Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The 51% rule (aka: keep your needs on the table)

I dedicate this blog entry to my therapist, Curt. Though I'd love to take credit for the insights that follow, clearly had I actually had them as insights, I would not be seeing a therapist!

Did you know that the way to evaluate a healthy relationship is to ask if 51% of your needs are being met? I missed that chapter. Must be because I skip numbers when I read. So I asked Curt: "How do you know? What does 51% feel like? Look like?"

He reframed it: "No one person meets all of our needs. But for a deep connection, for intimacy to grow, both partners need to feel that they are getting more than they put in. 51% is a way to ask yourself if you are getting more than you give."

Talk about a mind flip. I've spent endless hours refining my skills of "need suppression." Love, in my mind, meant figuring out what the other person needed and supplying it, selflessly, endlessly, even when tired and cranky, even when I gave away chunks of my soul, even when I didn't want to. And yes, I was proud of that proclivity.

I practiced my version of empathy with friends, kids, husband, the lady at Kroger's, my dog, telemarketers, other people's kids, neighbors, and clients. Giving, sermons told me, was its own reward. In intimate relationships, giving equaled love and "should" provoke reciprocity (the recipient will be so moved by the gift of your giving, s/he will be humbled and give back). Even without reciprocity, suppressing one's needs in the name of giving meant high standards of behavior and should create well-being in me anyway, since "it is better to give than to receive." Right?

The expression: If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy was patently false, according to my way of thinking. My credo: If you're not happy (whoever you are), how could I possibly be?

So this idea—this odd assertion that a healthy relationship meant that I was getting 51% of my needs met felt wrong, backwards, upside down. If Curt had said that both of people in the relationship were supposed to focus on meeting 51% of each other's needs, I would have nodded along. That's how I thought it was supposed to work. (Though it didn't. But I hadn't stopped my "need suppression" long enough to notice.)

What healthy people do is express their needs. They put them on the table. As Curt said to me, "Julie, your needs are never off the table." And he meant it. If my significant other got cancer, was depressed, unemployed, moody, tired, broke, out of town, hungry, mad, needed sex... you name it—none of those conditions were reasons why my needs stopped mattering, stopped being important. They were, quite simply, my needs—not judgments against me or impositions on others.

The only way I could know if the other person would/could meet my needs would be to express them. That person might not be able to (legitimately or selfishly), but there is no chance of their being met if the "needs" stay hidden and suppressed against the "some day" of the future when my partner woke up and thought, "Gee, I wonder if Julie has a need. I am now ready to meet it." Not only that, there's no way to evaluate whether or not the partnership is a good one if one of the people in it hides the very ways the partner can express love. Moreover, needs fill the space. So if yours aren't in the mix, other people's needs will take up all the space and time you have. That's just how it works.

Of course, I got so good at need suppression, I had forgotten what mine were! In fact, I became expert at feeling other people's needs, feeling other people's happiness! I didn't have my own nearly as often as I borrowed from someone else (someone I had helped become happy). There are a few notable times in my life where I remember feeling purely, singly happy (college, and especially graduate school, are two such times of unadorned personal happiness). But largely, I've depended on making those around me happy so I could finally relax and feel a little of their ease or peace—a version of well-being.

Expressing my needs into a room of other needs felt like lunacy! If you have unhappy people around you, adding your unhappiness is like volunteering to start a whirlpool and then jumping into the center. You're all going down! To drown! So, like the good worker bee that I am, I would set about fixing the unhappiness around me, against some future date when peace would reign and I could finally take a moment to figure out what I wanted. I also secretly hoped that someone would ask.

Fast forward to today: I'm aware that if a relationship has the power to sustain itself, both people have to repeatedly keep their needs on the table no matter what the circumstances are. It's never anyone else's responsibility to meet those needs (ever—they're your needs; get them met). But in a relationship, if you put your needs out there, you then get to see if the other person can meet them or not. Over time, you discover if this is a person that can reliably support you and help to meet your needs. (And yes, there is another version of this issue—the chronic need-pusher who expresses every need and expects others to anticipate and take care of them rather than taking responsibility for them.... but that's another post.)

Bottom line: It's still up to me to get my needs met... however I can. If enough of the kinds of needs I have in an intimate relationship can't be met by, let's say, the man in my life? That tells me about the quality of the relationship, not who is more giving or loving or that someone is too needy. And we're only talking 51%—not ALL needs are to be met by your main squeeze. Just a little more than half of them. Good relationships are a match (not a boxing match, not a lit match, not a personality match from match.com). They are a match between two people who have the resources to meet 51% of each other's needs... that are on the table, for all to see, all the time, no matter what.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

25th wedding anniversaries and helping divorced friends

It was bound to happen. I was in eight weddings and had forty friends who got married in 1984-1985. Naturally that means the last two years on Facebook have been minefields of silver anniversary well-wishes. Jon and I limped across our finish line at 25 years—no party, no exotic cruise, no trip to Greece (that was our goal).

How can I explain what it feels like to watch those go by? One of my college friends congratulated a mutual celebrating friend on her wall "We celebrated our 25th last year. Isn't Jesus good to keep us together no matter what?" and I felt stupid reading it. Did Jesus forget about us? He could only hold so many marriages together and we just happened to be one of the ones he skipped? And what is the implication? That all marriages that have Jesus will be kept together?

It's not that I'm unhappy that other marriages are celebrating their accumulation of years. It's just that the tallying up is over for me. I feel like I'm a high school drop out watching people go off to college. Like I tied my tubes and everyone is having baby showers. Like I foreclosed on my house while all my friends are burning their paid-in-full mortgages.

