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What is Self?

heroIn the traditional Hero’s Journey, it’s the journey itself that, to a great extent, forms and informs the hero. Real life is much the same, but the main character, the hero of your journey, is you. Your Self. Many traveling companions join us at different stages of our life journey, but our only constant flesh-and-blood companion is Self. Many of us spend a good deal of the journey trying to come to terms with this constant companion. Who is this Self? What is this Self?

Several years ago, my husband’s grandmother was invited to attend a reunion dinner of the “Golden Circle,” alumni of the college she attended, who had graduated 50+ years ago. The invitation included a photograph of the previous gathering of the Golden Circle. She carefully studied it, trying to figure out whether she knew any of those “old people.” She said she didn’t recognize any of them. Until she went to reunion. When she looked into their eyes, she knew and remembered them.

Our eyes seem to be windows into our unique selves, and our bodies seem to be the packages that contain the essence of Self. The body is certainly the most visible part of self. The mysterious self includes mind and emotion, but what about our spirits? Our souls? We humans have invented words – mind, spirit, heart, soul – to describe the innermost parts of Self, but there’s no consensus on what mind, spirit, heart, and soul are. Self is ultimately a mystery. Still, it’s a mystery worth exploring.

There are a variety of ways to look at self, but I see five viewpoints. Here are two. I’ll post more next week.

Viewpoint 1: The individual self does not exist. We are all one big cosmic whole. That thought is pretty mind-blowing, as my generation liked to say. (We also wanted to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” as the Coke ad went. We still would, but somehow it hasn’t worked out yet.) I can comprehend a non-existent self only if I think of each of us as a thought in the mind of God, melding into God’s grand created story of the world. And maybe that’s what happens – or part of what happens. But then, even saying “each of us” in the sentence above implies individuality. Then, too, we each have to deal with the present moment in which my decisions are not yours and yours are not mine. Our decisions may affect both of us – and the world around us – but as entwined as we are, each of us individually makes those decisions. We are on similar but separate journeys.

Viewpoint 2: The self exists but is innately sinful. To become sinless, we must deny our selves. “Life is not all about you,” the parent/teacher voice says. That voice is right – and wrong. It’s wrong, because I can view life only through my eyes and touch it only with my hands. I smell it with my nose, taste it with my tongue, hear it with my ears, and think about it only with my mind. In that sense, my life is about me: my thoughts, my dreams, my vision – or my decision to deny these. (And we do a mix of accepting and denying all the time.) My life is the story of my journey, and in the end, it will be my epitaph on the gravestone.

But of course, we know what parents and teachers meant with the life-is-not-all-about-you mantra. They wanted us to consider others, and they were right in the sense that life is not all about you or me. Life is much larger than individual selves taking their own individual paths. Although it’s possible to journey all the way through life looking at our own feet or navel-gazing, that’s a pretty narrow way to go, long on insight and short on vision.

A living, growing, open-eyed faith looks up instead of looking down and tunneling in. It stretches out to view a broad landscape and a choice of paths. It participates with a variety of other travelers, exchanging what we carry, both giving and receiving. So, yes, your life is about you. But not only about you. My life is about me. But not only about me. Wholeness – health – is found in the balance between caring for self and caring for the world we travel through.

Achieving that balance is challenging, especially for those who were taught that we’re born sinners. Young children generallysanta believe what they’re told. If they’re told there’s a Santa Claus, an Easter bunny, or a tooth fairy, they believe it. Their worldview is black and white, no gray in-betweens. Even in our early school years, we tend to believe that the significant adults in our lives know what they’re talking about. We generally believe that they have the answers, so most of us don’t question too much.

So when we were told we were born sinful, we believed it. We understood that upon our initial entry into the world, we were fundamentally flawed. There was something essentially wrong about our self, and that belief became our foundation. It became one of those controlling beliefs I posted about previously.

In the church I grew up in, we were born sinners but lived in a period of grace until the “age of accountability.” The problem was, no one could pinpoint the age at which you became accountable. Was it nine? Eleven? Thirteen? At any rate, we started out on the negative side of the balance sheet. We were born deficient. As we grew and the self began to blossom, we were taught that in order to move to the positive side of the balance sheet (and assure that we went to heaven, not hell), we had to deny our selves. In short, we began life needing to apologize, and some of us have been apologizing for self ever since.

