Misericordia

Featured Image: “Just a little yawn,” © Rob Hurson (own work), Jun 2015. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Part of the human condition is that we all contain within us something abhorrent. (At least, that is what I’m telling myself.) At our deepest core is nestled a beautiful soul, God-given and graced, and we are capable of great goodness. Yet, none of us ever live up to all of our values all of the time. There is always a conflict under the surface. When everything is going well, when all the potential stressors in my life are minimized, I neglect this grimy underside of my human reality.

There are many monsters in my closet, and, though I may put on a good show of vulnerability and openness, I do not enjoy inviting them out for tea or cake. I prefer it when those monsters lie silently in the dark. When they are quiet and cooperative, they allow me to narrate a promising story of self-improvement and growth that is colorful and filled with light. When my world becomes more chaotic, it is increasingly impossible to maintain this illusion. As the veneer of my carefully constructed, idealized self displays its true fragility, those demons emerge to help me cope. They bare their teeth and unsheathe their claws, gnashing their jaws against the suggestion that my life is not rhythmic, predictable, balanced, and fair. When other people, the world, and extraneous circumstances exert their force on me, I fight back. My monsters include Non-acceptance, Unwillingness, Defiance, Self-Righteousness, Blame, and Anger. They serve me well. They are quick to leap to the defense of Order, Control, Obedience, Rules, Self-Sufficiency, and Safety.

wild-things
where the wild things are,” by Jonahliza Eliger, Nov 2008. CC BY 2.0. (license)

One week last October, I fell back into a self-protective, self-defensive mode of reacting as the burden and pace of work demands mushroomed. I was confronted with a sharp incongruence between conflicting priorities. In my recovering perfectionism, I was still striving to understand my identity apart from my professional life. I was messily attempting to establish boundaries with myself and with others in order to create the space and silence that I needed to explore and preserve my authenticity, and I recoiled against any unanticipated demand on my time or attention. My constant inner monologue was a noisy place of overlapping ultimatums and thinly veiled threats. One word was dominant as I attempted to respond simultaneously to all of the mixed messages I was sending myself:  Should. Sometimes, it was expressed as “must,” or “need to” in the intensity of my strict expectations. “I should be able to run these tests myself. I need to finish these reports by the end of the day. I should NOT stay late. I must go to the gym on Tuesday, and I should still go to church after work. I should swim on Wednesday. There should not be so much to do. I should not be so angry. These reviews should not take so long.”

With little flexibility for myself, I afforded even less consideration to the experiences of others. I was wrapped-up in a rather narcissistic, self-tortured vortex that I created of my own volition simply from the refusal to concede that my standards were impossible. I started to lash out at the very people who cared about me the most, my closest friends at work. My mutually exclusive expectations were colliding with the incontrovertible physics of reality, and in my over-functioning state, the more overwhelmed I felt, the more I piled onto my unending “to-do” list. My fangs were bared. My claws were out. Obviously, I was bearing an unequitable share of the burden. Just as always. Plainly, I was being unfairly treated. When others “failed” me, when I failed myself, Non-acceptance, Unwillingness, Defiance, Self-Righteousness, Blame, and Anger were there to pick up my shattered ego and carry me onward.

Recognizing that I was not behaving in a manner congruent with who I wanted to be, I only stumbled deeper into anger. Hating myself in my blindness, I knew that I was being unreasonable and irrational, but I couldn’t see clearly. I was blinded by the acrid smoke of my own emotions. This cycle continued for four tiresome days. It was tiresome for me, and tiresome for all those around me who endured my moodiness, irritability, and cartwheeling temper. Finally, my friend Steve had enough. I just finished saying something particularly biting and acerbic to him, who was my closest confidant at work, and turned on my heel to storm off. “Now hang on!” he called after me. “Come back here, and close the door!” I knew that I was in for it, and I deserved it, but rather than a severe reprimand, which really wasn’t his style, he met me with a patience that I didn’t deserve. “You’ve been pushing back a bit hard lately, don’t you think?” I hung my head in shame and embarrassment. He acknowledged the pressure that I was under but also observed of my behavior, “It’s a bit much, don’t you think? We’re your friends. We’re on your side!” Sulkily, I offered a shallow apology and slinked back to my office. Instead of barring my fangs, I was licking my wounds.

