How To Save the World All By Yourself

 

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Photo credit: _Teb holes

Yesterday, at church, I sat next to a dear friend whom I haven’t seen much lately because we both live crazy lives. As we hugged and she asked how I was doing, I gave the obligatory “Oh, I”m fine!”  I was raised in the South, this is what you’re supposed to say no matter what is really going on in life. My friend, on the other hand, was more honest and admitted life was really hard for her at the moment.

 

“You’re right, I’m not really fine, either,” I confessed.

“You do know what FINE stands for, right?” my friend asked me.  I shook my head.

“Fucked-up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.”

I laughed, because this is very true. We offer our “fines” when it doesn’t feel appropriate or sacred enough to drop f-bombs on Sunday morning, or when we’re trying to keep up the facade of “I’m rocking it at life right now, thank you very much” when the opposite really feels more authentic.

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Do you ever feel like you have to save the world by yourself, or at least die trying, in order to be accepted by God or to win at life or whatever?  I know with my higher level brain that this is not the case, but I swear I live my life every day like it’s all up to me.  I’m not really sure where I got this tendency; it might have had something to do with all the pressure I felt as a kid and young adult to get as many people to Jesus and heaven as possible.  Some preachers can really make it feel like the success of God’s whole agenda is in your court and you’d better not drop the ball because hell is on the line.

I’ve been watching myself very closely over the last few months, and specifically the mad driven-ness I have in certain areas of my life. Here is my list of craziness, things that plague me on a daily basis.  When you see me sitting around doing nothing, or at work taking care of people, or driving my kids somewhere, all of these things are simultaneously churning through my mind: [Note to self – maybe these are why I always have resting bitch face….I can never just relax and chill out]

  1. I have to eat plant-based perfectly because doing so is the best for the environment and our resources.  If I don’t eat vegan perfectly every day I will single-handedly be the tipping point that pushes our climate beyond redemption.
  2. I have to keep my home energy use significantly less than all of those around me because I don’t want to be the one who caused an electricity grid blackout or used the last remaining stores of propane on the Earth.
  3. If I don’t figure out how to parent perfectly then my kids will automatically become addicts, slobs, purposeless vagrants, or writhing heaps of fetal-positioned therapy clients who hate me because I couldn’t get it together as a mom.
  4. I must listen to NPR and all other credible news sources daily so I know what is going on at all moments in Zimbabwe, and Peru, and Liechtenstein, as well as the big news making countries that are constantly in the headlines. If I’m not aware of EVERYONE’s suffering, then I must not care for ANYONE’s suffering.
  5.  I must read every book ever written because I have to be cultured and be able to reference all of the experts so that I have something worthwhile to say.
  6. I have to be an activist – for EVERY worthy cause.  Civil rights, women’s rights, child slaves on chocolate plantations in West Africa, clothing makers in Bangladesh, migrant food workers in the Pacific Northwest, etc ad nauseum.
  7. I’m aware of my ego, and aware of the real “me” that lies behind that ego.  As such, I have to constantly be aware of all of my motivations and work as hard as possible to keep waking up.
  8.  And finally, for now at least, I have to be a super well-rounded person all of the time – working full-time, while freelance writing, while doing graduate school, while parenting three kids [one of whom is special needs], while trying to do all of the above list perfectly.

When I write all this down, it really seems ludicrous. No wonder I’m exhausted all the time.  But honestly, I don’t think I”m the only person in the world who is like this.  Yeah, I have my own special kind of crazy and ADHD and core wounds, but I know plenty of people who are out there thinking they have to save the world, too.

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The fact is, I can’t save the world by myself.  Whether or not I live perfectly vegan and plastic free, or have the tiniest carbon footprint ever, or be the most amazing mom that ever lived, life is really out of my control. When I have my wits about me, I recognize that I really only have the tiniest bit of control over the most trivial things. The big stuff is ultimately out of my hands.  I might be able to offer influence, but that’s about it.

It is very unlikely that little old me, or little old you for that matter, will ever be the tipping point for the climate, or political systems, or global food production.

And the fact that I obsess about this huge list of really big things on a daily basis begs the question: am I really trying to save the WORLD, or am I just frantically trying to save MYSELF?

Furthermore, what am I trying to save myself FROM? Am I really putting all my cash into this one pot of Earth, or do I think that life and meaning will extend well past whatever ultimately happens to this planet?

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I”m in another Eckhart Tolle phase.  I usually cycle back to him at least two to three times a year, and each cycle feels like a spiral.  I pick up something new from him that I wasn’t previously able to understand or grasp.

Right now I’m thinking about the spaciousness that he teaches on – how we need to accept what life gives and let there be space around those things. Because, it is this space from which new things can spontaneously manifest.

Another point of Tolle’s that I”m mulling over is how we don’t really do LIFE, LIFE does us.  Life is dancing US, Life is playing through US, not the other way around. Life is expressing itself through a variety of different forms, and we can see that through all that is created.

I don’t tend to leave much space in my life, mainly because I’m frantically trying to save the world. I’m going to run out of time, I tell myself. I get too caught up in forms (including the form of time), trying to make them perfect and thinking that we will be saved through the saving of form.

What would it be like I wonder, if my hero journey in life is not to set out and find the things I need to save, but let life bring them to me? Do I trust life to bring me what is mine to do, and trust that it will take to others what it has for them to do?

