It’s, Like, a Turn of Phrase

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Last weekend at a swim meet, two couples sitting behind us in the stands talked without interruption for long stretches of time, broken only when they got up out of their seats to go out.  They’d sit back down and the torrent would resume.  It’s not what they were talking about, but that they seemed incapable of keeping their mouths shut.  There was no silence one of them would not fill, and then the others would lend their voices, most often at the same time.  I know well enough that some people are “verbal thinkers,” more gregarious than me, and everyone certainly isn’t a poet, but these parents seemed incapable of not expressing anything and everything that occurred to them.  The meaning of the words themselves was overcome by the sheer number of them.  It was hard not to turn and plead Just… shut… UP!

The other common verbal phenomenon which accomplishes the same thing—eclipsing a sentence’s meaning—is substituting “um” and “like” and “y’know” liberally in place of actual vocabulary.  It’s not just my kids and their peers who do this, it’s adults and colleagues and news reporters.  I work with international students who know English as a second language, and they’re among the worst offenders I’ve encountered, learning the language from, um, y’know, teachers who talk like that.

In both cases, to use the old analogy, the hearer (inadvertent or not) loses the sentence’s forest of meaning in the speaker’s trees of too many words.  There is more noise and less impact in the hearer’s ear.  Aside from annoying, that’s too bad, too, because our language, and through it, the quality of the connection we make with others, is amplified by verbal economy: placing the right word in the right place (and not ten times in a row), using pause or silence to reinforce a point, arranging words to produce clarity the first time through.  A “turn of phrase” is just that—using words in a way that catches the ear and makes the point in way that’s appealing, clever, efficient, maybe even beautiful.

In In Cold Blood, Truman Capote described the locals’ reaction to the quadruple murder in their small town as “amazement, shading into dismay; a shallow horror sensation that cold springs of personal fear swiftly deepened.”  A lovely turn of phrase; one knows exactly how they were feeling.  This week, a caller into the leading afternoon sports talk show in Boston said that the train from Foxboro after a New England Patriot’s game is “a combination of a drunk tank and the New Delhi local.”  Get the picture?  I laughed out loud.

It’s not about keeping thoughts and feelings to oneself, or playing into the stereotype of the taciturn, often repressed New Englander—or whatever your local version is—it’s about allowing the language at hand to do what it does best: express complexity of concept and feeling with chosen words rather than all those that tumble and trip out, signifying nothing.

Blood and Pretzels

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So wanting to keep distance from the risks involved with creative, life-giving genius—declarative statements of truth and need, ventures with undefined outcomes, exposure of true self—the wily lizard will lead us to make accommodation to dysfunction in ourselves and in others. Small accommodations at first: of misbehavior, of unexamined habit, of old patterns of thought and response; accommodations so small in fact as to be unnoticed, but cumulatively, over time, nothing less than lethal.

I heard Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama’s former pastor from Chicago, tell this story some years ago. The Inuit hunt wolves by taking a knife and dipping the blade repeatedly in wolf’s blood, allowing the coating to freeze until multiple layers are built up. Then the knife is stuck handle-first in the snow, with the blood-covered blade exposed. Drawn by the scent of blood, a wolf will begin to lick the blade, but the blade is so cold that the wolf is unaware that with every lick the blade is slicing its own tongue, drawing more blood. Soon the blood the wolf is devouring is its own, and, frenzied, the wolf licks more and more until it bleeds to death on the snow, painlessly unaware, driven by hunger and instinct.

Small accommodations to that which we don’t like, in hopes of maintaining equilibrium in work, in a relationship, in self-image— can add up without one even noticing. Sometimes will or circumstance, or an intervener, or the inner drive of our own genius forces us to notice what’s happened, and we’re shocked to see how much life blood we’ve lost, how much energy we’ve been expending. The more palatable version of the metaphor is the pretzel—one makes slight adjustments here and there, tolerates one more unpleasant thing, and before you know it, you’re twisted like a pretzel.

Blood or pretzel, though, the result is the same. Careful out there.

Three Mistakes

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Going through a profound personal change not of my choosing, in which my thoughts flutter as I search fruitlessly to understand “fully,” Seth Godin’s daily blog appeared, and to him goes all the credit for this reflection.  His words are directed to marketers, those in the business world, but they apply more universally, as well as precisely to my own current internal impasse.

“Your first mistake might be assuming that people are rational.

Your second mistake could be assuming that people are eager for change.

And the marketer’s third mistake is assuming that once someone knows things the way you know them, they will choose what you chose.”

