“To be great is to be misunderstood”

Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

I stare at the screen. My heart is pounding so hard I can almost hear it, and I clench my fists as answers to this hateful email spring, rapid-fire, to my mind. In less than five minutes, I have a rebuttal I’m certain will destroy this man, thirty years my senior, who has, essentially, just called me a liar. I storm to my husband and use him as a proxy to deliver the tirade I’m certain will put this man in his place and fall, breathless, to the couch.
Jon stares at me for so long I finally snap, “What?”
Another pause. “Rina, what do you hope to accomplish by saying all that to him?”
“What do you mean?”
“What’s your goal?”
“Did you hear what I said? He didn’t understand anything I wrote! He’s basically calling me a liar!”
“Right. And it sounds like he’s already made up his mind. Do you think your response will make him change it?”
“No, but—”
“Then why write it?”

I’m too stunned to respond. The idea of letting this grave injustice go hadn’t occurred to me. Why would it occur to me? It’s absurd! I hate being misunderstood. I hate the idea of not defending myself. I could tear this man to shreds, if I wanted to—force him to see his stupidity. But just as no one has ever crawled out from under the weight of shame to become a better person, I have yet to see anyone cut by sarcasm move into greater humility and open-mindedness. Jon is right, and I can see clearly that the only loving response is none at all. And so, for the first time in my life, I choose not to respond. I choose to be misunderstood.

Years later, I can still feel the heat in my body when I think of that moment. Years later, I still think of how it would have felt to flay him, slowly—to peel back the flesh of his logic with the blade of my words and expose the soft underbelly of his slimy stupidity. (I’m really good at forgiveness.) It was a watershed moment for me. The first of hundreds, if not thousands, of times I have since allowed myself to be mistaken, misrepresented, and misunderstood. I still hate it. It still stings every time someone attributes incorrect motives to something I’ve said or done, and I often want to take up the sword of sarcasm and charge into battle. Sometimes I still do. But more and more often, I don’t. And sometimes, every now and then, on really good days, I even find ways to respond in love.

I am learning.

I am learning the value of allowing people to misunderstand. I am learning the value of being who I am, without asking permission or offering explanation. I am learning that the less concerned I am with the opinions of others the freer I am to be myself and the more peace and joy I have in my life. I am learning that the pain of judgment cannot begin to compare to the pain of not telling the truth or following my own heart. In the words of Liz Gilbert:

“People judge each other. It’s a favorite hobby of humans. Let people have their hobbies. Go in peace.”

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(PS. In an effort not to be misunderstood [HA!] please let me clarify that this article has nothing to do with the last one I posted, where I wrote about another instance of misunderstanding. In that case, my friend’s response was kind, her assumptions completely justifiable by my own actions, and she wrote seeking greater connection, for which I am deeply grateful. In this case, I was inspired to write in response to a friend who asked [in a soon-to-be blog post of her own] “why would I subject myself to open vulnerability of my thoughts and feelings to the masses?” Because, my friend, as you are learning: truth is the path to freedom, and can only be navigated through vulnerability and the willingness to be misunderstood.
…And it’s SO worth it.

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I’m a bad friend

The title of this post is not meant to be self-condemning. I AM bad friend, for anyone who requires a great deal of one-on-one time with the people they love. In the words of Glennon Doyle, “I’ll die for you, but I won’t, like, meet you for coffee.” This is a part of my personality I’ve come to accept and even appreciate, and my closest friends also accept this (with varying degrees of appreciation, I’m sure.) But the question I’m asking myself now is: how can I be a “bad” friend (in this particular sense) and still be a kind and caring person? How can I be a “bad” friend, and cultivate GOOD relationships?

