RSS Feed

Category Archives: Spirituality

What Would You Do?

evil and free will

I just finished reading The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah, and I highly recommend it. I was ambivalent about reading another book about WWII because we read so many of them in book club, but this one got over 34,000 5 star ratings on Amazon. I’ve never even seen a book that’s been read by over 34,000 people, much less one that had a rating of 5 stars. So I figured it had to be good.

There are so many things to like about it. It’s written by a woman and from the perspective of female characters. Hannah’s intention was to educate people on the important contributions women made in the war, because they cannot be found in history books. It did not have the kind of violent and gory descriptions that give me anxiety attacks, like Unbroken did. Don’t get me wrong–I thought Unbroken was a great book; I just didn’t read half of it. It was a love story–a traditional one, and also one about two sisters. And, perhaps most importantly, it made me think about why God allows bad things to happen, and whether I would risk my life to save other people.

I think a lot about the story of Adam and Eve and the Fall. One of the lessons that I get from it is that it is inevitable that we will choose the wrong thing. That is one of the consequences of free will. It’s sort of like the Bill of Rights–having free speech, the right to bear arms, and freedom of the press means that there are a lot of things that we may have to tolerate that we vehemently dislike. That we consider evil.

The only way I can make sense of the Holocaust is to think of it as an extreme case of how much free will we have. We can choose evil if we want to. We can choose to engage in it. We can choose to pretend we don’t see it. We can choose to do nothing about it. To follow orders, keep our heads down, focus on our own survival. Perhaps it’s extreme to think of self-preservation as a form of evil, but had there not been people who risked their lives, Hitler would have won.

I wish I could say that if I had been alive during WWII, I would have been willing to risk my life to save other people. That I have that kind of integrity and courage. I don’t know for sure, because one of the things I’ve learned from psychology, and personal experience, is that you never know what you’re going to do until you’re there, in that moment.

Sometimes I wish we didn’t have so much free will. That there were some safeguards so that we weren’t capable of doing so much damage on such a grand scale. I don’t know if I trust myself–or others–that much. I mean, there are some warning signs. In many of the near-death experiences books, the people always say that when you’re making the wrong choice, you come across many obstacles that make it difficult, but when you make the right choice, everything goes smoothly. I’ve found that to be true, too. Still, that’s obviously not enough of a deterrent to keep people from doing evil on a grand scale.

But then again, in every act of hatred, you can find many acts of love and kindness. They are powerful. They are healing. They help us move on, choose life, find happiness again. People who have faced horrific tragedies talk just as much about the outpouring of love they receive from people who they don’t even know as they do about their losses. So perhaps if I continue to practice compassion, when the time comes, I will be brave and choose love, even when it’s hard to do. That’s what I’m counting on, at least.

Love and Hate

d658f91ff5853b976def00bb1dd45a2b

Last summer I was on a spiritual quest to figure out how we are supposed to strive to be good, knowing that we are going to fail at times. I know God doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but what would a passing grade be, exactly? Would a D- be enough to get us into heaven? Because that’s all you need to get in a Pass/Fail class. My guess is no. You have to do better than that.

In case you didn’t read that post, I’ll tell you what the conclusion was from my research. Our task in life is not to be good; it is to know ourselves. By knowing ourselves, I don’t mean “finding ourselves.” It’s more along the lines of what twelve step programs call a personal inventory of our character defects. Being honest with ourselves about the things we are ashamed of. Our sins, basically.

Because this is what leads to addiction. This is what makes us deny, distort, and avoid reality. What leads us to hurt other people, even. We want to believe we are good people. We don’t want to be anything like those murderers, adulterers, terrorists, Republicans, or Democrats. Those people are a totally different breed.

When we are willing to be honest with ourselves, we will find that we are capable of being all things–the heroes and the villains, the victims and the perpetrators. This is what it means to be human. This realization can release us from self-hated and hatred of others. Who am I to judge you, when I have darkness inside me, as well?

I’m reading Small Great Things for our next book club. It’s a great book, and particularly exceptional in terms of its exploration of racism. There is a character that represents every opinion on the spectrum, from angry black person to white supremacist.

