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Our desire for perfection can be damning. It leads us to constant unhappiness, feeling as if something is not quite right. We always expect to have life the way we want it and when life does not cooperate, we enter depression. The reality of our lives is that we are basically always in this middling position – always working toward our ideals and seldom attaining them. When we do attain them, the satisfaction is fleeting. We rest on the top of the mountain for a moment and then set off toward another higher mountaintop.
My father told me when I was young and starting to play sports, “There will always be someone better than you.” I have found that to be true. Does that mean you should not try? No. It is okay to do something and not be the best. At the same time, it is good to have an ideal toward which you are working. If we did not have our ideals, we would have no drive. We must just get comfortable with the fact that we are always traveling toward our ideals and never actually arriving (or arriving only for a short time).
If your ideal is to have good relationships, you will probably have a hard time when one of your relationships goes sour. This can be problematic because our relationships are always in flux. You might experience a similar thing when working. You expect to get the job “done,” but there is always more work to do – sometimes the same thing you did last week! Life is about repeatedly coming back to the canvas to work the paint, rather than sitting down and completing a finished, presentable painting. Even if you finish a work, you still have room to improve. It never stops, but your work will be more satisfying if you get comfortable with being in the middle somewhere.
Our connections with one another are all that matter. When everything is stripped away, what will be left is your essence and my essence (who we are) and the connection our essences can have – on the soul level. There are so many things in this life which present barriers to our souls connecting: our defenses that keep us from having intimacy, our covetousness, our hatred, our possessions, even the physical barriers of skin and geographical location. And yet, there are moments in this life when we connect with each other on this deep level. It is very satisfying and can even give us the feeling of ecstasy on a momentary basis. Those are the moments I (and likely you) cherish. They are windows into the next life.
We get glimpses into that type of connection now. Some day we will see fully and our connections with each other will be more robust and fulfilling. I have no idea what that looks like, but I have an inkling of it because it was planted deep in my soul. I am an eternal being. I am interested in how our connections with each other and God will some day be realized. For now, we live in this incomplete dispensation. When everything is stripped away, it will all be revealed. Let us live into that and learn about what that next new thing will be like. It is that for which we live.
Supporting someone in grief is probably more about what you don’t say than what you do say. This can be a little off-putting and frustrating because we always want to be so helpful. We ask what we can do because there is usually not much we can do and we know that. We also ask what we can do because one of our greatest impulses when someone is in pain is to comfort them. Comforting someone when they are grieving, though, is often preventing them from going through a natural process through which they need to go. That is why they naturally resist you when you try to comfort them. They need to go through their process. It is counterintuitive not to comfort someone when they are in grief, but that is the very thing they need and may want you to do. They do need you to be there alongside them, but don’t try to do the work for them or interrupt them as they do it. That is the hardest thing – to just be with someone when they are in such pain, but if you can force yourself to do it, you will help.
To truly be in relationship is a difficult thing. Our greatest desire is to be connected and intimate with someone and so, consequently, our greatest fear is that will not happen. This fear plays out in the many ways we throw up defenses that prevent intimacy from occurring. Why do we do that? Because we are afraid of rejection, abandonment, not getting the relationship we desire. Even when we have what seems like opportunity for intimacy, we protect ourselves from it to avoid risk. The risk is requisite to trust. Even in what we would call close relationships with trusted people, we activate defenses which prevent us from connecting.
How does this look in our lives? Those of us who are avoidant (introverts?) look for any reason to steer clear of relationship and then blame others for not offering us intimacy just the way we want it. Others do not respond quickly enough or the exact way we demand. Others of us constantly seek out connection, but never really wait and trust, needing to constantly check in or determine others’ responses for them, rather than letting them respond in their own way. We move toward others for relationship, but never really open up and trust. These orientations, whether moving away or toward others, are two sides of the same coin. Neither are necessarily trusting.
What happens in a genuine give-and-take relationship is that there is the transmission of something between the two – love, concern, or even just instrumental care. What is needed for this transmission to take place is actually quite simple. The receiver must be open and seek (which requires vulnerability), and he or she must stop and wait for the other person to respond. We do not often do this. We either close ourselves off from connection, or we are constantly seeking and never stepping back and waiting for others to care for us. We never get what we want because we don’t open ourselves, and then wait and trust.
