Longing with contentment and hope

The last time we mentioned how the beauty of a work of any art, from story to sculpture, or the transparent goodness of another person, can be like a mirror that reflects us to ourselves. The story of Snow White notes that the mirror always told the truth. It has often struck me that we cannot see ourselves with our own eyes but only by looking in a mirror. I would add that the true mirror of any of us is found in the eyes of someone who loves us. As also noted before, the story of Narcissus suggests that essential to our personal growth and authentic relationships is an image of ourselves as loveable, as capable of being loved and of loving.

We also wrote that, unless blocked by fear and its attendant hostility, the experience of beauty and goodness speaks to what is deepest within us. It reveals our deepest longing for lasting meaning and calls us to become the person we can be. It invites and challenges us to fashion ourselves according to our own and others’ sacred worth, to make of our lives as lasting work of art.

We might recall that the word voice comes from the Latin vox and vocare, voice and to call. The challenge of creating of our lives as a lasting work of art is to tune in to the call we hear from our own deepest centre. It is to discover, not just our job or our profession, but our vocation. It is what we are called from within to make of our lives, in light of our own deepest inner voice.

Theologian Theodore Steeman writes: “Human life is really an open-ended question, a question which does not contain its own answer. But it is a question to which the answer must be given by every person. …. Our hopes are always more than can come true, our demands on life are always larger than life is willing to give. Nevertheless, life is a task, an invitation, a challenge. It requires the courage to be, the courage to live. … I think that the best moments of our lives are when we do not feel closed upon ourselves or concerned about ourselves and we see life as a task before us, when we are aware that self-concern hinders honesty. These are the moments when we know that life is good, embedded in a mystery of goodness and love and that we have to make our own lives such messages of goodness and love.”

Another way of putting this thought is that we go through life with a question and a quest that reaches further than any answer that we receive. There remains within us an unstilled longing. It could perhaps be described as a longing for meaning, for a sense that who we are is of value, that we belong in this life, and that there is some purpose, something to live for in our life.

Sone years ago, Jane Ripley and myself published a book of reflective verse, called Touching the Spirit, Reflections from the Heart. It included a number of introductory sections including one on longing, which I’ll repeat here;
Longing is the voice of love in its aching for completeness and wholeness.
Longing is the voice of our heart in its recognition that we are ever on a journey, ever pilgrims, whose words, actions, and lives, never fully embody who we long to be.
Longing is the voice of our heart in its recognition that, not without a tinge of anxiety, we wish to, yet never quite share who we are with another.

Yet, longing is not a restless dissatisfaction nor a negative judgment passed on self or others.
Rather, longing is a gentle openness to embrace and share our lives, as they have been and are.
Longing is a gentle openness to grow beyond where we are now, to move with another on our journey, as we trust the unfolding process of life, within us, between us, and beyond us.

I may trust this endless, fathomless longing. I may feel its pain and beauty in silence. I may share its vulnerability and hope in friendship. I may give it voice in music and art. I may embody it in social struggle. I will let it become a caring space around what is precious here and now, yet let it ever remain a space that is never filled, that allows and draws me to reach further, with and for others, in a hope that strives both to realize its hopes, and to grow beyond them.

May the longing that you feel in your deepest heart not lead into sadness and sorrow, but move rather to a sense of hope that embraces but moves beyond your vulnerability to grow in understanding, and in caring for yourselves and for one another.

Please visit our website: www.touchingthespirit.ca
Norman King, January 24, 2022

Our Life as Work of Art

The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, wrote a poem about contemplating a statue of Apollo, the ancient Greek god and symbol of the sun, healing. and fine arts. Apollo was also, so to speak, for the Greeks, the mirror of an ideal human being. Rilke concluded his poem by saying that it was as if the statue saw him and spoke to him, with the final words of the poem. “You must change your life.”

Certainly it is not a literal voice that can be heard, but rather the call that the experience of beauty evokes on us. It is the call that summons us to become the person we can be, to become the best we can be. Shakespeare has written that the purpose of art is to hold the mirror up to nature. That would seen to mean that a good play or novel or painting or sculpture reflects us back to ourselves. It allows us to see into ourselves and challenges us to grow into the person we can be. I would add that a truly good person does the same. Who they are is an invitation and challenge to us to become all that we can be.

