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.

A Little Bit of Everything

You ever hear a song for the first time, and it ends up being one that just rocks you…not because the melody is all that fancy or because the instrumentals are amazing, but because the lyrics are so deeply profound and resonate with your core somehow? And then, you listen to that song over and over, and have to sing it constantly to hear the words roll off your tongue because it feels like deep truth and the more you speak the lyrics the more you internalize them? Basically you work the song into yourself?

Maybe only I do this, and maybe I”m just weird. I dunno. Pretty likely. BUT, I first heard a song a couple of months ago that provoked this exact dynamic in me, and I keep listening to it over and over and over. I’ve thought about the lyrics so much that I felt like I might as well just go ahead and write about it, because there is so much to riff off. The song, A Little Bit of Everything by Dawes, is embedded here; give it a listen. Following the video are the lyrics.

With his back against the San Francisco traffic,
On the bridges side that faces towards the jail,
Setting out to join a demographic,
He hoists his first leg up over the rail.
And a phone call is made,
Police cars show up quickly.
The sergeant slams his passenger door.
He says, ‘Hey son why don’t you talk through this with me,
Just tell me what you’re doing it for.”Oh, it’s a little bit of everything,
It’s the mountains,
It’s the fog,
It’s the news at six o’clock,
It’s the death of my first dog,
It’s the angels up above me,
It’s the song that they don’t sing,
It’s a little bit of everything.’

An older man stands in a buffet line,
He is smiling and holding out his plate,
And the further he looks back into his timeline,
That hard road always had led him to today,
And making up for when his bright future had left him,
Making up for the fact that his only son is gone,
And letting everything out once, His server asks him,
Have you figured out yet, what it is you want?I want a little bit of everything,
The biscuits and the beans,
Whatever helps me to forget about
The things that brought me to my knees,
So pile on those mashed potatoes,
And an extra chicken wing,
I’m having a little bit of everything.

Somewhere a pretty girl is writing invitations,
To a wedding she has scheduled for the fall,
Her man says, ‘Baby, can I make an observation?
You don’t seem to be having any fun at all.’
She said, ‘You just worry about your groomsmen and your shirt-size,
And rest assured that this is making me feel good,
I think that love is so much easier than you realize,
If you can give yourself to someone,
Then you should.’Cause it’s a little bit of everything,
The way you joke, the way you ache,
It is waking up before you,
So I can watch you as you wake.
So in the day in late September,
It’s not some stupid little ring,
I’m giving a little bit of everything.Oh, it’s a little bit of everything,
It’s the matador and the bull,
It’s the suggested daily dosage,
It is the red moon when it’s full.
All these psychics and these doctors,
They’re all right and they’re all wrong,
It’s like trying to make out every word,
When they should simply hum along,
It’s not some message written in the dark,
Or some truth that no one’s seen,
It’s a little bit of everything.

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I think alot about what it means to be human. Why are we here on this planet, what is the point of everything, what are we supposed to learn, and how are we to learn those things? And, is the point to ever actually figure everything out, or instead, is it to just be and ask big questions and marvel at all that is around us and just try to learn to love the best we can while we are here?

Being human is hard. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s not any one big thing or event that threatens to topple us, but rather, the constant onslaught of alot of little things. The first verse of this song is about a guy (I always imagine it’s a high school or college kid) who is wanting to jump off a bridge and kill himself. The reasons he gives the police officer are really interesting, I think. It’s the mountains. It’s the San Francisco fog. It’s all the bad news every day. It’s the death of the beloved pet. It wasn’t just one big thing that was undoing him….it was all the little things that added up, along with the angel reference implying that he believed he lived in a universe that was either impersonal or didn’t care about him.

