Ed Bacon is the rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California – a 4,000 member multi-ethnic urban Episcopal parish, with a reputation for energetic worship, a radically inclusive spirit, and a progressive peace and justice agenda. Ed’s energies focus on leadership in anxious times, peacemaking, interfaith relations, integrating family, faith and work systems; and articulating the Christian faith in non-bigoted ways. He is a passionate advocate for peace and justice in the community, the nation, and the world. He has received several honors for his peace and interfaith work.
Ed has been a guest on Oprah’s Soul Series on XM’s Oprah & Friends Radio, as well as The Oprah Winfrey Show, which led to a regular role as guest host on Oprah’s Soul Series and contributor on Oprah.com. His first book, 8 Habits of Love: Open Your Heart, Open Your Mind, was published in September. He and his wife, Hope Hendricks-Bacon, have two adult children and two grandchildren.
Reverend Bacon believes that every person can live a full and creative life if they can learn to move through troubling emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness to find the Beloved within themselves. In 8 Habits of Love, readers will learn how insecurity can keep us from connecting with others, our loving self, and finding our own peace, joy, and creative power. It shows, through relatable stories, how to create a full, meaningful life by developing simple habits—stillness, truth, forgiveness, compassion, play, candor, generosity, and community-and by asking such important questions as: How do I know I’m living the life I should be? How do I forgive those who have hurt me? How do I talk candidly with difficult people? How do I best help others when they need it? And: How do I let go of the past and move forward?
I was put in touch with Ed by my dear childhood friend Kate Anthony, a member of his congregation. I absolutely loved 8 Habits of Love and as you’ll see, my questions for Ed are long, probing, and passionate. This interview with Ed is one of the most illuminating, profound, and moving I’ve ever done. Read it and be enlightened, comforted, and uplifted!
1) Why do you call the components of your approach “habits” rather than, say, “orientations” or “practices” or “virtues”?
For me, “habit” is the term that includes the other words you have mentioned. A habit works in this way.
I know that we cannot just “will” ourselves into living a full and meaningful life. Most of us seek happiness and fulfillment, but seeking is only the first step on a life-long journey. Actualizing and cultivating our gifts, understanding how to make a constructive impact on others and our history, and fighting courageously for justice takes skill, perseverance, resilience, and a great deal of inner work and transformation. That constellation of commitments and practices, for me, is what the word “habit” embodies.
Making a habit of something means that we invite it into our lives regularly. We practice its exercises regularly. We strengthen its muscles until it becomes the new norm for us. At first, we may need to embrace it consciously, remind ourselves of its necessary role if we are going to have the freedom we want. Sometimes we even force ourselves into the practice when we don’t feel like it. But the goal is that, eventually, these practices become such an integrated part of us that we do them instinctively, unconsciously, habitually.
At that point we are not longer practicing, we are doing, living. The habit has become absorbed into the fiber of our being.
Also, the word itself, “habit,” reminds me of a nun’s or monk’s habit, something they “inhabit,” a visible symbol of their commitment to an ideal—the ideal of God, or, in the context of my book, the Beloved.
2) I could not agree with you more that “fear is our biggest obstacle” in our movement towards living more fulfilling, peaceful, and meaningful lives, and that learning how to “forswear the reactive and fear-based thinking that causes us to make destructive choices” is one of the most important things we can do to become better, happier, and more loving people, both individually and as communities. What are some long-range and short-range strategies and approaches that work to combat our tendency to view others and the world with fear, or react from a fearful place, or make decisions out of fear rather than out of love?
First, it is important to understand that fear is natural. It is an instinctive protective mechanism. However when we center ourselves, opening our hearts and minds to recognize how deeply our tendency toward fear and self-protection inhibits us, we become more willing to make ourselves vulnerable. Opening your heart and mind—both to yourself and to others and to the transformative work of the energy of Love—requires you to be brave, because you are in effect exposing yourself.
Not only fear but also love is a natural force and we are all capable of it. And so the very first step in the long range strategy, as you put it, is to make the conscious choice to embrace love rather than fear. So much of putting this into practice is simply about recognizing the choices we have and then deciding to make those choices that lead us toward love and away from fear.
Each chapter of my book, 8 Habits of Love, talks in detail about how to make these habits an integral part of our lives. In the very first chapter, for example, The Habit of Generosity, I talk about how we need both inflow and outflow in order to foster life and create energy. Just taking from the world and not giving is stultifying to our spirits. Giving to others, on the other hand, actually benefits us in the long run.