There is a striking Peanuts cartoon. Lucy is chasing Charlie Brown and threatening to “pound” him. He responds by saying that if we small children cannot solve our problems without resorting to violence, how do we expect the larger world issues to be solved. She then punches him and comments as she walks off with a companion: “I had to hit him, he was beginning to make sense.”

It reminds me of the Quaker expression of speaking truth to power. A prophetic voice expressing a compassionate truth, however peacefully invitational, can evoke a hostile and even violent response. In a similar vein, it seems that those who wish to inflict abuse on others label their victims as inferior, as in racism, or as evil, as in political propaganda. What is remarkable here is that this perspective also contains an implicit recognition that what is human is to be acknowledged, honoured, and respected. Otherwise there would be no need to devalue other individuals or groups

The challenge to realize our own true potential is, I believe, the heart of the story of Rumpelstiltskin. The young woman’s challenge is to spin straw into gold. This I understand to mean that we are challenged to take the raw material of our lives, which might seem brief and passing, like straw, and fashion it into gold, into a lasting work of art. We do so by the way we spin or weave our life story. The dwarf stands for the inner resources upon which we must draw. The possible gifts to the dwarf stand for what is involved in the process. The pearl necklace stands for the different qualities that need to be developed; the ring stands for the unifying or integrating of these qualities, and the possible loss of the child stands for the those elements that can take away our future, or even destroy us.

It is a process of developing all of our gifts, integrating them, and struggling with what may be destructive forces within us. We do so by naming those forces, by “coming to terms” with them; that is, by understanding the whole complex of our interior life, both light and darkness (as we have previously discussed). We need to discover words, images and ideas, stories and paintings, and even cartoons, that help us to name the totality of our experience. We return again to the thought that the different arts, especially if they are beautiful, do reflect to us who we are, including our sacred worth. They also challenge us to become who we can be, which is to realize and live according to to our sacred worth.

I once heard an Inuit artist comment that he sat meditatively before the soap stone that he was going to carve. After a period of time an image would emerge, whether of a walrus, seal, hunter or the like. He then removed the excess, so to speak, and freed the figure within. I also saw partially carved statues of Michelangelo which were human figures from the waist up with the rest being an uncarved block of marble. There was an uncanny sense that the figures were trying to escape from the marble. It seems that our own growth involves discerning our own unique, but inseparably communally situated self, and freeing it from all its clutter so that the work of art that each of us is can emerge more fully.

At the same time, how we look at ideals seems very important. If we are beginning piano lessons, for example, we can listen to recordings of Canadian artist, Glenn Gould. We can then move in two directions. One is to notice how good he is compared to our present level, and simply give up. The other is to see him as an example of what a pianist can be and, starting where we are, try to move, however slowly and incompletely, in that direction. In other words, we need not see ideals as a club to beat ourselves with, or as a criticism of where we are now. Rather, starting where we are now as already something sacred, we can look to an ideal as a good direction to move towards.

Once again, in this perspective, it is always a matter of beginning from a conviction of our own sacred worth, even though it can be hard to feel that worth at certain times. Then, like gold in a crucible, we can gradually unveil the work of art that is each of us.

May you come more and more to realize the precious work of art that you are and gradually uncover that masterpiece in every area of your life–and not be discouraged at the slowness and incompleteness of the process.

Norman King, January 16, 2022
Please visit our website: www.touchingthespirit.ca

The Toxicity of Hatred and the Re-Understanding of Love

As we mentioned previously, the story of Snow White raises the question of how we respond to the red emotions, specifically our tendencies to love and to hate. Like the story of The Two Wolves, this story suggests that a fundamental life choice is between love and hate. Yet because both tendencies are powerfully present within us, the choice and the life-orientation will involve a struggle between the two.

Writer Richard Rohr has a very strong statement in this regard. “If we need to hate,” he says, “we will destroy anyone who tells us our hatred is the problem.” We have said before that hatred of others is usually a projection on to another individual or group of unfaced hatred of self. Rohr also adds that the challenge is to oppose hatred without succumbing to hatred within ourselves, without becoming a mirror image of what we oppose. Martin Luther King writes similarly: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do so. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do so.”

