Tag Archives: Wisdom

Reality?

Today I found myself discussing something I know very little about.

Reality TV.

I was with my girlfriend, sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting for them to call us back to the examination room…and wouldn’t you know it? They had a copy of US Magazine in the waiting room. It was full of coverage of the Real Housewives of (some urban area in a city that I don’t live in).

You know that show, don’t you?

Okay…I have to admit that I have never watched a Real Housewives of (any city) because I don’t have cable TV and I am unwilling to pull it off of Hulu or Netflix.  I have never, for one minute of my life, compared my life as a housewife in Phoenix to anyone who considers themselves a ‘Real Housewife’ of anywhere else.  I don’t know that I’d survive the comparison.  First of all, I love my husband, but we are NOT that kind of rich.  Second, I love my husband, but being an engineer at Boeing does not make you any kind of famous. Finally, I love my husband, but he did not marry a woman who can be classified as “hot” housewife…not even remotely.  Then there’s the problem that neither I or my friends look good in designer gowns.

So there it is. I may be a housewife, but I’m not very ‘Real’.  Bummer, man.

Even so, my girlfriend and I looked at the pictures in US Magazine and were like WTH???

They had pictures of a lavish baby shower, a party of such epic importance that thousands of dollars were spent decorating the room where the baby shower was held; thousands more were spent on the catering and designer cake/cocktails/party favors.

I was incredulous.  Every baby shower I had ever attended was held in the conference room at the company where I worked. No lavish decorations. No interior designer. No custom cupcake flavors. No epic surprise gifts that had to be wheeled in while I closed my eyes.  The truth looked more like this: cake from Costco. Balloons from Party City. Pizza from Dominos or Pizza Hut. Gift money loaded onto a gift card by a motivated coworker who organized the entire party because they really, really liked me, or at the very least really, really wanted to be an event planner.

I was grateful for the gifts and the attention, and I considered it a bonus that my company allowed us all to slack off our work for 30 minutes or so to eat pizza and cake and celebrate something as obnoxious as impending maternity leave for a critical team member (that was me!)

It was nice to be considered ‘critical’ even if it meant that I couldn’t take the full twelve weeks of maternity leave.

As I sat there, waiting in the doctor’s office with my friend, I found that I didn’t know how to process all the slick pictures of balloons that were color coordinated to the theme of the baby’s nursery. I had no idea what it must be like to be a mom famous for being married to someone, enjoying a party for a person who isn’t yet born, eating catered food from a famous chef and a cake that cost more than I earn in a month.  I was a little disgusted by the excess and frustrated that I was expected to be deeply interested in gratuitous displays of wealth and privilege that have little to do with the event being celebrated.  Basically, the entire event spoke volumes about the wealth of the parents, the wealth of their friends, and the fame they had for being wealthy. There really wasn’t much to be said about the unborn child who was supposedly being celebrated, unless you count the sterling silver Tiffany rattle and the  top-of-the-line diaper service given as gifts, because doesn’t every newborn need precious metals to chew on and the softest, whitest diapers made of sustainable bamboo fibers washed in ecologically safe, non-sulfate detergents?

For a moment, can we admit that ‘Reality TV’ is an oxymoron? If you are watching TV, you are only accidentally (if at all) observing anything approaching reality.

I am not saying that TV never portrays reality. I have seen actual reality on television more than once. In fact, I can think of several instances when I watched actual reality untold on TV in real time.

I remember watching Harry Reasoner lose his composure in the hour after the news broke that Ronald Reagan had been shot. Reasoner, having lived through Kennedy’s assassination, was desperate to know if Reagan was alive or dead, if he was announcing the mourning of a nation or the failed attempt to assassinate the symbol of American power.

I remember watching the newsmen running away from the Alfred P Murrah building in Oklahoma City after they suspected a second bomb had been found. The chaos was terrifying as cameramen and reporters frantically ran from the site of the initial bombing and the bodies of hundreds who were massacred by Timothy McVeigh.  Later on, I watched reporters cry as they announced that McVeigh had bombed a building with a daycare onsite, and that children were among the dead.

I remember listening to the horrified reporters who watched as victims jumped from the upper floors of the burning World Trade Center buildings. The shock was evident in their voices; they were unable to contain their sorrow. I listened to the stunned silence of those same reporters as we watched the twin towers collapse in plumes of smoke and debris.

I have seen reality on television and it isn’t pretty or polished; it is never color-coordinated. It has nothing to do with the rich and the powerful. Reality on TV has always had to do with tragedy and sorrow, when editors had no time to polish the report before it was put on camera, when no political spin could be achieved because the news was too bloody and fresh to be politicized.

Anything glibly called ‘Reality TV’ today is actually nothing more than TV, filmed on location with minimal script. I’d like to say that it has little political agenda, but Reality TV has always tended to show  Americans as people who either fight to survive in some competition (thus showing our physical prowess and strength of will) or as people of wealth and finesse (thus showing our financial dominance and well-deserved opulence) which means that reality TV is rife with political agenda. In essence, American ‘Reality TV’ shows are nothing more than an advertisement for the American dream, selling the world on the idea that we are stronger, richer, smarter, and more powerful than everyone else. It’s a slick lie that we foist on ourselves and on anyone who chooses to consume the propaganda of American wealth and dominance.

