Awareness, Part II

I wrote already of awareness in terms of being aware of problems and issues in one’s life.  However this time I’m thinking of awareness in terms of simply being aware of one’s self in the world.  Yoda’s basic criticism of Luke came to mind:

“All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was! What he was doing!”

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s journals and one thing I find is that every day is not filled with some kind of inspirational masterpiece or heavy thought on life or whatever.  Often it’s simply what’s going on:

“The sun, the clear morning, the quiet…” June 3&4, 1963

“Brilliance of Venus hanging as it were on one of the dim horns of Scorpio.  Frozen snow.  Deep wide blue-brown tracks of the tractor that came to get my gas tank the other day…” Jan 5, 1968

When I started CPE I saw awareness as being aware of what was going on with me at that time.  And that’s fine, but I’m seeing more that awareness involves not a narrow focus on me, but on me in the world.  I’m getting used to not putting on the iPod when I go out for walks.

I’m even a bit self conscious as I write this, knowing that this sounds a bit like navel-gazing or flaky or something.  But I’m appreciating the experience.

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Awareness

I see more and more that simply being aware of something isn’t enough.

CPE is a lot about finding your weaknesses as as well as your strengths.  I think most people find that it’s about their weaknesses and “issues”.  But CPE is just as much about uncovering your strengths.  For me it’s been an experience of uncovering both and accepting both.  However, simply being aware of something is not enough.

Awareness of an issue involves acceptance of it, but that only gets you so far.  That’s the starting point, not the end.  You then need to decide what you are going to do with your issue.  Realize that any particular issue has two sides to it – not just all bad or all good.  Then look at how you are going to use this issue in a positive way while trying to limit the negatives.

For example, I tend to be extremely hard on myself at times.  The upside of this is that I tend to work hard and set high standards for myself.  The downside is that I can set the bar too high and then beat myself up for not clearing it.  Awareness is being able to say that I’m hard on myself, but the problem is that I’m still overly hard on myself.  I can stop there and learn to live with myself, or I can change the downside of it.  Thankfully this is what I’ve been doing, and I’m so much the better for it!

I know someone who has gone through four units of CPE, which is pretty advanced.  She’ll talk about her issues as if she has mastery of them.  Yet these issues still continue, and there doesn’t seem to be any movement to do anything with them or change them.  Any change involves a loss, and a fear of what that loss will cost.  And when that loss is part of what we sense to be our selves, that change can be very intimidating.  Better to live with the devil you know than the devil you don’t, especially when you’ve been living with that devil for 40-some years.

Sin works in the same way.  To simply be aware of sin is one thing, to turn from it is another.  And God calls us ultimately to turn from sin, not just be aware that we are a sinner.  We fall into the same traps however.  We fear change, we beat ourselves up for failing to turn from sin, or we feel that change is impossible so why bother.

Change does not need to be complete right out of the gate. Turning from sin – or our issues – is a lifetime event.  It is done, and constantly being done.

Cliffs

My wife and I are in a study at church in which you read the Bible from cover to cover in 90 days.  If that sounds crazy, that’s because it is.  It is quite the experience though, and quite the challenge.  It’s challenging not only practically (carving out an hour to read every day) but also spiritually.

Frequently in the Hebrew scriptures, at least early on, the covenant seems to be hanging by a mere thread.  On some occasions that thread is threatened by the behavior of the people involved (Abraham is a classic example).  At others it’s God who threatens to cut the cord and start over.  In the former instances, one is able to attribute grace to God and find the lesson there.  However, the times where the Israelites are saved from destruction only through the individual bargaining of Moses, for example, are more troubling. 

Other passages relate God as one who regrets his actions, sends “lying spirits”, or curses individuals for seemingly innocuous acts.

Sometimes you read and wonder, “what God are we dealing with here?”

The reading brought me back to a place where I hadn’t been in a long time.  Several years ago, right out of college, I came to a point where I thought the whole Christian thing was a sham and tossed the whole thing out.  I didn’t question scripture so much as see it as irrelevant.  I didn’t stop believing in God, but I stopped believing in a God that made sense.  I saw the cliff dividing faith and doubt and stayed on the doubt side of the cliff, choosing not to jump.

Reading the Bible in this drag-race “no holds barred” way brought me back to that same cliff I had been to so long ago.  It was not a comfortable place to be.  This time, however, the pain came mostly from remembering the experiences I had around me at that time.  I had felt like a broken person, and felt that God had done the breaking.  Now I approach the cliff much more whole, but still felt that I was revisiting the concentration camp years after being liberated.

