Adversity and the Authentic Self
(Adapted and updated from a presentation given at The Mission of Adversity and the Spiritual Value of Disappointment Virginia-Carolina Association Annual Mini-Conference, 2018.)
“That Saturday night the Master talked for more than an hour to the assembled groups on ‘The mission of adversity and the spiritual value of disappointment.’ This was a memorable occasion, and his hearers never forgot the lesson he imparted.” [Paper 51:0.1, page 1688.1 emphasis added]
In 1985, when I moved in with my first male partner, we had known each other for only two weeks. And in those two weeks, we had probably been together no more than two or three times. But Owen gave me a key to his apartment almost immediately; thus, when my marriage fell apart rather abruptly and my now ex-wife asked me to leave, I knew exactly where I would go.
Over the next weeks and months, as Owen and I got to know each other, I learned that his taste in books included A Course in Miracles, along with Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, a retelling of the legend of King Arthur from the female point of view, Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization, and The Seth Material. Seth claimed to be a spiritual teacher who spoke through author Jane Roberts while she was in trance.
Owen read and reread these books over and over, underlining with a dull red pencil. It occurs to me now that I never saw him meditate or pray, just read and reread these books with his little red pencil.
At the very least, these books influenced Owen’s speech, peppered as it was with phrases such as, “It’s all just energy,” “We create our own reality,” and “There are no victims, only volunteers.” I had no idea what he was talking about. My life was a mess, and I had definitely not volunteered for any of it. And as for it all being just energy, well…
Among Owen’s mantras was this phrase as well, “No appointments, no disappointments.” That one I did understand: to not be so invested in an outcome that its failure to materialize is met with equanimity and acceptance rather than depression and despair.
It is twenty-three years ago now since Owen apparently sized up his life as an insurmountable disappointment and hanged himself behind his front door. I often wonder what he would have made of The Urantia Book. Would it have been just another exercise in underlining, accompanied by a new set of catchphrases, or would he have found within its pages a path to uncover and befriend his authentic self? The self not bound up in ego, the self not drowning in debt, the self not defeated by his lack of success as an actor despite his outsized talent.
But exactly how does one do that? Uncover and befriend one’s authentic self, that is. If I am willing to accept that I am not my résumé, my successes or failures, my job title, my bank balance, my race, religion, ethnicity or culture, as well as all the labels I wear such as ex-husband, American, contemplative priest, or vegan, if I am not my name, my thoughts or emotions, or perhaps most significantly, my body, then who the hell am I?
And who is running the show here?
A stumbling block for me, each time I read it, is the role that the Thought Adjuster plays in our lives. In Paper 108, we read:
The Mystery Monitors are not thought helpers; they are thought adjusters. They labor with the material mind for the purpose of constructing … a new mind for the new worlds … of your future career. Their mission chiefly concerns the future life, not this life. They are called heavenly helpers, not earthly helpers.
Here is the kicker.
They are not interested in making the mortal career easy; rather are they concerned in making your life reasonably difficult and rugged, so that decisions will be stimulated and multiplied. The presence of a great Thought Adjuster does not bestow ease of living and freedom from strenuous thinking, but such a divine gift should confer a sublime peace of mind and a superb tranquillity of spirit. [Paper 108:5.5, page 1191.6]
It is the business of the Adjuster to prepare you for the eternal adventure, to assure your survival. It is not the mission of the Mystery Monitor to smooth your ruffled feelings or to minister to your injured pride; it is the preparation of your soul for the long ascending career that engages the attention and occupies the time of the Adjuster. (Paper 108:5.6, page 1192.1)
I cannot help but wonder, therefore, as I look back on my seventy years, which situations in my life have been of my Adjuster’s making? What circumstances were placed in my path to create for me a “reasonably difficult and rugged” existence?
The list, of course, is endless, but the standouts include the cruel, self-absorbed tyrant I had for a mother who expected her children to take care of her instead of vice versa; an unloving, disinterested father, acutely embarrassed by my lack of athletic ability and disdain for sports; and last but not least, my sexual orientation. Something I am not the least bit unhappy about, but the rest of the world’s unhappiness about it has caused unspeakable pain.
And what about all the bad decisions I have made? The train wreck that aptly describes my financial history. The abusive relationships I eagerly entered into with partners, friends and employers. The seemingly endless string of mind numbing, spirit crushing jobs that in sum, I cannot, with a straight face, call a career.
Yes, of course, each of us has a list. My life has been no better or worse, no harder or easier, than anyone else’s, nor am I, with the limited perspective of a mere mortal, in a position to judge.