Last night, I texted a friend to get the phone number of a woman who, about three weeks ago, had expressed a desire to get to know me better. After that, I responded to an email sent a month ago from another would-be friend, and then wrote a second email to a potential friend who had written me a kind letter over two months ago. Later, I jumped on the blog to post a new article, and discovered the following comment on Reaching Roots:

“I appreciate your thoughts expressed here, Rina.
I have always loved your company, your children and appreciated your many talents.
Your words here caused me to think a little differently about why we, as neighbors only a mile or so away from each other, did not find time to get together more often.
I had this feeling that you all felt that our family was not good enough to be around yours for very long, for fear that we might contaminate your family with the way we dress, or think, or speak…
I understand this thought process that you have shared. I have gone through it and continue to revise mine daily. You and your family are very special people. I am thankful to have you in my life. I realize that you have a lot to juggle, but I hope that in the future you will feel more comfortable dropping by or calling for any reason.

Oh. My. God.

I care about this woman. I admire and respect her family. I have often expressed to other friends my desire to get to know her better, but for various reasons (mostly having to do with being an extreme introvert with a slight bent toward laziness and a greater bent toward social anxiety who hates putting on a bra and leaving the house,) I have rejected most of her invitations and, in doing so, I’ve hurt her. Worse, I somehow managed to make her think it was her fault. And though part of me knows I can’t accept every invitation, or respond to every email, or promptly answer every phone call, another part of me feels there is a balance, and I seem to be teetering too far in one direction.

I recently read a comment on facebook about Fred Rogers:

“Kindness is a cognitive course we commit to (or not). When we have the privilege of knowing those who do, it feels magically make-believe. How can someone truly be THAT kind? Mr. Rogers said he prayed for people by name, read scripture, swam laps, banged low notes on pianos, and kneaded unpliable clay. All to train his mind and body to be present with others. He paused. He paraphrased. He presumed positive intent. He probed for specificity. He put ideas on the table. He was a man. Not perfect. But perfectly present.” –Ashley Perkins

I have not always been kind in this way. I have not always been present in this way. It’s no secret that we have, in the past, steered clear of certain people for fear they would… can I please say “negatively influence” our children rather than “contaminate?” (Damn, it hurts when truth slaps you in the face.) And it’s also true that I still hold certain people at a distance, because I don’t want to subject myself to negativity or bigotry or gossip (not that the friend who wrote this comment exhibits any of these traits, I’m thinking of other instances, now.) There IS a part of me that wholeheartedly believes the words of Maya Angelou who says that if you allow negativity into your life it can take you over. I agree with her advice not to maintain friendships with negative people. But where is compassion and kindness in this approach? And how do I find the balance between accepting my own need for solitude and fostering deeper relationships with the people I care for, or could come to care for, if I gave it just the slightest chance? Obviously, I can’t be friends with everyone I meet. I have neither the time nor the energy (nor, to be truthful, the desire. Who does?) But there are so many people I do want to be better friends with, and so many opportunities I’m missing. As for others, how do I go about rejecting friendships without rejecting people? Perhaps, in the case of “negative” people, I should be more concerned with loving them than protecting myself from them. And perhaps, in the case of those I’m closest to and those I’d like to know better, I should (at the very least) be better at promptly answering emails and returning phone calls and… well, hell… getting out of the house (at least a little) more often.

I feel so sad right now. But thankful, too. I’m glad my friend told me how she felt. She held up a mirror and showed me a side of myself that isn’t pretty and a side of herself that was vulnerable. That took guts, and I’m honored and thankful for it. I don’t have any answers to my questions right now. I just know I have to do better.

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Posted in Friendship, Love | Leave a comment

No, Good

“I used to try to be Good. I thought no one wanted me as I was, so Good was my go-to. But Good got me nowhere. Not like Truth. Truth, she tore me to shreds, devoured me whole and spit me out shaking and new. Truth keeps a box of matches in my pocket. While Good made me afraid of transformative fire, Truth keeps me real, even if it makes everyone in the room uncomfortable. And Truth, unlike Good, doesn’t let me bow down to bullshit or undeserving soapboxes. Truth doesn’t let me give in to bullies, misguided and fear-based criticism or cowards. Truth is a queen and a humanitarian, while Good, she’s a silent, scared little sheep. Good showed me how to hide my wings, my words and angel vision. Truth taught me to be brave. Truth taught me now to respect myself. Truth allows me to hold impenetrable space for any story, but first and foremost, for my own. And Truth, well, she changes everything, and friend, she’s coming for you, too.”
— Tanya Markul