The major religions and worldviews have stressed that love or compassion is the root value that should ground and find expression in all else. This approach seems to imply to crucial things. One is that it is essential to arrive at an understanding of love that is wider than a one-to-one relationship, especially a narrow romantic view. The second is that if love is the core value then its opposite, hatred, must be the fundamental disvalue.

We have perhaps often been given the impression that a basic challenge is to determine whom to love and whom to hate. Yet at the heart of many traditions and worldviews is the understanding that hatred itself is the problem. There is also the saying that the first victim of hatred is the one who hates, in other words, that hatred is soul-destroying.

Richard Rohr speaks of shame, the sense that not just what we do or fail to do, but who we are is inadequate, unworthy, wrong. And he contends that this is the experience of most people, and that it is overcome not so much by changing our behaviour, as by changing our self-image. In this regard, a more fulfilling and also challenging image is the one we have consistently stressed, that of our sacred worth.

It is fascinating that spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, who also struggled with anxiety and depression, has the notion that each of us is “beloved” as the basic truth of our lives. Thomas Merton, another spiritual writer, also emphasizes that the root commandment is not to love others but to believe that we are loved. Political scientist, Michael Ignatieff, in writing about human rights says that their foundation is the recognition that we all share a common humanity which is to be respected.

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights also grounds human rights in the dignity of the person, and of every human person. Philosopher, Robert Johann adds that we do not have rights before impersonal forces of nature, such as a tornado or hurricane, but only before another person who has the capacity and responsibility to recognize and treat me as a person, and not as an object.

Karen Armstrong, begins her Charter for Compassion with these words.  ” The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures,… and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

We have referred to these authors in previous reflections. From their writings we distill the same  underlying conviction of the sacred worth of the person. As the story of Narcissus implies, the starting point or foundation of that recognition begins with the image of ourselves as someone who is lovable and capable of loving and being loved.

Yet we may develop here a more expansive understanding of love in its basic form as a recognition of the sacred worth of self and all others. We may experience that worth more directly in the experience of friendship. But friendship itself can be foundational for seeing personhood not just as an “I” but as a “we.” We can then gradually extend our experience of personhood to every other human being, both near and far. Michael Ignatieff observes that it is an intense love of those closest to us enables us to extend that recognition to those farther away, to acknowledge the needs of strangers.

Erich Fromm further emphasizes that it is in a response to the most marginalized and vulnerable in our society that we learn to love. “Only in the love of those who do not serve a purpose,” he writes, “does love begin to unfold.” Theologian Albert Nolan, speaks in a like manner of responding to those who do not have wealth, power, privilege or the like. But have only their humanity to commend themselves

We return to the basic conviction of a sacred worth to each and every human being and, in effect, to everything that is. Our worth goes with who we are and is not something earned or added on. In this light, the notion of hatred is the denial or rejection of that worth or the limiting of that to one’s own “tribe” or group. In contrast, love springs from an acknowledgment and honouring of that worth in self and others. In those closest to us, there are additional qualities, a greater sharing of ourselves. These build upon the recognition of the worth of ourselves and those with whom we are more immediately connected. This recognition can then be extended in wider and wider circles. At its greatest extension, it includes an awareness that the universe it not a collection of objects to dominate but a community of beings to reverence

May you come more and more to experience in a deeply felt way your own sacred worth; may you experience as well the response of another or others to that worth; and may you learn to extend that recognition of worth in wider and wider circles. Put a little differently, may you become more and more at home, really a home, to yourself. And may you become increasingly a home for others as well.

Norman King, January 09, 2022

 

Inner Growth as “Shedding Shells”

The last time, at the winter solstice, we spoke of light and darkness. While light usually is treated as more positive than darkness, the two are in fact inseparable and one emerges from the other. It is the dark night that allows us to see the light of the stars. The song, Anthem, by Leonard Cohen and the story, The Friendly Giant, by Oscar Wilde, speak of the cracks in the walls around us and, in fact, in everything, as places where the light of new life gets in.

These thoughts call to mind the issues of openness to grow and develop, the willingness to move beyond our present levels and ways of seeing, feeling, and caring. It is like noticing these are like an old coat that no longer fits and needs to be let go of. It is like leaving the home of familiar ways and venturing into the realm of new thoughts, feelings, and attitudes.

