When is Enough Enough?

Daughter competing last Saturday

Competition last Saturday

My 15 year old said a funny thing last week. It was after a Sunday school discussion I led. This otherwise outgoing and social teenager didn’t see anyone to sit with at the teen Godspell production, so she ended up in the back row of my class. It was about repentance—re-thinking our choices and where we’re headed in life—as one way we say, “Yes,” to the paschal mystery’s invitation to newness of life.

On the way home she said, “I often think I want to reinvent myself, but then I think about the time and effort required, and I realize it’s just not going to happen.” She said it with a pithy little laugh, like it was someone else’s quip she was repeating. I asked her what she meant, and she elaborated. “I think I want to compete better so I have to work out more, and I want straight A’s so I have to study more, and I want to be a more giving person so I have to participate more, but I don’t have more time for any of it.”

Well, she has a point. She trains with her team 2 hours every weekday and often more on weekends. She attends an academically competitive prep school and gets good grades — A’s in almost every class, just not all at the same time in the same semester. She does about 2 hours of homework every day, including weekends. Some nights she starts homework at 9:30 p.m. when we get home from the gym. I’m not saying she has no room for improvement. She does, but she is a good time manager, and that includes treasuring the unscheduled time she has and needs.

Her comment could have been in response to my class. The class was about how we all need course corrections on life’s journey. People who are disciplined about frequent self-examination may find only small corrections needed, while those who seldom check if they’re on track may need bigger corrections. If we re-think where we’re headed in life and find we’re on the wrong course entirely, a total turn-around may be what we need. The point is at some point, we all have to stop what we’re doing to take stock. When we make room for God and expose ourselves to transformational grace in the process, we say, “Yes!” to the invitation to experience life in profoundly new ways.

My first thought about her comment was she had taken quick stock and was saying, “No thank you” to the invitation to change. Upon reflection, though, I hear in her comment some wisdom that was NOT in my class. And that is being content with what you have to give at this moment. No one has unlimited resources, including time, so we all have to prioritize. The sky is not the limit. It takes a particular equanimity to give what you have, without self-condemnation for not having more, and to let God do the miracle of making it enough. I think I heard in her comment that who she is now is enough for now. Maybe next time the 15 year old should be teaching the class.

Join the conversation. How do you discern the course-corrections you need without self-flagellation?

Copyright 2014 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

 

Feeling Yourself Again

find yourselfGroup sessions in the jail start with each inmate’s putting a name to how she’s feeling. “Fine” and “ok” don’t actually describe feelings and usually invite further questioning. Often inmates feel anxious, in which case a little conversation ensues to make provision for the inmate to get the support she might need with a particular issue. Inmates also often feel angry or frustrated, and that generally leads to conversation about the emotions underlying anger and their origin not in the present circumstance but in some past experience.

Recently an inmate responded that she felt herself, and that it had been a long time since she felt like herself. She had struggled with drug addiction since adolescence, and on one level she was referring to the feeling of a clear head. She meant more than that, though. She turned to drugs to escape herself. She believed the lie that she deserved the child sexual abuse perpetrated against her, and she hated herself for being that child. And then she hated herself for all the things she did to become someone different. Two months in jail was the first time in her adult life that she stopped running from who she was. As she shed the various pretenses she had donned like armor, she became acquainted with the vulnerable, wounded, sweet person she really was. It was a little frightening but also a relief.

Maybe I’m thinking of her story because I am feeling relieved to feel myself again. I had a close encounter with poison ivy 26 days ago, and I have been a histamine disaster area since then. The histamines drop my already low blood pressure even lower and mess with gastric acids, so I’ve felt light headed and queasy most of the month. The histamine tidal wave started to recede yesterday, and even though my skin is still crawling off me and I look like a burn victim, I am relieved to start feeling myself again.

Or maybe I’m thinking of her story because a friend loaned me Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond. In it Rohr talks about casting off elements of our assumed identity to encounter what Rohr calls the True Self, our divinely created essence. Lawrence Kushner might call it our Holy Spark. There’s a divine, good and true impetus motivating all our actions, even if some of our deeds turn out to be very poorly executed, hampered by badly impaired responses or encrusted with, in AA lingo, character defects. Using either the Christian or Jewish construct, the spiritual work is to surrender those ideas or behaviors that hold one back from recognizing oneself as the dearly loved child of God that one truly is.

It seems like we spend half our lives figuring out who we are or who we want to be and trying to live out that vision for our lives. And then we spend the other half of our lives unlearning a lot of what we thought we learned about ourselves. While it might be painful or frightening to surrender a part of one’s identity, it can also be an unburdening and something of a relief.

