Category Archives: our core human vulnerability

Equally Important: Tradition and Change, Law and Love

Sarah Smarsh on That Moment When, a new show by PBS News Hour on Facebook Watch says a lot of what I have experienced about the differences and the similarities between people. Many people simply don’t question the strongest influences in their childhood, particularly those that gave them some sense of security in a frequently confusing and frightening world. Their minds don’t work that way., They learn differently, not by extrapolating or questioning their experience, but by building block by block on what they experienced and were taught. For many, the two influences that gave them some sense of security were parents and church. And their personalities and mental processes did not incline them to question the only security they had. Why would they? But some of us are born asking questions and challenging authority. Instead of security, we experience the status quo as a jail. We were what were called “strong willed children” by traditionalists and as ” children who color outside the lines” by creative people. As such, the more an authority figure, whether parent or teacher or preacher tried to control us, the stronger we pushed back. Not because we had our own world view, but because we wanted the freedom to explore, the joy of finding new ideas. BOTH are necessary. Creative personalities often throw the “baby out with the bathwater” and seldom consider the practical limitations of ideas. The need is for dialogue and balance, not assuming stupidity or evil on the part of those who approach life differently. I was once told that a high IQ had a downside because no matter if you are a genius, NO ONE is always right. And the Bible is full of chosen people who were used by God, but had blind spots and weaknesses that got them totally off track, such as David and even Peter in his conflicts with Paul. The call now is to not push each other into ridiculous and dangerous extremes, but to listen through the jargon to the important values of each side of issues . How many innocent people do we justify killing as collateral damage when we become involved in cultural conflicts on the other side of our shrinking planet?  The question isn’t really do we kill or not, but whom and why.  How many killers do we kill in hope of it being a deterrent to other killers and who decides when someone is beyond redemption? How many killers get out of jail and kill again? How do we choose between an unborn baby and its eleven year old mother’s mental and physical well being after she was raped or the victim of incest? How many unborn babies do we kill because we want to drink and sleep around? We have to recognize that one law or political slogan doesn’t fit all situations and together find the flexibility to attempt to decide different choices in the light of human spiritual values, not just blanket laws or knee jerk reactions to situations that have not affected our own life.  And to do that, we ALL have to admit that we see through the glass (and in the mirror) darkly.  Pride blinds us. We need each other.

Advertisements

What the Heck is Grace?

Repentance is now considered a negative word. It implies sin, guilt and shame to the modern mind. Yet, the truth of the biblical quote, “All fall short of the glory of God” (which is perfect love) is pretty obvious.

The problem seems to me that somewhere along the way, we decided that seven was old enough to recognize right from wrong and twenty-one was old enough to take responsibility for our choices.  End of story.  The reality that we not only can grow in our understanding of and capability to love ( of morality), but were designed to do this at least to the day we die, got lost in the shuffle between Adam and Eve and their apple of damnation and Jesus Christ and the cross of salvation.

What if we use the word “unfinished” to describe our falling short?  What if we use the word “growth” for the change implied by the word “repentance.”  And then recognize that grace is simply “unconditional love ” in many different guises. And that is the fertilizer, the good soil, that enables growth and change.

Important note:  Love does not protect us from the pain of natural consequences from our imperfect human choices.  But love/grace stays with us through the whole learning process and has the power to free us to change when we recognize our need for it.

What percentage of the world’s population experiences perfect love from birth to seven?  More, probably, than between seven and twenty-one. But where in the world do children experience only that kind of love?  In an imperfect world of disease, hunger, greed, war, and TV is it even possible to protect children from knowledge of the fear, pain, and hunger in the world?

Even in a loving family, in affluent circumstances, traumas can still happen at critical stages of a child’s development.  I knew a family who had several children and when the youngest  was a toddler, the mother stayed with the oldest who had to be in the hospital for a week. After they returned, the youngest would have a panic attack if the mother even went out the front door and could no longer go to sleep except in bed with the parents.  Up until a certain age, a child experiences “out of sight” as “gone forever.”   By school age, the child seemed to outgrow the fears, but years later, in retrospect, the mother recognized that a profound fear of abandonment has been a strong influence even into adulthood.

We probably all experience the crippling effects of forgotten, even innocently caused traumas, unaware of how they influence our responses and choices in adulthood.  The key to freedom is recognizing them, feeling sorrow for how they have wounded us and caused us to misuse others, and then by taking responsibility for seeking healing.  Recognition is the beginning of the process.  Sometimes awareness alone can free us to break a pattern of response.  Other times, it takes time and we can only replace the destructive response with a less harmful one, during the process.

