Saturday, February 9, 2019
So, Nathan, we've been asked to preach during a month focused on TRUST. This could go so many directions I can't even begin to summarize! (smile) What's one way you think TRUST has developed or changed between us in the 23 years we've been together?
I think the primary way trust has changed over those years is the complexity of what trust entails. Early on, trust was about our growing romantic love and friendship. Could I trust this new feeling? Where would it go? Could I trust you enough to really be myself and would you still like and love me once you really knew me? And I don't even mean the initial couple of weeks or months where that early flush of hormones and potential carries a lot of the weight, but the first several years when the charm can wear thin and you start to really see who this person is. But even then it was still pretty easy--we were in our twenties and our problems seem simple by comparison. Now, a couple of decades later, we've been through a variety of surgeries, deaths of parents, the purchase and sale of several houses, the agony of infertility, the challenges and fun of parenting, the demands of our careers. Now, as we settle into the homey joy and homely challenges of middle age, I guess the question of trust has transformed into, well, whether you’ll still like and love me.
I do... quite a lot at times... but it’s not linear. That’s been a big learning for me over the past twenty-some years: that there can be times -- sometimes it’s a couple hours but sometimes it’s uncomfortably long, like months in a row -- where we’re less connected, less fond of each other, less in-sync, but that those times can and will end. At least, so far they have. And that’s a REALLY uncomfortable awareness, I know, the fact that -- despite what people promise at weddings, all innocent and well-intentioned -- no one can PROMISE another person that they will feel just as besotted about them in ten, twenty, thirty years as they do at the beginning. You and I feel like it’s just acknowledging reality to say that. So sticking together when it’s less emotionally rewarding is all about trust. It’s trusting that I made a good-enough choice in the first place... and when I say “good enough,” it’s not minimizing you. I’m using the phrase as it gets used in parenting, when we can’t figure out how to be “good” parents in any given situation so we just aim for “good enough.” If we can get our marriage to be “good enough” -- with excursions into “terrific” and “dreadful” -- we’re probably doing pretty well.
I like the “good enough” bit -- an idea from pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. He thought it was not only OK, but actually necessary for parents to fail in acceptable ways--not abuse or neglect--but in ways that slowly help a child learn to live with the imperfections and disappointments of this world. We have to learn, as one writer put it, that “good enough” is not the same as “not enough.” And here’s that trust--that we’ve made a good enough choice because we never actually know who we’re marrying or even, to some extent, who we’re married to. I’m thinking here of the wonderful essay by philosopher Alain DeBotton titled, “Why you’ll marry the wrong person.” To sum up: we inevitably marry the “wrong” person because we have no idea of the future, are seeking to replicate barely recognized patterns from our childhood, and are blinded by conceptions of romance-based unions that seek to bottle momentary joys. He winds up praising a certain pessimism in our marriages as an antidote to the destructively optimistic myths that we’ve been sold. When we stop looking for one person to meet all our needs, an all but impossible demand, we can work on trying to negotiate the inevitable frustrations and challenges with grace, kindness, and forgiveness—and appreciate the good times more.
So let me ask you a question and one that is more basic. What does it mean to trust?
“Trust” was talked about a lot when I was growing up American Baptist... “trusting God” was a common phrase ... but I haven’t spent much time thinking about trust in the 30 years since I stopped attending my childhood church. With God in the equation, “trust” was about relinquishing troublesome things -- fear, anxiety, even responsibility in some ways. But without God ... strangely enough, I’m thinking trust has to do with relinquishing EGO. There’s a line in the marvelous Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah” -- “Maybe there’s a God above / but all I’ve ever learned from love / is how to shoot somebody who outdrew you.” Too often in conversation with you -- my nearest and dearest, literally -- unless I’m really attentive, really feeling safe and open -- too often there’s an aspect of defensiveness. And I think ego is the thing that underlies that, as in “But I DID that already” -- “that’s not what I MEANT” -- “you SAID you were going to...” -- as if we have to prove our worth, our rightness, to each other over and over again. A huge part of trust within marriage, or any close partnership, feels to me like reining in my ego enough to acknowledge that you’re just living your life, experiencing things from your own completely different perspective... you’re almost certainly not TRYING to belittle or annoy me at any given moment. Ego gets in the way of this trust, for some reason. Why does that happen?
