Archive for the ‘love’ Tag

The Rare Gift of Loving Well   Leave a comment

At my dad’s funeral, my sister Amy shared how dad planned great trips for his children and grandchildren, taking them on real adventures that created memories for a lifetime.  Pop took me on a trip to Washington D.C. when I was twelve, and it was truly memorable. For Amy, this “extravagant love” was the epitome of her recollections of a loving father.

Yet true love may not show itself in extravagant gestures or great sacrifices.  Sometimes the power and glory of love infuses the mundane.  In fact, the grand display can easily be a cover to hide our unwillingness to love as we should.  There are foolish and useless sacrifices… even selfish sacrifices.  A mom can pay dearly to send her boy to college in an effort to run from the shame of her own inadequacy.  A father can give everything up to make his son a great athlete.. but is this love for himself or his son?   The ultimate sacrifice of true love is not in giving to the other, but in receiving them into our hearts, inviting them in to reveal their real selves, delighting in their oddness and mystery, allowing them to shape the very direction of our soul’s growth.

We tend to be so self-oriented that we equate our view with what is normal and right, even reading Scripture with that lense.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” does not mean that we treat others as copies of ourselves, assuming that what pleases or saddens us, what excites or frustrates us is the same for them.  Each of us is unique in our experiences and perceptions.  True love is not simply making room for the differences of others, but valuing those differences, trying to see and understand the world as they see it, gaining a new perspective and value system and appreciation for life that we did not have before.  I cannot truly love without being personally transformed by it.

This is especially difficult for parents because they have responsibility for teaching and training a child, helping them mature into kind, insightful, responsible adults.  But if the child is not given the freedom and encouragement to find out who they really are apart from, in distinction from, in contrast to their parents, then their lives will be hollowed out, learning good behavior but divorced from their own hearts.  Is a parent able to learn profound truths from their little ones, a new outlook on the world, a new way of being?  A real relationship in contrast to a coercive one empowers each other’s uniquenesses, especially when those differences are a source of conflict since those are the secret keys to unlock our own spiritual insight and growth.

The beauty and glory of true love is that it enriches the giver far more than the recipient.  It is the pathway to our own daily salvation.

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Posted August 3, 2016 by janathangrace in thoughts

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The Hope within Depression   7 comments

I have little time before work and only 9 usable fingers, having chunked off the flat of my thumb in my belt sander–a story for another day–so this will be quick and rough, but I have thoughts I want to put down.  I watched an old episode of Joan of Arcadia recently and remembered why I liked it–the constant reminder that God does not play by our rules and often leaves us in the dark, even (or rather especially) about our own lives.  That is, I hate the experience, but I am grateful for the camaraderie of someone who also feels slapped in the face by life… every day… and cannot find a way to duck the swing.

I have been struggling more deeply with depression for the last few months (which is the reason for my absence here–depression reduces life to survival and little more).  It feels awful, so much like an actual physical trauma that I find myself catching my breath with the pain, and more recently grasping my head in my hands as I double over.  So I dig through my piles of options for some way to reduce the misery, but while I’m looking, my feelings change.  How do you address something which is  unpredictable, indiscernible, uncontrollable.  I don’t mean I don’t have any influence over my feelings, but it is like driving with a knee around mountain curves… in the fog.  So my feelings are constantly in the ditch–it is all I can manage to keep from going over the embankment.

Some days I wake up feeling okay… as long as I just lie there in a drowsy stupor.  That makes me think that naps might be a way to avoid my misery… which is true, but not helpful since I can’t live the rest of my life in a coma.  It just delays the returning blackness, it doesn’t lighten it.  So basically any strategy for avoiding life and its attendant feelings–loving on my dogs, watching TV, reading Facebook–is only a distraction from feeling anything deep or meaningful, it doesn’t resolve or heal or soften those bad feelings that come flooding back the moment I come out of the circus show.

For my religiously minded friends with the easy and certain solution–yes, I keep trying prayer and Bible reading as I am able, I keep looking for a church that doesn’t make me feel even worse afterwards.  These have not brought any fundamental relief or changed my experience of life.  And for my friends who have found some relief in medicine–I’ve tried several iterations, no luck so far.