I once heard someone describe how a particular kind of crab periodically grew too large for its shell, and returned to the ocean where it shed that shell and took 24 hours to grow a new one. During that it remained quite vulnerable. The speaker then commented that life was a process of shedding shells, in which there are times of transition during which we may be quite vulnerable.

This can be a process of coming to see life in a new light. It may be a change in the angle of vision or horizon through which we see things. A problem that bothers us, for example, may look different in the middle of a sleepless night and in a conversation over lunch with a trusted friend. At the same time, we may be reluctant to let go of a way of looking at life that seemed to give a certain security in order to become open to new possibilities that may move us in an uncertain direction.

A good illustration is the story, All the Years of Her Life by the late Canadian writer, Morley Callaghan, In this story, a young man has been irresponsibly relying upon in his mother to rescue him from any difficult situation. As she helps him be extricated from another incident, he begins to see her in the new light, which includes a vulnerability he had not noticed before. He recognizes his own failures, and finally approaches a level of maturity. The story concludes: “He watched his mother, and he never spoke, but at that moment his youth seemed to be over. … It seemed to him that this was the first he had ever looked upon his mother.”

Sometimes we may glimpse someone in their vulnerability or someone may catch a dim glance of our vulnerability. It is then perhaps that we experience a call to acknowledge each other in our uniqueness and respect our sacred worth. I recall an experience many years ago when I caught sight of someone’s fragility when, as it seemed it was not intended. It was as if catching sight of something through the back door, and left a sense of uneasiness blended with a need to respect that person. The whole issue of trust arises here, which may be the topic for another reflection

A similar theme of openness to new light out of darkness can be found in the story of Snow White, as it appears in the Grimm Brothers version. It begins with a queen who longs for a child that is as white as snow, as black as the ebony window frame and as red as the blood that fell on the snow from a pricking her finger. In this instance, the colours black and white express the totality of light and darkness, the totality of feelings that are found in a person. The red stands for the powerful feelings, specifically the self-giving love of the one queen and the destructive hatred of the other queen. As she matures, the child is faced with a choice between the two reds, the choice between a life grounded in love and a life rooted in hatred. In tasting the red part of the apple offered to her, Snow White experiences all of the red feelings of life. This is a death and rebirth experience, and the awakening occurs through the receiving and giving of love.

A similar choice is echoed in the story of The Two Wolves, in which the child tells the grandfather of the struggle within himself between the wolf of love and the wolf of haste, and asks which one will win. The grandfather replies simply: “the one you feed.” In other words, we do experience contradictory feelings and tendencies within ourselves. Yet we can move in the direction of choosing to nourish our capacity to love, to bring to life and foster growth. Or we can feed our tendency to hatred which pushes us in the direction of domination and destruction.

What emerges from the above materials is that all of us experience the whole range of feelings and possibilities, and that we are drawn or pushed in different directions. To move in one direction or another will inevitably involve a struggle and be a gradual process. To move in a direction of love is to move towards an acknowledgment of the sacred worth of self and others and to try, however haltingly, to follow that direction. At the same time it will involve a struggle with our fears and hostilities in which we acknowledge their reality, but attempt not to unleash them on self or others. It will likewise involve a struggle with our own and others, sense of worth.

May your experience of shedding the shells of feelings, thoughts, and attitudes that no longer fit, give rise, despite our felt vulnerability, to a new and fuller life within us and around us.

Norman King, January 02, 2021

Light and Darkness

“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” This is one of my favourite lines from the poetic songs of Leonard Cohen. To me, it suggests that in the midst of the experience of our limitations, our vulnerability, our mortality, there emerges the light of meaning and of hope. As I have often expressed it, our sacred worth is not taken away by our wounds, but even revealed and shines through these wounds. For example, we come closer to people, not when they brag about themselves but when they are open about their struggles.

A striking sight for me is when, driving before a cloudy sky, rays of light shine through the openings, the cracks, in the clouds, and stream down to earth. Another obvious occasion is when we see a rainbow flowing from light shining on rain clouds. The dancing movement of the Northern Lights is still another example. We likewise need to drive well outside areas of dense population to find sufficient darkness to be able to see the light of millions of stars or the milky way.

