Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ministry on Failure

A Friend last week in Meeting said this: "The only real failure is if you don't pick yourself up and try again."

It's simple. It may even (to some) seem obvious. But it struck me very powerfully when she said it.

We have choices
. We can let the world easily defeat us, or we can choose not to let the world easily defeat us. Lack of success at one time is only a real failure if we choose to let that one moment of not succeeding be the last moment we ever try.

Thursday, April 16, 2009


We need affirmation every now and then -- it keeps us motivated and able to keep moving forward against the currents of weariness and resistance we sometimes encounter, especially in a highly busy life.

Faithful readers will have picked up on the fact that my own life is a bit out of alignment. I do get encouragement, but most often that encouragement pushes me into directions I do not really want to go, while I've met considerable resistance in moving forward in the directions I do want to go. More specifically, I got pushed onto an administrative track too early in my career, before I knew better -- I thought I had no choice at the time, and maybe I was right about that. But, tragically, it turned out I was pretty good at the administrative work, even though I found it hard on me emotionally. People have appreciated the combination of my vision, sensitivity, compassion, efficiency, and high standards. They didn't want to let me off that track. But I have done a good job of resisting new opportunities that would lock me in even more. Two administrative positions and three associate dean positions opened up; I refused to apply for any of them. I did, however, continue as department chair, but only because I have been the only tenured member of my department who has remained teaching in my department on a regular basis. The year after next, the two other tenured members of my department will finally return. I will then let go of being department chair, with great relief!

Meanwhile, I have really wanted to devote more time to my academic research and writing, but it has been hard to develop and sustain this in the complexity of full-time teaching, running a department, and starting a new program at my university (Peace Studies). I have managed to keep my research and writing going, but not as much as I would like. I do get positive and helpful feedback when I present my work at conferences. But I've had difficulty getting my work published. This is in part due to the fact that I don't send out my work enough. But when I do, strange and inexplicable things happen, like promised reviewers' notes never arriving.

Trying to build some hope into my future, I had the brilliant idea one day of taking a leave of absence from my university the year after next (when the other tenured members of my department return, to ensure that one of them really does take over being chair!) to devote myself full-time to my book project. The only problem is that I would need funding. So I looked for possible grants. I applied for one. Used to failure now, I was not surprised to be rejected. But I was, of course, disappointed.

Today we had a grants consultant come to campus to work with faculty interested in finding grants. I sent her my failed grant proposal for critique, and expected today's sessions (one group session; one individual consultation) to be humbling, but hopefully illuminating, experiences.

As the group session started, I found myself thinking, "I am doomed," as she passed around sample reviewers' comments and made connections between these comments and what she saw in the proposals we had sent her. I braced myself for public humiliation. I was sure that she would single out my own proposal as exemplifying "totally unintelligible," "failing to demonstrate wider significance," "devoid of intellectual content," or "only of interest to one person--herself." I tried to calm my rising heart rate by reminding myself I was here to learn, and it's good to face reality, and such.

Then a crucial moment came. "You're the one who wrote the proposal about rationalism and empiricism?" she asked me.

"Er, yes," I replied.

"Oh! I spent a lot of time reading that on the flight!" she said.

("Uh oh," I thought to myself.)

"That one is ready to go!" she said!

("Where? The dustbin?!!" I thought to myself in rising panic.)

"Send it! May 1! I know that deadline is fast approaching, but it's nearly ready! That's a very interesting project, and you are a very good writer!"

I could not believe it.

Someone was actually, finally, valuing my work? Appreciating my project?

And . . . complimenting me in front of my peers?

I almost cried.

My colleagues wanted to know more. They were amazed and impressed. I'm very visible on my campus because of my administrative work, but people haven't really seen how much my research and writing means to me. Now this group was seeing a whole new side of me, and it meant a lot to me.

It's not that I seek fame: that scares me. But I realize that I do need some affirmation and support for work that I really feel led to do. Getting support for what I'd rather not do, and indifference or discouragement for the work I really want to do, has been really hard on me.

Today I caught a glimpse of a new possibility -- what life might be like if people supported me in what I really feel led to do.

You can get used to chronic discouragement and disappointment, and develop strategies for pushing forward anyway when you believe deep in your heart that your project is important. It is good to learn, experientially, that this is possible. But that is not a happy life. It's a life that gradually becomes a growing struggle against a kind of depression. It takes tremendous spiritual discipline to resist the temptations to bitterness and despair.

A moment of real affirmation like I received today shoots into life like a brilliant ray of sunlight. The growing fog of chronic disappointment evaporates at once; the warmth and clarity of the sunlight asserts its superior reality. "Believe in your vision of what is possible!" is what I heard it tell me today.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter!

Easter is my Quaker birthday, because my membership in the Religious Society of Friends became official on Easter, 25 years ago now!

