Death Has Many Faces   11 comments

Dad died a year ago last Friday.  His passing was not an emotional jolt for me since I had spent a decade grieving the loss of our relationship.  My father could not follow me on my journey of genuine self-discovery over the last twenty years.  He tried as best he could to understand me, but always on his own terms, trying to fit me into his mental constructs with slight alterations–a more melancholy and ardent version of himself perhaps.  He instinctively knew, I think, that really opening himself to see things from my perspective would require a complete re-orientation of his own perspective and that was too radical for his carefully organized worldview.

His is a common human problem.  The first year of marriage was a huge struggle for me for the same reason–that my worldview made sense and Kimberly’s did not.  I tried listening to her and incorporating aspects of her perspective–trying to be more gentle and supportive, less critical and angry, tweek my worldview with cosmetic changes without moving any load-bearing walls.  I kept listening to her explain her struggle in our relationship, and I kept trying to adapt my behavior and avoid or use certain words while hiding certain attitudes.  I was basically saying to myself, “My worldview needs no adjustments, but out of love I will accommodate her weaknesses.”  It didn’t work.

Relational accommodation, making room for someone else’s differences, is much more loving than rejecting them as somehow “wrong,”  but it is a truncated love. When I continue to see others from my own perspective rather than trying to see with their eyes and understand them from within their experience, I cannot understand them in any deep way.  The relationship cannot be fundamentally supportive or transformational, but only touches the surface.  Our interdependence “being members of one another” is so much more than sharing our spiritual gifts.  Our interdependence goes to the core of who we are.  We need the corrective of the other’s point of view.

Most of us are willing to tweak our life map, add a street or railroad that is missing.  “Oh, I didn’t know that,” we say.  It is the natural process of learning.  As long as no one fiddles with the major features of our map, we won’t feel too defensive when they suggest changes because we basically have the “right” orientation.  But if the differences in our maps are profound–mine shows a grid of city streets where yours shows winding country roads–then we have no easy solution.  My initial reaction, emotionally and intellectually, is to reject your map, to assume you are wrong, confused, or misguided. When my father first heard I was struggling with depression, he was concerned and sent me a book that stated in the introduction, “Depression comes from a lack of faith.”  Thankfully, he did not stick with that perspective.

The next step in a positive direction is for me to stop rejecting your map as defective and simply assert that our views are incompatible and so we cannot understand one another.  The third step (with a smidgen of humility) is to see how I might learn from you, fit some features of the your map into mine, add a river here or a corner store there… but a river going through the center of a city, polluted and obstructing traffic, is very different from a river that is bordered by meadows.  When I squeeze this element into my map, the whole essence of it is changed.  I have distorted your view to fit my own, and though I may speak of a river, we see it so differently that we still cannot understand one another.  How you experience that river is completely shaped by your overall map, and until I can see that, I am blind to who you are.  “Okay,” I say to myself, “He likes pollution and traffic jams.  To each his own.”  Dad came this far with me on my journey, acknowledging that it was possible to be full of the Spirit and still suffer depression, though he could not conceive how that fit into his own theological framework, he at least allowed for it, a kind of exception to the rule.

But he was never able to get past this stage with me.  I spent years trying to explain to him my own experience and how I was coming to realize that his map of life did not work for me, but he always saw my experience as an aberration from the norm.  He was convinced that his theology and spirituality and values were spot-on and needed only slight tweaking to accommodate people like myself, maybe add a mission hospital to his map for that small segment of broken people like myself.  He instinctively knew that to open his worldview to my experience–using it to challenge his worldview instead of adding it as an addendum–would mean a complete revision of his thinking, a worldview that he had spent a lifetime perfecting and promoting through his preaching, teaching, and writing.  And thousands of testimonials proved that his worldview worked… at least for those who found it beneficial.