Join the conversation. What have you unlearned that helped you find your True Self?
Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Misunderstood

Reza Aslan interviewA TV interview dubbed “the most embarrassing ever” is garnering bad press for the interviewer and book sales for the author interviewed.  Although admittedly painful to watch, the interview lacks any real substance.  The ensuing brouhaha is classic news-making-the-news media sensationalism.  I suspect the only reason it is getting coverage is the interview comes off as a Christian-Muslim ambush fail.  The aftermath leaves me wondering who ambushed whom.

I happen to think the interviewer asked a good question, and the author, Reza Aslan, missed an opportunity.  The interviewer asked why a Muslim would write a book about Jesus.  Aslan responded, perhaps a bit patronizingly, that as an academic New Testament historian, it is his job.  By responding to the question as a personal attack on his authority or motivation, he missed an opportunity to elucidate Muslims’ regard for Jesus as a great prophet.  The bigger opportunity he missed, in my opinion, was making a case for why anyone from any spiritual tradition ever considers different ways of looking at things—it fosters deepening spirituality.

No spiritual tradition has cornered the market on truth.  The spiritual experience is full of mystery.  Some questions are bigger than the human capacity to comprehend.  Yet some people are more perceptive than others.  How do the perceptive ones do it?  We expand our power to perceive when we steady ourselves with truths anchored in traditional wisdom and reach into the unknown.  Some truths transcend many spiritual traditions.

When making the case for reaching across traditions, I like to point out that Moses changed his perspective to get a better look at the burning bush.  (Ex3:3)  We too must change our perspective to see truth in a new light.  We work harder to understand even our own comfortable beliefs when we are drawn into tension by differing views.

On a personal note, Amy-Jill Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew fundamentally changed my understanding of Jesus’ parables.  Oh, and by the way, Levine is a New Testament scholar at predominantly Protestant Vanderbilt who also happens to belong to a Conservative Jewish congregation.  As songwriter and occasional Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman sings, “They Ain‘t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” and Levine quite compellingly explains how Jesus’ Jewishness is essential to understanding his ministry.  It’s a good read.

Christian-Jewish dialog, however, is nowhere near as charged as Christian-Muslim dialog these days.  Christian and Jewish authors can only dream of receiving the publicity Reza Aslan is getting.  Aslan made the question all about him when he could have made the question about all Muslims or about all spiritual seekers.  Maybe he has a publicist who told him being a jerk and making a spectacle of the interview would sell more books.  While true, it obfuscates the substance of his book and leaves unanswered important questions about what we all can learn from each other.

Join the conversation.  Have you had a spiritual experience that transcended a particular religion?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Spiritual Doing

spiritual practices shabbat candlesMy spirituality study group is reading a charming book written by an Episcopalian who grew up Jewish.  It’s Laura Winner’s Mudhouse Sabbath.  Winner observes, as many others have, that where Christianity is preoccupied with belief, Judaism boils down to action.  The particular actions that Winner contemplates with narrative flair in Mudhouse Sabbath are those Jewish spiritual practices that held meaning for her and she finds missing in her Christian practice.

Winner describes the luxuriousness of real rest on Shabbat and reflects on how to make her Sunday’s stand apart from ordinary time.  She describes the mindfulness eating requires while observing kashrut, and she suggests how eating locally and in season (thus reducing indirect fossil fuel consumption) might be one way Christians could introduce greater mindfulness and ethical responsibility to their eating habits.  She explores how to bring intentionality and thankfulness into ordinary actions, like a dinner, for example, by candle-lighting.  She also makes observations about spiritual disciplines—bodily actions that strengthen spirituality—practiced in both Jewish and Christian traditions, like prayer and fasting.  Poignantly, she describes the nuts and bolts of mourning practices that honor the dead, affirm the survivors, and above all exalt God’s goodness.

Although Winner’s message is addressed to Christians, doing small acts with mindfulness or imbuing them with clear intention is good counsel for anyone looking to get in closer touch with his spiritual reality, regardless of his spiritual tradition.

My favorite part of the book describes what Winner calls a curious turn of phrase in the Book of Exodus.  “Na’aseh v’nishma” means “we will do and we will hear (or understand).”  The word order is curious because how can anyone do a command before hearing it or understanding what it is.  This captures for me the essence of the Jewish sensibility and wisdom concerning action.  Rabbinic commentary explains that it is precisely through doing that we come into understanding.  How many of us have come into a new way of seeing only after having done something for a time?  Speaking for myself, I have come into a new way of seeing people held behind bars after spending some time volunteering in jail.  Although my first visit left lasting impressions, the deeper understanding came from repeated visits.  The brain is designed to respond to experience, and experience informs our perspective.

