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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

WHY I'M NOT AFRAID ANYMORE

In the delightful holiday comedy Home Alone, 8 year old Kevin McAllister is quite mistakenly left behind by his large and boisterous family as they embark on a trip to Paris during the Christmas holidays.  While this unexpected bit of freedom is initially invigorating to the child, he is also forced to confront, without the protection of his buffering brood, his fear of the basement.  And his creepy loner neighbor.  And eventually, the idiotic but destructive cat burglars who menace his home.

Not unlike Kevin, I have recently been going through some life changes where structures I thought I could count on are suddenly not there anymore.  And like him, I have found myself both invigorated and forced to face some fears that were long overdue for a showdown.  But in this month of miracles, I have turned a corner that made me think of this film for the first time ever in relation to my own life.
As the days pass, Kevin becomes more and more confident in his ability to handle himself under the extreme circumstances.  He is able to overcome his fear of the basement (to do laundry) and his neighbor (to make a new friend and ally) essentially by walking up to the lion.  But it is his fear of the unknown (the cat burglars) that presents his greatest test.

His initial reaction (understandably) is to run and hide.  How often do we, even as adults have this same impulse?  But then the moment comes (for him and us) where understanding dawns:  this is our life and our domain and if we don’t take care of it, no one else will.
It is at that point in the film that Kevin utters these immortal words:  “Hey, I’m not afraid anymore!”  It is at this point in my life that I find myself essentially on the same trajectory as an 8-year old in a comedy film from the early 90’s:  I’m not afraid anymore.

It is important to note that nothing in my external circumstances has changed to prompt this epiphany.  In fact, by all objective measures, things have gotten progressively worse over the last several months of my life.  But the huge and discernable difference I have been feeling is that I am not the subject of my circumstances; they are merely the subject of my attention or lack thereof.
In the movie, Kevin decides to fight back against what would most likely appear to be insurmountable odds to the majority of children his age (and perhaps even some adults!)  His methods of resistance are both devious and ingenious.  His response to the threat to his security and well-being might be the very definition of “thinking outside the box”.

Now I would like to, as an aside, confirm the fact that Christmas films, generally speaking, have the most plainspoken wisdom about the human condition available.  A Christmas Carol?  “Mankind is my business” and it is never too late to repent.  It’s a Wonderful Life?  “No man is a failure who has friends.”  While You Were Sleeping?  “Life is a pain in the ass.”  All profound truths, right?
But I had never quite seen the mythic quality of Home Alone until this year.

Kevin takes a three-pronged approach to the assault on his security; first and foremost, ACTION.  He booby-traps his house in a manner that would stymie even the most determined crook.  Secondly, he SEEKS ASSISTANCE.  He reaches out to the big man in the red suit to restore what he has lost.  Third is PRAYER.  He requests divine protection on his quest.  We would all do well to follow his guidelines for a happy and thriving life.
The beauty of Home Alone, however, is that there is no Deus ex Machina involved in his salvation.  He wins the day through his own directed behavior, the compassionate alliance he has made with his neighbor and his faith that all with be well.  He defeats the men who were threatening his home, but still makes time to prepare for the return of his family, as he has both prayed (to God) and asked (Santa) for; the stockings hanging on the hearth are a symbol of his active faith.

How often in life do we act without faith?  Or pray without acting?  Or seek assistance without being clear what we really want?  Or fail to seek assistance when we do? 
Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I don’t know what the kingdom of heaven means to you, but to me it is perfect faith and self-assurance, no matter what is going on around me.  Faith that all will be well (no matter what) and self-assurance (that I can handle it, no matter what). 

I’m not afraid anymore.  Life is a pain in the ass, but there is nothing life can throw at me that I am not equal to.  I’m not afraid anymore.  Mankind is my business; there is nothing worth doing or having or being that isn’t worth fighting for, and I am both worthy and to my very core a fighter.  I’m not afraid anymore.  No one is a failure who has friends, and I have faith that there are people who will support me and love me (no matter what). 
I’m not afraid anymore. 

Sometimes, when we face our fears, we discover they are silly (the basement).  Sometimes, when we face our fears, we realize we have been missing out (the “creepy” neighbor who turns out to be a savior and friend).  Sometimes, when we face our fears, we realize there is a fight ahead of us (the cat burglars).  But always, when we face our fears, we realize we are equal to them.  We realize it is a fair fight.
And then, we are not afraid anymore.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

WHY I BELIEVE (IN SANTA)

Last week my 11 year old son boldly stated his intention to write a letter to Santa this year; the reason he felt the need to clarify is because last year I prepped him for the eventuality that one day he will no longer choose to do this.  I explained that as we outgrow toys, we outgrow the need for a visit from Santa and step aside to leave room on the sleigh for the requests of smaller children.  He accepted this notion without question, but was firm in his resolve to make his heartfelt wishes known to the man in the red suit yet again.  I told him it was fine by me, at which point he said with incredulity, “I really don’t understand how people can NOT believe in Santa.  Could ANYTHING be more obvious?”

He makes an excellent point.

For a guy who only shows up once a year, Santa has some kind of mad PR machine working for him.  Has there ever been anyone in the history of the world who has had more books, movies, songs and TV shows written about him?  Has any character appeared in more artwork, advertisements or on more street corners?  I’m not even going to attempt to research this, but in terms of public awareness, I’d say there is no one and nothing that ranks above St. Nick, with the possible exception of GOD.

See what I just did there?

