Keep trying…

Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

These days I’m stretching beyond anything I’ve ever done, chasing a life-long desire to write a work of literary fiction and feeling like I’m back in kindergarten — or even younger: a toddler just learning to walk. I’m fighting the writer’s chief (erroneous) defense against failure: i.e., procrastination: organizing and researching instead of writing, or writing blogs and essays (a more familiar genre for me) because I dread to write and read my feeble attempts to tell a story.  

So that’s why I’m sharing here a collection of other people’s thoughts that I hope will inspire me to keep doggedly pursuing my dream. Here goes:

Let me tell you the secret that has led to my goal. My strength lies solely
in my tenacity.  (Louis Pasteur)

The most essential factor is persistence –  the determination never to allow your energy or enthusiasm to be dampened by the discouragement that must inevitably come.  (James Whitcomb Riley)

You only fail when you stop trying.  (Wachabuy.com)

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward. 
(Martin Luther King, Jr.)

It always seems impossible until it’s done. (Nelson Mandela)

Let’s talk about bullies

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I’m not a psychiatrist but I am a student of human life and motivations, and I’ve been thinking about bullies. Who is guilty of abusing power and using it to diminish others? Surely not just the bully, but also those who prop him up and cheer him on.

We’ve all seen bullies at work in schoolyards. They feed off the fear they can produce in others. They’re emboldened by both the cheering crowds that stand around egging him (or her) on and the silent ones who only stand and watch, saying nothing. They don’t care about doing good for anyone, but only in propping up themselves by diminishing others.

Bully-followers enable the bully’s abusive behavior and, even worse, echo and amplify the nastiness he or she employs. We often give the followers the benefit of the doubt by attributing their behavior to fear and weakness. But for some I think it may be more sinister than that. For some it isn’t just cowardice that keeps them supporting the bully. It’s complicity in the meanness. There is something about seeing others bullied while they remain “safe” and unassailed that I suspect satisfies their own lust for the same kind of power. Watching a bully diminish someone else makes the followers feel less small, more powerful themselves.

It’s possible such followers don’t see their own sin. It’s all too easy for us to compartmentalize our behavior and not see the repercussions of it. But even if our blindness is from ignorance, we have a responsibility to examine and own up to our part in supporting bad behavior. If we don’t see because we don’t want to see clearly, we bear the greater responsibility.

I once worked with a woman who would commiserate with me about two people who were bullying me with false complaints and nasty words. When they criticized and complained about me to the management, she joined them in their accusations and complaints. Then she’d come to me privately later and, in an aggrieved way, ask me why I lumped her in with them – how could I do that to her? So one day I told her: I don’t lump you in with them. You do that when you join in their criticism and complaints. She seemed genuinely surprised. She thought that if she supported me behind closed doors it somehow erased her publicly siding with them. It didn’t.

Whatever the motivations of bully-followers – weakness, cowardice, love of vicarious power, or their own need to diminish others, to stand tall on their pain – I believe they carry the same guilt that the bully does. Whether with cheers or silence, they are supporting the abuse of power that ends in the damage of others, and it’s reprehensible.

These days, we have a bully in the White House and bully-followers in the Administration and Congress. It’s time they were dispossessed of their power.

Our beautiful blue Earth

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As I walk my dog at night I usually gaze at the sky while he sniffs and explores the ground. On these walks I’ve fallen in love with the lucent, ethereal beauty of the moon. One night it hung full and low, softly shining against the night sky, and I thought of the Apollo 11 astronauts’ reflections on their experience during their trip to the moon, how they saw Earthrise.

There was Earth floating like a living jewel in the black expanse of space. a beautiful blue planet alive with visible activity: shifting atmosphere, storms and lightning strikes, volcanic eruptions, seeming vividly alive, as of course it is. It occurred to me that, from the moon, our Earth must have appeared much larger than the moon appears to us. How stunning that sight must be! We’ve seen the pictures of Earth floating in deep space, but how much greater is the eyes’ direct vision compared to the view through a camera’s lens. 

