Archive for the ‘Growth’ Tag

Running from My Feelings   2 comments

“Our inward winters take many forms- failure, betrayal, depression, death. But every one of them, in my experience yields to the same advice. ‘The winters will drive you crazy until you learn to get out into them.’ Until we enter boldly into the fears we most want to avoid, those fears will dominate our lives. But when we walk directly into them- protected from frostbite by the warm garb of friendship or inner discipline or spiritual guidance- we can learn what they have to teach us. Then we discover once again that the cycle of the seasons is trustworthy and life-giving, even in the most dismaying season of all.” Parker J. Palmer

Truth. Running from our fears, or even our depression, is not a long term workable solution.  It keeps us trapped.  Palmer even adds the one important caveat.  We can only face fully into our fears or depression to the extent we have sufficient internal and external resources, and since our cupboards are never fully stocked, there are always limitations on what we can fully face and for how long without some reprieve.  It is far more like tacking into the wind than sailing a straight course forward, and at times we simply must let the storm blow us where it will.  Those with meager resources have the least ability to leverage their way forward.  As with our calf muscles, we can overtax and strain our psyches and end up worse off for our excess efforts–more vulnerable and weak than before.  In that sense, it is the overall direction we set that is life-giving, but we must keep close watch on our resources so as to live within our emotional means or we will run a deficit.

I so appreciate the truth Palmer expresses.  I spent most of my life fleeing depression–not in diversions as some do, but in desperately seeking for solutions, cures, answers.  Desperation rarely opens the best way forward, and so I stilted my progress, narrowed my options, scrambled down false turns.  Kimberly taught me to slowly become accepting of my depression, to embrace the feelings and be sympathetic to myself in my suffering, to wait patiently for answers to come in the slow process of deeper self-understanding.

This is not at all the same as “giving-in” to feelings–allowing them to control me and take me where they will, which is a dangerous road to travel.  We seem trapped by a false dichotomy: to either capitulate to our feelings or subdue them.  We see it as a blatant power struggle, and there is no good way for us to respond from that perspective.  Feelings are like a road map–they inform us, they do not control us–and if we fear their power, the solution still lies in understanding them more fully in a self-compassionate way, not in pushing them away in fear or shame. Feelings that are denied have far greater control over us than those which are acknowledged.  They may control us by forcing us into the opposite choice–risk rather than safety, fight rather than flight–but they still control our decisions, only now more obliquely, beyond our awareness, making us far less able to recognize and resist their impact.

We accept our feelings into our lives as friends, not as dictators… or as captives.  How would you compassionately embrace your fearful friend?  You would acknowledge her feeling, show understanding for that feeling, legitimate her feeling as a feeling.  Wise and mature counselors will not try to “fix” the feeling (judge it, correct it, change it).  Feelings are always true and right as feelings.  They tell us something important about ourselves (not necessarily about our situation).  Because emotions are complex, they are often clues rather than direct assertions about our inner world (our anger may mask fear, our pride may cover insecurity).  We must patiently listen and learn over many years to slowly gain fluency in their language, but if we do, a whole world of self-understanding and healthy responses are opened to us.

Posted June 2, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Dangerous Misdiagnoses   2 comments

Monday I was hiking with my doggies in the Blue Ridge Mountains and noticed my neck cramping on one side.  To stretch out the kinks I started rolling and rotating my head, wondering what I’d done to my neck.  And then it dawned on me.  instead of pulling ahead as usual, Mazie and Mitts had fallen in behind me, and as the path was narrow, I held both leashes in one hand.  My right arm swung freely, but my left arm was pulled back by the leads, and over a couple of miles that tension worked its way up to my neck.

I spent decades paying little attention to my body, and so harming it.  I have only learned in the last few years to listen to this complex, integrated structure–I would never have guessed that a sore neck could come from an arm slightly skewed.  When an injury’s throb is felt in a separate body part, it is called “referred pain.” Those are the trickiest to self-diagnose and so misleading that the real problem often escapes us.