My son’s canny observation prompted me to engage him in a conversation about the importance of our beliefs.  I explained to him that beliefs shape our perception of what we experience, so it is crucial to establish a strong and positive belief system about everything, most especially ourselves.  Our internal dialogue about whom and how we are is the number one factor in our effectiveness in engaging with others and the world at large.

He seemed to easily grasp the idea that his beliefs about himself would impact his life, but had a harder time understanding how denial of the obvious—Santa’s existence and climate change were the examples he used—could change or influence anything.  I told him that it all comes back to personal responsibility; what we believe drives our behavior and our behavior is the stone that causes the ripples in the pond.  We are powerful and influential beyond our wildest imaginings, so it is critically important to be a force for good.

This conversation caused me, naturally, to re-evaluate how my belief system has been working for me recently.  I have always been one of those everything-happens-for-a-reason people (with my apologies to the many wise and rational folk this understandably offends) because it is a belief that is helpful to me in looking at my experiences, most especially the frightening and damaging ones.  This belief has helped me to reframe some harshly negative incidents into something more empowering and useful.

However, I have also come to realize that I am a person who values clarity and certainty perhaps above all other things; this means whenever I am facing a challenging situation with no clear course to resolve, I have a tendency to panic.  My need to impose a positive meaning on all that is happening to me undermines my ability to let go, go with the flow and TRUST.  In other words, I have a constant urgent yearning to skip to the end of the book (they lived happily ever after!) instead of living in the uncertain and messy present.

I want the wisdom and reward without the journey.  Is it just me?

There is a great deal of uncertainty in my life right now, and therefore my son’s as well; it is not surprising that he would want to dig into his belief in the positive (Santa) during this challenging time.  I had a dream recently that I was in the woods alone at night on a snow covered trail; the only light was the moon and walking in the deep drifts was arduous work.  I was overcome with fear and doubt—should I turn around or keep going?  Except I couldn’t remember where I was coming from or how far I’d already walked; also, I wasn’t sure where I was going or how long it would be until I got there.

In the dark, cold woods, alone at night with no idea whether I am coming or going sounds about right these days.  But in my dream I heard the voice of a beloved friend urging me on:  “Just stay on the path.”  I cannot tell you how many times I have repeated this line to myself since I had that dream.   Keep going, keep moving and stay on the path.

In this place I have become interested in the fact that the words “belief” and “faith” are often used interchangeably.  Living with uncertainty and strife, I have come to realize that while my belief system is undeniably strong, my faith could actually use some work.  My tendency to apply positive meaning in retrospect, while helpful, is nowhere near as powerful as an ability to find value in the present.

The holiday season is called “the season of faith” because it is a time of hopeful expectancy.  As Christians await the birth of a savior, children await the visit from St. Nick and we all await the New Year, our gratitude goes before us—there is absolutely no doubt these things will come.  And it occurs to me this is the very definition of faith:  gratitude in advance.

A child who has misbehaved still waits with an optimistic view that Santa will deliver; as adults we trip and fall but go forward with the idea that our missteps are still leading us somewhere we want to be.   My belief in myself and my capabilities and in the essential goodness and healthy symbiosis of mankind is fertile ground for inevitable growth and mutually beneficial shared experiences.   However, it is actually my gratitude for all that is yet to be that helps me stay on the path.

This Christmas, I think I will be writing a letter to “Santa”.  Like my son, I will share all of my heartfelt wishes knowing that whether or not I have been “good” or “bad” I can still be grateful for all that has been, all that is and all that will be.  As with Scrooge’s ghosts, I can take stock in the past, present and future knowing that every moment has the potential for a new beginning.

And when we are grateful for each and every moment we have knowing without a doubt that good is coming, we are living in faith.  That is what Christmas and Santa remind us to believe every year.

Could anything be more obvious?


Tuesday, November 15, 2016

WHY RULES WERE MADE TO BE BROKEN

As a kid, I was a stickler for “the rules”.  I was that stock character, familiar to anyone who has as ever watched a film centered around children, who would be labelled “the killjoy”.  My constant refrain was “Guys, we’re going to get in trouble!”  Yes, I said it whiny, too.

My parents were incredibly supportive of us and our various differences—we were not compared to each other and as the family book worm there was no pressure on me to perform well at sports.  Likewise, my more athletic siblings were not expected to bring home straight A’s.  The only thing my parents insisted on uniformly was that we be compassionate, moral people.  That we treat each other well and be generally polite and respectful.  My Mom tells a story of attending a luncheon where the ladies she was with were voicing their dreams for their sons; while the others stated material goals like a doctor, lawyer success story, my Mother simply said, “I want my son to be a kind man”.
She got her wish on that one.  What she didn’t get was another invitation to lunch from those particular women.

Kindness being our only mandate meant some of us were a bit rebellious when it came to following the rules-of-law.  There may have been beer hidden, cigarettes smoked and curfews broken.  There may have been some escapades taken that would have been missed out on if everyone had been shackled down by “the rules”.  But that was only me.
I found the rules very comforting.  Partly because I love structure and knowing what is expected of me—I will never be one to “fly by the seat of my pants”.  But also partly because I got a lot of my self-esteem from being a “good girl”.  I mistakenly believed this would make me more lovable, more acceptable.  If I never broke the rules, no one could ever have a problem with me.  Yeah, I was young and naïve.

