Stories and lessons in de-stressing life

Professor hopes to help people find a way to put hardships in perspective

Health & Fitness

October 12, 2003|By Adrienne Saunders | Adrienne Saunders,Sun Staff

Robert Wicks puts you immediately at ease. His office at Loyola College's new graduate center in Columbia, where he is a professor of pastoral counseling, is small and spare, accented by family pictures and lined with shelves of thick volumes.

His calm demeanor and grandfatherly presence are the result of 25 years of counseling other therapists, physicians, ministers, trauma survivors in Cambodia and relief workers in Rwanda.

Wicks' new book, Riding the Dragon (Sorin Books, $15.95), is a compact, 150-page work covered in optimistic candy-red that outlines 10 lessons for spiritual development.

The book's brief story-lessons are designed to help people step back from moments of frustration, and to help them understand their hardships rather than seeing them only as obstacles to overcome.

After getting an undergraduate degree in psychology in 1968, Wicks joined the Marines and served in Vietnam for two years. He returned to school after Vietnam and earned a doctorate in psychology.

At a time when many Americans are mourning the loss of loved ones who died during the conflict in Iraq, and others are still recovering from the tragic events of 9 / 11, the topic of coping seems more relevant than ever.

Wicks, 57, who has written more than 40 books on healing and coping, told The Sun he believes the mechanisms of dealing with tragedy also offer tools for handling the stresses of everyday life.

You developed this book from counseling other healers. But it's aimed at a general readership.

Everybody goes through stress. People are trying to balance dealing with their children, dealing with their spouse, dealing with being a single parent, dealing with stress on the job.

People need to draw upon whatever they can to gain a sense of perspective. This isn't just for themselves but for their family and friends, because when they're at peace they're offering others something.

You've written dozens of self-help books. What's different about this one?

The difference is the breadth of the spirituality I've used. I tried to draw from both East and West, including Jewish spirituality, Chris-tian spirituality and Buddhist and Hindu spirituality.

There is a breadth of spiritual wisdom that we should all be using no matter what our background and whether we're religious or not. It's essential not to avoid any knowledge that's going to help us. Also, I think it's the most honest book I've written. I don't avoid my own darkness.

What do you mean by "darkness?" Does that have something to do with the dragon in the book's title?

Darkness to me is an impasse. It's where you're caught in a difficult situation and there doesn't seem to be any way out.

People are often sucked into this darkness. What I suggest to them is to look at how they've been feeling, look at what they've been thinking about, both the objective -- what happened -- and the subjective -- how did I feel -- and what have they been believing about it.

People can't avoid the truths in their lives, the dragons in their lives. They need to face them directly and ride them so they have a sense of perspective.

How did your experience in Vietnam affect your decision to become a counselor?

It really challenged me to be a leader and to deal with darkness and tough decisions. But the interest in the integration of psychology and spirituality -- I've always been interested in spirituality.

In the book, my primary goal was to take psychology and spirituality that I've used for 25 years and to make that material available for the general public.

So how exactly are people supposed to ride the dragon -- to deal with the stress of daily life?

You may find, in one of the book's lessons, that you are overlooking your renewal zones and you should find those areas you've lost. Another lesson helps you catch the slide and realize how to stop getting pulled into darkness. The reader can pick which avenue works best at any given point.

What I also suggest is that people spend time in silence and solitude, just a couple minutes a day, to center themselves. You begin to learn the kinds of things that are preoccupying you.

Give us an example of one of the book's lessons.

One is called "the pruning lesson." It will save you more time and allow you to enjoy your time. Most of us don't think about what renews us or realize the positive impact of taking a short walk. Depression and activity don't like to live together. When you work in an enclosed space you not only catch the flus and colds of the people around you but the despairs also. It's about detoxifying yourself.

So you're saying be a little selfish so you have more to give?

Well, be self-caring. I encourage setting limits. Just like a door, if you open it a little, some of the heat goes out; open it wider, more flows out; and if you leave it open all the time, you just won't have anything to give.

Does the world really need another self-help book?

My book gives people the benefit of what is taught to nurses, doctors, psychologists and professional healers. I spent my whole life working with healers, and I'm offering readers seeds to plant in themselves of peace and perspective -- to help them deal with physical and emotional ills and spiritual hunger.

How do you respond to criticisms that self-help books have limited value?

I think the criticisms are correct and I welcome them. People come out with a book on self-help and put "soul" or "spirituality" on the cover and it's difficult to discern which books to select.

The qualities of good self-help books are that they're real, they're practical and they're hopeful. I look at the biographical information and see who it is that's writing the book.

I think this book is the best of all I've done. I went back and picked things that have stood the test of time.

I want people to look at it critically and find out what works for them and what they find to be true, and the rest, let it go.

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