- Don’t be afraid to connect with people who seem “out of your league”: Over the past couple of years I’ve had wonderful conversations with a few well-known authors (one of whom had recently been on Oprah), simply because I emailed them and asked if they’d mind sharing their wisdom with me. I saw each of these folks as way out of my league, but, thanks to what I’ve learned from Keith, I decided to go ahead and give it a shot — after all, the worst case scenario is that they’d say “no.” In these conversations I was able to get some excellent advice about my book, as well as to offer these authors encouragement in their own work. In the end, I think we both benefitted.
Never Eat Alone is written for ambitious business professionals, and the specific advice Keith gives often makes me feel like I need to go take a nap — the fast-paced way he lives his own life is way more than I could ever take on. However, underneath it all are solid principles for breaking out of an isolationist mentality and learning to involve other people in your life and your dreams. Definitely worth a read.
What about you? Have you found any surprising gems that helped you in your spiritual life?