Inviting Life Change

Good things are happening in the Resolana unit at the Dallas county jail.  The life skills class continues exploring self-esteem, and last week the discussion centered on making life change actually happen.  Have you heard the joke about the three frogs on a log?  If one decides to jump off, how many frogs are left on the log?  Anybody who has been around Twelve Step programs knows the correct answer is three.  Deciding to make a life change doesn’t necessarily mean one follows through and does it.

How does one actually follow through and make a meaningful life change?  The women learned three steps for doing it: becoming aware, making a choice and making a plan.  There were some heart-felt moments and also some laughs as the women described becoming aware of things they want to change.  One woman realized something needed to change in her relationship with a sibling.  She had always thought their relationship was great, but within the past week she recognized how her sibling’s addiction reinforced her own addictive behavior patterns, and she acknowledged something needed to change to protect herself from relapse.  Her mother had long cautioned her about that relationship, but she hadn’t understood her mother’s concern.  Another woman seemed almost unsure of herself as she revealed awareness she has an anger problem, whereupon there were stifled chuckles among others aware of that already.  That led to a humorous recognition that when we come into awareness of something we need to change, the people around us may be well acquainted with that need and, furthermore, be willing to offer us support in making those changes.

The women tended to gloss over the second step—identifying the choices we have once we become aware—but they also came to see its power.  Status quo is an option.  Changing is an option.  It is important to embrace the full spectrum of choices available.  If we give short shrift or write off options, we are in danger of making a premature (i.e. not fully considered) decision.  Giving all our options their full due, no matter how unappealing or unattainable they may seem, makes our choices conscious choices.

The last step is where the webbed toes meet the bark.  It’s the action plan delineating what we will do that is different than what we did before.  The more detailed it is, the better prepared we will be to exhibit different behavior in the heat of a stressful moment.  The women’s comments on this step revealed the true depth of their commitment to changing their lives.

Perhaps most touching of all was the awareness breakthrough for some inmates. Followers familiar with my book manuscript about the healing power of confession know how passionate I am about the hard work of honest introspection.  Some of us have been around the block.  We know our material cold.  The truth, though, is that this posture is a defensive mechanism, something that protects us from discovering something true about our vulnerable selves.  No matter how happy or content we feel in our present circumstances, honest introspection and greater self-awareness have the potential to bring us greater peace.

Join the conversation.  What is your secret for converting decisions into action?

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

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Growing Up is Hard Work

A friend and I were talking last night about adolescence.  We all follow the examples our family role models give us in childhood, and we all decide which examples to continue following and which to discard at some point when we “grow up.”  My friend said she had a “screw you” attitude in her 30’s when she did that work.  My parents were enormously supportive and supported me financially through college.  Despite that, however, my adolescence was so tumultuous so early, I pressed the eject button (boarding school) at 15.  I told my friend that as a mother, I wondered how to prepare my daughter to make those decisions with hopefully less volatility than I had experienced.  She told me I should write a blog post about it, so here it goes.

My daughter was a prolific little writer at a young age.  By kindergarten, she was capturing observations and ideas, albeit with atrocious almost-phonetic spelling.  We didn’t (and still don’t) have cable or other TV service, but we did have an old TV hooked up to a VHS player (remember those?).  Watching the occasional Disney program was possible and kind of a treat for her.  In exchange for that treat, I asked her to do a 3-part written exercise.   The first part was choosing a character and writing five observations about the character’s behavior.  The second part was indicating for each of the five observations whether that character liked that quality about himself.  The third part was indicating whether she would want that quality for herself.  We did this repeatedly for years (until she became a better negotiator), and her observations were just sublime and very, very cute.  My hope was to inoculate her at an early age against the ravages the media project onto young girls.  If she had a deeply rooted habit of filtering what she saw in the media, then perhaps she wouldn’t indiscriminately ingest or emulate whatever she saw on-screen.

We also routinely undertook this 3-part exercise focusing on various family members, and none more often than me, her most influential role model.  She got bored of making observations about me, but she was pretty good at ginning up new material, nonetheless.  My hope here was that she would gain proficiency in distinguishing specific behaviors and know on a deep level that she was free to make choices about her own behaviors.  To be just a little bit more honest about it, I hoped she would be able to hate things about me without hating me entirely.

