envy-vulnerability-trust

Envy

We took my mom’s car when we went up north a few weeks ago; it is a classic “low mileage, only driven to church and shopping” elderly person’s car. As I adjusted the mirrors, I was aware that the blind spot on the driver’s side was a bit different from the blind spot in my car, and I made a note to pay attention.

A few days after that trip, the idea of blind spots came back to me—not the car kind but the psychological sort. I had been reflecting on a conversation from earlier that day; I had been criticizing someone’s behavior. In replaying my words, though, I realized I was actually envious.

It was an epiphany.

I pride myself on being able to accept life as it is, on being content with what I have. But, I now see that this has been a blind spot, and I am not as content as I like to think—at least in some parts of my life.envy-vulnerability-trustOur brains are predisposed toward patterns (or so says the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon) so once our brains register something new, we are naturally more inclined to see this thing again.

My first awareness of being envious happened a few months ago, and I was surprised to recognize this trait in myself. But now, a few months later, I can see much more clearly that envy has long been part of my life. It was probably there all along, but I was blind to it.

Now that my eyes have been opened, though, I am quite aware of how often I think and say things that betray my idealized self-portrayal.

And upon reflection, I see past times when I thought I was merely being observational, but really I was envious.

I remember one incident from college that I now see in a different light. I went to a Catholic college run by Augustinian Friars who take a vow of poverty. Fr. John was my confessor. He was smart, kind and compassionate. And he was a frequent traveler—to Florida over Christmas break or Rome on spring break or someone’s shore house in the summer or….

“My goal,” I told him, “is to be as poor as you are so I can see the world on someone else’s dime.” He laughed. At the time, I thought I was merely being observational (and perhaps witty); now I can see that I was envious.

Ironically, I have traveled the world on other people’s money. I have been showered with an abundance of opportunity, generosity and kindness. And I am deeply grateful.

Yet, here I was the other day, grousing about someone getting a workshop paid for—even though a month earlier, I had attended a workshop that someone else paid for. Talk about a blind spot!

Now that this blind spot have been revealed, I can be more attentive to the insecurity that causes me to be envious and take steps toward being more grateful and content.envy-vulnerability-trust

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resilience-God-ACEs

Wonder

“You are a wonder,” Julia Roberts declares to her son in the movie Wonder. I gasped when I heard those words, because those same words were spoken to me just a month earlier.

Part of the group work for the Mind Body Skills sessions at the Cancer Caregivers workshop was a genogram exercise. I shared my family history, including the abuse, alcoholism, mental illness and suicides.resilience-God-ACEs

“How did you survive?” someone asked.

“The grace of God,” I replied.

“You are a wonder,” our group leader declared.

Ever since I was eight years old, I knew that God had called me in some special way and that God protected me.

Perhaps I was not physically safe, but my person—my essence, my spirit and soul, the parts of me that mattered most—were safe. God snatched me up and held me.

As a child, I felt as if I lived two lives—one inside my body and the other outside of it—and I felt both visible and invisible. I seemed to go unnoticed and my needs unattended to (invisible) but trauma happened to me (visible). I could not solve the mystery of this paradox; my only hope was in God.

I had good reason to trust God, because I knew what God had done for Jesus. I related to Jesus as an innocent victim and rejoiced in God’s intervention.

It took a lot of time (and some intense therapy) to get over the confusing messages of my childhood. At some point I realized I was always going to be broken and in need of healing; I would always be healing but never healed.

The introduction of a twelve-step program for adult children of alcoholics was a game-changer for me. Here were my people, others who had similar childhoods, who understood the paradoxes, who asked similar questions. We spoke the same language and shared knowing looks. I had come home.

One thing I did not share, though, was my having been called by God when I was eight. Like other paradoxes, this one made no sense. Why would God choose me? I was clearly damaged. I was not going to become a saint—or any kind of holy person. I was always going to be in need of healing, always seeking wholeness.

I recently read The Deepest Well by Nadine Burke Harris, M.D. about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Toward the end of the book, Dr. Harris concludes that not all people who experienced childhood trauma are suffering. “In some people, adversity can foster perseverance, deepen empathy, strengthen the resolve to protect, and spark mini-superpowers, but in all people, it gets under our skin and into our DNA, and it becomes an important part of who we are.” (Page 218)

I am one of those whose early misfortune was transformed into gift. I can see the blessing in the curse and know that everything is possible with God, even bringing wholeness to a family tree with snapped branches.

It is a wonder.resilience-God-ACEs

 

belong-God-faith

Where I belong

My mother grew up on a farm in northern Michigan. I still have one aunt and several cousins who live near the farm, and last weekend my mom and I went up north to visit my Aunt Mary.belong-God-faithDuring my childhood, we regularly traveled to the farm to help out. Even as a young child, I was assigned chores; gathering eggs was my favorite.

There is no work to do on the farm now—no animals to tend and the fields are rented out for farming.

During this trip, a cousin and his wife stopped by one evening, and one day we visited the cemetery where my dad and many relatives are buried. Mostly, though, my mom, my aunt and I spent the time catching up.

