Becoming Wonder Full

I combed the calendar aisles in the bookstore several times but couldn’t find my usual Audubon yearly planner for 2022. Darn! During the last several years, I’ve loved the pictures of cute and exotic animals, amazing natural wonders, and peaceful scenes. Change was inescapable though, so back through the aisles I went, searching for beautiful, inspiring photos that would spark joy and add wonder to the unimaginative numbers and days of the week that help me organize my life.

My seeking led to my engagement calendar for 2022 which is entitled, “1,000 Places To See Before You Die.” The creator of the calendar, Patricia Schultz, warned me that life is short and adventure beckons. The first page of the planner featured just one quote by writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton:

We are perishing for lack of wonder, not for lack of wonders.

G. K. Chesterton lived from 1874 to 1936, but I think his observation holds true for all human history. What a wonder full place our world is. And if earth isn’t enough, there’s a whole universe full of wonders we can ponder upon if we are willing to do so.

When I get feeling down about all the crazy disputes we humans create, climate change, pandemics, personal regrets – I am revitalized by upshifting my thinking to the wonders and mysteries that surround us. By appreciating surprises like the furry red fox that recently scampered about in our back yard. I wondered where she was going, where she lived and with whom, whether she was cold or comfortable in ten-degree Fahrenheit weather.

Of course, the wonders and mysteries of life aren’t always uplifting. They can be frightening. It’s natural to feel afraid of things we don’t understand. And the older I get, the more I realize how much we humans don’t understand – how much we can’t control. If I’m not careful, fear may eclipse my wonder and dampen my curiosity. I may become a curmudgeon who has lost the ability to experience awe.

My favorite Albert Einstein quote reminds me I can spark joy through curiosity. Albert advised:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend only a little of this mystery every day.

As an educator, I saw the importance of curiosity frequently. I supplied my students with the Einstein quote and tried to emphasize the joy of learning over worries about grades. If we’re not curious, we won’t ask questions, we won’t wonder, and we won’t increase our understanding. And we often fear that which we don’t understand.

I’m guessing most of us would say we seek truth, but when a new idea or perspective seems threatening, we sometimes dig in and refuse to be curious – preferring to stick with the “truth” as we’ve known it in the past. A quote from Nadine Godimer, South African writer and political activist, reminds me to hang in there and keep my mind open even when it’s tough to do so:

The truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is.

It isn’t pretty to look at our personal faults or the failings of groups we identify with. There are many unpleasant realities in our world that can and should disappoint and sadden us. But when we pursue justice and truth, when we’re curious and try to understand “truths” that appear different from our own, that is when we become wonder full.

When I taught sociology, I asked students to seek out articles about different cultures and different ways of doing things and present them to the class. I soon learned that if I wanted learning to occur, students needed to go beyond presenting information, because the conclusion that was being drawn was simply, “That’s weird. How strange.”  I realized I was facilitating ethnocentrism, which is what I was trying to prevent. Ethnocentrism means evaluating another culture according to the standards and customs of one’s own culture. It therefore leads to judging other groups as inferior to one’s own.

I needed to add to the assignment. Go ahead and present the different way of doing things, but then question why. Do some wondering. Be curious. Research the culture and discover the reasoning behind a tradition or event. No need to evaluate according to good or bad, inferior or superior. Instead discover function and effectiveness.

For example, when I was teaching organizational behavior to a diverse mix of students at the college level, our curriculum included information on building self-esteem – something I and most of my students assumed was a good thing. That is, until a student from Japan commented, “I think focusing on self-esteem makes people too self-absorbed and less likely to care for others.”  Her point of view came from a collectivist culture and mine from an individualistic culture and she made me wonder. A good discussion ensued regarding the meaning of self-esteem and perspectives were shared as to how it could be considered beneficial or detrimental. No criticism, but lots of curiosity, discovery, and expanded awareness.

The world can appear dark and ominous, full of challenges we fear we cannot overcome. Accepting that is hard, but once we do, we can start taking responsibility for creating light. We can pray, meditate, sing, dance, spread kindness, laugh at ourselves, seek out beauty. That helps us balance dark and light, the yin and the yang. We can embrace the holy, loving spirit within us that is urging us to find our joy, to experience wonder.

My new planning calendar has got me wondering what adventures I should be plotting next, what new things I can learn in 2022. There is much to discover close to home and, if all those microscopic viruses behave themselves, I also plan to travel to new places that may seem strange at first. That is until I open my heart and mind to acquiring a better understanding of why people are doing and thinking about things differently than I do. Until I become wonder full.

