My/The Mood of Christmas

Ten days ago, three days before I was to give a public lecture on Howard Thurman’s, The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations, I experienced an episode of complete mental exhaustion.  I could not read and every time I moved toward the desk to finish the talk, my mind rebelled.  I took to the bed and slept most of the day only arising to eat,  I felt like I was desperately running out of time.  I had experienced physical exhaustion before but I couldn’t remember ever being so mentally fatigued.

It had been an extraordinary time.  After spending Thanksgiving week caring for Warren’s parents aged 95 and 92 respectively, we drove home to Atlanta from Miami.  A grueling one day drive, we stopped only for bathroom breaks and meals.  Fortunately, the road trip was punctuated by a quick stop by Howard Thurman’s childhood home in Daytona Beach, Florida. 

The day after our return I received the 2nd proofs for my soon to be published book, When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom.  I jumped right in knowing that book production deadline are always AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.  After about 3 to 4 days of intense focus and recording each correction or change on a special spreadsheet, I moved to the next task.  Preparing an online retreat for the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation on Howard Thurman’s Jesus and Disinherited was a project that had lingered on my desk far too long. It’s  delayed birth was caused by a number of issues including grieving the passing of my brother in September.  

Once I submitted my final scripts for review, it was time to tackle my presentation on The Mood of Christmas.  In between these tasks, I shopped and purchased (mostly online) Christmas gifts and hosted with Warren, an annual tree trimming party for family, neighbors, and close friends.  People are attracted to this event each year because we make every dish from scratch and I am known for the very fudgy brownies and a sweet potato cheesecake. In addition, I made an artichoke dip and a salmon moose.  The next day, my feet, legs and back ached.  It is not surprising that I crashed.

For year, I have struggled with Christmas.  As a child, Mom and I conducted the majority of Christmas shopping for extended family and I wrapped most of the gifts.  We also decorated the tree, baked Christmas desserts and prepared all of the holiday meals particularly Christmas breakfast and dinner.  By the end of Christmas day I was exhausted and wishing that Christmas occurred every 5 years instead of annually.  As an adult, this tiring experience continued because as a professor final papers and grades were always due just before Christmas.  Typically, I scrambled to purchase and wrap gifts, catch a flight, and often arrived home just in time to help mom with the yearly cooking chores.  

I dreaded Christmas each year yet I married a man who loves Christmas!  He looks forward to cooking desserts and is delighted that he married an expert gift wrapper to help with the same tradition of gift exchange with his extended family.  To say that my mood at Christmas is frazzled and stressed would be an understatement.  I’ve been yearning for something different during the holidays and I found it in Howard Thurman’s, The Mood of Christmas.  

Thurman writes that “as human spirits we need times of celebration to help us to know our significance in the continuity of life, in the flow of life in both a personal and collective way.  This sense of continuity is the ultimate windbreak against the ever-present threat of isolation and separation from surrounding environ.”  He notes that there is something special about the atmosphere at Christmas.  It is unique and distinct from all other times of the year.  The lighting of candles, hanging holiday decorations, construction of crèches, and preparing of festive meals add a special sparkle that lets us know it’s Christmas.  Christmas is truly about  celebration.

Howard Thurman says Christmas is a reminder that God has not left us alone in the darkness-the spirit of Light, the spirit of Love that Jesus let loose in the world is ever-present.  He asserts that Christmas is a time of hope regardless of whether a person is Christian or non-Christian, cheerful or sad, strong or weak.  Christmas is about revisiting or renewing the notion of hope that the Light comes again and again into the darkness of the world.

I am reminded  of the Light within (“This little light of mine”), we each carry, the same light that God placed in us—that cannot ever be extinguished no matter how bad things appear.  The question I pose is can we hold on to this hope, can we not let the “the shadow of the event” as Howard Thurman often names it, dim that light that God has placed in us.  Life continues, life is good because we remain a part of God and each other.  The Peace and Joy of God does not go away because there are wars, hurricanes, floods, fires, or because the political climate changes.  Christmas, with its special mood comes to counteract the mood of the world.  This annual celebration of the birth of Christ stirs hope, brightens that light of the Christ within which may have grown faint during the year.

