Being Fully Human, christian, difficult people, emotional, faith, perspective, Relationship

Best Tools for Dealing with Difficult People

Difficult PeopleEarlier this week, I met with a team from C3 Exchange in Grand Haven to train them in Management by Strengths (MBS). This is a great tool for improving relationships – at home, at work, at your faith community, or anywhere.

As you think about your experiences with people, would you say that there are people you agree with and others you put up with? The people we agree with at work tend to be the people we like and trust – and the basis of trust is understanding.

When there is a breakdown in understanding, we usually don’t see it that way. We don’t go around saying we misunderstand people, instead we tend to say I understand him – he’s a jerk! Or I understand her – she’s an idiot! We tend to say strong things about people we don’t understand and usually those are not very positive things.

Change Perspective

So a huge step we can take toward improving our relationships is to seek to understand the people we interact with. And the basis of understanding is communication. Right away we have a problem because people say things their way and we hear them our way. Communication is based on our ability to listen to the other person and to actually hear what they are saying. It means listening to them from their point of view.

Which is a huge challenge because nothing affects how we hear things as much as our own point of view. If my point of view gets turned sideways and my point of view gets in control of me, it is harder to understand you. I need to get a good understanding of why I think and feel the way I do and then have an appreciation of why you think and feel the way you do. The minute I do that, I am going to tear down this barrier.

We tend to judge and evaluate everything we see and hear in terms of ourselves, which is fine – but “I” need to be able to look around and see how the other person sees and judges things because it is just as fine. Our goal in relationships is to see from the other person’s point of view, to get in agreement and get things accomplished.

MBS looks at 4 basic temperaments or 4 common points of view so that we can think about our own natural way of relating to others and the ways in which others might naturally try to relate to us. Knowing these different styles of communication can go a long way to improving our relationships – but they don’t fix everything.

Exhale

People will still annoy us and there are times we will hold our breath in frustration and bafflement. So the most important thing we can do at home, at work, and in all settings is to remember to breathe. Deeply and slowly. Breathing keeps us centered, grounded and focused. Most of us are pretty good at breathing in. What we need to remember is to breathe out, fully and completely.

Owning the Shadow

Self-introspection is another wonderful tool. What is it that annoys me about this person? Usually what annoys us the most about someone else is something we don’t like about our selves. If we can be look objectively at our reactions to others and be brutally honest in our own self assessment we can discover something about our shadow, truths about ourselves we have been denying, so that we can name and reclaim those parts of us we have tried to get rid of.

See the Divine

As people of faith we have yet another tool as well. We believe in the Divine that lives within each of us. Business Author and Social Entrepreneur Carmel McConnell offers this advice: “Mentally acknowledge that everyone is in transition to perfection, some further down the road than others. This helps you to let go of the desire to judge, blame and snipe.”

Picture in your own mind someone you’ve had a hard time dealing with – it could be someone you’re struggling with right now or it could be someone you’ve interacted with in the past. Picture them and then see in them the Spirit that lives in us all. Take a deep breath, exhale and then love them with the Spirit that lives in you.

Namaste

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Being Fully Human, Compassion, disability, hope, marginalized, mental illness, neurodiversity, normalcy, perspective, Relationship, stigma, worthiness

Neurodiversity

NeurodiversityIf you don’t know something that you want to know, what do you do? If you are conducting research on something, where do you look? Do you make a B-line for the library? Do you grab the appropriate letter from the set of encyclopedias? Or do you turn on your computer and do a Google search?

Google has become a whole new way of life. We now have all the world’s knowledge literally at our fingertips. The most powerful research tool ever to be constructed by human hands, the most impressive feat of human ingenuity and collective wisdom. And it shall be called… “google?”

What the heck is a google? Well, Google got its name from a 9-year-old nephew of a mathematician who was asked to invent a name for a number with 100 zeroes. He came up with a googol. How do I know that? That’s right, I Googled it!

Names are important. It turns out that when you blindfold people, a rose by any other name does not smell as sweet!

One of the most liberating things I ever did was to change my name. Having been raised in home in which my relationship with my father was strained at best and experiencing unhealthy marriages that did not end well, I had accumulated a long string of names. Then in the spring of 2010 I petitioned the court and dropped all of the extra baggage. Lee had been my middle name. And now, for the first time, I felt the congruence of my name actually proclaiming who I knew myself in my limited ego existence to be. Names are carry a lot of emotional weight and they are critical for communication.  

