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How Would You Define ‘Happy’?

“The world is so full of a number of things,

I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

– Robert Louis Stevenson, A Child’s Garden of Verses

Taken in a childlike spirit, Stevenson’s lines evoke wonder. Yes, we think. So many amazing things in this world to see and hear, to touch and taste and smell and do. For an adult, the same lines can raise an eyebrow. The world is indeed full of a number of things, not all of them pleasant. And anyway, does being a king make you happy, even if your world is “full of a number of things?” Or is that an illusion – that kings are happy?

All of us – children and adults – have dreamed about what we think might make us happy. Some of our dreams are passions, high hopes, grand goals to work toward with all our heart. Some are simply wishes that we have no real intention of pursuing. And lots of dreams are illusions in which happiness shimmers, mirage-like, in the distance, and draws us toward it. That’s not a bad thing, really; it’s a natural part of coming of age (and we’re always coming of age). The desire for happiness propels us forward.

But if we’re heading toward a mirage, at some point we become disillusioned. Still, that’s not a bad thing. Disillusionment can send us down an unexpected path toward what is not an illusion, toward what is solid and true and reliable. Somewhere along that path, we usually discover that what truly makes us happy is not at all what we expected.

According to our USA Founding Fathers, making ourselves happy is a quest. In the Declaration of Independence, they proclaimed that we’ve been divinely granted “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Note that it doesn’t say that Happiness is one of our Rights but the pursuit of Happiness, which, ironically, is likely to make us unhappy. Pursuing the elusive state of happiness has, perhaps, doomed people to more unhappiness than we can measure. In Pensees, Blaise Pascal wrote, “[S]ince we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.” That’s not one of Pascal’s more uplifting thoughts, but like the Founding Fathers, he has a point.

Over coffee one day, a friend told me, “You deserve to be happy.” I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t even sure I could define happy. It seems like a spike in the emotion graph, spontaneous applause that quickly dies. It’s as fleeting as the soap bubbles we blew as kids. They bobbed up and away, refracting the light into gliding, glinting colors that delighted us – for about three seconds; less if you managed to catch one.

Sipping coffee that day with my friend, I couldn’t picture what happiness would look like to me. I knew only that it’s hard to find happy when you’re carrying around a backpack full of sad. Still, I trust my friend. She cares, and she asks insightful questions. What’s more, she was willing to carry some of my sadness with me. So I began to consider what happy might look like.

The first truth I know about happiness is that it’s impossible to make another person happy. In the supermarket one week, at the end of the cereal aisle, I became aware of the song playing over the store speakers. The singer pleaded, “I just want to be the one who makes you happy.” Nope, I wanted to tell him. Not going to happen. Been there, tried that. It doesn’t work that way.

Several years ago, our church assigned people to small groups that met once a week for food and friendship. Care Groups, we called them. The first meeting was at our house, so I cleaned, baked brownies, and set out glasses for drinks. By meeting time, my husband and I were ready for our guests to arrive. We eagerly waited. And waited. And waited. An hour later, we carried half the brownies to our next-door neighbors and renamed our group the I Don’t Care Group. I learned that I can set the table and bake the brownies, but I can’t make anyone come. It’s the same way with happiness. I can do what I think will make someone happy, but I can’t make them happy. The converse is true as well: No one can make me happy.

So, then, what makes us happy? This week, try to be aware of what makes you happy. Next week: what I think happiness is.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


Mirage: When Life is Not What We Thought

Flight from Amsterdam to Nairobi, Kenya, April 1999

It’s a gift to be able to sleep almost anywhere, to curl myself into a semi-comfortable position and nod off. And I’m grateful for it. I’ve done a lot of curled-up sleeping since we left Nashville. Our destination is Nairobi, and this is our third flight. On this eight-hour leg of the trip, I have a window seat, so I alternately doze and gaze out.

The skies are cloudless at the moment, which gives me a clear view of the landscape below, along with a real-life lesson in geography. We cross snow-capped Alps, their depths in shadow, their summits in sunlight. Then red-tiled roofs appear along the southern coast of Europe, and we head across the gray-blue, leathery looking Mediterranean Sea. Before long, the north coast of Africa comes into view with white, breaking waves edging a shoreline that curves westward, bare and bleak, leading to sand-tan dunes that extend as far as the eye can see – the Sahara.