If you drive before sunrise early in morning, everything is very still and silent. Then, as the light begins to appear, there is often the movement of a light breeze, the birds begin their daily song, and animals begin to stir. It is like an awakening, an opening up.

We are now around the time of the winter solstice, when the night is longest and the days being slowly to lengthen. Darkness slowly recedes and light starts to expand. The cold of winter gradually gives way to the warmth of spring.

There is a beautiful folk-like story by Oscar Wilde, called The Selfish Giant . The giant discovers a crack in the walls he has built around himself and his garden. Children come in through that opening and, with them, the new life of spring. This experience leads the giant to break down all the walls and give free access to the children. The episode suggests that unless we have cracks in the walls of defensiveness, cracks of vulnerability, so that children can come through–that is, new life, new thoughts, new images–then we shall remain bleak and cold and dark and desolate inside. We tear down rather than build our walls through creative, life-giving, generous, even sacrificial compassion, caring, and love. At a point in the story, the giant does comment of the seasons of our life. “He did not hate the Winier now, for he knew that it was merely the Spring asleep, and that the flowers were resting.”

While we tend to see light and darkness as opposites and to see light as positive and darkness as negative, there is perhaps more a sense of complementarity. As we have just said, it is the darkness that allows us to see the light of the stars. Astronauts have commented on the sheer darkness of space, which nonetheless highlights the beauty of our blue planet. It is also from the rich dark soil that the new life of plants and flowers emerge.

Benedictine monk and Zen master, David Steindl Rast observes: “The universe is an immense house, as it were, with transparent walls. But outside, it is night. Beyond the transparent walls lies the darkness of mystery … And as human try to understand the mystery in which the world is embedded, they begin to project images onto the walls of glass behind which lies the night of the Great Question.” Our human loneliness, he adds, leads us to become focused only on these images so that we no longer look through at the night. He concludes. “There can be no vision without acceptance of mystery.” In a similar vein, theologian Karl Rahner says that if we enter into the silence of solitude, we may notice that everything is surrounded by a kind of “nameless remoteness,. .. like a silence whose stillness cries out.” He then invites us to trust this silent darkness: “it is not emptiness.”

Loreena McKennitt sings of what has been called the dark night of the soul, a term that has referred to an experience when all the ideas and images upon which we have relied fall away and the mystery of ourselves and of life and of the universe penetrates and envelopes our soul. Yet she sings: “ Oh night thou was my guide, of night more loving than the rising sun.”
We have previously noted how Einstein speaks of the invisible energy of love as the dominant force in the universe. I recall as well the experience of a friend who was groping his way to his car on a cloudy winter night, when the moon emerged from behind a cloud and shed a pale light over everything. He said that his overwhelming experience at that time was that he was loved.

It seems that the core of all this imagery of light and darkness is that they have many layers of meaning. Whatever is of light is surrounded by and emerges from darkness, just as words emerge from silence. Our best words seems as well to come from our deepest silence. The famous conductor, Leoplold Stokowski puts it in these words: “A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.”

Rumi says “What is the light in the centre of darkness inside your soul.” “Your defects are the ways that glory gets manifested… That’s where the Light enters you.” Rilke also speaks of the “deep innerness of all things.” which is with great difficulty and never successfully put into words.

May any darkness you experience be the rich soil of new life; and may any “cracks” you experience be places where the light gets in and also shines forth from within you.

Norman King
December 26, 2021

A Sense of Worth and Belonging

We have spoken often of our unique identity and of the sacred worth of each person and all that is. Yet at the same time it is good to realize the relational character, the connectedness of everything. This reality is deeply experienced when its apparent absence is felt in times of acute and painful loneliness.. Then there is is a sense of disconnection, of not belonging, the feeling that nobody knows or cares about us.