Photo by Anneliese Phillips at Unsplash

The Gift of Humility: Holiday Stress Reliever

The holiday season can be stressful. I’d love to be able to host a delightful Christmas party, bake delicious cookies, make excellent gift choices, send inspiring cards, decorate like an interior design pro, and create world peace. However, I’m not capable of all of that and if I don’t reduce my expectations to a realistic level the “most wonderful time of the year” will become the most anxiety-ridden time of the year.

Seeing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” on several festive decorations caused me to look up who wrote the song with that title. I found out it was written by two men – Edward Pola and George Wyle. I can’t confirm this, but I’m guessing they never worried about holiday baking, gifts, decorating, greetings, or event planning.

I wonder if Ed and George were ever concerned about being alone at Christmas or not being invited to holiday parties. For some of us, it’s the loneliest time of the year because it seems everyone has happy families and friends to party with . . . except us. We feel pressured to be happy and that makes us unhappy.

The lyrics of the song read like something out of a Hallmark movie, and I do enjoy Christmas shows now and then throughout the holiday season. I love gazing upon the perfectly decorated homes and neighborhoods in the movies. The characters always have some disagreements and misunderstandings, but I rest assured knowing all will be forgiven by the end of the show. Often an episode ends with a gorgeous couple taking a sleigh ride through something that’s supposed to look like snow, and I feel content knowing they will live happily ever after. But then I switch off the TV. The kind, beautiful people have vanished and it’s just me and my undone to-do list.

 I googled, “What is the most stressful time of the year?”  The holiday season was the overwhelming first choice. A OnePoll survey found that 88% of Americans thought holidays were the most stressful time of the year.

The holiday season comes when daylight hours are at a minimum, temperatures are icy, and spring seems way too far away. At this time of year, we need a holiday very badly to cheer us up, and that won’t happen if we’re too stressed. We need to be enjoying as many Hallmark moments as possible. That’s where humility comes in.

Some dictionaries list “meekness,” “unassertiveness,” and “submissiveness” as synonyms for humility. But spiritual humility is the opposite, because it means the willingness to accept, and the ability to clearly perceive, one’s strengths and weaknesses. It takes some daring to let go of the idea that we need to do all those things we think we should do, and instead discern what we are capable of based on who we genuinely are and what gives us joy. People may not approve.

Think about what you truly love about the holiday season and decide what helps you make the shortest daylight hours of the year more livable. Remember that you’ll be receiving all sorts of ads and messages about what you need for a Merry Christmas and ignore as many as possible.

Maya Angelou advised, “If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.” That’s why humility is such a gift. Humility is accepting the ways we can’t meet society’s norms and rejoicing in the ways we can share our own unique gifts and talents. If we spend Christmas preparing treats for our dog and the squirrel that somehow found its way into our home, so be it.

The Japanese have a word, wabi-sabi, that means “finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence.” That isn’t an easy task because we want things to be perfect and may fear criticism and feel ashamed when we are unable to meet standards we believe are vital to belonging and respect. But I’ve found that an imperfect dinner or performance is just as satisfying as a perfect one when the people involved are filled with a joyful, loving spirit.

Humor can also help get us through a less than perfect holiday season. My mother had a plaque that I inherited with a saying that most likely helped her survive and thrive during many a holiday season. It read, “Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves, for we shall never cease to be amused.”  Human beings are perfectly imperfect if we can be compassionate and take ourselves lightly. Laughter and humility are great companions and are all about the freedom of letting go and enjoying life – and the holiday season – in all its craziness.

There are many enticing holiday activity choices. But if I choose too many of them, it becomes like overeating. Sure, all the food is great, but the more I eat, the less delicious the food becomes. I need to choose what not to eat orI risk ruining what could be a very satisfying meal. During the holidays I need to realize I can only handle so much before I face diminishing returns.

We can choose what we want to worry about, too. Have you ever asked or been asked, “Are you ready for Christmas?”  When I’m asked that question, I answer, “I’m enjoying the beautiful lights and decorations as well as the music.” I want to delight in the holiday season, not prepare for a single day’s event.

I want to have the humility needed to be comfortable with the limitations of what I can cheerfully accomplish in the darkest weeks of the year. And I also want to do my part to spread light and warmth during a time that can seem bleak and cold. If I’m stressed and worried about being ready for Christmas and whether or not my Christmas will measure up to that of others, I may find myself on Santa’s naughty list with my inner Scrooge annoying those around me.

