Embracing Messy and Complicated

A year ago this week, I began a 3-month Sabbatical.

Even now, 9 months after it’s over I could tear up if you started asking the right questions about the state I was in, what I was feeling at the time, and the healing that happened in me.

Let me name some convergences that have intersected in my life over the past year, starting in Sabbatical and moving forward.

Brene Brown, Rising Strong. Taught me the ideas of “the story I tell myself” and the importance of “rumbling with my story.” So good. So important to my own good mental/spiritual/emotional health.

The Enneagram. I’m fully “in” on this personality tool. I would talk about it all day, every day, if there were people to talk to (hint! hint!). I’m a Type 3: “the Achiever.” That affects how I see everything. And I fall in the heart triad, where I’m always going to be dealing with my feelings about people. That’s just the way it is.

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward. I just re-read this book about spirituality in the second half of life last week. And everything in his book resonates deeply with person I hope to become. (Someday.) (When I grow up.)

We had a small exodus of people who left our church in the months after I returned from Sabbatical. Many of them left without saying goodbye, they just quit coming. Part of me gets it. That’s part of church leadership. People come, and people go. But at another level, it’s caused me to distrust almost all of my relationships. It’s rattled my cage quite a bit – more than I probably am willing to acknowledge most of the time (see my Enneagram Type).

There’s other stuff.. But this isn’t the right place.

The net sum however, of these convergences is that at 42, I’ve really had to lean into the interior journey, to understand myself better. Those of you that are long-time readers, you already know all this. And I’m not broken in the same way I was a year ago, but I’m choosing to stay in the journey – to keep pushing myself to stay curious.

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“There is only one problem on which all my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God. If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him.” – Thomas Merton

Frankly, I still feel like I’m kind of a mess some days as I try to sort out how I think and how I feel, how I understand myself and how I discover more of God. And most of the time, no one else but Jennifer knows. She sees me brooding, hears my hurts, listens to my questions-without-real-answers. She patiently  listens as I rumble with my story and reminds me no matter what I feel that she loves me and is committed to me.

But if Merton (and pretty much every other spiritual writer I’ve read) is right, the only pathway forward to wholeness is through a deeper understanding of the self. Even John Calvin said “It is not possible to know God without knowing yourself. It is not possible to know yourself without knowing God.” And so I’ve ventured in some forums to try to say my raw truths. And most of the time, I feel deep levels of regret and embarrassment, what Brene Brown calls the “vulnerability hangover.”

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And then, this afternoon, reflecting on my 1-year-Sabbatical-iversary (it’s Monday as I write this), I read Glennon Doyle Melton’s post “I need to tell you something” on her Momastery blog about her divorce. It’s beautifully written. It is honest and brave and true and sad all at the same time. And then, there was this one line, where she’s writing about why she feels the need to write a post announcing her divorce that caused my to catch my breath:

“I will be messy and complicated – and I will show up anyway.”

Yes.

I know that it freaks out some people when I choose to be messy and complicated. And it probably drives some people away, because we all love our shiny, manicured false images. But here’s my manifesto – and I say this not because I think I’m particularly good at it all the time, but rather, I say it as aspirational – as the person I want to be:

I, Charles, will be messy and complicated and I will show up anyway.

And I will choose messy/complicated because I believe it’s the ONLY way forward to wholeness. I was talking to a friend about this and I said, “to me, the only people who insist they aren’t messy and complicated are the people who might as well wear a sign on their heads that says ‘UN-self-aware.’” We’re ALL messy/complicated, whether we know it or not. I guess I just want to own my messy/complicated and so I can move through it and learn and grow.

So I will choose to be messy/complicated in my marriage, in my parenting, in my leadership, in my relationships. And I will continue to fight my desire to run away, to hide, to sulk and to bury my feelings in ice-cream and whiskey. This doesn’t mean I always need to do this externally, but sometimes it will. (God help me discern the difference!)

Listen, I promise, messy/complicated won’t be a permanent state. Messy/complicated is a place, but you move through it as you rumble with your story, come into new knowledge of yourself and learn new ways of seeing, new ways of being in the world. And it doesn’t mean I’ll be messy/complicated with all of you either. I’m discovering the right times, right places, right people to be messy/complicated with, where I feel safe, affirmed, and then gently pushed.

And I guess, if it makes people uncomfortable, or it makes me less desirable as a pastor, leader or friend, then so be it, because this is the only road to wholeness. It’s the only road on which I will find my true self and thus find God. This road is more important than all the other things. (Again, as I edit, this is more aspirational, but I’m working towards it.)

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But this post isn’t just about me. Mostly, I’m good. I’m not in any kind of crisis or major turmoil. But rather, I’m trying to embrace messy/complicated as a way of life. You move through it, you circle back around, you move through it again. You learn and grow and keep learning. There is no such things as “arriving.”

