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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.


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.


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

Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.

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.


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





The Self in the Mirror

How do you feel about yourself? No, really. Take a moment, think about it, and be honest. Do you enjoy your own company or dislike it? Do you take care of your Self or ignore your Self or abuse your Self? Do you try to get your needs met? Do you even know what your needs are? Only your Self will be privy to your answers, so be honest. Why? Because the one person on your life journey who is with you 24/7, beginning to end, is you. So it might make sense to be friends with your Self.

mirrorIn general, the stories of everyone’s individual life journeys begin in the same way: with family and friends. During our first few years, our paths are usually chosen for us. But what we’re taught to believe as children is just the beginning of our path. Each year the world of our journey broadens until, by the time we reach adolescence, we not only see a wider variety of paths to choose from, but we also start choosing our own paths. This is a prime time to question taken-for-granted beliefs and start forming beliefs of our own. This is coming-of-age at its most intense. We’re waking up to the world, forging our own identity, and figuring out just who this self is.

In adolescence, besides wanting to establish our own identity, we also desperately want to belong, so we may hop aboard bandwagons, try on beliefs of all kinds, and explore a variety of paths. Or just the opposite: The wide world may intimidate us or look so foreign that we choose to stay within our comfort zone and duck back under the tent of beliefs we’ve been taught, securing our place of belonging in the community we were raised in. Whether we spend adolescence exploring new paths or rooting into our comfort zones, when we reach our mid to late 20’s (generally speaking), we settle into a more stable identity, enough to feel like we know who we are.

But that doesn’t mean our identity and beliefs are settled forever. As our journey progresses, we continue to find ourselves at acrossroads variety of crossroads where we pause to question ourselves. We may have begun feeling foggy about exactly what we believe and who we really are. We’re like Jacob, who paused in his journey and sent everyone else across the river while he stayed behind and, alone, wrestled through the night with an angel. If our faith is growing, we can expect to do some wrestling.

After wrestling with our identity and beliefs, we usually emerge thinking that now we know ourselves. (Jacob was even given a new name.) It’s almost like waking up again. We journey on more confidently, even if we limp a bit. But this isn’t the happily-ever-after. The journey is not done. Farther down the road, we hit a rough patch and discover that some of our beliefs crumble under close inspection. Again we get fogged in. Again we wrestle. All our lives, we “come of age” again and again, wrestling with beliefs and with the dark side of our selves.

We do have a dark side, each of us. Are we born with it? In the previous blog, we considered one view of Self that answers no, because the individual self does not exist. A second viewpoint we considered answers yes, because the self is innately sinful. But there’s a third viewpoint, and it also answers no.

Viewpoint 3: Each self is good, special, and unique from the start and should be honored as such. In some families and communities, self-esteem overrides the born-a-sinner doctrine. The idea of self-esteem became popular back in the 1970’s when I was in college getting a teaching degree. Maybe we decided that kids needed the affirmation because, more and more, both parents worked outside the home. Plus single parenting and blended families were becoming common, so maybe we sensed that kids were feeling displaced and blamed themselves for divorce (as kids tend to do). Whatever the reason, Mr. Rogers assured us that there’s no one just like us, and any number of adults were ready and willing to affirm that each of us is special. Which is true. Each of us is unique and truly valuable.

hairpincurveBut the I’m-special aspect of self-esteem comes with its own challenges, the most obvious being that if everyone is special, is anyone special? Out in the real world, we discover that no one cares how special we are. The bumps in the road don’t smooth out at our feet. The hairpin curves don’t straighten. No one rolls out the red carpet. In fact, there are plenty of people willing to pull the carpet out from under me. So how do I keep my footing?

In a church education committee meeting one time, I mentioned that hands-on activities in the Sunday school classroom are good for bolstering children’s self-esteem. The woman beside me gaped at me, appalled, and pointed out that we should be teaching children not self-esteem but self-denial, self-sacrifice. I understood what she was saying. It seems logical that self-esteem would lead to conceit, narcissism, and an egocentric neglect of others. But that’s not what I meant by suggesting self-esteem. So what did I mean?

Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas, suggested in a Psychology Today article that instead of self-esteem, we emphasize self-compassion. Yes. That’s what I meant. I also meant self-confidence and self-respect and the joy of discovering life (which you alone can do). I certainly didn’t mean selfishness and narcissism. But neither did I mean denying the self to the point of becoming a doormat, which happened to many of us in the effort to esteem others as better than ourselves. We buried ourselves and ignored our own needs.

The irony of accepting and caring for self is that when we take care of our selves, we’re better equipped to care for others. We actually have a greater capacity for generosity. Respect for self sets the stage for respecting others. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus advised, implying that there’s no way we can love our neighbors if we don’t love our selves.

Of course, Jesus also said, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” That doesn’t mean we stop loving our selves, though. It means we stop feeling sorry for our selves, get down off whatever cross we’re always whining about, pick it up (which we can’t do until we get down from it), and follow the One who is moving on. All of that requires self-respect. After all, we’re asked to follow the One who respects himself (and us, too), stands up for himself (and us, too), and makes the journey as a healthy self (enabling and expecting us to do the same). That requires learning to love our selves and others as well.

The author Anne Perry states it plainly and eloquently through her character Aunt Vespasia in Half Moon Street: “If you cannot love yourself, and believe you are worth loving, then it is impossible to love anyone else.” Another author, the apostle John, wrote, “We love because God first loved us.” In other words, we love because we were first loved. We also respect, because we were first respected. We treat others with dignity, because we were first treated with dignity. We’re able to give, because we have something to give.

Some of us, in the interest of self-sacrifice, have given until we have nothing left to give. I think this is especially true of women raised in communities of faith. I wonder if that’s why the ancients sometimes sculpted many-breasted goddess figures. So many want so much from women, and we’ve been typically taught to deny the self and give.red-poppies

There’s another twist to this. You’ve heard of the Tall Poppy Syndrome? Anyone who gets ahead or achieves more is chopped down like a tall poppy. Many of us chop ourselves down. In our attempts to be equal and fair and honoring of others, we belittle ourselves until we’re the size that fits someone else’s vision or expectation of us. But as long as we diminish ourselves, we’ll never grow into the fullness of who we are. It’s okay if our vision is broader or deeper or simply different from what someone else sees for us. Trying to fit into someone else’s box serves only to bind and bend our wings. To fly, we must leave the box.

So on one side of the scale is total denial or condemnation of self, focusing only on others. On the other side is total ego-interest, focusing only on self (which, by the way, is not necessarily haughtiness but can just as well be self-protection resulting from abuse). It seems to me that a healthy, open-eyed faith is found in the balance at the center: loving self and loving others, respecting self and respecting others, treating self with dignity and compassion and treating others with dignity and compassion.

But there’s another view of self that’s worth considering, and we’ll take that up next week as we continue to explore Self and our life 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.

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What is Self?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.


Finding Our Footing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Gift of Growing Older

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

– J.M. Barry, Peter Pan


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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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