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What Lies Beyond the Horizon?

 

Maps were important in my childhood. For one thing, maps of the U.S. were changing to include the new interstate freeway system. It was a pretty big deal to be able to ride on one of these new highways where there were no traffic signals or railroad crossings. You could even bypass towns and cities altogether. On television (also a new invention), a popular commercial urged us to “See the USA in Your Chevrolet.” And we did. The interstate freeways were a boon to family vacations. We could drive straight to our destination without having to stop and see anything except restrooms.

A few years later my generation took to the road, both freeways and back roads, trying to “find ourselves.” Since then I’ve traveled a lot, and I’ve discovered that on the road or not, we’re always in the process of finding ourselves. We are always coming of age. Maybe that’s why I see life as a journey.

We’re making our way through the terrain of time, and our major challenge is that life comes without a map. We know that mountains and valleys, straight paths and crooked roads lie ahead. We’ll have to traverse emotional territory. While we may pick up tips and guidebooks along the way, what lies ahead is unique to each of us. And it’s always uncertain, even though we’re all heading toward the same horizon and whatever lies beyond.

Since I’m originally from West Texas, 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. As the camera pulls back, the gold deepens into fire orange and eases upward, becoming a ribbon of crimson that softens into lavender, turquoise, and rich blue. As the evening darkens, the sky overhead spreads out in a deep violet-black sparked with stars. All the while, the silhouette, man on horse, rides steadily west toward that sinking 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 River, when I travel west across the U.S., I always feel like I’m going home. There’s something about crossing the Mississippi, passing through the hills of Arkansas, and finally hitting the flat 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). Each of us navigates 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.

This is Thanksgiving week in the U.S. As you look back on your life journey, what are you deeply grateful for?

 

Next week: Bridge to the Unknown

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Text and cloud-sunray photo © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

All other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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A Summer Storm and a Long Road Home

 

A West Texas highway, Summer 1964:

We’re heading to Abilene, Texas, on the way home from visiting our cousins in Lubbock. Daddy is driving the family Oldsmobile station wagon, Mother sits up front reading a magazine (she’s one of those people who can read and ride), and my youngest sister sits between them on the bench seat. Well, sit is optimistic. She sometimes stands (no seat belts in those days) and sometimes peers into the back seat to see what her three older sisters are up to. A couple of us are squirming. But not me. I’ve claimed the window seat behind Daddy, and I watch the clouds.

The distant thunderheads look like the mountains I’ve seen out west with peaks you can see for miles away as you travel the long, straight highways. But unlike mountains, clouds gradually change shape. Today, they’re in a slow-motion boil, their underbellies full and dark and ominous.

Since the land here is flat and treeless, the wind is free to gust at us, and it does, making our car shiver as it blows the full-bellied clouds in our direction. As the cloud ceiling lowers so do my eyebrows. The greenish-gray light bathing the landscape bothers me, and I don’t like the look of the wisp-like tails trailing down from some of the clouds.

When fat drops of rain splat onto the windshield, Daddy turns on the headlights and wipers. It’s not long before the whole sky lets loose, and I can’t see the clouds anymore. Because sheets of rain are blowing sideways across the highway, I can’t see the landscape any longer. In fact, I can’t even see the highway in front of us.

Neither can Daddy. He slows down but keeps driving, hunched forward trying to see. After a few minutes, he rolls down his window and sticks his head out to keep an eye on what he can glimpse of the white stripes in the center of the road. The rest of us sit tight, listening to the drumming rain and shuddering wind.

Eventually we drive out of the storm. Through the rear window, I watch another car’s headlights emerge from the dark gray curtain of rain behind us. Daddy closes his window and wipes rain off his face, and a couple of us start to squirm again. But not me. I rest my forehead against the cool window and study the shafts of sunlight that slice through towering clouds, spotlighting patches of ranch land, a barn, and the long road home.

