Full catastrophe

Photo credit: Scott M. Liddell via rgbstock.com

Photo credit: Scott M. Liddell via rgbstock.com

Catastrophe: 1) an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering; a disaster. Ex: “a national economic catastrophe”
2) the denouement of a drama, especially a classical tragedy.

Have you ever watched yourself screw something up royally? Made a promise to pay you couldn’t possibly keep unless you won the lottery? Deliberately lied to a loved one, even though you knew you’d be better off telling the truth? Covered up a mistake at work? Blamed somebody else who was totally innocent? And realized perfectly well you couldn’t pull it off, but you couldn’t stop yourself, either?

Of course you have. We all have, at one time or another. Tell me, what did you think when you saw yourself doing that wrong? What did you think when it blew up in your face? Did you think, or did blame and shame flood your soul and blank out thought?

You don’t really have to tell me, because I already know. Trust me, you probably haven’t done a damned thing I haven’t done, in one way or another. The details might be different, but the screw-up is basically the same.

Am I not a man? And is a man not stupid? I’m a man, so I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.
— Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek (from the movie)

But I’m not talking about the results of screw-ups today. What interests me is the process of screwing up. When we cook the situation so that it’s gonna boil over, no matter what… and somewhere in the back of our heads we know exactly what’s going to happen next, even as we desperately wish it won’t.

Why do we do that? Well, I think there are several possible reasons for it. They’re all pretty interesting.

Sometimes we do it because we think there’s a chance we can squeak it through and nobody will ever know we were taking an iffy shortcut. Sometimes we’re caught in a bind and don’t want anyone to know, because we all hide our realities from others — it can be painful to let someone else in that deep. Sometimes we think it gets us the necessary results to please others, even when we have to cut a few corners to do it. But I think we often do it because our souls, our unconscious minds, are trying to teach us something we can’t learn any other way.

There is little else as mystifying as watching yourself aim a behavioral gun at your shoe, pull the trigger, and blow your toes away… figuratively, of course. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve shot myself in the foot. Times when I’ve done something a little sneaky, a little sly, a little wrong, and knew perfectly well I wasn’t behaving as I should. Times when I’ve told myself that anyone else would do the same thing. Times when I knew somebody else would do the same thing… but forgot to remember that somebody shouldn’t be me.

But sometimes I’ve found that when I behave in a way that I know isn’t quite right, but it feels like I’ve been taken over and my strings are being pulled, I’ve been led into a situation that is designed to teach me something. And when this happens, the lesson is pretty freaking obvious, because it lands right in my face.

And when I stopped to look at my actions honestly — usually after I’d been bitten in the butt — I had to admit that at the time I screwed up, I knew what I was doing and that it was wrong, no question about it. I might try to justify it, but usually the reason for my actions was that I was going for a short-term solution, a way to make myself not hurt right then and the hell with anyone else. Or I couldn’t resist the temptation. Or I was acting completely from fear… usually completely irrational, completely self-generated, and completely at odds with the reality in front of me.

It isn’t hard to create your own classical tragedy, if you let this happen often in your life. I’ve certainly done it. But the awful truth is that humans learn solely through mistakes, conflict, and stumbling. There are no lessons learned when life is smooth, only when it’s confused: because without a questioning mind, you won’t give yourself space to think about what you’re doing, or if you’re headed in the right direction.

You can’t make the space to learn easily if you’re too confident, or if you’ve coated yourself in teflon. Then you have to learn through longer, harder, more painful falls. You have to break open before you can grow. Look at seeds, after all — they completely self-destruct in order to create a plant. It takes water and the bacteria in the soil to attack the seed covering and break it down so the seedling can emerge. This catastrophe of decay creates the opening for growth.

Who among us isn’t capable of a deep level of contradiction in how we live our lives, creating catastrophe? The financial planner who steals to support a gambling habit, the politician promoting the “War on Drugs” who is addicted to painkillers, the pious woman conducting a torrid affair, the devoted husband who disappears — only to be found later under an assumed name, living with his other family of whom his wife knew nothing. These stories are not new. A double life built on lies is not new. And to some degree, if we do not love ourselves enough to look at our behavior honestly, we are all capable of these lies and living out of integrity with ourselves.

But there are traps in “integrity” as well. There is a narrow, rigid criteria for integrity in this society. The “straight and narrow path” isn’t just an image. We hold our public figures to a level of scrutiny that is astounding, while at the same time it is blind… because we obviously don’t hold everyone to the same level of criticism, public whipping, or even death by (verbal) stoning. Look at what happened to Brian Williams, the newscaster. He certainly lied about being under fire in Iraq so many years ago, but even though most people believe the war in Iraq was wrong, it will take a lot to hold the Bush administration accountable for that war. So far, Williams is the only casualty beyond the soldiers and civilians who lost their lives, limbs, or sanity in it.

There is a much deeper meaning to the word “integrity” and how you live it. The dictionary definition (from Merriam-Webster Online) is:

1) firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
2) an unimpaired condition
3) the quality or state of being complete or undivided : completeness

While you can emphasize integrity in its first meaning, the quality of being incorruptible, it’s awfully rigid when applied to human behavior. We all like to think of ourselves as being incorruptible, but the truth is that it doesn’t really take as much as we think to sway us into wrongdoing. Consider the famous psychological experiment done in the 60s with subjects who were given “power” over others through the ability to administer electric “shocks” (faked) to people who were being questioned in another room. The test subjects nearly all raised the voltage on these faked shocks to inhuman levels, because they thought they were being ordered to do so.

Integrity in its second definition applies less to humans, because we don’t speak of babies as having integrity. And honestly, no human remains in their original condition, which is probably a good thing. In regard to human behavior, it is really the third definition of integrity that applies, “the quality or state of being complete and undivided“. This relates to our sense of ourselves being whole persons, able to act from a healthy state of mind and not from a disconnect between our words and our behaviors.

So integrity doesn’t mean handling everything easily, but being honest about when you fail or stumble. It doesn’t mean never making a mistake, but owning up to the ones you’ve made and offering amends where and when you can. It doesn’t mean never making promises, but making promises you’re sure you can keep… or else being honest about breaking or bending them. It’s not about being some inhuman, rigid, always-accommodating being, but about being yourself, which includes mistakes, broken promises, inadvertent stumbles, and the occasional pratfall. It is about healing the disconnect between your words and your behaviors. And it’s also about being gentle with yourself when those things inevitably happen.

Being honest about those mistakes, stumbles, pratfalls, and especially broken promises trumps the fact that they occurred, even if the other party chooses to hang on to their disappointment in you. Tragic outcomes excepted (which are blessedly rare), most times we hold on to the pain of disappointment far longer than the actual pain of the result. And most times we beat ourselves up for a failure longer than the other person suffered.

I’m not saying we’re all automatically off the hook for our actions — far from it. We’re given consciences and sense of justice and integrity for a reason. But what I am saying is that we need to look at our failures in a light that shines not only on what is fair to others, but also fair to ourselves. And sometimes being fair to yourself means that you disappoint another.

I have paid the price of refusing to learn early lessons in integrity. It has taken several catastrophes of my own making to teach me how to be true to myself and my values. I have learned through experience that life is much less painful if I live in integrity… because my mistakes always bring that back to me in a hurry. It is those bites in the butt — or knowing they will come — that tell me it is time to make my actions right, to make amends, or to make adjustments in what I expect or what is expected of me.

As we grow and work through challenges, we contribute to the spiritual zeitgeist of the times. One person’s triumph over pain and tragedy is a victory for all, because the story can be told and re-told to educate us. We learn through story as well as through behavior. And our stories are more powerful when they include both our mistakes and our recoveries, our catastrophes and our triumphs.

Transformation is a rocky road. None of us traverse it gracefully, none of us execute it without a misstep or even a catastrophe — several at least. But life is a cha-cha, not a line dance. If somebody isn’t going backwards, you’re not doing it right. The good thing is you’re hearing the music.

