Everyone Brings a Gift





Photo credit: Wajahat Syed

Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.

-Mary Oliver

When I got divorced almost five years ago, I moved back to Indianapolis for the third time in my adult life. I was NOT happy about it at the time; but, it seemed like the practical, expedient thing to do. I needed an affordable place to live, to go back to school, and to restart my career that had laid mostly dormant for the previous ten years. I was living just south of Boston at the time and felt completely at home in New England. Moving back to the Midwest – after living in Colorado, and Upstate New York, and Massachusetts -seemed dreadful. That time in my life felt like a huge, overwhelming death: death of my family, death of living in a place that spoke to my soul, death of the lifestyle that I was grown accustomed to living, death of the belief that I might be one of the few people that made it through life without being scathed by divorce.

It was death all mixed with the tiny glimmer of hope that there would be a resurrection on the other side that might possibly lead to a more abundant life than what I was currently enduring.

I was grumpy for the first year to year and a half that I was back in the Indy, wishing I could be so many other places in the country besides Indiana. I was convinced that, coming back to Indianapolis as an entirely different person than who I was when I had left it it five years before, that I would never find my people, or things, that I loved. It would be a matter of biding my time until my youngest graduated from high school and I could escape back to some much more interesting state or country.

Now, five years later, I feel so completely different about my situation than when I arrived. It almost feels like a lifetime ago that I left Boston, and where I once felt a tremendous loss, I now see that I not only brought with me all that was real and enduring from my time there, but I also gained, since then, so much more than I could have ever imagined. Gift after gift has come my way: some packaged in what first looked like loss, others in metaphorical boxes of free, unsolicited, undeserved joy. My time in Indiana over these last several years has helped to change my overall perspective on everything, and everyone, that comes into my life. I used to separate them into sheep and goats, good and bad, things I welcomed and things I would rather send on their way. Now, finally, in the fourth decade of my life, I am learning to welcome it all….the people, the circumstances, everything…that comes into my life. (My therapist still has to remind me weekly to let go of my rules-based approach to life, and to stop worrying about right and wrong all the time. It’s taking some time to undo these deeply ingrained patterns in me, but it’s gradually happening). Most of all, I have learned to welcome the people, because I have learned this one great lesson, even if I forget it from time to time…..everyone…EVERYONE… you encounter in life brings you a gift.

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A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called The Gifts of Microrelationship. In it I talked about how I was discovering that relationships, of any kind, don’t have to last forever, or even be that long, to still be very meaningful and life changing. Just because a relationship ends, or doesn’t evolve to the depth you might have hoped for, doesn’t mean that it didn’t matter. In the post I remembered some of the people who had slipped in and out of my life very quickly, but during their brief stay they had encouraged me or in some way influenced me to change my own way of doing things….or to open my mind just a little more….or to reconsider something. I still look back on these people as major game changers in my life, and since the time of writing that post I have added so many more people to the list. Many of these people are no longer in my life, they may have even forgotten about me, but I remember, and am grateful, for what they gave to me.

-the person who basically told me to stop goofing around and start taking my writing seriously, and be willing to risk putting myself out there

-the multiple people who influenced me to try to run a little further than I thought I ever could

-those coworkers so long ago who developed in me a love for road biking, when we would hit the road in 100 degree weather after the workday was over

-person after person who introduced me to their brand of art, or music, or writing and in so doing, broadened my own appreciation of how we each express ourselves and our experiences in the world

-specific people who engaged with me in conversations about science, and philosophy, and spirituality that helped me reframe a particular perspective or validated my own journey toward understanding and wisdom

-the handful of people who made me realize that maybe there is a little bit of poet residing in me, when i used to think I was too dull and bland to adequately paint with words

-the people who helped me find my love of music and playing piano again, after years of forced compliance had ripped the joy away

-the ones who have been showing the many different ways that relationships can exist and grow, and there is no one right way to do any of it

-the ones who told me that I had found my path, and my calling…that I was moving in the right direction

And so many more…too many to be listed here.

For someone like me, who attaches quickly and strongly to certain people I meet, the ending of relationships, or relationships that fizzle out quickly, or relationships that just never take off, feels horribly painful to me.

It’s not so much a “Man, I feel sad about that”, but, in all honesty, it feels like tangible pain…a real, substantial loss. I recognize that alot of this is probably melodramatic hyperbole resulting from my tendency toward anxious and disorganized attachments stemming from childhood, but it also results because I take people…and their stories….and what they bring to the world… very, very seriously. When I decide that I’ve found one of my people, I’m ALL in…and losing that, for whatever reason, feels like another death.

