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.

IMG_0002
Handle with compassion

A Mouse, and the Conundrum of Forgiveness

I don’t hate the mouse that is running around my apartment. In fact, I’ve only seen it once, and it appeared to be as frightened of me as I was of it. It’s fall, and little critters (like the rest of us) are just looking for a way to survive the bitter winter. This particular bold rodent happened upon a way into my cozy space and decided to take up residence. Who could blame it – I have a nifty and warm place. I’ve forgiven the little thing for moving in, but let’s face it, a mouse is simply not wanted. Does forgiveness require that I live with the mouse? I don’t think so. Therefore, I’m going to set a trap for it, without rancor (but with some squeamishness).

Better-Mousetrap-640x260

Which gives me pause to think about forgiveness in other circumstances. If someone has harmed me or hurt me, and the harm or hurt is real (not simply a matter of pettiness), how far do I have to take this forgiveness thing? Can I forgive without forgetting? Is it forgiveness if I can’t return to former feelings of liking or respect for the individual? Have I forgiven someone if I remain unwilling to allow them close enough to hurt me again? Have I forgiven them if the experience continues to color my judgement of their words or behaviors? Can I forgive a person but still not welcome them back into my life?

These are important questions. The kind of questions for which easy answers are rarely forthcoming. But I had to give it a shot, right? I googled “quotes about forgiveness” and found the sort of wisdom you might expect:

“Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.” – Oscar Wilde
“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” –Mark Twain
“The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” – Mahatma Gandhi

These statements aren’t much good for those of us seeking some practical insight or advice about forgiving and moving on. Then I came upon this:

“Forgiveness means it finally becomes unimportant that you hit back.” ― Anne Lamott

Perfect! A measurement I can really use. I don’t need to hit back. Does that mean I’m finished? Unfortunately, I’ve never been the type of person who hits back. I’m more the “stand-with-mouth-haning-open-and-mind-suddenly-blank” type. So lacking the urge to hit back may not be the best measure of whether I’ve forgiven someone. But it’s a good start.

“Forgiveness must be immediate, whether or not a person asks for it. Trust must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record.” ― Rick Warren

Forgiveness does not require that I immediately trust the individual again. Trust requires a track record, and IF I continue to be in direct relationship with this individual that record needs to be established. In fairness, this idea of a track record also means that if the hurtful/harmful behavior is an anomaly in a relationship of demonstrated trust, then trust might be called for sooner rather than later. Clearly, one sign that we’ve actually forgiven someone is that we’re able to regard them with fairness.

You may already have guessed that these questions, and my search for answers, are not purely academic in nature. I’ve always believed myself to be good with the forgiveness thing – but in the past, forgiveness hasn’t posed much of a problem because I was dealing with family and dearly loved friends. These individuals forgive me, and I forgive them, easily and often. The experience of forgiveness directed toward someone who was not emotionally as close but whose ability to hurt me was still high is a new one for me. I believe that forgiveness is key for my own growth and ability to move forward in life – which is why I am spending time living with these questions. And even though there is a specific application in this case, it never hurts to revisit our beliefs about such important life questions as the nature of forgiveness.

In the meantime, I have some business to resolve with a little mouse.

The Case for Uncertainty

Image

When Reverend Robert H. Schuller posed the now famous question: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”, I wonder if he had any thought of its ongoing impact – of how often it would be presented, posted (reposted), asked as a motivational tool. I get what he was going for, but the truth is, I’m kinda tired of this question.

I’m tired of it because I think it is the wrong question.

Let’s face it – for most of us, the truthful answer when asked “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail” would be, “What I did yesterday. What I am doing today. What I plan to do tomorrow.” We build our lives around daily routines that are composed of things we can’t fail at: eating, sleeping, working, laundry. On the micro/daily level we don’t fail at these. At the macro/lifelong level, we may question whether or to what degree we were successful at these things – but mostly we muddle through without labeling ourselves as failures. We feel secure in our “fail safe” routines, as if our lives are manageable, predictable.

Besides, we can all point out, in fact are hyper-aware of, the times we do or have failed. We deal with failure to the best of our ability and move on – what else can we do? There’s even a kind of trendy “failure is good” meme out there right now, encouraging people to take risks, reminding us of how many times Michael Jordan missed a basket or how many rejection letters J.K. Rowling got before someone agreed to publish the Harry Potter books. The message is that failure is a necessary risk if we hope to succeed at anything worthy in life. I don’t take issue or argue with this point.

