Category Archives: Friendship

My Curmudgeon Speaks

Yesterday I drove a friend home from her chemotherapy appointment. She was starting a new regimen and wasn’t sure how she’d react to it, so she wasn’t sure she would be able to drive herself home.  I was grateful that I was able to help her, considering there isn’t much else that I can do to help her deal with having terminal cancer.  She, on the other hand, was sorry that she had to inconvenience me.  She is uncomfortable with the ways that cancer has forced her to rely on friends for help with stuff she used to be able to easily handle on her own.  I think anyone in her situation would be terrified of just how helpless they could become and how much they might have to rely on others to care for them and for their family before the whole thing would be over.

And you can’t really blame someone for feeling like that.

I don’t think anyone likes to ask for help from others. For some of us, asking for help makes us feel weak and incapable. Here in the US, we like to think of ourselves as independent and resourceful; we don’t rely on others, they rely on us.  How that equation is supposed to work is beyond me. If everyone relies only on themselves, then being reliable for others is impossible.  The math of this equation is beyond me, and I have two master’s degrees, so I’m not going to try and figure that one out. Instead, let’s deal with the assumptions that come with asking for help, one at a time.

Here we go, folks:

The truth is that humans are weak and incapable— every day, all the time, in one aspect or another of our life and health we humans are weak and incapable. Get used to it. No matter how healthy you are today, your body is ultimately frail and bound to fail.  Eventually we will all need the services of a surgeon, a physical therapist, a mental health counselor, an oncologist, a rheumatologist, or a neurologist (just to name a few.)  Eventually the frailty of our body will cause us to rely on our family, our friends, hired help, and even skilled nursing facilities just to be able to attend to our daily needs.  Our bodies are fascinating machines, capable of so much but they are also capable of terrible amounts of sickness, frailty, and failure.

Get used to it.  It isn’t a pleasant thought, but it is important to remember that birth is a terminal disease, as the mortality rate for human beings (as it is for all other living creatures) is 100%. If you are born, you will eventually die, and the majority of people will not come on their death suddenly but instead through a process of decline and increasing disability that will require the assistance of others in order to meet simple daily needs.

Having said that (rather bluntly…but I was hoping that we could talk turkey here on this blog)…

As a counselor, I frequently ask my clients why they have not asked friends and family for assistance when they are really struggling, and I get a host of reasons:

“I don’t want to be a bother.”

“I can never repay them for all their help.”

“I don’t want to be beholden to anyone.”

For my thoughts about the first one of those reasons, see the section above.  You will be a bother occasionally, and that’s the way life works. Get used to being human for the sake of everyone who loves you, please.

But what is our issue with needing to ‘repay’ the good that is done for us?

We seem to view assistance from others as if it is a loan we receive from the bank, requiring repayment with interest.  This is especially evident in the statement “I don’t want to be beholden to anyone.”  This betrays the belief that any assistance we receive is like a debt held over our head to be called in at random when it will be most painful or perhaps even destructive.

Folks…our friends and family members are not loan sharks lurking around, hoping that we’ll need something from them so that they can squeeze us later for whatever we’re worth. If the people who supposedly ‘love’ us behave like that, perhaps it’s time to consider finding a new group of friends and putting some distance between ourselves and our extended families, because there is no love in behavior like that.

The other thing that this attitude betrays is a transactional sense of friendship and love. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”  There is nothing wrong with reciprocity; it gets a lot done in this world. The thing about reciprocity is that it creates a closed system where you only ever give to someone who can give back in equal amounts.  The implication of such a system is that we often end up refusing to give to someone who cannot give back in equal amounts, and that puts service and random acts of kindness out in the cold. It also reduces all of our most loving relationships to simple transactions where we give only so that we can receive in kind.

And that seems to be a huge problem in our society these days: many of us refuse to give to others unless there is something explicit that we can receive in return.  And don’t start on me about how giving to others “feels good”, because the people who refuse to be beholden to others only give for the “good feeling” when their giving is to faceless others like the poverty-stricken folks in Africa.  It’s easy to give to faceless others, and so much harder to give or receive when the face before you is not only known, but in close relation to you; giving like that creates the emotional debt of “beholden-ness” that these people are trying so hard to avoid.

