Category Archives: Life Lessons

What I have been learning

Transformation

“That must be so difficult,” people often say when they learn I work at a cancer support center.

“It can be,” I reply.

Every day, people tell us of their fears and anxieties, stories of their financial troubles because of the cost of medical care and the difficult decisions they face regarding treatment options.

Where can they get money to relieve their financial troubles? Should they continue with treatment knowing it is only prolonging life for a short time? Should they try an experimental treatment when traditional options have failed?

Dealing with vulnerability can be very challenging and even difficult.

But my work can also be very gratifying.

I get to see fears and anxieties melt away when people feel heard and their concerns validated. I am privileged to watch people support one another and see them move from fear to trust, from despair to hope. Every day, I see transformation.

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During the nine months my friend Jim had brain cancer, I had a few “melt-downs,” moments when my patience ran out or my fears overwhelmed me. Sometimes I yelled. Other times, I collapsed in a heap and sobbed. Afterward, I felt guilty. Here was Jim, facing his death—and there I was, wallowing in self-pity. Remorse and shame engulfed me.

Then one day at the grocery store, I met my neighbor’s daughter who was caring for both her ill husband and aged mother. It must have been just after a melt-down, because I confessed my bad behavior. Delores waved me off. “It happens,” she said.

She went on to tell me how she, too, gets tired and frustrated, and how she, too, has been known to yell or cry.

“It’s normal,” She said. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Before that encounter, I had felt like a terrible person, the only person in the world who would yell at a man dying from brain cancer. Talking with Delores, though, gave me a different perspective and helped me let go of the high expectations I had for myself.

I walked away from that encounter telling myself, “You are not Mother Teresa of Calcutta,” and then realizing that even Mother Teresa probably had melt-downs. We are all human.

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The value of sharing our human fears and weaknesses is not restricted to cancer care.

I have also seen it when adults walked into the literacy center where I worked in Pennsylvania, feeling inadequate and shameful because of their lack of literacy skills—and then meeting other adults are in the same boat.

I experienced it the first time I attended a gathering of adult children of alcoholics and realized I was not alone, that others understood my experience because they had gone through something similar.

Once that understanding of a shared experience happens—whatever the experience—healing can begin.

Admitting my fear, confessing my shame or giving voice to my secret can be cathartic and can lead to greater compassion—for myself and for others.

When has that been true for you?

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Being present to the past

A recent magazine article evoked memories of something that happened thirty years ago, a short chapter in my life I had not thought about in all these years.

As I allowed the scene to play out in my mind, certain details of the people involved came into sharp focus. I remember the names and faces of people who were part of my life for only a few months.

Two men came into my life because one of the men was dying and needed a place to go for the final weeks of his life. I was living in a guest house and was happy to welcome them during this difficult time.

Once this memory resurfaced, I let it play out, allowing the scenes of everyday life with these two men to present themselves. I recalled the people who came to visit them, and I remembered one visitor in particular whose fidelity I greatly admired.

And then I asked God what invitation this memory is offering me. Why now? Why these people and their situation? Why such sharp details?

St. Paul encourages us to forget the past and move on to the future (Philippians 3:13), and I get that. But sometimes the past can hold an invitation or a gift that is helpful to the present.

I have chapters in my past that I would rather not revisit—dark times when I behaved badly and did hurtful things. But just because I try to ignore them does not mean they go away. And sometimes revisiting them can offer a clue to some healing that I need now.

Evelyn Underhill prayed, O Lord, penetrate those murky corners where I hide memories and tendencies on which I do not care to look, but which I will not disinter and yield freely up to you, that you may purify and transmute them.

I have been praying this prayer for the past six months or so, and maybe God is answering with memories like this one from thirty years ago. Maybe it is revealing a tendency on which I do not care to look but which needs to not only be looked at but offered to God for healing.

Underhill ends her prayer, Lord, I bring all these to you, and I review them in your steadfast light.

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For me, the goal and the gift of the spiritual life is freedom—the freedom to live with open hands, accepting whatever comes to me. To do that, I need God’s light to shine a spotlight on those places where I am unfree—my comfort zone.

God invites me to move beyond my comfort zone and to face what limits my freedom.

Unfortunately, a large portion of my comfort zone is filled with negativity and insecurity, and I struggle to see my own goodness.

God invites me to replace negative self-talk with affirmations.

Maybe this memory came back to me to remind me of my generosity in giving this man a place to live his final days.

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Misplaced loyalty

When we were in our mid-thirties, my cousin wrote me and asked if we could get together for dinner the next time I came home for a visit.

We grew up more like sisters than cousins, and as children, she knew me better than anyone else.

Her request to meet seemed a bit odd, though, because we had drifted apart after high school.

Now she was in therapy and had some questions for me. Her childhood memories were fuzzy and had some blank spaces; she hoped I would be able to bring clarity to her murkiness and fill in some of the blanks.

At dinner, she asked about one of our uncles. I shuddered.

“If we had known of ‘good touch’ and ‘bad touch,’” she said, “he would have been a bad-touch uncle.” I agreed.

