I can often fall into the following trap. Faced with a constraint, I try to overcome it with all of my power. The trickiness of the trap is that the constraint binds how I think about the situation. I focus only on it, and how to attenuate it. The constraint defines my vision.
One day some years ago, as I was caught in this trap, my dad posed a liberating question. He asked, “have you ever thought about how good this situation can be?”
Aha! I had been so focused on how to make a situation less bad, that I had forgotten that it could be good.
By focusing on the possibility, I was freed to think differently. That little question changed the story and, thereby, the situation. It helped me play to win rather than play not to lose.
If, like me, you are ever mired in a battle of wills with a constraint, I wonder if you’ll wonder how good the situation could be?
Steve Jobs died 10 years ago this month. To mark the anniversary, one of his closest collaborators, Jony Ive, reflected on his relationship with Jobs in the Wall Street Journal. Ive remarked that:
“I had thought that by now there would be reassuring comfort in the memory of my best friend and creative partner, and of his extraordinary vision.”
“But of course not. Ten years on, he manages to evade a simple place in my memory. My understanding of him refuses to remain cozy or still. It grows and evolves.”
This type of dynamic, compelling memory is a remarkable thing to consider.
Are we able to say the same about our memory of mentors who made us dream of significant lives? Or of our “favorite” saints? Wasn’t it Dorothy Day who said she hoped she would never be considered a saint because she did not want to be dismissed so quickly?
Let us pray for the grace of memories that compel us to lives of significant generosity.
Let’s think about the Good Samaritan story for a second and see something cool.
The story starts with the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, and the young man’s follow-up question: Who is my neighbor?
And you know the middle. Man is beaten, left for dead. The “holy” people pass by. The outsider acts mercifully on the beaten man’s behalf.
Now notice the end. Jesus asks: “Which one of these was neighbor to the [wounded man]? Neighbor = Helper Samaritan.
But wait! The commandment is to love the neighbor! If we can trust the syntax of the translation, the one who is doing the loving, then, is the beaten man!
The point, for me, is this: Robust, expansive love can begin when we are able to bear our wounds, in vulnerability, to people we trust. In this sense then, yes, the wounded man plays an important part in the relationship.
Shall we go and do likewise?
When we consider a person that, at this moment, we do not agree with, what is the story that we tell about them?
Does it resemble a “straw man?” That is, do we pick only the flimsiest parts of their perspective and rail against it?
Or do we set up a “steel man?” That is, do we consider their position with cognitive empathy and fill out their narrative as strongly as possible?
One strategy will help us productively and compassionately engage the world as it is. The other will inflate our ego’s self-righteousness.
An integrated interior life certainly requires an element of effort: to show up each day in silence, to carve out time in defiance of all of life’s distractions, to conquer the resistance of “Oh, I will just pray tomorrow.”
But, truly, a bigger and trickier part is the commitment to effortlessness. If the point is to tune to how deeply we are loved and to trust in this love, then a massive egoic effort will not help us. We need effortlessness, a sense of abandon, as in love or sleep.
This effortless effort is certainly a paradox, but a fruitful one, worth engaging.
This weekend, our family moves from Northern Mexico to Greater DC.
I believe that, if we pay attention during life’s transitions, the seasons of our lives can reveal themselves with unique clarity. That is, it is possible to harness the emotional intensity of a transition and, holding the moment gently, to gather the meaning of the past years.
I often need help to pay attention in this way, and one song in particular helps me achieve this disposition. It was written and performed by former colleague, master teacher, and dear friend, Michael Crean. It is from an album that forms the musical backbone of the audiobooks for Audacious Ignatius and Sorin Starts a School.
Here is the song, entitled “Seasons.” (It is registered on SoundCloud under his pen name.) For an optimal experience, listen with good headphones after everything the day requires has been done.
Here’s to attentiveness, whatever the season.
A German verb for “to hold” (halten) can be used as the verb “to think,” as in: What do you think about that idea?
This structure illustrates a healthy relationship with our mind’s activity. I am holding a thought in awareness. I do not over identify with it. I can let it go. I can share it. I can do something about it. But I am not the thought.
So. Was hälst du? What do you think? (That is, what do you hold?)
Katie shipped out Sorin Starts a School last week, and then the fun began. We started receiving texts and emails from you all about reading the book for the first time. What a joy to connect, especially about something we have anticipated sharing for so long!
The brief message from the father of a friend stood out to us. He wrote that the book struck him as both “fun and serious,” both “whimsical” and inclusive of “faith and determination.”
This weaving of depth and delight is precisely our aim, and hearing that the book makes good on this promise fills us with gratitude. Thank you for believing in what Katie and I made.
If you are the sort of person who shares things on the interwebs, we’d love to have you as a partner in sharing the book. Of particular value are: 1) leaving a review here (scroll down and click on the part that says “reviews”) and 2) emailing folks you know who would delight in the book.
Let the (serious) fun continue!
Those hours we spend loving, praying, enduring, listening, serving, attending to another… those hours do work on us, carving out a deeper capacity for love.
Depth is not a fixed trait.
Life presents us with conflict, stress, and change, so we develop (often unconscious) defensive habits to deal with this pain.
There is compelling evidence* suggesting that the maturity of our defenses can determine the extent to which we develop psychosocial health.
Here are some mature defenses (articulated in the DSM-IV).
(1) Altruism – Taking action to decrease the world’s suffering
(2) Anticipation – Holding future pain in awareness (i.e. memento mori)
(3) Humor – Being able to laugh at oneself and the vicissitudes of life
(4) Sublimation – Engaging healthy, gratifying alternatives to an opportunity denied
(5) Suppression – Stoicism (i.e. “If you are going through hell, keep going.”)
Development of these habits is not a matter of will power. They are cultivated in the context of significant relationships, drawn out of us in empathy and safety.
*For more, check out Chapter 8 (entitled “Resilience and Unconscious Coping”) of this fascinating book reflecting on the Harvard Study of Adult Development.
Here I wrote that the maturity of our unconscious defenses in the face of life’s pain contributes to our overall psychosocial wellness.
And the opposite seems true as well. Immature defenses tend to undermine our wellness.
Here are some common immature defenses.
Some (dissociation, fantasy, passive aggression, projection) avoid or externalize responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in.
Other defenses keep the threatening thought or feeling out of our awareness. These include displacement (directing anger at something other than the source of the anger), intellectualization, and repression.
Awareness of these immature defenses can help us leave them behind. To truly grow, though, we need to witness exemplars of the mature defenses as well as experience the relational support to integrate them.
My wife and I used to work here in downtown Cairo, Egypt.
My wife’s work was in the legal aid clinic. She worked often with one translator, a young woman from Somalia, when preparing the cases of Somali clients. This woman wore the niqab, so my wife had only ever seen her eyes.
Then, the day before we were to return to the US, this young woman approached my wife to say goodbye and told her that she wanted to find a place alone so that she could show my wife her face.
There was no real privacy on the compound. The workspace of the entire legal aid clinic was, generously estimated, about 14 feet by 24 feet, with an adjoining bathroom. So my wife and this Somali woman went into the bathroom, saw each other face to face, and said goodbye.
Deciding to show our face to someone takes significant courage.
How do we become people who have the desire to show our face to one another?
How do we become someone of such love that people want to show their face to us?
