Compassion for Self and Kindness for Others

Featured Image: “Untitled,” © Jonas Witt (own work), Nov 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

When I first began the Kindness Challenge, I was feeling frayed, haggard, and on the cusp. I felt overpowered and threatened by circumstances that were beyond my control. My coping skills were always, almost, utterly depleted under the unceasing exigency. Like a raw nerve, I cringed and recoiled at the slightest prick, hypersensitive in my anticipation of the next deluge. Edgy and exhausted, my thinking slipped into rigid patterns, my self-compassion waned, and I stumbled along a circuitous course of self-perpetuating frustration over my “regression.” My intention at the outset of the challenge was to reconnect with a gentler version of myself. Through the first few weeks, I honestly noticed little change. When the fourth week of the challenge began, I was ready to begin again with renewed energy.

“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

The focus of week #4 was “Be Kind,” which sounded simple and direct enough. However, after practicing loving-kindness meditation for the past year while striving to bring a bit more good into the world as often as I could, I wasn’t sure how the week would be different from my routine. I was re-reading Niki’s wonderful list of suggested kind acts while thinking to myself, “I already make eye contact and chat with everyone I meet, both friends and strangers. I already hold open doors for people, I’m continually working on being a better listener, I often write encouraging notes to friends and family members, I donate money to the church every week and to my favorite charities every month, I try to go out of my way just a bit to help other people when I see they need a hand, and I endeavor to remain open to the smallest act that might add a little light to the world…”

“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

As I mentally scrolled through this litany of kindnesses, trying to conceive of something novel (that also wouldn’t take up too much time in my zany, work-a-day life), I was struck by how difficult it was for me to acknowledge my ongoing efforts. (Even typing them out here feels boastful and wrong. “People will get the wrong idea about me,” the voice in my head is saying. “I’m not that good.”)

Oh, that little voice. It clings on. I am no longer feeling quite so fragmented. Time and space are a soothing balm, but so are prayer, meditation, and the gentle, consistent, understanding, and encouraging support of an expert therapist, a skilled dietician, and a host of patient friends and family. Whether my external circumstances are truly altered, or the shift is an internal one, or both (I suspect the combination), I am thinking and feeling better. I leave it up to those who know me well to judge if my subjective sense of improvement correlates at all with an exterior change in comportment, but I am telling myself that I am less reactive and volatile than I was a month ago. Of course, my mind and my moods ebb and flow, and I continue to struggle with difficult and distorted core beliefs, such as that I am a bad person, blameworthy and wicked. Yet, I accept that I am a work in progress, and this work is the enterprise of a lifetime.

tide
Tide,” © Supermariolxpt (own work), Nov 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

After toting about the book, “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” by Christopher Germer, for a couple of months, I finally started to earnestly read it again. I also found a few other, short articles by various authors about what I would call, for a lack of a better term, the wholehearted approach to building an enriching life. Perhaps I needed a little refresher. With a highlighter and a pencil, I plodded along, a little bit each day, allowing the words to percolate as I scribbled my reactions and ideas in the margins. When I noticed a troubling or repetitive thought or an unpleasant feeling, I jotted it down on a sheet of paper that I titled my “monologue diary.” In five, neat columns labeled situation, thoughts, emotions, rational responses, and outcomes, I attempted to identify my underlying self-talk and pinpoint the circumstances that prompted these automated messages, countering the distortions with compassionate but honest reframing.

“Unless this love is among us, we can kill ourselves with work and it will only be work, not love. Work without love is slavery.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

At the conclusion of each day, as I tucked myself into bed, I permitted a few moments to feel the crisp, cotton sheets against my skin, rub my tired feet, and reflect upon my day. I paused long enough to bring to mind the different conversations that I shared with friends and strangers, the smiles, laughter, and encouraging words that were exchanged, to remember the emails or text messages that I sent to my loved ones, the letters that I mailed, the prayers that I offered for others, and each small act of generosity, whether it be holding a door open or allowing someone to skip ahead of me in line. From a six-week course on positive psychology that I completed last summer through the free, online educational website, Coursera, I learned that meditating for even a short while on “micro-moments” of connection or positivity at the end of each day would affect not only my mood but my body chemistry and neurobiology. I brought to mind the experiences from the day that were not-so-great and reflected on the ways that I failed to live up to my values. Rather than blaming or castigating myself for all of my shortcomings, I offered myself the same kindness that I was trying to cultivate for others. “Nobody is perfect. Yes, I made mistakes, and it just proves that I am human. It just shows that I am still a work in progress. Tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to try again.” It was grounding and humbling. Silently whispering my prayers, asking for the help, the grace, and the strength to navigate the coming day with an open heart, I pressed my face into my squishy, soft pillow.

