In Praise of Weakness (Just kidding! I hate weakness!)

30 08 2012
 

If I had a dime for every time someone has told me, “You’re one of the strongest people I know,” or, “You’re so strong, I could never (fill in the blank) like you” I would have enough dimes to buy something really big. Right this minute, though, I just want to munch on something crunchy and salty, so I would use some of my imaginary dimes to buy a couple of boxes of Cheese Nips and call it a day. In my weaker moments, I have been known to down a whole box by myself.

Weaker moments. We all have them, even the strong ones among us. It is in vogue to wax eloquent about how failure and weakness are our great teachers in life – that without them we wouldn’t even understand, much less achieve, success or strength. And this may, in fact, be true.

But here is how weakness feels: Weak.

Powerless. Fearful. Humiliated. Vulnerable. Stupid. I can’t speak for you, but  I don’t like feeling this way. If I can avoid these feelings altogether, I will. Failing that, I will suppress them, push them deep inside to a place they won’t inadvertently be seen or heard. I know they’re there, but when they speak, I am the only one who hears. I can be so heavily invested in the image of myself as strong that the idea anyone else might see my weaknesses and vulnerabilities is untenable.

Problematically, suppression has limits. I can suppress my emotions really well, sometimes for a very long time. Then some event, often insignificant in itself, triggers their escape. That escape is usually unexpected and sometimes directs itself toward another person who is blindsided by my emotional outburst. In thinking of these moments, it turns out, I have been learning some valuable lessons from my weaknesses. But these lessons are not about success or strength in the traditional sense. They are about courage. And they are about love, friendship and forgiveness.

What can these awful, painful moments teach me about courage? They can teach me, first and foremost, that there is a price to be paid for hiding behind silence. Not that everything we feel needs to be blabbed to the world or played on constant repeat. Rather, that our weaknesses – insecurities, fears, vulnerabilities – are part of who we authentically are. We are all generally happy to share our light with others. But when we enter into relationship with another person, the quality and depth of that relationship is determined, to a degree, by how willing we are to share our darkness. No one falls in love with the models in the J.C. Penney catalog – they are good looking but one dimensional. We also don’t develop deep bonds with people who only show us their shiny bits. Just to be clear, this lesson about courage is one I haven’t fully grasped at the emotional level yet, and my practice of it is uneven at best (pitiful at worst).

I am on firmer, and more proven ground, when discussing the lessons my own weaknesses can teach me about love, friendship and forgiveness. After all, these lessons have been demonstrated time and again to be true. Demonstrated when someone on the receiving end of one of my emotional eruptions stays with me in an effort to understand what just happened (as opposed to sensibly, understandably, running away). Demonstrated when evidence of my darkest self results in compassion and the offer of support. Demonstrated in the gift of forgiveness when my inability to hold onto strength results in hurtful actions or words directed at myself or others.

I haven’t learned to celebrate my weaknesses because they are my teachers. I doubt I will ever get to that point. I am just on the upside of accepting that my weaknesses don’t make me an unlovable pariah. They do make me human. They give me the opportunity to practice courage by sharing my authentic self with others – without knowing in advance what the outcome of that will be, but trusting that it is the right path anyway. As I work to change the pattern of suppression followed by emotional outbursts, my weaknesses offer the chance to develop kinder, gentler coping skills (kinder, gentler to self and others). Coping skills that actually help me cope.

And while I can’t manage to actually celebrate my weaker self or weakest moments yet, I can truly celebrate those who offer their love, compassion, and forgiveness to a flawed me. I hope that I am able to return these gifts, with true joy and gratitude, when those I know and love are having their weaker moments. Who knows, I may even be willing to share my Cheese Nips with them!





Words That Changed My Life: Hubris

31 05 2012

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.





The Way of Love

5 04 2012

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.”





The Quality of Mercy

15 12 2011

Friends, I feel so happy and strong. My life is blessed in ways too numerous to count. I say this, not to brag, but to be clear that this is where I stand: in peace and gratitude.

It is true, though, that life can be hard, full of challenges that we aren’t certain we have the strength or inner resources to weather. Illness, poverty, loneliness (among other things) may show up in our lives in big ways or small, and they also show up in the lives of those all around us. Sometimes we know what challenges another faces, sometimes we are unaware until we visit a friend and find her crying, or a note goes up on the bulletin board at the gym about a member’s family in need of our generosity.

Sometimes, I am closed to the suffering of others. Caught up in the details of my own life, focused on my own hurts or struggles. It happens to most of us. Other times, I am open and feel overwhelmed by concern and a desire to help. Often, it feels like there is so little of substance I can do.

A few years ago, I participated in a book discussion group at work, sponsored by our Campus Ministry department. I can’t remember the name of the book, but the theme was mercy. The author(s) used a working definition of mercy that went something like this: “to enter fully into the chaos of another’s life”. I clearly remember saying, in the ensuing discussion, that I didn’t know whether I wanted to do that – entering fully into someone else’s chaos sounds not the least appealing, especially if you have your own chaos.

