Critical Moments

Featured Image:  “American & Italian Cuisine,” © GmanViz (own work), Nov 2007. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

An extrovert trying to be an introvert to avoid being hurt… that was how my first therapist described me. Isolation and feelings of loneliness were always sources of pain for me. Exploring my need to be in the company of other people and embracing the discomfort and uncertainty inherent in the swampland of forging personal connections was a first beyond the entrenched cognitive-behavioral-emotional loops of my chronic depression. Reengaging with old friends and building new relationships were dramatic shifts outside of my comfort zone, and these efforts were challenging enough. At a time when I was also waging a pitched war for my life against binge eating disorder, the fact that many (perhaps most) social situations involved food only heightened the drama. My recovery from my depression and my eating disorder were too interdependent to be dissected apart. As I battled on, my friend Amelia was a close ally on both fronts. We fell into a routine of meeting up after work every few weeks for dinner, making our way through a circuit of the best local restaurants in our little area. Over seltzer with lime and decaf black coffee, we shared all the details of our lives, from the most mundane to the deepest and most heartfelt. Each meal was anticipated with delight as an opportunity to be genuine and authentic for a few hours. In the comfortable cocoon of merry conversation, I grew increasingly resilient as I coped with one menu and then the next.

In April, Amelia accepted an offer of a new position and relocated to a city five hours away. It was a long-expected move, and there was nothing sudden about it. I was excited for her, and I was prepared for the change, but there was a difference between predicting loneliness and then actually feeling it. Over the summer, I continued to travel frequently, remained involved in all of my meaningful activities, and maintained my connections with all of my long-distance friends. Yet… I spent much of my time alone. It didn’t always feel like loneliness. I remained connected and I didn’t dwell in any sense of isolation or entertain self-pity. However, every once in a while, I felt the definitive absence of my friends. At times, my therapist and I spoke about the subject, but we never arrived at any useful conclusions. I continued to participate in yoga, I lingered after mass each Sunday to chat with my casual acquaintances from my parish, and, every so often, I went out to lunch with some of my coworkers. None of those fleeting connections filled the empty space in my heart that longed for a kindred spirit.

It was a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and I was leaving work in just such a state. I was at the nadir of a several-day funk, and I was not looking forward to a solitary weekend. My mood was low and my anxiety was piqued, triggered by automatic, alarming, all-or-nothing type thoughts about an upcoming professional conference and all the logistics of another trip. To an entirely new city. Alone.

My phone buzzed, and a lengthy text message popped onto the screen. It was Amelia! “Pete and I are headed your way for the weekend! There’s a cycling convention in town. I know it’s last minute, but we’re going out for dinner at Giovanni’s on Saturday night if you want to come. Let me know!” Amelia was returning at precisely the moment it seemed that I needed her most! My heart perked, but my head reeled at the name of the restaurant. Giovanni’s was decidedly unsafe.

“Lord, you have probed me, you know me: / you know when I sit and stand; / you understand my thoughts from afar. / You sift through my travels and my rest; / with all my ways you are familiar. / Even before a word is on my tongue, / Lord, you know it all. / You formed my inmost being; / You knit me in my mother’s womb. / My very self you know.”

~ Psalm 139:1b-4,13,14b

Competing ideas zipped into my consciousness. “No,” was a prominent voice. “No” to the menu, “no” to the restaurant, and “no” to everything that they both represented to me. Giovanni’s exemplified everything that I found repugnant in American food culture. It was about as far from authentically Italian as one could possibly find. The fare was entirely Midwestern American, featuring pasta with a side of bread, served with meatballs, sausage, salami, and pepperoni, heavily doused with cheese, cream sauces, and more cheese, and served with a garnish of tomato sauce. The three salads on the menu consisted mainly of iceberg lettuce, croutons, and, you guessed it, more cheese. The only entrée that included a vegetable was fried eggplant parmesan. There weren’t even any vegetable sides offered.