So is the Thought Adjuster’s primary role to provide the lemons and our challenge to make lemonade? That kind of optimism and inner strength were completely foreign to me growing up. I was taught that the world is a dangerous place, and that doom and gloom lurk around every corner. The example set for me was that everything was a catastrophe of Biblical proportions and the appropriate response was not to try again but to give up immediately and take to one’s bed for at least three days.
While I may not have followed this example to the letter, I certainly took it to heart emotionally. Despair, hopelessness and depression marked my adolescence and persisted for several decades.
Why couldn’t I have been like Barbra Streisand, the gay icon of my teens? When her mother mocked her dreams and ambitions and told her to go to secretarial school, Streisand, in an interview she gave many years ago, took an attitude of, “I’ll show you!” And obviously, she did.
Owen had a good bit of Streisand’s grit and fortitude, although in a more passive-aggressive way. While his parents thought he was going to college, for example, he was in fact apprenticing at a local theater in Pittsburgh, where he grew up. In their complete and utter self-absorption, his father and mother wrote their tuition checks to Owen instead of to a school and never inquired about courses of study, grades, or, well, his life. Instead, they went to the country club and played the American version of Keeping Up Appearances.
Four years later, as graduation approached and Owen’s secret came out and there was hell to pay. Nevertheless, he managed to bargain his way into a year or two in New York—I don’t remember the exact terms—and in 1966 he moved into a rent-controlled apartment on Waverly Place, the only apartment he ever occupied in New York and where I moved on that fateful day in 1985.
Of course, his parents knew from forever that he had the acting bug but chose to kill it rather than nurture it, in the same way, I believe, my mother understood not to take me to the opera with her because I would have liked it a little too much, and what was she going to do with an opera queen for a son in 1960’s Cleveland, Ohio?
Yes, Owen was much more determined and persistent than I. Out-and-about in the Village one Saturday, I was looking for, well, I don’t remember exactly, a certain kind of socks or shoes or trousers. Deflated after two or three unsuccessful attempts, I whined, “Oh, forget it.” Owen’s instant comeback is still engraved on my brain: “You give up so easily.”
Yet he is the one who ultimately gave up. There are many reasons for that and I am not trying to oversimplify his life or his death, but I do know that he did not have the bigger picture that meditation and The Urantia Book afford. The bigger picture of the universe, of the mess we are in here on Urantia, of God, of life. The explanations, understandings and consolations that I have found in this thing called The Urantia Book have made all the difference. It is, as I have said many times, the most important thing I have ever read.
Unfortunately, we do not have the transcript of Jesus’ talk on “The mission of adversity and the spiritual value of disappointment” referred to at the beginning of Paper 151. We are given so many of his discourses, yet this one is mentioned only in passing, despite it being called memorable. Did Jesus give his apostles the lemonade speech? We may never really know.
Left to speculate, I thought of the Book of Job. Despite all that happened to him, “… Job did not … charge God with wrongdoing” (Job 1:22). He did not moan and wail, “Where was God?” as many people do after some atrocity happens. I heard this frequently after the terrorist attacks on New York. “Where was God on 9/11?” was a common refrain among many groups of people.
Where was God? Where God always is. On the Eternal Isle of Paradise and inside of each of us. Atrocities such as 9/11 are not the kind of adversity that the Thought Adjuster puts in our paths. God is neither cruel nor vindictive and does not stage terrorist attacks, school shootings, world wars or crucifixions, for that matter, as a means of making our lives “reasonably difficult and rugged.” We do all these things.
Adversity, rather, forces us to examine what is important and what is not. It is a stripping away. A stripping away of the comforts in our lives, our possessions, perhaps our physical abilities, our mental capacities, and most crucially, our friends and family members. When we have nothing and no one, what do we have?
One option is disappointment, typically accompanied by anger, resentment, bitterness and several choice four-letter words. I might share my favorites with you privately.
The other option is our stripped-down, bare-bones authentic selves. Perhaps, therefore, the spiritual value of disappointment lies in the degree to which it shakes us by the shoulders and reminds us that only God, only love, only light is eternal. Nothing else, including earthly life, truly matters.
I do believe that Owen understood all of this, at least intellectually. But I also believe he never experienced it viscerally, and until we do, it is a palliative that in the end disappoints. Owen looked only outside of himself for answers, cruelly dismissed by a therapist once who claimed he had “no bottom” and therefore could not be helped.
Thus he failed to do the work, to engage in the never-ending daily devotion of oneself to Conscious Union with God, as author Joel Goldsmith phrased it. Tragically, all Owen thought he had were his little red pencil and the belt with which he hanged himself.