I found myself reacting this morning in a way that is so deeply familiar that it seemed both reasonable and justified. An irritation to an interaction over email.
It didn’t occur to me to question my response at all, until my sister did. We were casually chatting over lunch.
As soon as she pointed it out, I realised how blind I am. I do notice my reactions, and I do critique the extent of the reaction quite frequently. But it has never occurred to me to pay attention to the very flavour of the reaction itself.
In this particular instance – why does this particular sequence induce the response it does in me?
Today the answer was obvious as soon as the question was asked. I think though it is the start of a new layer of exploration. I look forward to seeing what I will learn.
I’ve been thinking about discernment a fair bit recently. In Christian terms this is often the term we use for seeking to do God’s will. This often means given a choice between x and not x then my task is to figure out what choice seems to be more in line with God’s will for me. In other words, what matters is what I choose. One path will lead me towards God and one path will lead me away from God.
Now, I think there are some choices like this. But I think the vast majority of choices that I try to actively discern are not in this category. When I think about the last major choice I made, I know that both choices were good choices, and both could equally have led into deeper relationship with God. What mattered was not the choice itself but the process of making the choice.
The lasting impact on my life is not the decision I made, but rather the way in which I made the decision. Engaging in that particular process revealed to me my attachments and fears. There were six clear steps where I could have chosen to lean into my fear or bow out of the process. Ultimately if I had bowed out of the process, my external life circumstances would look no different to what they look like now (my decision was to stay where I am). But I know that if I had bowed out of the process I would not be who I am today.
All of the steps, except for the last one, were about shifting the decision from a possibility to a reality. Every single step was profoundly challenging. I had to face into a significant fear – the same one in different guises. What actual choice I made on that sixth and final step would have significant impact on the external detail of my life, but the essence of who I am was far more impacted by the previous five steps.
The faithfulness to the process, which required that I attended to my own attachments and fears, has allowed me to cross an interior threshold. That would have happened regardless of the ultimate decision that was made. In other words what was significant was the process of discernment, not the choice that was ultimately made.
In this case there were multiple steps, and so the lesson is clear. But what if this is the case for the vast majority of the decisions we are trying to discern. What if the real invitation is to examine our fears and attachments? There is no doubt in my mind that the extent to which I can free myself of my fears and attachments is the extent which I am available to begin anything which might resemble the will of God.
I spent a good part of the last week in India. I was invited to give a talk at a chemistry conference. There is much to say about the experience, but for today just one thought.
We were given a ‘cultural event’ – some music and dancing from the region. Some of it was striking and quite moving. But what stays with me is the dance of these seven young girls.
As I watched them, there was no clear ‘leader’ of the group. Over the passage of the dance first one, then another, then another, took the lead. It wasn’t planned, it was just whoever happened to remember the steps at that particular point was the leader. The one who had been confident only seconds before lost her way and had to watch her companions.
They all made it through the dance because of their collective memory. Not one of them would have made it one their own.
It struck me, almost immediately, as a beautiful metaphor for our need for community. We all get momentarily distracted or preoccupied from time to time. If we are acting alone we lose our way. But if we are a part of a larger community they can carry us along in those moments. And just as some carry us during those times. We too take our turn at leading periodically.
I participate in several different dances – therefore there is not community but several. Nonetheless, I am left deeply grateful for those who dance alongside me.
Our perception of our world is so much more subjective than we realise. The facts of our situation may remain the same, but a shift in internal perspective can often have a huge impact on how we feel and consequently how we act.
Many years ago when I was postdoc applying for jobs, I couldn’t quite see myself in either of the possible paths which seemed my probable future. I felt quite trapped. Then on the treadmill at gym on day, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never been unemployed, and I had always chosen my next job on the basis of a deep sense of this being the right next step. How could I possibly consider myself to be trapped?
With that one moment everything shifted. No, I didn’t get a job the next day. It would still take about another 18 months until I got a permanent position, but that moment changed everything. The emotional burden of the uncertainty of my position dropped radically, and over time I became far more able to see possibilities which I wouldn’t have even considered before.
I’ve seen similar things happen over and over again over the years. In retrospect what was often the tipping point into a new phase was not so much a shift in external circumstances as an internal one. I can’t help wondering what implications that has as we consider the complex political situations so many are struggling with now. I wonder whether we should be praying the grace of clarity of perspective. I wonder whether that will help.
There is a bittersweet gift which comes with inner healing. I begin to see my own patterns of behaviour. I begin to see the subtle yet toxic tendrils which trace their way through relationships.
It’s mildly horrifying, and yet I am able to view myself and my past actions with compassion. I know I had no intent to foster the toxicity. In my desire to connect I occasionally brought a barbed hook to the table. I didn’t know it was there.
I can’t go back and change the past, and I think I am tremendously fortunate that I don’t have many regrets. There are few situations that I would want to handle substantially differently. I see the progression which has brought me to where I am today, and I think the various learnings were necessary.
What is far more important is that this perspective also gives me compassion for others. I see a few people around me who suffer from a similar compulsion and have made choices which have a far more lasting impact than my own. And I recognise that I could have made exactly the same choice if I had presented with the same set of circumstances.
It is deeply humbling and I am profoundly grateful for the life path that has opened in front of me.
We humans are curious creatures. Descartes great proclamation ‘I think therefore I am’ coupled with the rise of Western individualism can leave us thinking that I am the product of my education and my particular experiences. The problem with that model is that we can all too easily overlook a major source of my own identity.