Plants are phototropic. Over time, they orient themselves according to the light source in their environment, bending either toward the light or away from it.
Many people are power-tropic. They bend toward (or away from) those that they perceive are in power, and reflexively take on (or react against) their characteristics.
Seeing this phenomenon can help us understand our own motivation, the motivation of others, and, then, how to shape culture in a just way.
Growing up, when we (one of my siblings or I) had convinced ourselves that a homework problem had stumped us, our father would do the following.
He would bring us to his desk, turn on the desk light, give us a blank sheet of paper, and sharpen our pencil. He would talk out the problem with us if we wanted and then (this part was key) would leave. He showed that he trusted us to solve our own problems.
And, surprise! We always figured it out.
I think often about that exercise, particularly when I feel momentarily stuck. What a gift to be given the habit of trying again, at a different angle, with a fresh piece of paper.
Your harshest critic is, in all likelihood, you.
The first way out of this reality is to see it with clear eyes.
One of the things that makes difficult conversations so difficult is that there are actually multiple conversations going on. In a truly tough talk, there is probably:
1) The Feelings Conversation: Narrative spun out of the reality of how I am / we are feeling
2) The “What Happened” Conversation: Narrative establishing the facts the conflict
3) The Identity Conversation: Narrative and analysis about what this means for how I see myself / us.
If two people are stuck in different “conversations,” they can neither attend to each other nor communicate effectively.
So, in a relationship where conflict is possible, it is an enormous help to have the ability to talk about and refer back to these three conceptual hooks before a conflict begins. (For more, check out the book on difficult conversations.)
My mind can be running analysis on my situation (i.e. “This is good, bad, boring, fun, a waste, meaningful, etc.”)…
Or it can be spacious and present.
I’ve come to think of this analysis as a tax on my ability to interact with reality.
This hyper-analysis is often involuntary, but noting it drains it of its power.
Giving up analysis (and so the tax) for a day or a week or longer has the potential to be a deeply freeing experiment.
Making a point is, in the short term, quite fun. With a rhetorical flourish, we spin a narrative about how we see the world. Sometimes, this involves putting someone in their place in a way that activates the defensiveness of their ego (and ours). Little positive change can come from this.
Making a point is different from making a connection.
Making a connection is harder than making a point. It begins with listening. Truly, humbly listening. And then, with prudence and patience, willing the good of another.
Put another way, in order to make a difference in the world, first we must make a connection with a person. This path is far better (and more courageous) than simply making a point.
I’ve spent (that is, wasted) a lot of time in that situation.
Is it possible that you already have the answer you are waiting for as well?
If so, the next thing to do is to act.
A month ago, our family spent a week on a ranch with a group of lifelong friends and their children. As a group of our children scaled a rock wall together (and I became increasingly nervous), I asked another dad how he considers the physical risks that his children take. He responded with the following.
“My wife and I don’t really say ‘be careful’ to our kids because we don’t want them to be fearful, or necessarily careful, as they interact with the world. Instead we say, ‘pay attention.’ We want them to pay attention to their surroundings and how they are feeling at any moment. To be able to assess risk clearly and learn from any situation that they encounter.”
That sounded right to me, and honestly like advice that I should take.
Now, as I remind my children to “pay attention” when they take risks, I am reminded in return of a profound hope for them and for myself. I hope for our ability to attend to the world and the inner life with sensitivity and intuition, rather than with fear.
When our youngest son was about 9 months old (and would wake up very early in the morning), our family spent a few days of vacation just north of San Diego. When our son would wake up, my wife and I took turns putting him in the carrier, leaving the condo, and walking on the pier built a quarter mile out into the Pacific Ocean.
From the pier, even at 6:00am in mid-November, one could easily see a hundred surfers, tiny to our sight, bobbing up and down in the waves. Each time a solid wave would approach them, a few surfers would stand up and take the wave, riding it masterfully to shore.
I often wonder about the difference, in my own life, between mastery and control.
From the pier, the surfers showed us that control of one’s circumstances is not possible, but mastery of those circumstances is beautiful.
Addictions make us think we need more of what, in the end, does not satisfy.
Yes, the obvious addictions, but also the more subtle ones.
Avoidance of necessary or salutary conflict.
Destructive thought patterns.
Addictions are a trap, and seeing them with clear eyes is the first step toward freedom.
I am learning German, and so am developing a deep affection for the language’s compound nouns.
Three words combine to make one of my favorites: Fingerspitzengefühl.
Finger is the noun for finger. Spitzen is the verb for to sharpen. Gefühl is a noun meaning sensation or feeling.
Literally, it means “the sensitivity in the tips of one’s fingers,” but is also understood more broadly as intuition or a sure instinct.
So, let’s pray for the grace of Fingerspitzengefühl, in our interior lives, our relationships, and our work. May our attentiveness and compassion be sharpened to be as sensitive as the tips of our fingers.
If the narratives and noise in our heads spin, we can feel anxious and stuck. What is the perfect way forward in this situation, we wonder?
Well, there is never a perfect way. So, best to weigh the options one more time with a trusted conversation partner, and then act.
It may turn out that taking on an experiment or two is an excellent antidote to anxiety.
But sometimes we act like it.
It’s those people that are “good at praying,” we tell ourselves. We can just leave religious experience to them.
This assumption has the tricky disadvantage of being untrue.
The mysterium tremendum is available to all.
(For a glorious reminder of this, reread chapter 1 of The Religious Potential of the Child.)
In our senior year of college, a group of friends began hosting “professor dinners” in which we crowded around a mediocre meal and asked a beloved teacher an impossibly difficult question.
In the final weeks before graduation, three professors were asked, “what is the greatest challenge of our generation?”
The first answered, “the ability and conviction to speak truthfully.”
The second answered, “solidarity with the poor.”
Then, the third answered that “the cultivation of solitude” was to be our greatest challenge.
Wait… the WHAT?
Largely an overzealous, justice-minded bunch, reactions ranged from sceptical acceptance to muffled horror. Didn’t this guy know about the urgency of the struggle for justice?
Of course he knew. But, he also knew that without solitude, we would not be centered within ourselves, be capable of sharing this center with others, or authentically build communities worthy of trust strong enough to bear the challenges of our age.
In Scripture and Tradition, the conversation of “faith or works” is a well trod path.
Sometimes, though, it strikes me that a more present danger of our age is that we have neither faith nor works.
Certain ideological narratives can masquerade as faith, but have nothing to do with trust in a loving God. And often this narrative only serves to whip up self-righteousness instead of actual work on behalf of real people.
Let’s work and pray with each other instead.
A friend once told me that, when he would visit his mother’s home, he found her preoccupied many times a day with searching her pool and screened porch for tiny trapped frogs. When she found one, she would catch it in a net and release it into the yard.
For her, the house was the extent of her sphere of influence. This assumption limited how she considered the possibility of her life and thus bound how she chose to spend her attention and energy.
Certainly, to engage the world productively, we have to judge what is actually in our control, and then make prudential decisions about how to engage the world. None of us is infinite.
Too often, though, we encounter too little, and spend time stressing out over frogs.
Far better to encounter actual suffering and address it actively and compassionately.
Years ago in Chicago, we had a friend who, on someone’s birthday, would put them on the spot and ask: “So, now that you are x years old, what do you have to say for yourself?”
