What Can I Not Say?

Amazing art by Lisa Graham. Click image to visit her on Etsy.
Amazing art by Lisa Graham. Click image to visit her on Etsy.

Good morning, friends. Maybe you’ve noticed it’s been pretty quiet around here lately. Trust me, it’s not because it’s quiet in my brain or boring in my life. Quite the opposite. Hopefully, I can update you soon.

In the meantime, something I read today from Parker Palmer really resonated with me. The book is called, Let Your Life Speak. Which is kind of the opposite of how I tend to communicate truths that resonate with me. My approach is more, Let Your Mouth Spout.

I did that the other day when a depressed friend came by for a visit. She was in that place of internal exhaustion, where you wake up and realize you have nothing to give and you want the world to go away.

I gave her some great advice and shared spiritual tidbits that seemed inspiring to me. I was gratified when she told me, “I wish I had a tape recorder.”

It wasn’t until hours later that I realized I missed the real opportunity—to listen with kindness and care. To give her space and time to arrive at her own wisdom. To help her soften around her pain instead of suggesting it’s wrong to feel this way.

In Let Your Life Speak, Palmer writes about his own struggle with depression. “Twice in my forties I spent endless months in the snake pit of the soul,” he explains. “Hour by hour, day by day, I wrestled with the desire to die . . . I could feel nothing except the burden of my own life and the exhaustion, the apparent futility, of trying to sustain it.

“I understand why some depressed people kill themselves: they need the rest.”

Naturally, lots of people tried to help Palmer. To cheer him up. To remind him how valuable his life was. To suggest ways to break out of his funk. And not surprisingly, none of it helped much.

He writes:

One of the hardest things we must do sometimes is to be present to another person’s pain without trying to “fix” it, to simply stand respectfully at the edge of that person’s mystery and misery. Standing there, we feel useless and powerless, which is exactly how a depressed person feels—and our unconscious need is to reassure ourselves that we are not like the sad soul before us.

In an effort to avoid those feelings, I give advice, which sets me, not you, free. If you take my advice, you may get well—and if you don’t get well, I did the best I could. If you fail to take my advice, there is nothing more I can do. Either way, I get relief by distancing myself from you, guilt free.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve done that, how easily I forget that sometimes the only thing more powerful than just the right words is just the right silence. The kind that bears with, not bears advice. The kind that inspires small, powerful acts of love.

“Blessedly,” Palmer writes, “there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a friend named Bill who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by my home every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling—and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race.

Bill rarely spoke a word.”

This seems like a good challenge for me next time I’m with a friend who aches: How can I honor the sacredness of her struggle? What can I do to show that I care? What can I not say?

Let’s hope it’s a lot.

 

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The Best Thing We Can Do

shutterstock_178261493
Shutterstock

Good morning, friends. Forgive me if this gets long or rambly. I only have time for that kind of post this morning. I woke up thinking about two recent comments from either the blog or email:

“I just wonder if I will ever be able to forgive myself for hurting my closest friend. I have been a fool….drinking and talking…talking out of deep pain and having no idea what I was even saying….I am in recovery….but struggle with hating myself for hurting her.

Oh, how I wish I could change the past & take my daughter’s pain away. Alcoholism is such a cruel disease for the alcoholic & the one that have to endure the wrath it brings. All I could do was listen to her pain & let her express her anger towards me without becoming defensive. It hurt but I would do anything to help her to heal & being heard is important. What it’s done to me is bring up tremendous guilt & shame.

Dealing with broken relationships, guilt, and shame is by far one of the hardest things folks in recovery—from addiction, alcoholism, or just plain being human and selfish—have to deal with. Most of us arrive here sooner or later, though. Stricken with remorse, willing to change our ways, but stuck in an endless loop of regret.

Our recovery literature promises us that if we get sober and make amends eventually “we won’t regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” But most of us find it hard to not want to slam that door and escape the truth of how deeply we hurt others.

Of course, the irony is that if we do continue to wallow in guilt and regret, we’re actually more likely to climb back into the same horrible behaviors that hurt people we love and made us so sorry in the first place. Why is that?

