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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ageism, aging, Being Fully Human, Bible, change, kenosis, perspective, self help, Spiritual

Celebrating 50 Years of Aging!

Barbara Lee at 50

To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living. – Henri Frederic Amiel

This month I turned 50 years old. I was at the North American Interfaith Network Annual Connect Event in Detroit when it happened. Two days earlier I was working in my bed and breakfast room when the cold rain gave way to a hot front. Then it moved through and things chilled again. I marveled at the unusual weather. It happened again the next day. Once I returned home and turned 50 years and 1 day, I realized this unusual weather pattern had followed me home. It was the next day when it finally hit me – this must be what a Hot Flash feels like! Yes, I have chronologically grown up.

Earlier this summer I went to the wedding of the daughter of someone I graduated from high school with. I was looking forward to seeing my friend – even kidding her about not being old enough to have a married daughter. But when I saw her, my breath caught in my throat – she was wearing an old lady dress. Seriously old lady. What in the world was she thinking? It seems fashion sense may be the first thing we lose.

And that’s what aging is all about isn’t it? Loss? Losing something. My figure, my eyesight, my hair. Losing health and energy and vitality. Losing, losing, losing. As we lose our youth, as it slips away, we realize it’s all downhill from here.

I typed anti-aging in Google and you know how many hits were found? 1,830,000!

In ancient days, people never dreamt of living as long as we do now. Life was harsh from the very first breath. Many died in infancy, most died in their 30s and 40s. That meant that those who survived into their elder years had a special place of honor because they had outlasted most of the people of their own generation. They had actually lived with people and through events that others had only heard about. They were valued for their wisdom and their ability to teach and guide the young. 

Today elders are still the best choice for helping youngsters – not because of what they have lost but because of all they have gained.  As we age, we gain experience. We gain wisdom. We gain insight and understanding. We gain ability. We gain perspective. We often gain deeper and richer relationships. Studies tell us that we even gain in emotional growth. Aging can bring with it new ways of thinking and new interests. All of these gains are things we can offer to our families, our loved ones and our society.

Ageism  

So why does our culture seem to value youth so much more than age? In part, I think it’s always been that way here. We simply don’t have a history of respecting and celebrating age. Remember that our country was founded by young immigrants who were very consciously rejecting the “old ways.” They broke with the traditions of the past in order to claim something they felt was more valuable – something that was new.  Most of them left not only the old ways behind, but the old people as well. We often refer to these people as our Founding Fathers, but a more appropriate term is probably Founding Sons.

There was no space created for celebrating elders then and there is none now. In fact, we have actively tried to move people out of the mainstream as they age, and in doing so we have created ageism in our society. Like racism and sexism, ageism marginalizes people, encourages stereotypes and leads to discrimination.

Ageism teaches us to fight the aging process — to deny it and to do all that we can to prevent it. Rather than honoring older people as the holders of faith, wisdom and culture, ageism consigns the elderly to oblivion and dismisses their experience and wisdom as out dated. As a result older people are often seen as a burden, a problem to be dealt with – rather than a channel of grace for us and for society.

No wonder we’re afraid of aging. 

All is Vanity

But if any generation can change the stigma of age, it is today’s Baby Boomers. Like the rat moving persistently through the python, this giant size demographic is slowly moving forward, aging as it goes. In fact, this is the year that the tail end – those of us born in 1964 – all turn 50. As the whiney generation I know that we are not likely to stand idly by and allow ourselves to be treated as others have been in the past. We aren’t going to be willing to go quietly to a home where somebody tells us when the lights go out and when we can eat. We might be the first people to insist on Starbucks at our nursing home and to make other demands unheard of today.

In the meantime, we are all caught up in ageism.  And the damnable thing about it is that it keeps us from looking forward to aging, to savoring our experiences, to growing old gracefully.

There is a wonderful book in the Old Testament about wisdom called Ecclesiastes. It begins with an oft quoted expression: “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.” 

The term, vanity, is used 30 times in this short book to suggest that most of life has no more substance than a puff of breath. The author is almost yelling, “Wake Up! We are all on the verge of absurdity here with all our running about! Everything we cling to in the hope of happiness means nothing in the end!”

Ecclesiastes counters the claim that “pleasure is the meaning of life” and in doing so also counters the gospel of the American Dream that can so easily lead us far away from the vision of the Gospel of Christ.

The spokesman of this truth is the most powerful person imaginable in the ancient world of the Hebrews — a wealthy king in Jerusalem, someone like King Solomon who had all the wealth, wisdom and power he needed to fulfill any dream he wished.

But after pursuing all his desires, the king laments again and again that everything amounts to a passing breath. 

