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What If . . .

“What’s past is prologue.”

– Shakespeare, The Tempest –

The mysteries of time have always challenged philosophers, physicists, and novelists, too. Since 1895 when H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine was published, the human imagination has played with the possibility of time travel. It may be the stuff of fantasy and sci-fi, but we do a type of time traveling every day. We go back in time when we read history or novels set in the past or even the news of what happened last week or yesterday. We go forward in time when we imagine how next week’s committee meeting will go or anticipate our vacation next summer. We go back in time when we peruse old photographs and memories. We also go back in time when we imagine what life might have been like on the “road not taken,” that “what-if” of choice and chance bypassed on paths that we’ve already traveled.

Unlike the trail ahead of us, which is unmapped, the trail behind us is full of the tracks we’ve left behind. It’s a time line of our lives. In an abstract art class I once took, our instructor directed us to create our own abstracts starting with a single charcoal line drawn across a large piece of paper – one line that represented our life. Then we took turns telling, in general, how the lines we drew symbolized our lives. One woman’s line wandered all over the paper. Another woman’s line spiraled. Another student had drawn smooth curves interrupted with jagged, mountainous sections. It was fascinating to hear my fellow students explain this zig-zag, or that curve, or the dramatic, bold line that looked as if it fell straight off a cliff.

My abstract looked like a roller coaster. As novelist J. Courtney Sullivan said of one of her characters, “She had made a choice and then she had made another and another after that. Taken together, the small choices anyone made added up to a life.” My choices had added up to a life. As I stood there studying my lifeline, I found myself thinking about the negative space, the white space around the line. That empty space was a powerful symbol of roads not taken. I couldn’t help wondering “what if.”


I suspect that my fellow artists were posing the same question about their own lives. When we look back at our past choices, “what-if” is hardly something we can avoid. But it can be risky. “The thought of what could have been eats at the center of the heart,” writes author Joan Chittister. “It pretends to be reflection, a kind of tally of the years. But . . . [r]egret is a temptation. It entices us to lust for what never was in the past rather than to bring new energy to our changing present.”

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that in older adulthood, we find ourselves living in either integrity or despair, depending on how we look back on life. The life road we traveled may have been steep or rocky, fogged-in or full of switchbacks, but if we view it as our path to wholeness and maturity, we’re able to feel a sense of integrity, integrating the various aspects of life into the whole.

On the other hand, if we view the past with regret and remorse, we’re likely to feel a sense of despair. In The Spirituality of Age, psychology professor Robert Weber says that in older years, despair results from denial, which comes from a place of self-protection. We’re hiding, he says, from guilt or shame instead of facing it, admitting it, and unburdening ourselves. If we dwell on if-only and roads not taken, we feel a sense of despair.


 Of course, older adulthood is not the only stage of life when we’re subject to pining over if-onlys and roads not taken. We all see unexplored paths when we look back. We’re all aware of lost opportunities, missteps and failures, and decisions made too quickly or in the heat of emotion. It’s human nature to assume that the road not taken would have led to a life that’s better, healthier, and more satisfying than the one we have now. But would it have? That “what-if” has no answer. The truth is, there are hundreds of paths we didn’t take. Another truth is, the journey is not yet done. Going forward, we can prevent a lot of despair by refusing to dwell on what-ifs and if-onlys.

In one sense, Shakespeare was exactly right when he said that the past is prologue. And from what I know about writing novels, I can say with confidence that the only prologue worth including is one that’s essential to understanding the story to come. In real life, that’s all of it. As Isabel Allende said, “I am now the sum of everything I have been before.” Our past is an essential part of who we are now. Acknowledging that can help us understand where we currently stand on our own timeline and where we’d like to go in the future.

 Next week: Where Time Touches Eternity


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


The Mystery of Time

Kårvikhamn, Norway, July 2011:

It’s almost midnight, and I’m hiking down a coastal highway north of the Arctic Circle with seven friends, new and old. I don’t normally hike down highways at midnight, but my son is going to marry his Norwegian girlfriend this week, and her father wants to show us the midnight sun.

Actually, a midnight hike is not such a big deal here. My son’s future mother-in-law treks into the hills at two in the morning to pick cloudberries – which you can do easily this far north in midsummer, because at night, the sky at its darkest is only twilight dim.

So here we are, hiking down the highway. At this time of night, there are no cars on the road. In fact, except for our soft, padding footfalls and quiet conversation, the world around us is settled and hushed. A dreamlike, dusky light softens the landscape. To our left, tall hills rise, steep and shadowed. To our right, fields of wildflowers stretch to the water’s edge, where gentle waves lap at the shoreline.