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There is a Jewish concept that I really like called tikkun olam. Now, preface here, I am not a Jewish scholar so don’t tear me apart if I misrepresent this a little. I love how it was once described by Rachel Naomi Remen in an episode of the podcast On Being:

“In the beginning, there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then, perhaps because this is a Jewish story, there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world was scattered into a thousand, thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

Now, according to my grandfather, the whole human race is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. It’s a very important story for our times. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It’s the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world.

And that story opens a sense of possibility. It’s not about healing the world by making a huge difference. It’s about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you.”

And then another quote:

“One part of Judaism called tikkum olam. It says that the world has been broken into pieces. All this chaos, all this discord. And our job – everyone’s job – is to try to put the pieces back together. To make things whole again … Maybe we’re the pieces. Maybe what we’re supposed to do is come together. That’s how we stop the breaking.”
― Rachel Cohn, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist

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This idea of tikkun olam, as I understand here, changes everything. No longer is it about me trying to find EVERY SINGLE BROKEN piece in the world, sorting through them, and putting them all together.  The pieces are not outside us – I am a piece, you are a piece, and so on. We are looking for the light inside of each other – or, Namaste…the divine in me is recognizing the divine in you.

We as the broken pieces in humans and the broken pieces of creation are to come together and unite once again. But this can’t be done by us frantically running around smashing into each other and saying “By God, we will make this fit. This puzzle will come together right now in this way. This is what the one Light is supposed to look like!”

No, this is where Tolle’s space comes in. We must sit, be still, and allow the space, allow the brokenness that exists without fighting it. Then, perhaps Life will break through in the space and bring the right pieces to us, bring us to the other pieces that are right for us, and the Light will begin to concentrate.

I am one corner of the puzzle.  I can’t fit together all the pieces on the other side of the puzzle.  But I can be part of the healing in my little place; I can join with the pieces that the God/life brings to me.  And if I miss a corresponding piece the first time around, that same God/Life is trustworthy to bring it back again. [I’ve got more than enough evidence of this regarding tough life lessons.  :)]

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As one final thought, largely to myself. The greats in history, the ones I look up to and sit [figuratively] at the feet of, didn’t try to save the whole world.  Jesus, the Buddha, Gandhi, and countless others…..they only did the work that was in front of them. They didn’t take on work that was not for them to do.  Yet, the willingness to piece together their little parts of the world enabled that piecing to spread outward.

So, how can you save the world by yourself?  How can I?  We can’t save the world. All that we can do is say yes to the Life that is dancing us, welcome it, let it lead.  That is the very most, and best, that we can do. And this joining with Life, and God, and Light…this is how we are saved.

 

 

 

Don’t Strive to Be Liked; Strive to Be Authentic

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Photo credit: Col·legi Oficial Infermeres 

Here’s a little secret about me. I still struggle with some big insecurities.

All of you who know me well are laughing right now because this is no secret to you. They come out the most strongly when I’m under alot of stress, or am facing something new or challenging. Almost all of my insecurities are rooted in my childhood fears:  am I enough?  Is there a place for me in this world where I truly belong?  Am I seen?  Am I loved?  And at my core:  am I likeable?

Thanks to alot of shadow work, therapy, and battling my demons, these insecurities have subsided to a level where I can function quite well in my daily life. The majority of the time I don’t pay as much attention when thoughts flood my head from these reservoirs of lack and “not enoughness” hidden away in my ego.

However, as I have grown into a skilled watcher of myself and the way my mind works, I have noticed a phenomenon about me.  When I am in brand new situations where I’m not completely confident in my skills or abilities, it is very easy for those insecurities to rise up and take over, and suddenly I am interacting with the world around me through my child-self once again.

Have any of you ever experienced the following:  you leave home as an adult, live life on you own as a competent, secure, confident person who stands up for what is important to you, and then……you go home to the people and places you grew up with and suddenly you regress to who you were back then?  It’s like a switch is flipped and this other personality, the one that you tried to rid yourself of for so long, comes right back out?  It’s like your family and people from your past still see you as that young, immature person you once were, and somehow them still perceiving you that way causes you to transform instantly back into that person?

I think this is a version of the Pygmalion or Golem effects in a way; it’s like how people perceive you in some circumstances literally controls how you view your own self and how you act in those situations.  And it’s maddening, frankly.

I’ve always wondered why this happens to me – why am I triggered by my family, childhood home, and new situations to revert back to someone that is no longer representative of who I am now, the real me at my core?  And am I getting some kind of subconscious pay-off by continuing to allow this to happen?

A couple of months ago I started working at a local hospital as a brand new nurse. Stressful, unfamiliar new situation for sure. And sure enough, some of these old insecurities rose up again and my timid, low confidence, defer-to-everyone else self took over. It was pretty frustrating because I would no longer typically describe myself to be the cautious, introverted person I used to be so much of the time.

I love this new job, but it has been alot to take in with so much to learn in a fast paced environment.  As the first several weeks passed and I was on the floor learning the ropes and taking care of patients, I could feel the strong pull within myself to shrink back, to be super nice to everyone ALL the time, to make sure everyone’s needs were put before my own (not talking about patients here, but fellow colleagues), treating myself as though I was a wet-behind-the-ears newbie with no significant life experience.  Which, of course, is absolutely not true.  I may be new to nursing, but I am not new to life.

On one particular day, I had one of those periods of “If someone even looks at me I”m going to burst into tears.”  I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and my ADD was seriously in overdrive. My preceptor would give me instructions and I swear my brain would literally stop – I would retain nothing and would have to retreat to quiet corners of the unit to help my synapses start firing again.