I normally don’t disparage our nation or our broadcasting networks quite this much, but today I am disgusted by what the media feeds us (and the world) about our country, when the best nature of the people in the United States has always been illustrated in the midst of ‘actual reality’, which tends to be one damn disaster after another. Americans display our best qualities when we are busy doing anything and everything we can to help one another despite whatever disaster has overcome us at the moment: natural disasters, financial disasters, terrorism, wars, you name it. The best qualities of US residents are always found in our response to the uglier realities of our day-to-day existence, no matter what we glorify on television.

Did you notice that I tried to include all persons living in the US? That’s because living in the US tends to draw us into a sense of common good, whether we are immigrant or long-term citizen, no matter our skin color, no matter our ethnic ancestry, no matter our current identification of citizenship or belonging. To live in the US is to slowly join in the hope that we truly can become ONE despite our differences, that there really is a great melting pot. To put a fine point to it, the diversity of this nation is its strength and its greatest gift. As a melting pot, we are deliciously wonderful, and I couldn’t be more pleased with my actual nation…far more pleased with its messy reality than the glorified version of it that is sold in the media. I know that much is wrong in the US and there is much to be addressed before there can be peace, safety, and equality for everyone, but I have faith that love is stronger than fear and that we are stronger than the hatred we were taught by culture indoctrination. Let me assure you: the struggles and tragedy that we all live with make us one homogenous mass of people in need, and in those moments we transcend our fears and serve each other in the most beautiful ways.

And that, my friend, is real REALITY. It isn’t pretty, but it is everything that I value: committed, selfless, and absent of artificial boundaries.

May God make it so, and soon.

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Always Be Yourself, Unless You Can be Batman…Then Be Batman

I was getting a massage today when my massage therapist asked about my dad.  I’ve told her quite a bit about the situation with my father over the last six months because it is such a major source of stress.

Yes…I talk during massages, which I know is odd, but I fall asleep if I just silently lay there and I’m not going to sleep through something I paid for, so…

Did you notice the title of my blog is …because it’s hard to shut me up?

I talk…a lot.

But I digress…

My massage therapist asked about my dad and I told her all about my last visit with my dad, which was really good, and my mom’s last encounter with my dad which was not good at all.  My dad became very agitated and began demanding to know why he can’t live at home with my mom. We’ve explained this to him multiple times and he never remembers, and while explaining it again really isn’t a problem, he doesn’t want to hear it. No one wants to hear that they are so demented and feeble that they require more care than their loved ones can provide, let alone that they can’t come home because they are violent and uncontrollable.

My heart breaks for my mom, who bears the brunt of his anger. At the same time, I am beginning to wonder if frequent visits, originally meant to keep my dad from feeling lonely, are actually making him agitated and uncomfortable.

Mom and I discussed the situation earlier this week after he yelled and cursed at her for refusing to take him home. My mother worries that he’ll never get out of the behavioral unit at his memory care facility. I worry that we’ll never manage to find the right balance of visits and absences, which will force us to stop visiting just so that he can stop having episodes of agitation and violence.

There are times when I genuinely fear that I will never get to see my father again.

I realize that there is nothing preventing me from visiting my father. It’s not like the Lord posted an angel with a flaming sword at the door. (I mean, the memory care facility is nice, but it’s not that nice.)*  The thing is that I want my father to be happy, to have some modicum of joy in his life, and I am willing to give up my visits with him if that is what will make his life the most joyful.  If my mother’s visits are what is causing his agitation, I am willing to be the only one visiting him even though that increases the amount of time I will need to spend visiting him. And I am committed to supporting my mother in her partial or total withdrawal from my father because no one deserves to be pummeled with verbal abuse and threats of violence.

I explained all this to my massage therapist, and that is when she got a bit teary eyed and said very nice things about me. She called me thoughtful and compassionate and a whole lot of other very nice things.  I appreciated her words, but that has very little to do with my thoughts and feelings about visiting my dad.

What does?  Authenticity.

What does that have to do with my dad?

Let me explain.

Being authentic is about constantly embodying who I am and who I want to be in the world. I know who I am, both good and bad, and I know who I want to be as a pastor, counselor, friend, wife, mother, and daughter.

When I am trying to decide what to do about my dad and how I want to be with my dad, I ask myself: Who am I in relationship? Who do I want to be as a daughter? What do I believe that good daughters do and how should I express that?

Notice I didn’t say “What do good daughters do?” because that question gets answered with a lot of BS from culture, society, church, and all the other systems that I participate in that want to lay claim on the role of ‘daughter’. I am not interested in what other people think. I want to be a good daughter to my father, and that means that I need to remember what matters to me.

Again, let me explain. Society tells us that good daughters visit their dads regularly because not doing so means that you are abandoning your parent in their old age. Society says that good daughters encourage their fathers to eat healthy and exercise so that they live a long life.

