Inner Inventory: 4 Types of Choices

As free will beings, everything we do is a matter of choice, whether conscious or not.  Gossip may be a conscious choice for one person who knows it’s harmful but an unconscious habit for another with less awareness.  Thus, we need an approach to introspection that gathers obvious choices and brings more subtle ones into our awareness.  This is the first of a 4-part series outlining a structured method for taking this kind of inner inventory.  The series will prompt those engaging in introspection to consider their choices in four categories:  active choices, reactive choices, passive choices, and non-choices.

The first type, active choices, are the obvious wrong choices we made when better alternatives were available and within reach.  Broken promises and commandments, intentional harm to someone (including intentional harm to self), missed opportunities because of laziness, and misused opportunities are examples.  I would include the early stages of an addiction, when I still had the power to make a choice and I chose the destructive path.  Serving my own needs and desires ahead of another’s in a way that left bruises belongs here, along with just about any willfulness that resulted in unfairness, disrespect or injury.

There is Jewish teaching, I believe from Medieval times and alert readers please correct me if I am mistaken about that, concerning the “evil tongue.”  A woman searching her conscience to make teshuvah in preparation for Yom Kippur confronted her gossip about a neighbor.  Struggling with how it was possible to make amends for her actions, she consulted the local rabbi, who told her to go home, to get a pillow, to go up to her roof, and to shake all the feathers out before returning to him.  Perplexed but full of remorse, she did as he instructed and watched the wind carry the feathers in seemingly all directions for miles and miles.  She went back to the rabbi and asked him what to do next.  He then told her that gathering up all the feathers would be easier than gathering up hurtful words carried by the evil tongue.

Our childhood choices may be less harmful, silly even, but if a memory stands out for you, capture it here.  Writing it down will free your conscience to move on with the inner inventory of less obvious wrongs.  For example, I would note that time I bombarded unsuspecting passersby with M&M’s from a balcony, regaled by the unexpectedness of it, because it revealed my 12 year old appetite for manipulation.  Harsh words and the evil tongue are an equal opportunity sin for all ages.  Childhood experiments with meanness may have been outgrown, but any memory that weighs on your conscience should be offered up here.

Whether you are approaching introspection with the intention of making a confession in a religious tradition or simply finding the course corrections you need as you embark on a new year, making detailed notes about your choices in these four categories will not only capture both the obvious and the elusive but also help you make a break from past patterns of choice.

Join the conversation.  Does the weight of past choices diminish the range of options available to you at present?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

When Remembering Hurts: Part 3

There are memories, and then there are consequences.  Recognizing that we have veered off course or missed the mark on something we tried to accomplish can be discomfiting.  Consequences – incarceration, legal action, foreclosure—can be excruciatingly painful.  So is facing what has been irretrievably lost.  It’s natural to feel grief concerning the loss of a relationship, an opportunity, a job, another’s trust in you, your trust in another, years gone by, money spent foolishly, pleasures given up, and, of course, the loss of life itself in death.

When mired in grief over the consequences of our actions, we can take some comfort in knowing that grief is not a permanent state but a journey towards something else.  The destination—acceptance—can give us hope.  When we have an idea of where our life is heading, we can put obstacles and hardships into perspective and persevere.  We can examine past choices, and while regret for them may be heartrending, we can look forward with hope that they won’t be repeated.

The honest seeker will, at some point, stop defending himself from the truth.  In an effort to rationalize our actions to ourselves, we erect barriers to truth.  We hold our victims culpable in some way for our actions against them.  When we release ourselves from the self-defense pretense, we have an unobstructed view to the pain we caused others.  Feeling their pain, compassion, is a natural consequence of confronting this truth.

God, in his infinite compassion to all, is present to all the pain—the pain someone caused me, the pain I caused someone else, and the compassion I feel for the one I hurt. Perhaps most heartbreaking is God’s faithful and unwavering presence to us even when we fail to hold up our end of the relationship with him.