I’m writing because I want to say to you, “stay in it, show up, embrace your messy/complicated and ‘do the work.’” I’m inviting you to choose messy/complicated because sooner or later life will hand you messy/complicated and either you will prepared for it, or you’ll have to catch up to it when it comes. I’d rather be prepared.

So, today, schedule that coffee with the friend/pastor/therapist/spiritual guide/guru you need to get messy/complicated with. And be brave, my friends. We’re in it together.

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Taming the Drunken Monkeys

Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents…It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind).” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

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In September, I was hiking with my friend Justin in the Shawnee National Forest in Southern Illinois. Both Justin and I are outgoing, friendly, talkative types, but when you started hiking before sunrise, carrying a 60-pound pack, and it’s now late afternoon and you’ve still got a long way to go – so long that you’ll eventually end up hiking in the dark the last 2 hours to get to your campsite for the night – you just run out of things to talk about.

I don’t know about you, but when I stop talking and my phone is turned off and packed away, when I don’t have music playing in the background and there’s nothing else to do besides keep putting one foot in front of another, I tend to get a little crazy. My mind erupts into a cacophony of noise and chatter, some of which is good, but most of which, left unchecked, is destructive.

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The Buddha called this the “monkey mind.” He envisioned the mind as filled with drunken monkeys screeching, howling, chattering and generally misbehaving. One of the tasks of enlightenment, the Buddha taught, was to learn to tame the monkey mind.

It’s funny to me that whenever I talk to someone about silence/solitude/meditation/prayer, one of the first things that that person almost always says is “my mind gets so active when I try to be silent.” And I reply, “Yep, that’s what everyone says.” One of the very first tasks of the spiritual journey (and I think ALL of the spiritual traditions agree on this) is to learn tools for taming the monkey mind, knowing the monkeys are always ready to throw off their fetters and scream if given the slightest opportunity.

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So, on the forest trail, as silence settled in and the monkey mind erupted, I re-found the breath prayer that I had written a couple years back while circling the beautiful lake at Mundelein Seminary in the Chicago suburbs. A breath prayer is a simple prayer, easily remembered, fitting within the flow of one’s breath. It occupies the mind, staving off the drunken monkeys.

Probably the most famous breath prayer comes from the Orthodox tradition. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ (exhaling), Son of God (inhaling), have mercy on me (exhaling), a sinner (inhaling).” But there are lots of others, or you can even write your own (ask me about it and I’ll point you in the right direction). In fact, the words aren’t so important as the goal of the breath prayer: to move to a state of “praying without ceasing,” which focuses the mind on God.

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Something I learned about myself on Sabbatical is that my mind is healthiest when I’m creating things. Again, Liz Gilbert:

By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, [creating something] can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are. Best of all, at the end of your creative adventure, you have a souvenir – something that you made, something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration. (Big Magic)

When I’m writing, speaking, cooking, planning an event, my mind is fully engaged and so the monkey mind gets quiet. Now, I need to make a distinction here. Learning to tame the monkey mind isn’t the same as running away from it. This idea of creating as a diversion from “the dreadful burden of being who we are” can turn into running away if I’m not careful.  I also need to engage in strategies like a breath prayer as a way to quiet the monkeys. And, frankly, when I tame the monkeys, I find myself more freed up to create. It seems to be a virtuous cycle in me.

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Finally, a nod to Brene Brown here. Some of the drunken monkeys need to be rumbled with and removed from the tree. Sometimes, doing the hard work of going on an inner journey, naming what happened inside you, and rumbling with your story brings healing and wholeness in a way that will eliminate some of the chatter in your head. At least this is true for me. As I’ve rumbled with certain parts of my story over the last couple of months, some of the drunken monkeys have died because I’ve taken away food. I don’t believe this to be true of all my monkeys – there are some who will be with me the rest of my life – but in my experience, it is true of some.

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So, what’s in your monkey mind? Can you start today by at least naming the monkeys? (Hint: “fear,” “shame,” and “unworthiness,” are common species.)

[photo credit: Yep, that’s me. Justin took this one.]

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Wednesday Book Conversation: Rising Strong: Brave and Brokenhearted

Welcome to the weekly book discussion. My hope is that it starts a conversation, as if we were sitting in a coffee shop discussing over lattes. As such, it’s not intended to be a review or critique. So, please read, share, and join the discussion! This week is our seventh week reading Brené Brown’s most recent book Rising Strong.

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This chapter is grab-bag of sorts. The title gives it all away: “The Brave and Brokenhearted: Rumbling with expectations, disappointment, resentment, heartbreak, connection, grief, forgiveness, compassion and empathy. Whew! That’s a lot of stuff to rumble with.  Probably, depending on the season of your life, one or more of these jump out at you while others, not so much. Here are some of the thoughts and ideas that got my attention:

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“I’ve never met a single person who hasn’t had to rumble with expectations, disappointment, and resentment. It’s a standing rumble for most of us.” (loc. 2105)

I’ve said before how important this book has been to me, right? It’s what’s I’ve needed at this particular season of my life, and mostly because of that sentence. Expectations, disappointment and resentment are my daily sparring partners.