I listen to audiobooks everyday as I drive to work, and as I so often do, I turned to Brené Brown to get some insight into this spazzy little mouse I was regressing into. I’ve done some wicked hard things over the last few years, I thought. I am way stronger and more confident than I ever used to be – why is the job making me such a pansy that feels like I have to please EVERY SINGLE PERSON I walk by every moment of the day?

Brené didn’t really give me the cause of my deep insecurities, but listening to her book The Gifts of Imperfection made me realize that I was working way too hard at ensuring that I was well-liked by everyone instead of striving to live out my authentic self.

This is exactly what I did as a child and young adult. I wanted to be accepted, included, liked…and so I did what I thought I needed to to have that happen.  Which usually involved me trying to tame my quirky personality, be super Christian girl who never did any wrong, and be uber polite and gracious to EVERYONE.  Two things I have learned from this:  it is exhausting, and trying to be who everyone wants while trying to squelch who you really are inside usually ends up in disaster.  Either you die a little more on the inside, or you find that those people you were trying to make like you aren’t going to like you anyway.

So, to my point:  I realized [thanks Brené!] that this was exactly what I’ve been doing in my new career. Something, maybe the stress or exhaustion or my lingering fear of failing, had triggered me into reverting into my old ways of viewing the world and behaving. I had slipped back into that dream-state where I was convinced everyone has to like me and I have to be perfect in all of my interactions with other people. But all of this was at the expense of me, myself, and I.

After I had this audiobook epiphany, I went to work with the resolve that I would choose being my authentic self over my need to be liked.  And can I just say, that in the last couple of weeks, it has made all the difference,  Suddenly my ability to learn and retain information has improved, I said what I thought more instead of mulling over every little thing to make sure it was received well by everyone. and I refused to engage in conversations that absolutely did not resonate with me just so others in the group would think I was nice and had the same interests they do.

Yesterday I had to call a particular doctor about a patient – he and I had never spoken before, just walked by each other. Later, my preceptor told me that the doctor had asked if I was new, and said that he was going to “test me”.  The “me” from a few weeks ago, in my timid mouse moments, would have been upset and worried – what if I prove my incompetence and he thinks I”m stupid?  But instead, this time I thought – Punk resident! Bring it on! I’m not playing this stupid hospital game where techs, nurses, and doctors test and intimidate the new person. I will continue to do the best that I can and be my authentic self. I will not cower under someone just because they think they are smarter, or more skilled, or are more powerful than me.  That’s no longer who I am.

At the end of the day, it is way more important to me that I go to bed knowing I lived out my true, authentic self. I’ve worked so hard in the past to be liked by everyone, and in the process was taken advantage of, walked over, and demeaned by plenty of people.  I want to be in relationship with people who appreciate who I am because it is who I am, not because they find copies of themselves when they look at me.

Finally, I don’t want others to feel like they have to change themselves in order to be in relationship with me. Obviously, in this diverse world we are going to encounter people that we just don’t like and will never get along with. But I think that’s OK – I would much rather people be genuine and true to themselves than feel like they have to live lies and wear facades just so we can all not cause each other any discomfort.

I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am now. It’s taken alot of painful excavating to discover the real me. I’m not prepared to bury that all again just for the sake of someone who has opinions about how things should go but has no history or vested interest in me. I hope all of you will strive for and hold on dearly to your own authenticity, too. Don’t let others be the ultimate judge of your “enough-ness”, value, or place in this world.

 

 

Leaning Into Life’s Sharp Points

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My stress level has been at an all-time high lately. I finished nursing school and passed the NCLEX (thank God), and started a new job as a nurse a few weeks ago. All of these things were stressful enough, but what made me the most anxious were the logistics of life as a single parent with young kids.

I have decided that 12-hour nursing shifts were not created for women who have kids but don’t have partners or helpful family that live nearby.  Thank you Jesus for good friends and College Nannies/Sitters who have helped me out and significantly reduced my desperation levels. But even with these, I struggle on a daily basis to breathe and keep panic attacks at bay.

Each morning as I drive to work I have Pema Chodron playing on audiobook. It’s people like her, and Eckhart Tolle, and Byron Katie, and Ram Dass, and others who have pushed me forward these last two years…to be present, to get comfortable with discomfort, to find and embrace my edge.

Pema says in one of her books that her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, told her to learn to lean into the sharp points in life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like sharp things, and I especially don’t like leaning into them. I like smooth, soft, rounded, and safe. But I think I’m finding that when I do lean into the sharp places, and face them head on, I’m discovering that I can handle more than I thought…I’m braver than I used to be….and hard things don’t scare me quite as much anymore.

When I first moved back to Indiana and got divorced, I would flip out at much less than I do now. Two of my dear friends bore the brunt of this flipping out…the phone calls where I would be half crying, half hyperventilating, dropping just about every swear word and proclaiming that I absolutely couldn’t take anymore.  Funny thing is, I took those things I thought I couldn’t, and then I took more. Those two friends have remarked that I don’t flip out nearly as easily as I used to. The things that used to set me off now just make me laugh or shake my head.

The sharp places in life aren’t just the painful things that come for us; there is also a razor-thin edge that must be walked to live truly awake, to wholeheartedly discover the kingdom of heaven, to be here right now. I’ve been thinking alot about Jesus and his remarks on the broad and narrow paths.  I don’t think that Jesus was talking at all about paths to heaven and hell, or paths filled with a few good people versus a whole lot of bad people.