My aunt asked if I was happy that I had moved home. I said yes! No hesitation. I told her I have no regrets about moving back and that I love regular get-togethers with my siblings, being here for every family occasion and my random encounters with my cousins. The transition was difficult, I told her, but so worth it.belong-God-faithA few days after that trip, a friend and I were talking about belonging. He is in transition and pondering where he wants to live—a place where he has a sense of belonging is important to him.

I shared how grateful I am to be home and how living here has made me more aware that this is where I belong.

“Did you feel a sense of not belonging during the years you lived away?” he asked.

I did not. When I lived away from family, I felt a strong connection with friends who share my beliefs and values.

My sense of belonging to my family, though, is by birth, and since I cannot be un-born, I always feel connected to my family.

In the same way that my birth made me a part my family, being baptized into my church secured my belonging there.

Birth and baptism created irrevocable bonds, and I have never questioned those bonds. In the sense that I can’t be unborn or unbaptized, I have always had a “they can’t kick me out” attitude.

The deepest of all connections for me, though, is my God connection. Even before birth and baptism, I belonged to God, and belonging to God has sustained me through many difficulties.belong-God-faithAs I reflected on where I belong, I realized that those who share my beliefs and values get me in a way my family sometimes doesn’t; and that because of our shared culture and history, my family gets me in a way my friends sometimes don’t.

I am blessed to come from a God who sustains me, belong to a family that loves and accepts me and have friends who support and encourage me.

Driving up north and turning off the highway and onto the dirt road to my grandparents’ farm was a reminder of how fortunate I am to know where I belong.

 

 

God-mindfulness-faith

Potential for growth

My mother has a large vegetable garden, and I usually come over at the beginning of May to get a jump on the weeds that tend to take over the raspberries. This year, I was away at the beginning of May, and the raspberries dropped off my radar.

Needless to say, the weeds are now overtaking the raspberry plants.

Talking to my spiritual director, I used the weedy raspberries as an example of just one more thing in my life that needs attention.

“Let’s stay with the image of the weeds and the raspberries,” she suggested. “Can the raspberries be saved or is it too late?” she asked. Good question. I knew she had moved on from the actual raspberry/weed problem and was talking about the “weeds” in my life that may be choking out my growth.

We started talking about what was working and what wasn’t in my life. I happened to mention that I had been eating a lot of comfort food recently. “Why do you need comfort food?” she asked. Another good question.

Then I told her about someone who had emailed me that morning asking for career advice. I suggested that this person “act and not react.” As I wrote those words, I knew I was also talking to myself.God-mindfulness-faithMy spiritual director suggested I start with a clean sheet of paper and imagine my life—how I want it to look, what I want to do, etc. She encouraged me to look at both my work life and my personal life. She also advised I not try to put new wine into old wine skins—she is big on looking to the future instead of the past.

I can get stuck in the past, even though I know that what once was will never be again and that what once worked might not work any longer.God-mindfulness-faith“Start where you already have clarity,” she recommended.

I have clarity around my personal life—being near my family, my house and garden, hobbies, interests, etc.

I also have clarity about working at the cancer support center. I am well suited to work with people who are facing cancer and even facing death; I can be with people in painful situations without running away or trying to minimize their experiences. The work can be difficult, though, and I am finding some parts of the job very challenging. Some parts just don’t get done and can feel like weeds choking me.

“Can you see everything as a blessing?” my spiritual director asked. She was full of good questions that day!

As I pondered her questions and prayed for insight, I realized just how much energy I give to what once was, to what I used to do and to past hurts and injustices.

What would be more helpful is to let go of the past, live in the present and visualize the future I want. Then I will be more like a well-weeded garden with lots of potential for growth.

God-mindfulness-faith

 

vulnerability-grief-hope

Moving on

Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a regular part of my spiritual life. Reviewing my thoughts, words and actions, looking at where I need to make changes and admitting my shortcomings to another human being helps me live more intentionally.

One transgression I don’t ever remember confessing is envy—because I tend to be quite content with my life.

Recently, though, I heard myself saying words I regretted the moment they out of my mouth. I knew I needed to apologize, but before I did, I wanted to understand what had prompted this comment.

I prayed for insight.

Pondering the situation, I realized I envied the woman I had spoken to; I was envious of a part of her life that reminded me of what I used to have but have lost.

Five years ago, I moved “home” after having lived away for almost forty years. That move changed my proximity to some friends and the things we used to do together. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that part of my old life until I heard this woman talking about a trip she had recently taken with her friends.

I was happy for her and the fun she had, but a week later—and not even thinking or talking about her trip—I said something totally irrelevant and rude. I was speaking out of the past, a past I have lost and apparently still mourn.vulnerability-grief-hopeUnderstanding doesn’t change or fix what is wrong, but it helps me to apologize sincerely and to figure out what adjustments I need to make to act differently in the future.

In this situation, my words led me to reflect on developing more friends in my new home—or perhaps initiating more with my family and the friends I do have.

When I moved home, I decided that I would not expect people to accommodate me—to make space for me in their lives—because I did not want to have unrealistic expectations. I knew that their lives had gone on without me while I chose to live away.

Developing realistic expectations can be tricky because expectations that are too high can lead to disappointment and expectations that are too low can lead to—well, I think in this situation, loneliness.

