Spiritual Essays

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  • Coaches - Gratitude for particular persons in our lives is of benefit to others.

    Many of the coaches we have known are memorable, probably having engaged us actively and directly with their particular ways of communicating with us. If we now begin to recall those were are coaches, we will probably realize that they showed us how to do better something of strong interest to us. Coaches rely at least partly on the implicit motivation we have to improve at a sport or some aspect of personal growth that we have chosen. If we reflect further on those who have helped us by sharing with us their expertise, we might also call to mind some of those persons, including perhaps family members, who taught, encouraged and challenged us to grow and to behave in ways that matched our desires. Our coaches enabled us to think, act and behave habitually in ways that we would not have discovered and developed on our own.

    Our first thoughts of coaches might properly be of professionals, those who are recognized as guides of conduct in their specific areas of deeply committed interest and highly developed skills. And, partly by analogy, we can think of some of those who, without any title, coached us by imparting their carefully nurtured wisdom. Much of what we have received, learned and made our own from our coaches continues even now to positively influence our behavior, whether we recognize their influence or not.

    Good coaches, of whatever kind, are causes for gratitude. We might not have thanked them, and may not be able to do so now, but we can reflect at any time on how they were of help to us, and we can be thankful. Whether or not we can explain how it is that we can be appreciative when the persons we think of are not present to thank, the experience of such gratitude is available to us at any time that we choose to pause and reflect. It is one of the hidden treasures within all of us: the enriching capacity to acknowledge some of the good and gracious personal interactions we have had. Human society is built on such relationships.

    Whether or not we have become coaches ourselves, at least in the ordinary understanding of the word, we can, and likely do, pass on to others the benefits of coaching that we have received. Whether we do so consciously or unconsciously, we communicate to others, through our words and deeds, some of the helpful formation our coaches imparted to us. If we reflect on one or other of our own habitual sayings when we are trying to assist others, we might recognize from whom we first received a particular idea or mode of behavior. Though we might not say it when someone thanks us for what we have said or done, we could at the same moment be thankful for the coach who once helped us to grow.

    Gratitude for particular persons in our lives is of benefit to others, because the more we acknowledge the training we have received, the more we will find it almost necessary to behave in like personal manner toward others.

    Thank you God, for each and all of the coaches we have had. 

  • Donuts and Do Nots - The choice is ours

    One or two donuts are enough for most people who like them. But with do nots, more might be better. When we eat and are content that is sufficient. And if we do not pay attention to negative words and behavior, we will likely be much more fulfilled than if we continue to accept hostile expressions of thoughts together with their effects upon us. Expressions of anger that abound in the media are presented by design to satisfy our appetites for felt experiences no matter how harmful to our well-being and useless the purported information  might be. We will usually set limits to ourselves as to how many donuts we will eat. We can take the same reasonable stance of setting a limit to the amount of truly negative information we will take in, no matter how readily available it is.

    Donuts are clearly not essential for our nourishment, whereas we must have the right kinds of information and knowledge in order to negotiate our way in life. But we do not need to know anything and everything that people say and do. When we want to learn the facts about anything of value we will not consciously seek information from an angry person because we understand that whoever is in such an emotional state would not be objective in his or her communications. Anger belongs to the person who is angry, and is not a property of the information we seek. It might be interesting and even exciting to witness expressions accompanied by anger, but that emotional content is precisely the attractive force that some people rely on for gaining our interest. We become losers when we ingest the negativity that is presented. We will not eat a whole box of donuts, then why would we read or listen to a continuing series of angry messages?

    One of the benefits of reflection upon experience is how we can distinguish between those informational experiences that leave us truly contented with what we have received from those that stirred up our feelings of anger, leaving us with discontent and a vague sense of having been cheated from learning anything that we did not already know.

    We can reflect on a conversation we recently had with an individual, what we observed and felt as a member of a group or the movements that took place within us when we listened to and perhaps watched people make use of anger in expressing their opinions. The emotion of anger does not validate what they say. Emotional expressions likely capture our attention more readily than calm statements. But the choice is ours as to whether we merely want to have our feelings affected, or we want to receive information that will be of help to us in making our own decisions. From experience, we know that an interior atmosphere of anger is a an obstacle to living according to our purpose in life, which is love. 

    A couple of donuts might be an occasional treat. But every day, we can treat ourselves to peace, if we do not ingest other’s anger. 

  • Specifics - Generalizing limits us to mental exercise exclusively.