lightly-breaded
Lightly Breaded,” © Gexydaf (own work), Jun 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Against these objections, I also heard myself stating a decisive, Yes.” My memory of a recent appointment with my dietician resonated, and I couldn’t escape the echoed repetitions of Kelly’s voice, “You may not skip social things because of food.” I was grateful for her clear, direct manner, which left little room for quibbling. “Yes” to Kelly, “yes” to Amelia, and “yes” to connection, friendship, and wholeheartedness. I couldn’t conceive how I would manage the menu, but there was little utility in obsessing over it. Reading and rereading the descriptions of the unappealing choices would not alter them or make them more acceptable. Memorizing every deplorable detail would only make me more anxious. I admitted to myself that there were no safe choices; I replied to Amelia that I was not in the least bit comfortable with the restaurant; and I expressed my tremendous joy at the prospect of seeing her again, committing myself, for better or worse, to whatever this dinner entailed. Decision made, I settled into waiting with a combination of exuberance and resigned acceptance.

As afternoon succeeded morning on Saturday, a familiar exchange revolved through my head. Yes/no. Excitement/acceptance. Tranquility/anxiety. Amelia and Pete were at their cycling convention, and I awaited their word on a dinner time. It wasn’t until 3:30pm that I heard from them. Could I meet at the restaurant in two hours? Typically, 5:30pm would be “way too early” for me to eat, especially given the typical later timing of my weekend lunch. However, on this particular Saturday, I was grateful that the short notice left me little interval for pre-planning, advance calculations, or ruminations. Still in yoga tights and looking a teensy bit too disheveled for a sit-down meal, even at the most casual of places like Giovanni’s, my main concern was making myself presentable and getting across town in under 120 minutes.

When I arrived (only 10 minutes late – which is just on time for me!), I was so flooded with the excitement of seeing my beloved friend that I could barely focus on anything else. It was impossible to read a menu and survey all the sights and sounds of my new environment while maintaining the bubbling flow of conversation that gushed forth the instant Amelia and I reunited. I tripped my way to the table, so distracted I was peering over my shoulder in an attempt to keep her in sight, as words tumbled out in all directions from both sides. It was after the waitress paused at our table for the third time to take our orders that I concluded it was time to settle into dedicated concentration for the task at hand – to hobble together some sort of manageable compromise from a truly abysmal list of choices.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

When the pleasant waitress returned once more, I smiled sweetly and asked innocently, “Do you have any side vegetable dishes?” I fully expected her negative answer, but I wasn’t yet discouraged or dissuaded. “Do you have any vegetables?” I asked in my most saccharine way. Like, at all? Like, in the entire restaurant? Like, could you go to the grocery store and buy me a carrot?

She twisted one corner of her mouth and scrunched her nose as if she was racking her brain. “You know what, let me check,” she responded kindly. I tried not to be too appalled that it seemed like such a bizarre, foreign idea that a patron would want to eat a vegetable with her dinner. A few moments later, she returned triumphantly with the answer: there were spinach and red peppers in the kitchen.

“Perfect!” I internally rejoiced. I asked her if it would be too much trouble to steam some spinach for me. She offered to sauté it. I asked her to sauté it lightly, ordered the grilled chicken with pasta and pesto, and said a little prayer under my breath that my meal wouldn’t arrive at the table swimming in oil. “It’s out of my control now,” I told myself as I settled back into the rhythm of conversation, happy, content, acquiescent, pleased, relaxed, and willing.

“It is just one day.”

“It is just one meal.”

“It is not going to kill me.”

“I can do this.”

It would be a lie if I denied that I was unconcerned about gaining weight. Those thoughts were present. I was upset and disturbed by the food selection and by the relationships with food and eating behaviors reflected around me. However, in a moment when I was faced with a choice to isolate within the safe, protective shell of my eating disorder or turn all of my self-protective instincts upside down, I committed to the uncertain path, and I forged ahead without wavering. It felt risky, it felt reckless, and it felt real. In a less-than-ideal situation, I did better than cope. It felt like progress.

day-148
Day 148,” © Flood G. (own work), Feb 2012. CC BY NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Presence of Mind

Featured Image: “Bicycle,” © Ian Sane (own work), Dec 2009. CC BY 2.0. (license)

“I am not absent-minded. It is the presence of the mind that makes me unaware of everything else.”

