I’m Pretty Sure I’m Harder On Myself Than You Could Ever Be…

 

shame
Photo credit: Frankieleon

 

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light. 

-Brené Brown

You know how Jesus famously told his followers in Matthew 7:1 not to judge? And then how we have only taken that half seriously?  Because we often give others tremendous grace and then lash our own backs with a cat-o-nine tails whip of shame, self-deprecation, self-loathing, and repeated mantras of how unworthy, stupid, and ridiculous we are.

OK, maybe YOU personally don’t do this, but trust me, I’m not the only one out there who judges themselves more harshly than the rest of the world could ever possibly. I meet people on a very regular basis who fight a constant battle against demons within their own minds about their self-worth. I once thought that Satan was a real being. But now I know what the Accuser really is: it is all the lies that we’ve been told about ourselves, and all the traumas we’ve experienced and were never counseled through; it is all of our internalized fears and failures that have never had an avenue for expression and the chance for the light of truth to be shed on them…all of these tangle together into a dark web of, dare I say, evil?, in our minds that taunt us and judge us and hinder us from grasping on to the divine within us.

Some days, like yesterday, I sink into a state of despair where all I can see when I look back on my life is failure upon failure upon failure. It’s the kind of despair that paralyzes your breathing and your mind plays a non-stop reel of memory after memory where you could have done better, acted more kindly, been more patient.  And after the reel slows, you teeter on the edge of panic, knowing that you won’t get a do-over.  Your kids won’t get younger; you can’t undo the decisions you made that have lingering consequences; you can’t ask the questions of your dead loved ones that you should have asked years ago. As far as we can tell on this side of death, we only get this one shot at this life. (Who knows, maybe there are parallel universes where we’re living the same lives but making different choices…I find that doubtful.)

I called my best friend for help; she is brilliant, is a therapist, and knows these places of despair intimately. She reminded me using the rational mindset she always takes when dealing with my life drama, that my despair and self-judging of myself to be a failure is a learned behavior.  The reason my mind can only remember my mistakes and failures in the past is because that is what it was trained to do. The neural grooves of my brain have been firmly set over the years, and so the paths of self-hatred and judgment are much easier trails for electrical signals to travel down then trying to forge new paths of self-acceptance, and reframing, and learning to focus on the things I’ve done right and well.

I am getting better over the years at being easier on myself, and not sitting in self-judgment for as long as I used to. But I still face the same triggers again and again and know that only by being aware of the pain and discomfort that comes with them will I be able to rise against the shadow monster in my mind.

Here’s an example, maybe you can relate:

This last week I had a nursing clinical to attend based on a varying schedule. On the day of the clinical I looked at the schedule twice, but somehow managed to misread it twice, and thus retained incorrect information about where I was supposed to be and when.  I’ve prided myself on the fact that so far in this program, barring ice storms with resulting standstill traffic, I haven’t been late or missed any school or clinical events.

On this particular clinical day I made my way to my afternoon session only to find that I was 45 minutes late – and all the while I had thought I was 15 minutes early.  I made a quick explanation to my preceptor, who I don’t think was particularly thrilled with me….and the self-judgment commenced.

For the next hour and a half I struggled against the lies and self-deprecating thoughts that came flooding down my brain’s pipeline:  “Julie, how could you be so stupid; Julie only horrible people are late for clinicals (this is a stupid thought from the start because I don’t generally judge other people for being late to clinicals); Julie, you’ve just defined your character to your preceptor – you’re irresponsible, have substandard morals, and possess poor character.”

It’s totally like the “devil on one shoulder and angel on the other” image.  My brain projects an untruth out in front of me, and the little bit of me that is learning to discern my true-self musters up the courage to refute those accusing comments.  And it really seems like a battle…I have to force those signals in my brain to go off-road from their traditionally laid paths and forge new connections that are based in new beliefs.  I can almost feel my brain heating up in exertion when I do this.  Anyone feeling me here?  Know that I”m talking about?

The good news is, this struggle is getting easier over time.  If the above scenario had happened to me a couple of years ago, I would have shamed myself for the next three days before finally feeling some relief.  But that particular day I was able to let go of my self-judgment after only two hours, accepting that I had made a mistake but that it offered no real reflection of my true character and intentions. I simply needed to apologize and make corrections for the future to try to make sure similar things don’t happen again.  And my preceptor – she may or may not have formed a poor opinion of me for the rest of my life, but that’s really out of my control.

For the population of we people who are cruel and harsh with ourselves…it’s because we’ve never learned to question our thoughts. We think we ARE OUR THOUGHTS.  But there is a real YOU, and a real ME, that reside beneath our thoughts, separate from them.  Our thoughts are simply streams of consciousness that pass through our minds, random lava flows of miscellany from all the stored up memories, knowledge, and experiences bound up in synapses.  And all of those stored bits and pieces are there in particular forms because of how we perceive the outside world and what happens to us – they aren’t definitive truth and reality.

Back to Jesus and judging…the end of his statement is “lest you be judged.” I really don’t think here that he means God will judge you. And I don’t necessarily think he means that you will be judged based on a one to one ratio for every time you judge.  I really think it’s all about attitude and perspective on life. Even though it may sound a bit woo-wooey, I believe on some level we manifest stuff in our lives.  Or maybe, as a different way to frame it, we unconsciously seek out those things that align with the way we understand the world.

For example, if we believe the universe to be stingy and stacked against us, we will project that onto everything we come across and thus truly experience it as stingy and mean.  But, if we perceive life to be one of abundance and the universe as good, then we will see those qualities in everything we encounter.  The same is true in our interactions with people: if we view ourselves or others through a lens of judgment, we will see whatever comes to us through that same judgment lens.  So ultimately, Jesus isn’t just giving us another injunction to govern our external behavior. He is trying to teach us that how we see the world and approach the world is how we will perceive the world is treating us.

