Being the heroes of our own story

We each decide if we are to be the hero of the story our lives are writing. We each will hear calls to adventure and must decide whether we will rise to the occasion. We each struggle with challenges and learn, or not, from the experience. What will your story be? How will you meet the challenges you encounter?

In this short film, Matthew Winkler outlines Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey, a path we all must take.

How will we fare?

Being a Good Samaritan

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is well known. In short, a man lies helpless and injured in the road. Religious leaders rush past offering no assistance, while a Samaritan stops and offers the wounded man succor and solace.

What makes one person stop to help while others rush by? Is it the belief that helping is the right way to show up in the world? A religious mandate even? Or is there more to it?

In a famous study at Princeton, researchers evaluated a group of seminarians, specifically discussing the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and then sending them to a task, indeed to lecture on the very parable, where they would necessarily walk right past someone needing help. Even with the parable fresh on their minds, the future pastors for the most part walked right by. Presumably these were nice people who intended to spend a lifetime in service. And yet, they walked right by. They acted in a way incongruent with their professed beliefs.

A surprising result to say the least. But the conclusion from the experiment was that the biggest influencer in whether they stopped to help was not their religious beliefs or their innate kindness, but their perception of time. The more of a hurry they were in, the less likely they were to help.

So how does this inform our choices?

A general kind intent to help is not enough. We are all the Princeton Divinity Students rushing to our next important task and potentially neglecting the plight of others right in our path. We must slow down the clock and really see the people around us. And we need to be ok with the idea that our plans and schedules might be disrupted. Surely stopping to help someone in need will change your day, will inconvenience you, and cause you to spend time and perhaps money in an unplanned way.

But the help you might be able to offer someone in need could be invaluable.

Going high

We are bombarded daily with stories of fraud, cheating, self-interest, and dishonesty. People talking over each other, shoving, hostile. Everything is so charged and hot. Sometimes it feels like the people who stoop to these tactics might win the race and that we should do it, too. Otherwise, the ‘bad’ side will triumph. And yet.

Honesty matters. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Fairness and justice matter. On the foundations of these qualities, trust is built.

Explaining her ‘go high’ comment, Michelle Obama says,

My answer is yes. We need to keep trying to go high. Operating with integrity matters. It will matter forever. It is a tool.

At the same time, though, I want to be clear: Going high is something you do rather than merely feel. It’s not some call to be complacent and wait around for change, or to sit on the sidelines as others struggle. It is not about accepting the conditions of oppression or letting cruelty and power go unchallenged. The notion of going high shouldn’t raise any questions about whether we are obligated to fight for more fairness, decency, and justice in this world; rather, it’s about how we fight, how we go about trying to solve the problems we encounter, and how we sustain ourselves long enough to be effective rather than burn out. There are some who see this as an unfair and ineffective compromise, an extension of respectability politics, in which we conform to rather than challenge the rules in order to get by. Why, people rightly wonder, do we need to try to be so reasonable all the time?

I can see how some think that reason leaves no room for rage. I understand the perception that going high means that you somehow remove yourself and remain unbothered by all that might otherwise gall and provoke you.

But it’s not that at all.

When I first said those words…, I was neither removed nor unbothered. In fact, I was pretty agitated….

But where was my actual power? I knew it didn’t reside in my hurt and rage, at least as they existed in raw forms. My power lay in whatever I could manage to do with that hurt and rage, where I could take it. It hinged on whether or not I could elevate those feelings into something that would become harder for others to write off, which was a clear message, a call to action, and a result I was willing to work for.

That’s what going high is for me. It’s about taking an abstract and usually upsetting feeling and working to convert it into some sort of actionable plan, to move through the raw stuff and in the direction of a larger solution.

I want to be clear that this is a process, and not always a quick one. It can take time and patience. It’s okay to sit and stew for a while, to live inside the agitation caused by injustice or fear or grief, or to express your pain. It’s okay to grant yourself the space you need to recover or heal. For me, going high usually involves taking a pause before I react. It is a form of self-control, a line laid between our best and worst impulses. Going high is about resisting the temptation to participate in shallow fury and corrosive contempt and instead figuring out how to respond with a clear voice to whatever is shallow and corrosive around you. It’s what happens when you take a reaction and mature it into a response.