Our destination is a spit of land that curves out from the shoreline like a finger pointing toward the horizon. The ground there is tumbled with large stones, and each of us chooses one to sit on. As I pull my sweater closer against the chill, hot drinks are passed around – coffee and something stronger for those who want it. I cup my steaming mug in both hands and look to the horizon. We’re just in time to watch the sun slowly lower itself into the sea. After barely dipping below the line where water meets sky, the sun rises again. It’s a new day.

Here on this shoreline, time feels mythical, slanted like sunbeams at midnight. And in this moment, sitting on a stone as the world tips from one day into the next, I am filled with awe at the mystery of time.

* * *

Occasions like weddings, funerals, and births seem to sharpen our focus on what truly matters. At these milestones, we often sense the cosmic nature of our life journey and remember that we’re only a small part of what goes on in this universe. We become aware of a truth: from beginning to end, our time on this earth is very, very brief. I’m awed to think that while I was busy doing who-remembers-what, my toddling sons grew into men with strong strides who now have toddlers of their own.

Human life is a relationship with time. In a sense, time is a god. We’re ruled by it, bow to it, and rely on it as we consult our calendars. Time is a currency – we “spend” it. In fact, we’re rich with it. You and I literally have all the time in the world; no one else owns more minutes than you and I have.

Time doesn’t ask if we want to go for a ride; it just picks us up and carries us along. More than once I’ve remarked, as most of us have, that with every passing year, time seems to go faster. (My older son pointed out that, in a way, that’s actually true. When we’re five, a year is long – one-fifth of our lifetime. When we’re fifty, a year is much shorter – only one-fiftieth of our life.) We measure our presence on earth by time. And some people say of death, “When my time comes . . .” There’s something beautiful about that expression. After death, I guess, we are out of time in every sense of the phrase. We run out, and we are out. Out of time’s confines. Out from under its rule.

I’m approaching time here from a philosophical rather than physics-oriented view in which, according to physicist Carlo Rovelli, time does not truly “flow” but is a “single block of past, present, and future.” The possibilities of that are amazing. The God-possibilities are astounding. But to most of us, time feels like it flows ever forward.

So . . . looking forward, next week, I’ll post more on the mysteries of time and the lifeline I drew in an abstract art class.


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Text and Norway photos © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.


The Failure of Success

“All of us make mistakes, and the wisdom from these mistakes is often more valuable than advice from the supersuccessful.”

Skip Prichard


Over the past few weeks, I’ve suggested a few ways to deal with failure, including honoring it, recasting it, lowering expectations, and even quitting. I have one more suggestion: Collect words of wisdom that you find personally encouraging. No doubt you’ve noticed that I’ve quoted lots of people in my previous posts. I’ve let these people speak, because each of them is considered to be successful, and yet it’s obvious that they all deal with failure. In fact, we could say that they’re experts in the subject. Some people consider me to be a success, but the truth is I’ve failed more than I’ve succeeded. Every day I’m tempted to quit writing. Every day. So I collect encouraging quotes and place them in a file labeled, “Creative Courage.” When I get discouraged, I open up my “Can of Creative Courage” and read some of the voices that encourage me most. You’ve probably figured out that you’ve been reading some of my favorites.

But let’s flip the coin to the success side for a minute. Failure may be an essential part of success, but even success can be disappointing. As Lao-Tzu said, success is “the lurking place of failure.” G.K. Chesterton, in his droll way, pointed out that nothing fails like success. It’s certainly not guaranteed to bring us happiness. But people don’t often talk about the letdown we can feel after the initial euphoria of success wanes and our fifteen minutes in the spotlight is over.

Sometimes the process of working toward success is so exhilarating that after the initial celebration of reaching it, we crash. It’s easy to feel an absence of purpose, at least temporarily. That often happens to authors. I know I experienced it with my novels. A great deal of time and work go into preparing a book for release day (the day the book is on store shelves, available for purchase). For me, as with most authors, the excitement began building on the day my agent said an editor wanted to publish my novels. We then entered months of editing, finalizing the book cover, doing pre-promotion, and setting up publicity. Finally release day came!

The silence was deafening.

Release day was a normal day at home and passed by completely unnoticed by everyone except one of my writer friends who had been-there-done-that. She arrived mid-afternoon with a bottle of champagne. Bless her. She knew what a letdown it could be.

Reaching our goal is not our destination. It only sets us up for the next goal. Writing coach Lisa Cron says, ” [I]nstead of making my life easier, [success has] made it harder. . . it’s given me no choice but to deal with unavoidable change.” One of the changes is seeing another goal ahead. The end point of this climb is the starting point for the next climb.