I realized that a fear of disappointment or rejection led me to develop extremely low expectations.

As I look back on the five years since my move, I can see that some of my attempts at initiating have been rejected and I have been disappointed on occasion. But more often, family and friends have embraced me and responded positively to my suggested activities.

Building a new life has been a challenge, and even though I am deeply grateful to be living near my family, my rude comment tells me that I still have a ways to go before I am totally content with my new life. Admitting that is the first step toward changing it. Letting go of what was also helps.vulnerability-grief-hope

mindfulness-cancer-faith

Wisdom from my dad

I grew up in a bacon-loving family. When I was seventeen, some scientist discovered a connection between bacon and cancer. I immediately announced I would no longer eat bacon. My dad replied, “You think you are not going to die because you stop eating bacon? No one gets out of this life alive. Eat the bacon.”

Less than a year after that conversation, a friend was killed in Vietnam. At Lonnie’s funeral, I recalled my dad’s words and understood that not only do we not get out of this life alive, but some die very young.

I decided to eat bacon—in moderation.

My dad’s pragmatism and Lonnie’s death helped me develop a realistic view toward life and death.  mindfulness-cancer-faithThe cancer caregivers workshop I attended last month reminded me of my Dad’s admonition that “no one gets out of this life alive.” It also reminded me of the oncologist who treated Jim.

Jim’s oncologist was focused on what was best for Jim’s body—new treatments, a stay in the hospital, etc. Keeping Jim’s body alive was his priority, and he was frustrated when we would not do what he wanted. More than once, he warned that he would not continue to treat Jim if we did not go along with his directives.

He taught me the lesson that doctors treat.

Jim and I were more focused on Jim’s spirit. We knew Jim’s body was going to die—but that his spirit would live on. Our stance was that we are spirits inhabiting bodies rather than bodies that have spirits. We were more concerned that Jim’s spirit be at peace than keeping his body alive longer.

It was as if we were speaking two different languages. His oncologist could not understand why we would not try every possible treatment to keep Jim’s body alive—as if he did not know that Jim’s death was imminent.

The cancer caregivers workshop consisted of presentations followed by small group sessions. The presentations were given by doctors and other medical professionals who introduced a variety of mindfulness practices—breathing, movement, guided imagery, etc.—all within a medical context.

After working in adult education for ten years, I understand that adults learn best when instruction is contextualized. So, for medical people to understand new material, it is best to present it within a medical framework.mindfulness-cancer-faithI had lunch one day with a young doctor. He asked about my work and what I had learned from people facing cancer. I told him that I repeatedly hear that people don’t want to be told what they should, ought to or need to do. “I do that all the time,” he said. “And your patients probably don’t like it,” I replied. He looked stunned.

Perhaps it is time to reform medical training so that doctors and patients can speak the same language and be partners in care. Working together we can help people live healthier, fuller lives—while still understanding that no one gets out of this life alive.

 

 

joy-mindfulness-faith

Trying to live mindfully

I try to live mindfully, which can be challenging, partly because of my job as the executive director of a non-profit organization. There is so much to do, and I have difficulty saying “no.”

So I practice in little ways. For example, when I am standing in line at the grocery store, I take a few deep breaths, and I find myself feeling more patient. When someone comes to talk to me at work, I set aside what I had been doing so I can listen deeply. I walk at a park along the lake.

One of the practices recommended at the Center for Mind Body Medicine workshop I attended last month was to write a prescription for self-care (these are medical people, so they think in terms of prescriptions). I chuckled to myself as the doctor/presenter explained the process, because this is something I have been doing as long as I have been journaling. My version is called “things that bring me joy.”joy-mindfulness-faithAt the beginning of each year, and every time I start a new journal, I review and update my list of things I love to do. The list hasn’t changed that much over the years. I still love to bake, read, cook and sew. I love going to museums and poking around in little shops in quaint towns.

But, I learned to knit in my late thirties, and added that to my list. Twenty years ago, I bought my first home and planted a flower garden—and then added gardening to the list.

Running changed to walking after an ankle injury fifteen years ago. Writing for blogs was added about ten years ago.

Walking by the lake the other day, I thought back over the past few months to see how I was doing in the “joy” department, and I realized there were some gaps. I had not baked or knitted for at least three months!

So I came home and baked chocolate chip cookies and blueberry coffee cake; I immediately felt happier.

How is it possible that something so simple can bring me such joy? And knowing that it does, why do I not do more?

To be fair, the past few weeks have seen me in the yard clearing out flower beds and planting annuals. But, I notice that my evenings have been spent watching mindless television—and not even knitting while I am sitting there.

That awareness leaves me feeling unsettled and even a bit discouraged. Why am I resisting doing something that brings me joy?

After a particularly discouraging day at work, and an evening of watching mindless television, I had an active dream night—I think my subconscious is busy repairing the discord of my waking life.joy-mindfulness-faithThe next morning, St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:16 spoke directly to me: “Therefore, we are not discouraged.”

Living mindfully requires paying attention to the everyday moments of my life, focusing on what brings me joy, and letting go of what is discouraging.