Rose: John, can you tell us a little about your background?
John: I will be 70 years old in a month.
My mother said that I came out of the hatch joyous. I always had a smile.
My grandfather, born in 1882, was orphaned at the age of 2. He was an inventor. One of his inventions was the safety catch on the hand grenade. In World War I, people blew off their arms because there was no timing device. He invented this other way. By the end of World War II, when he retired, his machine factory had four or five hundred employees.
He was a wealthy person. He bought a farm in New Jersey, out with all of the landed gentry, and we lived in one of the 5 houses on the farm. He lived in a house at the top of the hill and there was a constant battle between my father, who didn’t go into his father’s business because he became a lawyer, and the people up the hill.
We were raised in the Episcopal faith. We were acolytes and did a lot in our church. I got sent away to Groton school, an Episcopal Church school, and it was kind of a dream.
I was driven to be the best. I was the best athlete, and I was the captain of the hockey team, the baseball team and played football. In my last year I was elected to be the head of the school.
I had this very strong desire to be number one. And yet, my take on the Gospels was “beware of arrogance and haughtiness because then there is the fall.” So there was this real conflict in me about wanting to be seen, wanting to be the best, and thinking this is not going to end up well.
My father was incredibly supportive of my brother and me. He would drive 5 hours every weekend to come to see us play sports. I can remember skating around the hockey rink and seeing him in the crowd and coming over and hugging him every time.
As it turned out, he was living a very false life. We lived a very lavish life and to make a long story short, on July 1, 1963, he went up to his father’s house and put his 12-gauge shotgun in his mouth and pulled both triggers and killed himself.
That was the first bomb in my life. At that time, I was a freshman at Harvard. I spent the next 3 years every day crying in my room by myself. This burned certain lessons into my being: I was always going to be safe; I would continue to be the best; I would be powerful; I would be educated; I would be wealthy; and I would never end up like my father. It was intense.
I went on in Harvard and somehow I got into medical school. The first day of medical school we went to the freezers to pick out a cadaver. This was the first dead body that I had ever seen in my life. Back then, medical students spent 6 months with the cadaver, basically dissecting it with books. It was a lesson in anatomy that was very slow.
For me, it was an entirely spiritual experience — the fact that someone gave their body for me to learn from was a gift. I suddenly became extremely intelligent. I essentially inhaled the anatomy of this body and this gift. It was the first time that I truly understood the reason for learning and really wanted it.
Because of my father’s death and what I had taken in and taken on in terms of being rich, famous, influential, powerful, my whole life was one of being driven. I had gotten married before I went to medical school. But my soul, my whole self didn’t even show up in the marriage because I was so obsessed with my work and with being some kind of a highly effective machine.
I had the great fortune to have 2 daughters and I was the best father that I could be. But when I was in medical residency, I worked 120 to 130 hours a week. I can remember coming home and falling asleep at the dining room table and then going to work the next day. But I truly love my children and we spent a lot of good time together.
One of the early great transformations of my life was that after 17 years of marriage, my wife left me. That was incredible. I got in touch with what emotions can do, and I lived in a space of intense resentment for 6 months.
Then, during a workshop on relationships, I was able to look at who I was and what I did, and I came to see how I was responsible for the divorce. It wasn’t that I was a victim, which is where I was in resentment for 6 months. What I saw clearly was: How could anyone would want to be married as a partner to someone who was obsessed with work, production, success, status, being effective and not available as a full human being?
Two or three years later I met my current wife Helen, and we got married in 1984. The next very monumental transformation occurred with her. When Helen’s mother was dying of cancer, we went to a workshop by a fellow who led support groups for cancer patients. Helen and I decided to start a support group at my office at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. My fellow urologists thought I was having some kind of a nervous break down; surgeons do not run support groups.
Cancer patients would come and we would sit in a circle and they would basically just talk. At the end of each session, Helen would do a guided meditation. In the middle of the room would be a white light and for me the light was the divine Christ. It was a truly spiritual experience.
During three years of doing the support group, I kept hearing over and over, “Why did I wait until I got cancer to start living my life?” One day, Helen and I went home after the meeting and we looked at each other and we said, “What are we waiting for?” Our lives in Boston were on the fast track, with too much push, push, push, and not enough time for living.
I left my practice, and we bought a farm in New Hampshire. We moved there. We called it Hallelujah farm and we were thankful that we were delivered from the city.
Rose: John, could say a little bit more about how your father’s death influenced your journey with money?