Remember me


Photo credit: Elvis Santana via rgbstock photo

Photo credit: Elvis Santana via rgbstock photo

I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be. (emphasis mine)
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

I’m re-reading a book from a favorite author, Jill Robinson, called Past Forgetting: My Memory Lost and Found. She suffered from a grand mal episode in her 50s when she was swimming, not realizing she had epilepsy  — although she was treated for it as a child, the diagnosis was never repeated in her presence or to anyone she could find. (Evidently her parents wanted it lost… and almost succeeded.) She fainted an hour or more after she exited the pool and when she came out of the coma that followed, found she had lost a great deal of her memory. The book is about her process of recovering it over the next several years.

Robinson is the daughter of Dore Schary, the only writer ever to head a major film studio, and Miriam Shav, a painter. Her writing is filled with recollections of growing up in Hollywood and how it shaped her, peppered with big names who become human through her eyes, her honest, raw re-tellings of the addictions, foibles, and mess her life once was, as well as the tough parts of the next several years after she came out of the coma. She doesn’t shirk or sugar-coat much.

The book was obviously written in spurts, small episodes, tiny chunks of recollection told as she could — it’s clear she had serious memory issues. But the images are vivid, the descriptions apt, and it describes the problems of not knowing from minute to minute who the people around you are, and even where you are. How does it feel when you are lost in place? Who are you then? And how much does it really matter?

What do we grasp by instinct in a given moment, and what do we understand by memory? And what’s the difference?
— Jill Robinson, Past Forgetting

After a dismal diagnosis, when Robinson was advised to not make writing “that important” in her life (although writing was in her blood and anchored her entire self-image), she learned who she was again through doing it anyway. Because research is a critical part of writing, she researched memory and epilepsy. And she became a different woman, because she began for the first time to put part of her story into its true context.

She learned her youthful drug use was likely self-medication for seizures, she ran from reality because chunks of it were lost to her in blackouts, and she sexualized many situations because her body automatically generated those feelings when an epileptic episode was coming. And she was finally able to let go of who she used to be and her judgments about the person she was. Wow… one of the toughest lessons of all. Judgment about your old self will keep you hooked in to your story.

As I age, so many questions about memory rise up. Of course, Alzheimer’s Disease is always a fear, especially of my generation. We lived through herpes, then AIDS, and now dementia seems to be the Boomer bogeyman. So many of us cope with parents with memory issues, and some even with their own spouse. The odds of developing some form of serious memory loss rise as age does… and so we are seeing what we dread most develop in those we love most.

We demand so much from our memories, though, when you think about it. We derive our self-images from what we remember of our lives. We tell and re-tell the story until the details of it are cemented in mind… but what may actually be true is it’s now a little off, not quite what it really was, tweaked as it is recalled and moved from long-term memory to short-term and back again. So the story we tell may be as much fiction as fact, as much surmise as recollection. This is especially true for childhood stories, which require analysis to put an adult interpretation on what a young one wouldn’t comprehend. And analysis can change history like nothing else.

I know people who identify themselves by their remembered trauma, relationship, or wealth, even if it’s no longer a reality. They cannot let go of who they used to be, and the story they tell is so vivid that they use it to construct their current world, which doesn’t necessarily resemble what they knew in that past life. But they can’t fully step beyond the past into their present.

As they introduce themselves to you, somewhere early in the telling of their story, what they identify themselves by slips into the narrative. They let you know if they once survived trauma, if they were once married disastrously, if they once had lots of money, if they once were whatever they were. And the only reason you know this is because they have told you, as their present circumstance would give you no clue… except possibly through their behavior. They wear the scars of the story like a lens, to see what they fear most immediately, maybe so it won’t happen again. Except that’s all they see now — and so it inevitably does.

The lens through which we view ourselves and our stories is distorting. Let’s just admit that and be done with it. We never know the whole truth of an event, because we can only perceive it through our own experience and histories. An experience can color how you perceive the world, even one that doesn’t fundamentally shake you. We are the sum of our experiences, and our minds perceive many events as experience — a story told by someone else, a sermon, a TED talk, can make us change our views.

Look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them.
Without knowing it, we are coloring everything, putting our spin on it all.
— Jon Kabat-Zinn

Have you ever seen something, or been part of it unfolding, where it was so totally out of your ken that you had nothing to compare it to? Where you were completely dumbfounded and unable to make sense of it… or all at once things that had previously been unexplainable were explained?

It happened to me once, where someone dear to me confessed something that completely undid my mind. For a minute, I could feel past events slipping into new places, Tetris pieces falling into slots now shaped just for them. But since we were in the car at the time, for a minute as I was processing this new information that upended part of my past, I completely forgot how to drive. Which is not good when you’re making a left turn off a busy road. The lens through which I saw the world was changed and cleared in a new way, and I didn’t know for a minute how to see through it. Luckily, as the pieces of my memories dropped into their new places, my sight adjusted, just as it has had to adjust to the new glasses on my face.

As we age, if we are lucky, our lens clears as much as it grows from the sum total of our experiences. If we learn how to live in the present, we can drop our attachments to the stories of our past. We can let go of our need to constantly plan the future and navigate our lives as they unfold. This is crucial to spiritual growth, because it always happens in the present moment, and if you cannot live in the present, you cannot easily grow.

So, I ask you, if you constantly change, why is your story important? How does it really define you? By the time seven years have passed, nearly every cell in our bodies has been replaced at least once. So if our biological selves are constantly renewed, how can we be the person we were a decade ago? I know I am not… not even close. I don’t have the same career, the same possessions, the same address, the same family (lost a few, gained another), the same memories, the same size, the same life.

Living in the present, being fully aware of what is around you, of who you are now, trumps memory to some extent. I find that as I grow into who I am becoming, my memories are shrinking — not because I am “losing it”, but because my focus has narrowed. I no longer pay as close attention to what is going on with others around me. I stay focused on my own life, my own spirit, my own work, and I focus on others as they draw my attention to them. To some extent, this probably means I’ve become more egotistical… but it also means that I am redirecting my focus to what is truly important to me and not flinching from it by becoming absorbed in another’s life.

It also creates a few issues. I can look at a blog post I published a year ago, and it’s totally fresh to me; I don’t remember much of anything about it. Embarrassing, but also completely normal for a writer. I often don’t remember details of a friend’s life anymore. That’s a little more embarrassing, because I used to. But I don’t involve myself in their dramas, either, which is way healthier for this girl.

Every day in our lives, we have choices. Choices on how to behave and how to disobey, when to act and when to refrain, who to allow in and who to ignore, what to believe and what to discount, where to be and where to avoid. Our perception of each of these choices is colored by our own lens, our own stories. The memories that fuel the stories and build the lens are plastic, elastic, and stretched as they are trotted out for others to view. We always have the choice to view our lives through the lens of memory or in the clear light of day… the reality of our lives as they really are in the moment, without the story changing them.

When you are sitting in the sun, taking pleasure in the warm light, feeling the breeze on your cheeks, the tender grass under you… what meaning does your story now have? Isn’t it true, in that sweet moment, that all you are, all you really need is there, regardless of who you once were? Learning to just be, to lean into what is, allows you to let the memory go and let your life unfold in front of you. This too is past forgetting.


Photo credit: Karunakar Rayker

Coconut flowers in fruit; photo credit Karunakar Rayker

Some love is easy, and some love is not. Yeah, any fool who’s observed romance can figure this out, but we’re caught by surprise so often, I doubt if we really take this in.

I know many couples who seem to be divinely matched, agreeing on most things, quarreling about few, living smoothly and supporting one another through trials. I know a number of other couples who struggle with the simplest things and cannot imagine a future together… and yet they get there because they can’t imagine a future that is different from the one they have, or else they fall apart along the way. I know several couples who are both together and apart, ebbing and flowing as their lives change. For them, it is rarely easy and they never know how long they have this time, but the love stays, even if they opt not to be together always.

I think all these people are divinely matched, not just the first type. God gives us the struggle and the peace to teach us what we need to learn. We are given the relationship we need to make us grow and change. Maybe our lessons don’t require us to experience an intimate enemy, but sometimes only one we love deeply can teach us… and those lessons may require pain and sorrow to take hold.