Christmas is also about remembrance.  We remember the people that we are connected to and the people who have touched us in some beautiful way during the past year.  Christmastime offers a time to reflect on how we think about and relate to others who may differ from ourselves.   Howard Thurman reminds us that “Jesus was not born into an affluent family…Through the ages the message of him whose coming is celebrated at Christmastime says again and again that the destiny of man (sic) on the earth is a good and common destiny—that however dark the moment or the days may be, the redemptive impulse of God is ever present in human life.” (10) 

What is that redemptive impulse?  Thurman describes it this way. “ the birth of Jesus remains the symbol of the dignity and the inherent worthfulness of the common person.  So if the angel’s song is to find fulfillment in the world, it will be through common people becoming aware of their true worthfulness and asserting (italics mine) their generic prerogatives as children of God.”

Thurman also argues that Christmas is about the sharing of graces in a world that in his time he described as callous and uncaring. Yet these same words would describe our atmosphere now in 2018 even though Thurman published this book in 1973.  Christmas is the perfect time to cultivate a spirit of kindness and compassion and if we internalize this spirit, Christmas can be every day.  Perhaps now I am ready to cultivate a different mood at Christmas.

What is your mood this Christmas?  Can you be a bearer of the Light in this cold, dark world?   Does something in your atmosphere this Christmas highlight love, hope, reconciliation, grace, and connection?  How can you cultivate an inner ambience this Christmas that will allow you to feel more of the peace and joy in your heart?

Have You Ever Communicated With Your Heart?

 

Read about how I survived a heart transplant 24 years ago by talking with and listening to my heart.

This book is available for preorder NOW and ONLY at http://www.blackrosewriting.com/non-fiction/whentheheartspeaks. If you purchase your book prior to the publication date of January 24, 2019, use the promo code: PREORDER2018 to receive a 15% discount.

What people are saying about this book:

“Lerita Coleman Brown gave me both a unique biographical thriller and valuable psychological and spiritual insights in this book. The “thriller” is not knowing what will happen next as she took me step by step through her experience of receiving a heart transplant, and its impact on her life.  The insights come from her honest and sometimes humorous dialogues with both her old and her new heart, leading to her advocacy for the reader to pause daily and listen to the deep wisdom and love that our hearts can show us. That listening helps to free us from the dominance of our ego-centered emotions, such as anger, resentment, depression, anxiety, jealousy and fear. The reflection questions along the way gave me an opportunity to examine my own psychological and spiritual experience. I think many readers will find this book both a delight and a helpful guide to truer and fuller personal living.”

Rev. Tilden Edwards, PhD, Founder and Senior Fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, author of numerous books.

“In When the Heart Speaks, Listen, Lerita Coleman Brown has given us a rare gift indeed for she has allowed us to join her on a spiritual journey that is both fraught with danger and, ultimately, thoroughly transformative.  Both figuratively and literally, Brown had to let go of her old heart and find a way to accept and to live with a new one.  This intimate and innovative memoir about what constitutes true holistic healing will leave one moved, enlightened and profoundly inspired.”

Jan Willis,  Ph.D., Professor Emerita of Religious Studies, Wesleyan University and  author of Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist and Buddhist

Lerita is courageous–literally.  Her willingness to share these conversations with her hearts–both of them–left me awestruck.  I read this book through tears as my own heart vibrated at the lessons I need to learn in my own life.  There is Truth in this book.  Be prepared.  You will be transformed.

Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham, Rector, Grace Episcopal Church and co-editor of the upcoming book, Contemplation and Community.

“Down through the ages, philosophers, mystics and psychologists have proposed any number of conceptualizations of the elaborate interconnections between the human mind, body and spirit.  For Dr. Lerita Coleman Brown, however, these dynamic interconnections are beyond theoretical; they are vibrantly real.   Dr. Brown has facilitated regular conversations between her own mind, body and soul throughout her 24-year experience as an organ transplant survivor.  The result has taken her beyond mere survival to the construction of a beautifully spiritual and meaningful life.  In When the Heart Speaks, Listen she shares her remarkable and unique experience with all of us. What a wonderful gift!”

Arthur C. Jones, Ph.D., Clinical psychologist, professor, author of “Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals and Founder of the Spirituals Project.

“Captivating!!  In speaking from the heart, Lerita Coleman Brown provides readers with a gift: the roadmap for how to open your heart. She shares her inspiring story of triumph over adversity and all odds, to source true meaning, divine purpose, love, and heartfelt connection.”