And what does have substance? A life of faith. A life of faith is a full life, and it is also a life of letting go. As we age, the Spirit continually nudges us from within to let go of all that is unworthy, all that weighs us down. Aging is an ordinary human process – that Spirit uses to bring us to our own Spiritual reality.

Aging Gracefully

Letting go of our things, letting go of our youth, even letting go of control, depending more and more on others to do what we once did can make us angry and bitter. Or it can become an opportunity to accelerate our reliance on others, to finally accept that we are all connected. That together we know no bounds, but as individuals we are limited. We find purpose and meaning in letting go of all of the artificial things that we think hold purpose and meaning.

So how do we go about aging gracefully? By living in the now. The past is important; it has shaped us and brought us to where we are. But it is in the present moment that we encounter the transcendent realities of our life. Our Spirit is not of the past; nor is it of the future. Our Divine energy is in this very moment now.

Next, we need to engage in memory work. Memories need to be treasured and brought to consciousness from time to time. Good memories help give us a sense of well-being; they help us validate our life. Painful memories remind us that there is still work to do. Most importantly, it is in retrospect that we so often come to realize that God has always been at work in the course of our life. Realizing that God has journeyed with us both in the good times and in the bad times can be a source of great comfort and an occasion for thanks.

Memory work may bring up issues of anger, guilt, shame, rejection, misunderstanding and other difficult emotions. Memory work reminds us — sometimes painfully — that there is much messiness in life and many loose ends. We may make efforts to resolve the unresolved. But faith also tells us that there is only so much we can accomplish and that completion is the Universe’s work.

Finally, there are many signs of despair in our society. Younger men and women need to know by word, deed and example that life is worth living. Little children need to see faith-filled, joy-filled role models in their lives. The presence of older women and men, filled with the Spirit, reaching out to others with compassion and grace, testifies to the promise that all may have the fullness of life.

Kenosis: The End of Aging

Of course any talk of aging needs to acknowledge that there is an end to the aging process. Sooner or later we all deal with our own personal death. Ultimately, we can view our death as a necessary event in the continuous cycle of life as our departing allows a new life to be supported on this earth. We can chose to live for today and hope to leave the world a little better than we found it. Or we can approach it kicking and screaming.

This threatens to become a bigger problem as we tenaciously cling to every moment of life – financially, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I look at the heroic measures taking place to keep people alive in their last two years – no matter what their quality of life has become. Often this comes not at the elder’s request, but as a demand of younger people. By not letting go of our elders, are we able to deny our own aging process? Do we avoid confronting our own mortality by refusing to recognize that of our elders?

I imagine all of us have known or heard about children who struggle with illness and disease early in life. Who face their own death with a sense of calm, courage and welcoming that we admire and marvel at? Could this be one more example of what Jesus meant by the kingdom belonging to the children?

How between being a child and becoming old do we get attached to so much stuff? The Greek word for letting go is Kenosis. Kenosis is at the heart of Christian spirituality. Can we learn to let go of the waistline and the welcome the wrinkles? Can we learn to let go of the absurdity of trying to find meaning in the meaningless and welcome a life of surrender? And when are bodies are worn out and ready for rest, can we find the peace we need to finally let go of life?

 An Invitation for Reflection:

1) What do you most fear losing as you age?

2) What do you most look forward to gaining?

3) What memories of elders do you carry with you?

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Being Fully Human, Buddha, Jesus, self help, Spiritual, worthiness

An Epidemic of Unworthiness

mimes When I was a freshman in High School I went to the Luther League National Convention. This was a gathering of young people in the American Lutheran Church as it was known at the time. 40,000 young people strong, we gathered in Kansas City, Missouri for fellowship and fun. I remember the mimes and the toga party most of all. Oh yeah. And the keynote speaker. He was fantastic. And he spoke directly to my 14 year old heart and soul.

This was way back in 1979 and Jesse Jackson was our keynote speaker. For those of who wonder what it was like to be alive way back then, it was a hopeful time. Jesse Jackson was a young black activist and his message was I am somebody. He yelled and we chanted back and it was inspiring and oh so hopeful.

I am – somebody!
I am – somebody!
I am poor – but I am – somebody!
I am young – but I am – somebody!
I make mistakes – but I am – somebody!
My clothes are different
My face is different
My hair is different
My skin is different
And I am – somebody!
I am – Somebody!

I am somebody.

I went to the pastor’s prayer gathering in July. Tri City Clergy are invited to gather once a month at somebody’s place of worship for prayer, lunch and a program. In July they were meeting at St. John’s Episcopal Church and I was looking forward to meeting Jared Cramer who leads that community since Henry Idema retired so I attended.

We started by gathering in the alter area where one of the pastors asked what we needed by way of prayer. Numerous requests were made and then we got on with the short order of service for noonday. When we got to the prayers, I felt myself in a perpetual cringe as one after another the pastors declared themselves and all of us to be unworthy of love or mercy or grace. Then our liturgy continued with this, “have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask.”