During those years I listened no better to my psyche than my body.  I shouted down my feelings and became emotionally deaf, unable to decipher its most rudimentary language. Emotions were to be embraced, vanquished or transmuted according to an accepted moral code.  I thought every feeling was a straightforward response to external stimuli.  My anger was incited by “stupid” drivers.  My anxiety was the result of critical bosses.  My shame was the direct product of my tardiness.  Emotional “referred pain” was not even a speck of consideration… until the conventional interpretations became so convoluted in the telling that even I recognized something was fishy.  They rang false, though I couldn’t detect the crack in the bell.  It was my indecipherable, unrelenting depression that forced me to finally admit my emotional cluelessness and rethink my psychological map.

I discovered that my pride was tangled up with fear, my affection enmeshed with insecurity, and a seeming calm and patience was simply an emotional disconnect to protect myself.  I realized that my anger ignited from inside, not outside, that it was a cover-up for shame, and my shame was grounded in a legalistic denial of grace. It was all so much more complex than I realized, but this self-reflection, softened by grace, opened me to a remarkable level of integrity and clarity and personal growth.  My whole sense of spirituality and relationships was reorganized. I finally had the tools I needed for fundamental transformation instead of the spiritual strictures of a flawed system.

I have been working for years to learn my emotional ABCs.  Slowly I untangled the knots so that patterns stood out in relief and dynamics materialized.  What is the real reason for these feelings?  What leads me to freedom and understanding rather than fear and blindness?  What does my soul need in the way of support?  What pulls it down or picks it up?  I wonder–do any cultures teach their children to be heart-interpreters rather than heart-controllers?

Posted May 4, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Facing My Fears   Leave a comment

“GIT YER DOG OFF MY MAILBOX!”  The angry shout came from 100 yards up the hill, from the shadows of the house, and it slapped me back into awareness from my mental meanderings.  He was pissed that my dog had peed on the wooden pole of his mailbox by the gravel road we were traipsing.  “Sorry!” I called back, but he was not mollified.  “YER LUCKY MY PIT AIN’T LOOSE!” he hollered, a veiled threat to sic his pitbull on us if it happened again.  His anger seemed excessive to me.  Dogs pee on everything, especially anything vertical, and I’m quite certain the neighborhood dogs, all of which run loose, regularly mark every roadside post within miles.  Since my dog Mitts had been piddling for the last 5 miles, his tank was empty, so his lifted leg was entirely for show, but that made no difference to the hothead up the hill.

That was yesterday, and even as I write, the feelings seep back in–fear and defensiveness towards a world where even pastoral, peaceful spots now feel unsafe–and other nameless feelings flow through, shadows that settle in from being unfairly misunderstood, misjudged, belittled, chased off.

Moments before I had been reflecting on my spiritual journey, and many thought streams had unexpectedly merged into a sense of direction for 2015, summed up in the word “courage.”  My 2014 focus was “gentleness,” first to myself and then as an overflow to others, and though the visible changes are small, my outlook has started to shift fundamentally.  Being gentle with myself has given me some emotional resources for choosing courage.

In our culture, courage is a force marshaled against fears, taking a beachhead at first and then slowly conquering more territory.  You bravely take the stage to speak or you ask your overbearing boss for a raise, and gradually you become less fearful and more in control of your life.  But I’ve discovered a very different take on bravery–my real fears are not out in the world so much as in my own soul, and I need courage not to conquer my fears but to embrace them.  In other words, instead of trying to override my fears and silence them, I try to understand them compassionately.  Fears are my friends, not my enemies–they are clamoring to tell me something important about myself which I ignore to my own peril.  My journey has been completely in reverse of the norm–starting out fearless as a young man (because I was in denial), then learning to recognize my fears, and finally growing to welcome those fears as helps along the way.  We are most controlled by the fears we least recognize.

As I trudged, I pondered.  I have been dodging certain fears, leaving them unaddressed until I had enough emotional resources to open myself to feel their punches without crashing my heart, a truce of sorts instead of a lasting peace of mind.  I am finally ready, I thought, to address some of those dark shadows within.