It was another 24 hours before I apologized in a more meaningful way. It was late on Friday, and I was headed off to yet another out of state conference the next morning. I didn’t want to get on a plane with the sour taste of my own bitterness still in my mouth, but when I went to find Steve before I left for the day, he was caught up in meetings with the administration across the hall. As I packed, I was still sucking on the acidic aftertaste that lingers with the knowledge that I inflicted pain on others in order to diffuse my own discomfort. Finally, I phoned Steve under the auspices of discussing some final bit of work business before I departed for a week. At last, after chatting for two minutes about that mundane subject, I meekly voiced an admission of my truly inexcusable conduct of the preceding days.

In the end, I was filled with gratitude and was left amazed and bewildered by the extremity of the grace I experienced. I did not deserve forgiveness. In recent memory, I could not recall carrying on so wretchedly for such a prolonged period of time, with such disdain for others. I treated them as means to my ends, stripping them of their inherent dignity and worth from my self-righteous, self-defensive perspective. My friend possessed the empathy to hold me accountable for my behavior without responding to me in kind. When I offered my somewhat useless apology, expressing that there were no justifications or explanations that could make what I did “all right,” he replied only with understanding and compassion. As I hung up the phone, I wracked my brain to recall a time I was ever treated so charitably. There was no further admonition, no lecture, no conveyance of a lesson, only pardon and peace. I started to cry. “Oh God,” I prayed, “Is this what it feels like when you forgive us?”

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;

he who finds one finds a treasure.

A faithful friend is beyond price,

no sum can balance his worth.

A faithful friend is a lifesaving remedy;

such as he who fears God finds.

For he who fears God behaves accordingly,

and his friend will be like himself.”

~ Sirach 6:14-17

sulky-wild-thing
Sulky wild thing,” © louiscrusoe (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Rediscovering Repentance

Featured Image: “Hope,” ©Luca Bovolenta (own work), May 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“What are you doing for Lent this year?” my pastor queried the few dozen of us who turned out for the earliest service on the morning of Ash Wednesday before the start of another typical work day. It was a rhetorical question. He promptly continued, “If you’re like me, perhaps people asking you that a lot. The answer I give is… ‘Not very much!’” My ears perked, and I leaned slightly forward on the hard, wooden pew. “We don’t do anything,” he emphasized. “It is God who does the work, when we return to that still, quiet place in our hearts.” His message was one of simplicity, surrender, and trust. In under five minutes, he reminded me that my weaknesses and imperfections were inherently human. If I wasn’t a sinner, then I wouldn’t need a savior. Though the standard of avoiding all evils and performing every possible good was set forth for me, I was realistically called to do my best, to quickly admit my faults and my mistakes, and to leave the rest to Him. It was probably the message that I most needed to hear.

In the days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Christian Lenten season, I didn’t give much serious consideration to the changes that might be helpful in my life. On Tuesday evening, I was journaling about the busyness of my schedule and my longing for a more peaceful, less demanding existence. “I already know that I am good at self-denial,” I wrote. “I know very well how to punish and restrict myself.” I chewed slightly on the inside of my cheek, deep in thought. “Is self-flagellation really what Lent is about?” I wondered.

As a person in recovery from an eating disorder, my medical history precludes me from the requirement to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If the purpose of Lent is to refocus on what matters the most, then refraining from this hyper-attention to food is actually therapeutic in my particular case. Instead, I find it helpful to reduce other less-than-healthy attachments. Last year, fasting from television provided me with more time for quiet reflection and contemplative meditation. Unplugging the TV eliminated a portion of the daily background noise, reduced my distractions, and minimized my exposure to those overt and subtle cultural messages appearing in entertainment, news, and advertising, with their negative conscious and subconscious effects. Yet, when Lent ended, all the shows that I missed were waiting for me on my DVR, and whatever gains I made in the cultivation of stillness slipped away. With the arrival of another intentional season of austerity, I welcomed the opportunity to abstain from television again and optimistically looked forward to growing more comfortable with both the quiet itself and all the difficult thoughts and emotions residing just under the surface of my occupied mind.

Thus decided, I confronted a confusing tangle of additional questions about the optimal Lenten practice. Should I also give up listening to Podcasts? At times, those could be a distraction, and I often used them to drown out the thoughts that sprang from fatigue when I was feeling overwhelmed. Someone raised the idea of fasting from sleep. Fortunately, I quickly dismissed this exercise as counter-productive to my own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Why would I intentionally adopt a habit that would make it more difficult for me to make wise-minded decisions and to treat other people with compassion? “On the contrary,” I thought, “if I want to be a better person, I ought to commit to getting regular sleep!” Perhaps, I would benefit from letting go of all the things left unfinished at the end of the day in order to prioritize sleep. In that way, I would be forced to accept my own limitations, and I would (hopefully) increase in balance of mind, body, and spirit.

