Kintsugi

On a small table in my front hall, sits a lovely handmade pottery vase. The vase, pleasingly curvaceous, caught my eye and I was reasonably sure it was meant to be mine the very second I saw it. It was glazed in the shades of earth and sage that soothe my soul. Wrapped perfectly around its surface was a large oak leaf, gracefully rendered in natural, unglazed clay. This vase all but spoke my name. However, as is my habit, I didn’t buy it right then in recognition of the fact that I have way more than enough “stuff.” And, because it’s always possible the lovely things-I-see-but-really-don’t-need might be meant for someone else who would appreciate them more. The surest sign, for me, that a lovely thing-I-see-but-really-don’t-need is truly meant for me, is to find it still there when I pass by again at the end of the day. And, sure enough, the lovely oak leaf vase was waiting for me as I was leaving and so I knew, with certainty, this striking one-of-a-kind piece had been meant for me.

A year or two later, I had the unforgettable experience of welcoming to my home my best friend I’d never met. It’s a long story, how I came to be the best of friends with someone I’d never met, but regular readers will know that this was the woman I met online, in the early days of the Internet, while researching my options following my terminal cancer diagnosis. She and I spent hours sharing our thoughts, fears, hopes, and horrible gallows humor first by email, then by instant message and finally by phone. She also generously used her resources to find research and medical journal articles for me. Suffice it to say, I loved her as much as any friend I’ve ever met in person and, because of what we both went through together, I loved her more than most.

Well, you can guess where this is going. My friend, her sister and daughter all came to meet me (and my husband) as they were passing by on a road trip. We had a high old time actually seeing each other for the first time. We laughed uproariously, we cried with joy and relief, and generally went gonzo. When she was leaving, my friend (who may be an even bigger goofball than I am) decided that she would dip me as we hugged goodbye. She’s a pretty good-sized woman, probably six feet tall, but I’m a pretty good-sized chunk of ol’ broad myself. And, while her whim was absolutely hilarious, it became instantaneously clear that she didn’t have a lot of practice with dipping and, in that moment, things went   awry and the lovely little oak leaf vase on the hall table, which I accidentally kicked with all the leverage but none of the grace of a Rockette, was – thankfully – the sole casualty.

My friend was so aghast and apologetic, even though it was also outrageously funny all at the same time. In the end, I glued the vase back together so well you can barely tell it has been broken. Yet, despite its already unique nature, those cracks are what make that vase truly priceless to me now.

But, I wish I’d known then what I know now. Only recently have I read that Asian pottery craftsmen have a tradition of restoring handcrafted pottery (known in its Japanese iteration as “kintsugi,”) which, rather than take the impossible approach of hiding the damage, seeks to find and enhance the beauty in the irreparable harm by re-joining the pieces and filling in the lost fragments with gold or other precious metals. How perfect is that?

Image And, what does it have to do with the Happy LIFE? Well, because of the “happy habits” program we started at Life University, I received a call from a woman who helps organize a support group for grieving parents. She’d learned about The Happy LIFE from a student’s t-shirt advertising the program and asked about it. When she heard the activities included positive journaling, she was interested in having someone speak about the “happy habits” as a way to deal with grief. Even though I’ve experienced the loss of children through miscarriage and the loss of my only grandchild in the same way – along with what appears to have been my only possibility for grandchildren – I was uncertain I’d have anything meaningful to offer these grieving parents. They’d lost children after birth, or after their first few years, or as teenagers, or as adults. I was particularly uncertain because it seemed like a mockery to present the activities of The Happy LIFE as “happy habits” to people who had experienced something as traumatic as the loss of a child.

