Duckling

What does it take to make us grateful? 

I heard today about a group that puts on what might accurately be called “Homeless Camp” for kids to experience what homelessness is like.  The kids are outfitted, just like homeless people would be, in donated (usually secondhand) clothes and footwear, given a blanket and 80 cents a day, and they sleep in a public park.  They eat in soup kitchens, which may or may not also provide limited restroom facilities.  These 14-16-year-old kids, of course, do have “camp counselors” looking out for them but, essentially, they are living as homeless people do.  Talk about your experiential compassion learning!  And, not surprisingly, the kids report being a lot more grateful for what they have in life after completing the experience.  I guess you could say it’s a gratitude immersion experience.  I’ve had one of those myself that made lasting impressions on me – both positive and negative.  I’d like to share a bit about how the Happy LIFE helped me flourish today, as I continue to navigate the aftermath of my own immersion experience.

In my case, nearly ten years ago, a terminal cancer diagnosis and surgery – followed within four months by another major surgery – created a major immersion experience in my life.  If there’s anything that anyone out there who has had a medium-to-major medical condition knows, it’s this: from the time of discovery to the end of treatment, treatment becomes your whole life.  It’s all you do – doctors, tests, scans, procedures, examinations, preparations, follow-ups – and eventually, treatment for the condition just takes over and becomes the sum total of your existence. 

I can’t adequately express my awareness of – or my gratitude for – how fortunate I was that my cancer was not as advanced as it was initially believed.  I’m also thankful to have greatly benefitted from (then) state-of-the-art procedures performed by highly skilled surgeons.  Still, the whole experience left me feeling marginalized, patronized, utilized and, yes, sanitized on more than one occasion.  There was precious little humanity in it.  Dignity was in short supply in the medical marketplace, too.

Except for one shining beacon:  Dr. Johanna Whalen.  I have used her real name so as not to protect her from my appreciation.  I am still likely to cry at the very thought of how much she meant to me, in treating me like a person who had feelings.  Moreover, she treated me like a person who was capable of asking intelligent questions and educating herself enough to form valid opinions about treatment options.

Flash through the intervening nine-plus years to the present and you find a woman who had yet to discover another doctor who actually seems to like people or, perhaps even more challenging, to like me, especially as someone whose opinions are based in vitalistic (or, more accurately, a “neo-vitalistic”) philosophy.*  Let’s just say that I’ve been like a little lost duckling who imprinted on Dr. Whalen and who has been looking and looking for another one just like her.

Today, I am feeling very grateful – like a little duckling – to have finally found a doctor who likes people and who, to all appearances, likes me.  We made jokes, we traded mild barbs about the recommended wellness exams and tests that I’m not convinced are necessary or helpful and, wonder of wonders, she even let me keep my clothes on while we met and got to know each other a bit.  At this point, I am willing to believe she is so saintly that she will not die but will descend bodily into heaven.

I think that my newest doctor is indeed different from most of my old ones and, thanks to the Happy LIFE, I’m different, too.  More accurately, thanks to the Happy LIFE, I did something different today.  Because my previous medical immersion experience left me with more than a little stress at the thought of breaking in new medical professionals to me and my “stuff,” I knew that I needed to find a new approach to medical visits.  So, while I was sitting out in the waiting area, I decided to practice the “happy habit” of meditation.  It had already occurred to me to do it in the preceding day or two – so I guess I’d steeled myself a bit against the self-consciousness I felt at the thought of meditating in public.  Plus, I’m kind of old so it’s easer to not give a fat rat what people think.

Here’s what I think happened:  In true vitalistic fashion, meditation allowed me to express a more authentic version of myself by helping me remove the interference of anxiety.  By meditating, I was able to put a bit of space between me and the stress I was feeling.  It helped me stay in the present and keep out of the future where anxiety, fear and doubt live.  Seth Godin, social marketing guru, “define[s] anxiety as experiencing failure in advance.”  I’m thinking that meditation may be the antidote – and gratitude may be the reward.