I do assume people are rational, and even that I am.  Not so, not even close.  I do assume others are eager for change—even change for the better—but I know from first-hand experience of my own anxiety, procrastination, and frustration, and seeing it in those nearest and dearest to me, that isn’t so.  And certainly what is obvious to me should be obvious to you, right?  My solution, my compromise, my vision is so spot-on that why in God’s name wouldn’t you choose as I have?  Not so.  Not so at all.

In making these three mistakes (and in this particular moment, making them simultaneously), I’m deepening the chasm between what was and what is to be, making it harder to climb out into the new season.

Godin’s so-simple words pose a most challenging agenda.

 

 

Right Now!

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In C.S. Lewis’ little gem, The Screwtape Letters, the title character is a devil in the service of the capital-“D” Devil. Screwtape has spent his career craftily tempting human beings from allegiance to God to allegiance with Satan. As the title suggests, the book is a collection of letters written by Screwtape to instruct a rookie devil on the best techniques for converting their “patients” to the dark side, and the story ends up being a wonderful and insightful commentary on human weakness and the grace of God—which has often foiled Screwtape’s best efforts.

In one of the letters, Screwtape is explaining to his protégé how important it is to keep his patient emotionally off-balance, and how much easier that is because humans experience the passage of time. “Nearly all [human] vices are rooted in the Future,” writes Screwtape. “Gratitude looks to the past and Love to the present; [but] fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.” Quite on the mark, yes?

Think for a moment about whatever burdens you carry with you as you read this: a worry, a fear, a nagging concern. Is it not about something that has yet to come? Something that is not yet resolved, something you don’t know how will turn out? The things about which we are most afraid, the circumstances for which the lizard is most likely to want to control, and make impulsive or unwise decisions to attain, are all in the future: the big presentation, the visit to the doctor, the confrontation with the person with whom you’re battling, the stock market, growing old, deadlines and appointments, death. Screwtape is right: if you want to keep a human being off-balance, make him or her concentrate on the future, on what isn’t yet, and anxiety, greed, and a desire for control or power will follow. It’s what the lizard feeds on, what makes it stronger.

Something I have long offered my children, family, friends and former parishioners is advice I know to be true, but struggle mightily to put into action myself, and that is that practically everything is worse in anticipation than it is in reality. The image of what might happen is always more upsetting than actually being in the moment, no matter how difficult it ends up. But as much as we know this and have experiences again and again that prove it, anticipation and anxiety, and all that flows from feeling that way, are always there beforehand.

The peril for our souls, our genius, in all this is quite simple. The divine, and the spark of it expressed through our creative genius, is most near to us, most accessible to us, in the present, in this moment. The future we dream of doesn’t really exist; the future becomes real moment to moment, not as we make it up in our heads. The peril is this: putting too much of our mental energy into imagining or worrying about the future distracts us from the real power of divine genius here with and within us this very moment.

A person trying to control tomorrow, either by excessive worry or by behavior that attempts to control what can’t be controlled, is like someone you see driving along with their cell phone to their ear: they’re present in the car and driving, but you can see by the look on their face that their attention is definitely somewhere else. Tomorrow is a constant temptation that can make us miss divine presence and squash creative genius in the here and now.

Screwtape tells his protégé that God is most interested (and devils most frustrated) when humans like you and me “bear the present cross, receive the present grace, give thanks for the present pleasure.” That is real wisdom from the unlikely source of a devil’s mouth. Creative genius, the gift of the God, is most accessible to us in the present, no matter what’s going on in that instant. The trick is to stay in the moment and receive what is at hand, and not bolt away into a dream of how things might be different. If right now is a hardship for you, bear it fully; If right now is a moment when you need direction or reassurance, concentrate on seeing, hearing, feeling the grace God is pouring out right now. If right now is a moment of joy or pleasure, give thanks where it is due. As far as overcoming resistance and embracing divine genius is concerned, what matters most is happening right now.

Faithfully Incomplete

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In a most important way, I am not going to get what I want.

What do we do when we realize life isn’t going to turn out like we wanted, that we’re not going to do all that we had hoped, or be all that we had envisioned? We all like a happy ending and one option is to want one so badly that being incomplete makes us nothing but bitter and cynical.

Helen Keller, who was certainly in a position to be bitter about an incomplete life, nonetheless was able to make this observation: “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” It’s easy to get stuck staring at the incompleteness in our lives, to be bitter and angry. And at its worst, we stare so long at the closed door we begin to wonder if God has dealt us our particular hand on purpose. But the divine is not the author of our incompleteness; the divine is that through which our incompleteness is overcome, transformed.

Richard Selzer is a surgeon and a writer, and has authored a series of books in which he reflects on the strange and powerful profession he’s in and the mortality and humanity he encounters. And in one of these books, “Mortal Lessons,” he tells a story of a scene he witnessed in a hospital room after he had performed surgery on a young woman’s face.