I remember back in college when I had some periods of terrible depression, including a week I just couldn’t get out of bed. I wanted to escape life so badly. I was miserable and felt so utterly hopeless. But it was never just one single problem that made me feel like life wasn’t worth living; it was a ton of little things that just kept piling up and when they all hit at once it just felt completely suffocating and insurmountable. I think one of the worst feelings when you’re struggling with depression or anxiety like this, is when you try to describe what is going on to someone on the outside, and they’ll only consider each individual component of your burden and ask you what the big deal is. That little thing isn’t that big of a problem! They aren’t able to see that, of course, it’s not that ONE tiny thing that makes you want to die. It’s the cuts and pain that come from ALL the little things that just won’t let up. And then people tend to add one more “little thing” to your burden with a bunch of really unhelpful and shaming platitudes.

Trauma is a huge buzzword these days, and I believe rightfully so. There are so many traumatized people around the world, and so many of them don’t realize that they are carrying trauma in their minds AND bodies. One of the latest advancements in trauma research that I think is so very important is the idea of microtraumas. A person doesn’t have to experience one huge, horrible thing for them to be wrecked on the inside, be triggered by words or scenes or noises, or to be paralyzed and unable to cope with certain situations that come their way. The summation of tons of little traumas, microtraumas, can have huge and lasting impacts on people. Sometimes it only takes a little bit of trauma from multiple fronts and people to really build up and create a significant core wound in one’s life, or a belief pattern that holds them in bondage for years, or contributes to symptoms of ADHD, or so many other unconscious ways that people can be affected.

A decade ago I went to an Amen Clinic and had functional brain scans performed. Insurance was willing to cover it, and I was desperate to figure out if I was actually crazy in a way that could be seen with empirical evidence, or determine if I was just inherently broken. Years later I finally realized (and was validated by an amazing psychiatrist) that I, in fact, was not and had never been crazy or truly mentally ill. I was just jacked up because of some serious core wounds, terrible theology, and childhood trauma. When my brain scans and electrical (EEG) studies were complete, the Amen Clinic clinicians asked me if I had ever had some major, horrible event happen to me. I couldn’t think of anything at the time, and inquired as to why they asked. They explained that the scans revealed that there was a function issue with a certain part of my brain which was typically associated with evidence of PTSD. At the time, I was flummoxed, and the scans only began to make sense years later when I learned about the impact of microtraumas , and also was finally able to come to grips with the fact that certain events in my life had actually been way more impactful and damaging than I thought.

So, big “what does it mean to be human?” lesson 1 from this song? Don’t discount the overall effect that can result when someone is slammed with a ton of little things. They may each individually not be substantial, but when they are all compounded together, especially when a person is lacking good coping mechanisms, those little things combine to become one massive burden.

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On to the second verse…..things that bring you to your knees.

I think this is one major part of the human experience….the idea that most all of us, at some point in our lives or maybe many times in our lives, will have at least one thing happen that will just completely knock the wind out of us, completely wreck us, and maybe even literally bring us to our knees. I’ve kind of come to believe that these experiences can either be transformational turning points in our lives, or we can allow them to go the other way and they harden our hearts and ingrain us further into prisons of suffering. But, I do want to add a caveat here that I in no way believe that it makes us a bad person if we can’t move past things and end up staying stuck. This life journey is hard and complicated and nuanced, and I’m not convinced that we have as much free will and free choice as conservative religion would have us believe. We’re all (mostly) just doing the very best that we can.

I’ve been brought to my knees a few times. The first significant times this happened were early on in my adulthood, and my plan was always to distract and avoid as much as possible. My solution during these crisis times was usually to eat myself into a food coma and watch a ridiculous amount of TV. This worked really well every day for about an hour, and then I would just feel like shit about myself the next morning…ever in a constant battle with my weight, despising myself, and still being saddled with the same, unsolved, unaddressed problems.

