From Violence to Virtues

I have been riding a wave of joy here in this island Paradise of Aitutaki Cook Islands, but something tragic pierced my joy. In a vicious act of violence in my birth country, the US, a nineteen year old slaughtered fourteen students, two coaches and a teacher and injured fourteen others, in a Florida high school. Then I learned about the violence that erupted here in the Cook Islands community over the last two weekends with a knife and broken bottles, and my grief deepened. There is a temptation to give into helpless sadness and hopeless anger about events like this.

We might vaguely wonder, what can be done to prevent it? What in the world can any individual do about it? And then I saw a video of one of the students who survived the massacre – Emma Gonzalez, a year 10 student at the Parkland, Florida school. She is one of many students eloquently speaking out, calling for gun control in the United States. It’s not enough to send “thoughts and prayers,” she said. There comes a time to act. She paraphrased the words of Indian leader Mohatma Ghandi, saying “We need to ‘be the change we wish to see in the world.’” Students and others are organizing a huge demonstration and school walk out for March 14th calling it, “March for Our Lives” and have a massive plan (#never again) for reaching government to change the gun laws. Oprah and other celebrities are using their wealth to help support the movement. Countries such as Australia, Britain and Japan that introduced tight gun control laws have dramatically reduced not only homicide but suicide, and mass shootings have been zero ever since new legislation was passed. In my opinion, the United States has every reason to follow their example, especially when it comes to weapons of war.

A New York Times columnist wrote, “Don’t succumb to despair. It prevents change.” Irish statesman, Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The rare acts of violence that shake the Cook Islands community are often related to alcohol intoxication, jealousy, and depression. The root of jealousy is poor self-esteem, which breeds a kind of helpless rage. When alcohol inebriates the brain, one loses his mind and his morals.  So, what can we do, even here in this tiny country?

  • We can increase the self-esteem of our children. Call them by their true names – kindness, peacefulness, excellence, enthusiasm, self-discipline. Help them cultivate the fruits of the spirit. Children who see themselves as caring, helpful and faithful have no need to resort to bullying or violence.
  • Set boundaries on your own child’s drinking. Enforce a curfew, and know where they are when they go out.
  • In the past, churches here offered alcohol-free alternative evenings and transport. Teens need to gather, hear music, enjoy themselves in a safe environment.
  • Eliminate casual violence in our homes, and talk things out, giving reasonable consequences instead of a physical punishment. Children imitate us, so we need to be role models of restraint.
  • Speak truth to power. Hold government to account. Share your ideas with your representatives.
  • When alcohol is involved in a fight, ideally the perpetrators would be required to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for at least six months. If they miss a meeting, they go to jail.

I asked various islanders their thoughts about why violence happens and what the solutions might be. The most profound response was from a Year 11 student at Araura College, who said, “People that get drunk and act violently have no passion in life, no purpose. They need a dream.” She said the nineteen year old Florida shooter, now an orphan, was devastated after his adoptive parents died. “He lost his dreams, and he took out vengeance for it on others. The victims had dreams, and now they will never fulfill them.” The virtue that blossoms as young people discover their talents and envision a meaningful future, is idealism — the capacity to dream big dreams and then act as if they are possible. We all need to do whatever we can to nurture those dreams of a bright future, to replace violence with virtues.


Let Your Yes Mean Yes

Recently in a conversation with a friend, she shared a scripture with me that rang a bell. We were talking about how often people promise to show up, yet we never know if they will or not, whether for a social occasion or a repair job. She confessed that she used to be like that. “I’d always say, ‘Yes, sure I’ll be there’, and then stay home instead. It was a learned behavior. My parents did it all the time.” She revealed, with her husband nodding in agreement, that when he was first interested in her, he would ask if she were going to a barbecue and she’d say yes. So he’d go and “endure the excruciating evening” waiting in vain for her to turn up. Then she got to the heart of the matter. She said, “I never knew I mattered, so my word didn’t matter. Who would care whether I showed up or not.” Then one day, a friend confronted her about this habit, loving her enough to support her and to confront her. The friend said, “Have you ever seen the Scripture ‘Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no’?” (Mathew 5:37) She went on to explain that she had asked this woman many times if she would go to a party with her, or come for a visit, only to be disappointed. “You say ‘yes’ but you don’t mean it. You aren’t reliable. I counted on you, but you rarely came when you said you would”.