If you ask me about my mental health, I’ll tell you that I actively try to curb my expectations of myself, my family, my friends, my church, the Cubs, nearly everything, but the truth is, I don’t really know how to do it. I’m a driven dreamer, so I can easily dream up expectations for every moment, every encounter. But as Anne Lamott said, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” (By the way, in case you’re wondering, my estimate is that more than 1/2 of the arguments in most marriages have to do with unspoken, unmet expectations.)

So this really hit home. Trying to devoid myself of expectations in any given situation is a battle. You can’t even imagine how much this is true. If you have ideas for how to empty expectations, please, let’s have coffee. Seriously.

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When I hear “heartbreak,” I immediately picture a teen girl pining for the “love of her life,” who got away. Cue eye roll.

But I’m so on board with the concept as Brené describes it here. My most significant heartbreaks haven’t been about romantic relationships (one advantage of marrying your high school sweetheart). My most significant heartbreaks have been about unfulfilled dreams, lost friendships, broken lives and death.

Brene says it so well, I don’t know what else to add:

“There are two reasons why most of us are slow to acknowledge that what we’re feeling is heartbreak. The first is that we normally associate heartbreak with romantic love. This limiting idea keeps us from fully owning our stories. The greatest heartbreaks of my life include the loss of what I knew as my family after my parents’ divorce, watching my mom’s pain after my uncle was killed, loving someone struggling with trauma and addiction issues, and losing my grandmother – first to Alzheimer’s and then to death. The second reason we don’t acknowledge heartbreak is its association with one of the most difficult emotions in the human experience: grief. If what I’m experiencing is heartbreak, then grieving is inevitable.

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On to forgiveness. Brené says lots of good things about forgiveness, but this one was particularly thought-provoking: she says that part of forgiveness means putting something to death in us. (For example, to forgive we have to kill our desire for revenge). In her own story, Brene talks about how, in her journey of forgiving her own parents, she had to kill her idealized versions of her parents that she had created in her own mind.

“The death of the idealized versions of our parents, teachers, and mentors – a stage in the hero’s journey – is always scary because it means that we’re now responsible for our own learning and growth. That death is also beautiful because it makes room for new relationships – more honest connections between authentic adults who are doing the best they can.” (loc. 2311)

I think this is a thought-provoking rumble for many of us: what do I need to kill in myself in order to move towards forgiveness?

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So many good things in this chapter; I hope at least some of you are still reading at this point! HA! I’ll end where Brene ends, with a quotation from C.S. Lewis:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

 

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Wednesday Book Conversation: Rising Strong: Sewer Rats

Welcome to the weekly book discussion. My hope is that it starts a conversation, as if we were sitting in a coffee shop discussing over lattes. As such, it’s not intended to be a review or critique. So, please read, share, and join the discussion! This week is our sixth week reading Brené Brown’s most recent book Rising Strong.

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In this chapter – and the next few, if I remember correctly – Brené is going to talk about some specific things we need to rumble with. The title of chapter six is “Sewer Rats and Scoflaws: Rumbling with boundaries, integrity and generosity,” so you have a pretty clear idea of where she’s going. If I wrote about each of those things individually, this post would go over 1,000 words, and really, if you’re going to read that much, your time would be better invested reading the actual book!

Instead, I want to ask you a question that she raises in this chapter that has had me thinking for about a month. Brené tells a long story about a conference she spoke at pro bono and, on top of that, she had to share a room with a woman who turned out to be a horrible roommate. Afterwards, she was working out her frustrations with her therapist, and her therapist asked her this question:

“Do you think it’s possible that your roommate was doing the best she could that weekend?”

After Brené answered in the negative, she turned the question on Diana, the therapist. “Do you believe she was doing her best?”

“You know, I’m not sure. I do, however, think that in general people are doing the best they can.”

Here’s my truth: like Brené, I’m cynical that people are doing their best. Sometimes it feels, in fact, like people are barely trying and sometimes – especially in traffic, or long lines at the grocery store or at the DMV, and especially in the comments section on YouTube – people seem to be trying to do their worst.

So, I’m not going to write much more about this. I hoped this series would spark a conversation, so here it is: in your life, as you interact with people – spouse, children, friends, coworkers, neighbors, whomever – do you believe people are doing their best with the tools they have?”

Go.

(I do have another quotation that I want to share that expresses my answer to this question, after having reflected on it a couple weeks, but I’ll share in the comments after a couple days!)

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Book Conversation: Rising Strong: The Rumble

Welcome to the weekly book discussion. My hope is that it starts a conversation, as if we were sitting in a coffee shop discussing over lattes. As such, it’s not intended to be a review or critique. So, please read, share, and join the discussion! This week is our fourth week reading Brené Brown’s most recent book Rising Strong.

