Words That Changed My Life: Hubris

For much of my early life, I was not particularly self-aware. Self-conscious? Absolutely. But I had not yet learned to see myself, my actions, my interactions with others from an analytical perspective. I simply could not stand outside myself and review with honesty my actions, motivations, or emotions. As a result, I was often taken by surprise, both by my own choices and by the reactions of others toward me.

My junior year in college, I took a Greek Mythology course as an elective. The course was taught by a nun who had spent most of her career teaching in grade school. We were horrified, on the first day of class, to be told we must respond in unison to her questions. We were also given worksheets and made to place them in exact order in our notebooks at the exact same moment, so that the noise of opening our required 3-ring binders (then snapping them shut) would take place all at once – no stragglers allowed. We were required to turn in the binders weekly. Misplaced worksheets resulted in deducted points. We began the semester hating that we were being treated like children. After all, we were confident and competent adults.

Through the course of the semester, though, my classmates and I grew to love Sister’s techniques. First, we decided to have fun with the novelty of returning to our third grade classroom structure. Then, the sheer amount of information we were actually learning – and retaining – became fun in a different way.

One concept that has stuck with me from that course is the idea of hubris. “The word was used to refer to the emotions in Greek tragic heroes that led them to ignore warnings from the gods and thus invite catastrophe. It is considered a form of hamartia or tragic flaw that stems from overbearing pride and lack of piety.” (eNotes: Guide to Literary Terms) Hubris: on one level I kept the word in my arsenal because I love words, and this is a good one to pull out in arguments and essays.

On another, deeper, level the idea that overbearing pride could be a tragic flaw was working on me. How would I know if I suffered from this? I mean, does anyone with this problem know they have it? Or are they all so arrogantly sure of themselves that they would never recognize their own puffed-up sense of self? The more I thought about it, the more relief I felt. After all, I was the opposite of self-confident – I was fearful in every way. And I was sure that everyone could see my inadequacy, despite my efforts to cover it up.

Pride, as they say, cometh before a fall. I reached a point in my life when it occurred to me that I had been allowing my life to happen to me, rather than actively living it. Of course, this realization came about as the result of pain and unhappiness that finally became too great to ignore. I think for most of us, these emotional growth spurts are often the result of difficulties, challenges, sadness rather than of happy times. The rawness of our emotions can cleanse away the lethargy and inertia of daily life, and we see ourselves more clearly.

What I saw in myself was an unbending pride that approached the level of tragic flaw. My pride didn’t stem from arrogance and overblown confidence. Mine stemmed from that very sense of inadequacy rooted deep in my psyche. My pride did everything it could to hide my unworthiness. I never wanted anyone to know I was clueless in a new situation, so my pride prevented me from asking questions. I never wanted to appear as stupid as I felt, so my pride kept me from venturing opinions or seeking out mentors and teachers. I certainly didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, so my pride prevented me from reaching out honestly and letting my friends know I was in pain, or lonely.

In Greek mythology, the story of Icarus is often used to describe the concept of hubris:

The main story told about Icarus is his attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. He ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned. The myth shares thematic similarities with that of Phaëton — both are usually taken as tragic examples of hubris or failed ambition — and is often depicted in art. (Wikipedia)

Presented with hubris in the context of my mistaken pride, which prevented me from fully engaging with others in my life, or with that of Icarus, I now see the second manifestation as preferable. At least Icarus’ pride led him to strive for something greater with his life – rather than using pride to keep life small and crabbed into a safe little box. I can’t say with utter assurance that I have mastered my tragic flaw. But I can say that, finally, I am self-aware enough to be able to see my choices and behaviors in light of how they either are filling my life or depleting my life – and then to take corrective action. Sometimes, I am even able to reflect on possible choices and take the best path first. And that, friends, is worth suffering a blow to one’s pride.

Flashback Friday: School’s Out for the Summer!

Family vacation, Mesabi Iron Range, Minnesota, circa 1973.

(l to r: Me, Chris, Matt, Gwen, Annie, Mom (peeking from behind), Jeff)

In honor of the end of the school year/beginning of summer, I thought I would post a photo from one of the infamous Hanson family road trips. This one took us through northern Minnesota and into Canada. We travelled deep into the earth in an iron mine, visited Lake Superior, saw huge fields of sunflowers, and the city of Winnipeg. It may not sound like much, but I loved it! So here’s to all our summers – the longest and most memorable ones may be in childhood, but they’re all good in my opinion!