I always used to think that short relationships meant they had failed. Like, if you couldn’t sustain them for a long period of time, then their meaning was lost….they didn’t offer anything enduring. And most of the time I thought that when relationships ended, it was my fault or that I wasn’t compelling, or attractive or witty (insert whatever adjective here) enough to stay in a relationship with. There was something inherently broken about me that ran people off. Maybe I was too much for them, maybe I wasn’t enough. I was good enough until a better alternative showed up.

I still struggle with the voices that shout these things at me sometimes, but most of the time I understand that not every relationship in life is meant to be intense and “forever”. Every encounter with a person, every relationship…has a purpose. I’m not really trying to fall into the the “everything happens for a reason” sentiment, but I believe enough in the benevolence of the universe that Life brings us situations and people that will grow us, stretch us, and wake us up. But they don’t each have the same kind of purpose…either in timeframe or depth of substance.

I think one of the great lessons of life is to learn to not ascribe to relationships and people what WE think the purpose is. When we do that, we attach too strongly, can often become manipulative of the relationship, and then suffer when the relationship ends or evolves into something we weren’t expecting. The goal is to catch and release, touch but not grasp….to welcome what comes and stays but always let it be free to leave. I still suck at this on the regular, but at least these days I’m aware of it when I’m doing it and can try to work through my angst in healthier ways.

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One of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned is that the gifts that are brought to us by people don’t always come in packages or timeframes that we welcome. In fact, alot of the time it is only through hindsight that we can recognize the gift that someone gave us, and that what felt terrible or cruel at the time was something that would eventually grow our pain cave or teach us to be brave or save us from going down a path that would never have been good for us or felt the truest for us.

Sometimes to be able to see the gift that we have been handed, we have to work through a crap ton of trauma, anger, grief, and sadness. I also think that being able to get the value out of whatever happened to us because of someone is based on our perspective and ability to reframe events that have happened in our lives. If I didn’t have the supportive, wise friends that I do, and if I hadn’t gone to alot of therapy, I’m pretty sure I’d still be absolutely stuck in certain memories and places of the past. But in reframing and through what I call sacred imagination (where I intentionally try to ponder how the Universe might be working things for my good), I can get to the place where even the worst thing that ever happened to me can be accepted as a gift…not in a flippant or trite way, not through a Pollyanna mindset…but acceptance that comes after working with the pain, affirming that what was done was wrong and not OK, but then refusing to remain a victim or allow that pain to be in vain.

So, honestly, when I look at things from this vantage point, I can begin to see that everything that comes my way in life is a gift. Every single thing that happens to us can grow us, reveal harmful patterns in our lives, broaden our minds, teach us how to empathize with and have compassion on others, delight us, etc. It just goes back to the quote from Richard Rohr that I have tattooed on my arm: Everything belongs. Meaning, that life doesn’t waste anything; everything, even the wicked hard, or scary, or terrible things, can be incorporated to growing your heart and keeping you open. And so in that way, everything is a gift….or, has the potential to be a gift in the future. I can’t help but think about a verse in Genesis that says “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.” However you feel about the Bible or religion, I think the point here is that life can work what seems unworkable….it can transform evil into good…it can somehow help us keep moving forward in the chess game even when it feels like all we see is Checkmate.

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There are certain things that I struggle to convince myself are gifts. My crazy eye movements because of congential nystagmus doesn’t feel like a gift. Some relationships I’m in that are difficult and probably require necessary endings don’t feel like gifts. These constant quirks or struggles of mine that I still can’t seem to resolve after 30 years and alot of desperatel hard work, don’t feel like gifts. But, when I look back over the length of my life, I can’t help but spot gift after gift after gift that sprang up from the good things AND the bad things, the people who loved me AND the people who hurt me. And so, because of these, I have the hope that life will continue to transform these things and people I struggle with, and that what is painful and feels dead right now will one day bloom.

The Problem With “Instimacy”

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“You stretched for the stars and you know how it feels to reach too high
Too far
Too soon
You saw the whole of the moon”   –The Whole of the Moon, The Waterboys

Ok, who reading this post has tried online dating?  Raise your hand – figuratively or literally.

Or, who has ever headed off to freshman year in college and was so glad to find a friend that first day that you became inseparable besties for the first week of classes and then realized you didn’t even really like each other?

Or, who has sat next to someone at a table at a conference and the “hitting it off” vibes were so strong that you told each other your life stories before dessert and coffee were served?

