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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

When the Pendulum Swings

When I was younger, in high school and college, I was very deeply involved in religious activities. Several times a year, I went on weekend retreats, which were invariably peak experiences. People who hardly knew one another would open the contents of their hearts, bond quickly and intensely, and share a high well beyond any experienced in normal, daily life. Returning to normalcy post-retreat was always difficult. People returned to their daily selves, and the shared experience grew less powerful as a touchpoint with one another. As the retreat ended, you told yourself things had changed, that you had changed. But the truth was, your old self and habits nearly always reasserted themselves.

I remember Pastor Ross addressing this: faith isn’t a feeling, he said. When the feeling of the retreat passes, you discover that faith is a verb. Something you actively do, not something you passively feel.

It has now been many years since I’ve been on that kind of retreat, or experienced exactly that kind of high. However, for just over a year now, I have been on a journey which has led to similar feelings: happiness, joy, a sense of purpose, renewed (or just new) relationships. My life has had a quality of incipience, every day on the cusp of a new experience or revelation. It has been amazing. I have gushed about it. I have sworn that everything is different now, things have changed, I have changed.

And all of that is true. However, no peak experience, no emotional high lasts forever. And when that feeling goes away, when the pendulum begins to swing on the downward arc, what does one do? More to the point, what should I do?

Option #1: Chase the High

A friend recently invited me to join her at a movie premiere in New York. The movie, directed by Robert Redford, stars several actors I enjoy. I loved that she asked, but for a variety of reasons needed to decline the offer. Several people told me I was crazy; in fact, one person said she wished she had my life because she would live it better than me. Well, that’s possible, I suppose. However, I am still me. I will still make decisions, for good or ill, based on my own values and gut feelings. I will never be the type of person who drops everything else in my life to jump at unusual experiences just to be able to say, “See what I did?!” So, chasing the high isn’t really an option suited to my temperament.

Option #2: Wallow.

As the pendulum drops from its apex, its easy to allow your emotional self to plummet into sadness and depression. Truthfully, there have been many times when this proved to be my modus operandi. In the current case, the things that have changed the most in my life are internal. The outward trappings have remained essentially the same. And now I am faced with the same life choices and decisions that have always awaited my attention: What should I be doing with my life? I have learned to be honest with myself, which felt really good at first, but which can be a bit depressing. For example, I pretended for decades that I didn’t have feelings like other people. Now, I’ve admitted to myself that I do and some of them are angry or disappointed or sad. Part of me wants to roll around in those denied emotions for a while, just feeling them. Luckily, my emotional health is more robust than it once was, and I can’t see the point in wallowing. So, Option #2 is a no go.

Option #3: Remember that to BE has always been a verb.

I’ve (briefly) studied two foreign languages in my life, and while I don’t remember much of either, I do remember that to be was the first verb we learned to conjugate in both of them.  So this option suggests that, regardless of what I am feeling, I can keep breathing, keep moving forward. I can keep living in the present, living as this new self I’ve worked so hard to become. And I can have faith – an active choice, not just a momentary feeling – in my ability to continue creating a meaningful life.

In summary: Option 1: too hard; Option 2: too soft.  Option 3…just right! Now that I’ve chosen an attitude, I just have to figure out the right action plan to go with it. And that will be both the hard and the rewarding part. I don’t know what will come next. But I do know that the pendulum will eventually hit its nadir and begin another upward climb!

Let’s Call It “Experience”

“Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

— Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

When I was a kid, I wanted an Easy Bake Oven.  Think about it: a toy in which a lightbulb provides the heat source to bake all kinds of delectable confections and a kid obsessed with delicious goodies.  Why wouldn’t the two be destined for one another?  But, I never got one.  Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.  The other day I was talking with friends, and someone said, in the stilted tones of a disgruntled 10-year-old,  “I never got one either. My mom thought they were stupid.”  My own mother’s sentiments exactly.

The Christmas orgy of gift-giving affords many opportunities to think about what to do, or what it means, when you don’t get what you want.  Disappointment in the gifts received is only the tip of that iceberg.  We hang so many hopes and expectations on the holiday — we want someone to stick a bow on us and say, “You’re my present this year” like in the coffee commercial.  We want that moment when we are completely aware that our life is rich and full of meaning (resulting in our buddy Clarence getting his wings).  We want to sing in four-part harmony about the white Christmas of our dreams while wearing gorgeous red-velvet dresses…ok, maybe that one is just me!  You get the picture, though.

I, personally, have been lucky in two ways.  First, growing up in a family with six children and a limited income, I had many opportunities to learn that I might not get everything I wanted.  I learned many coping mechanisms for this, from swallowing my disappointment with a 2000 calorie chaser of fudge to learning to be happy with what I did have.  Admittedly, some mechanisms were more helpful than others.

The second way in which I have been lucky is that, in the past year or so, I’ve gotten more than I ever expected on so many levels. I won a cruise, for crying out loud, not to mention healing relationships and recovering self-esteem along with some pretty amazing bike rides.  And I’ve been learning healthier coping mechanisms too.