Then that loud, angry shout yanked me back to the present and opened a psychological fork in the road–how should I respond to these feelings?  As I turned out of sight around the bend, I wondered how to pick my way through the mental debris.  Should I try to brush aside his words by changing the subject or argue with him to prove my innocence or castigate myself and resolve to do better?  What internal dialogue will protect my heart when it feels under attack?  And this odd solution came to me: rather than defend myself, I open myself to feel the sting and understand it with self-compassion.  That is the courage I am choosing this year as I support myself with gentleness.

This is the next leg of my journey: to sit with painful and scary feelings, to let them course through my veins and pound in my heart, to let them tell me all they wish to say about my own struggles and wounds and skewed perspectives, about my subconscious self-judgments, crazy expectations, and harsh demands, and to lovingly listen and feel sympathy for a boy that has always tried so desperately hard to find the right way and walk it against all obstacles. I need to gently open myself to feel and understand how this world’s edges cut my soul, to follow the contours of each gash with my fingers and trace its origins from the tender vulnerabilities of my early years.  Wounds need the gentle touch of sun and air to heal.

Posted January 21, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Key Role of Self-Compassion   Leave a comment

The true spiritual journey leads into the depths of our hearts, an excavation, really, since it is a constant breaking through to new levels of realization.  That effort takes great courage in facing the intense fear and pain that have held us back, keeping us blind to our true selves.  Each new layer of self-realization opens wounds that have been hidden safely away by our mind’s defensive strategies, but we must drop our guard and feel the sharp edges of our suffering if we want our bruised hearts to be truly embraced.  The path of growth is strewn with the barbs of truth that pierce our feet each step of our journey home.

Here is where self-compassion rather than self-blame is crucial in working our way through.  Healthy transformation is always grounded in grace.  Nowhere is grace more needed than at this point of freshly acknowledging our brokenness.  This is not avoiding responsibility, but embracing responsibility, since our primary duty at this stage is receiving grace, a bedrock belief that we are loved unconditionally by our heavenly Father.   There will come a time to focus on giving others grace–of understanding and forgiving the wounds they have inflicted–but this is a second step.  We can only give what we have first received.

To give others grace before it has settled into our own hearts is to try to pour water from an empty pitcher.  You will lose sight of your own suffering if you jump too quickly into defending others, which is a reaction forced on you by guilt or obligation rather than a gift offered to others freely from an overflow of grace in your heart.  This shortcut is unsustainable and will lead to a cycle repeated over and over of wounding, reaction, and return to the status quo.  This quick fix is often accompanied by “forgiveness” or compromise, but the underlying issues are never resolved and so they keep returning without leading to deeper mutual understanding and acceptance.  True forgiveness springs from grace, not obligation–ask any child forced to apologize–and grace must first be received before it can be given: “We love because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19).

Self-compassion is nothing more than seeing ourselves as God sees us, agreeing with Him that we are deeply and fully and unshakably loved.  When we open to, welcome, embrace, trust, relish this love of God for us, we are living by faith, faith in God’s grace and love.  We live in the reality that we are supremely loveable because God himself declares us to be, and none of our failings makes Him value us less than his own eternal and perfect Son.

But so many Christians fear grace, caution against its freedom, worry that self-love will lead to spiritual neglect or self-indulgence by those who think their screw-ups no longer matter.  In fact they matter even more because the relationship we now damage is one of supreme value and importance to us, our life-sustenance.  If true value comes from God, then our relationship with Him is our vital force.  Imagine a deep-sea diver saying, “Well, now that I know my oxygen comes to me regardless of how I behave, I can cut my own hose and it won’t matter.”  God does not turn off His grace towards us or close His heart to us when we turn from Him–the oxygen keeps flowing–but we can no longer access that vital source.  He wants to grace our relationships, but when we take advantage of others, He is blocked from gracing that relationship until we turn again to His loving way.  When we neglect or belittle others, when we are greedy and demanding, His grace is restricted from flowing into our daily interactions, and life sours around us and in our hearts, which are now being overgrown with the deadly effects of godlessness (having less of God).  Grace is the door into life and relationship with God, not an escape hatch from all that is good and beneficial.  If we seek for life by pushing God and His truth away in “selfishness”, it is rather an act of self-abuse–like a drug fix.  This does not spring from too much self-compassion, but too little; it springs from a doubt in God’s love, not a confidence in it.  Everything that leads us away from the supreme beauty and goodness of God into our own self-destructive way is self-hatred, not self-love.