 My son Alex came home all excited one day from school. He was 5 or 6 six years old. He said, “Mom, I just found out that me and Alex Jones and Alex Smith all have the same middle name!” “Really?” I asked. “Yes,” he said, “Xander.”

Two weeks ago I shared with you news about Alex that is not as cute and funny. He, like nearly 1 in every 5 Americans is struggling with mental illness. A number of you have shared with me since that announcement your own struggle or a family member’s struggle or a friend’s struggle with mental illness. That’s the politically correct name – mental illness. And it’s better than many of the common pejorative names we toss around haphazardly like psycho, schizo and freak. But today I want to introduce what might be a new name in your vocabulary: Neurodiversity.

The Need for Names

I first heard the name on NPR about a month ago so I investigated it to learn more. How did I do that? Yes, I Googled it! I Googled Neurodiversity and this is what I learned. Neurodiversity is a movement to destigmatize mental illness and to recognize that brains are every bit as diverse as any other aspect of life. As we wrap up a month of talking about Diversity, I think it is more than appropriate to recognize that the mentally ill remain squarely in society’s camp of the marginalized and misunderstood.

We talked a couple of months ago about words. Our words are basically placeholders for ideas and concepts. The names are a special kind of word because they contain a whole collection of ideas and concepts.  

Names lead us to making assumptions about people – some of which are clearly true and some of which are undoubtedly false. And while we know assumptions often get us in trouble, we also need them if we want to get past the first five minutes of our day without being paralyzed by analysis. Our labels help us to make quick decisions about how we should respond or behave in any particular situation or place. But we also use our labels to maintain the status quo so that we aren’t challenged to think beyond what we have already observed.

Names become a tool for dehumanizing people when we don’t want to put forth the effort of understanding them. If they are *that* then I know enough about them to know I don’t want to really know anything about them. Why would I let a silly thing like facts get in the way of altering my world view?  

I had a psychology professor who used the example of “woman driver.” You’re driving along and somebody in another car does something stupid. You look. If they are a woman, you say to yourself “woman driver.” If they are a man, you say to yourself “hmph, drives just like a woman.”

Know what I’ve noticed the last couple of years? Seems like whenever someone commits an act of horrible violence, the media immediately ask if they are schizophrenic. If they aren’t, then they acted like a schizophrenic – despite the fact that violence is not even a symptom of schizophrenia. Think John Nash. Think Jack Kerouac.  

Which brings me back to the name neurodiversity as opposed to mental illness. I like it this name because it suggests that people are not diseased or broken – they are different. Thomas Armstrong, the man who I heard on NPR, argues that we don’t say that a cala lilly has petal deficit disorder, we value it for its own intrinsic worth. Similarly, we need to approach mental illness and developmental disabilities from an entirely different perspective that challenges us to see the intrinsic worth of every human being and every human brain.

What is Normal? 

Neurodiversity proponents say that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions may have given our ancestors an evolutionary advantage because they allowed a few people to think outside of the box. When no one else could come up with an answer, it may have been these creative thinkers that pointed to another way. This theory, which emerged about a decade ago, challenges us to celebrate the differences between our brains and moves us away from our almost instinctive focus on problems and deficits.

When we look at the whole make up of humanity, we see a range of different thinking that’s made our progress in science and the creative arts possible.  Picture a bell curve of humanity. To neurodiversity proponents, people who are disabled are not sick or broken, they are merely at the edges of the bell curve.

This approach strikes at the heart of the medical model that focuses on defects and deficits. Neurodiversity doesn’t ignore the struggles many people have to live functional lives, but it says we need to give at least equal attention to the assets, advantages and abilities of people who are simply wired differently.

The name “neurodiverse” tears down the false wall of separation that divides the “normal” from the not “normal” and calls into question the idea of normalcy itself. It allows us to see different ways of thinking and processing the world as natural variations instead of seeing people as bad, broken or in need of repair. To proponents of neurodiversity, the idea of a “cure” can actually feel like an attack on their being. This is particularly true in the autistic community where advocates believe autism is part of who they naturally are and who reject the idea that there is some other hidden self within. One autistic man writes that trying to cure him of autism is as detestable an effort as trying to cure someone of being gay.

A Society that Makes Accommodations

When I worked at Kandu I helped people with barriers to employment find competitive employment. Kandu and similar organizations are not in the business of fixing people or changing them into something else. They are in the business of identifying strengths and finding ways people can use those strengths to succeed in society. They are also in the business of identifying accommodations that society needs to make to help them achieve that success. 

