Category Archives: Life Lessons

What I have been learning

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Being kind

Every year, I facilitate a session for a group of long-term volunteers as part of their Fall Day of Reflection. We begin the day with a prayer service that the organizers call a “milling prayer.”  A variety of quotes, pasted onto colorful construction paper, are scattered across the floor. The participants then “mill” around the room, reading each of the quotes and picking up the one that resonates with him or her.

This year, Anne Lamott’s words caught my attention: “You can either practice being right or practice being kind.”

Perhaps the idea of being right resonates with me because I grew up believing I was wrong most of the time. I lacked confidence in myself and my beliefs, and even when I knew the right answer, I usually offered it with a question mark.

Uncertainty and doubt defined my young life.

But as I got older and my confidence grew, so did my delight in being right.

One problem with knowing I am right (and delighting in it) is that it can lead to a smug self-righteousness, which, I know, is quite unattractive. So I try to temper my enthusiasm for being right.retreat-kindness-GodIn my work with people who have been touched by cancer, I have many opportunities to choose between being right and being kind.retreat-kindness-GodFacing a terminal illness can raise all sorts of questions, doubts and fears. Many people ask, Why me?

Sometimes there are answers as to why someone got cancer, but I have heard that 80% of cancers are just bad luck.

That, of course, leads to another question: Why am I the one to have such bad luck?

Frequently, people have difficulty facing the reality of their situation and will question a doctor’s ability to predict the path of cancer.

For example, a doctor might say, “You will need to be on chemotherapy for the rest of your life,” meaning that without chemo, the cancer will grow unchecked and the person will die.

I have heard doctors described as “rude” for saying this. Quite often people ask, “How does he (or she) know how long I am going to live?” Fair enough.

When I first started in this job, I would suggest the doctor was basing this prognosis on experience, (as in, “most people in your situation need chemo to keep the cancer in check”), but the response I got was usually some version of pshaw.retreat-kindness-God

I quickly learned that why me questions are usually rhetorical—people are not really seeking answers. They are actually looking for someone who will listen to them, acknowledge the dreadfulness of their situation and accept them where they are—fears and all. They are seeking kindness in the midst of desolation.

In truth, there may be no satisfactory explanation as to why someone gets cancer, and the doctor may or may not be right in predicting the path cancer will take; so much of life is mystery.

My job is to practice being kind instead of being right.retreat-kindness-God

 

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trust-vulnerability-listening

Two sides to every story

My friend Jim had a way of continually inviting me to look at situations from a different perspective, to consider “the other side” of the story. Jim had a great gift for seeing both sides—which sometimes made it difficult for him to make decisions—but which helped him to be objective.

He cut me no slack when I wanted to promote my side of a story as the only/right/best side, but rather challenged me to look beyond my viewpoint, to try to put myself in the other person’s shoes and see the other side of the story.trust-vulnerability-listeningJim used to talk about my “arms waving,” and I knew just what he meant. Often, when I felt dismissed or wronged, the extent my arms flailed usually corresponded to my sense of indignation and self-righteousness—and to how deeply intransigent I was. The more my arms flailed, the deeper my heels were dug in.

I could be very certain of my rightness.trust-vulnerability-listeningWith a great deal of patience on Jim’s part—and much practice on mine—I came to recognize my own intransigence more quickly and got to the place where I could identify that I was flailing my arms before Jim had to say anything.

Jim’s encouragement helped me develop a deep understanding of the importance of stepping back from my certainty so I could see someone else’s viewpoint.

Now, when someone is telling a story, I remind myself that the storyteller’s perspective is just one side of the story, that there is another person involved in this story, and that person saw this experience from a different vantage point. It is not that the person in front of me is lying or concealing something, but I remind myself that there is another side.trust-vulnerability-listening

I frequently hear myself saying, “There are two sides to every story.”

It happened recently when a middle-schooler asked for advice in dealing with a teacher who seems to have singled her out since the beginning of the school year—after this girl questioned the dress code (she said there was no edge to her question).

