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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Posted in Criticism | Leave a comment

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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Walking with God

“A knowledge of your perfect life sits inside you.” —Martha Beck

“Your soul alone has the map of your future.” —John O’Donohue

“Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” —Isaiah 30:21

Every major religion and theology speaks of some sort of guiding principal, some internal compass we can (and ought to) tap into, a state of inner contentedness to a source of wisdom which flows through us all. This voice (I will call it God, feel free to call it whatever you want… the soul, the inner compass, I don’t think it matters) speaks in different ways to each of us, and seeks to take us all down different paths. When, for instance, offered the chance to go on a primitive camping trip in Oymyakon, one person may respond with excitement and another with dread. I believe our internal responses are indicative of the life we’re meant to lead  and the more often we listen and follow, the more capable we become of hearing and distinguishing this voice and the more guidance we will receive.

But often, we lose our way. We find ourselves wandering the woods, the path covered by thorns and thistles, unable to determine the next right step. Some of us live the majority of our lives this way, reaching adulthood having only a vague idea of what we enjoy and what might make us happy. We find ourselves adrift in a sea of indecision, tossed by waves and carried by winds, without any form of navigational star. How does this happen?

I believe the answer lies within the story of creation. To paraphrase:

God creates man and gives him a partner perfectly designed for him. They are naked and unashamed and walk with God each day, living peacefully in a beautiful garden God has given them to live in. One day a serpent enters the garden and convinces them to eat from the only tree God has placed off-limits. When they do, they realize they’re naked, feel ashamed, and cover themselves with leaves. Later, when God comes into the garden for his evening stroll with them, they hide. Eventually, God learns what they did, and they suffer the consequences which include banishment from the garden.

Two things most interesting to me about this story, as it pertains to the current subject, are that the serpent which causes man’s fall is described as “subtil” (difficult to see, vaporous, and deceitful,) and that he provokes the same state in Adam and Eve. They cover themselves. They hide. Could it be that if we’ve come to find ourselves lost in the wilderness, unable to hear God’s voice and see the path before us, it’s because we’re cowering in the bushes, ashamed of our own nakedness?

“If we claim to have fellowship with God and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.” (1 John 1:6)

I used to assume this verse spoke about sin. In my interpretation, I could have substituted the word “sin” for “darkness” and it would have made sense. And yet, the passage continues:

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7)

I had to read this several times, because the consequences are so profound. Notice what this verse is not saying. It is not saying that if we walk in the light, we will not sin. It says that if we walk in the light, we will have fellowship and be purified from our sin. What is light? What is darkness? Just as it’s impossible to stand in the light without being seen, it is impossible to stand in darkness and be revealed. If we are not willing to stand in the light, if we’re not willing to reveal ourselves in all our naked imperfection, we cannot have fellowship with God.

It’s no coincidence that Satan (the antithesis of God) is called the Father of Lies. Being led by God, hearing his voice, and walking the path he has set before us, requires honesty. It requires stripping ourselves of whatever we use to cover our nakedness and showing up to the world fully exposed, willing to reveal those parts of ourselves we’re most tempted to hide. Naked means being vulnerable. It means being subject to judgment. It means being unprotected and unarmed and exposed to danger. But it also means walking with God.

If we cannot hear his voice, if we do not see the signs, if we cannot find our way, perhaps it’s not because God isn’t speaking. Perhaps it’s because there are things inside of us that need to be revealed, so we can listen. Perhaps it’s time to come out of hiding, so we may walk with God.

“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed about by the waves and carried around by every wind of teaching and by the clever cunning of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ Himself.” (Ephesians 4:14.)

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No, Honestly

“There is absolutely no way that you can be truly, genuinely, deeply compassionate and generous toward someone if they are violating your boundaries at the same time.” —Brene Brown

“An internal no nulifies an external yes.” –Henry Cloud and John Townsend.

Lately, I’ve been asking myself the following question: How much ought someone else’s needs, opinions, and desires dictate what and when I provide? I think the answer to that question is very context-dependent, but there is one guiding principal I’m becoming more comfortable using to evaluate each and every situation:

Don’t do anything you don’t want to do, unless there is a very good reason to do so.
(By the way, fear [of what someone will think, how they will respond, etc.] is never a good reason.)

