Ordinary Grace


Tracing the origins of compassion through psychology, religion, and biology, a psychotherapist demonstrates that grace is more commonplace than evil--it just reveals itself more quietly.
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New York 1999 Hard Cover First Edition New in New jacket 8vo-over 7?"-9?" tall. New York: Riverhead/Penguin, 1999. First edition. 8vo. Hardcover binding, 242 pp. An examination ... of the roots of compassion, altruism, and empathy, and the ordinary individuals who help others in extraordinary ways. A heart-awakening book. New in new dustjacket, protected with a mylar cover. Read more Show Less

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Tracing the origins of compassion through psychology, religion, and biology, a psychotherapist demonstrates that grace is more commonplace than evil--it just reveals itself more quietly.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In an attempt to discover what motivates and inspires altruism in some people, Jungian-oriented clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Brehony (Awakening at Midlife) offers examples of human graciousness in matters large and small. She tells of organ donation between casual acquaintances, of organizations started by those in grief that now help thousands struggling with similar losses, of individuals who have devoted their lives to bringing aid to others. Unfortunately, no matter how heartwarming, her finding that people can choose to act helpfully and generously rather than according to their less benevolent instincts seems too simplistic: "Each of us has the power to determine what he or she chooses to tune in to." Brehony briefly discusses the Jungian concept of our shadow side, the dark opposite of our daily, public persona. In her view, finding grace in our own lives is possible by becoming aware of the presence of our shadow side and opening ourselves to others. Readers seeking reassurance that people can be good as easily as not will find inspiration in these personal stories; they may even be motivated to their own good deeds by Brehony's "strategies" for grace at the close of the book ("Be prepared for pain as well as joy," "Simplify and scale down"). Agent, Lisa Ross. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Clinical psychologist Brehony (Awakening at Midlife, LJ 10/1/96) presents an insightful, refreshing examination of compassion and altruism and how these behaviors manifest themselves in the lives of ordinary human beings. Her research into the nature of benevolence is based primarily on personal interviews conducted with people from across the United States. Brehony examines their beliefs and ideas in order to understand the underlying factors that have prompted them to help others. The inspiring stories she presents show the myriad ways in which compassion can be expressed. Brehony identifies seven important characteristics that people who exhibit altruism seem to share and presents 14 precepts to help the reader cultivate grace and compassion. Amidst the pessimism of modern society, Brehony makes a convincing case for the presence of an innate human goodness. The results of her study provide a wonderfully uplifting portrait of human potential.--Elizabeth Salt, Otterbein Coll. Lib., Westerville, OH
Kirkus Reviews
A heartening inquiry into why ordinary folks routinely go the second mile for others, by clinical psychologist Brehony (Awakening at Midlife: Realizing Your Potential for Growth and Change, 1996).
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573221085
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • Publication date: 2/16/1999
  • Pages: 242
  • Product dimensions: 5.76 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 0.94 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Awakening to
Ordinary Grace

To know the good is to do the good.


    My interest in studying what makes people express goodness goes back a long way. As a graduate student in psychology in 1978, I worked with Professor Scott Geller at Virginia Tech. I couldn't have asked for a better dissertation chairman: Scott is an extremely bright, creative, conscientious man whose regard for his students as younger colleagues gave us the confidence to explore our own questions. In addition to his considerable academic skills and prolific publication in scientific journals, he also has musical talent--as a drummer. With two other graduate students, we started a rock-and-roll band.

    Scott is a first-rate musician--he once sat in with the Kingsmen (remember "Louie, Louie"?) on a summer tour when their regular drummer was unavailable. Jeff Aston, our lead guitarist, and Mark Albert, the bass player, were also excellent musicians. I'm more of a three-chords-and-go rhythm guitar player, but because we concentrated our repertoire on songs from the fifties and sixties, my lack of musical accomplishment went largely unnoticed. Anyone who has played the music of that era knows that with a little stage presence, you can easily get away with playing the same three chords indefinitely.

    We had an intermittent schedule of gigs--mostly graduate student parties--but one summer we were asked to perform at Camp Easter Seals, a program that was part of a research project Scott and some ofhis students were undertaking. The camp was for children with special challenges; most of them had severe mental or physical disabilities. The camp counselors were students from Virginia Tech earning degrees in psychology or education, and their summer at the camp gave them real-life experience in working with special children.