Now it’s true that we all start life as self-centered infants, treating the world as if it were our own little kingdom. That’s pretty much the lowest rung on the morality ladder. So that lends a lot of credence to being born a sinner. Except that infants are pre-moral, meaning they don’t make conscious moral choices (which lends a lot of credence to the “age of accountability” view). Still, being taught we’re sinners from the get-go pretty much ingrains it into our developing identity, and off we go on our journey, not too thrilled with Self, our constant traveling companion.


In next week’s post I’ll continue to explore Self and this journey through Life Unmapped. If you want me to send these posts and any updates to your email, simply sign up on the right.

Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.
Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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Finding Our Footing

This week, I helped our son and his wife move. We carried boxes and furniture out of the house and into a pod, navigating porch stairs as well as a fairly steep slope in the front yard. I kept reminding myself to go slowly and find my footing before placing weight on the next step. What a great metaphor for life, I thought. We seem to be constantly trying to find our footing. It’s a little like crossing a swinging, bridge: one step bobs us up, the next dips us down. If you’ve ever crossed a swinging bridge, you know it helps to loosen up (like getting your sea legs), hang on, and go with the sway.

morgbridgeWhether descending a slope, crossing a swinging bridge, or making our way through life, finding and keeping balance is a constant challenge. We seek simplicity to balance ourselves an increasingly complex world. We long for peace to quell the panic of breaking news. We search for meaning in the constant stream of information that’s miles wide and toenail deep. We try to focus as social media bounces us from politics to the latest novel to health tips to nature photos to headline news, all within the space of 60 seconds. We crave wholeness in a life that fragments us into niches.

The upside of niches is that when we find ours, we fit into a community and feel more focused. Niches can help us balance. But there’s also a downside, and a big one: We humans grow and change; niches don’t. We flex; niches are rigid. Yes, they connect us with like minds, and that’s truly valuable. But while we can join any number of conversations, that doesn’t mean we gain a deep sense of belonging from them. Most of those “like minds,” we’ll never meet in person, which means they know only one side of us. We are flattened to fit into comment boxes.

Never have we been able to connect to so many people and still feel so alone. Never have we been able to fill our lives with so much and still feel empty. At this point I’m supposed to say that the answer is church or the Bible or Jesus. But I won’t – not because I’m against church or the Bible or Jesus. I’m not. But I am against quick, canned answers that ignore real and honest dilemmas. Religion can be just another niche, another fragment. It can pile on baggage instead of freeing us for the journey. It can blind us instead of opening our eyes and giving us clarity.

That doesn’t mean the spiritual side of life is nonexistent, or that faith is worthless, or that we can’t find meaning in our traditions and holy scriptures. But if we’re tired of canned answers, if our faith feels as though it’s crumbling, if we feel we’ve been blind to reality, then we’ve probably assented to someone else’s beliefs and never truly made faith our own.

To grow into a vibrant, personal faith, we have to “come of age,” no matter how old we are in calendar years. And coming of age means letting go of taken-for-granted beliefs and honoring our own honest questions. It means allowing ourselves to examine and challenge beliefs that don’t make sense. It means discovering and growing into a faith that is intentional, a faith that’s truly ours, a faith we step into with open hands, open hearts, and open eyes.

An intentional, personal faith is honest and freeing. It helps us find our footing on the journey, balances us when the worldmorgtrail tilts precariously, and creates a center of wholeness in our fragmented lives. An intentional, personal faith is always in flux, changing, growing, and maturing. Sometimes the growth process is discouraging, sometimes it’s exhilarating, but it’s always part of the journey.

Since you’re reading this, the path of your journey is intersecting mine for a while. I’m glad to have your company. If you’re as close to home as I am, maybe we can share, for a time, this ridge between inventory and renaissance. If you’re younger, maybe what I see from this ridge can clarify your vision for your own journey.

When I was younger, I leaned in when older people spoke about what they wished they had known at my young age. Now I’m the older one, and it seems to be my turn to speak about what I wish I had known. Of course, you have your own discoveries to make, but since we’re all covering some of the same ground, maybe I can point you to a few interesting overlooks, help lighten your backpack, recommend some good rest stops, and hint at some roads you might want to avoid. At the least, I can give you a trail-mix of thoughts to carry with you. So I invite you to lean in as I continue to post my thoughts about the journey from blind belief to open-eyed faith.