After listening to the middle schooler’s story, I pointed out that her questioning the dress code might have reminded the teacher of another student (or perhaps many students over the years) who asked the same question.

I suggested that perhaps the teacher was reacting to her from the vantage point of the teacher’s history with middle schoolers. Maybe one of those previous students issued the same challenge with an edge and the teacher was reacting to that.

Could this young girl see that? Could she see this situation from the teacher’s perspective? Could she even see that her side was just one side of the story?trust-vulnerability-listeningConsidering other perspectives does not diminish my own experiences or feelings. Nor does it require that I change my opinions or beliefs.

Considering other perspectives helps me to be less reactionary and self-righteous—and seeing the other side helps me to be more objective.

 

 

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Treasured

I was in my early twenties when I first read the book of Isaiah, and chapter 62, verse 3, gave me a visual that I have held onto ever since: You will be a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Imagine being a diadem, a crown—or more like a tiara I used to think—all shiny and sparkly, held by God. It was a mystical moment—when I could imagine myself as seen and loved by God, cherished and held. I could imagine God smiling just at the thought of me.God-freedom-love

After that, I began to collect those moments of awareness—when I knew myself as cherished, when something touched my soul, my essence. I tucked them away in my mind and heart, little treasures I could recall when I needed to feel loved.God-freedom-loveIn a Christology course in college, the professor demonstrated the experience of Jesus in John’s gospel (In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1) Professor Prusak stood by door at the front of the classroom and then began to walk sideways and ever-so-slowly across the front of the class—repeating “word” as he walked. (Picture this man in a suit, inching across the classroom, murmuring word, word, word, word…)

About three-quarters of the way across the classroom was a chair and when he got to the chair, he stepped up on it, said “word” a few times and then stepped off on the other side. This signified the intensified time of Jesus’ human life when he walked the earth.

Excellent visual, I thought, of Jesus life, and also of my own. God is with me always, and then there are those moments on the chair, when life is intensified, when I am more—more alive, more vibrant, more tuned into God—those moments that remind me what I was created to be.

I was meant to be a diadem in the hand of God—that is what God desires. To live in that awareness, though, requires me to continually forgive (myself and others) so that I can be light and free—and to love myself as God loves me.God-freedom-loveWhen I was younger, I often compared myself to others and came up wanting. Others were kinder, prettier, friendlier, livelier, etc. I never measured up. But, at some point, I learned to let go of the comparisons and move toward comparing myself with myself—trying to be the best me I could be. (Running may have had something to do with this course-correction, because, as a runner, I strove to improve on my personal best rather than worrying about how I compared to other runners).God-freedom-love

When I can be my personal best, when I can stay focused on the course God has in mind for me, I can also be freer to support and encourage others along that path. Cooperating rather than competing, accepting rather than judging, shining as God intended.God-freedom-love

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Taking risks

“To what end?” my friend Jim used to ask me—usually when I was considering something he thought pointless or even foolish. One incident I remember had to do with a guy I had known when I lived in Canada.

This was a guy I was thinking of marrying—until I found out he was seeing someone else. Ouch! He apologized and asked for forgiveness, and I forgave him. But I was back in the States by then, and I never got around to writing to tell him I forgave him.vulnerability-trust-GodSeveral years later, I happened to see him, and I was genuinely friendly; I had forgiven him. He was so happy—and relieved—I felt a bit bad that I had not written to him. Afterward, he wrote to thank me for forgiving him. His letter included an update on his life (I already knew from mutual friends that the other relationship had not worked out), and he said it would be good to hear from me.

Hmm. Would I write back? “To what end?” Jim asked.

I understood his question. What was I going to gain by reconnecting with someone who had hurt me? Why would I take that chance? What did I hope would happen?

In the end, the impulse to respond passed, and I never wrote back. But I had saved his letter, which I discovered the other day when I was going through some boxes of old letters.

Twenty-five years have passed since he broke my heart, and I have no ill will toward him; I have moved on (ok, perhaps not completely since I have never risked the possibility of marriage again).vulnerability-trust-GodWhile I was in Ireland recently, I visited with two women I also knew from when I lived in Canada. I had not seen either of them in many years and had reconnected with them through Facebook.