Passages: What Women Mean

Today, I will be attending the memorial service for a former student, Katie Beckett, who passed away suddenly on Friday. Katie touched my life and the lives of countless others through her tenacity, honesty, and willingness to fight for what was right. Please take a look at this piece from NPR, one of many tributes to Katie posted in the past week. I’m happy the piece mentions Katie spending time at the Barnes and Noble coffee shop, as this is where I’ve visited with her in the years since she graduated. In fact, we spoke there just two weeks ago.

Later in the weekend came a facebook post from my friend Sheila. Sheila told us that her mother, Ruth, has decided to enter hospice care. I had the pleasure of becoming reacquainted with Ruth last summer, when Sheila and I reunited with Mary, another high school friend, at Ruth’s apartment. Sheila and Mary brought their guitars so we could do what we did in high school – play and sing John Denver songs. Ruth requested the first song, “Forest Lawn” – a humorous song about an imagined funeral. She said it was funnier to her now than it was thirty years ago. Later in the fall, Ruth sent me a lovely letter in which her honest and opinionated voice rang in every word. When Sheila posted that Ruth was entering hospice, she said Ruth had declared that “its time to kick the bucket”, a direct quote from a very direct lady!

Ruth, enjoying the John Denver sing-along last July

Needless to say, I’ve been thinking a lot about these two very different women this week. Different, yet similar in that they have both been known and respected for speaking truthfully what was on their minds and in their hearts. Tonight, I had coffee at the Starbuck’s Cafe inside our local Barnes and Noble store, and their voices were very present to me.

As I left the store and started my car, the John Tesh radio show, “Intelligence for Your Life” came on the radio. I was caught up in my thoughts, but suddenly keyed in on what John Tesh was saying – it was a list of “When She Says…What She Means Is…” Two items I remember from the list:

“When she says, ‘Are you hungry?’, what she’s really saying is ‘I’m starving’.”
“When she says, ‘We can do whatever you want tonight’, what she’s really saying is, ‘Please, let’s do what I want.’ ” (click here if you want to see other examples from a similar segment on the radio show)

 I’ve heard, and disregarded, such lists before. But tonight, I have to say it pissed me off. And frankly, I think we should all be angry about this crap. Whether the message of these lists – that women don’t say what they mean or mean what they say – is true or false is secondary to the fact that it should make us angry. If true, it suggests that women are both socialized to and feel prevailed upon to lie, dissemble, prevaricate…anything but say what we really feel. If false, it suggests that there is something in our culture which wishes to belittle women’s reasoning and communication skills, to reduce our voices to a series of stock (and stale) jokes.

So I looked into my own soul, and saw that there have been times when I’ve said the opposite of what I feel. Times when I’ve said I was fine, but wasn’t. Times when I’ve told someone I’m not offended, but I am. Times when I’ve said “Sure, it’s perfectly ok by me”, when it SO wasn’t. And as I thought of these examples, I got pissed at myself. For buying into the lies I was taught (in part by drivel like the list above) about what it means to be a woman. For believing, in those moments, that I didn’t have a right to feel what I felt. That if I said what I felt, others wouldn’t love me anymore.

Women, like Ruth and Katie, whose voices have been clear and present in their lives and in our world have a lot to teach the rest of us. First and foremost, that we don’t have to be anyone other than our honest selves to be loved. So let’s honor these women by working on this whole concept of saying what we mean and meaning what we say, in the full expectation that our world can change and our relationships deepen as a result. Luckily, we have some great role models to emulate!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

I sometimes wonder, and am occasionally asked, why I continue to post my Thursday weigh-in. Particularly when week after week there is little to no change on the scale. The truth is, I rarely want to. However, I have a goal. I haven’t achieved it yet, and I continue to work on it. It feels important to me to continue to acknowledge both the goal and the ongoing struggle to find the inner resources to get there. So, I post.

Words That Changed My Life: Intention

Note: This is the first in a series exploring words that have had an impact on my life, either by changing my perspective or by helping me to grasp a concept I had struggled to understand. The series will appear periodically, interspersed with other posts. For those of you thinking about a guest post for the “Sunday Roast” series, one option is a post about a word that changed your life !
From the gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome[a] it.”

