Archive | January, 2010

Fear Factor

31 Jan

This week I sat and watched a number of people being evaluated on their presentation skills. And occasionally, my heart broke for a few people who not comfortable with public speaking, become stiff and paralyzed with fear as they spoke. You could tell there was an aspect of life or death threat in the experience – or at least a perception of life or death in the experience. 

Lately I’ve been thinking about what exactly makes us afraid as individuals and why this is so highly unique for all of us. I’ve been thinking about this because lately I’ve noticed a sense of this life or death type panic within myself related to experiences that simply don’t warrant such a reaction – and yet they do. For me, it isn’t public speaking that causes dread. On the contrary, I’m one of those odd balls that thrives on public speaking and pines for a microphone and platform. But I’ve noticed as my schedule gets amped up being in graduate school while working, every now and then I experience this sense of threat – what if I don’t get everything done and if I don’t get things done perfectly? Will I die? 

Now what is this? I am not a perfectionist. I am okay with things not always being the best. So why this intense fear? It’s quite bizarre actually and makes me think there is some residual thing from childhood rearing its head. I think it has to do with the fact that one of my classes (Greek) takes me totally outside my knowledge comfort zone. Like math, it’s something that you can’t really bullshit about and it’s not a natural skill for me. And so it brings in a level of insecurity that I don’t typically experience. And that insecurity = a feeling of life or death. There is also a ton of information and I feel like if I don’t learn EVERYTHING (every vocabulary word; every verb ending, etc), I’m going to go to the guillotine.

So you’re probably thinking I was raised in a pressure cooker household where my parents demanded academic excellence and hovered over my every test. Wrong. While it’s true I come from a family of academics, in my house learning stemmed from a genuine love of knowledge. No one pushed me into anything. I loved to learn and my parents were actually pretty hands off. And with the exception of math, learning came pretty organically. Nonetheless, somewhere my little mind construed that doing well brought love and attention – or at least mastery and control – whereas not knowing something like in math (or Greek), flirted with the unknown, being out of control, helpless and — in danger.

Trying to get to the root of this distortion is pointless. All that matters now is that I learn how to calm my nervous system so that I can get through Greek (and other classes while working) without the degree of stress I’m putting myself through. Yes, a little stress is good. It keeps us moving. It got me a tutor and an A- in Greek last quarter. But I must also learn to reassure myself that I am safe. It’s fine not to know everything. Nothing catastrophic is going to happen if I don’t. In fact, we learn best through our mistakes and when we’re relaxed. Plus, the chances of anyone learning an entire language in such a condensed amount of time is impossible. It’s just too much information. The important thing is that through the process, a chunk of the material actually sinks in. Learning does happen and is happening.

Because we all have these vulnerabilities in life – related to performance – to approval – to love – we must always be tender not only with those we instruct but also with ourselves. Watching colleagues stammer and look like deers caught in the headlights and helping a friend with some writing this week made me realize we all have our own weird histories related to showing up and being received. May we never stop having the courage to keep stepping out and taking it up a notch because fear also equals energy. Growth. And life.

It Takes A Village

26 Jan

They say it is very common for those who have lost loved ones to suicide to feel guilty for not preventing the death. “If only I’d done this, said that.”  Bizarrely, when my mom committed suicide, I didn’t have those feelings. I don’t know why but I didn’t. I had a plethora of other feelings but guilt wasn’t predominant or even on the radar much. 

Tonight it hit the radar screen. Even though I know that I did the best that I could at the time. 

This week I am in a seminar called “Mental Health First Aid.” Originating in Australia, the curriculum was designed to teach lay people how to respond to mental health crisis such as suicidal ideation, anxiety, substance abuse and psychosis. The first aid responder serves as a bridge, helping the individual to maintain until s/he can receive a higher level of care or until the crisis is resolved. I am taking the course because I believe more people should know how to respond to mental health issues and to help de-stigmatize mental illness. 

As I sat in the seminar today, I felt the hurt and the irony that I could not save my mom even though as a therapist I help suicidal people on a routine basis. This is something I find hard to reconcile. There were red flags everywhere that my mom would attempt suicide. She had tried before, she had depression, was an alcoholic, was isolated and was getting out of jail. And yet when the time came, I did not get involved the way she needed someone to get involved. There had been so many “emergencies” and “dramas” for so many years – and with both of my parents – that I was done. And maybe she was beyond help. There had been interventions, hospitalizations, the kindness of strangers helping her for years. And yet she was help rejecting much of the time. But what if there had been more people besides me? More people trained in mental health first aid? More people who not only knew how to read the signs but knew how to serve as that bridge? To get her safely to the other side to the professionals who might have been able to help? Would my mom still be alive? I think so. Because it takes a village. 

I believe in this organization and I believe in communities and churches and synagogues because people need people. 

As I wind down at the end of a long day, I think of the scripture my pastor emailed me one night very soon after my mom’s suicide when I was just plagued with grief – “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” Eph 1:18. 

