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)

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

 

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)

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! ♥

The Three Day Quote Challenge, Day Two

Featured Image: “Mother Teresa,” © Troy (own work), July 2012. CC BY-SA 2.0. (license)

One of the people who inspires me beyond measure is Blessed Mother Teresa. It is hard to look upon her example without feeling inadequate and unworthy, but my authentic heart tells me that my inwardly-directed guilt and shame are contrary to her message and her great love. When I begin to think that I am not doing enough with my life or the resources with which I’m blessed, the words of this saintly woman show me mercy and encourage me to deeper faith. Stretching my comfort zone is supposed to sting, but I am reminded to be patient with myself and to begin again in my own little way of kindness.

“I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

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

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty – it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

~ Blessed Mother Teresa

Today’s nominees…

The rules are pretty simple.

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

Thanks for reading my post, and please check out these other great blogs! ♥

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…

A Birthday Rehabilitated – The Second Week of the Kindness Challenge

With life seeming to break around unexpected, sharp turns fairly frequently of late, I apologize that my blogging is a bit erratic and infrequent. There are many words and ideas pinging around in my head, but I am making self-care my priority. I find myself short on free time these days, and to dedicate all of it to writing would mean sacrificing the other parts of myself that bring my mind and soul into balance – my relationships, my personal journal, exercise and yoga, drawing… Well, the result is that I’m a bit behind on my Kindness Challenge Reflections. As I prepare to publish this post, I am a bit dumbstruck by how long it took me to cobble it together, but I am also allowing myself to celebrate the other ways I am using my time – the backyard picnics that I attended with friends this weekend, Saturday’s massage, daily prayer, mindfulness practice, helping my parents around their house, wandering through the garden when the work was finished. With acceptance in mind, I’m continuing forward.

It so happened that the second anniversary of my 30th birthday fell during the second week of The Kindness Challenge, when the task was to “observe kindness around you.” Throughout my personal history, “kindness” and “my birthday” were contradictory terms. In fact, “kindness” was a word that I rarely, if ever used, and it was a concept that I certainly did not understand. You see, the sole function of my birthday was to annually substantiate, to myself and to the world, how little I mattered. It was a day for remembering that I was not only unloved but unlovable… not to mention forgotten, outcast, and worthless. It offered all the evidence that I required to remain irrefutably convicted in my mentally-ill heart that I was abnormal, defective, and irreparably damaged. I repeated the same story to myself year after year to prove why there was no hope for me. Life is not a fairy tale, and there are no such things as happy endings. I only needed to turn on CNN or look to the streets of the city where I lived for evidence of the overwhelming suffering in the world. Somehow, I was convinced that by bearing a disproportionate amount of pain, misery, loneliness, heartache, and despair, I served as a sort of reparation for the injustice and hurt experienced by others.

Underneath it all, I think that I was afraid. Of what, precisely, I’m not entirely certain. The unknown? Change? Allowing myself to be vulnerable? To be dependent on others for my emotional needs? I didn’t understand that human beings are made for each other. I couldn’t comprehend that one of the reasons I felt so lonely and unfulfilled was because no individual can satisfy all her own longings. Our souls demand connection in order to flourish. We are nourished by relationships, even the simple exchanges of a friendly smile between strangers on the subway or a kind greeting over a morning coffee transaction. I viewed my sadness as weakness. My depression was a flaw to be mercilessly vanquished through diligent work and application. Emotions were obstacles on my path to success, and other people could not be trusted. Every May, I broke my own heart. I asked for nothing, but I expected everything. In my romanticized world, I imagined that all of my friends and family would just know as my birthday approached. Though I admonished and scolded myself that life was no fairy tale, I fell for the fantasy of every chick flick, Disney movie, Hallmark Channel original, and jewelry advertisement I ever saw. I was endlessly disappointed, of course. A healthy person might recognize such disappointment as the result of an ideal founded on illusions and clever marketing, but I convinced myself that I didn’t matter. I would never matter. I was destined to be alone and to suffer forever, because it was what I was made for. I was confident that even God was ambivalent to my existence.

My 30th birthday was a murky transition between the darkness of my contorted thinking and the light. I barely dipped a toe into cognitive behavioral therapy beginning in March of that year, and I was not yet owning my “eating issues.” A year later, after six weeks of partial hospitalization for binge eating disorder, four weeks of an intensive outpatient program, and ongoing weekly therapy for my depression, anxiety, and orthorexia, I was ready for something different. Planning a party or organizing an event was still a bit beyond my coping skills. Thoughts of the food challenges, the crowd, and the expectation all provoked anxiety, resulting in my familiar chest tightness and one of my favorite fallbacks – avoidance. My biggest step forward was in acknowledging my birthday and allowing others to celebrate me. As the second anniversary of my 30th birthday approached, I felt a familiar tension rising within. Initially, I succumbed to the pressure of believing that, because I was now in recovery, I needed to honor myself by observing my birthday in a remarkable way. However, apprehension gave way to acceptance and then to a serene peacefulness as I released all of the remaining expectations to which I continued to cling. For perhaps the first time, I decided that a structured, choreographed, orchestrated bash was not requisite to prove my worth or my commitment to my self-love. Instead of assuming that I would be forgotten, I permitted myself to take for granted that the people closest to me would send me cards and that my officemates, who never, ever miss a birthday for anyone in our workplace, would at least hang up our “Happy Birthday!” sign over my desk. Vulnerability. Yet, regardless of what happened, who remembered and who didn’t, or how I celebrated, I knew that I was loved and appreciated, and on more than just a single day of 365.