I am a word person. I always have been, though for much of my life I relegated the power of words to my heart – by which I mean that I understood their power to affect my inner life and to stir emotions, but I didn’t fully comprehend them as vehicles for the outward thrust of energy. I didn’t know that some words could affect my daily experience.

In graduate school, we spoke about the need for educators to create “intentional” programs, designed to challenge and support our students in their personal development. Rather than throwing together a hodge-podge of experiences, think and plan carefully with a particular goal or goals in mind.

Goals. I learned how to write them, how to operationalize them, how to assess progress toward them. I just couldn’t get the hang of actually having them.

And then the idea of “Intention” (and it’s sister concept, “The Law of Attraction”) exploded on the scene. The New Age Movement meets Quantum Physics. I watched “What the Bleep”, read Lynn Grabhorn’s “Excuse Me, You’re Life is Waiting” – there is no shortage of material out there which says that we can create our own reality and attract into our lives the things we want, by “setting our intention”.

I liked these ideas, despite the fact that much of what has been written is tinged with magical thinking and focused on achieving material abundance. Although I’m not bent on earning my first million, I am attracted to the concept that it might be up to me whether any day is a good day. I have tried several experiments with the idea of intention. One notable example ended up with me getting free meat at the grocery store – it was a fun experiment, but the free meat has not been a replicable outcome.

What has and can be replicated is the intention to manage my own choices such that a positive outcome is practically guaranteed. I remember the first time I approached an annual event, one which I had annually dreaded, with this specific intention: “Today, I will be calm and open to every person who approaches me. If there is a problem, we will resolve it with compassion and respect.” I wrote the intention down, and said it aloud. Each time throughout the day that I began to feel anxiety or my composure began to slip, I would remind myself of the day’s intention.

In the end, it was a great day. In the end, I learned that the power of intention isn’t magical at all. It simply requires two things: the intent (in this case a short-term goal for the day) and the willingness to remain consciously focused on aligning your behavior with that intent. Simple, but not easy. Not easy, but what life-changing behavior ever is?

This may be one of the reasons the Gospel of John is my favorite. It’s first sentence “In the beginning was The Word” is perhaps my favorite sentence of all time. Then: The Word was with God and was God, and it was focused outward with a mighty intent. God’s intention created everything – how amazing and powerful is that? And the light created by that intent has not and cannot be overcome by darkness.

In my life, I try to use intention to reflect some small measure of that light. Simple, but not easy. Some days, I set my goal/intention for the day and my focus never wavers. Other days, it unravels or comes apart in shreds as I lose control of my attention, I get pulled in too many directions, I am unable to stay centered. As with every change we try to make in life, practice is called for and perfection is a million miles away. But I have more successfully intentional days now than I did five years ago, or five months ago. And that has, indeed, changed my life.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Stress. I’ve been bouncing all over the place the past couple of weeks. My weight, which I check almost daily, has fluctuated within a 10-pound swing. Which creates more stress. Which encourages me to eat the banana-blueberry muffins a friend bakes even though I already had two breakfasts. Ugh. A perfect week to remind myself about intention – and to set my intentions daily (also a good week to write about the power of intention to change a life!)

Flashback Friday: A Couple of Mothers!

My niece, Hallie, St. Francis, my sisters Gwen and Chris pose prayerfully, and not very reverently, outside Rancho De Chimayo (at least, I think that’s where we were!).

I chose this photo because Sunday is Mother’s Day. Chris and Gwen are two wonderful mothers, and I wanted to celebrate them today. Their parenting styles couldn’t be more different. (Those of you who know them – am I wrong?!) But I have to say, they have each raised two children – all four of them intelligent, generous, funny, and loving human beings.

I am blessed to have, among my family and friends, some truly amazing women who are also incredible parents. To all of you, from my mom (Shirley), to my sisters and sisters-in-law (Marsha and Maria), and all my friends who are moms (I can’t list all of your names, but you know who you are!) I want to say thanks for blessing my life with your wonderful kids: babies, toddlers, children, and adults!