We need to realize we do matter and our word is precious. One way to nurture love and friendship is to be utterly truthful and trustworthy. Jesus never swore. He didn’t need to because he only and always told the truth. He asks us not to swear either by our own head or by Heaven, but only to let our word ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes’ and our ‘No’ mean ‘No’. According to the Baha’i teachings, “Truthfulness is the foundation of all virtues.” What if the foundation of a house is flimsy or unreliable? The whole house could fall down. Another powerful passage in the Torah of Judaism tells us never to swear by God or to promise something to God that we don’t deliver.  (Ecclesiastes 5:4 -5) “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in paying it; for He takes no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than you should vow and not pay.”  This commitment to truthfulness requires that we not only value our own word, but that we value our time and energy. It calls for the Virtues strategy of Setting Clear Boundaries, that are based on justice for ourselves and for others. Good self-care dovetails perfectly with reliability since it calls us to agree only to things we have time to do and that we actually want to do. I often quote Jalal’u’din Rumi, Sufi mystic poet saying “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are thousands of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” We don’t have to do everything. And we certainly shouldn’t agree to everything others request.

So, I was thinking about this and realizing many people say yes automatically because they want to please the person who has asked for something. Better to please God and make only vows we can keep. Only say what we mean, and mean what we say. Don’t swear to anything or make false or uncertain promises. To accomplish this, we need new ways to respond to requests that give us time to consider them. Here are a few that are truthful and trustworthy:

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“I’m not promising anything.”

“Not sure if I can make it, but I hope to.”

“I’ll be there, God willing.”

“I’ll let you know one way or another.”

My friend treasured her teachable moment as a result of her friend’s truthfulness with her. She now strives to only vow what she truly intends to fulfill.

How powerfully each one of us can contribute to the level of trust in our communities, simply by keeping our word – not promising, or swearing we will do something, not agreeing to something prematurely, but only telling the truth. The place where we live could be a brighter light in a world longing for truth. What a foundation we would be building for a culture of integrity where every individual, family and government only made promises they could actually keep.


Set Your Heart on Positive Change 2018

The beginning of a brand new year is an ideal time to wipe the slate clean and set our hearts and minds on positive change.  For resolutions to be meaningful, and most importantly, sustainable, it’s helpful to review the past year, to gain insight into what really matters in the next. As Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Here are a few helpful questions to ask:

  1. What was your biggest test this year? What did you learn from it? For me, falling critically ill with Septicemia last January brought me into the Valley of the Shadow, bringing a stunning revelation. When I felt myself slipping away, my only thought was a simple prayer, containing three virtues. “Thank You. I love You. Whatever.” Gratitude, Love and Surrender. I didn’t have a shred of regret or fear of death. Don’t get me wrong. There’s much in my life that I regret and for which I have asked forgiveness. But when I believed I was in my last moments, all I felt was thankfulness for my rich life, love for my Creator, and openness to His will. When I recovered, thanks to the excellent care I received at Aitutaki Hospital, it took weeks for me to regain my strength, and during that time, I reflected on that simple prayer, experiencing a passionate gratitude for each day of life, which has never lessened.


  1. Is there someone you have hurt? One of the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is to make a fearless moral inventory, and if you have wronged someone, to make amends whenever possible. Even if it is not wise or appropriate to speak to them about it, you can always choose a virtue to practice to make up for your trespass. One of my resolutions is that when a family member disagrees with me or becomes upset, I’ll get curious, not furious. Ask a question in order to understand better. “What annoys you about this?” Courageously telling the truth face to face rather than merely wishing things could change is another resolution I’m already practicing.


  1. What are you most grateful for in your life and in yourself over the past year? Ever deepening relationships and friendships are the treasures of my life, including quality time with my birth and adoptive grandchildren. This year my 24 year old granddaughter and I rediscovered each other and are now lifelong BFFs, which brings both of us amazing joy.


