Thank you naivety for failing me again. (Laura Marling)1

I grew up in a part of the city, and at a time, where “street smarts” were essential to survival, especially if you were a small kid with a smart mouth. Some of the adults around me were untrustworthy as well — abusive, neglectful, and/or predatory. I learned early in life naivety was dangerous and it was essential to read every situation for hazards.

In my early 20s, I began going to church and attending bible college. I did my best to live out “Christian values”. I assumed others were doing that as well (and most did). I also had the privilege of working for organizations with strong values and ethical leaders. These ethical contexts had significant advantages over what I grew up with, yet they also lulled me to sleep about the necessity for a new version of street smarts geared toward adult life. While most people were trustworthy, perils lurked inside and outside some of these organizations. Naivety was dangerous.

Naivety is particularly dangerous anytime people are trying to retain or accumulate some form of power, especially if they see you as an obstacle to that power or a means to their ends. Robert Caro, biographer of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, writes about power. For Caro, power doesn’t always corrupt, but it always reveals.

“Really, my books are an examination of what power does to people. Power doesn’t always corrupt, and you can see it in the case of, for example, Al Smith or Sam Rayburn. There, power cleanses. But what power always does is reveal, because when you’re climbing, you have to conceal from people what it is you’re really willing to do, what it is you want to do. But once you get enough power, once you’re there, where you wanted to be all along, then you can see what the protagonist wanted to do all along, because now he’s doing it. With Robert Moses, you see power becoming an end in itself, transforming him into an utterly ruthless person. In Passage of Power, I describe speechwriter Dick Goodwin trying to find out if Johnson is sincere about civil rights, and Johnson tells him, I swore to myself when I was teaching those kids in Cotulla that if I ever had the power, I was going to help them. Now I have the power and I mean to use it. You see Johnson wanted to do all along. Or at least a thing he wanted to do all along . . .” 2

Note Caro’s insightful observation. For people to accumulate power they have to conceal at least some of their true intentions. Those true intentions may be for greater good or they may be self-serving. But, there is always more going on. We need to being paying attention.

We can and should trust most people, but naivety is dangerous and can cost us nearly everything!


1 Laura Marling. Album: Once I Was An Eagle. Song: Saved These Words. 2013. Label: Virgin. Producer: Ethan Johns.

2 Robert Caro. Working. Robert A. Caro, Inc. Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

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The Immense Power of the Automatic Self

“Dogma is what you believe, whether you believe it or not.” (Dallas Willard)

A Life of One’s Own: Part Six
I’ve been writing a series of essays based on Marion Milner’s book A Life of One’s Own1. Milner was British Psychoanalyst. She lived from February 1, 1900 to May 29, 1998. When Milner was 27 years old, she began keeping a record of “what kinds of experience” made her happy. Seven years later, she published her findings.

In this post: We may be ignoring important information residing in our own minds.2

The Automatic Self and the Deliberate Self
Milner describes our mind working on two levels. The “automatic self” flows with an abundance of seemingly scattered thoughts. The “deliberate self” analyzes and carefully thinks through information. We assume the deliberate self trumps the automatic self in effective thinking and decision-making. Not necessarily. For even after we give our “deliberate self” considerable time to make a careful decision, we can, a short time later, find ourselves changing our minds, moving a different direction, or become more confused than we were prior to thinking things through.

Milner says, “I seemed to have two quite different selves, one which answered when I thought deliberately, another which answered when I let my thought be automatic. I decided to investigate further the opinions of the automatic one, to ask it questions and write answers without stopping to think.”

Understanding the automatic self is important because: (1) The automatic self controls more of our lives than we realize. (2) When we understand the automatic self better, it has a power of it’s own that can be used to propel our lives forward.

We Don’t Always Believe What We Believe
I heard the late Theologian and Philosopher Dallas Willard speak on a number of occasions. He said: “Dogma is what we believe whether we believe it or not.”3 We have a set of beliefs we say we believe (and believe we believe). We have another layer of beliefs controlling our lives whether we “believe” them or not. (I give a couple examples of this in the footnotes.) 4

Milner asks herself: “What is the good of imagining I accept what the scientists are saying about the nature of the universe if all the time part of myself is believing something quite different?” She further notes: “Might not these apparent beliefs of my automatic self, although I had no notion of their existence, possess the power to influence my feelings and actions? And was it not important that I should find out how to control the beliefs of this part of myself, since they seemed to take so little account of what my deliberate self thought?”

