The Path to Healing

We have spoken of the breaking of our heart in the two senses of deep hurt and of opening up, and how one can sometimes lead to another. There is a fascinating expression from the Song of Songs or the Song of Solomon as it is sometimes called. The words are: “You have wounded my heart.” It is also translated as you have captured or stolen or enchanted my heart. In the ancient language, heart was considered the source of thought, feeling, and decision. In that light, a basic question can be phrased as: Who or what has pierced to the core of who we are and has helped to shape who we are at our deepest level.

This influence can be both positive and negative. It can reinforce or hinder our sense of worth. It can both heal and wound us. Many, many years ago, when I was working at a residential treatment home for pre-adolescent and adolescent girls, I used to stay for supper and chat with different groups of them. On one occasion, a girl of 13 uttered a profound statement that has remained with me. She said that all of the children there had been wounded by their past, and that they had to learn to live with their wounds. It seems to me that in some ways, small or large, we have all been wounded by our life experiences. The challenge is to recognize these hurts and to move toward healing and reaffirming a sense of sacred worth.

I have always been fascinated by the roots of words. The word heal in English is also essentially the same as the words, whole, health, hale, hail, and hello. The word therapy comes from the Greek and means to heal, The word sane comes from the Latin and means health. In this sense, to heal means to move toward health and wholeness of the whole person. This seems to be a gradual process, at once moving from our deepest self outward, it is also assisted by caring others who see the hidden wholeness beneath any areas of brokenness that is also part of who we are.

Years ago, a colleague and I published an article on chronic care. We raised and answered positively the question: Can one be a whole person in a broken body? This was more than an academic question since I grew up with a younger brother who was born with a serious heart condition, yet had a marvellous personality, and died at the age of 26. I also still have scars on the side of my head–the only part still covered by hair :)–from being hit by a truck at age six. I think that the core or heart of us, our inmost self, is untouched by any wounds as well as the shadow part of ourselves. Through reflection, reading, exercise, friendship and much else, we can become more in touch with this inner self and have a sense of its sacred worth. Others can also help foster the movement toward healing and wholeness within us.

In an article on compassion, Henri Nouwen writes that sometimes people may not be cured of illness or injury in the narrow sense, but they may be changed simply by having experienced compassion, care, and concern in a very deep and meaningful way. He says that the people in our life who are the most meaningful are not the ones who offered all sorts of advice, suggestions, or recommendations. The real friend is not the person with the solution, but the one who sticks it out with you even though there is no solution. He adds that to be compassionate is to believe that it is worthwhile to be with a person even when we cannot do anything specific or see results.

This process of growth and healing may perhaps best be seen in terms of presence, presence to ourselves and to one another. We might also speak of coming home to ourselves and to one another.
This thought is reflected in the famous lines of T. S. Eliot. “We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

May you discover within yourself your own hidden wholeness, and receive and give help on the path to healing, wholeness, and home, to those whose lives intersect with your own.

Norman King, June 20, 2021.

Breaking Open Our Hearts


Last week, we spoke of naming our experience. This may be done from the silence of our own heart in solitude. We may also be helped by having it named by another, whether by a listening friend in conversation, or in a poem, story or other art form.

I heard an interview last week with poet, Edward Hirsch, author of How to Read a Poem. He stresses that poetry can help us to get in touch with and find expression for our own inner experiences, whether of joy or sorrow or of both together. Such poetry can thereby convey not only that we are understood but can also expand our compassion beyond ourselves.

He has just published a collection of poetry of the last 200 years, entitled 100 Poems to Break Your Heart. One of these is by Mary Oliver, called Lead. After speaking of a loon found dead on the shore of polluted waters, she ends the poem with these words. “I tell you this / to break your heart, /by which I mean only / that it break open and never close again / to the rest of the world.”

There is also the black spiritual, Let us break bread together. The word “together” suggest that the breaking of bread refers not just to sharing a meal but also the breaking open or sharing of self in the context of this basic human activity.

The image of breaking or of heartbreak, seems to have two main senses, that are at least sometimes related. There is both the experience of profound hurt and yet also that of opening up, as both Mary Oliver and the spiritual express. I recall one striking example..