“I prefer you to make mistakes in kindness than work miracles in unkindness.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

A week later, my heart feels fuller, and my mind is more at ease. I continue to hear the sharply judgmental and critical voices telling me that I’m worthless, that I need to work harder and earn my redemption, and fearfully casting others as potential threats to my own best interests, but I understand where those messages come from, and I don’t become angry or frustrated with myself when they occur. I recognize that they are just thoughts and emotions, and that everyone experiences unwanted and unhelpful thoughts and emotions from time to time, but they don’t dictate who I am or the choices that I make. I still need practice. It feels like a tiny, baby step. The result thus far, though, is liberating. When I am compassionate with myself, my heart feels gentle, and I treat others the same way. The kindness flows outward, but it starts with me. Wishing you all a kind, gentle, compassionate day!

“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Gentle breeze
Gentle breeze,” © Bill Harrison (own work), Dec 2014. CC BY 2.0. (license)
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Returning

Featured Image:  “Fenwick Lawn,” © Taliskerbay (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY-SA 3.0. (license)

My heart is a little heavy today. Grateful, but heavy. I suppose that the end of a truly restorative, rejuvenating vacation is often difficult. Although I was sensible of my heavy burden of stress, the many increased demands on my time and my coping skills, and my feeling of defeat and exhaustion, I didn’t fully appreciate how much I changed under that constant weight and the sometimes traumatic unpredictability of my life of late. I failed to recognize just how much more rigid I was reflexively thinking and behaving, my increasing negativity and perfectionism, and the all-or-nothing pattern to my thoughts. As I was departing, my nutritionist, Kendra, whose family also hails from the Boston area, remarked, “Oh, you’re just going home. What you need is a real vacation. Why aren’t you going to Florida?” For an instant, I worried that she was right, but as the reality of my escape settled upon me and the fatigue, anxiety, hopelessness, helplessness, desperation, and despair melted away, I recognized that I was precisely where I needed to be.

Excluding my two days of travel, I passed an almost idyllic week in my old bedroom, nestled among family and friends, waking every morning to the chorus of birds living in the woods behind the house where I grew up. I experienced the blessing of time and the peace of stillness. Mornings of yoga alternated with mornings of mass or rest. My mother and I ventured to the town pool one sunny afternoon to swim laps and then sit in the sun. I was glad for the moral support of another person to accompany me, and I might not have committed to the endeavor without her, but she caught me by surprise when she told me, “Thank you for making me brave.” Funny how courage reciprocates. I went for a bike ride, ate blueberries with milk and sugar, and watched the Red Sox (mostly lose) with my dad. I spent afternoons perusing little shops or simply relaxing at home, laying on the worn carpet with my eyes gently closed in mindfulness meditations, reading, writing, and coloring.

Robbin
Robbin,” © Sean Dunn (own work), May 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

My ten-year college reunion was held during the final weekend of my trip. Revisiting my beloved, cherished alma mater, I reconnected with old friends and made new acquaintances, watched Elliot proudly and excitedly ride the pony at the picnic about a dozen times, spent a ridiculous amount of money on sweatshirts, t-shirts and greeting cards at the school bookstore, showered in the locker room before the fancy dinner, and ate the food(!). The old paths that I trod day after day were the same, with a few minor aesthetic improvements. In the main campus hall, I crossed the same worn, tiled floors that thousands of student feet traversed over the course of the past 170 years, I remembered who I was when I started to add my steps to that legacy. It was then, in this place, that the healing began to happen. I was confused, and I was grasping, and there were many painful experiences to follow, but I think that the connections I made, what I learned about God, the world, humanity, and myself, and the grace that I discovered enabled me to survive what was coming. As I sat in my favorite library, allowing the strong sun of June to filter through the prisms of cut glass in the ornate windows, my heart reflected on it all.