“I stand by the bed where the young woman lies… her face, postoperative… her mouth twisted in palsy…clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, one of the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be that way from now on. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut this little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to be in a world all their own in the evening lamplight… isolated from me…private. Who are they? I ask myself.. he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously. The young woman speaks. “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It’s kind of cute.” All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with the divine. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers… to show her that their kiss still works.”

Unmindful of his own newly encountered incompleteness, the husband meets his wife in hers and they are transformed, stronger, more whole despite what is lacking. When you and I are able to set aside our attention to what’s missing in our lives and go to others in their incompleteness, we do become agents of the divine, Christians say we become Christ-like, we bring his good news and bear his grace.

And that is precisely how we ourselves receive that same grace, too: from those we allow to know and be with us in our incompleteness. In all the other places in our lives, it is our competence, what we possess, who we are that matters most. And while much of the world views incompleteness as something to be hidden, denied, struggled against, among those with whom we share our brokenness that incompleteness is what unites is, not in common despair, but in trust that authenticity and transparency with others, though the primitive lizard despises them, are the means to tapping a higher, deeper, creative and healing power.

One Thing Done Well

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Safe to say we hold way too much in our heads, especially those of us whose minds want to wrap around every challenge, problem or unknown at the same time. The breadth of current concerns turns this reptilian impulse into energy-draining juggling act. Forget about letting creative genius flow in this state: mentally maintaining the illusion of control over so many variables becomes all consuming.

Jim Baker was my first boss and mentor, allowing my friends and I to work after school and summers at his business, Chapel Hill Gardens Nursery in Stratford, Connecticut. We did everything landscaping: foundation plantings, lawn mowing, sod installations, pruning of all manner of bush and tree, yard cleanups and whatever it took to create a kind of beauty I came to love.

One necessary skill for working at Chapel Hill was driving a dump truck, which included being able to back it out the narrow driveway that had two stone pillars very close on either side. I had done it at few times, but wasn’t yet comfortable with it, and to my horror, one day I was about to try again and Jim climbed in and said, “Let’s go.” And I proceeded to dart back and forth between the two big side mirrors, the rearview mirror, eyes watching both sides, and to turn my head to look through the tiny window behind me, all to navigate the dump truck out the narrow entrance in reverse. And Jim looked at me and asked, “What are you doing?” He said, “All you have to do is watch one mirror and the rest of the truck will follow.” He was right—concentrating on one mirror always worked.

Keeping one’s head on a swivel is a hard way to drive, and a hard way to live. Better to concentrate on doing one thing well each day, trusting that the rest will follow, that imaginative, problem solving genius will percolate and make a difference if we leave the room that opens when attention is focused on one task, instead of ten.

And what is that one daily task? For some it will be mindfulness on God, which lays the foundation for the Spirit to flow as we step out of divinity’s way; for some it will be engaging the creative task that might not be most productive, but which allows total engagement of heart and soul; for some the mitzvah, the good deed, an offering to another that affirms our sense of place as contributors to the world of which we are the stewards. Whatever it is, our one thing done well allows all the rest to follow, as one mirror can guide an entire dump truck. In our focus on one instead of many, the many fall into better order, logjams are loosened, creativity flows more freely when not forced upon multiple tasks simultaneously.

For today: one thing done well.

Creating a Hot Mess

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A woman has been shopping at the mall for a couple of hours and decides to take a break. She buys herself a little bag of cookies and puts them in her shopping bag. Then she gets in line for coffee, buys a cup and finds a seat at one of the crowded tables. She settles in, takes the lid off her coffee and pulls out a magazine. Across the table from her sits a man reading a newspaper.

After a minute or two she reaches out and takes a cookie. As she does, the man seated across the table reaches out and takes one too. She’s understandably a little put off, but doesn’t say anything. Another moment passes and she takes another cookie—and then, again, the man does, too. She’s getting a little more upset, but still doesn’t say anything. A few more sips of coffee, the shopper reaches for another cookie and so does the man. Now she’s staring and glaring, very upset, especially since now there’s only one cookie left. But before she can say anything, the man takes it, breaks it in two, offers her one half, and eats the other himself. Then he smiles at her, puts his paper under his arm and walks off.

Our shopper is beside herself. Her afternoon is ruined, and she imagines how she’ll describe this unbelievable experience to her family. She closes her magazine, opens her shopping bag to put it away, and there discovers her own unopened bag of cookies.

As smart and as capable as we are, we humans can misread and misinterpret the simplest of circumstances, and act in ways we are convinced are right but end up being all wrong. And if that happens to us in the most everyday, ordinary moments like this scene from the mall, it most certainly happens on a grand scale as we try to find our way through life. Our convictions about good and bad, and right and wrong, just might not be as airtight as we like to think. And the order we try to maintain in our lives and what we do to feel safe and secure are no less susceptible to error and misinterpretation than that scene with the bag of cookies.

