Caught Unaware

I’ve been pondering the plight of the spouses caught unaware in the Petraeus affair.  It seems all the players in the drama sought some personal gain from their relationships with the others.  They were all climbers, but we know little about the spouses.

What we know about Holly Petraeus is she has worked admirably on behalf of military families and she hails from a well-connected military family. We know little else, except that she is facing a very public betrayal.  Even if she had prior suspicions of infidelity, the publicity is humiliating.  She certainly seems to be a victim in the drama.

The Twelve Step tradition teaches addiction recovery seekers to examine their own role in their victimization.  This is a pretty tough teaching.  I know recovery seekers who were victims of child sexual abuse, and they strenuously resist the idea that an innocent child could in any way be culpable for adult actions against him.  I must affirm child victims bear no blame for crimes against them whatsoever.  The most insidious and lasting consequences of abuse are the blame and shame abuse survivors carry into adulthood.

The Twelve Step teaching is pointing to a different occasion of victimization.  Often people wounded in childhood develop behavior patterns that continually rip the scabs off old sores that can never heal.  It is not the initial wounding that is being called out for examination but the response to wounding.  The Twelve Steps teach recovery seekers to examine how impaired responses lead to behavior patterns that expose them to more wounding, and more importantly, what alternative responses are possible.

Holly Petraeus would seem to be in no way accountable for the actions of betrayal by her husband.  His actions are clearly on his side of the street, and he has taken responsibility publicly for that.  Nothing suggests Holly Petraeus experienced childhood wounding or has Twelve Step experience, but nonetheless I do ponder how her own actions may have exposed her to injury.

Let me first reject out of pocket notions that her appearance invited betrayal.  Trying to live up to another person’s or a cultural ideal of beauty is a recipe for unhappiness.  The Twelve Step tradition has a name for it—people pleasing.  People pleasing is seeking affirmation not from what is authentic within our own souls but from others’ opinions of us.  It’s proven to be a losing proposition.   I don’t know if Holly Petraeus has people pleasing tendencies, but she appears not to be a slave to fashion, and I applaud her for that.

What were Holly Petraeus’ alternatives?  She grew up in a powerful military family.  When she married, she chose to stay in the ecosystem that prized her connections.  She could have married outside the military, to someone who might have valued her only for her authentic self.  Attractions are a complex mix of personality, intelligence, soulfulness, and, undeniably, looks and power.  I couldn’t possibly deconstruct her husband’s attraction 38 years ago, much less the attraction of hypothetical non-military suitors.

The question does, however, invite us to contemplate what draws us into relationship.  Am I seeking some personal gain, a lifestyle or cachet?  Do I seek validation based on my connections, looks or power?  Or is it genuine appreciation of another human soul that leads me into relationship?

Join the conversation.  What relationships have most nurtured you and what was your initial attraction?

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

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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’ll Take a Mulligan, Please

Sometimes we veer off course.  It happens to the best and the worst of us.  An adroit reader responding to a post about apologies last week commented, “I wish I could go back and UNDO a few of my sorries.”

Boy, do I identify with that.  I’ve made choices I wanted God not to forgive so much as to magically erase from history, as if they never happened.  If I’m honest about it, though, my desire to undo the past reveals a little unfinished business.

I come from a faith tradition (Christianity) that teaches anyone can be forgiven.  We don’t deserve it, but by grace we can receive it.  The only condition is that we forgive others who did us wrong.  Now that is easier said than done, and I do not want to trivialize how difficult forgiveness can be, but other traditions have a somewhat higher bar.  The Jewish tradition teaches that one must make amends and receive forgiveness from those harmed before seeking God’s forgiveness.  The Twelve Step tradition encourages folks to recognize their wrongs in the Fourth Step and to make amends for them in the Ninth Step.

We Christians can look right past that amends step.  I regularly practice religious confession to a priest, which is a lot like a Fourth Step and a little bit like the vidui, or prayers confession at Yom Kippur.  The Episcopalian practice makes me think hard about my resentments and releasing them in acts of forgiveness.  But the religious practice doesn’t require me to look as hard at repairing the harm I caused.  Of course, I don’t really want to do that anyway, but I can’t help wondering about the wisdom other traditions recognize in making amends.

The conclusion I reached is God doesn’t revise history.  He builds on it, using all the crumbs and brokenness for some good.  When we make amends, we build on our own history, taking something that fell short and lifting it up a notch or two.  It is possible to feel peace with the past, but also to feel disconnected from it.  I speak from personal experience on that count.  I imagine that making amends builds a bridge to that past and redeems it, so that it is no longer something I wish never happened or that I could do over.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner poetically asserts that it is only by embracing our offenses that we can transform them to good and be reconciled to our past.

We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done—not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it.  We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do.  This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations.  We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again.  And thereby transform them and ourselves.  When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.

Join the conversation.  Can you find a holy spark in the meanest, most hurtful things you have done?