*I’m using the terms “vitalism” and “neo-vitalism” a la Life University (www.life.edu) to refer to a philosophy that honors the wisdom of life.  It’s a view that respects both birth and death – along with the life that happens in between them – as natural processes that nature has been developing over millions and millions of years.  As a vitalist, I prefer the most conservative, life-respecting and life-affirming choices in health care.  In short – I trust that, when it comes to running itself and healing, my body is smarter than I am.  It knows when and how to run a fever.  It knows how and when to make new cells to heal.  And, when something goes awry, it’s usually from some interference that is preventing my body from operating as it’s designed to.  My vitalistic view suggests that I always start with the most conservative intervention option, addressing disease and/or dysfunction by identifying and removing the interference(s) to my health – with the least invasive option – before going to more radical or invasive options. 

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The Drunken Monk

I have invented – or at least named – a cocktail, which makes me Positively Happy.   It’s made using a heavenly elixir supposedly first concocted by a hermit monk, Fra Angelico, and comes in a monk-shaped bottle.  Weird but true.  It’s called Frangelico and, though heavenly, it’s far too sweet.  So, of course, the answer is to cut it with vodka, know your limits and then bask in the happy glow of the Drunken Monk.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I know that happiness is an inside job.  But the occasional outside-in application of a bit of alcohol in the form of my favorite cocktail (the third one ;0) seems to provide a welcome bit of happiness enhancement.  Some might say that this is a purely artificial form of enhancement and I’d have to agree – but I’d also argue that it’s only natural.

Human beings are arrogant about our place in creation, often thinking of ourselves as superior to other animals.  In fact, we don’t like to think of ourselves as animals at all, which is the clearest indicator of our arrogance.  In a number of smaller ways, though, we have historically expressed our arrogance in a variety of mistaken beliefs that we are the “only” animal to do this, that or the other thing. 

For instance, we have said (in the past) that human beings are the only tool users, although the most generous (or least arrogant) among us might have expanded our largesse to include other primates such as chimpanzees.  Recently, though, YouTube videos have emerged to show that a number of animals (badgers and crows, for example) are capable not only of tool use but of using and even altering tools to effectively solve fairly complex problems.

 So, back to the topic of drinking (and we may have never strayed too far away, since you may be wishing for a cocktail to help you get through this post):  Human beings have also arrogantly assumed that we’re the only animals to consume alcohol and do so socially (or anti-socially, as the case may be).  That notion has definitively been disproved by (fairly humorous) video evidence.

With regard tohappy habits,” I’m not suggesting that drinking should  be one of them, along with gratitude, mindful exercise, meditation and acts of kindness.  However, I am suggesting that the occasional application of a judicious amount of alcohol may open us up to possibilities and ideas that we might otherwise not easily access.  The keyword there is, of course, “judicious.”  We don’t want to become so open to new ideas that we end up dead, or perhaps worse, as an Internet meme, reliving our shame in perpetuity for the mindless amusement of others.  

So, all of this is to say that, clearly, they don’t call it “Happy Hour” for nothing!

Minerva? Or Matriarch?

It’s still hit or miss, but I’ve been working to give meditation a fair test drive toward making it a regular part of my Happy LIFE.  Today, for the second time in my still spotty practice of meditation, the experience was emotionally quite profound.  And powerful.

 Some of today’s “meditation mindscape” was made up of the awareness that I’ve entered the third trimester of my life.  This awareness had been momentous when it occurred a couple of years ago as I prepared to become a grandmother and then, later, have to grieve the loss of that possibility.  In the process, I began looking for a something I might use as a symbol – perhaps in a piece of jewelry (because I’m too old and not acculturated by my milieu for tattoos) – to remind and guide me as I build my third and final act (and it looks as if  I’ll have to build my act because refining it is out of the question.  But, I digress).

So, what meaningful symbol could I use?  As far as I can tell, my heritage is largely Scotch/Irish/English or some combination of whatever people are among the most melanin-deficient on the planet.  So, I began looking for Celtic symbols that might have something to say to me as a reminder that I’m ending one phase and beginning another. 

It wasn’t long before I landed on the Celtic Triskele or Triple Spiral (pictured below, from this site).