Not only that, I'm hanging out with a vulnerable crowd. There's no path marked for how to support someone going through divorce. If your spouse dies, people know what to do. They make meals, they come to the funeral, they tell you all the wonderful things they remember about your spouse, they remind you that it wasn't your fault, they repair your car and house if you lost a husband, they mother your kids if you lost your wife. The deceased spouse becomes "hero-like" in memory, with everyone agreeing that it happened too soon, that the person will be missed, that he or she was even better than they actually were, that the marriage partner left behind was lucky to have been married to such a wonderful person...

Divorce doesn't work that way. Everyone wants to identify a villain (whose fault is this tragedy?). Or they want to prove a lack of commitment (whether to Jesus, vows or spouse). They don't know if they should remember good things about the marriage or focus on the bad stuff they now see more clearly. Should you be sad for the person saying, "I'm sorry about your divorce" or should you say, "Good for you! Taking your life back!" Perhaps you always felt like one partner was a jerk and you are relieved for your friend that she's out of a bad situation. Can you say that? Is that disrespectful of marriage as an institution? Or might you even feel like saying, "Idiot! How did you let this happen?" when you discover your friend turned out to be a bad spouse.

I got a wonderful email yesterday from someone who knew me years ago on a homeschooling board. Her sister is going through a horrible divorce. This acquaintance has been reading my blog over the years and wrote to me to find out how she could support her sister during this challenging time. I wish more people asked that question! Unfortunately, I don't have a set of items in a list as advice. But I do have some general principles to keep in mind.

Divorce isn't always horrible. Leaving a troubled marriage (especially at first) feels like relief. Identifying the relief and empathizing with it is a great place to start. Even underscoring it for the person when he or she feels badly about divorce is supportive. You can say stuff like, "It must be nice to wake up in the morning and know that all the thoughts in your head are yours, that no one else is wandering around in your mind telling you what to think or do or be." You can say more stuff like, "Isn't it a relief to finally be free of pressure, doubt, control, betrayal, hurt, violence, game-playing, cruelty, blame (pick one)?"

Instead of focusing on how hard it is to be divorced (as though that is the only narrative that goes with divorce), focus on the benefits and help your friend remember them. "You get a second-chance at making a great life" and especially for those leaving long-term marriages you can say, "You'll fit two lifetimes into one! What will you do with this gift of a second 25-30 years?"

Validate the personal journey that led to this moment: "I know and trust you, so if you say a divorce is the right thing for your family, then that's all I need to know. How can I help?"

It's also supportive to identify the strengths in the divorcing person. It takes a lot of courage to walk through the legalities of divorce. Planning a wedding is all fantasy, romance and ceremony. Executing a divorce is paperwork, courtrooms and colorless legal protocols. Some of the strengths necessary: Staying vertical when you're in grief; carrying on with children and chores despite losing a partner (or conversely, not getting to live with those children any more and learning to live with loneliness); starting a new career or working a new job or going back to school or increasing one's work load; mastering the legal process and understanding it; facing the scrutiny of others and not giving in to it.

Which leads me to the most heartfelt point. There's no way around some sense of failure when divorcing. So if you are one of those good friends in a divorcing person's life, be someone who highlights successes: success at getting out of what was not a healthy situation, success at filing paperwork, success at navigating these choppy waters with kids, successfully staying married during years of challenge, success at raising children, successfully facing hard truths... Divorce isn't a big invalidation stamp, either. There are often plenty of happy memories in divorcing families. These don't need to be rewritten. They need to be embraced as part of the complexity of life.

Lastly, the best thing about divorce is the opportunity to find what you didn't have before: emotional peace, security, intimacy, optimism for the future, relief from depression or fear or anxiety or abuse, love, partnership, self-respect, maturity, safety. We all want these, married or not. And there are plenty of marriages that get credit for years accumulated that don't have them. Divorcing people are those who say they won't live like that any more. They should get a little credit for that... even on their Facebook walls.

When you forgive (reprise...)

I wrote this post before I ever had any idea I would be a divorced person myself. It's haunting to reread it knowing my own children are now dealing with the complexities of being children of divorce. How quickly things change.

Monday, August 30, 2010

How fragile we are...

There's a thin line that separates the mentally tough from those who've slipped under the rushing waters of panic and anxiety. Brave, successful, "mainstream" people one day find themselves clutching their chests and calling 911 when they feel like their hearts will burst, only to discover at the ER that they are suffering a panic attack and their hearts are fine.

Panic is spontaneous. It's not like you plan for panic or even anticipate it. Panic, by its nature, swamps. It's the downpour of unwelcome adrenaline that floods the bloodstream, overwhelming the system like swirling, pulsing waters from a drowning gutter that spill into traffic. The traffic is your life, and suddenly you're barely dog paddling in the rapids, too fast to navigate.

I've been told by numerous friends that when they hit that stretch of deep water, the ordinary stuff of life feels impossible. Usually in the wake of panic, depression sets in. Imagine nearly drowning and then being asked to get back in the water and swim a mile, with a rip tide. That's how it appears to a depressed person—who's lost the life vest and is clinging to a palm tree for stability.

Depression isn't merely a psychological condition, nor is it mostly about the emotions. Apparently biology can trip the wire as easily as stress. When the body gets involved (where food becomes poison, where sleep happens during the day but rarely at night, where shivers and shortness of breath are the new conditions of regular living), depression takes on a very different character than mere sadness, grief, or disappointment. Depression, particularly led by panic, quickly and effectively strips the individual of ordinary tools for living.

I've been emotionally depressed during a few seasons of my life—not ever medically diagnosed, and I've never called the ER myself. Still, I can think back to specific occasions where I let the TV drone all day while I barely supervised my toddler because I couldn't make myself stand up. I've had moments where anxiety spilled from my nerve-endings and it seemed I could send electrical shocks if I touched anyone or anything.

