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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.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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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.

 

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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.

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7 Practical Suggestions for Forgiving

“[F]orgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside [our] own skins.”

Frederick Buechner

So practically speaking, how do we let go of resentment and bitterness? How do we forgive? Maybe part of the answer is within the word itself. Switch the syllables for and give, and you get give for. Resentment clenches its fists around the betrayal and hurt. Forgiving means opening our fists to give our offense up for our health and for the welfare of others.

For specifics, I can tell you only what has helped me.

1) Admit that what was done was not okay. For those of us who are quick to say, “That’s okay; it doesn’t matter” when we’re mistreated, the first step is to learn to respect ourselves enough to acknowledge that we were hurt. To admit that it matters. Because it does. Stuffing it away and denying it is not the same as forgiving. If you’re the type of person who can let offenses roll off “like water off a duck’s back” as they say, then fine. You can honestly say, “That’s okay; it doesn’t matter.” But most of us can’t honestly say that.

2) Take steps in a positive direction with supportive people. That means we tell someone who can help us carry our pain and gain perspective.

3) Soften our view toward the offender. Realize that he or she never gets away free, even though it may appear that way. Wrongdoing has a way of eating away at the offender’s insides and taking him or her to unpleasant places. It helps me to think, “The harm you are doing (or have done) to me is nothing compared with the harm you are doing (or have done) to yourself.”

4) Refuse to let the offense define us. Fact of life: Sometimes we get mistreated. The question is whether we’ll victimize ourselves and dig our claws into resentment or let go and move on unencumbered. I can decide not to be a victim, because the truth is that my past does not have to control my future.

5) Try to see the big perspective. I try to remember to ask myself whether this issue is important enough to jeopardize my health and happiness. Will the wrong done to me even matter ten years from now – or twenty? Usually it won’t. Novelist Nora Roberts wrote a bit of insightful dialogue that applies here:

“Did you ever stop hating [your abusive father]?”

“No, but I stopped letting it be important, and maybe that’s healthier. Someone hurts you in a permanent way, you don’t forget it. But the best revenge is seeing that it doesn’t matter.”

I would add one word to that last sentence: anymore. It doesn’t matter anymore. Because it did matter. A lot. And it’s not as if we don’t care. We do. But as I said before, for some of us, admitting that it mattered is the first step toward the healthy place of ceasing to let it be important.

6) Go high. I’m not naive enough to think that after I’ve been wronged, life will always go back to the old normal. Sometimes there’s a new normal. When someone wrongs us, they leave us at a fork in the road. We get to choose from one of two directions: worse or better. Low or high. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” We can’t control every outcome, but we can control our outlook. We can head toward the better. No, make that the best. We can go high.

7) Close the door. Offenses have a way of returning to my mind uninvited. I may think I’ve closed the door on them, but then they sneak back in. When they do, I know not to take the bait and swallow them, because they have a way of hooking into me. But in order not to take the bait, I have to look them in the eye and not ignore them. I’ve learned to try to acknowledge the memory (“ah, you again; yes, I see you”) and send it on its way (“this case is closed”). It has been said that “[F]orgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past.” I can acknowledge that and close the door on the past as often as I need to. If I have to close that door every day, I will.

Next week: a tricky twist to forgiveness.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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“The Bridge Over Which We Must Pass”

“I’d held on to that hurt, coddled it, fed it, grew it.

Until it had all but consumed me.

But finally I wanted something even more than I wanted my pain. . .

Peace.”

– Louise Penny, A Trick of the Light –

 

In last week’s blog post, I said that the purpose of forgiving is not primarily to set my wrongdoer free. First and foremost, it’s to set me free. Does that sound egotistical? Selfish? It’s the same principle as the advice, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Forgiving my wrongdoer opens my fists so I can offer mercy. Forgiveness first frees me.

