Archive for the ‘self discovery’ 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.

 

 

When Family Personalities Clash   2 comments

As I unpack the baggage from my travels through life, I see that some of it came pre-packed, some I added by choice or accident, and some was dropped into my suitcases by other hands. I’m regularly surprised by what I find–why is this here and where did it come from?  I look for the answers by reflecting back on the interplay of family values, personalities, coping strategies, roles, relational dynamics, and assorted other influences in my growing-up years.  This is a large part of my blog posts since I started, but I’m narrowing down the focus just now to the greatest influence, my dad.

Dad and I are similar in some aspects and dissimilar in others, and that discrepancy and how we have each responded to it is a huge part of our story.  Perhaps most fundamental to our differences is our personalities–I am a typical melancholic and he is a typical choleric.  Generally speaking, life is straightforward for him and complex for me; he is an actor and I am a ruminator; he is confident, clear, decisive and I am uncertain, questioning, hesitant.  In his conscious thinking and acting in the world, his emotions are peripheral, and life seems to work best for him when he keeps them in their place.  He is largely unaware of his subconscience and the role it plays in his life and has little ability or interest in investigating that realm.  In contrast, my emotions speak to me loudly and constantly, alerting me to many aspects of my subconscious world and how it affects me, my perspective, my work, and my relationships.  He enjoys life most when he is doing something worthwhile and succeeding at it; I enjoy life most when I am gaining personal insight and growing.  In an open conversation, he likes to discuss plans, projects, accomplishments, what is happening in the world, and I like to talk about our internal worlds, what is happening in my heart and yours.

We can only see the world from where we stand, it only makes sense to us from our own perspective, which is heavily colored by our experiences, values, and, yes, personalities.  We can expand our viewpoint by trying to hear deeply and appreciatively another’s perspective, but it still remains our own particular perspective.  I experience certain things as comforting, stimulating, painful, supportive, frightening, encouraging, and I assume others experience them as I do.  It is hard to see all of this as particular to me because they feel like universal norms.  When the reactions of others differ from mine, I ascribe their fears to cowardice, their pleasures to immaturity, their anger to an irascible nature.  In short, if they see the world differently, they are wrong.  This myopia is especially hard to escape when it dovetails with our culture and significant others whose views are constantly reinforcing our own.

In a father-son relationship, the father is in the driver’s seat, so it is his personality which becomes key to the relationship, and to the extent his boy’s personality differs, the dad struggles to comprehend the world from that perspective. The more the father sees his own view as the correct universal one, the less he can understand, appreciate, and validate his children in the ways they differ from him.  It is always difficult to appreciate a point of view that clashes with our own, but it’s  especially hard for parents, who carry the heavy responsibility of guiding their kids, especially for those of my father’s generation, especially for those with less reflective personalities.

All in all my dad did the best he could, which is all we can ask of any father, all that even God himself asks.  But don’t suppose that all goes well when everyone does their best.  This broken world is filled with jagged edges, including our own shards.  If we are to relate at all, we must relate as fractured people, cutting and bruising each other unintentionally and even against our best efforts to be careful and kind.  Good, healthy relationships are profoundly healing, but even between best friends muck gets kicked loose.  In the end it will all work out for the best if we can stumble through the slough to a better place, a place of greater maturity and deeper, truer connection.  It is often in digging through the muck that we strike the truth that was buried beneath.

“There is a crack in everything.  That is how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen

Memories Outlast the Failing Mind   1 comment

A couple of days ago I received the same one-line email from my dad about 20 minutes apart, the second with an apology in case he already sent it and forgot.  He turns 88 in September and this summer his short-term memory has started to lapse appreciably.  As his memory fades, he slowly loses parts of himself that will never return, gone forever, except as those thoughts and perspectives, emotional reactions, explanations and stories carry on in the lives of his children, adopted or adapted consciously or unconsciously.  Like physical DNA, family culture is passed down generation to generation–reproductions of the mind–and the most persistent are those aspects least noticed or recognized.  When a man dies, or loses his mind, he is not lost to this earth.  His voice and thoughts and outlook persevere in those he has touched, most profoundly in his children, like data downloaded from an old to a new computer (though the updated software may configure it differently).

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None of us are “self-made” people, but each is made up of bits and pieces of everyone who has impacted our lives, directly or indirectly.  In a real sense our memories are not our own, springing up from our independent interaction with our environment.  We do not experience the world in isolation, but see it through the eyes of significant others who dramatically shape our valuations, expectations, and understandings.  Even as individuals we are radically communal in nature–I am not simply “I”, but the self that I perceive is largely composed of others, a mosaic, a smorgasbord partly chosen by me and partly plopped onto my plate without my knowledge or choice. We are all creative, coming up with our own unique elements of self, but even a genius borrows most of the building blocks of his invention from others who passed on to him the wheel, lever, and axle.

