Hardest Thing I’ve Done

We pass the spot every time one us takes the dog for a walk. About thirty yards to the south, we see her house whenever we are coming or going. It’s the place where my husband fell on the ice and broke his ankle. Moments before he’d stepped out to take the dog for a quick walk so we could make a movie matinee. Six weeks later it still fills me with rage and resentment.

No, I’m not angry that he fell — accidents happen. I resent our neighbor for ignoring him on an icy sidewalk in front of her own house. She passed by within feet of him — twice — without saying a word. Not even a polite, “Are you okay?” These many weeks later I’m still seething about the three people in the car who were dropping her off just as I was arriving in response to my husband’s call for help. Not one of the chauffeurs even acknowledged that someone was obviously down and hurt on the sidewalk right in front of them.

The only offer of help came from a different neighbor who ran out of a house from across the street. Seeing an ankle at an awkward angle and recognizing the signs of shock, he wisely advised us to go directly to the ER rather than Urgent Care and took the dog after helping lift my husband into the car. The compassion and generosity of this neighbor doesn’t begin to quell the seething resentment I hold toward the other.

As with so much anger, I haven’t spoken a word about this to anyone. It just festers. My husband sings my praises for my patience, kindness, generosity and good care shown to him. He’s even told others that he lives with a saint. I silently take it all in.

Another thing we haven’t spoken about is that all the wonderful qualities he praises in me can just as easily be the shadow side of my persistent desire to be in control and to be seen as perfect. As the 1930s radio hit The Shadow introduced every episode, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Yes, it does.

Not far below my carefully crafted persona lurks a robust ego and a heart capable of all manner of revenge. That’s ever-present as I wish that our neighbor would fall on the ice so I’d have the chance to obliviously walk by her. It flashes forth as I plot nasty vendettas each time I walk the dog past her house. It’s barely constrained while rehashing all sorts of nasty gossip I know about the woman. This virulent undertow reveals my vengeful side, belies a deep familiarity with eye-for-an-eye morality.

After all, I’m certainly justified and in the right! Am I not? My efforts over the past six weeks have been pretty decent and generous. Yet, we must also be honest. My motives can be much less virtuous than they appear. Yes, I have tried hard and do think I’ve been a patient, generous, attentive care-giver — a loving and supportive husband. I am a good guy — though sainthood is probably down the road a piece!

Here’s what I’d like my husband to know… on this morning’s walk with the dog past our neighbor’s house on the sidewalk where he fell, I noticed that her Sunday paper was much closer to the street than her porch. It’s been this way many Sundays so this was nothing special. But today I paused, suppressed my raging thoughts, leaned over, picked it up and tossed the paper to her front door.

“Honey, just so you know, that’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do during the past six weeks.”

Long Reach of 9/11

Renown spiritual writer, teacher and master of Centering Prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault offers an insightful interpretation of social realities leading to the election of Donald Trump. She makes a connection between 9/11 and voters’ motivations I’ve not heard previously:

Viewed from a slightly longer range and slightly out-of-left field perspective, I keep seeing that this election of Donald Trump in a way completes an octave that began on September 11, 2001. In the last fifteen years our country has struggled under a pervasive and growing sense of vulnerability, impotence, helplessness, of having been subjected to a collective rape which still paralyzes the resolve, the gout de vivre, as Teilhard calls it. It expresses itself across the board: in the obsession with guns and gun violence, the very real threats to life and wellbeing in marginalized communities, and in the more privileged classes with the almost hysteria around food, security, and child safety. I really believe that at a subliminal level, Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” speaks to that sense of releasing the paralyzed, hang-dog fear which is the only America we have come to know. It’s not really about economics. It’s about something way deeper. . . .

Bourgeault may be onto something!  You may access a her fuller reflection on the election results and where we go from here at her Center of Action and Contemplation [link]

What’s In Our Backpacks?

We all carry deep wounds — painful regrets about things we’ve done, festering resentments about what has been done to us. A fable retold by Carl Richards captures these burdens and the heavy cost of not letting go of them…

Two traveling monks reached a town where there was a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. The rains had made deep puddles and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. She stood there, looking very cross and impatient. She was scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her, so they couldn’t help her across the puddle.

The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. The older monk quickly picked her up and put her on his back, transported her across the water, and put her down on the other side. She didn’t thank the older monk; she just shoved him out of the way and departed.

As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then, she didn’t even thank you!”

“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”

If you are like me, you easily identify with the young monk. We may glimpse the wisdom of the older monk and desire to live accordingly.

The incriminating insight for me is the shocking recognition that I also behave like the prissy princess all too often — another burden I carry and need to set aside.