Many years ago, a presentation was offered at the Children’s Aid Society with people who had problems with alcoholism and with physical abuse of their children. They had been given the choice of either going to prison or entering a rehabilitation program. Those who now spoke were those who had followed this program. Among them was one young man in his thirties who looked, if I may put it this way, as if he had been beaten up by life. Yet he spoke with a quiet wisdom. He told us that it was not until he got in touch with his own pain that he realized how he was hurting others.

That comment has always remained with me, and was echoed years later in the observation of Richard Rohr He wrote that suffering that is not transformed is transmitted. If we do not recognize and wrestle with our own pain, we will inflict it on others, even unknowingly. I think that everyone has a degree of sorrow in their lives. Author Wayne Muller has said that suffering is like a wind that blows through everyone’s life. Sometimes it blows as a more gentle breeze, yet other times as a fierce gale.

When it is not so overwhelming as to destroy all hope (at least for a time) our sorrow can be a force that opens us up. The breaking of our heart can be as well, in some way, the breaking open of our heart. A first challenge is to recognize rather than deny our own hurt, to acknowledge that we are vulnerable (literally, able to be wounded), rather than pretend to invincibility. A second aspect, often inseparable from the first, is to entrust our vulnerability to an intelligently trustworthy other person. Otherwise, as the person at the CAS admitted, we will project it, even unknowingly on to others and inflict pain on them.

I recall again an incident that occurred during a time when I was sharing meals with and telling stories to children at a residential treatment home. They had seen a cross on top of a church and asked me what it meant. I stood up, clenched my fists in front of me and asked what they thought would happen. They said that it looks like you’re going to punch someone. I then stood with my hands splayed defensively in from of me, and they said it looks like you’re trying to protect myself against someone hitting you. I then spread my arms wide and asked again what they thought was happening. One child said that I was probably going to hug someone. But another added that yes, but you’re leaving yourself wide open. What I then explained in simple terms is that we best grow and find life, not by anger and fear, but by openness, even though it leaves us vulnerable. I knew that the children understood, because they then playfully asked me to stand there with my arms outstretched while they pretended to run at me with clenched fists.

This is the same idea as the breaking open of the heart, an openness to life and what it brings, even though this openness may sometimes hurt. The same idea is expressed by the notion of the walls that we may construct around us, walls of hurt and fear and hostility. When we hide behind these wall we tend not only not to let anyone in, but to become a sniper at others from these walls One interesting question is to inquire about the walls we have built around ourselves, and what they attempt to keep out and what they might allow in. We can also ask when they may be necessary or when they shut out life and growth and friendship. Certainly Leonard Cohen’s words resonate here: ,”there is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

May your sorrows and everything that has broken your heart break it open to compassion for yourself and others. May all the cracks in your life become places where the light gets in.

Weekly reflection, June 6, 2021

What’s in a Name: The Importance of Naming

In several reflections, we have brought out the underlying theme of energy as flowing through all that is, in various kinds and forms. We have also noted that the underlying energy of the universe is love energy. Perhaps it may also be characterized as a longing, a kind of ache that fuels our life journey. We have suggested too that are words are not so much sounds in the air or markings on a page as the energy and the kind of energy that flows into them. We have also suggested that this energy is best expressed in storytelling, poetry and the many forms of art. Our underlying theme has been the intrinsic sacred worth of the person and of all that is, a worth that also encompasses the shadow side of reality. Involved in this whole process of life is what we might call the naming of experience.

So things that certainly call for further exploration are those of love and friendship with its counterpart of loneliness and solitude: the implicit theme of suffering contained in the contradictions of experience; and the whole aspect of getting in touch with and naming our experience, perhaps best through storytelling. I would like to talk a little about that theme this week.

I came across a quotation from Ursula Le Guin who was a renowned writer of science fiction, with a philosophical perspective. In an interview, she stated: “One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience. Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.” She adds that the daily routine of work closes us off to much of the world, and “when we hear music or poetry or stories, the world opens up again.”