Recollecting the months leading up to my short respite, I am struck by how much I was overwhelmed, lost, and struggling. I expected so much of myself. The story that I told myself was one of inadequacy and fear. With increasingly limited time, accumulating duties at work, and mounting commitments, I felt trapped, stuck, and robbed of my free will. Unable to see a way out, I felt helpless, hopeless, and depressed. I lost my connection with myself. My blogging waned, my focus slipped, even my sleep grew restless and disturbed, and my sadness became tinged with despair. I tried vainly to convince myself, “It’s not so bad.” I attempted to remind myself of my successes, like attending a party, or eating out with friends, or the one night that I passed with my coloring books in relaxation. At the same time, I admonished myself for my shortcomings. Severely. My rigidity mounted and my to-do lists multiplied. Though I “accepted” that there was no way to accomplish everything, I was convinced that if I wasn’t reading (three books), blogging, journaling, drawing, coloring, praying, meditating, swimming, biking, practicing yoga, and keeping up with my various correspondences, I was not living wholeheartedly and all would be forsaken. I would not know joy, and I would not be fulfilled. Except, grasping after all of these goals left me gasping, choking, and drowning. In striving for my ideal, I found myself alienated from the wholeheartedness, joy, and fulfillment for which I longed.

The circumstances that I am returning to are unchanged. The only difference is the lingering bitter-sweetness of the deep tranquility that I enjoyed for those blessed eight days and the pang of connections strengthened, now stretched once more. If this is to be my place in life for the foreseeable future, how shall I then live? If the external factors are constant, the change must come from within. But I am scared. I am scared that I can’t do it, and I am scared of what will happen if I fail. So, I am taking a deep breath, and I am sighing OUT. I’m hiring a housekeeper. I’m putting all of my books back on their shelves and just choosing one. I’m contemplating throwing out all of my lists, but I’m not quite there yet. If I throw them out, they’ll just rattle around in my head, making me anxious, because it has yet to really sink in… I will never be able to do, accomplish, or achieve enough to prove to myself that everything is going to be OK or to eliminate from life its uncertainty. I will never be able to make myself a sufficiently good person. We are all flawed. I’m not going to fix that through diligent application and hard work. All I can do is ACCEPT my inability to control my future and ACCEPT my imperfections. Willingness. Letting go. I’ve been here before. I’ll be here again. It is scary. Deep breath.

Rhodedendron
Rhododendrons at home in Connecticut

The Ripple Effect

Featured Image: “Flowers,” © Anne Helmond (own work), October 2011. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Several days ago, a constellation of circumstances coincided that prodded my little mind to begin agitating like the trusty, top-loading washer that I bought on sale from Sears when I moved into my first “grown up” apartment. One event rotated through my thoughts, then another, and glistening bubbles began to break open on the water’s flat, unassuming surface. Each one was effervescent and shiny, reflecting rainbows of light across a delicate, tense, shifting film of shimmering soap. If I tried to hold onto any slight notion too tightly, it vanished with a soft “pop,” leaving me with nothing but an eye of soapy water. With a slow blink, I gazed again at the rising suds as they coalesced…

Something was stirring… as the tiny ripples of many disparate eventualities effervesced, their distinctive rainbows mingling into radiant beams…

Many weeks ago, my friend, Nel, sent me a small arrangement of flowers. There was a bit of hassle involved in the delivery, due to the conflicting schedules of the florist van driver and me, but in the end, it all worked out. The delivery person left the flowers in the leasing office of the apartment complex where I live, and I picked them up the following day. Of the three women who work as property managers, Lisa was the only one there that day. I explained that the flowers were from a friend back home and read the attached card, “Something beautiful for someone beautiful.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet,” Lisa observed, sentimentally. Then, with a hint of wistfulness, she added, “Nobody ever sends me flowers.” There was a twinge at my heartstrings as she spoke and a single, pizzicato note reverberated into the universe. I really should buy her some flowers, I thought.

That good intention succumbed to the busyness of my routine, the other demands of my life, this errand, and that whim. I was always pressed for time; I always produced some other excuse. I always told myself, Tomorrow, or The next time, or Today just isn’t a good day. Deep down, there was also the fear of how such an overture might be received. What would Lisa think? Would she think that I wanted some favor? Would she think that I was crazy?

