Muck Fights, Immunity, Resilience, and JOY

 

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The Blue Hole                     Photo credit:  ME!!

I just returned from a long weekend in South Texas, where I grew up. Even though it was hot, with the temps reaching 95 every day, it was one of the best weekends I’ve had in a really long time. For three mornings in a row, my cousin/sister, my dad, and I sat at the breakfast table over coffee and talked for three hours about whatever came to our minds. Afterward, we headed out to romp across the ranches in the Dry Frio Canyon that are littered with countless memories from my childhood.  We each agreed that the weekend felt like nothing short of an emotional and spiritual retreat.

One of my goals for my solo trip to Texas this time was to hit up the Blue Hole, a fabulous swimming spot on the ranch that my dad manages. This was one of my all-time favorite places to go during the summer – a small length of river ranging from 8 to 10 feet deep bordered by two great rocks for jumping. This section of the Dry Frio is always warmed by the August sun, but because of underground springs and a good current, the water only five feet under the surface is ice cold.

While the river was running full and clear this particular weekend, there have been plenty of times in the past when a Texas drought was in full swing and the current wouldn’t be running fast enough to keep the water clean.  During these times, the surface of the river would develop a growth of brown algae/moss. This slimy stuff would line the edges of the banks and coat the underwater rocks.  If my brother and our friends/family swam in the river during these times, we would stir up this algae with our antics, causing it to break loose and float around us and down the river.  We called this stuff:  muck.

Being good country kids who didn’t mind a little dirt and grime, we embraced this grossness and engaged in raucous muck fights.  A big clump of muck would float by, and we would each grab copious handfuls of it to fling at each other. We would feel quite satisfied if we managed to slam someone in the face with a fistful of muck just as they were coming up out of the water for air.  Looking back, muck fights were yucky and I’m no longer game for them (even though my cuz tried really hard to get me to play with the little globs of muck that were present this weekend).

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Dry Frio River, Uvalde County, TX

As my cousin and I reminisced about our childhood muck fight days, we waxed philosophical about how that nasty algae, and all the other stuff we got into as kids, probably helped us develop the robust immune systems we currently both enjoy.  She has only thrown up two or three times in her life (a fortune on her part that I consider a little unfair to the rest of us), we’ve never struggled with asthma, allergies, or similar issues, and other than the occasional cold, we’ve faired pretty well overall.

My cousin and I are certainly not the first people to theorize about this.  In a 2017 book, Jack Gilbert, professor at the University of Chicago and director of the Microbiome Center, wrote a book called Dirt is Good describing the positive effects of letting kids get dirty and become thoroughly acquainted with their environments. In an interview with the New York Times, he suggests that early childhood exposure to microscopic critters like bacteria helps shape not only our immunity but also the various processes influencing our hormones and nervous systems.

Scientists have postulated for years that our extreme aversion to dirt, grime, and anything unsanitary in the United States has actually been a factor contributing to the development of some disease.  We have done a good job of avoiding some horrible epidemics, thanks to our advances in hygiene and sterility, but in our overzealousness, especially for new parents, we often remove germs that are necessary to help boost immune function in our children.

“Studies have shown that priming or seeding of the microbiome in the child is absolutely critical,” said Marsha Wills-Karp, professor of environmental health and engineering at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. “While you don’t want to go out and expose your child to aggressive infections, you don’t want to create such a sterile environment that their immune system doesn’t develop normally; it puts them at risk of developing immune diseases.” (1)

So basically, a clean, perfect, safe environment is not always as good as what one would think for adapting well to life and the avoidance of disease.

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I can’t help but think that this same hygiene hypothesis applies to our spiritual lives and the process of building resilience. Our tendency is to try to make life as easy as possible, because…well….pain and hard circumstances hurt.  But what if the frantic maneuvering to shield ourselves from every hard thing really harming us in the long run, or is minimizing our ability to live the most abundant, meaningful life possible?