4. What do you most want to change in your life? What I aspire to is a continual pace of Grace. I want to “go with the flow” without hurry, pressure, or overdoing. That means pacing myself, only making promises I can keep, and being content with what I am capable of at this season of elderhood. I don’t want my mind to write cheques my body can’t cash. It’s really important to reflect on what a healthy pace of life is at this time in your life and to have the humility to recognize when you can no longer perform as you used to. Even new parents need to make this assessment. My younger son has just had his first child, and he is over the moon in love with his boy. He is also realizing it’s time to change the way he expects to spend his time, including when he gets to sleep!


  1. Is there something on your “bucket list” you have always wanted to do? A trip you want to take? A place you want to see? A relationship you want to cultivate? There’s no time like the present. Honestly speaking, for me this Paradise IS my bucket list. “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” (Phillipians 4). What a blessing when you find that you want what you already have.

How Virtues Sweeten the Season

Tis the season for families to gather for the holidays. Whenever you ask people here in the Cook Islands what they value most, their first answer is often “Family.” Honestly speaking, family is the source of the good, the bad, and even the ugly in our lives. Family has the power to lift us up, give us a sense of identity and safety, or devalue us and have us wondering all our lives, “Am I enough? Am I worthy?” Whenever there is estrangement in a family, no longer speaking to one another, frozen in a state of blame or guilt, there is profound grief that can mar even the happiest season. Although it is not always possible or even wise to reconcile our differences with a family member, whenever possible, healing should be a priority. We all have the capacity to sweeten each other’s lives with our love, trust, and generosity. What we often lack is the will. Or if we are willing, the other may refuse to take part. In my experience, when there is a rift between parent and child, it takes enormous detachment to let it go. A friend of mine shared that at one point, she had to admit that she and her son had irreconcilable differences. So, she said in prayer, “Lord you gave my son to me. I’m giving him back to You. I’m leaving him in Your hands.”

Even without major drama, family gatherings can be an experience we would choose to forget or one full of joy and good memories. Virtues are the guide to the best family times ever. First, there needs to be a commitment, a promise you make to yourself to avoid the “troubled C’s” of negativity – criticism, conflict and control — and instead practice the virtues that create family unity.

  1. Don’t criticize, whether a hair style, a weight gain or loss, or anything else. Instead appreciate the good you see in each man, woman and child. Find something to acknowledge and complement. Not, “Aunty, you sure look fat,” or “Have you heard of the new Hollywood diet?”, but “Aunty, how’s your health been? You sure look healthy.”
  2. Don’t get into conflict. Family gatherings are no place for name-calling or arguments. If there is something that needs to be sorted out, call a family consultation circle and listen to each person’s point of view. Better yet, save it for another time. Just enjoy each other!
  3. Don’t try to control others, but do set some clear boundaries about what you are willing to do, ground rules to keep the kids safe, and so on. If there are several cooks in the kitchen, clarify what each one’s role is and let them do it their way! That’s a very practical example of how clear boundaries can save the day. Your brother may not make the gravy in your traditional way, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is accepting the diversity that makes unity rich and real. When people try to control you, be gently assertive.  “Thanks for the advice, Mom. This is my job and I’m doing it a bit differently.”
  4. Give your best attention. Listen to one another’s stories. When you get tired, listen some more. Ask good questions. Use the magic words, “What?” and “How?” “What has it been like for you since Uncle passed?” Don’t avoid touchy subjects. Listen with compassion and detachment. We all need to feel heard. When the story ends, give a Virtues Acknowledgment, “You’ve loved him so faithfully all these years.”
  5. Touch each other. I love watching indigenous families around a campfire or in the South Pacific, a barbecue on the beach — holding hands, playing with each other’s hair, giving lots of hugs, men and boys with their arms around each other’s shoulders. People are hungry for loving touch. Being together is an opportunity to share in this  special way.

Appreciation, attention, affection and assertiveness are the essentials of a good family season. Maori families, including Cook Islanders, have a huge capacity for play, whether in a fishing tournament, time on the beach, a volley ball game, or a tug of war. Play is the real work of family time. That and of course cooking! Sharing a fabulous meal is a great way to share love, and love is what this season of unity is all about.

