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A Spot Unpainted

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.

 

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Becoming Free to Hear God

I just want to reiterate my theme song: We are all born different.

I don’t have expertise in much, but personality differences have been my area of specialization since the early 1980’s. I used to be a consultant on their implications for marriage relationships, teaching/learning styles, approaches to spirituality and even management skills.

We are different in both what and how we take in information from the outer world
We are different in how we process what we take in.
We are different in what we value.
So, we are different in how we respond to what we take in.
We are incredibly different in how we communicate.
We are different in how we live in the world……whether goal driven, pleasure driven, influenced by others or our own built in agendas.
We are different in whether we are focused on the present moment, the past or the future.
Words have different meanings and even a totally different impact for each of us.
It is an absolute miracle that any random group of us can agree or act in concert on anything, even in the same family, church, culture or country, never-the-less across cultures, religions, and nationalities.

However, both my studies and experience have shown me that after midlife we have a natural inclination to grow and develop more in the opposite strengths and orientations. So, age may have its perks and probably the greatest of these is a greater potential for peacemaking.

Here is a part of my personal journey that hopefully illustrates this possibility.

In my mid-forties I was accepted into a three year course of preparation for Lay Ministry.
A part of it was taking a battery of tests ranging from IQ to personality tests. Then we were given feedback on areas that might be problematic for ministry.

I was told that I had two areas with a potential for limiting my effectiveness in ministry.

#1. My IQ was high enough that I most likely always assume that I am right in any conflict of opinion. This is a weakness, because no matter how smart anyone is, no one, but God is right all the time. And….(here is the zinger) the most necessary quality for hearing God is humility.

#2. I was over sensitive and thus, easily offended.(My humorous, but pitiful first gut level response to this was, “If you know that, why would you hurt my feelings by telling me?”)

It has been a long and somewhat painful process of integrating these truths into my conscious responses to life.

Several years ago, I got into a conflict with my church’s Minister and the leadership of the church. This culminated with a woman Elder telling me that I was just an unhappy person who was never satisfied with anything. Frustrated, hurt and angry, I left organized religion for about two years. During this period I focused on trying to listen to God and my relationship with God became much closer and more fruitful. This culminated in the realization that I was, in fact by nature, both extremely idealistic and a perfectionist. These traits have a good side; I have been at times a change agent for the better. However, since no person or organization is perfect, they tend to make me critical of pretty much everyone and everything.

The realities and practical limits of an imperfect world filled with imperfect people, including myself, are like a pebble in my shoe. Coming to grips with the reality that in this life, we can only inch toward any ideal, never reach it, is as painful for the idealist as accepting the call to change is for the pragmatist. The ultimate challenge for all of us is becoming free to hear God in each situation. Sometimes God’s choice is a matter of timing, sometimes what seems good, may need to be let go to make way for something better as yet unseen, sometimes more time is needed for grace to change other hearts.

This is my prayer variation: “God, help me to change what you want me to change, to accept what you want me to accept, and to hear which you are calling me to do in each situation.”

Here are the challenges that I am still in the process of learning on how to hear God:

#1. I must let go of the assumption that my way of seeing an issue is the best or God’s way. It might actually be, but I cannot see the whole picture or the long term effects like God can, so I cannot make my opinions into idols.

#2. I must consider the realities or practical limits of the situation and be willing to inch toward or even let go of what I consider the ideal.

#3. I must let God heal the hurt behind the anger that any conflict carries with it, such as feeling unappreciated, rejected, like a failure, or somehow inadequate.

#4. I must trust that God is in every situation and can teach me and others what we need to bring about spiritual growth and good out of what seems so wrong.

#5. It may be necessary for us to take time and space to heal our wounds, but we need to avoid burning bridges. Sin isn’t feeling hurt or angry or even needing time away from a situation.

Sin is refusing to take the time to seek the grace and do the work needed to reconcile, however long that may take.

Compassion or No One’s Playing with a Full Deck

From when I was quite young, I stayed stressed night and day over the possibility of being scolded for anything. Unfortunately, even if a fellow student was scolded, I also hurt for them, literally. My stomach would ache.  As an adult when a friend was going through a painful divorce, it seemed almost like I was going through it myself. In many ways this made me compassionate and I tried always to relieve others’ suffering in any way I could.

But, my life became controlled by an underlying need to relieve suffering of any kind, my own, my friends’, the world’s. This sounds like a good thing, and at times it undoubtedly was. But suffering is an inevitable part of life, everyone’s life. And a lot of suffering is self inflicted and perpetuated by attempts to escape it, rather than experience it and learn and grow from it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Compassion and fear of our own suffering may be two sides of the same coin.

Over the years I learned that I could not protect my children from suffering. And after a couple of friends, that I tried to give emotional support, ended up committing suicide, I gradually accepted that I am not God and cannot control life for anyone.

Eventually, I also recognized that some people become addicted to being victims and are bottomless pits of needs and wants that no one but God can fill.  I can be kind. I can share insights I’ve gained through my own struggles. I can bring a little laughter into the lives around me. But ultimately, each person’s journey is uniquely tailored to the process of making them into the people God created them to be…no more and no less. We can all only play the hand we were dealt and no one other than God can judge how well we are doing that.
Each person is born with their own set of genetic strengths and virtues. The thing we often overlook is that each strength has a corresponding area of weakness. Our pattern of growth will build on the strengths, but also will involve facing our weaknesses and allowing for them. We can develop survival skills in those areas, but they will never be our gifts.
That means we need one another. That means at times we must set aside our strengths and avail ourselves of the opposite set of gifts of other people. This is a dying to self of sorts. It involves suffering and humility. Not an easy task, but definitely part of becoming a couple, a family, a friend, a community, a nation, a world.