I was listening to a recent episode of the Rich Roll podcast, where Rich was interviewing medical doctor (and a billion other things) Zach Bush. In this discussion, Zach mentioned something that scared him: the US has not had a war on its soil in a VERY long time.  Say what?!  Why would that worry him?  Sounds a little messed up, eh?

His point in saying this was that he fears Americans have become too inoculated against the hard situations, need for frugality, and the general paradigm shifts about life that occur when the reality of war is in your face on a daily basis.  (I paraphrased his ideas here). Truth be told, we are groomed here to pursue comforts and luxury, endless choices, constant frigid air conditioning, the latest and greatest toys, etc. We lack a solid wisdom culture in our country’s young life to teach us that suffering is necessary to grow us and build resilience.

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If I’m completely truthful, it’s all the hard things in my past that have gotten me to where I am right now and have made life ultimately meaningful.  Every time I look back through memories and recall the things that I hated, wished I had done differently, or wished I’d avoided….in almost every case, an erasure of those events would have potentially dramatically altered my trajectory in life.

-I didn’t want to do all that public speaking for school events or play the piano every week for church services, but doing so over and over again made me so much less afraid of getting up in front of an audience.

-I wish I hadn’t gotten so depressed in college or struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, but now I have so much more empathy for others, and in some cases, can help show people a way out

-I wish I hadn’t walked away from a PhD program in a field I loved because I was afraid another marriage offer as a young adult wouldn’t come along….but doing so brought me three fabulous boys, some tremendous life experiences, and the knowledge that I could be really brave when the time came and I needed to be.

-If I hadn’t been such an eccentric child with a crazy bent for all things God and spirituality, I would have been saved alot of hurt for internalizing teachings that brought shame, guilt and fear for years….but  now I can relate to others whose theological scaffolding has also crumbled, who are trying to find a God they can once again believe in and follow.

And on, and on, and on.  I can recall hard thing after hard thing that was terrible at the time, but it made all the difference for who I am now. Those little hurts and pains, the slights and wrongs done against me, my massive failures….they created a resilience in me that wouldn’t have otherwise evolved.

*************************************************************************************This process of building resilience has changed the way I approach pain in life.  At one time, when I was young, I avoided emotional and mental pain whenever possible. I certainly already had enough in my life as a child that I didn’t want to seek out more.

As I grew older, in my twenties and early thirties, I began to see the wisdom of necessary suffering, how some things just won’t grow without a fertilizer of pain.  Still, it’s not like I sought it out.  Who would do such a thing, right?  Deliberately make their life harder?

Now, as a youngster pushing forty, I actually seek out difficult things, situations that I know will be uncomfortable and unpleasant.  But my perspective is completely different.  I don’t seek out suffering simply for the sake of suffering.  I have to interject a thought by John Piper here.  I know, I know, you’re pulling yourself up off the ground, entirely shocked that I would quote him.  Way back in college, I was on a big John Piper kick with his Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist book.

Here’s the central verse that his book is based on, making the point that it is OK to be motivated by what lies ahead in the future:

[Look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

Now, I certainly don’t agree with all of Piper’s theology, but I love this principle theme.  Jesus did things because of the joy he ultimately knew it would bring him, and I believe that is just as valid a reason for how we should pursue our own lives.

“It is not unbiblical, therefore, to say that at least part of what sustained Christ in the dark hours of Gethsemane was the hope of joy beyond the cross. ” – John Piper

I do hard things and even set myself up for failure at times, not just because I know it builds resilience and makes me stronger, but because of JOY.  Jesus knew that the pain of the cross wouldn’t last forever. I, too, am being taught by life that my own pain and suffering won’t last forever.  It will eventually pass, and if it has been weathered well through hope and faith that the universe is benevolent, joy will remain.