Sometimes success is such a high that once the momentary euphoria fizzles, we’re hungry for more. We want a greater high. Or one that’s longer lasting. On the other hand, we may look back and realize that while we succeeded, we paid a high price. Success in one area sometimes leaves us with regrets in another.

Then there’s the strange effect of celebrity culture that elevates the “successful” person to a position separate from the masses. It can be a lonely place to live unless we have close friends who know us for who we are and don’t buy into our over-hyped image. (It also helps not to buy into our own press.) Often people who admire our success build up their own assumptions about us, their own stories of who we are. In other words, they think we’re something we’re not and often expect us to continue with the same level of success or to climb even higher. It’s tricky to navigate that path well. Ray Connolly, in his biography of Elvis Presley, says that toward the end of his life, the mega-star said, “I’m so tired of being Elvis Presley.”

If it’s true that nothing fails like success, it’s also true that nothing succeeds like failure. Failure succeeds in opening our eyes, humbling us, narrowing our choices toward the achievable, and directing our path. I can’t help but compare it to revising a novel. The first draft is always a disappointment. Technically it’s a failure, because I failed to express on the page what my mind dreamed, what I envisioned, what I wanted. But it’s also an opportunity to revise. Revision, re + vision, means seeing again. Gaining a new vision for the story. Or in the case of life, gaining a new vision for the future.

Life is an overlapping series of explorations and discoveries in which the failure/success experience is essential. It’s essential as we continue to come of age. It’s essential for a living, growing faith. It’s essential for becoming whole and fully human. It’s essential for opening our eyes, our minds, and our hearts.

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished,” wrote novelist Louis L’Amour. “That will be the beginning.”

Next week we’ll begin exploring time and choice. Mentally, we can relive our past choices or pre-live what we imagine to be future choices, but now is when we actually make our choices. This moment is when we either renew our commitment to our original vision or choose a different path. Join me for more next week.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


Why It Might Make Sense to Quit

We’ve all heard the adages:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

“Quitters never win.”

And from one of Winston Churchill‘s famous speeches: “Never give in. Never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in . . .”

Ah, but Churchill didn’t end there: ” – never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Like they say out West, “When your horse dies, it’s time to get off.”

When the great depression hit in 1929, my grandad (that’s a photo of him) had a wife and a baby (my dad). Jobs were scarce, so Grandad traveled around the South, as he said, “feeling the country out, you know – for a job.” For a while, he loaded trucks by hand. Then he shoveled gravel, earning a dollar and a half a day. The family was poor, but they got by. As the years passed, Grandad worked hard at whatever he could find to do. Eventually he became a successful businessman and rancher. But on the way, he failed a lot. He bought a hotel. It failed spectacularly. He bought a dairy farm. It didn’t work out. He started raising sheep. No go. But Grandad always shook it off and moved on, saying, “Well, I learned what not to do,” which in his view was just as valuable as learning what to do.

I don’t know what it’s like in other careers, but within the writing community, an abundance of social media voices cheer us on. “You can write a novel! You can get published! Don’t give up!” Hundreds of writers and writer-coaches encourage us daily to stick with it, don’t drop it, stay in the game. I suspect that whatever your aspirations, writerly or otherwise, you can find plenty of motivational blogs and books ready to plump up your courage, inspire your vision, and help you persevere until you succeed.

All of this can make it hard to quit. If, in spite of the cheering voices, we do quit, we may feel deeply ashamed. Because quitters never win, right?

But “Quitters do win,” tweeted author Meg Cabot. “By quitting what you know isn’t working, you’ll have time to discover new things you might love.” By the time I saw Meg’s post on my Twitter feed, it had been favorited by 168 followers and reposted by 125. I clicked on the heart symbol too, thinking yes! Finally, someone had the sense to expose the wrong-headedness of the blind belief that quitters never win. Someone had the courage to give us permission to quit.

We may have to be honest with ourselves and admit that our chances of success hover at or below zero. Once we’re at that point, we can go one of two directions. We may decide it’s a not-yet situation, so we take what we learned from the failure and try again (and again and again), improving until at last we find success. After all, the dance is learned by stumbling. Or we cut our losses and move on. Ironically, admitting defeat may be a form of success. Learning what not to do is immensely valuable.

Whether we stay the course or quit, the experience we’ve gained by failing can actually help us find our way. Randy Pausch, who was a professor of Computer Science, Human-Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Mellon famously said, “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.” Sometimes that experience tells us that we’re on the wrong path. We can’t start looking for the right path until we accept the fact that we’re on the wrong one to begin with.

“There is nothing finer than being able to stop what ought to be stopped,” wrote Eric Maisel, a psychologist and creativity expert. There may also be nothing more difficult if our own expectations – or someone else’s – are invested completely in success. But as Tim Farrington wrote in The Monk Downstairs , “There is that lightness that comes when you realize that you’re not going to be able to make something work, no matter how hard you try. When you finally let go.”