With simplicity in mind, I concluded that breaking up with my TV was the best place to start, and I resolved to dedicate my energy to prayerful reflection and contemplation. I further decided that there was something to the idea of caring for my physical needs in order to reduce my reactivity and impulsivity as I carried on through each day. Being honest with myself, I admitted that I was often so busy or preoccupied that I ignored or suppressed my bodily needs until the signals they triggered in my brain clanged so loudly that I absolutely couldn’t postpone pausing for lunch, sipping some water, or breaking for the bathroom any longer. If I treated my body more gently, maybe my mind would follow, and as my thoughts became gentler, I might be more considerate of my body’s needs and limitations. Ultimately, I hoped I would be able to respond more mindfully, compassionately, and wholeheartedly to the surging and fading activity of daily life. Yet, I acknowledged that even my best efforts would inevitably fall short of my idealized notions. And that was ok.

Desert Morning
Desert Morning,” © MarkCranstonPhoto.com (own work), Nov 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

In all my years of Lents, I never meditated on the difference between penitence and punishment. The punishment bit was always the emphasis for me. Even over the past few years, when I was in recovery and able to recognize the fullness of God’s merciful love, I was still stuck in a very literal interpretation of expressing “sorrow for my sins.” I acknowledged that I was forgiven and that there was reason for abundant joy in the superabundance of God’s grace, but I thought that a “season of repentance” was meant to be spent feeling badly for my faults. Then, I stumbled upon another fortuitous message that seemed to be precisely what was most needed to help me along my path. What I realized was that remaining fixated on my previous failings was an obstacle to my mental and spiritual development. If I truly trusted in the infinite capacity of God’s forgiveness, and I fully believed that He willed my ultimate good, how could I also hold that He desired for me to dwell in sadness for wrongs he already pardoned? Remaining in a cheerless gloom didn’t improve my ability to love myself or my neighbors. Could it possibly be OK to be happy during this penitential season? The very notion struck me as counterintuitive, but how could I respond any differently in the face of such an unimaginable gift?

My understanding of myself and my faith is continuing to expand. I am nurturing a refreshed hopefulness as I notice changes over just these few, short days. Wherever this journey continues from here, I am holding onto a point made by a priest on a podcast that I recently listened to (good thing that I didn’t give them up!) … We’re not bad, we’re just broken; and God wants to heal our brokenness. This Lent, I am inviting Him in. Or, at least, I’m going to try. It is a desert time – a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, for self-sacrifice and simplicity. Yet, even in the desert, there is beauty and life.

desert rainbow
Desert Rainbow,” © William Hanlon (own work), Apr 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

The Seas of Self-Storms

Featured Image: “Stormy,” © Luke Gray (own work), Oct 2011. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Over the course of the past day, I found myself pitched about on the brutal seas of a turbulent shame storm. When the unfortunately familiar physical sensations of burning in my face, muscle tension in my jaw, teeth clenching, and wincing began to crest, I was able to summon little desire to face whatever real or imagined iniquity lay at the eye of this hurricane. Who would want to turn into that torrent of painful emotions and cruel self-criticisms? Armed with a toolbox of distraction techniques and distress-tolerance skills, I weathered the intermittent surges of mental and emotional anguish with their characteristic accompanying bodily signs. I took a hot shower, caught up on some reading, and listened to an audiobook, all the while pushing back the recurring sense of mortification that told me I had done something terribly, abysmally, unforgivably atrocious.

A new acquaintance recently recommended a small book to me entitled God’s Tender Mercy:  Reflections on Forgiveness by Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. This morning, I woke feeling restored after my first decent night of sleep in recent memory, but I recognized a persisting vulnerability – the raw sting that hinted at shame lurking nearby. I reached for the little book on my bedside dresser. It was only seventy-seven 3×5 inch pages long in its entirety, and I was up to chapter two, “Forgive Us Our Sins:  Forgive Yourself.” With one hand stroking my ginger cat, I began to read.