I think of writer and aviator Antoine de Saint Exupéry and his book The Little Prince, which was inspired by his plane crash in the Sahara. Exupéry and his navigator survived the crash but had only the barest of maps with them. Plus, they didn’t know their location when they went down. Taking their best guess at a direction, they began walking. After a while, they saw mirages, which is natural in the desert. But then they saw hallucinations, which is not so natural. Unless you’re dehydrated. On their fourth day in the desert, they got lucky. A Bedouin riding a camel found them.

Our flight stays aloft, and we fly inland over hours of desert. Tan sand dunes give way to darker, desolate looking flatlands of dirt. Then, shortly after we cross Sudan to the west of Khartoum, the sun sets, treating us to its evening performance, painting a majestic skyscape layered with magenta, orange red, and gold. But the show is a short one. We’re flying southeast, and the sun is flying west. It carries its artwork elsewhere, and we soar into the night.


Growing up in West Texas, I often saw mirages. Highways out west tend to be long and flat and straight, and in the summertime, it’s common to see mirages ahead in the distance, hovering just above the hot, black asphalt. They look like pools of water, and if I hadn’t known better, I might have expected our family station wagon to splash right through them. Of course, by the time we reached the spot where the mirage had been, it had vanished, and another shimmering, teasing illusion had appeared up ahead.

Life is full of illusions of all kinds, physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. Some serve us well up to a point. Like “sixty is the new thirty.” Thinking in those terms has a placebo effect. It makes me stand a little straighter and walk a little lighter. No harm done as long as I simply use the illusion to buoy my psyche. But I know it’s a mirage. I have the wrinkles around my eyes, the age spots on my hands, and the silver in my hair to prove it. But some illusions are not so tame. They seem so real that, knowingly or unknowingly, we buy into them, build on them, and begin to rely on them. They become blind beliefs.

Many illusions begin in childhood, like the Santa Claus myth, or the belief that animals can talk, or the notion that there’s a monster in the closet. As we grow older, we leave those illusions behind.  But other illusions continue to guide us for years. In a favorite movie of my childhood, Walt Disney’s Jiminy Cricket sang, “When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” I was thirty-something and married with kids when I realized that Jiminy Cricket had lied. If you’re thinking that I should have known better, you’re right. But I was just a child, and Jiminy Cricket sang so convincingly that I believed him. The moral of that story is that some of us are slow to let go of illusions. Some blind beliefs die hard.

A few years ago, a friend confided to me that she was disillusioned. Her marriage had failed, and she was at a crossroads that felt critical to her. Should she move to a new city or stay put? Continue her career or make a change? Of course, I was not the one to answer those questions, nor was she asking me to. She just needed a listening ear, which I was glad to provide. I had only one observation: Disillusionment is not a bad thing. Being disillusioned is, in fact, exactly what we need, so that we’re no longer making decisions based on a delusion. (Cue the Johnny Nash sound track: “I can see clearly now; the rain is gone.”)

The word illusion can be traced back to the Latin “to mock.” An illusion mocks us, because we fall for it, thinking it’s the real thing. But it’s smoke and mirrors, a magician’s sleight of hand. It has no substance. Even if our dreams really do come true – and sometimes they do – that, too, can leave us disillusioned. We may see that what we dreamed for wasn’t really what we wanted. Or we realize that we paid a higher price for our dream than we thought we would. Or we discover that we’re still not satisfied. Author H. Jackson Brown advises, “Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck.”

I suspect that many of our illusions are based on assumptions about what will make us happy. Ah, happiness. What is it? Do we deserve it? Where do we find it? . . . That’s a subject for my next post.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


What is Our One Main Purpose in Life?

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

– from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams –

At the core of love is a deep appreciation of whatever or whoever is loved. Turned inward, this appreciation can become hoarding and miserly, a totally self-serving what-can-you-do-for me love. At the other extreme, it can become a totally self-giving what-can-I-do-for-you love. Neither extreme is completely healthy, but self-serving love is more damaging. It absorbs and depletes the energy of love, giving little or nothing back. Self-giving love can deplete itself, too, if it’s not careful. But it has an advantage. The act of giving is, in itself, a filling and fulfilling act. There’s something right and good and satisfying about giving. It enhances life. The ancient wisdom is true: “It is better to give than receive” (Acts 20:35).

Writer John Steinbeck beautifully explained self-serving versus self-giving love in a letter to his son: “There are several kinds of love. One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you — of kindness and consideration and respect — not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had.”

