Misericordia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter;

he who finds one finds a treasure.

A faithful friend is beyond price,

no sum can balance his worth.

A faithful friend is a lifesaving remedy;

such as he who fears God finds.

For he who fears God behaves accordingly,

and his friend will be like himself.”

~ Sirach 6:14-17

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

Rediscovering Repentance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Seas of Self-Storms

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

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

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

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

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

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

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

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

~ Sr. Joan Chittister, God’s Tender Mercy

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

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

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

~ St. Catherine of Siena

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

 

Prayer for Morning

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

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

~ cf. 2 Sm 23:3-4

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

~ October 31, 2016: Prayer for Morning,Magnificat

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

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

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

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…

Change

“Isn’t it funny how day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different?”

~ C.S. Lewis

On a cursory glance through my recent blog entries, it would appear that one of my oft-recurring, favorite themes to expound upon is change. The very title of the blog suggests as much. If I am as objective as I can be (who among us is really, truly objective when considering our own lives?), I cannot deny that I am undergoing noticeable changes. Certain moments and circumstances lend more readily to introspection and reflection. This season of Easter and the rebirth of spring is one of those periods.  However, while I fully acknowledge that some of my ways of acting are different and that, through practice and repeated exposures, I am building new tools for responding to previously triggering stimuli, at the end of the day, the question remains… am I really changing? Am I, as a person, as a human being with a heart, soul, mind, and will, actually growing? As I type this, am I any better today than I was yesterday, or last week, or last month, or last year?

“Each person’s task in life is to become an increasingly better person.”

~ Leo Tolstoy

A short time ago, the wonderfully insightful Maria, author of the blog “Small Changes for Life,” wrote in a post, “You know what’s amazing? We were all created with the ability to change. It’s the one true constant we can all see in nature with our eyes, but what’s really fantastic is we can also change on purpose.” As I read those words, I found myself wondering… do I believe that I am capable of change?

“True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.”

~ St. Francis de Sales

In my logical, cognitive, analytical, mind, I know that I am constantly changing. I am never the same from one moment to the next. Even writing this blog post is stimulating neurons to fire in my cerebral cortex. I’m connecting axons and dendrites in novel ways while reinforcing other patterns already laid down. As my fingers plunk away at the keys, the muscle fibers contract and relax, strengthening ever so subtly with the repeated motion. I will never undo the events that transpired earlier in the day, and I will never un-write the memories that I created. Those memories will continue to be shaped and re-interpreted with each successive experience of my life, morphing and adapting in the fluidity of my existence. Time does not unwind. When I post this piece, I will not be the same as I was when I started composing it. Even the universe itself is constantly expanding. This idea of ever-shifting context is comforting when I face setbacks in my eating disorder recovery. When those setbacks cause tremendous emotional upheaval and self-doubt, it is particularly easy for me to tell myself that all of the skills I was previously using, all the insights I discovered and practices I developed at Walden, are just-plain-gone. However, when I can recollect myself long enough to remember that there is no going back, I can find the courage to believe that a setback is sometimes just another step on the recovery journey, albeit a painful one.

“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”

~ Maria Robinson

So, yes, the part of my brain that loves to theorize and cogitate relishes the knowledge that change is constant. However…

When I look deep into my heart, my core beliefs tell me a different tale. In my most fundamental interior place, the belief that I hold in the center of my soul is one of immutability, incapability, and worthlessness. And, oh, how it breaks my heart to know this to be my conviction! Sitting quietly by myself, with my open journal and a pen, delving into my deepest recesses, I write these words: “I find myself a loathsome, miserable, useless wretch. I am filled with despair.” What happens if I believe that it is impossible to avoid change, and at the same time, I don’t believe that I am capable of the changes I long to see in myself? This question is one that I cannot answer. Yet, at some level, whether superficial or central, I must believe that I can somehow, at some time, overcome all the faults and weaknesses of character that I find so desperately troubling. If I didn’t, how could I still be here, today, trying?

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.”

~ Mary Anne Radmacher

Featured Image: “heart is in my hands,” © Shimelle Laine (own work), Apr 2007. CC BY 2.0. (license)

Mending Rifts

Featured Image: “Love,” © Lisa Ruokis (own work), May 2005. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Last month, I really enjoyed participating in the Three-Day Quote Challenge. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I thought I might continue to write about a quote now or then if one happened to be particularly rattling my soul.