“And sometimes keeping the rules, I came to understand, can be more sinful than breaking them,” the wise sister wrote. I placed the book on my lap and contemplated my shame. It probably rose from my impression that I violated some inviolable social mores. It likely originated in the idea that I committed some act of “rule-breaking,” though I wasn’t exactly sure which of a million, little, conflicting and mutually exclusive rules I broke. My tendency toward rigid, black-and-white thinking and my old striving to be perfect provided a ready substrate for self-imposed agony. It was my choice to remain stuck in that miserable place, I realized. “If we admitted our arrogance, faced our dishonesties, named our weaknesses – at least to ourselves – we would be consumed with kindness,” I read on. What exactly was I refusing to face? I returned to the events of the previous afternoon and revisited precisely what occurred before this particular storm started churning. There, I found myself afraid to look foolish in front of others, holding myself to such an impossible standard of decorum that the specific expectations of behavior defied definition. I saw that I was terrified of doing or saying something “wrong,” and I was telling myself that a few, minor faux pas were unforgiveable. Imagining rejection and judgment, my cheeks flushed and I reflexively scrunched my face, bowing my head and squeezing my eyes tightly closed.

“The fact is that we are all made of the same thing:  clay, the dust of the earth, the frail, fragile, shapeless thing from which we come and to which we will all return someday. We are all capable of the same things. Our only hope is that when we are all sitting somewhere bereft, exposed, outcast, humiliated and rejected by the rest of society, someone, somewhere will ‘reach out a hand and lift us up.’”

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

What makes me so special that I think I should never make a mistake? I asked myself. It wasn’t a new question, but I required some gentle reminding. Who am I that when I make a mistake, I am excepted from compassion and understanding? It suddenly occurred to me that accepting compassion required a strong knowledge of self. It demanded true humility. To accept compassion, whether from myself or anyone else, would mean acknowledging my need for that compassion. Why would I need compassion unless I was deeply flawed? Facing those flaws, how could I deny that I deserved the gentle grace of forgiveness? After all, if I could not embrace my inner demons, then how could I ever hope to make enough peace with them that I might embrace others? How could I move beyond the past I could not change into the future I was called to live?

“Arrogance commits us to a community of one. There is nothing to be gained there. Don’t confuse weakness with sin. Most of us struggle with something we never quite conquer. It is precisely that struggle that can become the stuff of compassion with others.”

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

Shame was trying to keep me isolated in my own ego, ruminating on the blunders of yesterday, and not in a healthy way that might lead to self-improvement, but in a self-castigating way designed only to inflict punishment and pain. Shame was telling me that I was unforgiveable, and beneath it all, shame was presuming that I was better than everyone around me, because I was fixing a standard for myself that was unreasonable for any human being. I peeled back all the layers, and staring up at me was my own, stubborn pride. It drove me to care so much about how others perceived and judged me that it sucked me into an unwinnable struggle to control the uncontrollable and secluded me in my own fear and self-defensiveness. With a great sigh, I accepted that this would not be the last time I would fall victim to the myth of self-reliance. I was refusing to allow for the graciousness of others. In my narrow, condemnatory, wounded little heart, I was denying that others might be more charitable than I was in overlooking my faults and reserving judgment. Could I admit that I was too caught up in my own self-importance, hand it all over to the God whose mercy surpasses His justice, and then simply let it go?

The driving winds of the tempest began to abate. The rain fell more softly. I started writing, and I discovered an odd gratitude. If I never went so far astray, upon what would I reflect? How would I grow?

“The only thing we can offer God of value is to give our love to people as unworthy of it as we are of God’s love.”

~ St. Catherine of Siena

the-life-comes-up-after-the-storm-02
The life comes up after the storm 02,” © Marcos Oliva (own work), May 2016. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

 

The First Mile

Featured Image:  “Running,” © Patrik Nygren (own work), Oct 2013. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

As a child, I learned very early and very well that I would never do anything well enough. My mother’s criticisms were strict and constant. If I drew a picture of a person with mitten-like hands, she asked me why my Crayola creation didn’t have all 10 fingers and 10 toes. For kindergarten class, our teacher asked us to cut out pictures from magazines beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Before I could begin to cut, my mom made directed me to use a ruler to outline my images in perfect boxes, sitting by my elbow to make sure I did it correctly. Only once I excised the photographs from the pages with surgical precision could I apply precisely 5 drops of glue to affix them to the paper assignment sheet. My brother and I always won ribbons in the reading and art contests at the public library. Such success was expected of us, and it was nearly guaranteed given our brilliance, talent, hard work, and my mother’s diligent, unwavering “guidance.”