The Gethsemane Secret

What do the world’s sacred traditions reveal about suffering? Does it have any meaning? How does it serve our purpose on this earthly journey?  All Faiths share a virtues perspective, which is the key. They tell us that to reap the most joy and meaning from this short life, we need an attitude of openness and even gratitude during periods of hardship or grief. Our testing times are not meant to be merely endured, but understood as teachable moments, and virtues are the lesson plans.

So, when life seems hard, think of yourself as a spiritual champion, whose Coach is pushing you to your very limits, not to make you suffer, but to train you in strength, to stretch your capacity for greatness. Everything that comes to you is a gift. Baha’u’llah, Prophet Founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote: “[I] have ordained for thy training every atom in existence.” (Hidden Words Persian 29)

Sufi poet Rumi wrote, “These pains you feel are messengers. Listen to them.” And “Where there is ruin, there is hope for treasure.” This is the essence of the virtues strategy of Recognizing Teachable Moments.

A young woman recently discovered that she has breast cancer. After an initial reaction of shock and grief, she opened herself to what she calls “my healing journey” with courage and hope, “eager to see what teachable moments are in store for me and my husband.”

This approach to life is not some Pollyanna, “make nice” approach. It is facing and honoring our feelings — the tears, the rage, the confusion — with deep compassion for ourselves. Then, through reflection, prayer, journaling or talking to a good spiritual companion, we open to the Grace of the situation — the learning that is our soul work.

Jesus’s experience in the garden of Gethsemane is a powerful example for all of us. I think of it as “The Gethsemane Secret”. Jesus knew he was going to be killed, and all he asked was that his disciples “keep watch” with him, so he wouldn’t face it alone. And what did they do? They fell asleep — twice. Alone with God, Christ discovered the most profound courage and strength possible, through an act of total surrender to the Divine will: (Mathew 26: 36 – 56) “…he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.’ And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not watch with me one hour?’ He prayed again, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’”

First, Jesus admitted he was sorrowful to death. He felt the sorrow. He suffered the betrayal of his closest companions. He realized he could rely only on God. Then, after asking to be relieved of his fate, he asked that God’s will, not his own, be done. In our own Gethsemane times, we must know what we feel, acknowledge what we wish, yet be open to our destiny. To trust even in the darkest times, that the Divine has a greater plan for us than we have for ourselves, is our true soul work. Trust is transformational. It leads to resurrection, the fulfillment of our purpose and our joy. “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings as eagles; they shall run and not grow weary, walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

Another virtues facilitator endured several catastrophes in a short time – the death of both her parents, the murder of her son, and a head injury sustained when a stewardess dropped something heavy on her. She has moved through all this, open to the waves of grief, in touch with her soul as never before. She has never been more radiant and, as she put it, “whole-hearted.” She now plans to work with trauma victims to help them come back to themselves.

Some suffering is not creative at all — the pain we cause ourselves through our own misconduct and destructive choices. But a spiritually rich life involves meeting our tests with courage, open to the teachable moments that bring us closer to our true calling.  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Composer Leonard Cohen in an homage to Rumi wrote in his magnificent song, “Anthem”, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” The Japanese have an exquisite, centuries-old tradition, called Kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired with gold marking its cracks. In this way, they celebrate the beauty of brokenness. There is such sweet freedom in recognizing our cracks, loving our wounds, open to the messages they bring.

Be the Change

My first thought, when I learned of the recent tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas, was a prayer, “Please, God , don’t let it be a black man.” America is in the throes of a resurgence of racism. Athletes who kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance are attacked for calling on their right to protest the senseless murders of black people for such absurdities as reaching into their glove box to get their registration when stopped by highway police. When a white man is the mass murderer, it’s assumed he is mentally unbalanced, a one-off, or possibly the work of a terrorist group. If it were a black man, it might well be pinned on the entire race as fearfully dangerous.

My second thought was another prayer, “Please God, is my nephew safe?” We have family living in Las Vegas including a concert-goer in his twenties. Fortunately, he let us know on Facebook that he was safe. But 59 souls lost their lives, and hundreds are injured. So much violence prevails across the world, including the storms pulverizing islands such as Fiji, Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, where my brother Tommy lives. He narrowly escaped the cyclone having planned a trip to New York, where he remains visiting family, unsure when he can safely return home.