Of course, the flip side of failure is success – and, frankly, nothing fails like success. But that’s next week’s topic.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


10 Ways to Succeed at Failure

“You may be disappointed if you fail,

but you are doomed if you don’t try.”

Beverly Sills

Failure is unavoidable. So how do we deal with it?

  1. Grieve. That may sound strange, but some failures are a type of death – the death of a dream, the death of a relationship, the death of a business venture. Sure, these are nothing compared to the death of a friend or family member, but if we feel the loss deeply, there’s no shame in admitting it. I can say from experience that when a writer puts time and energy and creativity and emotion and hope into a manuscript, it hurts to have it rejected by agents or publishers. It feels like a major failure. We writers often have to give ourselves time to lick our wounds and grieve.


2. Forgive yourself. This is related to grieving and, in fact, may be part of the process. Author Ann Patchett wrote, “I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers.” (I would add: or achieving any other heartfelt goal.) “Forgiveness, therefore, is key,” she says. “Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”

So the next time failure hits hard, try a writerly response. Give yourself a period of time to feel and process the rejection (aka the failure). A morning in mourning. A night out. A day of self-care. Forgive yourself if you need to. And when that self-imposed period of time is over, try to set aside the weight of failure and get back to work. Or as my Texas forebears might counsel, “Get back in the saddle.”


  1. Avoid using someone else’s life as the measuring stick for your success. Comparing our failure to someone else’s success can easily lead to one of two unhealthy extremes. At one extreme, we who fall short disparage those who succeed. This is so common it has a name: “tall poppy syndrome.” Anyone who rises above the crowd gets cut down. At the other extreme, we who don’t “make it” idolize those who do. They become almost mythical to us. Both extremes rely on the assumption that the successful people are somehow different from us. Creative consultant Dan Blank points out what’s under the surface: “What you don’t see is the thousands of decisions . . . made over the years. The thousands of negotiations. The thousands of little failures. You don’t see the late-night worries. You don’t see how they had to stick to their guns with some difficult decisions and compromise on others.”

Poet Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote, “Losing is no shame, nor does it make you less than others. It’s being less than yourself that mars you.” I’ve heard similar advice given to young athletes: Compete with yourself and simply try to better your own personal record.

  1. Honor your failures. Remind yourself that at least you had the courage to try. A lot of people never even get that far. The irony is that while failure often feels like a step backward, it’s actually a step forward, maybe in an unexpected direction, but forward just the same. As a popular saying goes, “In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”


  1. Recast the purpose of your initial efforts. I recently emailed my older son, who lives in Japan, to give him the latest family news: My younger son passed the bar, which means he may now practice law. I remarked that it’s strange that we refer to the business of lawyers and doctors as practice. My older son responded, “[I]n Japan it takes 10 years to become respectably proficient at anything. It’s part of the code of honor. If you’ve been working your job for less, you would refer to yourself as in training. And once you achieve the ten-year mark, you pursue improvement. The code applies to everyone from ramen chefs to doctors.”

We tend to look at success as an endpoint, a terminus. But what if we recast our efforts, redefining them as part of a process? In a blog on writing, author John Vorhaus posted, “When you’re trying a hard thing, you’re not doing it to succeed. You’re doing it to improve.”


  1. Lower your expectations. Okay, I can hear the gasps. You don’t tell people to lower their expectations, right? We’re supposed encourage each other to dream big, shoot for the moon, hitch our wagon to a star. And there’s nothing wrong with having a grand goal – unless we stake our personal value and happiness on achieving that goal. In that case, failure can feel like a personal disaster. So lowering expectations could make sense. Is there a smaller goal to achieve first? Something more within reach? Is there some lower hanging fruit that we can pick on the way to the bounty at the top of the tree?

We tend to see success as the big stuff and overlook small successes along the way. But in reality, most goals are reached in increments, two steps forward, one step back (or maybe ten back). Seth Godin once said in an interview that the goal is simply to do well enough today to be able to do it one more day.

  1. View failure as the valuable flip side of the success coin. I’ve heard that the process of building muscle by weight lifting actually involves tearing down muscle in order to rebuild it stronger. I know that getting a car out of a rut often entails going backward before you can move forward. You get it. To succeed, you have to fail first.

“Seeming failure is often necessary to push our work into unexpected terrain,” said writer and teacher Louise DeSalvo. Notice her subtle nudge: seeming failure. What seems like failure may be exactly what’s needed to position us for success. Author/illustrator Gregoire Solotareff said, “I find that failure is more useful than success. [I]t makes you question yourself. When you are successful the first time around you tend to repeat yourself.”