(By the way, I am not advocating abuse. No one deserves that. But there’s a line between abuse and struggle within a relationship, and it is a challenge to discern. Each relationship is different, as is each person… and whether a behavior is abusive is something that has to be determined individually. This is not easy, but also not the subject of this post.)

Two of my dearest friends — a long-time couple — are in the process of reinventing not only themselves, but their marriage. It’s been both inspiring and frightening to see.

Inspiring is obvious. One has already transitioned from a corporate life to her own small business. The other is imagining and working toward her retirement business, taking the steps that will insure that she has something to move into when she leaves her lengthy career. Both have demonstrated serious growth in their transitions, learning where they excel and where they fall; what their strengths are, and what they should hire out to someone else to do. Both are powerful, educated, extremely intelligent people who are equally matched in many ways.

However, it can be frightening because they regularly blow up at one another — and I am talking real explosions. You can feel the energy igniting around them when they argue. There are emotional flames, blasts of sheer fury that signal a battle to the death… at least, in any other couple it would. It’s a bloody miracle they’re still together. But I know that they will probably never leave the other except through death. They are serious about their vows.

Because even when they’re calling out issues, even when the tone of voice signals that blood will flow soon, each still has the ability to stop and listen… although it doesn’t always happen. They have learned through trial, error, and dogged hard work that unless they truly hear what the other is saying, there will be no change, no improvement, and they will continue to battle about the same old thing forever. And nobody really wants that.

There’s a lot about this relationship that’s problematic, like every other human connection. Each of them brings a basketload of history, habits, and their own demons, just like anyone else. There is little that is easy, and they’ve lived through difficult situations — more than one — that would destroy lesser unions. It seems as though they’ve spent the last decade with problems lined up like dominoes — one goes down, and the next one is standing behind it. It’s enough to make anyone crazy.

There is no solid ground for them these days — it constantly shifts beneath their feet. Plus both are in the process of transforming themselves into different people, and both struggle with who the other is showing herself to be. It is really hard to relate to another when you remember vividly who they were and you’re not sure who they are becoming. You’re dealing with not just two, but a number of competing realities that have to be acknowledged. “Yes, this is who I was, and this is who I think I am today. It may not be who I am tomorrow, and you just have to deal with that. And oh, by the way, I might backslide into behavior from ten years ago that I outgrew. I just can’t find the energy to think about what I’m doing, because who I’m becoming takes so much of it.”

But through all this struggle runs a river of love that binds not just them, but many others who have been blessed to be part of their gang. They have numerous friends who love them both, family members who regularly cross the in-law divide, and the circle expands to include neighbors, friends of friends, and work buddies who “get” them in various ways.

I think this is the true nature of love. Our expectation is “love at first sight, then happily ever after”, but the reality is that it is the issues and demons we face down and conquer, or surrender to, that create the bonds that mark the truest love. Love is not a single awe-struck moment, but a lifetime of them acquired through seeing one’s love through fresh eyes, that may be opened by tears and pain.

It is that instant of tearing apart that creates the opening for love to shine. So we are saved from the crucifixion by the struggle. Saved from the sacrifice by the compromise. Saved from the punishment by a thoughtful response. Saved from the lie by the truth, no matter how difficult it is. Saved from our fantasies by reality, no matter how unreal it seems to be. Love shines brightest not when life is easy, but when it is difficult.

I lived through a decade of what many would call fantasy love. To tell the truth, I’m not altogether sure that’s wrong. From shortly after I met this man (for at least the third time in our lives), he took up residence and parked his damn presence right on my soul. I could not get rid of his face, his voice, or my thoughts about what I imagined would be a life together. It infected me… I kind of hate to call it that, but it describes how involuntary it was.

But the man flat-out refused to be present to me… no calls, no e-mails, no chat, complete avoidance wherever possible, especially if anything close to emotional came up. He was gone. And I tried, oh, how I tried, to accept that reality and let him go. I worried, avoided, distracted, ruminated, prayed, redirected my behavior and my attention, all to no real avail. No matter what I did, somehow, somewhere, he would sneak into my every day, if not every damn hour. It was relentless. I could not self-discipline him out of my heart. There was no pushing this away from me. It was a soul-level reality, whether I wanted it or not.

But I also couldn’t get away from its unreality on an everyday level, and there was nothing I could do to make it real. The churning inside my head was a morass of feelings, hopes, and dreams, none of which were coming true. (I think this is why I don’t actually believe in the so-called “Law of Attraction” — sounds good, but nope. If all it took was intense thought and vibration, that man would be with me now and I wouldn’t be writing this.)

What I do know, what was absolutely real, was that this conflict I held in my bare hands — the love I couldn’t discard and the man who refused to be with me — forced emotional growth that was as ground-breaking as a volcano. I had to deal with my own issues around relationships through one that didn’t exist in reality. Try wrapping your head around something like that to twist it. Ouch.

But what I found was every time I worked through something else — another rejection, another misconception, another serendipitous sign that I was supposed to stay (and there were many) — it was both the reality of my emotions and the everyday reality I couldn’t change that pushed me to what I never knew existed. The reading and the writing I pursued for answers I couldn’t see in front of me gave me pleasure, relief, and the challenge to deepen the relationship I already had — with the Divine.

When I finally realized that my path to serenity was through my own spirit, and no matter what I felt or sensed from this man he had the right to be where he wanted without me, I was able to let go, give thanks for the lessons, and move on. I was not where I started, and much further along than I ever knew I could be. I was broken open and transformed by the struggle, like a plant emerging from its seed or the fruit from the flower.

It is the conflicts we cannot resolve, the absolute contradictions between our emotions and our reality, that break us open and make us grow. This is what opens our minds. This is what opens our hearts. This is what opens our souls to the love that is greater than we are.

I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.
— Anne Lamott

Grace, the spontaneous love we are shown by the Divine, transports us from where we are to where we need to be. And the love of another does the same thing. We are never the same after we have truly loved someone. We can never go back to who we used to be… our emotional landscape is irrevocably changed. We are bigger, better for having loved. No matter how a heart has been broken, that heart is never the same. It is up to the person with the broken heart to decide how they will move forward, but they have already moved ahead and the old life won’t fit again. Trying to put it back on is part of the discomfort we feel.

We redeem ourselves through love — this is the true meaning of saving ourselves. This is how we grow, this is how we change. As we move toward making love the center of our lives, no matter what form it’s in, we open ourselves to its miracle — we can create a reality that nurtures, fulfills, and grows, even if conflict and struggle are the blooms, for our souls are the fruit. And how sweet that is.


Photo credit: Ben Sostrom

Photo credit: Ben Sostrom

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God.
— Romans 8:28

[Character Neville Aysgarth speaking] “The correct translation of that passage is actually: ‘All things intermingle for good to them that love God.’… It gives a better impression of synergy — the process where two different things are put together and make something quite new. If you just say, ‘All things work together for good’ — as if the good and the bad are all stirred together like the ingredients of a cake which later emerges from the oven smelling wonderful — then the man who’s dying of cancer will want to punch you on the jaw because he knows damned well you’re understating his pain and playing fast and loose with the reality of his suffering by implying that his disease is in the end a good thing. But if you say: ‘All things intermingle for good,’ you’re implying that the good and the bad remain quite distinct. There’s no question of well-mixed cake ingredients which emerge from the oven smelling wonderful. The bad really is terrible and the good may seem powerless against that terrible reality...”
— From Absolute Truths by Susan Howatch (bold emphasis mine)

I rarely read fiction these days, which is saying quite a lot when you majored in Comparative Literature. But recently I re-read the Starbridge series of novels by Susan Howatch — Glittering Images, Glamorous Powers, Ultimate Prizes, Scandalous Risks, Mystical Paths, and Absolute Truths. (She wrote three later novels involving several of the characters, but they are considered a separate series — The St. Benet’s Trilogy.) I like them because they are superb studies of people in the middle of spiritual crisis — mostly clergy officials from the Church of England, which adds an interesting twist. What we find in these novels is that a spiritual vocation doesn’t guarantee you’ll be any more able to find your faith when you need it.

