What the Neighbors Think

I suspect there are more of us out there than we might expect who grew up with parents who had one level or another of preoccupation with what the neighbors might think. There are any number of reasons that happens. None of them are legitimate. Whatever the real reason for neighborly preoccupation was – narcissism, competitiveness, or a convenient way to control the kids – I can assure you that the neighbors really had no healthy reason to be concerned with what you and your family were up to. You didn’t know that, however, and despite the fact that you know that now you still probably have lingering corners of your mind where that message hides.

The key to the freedom we all deserve as adults is to stop caring what other people think. Part of getting to that point may be realizing that nobody is watching, anyway. As kids it was reasonable to think that others were watching us, even if it was only the crabby old guy down the street waiting for us to step on his lawn so he could jump out and start yelling at us. We are adults now, and the old guy is long dead. Nobody is going to scream at us about stepping on their lawn, and even if they do we can handle it. Unless we are sacrificing virgins in the backyard or sword fighting naked with the boys from the golf club, nobody cares.

If you catch yourself with that old feeling of disapproval, I have found the best practice is to refuse to yield to it. If you want to practice your tuba in the front yard but hesitate because you worry about what people think, blow anyway. If you want to go jogging with your shirt off but worry that your belly looks like claymation animation singing the alphabet song, jog anyway. If you want to tell your beads on the front porch but worry someone might think you are a member of the religious secret police, pray anyway. Each time you do it anyway, it will get easier. I promise.

Holiday Reflections

My wife Erin and I were in a fairly significant car accident Friday night when a pickup truck ran a red light. While we are banged up pretty well, we are alive – and that’s generally not something you think much about less than a week before the holidays. Ironically, the day before that I spoke with a woman whose husband had been rear ended on his way home from work and his car totaled. My conversation partner was on her way to look for a replacement car because they had planned to drive seven hours with their children to their holiday destination. Erin and I had to cancel our holiday trip a mere five and one half hours away because we were going to be able to get our car replaced in time for our trip. What are the odds that I would encounter someone who would foreshadow our holiday turn of events just one day later?

Last week I read a blog post in which the author advised everyone to reconcile over the holidays with any family members from whom they are estranged. Their reasoning was rooted in a rather Pollyanna understanding of interpersonal behavior and a mythic understanding of the holidays. I remember thinking what an absolute load of nonsense the post was when I read it, mostly because such views give a free pass to people who abuse others. It’s one thing to look past petty disagreements. I am all for that practice. It’s quite another to slide into denial about legitimate grievances because of some pie in the sky understanding of the magic of Christmas.

What I do want to recommend in light of my accident is that you be sure to tell the people you love that you love them over the holidays, and every day, because the truth is that we don’t know if we will see each other again. Life might be taken from us at any moment, and that is also why we shouldn’t gloss over serious disagreements. When we pretend that it’s acceptable for you to have abused me, what we are really doing is saying my life isn’t worth all that much. That does everyone a disservice, and no amount of fairytale holiday bliss can justify it.

Imagine if we wished one another an authentic holiday, a holiday season in which we told the people we loved that we love them and also honored everyone’s integrity by being honest about our disagreements, too. We might also commit to be honest with one another and to value that honesty over any misguided notion that our job is to protect the feelings of others at the expense of our integrity.

Happy Holidays!

Sometimes, the pain…

Sometimes, the pain – whether physical, emotional, or psychological – is too much. Despite all of our best intentions and determination, the thought of moving forward is overwhelming. We have listened to doctors, therapists, teachers, and gurus who have all told us that we must press on, but in this moment we feel absolutely exhausted and about to embark on the longest endurance race imaginable and our gas tank is empty. All of the advertising slogans spring into our minds. Just do it, when the going gets tough the tough get going, no pain no gain, on and on they drone beating us down even further even as we scream at them to just be quiet.pain

At moments like these, listen to yourself. Above all, don’t listen to advertising or personal trainers. Don’t do what your friends did in a similar situation because you are not your friends. We all have different specific needs, but we all have a similar need to treat ourselves well and be gentle with our minds and bodies.

A few years back during the fiftieth Super Bowl halftime show they limped out the most valuable player from every Super Bowl. Every last one who had been retired more than five years could barely walk. This is what happens when we refuse to listen to our bodies and continue trying to run through brick walls. A similar, though less visible and likely more damaging, thing happens to our psyches when we try to run through mental and emotional walls.

