Last week I spoke about a safe place within ourselves or with another. Such a safe place seems to be essential if we are to be open and vulnerable. A key component in this process is trust–trust in ourselves, in at least some others, and in life itself.
We need to be able to trust that what is deepest within us is not negative or destructive, but positive, something good and sacred. We can admit difficulties only if they are not the last word on us. If we sense that who is are is wrong or totally flawed, we will run frightened from ourselves or, as Richard Rohr says, inflict or transmit our pain to others. We can trust ourselves only if we feel that our core identity is positive; only if any negativity is outside our core identity. That is true as well if we do not see our identity in what we own (reducing us to human havings); or in what we do (reducing us to our occupation or profession, in effect, to human doings). These can then be lost, without losing the sacred core of who we are, a unique human being.
If we see our identity in who we are, and have a sense of the essential sacred worth of who we are–or at least are moving in that direction–we can come to trust what is deepest within us. As I like to put it, we can come to trust the unfolding process of life within us. Our life is in fact not something static but is an ongoing process, an unfolding from within. I have also mentioned though that, although our core self is sacred, around that core self are what may be called walls of hurt, fear, and hostility. While the sacred core self is our true home, we can sometimes live within the walls of hurt, fear, or hostility. We then, so to speak, act as a sniper to others from these alienating places.
The process of uncovering and getting in touch with that core self, and living out of a sense of our own and others sacred worth is a slow process. As Dag Hammarskjold’s has written in Markings: “The longest journey is the journey inwards to the core of one’s being.” The process has, I believe, three interrelated components: creative solitude, personal friendship, and social outreach.
To the extent that we come to trust ourselves and our own inmost script, we become free from the weight of inherited scripts, and social and cultural images. At the same time, we become free from a distrust of self that leads us to turn to outside authority for our marching orders. Meaningful language is then understood as words that name our experience, It is no longer orders barked from outside. We look to literature, music, painting, and all the arts to help us uncover who we are rather than telling us what to do.
In a similar way, learning to trust another, is to discover someone with whom we can unveil ourselves without the threat of rejection or put down. Rather, it would be someone trustworthy, who at once tunes into and accepts who we are, beneath our hurts, fears, or hostilities. At the same time, it is someone who invites us and even challenges us to become who we can be, who helps us uncover our own authentic script and assists in its unfolding. The important counterpart is for ourselves to become a trustworthy person, a person who is a safe place for another. Once again, of course, there is the realization that this is not an easy process, that it involves time and effort, and perhaps some setbacks.
Authoritarian persons and regimes attempt to hook into and prey upon our fears, anxieties, insecurities, and hostilities. They seek to control us and make us subservient by inculcating more fear and guilt in us, which readily flow into hostility, usually toward stereotyped groups. They teach mistrust of what is within so that we will turn outward to them.
At the same time, we need not look upon our own sacred core as a dead end, so to speak, but as the point which open up to and flows from the universe and whatever is most within and behind the universe. Thomas Merton writes: “At the centre of our being is … a point of pure truth. … [It] is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”
Years ago, I read a science fiction story by Theodore L. Thomas, called The Far Look, published in 1956. It tells of two men on a space station and their life-threatening experiences. Upon returning to earth, their minds are transformed by a kind of seeing from deep inside. They uncover a wisdom that is cleansed of the baggage of the past and become “men of untrammeled mind.”
A similar reflection is found in two astronauts, Ron Garan and Yuri Gagarin. “The orbital view gives you a whole new perspective. You realize that each and everyone of us are interconnected and in this together. When you see the planet from space, it puts the common challenges faced by all humans into perspective.” (Garan) “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People let us preseerve and increase this beauty, not destroy it.”(Gagarin)
We may also recall Albert Einstein’s letter to his daughter. “There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us. This universal force is LOVE. … This force explains everything and gives meaning to life. This is the variable that we have ignored for too long, maybe because we are afraid of love because it is the only energy in the universe that man has not learned to drive at will. … If we want our species to survive, if we are to find meaning in life, if we want to save the world and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer.”
More concretely, these authors are suggesting that this universe (in which everything is connected), is trustworthy. Behind these assertions, we witness the unfolding of the universe, which results in the stars. The stars in turn contain all the elements found in the human body, such that we are, literally, stardust. We also see the bonding of mammals to their offspring, the development of language, and the extended care needed by the prolonged childhood of humans. All these are an intimation that the thrust of the universe, its inner energy, impels in the direction of wisdom and love, of understanding and compassion.
Theologian, Karl Rahner, in speaking of childhood, says that the young child has to trust, because he or she is dependent for survival upon those charged with their care. He adds that the mature childhood of the adult is a basic trust in the meaningfulness of life, despite the conflicts within and threats from without that push us to close ourselves. “I can either reject myself in radical protest” he writes, “or accept myself in the total and concrete reality of life, even though … it remains full of pain and obscurity. However, I can accept it in hope.” Theological writer, John Magee insists that only a vision of life as ultimately meaningful and supportive of the human endeavour, coupled with a living trust in its foundation, source, and goal, can give rise to a maturity of personhood and life.