She notes that the language of politicians is empty and that much battle metaphors are shaping our language. I would add that the language of killing and of violence is pervasive as well. Le Guin adds: “We can’t restructure our society without restructuring the English language. The one reflects the other.” In a similar vein, I recall a comment by Northrup Frye, University of Toronto literary critic, that the purpose of a well-rounded liberal education is freedom, by giving us enough words to think with. Rilke says as well that out of a myriad of experience lived through, assimilated, and even forgotten, might arise a single line of poetry. In essence what they seem to be saying is that literature and other arts are able to assist us in naming accurately and honestly our deepest experience, and thereby providing an avenue to that experience and to living it more truthfully and, I would add, compassionately

Once, after a class, an adult student came up and said that this class put into words what she always knew but wasn’t able to express. It was extremely gratifying to hear that the class helped her to name her own experience. I think that when we hear something that strikes us as true, it seems to be not so much the discovery of something new, but the recognition of something we somehow did know but were not aware of explicitly. The Greek philosopher, Plato, wrote that knowledge was remembering. Perhaps the underlying truth of what he said was along the same lines, a calling to mind of something already vaguely known, a naming of our experience that we recognize.

As an example, many years ago I heard an interview conducted with permission by a social worker with a patient who had suffered from what was commonly called multiple personality syndrome. When, as the small child, she approached speaking of the situation of abuse she suffered, she was placed in a large box in the garage. The voice of the child in the box was stammering and inarticulate. I recognized it as the voice of rage, and realized that rage is not predominately anger, but a cry of searing pain from profoundly within, a gut-wrenching protest against violation.

On another occasion, I had a profound sense of the sacred beauty of a person that was deeper than and somehow untouched by the wounds inflicted.

As a further example, I would like to give an interpretation of a familiar folk tale, Rumpelstiltzkin. In the story, a miller brags to a king that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The greedy king summons her top his palace to perform this feat, and to do so under penalty of death. Straw and gold are similar only in colour, one given to lowly uses and readily discarded; the other regarded as of lasting value. In my interpretation, the challenge is to accept the life we have received, which seems brief and passing (straw), and fashion it into a lasting work of art (gold). Not to do so is to die inside rather than bring oneself fully to life. Yet the situation in which this challenge is faced is wounded or flawed, symbolized by the pretence and greed of the miller and king.

The dwarf comes to the rescue, but at a cost. She must give him her pearl necklace, her ring, and the promise of a future child. The dwarf stands for the inner resources upon which a person must draw upon and develop to make a work of art of their life. The pearls represent the many dimensions or possibilities of the person, while the ring suggests the need to unify or integrate them. One must become a whole person with many qualities that are integrated, rather than a one dimensional or scattered individual.

Yet there remains a final task, signified by the naming of the dwarf under penalty of loss of the child. The challenge is to struggle with the elements that can destroy one’s future. The child stands for the future which can be undermined by our destructive tendencies. The creative response is to name them, to come to terms with them, so to speak. If we are aware of this shadow side of ourselves, it can lose its hold on us as well as counter our tendency to project it on to others. This naming takes three days and all the resources of one’s kingdom. It is a lengthy and demanding task.

The completion of this process, which is never fully achieved in one’s lifetime, is to become a queen or king, which in these stories means to approach realizing one’s potential and sharing that with others. Again a sense of one’s own and others’ sacred worth, inclusive of our shadow side, is essential to a life that is fulfilling for self and others, and contributes to our world.

Certainly in reading such a story or in looking at other folk tales or mythologies, a person may not consciously think in this direction. At the same time, some of these archetypal images may work within us, as do our dreams. Yet there is also the question of the angle of vision that we bring to these and other stories. Our approach is the sacred worth of each person and all beings as the lens through which to look. When viewed through that lens, that angle, the interpretation of stories such as Rumpelstiltzkin may resonate within us. Surprisingly enough, the story itself contains an explicit affirmation of this understanding: “Something living is more precious than all the gold in the world.”

May your imagination continue to flourish, held and nourished in the arms of your sacred worth, and flow into ever greater compassion for yourself, and radiate outwardly in ever expanding circles.

Norman King
May 30, 2021

Energy and Life in a Time of Weariness

In recent reading and reflection, the word “energy” has come up. It has done so in two distinct but actually related senses. One is the pervasive sense of prolonged weariness, the loss and lack of energy occasioned by the seemingly endless pandemic. It is sometimes referred to as lassitude and languishing. The other sense is the notion that underlying all reality is energy in its various forms. It is found, for example, in the writings of Teilhard de Chardin and in the teaching of the seven chakras. What has struck me is that, despite the differences here, the notion of energy can be a unifying idea, a lens through which to look at life.