And so, how do we actually live a life infused with Generosity? How do we move from recognizing its fortifying power to actually behaving with Generosity in our everyday lives? I suggest a number of different concrete steps that you can take (which amount to short range strategies).
Some examples: Notice the positive energy surging inside you when you make a gratitude list. The items on that list are things the Universe generously offered you. Or, visualize the people in your life with whom you have a strained relationship and bless them—notice how the fear subsides. Try this: during a meeting—whether at work or with a friend—express your appreciation and your regrets. This helps you become aware of the sacred in your life.
And, of course, in terms of material Generosity, start small if you feel the fear of scarcity rearing its ugly head. Commit to sharing some percentage of your income (it can be minor) with others. Then increase when and if you can.
But above all, being grateful for the gifts you already have is the most important first step on the journey toward integrating the Habit of Generosity into your life.
3) One of the implicit themes of your book is the danger of expectations and pre-conceived ideas and the importance of maintaining an open mind and of staying process rather than product oriented. Again, I couldn’t agree with you more! Some examples: you talk about the need to give for the sake of giving itself rather than giving in order to appear generous, assuage guilt, achieve a specific and desired end, or manipulate others; you discuss parental projections onto children who are always different from what we expected and how parents need to recognize the truth of their children; and you claim that being “unattached to any results” paradoxically increases our chances of finding satisfaction in our personal relationships. What can we all do to cultivate these attitudes of openness and acceptance and relinquish our need to control others and the course of our lives?
I appreciate this important insight, Priscilla. You’re right. Each habit carries its own intrinsic reward of liberation, increased energy and joy, and capacity for transformed persons and relationships.
This issue of trying to control others’ behavior and outcomes is huge, and is almost always crippling for us. We seek to be in control of our lives and to control others because we crave order and are chaos averse. We want life to make sense, to be predictable, to be fair (according to our uniquely subjective perspective). It is so hard to accept that sometimes the equation is not balanced, that you don’t always get out what you put in. At least not immediately.
I believe we regain power over this impulse for control when we accept the edict that, “the Universe is kind.” I learned this from the wonderful writer and scholar Stephen Mitchell. It’s another way of speaking about the universe being a moral one, which is a thesis of the life of both Dr. King and Archbishop Tutu. Ultimately, all is grace.
Albert Einstein once said that the most fundamental question we can ask ourselves is whether or not the universe is friendly or hostile. He suggested that the way we answer this question determines our destiny. So I say, choose to believe in a love-based view of the universe and you will feel that desperate urge to control others diminish.
Also, I have a friend who, when things feel out of control, tells herself, “It is what it is.” At the same time, if she can say to herself with confidence, “I’m doing the best I can on my journey; everyone is on their journey,” this frees her from that grasping need to be in control.
4) I so loved your phrase “inoculate the day with Stillness.” Can you explain why and how you do this and how others can too?
For me, making Stillness a daily practice is an absolute necessity. People may think I’m crazy but most days I wake up when it’s still dark outside so I can sit on a special chair in my front room, wrapped in a prayer shawl, and meditate for an hour. But it’s not craziness, it’s my sanity. After coming to Stillness, my decisions are more measured, informed, and aligned with the Universe’s kindness. I have increased patience, and I’m able to be creative and flexible if the day calls for it. So this practice is nonnegotiable for me.
Of course, most people don’t believe they have an hour a day to sit in silence, and for many, this particular way of practicing Stillness wouldn’t work, anyway. Everyone must find their own way to “inoculate the day with Stillness.” It might be through listening to music or going to an art gallery. It might be playing with animals or children. It might be through vigorous exercise. The point is to find your own path into it and then make the commitment to getting to that place of peace and rejuvenation as often as you can.
Ultimately, it’s pretty simple. When you realize how blessed you feel after habitual Stillness, you will find a way to make it a priority.
5) What would you say to people who resist your assertion that there is a core of goodness in everyone and that everyone has the beloved in him or her? What about someone who has wronged and harmed us or the community in profound ways- betraying sacred trusts, being dishonest, committing acts of cruelty, malice, or violence? or the people you call the self-defined victims or “injustice-collectors”, who attempt to guilt others into acceding to their wishes and present themselves as perpetual victims? I’m thinking in particular of the vindictive ex-wife you describe in your book- who lies repeatedly, manipulates her child, and seeks to destroy the life of her ex-husband? how can we “forgive” and move beyond the havoc, stress, pain, and suffering people like this seek to bring into our lives? How can forgiveness even of people who’ve committed heinous crimes be achieved and what can its beneficent effects be?