While it’s important to think through things, there’s another part of us, a very powerful part of us, that doesn’t care what our “deliberate self” thinks or concludes and then moves us in a different direction entirely.

The Problem
Without coming to terms with our automatic self, we find it difficult to know what we want and what we think. When it comes to making decisions, we don’t make up our mind or we constantly change our mind – confusing others and ourselves. This puts us at a significant disadvantage in life.

“For this discrepancy between the views of my deliberate and automatic selves gave me an idea of what might be the reason why I found it so difficult to make up my mind what I liked or what I thought about a thing. For as a rule I had tried to make decisions without stopping to hear what my automatic self had to say, assuming that my deliberate opinions were all that mattered or even all that existed. So my decisions were made on a basis of only part of the facts, with the result that I never felt quite sure of my conclusions and was liable to reverse them on the slightest provocation. Dimly realizing this, I began to use this free writing of my thoughts as a means for making important decisions.”

It’s not that we should ignore the deliberate self, it’s that we should quit ignoring this powerful automatic self that’s saturated with information and controlling much of our life. When we ignore or reject “part of the facts” (provided by the automatic self), it leaves our minds challenging or undermining our “deliberate” decisions. This is not about making impulsive decisions, it’s about tapping the wisdom of your automatic self and making better decisions.

Finding Clarity
Milner says, “The more I had tried to find the facts [of my life] the more I had become convinced that my own mind was something quiet unknown to me. I decided therefore that my most urgent need was to become more familiar with its habits. And since it was my mind I needed to understand, not mind in general, I did not search in books, but began to try and observe what happened when I wrote my thoughts freely without any attempt to control their direction.”

This leads us to writing. Milner is not technically providing us writing exercises (although, that is what I will call them). She said “free writing” of her thoughts allowed her to tap the automatic self as a source of guidance. The goal here is to allow your automatic self space to express itself. Milner noted “every attempt to formulate desires, however incoherent, is a step forward.” She also noted, “On reading this through I was once more surprised to find how different my thoughts were from what I expected.”

Free Writing Exercises to Release and Better Understand the Automatic Self
1. Things I hate.

2. Things I love.

3. Things I want.

She then moved to “not just the things I wanted or liked, but whatever came into my head. This I had found difficult at first, because I was obsessed by the feeling that it was no use, that If I did not guide my thought it was just a waste time.

4. Write what every comes to mind. Milner noted in this exercise how “only the first sentence or two were concerned with the present and then I had plunged into memories of things fifteen or twenty years ago . . .” Milner goes on to say “It seemed that I was normally only aware of the ripples on the surface of my mind, but the act of writing a thought was a plunge which at once took me into a different element where the past was intensely alive.”

5. What are you afraid of? Start the sentence with I am afraid . . . and then write.

6. Make a list of anxious moments through the day.

Milner notes that the fears and anxiety are typically much bigger than the actual situations causing the fear/anxiety: “Again I was a little surprised, for I wondered why my fears, which sometimes felt like a heavy weight upon me, were so much too big for the kind of situations which appeared to arouse them.”

7. Write out the details of a dream. (not evaluate – just write)

8. Start with the word “God” – and start writing what comes to mind.

9 Start with the phrase “I believe” and start writing what comes to mind.

Milner says, “Although my glimpses of the inhabitants of these deeper waters of the mind were rather disquieting, suggesting creatures whose ways I did not know, I had found the act of writing curiously calming, so that I had gradually come to use it when I was over-burdened with worry.”

A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley.

2This particular post is based on Chapter Three of Marion Milner’s A Life of One’s Own in a chapter she titled this chapter Exploring the Hinterland in which she deals with the uncharted territory of the mind.

3The late Dallas Willard was a professor at the University of California’s School of Philosophy. He was also an accomplished author and theologian.

4 For example, someone can understand the psychology of shame. They can say all the right things and even counsel others. Yet, their own lives are still driven by shame. They may not even notice how disruptive and controlling this is in their own lives. Another example: Someone can talk about a loving God, yet live in fear of judgment. There’s the God they say they believe in (a gracious and forgiving God) and then there is the God they really believe in (retaliatory and never satisfied). They believe they believe in the God they say they believe in, but they don’t.