This gives each of us great advantages in life, but it also creates life-long cumbrances: we are given both wings and chains, and we can only find our way to a better place personally and corporately by identifying and taking apart each aspect of the heritage we have been given to determine if it benefits or binds.  Some would suggest that we honor our elders by remembering and praising their attributes and passing over their failings, but that certainly isn’t the Bible’s approach to the heroes it lauds.  It is only true honor of another to acknowledge the whole of who they are, anything else is only honoring a false representation.  Remembering the dark side of each person gives them the 3 dimensional character of a real person, though we should see that side with eyes of love and patience, understanding and humility… especially humility since we always fall short of accurately estimating others (our memories are all tainted).

I offer those few paragraphs as an introduction to an exploration I want to take into my father’s legacy in my own life, to use the impact I felt from him to pull apart and consider how that has shaped me into the person I am and want to be, an ongoing blog series.

Posted August 7, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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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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“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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Walk It Off   Leave a comment

When I pull on my tennis shoes, my two dogs begin to dance, spinning and hopping backwards down the hallway in front of me in anticipation of our walk.  I love their joy and it’s good exercise for me, but I mostly take to the road for the sake of my soul.  In 3 to 4 miles the calm of woods and field settles into my spirit, and I always come back more at peace than when I set out.  Why is nature so deeply healing for us?  That has always been a mystery to me.

Then I read these words last week: “True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.”  A single incisive sentence can silhouette a truth that otherwise blends into the commonness of life.  The idea had been niggling at the edges of my thoughts this year as I felt my spirit relax around each graveled curve and then suddenly cramp again at the sight of a dilapidated house, reminding me of my own languishing projects, or a solid stone wall that scolded me for my broken one.  Every touch with others, or even thought of it, brings some weight of obligation, especially for those of us who are duty sponges.  Certainly there is joy and comfort, insight and stimulation in our friendships, but there is always a trade-off, a compromise, a curtailing of ourselves and our desires.  Relationships are both pleasure and obligation.

We sense others’ expectations and shape ourselves to meet them, tempering our words and ideas, hiding what feels unsafe to share.  Even with those closest to us we are inhibited because we don’t want to hurt or anger or sadden them or be hurt by them as they respond to our true selves.  Every human interaction comes with a large or small box of “shoulds”.  Even if we have enjoyed the evening with you, our guests, we feel ourselves relax when you leave and give a sigh of relief as we settle back, kick off our shoes, and flick on a mindless sit-com.  When I am by myself, I am most free to be myself, understand myself, drop the self-defenses and peer deep into the pool of my being.  And in becoming truer to myself, more self-accepting, I am able to offer myself more genuinely to others.

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation.
One’s inner voices become audible.
One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.
In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives.
The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature,
the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.
–Wendell Berry

The tensions we feel in connection to others are natural, a part of being imperfect humans in relationship.  If we respond to them in healthy ways, they become resources for insight and growth, both personally and relationally.  However, part of a healthy response includes the solitude that offers duty-free reflection, and for those like me with an over-wrought sense of should, that’s best done “in the wild,” far from human detritus.  When we take time away from being who we should be, we discover who we are.  It is only as we know ourselves that we can share ourselves.

Posted December 30, 2014 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Strange Feelings   7 comments

Last night as I prepped for bed, I said to myself, “This has been a good day.”  In the last twenty years I must have felt that at times, but I can’t recall any… partly because they have been rare, partly because a depressed mind easily forgets the ups.  “Why was it good?” Kimberly asked.  Nothing exceptional.  I enjoyed my walk with the dogs… and some other incidental positives I couldn’t remember.  Incidentals don’t usually change the feel of a day for me.

The things that encourage others don’t sink deep enough to change the life experience of the depressed.  We see a beautiful waterfall, earn a compliment at work, or find a love note in our lunch, but like a cold sip on a blistering day, it tantalizes without refreshing.  It is the surface waves that leave the depths unmoved.   For all of us, emotional responses are spontaneous, unchosen.  We can tweak the flow of our feelings–calm a fear or encourage gratitude to some extent–but our influence on them is limited.

It’s the unwanted emotions I’d really like to avoid, but I can’t.  We melancholics are highly sensitive to our deeper selves, so we can’t work or play or friend away our feelings.  And even if I could snub them, I wouldn’t.  I need to hear what they have to say.  Emotions are dispatches from our psyche, so killing the messenger simply cuts that line of communication to a huge, vital source of personal insight.  In fact, it is to this core place alone that real healing must come.  Good feelings are yard sticks, not hammers: you use them to measure your soul, not to fix your soul.  Like your spouse, feelings are better listened to than controlled, understood than manipulated.  Insisting on positive feelings can be a form of self abuse.

The mundane events of Saturday felt good to me, and that’s a hopeful sign.  It suggests that a much deeper good is awakening in some part of my soul.

Posted October 20, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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