So I spent the last years of his life slowly accepting the painful reality that my own father would never know me, that our relationship would never get past the superficial.  In many ways it was like my mom’s slow decline into Alzheimer’s when she eventually did not know who I was or even that I was in the room.  Trapped inside her own mind, she could not relate to us.  That long grieving process seems to me more gentle on those left behind than a sudden death of an intimate.  Truly here “we see in a glass, darkly.”  We let them go with the joyful expectation that when we embrace them again all the obstacles to our relationships will be gone, and we will “know even as we are known.”

 

Postlude: Kimberly tells me no one will understand what I have said without an example.  So let me very briefly point out one serious difference in our maps.  Dad, being a choleric, grounded spiritual growth in behavioral choices and made God responsible for his subconscious mind–if he was not aware of it, he was not responsible for it.  As a result, he tended to see emotions as secondary to our spiritual lives.  This might work for people who are less self-reflective, but it is a scheme that is largely unworkable for us melancholics who are in touch with a great part of the tides of our hearts.  If dad had been able to fully accept this discrepancy, he would have had to rework his whole paradigm of spiritual growth, either suggesting different processes for different people or working out a new approach that fully incorporated the processes of those different from him.  This is a very tall order for anyone, especially in the latter part of our lives, so I do not mean to fault him for it.  He quite possibly did the best he could with what he had–and we cannot ask for more.  I only share this as an encouragement for us all to work at broadening our viewpoints.

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Posted June 7, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Disquieting Amblings   Leave a comment

The air was crisp and cool this morning, which is odd for late May in the south.  The sun poked its head through the clouds for the first time in a week and invited me to come enjoy it, so I packed up the dogs and headed for the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Once the sun had tricked me outside, he decided his work was done for the day and tugged the clouds back over his head to get some shut-eye.  The first pull-off had only three parked cars (it often has 8-9), and since a passing trail  and gravel road offered four hiking directions, I figured the odds were good for avoiding folks, an introvert’s prerequisite for enjoying nature.  As I was leashing up the dogs, another car pulled up behind us.

They might take the trail or the gravel road either direction, so the odds were with us as we headed south on the road.  Even if they came our way, they might be mountain bikers or joggers that would soon pass us and be gone, but just in case, we set out at a brisk pace.  We were a block ahead when I turned and saw the couple following, also at a quick stride, and I could hear their loud chatter.  Oh, this is going to ruin our walk, I grumbled, and set off running down the road in my hiking boots to put a quarter mile of quiet between us.  That worked fine until Mazie went into search mode for the ideal poop spot.  After several failed forays and body positions, she found her sweet spot, but by then I could hear several low phlegm-clearing harrumphs followed by his partner’s high-pitched gossip.  We had just passed a fork in the road, so I stood waiting to see which direction they would take, and when they came our way, we promptly turned back to take the other fork.

Problem solved.  My soul just started to settle into the peace of nature when I heard the distinct “crunch, crunch” of feet on the gravel behind us, and a loud voice calling out, “Well, HELLO!” Like we were long lost relatives.  I half-turned to mutter “hey” at a volume I’m sure she couldn’t hear, and then it began, “Isn’t it great to be able to get out after all that rain?!”  This was said at our backs before she had jogged up to us, but as she pulled level she slowed her jog to match my quick walk, commenting on my cute dogs and the weather.  In desperation I slowed down and then stood still, and her momentum carried her forward enough to break the easy flow of her monologue.  She kept jogging, and I muttered, “I’ll never take this road again!”

For full-on extroverts, talking is the only real and meaningful activity and everything else, including nature’s beauty, is so much background noise… for the hard-core, even the other person’s voice is background noise.  Of course, it is only their vocalization which makes them differ from the rest of us who chatter incessantly in our own brains.  I’ve ruined enough of my solitary walks with an agitated spirit to recognize my own tendency to drown out the soul-nourishing present moment with my internal dialogue. It is hard enough to contend with the voices in my own head without adding the jibber-jabber of strangers.  This is why we introverts seek solitude.