I believe that good daughters love their elderly fathers enough to attend to their father’s needs, even if that means that things are not the way the daughter wants them to be. If that means that we visit weekly, so be it. If that means we only visit once a month, so be it. If that means that Daddy lives in his PJs and eats cookies for every meal, so be it. My vanity and my needs for things to look or appear some certain way is meaningless. My desire to have my dad be healthy and live as long as possible is meaningless. What matters is that my dad needs to have a little joy in his life again before he dies. He hasn’t had much joy for quite a few months now, so a little joy before he dies is my goal as a daughter, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else (except my mother) thinks ought to be happening.  And when it comes to my mother, I encourage her to think about her own needs and not just my father’s needs, because she has spent the last nine years as a caregiver, putting Daddy’s needs first, and that has to stop. My dad is in a memory care facility now. Someone else takes care of Daddy’s daily needs and my mom needs to return her primary interest to herself so that she can have a little joy too. My mom needs to find a meaningful life alone, separate from her husband, whom she has served for 54 years.  My mom and dad have differing needs, and I—as their daughter—need to be mindful of both so that I can be a good daughter to both of them.

Does all that sound exhausting? Sometimes it is, and many of you may be thinking that I have bought into the cultural BS of the ‘Good Daughter who Sacrifices for her Parents’. Of course, you are free to think that. Personally, that’s not where I am.  I want to know that when I look in the mirror at the end of the day, and it’s just me, my reflection, and my God, that I have been who God created me to be in this world. My job here is to be authentically me…and for me, being a good daughter to both my parents matters a lot, just like being a good mom to both my daughters matters a lot.

Thank God I only have one husband!

So for this week, being a good daughter means that I call the social worker at the memory care facility and discuss what to do when visitation seems to be the cause of agitation. I’m betting that the social worker will have some suggestions and that together we can figure out a plan to help both my mom and dad find a little joy in every day.  If not, well, at least I tried my best to do what I believe a good daughter would do. And at the end of the day, that’s all the comfort I have to give myself.

So far, it works for me.

And as for being a good Christian, I take my comfort from the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus appears to be cranky, impulsive, emotional, and irascible.  If the goal is to be Christlike, I do believe that I am almost there, which is probably a blog post for a different day.

Until that day…

*  Remember the Garden of Eden?  See Genesis 3:23-24.

Demented Perfection

Dementia.

That word strikes fear into the heart of anyone who hears it spoken either in reference to themselves or to their loved ones.  Dementia is a strange death sentence in that it steals your life but leaves you alive; you or your loved one becomes a shell of themselves, unable to think clearly, unable to remember their loved ones, unable to be and do the very things that make them who they are.

And yet I wonder…

Does dementia strip us to our very core, eliminating everything but the nut of who we are? Or does dementia choose for us who we will be? Does dementia twist us out of our own personality and being into some caricature of ourselves, leaving our family with someone who looks just like us but acts like a total stranger?

I ask these things because I am losing my father by degrees, even though he still looks the same.

Only 30 days ago I could talk to my father over coffee and know who he was. He would complain about my mom at length, but eventually he would ask me about my daughters and my husband; he would ask me about my counseling practice and my ministry. We could laugh about the past and tell stories about his childhood and mine.  His stroke in 2009 may have stolen some of his ability to speak, but it didn’t steal his ability to communicate his love and who he was. My father still had his sense of humor and his concern for our entire family.

In late January 2018, my father fainted, fell, and broke all the bones in his face. The injury was so severe that it advanced his dementia dramatically; he lost both physical and mental abilities. The ten days he spent in the hospital made it clear that my father was so demented that my mother would never be able to bring him back home. After a short stay in a skilled nursing facility for physical therapy, we placed my father in a memory care center.***

Sadly, ever since about seven days after his hospitalization, my father has had only one thought: my mother, and why she isn’t taking him home. His anger increases by the day and so does his agitation. I tried bringing my two dogs to visit my dad at the memory care center so that he had something else to focus on, but he continued to have a one-track mind. The staff have been unable to derail his thought process; I have been unable to derail his thought process; sadly, my mom’s visits have done nothing but increase his anger and aggressiveness.

To put this in plain language, when my mom shows up he threatens to beat her severely and has even threatened to kill her several times.

The whole thing just might kill me.

I live in fear that one day dementia will take me down this path and I will suddenly become a monster that terrorizes my own family; I fear that my words will become weapons and I will become a burden they ought not to bear, not even for love.

This is why I wonder if dementia decides who we will be, or if we are simply stripped to our core.

If dementia decides for us, there is much to be afraid of but little to do, except try to remain optimally healthy with low cholesterol numbers and CRP (C Reactive Protein) counts. After all, if dementia decides who we will be then we can only hope to avoid dementia and the various diseases that cause it (strokes, other brain injuries, Parkinson’s, etc.)

On the other hand…and of course, this is the option that causes me even more pain…

I am not even going to attempt to understand how this violence and anger can be all that was at my father’s core. It is very painful to think about, and it wouldn’t change anything or make what is happening easier to bear.

So…

If dementia strips us to the very core, to the nut of our personality, then it is time to examine what sits in the center…the sin, self-centeredness, and cruelty that we try to hide from anyone and everyone. No matter how much I love Jesus and how faithfully I serve, I am only human and there is nothing good in the center, if you know what I mean. I am constantly aware of my own failure and the unkind thoughts that rise in me with every demand to serve or to set myself aside. I am painfully aware of who I am, and the sinfulness to undergirds that. Thinking that this is what my family will face if I am stripped to my core by dementia is terrifying! I never want to be that person, not to anyone else and definitely not to the people I love the most.