Silly Things

I routinely ask people, “What should I write about in my blog?” Usually, I ask people on Wednesday night (which should surprise no one who knows my strict Thursday morning posting schedule). Last week, I asked a friend on Wednesday – and she got back to me on Friday. “Have you ever written a ‘Things You Don’t Know About Me’ post? That could be fun.”

Strictly speaking, many of my posts have been just that. However, most haven’t been SPECIFICALLY that. When I first got the suggestion, I wondered if I had any tidbits left to share. Then, as sometimes happens, life intervened and I found myself occupied with deep, heavy thoughts for days on end. When I finally sat down to write this week’s post, I could only think of deep, heavy topics. It made my head hurt, and my fingers felt too weighty for the keyboard. That’s when I remembered the suggestion, and had the idea of bringing some levity to it. Voila: Silly Things You Don’t Know About Me!

  • Occasionally, I binge…on smutty romance novels. I have at least one complete plot in my head for when I finally get around to writing my own. In the meantime, about once a year, I pick up a few at the local drug store – because I wouldn’t be caught dead purchasing them in an actual bookstore! People in line to pay for anti-itch cream or their monthly supply of Lipitor don’t care what I read.
  • I am proud of my feet…after years of regularly working out, they are the only part of my body that actually LOOKS buff. You can see the muscles, tendons and veins on top and, if you were to look, the callouses on the bottom. Other of my parts are toned, you just can’t tell because there is still subcutaneous fat there. Not so on my feet!
  • When I am alone, I sometimes dance sexy…not stripper pole sexy, but definitely not allowed on a high school prom dance floor. I’m actually pretty good (according to what I see in my full-length mirror) but don’t bother asking because you will never see it. Never.
  • More often than I care to admit, I carry a watermelon…and secretly blush about it for days. Yes, this IS a Dirty Dancing reference. (Watch the scene here.) You probably know this, if you’ve ever interacted with me. However, you may not know how many times I replay the scene in my head and obsess over it.
  • I have a karaoke list…songs I think I would rock if I ever have the courage to solo. Twice, at campus programs, I sang Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” – but I was with a small group of people I knew well. I’ve gotten up and shouted lyrics to “Summer Lovin” or “Love Shack” with groups. This bears no resemblance to singing. Once a friend put my name in and the whole room insisted I take the microphone to sing Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”. And yes, celebrating my 50th birthday in a nearly empty bar I did belt out some Flo Rida. But for someone who regularly attends “Karaoke Night”, I’ve actually performed very infrequently. I just don’t have the chutzpah to make other people listen to my caterwauling. But I keep a list. Just in case.
  • I am fascinated by dolls…that would be art dolls, created for artistic purposes not for children. I own several art dolls, and I buy every issue of Art Doll Quarterly I see. Once, my aunt Paula and I challenged each other to an Art Doll Competition: thirty minutes to find objects and create an art doll. Two rocks, some copper wire, and a tube of superglue later and I was a winner. (If you are interested in my idea of amazing art dolls, check out the work of Kelly Buntin Johnson, here).
  • I once memorized 10 sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay…because they were so depressing and I was heartbroken. I mean, they have lines like, “…This beast that rends me in the sight of all, this love, this longing, this insidious thing…” or “I shall go back again to the bleak shore, and build a little shanty on the sand…” . In order to get the full silliness of this revelation, please picture me walking alone in the woods, then sitting on a rock or stump and reciting the sonnets aloud, tears streaming down my cheeks. I live in Iowa. It might have been less silly on a rocky promontory above the sea. Less silly, more melodramatic?
  • A lot of people like Monty Python for the attack rabbit…or Lumberjack song style of humor. Don’t get me wrong, I laugh. But my favorite sketch involves two middle-class housewives, Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion, who have an argument at the laundry about the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, and take off for Paris to have Sartre settle the dispute himself. They call ahead and ask his wife when he will be free, and her response is, “He’s been trying to work that one out for the past 60 years!” It is quite a long sketch, something like 8 or 9 minutes, but it cracks me up every time.  (If you have time, watch it here)

I’m not certain this list is quite what my friend had in mind. I’m not certain it’s what I had in mind when I sat down to write.  But I do know that in the process of writing this list, I’ve been able to relax and disengage from all the heavy thinking that’s been weighing me down this week. Sometimes that is just what we need, a break for silliness – here’s hoping we all remember to take such a break now and then!