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Some of Us Light Candles

I grew up in a Texas town that had scores of churches and three Christian colleges: a Baptist, a Methodist, and a Church of Christ – all in a town of 100,000 people. But it wasn’t until I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, that I was introduced to streets called “Church Rows.” Driving into the city from certain directions, you crest a hill and see steeple after steeple lining the road ahead. On these “Church Rows” almost every block offers one or more church buildings, each belonging to a different denomination or sect. That doesn’t count temples and mosques.

steepleWhy so many different houses of worship? Why so many divisions, so many different beliefs? God, being God, could surely have spelled out the facts of spiritual reality clearly enough for everyone to understand the exact who and how and where and why of the Divine. God, being God, could have explained with such clarity that we would all agree. But God didn’t. Which leads to another very important why: If God could have made things clear but didn’t, why not?

Obviously, seeing eye to eye is not the point. Agreeing on religious and spiritual belief is not the point. Understanding the who, how, where, and why of the Divine is not the point.

Then what is the point? Love. Specifically, loving kindness. Gracious love.

We’re meant to learn and practice loving kindness, not just toward those who agree with us but toward those who don’t. Is that so we can persuade them to come around to our point of view? No, it’s so our own hearts can open to the giving and receiving of life-giving love, which is not limited to one sect or creed. Life-giving love thrives in abundant variety.

Abundance is Jesus’s word for the life God wants to give us all. Abundance comes to us with open heart, with open eyes andfish hands and arms. God obviously loves variety, because abundance overflows with it. Look around. Hummingbird and hawk, chickadee and blue jay. Catfish and salmon, swordfish and carp. Daisy and dahlia, rose and periwinkle. Blueberries and carrots, oats and coffee. Sunrises, sunsets, rivers, seas, sun, moon, stars, snowflakes . . .

And humans – tall and short, deep-voiced and high-pitched, introvert and extrovert. We come in a variety of earth tones, every shade of dust. Some of us respond to God loudly, some of us quietly. Some of us wave flags and banners, some sing with bands and organs, some chant quietly or simply listen. Some of us bow, eyes closed. Some of us raise our hands, eyes wide, gazing upward. Some of us feast. Some of us fast. Some of us light candles. Some of us sit cross-legged in meditation. Some of us dance. Some of us do all the above.

candleI can’t help but believe that’s the way it’s meant to be. A life of gracious love and abundance extends much further than just “live and let live.” It’s live and enjoy, live and appreciate, live and revel in the wonder of it all.

It’s our loss when we demean each other based on our differences rather than welcoming each other based on what we have in common. The demand that everyone see and live life our way divides us and deprives us of abundance, a life rich in diversity.

We’re meant to respect, honor, and generously live beside people who are not like us. They are meant to respect, honor, and generously live beside us. In other words, we’re meant to love. Love has given us the privilege of enjoying the beauty and variety that each of us brings to life’s journey. Love gives us the opportunity to nurture each other’s reach toward God.

So nurture someone’s reach this week.

I hope you join me again next week for some more thoughts on coming of age in a community of faith. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey of life.

 

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

 

The Great Mystery

 

 

 

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The Great Mystery

“It is very sad, my dear,” said Nina, our elderly Jewish guide. She was talking about the last synagogue remaining open in Alexandria, Egypt. There weren’t even enough Jewish men left to have a service there. One of my Jewish friends and I had just finished a tour of the interior by lighting candles mounted in a box of sand. (See last week’s post for the full account of that visit.) Now we were seated reverently in the front pew. Nina turned to me and asked, “Are you Jewish?” I told her that I’m Christian. “Is all the same,” she said. “Only one God.”

For a long time, I thought God was a name. It’s not. It’s a position. Like Mother – that’s not my mother’s name; it’s her position. Father is not my father’s name but his role in my life. I called my mother’s father Bopop, while one set of cousins called him Pawby and another set called him Poppa. His position: Grandfather. God: the One, the Most High, Creator, the Divine, Higher Power, Source . . . different cultures have different names for this Mystery that we barely comprehend.

cloudsGod, the great Mystery, is grander, wider, deeper, and fuller than anyone can know, and I suspect that our not-knowing is intentional on God’s part. I think God wants to keep us wondering. After all, what do we humans do with phenomena that we understand? We try to harness, control, or overcome whatever it is – weather or disease, or gravity, or the human brain for example. We try to figure out these mysteries – and control them. That’s obviously not the path God wants us to take in the spiritual realm.

Hundreds of times I’ve heard, “Someday (that is, when we get to heaven), we’ll know all about it. Someday we’ll see. Someday we’ll understand. God will explain everything.” Really? I don’t think so. I doubt that we’ll ever know it all. Maybe we’ll know more, but I suspect that whatever the afterlife looks like, full understanding will not be part of it. I think God will always be a mystery.