For Easter reflections, I think I will simply refer my readers back to my posting of two years ago.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The Balanced Life

I went to a retreat recently on finding balance in life. The timing was very good. I was feeling off-balance in my own life again! My expectations for the retreat were simultaneously ridiculously high ("maybe this at last will fix my life!") and realistically modest ("I probably won't learn anything new, but I am looking forward to the opportunity to be reminded of certain wise things I already know").

Well, it turned out that the retreat helped crystallize for me something I had, in the past, been on the brink of figuring out. The retreat leader started off by explaining that this was not a seminar in time-management. She wasn't going to teach us how to be more efficient so that we could cram even more into our already overburdened lives. A life in balance is something different from super-efficiency. It's a shift in perspective that allows us to focus better on what really matters to us, and to experience our lives in a more relaxed way, more aware of the beauty that is around us at every moment.

I have, in the past, been on the verge of grasping this, because I have had times of my life that approach this: times when I move from one thing to the next in my busy schedule happily focused on each thing in turn, delighted for what each task or meeting or class gives me. These, I now know, have been moments of attainment of balance.

The contrast is easy to recognize: within any given moment, you have trouble fully focusing, because you are worried about something coming up (a meeting later that day; a class you don't yet feel ready for; whether so-and-so will be upset with you for not sending that thing in yet -- and where did you put his address, anyway?) So your experience from moment to moment is fragmented, distracted, stressed. You race breathless from one thing to the next, feeling always a step behind. You are just trying to get through. Your only sense of satisfaction is that of crossing things off your list: "got that done' survived that; what a relief that's over now!" Even falling into bed at the end of the day is fraught: you feel guilty for all that you didn't quite finish; you feel compelled to set your alarm for a half-hour earlier (that's the only reason you let yourself go to bed now!), even though you are genuinely exhausted. But in the morning, you push "snooze" enough times that it finally gives up on you and you end up sleeping a half-hour beyond your normal waking time, and so your next day gets off to a frantic start all over again. There's a picture of the unbalanced life!

When our lives are unbalanced, it's easy to think that if we could just put in that extra effort to finally get reasonably caught up (or learn some time-management trick that would help us shortcut to this!), then we could feel a sense of balance again! Yet, try as we might, we never do get caught up.

So, I was struck when the retreat-leader pointed out with wry humor that she didn't want to help us find ways to pack even more into our already over-burdened lives. She had a point! I mean, really now, do you think you could ever actually get all caught up?

Suddenly I realized: I've never been all caught up! But, that's not been the end of the world! Despite that, I've had a pretty good life and I've gotten a lot accomplished that others really appreciate! So, what am I so worried about?

I don't wait until I've caught up on everything before I allow myself to eat, sleep, shower, etc. There are certain basic things that we keep doing more or less on schedule because we have to, to stay alive and functional. Why should the emotional and spiritual dimensions of self-care not be like this in our lives as well?

Stress is about attitude. Balance is about attitude.

Why not choose to live fully into every moment -- accepting it? "This is my life."

"Here I am at this meeting. The people I am with are treasures. It is an honor to be among them. The work we are doing together here has the potential to improve the world in important ways. How wonderful to be part of this!"

"Here I am in this classroom. These students are at a sparkling stage of life: on fire with new ideas; creatively exploring who they are and what they know. Maybe this class session will be one that they will talk about with their children years later. The material we are studying is powerful and important. How wonderful that we have all carved out this period of time to discuss these amazing ideas together!"

Living into every moment like this really is possible! It mostly requires remembering.

But there is more to it than that. It helps a lot if you do have your life set up in a way that you can and do trust it. Is your job a good fit? Is it helping you to live out what you feel your life is all about, at least to some extent? Have you made time in your life to regularly attend to what is most important to you? Do you like the people around you -- and feel liked and appreciated by them? If the basic elements of life, like these, are arranged well to support who you are and what you want your life to be like, then you can generally trust that the daily activities you find you must do are activities that help you to live out the life you want to live -- if you remember to notice that! Then it is possible to live into each moment with less stress and anxiety and more openness and joy.

But if major components of your life are all wrong for you, then it will be hard to find balance until you do some rearranging. So the quest for balance may require a deeper re-evaluation of your life. Finding balance does require figuring out what throws us off balance, and seeing what we need to do to address that.

It's all too easy to think that it's just "busyness" that is the fundamental problem, and being more efficient is somehow the solution. This is just a prevailing myth we've all been trained to internalize. It leaves us feeling bad about ourselves, thinking that we just don't seem to quite have what it takes to become that impressive "efficient" person who manages to hold it all together. The world wants us to be good, efficient workers, and plays on our insecurity in order to shame us into submission.

But we can reject that destructive thought-pattern. We can instead dare to find the beauty in each moment before us, and treasure the life we find ourselves in. Finding balance is not only possible -- it's also radical!