sufferingcelebrating in december

blaring from my speakers right now: “it’s the holiday season, with the whoop de doo, and hickory dock...”  here’s what i want to know: what the heck is hickory dock and why in the world do we associate whoop de doo with this month of dark, short, waiting days and expectations that are, frequently, seriously out of touch with reality.

this is not an easy month for many. lots of thirty day periods of time are hard, but this one is difficult on steroids. everywhere we look we see depictions of boxes wrapped with perfect bows, families gathered around tables heaping with food, or trees anchored by piles of gifts. whether we celebrate hanukkah, christmas, kwanza, or no religious or cultural holidays at all, it’s impossible to escape the pictures of shiny happy people all around us. in addition, we face expectations. whether from our selves or our communities, there are matters that we are expected to attend to. year end giving, the “tipping” of those that serve us, hostess gifts to plan for, concerts to attend, holiday gift exchanges, ugly sweater contests, and the sending and receiving of cards that nearly takes us out emotionally every. single. year. on top of all this, the traffic is worse than ever and everyone’s nerves are shot. at times it barely feels worth it to leave the house.

at the same time, however, even in our most private of residences, we have our insides to attend to. december doesn’t pull us away from our sadnesses, stressors, or circumstances any more than a wedding ring assures that we’ll never be lonely. life is just not that simple. my buddhist friends have a mantra that i absolutely love. “may all beings be free from unnecessary suffering.” if only i (or the calendar) could make this happen.

while it is impossible for me to discern necessary from unnecessary suffering, it is easy for me to know that suffering of all kinds feels especially weighty to the person who feels heavy while the rest of the world appears to be feeling whoop de doo and hickory dockish. as this person it is easy to feel like the “debbie downer” (please accept my apology all of you debbie’s out there...the colloquialism is unfair but so effective. i’ll work on coming up with a new one soon). it’s easy to assume that you are alone and that everyone else feels exactly how they look: happy. i promise you that this is not true.

so, what are we to do? how can we honor the needs and wishes of all people this month? how can we make space for celebration and suffering at our communal tables? perhaps we can do this by examining our own expectations, making intentional choices about how to spend our selves (with our resources of time, energy, and tangible “things”), and to support and respect the same process in others. 

i have come to believe that our expectations of our selves and others have much to do with how content or discontent we feel in life. often these suppositions have come to be over time and live largely outside of our awareness. our family did things this way so we must keep that going. our calendar reflects many commitments so we must keep them. and on and on and on. even still, these expectations dictate our assessments and assumptions of how we (and others) are doing. we expect ourselves to be competent and successful by standards we may not even be consciously aware of or in full agreement with. we expect a month filled with gloom or overflowing joy. we expect public spaces to be miserable or transporting. we expect others to forget/overlook us or to honor us. we expect, we expect, we expect.

these expectations must be brought into our conscious awareness in order for us to live intentional lives. when they are not part of our consciousness, suppositions end up running the show and operate outside of coordination with reality in any way.  c.s. lewis addressed this well when he said, “it comes the very moment you wake up each morning. all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. and the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.” 

to live well through this month of strugglecelebration we must let that other larger, stronger, quieter part of our life come flowing in. we must make space to get still and let our expectations surface. we must be willing and able to say to our selves, “i wish this and yet reality is this.” “i hoped for this and another thing is what i am really living with.” this provides a new opportunity to make conscious choices about whether we live toward expectations or put them aside. it also allows us to welcome our honest selves which live with complexity regarding the nature of both our suffering and our celebrating and to care for our selves with a keen eye to what is healthy over what is expected. suffering and celebration can both exist together. one does not negate the other. in fact, the two together make for a much more beautiful picture. when we accept this our suffering no longer presents a threat to our celebrating. when we follow our self examination with a curiosity about the expectations of others we no longer have to feel threatened by their suffering or celebration either. this is true grace and community where there is space for each person where ever they are emotionally. at this kind of table there is also space for movement and change and flex between states of being.

the phrase “comfort and joy” has become synonymous with the month of december in many parts of the world. my thinking is that the need for comfort implies that some sort of discomfort has been experienced. could it be that the deepest joy can only be experienced when one has known the loneliness of the lack of it in themselves or others? perhaps a gift of suffering is that it might eventually lead us to joy. for many this month it’s the “eventually” part that is so isolating and difficult.

mixed in with my holiday music this year i have included a song (click here to hear it) that was introduced to me on a particularly excruciating week this fall. it takes a well known stanza about joy and turns it on its side and resonated deeply with the pain that i was experiencing when i first heard it. i believe that this is the pain of many. i have the song in my play list because i want to remember that suffering is a part of this month of celebrating for all of us humans. i want this close to my mind and heart so that i can do all that i can to be aware of my own places of suffering, do what i need to seek comfort, and allow in whatever joy i can (if i can) and to offer space for this process to others. 