It quite simply isn’t worth the price we pay when we deceive ourselves about our abilities. Listen to your body and listen to your mind, and slow down before it starts to hurt. If the pain has already started, stop and treat yourself with gentleness and nurturance. Take a bath, soak in a hot tub, go for a walk and connect with nature, pet your dog or cat or partner, breathe deeply, clear your schedule, and do it all with great attention, feeling, and gentleness. Repeat as needed. Whatever issues you may be facing will wait for you. Life is not a race. Allow yourself to heal. It has never been more important.

Doing the Same Thing…

There is a very human tendency to, when we find one approach to a problem doesn’t work, do the same thing over and over and hope for a different result. That’s known as insanity, and we seem to excel at it. We might change our approach ever so slightly, but in truth we don’t change it substantially. Then we sit around, throw our hands up in disgust, and wonder why we can’t seem to change anything. We might even feel sorry for ourselves. I believe a great deal of this repeated pattern exists because it’s easier to repeatedly try the same approach than to come up with a new approach and implement it. I don’t believe that we are consciously aware that is what we are doing, but we do it nonetheless.

sewing frustrationImagine that you were trying to sew something with a sewing machine but didn’t have any thread. Imagine that a few years ago you had thread and everything worked out just fine, but now you are out of thread and nothing you “sew” seems to hold together. You read an article a few weeks ago that said you don’t really need thread, so you keep on trying but nothing changes. Would you run out to the store and get some thread, or just keep poking tiny holes in fabric? Many of us would end up with very artistic renderings of Swiss cheese made of fabric.

In the early part of the last century, despite the fact that there was plenty of land, we tended to build homes right next to one another. Then, after the second World War, we decided we liked yards around our homes and so small, postage stamp lots became the nosy neighborsnorm. Kids played in the yard and we still had regular contact with our neighbors. We put up three foot picket fences to keep the kids and pets in the yard, but we still socialized over and around the fences. Then bigger lots became a status symbol, as did homes with attached garages. Privacy fences went up, because we were sure our neighbors had nothing better to do than monitor our behavior. Soon it was possible to avoid our neighbors completely by coming and going through our attached garages, retrieving our mail from the car, and wearing huge hearing protection headsets on our riding mowers or hiring a landscaping service. We retreated behind those privacy fences, not recognizing that we had become imprisoned in a fort of our own construction.

friends we don't need noWe sacrificed community on the altar of privacy, not realizing that all people need community. The Church started to shrink, as did service and fraternal organizations. We disassembled community piece by piece. We didn’t know the neighbors, we didn’t like or couldn’t trust our coworkers, and we didn’t get out enough to meet people we wanted to associate with away from the context in which we met them. We sat in our castles behind our moats and were lonely but didn’t understand why. We might talk with the other parents at our kids’ soccer game, but that was more to pass the time than to build relationship. The more we retreated the unhappier we were and so we retreated even more.

Most if not all problems have multiple causes, but I would like to suggest a remedy to the isolation we all seem to feel. Say “hi” to the neighbors. Walk to your mailbox to retrieve the mail and greet everyone you see. When you do to the grocery store, greet people that you recognize, even if you don’t know them well. Practice being social again, and encourage your family to do the same. Stop isolating. You will be amazed at the difference it makes! Oh, and yes, you do need stinking friends! Well, at least friends who smell nice!

 

What Has Happened to Us?

Somewhere along the way, our society has gone to hell in a handbasket. We drink and drug ourselves into oblivion on a regular basis, a horrifying number of us have been sexually assaulted either as children or adults – sometimes both. Corporations are people, kids are bringing guns to school on an almost daily basis, airports get nudie pictures of us as we go through security and we haven’t increased safety, racism is rampant, politicians of all stripes are corrupt, and we aren’t quite sure where Richard Simmons has gone.

second_industrial_revolution_gettyimages-51632462I truly believe that the industrial revolution changed our lives so fundamentally that we have been unable to adjust. From a schedule that was based on the rising and setting of the sun we moved to an alarm clock timetable. From the time we came off the farm, workers have been exploited and abused by corporations – which have now been declared “people,” perhaps the surest sign of judicial corruption we have seen. As we struggled, and failed, to adapt to these changes our stress increased and in many cases came out sideways in the form of abuse, assault, and self-medication that created disinhibition and made it easier to act out.

