Sunday, February 16, 2020

Through the Waterfall

 A memory came to mind today. It snuck up on me--one I haven't recalled in years, possibly decades. It came so suddenly that I lost my breath for a second.

I was about 13 years old and on an overnight canoe trip with my junior high youth group. We were paddling and laughing and tipping over and splashing down the Pequea. Our remedial rowing skills aside, we finally arrived at the site where we would be camping out for the evening.

There was a scenic clearing by an old stone mill. A waterfall, with a drop of about 5 or 6 feet, cascaded into a wide swimming area.

It was late afternoon and still time for us to go for a swim. About 6 or 7 of us waded into the water, floating, chatting, bobbing, our fingers and toes turning to prunes, the afternoon sun warm on our cheeks and shoulders. Then some adventurous soul figured out there was a capacious stone shelf behind the waterfall, with room enough for us all. We moved en mass toward the waterfall to see this hidden paradise for ourselves.

As I neared the waterfall, the current became more forceful and the water deepened. I could no longer power walk through the current and had to swim. I was a decent swimmer, but the push of the water was so strong at the base of the waterfall that I couldn't quite get through to the other side.

Everyone else had already disappeared and were, I imagined, cozily resting on the other side. I fought the current, smashing my knee against a submerged rock. Water, pounding from above and rushing at me, relentless, deafening, suffocating.

I thought, "I can't make it."

Then a hand shot through the waterfall toward me. I grabbed hold.

My friend Josh had seen me struggling and extended his hand. He pulled me just beyond the crashing water so I could reach the stone ledge. I dragged myself up next to the others sitting, teeth chattering, some still panting from their own struggle, all listening to the roar of water and our own heartbeats.

I was tired. My bruised knee was already turning an angry purple. But, with Josh's help, I had made it. I don't remember anything else about that ledge behind the waterfall. I remember sleeping beneath the stars in my sleeping bag around the campfire. I remember waking up damp with dew.

And I remember that hand reaching out from the water toward me. A friend who saw more than his own journey. A solid grip from someone able to help.

I'm sure he doesn't remember this small act. But I do. Nearly 30 years later, and I still remember.

Maya Angelou said, "Every storm runs out of rain." (I do love that line.) However, with waterfalls, they keep rushing at you. Just like life. And sometimes, to get through the deluge and to be able to get to where we're going, we need help.

Be brave, and take an offered hand.

Be brave, and extend your own.

Let's be brave together, my friends.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

On Anger & Empathy (Alternate Title: If you want to keep screaming, please move down the hall.)

 Continuing in the vein of being brave, I want to share with you something I've been pondering for a little while. Anger. It's everywhere. Angry speeches from politicians. Angry articles from pastors. Angry rants from any person with a modicum of a platform.

And I get it. Truly I do. I naturally skew angry. I'm a fighter, so my knee-jerk reaction to any perceived "threat" is to get angry and fight back.  I get this from my dad - which is absolutely not a criticism. It's something for which I'm profoundly thankful. It has taken time to harness (and I'm still working on it), but the tenacity and fierce determination I inherited has served me well. Especially since I now am raising 3 daughters who seem to operate in the same fiery way that I do. (Pray for me.)

Lately, though, I've been exploring anger, my own and everyone else's.

As I was earning my psychology degree (when I was young and dumb and possessed little insight), I heard "anger is not a neutral emotion." Okay, cool. I can regurgitate that on an exam.

I also was taught that "anger is a secondary emotion". Nice. I'll work that into my next essay.

Thanks for my degree. Have a nice day.

Now that, finally, a nice chunk of years have elapsed since earning said degree - after 3 children, the ending of a marriage, grad school, and several careers (2 of them in the psychology field) - finally, I'm internalizing some meaning behind what my professors were trying to convey.

Anger is not a neutral emotion. It takes sides. When I get angry, my anger blazes out against someone or something. They are the object of my anger. They are on one side; I am on the other. When I was young and got angry, it could be explosive. Just ask my sisters. When I got mad at one of them, family ties were forgotten. We were NOT on the same side. Now, raising my children, my anger is a familiar force that I'm learning to rein in because. . . .

Anger is a secondary emotion. (I know there are different schools of thought on this, but this is the conclusion I have come to.) Anger is driven by deeper emotions that come from the core of who we are. Anger doesn't exist by itself and it is not self-sustaining. It must be sparked, then fueled, by something else. That "something else" comes from a deeper part of us, the part that must be protected. (I'm still trying to determine if that need for protection is innate or if we are taught that we must protect it. I'm leaning toward a learned behavior.)