By the time I went away to college I was the quintessential goody-two-shoes.  Good grades, no boyfriends or experimenting with drugs; I did drink once at a party but immediately confessed to my parents when I was dropped off at home.  They seemed more amused than angry.  Possibly even a little relieved that I was normal-ish.
I was blessed in my freshman year with a roommate who had been raised with values similar to mine who also happened to be, as luck would have it, a bit of a goody-two-shoes.  She and I were birds of a feather and spent our first semester away from home not going to parties and acting out, but instead embarking on what we called “adventures”.  These consisted mainly of driving around the area looking for new restaurants to try and going to the movies.  We were having quite a marvelous time, honestly.

But at the end of that first term, during our exam study period, we took a leap I will never forget.  It was nearly ten o’clock at night and we were bleary eyed from pouring over materials when she looked at me and asked, “Do you want to drive down to Rockefeller Center to see the tree?”  Crazy talk!  Who does such a thing at ten o’clock at night when there are exams to be studied for and sleep to be had?
We did!  Recruited a carload, actually.  And as we drove for 2 hours down the Taconic Parkway my predominant thought was this—for the very first time in my life, my parents have no idea where I am or what I am doing.  It was exhilarating!  I was certain that if I had asked permission for this particular lark, I would have been turned down cold.  As tame as it all seems in retrospect, I felt a little mad with power.

This story of my first grand taste of freedom ends rather anti-climatically.  We must have pulled up the curb to look at the tree at 11:59 precisely.  Because after about 60 seconds of blissful observation, the tree lights went dark.  Two hours for 60 seconds of splendor.  Of course, a bunch of sleep-deprived 18 year old girls couldn’t help but find this hilarious.  We turned around and got right back on the road to school, btw.  Good girls to the core.
But I have always thought of that night as a seminal moment in my life.  It was the first time I had really considered that my happiness, my authentic self might exist somewhere outside of the rules, outside of those neat lines.  The experience changed me.  I was still a good student, still didn’t do drugs, still essentially followed the “straight and narrow”.  But I became a braver human in general; braver about using my voice, braver about pursuing the things that truly interested and mattered to me, braver about being myself. 

Now I am a mother and I’m raising my son much in the way my parents raised my siblings and I; less emphasis on “achievements” and more on core values.  Learning from example I figure if I too bring up a kind man, I will have done the world the greatest parenting service possible.  Especially in these times, when my son is unfortunately exposed to unkind men in positions of great power, I tell him not to be impressed by status but instead by conduct towards others.  I am teaching my child that a man is never heroic by virtue of title, fortune or power; heroism can only be defined as willingness to help those in need.

When I look back on my life so far, I see that some of my greatest learning experiences and most indelible memories are those times when I took a chance "the rules" would have advised against.  The guidelines they provide, while not without merit, are just a starting point in life.  There is no great accomplishment without some risk;  it is impossible to fully realize who you are without making some mistakes. 
I am teaching my son not to live for anyone's approval, but instead to take action and speak words that he is comfortable with and proud of...there will be times in his life when "the rules" are at odds with his core values but to be fully alive is never to be contained by the mandates of others.   I will tell him that there really is only one rule that must always be followed: treat others as you wish to be treated yourself.  I read that somewhere, and it seems solid to me. 

Golden, actually.


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

WHY WE FALL

When I was a child, I loved wearing dresses.  Naturally my mother indulged me in this and being handy with a sewing machine even made several for me.  We were recently laughing about my propensity for sporting the floor length variety (this was the 70’s) to elementary school and the year I insisted she make a matching Holly Hobbie bonnet for my school pictures (this was the 70’s!).  Years later I had a neighbor tell me that my nickname on the block was “the little girl in the dress”.

Of course growing up in the Northeast necessitated matching tights for a good portion of the year, an accessory I also loved.  One day Mom bought me a brand new pair and I was so excited I insisted on trying them on immediately.  Before I had a chance to adequately admire how they looked, I was sent on an errand up the street; I quickly accomplished this and was happily skipping my way home when it happened:  I fell.  Flat on my face.  In the middle of the street.

I lay there, stunned and confused—bloody and in pain, my new tights in tatters, I felt like I couldn’t move.  Fortunately, a neighbor saw me and before someone came along and ran me over, he quickly scooped me up and carried me home.  There was no recrimination for having destroyed the new purchase (except from myself); Mom picked the stones out of my knees and carefully cleaned and bandaged them.  One wound was so deep I have a scar to this day.

Falling while human is an inevitability.  This is something we are forced to learn over and over again; as we grow, more often the fall is not a physical one, but emotional or spiritual.  We fall in love, we stumble in faith, we trip on doubt.  Life has a way of bringing us to our knees, literally and figuratively, and often at the absolute worst time.  Sometimes we lose support structures we counted on—jobs, relationships, health—and then we can tumble into a free fall.  No net, no lifeline, just the sense of an absolute vacuum with no solid ground in sight.  

Often when we fall in life, it is a physical manifestation of the fact that we have been trudging, or dragging our heels.  Bad jobs, imbalanced relationships and unwise health decisions are all things we know intellectually should be changed or removed from our lives, but if this were some easy task, the expression “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” would never have caught on.  The extreme example, familiar to psychologists and people who work in child protective services, is children who do not want to be removed from abusive homes.  Although to all with an outside perspective on the situation, this would obviously be the best course of action.