~ G.K. Chesterton

In my imagination, there is an ideal of what it would mean to be perfectly mindful. There is a notion, a concept, of always being in the present – fully aware of what is going on around me, fully conscious, awake, and attentive to my external environment and my internal thoughts and emotions. My therapist tries to tell me that to be always mindful would not be mindful, but that makes little sense to me. As I gradually make my way through my book on mindful self-compassion, I draw encouragement from learning that the moment we become aware that we are not being mindful, we become mindful. (I know that I’ve been writing about this same book for months. I’m a slow reader, okay! It also doesn’t help that I jump from one book to another, then onto a third, then back to the first).

One afternoon, last weekend, I set out for an autumn bike ride along the paved trails near my house.

The fall is one of my favorite seasons, and it always stirs up some very strong memories and emotions. They swirl together fluidly, making it impossible to follow a linear ribbon of thought or recollection. Light and dark, faces and names, places and ideas, happiness, joy, gratitude, nostalgia, pain, loss, guilt, delight, sorrow, shame, laughter, tears… they all mix together like so many disparate ingredients poured into one giant bowl. Flour, sugar, eggs, and milk form a smooth batter, never to be constituent parts again, but richer for their joining.

My mind was fluttering with activity as I pedaled along the tree-lined paths, legs pumping, lungs heaving, and heart nearly bursting with all the glory of that autumn afternoon. When I returned to my apartment, I was in danger of falling into self-criticism for being so mindless. Though I did notice the sparkling rays of the setting sun, the fresh current of the air, and the smell of damp earth, I could not deny that I was largely preoccupied during my ride. As I stretched my sore quads, I turned on the television to a biopic of G.K. Chesterton. Not knowing much about this British author, I continued to watch, and I found myself presented with the above quote. It gave me pause for deeper consideration.

Perhaps there is more to this practice of mindfulness than I am allowing.

chesterton
G.K. Chesterton,” © Zach Brissett (own work), Aug 2005. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

A Message to Myself Today

Featured Image: “Moonrise,” © Brian (own work), April 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

“In the course of a lifetime, what does it matter?”

~ Sharon Creech, Walk Two Moons

When I read this book, I was probably about twelve, and I forgot the majority of the plot long ago. But, when I was at Walden, I was reminded of these words by another patient. It was one of the quotations that helped keep her afloat during her intense battle against anorexia.

While I still don’t remember much about the story, I now carry this single sentence in my heart. It is slipping back into my consciousness today, as I return to work after a restful week of visiting family. Though there is much catching up to do, I am able to fluidly transition from one task to the next, without taking myself or the demands of my job and my day-to-day life too seriously. “How long will it be before I start growing anxious and frustrated again?” I wonder. “How long will it be before I start telling myself that all of the too-many-things I squeeze into my schedule are necessary?”

Last night, as I was about to climb into bed, it occurred to me, “It is going to be a long life. In the whole, long course of my life, does [it] really matter?” Pondering this idea for a moment, I remembered that gentleness applies not only to how I act and speak to others, but also how I think, and how I talk to myself. Then, I thought, “…and if I don’t live a long life, and I die tomorrow, or next month, or next year, [it] really won’t matter!” I smiled. The though was more comforting than morbid. I felt silly for being anxious and worried about so many insignificant concerns.

Today, I can’t even recall precisely what last night’s [it] was. Most likely, [it] was some dietary indiscretion, a few days without exercise, a few nights of poor sleep, or some other perceived imperfection, but the plain fact that I don’t specifically remember demonstrates just how irrelevant these few dropped notes are in the grand symphony of the universe. Am I living up to my values? What are those values? When I stop to reflect, I know exactly how I am called to live my life.

“Then he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?’”