Because here’s the thing: Emotions are not plans. They don’t solve problems or right any wrongs. You can feel them—you will feel them, inevitably—but be careful about letting them guide you. Rage can be a dirty windshield. Hurt is like a broken steering wheel. Disappointment will only ride, sulking and unhelpful, in the back seat. If you don’t do something constructive with them, they’ll take you straight into a ditch.

My power has always hinged on my ability to keep myself out of the ditch.

https://time.com/6233764/michelle-obama-go-high-2022/

Here’s to staying out of the ditch.

Celebrating others

Sometimes it feels like such a competitive world. And we develop an either him or me kind of mentality. A zero sum game, where an advantage for one person represents a loss to another. Like pie. more for you, less for me.

But what if it’s not? What if something good for one person, elevates the amount of good in the world for us all? What if the very act of celebrating another person’s success benefits us as well and makes a more positive, harmonious world?

I didn’t watch the Golden Globes, but I was taken with this picture of Jamie Lee Curtis celebrating the success of her co-star Michelle Yeoh:

Fiercely supportive, celebratory, in Yeoh’s corner to the Nth degree. It wasn’t an award for Curtis, but it was a time for her to celebrate her friend. This energy inspires us all, doesn’t it?

The reaction to this now viral moment has surprised Curtis:

“I’m still stunned that a moment of natural exuberance and joy became some sort of a symbol for women supporting other women,” Curtis wrote in the [Instagram] post.

Let’s be there for each other, rejoicing in each other’s successes.

Winging it

In this now third year of pandemic, we have learned something important. We must temper our expectations and hopes with the realization that nothing is a sure bet. To expect the unexpected. To prepare for the unforeseeable. And, perhaps most importantly, to find delight wherever and whenever we can. And to store it up.

One of my absolute delights this year has been an early morning bird walk at Descanso Gardens with ‘real’ birders. What a joy it is to see these people in their element, knowing each call, able to spot and identify each bird, speaking with enthusiasm about the birds’ characteristics and habits. These birders are so kind, pointing and explaining, pointing and explaining. So much fascinating detail!

I’m a newbie to this bird watching thing, but I love it. It’s like a giant Where’s Waldo everywhere around you, all at once. I don’t yet have the eye or the ear to be a great spotter, and probably never will, but I have a secret weapon. I discovered Merlin. It’s an app that records the sounds around you, and tells you what birds are there. What a wonder!

I turned it on while we were walking and discovered that there was a Golden Crowned Kinglet nearby. I didn’t see or hear it, at least not to know what I was seeing/hearing, but a leader was soon calling it out and pointing. Magic. (Just look at the cute little guy!)

Just since I’ve been typing this post, I’ve had my iPhone on the window sill while my cat, Marie, looks out over her domain, and Merlin has picked up 7 birds: Anna’s Hummingbird, Common finch, Lesser finch, Song Sparrow, Cassin’s Kingbird, California Scrub-Jay, and the Bushtit! This feels magical, like I’ve opened a doorway into another world and am tiptoeing in.

I hope this new year opens a magical doorway for you, perhaps something unexpected and new, that brings you delight.

Pay attention

The Rose Parade is always a joyous start to the new year, the pageantry, the vivid colors, the community. The floats are huge, once nearly 100 feet tall. (Disney 2004). Every inch must be covered with something organic—mostly flowers, of course, but also oatmeal, potatoes, beans, seeds, and so on. The illusions created are remarkable. Look at the bicycles in the photo above (Kaiser 2023). Every detail created out of flowers and organic material. You think you’re looking at bicycles, but really you’re looking at a masterful combination of organic material:

The pink and yellow bikes are made from cut straw flowers confetti, while the blue bike is made from blue statice. The black bike tires are made from onion seeds and the handlebars are comprised of dark lettuce seeds. Other flowers and materials used include pampas grass, banana leaf, red and pink anthurium, commadore fern, Italian ruscus, lemon leaf, and green dianthus.

https://www.latfusa.com/article/2022/12/the-kaiser-permanente-rose-parade-float-has-40000-roses

In many ways, a Rose Parade float is a metaphor for life: you think you see things one way, but really everything is a combination of multitudes of factors—point of view, back story, nuance, history. Very little is as objective as we first think. This is particularly true when it comes to looking at each other. We are all a combination of life experience, history, bias, personality, filters and so on. We each bring that myriad of factors to our encounters.