On the flip side, when I refuse to forgive, I forge a chain-strong link with the person who wronged me. The longer I hold onto that resentment, the stronger the link grows. I may think I can yank the chain and hurt that person, but the reality is that when I yank the chain, the only one who gets hurt is me. And because I’m hurting, I’m in danger of hurting other people in my life who are innocent of that wrongdoing. They become collateral damage. At that point, I have ceded control of my life to the original offense, giving it much more weight and power than it deserves.

Resentment and bitterness are some of the heaviest weights we can carry. When I despise someone, something, or some action, the spite is not in that person, thing, or action; the spite is in me and me alone. It will affect my whole life – my outlook, my attitude, my choices, my peace, my joy, everything. Father Thomas Hopko said, “So forgiveness is not just the healing of the other, it is the healing of yourself, too. If you don’t forgive, you allow yourself to be poisoned.”

We also stack the deck against ourselves when we don’t forgive, because at some point, we’ll want to be forgiven. As the saying goes, “He who cannot forgive another breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.”

Being forgiven has long been linked to our willingness to forgive others. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:9). This has less to do with God forgiving us than with the damage we do to ourselves when we don’t forgive. Our inability to be free from our wound is proportional to our inability to forgive. To the degree that we hold onto bitterness and resentment, we’ll hold onto the hurt. In other words, it’s impossible to be free of the wound, because we’re clinging to it. So it’s up to us. We’re released as much as we release others. That’s not a divine mandate; it’s simply the way life works.

If I hold onto resentment, it eventually governs me. It causes me to live with my back turned to the world and my heart turned away from even myself. Wishing someone else ill does nothing to make me feel whole. Forgiving is healthy.

So practically speaking, how do we let go of resentment and bitterness? How do we break the chain? That’s a subject for next week’s post. I hope you’ll join me as we continue to explore the subject of forgiveness.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Why Forgive? The Real Reason

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

– Abraham Lincoln –

When people wrong us, we know it. We have an innate sense of right, wrong, and justice that serves as our standard for how life should work. When life doesn’t work that way, we feel betrayed.

Our first betrayal comes at birth. Out of a warm womb, we emerge into a world that immediately chills us, then pokes and prods, sticks and pricks us. It’s not long before our parents and caregivers betray us by being fallible (how dare they?), breaking promises, misunderstanding us, and sometimes misleading us, usually unintentionally. But it’s not long until our own expectations betray us. We expect this career choice or that person or this purchase to make us happy, but they don’t – not permanently anyway. The move that we expect will gain us loyal friends brings only fair weather acquaintances. What we think is love turns out to be only pity. What we think will be our big step into a career is only a move that sidetracks us. The person we expect to help us actually expects us to help them instead. Life is full of small betrayals of the way we think things should be.

Then there are the stab-in-the-back betrayals. I once believed that life was supposed to be fair, that people knew it, and that “God’s people” above all would treat you fairly, while those “in the world” regularly stabbed you in the back or kicked you in the teeth – metaphorically or literally. But Christians can betray trust as fast as non-Christians. This shouldn’t be surprising, because betrayal, by definition, happens when someone we’ve trusted pulls the rug out from under us and walks off with it. The irony is that when “God’s people” betray us, it’s sometimes people “in the world” who pick us up, treat us with respect, heal our wounds, and give us a new rug to stand on.

But betrayal can make us focus. It can clarify our lives, put things into perspective, and sift the sediment out of our souls. It’s a form of disillusionment, an invitation to remove the rose-colored glasses so we can see more clearly where we stand now and can look ahead to a wide landscape of possibilities.

But we have to decide not to chew the bitter gum. Bitterness is addictive, and like other addictions, it’s dangerous. We often don’t realize we’re addicted until it has affected our whole self, body and soul. But why is the desire for payback so addictive in the first place? Why is it so easy to baby our bitterness and so hard to forgive?

Maybe we believe that if we forgive, we have to forget as well, and we know we can’t forget. Some people think “forgive and forget” is a Bible verse. It’s not. What’s more, to forgive and forget is nearly impossible. In a lot of cases, it’s not even wise.