That, my friends, is the grand experiment.  She is 13 now, and  I don’t have an objective vantage point from which to assess whether the media inoculation or individuation preparation is working.  I marvel every day at the exquisite creature she is becoming, though.  What I admire most is how comfortable she is in her own skin.  She must have inherited those genes from her father.  To one acutely uncomfortable until her 30’s, it’s alien, astounding and the most outlandish blessing.  Whether it’s her father’s genes or somehow traces back to those early childhood exercises, she seems ready for the next stage in her life.  You’ll have to check back with me in another five years to see how the experiment panned out.

Join the conversation.  What helped you find your individual identity?

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

When Parents Won’t Forgive

A woman struggling with forgiveness made a profound impression on me once.  I met her in a reconciliation workshop, and her struggle was with her mother.  Although her mother was in her 90’s, she refused to forgive her daughter for hurtful episodes in adolescence.  The daughter, elderly herself, had expressed sincere remorse and asked for her mother’s forgiveness repeatedly through the decades, but her mother refused.

Recent posts examined reasons for clinging to resentment rather than choosing to forgive.  One reason mentioned is thinking I need to keep someone who did me wrong in my life somehow, and if the relationship is badly damaged, my anger and resentment may feel like the only thing left between us.  Have you ever had a romantic relationship that intellectually you knew was over even though your heart still ached for intimacy?

That doesn’t describe the woman’s relationship with her mother, but it may come closer than it appears at first glance.  Adolescence is an exquisite time in parent-child relationships.  Parents embrace their children as the young adults they are becoming, and simultaneously their children still depend on them heavily.  It makes for an intense kind of intimacy.  The challenges of adolescence only amplify the intensity.  One could make the case that it is the most challenging and most intense stage of relating in a parent and child’s entire lifetimes.

And where does it go from there?  Adolescents grow up.  Maybe they move away for school or a job.  They become independent emotionally and financially.  They find partners and perhaps start their own families.  Along the way, emotional bonds to parents make way for stronger emotional ties to new people in their adult lives.  A parent who aches for intimacy and intensity with her long grown child might cling to resentment, as misguided and destructive as it sounds, because it is the strongest connection back to a more intimate time that she can lay her hands on.

What can the adult child do about it?  Not much.  A post a year ago examined Jewish wisdom for seeking forgiveness, but ultimately, forgiveness is at the sole discretion of the one holding the resentment.   The unforgiven child has choices, too.  Setting appropriate boundaries is healing.  The boundaries may inject more emotional distance, but they may also allow the adult child be present to the parent’s angst.  Recognizing that the resentment is rooted in intense desire—not rejection—may open a new window of compassion on a parent living in an angry past.  That awareness doesn’t compel anyone to endure to an occasional vituperative rant, but it does allow one to see the rant for what it is and to cherish the holy spark of love buried deep in it.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever found a holy spark buried deep inside a painful episode?

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

A Question about Forgiveness

A question came up when I was listening to a group of women in the county jail talk about forgiveness last night.  It didn’t surprise me.  The question comes up every time I have led a forgiveness workshop.  It is particularly meaningful to those being honest with themselves about whether they really want to forgive the one who did them wrong.

“Do I have to tell the person I’m forgiving that I have forgiven him?”

Several different motives can give rise to the question.  Sometimes we cling to our resentment because it is our only connection to someone we think we need in our lives.  If we let go of our anger or our claim against the person, there would be nothing between us at all, and that can be a painful reality to accept.  Even when we have known intellectually for a long time that a relationship is over, letting go of the relationship on an emotional level by releasing resentment can be much more difficult.  Other times we hold on to resentment because we don’t want to let the one who wronged us off the hook.  We want those people held accountable, and perhaps no one else is stepping up to that job.  Our sense of fairness tells us those people deserve harsh consequences, not forgiveness.

