Renewal Seventy : Postscript: “First The Gesture, Then The Grace” (Sarah Ban Breathnach)

While the greatest percentage of this work was written within the four months following my mother’s death and the breakup of my third intimate relationship, at this point it is just after the start of the New Year and more than 10 months after those facts.

This was the first time I have not had a least one living parent with whom to celebrate the holidays. My children are grown (my youngest still lives at home), yet we remain close and continue to celebrate the holidays together.

My brother joined my family for Christmas, though he missed the New Year’s celebration. My sister remained in the north with her family. I will see her when I journey to Oregon with my son just a few days from now.

While I have been out with other women during this period, these holidays marked my first Christmas and New Years in over 30 years without a woman. I did not enter the season with melancholy in that regard. It was that way and it has been a choice of mine, if I’ve had a choice. Certainly it is no longer a choice to simply stay in a relationship for the sake of staying or for the sake of having the hope of a relationship. Having learned a little bit, I realize the field is vastly more narrow than I thought, and I always held it was narrow to begin with. I have at least learned that I would do better to proceed lightly and with the gift of wondrous eyes than to impatiently try to fill a gap that only part of me has created. I think by now, even that lonely part of me knows the precarious and transitory nature of having a hole in oneself as a compass heading. For me, a true compass heading has something to do with the end of relationship ifs–the knowledge that though there are many processes and wonders to live, and there is and will be much to learn, there will be no if we will, there will be only we are and we will.


It does not feel like it. I have this knowledge with the earth. There is no if the earth will support us or nurture us, there is only that it will, if we will let it. Though it may kill us in a moment, it is the mother and it does nothing with malice.

I also recognize I am glad I have the work I do, though the administrative environment is certainly not on the cutting edge of management techniques, mostly seeming Pleistocene in nature. But the idea, if not the entire practice, of the educational institution is a blessing. Perhaps we’ll get it right one day. In the mean time, I have a venue in which to learn even as I make a living. The art of learning and teaching is an immense challenge, one that will never get boring and one that calls out for change even as change has just been undertaken. In education, the real work is not administrative in nature, it is in the classroom, it is in the contact with learners–ourselves and others.

Though I look for other places to reside, I actually love the land I now live upon. It seems sacred to me. The hills are beautiful, the view incredible, the space, both inside and outside, sufficient. The weather is mostly moderate though it can get hot on occasion. And there is the smog (yes, I drive a gasoline-powered vehicle), which doesn’t often get out to this area, but which can be seen from here in any case.

The problem, which seems eternal, is that many (certainly not all) of the neighbors do not recognize the inherent beauty of the land and the area. There are those that dump trash, wing-ding along at all hours on 2-cycle vehicles, that do not keep up with their property–creating eye sores instead of responsible stewardship. Many have dogs that bark at the day, at the night, at each other, or at nothing at all, announcing in that aimless noise the aimless awareness of their owners. And so on and so on, problems I suspect plague most all neighborhoods, economic status aside.

And then there is the issue of medicine. In dealing with the managed care (cost?) system of health, my brother, sister, and I have run into a block wall about the care of our mother. Instead of a life, it seems to boil down to a cost analysis–the same kind of thing the government does when it makes decisions concerning environmental regulations, technology, and the economy. For instance, the question can go something like this: what is the cost to a 45-year old versus an 85-year old compared to a thriving economy when we allow certain levels of pollution?

This kind of analysis will continue to arise. In some ways it is not a lame inquiry. The problem is deciding what constitutes the relevant variables. The problem is compounded when we choose only the ones that promote a particular position and perspective. For instance, the cost per word to teach an autistic child to communicate is enormous if we consider only that single factor. But if we consider what we learn about autism, or language acquisition, or the scientific and philosophical process, all of which are not so directly measurable, the cost/benefit ratio can change dramatically.

At some point we do have to consider as many variables as we effectively can. Should my siblings and I have kept our mother on life support? Should we have invested more time, effort, and money in fighting the system? Should we have invested ourselves 100% in the effort to get our mother to recover? What does that 100% mean and what are the effects on ourselves and others such as our children?

The same issues apply to personal relationships. Do we walk away? At what point do we walk away? What is involved in staying? How do we discover if we bring out the worst, the best, or the mediocre in each of us? How hard are we willing to work, to go the extra mile, to invest our lives and our energy in another? It is the same in the workplace, with careers, with learning, and with growing.