All Christians struggle with faith and doubt.  If you haven’t, I think you need to.  Jacob’s wrestling with God (or angel or whatever) was not an accident, and neither was it a hindrance to him.  It was a significant event in his journey, and marked him for the rest of his life.  It’s remarkable to note that after his encounter, Jacob notes that he had confronted God and yet his life was spared (Gen 32:30).

Struggling with God does leave scars, doubts, uncertainty, anger and fear.  However doing these things do not mean that we are afraid to step off the cliff of faith, but have maybe stepped out further than we ever had before.  And lived.

Self, Part II

In a prior post, I noted how difficult it was for me to find my place in the helping relationships I find myself in.  I must say now that I’ve gone through my first unit of CPE that I”m much more comfortable finding myself in my relationships.  I still tend to hold back, but I don’t hold back as much.  When I do hold back, I can at least know why. 
I find that I’m not only more in touch with myself when doing counseling, but less concerned about “how I’m doing”. 

My next unit of CPE is coming up tomorrow, so I’m curious to see how things continue to progress.

Trust, Part III

Trust is hard – that much is given.  And given that I trust in God only slightly more than I trust people, how can I ever trust anyone or anything totally?

One of the points in Manning’s Ruthless Trust that spoke to this was his discussion of self-pity and self-absorption as barriers to trust.  Like most semi-recovering Fundies, I was brought up on a diet of “put others before yourself”, “pray in your closet”, “do good for the glory of God and don’t take credit” humility.  I think I remember hearing from time to time that pride was the original sin that led to all other sins.  Unfortunately this turn away from the self became a sort of self-abasement and even self-punishment.  Seeking recognition for anything that I did was prideful, and if someone did actually recognize and praise me I tried to get it over with as soon as possible. 

I remember once going out to a Christian Counseling conference in Seattle to present a paper which ended up winning an award for the best student paper.  I sat at dinner with a couple other people and never mentioned the award until I had to go up to receive it.  When announced I ran up and barely shook the man’s hand before running back off the stage and taking my seat.  Part of this was due to sheer nerves – I wasn’t comfortable being up in front of large groups of people and felt that I had barely made it through the paper anyway.  However, my own thinking was that my paper was judged “best” because there simply weren’t any others.  I wouldn’t allow myself to take credit for it for fear of coming off as prideful.

Deep inside though, I rage whenever I don’t get credit for the things that I do and do well.  I stomp around when it’s not noticed that I washed all the dishes after making dinner, or when I fold the laundry, or got matching shoes on the kids.  I pout and self-pity, wishing others would tell me how wonderful I am so I could say “aw, ’twerent nothin'”.

Manning sees this for what it pretends not to be, which is self-absorption.  Funny how humility can turn in to that isn’t it?

Anyhow, long story short, CPE has shown me a lot about myself and I’ve even practiced giving myself credit for what I do and accepting good turns from others as well.  For example, when asked what grade I deserved at the end of the term I gave myself an A. 

No big deal, unless you consider that I gave myself a B- at midterm.

Trust, Part II

Previously I had noted that the book we are reading for this current unit of CPE is Brennan Manning’s Ruthless Trust.  I had also noted how the issue of trusting in God – what for? how much? how far? – has been something I’ve been wrestling with as of late.  Yesterday I spoke in the class about how one of the hindrances to our trust in God is our own forgetfulness.  Looking back on the history of Israel, it is not their lack of faith that is apparent, it is their lack of trust.  Manning uses the equation of faith + hope = trust in his book.  So if was not faith they were lacking, perhaps it was hope.  They lacked trust not because they thought He was less than God, but because they didn’t believe he had their best intentions in mind.  How many times do you read in the Exodus account of the Israelites moaning to God, “You’ve led us out here to die!  There’s no water!  There’s no food!  We should have stayed in Egypt!”?  No matter what God led them through in the past and how often they are called to remember it, you get the sense that the Israelites thought God was a lemming leading them over the cliff. 

In the same way, I feel – perhaps we all feel – about God in the same way from time to time.  We see the disaster in the world and wonder if that’s what God has in mind for us.  I felt this way when watching a 10 year old die of terminal cancer.  I felt this way when our house didn’t sell for over a year and we carried two mortgages on top of a pile of other debts.  A poster I saw that lampooned the current culture of motivational workplace artwork featured an ocean with the tip of a freighter sticking out at a precarious angle from the water, the caption reading: “It could be that the purpose of your life is to serve as a warning to others.”  Sick as it is, it makes sense in a world where, if we want, we can be surrounded with news of death, disease, mayhem, blood, tears, flood, loss and heartache 24/7.   Perhaps, like the author and cynic writes, “God is Not Good”?

