Spiritual Essays

Spirit and Life

Collections of Spirituality Essays, accessible by links:

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To read one of the following essays which have recently appeared in the "Features" section of the Center for Ignatian Spirituality's home page, click on its title.

Confusion- Life itself depends upon unity in diversity.

Perhaps- Those of our decisions that result in consolation and peace indicate that our process is appropriate.

Neighbor- The way we relate with those who are neighbors is open to us as an option for meeting God.

Water- When we desire and ask for inspirations, we very often receive immediate responses.

Silent Treatment- All of us have complete freedom to experiment with silence.

Mental Cancer- Mental cancer is not a sickness, but a name that we can use for a common experience.

News- We are in fact loved, in many ways that will become real to us when we acknowledge this fact in our daily experiences.

Just- Becoming a just person is not a goal to seek, as one might compete for a prize, or try to win recognition for accomplishments.

Who? - The best question to ask of ourselves about others is who he or she is, rather than to which group anyone might belong.

What's New?- There are no restrictions to hope.

Underdog - Wins are available to us every day.

Uber - Ideas that enter our thought processes do not have “rights,” but we do.

Investigation- Love in all its forms, from romantic to wholly selfless service, is human and transcendent; it is of us and of God

Expecations- Great expectations are those that arise from our deepest aspirations.

Not So Fast!- Much of the background chatter that runs through our minds is of no real consequence.

Fear Not- The presence of God that enables us to get past or through fear is far more experiential than intellectual.

Consolation- This is a time in our lives when we could all benefit from some consolation.

Where? - Where are those who have gone before us?

Quiet!- The gift that enables us to receive even more gifts.

Good-mouthing- Someone who is generally at peace with himself or herself is often physically and emotionally healthy.

Hang Up- True confidence enables us to know that we neither intend nor cause injury to anyone by refusing to participate in their agendas.

Imagine That- We do not need lessons on how to imagine, for we exercise this interior power as routinely as we do our breathing.

Confusion

Nowadays, many restaurants feature their fusion cuisine, professing to meld flavors and recipes from various ethnic and cultural sources. We are also familiar with products and manufacturing processes where one substance is fused with another. Finally, most of us know that our sun and all the stars derive their energy from fusion, as atomic elements come together by gravitational pull. Fusion brings together; confusion separates.

As we struggle at times to make sense of diverse and apparently contradictory thoughts and events, we attempt to bring them into a helpful and practical unity. Mental or emotional confusion represents the uncomfortable movements we experience that tend toward disunity, making it difficult for us to make unhindered choices. Becoming aware of these ordinary spiritual experiences of our personal and communal ideas, beliefs and actions, enables us to actively seek unity in them rather than separation.

Life itself depends upon unity in diversity. Our bodies are an amazingly complex harmony of parts, systems and processes. For example, food becomes part of us so that we can think and act. If we go without food and water for long, our thinking becomes literally confused. Not all unity is brought about by a process of fusion, but confusion is of no help to us at any level: biological, physical or spiritual. When we are clear about the contrary role of confusion in our lives, we can deal with it positively.

If we recognize the presence of confusion in our thoughts and feelings, such as when contradictory thoughts seem to predominate in our minds, we have a strong indication of not yet being ready to make a decision. We are wise not to act, as further disunity is likely to be the result. Taking notice of confusion also enables us to engage with our beliefs and to deliberately seek unity at a deeper level than thinking. If we believe that we are even now being created with a higher purpose in life than mere existence, we open ourselves to insights that transcend the surface level of confusion in our minds. If we believe that love is more important than thinking, we will likely set ourselves to overcoming confusion by insistence on choosing whatever seems right, no matter how many negative thoughts assail us.

If we find a knot in any kind of cord, trying to quickly force it apart usually fails; we endeavor to find a place to start, and begin to loosen it. We can deal with our experiences of confusion in a similar manner. Rather than becoming angry with ourselves for not yet knowing how to act, we can take one idea and decide whether or not it leads to clarity. If not, we choose another thought, dealing with one at a time rather than the entire knot. Our determination to work through the confusion is already a positive step, and a sure sign of success to come.

One positive means of achieving peace of mind and heart is by removing the “con” from confusion.

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Perhaps

Words like “perhaps” and “maybe” do not usually come to mind when we are considering any aspect of our spirituality that involves confidence and trust. When we reflect on our spiritual experiences, tentative as we might be about identifying their sources or their meaning for us, we will not find consolation in thoughts such as “perhaps something happened.”

We seek, if not certainty, at least assurance and support for coming to understand our experiences, and in relating them appropriately with whatever we say and do. When we make a decision, we definitely choose to act or not act. If someone says “perhaps I will visit my friend in the hospital,” that friend is not about to have a visitor if or until a decision is made in favor of the proposed visit. We might need some time to think over options before acting, but “perhaps” does not indicate a conclusion to any of our concerns or interests.

While there are plenty of occasions when we consider possibilities, such as when we might go to the park or perhaps go shopping, we accomplish nothing until we make a decision and carry it out in practice. Even if we choose to remain home and be quiet with our own thoughts and considerations rather than going out at all, we do something meaningful: we give our free assent to acting in a way that is consonant with our values. Remaining for long in a “perhaps” state of mind does not provide us with either peaceful or affirming closure to our thoughts.

While we are in the process of imagining what our next move might be, when, for example, we are composing a message on a sensitive subject that is to be shared widely, it is quite helpful to think that maybe we will go this way or perhaps we will try that way of proceeding. We are purposefully indeterminate while we carefully seek to craft a message that will be helpful, rather than making a quick decision to say whatever first comes to mind. For our process of preparation we made a prior decision: to take time for consciously thinking about various options, in order to work our way toward a satisfying conclusion.

Perhaps we do not want to make efforts at becoming conscious of how we make decisions. But maybe we would like to experience more and consistent occasions of “doing the right thing.” People do not usually ask us how we go about making our decisions, but we can reflect on our own way of proceeding if we wish. For some, the process is clear and conscious: consider options, and then decide. Others pause first, seeking or praying for inspiration, and follow a similar process of looking at options, and then making decisions. Those of our decisions that result in consolation and peace indicate that our process is appropriate. We are wise to reflect upon our thoughts and feelings afterwards, so that we can gain facility in our practice of decision-making.

“Perhaps” is passive, decisions are definitely active.

