Revisiting Familiar Stories to Discover Our Own Script

Last week, we spoke of how important it is to experience and name our real feelings, however varied and even contradictory they are. I mentioned also the need to do so in a safe place, whether by ourselves or to a trusted and caring other.

In naming our experiences, especially the deeper ones, everyday language falls short. Images and stories are far better. They give pictures of our feelings so that we may take them into our hands and place them carefully in our lives. Their truth lies not so much in their being factual or not, but in the vision of life they contain.

The 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, writes: “Out beyond ideas of right and wrong, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” He is not talking about a physical place “out there” He is rather pointing to what I would call the sacred core of each of us. It is a place within us that is deeper than our moral behaviour and that remains and calls us home, even if we have somehow violated or betrayed ourselves or others. It is this place that we visit or are allowed to enter in another or another in us, when we are truly present to eaxh another.

Thomas Merton, a spiritual writer, made a similar comment. The world, he wrote is not merely a physical place traversed by jet plane and cars, but is a complex reality made up of my own and everyone’s hopes and fears, attitudes and actions. It is discovered not by looking out the window, but by looking within myself, as part of that world.

Images and stories help us to name our experience. I would define a myth, not as a falsehood, as it is taken to mean in much language today. Rather it is a vision of life or a basic dimension of life in story form.. I think that every story, even a television commercial, contains a way of looking at life. One old Star Trek episode told of how, in order to avoid endless destruction of property, two rival groups played a kind of chess game in which those who lost had to submit members of their society to a death chamber. The story implied a critique of war as a practice in which property was of more value than persons.

Stories of real depth, like the ancient mythologies, can also be approached from many angles. In a few weeks, I will be giving a five classes on Greek Mythology. The last few months, I had the privilege of spending time with my godson who developed a tremendous interest in these ancient stories. As a matter of fact, he did better on the topic of Greek Mythology than all the contestants on Jeopardy. In our conversations, we developed a more child-centred, inclusive, and egalitarian approach to these stories. The vision that they contained could be drawn out from some aspects of their cultural framework. They are then able to speak to us today with a real resonance.

A good example is the story of Narcissus. Here is how we retold it.
The Story of Narcissus Retold
Once upon a time there was a very handsome young man, named Narcissus, He was very popular with everyone, but did not let anyone get too close to him. He was afraid that anyone who saw into his heart would dislike him.

One day, while wandering through the woods, he came upon a clear pond of water. He looked into the pond and saw a reflection of himself. That person is beautiful, he said. Suddenly he realized that he was looking at a reflection of himself. He was startled to see his own goodness.

All at once a flower rose slowly out of the water. It was white with a centre of the colour of the sun. That flower stands for my sudden coming from shadow to light. I will call it Narcissus, like me.

From that day on, Narcissus was not afraid to let someone see into his heart. And he recognized that every heart is the colour of the sun. And he learned to be loving to himself and to be kind to everyone he met.

This approach is different from the more common view called narcissism, which has the negative idea of someone who is totally self-absorbed and devoid of compassion for anyone else. Our interpretation is more in line with that of writer Thomas Moore, whom I know from his days at the University of Windsor, and more recently from a workshop in Oakland, CA, as well as from a number of his books.

In Moore’s understanding of the myth, we will not let anyone get close to us unless we have an image of ourselves as lovable. To come to this understanding is a profound transformation, a kind of death and rebirth. In his words, “ The Narcissus story supports the adage that one has to love oneself before he or she can love others, but it is more precise. The story implies that before a person can love others, he or she has to have a deeply felt image of self as lovable.”

As we mentioned some time ago, our lives do follow a certain script with a related image of ourselves. These come from family, school, community, culture, and the like. We first think of ourselves in terms of who we are told we are and how we are treated. But our inner self tends to push against this model, whether to accept or reject it, ot to modify it. We are drawn to find an image and script that is more true to our deepest self. In this process we can be aided by entering into dialogue with the great stories of humankind.

Before accepting a first teaching position, I consulted Gregory Baum, who later became my thesis director. I was hesitant because of some inner struggles. He said that if you are humble you won’t hurt anyone, and suggested that I reads novels, go to plays and concerts, listen to great music, and the like. These will enrich your humanity and heal whatever needs to be healed. I have since that time realized even more how myths and other stories are like a mirror in which we see reflected who we are and the direction of our becoming. This reflection helps to unveil our core of sacred worth, while also acknowledging our wounds and shadow.

As in the story of Narcissus reinterpreted, our lives are made up of endings and new beginnings, marked by transformation, hopefully to a truer, more compassionate, and more just life. May the sun of a new day ever rise up within you, in a direction that enriches your hope.