Over the last ten years, I’ve thought ALOT about relationships we have with people….how we find people to be in relationship with, who we choose to stick with, and why some of those relationships just run off the rails as soon as they’ve begun. And ultimately, I think I’ve decided that so many of our problems in relationship come down to a weakening of our boundaries around our sacred space – our hearts, our souls, and all that we’ve experienced and treasure in life that makes us uniquely us.

This post is one of a three-part series I intend to write on this subject, the second being “Why You Should Stop Making Everyone Comfortable” and the final being “Unhelpful Platitudes and Other Stupid Things People Say”.

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We live in a horribly disconnected society even though we are all on social media, networking away and “sharing” our lives.  I’m not bashing social media; I have a very robust Facebook life that gives me alot of joy, especially through ridiculous daily meme posting.  And, I have friends who post about meaningful things, not just superficial ramblings about last night’s dinner or pics of duck-lip posing.

I think alot of people are just really lonely, and with the influence of our “get everything quick” culture, we want to build relationships and feel secure really quickly, too. I’m a huge fan of relationships and new friendships, but I have also realized that trying to build them too quickly – something I refer to as instimacy (instant-intimacy)- can really cause more hurt in the long run than intentionally moving slowly and steadily.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Online dating…in some ways, it’s a brilliant idea.  You’re able to narrow down the dating pool by honing in on the types of people you will most likely be compatible with, the ones who have similar interests, the ones who might be looking for the same things you are.  Basically, you can much more efficiently find a likely partner than just meandering through life hoping someone shows up on your doorstep, or doing the bar scene, or many of the numerous other ways that people try to meet each other.

So, you get on a site and find someone who seems to be in your tribe, and you start messaging within the dating site.  When that proves promising, you move on to actual texting. Then, you and this person text consistently until you finally decide to meet up.  Maybe you have a phone call or two in there, just to make sure the other person isn’t a real creep or completely making up what they’ve been texting about.

Then…you meet.  And you suddenly skip half of the conversations you would traditionally have on a date because you already had them via text. And you find yourself telling this person, that you really barely know, much more about yourself than you normally would.

Instimacy.

It’s great for a while….until it’s not.

The problem is, instimacy isn’t real intimacy because so much of it is based on the stories we have in our heads about who the other person is. They have stories in their heads about us as well. We take those texts, or those phone conversations, and a few dating site pics (or maybe you’ve advanced to Facebook and Instagram by then) and you concoct a whole narrative of who you think that person is. So, on those early dates, you’re having intimate conversations with an illusion.  The illusion you have of the person could, in fact, be spot on and true, but so many times it isn’t.

Or, maybe the stories you have about each other are so very true that you burn too hot too fast, and it’s not sustainable because you haven’t taken the time to build a foundation of trust and respect.  You know alot about that person, but you haven’t “experienced” them to know them at their core. There is nothing to tie that person to you or you to that person. So off you go in the world, if things don’t work out, knowing a crap ton about the other person and vice versa, wondering if the exchange was ever ultimately meaningful. Or you realize that you might have lost something that could have been really good because you were both hoping for way too much too soon

This is a hard lesson to learn…that to go slow and steady is better.  But I think in most cases it’s really true.

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I grew up believing that honesty was a paramount value in life.  The unfortunate part was that I was never really taught that honesty is nuanced, so I had to start learning it as an adult.  I now know that being honest doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to describe all of yourself in literal detail.  And, in most cases, the people in your life need to earn your honesty. The truth that you tell someone you’ve known forever and can trust should not be the same truth you tell someone you just met.  (I hope you all realize that I’m talking about personal honesty around who you are and your boundaries….not superficial things that every person in society really needs to tell the literal truth about just to be a decent human being).

I’m a pretty transparent person. Anyone who reads this blog very often knows I spill alot of gory details about myself and my emotional life.  I’ve grown to be this way because I’ve learned that 1) shame tends to naturally fall away when hard things are spoken out loud, and 2) other people need to hear your stories so they know they aren’t alone in their life experiences….they aren’t the only ones who have had “insert whatever here” happen to them….they aren’t the only ones to ever feel “insert more whatever here.”

Being open, transparent, and honest with people is generally a good thing. But maybe we all need to learn to hold our pasts, the things that are most important to us in life, our deepest secrets and hopes, with a little more reverence. Each of us have had hard things happen to us in life….things that radically changed us, or hurt us deeply, or in some way impacted us at our core. Those things are a part of who we are, and none of us deserve to have anyone trample over them, whether intentionally or unconsciously.  But because those people we are doing instimacy with don’t really understand us, they can’t know the things in us that need to be protected and held carefully.