    Rather than use the generic word conveyance, most of us will specify a car, plane, metro or even a bicycle when we talk about a means of transportation. We usually prefer speaking about particulars rather than generalities when we talk about personal experiences. When our interest is in theories, then we might use sweeping statements and broad generalizations to convey our meaning. 

    When we wish to obtain understanding about the movements that take place within us by speaking about these experiences with trusted persons, specifics are much better than generalities. We invariably receive at least some immediate insight about our thoughts and the feelings that accompany those thoughts when we share them with someone. The very act of choosing the appropriate words for communicating our meaning actually clarifies for us what we say even as we are speaking. And if an equally honest listener indicates that he or she understands, we find confirmation for our own understanding of our experiences. In addition, those who hear us will often ask questions or share some of their experiences that relate with ours in helping us to gain even more insight about the thoughts and feelings that have become significant to us.

    Even though we deliberately seek insight and inspiration for ourselves by telling someone our particular stories, both speakers and listeners usually receive inspired thoughts. If we reflect on our experiences of being the one who shares a story, and at other times as the one who listens and responds, we can see that we receive insights in each role. As the one who speaks, we gain helpful knowledge in hearing the words we speak as well as from the words and gestures of our listeners. As the one who listens, we not only hear whatever a speaker relates to us, but we also receive inspired thoughts that enable us to give helpful responses. Honest interpersonal communication about the things that matter to us is of benefit to both participants. 

    The quality and usefulness of sharing our stories, concerns and inner thoughts with their accompanying feelings depends upon our conscious choice to focus on a particular experience, and not a generalization. Generalizing limits us to mental exercise exclusively, eliminating the very important data revealed in the feelings that accompany specific thoughts. When we share a matter of concern, the action is primarily in our hearts, not in our minds. We need understanding of a kind that transcends mere reasons, and includes compassion, healing and affirmation. We do not need, nor are we much helped by trying to answer questions of “why?” or by attempting to assign reasons “because” of something else. 

    We are most helpful to ourselves and to others when we use our minds to help us learn the meaning of our feelings. When we share a matter of concern with another person, we engage in searching together for the specific thoughts that bring about revelatory feelings of either peacefulness or disturbance. In so doing, we find a basis for deciding which of our experiences we wish to follow forward, and which we will leave behind as inappropriate baggage for our journey in life.

  • Two Standards - We can reflect upon our experiences and learn from all of them.

    No one likes to be on the receiving end of a double standard. When people employ one set of norms for themselves and a different standard for everyone else, we call the behavior unjust. We are quite accepting of those who prefer a particular team, TV program or mode of transportation to another, since no moral or ethical standard is involved. When it comes to a choice of right or wrong, we would hope that everyone would opt for whatever is right.

    When Ignatius of Loyola writes about two standards in his book of spiritual exercises, he proposes a reflection about decision-making based not on standards of behavior, but on personal experiences of both transcendence and selfishness. The particular exercise about two different standards is not about choosing one or the other, but rather would have us carefully reflect on the effects that generous, loving decisions have upon us and also the consequences of wholly self-oriented choices.

    Most of us learn from both good examples and also from bad models of behavior. We have had mentors, coaches, advisors and friends whom we continue to emulate. And we have been with people whose words and actions are repulsive to us. Making our own decisions for what seems right and good is supported by our clear recognition of the values that are exemplified or contradicted by these others.

    But we can also be unaware of how the words and behavior of our peers can sometimes influence us to the point where we might contravene the norms and beliefs we hold as ours. For example, when those around us expect us to act in a certain way, peer pressure might become a real factor in the choices we make at that time. We can also find ourselves manipulated not just by ordinary direct advertising that entices us to immediate satisfaction of our appetites, but also by very artfully presented stories. This is especially true of multi-media presentations that bypass our intelligence by appealing directly to our emotions. Who has not been entertained by a movie or a TV program that used every form of dramatic art to produce in us identification with a character whose values we would otherwise deplore?

    Rather than blaming those who make use of art, psychology and other means to give expression to their way of thinking and acting, a far better option encouraged by Ignatius’ idea of two standards, is to consciously reflect upon our experiences and learn from all of them. We can recall how we felt under the guidance of those whom we came to respect and how we now feel about the things that we have experienced this day that match the values our mentors encouraged in us. We can also recall how we felt about ourselves while we were being entertained by gossip, media presentations and other manipulative sources and take note of how we now feel as we review those experiences in the light of our values.