It seems to me that Winner’s message about spiritual practices sings in harmony with this blog’s last post about affirming actions that defuse shame.  Shame arises from false messages we believe about ourselves, so repeating messages that affirm the truth disconnects shame from its source.  Bodily actions done with mindfulness and intention can reinforce the affirmation.  To take an example from last week, the person who puts away one small object every day as an oblation to God and as a ritual that clears the clutter of her soul will, through doing, come into a new way of seeing herself.

To be clear, it’s not that the new way of seeing is a reward for enough doing.  It’s that doing is the mechanism by which we receive the grace of seeing.

Join the conversation.  What bodily actions or spiritual practices help you see your spiritual reality more clearly?

Copyright 2013 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

A Radical Leaving

Karen Rodman was charming, vivacious and enterprising. She instigated more good works than I could list. The entire arc of her professional and personal life was dedicated to making the world a better place in one way or another. She possessed a huge heart and a pioneering spirit. She lost her life too early to cancer last week, and her memorial service was Friday.

I’ve been lingering over something her priest said in his homily. It was an uncharacteristically evangelizing and passionate homily, by Episcopal standards. The priest sought to reach mourners right where they were in their faith journeys, and according to at least one friend, he reached his mark. He claimed that once one accepts oneself as a beloved child of God, and moreover, once that becomes the central pillar of one’s identity, the pressure to perform is off.

I couldn’t disagree more. Or at least, that does not track my journey in faith. My experience is informed more by the notion that to whom much is given, much is expected. When I contemplate the incredibly lucky hand I’ve been given—and let’s face it, anyone born in North America got a pretty lucky hand, globally speaking—I feel a great pressure to do good with it. If sufficiently focused on the abundance in my life, I cannot conceive how much must be expected. It is humbling beyond words.

A now retired priest in my parish was fond of saying, “Beware of arriving safely because you sailed too close to shore.” I know there is a time for rest, but there is also a time for stretching to the point of discomfort. Scripture abounds with examples of the faithful
who leave the place that’s comfortable and answer God’s call to venture into the unknown.

The Reform Jewish prayer book recalls what Abram had to leave behind in order follow God’s call. Abram left his homeland, his friends, all he had accumulated over a lifetime, and all that was familiar–for what? He didn’t have an answer, but he had trust and hope. “Radical Leaving” is what the prayer book calls Abram’s courageous step, and Rabbi Norman Hirsh’s poem “Becoming” describes how we encounter it.

Once or twice in a lifetime
A man or woman may choose
A radical leaving, having heard
Lech lecha — Go forth.

God disturbs us toward our destiny

By hard events
And by freedom’s now urgent voice
Which explode and confirm who we are.

We don’t like leaving,
But God loves becoming.

Karen embraced this radical leaving, undoubtedly more than once in her life, but certainly at her life’s end. When we said goodbye the last time, she expressed such exuberant and contagious hope—hope for a medical miracle, hope for an adventure beyond bodily death, hope for the world she was leaving behind and hope for friends and her daughter’s long life ahead. I pray for God’s blessing on her becoming.

Join the conversation. How have hard events or freedom’s urgent voice exploded and confirmed who you are? Do we ever encounter our destiny any other way?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

Holy Sparks

reconciliation and forgiveness with shadow selfHow well do you know your shadow self?  A thoughtful commenter got me thinking more about Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and his insights on the evil we have intended or done.  Kushner asserts that even our meanest and most despicable acts have holy sparks buried in them somewhere.

Of course, no one really wants to shine a light on his dark side or his weakest moments.  It’s easier just to move on, to focus on doing better next time and perhaps to maintain our pride by pretending it never happened.

In the Twelve Step tradition, recovery seekers undertake a searching and fearless moral inventory in the Fourth Step.  Twelve Step literature recognizes the Fourth Step as one of the most difficult and avoided steps because we resist acknowledging, much less embracing, the shadow self we will find.  A popular methodology for approaching the Fourth Step wisely starts with identifying resentments.  Those are the things others did wrong, so it’s not quite so challenging to pride.  It is universally true, however, that injuries impair how we treat others, and the Fourth Step approach continues with examining our impaired responses.  A good Fourth Step is complete when the recovery seeker takes ownership for character weaknesses that fostered his impaired responses.

