BY HARV BISHOP
Many people put an inspirational saying on their refrigerator, or a post-it with an affirmation on the bathroom mirror. But what if these posted affirmative sayings were approached as a serious spiritual mindfulness practice with the dedication of a Tibetan monk or nun mediating in a monastery?
Terri Orr, who found herself a sometimes depressed, divorced mother of two daughters in the 1970s, did just that. Using business cards on which she wrote down life-affirming quotes, Orr transcended her circumstances and eventually became Associate Dean of Admissions and Student Services at Harvard Medical School. After retiring from Harvard she became a Justice of the Peace in Walthman, Mass. Along the way, she created an archive of what she calls her “God Cards.”
Despite her considerable achievements, she says “I don’t think of my life as a series of triumphs so much as handling whatever comes along.”
“I’m not New Thought, whatever that is,” she tells me. “I’m a devoted Catholic.” But her Catholicism is informed by exposure to, among others, Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer and Eckhart Tolle, and her embrace of the 12-Step philosophy. Her first encounter with other cultures and faith paths came through her mind-opening experience as one of the few Christian freshman students at the historically Jewish Brandeis University.
“My roommate gave me a bagel,” Orr recalls with a laugh. “I’d never seen a bagel. I didn’t know what to do so I set it on a window sill and it got too hard to eat.”
Her experience of being different gave her strength. She not only opened to other ways of seeing the world, but also owned her individual convictions and ways of being. “I was different and I still am. I was the first woman in my family to go to college, the first person in my family to get a divorce, and I raised my daughters pretty much on my own.”
She knows some may dismiss her God Cards as “spirituality lite,” but she has approached working with affirmation cards with a diligence few have.
“I love my Louis Hay “I Can Do It’ page-a-day calendar,” she says unapologetically. “People can make fun of a calendar as a source of spirituality, but it works for me.”
“I have to work to keep my thinking positive,” says Orr. “With the challenges I’ve faced I could very quickly sink into worry.”
She quotes the familiar saying: God never gives you more than you can handle. “I wish he didn’t trust me so much,” she says with a rueful laugh.
In addition to divorce and stressful work situations, she also dealt with the loss of her parents who helped raise the children, and more recently the loss of her beloved second husband.
“After my divorce, I took down all my religious artifacts,” she says. “I said, ’Okay God, if this how you treat your friends I don’t need you.’”
One of her daughters eventually asked her why they didn’t go to church and the family found their way back to spirituality through user-friendly guitar masses, prayer, mediation and reading widely.
Orr says she “wore the carpet out from pacing” while fingering her rosary trying to raise adolescent daughters as a single mother. “I was so ill-equipped,” she says, “but they survived and thrived.” Her daughter Allison is a mother of two and a Dateline NBC producer and her daughter Lisa is a mother and choirmaster.
Spirituality, she says, “must deal with life as it is.”
Orr’s life challenges are forever tied to the books that helped her cope: her divorce is connected with Jerry Jampolsky’s Love is Letting Go of Fear which she calls “the Cliff Notes for A Course in Miracles.” Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth helped her through the failing health and loss of her second husband. Passages from these books would inevitably end up on her God cards.
What led her into using God Cards as disciplined spiritual practice?
“I can fly into awfulizing easily,” she says. “That why I have all the messages stuck to my computer.”
“I’m looking at two of them now, she tells me. “One says, ‘Let Go of all expectations. Other people are free to be themselves and I am free to be me.’”
Over the years, Orr’s God Cards could be found on her refrigerator, medicine cabinet, and kitchen backsplash.
“My daughter Allison used to say ‘My mother’s refrigerator has the best reading in Waltham.’”
Orr used a rush-hour commute to administrative positions with increasing prestige and pressures at Brandeis, Tufts, and Harvard to listen to audios by Marianne Williamson and Wayne Dyer. But her God Cards were never far away.
Affirmations on the back of used business cards fit perfectly into her suit pockets. “When I had a bad moment at work, I would stick my hand in my pocket and touch the card or pull it out and read when I had time. It would reset my thinking.”
“Without these reminders, I’m sure to fall back into old habits.”
Eventually her God Cards filled several bags which her son-law, Mitch Horowitz, an alternative spirituality book publisher, author and top contributor to this blog, discovered in her cabinet. Horowitz asked Orr if he could take the cards home with him. She agreed. “I figured the bags were going to a New York City dumpster. I never thought anything would come of it. For my 70th birthday his family presented me with a binder of the cards in categories—happiness, success, relationships, faith, and so on,” she recalls, deeply touched.
Orr counts many people as spiritual influences, including former NFL Super Bowl defensive lineman Mark Adickes. Adickes, now a sports medicine MD, attended Harvard Medical School when Orr was a Dean of Admissions at the school. He was much older than the typical Harvard med student, being drawn to his new career after his many NFL injuries opened his eyes to the possibilities of medicine.
Orr responded to Adickes’ drive to remake and renew his life, a passion she knew well. She loved Adickes’ mantra “Every setback is the beginning of a comeback,” which became one of her favorite God Cards. “I love the possibility, hope, and faith in that statement,” she says. “That’s the stuff that makes life bearable and worth living.”
In the 1970s an acquaintance told her, “Terri if there was a cabinet position for secretary of worry, you would be a shoe in.”
“I don’t think that is the way my family and friends would characterize me today,” she says of her spiritual journey.
“I say it often, and I especially say it to my grandchildren,” she says “as you think so shall you be.”