As I grew up, I recognized that there was no sense in vacuuming my room if I didn’t move all the furniture and dust around the baseboards. I internalized that B’s were entirely unacceptable on report cards. An A- was tolerable in isolation, but it remained less than ideal. Handwriting that wasn’t as neat as a typewriter revealed laziness and weakness of character. If I wasn’t in the advanced placement math classes, then why bother showing up to school at all? Math was the subject where I struggled the most. Numbers, equations, and formulas left me feeling stupid and hopelessly incapable. In eighth grade, my teacher advised that I step down to “college prep,” which was level 3 out of 4. My mother was adamantly set against it, and I struggled through advanced math until I completed AP calculus as a high school senior. I earned an A, but I repeated calculus again over the course of two semesters in college. It was one of my first opportunities to choose for myself. I was also able to (finally!) quit the Spanish classes that I hated. When I was 11 years old and begged her to let me study French, my pleading fell on deaf ears. Spanish was more useful, she told me. When I was in college, I chose Latin.

My sense of worthlessness was cemented at a young age, and I came to believe that I would never be able to change. I would grow from an awkward, unattractive, isolated girl into an awkward, unattractive, isolated woman, and nobody would ever love me. It was who I was. It was who I was made to be. I hated myself. For most of my 32 years, I was a slave to my academic and professional success, straining to earn my self-worth through accomplishment. It wasn’t until I finally sought mental health treatment that I began to unravel my distorted thoughts and false reality. With the help of my cognitive behavioral therapist, I started to understand that my way of interpreting the world and my core beliefs were inaccurate. Long before I entered therapy, though, I found a new way to earn my worth that wasn’t tied to scholarship or job performance. I discovered that I was excellent at running. Over distances from a mile to 10K, I was fast! As I became more serious about running, I liked the changes that I observed in my body. I felt strong, sleek, and swift. Capable. Of course, I was never good enough at running to consider myself a runner. No matter how many races I entered, no matter how times I placed in my age group, I continued to worry that someone would uncover the truth about me – that I was an imposter. My training was too inconsistent, and my weekly mileage was too low. I was a phony.

In recovery from my eating disorder, I gave up on running. I was sidelined by injuries and illness nearly two years before I ever entered ED treatment, but through my therapy, I finally jettisoned the notion that my identity or worth came from something extrinsic. I fully expected that running would be an activity to which I would never return, and I found new ways to exercise in moderation and with balance. I distanced myself from work, allowing myself to be just average at my job for the first time, ever. Meeting expectations and requirements was sufficient. Needing time and space to explore what truly brought meaning to my life, I withdrew from anything extraneous. As I progressed in therapy, I gradually took on more professional and personal challenges. Without necessarily realizing what was happening, I slowly stretched beyond the careful boundaries I once erected to protect my nascent self. I set my professional aim a bit higher, comfortable that I knew how to right myself if the balanced tipped too far in one direction. I committed to a twice-monthly volunteer role at a local eating disorder treatment center. I booked a flight to Paris! Still, I continued to avoid running.

“Could you reclaim running and build a healthy relationship with it?” my therapist asked me. I wasn’t sure of the answer. Even walking for the sole purpose of walking stirred some inner resistance. Yet, I made a few, staggering starts. Last spring, I went out for a couple of walk-runs. Hesitantly, with great trepidation, I would walk for a few minutes, jog for 30 seconds, walk for a few minutes, and repeat. It never amounted to much, and I never built my intervals beyond a minute or so of running. I abandoned the effort until this autumn, when something inexplicable overcame me. Perhaps, it was simply the right time to try again, or perhaps it was something more.

indoor-track
Payne Whitney Gym: Indoor Track,” © Gary Ku (own work), Nov 2007. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

“…October is a fine and dangerous season in America. It is dry and cool and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”

~ Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain

One day, I very matter-of-factly decided that with all of the biking and swimming and yoga and dashing about on one errand or the next, I was certainly strong. There could be no argument about it. I drove to the squishy, rubberized track a few miles from my house, felt the bounce under the soles of my shoes, and started walking. After a few minutes, my stride broke open, and I was jogging. My legs felt strange and unnatural as I summoned the ligaments and muscles to work in ways at once familiar and not. It was a long time ago that I made this particular demand of them. For three-quarters of a mile, they carried me on, and then, just as plainly, I walked again.

