When You White-Knuckle Life…

peace

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.

 

bullshit
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.

Why We Have Kids During the First Half of Life

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Parenting is really hard.  Like REALLY hard.

(Don’t worry, this is not another post about how to parent or me lamenting about some parenting fail on my end…hang with me).

If anything has brought me to the absolute end of my rope, it’s with trying to raise my three boys. As many other parents of littles often bemoan, our children do not enter this world with an instruction manual.  And for everyone who says the Bible is God’s instruction manual for raising kids, I argue that crucial chapters must have been lost prior to publication, or canonization, whichever you prefer.

Some days I parent like a boss, am efficient, compassionate, and wise.  But who am I kidding, most days it feels like I’ve got nothing and hope at the end of my life I will get graded on a curve. If it weren’t for the objective outsiders who love me and have chosen to do life with me, I’d be an even bigger parenting mess than I am right now.

Thanks to a FB ad from Scientific American, I stumbled across a book called The Self-Driven Child: The Science and Sense of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives.  Of course, being the nerdy, desperate parent I am, I stepped up and got it on Audible.  I’m about halfway into it, and find it to be a really good read (or listen), along the same lines as work done by Dan Siegel and Susan Stiffleman, for parents out there who are seeking out wise voices in rearing these little creatures of ours.

One of the primary points that the authors of the Self-Driven Child are trying to make is that children in today’s world are lacking a sense of self control and self agency.  In fact, they point to studies that have been done showing that when children and young adults don’t have any sense of real control over their lives in any meaningful way, they are prone to developing depression and anxiety that can stick with them throughout adulthood. For children to develop sound mental health, they need to get a good grasp of their identity, which is found by being allowed to make decisions and mistakes, and try new things within fair limits and under the umbrella of their parents’ unconditional love. Basically, NOT helicopter parenting or authoritarian parenting.

When I was listening to the first handful of chapters of the book, I couldn’t help but notice how it correlated well with something Richard Rohr has taught about for years. In his work as a Franciscan priest, he has spent alot of time in prisons working with young men.  What he found over time was that many of these men in prisons grew up without fathers, they never gained a solid sense of identity and they never underwent an initiation into manhood. He researched cultures from around the world and found that initiation rites were foundational for men and women, but especially men, to enter adulthood as mature and purpose-driven.  Rohr went on to develop a program for men in contemporary Western culture that offer them a chance to experience an initiation of sorts.

Rohr also developed another idea of the first and second halves of life.  He argues that during the first half of life, we need a good, strong container – that is, we need a strong foundation with a solid identity. This first half of life container is what helps us learn to be successful in the world, survive, build security and families, hold down jobs.  But, he also points out that we must all have a second half of life as well, where we realize that we are powerless and not really in control of anything after all. Rohr argues that everyone will at some point reach the end of themselves; it may be precipitated by a mid-life crisis, or it may be on the death bed, but everyone will eventually realize that the identity they built up in the first half of life was really just an illusion and not the whole point of life after all. This is the stage of life where our true selves can begin to emerge.

It’s paradoxical…why build up an ego and identity, if you must simply have to shed it down the road?   Why build a life if you’re just going to have to die to it? I don’t know, I don’t really get it, but the Perennial Tradition makes this clear: you must construct an understanding of life so that you can deconstruct it, so that a true one can finally be reconstructed.  Or as the Dalai Lama puts it, we must “Learn and obey the rules very well so that you will know how to break them properly.”

Anyway, back to parenting. I’ve often wondered why we don’t have children when we are older and wiser.  Wouldn’t we be better parents by then?  I mean, grandparents are always calmer, kinder, and fun than parents.

But now I wonder if life built child-bearing into younger adulthood (for reasons other than the obvious ones like an 80-year woman with osteoporosis probably shouldn’t try to push out a baby from her hips) because it helps to offer part of the crisis we need to help jar us out of our first half of life containers and into the second half of life wisdom.

I mean seriously, what else will drive you into a sense of absolute powerlessness than children?  Like, when your six year old barfs on the moving walkway conveyor belt at the Boston airport and you have no freaking clue what to do as you watch vomit slowly move down into the belly of the contraption and you feel the need to apologize profusely to the airport maintenance who have to disable and disembowel the whole thing to clean it out?

Or when one of your children has emotional regulation issues and nothing you can say, do, or offer helps to reduce the massive temper tantrum they’ve been engaging in in an entirely inappropriate public setting?

Or….when you realize that you will have to endure at least 10 more years of non-stop potty humor and fart noises at the dinner table, in the car, at entirely inappropriate public settings, etc?