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“The reckoning is how we walk into our story; the rumble is where we own it. The goal of the rumble is to get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives as we dig into topics such as boundaries, shame, blame, resentment, heartbreak, generosity, and forgiveness. Rumbling with these topics and moving from our first responses to a deeper understanding of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors gives birth to key learnings about who we are and how we engage with others. The rumble is where wholeheartedness is cultivated and change begins.” (loc. 1290)

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In the moment, when hurt comes, I’m mostly good at masking my hurt. It wasn’t always this way. By nature I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I had an older-than-me pastor once tell me, earlier in my career, “You’ve got to develop more of a poker face in meetings. Everyone in the room knows exactly what you’re thinking all the time.” And so, I’ve learned.

So, I’m in a conversation, and someone says something that hurts. Maybe they mean it to – I’ve had a couple of those over the last year, where the person intended their words to hurt. But I’ve also had conversations where it was unintended, the person was just saying their version of the truth, or expressing their own reality, which it conflicted with mine.  It hurts nevertheless, and probably even more than the intentional hurts. In the moment, though, I stuff it down. Then later, when the replays roll in my head, the hurt comes.

The rumble Brené is talking about comes after we own our stories and acknowledge our emotions. It’s the deeper work of trying to understand oneself. It means digging up the skeletons that we may have buried a long time ago. Journaling is a helpful exercise here, as is a spiritual director, a therapist, or someone who will ask hard questions and patiently await our response. (Because the deeper we go, the more elusive the answers.)

It starts with writing a shitty first draft (SFD), in which we simply spew out on paper exactly what we think – no refinements, no editing – but which serves as the baseline for exploration. This is kicking curiosity into overdrive, and it can take YEARS to rumble on something and get to a place of “settled.”

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About a week ago, I was going through the back of my closet and discovered an orange Denver Broncos – Peyton Manning jersey. I was pretty excited, but I didn’t know where it had come from. Jennifer reminded me that she and the boys gave it to me for my birthday last year. I can’t for the life of me remember anything about my birthday last year. I don’t remember where I was, who I spent the day with. Nothing. My birthday rolled around right about the time that I was in my darkest hole, (I wrote a bit about it here.) and it’s just not in my memory.

In that time, about 9 months ago, there was a lot of stuff swirling around: a house I was building, church stuff, personal stuff, and in my utter exhaustion and feeling completely overwhelmed, the worst parts of my psyche were steering the ship for a good long time. And in the process I stuffed things. I just pushed on, moved forward, kept walking.

This 3-month sabbatical came at just the right time. I didn’t take this sabbatical because I was burned out. The conversations about it started long before that. But when, on September 2, it actually started, I was broken down. Jennifer describes it as there being a heaviness about me that isn’t usually part of me.

“The Rumble” is how I’m finding my way out. Yes, I probably should have seen a therapist – it would probably have moved faster – but funds are always an issue. But, as I’ve gotten deeply curious about myself and the stories I’m making up, as I’ve given myself space to probe for answers as to why I act and think the way I do, I’m finding peace.

A lot of it comes in the time I spend running. Running gets me away from distractions and gives me the space to rumble. And the kinds of podcasts I listen to while I run –  The Robcast, This Good Word, Magic Lessons – are the kinds of podcasts that help me rumble.

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So, what do you need to rumble with right now? And how do you rumble? Journaling is one good way, talking is another (but be careful rumbling with the person you’re rumbling about … because it’s likely not them, it’s you and you can cause harm). I’ll end with a list of questions Brené suggests for rumbling:

  1. What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation? (What do I know objectively? What assumptions am I making?)
  2. What more do I need to learn and understand about the other people in the story? (What additional information do I need? What questions or clarifications might help?)
  3. What more do I need to learn and understand about myself? (What’s underneath my response? What am I really feeling? What part did I play?)

Okay, now I want to hear how you rumble!  Talk to me, Goose!

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Book Conversation: Rising Strong: The Reckoning

Welcome to the weekly book discussion. My hope is that it starts a conversation, as if we were sitting in a coffee shop discussing over lattes. As such, it’s not intended to be a review or critique. So, please read, share, and join the discussion! This week is our fourth week reading Brené Brown’s most recent book Rising Strong.