This is not to say the entire process boils down to a kind of cognitive, emotional, biological, or spiritual economics. But it is to recognize that throwing ourselves in front of a moving train is not likely to benefit much at all.

These are questions not easily answered, much less lived. And in this world, behaviors and events often unfold whether we deal with the questions or not.

And so, have I found the “Hollywood” ending to my tale? Have I created and manifested all my wants and all my wishes? Have I found the magic bullet and the panacea that will blaze my trail and the trail for all that follow?

Bah, humbug.

No, I cannot announce that I’ve done all those things. Mostly I can only announce that I am still able to laugh at myself, that I am still willing to accept responsibility and review my role in my relationships, that I can still expose myself to some degree. I can also say that I recognize, as I said in the introduction, it is not a particular outcome that freeze-frames our life and announces us as worthy or not, it is also about the process of creation, not just the creation itself.

Sure, particulars in our lives are important stops along the way. Particulars are moments in time that can be savored or bemoaned. But all particulars, however long they remain, always change, they can never be held onto for very long.

Which brings me to the idea of attachments and renewal.

I think that this book, this journey, this concept of renewal, is about the interaction of forming attachments and letting them go. This is an important learning I think. It is one thing to acknowledge our feelings and our stuff and our lives and our connections, but it is another thing attempting to become permanently attached to them. All attachments require some manner of dying to be released–the deeper the attachment, the more profound the death.

Death, like grace, is a gift in that regard–it guarantees that we cannot become so attached that we lose ourselves in that attachment. It guarantees we shall always find our way back to renewal and to that grace.

Okay, what does this mean? Is death our only way to let go?

In the story of Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, when Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi Tree and all the 10,000 things came towards him seeking attachment, the temptation was great of course. Each feeling, each image had its promise and its allure. But one cannot taste the nectar of life and keep it. That is the lesson of eating I think–to taste, to enjoy, to savor, but to notice that nothing about it lasts. The joy is in the awareness of its presence and in its appropriate return.

I think it is so with all things, including feelings and thoughts. We cannot efficiently hold on to the nectar of life and love. We can savor it, but we must let it go.

What about fighting for the good? What about taking up the cross? What about acknowledging our loves and reaching out to those feelings, to nurture those feelings?

I suppose if one is to be in a state of mindfulness, one is aware of love and its blessing, even while its form changes right in front of us. In a temporary sense, we can speak about particular love and beauty and we are even allowed to tarry with such particulars–for a lifetime if we are good at our sense of presence and our ability to create and to renew. We can have and love all manner of good things–a favored car or house or place to sit or music to hear or foods to eat. We can have an identity, a career, a body, a person to be with. We can have children and parents and friends.

The clothes that love reveals itself in, from things to places to beings, are what shifts, what must shift. Love itself, that seemingly wispy, ethereal energy that cannot be contained in just one manifestation, shall always be. Our job is to be alert to seeing love in all of its manifestations, whether within ourselves, another individual, or across all of creation.

Do we need to attend to that which is not a manifestation of love?

We will likely recognize it if it is there, we do not need to give it such energy. It is one thing to look out for something, another to create it. And in creation, the greatest probability is that we’ll get what we attend to.

So, it would seem that we’ve created a cornucopia, yet get caught in one of its many things. On the one hand, when we consider this, it is an amazing wonder that we developed a predilection for velcroing. Yet, on the other hand, attachments are the basis for shifting forms–how else would water vapor change to a water droplet without attaching to some kind of particle? How else would we keep our bodies together, or our feet on the earth, or newborns (or any of us for that matter) find comfort without strong (and even weak) attractors?

The paradox of renewal is the relationship between attaching and letting go. It is in this manner that we might measure our health, our fluidity, and our ability to manifest growth and learning.

Time for a bit of a story and to find our way home in this tale.

I recently read about a pastor of a large church who allegedly had had an affair with a parishioner’s wife; there were supposedly photos of the pastor, his wife and the “other” woman, both of whom were topless, all together in a hot tub (the picture was apparently taken by the husband of the other woman). There was an uproar about it all and many of the church’s staff had resigned in protest. The news had made the papers and it became a local issue, going much beyond the church itself. Eventually, the pastor resigned, which also created a bit of controversy as many of the church members did not want to accept the resignation.