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In the Bleak Midwinter – Christmas 2020

Photo: by Janet Small – Nativity Arrangement by Our Grandchildren

Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God. (Psalm 22.9-10)

I’ve had a lot of wonderful Christmas’s. There are the childhood memories of family celebrations. Janet and I were married 10 days before Christmas. We’ve had 40 years of celebrating with our children and grandchildren. We’ve even spent a Christmas Day in Bethlehem standing within feet of where Jesus was born. (Coincidentally, my dad also spent a Christmas Day in Bethlehem during World War II.)

It was 75 and sunny that day that day in the West Bank as we drove by the Star & Bucks coffee shop in downtown Bethlehem. It was hardly the “Bleak Midwinter” we hear about in the Christmas Song or the “Bleak Midwinter” in pre-climate change “Minn-a-soda” where I was raised.

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;

In my family of origin, Christmas Eve was the reference point for Christmas celebrations. There was an abundance of presents, children and grandchildren, and nieces and nephews. Christmas Eve also came with an abundance of conflict, fighting, competition, hurt feelings, temper tantrums, and scheming. This was mostly from the adults.

In this context is my favorite childhood Christmas memory. It was the afternoon of Christmas Eve. I went ice-skating for several hours. My friends were already celebrating or traveling, so I went alone — or should I say in solitude. I pretty much had the rink and chalet to myself. It was snowing.

Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter
Long ago

A few blocks away was a public nativity scene. Off to the side was a simple message: Wise Men Still Seek Him. While there were a few scattered attempts to get us to church as kids, most of my theology came from TV and Christmas songs. Yet this nativity scene fascinated me.

Why? Because I believed this story.

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away

When He comes to reign:
In the bleak midwinter

A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —

Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, Whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk
And a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, Whom Angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
Which adore.

Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air;
But only his Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

Without being formally taught, I already had a faith in Jesus Christ. But how does this happen? How did I get to this faith with very limited and often erroneous teaching with a strong dose of myth, tradition, sentimentalism, and fairy tales? The Gospel of John explains how: Jesus reveals himself. 

  • “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”
  • “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”
  • “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

I was about eleven years old and I already knew this Light. Why? Because he made himself “visible” to me (John 1.18). Later in life I connected with him at a deeper level, but as a child, I didn’t know what to do with this light. So I did what I could. I reserved a place in my heart and life for him.

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.

The wise may still seek him according to the nativity scene, but there is something even more profound: He came to seek me! He found a way to reach me apart from the church, theological training, or good works. This is the part many miss about Christianity. It’s the complete acceptance by Jesus Christ of who we are — just as we are. Once we embrace our status that “We are loved”, it opens up new possibilities and we find the magic in Christmas.

Listen to Shawn Colvin sing In the Bleak Mid-Winter


1In the Bleak Midwinter. Poem by Christina Rossetti and later turned into a Christmas Carol by Gustav Holst. Information and poem formatting provided by Wikipedia
2 The Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

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Keeping a Journal or Diary

A Life of One’s Own: Part Five
I’ve been writing a series of essays based on Marion Milner’s book A Life of One’s Own1. Milner was a British Psychoanalyst. She lived from February 1, 1900 to May 29, 1998. When Milner was 27 years old, she began keeping a record of “what kinds of experience” made her happy. Seven years later, Milner published her findings. 

This post focuses on keeping a diary or a journal. Milner found keeping a diary central to discovering what made her happy and in “finding and setting up a standard of values that is truly one’s own and not a borrowed mass-produced ideal.” I’m using the word journal and dairy interchangeably. (Some may see differences between a diary and a journal, but some of these differences may be invented.)2

There is not one perfect way to keep a journal or diary. In fact, I encourage an expansive view of journaling verses limiting ourselves to one notebook with daily entries. I use a combination of Moleskine notebooks, legal pads, Evernote (electronic), and sometimes I use early drafts of my blog posts to record thoughts and ideas. More polished versions of my ideas make it to publication. I’ve also done formal day-by-day journaling, but find this challenging (although much of what I write could simply be added to a daily journal or diary). But, I tend to be more scattered in my thinking — so I have notes everywhere!

