Friday, February 18, 2011

Question of the Day With Michael Phillips

Angel Harp: A Novel
Question 17 of 25

Name three things you couldn’t live without.

That is a really fantastic question. I think it’s the most thought provoking question yet. I suppose one could live without anything. But there are definitely some things I would not want to live without.

The first is solitude. Honestly, I don’t think I could live without the recreating silences of being alone. People are unique in what energizes them and “charges their internal batteries,” as it were. There are those who are energized by being with people. I am just the opposite. I need alone time every day. It’s not necessarily a spiritual thing, time “alone with God” sort of thing. I have to be alone with myself…surrounded by quiet and calm…when the pace of activity slows. When I’m driving, for example, I normally do not listen to music. I prefer the company of my own thoughts, my own inner life, to listening to the outside stimulation of music. I need the quiet to think, to reflect, yes to pray as well. But for me, inner thought and prayer are all bound up together.

One of our dear friends said to us recently, “I have asked God to make all my thoughts prayers.” That’s nice, isn’t it—lovely beyond words.

Even when I’m with my closest friends, I have to find opportunities to carve out solitude. It is often difficult because our society is a socially intense society. Solitude is not considered one of the prized and valued commodities in life. But I simply cannot function for very long in the presence of people, even my close friends whose company I enjoy (and I’m talking about hours, not days and weeks) without getting away to center down for a while. It’s literally as important to my well being as food and drink. Indeed, if I was with a group of people all day in a fairly intense interactive environment, and they were planning to spend the evening at an expensive restaurant, and I had the choice to forego the dinner for the chance to be alone, I would choose the solitude over the meal any day. Going without dinner would be a small price to pay for the recreating solitude that would energize me internally and get me ready for the next day.

Secondly, I would not want to live without hard physical activity. I don’t mean merely exercise, though that is a key component of it. The simplest way to describe it is that I need to either get dirty every day or sweat every day. Preferably both.

I was a very active and competitive runner for 40 years. I ran track in high school and college. I continued to run all the years since. I’ve competed in everything from the 100 meters to several marathons. I’ve run the equivalent around the world at the equator twice—approximately 50,000 miles. Now my knees have begun to tire from all that, so I’m doing my third stretch around the equator on a bike. My active running days are over, but I am cycling with equal passion. I hope to ride a century (100 miles) later this year, though so far I’ve only worked my way up to about 65 miles. Cycling is still relatively new to me but I am enjoying it tremendously.

Because my work is sedentary (writing) and is something you basically do sitting down, by noon or 1:00, if I’ve begun my writing at five or six that morning, I am brain-weary. I need to balance the writing with hard physical activity. That’s when I usually go out for a long bike ride, weather permitting. I ride hard, just like I used to run hard. There are few things I enjoy more than pushing myself to my absolute physical limits, to the point of exhaustion. I know it is a little crazy. Judy thinks I’m crazy sometimes! But I just love to exhaust myself on a bike like I used to do when I ran. I’m over 60, but I get out there and I find myself competing with every thin fast 30 year old that rides up behind me. Not because I want to ride faster than them, but because I want to push myself.

Intense physical activity of this kind accomplishes much the same thing for my internal psyche as does solitude. It is re-creative. I think and pray during my rides. You cannot imagine how much of the content of my books over the years has come to me during long runs or bike rides. When I’m riding hard, my brain is also going at full speed. That’s why I carry paper and pencil with me when I’m riding.

If the weather doesn’t permit a ride, I get out in the afternoon and do some kind of physical work—yard work, wood work in my shop, home repairs, etc. It’s not quite the same as hard exercise, but it is still physical and that’s the key. My day is not complete unless I have sweat or gotten my hands dirty. I tell Judy that I have to “earn” my daily shower.

Then I usually cool down and take a shower sometime between four and five in the afternoon and sit down again to my writing. I feel calm, weary but mentally invigorated, fulfilled, that it’s been a complete day. Then I have another stint at whatever book I am working on to try to get things set up and ready for the next day’s morning session.

My third “can’t live without” is my wife Judy. She would obviously be the first in priority of the three, but I mention her third because it would be difficult to explain the kind of re-creating relationship we have without first having spoken about solitude. Judy is even more an “internal” person that I am. She occasionally needs solitude even from me! But for the most part, the “solitude” we both need isn’t from one another. We share in that re-creative, internally energizing time. As we do, we recognize the need for silence, but we participate in the silence together. We spend our early mornings and our evenings together. We don’t go out. We are not social. We don’t go to evening meetings. That time together twice a day is imperative…we have to have it to keep our internal emotional and spiritual and psychological “selves” working and in tune.

Back during the years when we were raising our family and operating our Christian bookstore and involved with people in continuous and intense relationship all day long, protecting our mornings and evenings was even more essential to our sanity. Even though our days are not quite so intense as they used to be, we find that the need for shared solitude is still at the top of every day’s priority list. We both are “do-ers.” We get a lot done. We believe that one of the secrets to it is focus and mental energy that solitude gives us.

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