There’s a minor character in the book who explains why he gave up being a white supremacist once he had a daughter. He realized that all of the hatred that he felt towards other people was a way of keeping him from realizing how much he hated himself. He felt bad all the time, and he couldn’t beat up enough people to make that feeling go away. He realized that he didn’t want his daughter to grow up feeling that way. He wanted her to feel good about herself.

A year and even more books later, I would refine my answer to how we are supposed to be good, knowing that we are inherently flawed. Our task is first to know ourselves. Once we are able to forgive ourselves for all of the unpleasant aspects of being human, then our goal is to be loving–to ourselves, to others, and to God. Not because a failing grade will keep us out of heaven, but because being loving helps us to feel better about ourselves and others right here and now, while we are on earth.

I admit, it is not an easy task. I mentioned in my last post that I can’t watch the news anymore. I can’t even read what’s trending on Facebook, because even that small dose of negativity causes me distress. Sometimes being loving to myself means walking away when people start talking about politics. Sometimes being loving to others means reminding myself that we can see things differently and still all be good people. Sometimes being loving to God means accepting that experiencing self-hatred and hatred of others is also a part of the human condition.

It’s a challenge, but it makes me feel a lot better about myself to think about how I can be more loving than to feel like I’m failing at being good enough.

What Makes for a Meaningful Life?

purposeful life

Last night we had our April Remedial Book Club meeting. The book was When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi. Ordinarily I avoid reading any first person account of someone who dies of cancer, but since I run the book club, I felt obligated to read it.

I was surprised that some people didn’t think it was sad. I was practically crying during the Forward. But it was so well-written, and he was so brilliant. And he had spent his life trying to understand the meaning of life, so it seemed fitting that he had to wrestle with his own death in order to find an answer. Although I’m not sure what his answer ultimately was.

Had he lived, he would have made huge contributions to the field of neuroscience, but instead, his legacy is this book. I don’t know if that’s better or worse, but I guess ultimately it doesn’t matter, since it wasn’t his choice. It just seems sad that he spent his entire life studying, only to die shortly after graduating from medicine. That he didn’t get to see his daughter’s first birthday and all the other firsts she will experience. That, although he was married for 12 years, the two of them hardly spent any quality time together, since she was in med school, too. It’s like everything was on hold–all of the rewards of his hard work were yet to come. Until the diagnosis.

But there are no guarantees in life, right? I expected to be married for the rest of my life rather than get my heart broken at 34. I figured I’d live with the same financial security that I grew up with. I would never have predicted that my brother would have open heart surgery at 40 and I would be taking care of him. I’m not trying to say my life is horrible. I’m just saying that you can’t take anything for granted–the things you have, the things you imagined you would have, the things you could lose. You just never know what life will throw your way.

As my friend and I were discussing the book on the way home, she said that she didn’t think the book was sad because some people never live as full and purposeful of a life as Kalanithi did in the 30 something years he was alive. Which is true. He crammed a lot of living into a short period of time.

Plus, he lived being true to the person he was in every aspect of his life. There was nothing to regret. None of that dissonance that you experience when your heart, mind, and actions aren’t in alignment. Every part of him was on the same page.

I was telling my brother about our discussion and said that when I die, I will at least feel as though my life benefited other people, which is something. He responded by saying that is everything. That is THE thing that makes life meaningful. But is it? I feel like I’ve helped people more because it was what I was meant to do. I don’t feel like I had a choice. It doesn’t always make me happy. In fact, it directly contributes to my depression, because I burn out at the end of every term, no matter how hard I try to take care of myself.

Still, it does make me feel like my heart, mind, and actions are in alignment. And it is the part of my life that feels the most meaningful. So if this is my gift, even though it sometimes feels like a curse, at least it is one that I am giving away.

Suffering and Compassion, Part 3

love

This year I have decided to more fully participate in Lent by reading Wonderous Encounters: Scriptures for Lent, by Richard Rohr, since I got so much out of reading Breathing Under Water. In each chapter, Rohr provides his interpretation of the scriptures for that day, then quotes the scriptures, and then offers a “starter prayer” for contemplation. I have found praying in this way much more fruitful. Although I usually don’t get an answer right away, by the next day I often have some insight that deepens my understanding of God.

