Where would we be without grace? This is not the kind of question you would expect to find in a psychology publication, but that, I believe, is a blind spot in the view many psychologists take on the human condition.
We are more accustomed to seeing discussions of grace in religious literature or singing about it in worship services or protest rallies. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” But what is it exactly that saves us, what does salvation mean to twenty-first century, enlightened psychologists, and how might we be changed by acknowledging the power of grace and making room for it in our practice and our lives?
In my own faith tradition, the idea of grace first came as a drawing in the Baltimore Catechism, a paperback instruction manual of questions and answers about the Catholic faith. “Q. Who made you? A. God made me. Q. Why did God make you? A. God made me to know, love and serve Him in this life and to be happy with Him in the next.” And so it went, coming eventually to a drawing of a smiling boy with dashed lines radiating from his outline to indicate that he was filled with grace that we were to understand as God’s favor.
I was seven when I first saw that picture. Now, in my seventies, I smile to see my chosen profession beginning to catch on and catch up to the importance of grace. Drawings of children beaming with God’s favor have given way to definitions like this one, current in the literature of positive psychology, describing grace as “a gift given unconditionally and voluntarily to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver, the giver being either human or divine.”
A similar definition in the literature specifies the gift as “acceptance,” but when I think about grace and how I’ve experienced it in my own life and seen it operating in the lives of others, I am reluctant to limit the gift to acceptance or any other one specific benefit.
Grace comes in many forms, frequently showing up as an undeserved second chance or a serendipitous event that can change the course of a person’s life. Recovering from a serious illness, dodging what might have been a fatal highway accident, missing the train that derailed two miles farther down the track, and meeting the right person at the right time can all be seen as examples of grace.
In a poem titled “The Captive Speaking,” the writer James Carroll describes his experience on a plane that lands safely after returning to the airport with engine trouble. On landing, the poet tells the flight attendant that the rest of her life is extra. She replies that it was all extra to begin with. Grace, in a word, is extra. It didn’t have to be, we didn’t earn it, no one was obligated to give it, but it happened anyway.
How do we account for the appearance of grace in our lives, especially the grace of seemingly chance occurrences that can change everything? Life is full of these kinds of discontinuities, interruptions in the rhythm and routine of our daily rounds, gains, and losses on the tally sheets of our existence.
The answer to their origin is largely a matter of our philosophy of life. The strict determinist would see only the natural consequences of a clockwork system. Followers of Carl Jung might recognize the workings of synchronicity where simple coincidences are imbued with deep personal meaning, and a person of faith would see the hand of God providing us with opportunities for change, growth, or simple gratitude.
Whatever we call it and however we choose to explain it, grace happens. A crack appears in the once predictable universe, our stream of consciousness changes direction and suddenly we see the world from a new perspective. Looking ahead, we see new opportunities for growth. Looking back, we see old hurts as signposts that brought us to where we are now, and in this now where we live, we might even feel a sense of peace.
We don’t have to wait for grace to happen. We just have to notice when it does. In the meantime, we can make it happen for others by opening our hearts in acceptance, understanding, forgiveness, and a willingness to give others a second chance.
The graduate school professor who comforted me when I froze and failed a section of my doctoral qualifying exams gave me the grace of understanding and another way to demonstrate my fitness to become a psychologist. Friends and family have given me the grace of forgiveness more times than I can count.
The best way to express gratitude for the graces we have received is to pay it forward. In our work and in our personal lives, we can provide, without obligation, the gift of something extra and maybe even a second chance to anyone. We can become channels of grace in ungracious times. We can choose to believe that our efforts will make a difference, and by so choosing, perhaps they will.