Parenting in the earlier part of adulthood is the perfect opportunity to ruin the strong identities we’ve built for ourselves, and we’re left with two choices: insist we still have control and try to convince ourselves of this until our children fly the nest…or, hold up the white flag, realize that as Eckhart Tolle says, our children may have passed through us, but they are not ours, and act as consultants more than dictators to help our children build up a strong sense of self and identity with which to launch out into the world.

We help them build up their identity while they help tear ours down.  What a tradeoff! Hmph.

Grandparents seem to have learned the lesson. Another reason old people don’t have babies…they wouldn’t have gotten to the wise place of powerlessness and loss of control without having first been aided by their own children.  By the time they get to their grandkids, they (generally) know which battles to fight, what really matters, and what doesn’t.   Grandparents have learned to let go of the illusion of control over children, embrace reality, and then proceed to pull their grandchildren out of the path of rampaging, frustrated parents and spoil the dickens out of them.

I kind of can’t wait to be a grandparent.  But as an Alabama friend of mine used to say, “Now ya’ll know, to get there you’ve got to leave here!” So, I will continue to work to step back and let my children strengthen their self-identities and first half of life containers by not trying to over-control them, while they doggedly and daily point out that any real control I have over their lives is illusory.  (And I smile smugly to myself, knowing that one day their own children will sweetly offer them the same courtesies.)

 

Sacred Wounds, Healing, and Letting in Life

scalpel
Photo credit: Robert Millward

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. ”        -Ernest Hemingway

Warning:  I will be talking about blood and scalpels in this post, so if you’re squeamish, avert your eyes.

A couple of weeks ago I had a community nursing clinical at the Wound Center for a local hospital. I was able to observe as people with diabetic wounds, pressure ulcers, and boils received treatment.

Unfortunately, the rate of type 2 diabetes is ever increasing, and with it comes an increase in wounds resulting from nerve damage.  Healing is then impaired because diabetics tend to have poor circulation in their extremities, and recovering tissues need good blood supplies bringing in adequate amounts of oxygen.

The diabetic patients I saw on this particular day at the wound center had wounds on their feet. In several cases, the patients had injured themselves by stepping on something sharp, but it took them days to realize it, and by then they had developed significant open sores.

Because diabetic patients with wounds like these aren’t getting good blood flow to the area, tissues become necrotic and die. Necrotic tissue cannot be restored, and increases the risk for infection, so it must be cut away. In both patients, the doctor cut away any blackened, dead tissue until he reached the margins of healthy tissue. But then, interestingly, the doctor would continue cutting with his scalpel, into the healthy, pink, exposed tissue.

If an observer was watching the doctor and didn’t know what the doctor was doing, he might be horrified.  Why make the patient’s wound worse and cause more bleeding? The reason for this practice was to enhance blood flow to the damaged area.  By cutting into healthy tissue on the edges of the wound, more blood was allowed to enter, bringing in life-giving oxygen to help promote healing.

It sounds paradoxical…injure the patient to heal the patient.

I have found this same paradox to be present and true in our emotional lives.  When we experience disappointment, grief, or trauma, even microtraumas, it is easy and instinctual to hunker down, close ourselves off, and resist any further pain.  We want safety, and we often try to just stop feeling anything, because those feelings can be scary and they can hurt like hell.

But, to find our way through those things that initially hurt us, and to gain long-lasting healing, we have to dig back into those wounds, unpleasant as it may be. Wounds around our hearts can get hard and crusty over time. Sometimes we learn to protect ourselves by adding layer after layer of distractions, bad habits, and blame of others over those wounds to avoid feeling the rawness that lies underneath.  The problem is, all those layers are necrotic, and they are a fertile breeding ground for bitterness, resentment, fear, and hatred.

We are going to get hurt in life.  It’s inevitable and is a part of being human. What takes extreme courage is to allow for sacred wounds. I think sacred wounds are those that we self-inflict, or allow others to inflict upon us, as a healthy means to pursue healing.  Sacred wounding happens when we take a scalpel (maybe through therapy, or bodywork, or introspection, or meditation, or The Work, or tapping, or countless other modalities) and begin to cut away at the tough exteriors that we’ve built up around our hearts.

Slicing anywhere near old emotional wounds is brutal, but when done with safe people in safe spaces, it can be transforming.  Life and love, that are always within our deepest, truest selves, are suddenly able to start seeping out. They bring energy to those places within us that are struggling to breathe, struggling to survive.  And those places start to vibrate once again, and begin functioning as they were intended.  Over time, streams of life are flowing through those old wounds, where once it was stagnated in a toxic environment.

