Pardoning helps us experience interconnection


It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

Under the influence of the Judeo-Christian values of modern culture, I have the habit of believing the story that we are all flawed, that part of my task in this life is to work on myself, to fix my failings, and try to be less bad. While it’s certainly rewarding to grow and learn and increase my awareness and equanimity, there is a big difference when I come at it with the intent of discovering innate capacities, rather than purging unwanted ones, or rooting out evil and unworthiness.

Forgiveness and blame are two sides of the coin of pardon. When I forgive another, I forgive myself, because pardoning comes from a sense of worthiness—my own and another’s. We are all worthy of empathy and understanding, and therefore pardon. Blame is the opposite of pardon. Blame directs anger outward, making an object out of a subject, creating separation and “othering.” Through empathy and compassion, pardon draws both subject and object together through a shared understanding that we are all connected. Continue reading

Giving and receiving bind us to each other

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For it is in giving that we receive

This phrase is familiar to most of us. The joy of giving is greater than the pleasure of receiving. Yet giving carries risk and requires courage. Whatever we are giving may indeed be ignored or refused. If it’s something sourced from deep inside, an intimate, heartfelt gift, refusal can be devastating, even shaming. Giving makes us vulnerable. It’s no wonder that many of us hold in our generosity, especially if we have been burned in the past.

St. Francis doesn’t specify what we receive when we give, only that we receive. We may at times receive a harsh lesson in humility or in the importance of detaching from outcomes. I have been known to give with a certain expectation of how the recipient would react, only to be crushed by their indifference or dislike. The lesson is not to refrain from giving. If anything, it is that giving without expectation is like the graduate school course in generosity. It’s not for the recipient’s reaction that we give; it’s to experience reciprocity. Continue reading

Permission to love it all: embodying the meeting of inner and outer


To be loved as to love:

A cursory reading of this suggests St. Francis is speaking of loving our fellow man (and woman), but he could have a much bigger meaning here. Maybe he’s advising me to love everything I can. I have observed how alive I feel when doing something I love: designing or writing. My heart glows in my chest and the work flows easily. I feel like dancing.

Come to think of it, I love to dance as well. And to play the piano and watercolor. And walk in the forest, and sail on the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and creeks. And play cards by the fire with my son and husband. And pick tomatoes in the garden and eat them still warm from the sun. What if St. Francis, in this one sentence, is giving us all permission to do what we love, what nourishes us and connects us to the breathing earth and to each other? Continue reading

From oxygen masks to understanding: naming the emotion is key to empathy


To be understood as to understand,

The need to be understood has been a lifelong struggle for me. I suspect I am not alone in this, but admit to having very little perspective, as immersed in that longing as I’ve been. The problem is, during an encounter or argument with a loved one, to keep insisting on being understood closes me off from their needs and leads to repetition and stridency.

It strikes me that one of St. Francis’ overarching messages is that we always have the choice between turning inward and reaching outward, between isolation and connection. Between victimhood and generosity. It’s no accident that connection feels better. That being true, I wonder what stops me. Other than years of habit (not to be underestimated), why do I so often fall into the trap of insisting on being understood?  Continue reading

Seeking to console another is a way of summoning powerful allies


O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,

Two aphorisms come to mind: You reap what you sow, and ‘Tis better to give than to receive. I mentioned at the beginning of this project that I had been reciting St. Francis’ prayer each morning before meditation in the months leading up to my father’s death. During the sad days and weeks following his passing, this phrase was very much in my awareness, offering its own consolation.

Seeking to be consoled is a turning inward, a way of balling up into a shell and waiting for help. I might as well dare people to show me that I am worthy of love. Consoling, on the other hand, is an act of loving connection, even at a time when everyone is in need of consolation. The distinction is not between being selfish or selfless. It’s about hiding or reaching out. Continue reading

Choosing joy while allowing room for sadness


Where there is sadness, joy.

Of the four temperaments, I tend to swing between choleric and melancholic. Think Rabbit and Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh stories. I find it difficult to be around gloomy, negative people because they tend to awaken a deep sadness within me, and pull me down into their misery. Early on, probably through parental influence, I developed a coping strategy of talking myself out of my sadness. After all, what do I have to be sad about? I have a roof over my head, clothing, food, a good education . . . . The list is quite long, yet this exercise often just makes me feel guilty when I am sad, even so.