Posted December 21, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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“You’re Not Listening to Me!”   4 comments

Yesterday Kimberly and I were walking the dogs in our neighborhood.  My brain was stuffed with thoughts that were spilling out everywhere. (This is not as common as you might think since I’m an internal processor.)  Towards the end of my rambling monologue I commented that I was slowly coming to realize people are not very logical.  She responded, “That’s what everybody thinks.  Everybody believes their arguments are more rational than everyone else’s.”  With that short exchange our conversation slid into the ditch.  It is our most familiar, but still unavoidable, conversational pile-up.  We don’t see it coming, we don’t know how to avoid it, and once we’re off the shoulder, we don’t know how to recover.  The best we can manage so far is an autopsy after the talk has crashed and the dust settled.

In short, we each hear the other stating an absolute position that leaves no room for our own perspective.  In this case she heard me saying that I was smarter than everyone else and I heard her saying that everyone is equally logical.  My approach is to try to make some room for my view, in essence saying, “Will you give me this half of the room?  This end?  This little corner?”  It seems to me that I am negotiating for space for my viewpoint, smaller footage with each argument I propose, and after the third or fourth try, I give up, growing silent.  There is not even a cubbyhole in her outlook for my perspective (in this case, that logic is important but underused).  She, of course, hears something entirely different.  For her, every time I give a reason for my view, I am demanding her total capitulation.  It seems to both of us that the other one refuses to yield an inch.  On this occasion I tried to assert, “Logic is very important… logic is kind of important.. logic has some small role to play,” but each time, she hears me giving one more argument for why logic is king and I am his chief officer.

When the topic is minor, we just let it go.  It’s not worth the trouble to sort out.  But when it is a personal issue, touches a core value, or has significant practical implications, we are  too emotionally invested to welcome the opposing viewpoint.  So this conflict pattern that needs a clear-eyed examination arises when the fog is thickest.  Initially we don’t recognize it, but the deeper into the conversation we push, the more emotionally invested we become, so that ironically, the more obvious the situation grows the less possible it becomes to resolve it.

All our standard relational conflicts take this path of growth.  We start to recognize the pattern in hindsight and discuss it.  Then we begin to realize when we are in the middle of it, but we still can’t figure out a solution.  Then we take some baby steps that slowly grow more helpful.  After falling in the same ditch hundreds of times, we find a way to sometimes avoid the ditch, slowly becoming more adept.  We’re still at step one on this particular dynamic.  But we’ll figure it out.  We always do.

Posted October 24, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Unpredictable Timing of Grace   Leave a comment

For 45 years B.K. (before Kimberly) I did life on my own.  Going from single to couple in midlife can’t compare to marrying young, and though it has big pluses, I’ve felt the loss of her absence from my history: so many key events that are not shared moments, so much of who I am pieced together without her.  But after my blog post yesterday, I have to recalculate.  Missing those years has given her a clearer sense of who I am now, a view untainted by past distortions.  In a way, she knows me better than I know myself because those years marred my self-understanding, not just my spirit.  Without that baggage, she can see more objectively.

loving eye

footprintsI truly don’t know how younger couples manage to navigate any sort of major life transformation after marriage if they don’t somehow make those transitions in step.  Kimberly and I are both dramatically different people from our young adult selves.  Had we met then, our false selves would have been inimical.  Instead of helping one another towards genuine self-discovery, we would have driven each other into deeper hiding.  It would have been a disaster.  Our paths only crossed when our souls were ready.  Since most of my life was a quick march in the wrong direction, how did I hit the right intersection at the crucial moment?  The magic fingers of grace.