Things began to change in my mid twenties when I discovered The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. I hardly remember anymore what the book was about; I just remember that when I read it all those years ago a light when off in my head and it finally occurred to me that I actually did have control over things in my life and spirituality, and it was the very first inkling that maybe just because an idea floated through my head I didn’t have to latch on to it. That book created in me the first real sense of self-agency I’d ever had. And, it made me start to recognize that to fix problems and to overcome pain and suffering, you have to look them straight on and sometimes sit in it for a while and learn that you won’t die. At other times, you just have plow straight through the pain, determined as hell as to reach the other side.

The last time I was really brought to my knees was in April. Things that I hadn’t been able to see, and in some ways, I was unwilling to see, just completely blew up in my face in the most breathtaking way. For about three days, I completely crumbled. It was a hot, ugly mess….I mean, like uncontrollable, panicky, sobbing, hunkered down in the bathtub with the shower pouring scalding water on me, kind of ugly mess. A huge big puzzle piece that explained so much of the pain I’d ever experienced in life fell into place because of one big massive betrayal. Everything was laid bare, and for a short while, I could not see my way forward. It also didn’t help that that particular weekend I was doing pediatric sexual assault nurse training and felt simultaneously triggered and traumatized by it.

No amount of food coma, booze, pot, shopping, or any other kind of distraction was going to fix that weekend. I knew I was going to have to sit with it and face it all, head on, and see if it would kill me. Fortunately, by then, I was getting to the point where I trusted life enough to believe that all these things coming to a head were for my own good, and if I could just stay present and not try to fight and distract myself, that I would come out on top and it would be a major transformation for me.

So, I managed to stay with it. And a surprising thing happened. Even though it took some time beyond that weekend, I came away from the experience more joyful than when I went into it. Logically, I think I should have been wrecked for a long time when I finally put all the puzzle pieces together and saw clearly how terrible the betrayal and years of events leading up to it had been. But somehow, in looking back over the hard road that had brought me to that place, and then not dying during those three days, something in my mindset changed. Instead of closing up my heart to love and deciding I was never going to trust anyone ever again, or determining to harden and protect myself…..the opposite actually happened. I think I was broken open….broken open into a space of being able to love more deeply with a greater capacity for joy. All from facing the pain and sitting in it and discovering that it didn’t kill me. And in fact, I was finally able to start viewing that pain and betrayal as a gift that brought me to a better place.

Life is such a freaking paradox and it is so freaking beautiful.

*************************************************************************************************************************Third verse: Musings about what I have learned about love:

The lines in this section of the song make me stop and think about how love works, and how my opinions of it have changed over the years. Here are a few of my takeaways, or associations with previous conclusions that this song elicits in me:

  1. We make this matter of love so freaking difficult. Why do we do this? Love is about caring for and wanting the best for another person even if you don’t get that love reciprocated, or even acknowledged. And ultimately, loving people is a win for each of us individually, because when other people are benefited, doing well in life, and are happy, how can that NOT benefit and be good for us?
  2. You can’t help who you love. It just is what it is. Sometimes we love people in certain ways because of unhealthy patterns or trauma that has affected our lives, and maybe by trying to love those people out of our own traumas we end up hurting ourselves. But that doesn’t make our attempts any less meaningful. Trying to connect with people, trying to meet our own needs, trying to make other people happy….there is nothing wrong with this intention. Maybe we need to learn better ways to give and receive healthy love, but I think there’s something meaningful that exists when we attempt to love in the best we know how at the moment.
  3. A point on the line about the wedding and stupid ring: it’s NEVER about the wedding or the ring. And sometimes you have to go through a divorce and grow up a little to realize how they were never the point. Getting married or finding long term love with a person is never about finding the perfect person, having a fantastic celebration, and then staying in a static state of perfected union until one of you dies. That’s a pipe dream. It’s not about finding a person to fill your void and gaps and give you a ring so the whole world will know you’re not one of those pathetic people that is alone. The point is to find someone that you’re willing to grow with, to have all your own faults mirrored back to you, to be challenged, and to take in a little of everything that person has to offer….the good, the bad, the successes, the failed attempts….and to love them and want the best for them through it all.
  4. Sometimes the most difficult, but maybe the purest way to love, is when you care about someone so very deeply, and you are able to learn to stay in that place of wanting the best for them even if you’ll never see it in return. I never really used to believe this kind of love was possible, except for maybe on heartbreaking romantic movies. But now, I think alot about the line “Let everything go; see what stays”. Because if you can do this, you’ll know that whatever stays or ultimately finds its way back to you was not forced or manipulated, and is REAL. Learning to love without attachment is hard, ya’ll, but it’s the best way. You and I both know this.