However, last winter I read Brene Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection, in which she alters Rev. Schuller’s famous question. Brown suggests that we ask ourselves, instead, “What is worth doing, even if I risk failure?” This raises the stakes by introducing the concept of uncertainty. Not “I can’t fail” but “I might fail”. I would argue that the most important word here isn’t fail, though that’s the word that captures our attention and most of our immediate fear. The word to pay attention to here is might.

What is glossed over or skipped entirely in most pep talks for daring greatly is that uncomfortable period during which we must live with uncertainty. If we want to create real change in ourselves, our lives or the world, we will have to get comfortable with uncertainty. “Real change only comes from encountering what is unfamiliar, what is new and unknown”, say authors Fred Mandell and Kathleen Jordan. “We can copy ourselves over and over again, every day. Or we can step into the unknown.” (from Becoming a Life Change Artist: 7 Creative Skills to Reinvent Yourself at Any Stage of Life).

Stepping into the unknown is uncomfortable. Un-easy. Underappreciated. I remember a conversation with a senior colleague, a woman the same age as me, in which I was told, “You still dream of accomplishing something new and different with your life? I’m not sure I do.” When I actually resigned my job of nineteen years, with no detailed plan for what came next, that same colleague called me courageous. At the time, I felt courageous – because I felt certain. Certain that leaving was the right decision. And,  though I am less likely to apply the “courageous” appellation now, I continue to feel that certainty.

But certainty is old news, or at least isn’t my uppermost experience these days. For months now I have been living with and in uncertainty. Living contentedly with the daily unknown of “What’s next?” comes neither easily nor naturally to me. Here’s what I think I’ve learned so far, the tentative case I am building for the importance of uncertainty:

  • Living in uncertainty, for any length of time, requires the development of trust. Trust that there is a higher purpose or good to be unearthed in my life, and trust in my ability to recognize it when it begins to unfold.
  • Expertise is a hard shield of certainty that can be used to protect us from the openness required of beginnings. Stepping out of my role as expert, no longer having a “professional pigeon-hole” in which to dwell and shedding certainty about what I know opens my mind to new thoughts about the world and the role(s) I wish to play in it.
  • Lacking certainty about tomorrow puts attention more squarely on today. Living in the present moment takes practice, and I wasn’t ever very good at it.  Now, though, it is abundantly clear when I stray out of the present – anxiety and fear serve as barometers that immediately register my movement into past recriminations or future fears.
  • In a similar vein, living with daily ambiguity forces me to be vulnerable – something I, for one, have always avoided. In the present I feel my emotions (is it ok to say I have a love/hate relationship with feelings?). But I also have the time to examine them and tease out the jumbled threads to understand them, something I could never do when time was always in short supply.
  • Uncertainty allows for play. Trying new things on for size. Engaging in exploration that can’t happen when every step is already mapped out. It allows us to give up, for at least some portion of time, the need to succeed and instead to focus on process rather than results. Carla Needleman, in The Work of Craft, says: “…the desire to succeed is the progenitor of real failure and…this attitude is a far more pervasive force than we realize…The craving for results in objects, or in opinions, the need to name, the need to ‘know’, which means to end the discomfort of not knowing, is the seemingly innocuous backdrop against which all our activities take place. I don’t know how to feel about the pot (she’s talking ceramics here) because I don’t know how to feel about myself. The pot and I then make a closed circle in which no new knowledge can enter precisely because it hasn’t been asked for.”

Uncertainty may not be comfortable, but it is certainly fertile – if we allow it to be so. Recently, a friend shared a blog post by a woman who quit an unfulfilling job in a community she didn’t care for, moved to Colorado, and took the better part of a year finding the right situation for herself. She characterized herself, during that year, as being “uninteresting”. Her conclusion was that all she did was worry about money and finding a job. This focus prevented her from engaging in interesting activities.  I read her post as a cautionary tale – after all, our stories are similar. What I am beginning to grasp, if imperfectly, is that the gifts of uncertainty are sometimes difficult to mine, but in the end are worth any extra digging or effort on my part. Whether there is an eventual outcome which can be labelled as a success or as a failure, I want the hallmark of this time to be growth. The treasures being unearthed are knowledge, efficacy, compassion, gratitude – of and toward both myself and this amazing world I am part of.

I’ll close my case for uncertainty with one more elegant argument, which I stumbled across online earlier this week:

“If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation…There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”
           — Pete Athans, alpinist, from National Geographic, “Famous Failures”
 
Image 1