I grew up being taught facts about God and receiving the distinct impression that anyone who questioned those facts was risking his or her soul. Anyone who went further and disagreed with those “facts” was doomed to hell. We believed that what we believed was literally a matter of spiritual life and death. So those of us who did not want to put our souls in jeopardy embraced those “facts” without question. They became blind beliefs – until we honestly questioned them.

Questioning scares some people, but if a belief is worth holding, it should be strong enough to stand up to questioning. If it can’tquestion stand up to examination, is it really what we want to believe? Besides, a change in beliefs does not necessarily mean a loss of faith. In fact, beliefs can change even as faith steadily grows broader and deeper. I know that’s true, because that’s where I am. I try to hold my beliefs with a loose hand while remaining solidly planted in a deepening faith.

Is it possible to question blind beliefs and decide that they’re exactly what we believe? Sure. Then they’re no longer blind beliefs. We’ve examined them, accepted them, and know why we hold them. What if we can’t figure out why we believe, but we want to believe it anyway? In that case, we admit that the reason we believe is simply because we’ve chosen to. In either case, examining our own beliefs can help us respect the fact that others hold different beliefs. We’re all in process, and we’d all do well to continue to question, because that’s what a healthy faith does. And that’s what Mystery draws us to do: wonder.

thinkingI don’t create spiritual reality. Nor do you. No one understands spiritual reality well enough to explain it. We all have our opinions and experiences, and we all choose labels and explanations for them. But our reasoning will take us only a short way before we’re at the end of our understanding, whether we believe in the Christian trinity or simply call the grand spiritual largesse “my Higher Power” or “the Universe” – or even if we don’t believe in anything spiritual at all. The fact is no matter which way we reason, it doesn’t change the reality of What or Who exists or does not exist as God. In other words, we can believe any way we want, but that does not change the fact of God’s existence.

It’s like belief in parentage. We may have been told we were found under a rock or delivered by a stork, but the truth of the matter is that you and I have a mother and a father. You may not know your mother and/or father; you may love them, hate them, feel indifferent about them, or even deny that they exist, but that does not change the fact that you came into being through a male and a female. Your mother and father existed and had names and gave you a blend ofparents their genetic makeup. That’s a given. It’s also a given that the divine Mystery exists – in whatever way, shape, or form – in spite of what you or I or anyone else may call this Mystery and no matter what we believe about God. Whatever is, is.

But it’s human nature to categorize, define, and clarify, and since ancient times, we’ve done exactly that. It’s just that we don’t always come up with the same answers and definitions, especially in the spiritual realm. We’ve long been divided over what is. Even groups that follow the same holy book have split into sects or denominations that differ in their beliefs and are often adamant about defending the rightness of their views. God knows how often we exalt our positions on spiritual issues while vilifying those who believe differently.

Being a why person, I wonder why we can’t link arms and join each other in awe of the Mystery at the heart of life. Why can’t we agree? I think there’s an answer to that question, but it’s the subject of next week’s post. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey of life.

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

 

 

“You Want to Go In?”

 

 

 

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“You Want to Go In?”

I’ve posted part of this story before, but it’s a good one to lead us into what I’ll be posting for the next couple of weeks about religion.

Alexandria, Egypt, late March 2007:

The rumbling, rocking train crosses the Nile Delta, heading north from Cairo to Alexandria. I’m traveling with a writer friendegyptroadsidestand who is doing research for a novel set in early 20th century Egypt. Being a writer myself, I take notes. I never know when I’ll need that exact landscape or flavor or aroma in a story. We pass canals and irrigation ditches and, now and then, towns, each with several unfinished buildings, their top floors framed in posts with rebar sticking out like petrified smoke rising from gray concrete chimneys. (We learn that the buildings are in a perpetual unfinished state, because as soon as they’re finished, the owners must start paying taxes.) Speaking of smoke, smoking is allowed on the train, and it stings my nose.

No music on this train, only a cell phone ringing now and then, some with the same tones we have in the U.S., some with Arabic music. And, of course, there are the voices of people talking, which is musical in its own way. We rumble on past orange groves, a camel, egrets hunting on freshly-plowed fields, foremen on donkeys supervising field workers, bales of cotton in a huge yard behind guarded-gate walls, white ducks waddling down a narrow lane between buildings, field workers sitting on the ground eating lunch around a large galvanized tub that sits over a smoking fire . . . and then we’re in Alexandria.

alexshopsAlexandria looks more European than Cairo does. It’s widest from west to east, stretching along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Each day we walk from our hotel to a tram stop, board the women’s car, and ride west into the center of the city. From there we walk to locations we want to see, places that have been around since the 1920’s and 30’s. One is Eliyahu Hanavi, the only synagogue marked on our tourist map.

Even following the map, we almost miss the synagogue, because it’s behind a high wall. I just happen to look left as we pass a wrought iron gate, and there’s the building beyond a stone courtyard. The gate is closed, and the only people in view are the armed gate guards. We sigh. We’ve walked all this way, and the place is obviously closed to tourists. My friend raises her camera to at least get a picture through the bars of the gate. Immediately the guards protest. No pictures.