One of the more difficult messages to digest in Rohr’s books is that God wants us to choose love, knowing full well that we will suffer as a result. Knowing that it will break our hearts. Because it is only through experiencing love, and the suffering that results from loving, that we can truly understand how much God loves us.

I have to admit, this really pissed me off. Like many people, I wrestle with the question of why God lets people suffer. I write about Easter every year in an attempt to understand the nature of suffering. The best I’ve been able to come up with so far is that God never promised that life would be free of suffering. The fact that Jesus died on the cross makes it explicit that no one is immune from suffering. But, on the bright side, God is with us in our suffering, even when we think he has abandoned us. Which is something, I guess.

But I still don’t want to suffer.

Now Rohr is trying to convince me that, not only must I endure suffering, which is hard enough, but that God wants me to actively and willingly choose suffering as a consequence of love. That this is how we fully understand what it means to be human. This is how we gain wisdom. This is how we can more fully experience God’s love. Those all sound like great things, but it wasn’t exactly making me want to sign up for more pain and suffering.

When I told my brother this, he pointed out how much suffering I was willing to endure for tennis. Which is true. I have written blog posts describing how I’ve had asthma attacks, thrown up on the court, played through depressive episodes and physical pain. I’ve been sick from hunger, dehydration, and heat exhaustion. I’ve experienced humiliating losses. I’ve had bad tennis breakups. But I would never give up tennis just so I could avoid the pain and suffering that are an inevitable part of playing this game that I love so much. Life would be much worse without tennis.

I’m pretty sure God loves us more than I love tennis. Which means he must really love us a lot. And, consequently, suffers a lot. All the time, billions of times over. Regardless of whether or not we choose to love him, or how many times we mess up. Willingly, repeatedly, from now until the end of time, God chooses to love us.

That’s pretty deep.

Who would have thought that tennis would teach me about the depths of God’s love? The benefits of tennis never cease to amaze me.

So I’m experimenting with focusing my intentions on being loving to myself and others whenever I’m in pain. Which is what the practice of compassion is about, after all. It’s going pretty well, I think. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but I guess it makes the pain more bearable. More meaningful. More worthwhile. I do feel happier, more peaceful of late. I don’t feel as anxious and depressed. Which could be because of Daylight Savings Time, in all honesty. But it could also be that the benefits of choosing love really do outweigh the costs.

I guess we’ll see.

Control What You Can Control, Part 2

Control

Living with my brother has been an enlightening experience in many ways. I never realized how different our experiences have been, given that I’m 7 years older than him and was not around for much of what happened to him. However, we have experienced enough similarities in our upbringing to struggle with the same problems with relationships–which is why neither of us is in one, we are not married, and we don’t have children.

So far I have dealt with my inability to have a healthy relationship by avoiding them altogether. But at the beginning of this year, I began to panic. Because I really would like to be in a relationship at some point, but I didn’t see how it was possible to change at this stage of my life.

So I have embarked on this self-created intensive relationship rehabilitation treatment program. I have regular phone sessions with my therapist now. I have a syllabus of books that I need to read. I’ve even embraced the term codependence, which I’ve always hated, because it best captures the problems I have with choosing people who have been traumatized, issues of control, and being able to read other people’s feelings but having no idea whether I need to eat, pee, or take an Ativan.

I just finished Breathing Under Water, by Richard Rohr, my spiritual guru. In it he demonstrates how 12 Step Programs are consistent with the teachings of Jesus. So I figured this was a good choice for curing my addiction to unhealthy relationships.

You know how sometimes you really like someone else’s opinion because it confirms your own beliefs? Well, that is not why I liked this book. Most of the stuff he said I would have never in a million years came up with myself. But he made me think, and I want what he says to be true, even though it seems too good to be true.

For example, in the step regarding character defects, he said that the goal is not to fix these defects but to turn them over to God. That’s what people mean when they say to let go and let God. I always wondered. We have to work to admit what our faults are, but once we do, it’s not on us to be able to correct them by ourselves. Which is a relief, because I’ve really, really been trying without much success.