But God is good.  Not only that but G-double-O-D good.  I know that.  But knowing and trusting are two different things.  Knowing is in the head.  Trust is in the gut (I was going to say heart but for some reason gut strikes me as more accurate and true).  Knowing looks at what is and what has been.  Trust looks ahead to what might be, which is never certain.  Even my knowledge is not really certain, for I do not trust myself.

And here is a turn – I don’t think I trust people either, for the same reason I don’t trust God.

Self (on Romans 7:21-24)

“So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.  What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” Rom 7:21-24

I remember back in seminary that there was some debate as to how much one should put him or herself “in the way” of the message on is presenting.  The more idealistic of us wanted to get themselves as much “out of the way” as possible, the idea being that our selves are essentially bad filters of the Word.  We tend to put our own spin on things and see things through our own sin-colored lenses, thus distorting the gospel.  The best sermon is one where the presenter sets aside their own agendas, stories, and beliefs and seeks only to speak as led by the Spirit.

The counterargument stood that one simply can’t do that.  All communication is mediated by both the presenter and the listener, and in the same way that a listener can’t hear a message without filtering it through their own accumulated experience, the presenter cannot step out of the way of the message.  Apart from a theophany, every message will be touched by our own particular influence.  Rather than see this as a “tainting” of the message, this side chose to recognize the self as part of the message.  Rather than try to hard to remove yourself (because you can’t), throw yourself in.

I’ve seen this in my own practice of spiritual counseling as well, and I see how dual-minded I am.  I have held to the notion that I cannot remove myself from my message, and yet I have tried so hard to do that in my counseling.  Not that I have tried to remove myself completely.  I have interjected my own stories about life, death, and so on.  However those have really only touched at who I am. 

I think that this duality, if I can call it that, in part came across from my own training in Rogerian and other person-centered methods of counseling.  Here, the focus of counseling is strictly on the other – personal judgements, concerns, and narratives are out of bounds if you want to follow a strict framework of this view.  Interactions tend to revolve around reflecting and reframing, which involve turning the other’s narrative around in different ways and then showing it back to them.  Sometimes an interpretation is given, but if so only to clarify.  The goal is to make the other feel and be heard by the counselor, who provides unconditional positive regard and tries to, in a sense, “get out of the way” of the listener’s hearing themselves.

Sounds cryptic.

The problem I’m seeing, and experiencing, is that in doing this am I really engaging with this person, or are they engaging with themselves?  And if they are engaging with themselves, where am I?

Perhaps this has led to my own sense of disconnectedness at times, as well as my own frustration with not feeling heard, appreciated, and downright angry.  I’m trying to negate myself from the equation, which is impossible, and end up frustrated and angry – not with the client, but at myself because I can’t say what I want or even feel what I want.

More to come on this I expect…

Purpose (on Job 42:3b)

“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know”  Job 42:3

I had a very hard time the past few weeks, as we took on the case of a 10 year old child who was suffering from cancer.  It so happened that I knew this boy’s mother very well, and she specifically sought me out to be her chaplain.

I’m typically assigned cases based on geography and whoever the case manager is.  I had never expected anyone to say “I want you to be my chaplain.”  It was humbling, terrifying, and one of the most meaningful experiences of my career.

My theology tends to be a bit more theocentric than christocentric (although I am still working on what exactly this means to me).  A main truth that I hold on to and have held on to is that God is in control, that He is omnipotent, and that His purpose is being worked out through all things.  The story of Joseph is critical to my understanding of God in this respect.  If something happens, there is a reason for it happening.  This does not mean that everything is meaningful to me however, and I will never know the meaning of most things in this world.  But that does not mean that they are any less meaningful in themselves.  It may not matter to me one lick that I’m the first one to go through the green light as it turns yellow.  However it will be quite meaningful to the person two cars behind me who decides to try to beat the red light and ends up in an accident.  If I’m not there, he makes it through no problem.  But I am there, and I don’t think that it could be otherwise.

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Anger

“To be a healer, you need to be wounded.  But when you’re wounded, you’re angry.”

That’s the jist of a lot of what we talked about in CPE last week.  Those of us who go in to helping professions do so because we are in some way wounded.  All wounds involve pain of some sort, be it emotional, social or spiritual.  While we can work through that pain, we often avoid the anger going along with that pain.

Most of us hardly even know that we’re angry though.  We call it something else, avoid it, smash it down.  Personally I find that I’ve done this all the time and continue to do so.  Anger is for me (I initially wrote “was”, but that’s not honest) a cardinal sin.  I guess we all have some sin that is “the big one” that we avoid at all costs.  Other sins are forgivable, but for me, not anger.