Humility truly is a gift to enjoy. The holiday season will very likely not go as planned and that’s just fine. Humility means letting go of expectations and opening up to the unexpected – to the mysteries and the magnificence of a holy time devoted to love and what’s beautiful about being human.

The most wonderful time of the year is whenever we can share our blessings generously, and gratefully rejoice in whatever kindnesses we are fortunate enough to receive.

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Tough Paths Lead to Beautiful Destinations: Choose Forgiveness

I was asked to give the message at my church, Canyon Lake United Methodist, Rapid City, SD, and what follows are the stories and words I shared to express why forgiveness is a life-giving practice. If you wish to listen to the service that was focused on forgiveness follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRz3CsyYg_A or check out CLUMC’s website or Facebook page.

Have you ever noticed that in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” follows right behind “give us this day our daily bread?” I think it’s because forgiveness and bread are both life-giving and both are needed daily.

I know I make mistakes and do things I wish I hadn’t or wish I had on a regular basis. If I can’t forgive myself, or others, for simply being human, I’ll waste a lot of time and energy being angry and ashamed. Forgiveness allows us to spend more time smiling than frowning, being relaxed instead of tense, moving forward instead of backward.

I personally know how life-giving forgiveness can be and I chose to research forgiveness for my doctorate in psychology. I did qualitative research, meaning I analyzed stories and looked for patterns and themes in those stories. I interviewed people from different sacred belief systems who had forgiven a major transgression and looked specifically for what their stories had in common. I feel very blessed because I was led to people whose stories were insightful and their stories continue to inspire me today.

Forgiveness means different things to different people, so I like to start by explaining what I mean by forgiveness. First, forgiveness is NOT excusing, condoning, or ignoring bad behavior. It’s the opposite. It’s like Micah 6:8. We’re to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Forgiveness means balancing justice and mercy and remaining humble as we walk with our loving God.

It means having the courage to uncover and confront destructive thoughts and feelings so we can let go of our shame, anger, bitterness, and resentment. That takes time, but it’s worth it because when we experience genuine, deep forgiveness our health improves, our relationships become healthier, and we learn and grow spiritually.

The forgiveness experiences of the people I interviewed had four things in common that helped them forgive, and I call them the 4Cs: connections, courage, compassion, and creativity.

Connections

I first want to talk about connectionsbecause connections make the other 3 Cs possible. Connections are what led the people I interviewed from being victims to becoming forgiveness heroes. None of them were able to forgive without help. They all described spiritual, religious, or social connections that gave them two main things: support and guidance.

So how did their connections support them?

First, they did not pressure anyone to forgive. Pressure to forgive can backfire. Why? Because it can make someone feel worse. If you’re struggling to forgive and someone tells you, “Just let it go,” they’ve added to your shame, to your angst – because deep down you can’t do what they want you to do, what you may think a “good” person is supposed to easily be able to do. If you want to please someone, maybe even God, you may pretend to forgive and deny your genuine feelings. But holding your pain inside and trying to please others will add to your stress and hurt your health.

After I did a talk on my book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, a man came up to me and said he appreciated the book and he surprised me with why. He was struggling with forgiveness issues and it reassured him to hear that genuine forgiveness of something major is difficult and takes time.

Connections are important because they provide support and also because they provide guidance. They show us the way through the forgiveness process and serve as role models.

One of the stories in my book is about William (pseudonym), who was Lakota and grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He and his family had experienced horrible acts of prejudice and trauma; William became resentful and as can happen if we’re filled with bitterness, he took his hurt out on others. His major turning point came when he heard Black pastors speak about their painful experiences, which he felt were even worse than his. One had helplessly watched his sister be set on fire and burned to death by prejudiced people who were never punished. “How were you able to forgive?” he asked them. And they said, “You talk about it, and you pray about it.” When William had trouble forgiving, he thought about the Black pastors, read the Bible, prayed, talked to his pastor and the people in his church.

We don’t have to do forgiveness alone, and that’s what helps us with the second C, courage.  

Courage

Forgiveness work takes courage because it means becoming vulnerable. It means uncovering and confronting things that may be shameful, embarrassing, humiliating, traumatic.

One of the people I interviewed, Katherine, said, “Before I discovered forgiveness I wasn’t open enough and willing to admit mistakes. I would have unknowingly kept secret certain things that would have been the heart of what needed to be heard and I wouldn’t have been able to get to the healing part. I wouldn’t have been able to see another’s viewpoint because I would have been too busy protecting my ego. Now I try to remember that it’s not all about me.”

