Seeking Kindness Inspired – The Sixth Week of the Kindness Challenge

Featured Image:  “Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa,” Marquette University Archives, 1979. Available from Jim Forest, via Flickr, uploaded Dec 2010. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

The sixth week of the Kindness Challenge offered an invitation to reflect on those people who inspire me to greater kindness. Pondering this prompt brought to mind thoughts of some very kind and true people. Listing so many men and women who lived dedicated lives of grace, justice, mercy, peacefulness, and selflessness was simultaneously inspirational and frustrating, for their virtues sharply contrasted my own faults. As I thought about this topic, the people I most deeply admired included several saints and many other great figures from history – St. Pope John Paul II, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day. I considered the people whose writings and works influenced me over years. Some occasions in my life marked watershed moments in my own becoming. In my heart, I found that I was still deeply affected by the English thesis that I wrote nearly fifteen years ago on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the philosophy course that I took in college where I was first introduced to Leo Tolstoy’s treatise The Kingdom of God is Within You.

Finally, though, I settled upon two role models who seemed to exemplify goodness and loving virtue. These two women were Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta (soon to be St. Teresa of Calcutta on September 4th) and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In their lives of humility, charity, gentleness, and patience, I found encouragement and hope.

Through St. Thérèse, I am learning about the little way. If only I would find the time to actually take her posthumously published autobiography, Story of a Soul, off of my bookshelf and read it! The little way of St. Thérèse is spoken of often, but it seems very elusive and hard to put into practice. Reading her own words on the topic would probably be helpful, but even from what small bits I know, she is already gently reminding me that I do not need to perform great deeds, achieve astounding feats, or set my eyes on lofty goals in order to make a difference in the world. My part may simply be to live as well as I can in this moment, in this day, choosing the greatest love in the smallest, most ordinary decisions that I make, and thereby increasing the grace and goodness in the universe in a tiny, but not insignificant, increment. And, so, I continue to have patience with my limitations, including my limited time and the fact that I am a very, very slow reader.

“I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, Chapter VII

St Therese of Lisieux
St. Therese of Lisieux,” © Adora8 (own work), March 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

When Mother Teresa took her first vows as a nun, she chose the name “Teresa” after St. Thérèse. Her name as a child in Albania was Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu. I first learned about Mother Teresa when I was seven, and one of my classmates chose her as the subject of an autobiographical book report. I was scared of this strange woman in a white robe who didn’t appear at all the way I thought a nun was supposed to look. She didn’t conform to the safe structure of my existing schemas at the time, and I think that made me feel afraid and angry. It was only as I grew up that I discovered the extraordinary compassion, mercy, faithfulness, selflessness, and determination of this incredible woman.

While Mother Teresa’s life served as a source of inspiration on account of her profound virtue, I found myself fascinated by her story for two other reasons. As I learned more about her, I came to understand that her path to her mission among the poorest and most indigent people of Calcutta was not a straight one. She served as a nun for nearly twenty years, teaching and even serving as a school principal, before she received her “call within a call” to work in the slums. It was another two years before she overcame all of the obstacles that prevented her from going directly about the task to which she felt summoned.

Knowing that it took a figure who went on to fulfill such an astounding purpose quite a long time to get there is a comfort to me at my current stage of life. I think that I am on a decent trajectory, but I am not necessarily living my life’s vocation to its fullest extent. Yet. This is not the end. Mother Teresa’s story lends me the courage to keep trying to make the next, right decision, fueling my hope that if I can continue to string together enough of these small choices, my life may still reach farther beyond myself.

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop I the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Additionally, I learned that after Mother Teresa found her inspiration and began her greatest work, she experienced a deep, spiritual depression. No one knew of this part of her interior life until a book of her letters was published in 2007. Despite an inner despair, darkness, and sense of total abandonment by God, she carried on in her dutiful ministry. For decades, she served cheerfully, encouraging others, never complaining, always faithful and loving, never hinting at the burden of the pain that weighed her down every day.

