The Season of Wishes and Hope

wishes and hope

I have a neighbor who lives about a quarter mile down the road from me who is mentally challenged.  Although she is in her early 20’s, she lives in the world of ten or eleven year old surrounded by fantasies.  She has a sweet disposition and in the summer comes to bring me wild flowers that she picks along the roadside.

Today she knocked at my door wearing a Santa hat.  She extended a large Christmas card sized envelope toward me and said, “Would you please see that this gets to Santa Claus?”   The envelope bore a fresh postage stamp, her return address label, and a large sticker depicting an angel.  Scrawled on it in childish printing were the words “to Santa Claus to the North Pole.”

“George and I want a Doberman puppy.  They grow fast and then it will be protection for us.”  George is her elderly care-taker.

“Does it have to be a purebred Doberman?  Could it be, oh, maybe half Doberman?”  I asked.

“Sure.  That would be okay,” she beamed.

“Maybe you could find one at the shelter,” I suggested.  She said they couldn’t afford it and that’s why they were writing to Santa.  Would I make sure he got their card?  Maybe put it on the Internet or something?

I’m not sure yet what I will do about her request.  I’ll ask animal-lover friends for their advice.  Meanwhile, the card is sitting on my kitchen counter, reminding me that this is the season for wishes and hopes.

They’re different, you know.  Wishes are for things we think will fill a need or desire in our lives.  They’re for trinkets and baubles, or, on the more serious side, for comfort, for solutions, for healing, for changes of circumstance.  Sometimes we make wishes with the firm belief that they can come true.  Sometimes we make them even when their fulfillment seems outrageously unlikely.  But we make them regardless, because just the act of wishing, of holding open even a faint possibility, feels good.  Wishes let us dream.

Hope, on the other hand, is an attitude, a disposition of character.  Hope is a commitment to keeping a space in our hearts and minds for the possibility that, come what may, goodness will prevail.  It’s closely related to optimism, a determination to look for the good, for the silver lining in the darkest of clouds.  It holds to a belief in the power of truth over deception, of love over indifference and hate, of compassion over meanness.  Hope allows us to endure difficulties and pain, to see them as temporary circumstances or as teachers of wisdom, or even as opportunities in disguise.  It enables us to maintain equanimity and inner peace in the midst of life’s confusion and storms.  It opens us to seeing actions we might take to move circumstances toward more optimum conditions.

As we move into the Christmas season, to the solstice, the time of the return of the light, I hope, with you, for a world of peace and brotherhood.  And I wish for you that all your best wishes come true.


Be a World Tipper

Be a World-Tipper

One night last week, a late-season thunderstorm woke me from my sleep.  I’m one of those people who love thunder, thanks to my mom and dad.  I woke to the sound with happy memories.

I grew up on the shores of Saginaw Bay in Michigan and we had an enclosed sun porch that looked out over the water.   Sometimes when it stormed at night, my parents would wake me from my sleep and tuck me between them on the sofa to watch lightning dancing across the horizon and light up the white-capped waves.   It was as good as 4th of July fireworks, only cozier, a private show just for the three of us.  I loved it.

I remember falling asleep to the fragrance and sound of rain on nights like that.  And to this day, nighttime rain feels like a loving lullaby.

But tonight, I’m also thinking how blessed I am that the concussions that roll through the sky are thunder, and nothing more, that I can hear them without fear, that they are not rockets or bombs.  It’s only an accident of birth that puts me here, out of harm’s way.  I am not here, in this place of peace, because I am special in some way.  Any of us could as easily be cowering at the sounds of sirens, or at the violent quivering of the air as sitting here in peace and comfort reading email or surfing the Net.

None of us can say, in today’s uncertain world, that the peace we enjoy today will endure. But life has never been certain.  None of us knows, when we wake in the morning, what our days will hold.  That’s part of the wonder of it all.

The other day, a friend of mine posted on Faceboook that she turned on the news and was filled with dismay at all the turmoil in the world.  “Nothing good is happening anywhere!” she said.