Feeling and Naming our Experiences

I have often spoken of experience, and particularly of the deepest experiences, whether of joy or of sorrow. I’ve also stressed the importance of being in touch with our experiences and feelings and allowing ourselves to feel them. I’ve also added the precaution that we need to do so in a safe place, whether by listening to ourselves in a quiet place, or entrusting our experiences–including thoughts and feelings–to an intelligently caring other.

A key element in this process is that it is important to recognize that such feelings are neither good not bad, but just are. The whole range of human feelings belongs to every human being. In addition, these feelings can teach us where we are at the present moment, but not necessarily what to do. There is a profound difference between awareness and entrusting of feelings, and unleashing them on another person. I believe it was Albert Camus who said that the freedom of your fist ends where my nose begins. In a similar vein, debates about Covid need to take into account not only alleged rights of individuals, but also their responsibility to respect others rather than inflict oneself upon them.

I have often used the image of tears as instructive. Tears well up within us at moments both of profound joy and of profound sorrow. As an example, when we are truly at home with someone, our conversation can range from being hilariously funny to deeply serious and back again, without our hardly noticing the transition. This reality suggests that there is a place within us deeper than and prior to the differentiation of feelings. Listening to beautiful music, for example can evoke a response that seems at once to combine both joy and sadness

Many years ago, at a spontaneous writing workshop, the image arose of several children within me, the playful, the lonely, the angry child, and many others. With that experience came the sense that each must be given its voice but none should drown out any other. In part, it was a response to the dominant social image of self-mastery or self-control with one part of us dominating the others. Instead, this was an an image not of domination but of cooperation. At the same time, there emerged an image of a child behind a wall. This seemed to be the basic self beneath all the other selves. In a kind of conversation with that child, it seemed that this core child was the unique self as it emerged from the universe and whatever underlies the universe.

The model of understanding that followed was one of recognizing, coordinating, and naming all our experiences, and them deciding whether or how to express them outwardly, perhaps in trusting words, perhaps in actions. Yet underneath all of these lies this sacred self of intrinsic worth.

I mentioned last week reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book. Leaning to Walk in the Darkness, She brings out positive aspects of darkness, as do some folk tales. She refers also to a book by Miriam Greenspan, called Healing through the Dark Emotions. I have begun this book which also stresses allowing ourselves to experience and name our real feelings. At the same time, she brings out that feelings reside in the body and need to be felt there, that in allowing them to be felt they gradually modulate into different feelings. Over time for example, grief at the loss of a loved one slowly transforms into gratitude for that life as well as for our own life. She also mentions that feelings can be inter-generational. This thought was also expressed by another author, who described this effect in terms of his grandmothers hands, which bore the marks of an enslaved person compelled to pick cotton.(My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem)

Greenspan also brings out that, while deeply personal, our experiences also contain and are impacted by the wider world in which we live. One helpful practice she suggests is meditation, including the lovingkindness meditation. This is the meditation stressed by Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Centre. She advocates as well that we can practice such meditation, not only by extending the wish for happiness to others near and far, the significant and the so-called neutral people in our lives. But we can also practice it towards ourselves as a child.

One therapist, whom I encountered at a Creation Spirituality workshop, also suggested this practice. When people came to him who were grieving over a difficult or even abusive childhood, he suggested that they talk to themselves as they wished their parents had talked to them. I have also used the expression that we should never speak to ourselves in a condemning way, but only how we might speak to a hurt or angry child on our best day. Greenspan also mentions that children can absorb in a fear-inducing way the cultural problems of a society, such as climate change. Another author, Robert Lifton, has said that we best help children and give them hope by working in some way, however small, towards a solution. My young six year old friend expressed it in these words.”Whenever you pick up a piece of garbage or recycling, then you can see the earth smiling.”

There are certainly many considerations here. One is that we all bear wounds from our life experience, both internally and in our relationships, and as a member of our society. But the move towards healing and growth, though difficult, is always possible. Another consideration is that it is vital to allow ourselves to feel our real feelings, but always in the safe place. And in all things, it is essential to hold on to a sense of worth, even if we cannot feel it at the time.

May any difficulties, pain, or wounds you have experienced, as well as all your joys and gratitude-evoking experiences, give birth to a fuller sense of worth for yourself, for those who are close to you, and for the earth on which we live out our lives.

Norman King, August 15, 2021

 

The Light of Darkness

Many authors suggest that out of still smouldering ashes of an old world order, a new world of greater interdependence, relationship, and openness is slowly being brought to birth. One element is a worldview that moves beyond a dualistic either/or vision to more inclusive vision of both/and. One of its features is not longer viewing light as good and darkness as evil, but seeing in them a complementarity, with darkness having many positive connotations.