Oh we are unworthy. We are sinful. We are a hopeless lot people.

And I have to wonder, don’t these people of the cloth know that they are ministering to broken people? Do they really think that we don’t spend enough time beating ourselves up and we really need to go looking for others to beat us up to? Flagellation and hair shirts for everyone!

A Collective Meme

As we talk about diversity, I’ll be honest with you. I think one of the smallest minority groups in the United States today are people (of any faith tradition or philosophy) who actually follow the teachings and the ways of Jesus. The people (of any faith tradition or philosophy) who actually follow the ways of the Buddha. The people (of any faith tradition or philosophy) who actually follow the tenets of humanism. Because Jesus, Buddha and humanism all teach us that we are inherently precious and altogether worthy.

Now it’s easy to go all judgmental on the church and religion, but this is not a church issue. It’s a cultural phenomenon in which we have collectively swallowed the poison meme of unworthiness. It’s an epidemic.

And let me be clear here. The issue I’m addressing right now isn’t the need to accept people who are different from us. It’s the need to accept ourselves. WE are the ones who must come to terms with the fact that WE belong, that WE are somebody, that WE are worthy.

Most of us have been alive to see some pretty significant shifts in our world. We have addressed, continue to address and are just beginning to address really big ideals: Civil rights. Women’s rights. Gay rights. Prisoner rights. Elderly rights. Rights for the disabled. Rights for practitioners of different religions. Rights for the mentally ill – and in this moment I want to call attention to the sad loss this week of Robin Williams in recognition that mental illness is still largely stigmatized and misunderstood but that this is also an area where we are making great gains in recognizing that we are diverse people and that we do need to honor and respect each other. 

Exposing the Lie

What I’m not so sure we are clear on, and I’m including myself here, is our own worth and value and dignity as human being in this world that would just as soon tear us apart. Everything – EVERYTHING – in our culture tells us we aren’t good enough. We aren’t pretty enough, we aren’t wealthy enough, we aren’t smart enough, we aren’t sexy enough. We aren’t enough. We are nobody.

Well, it’s a lie. It’s a big fat industrial sized Madison Avenue lie. We have been infected with a toxic germ. It has become an epidemic. We are having an outbreak of self-unworthiness.  

This illness takes hold and then we take hold of it. We busy ourselves with blame or by trying to ascend to higher spiritual or philosophical levels of awareness or perfection and further integrate the idea that we aren’t quite good enough – yet. When all we really have to do is stop, relax and pay attention. See the lie of a culture of shame and unworthiness and explore how it has infected us. This awareness alone is the key to awakening, rebirth, salvation.

The Buddha realized his natural wisdom and compassion through a night-long encounter with the forces of greed, hatred and delusion. Jesus confronted his demons through a 40 day retreat in the desert. We face our shadow when we start paying attention to the feelings that arise in us that we would just as soon dismiss — feelings of judgment, depression, anxiety, and anger. Now fear and shame are not fully conscious but they are often underlying emotions. When we focus on our feelings and discover there is fear or shame at the core, then we have a unique opportunity to “think” about our “feelings.”

In the midst fear or shame, we can ask ourselves, “What am I thinking?” “What do I believe?” We usually discover an assumption that we are falling short or about to fail in some way. We contract in fear and shame when we expect to be rejected. Ultimately, our sense of unworthiness comes from our sense of being separate and alone, from forgetting that we are connected to each other and that we play an important part in the operations of the whole. When we follow our emotions and our thoughts to the end, we can recognize that we are simply accepting a mental story, and the illusion of our unworthiness begins to disappear.  

The Myth of Separation 

Every one of us is unique, our own little bundle of human diversity. Just look at your own life! Look at the ways in which you have stood out and stood up! What you have accomplished and what you have overcome. We are more than the sum of your past experiences. We human beings are hardwired for resiliency. Life just sucks sometimes. And yet here we are in all our individual beauty and worthiness!

The Buddha said that our fear is great, but greater yet is the truth of our connectedness.

Any path that reminds us that we belong, to each other, to this world, eases the artificial belief in separation and unworthiness. We are not walking this path alone, working slowly toward becoming more perfect. Instead, we are discovering that we are interrelated, our bodies to our emotions, ourselves to each other, and to the whole world. In dissolving the illusion, we no longer feel compelled to blame or to hide in fear and shame. Instead we are filled with love and the unshakable realization that we are worthy.

We are – Somebody! 
We are – Somebody! 
We are – Somebody!