Take jealousy, for example. I used to deal with it by trying to control other people. Don’t do or say anything to make me jealous! Which was not a great strategy. Then I accepted that it was on me and tried to be rational, to practice self-compassion, to distract myself, and every other technique I could think of. But experiencing jealousy hurts in a way that I cannot bear, for reasons that are not my fault. And it’s not my fault that I can’t fix this thing about myself.

So in my attempt to turn my character defects over to God, every time I encounter one, I say something like, OK God, here’s another one. I’ve really tried, but I can’t fix it by myself. I finally get it. I’m not in control. I need your help. I don’t want this thing to hurt me anymore, and I don’t want it to interfere with my ability to love others. So any time you feel like making me whole in this place of brokenness, I’m ready. I’ll just hang out here, waiting patiently. Or I’ll try to wait patiently. Impatience is also one of my character defects that I need help with.

And you know what? It helps. It gives me hope that change is possible, no matter how much trauma I’ve experienced, how old I am, how many times I’ve made the same mistakes, and how long it took me to realize that I can’t control everything.

Don’t get me wrong–I still have my reading list. Because you still have to do the work. You just don’t have to do it all alone.

 

No Way Out

Last week I gave you my reflections on my brother’s heart surgery. Today he’s feeling well enough to share what this ordeal was like for him in an effort to share his epiphany: regardless of what you may have to lose in the process, it’s always worth it to choose life.

***

In “The Walking Dead” Season 6 debut, former allies Rick Grimes & Morgan Jones share an uneasy reunion. “I’m sorry for all this,” Rick says to Morgan, shyly apologizing for having to lock his old friend into a cell until he can get the man acclimated to the new community he has just joined. Holding no grudges, Morgan replies: “It’s okay. Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have a choice.”

18294167-mmmain

Fast forward to August 30, 2016. I’ve missed a couple of days at a new job. Inexplicably, I can never feel fully rested & suffer from painful gas that seems to get stuck in my chest. After weeks of combating my symptoms with sleep, stubborn cardio workouts, & Gas-X—something told me I needed a different approach this time. So I call out sick & plan to see a doctor in order to get an excuse for a couple of days & a prescription for some real medicine. Because of my reference to “chest pains”, the walk-in clinic refused to see me & referred me to the ER instead. “This will be an expensive bottle of Tums,” I thought to myself, the seriousness of my situation not yet setting in. A day later, I’m in a hospital room in my region’s premiere facility for heart surgeries. I’m told I have severe blockage in the arteries feeding my heart. They need to operate on me—TOMORROW. Doctors, nurse practitioners, & everyone who has seen my test results regard me with such astonishment. They wonder aloud how I’d been walking around.

“Oh great,” I think to myself. I’m going to have to call work again. They’re going to think I’m playing hooky.” I must have still been in emotional shock. That night, my stunned older sister calls me & tells me to quit my job—to stop forcing myself through unduly stressful challenges. “They don’t care about you! They don’t appreciate you! They have no idea how valuable you are! You don’t owe them another minute of your time. You hear me? NOT A MINUTE!” She also brought up examples of other people who should have been more concerned with my current crisis than they appeared to be. She wondered why I wasn’t more disappointed.

In hindsight, it was probably because I knew I didn’t have time to be disappointed. It was all happening so fast. I came in for painful gas, maybe some acid reflux, & they offer me open heart surgery instead. My head must have been spinning. But on some level, I knew there was no time to be disappointed or sad—it was time to be strong. Resolved. Focused. That was it. “I’ll be fine,” I reassured the only member of my family who, at that point, seemed to acknowledge the gravity of my current crisis–including me. “I have to go. The nurses just told me I had to take 2 showers with surgical soap; the first one tonight before bed.” It was already past 11 pm. It had been a long day; & the next day would be worse. I rang the nurse to get me unhooked so that I could take this shower with “surgical soap” & about 5 different washcloths intended for different regions of my body.

