Drinking The Kool-Aid

The day of my Nana’s funeral was the first time I saw my father cry. It was a shock to me, which is probably why I remember it so vividly. That, and the incident with the kool-aid.

After the funeral, relatives and friends gathered at our house. For us kids, it was like the best party ever – my dad’s sister Rosie’s nine kids were there, five or six of us (can’t remember which siblings had been born by then) and other assorted cousins and kids. We were playing outside, running around sweaty and thirsty and begging for something to drink. So my dad made a pitcher of kool-aid. But as we stood in a line on the back porch ten or so kids realized at the same moment that something was terribly wrong. The kool-aid was beyond tart. Dad had forgotten to add sugar. I remember suggesting we should just go ahead and drink it, rather than bother my Dad with our complaint. That idea was vetoed by the other kids. But I couldn’t get the image of my father’s grief out of my head. It seemed like the most thoughtful thing I could do was drink that terrible, sugarless, beverage.

In November of 1978, when I was 17, Jim Jones and members of his People’s Church committed mass suicide in Guyana by drinking poisoned kool-aid. This is the origin of the phrase, “drinking the kool-aid”, generally meaning blind, uncritical faith in a leader. I am not using the phrase in this sense, though perhaps my use is a distant relative. Instead, I am talking about those times in life when what is before us is a decision to either do or not do a bitter, unsweetened thing. Sometimes, like on the day of my Nana’s funeral, we want to be kind and thoughtful, but there will be no true benefit for anyone if we drink (though there may be real cost involved). At other times, we do the hard or bitter task because the benefit to others outweighs the cost to us. Learning to differentiate between these two types of occasions is an art form.

How do you know, when circumstances are murky or clouded by emotion, whether or not to drink the cup set before you? How much effort do you put forth for others in your life? How many contortions do you make in your day to do what you think someone else wants or needs? These are difficult, sometimes gut-wrenching questions.

I’ve developed a few guidelines that are, I think, serving me pretty well.  They were developed after years in which I often found myself bitter because I was making the effort to drink the kool-aid, yet it was going unnoticed and/or unappreciated by the person for whom my effort was expended.

  • First, I have to ask myself: Do I have a hidden agenda? Do I want to do this as an expression of my care for the other, or is it an attempt to “make” another person love me, appreciate me, beholden to me? Believe me when I say this is one of the hardest questions I regularly ask myself. It is hard because I want to lie to myself. I want to say, every time, that I am only thinking of someone else’s happiness. I want bluebirds to fly out of my mouth because my soul is just that pure. However, if I am drinking from the bitter cup because of a hidden agenda, the bitterness becomes palpable in my reactions to the other person. Ever hear of a martry complex? I am susceptible to this failing, and I truly hate seeing it in myself – so much so that I’d rather be honest with myself about my agenda!
  • Another important question: Will my doing this be meaningful to the other person? I have been known to go to every store in town to get the exact gift I think will be perfect for someone. This is a process which gives me happiness, and whether the other person ever sees or knows the effort is incidental to my enjoyment. I am motivated by my love and the sheer joy of expressing it in this manner, and I can sense those lovely little bluebirds flitting around my altruistic head. There are times, however, when a desire to please becomes a crazed nightmare. One time a friend who rarely asks for help told me she was feeling overwhelmed and could use some help that would necessitate my availability for a Saturday. I was scheduled to work that Saturday, but didn’t want to say no in my friend’s hour of need. I rearranged my schedule, calling in favors and making deals with several other people in order to be free to help my friend. Saturday morning, just as I was donning my superhero cape, my friend called to say that she had changed her plans and didn’t need me after all. My ego was deflated, I was angry, and my feelings were hurt. Didn’t she realize the effort it took to come to her rescue?! But the failure was mine – I hadn’t been honest (“Oh, no, I’m free on Saturday”), I hadn’t been direct (“I am scheduled to work, but if this is really important to you, I’ll make some calls and switch things around”) and I hadn’t asked myself whether I had a hidden agenda (SuperJenion to the rescue!).
  • A final question that I’ve learned to ask is: Does this really matter to ME, or am I doing it because I think I SHOULD? If the answer is that it matters to me, great. I do it. If the answer is “because I should”, I need to dig a little deeper. So the next question needs to be: Why should II am not one of those people who advocate never doing things because we think we should. There are times we SHOULD suck it up and do things, whether or not we want to or they are meaningful to us, because they matter to others to whom we are committed. If this is one of those moments, knowing it goes a long way in adjusting my attitude toward the positive. But sometimes I say “I should” when the reality is it doesn’t matter. That “should” is coming from a place of insecurity – I am afraid that someone else will be angry or not love me if I don’t say yes. So, I drink the stanky kool-aid from a place of fear. I’m the only one who thinks drinking it is a sign of love. Often, no one else really even notices what I agonized over. And then, we’re right back to that icky martyr complex.