Honestly it is not my staggering emotions that are the fundamental soul problem so much as the lack of control and confusion.  If I believed that my depression were God-ordained and inescapable, it would relieve me of desperately seeking solutions (which puts a great deal of pressure on myself, and temptation to self-blame).  I could settle for learning how to manage the life I am given.  But since I have small influences on my emotions, it keeps me actively engaged.  Were I to conclude that I had no real control and that my emotional experience of life was wholly in the hands of God, I could accept my lack of control, but that would exacerbate my confusion, not only over why this was God’s choice for me, but how I am to respond to it.

Regarding the first, the very values God promotes are undermined by my depression, not simply because of the inherent self-focus needed and the sapping of all motivation, but because of its intense draining of energy: I don’t have the normal resources from which to draw to be generous-minded, hard-working, other-oriented.  Patience looks more like resignation, hope seems more like stubbornness.  Wisdom seems to be stymied–if I have too little insight for my own life, what do I have to give to others?  And to find any joy present in this mess would require a complete re-definition.

Regarding the second, my response to intractable emotions, it is hard enough to find a rhythm for the dance of life when one’s emotions are consistent, even consistently miserable.  A strategy, plan, step-by-step approach can be developed when the playing field is stable, but when it constantly changes, it throws off all efforts to establish patterns, learn dynamics, and create a workable approach.

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That was yesterday.  I ran out of time before I could post.  But the gears started to spin as I wrote.  To suppose that patience as resignation or hope as stubbornness is somehow a poorer, weaker form of the real virtue is to undermine the very breadth and variegated beauty of each virtue, to stereotype, slot, and truncate the vast panoply of experience and expression of each facet of goodness.  We have often tried to distill attributes into some pure or regnant form, a person that most exemplifies some particular value, say of courage or discipline.  So the essence of real love is seen as mother love, as though there is only one kind of love and everyone should emulate it.  But what if there are many unique and invaluable forms of love that are missed by this reduction, that look different from mother love but have their own irreplaceable value: what of the simplicity and humility of a child’s love, the equality and intentionality of a friend’s love, the intensity and intertwining of a spouse’s love… and so even those of us under the heavy weight of depression have a unique offering of love, one of deep understanding and empathy and acceptance.  Perhaps depression does not inherently limit, sap, or dull our virtues, but instead refines, strengthens, sharpens them with a special coloring.  Our virtues have their own beauty and power, unique role and expression, a glory all their own.

 

Posted December 21, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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Great Picture Books   Leave a comment

I love children’s books with powerful truths.  Leo Lionni has written “Fish Is Fish,” a story of a fish imagining the world as described by a frog.  Here is Fish’s mental picture of a cow:

Fish Is Fish

It is basically a fish with four legs, horns, and a “pink bag of milk.”  It is a profound parable of how we see everything from our own perspective, even when we do our best to be “unbiased.”  We unknowingly skew everything to match our preconceptions, experiences, personality, etc. so that we can wholly misunderstand others even when we listen with best intentions.  Seeing things from another’s perspective is an art and skill that require patience, humility, empathy, curiosity, and practice, and it is one of the most powerful expressions of love we can grant.

Posted May 9, 2015 by janathangrace in Reading

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Killing Me Softly   1 comment

This afternoon Kimberly and I were listening to an NPR Fresh Air interview of musician Sam Baker.  He was the victim of a bombing in Peru by the communist group Shining Path, which prompted one of his striking lyrics: ‘Everyone is at the mercy of another one’s dream.’  Yes, we daydream of weddings and families, homes and careers, but our plans collide:  mother and daughter over weddings, husband and wife over child-rearing, homeowner and banker over late mortgage payments.  If we can’t agree over a music station driving to Walmart or where to hang wet towels, how can we compromise our deepest, longest held dreams.  Must I abandon my dreams to fulfill yours or do we each halve our hopes?  Does relationship shrivel potential?

Group goals differ from personal goals, and each has advantages and disadvantages over the other.  Choosing relationship changes dreams, but if we are innately social beings, then purely individual plans are misguided and incomplete.  We can only be our true, whole selves and fulfill our potential within the context of relationship.  It is in togetherness that our richest dreams are shaped.  With God’s help even difficult relationships can enhance our journey; we can turn the barricades thrown up by our enemies into stairsteps to the stars, just as Sam’s devastating injuries gave him a new and better purpose, to write songs on albums titled Mercy and Say Grace.  I want to live in such a way that those who cross my path, even briefly, find help on their way rather than hindrance, encouragement rather than pain.