In the wake of such shock waves, how are we to keep from despair, even on our little island in the South Pacific? I believe strongly that each of us must, as non-violence leader, Mohatma Ghandi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Every day I find myself repeating the poem of Rumi: “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal. Walk out of your house like a shepherd.” Jesus taught us to follow His example as the Good Shepherd and to live like the good Samaritan, who took pity on a stranger. The Baha’i Faith teaches that God is calling humanity to a new age of peace and unity, in which, as the Bible prophecies, we will “beat our swords into ploughshares”, letting go of all prejudices, giving up the love of power for the power of love.

Think of your life as a ripple effect – your actions, your words, even your thoughts and your moods — impacting first your loved ones, then those you serve in the workplace,  and moving out into the world in ways you don’t even know. Every act of kindness is a breeze of the breath of God. Every smile enkindles hope and encouragement, every loving word brings joy.  I was at a take-away the other day and enjoyed a huge Cook Islands size helping of food. I went up to the chef and said, “I love you!” He said, “Tell me something I don’t know. Tell me something new.” Our laughter rang around the neighborhood. I have feasted on that small moment of shared pleasure for days. Trust and love grow in small moments such as this.

A central figure of the Baha’i Faith, Abdu’l Baha’ wrote to someone at a time of great suffering: “Trust in God and love His Will. Strong ships are not conquered by the sea; they ride the waves! Now, be a strong ship, not a battered one.” Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, wrote a marvelous piece called, “You Were Made For This.” To quote a bit of it, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely… In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.”

As Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Everybody can be great…because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve…You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Be the change this world needs. It has never mattered more.

Dare to Dream

Twenty people from the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands gathered at Tamanu Beach Resort on Aitutaki, Cook Islands for a retreat Dan and I gave on  “Living the Dream: Spiritual Practices for a Grace-filled Life”. One of the themes of the retreat was recognizing the connection between knowing ourselves and knowing God. Only in cultivating a relationship of truthfulness, trust and love with ourselves can we have an authentic, intimate and trusting relationship with God. We are created in the Divine image, capable of reflecting in our souls all the virtues that are the fruits of the spirit.  In the world’s sacred traditions, cultivating our virtues is the very meaning and purpose of our lives. With that understanding, we considered the dream calling to us at this time in our lives.

A dream often begins with a vision. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” When Alice is lost in Wonderland, she asks the Cheshire Cat which path to take. The cat says, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” When you are ready to have a dream come true, here are some steps to take:

  1. First, reflect on what your dream is at this season. What would you love to do? What would spark joy? What service calls to your soul? Where are you willing to invest your time, energy and in some cases, money? What do you need to let go of in order to live this dream? Letting go of the familiar may take all the courage you can muster.
  2. Once your vision is clear, set your intention and create a goal. It doesn’t have to be a big goal, just one that matters to you. It could be quitting smoking, or turning an unhappy relationship into a happy one, solving a problem, overcoming a financial challenge or finding work that nurtures your soul. My wise granddaughter, May Kavelin, said, “Just make a start. You don’t need to know where you will end up. Take baby steps. One small step can turn into a leap of Grace.” Sufi poet Rumi said, “Choose the path you take, even if you don’t know where it’s going.”
  3. For me, discernment begins with prayer and meditation. As Albert Einstein, the great physicist said, “I want to know God’s thoughts. The rest are details.” Aligning our vision with the Divine will for us is true spiritual efficiency. Deep reflection can bring amazing clarity. It may even surprise us.
  4. Make a plan, with the steps to achieve your goal. If you have a clear picture of your dream, use the full power of your mind to imagine the goal as already accomplished. Some people make a “vision board” with images that represent their dream. My brother John Kavelin, as a Disney Imagineer always made a story board for a new event, display or ride.
  5. Once you feel clear about your direction, act! Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, in speaking of the dynamics of prayer said, “Have faith and confidence that the power will flow through you, the right way will appear, the door will open…Then as you rise from prayer…act as if it had all been answered. Act with tireless, ceaseless energy. And as you act, you, yourself, will become a magnet, which will attract more power to your being, until you become an unobstructed channel for the Divine power to flow through you.”