I've had an incredibly challenging pair of years, and it occurred to me recently that it would not have been surprising at all had I had a full scale breakdown at some point. The pressures have been enormous and new, complemented by the kind of pain I never imagined. Yet even with some of the symptoms of depression, I didn't wind up clinically depressed.

I've reflected on why and have become so grateful for my mental fitness, I wanted to list (and pay due gratitude to) the resources that have kept me from drowning:

  1. California: I do think there is something to be said for growing up in the navel-gazing capital of the world. I grew up knowing it was important to pay attention to me.
  2. Therapy: Similarly, therapy is not stigmatized in my world. It's a given, and it's not a "once-for-all" proposition. Therapeutic tune-ups are part of my mental hygiene. 
  3. Nutrition: My mom was one of the original health nuts of the 1970's. I grew up reading labels, not trusting additives and preservatives, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables. I have no appetite for junk food or fast food. It's not even a struggle. It doesn't appeal.
  4. Running: Even though I haven't run every year of my life, I've returned to it again and again, particularly during stressful seasons. I know running will be there for me when I need it.
  5. Ocean: Which is not in Ohio and has had consequences unpleasant! The ocean sustained me when I felt like the world was falling away from under me. Now I look to the big, open expanse of sky above me. It works too.
  6. Friends: Of all textures—the ones I call just about every day who live out of town; the ones I only talk to on chat or email; the ones who fly me places if I need them to; the ones who knew me way back then and validate my today perceptions; the brand new ones who like me as I am now and don't need to care about my past; the local ones who've brought me into their lives; the virtual ones I've never met in person who respect me and share my ideals... Friends are the difference between sanity and losing touch. They have literally preserved my mind, given me saving ideas, and shouldered half the load.
  7. Writing: Who knew how important it was to write? I only do it because I can't not. It's how I know what I think. Turns out writing is a chief way to process our internal stuff, and endless processing has saved me from the specter of overpowering phantom-like anxiety. I know the measure of my pain... in lines on a page.
  8. Spirituality: Whatever version, whether by the Bible or poetry, through church or grad school, by the intimacy of prayer or the quiet emptying of yoga, a spiritual life has undergirded me as long as I can remember.
  9. Fun: I have it, I like it, I go back for more.
  10. Mother: And if you go back over the list (1-9), my mom is the Ur-text for all of it. She's 72, hikes, camps, knits, goes to her regular support group meetings, is active in her faith, works out at the gym, eats healthy foods, doesn't have physical complaints, is writing her 74th book (yes, that is seventy-four!), supports her family through acts of kindness and phone calls, gives money, keeps old friends and makes new ones, is optimistic and positive, and looks for the good in people and life. How lucky, blessed, lottery-winning am I to have such a mother!
We've heard it said so many times, we almost stop listening: Take care of yourself

I'm realizing today that every age carries with it the stresses of that stage of life (whether you're learning to navigate a high school and open a locker; figuring out how to get a job and repay school loans; adjusting to a new marriage and baby; hanging in there with a partner who is disappointing or challenged; or leaving a long term marriage and making a new life alone). It's easy to take ourselves for granted, believing we can face new challenges without re-upping the supplies we need to survive.

If you don't put oil in the car and it's leaking, eventually you'll burn out the engine and have to rebuild it from scratch.

1-10 is my oil change check list.

Thank you friends, family and online community for being a part of my sanity package. May I be a part of yours too.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Eat, Pray, Love, Cover Your Ears

Don't get me wrong. I loved the book. Okay, I loved it and at times wanted to yell "Over-writing, over-writing!" But Gilbert's freewheeling word play that ran off the rails at times only endeared her to me in the end. She's the kind of passionate, self-examining, self-deprecating, self-inflating person I recognize! Her "quest philosophy" (read it) is genius—the best stuff in the book. I came away open to the whole world again, ready to trust my life and process while staying alert to my journey (not wishing it away).

I read the book in January 2008, before I had even a hint that I'd wind up scarlet branded with the letter D in my not-so-distant future. I heard Elizabeth speak at UCLA with Anne Lamott in March of the same year... the epic journey through California that began the inner-unraveling.

The film came at an interesting time. I'm in a different place and related to different pieces of Liz's story than I did on the first pass through. What I noted, though, that is sticking with me (and not especially comfortably) is just how dominant the male voices were in her story! Let me count them:

  1. Ketut: The prophecy that led Liz on her year-long, world-traveling journey began with a prophecy from a medicine man in Bali. Yes, he was toothless and old, adorable and addled, yet he gives her a palm reading that becomes the guide to her future. 
  2. Her husband: He told her what to think, how their lives should be, what he wanted that was not what she wanted. It made her feel guilty to leave him because he was unhappy (he did not seem to have any guilt over his making her unhappy!). Her husband sat across from her at the negotiation table and told her he wouldn't grant her a divorce! That's how deaf he was to Liz's voice. He thought he could require her to stay married to him!
  3. Her boyfriend: David was a trip. This man lived his life in accordance with a female guru from India. Liz adopted his guru, adopted his lifestyle, adopted his values... and slowly disappeared into him. Her eventual journey to India was inspired by the hand-me-down guru she adopted during her torrid love affair with David.
  4. Her language partner: In Italy, we're immediately treated to some of the best looking male specimens on the planet. Just sayin'. Italian men have it going on. Liz's primary partner in language is a good-looking, gentle god of a guy. She has to fight her primal sex urges in order to mimic his accent.
  5. Richard from Texas: Just when you think Liz will get a break from all these tempting men by going to an ashram in India dedicated to a female guru, Liz becomes friends with Richard from Texas. The guru, in a twist of irony, is not in residence having taken a trip to New York, where Liz came from! (Perhaps a "Wizard of Oz" lesson underlying; there's no place like home, or, what you seek is already within you.) In any case, Richard is confrontational with his "bumper sticker" wisdom. Liz, like a polite woman would, attempts to deflect Richard's earliest attempts to "teach her," but eventually yields to his tactics once she's aware that he is suffering too. Truly, I like Richard in the book and loved the actor in the film... but upon further reflection, I have to admit it makes me uncomfortable how easily men tell women what to think, how to feel, what to know, how to recover, what to learn, how to love, what to do, how to live. What's up with that? I am trying to think of a time when I've seen on the big screen some man being "bullied for your own good" by a woman's unrelenting "wisdom" until he finally yields to it because he saw "who she really is." Help me out - is there such a film/story anywhere? I'm so sick of it!
  6. Ketut (again): He hardly remembers Liz when she returns to Bali. But once he does, Liz happily trusts his account of her future, yet again.
  7. Felipe: And here's where I wanted to claw my eyes out. In the book, I wasn't a huge fan of his either, but at least he seemed genuinely kind to Liz (and is eventually the man she marries in real life). The movie, though, took his personality to a place I will no longer tolerate in my real life. As Liz is having an emotional melt-down about love and being whisked off into a future without her express consent, Felipe yells at her! He tells her who she is, what her real feelings are (amazingly, he assumes they are just like his!), he tells her how to get over them, he attempts to intimidate her into cooperation with his "romantic" plan! Ay-yi-yi-yi! What is up with this whole "men use force to get women to do what they 'really' want" thing? Why do we think that is romantic, beneficial, respectful or even remotely justified? Why did the screenplay writers feel the need to inject that dysfunction into the relationship... as though that is a model for how to find true love? Gag me with a waxy plantain leaf!
I saw it all plainly. Men feel utterly comfortable dictating advice, stating their goals, passing on their experience and wisdom, all while women go on long journeys and quests away from them to figure out what they want... and then they wind up wanting men! It's just crazy!!!

I cannot picture a man going on a world tour to get over a broken heart, listening to women read their palms and guide their futures through folksy wisdom or forceful "buck up and do what I tell you because I'm right" kind of language. Not one man would go to see that movie.

Yet women are constantly bombarded with male voices. Our western gods are male, our presidents in America are male, the vast majority of our pastors are male (in some churches, they all are!), our business leaders and school principals: male. I had a Sue Monk Kidd moment last night when I got home—Arggggghhhhhh! Get me out of this male-dominated, overly verbal masculine world! How can woman even hear herself think, let alone come to any insight that would be truly suited to her while men won't shut up!

Before I offend the loyal male readers of this blog, let me say this. One of the hardest parts of being female is hearing your "inside yourself" voice. Male voices drown us out much of the time and we consent because we have been trained to listen politely, to not pass judgment, to trust an authority (male=authority), to seek protection, to accommodate those in power over pleasing ourselves. In fact, women are so used to this condition, if you have a group of women chatting away together and you add a man to it, the man will become the focal point and the majority of women will literally stop talking. 

I can think of so many dinner parties where I was happily chatting away with my girlfriends until the husbands joined us. Then—poof! The women go silent and the men take over. It's uncanny.

The best thing males can do to right this ship is to listen. I don't mean the kind of listening that therapists suggest on couches to couples. I don't mean "active listening" where you try to repeat back what you heard. I mean, actually listening—to the confusion, to the tentative attempts to protect self, to the hopelessness, to the anxiety, to the "good ideas," to the disillusionment... all while doing nothing with it.

Nothing looks like: compassionate eyes, interest, hugs, an occasional (brief!) affirmation of the woman's inherent powers to find her own solutions that work for her. Nothing looks like fewer words and more nods, a willingness to watch her fail and make poor judgments, encouragement to keep going on her own path and resisting the temptation to rescue her from herself and others.

Nothing means not interfering, not trumping, not denigrating, not expecting a different outcome, not asking for compromise, not coercing through disappointment, anger, reason or relentless logic.

Nothing means accepting her report of her own experience without minimizing it, without discounting it, without reinterpreting it, without taking it personally.

But women, know that men aren't going to "do it for us." We have to be willing to walk away from relationships, to tell the men we lean on to be quiet. We have to seek spaces that let our minds wander. We have to trust the inkling of internal wisdom and risk everything on it! We can't expect a man to bail us out or help us. We have to know that the end of the road is inside (not in a man's paycheck, his size, his superior position, his intelligence, his romance, his validation, or even the idea that he is endowed with greater authority).

When I wrote "it's all on you" last time, one of the underlying messages I wanted to convey is this: When we delegate the authority over our lives to a "higher absolute"—saying it exists apart from us (particularly as women), we develop a habit of second-guessing ourselves that can become pathological. We start from a place of distrust of self.

When we recognize that it was our own insight and reasoning skills that empowered those beliefs to start, we open ourselves to confident inner knowing (we esteem our ability to seek the good, to find the good and to live according to the good). That's my goal for me, for my daughters... and yes, for the lovely men in my life too.

May the sexes go forth and support each other!

These are my musings on a Monday morning. Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

It's all on you

It's all on you... 

I had a memorable conversation with a friend the other day—a truly decent guy, someone who makes me feel comfortable and who listens well. He's newer in my life than many people and so he wanted the back story on me. Basically, he asked, "What's a business woman like you doing with a missionary past?"

The conversation quickly evolved into shared story lines—he was in a fraternity (Lamba Chi) and I was in a sorority (Kappa Kappa Gamma). I was a little sister at the Lambda Chi house at UCLA, in fact. We both "got saved" through campus ministries (Navigators for him, Campus Crusade for Christ for me). That shared background is a bit like knowing a secret handshake. We talked easily about stuff like discipleship, evangelism, relationship versus religion, moral authority, and the possibility that the world may end in our generation!