Luke 9:23-25

The cross is the sacrifice of self-giving love. It is the call to die to my own egocentrism, patiently bear the trials and tribulations of life, trusting God, loving always, seeking the little way. Am I choosing this path each day, each moment? Because, in the course of a lifetime, that is all that matters.

moonlight-path
Moonlight Path,” © V. Michelle Bernard (own work), July 2010. CC BY 2.0. (license)

A Kind of Conclusion – The Seventh Week of the Kindness Challenge

Featured Image:  “seeds,” © Yamanaka Tamaki (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Four months later, I am finally writing my reflection on the seventh and final week of the Kindness Challenge. I am calling it my “kind of” conclusion, because my aim is to continue the daily challenge of being as kind, loving, and forgiving as I possibly can be… and accepting that I will encounter times when I both succeed and fall short.

When I began the challenge, I was frayed, distracted, and feeling dashed on the rocks of the stormy sea of life. I was longing for shelter from the pounding waves, and the challenge provided structure, short-term goals, and a wholehearted purpose at a time when wholeheartedness seemed distant and impossible. Participating in the challenge reminded me that in order to share love with others, I first needed to treat myself with gentleness and self-compassion. How could I expect myself to meet others “wherever they were,” giving them the benefit of the doubt, and acting kindly regardless of how they might treat me or respond, if I could not approach myself in the same manner, understanding myself as an imperfect person trying my best?

During the challenge, I was invited deeper into mindfulness and into the connections between all of us here in this living, breathing world. I was frequently confronted with the greatest commandments:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30 and 31)

It seems that breaking out of my inward focus and my self-protective shell and loving God in the guise of my neighbor, brazenly and fearlessly, with my whole heart, will always be one of the most difficult things I do. Where love is, then pain, disappointment, and rejection inevitably follow. Not always, but sometimes. This loving is a risky business. Yet, I know that it is possible, and through this challenge, I am encouraged to continue working on it each day.

Many thanks to Niki for hosting the Kindness Challenge. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her blog, I highly encourage you to go check it out, here. She is constantly updating with new content, and it is never too late to participate in the challenge!

kindnesschallenge

#RevofKindness #bekind

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

 

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

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)

Be Not Afraid

Featured Image: “Rosa Frau Karl Drushki Wien 2014,” © Anna reg (own work), June 2014. CC BY-SA 3.0. (license)

As I scroll through my newsfeed and my blogfeed this morning, a pattern is emerging. Confusion. Fear. Bewilderment. Anger. Frustration. Helplessness. There really is no point in enumerating the litany of reasons for these emotions. They are self-evident. Terrorism, domestic and foreign. The sickening current state of our nation’s politics. Refugee crises, economic crises, global health crises…
It’s easy to despair. I am particularly vulnerable to feelings of desperation given my very black-and-white way of seeing the world and my predisposition to depressive thinking. However, then I force myself to remember, that the victory over sin and death is already won. Don’t misunderstand me; we citizens of this planet have a real and pressing duty to work now to bring about peace in our day, but I know with my whole heart that we have a victor in Christ, and it is in Him that I am putting my faith.

I leave you with these three quotes, which I am contemplating today.

“There is no evil to be faced that Christ does not face with us. There is no enemy that Christ has not already conquered. There is no cross to bear that Christ has not already borne for us, and does not bear with us.”

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are an Easter people, and Hallelujah is our song.” 

“The future starts today, not tomorrow.”

~ Pope St. John Paul II


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, Day Three

Featured Image:  “Covered,” © Chris Winters (own work), June 2014. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

Here it is, the final day of the challenge! Thank you for reading and for allowing me to share some of my favorite quotations with you. To conclude the challenge, here is a sampling for you to take with you into your day.

“One cannot judge the beauty of a path merely by looking at its entrance.”

~ Paulo Coelho

“The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

“Go out into the world today and love the people you meet. Let your presence light new light in the hearts of people.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

 

My final nominees to carry on this challenge are…

The rules of the challenge are pretty easy:

  1. Three days
  2. Three quotes per day
  3. Three nominations per day

Enjoy! ♥