Tag Archives: compassion

vulnerability-God-compassion

What I am learning from my tears

The other morning at prayer, these words from Ezekiel 47 caught my attention:

I saw water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple….Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow, their leaves shall not fade nor their fruit fail. Every month they shall bear fresh fruit, for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.vulnerability-God-compassion

Lately, I have I have been very emotional, and I am unable to stop my tears from flowing.

I grew up in one of those families where crying was discouraged; tears usually elicited a response of, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Then, in my twenties, I worked for the FBI where agents used to tell me to “toughen up.” This was usually in response to a mood-shift after my oh-so-easily-hurt feelings had been hurt. I would sulk and feel sorry for myself, but I would try not to cry.

My years at the FBI did toughen me up. I tried to keep inside any emotion that might make me look weak or vulnerable. Being tough (or at least looking tough) was my goal, so I swallowed my emotions.

At some point in my life, though, I realized the pendulum had swung too far and that I had developed an impenetrable shell to protect myself from criticism that I was weak. That shell helped me feel invincible and kept me from feeling vulnerable. It also kept others away.vulnerability-God-compassionOne of the good things about getting old is that I can look back on so many opportunities God has given me to move against my resistance to being vulnerable. God invites me not to toughen up but to soften up.vulnerability-God-compassionAs I read the words of Ezekiel, I wondered if my tears are the river that gives me life.vulnerability-God-compassionRecently, as I watched a high school volleyball game, tears started rolling down my face. The same thing happened a few weeks earlier at the Motown Museum while watching the movie about the early days of Barry Gordy and the high school students who would become his stars.

Reading a novel about Puritans in Connecticut, tears welled up and spilled over. Watching television, seeing a rainbow, spotting a butterfly—I have no idea what will set off a tearful episode.

I try to let the tears flow freely. I want the emotions to be set free—rather than tamped down or stifled.

My recent tears tell me that my protective shell has a crack in it, and I want to widen that crack. I want to acknowledge my fears and insecurities. I want to be softer. But it is not easy.

My early training sets me up to be afraid of showing my vulnerability, and fear can be a powerful paralyzer.

But, God keeps prompting me—with the words of scripture, my memories and my tears. I know I that I can sit with the discomfort of feeling vulnerable and not be overwhelmed.

Let the tears flow.vulnerability-God-compassion

 

 

 

 

 

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memory-vulnerability-compassion

How’s your memory?

In my twenties, I used to tell friends, “When I am old and can’t remember things, don’t say it is because I am old—I can’t remember things now.”memory-vulnerability-compassion

My memory has never been good. While friends could recall what they ate or wore at a particular occasion, I had nothing. Names and faces would only stick if I had spent an extended period of one-to-one time with someone. Otherwise, I would not remember them.memory-vulnerability-compassionIt could be embarrassing. Once, I approached a speaker at a conference and thanked her for her comments. I approached her as a stranger, but she knew my name. My confusion must have been evident because she added, “I met you at dinner, last night…with Sandra?” She was trying to jog my memory, but I had no recollection, probably because we were in a large group and I did not speak with her one-to-one. But still, I did not recall her from the previous evening—I cringed.

This may not be scientific, but I believe that memory is a muscle and if it is not exercised, it loses its potency. I think of memory the same way I think of biceps; if exercised they stay strong; if unused they sag and are useless.

My memory did not get exercised as a child. Too many things happened that were better forgotten; my mantra became don’t remember. What was the point of remembering things that were too painful or that others would claim did not happen? I learned to let go.

But, I have paid the price, and now that I am old, I worry about what I can’t remember.memory-vulnerability-compassionSometimes it is place names. For example, on my recent visit to Phoenix, I visited Old Town Scottsdale, but later, I could not pull the word Scottsdale from my memory. I could describe the art galleries I visited but not the name of the city.

Usually, though, it is people I can’t recall. I don’t seem able to imprint names and faces in my memory, and that can be embarrassing and worrisome. What if this inability to remember is a symptom of something worse than a sagging memory muscle?