Many years ago, I had a sense of the wrongness of dividing a person into body and soul as somehow two unrelated things, yanked together but not really fitting. Within this view came a model of relating to oneself in terms of self-mastery or self-control. This approach tied in with the idea that everything can be divided into polar opposites: mind and matter, soul and body, male and female, master and servant. In each case one side was regarded as superior and the other inferior, and the relationship was to be such that the superior ruled over the inferior. This view has been played out, even tragically, in racism, sexism, asceticism, and colonialism.

While attending a workshop on spontaneous writing, along with other studies, reflection, and an attempt to be attuned to actual experience, a different perspective emerged for me. It came in the image of a whole number of children within, joyful and sad, caring and angry, tense and free, playful and reserved, and the like. There was also a sense that each inner child had to be given its voice and welcomed with a hug, but that none was to be a soloist. The image was one of integration of these many voices rather than domination by one or the other. They were to be part of a chorus which blends all the voices, with no overriding loud voice or soloist.

Another image that has long emerged is that, of the many voices within us, there is the voice that calls us beloved daughter or son, the voice of our own sacred worth. It is this beloved child that most needs listening to and that is to be the conductor of the whole chorus. This thought eventually leads to the conviction of love as the underlying energy that at once supports and draws all things.

What is implied here, as well, is the need to attend to our own inner experience and to try to find images, words, stories, in poetry and prose, or in the many art forms, that can express and interpret this experience truthfully and in depth. The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, says: “ Go into yourself and see how deep is the place from which your life flows.” Dag Hammarskjold, the former Secretary General of the United Nations, writes in Markings: “The longest journey is the journey inwards … of one who has started upon their quest for the source of their being.” The challenge is then to find some way to express this inner life, which can be described as energy.

One approach is to look at words as life energy. I once attended a play, Inherit the Wind, and had a seat very close to the stage. I remember watching the actor who played the part of lawyer, Clarence Darrow. At one point he spoke his lines almost quietly, but with a forceful intensity that was reflected in his face. It seemed to me that the words were not so much the sounds in the air, but the energy that informed and inhabited these words. I also recall a screen actor mentioning how he and his acting counterpart were preparing for a scene, in which there were constant delays before the actual shooting. The level of anticipation and intensity built up within them so that when they were finally able to enact the scene, it required only one take. Again the level of inner energy made their words real and impactful.

In these days of weariness, and even of an unstilled longing that yet remains, is there any way we can describe an all-encompassing and unifying energy that courses through all that is?

Philosopher/Scientist, Teilhard de Chardin, speaks of the unfolding univerrse as a process of differentiation and reintegration that moves in the direction of an ever greater consciousness. Within and fuelling this incredible process is the energy of love.

Albert Einstein expressed a similar view in a letter that he wrote to his daughter. I would like to quote a few sentences from this letter
There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us. This universal force is LOVE. … This force explains everything and gives meaning to life.
If we want our species to survive, if we are to find meaning in life, if we want to save the world and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer.
When we learn to give and receive this universal energy, …we will have affirmed that love conquers all, is able to transcend everything and anything, because love is the quintessence of life

The most valuable study on love with which I am familiar is that by Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving.
The central theme is that in its essence love is an underlying capacity, attitude, and action, that is brought to every situation and every relationship. In his words:
Love is not primarily a relationship to a specific person; it is an attitude, an orientation of character which determines the relatedness of a person to the world as a whole, not toward one ‘object’ of love. If a person loves only one other person and is indifferent to the rest of their fellow humans, their love is not love but a symbiotic attachment, or an enlarged egotism.
To use a related image, we might say that to become a great painter is not a matter of finding the right object to paint, but both acquiring the skill as well as a depth of humanity.

We may write more about love and love energy, but for the moment we might suggest a simple understanding along the lines of the above authors. Love is an underlying attitude, a mature development of the person, which implies a recognition, acknowledgement, and response to the sacred worth of the person–in oneself, in others, and with regard to the various life situations encountered.