Even as adults with productive lives, we can fall into a fear based pattern of clinging to people and situations and behaviors that are harmful to us simply because they are what we know.  But growing while human is also an inevitability if you are even a little bit awake; so when we try to hang on to structures that hinder our growth, sometimes life gives us a little push.  And seemingly without warning, we are flat on our faces in the middle of the street.

Yet of course there were warnings.  There was escalating unhappiness, fighting or symptoms; there was an over reliance on coping mechanisms or numbing techniques.  All of this fairly SHOUTING “Things have got to change!!!”  The more we try to ignore this voice, the louder and more insistent it becomes, and we ignore it at our own peril.  Because if you can hear that voice, there will be a reckoning; either heed the signs and take action or you will be pushed. 


You will fall.

The bad news is that if we ignore our inner guidance long enough to precipitate a fall, there may be collateral damage we will never fully recoup.  The good news is that necessary change, even by a forced hand, is always a positive thing.  Yes, as a society we have certainly at the very least embraced the meme that “Change is good”, but internally our acceptance of that has a lot of “buts” attached, as in “but you go first.” 

So blood pressure and blood sugar rise without us taking action to stop it—until a crisis is reached.  We do the same in jobs and relationships; the same old same old until the consequences of our complacency explodes right in our faces.  This is what we commonly refer to as “a wake-up call”.

We get our wake-up call and find ourselves in the middle of the street, flat on our faces.  Every now and then a kindly soul will see us laying there and carry us out of harm’s way.  More often than not we somehow manage to drag ourselves to our feet and persevere.  Occasionally we just lie there until we get run over too.  In these moments we understand that as powerful as the human spirit can be, our resistance to becoming can be even greater. 

But this is why we fall:  we are here for becoming.  We are here for growth.  We are here for change.

The “fall” is actually a push past your own resistance, your own hang-ups, your own self-doubt.  The fall is actually the universe sending you the message that you are ready for more, you are ready to become more.  We understand this intrinsically when we are falling in love; yes, there is a risk in that vulnerability but if we are willing to take the leap, the risk will always pay off in a more evolved relationship to the self, if not to the other.

This is why we fall.  Like the trees now shedding their leaves, we fall and experience the winter of our soul; a barren and seemingly dormant stretch where we retreat to that inner guidance we ignored and finally give it our full attention.  And without the distractions of the “devil we know” getting in the way, we at last hear the message it has been shouting at us for so long.

Winston Churchill said, “To improve is to change; to perfect is to change often.”  When we resist change, we are resisting becoming our best selves.  This is why we fall; because our best self is always fervently hoping to swoop in and save us from our fear.




Tuesday, October 18, 2016

WHY I WANT TO BE ALONE

In the movie Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo uttered the famous line, “I want to be alone; I just want to be alone.”  I don’t think there is a mother on the planet who cannot relate to this, especially when we are hiding in a closet trying to have a private phone conversation.  We are such a social society that I think we underestimate the healing powers of solitude.  The ethologist John B. Calhoun coined the term "behavioral sink" to describe the collapse in behavior which results from overcrowding.  Of course, his experiments were on rats, but isn’t that what we feel like when we can’t get any space?

My Dad was a big fan of the Myers-Briggs personality tests, and while I consistently scored off-the-charts for “intuitive-feeling-judging”, I was always right on the line between introvert and extrovert.  Pop pegged me for an extrovert at that time, however, because to him the ultimate determination is whether or not you derive your greatest energy from being alone or being social.  And while I would still say that being around the right people is definitely my greatest source of energy, at the age I am now I would also say that my greatest inner strength comes from being alone.
There is so much chatter in the world; endless ways to “connect” with people near and far and like anything, it can be a blessing or a curse.  I avoided social media quite assiduously until just a year ago and the culture shock of pervasive online socialization was quite alarming to me.  I have always been a call “screener” (remember the old answering machines where you could hear the message being left?) and this annoyed people (my Mom) to no end.  But eventually they (Mom) got it: I am a very socially engaged person when I want to be, but when I don’t want to be?  You really don’t want to know me.

Of course we all have those special people in our lives that we literally just cannot get sick of; Iris Murdoch’s (holla!) wonderful description of love as the quality of being “inexhaustible” to each other is beautifully true.  But these connections are unique and sacred; for the most part we are all susceptible to seriously getting on each other’s nerves.  And then there are the people who simply rub us the wrong way, no matter what they do.  They are kind of like our sacred people’s equal and opposite; just as uncommon, and just as necessary.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I am going through a difficult phase in my journey right now.  My sacred people are by my side through it, and their counterparts are exacerbating my pain, as is their function.  The one phrase I find myself uttering out loud unbidden on a consistent basis is “I want to be left alone”.  Due to my current circumstances, this is in part influenced by the “behavioral sink” I am experiencing in having very little private time.  But there is also a more energetic aspect to it—I want to be left alone to figure things out, to have some head space to myself, to make decisions without outside influence.

I am going to pick on my Mom a little bit more here (don’t worry, she can take it) because she has that classic “fixer” personality.  Like all good mothers, she hates nothing more than to see her children in pain; her typical response to our sadness was to try to “fix” or jolly us out of it.  I don’t know about you, but my LEAST favorite response to being in pain is someone urging me to be jolly.  I understand the impulse too well, however; and I am certain I have been guilty of employing the same tactic on others.
But when we are under high stress circumstances, we are literally walking a tightrope with no net; the need for balance and caution and concentration are extreme.  The last thing on earth we need is someone telling us we need to smile or handing us more things to juggle on the high wire.  We need to be left alone to complete the journey across the chasm.  The most interesting part of it for me is how much quicker I became accustomed to the “risk” factor (no net) than the stress factor.  This is a very good lesson to remember in happier, more productive times, so we don’t let stress dissuade us from taking healthy risks.

