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.

 

bookcoversmaller

Hearing Voices

shutterstock_158676188Two nights ago, Dave and I watched the season premier of Homeland, a show about a brilliant but terribly flawed CIA agent played by Claire Danes. At one point in the episode, her sister, who happens to be a doctor, says to her something like: “What’s wrong with you is so wrong there’s not even a diagnosis.”

Ha! I thought this was such a funny line. Then I realized it was kind of familiar, too. It sounded exactly like the kind of thing the mean voice I hear in my head on a regular basis would say: You’re such a fraud and a failure! You’re bad and broken in ways that go way beyond what it means to be a regular human.  

My sister has a lot of experience with this mean voice, too. Lately, she’s been going to Alanon, which has been a great help to her—and me, too. Last week, she called to tell me something she heard a woman say after a meeting that was so powerful to her she thought it might change her life.

Really? I thought. A single idea could change your life?  And then she told me what the woman said: “I’m single and I live alone, but I’m in an abusive relationship.”

Meaning, with herself.

Wow. My sister was right. This idea could change my life, too. Of course, the notion that we’re hard on ourselves is nothing new, but putting it in terms of being in a potentially abusive relationship is a fresh, helpful way to look at the importance of how we talk to and treat ourselves.

Especially when you consider that, apart from God, the relationship we have with ourselves is the most constant, lasting, and influential one we’ll ever have.

No wonder in recovery we emphasize self-care so much. Being in an abusive relationship with yourself is pretty much the definition of addiction, don’t you think?  So it goes to reason that healing this relationship would be a big part of what it takes to achieve long term recovery.

This was brought home to me in a real way yesterday when I got a  call from a friend who’s in the same treatment center I went to seven years ago. She, too, was asked to write a letter to herself about her alcoholism and how she intends to stay sober.

I’ll never forget how much I cried and how surprisingly healing it was for me to write that letter. And it was the same for my friend. Something about intentionally talking  to yourself in an encouraging, compassionate way makes you realize how much of the time you unintentionally talk to yourself in ways that bring you down.

So maybe it’s worth asking questions like these more often: If that voice in my head were incarnated into a person—what would our relationship look like? What do I put up with that I shouldn’t? How might I set better boundaries about how I let myself think and behave toward myself?

And since that voice in my head isn’t about to reform or leave any time soon, how can I respond to her in a way that doesn’t just antagonize her further? How can I show that hurt, fear-driven part of myself the kind of compassion I’d show a sick friend?

I need to think a lot more about this, and maybe you do, too.

In the meantime, as we watch out for the mean voice in our head, we can also listen—with all our heart—for the voice of love that comes from our soul, created in God’s image.

I hope you hear that voice often.

Hugs and love, Heather

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

“Me Too”

Art by Pamela Joyce
Art by Pamela Joyce, used by permission

Not long ago my husband Dave came home from meeting with a friend who is going through an unwanted divorce and is in a lot of pain.

“You know,” he remarked. “It’s amazing how it works. I’m sitting across from this guy realizing that none of my successes in life are of any use to him. It’s only my failures that are helpful.”

That’s so true, isn’t it? Our personal achievements, though wonderful to us, are rarely all that valuable to hurting people. Instead, it’s our past mistakes and brokenness that bring the most hope to others. If God brought us through, maybe they can make it, too.

I forget this so easily. A couple hours before my interview on Tuesday, I stared out my hotel window, gulping back fear, trying to sense God’s reassurance. I kept waiting for him to say, “You’re going to do so great!”

But instead, he reminded me that I’m not there to impress or perform, but simply to say to some folks out there, “Me too.”

Look at me. I’m just like you, and I too found myself in a place of desperation that I never imagined possible. I too, spiraled into addiction despite being a Christian. I too, couldn’t seem to fix or change myself. And yet here I am today…

 Author and fellow recovering alcoholic Brennan Manning writes, “One of the most healing words I ever spoke as a confessor was to an old priest with a drinking problem. ‘Just a few years ago,’ I said, ‘I was a hopeless alcoholic in the gutter in Fort Lauderdale.’ ‘You?’ he cried, ‘O thank God!’”

This story reminds me of when I met Susan. I was still in the depths of my drinking and Susan was marrying one of Dave’s best friends. When she eventually admitted that she was an alcoholic in recovery, my first reaction was to cringe: How embarrassing for her! 