I came to love the exercise, to watch others take account and share a bit of their distilled wisdom.
My birthday was this week, and my brother challenged me to answer the beloved question on the blog. So, for 2021, here is my answer.
It has been of great value to me to discover my story, to understand who I am and how I tend to engage the world.
It has also been of great value to me to discover our stories, to understand the narratives of the tribes of which I find myself a part.
And it is of ultimate value to me to consistently lay both my story and our stories into the narrative of The Story, the mystery of a loving God. This movement saves my story and our stories from becoming idols over which I obsess.
Put another way, kenosis before The Story returns me to my story and our stories with power, clarity, and the freedom to love, tuned to what is of ultimate value.
Trying to keep a toddler relatively chill during an hour-long liturgy can be a uniquely punishing experience.
The little human often grasps neither the rhythm of the mass nor the utility of whispering when communicating. He is quite heavy, a thirty pound bag of rice that wants to move, point, be held a little higher, and be balanced in odd ways on my body. The setting is quiet and public, and so visibility (and potential for embarrassment) is high.
All of these details sum to a basic and physical reminder, during the mass, that I am in need and not in control.
For a long time, I regarded this strain with varied levels of resentment. Now, I try to see it as an asset to prayer.
I try to recall, during this strain, that the worst disposition I can carry into the liturgy is one of self sufficiency… that I am basically okay on my own and do not depend, each day, on the grace of God.
The presence of a toddler, then, is a very physical antidote to this lie of self-sufficiency. The strain can actually crack me open to experience the grace of the mass and of my life.
If we let them, toddlers can act as an antidote to our self-sufficiency before God.
Which is consistently the origin of the abundance and joy in our lives? The known or the unknown?
And why, then, do we seek so often to control our circumstances?
Let us try, each day, to venture into the unknown.
A friend recently shared with me the following story.
He was, some months ago, on a road trip with Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM.
(Moment of delightful appreciation for what it must be like to make a road trip with the good Friar.)
In a glorious non-sequitur, Fr. Rohr shared one definition of sanctity. He said: “You know, a saint is someone who has forgiven reality.”
Since hearing this definition, I’ve thought about what this might mean… to “forgive reality.”
Surely, understanding this definition could take a lifetime, but for me, now, “forgiving reality” means relinquishing my emotional reactivity (anger, judgment, pride, etc) as I confront any reality that appears, in this moment, imperfect or threatening. (It is my hunch, also, that I am able to do this to the extent that I experience forgiveness myself and trust in the loving kindness of God.)
As I am able to forgive reality, I am able to see more clearly, live more artfully, and respond to reality with love.
If we want to limit our intelligence, the following list is a good place to start:
1) Love being right.
2) Be addicted to the moral high ground.
3) Restrict your sources of knowledge.
4) Relate only with people who are like you.
5) Relate only with people who agree with you.
Let’s acknowledge that intelligence can be a communal virtue, and work diligently to cultivate it.
I love getting a haircut, and I think it is mainly because, for those fifteen minutes, it is my job to do nothing. There is zero pressure to accomplish anything. There is no real way to use my smartphone. I can just breathe and enjoy the experience.
And, really, releasing my mind from all tasks for a chunk of time may be the best thing I do all day for my imagination, and so my productivity.
Put another way: Imagination without rest is not possible, and skill without imagination is barren.
The novitiate for the Congregation of Holy Cross in East Africa is located at Lake Saaka, a crater lake hidden by the rolling hills of rural Western Uganda. It is impossibly temperate and beautiful. Here, the men in formation will work, pray, and study for a year before taking first vows.
And, for many years, their next stop in formation was Dandora, a slum of Nairobi, Kenya. In Dandora, one hundred thousand people struggle to survive on four bleak square kilometers that border Nairobi’s largest dump. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the air smells either strongly or faintly of burning garbage. Save for the sunrise and sunset, there is no natural beauty. Here, the religious who took vows at Lake Saaka, would continue their formation with pastoral work and theology studies.
Both Saaka and Dandora are places of sincere intensity. At Saaka, it is the intensity of witnessing the growth of one’s own inner life in a wildly abundant experience of God’s creation. In Dandora, it is the intensity of witnessing the visceral resilience, strength, and prayer of God’s people.
I have thought about these extremes for some time. They certainly defy clean interpretation. What remains clear to me, though, is that I have known religious of the Holy Cross who, because they have lived in both intensities, carry a profound capacity to witness to the unrelenting and merciful love of God.
In German, the way to say “to meet” (as in, “good to meet you”) is actually a composite of two verbs: kennen lernen. Kennen means “to know” and lernen means “to learn.”
Fascinating, right? Truly meeting someone does, in fact, demand attentive receptivity so that we can learn how to know the person.
I do not know if this interpretation is implied by its etymology, but it is still a worthy reminder.
We have the opportunity to learn to know those around us every day, even those that we met, for the first time, long ago.
Managing a family’s financial future is a lifelong balance with a great many variables.
One central variable, that affects many others, is the variable of “enough.” At any given point in our lives, can I say if we have “enough?” Enough money. Enough living space. Enough stuff.
It is tricky to solve for “enough,” but it is worth the mental energy because when our answer for “enough” becomes clearer, so does our capacity to be generous.
Memento mori, latin for “remember your death,” is a powerful spiritual practice. When we recall that we are finite, we are freed to live with singular purpose and focus on the most important things.
Relatedly, I wonder what happens when we consider memento senectus, “remember your old age?”
God willing, we will reach old age and, during that time, our bodies and minds will probably work less well and the context of our days will have changed considerably.
When we consider this reality, what effect does it have on how we want to live today?
Here is a question that gets right to the heart of a community’s culture: Within this community, what confers status?
Put another way: You see those people at the top of the heap? Why do we have a collective understanding that those people are at the top?
I’ve been part of communities that have conferred status based on the following:
-Generosity and consistency
-Conspicuous performance of ideological purity
-Looking like other people regarded as high status
-Level of contribution
Getting clear on what confers status in a community helps us understand how it runs. That is a huge step toward understanding the culture and, therefore, gaining perspective on how you can help it to grow.
Have you heard of the word sonder, meaning the experience of realizing that all other people have an interior life as rich and complex as one’s own?
Fascinatingly, it was coined in the past ten years, in an effort to name emotional experiences that currently lack a proper word in English.
Both the experience of sonder, as well as the effort to name complex emotions that lack easy articulation, functions to build our capacity for humility and insight, resulting in more compassionate communities.
When programming a web application, error messages constantly appear in the browser where the project is being built, displaying text describing that something is going wrong. (A file is missing. A typo broke part of the program. A module is missing. The server is misconfigured.)
Some error messages are clear. Some are difficult to decipher.
These messages are a constant part of the building experience, and so the programmer must make a constant choice. She can see the error as a chance to learn, to improve the project, to hone her skill. Or, she can let herself hate the error message and bear down in frustration each time a message appears.
One approach will lead to growth and the other will lead to painful frustration.
We encounter error messages, in life, all the time. Those things don’t go quite right based on our narratives about the world, in professional, personal, political, or social spheres.
Let us try to welcome these messages with a compassionate curiosity and generous engagement, and, when we fail, resolve to become curious about what keeps us from being able to do so.