There is nothing new in this of course, it is tens of thousands of years old. Sex is a funny thing, especially when mixed with religion or politics, or in any place or individual that espouses grace. Sex is like the proverbial canary in the mineshaft of human relations, it can warn us about problems and it can entertain us with its song. The issue is how to keep the chirping straight before the canary dies and we are forced to flee the area, though both the canary and humans keep rising from the dead to restart the whole process again.

The difficulty in keeping things straight, as I’ve said a few times in this work, may be because humans have a problem with misfiling information.

Human behavior and thinking seem to follow a rhythm, coming in waves as big as tsunamis sometimes and as small as toe-high sweeps up the shoreline of ourselves in others. The experience about the wave and the event and the context in which either occurs lies heavily in the realm of cognitive labeling–the place where we assign our emotional experience a tab and a spot in our experience-filing cabinet. From there it is easy enough, assuming we can retrieve our “memories,” to look at our labelings and subsequently feel emotions.

Very amusing. And very dictatorial. And, considering how valuable a commodity many humans consider freedom to be, very ironic, since the entire misfiling process shackles us even as we try to fly free.

There is no doubt that great emotions and great learning can and do go hand in hand. It is simply a matter of deeper connections. Without emotions, learning tends to remain shallow, like random facts free floating in our minds without the benefit of anywhere or any experience in which to coalesce. Experience needs more than a mind to apprehend it, it needs a body, it needs emotions, it needs hormones as well as neurotransmitters–in short, it needs attractors and attachments.

But when we take the rhythms of our moods and cognitively label them as an incident or an incident and label it as a rhythm, we create a kind of pseudo-experience. In that case, emotions and/or the cognitions followed by this misfiling can become the funnel through which we construct our attachments and our reality.

For example, as I’ve demonstrated with my students, spend the next five minutes thinking about everything that is junk in your life, every wrong turn, every slight, every bonehead move, every sign of disrespect, and you’ll probably find yourself a bit attached to feeling blue. Do the opposite, bringing up everything you’ve done that is good and funny and helpful and intelligent and you’ll probably find yourself attached to a lighter step and a brighter view.

This recognition is labeling, which is a cognitive process, interacting with moods and experience to create moods and experience. It is a creative endeavor, a construct. The creation and the construct seem to work best when we keep the filing straight.

When John Forbes Nash Jr., from “A Beautiful Mind” fame (Nasar, 1998) developed schizophrenia, he did not know it, since he was unable to differentiate his visual and auditory hallucinations from “reality.” It was only the realization that the characters in his hallucinations were not getting any older over the years that allowed him to make the distinction between types of realities. That was an adaptive discovery. In a move from the dysfunctional to the functional, he was able to differentiate between realities, one that was only inside his head and another that had some consensus agreement (what we call normal). In effect, he became sane about his craziness.

The process of differentiation is a story of living in bodies and of having a beautiful mind to make distinctions. Our cells differentiate to provide separate functions, separate bodies, separate minds, separate lives, and separate experiences. This is a beautiful process, the very basis of experience.

The process of integration is a story of letting distinctions blur, of letting our clarity go diffuse, of rearranging the order and pixels of our previous differentiations. It is the process of blending experiences, of finding and creating commonalities, of finding and creating bridges and connections between entities, between minds, between realities. It is finding the oneness between and within all things.

Both the process of differentiation and integration involve labeling and emotions. Both processes involve rhythms and particulars. Both involve possessing and creating the ability to pass back and forth between duality and oneness, between the finite and the infinite.

One lynchpin in this creation, at least for humans in this time and place, is language. It can be the language of words, which we mostly utilize (internal dialogue is one of the most common human behaviors), it can be the language of numbers, it can be the language of music, it can be the language of emotions, but it is language–symbols that represent a view of reality.

Again, as I’ve said previously, I think language operates upon our very biology, cuing genetics, cuing proteins, cuing mutations, cuing behaviors, cuing cognitions, cuing experiences, and acting as the precursor for human deeds and behaviors. And it is this language that is the real selective agent in the human evolutionary process and in the ability to move across the spaces between differentiation and integration and back again.

Part of our stewardship involves this language. Part of our stewardship involves the space in which to move. We are obligated, I think, to care for both, to maintain them, to provide for them, to cultivate them, to prune them, to create them.