A child has no idea of the burdens or shadows a parent or family or culture is asking her to carry. I was always a sensitive child, absorbing the emotions of others, too thin-skinned to resist. In the face of all that pain, it felt selfish and uncaring to be joyful. At any rate, when confronted by the sadness of others, it seemed an insurmountable challenge to summon joy. Sadness felt like an anchor, dragging down any momentum to joy, preventing even full sails from driving the boat of my life forward towards the distant horizon. Continue reading

Respecting the unknown by illuminating what we can


Where there is darkness, light;

One of my favorite aphorisms is the advice to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. This has always made sense to me, although I sometimes forget to do it. Many wisdom traditions teach that we are, or we contain, light as the fire of consciousness. In my imagination, I can interchange light with energy with spirit; somehow this means that we are the stuff of the universe, we are light energy, animated stardust. The word, light, shows up in our language in so many ways, any one of them could be the basis for a whole journaling session.

We are said to be lighthearted, enlightened, to take things lightly, to shed light on a problem. Some people light up rooms, others may feel lightheaded or light on their feet. We have light in our eyes, so the phrase “lights out” refers to more than bedtime, as you know if you’ve ever had your lights punched out. A great leader is a guiding light. We “see the light” or “see in a new light” when we understand something afresh. Near death experiences often describe moving to a bright light. Revelations “come to light,” or we might see the “light at the end of the tunnel” after a long project or struggle. Continue reading

Creating space for both despair and hope


Where there is despair, hope;

In environmental circles, hope has gotten a bad name. It’s seen as passive naïveté in the face of harsh facts, the data and realities of a losing battle against the continued, even escalating, ruin of the planet. Seriously, the weary activists say, what hope is there in the face of upward trending climate change, rainforest loss, extinctions, superstorms, Keystone XL, Pacific trade agreements, WalMart, the gap between rich and poor, and on and on?

Worse, some might say, such wishful thinking prevents the clear-headed warriorship that is most needed to combat these evils. Yet, this is the very either/or thinking that got us into most of these messes in the first place. That “us-versus-them” mentality keeps us trapped in a story that says it’s irresponsible to hope in the face of despair. We have to save hope for after we beat the bad guys. Continue reading

Doubt and faith and nihilism, oh my!


Where there is doubt, faith;

Faith must be the most written-about subject in human experience. Faith asks us to trust in the unseen, and we may see it as a hallmark of holy people, too rarified for most of us. And yet, faith is both cause and effect. It flows from the willingness to be an instrument of the divine, while at the same time, is a way of courting that willingness. It’s easier to be faithful when rewards come and also turn to it in times of great crisis and despair. And what about all the other, more quotidian, times in between?

“Faith is not a cushion for me to fall back on. It is my working energy.” ~ Helen Keller, from Let Us Have Faith

While faith is an active choice, it is also a passive outcome of devotion. In Helen Keller’s words, it is fuel. Energy. All energy on Earth comes from the sun; everything alive draws sustenance from it. Faith, at its most primal level, then, is knowing that the sun will rise each morning. Trusting that this spaceship we’re riding on will once again turn its face to the great star that powers all life. Continue reading

Inhabiting the threshold between injury and pardon

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Where there is injury, pardon;

This third line of St. Francis’ prayer is a difficult one for me, although it does depend on whom I’ve injured. I don’t seem to have as much trouble apologizing when I’ve overreacted or said something unkind to my son as with my husband. This is likely because my ego is less invested in hardened stories about our relationship, the sort of stories that begin with “It’s not fair. . . ,” or “You always. . . ,” or “You never. . . .”

When my son was little, I studied Marshall Rosenthal’s Nonviolent Communication, which appealed to me for its methodical approach and lack of judgment. He teaches that conflict arises from someone’s needs not being met. We can diagnose that in ourselves when an encounter creates a strong emotional response. A feeling of sadness, frustration or anger, then, isn’t wrong or selfish, as I was taught as a child. It is, rather, an entirely natural and reliable guide to one’s inner state, which is produced by an unmet need. Continue reading