In 2016, Pope Francis sainted Mother Teresa. She was a beloved paragon of a selfless life, ministering to the poor and dying, shining a light on the importance of the little things and the love of family. After her death, her diaries showed her struggles with doubt. Once feeling clearly called to her mission, in the last several decades of her life she felt God’s absence. She said,
Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love–and now become as the most hated one–the one–You have thrown away as unwanted–unloved. I call, I cling, I want–and there is no One to answer–no One on Whom I can cling–no, No One.–Alone … Where is my Faith–even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart–& make me suffer untold agony.
So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them–because of the blasphemy–If there be God –please forgive me–When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven–there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.–I am told God loves me–and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?
And on until her death, she felt God’s absence, rather than his presence. And yet she persisted doing the work to which she had been called, living a life of faith.
Some may call her a hypocrite to have an outward smile of peace and an inner crisis of faith, but isn’t her struggle every one’s struggle? Who among us doesn’t struggle with doubt? Don’t we all rely on faith when our paths grow dark and twisting?
St. Teresa of Calcutta inspires us to hang on during the dark nights of the soul, to continue to walk the walk, to be faithful and steadfast, and to shine light in the dark places. She can aptly be considered the Patron Saint of Doubters.
During dark times, it is easy to lose our way. What are some ways you have kept going even during a crisis of faith?
What do we regret most as we contemplate the end of our time here? Maybe the lesson from that regret can inform our present. In an outstanding commencement speech, George Saunders reflects on his own failures and encourages the graduating students to look for opportunities to be kind. He reflects on a memory haunting him from his childhood:
In seventh grade, this new kid joined our class. In the interest of confidentiality, her Convocation Speech name will be “ELLEN.” ELLEN was small, shy. She wore these blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it.
So she came to our school and our neighborhood, and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” — that sort of thing). I could see this hurt her. I still remember the way she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, as if, having just been reminded of her place in things, she was trying, as much as possible, to disappear. After awhile she’d drift away, hair-strand still in her mouth. At home, I imagined, after school, her mother would say, you know: “How was your day, sweetie?” and she’d say, “Oh, fine.” And her mother would say, “Making any friends?” and she’d go, “Sure, lots.”
Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it.
And then — they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing.
One day she was there, next day she wasn’t.
End of story.
Now, why do I regret that? Why, forty-two years later, am I still thinking about it? Relative to most of the other kids, I was actually pretty nice to her. I never said an unkind word to her. In fact, I sometimes even (mildly) defended her.
But still. It bothers me.
So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:
What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.
Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.
We all have so many opportunities to make a difference, just by simply being kind, offering a smile, reaching out in friendship. And, when we reflect on the kindnesses that have made the difference to each of us in our own lives, we realize those little shows of kindness are what matter.
Saunders continues to remind each of us that our inner selves, our souls, shine as brightly as ever, and, even as we strive for success, to keep checking in with that inner place, and to believe it exists and greet the world from there:
Do all the other things, the ambitious things — travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
When you are confronted with a choice, err in the direction of kindness.
Has there been a ‘failure of kindness’ in your life you regret? What have you learned from the experience? I would love your thoughts on this.
Have you ever been at a restaurant or grocery store with a crying or tantrumming child? It’s awful, that feeling of everyone staring at you and blaming you for somehow disrupting their lives. Not to mention, the criticism and judgment! Some people are only too eager to point out just what you are doing wrong and how you shouldn’t be out in public if you can’t control your children. But, sometimes, a stranger reaches out and helps– offers to amuse the baby, gives you a wink of encouragement, tells you they’ve been there, too, and that things will get better. That little act of kindness makes all the difference.
We can’t control whether we will run into the kind sort of stranger when we are most overwhelmed. But, we can remember what it was like when someone was kind when we were overwrought and BE that kind stranger to someone struggling. When we remember what a difference that type of kindness made in our lives, we realize that simple things–holding a door for someone carrying packages, smiling when someone is overwhelmed with their kids, offering to help pick up fallen papers– matter tremendously.
Have you ever been the beneficiary of a stranger’s kindness? Can you think of a time when you reached out in kindness to someone else? Please share your stories in the comments. I would love to hear them!
What makes some people able to empathize more than others, able to help in dire circumstances, able to put the greater good above the personal good? Bryan Stephenson, founder of the Equal Justice Institute, fierce advocate against systemic racism, and criminal defense attorney for those on death row explains: “I do it because I’m broken, too.” That recognition of a common humanity and brokenness by a system that needs changing propels him to fight.
Who among us isn’t broken? Because we all are bound together, we all suffer in an unjust world. Because we all have known pain, we all have the capacity to put ourselves into the shoes of those hurting.
In his book, Just Mercy, Stephenson explains:
My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice had finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it.
We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt–and have hurt others–are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us.
Paul Farmer, the renowned physician who has spent his life trying to cure the world’s sickest and poorest people, once quoted me something that the writer Thomas Merton said: ‘We are bodies of broken bones.’ I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.