After a business partner stole from me, I struggled with this issue. Did forgiveness mean I had to pretend it never happened? Did I have to prove I had forgiven by going back into partnership with that person? I couldn’t. If it was business as usual, I was past the point of no return. I had to separate. Not because of hatred and bitterness but because of wisdom. When someone proves to be untrustworthy or disrespectful or abusive, forgiveness may need to go hand in hand with distancing ourselves from the relationship and remembering not to go down that road again.

Nor does forgiveness preclude justice for crimes. Whether I forgive or not, consequences may be required by civil law. There may be natural consequences as well. But we don’t have to nurse a bitter heart in order for justice to be imposed or for consequences to kick in. Justice and consequences can operate equally as well if we forgive. In fact, the purpose of forgiving is not primarily to set my wrongdoer free. First and foremost, it’s to set me free. Which is the subject for next week’s post. I hope you’ll join me as we continue to explore the subject of forgiveness.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Why is it So Hard to Forgive?

“Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea,

until they have something to forgive.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity –

 

Last week, I wrote about the strange cat that found its way into our house and then couldn’t find its way out, even though an open window was less than a foot away. I compared that with the way out of resentment and bitterness: forgiving. The window of forgiveness always stands open, and we can leap out whenever we want. It’s that simple. But, as we know, simple is not the same thing as easy.

When we’ve been wronged, hurt, and offended, our natural first responder is usually Blame. Once we find someone or something to point the finger at, our second responder joins in: Payback. We want to restore the balance. We demand justice or desire revenge. But rarely is our first impulse to forgive, because we humans operate on the principle of reciprocity, and forgiveness does not. So forgiveness and mercy are usually latecomers if they show up at all.

When forgiveness and mercy do show up, tap us on the shoulder, and offer us a way out, we’re inclined to think, “Wait! You want me to simply erase the wrong done to me? I want it remembered. I want someone held accountable. It’s only fair. I want justice. (Or retribution or revenge.) I want everyone to know I’ve been wronged.” We may not admit it, but we often want to validate and maintain our status as the victim. Which means we’re choosing to define ourselves by our wounds.

But think about it. Really? We’d rather nurse the wounds and point the finger than forgive and make a fresh start? We’d rather carry the lead-loaded backpack than walk on, free and unencumbered? Well, yeah, that’s the gist of it. We have this notion that nursing our wound will somehow shake up our offender, that pointing our finger will wither them, that carrying the lead-loaded backpack will weigh them down as well. But it doesn’t work that way, does it? The person who offended us goes her merry way, unwounded, unwithered, unencumbered, and sometimes unaware that we’ve been hurt.

But it’s so easy to cling to offenses and so hard to forgive. Why? I think it’s our built-in sense of balance. Our sense of human dignity has been violated. Our sense of the way things ought to be has been trampled. Our values – literally the things we value – have been disrespected, disregarded, threatened, or damaged. In other words, we’ve been betrayed; our personal world has been thrown out of balance. The natural response is jaw-locking, fist-clenching anger.

That response proves that we have a basic, inborn sense of right and wrong – at least when we’re the ones being mistreated. One of my mentors, Ken Rideout, was a missionary to Southeast Asia for 40 years. He often reminisced about teaching English in Communist China. None of his students were religious, so he was curious about their basic moral beliefs. He asked them, “Is it right for me to steal from you?”

They all answered, “No!”

“Is it right for me to take your wife?” he asked.

“No!” they said.

“Is it right for me to murder you?”

Everyone answered with a resounding no.

They’d had no religious instruction, no Christian teaching. They didn’t even believe in God. But they did understand basic human morality – at least when it applied to how they themselves should be treated.

Strangely, if we flip the coin and ask if it’s right for us to steal from someone else, it becomes a different matter. We hedge. “What do you mean by steal exactly?” We’re able, in all sorts of ways, to justify mistreating others, while being unable or unwilling to justify others’ mistreatment of us (which gives more weight to the importance of the Golden Rule).

Next week: betrayal, justice, forgiveness, and our innate sense of right and wrong.

 

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Happiness: The Splash or the Undercurrent?

 

Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Where is the Way Out?

