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How to Be Perfectly Imperfect

“If at first you don’t succeed, you’re running about average.”

– unknown –

As I was growing up, I somehow came to believe that I had to be a pillar of strength, to know it all, to carry it all, to fix it all. Weakness on my part would only burden others. So I determined not be weak. I created the image of perfection as best I could, although at the time, I didn’t see it as an image. I thought I was creating reality. Wasn’t I growing stronger day by day, growing more into God’s image? I was progressing from less perfect to more perfect, right?

Year after year, I studied the Bible more, spoke the right scriptures, defended beliefs, and presented myself as the expert wife and mother with the perfect family. There was no room for deviation from the script of perfection. But if my heart had been a flower, it would not have been opening and blossoming but curling tighter and tighter into a hard, shell-covered knot.

Eventually the outer shell began to crack. Then the cracks began to widen. Like the king’s men’s rescue attempt for Humpty Dumpty, none of my canned answers could glue the shell back together again. I had tried to please others and live up to their expectations, but I felt that I had disappointed every last person I knew. Most of all myself.

But just as disillusionment is a good thing, so is disappointment. Appoint means to officially name someone to a position. Disappoint literally means to remove them from that position, to dispossess them. When I disappoint, I’m removed from what I or others appointed me to be or expected of me. I can then either reappoint myself and try again to live up to expectations, or I can leave behind the old expectations, the ones that no longer fit, and readjust my expectations. I can reappoint myself to something new.

The fact that we are imperfect makes us perfectly human. We are perfectly imperfect. Not only is that okay, but it’s also good and right. Life is a mixture of good choices and bad, some made by us, some made by others but affecting us just the same. Both good and bad choices can make us wiser. But those of us who strive for perfection often don’t learn how to deal realistically with bad choices. We hope to bury them or outrun them or deny making them.

When we allow imperfection, we take ourselves off the pedestal of our own making. Once we’re down, we no longer have to fear opening our eyes and exploring the landscape – or the soulscape. Sure, we’ll fail. But loving-kindness picks us up, dusts us off, and gives us permission to try again without being condemned.

Do we ever really get past the fear of failure? I don’t know. But I do know that’s where courage comes in. Courage exists only where there’s fear. Judging by the number of shared quotes and blogs and podcasts about persisting in the face of failure, I’d say the courage to fail is highly sought after. Obviously, a lot of us have failed or anticipate the possibility, so we gravitate toward any bit of encouragement as we plot our next steps.

Of course, failure is unavoidable. So how do we deal with it?

That’s next week’s topic.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


Why Do We Fear Failure?

“The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.”

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember those words opening ABC’s Wide World of Sports on television. The winner of a race received the trophy cup as the announcer said, “the thrill of victory.” The next scene was a downhill skier wiping out as the voice continued, “the agony of defeat.” We equate failure with defeat. We’re taught to win. The rags-to-riches stories we love are wins, successes against the odds, the rise and achievement of the underdog. Most of us root for the underdog, because we can relate.

We don’t like to fail. In fact, many of us fear failure. Why? The obvious, simplistic answer is, “Because succeeding at this matters to me.” But again, the question is, “Why?” Why does it matter? Because my heart is set on succeeding? Because someone else’s heart is set on my success? Honor, income, health, happiness, position, or the simple satisfaction of a job well done – any or all of these may be what I expect of myself or what someone else expects of me. So either my own expectation or someone else’s expectation is pinned to my success.

In the 1970’s when I was getting an education degree, we were encouraged to create a non-competitive environment for our classrooms. Even in games, we emphasized fun for everyone instead of focusing on who won and who lost. It was an honorable goal, but non-competition wasn’t completely doable. In real life, success gets the glory. Achievements receive the accolades. Accomplishments gain honor and give us the high. Failure often gets reprimanded or shunned. So when we fail, we often wrestle with feeling inadequate, unworthy, ashamed, maybe even doomed. It’s embarrassing to not be good enough. We begin to wonder if our efforts were wasted. Or was the dream of success a mistake to begin with? We spent all that time and energy and hope for nothing. At least that’s what it feels like.

The thing about failure is that we often take it personally. Our business fails, and we translate it into I am a failure. Our marriage fails, and we think, I am a failure. True, we probably bear some responsibility for what happened, and it’s only honest to admit that. Did I make mistakes? Yes. Does that mean I am a failure? No. Did I fail to speak up when I should have? Yes. So am I a failure? No, I’m human, and the fact is, human endeavors sometimes fail.