While I can’t speak for everyone, I have found this to be true.  I have more joy in life now than I ever did when things were “easy”. In fact, I regularly have a deep welling up of giddiness inside me that can’t be explained rationally.  Much more than a superficial happiness that everything is just peachy, I think it comes from the same knowing that Jesus had, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” (2)

 

(1) Klass, P. (2017, April 17). Too Clean for Our Children’s Good? Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/well/family/too-clean-for-our-childrens-good.html

(2) Julian of Norwich

 

 

 

 

When You’re Raging in the Kroger Parking Lot

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Photo credit: Madstreetz

One of my kids and I ran to Kroger this evening to grab a couple of things for dinner.  It was just one of those quick in and out trips that should have been uneventful.  As we were pushing our shopping cart to the back of my SUV to unload the groceries, I looked over to see the guy parked next to me loading up his truck with his own bags.  And then, I saw that his open truck door was firmly smashed up against my driver side door.  The door that I JUST got fixed when a driver backed her SUV into mine a couple of months ago. The exact same door that I had to take back to the body shop and have them redo the decorative metal strip because they apparently didn’t know to use a level when applying it, and instead of being parallel with the ground, it crept upward at an annoyingly obvious angle.

Of course, as it would turn out, the paint on my driver’s side door was damaged.  Chipped, not just a paint smudge that could be wiped off.  I was LIVID.  Livid at the man for knowing I was watching him and actively ignoring me.  Livid that the man knew his door was hitting mine and refused to do anything about it.  Livid that he decided not to take responsibility and at least apologize to me.  And livid, because what the heck?!  Why does life give you these freaking exasperating experiences when your week is already stressful enough?  It’s like God knows you are teetering on the edge of losing your mind and he thinks it would be helpful to offer you the last little shove necessary to finish the job…

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I know, you are reading this and thinking, wow Julie, you need some serious therapy.  It’s just a little paint chip.  And yes, it is just a little cosmetic flaw on a 10-year-old SUV.   In the grand scheme of things, it is a piddling little problem.   Except…..I was already angry.  Like…really, really angry.

In fact, for the last couple of months, I have been furious.  Deep, dark, seething anger that has risen up out of nowhere….or so I thought.

Now, don’t get all upset on me…I’m not homicidal or anything, and I’m not about to go ballistic on anyone.  The point is this:  I’ve realized I had some intense pent up anger that built up over a decade, and I now finally have the space to deal with it.   At least, that’s what the universe seems to be telling me.

Anger is a tough emotion to deal with.  Growing up a good Christian girl, I was always taught that anger isn’t OK….you’ve got to eradicate it before you go to bed at night, and geez….who can really do that?  It’s not exactly possible to have all your frustrations and wrongs addressed during daylight hours.  As far as I understood for years, the only justifiable long0term anger is righteous indignation, like when you’re angry about injustices that occur in the world.   I’ve noticed, however, that people usually have limited patience when individuals feel angry about injustices or wrongs personally done to them, and they aren’t able to get over their anger quickly enough.  We tend to be uncomfortable allowing others to grieve or be angry for very long.  We want them to fix it or get over it.

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I have a super wise therapist friend who once taught me that anger is a secondary emotion.  It really is a front for four or five other primary emotions:  fear, embarrassment and shame, guilt, frustration, etc.   One of my kids was having real struggles with anger a few years ago and I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.  Once my friend explained this concept to me, it was much easier to ask my son the right questions, dig deeper, and find out the underlying cause of his anger.  And she was right. He was usually embarrassed about something when he became angry, or afraid of looking incompetent.

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I’ve been doing some digging now into my own anger.  I don’t like it honestly.  The raw, human part of me wants to feel and flesh out my anger because anger makes you feel validated, and justified.  But anger burns you away from the inside.  Frankly, it is also exhausting.

It became clear that I carried years of pent up anger from my 12-year marriage.  Like, ALOT of anger.  For the first couple of years after I got divorced, I was trucking along just fine, and then BAM!, a volcano of all kinds of vile emotions started pouring out from the recesses of my mind.  As you recall, I grew up a good Christian girl and I still have enough of that in me that it makes me control my outward behavior and I can present myself appropriately to the world.  🙂  But my best friends know my struggle – they know how I want to yell and rage and stomp and throw things, and that I’ve used the word HATE on multiple occasions, and all the shame that comes with that because good Christian girls aren’t supposed to hate anyone.