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Neighbor

In a community where people were personally acquainted with those who lived nearby, members would commonly think of one another as neighbors. The word seems to have become less frequently used, yet some common understanding now is that “neighbor” stands for individuals anywhere with whom we have relationships of respect or care. We are comfortable with the idea of a neighbor being someone in proximity, whether at work or where we live, who shares with us some common interests and a certain level of mutual trust and concern. Neighbors are a valuable part of our lives even if the most we do is to watch out for one another when some kind of difficulty occurs. But then, some neighbors also eventually become friends, another gift for us.

What might happen if we were to consider God as neighbor? Would God take offense, as being somehow demoted to a status less than that of the most important person in our lives? Or might the concept be pleasing and helpful to us and therefore welcome and acceptable to God? We are free to explore possibilities, for our intention is to consult the reality of our experience, not some theory.

When God became human in Jesus, one expression of that amazing event is the rather humble assertion that he made his home among us. We have, in effect, a neighbor whom we can get to know if we want to. We are not coerced. But this person has been and is watching out for us from before we were born, which is quite neighborly. Can we possibly return the favor in any meaningful way? We have a well-founded and common understanding that anything we do on behalf of others, God considers as done to him. So, the way we relate with those who are neighbors is open to us as an option for meeting God wherever we encounter people in all the ordinary circumstances of life.

God, as neighbor, does not require formal introductions or politically correct language. After all, we are known and appreciated (loved, actually) even though all of our idiosyncrasies are quite apparent and fully known. We are met right where we are, with our small material concerns, details of daily life, interactions with people, and our integration of spirituality in and through everything we say and do. God, as good neighbor, is ready to listen to us and to be a helpful participant as we converse about the little decisions we need to make every day.

God as neighbor is a limited analogy, since he sees us but we do not see him except in our other neighbors: family members, friends, associates, business contacts and public figures. And we are only able to consciously relate with others, including God, for brief periods of time, while God remains fully aware of us and directly attentive to us all day, every day.

Whatever reflections we might have about the concept of neighbor, we always have the option of looking at the benefits and blessings of even our least relationship with others as being part of God’s all-encompassing love.

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Water

Most of the people of Los Angeles are pleased with having a near-normal rainfall amount after two of the driest years within recorded history. The extended drought conditions served to remind at least some not to take water for granted. We need water to live; it is not to be wasted.

Water has often been recognized as an appropriate metaphor for experiences of grace, inspiration, or whatever words are used for referencing the gentle, non-coercive movements within our minds brought about by the power of Love, or God. Just as water is clearly essential for our physical well-being, our experiences of grace and inspiration enable us to thrive as spiritual persons, making decisions that support the most important capacity we have: to love. The greatest assistance for us in fulfilling our purpose in life comes in the various forms of inspirations and consolations that we receive each day.

Weather events, including drought and rainfall, are beyond our control. We adapt to the weather, not the other way around. Much of what comes into our minds is somewhat like the weather: we do not create every thought, but we choose what we will or will not do. Of the thoughts that come into our minds, which are different from the ideas that we consciously pursue on our own, some are inspirational, helpful, and seem adapted to our situation at the time they occur. These thoughts enliven us like a drink of water when we are thirsty. Other thoughts disturb, confuse, and seem to pick on our weaknesses. Such thoughts, if they are particularly strong, sometimes actually cause physical discomfort because their direction is so contrary to a life oriented towards love. How very important it is to distinguish between consoling, helpful thoughts and their opposite, so as to choose well our directions in life.

When people pray regarding the weather, most will not claim that he or she received an instantaneous favorable answer in terms of rain or sunshine if that was the request. But when we desire and ask for inspirations, we very often receive immediate responses. We are not asking for some external, material condition or thing, but for the personal reception of assistance that enables us to decide well what we will do. In seeking grace, consolation or inspiration we are already setting ourselves in a positive direction, and are therefore receptive to any least thought or idea that helps us with whatever we are about at the time. While the benefits of helpful thoughts seem to be for us who ask, we will find upon reflection that others benefit as well. When we ask, for example, guidance in composing a sensitive communication that leads to expressing ourselves to someone in an effective manner, the graced thought is a gift for both of us.

All of us benefit from one another’s inspirations when they are accepted and utilized according to each one’s unique personality. The water of grace and inspiration is given to each of us as individuals for the sake of all.

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Silent Treatment

Usually, if someone or some group of people declines to speak with an individual, it is intended and understood to be a sign of displeasure or disapproval, giving him or her “the silent treatment.” We could turn the expression around and instead, treat ourselves to some freely chosen periods of silence, and thereby prepare ourselves for experiences that result in well-founded approval. That is, for our own sakes, we could cease for a time to interact with people, electronic devices and all forms of media, written, oral or visual. Our purpose would be to make possible the consolation of encounter with a loving presence or to have experiences of transcendence.

The very thought of silence can seem a threat to those who are not familiar with the benefits that they can discover and receive, while others are immediately attracted by the idea of being able to notice what they experience in the absence of external stimulation. The only sure way to find out whether silence might be a treat rather than a treatment is to experiment with one or other of many options that are readily available to all of us.

Just as some people prefer to exercise in a communal setting, such as at a gym, or as a participant with others, they might find that they appreciate being in a group setting where all agree on a period of silence as part of a program for developing personal growth and awareness. But even those who usually enjoy being with others in almost any situation might, like those who often take physical exercise on their own, find that a period of silence in private can be even more than comfortable, and actually quite supportive and complementary to all their usual interactions with people.

The apparent risks of becoming silent are that “nothing will happen” or that the time allotted will somehow become counter-productive. The reality of choosing to become silent for a time is that we can choose to be content with what we do and with what we receive, rather than accede to movements of fear or doubt. When we decide on treating ourselves to some silence, we do so with a desire for a positive experience. With such an attitude, we cannot lose. Even if nothing seems to happen when we are silent, we always have an experience of some aspect of our lives that is worth perceiving.

Choosing some times of silence for ourselves gives us opportunities for allowing and making note of our more important desires, giving conscious attention to valuable thoughts and movements that enter awareness much more easily when we are receptively quiet than when we are actively engaged in everyday tasks. And, in even brief silent pauses, we can more readily receive gentle inspirations that present us with welcome guidance and encouragement.

