Archive for the ‘success’ Tag

Dreams of Being a Cowboy   Leave a comment

A video on bullying I watched today sparked memories of my own childhood spent running from troublemakers at recess.  Only once was I seriously punched and had to go to the emergency room for stitches (my right eyebrow still has a slight split on the outside corner).   But harassment was constant during gym class and recess–I was pushed, punched, threatened, chased, tripped, mocked.  There were other danger zones as well: the lunch room, the hallway, the breezeway waiting for our school bus, and the bus ride itself was tormenting, bad enough that I started riding my bike the 10-mile round trip to middle school.  Among boys, the only mark of prowess was aggression… and girls were liked for their looks.

Kids reflect the values of a culture with a clarity unobscured by the social camouflage that adults master.  That’s why I like children’s books–bold, plain, and real.  Because of family values, I admired intellect as a boy, but that was the stuff of nerds, not heroes. The lead actors from all my favorite TV shows punched and shot and muscled their way into glory… and they always got the pretty girl (first prize).  Of course, their violence was validated by the justness of their cause, though that cause was usually self-defense, an arguably selfish motive were it not juxtaposed against the villainy of the other.  The “other” was evil, right down to the color of his clothes.

Aside from the cowboys and cops and colonels, we had a few “nice guy” actors, but no one aspired to be Andy Griffith–you liked him but didn’t want to emulate him.  Pacifists were cowards, courage was in the fists.  The hero never picked a fight, but always finished it by beating his opponent into submission. Be it kung fu or fighter jets, we all admired the warrior, not the lover, who was just a wimp if he showed up without his six-shooters.  The ultimate virtue was conquest, not love… even love was gained by conquest.

And so I set about life as a loser determined to fight my way into the trophy circle.  My goals slowly shifted from physical prowess to spiritual prowess, but success was still my path to prove my worth.  I focused all my energy to become a champion for God, which is to say, having a wide impact on others.  Success is just as strong an addiction as gambling, even if you’re not a winner… especially if you’re not a winner.  But unlike other addictions, it reaps praise, not shame, and moral validation, not warning, both from the world at large and from the church itself.

Cultural values that co-opt religious faith are the most pernicious and blinding of our defects.  When church and society link arms, escape is nearly impossible, and far from looking for an exit, us losers are desperate to launch ahead.  Unfortunately, as success grows, it clogs up the opening for grace. Success would have obviated my need for grace, a pitfall of all self-made men, even those who ostensibly credit God.  But grace blocked my chase after success.  It shackled me to loser-hood until I was forced to admit that my accomplishments don’t validate me.  Apparently God doesn’t need my efforts any more than a father needs the help of his 3-year-old to change a tire.  The toddler is not valued because of what he does, but who he is–a son.

Success still holds a little place in the corner of my heart–just in case–sort of like the spot reserved for a Porsche convertible that someone’s rich uncle might give me.  Both daydreams would likely be a burden rather than a blessing.  I trust God’s path for me, and I’m content just to hold his hand… most days anyway.

Posted June 15, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Happy Tears   9 comments

name tag“What do you do?” is the lead-off question when you’re introduced: first your name, then job title, because in this society our work defines us, and our productivity determines our worth.  I spent most of my life desperately chasing success to prove my value, and my failure drove me into despair.  So for more than a decade I have been reorienting myself, trying to settle into a worth independent of accomplishment.  It has been painful and frightening and crushingly hard, but God gave me no choice, thwarting my every attempt at meaningful work.  And I think I have finally come to the point that I’m okay with that.  He can impact this world through me or not as He thinks best.ConanTheLibrarian

Over the last dozen years my ambitions have dropped from saving the world as a missionary to saving a city as a pastor to saving an organization as a social worker to….  putting library books in call number order.  Still I was trying to eke out some sense of personal usefulness from my job.  When I was furloughed every Christmas and summer break, my depression deepened  because I didn’t even have that thumb tack on which to hang my value as a human being–my existence was pointless.  Like a drowning man clutching at flotsam, I would gasp in relief when work started back.