I think that for me it’s not due to seeing too much anger and disagreement – it’s seeing not enough of it.  My parents rarely fought, and discord was not tolerated in the home.  God never tells you to be angry at people, because anger is the opposite of love.  Anger, therefore, is sin.  If you were angry with someone you must hate them, and hate is wrong.  And if you’re angry at someone they’ll hate you back and love will be lost forever.  Make sense?  No, not to me either.

I was at a facility yesterday where a couple of the staff were watching a show featuring a young girl with severe anorexia.  Her arguments and rationalizations for her behavior were bizarre and nonsensical, and this was plainly aware to anyone on the outside.  “She thinks she’s fat!“, one nurse shouted.  The girl recognized that her beliefs regarding her self-image didn’t make sense-at times.  But she always rationalized: “I eat some“, “some” in this case meaning pita bread with mustard.

In the same way I rationalize my own anger away.  “It’s not a big deal – don’t make it one.”  “Turn the other cheek.”  “Whatever.”  “Just go along with it for now.”

The path to healing and being a healer, though, lies not with avoiding the anger that is there but in going through it.  If I am Angry, to deny it is to deny part of my self.  Worse, how can I help someone who is angry when I haven’t really even dealt with my own anger?

This will be an ongoing struggle, I’m sure.

Shame

Late last week I was driving through a busy intersection during rush hour.  A group had planted themselves on all four corners of the intersection with placards graphically depicting the fate of the aborted unborn.  There was no screaming or shouting, just these sickening signs with the words ABORTION IS MURDER! in big letters.

The intended goals I suspect were to try to dissuade those who were considering abortion, to try and sway public opinion by overwhelming the senses with violence, and in some way to “shame” proponents of, practitioners of, and participants in abortion.  I’m sure that these goals were all achieved in some manner or degree.

However, I don’t think that their primary goal – that of saving the unborn – is served well by this strategy.  I don’t know how many women changed their minds by viewing this spectacle, instead I think that it galvanized folks more in their own opinions.

First of all, it affirmed to those who were pro-life that abortion is a grisly evil that should be stopped.  Second, it affirmed to those who were pro-choice that the pro-life side is made of folks who care so much for unborn babies that they will traumatize everyone else, including the children driving by, to get their point across, thus proving how uncaring they are.  Third, it affirmed to everyone who ever had an abortion that they are a despicable, shameful murderer.  “Shame on you!” the signs proclaim, and lo they are ashamed.

That third point struck me.  I’ve thought a lot this past week about shame and self-judgement.  Christians deal a lot in shame.  That shame can be focused outward on sinful society in order to bring it back in line.  Just another tool in the evangelist’s arsenal.  After all, one might say when looking at our culture’s daily diet of Jerry Springer and TMZ, it looks like we could use a heaping helping of shame.

However I also find that many Christians, myself included, overdose on shame.  We’re loaded down with how we should be living our lives, raising our children, studying the Bible, praying, tithing, witnessing, disciplining ourselves, reading, singing and joyful.  And more often than not we are not.  The answer unfortunately comes in the form of harsh and hard self-judgment.  We lash ourselves with our own thoughts and wear our hairshirts on the inside, and lo we are ashamed.

During my CPE classes my personal reflections were usually rebutted to my surprise with a “don’t be judgmental”.  These reflections, I thought, were objective.  I had done a bad job with something and felt bad and wanted to try and do better.  “Don’t be judgmental.”  “Huh?” was my first thought.  I thought I was only reporting reality as it was.  I started to see though that my observations were not simple record of fact but almost always included a therefore I should…

I thought to myself that it wasn’t wrong to do so, to think that I should be trying to improve, to be better, to have done something else.  If I am judgmental, is it wrong to judge myself?  I was confused.

I asked a social worker colleague what she thought the difference was between being objective and being judgmental.  She replied, “objectivity is just the facts.  Being judgmental means putting a value on those facts.”  To say that stealing is taking things that aren’t yours is objective.  To say that stealing is wrong is a judgement.   To say I am a wrong person for stealing is to be judgmental.  “But”, I thought to myself, “stealing is wrong, therefore I should be judged and be judgmental of myself, shouldn’t I?”

I asked, “do you think I’m a judgmental person?”

“Oh no – not at all.  But you totally judge yourself.  Harshly.”

I felt like I had known that the sky was blue, and then one day looked up and actually realized that the sky was blue.

I had felt for a long time that I was hard on myself, but I also felt that I needed to be hard on myself.  The verdict was just and fair, I thought.  But when I turned the lens outward, would I be as harsh on someone else as I am on myself?  The tyranny of the should was finally exposed.  I refuse to extend to myself the grace that I so freely give others.

We’ll see if a healthy should comes out of this anywhere.