But this is real life, y’all.  Which is why it needs to be written about.  Because we all have situations like this. And we all get angry.

So why all the anger now? I think that this is part of the healing and grieving that comes from going through hard things in life.  God knows the dark parts locked away inside of us that need to be dealt with, even if our conscious minds don’t.  And God clearly knows that I have some stuffed up emotions and a big pain body locked away within. And until I deal with them, they insidiously poison me and control other areas of my life, limiting me from being the best me.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t know I was angry for all those years, because I had developed coping mechanisms to survive.  We all do this at times in life.  If we are faced with difficult situations that we don’t think we can escape, we construct stories or ways of dealing with things to avoid the despair and frustrations that we don’t think can be resolved.  I know I felt this way.  For most of my life I thought divorce was wrong in pretty much every circumstance.  I knew I wasn’t happy, but I also knew if I was going to be married for the next forty years I had to figure out a way to make things work so I wouldn’t be absolutely miserable.

And so I justified, rationalized, created stories, overlooked wrongs, etc etc, etc, to try and cope with a life situation that I absolutely didn’t want.  I couldn’t be angry at the time because that certainly doesn’t help create an easy forty-year path.

But now, I am no longer in what felt like a seemingly hopeless situation, so all of that suppressed anger has come up.  And believe me, you can build up alot of anger over 12 years.

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Pema Chodron, a Buddhist monk who you should absolutely acquaint yourself with if you haven’t already, wrote a book on anger called Don’t Bite the Hook.  Actually, I think its an audio recording of a talk she gave once. ( I have it on audible). In this book, she talks about learning to see anger as a teacher, not as an enemy. She offers that if we learn to work with anger and be open to it, it can teach us to be more compassionate and wise instead of just escalating on autopilot into aggression and violence.

There is a concept she discusses called shenpa.  Literally, it means “attachment”, but the idea behind it is the same as the theme of her book title:  “getting hooked.”  A review of her book in Tricycle magazine describes it well.  Something happens to you that you don’t like, and a shift happens deep inside you, and you’re suddenly hooked.  Or, as Eckhart Tolle describes it, the pain body, that was lying dormant within, suddenly wakes up and begins to arise, taking over your thoughts and emotions.   A couple of possible examples to illustrate: My ex-husband says something that irritates me and suddenly I tighten up inside and feel snarky. A colleague drops the ball and I have to do extra work, but instead of just letting it go and doing what needs to be done, I latch on to the “unfairness” of the situation and seethe until my ego is soothed.  Or, I come out of Kroger and find that a stranger wasn’t diligent with his own property and allowed mine to be damaged.  And, instead of giving grace for it, I clench my teeth and latch on to the angry emotions arising.  This is shenpa.

I’ve been thinking about Chodron’s idea of working with anger alot lately.  Other Buddhist teachers discuss similar ideas, like inviting difficult emotions in like they are good friends, not fighting against them. Apparently, when this practice is done regularly, those emotions begin to dissolve and don’t seem to be quite the toxic invaders they once were.

There are many emotions that are easier to sit with than anger.  Give me some sadness, grief, joy…  But anger is harder because you either want to feed it with delicious fantasies of getting revenge on the person or thing that wronged you, or it makes you want to retell your stories to everyone who will listen and revel in their assurances that you were treated terribly and you poor thing and how dare someone do that to you and…..you get the idea.  Shenpa, as the Tricycle writer wrote, is very much an itch that yearns to be scratched.

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If there’s one thing I know about life, it is that is it is very patient and generous in helping one learn lessons.  God will keep bringing the same lesson around again and again in different forms for you to learn until you finally learn it.  It is really, really aggravating.

However, since I’ve learned this, I’ve also gotten smarter and recognized that if I want to decrease my suffering, I might as well learn the lesson early on.  God has no problem waiting me out.   But, I’ve also learned that you can’t be sneaky with God.  My first tendency is to pretend I’m not angry about anything and act all kum ba yah with the world.  God sees right through that and will promptly allow something to happen that proves to me that my anger is still ripe and ready for picking.