After reading the above quote, a friend commented on facebook: “I needed this, today. I’m tired of being good and doing what is expected.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, since then. There are times when I look at people like Alecia Moore and Glennon Doyle and Liz Gilbert and I have such an intense longing to be doing something in the world. Something great and meaningful and earth-shattering and life-changing, only I don’t know what and can’t quite figure out how to get there. But recently it occurred to me:

What if “there” is here? What if the thing I’m supposed to be doing is bringing my whole self into the room, wherever I go? What if what I’m supposed to be doing is loving myself fiercely and allowing others to see me as I truly am? What if THAT is my work on earth? What if, by doing so, I touch and help and better love and serve the world around me—not by becoming a celebrity like P!nk or writing a bestseller like Glennon or Liz, but just by bringing my own light into the darkness, every single day?

One of my favorite songs is White Owl, by Josh Garrels. In it, he sings:

“Like a wolf at midnight howls, you use your voice in darkest hours
To break the silence and the power, holding back the others from their glory.”

What if truth telling, bringing my whole, honest, uncensored, unfiltered, unhidden self to work, to the grocery, to the playground, to my blog… what if that is how I use my voice? What if doing the “next right thing” that the deepest part of me says I ought to do, rather than doing what is expected of me by others, is how I break the silence?

John Steinbeck once said: “once you’re done being perfect, you can be good.” But what if we take that one step further? What if, once we’re done being good, we can be FREE?

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Reaching Roots

“We act out because, ironically, we think it will bring us some relief. We equate it with happiness. Often there is some relief, in the moment. When you have an addiction and you fulfill that addiction, there is a moment in which you feel some relief. Then the nightmare gets worse. So it is with aggression. When you get to tell someone off, you might feel pretty good for a while, but somehow the sense of righteous indignation and hatred grows, and it hurts you.
It’s as if you pick up hot coals with your bare hands and throw them at your enemy. If the coals happen to hit him, he will be hurt. But in the meantime, you are guaranteed to be burned. On the other hand, if we begin to surrender to ourselves—begin to drop the story line and experience what all this messy stuff behind the story line feels like—we begin to find bodhichitta, the tenderness that’s under all that harshness. By being kind to ourselves, we become kind to others. By being kind to others, we benefit as well.
What you do to others, you do to yourself.”
–Pema Chodron, Start Where You Are

What I do to others, I do to myself.
The more I kind I am toward others, the more kind I am capable of being toward myself.

I learned pieces of this lesson a long time ago, when I realized that the more I judged others for their outward appearance, the more paranoid I became about being judged in a similar manner. I spent a long time working on this tendency in me, and as I became less willing to judge others this way, I also became much less fearful about what others thought of me. But when it comes to morality, I find myself becoming very judgmental and sometimes angry when people fall short of my standards.

This is a problem, because the more unkind I am toward the flaws of others, the more unkind I am about my own. Truth is, I’m just as prejudiced and dishonest and selfish and hateful as they are, only regarding different things—things I’ve justified. I make decisions that are just as poor, and have ideas about how the world ought to be that are just as bad. And it’s not that these these things don’t need to change in me, they DO. But the more judgmental I am toward the failings of others, the more judgmental I am toward my own and the less clearly I’m capable of seeing those failings. It’s only through compassion that I can bear to look–really look–honestly and sincerely at my own shortcomings. Without that compassion, it’s just too painful, too shameful to see how horrible I can really be. If, however, I can foster a culture of compassion within myself, I will become more and more capable of looking at my own failings with the love and tenderness that must be present if I am to grow.

“No tree can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
–Carl Jung

There is no possibility for movement upward without a corresponding move down. It’s only by being willing to see, truly see, acknowledge, and treat with compassion the worst—the very, very worst—inside ourselves that we can begin the work of change.

