A call to action to live a life full of goodness and purpose
People often struggle to find a life filled with passion, happiness—and just plain goodness. This struggle drives many to depression and addictive tendencies. Author and New Thought minister Edward Viljoen argues that the struggle need not be an arduous or painful one—that through everyday acts of kindness, faith, and compassion we can create peaceful and contented lives. Using personal stories, practical tips, and exercises, this book shows us that regardless of our circumstances, we can create meaning and beauty in our lives and in the world. Viljoen offers deep insights, showing:
- How caring about ordinary things leads to meaningful and extraordinary life experiences
- How society's messages about perfection distract us from our ordinary goodness
- How faith is a muscle that must be exercised
People are always striving to live happy and fulfilled lives. This book reassures us that this is attainable—nothing extraordinary is required.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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About the Author
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Read an Excerpt
The Paradox of Being
How Life Is a Paradox of Wholeness and Brokenness
Author Anne Lamott, on the eve of her sixty-first birthday, wrote a list of things she knows about being. The first on the list is that All truth is a paradox. "Life, she wrote," is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It has been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It is so hard and weird that we wonder if we are being punked. And it's filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together." Ordinary Goodness is an invitation to look courageously into the unfathomable mystery of being-not as something to be solved, but as something to embrace and enjoy. Without this patient approach, it is tough to make sense of the ambiguities and contradictions that life is peppered with. To hold life gently, without insisting that it conform to predictable patterns and clear-cut meaning, helps things flow a little more smoothly. A flexible view is essential when exploring goodness because it is inevitable that when studying goodness, we will encounter its opposite.
A friend told me the story of her visit to a Far Eastern spiritual teacher, a very sage and ancient man who spoke to her group for about forty minutes. When he had finished speaking, he opened the floor for questions, and one truth-seeker asked the sage for his thoughts about the state of the world, with all of its conflicts, crime, poverty, and war. The teacher sat in silence and considered the question, and then murmured shaking his head, "So sad, so sad." My friend said that it was as if she could see the world through his eyes for a brief moment.
I love the story of this sage and his utterance, "So sad, so sad." I do not feel the slightest bit discouraged by it. It helps me to know it is possible to see the world's conditions as they are, without losing sight of the natural goodness that is simultaneously present. The paradox of concurrently valid states that are opposite to each other fascinates me.
My friend's story reminded me of a poem by Ernest Holmes:
When death shall come
And the spirit, freed, shall mount the air,
And wander afar in that great no-where,
It shall go as it came,
Freed from sorrow, sin and shame;
And naked and bare, through the upper air
Shall go alone to that great no-where.
Hinder not its onward way,
Grieve not o'er its form of clay,
For the spirit, freed now from clod,
Shall go alone to meet its God.
I first encountered this poem at a time of grief and sadness. I liked it and felt comforted by the words, except that I struggled with the phrase "sorrow, sin and shame." I was in that phase of development where replacing every negative idea with something affirmative seemed necessary. I believed I had to reeducate my negatively habituated mind, and became inclined, for example, to replace the poetic words "wretch" with "soul" or "saint" in the hymn "Amazing Grace" because I could not tolerate the coexistence of wretchedness and goodness. Now I'm not so inclined to sugarcoat life. People like the sage, the poet, and the author of "Amazing Grace," John Newton, tell the story of humanity's journey through the valley of the shadows and are, I believe, at no time confused about the amazing grace available simultaneously while traveling through life's troubling territory.
Goodness is not necessarily sugarcoated. Ordinary goodness is both gritty and smooth, satisfying and frustrating, simple and confusing-and more.
It's Ordinary, and Natural
The idea of ordinary goodness came to me while teaching a class in which the students were learning the techniques of spiritual coaching. They questioned their ability to respond adequately to clients who were facing sorrow and tragedy. I asked them to settle down and think about a difficult time in their lives when someone did something for them that showed love. Some of them, teary-eyed, told stories about ordinary acts of kindness, while others told of gestures of compassion that went beyond the call of duty. The students either had a story of how loving-kindness from another person had touched them, or they identified with a story told by another student. I asked them if the giver of that love had any special skills. What was it that made the gift of love so meaningful? They answered that each giver had acted sincerely, from some natural instinct to care. I call that instinct ordinary goodness. I pointed out that they too had the same innate capacity to care, and that their goodness required no special training. It may be clumsy or unskilled, yet when expressed, especially through kindness, it leads to compassion. That is something mighty.