in closing i offer you my mantra for the next two weeks and invite you to join me in using it:
may we all make space for suffering as it is necessary and for joy as it is possible.
may we offer this same kind of space to those we encounter.
may we never give up searching for peace, love, joy, and goodness (which includes pains of many kinds and the intentional choosing of what to expect of ourselves). (click here to get the “peace, love, joy, and goodness” mantra stuck beautifully in your head)

the work of aaron strumpel has been deeply meaningful to me for quite some time. he recently released a holiday e.p. with a collaborating artist and, to my absolute glee, this artist (latifah phillips of page cxvi) is the musician who recorded the arrangement of “joy” that has been the soundtrack of my fall. i cannot recommend their work more excitedly. please check out their individual “presences” and their holiday e.p., titled “heck ya, the halls” here.

if you’re looking for a new christmas (and i know that some of you do not celebrate christmas so hope you’ll look beyond the references to the deeper meanings i’m suggesting above) recording i also want to recommend eclectic christmas (click here). i attended their show last night and was blown away by their sensitivity to the pain and suffering that exists for many this time of year. way to go nate, aaron, nolan, nathaniel, missy, and frank!


perspective (because we really really need it)

A few weeks back, several people were having a lively conversation in the entry way of my home. This space is flanked by a hallway on one side and the kitchen and family room on the other and is anchored by well loved hard wood floors. While we chatted, my daughter Kaija laid down on the floor to stretch. Any of you who know Kaija know that this is not unusual. Kaija is her own (wonderful) person and doesn’t conform to conventions. She’s a free spirit and can converse just as confidently sitting, standing (on her feet or hands or head), from the ground or the top of a tree, independent of others or (preferably) wrapped around them. This evening, she found the floor and stretched out upon it. It was not a warm evening and she was dressed in fur lined slipper boots and a warm puffy jacket. While engaged fully in the conversation occurring around her, she began to stretch out. At one point, her slippers and her stretch worked together to catapult her backward across the floor. Smiling, she continued the motion. Next we all knew, she was carrying on with us while “scootching” herself, on her back, down the hall, back through the entry way, into the kitchen, around the island, through the family room and back again. We all just kept talking. After a while she acknowledged, and we agreed, that this was a wildly bizarre and totally fun way to engage. 

I’ve thought a lot, since then, about the fact that what we see in this world is largely determined by the posture from which we view it. By moving through our home on her back, Kaija took in entirely new images of her familiar childhood home and gained an appreciation for our scuffed and well-worn floor. These new perspectives might be gifts to me if I simply took the time to pursue them. From the ground up, the view of home would be uncluttered, spacious, and new. The floors would feel sure and stable and “right.” It would be helpful to have access to these views when I feel mired by the clutter and crumb of daily life in an open and widely accessed home. If I felt overwhelmed by a mess I could simply look up to realize the space and calm that exists in my home just above the disarray.

There is plenty of research that shows a relationship between posture and mood (highlighted this week in this New York Times article). The way we hold our physical selves impacts our mood, behaviors, and, even, memory. When we fold our selves in around the small devices in our hands it appears that we are more prone to act in submissive ways and feel poorly about our selves. While these findings are of importance, my bigger concern is that we rarely take time to move out of our familiar postures to see how the world might look from a different perspective.

The issue, as I see it, is primarily twofold. First, humans have a propensity to assume that other people have and value the same things that they themselves have and value. This isn’t necessarily an evil tendency, it’s simply human nature. Since we are the center of our own experiences, most of us do not automatically consider the vast differences that exist between people. Even the most empathic person can find places where their own bias and/or assumptions have led them to have blind spots about how they treat others and interact in the world. Second, the more time we spend in digital spaces, the more we “teach” our devices our preferences, leading them to feed us a never ending supply of self-centric data. We have a certain political leaning, our “clicks” regarding that leaning are tracked and logged, which leads our devices to feed us more of that which we will agree with. The same can be said of our intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and monetary preferences and leanings. Over time we begin to internalize this as evidence that our views and preferences really are those of everyone since it’s all we ever encounter. From this place it’s easy to see our own views, values, and preferences as “right” and “normal.” 

I like walking on my feet so I experience the world from the perspective of a 5 foot 1 inch white female person. Without even thinking about it, it would be easy to unconsciously assume that everyone else experiences the world in this same way. If I did this I might assume that everyone can fit easily into an airplane seat, that strangers will usually be kind and open, that math is impossible and, therefore, “stupid,” and that relationships are the most valuable thing in the universe to everyone. I would also be horribly wrong. 