It is my prayer that we as a community (the community at large – not just the mental health community) know how to better respond to mental illness. To people’s suffering. To the tremendous social problems plaguing our world because people can’t always sustain. I pray that we know how to be that hope for others. That we know how to lay down our lives so that others may live. But it’s a lot easier doing that in community than bearing it alone. This is why we need each other and why we need God.

My one consolation is that my mother now resides in the ultimate community and is finally at peace.

I Was Born To Sing For You

19 Jan

My church has something called a wall of prayer where we try to have all the hours of the week covered in prayer by someone within the congregation. Although my schedule varies from week to week, I signed up for 4:00 on Mondays. Today was my first day. 

There is something powerful about knowing your prayer time is something bigger than you. That you are praying not only for your own spiritual process but for the collective body of the church. I couldn’t have picked a better day for my hour – my brick in the wall. It’s raining. I’ve been home studying all day (which is its own form of prayer) and coming off of four days free of clinical work before having to move into two weeks of very little break. 

My prayer time wasn’t anything at all what I expected. Not that I expected anything in particular. But what I got surprised me. Over and over again, I kept hearing my pastor’s reference to the Shema this Sunday. “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” But more specifically, I kept hearing the pastor saying in more lay terms that we have a body, a mind and emotions so that we can love God with these things. That kept playing over in my head like a mantra. And since my body actually hurt from stiffness, I decided to lay down on the floor and stretch as I concentrated very specifically on God. 

As I did I thought of how wonderful it is when our bodies, minds, hearts and souls reverberate with God. I thought of the U-2 lyric, “I was born to sing for you (referring to God) and Walt Whitman’s poetic line “I sing the body electric” which I relate to when my body is flushed with gratitude for the life God has given me and the current of the Holy Spirit that operates through me. 

And then my mind went to a young woman who I happened to have in a few group therapy sessions long ago at a hospital where I work. She was someone so sweet but tormented with anxiety and the fact that her life was being aborted by this affliction. Anxiety was so riddling her body she’d sit rigid in her chair almost catatonic. We were doing a group on anxiety and I told the group that sometimes, we have to work with the body to treat anxiety. And so I had her lay in a yoga posture – child’s pose – over a bolster and I’ll never forget the look of peace that came over her face. For a few minutes, her entire body surrendered into peace and her face relaxed. That to me is what we look like when we feel God holding us. Being with us. Maybe this is loving God with our bodies. 

And finally my mind jumped to the film “Slumdog Millionaire” because I had heard one of the film’s songs the other day. The song where a woman is humming and on screen we see all the pieces of the character’s life coming together – culminating into transcendence from his previous suffering as he reunites with his beloved. At the time I didn’t see this as the reuniting with the BELOVED – with our maker. The restoring of cosmic order. I didn’t make the connection. I didn’t see God’s kiss of grace as the hero kisses the scar of his beloved. But on some deep level I got it. Because that movie rocked me. It spoke to me as my story. Our story. All of our stories. I didn’t find the film sad. I found it luminous. Miraculous.  The fragments of my life coming together. The old hurts and wounds absolving as I near God. Look to the face of God. Unveiled. 

And so during my hour of prayer – my brick in the wall – I found myself crying. Out of gratitude. 

Yes, God. I was born to sing for you. And I will love you with my mind, my body, my heart and my soul.

Personal But Not Private

16 Jan

When the tsunamis hit Indonesia a few years back, I remember being glued to the television because I had lived there for an entire year. What act of haphazard put me there at a time of no tsunamis while other people suffered tragically? I felt deeply connected to the experience and yet oddly removed living so far away.

And now as we look at the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, I feel a similar phenomenon, although I don’t have the personal connection to Haiti other than that my relatives visited there a number of years back. We can look at the images of tragedy on the television and feel deeply moved – we can pledge money by texting on our cell phones and giving to our churches – but then just as easily turn our thoughts to the NFL games this weekend. 

How then do we have our personal experience but stay connected in community? Have a personal but not private, insular experience? 

I’ve been thinking about this as I’ve been reading about the apostle Paul who catalyzed the formation of the early Christian church. For Paul, the Gospel was indeed a personal message. (Gorman, 2004, p. 110). In Gal. 2:19-20 he writes, “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” But despite this, Paul believes the good news is for all humanity (ibid, 2004). For Paul, “realities like ‘justification’ and ‘salvation’ are social or corporate realities; we experience them with other people” (ibid, p. 110). 

I am struck by this because for years, I thought my spirituality was something between God and I alone. It was PRIVATE. Not something to be shared with others. Yet Christianity is a corporate experience. A fundamental tenant is that the body is shared and experienced with other people. While serving and having compassion for others in not new to me, being part of a spiritual community presented a unique concept. That my relationship to God is personal but not private continues to astonish me. And yet not. 

I look back at my experience as a psychotherapist and realize that for years I have been more drawn to work in hospitals, nursing homes and schools than in private practice because in the former you can give people a sense of COMMUNITY. You can create an environment where the marginalized have a place. Have connection. Have community. All my life I’ve been drawn to this notion of bringing spirit to people and people to spirt and community. I just didn’t know that it was called Jesus. 

