Archive for the ‘Insight’ Tag

To Know Others, I Must Know Myself   4 comments

I’ve been muddling over a question for several days: why did Dad’s inability to understand himself so significantly affect his own children and his relationship with them.  I finally settled on a typical childhood scenario to sort it out in my mind:  being late for church.  In stark contrast to Dad, Mom was a spontaneous, disorganized soul who was not very good at time management.  Sunday morning she was inevitably running late.  Dad would finally stump out to the Oldsmobile and sit fuming, eventually honking the horn to try to hurry things along.  He hated being late.  It made for an icy car ride which suddenly transmuted into a smiling hand-shake with church folk, because Dad took charge of all our emotional exchanges, and he’d decided it was time to move on.  Yes, he was very organized, even with his emotions, and very take-charge, even with our emotions.

While Dad was in our driveway tapping his fingers against the steering wheel, Mom would be in the bathroom madly trying to finish fixing her hair and putting on her make-up.  Of course, traditional roles exacerbated this situation–Dad only had to get himself ready while Mom had to make breakfast, feed the clan, and make sure all us kids were presentable.  But she still would have accomplished all this punctually if she’d had the same personality and value system as Dad.  And since her promptness depended largely on certain unreliable munchkins, she would have had to heavily impose those time values on her children.  There would have been as much impatience, tension, and condemnation inside the home as in the station wagon outside.  Instead of a kind “where did you last see your shoes?” it would have been, “How many times have I told you…”  And we children, fearing that condemnation, would have worked very hard to conform.

When two people have similar values, perspectives, personalities and emotional responses, conflicts are drastically reduced, but when these vary in important relationships, such as with Dad and Mom, some sort of system must be worked out for negotiating the conflicts.  Those like my dad who have a behaviorist approach to life and relationship see growth as a process of adapting one’s behavior and language to avoid conflict rather than discovering a deeper understanding of oneself and the other. In other words, the underlying perceptions and dynamics remain the same, but one’s actions and words are tweaked to avoid offense–speaking more softly when angry or driving separate cars to church (my dad’s final solution).  Being late is clearly wrong, so either she fixes her behavior so he’s not mad, or he tries to be patient with her as the failing one.

At first glance it would seem that the first approach is somewhat legalistic and the second somewhat gracious… except in both cases the late person is in the wrong.  There is no option available for non-judgmentally trying to discover why this value is so important to one and not to the other–for instance that Mom put more value in accepting her kids than rushing them, that her immense creativity was enabled by not having a highly organized life, and so on.  Instead of differences leading to deeper self and mutual understanding, they lead to the slotting of behaviors (and individuals) into good and bad.

Clearly, if there is a disagreement and Dad was unwilling to reconsider his own position, then he could not in any meaningful way make room for the legitimacy of the other person’s perspective of herself.  If he was right, then she was wrong, and even if he is kind and sympathetic, that judgment sticks.   It is not possible for someone to come to a truly gracious acceptance and understanding of the other person without questioning his own underlying perspective about himself and his views.  In a remarkable way, lack of self-understanding prevents us from understanding others because we cannot shake free from our own blinders and so we distort our own perceptions.

Now, being over-zealous about lateness is a small issue that can be overlooked.  Everyone has their foibles and it is part of grace to overlook them.  The amazing thing I have discovered is that differences, even on small matters, can open the door into a huge cache of personal information that has never been discovered.  Our inner selves are well integrated, so that one concept enforces another in a web that makes up our worldview.  Punctuality is a small corner of the much bigger idea of efficiency, which is in turn a portion of the worldview that puts a premium on accomplishments.  I have struggled my whole life with a sense that my value as a person depends on what I accomplish, that God values me for what I do for him rather for me.  Most of my life I didn’t know this was at the root of my relationship with God–I thought all my zeal was out of my love for him.  Or I could follow punctuality down a different trail, one that leads to the importance of meeting a wide array of standards and how perhaps I am not loveable unless I pass a certain moral bar (while naturally holding others to that bar).  Or I could follow punctuality down a different path that connects it to respect, and what makes me feel respected or disrespected and how I respond to those feelings in my relationships.

Rubbing up against someone who experiences the world differently than I do is a great opportunity for that soul-searching.  But if I default to my unshakeable worldview, I not only fail to understand myself better, but fail to understand the other, having placed us both as characters in a world of my own assumptions.  Being blind to who I am inevitably makes me blind to who others are–their gifts, insights, and beauty.

 

 

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Of Ostriches and Eagles   5 comments

From my last post some might suppose that my imagery of a majestic, soaring eagle for my father and a silly, flightless ostrich for myself was in some way self-denigrating.  However, the analogy was not based on my own valuation of eagles vs. ostriches (or dad vs. me), but on how I think society views each.  The superiority of the eagle seems self-evident to Americans–it was not the ostrich (or more to home, the pigeon or crow) that was stamped on the Great Seal of the United States.

As a culture we lionize and value certain traits more than others–the one who talks is more admired than the one who listens, the fast more than the slow, the take-charge more than the let-be.  But all have their unique value and purpose as well as weakness and limitation–the eagle is as awkward on the ground as the ostrich is in the air.  Each person is vital in their uniqueness, an irreplaceable expression of God himself.

We tend to slot folks into winners and losers, successful and failures, saints and sinners, or we grade them high to low, but the most heroic in the Bible have their fatal flaws, usually as the shadow presence of their strength.  The Bible presents godly people as models for us all to follow… and then presents those same people as warnings to avoid: Abraham and Issac vs. Abraham and Hagar; David and Goliath vs. David and Bathsheba; Peter as The Rock vs. Peter as Satan.  The best among us are deeply flawed, and that must be a bedrock of our theology and spirituality.  I call it honesty, the truth about ourselves, which is just as fundamental to our heart health as the truth about God, and just as fundamental to true, healthy relationships as well.

