What is Grace?
The term grace, when used in a spiritual context, has many meanings. One set of interpretations center around the theme of the unanticipated receipt of some positive benefit of love, protection, or favor. We associate these experiences of grace with the high points of life: the moments of great joy and wonder that touch our hearts, move us to tears, or take our breath away. Experiences like the birth of a child, an awe-inspiring scene of natural beauty, or the recent miraculous landing of Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River are illustrative examples of moments of grace.
These are the type of events most usually referred to as moments of grace. And yet, there are times in our lives when we are tested by the unexpected, when our worst fears are realized and we are forced to face new realities that are both uninvited and unwelcome. Can we transform these fiercest moments of life, the ones that threaten to overwhelm and overcome us, into moments of grace? I think we can and positive psychology can help us do it.
I stumbled on the concept of “fierce grace” while reading about spiritual teacher and author, Ram Dass. In 1997, he had a stroke. It changed everything about the life he was leading and the person he had been up until that point. Though he lost so much, he writes that because of the stroke, he gained a new perspective, a greater humanity, a more solid connection to who he was and what was important to him.
He refers to his stroke as “fierce grace.” My work and writing focus on navigating mid-life transitions and the search for meaning and purpose. Reading about Ram Dass, I realized that many life transitions contain the potential for fierce grace, if we embrace challenges as opportunities for personal growth.
It has been said that one can not be human alone. As we age, the loss of loved ones is inevitable. In addition, from mid-life forward, people are more likely to experience shifts and losses that threaten their well-honed personal identities. These losses can take many forms. The loss of a job or career (voluntarily through retirement or involuntarily through downsizing or termination), loss of a marriage (through divorce or death), role loss (e.g. a stay-at-home parent experiencing an “empty nest”), or the loss of physical capacities powerfully impacts sense of self.
In today’s economic environment, many are enduring financial losses. Something else has been lost: a sense of security, as well as plans and expectations about the future. Meaning-making and benefit-finding are two distinct processes that help individuals weather life’s fiercest moments, grow from them and potentially transform them into moments of grace.
In “Meaningfulness in Life,” psychologists Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs state that suffering stimulates the need for meaning. They define meaning-making as the process through which people revise or re-appraise an event or series of events. They have found that people who can transform a bad event into one with some positive outcome benefit from a sense of control that builds a sense of mastery and self-worth. One method for constructing meaning is simply putting thoughts and emotions into writing, which provides opportunities for insight and the development of coping strategies.
In “Positive Responses to Loss,” psychologists Susan Nolen-Hoeksema and Christopher Davis define the process of benefit-finding as understanding the value or worth of a loss or adversity in one’s life. The perception of some benefit, such as a change in one’s perspective, mitigate feelings of helplessness and preserve the view that one’s life has purpose, value, and worth. For example, in interviews with people grieving a loss, some subjects mentioned growth in character, new skills, and an enhanced sense of self-efficacy arising from their adversity. Another benefit cited was the strengthening of personal relationships as families pull together and support one another in times of hardship. Sometimes in the aftermath of a loss, new insights are gained and guide or change relationships for the better. The benefit-finding process can be facilitated by asking questions such as “What can I learn and what meaning can I gain from this experience?”
Free Will versus Determinism
The philosophical debate about whether or not humans have free will will always exist, but we must act and live as if we are free. Noted Jungian analyst James Hollis says no one is free who cannot say
“I am not what happened to me; I am what I choose to become. I am not my roles; I am my journey. I am not my limiting experience; I am the creative power of my potential.”
We may not have control over what happens to us in life, but we do have a choice as to what we do with what we are given. Finding meaning and benefits in the toughest of times and choosing to learn and grow from them as a result, is in my view, the gift of fierce grace.
Baumeister, R.F. & Vohs, K.D. (2005). The pursuit of meaningfulness in life. In C.R. Snyder& S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology, (pp.608-618). New York: Oxford University Press.
Hollis, J. (1996). Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places (Studies in Jungian Psychology By Jungian Analysts)Toronto: Inner City Books.
Nolen-Hoeksema, S. & Davis, C.G.. (2005). Positive responses to loss. In C.R. Snyder & S.J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology, (pp.598-607). New York: Oxford University Press.
Ram Dass & Gorman, P. (1985). How Can I Help? Stories and Reflection on Service. New York: Knopf.
Images — all available under Creative Commons licenses
Light – 7am sharp – First Light – from Mark Cummins’ photostream
Birds – I am my father’s spirit from Pandiyan’s photostream
Drops on water – Raindrops on calm water from cosmonautirussi’s photostream
Light in woods – Wait and Hope from Pandiyan’s photostream