John: My father was a tax lawyer and was very intelligent. The false life he was living had to do with keeping up with the Joneses. We went to private schools. My sister was an equestrian and we had 4 or 5 horses. So my father had huge expenses that he could not pay.
Today we’d just declare bankruptcy and move on. No one declared bankruptcy in the 50’s. So he borrowed money and apparently used clients’ money. Towards the end of his life he was disbarred from the law. The day before he shot himself, the IRS was circling and he was supposed to have a meeting with lawyers, the IRS and some clients that he owed money too. Seeing no way out, he shot himself.
I was really obsessed that that would never happen to me. I had to have a huge cushion because otherwise what it would mean to me would be death.
The other huge thread has to do with my spirituality that I absorbed at Groton: life is about service and Christ’s life was not only about service, but self emptying, giving of one’s self. That was a very powerful message, and it really didn’t jibe with money, and it didn’t jibe with where I had to go, because I didn’t want to become my father.
Rose: So you had this experience on the one hand of feeling like you needed to develop this big cushion to avoid what had happened for your father, and then on the other hand you have this message that says: “If you’re living a good Christian life, then you are self emptying and in service to others.”
John: That second one was a good idea, but I would never do that. I just couldn’t go there. My life was all about, “I don’t have enough.”
Helen and I went to a Ministry of Money workshop where the participants were to anonymously put on a graph our net worth, how much we made per year, and how much we give away per year. There were all kinds of people there. There were people there who basically thought they were very rich because they had $180,000.
I knew where my stuff was and so I went up there and I was very proud that I had one of the highest net worth’s. I also had a pretty high annual salary. Then I looked at the gifting and it was ridiculous. There was almost nothing there. It was probably a 50th of what other people gave. And the people who had $180,000 net worth they were giving 4 or 5 times more then I was. I knew that there was something wrong. I took it in, but I wasn’t ready; I still didn’t have enough.
Rose: It is interesting because I met you at a subsequent Ministry of Money retreat on the topic, “How much is enough?”
John: I remember meeting you, but I have no memory of the workshop topic, which is quite significant.
Rose: Shortly after that you came to your first Harvest Time gathering. I’m wondering how you got there.
John: Helen and my marriage in some ways was not working very well because of the ole Johnny boy who never had enough, wasn’t going to have enough and if he didn’t he would die. Helen had a different story. She grew up totally secure and early in our marriage inherited a bunch of money. Her whole life was about giving it away, which she is doing in a conscious way.
When you called to tell us about Harvest Time, Helen wanted to go and I obviously had a little bit of remedial work to do. I had no idea what was going to happen, but I was seeing that there was something out of balance in my life.
Rose: Since then, you’ve done a lot of work. Some of it has been psychological.
John: Part of the problem for me was: how do I reconcile my life and how I’ve behaved with the Christian message? Helen, who is a psychotherapist, looks at all different models, and one time she brought home a model about internal family systems that totally resonated with me.
The model, which was created by Richard Schwartz, talks about the fact that there are many parts to people. There’s a part of me that is my grandfather. There’s a part of me that is my father, my mother, and all of these contradictory parts. The good news is that there is a core self, which, for me, is the Christ within. The problem with the parts is that they cover up that core self.
When I heard about this, it really helped me understand my life. Looking back, from very early in my family of origin, there was a huge part that I picked up that had to do with playing it safe, with being in the middle, with keeping my family from exploding by being silent and performing well. My life depended on it.
The real underlying driving force was the incredible love that I had for my father and the admiration that I had for everything that he gave me. He really went out for me, and the fact that he killed himself because he didn’t have enough money was profound. So I can forgive myself for ruining my first marriage. I can forgive myself for all of the intense striving.
Now I am entering the second half of life. The first is over. The second half is a new creation and the new creation is to live more and more fully into the true self, into the Christ within. For me, that has to do with not only being of service, but another kind of self emptying, which has to do with the money.
Rose: For you that has to do with money?
John: For me it has to do with money because that’s where the block is. That’s the part of me that’s not very Christ like. I’m holding on. I feel insecure, even though I have more money then I need.
I honor the part that has to do with my relationship with my father and all that happened to him. That kept me alive. But right now, in the second half of my life, that part really needs to take a back seat. The Christ within honors and respects all of my parts, even the miserly, uncharitable ones. If it needs to forgive that, it forgives that. That’s part of who I am. What I’m focused on doing now is living my life more and more completely from the Christ like core. The really conscious part, the controller at this point, is the divine within.