It was fortunate that I’d never really liked our use of the word “happy” in referring to activities and actions we can take to increase the meaning and satisfaction in our lives. While it’s a catchy concept, happiness is really too transient a state for any of us to expect to be able to hang on to it all the time, especially in the world in which we live or after something as traumatic as losing a child. I can imagine, closing my eyes and recalling my own intense feelings of a different grief, how hollow the word “happy” can sound. Still, making time for the five acts of gratitude and mindfulness that are part of the Happy LIFE has helped me find and build on something deeply fulfilling and meaningful for which I don’t even have a good word. Perhaps it’s resilience. Perhaps it’s optimal performance or authenticity. Or, perhaps it’s simply hope that there really is more good than bad in the world.

All of these thoughts turned out to be the perfect opening to speak with these brave parents. They were generous and receptive and it was an honor to be part of their group that evening. And, in the end, the thought of kintsugi – filling in our broken parts and missing pieces with shining memories of love instead of trying in vain to hide the damage – provided just the right closing for our conversation.

What’s the difference between a parent who suffers the loss of a child and learns to go on and still love life, and a parent who suffers that unspeakable loss and then goes on to lose everything else, too? The possibilities are infinite, of course, but each and every possibility is first directed into a binary stream, at a simple “yes” or “no” junction, and then a new binary stream results from each of those “yesses” and “noes,” and so on, each unto its own new infinity. I know that might sound hippie-dippy or loopy to some, but are you with me so far?

Now, sometimes, as a result of primal grief, a deeply instinctual response to tragedy, most of us don’t have much choice. We simply have to find a way to live, moment to moment. But, sometimes, our responses are purely a matter of choice and when that’s the case, the first binary yes/no stream is created based on “conscious” or “unconscious” decision.

If we want to have a fundamental choice about how we respond, or be able to make a conscious decision that will affect a situation’s outcome, we can prepare ourselves to direct the flow of what happens next and whether we will do harm or provide help. In our grief, there will eventually come a time when we can decide to continue to hurt or begin to heal. We can get better and better at asking ourselves what river of time we want to enter from this point forward. Do we want to create a stream that flows from wonder or one that flows from judgment? Do we want to come to the fork in the river and step into a stream of fear? Or into a stream of hope?

If we direct that flow into a stream of fear, we can be said to be “living in scarcity.” Our thoughts and choices are directing us into a channel that says, “I am going to protect what I have because there won’t be any more.” If we direct that flow into the stream of hope, we can be said to be “living in abundance.” If we can do that, our thoughts and choices are directing us into a channel that says, “I am going share what I have because it could create more of it for everyone involved.” The thing that people who think this way sometimes forget is that both love and hate can be created in abundance. It’s as if they’re stuck on the law of attraction while forgetting (or ignoring) the equal and opposite law of repulsion. Still, a sense of scarcity can create a stream of hatred or one of compassion, but I think only a sense of abundance can create a stream of nurturing love.

Now, clearly some things are always in scarce supply based on their rarity. And some things are temporarily in scarce supply because of the inevitable ebb and flow of nature and its forces, which are far outside our control (no matter how much we want to believe otherwise – just look at the weather, if you don’t believe me). Natural forces are both creative and destructive and we mere mortals can’t always tell the difference from where we sit on the cosmic consciousness food chain.

At first, in the initial loss of grief, we are focused on scarcity. We are only able to focus on the gaping hole that has suddenly been created in our lives. It’s all about what we’ve lost, what we can never have again, and it’s overwhelming. Something fundamentally defining about who we are as a person has been taken away from us. A parent who has lost a child is no longer “a mother of two” or, perhaps with the loss of this child, learns that she will never be a mother at all. Or a husband who has lost a faithful marriage can longer think of himself as “happily married” with a sense of pride and security. And, for a long time, it seems there will never be another moment when it doesn’t hurt.

After a while, it becomes possible for us to begin to notice and appreciate what we still have instead of focusing only on what we’ve lost. We can begin to have a sense of hope that there is life after loss. We begin to see that there are still people and things to love in the world. We begin to experience hope again and it can be said that we are learning to live in abundance. We may even begin to learn that the void created by loss is filled more completely when we’re able to share our pain with others who have suffered in the same way, transforming our loss into compassion for others. We may learn that each new joy we experience in life is sweeter when we’re able to think of a lost child and how much he or she would have enjoyed the experience, too. Or perhaps we are able to discover that the more forgiveness we find within ourselves for those who’ve hurt us, the more we are able to dampen our own capacity to hurt others.