One such observation comes from the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who writes.
“You darkness, of whom I am born/I love you more than all the fires that limit the world,
…But the darkness embraces everything: … and it is possible a great energy/ is moving near me.
I have faith in nights.”

Darkness is in some ways akin to silence, the absence of light corresponding to the absence of sound. Our truest and most resonant words come out of our silence; and music, as Leopold Stokowski observed, is painted on a canvas of silence. I recall a beloved professor who taught the philosophy of art. He once read a poem in class and was so moved by it that, as he read, tears welled up in his eyes. On one occasion, he also told of visiting a factory where the machines operated incomplete silence, and said that the experience was one of total power or energy.

I recently told of the experience of a friend who left his place in the county, in the middle of winter. He was groping his way towards his car in the enveloping darkness when the moon emerged from behind a cloud and cast a pale light on everything. He recounted how he was overwhelmed by the experience that he was loved. On reflection, you might say that this experience was “grounded” in darkness; that just as meaningful words come out of silence, so also meaningful feelings, images, and relationships come out of darkness. Perhaps we may think of darkness, not merely as the opposite of light, but as the creative source from which light emerges.

A story is told of Winston Churchill that, after supper, with a friend, they retired to the living room where no one spoke for a time. The friend commented that it was surprising that, after so many years of friendship, they had nothing to say to each other. Churchill replied that it was all the more surprising that, despite their lengthy friendship, this was the first time that they were able to be silent together. It has also occurred to me that there is a tremendous difference between being in darkness with someone who hates us and experiencing darkness in the company of someone with whom we share a mutual love.

I have just finished reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark. She brings out some of the creative and necessary elements of what are considered the experiences of darkness both in the world outside of ourselves and in our own inner universe. At the outset, before drawing on enriching experiences of darkness, she learned from childhood on that darkness stood for all the things that scared her either because she feared she could not survive them or because she did not want to find out. Later she notes: “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” She then goes on to discuss a variety of creative experiences both of the darkness of the world outside her and of the darkness within.

When I taught a course on folk tales, I was also struck by a few images of darkness. In a lesser known story, The Three Feathers, the youngest son, who is initially regarded as of limited intelligence, turns out to be the wisest. In the quest to succeed the aging king, that is the old dying order, the two older brothers confine their search to the surface. The youngest son finds a trapdoor at his feet and enters into the darkness of the earth. He goes into the dark depth of where he is and of the world around him. There he discovers the wisdom and compassion necessarily for a creative and meaningful life for himself and for others.

The story of Snow White focuses on the powerful attitudes and feelings within oneself, symbolized by the colour red, which stands for the red of love and the red of hate, and the challenge to choose between them. Before arriving at her decision, the young woman must travel through a dark forest. She must enter all the unknown and unexplored regions of her self, and then decide on her basic life direction.

Another image, reflective of Rilke’s words, may be found in the question posed by Albert Einstein. “I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.” We may perhaps think of a favourite analogy of mine. When someone speaks openly and vulnerably to us of their joy or sorrow, the challenge is to listen, to hold a place of silence around their words. Yet that silence is not an emptiness but a caring presence. In a similar vein, in response to Einstein’s question, we may hope that the silent darkness that envelopes and permeates the universe may also be thought of in terms of compassion.

As you become aware of all the seeming dark spaces within you and times of darkness that sometimes surround you, may that darkness be the womb of new and fuller life for yourself and for others whom your life touches in some, even anonymous way.

Norman King, August 09, 2021

The Sadness and Promise of Letting Go

Last week I mentioned how one author, Elena Lasida, thinks that the old order of things is dying and a new world of greater interdependence, relationship, and openness is yet to be born. She calls for letting go of what is passing and making place for what is yet to emerge.

At the same time, it seems to me that whenever something is falling away, there is at least a tinge of sadness and even perhaps of grief involved–whether what falls away is an image or symbol, an idea or way of thinking, a relationship, a connection with a group or organization. During this time of pandemic, may things have fallen away, and whether and how they will return is uncertain.

I was very moved to read some years ago author Wayne Muller’s reflection on sadness. He mentions that during a silent retreat he uncovered a deep sadness within himself. At first he considered a possible source. “Where was this sadness coming from? Was it from my childhood? Was it the hurt I had absorbed from all those who had suffered? Was it something larger–was I feeling the pain of the whole world? Perhaps it was all of these, what Buddhists call ‘the tender heart of awakening.’