Portrait of Mother Teresa
Portrait of Mother Teresa,” © UN Photo/Evan Schneider, 16 Jun 1995. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

In my own life, I often struggle with doubt and depression. For most of my life, I was firmly convinced that God was ambivalent about my existence. Though I would never, ever wish the darkness that Mother Teresa described on any person, the words she left behind about these experiences fill me with gratitude, because I feel less alone in my most despairing thoughts. She shows me how to live with courage, optimism, and brightness, even when I feel far from bright.

“Speak tenderly; let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting. Always have a cheerful smile. Don’t only give your care, but give your heart as well.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

After reflecting on the examples of inspirational people like these two women, it is very easy for me to get stuck in comparison. I start thinking of all the ways I’m not good enough and of all the reasons why I fall short of their virtuousness. That sort of emotional and mental climate is not a healthy wellspring of growth. I tend to be quite hard on myself, and I am quick to devalue my positive qualities while also minimizing the weaknesses of others. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” More than joy, though, comparison tends to rob me of my belief in my potential to change. One of the most important lessons for me in the lives of role models like St. Thérèse and Mother Teresa is that I am not meant to become them. By following their examples, I am meant to become the fullest and best possible version of myself. I still don’t know who that is, but I hope that by leaning on the wisdom of good people, I am moving in the right direction…

“God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

 

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The Umbrella – The Fifth Week of the Kindness Challenge

Featured Image: “the ripple you leave in my life : duboce triangle, san francisco (2014),” © torbakhopper (own work), Feb 2014. CC BY-ND 2.0. (license)

In April, a rather unremarkable event happened that stayed with me. It was a small gesture, a tiny overture extended by a total stranger, but it resulted in a lasting gratitude. The task of the fifth week of the Kindness Challenge was to cultivate appreciation for kindnesses received. Though I renewed my commitment to journaling about my gratitudes at the end of each day, I thought that a fitting blog post in keeping with this theme would be to reflect upon a little kindness that made a great impact in my heart.

It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was caught between work and home. All day long, it seemed that one mishap collided with another, and I battled back against a tidal wave of emotions as they crested and crashed over me. Each little hang-up and snafu was rather unremarkable alone, but as I recollected old work traumas, the bullet train of my distress, anxiety, foreboding, blame, frustration, exasperation, and desperation shot out of its station. It didn’t break any land speed records. I managed to tap into a few of my basic skills – enough to keep the velocity of my overreaction in check, but the strain that I experienced was disproportionate to the reality of the situation. Exacerbating the acuity of my suffering, I was attempting to braid together a million loose ribbons of unfinished tasks into some sort of neat bow, while racing to complete a list of to-do’s, and rushing to lock up my office for a week’s attendance at a conference out of state. What was supposed to be a simple and straightforward day seemed to be turning out catastrophically wrong. At least, that was what I told myself. I was feeling worn, thin, and defeated, and my impatience with myself for being unable to better cope only compounded my exhaustion and vexation.

It took every effort that I could summon to pull together all those stray ends by 3pm so that I could make it to my 3:30pm hair appointment on time. Because… priorities. Of course. No self-respecting researcher wants to deliver a presentation at her industry’s huge, annual, international, conference with a shaggy, 8-week old haircut. Nothing was packed yet, and I could feel my body and mind reverberating with apprehensive, negative energy. Discouraged. Despairing. Scared. Overwhelmed. Helpless. Hopeless. Hostile. Agitated. Self-hating. World-hating. Trapped. Victimized. I pulled into a parking lot down the street from my stylist’s studio. Outside the car, the skies were a thick gray, and there was a pressing threat of rain. The forecast predicted precipitation, and a lot of it, and as I was walking out of my office building not fifteen minutes earlier, a few scattered drops were already falling. Yet, for some unclear reason, I decided that I would take a chance without my umbrella.