It is true that even without language there is a default guidance system–our biological and sociological heritage. But I think language is a vehicle that will allow us to intend our present and our heritage. I think it is through the interaction of thought and emptiness that we can create both a vision and a biology that will provide a rudder and a navigational system for both ourselves and our progeny. And built into that process is the ability to be dynamic, to not just be victims of our past.

And so we shall be connected, the past, the present, and the future–differentiated, integrated–timeless and yet not.

I do not think that the pastor should have resigned. I think that was the easy way out. I admit that I don’t really know anything about it at all, there is a very high probability there is much more information, but let’s pretend that there are parallels here to our own lives.

I think that waiting for forgiveness, whether it is from a deity, from another, or from ourselves, is a dumb idea. I think that worthiness is not necessarily found in walking away from ourselves or a public view, but may be found in standing there, on the cross so to speak, under the Bodhi Tree, in the conflict. This is not to be confused with holding on to attachments, however. It is the notion of letting go of the attachment to some external source as the measure of salvation.

The pastor is human and does not necessarily represent grace anymore than the rest of us. We cannot use such people as foils for our own transgressions, they cannot use themselves as examples of failed humanity. Such actions serve only the purpose of guilt and not of redemption or renewal.

This is not meant to disavow the idea or the power of modeling. It is to reinforce such an idea by behavioral demonstration that to be human is to make mistakes.

Think of this power if we model it for our children instead of inadvertently perpetuating the concept that the journey from childhood to adulthood is one of eliminating mistakes, of becoming more righteous.

I think that healthy relationships, his to his wife and family, to his parishioners, to himself, mine to me, my parents, my children, the three women in my life, my students, the three women to each other, to themselves, their children, their families, to myself and on and on, is a process of learning that emotions, labeling, experience, and emptiness go hand in hand. Healthy relationships are not a process of determining and labeling who is right and who is wrong and of generating the emotions and energy to keep those distinctions alive and well. There is no innocence in that, there are only hierarchies, there is no effort at integration, there is only differentiation, there is no process, there are only particulars.

In such a world, there is great dysfunction as we try to live half-lives, moving only on one side of the paradox or the other. In such a world, there is the creation of great agony. In such a world, we give up the good of our innocence and our chance at renewal. In such a world, we assume the posture of one burdened by great weight, whether we carry that weight with dignity or with stooped shoulders and bent spine. In such a world we have precious little room to move.

I think that healthy relationships, one thing to another, are a process of making clear distinctions and of making clear integrations and of recognizing that clarity as a created one, and not as one that is just a process of discovery. In that recognition, we cannot be so arrogant, we cannot be so righteous, we cannot be so fooled by our own misfilings.

For example, I think that the apocalypse and Armageddon do not have to involve the shedding of blood and the four terrible riders. It very well may come to that, but it doesn’t have to. Whatever the antecedents are, whether by war, by earthquake, by famine, by disease, by bargaining, by ruthless power, or by realization, I think that the real apocalypse and the real Armageddon have to do with the shedding of tears, of releasing the great agony that humans have accumulated over the millenniums. I imagine it as one big wailing that moves like a wave over humanity and will release us from our heritage and from our propensity to create and feel pain much more often than we feel renewal. It cannot be done for us by anyone else–any saviors only point the way, they cannot be us on our path.

And with that in mind, we must remember that grace is–it is not withheld or bargained for by the Good. Grace is something we can keep from ourselves in a temporal sense, and it is also something that we can grant ourselves. Human psyches being what they seem to be, I suspect we are much more likely to accept that grace after the gesture that promotes forgiveness, release, and renewal, which allows us once again to feel the comfort of our true heritage–that of original blessedness.

It is this remembering, this cleansing, this embrace, and the releasing cry and engulfing laughter, that create the space to allow for human renewal and mark the gesture before the grace.

And it is that grace that will generate the new human, the ones that take the helm of experience and forge the components which reflect our joy, polish our beings, create our futures, and leave an energy and a spirit that mark the goodness of our journey.

Now that may all seem a bit flowery (though I kind of like it). So, in another vein and for those that are interested, let’s try and end on somewhat of a practical note, even if I cannot offer dead-bang solutions. After all, a carpenter only builds a house, they do not build the memories and the life and the energy that will live in that home.

Okay, we’re going to need some tools along the way to help us in this integration/differentiation, renewal concept.