When working on my computer, I am often guilty of having a comical number of browser tabs open at one time. Each tab represents a reminder to do something or an open loop I need to close. And the sheer number of tabs that are open keeps me from attending to any one task well.
The most important things (our most cherished relationships, time spent in prayer, dedicated generosity) deserve our single-minded attentiveness, as if it were the only browser tab open in our minds. Protecting this focused time is both tough and worth it.
Near the major intersection southeast of our home, there is a small sign that reads, “obra en proceso.” Work in progress.
The sign is quite understated given the scope of the project. One day, we found the entire intersection had been shut down and traffic patterns rerouted. The traffic lights were gone, and an enormous hole had been dug. For months, workers have built a major infrastructure project that will clear congestion near the US-Mexico border. The project will take between a year or two to complete.
In the context of our interior lives, it takes courage to undergo major change, either personally or professionally. It is far easier to live in the untruth that we are self-sufficient, but doing so is like relying on old infrastructure.
Blessed are those who have the guts to declare themselves a work in progress. They will defy the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset.
Here is one of my favorite stories from the writings of the Desert Fathers.
A novice is worried because the monk that he sits next to during the late prayer keeps falling asleep. He asks an older monk what he should do.
The master’s response? See that the sleeping monk is comfortable. Do not disturb him.
Often, we conceive of a “conversion experience” as necessarily startling or shocking. Many times, though, an experience of unexpected gentleness can be uniquely powerful and an enduring reason to believe.
Last week, our older son and I flew on an airplane. As we were about to take off, the pilot explained where on the trip we might experience turbulence and how to prepare ourselves.
This is an outstanding exercise for our personal and professional lives. Anticipating turbulence with loved ones, in counselling, and in spiritual direction can enable our artful response.
And yes, there is turbulence for which we cannot prepare. Knowing this, we can spend the time in silence, cultivating solitude and trust, so that we have the interior resources we need when a challenge arises.
Anticipating turbulence helps us respond instead of react when strain enters our lives.
The experience of being a first-year teacher is uniquely disorienting.
I find myself suddenly responsible for children at an age of which I have limited experience. I must attend compassionately to who they are and what they need even as they are unable to communicate this to me directly. I must, balancing empathy and assertiveness, consistently create the world of the class. And I must maintain this sense of consistency even as I integrate constant improvements to serve the students better. And I must do this every day.
For parents, too, a similar dynamic is always at play. Since my oldest child is always getting older, I am always a parent of a child of an age of which I have little direct experience. (Today is the first day I have parented a child of 4.65 years, for example.)
It is right to acknowledge the challenge of this dynamic. When we do, we are able, also, to see the possibility. We get to meet our child anew every day.
(This is the first of the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset, four mental stances that clip our potential, limit our intelligence, and stifle budding growth.)
When faced with a setback, a challenge, or a bit of critical feedback, we occasionally collapse into ourselves declaring: “You’re right. I suck.” We fixate on the negative so thoroughly, we are scarcely able to see anything else. We over-identify with the experience of failure.
This represents a subtle form of hiding. If I am fundamentally incapable of addressing the challenge with flexibility and insight, I am off the hook!
This mental stance distorts reality and side steps the wisdom on offer. Namely, it:
1) Over-identifies with the negative moment, hardening the (untrue) narrative that we are bad and incapable.
2) Blinds us from the positive buds of growth that already exist in the situation.
Let’s watch out for “you’re right, I suck.” Seeing and naming it drains it of its power.
(This is the second of the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset, four mental stances that clip our potential, limit our intelligence, and stifle budding growth.)
In this mental stance, when faced with constructive feedback or a setback, we become defiant. (I don’t deserve this! You’re wrong, world! I rule!)
This Horseman takes the legs out from under our curiosity. We avoid the questions that could lead to our growth. For example: What could I learn from this generous gift of feedback? What is the whole, complex picture of why I experienced that specific failure? How might I improve?
When we say, “I’m right. I rule. Full stop,” we wimp out. We dodge the uncomfortable but healthy questions that the situation at hand poses to us.
(This is the third of the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset, four mental stances that clip our potential, limit our intelligence, and stifle budding growth.)
Here, when confronted by challenge, we absolve ourselves of responsibility by externalizing blame onto things outside of our control. “It’s her fault! It’s his fault! It’s their fault!” Blame an easy target and pretend that we do not have agency in the system.
This mindset has the air of validity because much of the world is absolutely outside of our control. Rather than fixating on “the rain,” though, it is much more productive to see the bits of agency we do have, acknowledge our role in the system, and step forward toward growth.
(This is the fourth of the Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset, four mental stances that clip our potential, limit our intelligence, and stifle budding growth.)
Someone stuck in this mindset acknowledges, superficially, the difficulty of a given situation, and then imagines how it will resolve without having to engage in meaningful change.
This is a tricky one because the surface optimism masquerades as a mindset centered on growth.
But this positivity has no strategy, and is employed as protection from the urgency, complexity, and potential of the situation. This thin confidence functions to avoid growth, rather than confront the issue head on.
A positive attitude can certainly be an asset as we confront challenges, but it must be accompanied with a story and a strategy that moves us toward the growth of which we are capable. Avoidance leads us nowhere.
The outstanding teacher residency program where I coached teachers some years ago immersed the residents in the need for “growth mindset.” Someone with a “growth mindset” believes that they can grow, that ability and intelligence can be developed. Because of this belief, a person engages challenges and helpful criticism with sincere effort on a path to mastery.
Its converse is “fixed mindset,” which believes that one’s traits are essentially fixed, and so effort is useless. This mindset avoids challenges and truthful critique. It feels threatened when others thrive.
Fixed mindset is everywhere, in all of us, and quite tricky to talk about. (No one wants to hear or acknowledge that they are stuck in such a narrative.) So, the teaching program’s leadership wittily and decisively seared this concept into the minds of the residents by naming the “Four Horsemen of Fixed Mindset,” the four ways that this stunting mindset typically manifests.
They named the Four Horsemen as follows:
These conceptual hooks have been such a gift to me, that I wanted to share it with you. I’ll write the next week’s posts about each of these manifestations.
Until then, here are the master teachers themselves acting out the Four Horsemen in the video they used to train the rookie teachers. Enjoy… if you dare!
Did you know that St. Oscar Romero went to psychotherapy? He did!
As a young seminarian and priest, Romero’s prayer and discipleship was bound by his obsessive-compulsive personality disorder which manifested as a self-absorbing scrupulosity.
Here is a key bit from the book where I learned about all this, linking his therapeutic and his saintly journeys.
“[A] psychic / affective conversion within the particularities of [Romero’s] OCPD and scrupulosity revealed psychological complexes, which, once engaged, freed him from the rigidity of their hold, healing and transforming the complexes into a source of energy he never imagined or realized he had at his disposal.” (Pg. 154, Archbishop Oscar Romero: A Disciple Who Revealed the Glory of God, by D. Zynda)
Romero channeled this energy into becoming a superlative pastor and archbishop, and his commitment to God and the Salvadoran people flowered more fully each year.
Much is written and taught about Romero’s courage in the face of the violence that ultimately took his life. We should write and teach more about how an indispensable part of his capacity for such a witness was rooted in the courage to show up to psychotherapy.
To create and share that thing you have imagined.
