In anticipation of the New Year, it is almost inevitable that we are drawn into a quest for life improvement. We call our good intentions resolutions, but despite our firm resolve, we often find them lying
strewn along the proverbial infernal road before too long.
Is there any way to make our resolutions stick? Instead of rushing into resolutions, could we perhaps consider looking for life lessons? If we could take stock of what we know about life, what we have
learned from living, perhaps then we could know what best to do, what best to resolve.
Everyone’s life lessons will be different, but here are five of mine to get you started. These are things I have come to know and believe in after nearly sixty years of living. Mull over them, argue with
them, if you will, but let them lead you into lessons of your own.
1. Laughter and Tears Go Hand in Hand.
Many an old joke begins with the words, “There’s good news and there’s bad news.” Humor is often funny precisely because it is grounded in the world in which we live. It enables us to step back from our world, to get beyond the contents of it and to see
a pattern. When something unexpectedly happens to us that we consider unfortunate, we often exclaim, “You’ve got to be kidding!” It’s amazing how often laughter and tears commingle. When I was three years old, my grandfather died; and I had been with him during his lengthy
illness and death. It was my first experience of death, and I remember being amazed when, after Grandpa’s funeral, everybody gathered at my grandmother’s for a party! How could everyone be so happy on so sad an occasion, I wondered? I had to learn that at a time of loss,
we need laughter as well as tears, and that the laughter is what enables us to move on.
Life is serious, but it’s also true that we can take ourselves too seriously. When we’re tired or sick or frazzled, we often tend to focus on the hassles and if we’re not careful we can begin to act as though there were nothing else. Then we become
grumpy and short-tempered and, if we let things run long enough, we can even become desperate and depressed. Life has a way of wearing us down, if we let it. You may not be able to see the humor in your present situation, but never let yourself lose your ability to see
humor. Read the comics, buy a joke book, watch a funny movie – but by all means keep in touch with humor. Let me add, though, that the best humor is clean humor. I remember talking to Steve Allen about that. This was a man who was highly successful as a comedian and
entertainer (as well as a musician and intellectual), and he insisted that his humor be clean. Humor should always uplift. Besides being clean, it should never be used to put down another person. Humor that disrespects a person, a profession or a religious or ethnic group
is never salutary. The humor that gets us through life is humor that uplifts everyone.
2. Be a Storyteller.
It wasn’t until I wrote my first book, Good News for Bad Days, that I discovered the importance of stories. Well, not only their importance, but also their abundance. From beginning to end, our lives are stories, and so long as we can keep the
stories flowing, we can stay lively and vibrant. Not all stories are happy ones, but that’s fine – our stories reflect our lives, and sometimes our lives are sad. Even if we’re at a point in life where we find it difficult to tell happy stories, we need to keep the stories
coming. When we let the stories stop, something inside us stops flowing as well.
Notice, I’m not suggesting that we necessarily go out and become professional storytellers, making up short stories, novellas and works of fiction. We might well do that, but that’s not what I’m talking about. For most of us, our personal stories are
the most important ones we will ever know. And it may come as a surprise to you that you are full of stories, and that those stories are interesting. As a child, I loved it when my grandmother told me stories of her life on a farm. It was a simple life and the stories were
fairly uneventful, yet, as a city kid, I was fascinated by them. In the New Testament, it speaks of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, storing up all the events surrounding his birth and treasuring them in her heart. We, too, can learn to treasure the stories of our lives and to
share them to create more life for those around us.
Not sure how to start? Some people find it helpful to write down their stories. When they do that, they often find that one story gives rise to another, and so on. Before they know it, they have more stories than they ever dreamed. Your stories are
about what happened yesterday, or about that day many years ago when you discovered you were in love, or the first time you went swimming. Some people build their stories around places in which they lived, either cities or houses, or even schools they attended. For example,
when I think of the different schools I attended, I find that the tonality of the stories from each of them is very distinct from that of the others. And yet, I find some common threads. I also find that each time I go back over the stories, I find myself telling them a
Some people think that writing or reflecting on their stories is a waste of time. My idea is that when we neglect our stories, we are wasting the precious gifts that time can bring. It is when we are pondering our stories that we are using time to the
3. The World Does Not Have to Stay as It Is.
One of the greatest lessons of life is that life does not have to stay as it is. If we don’t like it, or don’t like some aspect of it, we are free to change it. Of course, that’s easier said than done, we mutter, as we find ourselves waking up to
another grim day of the same old routine. Yet though we either are encouraged or encourage ourselves to become entrenched, we have the power to free ourselves. That power lies within.
Once we learn that lesson, we are ready for graduate school. Until we learn it, we are pretty much condemned to repeat the same old experiences over again. We may make some efforts in the direction of changing things on the outside, but it’s for nought
unless we make our first changes within.
The idea of our changing the world may seem preposterous. But the truth is, each of us every day has the opportunity to make a decision as to what energy, what words, what beliefs, what actions he or she will release into the world. We do not have much
control over what others do, but we do have control over what we think and what we do. Sometimes people discover this when they are trying to save their marriages. They often think that the thing to do is to return in kind the biting comments and actions of their spouse.