The story of the kool-aid that wasn’t “cool” has become a legend in our family. Told and re-told with mirth over the years. For me, it is a reminder that sometimes our kinder impulses can lead us to make empty gestures. All of the adults, including my Dad, found humor in the reactions of their children to the sugarless kool-aid. I needn’t have worried so much about further burdening him in his grief, nor did I need to be the lone child choking down a glass of foul liquid. In my adult life, being clear with myself about my motives and the actual needs of my loved ones, instead of acting from misplaced obligation, insecurity, or hidden agendas has saved me from a great deal of bitterness and martyr-ing. Besides, I’m sure we can agree, a nice cold glass of sweet kool-aid with loved ones after shared effort is truly good for the soul – and what it was all about in the first place!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hanging on by a thread…remembering to take it one day, one meal, one opportunity to be active at a time! Happiness in the company of friends is awesome, but I can be happy AND remember my goals. At least, that is today’s mantra!

The Fall of A Sparrow

Three weekends ago, my friend Mike came into my house via the side door saying, “Did you know you have a bird’s nest above this door?” I said that it had been there and empty since I moved in. He said, “Well, it’s not empty now, I just scared a little bird out of it.” And sure enough, when I asked him to check, there were eggs in the nest. We were worried the smell of his fingers touching the eggs might keep the mother away, but soon she was happily sitting the nest, keeping her eggs warm. On Sunday, after Mike left to return to Minneapolis, I pulled out a step stool and snapped the shot, above, of the little speckled eggs.

That weekend, we were marvelling at the early spring that had arrived in the midwest. We made a point to start using the front door, in order to cause less disturbance to the little bird family nesting in the side awning. And we made friends with the neighbor’s cats, who do love to sun on my porch and rest in the shade beneath my front bushes. One beautiful tiger cat was especially friendly, lying at our feet and stretching to expose his belly to be scratched.

Every day I’ve watched the progress of life in the little nest. I haven’t wanted to get too close, since any movement at the side of the house sent the mama bird flying away to distract attention from the nest. I’ve exclusively used the front door, even when arriving home after dark, fumbling with my key and crossing the pitch black living room to find a light switch. Finally, last night, I noticed a change. Tiny movements in the nest, tiny chirps – the little chicklets had hatched. I plan to take the afternoon off work tomorrow, and thought it might be a good time to attempt a photo of the hatchlings to go with the one, above, of the eggs.

This morning, I woke and went to the gym for my TRX class. It was a hard class, and I returned home physically wrung out. I turned on the tea kettle to boil water for my morning coffee, and sat down at my computer to put the finishing touches on today’s blog entry. Suddenly, there was a loud noise at the side of the house, much like someone attempting to break down the side door. My heart leapt into action, hammering hard and fast in a fear response. I ran to the side door, thinking that whomever was trying to break into my house might go away if they realized I was still inside.