Your questions return my thinking to the issue of the “intrinsic rewards” of the 8 Habits of Love. Priscilla, there simply is a different energy vibrating in those people who see goodness in every person as opposed to those to have consigned certain people to a sub-human status. There is good in everyone. And we have to start with ourselves. What habits will each of us practice to keep us aware of our own sense of goodness?
Forgiveness is one of the most potent habits for increased awareness of the goodness pulsating at our own center. When we are able to forgive those who have wronged us, we free ourselves from the shackles of bitterness and anger. This is the part of Forgiveness that most people don’t quite understand: it’s not for the benefit of the person who has hurt us, rather, it is for our benefit. Carrying hostility and malice within us ultimately only hurts us and over time hides our own powers of creative transformation from us.
I was so moved by the story of the elderly black South African woman whose husband and son were tortured and killed by a white policeman. During a Truth & Reconciliation Commission hearing, she was asked what kind of justice she sought. She answered, “Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him.”
Reading this, I lost my breath. Seeing this “monster” as a human being who, though guided by fear and hatred, was infused with the potential for love, helped heal this mother’s pain.
This is, of course, not so easy for us to achieve. Sometimes we have to take baby steps and just acknowledge that we wish we could forgive, even if Forgiveness seems impossible.
It is important to come to Stillness, and then imagine the person who has wronged us being bathed in the light of the Beloved. And remember, I did say this would most likely be very challenging for many of us. But with practice, it will loosen the feelings of fear and resentment that are locked inside us until finally they evaporate.
Affirmations can help, too. And of course, we must remember that Forgiveness does not mean we are committing to a renewed relationship with this person—it simply means we have let go of those corrosive feelings of bitterness and free ourselves to live again with love as our guiding force.
6) What is some of the advice you give to couples who come to you for pre-marital counseling or during difficult periods in a long marriage? What do you think the most important components of a good marriage are? How can we strengthen our existing romantic relationships and inoculate them against boredom, dissatisfaction, infidelity?
When a couple comes to me for marriage preparation, I draw a map of their families of origin. Sometimes it takes 90 minutes to draw this “genogram,” with symbols of where anxiety versus the habits of love manifest themselves. This act of increased awareness of these different energies of love and fear is empowering for the couple.
Then, the work becomes even more exciting when I ask them to list those relational behaviors they want to import from their families of origin into their nuclear family and what behaviors they want to “backwash” into the older generation. When we get to that point we have a relationship contract!
There are other rules of thumb like “make sure you fight but don’t make war,” “be the other person’s ‘balcony person’ not ‘basement person,’” which is a rule of thumb about the necessity of encouragement. The foundation of all great relationships is becoming an encouragement of the other’s true or authentic self – no matter what.
“Be kind to each other,” is of course critical as well.
7) Like you, I went through a crisis of recognition that the career path I was on was not true to my deepest self and that I needed to break free from it and radically shake up my life. What counsel would you give others struggling with the realization that they are on the wrong path or in the wrong place for them (be it a toxic marriage, a job situation, or a religious institution)? How would you embolden and inspire them to do what was right even if it meant offending people important and close to them or jeopardizing their financial well-being, social standing, and personal relationships?
We have a responsibility to ourselves, to our families, and to the world to embrace that which is life-giving for our unique, differentiated selves. That invariably means that each of us is on an adventurous, exhilarating transformational journey. We must remain true to that journey of transformation no matter how much resistance we receive from without and within.
Change is frightening. It certainly was for me. So many of us would rather stay in situations that we know are not good for us because we are afraid of change. Stasis can be oddly comforting; it is an evil we know. But when we accept a situation in which we are stagnant and do nothing to change it, we are shortchanging ourselves, our loved ones, and the world. Ultimately, it’s untenable. Stress will manifest physically or psychologically. Our bodies will eventually rebel, telling us we must change. So we must be courageous and empower ourselves so that we can embrace our true potential.
I wonder if life is not about what kind of pain we are willing to embrace. There is a pain I call “sweet pain,” the pain that is stretching us, leading us to health – a phrase I borrow from my yoga teacher – “stretch to the point of sweet pain but no farther.” This is the pain that is referenced in the story in my book about “the cockpit shakes the most just before you break through the sound barrier.” There is a toxic pain on the other hand which comes from living a life that doesn’t have your name on it.
Ask yourself this question: is the risk of alienating someone or jeopardizing financial well-being, social standing and personal relationships really so much worse than living an inauthentic life? When we are not true to ourselves because of fear that we will be judged harshly or hurt others, we shrink into a more constricted and constrained version of ourselves. It’s hard to tolerate this for long.