“We rebel against our own totalitarianism, as much as that of others. I cannot merely order myself to action, and neither can you. ‘I will stop procrastinating,’ I say, but I don’t. ‘I will eat properly,’ I say, but I don’t. ‘I will end my drunken misbehavior,’ I say, but I don’t. I cannot merely make myself over in the image constructed by my intellect. I have a nature, and so do you. We must discover that nature and contend with it, before making peace with ourselves. What is it that we could most truly become, knowing who we most truly are?
–Jordan Peterson

I have to know and take a good, honest, compassionate look at the “not good” before I am able to foster the “good.” I have to reach toward and acknowledge the hell that dwells inside of me in order to grow toward heaven. And because what I do to others I do to myself, I must extend compassion toward the hell that dwells in those around me if I am to receive the compassion needed to acknowledge it within myself.

And why not have compassion toward the hell in others? They are, after all, making themselves miserable and that is something that warrants compassion. Furthermore, it’s not as if I can change them. Half the people whose so-called sins I go around condemning are people I don’t even know. As for those I do know, the best I can do is lead by example and give advice when asked. My attempts to control behavior are just that—control of behavior. Through action or conversation or outright manipulation I might be able to get those around me not to do the things I believe (maybe even rightly) are immoral or harmful, but it won’t change the reasons and motivations they have for doing what they’re doing. If someone has a habit of drinking to dull their pain, for instance, abstaining from alcohol won’t change the fear that motivates the action. Without a change of heart, they’ll most likely find new and equally unhealthy methods with which to cope. In fact, if I successfully change the action without changing the intention behind the action, I could possibly make things worse by giving that person a new unhealthy intention (e.g., fear of making me angry.)

Bottom line: I can’t change anyone. I don’t have that power. Or, rather, any power I have to influence change exists not in my ability to change people’s behavior, but in their willingness to change their intentions. Regardless of their outward actions, people will work work within their internally existing intentions until they’re ready for a change. So isn’t it better just to love them?

What if my revulsion toward the so-called wrong actions of others is keeping me from fostering the very compassion I need to create a loving environment within myself? What if my revulsion toward other people’s sin makes me unwilling to face the sin that dwells in me? What if my harsh judgement toward others makes me judge myself so harshly that it prevents me from producing the only change I have any real control over: my own?

“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
–Jesus

Maybe, just maybe, this passage isn’t talking about God’s judgment. Maybe it’s talking about our own.

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Choose your own story

People instinctively follow what has been imposed on them by institutions, parents, friends, colleagues, culture, clergy, and on and on. Most of us never stop to consider the common path laid out before us: go to college, get a high paying job, buy a house, settle down, get married, have children, etc. These are the stories we are told will lead to a fulfilling life. We follow the pre-determined script without much thought, assuming that since it seems right for so many, it must also be right for us. But people are rarely right, and the stories we tell ourselves are rarely true.

  • For most of human history, it was believed the Earth was flat and located at the center of the universe.
  • For thousands of years, it was believed that life could spontaneously arise from mud when exposed to sunlight.
  • Until the 1800s it was believed that California was an island.
  • 19th century scientists believed there was another planet between Mercury and Venus called Vulcan.
  • Until the 1970s, women weren’t allowed to run in marathons because they were considered too strenuous and believed to cause infertility.
  • Smoking was once considered healthy.
  • Mercury was once used as a treatment for syphilis.
  • Just fifty years ago, people used vibrating belt machines in an attempt to jiggle fat off their bodies.
  • In 1999 computer users and programmers predicted that computers would stop working on December 31.
  • Insane asylums once housed women who were disobedient to their husbands.
  • Child marriage is still common in many societies.
  • Homosexuality is currently punishable by death in several countries.

Everyone is wrong almost all of the time. We’re often happy being wrong. It fulfills a need we have. But we can choose another path. We can venture into the unknown, the unscripted, and do what brings us peace and joy and comfort. We can do “the next right thing.” We can refuse to live according to everyone else’s story.