One reason we hate to fail is that failure can threaten two of our deepest needs: belonging and being loved. If meeting those needs hinges on our success, then, of course, we fear failure, because we fear rejection. Conditional love and acceptance are powerful forces, especially if that’s the only kind of love we think we can get.

The fear of failure and rejection is basically universal, but I sometimes wonder if we Christians have an extra hurdle to clear. Many of us were raised with an overarching life theme that connects success and failure to the afterlife. In other words, heaven is the reward for successfully living up to the church’s standard, while failing to live up to the standard earns hell. That means choices are critical – and not only when it comes to the big issues. Small choices can lead down a slippery slope, snowballing into big consequences and an eternity of doom. So success becomes all important. Especially if we envision God as the Great Scorekeeper or the Principal of Life who hands out reports cards at the end of the grading period.

It’s no wonder that many of us believed that what was expected of us was nothing less than perfection. Of course, if we thought about it long enough, we readily admitted that we were not perfect, but we quickly added that we were becoming perfect, growing more like Jesus every day. We memorized, “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Seen through that lens, perfection equals success.

Now there’s nothing wrong with perfection. (Literally, there’s nothing wrong with perfection.) But have you ever met anyone who is perfect? I haven’t. It’s not a human quality. Have you ever met anyone who believed they were perfect or acted as if they were? I have. It’s not an endearing quality. But if we’re afraid to fail for fear of being rejected or condemned, then we hesitate to admit that we’re imperfect. We’d rather wear the perfect mask than join the human race and admit that we’re just as cracked – maybe even more cracked – than our neighbor who doesn’t even go to church.

It’s ironic, but “I-must-be-perfect” is one of those blind beliefs that makes questioning other blind beliefs a risky undertaking. Because if I question, that’s tantamount to admitting I’m not perfect. And if I admit I’m not perfect, that domino falls, taking down a whole line of dominoes with it. Then where are we?

Actually, we’re right where we’ve always been, traveling with every other human being on an unmapped journey with an uncertain future. In the midst of that uncertainty, the one thing we can count on is the fact that we’ll fail again and again. Coming of age is risky, no matter what age we are. Sculpting our own identity is risky. Opening our eyes and hearts and minds is risky. Letting go of blind beliefs is risky. At some point, we will fail to live up to someone’s expectations, maybe even our own. We will disappoint someone, maybe even ourselves. But that might not be such a bad thing.

Next week: How to be Perfectly Imperfect


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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Finding LIFE in FaILurE

School let out for summer last Friday. Neighborhood pools are opening this weekend, and vacation plans are now in play. Back in the day . . . and we’re talking way back in the 1960’s . . . this began summer vacations as I recall:

We pile into the Oldsmobile station wagon – Daddy, Mother, me, and my three little sisters. We girls clamor for seats. Middle seat in the front is popular. Middle in the back is not. And the way back? A couple of years ago, the way back was definitely not popular, because the air conditioner couldn’t blow cool air that far. Then Daddy bought a length of dryer vent hose, wiggled one end around the front air vent on Mother’s side, and stretched it through the car to the back so we could get some cool air. Now the way back is a choice.

I happen to know that we’re lucky to have any cooling at all. I’ve heard Mother and Daddy talk about a time when cars had no air conditioning. That was when they were growing up and even the first few years after they married. Cooling was all natural: wind blowing through open windows onto sweaty bodies. Compared to that, Daddy’s rigged-up system isn’t so bad, although it’s a little tricky climbing out over a dryer hose. But, then, we don’t climb out very often. Daddy is a destination driver: get behind the wheel and stay there until we arrive at the journey’s end.

Of course, he does stop for gasoline and potty breaks. And meals. We’re quite a crew around a table at restaurants as we wait for our orders. We swing our legs and fidget with the silverware. One little sister smacks her gum, which annoys me to no end. It doesn’t help to tell her to stop; she only smacks louder.

To keep the peace, Mother, who loves Scrabble and crossword puzzles, hands out pencils and challenges us to play word games. One of our favorites is trying to see how many words we can make out of a word or phrase she gives us. We write on small note pads Mother carries in her oversize purse. Or if the restaurant has paper place mats, we write on those, sometimes using the name of the restaurant as our challenge word. Chicken Shack yields neck, kick, sack, ice, case . . . before we’ve exhausted the linguistic possibilities, our meal has been served.

