What if bad isn’t bad?

First, a disclaimer: The ideas in this post are under development and not finalized in any way, shape or form. I reserve the right to denounce the entire contents at any time in the future.

What if bad isn’t bad? Asked another way, what if the things that happen that we identify as bad are in fact neither good nor bad, but rather represent challenges and opportunities for growth? What if stuff happens, and our job isn’t to feel sorry for ourselves or wonder why a “bad” thing could happen to someone as marvelous as I, but rather to work through whatever it is? What if that process of “working through” is nothing more than the challenge of a human life and the vehicle for growth?

I am thinking here of the old question that gets asked and reformulated about every thirty seconds – why do bad things happen to good people? Religious people ask why God doesn’t stop these things from happening. Eastern religions tend to explain away the bad things by attributing them to karma, which means we deserve them and so have nobody to blame but ourselves. It’s a tidy package, but one that I find ultimately unsatisfying and incomplete. Is there anything about life that is tidy? The other problem with karma as a theory is that it can’t be disproven. We can’t go back into the past and see whether or not we did anything that would require that we die in a house fire in this life. It is sometimes said that a theory has to be falsifiable, which means that just because you can’t prove something is false doesn’t mean it is true.

Suppose the biblical writers were correct when they suggested that the challenges of life are opportunities for growth? Considering that almost everybody encounters some tragedy in their life and that for all our attempts to eliminate tragedy it keeps on happening, perhaps those attempts are an exercise in missing the point. Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” questions and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Since “bad” things happen to everyone, we might be well served by doing away with the “why” question and moving on to the “what am I supposed to learn from this” question.

Craig Bergland

When I think back to my days working in mental health, I recall a huge number of people who were stuck on the “why me?” question. Maybe the answer is, “because everybody.” What if all the time we spend going over and over the wrongs that were done to us needs to be countered with the truth that really ugly stuff happens to everybody, and so a better focus would be “what is this shitty experience meant to teach me?” In this way every tragedy could be redeemed and the energy we expend trying to decode the impossible could be turned toward moving forward. That’s not to say that the lousy things that happen aren’t painful. They are indeed painful, but we magnify that pain when we assume that we have been singled out and are alone in our misery.

This ends the pity party and removes any excuse to wallow in what may well be an essential part of life as if we are a victim. It also frees me from being defined by misfortune because misfortune leads to opportunity. I will never see that opportunity if I can’t move beyond the victim role, and this gives me the vehicle to do precisely that. We will still need to take time to understand our history, but our history no longer defines us because we all share similar histories. What tremendous freedom!

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.

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 resolvedĀ 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.

Why?

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the horror of things that we never get around to asking why they happen. I don’t say that as a criticism at all, I think it’s just part of how our mind works. We hear of something so out of the ordinary, or at least out of what we are ordinarily exposed to, that our minds seem to get stuck at the initial hearing and not dig deeper.

Some tragedies don’t really have an answer to the “why” question, or don’t have one we are capable of discerning or understanding at this point in human development. We know why hurricanes happen, but we really can’t explain why they turn at the last moment and destroy town B instead of town A. These kinds of things are relatively isolated incidents. I am wondering why we can’t discern the answer to the “why” question for trends, for things that seem to happen repeatedly.

Here’s a question I believe we need to address with urgency: Why all of the sexual abuse and sexual violence? It’s pervasive. It happens in the home, in our schools, in the office, in our places of worship and spiritual practice. It happens to children and adults, men and women, boys and girls, and the perpetrators come from all areas of life. We never seem to get around to asking “why,” or when we do the answers are so simplistic they are really no help at all. We tend to prefer single cause answers, but most problems are much more complicated than that. If we are going to change our culture around this, we are going to have to get serious about asking “why?”.

Not Going Away

your-body-knows-your-truth-4-638Many people have one or more chronic concerns. These may be things from their personal or health history, newly arisen medical issues, or simply things they worry about. If I had a nickel for every person who described themselves to me as a “worrier,” I’d have a lot of nickels. Other people believe that if they go to the doctor to ask about an issue that’s been troubling them that the doctor might diagnose the problem and then it will become “real.” Children often believe there is a monster under their bed and as long as they don’t look the monster will stay there and not harm them.