Lately, it is these words from Desmond Tutu that I can’t seem to shake…

“Without forgiveness, there’s no future.” ~ Desmond Tutu

When I contemplate this quote, it stirs many different reactions. I think of the forgiveness that could bring healing to families, the forgiveness that could put an end to divisions between neighbors and communities, the forgiveness that might open conversations and lead to cooperation and peace among nations. Mostly, though, I think about the forgiveness that I battle to find within myself.

I struggle to forgive myself for all my imperfections. Even though I can cite a list of reasons why I am a worthy human being who is good enough just as she is, precious to God, full of love, harboring an inner light and a little spark of the divine, when I peel back all the layers and explore the deepest recesses of my unconscious thoughts, my core beliefs remain, “I’m not good enough. I’ll never be good enough. I must work harder.” I am constantly trying to prove my dignity and value to myself, which is a futile exercise, because no matter how hard I work, it’s never enough. The entire enterprise is overwhelming and exhausting.

There are two other people that I struggle hardest to forgive, and my inability to let go of our painful histories is a torment. Some wounds are deep, and they continue to bleed over years and decades. My heart aches to forgive, but it also won’t let me forget. Slowly, I am beginning to consider the idea that forgiving does not mean approving of wrongs, hurts, and traumas. A person’s unconscionable actions remain unacceptable even once the forgiveness is bestowed, but healing can happen anyway.

When God forgives me, it doesn’t mean that my sins didn’t matter, and it doesn’t mean that what I did wasn’t wrong. My sins always matter, and what is inherently wrong cannot be reclassified. Instead, God pours out his incomprehensible mercy, proving that his perfect love far surpasses my weakness and failings. He doesn’t condone my actions, but he accepts my imperfection, and then he drowns out my wrongs with his love.

If I withhold forgiveness, the future that I am destroying is my own. Dwelling in pain, loss, and bitterness is like slowly sipping on poison. I long to acknowledge that while I am not the person I want to be, I am worthy enough to love myself just as I am. While I don’t approve of some hurtful things that happened in the past (and continue to happen in small ways today), I want to be able to forgive the people who are important to me. Maybe this whole forgiving thing is a continual process. I’m not sure how to begin, but love seems like a good place to start.

The Daisy Follows Soft the Sun
The Daisy Follows Soft the Sun,” © Cam Miller (own work), July 2014. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. (license)

Three-Day Quote Challenge – The Last Day

Featured Image: “Misadventures,” © Michael Yan, Jan 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Thank you, Jenny, for nominating me for this challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed thumbing through all of my favorite quotes, and it was tremendously difficult to settle on a choice few. I would like to leave off with these last words of encouragement…

“I plead with you – never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.”

 “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures, we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his son, Jesus.”

 ~ St. Pope John Paul II

And now, for my nominations…

Nominees, if you’d like to participate, here are the rules:

  1. Post for three consecutive days
  2. Posts can be one or three quotes per day
  3. Nominate three different blogs per day

Here are my nominees. Each one writes a marvelous blog, and I hope that you will check them out. I hope that they all participate, because I have an inkling they would choose some fabulous quotes!

Thank you to all of you who are reading! Until next time… ♥

 

The Centering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A brief note…

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

 

Grace Breaks Through

Who remembers Taz, the incoherent Tasmanian devil animated by Warner Bros.? As an increasingly self-aware, recovering perfectionist, when an attack of perfectionistic fervor strikes, it feels like Taz is inside of my chest, whirling in a maniacal cyclone of destruction, tongue hanging out, panting, scattering saliva, and spouting indecipherable gibberish at a deafening level. Welcome to last weekend.

By the time I crossed Friday’s threshold, I was frustrated, angry, and entirely exhausted. I was guilty of foregoing sleep and self-care, the consequence of forcing too much into too little time while telling myself it was all completely necessary. Friday brought with it an enticing promise of relief and an opportunity to catch up on everything that needed doing.

