Tag Archives: humility

Check your ego at the door

I once belonged to a networking group of about a dozen people, all leaders in our field. One of the ground rules for our networking sessions was to “check your ego at the door.” We all claimed to be “servant leaders” which would imply that our egos would be kept in check, but the reality was that when two or more successful people got together, a game of one-upmanship often ensued.

Some of these people had international reputations; others were leaders in our local community. The “ego” rule made it possible for us to meet as equals. If someone started name-dropping or praising their own achievements, another member would gently recall the rule. It got to the point that only one word was needed to rein in an inflated sense of self. “Ego,” someone would say.

ego-humility-leadership
hum

I have often thought of that rule, especially when working with nonprofit boards which are usually made up of successful community leaders. I gently remind them that the most important thing about nonprofits is the mission, and I invite them to stay focused on advancing the mission of the organization rather than focusing on their individual contributions.

I am fortunate that my dad was not into hero-worship; he often said that everyone “puts his pants on one leg at a time.” No one was any more important than anyone else in my dad’s eyes. His attitude has stayed with me, and I think it has served me well. (I do have to admit, though, that I was somewhat starstruck the time I was standing next to Ray Charles at JFK Airport and when I was sitting just a few feet away from the Pope.)

Competition is a cornerstone of capitalism, and it is common to encounter successful people who love to tell you how they built up their company or scored some big deal. My eyes tend to glaze over during those monologues; I am much more interested in those who praise all the people who made their success possible.

My friend Ted was one of those people. He was a successful lawyer, well-known in his field and treated like a big deal at his work. He was very generous with his resources and often donated to the nonprofit where I worked—always requesting anonymity. “Don’t let your right hand know what your left is doing,” (Matthew 6:3) was one of his favorite Bible quotes.

ego-humility-leadership

I think all of this has come to mind because I am leaving my profession to embark on the next chapter of my life. When I told my boss I was leaving, she repeated something she has said to me several times since our two nonprofits merged a few years ago—she is amazed that I gave up my job as executive director and set aside my ego for the sake of the mission.

Perhaps it is unusual; for me, though, it was remembering to stay focused on the mission and to check my ego at the door.

Christmas love

Valentine’s Day is the time for hearts.

Pink and red hearts on shop windows and

cards declaring undying love,

cupid’s arrow aiming for hearts,

and heart-shaped boxes of chocolates.

But now, at Christmas,  

hearts have been capturing my attention,

in scripture, songs and poems.

Open my heart,

turn my heart,

take it to heart,

heart on fire,

humble hearts,

heartbroken.

Christmas love seeks hearts that have been shattered,

pitted and scarred,

and offers the heart of the innocent baby.

Repair my heart, I pray.

Make it unblemished.

Yet I know that each indelible mark

makes the heart

more attractive,

more desirable,

more likely to be a

hospitable host,

fertile ground,

waiting to be seeded.

Every time my heart is broken,

love has another chance to

plant itself,

take root and

grow.

Reflections from a day of kayaking

Two friends invited me to go kayaking on the Thornapple River in central Michigan, and I gladly accepted.

Kayaking is one of my favorite outdoor activities because it offers an easy way to be on the water surrounded by nature. Kayaking requires minimal strength, and on the Thornapple River, the current did most of the work. We had to steer around some fallen trees and other debris, but the water was relatively calm and the trip downriver peaceful.

mindfulness-meditation-vulnerability
Photo from Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy

Nature gifted us with sightings of deer along the riverbank and herons standing in the water. There were more turtles than I could count, lounging on fallen logs along the river’s edge.  

Being carried along by the current, I rested my paddle and looked up into the canopy created by the trees. Although mostly green, a few had started to change to fall colors and some leaves even fell into the kayak along the way.

I remembered a meditation about trees and how they change every season without resistance.

They seem to trust that even though their leaves are dying now and they will be dormant over winter, in the spring, new leaves will bud and grow to cover them again. Every year the cycle repeats itself, and the trees move naturally through the cycle. They don’t resist the changes—the death of autumn or the new growth of spring. They just do what trees do, living the cycles of their lives.

Be the tree, I said to myself. Let go of what needs to die and trust that something new will grow in spring.

When I lowered my eyes and looked at the trees at water level, I realized that the riverbank had eroded, and the roots of most of the trees were exposed. I wondered if that exposure weakens the trees and makes them more vulnerable.

The words of St. Paul came to me: When I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Be the tree, I said to myself again. Let your roots be exposed and risk vulnerability.

Yes, I thought, I want to be like trees and let go easily. I want to accept the changes of life as they come and move gracefully through each season. I want to let my vulnerabilities show, to be less certain and more open, less fearful and more trusting.