    It was during that summer at Camp Easter Seals that I began to notice goodness in new ways. I had always been aware of acts of kindness or generosity, but something that summer caused a profound change in my perception of them, a paradigm shift. Marcel Proust observed that "the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." I was beginning to learn how different the world looks with even a subtle shift in perception.

    A dance was scheduled for Friday night at the camp, and our band was invited to play. To these children, we were the real thing--we all wore sunglasses and dressed like rock stars. The student counselors had decorated the dining hall with balloons and crepe paper. Refreshments were served--punch and cake--and it was a genuine dance party. In their innocence and their excitement about having live music, these kids couldn't have cared less that our microphones were attached to their stands with duct tape or that our sound equipment was a hodge-podge of amplifiers and speakers taken from our home stereos and whatever we could beg from the audio-visual department at Virginia Tech. They didn't even notice that almost every song sounded a lot like the one before it. They were thrilled by the loud music and the opportunity to dance. They cheered and screamed after all of the songs and often throughout them. One little girl asked for my autograph and told me that, except for Linda Ronstadt, I was her favorite singer in the world.

    As we opened our second set, I watched as a twelve-year-old boy with Downs syndrome walked toward a younger boy in a wheelchair. I knew that the little guy, Danny, was severely retarded, blind, and totally deaf. He had been sitting quietly on the edge of the dancing crowd. The twelve-year-old went behind him and wheeled his chair directly in front of Scott's drums, and as soon as he did this, Danny's expression changed: he began to smile. He reached out his hand and pressed it against the vibrating bass drum. Then he laughed out loud--what he could not hear, he could feel. Soon every child in the room was standing close to Danny, dancing, laughing, and touching him on the head and shoulders. They never left his side for the rest of the night.

    I have no idea how a young boy with Down's syndrome realized that Danny's deafness kept him separated from the rest of the group. I don't understand how he figured out that the beating drum could be a doorway through which that little boy could enter the party. Somehow, intuitively, he knew things that even the well-meaning camp counselors didn't. The party became a magical expression of the deep connections that can be felt when we open our hearts. Our band never sounded better than it did that night.

    The next morning, I watched the interaction between "Big" David, a Virginia Tech sophomore and "Little" David, a ten-year-old boy who was born without arms or legs. Little David's father was a military officer; he and David's mother had lived in Germany during the first trimester of their son's development. David's mother had taken the sedative Thalidomide during her pregnancy before it was known that this drug causes severe problems for a developing fetus. David was one of only a few American babies born with birth defects caused by the drug, since it was never distributed in the United States. In Europe, where the drug was legal, approved, and widely used, thousands of children were born with these same deformities.

    In place of arms and legs, Little David had small "flippers," which allowed him to grasp objects but kept him in a wheelchair. Despite his enormous physical challenges, he had no problems with his intellectual abilities. He was very bright and naturally curious. In spite of the great differences in their physical abilities, Big David and Little David had the same sense of humor and became good friends. They shared a strong interest in the natural world, and Big David, who was earning a minor in biology, answered hundreds of questions from Little David about the trees and flowers at the camp. The two of them talked for hours about how the Blue Ridge Mountains were formed, and whether bears are completely asleep when they hibernate.

    Later that morning, Big David asked to talk to me. "I want to take Little David on a hike so he can see the camp from the top of that ridge over there," he said, pointing halfway up the mountain. I wasn't sure how that would be possible. Little David couldn't walk, and even though he was a small child he would be too heavy to be carried all that way.

    "He really wants to do it and I've figured out a way," Big David told me.

    "Are you certain that he'll be safe?" I asked him.

    "Absolutely." Big David was a hiker and rock climber in excellent physical condition, and he knew the trails that led to the ridge. Even at eighteen, he had a level of maturity and judgment that led me to trust him.

    A few minutes later I saw them at the edge of the camp, starting up the trail to the ridge. Little David was riding in a backpack, the kind with an aluminum frame that allows hikers to distribute weight and carry heavy loads for long distances. He was strapped on Big David's back, his flippers holding an Audubon book that identified plants and flowers. He was smiling and excited, just like any boy about to embark on the adventure of exploring mountain trails with his good friend.