I doubt that Steinbeck realized this, but he was talking not only about two different types of love but also about two different gates, two different roads – the same two that Jesus spoke about when he said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:14). The broad and narrow gates have nothing to do with the afterlife or creeds or belief systems. Jesus is talking about our life journey here and now. The broad way is the path of self-serving love. Taking. Using. Egotistical, according to Steinbeck. It destroys life. The narrow way, the one that few find, is self-giving, unconditional, non-condemning loving-kindness. It enriches life. But among all humans in any culture, creed, or religion, few find it.

Yet self-giving, unconditional love is the point of our life journey. In fact, it is our journey, our one overarching purpose: to learn and practice love. Simple. But easy? Not so much. Still, anyone and everyone can do it.

Are you old? Learn and practice love.

Are you young? Learn and practice love.

Are you rich? Learn and practice love.

Are you poor? Learn and practice love.

Are you healthy? Learn and practice love.

Are you sick? Learn and practice love.

Are you educated? Learn and practice love.

Are you uneducated? Learn and practice love.

There’s nothing to memorize, no test to pass, no prerequisite to fulfill. There’s no particular group to affiliate with, no dotted line to sign on, no creed to assent to, just you and the core of your heart, and your intention to love the world into a place worth living in.

With love as our purpose, we dedicate our minds and hearts to learning and practicing loving-kindness toward everyone – to those like and unlike us, to those of our “tribe” and not of our “tribe” – treating everyone with grace and respect, not only for their sakes but for ours as well. We diminish ourselves and our own humanity when we close our eyes, cloister our hearts, and exclude individuals or groups from our loving-kindness. We contribute to the disintegration of an already fragmented world, which then makes us feel fragmented. But when we integrate peace and grace and respect into our dealings with all, we contribute to mending the world and making it whole, which in turn gives us a sense of wholeness, of integrity.

The more we learn about selfless love, the more we see how expansive it is. It’s expansive in that it contains everything we could ever want: hope, joy, peace, courage, and everything that makes life good. It’s also expansive in that it is unlimited in its reach. Love has no borders. It flows past, around, over, and through all boundaries and divisions that we humans can construct.

God is love. So wherever we find love, we find God. We’d do well to keep our eyes and hearts open, for somewhere around us, perhaps in surprising places, we’re sure to find love working quietly, graciously, and generously as one of the great wonders of the world.

Next week: Mirage – When Reality is Not What We Thought


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



Is It Love? The Golden Rule and You

Since ancient times, most communities of faith have taught selfless love in the form of “the Golden Rule“:

“Do to the doer to cause that he do (the same).” Egypt, Middle Kingdom (2040-1650 BCE)

“That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.” Egypt, Late Period (1080-332 BCE)

“This is the sum of duty: do naught unto others that you would not have them do unto you.” Hinduism, writings from 1000-800 BCE

“That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.” Zoroastrianism (628-551 BCE)

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Buddhism, c. 500 BCE

“Do not do to others what would anger you if done to you by others.” Isocrates (436-338 BCE)

“May I . . . do to others as I would that they should do to me.” Plato, Laws, Book 11

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation.” Rabbi Hillel, an elder contemporary of Jesus

“What you dislike for yourself do not like for me.” Spanish proverb

And of course: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Jesus, Matthew 7:1 (Jesus raised the bar a good bit when he said, “[L]ove your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you” [Luke 6:27-28].)

The same thought is also found in Shintoism, in a Nigerian Yoruba proverb, in Native American spirituality, and in many other religions that formed after the time of Jesus, including Islam: “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”

All of these teachings seem to refer to action, not emotion. They stress doing, not feeling. Maybe ancient sages understood that it is, after all, the doing that’s most important.

But what does love look like from the receiving side? How do you know if someone loves you? Here are some questions to ask if you’re wondering is it love?

  • Does it expand your spirit or shrink it? Love doesn’t shrink you. It doesn’t make you less yourself but more yourself.
  • Does it endanger you physically or emotionally? Love does not endanger or abuse you. “You don’t want to spend your time around people who make you hold your breath,” says writer Anne Lamott. “You can’t fill up when you’re holding your breath.”
  • Does it accept you as you are? Love doesn’t try to persuade you to be what the “lover” wants.
  • Does it free you? Love sets you free – free to be you, free to succeed and free to fail, free to make choices, free to live your life and believe your beliefs.
  • Does it make you a better person? Love fills instead of emptying. In fact, it fills to overflowing so that the one who receives love can then give love.
  • Does it lead to life? If it deprives you of hope, joy, and peace, it’s not love. Love is a healer, a lifeline.
  • Does it encourage you? If it discourages or belittles you, it’s not love.