To commit (actually) to that habit that will lead you on a healthier path.
To reach out and start that important conversation.
To develop a relationship with a therapist and / or a spiritual director.
How long are you going to wait?
When Ernest Shackleton publicly solicited applications for an expedition to the South Pole early in 1914, he reportedly did so with words similar to the following:
“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”
The response to the advertisement was massive and overwhelming. Around 5,000 applications poured in, many of them from men with superlative talent. When the crew had been chosen and the ship finally set sail, someone even stowed away on the ship, so badly did he want to be part of the journey.
They were motivated by the crystal clear sense of adventure and mission.
What if we, as a church, shared a similarly clear sense of adventure and mission? If we had this sense, what would we do differently?
During the War in the Pacific, nearing the end of World War II, the Allies made many amphibious landings on Pacific Islands occupied by Japan.
The Allied leadership often did not realize, though, that many of these islands were protected by large reefs which prevented the landing boats from unloading the soldiers directly onto the beach. This meant that the soldiers had to suddenly exit the boat in deep water and swim to shore.
These soldiers carried heavy gear that they believed (and their training had drilled into them) was crucial to their survival, even their identity. But in this new scenario, plunged into deep water, the men who clung to their tools tragically drowned. It was those who could, in a split second, change strategy and shed their heavy tools, who lived to fight.
We have tools to help us navigate life: patterns of thought, routines, narratives, even our default personalities. Do we also have the attentiveness to know when it is prudent to drop these tools and engage the world in a different way?
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead is a long letter that the speaker, John Ames, writes to his young son. I have thought repeatedly about many of the lines in the book, but none more than this one.
“I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle… If only I had the words to tell you.” (emphasis added)
The book is an arrestingly beautiful reminder that grace, the unearned and unbidden love of God, saves us from our silliness and self-sabotage. And this quote in particular functions to remind me to attend to this grace as a parent.
The ability to say to a child, “you have been God’s grace to me,” is one of the finest gifts a parent can receive. The care that then comes from this realization is one of the finest gifts we can give to a child.
(This is a longer one, but it’s worth it.)
For a little over a year, our older son and I rode the train into Washington DC to the nearest public library story time.
We did this twice a week, no matter the weather, because the librarian, Philip, and the story time he orchestrated was that good.
I have thought often about why these 25 minute chunks of time were so consistently valuable to us. Here is what I’ve come up with.
Philip’s thoughtful preparation of the gathering was always evident. Each story time was similarly structured but never was it stale. It balanced predictability and variety in a way that oriented and delighted us. Each session had a taste of music, typically accompanied by an instrument he would play, as well as a book or song in a language other than English. His book selection represented excellent range and subtle humor as well as a general protection against the insipid volumes that too often characterize children’s literature.
And his execution of each session was similarly full of care. When leading the alphabet song, he would slow down around “L, M, N, O, P,” so that the children, for whom the letters were new, could distinguish them individually. He would always read the name of the author and the illustrator so that we could find these or similar books later in the library. He would often show up early to tune his violin or ukelele, and afterwards, show it to any child that might be around. His demeanor during the story time was gentle, friendly, and engaging, no small feat since the room was filled to capacity with 100 or so children and adults, carrying themselves with varying levels of courtesy.
It occurred to me often that he could not have always felt like doing this. But he did. He did show up each time with remarkably consistent emotional endurance. This consistency poured the love of language and music into our son.
How was Philip able to show up as he did, with tender endurance, and so constantly?
I think it was his formation, in college and graduate school, as a musician and conductor. For years, he dedicated himself to works of beauty and imagination within the musical form, and then shared that beauty in (perhaps imperfect, and so daringly vulnerable) performance for the enrichment of an audience. We were seeing, 25 minutes at a time in that room at the back of the library, the fruit of his immersion in musical excellence. He also has worked for years as a youth orchestral conductor and so, I must imagine, is primed to believe that young people are capable of a richer interior life than we often perceive or acknowledge. Perhaps he looked at us, from his little plastic chair at the front of the room, as an orchestra of sorts in which artful language would grow richly and play out over a lifetime.
The fruit that Philip’s talented endurance has borne in the life of our son is remarkable to consider and difficult to quantify.
From the time he was barely verbal, our son would hold story time in our living room, bracketing the session with Philip’s “hello” and “goodbye” songs, and lovingly displaying for me each page of each book he had chosen. (There were usually about 30.) He continued to do this months after we moved from Greater DC, and he knew more of the books’ words each time.
He often sorted his books into “Mr. Philip books” and “Non-Mr. Philip Books” and the familiarity with these titles and authors helped him navigate the shelves of any library. (I even came into his room last week, now almost two years after our last story time, and he had selected a stack of “Mr. Philip” books and was paging through them.)
I was not in the least surprised, then, when my son and I both cried after we said goodbye to Philip following our last story time, days before we moved.
So. Let us never underestimate the value of showing up to our work consistently with tender endurance. Indeed, it may be one of the most important decisions we will ever make and will certainly bear more fruit than we know.
All the World, by Liz Garton Scanlon
Cat Goes Fiddle-i-Fee, by Paul Galdone
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault
Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, by Mo Willems
Hooray for Hat, by Brian Won
I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More, by Karen Beaumont
Penguin Problems, by Jory John
Silly Sally, by Audrey Wood
They All Saw a Cat, by Brendan Wenzel
I find it to be remarkably true.
I have a friend who actively seeks out media that communicates a worldview that he does not encounter very often or necessarily share. This is a unique and, I think, indispensable virtue for our times.
If we were in an ethics class, what would we call this virtue? Generosity of mind, perhaps? Self-interrogation? Active open-mindedness?
He is a principled person, certainly, and not swayed by every argument. Indeed, the utility of his virtue would be much diminished if he believed everything, or worse, nothing that he heard.
This generosity of mind makes him into a person capable of expansive relationships. This expansiveness represents a tremendous asset to our culture and helps him build a more just world.
Mary Ann Evans (under the pen name of George Eliot) wrote the following about the subtle conformism woven into the psyche of the town in Middlemarch.
The town’s citizens, largely, assumed that, “[s]ane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.” (a few pages into Book 1, Chapter 1)
The characters for whom this (brutal) sentence is true, are eminently manipulable by unstated expectations. They run from anything but “the accepted way” and they don’t really recognize how they circumscribe their lives in the process. If we live, consciously or not, by the same maxim, then the same is true of us.
But if we courageously develop the capacity to think,
and then to think about our thinking,
and then to think about how we think about our thinking,
then we are on the way to deep cognitive empathy and the ability to develop meaningful relationships with those with whom we might have otherwise considered silly, or worse, enemies.
This takes courage, the fortitude to be strange and free.
If I swipe right on my iPhone, I can see the “Screen Time” widget, an itemized graph that shows me exactly how I spend time on my phone.
If we could access a similar report for our minds, what would it show? Chunks of time in the flow of generous creation? Obsessive analysis? Active listening? Beholding nature? Beholding a child? Learning something new? Prayer? What else?
Attending to how our mind attends to the world is occasionally frightening but certainly an enlightening and worthy endeavor.
I spend a good deal of time reading children’s books, thinking about culture, and interacting with my smartphone.
Yesterday, our older son and I visited the library and found a simple little book that made me think a bit differently about all three.