Often, I tell myself that I am an obnoxious, irritating, and demanding tenant. I tell myself that the management staff consider me a difficult and unreasonable person. On more than one occasion in the past six years, Lisa and her two colleagues, Cindy and Mara, as well as the very kind and responsive maintenance worker, Hal, were exposed to me hovering at a rather heightened pitch of existence as I attempted to manage rather monumental and prolonged life stressors. At times, my abilities to cope and self-soothe were less-than-ideal. Although at other opportunities, I always paused time to smile and chat, to ask about their days and their weekend plans, or to inquire about their families, my self-portrait resembled a shrill, shrewish woman, unhinged and unbalanced. Would they just think I was trying to make up for being so high-strung and neurotic?

Then, on an unremarkable Tuesday afternoon, I was picking up yet another box (after ordering yet another book). Mara looked like she was coming to the end of a very rough day. Her face was tired and lined, and even though her eyeshadow twinkled and she smiled pleasantly, the slump of her shoulders betrayed the truth behind her cheerful, “Hello!” I remarked on the sunshine outside and the fact that in fifteen minutes she could leave the office behind to drink up the beautiful weather. She sighed, the corners of her mouth turning up a bit, but her shoulders collapsed even more. I remembered my intention to buy flowers for Lisa, and it occurred to me that Mara could probably use some flowers to brighten her day, too.

bubbles
bubbles,” © tim (own work), October 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

My compassion for Mara and Lisa might very well have died right there. However, the very next day, another happenstance stirred my too-often shallow, self-absorbed heart. I was perusing a story about living with integrity written by the talented Eli Pacheco on his wonderful Coach Daddy blog. I felt the inspiration to recommit myself to the LIVING of my values, and I told Eli as much in a responding comment. Driving to work, I entertained myself with contemplations of love, compassion, empathy, and wholeheartedness… and within an hour of sitting at my desk, the distractions of the day drove out all of those blissful ideals.

On my lunch break, without reason, but possibly because I was feeling even more weary and depressed than usual, I decided to head home rather than adhere to my usual routine of eating at my desk. It was only because I stepped away from the office that I thumbed my cellphone off of “airplane mode,” and skimmed my WordPress alerts. There was a message from Eli. “I want to know how your day goes!” it read. Weird, I thought. Why would Eli care about my day? It took a solid minute or two of scrolling to remember the post from the morning and to recall its impact on me at 6am. Finally, the soapy water was starting to froth.

At the end of the day, how am I going to leave the world a better place than I found it this morning? I asked myself. I sat with this question all afternoon. As I made my way home, the song playing on the strings of my heart sounded like, “Flowers for Lisa, Cindy, and Mara. Buy flowers. They might need cheering up.” All of my reasons against this course of action percolated under the surface, but I chose to follow the path of vulnerability instead. At the market down the street, I found three small pots of blooms, one yellow, one orange, and one a vibrant purple. Tentatively, I parked the car in front of the leasing office, and precipitously balancing the pots in my petite hands, I stepped over the threshold.

As it turned out, Mara wasn’t the only one who was exhausted and overworked. They were all busy and burdened with the many demands of multiple spring move-ins and move-outs. Mara explained that her son was on mid-semester break, and she was planning to take vacation to spend time at home with him, but given the demands in the office, she didn’t think she would be able to get away. I think it meant something to them that someone took the time to notice them, to ask how they were doing, and to care. The bright flowers were a bright spot in their day, which became a bright spot in my day.

Turning to leave, I couldn’t help but marvel at the chain of happenchance that resulted in a single, shared moment. Isn’t it wonderful, I thought, the effects that can manifest from one, seemingly insignificant act of kindness? In my mind, Nel and Eli deserved equal credit for planting the seeds of compassion and connection that peeked forth a tender, green shoot that afternoon.

Today, I am making an extra effort to smile at every person I pass. Maybe that person will smile at the next person, who will smile at the next person, who will change the life of someone in need.