As she lowers her camera, I ask, “Is it ever open for tourists?”

“You want to go in?” ask the guards. When we say yes, they point us back the way we’ve come, telling us to speak to the guard atalexnetmender the first cross street. I noticed the guard when we first passed, thinking it strange that he sat behind a hefty wooden podium right in the middle of the crosswalk. We hike back to him and say we want to visit the synagogue. He hitches his thumb toward a man seated in a folding chair on the curb five yards farther down the street. “Tell him,” he says.

So we walk the five yards and tell him. He ushers us across the street to a gatehouse, where we explain ourselves to another guard, who then escorts us into the compound. A middle-aged darker-skinned man emerges from what looks like an administration building and asks for our passports. Now I hate to relinquish my passport to anyone, but no passport, no tour. He says he’ll return our passports at the end, so we hand them over and wait in the courtyard while he goes back into the admin building.

A few minutes later he reappears with a shuffling, bent old woman leaning on his arm. She’s neattly dressed in a gray jacket and dark skirt and wears her gray hair pulled severely back into a bun. Her name is Nina, she’s 83, and she speaks five languages: English, Arabic, French, Italian, and Greek. We choose a tour in the one language we know.

egptsynagogue1.2007Our passport-holder unlocks the front door of the synagogue, and Nina leads us inside. It’s quiet. Cool. A gallery supported by beautiful marble columns looks down over the main floor where rows of dark wood benches with inscribed nameplates flank a center aisle. At the front of the room, dozens of silver lamps of varying shapes and sizes hang from the ceiling, although only one is lit. Nina says it’s the one original to the synagogue. The others came from all the Alexandrian synagogues that closed when the Jews were forced out. There are even more lamps in storage here, along with all the Torahs of those closed synagogues.

We ask Nina why she didn’t leave, and she explains that her husband couldn’t travel because of a heart condition. All those who stayed were old and dying. Only 25 Jews remain in Alexandria today, she says, but not enough men to have a service, even though this one synagogue is still open. “It is very sad, my dear,” she says. Then she asks, “Are you Jewish?” When I say I’m Christian, she says, “Is all the same. Only one God.”

Join me next week as I think about religion. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey called life.

 

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. Photos © 2007 Laura Greene. All rights reserved.

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Getting On With Life

“I think many people love their problems.

Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life.”

Louise Penny, Still Life

Anyone remember “back in the day” when suitcases didn’t have wheels? We used to have to pick up our luggage and muscle it from place to place. Some of us still do that with emotional baggage that we carry from past negative experiences. At the end of my previous post, I suggested that we could rearrange that emotional backpack and lighten the load. How? Here’s what has helped me.

Admitting that I was carrying the weight. I was taught to be quick to forgive. And it’s true that forgiveness is important, but the form of “forgiveness” I learned was, “That’s okay. No harm done.” Meanwhile, I absorbed the harm, even to the point of taking the blame myself, while trying to persuade myself that I hadn’t been hurt. I believed I shouldn’t feel hurt, that I should take the hit and let it go. Instead of forgiving people, I was making excuses for them. I was able to begin to lighten the weight only after admitting that what was done was not all right, and it did hurt.

Revising the situation. Some people call this reframing, setting the event into a frame that distances it from us so that we canframe see it in a new light. I prefer to call it revision. One of the secrets of being a writer is that most of writing is revision. Another handy skill of a good writer is understanding character motivation – which I can use in real life revision. I can revise the way I see my baggage, for example, by seeing that someone lashed out at me because they were hurting. Or that someone betrayed me because they wanted so badly to get ahead.

This may sound like making excuses for people, but it’s not. Excuses try to take what’s wrong and say it was all right in the first place, because (insert excuse here). If we’re the keep-the-peace-at-all-costs type, excuses are a way to avoid confrontation. Instead of grappling with true forgiveness, excuses relieve the wrongdoer of responsibility. Revising, on the other hand, requires us to admit we were wronged. We let the responsibility lie with the one who wronged us, and we revise the scene to try to understand each person’s point of view.

We also revise by looking for the positive outcome of the event(s) that became such a weight for us. If the wrong done to us did not shut us down, then we can take stock of where we are in the journey. Not only was it possible to find a path ahead in spite of what happened but perhaps because of what happened. As painful and embarrassing as it was, misunderstanding and being misunderstood inspired me to try to communicate clearly, to simplify complex concepts. Being raised in a rigid, exclusive belief system led me to explore and discover how people growing up in a community of faith leave taken-for-granted beliefs and come into a faith of their own. Revision is not an effort to deny the negatives of the past; it’s an effort to declaw them.

business-books-3Telling someone. Emotional baggage often gains weight when it’s hidden. So when it’s shared, the load gets lighter. It’s important, though, who we share the weight with. It’s worth finding someone who respects us enough to practice nonjudgmental listening, a person who won’t offer up canned answers, a person who, however well intentioned, won’t use “let’s pray about it” as an evasive maneuver. Yes, prayer is good, but when we’re unburdening ourselves, it’s the listening ear we need, the open hands, the open heart, the presence of someone who simply sits with us in our sadness.