If someone loves us, they will respect and trust us. They will treat us with kindness, dignity, honor, consideration, generosity, grace, and mercy – at least most of the time. The converse is true as well: If we love someone, we will respect and trust them. We will treat them with kindness, dignity, honor, consideration, generosity, grace, and mercy – at least most of the time. None of us is perfect. We all have our crabby days. Sometimes we’re inconsiderate toward the people we love. Sometimes we discourage them. Sometimes they’re inconsiderate and discourage us. But real love returns to respect, honor, and kindness as the norm of the relationship. The modus operandi. The foundation.

Next week: John Steinbeck’s beautiful explanation of love, plus a look at our one main purpose in life. Meanwhile, have a love-ly week!


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


What’s Love Got to Do With It?

The quintessential coming-of-age story involves the tug-of-war between belief and experience. That’s true not only in fiction but also in real life. Belief bumps into experience, and we discover that they’re not in sync. Sometimes it takes us a while to figure that out, especially with love. Love is famously blind.

When we were children, we thought in pure polar opposites about every issue, including love. The young girl picks petals off a daisy, chanting, “He loves me; he loves me not.” Either this or that. One or the other. With experience, we discover that love gets mixed with all kinds of other emotions. Sometimes it’s only in hindsight that we realize that, in spite of all our good intentions, we misused love, turning it into something self-serving instead of self-giving.

Our first experience with self-serving love probably came in the form of conditional love: “I’ll love you if . . .” We were all born craving love, acceptance, and belonging. Even though as children, we couldn’t logically point out the difference between conditional and unconditional love, we could sense it. Even if our family loved us unconditionally, it’s a good bet that the rest of the world didn’t. We learned that love and acceptance often comes with strings attached. “I’ll be your friend if –.” Or “We’ll accept you if –.” Or “If you love me, you’ll –.” Of course, we’re not totally innocent in this. We learn to do it as well.

Another type of self-serving love is totally of our own making, and we fall into it head over heels: pure physical attraction. In our culture, we’re surrounded by stories in books, movies, ads, games, and websites that formulize love: beautiful girl + handsome guy = love. Ah, insta-love. I’m not saying that’s completely bogus. Physical attraction can bloom into self-giving love. But calling simple physical attraction love is stretching it. I’m reminded of singer Tina Turner’s line, “What’s love got to do with it?” Often the answer is, “Nothing.” Lust is fairly easy to come by. True love not so much.

Pity is another offshoot of love. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with open-eyed, open-hearted altruism and compassion. Our world needs more of it. But when it slides into blind pity, we can easily place ourselves in the role of someone’s savior and call it love. Yes, we should feel concern for people in need. It’s right to want to help them address their problems and alleviate their distress. The desire to right wrongs is noble and good, and acting on that desire is honorable. It uplifts us as well as the people we help. When we take part in righting the world’s wrongs, we feel good and useful and significant. But when we crave that good and useful feeling so much that we take over and play savior, our impulse to help can turn into self-serving love. In that case, we risk being unhelpful, causing damage not only to those we want to help but to ourselves as well.

This savior twist on love can also happen when we try to rescue people who don’t really want to be rescued. Some people would never say they enjoy victimhood, but they thrive on being perceived as victims. So as long as they can draw on our “love” (aka pity), they don’t have to change. In other words, our “love” enables them to continue being the victims. We may claim we are emptying ourselves out of love, but they are using our fuel for their journey and leaving us depleted.

It’s easy for parents or family members to take on the savior role, even for those who don’t see themselves as victims. We truly want the people we love to thrive. We don’t want to see them struggle or get hurt. After all, we’ve been there, done that, and we know the road. We can see what needs to be done, and they can’t. (Or so we think.) So with all good intentions, we guide someone’s life like a director taking charge of a movie. Meaning well, we step in and call the shots. While this may look and feel self-giving, it’s actually self-serving; it serves our need to control. True self-giving honors the rights of others to make their own decisions and live their own lives.

In helping situations, it can be extremely hard to know when to step in and when to pull back. We often don’t realize that our love has stepped out of bounds. I find educator and writer Parker Palmer‘s advice helpful: Don’t evade, but don’t invade. When we realize we’ve overstepped and invaded, it’s easy to turn on ourselves in anger and regret. The way out of that is . . . love. Real, open-eyed, self-giving love is always home base – extending respect, encouragement, honesty, and kindness toward others and to ourselves.

Next week: Is it Love? Questions to Ask if You Wonder

Meanwhile, have a love-ly week!


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 and photos © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.


The Tricky Truth About Love

What’s the difference between life and love? Two letters.