Beth Darnall, Ph.D., Clinical Professor, Stanford University School of Medicine, author ofThe Opioid-Free Pain Relief Kit, Less Pain, Fewer Pills,  and Psychological Treatment for Chronic Pain.

 

Follow the Joy: An Autumn Musing

I recently finished a lovely book, How the Light Gets in—Writing as Spiritual Practice, by Pat Schneider.  As you can see from the picture pasted below, I underlined and tagged many pages.  How the Light Gets In earned a place on my favorite books shelf.  I love books that are part memoir and part instructional manual.  Schneider takes readers on a journey of her life and highlights the links between writing, spirituality, and healing.  In the final chapter, she makes several poignant statements about vocation or calling.  Schneider suggests that each person, no matter what the social category; age, gender, race, or social status possesses a calling.  

Similarly, I would argue even more passionately that each of us is constantly being called.  But most people appear confused about what a vocation or calling is.  My former students believed that vocation or calling are terms only applicable to the ministry.  As I tried to disavow them of this misnomer, I wondered what would happen if educational institutions took the discernment of a vocational or calling as serious as seminaries do.  As an academic adviser, I hoped a structured discernment process existed for students interested in all occupations.  Moreover, the issue of calling arises many times over the course of a lifetime.  Currently, questions about calling dominate my conversations with adults of varying ages, even some I perceive as elders in spiritual direction/companioning.   Pat Schneider maintains one method of discovering a calling is to pay attention to what brings you joy. 

This idea is very similar to Howard Thurman’s famous quote:  “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who can come alive” or Joseph Campbell’s admonition “Follow your bliss.”  What would the world be like if every person could listen for and become engaged in work or activities that brought them joy.  Yet the quotes by Thurman and Campbell allude to a different term; passion.  Are they the same or interchangeable experiences?  Synonyms of passion include fervor, enthusiasm, zeal or an intense desire while descriptions of joy include delight, pleasure, happiness, and jubilation.  Is there something special about the feeling of joy that is different from passion?   

I see this contrast playing out in my life.  I held a passion for teaching but now I know deeper joy.  It almost feels oxymoronic for me to declare the delight I feel when I arise to work.  Eagerly I sit down to my desk to write or to greet those who walk through my front door for spiritual direction/companioning.  I look forward to the retreats I lead and talking with spiritual seekers.  What characterizes my present work that seemed absent in my past labors?

Since retiring, I have carved out a set of activities instead of adapting to the tasks associated with my job.  For example, I noted earlier one of my favorite aspects of my profession was advising students.  I could have advised students all day, every day.  I felt especially jubilant when I witnessed a student discover a calling.  What helped me to determine if a students had unearthed a hidden occupational delight?  Often I posed a series of questions and observed their behavior.  I would inquire,  “What would you do if you lacked any constraints, if you had all the time and money in the world?”  “What kind of work would you do for free?” “Which activities bring you joy?”

I noticed as students, seated across from me on a couch or chair, talked about a variety of possible careers, there was a moment in the conversation when they lit up like a Christmas tree.  The light in their eyes and the joy in their voices provided the mighty clues that we had stumbled upon a calling.   

A few students would note their own inner excitement, and pursue that path.  Unfortunately, I also encountered students who could or would not follow their dreams.  Many chose careers that their parents wanted for them or fields of study that might generate the most income.  I would remind them that whatever vocation they chose, it would need to get them out of bed for the next 30 or more years.  I counseled further that some occupational choices would be more difficult to undo than others.  Becoming a doctor for example, involves a deep investment of time, energy, and money.  Further, once students start families and begin to purchase cars and homes, changing careers becomes far more challenging, if not impossible.  What is most remarkable is that my advice was quite similar to Patricia Schneider’s or Howard Thurman’s even though I neither knew of or had read anything by either author at that time.

The experience of joy is important for daily life balance as well.  The frenetic world we live in, burdened with overactivity, overstimulation, and relentless distractions requires counterbalancing.  Joy helps to uncover the counterbalancing activities.  What is most joyful—watching a movie, sitting outside in nature, listening to music, dancing in the living room, or reading a book?  Regardless of the activity selected, it is essential to surround ourselves with our delights.  Otherwise if we become stuck on the treadmill of life, the endless tasks will wear us down.  We must get off for some rest and fun.