This truth is something I will carry with me and try to unpack again and again.
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Carl Richards credits Jon Muth’s book Zen Shorts for his story. Carl Richards’ fine essay appeared in the August 23 New York Times and can found at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/23/your-money/the-cost-of-holding-on.html?_r=0

 

How Men Feel

Men rarely risk sharing their feelings with other men or willingly acknowledge vulnerability. We’d rather polish a persona of strength, self-confidence and invincibility. This seriously constrains our capacity to live a full life — not to mention that it gets really exhausting!

Recently, an opportunity to risk presented itself. It was as if my friend and I had reached a certain tipping point — we’d either go deeper, admitting the truth of our lives, or we’d stall-out and our friendship would flounder amid trivialities. Thankfully, my friend risked honesty, transparency, vulnerability within the safe parameters we’d put in place over years of light-hearted banter.

As with all forms of human intimacy some details are simply too personal, private, even sacred to be shared outside the relationship. That’s the case here. In fact, safe parameters built over time create the very trust needed for transparent honesty and deep human intimacy. Rare and difficult as all this may be, it’s wonderfully priceless when it occurs.

A couple lingering ruminations from our conversation may be shared, however. They certainly are not offered as incontrovertible “truth”. Rather, they are offered to stimulate curiosity and a sense of wonder about what happens when we risk honesty, share feelings and admit vulnerabilities.

Prescinding from the specific emotions or “secrets” men generally try so hard to keep hidden, my friend and I asked how we might disengage from the straight-jacket in which repressed feelings hold us. Acknowledging that we had such a problem appeared as the necessary first step — allowing what’s buried alive to see the light of day!

Then, what? That’s where our curiosity and wonder remain piqued. Though typical males often find it difficult to reveal a full spectrum of deep emotion, feelings unexpressed remain very much alive beneath the surface! How do we disarm their seismic force while tapping into their potential power, strength and capacity to transform our lives? Sounds so simple, even prosaic, but it comes down to letting go of control. 

Most folks often confuse control with power. They are not the same thing!  Risking honesty and transparency my friend gave-up control, or even more explicitly, disarmed the paralyzing control his fear, anger and repressed emotions had over him. By relinquishing control my friend paradoxically found true strength, real power and abilities beyond his imaging.

All of the great wisdom traditions of the world seem to proclaim in one way or another what we experienced. The Apostle Paul provides a Christian expression when he writes: “…power is perfected in weakness… For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9f).

It’s one thing to praise these words from the safe distance of pious platitudes or Sunday sermons. It’s a whole other thing to get them into your bones, giving them flesh. Of this I am more than certain.

 

 

 

 

Outrage Displaced

A self-righteous moral crusade has pretty well preoccupied my past week. I’ve been outraged by the state of our health care system — its expense, inefficiency, bureaucracy, mediocrity, self-indulgence. All the while, some corporate and elected officials do everything in their power to scuttle needed reforms and deny access and affordable care to the most needy.

Trust me, if you’ve not seen me on my soapbox spouting harsh invectives and blistering assessments you should count your blessings. Obviously, I like words and take pleasure in their use. Rile my sense of moral indignation and I easily let loose with condemnations and anathamas for whatever the situation may be.

Case in point: today I am having laparoscopic surgery to repair a hernia. Really, no big deal. The actual procedure takes about 15 minutes. You’d never guess that by the bureaucratic hoops and all the medical professionals who find a way to get a cut of the action (i.e., the bill). Don’t get me started!

Nevertheless I’ve learned something important during this unplanned engagement with the health care system I still believe is objectively broken. I’ve learned how much I project and how I’d be better off attending to the stuff I can influence and for which I am directly responsible. Case in point: I need the hernia repair. I am not going to reform the health care system in the process.

Maybe there will be more to learn.  But, two realizations occur to me in this process. First, get clean and clear about my emotions. In this case I recognize that my repressed fear and submerged anxiety is spurting out sideways.  Expressing indignation about a bureaucracy I reluctantly must engage is easier than admitting that I’m more scared than I want to admit.

It’s really more about me than I want to acknowledge. I would do better admitting my feelings of vulnerability and loss of control than stoke the moral indignation I might muster on behalf of the faceless “vulnerable” and “powerless” in our midst. Yes, we must address access to good health care for those on the peripheries or those without access. However, I need to come clean about the source of my outrage and soapbox rants.

Second thing that has surfaced is a way to test whether my self-righteous indignation is just that — a slightly veiled case of self-interest and an external projection of my internal anxiety. It seems so simple… It would be more honest to ask, “Will I be as outraged and committed to reforming the health care system and getting access for the poor and vulnerable next week as I’ve spouted from atop my soapbox this week?”

Honestly, will I really care a week from now? I hope I will. Still, I probably will be focused on simple gratitude that my hernia surgery is poast and be off on my next “crusade.” Guaranteeing access to care for the needy or reform a broken health care system will be a cause set aside for whatever captures my immediate interst.