I recently heard the following story of a tiger who spent years in a zoo. Its habitat was tiny, about the size of a modest living room. Eventually, the staff at the zoo found a comparatively enormous space for the tiger to live, some three or four acres.
When the tiger was relocated, it feared this new space, and retreated to a corner of its new home. It paced around this patch of its new world, wearing out the grass in exactly the same square footage as its previous habitat. It had internalized the bounds of its captivity.
Our minds can learn a similar captivity as we rehearse and grasp onto limiting narratives. New relationships go unexplored. New worlds remain undiscovered. We are capable of binding the potential expansiveness of our lives.
I occasionally like to challenge myself with the following questions, regarding my relationship with the church.
In the past year, how much commentary have you offered? That is, your opinion about what someone else was doing or creating?
In the past year, how much creation have you offered? That is, you showing up and offering generous leadership, an educational experience, a moment of beauty, a sacred space. Something that helps us thrive.
I am certain that we need more generous creation. I am not sure that we need more commentary.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I walked into a concert venue that had been converted into a COVID vaccine clinic. The volume of vaccines that this place could and has administered is enormous. All of this work was done one shot at a time.
In a world where so much happens so fast, we do well to remember that a great deal of the important things happen slowly, even tediously. Administering vaccines. Teaching a young person to read. Learning to articulate oneself in spiritual direction. Offering time in prayer.
Since this is the case, the way to make a difference, then, is to show up each day and attend to each interaction. One by one.
When my wife and I worked in Egypt, we lived on this street. After living there for almost a year, I learned that the translation of the street name is “the kindness of God.”
I have considered this name quite a bit since, and how it was not named “the niceness of God.”
I often try to live in “the niceness of God.” That approach has the disadvantage of being illusory. Far better, then, to tune to “the kindness of God.”
We use the word “church” to mean a lot of things. The people of God. The structure where we meet to pray. The hierarchy that leads. The tradition handed down.
What if, when we said church, our default definition was “a network of spiritual directors”… a tribe bound together by the tender cultivation of another’s (as well as their own) journey to know themselves as loved sacramentally?
If this was the default definition, how would this shift our priorities? How would this shift our inner lives?
Say that each day is a beautifully baked loaf of bread. Twenty-four hours, fresh every day.
What gets the first bite?
Prayer? The cultivation of solitude? The creation of something generous? Attention to our dearest relationships? Nature? Physical health?
The demands of work? Internet platforms that sell your attention to advertisers? Obsessive worry?
We rarely have the ability to control our days. We often have the ability to choose what gets the first bite of our time.
Flannery O’Connor once said, riffing on John 8:32, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you strange.”
I love this quote.
If what we say in the creed is true, we are going to have a wild journey… an adventure to know God as love and to act out of that knowledge. It will certainly, and thank goodness, be unpredictable, leading us little by little to a profound interior freedom.
If we are not comfortable being strange, neither should we expect to be free.
The first class I ever taught, in rural Uganda, had about sixty students. My most recent class, some years ago in Chicago, had fourteen.
Even in the class of fourteen, it was a challenge to shepherd each of their individual journeys toward growth.
Now think about the challenge of teaching as a Catholic parish. Maybe there are 3 full-time equivalent positions dedicated to formation and education. And, say, that there are 1,000 parishioners. That is a tough ratio for the educators. How could the staff possibly know what you, individually, need?
To my mind, in this situation the best way for a parishioner to ensure their solid formation is to first develop the capacity to know what they need and then to seek it out.
What can we do to make this easier? That is how can we build structures that invite engagement as a kitchen and not a restaurant?
PS – This is a different point, but here are some brilliant folks working on a development that would be a sea change for how we teach with integrity. Check them out!
In February, Secretary Blinken made a “Zoom visit” to all serving in the US Foreign Service in Mexico. In the general session, his parting message was to recall that “the world does not organize itself.” The upshot is that if we do not, with wisdom and intention, attend to the justice of international relationships, entropy and/or bad actors will cause chaos in our world.
This is certainly true in the context that he means, and in other places of work, business, and ministry. And, now more than ever, it is true of our interior worlds.
If we do not, with wisdom and intention, attend to our relationships with the stuff of our lives and order it according to what is most important, a crush of inputs will fracture our attention and ability. Overcommitment will overwhelm us. The endless scroll of social media and outraged news leaves with our attention spent and no energy to reorient it.
Our interior world will not organize itself. And, if we do not order them, we cannot effectively serve the justice of our city, nation, and world.
It took me a long time to appreciate St. Augustine of Hippo, whose Confessions were assigned to us a few times through college and graduate school.
Here was a man who was clearly holy, writing with singular insight about the journey to know God, and, in the same volume, wrote a fantastic amount about how imperfect he was. This appeared to me, at first blush, to be indulgently self-critical.
But some years ago, I heard someone remark that an inescapable part of the journey to holiness is knowing that precious little separates us from truly destructive behavior and self-dilution. And the ability to see this reality clearly liberates us to approach others with deep compassion. We are not, in fact, any better than that person we may feel superior to.
I think that this is what Augustine knew, and why he wrote so much about his imperfection. He knew the particularity of his interior life, his capacity to be self-destructive, and, ultimately, the experience of amazing grace. I believe that it is this completeness of vision that undergirds his holiness and his life of erudite service.
When I was home caring for our first son, our mornings were structured around an adventure outside the apartment. We would walk to the library, a museum, or a park, and then head home for lunch and a nap.
One day, I noticed that I always seemed to be rushing to and from these adventures. Rushing to catch the light before it turned red. Always trying to find the fastest way through the city to my destination.
Out of curiosity, I timed myself en route to our farthest adventure at a leisurely pace and then going as fast as I could while still walking.
The difference was 70 seconds.
70 seconds! This was what I gained for giving my attention over to rushing instead of mindful enjoyment of the journey.
I am still often guilty of speeding in this way. It is an ongoing challenge to remind myself that this rushing is not worth that which it sacrifices.
When our first son was to be baptized, I went to the Baptism preparation program for parents and godparents at our parish. Ours was a thriving parish in a big city. We were a large group in the church basement, ready to tune to the mystery of the Sacrament.
Then, the catechist began the session with the following: “We are going to get you out of here early.”
We were told from the very beginning that the session, an already scandalously limited time for our formation, was going to cut corners, be a box to check.
So, what is the opposite approach? In the limited time available, the catechist might give us such a glimpse of the mystery of Baptism and the religious potential of the child that we might be drawn closer to the mystery ourselves and acknowledge the privilege of being a parent or a godparent.
For our children to have a vibrant church, we need the latter approach.
Jesuits, early in formation, go on “experiments,” relatively short-term experiences of a specific type of service. This exposes them to a new world and allows them to explore new gifts. It has a terminal point and so has low stakes if it does not turn out well.
So, that thing that you’ve been putting off… that thing that represents an expression of your generosity… is there a way to turn it into an experiment?
It just may turn out that someone would delight in the generosity of your attempt.
My dad’s dad’s mom used to say this thing when someone was feeling quite wrapped up in the emotional urgency of a difficult situation. He would remind the person that “you don’t have to drink the soup as hot as it boils.”
For a long time, I took this to mean that I just needed to give a tough situation a few minutes before throwing myself back into the mess, back into the emotional emergency.