In sum, the path to a meaningful life unfolds in trust in the unfolding process of life from within our sacred self, in the experience of trustworthy caring from another human being, and in the underlying trust that life itself impels toward a healing and fulfilling wisdom and compassion.
May you come more and more to uncover and live from your inmost sacred self. May your life contain the caring presence of trustworthy others, and may you experience the ultimate trustworthiness of the universe itself. May you, as a result, become a more and more a trustworthy and caring person.
Norman King, December 12, 2022
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We have been speaking of words, especially in images and stories, that may speak to our heart. And we have spoken of listening from the heart. We referred to Erich Fromm who insists, in The Art of Loving, that the content of our listening and speaking is less important than its source. What counts most is not what we listen to or say, but where we listen and speak from. It makes a difference whether it comes from our heart or core or inmost centre, or whether it comes from our surface or fear or hostility.
To listen or speak from the heart, we must be there. We must be present to ourselves and to others. Behind such presence is a different kind of energy. I recall once seeing a play in Detroit called Inherit the Wind in which a key character was attorney, Clarence Darrow. I was sitting close to the stage within a few feet of the actor who played this role. In one scene, he spoke with such intensity that his face became a bright red. What most struck me was not so much the words that he spoke but the presence and energy behind those words. I have no recollection of the words themselves, but have never forgotten the intense presence behind and within them.
I have spoken before of the sense that there is an extensive homelessness in our society, not simply in the absence for so many of a clean, affordable, safe place to stay, which is a profound human need. Rather, there is also a sense in which people are not at home to themselves. Many of us skate around on the surface of our lives, either unaware, or even uncomfortable and afraid, of what is within us. Or we measure the success of our lives in the clutter of things with which we surround ourselves.
Behind this flight from self may well lie a fear that this self is either of little or no value or even is wrong. Our whole thrust in these reflections has been to underline the sacred worth of each and every human being. And we have said that this sense of worth may be discovered though silence, friendship, and social outreach.
Looked at through certain eyes, I have seen this message repeated in folk tales and mythologies, and many stories, often expressed in a longing for worth that is felt more as a question than an answer. Folk tales like Sleeping Beauty recognize that this worth may be surrounded by hedges of thorns and need to be awakened. This is also an awakening to who we are rather than what we do.
Stories like Snow White and Hansel and Gretel suggest that it is found at the other side of a dark forest. That forest stands for all the unknown, chaotic, dangerous and destructive forces within us and around us. In other words, our journey to be present to and at home to ourselves will pass through these forces, but with the realization that they our not the core or essence of who we are. Our sacred worth is deeper than and not overcome by them. It is hidden in the house of the witch that the children, Hansel and Gretel discover the precious jewels.
It is in the silent waters of self-awareness that Narcissus discovers who he is. He comes to an awareness that he is worthy of love and no longer needs to flee from himself. The young woman, Psyche (in Eros and Psyche), after the cocoon of her underworld journey, is able to soar like a butterfly. It is likewise after her time in the isolation of the tower that Rapunzel is able to sing beautifully. Her song expresses who she really is and also enables her to reach out beyond herself. The reference to the strand of silk and the growth of flowing hair both bring out that it is out of our own substance that we give access to ourselves freely. In other words we must both be in touch with ourselves and communicate from the deepest substance of our being.
The fact that in Rapunzel, her expression comes in the beauty of song indicates at once the beauty of the soul and the energy that comes from it. When we are present to ourselves, we can be present to our expression, whether in word or music or even in our very face. People like Louis Armstrong or Leonard Cohen reach us because they sing from their soul, they are fully present in their songs.
I once had a colleague, who studied extensively the philosopher scientist, Teilhard de Chardin. I asked him what, for Teilhard was the underlying energy within and behind the universe. He replied immediately that it was love energy. His response reminds me of the words of the Group of Seven painter, Lawren Harris who affirms that he tries to get to the summit of his soul and paint from there, there where the universe sings. He also adds that the artist does not pain the branch of a tree but the urge to its growth–in other words, he paints the life energy that is present and flows into that branch.
All these thoughts suggest that the deepest energy within us is that of love, and we tap into and connect with that energy when we are fully at home to and present to ourselves. We are then able to express and embody that energy in our words, our stories, our songs, and our lives. Of course in the process of coming home to ourselves, we will encounter and contend with our insecurities, fears and hostilities. Yet we may come to do so with an underlying sense of hope and in a trust in the process of life unfolding within ourselves
May you more and more be in touch with and at home to your core self. And may you more and more come to experience and express its beauty with the song of your life.
Norman King, May 02, 2022
There was a CBC program quite a few years ago, in the Ideas series, that was called The World of the Child. One of the many speakers was educator, John Holt. His comments still resonate with me.
I think the social virtues are overflowing, they are surplus. People have enough kindness for others when they have enough kindness for themselves–otherwise not. … My very strong feeling is that if children are allowed a growing up which enables them to become adults with a strong sense of their own dignity and competence and worth, they will extend these feelings to include other people.