That sense of justice or fairness is, ironically, what can help us break through a stubborn case of resentment and be free to forgive.  When it seems our offender lacks appropriate remorse or is not suffering the consequences he deserves, we can take a cue from Sister Helen Prejean.  She was the nun behind the movie Dead Man Walking, and movie trailers quoted her saying, “The question is not whether death row inmates deserve to die.  The question is whether we deserve to kill.”

Like Sister Helen, instead of focusing on what my offender deserves, I can take a cold hard look at what I deserve.  No one escapes emotional wounding of one kind or another, and for all of us, those wounds impair how we treat others.  My first response to an angry friend cannot be reaching out in compassion if my first response is protecting myself.  Only one can be first.  In ways that are subtle and blatant, the injuries we sustained get tangled up with the injuries we inflict on others.  In forgiveness, we cannot escape looking honestly at both.  When I take a searching and fearless look at the ways I allowed my wounds to impair how I treat others, I come into awareness of the forgiveness I need.  This is not victim blaming.  It is control claiming.

Whether you think of this inner inventory as taking responsibility for the footprint you are leaving in the world or as healing your personal relationship with God, it is a spiritual exercise.  Take your offender out of the middle of the situation and put your spiritual reality in the center instead.  It is the ultimate liberation to see forgiveness not as a response to what an offender deserves but as a response to the grace we have received.

Join the conversation.  What frees you from dwelling on what your offender deserves?

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

Putting the Fun in Dysfunctional

I haven’t written much about family.  To put it in euphemistic psycho-speak, family is a personal growth area for me.  To be more blunt about it, I am tangled up in a bunch of splintered, fractured, impaired and unresolved relationships, and the only commentary I’m equipped to offer is more like that of the junior reporter in a rain slicker staggering against the wind and rain as she reports on the approaching hurricane than that of the news anchor safely ensconced in the studio.  My husband (the second one) likes to say we put the “fun” in dysfunctional.

I have come to realize, perhaps reluctantly, that family, for all its messiness and imperfection, has inescapable spiritual significance.  Hospice chaplain Kerry Egen explained it as poignantly as anyone in an article she wrote about what dying people talk about.  Early in Egan’s Harvard Divinity School training, and having just started work as a student chaplain in a cancer hospital, a professor asked her what she talked about with patients.  She said patients mostly talked about their families and she mostly listened.  The professor derided her not only privately but also in class for failing to address big spiritual issues like God, religion and the meaning of life with people nearing life’s end.  Although ashamed and full of self-doubt at the time, 13 years later Egan says she would answer his question exactly the same way but with confidence.

What I did not understand when I was a student then, and what I would explain to that professor now, is that people talk to the chaplain about their families because that is how we talk about God. That is how we talk about the meaning of our lives. That is how we talk about the big spiritual questions of human existence.

We don’t live our lives in our heads, in theology and theories. We live our lives in our families: the families we are born into, the families we create, the families we make through the people we choose as friends.

Egan points out that family is where we first experience love.  It’s where we are first cared for and where we learn to care for others.  It’s where we learn to trust and where our trust is first betrayed.  It’s likely to be the first place we were hurt by someone we love.  For many people, it is where we receive our deepest wounds.  Some people respond to the wounding by repeating hurtful family patterns, while others respond by creating families that become the ground for healing and hope.  Family is where we confront our spiritual reality in the midst of our daily living.  It’s the framework in which we wrestle with the big spiritual questions about God and the meaning of life.

Egan shows us that this crucible where life’s journey begins is also where we return at the journey’s end.  Our experience of family—the brokenness and the healing—gives us our most descriptive language for expressing the content of our human souls as we encounter the divine.

Join the conversation.  What significance has family had on the search for meaning in your life?

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

Skin in the Game

Maureen Dowd is at it with the Catholic bishops again. Today’s column takes aim at them for rejecting the president’s proposed compromise on employee reproductive healthcare.  The opinion is well composed, as usual, but I disagree with Dowd at the end.  She concludes, “…what the bishops portray as an attack on religion by the president is really an attack on women by the bishops.”