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The last part of this song is what really gets me, because it’s about the uncertainty of life, the task of just doing the best we can, and the fact that no one has all the answers for everything.

The suggested daily dosage…..the psychics and the doctors who are right and wrong at the same time about multiple things…..

We can’t always say too much with absolute certainty. Science is always evolving and as we dig deeper and deeper we discover particles and bacteria quorums that radically change our understanding of the natural world. We detect dark matter that apparently makes up a higher percentage of “stuff” in the universe than the matter we can perceive with our senses. And as people learn to sit still and be present, we find that there is a deep magic, a Truth, an interconnectedness of all things, an ever knowable mystery that goes far beyond what our low level literal religion pontificates to us.

We’re all just doing the best we can to make it through this life in a way that we can overcome our fears and try to be happy. But I don’t think there’s one magic silver bullet that will get us all there to the “You Won Life” award. Being human, fully human, is about embracing and working with a little bit of everything that comes our way. And everyone is going to be given a different lot to work with.

I have learned to almost completely distrust and be suspicious of people who say they have everything figured out. The people who know EXACTLY what’s going to happen when we die, the people who seem to know EXACTLY who God loves and who God hates, the people who are always right about every topic, the people who are so rigidly dogmatic all the time. These are the people who I think maybe haven’t gotten out in life quite enough….maybe they still need to do some exploring and meet more kinds of people and figure out how to transform their own personal pain and discover the tiny things that can bring them great joy.

I mean really, isn’t this what life could ultimately be about? To taste a little bit of everything, to be completely present here and now, to learn how to love well, and to learn that in the end, it is all good?

I used to think that life was about finding the one path that was meant for you, getting on it, and taking it linearly straight to the afterlife without looking right or left. I know now that that kind of life is impossible, and we don’t give failure and mistakes enough credit. Sometimes, the absolute best thing for us to get where we’re going is to majorly screw up a few times along the way. All the twists and turns in life, all the things that bring us pain and bring us joy, all the ways we fuck up and then wildly succeed…these are what make us human. As Mary Oliver has said in a poem, I DO NOT want to just visit this world and life and barely get to know it.

I’ve learning to want all of life…the good, the bad, the joy, and the pain. I want to take up great, overflowing armfuls of it, to taste and see a little bit of everything. I never want to take any of the next years of my life for granted, so that when my curtain closes, I can look backwards and say that I had a wild, passionate love affair with this world, and it was good.

How To Love When You’re Tired

Photo credit; David O’Leary

On Giving Away All Your Ducks

I’ve always loved my kids immensely, from the moment I knew I was carrying them. Which was always pretty quick, because morning sickness kicked in with each of them within about 3 days, and I knew well before those positive pregnancy tests that I was going to be a mom again. I loved their baby months, and hearing their giggles and laughs as toddlers and preschoolers, and all the growing phases of childhood. But I think now, when they are preteens and teens, is one of the funnest times in being a parent. They are really coming into their own identities and discovering what really makes them tick, and it is so amazing to watch. And….they make me laugh SO hard, all the time. I feel like we are constantly talking about the silliest things and laughing until our bellies hurt and tears are running down our cheeks. My children blow me away: I have no clue how I got so lucky.

On the daily, my kids teach me so much. And they share such good advice with me…because, clearly, I need some of it. Here are some solid words I received from my ten year old a few months ago (I don’t typically let me kids swear freely, but this is truth, he was very emphatic about it, and it is something every girl should know):

“Mom, if a guy treats you like crap and denies you of your basic rights, don’t take that shit!”