It was more difficult to talk about the changes in my faith. My friend was respectful, kind, interested. That's always nice. He did ask one question, though, that I'm still thinking about. His primary concern in all these years since college is that his kids know what he discovered: that there is a moral absolute that is separate from what he, their dad, tells them; distinct from what the culture expresses; superior to their own judgments.

This is where it falls apart for me. It would be nice if such a thing existed. And certainly the case has been made in many faiths that that "thing" does in fact exist and will eternally! But it seems to me that there is a critical oversight in that assertion—that a superior, binding, moral absolute exists apart from our participation in it. The oversight is this: in order forany set of beliefs, principles, to be considered absolutes, we must deem them so (we reason, assign values, determine why we accept them as outside ourselves by consulting our reason, experiences and thoughts). Not only that, but for these morals we've assigned supreme authority to have a binding effect on us, we must empower them with our consent.

The interpretation of what these principles mean in our lives must be arrived at in a context (culture, generation, gender, intelligence, geography, education). We hear stuff said to us by those in power and we adopt their point of view and seek reinforcements.

The "static" absolutes of the past have evolved; the Christian God is no longer thought to endorse slavery, despite Paul's admonition to slaves to obey their masters. Women have rights and are no longer property of their husbands.

One of the benefits of a life that falls apart spectacularly is that you get to see just how much you were in control of the moral compass you adopted for your life. Even the need to label the items as "separate" from self, as binding from beyond can only occur if you say "yes" to that way of knowing, believing and receiving.

Our kids sometimes flummox us because we can see so clearly what they "ought" to see and don't (smoking is harmful, drinking while driving is dangerous, marijuana is illegal, unprotected sex is risky, texting while driving is reckless, not saying "thank you" to those who give to you is impolite). So we invoke larger "backing" for our clearer moral vision (the Surgeon General, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the laws of our state, the Bible, Oprah, and Emily Post). Yet no matter how large we make the authorities behind  our morally superior positions, we are powerless to do anything to create conformity to the principles we iterate.

The only way that anyone or any list or any book or any code or any law has power in our lives is by consent. Not only that, the laws themselves have no power! They have never prevented a crime. The choice to act or not is entirely on the individual choosing or not choosing the action.

Moreover, ethics do turn out to be situational. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is filled with practices we would find horrific today. LIkewise, church history is littered with acts deemed moral in their time that today's believers regret.

My favorite professor (Dr. Dewey) once explained to me the genius of Paul's primary insight released to the New Testament churches. Paul articulates that the shift in understanding about God has to do with how God-followers cultivate a spiritual life. The Holy Spirit lives within and we are cultivating an attentiveness to the depths of our experience when we make moral and ethical judgments. But we can't do it alone... none of us is free enough of our own baggage to make those judgments without harming others. So we do it in community. Each community, in each era, with their own language, experiences and limitations seeks the "good" or the "true" or the "compassionate"  as best they can together. The conclusions they draw are "drafts," not published "once-for-all" documents. Each generation revises the previous generations insights to conform to their time.

If you doubt what I'm saying, think about the move to end slavery in America. To run an underground railroad, to work toward abolition meant embracing contemporary revelation that flew in the face of Scripture as it had always been understood. We don't shift postures lightly or easily (no whims), but our faith must be responsive to the promptings of the Spirit in community. If the code is already written, there is no need for Spirit. That's what Paul taught us. It's what I believe.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

On Being a Christian (HT to Kung and Bonhoeffer)

I've spent many years pondering what it means to live a Christian commitment. Does it mean that Christians will be better, happier, stronger, purer, healthier, wealthier, less sinful and wiser than everyone else? (I used to think so; I was taught so.) "Should" Christians be happier, wiser, more joyful, more peaceful, more successful in their relationships than other people? (In other words, are these the marks of true faith and practice?)

My honest answer for today is: No. In fact, in order to seem as though a relationship with Jesus Christ creates those superior qualities, many of us have had to cultivate a shadow self: protecting secrets, massaging the truth, pretending an appearance into being, minimizing real tragedy, hiding painful truths. Moreover, non-Christians aren't fooled. They don't trust the shiny image.

I lived in a neighborhood years ago where the wild post-high-school grown-ups threw drunken parties with toddlers running around every weekend. One of my Christian neighbors, in a fit of sisterly love, made a pie for the wife in one of these beer-guzzling couples. The loud-mouthed gal told my friend where she could shove that pie! It devastated my friend, who thought she was showing neighborliness (but apparently her "I'll be nice to you so you'll want Christ" agenda seeped through).

A few months later, a Mormon neighbor made a cake for my friend (the pie-giver) and we were both immediately put on guard. We didn't want to "owe" anything to the Mormon. We wondered what her true motivations were—like a cake would make us want to be Mormon? We felt manipulated. And that's because we were being manipulated. Just as we had manipulated others in our turn.

I had to ask myself: why do we work so hard to seem like our lives are better and have more to offer than the rest of humanity? Is that really what today's Christianity means to "sell"? That you get a better life if you follow Christ? That you'll be a superior human being, therefore come to my church where you can opt out of life's hazards?

I question the idea that Christians ought to have better lives than non-Christians. I know there are verses in the Bible about the peace, love, fruits of the Spirit and joy that come from an active faith. But circumstantially, every one of us (with or without Christ, with or without friends, with or without money, with or without jobs, with or without higher education) is subject to the ravages of living on this planet. In our time, in our place (America), even the poorest have water, electricity, access to education, some kind of medical treatment and the right to vote. Yet even we in the wealthiest nation can't avoid the truly awful stuff!