This is when I become aware of how important it is to consistently submit to Christ and to the work of sanctifying grace.  I find great comfort in the thought that I can let the Holy Spirit and grace so transform me that nothing but grace will be left at the center; that in the absence of any other part of my personality, what will be left is love, kindness, and mercy. Strangely, I find comfort in the idea of sitting in a memory care unit, sweetly thanking my caregivers and my family, even when I no longer know who they are.

I suppose that I should be grateful that I had this realization while I am still relatively young and healthy, while I am still able to allow Jesus to transform me from the inside out. For that, I thank my father, because I might not have realized this otherwise.

Having said that, I am also praying for a strange dichotomy to occur in my mind. I want to consign my father’s behavior to dementia’s choice so that I can keep visiting him and love him despite his behavior and the pain it causes me. I also want to remain thoroughly convinced that I need to be transformed at the very center to avoid my father’s fate, so that I do not give up the quest for sanctifying grace and Christian perfection in this life.  And if my father’s legacy is that he causes me to seek after grace and perfection, that would be a fitting tribute to his life, don’t you think?

 

***  We were assisted by SeniorPlanning.org, an organization that helps families with a variety of housing needs for seniors who cannot live without assistance. They charge no fees to the family and are comprehensive in their services. I cannot recommend them highly enough and encourage you to take the time to acquaint yourself with them. They are sensitive to each family’s needs and do not try to fit every family into the same solution. Their help saved us weeks of trying to find our way to the right memory care facility for my father.

 

This is the Thanksgiving of Our Discontent

Over the last few weeks we have heard an onslaught of accusations and allegations of sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, and sexual harassment against famous and powerful men. Power players in Hollywood, politicians, comedians and actors, and now even well-known journalists and newsmen.

As a former victim of sexual abuse, you would think that I would rejoice to see the powerful brought low for their crimes against the powerless and the helpless, for their abuse of their power and how they use their money to cover up their crimes and silence their victims.

Strangely, no.

Instead I am disheartened and hurt.

Bill Cosby was a childhood hero, a funny man who made my parents and I laugh; a man who made me believe that good old family values transcended race and economic status.

Charlie Rose was a journalist and newsman that I felt restored integrity to the trade by avoiding infotainment and sticking to the actual news, reported with honesty, focusing on what was already known and not wild conjecture.

Al Franken was a comedian whose comedy I adored (ah, Stuart Smalley…you are good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people do like you!). I tended to agree with his politics, and I respected his choice to give up a lucrative career in entertainment to enter the ugly world of politics. I had high hopes that he would bring a voice of reason to what had become a highly conservative and reactionary Congress.

All fallen…them and a dozen more.

It hurts my heart to have trusted and believed in the integrity of men who proved unworthy of my faith and my admiration.  And yet…

I am reminded of the mighty statue with feet of iron and clay in Daniel 2:21-45.  In this passage Daniel interprets a dream for Nebuchadnezzer, and he tells him:

“As you saw the feet and toes partly of potter’s clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom; but some of the strength of iron shall be in it, as you saw the iron mixed with the clay.  As the toes of the feet were part iron and part clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle.”

I think Daniel might actually be describing the American government as it currently stands, but that is another blog post entirely.

Traditionally, the saying “feet of clay” is meant to convey the fragility of power and the ways that the powerful often fall when their flaws and weaknesses—their feet of clay—are exposed.  The weak clay, unable to hold up the gilded image of themselves they have projected to the people, breaks, and down they fall, disgraced and broken.

The mighty are often slain on a sword of their own making.

This has been weighing heavily on my heart for an entire week.

Then this morning I went to yoga. Yoga is an interesting workout because it is simultaneously active and meditative; you focus on your breath and on honoring your body and its limits while pushing that same body to the edges of its limits and holding it there.

Strength in peace and peace in strength all while honoring weakness and frailty. The perfect balance.

Our suggested intention for our practice was gratitude, and so I listed the things I am grateful for as I moved through the poses.

Family. Friends. A loving church family.

My husband. My children. The family that we have created. How that family has persisted in trial and trouble, and how we nurture each other during those times.

The health of my body.  The chronic illness that keeps me humble and mindful of my limitations.

Gray hairs, and a life long enough to see them begin to sprout on my head.

Then I moved beyond the obvious and began to think of all that had been dragging me down the last few weeks. I decided to try and find gratitude even in that and was pleasantly surprised.

I am grateful to live in a nation where half the country hates the president but trusts that our nation is strong and steady enough to endure the effects of his administration and move on to elect a better/different/equally flawed leader in the next election cycle.

I am grateful to be a part of a culture that is changing and becoming unwilling to endure endemic racism and sexism. I am grateful to have born two children into a new generation that has no patience to wait for changes to slowly come over time; in their mind it must happen NOW.

I am truly grateful for a society that allows its leaders to fall, to repent, and to find grace and place in society again.

I was born in the early 1960s, a time in this country’s history when there was great social unrest: race riots; a president and his brother had been murdered; a great social leader had been assassinated.  The whole country heaved and spasmed with change that lasted over several decades as people of color and women fought for equal rights and equal opportunities.  It seemed like the fabric of our country was being torn into shreds.

Yet here we are, fighting even more battles as we uncover abuses of power and continued racial and sexual discrimination and abuse.