All of us have complete freedom to experiment with silence. We can deliberately set a brief or longer period of time, and it is ours to choose whether to go someplace private or to find privacy in an open environment. For those who have not yet experimented with silence, it can be like trying a never-before tasted dish at someone’s home or in a restaurant.

We always have the liberty of undertaking silence as an experience to be savored.

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Mental Cancer

No, not a medical disease affecting the brain; rather, it is a multiplication of thoughts that causes unease and disturbance. Curing cancer in our bodies involves putting a stop to the replication of cells when they have become harmful to our well-being. Mental cancer does not necessitate an intervention by medical professionals for healing, but requires instead that we recognize and acknowledge the negative effects of some particular patterns of thought, and seek to direct our thoughts in the opposite direction. Mental cancer, such as thinking continually of problems, dangers, and threats as well as hostile, judgmental considerations about others, is something we can disallow by ourselves.

Many cancerous conditions can be treated directly, and be either eliminated, or so controlled that almost complete normal living is possible. Mental cancer episodes of quickly-growing negative thoughts can recur in us at any time, but we need not suffer any real harm as a consequence, and might actually live more integrated lives as we become increasingly adept at taking responsibility for what goes on in our minds.

Most of us find that some thoughts and habitual ways of thinking occur without our conscious initiation. This does not mean that these ideas have “rights” of any kind, as if we were obliged to let them run their course, or that their presence in our minds can determine who we are or how we will behave. Like hearing the noisy traffic of vehicles when we are standing at a busy intersection, we cannot help but notice whatever comes into our minds. But just as we can be aware of the sounds about us and still retain the responsibility to cross the street only when it is safe to do so, we can also decide whether or not the thoughts in our minds at any particular time are in accord with the directions we choose to enact.

Thoughts are not the same as decisions. Thoughts come and go. Our words and actions remain as the consequences and witnesses of the choices we make. Just as we expend energy on physical exercise for the sake of our health, the spiritual exercise of putting a stop to negative thoughts sometimes requires conscious efforts and discipline. But we thereby contribute to our mental and spiritual health, which is in turn of benefit to all those with whose lives ours are intertwined.

If at times a particular bout of mental cancer seems overwhelming, we can ask for help from an infallible, ever-present and unfailingly supportive source. God, who creates, has not made a mistake in giving us minds that are capable of apparently running off on bizarre, unhelpful directions of thought. The moment we recognize and acknowledge that what is happening in our minds is not good, we can be sure that the source is not of God. And in cooperation with God, we can choose to think different thoughts than the ones that afflict us, and replace them with others that seem helpful to us, and are likely a sharing in the goodness of God. 

Mental cancer is not a sickness, but a name that we can use for a common experience requiring that we consciously choose to replace negative thoughts with those that are in accord with our orientation toward whatever is good.

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News

The real news, the news that renews and does not contain an implicit threat to anyone, is not new. For us, it needs to be renewed on a daily basis, not as readers and listeners to other’s opinions, but through our active reflection on our experiences of love. We cannot expect to find this news in the messages provided for us by commercial interests, but it is available every day, at no cost other than to consciously attend to the most important reality in our lives.

What is the relevance of love with so many huge problems so prevalent in our world as well at those challenges that personally affect us? The question could be turned around: What else is there that ultimately gives us the means for dealing with any and every personal and communal concern? Should we be looking for some kind of civil savior to make everything right? We know that is not true, much as we might find the idea attractive. Rather, we need to look inside and observe where we find love, both in receiving and in giving.

“Love is where you find it” has much more meaning than might at first have come to mind. If we were to limit our reflections on love by merely thinking only of romantic ideas or life-changing movements, we would miss the reality of our good news experiences as much as we would by considering the accumulation of wealth or power as the purpose of human life. If we take care not to pre-judge our experiences of love according to expectations of how we want to be loved, or how we want people to appreciate how we love them, we are in a position to notice many small but life-enhancing thoughts, words, deeds, happenings, observations, insights, even some challenges that really are indications of love.

To start with ourselves: we easily recognize that many of the small ordinary ways we greet and interact with people are kind, considerate and respectful. We do not have to tell people that we love them, but the marks of love are in all of those and many other ways that we think, write, say and do on behalf of others. Our days are not spent making life miserable for others! The purpose of giving internal recognition to these, and any of the ways that we will discover through reflection on daily experiences, is not to congratulate ourselves, but to affirm and confirm an aspect of our lives that can so easily go unrecognized. We are not victims of a heartless universe, but active contributors to the very purpose of existence. We have reasons, as many as we care to notice, for gratitude, not despair.

As for being loved: start with existence. We were brought into a universe that many scientists acknowledge as having a “bias” for life. This is long way from saying that God, who is Love, creates us in love and for love, though there is no evidence to deny it. But, in daily practice, it is very helpful to look within and honestly consider how very much that we receive each day is touched by the same quiet but deeply significant manifestations of love that we can identify in our caring for others. We do not have to be loved by those we wish or think “should” love us. We are loved, in many ways that will become real to us when we acknowledge these daily experiences.

That’s the news.

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Just

If we were to say of someone that he or she was “just a little just,” we would not be offering much of a compliment. If we call someone a just person, we do not necessarily mean that they act justly in every thought and action, but neither do we intend to indicate any limit on the personal quality that we praise. If we only look at the most obvious evidence, and only recall particular acts of justice or injustice by someone when we describe him or her as being a just or an unjust person, we are not really attributing to him or to her an over-all trait. We probably think of most people as being “just a little just” if we only take into account a limited number of his or her notable deeds.

Neither are we satisfied in calling someone a just person primarily because he or she abides by the laws. We know that there is something deeper involved: an abiding personal characteristic that is worthy of praise. Those whose ongoing focus is on “doing the right thing” might be likely candidates for being called “just.” And we ourselves might fit in with such a description, especially if we acknowledge that our orientation towards goodness is not exclusively of our own doing. We are supported by others with similar ideals. And, to a greater extent, if we reflect on our experience, we will very likely find that we have been frequently inspired and empowered by the love of God at work within our minds and hearts.

Becoming a just person is not a goal to seek, as one might compete for a prize, or try to win recognition for accomplishments. Rather, we pay attention to whatever needs to be done, and respond. Such activity is marked by an absence of anger or exercise of power over others, at least in how the work is done. Anger can provide the energy to act appropriately, but it is not projected onto others, and the power of the decisions we make arises from the authority of inspired love, not “ownership” of how others might or not respond to us.