This reality of connectedness is certainly true on the scale of the universe. As Brian Swimme puts it in the film, The Journey of the Universe: “The stars are our ancestors.” Every element in our bodies and that of all nature comes from those in the stars. We also speak of mother earth, of earth as the origin of ourselves and as our home. We have also noted that breathing, drinking, and eating are not just private activities, but are essentially relational, expressive of our relationship to and dependence upon the earth. The whole issue of climate change is a vivid reminder of our dependency on the earth and the consequences of disrupting that relationship. Author Wayne Muller has commented that by the very fact that we are breathing, we belong, we are part of the while ecosystem. It has also been brought out that we are breathing the same air as other humans and animals have breathed for thousands upon thousands of years.

Yet so many fail to feel this belonging, and instead feel isolated, alone, and alienated, that is, feeling other than and estranged from the people and world around them, even those to whom they are supposed to feel close.

I have had occasion to explore these questions in different courses. An obvious example has been dealing with the themes of loneliness, solitude, and friendship, isolation and belonging, estrangement and community. Another inquiry concerns the topics of knowledge and freedom, which can be viewed respectively as the gathering and gift of self. As we gradually become aware of ourselves in our distinctness (knowledge), there follows a longing to give ourselves to another or others or to something which provides a feeling of belonging and purpose (freedom). Basic questions that arise out of our emerging into awareness are: who am I? where do I belong? and what am if for?

Many years ago, I also had occasion to offer a course on this process of separation and unification, that the ancient Greeks called the problem of the one and the many. The division of a single cell is followed by reintegration into a new unity. I have watched kittens being born and, as soon as they emerged, they sought their food source in their mother. On watching this birth process, my then 6 year old daughter’s comments were: “Ooh its messy,”. To which I replied: “Life is messy, my dear.” She then added on how cute the baby kittens were. Each day as they grew visibly, they would wander further away from the mother cat, only to return, until much later they went our on their own to give birth to the next generation of cats.

In a somewhat similar way, a woman gives birth to a child who is then placed in his or her mother’s arms. The small child, in playing peekaboo, is apparently dealing in a humourous way with the fear of separation. Implied here is a growing awareness of oneself as a separate being and therefore able to be separated from another, yet profoundly needing them. Later the child runs out to play and runs back home periodically to reassure their belonging. Stories like Hansel and Gretel reveal how sometimes children are not simply allowed and encouraged both to venture forth and to return. Instead they may be cast out or imprisoned, victims of rejection or possessiveness. This is the experience of all too many children. The story reaffirms, nonetheless, that despite this wilderness experience, they may still find a home within themselves and in caring others.

Philosopher John Smith gives a striking account of experience. He says that we don’t start out with an awareness of ourselves as a distinct individual and then try to relate to other distinct individuals. Rather it is the opposite that happens. Initially there is no sense of a distinct self. Then as we interact with others and the world around us, in ways that may be both enjoyable and hurtful, we gradually become aware of ourselves as distinct from the persons and things of the world around us. I like to express this experience by saying that gradually we come more and more into our own hands. We do so as distinct from and over against the persons and conditions around us. As we do, we feel more and more the longing to place ourselves somewhere where we feel we belong and where we can be and do something worthwhile. This is the process of the gathering and gift of self.

Yet, as the Hansel and Gretel story expresses, sometimes the emerging of the self happens in a wounding context. It can be one of rejection which can push us to become clinging, or one of smothering which can push us always to keep our distance. In either case, it can be hurtful in a way that can make us wonder about our own worth, as well as our ability to relate creatively to others and the world around us. In its most negative expression, it can lead us to withdraw in a crippling fear or to lash out in a destructive anger. Ideally, with the help of one another, we can live and respond out of a sense of our own worth and that of those we encounter, even when differ from them or are even in opposition. Hopefully, however, there will be many occasions of connection in mind and heart, in creativity and in friendship.

It does seem the there is in us a deep longing that the self that comes into our hands is a valuable self. The pain of feeling that we are worthless or of little worth is terrible. All these reflections over the weeks have been based on the assumption of our sacred worth, and have focused on ways we may come to experience that worth in ourselves and others. A key element in the recognition of that sacred worth is the realization that it is not taken away by the limitations and wounds that are part of every human life, whether these occur more gently or more harshly.

The voice of hope that calls from deeply within us sings out the conviction that our longing for worth is not in vain but expresses the profound reality of our sacred value. It invites us to realize that we have something to give flowing from who we are. It is our presence and our gifts as they find themselves in our present life-situation. And it blends with the recognition that the world of persons and things around us, though wounded as well, is worthy of the gift of who we are and its many dimensions.

