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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 na├»ve.

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.