The Bible calls a person “just” who does what God wants. But how do we know what God wants, as few of us have received and signed a contract of personal expectations? The Scriptures contain many helpful indications of God’s love for us, and of God’s identification with all people whom we are urged to also love. But, in particular, on a day-to-day and incident-by-incident basis, the quiet, but very real movement of inspirations enables us to sense from within whatever is better or less good. The former resonates with a good person so as to act justly. Whatever is less good, less loving, less helpful, even if capable of being rationalized, is accompanied by a sensation that is akin to how we feel if someone who cares about us says “watch out!

This is just a little reflection on being just.

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Who?

What a difference it makes when we refer to persons as persons, and not according to categories or any of the behaviors that serve to keep people at an emotional distance. Whenever we think or speak about others as “that kind” of person, we are liable to be dismissing their worth as a fellow human. Of course we need to use objective descriptions about people in many situations. But we all prefer being spoken to as a unique someone, even if by a formal title, rather than, for example, as “the patient.” In like manner, we show more respect and concern for individuals when we address them directly as to who they are rather than by whatever category we could apply to them.

Usually, we are liable to think of those who have dissimilar life experiences to ours as members of generic classes, and those whose ways of life are like our own, as individual persons. This common manner of thinking, if not brought to the level of conscious evaluation, is an obstacle to our own growth and to the well-being of the various communities of which we are a part. For example, if we unreflectively consider someone who does not speak our language with clarity as being a problem, rather than as someone who might be the occasion for our having new learning experiences, we remain in a limited group of our own making. Or, as a different kind of example, we might know of someone who gained favorable attention by telling jokes, but continued to act in the same way, without also engaging in dialog with listeners, and finally ended by having learned nothing, and no longer having interested listeners.

Almost all our relationships with people are established and built one at a time, even though we might spend the majority of our time together in various forms of community. Even teachers, administrators and all kinds of leaders who interact with groups large and small, have relationships with the groups when they get to know members, even slightly, as unique individuals. When we recognize people in this way, we might like or dislike them, but we respect them as persons, and almost always want for them whatever is best.

All those with whom we relate naturally and easily are like us in many ways, but also in some ways different from us, even if we are directly related. Experiences of relating with those who are like us and yet are clearly not the same, can serve us as a model for relating with those who are more clearly dissimilar. By reflecting on our common status as persons, we can accept with assurance that no matter how someone else looks, acts and speaks, he or she is only really different from us in degree, not in any absolute manner.

The best question to ask of ourselves about others is who he or she is, rather than to which group anyone might belong. We are different, one from another, but that is a reflection of God’s infinite creativity and not something to fear, or worse, repudiate. God loves all of us, and has made us capable of doing the same.

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What's New?

New Year’s celebrations vary according to local customs throughout the world, seemingly in hopes that all will be well, or that things will be better than in the previous year. But hope does not depend upon customs and traditions as somehow bringing about good health, prosperity, peace or any other personal or communal benefit. Each of us is wholly responsible for our exercise of the spiritual attribute that we call hope, a practice that is suggested and encouraged by some of our religious and secular ceremonies.

Whether the New Year or some new circumstances provide the occasion for us to trust that we will be better off, it is certainly not the change of date that will be the true cause of whatever happens. Rather, we are responsible for our decisions in responding to the realities about us, including those about the passage of time and the particular occasions that mark the linear course of days, months and years. Hope is the essential contribution we make to our decision-making that enables us to go forward in our lives, rather than to remain where we are. When we do not exercise hope, we tend to take no risks, and either to make an attempt at keeping everything as it is, or even to try going back to how things were in the past. Acting without hope is as impractical as wearing summer clothing when the winter weather is at its coldest.

Hope supports taking chances, not like that of irrational gambling, but by consideration of reasonable possibilities based on our experiences of trust/faith. Hope, a spiritual movement, is open to a larger context than immediate observable results, and is open to new opportunities that were not a conscious part of the decision-making process. When we hope, we implicitly trust that, for all that is wrong in the world, goodness prevails and is within all that happens. Terrible things do take place, but we who opt for hope rather than despair always come out better as whole persons because we choose to live in reality, not in fantasy or denial. By looking for, and expecting a blessing, we receive it. If we expect nothing, we will not even have the experience of gratitude if things actually turn out well.

Hope is always new, because it is not a rule and is not measurable like the passage of time. Hope is a positive attitude and also a gift. As with all gifts, it is only ours if we accept it; and it becomes fully ours when we exercise it. If we are given a Christmas gift which we never use, we have perhaps received it physically, but have not made it our own in any human fashion. Hope is meant to be the salt and pepper of decision-making, used often as a seasoning to our decision-making.

There are no restrictions to hope, as we take into consideration all the factors that enable us to make decisions that are, every day, new.

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Underdog

Most of us enjoy learning about someone who unexpectedly succeeds when all indications were against a positive outcome. Christmas is an underdog story, but not just about the parents who had to leave home and travel to a village where there was no decent room for them even though the mother was ready to give birth. If we care to reflect on the story, it is ours too, in which we have become winners, where by most expectations we would have been left out in the cold.

Mary and Joseph might have been wondering how things turned out so apparently wrong in Bethlehem, because they were ignored by all who held even a small amount of authority. But those who had no standing at all in society, shepherds, came to them as angel-sent affirmation of the wondrous deed that God was doing in the birth of Jesus. And that child of Christmas grew up to teach, in word and deed, that God is here with us now as love inviting a return of love. He was killed by those who were more interested in power and control than God’s universal love for all persons. Underdog of Underdogs, the one who was crucified lives, and personally and lovingly empowers a worldwide God-with-people movement. Our lives are touched by the gracious ripples that continue to go out from the splash of that child’s entry into the world. 

We ourselves are underdogs, when we focus on the disorder of hate and violence that is made so highly visible to us by the media: we might think of ourselves as powerless losers. But wins are available to us every day, though they are almost always less dramatic and are certainly less well publicized than the darkness which provides the contrast for light to shine. We freely manifest love, the force that makes us winners, in all the ways that we care for one another. The Christmas season, even for all the commercial efforts at doing it the disservice of a “makeover,” is still a time when underdogs throughout the world express their divinely initiated power of love in unique personal practices on behalf of family and friends, co-workers and service providers, and those who are sick, poor or in any need. 