Echinops Bubble
Echinops Bubble,” © Tom Blackwell (own work), September 2010. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

Joy in a Broken Window

Featured Image: “Snowy Highway,” © Taber Andrew Bain (own work), December 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

As I type away, I am gazing out the big picture window of a downtown coffee shop. The street beyond is drowning in sunlight. The temperatures outside are expected to reach 60⁰F (15.5 C) this afternoon, and the sidewalk is full of people drinking up the first sips of spring. Yet, the forecast for the week ahead includes, of all things, more snow.

Just a mere three days ago, the fluffy white stuff was falling gracefully from a cloud-obscured sky while I drove along my morning commute. I rolled down the automatic window to greet the gate attendant as I entered the complex enclosing my office building, and as I pulled up on the little, black button to raise the glass again, I heard a tremendous crashing sound from the door. “Please tell me that was a rock kicked up by another car,” I thought to myself. There were no passing cars, though, and I knew that something was broken. I pushed the button down again, apprehensively. The electric motor made a strained, whirring sound, but the pane lowered all the way. When I pulled up once more, the whirring gave way to a choked clank, and the window stuck halfway. The gentle, wet snow continued to swirl toward the earth as I drove slowly onward. A few stray flakes fluttered onto my lap as an icy wind stung my eyes.

My first reaction was to think, “It happens. The car is eight years old, after all. Stuff breaks.” I pulled into a parking space, the wind whipping across the crest of the hill and through the open gap. “Good thing I know where we keep the heavy-duty garbage bags. Really good thing I borrowed that packaging tape from J the other day! I bet neither of us would’ve guessed I’d be using it to tape a trash bag over my window!” I mused. Locking the door, the irony of the action bemusing me, I continued my inner contemplations. “It’s still really early. Maybe the dealership will have service appointments available today if I call right away. Good thing work is slow this week, and my schedule is so flexible. Maybe the repair guys can pop that huge ding out of the passenger side while they’re fixing the window!” Someone with a white door inflicted quite the dent into the dark blue mental of my front right a few weeks ago, and I was meaning to call for an estimate on that repair, anyway. My imagination chugged on. “If it won’t take long, I could just wait while they work. I could sit at the dealership and read my book! That would be way better than work. They have free coffee there!” It surprised me that I was in such a good mood given the moisture that was collecting on my leather seats and the money that I was about to shell out. Even the negative “Oh no!” reactions of my coworkers when I told them what happened couldn’t dampen the glow of joy and gratitude in my heart.

It turned out that there were indeed service appointments available at the dealership that very morning. Driving along the highway in the far right lane, trying to limit merging as best I could, intermittently craning my head to look over my left shoulder and ducking low to peer out the half-glass at the bottom of the window, I tried to tune out the deafening noise of the double-layered black trash bag buffeting against the air currents. “This really isn’t too bad, I permitted. “I’m remarkably warm and dry for being protected by just these two, thin sheets of plastic.” There weren’t many people on the road, thankfully. The wintry landscape to either side of the highway was picturesque, and I reveled in its stunning beauty. Peace, joy, and gratitude washed over me.

It occurred to me that a busted car window was more of an inconvenience than an actual suffering. Nothing truly bad happened, and I wasn’t afflicted with any pain or loss. Yet, it also dawned on me that in the not-too-distant past, even such relatively simple inconveniences threw me into fits of anxiety and distress. Instead, on that day, I viewed my broken window as an odd but marvelous gift. I wondered if my sense of calm and my ability to find delight in my circumstances was similar in some small, barely-related manner, to what so many holy people described when reflecting on the joy they found in the hardships they experienced when they were living a life dedicated to love, service, and Christ. I certainly would never begin to draw any parallels between my broken car window and their lives, by any means. The situations couldn’t be more disparate. There was no sacrifice involved on my part in leaving work for a morning to drive to the auto dealer. I definitely wasn’t serving some higher purpose or worthy cause. Yet, there was something loving and accepting in my heart that morning, and it made all the difference. I found myself wondering… It must start somewhere, right? Even if it is such a little thing?

 “Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously. And because all things have contributed to your advancement, you should include all things in your gratitude.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Day 126 - For Rob
Day 126 – For Rob…” © Kate Sumbler (own work), February 2007. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Leaping

Featured Image: “Der Nebel am Morgen 2,” David Schiersner (own work), September 2015. CC BY 2.0. (license)

It seems as if, in some ways, Leap day possess an eerie, mystical, time-warping quality. It holds a place on our calendars because of decisions made by Roman emperors wielding absolute authority thousands of years ago. We still measure time and space by their ancient governance. Their influence remains ever-present and barely noticed, but on one day every four years, this decree by Julius Caesar almost bends the universe.