Now none of this is to romanticize the functional limitations of people on the edges of the Bell curve. I don’t propose stopping treatment or research in the field. But I am suggesting we stop looking at people as diagnoses that need to be fixed and start looking at how as a culture we can make accommodations so that everyone can survive and even find a place to thrive without having to be made into some imagined social ideal of normal.

When we name people as defective, disordered and ill, we build a wall that implicitly states that the rest of us are normal or whole, ignoring the fact that we are all flawed and imperfect. We make people into “them” and “other” in a way that might sound sympathetic and compassionate, but that also reinforces judgment and fear.

We ignore the reality that we all struggle with deficiencies and we all have aspects of our lives that we are working to improve or overcome.   

The real value of the neurodiversity movement may be in reminding us that we all experience joy and sorrow, pain and hardship, challenges and opportunities and that a humanizing society is one in which we are all given the chance to make the best of what we have been dealt.

 Renaming mental illness as Neurodiversity is a start. A change of name and our entire outlook and set of assumptions can change – because it forces us to change our perspective. A change of name can open us up to see and explore other truths that are out there just waiting to be discovered – and waiting to be shared. I mentioned two weeks ago that we are not traveling alone. We are on a journey together, learning how to live together in all of our wonderful diversity – including neurodiversity.  We each have so much to learn and so much more we can teach.   

These days we also have the resources of the entire world at our disposal. That wasn’t always the case. I heard a story just the other day that I’d like to use to close on chuckle. Two people were sitting on a couch together sharing a snack in the days before Google was invented. One said, “I just thought of something I’d like to know more about.” The other replied, “That’s a damn shame.”                                                 

Namaste

 

 

 

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Being Fully Human, Bible, Christian Mysticism, hope, oppression, perspective, Progressive Christianity, Relationship, Spiritual

Rapture Revisted

FireWe’ve been looking at the book of Revelation in the Christian Bible and discovering that it has nothing to do with the Rapture popularized in the Left Behind Series. Instead, the book challenges us to loEk at our own cultural and society realities and to critically examine whether, instead of being the faithful few, we are really part of the corrupt and controlling empire. 

Maybe it’s because of another American cultural phenomenon known as “It’s not my fault.” IWe have become masters at the “Better to Blame Someone Else Game.” If we begin to see ourselves as the Empire then we have a responsibility to do something about it. But if we are the victims of something out of our control, all we need to do is buckle down and finger point and wait for the apocalypse.

My criticism of the book is that it too neatly divides people into two camps and creates an us vs. them mentality. And in doing so it fails to consider that we each hold the seeds of oppressor and oppressed within us. 

America was founded on the idea that people needed to be free of oppression which leads me to wonder if we take some sort of perverse pleasure in being persecuted so that we always have an oppressor to overcome. Think of the neo-Nazi and White Arian Resistance movements who claim reverse discrimination and demand to be seen as the victims in a society making pitiful progress toward advancing the status of woman, people of color, and people of different sexual orientations. Is that kind of egocentric worldview at the heart of why we can read Revelation in our context today and not see that we have become the very empire we decry?

Oppressor and Oppressed

Is there something here tied to emotionally charged words like “power” and maybe “shame” in our failure to use power well? Do we look self pityingly upon our own self and the slings and arrows we know we have suffered and fail to see our place within a much larger community – or two – one that oppresses and one that is oppressed? Is the truth that we don’t want to face the fact that we live in both and that we get them mixed up – so that we give our energy and allegiance to the one we know will suck the life out of us but that offers other powerful enticements to stay? And in doing so are we unable to accept the responsibility that our choices have local and global consequences that hurt other people and this earth? Until in our dissonance we simply have to blame it on the “system” – the enemy that holds us captive?

In the Book of Revelation I find that I am finally both oppressor and oppressed. I struggle to build communities of support for myself and for my many friends who are marginalized and mistreated. I sign petitions and walk for good causes and donate lots of money to charity. And I continue to buy products at the lowest cost from companies who benefit from military contracts and shady employment practices.

Revelations challenges me to ask on a day-to-day basis what values I choose to live by. It asks you and I to what or to whom will we give our allegiance? And it tells us in no uncertain terms that there are consequences to the choices we make. We can be complicit in the violence and destruction and help destroy all that is good and beautiful or we can be co-creators in building a new heaven and a new earth. But whatever we do, the consequences begin today.