With all my childhood word-game practice, I guess it’s not surprising that I grew up to have a career in words. Occasionally, I even receive payment based on the number of words I write or edit. (Payment per word would have taken the placemat game to a whole new level.) Trained as a wordsmith, I often see words within words, so when I decided to set down my thoughts about failing, I found words lurking in failure: lure, ail, frail, rail, rule. Then I saw life, which seemed appropriate, because while failure can feel more like death than life, there truly is life in failure.

A student fails her test. A football player fails to catch the winning pass in front of thousands of spectators. A crop fails. A marriage fails. A medical treatment fails. A train’s brakes fail. Each is a setback, minor or major. Each is the death of what we desired or anticipated in that moment.

The word fail comes from the Latin word for disappoint. I guess that’s why it feels like a kind of death. It’s the death of an expectation or an effort, which makes it related to disillusionment but without the illusion. The goal we’re hoping to reach is no mirage; it’s very real. It’s just that we didn’t reach it. Which can leave us feeling ashamed, inadequate, embarrassed, or totally done in.

Or not. Some people are able to take failure in stride. Whether that’s because they were raised and trained in that perspective or because that’s their natural temperament, I don’t know. Probably some of both. You failed? Then next time, “Fail better,” advised Samuel Beckett. Robert Kennedy famously said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.” People who are undaunted by failure take “there’s life in failure” and turn it on its head: There’s failure in life. Totally true. Failing is how researchers and artists find their way forward. In fact, it’s how all of us find our way forward. It’s how we come of age. Life is too big for any of us, and we’re always trying to grow into it. We fail our way forward.

I suspect that most of us are not in the “undaunted” category, as evidenced by all the self-help and encouragement books on offer. For us, while we can easily find life in failure written on a place mat, it’s not so easy to find the life in a failure on the job, or in a relationship, or after trying to achieve some goal we’ve pursued with all our time, energy, and heart. In fact, some of us are so daunted by failure that simply the fear of failure can stop us in our tracks. Case in point: the book I’m currently writing. Every time I sit down to write another chapter, my shoulders tense, my belly gets butterflies, and my fingers hover above the keyboard, hesitant. Some days that fear is just a speed bump. Other days it’s Mount Everest.

Why does the fear of failure loom so large? That’s a subject for next week’s post. In the meantime, Happy Vacation Time!

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


No Condemnation: The Open-Hearted Leap

When we forgive, “we allow ourselves to be gifted

by a story larger than the story that first hurt us and left us bereft.”

– David Whyte, Consolations

If you’ve been following the past few weeks of posts here, you may remember that I began the subject of forgiveness by telling the story of a strange cat that found its way into my house and how, even with an obvious open window beside it, had a hard time finding its way out. When it did find its escape route, it leaped and fairly flew across the roof and down to the freedom of the ground below. Sometimes we’re a lot like that cat, trying to find a way out of anger or resentment or bitterness, not paying attention to the escape route that’s right before our eyes.

There is an open-eyed, open-hearted leap that takes us out the window and into spacious freedom beyond: non-condemnation. Forgiveness is part of it, but while forgiveness is focused and specific, non-condemnation is the broad attitude, the atmosphere of grace that forgiveness lives in. It’s the “permanent attitude” that Dr. Martin Luther King pointed to in last week’s quote. In the atmosphere – the permanent attitude – of non-condemnation, any time and every time we fall, we are free to get up and try again, uncondemned.

That doesn’t mean there are no consequences, whether natural or imposed by civil law. But it does means that no weight of guilt or shame keeps us down. That’s the beauty of forgiveness. We get another chance. When we give that freedom to ourselves, we give it to others. That’s the path along which Jesus leads us: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Matthew 6:9).

The apostle Paul wrote, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). In other words, for those of us who follow Jesus’s teachings, condemnation is not even in our vocabulary. There is no condemnation. Not for me, not for anyone. Because we live in an age of grace. We walk the way of love.

There’s an old-fashioned word worth recovering here: redemption. A translation of the basic ancient Greek word lyo, redemption means loosen, release, liberate, set free. Redemption as part of forgiveness

         – takes what’s dead and makes it live again

– takes what’s old and makes it new

– discovers and recovers what’s been lost

– restores what’s been damaged

– heals what was broken

– makes whole what was fragmented

This is the path of Jesus, but it’s not exclusively a Christian path. All over the world redemption happens, because all over the world, love happens. And, as I said previously, wherever we find love, we find God.