It is up to each of us alone, as individuals, to protect ourselves. We have to parcel out what we reveal to people as they earn it, as they prove themselves trustworthy.  Words and promises don’t cut it here.  They have to show themselves trustworthy to handle the responsibility of seeing and experiencing the real you.

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I don’t think this dynamic of instimacy only occurs in romantic relationships; I’ve seen it with friendships before, and even work relationships.  In our desire to feel connected and a part of something, we allow others to be careless with us, and we are careless with others.

As I heard Richard Rohr say today, the goal is love, but the path to that goal is also love.  The means and the end are the same.  We can’t skip steps or rush building a good foundation to get the relationships we want.  We have to tread carefully with other people’s hearts and heavy stuff, and we have to insist that others who want to be in relationships with us do the same.

Building these foundations and earning honesty requires that we get out of the stories in our heads…our stories about the other person and our stories about what we think is happening at the moment. This means one conversation at a time, each marked by ample amounts of space and distance. It means recognizing that each of us is a unique, amazing person whose real self, not just a fabricated story in the mind, deserves to be seen and valued and treated with respect.

 

Why You Should Stop Making Everyone Comfortable

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Credit: Xavier Verges

I suffer from a chronic disorder.  It’s called: “Making Other People Comfortable At My Own Expense-osis”. The tricky thing about this ailment is that it typically presents first in childhood, and unless quickly nipped in the bud, it can wreak havoc on one’s ability to manage life well in the adolescent and adult years.

Symptoms of MOPCAMOE-osis include:

-a persistent weakening of personal boundaries and self-care constructs in order to accommodate another person’s desires or preferences

-an inability to feel completely comfortable in social situations because of the fear that somehow you are imposing on someone’s else comfort, even if you have no clue how you might be doing that

-a tendency to over-apologize for everything, and a tendency to offer a quick “That’s OK!” when a person has wronged you but throws out an insincere and thoughtless apology with impeccable timing

-a deep inclination toward hard and fast rule-following so that you can ensure you don’t break any social mores, workplace norms, unspoken relationship expectations, or arbitrary guidelines devised by others in your life for how you can interact with them.

-a reluctance to initially be too outgoing or “yourself” in case you’re not enough for people, or worse….too much for them.

-the insane urge to always explain yourself so that others understand your motives and that you never intended to make them uncomfortable when you were being yourself

As you can see, this is quite a serious condition to suffer from because it impacts every single area of one’s life. We who have it don’t develop it through any fault of our own, but the consequences can range from an inability to stand up for oneself and be authentic all the way to being outright traumatized by hurtful people.

My own case of MOPCAMOE-osis has regressed significantly over the last ten years, thanks to therapy, doing alot of shadow work, and learning to take the advice of the great actor Shah Rukh Khan: “Don’t Take No Shit from Anybody”….a line he so eloquently offered in a speech a few years back at the University of Edinburgh.  Ahhh….I adore him.

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Our society, it seems to me, does alot of teaching us at a young age to make others’ comfort a priority over our own. And not to be male bashing at all, but girls and women are certainly groomed in this fashion, much more in some contexts than others.

One of the first examples of this comfort prioritization that comes to mind is how we work with our children.  There was a post on Facebook yesterday covering an article about how girls should not be pressured to give out hugs during the holiday season.  I didn’t read the article because the headline said it all.  No child should be compelled to have any physical interaction with anyone that they don’t want to. But we are so conditioned to push them to do these things, aren’t we?  Billy, hug your great aunt that you’ve only met one time in your life. Sarah, let Bob (elderly friend of the family) give you a kiss on the cheek. Oh come on, Katie, it’s (insert whoever you want here)! You know them!  Give them a hug (or kiss, or handshake, or whatever other physical contact is being asked for). I can recall so many times as a child that I felt obligated to engage in some kind of harmless physical contact with an adult that I didn’t want to…but I knew the repercussions would be hurt feelings and disappointment.   While I was a very affectionate child, there were times my creep-o-meter went off strongly, but I believed that the other person’s comfort was more important than mine, so I ignored my personal boundaries and did what was asked of me anyway.