Perhaps one of the most underrated but significant human acts of love of which we are capable is when we become a part of others’ stories through our compassionate accompaniment with them. We help people to have the experience of winning, despite their physical, emotional and other kinds of losses, by being with them even when we cannot change the circumstances that affect them negatively. We can participate in the God-with-us movement that best reveals the underdog story that is so much a part of Christmas. Think, for example, of the delight of a lonely person who receives a note, a call, or best of all, a visit. We all can be shepherds bearing the good news of our care for one another. 

Joy to the world  - of underdogs!

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Uber

If we want to get from here to there, we might need a ride; we certainly cannot just wish ourselves to another place. And every day, experiences of all kinds require that we either deal with them in a positive fashion or suffer the consequences of ignoring them or engaging in denial about their presence and their effects upon us. Our minds are in constant movement, where we begin with one idea and end with another, and we start from one perspective and arrive with a slightly different one. But do we make use of a dependable means for dealing well with these thoughts that affect everything we do and everyone with whom we come into contact?

In all of our decision-making, we have access to a no-cost, always-available capacity for getting successfully from wherever we start, to wherever we end. This greatly helpful perspective on life is very simple, though it can be stated in many different ways: whatever is good has a positive resonance in the mind of a basically good person, but negative thoughts cause disturbance – they are not of God, who is Good; God’s manner is that of invitation, so whatever compulsive thoughts come to mind are not of God. Likewise, most of the interior expressions of “should, must and ought-to” that cause agitation, reveal by doing so, that they too do not come from God, who seeks to console us and bring us to interior peace.

If we want to gain as much facility with this fundamental exercise of discernment as we have with walking and talking, we can engage in a regular practice of reflection upon experience, just as we do when trying to turn any worthwhile manner of proceeding into a habit. We appreciate it when people speak to us respectfully and kindly; we do not like hearing negative comments. If we reflect even once a day on some of the recent chatter in our own minds, we might recognize how some particular thoughts or sets of words were respectful, or the opposite; whether friendly, or the contrary. These thoughts occurred within us, but not as conscious choices, as if we were two different persons. Rather, however they came to be in our minds, some were helpful, and to be accepted, while others were contrary to our ideals, and to be treated the same way as any mean comment that might be directed toward us.

We do not have complete control of whatever comes into our minds any more than we have power to determine the words that people might speak to us. But if we take care to observe the effects upon us of at least some of our thoughts, we can choose which to accept as favorable and which to ignore as detrimental. Ideas that enter our thought processes do not have “rights,” but we do.

To help us get safely from here to there with our mental activity, we have our own “Uber” if we choose to use it.

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Investigation

The word “investigation” usually carries a serious meaning for us, often implying that something is under suspicion. Most of us do not want to be the subject of an investigation. “Incarnation” is another heavy word, with meanings as unsettling as being under investigation or as deeply consoling as being loved unconditionally. If we investigate either the word “Incarnation” or our feelings when we ponder the thought of God being human, we can expect consolation, not desolation. For God desires our existence as unique individuals more than the most loving parents could want a child. God is personally invested in humanity so much, that being human is a loving necessity.

To consider seriously God as being completely present to and a full participant in human-kind can be disconcerting if we try too hard to understand how this could be. Most of us cannot understand well what science tells us about how gravity bends space, but we can accept that such a thing might be possible. And we do not have to know how laser beams work if we are able to accept what others say about them, and even more if we have experiences of them. So with God among us as one of us: Most of what we read and hear does not try to explain how this could take place, but rather tells us that it is a wonderful and also a mysterious truth. If we consciously consider the thought that God loves us enough to continue being God while also being one of us, our interior experience will most likely affirm what we can hardly understand. 

We find some mysteries as enjoyable challenges, as when we read a novel or even a factual story such as medical science’s learnings about how our cells manage to replicate themselves depending upon where they are in our bodies. But the mystery about God’s relationship with us humans can be so daunting as to disturb us if we strain too hard to make sense of apparently irreconcilable facts as we understand them. However, we can allow the same mystery to expand our concepts of what is possible, even though we cannot figure out for ourselves how God, who is infinite, can have a finite human body. Even more, if we “play” with the idea of God being God but also a human, we are likely to enjoy some of what we discover.

We can also investigate the mystery of God and human from our own perspective as persons who act in ways that seem God-like, or that lead us to consider our closeness and likeness to God in some aspects of our lives. If we reflect on the many, many ways that we manifest love in relating with others, from giving a smile to giving long-term care, we touch upon a great mystery. Though such caring behavior is completely human, we see enough of the opposite behavior to know that it is not automatic, but always a choice. Love in all its forms, from romantic to wholly selfless service, is human and transcendent; it is of us and of God.

Investigation and Incarnation are only words. If we look at how love moves as the preeminent force in our lives, our every-day experience is, if we wish to apply the word to the reality, incarnational.

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Expectations

Some people choose to expect the worst to happen, so that they can feel good if events turn out to be better than they thought. Others expect that no matter what takes place, they will find some good in it. We determine our expectations, not the events that take place. And the expectations we have induce consequences not just in the way we perceive reality, but on the effects that real events have upon us.

We can test the effects of our expectations by reflecting on some of our recent experiences, or by engaging in some imaginative scenes of our own creation. For example, we can imagine having two different expectations about a dinner gathering at which the topic of politics might be raised by someone. We could imagine a worst-case situation in which arguments break out and we are greatly upset, and we could also imagine that no matter whether the subject is raised or not, we manage to find a way to keep our peace. We could then reflect on how we felt as we imagined the two different scenes. Which seemed the better expectation? We can make similar conscious choices in many situations, determining for ourselves which expectations to hold.

Setting expectations is more than a mentally healthy way to deal with reality. Our spirituality is integral with mental and physical health; we are whole persons, in whom all our capabilities are guided by the decisions we make. The more we are aware of what we are doing and why we are doing it, the more fully human we are. When we speak and act from interior freedom, we are acting spiritually, bringing complementary unity to the physical, mental and emotional aspects of our human experiences.