If you were one of the first readers of last week’s post, you know that I misquoted Forrest Gump’s mother. Instead of “Life is like a box of chocolates,” I wrote, “Love is like a box of chocolates.” Thanks to Heather and Lynn and others who pointed out the mistake. As I corrected it, I began to consider life and love and the two-letter tweak that morphed one into the other. Life and love are so closely related – or should be – that the misquote rings as true as the original: “Love is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna’ get.” (Apologies to author Winston Groom.)

The tricky truth about love is that:

Love is very simple

and amazingly complicated.

Love is easy,

and it’s the hardest thing we’ll ever do.

Love is an uplifting joy

and a crushing sorrow.

Love makes us strong

but extremely vulnerable.

Love threads through our highest aspirations

and our deepest regrets.

On my first day as a student in high school French class, the teacher told us that she was drawn to the language, because everything spoken in French sounds like, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Ah, oui, I love French too – there’s that slippery word love, this time used in a light, almost throwaway sense. I love French. I love the color blue. I love homemade bread. I love irises. It’s not quite the same thing as “I love you.”

The feeling of love is so rich and powerful that it’s our go-to description for several emotional states. In a recent Tumblr post, a young woman commented on a movie gif, “He just met her a moment ago and he’s already so in love!” Really? Is that even possible? One writer/critic called this “insta-love.” The love of French or blue or chocolate, and the swoon-type “insta-love” are forms of love-lite. This type of love seems to mean, “I feel so good I want more of this thing or that person.” Love-lite is actually a simple form of appreciation for something that brings us pleasure.

Of course, we also use love to describe some of our deepest commitments. Why do we paint love with such a broad brush? Maybe because love expresses our hearts, our longings, our delights, and our hopes, which are sometimes shallow and sometimes deep. So every heart-warming emotion that falls between shallow and deep gets labeled love. Still, applying love to so many different feelings can make the word seem flippant. We toss it out, and there it lies like a dropped penny in spite of the fact that love is one of the great wonders of the world.

Maybe the Greeks were wise to clarify exactly what type of love they were writing and talking about. I don’t know what they would have called love-lite, but for family love, they used the word storge. Friendship was philia, erotic/romantic love was eros, and selfless community-love was agape. All of which, in English, we lump into the one term love.

But each of those four types of love – family, friendship, romantic, and community – can show up as love thought, or love felt, or love acted, or various combinations of those three, which makes the concept of love even more slippery. We can think loving thoughts and do loving acts but not feel loving. Or we can think and feel love but not put it into action. And we can perform loving acts without thinking or feeling loving. One of the difficulties with trying to decide whether or not to label an act or feeling as love is the fact that it’s possible to perform purposeful, intentional acts of love without feeling the emotion of love. In fact, it’s possible to feel the exact opposite.

I grew up believing that to please God and go to Heaven, I had to love everyone in thought, word, and deed. It’s a wonderful and lofty goal. I never entertained the possibility that I couldn’t or wouldn’t love everyone. So I loved – in the sense of draping a warm, fuzzy blanket of love-thought over the whole world and everyone in it. Love, kindness, and compassion for all represent the ideal, and I hope for that even now. It describes the person I wish to be. But it’s also way too general, turning love into a drifting, amorphous, vague sense of goodwill and best wishes.

It’s easy to sit in a pew and claim to love everyone in the world. It’s easy to kneel at my bedside and feel warm-hearted toward all people everywhere. It’s an entirely different matter to love a friend who claims authorship of something I wrote. Or to love the guy who flips me the finger as he cuts me off in traffic. Or to love the renters next door who wake me with raucous laughter at two in the morning and leave their front lawn trashed with beer cans. Somehow I can’t blanket those events with love unless I’m intentionally blind to my own feelings.

Still, I can choose to respond in a loving way. So will the act of loving lead to the feeling? That’s one common piece of advice: act your way into the feeling. In other words, fake it ’til you make it; treat people as if you love them, and you’ll end up actually feeling the love. It’s a good idea, but in my experience, it doesn’t work. At least not with love. I have to admit that I’ve heard people say it worked for them. Maybe so – but in every case? All the time? Maybe it’s just me, but if I’m honest, I have to admit that there are some people I simply do not love. Unless I stretch that blanket definition really thin.

Yes, I’m all for treating people as I would have them treat me – with respect, kindness, and encouragement – but even when I do, it doesn’t mean I respect or trust them. Some people are not respectable or trustworthy. That’s simply the way it is. I don’t hate them or wish them harm, but pearls before swine, you know? (Matthew 7:6)

But then, that’s not the last word on love. More in next week’s post: What’s Love Got to Do With It?