Which, it turns out I’ve needed recently.  I got so accustomed to getting whatever it seemed I wanted, that I started to forget that life doesn’t work that way 100% of the time.  And BLAM! I ran smack up against it: not getting something I really wanted. Had this been something material, like an iPhone or a Nook, I think I would have taken it in stride.  But in the realm of emotional desires, I’ve discovered it can be much harder to find a way to manage extreme disappointment.  Here’s how I’m proceeding:

1.  I remind myself of the Randy Pausch quote, above.  Experience, as he refers to it, is just another name for living life as fully as possible.  And that is, deep down, what I truly want.

2.  I remind myself to be grateful for all I do have.  The list is long, and astounds me when I really think about it.

3.  I surround myself with people who make me laugh, to balance the private moments when, sometimes, I cry.

4.  I take action in other aspects of my life in order to feel positive momentum:  craft room clean, check; menu planned for the week, check; Tupperware organized, check. (If you know me, you’d better be laughing at this last one – when have I EVER been the kind of person who has orderly Tupperware?)

In these ways, even the awful feeling of not getting your heart’s desire can be transformed. Not what you expected, but not at all shabby.  And you’re able to remember that gifts come in their own time.  I believe that hope and patience are excellent qualities to cultivate because they contribute to resilience in the face of disappointment. And because, despite what you feel today, you can never know what the future holds.

Which brings me back to the Easy Bake Oven.  I received a Christmas gift on which there was a tag which read, “From Santa:  Sorry!  I’m a few years late with this. ENJOY!”  I’m sure you know what was waiting under the wrapping paper. Sometimes, if not always, you do get the things you want. Maybe in a slightly delayed time frame, or from a source you never anticipated.  Being ready for either outcome is, perhaps, what experience is meant to teach us.

Resilience

I had planned to write a humorous post this week, but that will have to wait.  What I find myself thinking obsessively about today is resilience.  “An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” (thank you Webster’s) is quite a profound grace.

When adversity strikes, it is tempting to wallow.  I mean, who hasn’t wanted to spend days – if not weeks – in the slough of despond crying “Woe is me”?  I know it doesn’t sound like something you would do voluntarily, except that when life falls apart around you it is suddenly a pretty appealing option.  Compared with the alternatives, like bearing it with good will and a sense of humor, self-pity seems incredibly seductive.

But as Samuel Johnson said, “Adversity is the state in which man mostly easily becomes acquainted with himself, being especially free of admirers then.”  If this is true, then using the moments of our biggest hurdles to learn our own capacities can be an opportunity for deep growth.  But how do we develop this kind of resilience?  Are we born with it, or do we discover it within ourselves when we exercise the only real power we have in these moments — the power to choose our own reaction?

In “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Viktor Frankl wrote powerfully about this power of choice.  In his case, the crucible for discovering his own capabilities was life in Nazi prison camps.  For most of us, the adverse conditions in which we find ourselves do not compare with Auschwitz.  They are more likely illness or injury, burnout, stress, chronic financial strain, cars breaking down when we can least afford them to.  I don’t mean to minimize the pain of these experiences, only to point out their less than epic nature.  We think we might rise to the occasion in an epic struggle.  But what about simple, daily, hurdles which drain our pocketbooks and/or leach our positive energy?

I’ve come to believe that resilience can be cultivated.  I’ve watched my friend Dave build it in his daughters by telling them daily, “Is this how you want to feel?  If not, then choose something else.”  And those girls are able to redirect their emotional energy – the first step is learning that it is possible to do so.  (In fact, Dave has given me the same lecture time and again, with good, if mixed, results. Like a second language, children learn this more quickly than adults.)  Sometimes, you cultivate your capacity to bounce back by pretending.  During resident assistant training every year, I tell my student staff that they need to project calm in emergency situations — they don’t have to actually feel calm, just act that way.  The secret hidden in this advice is that projecting calm often leads to mastering your feelings of panic.  Projection won’t take you all the way, but it can help to jump-start movement in a positive direction.

The other day my friend Melissa was feeling burned out.  She found that focusing on something she could control, rather than focusing on her burnout, made the difference. She told me, “I’m glad to see I’m pretty resilient these days… a 4.5 mile jog and a swim at the beach helped me bounce back.”  Another friend, facing yet another financial setback, worked to get his thinking aligned in order to flow with the current rather than get caught in the riptide of self-pity. His mantra was, “I’m fluid, I’m fluid, I’m fluid”.

Important in both of my friends’ abilities to face these difficult moments was choosing to bounce with resilience rather than splat with despair.  This kind of choosing may look relatively simple from the outside, but superficial or platitudinous thinking won’t actually cut it.  We have to want it, more than we want to win the “I have the worst life” story contest we carry on inside our heads (come on, that’s not just me, is it?!).  And wanting it, we have to also choose it, consciously, in each moment.  So, today, I pledge to cultivate resilience in myself — and to support those I love in finding the inner resources to choose it themselves.  Let’s go for the bounce, people!