As far back as I could remember, I had tried to avoid this uncle, who liked to bounce me on his lap and “tickle” my still-undeveloped breasts. She confided that she, too, had learned to give him a wide berth.

Even at a young age we both knew that other adults saw anything wrong in what he did to us, and no one would stop him.

“What about us?” my cousin asked. “Why didn’t anyone protect us? Why were we left to feel shame for something he did?”

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The memory of that dinner with my cousin thirty years ago resurfaced recently.

Lately, I seem to be tuned into the secrets people keep. In novels—where more is left unsaid than shared—and television detective stories—where people withhold facts from the police—what goes unsaid has been catching my attention.

Why the hesitation? The resistance? Why not tell all? 

The answer frequently is the desire to protect someone.

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Perhaps novelists and screenwriters are emphasizing the things people don’t say as a way of pointing out how common the practice is. Perhaps they are using their craft to nudge people into greater honesty because they know how harmful secrets can be, how damaging it is to protect people who are abusing their power.

Maybe I am more aware of the destructiveness of keeping secrets and protecting people because of what is happening in my church. Those in power seem to be willing to do anything to hold onto their power, covering up egregious acts and maintaining a code of silence. Or maybe it is because of politicians and celebrities demanding loyalty or paying hush money to keep their secrets.

Other than that dinner with my cousin, I have not talked about my uncle and the impact his actions had on me.

One thing I can see clearly, though, is how this early lesson helped shape my sense of “loyalty” and my understanding of the need to protect people who have something to lose—be it their reputation, job or family.  

In the end, the truth usually comes out. And it often turns out that people already knew, or at least had an inkling, of the truth.

Change is inevitable

A former neighbor came to mind on the second night of my recent retreat.

Most Saturday mornings, Margaret and I would hang our laundry on the lines behind our rowhouses in Eddystone, PA. She lived three doors down from me, which was about forty feet away.

The first to empty a laundry basket would walk over to the other, and we would catch up on the past week.

Margaret lived a Christian life, and she inspired me.

My first Thanksgiving in Eddystone, both she and her husband were out of work, so I offered her the turkey I had gotten from the local grocery store. She thanked me—and then added it to a basket she was preparing for a neighbor. Margaret looked at the world through eyes of gratitude, and she always knew of someone whose needs were greater that her own.

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The memory that came to me, though, was about a pledge we had made one day as we chatted by the clothes lines. We vowed that we would stay in our homes and grow old as neighbors.

At the time, our neighborhood was changing. The last original owner was in her nineties, and although there were still some people who had grown up in Eddystone, more newcomers were moving in every year.

I had been one of those newcomers, so I did not mind others joining me. But for those nostalgic types, “new” usually meant “not like it used to be.”

I had listened to more than one neighbor complain about the new people moving in and “changing” the neighborhood. Pointing out that I was one of those new people did not stop their grumbling.

Margaret was different; she welcomed everyone and never complained about changes.

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I had no plans to move. I loved my house and the town, located near two expressways and only minutes from the airport. We had a grocery store, a couple of restaurants and our own public safety department. Why would I leave?

Then Margaret got pancreatic cancer in October 2010 and died six months later.

Our pledge was broken.

Three months after Margaret died, my friend Jim was diagnosed with a very, very aggressive, non-curable brain cancer. He died nine months later.

My pledge to Margaret and my friendship with Jim were major reasons for my living in Pennsylvania. With both of them gone, I decided to move home to Michigan to be near my family.

I don’t know why the memory of Margaret and our pledge came to me now.

Earlier that day, I had walked along the creek that flows through the retreat center’s grounds. I watched the water tumbling over rocks and around fallen trees. I listened to it gurgle as it rolled over itself—rushing on its way to a destination I could not see.

My life has felt a bit that way in recent years—tumbling and rolling, taking me to new destinations.

Perhaps the memory was meant to remind me of the inevitability of change.

Surrender

The post-resurrection stories in Mark 15:9-15 depict Jesus’ disciples as doubters, as people resistant to change.

After hearing the accounts of how Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and two others, Jesus’ companions did not believe. Not until Jesus appeared to them did they believe. Jesus rebuked them for “their unbelief and hardness of heart.”

Why do we resist? Why do we stick with our own certainties and refuse to see things in a different way? Why do we close ourselves to new ideas?

Jesus had predicted that he would die and rise, so it wasn’t as if this was completely new information for the disciples. But still, they dug in their heels and refused to be moved.

My word for Holy Week was surrender. During prayer times and church services, that one word kept coming back to me: surrender.

What, I wondered, is going on in my life right now that I am resisting? What certainty am I clinging to irrationally?

We, like the disciples, can find change difficult. Change is a kind of betrayal—it is as if the truth we knew and believed wasn’t really the truth. Changes shifts the ground upon which we have been standing—like an earthquake—and when the shifting stops, nothing looks the same.

How do we make sense of it?

In the disciples’ situation, Jesus appeared to them to dismiss their doubts. That is unlikely to happen to us in such a dramatic fashion. So how does it happen?

I recently attended a talk on mindfulness and the speaker talked about trees and how they change four times a year. Trees appear dead in winter, but then bud and leaf, before losing their leaves and appearing dead again. Every year, the same cycle of change. But, she noted, the tree does not resist. Rather, it simply changes.

