Being Fully Human, christmas, family, peace, Progressive Christianity, relationships, stress, zen

Home for the Holidays: A Primer in Stress

Leif Christmas TreeIt’s no secret anymore. The holidays are a stressful time for almost everyone. And of course the most recent stressor is the fact that now we are supposed to get through it all without feeling any stress! How are you doing? Before going further, I think it’s important to point out the difference between the holiday blues and holiday stress. According to psychologist Mark Gorkin, holiday blues is what we feel when we can’t be with family and friends who play a significant role in our life. Holiday stress is when we have to be with them!

According to the American Psychiatric Association, 69% of us are stressed out because of a perceived lack of time, 69% because of a perceived lack of money, and 51% because of the whole gift giving/gift getting requirement. One of those people was an elderly man who finally decided not to try to figure out what presents to buy his grandchildren, especially in this high tech age. Instead he wrote them each a check. In their card he wrote, Merry Christmas, Grandpa. P.S. Buy your own gift. He thought that they all seemed a bit distant and remote during the holidays and this gnawed at him into the new year. Then one day as he was straightening out his den he found the stack of checks he had forgotten to include in his grandchildren’s cards.

On a more solemn note, a good friend of mine called me earlier this week because he needed to talk to someone about his family. He was 25 when he came out to them as gay, and now at 44 years old, he is still struggling with their lack of acceptance and understanding. And while that is an all year struggle, the holidays tend to create more obligations for togetherness while promote idealized images of family that can leave us feeling both frustrated and flawed.

In the Beginning 

Since so much of the commotion centers on the birth of a baby named Jesus, I thought we might look at the actual story. The Gospel of Matthew begins…

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ,

The son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob,

And Jacob begat Judah and his brothers,

And Judah begat Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,

And Perez begat Hezron,

And Hezron begat Ram…

And on and on for 52 generations. OK, it’s kinda long and it’s kinda boring. But it’s interesting because each of those family members add a story to Jesus’ life, just as each of our family members add a story to ours – something that helped shape us, for good or bad, into who we are.

Matthew begins right where we all begin – having been begot by someone or another. And in the begetting and all of the stuff that comes afterward – attention, neglect, permissiveness, punishment, praising, scolding, laughing, crying, screaming, silence – we come to be who we are. Who begot us? Not only at conception, but as we continue to grow?

Adorned with Relationships 

This week I saw a gorgeous Christmas tree. It was the perfect tree in shape, color, texture, even smell. I complimented the owner and she thanked me. But then instead of talking about the tree, she started talking about how it was decorated. And in this regard, the tree also was lovely. A rich and odd assortment of shapes and patterns and colors, some ornaments delicately manufactured, some lovingly crafted by hand. All interwoven with lights and garland and branches and needles. Each carrying with it a story. Together creating a beautiful piece of art.

It seems you and I are a lot like that tree, adorned with a jumbled array of relationships, often more colorful and diverse than any odd assortment of Christmas ornaments. Mismatched and oddly shaped, intertwined with the events in our lives that have brought sorrow and that have brought joy.  Each its own complex story. Together shaping us into a beautiful piece of ever changing art. But with one extra complication that the tree doesn’t have to contend with – we don’t have the luxury of putting away the decorations at the end of the season. Nope – they just keep clinging to us so that we’re stuck with them all year round.

Oh, we can ignore them or pretend they’re something they never were. But once a year at Christmas time when there is so much focus on family, we often experience a profound sense of stress as we struggle with the stories of our life.

Families in Conflict

Of course, in conflicted relationships, someone is usually identified as the problem – maybe even you or me. When a family is overwhelmed by prolonged stress and anxiety it usually will identify the problem as a child, as the marriage, or as the spouse who has developed alcoholism, depression or some other symptom. But when one person or one relationship is labeled the problem, other issues become clouded from view. The greater our anxiety, the greater the tunnel vision and the more likely we are to ensure that nothing will change.