I don’t know about you, but that is comforting to me. I like knowing that there aren’t any spiritual superbeings around here… that we are all learning lessons in our lives. Some are further along their paths, some very much so (like the Dalai Lama), but that doesn’t mean they’ve transcended humanity; scratch them and they struggle with their reactions just like the rest of us do. Actually, in many ways the protagonists in the novels have an even harder time, because of the career implications. They have a lot on the line if they admit grievous fault, such as drinking, affairs, or wrecking others’ lives through their own hubris. Their self-expectations even get in the way of normal human processes, such as grief. They hold themselves up as superbeings, and that brings them more trouble than ever.

So I’ve been thinking lately about a spiritual conundrum that keeps coming back to me which the quotation above addresses directly. I have several friends who deal daily with chronic illness and pain, and as I witness their struggle, I wonder why it is this way. Because while I believe that we in some way choose our lives, I also believe that doesn’t mean we deserve whatever comes down the path. Nobody asks for chronic fatigue, pain from disease or aging, accident, injury, abuse, or disability. But these things are given to us to deal with. Nobody’s exempt from the possibility.

After all, we all have our own spiritual paths, and they are usually strewn with a few boulders somewhere. There is no such thing as a trouble-free life. So why is it that some of us have paths that are nearly impassable? What are the lessons that come with such a struggle, and are all the lessons for those who are in pain and agony? And what about the suffering that comes with the very real evil that is done in this world — torture, war, genocide?

I’ve seen quite a few holier-than-thou New Age viewpoints repeating the mantra about “you chose to go through this”, implying that the one who hurts should remember that moment consciously. It’s blaming the victim, and those who indulge in it invariably assume a superior attitude, as if the one in pain is somewhere “lower” on the spiritual path.  But to me, that attitude is unbearably smug, not to mention rude and condescending. And probably just plain wrong. Not spiritual at all.

As I’ve revealed before, I suffered abuse as a very young child (not in my immediate family). This trauma affected my behavior in so many ways, I can hardly number them all. And few knew what had happened… most didn’t suspect something terrible had. I didn’t even know until I entered my late 40s and had finally grown enough emotionally where I could begin to process the memories and re-enter the nightmare in order to fully heal from it.

While I have evolved spiritually enough now to understand that this whole process — abuse, effects, and finally healing — was actually a full curriculum in building compassion and self-awareness, it took years before I could acknowledge that. In fact, I would have cold-cocked anyone who suggested that I asked to be traumatized in that manner as a baby. And I would have had every right to react that way.

For if I did “ask for it”, it wasn’t at any time I could remember, nor was it in any form I could acknowledge as myself as a human being. And while I believe deeply in accountability, I draw the line there. It doesn’t mean I am irresponsible; far from it. The only one suffering from those choices was me. But that doesn’t give anyone else the right to chide me for my own pain. That really is “playing fast and loose” with the reality of suffering.

Because even though some folks claim they can remember past lives or back to their own births, those memories are not accessible by the vast majority of us. To me, there are spiritual reasons why we have no memory of anything in our early lives or before. Even if we remembered the events that triggered them, the decisions made have no reality in this world. All we can do is deal with their effects and outcomes as we experience them in the present moment. When you are suffering, even yesterday is the distant past. What is important is now.

It doesn’t really matter in the end whether a soul asked for the lessons received. If we have not learned to support those we encounter on the paths we take, then the lesson we will receive at some point will be to need support from others. Giving and receiving are part of the same cycle, and one cannot clutch any part of that cycle without experiencing kickback. How long you clutch it is what determines how much kickback you get.

What we can control, in our everyday reality, is how we react to another’s fate. In the end, we’re all in this together. Humans are designed to build and maintain community. But if we don’t make efforts to understand one another, true community isn’t the result — instead, walls and fences appear. Prejudice grows. Injustice flourishes. And suffering ensues. But compassion, the fruit of love, breaks down walls, builds human community, and brings justice to the front.

The real road of spirituality is compassion. I don’t care how long you can hold a downward dog, how many hours you can stay in deep meditation, how many miracles you can manifest. If you cannot hold compassion in your heart for human suffering, you ain’t nowhere near where you are supposed to be spiritually. If your heart does not ache for those in pain, if you are not outraged by starvation in the midst of plenty, if you do not offer kindness and generosity of heart — at least — where you see sadness, loss, and deprivation, then you cannot claim to be enlightened. What we give in times of trouble, and the spirit in which we give it, determines how much love we receive in the end. What we withhold from others, we withhold from ourselves.

We will all suffer at some point in this life. Many will do so needlessly in silence, holding their stories inside and never letting them see the light of day, because they cannot bear to be seen as imperfect. But imperfection is the human state. Chaos is required for growth. A seed must self-destruct to germinate and a caterpillar completely dissolve to become a butterfly. So suffering is built in to growth, which is the change that brings us back to ourselves and makes us a new whole, in a new state that we never knew would come.

Joy is interwoven with the woe that brings the transformation. From the life we gain after suffering or after learning to live with our pain, we may find the reward of peace and compassion. From our griefs and our traumas, gifts emerge that we can never predict, but only if we keep our hearts open to ourselves, those we love, and our communities — especially the community of humankind.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
— William Blake, from Auguries of Innocence


Haywire (adv or adj) 1:  being out of order or having gone wrong <the radio went haywire>; 2:  emotionally or mentally upset or out of control, crazy <is going haywire with grief>

I don’t know exactly why, but there are a lot of little things going haywire right now, as in the first sense of the word. Like the chili not turning out quite the way I wanted it, despite the special ingredient. Or dealing with insects in my plants, so I had to throw a few out. Or my computer fizzling out… then not. Then kinda fizzling some more.

And a few not-so-little things, too. I lost both an aunt and a cousin within the last month. One expected, one not. Job situation sputtered out. Money was very tight.

The biggest thing, though, is that a project I poured a lot of energy and hope into simply didn’t work, and had not for some time. I finally admitted it. I let someone else down with that admission as well, so it wasn’t an easy one to make. I so appreciate her grace in accepting my decision.

Good writing is clear thinking made visible. — Bill Wheeler

I have learned the hard way over many years of writing, that when words do not pour out of me, then I have to leave whatever I’m creating alone for a while. I cannot force it… it will come when it’s ready or not at all. My paperweight with the quotation above reminds me of this whenever I forget. If I can’t think it through clearly, it will not write itself.

One of the most puzzling things about my long transformation process is that this manifests in anything I attempt, not just writing. I simply cannot follow through on anything that does not resonate deeply with me. It doesn’t matter how good an idea it is. If it’s off my track, even by a hair, it drags and sticks. I cannot create, I cannot even think logically to plan it out or change it. It is nearly impossible for me to follow a train of coherent thought about what I am creating, if it is not on target for me. That is what I found about this project, and it’s been incredibly frustrating. I really thought I got this right, that it would take me on the path I’m heading for. Nope.

Saying “No” to this project feels like freedom from weeks of struggle, and yet it feels like disappointment. I had hopes and dreams of starting to teach, enough extra cash to keep me for a while, even a new path alongside the writing, teaching, and coaching I want to do. No wonder “haywire” is the word that comes to mind.

So much that is written these days is on blasting your way to success. Set your goals, visualize the outcomes, and manifest your way to the gold. Power that career through! You can do anything you want to do! Just do it!

Um, no.

That’s certainly not my experience. Over the last two decades, I have increasingly seen that what I choose for my life is not what the Divine has in mind. I’m getting closer, but apparently I’m not there. While I can manifest a job with a steady income, it rarely lasts long and usually ends for some squirrelly reason. Or it doesn’t even get that far. I had one job end before it started… a contracting assignment where the company changed directions before I got on board. Then the client company placed me in another spot, because they liked me, and that one ended before it started as well. A few more possibilities with them blew out, and then we all gave up. Not to be. This kind of thing happened more than once.