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This week, I want to start with a couple quotations from the book in order to set the framework for what I’m thinking, especially for those of you who aren’t reading the book. (My location references are for the Kindle version.) We’re in chapter 4, titled “The Reckoning,” which is full of good things to talk about. I’ll be staying at the “meta” level, however, so here goes:

“You may not have signed up for a hero’s journey, but the second you fell down, got your butt kicked, suffered a disappointment, screwed up, or felt your heart break, it started. It doesn’t matter whether we are ready for an emotional adventure – hurt happens. And it happens to every single one of us. Without exception. The only decision we get to make is what role we’ll play in our own lives: Do we want to write the story or do we want to hand that power over to someone else?” (loc. 843)

“You either walk into your story and own your truth, or you live outside of your story, hustling for your worthiness.” (loc. 853)

“The rising strong reckoning has two deceptively simple parts: (1) engaging with our feelings, and (2) getting curious about the story behind the feelings — what emotions we’re experiencing and how they are connected to our thoughts and behaviors.” (loc. 861)

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I know what it is to hustle for worthiness. For those of you that are Enneagram junkies, I’m a classic type-3, which means that I’m an (over)achiever. I dream big and get it done. The dark side of the 3 is that I tend to define myself by my accomplishments. And, the even darker part is that I tend not to see the accomplishments, but instead focus on the failures. So much of the time, I feel a lot of shame. And when I feel bad about myself, I try to accomplish more stuff, so I can feel good again. This is my hustle.

But really, we all hustle for love (or what Brené calls worthiness). You have your own ways of behaving to get the ego strokes you need, but which are ultimately empty because you know you hustled for them. This chapter is all about shutting down the hustle. Once we’ve identified our story (last week’s post), we need to dig a little deeper into it. We need to get curious, and instead of hustling, we need to first own our stories, and then own our emotions.

“In this stage of the rising strong process – the reckoning – we need to get curious. We need to be brave enough to want to know more.” (loc. 958)

I think there’s this narrative in our culture (I probably hear it more from guys, but it’s certainly not gender-specific) that to get curious about one’s feelings, motivations, failures, insecurities, etc., is somehow weak. “No regrets, keep looking forward, move on, there’s no use wallowing in our past failures,” says this particular train of thought. And I agree to a point. Wallowing in failure and disappointment isn’t useful. But running away from it, refusing to get curious about it isn’t healthy either. We can’t learn from what we refuse to face.

What Brené is asking of us, in this chapter, is to own our emotions and then ask “why do I feel this way?” I think I’m a fairly emotional guy, but in my experience the reasons for my emotions aren’t always easily apparent. I know I feel hurt, disappointed, angry, etc. and sometimes I can even point to the precipitating event. But it takes an effort to get curious and sit with my emotions long enough to get to the fine point of why I feel the way I do.

It often takes a long time for me to get to the truth of my emotions. And, because humans (and ogres) are like onions, there are layers and it takes time to get to the core. And so, part of the Sabbatical journey, which I’m still on for the next month, has been sitting with some difficult emotions: loss, disappointment, shame, etc., and getting curious and getting down to the core.

Of course, there are alternatives to this work. Our culture specializes in helping us numb our emotional pain (one avoidance technique among several that Brené explores). We’re proficient at keeping things light and breezy, keeping ourselves slightly inebriated (just enough to not deal with our stuff), overfed and shopping our way out of our pain.

“And just so we don’t miss it in this long list of all the ways we can numb ourselves, there’s always staying busy; living so hard and fast that the truths of our lives can’t catch up with us. We fill every ounce of white space with something so there’s no room or time for emotion to make itself known.” (loc. 1105)  – (OUCH)

I know this sounds heavy on a Wednesday morning. But here’s what I also know: when I get curious and give myself some white space to get curious with my emotions, and I refuse to stuff or numb them, and I finally get to the core, there’s freedom, there’s a lightness that comes to the soul, to the psyche because now I know what I’m dealing with, and now I can finally start moving forward.

I’ve heard people say – when they’ve been struggling with an unknown illness, one the doctors can’t seem to figure out – “I just want to know, so we can start dealing with it.” And what’s true of physical ailments is also true of our insides; knowing is the first step toward healing.

And so, today, or at least some time in the next couple of days,I challenge you to set aside some quiet space, turn off your phone, turn off the music/television, refuse yourself the alcohol or food that serves as your method of choice and get curious about your emotions. And then, if you feel courageous, I challenge you to share what you learn with someone you trust. You just might start feeling better. At least I know that’s the beginning of wholeness for me.

Thanks for reading along! I’ll be out of town next week, but I’ve already written two posts for next week, they will publish on Monday and Wednesda

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Wednesday Book Conversation: Rising Strong: Owning our Stories

Welcome to the weekly book discussion. My hope is that it starts a conversation, as if we were sitting in a coffee shop discussing over lattes. As such, it’s not intended to be a review or critique. So, please read, share, and join the discussion! This week is our third week reading Brené Brown’s most recent book Rising Strong.

In reality, chapter 3 of Rising Strong is a short chapter outlining the rest of the book. It introduces ideas like the reckoning, the rumble and the revolution, ideas that we will explore together in time. So, this week I’m going to riff a bit on this idea of owning our stories because it really is at the heart of this book.

In chapter 2 she introduced an idea I didn’t talk about because for me, it’s been the most important idea that I’ve gleaned from this book thus far (at the time of writing, I’m through the 8th chapter) and I wanted to give it more breathing room.

So here’s a peek inside my head (and probably yours too).

