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?