My oldest son surprises me on a daily basis with his wisdom, patience, and responsibility. He’s only 14, but he regularly is the one reminding me to calm down, to stop overthinking things, to remember good self care, and to get some things off my plate. Not all that long ago I was stressed about something in life, and as he and I drove around town running errands, he told me about a book that he had been reading that he felt like I could learn something from.

Xander: Mom, do you like audiobooks?

Me: I LOVE audiobooks. (Where is he going with this?)

Xander:  There’s a book I’ve been listening to that I think you should also listen to. It’s called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Duck.

Me: (familiar with a book with a very similar title). Is your DAD aware that you’re listening to this book? (My eyebrows raised)

Xander: No way. But it’s a good book. It’s about how you only have so many ducks in life, so you need to be careful about who you give them away to.  It makes a lot of sense. 

I love this kid so much. He cracks me up and yet straightens me out all at the same time.

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On Giving Away All Your Other Kinds of Ducks

Just last week I had a conversation with a friend about this same topic; however, since we are grownups, we used the original version that starts with an F, and is the basis of the actual book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. I still haven’t read the book, and am not sure if I will, but I think the title really says it all. If you are a people pleaser, or still paralyzed in various types of shame, or toxic beliefs…learning to not give a flip about certain people or situations is quite the endeavor. Because, as many of you will know, we kind of people want to be “good people”, and we inherited the belief early on in life that to actually be good people, we have to love everyone, be friends with everyone, be emotionally invested in everyone,…all of that stuff. We give way too many fucks about too much stuff. And so learning to not do that anymore is akin to an art form.

This friend that I was chatting with agreed with me when I told him that I’m at the age now where I realize that some things are just not worth wasting energy on. And looking back, there are some situations and people that I just spent WAY to much time and energy on, at my own expense. So many times certain people were very happy to drain me of my energy, resources, whatever I was willing to give them…and offer absolutely nothing in return. My friend told me that he feels like at his age, he is done playing games with people. He says what he wants and doesn’t want, and chooses intentionally where he expends his emotional and physical energy.

I think this makes ALOT of sense, but it’s still hard for me…a recovering codependent, people-pleasing, emerger from childhood shame. But, I am getting better at it and it is really liberating. It’s also nice to not feel exhausted all the time by this insane inner urge to be all things to all people….while trying to save the environment, and be a minimalist, and a super parent, and all those other things I’ve neurotically fallen into but are still good goals to strive for. This is where it really is a subtle art to learn not to give a fuck….because you have to learn yourself really well and figure out what is most important to you. Then you have to evaluate yourself and really understand your strengths and weaknesses. Next, you have to learn to parse all that out in the people and life circumstances that come your way. This is tricky, because most of the time you don’t just encounter a person and know from the very first moment that you are totally ready to invest in them for the long term and are willing to give them some of your precious ducks. (I have met about five people in my life, who I knew from the first instant I talked to them that they were my people, but this is a rare occurrence.) Usually, you have to try people on for a while, watch them in interactions with other people, see how they respond to different environments, etc, to determine if they are people you want to align with. And sometimes, you meet people that you are CERTAIN are going to be your people, and you start investing hard in them, only to be horribly disappointed down the road. Either they weren’t who they originally presented themselves to you as, or they decided you weren’t worth sharing their own ducks with. It’s an art for sure to figure this all out. And maybe a dance, too…the kind where you’re learning the steps only after you’ve gotten on the dance floor with a partner.

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What is Love, Exactly?

My goal in life is to try to love people as well as I can. I fumble this up quite often, and I know there are so many times when I’m really self-centered and short sighted. But, most of the time, I try my darndest to find commonalities with every person I meet, to truly see them as an individual human being even if for just a split second, and to do to my best to honor and recognize their inherent worth.