In our loss, our hearts become that broken vase. Through our grief, we begin to mend our broken hearts. We can choose whether we try to mend our broken hearts so that the damage doesn’t show, but there will always be voids created by the missing fragments that are gone forever. Or, we can choose to fully acknowledge our loss, understanding that we are no longer untouched by its sorrow, and fill our broken hearts with that which is precious to us, no matter how much work it takes to discover, mine, and refine it. In the end, and with enough time, we can choose whether our loss is something preserved in its pain and sorrow or whether it is transformed into something beautiful that makes us more compassionate toward others and more aware of each moment as the gift that it is.

 

 

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The Prequel to the “Last” Christmas

I’ll start with the punch line:  The doctors were wrong and I’m still alive.

But, they could easily have been right and the terminal diagnosis they gave me finally made me walk the walk of the philosophy that I had embraced in every major aspect of my life but one:  Off and on (but mostly on) ever since I was fifteen, I had smoked.  I could not possibly have done anything more antithetical to the way I lived and approached most of the rest of my life.  Well, except for food but that’s another sad tale, though it does play a part in this one.

So, there I was, minding my own business, trying to see a new doctor about some middle aged menstrual hijinks I was dealing with, when the doc ordered a chest x-ray because I was smoker.  Let’s call that x- ray the first domino in the cascade of medical encounters I was about to experience.  It came back showing a suspicious lung nodule.  The subsequent CT of the suspicious lung nodule came back showing a suspicious kidney mass consistent with renal cell carcinoma.  Put the two together, the kidney mass and the lung tumor now consistent with metastatic disease, and they equal a cancer that is considered incurable.

I was told that I had six to eighteen months to live.

So, I went for a walk.  Fortunately, I had recently begun a campaign to improve my lifestyle habits mainly because smaller fat women were starting to orbit me.  Walking and healthy eating had become my weapons for improving my life.  I knew smoking and overweight were interferences that had prevented me from remaining healthy.  The irony is, even as my new doc was telling me that I had incurable cancer, he was also telling me how healthy I was because my blood work looked fabulous, I had low/normal blood pressure and was completely symptom-free.  How mind bogglingly insane is that?

My understanding of health – an understanding we at Life University call vital health* – was already serving me well because, as a fat smoker with cancer, I understood the fact that I was unhealthy as hell.  On the other hand, the doc’s way of thinking allowed him to tell me I was a dead duck in one breath and how healthy I was in the next.  It was clear to me that, in my doctor’s mind, all my “health” would do for me would be to extend the inevitable for a few months – I had no chance to survive.  At that point, there was little chance for survival in my own mind.  I did know that if I had any chance at all to survive, I would have to remove the outrageous interference from cigarettes.  My understanding of vital health told me that life could find a way but I surely had given death a head start.

Smoking had interfered with the expression of health in my life and now I was determined not to let it interfere with the expression of health in my death.  Vitalism had always told me that death is a natural part of life and has its own wisdom, just as life does.  In order to die a healthy death, I would not be one of those people who pull poison from a cigarette with her dying breath.  I would walk and be as active as my performance status allowed.  I would give my dying body the best foods in their most unprocessed state.  If doing all that allowed me to survive, it would be a gift.  But, I was more motivated by the desire to not interfere with the natural process of dying.  If my body’s life was designed to express health without interference, I trusted that death was designed the same way.

So, facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, I stopped smoking.  I’m told now by many ex-smokers that a terminal disease would be like a ticket to smoke again.  I’m told by current smokers that there is no way they could stop smoking under that kind of stress.  For me, the possibility of dying a healthy death finally congealed the vital health truth I’d always known but had been unable to live.