Join me next week as I continue to explore this Life Unmapped. If you want me to send these posts and any updates to your email, simply sign up on the right.


Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.


Might-go, Want-to-go, Should-go

What’s as old as The Odyssey and as new as Harry Potter? The mythical “Hero’s Journey.” In this type of plot, the main character sets out on some new path in life, literally or figuratively. Along the way, the hero meets mentors, gatekeepers, allies, and enemies. The hero is challenged and tested to the max and comes out wiser, a better person because of the ordeal.

ca1lgo7-15The Hero’s Journey is popular in fiction, because it reflects real life. Your life and mine are journeys through time. But even more, our lives are stories of our journeys, stories we write onto the fabric of time and place. Each life has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And like a good story, each life also has an echo that reverberates after we’ve left the stage.

We may not see ourselves as heroes – I know I don’t – but we are the main characters in our own journeys. Of course in fiction, each event in the story is there on purpose. It’s meant to move the story forward. Real life is much more random. When authors find random events in their manuscripts, they can go back and revise. In real life, we can’t revise; we can only move ahead.

Some people claim that everything in real life happens for a reason. That may or may not be true; we can’t prove it either way. What is true is that we may live our entire lives without seeing the reasons for certain events – assuming there are reasons. Even Solomon said, “Time and chance happen to us all.” Real life is messy. The journey is complicated and convoluted. There is no map, and the roads don’t all converge neatly just before “The End.”

Still, we search for meaning in life, hoping all those random events will add up to something good. But from where I stand,shadow-path looking back and taking inventory, it’s hard to see a pattern. Some roads I’ve traveled were scenic and smooth; others were rough, unpaved detours. Some paths were total dead-ends. Others turned into steep hairpin curves, or tunneled through rock, or disappeared in fog. Other travelers’ paths often intersected mine, sometimes only briefly, at other times running parallel with mine for a while before diverging. What’s more, as I look back, I see so many “roads not taken.” I can’t help wondering what if?

That’s one of life’s mystery questions: What if? The question is not limited to looking back. It’s also the question we pose when we look to the future. What if I take that side road? What if I join that traveler? What if life makes the choice for me?

ezjkboattrollvillageBecause the path ahead is unmapped, it’s the grandest of grand adventures, a unique story among all stories, the most important of all journeys. And even though we hold no map, we do hold a vision of where we might go on this journey, of where we want to go, or maybe of where we should go (sometimes according to someone else’s vision).

Might-go, want-to-go, or should-go are sometimes the same thing, sometimes not. But aren’t they all aiming in the direction called better? Don’t we all want a better future for ourselves and the world? Don’t we want healthier, happier, wiser, more prosperous lives? Few people wake up in the morning asking what they can do to make their own lives miserable. Even misled people, who might choose to make themselves or others miserable, are trying to restore a balance as they perceive it – for example, to punish themselves or others, or to protect what’s left of themselves, or to take themselves out of the equation so that what remains will balance again. Most people move toward balance, which is generally what they see as better, broader, freer, healthier, and happier.

Enter our controlling beliefs. That’s another writerly term. In novels and movies, main characters often enter the story with what’s called a controlling belief, which is exactly what it sounds like: a belief so strong that it controls how the character makes decisions, interacts with other people, and responds to life’s challenges. Maybe her controlling belief is that she’s pretty but not smart. Maybe he believes money talks and everyone can be bought at a price. In the course of the story, events and people challenge the character’s controlling belief. In fact, sometimes that’s the entire point of the novel or movie. By “The End,” she may no longer hold that belief at all. Or he may have reframed his controlling belief in a way that’s healthier for him and the world around him.

Controlling beliefs are part of real life, too. We all have them. And is that so bad? Aren’t we supposed to be controlled by our beliefs? Actually, just the opposite. We should control our beliefs. We’re responsible for them. Those who are wise choose what to believe.