Where is joy beckoning you?   Following it whether it leads you to the kitchen to bake cookies or brownies, to the swings in a park, to a sporting event is what gives you vitality.  Perhaps taking a moment to observe the changing colors of autumn leaves or watch hummingbirds and butterflies, will provide the joy that is the perfect antidote to what might ail you.  Following your joy will definitely lead you to feel more of the peace and joy in your heart.

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Doubling Down on Love

Helping Hands

“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

A jumble of thoughts awaken me each morning in the past few weeks as I seek to listen in silence for my response to the current migrant-refugee family crisis, not only in the United States but worldwide.  As I dipped in and out of the news recently (a steady dose feels too toxic), I found myself nauseated.  The aching in my heart has not left.  To see innocent, unknowing children being taken from their mothers and fathers, to hear the cries of babies and young children in shock wondering what happened to their families, to the familiar, shakes my soul.  I wondered what was the purpose of traumatizing children as adults fought over their family’s fate.  

In the next moment I think back to the fall semester of my junior year in college.  I’m sitting in a physics class and wondering why I enrolled in it.  I had long since disabused myself of any desires to attend medical school.  That fantasy flew from my sleepy first year head as I watched televised lectures of biology 101 in my friend, Linda’s dorm room.  My small group of friends and I gathered together each Monday, Wednesday and Fridays at 8:00 am knowing that one of us would be snoring in the first 10 minutes. I slept more than I absorbed the basic foundations of biology.  I reflected later that completing one semester each of biology and physics was one in a collection of symbols of my decade long struggle to prove myself.  Although I wasn’t nearly as excited about physics as psychology some information remained with me.  One piece was Newton’s third law of motion—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  

I selected this law, modified it by being the opposing reaction.  Then I intentionally applied it to many things—exercise, health, psychological dueling with others, even writing.  It seems that every time I attempt to push through the endless obstacles toward a disciplined writing schedule, for example, the resistance slaps me back in the face.  I persist through the feelings of immobilization to counter this reaction.  

I also utilize this construct in a positive way in my spiritual life.  For every negative or unloving act I observe, I deliberately perform a loving or positive act.  I think of it as—fighting darkness with LIGHT. Each time I observe someone engage in an activity that lacks empathy and compassion, I hear a more powerful call to double down on love and mercy.  Yes, my new adage is “Double-down on love.”

I understand the feelings of helplessness that come from viewing these tragedies play out in the daily news and on social media.  Yet there are so many moments during the course of a day that provide opportunities to express sensitivity.  Maybe a person cuts me off on the highway, or the receptionist at the doctor’s office acts rude or indifferent.  Rather than respond to a driver with an ugly gesture or act rude in return, I smile, bless them with kindness and gentleness instead. 

I am so moved by the news of people countering unloving behavior with loving acts.  My favorite couple of the year, Charlotte and Dave Willner, feeling powerless about the fate of the separated children, raised over 20 millions dollars for RAICES, a legal fund for migrant families.  One of my retired colleagues chose to help two women in her retirement home who were without legal status.  From her walker, Barbara relentlessly called friends and lawyers until these two women received their green cards. There are many churches who for a number of years have offered sanctuary to immigrant and refugee families.  This reminds me of chain transplants also known as organ paired donations, a movement that has grown in popularity.  There are endless chances to pay it forward encouraging a contagion of love. 

Great good can emerge from cruelty and callousness.  I believe response to FEAR (and isn’t that at the core of the crisis) with LOVE.  It may sound counter-intuitive but I’ve always believed the Biblical passage, “Perfect love casts out fear,” (John 4:18 ).  You can extinguish darkness with light.  But the opposite is never true.  You cannot eradicate light with darkness.  Although dimmed temporarily, light triumphs over darkness every time.  However, when I walk into an unlit room, rather than fear the darkness, I must engage in the action of turning on the light.

What kind of loving acts can you counter fear with or pay forward?  In what ways will you bring light and love to those who feel as if they are stuck on the bottom of a barrel of darkness?   On your spiritual journey would doubling down on love help to uncover more of the peace and joy in your heart? 

No copyright infringement intended on the helping hands image.