God has made us stronger than we realize, and our greatest blessing is that we can not only endure such painful change but grow and become better because of it.

So this Thanksgiving, after you express your gratitude for your obvious blessings, express a little gratitude for the mess that things seem to be at this moment because God is still working on that mess, and only God knows what good He will bring out of it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of you and yours!

 

And She Kept Dancing

Several years ago I worked with a client who was dying of stage 4 colon cancer. Cynthia** came to me because she was afraid of dying, and as a Christian, she felt that she shouldn’t have to be afraid of death. I promised to help her the best that I could and agreed to meet with her weekly.

To begin our work, we examined our inner images of death, because the mental images we have for death provide a vivid picture of how we conceptualize death and how we feel about death. Images of skulls and coffins came to mind for Cynthia, which both of us thought was kind of hackneyed and meaningless—and therefore not very helpful. I on the other hand, found myself immediately flooded with images of skeletons holding guitars, dressed in mariachi clothing.  I get it: I live in the Phoenix area, and Halloween is closely followed by Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations; there are sugar skulls everywhere. Still…when did Death go all Mexican on me? When I told Cynthia how I couldn’t shake the image of a guitar-playing skeleton in mariachi clothing, she and I laughed for a good five minutes.

Counseling is much like a winding road, and Cynthia and I ended up spending a lot of sessions talking about the clinical trials she had joined in hopes of extending her life. We talked about her family’s fear that she would die before she got a chance to live a full life, as Cynthia had never married or had children. At this point, Cynthia had given up on those dreams and was just trying to live long enough to help her family accept her impending death.

One of the tricky things about counseling is that the longer you work together, the closer the friendship becomes. A client once described me as “a paid friend who helps me cut through my own BS and get real” and this is actually a very good description of the counseling relationship. But sometimes there is no BS to cut through, and then your counselor is the paid friend who encourages you to say out loud all the stuff the rest of your friends are afraid to hear. I did my best to be that kind of friend for Cynthia, and we spent many of our sessions saying a lot of very scary things about life and death and terminal illness.  We did a lot of good work in the first few months that we met, but we struggled to achieve the goal she set when she came to counseling: to stop fearing death.

Cynthia and I had been working together almost six months when the inspiration of the Holy Spirit spoke. An image came to me of two women in the late 1940s, close friends, dressed to the nines,*** and heading to a dance, both hoping to meet the man of their dreams. When I say they are dressed to the nines, I mean the whole enchilada: hats, gloves, dress coats, elegant beaded purses, high heels, stockings, fancy dresses, pearls and jewels. I pictured two absolutely stunning women who were ready to dance the night away. I imagined them arriving at the party; very quickly one of the women meets an incredibly handsome man and begins dancing. Seeing her friend dancing so happily, the other woman quickly realizes that her friend needs help; she approaches her and says “Hey! Give me that purse! You can’t keep dancing holding on to that purse. I’ll hold it for you.” The dancing woman hands over her purse gladly so that she can keep dancing the night away. A few songs later, her friend approaches again. “Hey! You’re going to melt if you don’t take that coat off.  You can’t keep dancing in that coat!”  And so the dancing woman hands over her coat, and then later her hat, and then her gloves, and then her high heels, each time relinquishing them so that she can keep dancing, so that she can keep savoring every moment of this spectacular experience.

Keep that image in mind, because I want to remind you that in life, there are many moments—we usually call them milestones, or rites of passage—that are one-way doors. Once you pass through them, you can never go back. For instance, graduating high school is a one-way door. Graduating high school is the official entry to adulthood; never again will the entire community you live in collude to help you succeed. Once you graduate, the community considers you are an adult and in many ways, you are on your own; your success or failure is up to you. Likewise, getting married is a one-way door. Once you are married, you will never be single again. You might be divorced or widowed, but you will never be single ever again. The same is true of parenthood: once the baby is born, no matter what happens to your child, you will always be a parent.  Though we mostly fail to recognize the gravity and irreversibility of these moments, one-way doors represent the death of our old self—a self that is lost to us forever, a self that can never be regained.  In this way, death has been with us from the very beginning of our life.  We experience hundreds of little deaths as we pass through the various phases of life; as we age, we lose parts of ourselves that can never be regained or retrieved, except in memory. Strangely, it was graduation from college that revealed this truth to me, as I realized that I would probably never again have the luxury of being so self-focused.  The previous four years of my life had been focused on gaining knowledge and skills, preparing for my career, and developing close friendships that would sustain me as I moved on to the next phase of my life. I felt that I would never have another period in my life that would be this self-focused and uncomplicated, and as excited as I was to graduate, the moment was soaked with bittersweet sadness because graduation marked the end of this part of my life forever.

The truth is that we can’t avoid these losses. I mean, really, who wants to be a high school student for the rest of their life?  Many of the one-way doors we pass through in our lives are based on our deep desire to move into another phase of our life; most of the time we choose to step through that doorway on purpose. In order to embrace the parts of life that are coming towards us, we have to let go of what needs to pass. We cannot be young forever. We cannot be a carefree child and still have the rights and privileges of an adult. Basically, if you want the good stuff of life, you have to let go of the old and move forward into the new. Our lives are one long list of little deaths, one after another, mostly gladly accepted so that our lives can continue to grow and change and evolve.  Without these little deaths, abundant life isn’t actually possible.