Because shame never set any one free. And because the meaning of forgiveness is to forgo taking vengeance. And if we are the person we need to forgive and we refuse to do that, we’ll find a way—consciously or not—to take vengeance on ourselves through self-sabotage. We’ll be so tortured by our inability to let go of the past that we’ll end up hating ourselves beyond what our soul can bear and eventually we’ll be so desperate to escape our pain we’ll decide we might as well drink or drug anyway, since we need relief and we clearly don’t deserve sobriety. The condemnation of others and our own selves seems to prove this.

Here’s another reason it’s so hard to forgive ourselves. We’ve bought into the lie that to feel guilty is somehow noble, a virtue, or proof of our repentance. It’s one of the most subtle but powerful lies in the universe: My own remorse and self-punishment can somehow pay the price for my mistakes and failures and the way I’ve wounded others.

But none of us can ever suffer enough to make up for how we hurt people. It’s impossible. Only God can bridge that gap by his grace—and if we refuse to accept that grace, we take the path of Judas and self-destruction. We spread more pain. I think that’s the path my father took—he couldn’t get over the mess he’d made of his life and all the wasted years and how he’d abandoned his own kids. I’m convinced it was part of what finally drove him to suicide.

All this to say, my heart breaks for the women who wrote those notes. They long not just to be forgiven, but to know how to forgive themselves. They long not just to make things right, but to have a key relationship restored. Unfortunately, some relationships don’t survive the ravages of how we fail each other in this life. Not because some of us are less worthy of forgiveness, but because some of us can’t see beyond the wounds we’ve suffered.

I wish I had amazing advice for these readers, but mostly I want to just beg them to forgive themselves by faith. Piling on apologies doesn’t usually help. Continuing to try to prove your new intentions by groveling doesn’t help either. Instead, it just keeps the focus on our own guilty feelings and make us it all about us all over again.

Our friend or mother or child or whoever we hurt is not moved by our self-pity. The best thing we can do is set about to live in a way that proclaims the power of compassion and healing, that proves we’ve been set free from the past not because we’re worthy but because the horrors of our mistakes forced us to discover in God a source of hope and mercy that is finally greater than our stubborn hearts can resist.

We can live in  a way that bears witness to the understanding that every single one of us, believe it or not, has been doing the best we possibly can–given our own wounds, our past, what we know or don’t, and the DNA we’ve been blessed/cursed with. Few people are evil, I’m convinced. Most of us are just unhealed.

Yesterday I sat with an alcoholic in my office who had relapsed yet again and who was overcome with self-loathing. Determined to make it through the night sober, she wanted me to give her something to do when she got home. I told her I want her to ponder all the recent wreckage and havoc and insanity she’s caused—and then write a letter to herself forgiving herself.

She broke into sobs. “I can do that,” she said. “I want to do that.”

Let’s all do that today the best we can. And if you happen to be reading this and you’re one of those folks whose been wounded too times to count by a very sick person like my friend or myself and you can’t figure out how to forgive, I suggest the same exercise. Start by forgiving yourself.

Hope this helps someone today. I love you guys.

P.S. Here’s a link to a related post about how to fall out of hate with yourself. And an addendum:

Because I love this poem so much and I saw it on this other post, I’m going to add it to this one right here, too:

It’s by the poet Hafiz:

Once a young woman said to me, “Hafiz, what

is the sign of someone who knows God?”

I became very quiet, and looked deep into her

eyes, then replied,

“My dear, they have dropped the knife. Someone

who knows God has dropped the cruel knife

that most so often use upon their tender self

and others.”

 

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Ready. Set. Go.

photo (4)
I was so happy this wasn’t mine, I took a picture.

It’s only eleven a.m. and already so much has happened.

A friend has cried at my doorstep. Beautiful, honest tears I felt grateful to bear witness to.

Men have shown up to work on a remodeling project down the hall from my office (lots of pounding and drilling).

I have gone for a jog and while running, woke several times from the trance of my thoughts to be where I was and remember God.

I grabbed the last doggy bag from a dispenser at the park and noticed someone had left a small empty bottle of alcohol inside, and I thanked God from my heart it wasn’t me.

I got my feelings hurt by someone who was trying to helpful but was clumsy.