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Be the tree, I said to myself. Embrace change. Lean into it. Welcome it. That is what it means to surrender. Not insisting on my way or my beliefs but living in the kind of openness that invites change, living in the reality of every moment instead of getting stuck in the past or worrying about the future.

If I had been one of Jesus’ companions in Mark’s Gospel, how would I have reacted to Mary Magdalene or the two people who met Jesus on the road? Would I have been quick to believe? Or would I have been incredulous and cynical? Would I have needed to see for myself? Would Jesus chide me for my lack of faith and hardness of heart?

I fear the latter. But I want the former. I want to be like a tree that moves smoothly through the changes in life, that welcomes and celebrates every season and sees the beauty of each. I want to let go of my certainties and be quick to believe.

Surrender is a discipline to be practiced—letting go of the past and living in the present with a heart open to change.

New life

Holy Saturday is a day of quiet anticipation, a kind of limbo, when we are suspended between death and life.

It is a day that invites me to remember times when I have lived in that liminal space between death and life. Those are usually times when I have failed at something and have taken a step back to regroup—or have been so devastated by disappointment that I am incapable of moving forward and need to pause to pull myself together.

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The Holy Saturday experience is a model for living in trust, believing that all those pauses in my life—those times of disappointment and loss—are really stepping stones to something new and different.

Richard Rohr, in Everything Belongs, uses the image of Jonah inside the whale to describe that pause.

We must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit upon a new shore and understand our call.

Rohr’s words remind me to ponder those times of transition, when I was suspended between death and new life, and how they turned out to be springboards for a deeper understanding of my call.

The story of Jonah has always been a favorite because I relate to his attempts to escape his call, thinking he could outrun God. I, too, tried to outrun God. But even as a young woman, I imagined Jonah shaking his head at me and saying, “Learn from me. You can’t outrun God.”  

Surrender is the word I associate with Jonah, but I was taught never give up. Like Jonah, giving in to God was a hard lesson for me to learn.

Over the years, though, I have had quite a few experiences of being inside the belly of the whale, suspended between what was and what will be— opportunities to throw my hands up in surrender and admit that God holds all the cards, to accept life as it is instead of how I wanted it to be.

Actually, I am in one of those times right now. The nonprofit where I work recently merged with a larger organization and we are assuming a new name and new identity. What has been will be no more—and what will be has yet to be revealed.

We are in transition.

Letting go of what was can be a challenge, especially for those who have a long history with our organization and feel invested in what we have built. Disappointment at losing what was and fear of the unknown future can create anxiety.

Accepting change and adjusting our expectations is a process that takes time.

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Holy Saturday extends the invitation to enter into that process of transformation from death to new life—looking back with gratitude for what has been, letting go of expectations connected with the past, accepting what is and looking forward to what will be.

I pray for the grace to let go of the past so that I can welcome new life.

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Who is driving?

What more must I do? the rich young man asked Jesus. (Mark 10:17) That question has stayed with me since the beginning of Lent, popping up at random times throughout the day and often while I am praying.

The answer for the young man was to sell everything he had and give his money to the poor.

It seems that his possessions were a burden or a barrier which prevented him from being spiritually free. I am not rich, so I have been considering what other burdens or barriers prevent me from being spiritually free.

As I have been pondering the question these past few weeks, I have had greater clarity around the fact that I tend to focus on the doing part of the question. Do more, my inner critic prompts me. But God has often invited me to focus on being rather than doing, so maybe God is asking me to do less instead of doing more.

Perhaps I am being asked to silence my inner critic and step away from my need to achieve.

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Then I started reading Luke 11:14-23, Jesus was driving…. I did not get any further into the reading because an image of Jesus driving a car came to me. Funny—and not how I usually imagine Jesus. But, I let the picture emerge.

Jesus driving; I am a passenger.

What kind of passenger would I be? Would I be giving Jesus directions? Suggesting alternative routes? Knowing a faster way?

Could I trust Jesus to drive? Let him choose the route and the destination? Could I just enjoy the ride?

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A few days ago, something prompted the memory of my decision to move to l’Arche. When I made the decision, I didn’t think of l’Arche as a one-year volunteer stint, but as a way of life. It was the radical commitment I was seeking, the community I could see myself in forever. I had incredible clarity about being called to live in l’Arche for the rest of my life.

But that was not what happened. l’Arche turned out not to be the perfect fit for me—or me for l’Arche. My need to be in control and to be doing made me ill-suited.

It turned out that working in non-profit organizations was a better fit for my personality, giving me the kind of time and space I needed to grow in self-awareness. In the nonprofit world, being a doer is highly valued. Plus, my need to control and deep-seated stubbornness pushed me to accomplish things people said could not be done.

People praised me for what I achieve, and I loved hearing their praise.

A radio commercial for a local spa asks what would change if I really took care of myself (by spending an indulgent day there.)

I wonder what would change if I let Jesus drive the car, if I silenced my inner critic and focused more on being than doing. Perhaps I would be able to relax and enjoy the ride.

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