Tag Archives: vulnerability

“…where there is sadness, joy.”

Before my cousin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer ten years ago, I did not think much about cancer. Since her diagnosis, though, I have thought about it a lot. In the five years following her death, five other important people in my life died from cancer. How could I not think about it? Cancer invaded my life.

When my cousin was diagnosed, I wondered what I would do if it was me. Would I react as my cousin had?

After reflecting on that question for a while, I realized I could not possibly know what I would do. There is just no way to predict how one will react to a cancer diagnosis because so many factors come into play at the time of diagnosis.

Having worked at a cancer support center for the past four years, I understand that truth even more deeply.

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While praying this morning for someone who is newly diagnosed with stage four metastatic cancer, I realized I no longer think about what I might do if it was me. Instead, I try just to be present, to listen and to accept the decisions the person who has cancer is making.

This particular person was on my mind as I prayed St. Francis’ prayer his morning, and the words that jumped out at me were, “where there is sadness, joy.”

How can I speak joy into the sadness of this person’s life? I hear the anxiety in his wife’s voice and think of the pain he is experiencing; I feel their sadness.

And yet, as I talk with this couple, I notice little sparks of light at the edges of the darkness. A joke about how he is the cook in their relationship so being in the hospital is rescuing them from her cooking. Or how lucky they are to live near a national cancer institute so he can be assured of the most up-to-date treatment. Gratitude and joy creep in, even in the darkest moments

St Ignatius prayed, “Take, Lord, receive, all my liberty…give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me.”

It is a prayer of surrender, of letting go.

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A cancer diagnosis can be one of those moments in life when leaning into God may be the only thing we can do. Even if we put our bodies at the mercy of medical professionals, our spirits belong to God.

Both St. Francis and St. Ignatius—and others who have come to this place of understanding their complete dependence on God—know that God is truly all we need. Letting go of our desire for control and our illusions that we actually have control is the path to peace.

Cancer comes out of the blue. It can be life-changing and even life-destroying. Like all challenges in life, though, it can be the gift that leads us to true peace, freedom and even joy.

No matter the darkness that might invade my life, I hope I react with trust and hope.

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Staying focused

The temperature was hovering around freezing, and a mix of rain and snow was falling from the sky. “Keep both hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road,” the radio weather person advised.

Curious advice, I thought. No matter what is falling from the sky, shouldn’t one always keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road when driving?

It is easy to get distracted when driving, just as it is easy to get distracted from what is truly important in life, what will keep me headed in the right direction.

The letter to the Hebrews advises us to keep our “eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

Staying focused on Jesus can be a challenge because of the level of honesty is requires in dealing with ourselves and others.

Evelyn Underhill prayed,

“O Lord, penetrate those murky corners where we hide memories and tendencies on which we do not care to look….The persistent buried grudge; the bitterness of that loss we have not turned into sacrifice; the private comfort we cling to; the secret fear of failure which saps our initiative and is really inverted pride…”

How honest, how brutally honest.

After my conversion when I was twenty-one, it was relatively easy to stay focused on Jesus. I read my Bible every day, seeking Jesus’ advice and guidance. He became my constant companion, and I turned to him daily for direction and forgiveness.

Just because I was walking with Jesus did not mean I had stopped sinning—rather, it meant I was more convicted of my sins, more sorrowful for my wrongdoings and more desirous of changing my ways.

In my mid-thirties, I had what I came to call my “garden year,” a time of intense prayer and mystical visions. I could not not pray. At all hours of the day and night, I would experience this deep desire to pray. The nuns at my parish gave me free access to their chapel so that I could have a private prayer place whenever I needed it, and I often left work during the middle of the day to go pray.

What was God doing with me? I wondered. It was odd, and, frankly, somewhat annoying. It was not something I could talk about at work or really with most anyone except my spiritual director and my housemate.

My spiritual director thought it wonderful how God was filling me with grace and blessings. She thought visions were pure gift and encouraged me to be open and to record them in my journal.

My housemate, like me, thought it all a bit peculiar. I was just an ordinary person having this extraordinary experience. And for what reason? To what end?

Over time, I have become more comfortable with the way Jesus has shaped my life.

Keeping my eyes on Jesus means a continual invitation to forgiveness and compassion. It means having a heightened awareness of people who are marginalized and vulnerable—and how their vulnerability intersects with mine.

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Fearless

My friend Ted was a very private person. He often confided in me, but always with the admonition not to tell anyone.

“Who would I tell?” was my usual retort, and he would recite a list of our friends.

“They wouldn’t care,” I would say, and he would mutter something under his breath. But he knew I was trustworthy, that I would not tell.

I am good at keeping secrets. My eight years of working for the FBI gave me lots of practice in keeping all kinds of secrets. Plus, if we had a family coat of arms, our motto would be Don’t tell. I came to the FBI as a fully-formed secret-keeper.

I was such an obvious secret-keeper that people sought me out to pour out their hidden lives.

True confessions was how I thought of those occasions when co-workers would reveal to me their deepest, darkest secrets. The stories usually began with “I have never told anyone this, but….”  I knew who was having affairs, who had had abortions and who had been abused as children. I knew of betrayals and dashed hopes. I knew the fears and anxieties traumatic life events could create. I listened and kept their confidences.

