A Lesson from a Lobster

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I was talking here the other week about change, how we hate it or tolerate it.  About how hard it is to undergo (and it IS hard!).  But the hardest changes we face and resist perhaps most strongly are not those that come upon us from the outside, but those we go through within ourselves as we grow and mature.

Reflecting on that, I was drawn to consider the humble lobster. You may know that a lobster as it matures must shed its spiny, hard shell to make room for the inner life to expand and grow. It’s called molting.  I watched on YouTube a video of a pet lobster shedding its hard outer shell, and let me tell you it’s obviously a struggle. It looks painful, a lot like re-birthing.

At the end of the struggle the lobster literally pulls away from and out of that hard shell that was its protective covering all its life, and lands on the soft sandy floor of its watery home. What you see is that inside the old shell a new shell had been forming. As it formed it must have created intense pressure because the hard outer shell wasn’t made to accommodate the new one. This old shell must have constricted and constrained the growing lobster inside until the creature had to undergo the tremendous struggle to get free.

Freedom and expanding life come with its price, of course. The time just after the molting and before the new, soft shell has hardened is a time of great vulnerability for the lobster. Waves and currents wash over and batter it; predators can more easily assault it. But the new shell allows the lobster to grow.  If the creature didn’t let go of the old shell it would likely die within it.

As for us, unlike the lobster that lives with its strong protective skeleton on the outside, we live with our “shell” on the inside. If you think of the lobster’s shell as a metaphor for the interior structures of protection and stability we have built up in our lives, then we are a bit like the lobster, aren’t we. We build up an interior shell against the outside world: ways of deflecting pain, of coping with challenges, ways of perceiving people and events, ways of judging, ways of thinking, and beliefs to make sense of life. They harden and for a while seem to serve us. But in the end they may come to constrict us painfully. Then we will feel the urge and the need to grow beyond them. That’s when courage is needed.

I’ve been thinking about all this in light of the story I’m trying to write. It’s about two headstrong people and their relationship with each other.  I think of all their self-protective ways and the challenges their relationship thrusts upon them. Will they be able to shed the hard shells they’ve built up within them, the shells they’ve built against vulnerability? Will they be able to grow and mature as lovers as they risk new ways of being, risking intimacy and trust? Will they grow into a more expansive life, or wither within the old shells that have hardened against that possibility?

It has been said that there are only three reasons people will change: when they hurt enough that they have to; when they learn enough that they want to, and when they receive enough that they are able to.  I would say this: we dare to change when pain and desire combine to create the urge to live more fully and the urge has become too strong to resist.

What is the urgent call you may be feeling now to grow, to let go of the old protective ways of thinking about and relating to the world, to risk living a new way? It’s a struggle, for sure. I hope and pray that you will be able, when it is your time, to change, to live a more expansive life, and that you will have courage for the struggle.

More Than We Think Is There

Someone once said that we are all trying constantly to tell our story, in spoken or unspoken, conscious or unconscious, ways. But few of us are able to recognize the story, so the story goes unheard. We see with blind eyes. We hear with deaf ears. All we see is the surface of the other, and much of what we see is only projection of our own experience.

When I was younger I tended to see people in black and white, by which I don’t mean racial distinctions, but the simplicity of mere silhouettes without a perception of depth. Or what depth I thought I saw was uncomplicated by nuance, out of any context but my own feelings about them, framed in my preconceptions and judgments. I saw mostly how I felt treated by them and formed judgements about what that meant about who they were.

Here’s an example that comes to mind. There was a man I worked with, back in my 20’s when I was trying to become a respected member of an executive team, who relentlessly talked to me in teasing tones, treating me alternately as a potential sexual object and an inconsequential girl. The kind of behavior and language he used, especially about women, framed the way I saw him. I was disgusted by him, thought I “knew” what he was: a southern “old boy,” wickedly smart, but shallow, callous, loud and boorish, a man to be avoided. In one sense he did behave in those boorish ways, and he may have been some of that, but it was not all of who he was – maybe not even the largest part, although I’ll never know.

Eventually I rose to executive status and was serving our company’s corporate clients well, and he had moved on to become vice president at the corporation where I was my company’s liaison. One day, after the marketing group meeting, he took me to lunch. To my surprise his whole demeanor toward me had changed. Over lunch he told me what he’d really thought about me when I’d first joined the firm where once we’d both worked.

He said he’d “seen too many women sleep their way to the top.” He illustrated by pointing to a woman we both knew who had had an affair with the man who became company president. Soon after, she’d been elevated to vice president. My nemesis/client/now-friend thought she’d climbed past him for no other reason than her sexual relationship with a powerful man. He said, “You can’t compete with pillowtalk.”  He’d come to resent women in business because they use sex, he said, to get ahead of more qualified men.  He said he had misjudged me when I came to the company with my ambitious agenda. He realized now that I’d advanced on the strength of my skills. Then he went on to give me career advice. He thought I was in a dead-end job, suggested that if I wanted to find a better position he’d be happy to make some connections for me and offer a reference.

It was an unusually frank, friendly, and honest conversation – the first we’d ever had of that kind and the last personal conversation, as it turned out. But that day I realized I had misjudged him.  I began to see a whole person instead of an enemy, a man with dimensions he kept carefully hidden. His behavior toward me had been egregious and his judgments were not particularly wise in personal matters, but he was more than I thought he was.

Back then I thought that what you see is who they are. Now I know that all of us are much more complicated than that. We are not mere silhouettes, black and white shadows in a simple frame. I’ve grown up enough to realize what a great mystery we are to each other, and even to ourselves.

We are complex, complicated creatures, marked by unique experiences. We each have found ways to protect ourselves from the traumas that life has meted out to us and from the insecurities that threaten us. We can be at once many contradictory things. We may have given in to the worst impulses and plans, but that is not the whole story.