Certainly—be as respectful as you can of the opinions of others, be as kind as you can to those who oppose you, and always stay connected to those who are resisting you as long as it doesn’t mean opening yourself to abuse. Above all, be yourself and stay the course of your deepest self, maintaining the flexibility to make mid-course corrections.
8) Can you explain the difference between childlikeness and childishness? What can we do to grow beyond childishness? How can we attain the state of childlikeness?
There is an important distinction between being childlike and childish. Barbra Streisand sings about “being more like children than children.” She is referring to childishness – the inability to play well with others. Being childlike is play-oriented—it means being open to laughter, imagination, wonder, and others on the playground of life. In contrast, childishness is defined by an inability to take responsibility and to see unselfishly beyond our needs alone. When we behave childishly we can only be aware of our own concerns and narrowed perspectives.
To be childlike means to engage in Play. To not take ourselves too seriously. To have some perspective on the world and our being in the world, understanding that we are not at the center of the universe. To be childlike means we are open, flexible, spontaneous, joyful, and we want to share that with others, too. When children move into an imaginative space in their minds and spirits, a world of possibility and promise opens up for everyone. There is an innately generous component to being childlike. Being childlike can be in solitude, to be sure. It often, however, is asking, “Can Eddie come out to play?” or “Can Priscilla come out to play?”
Many adults retreat into a state of childishness because it is challenging for them to see people, events and circumstances from any perspective other than their own hurts and willfulness (control). However, when we really “grow up” we learn that other people have feelings and needs that are often just as important as our own. And we accept responsibility for the things we do rather than blaming others.
It takes a level of introspection and maturity to grow beyond childishness, and we can do this by embracing the Habits of Generosity and Community.
9) I absolutely love what you write about the importance and nature of community. I love the way you characterize community not as defined by “uniformity of thought” or as a group in which everyone has to agree but rather as group that “gains its energy from being . . . inclusionary” and in which everyone is valued for his or her distinctive being. What practical steps can schools, religious
organizations, companies, and families! take to make their communities more inclusive and more nourishing?
Someone recently told me that the shortest distance between two strangers is a story! That is so much of the wisdom of the ages rolled up into one truth. Story telling and sharing are critical for being fully alive.
Another related dimension of community and the inclusionary dynamic comes from one of my parishioners who said during our fight for marriage equality in our state, “Where you stand on same-sex marriage depends on where you sit on Sunday morning.” By that he meant that if you structure your life so that you don’t know anyone who is different from you, then you won’t ever understand their need for the same basic rights that you have.
There is such a thing as “structural blindness” or “structural prejudice.” We human beings have a responsibility as world citizens to get to know people who live outside our comfort zone. The dramatically changed electorate that voted on November 6, 2012 told us that in stark and, for some, in challenging, even scary ways.
I have a dear Muslim teacher who challenges those who promote tolerance. He says that the Holy Qu’ran teaches that we were made different in terms of our genders, tribes, and nations so that “we might come to know one another.” Coming to know one another is more valuable than merely tolerating one another.
Finally, I want to make the “intrinsic rewards” point again. Dr. Martin Luther King said that I cannot be myself unless you are yourself. We are created in that degree of interdependence. My best interests are served when I promote your best interests. That is breathtakingly true, I have found.
It’s important for any institution, whether large or small, to be honest in assessing whether the community they inspire is truly open to the concerns, philosophies and dreams of others. Every community must engage the Habit of Truth and ask hard questions and give honest answers about how they function. They must ask: Do we invite people in or do we exclude people? Are we open to ideas and change or do we dig in our heels? Are we judgmental and superior, or respectful and tolerant?
10) Who inspires you? These can be public figures, people from your personal life, historical or literary characters, authors, musicians, and leaders, friends and family members, students and teachers.
Those who inspire me are folks on the journey of freedom and compassion in such a way that others are liberated and respected. So in addition to Jesus, Dr. King and Archbishop Tutu, I am inspired by Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Oprah Winfrey, Madonna, Leonard Cohen, Rabbi Ed Friedman, Fr. Gregory Boyle, Thich Nhat Hahn and the Dalai Lama, and my mother, brother, wife, and children. There are of course many others.
11) Who are some of your favorite authors and what are some of your favorite books?
I keep close by my side the poetry of Rumi, Rilke, and Emily Dickinson, all the brilliant translations of the world’s wisdom literature by Stephen Mitchell (particularly, The Psalms, the words of Jesus, and The Tao), the theology of Richard Rohr (particularly Things Hidden), my mentor, Ed Friedman’s The Failure of Nerve, Kim Rosen’s Saved By A Poem, Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity, and all of Thomas Merton’s works.