One of the ways we might unreflectively deny the responsibility we have for making decisions regarding expectations can be discovered in the words we use for ourselves interiorly, or when we describe our present thinking to others. If we use expressions similar to “I am expected to . . .” or “They expect me to . . .” we might well be minimizing our own responsibility for accepting as obligatory whatever we believe others expect of us. Of course we are not free to do anything we want at all times. But, for the sake of our own integrity, we owe ourselves the respect of consciously deciding which expectations of others to accept, even those we believe are somehow related to God. We also owe to others including God, communication in all honesty about which of the expectations we think that they might have of us we accept as being our responsibility to fulfill. We can always change after further reflection upon experience. But our decisions make us who we are.

Great expectations are those that arise from our deepest aspirations, those which we have freely chosen to pursue as our own. For example, when we expect of ourselves that we will be caring persons, we orient ourselves in a direction that is both positive and realistic, even if we do not always succeed in all particular instances. Those who have no expectations of themselves are more likely to rely, often somewhat resentfully, on the expectations of others to direct them.

We all have expectations, but are they ultimately our own, or someone else’s?

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Not So Fast!

The title words above are often used as a rather forceful expression of caution. The short command usually means “stop,” and is typically followed by some other directive or a pointed question. Most of us do not enjoy being given such an abrupt command. But if we consider the words on their own, as a possibly helpful warning within ourselves, we might be pleased with the results.

Inner words and expressions are sometimes experienced as negative or oppressive, as if some unkind person were speaking. But we also might notice some really wise thoughts that move within our minds as words or phrases that express an immediately helpful truth. These, even if they are commands like “Not so fast!” are experienced as though spoken by someone trustworthy, on behalf of our best interests. Whether we believe that these ultimately supportive utterances arise from our unconscious or are inspirations from God, recognizing them and taking them seriously is definitely beneficial.

We might recall an incident when we were fairly determined to begin working immediately on some project, and were actively preparing to do so, when the equivalent of “Not so fast!” came into our mind. We might, with present reflection, recognize that we did in fact slow down enough to consider whether or not we should wait a bit, make some adaptation, or even desist entirely from the proposed action. However we explain these interior messages, they are real, and they are worth noting. We can become more aware of our inner words, and through noting their effects, determine which to accept and which to ignore. \

Much of the background chatter that runs through our minds is of no real consequence. But some words, phrases or partially verbal expressions catch our attention, even if only for a moment. That moment is our opportunity to note the “tone” or feeling that accompanies the interior statements, admonitions or commands. We can distinguish between invitation and compulsion, between welcoming and adversarial expressions. If our “best self” is addressing us, or God, we will recognize the care in the thought that has come into our minds and act accordingly. But if we identify thoughts as somehow in opposition to our welfare, we had best give them no further consideration.

No one is at a disadvantage if he or she does not acknowledge God as part of the movement of beneficial inner words that come to us. But for those who see the helpful interior events as personal inspirations, there is an additional cause for gratitude. Not only is it possible to rejoice in the amazing capacity we have for receiving positive direction from within that is as good as that of a wise mentor or advisor, but we also have the option of taking joy in acknowledging God’s personal interest in our decisions.

In making use of inner words of wisdom that come to mind, we care for ourselves and we become more practically caring of others in what we say and do.

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Fear Knot

“Fear not” is an expression of confident hope. Jesus is not the only one to speak those or similar words to someone in a troubled situation. We might have said “don’t be afraid” to someone when, from our perspective, a positive option was definitely available. We ourselves might sometimes have had an experience of fear that we could have described as a knot in our stomach, which we could not of ourselves resolve by any amount of reasoning. A fear knot consists of physical sensations directly related to thoughts about what might happen to us, thoughts that are far more imaginative than rational. That is why we might not be able to put an end to our discomfort by use of logical considerations, any more than we could allay someone’s fear of cancer by quoting positive survival statistics. Something more than reasoned concepts are needed for release from fear knots.

The confidence that we and others can convey and that Jesus conveys in saying “fear not” is very important: presence is of itself a powerful antidote to fear knots. We probably have childhood memories of someone older telling us not to be afraid, and it worked, because we trusted that they would take care of us or that our safety from harm was otherwise assured. The presence of a caring person carries a power over fear that transcends logic and reasons, even when logical reasoning is used to support their manner of expressing concern. In ourselves as well as in others, we know the difference between the use of “fear not” that bears authentic personal conviction and the wishful expressions that arise from avoidance or even denial of a real situation.

Even a barely articulate belief in the force of Good in the world allows for experiences of loving presence whenever we might find ourselves with a fear knot. Those who have a clear set of religious beliefs do not necessarily always have a corresponding trust in God. Healing of fear knots through intellectual repetition of truths and even traditional prayers is not the same as consciously choosing to share our feelings of fear with God in hopes of being freed from disturbing thoughts. We seek the presence of the One who completely understands and accepts not only the facts that might trouble us, but also our thoughts and the feelings that accompany them.

Words, phrases and stories in Scripture are a favored means for bringing ourselves to God as we are. The Psalms, for example, put words to a whole range of human thoughts and emotions that, as we identify with them, facilitates confidence in God’s personal love for us. Having some verbal expressions available that can help express our sometimes confused jumble of thoughts and feelings opens us to God’s healing presence. Belief is not primarily mental; trust is a matter of heart, and the presence of God that enables us to get past or through fear is far more experiential than intellectual.

Taking a few deep breaths is very helpful for addressing a fear knot. But relating with a loving presence is even more effective.

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Consolation

If we console someone, we might also experience consolation ourselves. The two different words and meanings are closely allied, but they also name different realities in our experience. We can actively seek to help others feel better when they have suffered, as we do when a friend has had a setback of some kind. We show through words and deeds that we understand and accept another’s pain, which is already consoling to him or her, and often we are able to help others recognize that they can and will get through their difficulties, which is also consoling.

Our experiences of consolation, whether or not we are the subject of someone’s attempts to console us, most often follow upon, and affirm and confirm, choices that we have made. It is not done to us, but arises from within as a result of decisions which are consonant with our deepest values. Consolation comes from accepting that our thoughts and actions really are wholly appropriate in the present circumstances, whether or not someone puts an arm around us to console us.

The act of consoling is spiritual, because we express love for others in a truly helpful manner according to our good intentions. Consolation is also spiritual, and is similar to experiences of inspiration. We do not cause consolation or inspiration by our own efforts, but we can desire and open ourselves deliberately to consolation and we can accept it, or we can ignore or even deny our experiences.