Grieving the stones left behind. We may need to grieve for two reasons. First, if we’ve only just admitted we were wronged and that it did indeed hurt us, we may need to mourn that wound. Second, when we’ve been carrying baggage, setting that weight aside can leave us feeling clean but also empty. We’d grown comfortable with the weight. It was familiar. Maybe we even felt was our cross to bear so that we could either take on the role of martyr or feel sorry for ourselves and perhaps get others to feel sorry for us as well. When we do leave the weight behind, we may feel uncomfortable or even empty in its absence. If we held our hurts especially close, we may need to grieve the loss. And then get on with life.

Grabbing onto the good. We can realize that we’ve survived every wrong done to us – maybe not unscathed, but we survived, and that’s good. We can now intentionally open our senses to all the good and beautiful in the present moment, which often gets overshadowed when negative memories insist on popping up. But the bounty of the present moment can fill the emptiness.

A friend recently gave me a pot of shamrocks. I always thought of shamrocks as Ireland-green, but these are red-violet, and the shamrocks2leaves are triangle-shaped. They’re fascinating, because during the day, the leaves open fully open to the sun, but when the sun goes down, the leaves fold toward each other and end up looking like origami on a stem. We humans, in our natural state, open our very centers to whatever warms and enlightens us emotionally. We close to whatever chills and darkens our deepest selves. It’s only when we trust people, our world, and our selves that we open again.

Our life journeys may be unmapped, but one thing we know: Life is guaranteed to take us through a full range of experiences and feelings – pleasure and pain, love and hatred, joy and grief, excitement and dread. Becoming whole means opening our arms, hearts, and eyes to life’s shifting patterns, the play of light and shadow that’s not only around us but within us as well. Wholeness implies releasing what’s stale, receiving what’s fresh, and being generous to self and others. It means opening our eyes to what has come before and to what exists now.

“I am now the sum of everything I have been before,” said writer Isabel Allende. And when I set aside the weight of what’s come before, I can look toward the possibilities that lie ahead.

Up next – thinking about religion: roadblock or oasis? Until then, I wish you well – and Happy Thanksgiving!

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Text and shamrock photo © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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Where We Were Raised vs. Where We Grew Up

“When you face the past, all you will see is that which has gone before. . . .

Let this be your turning point.

Have done with it, and turn to face the future.”

– Jacqueline Winspear, Pardonable Lies

 

What has gone before has brought us to where we are now in life’s journey. C.S. Lewis once beautifully described himself: “I am a product of long corridors, empty sunlit rooms, upstairs indoor silences, attics explored in solitude, distant noises of gurgling cisterns and pipes, and the noise of wind under the tiles. Also, of endless books.” Of course there was much more, and I’m sure not all of it was pleasant. Still, he chooses this description to define himself. It’s so sensory it creates a feeling of wonder and hints at a deep underlying gratitude. Lewis, at least in this description, made sure that the good and beautiful rose to the top.

girldrink“I am a product of . . . ” struck me as an invitation to complete the thought in my own way. Here’s the positive, the part that leaves me with a grand sense of wonder and gratitude: I’m a product of Kool-Ade tea parties shared with cousins sitting around the rim of an old tractor tire. I’m a product of waiting for my mom to pick me up or for my little sisters to finish with lessons or appointments (which gave me time to think and people-watch and notice my surroundings). I’m a product of the hum of evaporative coolers; the scent of gardenias; the search for snails in the dirt; ever-present Texas wind, hot and dry in the summer, frigid and cutting in the winter. I’m a product of bold, expansive sunsets; a community swimming pool divided by a high wall separating boys from girls; only three channels of television; and new interstate highways (and no seat belts in cars).

We are also products of our parents’ past – and to some extent their parents’ past. My mother and I were talking about how she was raised religiously, and she said that growing up in the 1930’s and ’40’s, you believed what the scholars and authorities said. You did not question what they preached from the pulpit, because they had been trained. They knew Scripture. “Who were we to question?” said Mother. And that filtered down into the way I was raised . . . except sometimes my dad questioned. I could see his logic, and . . . well, here I am today, a questioner.

Families have micro-cultures. Some are emotionally distant, rigidly religious like my family of origin. Some establish ancards environment of “be-the-victim, lay-the-blame.” Some are loud and lay-it-all-out-there. Some are secretive and in denial. Some are open and encouraging. There are as many variations as there are families. (Plus the family culture is malleable and not static.) No matter. Each of us has to play with the hand we’re dealt. (Metaphor courtesy of my card-playing family.)