After a time, however, it seemed important only to acknowledge this deep ache, and to remain in the silence. Then, he says, “I began to sense something beneath even the sorrow. I could feel a place inside, below all my names, my stories, my injuries, my sadness–a place that lived in my breath. I did not know what to call it but it had a voice, a way of speaking to me about what was true, what was right. And along with this voice came a presence, an indescribable sense of well-being that reminded me that whatever pain or sorrow I would be given, there was something inside strong enough to bear the weight of it. It would rise to meet whatever I was given. It would teach me what to do.”

He adds that this inner voice was always there, always a guide to what was right and true, even when unnoticed or unheeded. “Sometimes I barely see it, can’t quite touch it. Then I experience a starry night, a forest after a rain, a loving embrace, a strain of sweet and perfect melody–and that is all it takes to remind me who I am: a spirit, alive, and whole. It helps me remember my nature, hear my name.”

His thoughts echo the often expressed reflection that we are more and deeper than our sadness, losses, pain, mistakes, or wrongs. A simple experience of the natural world, of music, or of a gesture of kindness, can bring us home.

Akin to sadness, and often accompanied by sadness is grief. It occurred to me that grief is not just the experience of loss, but the experience of incompleteness. But it is an incompleteness that is tangibly felt. Every situation and every relationship has within it an element of incompleteness. No matter how fulfilling an experience is, there remains beneath the surface an unstilled longing. This need not be seen as negative, but simply a recognition that new growth, new life is always possible. I recall an occasion where a day was spent in a natural setting around Montmorency Falls near Quebec City. On returning, we listened to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which seemed to name perfectly that afternoon’s adventure. At the same time as being fully immersed in and present to the music, there was also a sense of its movement, its passing, which meant it would come to an end.

On another more sorrowful occasion, I recall saying goodbye to Mike, my younger brother, at the hospital. I had to tear myself away because of a vivid sense that this was the last time that I would see him. It turned out to be true, and on learning one week later of his death, I had the powerful feeling that there had been an interruption of a conversation that could not be resumed. That has since struck me as a metaphor for grief and perhaps for life: an interrupted conversation. Perhaps it is the feeling of an incompleteness that is rendered permanent, that cannot be taken up again.

I have been struck by how the common practice of a meal following a funeral is in fact an integral part of the ritual. I think that a good ritual is an enactment in brief or in miniature of something that may take years to embody. One dimension is saying goodbye, taking leave of the person who has died. The second dimension, expressed in the shared meal, is the entry into a new life, no longer as the partner or friend of that person. It is the slow, sometimes painful process, of letting go of what has been, and an opening to something different, something new, which at first may seem very daunting, but may turn out to have some very positive dimensions as well.

It seems that life itself is a series of endings and beginnings, even from the time of birth, which ends life in the womb and offers an entry into life in a vast new world. An essential dimension of this process appears to be a letting go of what has been with its seeming securities, and an openness to new ways of feeling, imagining, thinking, acting, and living. Often there is a struggle involved between clinging to what has been and opening to what is emerging, between security and growth.
In this process, often aided by intelligently caring others, it may be a case of letting go of what has been presented from without, and learning to trust what is emerging from within. One personal experience in my twenties was that all I had been taught was not necessarily true or untrue, but had become unreal, and that gut level convictions had to arise from within.

May you learn ever more to trust the process of life unfolding within you and find caring others who support and assist in this process.

 