As a young mom, I initially fell into this same trap with my kids.  When I knew someone in their lives wanted a hug or kiss, I would encourage the boys to be friendly and do it.  Now days, though, NOPE.  I leave it entirely at my kids’ discretion.  If they want to hug someone, it is completely up to them.  If they want a kiss on the cheek, it is up to them. And other than offer a polite “hello” to a new acquaintance, I don’t insist on any interactions from them that they don’t feel comfortable with.   Kids need to learn early on that their boundaries matter, and their comfort level is no less important that those of other people. We need to be especially careful of this with our children who have a temperament that is prone to the development of  MOPCAMOE-osis. I also believe that we need to pay attention to the fact that our kids’ creep-o-meters might be more sometimes sensitive than ours as adults.

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It seems pretty apparent to me that in our society we unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, groom our daughters to believe that their job is to make other people comfortable.  This obviously is harder to do for girls with certain strong personalities and temperaments, but for others, this teaching is swallowed up whole and internalized.  I’m totally thinking of Type 2s on the Enneagram here, a group in which I happen to be a card-carrying member.

I grew up in the Church and have moved through numerous denominations and individual faith communities over the years.  Something that I have witnessed again and again is how prevalent rape culture is in these.  I’m not Christianity or church hating – far from it – but some of this just needs to be called out for what it is so we can all grow and heal from it. Rape culture happens when women are told that our job is to ignore our discomfort alarms going off to make sure that men feel at ease, that they get what they want, that their needs are more important.

Women in the Church, and in contexts of society that are influenced by “Christian values” are very frequently told what a little girl, grown woman, and wife should look like.  We need to be cute, feminine, calm, hospitable, nurturing, selfless,…the list could go on and on. I know it could seem like I’m slapping huge labels on this and broadly stereotyping, but I think if you look at overall patterns and the big picture, what I’m alluding to rings true.

Rape culture can sound harsh, too, I know.  But here are some examples, in no particular order, that I’ve seen or experienced in my own life that make me know that it is present.

1. As I mentioned quite a while back in a post on divorce, women in our culture know, either consciously or unconsciously, that marrying a man (and in some cases just being in a relationship with one) offers them a step up in status. This was externally very true in the recent past, but it is still true regarding how we are perceived by others. I personally experienced a dramatic up-tic in the respect I got from others in all spheres of my world when I got married. I’ve met a ton of women who know this happens, and who have admitted that they pushed aside their discomfort and married, not because of love, but because of the social benefits it brought them.

2. I went to a marriage conference once, years ago, by the authors of the well-known Love and Respect book authors.  I know these are good people with good intentions to help marriages, but I will unreservedly denounce the message in this book and all the other ones like it.  It irks me to no end that people can take a few lines out of a letter written almost two thousand years ago, from a patriarchal society, and use it to definitely outline how men and women should interact with each other today – especially when they are telling women to make themselves uncomfortable so that the men in their lives feel respected.  Disgusting.  During the conference, during a special breakout time for just the women, Sarah Eggerichs (the author’s wife), admonished all of us to just give our husbands sex whenever they wanted, because it “only takes a few minutes, ladies!”  This talk went on to include that men didn’t need to “earn” our respect….we have to treat them “respectfully” so that they can, in turn, be capable of giving us the love that we want.  Again, it all comes down again to women stroking men’s egos and making them comfortable, all the while having to weaken our own boundaries.

3. Why is the onus always put on women to moderate men’s behavior through our own actions and behavior?  Still, so frequently, when women are assaulted they are asked what they were wearing to provoke the attack?  Or, had they had a little too much to drink?  Or, were they out running late at night? Or, were they overly flirtatious?  In so many churches I’ve attended, girls and women are told to dress certain ways so that they don’t tempt men or cause husbands to stray.  The men can’t help the way they feel, and can’t control themselves because of their biological constitution. These kinds of statements blow my mind, because amazingly enough, I know SO MANY good men who are entirely capable of controlling themselves around women. And when did it become the responsibility of all females to protect the virtues of men? I’m pretty sure it goes back to a mythical story about the inherent sinfulness of a woman named Eve who caused her man to do wrong.  When we allow our girls to be taught this kind of logic, we are only perpetuating rape culture and giving men a scapegoat for their inappropriate behavior.  We should not be teaching girls how to dress to make other people comfortable.  We should be teaching our girls to dress in ways that make them comfortable, that gives them self confidence, that makes them feel self-respected.

4. Sex trafficking is a huge problem in this country, but one that doesn’t just happen in a bubble. There are real societal dynamics that help support it – dynamics that are rooted in so many of our “traditional values” and bad theology. All of us need to be careful that we don’t promote and normalize the dynamics that directly enable the sex trafficking industry.  Consider the following:

“But I don’t make rape jokes!”