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The Celtic Triple Spiral dates to 3200 BC and its original meaning isn’t definitively known but, clearly, it represents a triune or trinity, which is a powerful component of many traditions.  As I continued to read, I found that into the present, the Triple Spiral has been used to symbolize the Christian trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  I discovered that it has also been used to represent the Past, Present and Future.  Finally, I found that, when expressing the female, it represents the three stages of women’s lives, especially (it seemed to me) when enclosed in a circle.  The figure was clean, simple, and spoke to my “peeps,” both in terms of heritage and gender.  The only problem was the names the three stages of women’s lives go by:  Maiden, Matron and (wait for it…) Crone. 

 Really?  Crone?  You may rightly imagine some of the wind was thoroughly knocked out of my sails.

 Now, you will already have surmised that I am of a “certain age” and this means that the mindscape I brought to today’s emotionally expansive meditation session was formed in the seventies, during which there was a little something called the “women’s movement” going on.  Great strides were made for creating more opportunities for women and fairer employment practices, although that pesky issue of inequity in pay hasn’t moved much (with women, on average, still earning about three-quarters of what men earn).  Most troubling of all, despite great strides made in changing girls’ and young women’s perceptions to the point of believing being smart could be preferable to being pretty, today, alas, a great backslide is upon us.  The last I read, girls now vote that it’s far better to be pretty than smart. 

 It was also during the socially expansive seventies, we  became aware of male chauvinism (which sounds so archaic to even say, despite the fact it’s still with us) and gender inequity in our society and in our language.  That word “crone” is a perfect example of female-gender-denigration in our language since it no longer connotes the archetypal “wise elder woman.”  For all intents and purposes, the word means “hag,” “harpy” or “witch.”  In fact, according the Wikipedia, it’s also been co-opted by “neo-pagans” and you know that, even as a recovering Southern Baptist, I’m not likely to be down with that.  So, in the interest of creating a more positive name for my third and final act that also flows better with the other two, I’m using “Maiden, Matron and Minerva,” the reference to classical paganism not withstanding.  Minerva (perhaps more familiarly known as Athena in Greek mythology) was the Roman goddess of wisdom and her companion animal was an owl, which seems to further outfit her as an appropriate representative of women’s elder years.

Now, back to today’s mediation.  Several times I felt filled with a quietly growing sense of deep satisfaction, which I could feel as a smile that, though small, was completely uncontrollable.  It was just pretty well plastered on my face and it felt great there.  I kept returning to my breath, but I would drift again to the smile on my face, as it seemed to continue to grow and somehow deepen.  Then, the idea of my third act of life in the Minerva – or maybe the Matriarch – phase came into my thoughts. 

 This thought, even as I came away from it and back to my breath, continued to attract my attention and grow into an emotional depth that nearly overwhelmed me.  I was almost completely filled with the knowledge that I have been shaped by all the events of my life so far – perhaps most especially by the painful ones – into who I am.  Even more, it seemed as though I understood, for that brief and touching moment, that I am being wondrously wrought by God into exactly what I am meant to be.

Atticus

Do people like Atticus Finch really exist?  If we live in a world that could produce someone like him, even if it’s only in the mind of an author, then maybe there’s hope for the human race.  Yes, Atticus is a fictional character.  I’d like to think that simply means, instead of being a “real life” character, Atticus is “true spirit” character.  If you’ve never read or seen To Kill a Mockingbird, please don’t let your life pass by without having Atticus Finch living somewhere in your head, and pray that a piece of him finds its way to your soul.

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As I continue to explore a new sort of awareness through positive psychology and coaching psychology (and the Happy LIFE), I seem to be seeing archetypal heroes like Atticus Finch in a new light.  Perhaps if we learn to understand the simple biological origins of our negativity bias, we can begin to consciously choose to eclipse our savagery by calling on what Lincoln referred to as “the better angels of our nature.”  And, sometimes, those better angels are best represented by fictional true spirit characters like Atticus.*

From a cynical perspective at various times in my life, I’ve been struck by despair, sure in the knowledge that the existence of a man like Atticus is a beautifully pure and entirely impossible yearning of the human spirit to believe that human beings have the capacity for nobility of character.  

Those of us “of a certain age,” were taught to believe in adults as people who are patient, kind, honest, of high integrity, committed to doing the right thing, collaborative and nurturing.  While reading Stephen King’s Hearts in Atlantis a number of years ago, I was struck by an even worse despair that there’s really no such thing as grown-ups.  If you’re aware of the news at all, I’m sure you get it.

