Monday, January 22, 2007

A Thank You A Day

Yesterday after Meeting, one of the Friends told the rest of us that she had recently read a book about thanking, and it inspired her to embark on a practice of writing a thank you note every day. She has bought some stationery and a nice pen, and has restocked her stamps. She said that she was looking forward to seeing what this would be like. "How nice to start each day thinking about who I should thank this day, and why," she said.

What a wonderful idea! What a great spiritual discipline this would be!

I am considering trying some version of this myself.

I can begin right now by thanking all of the readers and commentors of this blog. It has meant a lot to me to find this online community of bloggers and blog-readers. I appreciate the sympathetic attention, the kindred-spirit sharing, the honest questions, and the good support and advice. Thank you!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Breakthrough!

After sinking deeper and deeper into a state of being that I think was starting to qualify as genuine depression, I've now had a breakthrough.

Having the breakthrough was not easy. In case anyone is wondering how to have a breakthrough when you need one, I do not have any ready advice, alas. But I can tell you exactly what I did.

First, I stewed for a while, in that way that people stew when they are sinking into depression. It's a dim, feeble kind of stewing. You fret. You get tired of fretting. You fall numb. You look for distraction. You get tired of distraction. You chastise yourself, saying over and over again, "I must face things, figure out what's going on!" You try to face things. When trying does not yield immediate results, you get discouraged and seek distraction again, etc.

My favored method of trying to "face things" is to journal. Sometimes this has an almost magical effect.

But I could tell that I was in a really bad way because it wasn't helping at all this time. I felt I was going around and around in well-worn circles. All I did was put my unproductive fretting on paper.

What did end up helping was talking with trusted friends.

Even this is not guaranteed to work, but the way I approached it this time was that I decided in each of the conversations I had to be perfectly honest about the exact nature of my despair. I gave myself full permission to be tedious and exasperating. I wasn't going to try to be positive, upbeat, or poetic. I was going to just lay out the full ugliness of my state of being, as awkwardly and messily as would do it true justice. If that meant grumpiness, long silences, or even (gasp) speaking unkindly of myself or others, so be it.

It is nice that I have friends I can trust in this way!

Both of the people I talked with recognized that this was new of me, and that it must mean that I am seriously worried, and they rose to the challenge. They strove with me. They entered into my state of being and explored it with me.

And that was what helped precipitate my breakthrough. Both told me that they sensed that I was blocked by something, and challenged me to really try to get to the heart of what was blocking me.

And in reflecting later (in my journal now again) on these conversations, I suddenly finally saw what I needed to see.

Here is my current crisis: In almost every dimension of my life right now, I am being challenged to establish a new kind of relationship with people -- a relationship of a kind that I resist with all my being. Almost everything in my life is stalled unless I can learn how more effectively to (a) ask people to do things, and/or (b) call people into higher levels of accountability. These are closely related.

I'd so much rather leave people alone to determine for themselves what they need to do. I would rather be patient, accepting, supportive, encouraging, and appreciative. I want to be the person that others come to for acceptance, kindness and inspiration.

But what is happening in my life is that this is not working at the moment. Right now, for me (I do not want to believe that this is the case in general, for everyone), my gentle patience and kindness are giving others a good excuse to ignore me and my requests. It is not really personal. They all like me well enough, and believe in what they have agreed to do. It's that their lives are busy and complex, and, well, they just haven't had time to get to what I've asked them to do.

But when I see how this same story repeats everywhere I turn, and is the explanation for everything that feels stalled in my life, I cannot help but notice that the common denominator in all of these situation is -- me.

This was how I realized that I am being called to a new challenge. Everything in my life brings me to learn this next new thing: how to command respect; how to get people to take me and my requests more seriously; how to motivate people to act.

This is so very hard for me. It's hard for me to ask for help. It's even harder for me to insist that others follow through.

I know that this is not hard for everyone, but it is almost impossibly hard for me!

I have tried every technique of motivation/inspiration that I could think of: appealing to noble ideals; pointing out the ways it would be good for them.

And now what I am brought to is to try one more technique that I have ignored and resisted: to try to persuade people by appealing to myself. I need people to help me. I am worth taking seriously. I need respect. My judgment about the importance and value of these projects is worth trusting.

It's not that it's really all about me. It's not.

And yet, somehow, I am being called to assert myself now in these relationships.

Like I keep saying, this is very very hard for me, but it feels important. I feel like I am being called to assert my presence in the world, and my importance, in ways I have tried to resist all my life. I have, in general, lived a fundamentally apologetic existence. "Sorry for taking up space on this planet!"