I think Jesus was trying to tell everyone that it is a very hard thing in life to “wake up” and stay awake, but a very easy thing to stay asleep or fall back asleep after you’ve gained some insight or awareness. It takes real effort to “be here now”, to live in the present, fully alive and unwilling to let every distraction overtake you.

In my mind, the narrow path is a tightrope, that must be carefully crossed. Tightrope walkers are fully awake: they aren’t worrying about the future or the past, and they don’t allow the crowds distract them.  They are focused intently on what they are doing at that exact moment.  If they do let themselves become distracted, they risk falling off the rope and missing their destination.

The broad path, on the other hand, is playing life safe…always making sure there is at least one escape route present…a contingency plan for when things go wrong. It is also the path of least resistance – doing what comes easy and not pushing past to one’s edges and limitations. It is about putting safety and security as the highest value in life.

It is my tendency, and I think that of many people, to pull away from the sharp points in life, to not even try to walk that tightrope, to pull back from our edges that look more like cliffs. We draw boxes of right and wrong, identity, and social constructs so we can climb inside and feel safe. We allow ourselves to be distracted by the most meaningless things, and we avoid all that we fear.  As a result, we literally sleep our lives away, living in the dreamland of the past and future, and we fail to journey forward to find out what it really means to be human.

I’m learning that if you face your edge, that sharp place where you will either survive or go plummeting across the side of a cliff and die, somehow you make it and you find that your edge keeps extending outward.  I have also discovered that the more you wrestle with the great possibility that life will indeed fall apart or that you might actually die, you become less and less afraid of it. A very real paradox for sure.

With the help of Pema and others, I am starting to believe that the sharp points in life are my teachers, and so in a sense, they are gifts.  Where I used to bemoan hard things and say “Why is this happening to me?  This isn’t fair!”, I am sometimes able to welcome them as the wisdom of life, bringing me exactly what I need to wake up.

A final note about sharp things: I think most of us tend to believe that once we can get all of our crap together, life should smooth out and get easier, less unpredictable. When things go badly we wonder what we did wrong, or why God isn’t working for us, or if Satan or someone else is targeting us. But the reality of life is, there is no static perfection. Things come together, and things fall apart.  The trick is to ride those waves without attaching so tightly to the outcomes that we identify with them.

Logistics and scheduling in my life right now is a nightmare.  But that doesn’t mean I suck as a mom/adult and did anything wrong. I could get everything figured out perfectly this week and it may all get shot to hell next week. The point then is not to run from the sharp places that are painful and scary, but to accept them, be grateful for them and their ability to open our hearts, and then release them when they go.

Yes, way easier said than done, but I think this is real truth.

“People get into a heavy-duty sin and guilt trip, feeling that if things are going wrong, that means that they did something bad and they are being punished. That’s not the idea at all. The idea of karma is that you continually get the teachings that you need to open your heart. To the degree that you didn’t understand in the past how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart, you’re given this gift of teachings in the form of your life, to give you everything you need to open further.”
“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”
― Pema Chodron

 

When You White-Knuckle Life…

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Have you ever been in one of those spaces in life where you just try to bull your way through?  Some “thing” is happening that you fear will absolutely fly out of your control and explode in your face if you don’t grip it as tightly as possible? If you can just keep a handle on it long enough to find a workable solution everything will be OK?

You tell yourself that you’ll just try harder. You’ll be more diligent. You’ll create a routine. You’ll strategize. You’ll come up with multiple contingency plans.  You’ll keep asking everyone what you should do. You’ll mine all relevant scientific literature. You examine this thing from all different angles; you analyze it until your mind is exhausted.

But sometimes the solutions never come. No one has written a book that actually speaks to the situation that you’re in. There is no TED talk for this exact problem. Your friends and mentors empathize with all that is going on in your life but they have little in the way of wisdom to pass on to you to make it through this one, relentless thing.

And you find, God dammit!, that this thing just won’t go away, refuses to resolve, refuses to give you peace.

I have one big thing that just won’t seem to go away.  It is here just the same as it was last year, and it has brought me to my knees. I’m left with nothing. No ideas, no understanding, no real expectations.

I have gradually been learning that life refuses to be white-knuckled. It will not be dictated to, and it will not allow us to tell it how things should go. It will not let us grip and control our outcomes. We can wrestle with it and insist on our way, but every time, we will be put in our place until we can come to it out of an attitude of receiving.

I’ve been talking with a friend of mine about how real peace comes from within, and we can’t have true, long-lasting external peace until we reach that place of deep quiet within our individual selves. Trying to create peace in external circumstances or life situations will never really work until we can tap into streams of calm inside of us.

This makes me kind of crazy; I want this THING to be FIXED, NOW!  However, I’ve noticed over the last year, that my responses to this never-ending thing in my life are not quite as frantic, not quite as panicky, not quite as fatalistic as they once were. Instead of rushing to conclusions or solutions immediately when something goes wrong, I have much more capacity to sit in my realization that there is nothing I can do in that moment that will change anything.  It just is what it is.

Ghandi said, “There is no path to peace. Peace is the path.”  This path of peace begs us to accept each moment as it is, and acceptance requires that we stop white-knuckling for control over everything. We accept this, and now this, and now this.

Byron Katie has taught me that when we believe our thoughts, we suffer.  We suffer when we take the things that life gives us and label them all as this or that, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable. Our peace is destroyed because labels require action on our part and the rectification of situations.  But then we concern ourselves with whether or not our actions are the correct actions to take, and we seek only very specific outcomes. When those outcomes aren’t realized, we suffer even more.