And now we are back to the two women at the dance. The dancing woman is YOU, loving every minute, cherishing the dance of life.  And Death is your close friend, coming to you again and again, prompting you to let go of what you no longer need, to let go of what must pass from your hands. And once you hand something to Death, you can’t have it back. Let go of that coat, and you will never have it again; Death will hold it for you so that you have it as a memory, but you will never have that coat again.  Death comes to take these things from you, not because she is a cold, heartless, witch (you understand me) but because Death knows that this is the only way that you will be able to keep dancing. Don’t you understand? Death votes for life, every single time!  One thing after another, Death comes to take things from you so that you will go on in the dance, continuing to enjoy all that life offers as you pass through milestones and birthdays, marriages and children, careers and retirement, aging and disability.  Death stands there, waiting for the next moment when you need to let go, to let something pass from your life. She comes to you gently, encouraging you to let go and keep dancing.  Death waits on you and never leaves you, just so that you can go on dancing. Death is not the enemy! Death votes for life every time.

At the very end, Death comes to take her friend to the dressing room. After all that dancing, Death knows that her friend is sweaty and exhausted; it’s time to get out of those clothes and shed that stupid girdle that has been made her flesh ache more and more as the dance went on. That ache was almost unbearable by the time they left the dance, and Death is eager to free her friend from her pain. And there they are, Death and her girlfriend, in the dressing room pulling off the sweaty clothes and that damn girdle. Any woman who has ever had to take off her tight foundation garments knows what this is like: you pull, and you tug, and you huff and puff and it seems hopeless and yet you and your friend are laughing so hard you can hardly breathe. And outside the door of the dressing room is the woman’s dance partner and all of her friends from the dance.  And they knock on the door and they call to her: “What are you doing in there? Are you okay?  Are you sure that you’re okay?!”  But the woman can hardly answer anymore, or maybe she does but not in words that her family and friends can hear with human ears. Death finally helps her friend shed all those clothes and her earthly flesh that was becoming so uncomfortable…and that beautiful woman opens the dressing room door, and all her friends are gone.  She finds an entirely different group of people waiting for her; it’s everyone who left the dance before she did. And Death…Death doesn’t follow where she is going, because she is going on to an entirely new life; she is joining the dance that never ends. Death doesn’t get to follow…she hangs behind, holding on to everything her friend used to be. Death says to her friend, “Don’t worry about me. Go on! There’s so much more where you’re going.  I’ll be fine.”

Death votes for life every time, here on Earth and again in the next life.

Death votes for life every single time.

Death is not the enemy. Cancer is an enemy. Heart disease in an enemy. Addiction is an enemy. There are plenty of enemies that must be fought, but Death is not one of them. God sends Death with us to be our lifelong friend when we are born, because Death votes for life every time, and only Death can usher us back into His arms in the end.

I write this for my friend who is ready to begin this final journey. Cancer is her enemy and I hate cancer more than I can tell you. I am doing my best to make my peace with Death because Death is doing the best she can to help my friend to her eternal home. I pray that Death takes her time with my friend because so many of us are not ready to let her go.  I pray that God grants her a little more time in this dance, because while it is nothing compared to what is coming, this dance is sweet beyond words.

 

**Cynthia is her real name. She died in 2010, and tell this story to honor her life, our friendship, and the work we did together.

***For you youngsters, ‘dressed to the nines’ means dressed in your very fanciest clothes.

Epic Fail Birthday

This has been one of those weeks when I feel like an epic failure.

Not that everything has gone wrong this week. Far from it; in fact, many good things have happened this week. What has me feeling like an epic failure is that something went wrong with one of my clients—like wrong—and she quit therapy abruptly, which usually causes me to seriously question if I am burnt out, if I am in need of a tune-up of my skills, or if I am just slowly losing my mojo as a therapeutic person.

Obviously, I cannot share any specifics of what happened, since I want to (and legally need to) respect my client’s privacy. Let it suffice to say that we had a major parting of the ways over a religious issue; my client is very conservative and is an activist in this area, and I am a committed progressive that does not believe that my morals should ever dictate what other people are allowed to do. We have laws to dictate behavior; after that, my morals should stop with me.

I have to admit that I view this person as an extremist. I say that because she holds an ethical viewpoint that labels anyone who disagrees with this viewpoint as immoral and of lower personal character.  I also view her as an extremist because she spouts “statistics” and “facts” without really examining if those statistics and facts meet the test of simple logic, which means her belief is unexamined and also unchallengeable.  After all, how do you challenge someone’s viewpoint once they have chosen to simply accept whatever data they are fed by their ‘leader’ without any critical thinking?

This is where I got into trouble with her.  She was sharing her views and statistics, and I lost my ability to smile and remain silent.  And of course, that loss is why I feel like an epic failure right now. I’m not okay with losing my patience with someone and arguing against their opinion. I’m not supposed to speak sternly to a client, ever. I’m not okay when I act like this whether it happens with clients or just with people in general. Sadly, I find myself behaving like this often enough for me to be embarrassed to admit to it.