A couple people commented that they agreed.  The world was in the proverbial hand basket heading straight to hell.

Then a wise voice chimed in.  “Plenty of good things are happening in the world,” the writer said.  “People are getting married, having babies, dancing, enjoying sunsets and walks on the beach.  Take your dog for a walk.  Then you will be one of the good things that’s happening in the world right now.”

“Amen,” I thought.   We can’t stop wars or weather.  But we can be one of the good things that’s happening in the world.  We can walk our dogs, hug our kids, sing our songs, or revel in the fragrance and sound of rain.  We can tip the world’s scales towards joy, and gratitude, and celebration.  We can be the love that’s happening in the world right now.

And I kind of think that’s exactly what the world wants from us, and needs.

Let’s get out there and be world-tippers.  It’s the least we can do, don’t you agree?



The Graciousness of Gratitude

It’s been a difficult week for me.  Some sad events unfolded and a few major challenges popped up.  I recognized early on that I was swimming through stressful waters.  While I was driving, I caught myself reciting a mental list of all my unfortunate circumstances.

“What are you doing?” I asked myself.  I was indulging in a pity party!  And why?  Because I wanted to justify being miserable.  I decided that was pretty stupid.  So a lot of things were less than ideal right now.  That didn’t mean I was living in an absolutely cheerless world.  At the moment, I was in a comfortable car driving on a country road lined with beautiful autumn oaks whose leathery leaves were glistening in the morning sunlight.  I had a choice.  I could indulge in wretchedness or relax and enjoy the beauty.

I decided to be gracious to myself and to trade my list of woes for gratitude for the moment’s goodness.

I like the word “gracious.”  It’s expansive.  It hints of benevolence and luxurious ease. It invites you to sink into the moment and to welcome its gifts.  And never doubt that every moment has its gifts.  Even when tragedy strikes, goodness is present.

One of the most beneficial positivity exercises you can practice is to look for those gifts, to look for the goodness that the moment holds.   And when you find them, be gracious to yourself and let yourself appreciate them, let your heart open to gratitude.  There’s always a reason to give thanks.

Now that the holiday season is upon us with all of its stress and expectations, let me encourage you to adopt graciousness as your guiding light.  Stuff some in your pocket in the morning and carry it with you everywhere you go.  Let it remind you to be generous of heart, to see the breadth and depth of each moment and all the goodness it holds.  Let it remind you that you can trade your mental list of cares for the softness of appreciation, for the openness of acceptance and thanks.


Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World

Finding Meaning

I was watching videos on YouTube this week when one of the “recommended for you” videos that the site suggests was titled “My Life Has No Meaning.  Help!”  I didn’t watch it. The mere title saddened me, and because I don’t leave comments on YouTube there was nothing I could do to help.  But it made me think about how hard it is for many of us to find meaning in life.

We’re fed a constant diet of disaster, contention and chaos, after all.  And even though the items on the news may not touch us personally, they act like a dark gloom cloud perpetually hanging over our heads.  Add to that the normal stress of everyday life and the monotony of its routines and it’s easy to see how life can lose its flavor.

So how do you find meaning in life?  I decided to browse through some quotes on the topic to see what clues I could find.  The first thing I noticed is an almost universal agreement that life doesn’t have a built-in meaning of its own.  Here’s how Joseph Campbell put it:  “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”  In other words, meaning is something each of us gets to create or discover for ourselves.

I picked a few of the quotes about life’s meaning that I liked best to share with you, and to give you some clues on where you can look to find or to make your own meaning.  I hope you’ll find them as insightful and inspiring as I do.

This one made me laugh.  It’s from Edgar Allen Poe, of all people.  “The best things in life make you sweaty.”  It’s true!  Fill your day with exertion and tasks accomplished and you’ll feel like you’ve lived.

Terry Pratchett says, “You know full well that the meaning of life is to find your gift.  To find your gift is happiness.”  And how do you find your gift?  It’s what you truly enjoy doing, what comes easily to you, and what you’re naturally good at doing.  Check out my articles on strengths to get some clues.