Consolation is spiritual not only from our perspective as recipients, but also because it can be rightly understood as direct personal affirmation from God. No one forces consolation upon us, but if supportive, uplifting movements within our minds and hearts are fittingly aligned with our personal relationships, our world and with God, we are experiencing God’s care for us. If family and friends, as well as some persons we scarcely know, can console us with words and gestures, the loving creator of human-kind surely can do the same, even without words and gestures, and can have the same effects upon us as a loving gaze, hug or embrace.

People can console us by what they say and do for us, and we can experience consolation that follows upon some our own words and actions. God has yet another level of direct access to us, even prior to any physical, mental or spiritual movement on our part. Without seeking “permission,” from us, as has already occurred when we received the unique gift of our creation through conception and birth, God can enlighten our minds and hearts with sudden clarity about a possible decision that is so apparently right for us, so completely assured of being the way forward for us, that we cannot doubt its truth. Yet we are free not to act in accord with the gift, even to deliberately turn away from it.

This is a time in our lives when we could all benefit from some consolation. To receive consolation, we had best turn in the direction of love, not fear or anger, not blaming or trying to resolve everything by reason alone. Reaching out to console others is a sure way of becoming open to receiving consolation. Love really is the best way forward.

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Where?

Some of us refer to those who have died as having “gone before us,” which can mean chronologically or spatially, or both. That is, from the perspective of time we are behind them in somewhat the same manner as, in our present time-zone, we are behind those to the east of us. And considering place, we know where we are right now, and that wherever those who have died might be, we do not encounter them here in the same way as we do with one another. Where are all those who have died – especially those we have known in life?

We cannot say with assurance that those who have gone before us are no longer here in present time and space; we know that they have died, and that they are not with us physically; they are not perceptible through our five senses. But with interior senses of thinking and feeling, some of us report having various modes of awareness that particular loved ones who have died are in some manner present. Such experiences cannot be proven to others, but neither can any of us prove in a scientific manner that we are loved or that we love. Though some people hold as an intellectual position that the dead are wholly separated from the living, nothing is gained by completely denying any validity to the variety of experiences that people describe as real contact with one or more persons who have died. Proof is not the issue; respect for, and acceptance of love for those who have passed from this life complements and enriches those of us who are living.

Where are those who have gone before us? Just as some of us obtain physical exercise by walking or some other means, we might exercise our spiritual muscle of faith or trust by considering some specific possibilities for their consonance with both mind and heart together. The thought that those who have died no longer exist in any way does not set well with us, for a number of reasons that transcend mere logic. Whether or not we would agree with the proposition that “love does not come to an end,” we are not content, we feel uncomfortable with the thought, that those we have loved while they lived are now nothing after their death. Though we might have few words and little evidence to support it, our hearts very likely insist, and we are only at peace with ourselves, when we allow for the mystery of a continuance of love after death, and perhaps also life.

Science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of eternal love, God. But such a belief certainly places our finite universe and our time-centered lives within a perspective that perfectly aligns with our experiences, however vague and transitory they might be, of real connections between those who are alive and those who have died. We cannot think or imagine in any other terms than those of time, yet we can also accept that there is eternity, where there can only be “present,” not past or future. All people of all time are present to God, who loves all, even those who perhaps do not love in return.

Where have they gone? Into the eternal present, where they can love us and we can love them.

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Quiet!

For someone to call out “Quiet!” as loudly as possible is amusingly ironic. Of course such a forcefully expressed command is intended to put an end to all conversation, and might actually achieve that particular purpose. But those who cease speaking are quiet only in terms of audible sound, while they are likely to continue being mentally and emotionally anything but quiet, especially if the command seemed unwarranted or inappropriate for the circumstances.

We know the difference between the quiet of no sounds and the quiet of being contented and at peace in our minds and hearts. The first is usually easier of achievement than the second. We have plenty of experience in making no sounds while thoughts and feelings might be practically shouting within us.

We do not have either the authority or the power to command interior quiet in others, and we probably are not able order ourselves to be at peace. Attempting to force a peaceful mind and spirit only makes matters worse, because we all have natural resistance to attempts at imposing on our personal freedom to choose. Besides, quiet, at least of the interior kind, is experienced not as something that we do, but as a state of being and is primarily spiritual rather than physical.

We can take physical means, such as conscious breathing and stretching exercises, to help us achieve inner quiet. In so doing, we might recognize that our actions do not directly cause the kind of quiet that satisfies our hearts and leaves our minds in repose. Rather, we provide an environment in which to experience a form of peacefulness that is not of our making, and yet fulfills our desires. If we provide water, a plant will likely grow. But we do not cause the growth. And yet, without water most plants will cease to thrive. Likewise without some external practices, such as deliberately taking time to cease external activities, interior quiet might seldom be ours.

We are not plants, wholly dependent upon surrounding circumstances. Not only are we able to move freely from one physical location to another, we can exercise our human freedom in a much deeper fashion: we can turn our desires into requests for experiences of interior quiet where we might consciously and freely think through some of our concerns. We can express those desires as prayers.

Since we are the objects of all-pervading love that is focused directly upon each of us at every moment, we can ask for and receive the gift of quiet in which gratitude for all gifts can be recognized and appreciated. In such an environment of acceptance, we can also find graceful ways of working through the hits and hurts, the failings and mistakes that might also be a part of our lives. As with most interior gifts, we need to do our part by opening our minds and hearts to receiving them. We have most likely learned that to ask for a quiet mind while we continue to give our attention to all that disturbs us is not helpful. Asking for, and choosing to focus on, the desired answer to that prayer is much more effective.

Quiet: the gift that enables us to receive even more gifts.

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Good-mouthing

We are likely familiar with the expression “bad-mouthing,” which refers to saying negative things about other persons. If we engage in such behavior, we probably do not reflect, at least at the time of speaking, as to what we are saying about ourselves, and about possible damage to our own reputations, not to mention the persons who are the subject of our remarks. If we are in the habit of reflecting on experiences of our day, we might realize after having “bad-mouthed” someone, that no matter what our motives might have been at the time we spoke, our present thoughts and feelings are not those of self-congratulation for what we did.