So, if you’re anything like me…if you berate yourself regularly, if you are harder on yourself than any other person has ever been with you, if all you can see are your mistakes and not your wins…you need to commence with some hard questioning of all that comes down the thought pipeline that you grab onto without thinking. A huge help to me with this has been The Work of Byron Katie. This systematic inquiry practice has shown me that if you relentlessly question everything that happens to you, it is easier to see what is really true and what is just the story we believe about ourselves and the world around us.

 

 

 

 

It Takes a Village of Mothers to Raise a Mother

 

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Photo credit: BXL ART

 

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and I spent much of the day reflecting on how I came to be the mother that I am. As a mom of three sons, I frequently make some huge parenting mistakes, but I know I also get it right alot of the time, too.  While I take full responsibility for my shortcomings, occasional bad moods, and infrequent but insane tirades of “What the hell are you boys doing?!”, I know that so much of the good parenting that comes out of me comes from the mentoring, examples, and encouragement I’ve received from other mothers.

Looking back, my own biological mother was kind of a Wonder Woman. It took me until years into my own mothering that I actually realized this. She was a college physics professor, a profession she was absolutely called to and which she loved. We lived an hour away from town, so every morning she would diligently get up at 5 in the morning, get my brother and me ready for school, haul us to our school in the neighboring town from which she taught, go teach classes all day, grab us from school, run errands, take the long drive home to cook dinner and clean up the house, just to go to bed and do it all again the next day.  Every few months she would toss in some cross-country jaunt to a physics meeting somewhere that she would be actively involved in.

When I was young, I didn’t appreciate her as much, or her hard work, and could only see her faults. But now, after I’ve adulted for a while, I can see how very hard she worked and how much she sacrificed for my family and her students. She taught me about having a good work ethic, about being a perpetual learner, about not being afraid of science and mathematics, about working hard until the task is done. And, she did so much of all of this while struggling with cancer for the last ten years of her life. She was quite the example of fortitude, and I hope I can instill this same quality in my own boys.

My biological mother hasn’t been my only mother, though. I’m a firm believer that we can find family outside of our relatives and kin, and we’re missing out if we don’t search for those people. Or, in some cases, I firmly believe that God brings them directly to us when we need them. I’ve had women who were mothers to me for short periods of time, just for a season here and there. I’ve also had mothers who have stayed with me for the long haul, who have seen me through thick and through thin.

Some of the best mothers I’ve had were ones who didn’t know they were really mothering me.  I’ve done my own share of mother stalking…you know, where you find a person that resonates with you and you watch their every move, cling to every word they speak, because you know there’s wisdom coming at you from them. I’ve watched women as they interact with their children, and learned so much from them, even if I have never once spoken to them. I’ve learned from women who had completely different parenting philosophies from me, and from those who I knew were kindred spirits.  And even the mothers who may have really been dropping the ball or making huge life mistakes (or maybe just what the world perceives to be huge life mistakes)…they taught me – even if it was teaching me what doesn’t work as a parent.

I think I’ve read just about every parenting book out there, from various perspectives and philosophies. While they are good, they are usually only theory to a certain point, and this is where it is so helpful to be able to look to real mothers for help.  Some of my best parenting advice has come from what I once thought would be the least likely sources.  I keep pestering a friend of mine that she needs to write a book called The Alcoholic’s Guide to Parenting with some quippy subtitle along the lines of using AA’s 12 steps to joyfully and calmly raise children. My friend, who is a longtime sober alcoholic, says brilliant things about being a mom on a regular basis. I’m amazed watching her that someone can face some of the crazy stuff she does without completely freaking out or resorting to grasping her kids with a steel grip.  She freely admits she doesn’t have her life together, but the funny thing is, I trust her advice more than that of alot of people who do “have their lives together.”

Strangely enough, I’ve also been mothered by women younger than me, who have little ones. I see how courageously they guide their toddlers and preschoolers into the currents of a fast-changing world and I’m like, “Damn, why couldn’t I have been that cool and collected when my kids were that little?” But they inspire me to calm my own self, to remember to enjoy my boys because they won’t stay young long. When my boys are grown and think back to the days that I was chill, they have these mothers to thank.

And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how I’ve been mothered by those who weren’t ever biological mothers. Sometimes these are actually the best mothers because they have some objectivity,; they don’t miss the forest for the trees because they have a step back out of the messiness, and food splatters, and dirty diapers, and smart-ass backtalk that gets all of us moms riled up from time to time. Sometimes these mothers can see the big picture when we can’t and they help to show us the path forward.

So on Mother’s Day, I was grateful for the memories of a biological mother who brought me safely to adulthood and gave me so many good gifts. She has passed now and I no longer have her. But I am so very aware that I have not been left motherless; I have many mothers and am thankful for this village that has grown and is continuing to grow me into a better mother for my own children.

 

On Using the Good China and Making Hard Stops

china
Photo credit: Sean

“Life is long, if you know how to use it.”
― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

My Dad has been building a house, literally by himself, for about the last 30 years.  It is a wicked amazing house, set back at the base of a hill between some big oak trees, on his ranch in the south Texas hill country. The process of building started way back when I was about six years old. He and my mom poured over house plan magazines until they settled on one they liked. In the meantime, my brother and I helped him find and gather up all the best river rocks we could to serve as part of the future house’s walls. Big, flat, white limestone rocks pulled from the riverbeds in the Texas canyon where I grew up…we made piles and piles of them until at last my dad was ready to start building.

Over the last few decades, he has worked on this house whenever he could, a few hours here, a few hours there. He poured the foundation, plumbed the pipes, stretched the electrical lines, dug the well, and laid cinder block after cinder block, all by himself.  As far as I know, the only thing he accepted significant help with was putting on the metal roof and having custom kitchen cabinetry done by a local carpenter.  The house is now livable, but still has some detail work to be done.  It is wonderfully unique, well-built, and has a fabulous stone fireplace. It would pretty much take a nuclear bomb to bring that house down.