The Next Steps to a New World, Personal and Social

Last week I heard a talk by Elena Lasida, whose background is in economics and the social sciences, and who teaches in Paris, France. She says that the present moment is one in which the previous paradigm is falling away; that is, the usual way of thinking, the eyes through which we look at life is beginning to feel unreal. The image of the “good life” has stressed being independent, having lots of possessions, and being secure through having control. What is emerging is a sense of interdependence, the importance of relationships, and risking openness to what is new and unexpected. At this time, there is a challenge to let go of the old and open ourselves to what is not yet come into being. In this inevitable time of flux and change, one essential element is to let go of our preoccupation with utility and efficiency and make a place for beauty in our world.
In language that we have been using, what she suggests is to examine the identity that we have taken for granted and the script that we have been following, often unconsciously. We need to consider the story that we have been living and ask if it is genuinely life-giving for ourselves and others. This task does not necessarily mean discarding all that we have been or done or lived, but simply being open to modifying this direction. I remember a video by author Sam Keen, who was asked if to change meant discarding his business suit. Keen suggested that this person need not quit their job or discard their suit but begin to wear it as a costume rather than a uniform. I think Keen meant to see that role as one aspect of who they were, not their total identity.
I recall a conversation with a woman who was about to leave a religious community. She was worried that to do so meant seeing her previous life as a mistake. Over the course of our conversation, what emerged was a sense that this part of her life carried the growth she had achieved up to the present. It was not at all a waste. It was rather what had led her to the present situation. It was what made possible her next step and also called for movement in a new direction. On another occasion, a person who had suffered abuse as a child, and had devised means of self-protection as a result, was struggling with whether she needed now to let go of these walls. What became clearer her was that it was more a question of gradually growing from inside, turning walls of protection into means of expression, but mainly letting the walls down only as they are no longer needed. I may add here one of my favourite one-liners. At its best our spirituality–or way of looking at life–is less a door to hide behind than a window to look through.
One dawning awareness in our time is the recognition that we are interdependent, that we are not self-made, but always in a relational setting. A colleague once remarked that whenever we begin to think that we are self-made, we just need, as a reality check, to look at our navel. In this vein, it is important to consider the quality of our relationships, and to end those that are toxic and reinvent or renew those that are ongoing. In ending those that are toxic, it is crucial, perhaps only over time and with the help of caring others, to let go gradually of our hostility or even neediness that keeps us still tied to them, and, in our thoughts, to wish them well, to hope for their unfolding according to their own inner authentic truth. At the same time, it is important to realize that further contact with them is inadvisable.
With those with whom we do remain and discern that we should remain in relationship, we need to be open to newness, to allow surprise, disappointment, hurt, and struggle. It is essential to remain aware that we never figure out another or even ourselves. We always remain a mystery to ourselves and to one another, as does life itself, and whatever is its meaning at this moment or overall. One element that calls for attention, and which I have often missed, is the realization how we may hurt one another without realizing it, because of the blind spots in our vision. These may be rooted in childhood experience, even if forgotten, or other experiences that have caused pain and produced an unrecognized fear and consequent blindness in ourselves. It does not help here to let ourselves be overwhelmed by guilt or self-rejection but allows this realization to spur us to move forward.
An interview I recently heard on the On Being program spoke of doing the next right thing instead of doing nothing. On way of looking at these difficult challenges is not to think in terms of the next miles which seem impossible but to think simply of the next step we can take. In terms of our previous image, it would be more a matter, not of taking down a whole wall, but removing one brick that has loosened.
Another aspect that Elena Lasida stressed was the importance of beauty in our lives. This experience, I believe, can come through music, story, poetry, painting, sculpture, or other arts. It can also come through the experience of the world of nature, or through solitude or friendship. It comes through everything in our lives that is for its own sake, and not merely as a means or a lead-in to something else. When we experience the beauty of music or of another person, we are drawn out of ourselves in a respectful way, beyond the more familiar grasping approach. It is the experience that it is good to be here.
May your own lives be filled with experiences that enrich your spirit, and that lead you to think that it is good to be here.

Norman King July 26, 2021

The Path to Belonging

I recently heard an interesting interview, on the CBC Ideas podcast, with.George Monbio, a writer for The Guardian newspaper, who has published a book, Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis.

“Here are some of the things I try to fight: environmental destruction, undemocratic power, corruption, deception of the public, injustice, inequality and the misallocation of resources, waste, denial, the libertarianism which grants freedom to the powerful at the expense of the powerless, undisclosed interests, complacency,”

To move in a more equitable direction, he says, we need a new story. I would add that we need a new script at the back of our minds, new eyes through which we look at life. He speaks of going beyond a “toxic individualism” to a story based on the idea of community, an awareness that at a deeper level, we are a social, cooperative, and empathic species. What is crucial is to create communities of belonging, where people feel listened to and that their voice counts.

From a different angle, I also heard an interview with a socially active nun, Simone Campbell, who was centrally involved in the “Nuns on the Bus” social justice project. She has written a book called Hunger for Hope. She insists that in order to see clearly and to struggle beyond the blindness or lack of vision caused by prejudices and fears, we need a contemplative dimension to our lives.

This approach reminds me of the poet, Rilke, who challenges us to seek the depths of things and to go into ourselves and explore the depths from which our life flows. Any answers, he insists can only be uncovered by our inner most feelings and our most private hours. If we do so, we will gradually deepen our understanding of life.

At the same time, Simone Campbell insists that it is essential to be grounded in community, one that at once sustains us and which has enough imagination to help us see the way forward. Like Monbiot, she also considers, in a slightly different way, that change comes through storytelling, especially the stories of suffering of ordinary people. Listening deeply to the stories of people leads to a sense of empathy and connection, and suggests a way forward. Henri Nouwen has also written that being vulnerable to another, where possible, lead to friendship and community, and that, out of this very presence, directions to follow and steps to take become clearer.

