“Born to Win” by Muriel James

In my next few posts, I’ll talk about how the books I listed as “life-changing” made it to that category.

In 1972, I moved from Southern California to the San Francisco East Bay town of Lafayette. I was beginning a new phase of my life as Director of a Catholic retreat and spiritual growth center. About that same time, I discovered Transactional Analysis (“I’m OK, You’re Ok”). It made a great deal of sense and helped me understand my life and how I got to be the (often confused) person I was.

Also located in Lafayette was one of the founders, or at least, chief proponents of TA, Muriel James. She was a world-renowned therapist and author of the international bestseller, Born to Win (over 4 million copies sold). She was also ordained minister (a fact I learned only later in my life). I attended some of her workshops and found her to be one of the wisest persons I had ever met. At our center, we often drew on principles of TA, which integrated well with Catholic Christian spirituality. I resigned my position at the retreat center in 1979 and lost touch with Muriel.

Fast-forward 17 years to 1996. By this time I was writing professionally and had published three nonfiction books, with another–my first novel–on the way. Feeling the need to associate with other local authors, I joined the Mt. Diablo Branch of the California Writers Club. Among the many personal and professional contacts I made, one was a particularly great surprise and joy. Muriel James was also a member! This second phase of our  relationship gave us an opportunity to get to know each other as friends and colleagues. I saw another side of her–a writer of great energy and enthusiasm. For the 13 years of our renewed friendship, she has always been working on four or five books at the same time. I could only handle my manuscripts sequentially. Well into her ____ties, Muriel is still an occasional participant at Writers Club luncheons.

I would love Muriel no matter what, for her humility, kindness and loving spirit, but it doesn’t hurt that she loves everything I have published, fiction or nonfiction. Muriel James–mentor and model to me in so many ways. And it all began with Born to Win.

Life-Changing Books

A friend asked me recently, “Of all the books you’ve read, which ones changed your life?” The question stumped me. Although I read on average 30 books a year (many of you must read more), I couldn’t come up with a list on the spot. Oh, I could be glib and say that every book I read changes me in some way, but that wasn’t the intent. So here goes. These are a few of the books that played a significant role in shaping who I am today. They are not in chronological order.

Born to Win, by Muriel James

The Public Life of Our Lord Jesus Christ, by Archbishop Goodier, S.J.

Servant Leadership, by Greenfield

Intimacy, by Shirley Gehrke Luthman

The Primal Wound, by Nancy Newton Verrier

The Reed of God, by Caryll Houselander

The Life You Save May be Your Own, by Paul Elie

and (of course) Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo

St. Judas Iscariot: A Reflection on “Spy Wednesday”

A deep sadness fills me when I reflect on Judas’ betrayal of his friend Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t know the moment at which this chosen disciple gave up on hope, when the light in his creative imagination flickered and died. But it had by the time the band of brothers gathered for what turned out to be their final supper together. Judas had read the political and social signs (all negative). He peered into his future for possible outcomes if he stayed with Jesus. He saw trouble, even the likelihood of violent death. Somewhere along the path of his young life, Judas had forgotten the words of Yahweh spoken through Isaiah the prophet. “[He] pronounced my name before I was born . . . . I am important in the sight of Yahweh.” 1

Judas no longer believed he was “chosen,” both as a Jew and as one of those few handpicked by Jesus and destined to change the world for the better. He could imagine no good could coming from his association with Jesus and the other men and women who had bought into his message. Having given up on the greater power of unconditional love, he snuffed his inner light, then his life.

Still, I canonize Judas. I have an insight into how this unfortunate story really ended. Beyond the door of death, he rose to new life. Welcomed by his all-forgiving Lord (“. . . they know not what they do”), the humbled Judas took his gifted, if undeserved, place in heaven. I see him spending eternity interceding for those still alive who have lost hope, who cannot imagine they are loved without condition. St. Judas Iscariot is patron saint of bridge jumpers, ODers, suicides by police, and others whose spiritual vision ends at the tips of their noses. In their last hour, the restored apostle is at their side urging them, “Don’t despair of God’s love. You are important. Your light is still meant to shine.” Some do listen and choose life. Others don’t and find it, as St. Judas Iscariot did, only in the next.