So, reversing the syllables in forgive, the question is, what am I willing to give for liberation from the link that chains me to this offense and this offender? What will I give for release from the curdled stomach and tight chest of resentment? What will I give for freedom from the joy-killing time suck of bitterness?

Literally, what will I give for this freedom? I give up the right to revenge. I give up my demands to have life balance in the way I want it to. I give up the attention and empathy I might get as a victim. I give up the habit of using my wounds as an excuse for doing this or not doing that, for being this and not being that. I give up my pride in being so humble. I give up an illusion in exchange for reality. I give up an old goal for a new one. I give up blind beliefs for an open-eyed faith.

What I gain is a fresh vision. Self-respect. A release of tension. A lighter step going forward. A smile. A deep breath. Maybe even a good night’s sleep. What I gain is personal peace, which can spread beyond me to the world.

Sharon Salzberg, who teaches mindfulness meditation, suggests that we make a habit of breathing deeply while embodying this thought: “May I be safe, may I be well, may I be happy, may I be at ease.” It’s a way to be kind to ourselves, to love and encourage ourselves. I go a bit further. When I’m filled with that thought toward myself, I give it a couple of tweaks and turn it toward others as a blessing: “May you be safe, may you be healthy, may you be wise, may you be at ease.” Maybe that’s an expression of love. Maybe that is forgiveness.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.



Which Way to Forgiveness?

“Forgiveness is not just an occasional act: It is a permanent attitude.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

Living, breathing mercy. Living, breathing grace. Living, breathing peace. Some people seem to embody it. “My mother didn’t have a bitter bone in her body,” a friend told me. Living, breathing forgiveness. It’s an inviting picture. I can sense the possibility. But I’m not there yet. I’m still learning. My guess is that most of us would love to have a permanent attitude of forgiveness. My guess is also that many of us have pretended we had it. And my guess is that most of us will have to work pretty hard to get to that permanent-attitude place.

In the process, we come to several crossroads. One asks us to choose whether or not to confront the person who offended us. We have to be pretty settled in ourselves to confront someone face to face. After all, forgiving is based on an accusation that a wrong has been done. If the person who hurt us hasn’t acknowledged the wrong, it takes courage on our part to approach them. To be honest with myself, I need to make sure I’m not confronting someone expecting (or worse, demanding) that they feel remorse and make amends, which they may or may not do. Of course, the other person may be completely gracious and open to discussing the grievance and receiving forgiveness, and confrontation – in the spirit of working it out to restore the relationship – may be exactly what’s needed.

But to confront or not confront – that’s not the most important question. To forgive or not forgive – that’s the question. The truth is, forgiveness does not depend on an apology. We can set hurts aside without a big confrontation or ritual. I’m not talking about stuffing our hurt or ignoring it, in which case it bides its time only to roar back to life later. I’m talking about acknowledging the hurt, forgiving it, and then allowing time and daily living to dilute the offense (as opposed to stoking the fire under it and letting it ferment into poison). We can refuse to let the offense taint our present or our future. The point is not to deny the fact that there was a wound but to let the wound heal. And if we’re left with scars, we don’t deny those, either. But neither do we let our scars define us.

As we look to the future, we come to another crossroads: We can either close our hearts and protect ourselves, fearing we’ll get hurt again, or we can open our hearts, trusting ourselves to be able to deal with whatever lies ahead. When I was wrestling with this choice one time, a friend asked, “Can you be open but not porous?” It seems to me that a permanent attitude of forgiveness would be just that: open but not porous. Opening our hearts makes life so much richer. It makes what we do more effective. It leads to our own health and growth as well as promoting the health and growth of others.

Speaking of our own health and growth . . . there’s a tricky twist to the whole forgiveness issue: forgiving ourselves. Poet and painter William Blake said, “It is easier to forgive an Enemy than to forgive a Friend.” I would add: It’s easier to forgive enemies and friends than to forgive ourselves. But how can we truly extend grace to others if we can’t extend grace to ourselves? It’s the same principle as loving others as we love ourselves. If I have a hard time forgiving myself, I’m sure to have a hard time forgiving someone else.

Self-condemnation turns our life journey into a slog. For our health and peace, and for the health and peace of the world, we need to be free from self-condemnation. There is an open-eyed, open-hearted leap that takes us to that spacious freedom. We’ll look at that next week as I share my final thoughts on forgiveness.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


7 Practical Suggestions for Forgiving

“[F]orgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside [our] own skins.”