Truth be told, I have bittersweet feelings about this house, in all of its fabulous-ness, because of how it relates to my mom, who passed away almost five years ago now. That house was my mother’s dream, what she built her future around, and sadly, it was a future that was never realized.  It still kind of breaks my heart.

Being a bride in the 70s, my mom received beautiful china, silver, and crystal bowls for her wedding.  Every so often my mom would pull everything out from the dark recesses of her kitchen cabinets and we would polish the silver as I oohed and aahed over the beautiful pieces.  I would always beg her to let us use the china and silver for everyday use, it was so pretty.  But she would inevitably say, no, this is special…it is to be saved for the “new” house, as though the old ranch house I grew up in wasn’t worthy of beautiful dinners and lovely things.

Mom also talked of the dinner parties and family gatherings we would have when we finally moved to our ranch, away from the ranch that my dad managed. She subscribed to Southern Living and would pore over the magazine pictures, visualizing how she would decorate the new house. And most every time I suggested doing something with the house we currently lived in, she would say, no, let’s wait until the new house.

The china never got pulled out and set at the table.  The silver was never used to serve food at parties or even be displayed.  My mom died from cancer exactly a year after she retired from her college teaching job, just after all the kitchen appliances were installed in the new house, just after all of the custom cabinetry was done, and just after all the downstairs was painted a lovely, calming, buttery yellow.  I still choke up thinking about it. I don’t blame my dad at all for not getting the house done in time for her to live there…he has busted his ass for my family and his employer for the last 40 years, working harder than anyone I have ever known. But it hurts, nevertheless, that my mom never got to have that dinner party.

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I found out this week that a grade school-through-high school classmate of mine passed away.  She was only 37, and left behind a daughter and young son.  The news sobered me and reminded me that life is not guaranteed for anyone.  It is one thing for me to work in a hospital and experience the illness and passing of relative strangers; it is entirely a different thing to experience the passing of people you know, or once knew well, especially when they are still young

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Last week I took my boys up to the southern edge of Lake Michigan to celebrate a friend’s graduation from seminary.  A different friend joined us and we spent the day before the graduation sitting on the sandy beaches of Indiana Dunes. After 6 hours of sitting under a shaded umbrella while my boys dug in the sand and played in the water, none of us were ready to leave.  It was too calm, too peaceful, too thick of the life that we so often miss with our frantic, electronics-filled days that are jammed with commitments and obligations.

Our day on the beach made me recognize something.  I try to squeeze in meditation or contemplative sits into my days, I try to regularly exercise, and I try to keep up with all of my appointments and deadlines to avoid falling behind.  But I know this was not enough. All I have been doing is squeezing in thing after thing into my life, knowing that EVERY SINGLE DAY would involve either housework, or errands, or homework, or clinicals. These things, as important as they are, made every day feel exhausting and creativity-stifling. There are things I really want to do but am never getting to because I always feel like I should be doing something else…something productive, or useful, or adult-ish.  The things that make we want to get up in the morning were just squeezed in here and there as I could, never receiving my full time and attention.

I need regular hard stops in my life. Time to just set aside work and all the “should-dos”, time to really rest and recuperate and have fun and pursue creatively the things that really make me happy – a sabbath, if you will. I’ve known of people who have set aside a day in their week to do nothing other than what they wanted to do. I’ve known of people who even did this while in school, and amazingly, saw their grades improve. And while I grew up reading the Old Testament’s commands to take sabbaths every week and every seventh year to rest, I never saw the need until now.  I used to think the Sabbath was for God; now I know it is for us.

Today is my first hard stop, and I discovered a couple of things leading up to it. I worked harder this week on my schoolwork and other obligations in anticipation of quitting today. Instead of quickly falling behind at the start of every nursing school semester as usual, I am actually ahead. Second, I am not dreading the start of tomorrow and the next week, because I know that I will have another hard stop coming up in just a few days. I gave myself license to sleep in today, and to do whatever brings me joy, and I have experienced emotional and physical rest in that.

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A friend of mine and I got together for coffee a few nights ago. During our conversation, we talked about how we always tend to live our lives constantly reaching for the future, pursuing goals, and “saving the good china” for later because we believe that once we get “there” we will be happy.  But we both had to admit, that being “there” never makes us happier. When we get “there”, there is always some new goal to work towards, some new thing that we feel we need to be happy.  And we tend to find that we are usually never more happy or sad than we were in the past.  Richard Rohr says it this way: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven, and it’s hell all the way to hell.”  Basically, how you do things now is how you’re going to do them in the future.  If you’re not happy and content now, you won’t be happy and content in the future.

My friend and I concluded that happiness is a state of mind.  The only place to live is in the here and now, because that’s all there actually is.   In general, there is never really a “right” time to do things, either.  If we wait to live our lives and pursue our dreams for the “right” time to come, we’ll likely end up waiting forever.  Or, in my mom’s case, our lives will end before that time ever comes.

So this is my grand, or maybe not so grand, conclusion: chase after what you’re passionate about NOW, be grateful for all that you have NOW, schedule in regular hard stops to recalibrate yourself NOW, and use the good china TONIGHT at dinner.

 

It’s Actually An Interesting Process to Donate Your Body to Medical Science

cadaver
Photo Credit: Shannon Carabajal 

Disclosure: For those who avoid morbid light-heartedness and sarcasm, perhaps you won’t enjoy this post.

Over the last year and a half, since getting divorced, I’ve been getting my  “affairs” in order.  I don’t plan on kicking the bucket any time soon, but in case I do, I want things to be in place for my boys.  So, I’ve designated a power of attorney, set up an estate trust, gotten ample life insurance, and set up a living will and advanced directives…you know, adulting kind of stuff.