So yes. I am about as private as Greta Garbo. Half the time, “I just want to be alone.” But not really. I long for a not private experience. I long to be connected to those across barriers be they geographic or symbolic. And I long to praise God not just in my head but out loud. With my brothers and sisters and behind a pulpit. I guess this love of mine for God is indeed personal but it is no longer private.

Two Roads Diverged

9 Jan

My best friend dropped the class we were going to take together today. I was proud of her for doing what she needed to do but of course I was bummed. It was a continuation of a seminar class we took last quarter and because we had to travel to Irvine for it, we had lots of time in the car to talk, plus consulted daily throughout the quarter. We hadn’t taken classes together since 1988 when we were theatre students at UCSD. For a few months, we got to be “kids” together again in school and people asked us if we were sisters like they always did when we were in college. I was aware the whole time that it was priceless. An opportunity not to be taken for granted. 

My best friend and I lead very different lives. She is married with two kids and has been with her husband since we were in college. I am single with no kids and have had a string of relationships that have never lasted terribly long (with the exception of one). For a long time I worried that I was somehow a freak of nature because I hadn’t hit the mile stones all my other friends had hit. I surely was the Ugly Duckling that somehow did not fit in. But now I just see that God has special plans for all of us. To compare our lives with others is absurd. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. We all have unique personal histories and destinies. 

The reason my friend had to drop the class was because of conflicting commitments: Computer programming, homeschooling, leading a band, being a wife and mother. Somehow she pulled all of that off last quarter and still got A’s in her two classes but it was too much. School isn’t going anywhere and she’ll resume but right now, it’s too much for her. 

School is a lot for me too. I have to work to support myself and pay off my first graduate degree while wanting to fully embrace my studies, maintain A’s and get scholarships. But last night, I realized I have an advantage. When I came home I thought, “Thank God, I’m not married. My poor husband would find me so boring. All I do is work and study.” The only way I’d want to be married right now is if I was madly in love with my husband and didn’t have to work and go to school simultaneously. Otherwise, I’d just be too grumpy and stressed. And it showed me, God has plans for us. And somehow, it all works the way it’s supposed to. 

So my road is one a little less traveled than the regular route but as I felt my friend’s struggle – wanting so badly to do it all – I realized, we all struggle with the paths we’ve wound up on. As my cat sits on my lap and I love him like a child, I know I would have made someone an amazing mother. I remember taking care of my friend’s son when he was a baby and just adoring every moment we spent together. And how being a nanny for three boys was one of the happiest years of my life. But I also love coming home and studying and having the freedom to surf and go to yoga and watch whatever I want to on t.v. And to come home after work and know I don’t have to argue with anyone and can regroup and be with God. After mothering people all day in a different kind of way.

Yes, He has plans for us. For all of us. Plans for us to prosper. No matter what road He puts us on.

Zoe (Zwn) Not Bios

3 Jan

You couldn’t pay me to go to a mall. I hate them. There are only a few reasons why you’ll ever find me anywhere near one. 1) Something is going on with my Macbook and I need the ENTHUSIASTIC Mac people to help me with the issue free of charge; 2) I have a gift card to the Cheesecake Factory or 3) I need the eye liner I buy once a year from Sephora (I need to start ordering this on-line). 

Today, reason number three took me to the mall and while there, I soon realized Dorothy wasn’t in Kansas anymore. All the people around me looked like creatures from another country. Or planet. The young girls were plastered in make-up and too tight of clothes. (Someone must tell these girls that less is more. Classic, understated and natural is far more attractive). And the guys there seemed just as into the shopping as them.

I forget that we are a nation of consumers. We worship at the alter of materialism. 

Which got me thinking about a sermon I heard recently in which the pastor differentiated between two Greek words that both mean life but bear different connotations. “Zwn” means eternal life and “bios” has more to do with earthly living. He was making the point that we need to focus more on zwn than bios because bios is finite and zwn – well, zwn is eternal. And far more substantial.

So, clearly the stuff of Fashion Valley reflects bios. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that consumerism won’t sustain us. But what of those things that we think will but that don’t? That fail? Relationships? Hopes? Dreams? Love? How do we reconcile that? How do we not mistake those things for zwn?

This is more tricky because God designed us to be relational beings. He created us in His image and in others we can find this Imago Dei. This aspect of Him. So it is normal to seek zwn in people and relationships. And it is not necessarily wrong that we do. The problem though comes in our tenuous relationships to attachment. Most of us are wounded in this area and are trying to navigate how to be in relationship without losing self, perspective or God. It is very easy to be all zwn when secluded on a mountaintop in a monastery. It’s harder when brushing elbows with people at Fashion Valley and elsewhere. So it’s no coincidence that Rilke wrote, “For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.” Or that Martin Buber writes, “Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its “content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou… Love is responsibility of an I for a Thou. 

I think the only way to truly live from zwn vs. bios is to turn to the Master for help in how to do this. I don’t think it’s an easy task to be self-aware. Or to love. To be so spiritually inclined that one can be removed from Bios. From Ego. From self or projections. Because that is how we’re partially wired. We are living in partial separation from God. 

So my New Years’ mantra is this – “Zwn not bios. God help me choose zwn not bios.”