If you’ve followed my posts for a while, you know that I often refer to life as a journey. It’s a common metaphor. Like my family’s drive home that summer, life can take us through stormy events. When the world closes in on us and we can’t see what’s ahead, we may have to slow down and make our way carefully. Like a trip on unfamiliar roads, life can take us in directions that cause us to lose our way. But unlike a cross-country drive, life’s journey doesn’t come with a GPS or a map. So it can be a bit trickier to navigate. For the next few weeks, that’s what I’ll blog about – finding what we need to navigate ourselves into an unknown future. Next week: What lies beyond the horizon? Can we know? Does it really even matter?

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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What Will Matter Most as We Move Forward?

 

Faith is “the soul riding at anchor.”

Josh Billings

I ended last week’s post with a couple of questions: What guides us as we examine our beliefs? What influences us to discard one belief and hold onto another? There are all sorts of possible answers to those questions, and I can’t answer them for you. Nor can you answer them for me. I can tell you only where I land: asking more questions. Because my faith is all about loving-kindness and grace, that’s my measuring stick. I have to ask:

• Do my beliefs hurt or help people like me as well as people different from me?

• Do my beliefs cause me to discourage or encourage?

• Do my beliefs dismiss or invite?

• Do my beliefs curse or bless?

• Do my beliefs lead me to withhold or give?

If my beliefs hurt, discourage, dismiss, curse, or lead me to withhold, I need to change my beliefs. But that doesn’t mean I lose my faith. On the contrary, it means my faith is growing, my heart is opening, my life is becoming more gracious, I’m going the right direction.

Faith, said author and lecturer George Buttrick, is “the response of our spirits to beckonings of the eternal.” I’ve put it this way: Faith is the slant of our hearts toward what we consider the ultimate purpose and meaning of life. It’s our spiritual disposition toward what matters most to us. Faith can range from weak to strong, stunted to growing, stagnant to fresh, shrunken to full, blind to open-eyed. We’re all somewhere in that range with our faith. We’re all in process. Cultivating an open-hearted faith is an ongoing part of life’s journey, and because the way forward is unmapped, questioning and wondering become a way of life, a way of faith.

Navigating the uncertainty of life is a bit like writing a novel. When novelists begin a new work, it’s hard for us to see all the way from “once upon a time” to “the end.” We may know where we want the story to go, but the way to get there is uncertain, and there’s no guarantee that we’ll end up where we expected to. But we head out anyway, writing the first sentence, then the second, then the third, always searching for the right turn of events, the right images, the right words. Author E.L. Doctorow famously said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Real life, of course, is a bit more complex than a story in a novel – and a lot more important. We try to choose the wise path, but as Atul Gawande says in Being Mortal, “The problem is that the wise course is so frequently unclear.” He adds, “For a long while, I thought that this was simply because of uncertainty. When it is hard to know what will happen, it is hard to know what to do. But the challenge, I’ve come to see, is more fundamental than that. One has to decide whether one’s fears or one’s hopes are what should matter most.”

I’ve heard that doubt is the opposite of faith. I’ve also heard that fear is the opposite of faith. But I disagree with both. We can have a deep faith and still have doubts and fears. In fact, fear may be a prerequisite for faith, just as fear is a prerequisite for courage. Faith helps us handle our fears and act with courage. Faith means we don’t have to be ruled by fear. As people of faith, we can decide what will matter most as we move forward: fear or hope.

Hope is what we’re about, those of us who believe in love and joy and peace. Even though the future is unknown and uncertain, faith tells us that, as Julian of Norwich said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” After winter comes spring. After rain comes sunshine. After night comes the light of day.

As a growing faith steps into the future, it keeps its eyes open for ways in which the whole and the holy show up every day. A faith that is growing more open-hearted, honest, and grace-full heads in the direction of loving-kindness. We listen for loving-kindness in the world. We sense it and tune our spirits toward it. And we know it when we meet it. We recognize loving-kindness wherever we see it, because it’s the same flame that burns within us.

Loving-kindness is the visible, tangible sign of hope that we carry into a hope-starved world. Hope is a bit like driving a car at night. We may be able to see only as far as our headlights, but we can make the whole trip that way.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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“The problem is that when people trust things blindly

and when they just apply them blindly,

they don’t think about cause and effect.”

– data scientist Cathy O’Neil

O’Neil was talking about blindly trusting data analytics. But her point is universally true. We could apply it to health tips. Or news reports (conservative as well as liberal). Or religious beliefs. Swallowing beliefs whole, without questioning, is dangerous.