A little further down the river, I had the opportunity to lean into my vulnerability—I fell into the water in a less than dignified way. I was not hurt—just drenched. And like the time I had to climb a tree to get over a barbed-wire fence in England three years ago, I was grateful no one was videotaping the escapade.

Letting go of my pride and laughing at myself moves me along the path to humility, the path of accepting my vulnerability. Those few minutes of embarrassment were part of the hours of peaceful contentment kayaking down the river, helping me be the tree and embrace whatever comes.

See my wounds

While praying with the resurrection stories this week—scripture passages I have read dozens of times, heard preached about every year and thought I knew so well—I had an “aha” moment.

The idea that Jesus’ suffering was not in vain, that his death had a redemptive quality is not new.

This year, though, the image of Jesus showing his wounds to the disciples after his resurrection took on a different meaning for me.

Recently, I have been pondering sharing more of my wounds. I have written pieces that expose parts of my story that have been long kept secret. Although I have been through years of therapy to help me get past the shame, I can still be crippled by it. Don’t tell are two words that reverberate in my mind and prevent me from full disclosure.

I admire others who get past shame and tell all and am amazed by those who seem to have escaped shame all together.

But I have not been able to shake off shame. I still cringe whenever I reveal a detail of my past, when I speak of something I have been warned not to tell.

Reading the resurrection stories this year and imagining the scene of Jesus standing with his fearful disciples sparked a new insight.

Jesus got his wounds in a shameful fashion. He was mistreated by his own religious leaders and crucified as a common criminal.

The disciples scattered rather than stand at the foot of the cross and watch the man they respected be humiliated and disgraced. He had been their leader, but now he was broken—not powerful at all, but humbly submitting to ridicule, abuse and death.  

And yet, just days later, there he was, standing in their midst and inviting them to look at his wounds.

For Jesus, they were not marks of shame, but rather signs of victory. He was proud to show the marks of his suffering.

The disciples had been cowering in a locked room when Jesus appeared and invited them to look at his wounds.

What was clearer to me this year is that if Jesus could endure humiliation and overcome shame, so could his disciples. He was inviting them (and me) to shake off shame, to convert what looked like weakness into power, to break free of the bonds that kept them in hiding, behind locked doors.

Jesus broke through their fears and invited them to spread the word that humiliating treatment did not define or limit him, but rather he converted that treatment into true freedom.

God-healing-faith

Fear drives people to abuse power and victimize vulnerable people.

By showing his wounds as signs of triumph over the fears of others, Jesus was offering the ultimate freedom. He did not let what had happened to him to limit or define him, and he invites me to do the same.

Showing his wounds was the exclamation point on his message that fear is useless and that trust in God leads to freedom.     

God-healing-faith
God-vulnerability-service

Vulnerability as a gift

Every winter, my church participates in a rotating shelter program for people who are homeless; this year, thirty men are staying with us for a week.

Our parish school closed years ago, but for this one week, classrooms are converted into bedrooms, the gym into a cafeteria, and a large meeting room into a gathering space with televisions, games and snacks. It is an excellent example of repurposing.

I love the outpouring of generosity this program elicits, as parishioners step up to serve as hosts, prepare meals, provide transportation and do laundry. The planning for this week is spearheaded by one couple who start months in advance to make sure they have enough volunteers lined up to meet the needs of our guests this week.God-vulnerability-serviceMost nighttime shelters are set up for sleeping, and the people who are staying usually have to leave for the day. The rotating shelter program operates under the same rules, but holidays are the exception.

On New Year’s Day, I was one of four volunteers who spent the afternoon with our guests.

The day before, I was aware that our guests were arriving that evening. Throughout the day, I held the guests, organizers and volunteers in prayer. I was conscious of how blessed I am to have a home with heat—and to earn enough money to be able to pay my heating bills. All day, I thanked God for my blessings.God-vulnerability-serviceTwice in my life, I have been without a home and had to rely on the generosity of others to have a place to stay. Both times, I was humiliated and felt incredibly vulnerable; and I did not like it.

So being able to offer hospitality to others through this program is especially meaningful to me.

The afternoon started with lunch in the gym/cafeteria. Each table was decorated with a small bouquet of fresh flowers, creating a feeling of spring inside—in sharp contrast to the sub-zero temperatures outside. I sat with two other volunteers, and after we had finished eating, one of the guests came to our table and offered to clear away our dishes.

“Thank you,” we each said as he carried away our trays.

“I like to help,” he commented.