Many of the things that drove me in the past that had to do with survival and being safe are the primitive brain. The primitive brain is only interested in one thing and that’s to survive. What’s so interesting about the neuroscience is that the anterior frontal cortex where consciousness resides actually articulates and touches part of the primitive brain. Meditation, centering prayer, chanting and emptying the mind can actually influence, very subtly over time, the sites of aggression, and all of those parts that are only interested in survival. Through the discipline of exercising the anterior frontal cortex through meditation and through prayer you can actually calm the primitive brain. That is part of the mission now—spending more time in a meditative space. That is what I find so important about chanting and the contemplative focus of this next half of my life.
In terms of the money, there’s still a part of me that absolutely wants to make sure that my beloved children don’t have to suffer the way I did. I want my children to be safer financially then I was and not have to struggle. Other than that, my goal in a very conscious way, is to give away all of my resources. I would like to see the check to the cremation society bounce after I’m dead. That’s the direction. It’s also very wonderful because I think Helen and I are on the same journey now and we were so far apart before.
Rose: As you’ve been talking I’ve been thinking of a retreat that we had together several years ago. Some friends were traveling to Rwanda and we wanted to make a gift to go with them. Can you share what that was like for you?
John: I’ve tried as hard as I could and I have not been able to repress that experience. (laughter)
I said that I thought I would be able to give 25 cents.
What was amazing was that was fine with people. When I realized what part was speaking, I got so much clearer that that part was hurting me drastically. It was muffling the Christ within. I’m sure Christ could withstand the muffling, but it was just a withering of my soul. And it was ridiculous. I did hand over the 25 cents, but that was a profound lesson.
I can remember another time we were thinking about funding a micro business in Rwanda. Our group was thinking about raising $20,000. Philbert, a priest who runs a ministry of reconciliation in Rwanda, had a relationship with one of the members of our group. In Rwanda, there was a group of people who wanted to make soap and were looking for some start-up funds. The soap makers were the wives of the ones who did the genocide, and the wives of men who had been murdered. They were living their lives together and running the soap business together. It was a true, incredible reconciliation. Goodness in Christ was fully present there.
So you took a walk with Helen and me and when we came back there was something that shifted in me. When we came back, I said to the group that someone had to put in the seed money and that Helen and I decided that we would be the seed money. We gave $10,000 dollars. I almost feel like crying, it was just a miracle.
That was the beginning. It was so freeing. It was so easy. That was the gift. It really had nothing to do with what I gave; it was the gift that I received. The gift was fully coming from the Christ within me. That more primitive, “you don’t have enough; you’re going to be dead; be careful; you’re going to end up like your father” part, felt safe. It felt safe through the incredible love of Christ, the love within me, for all of the parts.
What allowed me to feel that connection in my heart was the love that I got from the fellow members in the Harvest Time group, you included. In the Harvest Time group, I was able to lay out all of these parts that I have been ashamed of and receive the love of friends. That was very healing.
Rose: I also remember that retreat with a lot of emotion. What was so amazing was it was a gift that you made together with Helen. The relationship that you had with Helen around money had not been easy.
One of the things that we realized was that when we were bickering or fighting and having a disagreement, it was basically because we were triggering each other. When a part is triggered, it’s primitive, upset, angry, circling the wagons, definitely not generous. What’s been helpful is that now that we are more aware, we don’t trigger each other so much.
Next to our farm is an old house that I’m renovating. It was built in 1770. It was a very old house and a wreck. We gutted it and it’s more then a work in progress. But, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is for me to restore this old place. It’s a total joy for me.
After we had been transforming our relationship in terms of not triggering each other, working in a more effective way, Helen said she’d come over to the farm. When she came over to see it, she loved it. She walked into this one space and she said, “Oh my God, it is just incredibly beautiful. This is the perfect place to run our groups.” You can’t even begin to understand the visceral healing and beauty that that struck in me. The renovation was pulling us apart. Then instantly it was a source of being able to be together.
The other wonderfully interesting thing is that there is a pole barn that was attached to our original house up the hill. My goal was to put up the pole barn and it became very clear to me that we’re not going to call it the barn. We’re going to call it the chapel.
Rose: We started this conversation with how you are going to be 70 next month, talking about the incredible journey that you’ve been on from the inside out, working with the parts of you that came out of a core wounded place, to now wanting to live from that place of Christ within. I am so struck that meanwhile you’ve been renovating this house from the inside out, and at the end of the day what you’re building is a chapel.