More Than A Flimsy Web

I know what they're going for with this name. But it made me laugh and reminded me to be less self-centered!
I know what they’re going for with this name. But it made me laugh and reminded me to be less self-centered!

Many people are familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality typology. (If you are not, here’s an easy introduction to the concept.) My personality type, which has remained fairly consistent over 20+ years of periodic assessments is INFP – which stands for introverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving. INFPs often feel a bit odd, resulting in part from the fact that only roughly 1-4% of the adult population assesses as this type. My type has been described as “passionately concerned with personal growth and development”; we may present a “calm and serene face to the world, and can seem shy, even distant around others. But inside they’re anything but serene…”. And this: “The INFP needs to work on balancing their high ideals with the requirements of every day living. Without resolving this conflict, they will never be happy with themselves, and they may become confused and paralyzed about what to do with their lives.” (read one full description of the INFP here.)

Do I really need to ask those of you who know me whether any of this is ringing a bell? I have heard many variations on the comment “Is there ever a time when you aren’t thinking?”, most recently when my friend Molly said, “I just don’t think deeply about these things like you do. I’m more practical, and go right to how to fix it.” (I’m paraphrasing Molly, apologies if I didn’t get the tone right – she was complimenting me!)

INFPs are idealists, and among the four types of idealists, they are categorized as “healers”. The problem with being in relentless pursuit of personal growth and development is that the INFP’s gaze – I mean MY gaze – is so often turned inward that we forget it is our mission to help others heal. I forget that I am my best self when I am turning an empathetic and loving gaze outward, rather than the more frequent self-critical (and inward-directed) navel-gaze.

This discussion of my “type” is all prologue to the heart of what I want to share today.

Two weeks ago I made what was intended to be a low-key trip back to Iowa to visit friends. I didn’t call everyone I know and make a bunch of advance plans for get-togethers. Instead, once in town I contacted people one at a time, setting up coffee or breakfast dates. These past months of major transition in my life have included so many great group activities, contrasted with long periods of aloneness, that I was craving deep conversation and one-on-one reconnections with dear friends.

As often as I have, in recent years, received exactly the thing I most needed, one would think I’d have learned to trust this life process. But I haven’t. It invariably surprises me each time. Throughout the weekend, my friends offered me the gift I most needed – the gift of their own questions, pain, struggles. The gift of saying (figuratively, not literally), “But enough about you, I’m ready to talk about me.” When friends trust us to take in their difficult emotions and return a commensurate depth of regard, to take their trust and return love in its place, it is an immeasurable grace. Denise Levertov expresses this so beautifully in her poem, “Gift”:

Just when you seem to yourself
nothing but a flimsy web
of questions, you are given
the questions of others to hold
in the emptiness of your hands,
songbird eggs that can still hatch
if you keep them warm,
butterflies opening and closing themselves
in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure
their scintillant fur, their dust.
You are given the questions of others
as if they were answers
to all you ask. Yes, perhaps
this gift is your answer.

–Denise Levertov

If there is a gift and a lesson in the beauty of my friends choosing to trust me with their questions, part of the lesson is this: that my deep questions and broken places are also a gift to share. Not my angst-y whining about “what am I going to do?”, but the truth that lies beneath that – the hurts and cracks that I rarely choose to share (it’s so much more convenient to pretend that the surface concerns are the real issues, isn’t it?).

Saturday, I did my best to offer that gift to another friend. I found it so incredibly hard – I put my sunglasses on in a dark coffee shop so I didn’t have to make eye-contact, for crying out loud.   I did a horrible job of expressing what I was feeling, but my friend did a good job of listening. And he directly stated the action I need to practice: “You have to open up and make yourself vulnerable if you expect me to know what you’re feeling.” True words for all of us at those times when we feel lost or misunderstood.