Having gone to about a billion funerals in my life, and helping plan a few, I realize how expensive and stressful funerals can be. Even the cheapest, absolute bare bones funeral home services and coffin package costs several thousand dollars.  Even cremation comes with a noticeable price tag.

In many areas of my life, I’m pretty frivolous and excessive.  But when it comes to me dying, I have always aimed to be as practical as possible.  Salvage what you can for those needing transplants, and let medical students hack away on the rest of me. Morbid as it may sound, I’ve just never been keen on being stuck in a box in the ground or set in an urn on a fireplace mantel somewhere.

I made my wishes clear to my power of attorney in the unforeseen event of my demise and may have daydreamed a tiny bit of how my earthly self might help further the causes of medical research.  That is until I talked with a local hospital marketing employee who told me that in Indiana, it’s actually sometimes more difficult than you would think to bequeath your freshly dead self to science.  I was really disappointed, both regarding my fantasies of my altruistic sacrifice, but also because my plans to make things super easy on my kids and family when I die shriveled up before my eyes.   Just to be on the safe side, I decided to look into the process, and here are a few random but interesting facts I stumbled across on The Google.

  1. You have to apply to donate your body, and…you might be rejected.  In general, having things like cancer, arthritis, or dementia won’t exclude your bodily donation from being accepted.  However, if you have a communicable disease, hepatitis, HIV, are taller than six feet, or weigh more than about 200 pounds, your chances of being selected to grace the cadaver table of a med school gross anatomy lab are slim to none.  Apparently, the embalming process adds another 100 to 150 pounds of weight to a corpse, making them wieldy to handle.
  2. Who would have thought that airline mergers would have any bearing on gifting yourself to a research institution? But it does. According to US Funerals Online, the changes in major airline companies have made getting donations to where they need to go more costly and cumbersome. If you’re concerned about the transportation industry ruining your post-mortem travel plans, consider pre-registering with a for-profit cadaver company to donate your body so you’ll know ahead of time what your options are.
  3. Donating your body to medical science isn’t free. In some places, like Indiana, where I live, there is a 24-hour phone line to call with inquiries about donating a recently deceased person. A quick phone screening by the Anatomical Education Program of Indiana University School of Medicine will determine eligibility for donation. If the family of the deceased requests it, the program will come pick up the body, use what it can, and cremate the remains.  If the family doesn’t want the ashes back 18-24 months later, there is a cemetery specifically designated as an eternal resting place for them..the ashes, not the family.  This is all done with no expense to the family.  However, it costs the School of Medicine significant funds to carry out this program.  But an added perk?  You can donate funds along with yourself when you die to ensure that the program will be able to afford to dissect you, for educational and medicinal purposes, of course.
  4. Supply of cadavers for research and medical school is low, even as many medical schools are moving away from using cadavers. In the past, it was legal to use unclaimed bodies as research cadavers. Perhaps you’ve even heard stories of grave robbers and body snatchers. Here’s an interesting bit of history and social injustice surrounding that. Now, in states like New York, years old traditions have been upended by new laws requiring explicit consent by family to use a body for research.
  5. Body farms – enough said.  A few years ago I started reading Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by science writer Mary Roach. In one chapter she described exploring an outdoor scene where corpses lay in various degrees of decay.  I had forgotten all about the detailed imagery in her book until reading articles for this blog about body farms.  This is the less glorious side of donating one’s body to science.  Rather than be sliced and incised by a fresh-faced doctor wanna-be, bodies are laid out on plots of land so forensics specialists can learn about how bodies decompose over time and when exposed to the elements.  However, the noble side of body farms is they can help provide justice for victims of abuse. Also, on a lighter note, if you get rejected as a body donation by a medical school, you might be welcomed at a body farm.
  6. You might not be accepted as both an organ donor AND a whole body donor. Organ donors are more common than whole-body donors, and it seems more culturally accepted here in the United States.  But many places, like the Mayo Clinic, won’t accept a body for donation after organs have already been removed for other purposes.  So, another reason to plan ahead of time which rite of passage is most important to you?- transplants or research.
  7.  There are alternatives to traditional funerals and cremation through funeral homes. Apparently, there is a trend called “green burials“, which is legal in all 50 states, where one can be allowed to decompose naturally without the use of embalming chemicals like the carcinogenic formaldehyde.  There are 30 or so specific “green burial” cemeteries across the United States.  And unbeknownst to me, you can still be buried in your backyard on private land as long as proper protocols and rules are followed.  This sort of necessitates pre-registration as well to ensure all the necessary paperwork is filed before you die.  Finally, only seven states require that a funeral director presides over the comings and goings of a person who has died. In all the other states, body preparation and services can all be performed at home.   Kind of like a home birth…but the other direction.

In reading up for this post I found quite a number of humorous articles related to body donations, as well as sites of companies that ironically make money off of body donations by taking them and piecemealing body parts out to needy institutions.  But the overall lesson? Body donation is not always a firm guarantee, so deciding on a backup plan for your body’s final destination is a good idea.

As a last side note, consider setting up an advanced directive for how medical care should be organized in the event you can’t make decisions for yourself.  It’s not difficult, it sure helps healthcare professionals and your loved ones when hard, emotional choices are required, and it’s a good way to maintain your self-agency in death instead of letting the courts have authority over who makes decisions concerning you and your care.

 

 

Disappointment in Parenting

 

disappointment
Photo credit: Brit-knee

 

Being a parent is HARD, y’all.  You know, we often ask new parents of young babies how they are sleeping, and we set up meal trains to bring them food, and we offer to clean their houses and watch the infants so Mom and Dad can go on a date.