While rape jokes are the most obvious example of rape culture, they are not the only things that perpetuate rape culture. Things like :

  • Blaming the victim (“She asked for it!”)
  • Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Sexually explicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on men to “score”
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped instead of teaching men not to rape

https://encstophumantrafficking.org/rape-culture/

And while I know this song/video isn’t perfect and it makes women look a little weak and in need of saving, I still love it:

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In this post, I’m not trying to make the point that we as individuals should live our entire lives in a completely comfortable state.  I’m a huge believer that discomfort and obstacles are the paths that lead to change and growth.  In many cases, we have to learn that we ultimately don’t have control over much, and we have to learn to let go of our attachments to things. However, I believe our comfort surrounding our individuality as persons, our emotional health, and our physical wellbeing are things that we should hold as top priorities.  We are not obligated to make other people feel emotionally better. We are not obligated to give anyone physical contact. We are not obligated to ease another’s discomfort when it hurts us.  If we possess the self-agency to choose to do those things, that is another matter entirely. But the important point is that we have to be able to “choose” and have our “yes” or “no” respected. Every. Single. Time.

Other people may become angry or hate us for not putting out what they think we should. They may tell themselves stories about our motivations and who we are. But this ability to maintain autonomy is, I believe, one of the most important parts of being human.

It’s really hard for me personally, to put my own comfort level above others’. Part of it’s my personality and childhood wounds, part of it is the messages I’ve heard from people, the Church, and society, part of it is because I genuinely care about how other people feel and want them to be happy.  And, part of it is a lack of practice in strengthening the belief muscle that I will in fact not die if people think I come off as a bitch or cold or self-absorbed when I’m firming up my boundaries.

But I now know, where I once didn’t, that my boundaries as just as valid as others’. I have the same right to exist and feel safe and pursue my dreams as every single other person does. I am a legitimate part of the universe and existence.  I have the right to say what is OK for me and what is not. And so do you.

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After all this on maintaining your own comfort level, it needs to be said that we need to respect the comfort of other people and their physical and personal boundaries. Though so much of this seems like common sense, we seem to miss the mark again and again. We make excuses about why it’s OK to step over boundaries and invade others’ personal space.

There is a great video that was made several years ago using the analogy of making someone tea to getting consent for sex. The video is simple and brilliant, and it applies to SO much more than sex.  Respect the personal boundaries of others, let their “no” be no, and don’t force others to become uncomfortable so you can get what you want.  It’s pretty basic, really.

Anyway, check out the video, and better yet, pass it on to your kids when they’re old enough to understand it. Maybe even pass it on to the adults in your life who think that what they want is more important than the things that make you uncomfortable.

 

 

The Gifts of Microrelationship

 

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Photo credit: Cesar Kobayashi

 

“Let it all go; see what stays.” -Unknown

I do some of my best thinking on my bike.

When I run, I have to listen to music, or a podcast, or talk to a running partner.  Otherwise, the voices in my head will go at me nonstop, telling me that I suck and running sucks and I’ll never make it past the first half-mile. In my opinion, running without some sort of entertainment is nothing short of a spiritual practice.

But when I’m on a bike, it’s all flow. I hit the right cadence, the countryside blurs past, and I move into a zone of quiet contemplation. The miles fly by and my mind settles into a state where ideas come and I reflect and make connections that have never occurred to me before.

I also don’t fancy being hit by a car, so earbuds are a no-no on the roads.

Today is one of the glorious first days where signs of spring are beginning to appear and it’s time to pull the bike out for a ride. This morning I pumped up the tires, checked my brakes, and hopped on with plans to ride five or six miles, but the sunshine felt so good I just kept going.

While I pedaled I began to think of the people who first introduced me to road biking, nearly fifteen years ago.  A handful of my coworkers invited me to join their post-work biking forays into the surrounding farmland and hill country of our town. I bought my first little road bike, a steel frame Mercier, went on my first ten-mile ride, and was completely hooked. It wasn’t long before I was biking to work and riding the fifty miles to my dad’s ranch in ninety-degree Texas heat just for fun.

Those coworkers, who I’ve only seen once or twice in the last ten years, gave me a gift that has lasted and made a significant impact on my life. They introduced me to a sport that I love, and they were some of the first to plant seeds in my mind that I might be capable of bigger things than I had once thought.