May your discover more and more the gift that you are and the gifts that you have, and increasing feel, with each new breath, a sense of belonging and also a sense of enduring purpose in your life.

Norman King, December 19, 2021

Finding Our Own Voice with and for One Another

Last week, we spoke of our unique identity, using the image of the unique song that is each of us. We said too that this song, that who we are, is the fundamental gift that we have to offer one another. Using the same image we might add that it can often be a long and slow struggle to discover our song, to discover our real voice, and not simply be an echo of our culture, of our background, of how others have named us, however well-intentioned.

These thoughts call to mind the story of Echo from Greek mythology. On the surface, the story reflects the phenomenon of an echo, a sound that comes back to us from a mountain or hill, repeats itself over and over, and gradually fades away. More profoundly, it suggests that if we only repeat what we have heard from outside, and never find our true original voice from within,we will gradually fade away and die inside.

One further striking element in the story is that the young woman Echo is condemned to this condition by the goddess, Hera, whom she has inadvertently offended. In other words, often we may not simply fail to find our own voice from within, but we may be deprived of that voice. We may have an alien voice inflicted upon us, by others or society, from their need for power, control, unrealized ambitions, conformity, or jealousy, all of which may mask a lack of awareness or an unfaced fear.

A similar theme is expressed in the story of Rumpelstiltskin, in which the task is to spin straw into gold, to take the raw material of our life and fashion it into a lasting work of art. Yet this challenge is occasioned by the arrogant boastfulness of the young woman’s father, the miller, and the greed of the king. To succeed in this wounded context, she has to rely upon the dwarf, that is to say, on all her own inner resources. The successive cost is imaged as the string of pearls, the ring, and the future child. Without spelling out details, the challenge is to develop all our different qualities (pearls), to integrate or unify them (ring) , and to struggle with our destructive tendencies (loss of child or future).

It is striking that the word for voice comes from the Latin word vocare, meaning to call. The challenge of creating of our lives as a lasting work of art is to pass from what we are called by others to the call we hear from our own deepest centre. It is to discover not just our job or our profession, but our vocation. It is what we are called from within to make of our lives, in light of our own deepest inner voice.

At the same time, there is an unfortunate cultural assumption that our own voice is in opposition to others, that others are an obstacle to our freedom. A common (mis)understanding for freedom seems to see it merely as the ability to make money at the expense of others. I think it is better understood as the capacity and responsibility to grow and develop as persons, to fashion ourselves into a lasting work of art. And it would occur, with the help of others, and also on behalf of others.

I have found–though much easier to express in words than in real life–that the degree of freedom that we have as young adults depends somewhat on the degree of intelligent love we have received as children. To the extent that this is lacking and is incomplete, as it always is, there is a struggle to become free, to grow beyond the fear and hostility that weigh us down. At the same time, our freedom is fulfilled, not in endlessly remaking arbitrary choices, but in giving ourselves fully and completely. Freedom is fulfilled not in avoidance but in commitment. The question, it seems to me, is not how to avoid decision and commitment, but how to find to what or to whom we can give ourselves completely. The question is what is worth the gift of our whole self. In effect, it is a question of learning how to love.

An insightful understanding is offered by philosopher, Robert Johann, who comments that human rights, which imply freedom, are bound up with the reciprocity of persons. I cannot assert rights in front of an impersonal tornado or hurricane. My rights, he says, depends upon your responsibility to recognize and treat me as a person; and your rights depend on my responsibility to recognize and treat you as a person..

The poem by Robert Frost, The Death of a Hired Man, portrays a the person who lacks a real home, except for the couple who afford him a safe place to die. He is characterized as having “nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.” Aside from a more insightful interpretation of this story told as a poem, it offers an image of being empty-handed, of lacking the capacity to gather ourselves into our hands as something of sacred worth, and lacking something to give to and entrust with that self.

Put in slightly different words, I have the challenge not only to discover and express my own unique voice and song, but to do so in a context of respect for you and your voice and song. And we find our voice only within the framework of helping one another to discover and express that voice and sing that song.