May any underlying weariness you now feel also uncover an immense longing within you. And may you discern that this is a longing for love–to be lovable, to be loved, and to love. May you also recognize that there will always be a felt incompleteness here, but that fragments of this experience may be found in the persons and events that permeate our lives. And may these be sufficient to instill in us an underlying hope in the lasting meaning of our own and others’ lives.

Norman King, May 23, 2021

The “Messiness” of Life and the Creative Power of Love

Many years ago, when my daughter was a very young child, she witnessed a pet cat giving birth to kittens. Her first response was to say, ”ooh, it’s messy.” I recall saying to her at the time, “Life is messy, my dear.” Very shortly afterwards, she commented on how cute were the kittens. This is a scene I remember vividly, and subsequent events have only served to reinforce the image of life as messy.

We spoke last week of this “messiness,” the many contradictions and polarities in life, the blend of strength and weakness, loyalty and betrayal, caring and hostility: the inseparable blend of light and shadow in each of our lives. Yet coursing through this blend, undergirding and surrounding it, I believe, is the sacred worth of the person and indeed of all that is.

One striking example of this perspective is found, for me, in the story of Snow White, in its more original version. As many of you may know, a few decades ago, I was invited to share supper and stories with children in a residential treatment centre. What I noticed was that the children responded most fully to the common folk tales. As a result, I began to engage in a more thorough exploration of these stories which led to teaching a university course on them. I approached them, as I had other stories, from the lens of equality, mutuality, and interdependence.

In the story of Snow White, the colours play a significant role. As the story open, a queen is sewing while looking out the window. She pricks her finger and three drops of blood spill on the snow. She then wishes for a child as white as snow, as black as the ebony wood of the window frame and as red as blood. These colours together symbolize the passions, conflicts, polarities, and contradictions of life; as well as the challenge to integrate these elements in a life-giving way.

Together white and black express the totality of life, the full spectrum of colour and the absence of all light, the light and shadow that are part of any human life, as we have often said. Within the totality of our lives, with its messy contradictions, two powerful forces are a t work, symbolized by the colour red: the destructive red of hatred and the creative red of love.

The two queens illustrate two opposing attitudes and two contradictory ways of striving to culminate or crown one’s existence. The first queen sheds her own blood in sacrifice in order to give life to her daughter. The second queen tries to sacrifice the girl to her own vanity and jealousy. The basic life choice is between life-giving red of love and the death-dealing red of hatred.,

This story recalls that of the two wolves, the wolf of love and the wolf of hatred, that are engaged in a fierce struggle within ourselves. And the grandfather answers the child’s question as to which one wins by saying that it is the one that we feed.

As the story of Snow White unfolds, she experiences the whole forest of human emotions. These culminate in the tasting of all the powerful feelings, expressed in the red side of the apple. Like the caterpillar transforming into the butterfly, she undergoes a death and rebirth experience. All along her journey, she is assisted by others as well, portrayed by the hunter, the dwarfs, and the prince. It is essentially her choice of love over hatred that gives meaning and fulfillment to her life.

A wonderful symbol is that of the truth-telling mirror. Amid the myriad contradictions within ourselves and within life, the challenge is to find a true image or reflection of oneself, beyond a vain stress on externals. A mirror that tells the truth suggests that a person is mirrored to himself or herself by any situation or event, any conversation or word, in short, any experience that reveals to them and confronts them with the truth of who they are, and challenges them to grow into the person they might become. Our image of self, then, is distorted by vanity or superficiality, by self-hatred in any of its forms, and by the hostility of others with their isolating and killing reflection. Our true image is revealed not only in solitude, but especially by people who care. They see and respond to and call forth to our deeper self, beneath the more surface distortions, and they challenge us to discover and live by that true self.

What this and other such stories suggest to me is that life is indeed messy, that we are beset with conflicting feeling, ideas, and attitudes, both within ourselves and in the world of other persons and other beings and situations outside of ourselves. The can pull us in opposing directions, confuse us, and make it difficult to develop and maintain a sense of our sacred worth. Yet, with the help of intelligently caring others, we can struggle gradually along the path of openness, compassion, love, and justice. To do so is to enrich the meaning of our own life and to contribute to the positive unfolding of the lives of others which intersect with our own, and of the earthly home on which we live out our lives.