It’s my birthday today, and I keep hoping that my increasing age will grant me greater amounts of patience, compassion, silence (oh how I could use some ability to remain silent!), and wisdom.  While I often get really nice presents for my birthday, God has not yet chosen to shower me with the gifts of patience, silence, and wisdom.  I don’t know that I actually need to be more compassionate that I am, but I often think that I would be better at tolerating extremist viewpoints or just generally stupid behaviors and viewpoints if I was more compassionate.

Then again, maybe if I didn’t give a damn that would help too.

But I digress.

I keep waiting to grow up, to become more of all the things I thought I would become with age. It isn’t happening, at least not the way I want it to.  I won’t deny that age has granted me a number of characteristics that I didn’t possess at 22. I told my oldest daughter not long ago that the greatest gift of aging is that you calm the hell down. Actually, I think I said it more colorfully than that. Nonetheless, I have calmed down a great deal since my 20s. I have also become a bit more comfortable with having others tell me that I have screwed up. Sometime in my 30s I decided that being wrong isn’t as horrible as we like to make it out to be.  Discovering you are wrong is embarrassing and it hurts your pride a little, but only just a little, as long as you don’t act like you’re being accused of a capital crime and start defending yourself as if your life was on the line. The truth is that being wrong represents an opportunity to learn from someone, to thank them for their honest feedback, and to prove yourself to be a responsible and accountable adult. Oh yeah…and you get to be certain, at least for a moment, that you are now just a little ‘righter’ than you were a minute ago. Nice, huh?

Growing older has also granted me the wisdom of realizing that things are never as great or as bad as they seem, and that I need to step back and let things unfold, instead of going straight into freak-out mode. I used to freak-out over the slightest little thing that didn’t go well…now I moan a little and grump a bit, and then get on with dealing with whatever it was that just happened. I suppose that this could come under the heading of ‘Calm the hell down’ but it also contains a great big piece of ‘Look for the good to show up, because God always sneaks in a little good into everything’. God has a funny habit of blessing me even in the midst of the ickier parts of life, which has led me to start looking for the hidden blessings in just about everything.

You know, considering just how much aging has blessed me with already, I guess that it’s reasonable to hope that sometime in the next 30 years, God will sneak a little patience, silence, and wisdom into this hard head of mine. Maybe He’ll drop a little more compassion into my heart just for fun as well.  In fact, perhaps this particular epic failure will contain the seeds of great things…a few more hidden blessings from God.

So for my birthday, it appears that God has gifted me with hope that I’m still growing up and growing wise, and that is a very nice present indeed. Well played, God.  Well played.

It’s Not About You

My friend saw an article about marriage on the Internet the other day and wanted my opinion.  The article was from Relevant, a Christian magazine, and it was titled “Marriage Isn’t About Your Happiness.” **

My friend asked me to read the article and then give her my opinion.  She felt as if the article basically stated that marriage is about giving and your happiness shouldn’t be a factor. I can see how she might see it that way, and it would be easy to read the article and think the author was advocating for endless self-sacrifice for the sake of your partner.

And she is advocating for endless self-sacrifice…but not in the way you think.  I think a quote from the author might clear things up a bit.

“I heard a married man on TV say (regarding whether or not he was going to stay in his own marriage), “I shouldn’t be with someone if I’m not happy.” It’s an attitude many people have, and hearing it made my stomach turn.

What an accurate reflection of the self-centered society we live in, everyone believing their main goal in life is their own personal happiness. What a small and shallow way to live.

If you’re getting married with your own happiness as your main goal, you will be disappointed in a severe way.

Marriage is not about your happiness, it’s not even about you. It’s about love—which is something we choose to give time and time again. It’s about sacrifice, serving, giving, forgiving—and then doing it all over again.”  **

You can see how my friend, who has been in a few failed relationships, would question the author’s assertion that happiness is what marriage is about, especially when you consider that it was her unhappiness that finally gave her the strength to leave her spouse.

But the author’s main point is summarized easily. “If you are getting married with your own happiness as your main goal, you will be disappointed in a severe way.”   You got that straight!  As a matter of fact, when my husband and I were getting married, a thrice married coworker of my husband told him “Marriage is either the best thing that happens to you or it is hell on earth.” Again, you got that straight!

Before I can proceed, I probably need to state a few personal beliefs that I live by, because without stating that, I stand to be just as misunderstood as the author of the article mentioned above.

  1. You are responsible for meeting your own needs. The only time someone else assumes that role is while you are too young or too old and feeble to care for yourself. Any other time, you are fully responsible for yourself and meeting your own needs.
  2. You are responsible for making yourself happy. We human beings essentially choose our own emotions based on our thoughts. No one can ‘make’ you feel anything until they have a gun pointed at your head…then they are capable of forcing you to feel something, which is usually crushing fear and desperation. Most people don’t have a gun pointed at your head, which means that no one can ‘make’ (force) you to feel anything, which also means that someone else cannot ‘make’ you happy. If you want to be happy, that’s your responsibility.
  3. You are responsible for contributing to the health and stability of your partnership/ marriage, but remember that you are only ½ the team. If one member of the couple no longer contributes to the health and stability of the relationship in any way (and they are doing that on purpose, by choice, and not because of terminal illness or disability) then you are NOT in a relationship at all.