Yesterday my forced holiday ended, but for the first time in four years I was not flailing for some scrap of self respect from a dead-end job.  I am grateful for work, I enjoy my colleagues, and I prefer a set schedule, but I no longer feel worthless when I’m jobless.  I seem to have finally crossed a watershed in emotional freedom from this lifelong compulsion to find purpose in work.  This is huge for me.  This has been my most fundamental personal issue, and I’m sure it still has plenty of kick left, but its emotional grip has been loosened.  The arc of this healing has been so gradual that I didn’t even realize it was a benchmark until I wrote this paragraph, and as I read it back to my wife just now, I got all choked up.

happy-tears-about-3

Posted January 18, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Under the Shadow [God’s Love Letter #8]   Leave a comment

Matthew 1:4 Ram fathered Amminadab and Amminadab fathered Nahshon

Wouldn’t it be great to be Billy Graham’s brother?  I’m not so sure.  How would you be introduced at parties?  Whose exploits would your children talk about around the dinner table?  In public, whose reputation would you be most concerned to protect?  CNN, Time, NBC would all contact you… with only questions about Billy.  Imagine your whole life and personhood defined by someone else.

Amminadab knew that feeling.  His name appears nine times before the gospel of Matthew, in four separate books of the Bible, and we know nothing about him.  But we know about his son Nahshon.  Even in the middle of a genealogical listing, the registrar pauses to trumpet Nahshon: “Ram was the father of Amminadab, Amminadab was the father of Nahshon, the leader of the people of Judah.”  The only reason Amminadab’s name crops up at all is to note his relationship to Nahshon… except for his first appearance, when he is footnoted as the father-in-law of Aaron, the high priest of Israel.

We all live in someone else’s shadow that is cast by the spotlight on their better performance in cooking or speaking, patience or punctuality.  As I do life with others, it is naturally hard to feel good about myself, hard to avoid competing with Jennifer’s achievements, hard to resist comparing Jason’s friendliness to my own.  But when our culture also constantly rates us against our fellow, noting how we fall short, it becomes nearly impossible.  I can either sign up for this game where I must be a winner (in everything) to feel adequate, or I can opt out and be labeled a loser.  That is, I can constantly chase after the adequacy that is just beyond my grasp or I can give up in despair and accept my own worthlessness… or I can stumble into grace.

When you consider Amminadab, Nahshon, Aaron and Moses in the light of their descendant at the culmination of Matthew’s genealogy, they all rank shoulder to shoulder.  We all stand equally shadowed by Jesus’ glory.  But here the simile breaks down, for Jesus does not diminish us by his greatness, but transforms us by it.  We stand not in his shadow, but in his glory, and this comes not as the borrowed, vicarious glory of a famous relative, but in his fulfilling in us all he designed us to be.  Jesus being all he is makes me all I am and can be.  May we be such life-givers to one another.

Posted July 22, 2012 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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A Truth Learned Late   1 comment

I’m glad I finally realized the truth stated here by Parker Palmer: “Let Your Life Speak.”  His description could be the retelling of my pre-grace life.

Like many middle-class Americans, especially those who are white and male, I was raised in a subculture that insisted I could do anything I wanted to do, be anything I wanted to be, if I were willing to make the effort.  The message was that both the universe and I were without limits, given enough energy and commitment on my part.  God made things that way, and all I had to do was to get with the program.

My troubles began, of course, when I started to slam into my limitations, especially in the form of failure.  I can still touch the shame I felt when, in the summer before I started graduate school at Berkeley, I experienced my first serious comeuppance: I was fired from my research assistantship in sociology.

Having been a golden boy through grade school, high school, and college, I was devastated by this sudden turn of fate.  Not only was my source of summer income gone, but my entire graduate career seemed in jeopardy, the professor I had come to Berkeley to study with was the director of the project from which I had been fired.  My sense of identity, and my concept of the universe, crumbled around my feet for the first, but not last time.  What had happened to my limitless self in a limitless world?

The culture I was raised in suggested an answer: I had not worked hard enough at my job to keep it, let alone succeed….  But that truth does not go deep enough…. I was fired because that job had little or nothing to do with who I am, with my true nature and gifts, with what I care and do not care about….

Neither that job nor any job like it was in the cards for me, given the hand I was dealt at birth.  That may sound like sinfully fatalistic thinking or, worse, a self-serving excuse.  But I believe it embodies a simple, healthy, and life-giving truth about vocation.  Each of us arrives here with a nature, which means both limits and potentials.  We can learn as much about our nature by running into our limits as by experiencing our potentials.

Despite the American myth, I cannot be or do whatever I desire–a truism, to be sure, but a truism we often defy.  Our created natures make us like organisms in an ecosystem: there are some roles and relationships in which we thrive and others in which we wither and die….

If I try to be or do something noble that has nothing to do with who I am, I may look good to others and to myself for a while.  But the fact that I am exceeding my limits will eventually have consequences.  I will distort myself, the other, and our relationship–and may end up doing more damage than if I had never set out to do this particular “good.”

