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How We Heal

How We Heal
Growing up, my mother would often say to me, typically on a Friday or Saturday night as I prepared to go out with my friends, “Remember, your life might be the only Bible somebody reads.”
This, by the way, was the Southern Baptist version of St. Francis’ encouragement to “Preach the Gospel and if necessary use words.”
Now, in the amount of time I lived with my folks my mom probably spoke a bijillion words to me---give or take--- (my father, slightly less than a bijillion), and frankly the vast majority of them I don’t recall.  Not that many didn’t sink in or have an impact, but I just can’t recite them to you here and now.  But I remember the words about “my life being the only bible someone might read” like she’d just said them to me thirty minutes ago.
Why?  Why would those words still echo in my head and heart 30 some odd years after I’d heard them?  Because I’m neurotic, and prone to guilt?  Well, O.K., I AM neurotic, but that’s not why I remember them.  Because my mom is a saint?  My mom’s a great lady, but no, that’s not it either.
I remember these words because they carry a challenge that is at the VERY HEART of being human…to be the person you were created to be, and to help others do the same.
Or as my confessor Fr. Paul might say, “to get to Heaven and to help others get to Heaven.”  In the end there’s nothing more important.
But even if there was no Heaven, even if there was no God, even if this life was all there was….I’d STILL say this was the best way to live.  To be good and do good.  Goodness is a reward in itself.
THIS is how people heal.  THIS is how people grow.  THIS is how people find lasting happiness.
Being good and doing good…living a life that leads to happiness in this world, and Heaven in the next.  Sounds great, sounds worthwhile, sounds obvious, sounds simple.
So, why is the world so seriously screwed up?  Why is there so much unhappiness?  Why are there so many tears, and so much violence.  Why do so many feel isolated, and hopeless?
The American Psychological Association conducted a study a few years ago and found that over the past 50 years the average American is more educated, and (even after accounting for inflation) makes more money…yet has a significantly lower personal sense of satisfaction with life.  
So, life satisfaction isn’t about more education, or more money.  Life satisfaction is not found in things, or titles.  Shocking!  Leave it to psychologists to discover the obvious.
The theme of our Gala is “Seas of Change,” and this captures well the dynamic all around us.  The global economy, the technological leaps, the scientific breakthroughs…so much uncertainty, so much that is unknown, so much change.  
But what doesn’t change is how PEOPLE change.  What was true when the Israelites wandered in the desert, and what was true when the Greeks philosophized and the Romans ruled, and what was true when Shakespeare was writing his sonnets is what is true now. 
People don’t change because they feel a lot of feelings, or because they think a lot of thoughts.  People change because they LIVE differently.  They practice good habits, habits that are acquired over time, and lots of practice.  Habits that make you better and make your actions better, and make the world better.  Aristotle called it “virtue therapy”….healing through the practice of virtues.  If you want to become loving, practice love.  If you want to be courageous, practice courage.  If you want to be just, practice justice.  If you want to be compassionate, practice compassion.   If you want to be grateful, practice gratitude.  If you want to be forgiving, practice forgiveness.  Goodness in action!
Now at this point I could get deep into the nitty gritty of virtue ethics…talk philosophy and theology, and explore in great detail all that blocks the good…and effectively put you all to sleep.  But since this is not the goal I will, instead, tell you two stories.  Because stories are always the best way to communicate what is most important.  And because nothing illustrates virtue like people who act in the name of love.
My paternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from England, where the Porters had been coal miners.  It was a hard life, and opportunities were limited.  And John and Mary Porter wanted more for their children, and their children’s children.  So they got on a ship with their little ones and they sailed for the land of opportunity.  Of course when they arrived they were just as uneducated as they were in England.  So they headed back to the coal mines…but not without a plan.
In Mount Hope, West Virginia, my great-grandparents sacrificed and struggled to set a new trajectory for the Porters.  And in the name of love, they decided to save for my grandfather’s education---so he’d have more choices than they did.  And because of their generosity, and sense of responsibility, and moral courage my grandfather Ross Porter Sr. became the first Porter to graduate from college.  And he taught my father to value education---and my father gave this gift to his children.  And here I stand tonight, just two generations removed from the coal mines of Mt. Hope, West Virginia, having benefitted to the tune of 23 years of schooling. 
My maternal grandfather, Wesley Hugh Gates, was raised on a little farm in Eastern Oklahoma where money was always tight.  Early one morning when he was about five years old, hammering in his home awakened him.  So, my grandfather took his little brother by the hand, and together they walked into the kitchen to find their father building a coffin.  My grandfather’s fifteen year-old sister had died in the middle of the night.  She had been sick with the measles, and in her weakened condition an infection slipped in and claimed her body:  this was the explanation my grandfather would hear years later from a doctor.  But not from his family:  he heard silence from them.