Can I just say, after having had three babies, that parents need way more help when the kids are older than when they’re fresh out of the toaster?  When your kids are tiny, parenting is really only about being able to stay awake and learning the technical aspects of keeping a little human alive and well. Parents end up exhausted and cranky, but usually, the true existential crises don’t come until those little humans start talking and showing their personalities and wills.

I tend to laugh at movies and other programs when teenagers are handed fake babies to care for as a method of birth control. This is so ineffective in my opinion.  They should hand the teenagers toddlers up through eleven-year-olds, and a house with laundry everywhere, a sink full of two-day old dishes, toothpaste all over the bathroom walls, and pee everywhere but the toilet.  I believe this would be a much more effective form of contraception.

Now, I should preface before I go much further that I’m totally riffing off Rob Bell’s latest podcast on disappointment.  And, I also know I’m setting myself up to be crucified by people who have their lives more pulled together than me.  But I suspect I”m not alone in what I’m going to write about here, and I also admit that I’m processing my own thoughts about parenting while I write this.

I’m so disappointed as a parent.  Remember that book from years ago, Disappointment with Godby Phillip Yancey, where he voices questions about God that you’re not really actually supposed to ask out loud?  I don’t remember much of the book, but the title stuck with me. Here, in this post, I’m just going to say the things that you’re not supposed to say out loud about parenting – because it’s true, and real, and sometimes you have to say hard things out loud to be able to move forward.

Parenting is not what it was supposed to be. My kids are not who they were supposed to be.   Furthermore, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and I have no certainty of the outcomes.  I really hate that – I want to have a foolproof plan for childrearing and I want to know that my plan will succeed with all of me still intact.

Disappointment, it seems, comes because the expectations we have about something aren’t met.  I had alot of expectations when I had my kids. First, I didn’t expect to become a parent when I did.  I had other plans in mind, another agenda in place, which was abruptly taken off the table. So, disappointed as I was at the time to have to suddenly change directions, I threw my shoulders back and took on the mantle of parenting. At the time, I saw my goal to be raising children for Jesus – get them on the straight and narrow from the get-go, and pave the path for them to cruise straight into heaven after they die, all the while growing up to be compassionate adults who engage in some meaningful work among non-Jesus-ified people before then. I would also homeschool them, push them to their limits academically, and mold them to be sweet, tactful, helpful little people. And all the while I would do it as a model parent, sure of myself and my role as their authority figure.

Yeah, well, those idealistic notions lasted about two seconds.  It took me only a couple of months with my first kid to realize I had no clue what the hell being a parent was all about.  And it didn’t take me very long to recognize that we tend to become parents for reasons and with expectations that will inevitably be tested.

Children, as it seems, have very little interest in helping us become fulfilled as humans. They aren’t concerned with how their personalities and temperaments trigger us. They refuse to stay cute, calm, cuddly, and docile. Now that all of my children are in elementary school, I have concluded that people should be warned against bringing these little creatures into the world unless they want all of their faults mirrored back to them on a regular basis, have every single decision they make questioned again and again, and be repeatedly brought to the brink of insanity.

I think my disappointment in parenting comes from the fact that I didn’t know, years ago, that raising children is nothing short of a spiritual practice.  We are not really our children’s teachers at a certain level; they are here to teach us about life and what matters. They are here to wear off our rough edges and make US fit for the Kingdom, (drawing from Christian language) not the other way around. They are here to pave THEIR own paths, not meet our emotional needs or help us feel successful.

I didn’t decide to be a parent so that I could be perpetually disappointed, but that’s where I am. I’m not a masochist; if I had known how hard it is to be a parent, I doubt I would have willingly signed up.  Now, before people start beating me up and saying I’m heartless and evil: me being disappointed has nothing to do with how much I love my boys or how I would die for them without thinking about it, or how they have brought with them so many unexpected gifts into my life.

Disappointment is not always a bad thing, I don’t think, even though it hurts.  It has made very clear to me so many of my attachments to things that aren’t healthy or helpful. It has shown me that my children do not belong to me; they are simply passing through my hands for a short time.  And most importantly, I think, my parenting disappointments have taught me to be much more gracious to other parents who may be doing this raising kids thing differently than me, because parenting is damn hard and we are all just fumbling and doing the best we can.

Richard Rohr frequently talks about how we must become disillusioned with our own personal salvation projects, realizing they don’t get us anywhere, for us to really move forward.  He’s primarily talking about how we relate to God, but I think it applies to things like parenting, too.  It’s only when we absolutely reach the ends of our ropes with our kids can we truly begin to parent out of grace, and maybe, out of our true selves and not our egos.

I think I’m edging to this point. I’ve read SO VERY MANY parenting books from people across various philosophies. I’ve taken parenting classes.  I’ve tried to be the authoritarian parent and the benevolent democratic parent. I’m tried behavior modification, begging, threats, and though I no longer use it because it has only made things worse-spanking.

What I’ve found is none of these is a silver bullet solution. There is no one-size fits all pattern to parenting.  And sometimes, even when you’ve done every single thing right, you’re kid, OR YOU, will still screw up tremendously.

One of my boys has really been struggling this year.  Behavior issue after behavior issue, hitting, tearing things apart, being steely in his obstinance.  I get call after call and email after email from his school.  He’s been in the office this many times today for such and such.  He’s going to have in school suspension tomorrow for such and such. He just got kicked out of his after-school program for such and such.

At a certain point, all I hear is the Charlie Brown wah, wah, wah, wah.  I hear it again when everyone in my life starts throwing out suggestions, trying to be helpful.  Maybe he has ADD. Well you know, Julie, divorce is hard on kids. Maybe you should get him tested for this, or that, or that. Julie, you need to institute some real structure and consistency in his life. Julie, you need to be less demanding. 