My second tendency is to run straight to therapy and try to fix my anger asap:  a little EMDR, a little talk therapy, maybe even a little primal screaming.  Yeah, nope.  While therapy is brilliant, it is not a quick fix.  We have to do the hard work, and the hard work insists on sitting with things, creating space, and just allowing things to be for a while.

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So, I’m totally writing this post from an unenlightened state. But I’m giving myself a billion points for at least being aware enough and willing to admit that I’m really angry about alot of stuff that has happened over the last 15 years.  But I’m also giving myself another billion points for knowing that my anger really isn’t all about my ex-husband, or the Kroger parking lot guy, or any other person or event.  My anger is really rooted in all the stories I believe about life and myself.  It is rooted in underlying emotions of shame and feelings of incompetence and fear.

Welcome anger, come in and sit for a while. Teach me about the deepest places in myself. Tell me about my fears and insecurities. Help me to become more compassionate and wise. And may I enjoy a deeper sense of connectedness with every other person who has also struggled with their own shenpa and anger.

 

When Maslow’s Pyramid Tips Over…

You know how when you’re sitting on your back deck, drinking coffee before the hot of the day, listening to your favorite podcasts and audiobooks, and all of a sudden…BAM!!!!…..an idea suddenly hits you….a convergence of the many different voices and ideas that speak to you on a daily basis…and it feels kind of mystical?

I had one of these moments today – when I was jumping back and forth between Richard Rohr’s The Univeral Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Beleive the latest Robcast episode, and reflecting on my job as a med/surg nurse.  This is a regular “spiritual practice” of mine; my ADHD daily races along the rails of words and ideas, trying to make obscure connections between the most seemingly unrelated things…all the while trying to balance my left-brain scientific side with my sometimes “woo woo” right-brain spirituality. I’ll try to explain in the next little bit the “aha” moment I experienced this morning while enjoying the cicadas, a cup of coffee, my beloved shade trees, and a comfy Adirondack chair.

Two of the things that are constantly on my mind are what it means to be human, and the underlying connectedness of all things. Taking these concepts further, what is our responsibility to others while remaining true to ourselves?  How do we live out our true selves in a temporary space-time construct, while at the same time loving and serving all creation and all sentient beings?  (This is a rhetorical question: there are no tidy answers to neatly wrap this one up. I’m skeptical of those who try).

While I’ve always been a bit eccentric, with a bent toward spiritual and theological things,  I started out life like most people…trying to build a safe, secure world with comforts, toys, options, and defined goals to pursue. As Richard Rohr has so often said, the purpose of the beginning of our lives is to build up a “container”, to learn who we are and create an “external self”.   Rules, defined limits, and boundaries help create security and a sense of identity in life, according to Rohr, and are a necessary foundation to lay for the successful transition to the “second half of life”. (Side note: Rohr derived many of his ideas about the halves of life from Carl Jung).  As Rohr describes it, our first half of life, this building up all the things I just mentioned,  is a strengthening of the ego.  It is a way of grounding ourselves to this material world, which is a good and necessary step.  But, this ego and the first half of life can only take us so far. In the end, it offers only disillusionment because it is encouraging us to constantly chase what is really just vapor, simply the ghost of a non-existent reality, Only when we can begin to transcend our ego containers can we learn to taste what being a spirit-human is really all about.

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Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is pretty well known, I think. It was discussed in almost every introductory psychology or health class I’ve sat in, ranging from undergrad liberal arts to counseling courses to nursing school.  You’re probably pretty familiar with it yourself, but just in case you’re not, here’s a graphic:

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Basically, Maslow is making the point that we as humans have fundamental needs in order to thrive, and those needs must be met in a sequential order to be able to move on to more and more abstract ideas….or to become our highest, most actualized, most creative selves.

There are certainly exceptions to this hierarchy, but in general, it really rings true with what I’ve seen and experienced in life. One particular area that I’ve thought alot about is back when I was in high school and college and I would go with my churches or other groups on mission trips to third world countries.  There were basically two camps of thought among the various leaders of these groups:  1) preach Jesus and salvation as paramount importance, because being “saved” is better than physical or emotional security in this life, or 2) meet people’s felt needs, because a hungry belly isn’t capable of listening to talk about the sweet by and by or admonishments to radically change ways of doing life in the here and now.