I recently had a conversation with my Mother about all the elements that are swirling about me, and she listened patiently then said, “I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know what to do.”  Believe it or not, that was music to my ears; she was just accepting where I am at and letting me be here.  She was standing by my side while leaving me “alone”.  It is good to have companions who let you be without interference or recrimination.  When you don’t know what to do, it is ironically helpful to have someone else validate that place instead of pushing you towards random action just to be doing something.
Just being is doing something, you know.  All the great philosophers have confirmed this.  Sometimes being feels effortless and light; sometimes onerous and excruciating.  But that’s the inherent design of living.  Our culture promotes “the good times” while only capitalizing on “bad times” for fear-based gain.  We don’t honor our pain, grief, tumult as we should; it is almost considered a shameful experience that must be hustled through.

My Father loved The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck and quoted it frequently.  Peck believed that depression* is part of a healthy life because in order to grow, we must be willing to give things we love up, especially parts of our self which no longer serve.  That tightrope we walk during the process teaches balance; balance increases our flexibility. 
Depression and sadness can be our greatest teachers, if only we don’t try to drown them out or “fix” them.  This is part of experiencing life whole; the retreat into the self for healing and transformation.  So when we are allowed to be in the cocoon of our pain with compassion, we do the hard work of becoming more.  More ourselves, more flexible and therefore more free.  We don’t ever move past what we don’t allow; allowing pain is the only way to healthily release it.

So when I say “I just want to be left alone” I mean I want to be allowed to be where I am at;  I want to be accepted this way too, not just when I am happy, strong and vibrant.  This is who I am today and that has got to be okay.  Self-acceptance is not a fair-weather friend.  It means every minute of every day you understand that you are valid and how you feel is your truth. 

 *It is critical to note the difference between “situational depression” and “clinical depression”.  If you suffer the latter, there is help available to you:  Depression resources

Thursday, October 6, 2016

WHY CO-EXISTING IS A DRAG

Have you ever seen one of those bumper stickers that say “Co-Exist”?  They are usually on the back of a Prius, or maybe a Westfalia van?  Sure you have, and like me, maybe you made some snap judgments about the sort of person who has such a thing affixed to their bumper, those hippie tree-huggers.  Co-Exist” they smugly suggest, like when they say you should be eating more kale.  Like this is some easy feat.  Not only is it not easy, it can also be a total drag, IMHO.  Eating kale and co-existing, I mean.

The fact of the matter is that simply existing has been taking a lot out of me recently.  Putting one foot in front of the other has seemed Herculean; never mind walking and chewing gum at the same time.  I find myself wandering from task to task with the sort of ambling hopelessness of a shipwreck survivor; while I’ve somehow managed to not drown, supplies are dwindling and morale is low.  What little I have left of either, I’m in no mood to share. Co-exist, indeed!
Having been backed into the corner by the infamous “circumstances beyond my control”, I crouch here recognizing that many people live their whole lives this way.  Withdrawn into a place of self-protection and energy conservation, the mere act of existence takes all of their cunning.  They have no stamina or space to consider “the other guy”.  As I know (hope!) that I am living here as a temporary accommodation, I realize it is important that I take note of how it feels, so that when I encounter someone who lives here all the time, I will remember to have compassion for them.

Ah, compassion!…co-exist’s prettier and more palatable sister…we all like the idea of compassion because (ironically) it makes us feel good about ourselves.  Oh, it does, don’t deny it!  We LOVE situations where we can easily flaunt our compassion and we also will tolerate situations where we are able to extend it somewhat less graciously.  When we can’t feel compassion, however, we still need to somehow co-exist.  Without rancor, if possible; with it, if not.

I think we all accept, at least on an intellectual level, that we never know the whole story about what another person has lived or is living and how that drives those behaviors we don’t understand.  Obviously we are currently in the midst of an election cycle where the vast majority of us are utterly dumbfounded by the other side, whichever it may be.  It is clear at this point that there will be no reconciliation, only co-existing.  Hard work!

Even people with whom we agree can be hard to co-exist with…ask anyone who has lived with a roommate.  In marriages, in work relationships, in families and extended families…the need for healthy balance, give and take and mutual respect means that the whole concept of co-existing is somewhat laughably naïve.  Successful relationships of all kinds require effort and frequent checking in to make sure the playing field stays as level as possible.  Bumper sticker wisdom be damned, maintaining any level of healthy intimacy is also hard work.
For me, one hugely difficult aspect of co-existing has always been watching people I care about undermining themselves by taking on unhealthy or unsustainable situations then fighting like hell to sustain them.  Or not taking care of their bodies and their health, in spite of living with discomfort and other alarming red flags.  Or spending so much time and energy building a case for why they can’t do this or that that if they had re-directed that time and energy, this and that would already be done.  How easy is it to co-exist with people who act victimized by their own choices?  Not very!