I think that reflects my initial question. Am I actually lovable as I am--can I just be myself and is that ok? It’s the fear of rejection that I think drives a lot of those ego-driven tensions. And, coming back to DeBotton, if we can accept that we aren’t the “right” person, then maybe we ourselves can let go of struggling to be someone else. The inadvertent offenses while still needing to be apologized for and addressed become less caustic because they are unintended. The brilliant couples’ therapist, Esther Perel, observes that marriage, indeed all long-term relationships: romantic, platonic, parental—entails being recruited for a role in a play we didn’t audition for. We are playing a part in the other person’s internal drama. If we can acknowledge this and work to let it go, perhaps we can settle into a sense of trust that allows us just to be ourselves. I am not your image of me, but I am fundamentally always on your side--even when I’m annoyed or annoying, hurt or hurting, scared or scary--I am always going to choose your side. Not because you’re my “soulmate,” but because I fundamentally like and love who you are —and I feel committed to you and our marriage. In a somewhat meta-moment, I am writing this at 2:30 in the morning in early January, awake partially because I had too much caffeine and partly, mostly, because you said something that hurt my feelings last night in a argument that we’ve had repeatedly over twenty years. And I feel hurt and defensive and pissed off ... and yet I know these feelings will pass. It’s scary though—and here the small ego, full of fear, arises again. There is always that worry that I will at some point exhaust your good graces, that the burden of being with me will outweigh the benefits. You’d think after all these years, that we could simply trust in ourselves and our relationship, but I still find it hard. I desperately want security—and I’m hearing this in your reflections as well. It’s funny because we come from such different backgrounds. You grew up in a very stable, loving home and I was raised in an deeply unstable house where love couldn’t be trusted and was always conditional and, more often than not, weaponized. And yet both of us struggle with these simple issues: can I trust you to love me as I am?
And so what do we do? Perhaps this is where we come back to the Buddhism that appeals to us both. Buddhism encourages us not to ask for permanency, but to just rest in this moment and have compassion. Right now, we are together. Can I truly promise anything about the future? That sounds realistic, but it doesn’t feel comforting at all. Back to Perel, I know you weren’t going out for the role I often ask you to play, and I don’t want to constantly be auditioning for the role of your husband. I can’t tell if we’re displaying the deep dysfunction of our marriage or bravely stating human truths involved in most marriages. I’m thinking of a line from As You Like It: “Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy. This wide and universal theater presents more woeful pageants than the scene Wherein we play.”
Julia: Those theatre metaphors are powerful, aren’t they? I’m writing this a few days later in January and, though we are back to peace in the household, I know as surely as I’m standing here that we will have that argument again. We will play that scene over and over, tired as we are of it. My appreciation of the Buddhist approach comes from the fact that, when I acknowledge my feelings rather than denying them, I’m telling MYSELF the truth. And when I’m telling myself the truth, I’m in a much better position to tell you the truth. And when that happens, uncomfortable as it can be, there’s the potential for us to step outside of the drama, go off-script, and create a shared reality. Awareness, mindfulness, helps me trust myself.
So, yes. We can’t, in good conscience, make promises about the future. But if look at where we’ve been so far in 23 years, it seems pretty likely that we’ll go on choosing each other. After all, everyone ELSE we might be with would be the wrong person to be married too, also.
But that’s a central problem within marriage and back to the trust issue again, of course. How do we trust in what we DO have when what we MIGHT have is so seductive? As Don Henley sang, “What are those voices outside love's open door, Make us throw off our contentment, And beg for something more?” I think we’re both increasingly feeling the often damaging artificiality of the modern construct of marriage. Marriage for most of human history was a business contract and a way of addressing inheritance: who was going to be a hard worker and who was going to get the goats or the castle after I die. It wasn’t until the age of Jane Austen that ideas of romantic love as a central element in marriage began to take hold. Then around the 1960s the stakes got upped again when marriage started being seen as a path to self-actualization — our spouse is supposed to help us become our highest, truest self. So we’ve gone from a sense that marriage was for creating children, sharing work, and passing on wealth to finding a single person to be my lifelong soul-mate, house-mate, co-parent, lover, best friend, business partner, secretary (to be fair about the mental load most women carry in relationships) and, of course, completely self-actualized herself through my own perfections and wisdom. It sounds funny and excessive, but I’ve done a lot of weddings, and I always listen to the painfully exhaustive promises couples make in their vows. You will fulfill all my needs, physical, spiritual, intellectual, sexual, and so on. I see the tremendous pressure this puts on relationships in some of the folks I counsel---and that pressure leads to questions about what’s out there that might be better since the poor benighted fool I’m married to isn’t fulfilling it all. Some marriages absolutely need to end, but many die because of unrealistic expectations for what is an incredibly fraught project to begin with.
And I think escaping the incredible pressure this puts on a couple requires a further nuance on the trust we’ve been talking about. I have to trust that I don’t have to be everything, indeed I can’t be. And the trust in our friendship, our partnership, and, yes, our love, is what allows us to encourage each other to have adventures separately. That we can and should meet needs outside ourselves. I am grateful that you have an intimate group of friends with whom you can share the challenges of your life. I am proud of you for heading off by yourself to Fiji to track down what you needed to learn twenty years after living there the first time. I wander off into the woods for solo adventures and other trips. Both of us go walk-about, push boundaries, challenge ourselves, and then come home gratefully to our life partner.