I’m no longer trying to proselytize or get anyone “saved”, but I do believe this:  it’s disrespectful and unfeeling to preach to people about anything if we aren’t willing to step into the grime and horrors of their lives and try to help them with their immediate hurts.

So all this to say, I’m totally on board with Maslow’s hierarchy…..except for maybe the idea that sex is a physiological need. I’ve still never yet met anyone who died from not having sex, although there have been plenty among us who insist it is true. (Tongue in cheek here).  Sexual intimacy, on the other hand, does seem in my mind to be a legitimate need in the love and belonging category.  OK, away from that rabbit trail and back to building my primary thesis…

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…..which is:  Maslow’s Hierarchy as we traditionally view it is only the FIRST half of the story.

Having now reached my 39th year of life and having done a bit of shadow work, I believe that Maslow’s upward rising pyramid of needs is absolutely necessary to build the first half of life container, per Rohr and Jung.  But, it fails to explain the second, and maybe most important half of life that not everyone reaches…..where the pyramid flips over. The needs that were so fundamental suddenly become the least concern. When we were once so worried about and centered on our environment and relationships, we now learn that true meaning, wellbeing, and joy spring forth from within us; we don’t ultimately achieve them from what is on the outside.

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Ann Voskamp, author of one of my all-time favorite books (One Thousand Gifts), uses the phrase “the upside-down Kingdom of God”. I love this; I think it describes succinctly how the divine works in the world – directly opposite of much of the conventional wisdom that we hold so tightly to.  This alternative way of looking at life says that the most important thing is for us to know who we truly are at our core, and to move, act, and live out of that inherent knowing.  However, the wisdom that most of us live by tells us that we must first build an external life and hinge who we are on it. We judge the quality of our lives by what we own, what we’ve done, and who we do it with.

What is so interesting to me, and what most of the great spiritual teachers I have read say, is that to get to this upside-down kingdom, you first have to live in reality as we currently experience it,  where things, success, goals, and safety are the most important.  Then, as if by moving through a worm hole into an alternate universe, something causes our perspectives and paradigms to change….we suddenly see that what we once thought was so damned important for our happiness really isn’t so necessary after all.   Sometimes this happens to people by methodically moving up Maslow’s hierarchy through socioeconomic and emotional development.  Others shoot through the worm hole rather quickly because of some intense suffering they have experienced that brought them to the end of themselves.  A few, like Rohr admits about himself, have somehow made this transition for no explainable reason other than a great insatiable thirst to know the truth of Life.  Still, many others never reach this transformation, never know it even exists. As a side note, this is the salvation that I firmly believe Jesus was offering: to tell those who were desperate, hopeless, and willing to hear…..that this upside-down Kingdom exists and is accessible to all who will learn to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.

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As a nurse, formerly on an orthopedic floor, and now on a general medical unit, I love to watch and talk to patients.  I actually think I could never work on an ICU floor….patients on ventilators don’t tend to talk back to you. My interest in gabbing with patients and learning their life stories is my biggest time management issue: by the end of a shift I may be rushing to check off all of my tasks, but I can definitely offer a good commentary on my patients and their lives outside the hospital.

It seems to me that Maslow’s hierarchy is very tangibly experienced when people are in the hospital.  Here they are usually stressed, afraid, in pain, and overwhelmed.  As such, the level they are on seems to stand out.  If I pay close enough attention, I can tell which patients are most concerned with their physical environments and making sure their physical needs are met in just such a way. I can tell which patients are most craving solid relationships or struggling with how to do relationships well.  I can often tell which patients have deep-seated insecurities that are holding them back in life.  And then, there are the patients (usually elderly, but not always) whose pyramids have tipped over.  They know what is important in life and how to do life well.  They know what ultimately matters, and what is temporal and superficial.  These are the people I have the hardest time pulling myself away from; I may be nursing their physical bodies, but they are nursing my soul.