Being vulnerable and needing to rely on the generosity of others can create the sense of being a taker, of having little or nothing to offer. It took me a long time to understand the gift of vulnerability—the gift of seeing myself as being an opportunity for others to be generous.

My time as host on New Year’s Day included refilling water pitchers, replenishing snacks and helping guests with their medications. Last summer, I learned to play Euchre (a card game that is popular in Michigan), and I spent part of the afternoon in a Euchre game.

I can think of no better way to start the New Year than to put myself at the service of others, and also to be an opportunity for someone else to serve.

 

vulnerability-trust-spirituality

Falling apart

I think most of us have had something painful or difficult in our lives, experiences we might rather move away from (quickly) rather than examine for life lessons. My living in l’Arche was like that for me.

l’Arche is a Christian community where people with and without developmental disabilities live together and create community. Sounds idyllic, right? For some people, it is. But I was not one of those people. For me, living in l’Arche was very painful.

My plan had been to live in l’Arche for the rest of my life. I had quit my job, given away my furniture, packed the rest of my belongings into my car and headed to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. I quickly realized, though, that my plan was not going to work out, and I left the community before my first year was up.

I was devastated—and humiliated and angry. This was the most difficult and painful situation I had gone through—and I had gone through some pretty painful things.

I think what made this more difficult was that I had brought it on myself. No one had coerced me or forced me. I had decided to go to l’Arche. It was a decision I had freely made with prayer and planning—and then it did not work out.

Shortly after leaving l’Arche, I sought spiritual direction to help me process my sorrow and grief.

All of my hurt, disappointment and frustration poured out in that session. Tears of sadness mixed with tears of anger. I was confused and felt like I had just been through an extreme spiritual battle—a battle I had lost.

Did I give up too quickly? Had I not been persistent enough? Doubt wracked me.

“I think I am falling apart,” I said to the spiritual director.

“I think you are falling together,” she replied.

Her words stopped me cold.

Had I been looking at this apparent failure from the wrong angle? Was the whole point of my moving to l’Arche to break me down, to uncover what I had so carefully kept hidden? Was I meant to fall apart so that God could put me back together in a different way? Had this experience revealed deeper truths to me that I might not have learned any other way?

Laying out the pieces of my shattered dreams and allowing someone else to look at them was a turning point. Where I had been stuck trying to piece things together in one way, she was able to offer a different view. It was like a jigsaw puzzle—one where I could not see the whole picture.

Great mysteries are sometimes hidden in unexpected places.

Advent is a wonderful time to reflect on the hidden mysteries of our lives and to be open to growing in trust that God sees the whole picture of our lives.

More often that we might think, God is helping us to fall together, even when it might feel like we are falling apart.

 

grace-humility-vulnerability

Possibility

The cancer support center where I work has been growing rapidly, and so we recently moved to a larger building.

Prior to the move, I had measured a spot for a huge shelving unit; it would just fit. When I pointed out this spot to the mover, he said, “There is no way that piece will fit into that spot.”

“I measured,” I assured him, and showed him how I had walked off the space.

“You needed to really measure it,” he asserted. I would not give up my point and he called another mover over for his opinion.

“That big piece?” the second mover asked. “It’ll never fit in there.”

I was not in the room when they brought the shelving unit in, but later I saw that it fit perfectly.

A friend who was helping with the move told me she had advised the movers, “Don’t tell Madeline she was right or she will gloat.”

She was right; I gloated. She knows me so well—or I am that transparent. Either way, ugh. Not my finest moment.grace-humility-vulnerabilityOn my way home that evening, I heard a man on a radio show talking about his heritage. He had traced his family back to a southern city where there was a plantation owner with the same last name as his. His voice took on a confident tone as he suggested that he would be able to trace his DNA back to this slave-owner.

I don’t doubt the possibility or even probability that a plantation owner fathered children with his slaves, but it seemed to me this man needed for it to be true, and I wondered if he would accept any other outcome.grace-humility-vulnerabilityIt made me think of my needing to be right about the shelving unit fitting into the space.

What is it that makes me need to be right? And why do I take so much pleasure in someone’s admission that I am right?

When we were in our early thirties, a friend’s mother told us, “If there is something you don’t like about yourself, change it now, because it will only get worse as you get older.”

At the time, I thought about my negative traits, the things I wanted to change. If the need to be right was one of them, I did not do a very good job of changing it.

In the New Year, I pray for the grace to be less certain and more curious, to let go of my need to be right and be more humble.

I want to be curious—not convinced, knowing that certainty can cloud my judgment. I want to leave room for some other possibility that I had not even considered, some gift God desires to give me.