The sight that greeted me was not what I expected. The tiger cat looked up at me from a crouched position, obviously startled in the middle of something. And that’s when I thought of the nest. Opening the screen door, I was greeted by the sight of five little birdlings, gasping their final breaths on the cement at my feet, the nest that had sheltered them hanging like a straw beard from the awning above them.

Death took all but one within seconds of their fall. The last and largest of the hatchlings lived for maybe two minutes. There was absolutely nothing I could do, except witness the little thing’s passing.

For some reason, I really wanted those little birdlets to live. I’ve never watched a nest before, never been so engaged before in this process, not even as a child. I wondered how I would be able to bring myself to dispose of their little bodies. Luckily, I was spared that task by the arrival of Tom, the facilities groundskeeper who tends my lawn. He is such a kind-hearted man that though it saddened him, too, he agreed to do the grisly clean up.

But even in my sadness, I can’t hold it against the tiger cat. He was just being his cat self. Next time I see him, I’ll reach down and rub his belly the way he likes me to. And I’ll be reminded that sometimes our role in the day is to be a witness to this amazing world and to the life that inhabits it. We get so caught up in being actors in our lives, deciding and speaking and moving. Sometimes simply, silently, witnessing is necessary, too. Necessary for us and for our world.

Gutcheck 2012

Last night I was invited to participate in an annual event: Gutcheck 2012. The event begins at The Irish Shanti in Gunder, IA with a feast – each participant devours a Gunderburger (a 22 ounce burger with fixin’s, click here for photos). After eating the Gunderburger, participants go for an 8-mile run through the nearby countryside. The 8-mile run is followed by the ingesting of a giant tenderloin. As the invitation says,

“Gunderburger + 8 miles + Giant Tenderloin = Gutcheck. Take as much time as you need, but you can’t yak.”

While it may sound strange, I have to say I’m honored to be invited. The crew who plans and participates in this event are all alumni, all were student-athletes (track and cross country), and all are decades younger than me. And while I am not a runner, and not likely to begin a running career with Gutcheck 2012, I have to say the concept appeals to me.

Not the part of the challenge that is all about not throwing up. But the concept of an event which requires you to push beyond the limits of what you have thought yourself capable of doing. That kind of exercise is valuable in many areas of life – not just the novelty run arena. Just imagine…

  • …if you pushed your limits by asking for what you want. In your job, in your relationships, from God. So often, I find myself holding back from articulating what I want – whether what I want is something I’ve already earned, something that should be accorded to anyone with whom we interact, or is simply something I want. Where is it written that wanting things is inherently wrong or selfish? Or that in order to have the things we want in life we need to wait in silence for those things to be given to us? I’ve come to believe that asking is often an eye opening experience for both parties, in part because until we say it to someone else, we often don’t know for sure what it is we want. But also, others cannot assist us in achieving the things we want if they don’t know or we don’t ask. And I have truly found that, by and large, people actually want to assist others in getting what they want in life.
  • …if you pushed your emotional boundaries and reached out to new people and new kinds of relationships in your life. How might your days be enriched by including a diversity of ideas, styles, personalities? Pushing the limits of my openness to others has brought amazing gifts to my life in recent years. The results: incredible people, wonderful experiences, nuances of friendship and relatedness I hadn’t known were possible. It isn’t easy to maintain openness, to push emotional boundaries. After all, we set those boundaries for a reason. But boundaries are meant to shift over time, and it is healthy to test and reshape them.
  • …if in the grand tradition of The Gutcheck, you pushed your physical limits beyond your comfort zone? What might you be capable of if you got out of your head and into your body? Here’s what I’ve discovered: my body, abused and tired as it was from years of excess weight and sedentary days, is AMAZING. Resilient. Strong. And capable of more effort, endurance and courage than I ever understood.