If we take for granted that we’re right and anyone who disagrees with us is wrong, we’re in the danger zone whether we realize it or not. We may be well-meaning, but we’re likely to damage others and ourselves as well. Physically? Maybe. Emotionally? Quite likely. Spiritually? That, too. Especially when we’re talking about religious beliefs.

Before a recent art class, I was talking with my fellow students when the discussion turned to a news item that seemed wildly false. One of my friends asked me, “Are you drinking that Kool-Ade? I’m not.” I assured her that, no, I wasn’t drinking that Kool-Ade either. Then we realized that the younger people in our group didn’t know what we were referring to. (In case you don’t know, it refers to a charismatic cult leader who, in the late 1970’s, persuaded his followers to move to a compound in Guyana and then got them all to commit suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Ade. They died because most of them didn’t question him. For those who finally did, it was too late.) Believing without questioning is hazardous to our health.

Another danger of blind belief is the risk of boxing ourselves in. When we believe without questioning, we limit what we can learn about the expansive, unfathomable grace and love of God. Life nudges us to be curious and to question. It invites us to be open. People whose beliefs and faith journey are different from our own have much to offer us. If we take off our blinders, we see more, the world widens, life expands, and the horizon ahead broadens.

But isn’t questioning our beliefs hazardous to our spiritual health? Isn’t an open-hearted faith vulnerable? Doesn’t being open mean that anything can come in? The fear of abandoning our faith often keeps us (and our friends and families) from asking questions about our beliefs. Isn’t doubt risky? If we allow ourselves to question and doubt, aren’t we making ourselves vulnerable? We might abandon religion or leave our faith.

On the other hand, if our beliefs dissolve in the light of questions, then they can’t be very solid. In fact, they may not be our beliefs at all. Our “beliefs” may instead be assent to a list of principles, tenets, or positions held by someone else, in which case, our belief is not in the principle we adhere to but in the person or group who teaches that principle. We believe in them, trusting that they are on the right path, assuming that if we follow them, we’ll be on the right path too.

But each of us is responsible for what we believe – and for the consequences of our beliefs as they affect the lives of others throughout the world, whether they hold our beliefs or not.

Still, there’s that prickling fear: Isn’t an open-hearted faith vulnerable? Doesn’t being open mean that anything can come in? A few years ago, as I and a friend explored these questions, my friend asked, “Can you be open but not porous?” I had never thought of that possibility. But I knew that the answer was yes if porous means accepting a belief without question, and open simply means giving serious consideration to different beliefs.

Openness considers another viewpoint, which is, of course, the considerate thing to do. We acknowledge that another person’s belief or position is an option. Maybe it’s not the option you or I would choose for ourselves, but being considerate grants others the same respect that we want them to grant to us and our beliefs. It seems to me that when we trace any belief back far enough, there’s only one conclusion to draw: we believe what we believe because we choose to. Which should make us far more respectful and merciful and gracious toward those who have chosen different beliefs because they just can’t swallow – or follow – the whys of our beliefs.

Yes, there’s a risk in questioning and examining our beliefs. But a growing, thriving faith, a faith of integrity, is fluid, open to weighing and changing the beliefs held within that faith. A flexible muscle is healthy; a paralyzed muscle is not. A healthy faith can have healthy doubts. And we can change our beliefs without losing our faith.

Now I suspect that we all hold some unquestioned beliefs, whether we’re aware of them or not. Blind belief is where we start in childhood, and for the rest of our lives, sorting out what we can and cannot believe continues to be part of the process of maturing in faith. An open-hearted, growing faith admits that there are different interpretations of anything and everything. It admits that some of my beliefs might be wrong. In fact, I can guarantee that I am wrong – about something. You, too, are wrong – about something. But neither of us knows exactly what those somethings are. That’s why it’s so important to be respectful. To consider. To listen. To never condemn.

It’s a privilege to be able to examine a belief and decide whether or not we can honestly accept it as ours. When we can honestly believe something we’ve long given assent to, then that belief becomes even more important to us. And when we let go of a belief that we can no longer embrace in good conscience, it’s expansive and freeing. Truly believing enriches us, heart and soul. It buoys our spirits and expands our faith.