What I see now is that where we were raised, and even the family we were raised in, isn’t necessarily where we grew up. Sometimes it takes a different locale to grow us up. And to be honest, we never really stop growing up. If we’re going the right direction, life will always be a size too big. And from time to time as we move that direction, we’d be wise to pause to inspect the fragments of our past, leave behind the undue weight we attached to them, and round off their sharp edges.

karyn-jam-2It’s an ongoing process, lightening the load, rounding the sharp edges. For one thing, life goes on, and occasionally we go through muck. For another thing, once we’ve had the experience, it’s a permanent part of us. I’m a product of a restrictive, judgmental church (even Christians in other denominations were going to hell); the early death of my favorite grandmother; and being misunderstood and under-informed. I’m revealing the milder ones. Some of the heavier experiences I’m not ready to reveal.

But at any point in the journey, we can rearrange the backpack of past experiences and lighten the load. We’ll never change those darker parts of our past, but they can’t hold us back unless we give them that power. So what defuses the power? What lightens the load?

We’ll look at that in my next post. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey! (And, yeah, that’s me with the jam face.)

 

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Text and jam face photo © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Other photos courtesy morguefile.com.

 

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“Hump? What Hump?”

Recently I was going through family photos, transferring slides (anyone remember slides?) to a thumb drive, when I realized that I had been feeling the weight of bad memories, even though the good parts of my backstory far outweigh the bad. But it seems to be human nature for bad memories to crowd to the surface and block out the good.

When I was attending Vermont College of Fine Arts for my master’s degree in writing, students were required to attendworkshop workshops where each of us took a turn having a chunk of our manuscript critiqued. When it was your turn, you weren’t allowed to talk or defend what you’d written; you just listened. Fortunately, we had been coached not only on how to give a critique but also on how to receive one. We were encouraged to record our session – on tape or in written notes – so we could go back later and remember the positive comments, because negative feedback tends to loom so large it makes us forget the positive.

I’ve been told that trauma does the same thing. One therapist says that traumatic experiences are like exploding bombs. Being bullied, listening to parents yell at each other, seeing Dad slam his fist into the bathroom door – it’s like a time and date stamp gets carved into stone at that moment, and the stone gets stuffed into our backpack as a souvenir.

Many of us try to ignore this baggage, to turn a blind eye and hike on ahead as if the weight weren’t there. But when the weight gets too heavy (or a friend does the TSA thing and asks, “Do you maybe have some stones in there?”), we can’t ignore it any longer. That’s our hint to take an open-eyed inventory of exactly what we’re trying to carry, at which point we have to make a stoneschoice. We have several options. 1) We can hold on to the stones so that fellow travelers can see how unfortunate we are, being forced to carry this weight. 2) We can try to get fellow travelers to carry some of our weight. 3) We can step off the path and use the stones to build a protective wall that we can hide behind and not have to move forward. 4) We can lay the stones down as a pathway to a healthier future.

The Bible tells how the Israelites gathered stones when they crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land. On the other side of the river, they stacked the stones as a memorial commemorating how far they had come on their journey. Then they left those stones behind and moved on. (Joshua 4)

It’s much easier to travel light in life. It’s healthier. It’s part of becoming whole. So how do we lighten the load? One thing I know: we don’t lighten it by denying it’s there – like Igor in Young Frankenstein. When the doctor offered to do something about that hump on Igor’s back, Igor frowned. “Hump?” he asked. “What hump?”

When we’re ready to admit we have a hump and decide to get rid of the weight, what we actually leave behind is not the event.stonepath True, on a timeline, the event is in the past, so in a sense, we’ve left it behind. What’s done is done and can’t be undone. What we carry with us is the weight we’ve given the event, the pain or shame or fear that glommed onto that incident. That’s what we need to leave behind, because that’s what weighs us down – the burden of holding on to victimhood after the event is long gone. We carry that burden forward unless we deliberately deal with those stones.

My maternal grandfather left his first wife and young son to marry my grandmother. As a result, I had an uncle I never met, and my mother had an older half brother she hardly knew. A few years ago, Mother’s side of the family had a reunion and invited him. When he actually attended, Mother was overjoyed and introduced him around the room. Everyone tried to make him feel welcome. But the only thing he wanted to talk about was being abandoned by his father when he was a boy. Here he was, 80+ years old, still making himself the victim over something that had happened over 70 years before. Everyone wanted to shake some sense into him and say get over it already. Sure, what happened was wrong. Sure, it damaged lives and caused a good deal of pain. But clinging to the wrong and the hurt for years, even decades, only added weight to the burden. He ended up victimizing himself.

Of course, bad memories are as much a part of us as good memories, and they always will be. It’s the bitterness and shame that become the baggage we don’t need. Clinging to the wrongs of the past can blind us to our possibilities. It’s that weight we need to identify and jettison, maybe even stack like stones to memorialize the fact that this is where we’ve come so far – and then leave them behind.

pathstonesIn a previous post, I referred to Jesus saying, “Take up your cross and follow me.” I pointed out that to take up our cross, we have to get down from it. It’s the place we suffered. But we can stop whining about it now. We don’t have to stay there. We can get down, pull that thing up, roots and all, and move on. All we carry forward are the scars. Everyone has them. That’s part of the journey. Scars are signs of victory, not victimhood. It’s not the scars but the weight of bitterness and shame that hold us back, the heaviness of viewing ourselves as victims.

