August Turak jumped out of an airplane. He had a parachute on, of course, but his skydiving attempt with some college students he was working with at Duke University resulted in a hard landing that “smashed my ankle to smithereens,” he recalled on “Christopher Closeup.” What he didn’t know at the time was that this incident would be the impetus for him to rethink his life and become more open to the promptings of God.
As Turak spent a week in the hospital, he began experiencing panic attacks and a deep depression. He couldn’t understand why this was happening until he realized that the fractured ankle was just symbolic of the fact that he was facing his own mortality for the first time.
This reaction was particularly ironic since Turak made his living coaching college students on spirituality and finding meaning in their lives. Yet here he was, the teacher who offered advice to others, but who found himself empty.
Eventually, the panic attacks stopped, but the emptiness continued to torture him. At the gym one day, while trying to lift his mood through exercise, a man that Turak recognized commented to him, “Not feeling too good, are you, Aug? It feels like your heart’s broken, don’t it?”
Turak was shocked that this relative stranger knew exactly how he was feeling. The man continued, “In AA, we call it the Soul Hole. I’m here to tell you that you’re in for two years of so much hell, you’re going to be wishing you was never born. But you’re going to come through the other side. When you do, you’re going to love yourself a whole lot more than you do right now.”
A few days later, Turak received a call from a student whom he’d coached. The student said he had followed Turak’s advice to do something meaningful with his summer vacation. He was spending it at Mepkin Abbey , a Trappist Monastery and working farm in Berkeley County, South Carolina.
Turak felt a sudden urge to go there himself, as if this was the place that could start offering him the answers he was looking for. At first, he traveled to the Abbey for several weekends of prayer and meditation, and found the monks’ kindness and selflessness made a big impression on him. But it was when Turak became a monastic guest over the Christmas season that he had his life-changing encounter with Brother John.
Following Christmas Eve Mass and a small party afterward, Turak was ready to return to his room in a separate building. He heard raindrops hitting the roof and realized he’d forgotten his umbrella. He cursed to himself because he knew he would now get drenched. But as he approached the doorway, Turak saw 60-year-old Irish monk Brother John standing there with an umbrella, waiting to walk people who’d forgotten their umbrellas to their rooms.
Brother John was known to wake up by 3:00 a.m. to make coffee for everyone – and he was often the last to go to bed at night. Now, despite the cold and rain, the monk in his thin habit walked guests across the grounds, sharing with them his single umbrella.
For the next week, Turak couldn’t get Brother John’s simple gesture of kindness out of his head. The monk had anticipated the needs of others and was willing to endure discomfort in order to help them. This, Turak realized, was love. And it came effortlessly to this monk, grounded in his love of God and man.
Turak got the message that God was sending him. He discovered the way to fill the “soul hole” was by practicing selflessness and love.
Turak sold the businesses he ran and went on to study “theology just for fun.” On the advice of a former student, he wrote an essay about his experience with Brother John and entered it into a contest sponsored by The Templeton Foundation, which asks people to reflect on the purpose of life. Though Turak had never written professionally, he won the $100,000 first prize.
That essay went on to be published in anthologies of The Best Christian Writing and The Best Catholic Writing. But eventually, it became hard to find, so Turak recently published a new stand-alone edition of the essay in book form called “Brother John: A Monk, a Pilgrim, and the Purpose of Life.” With gorgeous illustrations by Glenn Harrington, the story becomes a meditative and prayerful experience for readers on their own spiritual quests. Turak has received letters saying the story has helped people through divorce, the death of a child, and a suicide attempt.
Turak went on to a new career as a writer, serving as a contributor for Forbes and the BBC. He also authored a book called “Business Secrets of the Trappist Monks.” He said, “[The monks] are part of the Benedictine tradition, and their motto is ‘Ora et Labora,’ which means pray and work. For them, prayer is a form of work and work is a form of prayer…We’re all talking about conscious capitalism today and all these new buzz words. They’re not new to the monks. They have been using selfless service as a way to build an incredible brand for a thousand years.”
Turak continued, “Every great salesmen should know…that the more he forgets about his product, forgets about his quota, forgets about his commissions, forgets about himself, and fanatically focuses on helping his customer, the commissions take care of themselves…Me and my partners took $2,500 and over the next seven, eight years, turned it into 150 million by using the monks’ methodologies…When I give a talk, I say, ‘You guys have it all wrong. You want to be leaders because you think that’s the way that’s going to help you. That you’re going to get promoted faster or whatever. You don’t realize that your job as a leader is to get other people promoted. The best leaders forget themselves completely and fanatically focus on getting other people promoted. The better you do that, the quicker you’ll get promoted.’…You can take it literally if you’re so inclined, or you can take it metaphorically if you are not religious. But seek first the kingdom of selflessness, the kingdom of Heaven, and everything else will come unto you. But it takes a tremendous amount of faith to dare to live that way.”
In conclusion, Turak said he shared the story of Brother John as a way to shine light in the darkness: “Most people these days are relativistic. We’re all supposed to find our own purpose. I say, we all have the same purpose…We’re all put here for the exact same reason: to be transformed from selfish people to selfless people. We may do that as a doctor or lawyer or parent or teacher or whatever….But we all have the same purpose….The paradoxical thing is: we think we want selfishness [or] self-indulgence, but we’re actually happiest when we’re sacrificing, when we’re giving ourselves away for something worth giving ourselves away to. We’re all looking for a mission that’s bigger than ourselves…I think that’s the movement toward selflessness.”
(To listen to my full interview with August Turak, click on the podcast link):