There’s an artist that always left one small spot unpainted. The idea was that nothing is perfect. There was a time in the total silence of a new fallen snow that I stood alone on a hill at night looking at millions of stars. I felt incredibly tiny and insignificant in the face of such grandeur and enormity. I could literally feel myself shrinking. But suddenly I felt at one with all of it. Like a tiny anonymous dot that fills in an empty space in a painting, I not only had a right to be here, but was needed for completion, to make the universe whole. We are all tiny, but crucial parts of the whole. But the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Death and resurrection, sorrow and joy, mourning and dancing, loss and hope, the reality that all of these seeming opposites are inseparable is the paradox at the heart of life. The cross as the symbol of Christianity symbolizes this truth. Buddhism says the same thing in slightly different language. There is truth and wisdom in Buddhism, but with Christ there is also the dimension of relationship. And relationship takes you where you are and walks hand in hand with you to where you are being called. I experience the beauty and power and truth of God in the universe. But God is way bigger and more complex than I can comprehend. I sense the presence of God within me some of the time, but other times I need that human expression of the love and power of God, Jesus, to relate to, to show me how to love, and to hold my hand when I crumble under pressure
There are goodies and baddies to everything in life. If you are a mom with another career, you are beset by guilt over whether you have not been a good enough mother, particularly when your children as adults turn out to be human with all that goes with that. If you are a stay at home mom focused predominantly on your children, when inevitably they turn out to be human as adults, if you have not let go of them as your reason for being, their human problems and mistakes become about your ego, not their or anyone else’s pain. Though not true for everyone, it took me until midlife to recognize how very flawed I was and how silly it was to expect my progeny, no matter how bright, funny, talented and kind, to be perfect. None of us gets or passes down all the good genes. None of us, even with what we consider our best traits, gets it perfectly right for raising another human being with a different mix of genes and traits. That is one of the less appealing realities of life. Luckily, none of us is finished yet. And I actually think the younger generations are facing some of these unpleasant realities earlier in their lives than we did in ours. So, in spite of the discouraging state of humanity, there are signs that we are still able to evolve once we realize we need to.
I used to get my feelings hurt not only easily, but deeply enough that I cut people out of my life. It came from an unrecognized need to be perfect and anything said that implied to me that I wasn’t, devastated me. Being able to see the door because of being 79 helps a lot. I figure at this point the only one I have to worry about is God and He knew I was a difficult person before I did. It also helps, when people who tend to be insensitive hurt me, to look for something redeeming about them. I’ve found this way I can care and even make sacrifices for people I find difficult to like (including myself).
Henri Nouwen in his A Spirituality of Living writes that possibly the main human suffering comes from loneliness. So, it is important to develop our capacity for solitude where we can experience the love of God. Other wise we are going to expect someone to give us that perfect, unconditional love. They cannot. Often this means a painfully temporary quality in our relationships. Instead of long lasting involvements that grow stronger over time, we may experience separations and growing despair about finding someone who can meet our deepest desires for intimacy. Developing the capacity for solitude is the groundwork for creating community and becoming capable of commitment in our relationships.
But it is hard in different ways for each of us, because we are different from one another. Ask any mother of more than
one child. They will tell you we are all born different. Some babies are quiet and placid, but solemn. Some are quiet
and calm, but smile and laugh easily. Some are hyper-active even as infants lying on their backs in a bassinet. Some
are hyper-sensitive to sounds, startle easily, and react to change. Some are tuned in to their inner world,
reacting very little to their environment. Some are quite independent, while others need more cuddling, attention
and support. Some are excitable, with an inborn tendency to over react to both positive and negative experiences.
Many children as early as two or three have vivid imaginations. Some both empathize and identify with story book
characters, often later believing themselves stalked by the story book monsters. Others are thrilled by the vicarious
terror, but don’t identify with it.
When my father read me stories about children being lost or animals being hurt, it would upset me so much that a
happy ending didn’t make it all right.
Watch how differently children and adults react to shows like America’s Funniest Videos. Some wince or even cry, as
if everything is happening to them; others are detached and amused, whether the event is real and painful for
someone else or not.
Each personality trait has an upside and a downside, each dominant trait we have gives us both
strengths and weaknesses. I’ve worked with tools for measuring and illustrating this, such as the Meyers-Briggs Type
Indicator and the Enneagram, but for this short article it is simpler to use more life experience descriptions.
A person who is very aware of and sensitive to their own feelings may empathize with others, championing the
underdog or the vulnerable, but will tend to over-react to slights or criticism, real or imagined.
As a child I was equally excitable and responsive to happy and sad things . When I
was three, I was so excited about Christmas that when I finally was taken in to see my toys under the
tree, I threw up on them before I could even play with them.
In my anxiety filled teen years, my stomach rebelled to even mild stress and I learned to not eat all day before just
going out on dates. Unfortunately for my dates, once I was out, I calmed down and got voraciously hungry. I was
not a cheap date.
