Bright Shining: How grace changes everything by Julia Baird is a beautiful book to read. Baird is also the author of the award-winning and bestselling book Phosphorescence and this book is written in a similar way. If you loved Phosphorescence, I think you will love Bright Shining too.
With that said, Bright Shining is not perfect. It is a little repetitive in places, reinforcing the author's key contentions about grace but as she is using different real life examples it doesn't become boring but you can notice it. As with Phosphorescence and the concept of awe, Bright Shining and its exploration of the concept of grace is written from a position of privilege. I imagine if your basic needs are not being met (eg. safety, food, shelter, etc) it would be incredibly difficult to find grace in daily life.
The book however is still very inspiring. It is a book that makes you want to be a better person through acting with greater grace after reading it. It was an excellent reminder to look for the good in others, to assume the best of intents rather than the worst and to appreciate how much impact an act of grace can have of the life/lives it touches.
Key Take Aways From Bright Shining
Bright Shining is an easy and enjoyable read. It is broken into five parts and each part is a series of short chapters. It explores what grace looks like in our world and gives examples of how it is nurtured and expressed, even in dark and sad times. Here are some key take aways from Bright Shining:
The current scarcity of grace
The book discusses the growing divisiveness and lack of grace we have in society today and how the author's awareness of this gave her a sense of urgency to understand grace better and illustrate how we can cultivate more of it.
The silos in which we consume information dot the media landscape like skyscrapers, and the growing distrust of the press, politicians and public figures has in some ways choked our ability to cut each other slack, to allow each other to stumble, to forgive one another.
Grace does not have to be deserved
A central theme in the book revolves around the concept of grace as something essentially undeserved. Baird argues that true grace exists beyond the realm of merit. It isn't earned, bargained for, or conditioned on our actions. It can shine its light even in the darkest corners, offering solace and acceptance where least expected.
This concept of undeserved grace may leave us questioning notions of justice and accountability but Baird suggests that true healing and transformation lies not in clinging to past wrongs, but in embracing the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. Grace allows us to move beyond the limitations of our past and step into a space of open possibilities, where we can rewrite our narratives and reclaim our potential.
Second, and most fundamentally, grace is something undeserved. In its crudest interpretation, karma is getting what you deserve. Grace is the opposite: forgiving the unforgivable, favouring the undeserving, loving the unlovable. With grace you get something you have done nothing to earn. It is mercy, not merit. And grace is giving people another chance, the benefit of the doubt, an opportunity to learn and change, can unravel people, redirect futures, melt hearts, heal family rifts, transform lives.
There is hope in grace
Baird shares many stories of great loss in the book, of individuals who, despite facing unimaginable burdens, choose the path of grace and find resilience where hope appeared to be lost and despair had taken its place.
Imagine if we flipped our standard of judgment from magnifying shortcomings to searching for 'a little part of this soul that could be built'. Scrabbling through dirt when you see a tiny glimmer of light.
Grace and forgiveness
There is an excellent exploration of restorative justice in Bright Shining and the role forgiveness plays in grace. Baird argues that true grace doesn't come with conditions or expectations - demanding forgiveness can be a burden imposed on those who have been hurt already. Grace can exist though even in the face of unforgivable acts, offering the possibility of healing and redemption. Grace can be the unconditional offering that can act as basis for forgiveness to take root, providing the emotional space for letting go of resentment and embracing understanding.
Forgiveness is usually made possible by some expression of remorse, by regret, by justice and by a moment of recognition of another person's humanity and our capacity to fail and to hurt. When it does occur, the person who caused the harm is allowed the possibility of redemption, and the victim the possibility of freedom from what someone else did to them to be a survivor who leaves their 'suitcase of grievances' at the foot of the person who created them, as one person I interviewed put it.
Baird does note that sometimes we can forgive and sometimes we may not be able to. That sometimes to protect ourselves we need to remove ourselves completely and focus on our own healing which can be another kind of grace.
Grace As An Antidote To Stress
While the concept of grace can seem more spiritual or philosophical, Baird includes in the book many examples of individuals whose well being dramatically improved due to their acts of grace. And on top of this anecdotal evidence, there is also plenty of evidence showing grace's ability to reduce stress in our lives in a variety of ways:
- Social engagement and connection: Studies show that social support and a sense of belonging significantly reduce stress hormone levels (cortisol) and inflammation markers. Grace, with its emphasis on empathy and kindness, fosters these connections, combating the isolating effects of stress.
- Self-compassion: This involves treating yourself with understanding and kindness instead of self-criticism. Research suggests that self-compassion reduces stress, anxiety, and even depression, mirroring the essence of self-forgiveness inherent in grace.
- Gratitude: Research shows that regularly practicing gratitude reduces stress, improves sleep, and boosts overall well-being. Grace, with its focus on appreciating the good, aligns with gratitude, helping us reframe challenges and find glimmers of light in difficult situations.
- Acceptance and letting go: Stress often stems from resisting what is. Grace, with its emphasis on surrender and acceptance, can help us let go of control and accept what we cannot change, leading to decreased stress and increased psychological resilience.
- Random acts of kindness: Performing acts of kindness releases oxytocin, a hormone associated with pleasure, trust, and bonding. This hormonal shift not only benefits the recipient but also reduces stress in the giver. Grace encourages such prosocial behaviors, leading to a positive feedback loop of reduced stress and enhanced well-being.
Bright Shining shows that living a life full of grace is not about being perfect or always doing the right thing. It's about approaching life with openness, a willingness to assume best intent, and a desire to connect with others in a meaningful way. Bright Shining is a tonic for the soul in the current landscape of divisiveness and outrage culture.