My kids tend to work in cycles, too, and sometimes they tag team against me.  As soon as I put out a fire with one kid, another one flares up with a different kid.  It is exhausting.  And SO disappointing.   Because I wanted to be the GOOD Mom. The one who is always emotionally available. The one who always knows the right thing to say. The one who is always fair and just. The one who never spoils but is never rigid.

I’m disappointed because I’m not the person I thought I should be and wanted to be, and I’m disappointed in my kids because they aren’t the people I wanted them to be or who they were supposed to be.

Back to the personal salvation project idea.  This is what I’m tentatively realizing: life seldom brings to us what we think we want, but rather, it serves up daily what we truly need. If there’s one thing I know for sure, life undoubtedly brought me the perfect kids to reveal every flaw, and every shred of greed and selfishness, and all the lazy bits hidden down deep within me. I thought my personal salvation project was supposed to be about rocking it as a parent and raising brilliant, charming kids, all the while, never repeating the mistakes my own parents made.  But I should have known, growing up with the words of Jesus ingrained in me…to find yourself, you must first lose yourself.  I’m disappointed because I was secretly hoping I could bypass this part – maybe I’d get lucky and it wouldn’t apply to me.

My final great disappointment in parenting is that you can’t just fix things by finding the right book or parenting technique or just working harder. Sometimes no matter what you aim for, things will be hard and you will do the wrong thing and you’ll feel like throttling both yourself and your kids. Don’t you just hate this? It’s so counterintuitive in today’s world – we believe that if we just apply the scientific method and a bit of logic -Voilà!- problem solved and we will all get along splendidly!

My one great consolation right now as a parent is this: since my children have done such a magnificent job of tearing apart my ego and my understanding of what things are “supposed” to be like, I’m starting to believe that maybe there isn’t a “supposed to” anywhere.  Is there one right way to parent?  I’m thinking not. Is there one particular way children are supposed to act and behave? Really, who are we to say?

Maybe the whole point, if there is a point, is not to try and make our lives “look” like anything.  Maybe we are just to accept what comes, deal with it the best we know how, and receive the results as gifts, even if at the moment they feel like anything but gifts.  Maybe our attachments to outcomes and our expectations are causing us all of our problems and disappointment in the first place?

Right now I’m trying to learn to just “sit” in my disappointment, to let go of my attachments to what “should be.”  And I’m grasping on for dear life to the words of people who have been frequently disappointed in life, yet have found it to be an avenue with which to truly find themselves.

““Paradoxically, I have found peace because I have always been dissatisfied. My moments of depression and despair turn out to be renewals, new beginnings…”          – Thomas Merton

 

 

Shaming Yourself Over Past Decisions

 

tree
Photo credit: Morgan Thompson

“Well—I have to say I personally have never drawn such a sharp line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as you. For me: that line is often false. The two are never disconnected. One can’t exist without the other. As long as I am acting out of love, I feel I am doing best I know how. But you—wrapped up in judgment, always regretting the past, cursing yourself, blaming yourself, asking ‘what if,’ ‘what if.’ ‘Life is cruel.’ ‘I wish I had died instead of.’ Well—think about this. What if all your actions and choices, good or bad, make no difference to God? What if the pattern is pre-set? No no—hang on—this is a question worth struggling with. What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”
— Donna Tartt (The Goldfinch)

I went for lunch after church yesterday with a good friend.  It was finally warm enough to eat outside, and so we did, but still sat as close to the outdoor fire pit as possible.

I always appreciate it, when you get to the point in friendships where you can bypass small talk and get straight at what you really want to discuss, what is really pressing and feels most important at the time -when you don’t have to lay groundwork to have meaningful conversation.  Besides, there’s been more than enough conversation about the weather over the last few months to cover the rest of the year.

As my friend and I ate, we talked about the things that are currently giving us anxiety – the unforeseen things that lay out of ahead of us that we can’t control.  We looked back at decisions we made months and years ago and ask if they were the right decisions. Did they set us up for the unsettlement we feel right now, or will they one day prove to be the right decisions all along?

When people ask me why I did certain things throughout my life, I respond that they seemed like good ideas at the time. And this is true. I don’t tend to make a habit of willingly making stupid decisions that I know will precipitate unfavorable consequences, at least not regarding decisions that carry alot of weight.  Even so, in the attempt to make good decisions, I’ve made some really bad ones.

One of my great struggles in life is shaming myself for past decisions that didn’t turn out so well. The old adage says that hindsight is 20/20, but that’s not entirely true in my case.  I have much stronger vision for pinpointing every single mistake I made and beating myself up over them year after year after year. My memory occludes the good choices I have made – the places where I stopped going in an unhelpful direction and purposely turned and started walking on a better path, or the times when I actually exhibited some stellar parenting skills, or the times when I really loved people unselfishly.

Nope, in my mind I can only see where I failed my kids, my friends, and myself. If only I had done this thing… If only I had said this instead of that… If only I had just walked away….or come closer.

I recognize that alot of my self-shaming and anxiety come about because of beliefs I internalized at a young age.  For one, I believed for years that God had a narrowly defined path for each of us to take in life, and it was our job to find and stay on that path, lest we risk screwing everything up.  I also grew up in a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” culture that offered little grace for mistakes and fumbling around trying to find one’s path. This kind of worldview only served to help me continue to fail.  How could I ever stay on that one narrow path? How could I suck it up and gut my way through life when I didn’t understand how life works?

Fortunately for me, my understanding of God and failure and bad decisions has morphed over time.  I’m gradually beginning to see those poor decisions of the past to be good things, in the sense that they have become my teachers.  I still sometimes doubt myself, and wonder if certain choices I made are going to cause everything to blow up in my face at some point. But when I’m at my best, I look at those “mistakes” through the following lenses.

  1. I did the best I could with the information I had at the time.

I know I’m not the only person that does this – looking back on something we did or a choice we made and berating ourselves for not having taken some important fact or piece of information into consideration.  What I usually discover, though, is that particular fact usually isn’t available until after we’ve made out decision.  In essence, we shame ourselves for not making decisions based on information that we either don’t know or doesn’t exist yet. That is just lunacy, really.