Imagine how it feels to be in a relationship in which you’re ignored.  Your continual shows of love and support are overlooked or taken for granted.  Your intervening help saves the day over and over, but your partner acts as if she had it under control all along and you didn’t have anything to do it.  You work hard to dream up the perfect gift and are excited to give it, but it is left unopened, not even important enough for her to bother unwrapping.  What kind of relationship is that?  It is how I treat God.

When we own up to all the ways we turned our back on the one who never stops seeking us, we grow into compassion, reciprocal compassion, for God.  This compassion bears an exquisite kind of pain.  To feel the pain God feels over you is to grasp just how much he loves you.  It is a big step into intimacy with God, and it is perhaps our greatest source of hope.

Join the conversation.  What becomes possible when you release yourself from the self-defense pretense?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

When Remembering Hurts: Part 2

There’s a verse in “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” that goes, “And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again.”  Sometime nearing New Years, I find that sentiment not entirely alien.

The Twelve Days of Christmas: Unwrapping the Gifts by Br. Curtis Almquist offers thoughtful readings for the twelve days between Christmas and the Epiphany.  In contrast to the marketing promises rampant in the uber-commercial Christmas season, Almquist raises up spiritual gifts that truly fulfill and satisfy, gifts like love, forgiveness, joy, hope and companionship.  The chapter on companionship comes along on the 9th day, right about when I find myself humming that particular verse of the aforementioned carol.

I have enjoyed this little book repeatedly for several years, but the first time I read it, I was in particularly ragged shape approaching day 9.  My husband had left me to handle our three pre-teens solo while he took a football trip with friends, and upon his return the seemingly unrelenting stream of requests and complaints had me in a state of mind for retreat.  On the verge of tears, I barricaded myself in our bathroom and turned on the shower in hopes of being left alone long enough to read the short chapter.  I was not especially receptive, however.  Companionship was the last thing I wanted at that particular juncture.

Imagine my relief, then, when the company Almquist served up was that of Mary, mother of Jesus.  As one chosen to carry an inconceivably great mission, she knew fear.  As a low born unwed pregnant teenager, she knew disgrace and the humiliation of being misunderstood.  As a courageous companion to her son in his suffering, she knew grief.  When I pondered how profound her suffering, my woes seemed small.

Moreover, when I pondered her suffering, it revealed itself to be on the very same ground as her extraordinary blessing.  The inextricable interlacing of suffering with blessing that Mary represents opened my heart in that moment to the blessing of children tangled up with my suffering exhaustion.  Without even leaving the sanctuary of my bathroom, spending time with Mary that morning soothed my angst and filled my heart with gratitude for the people I call family.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God: Pray for us sinners now
and at the hour of our death.

Join the conversation.  How do you encounter the interlacing of blessing and suffering in your journey?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

When Remembering Hurts: Part 1

Studies on American consumerism and happiness reveal the happiness we gain from buying stuff is short lived.  No sooner have we acquired stuff than our attention turns to new stuff.  By contrast, spending on experience–a gathering of friends or an act of kindness–has a longer lasting effect because we can remember the experience and feel happy all over again.

The converse is also true.  Remembering can hurt.  Shining a flashlight on ourselves and seeing the wrong turns we have made can be painful.  Painful aspects of introspection arise from remembering upsetting events, facing the consequences of our choices, and allowing ourselves to experience compassion for those who were hurt.  If you find yourself approaching introspection with some foreboding for any of these reasons, don’t shoulder it alone.  Reach for hope in companions.

“Con dos, no peso un muerto,” is a Spanish expression that means, “With two, even death isn’t heavy.”  Scripture offers companions.

Spend some time in Isaiah 53.  Isaiah here foretells of one to whom the Lord is revealed but who goes without any form of majesty.  He endures astonishing rejection and injustice.  While Jews see a suffering servant representative of the house of Israel in this prophesy, Christians see Jesus (an interpretation that does not agree with the context of the preceding songs of Isaiah but is suggested in the gospel of Luke nonetheless).  Both interpretations find a fellow sufferer.  The injustice borne by Jews through history may put one’s own suffering into sharp relief.  If we can appreciate the juxtaposition of extremes that the person of Jesus embodied—champion of justice treated unjustly, condemned by those he came to save, son of all-powerful God born powerless—we find someone well acquainted with pain.