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


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.

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.

Spiritual Maintenance

It takes spiritual maturity to recognize dependence on God when things are going well—either before we hit rock bottom or after salvaging life from a broken place.  When we have been saved from that broken place, and when we have experienced some healing and perhaps some spiritual growth, embracing redemption means leaving the past in the past.  We can look inward to see if we are being called to further life change without rehashing the past.  Introspection can focus less on one’s past and more on one’s present relationship with God.

A regular practice of inner inventory will keep us moving from intellectual awareness into action.  Many spiritual traditions rely on introspection to keep us from settling into a comfortable rut.  The Catholic tradition has a practice of confessing weekly before celebrating mass.  Early Buddhist texts indicate monks confessed individual faults to a superior privately twice a month at the full and new moons.   Jews observe Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, annually with prayers of confession spoken aloud in community.  Outside of ancient religious traditions, Twelve Step addiction recovery programs rely on the power of introspection in the Fourth Step, searching and fearless moral inventory, but also as an ongoing practice.  The Tenth Step calls for frequent inventory in order to make prompt amends.

What is the optimal interval?  It’s individual, of course.  Some Twelve step recovery programs encourage nightly examination.  Several protestant traditions incorporate weekly confession into Eucharistic prayers.  When we look at our challenges with a daily or a weekly focal length, however, we can overlook patterns.  Most of us have to step back from what occupies us day-to-day and week-to-week to discern the major themes at work in our present journey.

Jewish and some liturgical Christian traditions also give a framework for annual self-examination with Yom Kippur and Lent.  For a truly searching and fearless moral inventory of the patterns in my life, I find that a yearly interval is practical.  Embracing your own new life alongside others in your faith community can intensify the experience.  Traditional symbolism can deepen meaning as well.  Alternatively, confessing annually on the anniversary of a first confession or, in the case of addiction recovery seekers, the anniversary of one’s last drink may have special meaning.

An American commentator (and I am hopeful an alert reader will remind me of which one) drew the analogy that a white fence grows black over time unless it is repainted every year.  We, too, are in need of spiritual maintenance at intervals.

Join the conversation.  How do you know whether you need spiritual maintenance if you don’t stop to look?

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

Fourth and Fifth Step Healing

“The First Step was easy.  If I’ve gotta do all twelve, then the Second and Third can go pretty quick too, whatever they mean.  But Step Four, that’s where the real work starts.”  The Fourth Step is a searching and fearless moral inventory, and the Fifth Step is admitting aloud the exact nature of one’s wrongs to another human being and to God.

I asked one recovery seeker about his biggest obstacle starting the Fourth Step, and he laughed, “The Fourth Step dread that formed instantaneously the very first time I laid eyes on the Twelve Steps!”  Another recovery seeker, focusing on the quickest possible cure, bought one Twelve Step guide and did the first three steps, but the guide didn’t provide a simple prescription for the Fourth Step.  He bought a second book and did the same.  Disappointed in how the second book approached the Fourth Step, he got a third book.  After repeated disappointment, he realized there was no quick Fourth Step answer.  It had to come from within himself, not from a guide.

Both responses are utterly human.  This blog’s regulars will recall the fable of Sufi Mullah Nasruddin and his house key.  Nasruddin searches frantically for the key to his house outside under a lamp post.  His neighbors come to his aid, and after hours of searching, one asks where he was when he lost the key.  Nasruddin replies he lost it in his house. The neighbor asks, “Why are you looking outside?” Nasruddin responds, “Because the light is better out here under the lamp.”

Like Nasruddin, we find it infinitely easier to analyze external conditions than to take a candid look inward.  Healing, however, requires us to leave the light of the lamp post and to go deep into the darkness of our own houses.  What impedes our journey is less fear of what anyone else will think of us than fear of what introspection will bring to light for ourselves.  As we embark on introspection, the prospect of facing our less than best moments is uncomfortable.  For those who suspect that they won’t like (or can’t live with) the person they find, it is terrifying.  If I have negotiated an uneasy peace with my past, introspection might feel like opening Pandora’s box.

Some report the work of introspection, although painful and exhausting, to be cathartic.  They want to get the ugly secrets they have been hiding exposed to the light of day.  Where the Fourth Step can feel cathartic, the Fifth Step can be intensely emotional.  “Acknowledged in AA literature as one of the most difficult steps to take (and one often avoided), the Fifth Step is also one of the most necessary to long term sobriety and genuine peace of mind,” observes one Twelve Step guide. The guide quotes a life-long Roman Catholic, a priest who had experienced the religious sacrament of confession innumerable times, about his experience of confession in the Fifth Step:

In retrospect, I associate it with a turning point in my life: an experience of inner healing, an event that revealed to me a loving God who had always been so near and yet so far.

Join the Conversation.  Which of the Twelve Steps do you think is hardest?

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