But here’s the most important thing that’s happened today so far. After Dave and I exchanged our usual morning greetings, I surprised myself by saying, “It’s going to be a great day today. For both of us.”

Dave agreed it could happen, but I thought I could see doubt in his eyes. Which gave me an idea. “What if we have a contest? We could attach a big prize for whoever manages to have the best day?”

“Sure honey,” he said. And I knew what he was thinking. It wouldn’t be a fair challenge, since he obviously has a lot more stress, a lot more opportunities for things to go wrong at work than I do here at home with Edmund and a construction crew.

So maybe such a contest would have to take into account the size of the gap between what the person faces—in terms of difficulty—and how they respond, in terms of finding joy.

Which means, I’d have to work really hard at turning a potentially mediocre, ordinary day into a great day. What would that look like? Some ideas that come to mind right off:

  • I’d have to keep close tabs on my thoughts and my ego.
  • I’d try to wake up a lot, and stay in touch with my soul.
  • I’d want to take time to make some other people feel good—even if it’s just a short to text to let them know how much they matter to me.
  • I’d need to practice radical acceptance of every circumstance I encounter, not judging it good or bad.
  • I’d try to stay in a place of deep surrender, letting go of any sense of entitlement or expectation.
  • I would try to hold a posture of gratitude in my heart all day.
  • I would smile a lot for no reason, which is a good way to trick yourself into happiness.
  • I would forgive myself over and over again for failing to doing these things perfectly or even well. Oceans of compassion.
  • I’d spend a lot of time looking at Frye boots online, trying to decide which ones I want Dave to buy me this fall for my sobriety birthday.

I think I’d win, don’t you?  Feel free to join the contest—or let me know what you’d do to win, so I can steal your ideas.

Ready. Set. Go.

Inside Every Monster

clareElsaesserThis past week, Dave has been out of town on a backpacking trip with his kids, and I have been taking care of business at home—which has included reorganizing my office (Okay the re part is a lie—it never was organized to begin with).

In the process, in the bottom of a drawer, I came across an old handwritten note from Dave. Normally, I wouldn’t share such a thing on my blog—especially since so many women never receive a single such letter in their lives. I’m aware how fortunate I am.

But I have a reason for sharing this one. Here’s the note—minus some goopy stuff.

 Heather,
This is a love note to you. I love you with my whole heart. You interest me. You interest me more than any other woman. You are a continually unfolding gift to me. …You impress me with your courage to face your life, and live it, and grow it to something you can’t see now or hardly name. Good things are ahead for you and us, let us pursue and wait in faith together. I think a new Heather who was always there is walking out into the Light. It’s not my life or my work, but I’m here—a witness. I’m lucky. Thank you for your love and your beauty. You grace me . . . I love you, Dave

It’s an amazing letter, isn’t it? But here’s the shocking part. Dave always dates his notes—and this one is dated Feb 7, 2007. That’s six weeks before my big surrender in March of that year when I finally did walk into the light, tell the truth about my alcoholism, and reach for help.

How on earth could my husband have written such a note during what were in retrospect the darkest days of our marriage and of my alcoholism? I drank to black out almost every night. I physically attacked Dave in drunken rages and often woke up in the guest room.

How could he have written that I “grace” him? How could I not even remember ever getting this letter?

Seven and a half years later, I think two things are true. Part of Dave must have sensed that I was nearing a breaking point, on the verge of a huge shift. But more important, I now realize that it probably wouldn’t have happened when it did if Dave hadn’t done what he did in this note.

Which was to see past my monsterish behavior to the hurting girl who was trapped inside. Which was to say to me, “I see you, Heather. I know you’re in there. I know this isn’t who you really are or what you really want. I believe in the better you.”

By some miracle, my heart must have heard him, even if my head didn’t know it.

So I guess I’m sharing this note as a way of reminding you, and maybe inspiring you, that if it is at all possible (it might not be for you right now), one of the kindest and most powerful ways you can help an alcoholic or addict—or for that matter, anyone you love—is to look past the ugly actions that come from their wounded places and affirm the goodness of who they really are underneath.

I think that’s what Dave did for me. Of course, loving a broken person toward their better self can seem like a herculean task. I so get that. But I know if Dave was here, and I showed him this note, he’d agree. With God’s help, anything is possible. And inside every monster is a miracle waiting to happen.