Out of all of this I would add that a sense of community, an experience of community, is perhaps one of the most difficult things to find today. Here a few thoughts come to mind. Perhaps solitude and friendship are the first routes to follow. There are many forms of and pathways to solitude. One is the practice of meditation, which itself can take many forms depending upon what is the best fit for ourselves. It can be the simple repetition of a word or phrase that helps slowly to clear our mind of its incessant clutter, or a brief expression that sums up something of who we are or of our deepest and most authentic longing. Another, that I particularly appreciate, is to read something, perhaps from Rilke or Rumi, or any number of sources that speak to the heart. Listening to beautiful music, going for a walk in a natural setting, sitting before a flickering candle or even a tank of swimming fish, are a few of the many possibilities.

Solitude differs from loneliness. Solitude is a quiet inner opening up, exploration, and awareness of the inner world. Loneliness is a feeling of isolation, of not belonging. As one student expressed it so well years ago, loneliness is the feeling that there is no one with whom you can be yourself without defence or pretence.

Friendship does not take away the loneliness that is part of the human condition, but it shares that loneliness, and to feel more comfortable with it. William Sadler wrote an article many years ago in which he speaks of friendship as the mutually enriching sharing of experiences, most profoundly through open conversation. In such conversation, we feel free to express ourselves with openness and vulnerability, without fear of rejection. My favourite description is that of Henri Nouwen who says that the real friend is not the person with the answers but the one who sticks it out with you when there are no answers

Perhaps friendship may be considered the bridge to community; from thinking in terms of “I” to thinking in terms of “we.” It involves an enhanced recognition of personhood as including myself and extending beyond myself to a friend and eventually to all individuals. From all I have read, there are two essential ingredients of community: the first is a place of belonging to and the second is a place of outreach from. Monbiot speaks of grassroots community, a place where one’s voice is heard and where it counts. And where then people decide collectively what is best for all. Simone Campbell speaks of her community of nuns as providing both home and challenge. Henri Nouwen writes of finding a true home, not in academic circles, but in a community of intellectually challenged people.
The base communities that evolved in Latin America and South Africa are further examples.

An interview a few years ago spoke of finding community through contact with people of like mind and heart, who share something of one’s vision and values. This contact may be through Zoom these days, or by email or telephone, as well as through some form of personal contact and gathering. There may also be circles if friends or a number of contacts relating to various dimension of our lives. The key element is to find a home, a place where we do have a sense that we do belong, a sense that not just what we say or do, but who we are, is valued and heard, and that we have something to offer.

In a wider context, scientist Brian Swimme says that the stars are our ancestors, that all the elements that are in our makeup come from the stars, that billions of years of an unfolding universe have resulted in us. One friend found a more immediate sense of belonging, less in her family than in the animals that surrounded her. The French Poet, Baudelaire, has said that all through life we walk through forests of living things that shower wisdom and compassion upon us. Writer Wayne Muller has stressed that, by the very fact that we are breathing, we are part of a whole ecosystem, and so we do belong. We do not have to prove it, only somehow experience it.

All in all, a basic need is to find a place of belonging, a place of home. It can be in our own heart, in the heart of another in friendship, in some kind of community, in story, music., and other arts, in an identity as earthlings, as part of a vast cosmos. And from that home, we are drawn to set out in openness, in compassion, in justice.

In this spiralling journey from and to home, what seems essential is a sense of our own worth, as a precious and sacred gift, given into our own hands. Yet it is a gift not just to ourselves, but also to others. The challenge may be to gradually discover or uncover who we are, what are our gifts, what we have to offer, and how we may come to live our that sacredness for ourselves and others in this present time and place.

May your own life journey be rewarding and fulfilling for yourselves and for all who come within the circle of your light.

Norman King. July 19, 2021

Forgiveness as Recognition of Sacredness Deeper than Brokenness

Forgiveness as Recognition of Sacredness Deeper than Brokenness

Near the end of last week’s reflection, we added this paragraph. Solitude (understood as being quietly open to our inner depths), compassion for ourselves and extending to others, and authentic love relationships are inseparable. But this is a slowly growing, always incomplete, process, with many setbacks, disappointments, and even regrets. These call for gentle patience with ourselves. Our sacred worth is a gift that can never be lost, that goes with our very existence, and is not dependent on any “success.”

Perhaps it may be helpful at this time to add a few words on the topic of forgiveness, beginning with forgiveness of oneself. This is a reality that is commonly understood in terms of a surface sentimentality rather than a slow and often difficult process, both in regard to ourselves and towards others.