There was something strange and secretive in the air when I sucked in my first breath of the morning on February 29th. It felt as though the uniquely extra day hung suspended in its own plane of existence. To step out of bed was to cross into another dimension, one that could only be entered every four years and could only be dwelt in for a brief twenty-four hours. At the stroke of midnight, the portal would close, and all would be just as it was before. While in this dimension, though, February 29th, 2012 happened only yesterday, and tomorrow would give rise to the year 2020.

Day 60
Day 60,” © Matt Preston (own work), February 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

On Monday morning, I turned myself out of bed and placed my feet on the carpeted floor. It was the same beige-colored, worn pile that I tread the previous day. It was also the place where I knelt four years ago and tearfully begged God to bring an end to my suffering. One way or another. That winter was a brutal one. It was particularly snowy, and the burden of flu and respiratory illness was heavy on everyone. The bitter sting of the cold and the darkness of the shortened days were nothing compared to the hatred, pain, anger, and fear that I was carrying in my heart. For reasons that would be too complex to delve into, work was unforgiving during that month of February 2012. I was logging 100-hour weeks, and I held the life and death of people who trusted me in my hands every day. My own life teetered precariously on a ledge. Self-care was an unknown concept for me for most of my life. At that time, pain, suffering, and anxiety were measures of effort. And, oh, was I exceeding maximum effort. Yet, it was unfathomable to imagine relinquishing even a modicum of control or resting for even the briefest moment. Death was preferable to showing any weakness. Keenly aware of all my inadequacies and failures, I would rather dig my own grave and cover myself over than ever allow another soul to perceive me as less than perfect. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I berated myself incessantly. Nothing that I did was ever good enough, and I hated myself with a venomous passion. Nothing that anyone else did ever satisfied my standards, either, and I hated the world.

Disappointment and failure were my constant companions. Suicidal? Yes. To yield to those thoughts would be to accept my defeat, though. It was the only time that I ever actually retreated to the bathroom, locked the door behind me, and slid to the floor, collapsing into a heaving pile of tears (while at work, at least). Then, I washed my face, and I carried on. Though I screamed inside, “Why won’t anyone do anything? Why won’t anyone help me?” I never asked. I never reached out, and I never let anyone past my barricades. The cracks were clearly visible. A mentor pulled me aside one day, as the pace was lessening, and advised me that I needed to pull it together in the future. Raging and seething and destroying myself internally, I carried on. Amazingly, astoundingly, that month was not my “rock bottom.” I binged occasionally, but my disordered eating never reached the severity that it would two years later when I did finally hit my “rock bottom.” In the interceding interval, my situation dramatically improved, and my life became much more manageable for a time. It would take a great deal more than the suffering of February 2012 to bring about my near-destruction.

Reflecting on that month, I was astounded by my strength. My main coping skills were avoidance, denial, anger, hatred, psychological self-abuse, and my disordered eating. They were all I knew. Yet, I not only survived, I excelled at my job. The weight of the obstacles I faced was crushing, and I overcame them by sheer determination and the force of my spite. In the bizarre universe of leap days, I found a backwards gratitude for my poisonous emotions and my self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. They kept me alive, and they made me more than successful. The course I was on led me down the path that put me in a place where, when my “rock bottom” happened, I was able to obtain the help that I needed to begin to recover. Reaching across the curvilinear span of years, I saw the hand of God artistically weaving all the pieces together. Artistic like Picasso’s cubist works – a jumble of fractured shapes coming together to form something more. Getting help required recognizing my toxic emotions for what they were, methods of self-protection and avoidance. More devastatingly, it meant showing my imperfections to others and embracing my complete lack of control and my utter terror in the face of profound uncertainty. To make a trite analogy, it took a desperate leap of faith. It didn’t feel quite as graceful as an orchestrated leap, however. It was more akin to a pathetic and despairing flinging of my weakened, broken body into the abyss. The journey from that point was painful in a different way, but in the last two years, I finally started to let go of all of the bile I was clinging to. Finally, I began to love. On February 29th, 2016, I found myself with an open, mindful, grateful heart, awed and inspired by my relentless, merciless, fractured, persevering, gunner self of yesterday.