P.S. I’d love to hear from you today. I’m not sure if I’m done with summer break, so let’s just agree that while I’m trying to get pregnant with a next book (God’s not really cooperating :)), I’m bound to be sporadic on my blog. Love and miss you guys.  

P.S.S. In case you’re interested, here’s a link to Dave’s Q and A he did for my blog a while back.(Warning: super cute picture of him).

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Her Pretty Little Neck

Art by Arsinoes Temple
Art by Arsinoes Temple (Click image to visit her on Etsy)

One recent afternoon, I was sitting at my desk feeling lonely and anxious when I noticed the sun was shining through the blinds in a way that felt perfect on my face.

I shut my eyes and basked in the light. For the next few minutes, I let everything go and invited God to mend the achy places in my heart. 

 Instead, he broke it open further. Which has been happening a lot, I’ve noticed, ever since I started asking God to help me grow in compassion. I should have known his answer would be to allow me to feel other people’s pain in a very real way.

The person on my heart that afternoon was a friend who relapses often and has recently been taken out again by her alcoholism. She’s someone I tried hard to help once and had to let go before I acted on the urge to wring her pretty little neck.

In the past couple of weeks, God’s been prompting me to call her again. And I’ve delayed, telling myself I wasn’t sure I heard clearly.

But sitting there with the sun on my face, I realized the real reason behind my reluctance: I enjoy my cushy life too much.

The thought sort of shocked me, but I knew it was true. I’ve gotten so comfortable in my safe little bubble of recovery that I’ve totally lost touch with the gritty, hard work of loving sick people who can’t love you back.

Sure, I sponsor women. But they’re all my friends, too. They’re perfectly nice, do the work, and make me feel good about myself. Meanwhile, I notice I no longer go out of my way to help the hard cases, invite newbies to lunch, or give my number to the jittery girl who just got out of detox.

It’s a scary realization, since there’s no quicker way to lose your sobriety than to stop giving it away.

So, I called my friend with the pretty little neck and left a message. It’s been a couple days and she hasn’t called back. No great surprise. It takes a lot of hope to pick up the phone, and I’m pretty sure she’s low on that.

She’s been in this cycle for years, you see. Rehab after rehab, relapse after relapse, and in between, promising periods of sobriety that often end in a seedy motel or in the ICU.

When she’s not drinking, she tries to find meetings where no one knows her—which is getting harder and harder. I can’t imagine how humiliated she must feel at times. To be that person, the one everyone knows can’t seem to stay sober. The one everyone knows has left in her wake a trail of people who tried to help and only got worn out.

Today, I’m wondering where she finds the courage to keep coming back.To try one more time. She might be the bravest person I know.

I also keep thinking about something Jesus said,  “What credit is it to you if you only love people who love you?”

And it dawns on me, even as I write this, that maybe God’s not asking me to help my friend, just to love her. Not because I can make a difference, but precisely because I probably can’t.

Maybe this is where compassion begins.

CLICK TO ORDER
CLICK TO ORDER

In All My Inglorious Humanity

Me at Wild Goose Festival getting soaked.
Me at Wild Goose Festival getting soaked.

Hey guys, I really missed you while I took a break from blogging.

During my time off, my husband Dave and I got to visit our grown kids in Oregon. Picture lots of hugging and talking and eating.

We also attended the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina for the first time. Picture a Christian version of Woodstock—music, general grooviness, and… mud. It rained drops the size of water-balloons the entire weekend. We almost felt guilty for staying in a cabin while hundreds of folks camped floated in tents.

But here’s what I really want to talk about today. Despite the fun I had on these trips, I often felt out of sorts. I got cranky, easily offended, and judgmental. Barely anyone was acting the way I wanted them to.

Of course, I knew this meant I wasn’t happy with myself. But that didn’t make it better. After we got back, I continued to grump around and bicker with Dave. Once, during a heated argument about why Edmund had pooped in the living room, I got so angry I actually felt drunk.

Which scared me into action. I doubled down on my practice of prayer, meditation, and spiritual readings. This briefly revived my dream of becoming a paragon of spirituality—but soon it faded.