All that was my first thought. Then followed sadness, that we have brought so much destruction and disfigurement to this beauty. We’ve polluted Earth’s once pristine rivers, filled her atmosphere with smog and the stench of burning fossil fuels, scraped her lush valleys and hills clear of vegetation, filled her oceans with plastic waste, ripped up forests and laid down cement.  It’s hard to consider the many ways we’ve managed to devastate our spinning blue home, our greatest treasure.  Earth contains more beauty than we can even begin to see, much less have the wisdom to mourn as it passes away.

Science tells us that human activity, especially our activity since the dawn of the industrial age, has been mindlessly accelerating the destruction of life as we know it on this planet. Extinction of life-forms has been accelerating, Earth is heating up, its carefully calibrated ecosystem shifting, its climate changing, habitats disappearing, polar ice caps melting and seas rising. More and more people are sickened and dying from respiratory diseases, polluted water, famine, and natural catastrophes. It’s distressing to ponder.

Then I found a place on the internet that traces how Earth has changed over the millennia, offering a stunning visual representation and a record that eases my distress. Check it out; it’s worth a visit:  http://dinosaurpictures.org/ancient-earth .  I quote below from this website, naming just a few of the crises through which Earth has survived and evolved:

430 million years ago: Silurian Period. A mass extinction took place, wiping out nearly half of marine invertebrate species. The first land plants emerge, starting at the edge of the ocean. Plants evolve vascularity, the ability to transport water and nutrients through their tissues. Ocean life becomes larger and more complex, and some creatures venture out of reefs and onto land.

340 million years ago: Carboniferous Period. A mass extinction harmed marine life, but land organisms adapted. Plants are developing root systems that allowed them to grow larger and move inland. Environments are evolving below tree canopies. Atmospheric oxygen increases as plants spread on land. Early reptiles are evolving.

260 million years ago: Late Permian. The greatest mass extinction in history is about to take place, driving 90% of species extinct. The extinction of plants reduced food supply for large herbivorous reptiles, and removed habitat for insects.

200 million years ago: Late Triassic. An extinction event is about to happen, resulting in the disappearance of 76% of all terrestrial and marine life species and greatly reducing surviving populations…The first true dinosaurs emerge.

90 million years ago: Cretaceous Period. … dinosaurs evolve. Modern mammal, bird, and insect groups emerge.

66 million years: Late Cretaceous. A mass extinction occurs, leading to the extinction of dinosaurs, many marine reptiles, all flying reptiles, and many marine invertebrates and other species.

35 million years ago: Mid Tertiary. Mammals have evolved from small, simple forms to a diverse group. Primates, cetaceans, and other groups evolve. The Earth cools and deciduous plants become more common

20 million years ago: Neocene Period. Mammals and birds continue to evolve into modern forms. Early hominids emerge in Africa.

Today we are experiencing the beginning of what may become another mass extinction. It’s we who are at risk, not the planet. Our beautiful, self-renewing, evolving Earth will recover. We may not.  We are standing at the threshold of a hell on earth that is of our own making, at least for our species and for those creatures whose lives we are destroying along with our own. These frightening, chastening words from scripture come to my mind:  “They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7)  

When we have destroyed the delicate balance of life in which we’ve flourished here, another life form will likely emerge. Maybe it will be the insects that take over. Maybe some creature we can’t imagine yet will appear. But the human species could disappear if we continue to wreck our own habitat and wage endless wars. 

Some people are already suggesting we should plan to escape to the moon and set up residence there. But have you seen pictures of the surface of the moon?!  On that desolate wasteland that looks so beautiful in the Sun’s reflected light, yet is so barren and cold on its surface, a few of us – very few — may one day stand. Then I imagine that whoever they are, the remnant of our civilization will stare up at Earth hanging low in the moon’s endless sky and mourn our exile from this beautiful blue planet, our Eden, our home.