What would happen in the world if we simply abolished the concept of repayment when it comes to kind acts? What would happen if no one was ever beholden to the one who helped them?

I would remind you that Christ, who died so that we might know eternal life, did not expect a payback for his love or his sacrifice.  You cannot give God anything as God possesses everything.  God is not ever in need. Christ did, however, expect that we would take the grace and forgiveness that we received because of him and pass it on.  He asked that we go to all corners of the world, making disciples and teaching them everything that he taught us…basically he asked that we give away all that we’ve learned from him and all that we’ve received from him, and then teach the next recipient to pass it on just as we have.

Jesus…turns out he’s the guy who invented “Pay it Forward.”

Perhaps that’s the answer to our feelings of indebtedness when someone helps us. Don’t pay it back! Take the grace that we’ve been given and pay it forward to the next person who needs us. Give to others as we have been given to. Help others as we have been helped.  And give without thought of repayment because we have been given to by Jesus without any thought of repayment.

And when that day comes that we can no longer give to anyone—on the day that we find ourselves helpless to pay anything forward ever again—let us pay back the service we receive in humble thanks and genuine gratitude, something else that is in short supply these days.

Thank you for enduring my curmudgeonly frustrations.  It isn’t often that I want to use this space to rail against human foolishness.  You are a generous, giving reader and I intend to pay your kindness forward with a less curmudgeonly post shortly in the future.

That is all.

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I’m Gonna Build Me A Wall

I am one of those people who loves metaphors.

God knows, I am plenty verbal.  (Ask anyone who knows me: I will talk your ear off!) Nonetheless, when I need to learn something or teach something to someone else, I look for images or metaphors that will help explain the concept.  Visual images that represent a concept are great because they can gather meaning as time goes along, representing multiple things as you learn more about the concept/subject.  Images that can do this are “multivalient.”   It’s a bizarre made-up word that I learned in seminary that means “more than one meaning” and it only reinforced my desire to use images to represent concepts.

On to our subject for today: WALLS.

I’m a counselor, and when counselors talk about walls, we are usually talking about emotional blockades that people use to keep others at a distance emotionally.  We talk about refusal to be vulnerable and to “let people in” so that they can know the “real you”.

That’s not what I’m talking about today.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about walls, mostly with the focus of keeping undesirable people OUT; walls as a means of keeping the ‘good people’ safe from the ‘bad people’ who want into our country and our economic system.

That’s not what I’m talking about either.

I like to talk about walls when I talk about relationships, especially romantic relationships, and most specifically marital relationships.  The reason that I do that is that so many people have misconceptions about what it takes to make a marriage last, to truly succeed as a couple.  I tell the couples that I am working with that a good love connection is going to be a lot like a really good brick wall.

Here in Arizona, most of our fences are concrete block walls or brick walls, so you see freestanding brick walls in almost every neighborhood.  Every now and then you find a block wall that has collapsed, scattering bricks or concrete blocks as well as chunks of mortar all over the sidewalk and the yard.  On a rare occasion you will find bent rebar (the metal bars used to reinforce block walls) still sticking up out of the ground with a few blocks still intact at the bottom, held in place only because of the rebar.  That’s a rare occurrence, mostly because walls reinforced with rebar don’t ‘collapse’ per-se…usually something happens to bring them down, like an uprooted tree falling on the wall.

What does that have to do with relationships?

Well…block walls are usually built of bricks and mortar, and occasionally rebar. Each of those things represents something crucial to a successful marriage. Let’s start with the bricks.

When it comes to relationships, the bricks represent the common morals, values, and priorities of the couple.

It is very important to have shared morals because it means that behavior that is forbidden for one of you is forbidden for the other, and behavior that is considered laudable for one of you is considered laudable by and for the other.  For instance, the animal rights activist is never going to want a fur coat as a gift from their spouse, no matter how cold the climate they live in, or how much of an expression of love their partner might think that would be.  You might think that shared morals is a given, especially when your partner seems like such a good person, but it takes exploration to suss out the finer points of morals.  Do you cheat on your taxes? Do you take office supplies from work?  Do you lie…to anyone? When is that acceptable and why? Do you support abortion rights? Would you ever opt for an abortion in your own life? What do you do if your child is profoundly intellectually disabled? Would you ever put a child in an institution?  What if you become really rich?  Do you give a bunch of money to charitable organizations? Do you ever give money to family members?  What do you think about helping out adult children with financial issues?