Someone with expertise in language development might be able to explain why we do not have an expression in common usage such as “good-mouthing,” though we certainly have words for conveying approval, praise and admiration when speaking about others. But if we care to notice, we will learn from personal experience that whatever words we use in reference to other persons has effects upon us as well.

As a small exercise, we could take any positive word, and notice the subtle feeling that accompanies it, even if we are unable to describe it well. Most of us enjoy hearing not just with our ears, but within our minds and hearts, words that are positive in nature and intent. In like manner, if we pay close attention to the dissonance of a negative word when we think about it, the experience can very well heighten consciousness of our basic orientation toward peace, not anger.

If we become habituated to making negative comments about others, we can lose our sensitivity to the consequences this has upon us, diminishing our spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being. We know of “mean-spirited” people who are unpleasant to be near, and who seem to be both angry and unhappy. We also know, and hopefully identify with, those who appear to be content and who do not frequently have bad things to say about others. We do not need an advanced degree in psychology to know that an abiding level of anger leaves a person more open to depression and also to physical disorders, and that someone who is generally at peace with himself or herself is often physically and emotionally healthy.

A habit of looking for whatever is good in other people is not a denial of their faults and failings, any more than thinking of ourselves as good persons denies that we also sometimes fail to live according to our values. One of the reasons for increasing our deliberate “good-mouthing” of others is that we become what we think and say. That is, if we think more often of what we have in common with others rather than being critical of them, we are also very likely to hear within us more approving thoughts about ourselves than negative ones. Likewise, when we make conscious efforts to leave unsaid, both aloud and interiorly, derogatory comments about others, we will find it easier to treat ourselves in the same way. We do not thereby cease to think and speak the truth both to others and to ourselves, but we choose to direct our minds and hearts toward what is good and better than in the direction of not good enough.

“Good-mouthing” is not in the dictionary, but might describe a desirable attitude.

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Imagine That

If someone says “Imagine that!” we understand that whatever the speaker has just experienced was quite interesting. But if we tell someone to imagine that he or she makes a positive difference in the world, we might surprise that person with such a suggestion. Even though some might think that the primary use of imagination is for recreation, as in reading a novel or watching some production in one or other of the media, our strongest connections with almost all aspects of reality are made with the exercise of imagination. When we imagine some possibility being enacted, we are closer to its realization than if we merely think of it as an option.

We are likely far more spontaneous practitioners of bringing imagination to our considerations and plans than we might think. But if we reflect on what takes place even when we look ahead to a simple activity such as going from one place to another, we will find that we probably pictured ourselves as either in the movement or having arrived at our destination. The images we create are usually not “photographic,” though some of us have detailed pictures in our minds. Most of us have only enough image-content so that we are able to better focus on our action, and so bring it to completion. If we only think about going, we might not actually move. Alternatively, if we imagine ourselves in transition before we act, we might realize that we do not in fact want to do it. Either way, imagination keeps us closer to reality than if we only think that a move from here to there is a possibility.

Imagination is a built-in feature of our make-up that greatly enhances our relationship with others and with God. People, and God, are not things. Usually, we imagine – not necessarily through picturing – how and in what ways we might interact with others before we meet with them. Because we imagine such things as how easy or how difficult it might be for us to relate with someone, we have feelings of anticipation or perhaps of anxiety. By using imagination, we place ourselves in readiness for a real encounter of persons, not a mere exchange of information as we might have with a robotic device.

In relating with God, we could restrict ourselves to engaging in rituals and to saying prayers that have been written by others. And sometimes that mode or relating satisfies us, and presumably God as well. But when we imagine that God is here, present with us, whether or not we try to picture God, the interior movement of imagination allows for the reality of God’s presence to elicit any one of many possible holistic responses in us: reverence, affection, acceptance, awe or even trepidation. We have experience of transcendence, however slight or soul-moving, that is here and now, not just a timeless intellectual belief.

We do not need lessons on how to imagine, for we exercise this interior power as routinely as we do our breathing. But we can reflect on how we imagine, or might imagine, that God is present, looking at us with both total knowledge of who we are, and total love.

Imagine that!

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Hang Up

After someone has misdialed our phone number and we have picked up the call and given our name, it seems a little discourteous of the caller to just hang up rather than to acknowledge having made a simple common mistake. The inclination to apologize for even a slight error is a graceful act that is not to be taken for granted, since it is a habit that not all have developed.

If we are to look for the kinds of influences that lead a person to hang up rather than to admit a very minor mistake, it will not be found primarily from a defect in reasoning, but rather in a bit of fear that calls for avoidance behavior. As we become more confident as good-willed but fallible persons, we have no need to protect ourselves by denying ownership of our small slip-ups.

If we aspire to greater self-confidence, we do not acquire such an admirable quality by simply making a decision to be that kind of person, but by recalling occasions when others accepted their mistakes as a normal part of human experience, not a disgrace to be hidden or denied. The attractiveness of such persons is not in their appearing to be perfect, but of their having an abiding commitment to face all of reality, including their own miscues. We might never have thanked any of these models of confidence, but if we now become grateful for their example our own confidence deepens and grows. Beneath the peaceful surface of confidence flows the strong current of gratitude.

And if we reflect on the difference in our own experiences, between occasions when we did not admit a mistake and how we feel about that now, contrasted with incidents of truthfulness and the consequent peace within us, we become more confident. The more we notice how our own hearts respond to honesty with consequent satisfaction, the easier it becomes for us to accept ourselves as imperfect but also willing to improve, rather than to imagine that our goodness depends upon never making a mistake.

One of the benefits of appropriate self-confidence is that we are able to literally hang up, especially at a time of elections when we receive machine-generated calls promoting candidates and propositions that are wholly unwelcome. It is a legitimate choice, a moment of grace actually, to notice the pause that indicates a programmed call, and to hang up immediately. Also, if a human starts to speak, but with a message that we quickly recognize as an unwanted invasion of privacy, we can immediately say that we are not interested and hang up.

True confidence enables us to know that we neither intend nor cause injury to anyone by refusing to participate in their agendas, especially when we have given no prior indication that we would welcome such unsolicited requests. The more quickly we deal with attempted impositions, the less angry we are likely to become, and so we avoid giving expression to that anger which could easily become hurtful to others and therefore to us.

One caution: When God “calls,” we should not hang up, for Love never imposes.

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 Updated 3/13/17