And yet.

We are all so good at allowing ourselves to intellectually grasp what another person might be going through. We donate canned goods, drop money in the red bucket, participate on boards and go to fundraisers. These are all good things to do, but we can so often do them without actually engaging with someone in pain. Entering into someone else’s chaos demands the engagement of our hearts, not just our minds. That is so much more difficult, and it can really be scary.

A while ago, I participated in a one-day service project to deliver Meals On Wheels. My experience was different from that of the others who participated that day – it just so happened that my route included some particularly grim experiences. I haven’t been able to go back, though I was happy to donate the proceeds of my hunger challenge that year to that program. So maybe that was too much chaos, way too fast.

But when the people that I know and interact with daily are suffering, entering into their chaos means, first, walking beside them so they know I am there. I’m pretty sure I can do that.

What I don’t want to do is stand in this place of peace and gratitude, happiness and strength, and just watch the suffering flow by. Nor do I want to blunder in and try to fix everything. Neither of these approaches serve in the long run. My old friend (and by friend, I mean author I deeply admire), Parker Palmer, espouses a form of community which holds each person sacred. This is how I hope to express the quality of mercy in my life, and I think it’s a fitting end to this reflection. He says:

“The key to this form of community involves holding a paradox – the paradox of having relationships in which we protect each other’s aloneness. We must come together in ways that respect the solitude of the soul, that avoid the unconscious violence we do when we try to save each other, that evoke our capacity to hold another life without dishonoring its mystery, never trying to coerce the other into meeting our own needs.”
 




Perspective

22 09 2011

I remember an art teacher trying to explain the concept of perspective in drawing class. Intellectually, I got the concept, but when I put pencil to paper, I could never quite make it come out right. Those long railroad tracks disappearing into oblivion always curved in a strange way that would have derailed a train had one ever ventured down them.

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about perspective. In art, perspective allows us to see objects in three dimensions, although they are on a two-dimensional surface, in a way that looks realistic. In life, perspective is also about seeing things realistically. It can only be achieved when we allow the plane of our own understanding to intersect with that of another (or others), thereby bringing depth and dimension to our vision of the world. And richness to our experience.

When I was a kid, I often faulted my mother for things. On Crazy Hats Day at girl scout day camp, my mother produced two crazy hats she had made – one for me, one for my sister. I thought my sister’s was cute and mine was embarrassingly ugly. It occurred to me too late that it might hurt my mother’s feelings if I told her so. I had been thinking about it in only one dimension – never considering that my mother might view it differently. I was a kid, though – and kids aren’t supposed to understand perspective. You’re supposed to gain perspective as you learn things like empathy, or the adage, “Walk a mile in my shoes.”

As an adult, it can be surprisingly easy to lose perspective though you’re not supposed to. To revert back to the kind of thinking that only considers me: my experiences, my feelings, my hurts. It is frighteningly easy to devolve into “poor me-ism”. This past weekend, I was so there. It was my on-call weekend, and things refused to go right. Saturday night/early Sunday morning, I was called to go to campus and untangle a series of events which took the entire night to sort through, and which included deeply emotional students and concerned parents, and a complex series of life events and issues. I returned home around 7 a.m., exhausted after a completely sleepless night. It was easy to say poor me. Nothing ever goes right for me. Yadda yadda yadda. Blech.

And then something really sad happened.

I learned of the death Sunday of a former student, one who graduated just a couple of years ago. I remember meeting Hannah, her freshman year. She was positive, bright and upbeat. She wanted to be a nurse, because she had a chronic illness and was so grateful for the amazing nurses who had cared for her throughout her life. But shortly after her arrival on campus, her condition worsened and she needed to leave school. Eventually, she became a candidate for an organ transplant, and returned to school after her surgery. It wasn’t long before another medical setback for Hannah: an opportunistic cancer, a result of the immunosuppressants she was required to take. She fought the cancer, and returned to school again. For the remainder of her college career, she participated in campus activities, majored in social work, and shared her story with many.

Hannah was an extraordinary person masquerading as an ordinary college student.  The notice of her death in the newspaper says, “Hannah’s life embodied her middle name, Joy, with a smile and spirit that would brighten up the room. She was sincere and caring toward all people. Her courage and drive were an inspiration to all she met. Her strong faith and love for the Lord Jesus Christ supported her through all her medical problems. Hannah will be deeply missed by her family and many friends.” All of it true.

Which brings me back to perspective. So many students I work with are reckless with the lives they take for granted. Or worse, purposely try to end them. Yet Hannah fought for hers every single day – and not just to keep it, but to fill it. Many of us waste the gift of time sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves, while others find their time to be precious and short.

Today, I will begin the day with a workout class at my gym, then head to work and a schedule jam-packed with meetings. At the same time, Hannah’s family and close friends will gather to share their joy in her life and their grief at her passing, Her life intersected with and impacted so many, offering depth and dimension. Perspective. It is what allows us to live life in 3D, rather than in the one monotonous dimension of self-centeredness. Today will be a good day to remember that.