birthday cards
It isn’t the gifts or cards that make me know that I’m loved… but these are such a cherished reminder.
When I released those expectations, it was as if my birthday transformed into the fairy tale I always imagined, but in an entirely unexpected way. There was no great pomp or flash, but I found magical delight in the simplest kindnesses. I flicked the light switch in my tiny office to illuminate a confetti-strewn scene bedazzled with sparkling, metallic streamers, balloons, and accented with a bouquet of bright flowers practically overflowing their vase. The absence of definitive plans allowed for an impromptu lunch at one of my favorite nearby restaurants with two of my closest colleagues, culminating in another favorite, a warm brownie sundae. I discovered that a brownie sundae is even better when it is shared with your friends on your birthday while the sun shines brilliantly outside, birds whistle springtime songs, and work stands still just long enough for a slow, deep breath that brings life all the way to your toes. I returned home at the end of my day to a stack of packages and cards piled so high that I borrowed a mail crate to carry them all from the front office of my apartment community to my little townhouse. Under a radiant, sunny sky, I rode my bike along the nearby trail, drinking in the colors, sounds, and smells all around me as I reflected on all the love poured into my heart that day.

There are always hard days when I feel myself drawing inward, when I close myself off in a self-protective cocoon. Fear, bitterness, resentment, pain… c’est la vie. If my past birthdays illustrate anything, it is that shutting myself off from the world only guarantees my suffering. Throughout this journey, I am learning the necessity of connection to the wholehearted life for which I long. It can be terrifying to allow myself to so raw and exposed, and it is pretty much guaranteed that I will both be hurt and hurt others along the way. Which leads me to this… don’t we all deserve a little kindness and compassion on this rough path we all must tread? When I open my senses to the kindness and connection all around me, I feel more alive. Today, I am grateful for all of my friends and family who showered me with smiles and thoughtfulness this May, and I am especially grateful for all of the people who loved me through all those hard, dark Mays before. Thank you.

birthday princess
Finally the birthday princess, thanks to my wonderful coworkers, who know that I’m just a little girl at heart.

#RevofKindness #bekind

The Kindness Challege, Week One – Going Gentle into a New Day

Featured Image:  “Carnation,” © Michael Dales (own work), Mar 2011. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

When making New Year’s resolutions, some people choose a single word upon which to center themselves and find motivation or grounding. I don’t think that I possess the mindfulness, consistency, focus, or diligence to remain intentional about the same word for a straight 365 days. It is hard enough for me to stay intentional, ever, even briefly. Sometimes, I become frustrated with my lack of consistency, or my absence of thought-fullness, or my failure to keep present, and I find myself growing discouraged. Defeatism and self-criticism harden my heart while the muscles in my body that are under more conscious control tighten and clench. I clamp my jaw at myself and my own obstinacy. However, there is an alternative perspective to this negative self-labeling. Recollecting my dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and asking how else I might understand or appreciate this situation, this unwanted identity I find myself saddled with, my wise mind softly suggests another explanation, “My self-sayings tend to shift with my needs, much like my other patterns of behavior. I’m not fickle. I’m adaptable.”

Fact check – is it true? One week, I am drawn toward my coloring books and pencils in my free time, and my dining room table spills over with slivers of wood shavings and sheaves of bright paper. Another week, the pool is where I find my solace, swimming stroke after steady stroke through the cool water as I watch the rippling patterns of the sun dancing across the tile beneath me. For a period, I rise early in the morning and read in bed from a book of daily scripture or one of the spiritual classics. Lately, it is Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God. At other times, I am more overworked and sleep deprived, and I bury my face in my soft pillow, pressing the “snooze” button at least twice. I want to be more consistent. I want to make time to meditate for twenty minutes every day, take walks in the fresh air each afternoon, journal every morning, and read every evening. I want to develop the habit of cleaning up one or two rooms of my apartment each week, and I tell myself that if I could just hit my stride, I would never again fall behind on the house work. The honest truth is, though, I am probably not ever going to be that constant, or predictable, or “balanced.” As I type out my concept of an idyllic routine, another adjective occurs to me. Boring. I remind myself of my favorite definition of balance – a moment-by-moment adjustment to life’s constant unbalancing forces. Deep breath. Sigh out. The foundation never changes, but just how those elements manifest and in what proportions they coalesce to fill time are as changeable as sand dunes in a sweeping wind. Recognition of this fact (again) may be why I find myself transfixed by a certain word as I move through each day and from one activity or task to the next. Gentle.