Namaste

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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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Being Fully Human, Compassion, Interfaith, Spiritual

We Dream of a World at Peace

An Haggadah of Liberation 

We dream of a world not threatened by destruction.
We dream of a world in which all people are free to be themselves.
We dream of a world at peace.
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Clearly we live in violent times – and we search for reasons as to how this could have happened. Too often we look for an easy way out. But there are no easy answers. Instead we need to look at the dark places in our society, in the dark secrets of our culture, in the dark places of our own souls. 

In the movie Bowling for Columbine Roger Moore sets out to discover the root causes of violence in America. He points at all the usual suspects as causes for this violence – poverty and unemployment, easy access to guns, the violent history of our nation, and our children’s exposure to violent videogames, music and movies. But in the end, the movie seems to stumble upon a darker ethos in the collective mindset of America – one of fear. 

What are we so afraid of?  

How many times do I think that taking some precaution seems like overkill but I do it anyway because the haunting refrain of “What if…” echoes in my mind? No misfortune, it would seem, is out of the realm of possibility. Even as I lock my doors at night (and incidentally I have no reason to lock my doors other than the fact that I am told it is the “responsible” thing to do”) I feel a vague feeling of fear creep into me as I became aware of being a woman alone in the night.   

Now I’m not saying violence isn’t real. Clearly it is. But how do we make sense out of Barry Glassner’s findings in his book “Fear” that as crime rates plunged throughout the 1990s, two-thirds of Americans believed they were soaring? Or that global violence is at its lowest level since the 1950s?  

And what does my faith have to say about it? One of my favorite phrases for meditation is “Be Still and Know that I am God.” I was raised to greet others with “Peace Be With You.” Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” And over and over again the scriptures remind me that if God is with me, whom shall I fear? In fact there is only one time that fear is actually the recommended emotion in the scriptures and that is in the command to “have the fear of God.” There is an important distinction to be made here.  

To be afraid is to be in an apprehensive state, to fear someone or something. This is the fear that leads to terror that moves us to panic. This is also the fear we are told we can lay aside, give up, and be freed from. But to have fear is to have a profound measure of respect and reverence for the divine.  

Too often the Christian community seems to get these mixed up. We give reverence, respect and awe to people and things, to money and sports teams and celebrities and to the good ole’ US of A, and we are afraid of God. 

Too often we preach grace but refuse to give up our own sense of shame and guilt until we are filled with fear that somehow we alone may be beyond God’s saving grace. We fear that the bad things that happen to us are God’s little acts of vengeance for our sins. And I can’t tell you how tired I am of getting emails telling me that we shouldn’t be surprised that God won’t protect us anymore because we don’t pray in schools. God is pissed off and we better start being afraid or things are going to get a whole lot worse!    

And if we have to be afraid, than doggone it, we want everybody else to be afraid, too. So we are sure to tell Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Atheists that if they don’t believe in God the way we do they are in big trouble. Jesus said to go spread the Good News, and throughout the centuries human beings have perverted a message of peace and love and the reality that we need no longer be afraid into “evangelism by terrorism.” Somehow we managed to turn something as wonderful as a gracious and merciful God into a holy scare tactic: Here’s the good news and if you don’t believe it, then you better be afraid because if we don’t getcha, God will. 

  
And if we’re afraid of God how can we possibly live a life free of fear? To be afraid is to live with the kind of anxiety that makes us fearful of talking to a neighbor, offering help to a stranger, listening to the point of view of our enemy. The Greek word for fear is phobos and if you change just one letter you have phonos, which means murder. Incidents of violence stir up anger and fear. Fear festers an attitude of “we’re not going to take it anymore.” Violence breeds fear and fear breeds more violence and the cycle keeps spinning further and further out of control.

How can I possibly come to know the peaceful realm of the kingdom of God if I am living in such suspicion and anxiety? How can I hear the words of any messiah who would seek to set me free of such fear?  

Tony Campollo was quoted in Christian Week magazine as saying, “I find it strange that the last place I can really quote Jesus these days is in American churches. They don’t want to hear ‘overcome evil with good.’ They don’t want to hear ‘if your enemy hurts you, do good, feed, clothe, minister to him.’ They don’t want to hear ‘blessed are the merciful’ and ‘love your enemies.'” 

It’s a hard message to carry – this teaching of Jesus Christ. It involves stepping out of the light of the lamppost, shaking off our fear and embracing with awe and reverence the true light that will lead us into the dark places where true answers lie.

The Holy Spirit is working among us to wrench us from fear and violence, and to transform us into people who can trust God and live in community with one another. More than ever, we need each other. Together we can learn to confront our fears. Together we can find new ways of cultivating peace and nonviolent resistance to the injustices that surround us. Together we can be strengthened and equipped to go out into that world with the least welcomed message of all – the message of peace.

Invitation for Reflection

1)      What war are you fighting in your own head and/or heart?
2)      What is your vision for bringing peace to this internal war?

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