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I personally live a very wobbly existence.  What I believe to be true on my good days doesn’t always translate to my bad.  Some days I feel very in tune with the upside-down Kingdom, and other days I’m the most ego-driven, selfish person I know.  My pyramid will start to get a little top-heavy and tippy, and then some fear or insecurity of mine will cause it to come crashing back down with a resounding clunk, reminding me that there is much shadow work left to be done and that I have not yet fully escaped my first half of life container.

But I suppose this is the spiritual path.  Maybe instead of a one time all or nothing flip,  our pyramid of needs will turn back and forth like a magnet searching for true north. Rohr even discusses something along these lines: the stages of spiritual development, in his book, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See.  Or as Ken Wilber, Don Beck, and others have described, spirituality and increasing consciousness is a spiral dynamic. Ultimately, I think the path is never a linear one, due to the extreme complexity of life.

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As a final thought here regarding all my pontificating in this post….

I am SO glad that my pyramid is tipping and threatening to permanently topple one day.  It is so freaking liberating to not be quite so tied up in all the things that I used to believe made life meaningful.  It is SO good to have experienced that being married, or having alot of money, or owning a nice house aren’t things that automatically bring happiness.  It is SO good to have learned, even if only to an extent, that having strong relationships is more important to me than my own safety, or looks, or possessions, or physical comforts.

However, I am equally grateful that I had people in my life that helped me build a strong first half of life container.  I am grateful that I’m learning to transcend and leave behind the things that haven’t served me well, and yet include those things from the past that are still serving me.

And most of all, I’m grateful that I have the freedom and time to sit on my deck under a canopy of shade trees to drink coffee, listen to some great teachers, and ponder life.

Coming Home to Yourself

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Photo credit: Tim Haynes

*I was inspired by the reflections of others at church today. This is my response to our collective conversation.

When I was young, I truly believed there was something wrong with me.  Something wasn’t right about me being here in the world. I recall, as a child, having moments where a feeling would pass over me – a tangible sense that I don’t belong here, that I’m not fully legitimate.  This feeling would come out of nowhere and usually last no more than a couple of minutes, but it was powerful and had a deep influence on how I viewed myself for a very long time.

A child isn’t usually well equipped to understand these kinds of phenomena, and I certainly wasn’t an exception.  I don’t think I ever mentioned these transcendent moments of gloom to my parents. I would simply try to shiver the feeling off like a chill up my spine and move on.  Eventually, and thankfully, these feelings stopped coming over me – probably about when I was in junior high.  However, beliefs about inadequacy and not fitting in were firmly entrenched in my psyche.

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In one of my last posts, I wrote about how it feels to lose one’s sense of home. You know that Bon Jovi song that was popular a few years back “Who says you can’t go home?”? The thing is, sometimes you really can’t go home back to a physical place, or even a group of people. Your family may move on from the house you grew up in. Maybe you’ve changed so much since leaving home that when you come back, there are only faint glimmers of recognition towards you in the eyes of those you once knew so well. Even those things that were part of “home” that once belonged to you might no longer be yours.

I’ve experienced this sense of “losing home” for years now, a little at a time, and then with increasing rapidity.  After moving around the country frequently over the last 13 years, I struggled to find a solid, physical home.  Who are my people? Where is my tribe? Is there a piece of land I can anchor myself to? Who am I without external labels of what constitutes home?

Others have told me that they consider home to be wherever their partner or spouse is, or where their kids are – physical locale doesn’t matter.  This has never been helpful for me – you can be married and still feel more lonely than at any time ever in your life.  Your kids can be snuggling up to you and telling you how much they love you, and still, you can feel lost and uncertain of where you belong.

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During this Lenten season, my church has been looking at the story of the prodigal son, from the Bible.  For most of my life, sermons I’ve heard about this parable have focused on the depravity and pure selfishness of the son who spurned his father and left home. The older son was always offered a mild rebuke for being callous towards his penitent sibling. However, as we took several weeks to take a longer look at this story, more and more grace rose to the surface as we threw the traditional interpretation of this story on its head.