Something that is really interesting to me, though, is that so much of my understanding of what love is has been wrong….or maybe not wrong, but misguided…for most of my life. Many of my beliefs about love have largely been unconscious, so thank you God for therapy to help unearth all of this stuff that hasn’t been serving me so well. Some of this will be a tad bit hyperbolic, but in general, I thought that love was about always sacrificing or inconveniencing yourself for other people, never doing or saying things that would make other people uncomfortable, never ever saying blunt, direct truths, never standing firm to have your own needs met, never walking away from people even as they begged you to stay, letting you own boundaries slide in order to make other people happy, etc, etc. I believed that love was a verb, an action, but I definitely had a skewed understanding of it….the verb was always in relation to action towards another person, never an action in the direction of myself and what was actually best for me.

This faulty understanding of love is exhausting. Because it requires you to always be giving, always bowing down, always having to be hyper vigilant about the needs of others, always having to tell yourself to stop feeling resentful and selfish when people wasted YOUR time, YOUR resources, YOUR affection, etc.

I’ve been listening to a great audiobook lately called Not Nice: Surrender the Approval Quest. In one of the chapters, the author made the point that in most cases, being the nicest, most accommodating, pushover who is always deferring to the wants and needs of others is not, in fact, a very loving way to exist in the world. And, it actually comes across to others as repulsive at times. I was driving when I heard this line, and almost stopped dead in my tracks, but had the wherewithal to allow traffic to keep moving. It had never occured to me that the definitions that I had carried of love for much of life are probably some of the least loving ways to be in the world. Having firm boundaries, knowing your worth as an individual, and then interacting with people and situations out of that strong identity might actually be the most loving thing you can do in life. Mind blowing…..that maybe real love is not about giving away all of your ducks all the time to everyone, but in learning the art form of being very picky and deliberate with who you give those ducks to. Well, now.

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Nurse Ethics and Empathy

I’ve been a nurse now for about two and a half years. It has freaking flown by. I remember five short years ago, trying to face the daunting task of getting divorced and starting nursing school at the same time, and it all seemed like an impossible task. And now, somehow I’ve done all of that and will be graduating with my masters degree in nursing in a few short weeks. Crazy how life just works itself out sometimes.

One thing that is really being pushed in nursing education is how nurses are to be empathetic and supportive, invested caregivers to patients. We are supposed to be advocates, educators, care coordinators, physical caretakers, hand holders, strong listeners, etc….all while being extremely empathetic. Nursing, as many have said before, is both an art and a science. Nurses do some fantastic work, and so very many of them are heroes in their own right and have literally changed people’s lives for the better.

That being said, I will never apologize for saying that some of what we as nurses are taught to be is not healthy and is comes at our own expense. It is strongly implied that we sacrifice ourselves for the betterment of our patients, that we calmly and patiently take abuse and manipulation and understaffing and that one extra responsibility because this is what nurses do. And, all these things that are strongly implied and encouraged for us to do and be comes with a side of ” don’t screw up because you could lose your license.”

A thing I’m convinced about nurses, and I’ve read this elsewhere so it’s not just me making up stuff, is that a huge chunk of nurses are already people-pleasing codependents to begin with. Taking care of people is what we do. It’s how we’re wired. So then, when we are placed into environments where we are told our job is to be superhero empaths that sacrifice our own needs for our patients, every time, we accept it…hook, line, and sinker. Because this is what we believe makes us good people, good healthcare workers. It’s even stronger when the American Nurses Association Code of Ethics gets handed to us in nursing school.

This is not at all a Julie rant against nursing. I LOVE being a nurse, and nurses fill at huge role at the healthcare table that is still being developed and explored in new and innovative ways. But…when nurses give up their own health and self care for others….ALL THE TIME….is that really loving, or even ethical itself?