Stuff happens. People say stuff, people do stuff, things come up, plans change, we succeed, we fail, and when stuff happens, our brains interpret events. We assign meaning to what people say and how they act. So, in our brains we have trains of thought that might go something like this:

  • My coworker is a real bitch today because she hates working for me.
  • My kid is being a brat this evening because he enjoys making his little sister cry.
  • The reason she hasn’t called or texted recently is because she isn’t interested in my friendship anymore.
  • The reason he didn’t hug me when he walked in the door from work is because he doesn’t love me like he used to.

Here’s the tricky part. Sometimes, we’re right. Sometimes the reason we assign to stuff that happens is correct, or at least in the ballpark, particularly if we know the person really well. But, all too often, we’re only guessing. And, guess what? We’re often wrong. Our coworker actually had a fight with her husband this morning, our kid is struggling with a friendship at school, the friend hasn’t texted us because they think we gave up on the friendship and the reason he didn’t hug you when he walked in from work was because it had been a really hard day and he was preoccupied.

The hard part is figuring out what is true or false about the story we are telling ourselves – which we will explore more in chapter five when we talk about “the Rumble.”

But for now, it’s enough to simply acknowledge that we all tell ourselves stories about ourselves, about the world and about each other.

    • I have stories I tell myself about myself. Some of them are true, some are false, some are actually hopes and dreams, some are exaggerations, some are bolstered by bravado and some are shaped by my insecurities.
    • I also have stories I tell myself about you. Again, some are true, some are false, some are simple misunderstandings, and some are buried deep under years of interactions.
    • You have stories you tell yourself about me. Some of you only know me through my writing, some of you know me through my speaking, some of you know me in social circles and a few of you know me in more intimate ways. And through our interactions you’ve developed a narrative about me, as I have about you.

Owning our stories is about acknowledging that we all create a story to make sense of the stuff that happens and then we live according to that story. Our actions and interactions are driven by what we’ve made up in our head.

We’re going to talk more about curiosity next week, but part of this owning of our stories is being curious about them. It’s about asking ourselves, “what is the story I’m telling myself about…”

As silly as it may sound, I’ve begun to use this language in exactly this way. Since I read this chapter a couple weeks ago, I’ve tried to say, in a couple different conversations, “the story I’m telling myself about this event/conversation is…” The beauty of this kind of language is that I own that I might be wrong. I acknowledge up front that I’ve interpreted events – because we all interpret events – but I’m remaining open to the possibility that my interpretation of events is skewed.

(And, by the way, they are nearly always skewed in some way. All of us, whether the stories we tell ourselves are positive or negative, are generally overconfident in our ability to know what’s really going on at any given time. In fact, part of the training of a counselor/therapist is learning to be wary and curious about how working with someone brings up your own “stuff” – your own stories and how your “stuff” clouds your ability to hear accurately. In technical terms its called countertransference. If I remember correctly, Brené talks about this in Daring Greatly where she talks about how parenting tends to bring up our own unresolved, adolescent “stuff” and how we’ve got to deal with it if we want to parent in a wholehearted way.)

I know this post is going long. (I told you, this was impactful to me!) So, here’s what I’m suggesting. This week, when stuff happens, when you’re upset by your spouse, child, coworker, someone you care about, instead of assigning a reason for why they treated you the way they treated you, try saying to them, “the story I’m making up about this is…”

  • “The story I’m making up about how you’ve shunned me all evening is that you are pissed at me for something I did or didn’t do.”
  • “The story I’m making up about why you forgot to tell me Happy Birthday is that you don’t care about me.”

And if you really want to go the extra mile, here’s a second, more intimate exercise. In a more intimate relationship, one where you really care about the person, and the relationship is safe, maybe you might try asking them, “what is the story you’re making up about me, about us, right now?”

I surely don’t need to know the intimate details, but I’d love to hear if you’ve tried this and how it’s worked out for you.

Thanks for reading along!

 

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Wednesday Book Conversation: Rising Strong: Civilization Stops at the Waterline

Welcome to the weekly book discussion. My hope is that it starts a conversation, as if we were sitting in a coffee shop discussing over lattes. I don’t aim to point out the parts I agree or disagree with, but rather to reflect on whatever the book caused me to start thinking about. So, please read, share, and join the discussion! This week is our second week reading Brené Brown’s new book Rising Strong.

There was a moment last winter when I hit my rock bottom. It was a hard season in my life for a whole bunch of reasons, and I’ve recounted the details to some of my closest friends about the day that I hit rock bottom. I’ll spare you all the details but this one: at 10:00 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, I crawled back into my bed and pulled the covers over my head and cried.

It was “day two” for me. I was in that dark space between when you set off on a journey and when you see the finish line. Brené describes it like this:

“Day two – or whatever that middle space is for your own process, is when you’re ‘in the dark’ – the door has closed behind you. You’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light.”