Make a start, and then, as Dan said in his stellar talk, “Grace will take care of the rest.” Goethe said, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness…the moment one commits oneself, then Providence moves too….Whatever you can do, or dream you can…begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” Take each step with discipline, determination, trust and faith, and finish what you start.

  1. When you achieve a goal, pause for applause! Celebrate your achievement and give thanks for the help you have received along the way.

There was a boy named Monty Roberts, who held onto his dream despite the prejudice and discouragement of a teacher. His father was a horse trainer, so they moved from ranch to ranch, and Monty constantly changed schools. In his last year of high school, his teacher asked the class to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up. Monty didn’t hesitate for a moment, and wrote a seven-page paper about his goal to own a large horse ranch. He described his dream in detail, and even drew the stables and a house plan. He received his paper back with an “F”. After class, he asked the teacher, “Why did I receive an F?” The teacher responded: “This dream is so unrealistic for a boy like you, who has no money, no home, and comes from an itinerant (wandering) family. There’s no chance you will ever reach your great goals. I can help you rewrite a much more realistic paper.” The boy went home and asked his father what he should do. His father answered respectfully, “This decision is very important for you, son. So, you need to make up your own mind on this.” After several days, the boy brought the same paper to his teacher, no changes made. He said, “Sir, you keep the F, and I’ll keep my dream.” Now Monty Roberts is known as a “horse whisperer”. He owns a 4,000 square foot house on a two hundred acre horse ranch, and still has that school paper, which is now framed over the fireplace.

Follow your heart, ask for guidance, set your goals, and act. Never let anyone take your dream away. Rumi said, “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

I will soon be joining Betsy Lydle Smith in giving a webinar on A Pace of Grace  (October/November 2017).  See my Author Facebook page   for information.



A Joy Formula for Marriage

When I thank someone here in the Cook Islands for excellence, whether in music, dance, cleaning or cuisine, people often say “Still learning.” I’m still learning after 36 years of a (mostly) happy marriage. Dan and I celebrated our anniversary this week, and I said to him, “It’s a miracle.” Meaning, we’re still together — happy, in love, and closer than ever, after decades of sickness and health, richer and poorer times. We’re pretty much opposites, and have tested each other mightily. Thank goodness for the fact that opposites attract!

I believe that marriage is God’s laboratory, where we get to do some of our most important soul work. What other relationship wears down the rough edges of character? Where else can we develop so much love, patience, self-control, forgiveness and every other virtue?

Why are we touched by seeing an elderly couple laughing together, holding hands? Long-lasting love gives us hope. On the other hand, some couples exist for years tossed in the “Troubled C’s” of control, criticism, contempt, and contention. I remember being in a hotel steam room when an elderly gentleman walked in. My first thought was that I was grateful for the bathing suit rule! We started chatting, and I found him to be a gentle, interesting, humorous person. Suddenly, a blast of cold air hit us as the door opened and a woman growled in a disgusted tone, “Why are you still here? You always keep me waiting! Get out here now!”  He sighed and said, “I’m just an old fool. I’m always too slow for my wife.” I thought “Nothing is worth the loss of dignity, respect and love between two people.” This woman had several choices. She could have gone shopping without him, allowing him his own pace, or made a simple, positive request: “Darling would you be willing to get ready now, so we can go shopping?” There are three virtues that apply in intimate relationships to keep us from sinking under the troubled C’s of relationship. To replace these negative habits of thought and communication,  apply the virtues of Acceptance, Appreciation, and Assertiveness.

Acceptance: Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han says, “Each person has his or her own suchness. If we want to live in peace and happiness, we have to see the suchness of that person…understand him or her, and there will be no trouble. We can live peacefully and happily together.” I asked a loving couple, “What’s your secret?”
The wife answered, “We’ve been happy for more than fifty years. I don’t know if it’s a secret, but I never tell him how to drive.”  She was accepting rather than controlling.

It’s essential to accept your partner’s feelings rather than ridiculing, arguing or ignoring them. When a problem arises, don’t get furious, get curious. “What bothers you about what I’m doing?” Listen well, not defensively but with openness, detachment and humility.  Listening to understand their point of view helps your spouse get to the heart of the matter rather than escalating emotionally. Companioning is magic, and can bring peaceful solutions.