Each of us is unique. Each of us has our own, individual path. Following this path sometimes means saying no to everyone else’s expectations. It means saying no to the beliefs they hold and the stories they tell.

You have the right to choose your own story.

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(Adapted from The Power of No, by James and Claudia Altucher)

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Crooked Trees

I’ll never be able to wear that.
I ran my hands lovingly over the blouse. It was just the kind of style I knew would look great on me, the colors enhancing my summer tan and a deep, ruffled v-neck to highlight the recent emergence of my collar bone (something I haven’t seen since my early twenties.) Perfect, except for one thing: it was sleeveless. I stood for a moment, longingly taking in each detail.

I haven’t worn a sleeveless shirt in almost 20 years. I also haven’t worn shorts. Until recently, all my clothing consisted of long skirts and baggy shirts and although I wear more form-fitting clothing now, it’s almost always accompanied by some sort of torture device underneath to smooth the lumps and bumps and jiggly parts. Recently, a man called me sexy. Inside, I laughed. I look okay in clothes. What Romeo doesn’t know is that once removed, I’ll explode like biscuits in a Pillsbury Dough can. I didn’t buy the shirt. But as I walked away, a rebellious voice rose up and shouted “what the hell?!”

That voice is getting louder these days. Not long ago, it actually told me my body was amazing. Can you imagine? Here’s what it said (and this is word-for-word, because I was so astonished I actually wrote it down.)

Your body is the result of some incredible things. You have carried eight children in your womb. You have fed and nourished eight children from your breasts. You have overcome anorexia, gained weight because you refused to continue starving yourself, ran a half-marathon, and lost 100 pounds. 100 pounds! Your body is the result of all those things. Your body is fucking incredible.

(Forgive me, that voice curses every now and then.)

Yesterday, as I rode through the woods guiding a group on horseback, a customer exclaimed, “look at that tree! It’s beautiful!”
I turned to see. The tree didn’t tower over the others and its leaves weren’t full and lush, but its trunk curved in an incredible arc and its branches twined together in a spectacular canopy. It was beautiful.
This morning, I read the following statement, by Peter Wohlleben the man who wrote The Hidden Life of Trees:

“For a forester, a crooked tree is ugly, because you can’t get much money for the wood. So it really surprised me, walking through the forest, when people called a curved tree beautiful. They told me: ‘my life hasn’t always run in a straight line, either.’ And I began to see things with new eyes.”

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Feelings are signals

In his book 12 Rules for Life, An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan Peterson writes that in order to live a better life, we must learn to pay attention to the things that bother us. This advice strikes me as counter-intuitive, yet incredibly profound. Want to live a better life? Want to live with more joy, peace, and happiness? Then the secret isn’t (as one might think) to ask ourselves “what would make me happy?” Instead, he says we must ask ourselves three questions:

“What is it that’s bothering me?” “Is that something I could fix?” and “Would I actually be willing to fix it?” If you find that the answer is “no,” to any or all of the questions, then look elsewhere,. Aim lower. Search until you find something that bothers you, that you could fix, that you would fix, and then fix it.
Maybe there’s a stack of paper on your desk, and you have been avoiding it. You won’t even really look at it, when you walk into your room. There are terrible things lurking there: tax forms, and bills and letters from people wanting things you aren’t sure you can deliver. Notice your fear, and have some sympathy for it. Maybe there are snakes in that pile of paper. Maybe you’ll get bitten. Maybe there are even hydras lurking there. You’ll cut off one head, and seven more will grow. How could you possibly cope with that?
You could ask yourself, “is there anything at all that I might be willing to do about that pile of paper? Would I look, maybe, at one part of it? For twenty minutes?” Maybe the answer will be, “No!” But you might look for ten, or even for five (and if not that, for one.) Start there.

Our feelings are signals. They will, if we pay attention, give us insight into ourselves and the world around us. They will, if we listen and follow and are willing to do hard things (but maybe not too hard, as Jordan Peterson suggests,) guide us toward a better life.

What bothers you?

Start there.

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