Julia: And if we can both allow the other to wander off the beaten track, to explore a bit, that can take some pressure off our relationship. We don’t have to be everything. We can just be ourselves, imperfect but wonderful, and trust that that is enough, that we are enough. These broader nets of people and experiences take so much pressure off our relationship; I’m no longer asking you to meet every need. And it’s important to note that these issues don’t, of course, only apply to marriages or long term partnerships. They apply to friends, family, parents, kids. We ALL need communities, villages, adventures, to make these intense relationships thrive.
Nathan: Yes, and, as I’m seeing after my latest, very intense round of therapy, they also apply to myself. I, as you know, struggle with trust. There was practically none of it in my family of origin. I saw nothing of healthy relationships to another or oneself. This has created in me, I’m starting to see, a real struggle to trust myself. And without those early models, it becomes very hard to know what is trustworthy within me—and, then, what is trustworthy in others. Trust is what allows for healthy boundaries in relationships. I could go on, but learning to trust oneself is the precursor to being able to love both self and other. And here, the more I can embrace imperfection, the better off I am. Perfection is neither necessary nor possible. Trust that acknowledges imperfection holds space for the ebb and flow of a living, growing relationship with myself and with you.
So the last question is to you. Where do you want our trust to take us?
The most honest answer is, “I don’t know.” It feels like we’re trying to invent something... like we can’t just traipse along in the groove of our grandparents’ or parents’ marriages, or any other partnership in history... as if the times we’re living in, the deep gender equality we idealize (whether or not we attain it), the changing conception of what marriage can and should be leave us in a confusingly wide-open space, without a map. I could be over-thinking... doubtless I AM over-thinking; I always do. But what do I want, really want?
The poet Adrienne Rich wrote: “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” Philosopher Maria Popova, commenting on Rich’s words, says, “Among the dualities that lend love both its electricity and its exasperation — the interplay of thrill and terror, desire and disappointment, longing and anticipatory loss — is also the fact that our pathway to this mutually refining truth must pass through a necessary fiction: We fall in love not just with a person wholly external to us but with a fantasy of how that person can fill what is missing from our interior lives.” End quote.
When we don’t RECOGNIZE that fantasy for what it is -- pure hopeful invention on each of our parts -- we invite disappointment over and over: we keep waiting for the other person to figure out the script, to be who we want and expect. But they’re acting out a different drama, from their own script.
I want a partnership that allows meaningful freedoms to both of us -- that allows us to explore areas of interest on our own at times -- but I also crave the safety and serenity that our life together, for the most part, provides. That sense of home as refuge, as the place where our unit of two -- or three -- is together against the craziness. So perhaps the best I can say is that I want us to be able to trust in the “beautiful imperfect”... to internalize a sense that even when things don't feel perfect that it’s okay, that the imperfect is good enough -- is, in fact, as good as it gets.
Where do YOU want our trust to take us?
No, no, we’re not going to end this with the man having the last word. Let’s both offer a final sentence summary of what we’re thinking about trust in long term relationships. And YOU get the final word.
Ok, here’s mine: Our relationship is an opportunity to let go of past models of marriage as business proposition or all-inclusive path to self-realization, and I trust in us to accept this beautiful imperfect in ways that create love, security, and connection for us both and for Ben.
Julia: I’ll just expand your sentence to include ALL relationships. Being a true friend, a colleague, a child of aging parents -- being in relationship in any way gives us a chance to let go of fantasies of how it might be done perfectly and just DO it, beautifully and imperfectly, because relationships are worth the work.
Monday, July 10, 2017
For the next 18 minutes or so I’m going to talk to myself. You’re welcome to listen, of course. You don’t have to leave or anything. I may use second and third person some -- you, they, them -- but I’m really just talking to myself. When I preach I try to do what Emerson suggested good ministers do -- present “life passed through the fire of thought” or in my case, “anxiety and insecurity passed through the fire of thought plus a little Ativan.” Anyway, enough meta, let’s dig in.
Some months ago, Dana and I agreed on a date for me to preach. She then told me the theme for the month was zest---and some part of me groaned. I don't really like the word zest. I'm not sure I trust it. It seems a little false, a little saccharine, a little _much_. You see, I like reserved. I like measured. I like sang froid. Zest strikes me as being entirely too energetic. Zest feels exposed -- I'm sorry, is my zest showing? I'm happy enough to zest a lemon -- but anything else and I draw the line.
Zest comes from the the almost identical French word. They just add an "e" at the end because they're, well, y'know, French. No offense, Maryse. Though that said, they do have this weird thing where the person who gets the most votes becomes president, so make of all that what you will. Anyway, the word derives from cooking---that little bit of lemon or orange peel that we add for flavor. Zest adds flavor to cakes, scones, and, it turns out, lives.
What do we mean when we say someone is living with zest, doing something with zest?
Zest connotes engagement. Zest conveys enjoyment. Zest speaks of enthusiasm.