We all have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our humanity
…So many of us have become afraid and angry. We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak–not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken. …We’ve submitted to the harsh instinct to crush those among us whose brokenness is most visible. But simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight–only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson
How many of the problems we face today can be mitigated by recognizing our common humanity, by following the Golden Rule of treating others how we would have them treat us, a tenet found in many of the world’s religions? How would we have others treat us if we were the elderly, the sick, the refugee, the hurt, the accused, the other? Each of us would benefit from considering things from this perspective. Bryan Stephenson continues:
Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. I told myself that evening what I had been telling my clients for years. I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
…I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, If we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Maybe if we did, we wouldn’t want to kill the broken among us who have killed others. Maybe we would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized.
Just Mercy, by Bryan Stephenson
We are all broken. Some of us don’t acknowledge that. We have all hurt and been hurt. It is that humbling insight that can help us recognize our common humanity across all divides. If we just have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Stephenson refers to an unnamed pastor who would preface singing: “The minister would stand, spread his arms wide, and say, “Make me to hear joy and gladness, that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.” Amen to that.
From Shari: It’s probably obvious from the long post how much Stephenson’s book has moved me. I recommend it to anyone and everyone. It is a masterful look behind the scenes of criminal defense work, as documented in the movie, but it also interweaves the history of systemic racism in our country and highlights many areas that need our focus.
I would love to have your thoughts on this in the comments. All thoughts are appreciated. It feels a bit like whispering into the wind to write a blog. I would love to hear your thoughts to build a sense of community.
Who is the teacher, and who is the student? We learn so much from our children–patience, humility, wonder, curiosity, and our capacity for love stretches beyond anything we could have ever imagined. But sometimes, when we have misbehaving children, we face criticism and shame instead of encouragement and support. And yet, as we rise to the challenge of parenting, we learn and grow as much or more than our kids. For those of you struggling, here is a beautiful poem of encouragement:
One of the side-benefits or hardship is cultivating resilience. Learning new things and new ways of doing old things helps sharpen the saw. It also helps us stay engaged and young. In this excellent article, Kerry Hannon argues that learning something new is a key factor in building the resilience we need to weather setbacks and navigate life’s volatility, particularly now.
When you’re in the process of learning, your viewpoint changes, and you spot connections that you never noticed before. “Resilience is about being adaptable in a variety of different circumstances,” said Dorie Clark, who teaches executive education at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and is the author of “Reinventing You.” It is a combination of being able to pick yourself up when there are setbacks, but also it is about having the kind of cross-training necessary to be flexible in an uncertain world where we don’t know what is around the corner,” Ms. Clark said.
New York Times, “To Build Emotional Strength, Expand Your Brain,” by Kerry Hannon
Staying curious, intentionally putting yourself in places and situations where you are a beginner, and following passion all contribute to building resilience with a byproduct of satisfaction.
Those who routinely and consciously engage in learning become more confident about their ability to figure things out once a crisis hits, according to Beverly Jones, an executive career coach and author of “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like A CEO.” “Each time they hit a bump, they spend less time lamenting and quickly turn to determining what they must learn in order to climb out of the hole,” she said. Moreover, learners develop a more optimistic mind-set, which helps them jump into action, according to Ms. Jones. “In part, this is because each time you become aware of learning something new it feels like a victory,” Ms. Jones said. “You maintain the positivity that is a key to resilience.”
So, as we continue to adapt to a new normal, now is a good time to seek out new things to learn and new passions to pursue. More than ever, university courses and classes are being offered online, often for free. What is something new for you to pursue? Stay curious; keep your mind young; and follow your passions.
How wonderful it would be to count all joy– to recognize the gift in the difficulty, to see the growth in the hardship, to see joy as a reflection of sorrow. Grief, despair, hopelessness, loss can hit so hard, it may feel like we will never feel joy again. And yet joy follows us like a shadow if we can pause to be grateful.
Then a woman said, “Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.”
And he answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.
What can link two strangers– one a convict, the other a veteran? In this case, it is their love for a dog, Pax (peace), raised by a woman who had nearly given up on her own ability to make a contribution, and then given to a man who suffered PTSD from service of his country. Love can bring back self-worth and a sense of purpose and can soothe even the most frayed of nerves. Love is a bridge between where we are and where we can be.
Kindness always delights. Kindness is unexpected and changes the temperature of any room or discussion. In this delightful story, hotel workers find a little girl’s lost dog and return it, but not without giving the stuffed animal some adventures and delighting its owners.
Just look at her little face when she sees what her toy has been up to!
What is some little act of kindness you can do today to bring someone delight? It sure would be a breath of fresh air right now!
Mr. Rogers inspired generations to recognize the beauty of their neighborhoods, to search for the helpers for inspiration in any crisis, and to recognize that each individual has value and inherent worth. His words continue to echo through both good and bad times. He reminded us that it wasn’t our exteriors he liked or admired, but our interior selves, our character and trustworthiness. Today consider his reminder to remember all those people who believed in you and made you who you are– someone capable of making the good choices to make this world a better place.
I’d like to give you all an invisible gift. A gift of a silent minute to think about those who have helped you become who you are today. Some of them may be here right now. Some may be far away. Some, like my astronomy professor, may even be in Heaven. But wherever they are, if they’ve loved you, and encouraged you, and wanted what was best in life for you, they’re right inside your self. And I feel that you deserve quiet time, on this special occasion, to devote some thought to them. So, let’s just take a minute, in honor of those that have cared about us all along the way. One silent minute.