The primary vision in Revelation is not about a place after we die or even after Jesus returns. It is a vision for how we can transform our world today by the way we live out God’s reign in the world. It is a vision of healing and of peace and joy. Once we have seen that vision it affects everything we do.

A Book of Hope

According to Barbara Rossing, “Revelation is not a book written to inspire fear and terror. But it is definitely written to increase our sense of urgency. It is an apocalyptic wake up call precisely because there IS hope for us and for the world. Revelation teaches us a fierce, urgent and wonderful hope – not an easy comfort, but a hope that knows the reality of terror and still can testify to God’s love in the face of that terror.”

Revelation is a bizarre book to read. In times of great turmoil, persecution and uncertainty, it helps people make sense out of what is happening and comprehend the source of their suffering. It holds out to them the promise that God is still in control and will ultimately be victorious. But in a time and place of arguable wealth and comfort and power, it offers a harsh critique of the political, economic, social and religious realities of the Empire.

It doesn’t stop there. It also presents us with a vision of a world-in-the-making where peace and justice are embodied in a new heaven and a new earth, as it challenges us to withdraw from the Empire to live even now in the New Jerusalem, the New Grand Haven, the New Michigan, the New America.

My boys, Jackson and Alex, saw King Kong when the 2006 version was released. They came home at 10:30 at night bouncing off the walls. I told Alex he had to calm down and get ready for bed. To which he replied, “I’ve just sat for 3 hours and 6 minutes with my eyes exposed to flashing light and loud noise. I can’t settle down now!” I encourage us all to spend some time with the Book of Revelation. If King Kong can do that to a 10-year-old kid, imagine what multi-headed beasts, weird creatures, dragons and a hero who’s a lamb might be able to stir up in us!

Invitation for Reflection

1)      How do you approach theology and “pop” culture?

2)      If the world were ending, what would you do?

3)      In what ways are you oppressed? In what ways are you the oppressor?

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Being Fully Human, boundaries, Buddha, change, Compassion, Jesus, love, Relationship, Respect, self help, Spiritual

My Enemy, My Self

the enemy withinThe preacher had just delivered a highly emotional 30-minute sermon on the topic of forgiveness. When he finished he asked how many people were ready to forgive their enemies. About half of the hands went up. Not enough. So he preached for another 15 minutes then asked again how many people were ready to forgive all their enemies. A few more hands went up. Not enough. So he preached on for another 20 minutes. By now people were getting awfully restless and it was getting to be lunchtime so when he asked how many people were willing to forgive their enemies every hand in the place went up – except one. It was old widow Miller in the back of the church. So the pastor asked her to stand up. “Mrs. Miller,” he asked, “why aren’t you willing to forgive your enemies?” She answered, “I don’t have any.” Well now, the preacher was might impressed so he asked her to come to the front of the church. “How old are you Mrs. Miller?” he asked. “I am 91,” she answered. “Well now, Mrs. Miller, can you tell the congregation how it is that you have lived to be 91 years old and don’t have a single enemy?” “Yes,” she replied, “I outlived all of them.”  

How about you? Any enemies still living? And when I say “enemies” I’m not implying that there are people you truly want to see harmed or even dead – although if there are those people in your life they certainly qualify. But I’m also talking about those people who make your life more difficult by being in it, the people who are hard to be around, who drive you crazy. I’m also talking about those people in your life who seem to have it out for you. And on a less personal note, I also want to include people and whole groups of people who seem intent on destroying your environment, attacking your life style, or ruining your country – from within or from without. And if you’re still just too nice a person to be willing to think of anybody as an “enemy” then consider the fact that somebody somewhere thinks you are an enemy of theirs.

We are not perfect and we do not live in a perfect world. Hence we join all of humanity in recognizing that people have been making each other miserable for thousands of years. We all drive somebody crazy – even if we have no idea we’re doing it. Of course, we don’t see it that way. We think our behavior is normal or justified or somebody else’s fault. 

Frankly, it’s a lot easier to focus on someone else’s actions than our own. Because to admit how our behavior affects others is to identify in our self the very things we condemn in others. In fact it is precisely that which annoys us in other people that really bothers us the most about our self. That’s why it stands out so much to us in the people we don’t like – we’ve attempted to disown that part of us so now we see it reflected in the people who drive us crazy. Dr. Mark Rosen wrote the book Thank You for Being Such a Pain.” In it he writes, “To understand our encounters with difficult people, we eventually need to accept the fact that we are them.” 