I think this kind of shaming is made worse considering how much information we have readily available at our fingertips these days with technology and The Google. I know that I often unconsciously think that I just put in the right search phrase, or read the right book or website, or listen to the right person, I’ll find the answer I need for a particular decision.  I conclude, if I can’t find that answer, it’s because I didn’t search hard enough.

In many ways, this ‘information at your fingertips in less than 10 seconds” has not served us well because it keeps us frantically searching…or, at least it does this to me.  We need to be able to offer ourselves the grace to stop the information search at some point, make the necessary decision, and go with it, come whatever may.  To qutoe Theodore Roosevelt (and I haven’t fact-checked that he actually said, but it’s still true): “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  That’s all we can do. We humans are not omniscient.

2. My mistakes and “bad” decisions are my teachers because they show me what doesn’t work.

I read somewhere a long time ago that Thomas Edison said something about not viewing his invention failures as real problems because they taught him what doesn’t work. Putting a positive framing on these kinds of things can really make all the difference, especially if you have the right end goal in mind.

The goal of life is not to be perfect, at least not in the traditional sense of the word where we only do things the right way, offering up beautiful, always up to standard, results. This is entirely unrealistic, and misses the whole point of being human…or divine, for that matter. A much more helpful way to look at perfection is the idea of completeness.  The goal in life, I think, is to become complete, integrated, and whole.  This takes some work and alot of grace, and it certainly doesn’t happen through getting everything “right” all the time.  We become complete and whole by doing shadow work (see Carl Jung) and wrestling with the sides of ourselves that we don’t always want to see or acknowledge. When we face our “bad” decisions, we are at a wonderful gateway to begin facing and uncovering the aspects of ourselves that are in pain and need healing and integration.

“It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at.”
― Elizabeth GilbertBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

3. Who are we to say with certainty what is good, or what is bad?

I’ve quoted him a billion times, but my favorite saying of Richard Rohr is “Everything belongs.”  If this is true, and I believe it is, it means that there is nothing that is not redeemable. God wastes nothing. How, then, can anything be completely, and eternally, bad?  OK, all of you people that are immediately wanting to ask me questions about the bad-ness of rape, and war, and the Holocaust…I saw that coming.  And I ask the same myself – how can those not be bad?  At some level, they are horrible, un-excusable, evil, wretched. But I firmly believe, that somehow, God can envelop them, hold them, and incorporate them into goodness.  I don’t know how; it’s a mystery. After reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, written about the Holocaust, I’m convinced that deeper meaning and good can be found when you push through the horrors that appear on the surface of life.

I also look to the idea of yin and yang from the Tao.  Now, I”m certainly not a Taoist, or expert in Eastern thought, but it holds meaning for me. This is what I  can see from the little I understand:

  • Opposites, or the dual nature of things, balance each other out.  They create wholeness when brought together
  • There are no absolutes in life, everything is interconnected. It would be difficult to say that something is completely all bad, or all good, especially when we have a limited understanding of life and can only see one little piece of the proverbial elephant, as it were. We judge good and bad through our own filters.
  • Everything is changing and is in a state of process – what is now may be something different later.

And to end this point I’m attaching a famous Buddhist story I’ve heard many times from various people that makes the point quite well, I think.  I stole this exact version from David Allen.

One day a man’s horse runs away. And his neighbor comes over and says, to commiserate, “I’m so sorry about your horse.” And the farmer says “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” The neighbor is confused because this is clearly terrible. The horse is the most valuable thing he owns.

But the horse comes back the next day and he brings with him 12 feral horses. The neighbor comes back over to celebrate, “Congratulations on your great fortune!” And the farmer replies again: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

And the next day the farmer’s son is taming one of the wild horses and he’s thrown and breaks his leg. The neighbor comes back over, “I’m so sorry about your son.” The farmer repeats: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

Sure enough, the next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.

And this story can go on and on like that. Good. Bad. Who knows?

Moral of this post? We need to stop shaming ourselves over our perceived mistakes.  We’re OK, and if we’re wise we’ll know to learn from everything that happens to us.  And for all of us that worry that our choices might ruin our kids lives (and I”m preaching to myself here):

  1. God (Life, the Universe, whatever you call it)  is working harder for our children than we are
  2.  We don’t know everything; there is no way we can completely predict what will hurt our children or make them stronger.  Those little guys are amazingly resilient.
  3.  Apologize frequently, ask for feedback, praise them often, and teach them how to contact a therapist when they are adults.

Back to lunch with my friend.  We are usually much harder on ourselves than others are. My friend beats herself up over choices and worries about how she will handle certain circumstances that the future might bring.  I, as a somewhat objective outsider, am wicked impressed with so many of the hard, difficult decisions she’s made…who cares if they turn out perfectly or not. I’m inspired by her bravery to step out and do life, and be creative, and love others.

Yes, there will be people who will love to point out our flaws and where we royally screwed up in life. But to quote the wonderful Brené Brown:

“UnMarketing: “Don’t try to win over the haters; you’re not the jackass whisperer.”   And.. “Nothing has transformed my life more than realizing that it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands.”
― Brené BrownDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

 

 

 

 

 

When You Live Life in the Hypothetical

hypothetical
Photo credit: Martin Brigden
Logos
"Why wonder about the loaves and the fishes?
If you say the right words, the wine expands. 
If you say them with love and the felt ferocity of that love and 
the felt necessity of that love, the fish explode into many.
Imagine him, speakng, and don't worry about what is reality,
or what is plain, or what is mysterious.
If you were there, it was all of those things.
If you can imagine it, it is all those things.
Eat, drink, be happy. 
Accept the miracle.
Accept, too, each spoken word spoken with love.
-Mary Oliver, Why I Wake Early

I live life way too much in my head. In fact, it is a thriving cerebral swamp of stories about what has happened in the past, what is happening now, and what could potentially happen in the future. I daily struggle against this quagmire of imaginations, and have to constantly evaluate what is reality and what is not….I’m really good at convincing myself of things that aren’t true.