You may believe you are a trusting person, but you have ways you are protecting yourself and preventing connection. This happens in our relationships with each other and with God. The work is to practice letting down these defenses in some of the opportunities before us. Our defenses play out subtly in even our closest relationships. Trust requires risk. It requires gaining insight into how you are self-protecting and for you to let down these defenses on a regular basis.
It is actually quite a difficult thing to be kind. If you are going to be truly kind, you have to be very present in the moment and work to put yourself into the world of those around you, understanding them in order to avoid judgment. If you don’t pay attention, your default will be to act and react based on the prototype or standard to which you hold yourself and everyone else and you can easily become a tyrant. Our demands for perfection create anger which then spills out onto others when we are not paying attention to how we treat them. That’s why it’s easiest to be unkind to ourselves and those closest to us: our families or those with whom we spend the most time.
Being kind to others springs from putting effort into receiving gentle kindness for your self at the deepest level – at that place where you believe yourself most unlovable. If you are able to do that for yourself, you can know the deepest parts of ANYONE else and be understanding, empathetic and kind to them, too. We don’t love others because we don’t love ourselves.
Do not neglect to hope. Hope is the thing that can draw you into your new life. I am not saying everything will be perfect, but so often we just settle for what we have, not being able to see past the dark, looming forest before us. Hope comes in handy especially when you feel like you are in a rut – in a relationship or in your job, for example. If you go to work everyday or just try to get by in your family everyday, putting up with the same old tired patterns, you will get depressed. On the other hand, you can craft new responses to the same old situations, thereby creating a new cycle that will hopefully lead you to a different and better place. Hope is the vehicle. If you have a dearth of hope, you will lack creativity as well, which is needed to design these new responses. Each of us carries this hope. The small flicker sometimes just needs to be fanned into a vibrant flame.
It is important to periodically step back and evaluate where you are going – to sharpen your focus, refine your course, gain some perspective. Without this, you are just a rudderless ship, floating and swaying every which way the wind takes you. One of the greatest gifts we have as human beings is the ability to get outside ourselves – outside of life – and look in, measuring and assessing, ever evaluating in order to choose the best course. Without doing this, you may end up somewhere you did not choose to be. It is not because you chose to be there; it is because you neglected to pay attention. The reasons we do not pay attention are myriad, but they mostly have to do with us not wanting to face the music – not wanting to take a sober look at ourselves, what has happened to us and what we have had a hand in creating. So much unnecessary damage can be avoided by taking this step back on a regular basis.
In the novel The Lonesome Dove (as related in The Spirituality of Imperfection), one character admonishes the other: “If you come face to face with your own mistakes once or twice in your life it’s bound to be extra painful. I face mine every day – that way they ain’t usually much worse than a dry shave.” It will be irritating, even painful sometimes, to look at the direction our lives are taking, but it is not going to get less painful the longer we wait. The opposite will be true. If we are wise, we will endure the small pain as opposed to the big pain that will eventually find us trying to pretend it is not there.
The voices of shame and fear are persistent and numerous. They claw and squawk at you until you gently put them to rest. The only way to do that is by listening to the Strong, Still Voice – the voice that calms and loves you. You long to listen to this voice, but you do not know it because the voices of your anxiety draw such urgent attention to themselves. They are “what you need to do” and “what you need to be” for others. You fear that if you stop listening to them, you will not be worth anything or you will not live up to what you are supposed to do and be, but the opposite is true. If you stop listening to them, you will suddenly be able to hear who you are and what you truly need to do and be.
As relational beings, we are in relationship to everyone and everything around us. That means we get “organized” in a certain way – in our culture, in our family (of course), in our beliefs and in the roles we play with those around us. We don’t even notice how we are organized really until something changes or is taken away. When the thing that organized you is taken out from under you, you may have a feeling of disorientation or even grief. You will soon reorganize yourself, but for the time being, there is usually some protest – even if the thing that was taken from you was the thing that was killing you.
Think about it – what can you not live without? Your family, your coffee, your job, your dreams for the future, your home? Think about giving any of those things up. You may feel like you are in free fall. Yes, even with your coffee. There is, many times, a desperate search to find something else to organize you. The whole of life and development is about having those things taken from us (many times against our will?) and then reorganizing ourselves in a different way. Sometimes we do not grieve the loss very well and we are organized around the loss rather than reorganizing around something that will continue to give us life. It is not that those first things were bad. It is just that they do not always last forever and we usually learn that they are not the things that truly give us life like we thought they would.