As a spectacularly slow learner, I salute each and every one of you who are able to live your lives free from self inflicted interference with your innately engendered health.   And to those of you who have come to your health through the side door, welcome.

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*Vital health” is a model of health care that includes modern vitalism or neo-vitalism, which Life University defines as the “…recognition that the universe itself is self-conscious and, as such, continually creates itself as a dynamic system wherein living organisms are self-developing, self-maintaining and self-healing.”

Post Script to the Prequel:  After several weeks, from Thanksgiving to the end of January, I underwent a multitude of doctor visits, tests, scans, consultations, culminating in surgery on February 5.  I had simultaneous thoracotomy (removing a lung tumor) and nephrectomy (removing the cancerous kidney).  Pathology showed that the lung tumor was benign, meaning my kidney cancer was not Stage 4 Renal Cell Carcinoma that had spread to my lung, as the doctors had thought.  It was actually Stage 1b and thankfully still confined to the kidney.  I am starting on my eleventh year in remission – still trying to learn how to be so grateful for my life that I can be grateful for all its lessons, even death.

Post Post Script to the Prequel:  How is this about the Happy LIFE and the year of living positively?  Well, for one thing, after this experience, you’d think I’d be the most grateful person on the planet, wouldn’t you?  And, I believe that I was indeed thankful to God and every person who graced my life during that time.  Ten years later, a simple little program of “happy habits” has made it clear that gratitude cannot only be something that we feel; it must be something that we do.  One of the simplest actions of gratitude is to count our blessings and, by committing to writing down three of them each day, I learned how much richer my life could be.  And, just so you know, I count each person who reads this far as a blessing.  Thank you.

(Note:  This post, aside from the countless postscripts and notes, was adapted – only a little – from one of the “Vitalism Signs” columns I had the great privilege of writing for Today’s Chiropractic Lifestyles, a publication of Life University.)

It’s a Catastrophe

I’m still shocked at how much simple habits of gratitude are turning my life upside down.  Before taking on the Happy LIFE, I don’t think I was particularly aware, extravert that I am, of my internal dialog.  I sure didn’t notice how negative – and how completely automatic – it can be.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if self-consciousness were the same thing as self-awareness?  If it were, I believe I might be sufficiently enlightened to ascend bodily into eternity.  As it is, I’m just embarrassed a lot.

Speaking of embarrassment, there’s the matter of self-disclosure, otherwise known as throwing your own self under the bus.  So, speaking to you from the underbelly of a Greyhound, I’m disclosing that I just caught myself in an amazingly negative thought process.  I was speaking with the customer service department of the Reader’s Digest, to which my mother has a lifetime subscription.  I called at a time of day that I assumed, right off the bat, would have a negative outcome.  I was so sure that that I would not be able to speak with a real human that I was shocked spitless when a pleasant-sounding young woman named Courtney answered the phone on the third ring.

Then, she asked me for my account number.

“Oh, great, I got someone on the phone but now it’s going to fall apart,” I automatically and immediately told myself despite the pleasant surprise of a live person that I’d experienced just seconds before.

“I don’t have the number,” I told Courtney, “because my mom hasn’t been getting the magazine at her new place and I don’t have any old issues on hand at my place.”

“No problem,” said Courtney. “What’s her name?”

No problem?  Well, this response certainly didn’t fit my negative expectations.  I told Courtney Mama’s name and she looked it up.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t find that name.”

A little spark of fear had flashed earlier and was going off again.  Courtney, still trying to be helpful, says, “What other name could it be under?”

“None, really,” I said, and I was thinking to myself, Mama subscribed to that magazine when she went to work at seventeen and I know she received it under her married name my whole life, in excess of fifty years.  It was starting to seem really weird at that point.  I felt a little gust of worry, fanning another little spark of fear catch the tinder of doubt and begin to burn.  What if Mama’s been targeted for some sort of identity theft?  What if her accounts have been changed to some other address?