As Eckhart Tolle has said, “You find peace not by rearranging the circumstances of your life, but by realizing who you are at the deepest level.” When we grasp at life and cling to what we think we want or change our environments or move to a new house or buy a new car, we are only dealing with details projected out of what we believe.  Nothing is really changing on the outside. Nothing will ever change until we allow ourselves to be changed.

I do not claim to understand how this works, but I am coming to live a knowing that what is within me paints my outside world.  If I am stressed and afraid, I only see a scary world.  When I tap into the peace of the divine within me, then I pass peace on to the world.

I don’t know when my “thing” will go away.  Maybe it will, maybe it will go on indefinitely, maybe it will become more complicated. I can throw all the hissy fits about it that I want and none of them will change anything.

But I’m tired of needless suffering over things I can’t control, and so I’m pretty motivated to stop fighting, stop wrestling, stop demanding what I want out of life. I’ve never done this life thing before, as far as I can remember; who am I to tell it what I need and don’t need. So to end with Longfellow, “For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”

Receive the sunshine, receive the rain, not white-knuckled and grasping, but hands open, welcoming, accepting.

“To love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.”
― Ellen Bass

 

 

 

 

This Post Is All About B.S.

 

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Photo credit: Philip Edmonson

 

“You will find that you don’t need to trust others as much as you need to trust yourself to make the right choices.”
― Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

Anyone who has talked to me for very long knows I have a weird eye thing going on.

This is how I’ve always referred to it: my weird eye thing. I have nystagmus, so my eyes move abnormally fast, back and forth horizontally – even more so when I’m upset or tired. I also have a lazy eye that tends to veer off to one side occasionally. These two eye issues were the cause of a tremendous amount of shame in my childhood, and I still tend to cross my eyes ever so slightly when being photographed or talking to somebody, so they know that I’m for sure looking at them and not peering over their shoulder.

My parents strove to raise me well and pushed me in many areas, like academics, to challenge myself.  However, they didn’t understand how my weird eye issues affected my eyesight and tended to be wicked overprotective. When I was in elementary school, I longed to play Little League baseball on the town team like my brother.  My parents refused to let me join, convinced that a ball would come flying my way and slam into my glasses, permanently blinding me with shards of broken glass. Nevermind that I played baseball all the time at home and with my extended family, with no problem.

My stupid eyes got in the way again in junior high when it came time to sign up for the basketball team.  I desperately wanted to play basketball and asked my parents for permission to sign up.  I assumed they’d have no problem since I had been playing tennis for years and regularly had balls speeding my way on the courts.

I got a firm NO. When I pressed as to why, I got the same answer I’d been accustomed to getting my entire life: “We don’t know if you can see well enough to play, and you might get hit in the face, and your glasses will break, and you’ll be blinded, and basically the Apocalypse will be ushered in.” [Ok, the last clause in that sentence was mine.]

Burning shame.  It felt brutal being told I couldn’t do things that in my heart I knew I would be fine at.  I hated my eyes, hated my glasses, and for a time, hated my parents for not believing in me.

Then high school basketball came around.  I was already well behind my peers who had been playing basketball for two years, but I was determined this time to be allowed to join the team.  I asked my parents yet again for permission, and once again received a firm no.  But this time I was pissed.

“Bullshit,” I told myself and proceeded to flat out ignore my dad for the next three days.  I didn’t look at him, refused to speak to him, and didn’t acknowledge when he spoke to me.  I was NOT going to be the first to crack on this one.  And I didn’t.  He finally came to me with his consent to join the team.  In general, I sucked at basketball even though I loved playing, but I never broke my glasses, never lost a contact lens, and no one ever had to pull glass shards out of my eyes.

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Each of us creates stories about ourselves from early childhood, and these stories have the tendency to stick with us.  Some stories are good and helpful, but much of the time, they are stories about our faults and weaknesses, and they come dressed to the hilt in shame.

We don’t always know we hold these stories.  They can be unconsciously embedded in our psyches, but they are retold again and again in the choices we make, the people we decide to be in relationship with, our perspectives on life, and so on.

Don Miguel Ruiz, who wrote The Four Agreements, describes these stories we believe about ourselves as the dream. Our brains are always dreaming, and each of us is subjected to the dream of the planet, which includes rules, religion, culture, governments, and all of humanity’s collective constructs.  As Ruiz describes in his book, we are taught how to dream this way, how to behave on the Earth, starting at birth, from the adults and peers in our lives.

I think it’s necessary to have some measure of order or social norms and ways of doing things to help life run smoothly. Rules and societal structure can help protect individual liberties and set up good boundaries. But problems occur when we begin to believe that dreams, or stories, that are being told to us from childhood define who we are at our core.  We are, according to Ruiz, domesticated.  We allow ourselves to be tamed, we begin to doubt our own instincts, and we defer to what others want from us and our perceived need for the attention and acceptance of others.

There are constant voices speaking to us every day that are working to keep us in line, keep us domesticated and submissive. These voices might be speaking different dreams to each of us, but we all have forces telling us to just go with the flow, do what society deems acceptable, stop rocking the boat, and for God’s sake, don’t trust ourselves or our choices.

The voices usually aren’t malevolent; most of the time they are rooted in fear. In our domestication, we take on the fear of others and then perpetuate it. It is only when we learn to question the dream that we discover there was never anything to be afraid of.