But when I seriously contemplated changing careers, started writing this blog, I found something far different. Events fell into place, I was supported, miracles occurred, and what I needed was right there. It might not look like an ideal, I might have had to do a little scrambling, but there weren’t any real disasters. And as long as I’m happy, I count that as success.

When I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I’m supposed to be doing, it’s like clockwork. Everything goes smoothly, I’m producing and all is well. I can write volumes — and sometimes I do. I’m happy and focused. I can think. I know, deep in my soul, that I am doing what I am meant to do.

But what always trips me up is assuming that I have a hand in choosing what it is I’m supposed to be doing. It’s the damnedest thing. I was a project manager — I totally get what planning is. I set goals for years. One year I produced budgets for an entire operating group of a bank (11 separate budgets!) and they were so accurate everyone was astounded… especially since the boss thought he had set me up to fail. Nobody had a budget variance they couldn’t easily explain. So I understand intention and follow-through. Except in my own life, it seems.

Hmmm. I heard an interesting question yesterday… someone asked me, “Do you really like living this way?” and I had to think about it. After all, my life is anything but predictable. I’m in a far more precarious financial state than most can handle. I’ve cut my budget and household goods almost to the bone… at least as we define it in this society. I don’t have much anymore that isn’t immediately useful or extremely loved.

I guess the answer is that I’m moving beyond money as a motivator in any way and toward what calls me, even if it doesn’t make sense to someone else. It doesn’t always make sense to me at the time, I just know that it feels better to follow the call I hear. And I manage to survive and thrive.

What happened after I stopped the project that I thought grew from my heart was more than a little miraculous. I spent several hours after my difficult conversation with my friend in a state of profound unknowing and not a little panic. Remember, my “regular” job had pretty much dried up, and I was behind on all my bills, looking at disaster. I had just cut off my perceived best source of income for the near future… but I didn’t feel there was a choice, because it wasn’t happening. You can’t make money from work you can’t complete, especially when you’re talking coaching and webinars. And you can’t force wisdom to come if it doesn’t want to.

So I cried a while, meditated, prayed, did a little spiritual reading. I tried not to give in to despair and panic. I tried not to completely freak out. And four hours later, I received a call from a friend, who is a busy attorney. She needed household help and admin assistance with her law practice: did I have the time to work with her for the next few months, at least? And of course I said I did.

I don’t think this job will last forever… I’ve actually worked with this person before, and there are probably lessons coming for us both. I’ve learned to expect that. And there will be another twist, and another turn, and I will end up somewhere else I never foresaw, in a situation that will add to my learning in this life. It may look like a haywire way to run a life, but it is how it unfolds. I know now that my life is not really a series of intentions — my life is a call, a call to a deeper relationship with myself and the Divine, and it is all the plan and the reward I truly need.

Loved and chosen

Anne Lamott talking about teaching the youngest children in Sunday School one day with her friend Neshama:
Next, as always, we did Loved and Chosen.
I sat on the couch and glanced slowly around in a goofy, menacing way, and then said,”‘Is anyone here wearing a blue sweatshirt with Pokémon on it?” The four-year-old looked down at his chest, astonished to discover that he matched this description — like, What are the odds? He raised his hand. “Come over here to the couch,” I said. “You are so loved, and you are so chosen.” He clutched at himself like a beauty pageant finalist. Then I asked if that day anyone was wearing green socks with brown shoes, a Giants cap, an argyle vest? Each of them turned out to be loved and chosen, which does not happen so often. Even Neshama — Anyone in red shoes today? — leapt toward the couch with relief.
My Jesuit friend Tom once told me this is a good exercise because in truth, everyone is loved and chosen, even Dick Cheney, even Saddam Hussein. That God loves them, because God loves.
— From Grace (Eventually), Thoughts on Faith

Anne is right — knowing we are loved and chosen does not happen so often in our daily lives. I’ve been puzzling lately over this, because it’s become so clear to me that we are all children of God, and so we are all loved and chosen… no matter what or who we are, no matter how we express ourselves or behave. Why do we think for even a second we aren’t?

Our culture is part of that equation. We are told in every way possible that it is the packaging that matters. We are bombarded with messages that if only we will buy this or that product we’ll have whiter teeth, mintier breath, smell sweeter, look thinner, have a cleaner house and fresher laundry, have more confidence, clearer skin, more hair, and a six-pack to show off and attract a partner who will love and choose us.

But that simply isn’t true, and living in that bombardment eventually results in a bunker mentality. Who hasn’t felt pressured, threatened, or judged by those messages? You have to work hard to keep this idea of the “good life” going, requiring more purchasing, which requires more money, which requires harder work and longer hours, which saps time from the relationships that provide you with love. All the emphasis is on receiving; more accurately, acquiring and collecting. Sounds like a true rat race to me… and do you really want to be a rat?

When you shift your focus from getting to giving, you actually shift quite a lot in your life. As you learn to give love in every situation, no matter what it is, you turn the tide around so that you receive without effort or push. You learn that you can be loved and chosen, even wearing a blue Pokémon sweatshirt or an argyle vest. It truly doesn’t matter what the packaging looks like.

Women especially in this culture are slammed with advertising and information that contain overt and subtle messages about how to be loved and chosen. Make no mistake, the messages about hair, makeup, diet, and demeanor all boil down to sex appeal (whatever that is) and how to get it — and that is sold as the only way to a man’s heart. But this mindset shortchanges both men and women.

We are all complex, fascinating creatures. Even those of us with the simplest of personalities, desires, and way of living are more complicated than may appear on the surface. We have to be — we live mostly in our minds, no matter how aware we are, and while we edit our thoughts, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Humans are the only species that are capable of in-depth analysis and reasoning, and so our thoughts are layered, winding, and interconnected in surprising ways.

This means love between human beings is also a complex affair. (I’m speaking mostly of romantic connection here, but it applies in various ways to other relationships as well.) When you start thinking about how thoughts can mesh, complement, or collide between two people, it gets pretty amazing. At least, it amazes me. How do we agree on anything? What does attraction really mean?

To me, real attraction is more spiritual than anything else — we fall in love with another’s mind and heart, not their appearance. Because once you know a mind and heart for the beautiful joy and wonder it is, you forget the details of what they look like. My late best friend Pam used to always describe me as I was when she first met me, even though I’d gone through a dozen different hair styles since. I always had permed curly hair to her. (Gave perms up decades ago.) She never remembered my current hair style, it just wasn’t important… but she always remembered the details of my life and heart, even when she was so sick.

I always knew we were chosen family… girlfriends so close we were sisters. Her own heart and soul were as gorgeous and open as her large violet-blue eyes. We chose each other as young single women, struggling to make a living working in a bank and living on our own, both of us a little battered and bruised by life. It was the heart and soul connection that bound us together over the years and through the ups and downs of our lives. And we made the choice, over and over, through mistakes, misunderstandings, and forgiveness, to stay close.

We all get upset and irritated with others, no matter how much we love them. A younger Facebook friend of mine, the mother of a preschooler, shared this a while back: “Even if you love your child to bits, toddlers can still make you crazy.” And I enthusiastically agreed… and commented that as parents, that feeling lasts a lifetime, off and on. So by the same token, those you choose to love will eventually become irritated with you.

How do you handle a loved one becoming irritated? Does it threaten your security? Does it scare you, make you run, make you hide? Or do you just get angry back at them? Can you listen to what is bothering them and understand and own your part in it?

To not only be chosen, but to stay chosen, strikes fear into many hearts. I have known both men and women whose greatest fear is to be left behind by a loved one. Those people have reacted in many ways — jealousy, control, manipulation, excessive emphasis on “looking good”, even going so far as plastic surgery to insure those good looks a little longer. Only a few have addressed their own fears directly, or worked to strengthen the relationship in order to keep falling in love over and over again with their partners. We humans just seem to address relationship issues by focusing first on the other person, rather than our own behaviors.

But we can only change our own behavior. We can’t change the ways of anyone else, and it’s fruitless to try. In fact, you’re likely to cause your own troubles with that person if you do. The way to stay loved and chosen is to choose to work on your own life and to grow.