Harvesting the Depth and Riches of My Life

What are my thoughts about Judas Iscariot being the apostle in heaven that he never was on earth?

How important am I to God?

How will I let myself be light to those around me today?

1. Isaiah 49:1-6

The Phantom Promise

With a single act of generosity and kindness, Bishop Myriel in Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Miserables, set in motion a cascade of good deeds that blessed the lives of countless people. Easily lost in this act of profligate kindness is the phantom promise that haunted former convict and petty thief Jean Vajean for the rest of his life.

I’ve attached to this post a YouTube segment from the stage production. In it the bishop tells Valjean that, like it or not, “I have purchased your soul and given it to God.” The price? Six heirloom silver plates and two silver candlesticks. The bishop did not ask Jean Valjean if his soul was for sale. With some holy sleight of hand, he purchased the rights and transferred the deed at once in perpetuity to the Lord. Jean Valjean stood agape, an uncooperative bystander at the sale of his immortal soul, his life here on earth and hereafter.

This catalytic event sets the entire novel in motion. Composer and dramatist Boublil and Schonberg captured all the tenderness and mystery of this scene. I invite you to watch and listen as the bishop exchanges a family treasure for Jean Valjean’s soul. Phantom Promise

Prayer for Wisdom

Lord, let me be strong in courage and confidence.

Let me be wise in choices and decisions.

Let me be caring in all relationships and compassionate to those in need.

Let me meet life’s adventures with a clear mind and a bold heart.

Let my integrity be a gift to the world.

And may the Spirit of God be with me always.


(source unknown)

Words of a Wise Friend and Colleague

“Because of the urge to understand, we search for knowledge; yet knowledge is not the same as understanding or wisdom. We know the price in lives that war exacts, and we understand that war is a poor way to settle disputes; yet we do not have the wisdom to avoid such conflicts . . . . Wisdom is based on understanding life and how to live in harmony and balance with it. Wisdom is the ability to separate the important from the unimportant . . . and to move toward that which is most worthwhile.”—Muriel James and John James, Passion for Life: Psychology and the Human Spirit

The Search for Everyday Wisdom

Please share with me the wisdom that keeps you going day to day in life. Whether you are 18 or 98, you have something to share with the world about the meaning of life. Send me something you’ve read, seen, heard or have to say on this topic. I will feature it on my various web sites.

Too often we go to famous authors and poets for quotes about the meaning of life. I’m looking for the wisdom of ordinary people, living ordinary lives to the best of their ability. The following is an example that a lovely woman in South America left on my Facebook wall:

“What I learned about life is that what you give to others is what makes your life special, that the love you feel deep inside is what really fulfills you, and God IS Love, and to have friends is to have a great treasure.”–Ana Antunes

Through this project, maybe we can bring some everyday sanity to our very confused and out-of-kilter world.

Earth Mother 79 A.D.

A dozen or so bodies have been recovered nearly intact from the ancient ruins of Pompei (near Naples, Italy). Three are on public display, encased in plastic for perservation. One touched my heart in a special way and continues to haunt me–a pregnant woman who died in an instant face to the earth. 

Some background. My wife and I have two daughters whom we welcomed into our family at pre-school age. We never had a baby in our family. I never had to change a diaper. Since the birth of our first grandchild in 2007, I have discoved close-up the marvels and wonders of new birth, and yes, I’ve changed a few poopie diapers, too. I’ve discovered a wonderous stage of being–infancy–that I’d never paid attention to before. I’ve learned the universal language of new-born life. 

Upon meeting this Pompei mother, millenia deceased, we made a spiritual connection. I had to write about this experience, but I choked on early prose versions of my story. The only way to express the moment we had shared was in verse. . . . as follows:

August 24, 79 A.D.