I want to thank the people in my life who offer me the gift of their neediness, their hurts and their questions. I understand how difficult it is to see that as a gift you give rather than as a burden you drop on an “unsuspecting friend.” But I know it is a gift because of how much it means to receive it. This alone should be enough to remind us to pass the same gift on to others, though it often isn’t. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is not just a way of opening to our own growth and insight. It is also a way of helping those we love stretch their capacity for empathy and compassion, to take on the role of healer and give up (for a time) the incessant self-absorption endemic to our days.

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Handle with compassion

Ineffable Gratitude

This week we have been experiencing fog. I love fog, the way it takes the familiar and makes it strange and mysterious. The way it hides some things completely, yet reveals others in striking detail, highlighting these objects so that you see them with new eyes. Fog makes sound confusing, muffling it and disorienting the listener (on a walk Tuesday, a friend and I kept hearing a sharp report like gun fire, yet we looked in opposite directions for its source). I don’t have a word for the effect fog has on my psyche. It is enchanting, disorienting, occasionally even frightening. All at once.

The same words can be used to describe how I have experienced this year. 2012 has been odd for me, full of true peaks and desperately low valleys. Yet both have primarily been experienced on an interior level, visible only to me. It has been as if I have been walking in my own emotional landscape during a prolonged season of fog. There are occasional signposts, infrequent landmarks that suggest I have been here before, that I do in fact know this terrain. Still, it has felt strange.

I have often been reminded, this year, of Denise Levertov’s poem, “Zeroing In”. In it, we listen as two people discuss their interior landscapes.

“I am a landscape,” he said.
“a landscape and a person walking in that landscape.
There are daunting cliffs there,
And plains glad in their way
of brown monotony…

They suggest that there are places that we come upon, wandering our emotional landscapes, which without warning sink us in a quagmire or (worse) jump at us like a biting dog.

“I know,” she said. “When I set forth
to walk in myself, as it might be
on a fine afternoon, forgetting,
sooner or later I come to where sedge
and clumps of white flowers, rue perhaps,
mark the bogland, and I know
there are quagmires there that can pull you
down, and sink you in bubbling mud.”

They say we learn to leap away from unexpected contact with these places:

  “Yes, we learn that
It’s not terror, it’s pain we’re talking about:
those places in us…
…that are bruised forever”

(read the entire poem here)

Fog. Internal landscapes. Emotional pain. Not exactly the traditional fare of Thanksgiving posts. That said, this post is, indeed, about thanksgiving – mine. My gratitude for the unexpected breadth and depth of feelings experienced in this ethereally fogged-up landscape of my soul.

For many years of my life, I kept myself well-defended within a fortress of walls too thick to allow much feeling to permeate. Those of you who have been on this journey with me know that, by grace, those walls were sent crashing down a couple of years ago. In the aftermath, there was a rebound into joy, liveliness, excessive positive energy. It was lovely, but even as I experienced it I suspected it wasn’t sustainable. I had no idea what to expect on the next leg of the journey, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t remain at those heights.

It turns out that the current segment of my life’s path is the one that reminds me I am an ordinary human. I am being reacquainted with the reality of the human condition – we can use many means to escape into numbness, but numbness is not our natural state. Our natural state includes both joy and sorrow, hope and despair, love and loss, high and low. And not just these opposite endpoints, but the full spectrum of each.

Does it sound strange to say, “I am grateful for the lake of tears I have shed this year” or “Thanks for the epic roller coaster ride of emotions?” I suspect it does, and in some ways I surprise myself by saying it – because there have been days when I desperately missed my fortress of denial.

There is something ineffable here, though.

Ineffable:  1.  Too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words: “ineffable beauty”.
2.  Too sacred to be uttered.

Wow, did you catch that? Too sacred to be uttered. The gift of our humanity, of full participation in this life we have been born into and made for. It isn’t so much that I am at a loss for words, as that the right words cannot be found, cannot be uttered. And so Thanksgiving finds me able only to offer humble thanks for the bounty of a difficult (and fulfilling, and happy, and challenging) full- spectrum year.