Join me next week when we explore family micro-cultures and the weight we give experiences as we grow up. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey.

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

Traveling Light

 

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Traveling Light

Several years ago, my friend Sheri and I were invited to Russia and Ukraine to conduct a series of curriculum writing seminars for teachers and leaders of Sunday schools. We were asked to bring two large suitcases full of donated teaching supplies plus a few staples (like chocolate chips) that were difficult for the missionaries in Russia to find. We were advised not to pack our personal items in the suitcases, because when we returned home, we’d leave the suitcases behind as a donation. That left only carry-ons for our personal travel supplies.

file00022019705Because it was a two-week trip in mid-winter, personal supplies included sweaters, long underwear, and thick socks – not the easiest of items for light packing. But we did it. Basically we wore one set of clothes and washed out the other. Wear, wash, repeat – I learned the joys of traveling light. I actually say that with no cynicism. I truly learned I could travel light. Since then, I’ve been a minimalist when it comes to packing, and I’ve found it amazingly freeing. It’s just easier to travel light. One medium-size backpack? Ideal.

Travel light is not a bad motto for our life journey. It doesn’t take many years of living before we begin to collect some weighty experiences. In fact, by the time we’re old enough to begin figuring out who we are, separate and apart from Mom and Dad, we’ve accumulated a good deal of baggage. I don’t mean to imply that baggage in itself is bad. Most of what we carry with us is an essential mix of bad, good, and neutral. But sometimes we aren’t aware of the unnecessary weight we’re carrying. Which is fine until it isn’t.

Last year as I was going through airport security, the TSA agent pulled me aside to inspect the contents of my purse. Rummaging9-08-1 around with gloved hands, he asked, “Do you have a roll of coins in here?” Only then did I remember that I was supposed to have dropped by the bank and deposited the roll of quarters that now sat in the bottom of my purse. The whole trip, I had to carry the extra weight (although on my return it went into my checked luggage). If there were a security check for my spirit, I wonder if some of what I carry might set off alarms.

Writers call a character’s life-baggage backstory. Each character enters the story with some kind of backstory, which consists of past experiences and beliefs that influence the way the character thinks, speaks, and acts. Like characters, we move through life with backstory, a combination of beliefs, distinct memories, and gut feelings. Each day that passes leaves us with a broader backstory.

I’ve accumulated quite a chunk of my own real life backstory, so I can attest to the fact that some of these beliefs, memories, and feelings latch on and cling to us like burrs or thorny vines – or the weeds Tennesseans call stick-tights. As we travel down the road, these become part of our baggage, and we get accustomed to carrying the weight. Sometimes we don’t realize that we’ve begun to bend under the weight. In her novel The Sound of Glass, Karen White wrote, “We travel with the same packed bags we’ve always had, until we take the time to unpack them.”

Join me next week and we’ll unpack a few bags. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey.

 

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

 

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Spinning an Image

I enjoy writing character-driven novels, because I get to explore the mystery of Self. I suspect that’s also one reason people enjoy reading novels. We recognize and identify with human emotions – and in good stories, we even feel them ourselves – as characters experience different situations and face conflicting moral choices. In character-driven novels, protagonists enter themask story masked, figuratively speaking. They hide secrets or desires or grudges or flaws from other characters and sometimes even from themselves. It’s the events of the story that force characters to confront their own masks and challenge them to become better – more courageous, wiser, more compassionate. In the end, protagonists either drop their masks and mature (hopeful ending) or cling to their masks and don’t mature (depressing ending).

Real life is much the same only messier and more random. We’re the main characters in our own stories, masking ourselves from others – or from ourselves. But it’s one thing to spin an image of ourselves to present to others, and it’s another thing to buy into our own spin. “Above all, don’t lie to yourself,” wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky. “The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him, and so loses respect for himself. And having no respect, he ceases to love.”

Emotionally healthy people are honest with themselves and, while they may not be satisfied with everything they see of themselves, they seem to have made themselves at home in their own hearts. They accept and take care of Self, which is both a preventive and an incentive. On the preventive side, accepting and caring for Self keeps their souls from shriveling. On the incentive side, it offers the space for the soul to bloom. Like a flower blossom that both receives (sunlight and water) and gives balance(fragrance, beauty, pollen, seeds), a soul in bloom also receives and gives; it’s in balance. The truth is we’re rarely in perfect balance, since our lives are always being pushed and pulled in so many different directions, but the process of working toward balance is what makes the soul healthy. It’s the human story. It’s life itself. Balancing, unbalancing, rebalancing – this is our coming-of-age story, our life journey.