Suffice it to say that, in the end, it wasn’t a problem with her account.  And, please allow me to reiterate that, prior to the Happy LIFE, I truly don’t think I would have been aware of all the dire things I was speculating about what could have gone wrong just because my mother wasn’t receiving a magazine.  I suppose I could choose to be comforted by the fact this negative thought process is so common it has a name.  I was “catastrophizing.”  I was stringing together every worst-case scenario I could think of and, because I’m somewhat creative, I could think of a lot of catastrophes that an AWOL magazine could portend.

I’m grateful that I revisited my catastrophizing in writing, too, because it took me along another path where much sweeter thoughts have occurred to me.  I’ve thought about how the Reader’s Digest has followed Mama and, in a way, served as a chronicle of her admirable passage through the world, from dirt farm to comfortable retirement.  It has also served as the source of her (and my own) vocabulary; it has helped shape her worldview; it has served as an object lesson and example of a world where we pay increasingly more for goods and services that offer increasingly less value, where almost everything in our lives is “commoditized” and we can’t be sure what to believe and who’s selling what.

I know that a some intellectual or “now a go go” contemporary types find magazines like Reader’s Digest to be laughable artifacts of a time that was naïve at best and socially repressive at worst.  Still, for me, it will always serve as a symbol of a generation that considered the greater good, who thought of others before themselves, and knew what it meant to sacrifice and delay gratification for future rewards.  I appreciate that, these days, we have a more acceptable outlook on many things that would have been taboo in the Reader’s Digest of my mother’s heyday and my own childhood.  I want to believe that it – and other chronicles of my mother’s generation – will always carry their spirit and provide a voice of reason and decency in a word that increasingly lacks both.

Acceptance

I believe that I’ve mourned the loss of our first (and last) grandchild, who did not survive past the first half of his life, on the way to his birth.  I was only able to meet the idea of him before he was gone and still, he changed my life.  Through him, I became aware of – and have opened up to – this phase of my life as the third (and last) chapter.  It’s been difficult – though it’s been made more bearable by having to accept the loss of my own ability to have children back in those days.  Blessedly, that loss came after receiving the gift of my first (and last) child.  I still find occasion to cry over the loss of our grandchild but I feel as though I have managed to grieve his passing, not as a glancing blow of loss but as a lingering gift of spirit.

What I have only recently begun to understand is that I have also been grieving another loss, the loss of the possibility of grandchildren.  Awareness of that loss came as a second wave, keenly felt when hearing about new arrivals in friends’ and family’s lives.  That stab of self-centered grief was tinged with a little longing and, no matter how quickly it might have passed, the longing was always there.  And, I suppose, there will always be reminders of it, slipping in unexpectedly with a surprising stab of lingering loss.

Recently, though, I’ve been making gratitude something of a habit and things have begun to change.  I find myself experiencing the babies and children I encounter with the most surprising mix of feelings, whether I know them and their families or not.  I’m discovering as I write this that tears still find their way to my eyes when I think of kids in the world and the hope and dreams they represent.  What I’m especially surprised to feel is deep gratitude to all the children we’ve seen out and about who’ve waved and smiled back, and to all the parents who’ve stopped to chat.  I’m even grateful  to our little dog because she loves children and children love her; she is a kid magnet.

The highlight of my holiday weekend was having three children literally squeal with delight at seeing our dog and, because they had great parents, approach her excitedly but with appropriate care and respect for her space.  It was a clear display what happens when children experience loving and effective parenting.  It was a snapshot of kids whose parents were showing them exactly the kind of gentle – but definite – attention the children were giving our little dog.  And, in that moment, I was struck by a sense of acceptance, though still inescapably tinged with sadness.  None of the children I ever encounter will be my own grandchild but, in some unfathomable way – through gratitude – they are all are.

The Gratitudes

So, the next phase of the positivity path I’m on is “Three Gratitudes.”  Yes, I am aware that “Gratitudes” is not actually a word.  However, it seems like a fine time to make it one since it sounds like “Beatitudes,” which comprise the Sermon on the Mount, one of the loveliest, most poetic and grace-filled passages in the Bible.  And, “beatitude” means “supreme blessedness.”