That choice strikes fear into hearts, too. “But what if I grow into someone the person I love doesn’t like?” Well, that’s a risk, but it’s one you’ve got to take in order to choose yourself, which is the only choice worth making to live a full life.

When it comes right down to it, if being chosen by another is your first desire, you’ve already decided to grow into something you’re probably not. I don’t know how that works for you, but for me when I’ve tried it, I can’t sustain it. Well, I did for years career-wise, but I can’t claim I sustained much of anything… mostly I kept falling down and trying again because I was too stubborn to think I might have been wrong about my choice. Did it with a couple of men, now that I think about it. *Facepalm*, as my young friends would say.

When we are most ourselves, when we are growing into who we are, we are at our most beautiful. It may not change us much on the outside — well, we develop a glow we may never have had — but on the inside, we are gorgeous. And since it is what is on the inside that determines how we treat ourselves and others, how we get along on this crazy ride called life, then I think that is what really counts. Gorgeous, breathtakingly beautiful, stunningly deep and true… oh, that is what I truly want to be. Loved and chosen, that’s me.


I recently discovered something: as long as I continue to submerge my own work in someone else’s, my life will grow smaller. Ouch. And I’ve been doing that for a while… and my life is definitely smaller in some ways, notably the paycheck.

Now, this doesn’t mean I can’t contribute to another’s growth… after all, what else does a coach do? And it doesn’t mean I can’t be part of a joint venture — I’m co-leading a women’s retreat next month, and I’m very excited about it. But what it does mean to me is that I can’t hide my light or direct it only on someone else. That’s not what I’m made for.

So I have stumbled again, fallen again, and now, I am getting up again. Still not completely certain about the direction, but I’m getting hints. The most successful thing I’ve done for myself recently has been some intense coaching with a single small-business client, who is doing beautiful work for her first year. It constantly amazes me how events are lining up for her… never in the way she originally planned, but always in a way that turns out best for the long run. Guess that’s a sign, isn’t it? Back into coaching I go.

I haven’t posted here in a long time. I’ve missed it, but haven’t had the creative energy to write. That’s what long hours in a store, speaking to hundreds of people a day, will do to you, not to mention living with other people and several animals. I found all the small talk really sapped my focus. It’s taken weeks after leaving the job, finally living in a place of my own, for me to get the energy and focus to write again. In the meantime, I simply came home. Worked on the retreat curriculum, but mostly read, slept, and spent intense time in thought and prayer. I didn’t go out, talk to many people, or even play my music… silence worked better for me.

What has resulted from all that down time has been a huge surge in my emotional growth. I have absorbed so many lessons, it’s almost astounding. I have worked through and beyond a long-time pattern in relationships… and the next man so much like the other two was already lined up by the Divine, so I’m happy to say I don’t need him to learn, too! The ways in which Spirit has directed me on the path fascinate and mystify me, but always show that I am held in love to grow. I’m finding out more about life energy — reading my own as clearly as I often sense that of others. More of my past is falling into place and healing deep within me. And I am understanding and valuing my own gifts, even though it’s taking time to put that value into the world.

Part of that value is writing. If I don’t acknowledge that this is one of my gifts, then I shortchange myself. So I am back on the blog, working to build it up again, maybe reposting some of my old stuff for newbies to see. I am encouraged by the number of people who have found it and read a post or two during my hiatus. Never many, but enough to let me know I’m still out there on Google and interesting enough for them to read a little.

So I ask you, where have you taken time to regroup? Have you recognized those spaces in your life when you could only manage the basics, and did you cherish yourself enough to let them be? I tend to beat up on myself for “not accomplishing anything”, and fail to understand that time to dream, learn, and absorb brings rewards that nothing else does. That is where I grow. That is where I connect the dots. That is where I build the foundation of what I bring to the world.

What I intend and construct in my life is not the real point of it. The real meaning of life is growth. And it is in time spent in solitude and reflection that growth happens, or is at least integrated into our beings and behaviors. I don’t regret a minute of the time I couldn’t write up to now, if what I was shown is what it takes for me to write.

Present (for the moment)

Recently presence has occupied my mind… the art of attention, that is. For it is an art, or at least a skill, to be thinking only about this instant and not letting your mind wander around in the past or the future. Few of us have mastered it, I’m convinced. Certainly not me.

One thing life has taught me: if you are interested, you never have to look for new interests. They come to you. … All you need to do is to be curious, receptive, eager for experience. And there’s one strange thing: when you are genuinely interested in one thing, it will always lead to something else.
Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living (1960)

My son’s grandparents have met many famous people, largely through their work in the 1950s and 1960s with the Democratic party in Wyoming. One of the stories Ben’s grandfather tells is about meeting Eleanor Roosevelt. He said that she was not a pretty woman, but the minute she opened her mouth to speak, you completely forgot what she looked like — her voice was soft and sweet, and she paid complete attention to the person in front of her, as if there were no one else in the room. She wasn’t interested in impressing you with her presence… she was present for you.

Photo credit: Kaiser Permanente History

Photo credit: Kaiser Permanente History

Now, making allowances for his point of view (being brought up in an era where a woman’s looks were her primary asset — however, so did Eleanor), it still illustrates a remarkable person. How many of us give complete attention to not only the person in front of us, but also the task? How often do we stop to enjoy the beauty we see before us?

This is the view today outside the dining room window, near where I sit and write. Snow, sunshine, deck, birdhouse, trees. A beautiful composition in shades of brown and white, with a color pop from the birdhouse. Totally ordinary beauty that exists on its own… but gone until an appreciative eye shows up.

Photo credit: Sue Engle

Photo credit: Sue Engle

How much do we miss in this life? How much goes by without our seeing it? And how do we start catching what counts? We’re already cramming busy lives even more full.

I think these are good questions to be asking ourselves, especially during this crazy holiday season. Because until you slow yourself down, your life will continue to go by in a blur. Nobody else can help you pay attention. Nobody else can give you calm and quiet. And isn’t that the gift you really want?

I started this post five days ago, on a quiet Saturday morning. I am working on it again very early Thursday morning, snatching some time from sleep — which is elusive today, it seems. My life has gone from serene and orderly to more than a little hectic in the last six months. Time slips by without my presence; it takes more energy from me to pay attention. It’s easier to zone out when I am rushed, and so it takes longer to complete a post than I would like.

And while that may give me more time to think and compose in my head, it also symbolizes how life flows by us. If we are not present, it’s downstream before we know it. Everything is temporary — jobs, careers, relationships, family, homes, cars, possessions. We are temporary, when you think about it. So if we spend our time in the future, in a dream, in a TV show, rushing around, online, even in a book, we lose what is sitting in front of us, and that is all that is real.

I just spent a minute stroking Eddie, the long-haired tuxedo cat who likes to hang out on my computer. He is here every night, a reminder of what lives in front of me. Eddie does love me, but I know what really draws him — he loves the heat from the computer even more. Gotta be real about cat love; it’s pretty opportunistic.

The way we live our lives can be opportunistic as well, let’s admit it. We seize the moment to focus on making money, get through the “to-do” list, slip into work on time, grab a bite, or dash to the deadline. All of this focusing on the activity inside the buildings, inside our cars, inside our heads.

Yet all around us outside the buildings, cars, and yes, our heads, is the glory of God. Even in the dead of winter, there is the stark pristine beauty of snow, bare trees, blue sky, and a lone hawk lazily spinning. Walk in the woods and you see clear animal tracks, water captured in ice, and the earth resting up for the rush of spring. It doesn’t matter that humankind has largely retreated to home and hearth during the freezing cold, the Divine is still putting on a show, asking our attention to what truly matters… the home that sustains us all.

Photo credit: Glen Helen Facebook page

Photo credit: Glen Helen Facebook page

We don’t have to have a rigorous meditation practice, prayer rituals, or yoga poses. We don’t even have to go to church every week to worship the Divine where it is. All you have to do is open your eyes and see.