Nashville, Tennessee, September 2005:

I am not a morning person. I wake up with an unfocused, dreamy brain and puffy eyes. This morning, it’s harder than usual to get out of bed, because it was harder than usual to fall asleep last night. Bumps and clanks and indistinct voices kept drifting upstairs from the basement, where my older son and his set crew worked past midnight preparing backdrops and props for an indie film. But day has dawned, and I have a full schedule. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much brain power to make the bed, so bleary eyed, I stumble out of bed and begin smoothing the sheets.

As I draw up the bedspread, I notice two wide, gold, feline eyes peering out from the space between the bed and the nightstand. Normally that wouldn’t be so unusual. We have two cats. But this is not one of them.

I stare at the cat, the cat stares at me, and my mind kicks into gear. The intruder must have sneaked into our house through the basement door as the crew trekked in and out. No problem, I think. I’ll just carry the cat downstairs and out of the house. Obviously, my mind is not completely in gear or I would have thought it through. After all, I’m a stranger, and the cat doesn’t know I’m here to help. As I reach for him, he becomes all sharp teeth and hisses.

Right. I’ve had less than pleasant encounters with my own angry cats, so I shift to Plan B: coax the creature out with cat food. It doesn’t take long to see that Plan B isn’t going to work either.

Okay, on to Plan C: Call for backup. I enlist my son’s help, and we formulate a plan. We’ll blocks all exits except one path: bedroom door to stairs leading down and out the now-wide-open front door. My son will stand by near the bottom of the stairs to make sure the cat heads out, and I’ll use a broom to herd the cat toward the escape route. But of course, with broom in hand, I appear even more threatening to the cat. I succeed in getting him out of the niche, but he’s now a frantic ball of fur, shooting across the room, dodging the broom, and leaping from one closed bedroom window to another. He even tries a vertical climb up one of the window shades. Both cat and shade lose in the attempt.

So. There I stand, broom in hand, watching a ballistic cat pinball around the room. Come up with Plan D. Fast. I figure if the cat wants a window, I’ll give it an open one. Since we’re upstairs, the obvious windows to use are the ones that don’t lead to a two-story drop. They’re side by side above my writing desk and look out onto a roof that slopes toward our deck and a porch swing. I open one, raise the screen, and again take up my post as cat herder.

This time, I manage to sweep the cat toward the two windows, one of which stands wide open, practically flashing “Escape Route Here.” Obvious, right? Not to a panicked cat. Instead of leaping out the open window, he hits the closed one, where he frantically climbs and scratches. I’m thinking this is crazy. Only a few inches away there’s an open window, but the cat is so panicked he can’t see it.

I don’t know what finally clues the cat in, but at last he spies the way out. He leaps, hits the roof running, and barely touches the top of the porch swing as he sails past on his way to solid ground.

* * *

Sometimes I think we’re like that cat, pressured and anxious, unsettled and overwhelmed, scrabbling at the closed window, not realizing that the window open to freedom is so close – only a glance away, a breath away, a thought away.

Life demands so much of us. Could freedom be as simple as a pause, a deep breath, and a choice made with our eyes open? I believe it can. I believe there’s an open window that can set our souls free, heal us emotionally and perhaps physically, and leave us carrying a sense of calm that will see us through the challenges of our unmapped life. The window is forgiveness. It always stands open, and we can leap out whenever we want. It’s that simple. But, as we know, simple is not the same thing as easy.

 

Next week, we’ll explore why such a simple act can be so hard.

 

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Text, stair photo and window photo © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Three Strands of a Strong Lifeline

“A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

Ecclesiastes 4:12

 

Have you ever watched anyone make a rope? It’s a fairly simple process that’s been around for thousands of years. I’ve never made a rope, but I used to do macramé, mostly for artsy, decorative purposes, so the strength of the woven, braided cord wasn’t an issue. But for a mountain climber, or a sailor, or for anyone crossing a rope bridge, the strength of the twisted strands in a rope is a matter of life and death.