And isn’t that how many of would say we wish to live. The blessed Saint Henry of the Pond summarized it when he said, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” We want to live authentically, intentionally, consciously and with a deep passionate engagement. We want a life full of rich, poignant flavors. Who wants a bland life? We want to live, in short, with zest. And yet many of us don’t.
My wife Julia will be the first to say that enthusiasm is not my strong suit. It's something that causes stress in our relationship because Julia is a very enthusiastic person. She does many things with an admirable amount of zest. If she's going to do something she really digs in and gets the dirt under her nails. Julia makes little happy noises and gets messy when she eats. Me, I am quiet and my fingers are pretty much always clean after a meal. Julia will get up and dance even if no one else is dancing. She’ll sing out whenever the spirit moves her. I admire that...and also cringe a bit.
Enthusiasm, zest, takes engagement. It takes commitment. It takes trust. It takes letting go. And I have trouble with all of that. I grew up in a family where there wasn't a lot of room for my feelings or needs. Pretty much all of the emotional energy in the house went into yelling and arguing. Anything left over mostly fueled an impressive amount of seething resentment, anger, and fear. I didn’t grow up in some Dickensian hell, but there wasn't a lot of space for healthy emotion. There was way too much drama between my parents for my feelings to get acknowledged or validated.
And so I learned not to express much. I learned restraint and disengagement. I didn't practice zest because the only thing my family did with zest was hurt each other. I explored Buddhism and even, if I’m honest, misused its teachings to convince myself that lack of feelings was some kind of spiritual progress.
Ultimately zest is hard for me because it implies vulnerability -- you can't fully engage anything worthwhile without putting yourself out there. You can't dance with zest if you're worried that everyone's looking at you. You can't sing with zest if you are worried about being off-key. You can't make love with zest if you're mostly worried about how your thighs jiggle or if your belly's too big. You simply cannot live with zest if you're routinely splitting your mental and emotional energy between doing what you're doing ...and... worrying about what you're doing.
Sometimes we don't live with zest because we've bought into the culture of celebrity and expertise which says if you’re not really good at something, you shouldn’t do it. Kids don’t usually have this problem. Ask a kid to sing or draw a picture and they’ll usually dig in whether they do it “well” or not. My guess is that there are a number of folks in the room who enjoy singing but don't do it with zest because they fear they don't sing well -- and sometimes that fear is justified. But we too often buy into this idea that we have to sound like Beyonce or Lin-Manuel Miranda. If we're going to dance we better look like John Travolta or Ginger Rogers. I frequently hear people say things like, "Oh, I love to paint, but I'm not very good at it." "I want to dance, but I'll just look silly." Well thank the gods you didn’t do what you enjoy, but at least sort of kept your dignity. How many times do we not do things, not for lack of enjoyment, but because we fear we’re not good enough? Simply put, we think too much and experience too little.
Zest implies getting lost in the moment, getting lost in the joy. And here's where I see in myself the need to get on-board with zest. As I get older I see more and more how useless it is trying to manage other people's expectations and experience of me. Being up here, even as used to public speaking as I am, feels a little scary, a little threatening. Am I doing a good job? Will I say anything useful? Is this just all really obvious and trite? Am I going to offend anyone?
But I can't manage your experience of me. I can't tell you how to feel or what to think or determine if you'll get anything out of my words. The only thing I can manage is myself. I can't manage you or Julia and certainly not my eight-year-old Ben. I can't manage other people's attitudes or experiences. I can just manage myself.
But I'd be dishonest if I suggested that it’s easy to let go of everything that holds you back. Those chains aren't so easily broken. And so zest requires not only vulnerability but courage. Anyone who's overcome any fear knows how difficult it can be. So what do we do? One thing is to embrace life's brokenness. Nothing was perfect to begin with: not you, not me, not America, not Sweden, not anything or anyone. Once I remember that everyone feels some kind of crack in their soul -- that everyone is afraid of something, insecure about something, worried about something -- then I can be more gentle with myself and others. I get doctors and nurses bringing cases to the hospital ethics committee complaining how irrational a patient or family is acting. When I talk with the purported crazies, I see people who are fighting for the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy -- just trying to stay alive. We’re asking them to make incredibly high-stakes complex decisions and we’re surprised when they act out. Any animal will lash out when cornered. And I do with these poor people what I’m learning to do with myself -- slow down, really acknowledge how difficult this is, and, above all, be gentle. It’s amazing how far gentleness can go with others and with ourselves.
Our internal voices can be so harsh. My experience as a chaplain and as a person with a trauma background is that we often talk to ourselves in ways we would never tolerate from other people. If I make a mistake, it’s not uncommon for the voice inside to go on a rant about how stupid or lazy I am. I wouldn’t put up with that from someone else. I see this need in the people I counsel, but I often forget to be a bit gentler with myself. Self-compassion is critical. We need to be forgiving of ourselves and lower the stakes a bit.