The brief trot remained my solitary attempt through the length of the holiday season. There were more pressing matters to divert my attention. However, as December came to a close, my sights fixed more steadily on Paris, and I resolved to make walking a top priority in preparation for my trip. “Do you think that emphasizing walking will help you to address running, as well?” my therapist asked. I nodded affirmatively, but deferred the additional challenge until after my vacation. It was too risky. I could get hurt.

Or… maybe, I wouldn’t. Maybe, I would be fine, especially if I added distance slowly and maintained the balance of my other activities. One afternoon, I laced up my shoes, but instead of setting off at a tourist pace around the neighborhood, I climbed a set of stairs to the short, indoor track circling the basketball courts and free weight machines at the gym where I work. “I just want to see,” I told myself. “I just want to see what it’s like. I just want to see how it feels.”

It felt fine! It felt like next to nothing at all! It felt very measured and plodding, and also hopeful and foundational. It felt like a comeback – the slowest comeback ever. I felt like the tortoise overtaking the hare. I went back again the next week, keeping my distance between half and two-thirds of a mile. Slow and steady. Bit by bit. Eventually.

Friday was sunny, and a few blinding rays sliced through the large, dirty windows each time I crossed the west side of the oval. On one straightway, I could gaze across the flat landscape to the smudgy line of trees on the distant horizon, and on the other, I could glance down at the pickup games of basketball and volleyball that were underway. I counted my breaths and let my arms swing loosely at my side, conscious of driving my elbows straight back with each stroke. Between breaths, I ticked off the laps. 1…2…3… The tiny track was 1/9 of a mile. 4…5…6… I surpassed my distance from the previous week. My core muscles were tight and contracted, and I could feel my glutes powering each step. I imagined my whole body cooperating to move me along. It was a well-nourished, well-rested body in good health, both mentally and physically. I never ran under those conditions before. I never ran without anything to prove. 7…8… It occurred to me that I was about to mark a new milestone, both literally and metaphorically. 9. I finished the lap and slowed to a walk, continuing to circle until my twitching legs relaxed. A little smile creased my face. I didn’t know what would come next, but I knew that I was already enough.

mizunos
My Mizunos. Ready for the next mile…

“The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say.”

~ JRR Tolkein, The Fellowship of the Ring

Prayer for Morning

Featured Image: “New year’s Eve morning dew #1 20141231,” © Yasunari(康就) Nakamura(中村) (own work), Dec 2014. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“The One that rules over men in justice / Is like the morning light at sunrise / on a cloudless morning, / making the greensward sparkle after rain.”

~ cf. 2 Sm 23:3-4

“Every morning we arise afresh in Christ our light. Ancient Christian writers warn against ‘morning demons’:  yesterday’s worries and grievances returning to poison the new day.”

~ October 31, 2016: Prayer for Morning,Magnificat

I know morning demons well! I confront them in the mirror every day at 5:30am as I wash my face, blow out my hair, and apply my makeup. It always frustrates me that during those 20-30 minutes, I am invariably flooded with preoccupations about all the worrisome and troubling thoughts that are crying for my attention. They rush upon me all at once. It seems that one anxiety-provoking notion recruits another and another in an escalating spiral. In like fashion, one bitter and resentful animosity about some conflict at work, some perceived injustice, an invalidating experience, or some other occasion for ire stirs up memories of all manner of past injuries and offenses. My emotions run away with me, and I am left in a conflicted and tense state, vexed by my inability to self-regulate and by my failure to think dialectically, objectively, and compassionately.

Once a month, I receive a small devotional booklet in the mail called Magnificat. All month long, I tote the little collection of passages and reflections around with me, just in case I manage to create the time and silence necessary for a brief meditation. On this last day of the month, the pages are now very tattered. Opening them to read the words of this morning and realizing that the struggle against these “morning demons” is (and always has been, and always will be) a part of the universal human condition reminds me why making space for quiet contemplation is worth the effort. I am not uniquely broken, and I am not alone.

Wishing you all a beautiful, blessed week and month ahead.