Arriving at Some Moments of Self Surrender

Winter Stillness

Sometimes, winter, a season filled with mostly grey skies and bare trees evokes a sense of gloom.  This time of shadowy days matched my mood as the new year began.  I spent New Year’s Eve in a hospital room.  I felt deflated as I watched television—the ball drop, people kissing and champagne flowing from bottles.  Unfortunately, my formal wear for the evening was a hospital gown accessorized with an IV.  No matter where I looked, I couldn’t generate the exuberance that is often associated with New Year’s.

I complained bitterly about the uncomfortable bed and the constant interruptions often during the middle of the night—to take blood or check my vitals.  Frequently, like an apparition, a strange voice barked through the intercom awakening me during my futile attempts to sleep.  Apparently crossed up telemetry wires led the voice to inquire loudly,  “Is anyone there?” rather than directing a nurse or nursing assistant to check on me.   I wondered how I would ever recover from the awful cold virus that held my body hostage if I was getting only 2-3 hours of sleep each night.  As I continued to ruminate about my state of discontent and medically unnecessary hospital stay, my young African American evening nurse offered another perspective with her response, “But we would have never met and we wouldn’t have all the conversations that I needed so badly.”

Surprised and shocked, my mind quieted.  Deep below the chatter of my petulant complaints a small voice added, “Maybe this trip to the hospital isn’t just about you. It could be serving a larger purpose.”  I thought back to my older, Euro American daytime nurse and our discussions around her potential retirement.  When I mentioned that I had stopped working nearly five years ago, she brightened when I suggested the book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot.  “I am going online and download it tonight,” she noted.  “I am really struggling with this decision and I think reading that book will help me out.”  Here was another exchange that would not have occurred if I had not been admitted to the hospital.

My next opportunity to express my dissatisfaction came when wrapped in several sheets and a blanket I sat shivering in a wheel chair outside one of the echocardiogram rooms.  Inwardly I wailed about how my miserable cold landed me in the hospital for two and a half days for an echocardiogram!  My inner agitation added to the chill in the air.  I asked myself, as the standard issued hospital gown with hospital socks and the blanket began quickly losing their heat, “Why aren’t they taking me, what is the delay?”  Then it occurred to me that the staff might be working with a patient much sicker than me.  After all, I could walk around and although I suffered with a very bad cold, I wasn’t short of breath or retaining fluids.  Besides, I was going home in a few hours so what was the rush?  Once again, I remembered that the current situation wasn’t just about me.

As I moved back into my own bed at home with many more days to recover, in the silence that surrounded me I began to reflect on how often I, like many others, focus mostly on myself; on my schedule, my life, and my family.  I frequently observe drivers swerving in and out of lanes, causing others to brake suddenly so they can arrive at church “on time.”  I am guilty as well of rushing to arrive at a doctor’s appointment only to sit in a waiting room for 10-20 minutes.   Like my compatriots, I stand impatiently in the grocery store checkout line, or at the post office, thinking about the time I am wastingAnd to what purpose I ask inwardly would I devote this precious lost time if I could regain it?  Would it be used to sit with a sick friend or spend more time on Instagram or Facebook, to bake dinner for the widow next door or binge watch the latest popular television show?  Had I ever thought to surrender in any given moment my nicely covered egocentrism in favor of a plan that worked best for everyone, for people that I may not even know?

I pondered about how I arrived at this place on my journey where my desires reign supreme and occupy my mind throughout the day.  Reflecting on my past, I remember being more thoughtful as a child, helping mostly my Mom by starting or cooking dinner for my family, a unit that operated best when everyone worked together.  My family served as a microcosm for the many more communities I would belong to; my classroom where I helped other students with assignments, my school by selling candy to fund field trips, my neighborhood where we took care of each other through crises like job losses, divorces, and deaths, my country by voting and volunteering and my world by praying and lightening my carbon footprint with recycling and using less water.  Had I lost this caring spirit that encourages me to move beyond “me” to “we” or does it remain within patiently waiting for an opportunity to emerge?

When I pause and think about how I might move beyond my self-centered motives, or combine what I need with the needs of others, I feel more peace and joy.  I also feel a sense of wholeness.  Yet I know such thinking and actions require me to surrender my little self to a much larger one.

As the year continues, I hope to inspire others to reflect on the primacy of self sometimes to the detriment of the common good and how different it feels to live from a more expansive life view.  I know there is something special about living from an inner sanctuary that allows me to experience how interconnected we are and helps me to feel more Peace and Joy in my heart.  What about you, what might you need to surrender to feel more of the Peace and Joy that resides in your heart?