I have proposed a quadrinary system as containing the most important variables in making distinctions and creating integrations–in other words, it just might serve as a decision-making structure. As a reminder, and at the risk of being redundant, it consists of:

A) The individual (the “I”),

B) The collective or the culture (the we),

C) The biology (our vehicles in a physical manifestation at least), and

D) The environment in which we reside (the rhythms and cycles that influence the previous three–like the effect of the climate, the geographical locale, the sun, the moon, and the space around us).

This goes beyond the nature/nurture consideration in human development because, at the very least, it recognizes that the individual is not just an effect of the variables, the individual is a major variable itself. This also goes beyond the biopsychosocial model because, at the very least, it recognizes the role of the solar, planetary, spatial, and geographical environment in the mix.

In conjunction with the quadrinary system, I suggested that we consider energy (including spatial energy) as an immutable constant whose form is highly mutable.

I also suggested that we consider positive energy, that which is least likely to become maladaptive, as that which offers everything, doesn’t bargain for it, and asks only to be shared (no, this doesn’t mean one has to work for free) and negative energy, that which is more likely to become contaminated or afflictive, as that which offers very specific things (usually that which we are otherwise afraid we won’t get) by bargaining for something that it itself needs (yes, bargaining can be fun). The principle is basically that awareness is, and that in its purest form, it is not judgmental (yes, we can have preferences).

And finally, we must remember that we are engaged in a creative enterprise and the art of creation is the ability to differentiate and integrate. By using something like the quadrinary system in an ethical manner (creating positive resolutions), we might learn where those lines are, when to make them, and when to let them go.

Let’s try it on, using my situation as an example.

If I want to have the relationship I think I want, rather than the kind I’ve had, I would have to integrate knowledge about me, including listening to that inner voice and not being afraid I will be left without.

I would have to integrate knowledge about others, including how do friends, fellow employees, siblings, lovers, children, and parents feel about it all and how does this affect each of us? I would have to know what their real interests and values are, as assessed by their behaviors instead of just what they say? This is not to minimize the importance of language, it is to note that sometimes people use language and communication that can inadvertently fool not only others, but themselves.

I would have to integrate knowledge about my biology as well as the biology of others, including the rhythm of moods, the formation of particular perspectives, and how each of us file them.

And, finally, I would have to integrate knowledge about the environmental influence on each of us, including such things as spacing, geographical location, seasonal effects, diet, exercise, career influence, housing, transportation, etc., and how have and will those energies affect the “I,” the “we,” and our respective biologies.

Then I would have to base my decision on allowing for the greatest good. And I would have to be able to differentiate between another’s life and my own, while being able to integrate another’s life with my own–all the while considering the elements of the quadrinary system and the most likely positive outcome considering all of those variables (though some of the variables will be weighted differently at different times–after all, it is a dynamic system).


Letting go of our sense of scarcity and fear is not going to be easy. But if it seems like it is easier to just have a drink and let our biological history and mutation and natural selection have its course, consider all the variables modern humans deal with technologically. We are capable of amazing things–it is not so impossible to engage in deliberate evolution, in knowing that each generation creates a heritage as well as the opportunity for future generations to recreate one.

What if that pastor, what if I, what if you, what if we, really try all these things on when we make decisions? What if we actually learned to be happy and not so disenfranchised?

We’ll still have plenty to do, and lots to write and sing about. And if we feel it’s really necessary, we can mope around. But we will have increased our range of behaviors, and we will not likely feel so subjected to the forces around us, but rather feel more like one of the forces around us. And a positive one at that, creative and not just reactionary.

I think that would be an admirable way to live, and an admirable way to die.

And most of all, such stewardship would offer not only ourselves the continual opportunity to renew, but it would also stand as a gift for all those yet to come.

And so we shall shift the preponderance of our attention from the fear of missing the mark (sin) to embracing our ability to create and accept our lives and the lives of others. In essence, we would change our perspective from a reality in which our experiences tweak our awareness, to a reality in which our awareness tweaks our experiences. Then we may learn that it is not the quality of our experiences, but the quality of our awareness that ultimately counts. That would be a different gesture and a different standard for evaluating grace.

Well, that’s my tale as it now stands. It’s about the best I can do at this juncture, so it is time to let it go. For me at least, it is a good end to what has been and a good start for what will be.

May it be that way for us all.

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