As one of my pastors said so wisely today, sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate home. She recalled how, as a new college graduate, she was so eager to jump off into her own life and away from her family. It took being away for months to begin to truly appreciate where and what she came from.

These days, I don’t judge the prodigal son much at all.  The fact is, we all do stupid, thoughtless things when we are young.  We are driven by our egos and we can become enchanted with the systems of the world. We are compelled to strive after those people and things that promise us happiness and meaning. This is just what we do as humans; we just vary a bit on how extreme we go.  In fact, I might argue that the prodigal son was living out an essential component of authentic spirituality – he had to come to the end of himself before he could find who he truly was and what truly mattered. Call me crazy or a heretic, but I’m convinced that sometimes the greatest grace we receive is God allowing us to become completely wrecked at some point in our lives.

*************************************************************************************I think that more important than establishing a physical home, or finding where we fit among a group of people, we have to find “home” in ourselves. As the mystics have said, “I” and “me” is all there really is.  Everything outside of me is ultimately my stories about the world and about people, based on my own beliefs and projections.  But, “I” am the only one who will always be there for me, even when everyone else and everything else is gone.  As such, it seems to me that if that’s the case, I should probably dig deep and find out who I really am.  We’re going to be spending alot of time together.

*************************************************************************************The great journey of this life is to seek after one’s authentic, real self – to move past illusions of what are around us and appear to be real, down to the purest ultimate reality.’Most of my  own life has been spent trying to be what I thought others wanted of me, and then failing miserably anyway. I didn’t explore the deepest realms of myself because the spirituality of my youth taught me not to trust myself, not to trust my instincts and gut reactions. When you think about it, not being able to trust yourself is a dreadful way to live.  Everyone, I mean everyone, in the world, will offer their opinions and judgments on what you should do with yourself, how you should act, who you should be.  But how do you know which of those people to trust to make your decisions? How do you discover the right path outside of yourself if you can’t trust your own reasoning?  It’s all a very circular mess.

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Coming home to yourself is a recognition, a learning, that you’re OK and you have all you need within you. When we are finally able to accept ourselves, love every part of ourselves – even the weirdness and quirks and cellulite and crow’s feet and all of our epic mistakes -this is actually the greatest freedom we could ever attain.  Coming home to yourself also brings the life-changing realization that the Source of Ultimate Reality, God, or whatever you want to call her, is within you – not somewhere “out there”.

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I have never been the prodigal in the popular sense of the word.  In fact, I resonate the most with the son who stayed behind with his father. But like the older son, I didn’t stay out of altruistic loyalty but out of fear of stepping too far away, crossing the wrong boundary, and losing God’s love and good pleasure. But I think the sons were alike in that both of them were seeking external affirmation for their lives.  One, the older son, was bound to an honor/shame code of what it means to be family, and the second was lured away by all the illusionary glitters of life that he thought would make him happy. Both needed to come home to themselves, to discover what made them tick apart from anyone else’s opinions, and to find the steady love of their father no matter their actions.

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As I am, step by step, coming home to myself, this is what I’m finding: my oldest, biggest fears are gradually falling away.  The questions and concerns that created those fears no longer seem so pressing or relevant. I’m discovering that every time I make a decision based on what is truly “me” and not based on someone else’s opinion of what I should do, there is continual grace for the outcome.

The best thing of all is that I enjoy being with myself now.  I used to be embarrassed by my very nerdy tendencies, my lack of interest in things that intrigues so many of my peers, and qualities in me that set me in stark contrast to much of my family.  Now, having given myself permission to be me, I have settled into a delicious relief – no more exhausting struggles to be someone that I’m not.

Yesterday in church a friend of mine shared something that her son said as a two-year-old, years ago, when his father was putting him to bed one night.  “Daddy, you be you, and I’ll be me.”  I LOVE this. Yes! This is what it’s all about.

You be you, and I’ll be me, and God will be all in all and there is grace for everyone and every moment.   Stop being afraid of all the “what-ifs” – just come home.