For God is everywhere you look. God is in your browned yard, the bare tree, the deer munching on the weeds, in the asphalt, the skyscraper, the frozen pond, the faces of your children and spouse. The Divine is in your workplace, the grocery store, on both the freeway and the country road you travel. The snowdrops poking through and the merry lights on houses both speak of the love that surrounds our beings.

I’m not sure we’re built to pay full attention to the present every moment. I’m not even sure we’re able to be fully aware most moments. But we can pull ourselves out of our heads periodically and look around us, taking in the glory of the world. We can remind ourselves that our personal universes are only a small part of the larger web around us. And we can breathe a prayer of thanks or amazement to the spirit that holds us.

For in the end, we will not remember the days we spent rushing from store to store. We will not remember the endless hours of striving for achievement in the workplace. What will stay with us forever will be the moments of astonishment at unexpected natural beauty, the first sight of a baby’s face, times when we are caught short by the sheer gorgeousness of life and pulled clear out of our heads to face the reality in front of us.

That is worship, that is what brings gratitude, that is how we know we are part of something far larger than ourselves. So just stop. Stop and stare. Take it in. Breathe. Be present, if only for the moment. It will flow by, just like all the others, but if you are lucky it will be stored and available for your smile later on. Amazing how that works.

Anger management

Another three dead last night from a shooter in Columbus, Ohio, including a seven-year-old on life support until he can be an organ donor. A wounded cop from the final gunfight that killed the shooter. Another case of exploding anger. Another person who sees no solution for their overwhelm but bullets.

What is wrong with our society that we have created people who see this as an option? Where has both our outrage and our compassion gone? Outrage that this is accepted as normal, compassion for those who see no other out for their despair.

These are complex questions, but these angry men (and most are men, but not all) are everywhere. It is time we ask the questions and search ourselves for answers and solutions.

I was raised by an angry man, as were several friends of mine. I have dated angry men. I have worked for so many of them. I have seen it as a deep and terrible rage, only barely held in check, and as more and more of them act it out, its extremes become normal.

It is frightening to have that anger directed at you. It seeks a target, someone to blame, a reason for whatever triggered the emotions that are rising like a tide inside that person, threatening to swallow them whole. And when you see that cycle in another, you begin to understand how scary it is to feel that level and depth of anger. All the angry one sees is red, quite literally. The details of people’s faces fade, and they are no longer three-dimensional, no longer seem human… so much easier to mow them down to get them out of your way.

I have been at the hands of that anger. I have felt that anger. And I know where it comes from.

Photo credit: Jay Simmons via rgbstock.com

Photo credit: Jay Simmons via rgbstock.com

Many years ago, someone in power in my church did another a serious injustice, which I was privy to (not many were), but was unable to stop. I felt the threat and I felt the helplessness, even though it wasn’t my own. And my reaction surprised and amazed me. When I found out about the full incident, blood red flooded my vision and so much rage flowed through me I nearly staggered. The person who told me about the injustice done to her was shocked at the change that came over me… she could see how affected I was.

I quit speaking to the one who made me so angry… quit speaking to him for years, which is very unlike me. I cut him dead in the halls, wasn’t open to his words, avoided him in public, would not serve my church in any capacity that would bring me close to him. The depth of unforgiveness I felt seemed endless. I had no context for this feeling, I just knew I felt it to the very bottom of my soul. And it forced me to honor it and not cover it up with routine politeness.

But finally, gradually, it faded. Before he moved away, we met for a meal and talked. We discussed the past and my rage, but not in depth and detail — we couldn’t. It was too long ago, most of it was lost in memory, we didn’t agree, and it was no longer important. Too much had passed and moved on. We reconciled enough to let it all go and forgive. I have not seen him since, and that’s fine with me.

Many years later, as incest memories began to crop up and be resolved, I realized where the anger I had felt so long before came from. This man who offended me so looked very much like the one who abused me as a young child. And it was the well of rage from that experience that was inadvertently tapped and misdirected.

This is what I think is at the root of so much of this anger that ricochets around us these days. It is anger due to injustice, abuse, confusion, and shame… acquired in earlier days, risen like yeast, and baked in the fiery oven of the mind. We ruminate the wrong, chew it, spew it wherever we can, let it spread, look for more justification, do anything but heal it. And it continues to grow inside us, where it can only fester.

The healing can only begin when we acknowledge the other is human, and made a mistake out of their own imperfect humanity… just like our own.

Forgiveness can be very hard when someone has acted horribly. But the truth, whether or not we care to admit it, is that someone did what we too might have done if we had been as freaked out by something as they were; if we had been as scared of something as they were; if we had been as limited in our understanding as they were. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be held accountable or that we shouldn’t have boundaries or standards. It doesn’t even mean we have to stay in contact with that person. But it does mean we can come to understand that humanity is not perfect. Just knowing that — that we all do the best we know how with the skills we have at the time — is a realization that opens the heart to more enlightened understanding. And that’s what we’re on the earth for, because in the presence of people with enlightened understanding, darkness ultimately turns into light.
— Marianne Williamson, The Gift of Change

I remember another time when I was having difficulty at work… actually, it may have been shortly after the incident above occurred. I was in the wrong place, not acknowledging it was time to go, overwrought, stressed, and at the mercy of my own thoughts. I had struggled for a long time to do a superhuman job where my own boss would not acknowledge I needed lots of help… and when I finally received assistance, it was almost too late. I was moving too fast to get things done to train another. The situation imploded (you knew this was coming), and my single position was replaced by a team of six… which I did not manage. Probably a good thing under the circumstances.

Anyway, I continued on the team, contributing where I could, but deeply unhappy and felt trapped by the situation — which was only true because I insisted on not taking a chance on something different. I doubt if I was much fun to work with. Finally one day, one of my teammates took a tremendous risk in a team meeting and asked me why I was always so angry. The manager literally held his breath and waited for the explosion he was sure was coming.

The comment took me completely by surprise. I had no idea I was projecting so much anger, no clue it was sticking out all over me like spikes. All the hurt, all the pain, all the rejection and inadequacy I felt was there for everyone to see, but no one could get close enough (or wanted to, I bet) to begin to soothe it. And it wasn’t their responsibility, anyway. We’ve all seen this in those around us… and I saw in an instant I was there, too.

So I took a deep breath and responded calmly, “Wow. You’re right. I’m sorry… I need to think about this.” The rest of the table took a deep collective breath, too. You could feel the tension leaking from the room.

This was a huge lesson for me. That was when I began to learn that my mood and attitude were mine to control, that I really wasn’t at the mercy of what battered me. I didn’t have to let it overflow to all the innocent ones around me. If I couldn’t direct it to the one responsible, I had to channel it some other way. It was key to healing the deep anger I felt for my fellow church member, key ultimately to healing the red rage underlying my very soul.

As I observe others who are deeply angry, as I see how we react as a society to shootings, how we never know who is capable of grabbing a firearm and finding what they think is a solution, I begin to understand that it could be any of us behind that gun. Any of us, that is, who haven’t taken the time to heal. Who doesn’t know there is life beyond that pain, that you don’t have to let it fester and infect your soul… and maybe inflict even more pain on the innocent, like that seven-year-old boy and his family.

We must begin to recognize all as human, to respect and cherish one another, and also understand the hurt and pain that overflows and burns all it touches like lava. It is up to us to extend the love that heals, every one of us. It is up to us to accept that love when it is offered. It is up to us to ask what’s wrong, what hurts, why someone is angry, and to listen to the answer. It is up to us to look within, to see our own pain, and to figure out how we can mend our own wounds.

We are here in community. We heal together. We accomplish nothing by casting another out to get better on their own, because it ain’t gonna happen. Only by acknowledging that violence is human and explainable (even if we don’t like the reality of it), will we begin to eradicate it. Only by deciding that love is supreme and expressing it, will we be able to heal another and give them reason to go on, even when in pain. Only by accepting that we are all wounded, that no one is perfect, will we feel worthy to receive the love we need.