Finding our way through anger

The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  

Genesis 4:6-7 NRSV

Cain didn’t listen to this wise, loving counsel. He couldn’t contain his anger, and in his anger he couldn’t listen to reason or appeal. He felt offended and couldn’t forgive the offense. He went out and let his anger overwhelm him, killing his brother instead.

What can that have to do with us? More than I once thought. It struck home in a conference when I heard the nun who was teaching say that when we hold onto anger we no longer engage with that person as a whole person; we’ve made him or her into an enemy.  The more we turn away from others in anger (she said), not talking, not even really seeing them, the more we’ve effectively removed them from our world. She called it “spiritual murder.”

Her words were shocking, but there’s a certain truth in them. “Spiritual murder” was the sin that lurked at my door waiting to pounce when I was angry. I tended to withdraw from my offender and avoid him until, without consciously wishing it, it was as if he was dead to me. It’s still a struggle not to withdraw when hurt or offended and anger swamps me. But in the end I know it’s ourselves we kill, bit by bit, when we can’t let anger go or reach through it to forgive.

Though it’s the only way to heal the destructive force of anger, it isn’t easy to forgive. Even in the midst of anger’s powerful feelings I know I need to forgive, not only because the Holy One who loves me requires it, but also because my own anger tears me apart. But the emotional freedom necessary to forgive doesn’t come with the speed of the quick-rising tide of anger. So the struggle is often long and painful, even when the one I’m angry with is someone whose friendship I don’t want to lose.

What makes forgiving so hard for me, though, isn’t letting the other off the hook of blame that I’ve hung them on.  It’s wrestling with myself, bearing the pain of the battle to uncover the root of anger. When I’m able to get my heart quiet enough to hear past my own ranting, in the company of one who is safe (whose judgment I don’t fear), I can hear the painful, critical questions: “Why am I angry? Why do I endlessly repeat the offense in my mind, feeding on its poison, hugging it to myself like a shield? What is it shielding me from?”

Only as I begin to seek the answers to these questions does the truth emerge for me, a slowly brightening light. Finally I find that the battle ends, forgiveness washes anger away, and peace settles in my heart.

[This is adapted from a blog I posted to the Spiritual Directors International newsletter, September 25, 2014]

Odds & Ends

I thought I’d share from time to time some of the provocative words of wisdom that I’ve run across. Like this ancient Chinese proverb:

“If we do not change our direction,
we are likely to end up where we are headed.”

Where is it, exactly, that we are headed unthinkingly in our life through our choices and decisions?  Is it a place we really want to get to, or are we wandering aimlessly on a path that will lead us somewhere we’d rather not be?

A Switchback Life

I’ve been living a switchback life. You know, the kind of life that seems to meander like a road or trail that swings now this way, then that way, moving back and forth, usually on a steep path. Skiers ski downhill that way because the path is steep and they need to manage their speed. Roads and railroads follow a similar style going uphill when the climb is steep and hard to navigate.  My life runs that way not because a straight path is dangerous or difficult, and not because I get tired of being here or there, but because I embrace too many projects. I’m interested in and try to work on them all, moving from one to another serially, back and forth, hoping to make some progress on each one. But honestly, it often feels like I’m getting nowhere.

Here and there, this then that, is something a lot of us do, I suspect, switching from one task to another and back again. People often call it multi-tasking. But I’m not so much a multi-tasker as I am a “dedicated dabbler.” A dabbler because I want to do so many different things; dedicated because each one is more a serious desire than a whim. I’ve felt vaguely guilty about this lifestyle.

There was a time when my tendency to dabble was suppressed, when I was laser-focused on one thing: my spiritual life and ministry. There were other things I longed to do but they all fell to the side as I was consumed by the singular overwhelming desire that drove me then: to deepen my communion with God and help others do the same. Now, in retirement, without a church congregation to lead or a clear sense of being called to a ministry, I’ve been freely wandering through this new chapter of my life, switching back and forth from one project to another.  It has felt like a liberation. But I’m not free of the desire to actually accomplish something. I count 7 or 8 major projects I’m pursuing now and I don’t really want to let any of them go.  Each one gives me life.  (If anything, I’d like to add a few in the area of play rather than work: learn to ride horseback, swim regularly, go dancing.)