When I give something I do not possess, I give a false and dangerous gift, a gift that looks like love but is, in reality loveless–a gift given more from need to prove myself than from the other’s need to be cared for.  One sign that I am violating my own nature in the name of nobility is a condition called burnout.

Posted June 12, 2012 by janathangrace in Reading

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Finding Grace By Doing Less   4 comments

I have been fighting with fear for a month now, and a sense of being overwhelmed.  It partly comes from my anxiety of having to survive this summer on my lawn-mowing income (along with my inability to pick up sufficient regular clients) and partly from forgetting (as a result) my 2012 commitment to rest.  It has made me think afresh of the Biblical command, not to keep the Sabbath, but to remember to keep the Sabbath.  Apparently I’m not alone in having fear and busyness crowd out the vital place of rest for my soul.   I notice that, remarkably, I accomplish less, not more, when I neglect the rest my soul needs… the fear and drivenness drain away my energy.  This has not always been the case.

Most of my life I lived by overriding my own needs.  I thought I was meeting my soul’s needs by spending hours in prayer, meditation and Bible study, going to church, self-examination and the like.  But in fact these were just more activities to which I drove myself.  They were not “means of grace,” but means of accomplishment, of spiritual advancement.  In those days I measured success by how much I changed the world for the better, not realizing that I was denying with my life the very gospel I preached.  It is hard for the fruits of grace to spring from the drivenness of legalism.  I was getting more tasks done (being successful) because of my unceasing labor, but grace would have had so much more space to work had I learned to do much less while acting from a spirit of unconditional love (in both receiving it and sharing it).

My conception of success has changed so drastically since those days.  The ghost of ‘failures past’ still haunts me at times.  I have not been able to fully shake off those old definitions (mostly because the whole world seems to speak that language), but I realize now that my soul’s health and thereby the health of the hearts around me is my new measure of success.  It has little to do with numbers of tasks completed or people fixed.  I would rather accomplish one thing a day graciously than a dozen without grace, and because of my unhealthy proclivities, the more I try to fit into the day, the more likely I will shortchange grace.  As I grow in grace, I believe I will be able to do more good, but for now I must live within my limits and refuse the shame that shouts at me for doing too little, learning to trust more in God’s grace.

Posted June 10, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Leftover People   1 comment

Mike Yaconelli in Messy Spirituality:

It was time for the Scripture reading and a girl shuffled toward the front of the church. What a moment for Connie. She had finally mustered enough courage to ask the pastor if she could read the Scripture. Without hesitation, he said yes. For years Connie had stifled her desire to serve in the church because of her “incompetencies.” Reading was extremely dif­ficult for her, and Connie had a terrible time enunciating clearly. But she had been in this church many years, and she was beginning to understand the grace of God. Jesus didn’t die just for our sins; he died so people who couldn’t read or speak could read and speak. Now she could serve the Jesus she loved so much. Now she could express her desire for God in a tangible way.

Connie’s steps were labored as she made her way to the front; one leg was shorter than the other, causing her body to teeter from side to side. Finally, she was standing up front, looking at the congregation with pride and joy.  The congregation was silent. Too silent.

The screaming silence was covering up the congregation’s discomfort. Clearly, most of them were trying to understand what Connie was doing, and they were trying not to notice her many incompetencies. Her eyes were too close together, and her head twisted back and forth at odd angles while her face wrenched from one grimace to another.  Connie began to read, and stammering, stuttering, she stumbled proudly through the passage in a long sequence of untranslatable sounds, garbled sentences, long tortuous pauses, and jumbled phrases. Finally, the reading was over, and the congregation was exhausted.

Connie didn’t notice the exhaustion. She was ecstatic. Her face seemed no longer distorted, only full of joy. Her cheeks were flush with pride; her eyes were sparkling with the joy of accomplishment; her heart was warm with knowing she had served the congregation, participated in her faith. Yes, she would remember this day for a long time. How wonderful it was, she thought, to no longer be a spectator in church; she was the church this morning!

Thank God her mental capacities were limited. Thank God she was not able to discern the faces of the congregation or she would have crumbled in despair. Thank God she wasn’t able to sense what people were really thinking.  Almost everyone in the congregation was thinking, This is an outrage! I know this is what they were thinking, because the senior pastor, my father, was ordered to attend an emer­gency board meeting after the service.

Stain Glass Masquerade
by Casting Crowns
(click image to hear)

 “How did this happen?” they demanded to know. “What were you thinking?”

“Connie wanted to read the Scripture,” he replied softly.