I remind myself that God is doing something new (Isaiah 43:19) but I need to make room for what God has planned, to be more open to possibility and to believe that the best is yet to come.

 

Christmas-love-vulnerability

Christmas love

In the days leading up to Christmas, I have been pondering how God infused humanity with divine love.

This infusion of love happened in the most vulnerable of circumstances—an unmarried woman became pregnant, Joseph had the courage to take her as his wife, their arduous trip to Bethlehem, no room at the inn and giving birth among the animals. It happened to ordinary people who were living ordinary lives.

The shepherds were the first to hear the news, lowly shepherds. God chose to reveal His greatest glory to working-class people—not royalty or rich people, but poor people, marginalized people, people who smelled like the sheep they lived among.

The fact that God chose these particular people and circumstances makes me think that lowliness and vulnerability are highly esteemed by God. God prefers lowliness.

As I pondered the mystery of God coming to us in these humble surroundings, love took on a different look. That first Christmas turned societal order upside down, placing first those who seemed to be last. That Christmas, the lowliest were the first to receive the message of God’s love breaking into the world.

Christmas love seeks out those who are marginalized and lets them know that they are the most important to God, that God chooses them.

Christmas love honors two things we might find difficult to even look at, let alone esteem—poverty and powerlessness. Who wants to be poor and powerless? Who wants to even think about their brokenness and fragility?

Yet, the message of Christmas seems pretty clear—God chooses those who are lowly; Christmas invites us to consider our own lowliness—our own weakness and insecurity.

This is the gift of Christmas—not expensive presents or lavish parties, but humility and vulnerability; that is where God touches us with divine love. God turns things upside down by blessing those very parts of ourselves we try to hide.

Christmas-love-vulnerability

 

As I thought about Christmas, the word fear kept coming to me. Fears keep us from accepting those we see as different, because we can fear being judged, being hurt, being taken advantage of or even being seen as different. I wonder if Mary and Joseph were afraid of the shepherds who approached them and their newborn baby—in the way we might be afraid of being approached by someone who had been living outside.

Christmas assures us that God prefers to meet us in our vulnerability, our fears and insecurities, our poverty and pain. There God can infuse us with divine love so that we can be open to pain and suffering—our own and others.Christmas-love-vulnerability

Christmas love is accepting and forgiving. It is abundant, and it offers true freedom and peace when we can let go of our fears and expectations and honestly admit our dependence on God.

To be humble rather than proud; to be weak rather than strong; to love rather than hate; to trust rather than fear; to hope even in dire circumstances—let the Christmas celebration begin.Christmas-love-vulnerability

 

 

 

 

 

Custody of the Eyes

Orientation for new Cabrini Mission Corps volunteers included a day focused on staying emotionally and psychologically healthy. Most of what Sr. Mary Pat talked about was familiar to me, but my ears perked up the first time I heard her use the expression custody of the eyes.

Custody of the eyes was something she was taught during her formation as a sister; it is another way of saying, “mind your own business.” When I first heard it, an image of a horse wearing blinders popped into my mind.

Horse-drawn carriage rides are one of the tourist attractions in historic Philadelphia. The horses have blinders on to keep them from being distracted and giving them a narrow line of vision.

When I first saw those horses, I remember wishing there was a human equivalent, some apparatus that I could wear to keep my focus on what was right in front of me instead of looking at what was happening around me. I wanted to be content with what was on my path, but I often fell prey to the temptation to look at others.

When I lived in l’Arche, the negative aspects of comparing myself with others became abundantly clear to me. I frequently let my vision wander to what others were doing—or not doing—rather than staying focused on my own actions.

Critiquing others’ behaviors did not change anything and while it might have given me some momentary, smug satisfaction, I was usually left with a decidedly negative after-effect.

I could see that letting my vision stray from my own path was not helpful and could be downright destructive; gossip has to be one of the biggest threats to healthy community living.

And I quickly realized that only by focusing on myself would I be able to change what I needed to change so that I could add something positive to the community. What others did or did not do needed to matter less to me; I needed to pay attention to my own actions.

Of course, looking at what I was doing, admitting my weaknesses and mistakes, confessing my breaches against the community—those were all terribly difficult. I still squirm a bit when I think of how judgmental I was, how quick I was to speak out against someone else’s faults and actions—as if I had the corner on all truth and wisdom. I still shutter when I remember how defensive I was when I was called out for my bad behavior.

Ten years after leaving l’Arche, I learned the expression custody of the eyes and had flashbacks to my behavior in l’Arche. Since then, using this expression as a mantra, coupled with the image of the horse blinders, helps keep me focused on my own path, watching myself put one foot in front of the other.