“What’s this?” I wondered as I pulled the mail from the box. Amidst the bills and junk was a bright white envelope with a return address that I didn’t recognize. Once in the house, I slit open the top and removed a note card. The cursive words looked childish, as if from a third-grader who had just learned to make those looping letters. Yet somehow, the wording of the message didn’t seem typical of an elementary school student. In halting sentences, the note praised my sermon from a few weeks prior, the one I had given on Mother’s Day. And the valediction said, “Your Good Friend and God’s, Dave.”
When I think of resiliency, I picture a toddler learning to walk. She pulls herself up, lets go, and immediately falls over. She does this again and again until she lets go of support and takes a step. Soon her steps increase and although she continues to tumble, she never fails to get up. You could say she is falling and bouncing back.
This image of physical resiliency is appropriate as the young child learns to walk and master other skills necessary for development. But if we carry this childhood image as we age, it can become a hindrance to our psychological and spiritual well-being.
In her book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong writes, “Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of the world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity, and respect.”
As spiritual directors, we know that compassion is fundamental to our spiritual practice. It literally means, “to suffer together.” It includes tuning into the other in a kind and loving manner, truly listening with the ears of our hearts. Compassionate listening brings healing and openness.
BEWARE: A contagion is spreading. The symptoms begin with one person and rapidly transmit to a family, a workplace, and even the entire community.
The name of this catchable entity? Enthusiasm.
I learned firsthand how infectious and powerful enthusiasm is when I served as the administrator of a county health department. My attitude when I presented a new idea and explored options with the staff wielded persuasive influence. If I exhibited interest and eagerness, the reaction reflected positive energy. But a listless and sluggish attitude created an atmosphere of apathy.
What motivates at this point? What energizes or inspires? What strengthens one into movement? What takes one from the couch to the street?
I participated in someone else's passion this week and took three separate walks alongside others. We explored, talked openly, felt free yet safely watched over, and were intimately connected in ways that lasted. My motivation was physical movement, participation, and curiosity, but my reward was affirmation.
Between school and home, as a child I remember hearing at different points about the importance of being true to one’s word and having integrity. Whenever a situation occurred where someone had lied or behaved in a dishonest way, the overriding message was, “It’s always best to be honest. Never be afraid to tell the truth.”
At first glance, honesty was calling the cashier’s attention to the fact that she gave me too much change from my purchase or admitting and owning up to my mistakes rather than trying to hide them. However, as I grew and experienced life throughout the years, it became clearer that honesty is the lynchpin necessary for meaningful relationships. Without it, trust and intimacy cannot grow between the parties involved.
Most days, I honestly have no idea where I’m going. In college, I had a pretty clear vision of where my life was headed; but of course, life never goes like you plan. Now in my forties, although I’m still surprised when things don’t work out as I expect, I sense a shift in my soul towards accepting a more limited vision of my future.
I've wanted to follow God ever since my babysitter told me the story of Adam and Eve, using flannel-graph images stuck to the back of fuzzy orange couch straight from the seventies. "God loves you," she said. "He made you. You're his child." It was such an easy concept for me, at four, and I threw myself into following God with my whole heart. I even dragged my parents along.
The problem was, once we became Christians, my world quickly began to shrink. Music went first, when my dad destroyed all the "secular" music that had facilitated hours of joyful father-daughter dancing. "They're singing about bad things," he explained. God is pure.
Admiring zeal, or intense enthusiasm, is a mixed bag. The zeal that exudes from anyone can be easily admired when we are in favor of his or her desired outcome. The Olympics are on the horizon, and it’s common to rally behind the intense effort of these athletes as they work towards reaching their dreams. We marvel in statements like, “What passion they have for their craft!” “How dedicated they must be to compete and train, day in and day out for what they really believe in.” This is all good, but it’s important to note how sheer determination alone is not enough to win unanimous favor in the eyes of the people.