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After the interview I told Kimberly I like NPR anchors.  They are nice people.  Even when they disagree with their guests, they are polite and respectful.  On his website, Sam reflected about his interaction with (NPR’s) Terry Gross, “I talked to her last week in Philadelphia at WHYY.  I am a long time listener and a fan and was nervous (and a bit intimidated) to talk with her.  She is gracious and charming and I am deeply grateful.”  Kimberly replied to me, “Those gentle people are the only ones I want as friends.”  I said, “That’s funny because you didn’t marry one!”   Mind you, I try to be gentle.  I’m just not very good at it, like a lumberjack with a bone china teacup, and I often feel deeply flawed as a human being for not being nicer.  So why would Kimberly choose me?

We’ve had this discussion many times.  In spite of warming up to nice, she keeps choosing real instead, because (as it turns out) you can’t really have both–no one can always be sweet and still genuine.  When we let our insides out, the shadows appear.  Kimberly was raised on nice, and didn’t discover her anger until she met me.  She fearfully buried that part deep inside from everyone, even herself, and it was killing her.  The folks who keep the ugly locked inside not only hurt themselves, but short-circuit their relationships.  If I trust you only with what’s admirable, then you don’t know me and can’t love me for who I am.  To truly connect at the heart level, we have to share more than happiness.  As it turns out, I’m very good at real, both in being vulnerable and accepting others in their vulnerabilities, and that is what Kimberly needs most deeply.  When she committed to our relationship, she gave up on her safe, carefully crafted dream and woke up to a reality far better.

Some dreams are in fatal conflict, and pursuing them tears everyone down.  Surprisingly, fairytale endings often fit this mold because they are unrealistic, delusive, and usually selfish, and they depend on everyone involved having precisely the same unchanging vision.  Trust me, after the credits roll, the sheen of Prince Charming dulls quickly as he wipes his mouth on the kitchen towel and forgets to replace the TP roll, and if Cinderella enforces her Hollywood dream, everyone else is going to be living a nightmare pasted over with smiles.  May we all learn to dream together, to find the richest, fullest expression of ourselves in the symphony of relationship.

Go in peace, go in kindness,
go in love, go in faith.
Leave the day, the day behind us. Day is done.
Go in grace. Let us go into the dark, not afraid, not alone.
Let us hope by some good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.

–Sam Baker–

Befriending Myself   4 comments

I woke up this morning with spare change on the clock to get to church on time, but my soul was out of sorts, so I lay still, sensing its pulse instead of pushing myself out of bed.  For the last decade I’ve honed the skill of listening to my feelings without judging them, but I’m only gradually learning to then respond with compassion, a crucial second step.  Since I spent most of my life judging my feelings and driving them out with shame–calling them stupid or weak or petty–it was a giant step for me to learn to accept them as legitimate and meaningful, and it took years of stiff work.

That tenacious acceptance opened a huge cache of information about myself, a way to sort through my junk and set the furniture back on its feet.  But with my cognitive bent, I’m slow on intuition, a key conduit to feelings.  I often get stuck in my head, my thoughts going in circles like bugs around a rim, emotionally trapped, unable to move forward until I understand it.

I failed to realize that understanding someone and embracing him are quite distinct, and I don’t need to diagnose him in order to love him.  Empathy can be profoundly healing even without an emotional biopsy.  When I focus on fixing a “problem,” I default to analytics, but I can’t support the feelings when I treat them as the problem, a roadblock instead of a signpost.  A hug is often better than a flow chart, not just for my wife, but surprisingly for me, the thinker.

When I’m busy dissecting feelings, I can forget compassion, especially for myself.  Love seems a distraction from analyzing and engineering a solution… unless love IS the solution.  “1+2 = love” does not make sense because feelings cannot be reduced to equations or formulas.  But if love is not the answer, then perhaps I’m asking the wrong question, and if I’m not ending up at compassion, then I’m really off track.  How would it shape my experience of life if I lived for love, not just for others, but for myself?

I know how to be a good friend to others: to listen, love, be gentle and patient, kind and thoughtful.  But I don’t treat myself that way.  I bully myself.  I push and prod, roll my eyes, belittle pain, ignore my needs, devalue my efforts.  I’m a really bad friend to myself.