Back when I set my New Year’s Resolutions, I mentioned that I wanted to become better at identifying when I was using anger as a screen to avoid feeling vulnerable, hurt, afraid, uncertain, etc.. When I spent the entire course of Friday feeling frustrated, bitter, and resentful, I persistently questioned myself, “What am I missing? What is really going on here?” My inability to answer my self-inquiry only deepened my irritation and impatience. Finally, I resolved that it didn’t matter. I was convinced that after a night of solid sleep, I would arise on Saturday feeling refreshed and renewed. Well, I woke up on Saturday to a messy house, a cluttered desk, and an excessive list of “must-do’s.” Of course, I jumped straight in, assuring myself that I was being necessarily reflective. I was prioritizing, taking one thing at a time, and “doing the next best thing,” mindfully. I even paused for a brief, guided meditation (on exploring anger) and spent an excrutiating four whole minutes sitting in silence, gazing out the window, letting the sunlight penetrate my exterior, simply contemplating. New Years’ Resolution #1 – to cultivate stillness, quiet, and peace? Yeah, that’s not going to be so easy.

By the end of the day, I was disappointed with my productivity, and I wasn’t feeling any better. When I sat up in bed on Sunday, at first appearances, it seemed like more of the same. I can’t exactly describe what happened, but in the midst of all that, light broke through. Figuratively at first, but then literally.

On Sunday morning, I awoke, and I did what I do on most Sundays. I reached for the phone, assessed the hour, and in an instant broke down the rest of the day and what I could expect to accomplish. Then, I picked up the little prayer booklet beside by my bed and tried to let the mass readings for the day penetrate my calvarium, underlining and annotating with color-coded pens.

“Ezra read plainly from the book of the law of God, interpreting it so that all could understand what was read. Then Nehemiah, that is, the governor, and Ezra the priest-scribe and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: ‘Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep’ – for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further: ‘Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!’”

~ Nehemiah 8:8-10

In these words, I found something that I needed that morning. I found permission to be joyful.

You see, my perfectionism really arises from my deep belief that I’m not good enough. To borrow from Brené Brown, it’s my shuffle for self-worth. Yet, God knows that I am a sinner. He knows all of my darkest parts far better than I know them. And he forgives me. And he loves me. And he wants me to be happy. Because he also knows all of my glorious parts and all of my potential far better than I. The people who heard Ezra proclaim the law of Moses wept and lamented as they realized their failings, but they were then invited to resume a life of love, gratitude, and joy free from the burden of their past. Once I acknowledge my stumbles and make them as right as I can, I am invited to stand back up. And sing. And laugh. And dance. And eat rich food. (Still working on that last part.)

It wasn’t quite entirely so simple, though, old patterns being hard to break. Even as my glimmer of realization began to cast a hint of illumination into the hardened, self-hating recesses of my mind, I was simultaneously planning what I was going to wear for the day, mapping out my afternoon, organizing my bedside table with one hand, and scratching the cat with the other.

Finally, I came downstairs and opened the blinds, and I couldn’t close my eyes to the dazzling sun reflecting off the frozen snow. As the first rays of day shot over the horizon, I truly paused. It occurred to me that there must be some sort of atmospheric phenomenon that makes the sunlight of winter appear more clear, radiant, and bright than the warm, humid sun of summer months. In that moment, almost impulsively, I did something almost foreign to me. Even though Taz was whirling inside me, jabbering something about how I would be running late, I stepped outside into the icy air.

One of my favorite blogs to follow is alpha // whiskey // foxtrot, by the enormously talented Ashley Wilson Fellers. Her black-and-white photography is just as breathtaking as her mindful, poignant, thought-provoking reflections in poetry and prose. (Seriously, if you don’t already follow blog, go check her out). She is one of those artists and writers who encourages me to see the world differently, and on that particular morning, I almost felt like I was seeing the sunrise with her eyes.

I took a picture. And then I took another. Then I pondered, “I wonder how the light and shadows would look from that spot over there.” And I went. In black-and-white, there was no color to distract the eye. The brightness and darkness were just… there. It was an image of the simplicity and stillness that I spent the preceding 48 hours hunting relentlessly. No noise. Just peace.

Winter sunrise 1

Winter Sunrise 2

In the end, there was no great epiphany or single event that catapulted me to some new, profound plane of existence. Rather, it was a culmination of tiny moments, finally ending in a willingness to open my eyes to what was before me all along.

Wishing each of you who read this love, laughter, joy, and peace today.

“For I know well the plans I have for you – oracle of the Lord – plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”

~ Jeremiah 29:11