We are terribly vulnerable human beings in a scary and confusing world in a humongous unknown universe.  Both, addictions to pleasures and to behaviors that give us the delusion that we are in control, dull the pain of awareness of our human vulnerability.   I personally am not into housekeeping.  Dust reappears the next day; no feeling of control there.  But sorting and organizing lasts a lot longer and is much more satisfying. But sorry you will be, if you come along and disturb my order.  And when dealing with painful realities in the middle of the night, but too tired to organize anything, I’ve been known to stand at the kitchen counter and eat half of a peach pie.  These are not terribly destructive painkillers, unless I use them to indefinitely avoid looking at what is the  root of my particular pain at that time.

I’ve never known anyone that thought this life is heaven.  Though there have been times I thought it might be hell.  I am definitely no longer a Pollyanna, who saw only the good, because I felt too fragile to deal with the pain of life.  Nor am I my midlife self that became a cynic, who expected and tried to prepare for the worst.  With grace, I’ve become able to see both in each day; to experience the deep sorrow of loss and the joy of beauty all around me at almost anytime.

When we believe we are loved at our worst and still unfinished at our best,  most days we are able to try to be open to how our lives are challenging us to grow. Sometimes, like Peter Pan, my theme song is “I Won’t Grow Up!”  But then I remember that life does not give up challenging us, which means I’m just dragging out the process.

We are all a work in progress.  Awareness is the key to progress. And that comes in different ways: discomfort within,  overloaded responses to people and events, even just something we seem to suddenly read or hear all around us.  We will be able to perceive the cues in different ways through different stages of our own life.   When I got brave enough to make the leap from agnosticism to faith in grace, I could suddenly make sense of the scripture in spite of all its anomalies.  But I met many life long Christians that admitted sadly that they did not really find meaning there.  Then later in life, they suddenly found great joy in it.  I had loved the Scripture from my early thirties, but during my fifties and sixties it simply became like reading the back of cereal boxes.  We all go through stages, but they differ in timing because of our various personalities. So, don’t assume because you have never enjoyed or understood something, that you never will.  Like it or not, we grow and change with both losses and gains during the process.

All of this can be seen as psychological or spiritual or both.  Mostly, it’s just the way life is, but how we perceive it can make a huge difference in becoming the people in process that we were created to be.

 

 