I do not know what triggered the shooter yesterday. I know he had a history of violent behavior, which figures… it tends to escalate over time. It takes a lot of frustration and pain to get out a gun and start killing.

It’s probably not important, in the end, that we know what started the rampage. What is important is what we do about it. In giving thanks on Thursday, with our families around the table — not that we are all safe, but that we can love each other. In extending a pleasant greeting in the Black Friday crunch. In supporting those who are in need, hungry and tired and stretched too thin.

For it is in sharing our blessings, not to boast, but to help, that we heal ourselves and our society. It is in understanding our frailties that we cure another. It is in loving one another as the gloriously human beings we are, strengths and flaws alike, that we become whole and holy. For we are made of stardust and love, always golden.

Love to you all this Thanksgiving.

Related Links:
Bang bang
Bombs away
Facing The Darkest Side of a Beautiful Person

Second chances

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

— Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (1983)

I’ve been thinking lately about forgiveness and moving on. For me, forgiveness is the process of letting go of whatever pain I’m holding about somebody or a situation. Just letting it go, instead of allowing it to eat at me and fester. Even venting it isn’t always helpful, if it doesn’t resolve the situation. And if it’s unresolvable, all I can do is let it go.

It’s a difficult process, one that’s not easily completed… maybe never truly completed, since we can’t know where or how we’ll encounter what triggered it again, in the same form or another. For when we decide that we cannot go on in the direction we’re headed, that we need to change, then we have to let go somehow and move forward with our lives.

But what if the relationship, the career, the problem all comes around again? What if a second chance is requested or wanted? (Because you may be the one who wants another try.) Should you let that person back in your heart, see if this company is the right fit, find out if this new solution actually works?

One of the best teachers my son Ben ever had was in 4th and 5th grade. She led a special classroom for gifted children, and she had set it up specifically to teach a lesson they all needed — how to fail and recover. We have taught our children to fear failure — after all, success is so rewarded in our culture, shouldn’t we all strive for it? Well, no, not if it means we won’t stretch ourselves and risk failure. And gifted children are particularly prone to not risking failure. It’s part of the one-sided development that happens when we stress academics over all.

This teacher met with the parents early in the year and told us in no uncertain terms to keep our hands off our childrens’ book bags… and then she let us in on what she had planned. At the beginning of the week, she posted on the board all the work the students were expected to complete. Because of the mixed-grade classroom, she did a lot of small group work with them, so those who weren’t meeting with her or working on a project with their group had plenty of free time to finish up. They could take the work home to do as well. But there were many distractions deliberately placed in the classroom and available to anyone who wanted to use them — board and card games, books, and art materials. She set them up to blow it.

She expected each child to fail this test at least once, because any work not completed by the week’s end received a 0, and could not be turned in late. For a 4th grader who doesn’t understand about averaging grades, this was devastating. However, they could make up the missing grade with extra credit work, so they all had chances to redeem the mistake. The first time Ben didn’t get his work done, he melted down at home Friday night and could not be consoled. Tears nearly all evening long, he was so upset about failing. Thankfully I was expecting this situation and reaction.

It took several failures that year to get the concepts down — that he had to plan his week, follow through on expectations, and if he didn’t make it, figure out how to correct course and move on. I don’t think it was a problem at all the second year he was in her classroom. And after those two years, I rarely had to monitor his homework. Maybe a few times in middle school, but he was mostly very responsible, taught by his elementary school experience. And I never had a child who was ready to commit suicide over a grade of A-, something I had always feared. He learned failure wasn’t final.

We all need and deserve second chances in our lives, maybe even third, tenth, or hundredth. Failure is always an option, always a possibility, and it teaches us what we cannot learn any other way. When we succeed with flying colors, we can get lost in the triumph and the glory and the experience becomes about success instead of what it truly was. But when we fail, while we may be brought low, eventually we have to look at it all critically and learn from those mistakes if we want to rise again.

There really is no shame in failure, yet most of us would happily chew rocks rather than take the chance of failing. What brings this fear?

Well, I actually just gave you the answer — shame, or rather, perceived shame. We often see failure as final, as evidence we’ve wasted our time and resources, or worse, our lives. We don’t see beyond the first result. We don’t believe we really can succeed after failure. We think we have only one chance at winning, but that’s not true. We pin our self-worth to triumph and glory rather than effort, but effort is where we learn, and it’s through effort that we often succeed. It isn’t given to us as a reward for simply trying.

We learn through the failed relationship, through the 33rd run of the experiment, through the dress that doesn’t hang quite right or the essay that doesn’t flow the way you wanted it to. This is how we progress. It’s examining the path that isn’t straight, the lost status, the jail sentence, the bottoming out that shows us where we went wrong and how we get it right.

And if we are not given second chances to get it right, if we are not forgiven, not allowed back to try again, then we have choices to make with our lives. Sometimes we can salvage ourselves and go a different direction, and sometimes we fall further down. It’s really up to us to decide how to see it.

Many years ago, one of my faculty advisers was denied tenure. When that happens, generally your contract isn’t renewed and you lose your job at the end of it. That practice makes failure quite public among your peers — you’re not given the chance to slink away and lick your wounds in private. Instead, you have to show up for work the next day and continue to teach until the contract ends. You can’t get away from it.

He spent the next couple of years trying to get another teaching job, but always felt he was under a cloud, and it affected his attitude and outlook. Nothing worked out the way he thought it would or hoped, and gradually he sank under the weight of his old failure, trying to drown it every night in alcohol, steeped in resentment. I wish I could give you a happy ending to this story, but I can’t. It didn’t happen. He died a few years ago, an alcoholic who never tried to get sober. Part of it was his responsibility, part of it… well, maybe not. Sometimes life isn’t sweet. Sometimes you just can’t bear to take the risk. And sometimes you aren’t given the break you need.

Second chances aren’t guaranteed, much less the third, tenth, or hundredth. And sometimes that is what we have to recognize. There really are relationships you can’t salvage, along with careers or other problems. Doors and paths shut down. You have to go another direction, or drown in the sorrow and regret. And maybe, just maybe, that is the lesson.

For we cannot always count on our charm and wiles to bring us out of our own crap. We cannot always get the second chance. Sometimes we have to work harder than we think to reclaim our lives. Sometimes we have to work very hard, indeed. And sometimes we don’t get to go back and make up the work. The test lies in how we handle that outcome… do we continue to drown our sorrows, or do we start looking for another path?

But sometimes, when we least expect it, the second chance opens up. The path to redemption shows itself. We become aware that we can indeed figure out the way to go forward. We learn that it isn’t too late, that we can change, that we can make amends.

As I struggle with my craft, looking through old posts to see what I did — and did it work, or not, or even make sense — I begin to understand how “failing better” really operates. Because as I grow, I find that I relate differently to my work, or anyone else’s, differently on any given day. It depends on where I find myself, what I’ve most recently learned, and what mood I may be in. Luckily, second chances are more easily obtained with writing.

I’m not so sure about my life. I struggle also with it. I’m working on new projects, yes, but those are morphing almost daily. The direction changes, and I am not sure which way I’m going. I want to find time and space to write more often, but the fatigue from working full-time gets me down. I can’t beat my age… my energy is more limited than it used to be, even though I’m in much better shape than I’ve been, and fairly active again. I still tire faster and am more easily distracted.

So I am wrestling still with the idea of a second chance… maybe third or tenth, or God help me, hundredth.  Maybe this path will lead me to a second chance at a career, maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll do the work I feel I was designed to do, maybe I’ll retire on Social Security in ten years from the hardware store… well, not that. (I’m not sure I even want to record that possibility, in case it comes true!) Maybe I’ll win the lottery — even if I don’t buy tickets. Yeah, right.

Still, I don’t give up. I do the work. I show up, I meditate, I pray, I love what is around me and where I find myself. I know that the next chance is out there for me, even if I don’t see it coming. And that how it unfolds, where it takes me, how I grow and change and learn from it is a gift I must take, even if it looks like it is the wrong size or color. I open myself to that next chance, to ever trying, ever failing, failing better. For failing better can be success, too.