Journaling or writing helps us process our thoughts and feelings as well as interpret or capture the world around us. Anything from writing on a scrap of paper to be dropped in the shredder to small entries in a notebook to more involved journaling like Julia Cameron’s “morning pages”3 or the impressive John Quincy Adams Diaries (which I’ve written about in this blog – click here) can be valuable to our ability to process life. Writing can move ideas that may be collecting dust in our heads to the paper and then to meaningful outcomes. It can also help us overcome some of the rumination and mental clutter that robs of our joy.

The important thing I want to convey is writing can be a helpful exercise – even if you only write a couple lines at a time. In fact, Milner points out she had stretches of time where she had limited or no writing. That’s normal. I encourage you to write or record something today, even on a scrap of paper. Don’t try to evaluate — just record what happened. There is a lot of insight and internal power that flows just from observing and then writing down your observations. We can then strive to write and record more frequently. And then, we may quit writing. And then, start writing again. In this process, you may discover a little more about you, what makes you happy, and find A Life of One’s Own.

A Quick Summary of Writing Tips in Keeping a Journal or Diary

  1. Just write. It doesn’t have to be perfect.
  2. Write what you want to write. Don’t write for an audience.
  3. Allow your goals to change and develop as you continue to write.
  4. Add detail verses generalizations.
  5. Describe verses evaluate experiences.

For those of you looking for the main point of this blog post, I encourage you to exit now.

For those of you interested in diving deeper into journaling and the details of how Milner developed her writing, feel free to continue. (One of the benefits of continuing will be insight into Milner’s remarkable wisdom as you read the quotes form her diary/book.)

The Details
Marion Milner writes a helpful chapter on keeping a diary and it’s value to having A Life of One’s Own and finding happiness. For Milner, writing plays an essential part of these discoveries. In her book, she provides many excerpts of her diary including the very beginning stages of recording parts of her life. I find her starting points and development helpful in trying to figure out what to write about for myself. I’ve included many excerpts from Milner’s book in this post in order to share the process, benefits, and challenges of recording parts of our lives. I have reorganized some of these entries and given them headings to make them easier to follow in a blog post.

What to Write About
Milner had a plan for her diary, but found her purpose changed along the way. Initially, she said: “When I set out to keep a diary of what I wanted and of what made me happy I had the idea that it would be a kind of preliminary account-keeping. It was in December, 1926, and I expected that after a few weeks or months I would be able to say: ‘These are the facts of my life, now I’m going to take it in hand for myself and do something about it.'”

“By the end of the day all I could find to say in my diary was: ‘Rather oppressed with the number of things to be done.”

“I seem to have been so discouraged by the first week’s results that I wrote nothing for eight days, except . . . ”

“Here was a week gone and there did not seem to be very much which was important in my life, or if there were important things I was not seeing them.”

Milner ultimately shifted her focus on what to write about. She said she began to live her experiences and record what happened instead evaluating the experience. I found this particularly helpful in writing and in life.

“About this time I came upon many new experiences. Up to now I had been determined to examine my experience in order to find out where and why it was inadequate. Now, when new things were beginning to happen to me, I seem to have felt, for a time at least, that the experience was enough in itsef and that it was better simply to live it, since looking at it too deliberately might spoil it. So, although the diary continues, somewhat intermittently, it becomes more a simple record of external happenings than a deliberate attempt to evaluate and understand them.”

Stopping and Starting
It’s helpful to avoid putting a lot of pressure on ourselves to write everyday, especially at the beginning of a writing process. Notice Milner’s gaps in recording.

“Too tired to write all this week.”

“There are hardly any more notes until May 16th of the following year . . .”

“I feel this morning that my deepest reflexions aren’t worth committing to paper!”

Milner had many profound insights as you will see in the quotations below. As we continue to write, we will also likely discover valuable insights and most likely things about ourselves we would like to change.

“Perhaps that’s why the holidays are sometimes unhappy: you hunt happiness directly, so lose it.”

“I used to trouble what life was for — now being alive seems sufficient reason.”

“I want a chance to play, to do things I choose just for the joy of doing, for no purpose of advancement.”

“Is all this love for the primitive but a result of stunting my own instinctive life?”

“I would like the relationship to give the greatest possible freedom to both of our personalities.”

“I have realized this morning for the first time a new sense of power, power to enfold and protect with a wide calmness – a sea of life in me.”

[I want] “To simplify my environment so that a vacillating will is kept in the ways that I love. Instead of pulled this way and that in response to the suggestion of the crowd and the line of least resistance.”