Every hero’s story, every adventure has a day two. In a marathon, it’s after the half-marathoners have split off toward the finish, the course is now much more empty, and you still have double-digit miles to go. It’s when your newborn isn’t a newborn anymore and getting out of diapers seems to be an impossible dream. It’s when you’ve started your own business and the newness of doing something you love has worn off but long-term profitability isn’t assured. It’s seven years into a marriage when the romance of the wedding day is long gone, and you’re not even sure if he loves you anymore.

But, Brené notes, after her interaction with the Pixar team, where she learned about the essential elements of a good story and recalling her reading of Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces,* that every story has a middle. And it’s in the middle that the hero learns the lessons that she needs to learn about herself. Yes, the middle of the story is difficult. Yes, you feel like you’re drowning. Yes, victory isn’t certain, but it’s in this space when you ask hard questions and deal with your stuff. What you learn in this space will give you the tools you need to get through.

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” ― Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

I know we just want the middle to be over with. We just want to get to the other side and win. The flaw in our thinking is that we won’t become what we need to become if we set out on an adventure and then immediately win. Star Wars would be a really short movie. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru die, Luke shoots down the Death Star, roll credits. Rocky agrees to fight Apollo, next day he wins, movie over. Bo-ring.

It’s so clear when we see it in others, isn’t it? We see how the people we love grow and become something more as they work through their own “day two.” We root for them and encourage them and tell them, “I see such growth in you.” It’s just really hard to accept it when it’s our own “day two.”

So, here’s to our “day twos.” 

Here’s to times and spaces when we don’t have anything figured out, when everything is dark, when we feel like we’re fighting for our lives, when we’re too far in to quit but the end is nowhere in sight. Here’s to the things we need to learn about ourselves and the world. And here is to becoming what was already in us, but which will only come to the surface in the dark “day two.”

Here’s two exercises, one for those of you currently in your own “day two,” and one for those of you who are rooting for and with someone in their “day two.”

If you are currently in a “day two” season of life: take some time to write down the things you’re learning right now. How have you grown? What do you think now that you didn’t think when you set out on the journey? How do you act now? What new muscles do you feel that you didn’t feel before? What are you becoming?

If you are currently rooting on someone in a “day two” season of their life: same thing as above, but tell them. Affirm what they are becoming. Write them a note, an email, look them in the eye and say, “I know this is hard and it’s dark for you, but this is the good I see.” Warning: this isn’t cheerleading, and you shouldn’t minimize the darkness they feel. You may have a vantage point where you see the ending, but they don’t and that’s okay. Just encourage.

Again, thanks for reading along! I’m going off the grid for a couple days right after this posts, but start the conversation without me! I’ll catch up when I get back.

———–
* I just started reading this book because it keeps coming up in conversations, the books I read, and the podcasts I listen to, but it’s tough reading in the prologue. Anyone have any encouragement?

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Wednesday Book Conversation: Rising Strong: The Physics of Vulnerability

Welcome to the weekly book discussion. I’m going to be using this space on Wednesdays to reflect on book that I’ve read recently. My hope is that it starts a conversation, as if we were sitting in a coffee shop discussing over lattes. I don’t aim to point out the parts I agree or disagree with, but rather to reflect on whatever the book caused me to start thinking about. So, please read, share, and join the discussion! This week is our first week reading Brené Brown’s new book Rising Strong.

There was a time, early in my career, when I was asked a direct question about the church I worked for and my place in it. And because I had grown up in a home where my parents practiced vulnerability and because I generally believed in the goodness of people and because I (incorrectly) assessed that I was safe, I told the truth.

And I lost my job. And it hurt. Lesson learned.

Thanks largely to Brené’s work (can we just call her Brené, as if we’re friends?), vulnerability has become a buzzword. It seems like everyone is talking about vulnerability these days. But, until you’ve actually put yourself out there and fallen flat on your face, it’s just that – a buzzword.

A couple weeks ago, I was sitting in my friends’ living room while we were talking about our Enneagram Types, and the question at hand was: “Name what is difficult to know about yourself.” I was the last to share, and so while others were sharing, I was fighting an internal battle about how much to say. Part of me wanted to say just enough to appear vulnerable without actually being vulnerable. I’ll call this “socially acceptable vulnerability.” For me, this is the stuff I’d share with just about anyone, if they asked and gave any indication that they would listen, the stuff I would share in a talk or a blog post.

But this group of people is different. I have lots of friends, but this is my safest place. If I don’t tell these people, then it’s likely going to stay locked inside. And so, I said my truth. And there were tears. And then, I didn’t want to talk anymore (which is really saying something, because I talk a lot.) And even though I struggled a little bit with vulnerability hangover the next day, I know it was good for me to speak the truest thing about myself to the people who are safest to me. I fully believe Brené that this is the pathway to wholeheartedness.

But sometimes, you put yourself out there – like I did in my first church – and you get your ass handed to you. That’s what Rising Strong is about. It’s about getting back up after you’ve put yourself out there – you said the hard thing, you created something, you took a risk – and you fell flat on your face and now you’re embarrassed or hurt or just broken, and you want to run and hide and never be vulnerable again.