Notice Goodness and Share It
Donald Altman, in The Mindfulness Code, suggests that redirecting our attention to what we have in life does not cause us to ignore the real difficulties we, and those around us, may face. Rather, doing so helps us notice, appreciate, and enjoy the ordinary things that make life worthwhile. He provides this guidance:
First, turn your attention to what you have in your life from the very moment you wake in the morning. Appreciate the breath, the blankets that warm you, the shower that refreshes and cleans you, and even the alarm clock that wakes you up. Next, find a reminder of ordinary goodness that you can carry with you throughout the day, such as a picture of a loved one, a stone or other object from a memorable trip, or an inspirational quote. Finally, share your appreciation of ordinary goodness with others.
On the seven-day, 545-mile AIDS/Lifecycle bicycle ride to raise funds for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Foundation, there are many opportunities along the route to feel discouraged by exhaustion. One longtime rider has paid attention to the plight of discouraged cyclists and, in response, created the tradition of leaving plastic eggs-the kind that are typically filled with candy at Easter-on cyclists' seats during the night. In the egg is a short note of appreciation and a reminder of the heroic nature of riding to help fund another person's well-being.
When I participated in the ride in 2015, some mornings my attention was not on ordinary goodness. I had no warm blanket to practice Donald Altman's exercise on, and the showers were crowded and cramped. I was focused on needing more sleep; I needed a break. I needed to quit, and I needed coffee. Then, when I found the egg on my bike seat, it had the marvelous and surprising effect of making me feel as enthusiastic as I did on day one of the ride. One quiet moment of redirecting my attention, facilitated by the kindness of a stranger, had the impact of changing my energy level, it seemed. More than that, it touched my emotional center, and I started to share encouragement with other struggling riders.
Goodness as Awe
How Caring About the Ordinary Things Causes Extraordinary Life Experiences
My grandmother's relentless willingness to be kind inspired me. She expressed kindness as if it were the most natural thing in the world. She took care to be interested in-even awed by-whatever was directly in front of her. She would exclaim "My goodness" and "Goodness gracious me!" frequently when reviewing a report card, a new hat, or a new friend one of us brought home. We felt the warmth of her caring because she paid attention to us. In that way, she invested time in us, making us think for a moment that we were amazing. We received her generous and focused interest, even when she was clearly in pain or would prefer to be left alone. She almost always gave her attention when it was called upon.
Not everything we did was awe-worthy. Nevertheless, she treated us as if we were truly wonderful. Surely, there must have been times when she was pretending to be interested. I could not tell if ever she was. Watching the ease with which my grandmother paid attention to others inspired me to try doing the same. I practiced being interested in people in the same way that she showed interest in me. The more I tried, the easier it became. Not only that, but interest in others also turned out to be more enjoyable than I imagined it could be, and even felt genuine. I am a believer now in purposefully fostering the habit of being awe-filled and interested in life. It does not have to be the most colorful sunset to awe us. It does not have to be a gigantic sculpture or an exquisitely beautiful person or the biggest or most expensive something to stir us to awe. Awe and wonder are present in modest, ordinary things. When we accept awe and wonder to be an attitude of mind, with a little practice and creativity seeing the world with interest becomes a natural, and eventually permanent, addition to our worldview. It is precisely at times such as the ones we live in today that we must awaken the awareness of ordinary goodness by becoming attentive to and interested in it. We can start by becoming a little more interested in each other. You may doubt that it is possible to develop an interest in everyone, let alone have awe and wonder for them. You may question if it is natural to do so. But it can be done in the same way that we can learn other skills, such as writing. When I learned to write, I started, like everyone does, with the beginning exercise of mastering straight lines, which can be agonizing for some and easy for others. With patient encouragement from teachers and consistent practice, it came together, and I came to grips with the art of writing. Similarly, learning to type takes persistence. Remember the typing drills? We do not learn how to type by thinking about it. If we read a manual about typing, we might have some ideas about how to do it, but to get it into our fingers, we have to get into it. We have to invest time, and if we do so with a steady routine, we are rewarded with faster progress than if we approach it haphazardly. So it is with developing the awareness of ordinary goodness. We have to return steadfastly to the task and maintain slow, steady progress, which in itself is a challenge for a mind that is racing all the time.