The Psalter is a fantastic companion for walking through painful memories.  This book of poetry offers words to capture the full range of human emotion and experience.  You will have no difficulty finding verses that voice your ill-will for the one who wronged you.  My personal favorite is Psalm 63.  Here is the ending:

9 But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be food for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Visualizing a group of jackals sitting around, gnawing on a pile of my tormentor’s bones with little teeth marks in them was a salve to my wounds during a painful time.  When you find a Psalm that gives voice to your emotion, pray it with vigor.  The honest exhortation to God will give you some release.

Join the conversation.  Have you found spiritual companions in unlikely places?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Abundance: How Much is Too Much?

Last week I was checking citations for my book about the healing power of confession, and it gave me an occasion to revisit some of the essays in Mere ChristianityIt is a collection of radio addresses given by atheist-turned-Christian C.S. Lewis about the lowest common denominator of what it means to be Christian.  He begins the series with commentary on the human tendency to want to hold others to a standard of fair play.  Lewis calls this standard of fair play the Law of Human Nature, but it could also be called a moral compass or a chart that helps us navigate rights and wrongs.  Lewis takes pains to distinguish this Law of Human Nature from human instinct.  All our human instincts are good in the right context and bad in the wrong context, he asserts, so the Law is the set of rules defining what makes them right or wrong.

The so-called seven deadly sins are normal human inclinations, instincts or even gifts taken to excess, distorted or neglected.

  1. Lust distorts bodily expressions of the gift of love.
  2. Gluttony is our bodily need for sustenance taken to excess.
  3. Greed exaggerates material needs often to the point of hostility towards others.
  4. Envy excludes others from the desire for goodness to the point of sorrow for another’s good.
  5. Sloth is our need for rest taken to excess and reflects indifference to our gifts.
  6. Wrath perverts our sense of justice into revenge and spite.  It also includes excessive anger directed inward towards self.
  7. Pride, considered the most grave of the bunch, is placing one’s own will above all else and can corrupt love of self into contempt for others.

We can find sinfulness in our thoughts and actions when we allow any of our natural inclinations to overwhelm or to distract us.  To feed any obsession is to overlook the abundance of other gifts God put before us.  Failing to recognize, and failing to respond to, the abundance and grace in our lives is another, more subtle, way we veer off course into sin.

Those of us among the 5% of Earth’s population who reside in North America, who consume 25% of Earth’s energy and who eat enough extra calories every day to feed an additional 80 million people, can’t escape confronting our abundance.  While 925 million people in the world do not have enough to eat, making hunger and malnutrition the number one risk to health worldwide, the leading health risk to the poor in the United States is obesity.  Indeed, it is a land of abundance.

How we respond internally to the abundance around us informs what we do externally with our resources.  Both matter.  “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Luke 12:48)

Join the conversation.  Are you humbled by the abundance of opportunity and comfort, wondering what on earth could be expected of you that would in any way measure to the abundance set before you?  Or have you grown so accustomed to worldly things that you feel entitled to them and, in fact, want more?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Forgive and Forget: Two Views

A recent post on new year’s resolutions invited contemplation regarding whether there is forgiveness you need to receive or to extend.  A wise commenter responded with thoughts on what forgiveness really is. Here, in part, is what she said:

 

I once read that the definition of true forgiveness is to no longer see the other person as wrong! Wow! I mean if I didn’t think that they were wrong to begin with, I wouldn’t have a need to forgive them right? But now if I have to no longer believe that they are wrong, well, that puts a whole new spin on forgiveness doesn’t it? When God forgives us, he wipes the slate clean.  The bible says it’s as if the sin had never been…yep, that pretty much says I am not wrong.  I have a completely new beginning. I think that’s the forgiveness that God want’s from us as well. To wipe the slate clean towards our brother, as if the infraction had never been…as if they had never wronged us!