So, as we examine our beliefs, what guides us? What influences us to discard one belief and hold onto another? We’ll head that direction in the next post, which continues our exploration of questioning and wondering as a way of life.

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Our Inner Pilot Light

Several years ago, I went to Hungary to speak at a Christian Arts Festival attended primarily by young people from Eastern Europe. In the evenings, we held concerts for them. One evening between performances, one of our U.S. volunteers was chatting with a small group of teens, when one of the teens pointed to a young man smoking outside the tent and said, “He’s going to the hell.”

“Why do you say that?” asked the volunteer.

“Because he smokes,” said the teen.

“And why would he go to hell because he smokes?” asked the volunteer.

The teen shrugged and nodded toward his youth leader at the far side of the tent. “That’s what he told me.”

Was the teen wrong? Was he right? Would he know? It was a blind belief. It wasn’t his. But if he decided he didn’t believe it, would that mean he had lost his faith?

We all begin life with blind beliefs, accepting as truth whatever family and friends tell us and show us. But as we come of age, we usually discover a dissonance between some of our beliefs and our experiences. There’s a mismatch: What we’ve been told and always believed does not match our experience. It doesn’t ring true to what one writer calls our “inner pilot light.” That’s the image of God within us, the heart of us that, unadulterated, knows and craves love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, balance, self-control, grace, mercy, hope . . . Author Diana Butler Bass says, “[T]he path of Christian faith in a post-religious age must be that of experiential belief in which the heart takes the lead . . . It is only in the territory of the heart where faith makes sense.”

The point is not to drop everything we were ever taught or to cut away everything we ever believed. The point is to figure out if we truly believe what we’ve been told or what we’ve read – in other words, someone else’s thinking. Are we letting someone else’s beliefs about God define our beliefs about God?

If our bodies are temples and we hold sacred space within us, then faith is the music that fills that sacred space. Faith is the hum of the choir that reaches to the highest rafters and seeps through the deepest cracks and can be heard or sensed by all who pass by. Our beliefs give the faith-music of our sacred space a tenor, a certain mood. So, if my beliefs change, the tenor of the music changes, but the music is still there. The faith is still intact.

Let me switch metaphors for a minute. My own artistic style seems to involve marks that swoop upward. Even when I’m creating a free-flowing abstract with no subject in mind, my marks resemble tall plants or flying birds or dancers with arms raised. I can change colors of paint, I can sketch with pencil or charcoal, I can create a collage, but whatever I do, my marks are there, flowing in my style. Our faith, too, flows in our style and becomes as distinctive as the marks of an artist.

Changing our beliefs does not mean losing our faith. Adjusting our beliefs affects our faith, yes, but in my experience, if beliefs change because we are taking responsibility for them and making them personally ours, then faith expands. As I said before, we may assent to certain beliefs or live in a certain belief system, but we don’t believe unless we really, personally believe. The more we take personal responsibility for our beliefs, the more likely we are to find our faith becoming stronger, richer, and livelier. In fact, that’s to be expected if we have a living, thriving, growing faith, a faith of integrity and grace.

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, asking, “Is this belief something I was told and simply took for granted? Or is it truly what I believe? If it is, why?” If we don’t believe it, then we can’t assent to it with any kind of integrity. 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 and open hearts, more intentional about who we are and what we stand for.

 

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Text and painting © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Who Did You Grow Up to Be?

“Ideals are like stars;

you will not succeed in touching them with your hands.

But like the seafaring man on the desert of waters,

you choose them as your guides,

and following them you will reach your destiny.”

  – Carl Schurz

This has been a difficult week. After declining life support, my mother died. She was a giving, loving person, a mom not only to me and my three sisters but also to many people outside our family who needed mothering. All this week, my sisters and I spoke with people who dropped by or phoned or came to the visitation and funeral. Some of them I had not seen since I was a teen and would not have recognized. When I figured out who they were, I wondered, though I didn’t ask, “Who did you grow up to be? What did you grow up to believe?”

We choose our ideals, our life guides, our beliefs, our star-maps. And from time to time, we tweak them. Ultimately, what we believe is what we choose to believe.