In my defense, since moving to Michigan four years ago, I have met many people—and almost everyone in my life here is new in the past four years. I meet new people every day at work, and that adds up to quite a few new people each week. It can be too much.memory-vulnerability-compassionThe funny thing is that my memory seems to have tons of data stored in it, and I can sometimes access things I did not even know I had retained. That makes me a good team mate for games that require minutiae (think Trivial Pursuit). My brain is also good at puzzles and figuring out mysteries; I can remember and recall clues and make connections others can miss.

I have many skills, gifts and talents, but a good memory is not one of them.

 

trust-compassion-God

Living the questions

As I lay on the massage table, allowing someone to tend to me, to help me release the stress I carry in my body, I started to relax.

And then these questions popped into my mind: What would it look like if I really loved myself? If I was truly compassionate toward myself?

What would it look like if I was able to let go of the expectations I place on myself, if I was able to let go of fear? What would it look like if I could see myself as God sees me and love myself as God loves me?

What would be different?

I imagine there would be inner and outer changes. My teeth would unclench and my stomach would unknot, although neither of those would be observable.trust-compassion-GodOutwardly, my shoulders would relax. My massage therapist in Pennsylvania used to suggest I place bricks on my shoulders in an effort to keep them from hunching up around my ears. (I imagine that when I am a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, I will be one of those dancers the judges repeatedly tell to, “Relax your shoulders.” Yes, I have a rich interior life—please allow me my fantasy).

At the end of this session, the Reiki Master said she got a vibe that I feel a need to get my house in order—figuratively or literally, she could not tell.

Definitely literally I told her as I thought of all the unfinished projects in my house.

Although I have been here for four years, three rooms still have no curtains. Hanging curtains used to be the first thing I did in a new place. It made me feel settled and at home. So, why no curtains? I have the fabric to make them and the rods to hang them, but….trust-compassion-GodWould self-compassion enable me to settle into my home? Or would it at least allow me to let go of my feelings of guilt for not having curtains?

My house has an enclosed porch overlooking the back yard. I created two new flower beds last summer that are blooming beautifully this year. Lavender and Echinacea fill the air with sweet scents, and black-eyed Susan, hydrangea and a butterfly bush add depth to the color palate. I feel at home on the porch and in the garden.

Perhaps I will reach the day when I feel that at home inside my house. Perhaps I will reach the day when I am that comfortable in my own skin.

Every time I get a taste of letting go and leaning into God, letting gravity pull me into a relaxed state, I know that is where I want to live. It is a place of mutuality, where God and I share a deep secret—that God has always loved me just as I am and that I can let go of my expectations that I be anyone else or do anything else. I can just let go and be loved.trust-compassion-God

 

compassion-God-love

Growing in love

Love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:31

Whenever I encountered this Scripture passage, I used to think, “Poor neighbors,” what a low bar. Shouldn’t I love my neighbors at least a bit more than I love myself?

I didn’t love myself very much in my young life. I saw myself as lacking in most every way, never quite measuring up, more often messing up.

I might have re-written the passage to read, Love your neighbors as you want to be loved—or possibly Love yourself as you love your neighbors, because I can be much more accepting, compassionate and forgiving of others.

My capacity for self-love was definitely deficient.

Growing up, I knew that God loved me, and it was always a mystery why or how God could love someone I saw as so broken. It was probably my biggest Yes, but, as in “I know God loves me, but…” followed by my litany of deficiencies—all the reasons God must be wrong to love me.

Recently, one of my neighbors ripped out his front lawn. I don’t know why he did it—maybe it was dying or too weedy; maybe he just got tired of it or just did not like it and wanted something new and different.

I walked past his grassless front yard for a few weeks and then one day there was a beautiful new lawn—lush, green and weed-free. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if I could rip out what is undesirable in me and instantaneously replace it with something new and beautiful, completely erase whatever was old, worn or ugly?compassion-God-loveBut that is not how it has worked in my life. Years of therapy helped me to redefine myself more realistically. Years of prayer helped me to begin to see myself as God sees me.