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I’ve done alot of moving across the country as an adult, and as a result, I’ve had to leave behind many people that came to be important to me. It’s always been hard leaving these people that I really cared about, uncertain if our friendships would survive long distance and states apart.  On many occasions, I’ve vehemently tried to maintain those relationships, and while a handful were strong enough to persist, most eventually fizzled to the point of being fond Facebook connections.

I’ve also had many people come into my life who left just as quickly as they came, for a myriad of reasons. In many cases, I would beat myself up over the breakdown of these relationships, thinking that somehow I had failed them and myself. Growing up I had unconsciously told myself that quality relationships, those with real meaning, should survive for a long time, and if relationships end, it is a bad thing.

Years ago I read Henry Cloud’s book Necessary Endings and I remember feeling so relieved that it is OK to end relationships and not all friendships or romantic partnerships will or should last forever.  Somehow I had believed that I always had to be friends with everyone I encountered, and everyone had to like me and want to be friends with me. I’m so glad I got over that, because it was an exhausting endeavor trying to make myself like everyone and present myself in a way that they would all like me, and then feel horrible about myself when some didn’t reciprocate.

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Relationships come and go; some are short and some last for years. But it’s difficult when relationships end badly, or people that you desperately want to be part of your life either choose not to be or can’t be for some reason or another. As I biked this morning down Indiana backroads, I recalled a handful of people that I’ve met over the last year and a half that were part of my life ever so briefly.

It can be so disappointing when you meet someone who you think you really click with, who you suspect might be a part of your future, and suddenly they’re gone. It doesn’t matter if it’s a friend or a romantic interest, it can be tempting to either try and control the situation to make them stay or ruminate for far too long as to why the connection dissipated.

Today, on my bike, I did a bit of reframing of perspective.   I decided to call it microrelationship -relationships that are fleeting and may never reach the robust maturity of the kinds of friendship we tend to value most, yet are still meaningful and somehow impart gifts to us.

I specifically thought of a handful of people that have flitted in and out of my life since moving back to Indiana from Massachusetts.  They came and left for completely different reasons, but every leaving grieved me on some level. However, if I’m honest about it, even though those friendships didn’t last, I was given something by each of those people that positively impacted me, gifts of encouragement or inspiration or challenges to grow in different areas of my life. One person inspired me with their commitment to health and a lifestyle that contributed to it.  Another heard and saw the real me in a way I’m pretty sure no one else ever has. One person insisted that I stop listening to the bullshit smack that my mind gives me, and start writing more and regularly. And yet another pointed out prejudices lingering within me that needed to be addressed.

I’ve decided that microrelationship is just as valid a model of doing life with people as long-term deep relationships.  Sometimes it can be tempting to keep your heart closed, and not really open up to people or be transparent until you’re sure they’re going to be around for a while. But I think this can be a mistake.  Some of the people who had the biggest impacts on my life have only been in it for brief periods of time; if I had closed myself off to them for fear that they wouldn’t stay, I would have missed so many gifts.

I’m not talking here about coming across as needy with people, or giving information vomit, or blowing past safe boundaries when trust hasn’t been established in a relationship. What I’m talking about is allowing yourself to be authentic and genuine and real and VULNERABLE with people even when you have no clue how long they’ll be in your life.

I think it all really comes down to just learning to live in the present.  Things come, things go.  People come, and people go. It is not ours to qualify what is a meaningful and good relationship just based on duration or whether or not we ever see a particular person again.

We will never really understand why life brings us people when it does, or takes people away. All we can learn to do is accept them as a gift,  and leave our hands open for them to come freely and leave freely.

How to Breathe Through Pain

I got bitch-slapped by 2017 on her way out.

It was a rough year, but I had made it. Things were on a positive trajectory and I was feeling hopeful.  But then, right when I thought I was on the homestretch…..

(Yes, I know I’m splicing together random metaphors).

It was like that scene from Million Dollar Baby.  You know, where Hillary Swank’s character dominates in the boxing match, and as she goes to the side of the ring to soak up her glory, her opponent throws an ugly illegal punch that pretty much ruins everything.  Oh what the heck, watch it here and you’ll get the idea.

I’m obviously not the only one that has been thrown what feels like a totally unfair and uncalled-for blow, but no matter how intellectually we approach these things, they can still hurt like freaking hell. And sometimes the hardest thing to do is to force yourself to get back up again and to keep breathing in and out, and to believe that life is benevolent and good.