Letting Go of Kindness – An Act of Self-Compassion

Featured Image:  “~Cloudy Sky~,” © ~Sage~ (own work), Sep 2006. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

A couple weeks ago, I began to fall behind on my Kindness Challenge reflections, which was ironic, considering that the emphasis during the third week was on radiating kindness through my daily acts of living. After returning from my life-changing experience at Walden in January 2015, what I desired more than anything else was to become the most loving, empathetic and compassionate, authentic version of myself possible. Could any goal be more congruent with the third week of the challenge?

“Then, beside myself with joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love! Yes, I have found my place in the bosom of the Church, and this place, O my God, Thou hast Thyself given to me: in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be LOVE!”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

Thus, I figured that this third week would result in no great change from my everyday strivings to live wholeheartedly, lovingly, generously, and authentically. Still, I looked forward to the opportunity to rededicate myself to this way of being. Despite my best intentions, I remained quite dissatisfied with my persistent meanness and littleness. Often imagining myself as a sour lemon drop, my own mouth puckered when I recollected the rapid-fire judgments and preconceptions that came to me so unbidden and automatically. I loathed the way I was so quick to complain and how easily I became just another contributor to the cynical, negative griping that permeated my workplace.

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

After returning from my brief vacation about two weeks ago, I also began to notice an increase in my self-criticism, my rigidity, and my perfectionistic striving. I wasn’t sure when it started, though I suspected the change commenced at least several months ago. Discouraged, I attempted to treat myself gently, recognizing that further criticism and frustration would only perpetuate the cycle. However, I was a little depressed. What happened to the self-compassion that I so carefully nurtured in my early recovery? There was a time when I repeated these words every time I stepped out my front door:  “Today, I’m cultivating imperfection!” Somewhere along the way, my heart forgot a fundamental realization that made my recovery possible. My head knew the truth, but I lost the significance and the implication of what follows:  God loves me not because of who I am, not because of my accomplishments or efforts, not even because of my potential, but because God IS love. God’s love for me is absolutely independent of my actions, or even my beliefs. All I need is to LET God love me.

dandelion
dandelion,” © Jason (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

“When we’re accepting of our own idiosyncrasies, we become more accepting of others… If I feel humble and loving toward myself as I walk out the door, in spite of my flaws, I’ll greet others with a soft smile.”

~ Christopher K. Germer, PhD, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

Of course, being a hard worker, I threw all my strength and energy into the endeavor of salvaging my skills. If there was one thing I was ever good at, it was making lists. I scrambled to pinpoint ALL of my weaknesses and enumerated specific methods to rectify each one. However, identifying my “problems” only pitched me into increasing desperation and intensified rigidity. I told myself that I was a failure for my inability to maintain my coping skills and healthy thinking. I failed to read enough, write enough, live wholeheartedly, adhere to a consistent schedule of sleep, attend enough yoga classes, drink enough water, swim enough, walk enough, pray enough, use my DBT workbook enough… I couldn’t do anything right. Then, one afternoon, during a conversation with my pastor, self-awareness slowly creeped upon me. I… AM… BEING… SO… FREAKING… HARD… ON… MYSELF. I am so quick to feel persecuted and unfairly treated by others or by fate, but it is I who treat myself the most mercilessly.

At precisely 9 am, every Tuesday through Friday morning, all the decision-makers from each branch of my organization come together to brief each other… and to share “constructive” criticism. Though my office environment is very flexible, and I count my closest colleagues among my supportive friends, many of the people who gather around the conference table on these mornings rely (unconsciously, I’m certain) on those coping skills that shift pain, discomfort, and intolerance onto others – shaming, judging, and scapegoating.

When I first returned from partial hospitalization for my eating disorder, the thought of stepping back into that room evoked panic. During treatment, I discovered a fragile, precious soul under all of that hate, anger, self-loathing, numbing, helplessness, blame, and fear. Like a tender, spring bud pushing up through loose earth, I felt exquisitely vulnerable to the crushing, bitter negativity of the people around me. Fortunately, with the passage of time and regular practices of mindfulness, acceptance, and dialectics, that tiny shoot sprouted a few, delicate roots. I experimented with different ways of interpreting what transpired during our meetings as I attempted to understand circumstances from as many perspectives as possible. In my better moments, I sought countless ways to give others the benefit of the doubt. These mornings became an opportunity for me to exercise my dialectical behavioral skills, to observe, to describe, to explore my cognitive and emotional reactions, and to seek for the shared humanity that existed between all of us, but as I gradually grew stronger and more adept at navigating the world around me, my sensitivity to my ongoing need for these skills waned.