Amidst all that surrounds and affects your unfolding life, may you find mirrors of your own sacred worth and that of those who share your life in any way. And may you uncover a love for yourself that gradually embraces others in ever wider circles.

Norman King, May 17, 2021

Life’s Contradictions

It has struck me recently how much we are full of contradictory feelings. For myself after a morning walk followed by some reflective reading over coffee, there is a kind of gentle contentedness. Upon venturing out a little later, that mood is easily disrupted by a mildly irritable edginess. Or a sense of accomplishment in some small matter is readily overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy. We have said before that an ongoing challenge is to retain or recover a sense of our sacred worth that includes a recognition and even an acceptance of limitations and mistakes.

Henri Nouwen has written: “Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” Along similar lines, Thomas Merton has written in one of his journals that there was a period of immense inner upheaval in his life, yet beneath this churning turmoil, there remained a deep inner peace that proved to be more real. Years ago, I attempted a one-sentence summary of Merton’s extensive writings in these words. For Merton, each of us is a unique word uttered with meaning and love from the heart of the universe.

Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of and feeling for this sense of underlying worth and sacredness, amid the weight of the hurts, fears, and hostilities that can sometimes govern our thoughts, attitudes, and actions. Yet somehow that inner voice is always there, quietly calling us to remember that sacredness, to return to our inmost home.

So often it takes someone else to call us home, to remind us of that sacred worth beneath and yet inclusive of the turmoil, the shadows of our lives.

A favourite sonnet of Shakespeare (XXX) is also a reminder of this difficult but necessary truth, often realized only through friendship..
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d, and sorrows end.

Humanistic psychologist, Erich Fromm, contrasts what he calls selfishness with a genuine self-love. He sees selfishness as rooted in a lack of self-love. It is a greediness rooted in the frustration of the real self, and is an over-compensation for the basic lack of self-love. In his words: “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.” and “Greed has no satiation point, since its consummation does not fill the inner emptiness, boredom, loneliness, and depression it is meant to overcome.”

In brief, without a sense of our own sacred worth, we become an emptiness that forever tries to fill that void by taking from outside. A genuine sense of worth moves towards a sense of fulness, a sense that one has something to give; it moves towards a fulness that overflows rather than an insatiable emptiness that is never filled. And yet there is probably a life-long struggle within most of us between these two polarities.

In a similar vein, what we may call “spiritual” writers with a holistic sense, such as Karl Rahner, Wilfrid Cantwell Smith, Sam Keen, and Roger Schutz of Taizé, affirm in a similar way that a basic trust in the meaningfulness of life is foundational for everything else in a person.. They offer a positive answer to Einstein’s basic question: Is the universe friendly or not? This underlying attitude of trust involves both a trust in the meaningfulness of life and in the unfolding process of life within ourselves, despite and even inclusive of the events from without and the conflicts and struggles from within that impel us to close ourselves in a defensive mistrust.

The opposite approach is pointed out by David Steindl-Rast, whose writing is focused on gratefulness. He says how we talk about not being able to “take” it anymore, and then we “give” up. This language reflects an approach that sees life as a matter of taking, grasping, possessing things and persons from outside. And it sees giving as giving up, as loss, as diminishing. Erich Fromm against suggests the opposite. In his words. “Not the one who has much is rich, but the one who gives much.” The taking approach presumes a never-ending insatiable emptiness. The giving approach reflects a sense of fulness that overflows. Of course, not only culturally but personally, there is often a struggle between these polarities. The use of possessive language, such as the term “my”in front of relationships, such as my friend or my child, reflects implicitly that orientation. The term “befriend” suggests the opposite, a reaching out from within rather than a grasping from without.

May each of you come more and more to realize that your inner self is a place of fulness, not emptiness, and that, even with its contradictions and struggles, it can be a real home not only for yourselves but for others as well.

Norman King, May 09, 2021

Life as Gratitude-Evoking Gift

A recent podcast on CBC’s Tapestry affirmed that one of the aids to living well in the crisis time of Covid, is to recall each morning things for which we are grateful. The person interviewed was Aisha Ahmad, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. This gratitude is to concern things in the present, not past experiences currently unavailable. Gratitude may also concern very simple things. Other podcasts have also stressed that gratitude is essential to a fulfilling life.