Car accidents, hurricanes, tornadoes, war, earthquakes, cancer, arson, rape, bankruptcy, divorce, unwanted pregnancy, betrayal, affairs, heart attacks, addictions, job loss, disease, failure, kids who do what we don't want them to do—visit all kinds of people, including ardent Christians. There is no divine intervention against life.

God does not answer prayers for your protection any more than you can stop the wind from blowing during a lightening storm by praying. (I hope that if you are the kind of Christian who believes God will do these things for you, please consider spending less time seeking the miraculous and more time living in the real world where your valuable talents and skills are much needed!)

If someone tells you Christians "should" (fill in the blank: love more, share their faith more, be happier than everyone else, find more fulfillment in their families, have better marriages, be debt free, give more, care more, have more peace, exude more joy, raise better children, see miracles, have better sex, make better communities and neighborhoods, feel more assured of the future...), my reaction is: run. The purpose of your faith is to sustain you during the ordinary conditions of life. Sometimes other people want to draw on those same resources; sometimes they don't. But it's false advertising to entice people with the hope of either miraculous intervention when faced with genuine danger, or the assurance of successful outcomes (marriages, kids, finances, health, happiness) because of the choice to follow Christ.

Bonhoeffer says that the "God who is with us is the God who forsakes us."
"God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross," Bonhoeffer wrote. "He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. [The Bible] … makes quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. … The Bible directs man to God's powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help." (emphasis mine)
This is a hard saying and one that deserves time and contemplation. As I've turned it over in my mind over the last eight years, a dawning sense of truth has bubbled to the surface for me. How I understand this hard saying written for our time, in our world and culture is this:

The novel understanding we bring to following Christ today is an admission that life can't be beat. No formula, practice, belief system, or church affiliation protects us. Life's demands are unceasing until we meet our end. Rather than going out swinging, with prayer, affirmations, insisting that tragedy is not tragic or that sickness is health or that sadness is joy or that suffering comes from faithlessness, Christians can embrace in a radical way the transitory nature of life—its unique joys, but also the genuine suffering all of us go through just by virtue of sharing this planet. We can do this because we are unafraid, not because we are safe.

As I've looked at it now for nearly 30 years, it seems to me that Christianity is an emptying, not a filling up. It's a divesting, not an acquiring. It's a trusting, not an insuring. It's a faith in a redemptive purpose, not a triumph over tragedy or suffering.

God abandons us to life, is another way I translate Bonhoeffer's insight. Life is to be lived on its terms—we are meant to be fully grounded in and unafraid of the real, all while drawing on the resources of faith to live hopefully, optimistically, empathetically, and redemptively, in spite of life, in reverence for life. Christianity is an affirmation of this life—life worth living.

The joy and peace of faith are not something "put on" to showcase how much better it is to be a Christian than not (like a Mini Cooper is better than a van). The joy and peace of faith come from knowing that in a shakeable life where nothing is certain (where we Christians are just as likely to be kidnapped, raped and shot execution style as the next non-Christian shopping in a mall—yes, this happened to a missionary friend of mine), we still have a resource to draw on. That resource is cultivated in a deep private place, though shared in community. It's not theoretical and it isn't magical. It's not like having access to the president's secret service detail, either. 

And please don't say it's a relationship. That tired expression has lost its meaning, for me anyway. Its value had to do with moving people from rote religious practices to pondering God and how daily devotion could make a difference in our experience of faith. But now with so many evangelical churches touting "relationship" through "Jesus is my boyfriend" music and Bible studies where we're trained to read the Scriptures at the level of "how it speaks to me," all while we reinforce "My God is better than your God" kind of spirituality, relationship-language has gone too far. The theology descended from it often requires well-educated adults to abandon reason and intellect in service of simplistic theology and communal connection. We're trained to think we are better than others because we have the right God and the right beliefs.

As I read it, salvation is not about who "gets to go" to heaven after all. It's a saving from self-righteousness and false self-confidence. Sometimes it seems to me that Christians need to be saved more than anyone else.

The resource of faith comes from within (the Bible calls it "The Holy Spirit"). Our spiritual legacy in Christianity is guided self-examination (guidance coming from our rich theological traditions, the Bible and our faith communities) counter balanced by (forgive my French) mind-fucking trust in the unseen.

In our age where scientific materialism is the chief authority, to assert that something transcendent may exist, to yield to the possibility that there is something to this God through Jesus—that grace (relief, hope, uplift, optimism, pardon, calm, solidarity, amnesty, compassion, promise, even awe-inspired tingles) is mediated somehow through contemplation, communion, community, worship, alignment with those who suffer, reflection, prayer, even stained glass windows or kneelers or guitar music or bear hugs during the kiss of peace or the reading of poetry—is a radical departure from the rest of our fact-soaked, empirical existences. Our faith opens us to encounter (that direct hit to the solar plexus that defies explanation), rather than mere accumulation of information. 

Joy, peace and hope are cultivated when we love other human beings. Let me put it another way. We have joy when we enjoy people. We have peace when we are empathetic to others and work to relieve the struggle in their ordinary hard lives (like our ordinary hard lives). We have hope when we receive care and help from others, indiscriminately, from whoever offers it; we experience hope when we are willing to learn and receive from other people, other communities. That's what Jesus showed the Jews of his time—hope from a suspicious character, openness to the new, redemption from an unlikely source.

The humility of faith is to recognize that God isn't looking for leaders after all. Faith is letting go of all that stuff. It's the way... a way. It's how we live and love.

James Cone once said that the reason the white church had no experience of God (1960s) is that they weren't hanging out where God lives. Find the oppressed, find God. Share in the suffering, experience God.

