“Annually I publish a Holiday Letter that I send to friends that dot the globe. Many of the prior letters are contained in my book, Humanity at Work: Encouraging Spirit, Achievement and Truth to Flourish in the Workplace (Chapel Hill Press 2008) I am delighted to have the opportunity to share this year’s letter with you as well, Sandy Costa”
“The problem with God – or, at any rate, one of the top five most annoying things about God – is that He or She rarely answers right away. It can take days, weeks. Some people seem to understand this – that life and change take time.” Anne Lamott
My Dear Friends,
As we near the closing of this year, please accept my heartfelt best wishes to you and to all whom you hold dear.
I recently spoke to a fairly large group on the subject of change—of which there is now plenty to go around. After my talk, a woman came up to me, book in hand for me to sign. I could see that she had been crying. “I am so frightened,” she said, “so frightened of what the future holds.” There she stood, her spirit streaked with foreboding, a second proof of her words.
Because of the press of people, I couldn’t reply in any meaningful way. I gave her my card, hoping she would call. As she has not, I decided to use this message to remedy an opportunity missed. Not knowing her identity, I will call her Mary.
Dear Mary, though we are in expectation of “The Holiday Season,” I know many among us are immersed in a different season – a season of anguish for unexpected losses.
But how does cloaking oneself in dread prepare us for what life holds in store? Not a morsel of good can come from this self-indulgent play-acting. It’s akin to practicing bleeding! We are raised to believe that “We should always do the right thing.” Doesn’t that also apply to nurturing our own emotional well-being? Not allowing ourselves to fall into melancholy? Perhaps that would be the best change we can engineer in a down-time.
Distressed times have blanketed our nation before—wars, various panics, depressions, but they have never diminished our strength or resolve as a people. Perhaps in the last fifty years, we imagined ours a generation immune from any blight of uncertainty–the too-strict parent of doubt that can shred our confidence. Not so. We, too, are very much a part of history, just as our ancestors were. Generations before ours have confronted their own styles of fear-mongering by people who reveled in and profited from chaotic times of change. Even so, no doomsayers extinguished the luminance of our citizens’ free will. Nor of our common sense. We are, after all, the only creatures on this planet divinely deeded the will to decide how we shall react to anything that crops up in our lives. Of course, admitting the full presence of free will into our lives means that we stand up to hard emotional and physical work—for the duration. We cannot hide from this responsibility by fleeing to the odd comfort of a debilitating state of dread. Mary, in this life there’s not one of us that’s a “walk-on.” The contest grants no time-outs.
Why not? The Lord has bestowed on each of us a gift unequalled in the universe–a unique personhood. As that gift is personally bestowed, He asks in return that we assume responsibility to better ourselves, to treat ourselves with compassion…to ripen His gift.
Humans are not truly animated until the soul gives birth to the spirit, tends and nurses it, filling it up with strength.” Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Slightly more than a year ago, 33 Chilean miners were rescued after surviving for 69 days in a collapsed mine shaft. They were completely cut off from the outside world for 17 days. The fear these men experienced was in no way illusory. When asked how he survived the ordeal, one rescued miner responded, “I met God and I met the devil – God won.” I know where he met the devil, in the lightless recesses of his doubting mind. In that venue, hellish thoughts are spawned and our panicky fears of chaos hang from the cavern walls, ready to swoop like congregations of rabid bats.
Where did he meet God? God, lodged in this miner’s life’s core, is the Healer who saves us daily, sometimes in strange and mysterious ways. So we are not meant to understand life’s mysteries, Mary, those times when our hearts are seared by a preponderance of life’s ills. Only the spirit can decipher these mysteries. Only the spirit can be with us, walk with us after we are sick of the negative messages of disaster. When our tears fall. Rather than providing mortals with the verbal answers we desperately seek when heaven and hell converge in our minds, the spirit mercifully, in quiet patience, offers faith.
“Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there.” Henri J. M. Nouwen
I really like Nouwen’s teaching–he tells us that faith is trust on steroids. Faith lives in the spirit. Anne Lamott clarifies faith’s identity, reminding us that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Feel fortunate that you are not burdened with omniscience–knowing all that will occur to a certainty–because in that case you could not embrace faith! Faith is non-demanding, fully in tune with our mortal infirmities. When the landscape of our lives is stripped naked of all pretence, faith resurrects our courage. It harbors no prospect of self-aggrandizement, it asks nothing in return. Faith informs us that the path to hope is always near.
“Suffering produces endurance: and endurance character; and character hope.
And hope does not disappoint…We are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope:
For who hopes for what is seen?”
Romans 5:4-5; 8:24
My dear friend, mentor, and editor, Linda Hobson, who contributed to this letter, honors St. Paul’s idea of hope, above, because it’s not glitzy, sentimental, or romantic: “Hope is turning the other cheek to an oppressor, and not rolling the eyes, either; it’s the vote we cast at the ballot box despite not really liking or understanding any of the candidates; and it’s the act of a good Samaritan despite the Samaritan’s being late for a lunch meeting. Hope is smooth and open breathing, the stomach unclenched from hour into hour, ourselves curious and willing to contribute to human events as they happen; hope is genial; and hope waits. Hope is patient even after love has gotten bored, clicked off the remote, and walked out.”