The individual self on an individual journey may sound lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. We all have traveling companions along the way, and since “in God we live and move and have our being,” we’re never truly alone. The divine I AM surrounds us every step of the way. Still, your life is your journey, your path, your story, just as my life is mine. I am my constant companion. I go to sleep and dream only my dreams. I wake up with my self. It’s me in the mirror with bed-head in the morning. It’s me answering yes or no or maybe. You do the same in your space in the company of God as you understand God to be.

We’re also accompanied by all sorts of outside voices. When we’re young, we depend on those voices for direction. Of course, that leads to all kinds of blind beliefs. Those blind beliefs are necessary when we’re young. And just because we hold them without questioning, that doesn’t mean they are false. Many are true but not yet personalized, not yet questioned and confirmed as our own. But true or false, they’re the handbook we carry with us as we set out on our life journey.

As we grow older, we seek advice from this handbook. But since our journey is unique and unmapped, we may discover that somehandbook of those blind beliefs don’t hold true. One belief that I started out carrying in my handbook was that my Self deserves nothing. We used to sing an old hymn that marveled that God would extend grace to “such a worm as I.” The belief is that no human being is worthy of being loved. No one deserves anything. Every breath we take is undeserved; every bite we eat is undeserved; shelter, clothing, health . . . all undeserved. It’s a belief I jettisoned. I’m not a worm. Even if I were, worms are valuable and have an important place on this earth. So I do too. (Choral theology is some of the weakest yet some of the easiest to absorb and carry with us.) Loving kindness says that simply because we are human beings, we deserve to be respected and honored, treated with dignity and grace.

Leaving blind beliefs behind, we move on with eyes open and ears tuned for other voices that offer hope and direction. We look for examples of how to move ahead, how to be our best selves, perhaps how to interpret the handbook. There’s plenty of advice to be had, and it’s easily available these days. It’s also often contradictory. It can be hard to decide whose voice to listen to. Ultimately we have to choose for ourselves who to believe, whose advice to take and whose to discard.

From where I stand in my life journey, I can look back and see that I am, at the deepest levels of self, good and valuable and worthy. But I’ve discovered that making peace with my Self, becoming friends with my Self, and honoring my Self is not a one-time event. It’s a process. And in the end, it is my process. No one else gets to define me, nor do I have to mirror any of the number of people that I admire. I don’t need their admiration or validation. I am not a Moses or a Joshua or a Zusia. I am me, and I am enough. You are too.

I hope that you, like me, are growing in your ability to enjoy your Self as your own faithful traveling companion.

I’ll join you again next week in another post. Until then, I wish you well on this unmapped journey.

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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.

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What Have You Done With Your Name?

Lily, Violet, Daisy, Olive, Hazel, Ivy, Iris, Rose, Willow – flower names are popular now for baby girls, according to my pregnant daughter-in-law, who has become something of an expert. Since she and my son are expecting a boy, they’re not going the floral direction. But all the back and forth to choose the right name reminds me just how important a name is to a person’s identity. A bad experience with a guy named Matthew will taint that name, and we’re not likely to choose it for our child.uriahheep

When I write novels, I have a hard time creating a character until I have his or her name right. Charles Dickens was a master at this. Pip, Mr. Pumblechook, Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heap, Miss Havisham – Dickens’s character names personify them.

I find it fascinating to think that out of the thousands of names floating around in the world, I’ve been given this one and you’ve been given that, and we’ve absorbed them so completely that my name has become me and yours has become you. So what have you done with your name? Our names are part of our identity, our Self.

We’ve been exploring Self in recent posts.We’ve looked at Self as 1) non-existent, 2) sinful, 3) good and special, and 4) a brand. As I said in my last post, I’ve come to believe a deeper truth about self: 5) Self is the human version of God’s “I Am,” a phrase that comes from the Bible story of Moses and the burning bush.

Moses, a shepherd at the time, notices a bush that’s in flames but is not burning down. When he goes to take a closer look, God speaks to him, asking Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, Moses is understandably reluctant to take on the job. “The people won’t listen to me,” he says. “Even if I tell them God sent me, they’ll just ask, ‘which god? What’s his name?'” God calmly answers, “I AM who I AM. Tell them that the one who sent you is I AM” (Exodus 3:12-14). In other words, “I am Life. I am Being. I exist. I live.” It’s the mystery of God.

newbornIt’s our mystery too. In some smaller but very significant way, the first cry of a newborn is a proclamation: “I exist. I live. I have an identity. I’m a Self. I am.” Of course, it takes the journey of a lifetime to discover who I am, although I’m not convinced that we ever truly know, even at the end of life. Because we’re not static creatures. Experiences and people influence us. We act and are acted upon. We change.

An old Jewish story tells of a revered rabbi named Zusia, whose followers gathered around his doorstep every morning to hear his teaching. One morning, Zusia emerged from his house with shoulders slumped and eyes red-rimmed and swollen.

His followers could see that he had been weeping. Alarmed, they asked, “What’s wrong, Zusia?”