Somehow, I seemed to have the capacity to receive these sacred sharings. It felt like a God thing—and a mystery to me, the way people sought me out. People needed to talk, and I could listen. And after hearing someone’s confession, I released what I had heard, offering it as a prayer to God for healing.

These were one-sided conversations, though, because I kept my own secrets to myself.

Then, in my late twenties, I heard the slogan, You are only as sick as your secrets. If my secrets were the measure of my health, I was in deep trouble, because I kept lots of them. I knew government secrets from working at the FBI, other people’s secrets and my own.

When I heard that slogan, something shook loose inside me. I began to consider my secrets.

Mine were not so different from those others had confided in me. So, why was I holding onto them so tightly? What was I protecting? I looked for someone in whom I could confide and took baby steps in revealing my secrets. With each true confession, I felt lighter, freed from the burden of the secret.

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I came to understand that what happened in the past could not hurt me in the present, and I came to see myself as a survivor. Sharing helped me see my strengths and showed me how resilient I am.

Over the years, I have shared more and more of my past and now I am quite public.

If I had a family coat of arms, I would want my motto to be Nothing to prove, nothing to fear, nothing to hide. I want to be transparent and to accept myself as I truly am. I see that as the way to health and freedom.

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Shaking off shame

Last year, I connected with Jake Owensby’s blog, Looking for God in Messy Places. My own sense of where I find God resonates with his writing, and now I am reading his book, A Resurrection Shaped Life. In both his blog and his book, Jake writes about traumatic events from his childhood, and I am amazed at his openness.

In a memoir I recently read, the author declares that she wishes she could write openly about the trauma of her childhood, but she is not there. Me neither.

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I want to be there—that place where I can speak openly and honestly about traumatic things that happened to me, where I have moved past shame—but I am not.

Thirty years ago, I read John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame that Binds You, hoping it would lead me beyond shame. It gave me insight and understanding, but I was still bound by shame.

Then there was therapy for few years and a series of other therapeutic programs (retreats, family programs, al-anon, etc.). Each moved the needle a bit, but my shame is deep seated.

Shame is the yardstick by which I measure my freedom, because shame truly does keep me bound and unfree.

Looking back, though, I can see the distance I have come. There was a time when I did not even know what had happened to me. Like many children who experience trauma, I buried it deep inside and denied anything had happened.

All I knew for certain was that when I was eight years old, God saved me, that God had somehow picked me up and held me close. I had no understanding of the circumstances from which God was saving me. But I knew this one truth: God saved me.

In my twenties I realized that there was an impact from the damage that had been done to me as a child, because I could see how it was affecting the way I was living as an adult. Bad choices only begins to describe my twenties.

Chapter One in A Resurrection Shaped Life is called “Growing Beyond Our Past.”  Jake Owensby writes, “Actually, the past doesn’t just follow us around. It’s a crucial part of our identity” (Page 4). He notes, “We omit the messy parts of our lives” when building a resume, but that we have to “come to terms” with our past as part of a Christian spiritual practice.

I know my past helped me be more compassionate toward people who are vulnerable, especially children and people who have developmental disabilities. It also helped me know how blessed I am to have survived childhood trauma relatively intact.

Therapy, retreats, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, daily prayer and self-help books all helped me get to a place where I could make better choices and live with greater integrity.

I am still working with God in the messy places of my life, those places where I still hold onto shame—and trusting that God is continually healing me.

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Leaning into vulnerability

I recently heard an interview with a published poet. When asked about a poetry slam she had attended, she suggested that aspiring poets would benefit from reading poetry—”good poetry,” she said. She went on to suggest the same for writers of any genre—fiction, playwrights, biographers, etc. To improve one’s writing, she asserted, one needs to read what others have written in that genre.

Interesting idea.

Most of my reading is fiction. Occasionally, I will read a biography or historical fiction, and sometimes poetry, but the vast majority of my reading is fiction.

And, as much as I love to read fiction, I write nonfiction.

So this playwright’s comments about reading the genre that I write highlighted a disconnect in me. Her comments stayed with me for the next few days and I felt invited to look more closely at my reading habits.

In my twenties, I read some non-fiction, mainly self-help books, and I found books about adult children of alcoholics to be very helpful. But other nonfiction did not hold my attention. I remember reading The Road Less Traveled, by Scott Peck, and thinking, “I could have written this.”  He was telling me things I already knew, so what was the point of reading his book?

When I visited the l’Arche community where I would eventually live, I was carrying my copy of Community and Growth by Jean Vanier. I was about a third of the way through when I arrived. One of the assistants remarked, “Don’t bother reading the rest. You will be able to write it after you’ve been here a month.”

“A woman after my own heart,” I thought, although I did eventually finish reading the book.

As I pondered this disconnect between what I read and what I write, I had an aha moment.

By nature, I am a rather strong person (I am an eight on the Enneagram), and I tend to avoid vulnerability. The basic premise of self-help books is that I need help—that I am vulnerable.