Posted May 30, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

Driving Myself Crazy   2 comments

I drove to work after my last blog with my soul percolating in anticipatory tension.  Patience on the road is not my strong suit anyway.  I was gunning, braking, and swerving my way down the freeway, muttering about all the stupid and pigheaded folks who drove in the left lane as if they were the lead car in a funeral procession, when I realized my adrenaline rush was going to turn the workplace into a war zone.  I pulled into the right lane to settle down and set my heart in a better direction to cope with the fire-sale crowds at the paint counter.

Fearing the impatience of my customers made me defensively more impatient with my fellow drivers.  When I accept impatience towards me as legitimate, internalize that criticism as justified and blame myself as inadequate, I become a shareholder in a legalistic system, and with that system, I justify my own impatience towards others.  Slowness, incompetence, and bungling are never in themselves cause for incrimination.  We tend to see these as willful negligence, an intentional disregard, because we are frustrated and looking for someone to blame.  But the court of our mind cries out for consistency so that we must also blame ourselves when our missteps impede others’ plans.

In this way results, not intentions, become the basis for judgment, and we buy into a distinctly American morality that sees success as the inevitable reward of diligence and hard work.  Mistakes, especially repeated mistakes, are the sign of moral decay or personal defect.  We offer “grace” for a certain level of deficiency and stuff down our impatience, but cross that line and we pull out our corrective ruler to slap your hand for not living up to our expectations.  Yet grace that fits within a quota is not real grace, which is endless, and its goal is not meeting expectations, but giving us the fullest life possible.

Unfortunately,  like all forms of legalism, impatience used by us or against us is all of one piece, mutually reinforcing.  My impatience towards others forces me to accept their impatience towards me and vice versa.  If I do not live in a world of self-deception in which I am the definer of what expectations are legitimate (namely the ones I meet), then I live in world in which I am always trying to validate my worth.  I am driven to perfectionism in which I am my own worst accuser, and my only defense is to pull others to my level by pointing out their failures.

Our society is constantly reinforcing this legalistic worldview.  Each time I make a mistake in mixing paint, I feel like I need to somehow justify myself or prove to my supervisor that I have constructed a system to avoid that mistake in the future.  But I am human.  I get distracted or confused.  In the hubbub I forget to take necessary precautions.  I will keep making mistakes, and I need to find a way to support myself in my own mind, to be patient with myself.  Remarkably, I find that leaning into grace for myself helps me lean into grace for others as well.  And when I use my impatience of others to confront my own legalistic worldview and push myself back towards a grace perspective, it rebounds to an easier grasp of grace towards myself.

I think I need to spend more time in the slow lane.

Posted May 24, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Let’s Not Drown Today   5 comments

Today is my eighth day at work without a break and, unfortunately, the first day of our annual paint sale that brings out the hoards.  Old timers tell me there will be long lines of impatient customers as we all work madly to mix the colors.  This is not my idea of fun.  Performance expectations are my kryptonite.  When there are only two customers waiting for me, I begin to grow anxious and tense.  I dash from one station to another–product shelf to paint mixer to shaker to dryer, prying open one can while tabbing on the computer for another.  I tend to make mistakes, which cranks up the volume on my anxiety, and my self-condemnation meter starts to vibrate.

So here I am preparing to go to work, knowing my core issues will be flayed for the next eight hours.  I hate that my only path to greater health is an emotional gauntlet right smack through the middle of my issues.  I’d much prefer to avoid them–get a less demanding job for instance.   I’d rather read about how to overcome them in a book, and even take a test.  I’m a good test-taker.  I’d probably score 100%.  Why is it always on-the-job training I need?  At least if I could get a breather to center myself… but taking a break while long lines wait for my colleagues would only make me more stressed.  And, Lord, don’t over-estimate my capabilities–I’m not ready for someone to call out sick today!

It seems the challenges to my issues keep pace with my growth, always one step harder.  My prayers as I flail in the rising waters of customer frustration devolve from, “help me be peaceful” to “help me just survive” to “Help!”  If maintaining my peace is an “A” for the test, then making it through without growling in self-defensive anger may be a passing grade?  I’ll take what I can get at this point.  The wise teachers try to calm me down by saying, “It’s all a process.”  Yeah?  Well, so is drowning!