My idea of who I am is infused by the relationships in my life. I am who I am through the different relationships in my life. That is to say that I am profoundly shaped by those who share my space. Whether that is an intimate partner, friends, colleagues, children, parents, spiritual director, therapist etc. Different parts of us are drawn out in particular relationships. In the absence of that relationship that particular part of who I am may not be evident.
There is another aspect to consider. My experience and my worldview distort my perception a little. So, what I presume to be ‘true’ is often deeply coloured by the lens of my own woundedness. My perception of my relationships and interactions on all levels is mired in this wounding.
Only one thing can change this distortion – for me this has been in the acceptance of my limitations because of that wounding. This has brought freedom and with it a new perspective. Like the twisting of a kaleidoscope – a new pattern emerges, and I see that what I believed to be true before was only true in my limited perception.
It makes me wonder whether the ‘True Self’ is a fixed point at all. I suspect it isn’t, but I think we know when we are closer to it. And I think we know when we are trying to kid ourselves.
I wonder how often we conflate expressing displeasure with someone’s action and holding them accountable. In reality the two are quite different.
I can make my feelings known about someone’s action but that is only likely to have any influence at all on their behaviour if I communicate directly with them and they actually care about my feelings. This means expressing my dissatisfaction at another person’s conduct will have an impact at best only occasionally. (And if I am using social media as my vehicle I would say the strike rate is practically zero).
Holding someone accountable is different. But it is only possible if I hold some form of power over the person. I can only hold a person accountable if I can take action which they will deem as unappealing. The other person may have voluntarily given me this power, but I need the power dynamic for accountability to exist. In the case of politicians, this is my capacity to vote. In the case of companies, this is my capacity to take my business elsewhere. In personal relationships, this will vary widely.
I have come to realise that I have a deep resistance to the expression of displeasure in the absence of the capacity to take meaningful action. For me it leads to apathy and far ranging discontent which ends up infecting everything. The only situations I want to speak out on are those where I can actually hold people accountable. And I deeply respect those who are doing just that! Our world needs every single one of those voices, and the actions that go with the words of discontent.
I was on an 8 day individually guided retreat at the beginning of the month. One of the things which emerged from the time was a desire to beginning my evening in a moment of stillness.
I work quite far from home and I appreciate the mental separation from work which my commute affords, but it means I am often tired and a bit frazzled when I get home. It is all too easy to collapse into meaningless ways of filling my evening. But I have found that just pausing for 15-20 minutes when I get home is gently restorative.
It’s mid-summer here, so I open the door to my balcony and sit in the fresh air quite literally watching the world go by. I listen to the gentle hum of the traffic. I watch the birds and the clouds. I feel the gentle breeze on my body.
It isn’t a time of formal prayer, it is just a time of being present. Not in any forced kind of way, I’ll usually sip a glass of iced tea or wine. I don’t manage it every day, and I’m not particularly concerned about that. Each day I am able to do it I am grateful.
Somehow it is true balm for my soul.
I’ve been much more aware of my own boundaries over the last year or so. Slowly, slowly, I have become more comfortable with being clear about where my boundaries are. For me, boundary issues are not things which I just find mildly irritating, they are behaviours which impact my sense of integrity.
In the last little while several things have become clear.
Firstly, I can only hold a boundary with respect to behaviour. What I mean by this is that I can only say I cannot accept this specific action, I cannot say I don’t like that attitude.
Secondly, having been clear about the boundary I am holding, I have absolutely no control over the other person’s response. In almost every case the initial response is negative.
Thirdly, Brene Brown, when talking about holding your boundaries, writes ‘Choose discomfort over resentment’. That phrase has stayed with me for over a year. The thing is though, that the discomfort really is uncomfortable. I have to be clear in my own mind about why I am taking the stand that I am. It’s the only way I can hold the discomfort with equanimity.
Finally, my boundaries have only really come into sharp focus as I have become much more comfortable in my own skin. As I have grown in self-acceptance, it has been easier to see where I feel I need to hold the line.
Having said all of this, I have found that being clear about my boundaries has been tremendously liberating. I cannot control anyone else’s behaviour, but I can be clear about what I am not willing to tolerate. And I am willing hold whatever discomfort that may elicit. Because discomfort really is better than resentment.
It turns out that having good boundaries is only really incompatible with one thing – having everyone like you!
I realise that I hold within me two kinds of judgements which are qualitatively different. The first kind is the one which is the problematic kind – where I make a judgement call but where I have emotional baggage associated with the judgement. And I mean ‘baggage’ here – not simply that there emotion associated with the situation.
These are the kinds of judgements where I find myself revisiting them in my own mind and justifying and re-justifying my choice to myself. Or perhaps recounting the circumstances to others and to get reassurance that I was somehow ‘right’.
These are the kinds of judgements I need to be very careful about making. Or at least I need to be very careful on acting on these kinds of judgements.
Then there is a second kind. One where I do make a choice, I do make a judgement, and I carry out whatever appears to be necessary to me to follow through, but once the action is taken I don’t find it necessary to revisit my choice. The only thing which causes me to reconsider is the revelation of the consequences. And even then, more often than not the judgement and the action which followed still appear to be a necessary choice.
Usually the first kind of judgement comes with a blanket ‘the other person sucks’ kind of feel. The second is always more specific – this action was problematic.
When we are told we shouldn’t judge – it’s the first kind of judgement that is the real problem.
(Of course in both cases my judgement will be influenced by the distortions of my own life story!)