I once had several emotional wounds that I believed would never heal. They were just too deep, too infected, too complex.  I was terrified of any scalpel that offered to cut away the hard callouses that I had built up to protect myself. Fortunately, I’ve learned that the Universe is a good physician. It brings the sacred wounding I need when I need it, and the result has been more healing than I could have ever imagined. Sometimes I still resist sacred wounding, fearful of the ensuing pain from whatever scalpel is being laid to me. But when I can summon just a small amount of courage, and lean into the discomfort, I only gain more life, an increased ability to love, and the flood of light into the deepest, darkest, most hidden places of myself.

 

 

 

I’m Just Not That Into….Valentine’s Day.

hearts
Photo credit: Meghan Dougherty

Disclaimer:  This post will likely not have anything all to do with science. Unless you consider the neurotransmitters in my brain that have helped me reframe and thus respond differently to Valentine’s Day than I have in the past.

I’m not going out tonight. I’m not getting flowers, chocolates, wine, teddy bears, or anything else colored red today. I’m not being romanced by anyone, nor am I pining away for anyone. I’m not listening to sappy love songs, and I’m not going to watch any cliche romantic Valentine movies.

And that’s perfectly OK with me.  In fact, I’m great with it, and I harbor no resentment or ill will or jealousy towards anyone who will be happily engaging in the traditional Valentine’s hoopla.   I think alot of the reason I’m fine with the current setup is that I’ve learned to change my perspective on what life brings me, and find the good out of what I used to categorically label as horrible.

There’s alot of people out in the world today who are hating Valentine’s or bemoaning the fact that Cupid must have been using a harmless nerf bow on them instead of getting it right and bringing them some great, true, faithful love. I completely empathize with people who aren’t having a great experience today, but I’d like to offer my own personal list of why I just don’t think Valentine’s is worth getting wrecked over.

Listed, in no particular order, except for maybe #1…..I’m happy to have a non-romantic Valentine’s day because…

1. I get to pick the bottle of wine tonight, and I don’t have to share.  It’s a Chianti, by the way…

2.  Meals at restaurants on Valentine’s Day are ridiculously overpriced and frequently underwhelming.

3. I am not a fan of the consumeristic, contrived expectations that come with Valentine’s. I mean really, how much do you have to spend on someone to prove your love?

4. If someone can only conjure up meaningful romance towards me on Valentine’s day, then there’s not much substance to our relationship to begin with.

5. Valentine’s day has always seemed to be a subtle game of comparison.  Who gets what, how big is it, how expensive is it, how novel is it… . it’s just one more way for people, especially women, to employ ranking systems.

6. I personally am more thrilled when someone cleans my kitchen  or randomly sends me an unexpected gift on another day, than all the froo froo that comes with Valentine’s. I don’t want jewelry…I want BOOKS.

7. Romance is fueled by obligation, guilt, or hormones. (Oh look, there’s some science!).  Not to say there’s anything wrong with romance and the sweaty palms and beating hearts that come with it, but the state of being “in love” is unsustainable in the long term.  We fizzle out after a period of time with the other person, and unless there’s some foundation that’s been laid beneath the hot romance, the relationship will struggle.  It’s much more appealing to me to have a person who comes through for me 75% of the time and completely spaces Valentine’s day than it is for someone to blow Valentine’s day out of the water yet never really gets to know me or be there when it counts.  Anyone can manage one day out of the year; the true test is the people that stick with you over the long haul.

8. I don’t get worked up over not having a fancy Valentine’s day because I am very well loved already. I have my tribe of people – the ones who have seen me ugly with bedhead and no makeup, the ones who have heard me swear like a sailor, the ones who know my deepest shame and worst failures, the ones who know my dreams and what I most fear, the ones who push me to be my best self, the ones who hold to me when I’m not a good friend and don’t love them back well.

The fact is, at some point we’ll all get ugly, we’ll all get saggy in spots, and maybe we’ll eventually stop making adequate amounts of sex hormones ,which will result in a lost interest in or physical ability to do romance anyway.  But the thing that stays is our capacity to connect with others on a deeper, more meaningful level than romance or sex can take us. To truly know other people, and be known by them, will always be more important to me than whether or not I have a hot Valentine’s date.

9. Finally, I am my own best Valentine.  I will never leave myself, I always look out for myself, I’m really good at picking out gifts for myself, it doesn’t take much to impress or amuse myself, and in general, I show up for myself when it matters. And when I get down deep to my core, past the ego and selfishness to my true self, I live and move and have my being in the great, good Love that connects all things.