Slow Down the Racing Mind
It is difficult for a fast-moving mind to connect with awe and wonder. It's hard to maintain interest in others and care about them when your mind is at the center of a storm of racing thoughts. Thoughts have to be slowed down for awe and caring to have a chance. When I pay attention to my thinking, I can see there is a difference in the speed of my thoughts when they are fearful, angry, selfish, or envious compared to when they are confident, loving, sharing, and kind. I perceive that when my mind is moving fast, it is prone to being unmindful. When I am paying attention to life or other people, the interest I show in them slows down my thinking to a gentle and mindful pace. Traveling at top speed in a vehicle makes the journey dangerous and raises the possibility of accidents. At high speeds, the landscape becomes a blur, and we cannot see details clearly, and that makes us prone to hurting others. It can be a challenge to enjoy a moment in nature, or with another person, when my thoughts are stacked one on top of the other and I am focused on something other than what or who is in front of me.
If I notice my mind speeding up, stimulated by fearful thoughts, I try to slow it down and bring it back to the present moment. I try to pay attention to whatever task is at hand as peacefully as I can. Sometimes I can spend a whole morning, or even a day, bringing my mind back to the present moment. When my thoughts move too quickly, I don't readily notice the experiences that have the potential to stop me in my tracks so that I say, "Oh, my goodness." We need those moments. They shine a light on our path, enlarge our perspective, and guide us through to the other side of our dark moments. These experiences of being stopped in our tracks from time to time expand our minds, and whether we say, "Goodness gracious me," or "Oh my God," or "Wow," these moments have the ability to unlock our untaught appreciation of what is good.
What is there to be awestruck by?
Consider the following questions and others like them as a way of slowing down the mind and practicing the feeling of awe and wonder: What did my neighborhood look like one hundred years ago? What will my community look like one hundred years from now? Or research the answers to questions such as: How far is it to the nearest star? How deep is the deepest ocean? Who were the indigenous people of the area I live in? What are the natural flowers in this area? What phase of the moon are we in? What was your great-, great-, great-grandmother's maiden name? What did her daily schedule look like? How do you know how to breathe, circulate blood, and digest food all at the same time? How do fingernails know how to grow, and how come you have the recipe to produce them while dealing with your problems at the same time? And, my goodness-do you realize that we are floating through space as living, breathing marvels, off somewhere on a tiny, precious blue ball and no one knows where it is or where it is going?
In Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Emily, a young girl who has died and looks back at her life, asks, "Does anybody realize how wonderful life really is while they live it?" I don't know if my grandmother had any regrets, but if she did, she kept them to herself-but not like hot coals burning dangerously in her pocket, filling her with pain and bitterness. She seemed present for the world around her. She seemed engaged and endlessly available to be amazed and interested in life. When she passed away, we sorted through her possessions. I was surprised to find, in her box of clearly most-treasured items, a rosary with a love letter from an officer of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy, along with his travel documents and a photograph dated from when she must have been sixteen years old, a few months before she was to be married.
Table of Contents
A Role Model for Ordinary Goodness xi
Author's Note: About Meister Eckhart xvii
Part 1 Ordinary Goodness
The Paradox of Being 3
Goodness as Awe 8
I Didn't Know What to Do 14
What Would Goodness Do? 19
Goodness as Altruism 32
When Goodness Is Not Enough 40
Goodness as Love and Devotion 47
Part 2 Ordinary Kindness
Kindness as Guidance 53
Kindness Isn't Weakness 61
Goodness as Kindness 65
Kindness as Attitude 75
Kindness as a Habit 78
Kindness as Listening Generously 85
Part 3 Ordinary Compassion
The Compassion, of Wanting to Understand 91
The Compassion of Being There 102
The Compassion of Caring About Others' Suffering 115
The Compassion of Self-Kindness 120
The Compassion of Seeing People as They Are 124
Part 4 Ordinary Faith
Faith as an Expectation of Good 133
Faith as Something Borrowed 143
Finding Faith When There's Nothing Left Inside 148
Faith as Something Earned 156
Faith as Something Given 166
Faith as Something Shared 169
Faith as Intuition 173
Part 5 Finding Faith
What Do You Believe? 202
Postlude; Be Calm and Carry On 207