That is a challenging definition of forgiveness, indeed.  To contrast that with a different thought, I’ll refer to Curtis Almquist, another spiritual thinker I very much admire.  In Unwrapping the Gifts: The Twelve Days of Christmas, Almquist examines the etymology of forgiveness and suggests it is not about forgetting.  We’re often urged to forgive and forget, but is that as powerful as forgiving and remembering?  To remember the offense in all its meanness, thoughtlessness, malice or spite, and nevertheless in the very presence of that reality, to release resentment and all claim against the offender can be a greater offering and act of love than somehow vanquishing the offense from our consciousness.  Some may be able to blot out the offense as if it never happened when releasing resentment, but for me personally it sounds like a slippery slope towards repression and denial.  I am one of those challenged by the “forget” part.

Almquist helps by pointing to the blessing in the tensions we feel with those who give us a reason to forgive or those with whom we don’t get along.  He calls them “enemies,” a strong word but the one Jesus used for all who fall outside the categories of family, friend and neighbor.

I’ve changed my mind about enemies in several ways.  For one, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not because it makes for more pleasant living (although undoubtedly it does).  Rather, we’re told to love our enemies because they may also be our teachers, perhaps even our best teachers.  Our enemies can get us in touch with “our stuff” like no one else can… Our enemies expose us, and I believe that they are extraordinary agents for our own conversion.

In this new year of life, as we reflect on where we’re headed and what is in our way, perhaps we can hold up, appreciate, and even love those people who are burrs under our blankets for the insight with which they grace us on our journeys.

Join the conversation.  Who is your fellow traveler who best exposes the life change your soul craves?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Veering Off

The ways we veer off course are as many and as individual as people on the planet.  We can’t make the corrections we need, though, until we recognize how we veered off.  The last post suggested that many of our strengths and shortcomings may flow from strengths and shortcomings in our spiritual lives.

When I said to forget about new year’s resolutions to lose weight or to save more for retirement, I didn’t mean that taking care of yourself or saving are not important and responsible things to do.  To make a personal confession here, I am constantly challenging myself about where I build up my treasure.  As a fervent saver and frugal if not stingy spender, it would be the height of hypocrisy for me to discourage saving for retirement.   Rather, the suggestion intended to provoke questions about what gets in the way of our intended destination.  There’s a saying that if one wants to know what his priorities really are, he need only look at his calendar and his bank account to see where his time and money are actually spent (or not spent).  Obstacles getting in the way of saving might be a desire for ever more stuff or maintaining a certain “standard of living” or hanging onto an asset we can‘t really afford hoping someday to cash in.  Realigning priorities can help overcome these obstacles.  Putting God in the center of my life and being “on course” spiritually doesn’t automatically fill my retirement account or make the pounds melt away, but re-centering my priorities may make it easier to follow through on the changes I need.

Different traditions use different language to describe our wrong turns.  Religious traditions call it sin.  Hebrew texts use three words for sin.  Chet translates literally to missing the mark.  Avon means desire, and pesha means rebellion.  Episcopal doctrine defines sin as squandering God’s blessings and “the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”

“Sin” can be a religiously charged word, and the Twelve Step tradition avoids it altogether.  It focuses instead on the defects of character that underlie wrongdoing.  The Third Step in Twelve Step programs is deciding to align one’s course to God’s will and to surrender one’s own will where it departs from God’s will.  Surrender is a difficult step.  All of the Twelve Step recovery seekers I have known have spoken of turning their will over to God in a Third Step and “taking it back” at some point in their journeys.

Regardless of language or spiritual tradition, we all “miss the mark,” have “desires” that drag us off course, and “rebel” against the course we set for ourselves from time to time.  Those occasions may deplete our morale or dent our pride, but they harbor a great invitation—an invitation to turn back, to get back on course.  The next several posts will explore ways to recognize where we have veered off course so that we can accept the invitation to make the turns we need.

Join the conversation.  When you drill down on the things in your life that seem out of balance physically, emotionally or intellectually, can you trace the imbalance to spiritual roots?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.