In 2010, I think of it this way. While it would be easier to jettison the whole project of figuring out how to have a meaningful faith in this culture where Christianity has become a brand more than a basis for a spiritual life, where Christians defend the indefensible in the name of a religion that was developed in the pre-scientific, magical world of antiquity, I've decided to offend my mind and trust anyway.

Somehow in all that language that drives my brain crazy (bodily ascensions, male God, original sin, virgin births, inerrant Scriptures, devils and angels), I still find fragments of transcendence which tether me to love (1 Corinthians 13 is still the best description of love I've ever aspired to live). In plain English: there's something about the redemptive narrative of Jesus and the self-examination I've adopted through Christian faith that gives me a powerful emotional meaningful connection to life, people and hope that I find too precious to throw over.

The wide variety of wonderfully diverse people remains my main connection to transcendence. Jesus seemed to feel that way, too. In all our messy glory, human beings still give me the greatest chance to see the face of God and to practice the faith of love. And while I typed this, I couldn't help but see the sweet face of the matriarch of faith at my church who embraces me with such fierceness each week. Love like that is Christianity to me.

Friday, August 06, 2010

What healthy looks like

I spent the night at a friend's home. I woke up before the married couple who lived there. Their dog was awake and eager to be uncrated. So I opened the latch and then opened the sliding glass door to let him go outside to do his business. This is how it works with my dog and I assumed it would work with him. He panted and yelped a bit, he made circles in his crate but wouldn't leave it. I coaxed him to come out and eventually he put a paw outside the crate, followed by another. Clearly agitated, though, he didn't romp outside the way I expected.

At about that time, the "man of the house" and long term dear friend descended the steps and noticed the dog's confusion (and mine!). He saw that Kapu was hovering near the sliding door. Bill turned to me and said, "You know dogs. They have their habits. Kapu is used to eating in his crate right when he wakes up before we put him outside." Then he turned to his dog and with the kindest, friendliest voice urged Kapu to go outside, "Go on Kapu. I know. You'll get your food after. That's a boy! Go on!" He chuckled lightly. Kapu obeyed and returned to the house ready to eat. Bill scratched him behind the ears.

Unremarkable moment in Bill's life, I'm sure. But for me, it was one of those "Oh wow!" moments. A routine event didn't go the way it was supposed to, and that break in routine was greeted with gentleness, humor and a kind spirit. I recalled listening to other dog owners order their pets about with all the tenderness of a military drill sergeant! Something in me craved that forgiving, reassuring tone in my own life, let alone my dog's.

I've spent too many hours of my life debating intentions, explaining my meanings, reframing my message... only to be told how I should have done it, what my motives really were, why I was not saying what I thought I was saying. I used to believe that I was poor at communicating! I have been told so many times by enough significant people in my life (people I love) that what I think I'm saying is not what I mean, I stopped believing that I was effective at expressing myself.

And then I stood there in Bill's kitchen watching his gentle guidance offered to Kapu and I realized: No one has to get angry just because something isn't going the way it should or because the other party is confused or momentarily off balance. It's possible to bring clarity and support to another with kindness. No sternness required, no assumption of nefarious motives.

So here's my list of healthy—what it looks like to me now:

  • Curiosity over accusation: When you find someone's behavior strange or upsetting or simply different than you expected, ask questions, show interest. Don't make assumptions, accuse or assign intentions/motives.
  • Kindness over force: Kindness means a quiet voice, a gentle tone. Force is coercive—it uses an urgent (sometimes loud) tone to create anxiety in the other person to provoke an action. Kindness assumes that the person can be reached through support rather than control.
  • Trust over suspicion: As a friend says, "I look for reasons to trust people." A disposition that trusts creates open lines of communication and freedom to take risks. It creates a willingness to own up to mistakes or poor choices. Suspicion kills creativity and it drives shame underground. Secrets grow in an atmosphere of suspicion. 
  • Acceptance over control: To truly accept means that you are willing to receive what is offered without judgment or interference. Control means you need to match my expectations of you before I can accept what you offer. (Your five minutes at dinner with me before you head out the door again is enough because you gave it freely; not Because you didn't eat a full dinner with me, I won't be friendly to you during the meal.)
  • Owning personal limits over imposing personal limits: If I need something to be a certain way, I make it happen or take responsibility to make it happen. I don't require others to create the space I need to live in. I create it for myself. I don't blame others for my lack.
  • Expressing my disappointment over calling you a disappointment:  When expectations surface and aren't met, sharing my disappointment as an unmet need rather than assigning you the label "disappointing" is healthy. 
  • Asking for help over requiring it: It's risky to say "Would you help me....?" because the person might say, "No." But to require "help" is to remove the possibility of "gift." A requirement of help can become a source of festering resentment. To share what you need and ask for help means a person has the chance to be good to you. People love to know that what they do is genuinely appreciated as a free gift, not as an obligation.
  • Surprise me over "that's who you are and always will be": I like to find out you are more than I know or thought I knew. Labels limit people and we stop being surprised and amazed by them. In healthy relationships, even long term ones, surprising each other with new facets, new interests, new points of view keeps the love alive. If when you risk sharing a new way of seeing or being with someone you love and you are met with skepticism "You don't like X" or "You're not that kind of person," it shuts down the adventure of living... for both of you.
  • Passion over discipline: Discipline fuels passion, true enough. But you can't get to passion by starting with discipline. Knowing a person's passion and supporting it does more to create a climate of enthusiasm and joy than all the rules, systems, structures and good ideas in the world. Discipline alone is soul-stealing.
  • Yelling never works. Unless your house is on fire or a semi is about to crush your car.
  • Affirm over suggest: Find traits to affirm, look for ways to validate the other person's judgment, thought processes, ideas before offering your own. Only make suggestions when asked.
What others can you think of?