And the stakes are usually pretty low especially if we remember how little interest anyone else really has in how we live. I think this is one of those lessons we need most when we’re younger, but I still need to recall it. Most people are as self-absorbed as we are. Ask yourself how much you actually pay attention to or remember the foibles and quirks of others and you’ll have a good guide to how little anyone is paying attention to you.
I’ll be 48 this week and I now have the privilege of looking back and seeing how dumb I was for most of the preceding decades. How much I worried what other people thought. How much I tried to fit in. And I have absolutely no doubt that it simply wasn’t worth it. What do we lose by acting with zest? Maybe we protect a few pounds of dignity, but lose of ton of fun.
Because part of living and enjoying life with zest is acknowledging the finite nature of it. We all die -- some way too soon, many unexpectedly, and a few having accomplished everything they wanted to. Some allow awareness of death to inspire them to live more fully. Some, however, let that specter hover over their shoulder for much of their lives.
And that unknown endpoint requires us to live an examined life. And we can start with something most of us have with us right now in our pockets or purses. What is the item in your life which most accurately represents your life priorities? What do you think? It's not your house, or your books, or even your browser history. It's your calendar. Show me your calendar and I will show you what is most important to you.
The simple fact is, any hack minister can get up here and spout platitudes exhorting you to live with more zest. And if the only effect is to create a slight stirring in your soul and a transient feeling of commitment then we've both wasted our time. But when we get down to the proverbial brass tacks, you are the only one who can make these changes. If you look at your calendar, look at your life and don't like what you see, then schedule your life differently. Ideas are great, intentions are lovely, but I am challenging you to actually make a date with zest. What is something you want to do that fills you, that gives your life more flavor? It doesn't have to be a trip around the world or volunteering to do relief work in Syria. It can be taking an art class or scheduling 30 minutes to do some coloring. It can be a walk in the woods or reading a book you never thought you’d enjoy. If you feel like you've been spending your time wrong, take an hour or a day to mourn those choices and then reorient yourself to the present and future and make different choices. Everyone says, "I need to make time for X." I do it too. It's one of the dumbest things we say. No one makes time for anything. You have every drop of time you're ever going to have. The only choice you have is how you spend your time.
Now if you’re a single parent or struggling with serious issues then there may be a period where you’re focusing on survival more than zest--and that is completely understandable. But I encourage you, even in the midst of those incredible demands to find bits of time for a little zest. If for no other reason than to remind yourself of why you’re trying to survive. Everything passes eventually: ulcers and cancer and infidelity and even adolescence I’m told--and as long as you’re living, it’s worth seizing moments here and there to help sustain you.
People know the musical Fiddler on the Roof? It's the story of a Jewish family in 1905 dealing with the anti-Semitic dictates of the Russian government and the huge challenges of a changing culture. One of the more popular songs from the musical is "L'Chaim, To Life." A raucous song that speaks to the need to celebrate even in the midst of challenges and pain -- indeed, this is one of the main themes of the movie. How does one balance the constant "slings and arrows" of life while not succumbing to exhausted sadness? Life is as precarious as a fiddler on the roof. Zest does not imply obliviousness. Ignorance is not zest. It's easy to feel overwhelmed. Many of us feel over-scheduled, under-slept, and being propelled forward at a disturbing rate. And the news these days can simply be exhausting. The vulnerability and courage of zest calls us to stay thoughtfully engaged.
I struggle with this. My job involves bearing witness to an entire catalog of human suffering. And I am one of the many who feel a background level of stress that I never anticipated and that can be directly traced to a Tuesday evening last November. I am living with an existential dread of where my country and planet are going. And I know this congregation is no more politically homogenous than we are spiritually homogenous, and so I am speaking for myself. How do I live with enthusiasm and zest when I fear for my safety, the safety of innocents caught up in a freshly uncovered and seemingly endless supply of hate, and a political system that seems horribly disfigured by money and made dysfunctional by an appeal to the lowest common denominator of our most selfish instincts? I've found myself rather closer to tears these days and more afraid for the future.And here I come back to Jewish culture. Victor Frankl was a Jewish physician and well-known author. He and his family were captured by the Nazis and most of them killed. Viktor survived and went on to live a life of joy, purpose, and meaning even having endured some of the most hellish dehumanizing environments people have ever endured. And he did so, in part, by recognizing that one cannot control the external world. Ultimately we have little control over what happens to us. You can eat vegan, run marathons, and still get cancer or Alzheimer's or be killed by Nazis or terrorists. Tragedy takes no account of love or desire. Frankl saw this and came to understand that the only thing he could control was his response to events, his attitude in any given set of circumstances.
And I am trying to follow his lead and understand that the only thing I can manage is my own attitude, my own response to the events in my life. And ultimately, what is my choice? I can succumb to the worry and stress or I can acknowledge the horror and injustice of a universe that has precious little concern for my own world and still choose life, choose zest. Because I lose much more in the worrying than I gain from preemptive dread and pessimism.