“Sudden burst of laughs together make me happy”

“What ever you do, do it like Hell.”

“I want — to be carried in the stream because the stream is bigger than I am.”

“I was still trying to find out what I wanted by thinking, and had not yet discovered that only when I stopped thinking would I really know what I wanted.”

“It’s weak and despicable to go on wanting things and not trying to get them.”

“I thought what an awful thing is idealism when reality is so marvelous.”

“But I think happiness is like effect on an audience (when acting), if you think of it all the time you will not get it, you must get lost in the part, lost in your purposes and let the effect be the criterion of you success.”

“I liked the smooth roundness of my body in my bath and would like some else to like it”

“Then I remembered feeling jealous . . . and all my other jealousies and how I won’t own up to myself about unpleasant feelings so I think I’m colourless, emotionless.”

“Last night I was sick of mental things and self-observation.”

“I realized how completely untrustworthy I am in personal relationships, how I take one attitude when with one person and an opposite one with the next person, always agreeing with the person present.”

“I don’t know what I want. I’m a cork bobbing on the tide.”

“One day I’ll make a list of points of conflict with the herd. One is – ‘They’ assume that what happens is what matters, where you go, what you do, things that happen, the good time you have. But often I believe it’s none of these things, it’s the times between, the long days when nothing happens, the odd moments, perhaps when you open a letter, or sit alone in a restaurant, or exchange the time of day with a stranger . . . “

Details Matter When Writing (or Speaking)
“I think particular is safer than general guessing where a particular women bought her hat and writing down a particular daydream is more useful than the above attempted logical analysis.”

“I walked on a dark country road with glimmers of sunset under a hail-storm sky, and wind and Orion clear in a light patch of sky, and laughed till the tears came just at being alive.”

“Exulted in my body and clothes and red skirt and freedom to do as I chose on Sunday morning. After lunch headache and sleep. Evening delight in Chapter I of Ulyssess.”

We Learn as We Go
“I don’t think this diary is much good if it only records feelings. It should be a motive for experiment as well as observation.”

“In reading through my diary I can now see what I did not notice at the time, that the effort of recording my experiences was having an influence on their nature. I was beginning to take notice of and seek way of expressing occurrences which had before been lost in vagueness.”

While Milner began with certain purposes, she allowed herself room to refine her goals and discover what to write in her diary.

“I think pains and hatreds should go in this diary too.”

“Writing down my experiences then seemed to be a creative act which continually lit up new possibilities in what I had seen.”

“Instead I felt an urge to go on and on writing, with my interest gradually shifting from what to do with my life to how to look at it.”

“I have given selections from my diary, trying to make them as representative as possible, in order to give an idea of the raw material from which my enterprise began. I have said that the results of keeping this record were not what I had intended. I had not found that it enabled me to balance up the facts of my life and decide what to do about it; it had only enabled me to see more facts and given me the sense that the more I wrote the more I should see. I think I must have had a dim knowledge that the act of seeing was more important to me than what I saw since In never read through what I had written and never opened my note-book again for a year after.”


A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley.

2 From the American Heritage Dictionary:
Diary: 1a.“A usually daily written record of personal experiences and observations; a journal.”
Journal: 1a. “A personal record of occurrences, experiences, and reflections kept on a regular basis; a diary.”
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Fifth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Boston. New York.

3Julia Cameron. The Artist Way. A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. TarcherParigee. New York. 1992.

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What You See Is What You Get

Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek sits with just a few other books as my favorites — my Mount Rushmore of books so to speak. It’s one of those books I can pick up and start reading and simultaneously feel a surge of excitement and peace. I find it a difficult book — one in which you have to mine for the gold. The gold is always there, it’s just not easy to find.

This brings me to Thanksgiving and an Annie Dillard story. She writes,

“When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always ‘hid’ the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD OR MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped by the impulse to hide another penny.”

Dillard then goes on to make application:

“It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight as a chip of copper only, and go on your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”

I almost always stop and pick up a penny now as reminder of this story. And – I need to be reminded that the world is filled with pennies. We find them in the small moments, the so-called ordinary, and in the small transitions of the day.

Have we trained ourselves to see the wonder of these “small moments” — or, have we trained ourselves not to see them? “What you see is what you get.”


Pilgrim At Tinker Creek. 1974. Annie Dillard. Harper & Row Publishers. New York, NY.

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