The underlying theme that runs through each of our weekly reflections is that each of us is a being of immense worth. Our basic life challenge is to feel, honour, cherish that worth in ourselves and in others, especially in face of the wounds and betrayals of life. In this perspective, there is a worth, value, sacredness, and beauty in each of us that neither we nor anyone else can take away. We can fail to see it, deny it, betray or violate it in self or others, but it always remains. And there is a hope, a thrust, a pull in each of us to move beyond our wounds, our wrongs, our betrayals; and to move towards forgiveness, healing, wholeness, and reconciliation.

We all have experiences of the limitations of the human condition. We sometimes refer to these as our Achilles heel. In Greek mythology, Achilles’ goddess mother dipped him in water as an infant to make him invulnerable, but held him by the heel. Later, his death resulted from an arrow that pierced his heel. The textbook that I used spoke of Achilles heel as the “human condition,”understood in its points of weakness and vulnerability. These are sometimes felt as something wrong with us, as detracting from our worth.

In my limited experience with mentally challenged children, a constant refrain I heard was, “I can’t do anything right,” and I made every effort to counter that image. Jean Vanier has written extensively about this issue. Henri Nouwen, after teaching at prestigious universities and authoring many books, came to find a real home and a place of genuine caring, at such a residence. A social work friend once related that one of her deepest communications was through eye contact with someone who was confined to bed and could not speak, walk, or take care of most basic needs.

These examples illustrate that it is essential both to acknowledge our areas of weakness that are part of our human condition, but to come to a realization that they are not a fault or wrong, and that they do not detract from our underlying worth, or from the contributions we may make to one another and to our world.

Another experience is that of falling short of expectations and ideals. Here an unfortunate tendency is to contrast where we are now with such ideals, and then to use them as a club to beat ourselves with. I think that a more helpful approach is to begin where we are as something valuable and to see ideals as a good direction to move towards. One example might be the decision to begin piano lessons. We might hear a recording of the famous Canadian pianist, Glen Gould, judge ourselves in comparison, and then give up. Or we might start to learn this art and see his artistry as a direction to move towards, even if we always remain far from that level. It is a question of seeing ideals, not as a tool of condemnation, but simply as a good direction to move towards.

A third experience is that of being hurt or wronged at the hands of another or others. If it is severe, this wounding can at first be like a prison that engulfs or walls us in with no seeming possibility of escape. Gradually it can become more of an identity, seeing ourselves essentially as someone who has suffered this injury. Finally however, it can become a resource. An outstanding example here is psychiatrist and author, Viktor Frankl, who endured four years in a concentration camp. Some time afterwards, he wrote, a person realizes that they have suffered a horrific experience and somehow survived. They recognize that there is a tremendous inner strength within them that gives them confidence and courage.

The notion of forgiveness in this context does not mean that we need to deny or minimize the wrongness that has been experienced. Nor do we need to retain or reestablish any contact with that person. What I think that it does mean is that we do need to let go of any hold that person has on us, to move beyond seeing ourselves only as a victim of that person, and to move gradually beyond the tendency to hatred. I believe it is an indigenous saying that to hate someone is to take poison and hope the other person dies. To remain bound to a past injury means that another’s past becomes our future. Instead, we need to uncover or discover anew our own sacred identity, our own authentic story or script from within.

A fourth and perhaps most deadly experience is that of violating or betraying another. I recall a vivid dream as a teenager. In this dream, I had killed someone. It was accompanied by a terrible feeling that I had done something that could never be undone and from which I could never escape. It took over an hour after waking to realize that it had not happened. Yet a new realization is that we are more not only that than the worst thing that has happened to us, but also more than the worst thing we have ever done.

This is the theme of the well known story of the prodigal son. The son abandons all his previous life lines and comes to a dead end half starved among pigs. He returns home full of remorse yet is welcomed with love not judgment. The story suggests that no matter how far we stray, or how lost we are, or how dead we become inside, we still remain a beloved son or daughter. There is nothing we can do to destroy our worth. Our sacredness is deeper than any wrongness.

In this view, forgiveness of oneself, forgiveness of another, or forgiveness from another, means essentially an affirmation of worth beyond and deeper than any wrong or betrayal, a sacredness that is deeper than any brokenness. It implies a freeing from the burden of the past and the dread of the future in order to live freely and creatively in the present.