It fell so fast the
cloud of death;
no chance for aid—
on stone-laid street
my one last step;


eyes down, face hid,
womb pressed to earth,
brief shield ’gainst fire-
flung stone—a crib
for babe’s long sleep.


July 10, 2008 A.D.


I gawk, snap, feel
out of place, no
right to break your
rest; yet I am
slave to your grace.


Was this new life
your first sweet fruit,
love’s best of gifts?
Did some die home,
no mom to hold?


From lava tomb you
rose to see day’s
light and
through time’s
thin veil hail my
soul: You know me.


Our tour moves on
sites fresh dug;
with a glance, I
bid good-bye, carve
you on my heart.


You stir this old
dad’s core, set late
to flame with awe
of new-born life.
I’ll give you voice.


Copyright (c) 2008, Alfred J. Garrotto


Moving on After Naples

It happened so fast. On the first day of our Mediterranean vacation.  I had just paid four euros for a Margherita pizza-to-die-for in a Naples ristorante. A place recommended by Vito, our all-knowing guide through the unearthed ruins of Pompei. I secured my wallet inside my zippered and clasped shoulder bag (a remnant of last summer’s Alaskan cruise). Feeling positive about our good fortune, Esther and I set off on the two-block journey back to the port and our Carnival Freedom home away from home for the next two weeks.


Prior to this first venture off the ship, the staff had warned us that we had entered a city where “a red traffic light is only a suggestion.” Huddled on a street corner with a mass of death-defying pedestrians, we let the natives run interference until we reached safety. It wasn’t until we crossed the gangway to the ship’s security station that I noticed my shoulder bag unlatched, the wallet compartment empty.


The reality so shocked me, I refused to believe what my mind and senses reported. This couldn’t be happening; not to me. I had taken precautions. To think that someone had targeted me as a rube and overcome my prudent defenses caused dismay and shame, along with a sense of having been victimized. 


Reason forced its way through this emotional turmoil and I assessed the damage. Five hundred dollars in euros and U.S. greenbacks. An assortment of credit cards. My Social Security and medical cards. Driver’s license. Two missing photos of my grandson cost me the pride of showing him off to shipmates. Not my passport, thank God. Esther held that precious document which became my only photo ID. It took the rest of the afternoon, with the patient help of the ship’s Pursers, to block credit cards and order new ones, forestalling further financial damage. A close call, because $3,000 in purchases had been attempted—and rejected—within the hour it took us to return to the ship.


Back in our stateroom, we faced two options. Declare our vacation ruined from the start and go through the motions for the rest of the cruise. Or, accept what had happened and move on. In the end, we decided, “It’s only money we’ve lost.” Plus, we still had half of what we had brought and could charge whatever we needed on other cards. More important, we had each other and no one had gotten hurt.


Yet, something remained unfinished. Our decision to go on had outrun my personal emotional damage. Inner peace stalled at the bitterness I held against the person who had violated my life. Jean Valjean, my literary hero and moral model, nudged me toward recovery. Echoing Jesus’ call to “love our enemies,” he urged his daughter Cosette, “Those Thenardiers [the innkeepers] were wicked. We must forgive them,” despite the physical and emotional abuse she had suffered. A supporting voice came from Stanford professor Fred Luskin, author of Forgive For Good, who outlines the physical and mental health benefits of forgiving and getting on with one’s life.


To catch up with my “move on” decision, I had to forgive the anonymous thief and pray for his or her welfare and change of heart. So I did—or tried to, given my fragile resolve. The rest of our trip was truly amazing and thoroughly enjoyable. But the Naples experience remained a pebble in my shoe,  a discomfort that has lingered into the post-vacation business of identity protection.


Lessons learned from this incident are many. The most lasting is the wisdom of a forgiving heart. Thank you, Jesus; thank you, Jean Valjean; and thank you, Fred Luskin.