As a realist, I don’t believe we can put the genie back in the bottle. Nor do I believe that we can continue for much longer with the status quo. I believe we can learn to adjust to some of the changes that have caused us to struggle, but others we will have to walk back. We will need to ask ourselves, and others, tough questions. How much is enough? Can we see that working sixty hours a week destroys our relationships, and no amount of money can adequately compensate us for those losses? Do we realize that our rampant rates of sexual abuse and assault are crippling our relationships? Might we see that sexless marriages are doomed, and that marriages are sexless largely because of the impact of abuse and assault? How can we not see that our love of guns over the safety of our children is not lost on them – nor is our impotence and inability to do anything about it lost on them?spirituality

We have to come to a new spirituality, by which I mean a new way of understanding and making sense of our world. We must realize that self-care and the care of our relationships is a huge part of that spirituality. Selling our souls for a paycheck is creating a world that is polluted, and that in turn is having an impact on our environment and our climate. Those who would hide behind the facade of the flat earth society may be the largest victims of our worship of corporate big daddy, and we need to educate and heal them, too. We need to shift our primary question from “how can I screw you over?” and “how can I force you to comply with my perspective,” to “how can I help you?” We can do this only if we understand how interconnected we really are, and through that awakening come to see that what I do to you, I do to myself. We need to start right now.

Decline, Death, and Family Matters

Nothing brings out skeletons from any family closet quite like decline and looming or actual death of matriarchs, patriarchs, and those in the family who wish they were either. In truth, it doesn’t matter who is close to death and what our relationship to them might be, death brings out the worst in us. You might think that tragedy would lead to unprecedented cooperation and putting aside hurt feelings and personal interest. Sadly you would be wrong. I believe the primary reason for this is that we in the west avoid thinking about death at all costs, so when it shows up we have no idea how to respond. Spiritual leaders really need to shift our consciousness around death, but if you are confronted with a pending loss before that shift occurs you will need some concrete advice.

I have seen conflict arise in a few different areas. The first might be called misdirecting our pain into the physical. We are going to miss Grandma, but if we can snag that mirror that sat on her dresser we will always have her nearby. The problem is that Grandma wasn’t a mirror. Whatever physical item we decide we cannot carry on without isn’t going to help us with the loss of Grandma. Only time and healing will get us through our grief. We need to ask ourselves if we really want to damage our relationships with family members over a physical item or items when what we really need is to process our grief – and those family members we may go to war with over a mirror may well be essential to our grieving process.

The second conflict point I call I’m in charge now. The family patriarch passes and Uncle Ralph decides he is now the patriarch. The problem here is that our roles in a family system aren’t determined by proclamation, no matter how loud. Family dynamics are a much more complex process and take time to play out. In the aftermath of a loss, we would be better to focus on tasks than on roles because the new roles develop over time. In the short term, there are important papers to be found, a bedroom or a garage to be cleaned out, sleeping quarters found for out of town family. We will all be better served by focusing on what we need to do to facilitate our coming together as a family. Big decisions can, and should, wait.

The third conflict point is called Don’t say that! Times of loss or pending loss cause feelings to surface. Not all of those feelings will be happy and comfortable, and when they arise and people begin to speak about them we might be tempted to try to shut that conversation down. While we should always do our best to speak our truth appropriately and with sensitivity, difficult truths that arise in coping and grieving need to be allowed to arise. The experience of processing these thoughts, if handled appropriately, can actually build family cohesiveness. Trying to shut them down can create rifts that may be profoundly difficult to heal.

Finally, avoid the idea that We must do this perfectly. If you are human, you are going to make mistakes. The more difficult and emotionally fraught the situation, the more likely mistakes will occur. Forgive yourself for being human (imagine!), and forgive one another for the same sin of being an imperfect human being. This simple act can bring amazing amounts of grace into a difficult situation. Are you holding on to hurt feelings over relatively small conflicts? What better time to let them go?

Loss is never easy, and loss of loved ones is the most difficult of all losses. Learning to navigate these situations with as much skill as we can helps to make our journey through loss a bit easier. If we find ourselves seeming to over react, we may choose to take a few minutes or longer away from the most intense conversations around our loss. It is absolutely fine to admit that we need a break, a cup of coffee, or a hug. It’s always a good idea to practice effective self-care. The road through loss and grief is a marathon, not a sprint. We should do our best to be good to ourselves at all times.

Blind Spots

We all have blind spots. Some of us have physical blind spots, but almost all of us have metaphorical blind spots. Part of the spiritual life is searching out those blind spots and working to heal them. We may well never eliminate them all, because they can pop up throughout our life. When teachers we respect suddenly reveal (most often whyblindspotsunintentionally) a blind spot, we may find ourselves making a difficult choice. It may seem we are stuck between two choices, but there are always at least three choices.