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I think that in the last year I might have possibly met every woman in Indianapolis who recently went through a huge relationship breakup and is attempting to reinvent or completely overhaul their lives.   And it’s crazy to me how each of these women, including me, is having to claw and fight against the dream and stories we ‘ve carried for so long that convinced us we are not enough.

I went out for margaritas a few days ago with two of these amazing women, ladies that I’m thrilled to call friends.  Over chips and salsa, we discussed how things were going in our lives, what steps forward we were making, and how we still struggled with various things on a daily basis.  One friend was almost despondent at times, seeing only the hard things in her life and the very slow progress she perceived she was making.

Bullshit, I said.  She was listening to the story that society had ingrained in her about what success looks like. She could only hear what people in her past had insisted was true about her, so much so that she struggled to believe in herself, and believe that she was making good, solid choices for her life. She viewed herself and her worth largely through the eyes of a dream she was born into.

What I see in her is someone who moved across the country by herself, is creating a new, interesting life, and is pursuing goals she’s held onto since childhood. I see a woman who is courageous and is peeling back layer after layer of burdens once placed on her by others in order to find her real, authentic self.

My other friend had beat herself up as well, not so long ago, for having to move back home, take a new career direction in her 30s, and struggle to ignore the voices of friends and family who shamed her for not having a husband, family, and established vocation by now.

Bullshit, I’ve told her again and again.  She hasn’t failed, and she isn’t going to fail.  She’s listened to her heart, refused to make a choice that she knew would have suffocated her, and is moving step by step towards her goals, despite obstacles that have tripped her up.

Other friends and women I know tell me their stories of being called losers by their parents, being left high and dry by husbands and partners, being estranged from their children, being judged by their social groups. They beat themselves up and lower their gazes and apologize repeatedly for their faults.

Bullshit.  These women may have failed by society’s standards in many regards, but I know better. I know that they are the brave ones – they are the ones facing hard things head-on, learning to trust themselves, and discovering, as Rumi tells us, that our wounds are the places that the light gets in. They are learning to cast off the stories that have held them back, and are helping others recognize their own sabotaging stories.

I know better because I myself am breaking free of my old stories, the ones people and society have told me since I was a child:

Julie, you’re just a quitter.

Julie, you’ll never be able to manage a home and will always be a slob.

Julie, you’ll never be able to drive because of your eyes.

Julie, you just need to marry someone to take care of you.

Julie, you can’t survive on your own after a divorce and you’re going to screw over your kids.

Julie, you never make good decisions.

Julie, you’ll never be a “real” athlete.

Julie, you’ll never belong.

Julie, you’ll always just be a stand-in, a poor man’s Wendy (reference The Wedding Planner).

Now granted, I had alot of wonderful people speaking encouragement and praise into my life.  But, people tend to hang on to negative emotions and events far longer than positive ones, and so the horrible things said to me and about me have just had a way of sticking tight.

Fortunately, I’ve also had people in my life who were willing to call out the bullshit that I was believing about myself -women who had been through similar life struggles as mine who have broken off many of their old stories and so have the clarity to look at my life and help me parse through what is real and what is just dream haze.

The funny thing is, the more you’re able to cast off the things that have held you back, the more you’re able to see that it really is just bullshit.  You are shocked that you ever believed any of it, ever let it define your life.  You also start to find that there’s bullshit everywhere, holding countless back from finding out who they truly are.

As Rob Bell likes to say, “Once you see, you can’t unsee. And once you taste, you can’t untaste.”  Once you see bullshit for what it is, you can’t unsee it, in yourself or anyone else. Once you taste freedom from lies and negative stories you’ve believed for years, you can’t go back to the old bondage, and you don’t want anyone else to remain stuck there either.

“Let them judge you.
Let them misunderstand you.
Let them gossip about you.
Their opinions aren’t your problem.
You stay kind, committed to love,
and free in your authenticity.
No matter what they do or say,
don’t you dare doubt your worth
or the beauty of your truth.
Just keep on shining like you do.”
― Scott Stabile

Inertia, Self-Sabotage, and Wrestling with God

 

deathvalley
Photo credit: Marc Cooper

 

“Nerves are God’s gift to you, reminding you that your life is not passing you by. Make friends with the butterflies. Welcome them when they come, revel in them, enjoy them, and if they go away, do whatever it takes to put yourself in a position where they return. Better to have a stomach full of butterflies than to feel like your life is passing you by.”

-Rob Bell, How To Be Here

Newton’s First Law of Motion: A body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion at a constant velocity will remain in motion in a straight line unless acted on by an outside force.

Inertia: A tendency to do nothing, or remain unchanged.

I knew I was on a trajectory that I didn’t like.   This wasn’t me, wasn’t what I had ever really wanted for my life.  To be fair, nothing was really BAD.  I had alot of good things going. I had security. I was comfortable. I had things to keep me busy.   But deep down in my soul, I felt like I was suffocating. I was on a bullet train speeding in a direction I did not want to go.

With the help of six months of therapy to finally move past my ambivalence about whether or not I could change things for myself, I made a hard stop. I thought of that analogy about the grass seeming greener on the other side of the fence. I realized that I could be making the absolute worst decision of my entire life….or I could be making the absolute BEST decision of my entire life.  And I was finally willing to accept either outcome.

I stopped walking, turned around, and went the other direction.