I’m happy, because I choose to be.

I forgive, because I choose to let go.

I take each day as it comes, because I choose to.

I’m content with imperfection, because I choose to be.

I wish myself and others the best, because I choose to.

I believe what I believe, because I choose to believe it.

Faith lives and breathes and grows if we let it, because faith is alive. Faith is our attitude toward what we value most in life. If I want an honest faith, a faith of integrity – and I do – I need to examine my beliefs, keep what’s truly mine, and leave behind what is not. Having a faith of integrity requires taking responsibility for what I believe. I believe what I believe, because I choose to believe it.

Ann Patchett, in an essay called “Fact vs. Fiction,” talks about two kinds of educational experience: active and passive. In the passive experience, “your only role is to accept what you are given. To memorize facts and later repeat them for a test might get you a good grade, but it’s not the same thing as having intellectual curiosity.” In the active experience, “You realize that one answer is not enough and that you have to look at as many sources as are available to you so that you can piece together a larger picture.” An open-hearted faith, a faith of integrity and grace, wonders. It’s curious. It’s always trying to piece together a larger picture.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson laments the fact that he sees plenty of children who parrot back that they’re told rather than learning how to think. Do we allow children to question? When the answers to their questions are uncertain, are we able to honestly admit that we don’t know?

What about our own beliefs as adults? Psychologist Daniel J. Levitin points out that we often blindly accept what we’re told and “have a tendency to apply critical thinking only to things we disagree with.” Do we ever question what we’ve always agreed with? Are we truly as certain as we’d like to be? Are we able to appreciate the mystery of God? Are we content to live inside the questions?

Or are we so uncomfortable with questions that we grab on to answers that we haven’t thought through? When we hold what we think is an answer, are we so glued to it that we’re unable to crack open the question again? Why does that matter, anyway? Because it’s the questions, not the answers that broaden our horizons and urge us on like seafarers “on the desert of waters.”

So who did you grow up to be? What did you grow up to believe? What are you growing to be?

Next week: belief and our inner pilot light.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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A Greater Mystery

“It is sometimes the mystery of death

that brings one to a consciousness

of the still greater mystery of life.”

– Kate Douglas Wiggin, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm –

I’m in Texas this week with my Dad and my three younger sisters at my mother’s hospital bedside in ICU. Mother is 90 years old, and from her hospital bed, she has been writing her good-byes on sheets of paper on a clipboard – amazingly without looking at pen or paper. Last night she asked for the breathing tube to be removed, understanding that the CO2 level in her blood would rise, causing her to go to sleep and eventually die. We honored her wishes. My dad and I and my three younger sisters were at her bedside. So far she is still with us, but it’s just a matter of how long her body holds on now. We don’t know what will happen from one moment to the next, but we have been reminded over the past few days that each breath is precious.

I haven’t been able to finish the post I meant to send for this week, so I’m duplicating what I posted on my Carry the Calm site. I’ll send an update and regular post next week. Meanwhile, pay deep attention. Breathe in the mystery of life. Breathe out gratitude. Nurture peace, cultivate loving kindness, and carry the calm.

Nature of the week:

Shadow of the Week:

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

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What Will You Run Toward?

“What are your fears and what are your hopes?

What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make?”

– Atul Gawande, Being Mortal 

This week an old rule that required Puerto Rico to be served only by U.S. ships was temporarily set aside in favor of getting aid to the Puerto Rican people, who are in dire need after the hurricane devastated their island. The lifting of the old rule is a good example of something I mentioned in last week’s post: When it comes to decision-making, we often ask ourselves what carries the greater weight in a particular circumstance: rules or the human/life need. Rules are color-by-number; human/life need is interpretative. Both rules and human/life needs are valid when it comes to making decisions, and sometimes rules are the human/life need of the moment. But it’s important to note what rules/laws can and cannot do.

• Rules cannot forgive.

• Rules cannot have mercy.

• Rules do not take circumstances into consideration.

• Rules cannot make exceptions.

• Rules cannot offer grace.

Because rules don’t care. They can’t. They are impersonal.