But the other day, my dad reminded me that, often, the situation is not worthy of the emotional emergency I place onto it. That situation? Hey, it’s just soup.
Taken this way, the first seven words of my great-grandmother’s sentence also suffice as quality advice. You don’t have to drink the soup.
I don’t take this as license to be aloof. Rather, it is an invitation to hold my inner chatter and my emotional response to a given situation a little less tightly. And this stance, in reality, frees me to be more thoughtful and generous, rather than obsessed with my own stress response.
So, hey, it is just soup. And there will be more tomorrow.
About a year into my time as a lay volunteer in Uganda, I found myself in the middle of a number of conflicts that I had not anticipated. I was confused and sad, unsure of how to proceed.
I wrote a rather conflicted email to the director of our program, the remarkable Fr. Tom Smith, CSC, who was then living in the United States. In retrospect, I was, in that email, trying to evade my responsibility in the situation. I was trying to hand Tom my problems.
Fr. Tom, in his characteristically thoughtful wisdom, handed them right back. (The subject line of his response was aptly named “Your Conflicts.”) He affirmed the goodness of all involved and helped me see the situation in a fuller context, but let me know that I was now a part of the conflict and it was up to me to act, in love, toward a resolution.
I have often considered the kind justice of his response. I was invited to stop the externalization of blame and the evasion of responsibility. Once I accepted the ground that I was on, I was freed to work generously toward a solution.
We are always teaching.
By how we choose to engage (or not).
By what we notice of the world.
By how we carry ourselves.
By the words we choose.
What have you been teaching lately?
One morning when I was learning to program, I was given a problem and told to write an algorithm to solve it. I dutifully cobbled together a tangle of code and was approaching a workable solution.
Then, one of the instructors looked at my monitor, highlighted every line, pressed delete, and walked away.
At first, I felt panicked. (That had taken me so long to do!)
And then, I felt relieved. I was free to consider the problem in a fresh way, and solved it in a few crisp lines.
It is often difficult to embrace an invitation to step back from “the way I (or we) do things.” But when I do, I am often rewarded with the freedom that comes from simplicity.
Ever read anything by Amor Towles? If you haven’t, and do, expect a treat. (A Gentleman in Moscow is a brilliant place to start.)
For me, it is like being in the presence of someone who is marvelously attentive, refreshingly insightful, and appreciative of great books.
I read his Rules of Civility about a year ago (so, the beginning of the COVID-times). I have considered the following bit, from the mouth of the book’s narrator, since.
My father was never much for whining… He certainly didn’t complain about his health as it failed.
But one night near the end, as I was sitting by his bedside trying to entertain him with an anecdote about some nincompoop with whom I worked, out of the blue he shared a reflection which seemed such a non sequitur that I attributed it to delirium. Whatever setbacks he had faced in his life, he said, however daunting or dispiriting the unfolding of events, he always knew that he would make it through, as long as when he woke in the morning he was looking forward to his first cup of coffee. Only decades later would I realize that he had been giving me a piece of advice.
Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane – the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath – she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger. What my father was trying to tell me, as he neared the end of his own course, was that this risk should not be taken lightly: One must be prepared to fight for one’s simple pleasures and to defend them against elegance and erudition and all manner of glamorous enticements.
As much as I think I would like to, I am unable to control all the circumstances of my life. It is simply not possible.
Same thing with the mystery of God. Trying to control the Trinity? That is a tough road.
But what is possible is order: to orient myself toward the stuff of my life such that I am able to react masterfully, faithfully, with love. This may likely mean doing less things and/or, on a given day, doing the important things first.
The first line of Psalm 64 leads a crucial prayer: Deliver us, O Lord, from fear of the enemy. In some translations, fear is rendered as dread.
Is this not fascinating? In life, there is plenty of wanting to escape conflict with one’s enemies (real or imaginary) but here, we pray to deliver our lives from dread of these people and conflicts.
Dorothy Day wrote that only when we are delivered from this fear can we get close enough to love. Put another way, in order to love our “enemies,” we have to first pray for the grace to see our dread and to overcome it.
I don’t think that this is something we can do of our own power.
Deliver us, O Lord, from fear of the enemy.
Last year, a friend witnessed the following interaction in a Zoom meeting about how to handle her child’s school year given the reality of COVID-19.
The conversation was heated, quite divided between those who wanted in-person school and those who wanted remote learning. A decisive policy would come down to a vote.
One parent was so furious that she said destructive things to the group and then signed off abruptly, minutes before the vote.
The vote was taken and tallied, not in her favor.
She signed in a few minutes after the vote, and asked to be counted. That was not what the process that group decided on, and so her vote was not registered.
The world tends toward disorder, so there are everywhere chances to make things better. We only get a vote about how our shared future unfolds when we show up. And our vote counts exponentially when we show up generously and with grand imagination.
The experience of anger can be quite involuntary. Something happens, trespassing against our expectations of how things should be, leaving us furious.
Okay. But then what happens.
Anger can quickly turn into self-righteousness, to barricading oneself on the moral high ground. And anger can take the legs out from under our ability to listen perceptively and to relate imaginatively to people who think differently from us. And because of this, anger can handicap any attempt to accurately perceive and productively improve the situation that made us angry in the first place.
We do not always have the choice to be furious. But we can, afterwards and always, choose to be curious.
(Hey! The above reminds me of the dear Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ’s recent post on his new Substack blog. Check it out!)
When our first son was two, I would take him to a toddler Montessori classroom. At the art station, there were a few crayons each shaped like a large pebble.
Our son did not yet know how to hold a regular crayon, but the form of these crayons taught him to. There is just no other way to hold a pebble if you want to write with it. He had to grip it correctly, at the tips of his fingers.
Our interior lives, too, benefit from us finding and using similar tools. Take prayers of thanksgiving, for instance. In this mode of prayer, we tune to the gifts of our lives and orient toward the God who is their origin. Simply by engaging the tool, I am productively oriented toward the stuff of my life.
This was also our hope, also, with the structure of Audacious Ignatius. We aimed to create stanzas and art that stick in the memory and then, when recalled, gracefully and productively orient the reader toward a gem of our tradition. Take for example:
“First, know well that I’m loved even though oh so flawed.
Next, spend time with the Lord and to walk where he trod.
Offer all I possess, beg for my stony-heart thawed,
And act from a deep love, the love that is God.”
These are only three (pithy?) sentences. But when held, they may remind the reader of the depth of their experience with the Spiritual Exercises or uncover a desire to engage with them.
Whatever the topography of our interior lives, let’s find and use the pebble crayons that orient us gracefully and productively.
Last summer, we bought a 2003 Honda Odyssey from another Foreign Service family who was about to move. I think that they thought they were not going to be able to sell it. They had deferred a great deal of maintenance.
We cleaned the car inside and out. Twice. We replaced the tires, oil, filters, windshield wipers, antifreeze, antifreeze cap, shocks, struts, brake fluid, and brake pads. We greased one of the sliding doors and peeled all the old stickers off of the dash.
The van now runs great and facilitates our on-going family adventure. If we had deferred its maintenance for much longer, it would not have been able to do so.
We can defer maintenance on things that are much more fundamental to our life’s adventure than a vehicle. Our interior lives. Our closest relationships. Connections to the communities that formed us.