“Did you sleep well?” The surgeon asked me around the crack of dawn. “Yes I did,” I replied. He was stunned & said so out loud. Truth be told, I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. And it was probably better that way. Had the details of what was about to happen been revealed earlier, I probably would have escaped! The surgery was nerve-racking. I actually woke up a couple of times after the surgical team had injected me with anasthesia. I saw myself in that horrifying environment under the blue surgical shroud. I had seen things that I had never asked to see. But the aftermath was the worst. I wouldn’t wish my experience on a sworn enemy—not even the Devil himself! I’m sure the Devil deserves punishment; but what kind is not for me to decide. Holed up in bed over the next 3 days in a state of constant discomfort, I realized how the powers both to inflict pain & subdue it are both sacred & require severe checks & balances.

I’m 40. If you saw me on the street, you’d think I look closer to 20. Yet here I was. A “kid” facing “real man” problems. But I’m recovering quickly. My vitals are consistently good. Even in the hospital, the staff seemed surprised at how well I was handling recovery. “If this is what you call ‘good’ I’d hate to see what you call ‘bad.’ “ They’d laugh at me. It was just humbling for me to be so dependent on so many people for so many things.

I always thought of myself as “tough,” but I never really knew for sure. Even after what I went through, I don’t feel tough or brave or strong. In fact, when I think about how severe the pain was & how terrifying everything seemed & how long the discomfort lingered long after the the violent pain had dissipated, I marvel that I got through at all! It took a lot of intervention from my Creator, but also some personal resolve. This wasn’t a challenge that I chose for myself; but once recognized, I was seeing it through. I was strong & brave not because I am all the time, but because I had to be right then.

Like Morgan said, “Sometimes it’s easier when you don’t have a choice.” Yes, well said, Morgan. All life truly is precious. Given everything I’ve had to endure over the last 2 weeks, my life is not only precious, but sacred to me now. That was a choice that I did have to make for myself. But now that I have, I’m as happy on the inside as I’ve been in a long time–maybe ever.

image.jpeg

Darkness and Light, Part 3

ec9ae46651ad0fcdf69adc4ec8dafa50

Now that I am at the end of my summer break, my sleep cycle is officially fully out of whack. I go to bed at 4 am and often wake up after noon. I’m getting better at not berating myself for this because this luxury is about to end in a few days. And because, since I’m a night owl, I feel the best in the wee hours in the morning. This is when I have my moments of clarity. When my demons lose their power to convince me that I suck. Ironically, for me, seeing the light happens in the darkness of night.

It got me thinking about all of the good/bad dichotomies. Darkness and light. Angels and demons. Joy and pain. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’ve been reading all these books about God, trying to understand what it means to be good, and the answer seems to be to accept everything about ourselves–even our sins and our vices. I write about acceptance all the time, but I guess in my mind self-acceptance was still something more along the lines of, don’t hate this thing about yourself because it’s a part of you. But it’s still bad. I mean, how can you think of something like depression as good? How can I embrace something that causes me so much suffering?

Although lately I have had a better appreciation of my depression. I pride myself on being mentally tough–on being a warrior. My greatest strength in tennis is not my athletic ability but rather my mind. My determination to not let my opponent get in my head. To fight, even when I’m down 0-6, 0-5. To be able to see what I’ve done well in a loss and to learn from my mistakes.

One of the things I take the most pride in is that players on my team appreciate me as a captain, and continue to be on my team even if we lose every match, because they think I’m positive and encouraging. I mean, I award a Player of the Game and Honorable Mention in matches where we’ve lost 0-5. That is really looking on the bright side. But my bright side would not be possible without my dark side. My mental illness has strengthened my character. It has shaped the parts of me that people admire the most.

If boot camp prepares soldiers for war, then depression is the boot camp for hardship. When I look back on each depressive episode, I realize how strong I was, even though I thought I was weak at the time. How hard I was trying, even though I thought I was being lazy. How much hope I had that things would get better, even though a part of me was telling me to give up–that life was not worth living.

Having said all of this, I can’t say that I have fully embraced my depression. I’m not thrilled when it shows up. But I’m trying to accept it in the way people sign up for the military, knowing that it may cost them their life. Or the way that people choose to get married for richer or poorer, in sickness and health. The way parents choose to have children, knowing the heartache that comes from loving so deeply.

Joy and pain. Angels and demons. Darkness and light. I will choose all of these, because I believe our task in this life is to fully embrace what it means to be human.