And yet, in some secret place deep inside of me, her confession lit a spark of hope. If she could be happy in recovery, maybe I could too.

Of course, Susan had no idea how God was using her in my life. So maybe, “Me too” isn’t just something we get to say, but a posture of vulnerability we get to live every day.

Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t part of why God sent Jesus. It would help to explain why he had to endure so much suffering, pain and humiliation. Why he had to face every temptation known to man, be rejected, reviled, and betrayed by a beloved friend.

Maybe Jesus was God’s way of saying, “Me too.”

That Feels Like Love

Still Life with Lovers, Van Gogh
Still Life with Lovers, Van Gogh

It’s upon us again. That heart-shaped holiday single women love to hate and coupled women hate to love, since it so often disappoints.

From my earliest days with Dave, I took Valentine’s Day pretty seriously. I wanted it all—the romance, the flowers, the candy.

When Dave failed his first important boyfriend test, I made sure he knew why this holiday mattered so much. “The whole world knows what day it is,” I explained. “And women ask each other, ‘What did he do? What did he get you?’ If you do little or nothing, I feel embarrassed!”

How twisted is that? I wanted tangible evidence of Dave’s adoration mainly to prove to my friends that I was loved and loveable—Ack!

Actually, it was worse than that. Dave quickly learned that even if he lavished me with gifts, a poem, or chocolate on Valentine’s Day, he wasn’t home free. He needed to behave in ways that made me feel romanced and pursued. If my heart failed to flutter, clearly he was only going through the motions…and he could expect a tantrum.

In retrospect, I viewed Valentines Day not as a day to celebrate love, but as an opportunity to test it. It was like I set a trap, and then lay in wait for Dave to screw up—so I could pounce and feel hurt and offended.

What kind of wife or girlfriend acts like that?

At the time, my motives were a mystery even to me. But here’s what I see looking back. As an active alcoholic, I pretty much specialized in behaving badly. And since I knew that the “score” in our marriage was skewed in Dave’s favor, I relished his mistakes. For at least a few hours, I got to feel a little less guilty.

Thank God, a lot has changed since I got sober. These days, I no longer wield Valentine’s Day like a sword. And Dave pays me the huge compliment of believing me when I say that I don’t expect or need a big display of romance.

The irony of it all is that Dave is actually the most romantic husband I know—and far more romantic than me. All year long, he takes me on dates, sends me love notes, tells me he’s crazy about me, and frequently brings home flowers.

Always, on Valentine’s Day, he endeavors to make us reservations for dinner somewhere nice. I say endeavors because despite his best intentions, he tends to forget until it’s too late to get into a restaurant we’d like.

It happened again this year. A few nights ago, he told me apologetically, “Honey, it hit me today that Valentine’s Day is around the corner. And I haven’t made any reservations yet.”

I pouted a little. “Now it’s probably too late to get a table anywhere but Denny’s,” I said.

I let him sit with that for a moment—I’m still just a little bit mean—before I smiled and told him the truth: “We have reservations at The Blue Star. I made them a couple weeks ago.”

He lit up. “You did? Really?”

I assured him how happy it made me to do this simple thing.

And then he used a favorite phrase of his, one I’ve learned to use in return. Four simple words, but in the mouths of lovers, they become a way we gently teach each other how to be married.

“That feels like love,” he said.

I knew it would.

Does God Answer Slurred Prayers?

Art by Carrie Neumayer, used by permission

Because I was a Christian long before I became an alcoholic, a part of me always understood that God was my only hope. Some nights, I’d get drunk and beg God to do a miracle and make me stop. In the morning, sick with shame and regret, I’d remind myself: God doesn’t answer slurred prayers, Heather. 

But is that really true?

What if God not only hears those prayers, he’s willing to help drunks get sober—even if they don’t pray in Jesus name, or even if they use a recovery program that isn’t exclusively Christian?

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that when I first got into recovery, it shocked me to see God so clearly at work in the lives of people who didn’t call him by the “right” name or necessarily identify themselves as Christians.

The longer I attended meetings among such folks, the more I saw that not only was God helping them to recover, in many cases, they depended on him in a more actual way than I ever had—like a crippled person leans on and trusts a cane.

I noticed something else, too. No matter what people called their “higher power,” it always sounded a lot like the Christian God of the Bible—good, loving, just, and forgiving.