In the Bible, Jesus tells people to repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Properly translated, repent means to change one’s mind about something, or stop and go the other direction. This is exactly what I needed to do because the direction I was going wasn’t bringing me life.  When I read about the Kingdom of God, I don’t think of heaven awaiting me in the future, and I don’t completely hold to the already and not yet theology that I once did. I think the Kingdom of God is the Divine Present – not God in the future, not God in the past, but the abundance of life right now in us and around us…the only reality that is true and accessible and livable. So, Jesus tells us, essentially, to stop just being carried on by the inertia of our lives and pursue what is really life-giving, because the energy, power, and creativity for that is available to us right here, right now.

I’ve seen quite a few posts on social media lately about the validity of living a mediocre life.  Nothing fancy, just calm and peaceful without notoriety or fuss.  I totally get the appeal of this.  As Pico Ayer wrote in his wonderful book, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere:

“One could even, as [Leonard] Cohen was doing, try to find a life in which stage sets and performances disappear and one is reminded, at a level deeper than all words, how making a living and making a life sometimes point in opposite directions.”

In our fast-paced world, we certainly need this reminder – that the point shouldn’t always be outward success or the pursuit of ridiculously difficult goals. Sometimes simple and quiet is exactly what we need.  But I wonder if we might at times cling to the idea of a mediocre, average, “normal” life because it feels safe and doesn’t cause us to have to veer too far from the paths that have become so familiar to us.

I’m personally fantastic at self-sabotage; I’ve been practicing it all of my life.  Typically, it feels easier to aim for just shy of what I really want, because then I can say I accomplished something, yet still didn’t risk the shame of all-out failure.  I’ve always kept security in my back pocket as well.  I like making choices that appear risky externally (so my ego can be garnished with a bit of applause from onlookers) but are actually unlikely to do me much harm in the long run. However, these behaviors of mine in the past have never served me well because I always end up on a ship sailing away from the destination I desperately wanted to be.

It’s way too convenient and easy to maintain the status quo, travel on our merry ways, and not rock our personal little boats. Many of us could find ourselves on our deathbeds having completed all ten billion levels of Candy Crush without having done anything else that really required the focus and passionate energy of our hearts and souls. We could easily follow society’s rules, tow party lines, and be who everyone else thinks we should be.

Sometimes it takes something big to knock us out of our stupors, wake us up, and make us change directions. Carving a new path, often alone, in what seems like a wilderness can be terrifying. But we each get one life – there are no do-overs. Will we reincarnate?  I don’t know, maybe – but we will never have this one, exact same life again unless there’s some identical alternate universe that I don’t yet know about.

Remember that great Julia Roberts/Steel Magnolias quote (that movie has a quote for everything in life)?:

“I would rather have 30 minutes of “wonderful” than a lifetime of nothing special.”

How many of us settle for whatever appears in front of us, instead of digging deep to find what we really desire and pursuing it with abandon?  How many of us remain in stifling and stagnant life situations because it’s the civil or polite thing to do?  The socially acceptable thing to do?

In the Old Testament, there is a great story about a man named Jacob who wrestled all night with an angel, or God, as it were. Even when his hip was pulled out of joint, Jacob refused to let go until God gave him a blessing. The God/angel blessed Jacob and changed his name to Israel, because he had struggled with both God and humans, and had prevailed.

I love this story because of the bigger message behind it that I’ve heard from a Jewish teacher, I just can’t remember exactly who – probably Lawrence Kushner. Jacob didn’t just accept what came his way.  He didn’t lay down in the face of adversity.  Rather, he wrestled with the hard things that came to him, and didn’t give up even when it cost him.  And God blessed him for it.

Somehow, it seems, wrestling with life, asking hard questions, and doing the difficult things is the main point. God (or whatever term you prefer) is delighted when we engage him. It is a good thing, what we were designed to do as humans.  The whole point of life is not to succumb to inertia or take the easy path.  Jesus echoes this in the book of Matthew when he speaks of the broad and narrow gates.   He teaches that the broad way, that is easy to find and easy to take, is not the one that leads to real life.  We must search and struggle and wrestle with the Divine Present and refuse self-sabotage to find the narrow way because this is where real life, the kind of life free of deathbed regrets, exists.

I’m not really interested any longer in staying on a straight line from here to the grave, trucking along at a set pace.  Safe and comfortable aren’t so appealing anymore.  I want to wrestle with God, pursue hard things, stop and change directions when necessary, and all the while be completely, wildly, insanely drunk on life.

 

 

Centered Sets, Belonging, and Being OK Where You Are

 

cherry blossoms_b
Photo Credit: Patrick Down

 

My best friend attended a Vineyard USA church in Boston for years.  I sort of attended vicariously for years, too, through her and conversations we would have over the weekly sermons presented there.  It was a congregation and church leadership that indirectly had a huge impact on my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. They helped me begin to ask the hard questions that would eventually lead me away from much of mainstream Christianity.  Kind of ironic…Christians inadvertently and unintentionally opening the door for me to walk away from my childhood faith.

Anyway, there is one concept that the lead pastor spoke of on occasion that really helped me rethink the whole “Are you a Christian or not?” question.  This was an important question in my youth…I desperately wanted to know who was “in” or “out”, because then I could have the assurance of which destination I was likely to end up in, heaven or hell, and who would be joining me. I wanted a firm set of criteria with which to evaluate people’s faith.  Knowing boundaries and being certain of ‘in-ness’ felt safe and secure.  The idea of not knowing for certain who was good in God’s eyes and who wasn’t terrified me.