Of all the people listed in the last paragraph, only children get a break. It is therapist and clientdevelopmentally appropriate for children to engage in magical thinking. Adults, not so much – yet that truth doesn’t seem to stop adults from trying to protect themselves by using magical thinking. That magical thinking is quite harmful, as cancers continue to spread and psychological dysfunctions continue to grow as we hide out for fear that a diagnosis is the thing that makes us sick. Rationally, we know that is absurd (I hope), but our rational minds aren’t always in control. An African American friend tells me that his black friends won’t go to see a therapist because they believe that doing so will mean that they are “crazy.” In truth, that belief reflects a lot more on their mental status than any trip to the therapist ever could.

One thing is certain – whatever the issue might be, waiting to get it checked out doesn’t solve a problem. Suppose nothing is wrong. Would you feel better knowing that? Suppose something is wrong? You will feel better beginning a course of treatment. It’s a no-lose situation. Make that appointment today!

Not My Stuff

I frequently encounter situations where someone has taken on the developmental or recovery work of a friend or loved one. They mean well, and they want to help their loved one in their process, but somewhere along the way a line gets crossed and their efforts turn from helping the individual in question to hurting everyone. Again, this is all with the best of intentions, but with terrible results.

We quite simply can’t do other people’s work for them. It may seem loving to try, but it’s anything but. The result is quite often the we inhibit their already overdue growth process. Housing the perpetually unemployed or the addicted person, tolerating inappropriate interpersonal behaviors of a loved one working through a trauma history, or allowing people to repeatedly overstay their welcome not only hurts them, it hurts the members of your family who are entitled to your attention and affection. Your partner and your minor children deserve to be the object of your love and support. Other adults quite simply need to grow up and figure life out. Their issues are not your issues.

No More Crusades

As I wrote the title of this post, it occurred to me that the word “crusade” has three uses in contemporary spiritual culture, and so my title might lead to some confusion. I’m not beyond using a little confusion to attract readers, so rather than change it I thought I might explain it.

black knightThe historical sense of “crusade” hearkens back to medieval times and the unfortunate wars undertaken by the Church in an attempt to recapture the Holy Land from the Muslin powers that held it. While there were a few jewels in the rough during these times, from a contemporary perspective they were horrific, genocidal undertakings by a Church more concerned with temporal power that spiritual concerns. These are not the crusades to which I refer.

Then there are crusades of the type that Billy Graham and others undertook. While thereCrusade-Cities-Featured isn’t anything wrong with this sort of crusade (if you’re into that sort of thing), I never have and never will set out on one.

The crusades to which I refer are the ones to right what’s wrong, to challenge the status quo, to get the [metaphorical] troops fired up to do [metaphorical] battle in the great arena of social justice. Mind you, I still believe in these crusades and I will still occasionally write about these topics, but not with the zeal of a younger man who perhaps foolishly believes he can change the world. These past few years have taught me that the world may well be fucked up beyond my ability to help it recover in an activist sort of way.

Many years ago when I worked as a field service engineer on diagnostic ultrasound equipment, a very insightful man named Dick Cline summed up the difference between sales and service people in this way. He said that when a sales person hears, “no,” they get excited and see it as a challenge. When a service person hears, “no,” they pack up their stuff and leave. As he spoke those words, I knew that I was a service person. I don’t like wasting a lot of time trying to convince people to do the right thing. I will happily identify the right thing, explain why it’s the right thing, and offer suggestions about how best to implement it. If you want to argue with me about why the wrong thing is the right thing, I’m just going to pack up my stuff and go home. There are other people who will be more than happy to fight the good fight, and I will leave it to them.

angry (1)Why? There are two reasons I feel this way. The first is that crusades simply don’t work in a country already profoundly divided and profoundly angry. The result is that campaigns and crusades end up preaching to the choir, reinforcing the views of those who already agree with the crusade but causing those with differing views to simply become more entrenched. The second is that, from a spiritual perspective, I feel our time is much better spent by trying to rebuild fractured relationships and thereby start a much needed healing process. That will in turn provide the foundation for the change that is needed. Of course, you can feel free to disagree – just don’t expect me to debate it with you.