It looked like I might be fortunate. As I left the salon, the sky was still holding back. My anxiety-fueled perfectionism sank its sharp teeth into my chest, though. I have time for one stop, I told myself, darting around the corner and across the square before ducking into another shop. I NEED a new tube of eyelash serum before my trip! (The more frayed I am, the more ridiculous the demands and expectations I tend impose upon myself.) It was while I was frenetically flipping through the tubes of mascara that the clouds cracked open and the deluge began. I managed to dash madly as far as the corner across from the lot where my car sat, patiently waiting, immune to the downpour. I took shelter under the awning of a bank, but by then the rain was hammering the earth in driving sheets. I decided I wasn’t in that much of a hurry, and I resigned myself to wait, hoping it would lighten as quickly as it began.

There I was, conspicuously standing alone at the corner of the bank, while a blinding torrent of rain cascaded downward. A few cars drove slowly past, windshield wipers flicking wildly, drivers hunched over steering wheels in unbroken concentration, attempting to peer around the raindrops. Across from me, a small SUV was idling in the otherwise deserted lot, headlights flickering and wipers dancing. A man in a windbreaker with a giant golf umbrella suddenly popped out from the driver’s compartment and dashed across the road toward me. “Would you like an escort to your car?” he asked.

In the top left drawer of my desk, I store a collection of stamps, a few eclectic stickers, and a random assortment of blank greeting cards. Across the front of one of those cards, in haphazard lettering, is a short poem by Holly Gerth that reads,

I wish I had a big yellow umbrella

that would keep away all the rain in your life.

I would hold it over your head,

and the drops would splash, splash

and you would never even feel it.

 

But I don’t have a big yellow umbrella—

so I’ll walk through the rain with you.

I couldn’t believe it was really happening. This generous person who I didn’t even know was walking through the rain with me. His umbrella wasn’t yellow, but it was big. I was simultaneously grateful, relieved, and ashamed. In the face of this genuine act of kindness, I was ashamed and repentant for my own hardness of heart, and I was regretful and remorseful for being so consumed with my petty worries, preoccupations, and anxieties. I was jolted out of my narrow scope of vision, propelled beyond the tiny, inner world where I was trapped as a result of my prolonged over-focus on myself. Though there was a sting that accompanied the recognition of my weakness and warpedness, I was thankful for the awareness, because it expanded my perception and opened my heart. It also threw my problems into sharper relief, and I felt the reassurance of knowing, “This, too, shall pass.”

two share an umbrella
two share an umbrella,” © Robert Couse-Baker (own work), Mar 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Let nothing disturb you,

Let nothing frighten you,

All things are passing away;

God never changes.

 

Patience obtains all things.

He who has God lacks nothing.

 

God alone suffices.

 

~ St. Teresa of Avila

Gathered together under the giant golf umbrella, the two of us hurried across the slogged street, leaning into each other and awkwardly dodging puddles. In less than a minute, he delivered me to my car door, and as I continued to babble my profuse, stumbling words of thanks, he was off again down the sidewalk and back about whatever business brought him out on that particular, wet afternoon. As I pulled away from the curb, I wondered if it was God’s plan that I should lack the insight to bring my own umbrella with me on that day. Was I meant to be trapped in that downpour, so that such a chance encounter might happen? I wondered what impact this simple interaction would effect on the universe. How far would the ripples spread? My bristling, stony heart was slightly (though not entirely) soothed by the thoughtfulness, kindness, and goodness offered to me. Did it allow my rescuer to feel good, positive, joyful, hopeful, generous, and loving to be able to lend a hand to a person in need? Maybe we both departed from that encounter a bit more wholehearted than when we arrived, and ready spread that wholeheartedness to others.

As I reflect on that day now, months later, I can’t help but wonder… maybe it is still creating ripples.

umbrella days
umbrella days,” © Zlatko Vickovic (own work), Nov 2015. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

The Happiness Tag

Tag! I guess I’m it! When I was little, we neighborhood kids came up with some pretty creative variations on the game of tag (television tag was a favorite, although the rules were constantly changing), but I think this happiness tag is the most wholehearted version I have come across, by far! Thank you to Ioana of Music Teacher Lifestyle for tagging me. Reading her posts always puts a smile on my face. You can read all of the beautiful, wonderful things that make her happy, here. Thank you for tagging me, and for inspiring this post, Ioana!