It’s also possible that difficult people don’t just show up randomly in our lives but that we find them when we need to grow and develop. Our adversaries may be some of our best teachers, showing up at just the right time with the characteristics that match exactly the places within us that need learning and healing. At least some of our enemies just might offer a spiritual “kick in the butt.”  

So if we’re essentially stuck with enemies and difficult people, how are we supposed to do deal with them? According to both Buddha and Jesus we’re supposed to love them. 

Love Your Enemy, Avoid the Trap

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” It is true. Love is transformational. There are all kinds of stories and movies about difficult people being redeemed by the power of love. And some of us love the idea that OUR love especially has the power to bring about THAT kind of change. Wow – we could be so special, so important. But when we decide someone else’s transformation is our responsibility, we have fallen into a trap. 

There are three major problems here. First of all, we can get really messed up thinking that love means allowing ourselves to be mistreated and abused. Each of us deserves to be treated with respect and we will never help anyone be a better or happier person by allowing our own safety or emotional well-being to be compromised. Next, you’re setting yourself up to be more hurt in the long run. Because to base our well-being on someone else’s behavior gives our enemies incredible power over us. Finally, it’s just not a very realistic goal. We have a hard enough time making ourselves be the people we want to be, let alone accomplishing that feat with someone else! In short, if your primary strategy for dealing with a difficult person in your life is getting them to change, I’d suggest that you give it up right now because odds are it will never work. 

The complicating factor in the teaching of love is that while we are told to love our enemies, we aren’t given very specific instruction on how to do it. I mean it’s relatively easy to “say” we love our enemies and on a spiritual level I imagine most of us strive to embrace all of humankind as our brothers and sisters – but we can’t manufacture feelings of love just because we’re told it’s the right thing to do and we can’t stop our emotional reactions just because we want to. Love is not a technique. It is more a state of being, cultivated over time and sustained through constant effort. We all seek to find a place in our heart to love someone in a healthy way regardless of what they do. 

But in the meantime, when someone is causing us pain, love is usually not our first impulse. Ignoring them, getting even or cutting them out of our life may come to mind as possible options. But none of them are particularly loving. So if we can’t get rid of them and we can’t change them, who can we change? It turns out the one and only person we really have any hope of changing is our self. Not that this is an easy task either – but it is the one in which we actually have direct control. 

What Can We Change?

So what can we change about ourselves? Our reactions are a good place to start. Thinking about how to react instead of simply reacting is something we will have lots of opportunities to practice. I used to endure horrible tirades by my ex-husband on the telephone. I was an anxious nervous wreck every time he called. Until I began trying to stop my automatic reaction and remain calm and detached. It took a long time to learn to stop that natural impulse, but on the way I got to the point where when the phone rang I thought “oh good – another chance to practice being non-reactive.” The difficult people in our life usually give us more than one shot at learning new responses and behaviors so we can be grateful for the opportunity they provide to practice!  

Another change we might aspire to is not just to control our reactions, but to work with our emotions as well. But again, that’s a pretty hard thing to accomplish. Even if we can get our reactions under control, we may still experience incredible feelings of frustration, anger and hurt. The first real task for us then is to begin to get in touch with those feelings. What is the precise emotion being stirred up within us? If we can experience our feelings for what they are and not try to deny them we have already gained a tool for responding more appropriately to our real nemesis.  Meditation is a great practice to help us cultivate patience and inner peace so that we can begin thinking about how we will respond to others and what feelings we will allow others to pull up in us. Eventually we may even find ourselves able to let go of the negative emotions even as they arise.  

Perhaps the most important thing for us to change is our perspective. This is huge because it means being able to see through another person’s eyes – to genuinely walk a mile or two in their shoes. 

It sounds pretty simple, but it can really have profound and powerful results. I’ll give you an example pulled from my interactions with my ex. In one of our rounds I had become extremely frustrated by the way in which he was pushing our son Jackson in karate. I was helping Jackson out by not making him participate in karate during the weekends that he was home with me. So I start by thinking about what a crummy father I think he’s being. Then I start a dialogue with him in my mind. When he replies to my accusations, I realize that our son doesn’t talk to him about how pressured he feels. So I can hear my ex responding by talking about the ways in which he believes he is supporting his son and his confusion that I am not. From HIS perspective that makes perfect sense. From his vantage point I’m the one that looks like I’m not supporting our son – no wonder he is so frustrated with me!