Middleburg carnations
Middleburg carnations,” © Sarah Ross (own work), July 2009. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

The first week of The Kindness Challenge, hosted by Niki at The Richness of a Simple Life read thus:  “Be Kind and Gentle with Yourself.” The challenge went on to prompt each participant to treat himself or herself like a close friend, replacing self-criticism, self-doubt, and self-shaming with love, tenderness, and compassion. Because, wrote Niki, “You have to love and accept yourself for who you are before you can expect for someone else to do so.” An interesting idea… But that was not what most captivated me when I contemplated self-compassion. The more critical question burning in my mind was, “How can I love another if I can’t love myself? How can I love God? How can I truly understand what love is?” These were the questions that sparked my recovery. These were the questions that changed my life. Or started changing it. After so many unsuccessful attempts at belittling and berating myself into changing, it wasn’t until I opened my eyes to God’s unsurpassed love for me, his unfathomable forgiveness, and his confounding, confusing, complete and unconditional acceptance of me right now, as I am (and as I was), in my broken, imperfect, iniquitous state, in the depth of the shame at the rock bottom of my eating disorder, that I started to recover. Who was I to withhold forgiveness from myself when God deemed me fit for forgiveness? Who was I to withhold love from myself when God found me worthy, despite all of my unworthiness, of receiving His perfect love?

For years, I worked, studied, read, analyzed, criticized, and slaved, to “fix myself” (i.e., be perfect), and the only visible result was that I sank deeper and deeper into anxiety, depression, neuroticism, social isolation, and a diseased mind and body. All those efforts weren’t for nothing, however. I can’t put my finger on the missing piece that finally unified the disparate fragments and focused a floodlight of insight on my struggle, but it smacked me in the face during a group session in the midst of my partial hospitalization stint. It was not as though I never underwent any changes before that moment, and it didn’t become any easier afterwards, but from that day forward, everything was different. The shift was painful and excruciatingly slow. It was an uphill battle against decades of mental illness, destructive and disordered thinking, and deeply patterned behavioral reactions. Only now I was fighting with LOVE.

Waiting for the Word
The Good Shepherd 130,” © Waiting for the Word (own work), May 2011. CC BY 2.0. (license)

With the epic struggle become more like day-to-day maintenance or a steady, lifelong construction project, the busyness of life can dull my attentiveness to that love.  I tend to forget what it was like when gentleness, love, and compassion were novel and tender and needed my constant effort to willfully turn my mind around each time I found myself reacting automatically with cynicism, criticism, doubt, anger, righteousness, disdain, judgment, shame, blame, or resentment… which was pretty much every waking minute of every day. New automatic patterns take over. Some of the old ways still remain, although they are largely transmuted. It is not necessarily that I am in danger of sliding back into that same dark hole where I was once imprisoned, but slowly, subtly, the glow in my heart dims

Enter The Kindness Challenge. Such was my state when I began the challenge, and I found myself revisiting the same questions that I confronted during those first few days of learning how to eat, how to trust others, how to trust myself, how to give myself permission to be imperfect/real/human/alive… What makes me worthy of love and belonging? Nothing. Only that I am a beautiful creature of my heavenly Father, created in the image and likeness of God, and filled with the Holy Spirit. I am just as broken and dysfunctional as every other human being, and I am just as endowed with the fullness of dignity and just as infinitely loved. How then, do I treat myself? Gently. In case I need another reminder, it is the Year of Mercy, after all.

“Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

So… I went to bed early, and I took time out of my afternoons to meditate, if only for a few minutes. I exercised for the joy and pleasure of moving my body in a healthy, purposeful way, noticing the smells of the plants, the trills and chirps of the birds and crickets, the rustling of the leaves, and the chill of the breeze as I bicycled along the path near my house. I pushed my to-do list out of the way, and I pulled out my colored pencils. I held myself accountable, and I accepted my inevitable mistakes. I brushed myself off and I began again. I wrote down my gratitudes every day. Or nearly every day. I let go of being perfect or complete. Or I made an effort to let go. I took my time, and spent an extra two days to finishing this post. Deep breath. Sigh out. It’s a work in progress…

This new week brings a new chapter in The Kindness Challenge. As I endeavor to open my heart to appreciating the kindness all around me, I am making a note of the kindness that I find here, among my rich blogging community. And I am grateful. For another perspective on what it is like to cultivate self-love and self-compassion while recovering from an eating disorder, I encourage you to visit one of my favorite blogs, Beauty Beyond Bones. The author of this amazing blog writes beautifully and expressively about the emotional journey of recovery and of the process of reconnecting with God, self, and others. I always find unfailing kindness there. ♥

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

~ Philippians 4:3-7

Elsea Meadow Bourne
Elsea Meadow, Bourne,” © Lee Morley (own work), July 2013. CC BY-NC 2.0. (license)

#RevofKindness #bekind