This first chapter of Rising Strong is a list of the “ten rules of engagement for rising strong,” i.e., “the basic tenets about being brave, risking vulnerability, and overcoming adversity that are useful to understand before we get started.” If you’ve read The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly, some of these ideas will feel familiar. Each could probably warrant a post, but I’ll just point to the one that captured my attention (feel free to tell us yours in the comments!). Mine was number six:

Rising Strong is the same process whether you’re navigating personal or professional struggles.

Earlier in the post I told a story about vulnerability in my work and then I told a story about vulnerability in my personal life. I know there are differences between the two – and for some of us the degree of difference will vary – but I believe we are whole persons. We practice appropriate vulnerability in our lives or we don’t. We either pay attention to what’s happening inside of us or we don’t. We can’t claim wholeheartedness and then completely bifurcate ourselves between a “self at work” and a “self at home,” or a “self with one group of people,” and “self with a different group.”

As I’ve thought about vulnerability over the last couple years – and, concurrently, thought of the spiritual journey of moving from false self to true self – the characteristic that is becoming most significant to me is curiosity. There will be more to say about curiosity in chapter 4, but for now, let me quote Brené at length. She’s talking about the link between personal and professional struggles and she identifies strong curiosity as a common thread between the two worlds. She writes:

The most transformative and resilient leaders that I’ve worked with over the course of my career have three things in common: First, they recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean into discomfort and vulnerability.

So, maybe a good place to wrap up this post would be to ask ourselves this question: “What are the emotions, thoughts and behaviors I need to get curious about?” Here are couple that might ignite some curiosity for you:

Every time this person walks into the room I get agitated and annoyed. What’s going on in me that makes me feel that way?

I find myself disagreeing with this person all the time. Is it really an ideas thing, or is it something else in me?

I find myself withdrawing from a particular relationship. What’s going on there?

I’m often restless/anxious/worried/angry/disappointed/sad (pick one)… Where is this feeling coming from?

And maybe, if we really want to walk down the vulnerability road, as we get curious, it will lead to healing insights and maybe even conversations – in both our professional and personal lives. But it starts with curiousity.

Okay, this post has been long, the latte has gone cold by now. Please share or comment – or you can always email me directly.  Next Wednesday, we’ll work through chapter two.

Thanks for journeying through this book with me!

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Intersections and Rising Strong: An Invitation

I said in a previous post that I’m trying to pay attention to intersections. So here’s an intersection, an idea, and an invitation.

Intersecting Line #1: For probably the first time in about 20 years, I’m not involved in a regular discussion of a book with anyone. There are a several reasons for this, but they don’t really matter. All that matters is that I miss it. I miss digging into a book with people and talking about our insights and questions. I find myself reading a lot these days and wanting to talk about so many things, but I don’t really have a place. Yes, part of that is by design with me being on a Sabbatical from church, but reading and discussing books is a life-giving excercise to me, and I feel a hole right now.

Intersecting Line #2: I’m reading Brene Brown’s new book Rising Strong, and it’s stirring up some stuff I want to talk about, and I don’t really have anyone to talk to about it right now (see above). Eventually, I’ll talk Jennifer into reading it, but it’s a lot to ask of her to keep up with my reading schedule. I want to talk about Brene Brown. (And after Rising Strong, I want to talk about Liz Gilbert’s new book Deep Magic, and then my friend Steve’s book is going to need to be interacted with, and I’m sure other stuff will come up in the meantime.)

Intersecting Line #3: I’ve restarted my blog. And I’m giving it more attention than I have in about 8 years. And I’m trying to become a better writer.  And you only get better at writing by writing, so it gives me something to write about. (Don’t worry, I have lots of other things too. The list is currently very long, but it’s not to have a regular commitment.)

The Idea: I’ll commit to one book (for now), to write a post each week on chapters from Rising Strong. I won’t do a book report, nor will I review the book. Rather, I will just react to it. I’ll tell you what was most impactful to me, and try to pull out the things that I think would benefit us all. You don’t have to read along. I’ll write the posts in such a way, that even if you don’t care to read, I hope the posts will be beneficial.

The Invitation: If I take the time to write, will you take the time to commit to responding, at least every once-in-awhile, at least a couple sentences about your journey through her book? Can we have this not be a one-way communication, but something closer to a conversation?

The Handshake: I’m putting this idea out there (because that’s what Brene says to do – just keep putting yourself out there). If no one’s interested, I’ll just keep a steady stream of “diarrhea of the mouth” headed Jennifer’s way. So here’s me putting my toe in the water. If you think this is a good idea, like the post, share the post, or comment in the comments. And just for fun, tell us in the comments your favorite book from Brene OR your favorite quotation from her. If there seems to be enough interest, I’ll have a post next week from chapter one of Rising Strong.

(Do it for my wife!)

 

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