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Lover’s Leap


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


Lover’s Leap

“Love in its essence is spiritual fire.”

– Seneca –


As I-24 meanders east through the Mid-South in the U.S., it pokes its elbow a few miles out of Tennessee, nudges the northwest corner of Georgia, and then crooks back into Tennessee and heads toward the Appalachian Mountains. East of that elbow is Lookout Mountain, Georgia. The mountain’s claim to fame is Rock City, which is located on its peak. Along the highways of southeast, it’s common to see barns with “See Rock City” painted in huge letters on the roof or across the side.

So I’ve come to see Rock City. A short walk takes me through woodland and along a stone path between boulders, including a tight squeeze though the Needle’s Eye. I end up on a wide ledge above a waterfall, shading my eyes and scanning the mountains on the horizon. On a clear day, you can see seven states from here. Arrows on a helpful sign point to each one: Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. The Smokies are hazy in the distance. So is Mt. Pinnacle, the location point for Kentucky and Virginia. But this is about as clear as it gets, and I pick out all seven states. I think.

I happen to be standing on Lover’s Leap. There’s enough of a rail along the ledge to keep sightseers from accidentally stepping off while they’re taking selfies, although not enough to keep a spurned lover from making the big leap. According to a Cherokee Romeo-Juliet type legend, Nacoochee, a young maiden from one tribe, fell in love with Sautee, a young man from another tribe. The two tribes were feuding at the time. Sautee was captured and thrown to his death from this lookout over the waterfall. When Nacoochee heard what had happened, she jumped to her death at the same spot, so the promontory was named Lover’s Leap.

Lover’s Leaps exist in at least half the states in the U.S. as well as in other countries around the world, and they’re all based on similar stories. Sometimes both lovers leap in order to be together in death, and sometimes the maiden leaps to avoid marrying someone she doesn’t love. I like the legend from Blowing Rock, North Carolina, that says the young man hurtling off the cliff was blown by the wind back into his lover’s arms.

Fortunately, most of us will not end our life’s journey by hurling ourselves off a Lover’s Leap. But at some point, most of us will make the leap into love, forever changing the path ahead of us. Of course, Lover’s Leap tales are about romantic love, while the love we experience in real life may or may not include the romantic.

Love is a slippery concept. Since ancient times writers have tried to describe it:

“Love takes up where knowledge leaves off.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

“Love can climb higher than reason can reach.” – Edmund Spenser

“Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone.” – Leo Tolstoy

“Such ever was love’s way; to rise, it stoops.” – Robert Browning

“Love is a great beautifier.” – Louisa May Alcott

“Love betters what is best.” – Michelangelo, translated by William Wordsworth

“If you love someone, you do not ask them to destroy the best in themselves.” – Anne Perry

“Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery.” – Wendell Berry

“Love always creates, it never destroys.” – Leo Buscaglia

“Where there is great love there are always miracles.” – Willa Cather

“The way to love anything is to realize that it might be lost.” – G.K. Chesterton

“Love does not just sit there, like a stone; it has to be made, like bread, remade all the time, made new.” – Ursula LeGuin

“Real love is a permanently self-enlarging experience.” – M. Scott Peck


Next week’s post: The Tricky Truth about Love. Meanwhile, feel free to share your favorite quote about love.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Rock City photos, Creative Commons, Billy Hathorn

All other photos © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.


In Matters of the Spirit, Does One Size Fit All?

Next week, in honor of February’s Valentine’s Day, I’ll begin a month of posts about love. Until then, I leave you with one last thought about sacred spaces.

I’ve never believed that we have to go through anyone (like a saint) or use a particular path or ritual (like incense or chanting or altars) in order to gain access to God. Not that there’s anything wrong with those practices – on the contrary, they can be a valuable ways to focus our wandering spirits and jittery minds. I use a few rituals myself, some more successfully than others. But that’s the point. Our personal connection with the divine is . . . well, personal. You can nurture this connection in a variety of ways, but only in ways that work for you. One size does not fit all.

But no matter what rituals or methods we find helpful, they are one-way paths. They open us to receiving God, but they don’t work the other way around. They don’t open God to receiving us. That path was never closed to begin with. We don’t have to cross a gap to reach God, because there is no gap. God is all around us, all the time. We are enveloped in a larger whole. As the ancients said, “In God we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

God is the constant; we are the variable. What nourished the sacred space within me ten years ago may not inspire me today. And who’s to say that what nourishes me today will nourish me ten years down the road? That’s the way a thriving faith works. It lives. It breathes. It grows. According to Henry Nelson Wieman, a theologian in the early 1900’s, faith is an act of giving ourselves to what will creatively transform us. Transformation is not a one-and-done event. It’s the whole journey.