In 1997’s “Four Agreements”, Don Miguel Ruiz suggests the third agreement one should make with oneself in all circumstances is “don’t make assumptions.” Simple, indeed (which is partly why Don Miguel’s advice is so sage), but considering the hot messes we get ourselves into because of the assumptions we do make—far more serious and life-altering than an awkward moment of misplaced cookies—it’s advice well worth applying, starting again today.

Genius and George Costanza

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Seinfeld remains for me an endless source of enjoyment and amusement, years after its run ended. And I have a particular affinity for George, he who is so insecure and uninspired and who will usually say precisely the wrong thing. George doesn’t hesitate to create an image or personality for himself depending on the circumstances or whomever he’s trying to impress. To the world George is not a likeable person, he is often George Can’t-stand-ya. And yet, among his three closest friends, George hides nothing. He readily confesses his insecurities, his schemes to win friends and influence people, his discomfort with his appearance, his fears about living and dying alone. Even though his behavior is sometimes reprehensible and he really isn’t an admirable person, he knows himself so well and admits it so fully to those whom he trusts.

George

And so it should be for us. We each need a place where we can give voice to our insecurities, where we can show the parts of ourselves we don’t like at all, where we confess our brokenness and vulnerability and hurtful actions. That can happen among trusted friends, with your spouse, your partner, your therapist, your sponsor, your religious guide—but the point is it needs to happen. None of us are able to honestly and completely police ourselves without help from others. In his poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” William Blake said “opposition is true friendship,” and while that could easily be taken too far, the thought does convey the importance of not running from or covering up challenges or criticism or discomfort too quickly. For that challenge or criticism or discomfort may be just what we need to get over a hurdle and move forward, and without it, we’re still stuck. Divinity does send us shepherds, comforters and guides, but sometimes also sends us those who reframe our priorities, who shake us by the shoulders and say, “Get a grip!” or “Stop kidding yourself!” or who sit down beside us and say, “Tell me why you’re hurting” or “I care about you, so I have tell you some hard things.”

And sometimes it’s you and I who are compelled to say those hard things to others, and that’s no less a battle than hearing them. Speaking the truth in love carries the potential for real conflict, the possibility of a relationship’s end. But sometimes that’s exactly what needs to happen if we and others are to grow into the fullness for which we have been created. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus talks, remarkably, about coming to set a son against his father and a daughter against her mother, and he means that the demands of discipleship, the call to personal responsibility before God (relevant whether one is a Christian or not), can set us at odds with those closest to us. When a child chooses a future different from a parent’s desires, or a friend chooses not to endorse another friend’s habits or lifestyle, or an employee chooses not to obey a directive that goes against his or her beliefs, there is a cost, there is pain and conflict. But to not do or say those things in order to avoid conflict and hard feelings is to do a real injustice to ourselves and to the divinity within ourselves.

To hear such a claim and instead chose to substitute a thin text that says it’s OK to bury feelings as long as there is harmony on the surface; or a thin text that says conflict is always bad and should be avoided at all costs; or a thin text that says if we don’t look at the painful and ugly part of life it can’t affect us is to not fully accept the cost of being both flesh and spirit, lizard and genius, and to distance ourselves from the possibility of ever experiencing the joy of transparent and authentic existence.

Waking the Dead

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Of his documentary on World War II, “The War,” Ken Burns said that one of the sacred and scary responsibilities of his work on this project was “to wake the dead.” In other words, to tell the true story of that war in all its horror and consequence, he had to prod very sore spots, plumb bad memories, evoke what had been pushed down from the surface. Only in that way would his portrayal be honest and accurate, and could new and real lessons be learned about present and future wars.

We have natural resistance to “waking the dead” in our own stories, prodding those places that seem easier to leave alone, to allow to lie forgotten—as if we could forget them: family dysfunctions, our varied and assorted addictions and compulsions, awkward and horrifying moments where we were at our worst, or at the hands of someone else’s worst, encounters still regretted.

Visiting with friends not seen regularly brings to mind scenes and chapters of life when our lives were more fully intersected—including some that fall into this category. Without cues and prompts, some of those moments are nicely pushed down and lie quietly until wakened by the catalyst of others’ recollections, often on unrelated topics. More than once at the table last night I was told stories of things I said and actions I took that I honestly could not remember, but then slowly did. Granted, it can be easy to fall into prodding too far and too often, like the tongue returning to a sore in the mouth, but revisiting those hard moments with honesty and even temper sometimes does allow them to then rest in peace.