Photo courtesy of Columbus H. Brown, Candid Imagery Fine Arts

Moments of Refuge and Renewal

There is one lesson I continue to learn over and over again.  Seeking answers to the mysteries of life does not have to be complicated or expensive. The great African American theologian and mystic, Dr. Howard Thurman, writes about an oak tree that he turned to again and again for solace and strength.  He said he would talk to the oak tree, sharing his triumphs and sorrows with it.

“I needed the strength of that tree, and, like it, I would hold my ground…I cultivated a unique relationship with the tree..I could sit, my back against the trunk, and feel the same peace that would come to me in my bed at night.  I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them, and talk about them.  I could talk aloud to the oak tree and know that it understood.  It, too, was a part of my reality, like the woods, the night, and the pounding surf, my earliest companions, giving me space.”

Earlier, biographer, Elizabeth Yates wrote:

“He also learned from the oak tree that despite the tempest or storms, it stood stalwart.  Somewhere in life, he reasoned to himself, there was a constancy that was not subject to tempests; but whatever it was, it would not be outside a man but with his spirit.  He read that night to his grandmother from the Psalms about a godly man…he shall be like a tree..What was this soil wherein a man’s roots, as those of a tree, could find sure hold?”

As I began to reflect on my own contemplative spiritual journey, I thought about where and when I found renewal and guidance.  For many years I chided myself for lacking the desire to take a pilgrimage, to walk the great El Camino, hike the Grand Canyon or walk the shores near Iona, Scotland.  Sometimes I need not go any further than my own backyard or bedroom.  Below is a description of my spiritual spot, my time and place that is equivalent to Dr. Thurman’s oak tree.  It is my bed in the morning wherever I am.

I turned over in my bed just becoming aware of the early morning quiet.  Awakening among tossed pillows, sheets, and lightweight blankets always offered a place of strength and solace for me.  The tranquility of daybreak reminded me of the times as a child I spent sitting in the wind inhaling the deep peace within it.  As, “Little Rita,” my childhood nickname, I didn’t understand why I was so drawn to serenity or that a bed and the daybreak hush would serve as my anchor for an unimaginable life journey.  

From morning calm, I donned my uniform to march off to master the discipline of parochial school, and later arose to face a sea of white faces, as the lone brown one in my college classrooms. In the newness of morning, I jumped out of the bed to boldly defend my dissertation, and then later sobbed into its fitted sheets when I realized that my tenure denial wasn’t a dream but a real professional and public humiliation.  Still the early morning calm gave birth to the strength and wisdom I needed as a professor to awaken students for more than 30 years.  Virgin time and the caress of handmade quilts created a space where I summoned the courage to face a looming heart transplant, and ten years later accepted the diagnosis of renal failure knowing my recovery would require months of dialysis and another transplant.  Opening my eyes in great joy, I awoke in the freshness of the day to see my wedding dress hanging across the hotel room, celebrating in my new heart my imminent marriage.  After a restless night of grief, I grabbed my teddy bears and tissues, and wailed into the pillows as I felt the sting of being orphaned, now with both parents deceased.  In all of these moments, I knew that the constancy of a sturdy bed whether in homes, college dorms, hotels or hospitals, and the Guidance revealed in a touch of morning stillness would steer me through anything. 

Howard Thurman found peace and understanding from an old, sturdy oak tree near his home.  Memories of times with that tree sustained him throughout his life.  For me, I acquire wisdom and courage in bed in morning quiet to walk the spiritual path.  Where do you go to refuel, to connect with inner wisdom?  When do you pause to capture moments of calm and serenity, and to gather the strength to endure the vicissitudes of life?  How can you experience the peace and joy in your heart?

 

Howard Thurman, With Hand and Heart-The Autobiography of Howard Thurman. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981, p. 9.

Elizabeth Yates, Howard Thurman: Portrait of a Practical Dreamer.  New York: The John Day Company, 1964, p. 30.

Looking Beyond to the Collateral Beauty

“Don’t cry because it is over.  Smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

Although the Academy Awards have come and gone, conversations about the Oscars spur me to view as many of the nominated films as I can.  However, one of my favorite films last year, Collateral Beauty was not considered for any awards.  I didn’t understand the horrible reviews and small audiences for a film with such a profound and deep message.  I concluded after a year in which most media outlets devoted their time to trash, to the very base instincts of society, that people are addicted to fear, insults, fake news, and social media overload.  Thus, I suspected that Collateral Beauty, a movie that contains no sex or an overabundance of violence (i.e., no kill count), seemed boring to many.  Yet when I looked beyond the unrealistic storyline, I found some engaging dialogue and an overall message of love designed to speak to our souls and uplift our spirits.