The first option is to say that the blind spot we have discovered renders everything the person may have said or offered null and void. We see people choose this option all the time, but if I am correct in asserting that we all have blind spots then this choice means that none of us have anything to offer. We will run around covering up our blind spots and other flaws for fear they will eventually render us irrelevant. In truth, those flaws render us human, not irrelevant.

The second option is to say that since we all have blind spots we will ignore the blind spots that we discover in others. We will pretend they aren’t present, and if anyone points them out we will vigorously defend our heroes by insisting they are perfect. This, too, dehumanizes them by rendering them a caricature of themselves and forcing them to run about claiming to be some distortion of a messiah figure. Denying the truth is never a healthy was forward.

The third option is to recognize that we all have blind spots. From a spiritual perspective, all people have inherent worth and value. We each have to make a decision about whether or not it is possible to have a blind spot that is so large that it destroys that inherent worth and value. I choose to take the position that there is nothing we can do to destroy that worth and value, even though there are things we can do that may necessitate our being isolated from society at large for a time. If a spiritual teacher has a long history of mistreating his or her students, we may decide that we will no longer be their student or support their organization. On the other hand, we may see that the issue at hand is a blind spot but not large enough for us to separate ourselves from them.

Can we see that if we belong to or are influenced by a tradition that says all life has intrinsic valuevalue, then we simply cannot say there are people who no longer have their basic needs met – needs for food, clothing, shelter, companionship, fresh air, and mental stimulation. A colleague I greatly respect took me to task recently when I suggested that a certain political figure had the right to have friends and human contact. In my friend’s mind, the politician in question had committed war crimes and therefore wasn’t entitled to companionship. That’s contrary to the traditions from which both of us have emerged. So how does this happen?

Emotions often cloud and complicated our decision making process. In the heat of the moment, our own blind spots may show – even in response to the blind spots of others! One of the bigger benefits of spiritual practice is that practice affords us the opportunity to work through these issues in a methodical way and at a reasonable pace – even if, in our western impatience, we want everything resolved¬†now! Rushing to judgment is always problematic, so let’s all take our time as we assess what we can and cannot accept!

Wounds

Life hands us all a variety of wounds. These wounds are of different sizes and depths, different intensities and duration, even of different quantity and quality. Our task is not to avoid them, but work through them; not to pass them on to others or try to ignore them, but to understand and heal them.

These important parts of life aren’t always fun. Quite often they cause pain and struggle. This important work is, in part, what our spirituality should equip us to undertake. Doing this work constitutes enlightenment, salvation, awakening – whatever your word for the goal of life may be. We do this work best in community, which is why friends, colleagues, and groups to which we belong are so important.

Social Media and Seeking Support

There are things that are clearly out of the ordinary, beyond the pale, tragedies of great scale and scope that can set is back financially to a profound extent. I have no problem with people turning to social media for support both emotional and financial in such situations. If your home is destroyed and you lack the resources to rebuild, by all means ask for help!  At any time if you need to vent about something, I believe social media can be a great platform on which to do so. If you vent constantly I may unfollow you for my own sanity, but I will still support your right to vent.

The other day I saw an actress with a net worth of two million dollars begging for money on Social media because her child had been the victim of a crime. The reason she needed the money? To catch the criminal. Apparently she feels that law enforcement can’t do the job and she can’t liquidate enough of her assets to hire a private investigator? Are we serious?

Then there are the average people who seem to think the world should contribute for their normal, daily expenses. I struggle to understand why anyone would ask for help paying for their Kleenex when they contract a cold, or for cremation expenses for a beloved pet, or to pay for home remodeling, or any of a number of other routine expenses that are simply a part of daily life. Are we really that entitled?

Life brings with it a fair amount of adversity. Working through that adversity is how we grow and mature. At times it may feel as if you are the only one who has ever struggled with a certain kind of adversity, but I can assure you that you are not alone. Trying to make a quick profit off of daily life isn’t only unattractive, it stunts your growth.

Asking for emotional support or that a neighbor bring a casserole on a difficult day builds community. You won’t find that kind of community in the Internet. You can find it outside your front door, but you would do well to say hello to your neighbors today rather than wait for the crisis to arrive. Can we think of other, more healthy ways to seek support in our lives?

Trust Yourself

People may say all kinds of terrible things about you – even family. People may run you down, treat you to a seeming endless list of what they perceive to be your flaws and short comings, even to the point where you start to believe them. If this happens to you, ask yourself one question. Ask yourself if what they say is true, why do they keep coming around?

Should you find yourself in this situation, trust yourself – and kick your critics to the curb. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, has the right to continually heap criticism and abuse on you.