I had to learn to set good boundaries and practice owning what is mine, figuring out what I believe and reinforcing that—and letting go of negative views. I wrote affirmations on little pieces of paper and taped them to my bathroom mirror, stuck them to my refrigerator with magnets and placed them in small picture frames. Reading these affirmations every day eventually began to push aside negative messages and replace them with God messages.compassion-God-loveI was restructuring the landscape of my inner self, but it was not as instantaneous as laying sod.

When I was in therapy in my thirties, I used to practice my boundary-setting out loud. When I recognized that I was regurgitating someone else’s negative belief (about myself or anything else), I would identify it. “So and so needs to say…” and then I would say, “But I want to say…” about whatever it was what I believed, or what belief I was growing into.compassion-God-loveGrowing in self-compassion has strengthened my boundaries and improved my self-esteem. To love myself as God loves me is my desire. Only then am I able to truly love others as I love myself—and as God loves them.compassion-God-love

 

grief-community-ritual

Healing and hope

Recently, I went to San Francisco for a workshop called Entering the Healing Ground: The Sacred Work of Grief. The workshop combined several things I love: poetry, writing, dancing and singing.

It also involved something I don’t particularly like: sharing my personal story with a group.

I am okay with talking about my public self, and I have gotten better at sharing some of my personal story, but there is a whole other layer buried deep inside that I rarely touch and even more rarely share. Dipping into my shadow, admitting my weaknesses and revealing my secrets—ugh.grief-community-ritualThis workshop invited me to dig deep and root around in the darkness where I hide my most private self. It invited me to touch my pain and to allow others to see the real me—not just the strong, independent me, but also the vulnerable me who has been hurt and experienced loss.grief-community-ritualThe facilitator talked about self-compassion, which was exactly the message I needed to hear. I know I need to be tender with my brokenness in order to coax my hidden self into the light.­­­­­

The workshop sessions began with drumming, dancing, singing and poetry. The facilitator talked about community, ritual and grief.

And then we wrote.

Each writing exercise began with a prompt. Over the course of three days, these prompts help me go deep within:

  • I remember
  • It is true
  • It hurt me
  • I survived
  • It is not okay with me
  • I miss

After each ten-minute writing session, we read what we had written to two other participants, and then we were given the opportunity to share with the larger group of twenty-four.grief-community-ritualI usually don’t speak in group settings; I listen and learn from others but rarely take the risk of speaking.

However, I am trying to move against my resistance.

At this workshop, I waited until the last opportunity on Saturday to share with the large group. Then I took a deep breath and read what I had just written prompted by I survived.

My writing was about something from my childhood, something I have only shared with a few close friends. I felt exposed and incredibly vulnerable—ugh.

That evening, I spent some time alone. I knitted, prayed and took a walk around the retreat center grounds. That is my pattern—to withdraw and isolate when I feel vulnerable.

There I was at a workshop focused on accepting our brokenness and grief, forming community, trusting—and when I most needed to be with others, I withdrew.

The next morning, I returned to the group a bit more self-aware, open and ready to dig a bit deeper. Writing on Sunday morning to the prompt I miss revealed an unhealed grief, and it was cathartic to release my sadness through tears.

grief-community-ritualThe weekend was a rare opportunity and I felt incredibly blessed to have participated. As we were leaving, another participant said, “A great gift brings great responsibility.”

What will I do with this great gift?

 

 

Aging gracefully

When I was in my mid-forties, I became more aware of women who were aging gracefully. These were women in their fifties, sixties and seventies who were not embarrassed by their grey hair or shape-shifting bodies. They exercised for health but did not obsess over the effects of gravity. Peace and wisdom seemed to emanate from them, and just being in their presence calmed me.

aging-gracefully

These women were content with themselves and their lives. They lived in gratitude for all that had been and hope that the best was yet to come—even though they had endured hardship and suffering.