My favorite spiritual teachers, Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, and Richard Rohr, among others, frequently teach that the past and the future are both illusions.  The only thing that is real is the present, the NOW. Like so many others, I’m horrible at living in the Now. But even then, I’m not so great at living in what really happened in the Past either.  I tend to spend most of my time in the hypothetical past and the hypothetical future.

When I was young, my mother made a couple of really harsh statements to me that have stuck with me since.  Now, this is not a “my parents’ ruined my life” post.  My mother was a wonderfully complex person with alot of flaws and alot of strengths and virtues.  And I’ve made enough tremendous belly flops as a parent to know that we are all going to say really stupid things to our kids at times.

These two comments, in particular, wormed their way into my psyche, and I internalized them as being representative of my identity. I spent the next half of my life striving against those beliefs to prove they weren’t true. Every time I did fail, it just seemed to reinforce them. Actually, I think my believing them just became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Here’s the point I’m trying to get to: in my efforts to avoid living out the beliefs of those statements my mom made to me, I would conjure up every possible hypothetical situation related to them and come up with contingency plans to avoid hypothetical outcomes. Can you say stressful? It is exhausting to try and plan ahead for every possible damning dilemma that might arise.

One of the statements was about my inability to keep a house clean, take care of my things, etc. The truth is, until I hit my mid-20s I was an absolute slob. There’s just no denying it.  But I set out to prove my mother wrong…that I could, in fact, keep house with the best of them, and I vowed to not be judged by people that would come to my house because there wouldn’t be anything to judge.

Stop laughing, y’all.  I know this sounds ridiculous, but it was really the place I was in.  I would frantically try to control things to keep the house tidy. I would have anxiety attacks every time I failed, or the kids made a mess, or something wasn’t done to “my” specifications. It took me until I was in my early 30s to realize that all the people that came to my house weren’t the types of people that would judge how it looked.  Instead, I was killing myself trying to please “hypothetical” people – the snarky, snobby people that would surely cross my thresshold at some point and sneer at my home.  These hypothetical people are relentless…you can never please all of them, and they all have different opinions about how things should be anyway.

On a quick side note, it took me 25 years to realize that the hurtful statements my mom made about me…weren’t about me.  They were never about me.  She was simply putting her own fears about hypothetical situations onto me.  And when I say stupid, hurtful things to my kids…it’s never really about them.  It’s just me projecting my own hurts and fears onto them.

Like most people, I struggle with “what-ifs” about the future, and I try to make fail-safe plans. But I struggle more with the hypothetical past. I conjure up all the stories about the way things could have gone, and in my head, I struggle to figure out how I would have done things if one of those stories had been reality instead of what actually happened. If your brain is tangling up with that, welcome to what the inside of my head looks like.

Somehow, in my mind, I tend to believe that the way I got to where I am is not legitimate and I have to somehow justify myself through coming up with plans for scenarios in the past that never occurred.  For example, my parents were very generous and paid for a huge portion of my undergraduate education.  I worked part-time and got scholarships, but they definitely footed the bulk of the bill.  At the time, I would look at some of my friends who had no support from family, and how they worked and took out loans to pay for college by themselves. I would feel guilty that I didn’t have to do those things to get through school, and come up with a complex plan in my head of how I would have put myself through if my parents hadn’t stepped up.

Here’s another example…(most of these hypothetical situations deal with money or my white privilege or something like that.)  I’m single now after a long marriage, and am putting myself through nursing school, paying a mortgage on a house, etc.  My money situation is currently secure because of the way my ex and I worked out our divorce settlement and I freelance on the side. But I still feel the compulsive need to figure out in my head how I would have made everything work up until now if I was like so many other single moms struggling really hard to make ends meet.  Or, like so many of my nursing school friends who are having to take out massive loans to complete the program.

When I take on these hypothetical past situations in my head, I will almost work myself into anxiety or panic attacks when I can’t figure out solutions for the imagined problems that didn’t actually happen.  Essentially, I spend most of my life in the past striving to justify myself and the choices I’ve made by proving, in my imagination, that I could have survived other realities.  I spend the other portion of my life living in the hypothetical future, thinking of what goals I need to reach within certain timeframes to also justify and legitimize where I am right now.

This, as you all must know, is a complete exercise in futility. I’m only fighting with ghosts and apparitions.  The fact is, the only reality that will ever happen is the reality that is happening right now. If my parents hadn’t paid for my undergrad, that would have been my reality at the time and I would have made choices regarding that reality. But, reality was that they paid for college, and it helped get me to where I am now. Arguing with that is dumb.

The same with my present situation. My reality is that I’m in nursing school, I freelance write on the side, and I am doing OK money-wise. This is what life has brought to me and arguing with it or hypothesizing about every possible permutation of what reality could be is saying that reality (or life or the divine) isn’t good, isn’t what I need at this moment. I am where I am right now, and it is all grace. When I argue with what happened and try to control what will happen in a way that makes me feel validated, I’ve pushed away grace.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

Julie’s interpretation of this verse:  You’re perfectly OK, right here, right now because you trust what life brings you. You don’t ask questions, you don’t try to rationalize anything. You just accept your “is-ness” as a gift. And since you know that life brought everything to you and not the other way around, you know bragging about it is silly.

So, all of this to say…don’t be like me.  Don’t fritter away so many of the good Presents of your life to dwell on the dead Past or the never graspable Future with all of their hypothetical could have beens or might be’s.  All we have is Now.  It is a gift.