Okay, having said all those things, the author is right. Marriage is not about your happiness.  It’s not that marriage cannot contribute to your happiness, because it can.  But marriage, in itself, is not about making you happy.  Saying that marriage is about your personal happiness is akin to saying that going to college is about your personal success.  Sure, going to college can contribute to your personal success, but if you go to college and then sit on your butt and refuse to work hard and continue learning, you are probably going to fail in the long run.

What I’m trying to say is that getting married isn’t a magic tonic that confers ‘happiness’. Marriage is a commitment that requires you to sacrifice for the sake of your partner which, by definition, will sometimes not be a happy thing. That’s why it’s called SACRIFICE. Shortly after my husband and I moved to Phoenix, my favorite band announced their tour dates and their date in Phoenix fell on the weekend of my husband’s 10th high school reunion in Indiana. So, which is it? See my favorite band in concert, or go to Indiana with my husband who wanted me to meet his friends?   When it came time to decide, I had two thoughts. First, there is only ONE 10th reunion, only one chance to go back to high school and laugh in the face of everyone who called you nerd-boy, now that you are a successful engineer with a nice house and pretty wife. Second…oh hell, there is no second point. I decided to be a wife and go to Indiana with my husband. I missed the concert and it made me unhappy to do so, but 27 years later what I value was that I chose my husband’s happiness over my own that day. It’s not always about his happiness when I sacrifice for him. I have cared for both of his parents as they died, and that was definitely NOT about happiness. Again, it was about choosing to be a wife, to be the woman who sees my husband’s needs and does my best to meet those needs. It would be a bitter pill to swallow for me if I was the only one who sacrificed in our relationship, but my husband constantly sacrifices for me. This is the man who paid for my seminary education so that I could follow God’s call. This is the man who committed to go wherever the bishop sent us, no matter how that would impact his career. This is the man who stopped on the way home from work one night to fix my parent’s leaky tub…and brought a huge flower arrangement to leave for my mom because my father was in the hospital after having had a stroke that morning. She came home from the hospital to find the flowers and no leaky tub…and he never said a word to me or to her about what he was going to do.  I call that choosing to be a husband, choosing to see be the kind of man who sees his wife’s needs and does his best to meet those needs.

And that’s where the happiness in marriage actually comes in.

When we sacrifice for each other, it’s not the sacrifice itself that leads to feelings of happiness. It’s that the sacrifice is tangible evidence of the depth of our commitment to each other, our desire to serve each other, and our deep desire to have a positive and lasting impact on our spouse. We love each other and so we strive to make the world a better, softer place for our partner. It’s not that different than the feeling we have when we sacrifice for our children. We know it’s the right thing to do and we know it’s hard, but we also desire for our kids to feel secure in our love and care for them; we want them to feel safe in the world simply because we are there to help them. Marriage is about creating a deep sense of being loved and valued for who you are; it creates a sense of security and safety.

Marriage is a strange exchange. It calls for you to become less self-centered even as it forces you to take responsibility for your own happiness and for meeting your own needs. It simultaneously calls for you to be invested in emotional, physical, and spiritual self-care, while asking you to give and serve and sacrifice for your partner. When both members of the couple behave in this way, marriage becomes a haven of rest and release and true contentment and peace; it is the place where you can be truly vulnerable and frail and know that you are loved.  A good marriage is like Miracle Grow for the soul.

When only one member of the couple is willing to practice self-giving, it becomes a hell of endless servitude and diminishing of self in the service of your partner’s throbbing ego, which demands adoration and abject devotion.  The marriage becomes destructive to the serving partner who can never give away enough of themselves to satisfy their partner; it is truly psychologically damaging, and I have spent many hours working with the broken partner from an unequally yoked marriage. Inevitably it is the partner with the larger ego who always speaks the words “I shouldn’t be with someone if I’m not happy.”  The lament of the self-giving partner is also inevitable: “It was never enough, no matter what I did.”

If you are reading this and realize that you will never be enough, no matter what you do, get help and if you can, get out. It’s not about your happiness. It’s about your SELF. God created you and you are enough, and anyone who causes you to believe otherwise is slowly destroying your soul. Don’t let anything, no matter how precious it is to you, destroy you. You are of sacred worth and you deserve to be whole and healthy; destroying your soul in the pursuit of making your partner happy is not the road to health and wholeness. Please, get the help you need, and then get out of that relationship.

If you are reading this and wondering if you will ever find someone capable of giving to you in the same way that you are willing to give, then I encourage you to just keep working on yourself. Become healthier and healthier. Work on the condition of your soul and on the peacefulness that can be found in gratitude, faith and mindfulness. Work on being as responsible for yourself, your needs, and your happiness as you can possibly be.  It is important to know that we draw partners to ourselves that have similar levels of emotional health and wellness, so the healthier you are, the healthier your partner will be.  Can I be sure that there is a partner for you?  No, I can’t. What I can be sure of is that any work you do on yourself pays off in dividends that are reaped across your lifetime with friends and family as well as in your relationship with your partner. So get busy making your life into a wonderful place of self-care, responsibility, gratitude, faith, friends, and service…and then see what comes your way. You’ll already be happy, so it won’t be like you’ll be waiting for a partner to make you happy.  So why would you need a partner? Because…why not?

**  https://relevantmagazine.com/life/relationships/marriage-isnt-about-your-happiness