So, I may not participate in Gutcheck 2012: The Event. (Although I’m keeping my fingers crossed there’s a video again this year!) But I think it is important to occasionally stop and do a personal Gutcheck. In what areas of my life have I allowed myself to grow too comfortable with mediocrity? In what ways can I stretch myself in order to discover something new or to enrich my days? Sometimes, we might take too big of a stretch and end up yakking. So what? Yakking happens. It may not be polite to put it in these terms, but I’d rather throw up, make a mess, and move on than not make the attempt to stretch further in my life.

The Way of Love

When I was in high school I belonged to an inter-faith youth group. It was a special experience, but for the purposes of today’s post, I will just say that we used to sing. A lot. One of our favorite songs, often requested by churches when we sang at their services, was based on 1st Corinthians, the chorus saying, “If I have not charity, if love does not flow from me, I am nothing…Jesus reduce me to love.”

In the intervening years, I’ve heard and read these verses from 1 Corinthians many times. When I was in youth group, they were new to me, but even then they held a kind of deep call which has never disappeared. Although they are most frequently read at weddings, I have never associated them primarily with romantic love. Rather, the definition of love, the clarity provided about what love is and what love isn’t, has always seemed (and I believe was intended) to encompass a way of being in the world and an ideal to strive for in all relationships.

In college, I read the book, Unconditional Love by John Powell, who says “Unconditional Love means that I cannot always predict my reaction or guarantee my strength, but one thing is certain: I am committed to your growth and happiness. I will always accept you. I will always love you.”  And the idea of unconditional love became coupled with the verses from 1 Corinthians in my heart.

In graduate school counseling classes I became familiar with the phrase “unconditional positive regard“, which refers to a manner of being in the therapeutic relationship. But David G. Meyers, in his book Psychology: Eighth Edition in Modules, describes it beautifully and fully as something that can, it seems to me, be practiced in any relationship.  “This is an attitude of grace, an attitude that values us even knowing our failings. It is a profound relief to drop our pretenses, confess our worst feelings, and discover that we are still accepted. In a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship, we are free to be spontaneous without fearing the loss of others’ esteem.”

We live in a world that encourages us to disengage from our truest selves. Whether that is because we have been victimized or traumatized, or whether we have been led to believe that who or what we are is “not normal”. In such a world, we are taught that the safest thing to do is keep our true selves hidden, covered over in tough, protective layers. In such a world, how is a good marriage, a close family, or an intimate friendship even possible?

The only available course I see is the way of love, as outlined in 1 Corinthians, or John Powell or one of dozens of other thinkers and spiritual leaders over the years.

In recent years, I have learned to open those closed chambers within myself and let the daylight in. It is never easy, even now that I’ve had practice. But I have discovered that there are others in my life who have committed to me unconditionally, who are willing to see me in the light of truth and still choose love. In spite of what this world we live in led me to expect, these people have chosen to love odd, imperfect, quirky, neurotic me in spite of seeing my darkness.

To the friends whose recent life events and revelations have led to this reflection, I promise to give as good as I’ve gotten. I can’t guarantee my strength or my ability to help you through your own protective layers. But this much is certain: I am committed to your growth and happiness. I will endeavor to be a safe place where you can drop your defenses, confess your worst feelings, and still find acceptance.

I cannot promise to approach perfect in any way. But I can strive to practice the way of love in my daily interactions. As Tom Cruise’s famous character Jerry Maguire says, “We live in a cynical world.” However, the way of love has no room for such cynicism. Love, after all,  “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Here’s the honest truth: I got on the scale today but I didn’t like what it said. I didn’t want to share it with all of you. So I decided not to. Let’s just say it was a blip on the radar – a number that began with a 2.

I am actually not upset about it, because this past weekend was a weekend filled with delicious, soul-satisfying food and celebration (it ended with the baptism party for little Isaiah Kohl). I DO feel compelled to publicly share that Mike Beck is as good as his word – the man has bragged about his cooking, in particular his reubens and his lemon cake. He not only put his money where his mouth is, he convinced me that I will never eat either elsewhere without wishing he had been the cook. They were that good. So here’s to stopping and smelling (and eating) the lemon cake in life!