When I was a reporter, I got to ride around with the Rev. Billy Graham on one of his great revival tours. He was a wondrous preacher, a spell-binder speaker. I liked him very much, as different as we were, we talked for hours, and one hot summer night in North Carolina, riding in his limousine together, I complained about the price of gas, and he told the driver to pull over and he gave me quite a sermon: he told me to never speak poorly of my life.
Son, never complain about the price of things, he said, or bad fortune, or the weather or taxes, he said. Never speak poorly of your work or your skills.
When you speak poorly of your life, he said, it is listening, and it will become what you say it is, your complaints and sourness and laments will become who you are and how you see the world. And how people see you. Faith, he said, a spiritual life, is the opposite of that, whatever your faith is. It is about hope and affirmation, acceptance and love. I will never forget that night, Graham had a power that reached me, and his words changed my life, he gave me a way of looking at the world that has stayed with me to this day and helped me navigate a sometimes challenging world.
It is hard, and I often fail, but when I succeed, it is glorious and transforming.
And I see every day the wisdom of the Rev. Graham.
Whenever I mention a cold winter or a hot summer day, people tell me that the weather where they are is worse. They assume I am complaining, even when I am not, it is a reflex for them to join in. It is what seems to be expected of them, or so they think. Wherever I go, people tell me they are unhappy with the price of things, with the way government works, with the way politics is, with the way winters and summers are, with the deaths of their dogs, or their parents of their friends.
Lament is a part of human nature, it is a spiritual experience in and of itself to speak well of life, not to speak poorly of it. The Buddhists accept that suffering and loss are a part of life, they worship acceptance. In our world, are stunned by suffering and death, we take it as a personal betrayal. We rarely speak of death, except to mourn the people we have lost.
On the cold days of this winter, I made it a point not to complain about the winter. I took pictures of the winter pasture instead. On this very hot day, I will not speak badly of the heat, at least not more than once or twice.
Is this a faux spirituality, a forced or contrived posture, an affectation? I got hot today. I suffer from heat and humidity. It’s hard for me to take my walks, to herd sheep with Red and Rose, to go into the woods with Maria. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to sleep or write.
I went to pick up the car today that was nearly destroyed by a deer three weeks ago. I spent hundreds of dollars on medicines that would cost nothing in most of the civilized countries of the world. We are struggling to figure out our finances after four years of struggling to sell Bedlam Farm, making some difficult choices. Our taxes are high and due and yes, the prices of every thing are going up all of the time. And the news from our political leaders makes me ill.
I think almost every day of Billy Graham. The Rev. Graham looked me in the eye that night – his eyes were piercing and blue, and I thought they might bore right through me, and he said. “Son, you have only so much energy and hope and faith, don’t squander it on complaining about the world. Taxes only go up, so do prices, the weather is rarely what we want it to be, people will disappoint you every day of your life, life itself is filled with suffering and unwelcome surprise, death, sickness and disappointment. Work will sometimes fail you, do not speak poorly of your life. It will drain the best things from you, and turn you to the dark side of life.”
Whenever I doubt him, I think of cable news and there, in full view of the world, is his prophesy come true.
Some years after my ride with Rev. Graham, I got around to reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau. And I saw the Rev. Graham’s thoughts and words echoed again, and I was once more deeply touched and affected. In fact, almost every great spiritual leader, from Gandhi to Dr. King has come to the same place about lament and complaint.
“However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names,” wrote Thoreau. ” It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the almshouse as brightly as from the rich man’s abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace.”
And I got the message. I won’t dissemble, I am well aware of the heat, of the deer hitting my car, of the struggles of modern life, the challenges of the weather, money troubles, the deaths of good people, the afflictions of dogs, the violence and conflict in the world. I am no better or worse than anyone reading this, life is as much about suffering as it is about joy, about death as it is about life.
A good friend of mine wrote a poignant piece about all of the animals and people she had lost in her life, her words sparked an outpouring of grief and lament. I wrote her and asked her if she was considering writing a piece about all of the good things that had happened in her life. Wasn’t it, to some extent, a choice?
For all of my faults and shortcomings, I do not shun my life or call it hard names. I will not complain about the heat, which is so beyond my power to change or affect. Life is not nearly so bad as I am, and it did, in fact, look the poorest when I was richest. If you look out of your own life and into the world beyond, it is true that the fault-finder will find faults in paradise, Thomas Merton once wrote a wondrous fantasy about human beings complaining about life in heaven.
Thoreau and Graham saw something that I could not see for myself, but came to see through them. In my early life, no one spoke of life without complaint. My mother raged against the very nature of the world, every day of her life. Perhaps this is why I was so open to the Rev. Graham’s message.
Speaking poorly of your life corrodes the soul, makes for a bitter spirit, breeds fear and anger and resentment, it drowns out hope and snuffs out the creative spark. It is a sad way to live, because one can skip life almost altogether while speaking poorly of it. It might be hot, but I have a wife I love, work I love, dogs I love, photos to take, friends to talk to, things to hope for, books to write.
Photography and words have helped me to honor Graham’s words and Thoreau’s passion. It will be hot this week, all week, and each day will be an opportunity for me to speak well and softly of my life. To take photos of the sun and the people I love, to write about the many good things in my life, rather than the many bad things that have occurred to me.
And yes, it is really hot today.