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Why is it So Hard to Forgive?

“Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea,

until they have something to forgive.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity –

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all answered, “No!”

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

“No!” they said.

“Is it right for me to murder you?”

Everyone answered with a resounding no.

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

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

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

 

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Happiness: The Splash or the Undercurrent?

 

Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Where is the Way Out?

Nashville, Tennessee, September 2005:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

 

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

 

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

Other photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Three Strands of a Strong Lifeline

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

Ecclesiastes 4:12

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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Happiness: The Splash or the Undercurrent?

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

Zhuang-Zhou

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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