When they realize that they can do better, they actually end up teaching their spouse how to communicate more effectively, more lovingly. The power lies within.
4. Angels Abound
Angels have had a funny history in the span of my lifetime. Growing up in a religious household, I learned to believe in angels, especially my Guardian Angel, who was sent by God to protect me. When I
reached young adulthood, it became fashionable for religious people to question the existence of angels and to downplay them as make-believe characters from childhood. Not long afterwards, however, the secular world and the world of “new age” spirituality caught on to angels
with a vengeance. Suddenly, angels were everywhere. It almost seemed that the angels rebelled against the tendency to put them down and instead exploded onto a much larger horizon.
I believe in angels, and I think they are an important part of life. Who are they? The traditional definition is that they are messengers of God, creatures to whom God turns when he wants to get something across to us.
The novelist Debbie Macomber, who has written numerous books about angels, has a category of angels called “prayer ambassadors.” I like that term for angels, because I do think they play an important intermediary role as we pray to God and God answers us.
When we think of angels, we think of radiant beings with wings. The trouble is, we don’t very often see radiant beings with wings, and so we can easily get lulled into thinking that angels don’t exist. I prefer to think of angels as
thoughts or impulses that tell me that things are not as grim as I imagine them to be. What makes the right person come into my life at the right moment and say just the right thing? Why is my favorite song playing on the radio just when I feel down? Why do I go the
bookstore and there on the table in front of me discover the next book I need to read? Why, in my darkest hour, do the words, “I am with you” explode in my head?
We have to get used to the idea of divine communication. God is always talking to us, not in voices, but in thoughts and impulses and happenings. The message is, “You are loved. Life is not as bad as you think. You
can make things better.”
I can’t, of course, talk anyone into this. I can only say it’s been an important life lesson for me. I like to think that life is an ongoing communication with God. And so, I believe in angels.
5. There Is a God and He Loves Us
Perhaps it’s my imagination playing tricks on me, but the more I read and watch and listen to the news, the more it seems to me that people are having trouble believing in God. The more you try to express
your belief in God, it seems, the more there are people out to tell you that you can’t do it. Not infrequently, religion is set aside in the name of spirituality, even though it seems to me that the spirituality referred to often couches itself in religious terms. Arguments
are being held in schools and in courts as to whether intelligent design is religious or scientific and whether it can be placed in the curriculum. Terrorism is waged in the name of religion, and religious representatives are found to be doing reprehensible things.
Heartbreaking tragedy after heartbreaking tragedy is daily shown on television newscasts. My sense is that it’s harder than ever for people to maintain faith.
Now, I’m not saying that more and more people actually oppose God or disbelieve in his existence. What I am saying is that more and more people are finding their belief challenged.
What we need, in order to find God, is a positive sense of mystery. We have plenty of the negative sense of mystery – “Life’s a mystery to me; it’s too overwhelming to figure out.” But mystery is a
positive thing, and in its positive meaning its synonym is “wonder.” When we are sufficiently overwhelmed by life, we have the ability to step back and to wonder at the course of events. When we wonder at and about the course of events, we allow ourselves to slip into the
realm of thought that holds that perhaps what we see before us is not the whole picture. Perhaps there is something we do not yet know, a perspective we have not yet thought of? Perhaps there is a truth that is beyond our comprehension?
Such a positive sense of mystery is what is at the heart of each of the four life lessons I have discussed above. Laughter lifts us out of tears by opening a closet door to allow us a glimpse of another land. The flow
of stories opens us to the possibility of a meta-story, a tapestry of a story that is being woven in and though the stories of our lives. Taking the journey within implies that there is more than the journey without. When we listen for angels, we open ourselves to the
possibility that there are more messages than what our senses and our “common-sense” give us.
I believe that life teaches us lessons, but that the greatest lesson of all is that there is a Supreme Being who enfolds the mystery of our stories into the mystery of his story.
© Copyright 2006 Father Paul Keenan. All Rights Reserved.
Read Father Paul Keenan's Past
Oct-Dec 2005 - "Having, Being, and Stillness"
July-Sept 2005 - "The Spiritual Law of Gravity"
April-June 2005 -
"Spiritual Spring Cleaning"
Father Paul A. Keenan,
a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York,
is its Director of Radio Ministry in the Office of
Communications. He served as co-anchor and consultant
for the broadcasts of ABC News Radio for its coverage of
the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II and the
election and installation of Pope Benedict XVI. He
co-hosts “Religion on the Line,” a weekly news/talk
program on WABC Radio in New York City (airtime 7:00 –
10:00 a.m. ET Sundays and available live on
www.wabcradio.com.) He is a
regular columnist for Catholic New York and for
SoulfulLiving.com and serves as a parish priest in New
York City. He is the author of the books Good News
for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and
Heartstorming, all of which are available through
this website. He hosts his own site at