May you all have a blessed, trouble-free day… at least may it be better than mine.

Posted May 18, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Playing with Mud   Leave a comment

So God made us out of dust and breathed life into us, which I suppose makes us dirt balloons (and he clearly puffed more into some of us than others).  Poetic souls try to inflate our worth by calling us “star dust,”  but that Disney image is just lip gloss smeared on mud bubbles.  If we are made from star pieces, we didn’t get any of their sparkle and shine–they kept that for themselves–so at most we are the burned up stuff, star effluvia.  Yes, we are star poop if that makes you feel any better.  We’re just mud pies, which makes us a few grades lower than gingerbread men.

Clearly God wanted to keep us humble, to show us where we came from so we wouldn’t be putting on airs and instead realize the air that animates us is from God’s breath, not our atoms.  I mean, the angels must elbow each other watching us mud clods strutting our stuff until we all get swept out the back door together.  “For you are dust and to dust you will return.”

It is our inflated sense of self that God wants to prick by reminding us of our origins.  He values us immensely, but it has nothing to do with our inherent value, which is about $4.50 in chemical elements according to Mayo clinic.  As demeaning as all that sounds, it is actually amazingly freeing and safe.  We are not loved because we are wonderful, but because God is wonderful.  We don’t have to do anything to be valued by God.  He is not waiting for us dirt balls to become disco balls before he values us, but he loves us fully as we are, Pigpen as much as Linus, and that should make even Charlie Brown dance.

Posted March 29, 2017 by janathangrace in Humor, thoughts

Apologies That Fail   Leave a comment

He phoned in hot about getting the wrong color paint, kept interrupting, and demanded that I make him more paint–the right paint–NOW so he could pick it up the same night or the morning after.  It was the kind of treatment that sears the soul, and it ruined the rest of my night.  He came in the next morning and apologized.  The gray-scale photocopy he used to select his paint was inaccurate.  He felt bad for getting angry and blaming me when it was his own mistake.

I have been in that situation many times–angry and blaming someone else for my own faults.  Sometimes I discovered my error too late to apologize, and I think back on those occasions with deep shame and sorrow for the wounding I caused.  But humble apologies can’t fix everything–the wounding for which I apologize can keep festering, hurt the relationship, and spread out to harm others.  I feel just as wary of my apologetic customer today as yesterday, and that wariness spreads over onto other customers who might also lose their temper.  I now feel an unhealthy degree of anxiety about making mistakes, and that makes me more likely to judge the mistakes of my colleagues.  It is a subtle change, often subconscious, but it taints the air.

On their face, apologies seem to be expressions of grace, but they can just as easily come from legalism and will then often spawn further ungracious ripples.  My customer was primarily chagrined about his wrong evaluation, not his anger.  If I really had mixed the wrong paint, he would have felt justified in being angry–I wasted his time and money with my carelessness.  In other words, he was following a strict legal code–fault deserves anger, the greater the fault the greater the righteous anger.  He saw his failure as misapplying the legal code, in this case his anger was unjustified.  In contrast, grace says we all fail so let’s be patient with each other’s mistakes.  Just say no to anger, even when the other person really is at fault.

So many times I have been chagrined in this same legalistic way.  Instead of learning to be more gracious and less angry with other’s mistakes, I take home the lesson that I need to be more accurate in assigning blame.  In other words, faced with a challenge to my legalistic ways, I become more entrenched in them.

A few days ago I was passing a long line of cars backed up in the exit lane.  Just ahead two cars in my lane had slowed to a crawl, trying to merge into the stopped lane.  The traffic to my left was going too fast for me to shift over.  It seemed clear to me that the two blocking my lane had decided they didn’t want to wait in the long exit lane and had sped ahead to cut in line farther up.  Because of the unexpected jam, I was running late for work, and getting irritated at the lane cheaters, I lay on my horn.