Zest in life is a choice just as it with food. You can choose a lifetime a bland meals and experiences or choose spice. And yeah, you’ll get indigestion every once in a while. There’s a saying about how “I don’t regret the things I have done, I regret the things I haven’t done.” It’s true enough that it’s attributed to a number of people. And generally speaking, I think it is true. I regret more the times I said no, the times I didn’t dance, didn’t sing, didn’t let myself sink into the experience of the moment. It can be hard to add more zest. It’s just like a kid -- they tend to dislike new flavors. But if you can get them to keep trying, just a few bites at a time, they will eventually develop a taste for whatever it is. And we can do the same. We can say yes a bit more. Sing a little louder. Learn a few dance steps. And eventually develop a broader palate, develop a real taste for zest. I hope you’ll open life’s menu and look for some spice.
Thanks, namaste, blessed be, l’chaim.
A quick search of books on Amazon in the self-help category yields just about 614,000 results. Sex, just for comparison, has only about 314,000 results. Amazon may therefore be the only place on the Internet where the topic of procrastination beats out fornication. Let me also note that searching once for books on sex radically changes your “you might also like” suggestions.
I myself have bought a number of so-called self-help books over the years. Some have been truly helpful, a number less so—but even when the book itself has been helpful, I find myself often slipping back into the very patterns of behavior I hoped to change. I find myself continuing to disappoint myself and others. I’m not neat or well organized. I procrastinate. I’m much more acquisitive than I would like—I’ve rarely met a backpack or a book I didn’t want. I don’t eat as well as I’d like. Don’t exercise as much as I would like. None of these are deal breakers in my life. But I still feel this sense of frustration with myself. After all, it’s my brain and body, why should I have any difficulty doing what I say I want to do?
This isn’t recent. I’ve struggled with this for the past maybe 30 years. Much of my life, I have questioned how one creates change within oneself. As I’ve grown over the years, I’ve come to wonder about this frustration and dissatisfaction and question the general concept of self-help as it is sold and bought by so many of us.
I grew up in a household characterized by chaos, emotional abuse and neglect, and even some violence. My home was not a Dickensian hell, but it wasn’t healthy and the emotional scars I have I’ve come by honestly enough. And the emotional trauma of youth produces lifelong effects. From early on I felt a powerful need not to repeat these patterns. Not to treat my wife as my father treated my mother, not to treat my son as my father treated me or my brother. Some of the chaos of my childhood left me without much ability to know where to set the bar. What’s good enough? As with many people who have traumatic childhoods, I usually wind up setting the bar unreasonably high. But I’m not much of an overachiever, instead I just feel bad about myself.
I started studying Karate when I was 11. Japanese martial arts became the rock I could cling to. When everything was craziness and out of control at home, I found peace in the discipline and values of Karate, Judo, and Aikido.
My first contact with Buddhism was through Karate. Buddhism promised a path to deeper meaning and understanding, a path to personal transformation I started learning little bits about “enlightenment,” and I began to believe that I could, through hard work and practice, become a different person—or more specifically the person I would be if I hadn’t gotten all messed up along the way—the person I was meant to be. All the things that I didn’t like about myself, I came to believe could be burned away, purified, transcended.
When I was 20, I went to Japan to continue this journey. I eventually went to a small Zen temple to live, study, and meditate. I believed that the qualities I found unattractive in myself were like, following a number of Buddhist metaphors, just so much dust and dirt hiding the surface of a mirror—once polished sufficiently I could see myself clearly and that person would no longer be burdened by such substantial flaws.
Twenty years later, I can see all of that as youthful naïveté and a fundamental misunderstanding of what Buddhism and other wisdom traditions actually offer, but a quick perusal of self-help books, seminars, and gurus shows that a lot of people are themselves looking for a truly transformative experience or method. And maybe it’s out there. Maybe Tony Robbins really can, as his book title claims, awaken the giant within me, and perhaps Dale Carnegie can teach me how to win friends and influence people. I may have been naive, but I certainly was not alone.
It’s part of our own tradition too. One of our Unitarian saints, His Holiness, St. Henry of the Pond, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in Walden, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”
Japan was 26 years ago, and for my entire adult life I have primarily identified as Buddhist. For much of that time I continued to believe in the chance for profound transformation. Now I don’t claim to be a particularly good Buddhist. While I’ve done a fair amount of meditation, I haven’t had a regular practice for many years. That said, after my years of academic studies, I shifted to more practical education. I have over the past ten years spent many many hours with people from a much wider swath of humanity than I had before I became a chaplain. I’ve sat with people’s pain, suffering, and disappointment. I have seen an entire catalog of human suffering. I’ve spent many years in counseling with a variety of therapists. I spent two years going through the professional training for chaplains which is a combination of really intense group and individual therapy all in an effort to prepare you to be present to others in their struggles without having too much of your own baggage getting in the way. While I haven’t been a particularly dedicated Buddhist, I have been working on myself and trying to grow.