In last week’s post I mentioned that I suspected that the long form of happiness (an ongoing, low-level hum of joy, general contentment, the sense of wellbeing and settled-ness that buoys the spirit) is created by faith, hope, and love braided together. There are other factors, of course, but these three entwined form a strong support system for life. Here are the three, with an emphasis on hope (because I’ve touched on faith and love previously).

Faith is an act of giving ourselves to what will creatively transform us (according to Henry Nelson Wieman, a theologian in the early 1900’s).

Love is an outpouring of kindness, consideration, and respect – and everything good in us.

What about hope? Hope is not Jiminy Cricket’s wish upon a star. No, hope is much more substantial than Disney wishes. Hope is based on trust and leads to action. We wish upon a star and then sigh – if only. We trust that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and we move toward it – that’s hope. We wish everyone would live together in peace. We trust that our loving kindness will make life more peaceful for everyone within our sphere of influence, so we try to be loving and kind – that’s hope.

Sooner or later, everyone’s journey leads to – and through – the mirage that hovers ahead on the road. Most of us hike through mirages several times before life is done, and each time, we find ourselves disillusioned all over again. But the thing about hope is that it recognizes dis-illusionment for what it is: real-izing. Stripping away pretense. Ditching fallacies. Dismantling deception. We may have preferred the mirage to reality, but the mirage was never solid enough to support us. Reality is solid. We can see what we’re facing, we can deal with it, and we can move on.

This is where people who believe in a Higher Power have an advantage. There’s a limit to trusting only human nature when it comes to creating a better, healthier life and a more just and peaceful world. Scan the headlines in the news, take a quick look at a Twitter feed, dive into comments on blog posts, or listen to friends pour out their workplace woes, and it doesn’t take long to see the sludgy side of human nature.

To have hope, we somehow have to transcend all that. Maybe some people can transcend through their own internal fortitude and positive thinking. I’m not that strong internally – not consistently anyway. As for positive thinking, I try, but on my own, I’m a roller coaster of thoughts and emotions. I need a rope to hold onto in order to stay out of the suck and pull of the sludge.

Enter God. The Transcendent One. Faith in person. Love incarnate. Hope indestructible. I am the variable and God is the constant. When I am faithless, God is faithful. When I am unloving and unlovable, God continues to love. When I lose hope, God remains steady and solid and does not abandon me. Even when I feel that all is lost, all is never lost.

Many years ago, when I was first married, my husband traveled as a backup musician. One time after a gig in Canada, he and the road manager were driving the equipment truck back to L.A. when they realized that they were almost out of gas. Unfortunately, on that particular stretch of highway, exits were few and far between. What’s more, they were weary and had hours yet to drive. This was before the days of cell phones, so help was not just a text away. Their spirits sank at the thought of being stuck in the middle of nowhere for who-knew-how-long. But as the road manager eyed the gas gauge, he noticed a switch – to an auxiliary gas tank. With a simple click, the extra fuel kicked in, and seconds later, the gauge swung from E to F.

That’s what it’s like to believe in a Higher Power. When I’m running on empty, extra fuel is available. Always. G.K. Chesterton said, “[T]he only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point – and does not break.” In my experience, that can happen only when there’s a tank held in reserve, a limitless supply of divine strength and wisdom. This holds true not only for courage but also for every value we need for integrity, balance, and a firm footing in our life journey. The soul passes the point of despair but remains hopeful. The soul passes the point of hatred but responds in love. The soul passes the point of vengeance but holds out grace. Because “in God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

The converse is true as well: In me, God lives and moves and has sacred being. Marvelous, isn’t it? The grand Mystery, the Divine Being, exists within us. I have hope, because I trust in the divine spark in us all, the divine connection among us all, and the divine Presence transcending us all. I believe in possibilities. Good possibilities. God possibilities. And I have every reason to believe that they are not illusions.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Happiness: The Splash or the Undercurrent?

“Happiness is the absence of the striving for happiness.”