Because in the end we can’t change problems, we can only change our self. All of us have ways in which we normally interact with others. We may pursue or distance ourselves, fight or give in, overfunction or underfunction. And whatever our normal style, we will do it that much more when conflict and stress get elevated. Stress makes us reactive. So the answer to stress is to simply remain calm and rational. Of course, it isn’t quite as easy as that.

Therapists and counselors are quick to point out that our reactions have deep roots. As we have grown we have been formed and shaped by our experiences and our relationships. Our reactions and the things we react to are an important – but not unchangeable – aspect of who we have become. And who we have become is important. All that we are and do has come about for a very good reason and serves an important purpose.  But sometimes those very important traits outlast their usefulness and we find that we need to let some of them go, cull some of them out, prune some of them off, if we are to be healthy and whole.

If our goal is to be less reactionary, more capable of handling stress, and more effective at healthy relationships we always have to start with our self. This means identifying both our strengths and our vulnerabilities, being clear about our beliefs, values, and priorities and then living them. And it challenges us to address painful and difficult issues and relationships that we would often rather ignore; to stay emotionally connected to significant others – including our first family – even when things get pretty stressful.

Staying Connected 

Whether you believe the way they tell it or not, you gotta feel sorry for poor old Joseph of the Jesus birth story. Now here is a man under stress! Can you imagine the tension when Mary and Joe get together with the in-laws – on either side? Can you appreciate the predicament at work here? Who would look forward to a family reunion with that kind of dynamic in place? I know I’d be looking for an excuses to get out of it…

But according to psychologist Harriet Lerner, “Slowing moving toward more connectedness rather than more distance with members of our own kinship group is one of the best insurance policies for bringing a more solid self to other relationship.” And she says, “The degree to which we are distant and cut off from our first family is directly related to the amount of intensity and reactivity we bring to other relationships.”

Of course no matter how successful we are at uncovering and healing old wounds, at changing patterns, at recovering our true self… No matter how calm and relaxed we become – things will go wrong, unexpected events will occur, life circumstances will suddenly change. Divorce, disease, death. We will discover that there is much we do not and cannot control.

We cannot avoid stressful events in our life, but we can learn not to respond with more stress – by becoming fearful, anxious and depressed. And we do that not by following the example of a baby still in need of a self, but of a grown up Jesus who has become fully himself.

Some Things We Cannot Change

Jesus and other teachers throughout the ages have repeatedly told their followers not to worry, not to be anxious. But they never paint an idealized picture of the world. Instead they reveal to us that death is certain, that life is fragile, that dangers abound, and that human beings are full of limitations. And in revealing to us our powerlessness to change these certainties, they tells us not to try to do the impossible. For it is in learning to let go of that which we cannot control that we finally find peace and the ability to live in the/this moment.

There is a Zen meditation koen called “Tale of the Unfortunate Traveler.” A man was crossing a field when he encountered a tiger. He ran and the tiger chased him. Coming to a ledge, he grabbed a vine and swung himself down the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to see another tiger waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Then two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

What can we do when there is nothing we can do?

Living Life Fully 

Life is often painful. Every day people like Joseph and you and I are required to do things no one should have to do – to endure things no one should have to endure. We can let life thrash us as we become increasing agitated and stressed out or we can take steps to identify the source of our deepest pain in order that it be healed.

My friend cannot change his family. None of us can change anyone else. Nor can we change the inevitable stresses that come as an every day part of our living and our dying. This realization, accepting our own powerlessness, is a profoundly spiritual state – and one that leads us to inner freedom, and inner peace.  It is in accepting death that life becomes more abundant.

That Christmas tree I mentioned? It has been cut down and is already dying. Department store trees, on the other hand, never die. And they are amazing to behold. All lights and glitter. Perfectly symmetrical, color coordinated, cold, artificial masterpieces of human design. My wish is that our lives look more like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. A few branches broken, needles dropping, ornaments held together with tape and Elmer’s glue … an honest tree, a genuine tree, that has know life and known it fully. That tree is the most beautiful one of all.

Namaste

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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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