Without further ado…

Five Things that Make Me Happy

  1. A truly restful night of sleep! Is there anything quite so refreshing? All the delicious, black coffee in the world can’t replicate this feeling. When I’m rested, it is so much easier to be mindful, to find gratitude in unlikely places and situations, to cope with distressing circumstances, to connect with others… I could go on and on!
  2. Traveling home to visit my family and closest friends. They are all concentrated together in one area of New England. Getting away from work and spending time with these people, with whom I share my deepest connections, restores my heart and soul!
  3. Riding my bike along the quiet, paved, wooded trail near my house. It’s peaceful and serene to feel the breeze against my skin on a sunny afternoon, to let all the sights, sounds, and smells of nature seep into me, and to exchange friendly smiles with the other people who are enjoying the outdoors.
  4. Lingering over breakfast on my back patio. I am blessed to live on a little pond, with two fountains, and my townhouse is set far back from the narrow, grassy road. It is peaceful and serene. The ducks love to come right up to my back door, looking for wayward crumbs. This summer, a hummingbird is making a home nearby, and I sometimes catch a glimpse of him as he darts between leaves and stems. An overhanging eve keeps the hot rays of the sun and the sprinkling of raindrops at bay. When I sit there with my journal and a cup of tea, it feels like I am on vacation in my own backyard.
  5. The mass. It might sound like a pretty odd thing to draw happiness from, but participating in the liturgy is one of the experiences that often brings me the most joy and sends my heart soaring. Although, for most of my life, nearly the exact opposite was true. I have always been religious, but I was motivated by fear, guilt, shame, obligation, a deep belief that I was not good enough and that God did not love me, and a perfectionistic, rigid, anxious, angry drive to follow all the rules. It was in recovery that my perspective began to shift. I discovered my worthiness. I wish that I could describe how that transformation happened. It was both a gradual process and a sudden, shocking realization. Now, my entire manner of relating to God, the church, and my spirituality is changing. Exploring the actual roots of my faith and learning more about its vibrant traditions is changing my life in ways I never thought possible. Granted, I don’t walk away from every mass feeling elated. It often remains very difficult to stay present and to find meaning and connection. Yet, on those occasions when I am truly open, loving, and mindful, I find joy and beauty that move me to tears.
IMG_1366
The view from my porch, Summer 2015.

Five Songs that Make Me Happy

  1. Come Fly with Me, by Frank Sinatra. There is something classic and timeless about this song, but also simple and nostalgic.
  2. I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles), by The Proclaimers. Who wouldn’t want someone to walk 1,000 miles for them? This song doesn’t bring to mind any particular person for me, but it summons thoughts of all the people I love and who love me. I can’t help but sing along.
  3. We Belong, by Pat Benatar. Because everyone wants to belong, and this song reminds me that we all do. We all belong. We are all worthy. And we don’t have to do anything to earn it.
  4. Once Upon a December, from the animated movie “Anastasia.” This song makes me think of memories of my younger self and brings me comfort when I feel lonely.
  5. Away in a Manger. On her list of happy songs, Ioana included a Christmas carol that brings her happiness the whole year through, so I thought I would do the same! There is a reminder for me in this song that no matter how old I grow, I am always God’s little child, and it strengthens and consoles me even on the hottest summer days.

True happiness needs to be passed on! I am nominating the following bloggers (whose writing often brings me much gratitude and joy) to continue the happiness tag by writing about five things that make them happy and five songs that stir happiness in their hearts.

Happiness Tags:

  1. Anne, of ainsobriety
  2. Jenny, of Peace from Panic
  3. Lauren, of Milly’s Guide to Happiness
  4. Eli, of Coach Daddy
  5. Jenn, of HealthyJenn
IMG_2026
Mallard Family, August 2016

Loving My Body

Every Thursday evening, whenever I’m in town and not traveling, I attend a therapy group for people who suffer from eating disorders and distorted body image. Though I am surrounded by the support and love of innumerable family, friends, colleagues, and caring professionals, something unnerving and soul-wrenching happens when I am among others who know firsthand what it is like to live with this illness. When they speak, it is as if their words are my own. To know that I am not alone because my family and friends are always with me is comforting. But, to know that I am not alone because there are other people who understand… that is heart-breaking, mind-bending, and ultimately, healing. I am not so deranged that another human being can’t comprehend the parts of me that are most disturbed and irrational.