What I’m learning about positive psychology, though, starts to make Atticus seem all the more possible.  Research seems to support the idea that, in order for us to flourish, we have to face painful experiences by trebling our efforts to create or find enriching ones.  That means that it’s not impossible to overcome unfathomably callous acts committed by human beings; it simply takes three times as many equally compassionate acts to eclipse them.  

Since I believe that we live in an ongoing creation, I also believe that we are still infants as a species in the evolution of our “human brain” that overlies our monkey and lizard brains (if you’ll forgive me the metaphorical shorthand for the development of human consciousness over the entire course human history).  And, as infants, perhaps there are only a few grown-ups among us.  Let us all hope and pray that there is an Atticus or two among them.

*Another example of “true spirit” characters are those found in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple.  Although it’s a work of fiction, it speaks to you as truth.  True spirit characters, while more typically called “fictional,” may be thought of as the opposite of real life characters.  We may identify with fictional characters and even be deeply touched by them but they still hold an element of unreality.  Even actual people in our lives can be like fictional characters if we never really connect using the limited knowledge or perception we have of them.  Sometimes, though, the fictional story is so perfectly emblematic of our elemental nature and experience as human beings that its characters become more real to us than people we actually know in in our own lives.  In astoundingly few words, Walker weaves Celie and Sophia into women who live in my mind and, I pray, in my soul.  Their heroism – in creating lives of deep joy and fulfillment out of circumstances that denied their dignity as human beings but could never strip them of it – makes them true spirits who have enriched my life beyond measure.

Opening

The universe is trying to tell me a lot of things but I’m a little “hard of listening” even (or maybe especially) when the message is self-affirming.  Lately, what the universe is apparently trying to help me hear, using several really lovely and admirable people as messengers, is that I’m beautiful, inspiring and even admirable.  I started to tear up a little as soon as I wrote that, especially at the thought of writing it as part of a blog entry, which I typically then post publicly.  And that last thought – sharing this publicly – made me start to feel a little nauseated with fear.  If fear is a signpost, here’s my sign, right?

I’m also doing my best to let the messages sink in and really believe them.  And, you know why?  It’s because of the Happy LIFE – and the awareness it’s creating in me.

Marianne Williamson said, in essence, that our greatest fear is how brilliant the light we’re not allowing to shine through us might be.  If that’s so (and it sure has a powerful and frightening ring to it), then I guess fear uses denial to prevent us from believing we even have a light.  

Is it possible that I might overcome whatever deep-rooted compunction it is I have that makes me feel – so wrong – for believing (and certainly for saying) such a thing as “I’m beautiful?”  Coaching psychology would describe that “anti-who-I-am” compunction as the “Inner Critic” or “Saboteur” (a concept touched on in an earlier post).  In shorthand, it’s the voice that I still hear ringing in my ears, saying, “Don’t wear out your welcome,” or “Don’t get too big for your britches.”  Did I mention I grew up in the South?  Shocking when you hear such urbane and sophisticated phrasing, I know. 

What I’m noticing, though, is that the people who tend to be happiest – or at least more satisfied and functional in their lives – are the ones who are the most open.  They’re not rigid in their judgments or in their ideologies.  Sure, they have strong convictions and maintain integrity in their relationships but they also are open to possibilities instead of being focused on problems.  Note the key word there is “open.”  It’s really the positivity factor again.  It’s starting to look as if people who have learned (or are blessed) to see and linger over the positive things in their lives are the happiest.  Or, at the very least, they’re the ones who are the most enriching to be around.

These are the people whose openness has made them compassionate toward themselves and toward others.  They’re the people who choose to be comfortable with and grateful for their blessings without having to criticize others for their misfortunes (or even their poor choices).  They’re the ones who know what’s right for them but don’t insist that makes it right for everyone else.  They’re the ones who choose to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and truly know that, if not for the grace of God, they’d be wearing the very same shoes without the luxury of being able to take them off.  They know that, given the very same personality with the very same background and the very same experiences, they’d be in the very same position, even if that position were death row for an unspeakable crime.  They’re the people who know that freedom of choice is hard to exercise within the confines of low expectations. 

All of this is to say, open up.  That’s how your light finds its way out.