But Dave (the Vineyard pastor) turned this type of thinking of mine on its head with the concept of centered sets versus bounded sets in relation to faith and who is considered “in” and who is considered “out”.

 

bounded set
photo credit Redeeminggod.com

 

The picture above is an example of a bounded set.  Imagine that everyone inside the red circle has asked Jesus into their lives as their personal Savior.  They are now within the fold, under God’s safe umbrella.  Those on the outside of the red circle are out of the club, the ones certain to be left behind in case of rapture.  While I grew up with bounded set thinking in Christianity, it is a harsh way to go.  It defines people as “we” and “them”.  Those outside the protective circle are “other”. And anyone on the inside of the circle is “right and justified”.

But Dave offered another perspective in his sermons, that of a centered set.

 

centered set
photo credit Redeeminggod.com

As you can see in this graphic, there is no circle delineating who is in or out.  The point is all about relationship and where people are in reference to the cross, or Jesus.  The fundamental premise behind this centered set idea is: are you moving closer to Jesus, or away from Jesus? Not, are you a born-again Christian or aren’t you?  And, along with that, where are you in relation to others, where are you within community?

 

It took me time to realize it, but this concept of bounded set versus centered set was a stepping stone to help me walk away from my childhood beliefs that following Jesus meant separation from everyone who didn’t follow him.  While I no longer believe at all in atonement theory and the need to accept Jesus as Savior, I still love these graphics as a model for looking at life in general.  Now, instead of a cross being at the middle of the centered set graphic, it becomes awakening, or ultimate love, or the discovery of the Ground of Being through uncovering our true selves.  Once again, the point is not whether we have awakened or become completely self-aware as compared to those who have not.  It’s about the fact that we are all on a journey.  We are all at different points on that journey, and some of us are moving towards love and our true selves, while others may be moving away.

The funny thing about these journey continuums toward that center goal: they aren’t necessarily linear.  From the outside, we may think someone is going the opposite direction from what is good for them. But we have little grounds to judge, because in the paradoxical setup of life, sometimes we have to descend to ascend.  People may need to go backward for a while to get farther along down the path. So, determining whether they are “in” or “out” becomes impossible, and in fact, is no longer a question even worth asking.  This simple understanding brings freedom.  Everyone is OK; they just are where they are on their own journey.

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Krista Tippett interviewed Brené Brown recently on her podcast, On Being.  Both Krista Tippett and Brené Brown are amazing, so if you haven’t already, I highly encourage everyone to check them out. In this particular episode, Brown talked about some research she had done in the past with middle school-aged children. She asked them what the difference was between “fitting in” and “belonging”.  The kids offered profound answers, like “Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something; belonging is when others want you,” and “It’s really hard not to fit in or belong at school, but not belonging at home is the worst.”

I was driving in my car when listening to this podcast, and when I heard those two statements, I had a visceral, gut-wrench response.  Because I know exactly what this feels like.  As I drove and pondered and listened to Brown, I went back in my mind to my childhood, adolescence, and even early adulthood.  I think the first twenty-five years of my life can be succinctly summed up as “Julie tried her damndest to figure out where she belonged, and if she belonged at all.” I struggled so hard to fit in, hoping that I would be accepted and fill the belonging-shaped void in my heart.  Sometimes I did fit in, but often I didn’t.  The hard part about trying to fit in is that you do it at the expense of your own true self, your authenticity. You play-act at different roles, hoping that you will finally find one that will make people want you.  Then, you either struggle with the pain that comes with not being true to yourself, or you desperately hope you can keep the facade up and no one will find you out and label you a fraud.

This is probably why I clung so hard to the Jesus story of my youth.  If I believed the right things, did the right things and prayed the right prayers, I was IN!  I belonged!  The God I believed in then set criteria for being “in” or “out’ that felt tangible and clear, which felt safe.  Jesus was my friend if I did whatsoever he commanded me (Bible reference here), so check, check, check…I fulfilled the requirements. I was good and God wanted me.

But it really didn’t work, because that bounded set model is all about conditionality and making sure to stay within certain boundaries.  Ultimately, it is an illusion of belonging based in fear.

*************************************************************************************When I was little, I used to get a horrible feeling every so often. It was sort of like a “someone walking over my grave” shiver, but more of an internal feeling than an external shake. Basically, it was this deep sense that I didn’t belong.  Not in this life, not in my body, not in my family, not in this world.  It was dreadful really, because it made me feel illegitimate, like I was an imposter human, a wannabe. I felt like I took up space that wasn’t rightfully mine.  And from a very early age, I felt unwanted and unseen at my core.

Now, this is not a knock on my family or the community I grew up in. I was loved by many, but I was also very neurotic, so what I perceived may not have been at all what others were trying to express. However, the fact is, the feeling of not belonging had a tremendous influence on the shaping of my life.

But this is why I love the centered set model, why I love the enchanted expression that we all came from stardust, and the idea that growth in life is not linear as we tend to assume.  Breaking free from the bounded set borders was liberating because now, instead of having to judge and evaluate everyone based on their doing the “right” things, I see that we all just “are”.  We can love everyone in their “is-ness” and love ourselves in our “is-ness”, too.  And if there are no boundaries, no walls, no checklists, no criteria, then we don’t have to try and fit in. We just automatically belong. I belong.

I think, at the most basic, simple level….this is the real definition of salvation, the thing that we want more than anything in the deepest, hidden places of our hearts. Salvation is the realization, the awakening to the true understanding, that you’re OK where you are, and you belong.