Because when people we love make obviously bad decisions and then complain about the negative consequences of their bad decisions, it is hard to feel compassion for them, right?  And we enjoy feeling compassionate, it makes us feel like we are good people, right?  So the question becomes are we more upset by the fact that they are authoring their own unhappy story, or by the fact that they are making us feel like we are not good people?  No, seriously, I’m asking you.
I recently had the following comment left on something that I wrote:  “You seem like you’re very self-absorbed”.  Um, duh.  We are all self-absorbed; this is why co-existing is such a drag.   We are absorbed in our own reactions, feelings and intellect, and this makes it challenging for us to ever truly put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes.  However, in our self-absorption and meticulous cataloguing of our own experiences, we learn compassion for people we can relate to; but we also tend to avoid people we cannot relate to, and therefore avoid the uncomfortable growing pains of trying to understand where they are coming from.

The older I get, the more I realize that merely co-existing will not be enough.  Like Dr. Suess’s Star-Bellied Sneetches, we fail to recognize that we are ALL Sneetches and at the end of the day our attempts to separate out the people or groups that we feel threatened by or don’t understand is as much folly as the Sneetches bankrupting themselves by trying to maintain their status as “special”.   We are all “special”, and this may be the greatest reason of all why co-existing is a drag.  We are each having an entirely unique experience in this life, and we yearn to somehow share this experience with others; when our attempts to share ourselves get criticized or shut down (“You seem like you’re very self-absorbed”) we tend to withdraw.
And how about when the way we were born (our race, our sex, our sexual orientation) or how we were raised (our religion, our education, our culture) gets criticized?  How does it feel to be criticized for those infamous “circumstances beyond our control”?  We need to do better than to co-exist.   We need to recognize the plain reality that some of us were born with stars on our bellies and some were not, but there will be no peace until we stop attacking each other for our differences.

CO-EXISTING is the greatest challenge of the human condition, and the most important one!  And while fences (healthy boundaries) make “good neighbors”, we cannot build walls to keep each other out.  There will always be another con-man who is happy to profit from our foolishness, our divisiveness, our fear.  But no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves that “the other guy” is the problem, inevitably we must realize that it is our need to have others conform their lives and behaviors to our expectations that is the real problem.  That is the bald truth, and why co-existing is such a drag.
When we recognize that 95% of the time it is our reaction (and not “the other guy’s” inciting behavior) that is the problem, we face the reality that peace on earth really does "begin with me".  Only when we are peaceful with ourselves can we co-exist with others gracefully.  So this is the hardest work of all!  Co-exist with every aspect of yourself, the good, the bad and the ugly peacefully and see how dramatically the world seems to change.  Total drag, but it’s the only way—you must be the change you want to see. 

Btw, Ghandi never said that, sorry.  Oh, and eat more kale.  Sorry about that, too.
 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Why I Like Being Uncomfortable

Yeah, no I don’t.  I don’t “like” being uncomfortable any more than you do.  If “discomfort” had Facebook page, I would only hit the “sad” and “angry” buttons for its posts.  Oh, and maybe the occasional “wow” when discomfort had really abused the privilege of being uncomfortable.  So what am I trying to say here?

I’m saying that unfortunately the expression “step outside of your comfort zone” is sound advice; actually, not only sound, but wise.  It’s something we should all be striving to do all of the time, damn the luck!  But most of us face the prospect of being uncomfortable with the same level of enthusiasm we have for getting out of a warm bed on a cold day.  That is to say, low-to-none.
We may think that “stepping outside of our comfort zones” involves some kind of physical or financial risk—trying a daredevil activity or “spending money to make money”.  While these are legit ways to stretch your parameters if they are available to you, the really important work of being uncomfortable is much more personal and intimate.  And much braver, too—the truth is often not only inconvenient, but horribly uncomfortable.

We all understand theoretically that the ultimate goal of stepping into discomfort is an expanded consciousness about what is comfortable.  We have so many arenas in life where fear is running the show; yes, we often have fears about money and personal safety, but we also have fears about emotional intimacy and self-advocacy.  In fact, standing up for ourselves is the thing that probably makes the majority of us the most uncomfortable of all; asking for help is another “uncomfortable” position for many, many people.
Emotional intimacy has always been a huge can of worms; now it has been made so much worse by the false intimacy the internet presents.  To feel secure in vulnerability in your closest relationships is a challenge; we all fear being mocked, misunderstood or betrayed by the people we have opened ourselves up to.  Now, in this era of what I will call “safe oversharing”, we see people all alone with their devices dumping their anger, frustration and loneliness onto their unsuspecting followers/”friends” for attention; if the sort of attention they receive is not to their liking?  Block/Mute/Unfollow/Unfriend!  This is false intimacy because it is actually just an exercise in control.

We cannot conduct healthy, thriving relationships from “a safe distance”; the screens that seem to bring us closer together are actually shutting us off from the deeper treasures of real bonding.  We are using them as shields to deflect this gnawing anxiety we have about both being alone and being together.  The paradox of the 21st century. 
The University of Virginia did a study a few years back that concluded, in part, that most people would rather receive an electrical shock than be alone with their thoughts.  Yes, you read that right.  So this obviously begs the question:  what are we thinking about that is making us so damned uncomfortable?  It seems to me that that if we would rather face a painful shock than our inner selves, there is a serious problem afoot.

Now, I have a confession that I believe that many of my fellow artists and writers will relate to:   I am more comfortable being alone with my thoughts than perhaps anywhere else in the world.  Being alone with my thoughts is my “happy place”.  My thoughts are my friends; it’s the damned outside world that is interfering with my comfort zone.
That is why I started putting my thoughts out into the world.  Scariest thing I have done in my life, too.  The fear of rejection; but for me, more importantly, the fear of ridicule.  The fear of being told my thoughts are “wrong”.  And yes, it happened.  Everything I feared.