Zhuang-Zhou

 

I once had a college professor who said, “If you’re not happy now, you never will be.” That’s one of those pithy sayings that sounds so true that we absorb it without question, which is exactly what I did. I believed his pronouncement for a long time. Until I discovered that it’s not true. Sometimes we simply feel down, and no amount of cajoling our spirits will lift them. But that doesn’t mean we’ll never be happy.

Still, I think I know what my professor meant: Happiness is never found somewhere in the future, because the future is always . . . well, in the future. Like all other emotions, happiness is experienced only in the present moment. But the only kind of happiness we can sustain from one moment to the next is not so much an emotion as a mindset, an underlying settled-ness of spirit, a steady calmness that is present even when we’re sad or discouraged. It’s not the opposite of sadness but the counterbalance to sadness.

The reality is that the joy is in the journey. Okay, I know that’s a cliché. Feel free to roll your eyes. But then think about it. It’s a cliché because it’s true – so true that we’ve shared it until it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. So how else can I say it? Maybe “the pleasure is in the process.” That’s what I’ve learned in art classes. At the end of an evening of art, it’s great to leave with a painting I can frame and feel proud of, but it’s the act of painting that’s the true pleasure.

Or consider writing. It feels good to sell a novel to a publisher and then see it on the shelf at Barnes and Noble, but that feeling is short-lived. Most of a writer’s life is spent actually writing and rewriting. In process. If we writers don’t find joy in the process, we’re dooming ourselves to hours of drudgery.

The irony is that the joy we feel in the process of any endeavor lives alongside dissatisfaction. It’s that dissatisfaction that often propels us forward. We have a vision and know we’re not there yet. But we can be content with feeling discontent. We can be satisfied and even happy with a level of dissatisfaction. Explorers, researchers, scientists, artists, and inventors base their lives on being dissatisfied. One researcher said that he honestly wouldn’t be happy without something to work toward, some puzzle to solve. The quest was his work, and his work satisfied him, even though at any given moment, he felt a certain level of dissatisfaction. But he was good with that, finding happiness even in moments of discontent.

This will probably sound a bit Zen, but . . . how I feel in the present moment is how I feel. We don’t feel past emotions unless we relive the past. We don’t feel future emotions unless we pre-live what we imagine about the future. We can get a zing of happiness either way, reliving or pre-living, but to be truly happy, we need to find joy in the present moment. In one of Anne Perry’s novels, Brunswick Gardens, a character realizes, “Happiness was . . . knowing the infinite value of what you had, of being able to look at it with gratitude and joy.” That knowing and that gratitude happen in the present moment. We drop the illusion that happiness is based on what we don’t yet have, and we realize the infinite value of what we have right now.

Realizing, making it real, is akin to disillusionment, because it drops illusion and reveals reality. Without illusions, we can real-ize, or make real, the value found in the present moment. For me, at this moment, that’s the ground I’m standing on, the air I’m breathing, the chirp of chickadees at the bird feeder, the scent of jasmine tea in my cup, the rustle of leaves in the wind. And the thought of you on the other side of this strand of words. For the moment, I feel content, even generous, and I count that as a form of happiness.

Happiness is a shape-shifter, showing up at one moment as a contented sigh, at another moment as a belly laugh – or anything in between. Delight, elation, euphoria, ecstasy – sometimes these forms of happiness splash us like a sudden wave; sometimes they ease slowly into our consciousness. Either way, they’re short-lived. Still, as Robert Frost said, momentary happiness usually “makes up in height for what it lacks in length.”

But there is also long form happiness. It’s not the splashy wave, here and gone again. Instead, it’s a constant undercurrent flowing through life. Some people – whether religious or non-religious – seem to embody an ongoing, low-level hum of joy, a general contentment, a sense of wellbeing that David Brooks in Road to Character might call “inner integration.” It’s that settled-ness that buoys the spirit. It helps those who harbor it stay afloat in times of sadness, disappointment, disillusionment, and even grief. It’s that counterbalance to sadness.

I suspect that this long form of happiness, this undercurrent, is created by faith, hope, and love braided together. And that braid is what next week’s post will be about.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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