What strikes me here is that such an approach is not a matter of sentimentality or artificial cheeriness. It is rather a gradually dawning realization that, however painful at times, and however engulfed by sadness, depression, or difficulties, that can seem to cast us into an inescapable prison, it is somehow better to be alive. I recall an interview years ago with an elderly woman who was asked if she minded growing old. Her response, along the same lines, was, “I prefer it to the alternative.”

In a reflection some weeks ago I also touched on the theme of gratitude, and said that the underlying gratitude, that informs all other forms, is a gratefulness for the gift of life. Implied in gratitude is the recognition of a gift. When saying thanks is not a mere formality, but comes freely from within ourselves, it is a recognition that we have received something that was not an obligation, but something freely given. The opposite is seen when a child is demanded to say a thanks he or she does not feel. In that case the child experiences resentment rather than gratefulness, and the person thanked does not feel any value in that forced gesture.

The gratitude that counts, both for the one offering thanks and the one receiving it, is the gratitude freely given from within. It implies not only a gift that might not have been given, but a gift that is valuable. When someone just listens to our pain without answers or advice, or stands by us during a time of stress, or expresses a simple kindness, or befriends us in any way, all of these are gifts which evoke a heartfelt gratitude.

These experiences can reinforce in us the sense that it is good to be alive. They are gifts that affirm the value of the gift of life itself, and can help to foster an underlying sense of gratitude for the gift of life, for being alive. Author Josef Pieper speaks in this vein in books, such as About Love and In Tune with the World. He says that when we celebrate someone’s birthday, we are essentially saying that it is good that this person has been born; it is good that he or she is, exists, and by extension, it is good that everything is. He further adds that when you love someone, you are stating not merely that it is good that they are such and such–clever, useful, or skillful; more profoundly, you are affirming that it is good that he or she is, it is wonderful that they exist. In effect, it is the experience of gratitude that this person is in our life, that we are grateful for their presence in the world and in our world, that it is good to be with this person. The very word “presence” comes form the Latin words prae and ens, literally “being with.”

Among other stories of wondrous birth, The Grimm Brothers’ rendition of Sleeping Beauty offer a similar perspective. While the queen is bathing, a frog scurries out of the water and announces that her wish for a child will be granted. The child is presented not as a creation of the parents, but as a gift that is wanted and cherished. Beyond any sentimentality, the image of the wanted gift contains the two basic convictions: (1) from the outset the child is a distinct, unique, sacred person, entrusted to rather than produced by the parents; (2) as a gift, the child is to be received with gratitude.

This child is every child, including ourselves. Yet, due to limitations and life situations, the extreme of which is forms of abuse, this conviction is never fully achieved and only gradually realized and with struggle. That is why authors such as Richard Rohr insist that our sacred worth and our recognition of that worth must include our shadow side as well, the weaknesses, and flaws found in each of us.

One example, to mention at this point briefly, is forgiveness. With its cognate word, “pardon,” its root has the connotation of giving thoroughly. It suggests that this is perhaps the greatest gift one can give to self or another. It implies that there is a core self distinct from and untouched by anything a person says or does. The opposite presumption is illustrated by an argument in which we bring in something form the past. Here the attack attempts to identify someone with something they have done and from which they can never escape. Forgiveness separates a person from such a deed, and affirms that we are more than and are ultimately untouched by the worst thing that we have ever done or that has been done to us.

In effect, the reality of forgiveness, perhaps most difficultly offered to our own self, asserts that there is a sacred core self, an inmost home, that always remains, even if unacknowledged. It proclaims that the gift that we are, the life we have received, is thoroughly given, that it is a lasting gift that can never be lost or destroyed. As a result, it is also a call to gratitude for this gift, even in the midst of sorrows. And it is a call to recognize and honour that gift in self and others, human and non human, in appropriate ways.

In this perspective, it is a possibility and a challenge to live a life infused with gratitude, flowing into generosity. This life direction may be followed with a full awareness of the many forms of suffering, yet contained within the beauty of life.

May you all come more and more to experience yourself, your life, and all life as a wondrous gift. A gift to accept with gratitude, cultivate with care, share with one another, and contribute to a just society on our planetary home.