We are all equally beautiful as God’s creations and equally precious to our Heavenly Father.  May we all be graced with the eyes to see one another’s beauty.

 

Posted June 10, 2016 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Reading the Heart’s Braille   Leave a comment

I woke up today with a sweet dog snuggled up to me and a loving God looking down on me with a good-morning smile. I lay there talking with Him for some time, and then sat up and all the good feelings drained away like cascading water. This is a regular occurrence, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

I’m like an emotional preschooler, unable to understand my own emotions–what I feel and why I feel that way. I have the emotional theory down pretty well, but like passing a written driver’s test, knowing the answers on an exam doesn’t help much behind the wheel. Trying to interpret the principles into practice is still largely a conundrum for me. I’m not sure approaching it like a science is the best route anyway. If I thoroughly studied gravity, balance, muscular response and tried to apply that knowledge to learning to ride a bicycle, I think I would find it more a hindrance than a help.

But that analogy fails to capture the complexity and variability of emotions, and the experiential feedback I get is not like falling off a bike—it is not immediate, clear, and simple. Occasionally I know straight off that I got it right–that my gentle response to a harsh retort came from a healthy place and felt emotionally rewarding. But that immediate and clear reading of my heartbeat is rare and comes after a great deal of struggle, trial, and slowly growing insight into some facet of my heart. Often my response is partially unhealthy (which part, and how?) and my emotions are conflicted–a dash of fear, a sprinkle of false guilt, a slather of confusion, a pinch of hope.

We all ride bikes the same, but our emotions play out uniquely for each of us. So we learn basic principles about emotions, but using them to understand ourselves (and others) is a complex skill that must be learned the long, hard way by practice, regularly skinning our knees and running into things in the process. It takes fearlessness, tenacity, and commitment.

Had I been taught as a child to notice, validate, understand and respond affirmatively to my feelings, I think I would have learned the process and developed the skills by now. In our inescapably fallen world, I was rather shaped by society directly as well as through its influence in my family and playmates to ignore, judge, and control my feelings. Anger was forbotten, sadness was curtailed, fear was mocked. Meanwhile love, hope, and joy were pushed as the acceptable feelings to manufacture and share. And in turn I too became a spinner of these lies. In short, a great deal has to be unlearned and long-ingrained reflexes untaught, in the process of discovering what is true and good for our hearts. So we misplace our true selves early in life and get further lost with our borrowed and faulty compass and map.

What might come naturally, like learning to walk, now requires much deeper insight to untangle our confused legs, clear up our bleary eyesight, and reorient our backwards direction. Unlearning is far more difficult and involved than learning fresh from scratch. The whole outlook must be re-oriented before individual bad habits can be addressed and a healthy direction taken, and all of this must be done in the face of constant opposition from the world around us.

Society says, “Don’t worry, be happy!” and ostracizes us when we frown. The church agrees with “Worry is a sin against faith!” and judges us if we share our fears, especially tenacious fears. How then can we find a way to validate our own experience and feelings, to be understanding and empathetic with ourselves? It often feels as though we are on our own, swimming against a very strong current.

So I write this to those of you on this long journey with me because it is so easy to get discouraged and lose hope. The road to recovery seems to be so hard and take so long. Weariness and doubt and confusion drag down our resolve and steal our hope. Let those of us who wish to take this way encourage one another. I believe in you!

Posted July 17, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, 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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“I Know I’m Right!”   2 comments

The intensity of my feeling does not prove the truth of my viewpoint. It says more about me than the reality around me.  But even should I look more closely into my own heart, I may still misunderstand my emotions. If the culture and family in which we are raised do not train us to accept and understand our feelings, if they in fact encourage us to ignore and misread them, then we have a long, tortuous, and dimly lit path ahead of us as we seek to understand ourselves. Don’t give up. That search yields some of life’s richest treasures in yourself and in your relationships.

Strong feelings seem to legitimate our positions in our own minds, and if we link those to our spiritual beliefs, we end up assuming that God feels the same way we do. But the intensity of our feelings is more likely to signal a personal issue than a theological one, even in cases where our moral judgment is accurate. If those strong feelings push us to speak or act without adequate personal reflection, we can make things worse in our unbalanced response, and those who recognize our emotional entanglement will either be dismissive or reactive.

When I feel much more strongly about a matter than others do, it makes me stop and consider why and invites me to draw conclusions about myself rather than others. Differences and conflicts always call us deeper into our own hearts, and if we begin with that discovery, we are more likely to also understand others more fully.

Posted January 11, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Putting in an Appearance   Leave a comment

I just felt like stopping by and posting, but I don’t have much time.  Today was better than yesterday, mostly because I was more attentive to my Lenten commitment to relax and give myself (and others) a break.  Few things matter as much as I think they do, but having been ingrained with values I now intellectually deny, I very easily fall into old patterns without noticing.  Unexplored emotions are much more likely to control me than strong conscious emotions, and my reasoning power is more likely to be manipulated by those hidden emotions than the emotions by my rational brain.  I think architect Louis Sullivan  was referring to outward more than inward observation, but I find his words true for both:

Attention is of the essence of our powers; it is that which draws other things toward us, it is that which, if we have lived with it, brings experiences of our lives ready to our hand.  If things but make impression enough on you you will not forget them; and thus, as you go through life, your store of experiences becomes greater, richer, more and more availablel  But to this end you must cultivate attention… the art of seeing, the art of listening.  You needn’t trouble about memory, that will take care of itself; but you must learn to live in the true sense.  To pay attention is to live, and to live is to pay attention….

Posted March 8, 2012 by janathangrace in thoughts

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