And while I have certainly grown and changed, many of the flaws that bother me most are still right here with me and now I start to suspect they will follow me to my eventual end. This is, of course, not unique to me nor unknown in the spiritual literature. It’s right in the New Testament in the Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this passage he points to the central struggle I’m talking about. I recognize myself in these words written a couple thousand years ago when he laments, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do. …I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
So I have these things about me that I don’t like—my housekeeping skills can only charitably be compared to how Jackson Pollack painted. I put the pro in procrastination. Clearly I’m not talking about more profound challenges like addiction or abusive relationships, problems that threaten your life literally. Those are a different order of magnitude in terms of challenges—I’m talking about the small things that make my life run less smoothly, that drag at me, that cause friction between the life I want and the life I have.
So what do I do with this? The problems are small in the bigger scheme of things. I am reasonably successful, reasonably happy. Nietzsche famously said that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’d also say that which doesn’t destroy you, just annoys the crap out of you. So what do we do with all the ways we disappoint ourselves and those we love?
Last weekend was Rosh Hashoneh, the Jewish new year—a time of celebration and joy. The high holy day that follows next, Yom Kippur, which starts this coming Tuesday, is a more sober one. The ten days between Rosh Hoshoneh and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Awe when observant Jews repent from their sins. On Rosh Hashoneh, God writes in the Book of Life deciding who will have a good year, who will have a bad year, who will live and who will die. On Yom Kippur the book is closed and your fate is sealed. These ten days are an opportunity to change God’s judgment by making amends, seeking forgiveness and finding reconciliation. Two interesting elements. First, you cannot ask God for forgiveness from a sin against another human being—that forgiveness has to come from the offended party, not from God. Second, forgiveness itself is not enough, you must also achieve reconciliation. You can forgive someone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve come back into relationship. Forgiveness can be a solo activity—I can forgive my father for how he treated me, but at this point, he died in 1999, we can no longer be reconciled. Forgiveness is where we start and can be hard enough, but it is critical for our own well-being. Lewis Smedes, one of the pioneers of forgiveness research said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.”
Forgiving someone else can be hard to do. If I am honest, there are a couple of people in my life that I struggle to actually forgive. But in my experience, I often have a harder time forgiving myself for my errors and flaws. I have seen the power of self in the past decade as a hospital chaplain.
On any number of occasions I have sat with someone who is facing their own death. These are often, as one might imagine, fairly intense conversations and for those who are traditionally religious, a time that can be filled with literally mortal terror. I remember the first patient I had such a conversation with. I had myself given up any fear of divine judgment, stopped believing in a literal hell many years before. But for this poor fellow, the belief that he had sinned against God, and more importantly, his very real fear that what he had done was simply unforgivable in the eyes of God was petrifying. I tried for some time to reassure him that God’s grace and mercy was limitless and that if we had true repentance then we could be forgiven. And yet despite my assurances and citing particular passages of scripture, he remained unconvinced. He was actively dying and in absolute terror of what he was sure awaited him on the other side. I sat there trying to think about how I might provide some comfort to him when a question came to me.
Now chaplaincy is often a bit of a tightrope walk. We usually have very little time with people, no preexisting relationship to draw on, and the emotional and spiritual stakes are frequently very high. Any good chaplain takes chances on saying something that might be just the right question and might help the patient come to some resolution…or it may be the wrong question entirely and throw gas on the fire and destroy any good done so far.
This was one of those moments. My patient was incredibly fragile—struggling with a terminal diagnosis and in a true existential spiritual crisis. After reflecting for a moment I said, “I’ve told you that I’m not worried about God’s forgiveness, but have you forgiven yourself?” I was shocked at the intensity of his response. He began to weep like a child and eventually shook his head no. The real source of infection had been opened up and now we could begin the deeper work of healing that was needed. I’ve seen this enough to realize that the challenge of forgiving ourselves is fairly universal and often some of the hardest work we do.
It’s true for me. I can be very unforgiving of myself. To ask myself for absolution is often to face my harshest critic, my least forgiving opponent. And in this we can add in the greater mistakes we have made. We have to acknowledge that some of our failures have been catastrophic: relationships destroyed, people suffer, people die from our actions or inactions. As I look back at my life there are a few mistakes that still make my stomach feel hollow and ashamed.
Indeed, forgiving others—-let alone ourselves—-is so difficult that we have created incredibly elaborate rituals of forgiveness in our religious traditions. Catholics, they go to confession. Jews, at this time of year, they go to a body of water to cast their sins away.
For those of us removed from traditional theologies, we must still find a way through the narrow gate that leads to a fuller life. No matter what you’ve done, once you’ve done what you can to seek forgiveness from anyone else involved, once you’ve made the effort to become reconciled with them you’ll have to—-at some point turn—-that gaze inward. And you’re going to have to forgive yourself at some point if you are going to heal and grow. Once the trauma is done, to persist in being unforgiving to yourself doesn’t reduce the damage. Sometimes that guilty, stubborn, refusal only makes it worse and predisposes us to other errors.