Kushner is suggesting we shine the flashlight a little deeper, though.  He is encouraging us to find that shard of holiness our character defects encrusted with evil.  Yes, I had an impaired response, but what was the impetus for my response?  Was I seeking safety or emotional security?  Was I just trying to feel ok about myself?  Was I looking for love in all the wrong places?  Those are not bad things—security, affirmation and love.  Those are blessed things.  So what went wrong?

Shifting from Jewish and Twelve Step perspectives to Buddhist ideas, we have attachments to security, affirmation and love.  Perhaps early life experiences left me feeling insecure, so my grip on inner security is a bit too tight.  Those attachments become priorities in my interactions with others.  Maybe I’m a bit quick to fend others off because I’m creating a safety zone for myself, for example.  Or I put others down to feel better about myself.  Or my simultaneous desire for and distrust of true love leads me to superficial intimate encounters.

What would happen if I released my attachments to security, affirmation and love, or at least loosened my grip?  Furthermore, what would happen if I increased my awareness, not only of my own vulnerabilities but, more importantly, the vulnerabilities of others?  Perhaps with greater awareness and less attachment, I could encounter another and become aware of his need for security.  Since seeking security for myself would no longer be my top priority, I would be free to engage with that person in a way that creates a safe place for her to be herself and to feel loved.

I have been praying this week for spiritual strength to let my holy sparks manifest in caring and compassionate ways.  In breathing prayers like this, one inhales what one desires and exhales what gets in the way.

Inhale: Awareness
Exhale: Attachments

Join the conversation.  What have you learned from your shadow self?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.

I Sure am Sorry I Got Caught Robbing that Bank

This is my new expression whenever I hear someone close to me offer a pseudo-apology.  Readers who have kept an eye on this blog lately know I have posted instructions on the correct—and incorrect—ways to apologize.  Not to throw anyone under the bus, lately I have heard quite a few apologies that, candidly, miss the mark.

To recap the basics, “Robbing that bank was wrong,” expresses regret for my actions.  “I sure am sorry I got caught robbing that bank,” expresses regret for the consequences of my actions but no regret for my actual actions.  Other consequence statements are:

I’m sorry you feel that way.
I’m sorry you misunderstood me.
I’m sorry you took it that way.
I’m sorry you got frustrated.

See the difference?  All this regret is about what YOU did, not about what I did.  It says, “This situation went south on your side of the street.  My side of the street is looking pretty good over here.”  A genuine apology requires taking responsibility for what I chose to do or to say.  Expressing sadness or regret for another’s response is nothing more than deflection thinly disguised as an apology.  It is not a legitimate apology.

Now let’s throw in a curve ball for extra credit.  Are either of these statements a legitimate apology?

I’m sorry my words frustrated you.
I’m sorry my actions hurt your feelings.

Nice try, but these examples STILL express regret for consequences.  Just throwing “my words” or “my actions” into the sentence does not constitute taking responsibility for the wrongness of my words or actions.  That would look more like this:

I said something I shouldn’t have said.
I didn’t intend harm, but I see now I caused it and I regret what I did.

Now for advanced placement apology, what should you do if you actually believe you did absolutely nothing wrong?  Let’s say you are convinced your side of the street is spic-and-span, and the person who is upset with you is overreacting or is reacting to something other than what you actually did.  I always say when in doubt, go with the truth.  Acknowledge the person’s feelings and ask for their help to see their side.  Something like this:

I see you’re upset.  That’s distressing because I care about you.  Will you help me understand exactly what I did?

I hope you don’t get, “It’s your tone of voice,” or “You flashed that look,” because subjective observations aren’t terribly actionable.  I hope you get an answer that is truly illuminating, and you should be prepared to receive (i.e. don’t block) those rays of illumination shining your way.  You might, however, get an answer you don’t understand.  You may have to ask questions to grasp exactly what sparked the response.  You might also sense the person is responding to something you didn’t actually do or say.  Sometimes a harmless comment triggers a harmful memory.  Can you find a gentle and compassionate way to ask the person if there is an older, deeper wound swirling into the present angst?  Draw on your spiritual strength and compassion to turn conflict into an opportunity to encourage healing and intimacy.

If, failing all of this, you can’t rise above the blame game and remain convinced of your blamelessness, ask for time to think before further discussion.  A little distance can change your and the other’s perspectives.

Join the conversation.  Can you share examples of an apology gone wrong?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.