  1. Interpret failure as not yet. In an interview, Carol Dweck, Stanford professor and author of Mindset, tells about a Chicago school where teachers choose to give a grade of ‘not yet’ instead of the dreaded ‘F’ when students didn’t pass a subject. “And I thought that was fantastic,” she says, “because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘not yet,’ you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.” ‘Not yet’ is often an accurate way to look at failure, because ‘failure’ is usually a temporary setback. Sarah Lewis, author of Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, put it this way: “We know that something that looks as if it’s final, winter’s deep freeze, will eventually result in spring. Life is the same way. Failure for me is an equivalent to that winter period.”


  1. Be tenacious. “[K]nowledge combined with experience and tenacity is the key to success,” says painter Zoltan Szabo. Failure may simply be what happens when we give up too soon. But how do we know when to keep trying and when to stop? It’s a judgment call. Which is why the next point is . . .


  1. Quit. Oops. Did I say that? Yep, I did. And that’s where I’ll start in next week’s post.

Until then, try-try-try again or, you know, . . . give it a week.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


How to Be Perfectly Imperfect

“If at first you don’t succeed, you’re running about average.”

– unknown –

As I was growing up, I somehow came to believe that I had to be a pillar of strength, to know it all, to carry it all, to fix it all. Weakness on my part would only burden others. So I determined not be weak. I created the image of perfection as best I could, although at the time, I didn’t see it as an image. I thought I was creating reality. Wasn’t I growing stronger day by day, growing more into God’s image? I was progressing from less perfect to more perfect, right?

Year after year, I studied the Bible more, spoke the right scriptures, defended beliefs, and presented myself as the expert wife and mother with the perfect family. There was no room for deviation from the script of perfection. But if my heart had been a flower, it would not have been opening and blossoming but curling tighter and tighter into a hard, shell-covered knot.

Eventually the outer shell began to crack. Then the cracks began to widen. Like the king’s men’s rescue attempt for Humpty Dumpty, none of my canned answers could glue the shell back together again. I had tried to please others and live up to their expectations, but I felt that I had disappointed every last person I knew. Most of all myself.

But just as disillusionment is a good thing, so is disappointment. Appoint means to officially name someone to a position. Disappoint literally means to remove them from that position, to dispossess them. When I disappoint, I’m removed from what I or others appointed me to be or expected of me. I can then either reappoint myself and try again to live up to expectations, or I can leave behind the old expectations, the ones that no longer fit, and readjust my expectations. I can reappoint myself to something new.

The fact that we are imperfect makes us perfectly human. We are perfectly imperfect. Not only is that okay, but it’s also good and right. Life is a mixture of good choices and bad, some made by us, some made by others but affecting us just the same. Both good and bad choices can make us wiser. But those of us who strive for perfection often don’t learn how to deal realistically with bad choices. We hope to bury them or outrun them or deny making them.

When we allow imperfection, we take ourselves off the pedestal of our own making. Once we’re down, we no longer have to fear opening our eyes and exploring the landscape – or the soulscape. Sure, we’ll fail. But loving-kindness picks us up, dusts us off, and gives us permission to try again without being condemned.

Do we ever really get past the fear of failure? I don’t know. But I do know that’s where courage comes in. Courage exists only where there’s fear. Judging by the number of shared quotes and blogs and podcasts about persisting in the face of failure, I’d say the courage to fail is highly sought after. Obviously, a lot of us have failed or anticipate the possibility, so we gravitate toward any bit of encouragement as we plot our next steps.

Of course, failure is unavoidable. So how do we deal with it?

That’s next week’s topic.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


Why Do We Fear Failure?

“The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember those words opening ABC’s Wide World of Sports on television. The winner of a race received the trophy cup as the announcer said, “the thrill of victory.” The next scene was a downhill skier wiping out as the voice continued, “the agony of defeat.” We equate failure with defeat. We’re taught to win. The rags-to-riches stories we love are wins, successes against the odds, the rise and achievement of the underdog. Most of us root for the underdog, because we can relate.

We don’t like to fail. In fact, many of us fear failure. Why? The obvious, simplistic answer is, “Because succeeding at this matters to me.” But again, the question is, “Why?” Why does it matter? Because my heart is set on succeeding? Because someone else’s heart is set on my success? Honor, income, health, happiness, position, or the simple satisfaction of a job well done – any or all of these may be what I expect of myself or what someone else expects of me. So either my own expectation or someone else’s expectation is pinned to my success.

