President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
No matter how bleak the situation may be, the
arrival of a new year invariably inspires promises of renewal and
Despite tight security and threats of terror,
the world became a gigantic party to ring in 2003. As the clock
struck mid-night, the skies around the globe came alive with spectacular
fireworks, and throngs of revellers burst into cheers. At that magic
moment, euphoria and optimism filled the air - anything seemed possible
and hope once again sprang from the depth of our souls.
Yet, years slip by, like waters flowing downstream.
Each passing year seems a replay of the previous one: broken resolutions,
missed opportunities and misplaced priorities. Old habits, clinging
to us like our own skin, cannot be shed as easily as old clothes.
The pull of depravity has a way of defeating our noble intentions
and best efforts.
Year-end review of the larger scene also shows
plenty of evidence of disorder and decay: terrorism, sniper attack,
the specter of war, corporate scandals, the collapse of the stock
market, and the escalating conflict in the Middle East.
Is this a case of increase in entropy? Are we
doomed to succumb to the second law of thermodynamics? Is renewal
possible, if everything will be eventually reduced to dust?
With all its emphasis on optimal functioning,
positive psychology needs to find better ways to counter the downward
spiral, such as the tragic triad of aggression, depression and addiction.
Within mainstream psychology, the solutions
typically consist of commitment, determination, cognitive-behavioral
modification, and a host of other approaches of psychotherapy to
achieve change. Bookstores are full of self-help books for those
who want to better their lives.
However, all these human efforts and ingenuity
are helpful only up to a degree, because they are confined within
a man-made box - the systems of the world. For example, all the
progress in science and technology has not improved the quality
of life. In fact, the most successful civilization is reeling under
the weight of its own success, as materialism and hedonism continue
to corrode the spiritual values that undergird its greatness.
Is there a better way to counteract the downward
spiral? Is there a better way to escape the false hope syndrome?
I propose that we need to get out of the box and tap into spiritual
power for transformation.
The principle of spiritual transformation
I was very surprised to hear a presentation
by someone from a Buddhist University in Taiwan at a recent conference
on Life and Death Education. He spoke on St. Paul's view of the
new life as based on 2 Corinthian 5:17 from the Bible: "Therefore,
if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone,
the new has come!" He presented this verse as a universal principle
for renewal and spiritual transformation, because we can substitute
"Christ" with "Love".
Without getting into the theology of Pauline
teachings on rebirth, we can examine this verse as a prototype for
spiritual transformation. We need to understand the profound inner
changes that need to take place beneath the deceptive simplicity
of this verse.
Firstly, to be in Christ is to be united with
the ultimate source of life, love and light. The world is no longer
an island alone by itself, and humanity is no longer an orphan cast
at the doorstep of the universe. To be in Christ is to be spiritually
connected with the Creator. To be in Christ is to find our spiritual
home, for which we are made. This transcendental connection can
only be grasped and achieved by faith.
Secondly, there is a profound and pervasive
change as a result of being in Christ. The center of gravity shifts
from self to God. There is a fundamental change in our core values,
which define our everyday behaviors.
By "new creation", Apostle Paul refers to a
new state of being initiated by faith, which opens Heaven's gate
for grace. Life will be lived on a higher plane, for a higher purpose,
as it were meant to be lived. Such a life would be so fulfilling
that it deserves to be lived eternally.
Just as a flowering plant is produced out of
a decaying seed at the expense of the sun, so is renewal of human
lives achieved at the expense of the Son of God. As someone has
put it, divine grace means God's Richness at Christ's Expense.
Thus, at least two sources of energy are needed
to counteract disorder and achieve renewal: Human ingenuity through
efforts and divine grace through faith.
Much more has been accomplished through faith
than the world ever knew. We are just beginning to scratch the surface
of the power of faith as an instrument of positive change.
After interviewing 115 people who survived tragedies
and heartbreaks, Robert Veninga (1985) concluded: "Faith has a powerful
effect in helping people restore a sense of balance, tranquility
and hope. I am persuaded that there is nothing in the arsenal of
medical and psychological technology that equals the power inherent
in simple faith" (p.214).
The process of spiritual transformation
We now need to examine more closely the process
of spiritual transformation. I would propose four basic steps, which
may not take place in lockstep sequence.
- It may be a gradual and gentle affair, brought on by an incessant
nagging of discontent and a persistent hunger for a better life.
It may be a sudden shock caused by a tragedy, which strikes like
a thunderbolt from a clear sky. It may also occur in a Kafkasque
moment of alienation and despair. In many cases, it is the result
of prompting by the Spirit.
When it happens, the scales fall off from our
eyes, and we can see ourselves with greater clarity and from a larger
perspective. Illusions evaporate and we see our naked selves, and
our horrible plight.
Lu Xian, an influential Chinese author at the
turn of the 20th century, wrote an allegory about an iron room,
which has no window or door. All the people inside this room are
sound sleep. The dilemma raised by the author is: Is it better to
let them sleep into their certain deaths or awaken them to their
This dilemma can be easily resolved, if we believe
that we can also be awakened to the enduring, spiritual realm, which
transcends our present horrible circumstances.
- Acceptance goes one step further than awakening. We not only recognize
but also accept our dreadful life situations. We accept our inevitable
losses and appreciate their full impact on our lives. And, we accept
our frailty and mortality without resorting to defense mechanisms.
It is through accepting our impending death
that we engage life. By accepting our own failures and limitations,
we experience grace and power. By accepting the winter of our lives,
we discover the seed of spring.
Paradoxically, acceptance of all the negatives
of human existence is the first step towards renewal. As Carl Jung
liked to say, there is no rebirth without death.
- Just as we accept the negativity of life in all its darkness and
depravity, so we affirm the positive worth of life in all its potential
and sublime glory.
We affirm the meaningfulness of suffering, no
matter how unjust and unfair.
We affirm that there is light in darkness, order
in chaos, and vitality in decay.
We affirm that life can be trusted, celebrated
and lived fully, despite the many heartbreaks and sufferings.
We celebrate life's journey in spite of all
the troubles and perils.
Inner changes invariably manifest themselves in actions: Love expresses
itself in acts of compassion, faith expresses itself in works of
heroic courage. Love without deeds is empty; faith without work
Authentic renewal is not only dynamic, but also
continuous. Action requires discipline until it becomes a habit.
We need to put on the new self and put off the old self on a daily
Therefore, renewal is a never-ending task. This
can be very tiring and discouraging. But this is also the secret
key to success. Only in continuing the process of renewal can we
overcome all the process of decay.
Some concluding thoughts
Jewish tradition tells a story of an immortal
eagle that flies towards the sun every 1000 years. As it gets close
to the sun, its feathers are burnt and the eagle falls to the ground
to renew its wings so that it can again fly heavenward.
This story raises interesting questions? Why
does the immortal eagle require repeated renewal? Why does it get
so close to the sun only to have its wings burnt?
Three ideas come to my mind, as I think about
this story: First, renewal can come only after loss and suffering.
Second, renewal depends on moving towards the source of energy.
Third, repeated renewal is needed to combat the downward spiral
of disorder and decay. These three points pretty well sum up my
May I wish all of you a year of renewal and
growth. May the gift of grace and hope fill our daily lives.
Veninga, R. L. (1985). A gift of hope: How we survive our tragedies.
New York: Ballantine Books.