His parents, in their grief, decided that the best way to deal with the tremendous loss was to not talk about it.  And they never did.  The young woman was buried in an unmarked grave because there wasn’t the money for a marker---and that was that. 
Of course my grandfather never stopped feeling the loss of his sister.  And in his sadness, thankfully, he chose to live differently.  In his twenties, having made some money, he returned to look for her grave.  He somehow found it by sorting through cemetery records, and then he paid for a grave marker for his big sister. 
Then my grandfather went home and, with my grandmother, taught my mother that sadness didn’t have to be buried, and talking about feelings was healthy and good, and living in truth led to freedom.  Over the years, a pattern of hiding was dismantled, and in its place healing grew.  And here I am tonight, the founder of a non-profit organization that helps people live authentically in the face of pain and grief and find healing and wholeness…just two generations removed from that little farm in Oklahoma, and that dusty graveyard where a fifteen year old girl was quietly laid to rest in an unmarked grave.
I am the beneficiary of those who went before me…those who acted in virtue, in the name of love.  I would not be here tonight, but for the choice of my parents, and their parents to be and do good.  My life is altogether different, better, because of virtue.  And so is yours.
The practice of virtue:  makes use of the past…heals in the present…and prepares well for the future. 
I just gave you two big picture examples of how living virtues can matter across generations.  But let me tell you two more stories that demonstrate how virtue can also be hidden in little things done with great love---and can effect the world just as much.
I attended a high school that was a 45-minute freeway commute from my home, and so I had to get up fairly early in the morning in order to dress, eat, and hit the road before the highways of Los Angeles were transformed into parking lots.  During this time, my father had a job that required him to work many late nights.  Yet, he would routinely wake me up for school at 6:00 most weekday mornings, long after I was old enough to set my own alarm clock and had begun doing so.  At the time, I didn’t fully understand why my dad insisted on doing this morning ritual, even when I told him it wasn’t necessary.  It’s not like he and I did a lot of visiting that early in the day.  He’d typically sit on the couch and I’d eat my cereal, and we’d maybe exchange three or four sentences before I was off to face my day.  Looking back now, though, I get it.  My dad was telling me with his actions that he loved me.  That’s virtue.
As some of you know, my father-in-law Michael Somdal was a very special man---and I recall very clearly the evening I first realized this.  It was his birthday party, and his family had gathered around him to celebrate.  I had been dating his daughter for six months, and although he and I shared the same birthday month I never thought I’d share the evening’s spotlight with him.  I didn’t deserve to.  However, when his birthday cake was brought out, it read “Happy Birthday Mike and Ross.”  He also insisted that everyone sing “Happy Birthday” to the both of us.  Not that big a deal?  Put yourself in his shoes for a moment.  Some young kid comes into your only daughter’s life and after only six months displaces you as her most significant man.  No twinge of jealousy?  No concern that maybe things were moving faster than they should?  No temptation to remind the young man that his place was one notch down in the pecking order?  My father-in-law could have felt any of those things and it would have been perfectly normal, but if he did he kept them completely hidden.  I believe the thought never even crossed his mind, because Mike was such a remarkably humble man.  It pleased him to be able to welcome me into his family, even if it meant that he had to move to the side a little.  His grave marker reads:  “His was a rare and brilliant life.”  No truer words have ever been written.
Being good and doing good infuses everything we do at Stillpoint.  From the way we counsel our clients and train our interns, to our educational outreach through our VirtueYOU online curriculum, and the books we write and publish, and the seminars and workshops we offer in schools, churches, and temples nationally and internationally. 
Everyday we are helping people to overcome obstacles that block their growth…obstacles that have been years or even generations in the making…fear, trauma, loss, and dysfunction…and enable them to understand what is good, seek what is good, and practice consistently what is good…good for them, and good for the world.  But not just by helping them feel and think…because that’s just not enough.  We are helping those we work with to heal and grow---whether it be in counseling, in workshops and seminars, or through our internet materials and books ---by empowering them to live lives firmly grounded in virtue…objective goodness. 
And the goodness we help others find, and own, and live, I see in you also.  The very fact that you’re here tonight to support our efforts shows this.  Your ability already to recognize what has been done for you in the name of love---and your willingness to pay it forward---is profound.  Don’t stop trying to be good and do good …because this is how hope grows, this is how lives are changed, this is how the world is made new again.  And this is how you’ll move from successful to significant.
Significant?  Maybe some of you are thinking that’s kind of grandiose.  Hey, how ‘bout we just get by? 
Look, if all you want to do is “get by,” you’re not shooting high enough.  This world of ours is pretty wounded, and people all around us are pretty wounded, and frankly we’re wounded too.  But that can change.  We can be a part of that change.  To be fully human, we must be part of that change.
In the name of love….thanks be to God.

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