See what I mean? Morals aren’t as easily determined by daily behaviors as we think they are.  Of course, your partner’s daily behaviors say an awful lot about who they are and what their morals are, but you have to ask the hard questions…and answer them yourself as well.  I am consistently shocked by the things my clients reveal that they didn’t discuss before they married…and that topic always comes up because of the problems they are having in their marriage now.

Commonly held values and priorities are also important and act as the bricks in your marital wall.  Let’s use work as an example. Work should hold the same value and your careers the same level of priority for both members of the couple.  This doesn’t mean that one of you can’t stay home to take care of the children, because that is another thing entirely and has to do with your beliefs and values (and priorities) around raising children.  However, a lack of common values and priorities around work can lead to one partner frustrating the other by working long hours for an extended period of time, or by repeatedly changing jobs or careers.  The first illustrates a difference in the how work is valued as a priority, and the second a difference in the value of stability and commitment to career.  Money is another area where common values and priorities are really important, because money is frequently a subject of conflict for couples. One partner usually wants to save and invest and the other partner is more prone to spend and the truth is that there needs to be a balance of both saving and spending as well as financial responsibility focused on a saving for retirement and aged years. This kind of stuff can create major rifts for couples and long term resentment, and these are two things you never want developing in your marriage. In the end, having similar values and priorities allows you to act in concert and support each other as decisions are made and changes occur.   Both of you will feel equally respected and equally committed to each others goals, since after all, those goals will be driven by common values and priorities.

So…you’ve got the bricks to build your wall because you share morals, values, and priorities.  Now you need mortar, and sex and intimacy are the mortar in a relationship.  What separates a partnership/ marriage from a regular friendship is the level of intimacy.  Friendships might have a great deal of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy and the more there is of those three things, the closer and longer lasting the friendship will be.  I frequently tell couples that the best thing they can do is become really good friends as well as lovers, because their friendship will get the relationship through difficult times when they don’t feel as ‘in love’ as they used to be.  The ‘in love’ thing is what brings the flush of sexual intimacy to the fore.  Sexual intimacy takes the other three levels of intimacy and deepens them significantly, and then it ices the cake, so to speak.  Sexual intimacy creates an incredibly strong bond because it’s hard to hide from your partner when you are naked and being sexually expressive. It is the deepest and most private form of intimacy, and I truly believe that it is sacred. Maybe I’ll blog more about that another day, but for now I just want to say that sexual intimacy becomes the mortar that holds all the bricks in place, that brings the wall to a level of cohesion and stability that other relationships cannot reach.

We’ve all had friends who were really good at the sex thing but who lacked commitment to the other person in the relationship. You can call this commitment issues; you can call it “friends with benefits.”  I call this an example of someone trying to build a wall out of mortar alone.  You can do it…you can mound up your mortar and try to build a wall, but it won’t last through any serious storm.  The difficulties that life brings will inevitably cause the wall to slowly disintegrate and crumble.  This is why marriages based in chemistry alone don’t work for very long.  The sex is great and for a while the couple can use the sex to cover up the growing divide between them, but eventually no amount of sex is enough to cover for what isn’t there: real friendship, along with common morals, values, and priorities.