One woman had lost a son to suicide and another had a life-threatening disease. Another woman’s husband had been having an affair and after forty years of marriage, he asked for a divorce. My friend was devastated by his betrayal. Yet, even in her pain, she was able to pray for the grace to see her ex-husband and his new wife as God saw them.

What courage, I thought. I want to grow old with that much courage and grace.

I know that holding onto hurt and anger can make me bitter and cynical, and that is not how I want to live. I believe God calls me to live as my friend did—to forgive and let go, to be compassionate and merciful, to try to see as God sees and to love as God loves.

Last Friday, I turned sixty-five; I am a senior citizen by every definition. We have longevity in my family—my mother is ninety and her mother lived to ninety-six—but I know I have many fewer days ahead than have already passed. That awareness gives me a greater sense of urgency to appreciate each day.

aging-gracefully

The Native American story of the two wolves that live within me has been coming to mind recently: One wolf is good and does no harm. She lives in harmony with everyone around her and takes no offense when none was intended. She is joy, peace, serenity, hope, love, kindness and compassion.

aging-gracefully

The other wolf is full of anger. The littlest thing will set her off in a fit of rage. She fights anyone, any time, for no reason. She is full of envy, greed, anger, regret, self-pity, false pride and resentment.

The two wolves vie for my attention and energy; whichever one I feed will dominate.

I am paying more attention to the negativity within and around me and trying to counter it with positivity and hope.

I tend to think of my life in thirds—the first third was formative; the second third was restorative and this third I want to be generative.

Like those women I admire, I want to show compassion and mercy, to forgive and to encourage others to let go of anger and regret. I want to be content and grateful.

Life is short—no matter how many years we have, and I want to live each day to the fullest.

aging-gracefully

 

compassion-God

A new perspective

“How are the fall colors?” my friend in Virginia asked the other night. She is coming to see me in Michigan in a few weeks and hoping to be in time to see the vibrant colors of our fall.

“We haven’t had a frost yet,” I said. “It is actually quite warm here—it’s in the 70’s.”

She laughed.

“What?” I asked.

“It is in the 70’s here, too,” she said, “and I was going to say how cool it is.”

Perspective. Same temperature but different conclusion.

perspective2

I think so much of what goes wrong in relationships is because we jump to conclusions without seeking clarification or understanding another’s perspective.

Yesterday, I facilitated a retreat session for a group of local volunteers. My topic was theological reflection, a process that helps look at things from God’s perspective, that invites God into a situation and asks, “How does God invite me to see this person or situation?”

In preparation, I spent some time practicing theological reflection A friend from whom I am feeling disconnected came to mind, so I asked God, “What are you inviting me to learn from this disconnect?”

When I open myself to this conversation with God, I usually hear God ask me to love unconditionally, to forgive without limit and to let go. God invites me to see the person or situation from a stance of compassion and mercy. No matter how hurtful something might have been, when I look at it from God’s perspective, it looks different.

From God’s perspective, the person who hurt me is loved as much as I am. God invites me to see that the hurt was a result of my unrealistic expectations and/or that person’s limitations or brokenness. Theological reflection helps me understand the Biblical injunction to love my enemies and to pray for my persecutors (Matthew 5:44).

During the retreat session yesterday, I asked the volunteers to recall a specific incident which showed that their expectations had not been met, a time when they thought, “I didn’t expect that” or “That is not how I imagined it.” Unmet expectations often lead to disillusionment, and disillusionment can lead to negative feelings and actions.

Once they had an incident in mind, I asked them to invite God into the situation, to describe to God what happened and to sit with God and look at the person or situation through God’s eyes.

Reframing the situation from God’s perspective helps to see a bigger picture. My unmet expectations then become more about me instead of about the people or situation that let me down. Changing my expectations—or at least being more aware of them—can change my perspective and help to me understand people and events in a different way. When I see things from God’s perspective, I can more easily let go of hurt and anger. I can be more open to compassion and mercy, less judgmental and more forgiving. I can move toward freedom.