Yesterday I received a cry for help. After only ten months, a marriage had disintegrated. One party was filing. Could I help.
Forty-five minutes later I sat down with a couple for a pre-marital session, on our way to a fall wedding. They were sunny and excited and I tried not to bring that phone call into this session. But I struggled.
I often ask couples to name simply what is most important in their lives. What is the highest good for you? What matters more than anything else? I encourage them to name two or three bedrock truths that they want to shape their lives. Sometimes I ask the man to try and name what those two or three truths would be for his fiancée, and the woman to do the same for the man she’s about to marry. Sometimes they are not really sure.
A few years ago, I told the couple, at a turning point in my life I wrote down the three things that mattered most to me, and I read them to my wife. In the years that have followed she has often reminded me of my lodestar. “If what you value most are those three things,” she might say, “maybe you should re-think where most of your time is going right now.” It didn’t feel like judgment, just a pressing reminder.
In a moment of insight the man said, “Much of my life focus is outward-facing.” I nodded. Me too, I said. It’s the same for all of us. We make the whole deal about what’s out there, and neglect what’s in here. The tricky thing is, we have to face outward or else we will have nothing to eat and no roof over our heads and the cupboard of our 401.k will be bare. But if that’s all we attend to, we quickly become a shadow of a man or a woman, hollow inside. That’s why it’s critical to have that gold standard and check it every day. Better yet, share it with someone you trust so that you are accountable for the life of meaning and purpose you claim to seek.
The vast majority of people sleepwalk through their lives until something crashes and they wake with a start. Only in this moment can they see what’s been missing, what they need to reclaim at the center of their soul. John Donne wrote, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls.” Every reminder of the shortness and uncertainty of human life, he meant, should be regarded as a personal reminder—not for someone else, but for you. In that spirit, the 911 call I received yesterday came from you. It’s a wake up call. If it’s not your marriage that is on fire, it’s something else. What will you do?
I suggest you write down those three things. While you are still awake.