What is collateral beauty you might ask?  I had no idea how the concept was being framed for the movie, in fact I hadn’t thought about what it might mean until the end.  I had heard of collateral damage, defined as the ”general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target.”  In military terminology, it is frequently used to account for “the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants…The unintentional destruction of friendly targets is called friendly fire.”

I’ve always felt, though, that collateral damage is a euphemism designed to distant or distract people from digesting the real death toll and destruction wreaked on the lives of “unintended targets” who find themselves in unwanted wars and physical conflicts.  I wonder if people who engage in domestic violence in front of children, or gang members whose bullets miss the intended victim and instead kill or maim a child or elderly person, consider the long-term consequences of the damage they inflict. The deception of describing the loss of innocent life as incidental, just a person at the wrong place and at the wrong time, keeps us all from feeling the brunt of such news.

Given that definition, then, could collateral beauty denote?  It is that stubborn new growth that occurs after a fire has destroyed a forest or a community of homes.  Sometimes the new growth manifests as the loving actions of those who are moved by a tragedy to offer their help by making meals, bringing clothes, warm blankets, and water to fellow human beings who find themselves in a tragic situation.  I find collateral beauty everywhere.

When I think of examples of collateral beauty in my life, my transplants and recovery from various illnesses immediately come to mind.  My donor family lost a beloved daughter and sister and in the midst of their grief, they chose to donate a heart, liver, two kidneys, and some cornea that immediately brought new life to five people.  One family’s heartbreaking loss became a joy and relief for another.  And as I suffered through my recovery, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances emerged from their busy lives to offer prayer, food, company, and rides to and from the transplant clinic.  Incredibly, six women from my former support group in Detroit each chose to take vacation time and travel by plane, train and bus to spend a week caring for me after my mother exhausted her unpaid family leave.

Collateral beauty frequently appears during the terminal illness of a loved one.  Elizabeth Lesser writes about her experiences of donating bone marrow to her sister in the memoir, Marrow: A Love Story.  Lesser describes the poignant healing that came as a result of conversations with her sister which resulted in their reconciliation after a lifetime of conflict.  Sometimes collateral beauty appears in just those moments of presence, the baring of souls when people realize that their time together is limited and waning.  In essence, collateral beauty is the love that emerges in the midst of devastation, whether it is in the loss of a loved one, destroyed homes, or a tragedy that affects an entire community.

In addition to introducing moviegoers to the notion of collateral beauty, the movie also elicited questions about how do we spend time, what love looks like in our lives, and what does life mean when one realizes their death is inevitable and possibly imminent?  Recently I spent a week being present with my older brother who was visiting.  We are both older and less physically vibrant than we were a few years ago.  He suffers some effects of a stroke he experienced six years ago and I deal with chronic medical issues as a transplant recipient.  We shared stories.  I cooked for him and we reminisced about the events that bonded us for life.  I knew that clearing the calendar and sharing this precious time with him was what love looks like and the best use of our time in the midst of our mutual physical suffering.

It takes time to see collateral beauty and frequently I don’t possess the patience to pause long enough.  It requires looking beyond what I see with my eyes or hear with my ears.  It allows a glimpse into the often unseen love that permeates all.  Wherever there is seeming devastation, there is also collateral beauty—the healing, the joy of what has been, the celebration of a certain heavenliness on earth.  If I stop for a moment to savor all of the beauty and goodness of life rather than focusing on what is missing or how I might want it to be, I gain a certain sacred perspective.  It reminds me that beauty can be seen in anything as long as I allow my heart to see it, to feel the sadness and the joy, to perceive the whole rather than the fragments.

I believe Howard Thurman would characterize collateral beauty like this:

The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat…It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly embedded, dormant, latent, and inactive.  These things are always positive, even thought they may be destructive rather than creative.  But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation be involved.  The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years.  If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky!

Meditations of the Heart, p. 82-83

Where are the moments of collateral beauty in your life?  Would pondering such times or being present to others bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?

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