This is what I’m coming to see about the failings that seem to follow me. I can spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to change them. All of us, have finite amount of time and energy in our lives. There’s not a minute that goes by that you can get back to spend differently. And I have a better use for that energy and time than trying to change things that ultimately won’t make much of a difference when I’m gone. I don’t believe that people will be discussing my procrastination or the fact that my desktop was theoretically somewhere underneath the mass of papers obscuring it. And I want to spend the time I have being more present to the joy in my life with Julia and Ben and my friends and family. All the efforts to change myself can wind up—-if I’m not careful—-being a distraction from what’s actually important.
One of my favorite songs is titled, “Still Climbing.” The central metaphor of the song is that we are essentially climbing a mountain backwards—we can only see where we’ve been. It’s a beautiful image that speaks to the uncertainty of our lives. Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, and so beautifully horribly seductive. We can recall the innocent simplicity of our childhood and youth. We see all the ways life could have been different. We can see all the ways we make mistakes and become entranced by our errors.
Middle age, I’m finding out, clouds much of what I thought would be my reality and the future seems even less certain as I grapple with the reality of life that seemed so distant when I was younger. Friends have heart attacks and cancer, get divorced, commit suicide, children have real problems that call for desperately unclear solutions, and career can become an odd trap catching us between the comfort of and contempt for the familiar.
But with all due respect and love to the songwriter however, we don’t climb mountain backwards. We climb them facing forwards. We may stop from time to time to rest, take stock of our position, and maybe reflect on how far we’ve come, but ultimately we turn to face forward again, and walk on. In truth, we can never see where we’ve been. We may remember, we may imagine, we may dream. But when we open our eyes, the only thing we can actually see is right where we are. And life can only actually proceed in one direction, forward. We march inexorably toward our end.
My growing suspicion is that forgiving ourselves, and better yet, doing the work to become genuinely reconciled to ourselves is the main way to get where we want to go. No matter how painful or scary, we will need to come back into relationship with the most damaged, vulnerable, broken parts of ourselves. And it is this work that may be the only thing that actually gives us the power to choose either to change or to simply let go.
I hope its obvious that I’m not trying to discourage people from self work, but we do need to be thoughtful about where we put our energy and not punish ourselves for being human.
I am starting to find some peace with is the understanding that some of my bad habits are here to stay. Maybe I could get rid of them with enough work, maybe I couldn’t. Either way, I’ve decided to stop focusing on my faults. I am coming to terms with the fact that I will continue to disappoint myself and others. Perfection is just not on the menu. The return on investment simply isn’t great enough at 47 to spend much energy on these things.
Instead I am trying to see myself as a whole. And, on the whole, I’m good enough. Great at a couple of things, bad at a few others, and sufficient at most everything else. And so the question shifts from what can I fix about myself to how can I honor the talents I do have and, perhaps most importantly, how do I extend sufficient compassion, forgiveness, and grace to myself? How do I encourage instead of berating? How do I inspire instead of demeaning? Over the years one thing I’ve seen is that people often speak to themselves in ways they wouldn’t tolerate from anyone else. All the self-blame, shame and recrimination don’t move us forward. No matter how minor or major, trivial or tragic your faults are, most of us are still better off cultivating that a far gentler internal voice. A voice that is sympathetic and speaks to you like wise friend or parent. Seek to extend a deep gentleness to yourself. Don’t talk to yourself in ways that you'd never tolerate from someone else.
I’m trying to stop fighting battles with my past ideas about who I am and will be. I guess it’s just part of middle-age, though I’ve seen people at every stage in life struggling to free themselves from the bondage of expectation, self-doubt, and the voice of that harsh critic inside our hearts and minds. I remember going to see the great teacher Ram Dass in ‘92 or ‘93, a man I thought was as close to enlightenment and freedom as I was likely to encounter. Someone asked him how he had freed himself from desire and fear. He laughed, a good hearty laugh and explained he still had desires and fear but that they were more like old friends or little “schmoos” he called them, little things that would come to back to visit from time to time. They were still there, but he could see them now without being moved by them. I didn’t understand what he was saying back then, but I think I’m starting to see get it a bit. I can see all my shortcomings and failings and be moved by them. Moved to fear and shame, moved to putting on fronts to deny my vulnerability and humanity, moved to spending way too much time on aspects of myself that are as much a part of myself as my face or my hair. I don’t have to be happy with them. I can keep making small overtures to whatever is still hurting in me that keeps me struggling in ways that come out as procrastination or desire. I’m trying to come to peace with the variety of ways I disappoint myself and others and transform it from a painful mess into an art—the art of reconciling myself to myself with love and grace. And isn’t that where much of the world’s great art has come from—the transformation and expression of an inner vision imperfect though it may be brought into the world by an artist with enough courage to be vulnerable. I encourage all of us to work on this journey. Amen and blessed be.