When one of them suggested a visit, I responded without hesitation, even though I could hear Jim’s voice in my head asking, “To what end?”

I had no answer except that I wanted to see them—no need to justify or have next steps planned out. I just wanted to reconnect.vulnerability-trust-GodProtecting ourselves from possible hurt is important, and I know that Jim’s question usually came out of his concern for me. He saw the pain I had gone through when my heart was broken, and he cared enough about me to want to shield me from further hurt.

I was always more of a risk-taker than Jim, which was one of the things he loved about me. With risk comes more potential for hurt.

I have been keeping my heart safely locked up for a long time now, not making myself vulnerable or risking pain. To what end? I ask myself. Am I happier living in a cocoon?

When Jim had cancer and was pondering life with intentionality, he often said, “Think big thoughts.” Acting on those big thoughts involves risk; I am ready.vulnerability-trust-God

Ten years later, this same niece instructed me, “Expand your color palette, Aunt Madeline,” after I had commented that the scarf she had selected for me in shades of gold and brown was unlike everything in my closet.

Expand your color palette

 

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“Purple and green,” my five-year-old niece responded when I asked, “What is your favorite color?” I was planning to sew her a dress.

Purple and green? Two colors I would not have put together.

But to please her (and because I had asked) I set out to find fabric with those two colors. It turned out my niece knew more about colors than I did; I found lots of fabric in combinations of purple and green. How had I never noticed this color combination before?

Ten years later, this same niece instructed me, “Expand your color palette, Aunt Madeline,” after I had commented that the scarf she had selected for me in shades of gold and brown was unlike everything in my closet.

I doubt that my niece meant anything deeper than encouraging me to diversify the colors in my closet (I mainly wrote black clothes accessorized with colorful scarves), but simple words often hold deeper meanings.

Both her “favorite” color combination and her color palette comment have come back to me on numerous occasions—sometimes when I am considering a clothing purchase, but also when I find myself looking at something as I always have and am resistant to change the way I see, those times when I hold tight to what I believe, when I know what I know.

What if I could see things differently? What if I expanded my palette to see situations from different perspectives?

“Look for golf balls in the trees,” our Alaskan tour guide instructed us. “Each one is the head of an Eagle.” Where before I could not find even one Eagle, all of a sudden I saw many; trees were full of them. They were right before my eyes; I only needed to know what I was looking for.

This kind of looking and seeing requires an awareness and an openness. I need to be able to admit that I have narrow vision and preconceived ideas in order to consider seeing in a different way. And I need to be open to reality from a different perspective.

Difficult for me to do, especially because I like my views—and my friends tend to agree with me—so I must be right—right? What if God does not care about my need to be right?

After the U.S. presidential election last fall, a friend got an interesting assignment in her inter-faith dialogue group. The group leader invited them to interview someone who had voted for the “other” candidate. The caveat was that they were just to listen to the response—not to challenge the person’s decision or to defend their own votes, but just to listen.vulnerability-God-spiritualitySo often, I think I know why people do what they do—without even asking.

What if God is inviting me to ask questions and listen for answers that might not support my view? What if God is asking me to use my eyes to see and my ears to hear? To truly expand my palette?

 

 

 

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Finding peace

My recent vacation in Ireland included a day trip to the Peace Wall in Belfast. It was a sobering experience that brought up many memories and emotions.

The Peace Wall runs between two neighborhoods and has gates across the streets. The gates were all closed and locked the Sunday we visited.reconciliation-vulnerability-resistancereconciliation-vulnerability-resistanceWe walked along Falls Road, looking at murals that commemorate the troubles in Northern Ireland—and also murals that depict troubles in other countries—oppression around the world.reconciliation-vulnerability-resistanceShortly before I left for Ireland we had marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Detroit riot. I was fifteen at the time of the riot, and I have vivid memories of that week in July 1967.