The Variety of Grief

I once heard a very kind priest friend say of a well-known priest author, “That man has never had a thought he didn’t feel he had to express.” I was a momentarily taken aback, because my friend was a very kind man who never said anything negative about anyone. I realized then that he was expressing the same mystification most introverts must feel about extroverts. Of course, extroverts frequently misinterpret introverts’ silence and need for privacy as dislike or disinterest or even distrust.
After years of studying and working with the Myers/Briggs Type Indicator, I have admitted that I don’t really know what I think about something until I manage to express it in words. And verbal dialogue is also intrinsic to my sense of relationship. I’ve learned that this is not only problematic for introverts that live or work with me, but often downright irritating.
Luckily, I have lived long enough to experience the wonderful outlet of the internet. I can express and hear myself in print at any hour of the day or night. And no one has to listen unless they want to and only when it’s convenient for them and only as long as they wish. And the introverts don ‘t have to say anything unless they feel like it and even then, all they have to do is hit one key to make a response.
Recently, I’ve been experiencing life changing challenges and I really do need to explore my feelings and insights by expressing them. Also, I think it’s possible that my describing what I’m feeling and learning may be some help to someone else out there. And happily, if not, they don’t need to waste their time reading what I write.
One of the challenges I am still facing is that we really do differ in our ways of dealing with grief. No matter how many stages are described as general, we don’t experience or work through them all the same. Partly because of differences in personality, but also because of many different factors about the way a loved one died, the timing for them and us, and past experiences with our own grief and others’ ways of grieving.
My husband was like a cat with nine lives. When I read back over his medical history, he came through so many close calls with death, I lose count. And in the last few years he fought valiantly with cardiac issues with stents and a pacemaker, AFIB, Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis, successful surgery for a malignant tumor in his lung, a return of lung cancer that was inoperable and that spread beyond the lungs as stage 4 cancer, stage 3 Kidney disease…..all of which weakened him too much to risk chemo therapy. He was in and out of ER’s, hospitalizations of various lengths up to two weeks several times, and finally five months in a nursing home, first attempting through therapy to get strong enough for chemo, then failing that, for nursing care and hospice.
We have five grown children who have been simply awesome in their active care giving and support through all of this. And each of them is grieving in their own way now. And I have realized that not all of them are finding my way easy to understand.
To begin with, I generally live in the future of possibilities, both negative and positive ones. In other words, I worry way ahead of things, but I also like to explore new ways of being happy or productive or creative or loving.
When my husband was diagnosed with IPF over two years ago and I learned it was incurable, fatal, and a horrible way to die, I began to worry and pray that he would be spared that death. Of course, heart failure seemed a much better way to die, but with a pacemaker, less likely. My husband’s strongest trait was perseverance. When he grew weaker and no longer able to work effectively at what he loved, he became stressed and began to have some memory issues.
Finally he had to admit that he could no longer continue working. Now he was suffering anxiety attacks, frequent pneumonia and bronchial infections, then surgery to remove a tumor in his right lung, and then cellulitis contracted during a hospitalization, and finally kidney issues and depression. The physical and emotional stress affected him in many ways and by the time he entered the nursing home with stage 4 cancer, he simply wasn’t the strong silent gentle man that I had lived with for almost sixty years.
I did not love him less. I loved him more. And I gladly learned how to take care of many of his medical needs. But long before he could accept that he was dying, I began to work through my fears, experience loneliness, take over unfamiliar tasks, and try in many ways to prepare for having to survive on my own.
The wonderful physical, financial, and emotional support our five children gave us helped me to do this. And my faith and the amazing love and faith of caregivers at the nursing home lifted me out of my darkest moments. And the nurses and support staff of Hospice were able to help me anticipate and understand the rapid changes that were happening toward the end. The dying need very different things than those who are able to try to get well.
Some of the influences on my way of dealing with the loss of my husband were my tendency to anticipate and plan ahead, my deepest fear of his having to suffer terribly fighting to breathe, my having seen my very strong mother simply close down when my father died totally unexpectedly at fifty-two, watching her die by inches with Alzheimer’s for fourteen years, but particularly my many experiences of grace and glimpses of meaning in my own and sometimes others’ suffering over my eighty-one years.
I have usually dealt with short crises fairly well. It’s been the long haul attrition kind of things that could defeat me. So, over the two and a half years of constant crises, I have learned to watch for beauty, kindness, love, tiny joys like sunshine and flowers and birds and small kindnesses and laughter. I see these as grace, as the gentle touches of God. They are all around us every day if we watch for them. They seem small in the face of death of one we love, but they are myriad.
I am a weak person, easily overwhelmed by too many practical details and emotionally vulnerable to the unexpected blow. Having a large caring family help me deal with details has been an incredible blessing. Having time and medical personnel who have been down this road before me to help me understand each phase softened each blow. The blessing of the final gentle pain free death from his heart stopping before his having to fight to breathe has kept me from despair.
At times the reality that he will never be with me again in this life feels heart breaking and overwhelms me. But so far, at least, it has not robbed me of gratitude for my caring family, of healing laughter, hope for creativity in my life, the energy to try to keep reasonably functional, or my many memories of the love and joy my husband gave me.

A Jesus Kind of Love

The most incredibly kind and gentle people I have met are the personnel at nursing homes. They are often overworked, because this is a ministry, not a job. Unless someone feels called to this, they don’t last. And if the administration of a nursing home is only about profit, not their patients’ whole physical, mental, emotional and spiritual selves, even the called may have to find another place to minister. Which means that nursing homes are often short staffed.  At the Meadows in Nashville, where I was for therapy after my shoulder was broken in three places and now my husband is in Hospice care for terminal cancer, we have encountered amazingly loving care and a shared sense of everyone’s call to be a channel of God’s love.From the administrative and nursing personnel to the techs and maintenance staff and all in between, we have been surrounded by tender concern and care.  Old age’s infirmities wipe out the masks of image and appearances that separate us from one another’s core human vulnerability. When someone can wipe our bottoms with the same tenderness and love we gave our newborns, we know we are loved. When they take time afterward to hug us with a smile, asking if there is anything else they can do, we feel blessed, not humiliated. I think in Jesus’ time and culture, a man washing others’ dirty feet was this kind of love.