    It was the ease of this moment that seemed to me so filled with grace. As I watched the two Davids disappear into the woods, I was aware of how ordinary their adventure was. Natural compassion had shown itself simply: just two young guys solving the problem of getting one of them to the top of a hill. They were both happy and excited to have figured it out, and once they'd done so, they simply proceeded with their day. And yet it is precisely because grace occurs in such ordinary settings and in such ordinary people that it is so easily overlooked.

    We all make decisions about what we will emphasize as we live our lives. Whether we "tune in" and open our hearts to ordinary grace or not is a personal choice. And we make these decisions on matters both profound and mundane. On the highway, do we focus on the driver who cuts us off with a rude gesture, or do we notice, instead, the trucker who slows down a little to let us onto the expressway? Do we hold the door open for the person behind us coming into a store, or do we just keep going?

    In 1986, I experienced a collective sense of grace when I was producing a video program for the Special Olympics. These athletic games are for people with physical and mental disabilities, and emphasize doing one's best and having fun rather than competition. During a half-mile race, one young girl lagged far behind the others. As the rest of the athletes were about to cross the finish line, the teenage girl who was in the lead looked back and saw how far behind the little girl was. She immediately turned around and ran toward her, as did all the other runners. These young athletes, of many races and ages, gathered on the track and kept pace with the little girl, all the while telling her she could make it. They crossed the finish line in a pack. In the several minutes it took to complete the race, all the spectators rose to their feet, clapping and cheering. The young runners had taught us a magnificent lesson about compassion, and an indescribable feeling surged through the crowd like an electric current.

    I experienced the power of grace, friendship, and love again when I attended a collective eightieth-birthday party, sponsored by United Way of the Virginia Peninsula, for the volunteers of RSVP, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program. This program offers volunteering opportunities to people fifty-five and older throughout the United States, many of whom work with Meals on Wheels, with programs to feed the hungry, and with literacy and mentoring services for young people. Others visit nursing homes and care for other elderly people. Some of the women are "baby rockers," who volunteer at hospitals to sit and rock ill or irritable infants through the night. Last year, people associated with RSVP donated more than eighty million hours of help to communities across the nation--a service that has been estimated to be worth more than a billion dollars.

    The birthday luncheon was a gala affair. A disc jockey played country music and a square-dance club entertained us--the theme was a country hoe-down and everyone wore a colorful bandanna. Meat loaf, mashed potatoes, corn muffins, and desserts were served by businessmen and by women from a local Rotary Club. "I always love to see those guys here in their beautiful three-piece suits," said Paula Ogiba, the volunteer coordinator for RSVP. "I always say, `Take off those jackets, boys, 'cause you're gonna sweat!'"

    I watched as these elderly people, both black and white, some moving spryly, others using walkers and canes, helped one another across thresholds and sat with their arms around one another. Every one of them had lived through more than eighty years of American history, and many had witnessed firsthand the extraordinary upheaval of the twentieth century. They all told me essentially the same things about why they spend time volunteering: "It's an honor to help other people because we're all really the same," "Everyone should help out in their community--how else will things get done?" and "I just love people." They spoke about the gifts and benefits they received rather than what they were giving. Many had come from desperately poor families themselves, and spoke about how they never wanted to see someone else go hungry or without shelter. A few spoke of their religious beliefs as the foundation of their compassion.

    I talked with eighty-two-year-old Dorothy Feeback and her one-hundred-year-old mother, Avenel Salyer. Avenel was born in Ohio and raised in the coal fields of Kentucky, in a family that she says was rich in love but not in much else. She took my hand and told me that she thought it was a fine idea to try to understand why people do good things because in her century of living she'd seen the benefits of helping others. "I can't hardly hear you, honey," she said over the loud music. "But I can tell you that you can't live very well all on your own. You have to know how to live with other people and the more we help each other the better off everyone is. I'm going to keep on doing that until I'm no longer able."