The need I should focus on and something broken I can more immediately change is much more personal. That requires more than a 15 minute procedure.

What Would Mom Say?

When I’d be moping around in my adolescent funk or otherwise being disappointed with what life was — or wasn’t — sending my way Mom would often say, “Y’know, life is pretty much what you make of it!” Then she’d keep silent, letting reality sink in. She said a lot of wise stuff about life! This is just one that’s popping up a lot these days.

Earlier this week I was speaking with a dear, dear friend. She, too, is a Mom. In fact, she’s a Grandma seven times over. One of her children is considering a job transfer to a different city. This is really a painful decision for everyone involved. No more having just the grandkids for an overnight. No more spontaneous visits to the Children Museum. No more school productions or soccer games to applaud. Yes, life sends plenty of disappointment our way.

But what really took me off guard was Sarah’s response. Ever the “Mom” with wisdom aplenty she said to her son: “Yes, I would be very sad. I would really miss you. But you need to know this… You are not responsible for my happiness — I am!” Talk about profound, honest, empowering wisdom from a mother!

Yesterday was a day filled with many frustrations… a home repair project for a friend took twice as long as it should have, the caulk-gun didn’t work when I wanted to seal cracks in the driveway, insulation we had installed the day before wasn’t sticking to the window as it should, battle was waged with a health care system more focused on profits than on people, my 16 y/o car has developed a metallic clatter that I can no longer ignore.

No wonder the wisdom of these wise Moms resurfaced from the recesses of my consciousness. What am I to make of this litany of frustrations? Do I really want to concede my emotional wellbeing to the power of caulk-guns, window insulation, and the clatter of a car engine?  I guess the choice is mine!

We still depend on our mothers’ wisdom to navigate life’s disappointments, salvaging happiness from a litany of frustrations.  We might say of our mothers what I imagine Sarah would say about her grandkids, “They may be gone, but they never leave us.  And that’s a good thing!”

Lightning Rods

A quick quiz…

Name a religious symbol.

If you are Christian, I’d bet nine out of ten would say, “The cross.”

What if you are Jewish? Star of David, perhaps?

Muslim… the Crescent Moon?

How would you respond if I said, lightning rod!?!

Yesterday, Janice Anderson proposed the lightning rod as a good symbol for her “doorbell ministry” at the Basilica of St Mary as well as her work with City House. The Basilica is a large, popular urban parish in Minneapolis where she has been on the staff since 1994.

Anderson was a presenter yesterday at a retreat for people associated with City House, a ministry of “active listening” with people on the margins — including those experiencing poverty, addiction, imprisonment or being homeless.

Janice chairs the City House board. She knows of what she speaks when she proposes the lightning rod as an apt Christian symbol.  Perhaps its an apt symbol for people of all faiths!

First, she readily admits what makes her “bristle” when encountering people who have every reason in the world to lead off with a burst of anger. Here’s my paraphrase of what I heard in her story:

Presuming I am the “more privileged” in such a dialogue — and I generally am — is the other judging me?  Might their judgement be accurate and fair?

Fear quickly surfaces when I feel afraid for my safety, imagined or otherwise.

Pride threatens to rob me of a true human encounter if I fail to enter into dialogue with respect for the other’s equal human dignity.

It is so easy to remain hamstrung by my own self-image as “good” if not “beter.”

Despite the fact it is generally an illusion, I typically hold tight to my need to be “in control” of whatever happens.

You may recall or imagine encounters of your own.  Add or subtract from this list of what makes you “bristle.” I suspect responses are as numerous and particular as the people involved.

Did you know that a lightning rod does not attract the lightning? I thought it did. Rather, it just stands there as lightning randomly dances across the sky. If it happens to strike, the rod simply takes in the charge and enables the surge of energy to pass into the ground.

Like doorbell ministry and accompaniment at City House, isn’t that what we are all called to do when we encounter people who hold a grudge and are angry — whether justifiable or not?  Don’t we find ourselves in places where we are called to stand in the place of God absorbing the charge of others, grounding their anger and letting pass an aggressive first-strike?

And here is a cautious reminder — we are to be lightning rods, not pin cushions!  There’s a big difference.  Jesus was one but never the other!

As we Christians move more intimately toward Holy Week we would do well be attentive to how Jesus absorbs the surges of anger directed at him, stands his ground as aggression passes through, letting first-strikes land, putting an end to the destruction that would otherwise occur.

Perhaps, this year, it is time to look beyond the cross if it has become overly familiar and time-worn of much potency.  Attentiveness to Christ as lightning rod is probably more than enough!
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You may learn more about City House at www.city-house.org — financial support is much-needed and always appreciated.