When Kaija scooted through the house on her back I was reminded of how inaccurate the unconscious assumption that others are just like us is. It is important that I remember this. I certainly caught sight of this when I spent a day in Ferguson, Missouri, and then, later, St. Louis, this fall. I believe to my core that the world not only LOOKS different based upon the socio economic class, ethnic and/or racial background, and many more traits of the eyes doing the looking, but also that it IS different based upon those things. Kaija’s reality was different as she roamed the house on her back than mine was as I walked upright. The truth is, however, that walking isn’t better than scootching, it’s simply different. Might you read that again, more slowly this time? 

Walking isn’t better than scootching, it’s simply different.

I’ve written, in the past, about the marginalized who serve in professions that benefit us all but whom are often treated as “less than” by the general public. The people who clean the bathrooms we use at Target, the individuals who harvest our produce, the folks who collect our garbage, and more. These are just some of the people who I imagine might benefit from our seeing the world from their perspective for a day (or more). The reality is, WE would benefit as well. Our worlds and perspectives would become wider and our thinking more complex. This is never, in my opinion, a bad thing.

It’s easy to know of our own stressors, automatic to know our own values. It’s effortless to identify our challenges and sometimes difficult to see our privilege. If we have plenty of community and family and warmth and cheer this month, it’s easy to assume others do as well. It’s uncomfortable to realize this may not be true. It takes work to be authentic as one’s self and still stretch to understand and empathize with who others truly are. This is, however, work worth doing.

This is a time of year (the hurried holiday season) and the point in an election cycle (in the U.S.) where assumptions, automatic thoughts, attributions, and feelings run high. If we are to live in harmony with our neighbors, in peace with our communities, or even just tolerate those who we perceive to be different, we must keep this tendency in check. Every once in a while it would do us good to stretch into new perspectives from which to view the world. To ask more questions and to listen better. To be willing to lay down our confident postures in deference to being warm and open and non judgemental. To be willing to tolerate the floor scootchers in a world of upright walkers or, if we’re brave enough, to join them on the ground for a glimpse of the world from their perspective...and a bit of the adventure of doing something new.


hard things (like violence) vs soft round objects

It was a work day for me which means that I get to sit with courageous people whose are journeying and growing. This is meaningful work and I do not take it lightly. It is also work that makes for days of depth and lots of boxes of Kleenex. Days like this don’t have much space for checking twitter for news of the goings on in the world nor do they offer many opportunities for chit chat with my office mates. 

Today, however, there were shootings. Again. Too many of them to think about. And I’m only referring to those that happened on the West Coast and made it into the news. So many people died today by bullets. I understand that there is room for guns in this world. I just hate when they are used to cause violent death.

Between sessions, three of us well-seasoned and hard-to-shock psychologists stood in our little shared area and stared into each other's wide eyes, shook our heads, and acknowledged the terror that was playing out in California. “In a place for people who should be protected,” said one of us. And, “I know.” said another. Then, as we all began to walk to our offices one said, “Next time around I want a different planet. Maybe one with only soft round objects.” 

As his words sunk into me, I wanted to cry. Not just for those people impacted by today’s violence in Southern California, but for all people hurt by the sharp pointy edges of hatred and violence.

When I was young my brother and I had a favorite picture book about a little Brute family. Mama and Papa Brute banged pots and pans and the little Brutes pulled each other’s hair and scowled at one another. One day the tiniest Brute found a little wandering lost good feeling in a field and brought it home. The little feeling floated from his hand and hovered over the table and everyone was caught off guard. Mama and Papa began to smile and the entire family found themselves saying “Please” and “Thank you” and, in my imagination, “I love you. I really really love you.” Suddenly their meals tasted better, the corners of their mouths turned upward, and they shared softness where harshness had previously lived.

What if we were able somehow, amidst all of the competition and fear and segregation and power struggles that exist in this world, to find (or create) little wandering lost good feelings to share? What if our world really was filled with soft round objects that padded our way and that for softer landings? Could our own words and actions (fed by good intentioned feelings) serve as soft objects of sorts? Might even our tiniest expressions of love and peace make a difference for those we share them with? I have to believe that they will. I have to. 

It is the silliest thing ever to do in the wake of such sadness and violence today but I am stopping by the store on the way to my meeting tonight to buy cotton balls. They are the roundest, softest objects I can think of to help me speak Love to hate. I will give each of my Wednesday night group members a cotton ball and tell them that it is my little wandering lost good feeling. I will look them in the eye and tell them that I care about them and ask them to pass a piece of that care on in the hopes that we can, in our own places and spaces, initiate waves of peace and comfort among the ocean of complexity that we humans swim in.

May we all seek and find every wandering lost good feeling, hold them close until they warm our hearts, and then send them, with intention to those who need it most and may we all know that we are Loved. Really, really Loved.