Choosing what to believe requires us to occasionally pause on our journey, take our beliefs out of our pockets, hold them at arm’s length, turn them around, and inspect them – topside, underside, front and back. We ask if this is truly what we believe, and if it is, why? If we don’t believe it, then we can’t assent to it with any kind of integrity. In that case, it may be best to set it aside. If we do believe it and know why – or we’re figuring out why – we put it back in our pocket and journey on. Either way, we move forward with open eyes, more intentional about who we are and what we stand for. When we control our beliefs as much as possible, we’re healthier and wiser and better able to help our fellow travelers.

What are your controlling beliefs? Okay, granted, we hold so many beliefs, we’ll probably never be aware of them all. But when we can identify them and become intentional about inspecting them, we begin to control them instead of letting them control us. And when that happens, we’re healthier and freer. So here’s to open eyes and open hearts!

Inspect a belief this week. Is it yours? Or did someone else ask you to carry it? If it’s yours, why do you believe it? It’s okay if the answer is simply, “Because I want to.” That’s sometimes the most honest answer.

Next week, I’ll muse some more on this Life Unmapped, the journey from blind belief to open-eyed faith. Until then, may you find joy in the journey.


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Text and photos © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.


The Gift of Growing Older

“Third star to the right and straight on toward morning.”

– J.M. Barry, Peter Pan


I’m originally from West Texas, so when I think of the horizon, the image of the cowboy in old Western movies and TV shows comes to mind. The hero rides off into the sunset, his silhouette getting smaller and smaller as he heads toward a blazing band of gold lining the horizon, the divide between a darkening earth and an expanse of sky that grows darker the higher it rises. From gold it eases upward through fire orange to crimson, lavender, turquoise, and rich blue. Then overhead it spreads out in a deep violet-black sparked with stars. And all the while, the silhouette, man on horse, rides steadily west toward that blaze of gold.


To me the American West has an aura of warmth, openness, freedom, and possibility that I find nowhere else. Although I’ve lived half my life (most of my adult years) east of the Mississippi, when I travel west across the U.S., I always feel like I’m going home. There’s something about crossing the Mississippi River, passing through the hills of Arkansas and finally hitting the wide plains and big sky of Texas that releases a tension in me and says you’re home now.

If life is our grand journey, then home is whatever awaits us at the end of our time here. When I was younger, I thought I knew what that was. I took for granted that the beliefs I had been taught – streets of gold, gates of pearl, and 24/7 worship before the throne of God – were absolute truth. What I see now is that no one knows what lies beyond. We have beliefs, hopes, and opinions, but certainty? That, we don’t have.

But what lies beyond is not the point. The journey is the point – the roads you and I choose (or that are chosen for us) as each of us navigates through life as best we can. What matters is how we travel those roads, what we discover along the way, what we carry with us, and what we leave behind.


I’m over halfway home, maybe almost home – who knows? One thing I’ve learned on my journey is that you and I, at this point in time, are not only the age we celebrated on our last birthdays but also every age we’ve ever been. My birth certificate, passport and driver’s license show that I’m in my sixties. But the truth is, I am also three and eight and sixteen and twenty-five and thirty-nine and every other age I’ve ever experienced.

Growing older is a gift in that way. We become all the ages we have lived. We embody all the joys and sorrows, all the discoveries and mistakes, all the aha moments we’ve encountered so far on the journey. You may be younger than I, you may be older, but hold on to what you’ve discovered and to what you’re still discovering on the journey. It’s uniquely yours and will keep filling and shaping you until you cross the horizon, perhaps even beyond.

A wise friend of mine, now in his seventies, said recently that people my age are on the cusp between inventory and renaissance. We have the privilege of taking inventory of what’s behind us while moving ahead into our renaissance, our rebirth. (Previous generations retired at my age. My generation calls it reinventing yourself.) So here I stand at the cusp, atop a mountain on my own journey, taking inventory. As I look back I see myself coming of age in a community of faith. I also see that coming of age is not a one-time event, as I once thought. We are always coming of age in every area of our lives. And faith, if it’s real and living, grows right along with us. Blind belief gives way to questions and doubts and discoveries. It’s part of the adventure of the journey.

This is your invitation to join me on this part of my journey as each week, I share my thoughts about Life Unmapped, the journey from blind belief to open-eyed faith.

Until next time, may you find joy in the journey.


Text and photos © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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