I'm done with drama. I can see how much time is wasted on provoking arguments, righteous self-defense, accusation, assignation of motives and nefarious intentions, labeling, requiring others to meet personal needs, not allowing someone to grow or change (even radically), assuming the worst, forming suspicions, imposing ideas, and ignoring someone's passion because it isn't yours.

If we treated others as intelligent, reasonable, logical human beings, whose insights, practices, yearnings and hopes made good sense (given who they are, where they live, how they got to this phase of life) rather than as dangerous, misguided, self-centered or illogical, we'd discover so much more to love between us. If we listened well and showed interest, if we held back judgment and attempted to see through the eyes of the other, if we kept a cheerful tone (or at minimum, a gentle one) and waited patiently for more understanding before slapping on labels or expecting someone to be who we say they are... we could avert so much emotional punishment... the feeling that you are scorned for being yourself.

The image that comes to my mind is a huge WELCOME mat. I welcome you to my space, as you are, ready to serve you and enjoy you. How about tea?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Underground of the Other Half

I got an email last week from someone who knows someone who knows me. She cautiously admitted that she's considering a divorce and had heard that I had been through one (Was that right? she hedged respectfully, non-intrusively, covertly). She wondered if it was okay to ask me about it. I recognized the tone. A familiar tentativeness—trying to determine if the audience will understand that you don't want a divorce but that you might still get one. It's a hard thing to admit out loud in the homeschooling world we come from... that you aren't able to sustain the image of healthy family, and that you feel awful about it, and even embarrassed by it.

She and I talked on the phone today. In that "back from the trenches at different fronts" kind of way, we traded stories, even laughing at what isn't laughable. I got around to asking her what support she has in her life right now. She quipped, "Well I have my non-Christian friends who take me downtown for dinner and drinks. Thank God for them."

Oh that made me laugh. I know just what she means. In the churches we come from, it's almost like two-shall-become-one is not just a spiritual, mystical union, but a fact of identity. When you go back from "couple" to "single," it's hard not to feel like half a person, half a soul, half-saved. While outside the church, people just look at you as, well, you!

I remember years ago when a couple who led our home Bible study group filed for divorce. They were a little older than I am now. The home group disbanded because the husband moved out. At the time, it disturbed me. Why couldn't we carry on with the wife heading up the group? She was still in the house. She hadn't asked her husband to leave her for someone else. But the policy of the church was that "couples" led groups with other couples in them. Sure singles were welcome to participate in the group, but they couldn't lead groups (unless they limited themselves to singles). We all accepted this unwritten code, as though the nature of true spirituality is a married heterosexual pair.

Once you declare that you are more interested in a healthy life than in propping up an institution, the others on that underground railroad find you. It's an interesting community down here. A major shared characteristic is how many have moved away from their original church communities. When they most needed support, they felt abandoned or worse, persecuted. I've heard from women who have had to endure pastors defending violent husbands, calling them repentant or provoked. For what? I can't think that pastors are excusing violent behavior because they, too, are violent (though some may be). I don't think they want wives to be smacked, shoved, slugged, or forcibly restrained, either. So why do some pastors go to such lengths to keep marriages together after a wife finally gets up the courage to admit how bad it's gotten?

My guess is that marriage is so critical to the reputation of the evangelical church (at least the white churches I've been in), they feel the need to protect it at all costs. Successful marriages (in America anyway) have become the chief evidence that the Spirit of God is still a vital force in people's lives. Divorce has become the great evidence that the Spirit of God is lacking in our culture, and consequently, in the lives of individuals who choose it.

Seen that way, no wonder those of us in the divorced camp huddle together in cover of email and get drinks with non-Christian friends away from the suburbs! It's not pleasant to be seen as one who is no longer responsive to God's Spirit... or worse, perhaps was never filled with that Spirit to begin with!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Inception (no spoilers)

The description "A cross between The Matrix and James Bond" is pretty accurate, though thankfully we aren't distracted by good-looking women pretending to be spies, offering themselves up to get laid.

What fascinated me most were the assertions in the sub themes:
  1. Holding onto guilt limits our creativity.
  2. Our subconscious is well-defended from alien points of view.
  3. An idea (especially a wrong one) that takes hold will gather evidence to itself and will expand to control a person's experience of (or relationship to) reality.
  4. We seek to alter our memories to relieve guilt.
  5. Memories can't be the basis of dreams (in the film, a literal idea; in life, a principle—don't be limited by the past when imagining the future).
  6. We don't need more time if we've shared a lifetime. What we share can be enough.
  7. What we believe about our relationships impacts our choices and can endanger others.
  8. Knowing love from a parent makes a world of difference.
  9. Manipulation of our beliefs (even if we are led to believe what isn't empirically true) can enhance or diminish our experience of life (even to the point of happiness or suicide).
  10. When you feel like peeing while you sleep, it rains really hard in your dreams.
I loved the cinematography. The opening ocean spray (wow!), the table top reflection in the scene with Saito (gold, black, faces with black hair, perfectly balanced in that zen way), the mirrors in Paris, the folding over of streets, the floating bodies ... so many moments.

Acting terrific. Leo DiCaprio has matured and is a favorite A lister now. Ellen Page was feminine! I loved that they didn't make her Adriadne character some boyish computer nerd. Great to see a soft side, a relationally aware side combined with being smart. Good role model (though still far too few females in these leading roles for my tastes).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is almost too adorably handsome for his role in this film. He does a great job, but I still see him with that smarmy smile, arms swinging to a happy tune after his shower sex with Zoe Daschenel from "500 Days of Summer." Jacob (18 yr old son) loves his wardrobe in every movie. Who doesn't?

So what did you think of the film? Lived up to its hype? (Spoilers may be in comments - permitted but be forewarned.)