This comes together for me in three important take-aways:

  •  there is far more about each person that I don’t know than what I actually do;
  • each of us is living out a story that, if we knew it, would change how we see and treat them; and
  • there is something in each of us that needs to be forgiven, and there is something in each of us that can and ought to be appreciated, possibly even cherished.

Now, if only I could keep my eyes open to these things with everyone I encounter!

 

The Desire to Share

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When I lived in Kansas I often visited Northern New Mexico. There in the Chama River Canyon, which cuts deep into the high mountains northwest of Santa Fe, is a rugged and beautiful landscape. Cliffs rise from the canyon floor until they shine in the sun, their sheer sides lined with striations of pink, rose, brown and tan, revealing the ages of the earth and its upheavals. Scattered in these cliffs are crevices and caves, and sometimes if you climb up to the top of one then descend down its face, you can find a cave that’s reasonably accessible to explore.

My friend, on a day of hiking, found such a cave and spent the long afternoon there listening to the sounds echoing up from the canyon below: the wild horses running, coyotes calling across the canyon, the voices of monks at prayer singing chants in the chapel below, singing birds and whispering trees, and water running fast in the river far below. A symphony of great beauty.  When he came back he told me about it and tried to show me where it was, so I could go there.

He was alight with the joy of his day, filled with the wonder of it, and he wanted to share it with me. We both stared at the face of the cliff wall as he tried to direct my eyes to the place where the cave lies hidden in plain sight. He kept describing it and pointing to it, saying, “There, see, just under where that scrub pine is growing, not far from where that footpath ends above it – can you see it?” and I’d say, no, I couldn’t; and he’d try again. “There,” he’d say, “you can barely make it out, it’s just a line in the rocks, very faint; can you see it now?” And, of course, I still couldn’t see what he so much wanted me to see and appreciate. We went on like that for a while, him wanting so much for me to see what he was trying to show me, and I completely unable to make it out amid the shadows and lines etched on the rough cliff wall.

I’ve thought about that experience often over the years. There’s a powerful poignancy in the memory because it mirrors a deep longing that I believe many of us have: to share our experience with someone else, to share the beauty we find in the world. Poignant because that longing too often meets a sad inability in those of us asked to receive the gift to recognize and embrace what is offered.  We miss the chance to experience communion.

 

On greatness and power

How great or powerful do you want to be?

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I believe that every living creature is endowed with a certain greatness inherent in them, planted there by their Creator. But in this world many people run away from their innate power and betray the possibilities within them. Like the story about an eaglet raised among barnyard chickens, they settle into a small, limited life without ever discovering their inner strength and talent, their deepest value, their greatness of soul. Continue reading “On greatness and power”

Change is like a slinky

I don’t know who wrote this.  I found it in one of my preaching files from years ago. But I like it a lot and wanted to share it with you. It can make you smile or cry, depending on how you’re feeling about the changes in your life. I hope it will make you smile.

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Why Change Is Like a Slinky:

  1. You have to take it out of the box to have fun with it.
  2. It comes in many styles and colors.
  3. Somebody has to launch it on its way.
  4. The course it takes once it begins is entirely unpredictable.
  5. It routinely gets stuck halfway down the stairs and has to be relaunched. Repeat as necessary.
  6. It is messy, noisy, and chaotic.
  7. Before it is launched, it has stored potential energy. When launched, that energy force becomes kinetic energy.
  8. You really don’t control it once it begins its journey.
  9. It rarely lands where you predict.

May I suggest, if change is coming, and if it isn’t absolutely devastating to you, try starting with number 1. Try to have fun with it.  There are changes that are upsetting but not destroying of all happiness. Instead of hunkering down against it, play with it. It can turn into a good thing if embraced with the right attitude.  Does your church want to paint the front door red instead of white? Don’t stress out over it.  Think of it as the color of Holy Spirit, of positive energy, of a new vibrant invitation to come in.  If your child comes home with a tattoo, try not to rant but to see it as body art (which is probably how your kid sees it), and be glad it makes him or her happy (but save some money for the day s/he comes to you and wants to have it removed).  Do you have to downsize your living, move to a new town, find a new job? Consider it a chance to explore a new life, make new friends, discover new talents rather than the loss of an old familiar life however happy you’ve been in it.

I know that change is disorienting for most of us, the farthest thing we can think of  as something to be sought. But life will be much more peaceful if we can find a way to make peace with change.  My own experience is that changes I resisted for a long time have often turned out to lead me into better things, surprising me and bringing me to something new and good.

I hope whatever changes you are dealing with today will lead you to a good place, but if not, may you find the support and strength you need for the walk that lies ahead. May blessings and peace be yours no matter what comes!

… the times they are a changin’ (Bob Dylan)

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I guess we’d better get used to it: the one thing that is constant in life is change.  It’s also the most challenging. So much of the human struggle has to do with our desperate desire either to escape what is painful or to hold on to what feels good.  We are either longing for our circumstances to change, or fearing and hating a change that threatens us.

But whether we go willingly into the next step in our lives or refuse to take it, letting go eventually will be forced on us, because change is inevitable; and how should it not be? Life itself is growth and withering; gaining, holding on, and letting go.

As one thing dies – one day, one relationship, one hope, one painful or happy condition – something new emerges. Within the created order, that is the dance and the story of life.  Continue reading “… the times they are a changin’ (Bob Dylan)”

The Trouble With Lying

 

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Fake news. Alternative facts. Calling lies truth and truth lies. “Gas-lighting,” that tool that some use to diminish and control others (found especially in abusive marriages) is a particularly pernicious form of lying. How are we ever to sort out what to believe?

Simply put, the trouble with lying is that it’s destructive on so many levels. Continue reading “The Trouble With Lying”