The deeper part of us is where those profound and more complex emotions reside: fear, love, joy, sorrow. These emotions are "shared humanity" emotions that humans throughout history have experienced. That's why I can read poetry by Rumi (writing in the 1200s) or a novel by Hugo (1800s) and still identify with the emotions conveyed; they are at the core of us all.

 In an email to some family members, I recently wrote:

I know that when my anger flairs with regards to politics specifically, it's because I feel like I'm being told that the convictions I hold are ridiculous or stupid or unreasonable - ultimately that I am (or at least my beliefs are) inadequate. One of my greatest fears is then realized: that I am not enough.

My anger is often driven by fear. If that's the case for me, who else is this the case for? And if people are driven by fear, not anger, then maybe they're not the horrible, feral humans I'm assuming they are. Maybe they're just like me.

[Cue the arrival of Empathy from stage right. Uproarious round of applause ensues.]

The world feels like it's on fire. Everyone seems angry. And I'm thinking that the only way that anger is going to subside and those fires to be extinguished is for people to start looking at what's underneath. I'm also convinced that anger is not a sustainable state to exist in. It either consumes or is extinguished. (This is why fire is an appropriate metaphor for anger.)

There's already enough being consumed - we've got embassies attacked and drones bombing and riots happening and people screaming (or scream-tweeting). And it's not working. No progress is being made. People are not made better; the world not made kinder. (Although if better and kinder is not your goal, then by all means, keep screaming. Just move down the hall a little bit or close the door because the rest of us want to actually get stuff done.)

Does examining the underbelly of anger actually solve anything? I'm going to defer to the One Candle theory. I was at a Christmas Eve service not long ago where 1 candle lit another which lit another which lit another. (I feel like there are a lot of fire analogies in this post.) The candles didn't undo the darkness of the unlit sanctuary, but it certainly pushed it back into the corners.

Working within our spheres of influence, imagine the anger that could be pushed back by a flood of empathy.

I'm interested in better, calmer, kinder conversations. The kind of conversations that connect people at a core level. I'm still learning how to be brave. I'm still learning how to whisper. I'm learning how to have, as BrenĂ© Brown puts it in her book Braving the Wilderness, a "strong back, soft front, and wild heart".

And I'm hoping there are others of you out there who want the same. Let's be brave together, my friends.



Wednesday, December 18, 2019

On Saying "Yes" and "No" and Being Brave


Greetings, dear friends,

It is the holiday season and there are so many messages being delivered about goals and resolutions for the new year. Just today I read two different articles--one on the freedom of saying "no" and one on the power of saying "yes". It leaves me pondering. And it's the time of year I like to ponder (even though my pondering-time is limited). Here is my ponder:

There are moments when we need to step forward and say, "yes." I did that not long ago. My daughter is in 8th grade and plays basketball for our school, and they were looking for an assistant coach. I have always wanted to coach my daughter's basketball team, just as my dad did when I was in school. This is my last chance to coach her before she moves into the high school. Did I have time? No. But I could move things around and say "no" to other things so that I could say "yes" to this. So I did. I said yes. And it's crazy and exhausting and I have to remind myself that it's only for a season (literally), but it was a "yes" worth saying.

And because of that "yes" I have said "no" to other things, other commitments, other requests. It was hard to say some of those "no"s.

But here's what I'm pondering. Saying both "yes" and "no" takes courage. It's a clear, decisive commitment one way or the other to something. Will I coach my daughter's basketball team? Yes. Will I take on teaching the extra class at the college for extra travel money? No. Will I accept the dinner invitation? No. Will I drive across town to see a friend, even when I'm exhausted? Yes.

Will I leave my current job to start a new one?
Will I end a dysfunctional relationship?
Will I send that query letter to that agent?
Will I stop eating crap that makes me feel miserable?
Will I invest in a new, unknown relationship?
Will I stop and be silent instead of being constantly on the move?
Will I put my phone down and be present?
Will I exercise?
Will I . . . ?

Yet, regardless of the "yes" or "no", the real questions is: Will I be brave?

Being brave looks different for every single person. No one can tell you what your brave is or what answer to give that requires courage. Maybe the brave thing is to say no, and not open yourself up again to the person who has repeatedly hurt you. Maybe the brave thing is to say yes, you will continue on in a difficult job because that is where you are called to be just now. Maybe the brave thing is getting up in the morning and saying yes, I will face this day. Maybe the brave thing is saying no, I am not okay and I need help.

This past year has been a year when I have pondered being brave. Because when we are brave, we are not allowing ourselves to make decisions out of fear. Fear can be healthy, but I have observed that most decisions made out of fear are the wrong decisions--whether staying in a toxic relationship or running away from a bear (although 1 is decidedly more life-threatening).

The brave decision is often the right decision. Let's be brave, my friends.