I’m always struggling with balance. For me, my work is such a calling that I can easily fall into the trap of allowing it to crowd out everything else – relationships, recreation (re-creation), and rest. Lately, I’ve been out of balance. On some level, I was aware of this, but it became abundantly clear when someone asked me what I did for fun, how I enjoyed my spare time, and I couldn’t think of an answer.
I’m a Type-A perfectionist, and that’s not always a healthy thing to be. These tendencies, if left unchecked, can result in poor physical health, poor emotional health, poor spiritual health. But answers come from unexpected places sometimes. This was our scripture lesson a couple of Sundays ago in church:
Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)
At the Home of Martha and Mary
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
While the theme of the sermon was “hospitality,” this passage resonated with me in a different way. Martha was bustling around “distracted by all the preparations” – undoubtedly tidying the house, and preparing food for their guest. Mary wasn’t helping, and not only that – she was fully engaged with their visitor, their friend, their rabbi. Mary had chosen relationship over “distraction,” had chosen to listen to wisdom rather than being caught up in the blather of daily living. And Jesus said she had made the better choice.
I am Martha. I don’t know if I’ll ever be fully like Mary, but I remember this scripture when my Type-A perfectionist side comes out.
I say to myself, “More Mary, less Martha.”
“…weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” -Psalm 30:5
I’m generally a pretty sunny person, but when I do have fits of melancholy, they tend to occur at night. Somehow, at the end of the day, problems loom large; they take on grotesque shapes, they taunt and threaten me. In order to pull through, I hang on to what I know, and to something my mother taught me.
She always said: Quiet your mind. Rest. And things will look better in the morning.
Strange (or cliche) as it sounds, they always do. Sure, the problems are still there, but my mind is less frantic, so I’m better able to see them in their proper size. This principle has proven true so many times in my life, I now cling to it and remind myself: when it’s late, and I’m tired, and things seem hopeless, that’s when I need rest. I need to rest my body, mind, and spirit.
Morning is coming. Rest well.
Lines of dialogue from movies and television shows often get under my skin, and become a focal point for my ponderings. One such line comes from the West Wing episode “The U.S. Poet Laureate,” where staff member Toby is charmed by Tabitha Fortis, the scheduled honoree at a upcoming White House event.
Tabitha and Toby are opposites in many ways. While he’s a practical thinker, she’s much more of a dreamer and idealist. She tries to explain her sensibility to him, and in this moment she says: “I’m a poet, Toby – that’s how I enter the world.”
That phrase stuck with me, nagged at me – “Enter the world.” When Tabitha says she enters the world as a poet, her meaning is twofold: She carries a poetic sensibility with her into life, and the world reflects it back – she sees poetry, and the world delivers poetry. Even the “bad parts” are poetry to Tabitha.
I enter the world as a student and teacher. I look at my surroundings as a dynamic laboratory for learning and growth, and an opportunity to share insights with others. It’s not what I “do,” so much as what I “am.” Whatever my job title might be, teaching and learning are what I’m about. That’s how I enter, and interact with, the world.
Some of us enter the world as artists, writers, musicians, helpers, organizers, leaders. Our sensibility becomes the glass through which we see the world. When we share these different views, we enrich the landscape for each other and for ourselves, as we learn to appreciate different facets of a prism.
How will you enter the world today?
I recently returned to the town where I spent the first six years of my life, and revisited my childhood home. It was an odd and surreal experience. Nothing had changed, and everything had.
I always think of that house when I hear the line “little pink houses,” because that’s what it was – tiny, and pink sparkly brick – but it’s still larger in my mind’s eye than it is in today’s reality:
The most disturbing changes were the trees – or the missing trees, I should say. See that stump on the right-hand side of the photo? That was a huge birch tree, my dad’s pride and joy. The people who now own the home said it had grown too large, and had to be removed.
In the side yard, along the left-hand side of the picture, there were two spruce trees – one larger, one slightly smaller – that were planted to commemorate the births of my brother and me. I was sad to see them completely gone, but the current owners told us that both trees had contracted some kind of tree blight and died.
The back side of the house held all kinds of memories. I remember that back door, and sitting on the steps. I remember that milk chute (the little white square next to the back door) – now welded shut, but once the place where the milkman would leave our dairy order and, on your birthday, a half gallon of complimentary ice cream. I remember that corner window – that was over the kitchen sink. And there used to be lilies of the valley, bleeding hearts, and lady slippers planted where those shrubs are. I thought they were the prettiest flowers in the world.
It was bittersweet to visit these places, and a reminder that nothing in life is static. Other people live in that house now. These were stops along my journey, and they exist in my mind’s eye much more vividly than in today’s reality.
I remember standing on the porch, posing for pictures. I remember learning to ride my bike on those sidewalks, in that driveway. I remember when “coming home” meant coming to this place, but there have been a lot of “homes” since then, and I’m sure there will be more.
When we move on, we carry the memories with us. The places and people won’t stay the same, but they’ll remain in our minds and hearts just as they were.
Perhaps that’s the meaning of home.
I always emphasize to my students that we live in community with others. Sometimes we are fortunate to enjoy high levels of social support, when we feel surrounded with love and encouragement. At other points in life, we may feel abandoned. At those times, it’s important to remember the support that has brought us this far, and that we stand on the shoulders of others, some of whom we don’t even know.
Yesterday was Confirmation Sunday at our church. On this day, teens who have completed a series of membership classes have the opportunity to join the church as adults. It’s called “confirmation” because our denomination celebrates infant baptism, so at this time, the youth are called upon to confirm their baptism and willingly become a member of the community.