There are people I don’t want to help, or spend time with, or talk to, and there are circumstances I don’t want to—and shouldn’t— involve myself in. We all have an internal voice which sometimes screams “no” while our external representative nods her head yes, and I believe that voice is trying to tell us something. Something important. Maybe we’re not the best person for the job, or it will tax us beyond our abilities, or we’re being taken advantage of. Maybe the subconscious is trying to bring critical information to the surface of our awareness. But most of us ignore that little voice. We lie. We say yes when we want to say no. We pretend we’re happy to help, when in truth we’re feeling bitter, angry, irritated, resentful, and/or used (all indicators that something isn’t quite right,) because we’ve come to believe, especially in the Christian culture, that we ought to help everyone who asks. But as Jordan Peterson says, Jesus’s death exists as an example of how to heroically accept betrayal and tyranny, not as a directive to victimize ourselves in the service of others.

“’Do onto others as you would have them do unto you’ and ‘loving your neighbor as yourself’ are equations, not injunctions. If I am someone’s friend, family member, or lover, then I am morally obligated to bargain as hard on my own behalf as they are on theirs. If I fail to do so, I will end up a slave, and the other person a tyrant. You are not morally obligated to support someone who is making the world a worse place.”

In the end, truth is the most important thing we can offer the world. It’s the only method by which we can wholeheartedly show up for our lives and do the work which God means for us to do. One cannot walk with God while hiding in the garden. Truth, and the act of exposing and expressing ourselves which truth requires, is the only means by which we can genuinely love those around us and make the world a better place.

An honest “no” is better than a dishonest “yes.”

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Safe Places

Early in my marriage, I remember hearing something about how couples ought to create “safe places” for each other–environments where they can talk about their issues and work through them without the fear of anger or condemnation from the other party. I agree wholeheartedly that this is a worthwhile goal, but today I’m asking myself… what happens when your safe place fails?

Throughout my marriage, at least in the early stages, I tried to be open and vulnerable with my husband, but we were often ill-equipped to handle big issues, especially when they manifested themselves through seemingly trivial problems. For instance, not knowing our differences in “love languages” often left me feeling unloved when Jon came home and immediately headed downstairs to work out (my love language being time.) He saw my anger as lack of support and grew angry in return, sometimes responding in sarcastic ways which left me reeling in pain (my secondary love language being words of affirmation.) Eventually, I shut down and stopped expressing my needs altogether, or did so through manipulative tactics which hurt us both, until one day so much pain and anger and resentment had grown between us that I sat before a marriage councilor and cried “I feel like you’re telling me to cut down an entire forest with a nail file!”

Today, I sat thinking about a recent incident that left me feeling bruised and tender, and I thought once more about the concept of “safe places.” The funny thing is, Jon has been a “safe place” for me in many, many ways throughout our marriage. He has been the person who knows the best and worst of me and has loved, supported, and been there for me, anyway. In many ways, he’s one of the most loving and forgiving people in my life. And yet, even that bastion has had it’s weaknesses. And this makes me wonder: isn’t that true for all relationships? Don’t we all fail, on occasion? Don’t we all grow tired and angry and confused and respond in ways guaranteed to create distance between us and those we love? And if so, how can I maintain a commitment to being vulnerable with those I love, when I know they may occasionally fail to respond in loving ways? How can I remain open and willing to share my weaknesses with people who will, at times, lash out in the midst of their own hurt, anger, or frustration?

As I thought of this, I was reminded of Jesus’ words to Peter, who asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” And Jesus answered, “not seven, but seventy times seven.”

Now I don’t think forgiveness necessitates continued relationship (ie. you can forgive an ex who beats you, but that doesn’t mean you ought to continue living with him), but as I ponder this particular verse, the continued forgiveness of “seventy times seven” does seem to imply continued relationship, and it makes me think, perhaps, that the key word in this verse is “brother.” When I think of a “brother” or “sister,” I think of someone who truly wants what’s best for me. I think of a person who genuinely tries to be a “safe place” even if the moat protecting the castle occasionally dries up. It makes me realize that all I can ask of someone is that they be willing work with me toward building a place of refuge and comfort and unconditional love, even if it’s not perfect. It makes me realize that there will ALWAYS be cracks in the wall, but what happens, afterward, is where the real work begins. Will I run and hide and shut down as I have so many times in the past? Or will I use that place of pain and disconnection to illuminate the cracks, and work with this knowledge to create a safer place for both myself and others? Maybe the key to vulnerability and openness and being willing to share our struggles isn’t so much knowing the other person will never hurt us, but being willing to walk through that pain, over and over again, seventy times seven, in order to heal.

It reminds me of a dream I had, years ago. In the dream, I stood unclothed before a friend. I felt embarrassed and uncomfortable, but compelled to stand there, exposed and vulnerable. Later, the image from the dream came to me with the following words:

“Some day I will stand before you, naked and unashamed.
Not because you have created a safe place for me,
But because I have.”

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