Another way to shift our perspective is to get to know whom it is we are struggling with. You might accomplish this by actually talking to someone over lunch. Or you might need to do a little more investigative work. I had a broken relationship with my father. I moved out of the house when I graduated and quickly cut him out of my life. In later years as an adult I came to the point where I knew I needed to do my self work. How do we do that? By dealing with the issues from our family of origin. I decided I needed to better understand who this man was that I knew as my father. So I started calling and meeting with his siblings, his mother, others who could help me fill in the spaces in the puzzle beyond my limited interactions with him. 

A few years ago, I was at a funeral of a person who caused a lot of pain in a lot of people’s lives – and everyone knew it. I wondered if the priest would tell us how wonderful this man was while everyone suppressed sarcastic rejoinders. But Father Jim skipped the meaningless platitudes and instead said simply, “Not one of us can know all of the pain and hardship this man experienced in his life.” 

Suffering and Ignorance

Eventually, if we are sincere in our attempts to understand others, we will be led to feel compassion for the suffering and ignorance that is at the root of all difficult behavior. Not only that, but we will realize that our own suffering and ignorance add to the problem. That the friend and the foe both reside within our own self. In fact, we will come ultimately to realize that there really is no difference between me and you, that the idea of us and them is purely a human construct and an artificial barrier to healing and wholeness. 

To take that to its extreme, while on his deathbed Voltaire was asked by a priest to renounce Satan. Voltaire replied, “Now, now my good man, this is no time for making enemies.”

We are a people who value the dignity and worth of every human being. We use the word “Namaste” a lot. That means that we see the Light, the Divine, the Transcendent, the Good and the Pure in each other and in everyone. Prayer and meditation are much easier spiritual pursuits than seeing the Light in those we label difficult and wrong and enemy. But one of the marks of spiritual growth is the extent to which it develops in us the attributes of tolerance, self-control, kindness, compassion, gratitude, humility, forgiveness, patience, generosity, and the desire to serve. Perhaps in the end we aren’t told to love our enemies because our love will transform them. Perhaps we are told to love because in doing so, we are the ones who are transformed. 

 
Namaste
 
Community Conversation:
What is your strategy for dealing with difficult people?
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Being Fully Human, Buddha, Children, Compassion, Forgiveness, Jesus, Mistakes, Progressive Christianity, Relationship, Respect, Spiritual

“Oops!”

MistakesFor those of you who don’t know it yet, I have a unique family. Leif is my life partner. He works as a supervisor for Ottawa County Parks and is on beach patrol every weekend during the summer. Yeah, hard assignment, right? I also have a significant daughter Brigid. Brigid is Leif’s niece but he is really her surrogate dad. Her own father took off after she was born and Leif stepped in and took over a lot of her care. Leif and I have Brigid every night. So the three of us are a pretty unconventional family. And when I’m lucky one of my boys will join us. Alex is 19 and Jackson is 22 and they also live here in Grand Haven.

So last year Brigid got two miniature frogs for her birthday from our neighbor Marylou. They were living in an enclosed Plexiglas container into which you drop four pellets of food twice a week. Well, unlike this summer, last summer had days that were actually hot. On one of those days Leif was worried that the frogs would get to hot and start to cook, so he put them in the refrigerator.

Really. The next day – when he remembered that he had put the frogs in the refrigerator – he discovered that they weren’t moving. He felt pretty bad about this but it was clearly too late to do anything differently so he dumped the frogs into the toilet. He hit the flusher and just as the water started to swirl, the frogs started trying to swim – and continued to try as they were swept cleanly away. Leif made a mistake.

What about an example a little more close to home? I used to work at Fruitport Dry Cleaners while I was going to college. It was a great job because there was very little activity. I would bring in my homework and then have to deal with the occasional annoyance of customers. One Saturday when noon came around, I closed the shop and went home. A few hours later the owner called me up wondering what in the world the problem was – since the shop was supposed to be open until 6pm. To this day I don’t remember what made me believe it was time to go home. But I do remember how mortified I felt. I was embarrassed and humiliated and certain I would never be forgiven by my employer. I wanted nothing more than to die right then and there and never have to face anyone again for the rest of my life. To my young, hyper-responsible self, this was as close to the end of the world as I had ever experienced. I made a mistake.