As an adult I often experience sheer joy over even small things such as the beauty of nature, children’s laughter,
my grandchildren’s curiosity about the world, but I also experience extremely dark times over my own failures or
the people I love’s pain.
Even traits we consider wonderful have a down side. People with high IQ’s tend to assume they are right and often
are not open to other’s opinions, but the reality is that no one is right all the time.
Years ago, I attended a workshop where slogan and affirmations were posted on the walls. One that simply jumped
out at me was, “I am competent and loveable.”
My immediate reaction was, “No. You can’t be both.”
In my experience the really efficient people are task oriented. They are both competent and persevering. They
focus on the goal, prioritize the details, and plow ahead, often over people who unwittingly get in their way. Many
things would not get accomplished without this type of person, but they may alienate so many people along the way
that in the long run their effectiveness will be diminished.
Personally, my greatest value has been ideas that help people in general and my focus has been on relationships.
Physical details, particularly about machines, don’t show up on my radar most of the time.
I once had a secretarial job that involved a lot of detail and working with elaborate and expensive office machines.
I was a total disaster. Luckily, I realized this and left after three months. I am sure everyone there breathed a sigh of
But later I had a much higher paying job as a director that involved recruiting volunteers and bringing in training
programs for them, creating and organizing new programs, and doing publicity for these. I was successful at this in
spite of it involving a lot of detail, because I was good at recognizing, recruiting, and supporting people with the skills
that I don’t have.
I wasted a lot of angst in my early life expecting to be equally good at everything. I taught first grade and one sweet
little girl simply would not do her math homework. When I finally confronted her over this, she looked at me with her
big brown eyes and said sadly, “Oh Miz Norman, I’m good at reading. Do I have to be good at everything?” My gut
level response was, “Of course.” Luckily, I stopped and thought about it. Finally, I said, “No, you don’t have to be
equally good at everything. But you need to at least learn survival skills in math. If you don’t know basic math, how
will you be able to shop?” She thought about that for a minute and decided I was right.
I’m pretty sure she didn’t go on to become a mathematician, but hopefully she is out there somewhere shopping and
keeping her checkbook balanced.
She actually freed me of the belief that I was stupid, if I couldn’t easily excel in everything, and to accept that I had to
work harder at some things just to survive. I now try to do the things I want to avoid first, but in spurts, followed by
shorter breaks doing things I enjoy or find easy. This is a method of motivating myself with a reward and
encouraging myself by doing something I can do easily.
I tend to envy people who live in the present moment. They seem so carefree, since they are not over-burdened by
past mistakes or wounds and don’t worry much about the future. In fact they hardly think about the future at all.
They are happy, optimistic and fun, but the downside is that they are often oblivious to possible consequences of
their choices in the moment.
I have always tended to focus on the future, imagining its wonderful possibilities. Sometimes this has helped me be an
agent for change and to plan ahead for a lot of eventualities. But I also end up living in a picture perfect world in my
head. Then when reality doesn’t measure up, I don’t persevere if I see that I can’t achieve the ideal I have
pictured. I think that a lot of my life has been lived by the motto, “If at first you don’t succeed, don’t make a
fool of yourself, try something else.” Now in my later years my life challenge is to learn to persevere even through
failures and to accept that nothing is perfect. At seventy-six I still haven’t quite gotten there , but I have made a lot
I am emotionally volatile. In the early years of our fifty-six years of marriage, my husband said I could go from
bubbling with joy to total despondency faster than a speeding bullet. And sometimes when I fell into one of my
feeling pits that make doing anything seem like struggling through quicksand, I would become almost paralyzed. But
along the way I discovered that I can continue to function even when depressed, if I cut myself some slack by
prioritizing and only doing what is completely necessary. And, if I don’t waste time and energy by beating myself up
over this trait, I pull out fairly quickly and can go longer periods without becoming a bottomless pit of wants and
People like me should be assigned a counselor at birth. At several crisis points in my life I have gotten counseling,
some good, some not so much. But good or not, because I’m all about evolution, on the grand scale and the
personal, once I recognize that I’ve bogged down, I persevere at finding what I need to work through it.
And I’ve come to see that we all evolve in different patterns of stages and in a circle. For instance at a different
time in life, I and others like me, begin to focus temporarily on being more task oriented people. And the task
oriented people will at some point do just the opposite, thus developing skills in our weaker traits.
The good news is that in our later years we find it easier to become reasonably competent in our weakest
areas. (Easi er, not easy, because in order to do this we must let go of our strength, a kind of dying to self.)
And for me that means being able to accept imperfect reality and to be willing to persevere in inching toward
becoming the unique, though imperfect, person I was created to be. And along the way are times of lovely peace,
great joy, unmeasurable love, and sneak peaks at what the journey is all about.