In the 1970’s when I was getting an education degree, we were encouraged to create a non-competitive environment for our classrooms. Even in games, we emphasized fun for everyone instead of focusing on who won and who lost. It was an honorable goal, but non-competition wasn’t completely doable. In real life, success gets the glory. Achievements receive the accolades. Accomplishments gain honor and give us the high. Failure often gets reprimanded or shunned. So when we fail, we often wrestle with feeling inadequate, unworthy, ashamed, maybe even doomed. It’s embarrassing to not be good enough. We begin to wonder if our efforts were wasted. Or was the dream of success a mistake to begin with? We spent all that time and energy and hope for nothing. At least that’s what it feels like.

The thing about failure is that we often take it personally. Our business fails, and we translate it into I am a failure. Our marriage fails, and we think, I am a failure. True, we probably bear some responsibility for what happened, and it’s only honest to admit that. Did I make mistakes? Yes. Does that mean I am a failure? No. Did I fail to speak up when I should have? Yes. So am I a failure? No, I’m human, and the fact is, human endeavors sometimes fail.

One reason we hate to fail is that failure can threaten two of our deepest needs: belonging and being loved. If meeting those needs hinges on our success, then, of course, we fear failure, because we fear rejection. Conditional love and acceptance are powerful forces, especially if that’s the only kind of love we think we can get.

The fear of failure and rejection is basically universal, but I sometimes wonder if we Christians have an extra hurdle to clear. Many of us were raised with an overarching life theme that connects success and failure to the afterlife. In other words, heaven is the reward for successfully living up to the church’s standard, while failing to live up to the standard earns hell. That means choices are critical – and not only when it comes to the big issues. Small choices can lead down a slippery slope, snowballing into big consequences and an eternity of doom. So success becomes all important. Especially if we envision God as the Great Scorekeeper or the Principal of Life who hands out reports cards at the end of the grading period.

It’s no wonder that many of us believed that what was expected of us was nothing less than perfection. Of course, if we thought about it long enough, we readily admitted that we were not perfect, but we quickly added that we were becoming perfect, growing more like Jesus every day. We memorized, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Seen through that lens, perfection equals success.

Now there’s nothing wrong with perfection. (Literally, there’s nothing wrong with perfection.) But have you ever met anyone who is perfect? I haven’t. It’s not a human quality. Have you ever met anyone who believed they were perfect or acted as if they were? I have. It’s not an endearing quality. But if we’re afraid to fail for fear of being rejected or condemned, then we hesitate to admit that we’re imperfect. We’d rather wear the perfect mask than join the human race and admit that we’re just as cracked – maybe even more cracked – than our neighbor who doesn’t even go to church.

It’s ironic, but “I-must-be-perfect” is one of those blind beliefs that makes questioning other blind beliefs a risky undertaking. Because if I question, that’s tantamount to admitting I’m not perfect. And if I admit I’m not perfect, that domino falls, taking down a whole line of dominoes with it. Then where are we?

Actually, we’re right where we’ve always been, traveling with every other human being on an unmapped journey with an uncertain future. In the midst of that uncertainty, the one thing we can count on is the fact that we’ll fail again and again. Coming of age is risky, no matter what age we are. Sculpting our own identity is risky. Opening our eyes and hearts and minds is risky. Letting go of blind beliefs is risky. At some point, we will fail to live up to someone’s expectations, maybe even our own. We will disappoint someone, maybe even ourselves. But that might not be such a bad thing.

Next week: How to be Perfectly Imperfect


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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Finding LIFE in FaILurE

School let out for summer last Friday. Neighborhood pools are opening this weekend, and vacation plans are now in play. Back in the day . . . and we’re talking way back in the 1960’s . . . this began summer vacations as I recall:

We pile into the Oldsmobile station wagon – Daddy, Mother, me, and my three little sisters. We girls clamor for seats. Middle seat in the front is popular. Middle in the back is not. And the way back? A couple of years ago, the way back was definitely not popular, because the air conditioner couldn’t blow cool air that far. Then Daddy bought a length of dryer vent hose, wiggled one end around the front air vent on Mother’s side, and stretched it through the car to the back so we could get some cool air. Now the way back is a choice.

I happen to know that we’re lucky to have any cooling at all. I’ve heard Mother and Daddy talk about a time when cars had no air conditioning. That was when they were growing up and even the first few years after they married. Cooling was all natural: wind blowing through open windows onto sweaty bodies. Compared to that, Daddy’s rigged-up system isn’t so bad, although it’s a little tricky climbing out over a dryer hose. But, then, we don’t climb out very often. Daddy is a destination driver: get behind the wheel and stay there until we arrive at the journey’s end.

Of course, he does stop for gasoline and potty breaks. And meals. We’re quite a crew around a table at restaurants as we wait for our orders. We swing our legs and fidget with the silverware. One little sister smacks her gum, which annoys me to no end. It doesn’t help to tell her to stop; she only smacks louder.