beach photo

Posted September 10, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Misplacing Myself   7 comments

I was walking in the misting rain today, the dogs pulling eagerly at their leashes to sniff out delights tucked into the roadside weeds, and I was thinking about my long journey back to myself.  At the age of 40 I realized I’d been fast-marching down the wrong road, chasing my false self–the self I thought I should be and could be with a little more effort.  It was not a journey of discovering myself and blossoming into that person God created me to be, but a suppression of my true self and imposition of duty-bound goals.  And as I grew ever farther from my true self, I had only a fabricated self to share with others.

So many of us are like bumper cars trying to connect, but instead deflecting.  “Hi, how are you?” bump, bump.  “Fine, thanks.” bump, bump.  “I had a rough night, but I won’t bother you with that!” smile, bump, bump.  It’s a dangerous place to be without a bumper, so we cushion ourselves well and keep at a safe distance.  As protection, I used tight self-discipline to outshine others, to prove my worth, to earn their respect, and to safely pad the vulnerable parts of my soul from access to others.  If you hide long enough, you lose your orientation and eventually lose yourself.

Who am I really?  Am I a naturally disciplined, organized person, or am I a naturally spontaneous, creative person who has wrapped himself tightly in this cloak of spiritual conformity?  Am I essentially easy-going and relational, or am I hard-driving and goal oriented?  Would I make a better therapist or lawyer?  I worked so long and tirelessly to become the person I thought God demanded, suppressing my true inclinations, desires, and gifts, that I struggle now to recognize the real me.  For the last 14 years I’ve been finding my way back, sloughing off layer upon layer of spiritual accretions that suffocated my spirit and that carefully buffered my friendships.  I still have a long way to go, but at least I’m on the road back to my true self shared in genuine relationships.

I often wonder where I would be now if my true self had been embraced and celebrated and my path had been the natural opening of my heart to a God full of grace and welcome.

Perhaps that’s only possible in an unscarred world.

Posted September 9, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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I Didn’t Mean That!   6 comments

A week ago I was sitting at the library reference desk and one of my student workers was talking to a couple of friends.  We allow this for a couple of minutes, but they kept jabbering.  When there was a pause in the conversation I said, “If you want to keep having this discussion, why don’t you take it elsewhere.”  The visiting students were clearly embarrassed and immediately apologized and headed out the door.  The student worker continued with her shift, but at the end of her hour she got up and left in complete silence.  I’m not deaf to social cues and guessed she was upset with me.  Sadly, I can come across as more harsh than I feel… something in the tone of my voice, the look in my eyes, the cock of my brows.

I know this because Kimberly regularly yanks my chain about what I have said or done with others that seems completely tame to me–I was not barking, I was not even growling.  Apparently my perception of “normal” is skewed towards blunt and angry.  I take umbrage easily.  I lack grace.  And even when I manage to have a gracious mindset, my frown lines still crease–my mom was right: making ugly faces does stick.  I have improved a great deal, but Kimberly keeps wincing, so I’ve clearly got a ways to go.

Every plain statement comes with assumptions, context, implications, connotation… in short, the unspoken part of our message is often more powerful and important than the spoken part.  This is true not only because we can give it more weight, even unintentionally, but because the unspoken has unusual advantages, being unseen it easily slips past all our defenses.

  • It’s often felt, but not identified consciously, so the person falls under its influence without a chance to examine and question it.
  • It’s hard to call out because it can easily be refuted with “that’s not what I said” or “that’s not what I meant.”
  • The person reacting has no “proof” so he doubts himself and may not even understand why he is reacting as he is, even blaming himself for feeling blamed, a double whammy.