Norman King, May 3, 2021

Imagination, Self-awareness, and Compassion

Albert Einstein has said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Liberation theologian, Rubem Alves, has written that the most important thing we can do for children is to teach them literature. To do so is to awaken their imagination to the possibility of alternatives, rather than regard the status quo as definitive, and so, in the future, to be able to work for creative change. Imagination is expressed in the arts: in story and drama, in music, in painting and sculpture, and in small ways in many activities of everyday life. We have already expressed the importance of image and story in a variety of ways. This week we will add a few more thoughts on this theme.

In an interview with Krista Tippett for the On Being program, Brian Doerries, artistic director and author, spoke of his reasons for presenting ancient Greek tragedy to a variety of modern audiences. He observes that the ancient Greeks developed this form of storytelling to “communalize trauma,” to help people realize that they are not alone here and now or even across time. These stories, especially when enacted, can help people to grapple honestly and with dignity with present wounds and longings, and to realize that we are not the only people to have felt this isolated or alone or betrayed.

At the same time, he adds, we may realize, as the character Oedipus did, that we may tend to inflict on others the pain that has been inflicted on us, perhaps even in early childhood. “But what I’ve seen,” Doerries concludes, “is people discovering that by telling their story and sharing their narrative, no matter how hard it may be, they are helping other people, and in helping other people, they’re healing themselves.”

His observations remind me of the words of Richard Rohr that suffering that is not transformed is transmitted. They also recall the conviction of John Shea that any sorrow can be born provided a story can be told about it. Sam Keen, in Your Mythic Journey (both the book and the video presentation), reflects a similar perspective. “”By telling our story, we remember our past, invent our present, and envision our future. By sharing our story, we overcome loneliness, learn compassion, and achieve community with kindred souls. … Everyone has a fascinating story to tell, an autobiographical myth. And when we tell our stories to one another, we, at one and the same time, find the meaning of our lives and are healed from our isolation and loneliness. Strange as it may seem, self-knowledge begins with self-revelation. We don’t know who we are until we hear ourselves speaking the drama of our lives to someone we trust to listen with an open mind and heart.”

What emerges from the above references is the conviction that we may often be trapped unknowingly in our own unrecognized pain and without awareness tend to inflict it upon others. What we can experience in a play or story or other art form is a naming of our own experience. This awakening can at once make us aware that do indeed have unfaced sorrow and that we have inflicted it upon others. At the same time, it can make us aware as well that we are not isolated in our suffering, that it is shared in some way by everyone we meet and all strangers, and can evoke at least the beginning of compassion for others. In the words of Henri Nouwen, we can become “wounded healers.”

As suggested, one path to self-discovery and healing is to name our experience.  Yet we can perhaps do so most profoundly and fully by telling our story to a respectfully aware and caring other; and correspondingly by listening in a similar way to another’s story. this experience can happen in a continuous way in friendship, which I have sometimes described  as the sharing of uniqueness.  We may discuss friendship more fully on another occasion. Here we might just mention that a key element in friendship is open and trusting conversation. After such shared speaking, there is at once a tendency at once to absorb quietly this experience and to be aware of the unique personhood of the other. In this sense, vulnerable conversation pushes both towards solitude and compassion; and to a realization at once of the uniqueness of each person and of the common humanity shared by all.

Similar thoughts are expressed by Karen Armstrong in her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Reflecting on Sophocles Oedipus plays, and Oedipus’ own transformation through suffering, she comments: “Tragic drama reminds us of the role that art can play in expanding our sympathies.” “Imagination,” she insists, “is crucial to the compassionate life. … Art calls us to recognize our pain and aspirations and to open our minds to others. Art helps us–as it helped the Greeks–to realize that we are not alone; everyone else is suffering too. … Our pain, therefore can become an education in compassion.”

As I have said before, I believe that at the core of our being, we are a self of sacred worth. This heart is our hearth, our true home. Yet surrounding this core is what may be called a wall of hurt, then fear, then hostility. Through the arts, as well as through meditation, friendship, social involvement, and the like, we may come to be more and more in touch with and live from this inner centre, and respond to that centre in others, rather than live from our own and others hurt, fear, and hostility.

May you all have a safe journey to that inner sanctuary of your true self, and find there a home for yourself And others.

Norman King, April 26, 2021