    Regularly reflecting on two standards enables us to take encouragement from the day’s “best practices” and to consciously turn away from those we recognize as neither helpful to us nor to others.

  • Others - Look out the windows of our souls instead of in the mirror.

    When we think of other people in a general sort of way, or of other persons in particular, we usually do so with reference to ourselves. In thinking or speaking about others, we view them according to our own perspectives, interests, values, cultural norms and personal histories that include our interactions and relationships with everyone we have known. From earliest childhood, we have been making judgments about others that have often been based primarily on their compatibility or incompatibility with us. When we choose categories other than those that are self-related, our judgments can change, even radically, with consequent gain to all concerned.

    One of the most common learning experiences about others takes place when, for example, we begin to think of someone with dislike, whether for a particular reason or for none, and then have an occasion to relate directly with him or her. When we come to know another person, especially through even a small amount of honest interchange, our thoughts and feelings often change. The other person does not modify who he or she is in order to accommodate us. Rather, we gain a better perspective through a shared human experience that reduces the former uncomfortable distance between us.

    Even when we learn things about other persons that seem to us as incompatible with basic human goodness, we still have the option of making judgments about them that are not based only on their observable behavior. We have personal and communal responsibilities that require us to speak and act appropriately, taking into account information beyond our immediate experience. Whatever we perceive of anyone’s present behavior does not necessarily arise from permanent characteristics. If we have become at all aware of our own personal history, we know how many of our habitual ways of thinking and acting have changed. We have likely experienced in ourselves moments of generosity and greatness and also of misunderstanding and irrational prejudices. We have responded differently at various times to movements of love, fear and anger. This does not excuse negative or wrongful words and deeds in others or in ourselves, but serves to help us appreciate that none of us should be judged only by what can be seen and heard.

    God is also “other.” But if we think about God only in relation to ourselves, we are likely to make judgments that severely limit any experiences we might have or want to have of God. Just as with all other persons, we can decide to use categories for judgment that are not self-related, and look out the windows of our souls instead of in the mirror. There is so much more to discover, learn and appreciate in a relationship when we do not base our judgments only on how we perceive ourselves, but on who the other is. We might say this of anyone, but it applies uniquely to one other: “Let God be God, and then relate with God as you are.” Of course we can always continue to learn more about God from many different sources, but to stand, sit or walk with God as other allows us to meet the only one who not only loves us, but is Love. 

  • Royalty - Titles or Qualities?

    If every girl has been led to believe that she is a princess and every boy a prince, some will be severely disappointed when they discover that all the others also consider themselves as royalty; having been given the title does not earn them any special considerations. All of us have a responsibility to base our expectations not on titles that we might have received, but on our experiences of interacting with others. Most of us wind up being neither a princess nor a prince and have learned that whoever we are and whoever we are becoming, we do so through the decisions that we make, not the titles that others might give to us.

    Royalty who are heads of state have inherited their titles, so only a very small number of persons will have the prerogatives that accompany that kind of position. There are of course many other titles and positions in society that carry with them distinctive privileges. Famous movie and television personages, public figures in politics, leaders in large businesses and even religious figures such as Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama are examples. Those who want to have the same exceptional treatment and fame that royalty and other famous persons receive usually focus their attention only on the especially visible and attractive features that they perceive those people to possess. But even royalty have responsibilities and limitations in their lives as do all of us.

    Some people, who have even minor positions where service of others is required, are overmuch impressed with their titles and privileges to the detriment of carrying out their responsibilities. Yet there are very wealthy, powerful and well-known public figures including royalty who take pride not in themselves, but in the quality of their service to others. If we reflect for a moment, we can easily recognize the difference between the kind of royalty that we identify with at all levels, and those whom we consider as notable solely for their fame, wealth or power.

    For a broader understanding of royalty, we can turn our attention to the qualities of persons that we observe, and not the kind of titles by which they are known. In relating with others, we have found that some of them are almost royalty for us not in terms of public honor, great wealth or far-ranging power, but because we highly esteem them for their selfless care for us and for others, and we spontaneously want to be like them.

    This kind of royalty is actually the appropriate model for all who have the public’s admiration. And, we ourselves can become this kind of royalty even if no one gives us a special title. When we give ourselves fully into whatever we can say and do that will be helpful to those with whom we interact, we are members of responsible royalty, living out the inherited qualities of being created in the image and likeness of God. From another perspective, we choose to live according to our deepest desires rather than from superficial attractions.

    All of us can be royal-hearted.