So this morning I lay in bed, fully present to God and myself, ignoring the clock, being patient and gentle and sympathetic to my struggles like a good friend should.  I took a feel-good shower instead of skipping it and rushing to church, and I discovered that being a better friend to myself made me a better friend to those I met.  I’ve found a new buddy, and I think I’m going to really like him.

Frictionless Marriage   3 comments

DSC01639By this afternoon the snow had mostly melted at our house, and it didn’t feel that cold, so I pulled on my tattered loafers sans socks and drove to the park with Mazie to walk.  The asphalt path was mostly free of snow, but by the time I reached the end, my toes were stinging.  When I turned onto the wooded dirt trail, I found half an inch of unmelted snow, and I started waddling with my feet splayed to keep from scooping snow into the gaping holes on the out-sides of my shoes.  As I walked, something strange happened–my toes began to warm.  I was surprised enough to pull out one foot and check that it wasn’t just going numb.  It was cool to the touch, but not icy, in spite of the snow that was clinging to the edge of the open splits.  Even on cold days my bare feet in loose shoes rub themselves warm against the leather as I walk, and now the broken trail made my feet slide around even more, increasing the friction.  There is an upside to friction… even in relationships.

Berly uses her lunch break to stretch her legs, and since I walk Mazie at the same time, we phone-walk together.  Today we chatted about yesterday’s blog post and how grace plays such a big role in our relationship.  My sketch was true in its broad strokes, but don’t suppose that Berly is always trusting and I am never selfish.  We screw up regularly.  But we make room for that in our relationship.  Our family values are framed by grace–we structure our lives to make space for one another’s weaknesses, fears, needs and the like.  Grace designs the principles by which we live but also the manner in which we live these principles, or rather fail to live these principles.  In other words, we give ourselves grace for failing to live by grace.

In my last post I said Berly trusts “that I am doing all that I can within the sphere of my emotional strength.”  But sometimes I shortchange Kimberly by doing less than I can, intentionally or not (that is, sometimes I am lazy and at other times I simply underestimate my own energy level).  We are deeply committed to one another, to mutual understanding, acceptance, and support and we live this consistently, but not perfectly.  We have expectations… our expectations are that we will fall short of our ideals on a fairly regular basis.  We trust one another not because we live flawlessly, but because we live in grace towards one another’s flaws.

In other words, we live with friction, and we think that’s good.  It’s possible to smooth over all interactions, but the cost of such a tightly controlled “peace” is shallow and inauthentic relationships.  Nothing is more lonely than a friendship where we cannot be ourselves.  If we are unique individuals with our own histories, views, personalities, and preferences, then doing real life together at any depth is going to bring tension.  Real life and growth comes from rubbing up against the rough grain of those we love and discovering that our flaws are the basis for our bonding.  It is not fixing faults but embracing grace that strengthens relationships and deepens trust.

Posted January 23, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Intimacy   3 comments

I have been encouraged a great deal in reading one of my favorite 17th century theologians, Thomas Traherne, and want to give you a taste of his thoughts on friendship, especially regarding friendship with God.  (I’ve modernized spelling and a couple words)

[Friendship is] kindness of behavior, a thorough and clear communication of souls, a secure reliance upon each others fidelity, a perfect discovery of all our thoughts, intentions, and [feelings], an ardent willingness to impart lives and estate for the benefit of our friend, the reposing of all our secrets in each others bosoms, to do all services, and suffer all afflictions, for each others sakes, to prefer the concerns of our friend upon all occasions above our own….

The greatest secret in its nature is, the mutual agreement of souls and spirits, the delight which either takes in the other, the honor and esteem they give and receive, the approbation and love of each others dispositions, the sense and admiration of each others virtues, the continual desire of being always together, peculiar ecstasy, which the beauty of either occasions in the other, when of all other treasures in the world their persons are the greatest to one another.  Either is the proper element and [consolation] of the others soul.  Their bosoms are the mutual receptacles and temples of each others accomplishments, whereinto they are received in all their desert, and have justice done to every degree and perfection in their nature; their hearts are thrones where they are exalted, and magnified, and live at ease, are honored [and extolled].

–though I often fall short, I want to dedicate these aspirations to Kimberly

friends

Posted September 9, 2013 by janathangrace in Reading

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