Similarly with books about spirituality—reading them implies that I need help with my spirituality, which I know I do. But, for some reason, I am resistant to reading the very books that might help me.

Each book about spiritual or emotional growth invites me to lean into my brokenness and vulnerability, to let go of the façade of strength that I wear as armor, and I resist.

For many years, I felt God was inviting me to write about my spiritual life and the ways God has blessed me. I was resistant. And then a friend asked me to ghost write spiritual reflections for him. It was the perfect way for me respond to God, and I loved sharing how God had blessed me. After eight years of ghost-writing, I had the courage to start this blog.

Now it seems that God has expanded the invitation to include not only writing about my blessings, but also reading how God has blessed others.

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Lessons in letting go

“By the time your thirty, you’re going to have arthritis in your knees,” my dad used to tell me when I went out in winter wearing what he considered to be a too-short skirt. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” would be my response. I wore short skirts because they were in style, and thirty seemed so far away.

“Too cool to be cold,” was how I came to think of teenagers when I lived in Winnipeg and saw teens standing at the bus stop in winter with unzipped jackets, no scarves, hats or gloves. By then, I was in my thirties, and I wore a parka, hat, mittens and leg warmers. Then my dad said I looked like Nanuk of the North.

But I had moved beyond caring about style and cared more about warmth.

I was reminded of that shift in my thinking when I took my ninety-two-year-old mother to church last week. It was twenty degrees outside, and she wore a lightweight jacket. “You need a winter coat,” I said. “This is a winter coat,” she countered. “It has a flannel lining,” she said through chattering teeth.

At church, I pointed out the way people around us were dressed—most of them wearing down-filled parkas. She harrumphed.

When I picked my mother up on Thanksgiving, I got her winter coat out of the closet and helped her into it. No discussion.

I have come to realize my mother’s body thermostat is wonky, and maybe this is something that is true for young people and old people. In the summer, my mother sits in stifling heat and does not seem to notice. “I understand why people die from heat stroke,” I said to her one summer day when her house felt suffocating to me. She was not bothered in the least.caregiving-vulnerability-forgivenessWhen I was taking care of my friend Jim when he had brain cancer, I learned a lot about letting go. It seemed that every day, I was faced with some situation that reminded me that I had no control and needed to let go of my expectations or agenda.

In the midst of caregiving, when I was exhausted, letting go seemed easier. I did not have the energy to fight, so I gave in. “God has him,” I would remind myself when he did reckless things like come downstairs while I was out or try to walk without aid of his walker.

“God has her,” I now say about my mother when she goes to the basement or second floor of her house for no good reason. My mother is very unsteady on her feet but still drives (“I don’t fall when I am sitting down,” she explains). She is incorrigible.

Picking your battles, I think parents call it when trying to teach their children things that are in their children’s best interest.

Short skirts or winter coats—I have a much better understanding of my dad’s concern; I would like to apologize for being so headstrong.caregiving-vulnerability-forgiveness

 

 

 

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Reframing

Lately, I have been aware of the invitation to reframe situations and issues.

At the day of reflection I facilitated last month, one of the volunteers shared that she felt unprepared for the ministry she had recently begun. She lacked experience and feared she would not meet the expectations of her ministry site. She said she was “not good at” doing what she was being asked to do.

I suggested that she reframe the issue and instead of saying, “I don’t know how to” or “I am not good at…,” she might say, “I am learning to…” or “I don’t have much experience with this but I am willing to try.”

Reframing the issue and seeing herself as a learner changes her expectations of herself and also sheds light on assumptions she has made about others’ expectations of her.

I became aware of my need for some reframing when I stopped to pick up a package at a local store. I was impatient while I waited for my package, grousing as if I had been stuck in some limbo for forty days—or even forty minutes, when it was actually closer to four minutes.

My impatience stemmed from a lack of understanding the process, and that made me feel vulnerable. Rather than accept and embrace my vulnerability, I became defensive.

Step back, Madeline, I thought. Become a learner.

Being a learner presumes that I would not know how the process works—I am, after all, still learning. Being a learner shifts the focus from assuming I should know how things will go to assuming I don’t know and am willing to learn. It enables me to be curious and to wonder, and to ask questions of those who do know, allowing them to share their knowledge.

Not all situations that would benefit from reframing are that obvious or easy to discern another approach.

I am stuck in a negative loop concerning upcoming travel and am having difficulty letting go of my expectations based on past experiences of flights being cancelled and luggage being lost. The anxiety is not helping, but how to reframe the situation is unclear.God-Advent-trustAs we begin Advent, I feel invited to reframe my expectations around the ways God enters my life. I want to look from a different perspective and see with new eyes. I want to approach this season with a sense of curiosity and wonder and be surprised at the gifts God will bring me.

I want to make this Advent a time of holy anticipation and joyful waiting and be open to every experience of God breaking into my world.

The young volunteer last month taught me to be on the lookout for situations where I am limiting God’s intervention by my own closed mindedness, my fears and expectations. I hope that by stepping back to get a different perspective, I will be able to see the potential in every person and situation.

I pray for the grace to experience what is possible.

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