Our job in everything is to look closely and pay attention, to move past assumption and bias. Jumping to hasty conclusions will get you trying to ride bicycles made of pampas grass.

Hope, and hope again.

What is hope, really, but a persistent insistence that things can be better, that there is more to it, that the final answers are yet to be revealed. Emily Dickinson describes hope as

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.”

And this feels right. Hope sits there perched, singing, warming our souls and keeping us fed. A wordless song because we may not even have the ability to put our emotions into words or know what it is we hope for. And this is a positive, persistent hope, but somewhat passive, waiting.

And yet, we know, too, that hope gets its fingernails dirty because while hope sits on the periphery expectant, it can also be in the fray fighting for a better world. That kind of hope is captured by Matthew @CrowsFault:

“People speak of hope as if it is this delicate ephemeral thing made of whispers and spider’s webs. It’s not. Hope has dirt on her face, blood on her knuckles, the grit of cobblestones in her hair, and just spat out a tooth as she rises for another go.”

And this, too, seems true. Hope keeps our souls fed but also prompts our entering the arena, helping us to do the hard work to make a better world for all.

Let 2023 be a year of hope, perched and singing to our souls, but also inching us forward to do the hard work, offering our time and talents, to bring about a better today.

Look at all you’ve done…

The new year brings with it an expectation to reflect and set intentions for how to perhaps improve from the last. Often these reflections result in an examination of all the ways we’ve fallen short and a profession to do better, eat better, exercise better…be better. Often the premise unspoken is that we’re not enough, we must improve, be different.

I wonder if there is a better way to start a new year. Perhaps in astonishment that we have made it through a year filled with so many challenges and yet we persisted. Perhaps filled with gratitude that our opportunities to contribute and bring joy to others continues. Perhaps thinking about all the small wonders that make up our life and rejoicing.

Each new year is an opportunity to wake up with the enthusiasm of Scrooge after his ghostly visits and realize that here we are, in the thick of it, able to love and be loved, able to contribute, and make a difference, filled with delight:

“Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!”

When he finds out from a boy outside his window that it is still Christmas Day, Scrooge says, “I haven’t missed it. Yes, the spirits did it all in one night—they can do anything they want to do.”

Then his thoughts turn, with glee, to anonymous giving, saying to himself, “I’ll send [a turkey] to Bob Cratchit’s! rubbing his hands, and splitting with a laugh. “He shan’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim….”

“The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the Turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.”

Chuckled until he cried. How thin the edge between joy and grief. What a gift it is to be here. How precious in its finiteness. But here we are, dancing, able to bring joy to others. Here now, but not forever.

Rejoice!

Happy new year!

Woven delights.

Everything is a bit of a mix, isn’t it? Even a perfect moment is inseparable from its transience. Glennon Doyle coined the term ‘brutiful’ for this, a mix of brutal and beautiful.

In his Book of Delights, Ross Gay embarks on a quest to document the delights of each day for a year. Everything from bindweed to community to the joys of gardening. That act of paying attention, looking for the delights in each day, is, in itself, a delight, an opening to the promise and possibility of each moment.

Just the act of searching for those delights and holding them up, maybe even writing them down, serves to make each moment more meaningful and appreciated. As we train and condition ourselves to notice the things that delight us, even those we would never normally consider delights, we grow in gratitude and awe. Our worlds take on more depth and value. And we are better able to see the roses amidst the thorns.

Doing it anyway.

Many of us have been afraid, and fear can naturally lead us to withdraw and retreat from the world. And this makes sense.

But sometimes the things that made us afraid continue and become our new normal, and then we must learn how to continue to do what needs to be done despite the fear.

This is courage.

We each have hidden wells of courage to draw from in trying times. We each have within us a voice that calls us to act, whether it is in caring for one another or speaking out against injustice.

In these times of disorder and distress, we confront new normals at every turn. And part of these new normals necessarily involves confronting and accepting your new reality and learning how to continue to make a positive difference in the world despite the challenges.

It’s ok to be afraid. Do what needs to be done anyway.