Katherine had a strong connection to God and could feel the Holy Spirit within her. She said, “I’m always praying for the courage and strength to face forgiveness issues because I know that even though it’s scary, I will feel so liberated, relieved, and joyful to be a part of something that is healing.”

Sometimes we need the courage to listen to a perspective that’s different from our own and may seem threatening. At other times, in order to forgive, we may need to have the courage shown by the first person I interviewed for my research, a woman I called Esther, who taught me the importance of standing up for yourself and setting boundaries.

Esther was working in construction with men who didn’t appreciate women and she was being taken advantage of and disrespected. She grew resentful and extremely angry, and at first, she kept it inside. But one day she’d had enough and set some firm boundaries. I asked her how that helped her forgive. She said, “Once I set my boundaries and felt safe, I experienced an expanding of space. I started being able to see more deeply into my offender’s situation and I could better understand him. Releasing my fears allowed me to open up and have compassion.”

Once Esther felt safe, she could see her offender as a human being, instead of an object of hurt.

At a church conference this summer one of the speakers said, “I supported my addiction by blaming my parents.” He had what everyone would consider horrible parents, but he knew that he couldn’t serve God and help others unless he  accepted his imperfect childhood and figured out how to move beyond his past.

We may be a victim of oppression and someone else’s bad behavior and that’s awful. But we’ll never become empowered and liberated if we get stuck in victim status. To get unstuck, sometimes we need to set firm boundaries or possibly even walk away from a relationship that is harmful. At other times, we may need to swallow our pride and have the courage to really listen to perspectives that are uncomfortable. Those forgiveness issues are tough and require not just courage, they also require the third C, compassion.

 Compassion

Courage and compassion are best buddies because it’s hard to be kind when we’re in pain. It’s hard to be loving and grace-filled when we’re hurting.

But opening our hearts and minds to compassionately understanding ourselves and those who hurt us is a key to forgiveness.

Martin Luther King Jr. said:

He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us, and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

We sometimes like to think of ourselves or others as either all good or all bad – it’s simpler that way – but that leads to forgiveness problems. We may refuse to believe anything good about someone who’s hurt us. When we do something hurtful, we may blame others because we are afraid our wrong action means we’re a bad person. Or we may retreat in shame and miss the opportunity to share our gifts and talents.

A Muslim man I called Basil forgave the person who tortured him and it definitely wasn’t easy. But he had compassion for his torturer, and that helped. He said, “I felt like he was a poor guy. I looked at him like he really, really needs help. From my experience with him, he was always worried, always wondering. He had this weird feeling he was not safe, and he wondered which one of his friends would betray him.” Basel was physically tortured in prison, but Basel realized his torturer had created a personal prison in his own mind and was letting his paranoid, fearful thoughts torture him.

When people hurt us, it’s natural to become bitter and resentful. But I remember the words of the Lakota woman I interviewed who had amazing compassion and forgave the people who murdered her mother and pregnant sister. She said, “No one can make me hate.”

I love that because hate isn’t good for us. Hateful, unforgiving thoughts can torture us. They keep us from experiencing the life Christ wants for us. I asked one of the women I interviewed why she thought God wanted us to forgive. She said simply, “Because it’s good for us.”

Forgiveness frees us and helps us give to others. Have you noticed that the word forgiving can be separated into for and giving? Forgiving is for giving because when we break free from the chains of bitterness or shame we can give more to others.

But forgiving a major transgression isn’t easy because it requires us to write a new, improved chapter in our life story. We need help from the fourth C, creativity.

Creativity

Forgiveness is about learning from our painful experiences. It’s about adjusting our perspective and transforming our thoughts so that we can create a healthier, more peaceful and joyful way of being.

James, brother of Jesus, experienced tough times with a great attitude. In James 1: 2-4 he advises us:

Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

Wow, that’s awesome inspiration, though I must admit I think considering trials of any kind nothing but joy seems a bit over the top.  I do agree that what makes forgiveness possible is knowing that tough paths lead to beautiful destinations. I don’t know why some of our best learning experiences involve humiliation, embarrassment, disappointment, and pain, but if we can accept that inconvenient truth, I know we are on the road to more joy, love, and peace.

We’re all on a journey and we’re all at different places on our journey. I often remember the words of Valerie, one of the woman I interviewed. She said, “We’re all on our own paths.” That’s so true, but often so hard to accept. Her words remind me to focus on compassion versus judgment. To relax my expectations and need to control, take deep breaths, and “Let go and let God.” 