“I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbours’ defects – not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.”

~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux

The morning following my conversation with my pastor, I walked into the sterile, gray-walled conference room, found my usual seat, and began scanning the many faces around me. As I settled into the moment, opening my ears to the soft, whooshing drone of the ventilation system and the gravelly, deep, methodic voice of the particular department chair who happened to be speaking, I made a rather sudden and spontaneous decision. To every meeting, I carried with me a small, spiral-bound notebook in which I recorded any thoughts, emotions, or reactions that I might need to process. Only a few pages remained in the pad that lay before me. Curiously but hesitantly, I fluttered the pages backward until I arrived at the very beginning, written precisely eleven months earlier. As I listened quietly to the relatively bland conversation unfolding around me, I skimmed my notes from July 2015 for the first time since putting them down in tiny, neat cursive. In a matter of mere seconds, my eye glancing from one line to the next, a pattern swiftly emerged. I WAS so freaking hard on myself.

There was no gradual loss of self-compassion. I never ceased treating myself kindly. The reality was that I never exercised much self-compassion, ever. For me, self-compassion was always a struggle. A year ago, the triggers for my inwardly-directed criticism were different, and I was hyper-attentive to an alternate spectrum of shortcomings. Yet, I was just as unwilling to accept imperfection in myself then as I feared I was now. A tiny slip-up provoked an equally self-blaming, self-paining response.

Which leads me to… ACCEPTANCE. Being kind is always going to be a challenge for me. That is just the way it is. That is just the way I am. There will be no rapid undoing after thirty-two years of the same strict, uncompromising, results-oriented, utilitarian, un-empathetic messages. What I received from my parents in childhood became my core beliefs about myself and the world, and from there, my inner voice springs. I can change it. I am already rewiring my brain. But slips and setbacks will happen. Perhaps the kindest gift I can give myself today is to accept that I am going to say and do nasty things, I will vent anger, frustration, impatience, and hurt onto others, and there is a very good possibility that rigidity and perfectionism will remain my stumbling blocks until the day I die, even if I live to be 100. Even if I live to be 120. Rather than treat myself severely and unforgivingly each time I catch myself thinking or behaving in these ways, maybe I can just accept my weakness with humility, and try again.

“Self-compassion can seem quite elusive at times, but since the wish to be happy and free from suffering is innate, it can’t be ignored forever; some measure of success is virtually guaranteed.”

~ Christopher K. Germer, PhD, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion

imperfect complex
imperfect, complex,” © nosha (own work), Sep 2008. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

The Three-Day Quote Challenge, Round Two

Featured Image: “2012-04-08_13-39-21,” © Joanna Poe (own work), April 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Fellow Kindness Challenge participant Ioana, who writes the poignant and thought-provoking blog Music Teacher Lifestyle, recently nominated me for the Three Day Quote Challenge. I love quotes, and I am grateful for any excuse to share some of my favorites (read here for round one). For this iteration of the quote challenge, the rules are pretty simple:

  1. Three days
  2. Three quotes
  3. Three nominees each day

Whenever I read a quote that captures something timeless, true, or transcendent in just a few simple words, I feel a stretching and tugging in my chest, as if my heart is reaching out for more. I can alternately find a quote comforting, or consoling, or perhaps it pierces my thoughts to unify disparate strands of ideas for the first time. One relatively constant reaction that I experience when I encounter lines that speak to me is a sense of longing. “If only I could remember this always,” a little voice inside me whispers. “If only I could actually live this way. Will I ever get there?”

I scribble them in margins of pages and on bits and scraps of paper. I trace them on index cards in bright marker, accentuating the borders with tiny drawings. I read and re-read these little fragments, breathing the syllables deep into my lungs, praying that they may seep into my mind, wondering if all these efforts really leave any lasting imprint on me. I hope they do. I hope that these words are changing me as often as I reflect on them.

“To be just it is not enough to refrain from injustice. One must go further and refuse to play its game, substituting love for self-interest as the driving force of society.”

~ Pedro Arrupe, S.J.

 “I don’t forgive people because I’m weak. I forgive them because I’m strong enough to know people make mistakes.”

~ Marilyn Monroe

“Forgiveness is the fragrance the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”

~ Mark Twain

…and a bonus, because I stumbled upon this gem today and couldn’t keep it to myself.

“To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.”

~ G. K. Chesterton

My nominees today are…