Appreciation: Expressing appreciation, especially using Virtues Language, meets a deep need everyone has to be loved and valued. “That was kind of you, Sweetheart.” “I appreciate your wise advice.” “You’re gentle with our kids.” Look, appreciate, smile, touch (LAST) is a simple way to replace habits of negativity. Simple, but they can bring a powerful transformation.

Assertiveness: Develop clear boundaries based on justice, deciding what you will do about a disappointment, rather than repeatedly experiencing the needless pain and frustration of attempting to control your spouse. Alcoholics Anonymous has a great saying, “Expectations are pre-meditated resentments.” Discern what you need, then assertively and tactfully ask. If your partner cannot deliver, find another way to meet that need, through friendship or by taking care of yourself.

Never make demands. Your partner is likely to resist. Make simple, positive requests. Tell your partner what you do want, rather than criticizing them for what they’re not giving you or what they’re doing wrong. Set a boundary about what you will do if an essential problem continues unresolved.

Lastly, it’s wise to remember words on a pink sweatshirt Dan bought for me: “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy”. Another is “Happy wife, happy life.” If truth be told, our happiness is our own responsibility, and it sheds joy and positivity on everyone around us.

Wonder in Paradise

“Living the Dream” is a phrase commonly used here in the Cook Islands. To me, it’s a foretaste of Paradise. We are surrounded by the beauty of turquoise lagoons, verdant hills, soaring mountains, abundant flowers, graceful palms and people in the varied colors of the Creator’s garden.  There is beauty in island music, as in the soaring harmonies one hears in church when people “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” (Psalm 100)  There are lilting traditional songs accompanied by ukuleles. There is beauty in dance, drumming, costumes, carving, embroidery and other arts.

There is abundant Joyfulness seasoned with humor. There are shrieks, giggles and bubbles of laughter when two or more islanders are together. At recent youth Rugby games, I sat beside two mamas, crocheting rapidly while screaming out directions to the players and laughing uproariously. Beauty and Joyfulness — two virtues that nurture and heal the soul. As well as laughter, there are heaps of hugs and kisses. Everyone needs loving touch. Respected family therapist, Virginia Satir, said, “We need four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance, and twelve hugs a day for growth.”

The pace of life is gentle, particularly in the outer Cook Islands, such as Aitutaki.  As I walked toward a tourist recently, he stopped to ask me a question. He said, “You’re a local, so tell me…”

“How did you know?” I asked him.

“The way you move. If you were any more relaxed, you’d be horizontal,” he said with a laugh. I was wearing a flower behind my ear and a pareu blouse, but still, I like his explanation best.

A virtue that touches me is the wonder Island children find in the simple pleasures of sea and shore. Walking the beach with my three island grandchildren, they shout out, “Look, Mama, another Etu Moana! (Star Fish)” A tiny hermit crab or a super big one evokes the same enthusiasm. The children are content and happy with a stick, drawing hopscotch squares, love notes, and “jail”, which is a circle rapidly drawn around me so I can’t move, until I hit the “magic button” which they draw at a distance. I take aim with my flip flop, and whenever I miss, they find it hilarious.  We draw lines in the sand for hermit crab races. My granddaughter first learned to read from words I wrote in the sand. She was playing hopscotch, and I wrote “hop, pop, top, mop”. She sounded them out and then ran home to share the news. When the children spook a flounder while paddling in the shallows, there are shrieks of delight as it hoovers off.  We often notice schools of small silver fish leaping in an arc over the water to escape a predator.  Going to different beaches is a special treat. First we gather and bag man-made rubbish along the beach, then they gather shells, look for crabs in the rocks, climbing over the old makatea (petrified coral rock). Tiny baby eels and fish dart around in tide pool nurseries, and when an adult eel is spotted, excited screams fill the air. When the full moon rises, we watch waves crashing on the reef. Once, at the beach on my own, I saw a pod of whales swimming by and breaching. I hope to share that wonder with the children this whale season.

