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The compulsions that drive us

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Taming our compulsions is the way to spiritual growth

Nearly 20 years ago I wrote a slim booklet entitled The Sound of Silence, which can be downloaded from this website here. It came about after a talk I gave to a business audience in Bangalore, India, in 2001. It was on the theme of inspiration in an age of information. “In an age of Information, real inspiration comes in times of silent reflection,” I said and wrote. A colleague turned to me and said, “You should put that into print.” It is now in its eighth printing.

How do we know that the “real inspiration” we think we are receiving is constructive? For the compulsions that drive us are all too easily corrupting. To guard against this, IofC’s founder Frank Buchman suggested that we should measure our thinking and the conduct of our lives in the light of absolute moral standards: honesty, purity (of heart and motive), unselfishness and love (for people, planet, and future generations).

These standards were a ready summary of the teachings of the Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. Buchman encouraged us to read the scriptures—our holy books from our various faith traditions—every day. Surely a good compulsion.

Anything that really didn’t match up to the four moral standards was probably corrupting. As Buchman would say, the melancholy sequence is “the look, the thought, the fascination and the fall.” We can’t always avoid what we see. But we can sever the link between the look and the thought and fascination.

Moreover, we should make apologies where necessary and repay for wrongs done, in a spirit of restitution. In other words, put right what is wrong. The experience can be liberating.

But I am also aware that, as a person in his 70s, my temptations and moral compromises don’t get any easier, or any less. There will always be temptations. But we don’t need to let them lead us into sin.

The danger signs are when I am tired or when I think solely of my own needs instead of caring for, praying for, my family, friends, and those around me.

What, we can ask ourselves, are our compulsions? Over-eating, or simply eating unhealthily? Over-spending? Corrupting habits? The easy access of online pornography? Anger? Criticism of others, instead of appreciation and a spirit of service to others? It was said of the late Queen Elizabeth II that she had a profound sense of duty to serve her people. It was her overriding compulsion.

We maybe all need to struggle with the downsides of our own human nature. In her book Super Infinite the author and Oxford Fellow Katherine Rundell writes about the struggle that the poet John Donne had between the carnal and the spiritual in his life. We remember him for his famous lines that “No man is an island, entire to itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Rundell writes that ‘they are glorious words. If we could believe them, they would upend the world. They cast our interconnectedness not as a burden but as a grand project: our interwoven lives draw their meaning only from each other.”

Yet Donne could write, much earlier, the fruitiest of love poetry that would shock even today’s readers and make us blush.

We change, we grow, and in Donne’s case he did so to become a churchman and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. His life illustrated our interconnectedness.

Taming our compulsions is the way to spiritual growth—to growth in our character, just as it was for Donne. For myself, it is a struggle which I choose to engage with decisively and devote my energy towards. Unlike Mick Jagger, we can all have satisfaction. And if I fall short? There is always forgiveness from a merciful and loving God.

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