Sacred spaces remind us that God is our home. They remind us that we ourselves are a sacred space, so wherever we are on the journey, we’re at home. We can shelter in place. We can settle into the calm that faith offers us. That doesn’t mean that fear, worry, anger and dozens of other negatives won’t intrude and gain the upper hand at times. Nor does it mean we won’t occasionally shut out the peace available to us. What it does mean is that if we nurture the sacred space within us, we can carry the calm wherever we go. We can rely on our inner peace, our link to God, to see us through uncharted territory.

But why calm myself when I should be fighting the wrongs in the world? Aren’t injustice and poverty and war and abuse supposed to upset me? Yes, of course. But operating from a base of calm does not mean we don’t grieve or get frustrated or angry. It does not mean that we don’t see injustice or work to right wrongs. It does not mean we’ll never struggle with whatever issues we face personally. Nurturing a sacred space does not mean an absence of deep feelings; it does not require drowning the fire of passion. This is not about a lethargic calm but an energetic calm.

A fire in my living room fireplace can stir in me a strong sense of peace, but that same fire out of control can be a disaster. Inner peace and calm ensures that the fire in our souls is powerful and productive, not destructive. To say it another way: when we operate from a home base of calm, we go to bat, run the bases, and always return to home plate, where we reset to peace, to a settled spirit. Calm becomes our norm, our default position.

In sacred spaces we experience a sense of calm, an at-homeness with God that, to me, is a form of prayer. Silence and stillness, common hallmarks of prayer, are often also entryways to sacred spaces. Mother Teresa once said, “We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence . . . we need silence to be able to touch souls.”

Silence and stillness, of course, are time-honored ways to settle our own souls as well. I find God in silence. But also in certain types of music. Candles. Windows. Pillows. A soft rain. Birdsong. These all call my spirit to bow in reverence. But one size doesn’t fit all. That’s because each of us is a sacred space, so each of us reaches out and receives in ways that are meaningful to us. What opens your spirit to the Mystery of God?

Next week, in honor of February as Valentine’s month, I’ll begin a month of posts about love. I hope you’ll join me.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.


Where Does the Belief Pinch?

“The wearer knows best where the shoe pinches.”

– Spanish proverb –


When I was growing up, shoe shopping officially happened twice a year: in Spring for Easter shoes and in Fall for school shoes. Mother would take my sisters and me downtown to Thornton’s Department Store, where the salesman measured our feet and then retreated to the back room to see if the styles we had chosen from the display were in stock in our sizes. When he brought out the available selection and we tried them on, Mother would press her thumb on the top of the shoe between my big toe and the shoe tip to make sure there was room to grow. Then I would walk around to see if the heel slipped up and down or if the shoe rubbed uncomfortably anywhere. Mother made her pronouncements about the fit and the look, and the salesman added his opinion, but then they always looked at me and asked, “How do they feel?” After all, I was the one wearing the shoes. I was the one who knew whether they felt too tight or too loose.

Just as we’re the only ones who know where our shoes pinch, we’re the only ones who know where our beliefs pinch. We often feel the pinch for the first time when we’re teens, coming of age for the first time, trying to establish our own identity. We’ve bought into someone else’s beliefs and opinions – usually our parents’– which is a handy place to start our faith journey. In fact, it’s the usual place to start. But we’re not usually encouraged to question those beliefs. In fact, we’re usually given incentives not to. But if we don’t question beliefs at some point, then they’re not truly our own. Wearing someone else’s beliefs is like wearing hand-me-down shoes. If they don’t fit, after a while we get blisters and aching arches.

Of course, it’s possible to adopt another person’s likes and dislikes in anything from fashion choices to political views. In fact, it’s possible to live our whole lives with adopted views and beliefs. We may even argue vehemently for those beliefs, because they’re held by the community or “tribe” we belong to. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the belief(s) reflect the true heart of who we are. Someone else’s views are just that: someone else’s. If I don’t believe them, if I don’t own them, they’re not mine at all. I’ve not personalized my beliefs.