Plenty of commentary characterizes the Catholic hierarchy as power hungry (suppressing women to consolidate power) or outright misogynist, but to me, those charges don’t ring true.  I had a flash of insight on this recently, thanks to that great spiritual thinker and writer Richard Rohr.  He is also a Catholic priest, by the way, and doesn’t shy away from candid observations on our culture and public discourse.  He says it is easiest to pillory that which threatens our own character the least.  “Many Christians whittle down the great Gospel to some moral issue over which they can feel totally triumphant and superior, and which usually asks nothing of them personally.”  As examples he cites:

“celibate priests focusing on birth control and abortion as the core of evil, heterosexuals seeing gay marriage as the ultimate threat to society, liberals invested in some current political correctness while living lives of rather total isolation from actual suffering in the world, Bible thumpers ignoring most of the Bible when it asks them to change, a nation of immigrants being anti-immigrant, etc.”

Although it seems that the Catholic hierarchy has an ax to grind regarding reproductive rights, and this issue seems to rank way above reaching out to the poor or outcast on its public policy agenda, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason why.  Rohr has supplied it.  For men who have taken a lifetime vow of celibacy, reproductive concerns are far from personal turf.  This is safe ground to stomp on.  They don’t really have to do anything or to be changed in any way, on a personal level, no matter the outcome.  They don’t have to expose themselves to God’s transformational power or embrace Jesus’ radically egalitarian message.  Human reproduction is something they can all agree on because, basically, it doesn’t impact them.  They don’t have any skin in that game.

Now, welcoming the despised and outcast or taking in the poor, that is another story entirely.  That, evidently, is a bit too close to home.  Too much focus there would inevitably shine a spotlight on actions of the bishops themselves.  Some bishops might not be comfortable actually doing some things.  There might be disagreements about how or how much to do.  Outcomes might not be predictable or controllable.  The safest course appears to be supporting the good work of food pantries, shelters and clinics on a local level without calling public policy attention to systemic forces underlying the needs.  Otherwise, calling for change might call them to change.

To disagree respectfully with Maureen Dowd, the bishops’ stance is not so much an attack on women as it is a sprinting retreat from the gospel.

Join the conversation.  Where do you see moral triumph, and where do you see invitations to be transformed?

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

Iterative Progress

Spiritual maintenance starts with a candid look inward.  For some people, taking an inner inventory feels cathartic and liberating.  For those who are approaching a major life change, introspection can reveal truths that validate their new direction and propel them towards it.  It can give them a new energy and peace for the next life stage.  For others, however, there is just too much pain in the past to confront it all at once.  Twelve Step recovery seekers sometimes describe the Fourth Step “searching and fearless moral inventory” as an onion with layers.  If one doesn’t have the capacity to cut to the core all at once, he peels back as much as he can handle, and then returns to peel back more as he is able.

Some people take this onion layers approach not only to introspection but also to forgiveness.  Forgiving is a key ingredient for healing and spiritual growth.  It is also an obligation in several faith traditions.  Medieval Rabbinic authority Maimonides instructed:

“The offended person is prohibited from being cruel in not [forgoing the other’s indebtedness], for this is not the way of the seed of Israel.  Rather, if the offender has [resolved all material claims] and has asked and begged for forgiveness once, even twice, and if the offended person knows that the other has done repentance for sin and feels remorse for what was done, the offended person should offer the sinner [forgiveness.]”

The stakes are even higher on forgiveness in the Christian tradition.  Scripture makes clear that forgiveness requires forgiving and that God extends it under no other terms.

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.  (James2:13)

Even with intellectual assent to the moral obligation of forgiveness, and an earnest desire to be rid of resentment, releasing it in the act forgiveness can take time.  Resentment acts like terrible blinders that restrict our view.  After releasing resentment for some aspects of wrongdoing, other more subtle aspects of the offense may come into view.  That gives us yet another opportunity to release resentment in deepening forgiveness.

Progress on the spiritual journey is individual.  Our eyes might be opened to great spiritual insights in a flash, and we may wander in a wilderness of uncertainty for long periods.  One child abuse survivor shared her story of coming into the ability to forgive her abuser suddenly and unexpectedly on this blog several months ago.  Whether your ability to release resentment deepens with effort over time or arrives all at once in an unexpected moment, forgiveness lightens our load on the journey.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever discovered something you thought you had forgiven lurking in your psyche?

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