Zusia shook his head, saying, “I have just learned what the angels will one day ask me.”

A disturbed murmur passed among his followers. One of them called out, “What will the angels ask you?”

The rabbi sighed. “I have learned that the angels will not ask, ‘Zusia, why were you not a Moses to lead your people to freedom?'”

His followers frowned. One leaned forward and said, “Then what will the angels ask?”

Zusia moaned. “I have learned that they will not ask, ‘Zusia, why were you not a Joshua to lead your people into the Promised Land?'”

“Then what?” asked another follower. “What will the angels ask?”

Zusia placed a hand over his heart and looked to the sky. “I have learned that the angels will one day ask me, ‘Zusia, why were you not . . . Zusia?'”

Self is our individual being or life force expressed in an essentially unique identity. I am. You are. The essence of self is ours tocrowdsil keep. We don’t ever lose it. We can expand it or contract it, be generous or stingy with it, love it or hate it, parade it around or subject it to someone else’s authority until it all but disappears, but we always have it. We are ours to keep, and even if someday we look in the mirror and can’t remember who we are, that doesn’t erase us. It simply becomes part of the story of our journey. We are the pioneers of our own lives. We’re the explorers. No one has ever lived your life or mine before, and no one ever will.

I’ll finish my musings about the Self next week, and then we’ll move on. Meanwhile, I wish you well on this unmapped journey called Life.

 

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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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.

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What Do You Have in Common With a Diamond?

“Know thyself.”

This ancient Greek proverb, said to have been inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, has been attributed to various Greek sages and traced even further back to ancient Egypt. Fast forward a thousand and some odd years and we find Benjamin Franklin giving his opinion:

“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”

diamond-500x375Maybe one reason it’s hard to know our selves is that, like a diamond, we are many-faceted. We catch the light on one plane and reflect it in a different direction. From one angle we look smooth and polished; from another angle we’re slopes and sharp corners. We can delight, and we can cut. But unlike a diamond, we constantly change, so it can be hard to describe our selves. Even if we do, our description can hardly be objective. Still, getting to know ourselves is a worthwhile endeavor, because no other travel companion is with us day in and day out for our entire life journey. We might as well welcome the self and do what we can to feel at home in our own bodies.

So what, then, is Self? In previous posts, we’ve considered three viewpoints.

  1. The individual self does not exist.
  2. The self is innately sinful.
  3. The self is innately good, special, and unique.

But there’s another view of self that’s worth considering, the newest iteration of self:

  1. Self is a brand presented to an audience of friends and followers. Exhibit A: the selfie.selfie

Some of us see self not as the mysterious inner depths of our being but as something we craft and post online for others to see and, hopefully, admire. (Perhaps for our own self to see and admire as well.) The social media culture thrives on self-branding, on sharing likes and dislikes, and on letting marketers know individual interests so that products offered to us and news popping up on our feeds are tailored to our particular self. As Adriana Manago, a researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center in L.A., points out, in our online culture, friends become our audience, and our audience becomes our friends.

It’s tempting to see this image creation as a generational phenomenon, since social media has grown to its current size and influence only in the past couple of decades. But while there is obviously a generational component to this view of self, it’s not only younger generations who are creating images. Anyone posting on social media reveals an image that’s incomplete at best. Me included.

A few years ago, on the way to a writers’ conference, a friend and I were discussing author photos, debating whether or not we should get professional publicity shots. I pointed out the attractive photo of an author who was to speak at the conference. She was young, slim, and beautiful. I also mentioned that I would never be that young again – or that beautiful – even in a professional photo with wrinkles erased. How could any picture of me compete with her? (Okay, I know it’s not a competition. On the other hand, whose picture do we gravitate toward? Just sayin’.)

Anyway, my friend asked, “Have you actually met her?” No, I hadn’t. My friend simply nodded knowingly – and later introduced me to that author at the conference. Said author was obviously older than her photo and was no longer slim. Frankly, I would not have recognized her in person. And while there was a beauty about her, there was also an aloofness I had not expected. She had created an online image that my imagination had expanded on – in the wrong direction.

laundryTo some extent, we’ve always presented skewed images of ourselves in public. In the 1800’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins . . .We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds.” A hundred folds are not necessarily a bad thing. There’s value in following Granny’s advice, “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”

I sense that we’re still trying to find our way with this self-sharing thing. We’re told we should be transparent, but how transparent? How much is too much to reveal? Lots of us are wondering, but I’ve yet to hear a definitive answer.

So where are we in this examination of self? We have 1) a non-existent self, 2) self as sinful, 3) self as good and special, and 4) self as a brand. I suspect that most of us live in a mix of 2, 3, and 4. I know I do. But I’ve also come to believe a deeper truth about self:

5) Self is the human version of God’s “I Am.”

More on that next week. Meantime, I wish you well on this unmapped journey.

If you want me to send these posts and any updates to your email, simply sign up on the right.

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.

 

Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

 

 

The Self in the Mirror

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