My favorite part of the service is when the parents and mentors of these teens gather around them to symbolize this sense of community and support:
My wish for all of you is that you, too, feel surrounded by the support of your community. And in those lonely times, remember the love and sacrifices that others have made to bring you this far. No one is an island, and none of us is alone.
Whenever I hear (or read on social media) someone saying “I’m going to make it on my own and I don’t need anyone!” my heart hurts for that person. Others will reply “Right on!” While I applaud the spirit of strength, I also believe that such declarations may be coming from a place of pain, a feeling that nobody cares. A sense of not being surrounded, supported by love and encouragement. A sense of isolation.
We live in community with others. Let’s foster a sense of brotherly / sisterly love with those around us.
An old friend was in town yesterday, and I met her and her husband for lunch. I haven’t seen her in a year, and I hate to admit that my excitement about our reunion was tempered by embarrassment – I’ve gained weight since she saw me last. I was self-conscious about the way I look, the idea that I might look “worse” than the last time she saw me.
Did it matter? Of course not. There were smiles and hugs and much laughter. But the experience prompted me to reflect on the idea of self-consciousness.
First: it means “conscious of self,” right? So if I’m being conscious of myself, is it at the expense of being aware of others? When we feel self-conscious, we tell ourselves it’s because we care about what others think. But my friend was there to see ME, and I doubt she really saw the extra pounds. And you know what? If she did, it didn’t matter to her. She’s my friend, and she loves me, the real me.
Secondly, I’m thinking about how self-consciousness holds us back, and keeps us from sharing our gifts with the world. It’s heartbreaking for me to see a student who’s bright and talented, a student who should be filled with confidence, writhing in self-doubt and shame over imagined flaws. Then I realize – that’s me, sometimes. When I suppress myself, I’m not giving, not sharing.
Sure, some people will reject me; that’s a given. They’d reject me with or without the thing I’m so self-conscious about. As the saying goes, life doesn’t begin five pounds from now. It’s here, right now, today. Each moment that passes is a moment I can never get back. I should never reject, or avoid, a friend’s affection because I’m caught up in my own self-criticism; how ironically self-defeating is that?
Today, I want to be fully conscious – of myself, of those around me, of you. Only then is it possible to really live.
I’m here to beg of you: stop attacking yourself. You do it every day. You may be doing it right now.
Perhaps you’ve gained some weight, and the monologue in your head goes something like this: “You stupid idiot, you have zero self-control, just look at yourself, you’re a fat slob … starting tomorrow, you’re going to count every calorie, work out for an hour a day, and stop being such a loser.”
Maybe today the topic isn’t weight, but a stack of ungraded papers, an unread book, an unwritten report. The monologue in your head is pretty much the same, right?
I’m here to tell you to cut it out.
The “Golden Rule,” which exists in pretty much every religion and culture, says to love your neighbor as yourself. Self-love is the ground zero of loving others. If you don’t nurture yourself, you’ve got nothing for anyone else. If the airplane cabin loses pressure, put your own oxygen mask on first.
Be kind to that person in the mirror. Correct him or her, yes, but don’t attack. You’re in charge of that life, so find a way to be kind.
I believe in you.
From “ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED IN KINDERGARTEN” by Robert Fulghum.
“All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.
These are the things I learned:
- Share everything.
- Play fair.
- Don’t hit people.
- Put things back where you found them.
- Clean up your own mess.
- Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
- Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
- Wash your hands before you eat.
- Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
- Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
- Take a nap every afternoon.
- When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together.
- Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
- Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
- And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.
Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.
Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or your work or government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all – the whole world – had cookies and milk at about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.
And it is still true, no matter how old you are, when you go out in the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.”
I understand the sentiment of the “It Gets Better” campaign, I really do.
Perhaps you’ve seen the public service announcements on television. A variety of celebrities and public figures speak the line to the camera – “It gets better.” The campaign is designed to encourage LGBTQ youth, and more broadly, kids who are being bullied. The implication: don’t despair, things will get better in time, if you hang in there, someday you’ll arrive at a place where all of this doesn’t matter.
In our desire to comfort, we say things like “haters gonna hate,” or, “they’re just jealous,” or “karma will come back to bite them.” But those platitudes do little to ease the pain of a young heart that’s hurting, the heart of a person who lacks the experience to see further down the road. So let’s be honest about how things “get better.”
Let’s say, “I know this hurts.” Let’s say, “These people are wrong, but they don’t see it.” Let’s say, “Never think you’re alone, because I love you and I am always on your side.” Let’s honor the pain and the sense of injustice, and let’s be cautious about offering platitudes that may dishonor someone’s anguish. The first thing to say is “I love you and I am here for you.”
Things *will* get better, but not on their own. Things get better when we get stronger, when we understand the world in a more nuanced way – and those things take time and maturity. We have to grow through them, and into them. The bullies may never change, but *we* can change, and we can guard against letting our hearts get hard.
So yes, “it gets better,” but the slogan alone isn’t enough to comfort the young person who is feeling the sting of rejection right now, in this moment. When you have a physical injury, people can say “it’ll get better,” and on an intellectual level, you may know they are right. But for now, it’s hurting. For now, you need treatment, comfort, relief from pain. You can endure the challenges of healing when you have the relief and support to get you through.
I don’t mean to discount the work of the “It Gets Better” campaign (visit their website – it looks like they do great work). Rather, I worry about people who throw this meme and slogan around as if it’s an answer to the problem. In our efforts to help, let’s take care not to dishonor the difficulty someone is going through in this moment.
Let’s say, “I’m here. I care. You can count on me.”