Let’s not defer maintenance on these most important things.
For most of her early writing career, Toni Morrison had a nine-to-five job, taught university classes, and raised her two sons as a single parent. She wrote books during this time that won her a Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Morrison reported that she would write in the evenings, but especially in the mornings. She would rise as early as 4am, and “wait for the light to come.”
When we tell ourselves that we don’t have the time to do that generous thing we think about, we may, in fact, be correct, based on how we are currently choosing to spend our time. But if we, like Morrison, make the time for the light to come, we will not be disappointed. The world will be better for our having protected and offered that time.
That story that helps you begin the day with energy, to engage the world with insight and empathy… Where did that story come from? Can attending to the roots of that story amplify it, or help you to grow similar stories?
And that story that closes you off, makes your thoughts spin without effect or love… Where did that story come from? Can naming and letting these stories go then release you from their negative effects?
The stories we rehearse form us profoundly. It is right to inspect their roots.
I once had a spiritual director tell me the following.
“You know… It is possible to do more than God requires, and less than God desires.”
While infuriatingly vague, the maxim has stuck with me and functions to pose the following productive question.
What, in fact, does God desire?
More than we can comprehend, surely, but perhaps essentially this: that we know how profoundly we are loved.
Truly knowing oneself as loved by God changes everything, and enables clearer vision of what, then, God requires.
Before we had kids, I would make a silent retreat every summer at the guest house on the campus of St. Mary’s College in South Bend.
My favorite room in which to sit, read, and pray was a thin room that wrapped around the south wall of the house. On the second floor and with giant windows, the room welcomes visitors right in the trees, into a world of leaves and light. The depth of field in the summer months is about forty feet, obscured by vegetation.
After a few years of summer retreats, I then spent one winter weekend there. The view from the room was completely different. The leaves were gone. The sun was filtered through many clouds. And, most strikingly, the depth of field was much greater. I could see over a mile now, through the leafless trees, all the way down to the river.
Winter, then, afforded an enhanced perspective.
The “winters” of life, moments of loss, conflict, or pain, can be a challenge, sometimes of uninterpretable ruthlessness. Only with good company, I think, can we navigate these winters, and tune into the unique perspective that they offer, the expanded depth of field. This transformed vision can fuel a life of remarkable compassion.
When both of our sons were learning to eat solid food, they would occasionally stuff so much in their mouths that they could no longer eat. The only way forward was to take all the food out and start again. Teaching them to eat, then, meant taking food away.
The best teachers, I think, do something similar. If a learner is stuck on a limiting belief or an idol of the mind, the savvy teacher does not add more input. Instead, she works to relieve the learner of the limitation. Once this idol is removed, the learner has more space to see what is real.
Frustratingly, our brains protect these idols with brutal force, namely through confirmation bias, making giving up limiting beliefs uniquely difficult. The idol’s bodyguards can live inside the texture of our own thinking.
While difficult, relinquishing a limiting way of thinking is some of the most important learning we can do. Giving up the “information” that limits our intelligence, imagination, and love can save our lives.
Most afternoons, I take our sons to a neighborhood park. Our two-year-old is fascinated by the basketball hoop there.
He will take our mini soccer ball out of the stroller, square up to the hoop, and shoot the ball. The hoop is regulation size, so his attempt falls well short. Sometimes it flies backwards over his head.
Two bits to note:
First: He loves this exercise. He knows he is not “doing it right,” but delights absolutely in the attempt.
Second: He is actually getting better. He is jumping and releasing the ball at (more or less) the right time. The ball flies a little higher.
When we start any new thing, we are not going to be awesome at it. A new flavor of empathy. Communication in a new context. Navigating the interior life after major life events. We will surely stumble. How could it be otherwise?
But if we accept the newness with joy and gentleness, a new world can open up. And absent this gentle joy, it can be very difficult to begin something new.
When I am at my worst, I consider the constraints in my life with the mindset of a victim. (“This is terrible! I don’t have x! I cannot do y!”)
Two things help break this cycle:
First, I realize that many other people have the same constraints that I do.
Second, I realize that many of these people with the very same constraints are thriving.
I escape from my impoverished mindset when I ask: Why are these people thriving? Can I do the same?
When we choose where and how to learn about the world, (i.e. a news source, a podcast, membership in a community) what guides this decision?
Do we seek to feel good? Perhaps morally superior?
Or do we seek to learn? To think hard and cultivate an expansive vision of the world?
It’s up to us to strike a balance. This balance takes courage and serves the common good.
I am obsessed with my son’s dentist office.
The first time we showed up, they let me know that only children were allowed back to the exam rooms. Parents had to wait in the car or in the waiting room.
When I first heard this, I had a pretty severe interior allergic reaction to it. (He was only three!) Then, I considered their reasoning. Their experience as well as numerous studies show that young people learn to fear the dentist from the grown-ups in their lives. That is, the parents teach their children, non-verbally and without intention, to fear and resist the dental exam. Without the grownups, the exam goes smoothly.
The place runs like a dream. My son loves the dentist. The boundary works.
We are always teaching, for good or for ill. That something is scary, or not. That someone or something is worthy, or not. Let’s watch how we teach, and be grateful for the boundaries that save us from teaching something that we never wanted to.
These are two very different pieces of paper. Humans relate very differently to each one.
Sometimes I wonder: Is my relationship with the Gospel more like that of an insurance policy or a treasure map?
An insurance policy makes me feel secure for minimal input. It leads me nowhere and exerts no attractive moral force over my life.
A treasure map leads us on an adventure and gives us hints about where the good stuff is.
Our firstborn learned to walk in the middle of a Chicago winter. I was home with him full-time, so, to survive, we had a lot of indoor adventures together.
One of our favorite outings was to go to the children’s area at the planetarium by our apartment.
During one morning at the planetarium, faint sounds of a choir carried into our area. I heard it, but stayed seated. My son lifted his face toward the sound, grabbed my hand, and ambled off toward its source. On the other side of the complex, we found a children’s choir and sat together to listen. He was rapt, turning away only to make sure that I was listening, too.
Attending to a child attending to beauty is a deeply remarkable thing. I am convinced that, in moments like these, we are invited to become like children.
I once heard a Mennonite missionary tell the following story.
When he was growing up in the US, their family would, after steeping a tea bag, dry it out on the counter. When they had a good number, they sent them overseas to families doing relief and development work with Mennonite Central Committee. The idea was that the missionary would enjoy the tea left over in the bag.
Yes, the gesture was rooted in a place of generosity and one has to marvel at this superlative frugality. But the error is fairly obvious. Why didn’t the supporting family just send new tea bags? Then, the recipient could enjoy the first use themselves, as well as the subsequent use.
While this seems obvious, I am often guilty of a similar mindset. That is, generosity often does not receive pride of place in my plans.
In our culture, big things (career, large projects) are often dedicated to the accumulation of money or status. The leftovers (of time, money) are for generosity. Sometimes.
But what if we committed to the opposite? What if we offered the big things to generosity?
This is the idea behind our dedication of all profits of Sorin Starts a School to the work of the Holy Cross in Dhaka, and namely the flourishing of Notre Dame University Bangladesh.
We are pumped to share that we are on schedule and set to ship out the books this May. Here’s to offering the big things to generosity, to love.