So what’s the rebar for? Well…rebar is there so that the wall can’t be toppled easily.  Like I said, my neighborhood is full of block wall fences, and occasionally they collapse…usually due to harsh weather.  Walls with rebar in them, however, tend to remain standing until something specific happens—something like a car crashing through the wall, or a tree falling in a monsoon, or someone purposely trying to tear the wall down. This is because the rebar is driven into the ground below the wall to anchor the wall and the rebar acts as an internal support for the bricks and mortar.  In a relationship, rebar is made from a common spirituality that often establishes many of the common morals and values.  In my marriage, the rebar is our Christian faith.  When life gets rough, my husband and I turn to God for support and we openly discuss the evidence we see of God’s action in our lives.  We encourage each other in our faith, and when we are struggling, we pray together.  I’m not saying that a couple without a common faith will fail; that simply isn’t true, since those couples have shared values, morals, and priorities and hopefully deep levels of emotional and intellectual intimacy, as well as a robust sex life that builds their wall tall and strong.  However, having gone through quite a few “storms” that tried to tear down the wall of my marriage (a child addicted to cocaine and opiates, the death of both of my husband’s parents, a severely ill child, etc.) I can tell you that a common faith will strengthen the union in ways the common morals, values, and priorities as well as sexual intimacy simply cannot achieve.

Having said all that, my mind wanders to a certain politician that thinks that building a wall will solve some of our problems with Mexico and its citizens. Perhaps he’s right, but only in the sense that focusing on our commonly held values, morals, and priorities might bring us to a much closer relationship that could change everything.  It would be a wall built of bricks alone, as many friendships are…and honestly, it could change everything.   Maybe he’s right. Maybe we should build a wall, one that no one would have to ‘pay for’…but wouldn’t it be worth everything?

Ragamuffin Me

When my oldest daughter Alex was 5 years old and in kindergarten she finally had her first “best friend”.  Her friend’s name was Jessica, and Jessica was a beautiful little girl.  Black hair, bright blue eyes, big smile…Jessica was truly gorgeous.  She was popular too, and sometimes Alex competed for Jessica’s friendship and approval.  Some days Alex won and she came home from school feeling on top of the world.  Some days then other little girls won Jessica’s attention and Alex came home from school sad and quiet.  Then there were days when Alex came home sullen and silent, refusing to eat or be cuddled.  I finally got her to tell me what was going on: sometimes, when the other little girls won Jessica’s attention, Jessica would be mean to Alex and tell her that no one wanted to play with her.  She would tell Alex that her clothes were ugly and that she was stupid and that no one liked her.  And then Jessica and her friends-of-the-day would go off and play.

My heart broke.  I wanted Alex to hate this girl, to reject her, to refuse to have anything to do with her.  But that’s not how it works.  Alex desperately wanted to be her friend, and so all I could do was encourage my pretty little girl to stand up to her friend and tell her that she was being mean.  I told Alex to tell her that there is never any excuse for being mean.  But Alex refused to stand up for herself. Alex was terrified of what would happen, fearing that Jessica would reject her for good and never play with her again.  I told her that it was her choice, but that it made me sad to think she was friends with someone who made her feel so badly.

The funny thing is that I was having my own private battle with Jessica.  Actually, it was with Jessica’s mom.

You see, when I would take Alex to Jessica’s house for play dates, I would show up looking like the harried mother of two children who were both under six years old.  Because I was a full-time student in graduate school, I spent most of my days with my hair in a ponytail, wearing very little makeup and a t-shirt and shorts.  I’d get to Jessica’s house and there was Jessica’s 24 year-old mother, beautiful and young, wearing designer jeans and a delicate blouse, with her hair styled and spiked to match the latest trend. Her house was spotless. Her car was a Mercedes.  Her husband drove a Mercedes as well, and he looked just as perfectly dressed and styled as she did.

I’d walk into their home and instantly feel like an old rag: dirty and crumpled.

I’d sit and make conversation with Jessica’s mom…after all, that’s what moms do.  I’d be polite and ask her questions about herself and her spouse, about Jessica and their plans for other children, about her plans for her own life and career.  I’d shared with her that I was in school…in seminary, actually, and on my way to becoming a minister…and then I’d talk about my former career and how nice it had been to actually have money back when I was still working. We’d chat for a few minutes when I dropped Alex off to play, and then I’d head home only to make a return trip later to pick Alex up and bring her home.  I tried as best I could to be friendly and kind to Jessica’s parents, and to be patient with Alex’s desire to be Jessica’s friend.  I really understood her pain: Alex felt ‘less than’ around Jessica, and I felt ‘less than’ around Jessica’s mom.