I was still just me in all my inglorious suckyness.

One morning, I read a passage in a book that was talking about God’s great compassion for all of us in our humanity, not just in spite of it. I started to cry. Somehow I felt genuine surprise at the obvious truth that I am just a human being. Always will be. And that’s okay.

How come I can’t seem to get this through my head? No matter how hard I try, I’ll never get beyond being human.

Looking back on that morning when I cried, I realize now that it wasn’t just an awareness of God’s compassion that moved me toward release—it was how the force of his mercy dislodged within me a rush of compassion for myself.

Lately, I wonder how my life might change if I could experience that on a regular basis. Sure, I’d still get cranky and snap at Dave and battle my ego and wake up selfish. But I’d be kinder to myself about it, too.

I’ve noticed that many of us in recovery have a difficult time practicing self-compassion. Maybe being hard on ourselves feels familiar, safer. Maybe the idea of making allowances for our failings sounds too much like making excuses for our addiction. But they’re not the same thing at all, and the difference really matters.

For this next season of my journey, this is what I want to learn. How to be a woman who tries really hard without being hard on herself. Of course, I will wildly fail, even at this. But isn’t that the point?

I’ll know again how much God loves me in all my inglorious humanity.

 

Holler for Mercy

Art by Georges Rouault
Art by Georges Rouault

I’ve been in a funk lately. One of those kinds where you feel sad for no reason, unmotivated by your work, blah about the future.

Jesus could come back today and I’d be like, Meh.

When I get like this, my first impulse is to look around my life and try to assign blame. It’s Dave’s fault. It’s the weather. It’s my stupid health issues. It’s my blog. It’s the fact that I’m a recovering alcoholic.

But I know it’s not any of those things. It’s just me being human. And lucky for me, usually, there’s some spiritual practice—gratitude, meditation, or connection with others—that helps me feel better.

Once I’m done wallowing, that is. And don’t rush me.

Yesterday I read in Luke about the blind man begging on the side of road. When he hears that Jesus is passing by, he begins to cry out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

People try to shut him up. But he only yells more loudly.

And it works. Jesus tells those nearby to bring the man to him. And then Jesus famously asks him what sounds like a dumb question: “What do you want me to do for you?”

Isn’t it rather obvious? The man would please, very much like to see again!

In the past I’ve been taught that Jesus asks his question because not everyone who’s sick or disabled wants to be made well. Didn’t you know—maybe you’ve heard this too—that some would rather suffer than take responsibility for their lives?

I used to think that. But these days, I’m more inclined to believe that if a really sick person doesn’t want to get well, that’s a good indication that they’re far too sick to know what they want.

Which isn’t a bad laymen’s definition for active alcoholism, or for that matter, clinical depression.

I’m definitely not depressed like that. I have a simple case of the blahs. I have the luxury of knowing that when feeling bad stops feeling good to me, I’ll find a way to quit.

Others aren’t so fortunate. A dear friend, for example, suffers from a mood disorder so powerful that the emotional drag becomes physical. Her body feels too heavy to move, people are too hard to connect with, and ordinary life is just way too much and not nearly enough at once.

She’s the beggar on the side of the road who might not bother to holler because she doesn’t think she deserves the help. Or doesn’t think the cure would work for her.

Or doesn’t have the energy to lift her voice.

My dad was sick this way, too. So broken by addiction and depression that he could hardly wish for wholeness. So hopeless, in fact, that he bowed out of life early.

One thing I noticed in the story from Luke is that after Jesus restores the beggar’s sight, he says, “Your faith has made you well.”

Which could almost make it sound like Jesus found him deserving. But if you ask me, that’s a ridiculous conclusion to draw. The beggar didn’t even cry out, “Open my eyes, Lord! I know you can!”

All he did was holler bloody murder for the one thing Jesus never denied a single person or ever will.

Mercy.

Maybe that’s a better moral to this story. If you’re following Jesus today and you’re in the crowd, feeling well, feeling better, do what Jesus did. Show mercy without condition.

And if you’re in the dark, beside the road, not even sure what you need or if you really want what you need, do what the blind man did.

Cry, Lord, have mercy. And keep on hollering.