When I awake on February 29th, 2020, will I gaze upon the same white, textured ceiling? Will my toes curl into a slightly more worn, beige carpet? Will I know myself any better than I do today? Will I be the same person that I am right now? Where will I find myself on this confusing, circuitous, confounding journey? The vortex is closed now, and I am placing one foot at a time, trying to find the next best thing. Until tomorrow, then…

Tomorrow ripe
tomorrow ripe / Morgenreif,” © David Schiersner (own work), February 2014. CC BY 2.0.

Ode to Mustard

Featured Image: “Whole Grain Stout Mustard,” © Susy Morris, May 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0.

A few weeks ago, Laura Bruno Lilly reminded me that not every blog post must be a deep, existential, soul-searching exploration of my past, present, and future or the state of the human condition. For that, I am grateful; and in that spirit, here is my ode to mustard.

When I was little, mustard was my absolute favorite condiment. In fact, it was my only condiment. Ketchup? Blech! Not for this girl. I put mustard on everything. Sandwiches, hot dogs, hamburgers, eggs, the Easter ham. I would even smear mustard on slices of hard cheese for an afternoon snack. The mustard stains on the sleeves of all of my weekend clothes was a testament to my passion. When I was wrapped up in my orthorexia, mustard was a definite no-no, if for no other reason than it seemed extemporaneous and I wouldn’t afford the now-seemingly-inconsequential extra calories. Yet, I never forgot the taste of mustard. When I was in Boston participating in a partial hospitalization program and living with my friend Veronica and her husband, there was mustard in the refrigerator door, waiting patiently for me.

Oh, mustard! I love your zest! Your pungence! Your garish yellowness! From the simple mustard of my youth to the spicy browns and French Dijons currently occupying places in my fridge and on my palate, you never fail me. How could I have ever thought your flavor not worthwhile? Oh, mustard! I’m glad I found you again. Let us never again be apart!

Bee on mustard
Bee on mustard,” © Meg Lauber, May 2008. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

The Centering

Featured Image: “Inauguración Tempus Cuaresma 57,” © NELO Mijangos, Feb 2015. CC BY-NC 2.0.

At some point tomorrow, I will find myself at mass for Ash Wednesday, to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. I am telling myself that I will attend the morning service at 7 am, but being realistic, I know that making it to my office by 8 o’clock on a daily basis is a struggle. Fortunately, there is another service in the evening. I’m looking forward to this Lent with a great deal of eagerness and anticipation. Does that seem strange, especially for someone with an eating disorder? After all, Lent is a penitential season, meaning that it is a season of repentance. We listen to readings about fasting, weeping, and mourning for our sins, about our need to turn to God for mercy, and then we receive a word of caution to guard against hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement, and self-pity. As the ashes are distributed, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Or, alternatively, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”) Why would I be looking forward to Lent with joy?

To be quite honest, until last year, Lent was a season of perfect misery and torture for me. In case I needed any external reminders of how imperfect, broken, fallen, wicked, miserable, and wretched I was, the Church dedicated 40 days to this theme. Throughout the whole year, I did a well enough job of berating myself and denying my worth and value, convinced there was no hope of ever changing. During Lent, the self-shaming and self-hating escalated astronomically. My unhealthy Lenten metamorphosis was partly due to the disordered core beliefs at the center of my destructive personality and partly due to my untreated depression. It was facilitated by some fundamental misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the philosophy, tradition, and teachings of the Catholic Church. All of these factors intertwined with one another, shaping my view of myself, my life, the world, my faith, and God into some sort of creepy, hall-of-mirrors distortion.