You know what?  It was terrible at first, bordering on excruciating.  And I won’t pretend there are never occasions anymore when it is not.  But ultimately, do you know what challenging my comfort zone brought me?  More bravery.  A lot, lot, lot more, in truth. And more comfort!  An expanded sense of what is comfortable.
Look, like most people, I frequently find life exhausting.  I often find people I love challenging.  Sometimes everything, including “fun” and “love”, feels like “too much effort”.  Does that sound even a bit familiar to you? 

Now we face our chicken-and-egg:  the reason we are so exhausted is because we hate the idea of being uncomfortable SO MUCH that virtually anything is preferable.  And how are we “avoiding” discomfort?  Yes, we soothe ourselves with that false intimacy of the internet, but way too many of us are walking on eggshells and in other ways being inauthentic with the people in our lives because we believe it will be “easier” than being honest and open.
So how’s that working?

We need to pull our heads out of our smartphones and get real with ourselves about happiness.  Frequently (usually) there is some barrier between us and what we think will make us happy, but we aren’t willing to challenge that barrier because we’re a) exhausted, b) it would be difficult and c) too much effort; RIGHT?  So we settle in our comfort zones and call that happiness.
But there is a greater happiness on the other side of the barrier—somewhere over the rainbow—a greater happiness in expanding our comfort zones so much that we actually welcome discomfort as a messenger and friend.  Our discomfort tells us that there is more here than meets the eye and we should dig in.  When we are willing to be uncomfortable, we are willing to GROW.

We are like houseplants, most of us, in a pot we have outgrown; but the stress, hassle and FEAR of repotting stops us in our tracks.  You need room to breathe and expand and ironically that room can be found inside yourself.  Step away from your devices every day and check in with how you are feeling.  Don’t sedate discomfort with another game, another text or another glass of wine; ask it what it is trying to tell you and be willing to learn.
Oh, the places you’ll go!



 

 

Saturday, September 10, 2016

WHY REGRETS ARE FOR FOOLS

Years ago I wrote a story in which the elderly matriarch, an unapologetic control freak with sass to spare, told her husband, “Regrets are for fools”.  In context, there was irony in that statement; I guess I was too young at the time to realize the bald truth of such a line.  Regrets ARE for fools, and not because we don’t all do things we wish we hadn’t.  Regrets are for fools because they steal from the past to rob our present of peace.

Whenever we are facing challenges—or even if we just have an isolated negative experience—it is human nature to start flipping through the card catalogue in our minds looking for a helpful point of reference.  Have I, or anyone else I know, ever been through something similar?  What remedies, if any, were involved?  How long did the challenges or negative consequences linger?  We do this to help ourselves put things in perspective, which is healthy; what is NOT healthy is when this exploration of the past begins to devolve into woulda-coulda-shoulda.
I recently had a car accident that was an “accident” in the purest sense of the word because if any one thing in my day had gone slightly differently, it never would have happened.  The unfortunate precision of a split second in the wrong place at the wrong time precipitating chaotic results.  A crazy-making event to be sure, as my fervent (and pointless) wishes that I could go back in time and do it differently were waking me up at night.

I had a dear friend for many years who made a standard joke about these sorts of situations; she would always say that “short of becoming Superman and turning the world backwards on its axis, there is nothing you can do about it”, which both true and funny.  It’s also a great way to stop that looped conversation in your head about how you definitely should NOT have gone for ice cream on the way home by recapping the insanity of such regret.   We all wish we could be Superman, of course; but in these contained situations he is a good reminder that as humans we do not have the power to save Lois Lane from the earthquake.
This analogy becomes a little harder to both swallow and apply when we are dealing with big-picture life-path regrets—from the pursuit of a dream that never came true, to “failed” relationships, to lost jobs---now we are no longer looking at an isolated situation that could have been “fixed” by a different decision.  Now we are looking at a whole mountain of regrets and missed red flags and self-immolation for wasting our time, love and energy.

Most of us have had the experience of watching a loved one “go astray” in life—the anguish of seeing them chase a situation or relationship that to us has the most obvious neon, blinking DON’T WALK sign hanging over it.  But more often than not the situation is more subtle and nuanced than that…For many years I said that I had never been surprised by a divorce; not that I necessarily saw the relationships as “doomed”, but rather that I recognized the fractures that had the potential to rupture.  Yes, I said that many times over until it actually happened:  I was surprised by a divorce.  So surprised, in fact, that I grieved it as if it were my own.
But it taught me something very valuable:  no matter how smart, sensitive, honest and in tune we are, we can only operate on the information that we currently have.  Another friend of mine who went through an entirely less surprising divorce said something very wise about it…we are all doing the best that we can with the information that we have in the present.  For every “red flag” we may have overlooked (or deliberately ignored), there were a million other pieces of the puzzle that were influencing us in some way.  And given the entirety of the picture, we made the best decision we were capable of; hence—regrets are for fools.