That wouldn’t matter if God were an impersonal force. In that case, assenting to a belief system and living with an impersonal faith would make sense. It’s true that many people consider the Divine Mystery to be simply a force. That’s definitely a belief option, but it’s one that leaves me cold – like a child reaching for the comfort and love of a mother’s arms but finding a teddy bear instead. A teddy bear is some comfort, yes, but it’s not personal. In other words, no person is responding. The teddy bear has no warmth of its own to give; its only warmth comes from absorbing the child’s body heat. No object is able to return a child’s reach or empathize or care about the child.

Objects and forces can’t love, and they don’t care. A pillow cannot love me. A cathedral cannot love me. Nature, as inspiring as it is, does not love me. Music may move me to tears or motivate me to dance, but music does not care whether I – or anyone else – cries or laughs or dances. All these, as comforting or sacred as they may feel, are impersonal. They’re not persons.

Love and caring are personal; they are shared between persons. So the Universe, or the Divine, or the Ultimate, or the Presence, or God, or whatever we call the Mystery that connects with our deepest spirit and brings us personal peace is, I believe, personal – a person or persons. A Being. And no matter what we think of the Presence or Universe or Divine or Ultimate or God, by definition this entity is greater than all of us combined. Since the best that humans can aspire to is self-giving love, then surely that describes God at the least. And since love is shared only between living beings, then the Mystery I call God must be a living Being. Person-al. That’s why I believe that no matter how old we are, we need to continue to come of age in our spiritual lives, questioning blind beliefs, and personalizing our faith, making it our own.

Just to be clear: Questioning blind beliefs doesn’t necessarily mean dropping them. It’s possible to question, examine, and choose to keep them. At that point, they’re not blind beliefs any longer. We’ve chosen them as our own, at least for the time being – even if our only reason is, “Because it rings true to me, and I choose to believe it.” At least that’s an honest answer, and hopefully it makes us more gracious toward those who have chosen to hold different beliefs.

Occasionally when I was shoe shopping, I’d have my heart set on a certain pair of shoes. But when I tried them on, they were too small, and the next larger size was out of stock. I was tempted to overlook the fact that the shoes pinched. When a belief pinches, we may not want to admit it. Examining it can be uncomfortable. Questioning it can be unsettling. Considering a change can be frightening. But honest wondering is a natural part of a living, growing faith. Honor the questions. It’s okay to be uncertain. There’s no rush to have every answer. The fact is no one has all the answers. Welcome the mystery. Your life and your faith will be richer for it.

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The Best of All Cathedrals

Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy morguefile.com.


The Best of All Cathedrals

Part of what I appreciate about my heritage is that the building where we gathered to worship was never referred to as “God’s house.” God did not live there, and church was not a building but a people. So wherever we went, the church went. We could talk to God anywhere, any time.

Another thing about my upbringing: Rarely did we use the word sacred, and even when we did, sacred referred to scripture or hymns. But never to a place. So it’s no surprise that the building where our church community gathered three times a week did not feel like a sacred space to me. It wasn’t meant to. Our auditorium (calling it a “sanctuary” was a sure sign you didn’t belong to the right church) held wooden folding seats facing a pulpit that stood in the center of a small raised stage. Only congregational singing was allowed, so there was no organ and no place for a choir.

Since that time, I’ve had the privilege of visiting the A-frame Arctic Cathedral in Tromso, Norway; Notre Dame in Paris with its rose window, flying buttresses, and gargoyles; St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest; the Sistine Chapel and the Pantheon in Rome; a mosque in the City of the Dead in Cairo; a Buddhist temple complex in Guangzhou, China; Kenyan and Ugandan church buildings made of mud brick or stone; and the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt. Some felt like sacred spaces, others didn’t.

Sacred “mountaintop” experiences defy explanation, just as falling in love defies explanation, or “hoping when all looks lost” defies explanation, or “courage in the face of disaster” defies explanation. As for sacred spaces, feeling Poetry and Hum, the sacred mystery of the numinous, also defies explanation.

Places that immerse me in an atmosphere of the sacred tend to be spacious and high ceilinged with lots of windows that invite my soul to expand. “Up and out” seems to beckon to my inner being. In fact, my private human-built sacred space is my sunroom, where walls of windows allow me to look up and out into my backyard: pines, crape myrtle, Japanese maple, and honeysuckle; hydrangea, salvia, and marigolds; cardinals, chickadees, juncos, and goldfinches – an ever-changing earthscape under an ever-changing sky.

Nature is, for me, the best of all cathedrals.

I’ll share more thoughts about sacred spaces in next week’s post. Meanwhile, treat yourself to listening to one inch of nature’s silence in the Hoh Rainforest, truly one of our great outdoor “cathedrals.”

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

All other photos courtesy morguefile.com.