Until last year, Lent was my God-imposed diet. As I was growing up, my family made the same Lenten sacrifices every year. No eating between meals, no chocolate, and no meat on Fridays. The reason that it followed so closely after Christmas was as much about making up for eating too many peanut butter blossoms and toffee crunch squares as it was about reorienting toward God. The Church only required fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Catholic definition of a fast was more lenient than one might expect, and allowed for two small meals and one larger meal during the course of the day. The idea was not to restrict food in an unhealthy way, but to introduce a little inconvenience into life for a short time so as to remember that one does not live on bread alone.* Abstinence from meat was called for on Ash Wednesday and each Friday of the season. These “minimal” obligations were too lax for my parents, though, who thought the Church was going soft. To demonstrate real faith required daily fasting. By the time we ate dinner at 7:30 or 8 o’clock at night, I would be starving, especially once I was in high school and was playing varsity tennis in the afternoons. Those nights were when I engaged in some of my earliest binges. Yet, the rules were absolute. When I moved out on my own, I became even more rigid and strict with myself, believing that this proved my worthiness and faithfulness. With each passing year, the anxiety, desperation, and shame that I felt as I fell short of my goals again and again deepened. As I intensified my self-deprivation, my mental health tanked. The last two or three years before my eating disorder was diagnosed and treated were the worst. By Easter, invariably, I was binging out of control and praying for death to bring an end to my suffering.

SONY DSC
Cathédrale de Chartres – Labyrinthe,” © H. Silenus, June 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

There was no single “Aha!” moment when it suddenly dawned on me that Lent was a spiritual gift. As I plugged away at my practice of cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy skills, my self-view began to slowly, ever so slightly, shift. Inch by hesitant, halting inch, my core beliefs started to change. My relationship with God radically altered. The instant that I finally understood, deep in my heart, that I could be loved and forgiven by God in my flawed and imperfect state, before I fixed anything about myself, was a defining moment in the course of my eating disorder recovery. I became curious about the real traditions and teachings of the faith in which I was raised. I started to read voraciously. C. S. Lewis, Rev. Robert Barron, and Mother Teresa. I started asking questions of actual Biblical scholars. It turned out that just about everything I thought I knew was wrong. A humbling universe of love, mystery, wonder, forgiveness, mercy, and beauty opened before me. It was a place in which it was safe to be uncertain. In fact, uncertainty was a requirement. It was a place where imperfection was the expectation. I wanted more.

What I am learning about Lent is that it is a time for centering. It is, indeed, a time for penitence, but not in my old way of understanding. It is a summons to remember our flaws and to realize that we are not able to overcome them on our own. We are asked to turn our shortcomings over to our merciful God, trusting that he forgives us completely and is always helping us to do better. It is a reminder that we are not supposed to be perfect or self-sufficient EVER. The focus of Lent is prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but the definitions of these concepts are not necessarily what you find when you flip through a copy Merriam-Webster’s. The Lenten “fast” is an invitation to let go of those worldly habits or material goods that distract a person from a life devoted to God. A life devoted to God is a life devoted to LOVE, because LOVE is what God IS. Thus, we are reminded to LOVE, not only God, but each other and… wait for it… ourselves. For six short weeks, we are asked to let go of something that diminishes our capacity to known God and to love, or something that distracts us from praying and from loving. This Lent, rather than altering my eating (fasting is not required or recommended for people with medical needs, and my ED recovery is the priority), I am giving up television. Call it an experiment. I am hoping that I will free up some time for those practices that enliven and enrich my soul, like writing, reading, and just sitting quietly in contemplation. Oh, contemplation. The stillness and silence. It’s hard for me to slow down, and for 40 days, I will be receiving focused reminders about the importance of pausing for quiet reflection. Finally, almsgiving. There is no connection quite like the one forged through a true act of loving service. Pope Francis declared 2016 the Jubilee Year of Mercy. In this year of mercy, I want to open my heart to others and stretch myself to be vulnerable and generous, while exploring boundary-setting, which is an ongoing challenge for me.

So, there’s the plan. Set my heart on God, my center. Search him out wherever I can. Examine the parts of my life that lead me away from him. Work on acknowledging that yes, I am imperfect, just like everyone else. Practice receiving God’s perfect love and accepting his tender mercy… meaning I must forgive myself, too. Be open to offering love freely, however, wherever, and whenever I am called.

Small Easter Lily
Small Easter Lily,” © Carol Von Canon, Aug 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A brief note…

* Even though I am medically exempted from fasting, I still struggle to come to terms with the rationalizations and justifications used to endorse this spiritual practice. If you are reading this and are interested in why the church promotes fasting, you can learn more about it here. Fasting is NOT recommended for anyone with a medical condition that would be impacted by keeping a fast, which includes anyone who struggles with disordered eating.