A topic that has been coming up alot more in recent nursing research are the ideas of compassion fatigue, burnout, vicarious trauma, and stress injuries. Nurses know all about these on a practical level, but the research literature is really just starting to understand how impactful these things are. And while empathy has been touted as a big buzz word lately for teaching people how to interact with others, I have decided that the pursuit to be empathetic all the time is also not the most loving thing to do, and it can be wicked exhausting, too. Because…being empathetic with everyone you encounter, especially as a nurse, requires one to give away entirely too many ducks.

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Empathy versus Sympathy versus ???

The freaking amazing Brené Brown has written and spoken alot about empathy. She gave a talk on the difference between sympathy and empathy, which was uploaded to youtube in the form of a super clevel animation. Watch this:

This video is really good, and it definitely distinguishes the difference between sympathy and empathy for alot of people that need to hear it. The problem is…when people that are already very far leaning on the empathy side of the spectrum, it just makes us feel even more guilty about not being empathetic and connecting enough with people

Did you notice that Brené referenced a NURSING scholar? Yeah, we know alot about empathy. She listed four components that are part of empathy: learning to take the perspective of the other person, coming to that other person in a non-judgmental way, recognizing emotion in other people, and being able to communicate in the recognition of that emotion. Or, as she then succinctly put it, empathy is FEELING with people. It is about reaching into yourself and finding that feeling within yourself that resonates with what the other person is feeling, and allowing that to be a point of connection.

I love empathy. I love it when people empathize with me. I love it when we connect on a deep level of “I totally understand the shit you’re going through because I have been there before.” But…NO ONE CAN EMPATHIZE WITH EVERY PERSON THEY MEET! Unless, of course, you want to die of utter exhaustion both from actually empathizing with everyone and then also trying to find some kind of connection with people you don’t understand AT ALL and are struggling to find that commonality that will help you to empathize.

There is a reason that nurses frequently crawl out to their cars after every shift and then sleep all day on their days off. It’s partly all the physical work involved, but it’s also because their brains and emotional selves are deplenished from having spent 12 hours straight trying to provide quality, unbiased, empathetic care to patients under the umbrella of a code of ethics that tells them it is their moral duty to do this.

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Empathy and Sympathy Fatigue

A couple of months ago I took a quick weekend trip up to Chicago to see one of my best friends, who is a mental health therapist and also one of the wisest people I know. (She has also walked beside me through so many hard things in life….she is one of my people, forever) We ate some amazing food, hit up lake Michigan for some early summer kayak therapy, and talked about deep things. Because she and I don’t do small talk. We go straight for the good stuff , every time.

This friend has taught me so much about being authentic and learning how to love people well. So, after our bellies were full and our arms were worn out from rowing, I brought up to her my struggle with empathy, wanting to hear what she thought about it all.

My friend pointed out that empathy and sympathy are opposite ends of a spectrum, and when people only speak of those two ideas, they are leaving out a crucial concept: compassion.

Before she even really started to explain herself, it clicked in my head. My mind went straight back to the Gospels (the Bible was my native language after all, even if I don’t read it much now). There is a story in Matthew 9, where the translated text states that Jesus had COMPASSION on the multitudes. This is what it says:

“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

The connection that my brain made here was that Jesus felt compassion for the people, he understood their plight and struggles and pain, but he did NOT get personally involved with every single broken or hurting person around him. He recognized that it was not his task to save every single person, but that other people were meant to join in the job. (This may be the worst exegesis ever, but work with me here. Also, I know that the text says he healed every sickness, but clearly, he was not erasing every plight that the masses were experiencing).

As my friend and I talked, I recognized that there is a place in the middle….a very loving place….that is not completely detached and platitudinous, like sympathy can be…and yet it is not fully “all in” emotionally invested, like empathy requires. Compassion lies in between…in a space that is real and loving and meaningful, yet doesn’t require you to deprive yourself of self love and self care by demanding all of your ducks all the time. Compassion fills that gap where you wish you had something substantial to give, but you know you don’t. And yet, it’s so much more than just “thoughts and prayers”. Because compassion requires some mental and emotional effort, but it also recognizes that it is not your individual responsibility to single-handedly save the whole goddamn world.