Frederick Buechner

So practically speaking, how do we let go of resentment and bitterness? How do we forgive? Maybe part of the answer is within the word itself. Switch the syllables for and give, and you get give for. Resentment clenches its fists around the betrayal and hurt. Forgiving means opening our fists to give our offense up for our health and for the welfare of others.

For specifics, I can tell you only what has helped me.

1) Admit that what was done was not okay. For those of us who are quick to say, “That’s okay; it doesn’t matter” when we’re mistreated, the first step is to learn to respect ourselves enough to acknowledge that we were hurt. To admit that it matters. Because it does. Stuffing it away and denying it is not the same as forgiving. If you’re the type of person who can let offenses roll off “like water off a duck’s back” as they say, then fine. You can honestly say, “That’s okay; it doesn’t matter.” But most of us can’t honestly say that.

2) Take steps in a positive direction with supportive people. That means we tell someone who can help us carry our pain and gain perspective.

3) Soften our view toward the offender. Realize that he or she never gets away free, even though it may appear that way. Wrongdoing has a way of eating away at the offender’s insides and taking him or her to unpleasant places. It helps me to think, “The harm you are doing (or have done) to me is nothing compared with the harm you are doing (or have done) to yourself.”

4) Refuse to let the offense define us. Fact of life: Sometimes we get mistreated. The question is whether we’ll victimize ourselves and dig our claws into resentment or let go and move on unencumbered. I can decide not to be a victim, because the truth is that my past does not have to control my future.

5) Try to see the big perspective. I try to remember to ask myself whether this issue is important enough to jeopardize my health and happiness. Will the wrong done to me even matter ten years from now – or twenty? Usually it won’t. Novelist Nora Roberts wrote a bit of insightful dialogue that applies here:

“Did you ever stop hating [your abusive father]?”

“No, but I stopped letting it be important, and maybe that’s healthier. Someone hurts you in a permanent way, you don’t forget it. But the best revenge is seeing that it doesn’t matter.”

I would add one word to that last sentence: anymore. It doesn’t matter anymore. Because it did matter. A lot. And it’s not as if we don’t care. We do. But as I said before, for some of us, admitting that it mattered is the first step toward the healthy place of ceasing to let it be important.

6) Go high. I’m not naive enough to think that after I’ve been wronged, life will always go back to the old normal. Sometimes there’s a new normal. When someone wrongs us, they leave us at a fork in the road. We get to choose from one of two directions: worse or better. Low or high. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” We can’t control every outcome, but we can control our outlook. We can head toward the better. No, make that the best. We can go high.

7) Close the door. Offenses have a way of returning to my mind uninvited. I may think I’ve closed the door on them, but then they sneak back in. When they do, I know not to take the bait and swallow them, because they have a way of hooking into me. But in order not to take the bait, I have to look them in the eye and not ignore them. I’ve learned to try to acknowledge the memory (“ah, you again; yes, I see you”) and send it on its way (“this case is closed”). It has been said that “[F]orgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past.” I can acknowledge that and close the door on the past as often as I need to. If I have to close that door every day, I will.

Next week: a tricky twist to forgiveness.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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“The Bridge Over Which We Must Pass”

“I’d held on to that hurt, coddled it, fed it, grew it.

Until it had all but consumed me.

But finally I wanted something even more than I wanted my pain. . .


– Louise Penny, A Trick of the Light –


In last week’s blog post, I said that the purpose of forgiving is not primarily to set my wrongdoer free. First and foremost, it’s to set me free. Does that sound egotistical? Selfish? It’s the same principle as the advice, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Forgiving my wrongdoer opens my fists so I can offer mercy. Forgiveness first frees me.

On the flip side, when I refuse to forgive, I forge a chain-strong link with the person who wronged me. The longer I hold onto that resentment, the stronger the link grows. I may think I can yank the chain and hurt that person, but the reality is that when I yank the chain, the only one who gets hurt is me. And because I’m hurting, I’m in danger of hurting other people in my life who are innocent of that wrongdoing. They become collateral damage. At that point, I have ceded control of my life to the original offense, giving it much more weight and power than it deserves.

Resentment and bitterness are some of the heaviest weights we can carry. When I despise someone, something, or some action, the spite is not in that person, thing, or action; the spite is in me and me alone. It will affect my whole life – my outlook, my attitude, my choices, my peace, my joy, everything. Father Thomas Hopko said, “So forgiveness is not just the healing of the other, it is the healing of yourself, too. If you don’t forgive, you allow yourself to be poisoned.”