Forgiveness, mercy, consideration, exceptions, and grace require a human heart. An open heart. An interpretive heart that asks, what does the situation need? What is it that I might not be seeing or hearing? How can I be generous, grateful, and gracious to myself and to others?

Of course, some people don’t ask those questions but instead hold rules with an iron grip. That, as I see it, is what liberals on the far left and conservatives on the far right have in common. Both extremes tend to paint by number. Closer to the center, whether skewing left or right, we may find life messier, less certain, and more thought-provoking, but the near-center position can also be far more gracious and generous. From closer to center, we can be interpretive and consider what might best bring wholeness and healing, dignity and hope, those qualities that are at the heart of Love Incarnate, Love in the flesh – in other words, God in Jesus, now in us.

At both extremes, left and right, decision-making is often done in an effort to push back, fight against, or run away from whatever doesn’t fit the extreme viewpoint. While we sometimes have to approach our options that way, most decisions are best made not in the spirit of escaping what we don’t want but embracing what we do – leaning forward, fighting for, or running toward what’s desirable. Of course, that means we need to clarify in our own hearts what we consider to be desirable – what’s good, better, and best.

In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande, discussing end-of-life issues, poses four questions that I think apply to all our tough decisions – and maybe even to the ones that aren’t so tough. Answered honestly, they pinpoint exactly what is important to us. Gawande asks, “What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?”

In other words, what will you run toward?

I suspect that most of us come to decision-making heavily influenced by taken-for-granted shoulds: I should choose what’s expected of me. I should choose what the experts advise. I should choose what’s approved by colleagues, mentors, friends, or family. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek and consider advice. But notice Gawande’s four questions. They’re questions that only we as individuals can answer.

Writer William Kenower said, “Nothing is more unique to me than my curiosity and imagination. I am never more myself than when I ask, ‘What interests me most?’ Only I know the answer.” In the same way, only you know the answers to Gawande’s questions. Only you know what you truly believe. And what you believe is what you’ve chosen to believe – which is the topic of next week’s post.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com and morguefile.com.

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Life: Color-by-Number or Interpretive?

A wise friend of mine, who is now in his late seventies, recently said 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. In many ways, the experience I wrote about last week – my efforts to groom a horse – put me exactly at the place in my life journey that my friend described: standing on the ridge between inventory and renaissance, between the past and the future. Thanks to the horse, I discovered that, to make any forward progress, I would have to let go of controlling the future. I could not know what would happen with the horse, what she would choose to do or not do, so I had to let go of expectations and demands and proceed boldly in the face of uncertainty.

At one time, I thought I could plan my future and do all the right things, and it would turn out generally as I had envisioned. Not true. But that belief, as blind as it is, is hard to drop. Logically, I know that most of what happens, both now and in the future, is out of my control. But I get so locked in to wanting a certain outcome that before I know it, my fists are clenched, my chest is tight, my breath is shallow, and I’ve become frantic. I have to sell a novel to a publisher this year. I have to get an agent. I have to do a better job of connecting on social media. I have to do this, I have to expand that. Even though I know better, it’s hard not to tie my thoughts in knots wanting everything to work out as I’d like.

We humans spend a lot of energy being anxious about the Future, worrying about how projects or events or even people are going to turn out. With all good intentions, we try to control outcomes. But most of life is simply outside our control. The car won’t start, so we miss an important interview. A time-sensitive email gets derailed by a spam filter. A single, unexpected phone call changes the trajectory of life – for better or for worse.

Maybe that’s one reason we gravitate toward listicles and books that promise Five Steps to Transform Your Business and Enrich Your Life, or The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, or Four Pillars of Investing. The titles imply that if we follow the bullet points, the path ahead will straighten out and take us where we want to go. I’m not saying these types of guides aren’t helpful, but the truth is, there is no step-by-step guide to life. Life is more organic than that, more complex. It’s not color-by-number; it’s more of a flow. It’s unmapped.

Because life is unmapped, we navigate the terrain best by being flexible. Interpretive. A few years ago, in the class I took on drawing trees, the instructor, the amazing artist Charles Brindley, told us, “Be interpretative.” In other words, look at a tree as the model for your sketch, but instead of trying to reproduce each curve and dip and shadow, interpret what you see. Place it in an interesting spot on the page. Leave out any distracting branches or knotholes. That’s the way we create art – by interpreting what we see. (Here’s the sketch I did in class.)