To keep the peace, Mother, who loves Scrabble and crossword puzzles, hands out pencils and challenges us to play word games. One of our favorites is trying to see how many words we can make out of a word or phrase she gives us. We write on small note pads Mother carries in her oversize purse. Or if the restaurant has paper place mats, we write on those, sometimes using the name of the restaurant as our challenge word. Chicken Shack yields neck, kick, sack, ice, case . . . before we’ve exhausted the linguistic possibilities, our meal has been served.

With all my childhood word-game practice, I guess it’s not surprising that I grew up to have a career in words. Occasionally, I even receive payment based on the number of words I write or edit. (Payment per word would have taken the placemat game to a whole new level.) Trained as a wordsmith, I often see words within words, so when I decided to set down my thoughts about failing, I found words lurking in failure: lure, ail, frail, rail, rule. Then I saw life, which seemed appropriate, because while failure can feel more like death than life, there truly is life in failure.

A student fails her test. A football player fails to catch the winning pass in front of thousands of spectators. A crop fails. A marriage fails. A medical treatment fails. A train’s brakes fail. Each is a setback, minor or major. Each is the death of what we desired or anticipated in that moment.

The word fail comes from the Latin word for disappoint. I guess that’s why it feels like a kind of death. It’s the death of an expectation or an effort, which makes it related to disillusionment but without the illusion. The goal we’re hoping to reach is no mirage; it’s very real. It’s just that we didn’t reach it. Which can leave us feeling ashamed, inadequate, embarrassed, or totally done in.

Or not. Some people are able to take failure in stride. Whether that’s because they were raised and trained in that perspective or because that’s their natural temperament, I don’t know. Probably some of both. You failed? Then next time, “Fail better,” advised Samuel Beckett. Robert Kennedy famously said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.” People who are undaunted by failure take “there’s life in failure” and turn it on its head: There’s failure in life. Totally true. Failing is how researchers and artists find their way forward. In fact, it’s how all of us find our way forward. It’s how we come of age. Life is too big for any of us, and we’re always trying to grow into it. We fail our way forward.

I suspect that most of us are not in the “undaunted” category, as evidenced by all the self-help and encouragement books on offer. For us, while we can easily find life in failure written on a place mat, it’s not so easy to find the life in a failure on the job, or in a relationship, or after trying to achieve some goal we’ve pursued with all our time, energy, and heart. In fact, some of us are so daunted by failure that simply the fear of failure can stop us in our tracks. Case in point: the book I’m currently writing. Every time I sit down to write another chapter, my shoulders tense, my belly gets butterflies, and my fingers hover above the keyboard, hesitant. Some days that fear is just a speed bump. Other days it’s Mount Everest.

Why does the fear of failure loom so large? That’s a subject for next week’s post. In the meantime, Happy Vacation Time!

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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No Condemnation: The Open-Hearted Leap

When we forgive, “we allow ourselves to be gifted

by a story larger than the story that first hurt us and left us bereft.”

– David Whyte, Consolations

If you’ve been following the past few weeks of posts here, you may remember that I began the subject of forgiveness by telling the story of a strange cat that found its way into my house and how, even with an obvious open window beside it, had a hard time finding its way out. When it did find its escape route, it leaped and fairly flew across the roof and down to the freedom of the ground below. Sometimes we’re a lot like that cat, trying to find a way out of anger or resentment or bitterness, not paying attention to the escape route that’s right before our eyes.

There is an open-eyed, open-hearted leap that takes us out the window and into spacious freedom beyond: non-condemnation. Forgiveness is part of it, but while forgiveness is focused and specific, non-condemnation is the broad attitude, the atmosphere of grace that forgiveness lives in. It’s the “permanent attitude” that Dr. Martin Luther King pointed to in last week’s quote. In the atmosphere – the permanent attitude – of non-condemnation, any time and every time we fall, we are free to get up and try again, uncondemned.

That doesn’t mean there are no consequences, whether natural or imposed by civil law. But it does means that no weight of guilt or shame keeps us down. That’s the beauty of forgiveness. We get another chance. When we give that freedom to ourselves, we give it to others. That’s the path along which Jesus leads us: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Matthew 6:9).

The apostle Paul wrote, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). In other words, for those of us who follow Jesus’s teachings, condemnation is not even in our vocabulary. There is no condemnation. Not for me, not for anyone. Because we live in an age of grace. We walk the way of love.