Flashback Friday

13 05 2011

On May 17, 1984, four buildings at Clarke College (now Clarke University) burned in a disastrous fire. The buildings lost included the beloved Sacred Heart Chapel, which was the symbol of the college. Students put up the sign, above, the following day. What you cannot see in my version of this iconic photo is that, just above the arched doorway, stood the charred remains of the two floors of this building obliterated in the fire. Catherine Dunn, BVM had been president of the college for 11 days when the fire occurred. The college library, which had been housed beneath the chapel, sustained smoke and water damage. Along with many students, local residents, and other alums, I took part in the effort to salvage as many books as possible from the remains of the library building.
I LOVED Clarke, and being a “Clarkie”/”Woman Aware”. Never more so than when I saw how students, faculty, staff and alumni pulled together into one community after the fire. I like the new buildings the college built to replace those lost, including its glass atrium, the new symbol of Clarke. However, every time I pass the campus, I still miss the old center of campus, and the chapel spires.




In Recovery

12 05 2011

On university campuses, May is a time of dinners, receptions, celebrations of many stripes. It is also the time when colleagues, holed up in offices all winter, emerge blinking in the sun, and greet one another with exclamations of “I haven’t seen you in so long!” At one such occasion the other night, I was happy to see the wife of one of our Deans, whom I hadn’t seen in, well, so long. She said, “You look fabulous! How have you done it?”

Normally, when people ask me that question, I assume they are interested in a short answer – diet and exercise OR bariatric surgery. So I generally respond, “The old-fashioned way.” For some reason, on this particular occasion, I launched into a longer and less clear explanation. I found myself telling her that I had refused for many years to take a real look at WHY I was fat. That, in fact, I preferred to believe that the only plausible reason was that I was engineered that way. I definitely wasn’t one of those people who was overweight for psychological or emotional reasons. I told her that I finally had to take a hard look at myself and evaluate my irrational thinking.

Last night, I attended a presentation being offered as part of our pre-finals “Stress Buster Week”, in which a panel of guests shared their personal stories of alcoholism and recovery. As I listened, for the first time it struck me just how much my relationship with food mirrored their relationships with alcohol. One panelist stated, “For most people, a few drinks quenches their desire or need for more. For an alcoholic, a few drinks just makes you more thirsty.” Substitute “food” for the word “drinks” in those sentences, and they will be true for me. In the same session, I heard the panelists say:

  • I knew I wasn’t normal. When I was drinking was the only time I felt normal.
  • Teachers and speakers told us alcohol was evil. But alcohol comforted me, so I wasn’t willing to do anything about it.
  • I drank in secret whenever I could get away with it. As long a no one saw me drink, I didn’t have a problem.
  • I was so ashamed.

Wow. These statements were all eerily familiar to me as well. I know there is a group called Overeaters’ Anonymous, patterned after A.A. I never considered joining, and when it was suggested to me periodically, I always said, “I’m just not a joiner.” Denial much?! And, if I am completely honest with myself, I wanted to distance myself from all those fat people. After all, I wasn’t one of them. I may have been fat, but that didn’t make me like those other people – I was smart and educated and never bought more than one value meal for myself at McDonalds. The fact that I looked upon others who struggled with the same issues as me with such repugnance is a testament to the irrationality of my thinking, and to the power of my addiction. I didn’t want to give it up, and if I admitted to having problems, I would be forced to face that food was just my drug of choice.

Another thing the panelists said last night that made me nod in agreement:  “The whole forever thing really tripped me up. To get better, I would have to stop drinking for the rest of my life. No way I was going to do that!” In order to truly face my addiction to food, I knew that the lifestyle changes I  needed to make would have to be lifelong. I read in one article that overweight women my age would need to work out 60-90 minutes a day, every day, for the rest of their lives to lose the weight and keep it off. Talk about a daunting prospect. Plus, I would need to maintain a change in my relationship to food – no more whole pizzas or whole bags of cheddar goldfish in a single sitting. In fact, I may have to forego some foods altogether if I couldn’t learn to control the portions. Yes, I definitely saw myself in the panelists’ struggle to come to terms with their addictions.

But here’s the really amazing thing: each member of the panel HAS faced his or her addiction, with incredibly positive and powerful results. Listening to their stories of living in recovery, and the positive changes that have taken place across all facets of their lives I started nodding along. I recognized myself in this part of the story as well. As I sat there, I was suffused with an overpowering sense of gratitude for each of our stories. I almost said, “for the happy endings to each of our stories”, but if I’ve learned anything (either in the last couple of years or from last night’s speakers), there is no happy ending to our stories. Our lives continue as stories being told one sentence at a time. One of the panelists summed it up, perfectly, “I take it one day at a time. Because I know that if I succeed today, tomorrow will be better.”