Some people are now calling the riot a rebellion or uprising, and while I understand their reasoning, I feel resistant to change. After the riot, my parents moved us out of Detroit, and riot captures my experience and the aftermath of upheaval in my life.

 

I had watched the documentary, 12th and Clairmount, that places the riot in a broader historical context, which was helpful for me. It also stirred up memories and emotions.

Standing there in Belfast, remembering the riot, I felt a mix of emotions—wanting to honor my experience and my memories, wanting to respect the experience and memories of others—and also wanting to find a way to move forward.reconciliation-vulnerability-resistanceThree years after the Detroit riot, I moved to Norfolk, VA, and I was unprepared for the reception I received.

More than once, white southerners told me to “Go home,” once my accent revealed that I was not from there, that I was a Yankee.

White southerners talked about “the war,” and it took me a while to remember that they were as likely to be talking about the Civil War as the Vietnam War. My protestations that my ancestors did not even come to the U.S. until the early twentieth century made no difference. I was a Yankee; therefore, I was somehow responsible for the Civil War.

Gobsmacked is the word I remember using to describe the experience. Over and over again, I encountered a hatred aimed at me because of where I had lived.

How could people hold onto something that happened more than a hundred years earlier? How could keeping Civil War hatred alive be helpful?

The wall in Belfast brought back that “we will not forget…” sentiment.

And that brought up my own I will not forget attitude. I can see that my resistance to look at the events and aftermath of July 1967 is similar to the white southerners who held on to anger about the civil war. I, too, nurse my grudge.

Looking at the Peace Wall and murals, I felt invited to let go of my anger and resentment, to be more compassionate toward the white southerners who had despised me and the Detroiters who changed my life. I felt invited to move past my resistance and onto the path toward reconciliation and peace.reconciliation-vulnerability-resistance

 

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A walk in the woods

Leading up to my trip to the Cotswolds, I watched multiple episodes of a British detective show called Midsomer Murders, set in a fictional English village. Although the murders are often gruesome, the detectives who solve them are soft-spoken and polite.

After watching about a dozen episodes, I was left with one key question: “Why do Brits go into the woods?”

Many of the murder victims are just walking through the woods surrounding the village when disaster strikes.

I vowed that I would avoid the woods.

But, the truth is, I did go into the woods in the Cotswolds—it was the only way to get to the next village or to the gardens I wanted to visit—and I went alone.travel-trust-freedomVisions of Midsomer Murders accompanied me, and I was aware that this might not have been one of my brighter ideas, but, when in Rome….

Going into the woods alone is something I would never do at home. I avoid places that are isolated or secluded; I stick to the beaten (paved) path. But there is something about traveling—to another country and culture—that enables me to be more open, daring and trusting.

As I walked through the woods in the Cotswolds, I remembered a trip to Kruger Park in South Africa. I was traveling with two other women, staying at a lodge on the Crocodile River. One evening, three South African men picked us up for a night Safari. Off we went into the growing darkness, in an open safari truck. The men had guns—in case we encountered lions.travel-trust-freedom

Once inside the park, we drove on the paved road for a while, spotting a leopard, elephants and other wild animals.

Then our driver turned off the paved road onto a rutted path and past a sign announcing that the road was closed. Yikes!

Here we were, three women, heading into the deep bush with three armed men we did not know. I remember thinking that this would never happen back home. But, when in Africa…

We drove about a quarter mile into the dark woods and then stopped. The men jumped out of the truck, helped us down, and led us on foot deeper into the bush—until we reached a clearing about a hundred yards away.

In the clearing were three more armed South African men, standing around tables filled with food. Several types of barbecued meat (Kudu is the one I remember most clearly), a variety of salads, breads and desserts were set out for us. It was a veritable feast.

We sat at a table covered in a chintz cloth. We ate, drank wine and chatted with our guides (mostly about American pop culture). I felt incredibly blessed—and incredibly grateful.

Foreign travel is usually that kind of blessing for me. Once outside my comfort zone, I am open to new experiences and able to see things from a different perspective. I can let go of fears that usually hold me back.