Since one of my own top strengths is an appreciation for beauty and excellence, I especially like these two:  Johann Gottfried Herder says “To think what is true, to sense what is beautiful and to want what is good, hereby the spirit finds purpose of a life in reason.”  And this delightful one from Welwyn Wilton Katz:  “Life is a fairy tale.  Live it with wonder and amazement.”

These final three tell of something deeper, and, I believe, hold the essence of building meaning into our lives.  First, Richelle E. Goodrich, says, “I’m starting to think this world is just a place for us to learn that we need each other more than we want to admit.”  And next, from Roy T. Bennett, come this advice:  “Learn to light a candle in the darkest moments of someone’s life. Be the light that helps others see; it is what gives life its deepest significance.”  And last, but not in least in any way, is this from C. JoyBell C.: “Always remember that the most valuable thing that you can do in this world, is to live a life of love.”

Work hard.  Play hard.  Use your talents.  Find life’s delights.  And above all, shine your light and give your love.



The Parable of the Oyster: Compassion’s Power

Pearl of Compassion

Harry was an oyster who lived an ordinary oyster life.  He bobbed around the floor of the sea, pushed here and there by its currents, happily sucking phytoplankton and algae from the water as it passed over his gills.

One day, a tiny chunk of something hard and rough made it inside his shell.  Caught there, it was quite painful, given the softness of his interior.  If he had been a human, this irritating fleck might have been something like a cruel word hurled at him, or a wound caused by an accident or even by an unexpected change in circumstances.  But for Harry, it was a rock-hard particle and he didn’t like it at all.  It hurt.

He focused his attention on it, fully feeling the pain.  It was awful, with a sharp, burning quality.  and all he wanted was for it to stop.  While he focusing on it, he happened to think that this must happen to other oysters, too.  He was not alone in his suffering.  Many, perhaps thousands, of other oysters were feeling this exact pain.

That thought made his oyster-heart fill with compassion that such was the fate of so many of his kind. He breathed in the pain for all the oysters that were afflicted, and when he breathed out again, his breath carried his compassion to all the others, and his wishes for them for relief from their suffering.

In and out he breathed, taking in the shared pain of all the oysters, and breathing out compassion for them.  And as he did this, the pain he felt became more bearable somehow.

Several minutes (which is a long time in an oyster’s life) passed before he noticed that his oyster-body had responded to his compassion by wrapping the irritating chunk inside him in a smooth, lustrous coat.  He returned to his breathing, just in case his compassion was easing the pain of his fellow sufferers as well.

Weeks later, Harry shared the story of his experience with an oyster-friend of his.  “That explains it!” his friend exclaimed.  It turned out that he had ingested a painful particle as well.  He had struggled against it mightily, but it only dug more deeply into his soft oyster flesh.  Then one day, something in the water seemed to whisper to him, “You are not alone in this.  Be kind to yourself and patient with this irritation.”  It had seemed a great mystery to him, but now he realized he was receiving his friend Harry’s love.

“Knowing I wasn’t alone helped so much,” he told Harry.  “Somehow it made it all easier to bear.  And I felt so much love for all the other oysters who were suffering that it made me more patient with my own pain.”

Harry and his friend carried their little rocks inside them until the day they died.  And while they were never the same, their compassion coated their wounds with layers and layers of beautiful light.  Their suffering ceased, and they lived out their days in peace.

Much later, a young boy wandered along the shore and came across the shell that had held Harry’s body.  Out of curiosity, he pried it open and, to his great surprise and wonder, discovered it held a luminous pearl.  “Dad!” he cried.  “Look what I found!”   And his father burst into tears at the sight, for the treasure brought a solution to his own brand of pain.

We are never alone in our suffering.  And our compassion for those who suffer as well has more power than we will ever know.

*     *     *

Harry’s compassionate breathing is a practice called Tonglen.  Buddhist Monk Pema Chodron leads a guided meditation of it here, and describes it in some depth here.