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Fierce Grace

written by Gail Schneider 23 February 2009

Gail A. Schneider, J.D., MAPP, brings to positive psychology an extensive background from the world of big business. After a 20 year career at JPMorgan Chase where she was an Executive Vice-President, she now works and writes on the issues of life transitions and the search for meaning and purpose in mid-life. Email Gail. Full bio.

Gail's articles are here.

What is Grace?
First lightThe 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.

Fierce Grace

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.

Fierce spirit 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.

Raindrops on calm water 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.

Finding Meaning

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

Wait and HopeThe 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

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Ryan M. Niemiec 23 February 2009 - 11:22 am

Nice article, Gail. You make a nice connection b/n grace and meaning-making/meaning-seeking.

Also, check out the terrific movie, “Ram Dass Fierce Grace” on this exact topic. It is very inspiring and elevating, providing the visual for a man who stays open to life’s little curiosities and meanings through tremendous adversity.


Leanrainmakingmachine 23 February 2009 - 5:13 pm

My sense is that this is only the beginning of a very painful and emotionally wrenching dislocation in all of society. What if,like me, you are a boomer who “did everything you were advised to do” for, say, 35 years? You worked hard for 35 years, you saved, invested for the future, diversified, etc…
If you did, you surely have been and feel cheated…
Your savings are worth half what you earned, they will not support a retirement and you would have been better off with a bunch of lap dances and a Ferrari…
there shall be a sense of “being taken advantage of” of “being cheated” that has no equal..
But that sense of being cheated will be greatly exacerbated by the government. The government has come along and taxes you more to bail out the 30 year old who imprudently ‘bought mor house than they can afford” and–literally –took out equity loans to go to Las Vegas and buy lap dances and gamble. We are double and triple whammied –our savings are wiped out, our houses are diminished and, if we made prudent decisions, our government has become our enemy, stealing from us to enable lap dances and poker games by the fast talking wall street set. We are penalized for our prudence and resilience; they are rewarded –from our savings–for their profligacy and excess.
There is little grace in any of this, fierce or otherwise. We are not “in this together”; we are being divided into the fools that did what we were told and the thieves who take from us via government…

Rather than being blessed with grace, much less firce grace, we will need to overcome the absence of grace all around us; we have been abandoned by most societal institutions which seek more to take advantage of us than to support us…
Moreover, there will likely be great antipathy toward the unworthy recipients of the government largesse; we are now at the place where government takes from the hardworking boomers and gives to gamblers, nee’r do wells and anyone immoral enough to steal from the rest of society…
Ram Dass’ personal dislocation is not analogous–he was a “random victim of an unloving God”; society now is being divided into victims and thieves, with the new government happy to reward the theives out of naivete and social identification.
In short, we are not being brought together for “shared suffering” we are being divided –into those who lobby well (autoworkers and wall street) and the rest of the suckers who pay for it..

Unfortunately, it is most likely that these will be times when we are best served by traits that are not well thought of on this site: — warrior traits like ruthlessness, undivided focus; courage; determination; absence of empathy or sympathy;– identify, target and destroy your enemies before they target you–we shall need to “know everything and feel nothing”—-the new age is more suited for warriors than those espousing “loving kindness”;
those trained in “death from above” are more likely to thrive than those willing to think the best of their enemies..

Leanrainmakingmachine 23 February 2009 - 5:31 pm

Here’s an example: 70 and 80 year olds fighting for jobs:

BTW, I was trained by a Green Beret Major with 2 tours and 2 Silver Stars.

Gail Schneider 23 February 2009 - 6:42 pm

Ryan, I will check out the movie….think it is available on netflix…
to Lean rainmaking machine…Wow….I hear you BUT don’t agree…all we can control is our own reactions in times of trouble….yes there are scoundrels in the world and we will all meet some of them in the course of our lifetimes but yet as James Hollis said (quotes in my article) we each have the ability to be more than just what has happened to us in our lives. I was tyring to share some pos. psych research on how to do that.

Sherri Fisher 24 February 2009 - 11:02 am


I love the quote from Hollis and have put it on the fridge to inspire me and my family. It is easy to take for granted what is good until it is taken away. Then it is time to reassess what is good–there is still goodness left.

Grace is a spiritual goodness given and received in the presence of openness and generosity and love. To Leanrainmakingmachine, I hope that your anger at seeing the undeserving and irresponsible be bailed out with your wealth may lead you to rethink what my father called “stormy weather”. During the Holocaust, people suffered more than most of us can imagine. This did not stop them from rising above that to help others. We can all grow from where we are! (and we can also vote…)

Christine Duvivier 24 February 2009 - 12:12 pm

Hi Gail, Thanks for giving us a new way to think about adversity and grace. I love your point about embracing challenges as opportunities for personal growth. It’s a wonderful way to think about grace.


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