One day Jessica’s parents came by our house to pick up Alex.  They were taking Jessica and Alex out for dinner and a movie to celebrate Jessica’s 6th birthday.  Jessica’s mom stood at my breakfast bar, watching me cut vegetables and meat as I prepared dinner for the rest of my family.  She stood there in silence, watching me, and then suddenly she proclaimed:

“God I wish I could be like you!”

My brain came to a sudden, screeching halt.

“You…want to be…like ME? Why?”

She looked me in the eye and spoke what appeared to be a very painful truth.  “You always know what you’re doing. You have a purpose and you’re doing things with your life.  I have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing.  You know who you are, and I have no idea who I’m supposed to be.  I look at you and you are so comfortable in your skin. You know what you’re about and why you’re here. I wish that I could be like that.”

Suddenly I realized that I had felt inadequate because I had been comparing my outside to her outside.  What an idiot I was!  She looked at me and looked right past my outside and through to my inside, where things actually matter.  It made me sad to realize just how empty she felt, especially in comparison with what I felt inside. The truth is that she was right. I knew exactly who I was and what I was about. I may have felt fat and kind of ugly when I compared myself to her, but the rest of the time I was truly comfortable in my own skin. I had a purpose and I knew where God was leading me.  I felt solid in all of the major choices in my life: my marriage, my children, and my choice to give up my career and become a minister.  In her eyes I had everything wrapped up in a neat little package and it was the perfect package.  I had everything she wanted to have and didn’t know how to get.  In her eyes, I had it all.

That was such an epiphany for me!  I wish I could say that I never compared my outside to anyone else’s outside ever again, but that would be a lie.  I did, however, learn to value and find greater joy in being me.  I had to learn to let being me be enough to establish my worth, no matter how I looked on the outside. The other lesson I learned was that being flawlessly beautiful doesn’t grant you any peace in this world. I should have known that intuitively, and I guess I knew it at an intellectual level, but I had never really accepted that truth all the way into my heart.  After that, I found myself looking at beautiful people and wondering if they felt like Jessica’s mother on the inside.   How horrible and painful it must be to feel empty, to feel no comfort in your own skin, no love for your innermost self.

I kept encouraging Alex to stand up for herself when Jessica was mean to her and one day she came home and told me exactly how she did it.  It was one of those days when the other girls had won Jessica’s favor and Jessica was busy telling Alex how stupid and ugly she was and how one liked her.  Alex said that she marched right to Jessica and told her that she was being mean, and that there was no excuse for being mean and then Alex said that she wouldn’t accept that behavior out of Jessica anymore.  She told Jessica that she could be kind and they could be friends, or Jessica could be mean and find her friends elsewhere.  I was so proud!  Then I asked Alex what happened, and she said that Jessica admitted to being jealous of Alex, specifically of how comfortable Alex was with playing by herself or sitting alone and reading a book.  Jessica admitted to being afraid of being alone, and Alex promised that if she wasn’t mean anymore, she wouldn’t have to be alone because Alex would be her friend.  Like mother, like daughter I guess.

I could tell you never to compare your outsides to someone else’s pretty, shiny outside, but I know that you will anyway.

Instead, I’m going to encourage you to spend time making your insides beautiful. Feed your spirit!  Spend time finding meaning and purpose in this life.  Spend time becoming comfortable with who you are as a human being, accepting yourself for both good and bad.  Do all you can to increase the good, and limit the bad.  Know who you are and what you are about, and invest in this.  Spend time cultivating yourself and your personality like a lovely garden, because once people look past your skin, they will see the garden that is you and want to wander inside that garden for hours and hours. They will find peace and refreshment in the garden that is you, and you will become a haven for everyone who loves you.

Never underestimate the power of a beautiful soul, and the allure that it has to others who need a little beauty in their life. And just as birds of a feather flock together, a beautiful soul tends to draw other beautiful souls to itself. What a way to find your friends!

I wish you beauty on the inside.

Random Jesus

Today a friend and I were working in one of the classrooms at church.  After several hours of working together, she looked up and said “Wow…I really like random Jesus.”

What??!