There are two possibilities: they were innocent or guilty.  If they were being selfish, my anger was justified, but if innocent, then I was at fault.  Simple math: the guilty are punished and the innocent are not… until we add in forgiveness which ruins the equation. We all need forgiveness, repeatedly.  It is the oil that smooths our many faults in relating to each other.  Grace is not only sweeter than law, but far more powerful to transform us, both those who give it and those who receive it, because it works to change the heart, not the behavior.  Since grace defines our motivations, not our actions, it can reveal itself in tough as well as gentle ways, but it is always an act of blessing… and anger is usually not.

 

Posted March 27, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Screwing Up   10 comments

Two weeks ago, having failed to find another job, I moved from a part time position in appliance sales at Home Depot to full time in the paint department.  I was stacking paint last night on a high shelf and dropped a gallon can of shellac-based primer.  It crashed to the floor, covering my shoes, my pants, a six-foot stretch of aisle, and splattering all the products on the bottom shelf.  Herbert, an assistant manager, came to help me clean things up, and as we soaked up the puddles, the rest of it dried hard.  It was well past closing time by then, so we had to stop, leaving a note for the morning crew.

I hate to make a mess that I can’t fix myself, especially if someone else is then forced to deal with my mistakes.  It’s especially hard when others are resentful or critical–their feeling is understandable, even justifiable, and I have no means of rectifying it.  Today I have a low-level hum of dis-ease as thoughts about it keep circulating up to my consciousness and then subsiding again.  It is my day off, so I can’t even apologize in person (although I did in the note).

What strikes me as especially sad is my tendency to feel bad even when the other person seems gracious, as everyone at my job has been.  I find it so hard to trust grace.  I’m sure they’re just being nice outwardly but have ticked a black check by my name.  They think, “He owes me,” or “He can’t be trusted,” or some such ungracious reaction… probably make wry comments in the break room.  I feel so much safer with others when I can skirt my need for grace and just prove myself by hard work.

But “safer” here is a feeling based on good performance reviews, which is a legalistic trap.  It means that I continue to value myself (and others) by our effectiveness and only turn to grace as a last resort, a “grace of the gaps.”  But when legalism is the daily currency, it shapes our whole mindset and relationships.  If grace is only the fall-back, we are still operating out of a legalistic mindset in which only the failing require grace.  I don’t realize how easily I slip into this mindset until I am the one screwing up and in need of grace.  My failures become an invitation into a worldview of grace.

So often I respond to others’ failures with this stop-gap grace.  I reflexively judge their failing because gracious thoughts do not come naturally to me.  So when I realize my unkind thoughts, I try to force myself to think differently, push away the critical thoughts and talk myself into being accepting of their faults.  “They don’t know any better,” I say, or “They aren’t good at planning ahead.”  The underlying assumption is that “good” people like me don’t need grace, at least not much, but these unfortunates need grace.  I only pull out the grace card when it is needed, but am quite content to otherwise live with a legalistic mindset.

But true grace knows no hierarchy or proportion, giving itself fully to everyone.  Certainly exercising grace is more difficult in some situations and with some people than others.  It is much easier to give grace to an apologetic person than an angry one, but both are in equal need of grace as is the person who did not mess up at all (though grace may present itself differently in each case).  In fact, it is the the one who rarely screws up that is probably in “more” need of grace than the others, for she is much more likely to be blind to grace and her need of it.  Either grace is the lifeboat we only use when someone falls out of the ship of a performance-based worldview, a way to accommodate misfits and failures, or grace is the ship in which we choose to sail.

I want more and more to learn to see the world with a grace mindset.  When I am challenged by my own failings or by my judgmentalism of others’ failings, I don’t want to apply grace like a bandaid to help us through that moment, but I want it to be a reminder of the worldview I wish to wholly embrace where grace is the engine and the rudder and the compass.  I have a long way to go.  May I use my blunders as stepping stones to grow in my commitment to grace and not see them as challenges to try harder to earn my worth.

Posted March 22, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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