“Well, let her stand at the door and pass out bulletins, or help in the mailroom, but don’t have her read! The girl can’t read or speak. Her reading took ten minutes! The church,” they said, “is not a place for incompetence.”

My father believes, as I do, that the church is the place where the incompetent, the unfinished, and even the un­healthy are welcome. I believe Jesus agrees.

Posted April 15, 2012 by janathangrace in Story

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Addicted to Effort   1 comment

The strange path to freedom.

I have many coping mechanisms to protect me from the prickly world, a combination of defenses unique to myself.  I was a compliant child, a trait sometimes mistakenly referred to as “good” or “obedient,” so I responded to my insecurites by trying to make the grade (measured by my approval ratings).   This was my basis for self-worth: scoring a 10 on my performance.  When I was judged as inadequate, my deeply ingrained, almost instinctive reaction was to rachet up the effort.  I proved my value as a person by doing more, better, faster, by never repeating failures or mistakes, by meeting or exceeding every expectation that appeared worthy.

CHASING SUCCESS

Perhaps the hardest coping mechanisms to overcome are those which are inescapably tied to the necessities of living.  Every addiction has its unique power of control.  Bulimics, unlike alcoholics, literally cannot live without the substance to which they are addicted, and that significantly complicates their deliverance.  In the same way, I cannot live without doing.  I cannot abandon all tasks in order to break free from my addiction to effort–I am forced to keep succeeding at a job, at finances, at relationships, and all the other tasks essential to life.  They say success breeds success, but in my case, success breeds bondage (and unfortunately so does failure). 

For me, at a subconscious level, every task accomplished inevitably feeds my sense of worth and every task unfinished feeds my shame.  I don’t knowingly tell myself, “See what I have done. I am a good person after all.”  The telltale sign of this malady may only be a sense of satisfaction, which is natural enough, but the reason for my satisfaction is largely a sense of worth based on my work. 

In short: I have an addiction to effort as a means to gain worth, I cannot live without doing, but each time I do something and feel better as a person, I subconsciously strengthen my addiction.

Let me give an example.  I have said something that has hurt my colleague Mike.  I am afraid of what he now thinks of me, especially because his evaluation of me feeds my doubts of my own worth.  Since love is the best motivation, I tell myself to reach out to him in love and concern for his well-being. These are my conscious thoughts, but underneath, my very value as a person depends on his renewed approval of me.  My fear escalates as I ask for a minute of his time.  Why fear?  Because my worth is at stake.  If he is reconciled by my apology, my fear turns to pleasure.  “See,” I tell myself, “love works!” when in fact I have just succeeded in strengthening a false basis for my worth as a person–I am worthy because of what I do, in this case reconciliation. 

The motivation for what I do is the key.  I can act out of a place of grace or a place of should and shame, though that makes it sound dichotomous when really my motives are always mixed to some degree.  If I complete a chore more out of fear than of grace, I strengthen my doubt in God’s love.  If I act more from grace, I strengthen my faith in God’s love.  But if I am pressured by ‘should,’ how can I respond out of grace?  For me at least, operating out of a sense of should is really responding from a doubt of God’s acceptance, from a sense that his love depends on my behavior, from a fear of being unworthy.  I find that if I do not first challenge the should, face it down, call out its lies of conditional love, then I feed my doubt and insecurity with each task I complete.  I feel better, but am worse for it.

Back to Mike.  If he is unwelcoming, I become defensive–I try to “explain” more clearly, I express my hurt at his response, I point out his matching faults.  Unlike my successful attempt, my failure to win him over suddenly reveals my real motivation.  It was not love, but insecurity. Insecurity will always be present, but if it predominates as my motivation, it will harm me and my relationships.  It may feel better to both of us  if it “works,” but it is a sugar high that eventually leads to diabetes.  I am most aware of my insecurities when my coping mechanism fails, when my “right” actions for self-redemption flounder. If at first I don’t go to Mike, but sit with my insecurity long enough to find saving grace, to believe my worth has no basis in what I do, then I can go to Mike in a way that leads to wholeness for us both.

In certain situations, this time of processing is effective, but often, the longer I delay acting, the more anxious I become.  I am constantly being pressured by a “should,” and this crowds out the emotional space I need to find grace.  In the past I often had to go ahead and complete the task (and so remove the pressure), and then try to deal with the shame-based motivation.   My grasp of grace was not firm enough to escape self-condemnation if I failed to act, but at least being aware of my true motivations was a fundamental step to addressing them.  

To be continued…

Posted March 26, 2012 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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