When dad says, “That was a great science project.  Next year you’ll probably get first place,”  his words are floating in a relational stew.  The boy knows his father, knows what he thinks about science versus sports, knows how he weighs second place versus first, knows how he values his son’s achievements compared to his job or favorite sitcom or other kid’s accomplishments.  The father’s sentiments override everything else, and his actual words are powerless in such a competition.  We are all born intuitively perceptive, remarkably so, even if we cannot put it into words or rational explanations.

No amount of care in choosing my words or facial expressions is going to change the experience others have of me, except in the most superficial interactions.  My only hope is to grow more into a gracious heart, for the heart always comes leaking out between and around all my words, my polite behavior, my planned smiles.  The truth has an inevitability, even when I try to suppress it, even when I’m blind to it in myself.  Sometimes people know me better than I know myself.  So I listen to them, even when it sounds like poppycock 😉 .

Posted April 3, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Superman Complex   6 comments

SI grew up believing that I was superhuman, that I could and should have every quality admired in others.  After all, my grandfather’s biography was titled “Always in Triumph,” and I was cut from the same cloth.  So I inherited a Supersaint cape, but not the genes, expectations without the abilities.  Every attribute in others turned into a goal for me, and every weakness of mine must be muscled into a strength.  Without asking how a basketball player would fare in a saddle or why marathoners and sprinters had such different builds, I was determined to be a complete spiritual athlete, equally good at figure skating and weight-lifting.

different-racesI did not realize that my qualities as a gift to the church were unique, that my strengths supplied the lack in others’ weaknesses and that their gifts filled in for my inadequacies.  None of us were designed to do it all, but rather each is to be a vital member of a team, offering his unique perspectives, abilities, and traits.  Someone who is good at sympathizing is shaped differently from someone who is good at challenging.  The cheerful and friendly are not usually given to reflection and quiet.  Often we assume that maturing makes us all alike, good at all aspects of spirituality.  But if each of us is designed uniquely, becoming more mature may well make us more distinct, though each a beautiful aspect of God’s character.

We are God’s orchestra, and the drums are not in competition with the flutes or the trombones fighting the violins.  Each has its own music.  We can delight in one another’s contributions and seek to find the flow of harmony in concert.  I can be inspired by their dedication and enthusiasm, discipline and creativity because we have the same values and shared goals, but my score is my own.  May I take satisfaction and pleasure in the instrument God designed me to be.

be yourself

Posted January 30, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Saving Trust   1 comment

My achievement demon was finally beaten (as I posted), but it was a double-team effort, not a solo act.  Berly deserves special praise for her unusual trust and courage to stand with me in this battle as she lived out our fundamental commitment to support one another’s personal struggles.  It is a long story, a good story, one well worth telling, but too big for a blog.  The only way for me to escape my work-driven value system was to resist its demands, which meant choosing a job which was good for my soul but bad for my pocket.  I have been employed part-time and seasonally for 40 months as our savings slowly dwindled.  I have looked for other employment, but not aggressively, taking it at the pace my spirit has needed.  

Imagine how much trust and courage this has required of Kimberly and how badly I needed this trust when struggling with my own self doubt.  She has said many times, “we may lose our home, but we must not lose our souls,” and so we have continued to make the hard choice of trusting God to keep us afloat financially while we take the steps we have both needed to make room for our weary hearts.  Think how much Kimberly must trust me not to be selfish, not to take the easy way, not to use my struggle as an excuse to slack off, and to instead accept that I am doing all that I can within the sphere of my emotional strength, making the best choices I know how in harmony with my spirit.  We have built this mutual trust by sharing honestly, often, about our deepest heart issues.  We trust one another not to use our neediness to get an advantage over the other.

My win over this perverse accomplishment-based value system is not full or final.  I cannot suddenly begin to live as though I’m now free of its influence. as though this lifelong weight can no longer distort my self perception.  Don’t look for miracles here or you will be disappointed.  I am in recovery mode, and it will be a long, slow rehabilitation.  It will take whatever time it takes, and trying to hurry it would undermine the process.  But you can be sure that Kimberly and I will stay faithful to the path before us.

Posted January 22, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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