The key thought here, one that strikes me both as profoundly true and equally difficult to reaize, is that kindness to oneself is a precondition for kindness to others and that a sense of our own worth is a precondition for a sense of the worth of others.
We perhaps think more readily of kindness and compassion as something directed towards others more than, and even rather than, towards ourselves. It seems to Holt that kindness towards others is an overflow from kindness to ourselves or else it is absent. I agree and would like to try explain it by speaking first of compassion as a caring space around the pain of another–and ourselves, and seeing the alternative as a wall around ourselves behind which we hide and from which we attack others as a kind of sniper.
When someone brings their pain to us (or vice versa), the best we can offer is not advice, answers, or a defensive wall, but a caring space, a safe place, a place of compassion, a space that is empty, so to speak, rather than filled with our own “clutter.” This largely silent and listening presence allows another to be where and how they are, without defence or pretence. If our own compassion has been stretched far enough by the joy and sorrow of our life, then we can, in some limited way, offer a space of compassion around the pain of another, that makes real to them, that there is something vaster than their suffering, and that this sorrow need not take away all their meaning and hope, even though it still may feel that way.
One personal memory that comes to mind here, from a slightly different angle, is the two and a half weeks, I was able to spend with my mother, at the end of her life. She found very difficult the time between when she had concluded her life, so to speak, and when she actually died. there was nothing I could “do,” except to “be” there, which I sensed was better than not being there. Later it struck me that the basic gift we have to offer one another is precisely our presence (which comes from the Latin words “being-there”), and that any gifts, skills, and actions do not replace but only build on that presence.
But to have that uncluttered but caring space to offer, we need to become free of the need to defend or justify ourselves or to attack someone perceived as a threat. This is something most of us can probably manage only on occasion We may perhaps best consider this as a direction to move towards, a place at which we may never fully or consistently arrive. To the extent that we feel insecure or threatened, or in a situation that appears in some sense dangerous, we need to build protective walls around ourselves. These walls become ever higher as we feel the need to hide behind them. They readily become a fortress from which to attack others. And they seem in the end to become a prison that entraps us.
The only way out, it seems, is to have a sense that our sacred worth is something that goes with who we are and not with what we achieve or possess, all of which can be lost in an instant. As Holt suggests, it may well require that someone see the sacred worth in us and treat us accordingly, especially as children, before we can come to see and feel it in ourselves. This is not to deny that there are situations in which trust and openness are not possible or advisable. It is to say that they are possible only when we are moving towards a sense of our own worth as intrinsic, as going with our very existence, as something we are, and so as something that we cannot lose but only lose sight of, or fail to realize in a way that is deeply felt.
To the extent that we do have that sense of sacred worth, we are able–in appropriate situations–to be without walls of defence or offence, and to have an empty space around us, a caring space, a home space, where others can enter and remain and leave, without being imprisoned or rejected but accepted.
Henri Nouwen, a writer who speaks of personal growth as rooted in sacred worth notes that the Greek word for compassion means to feel in your guts, and the Hebrew word means to feel in your womb. In both cases, it means to sense in your deepest centre. To be compassionate to another is to feel something of their pain in our own guts, which implies an openness to let it enter safely and without barriers.
Other writers, such as Sharon Salzberg and Wayne Muller, stress repeatedly as we noted last week that there is some measure of suffering in every human life, that life sometimes just hurts. And so all of us need some compassion, including compassion for ourselves. To achieve such compassion for ourselves and gradually extending beyond ourselves to others can be a slow and difficult process. The usual practices of reflective reading or podcasts, moderate exercise, healthy diet, conversations with friends, some outreach activity and the like, can be helpful.
Perhaps also helpful is the recognition that life sometimes hurts and that to feel sad or hurt or other painful feelings, are part of life, that they are not something to blame ourselves for, and do not detract from our sacred worth. A nineteenth century cleric, John Vianney, commented that suffering passes but having suffering does not. I think his thought is echoed in the Oedipus plays and the writings of Viktor Frankl, that these sorrows can be a source of inner strength and wisdom. It seems, however, that this is a process that occurs only over a period of time, and perhaps with the support of intelligently caring others. To recall again favourite words from Henri Nouwen: the true friend is not the person with the answers, but the one who sticks it out with you when there are no answers.
May each of you discover more and more a profound and enduring compassion for yourselves, and one that gradually radiates to all who come within the circle of your light.
October 24, 2021
Calling All Kids!
Hey there kids! Come gather around.
This grandma’s got something to say.
The virus has turned our world upside down
and none of us likes it this way.
But here’s the thing about where we are;
grownups are struggling with all that is new.
Like making sure to keep all of you safe
and sometimes forget you’re struggling too.
They’re worried ’bout going to work or not.
That’s what parents have been thinking about.
But school’s on the minds now of all of you kids
and whether you’re in or you’re out.
Should you go to school or learn by remote?
We’re all trying to decide the best way.
Is it better or safer to learn from home,
or in school with your friends ev’ry day?
You kids are struggling with all kinds of things,
and wondering what you should do.
And all of us adults must keep that in mind,
and make time to touch base with you.
Jane Ripley 2020