I’m halfway through nursing school, and in that time I have gained an even greater appreciation for the way our bodies work.  The intricate balancing system of chemicals, blood gases, and pH to maintain optimal functioning is fascinating.  Even when we are diseased or injured or offer them crappy energy supplies, our bodies fight valiantly to keep us moving.   It’s quite an elegant set-up, really.

One idea that is really pushed on us in school and clinicals is the importance of open airways and proper breathing. When in doubt, the best action is always to check a person’s airway to make sure nothing is obstructing their breathing. And second, when someone has had surgery, even if it’s just a C-section, or a lung illness, the patient needs to perform incentive spirometry.

Incentive spirometry is slow, forced breathing to help fully open the air sacs deep within the lungs and help a person regain as much lung capacity as possible.  The problem is, when you’re in pain, you don’t want to breathe deeply.  You want to take short, shallow breaths and use as few muscles in the process as possible.  When you’re in intense pain, you also likely feel completely bone-tired.

Can’t everyone just leave me alone, God dammit? Breathing hurts and my body hurts and I’m exhausted – I just want to lie here in my misery and not move!

Forcing yourself to breathe in these medical situations is exactly what needs to be done for the body to restore itself. It may hurt like hell to use that stupid incentive spirometer (and I know from experience, having had three C-sections and my gall-bladder removed), but pushing through that pain to help your lungs open up and allow for optimal gas exchange is paramount. Without going into too much detail,  gas exchange (oxygen and carbon dioxide) is crucial…for proper cell metabolism, for maintaining a narrow-bounded blood pH, for minimizing anxiety and confusion…the list goes on.

Emotional pain can cause the same kinds of breathing problems as physical pain. I doubt I’m unique in this-when my heart is broken or I’m panicking or I’m descending into the depths of despair (thank you for that sentiment, Anne of Green Gables), my chest physically hurts and I find myself taking those short, shallow breaths. When I realize it and attempt to breathe deeply out of my diaphragm, the emotional pain seems to intensify rather than abate, and it takes all the courage I have to let my lungs expand.

Failure to breathe deeply from emotional pain can lead to some of the same negative side effects caused by physical pain. But what is worse than just failing to breathe deeply is when we stop breathing and hold our breath. This, however, is our tendency.

Because breathing deeply or breathing at all during these times feels like you’re endorsing or condoning what is being done to you or the situation you find yourself in. Breathing is necessary to bring in oxygen and let out carbon dioxide, and those gases are necessary for life, and life doesn’t feel like a good thing right now because it is what brought you this pain in the first place. Our natural reflex is to want to close ourselves off from breathing, pain, and all that life brings because we want to protect ourselves. How could a rational human being sanely accept and embrace the hard things that come our way, uninvited?

We unconsciously think that if we hold perfectly still, the pain will go away. But this isn’t the way it works. When we hold still, the pain remains trapped within us. It can’t lessen because it has nowhere to go.  And then, the lack of life movement within us accompanied by this body of pain, creates bitterness and resentment and scar tissue on our hearts.  We become small, immovable, hard, unchangeable.

Breath creates space inside of us for new things to happen. It provides a vehicle for the pain to start moving, within us and then eventually, out of us.  To ruin the moment here, I’m thinking of patients who have tracheostomies.  Their trachs and lungs get all bound up with phlegm and mucus, but if they can get a good, long, deep breath in and cough hard, all the gunk in their lungs is loosened up (or potentially flies across the room at you and you’d better duck fast) and they feel better.

This is where spirituality beat science and modern healthcare to the table. Mystics and contemplatives have known for ages that to heal and to get through pain, we have to keep moving and we have to keep breathing deeply. There is no other way to convalesce if we want to live.

So many spiritual practices focus on the breath. Watch your in-breath, watch your out-breath. Count to five on your inhalation, count to eight on your exhalation. Place your hand on your abdomen and feel your diaphragm expand. On your exhale, push back into downward dog. On your inhale, press up into cobra pose.

Practices like yoga teach us how to sync our breathing with our movements.  It’s not just about exercise; it is about learning to live and be with the pain that is within us, how to hold it long enough to transform it, and then how to let it pass through us without destroying us.

So…I know and believe all that I’ve just written at a head level, and to some extent at my heart level.  When I breathe my chest still hurts and I just want to go crawl under the covers and not move. But I choose to believe that life is good and what comes to me is what I need. I choose to feel the pain and not run away from it. I choose to transform it and let it transform me. I’ve run away from hard things too many times in the past because I was afraid of the pain. But I’m not afraid of pain anymore, and I will breathe deeply into life, and I will get up again and again and again. So bring it, 2018.

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