In sum, I need not fear or run from my own pain, wounds, and betrayals–or those of others–because I am more than these. I am a sacred someone, a unique word uttered with meaning and love from the heart of the universe. Indeed, I will know fear, uncertainty, sorrow, but I will know more than these. In the silence of my own heart and in the caring of others, I will also rediscover joy and compassion, and especially a hope that is deeper than all of these and remains ever the seed of new life.”

May the wounds that you have felt and even those you continue to feel, and even those that you have caused, become in you a pathway to a greater depth of spirit, a fuller compassion of heart, and a healing and renewal of life, for yourselves, and for all who come within the circle of your light.

Norman King, July 11, 2021

Patience with Ever Possible Healing and Growth

Many themes have emerged in the last few weeks, and some of these might be given further reflection: wounds and healing; authenticity and belonging; the residue and continuing impact of previous painful experiences; the awareness and experience of our deepest and layered feelings; the difference between acknowledging and naming our feelings within ourselves, and inflicting them on others; the importance of finding a safe place in our own heart, or the heart of a trusted other for our dawning awareness; and beneath and encompassing all these dimensions, the ever-challenged conviction of the enduring sacredness of each of us and of all that is. Related themes that are worth exploring are those of fear and forgiveness, which may be approached in new ways.

In speaking of addiction, Gabor Mate writes: “At the core of every addiction is an emptiness based on abject fear.” He elaborates that this fear involves a dread of the present moment and an attempt to run from the burden of the past and the fear of the future. This predicament can result from a lack of tangibly felt caring in childhood or beyond. I have previously spoken of forgiveness as freeing someone–perhaps especially ourselves–from the burden of the past and the dread of the future, so that we may live fully and creatively in the present.

Many years ago I came across similar words from Jena Vanier in an early writing of his, says that a person who has never known a close true relationship with another “cannot live in harmony with others, looking peacefully at the universe, loving generosity and an ideal and all that is beautiful.” He will be anguished and frustrated, because “the core of his or her being has not been structured by the presence of someone who said, ‘You are precious to me. You are mysterious to me. I love you.’”

Yet all these authors maintain that this painful situation is not necessarily a permanent prison. Our deepest tendency and longing for authenticity, caring, and hope, flowing from a sense of worth, always remain and can emerge at any time in a person’s life. In the word of Mate, “compassionate self-inquiry,” a kindness towards ourselves, in solitude and through the genuine caring of others, can provide a foundation for healing and growth.

One author who speaks profoundly of solitude and love is Rainer Maria Rilke, whom we have often quoted. He speaks of living our questions over a longer period of time rather than settling for instant answers that do not really satisfy. Perhaps we can also speak of discovering or uncovering our deepest longing, which may sometimes be obscured by settling for a “quick fix.”

One path to this uncovering is solitude, which can at first seem daunting but gradually becomes a persistent need. Rilke advises us to go into that deep place within from which our life flows. A few further thoughts of Rilke may be valuable here. He says that we are made of longing, and that to be with our our more painful experiences may accomplish considerable growth in us. He calls us to “trust the great and indelible solitude” at work in us. “ Love your solitude,” he writes, “and bear the pain of it without self-pity, … [and] be glad that you are growing,” This solitude is also inseparable from compassion for others and for meaningful relationships. “Love life in the form that is not your own, and be kind to all the people who are afraid of their aloneness.” “More authentic love [is] the love which consists of two solitudes which border, protect, and greet each other.” Elsewhere he adds: “Friends can be compared to dance and music. … Friends must be the ends and not the means.”

In other words, solitude (understood as being quietly open to our inner depths), compassion for ourselves and extending to others, and authentic love relationships are inseparable. But this is a slowly growing, always incomplete, process, with many setbacks, disappointments, and even regrets. These call for gentle patience with ourselves. Our sacred worth is a gift that can never be lost, that goes with our very existence, and is not dependent on any “success.”

What so many authors seem to stress is the need to allow ourselves to be in touch with and feel all our feelings, both those that are joyful and those that are sorrowful. The challenge then is to acknowledge them rather than wrestle with them, to notice them but let then be. It is important too to be able to name then, to find images and words that tell truthfully what they are. Here we may be helped by exposure to story, film, painting, and other works of art that give true voice to what is within us. Then we may decide whether or not to express them, and how to do so; whether to do so to ourselves alone, to entrust them to a friend, or to give some them some more public form, as do people like Rilke and Nouwen. Such expression, I believe, should always be done with awareness and consideration. It should never be just an unconscious unleashing, that may readily hurt ourselves and others. In Mate’s words, they flow best from compassionate self-inquiry.

May you always experience your worth and your hope as deeper than and encompassing of all your sorrows. And may you find others who can share in some way in your own journey towards healing and wholeness.

Norman King, July 04, 2021