Hope is also a conduit into our highest imagination, Mary. It is said that hope puts us in the mood to succeed, but hope is not a sweet emotion, like that transparent green butterfly fluttering around in an anti-insomnia medicine commercial on TV. Hope demands a will and a way—it demands that we act. If you think your dreamed-of promotion will result from sitting cross-legged in your office, burning incense while you repeat the mantra “I want to be President of this company,” save your matches; be assured that you can chant until your breath palls at your empty request, for hope demands of us the will and the way to fulfill its promise.
Life doesn’t kill our dreams–it simply asks that we do the work to breathe hope into those dreams.
“The tragedy of life is what dies in a man while he lives.”
And when our longing for comfort and love and approval from others is most intense, when we are in hard times, we need to look inward to the love the Lord has infused in our life core—our healthy love of self. Self-love allows us to accept mercifully that when we are accosted on life’s path by grief and despair, Mary, there is some part of that path we must always walk alone.
In his wonderful book The Heart Aroused: Poetry and Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America (1994), David Whyte claims that to find the path we deserve, “We have to leave the path we are now on, even for an instant, and earn the privilege of losing our way.” At that instant, The Lord will extend a guiding hand. Imagine all the women and men you have come to admire – perhaps they didn’t find their way but instead lost their way . . . to find a way to a higher calling!
“Acceptance of death is one thing but to allow it to upstage the joys of living is ingratitude.” Ronald Blythe
Recently when my wife Jean and I found a location well off the beaten path by using our GPS device, I mused that Lewis and Clark would have given most anything for a GPS system! Jean smiled, “If they had had a GPS,” she said, “their extraordinary exploration into the unknown west would not have been adventure!” Of course she is right. Theirs was one of history’s greatest adventures, a story to which neither man knew the ending. An adventure is precisely another way to characterize a mystery. Their remarkable journey does not remind us of an Hercule Poirot mystery, but it was a mystery of the most exciting type.
Rachael Naomi Remen observes that ours is not a society of mystery, but a society of mastery. What does this mean? We’re control-oriented, and thus we love a good mystery on the TV, but we sure don’t want to live one out ourselves—that would be terrifying, it would fill us with anguish. Given a choice, might we not opt for a celestial GPS to read our own stars rather than being as we are in this year of 2011–frozen in our tracks by the prospect of unrevealed changes that may lie ahead? Changes we fear we cannot master and then control?
The true extent of our control shows up when there’s a sudden family death. It shows us that Time is in control and masters us one and all. Life is a cosmic deck of cards with one card sliding daily from the top of the deck. But here’s the catch: not one of us knows how many cards God put in our personal deck of days. Even so, being privy to that number wouldn’t matter, for a lot of us don’t perceive the deck getting any smaller. But it is! Mary, not one of us knows if we’ll be dealt a card tomorrow, or even get to keep our card in the coming hours of today. One thing we know to a certainty is that we’ve been dealt this moment. Could it ever be “too soon” to live it to the fullest?
“We cannot put off living until we are ready.” José Ortega y Gasset
My friend Brian Stiller, noted author and theologian, is now Global Ambassador of The World Evangelical Alliance. Recently, Brian wrote an extraordinary account of a visit to the earthquake-ravaged northeast coast of Japan. He tells of the near heroic efforts of various Christian organizations to assist the needy there. While some thought these organizations were too small to do much, Brian observes that the impact of their united efforts has been profound—they are “a powerful witness of love and care to those in need.” He adds that “A sports metaphor came to mind [while I watched] people working to bring hope to hopeless times and places. [A] boxer taking on another in a heavier weight class is said to be ‘punching above their weight,’ taking on more than one would expect.”
Ernest Hemingway famously wrote that only bullfighters live their lives “all the way up,” implying that only a small group of “extraordinary people” feel fulfilled. What nonsense. The Lord doesn’t play favorites; we are each divinely designed and extraordinary. We can each live life all the way up–we can punch above our weight, paradoxically–when our inner nature aligns and acts upon our healthiest human traits: love, empathy, compassion, and forgiveness. Much like the tumblers of a cosmic safe dropping into place, the radiance of this alignment illuminates God’s intention in granting us the miracle of life–to put in motion our free will to help all who come within the orbit of our own existence.
Mary, the next time a fear of the unknown leaves you feeling as though you’re hanging onto the rim of life by your fingertips, take to heart the following instructions by the naturalist Henry David Thoreau. There are some who admire the beauty of Thoreau’s words but dismiss his observations as abstract idealism. An idealist–now there’s a job description sorely missing in today’s want ads! Actually, Thoreau’s twenty-six months’ sanctuary at Walden Pond (July 1845-September 1847) marinated his “idealism” in remarkably practical ways, imbuing him with unique insights. The following tutorial, if pursued, is the work of a lifetime, but what better time to start than right now:
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment [at the pond]; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
Mary, our life, lived through our thoughts and feelings put into action, makes this foundation Thoreau identifies. On those days when fear holds your thoughts hostage, remember this instead: the Lord intended us to be vital, curious beings, constantly in a state of re-birth, thus as open to change as everything else around us is. And when we pass over, our spirit no longer encased in its mortal trappings will be as it was at the moment of our conception, in all ways flawless, without a hint of the pain rained upon us during the course of our worldly passage.
My love to all who receive this message,
“If only you could see how heaven pulls the earth into its arms and how infinitely the heart expands to claim this world, blue vapor without end.” Lisel Mueller