    Avenel Salyer's sense of connection to others and her wisdom about people helping each other out is a philosophy that resonates with forty-two-year-old Wayne Kelly. In 1991, the National Marrow Donor Program Registry, with more than two and a half million names, identified him as a potential match for twenty-two-year-old Don Creighton, who was dying of acute leukemia. Later tests confirmed that Wayne was a "perfect" six-antigen marrow match, extremely rare among nonrelatives. Bone marrow is the only donated organ that must correspond at the level of DNA in order to be transplanted, and the increasing incidence of diseases like leukemia, aplastic anemia, and lymphomas means that more and more bone marrow donors will be needed in the future. At any given moment, there are more than two thousand active searches of the NMDP Registry--and two thousand people whose lives hang in the balance. Thirty to forty people die every day because no match has been found. These patients often have a greater chance of winning a national lottery than of finding an able donor in time.

    Wayne Kelly never thought twice about going through with the procedure. A former firefighter who was critically injured when a two-story brick wall fell on his back, he was told he would never walk again. After several years of physical therapy and many prayers, he did. He understands something important about the human spirit and the will to live and to thrive. "I can't imagine the anchor that it would place on my heart to know that I could help someone fighting for his life and not do everything that I could," he told me. "It would be just like driving past an accident and not stopping. We're here to help each other, aren't we?"

    Over the past seven years, Wayne Kelly and Don Creighton have become great friends. Even after their first telephone conversation, they felt as if they had known each other all their lives, and since then, they have discovered many shared interests. Wayne says that Don always asks what he can do to repay the gift he was given by a stranger. Wayne tells him that it is he who has been blessed by the opportunity to help someone else. "There is only one way to go forward from here," Wayne told him. "That is to live."

    Against all the odds, Wayne was called upon again to donate bone marrow, but said he had a "bad feeling" because the recipient was so sick that they rescheduled the procedure four times. This patient was not as lucky as Don Creighton and died two months after receiving Wayne's marrow. Although he had never met this man, and in fact only knew his first name, Wayne did not feel like a stranger, and was devastated when he was told the news. In spite of this heartache, Wayne continues to keep himself on the donor list. "It's a blessing to be able to help someone in this way. Don is a parole officer and helps a lot of young people. There is a ripple effect in helping another," he says.

    What we believe about the world shapes what we see. Because negativity and evil are present in the world, our worst fears and expectations are often easily confirmed. Our experiences reinforce our beliefs, and thus we cling even tighter to those beliefs. The same holds true for ordinary grace. We will see what we expect to see. As William Blake so eloquently wrote, "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." Once you understand that this grace is ever-present, you know that the experience of it is only a breath away.

    The people with whom I talked and traveled, and who told me their stories, represent the full spectrum of human beings. They range in age from very young children to a one-hundred-year-old woman who continues to volunteer for community service. They are rich, poor, and in between, and represent a diversity of races, ethnic groups, sexual orientations, and lifestyles. Some follow paths based on strong religious beliefs, others describe themselves as "spiritual but not religious," and quite a few declare that they are not at all religious or spiritual-minded. These people come from major cities, small towns, and rural areas all over the country. I could have found enough ordinary grace in any one village to write a hundred books.

    The stories confirm the abundant presence of grace in the world, but most important, they serve as examples of how we can choose to live. Psychologists refer to "modeling"--doing what we see others doing--as one of the major ways in which people learn. Buddhism speaks of the importance of "companioned example" and "Right Association" as preliminary steps on the "Eightfold Path" to enlightenment. It is said that when taming and training a wild elephant, the best way to start is by yoking it to one already tamed. As you read the stories that follow, you may begin to realize that these people are no different from you. Knowing about them can awaken our own generous instincts for goodness, and impart the wisdom that we have the power to make the world a better place. As I write these stories and think about the people I've seen--Big David, Wayne Kelly, and Avenel Salyer, and others like them--I am deeply moved. I believe that the feelings their actions stirred in me can be experienced by anyone. Mythologist Harold Goddard rightly observed that "the destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in."

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1. Awakening to Ordinary Grace 11
2. The Nature of Goodness 23
3. Angels 45
4. No Greater Gift 60
5. Love Changes Everything 87
6. Keeping the Dream Alive 103
7. Healing Broken Places 121
8. The Dark Side 143
9. What I've Learned About Ordinary Grace 164
10. Finding Grace in Your Own Life 196
Postscript 217
Notes 225
Acknowledgments 239
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