Sadly, mistakes are hereditary. Have any of you have ever put liquid dish soap in the dishwasher? Exactly ten years ago, my son Jackson called me from the house where he was babysitting to say, “I have a problem. I wanted to do a really good job and clean the dishes…” I knew what was coming next. To make matters worse the only thing he could find in the house to clean up was a swifter – what ever happened to the good old fashioned mop?

So I brought him a mop – and a wet vac – and listened to him ask over and over again, “How was I supposed to know?” Well, he wasn’t supposed to know. He did what he thought he was supposed to do. He did not get the results he expected. He will do it differently next time – and he’s got a great story he can laugh about for the rest of his life. He made a mistake.

Common Humanity
If there’s one thing that unites us in common humanity, it has to be the fact that we all make mistakes. No one is immune.  Even the historical Buddha had a period when he made the mistake of over-compensating for his luxurious upbringing by becoming an ascetic and starving himself. He literally tortured himself in the name of spirituality. That’s a pretty big mistake. But it was only because he made this mistake that he was able to find the middle way between the extremes of luxury and austerity. Mistakes are not a bad thing; they are the food for our spiritual journey.

We all make mistakes. Big ones, small ones. In fact mistakes make the best stories don’t they? And they make for the best learning experiences. Mistakes are part of being human. Al Franken said, “Appreciate your mistakes for what they are: precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it’s a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from.” So not only are mistakes not something to be ashamed of, they are something to be embraced!

When was the last time you sat and reflected with joy upon the mistakes you have made in your life?  The run of the mill mistakes and the great big whoppers? Were they exciting? Were they fun? Did you laugh at yourself? Or did you hang your head in shame? How do you view your mistakes? Are they learning opportunities …or proof of your imperfection? Do you recognize the value of mistakes… or feel instead the need to blame somebody – yourself or someone else – when they happen?

If you’re still playing the blame game, then maybe you haven’t quite figured out yet what a mistake is. You see, you can’t help making mistakes – if you’re doing anything at all. We don’t do mistakes on purpose – that’s the whole point. They’re only mistakes in retrospect.

Each of us faces countless times during the day when decisions that require some kind of assessment and response have to be made. Big decisions, little decisions. We make them based on what we think will result. If the thing happened that we expected to happen, we don’t give it another thought. But if something else happens, then we realize – oops! I made a mistake.

And the good news is that’s perfectly okay! Here’s the thing. We always need to be aware that we MAKE mistakes – we are not mistakes ourselves.

We are NOT Mistakes
I was a spunky kid! I hated my kindergarten teacher Miss Peters. But my first grade teacher Mrs. McKenzie was like Mrs. Butterworth and Captain Kangaroo all rolled up in one. She loved me and I would have done anything to try to impress her. One day we were joining the kindergarten class to watch a movie. I must have been feeling pretty full of myself because I decided to have a comic moment. When Miss Peters asked if we were ready, I jovially said, “No.”

But Miss Peters didn’t think I was funny at all. She scanned the room with her dark heart and her evil eyes and asked who said it. And my classmates – ratted me out! Then she sent me to my room to wait, horrified, for Mrs. McKenzie to come in and discover what mayhem I had almost wrought upon the entire class. The problem was that I didn’t have my grown up perspective and I didn’t know it wasn’t a big deal. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I didn’t feel like I had made a mistake – I felt like I WAS a mistake.

It took me a long time to accept my own imperfection and to come to terms with my faults and my flaws. I used to carry around a lot of shame that made me believe I was a mistake. I ended up in abusive relationships that reinforced the idea that I was a mistake. The mistakes I made that led me into those relationships were just further evidence that I was a mistake. There is nothing more debilitating and unproductive in the whole world than believing you are a mistake.

Because if you are a mistake, you can’t do anything to make things better. If, on the other hand, we make mistakes, we can always take the next step in creating a better outcome. When we realize that we only made a mistake, we become empowered to change our life for the better. And if we can change our own life, we can change the world.

I made a mistake thinking I was a mistake. It turns out I am more precious than even I can comprehend. And so are you. So here’s mantra I want you to learn and use: I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them. I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them. I made all of my decisions the best I could at the time I made them.

Now can you learn to relax in that knowledge and receive the grace that is yours to give yourself? Because when it comes to recognizing our common humanity, to recognizing the inherent dignity of every human being, we absolutely have to start with our self. Self-compassion comes from the recognition that we are all human and we all make mistakes. When we are aware of our common humanity, we remember that feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal. When we can claim our own worth, we can deeply value and appreciate others, recognizing that pain and disappointment are part of the shared human experience. Compassion toward our own mistakes leads us to extending compassion to others who also make mistakes.

Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds
Jesus told a parable about the Farmer who planted a field and was standing in it when he noticed weeds. The workers wanted to pull up the weeds but the Farmer made the absolutely crazy decision not to, adding that the weeds would be burned at harvest time. In this story, Jesus points us to a truth found in all wisdom traditions – that we have the seeds of both wheat and weeds within us.

I have learned, rather painfully, that I can do good and I can do bad – and what’s more – I can’t always tell the difference. Sometimes I have the best of intents, and I still manage to hurt someone I love. Sometimes I go out of my way to do a good deed, and only end up causing more of a mess than there was before I got involved. But then again, things that didn’t go the way I thought they would way back when have led in strange and amazing ways to many of the wonderful outcomes I’m experiencing today.

Like the mistakes we wish we had never made, each of us carries within us parts of our self that we view as weeds. We wish we could just yank out that part of our being and throw it into the furnace. But the parable cautions us not to. It says we have to learn to be patient with our self, to see our self as a field in which all of our life is in balance and to remove even a part of us that is ill is to pull with it a part that is healthy.

Each one of us does the best we can at any particular moment not knowing what the outcome will be.

A mistake is only declared when I stand in judgment over some past action. And I am not equipped to make such a judgment – not about the actions you have taken and not about the actions I have taken. My time frame is too short, my perspective too limited, my disposition too impatient to see the fullness in the growth of the field. To appreciate the harvest yet to come.

You see, you can’t set out to make a mistake. A mistake is only a mistake in retrospect – through a lens different than the one you use right now. And that lens will change over time. So who are you and who am I to say anything is a mistake or not? Well, putting dish soap in a dishwasher does seem to be a bona fide mistake, but you get my drift.

Now, a precautionary word. Embracing our mistakes does not give us license to do anything we please. Sometimes we make a conscious choice to act out of anger or envy or greed, knowing even as we choose our action that someone will be hurt. Now we might want to claim later that we made a mistake – but that kind of action is not a mistake at all. Mistakes require a good intent – a desire to do what is right. And so we are invited to act with courage the best we can today – knowing that even with the best of intentions we will make mistakes.

So what do we do? If we are to be whole we must live with the knowledge that we are both good and bad. And then we do our best. We decide intentionally that we will not live in judgment of others or our self. Instead, we choose to live. And if we are going to live, we will inevitably make mistakes. Jim Carrey delivered the graduation speech at the Maharishi University of Management this year. He said that he learned many great lessons from his father, not the least of which was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.

The trouble is that we tend to amplify the mistakes and forget the successes, which creates such a heavy burden of guilt for so many of us. And just when we thought we let go of that last mistake and forgave our self, something happens that triggers those old scripts and we find we’re beating ourselves up all over again. So instead of replaying our mistakes in our heads over and over again, I suggest we all make a list of our successes – and start playing them over and over in our head – when things are going well and especially when they’re not.

Kamma
So instead of always having a list of mistakes we can turn to in blame, we have an automatic treasure trove of reminders of all the good things we have done in our life. Redirecting our thoughts to what is positive and life giving is a very Buddhist practice. When we claim our true Self or the Buddha nature within us, it grows. If we focus on the mistakes and the errors, our sense of failure and incompetence grows. If we dwell on any thought, that thought grows and grows. So we can consciously turn our hearts around and dwell upon the positive in ourselves, the purity, the goodness, the source of that unconditional love that seeks to serve others. And when we can forgive our own faults and focus on our own goodness and kindness, we can do the same with other people. We can dwell upon their goodness and watch it grow.

This is what Buddhists call kamma – an intentional action. The way we think about life, the way we speak about life, what we do with life. And it really is up to us what we do with our life. It is not up to some supernatural being somewhere who says whether we will be happy or not. Our happiness is completely in our hands, in our power. This is what Buddhists mean by kamma.

So what if we decided to live in happiness instead of fear? How different would our lives be if we celebrated the fact that we all make mistakes and stopped playing it safe? The willingness to risk making a mistake comes when we finally let go of fear and embrace the possible. Mistakes prove that we are creative enough to do something besides what we have always done before. They mean that we are living a life rich in creativity and courage that we have the audacity to believe in ourselves and in the people around us.

In the book Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers there is this pertinent quote: “If you aren’t making mistakes you aren’t doing anything worth a damn.”

Namaste!

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