Tag Archives: compassion

God-forgiveness-vulnerability

Atonement

I am not particularly political, but my car radio lured me into listening to parts of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination hearings.

I heard Kavanaugh boast about coaching his daughters’ basketball teams and his Jesuit education. Ward Cleaver came to mind as I listened to his self-portrayal. Perhaps I even rolled my eyes once or twice. I understand presenting oneself in the best possible light, but no one is that good, I thought.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityOne day, I heard that the girls’ basketball team he coaches came to the hearings—in their Catholic school uniforms. Really? What is he trying to prove? I wondered.

And then came the allegation about a sexual assault incident from his high school days.

And I began to wonder if he had overplayed his hand. Was that perfect father portrayal really just a charm offensive?God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityLast year’s disclosures by women who had been sexually assaulted made me think of the men who had not yet been named, those men who knew their histories and were now squirming as they waited for the shoe to drop.

I have to admit that I took a great deal of delight in knowing that those men who once dominated were now vulnerable, having no idea if or when a voice from their troubled past would intrude into their idyllic present.

Is Brett Kavanaugh one of those men? Was all that blarney about being so good just a smoke screen in anticipation of someone stepping forward to reveal his past?

And here is where I run into a dilemma. I am not the same person I was when I was seventeen or even twenty-seven. I made mistakes, and I own that. I sought help to deal with the issues that plagued my young life and have learned from my mistakes. I have atoned for the sins of my youth through prayer and service, and I don’t want to be judged by mistakes I made out of my brokenness and ignorance.God-forgiveness-vulnerabilityI wonder if Judge Kavanaugh has taken responsibility for the mistakes of his youth.

And I wonder what he would do if one of the girls on the team he coaches or if one of his daughters was sexually assaulted.

Would Judge Kavanaugh take the view that “boys will be boys” and minimize the damage done to the girl?  Would he counsel the girl to shake it off, as if it were a basketball foul?

Would he advise the boy to deny all accusations? Or would he counsel the boy to take responsibility for his actions, knowing that dark deeds that are locked away can be uncovered at any time, and that a life built on secrets can easily implode.

The man who assaulted me apologized a few weeks later. Two little words—I’m sorry—and he walked away free and clear. I was left with damage that took years to heal, and only now can I see that for all the harm he caused me, at least he owned it.God-forgiveness-vulnerability

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vulnerability-God-healing

Turning loss into gain

vulnerability-God-healingMy young life was chaotic, to put it politely. I survived it, though, by creating a shield around myself. I was a living papier-mache project, and each chaotic event added a layer to my armor until my coat was so thick that it was almost impenetrable.

All along, though, God kept trying to break through my protective shield, kept trying to prevent me from walling myself in. But I was resistant. Closing myself in felt safe; opening myself up created anxiety.

During my twenties and early thirties, I came to understand the disconnect between my tough exterior and fragile interior. Good manipulators saw my weakness and took advantage; what felt to me like a true connection and perhaps even love was really exploitation.

My coat of armor was not really protecting me from further harm; it was just keeping out the healing love of God.

Through all those years, though, God did not give up on me.

In my twenties, I kept getting invitations to attend retreats and workshops where I would hear about God’s desire to love and heal me. I collected buttons with slogans like “God doesn’t make mistakes” and “God don’t make junk.”

I memorized Scripture verses that reminded me of Jesus’ desire to love and heal me. I commiserated with St. Paul and the thorn in his side. My past was always with me, a thorn in my side reminding me of my shame.

Mary Magdalene became my soul sister—if Jesus could drive seven demons from her and she could come to know herself as loveable, surely he could do the same for me. I was desperate to escape the self-loathing I felt, that certainty that I was damaged goods and good for nothing.

But after a childhood spent creating a thick protective shell, breaking it down was neither easy nor quick. Messages on buttons could not effectively undo my deeply-held belief that I was broken, unfixable and unlovable.

Over time, though, Jesus was able to break through my defenses. As a child, I had seen Jesus as another innocent victim. Every Palm Sunday, I cried out with him, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Poor Jesus; poor me.

At some point, though, the connection clicked—Jesus was an innocent victim, and he did understand my brokenness. I realized that what I had told myself was self-protection was really fear—fear of being overwhelmed by sadness or fear that what had happened to me in the past could happen again.

I came to see that unless I peeled off those layers of protective armor and touched my brokenness, I was just setting myself up to be re-victimized. I also saw that what I considered thorns were actually invitations to growth.

St. Teresa of Avila’s Prayer to Redeem Lost Time rings true for me:

While recalling the wasted years that are past, I believe that you, Lord, can in an instant turn this loss to gain.

With God, nothing is lost; everything is possible.vulnerability-God-healing

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

 

 

 

 

 

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?