There’s an old-fashioned word worth recovering here: redemption. A translation of the basic ancient Greek word lyo, redemption means loosen, release, liberate, set free. Redemption as part of forgiveness

         – takes what’s dead and makes it live again

– takes what’s old and makes it new

– discovers and recovers what’s been lost

– restores what’s been damaged

– heals what was broken

– makes whole what was fragmented

This is the path of Jesus, but it’s not exclusively a Christian path. All over the world redemption happens, because all over the world, love happens. And, as I said previously, wherever we find love, we find God.

So, reversing the syllables in forgive, the question is, what am I willing to give for liberation from the link that chains me to this offense and this offender? What will I give for release from the curdled stomach and tight chest of resentment? What will I give for freedom from the joy-killing time suck of bitterness?

Literally, what will I give for this freedom? I give up the right to revenge. I give up my demands to have life balance in the way I want it to. I give up the attention and empathy I might get as a victim. I give up the habit of using my wounds as an excuse for doing this or not doing that, for being this and not being that. I give up my pride in being so humble. I give up an illusion in exchange for reality. I give up an old goal for a new one. I give up blind beliefs for an open-eyed faith.

What I gain is a fresh vision. Self-respect. A release of tension. A lighter step going forward. A smile. A deep breath. Maybe even a good night’s sleep. What I gain is personal peace, which can spread beyond me to the world.

Sharon Salzberg, who teaches mindfulness meditation, suggests that we make a habit of breathing deeply while embodying this thought: “May I be safe, may I be well, may I be happy, may I be at ease.” It’s a way to be kind to ourselves, to love and encourage ourselves. I go a bit further. When I’m filled with that thought toward myself, I give it a couple of tweaks and turn it toward others as a blessing: “May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be wise, may you be at ease.” Maybe that’s an expression of love. Maybe that is forgiveness.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.



Which Way to Forgiveness?

“Forgiveness is not just an occasional act: It is a permanent attitude.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

Living, breathing mercy. Living, breathing grace. Living, breathing peace. Some people seem to embody it. “My mother didn’t have a bitter bone in her body,” a friend told me. Living, breathing forgiveness. It’s an inviting picture. I can sense the possibility. But I’m not there yet. I’m still learning. My guess is that most of us would love to have a permanent attitude of forgiveness. My guess is also that many of us have pretended we had it. And my guess is that most of us will have to work pretty hard to get to that permanent-attitude place.

In the process, we come to several crossroads. One asks us to choose whether or not to confront the person who offended us. We have to be pretty settled in ourselves to confront someone face to face. After all, forgiving is based on an accusation that a wrong has been done. If the person who hurt us hasn’t acknowledged the wrong, it takes courage on our part to approach them. To be honest with myself, I need to make sure I’m not confronting someone expecting (or worse, demanding) that they feel remorse and make amends, which they may or may not do. Of course, the other person may be completely gracious and open to discussing the grievance and receiving forgiveness, and confrontation – in the spirit of working it out to restore the relationship – may be exactly what’s needed.

But to confront or not confront – that’s not the most important question. To forgive or not forgive – that’s the question. The truth is, forgiveness does not depend on an apology. We can set hurts aside without a big confrontation or ritual. I’m not talking about stuffing our hurt or ignoring it, in which case it bides its time only to roar back to life later. I’m talking about acknowledging the hurt, forgiving it, and then allowing time and daily living to dilute the offense (as opposed to stoking the fire under it and letting it ferment into poison). We can refuse to let the offense taint our present or our future. The point is not to deny the fact that there was a wound but to let the wound heal. And if we’re left with scars, we don’t deny those, either. But neither do we let our scars define us.

As we look to the future, we come to another crossroads: We can either close our hearts and protect ourselves, fearing we’ll get hurt again, or we can open our hearts, trusting ourselves to be able to deal with whatever lies ahead. When I was wrestling with this choice one time, a friend asked, “Can you be open but not porous?” It seems to me that a permanent attitude of forgiveness would be just that: open but not porous. Opening our hearts makes life so much richer. It makes what we do more effective. It leads to our own health and growth as well as promoting the health and growth of others.

Speaking of our own health and growth . . . there’s a tricky twist to the whole forgiveness issue: forgiving ourselves. Poet and painter William Blake said, “It is easier to forgive an Enemy than to forgive a Friend.” I would add: It’s easier to forgive enemies and friends than to forgive ourselves. But how can we truly extend grace to others if we can’t extend grace to ourselves? It’s the same principle as loving others as we love ourselves. If I have a hard time forgiving myself, I’m sure to have a hard time forgiving someone else.

Self-condemnation turns our life journey into a slog. For our health and peace, and for the health and peace of the world, we need to be free from self-condemnation. There is an open-eyed, open-hearted leap that takes us to that spacious freedom. We’ll look at that next week as I share my final thoughts on forgiveness.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.