But the truth is, I am a gift of God.

So is everyone else.

For me not to live true to that truth about myself is just as bad as my denying that truth about anyone else.

Or, maybe it is even worse. We each have a special relationship with ourselves, and a special responsibility to ourselves. The person best qualified to know who you most truly are, and what you have to give to the world, is yourself.

As was pointed out in this link that Johan Maurer left for me in a recent comment, the world is not on its own going to make room for me and what I have to offer. I've reached a crucial point in my life where I need others to be working with me as I try to bring forth my own vision more fully. I have been expecting them to leap on board not only with the enthusiasm they in fact have shown, but with a willingness to follow through in helping me in the ways that they have promised. They mean well, but after the initial enthusiasm, the actual follow-through of doing the work falls away.

How to keep that energy alive and productive is what I need to learn to do. I need to learn a new way of keeping myself present in their lives in a way that calls them to higher levels of accountability.

Now that I see this clearly, even though I find it daunting and hard, I can see the value of figuring out how to do this. Seeing the exact nature of my present challenge helps me to know how to look for my way forward again.

Wish me well. I need all the help I can get with this one!

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Is the Balanced Life a Myth?

Someone recently showed me an article entitled, "The Myth of the Balanced Life" (by Jack Fortin, in The Lutheran, January 2007). The author writes eloquently about how we are overwhelmed by the fragmented complexity of our lives. He believes that a balanced life is unattainable. He believes that the desire for it is an anxiety-based impulse to control what is ultimately not really ours to control. He argues on behalf of a faith-filled life as the appropriate response. We must have the humility to accept that we are never going to feel fully on top of things, and we must learn to forgive ourselves for this, and strive instead to do our best to live in faithfulness.

But what does this really mean? How exactly do we do this?

What I realize in my own life is that I can fall into moods in which I start to think that I can only have peace if I do X, Y, and Z. (Sadly, X and Y are usually some immediate tasks that I'm rather afraid of, and Z usually is "and everything else on my To Do list!") For me, then, the notion of a balanced life is conditioned upon finally feeling on top of everything. And, surprise, surprise, I never get there!

So the key is to reconceptualize the notion of a balanced life. Instead of making it conditioned upon getting the externals of your life right, it is better to define it as an inner state that is not dependent on the externals being right.

When I do have my moments of transcendent peace and clarity, it is not because I am all caught up and all of my problems are resolved and nothing frightening looms. These moments happen in spite of the continuing unresolved messiness of my life.

In fact, when I am feeling most daunted by all that I have to do, it is usually best not to plunge right into getting things done in the hope that "catching up" will restore peace and confidence. It is better to try to regain the state of transcendent peace and clarity, because then from that state it is easier to face what needs to be done. Not only is it easier to face things, but I feel more capable of handling the challenging tasks well.

With this as the kind of balanced life I really seek, I do not think that it is a myth after all. But I still agree with Fortin that too often our concept of the balanced life is an anxiety-based desire for control, and achieving this kind of control is not really possible. I agree that a huge part of finding the different sense of balance that comes from a life of faithfulness requires a great deal of letting go of ways we want to control what goes on around us.

But how do we find this state of consciousness?

This is what spiritual disciplines are for. They help bring us back to this state of being, largely by reminding us of what is important.

For me, I am finding that what I need is a certain sense of who I am and what my life is all about. While this sounds self-centered instead of God-centered, it isn't really, because by "finding who I truly am," I look to regain a sense of myself as a child of God, instead of an ego-driven sense of self. And by looking for the "true meaning of my life," I try to regain the spiritual sense of my life's meaning, instead of getting distracted by how others might judge the "success" of my life at the moment.

When I am in this good place of peace and clarity, I don't even think of myself because I am living from my true center. And from this place, I am outwardly focused, viewing the world with compassion.

But when I am in a state of anxiety, I am very distracted by myself (my own imperfections), and the world outside me distorts so that those features which are anxiety-provoking are exaggerated, and the rest mostly fades away.

This image that is clarifying for me today of conquering the anxiety before resuming work seems to me to be an important spiritual discipline unto itself.

I can hear the objection (from myself in some future anxious state?): "But I don't have time to figure out how to get back to a centered state of being! This has to get done now!"

Reply: Trying to get something important done from within a state of anxiety probably takes twice as long as it would to take a little time out to re-center and then do the task with the greater efficiency that peace and clarity bring.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Never Despair, But If You Do...