As a woman now firmly ensconced in middle age—life more than halfway through, quite officially over-the-hill---I am facing some fairly big decisions about how I frame those roads I travelled that seemed to lead nowhere and the companions I have lost and am losing along the way.  Of course the easiest, most human response is to call myself a fool for chasing the unattainable, loving some who did not recognize my value and trusting those who could not respect that sacred bond.  And I have been a fool on occasion, with no doubt.  While people who genuinely care for me tried to point out the giant, blinking DON’T WALK SIGN above my head.
But much more often than that I have been brave.  Brave to try things I wasn’t sure would work, brave to go places that were not familiar to me, brave to love people who were wounded and unable to reciprocate.  Brave to say “I can do better” and “That was my fault”;  brave to admit, “I gave it my best” and “I did what I thought was right.”  Brave to face myself every day and say, “Today we will have another go at this thing called life”, in spite of heartache, exhaustion, loss and grief.  In spite of insecurity and fear.

My Father used to say, “Every day is a good day” and this is the epic truth.  The day you fail is a good day; the day you lose is a good day; the day your heart breaks is a good day.  Because you are still here and doing the best you can with the information you have.  Every day we have a new shot at this thing called life.  Don’t let regret rob you of another second of it. 
When I had that accident I thought—if I had done one thing differently this horrible event would never have been—but with life, just the opposite is true.  If you had done one thing differently you might have lost your most valuable experiences, your most important lessons, your most profound relationships.  So love all of it and all of you with no regrets.



Saturday, August 27, 2016

Why When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Over It

A story my Mom loves to tell on my older sister is that when she was a teenager and did something that made my parents angry (kind of her M.O. at the time, frankly), her response to my Mother’s admonitions was always, “You’ll get over it.”  OOOh, SASSY!  And BRAVE!  Let me advise you that my Mom was not much of one for backtalk when we were kids.  Still isn’t, come to think of it.

Of course my sister was right; as a parent, your “getting over it” skills become madly honed as you recover from your children’s misbehaviors and mishaps alike.  I’m thinking of the time my son shattered a beloved Christmas ornament on the kitchen floor.  And the time he somehow got ahold of the title for our car and went at it with his safety scissors.  Or the time he ruined our 10th anniversary trip by giving us both the most virulent stomach bug in the history of mankind the night before we left (turns out you can puke your guts out in fancy hotel bathrooms as well as anywhere!).
But you get over it.  What are the other options?  And as years pass you “get over it” quicker and quicker because you come to realize that NOT getting over it is a fool’s game.  It’s like contracting a horrible stomach bug and then actively CHOOSING not to recover.

I have recently been going through a very tough time—a lot of proverbial sh*t hit the proverbial fan at once—and I became so overwhelmed by negative input that I sank into a real depression for the first time in a decade.  So many situations were at crisis level at once, I couldn’t think of which way to turn.  Like the little boy with his finger in the dam watching hundreds of other leaks pop, I was in full-on panic mode.
William Shakespeare wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths” and I very much related to this as my panic spun out of control…not only was I worrying about all of the bad things that were ACTUALLY happening, my mind was inventing a lot of worst case scenario outcomes that would wake me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.  I felt neither brave nor well-equipped to handle all the things coming my way, both real and imagined.

I spent a few weeks “dying many times”.  I really don’t recommend it.
I even had a dream one night that I went to a big, dress-up event except when I showed up no one was there and when I tried to leave I realized my fancy clothes had (ala Cinderella) changed to rags and then my driver left without me, but took my purse and phone.  And left behind, dressed in rags with no money or mode of communication, I decided that my best option was to wander into the woods and disappear forever.

The universe was not being particularly helpful, either; after the initial wicked punches, it started delivering a series of VERY painful pinches to the point where I started vocalizing a belief that I have been somehow hexed.  Like in that “Brady Bunch” episode when Bobby finds the tiki idol and they start having a terrible run of bad luck, most memorably the tarantula on Peter’s chest.  But then something funny happened.
RIGHT AFTER I made the Brady Bunch comparison, my husband walked in the house from work one day with---you guessed it!---a GIANT wolf spider crawling on his chest.  After we disposed of the INCREDIBLY ENORMOUS arachnid, I’ll admit I had to laugh.  For something with such atrocious timing, the universe sure does have a good sense of humor.

This humorous out-picturing of my facetious fear (I am under a curse!) made me remember—fearing it is living it.  When we are fixated on what we FEAR will happen, we are essentially giving ourselves the experience of having it happen.  This is why “cowards die many times before their deaths”.
So I decided it was time, as my sister would suggest, for me to “get over it”.

Even though nothing has changed; even though nothing is “fixed”.  Even though there are no answers; even though the future right now looks bleak and uncertain at best.  Time to get over it or keep dying those many deaths.  Not much of a choice there.

Also:  when bad things happen, especially so many at once, there is the immediate response of “shock and awe”—how can this be?  Where am I to go?  What am I to do?  But after this very understandable phase passes, while we rarely have any concrete answers we do have a sense of those bedrocks in life:  family, friends, health, your sense of self.  Family and true friends tend to show up in force when the going gets tough; the security of being at home in your body and mind is no longer taken for granted.
We embrace the “real” and begin to parse out what is less important; priorities slowly begin to emerge and you take stock in all you have already survived in this life.  We humans are built for survival, after all.  Wired for it, actually.  So even though we need to allow ourselves time to process loss, trauma and pain, ultimately we are destined to rise again, like the phoenix from the ashes.  Our fears may cause us to die many deaths, but resurrection is inevitable.

Shakespeare also wrote, “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”  Today I am over it.  Tomorrow my fears may resurge and cause me to suffer, because I am a fool who plays this fool’s game.  But I will get over it again.  Quicker and quicker each time.  And next time I sure as hell won’t be bringing that tike idol home from the construction site, am I right???