At the present moment, there are eight of us. Each of us is in a different place along our journeys. Some are actively working on their recovery. Some are still in the pre-contemplative or contemplative stages of change. To each other, we bring our struggles, daily experiences, and inner turmoil. Though the specific symptoms and behaviors of our eating disorders differ, a degree of body dysmorphia is something that we all share in common. It’s not that any of us suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, but when we look in the mirror, our brains have a way of distorting the image.

Within the safety of this familiar, little band, I stumbled into a startling discovery last week. As I listened quietly, one after another of these women, my friends, expressed their deep loathing of their bodies. It was painful to hear, and I was filled with empathy and sorrow. Yet, another emotion gripped me, which could best be described as excited gratitude. The meeting was drawing to a close. Unable to contain this perplexingly intense sensation, I wrapped my arms around myself squeezing my eyes tightly shut. An impish grin broke across my face, and I lifted my feet off the floor, stretching my legs out directly in front of me energetically as I declared, “I love my body!”

Part of me felt guilt for exhibiting such jubilation in the midst of so much suffering, but I couldn’t let the last word of that night be one of disparagement. As we departed, I meditated more deeply on these thoughts that were suddenly springing up inside of me. What I found was that…

I love the face that peers at me from the tiny square of bathroom mirror. A bit of makeup artfully conceals the acne scars and the red blotches. A little blush lights up my pale, monochromatic cheeks. I love my sparkling, hazel eyes, which appear to change shades depending on the color of the clothes I wear. I love my straight, pearly teeth and my even smile. My parents paid a lot of money in orthodontists’ bills so that I could share this smile with the world! I love my chin, which doesn’t recede and doesn’t protrude, but is perfect for my face. Just like my nose. I love my thick, auburn hair, the fineness of each strand, and its irremediable straightness.

I love being short! I fit into so many small places and tight spaces. It doesn’t even bother me that I can never reach the tops of high shelves. That’s why there are stools and tall people in the world. I love my petite hands and the writing bump on my right third finger. I love my feet and all the callouses that cover them. They tell the story of my life. After all the miles, all the experiences, all the long days and long nights of thankless work, the high and low adventures, and all the injuries, my feet remind me that I am resilient. And they remind me that I am not invincible. They invite me to take care of myself and to rest when I need it. My feet remind me to push my boundaries, and to know my limits. They remind me to accept what is, and to do what is needed. Oh, do I love my feet!

There are a few aspects of my body that I am learning to simply accept, like the chunk that is missing from my left eyebrow where I underwent a skin biopsy, and the unsightly acne that still peppers my face, chest, and back, even in my 30’s. I accept my aches and pains, my knotted muscles, and my chronic TMJ. Ultimately, I accept that my body is changing. The lines of my face are creeping and multiplying, their creases deepening. Here and there, I catch the glimmer of a silver strand of hair. The scattered, purple, spider veins that are barely visible on my thighs will one day spread into a dark, violaceous network to cover my legs, just like all the other women in my family. My weight may even (gasp) fluctuate. That last one is still the hardest for me to accept, yet it is the truth, and it is natural. It is just part of this experience of living. Because, in the final equation, my body serves a purpose. It is the temple of my soul. It is the vessel that carries me through this world. It enables me to do a great many things, though I remind myself that one day, it will fail. My faith tells me that I am wonderfully made. My faith also tells me not to be overly attached to my body, at least not as it is today, and not to idealize any physical standard of perfection. There is more to life, and death, and the life to come than can be contained in this organic being.

Perhaps my brain is changing, too. Perhaps, I’m rewiring, making new and different connections, overwriting the old, automatic, maladaptive signaling pathways. How did I move from waging a war of submission against my body to harboring this intense desire to hug myself in a giant, bearlike embrace? When did this shift happen? I’m not sure, but I like these feelings.

What do you love about your body?

Toes