May we learn more and more to discover and help one another to discover our own unique voices, and to contribute at least in some small way to the harmony of our own lives, of our relationships and of our world.

Norman King, December 12, 2021

What is Our Song

We spoke last week about beauty, the beauty that is found in nature, in the arts, in the inner core of each person. On many occasions, I have come across the image that speaks of who we are, our unique identity, as our song. Author and counsellor, Wayne Muller, situates this image along with many others when he speaks of our self-discovery.
The search for our essence, our identity, is fundamental … When I listen deeply to my inner life, what do I hear? What is the substance of my soul, the core of my being? What is my true nature? …What is our song? How do we name ourselves? Which word, when we speak it, reveals what is most deeply true about this inner voice, our deepest heart, our fundamental nature?
Many years ago, a kind of story welled up within me that used that image. I’ll repeat it here.
The Boy Who Sings the Songs That Break down Walls
There was once a little boy with no name. He woke up one day in a barren, desolate place. It was all grey. Nothing grew anywhere. There were only stones and rocks on the dusty ground. He looked around and saw no one. Yet he felt strange, as if he were being watched. He felt uneasy and afraid.
So he took the rocks and stones and build a wall around himself . There he stayed, inside the wall. He looked out, half fearfully, half expectantly. This continued for a while. Then, one day, he noticed that a little water was seeping through the ground at the bottom of his enclosure.
He put some rocks down to cover it. But the water kept slowly welling up. He thought to himself, “The water will come up and push my walls away and leave me all alone in the open with nothing to protect me.” And he felt very anxious.
The water kept coming up, stronger and stronger, faster and faster. Finally, it burst forth and blew all the walls away and carried the little boy with it. He flailed his arms and legs in a desperate panic.At last he just relaxed and found that he was carried by the flow of water. Then the water turned into music and flowed into his heart.
He found himself standing in a grassy area  Everything was green and swaying softly in the gentle breeze. He did not know where he was or where he would go or what he would do. But he knew that his basic task in life was to sing that music in his heart.
And from that day on, he was no longer the little boy with no name, but the boy who sings the songs that break down walls.
Among other things, this little story suggests that beneath our anxieties and fears, and the walls we put up in alleged self-defence, there is our inmost self. Our basic life task is to discover or uncover that underlying self, to live from that self, and to share it with one another in whatever ways are appropriate in varying life-situations. The image of that core identity, the heart of who we are, is our song.
This image also emerged in the final words of my tribute to my late wife Lorraine, at her funeral. I expressed the conviction that the song of her life, the song of who she was, would sing always in our hearts.
It is who we are, the unique song that is each of us, that is our fundamental gift to one another. It is deeper than yet our gifts, our words, our actions, our life. Yet, unless obstructed by hurts or hears or hostilities, it is that song that flows into our gifts, our words, our actions, and our lives. It is essentially through the song that we are that we truly reach one another. This appears to be the theme of the story of Rapunzel.  The story tells the inwardness of her isolation in a tower finds expression in song. The beauty of her singing, that is, the inner beauty of who she is (and by implication the inner beauty of each of us) rings throughout the forest. It reaches the young man who was profoundly moved by it. The song of who we are may also reach all who are open to hear it.
The story suggests that out of the solitude that allows us to get in touch with and express our deepest self, the result is something that reflects its beauty. It further suggests that it is in fact who we are, our unique song, that is best able to reach and help and heal one another.
Later in the story of Rapunzel, her singing is again heard by the now blinded young man as she sings to their two children. As she sees him approaching, she runs to embrace him and two of her tears fall on his eyes and restore their sight. Like our song, the tears of our joy and sorrow, that come from a place within deeper than the differentiation of feelings, can also provide vison and healing to one another.

In sum, it is our presence, who we are that is most effective. And so our task is to discover that deepest self, to experience its beauty and sacred worth that frees us, and to let it gradually break down the walls behind which we hide, and flow, like the water of life, like the music of our song, into our words and actions and life. In this way, may we help to bring one another to life and to contribute our song to the human chorus, and to the song of the earth which is our home.

May you come to discover and to sing the song of who you are as a fulfilling life for yourselves and as a healing and life-giving presence in our world.
Norman King, December 06, 2021