Actually, she was referring to the décor in the room, which was traditional Sunday School décor: a poster advertising an event that happened over a week ago; a map of the world in Biblical times; lots of chairs stacked against the wall; a whiteboard; and the word “Jesus” spelled out in shiny cardboard letters above the window.

Random Jesus, indeed.

The funny thing is that my first thought when she said that was “I really like random Jesus too!”  And I mean that.

I was standing in the parking lot talking to a friend who is a colleague after a meeting this week.  As we walked towards our cars, I realized that she had a new vehicle and commented on that…only to have her burst into tears.  The only reason she has new vehicle is because her son was in a horrible car accident that totaled his car and took the life of his girlfriend Ashley.  After many months of healing and grieving, life had to return to normal and that meant her son needed a car to get to school and work, so my friend gave her son her car because he couldn’t afford a new one.  She and her husband bought a new vehicle…and every time she drives it she is reminded that Ashley is gone and her family will forever grieve her loss. Every time she sees her new car she is reminded that her son was badly injured and easily could have died, leaving my friend and her husband to grieve that loss for the rest of their lives.  We stood in the parking lot crying and admitting that tragedies like this take a long time to stop hurting, and then we prayed.  We blessed Ashley and her family. We blessed my friend’s son and his healing. And then we prayed God’s blessings upon my friend, her ministry, and her car.  I have never prayed blessings onto a car before, but it sure felt like the right thing to do at that moment.

I found myself praying again this morning, getting ready for a meeting.  I got a call from Joe who didn’t have good news to share. The cancer is back and it doesn’t make sense because things were going so well until now.  All I could do was listen to the bad news and then sit alone and pray that God would do the same miracle this time that God did for us when the cancer was first diagnosed. Not long ago, Joe told me that he has stopped praying for himself and has chosen to pray that God will answer the prayers of everyone who prays for him simply so that they will know that God hears them, loves them, and answers their prayers…and so this morning I prayed for everyone who was praying for Joe, asking God to strengthen their faith and show them that their prayers are effective.

Shortly after I took that call, I met with two people from my church, Beth and Troy, so that we could prepare the cardboard testimonies for this coming Sunday.  I thought it might be a good idea to have some folks help me get the signs all lettered and prepared…legible handwriting is a gift many of us do not possess…and then we could photograph the testimonies so they can be projected on the screens during worship.  As we worked we told the stories of how we became Methodist, how we all came to worship at our particular church, and how our faith histories formed us.  After Troy left to help his girlfriend welcome a brand new grandbaby, Beth and I continued discussing our own personal challenges, especially the challenges we have with our kids and our jobs.  We unloaded our hearts and our worries and all of our fears onto one another.  It’s always an anxious thing to talk about those places where things aren’t going smoothly, those places where you feel like you are falling short or should be doing better. We spent a lot of time looking at what we were working on instead of looking at each other because it was hard to say the words we had to say.  Still, it was really good to speak our peace and finally get things off of our chest knowing that we could trust each other; knowing that we were speaking with someone who would listen and not judge; knowing that we were with someone who wouldn’t minimize the struggle or the fear or the pain.  Friends like this are truly friends in Christ and they are priceless!

Random Jesus.  This is Random Jesus.  Those amazing moments when Jesus pops up unannounced and unexpected in the middle of things to make the mundane holy, to create sacred space in the middle of nowhere, to consecrate words and emotions and tears.

One friend sharing her grief.

One friend sharing bad news.

Three friends sharing the story of how they got here.

Two friends sharing their fears and their failures and all the places where they don’t feel like they stand on solid ground.

This is where Jesus shows up and sits with us and gives us ease and peace where formerly only fear and pain existed.  This is how Jesus begins the healing and promises us that we don’t have to do anything alone, and then proves that by providing people to be with us, hear us, sit with us, and walk our journeys with us.  Jesus—his life, his death, and his resurrection—are the promise that we will never have to walk this difficult journey alone, ever, because God likes to show up in flesh.

Blessing a car.

Finding the strength to move forward in the face of death.

Knowing that you are exactly where God wants you to be.

Realizing that we are not enough but we are more than enough through Christ who strengthens us.

Random Jesus.

I really, really like that guy!!