Being interpretive seems also to be the best way to navigate our unmapped life. What lies ahead, just around the corner? We don’t know. But we do know that the future will hold challenges that will require us to make decisions about what to do and which way to go.

When it comes to decision-making, we often do a quick triage, sometimes subconsciously and instinctively, evaluating what carries the greater weight in that particular circumstance: rules or the human/life need? Rules are paint-by-number; human/life need is interpretation. Both are valid, and sometimes rules are the human/life need of the moment. But it’s important to note what rules can and cannot do.

And that’s where we’ll start next week: rules, the human heart, and what will you run toward?

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Text and tree-sketch photo © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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The Horse and I

Sonoran Desert, Arizona, September 2012

A hot, dry breeze ruffles my hair as I shade my eyes and scan the surrounding hills covered with scrub brush and ocotillo. Among scattered boulders, saguaro cacti stand at attention, stick figures stretching their arms toward the cloudless, sapphire-blue sky. My three younger sisters have splurged for my sixtieth birthday and are treating me to a week with them at the Miraval Resort and Spa, an oasis of porches, pools, palm trees, and paths. I love the dry heat. I love the wide sky. I love my sisters.

When we arrived at the resort, we got to choose from the usual variety of massage and facial treatments, but there were also unexpected offerings, including hikes, trail rides, and an intriguing session called the equine experience . “Practice living life in the moment as you work with specially selected horses and our expert facilitators,” the description read. “You’ll perform equestrian ground skills, getting a chance to notice personal patterns of learned behavior that may be holding you back from the life you want to live.” It had been awhile since I’d been with horses, and this seemed like a good time of life to learn what might be holding me back, so I signed up.

Which is why I’m now standing in the corral, eyeing the desert hills as I bake in the sun. I turn back to the horse I’ve chosen to work with. She’s the oldest horse here, so I feel some connection, seeing as how I’m moving into senior territory myself. At the moment, my job is to clean her front left hoof. The underneath part. So I have to get her to raise her leg. But she’s not cooperating. Her feet stay firmly planted on the ground.

“I don’t think she wants to do this,” I tell the trainer. “At least she doesn’t want me to do this.”

“It’s not about the horse,” says the trainer. “She knows the drill. Just touch her on her foreleg, and she’ll raise her foot for you.”

I touch. Nothing happens. Really, I think it’s obvious that she doesn’t want to raise her foot right now. But I say nothing and try again. No go. Maybe I’m doing this wrong. I stroke her and try again. Nothing. I resist peeking at the other participants with their horses, but I’m afraid that I’ll be the only person here who can’t get their horse’s hooves clean.

“Okay, step back,” says the trainer. “Deep breath. What are you thinking?”

I inhale deeply, exhale slowly. “Umm, I’m thinking I can’t make her raise her foot if she doesn’t want to.” Plus, I’m no good at this, I think; plus, I’m afraid I’ll fail; plus . . .

“She’ll do it,” says the trainer. “She likes having her hoof cleaned. But she can sense what you’re feeling. Give yourself a minute and try again.”

I look to the hills, breathe deeply, let all those thoughts fly off into the desert somewhere, and start over. I try not to think at all but simply approach the horse as if I do this every day. I touch her foreleg, and – wonder of wonders! – she lifts her foot, and I scrape her hoof clean.

“What was different that time?” asks the trainer.

At that moment, I know the secret: I gave up control. I, who have made a career out of thinking, stopped thinking for a moment. I let go of the outcome, touched the horse, and, with her cooperation, bent to my work. As I relaxed into the moment, into my surroundings, into the experience, so did the horse. It was a life lesson – not to stop caring but to stop demanding, to hold my thoughts and expectations with a loose hand, to relax into uncertainty.

Uncertainty. That’s what we’ll look at next week as we think about life – is it color-by-number or interpretive?

 

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If you want to me to send you a calming inspirational thought for the week each Sunday morning, you can sign up at Carry the Calm. http://carrythecalm.com

Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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