Sometimes in the past I’ve envied Billy Graham for his life-long, single-minded focus on his ministry for Christ. At other times (most of the time) I envy people like Leonardo Da Vinci or Thomas Edison, who could do so many things and excel at them all. (Secretly I wish I could be a Renaissance woman after the model of Da Vinci for his wide-ranging exploration of science, art, and humanity, but I don’t have the skills, or even the physical stamina.) 

So I live a switchback life because I can’t seem to narrow my focus anymore. I guess I need to make peace with that. For now.

Caged or Flying Free?

Why do we find it so hard to respect the freedom of others to be different: to hold different values, want different things, live different lives?

I have a budgie (aka parakeet) named Joey. Got him as a baby and he’s now about 3 years old. He lives in a flight cage – a very large cage for a very small bird – and he’s in love with the bird in the little mirror that hangs near his perch, to whom he chatters and sings gaily every day. He also chatters and sings to me, flies around the cage, nibbles on his treats, stretches his wings in flight and echoes my favorite words to him: “Hello!” and “pretty bird,” “whoa!,” and something I swear sounds like a wolf whistle. He peeks around his mirrored bird-friend to watch me in the kitchen and we play peekaboo. He perches on my hand or my fingers, lets me rub his tummy and his back and lifts his wing for a scratch underneath. So I think all in all he’s a happy bird. But he won’t leave his cage.

I have tried to get him to come out, but he refuses, and when I begin to move my hand toward the cage door with him perched on it he flies off and retreats to the other end of the cage.  I gather him in my hand to bring him out, which he resists, though when he’s tired he lets me. Then I  hold him gently to my chest, talk to him, and try to get him to perch on my shoulder, but he flies right back into his cage the moment I loosen my hold. Sometimes he flies around the room, down the hall, and ends up landing on the carpet somewhere in my bedroom, but I can tell he isn’t happy and really just wants to get away from me so he can get back to his cage.

I just want him to fly because I feel that a bird needs to fly free. But he will have none of it; it doesn’t make him happy.

He’s had some hard landings, especially when he was young before he figured out how to find the perches I’d put around the room for him.  I imagine those hard landings made him want to stay “at home” where he’s comfortable. But I want him to have the joy and the exercise of flying free. So I keep trying to help him get comfortable outside of the cage.

This little daily “dance” with Joey about being in or out of the cage, flying from perch to perch vs. flying free, strikes me as akin to a familiar human dilemma, one I’ve lived with in my own life.  I wonder how much it might remind you of something in your life.  What seems like a cage to me is safe space for him. I hate being caged and want him to be free, but it isn’t what he’s ready for or wants. 

Here’s the thing: he reminds me of me. My mother has told me innumerable times that every pet I’ve ever had has “taken after” me. (I actually can see that.) I’m a lifelong introvert, independent, and not that comfortable stretching my wings and flying out of my comfort zone. By nature I’m not a risk-taker, and I’m peaceful in my own space, in my own company. I was an anomaly in my family growing up. They didn’t understand my introversion, how socializing is exhausting to me, and how I need time alone, so I was always pressured to go places and do things I didn’t want to do. They thought I needed what they needed, that there was something wrong with the way I lived: too solitary.  My sister especially used to do to me what I do to Joey now: try to get me out of my space and flying free.  It was all well-intentioned, but stressful for me.

My relationship with my beautiful, perky little bird and my memories from childhood raise a consideration worth pondering. It’s important to learn to discern where the boundary lies between being caged and limited because we are afraid or unsure, and being free and glad to fly freely.  

Equally important, from the other side: to understand where the boundary lies between pressing for what I want for someone else, and allowing them to define their life in their own way.  I need to learn to let Joey live on his own terms, not to force him to fly beyond where he’s willing and ready to go.  Encouragement can be good. Pressure and insistence isn’t.