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Vicarious Trauma

So, I now think that compassion fatigue is a complete misnomer. It should be called empathy fatigue. Because compassion is about caring for people, and loving them at a fundamental level and wanting the very best outcomes for them, but at the same time realizing that you are not in the position to do a deep dive into their lives and pain and help them find a way out. Empathy fatigue is what burns people out. And while I am absolutely not an expert in this area, I think that maybe it is empathy fatigue that most often leads to vicarious trauma. Empathy, at some level, as described in Brené’s video, requires us to get down in the dark places with people This can be OK if we each personally have the resilience and emotional strength to not be overcome by that darkness and pain. But, if we haven’t worked through our own struggles in life or faced our own demons, or have a strong resilience and identity, I think that trying to be empathetic can just about wipe us out if we’re not careful. We can end up being traumatized by seeing or hearing about someone else’s trauma, termed vicarious trauma. There’s something about compassion as an alternative, though, that lets us maybe see what’s going on from a distance, and care very much about it, but not have to climb down into every person’s pain with them. It helps us recognize that we have the capacity to sit in pain with a few people in our lives and be able to survive, but we can’t do that with everyone. And then trying to do so would not be loving either toward them or ourselves.

I hope I”m making the tiniest bit of sense here.

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When Your Ducks Are Spread Too Thin

As my kids let me know on a regular basis, I usually have too much on my plate. This mainly happens because life is so dang interesting and I want to do it ALL. Read every book, listen to all the music, meet all the people, do all the interesting research projects stored up in my head, try all the new adventures I’ve never tackled before. The problem is, when I try to do all of these things at once, I don’t do any of them very well. And when I attempt them out of a place of exhaustion, the results end up being even shittier.

I was thinking today about a freelance job I had several years ago. I was editing wedding photos and running a photo blog for a woman who owned a destination elopement company. And, OMG, if I ever get married again, that is the way to go. Have someone else plan an amazing, low key wedding in a fabulous part of California or Colorado, and all you have to do is look pretty and show up…..sign me up!

Anyway, I loved doing this blog, and I had a pretty good eye for picking out and arranging the best photos sent from the photographers for each wedding. But, because I was in nursing school and trying to do so many other demanding things at the time, my work and adherence to my client’s preferences started sliding. I didn’t have time to read all of her emails, and I missed cues about what she was wanting because I was so tired and stressed out about other things going on in my life. I was way too overloaded. So, she fired me from that freelance gig, rightfully so. It was a painful lesson to learn, to know that sometimes you have to only do a few things at one time in life to be able to do them well.

The same goes for people. Even though I am naturally an introvert, I have learned to be an extrovert. You know…actually, I might retract that here on the spot. Maybe I thought I was an introvert because of all of my shame issues, and maybe I”m just now learning that I’m really an extrovert since I”m letting that shame all fall away. I don’t know. It’s really neither here nor there. The point I want to make is that I want to be in deep relationship with all the great, fantastic people I know…which is alot of people. But I can’t do all those relationships well when I try to do them at the same time. I have a limited capacity both in time, physical energy, and emotional energy. I only have so many ducks to give.

So, the great lesson I am learning these days, especially when I am so tired from work, and trying to finish up this grad degree, and all the other great things going on in my life, is that I have to be intentional about when and who I give my ducks to. But, in rationing out those ducks, it doesn’t mean that I love all the other people any less, or care about their wellbeing and what is going on in their lives any less. It’s about seasons in life too, right? Like right now, certain people in my life need my ducks more than others (like my kids), and as life shifts, those ducks can be spread out to other people.

But most importantly, I’m learning that where I give out my ducks comes down to joy. Which people and things in my life bring me joy? Those are the places where the ducks should be directed. Because being a loving person in the world isn’t just about loving other people, but loving myself. Because I am just as important as every other individual in the world.