Last night, as we swam in the lagoon together, they celebrated small visits and events of beauty. The clouds were illumined with gold and pink. Four enormous frigate birds, called storm birds by the locals, soared overhead, foretelling rain, which sure enough came this morning. A mother heron and her offspring flew just over our heads. Over and over, schools of small silver fish leapt in an arc close by, evading a predator. My oldest grandson had taken off his shirt and dropped it in the water. We couldn’t find it anywhere we swam. So, I introduced the children to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things. I said a prayer to him aloud, and suddenly my granddaughter shouted out that she had found the shirt. The boys’ eyes were big and round. The 12 year old said, “Mama, how do you know such things?”

I love seeing them smitten by beauty and simple discoveries at the  beach rather than constantly craving electronic entertainment. When my six year old granddaughter visited New Zealand, she said it was “boring”, despite shopping the malls, using a tablet, and attending parties. She missed the simple rhythms of island life. All of us blessed to visit or live here can partake in the beauty of living the dream.

Have you ever considered that wherever you live, in a city, suburb, or a rural area, there is beauty and delight waiting outside your door? Nurture yourself with beauty by tapping the potential for wonder right in your own back yard. Be a tourist or better yet, a pilgrim in your own town. Break through your normal routine, step aside from your work ethic to give yourself an experience of awe and wonder. A city skyline at sunset, a stroll through a park, a visit to an art gallery, a picnic in the country, finding a place to view the stars, will help you to live the dream, wherever you are.

From Burnout to Bliss

Have you ever experienced burn-out? Whether from overwork or other pressures and stresses in life, it’s a sense of utter exhaustion, constant anxiety or depression, emptiness, and mental confusion. It often involves physical symptoms of both tiredness and jitteriness. You feel like you could sleep for a week, but have trouble falling and staying asleep. You either lose your appetite or overeat to comfort yourself, which makes you more sluggish. Irritability is often a symptom of the FOG Syndrome — fatigue, overwhelm and guilt – guilt about never getting it all done, not coping well with the demands around us. You’re like a vehicle running on fumes. So, how do you refill, revive, and refresh yourself? How do you go from burnout to bliss?

  1. First, take a time-out — a day, a week or more from your regular life. Use that time to reflect, refresh and reset your spiritual compass. Do a lot of nothing. Sleep, eat healthy food, exercise and play. Go fishing. If your time is limited, make it a daycation.
  2. Use a small journal to record your thoughts and prayers. Have a conversation with God and yourself, looking honestly at what is stressing you and what is blessing you. Write down what you want to stop doing, start doing and keep doing to create a pace of grace that will sustain you instead of drain you.
  3. Dare to choose a new way to live and work. Anne Wilson Schaef wrote, “It is only when we accept that we do have choices that we can reclaim our lives.” Ask yourself what activities, people and work bring you joy? The best way to make joy your priority is by realizing that you are worthy of it.
  4. As you discern a routine or lifestyle that brings you joy, turn it into a vision. “Without vision, the people perish.” (Proverbs 29:18) Plan an ideal day, week, or month. Include reflection, reverence, rest and recreation, which brings true balance. Create a poster with pictures or images of your vision, to inspire you. Paste in words you find in magazines to reinforce that vision. I call this a “collage of dreams”.
  5. Above all, say yes to your true calling. Spend time to discern it, then act on it. A friend of mine spent all his adult life working as a post office mail sorter. He found the job dull, but it supported his family and allowed him to pursue his true calling, which was as a spiritual director, or counselor. He and I shared spiritual direction with each other, even though of different Faiths, and he was brilliant at it. He followed his heart. As Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner wrote, “Our calling is where our deepest gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” One thing I know for sure is that genuine joy means living a life of purpose, making a positive difference.

I ran into a Cook Islander friend recently, and as usual, she was all smiles. I asked her, “What gives you such joy?” She said, “Well, I wake up grateful every day and I thank God every night. I love all my different jobs. They give me energy and happiness.” She brings joy with her into everything she does, whether cooking, grounds keeping, visiting elders, or loving her husband. She rests every afternoon by reading good novels, including I’m happy to say, my novel, A Scent of Sage. She has a strong sense of confidence and gives excellence to everything she does. As Sufi mystic, Rumi says, “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”