In other words, none of us is playing with a full deck! And we can help one another in partnerships, but not in dependency relationships that keep us from growing.

Compassion calls for not only kindness, but the capacity to accept suffering as part of our own lives and of life in general for everyone.
It comes down to the age old prayer: God help me to change what I can, accept what I can’t change and the wisdom to know the difference.

Taking Criticism

Some of us react to the outside world straight from our feelings. It’s our personality.
We were born that way. We didn’t choose it. That makes us warm, caring, enthusiastic,
empathetic, but also sensitive.
We may be able to move to logic eventually, but our first response is emotional.
If we also happen to be perfectionists, this makes us very vulnerable, particularly to
criticism.
Those of us who express our inner selves through art, writing, music, photography, etc.,
are particularly sensitive to criticism of our creations. It’s as if our very souls are up for
evaluation. Any editing or suggestion for improvements seems like total rejection of whom
we are.
Sadly, since nothing and no one are perfect, often our inability to deal constructively
with editing, criticism, even teaching, can defeat us by preventing our developing skills to
enhance our natural talents. Often, we simply give up and put our energies into something
that doesn’t make us feel so vulnerable. Usually something that we either don’t value as much
or doesn’t expose our inner selves, so not being perfect at it doesn’t destroy us.
We can end up with boxes and closets filled with our creative output, either never completed
or never exposed to other eyes. Maybe we risk sending something off once every ten years, but
when the 99 % inevitable result is a rejection letter, we quit risking for another ten years.
I’m 75 and a lot of what ends up on this blog was written some time ago.
The sad part is that I had affirmation in college from teachers and later got several things
published, but in between received some rejection letters, at least partially because I
sent them to inappropriate publications. Each rejection sent me into years of either not writing
or at least not risking trying to get published.
I explore the world with my intellect. I see connections between ideas, implications,
possibilities. On the Meyers/Briggs Type Indicator this indicates that I process information
with my Intuition. I focus more on the conceptual, than the concrete.
However, as a Feeling type my first response to the world comes from my emotions
and values. I can think and analyze logically, but that will not be my first or strongest response
to experiences or ideas.
There are other aspects of personality that influence us, like Extroversion/Introversion, which
describe where we tend to focus, on the outside world or our inner world.
And Judgment/Perception which describe whether we tend to stay focused on gathering
information or move quickly to decision or action.
I am grossly oversimplifying personality type as described by the MBTI, but for the purpose
of this article, it should be enough to help us recognize that there are particular recognizable
differences in how people deal with life.
Another aspect I’d like to emphasize is that there’s a natural upside to each tendency, but also
a natural downside to each that present unique challenges to each type. This is both a shock
and a gift once we recognize this. It’s a shock because we tend to believe our way of being in
the world, if not the only way, is the best way. Recognizing that every personality type has built
in strengths and weaknesses, challenges us to reevaluate many opinions and to become more
humble about our limits and our need to listen to others.
No more than about 15 % of the population are like me. It was actually a great relief to
discover that. Do you remember the Sesame Street song, “One of these is not like the others.
One of these doesn’t belong?” Well most of my life that described how I felt. Type has
explained a lot.
However, it doesn’t excuse everything. We do develop throughout life and should find it
easier to become more proficient in our weaker areas as we grow older.
But knowledge is power. If we can recognize the aspects of our natural personality that are
creating road blocks for us, we can work on finding ways around them or team up with others
whose strengths are where we are weak.

For me blogging is a way around my weaknesses in handling details, taking rejection, and                                          persevering at one long task.

I probably need several different blogs: one humorous/serious one on aging; one humorous
one on moving to the country; one humorous/serious one on a fifty-four year marriage to my
total opposite in personality, a serious one on growing spiritually through all of the above.
But for now, just having an outlet for past and present thoughts on all of these, either as they
hit me or as cleaning out files brings them to light, is a great motivator. And who knows, maybe
I’ll live long enough to gather my materials into those categories and attempt to publish them.
I have also discovered that many writers share major aspects of my personality. Since many
bloggers are writers or artists, there’s a fairly good chance that there are a significant number
of bloggers who speak my language. So, it may be easier to find an appreciative audience.
I need to share one very relevant experience. Years ago, I applied for a three year lay ministry
program. As part of this, we were given a battery of psychological tests, including IQ tests.
Then we were given feedback about any areas that might cause us problems in ministry.
I was told that I had two areas of potential weakness. One was that I had a high IQ and
probably always thought I was right in conflicts of opinion, but no one was right all the time.
The second was that I was oversensitive to criticism, though he admitted he thought there was
possibly a gender skew to the tests, since way more women tested high in that area.
I realize that what I’m about to share, does not reflect well on the IQ part, but does
really illustrate the problem. I went home very angry. My gut level first response was, “If they
know I’m so sensitive, why would they tell me that!”
This eventually made me deal with my oversensitivity as my problem, not the rest of the
world’s! Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.