We also stack the deck against ourselves when we don’t forgive, because at some point, we’ll want to be forgiven. As the saying goes, “He who cannot forgive another breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself.”

Being forgiven has long been linked to our willingness to forgive others. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:9). This has less to do with God forgiving us than with the damage we do to ourselves when we don’t forgive. Our inability to be free from our wound is proportional to our inability to forgive. To the degree that we hold onto bitterness and resentment, we’ll hold onto the hurt. In other words, it’s impossible to be free of the wound, because we’re clinging to it. So it’s up to us. We’re released as much as we release others. That’s not a divine mandate; it’s simply the way life works.

If I hold onto resentment, it eventually governs me. It causes me to live with my back turned to the world and my heart turned away from even myself. Wishing someone else ill does nothing to make me feel whole. Forgiving is healthy.

So practically speaking, how do we let go of resentment and bitterness? How do we break the chain? That’s a subject for next week’s post. I hope you’ll join me as we continue to explore the subject of forgiveness.


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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

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Why Forgive? The Real Reason

“I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”

– Abraham Lincoln –

When people wrong us, we know it. We have an innate sense of right, wrong, and justice that serves as our standard for how life should work. When life doesn’t work that way, we feel betrayed.

Our first betrayal comes at birth. Out of a warm womb, we emerge into a world that immediately chills us, then pokes and prods, sticks and pricks us. It’s not long before our parents and caregivers betray us by being fallible (how dare they?), breaking promises, misunderstanding us, and sometimes misleading us, usually unintentionally. But it’s not long until our own expectations betray us. We expect this career choice or that person or this purchase to make us happy, but they don’t – not permanently anyway. The move that we expect will gain us loyal friends brings only fair weather acquaintances. What we think is love turns out to be only pity. What we think will be our big step into a career is only a move that sidetracks us. The person we expect to help us actually expects us to help them instead. Life is full of small betrayals of the way we think things should be.

Then there are the stab-in-the-back betrayals. I once believed that life was supposed to be fair, that people knew it, and that “God’s people” above all would treat you fairly, while those “in the world” regularly stabbed you in the back or kicked you in the teeth – metaphorically or literally. But Christians can betray trust as fast as non-Christians. This shouldn’t be surprising, because betrayal, by definition, happens when someone we’ve trusted pulls the rug out from under us and walks off with it. The irony is that when “God’s people” betray us, it’s sometimes people “in the world” who pick us up, treat us with respect, heal our wounds, and give us a new rug to stand on.

But betrayal can make us focus. It can clarify our lives, put things into perspective, and sift the sediment out of our souls. It’s a form of disillusionment, an invitation to remove the rose-colored glasses so we can see more clearly where we stand now and can look ahead to a wide landscape of possibilities.

But we have to decide not to chew the bitter gum. Bitterness is addictive, and like other addictions, it’s dangerous. We often don’t realize we’re addicted until it has affected our whole self, body and soul. But why is the desire for payback so addictive in the first place? Why is it so easy to baby our bitterness and so hard to forgive?

Maybe we believe that if we forgive, we have to forget as well, and we know we can’t forget. Some people think “forgive and forget” is a Bible verse. It’s not. What’s more, to forgive and forget is nearly impossible. In a lot of cases, it’s not even wise.

After a business partner stole from me, I struggled with this issue. Did forgiveness mean I had to pretend it never happened? Did I have to prove I had forgiven by going back into partnership with that person? I couldn’t. If it was business as usual, I was past the point of no return. I had to separate. Not because of hatred and bitterness but because of wisdom. When someone proves to be untrustworthy or disrespectful or abusive, forgiveness may need to go hand in hand with distancing ourselves from the relationship and remembering not to go down that road again.

Nor does forgiveness preclude justice for crimes. Whether I forgive or not, consequences may be required by civil law. There may be natural consequences as well. But we don’t have to nurse a bitter heart in order for justice to be imposed or for consequences to kick in. Justice and consequences can operate equally as well if we forgive. In fact, the purpose of forgiving is not primarily to set my wrongdoer free. First and foremost, it’s to set me free. Which is the subject for next week’s post. I hope you’ll join me as we continue to explore the subject of forgiveness.

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Text © 2017 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy pexels.com.


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.


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.