What did it all mean?

Today, I think it means that left to their own devices, people seem naturally drawn to an idea of God inscribed on their hearts by their Creator.

I think it means that God can and does draw people to himself without the help of expert Christians, church, or the Bible.

I think it means that God’s kindness is so great and his love so far-reaching that he rushes to the aid of any who cry out to him for help.

Tuesday, my daily Bible reading included this passage:

“And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their pre-appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being…” Act 17: 26-28

Paul perfectly describes what I witness in the rooms of recovery every day. People desperately groping about for God and finding him—even if they don’t yet fully understand Who they’ve laid hold of.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone in recovery is a Christian. But it does mean that God doesn’t wait to help us until after we get our beliefs right. How else could God’s kindness lead us to repentance?

I’ll close with this passage from the Psalms:

“..The Lord is faithful to all his promises

and loving toward all he has

made.

The Lord upholds all those who fall

and lifts up all who are bowed

down.”

Psalm 145:13-14

I’d love to hear from you today. Do you think there are limits to how much God can or will help someone who isn’t a Christian?  

 

Smitten

A while back, Dave and I attended a weekend retreat where author James Finley was the speaker. Finley spent his early years as a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton was his spiritual director. He kept us riveted as he spoke about contemplative prayer and the Christian mystics.

When a friend asked me later what I learned, I wanted to say something smart about St. John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila. But instead, I blurted out the truth.

“God loves me,” I said. And in case that sounded trite, I added, “Moreover, he’s smitten by me.”

We both laughed.

Perhaps like you, I grew up hearing that God loves me. It was something I was taught to say and sing. For most of my life, it’s been a given, like the fact that dogs bark and grass is green. God loves me…

Of course.

But the problem with givens is that after a while, they fail to make an impact.

A while back I read a novel written from the viewpoint of a five-year-old boy who, along with his mother, is being held captive by her rapist in a small room. Born here, it’s all he’s ever known. Walls, floor, ceiling. His entire personal world happens inside four walls.

When mother and son manage to escape, the boy’s shock at encountering the outside world is almost too much. The world is alive now, in motion and enormous. It rushes at him with strange sounds and smells, trees and other people. He looks up and instead of ceiling he sees an infinite abyss of something soft and blue that he can’t touch or feel…

Something like that happened to me at the retreat. I was jolted out of the plain, familiar room where all of my life I’d heard about God’s love—and plunged into an encounter with it that left me amazed.

How did Finley do it?

Actually, he used one of my least favorite words—precious–without once making me wince. “People don’t know how precious they are to God,” he said sadly. “They have no idea that God is utterly smitten with them.”

At one point, Finley reminded us how we tend to see our children through adoring eyes, especially when they’re toddlers. “Awww, look! Lucy is tossing her Cheerios to the dog. How adorable! Where’s the camera?”

He went on to propose that God is similarly enraptured with us. He hangs on our every word, glance of eye, or intake of breath. “Awww, look!” God says, “He’s getting ready to go to work again!” Or, “Awww! She’s making waffles for breakfast.”

We all laughed, a little embarrassed. But I think Finley was trying to help us grasp the flabbergasting truth that God doesn’t love us in some general way, or because it is a universal given, like gravity. No. He utterly adores us—and he can’t help himself.

Perhaps the apostle John said it best: “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”

Finley told us about a time when he was teaching this message at another retreat. Above the coffee pot was a small blackboard where people could post messages for each other. When he came down one morning to get his coffee, he noticed that someone had written on it: “Awwww, look! They’re getting their coffee…”

Silly? Maybe a little.

But it’s also serious business. When you’re convinced God loves you this way, it changes you at your core. It changes the way you see yourself, the world, and maybe most important—it changes what others see in you.

After all, it wasn’t Finley’s eloquence that impacted me so powerfully that weekend. It was his unabashed confidence in his own belovedness. When you see someone so convinced of this truth, you wonder if it could be true for you, too. Maybe God’s love is not just a given, but something constantly being given you.

Like the sky outside. Or the wind in your hair.

So think about it. Right now, God might be saying about you, “Awww, look! She’s reading that silly blog again! Do you think she gets how much I love her?”

He’s smitten, I’m telling you.

The novel I reference is Room by Emma Donoghue.