I remain convinced that my not feeling well is a bad cold. But why? I seldom get colds. Is the cold a way of numbing me and protecting me from feeling as overwhelmed as I otherwise would feel?

A recent fortune cookie fortune: "Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair."

So, with this cheery thought...

At least my classes have not yet resumed. We have a couple more weeks of break. I very much need this time. Being chair of a small department that was understaffed last semester because a colleague was on sabbatical (and we don't do sabbatical replacements for people who are gone just one semester), I have a lot to catch up on. While it is more complex chairing big departments, the challenge of a small department is that there are fewer people to share the departmental work. Since I was alone with two visiting professors last semester, that meant that I did just about all of the departmental work. Or, well, most of it, which is why I have some catching up to do now!

To try to keep my complex life well-organized, I constructed what I called my "Master List of Everything." This document, a kind of comprehensive To Do list for my life, took up more than four pages, single-spaced. Then I color-coded the items according to the anxiety level evoked by each item. The entire document then displayed the distressingly high levels of anxiety that permeated my life. I realized that I would not be able to work effectively from this document, so I threw it away!

Actually, what I did was to revert the document's colors to plain black text again, and condensed it by distilling it to a "Master List of Projects," eliminating specific tasks and just leaving the major projects I have going in my life. (Now I got it down to two pages, but still...)

Here are some examples of items on my "Master List of Projects": "Courses." It takes up just one line, but represents a huge percentage of my time. Other examples: "Advising," "Assessment Plan for Philosophy Department," a line for each committee I serve on, my "Quakers and Science" presentation (now completed, but this item got moved to be listed as one item under "Papers in Progress"), etc.

Having this document works very well for me. I review it each week to determine the specific tasks I need to do each week to be on task for these various projects. When I have deadlines, I type them into this ever-evolving document, and highlight the most urgent tasks in red.

I share all of this only because I myself like reading and hearing about how others try to live in productive relationship with the complexity of their own lives.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Continuing to Face the New Year

I mentioned yesterday not feeling well, and expressed worry that it might be strep again. I asked my mother if white spots on my throat necessarily indicate strep throat, and she replied that she thought so, and advised, in her characteristically cheerful way :-) that I should see a doctor because, "you can die from strep." Thanks, Mom! (I don't think she reads my blog anymore!)

But I have a feeling that it isn't strep. I don't have a bad fever this time. I'm functional. And the state of consciousness that characterized strep was that I felt deeply out of it, whereas my present state of consciousness feels more like my experience of a cold: I feel enveloped (not entirely unhappily) in a kind of bubble of dulled perception and reduced emotion, but I am perfectly capable of thinking and concentrating on things (which I wasn't when I had strep). I just have reduced energy and feel easily overwhelmed if I try to take stock of all that I have to do -- but the latter is not too dissimilar to my usual state of being these days!

Other than this, I'm not distractingly miserable. So, I'll give it a few more days.

Ok, I realize that my "phenomenological self-diagnosis" is probably not medically well-grounded, but I am increasingly interested in the everyday variations of our states of consciousness and how they affect our perceptions of our life, and our effectiveness.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Another New Year Dawns

After traveling to see family for Christmas, I came back and had to finish my grading! Because the end of exam week pushed so close to Christmas this year, grades were not due until just after New Year's.

Then, after I got the grades in, I fell ill. I think it's just a cold. But because I have a significant sore throat, I'm a little worried that I might have strep again. I don't feel as bad as I did then, so I'm hoping this is just a cold that will quickly pass.

Not feeling well has made it unusually daunting facing all that I have to face now that a new year begins.

But, returning to my Bible reading has been surprisingly helpful. As I read this grand narrative about a people's relationship with God, I am reminded of the power of formulating a grand narrative for one's own life. It is the times when I have a positive narrative for my life and a positive image of my self that I feel centered and life's normal challenges do not daunt me.

I do sometimes have wonderful insights that are very helpful, but how easy it is (especially when life is too busy?) to enter into states of consciousness in which I forget them! One of the most important things about using spiritual disciplines to structure one's life is that good spiritual disciplines can help keep you reminded of who you are and what your life is about -- another theme I am seeing as I read the Bible.

My not feeling well has made me pause before plunging headlong into the busyness again, and in my pausing, I become aware of my despair, and in my despair I become aware that I've lost touch, and in my awareness of having lost touch, I know to search for my way back, and as I search, I find -- little by little, like gentle raindrops falling.

So, this is where I am right now.

(Soon I will catch up on responding to comments to my recent postings!)