When forgiveness is really tough, thankfulness and gratitude are more important than ever. During my toughest times, being grateful for the beauty of nature, acts of kindness, music, good books, friendly dogs, the ability to laugh at myself – those things have given me the positive energy I need to create something good out of something painful.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul, no stranger to adversity, counsels:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Why? Because gratitude shines a light for us, so we can see what path to take.

Some of the people I interviewed described forgiveness as a cleansing of the heart, and the forgiveness process as a way to scrub your heart clean and experience a liberating rebirth. David in the Bible saw it in a similar way. Listen to the words he uses when asking God for forgiveness in Psalm 51: 10 -12

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

I pray that we feel the Holy Spirit within us as we strive to shine a light of love and grace for our world.

Don’t Change, Become

I’m grateful when my Facebook friends post inspirational, beautiful, or funny things on their pages. A recent post advised, “Don’t change, become.” That got me thinking about the difference between the words “change” and “become.”

If someone tells me I should change, I may feel like the real me is not good enough. That I should try to be someone else. I may ask, “What’s wrong with me? How am I bad or broken? If I’m bad or broken, is there really any hope for me?”

However, if someone talks to me about who I can become, I can create a vision. It’s still okay to be me. In fact, it’s vital that I be me. The genuine me with the potential to learn, grow, and live with purpose. 

When I’m becoming, I can decide what there is about me that I’d like to stay the same, and what I’d like to transform. Being aware of positives, not just negatives, gives us the energy we need to move forward.

Positive humanist psychologist Carl Rogers believed we all need genuineness, acceptance, and empathy in order to thrive. He said, “What I am is good enough, if I would only be it openly.” If we are hiding fears of not being good enough, we aren’t being our true selves. It’s only when we have the courage to confront our genuine feelings and thoughts that we gain the power to transform them.

Reading a devotion before bedtime comforts me and the following passage from James 1: 2-4 (NRSV) was just what I needed one night. The verse said, “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

What an awesome and amazingly difficult way of looking at our struggles. I’m still striving to look at my current woes with joy, but when I remind myself that no inspirational life story is without struggles – and the more extreme the better – I am able to improve my attitude.

Those times when I’ve been humiliated, disappointed, ashamed, or grieving have clothed me with empathy for others and led to insightful moments. I’ve been very happy to shed some of my old judgments that were acquired before I experienced things like: my child being the one throwing a tantrum in the grocery store; my work being criticized and rejected; my assumptions proven wrong.

Experience transforms us in ways advice never can. Experience delivers intelligence in the form of feelings and emotions and goes beyond the simplicity of mere words.  

Becoming means throwing off unrealistic or pointless expectations of how we should appear and what we should achieve. It means being patient with ourselves as we work through difficult periods in our life. Grief coach Maria Kilavkoff explained, “Sometimes we slow down so we can digest the indigestible.”

Feeling broken is awareness that it’s time to challenge beliefs and behaviors that are no longer appropriate for us. We find ways to fix what needs repairing by learning to become more compassionate, generous, respectful, courageous, daring. We take deep breaths, relax, and enjoy being who we are and where we are in the moment.

When we know we’re becoming, and we realize others are also becoming, forgiveness can blossom within us. We feel sadness and hurt, but we accept our feelings and learn to understand where those feelings are coming from and where they are leading us. The beauty of forgiveness is in knowing it’s okay to be who we are, and it’s okay for others, who are also struggling to become, to be who they are.

Becoming requires humility, not humiliation. When we have humility, others no longer have the power to humiliate us because we’re strong enough to accept whatever mistakes we make and learn from them. We refrain from humiliating others because we wish the best for them as they strive to become a better version of themselves.

Humility means having the courage to accept who we are, and the compassion needed to treat ourselves and others kindly. Humility has been called the master virtue because it’s vital in helping us become virtuous.  We don’t close our minds to new ideas or cling tenaciously to what was or what we assume should be because we are no longer defensive. We are excited about who we are becoming.

When I think of the times when I’ve been irritated with someone who is trying to give me advice, it’s because I feel they want me to change into someone they approve of. A friend said she was hesitant about getting help from an organization called “Behavior Management” because she didn’t like the idea that she needed to be managed and said, “It seems like they will be out to control me.” Most of us don’t want to be controlled, but we appreciate people who support us on our journey of becoming.

Of course, when we think someone else should change, “Behavior Management” sounds like just the ticket. The problem is we can only manage our own behavior. Everyone is on their own path to becoming and we don’t get to control the pace or the direction.

Inner freedom blossoms as we let go of the burden of expectations that we or others must change. We find peace with letting ourselves just be and become. We can rest assured that we are who we are supposed to be as we envision – with faith, hope and love – the person we are becoming.