More and more, social scientists like Barbara Fredrickson and Sonia Lyubormirski are publishing research that, to paraphrase wildly, seems to support the idea that gratitude is the prerequisite for blessedness.  Let that sink in for just a minute – that may be a keeper:  Gratitude is the prerequisite for blessedness.Image

The Mac dictionary app defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.”  There’s also the concept of “radical forgiveness,” advanced by Colin Tipping and (to my limited understanding) Buddhism, which says we are most fulfilled when we learn to be thankful for and appreciative of everything that we experience, even the tragic.   I can tell you that I’ve tried acceptance-based forgiveness and I’ve got a couple of long standing and deep seated issues that ain’t budging, no matter how many times I tell myself, “It is what it is.”  And time alone doesn’t seem to be healing all wounds.  In fact (and in all honesty) I still find myself half hoping that time will wound all of the heels I’ve encountered.  So, it seems clear that there must be a better way than simply surviving the time that passes after we’ve been wounded and, more and more, I believe it may be marked with  a signpost that says “Gratitude.”

Increasingly, when I find myself being overwhelmed by sadness, resentment, hurt or anger – that’s my sign.  That’s the time to stop and count my blessings, no matter how trite I may have found that saying to be when someone tried to offer it as advice during a difficult time.  That’s why I think consciously making gratitude a habit is essential to creating a fulfilling life.

Today, I begin.  I’m looking forward to this phase of listing daily three things for which I’m grateful.  I don’t suppose I’ll share all of them beyond my daily journal but, who knows?  To begin my Phase Four of the Happy LIFE, I’m going to start with these:

Today, I’m grateful for:

  • Being a woman in a time and place that I am not property or legally subservient
  • A husband who does double duty as best friend and confidant
  • The freedom of expression (and a job that lets me indulge it daily)

And, as always, I’m grateful to you for taking the time to read and consider being Positively Happy.

Shoot for the Moon

What would the world be like if we didn’t have ideals?  What if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had never had a dream?  How dark and low could we go?  If there’s an alternate reality bereft of ideals and dreams, I’m supremely grateful to be living in this one, for all its flaws.  And, science seems to be revealing the idea that gratitude for what we have is the catalyst for creating more of what we would like to have, especially when it comes to having the kind of compassion for ourselves and for others that supports collaboration and richness – if not always riches – in life.

What if, each and every day, we all focused on finding a piece of the dream that was real?  And then focused on being grateful for that piece?  How many more pieces might we then find along the way?  And, how much more effectively and creatively might we use those pieces?

As I understand it, that’s the idea behind idealism, a philosophy that holds that the matter making up our universe sprang from consciousness, not the other way around.  In other words, the “Great Consciousness” had a thought and then “spoke” (acted) to initiate the matter that continues to create the universe in which we live.  This idealistic view respects that there is a higher intelligence operating at the heart of the universe even if we are not able to fully grasp it from where we float, spinning on a tiny speck in the backwater of a galaxy that occupies the hinterlands of the universe.  The prior, Victorian scientific view, was rigidly mechanical and assumed that matter randomly contrived and evolved – after billions of years – to create consciousness.  In brief and, again paraphrasing generations of scientists and philosophers wildly,  Victorian intellectual thought held that the Universe was not complete or fulfilled until we showed up.  Could be.  But, to not-so-wildly paraphrase Carl Sagan in Contact, if there’s no other intelligent (conscious) life out there, it would be an awful waste of space.

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The idea of embracing an idealistic philosophy also touches on Life University’s basis in modern (not the old dead French kind that you’ll see if you Google it) vitalism, which says that all living things are part of a conscious universe and are therefore self-healing, self-maintaining, and self regulating.

If there’s anything that sums up Life University’s ideals, it’s the phrase from our mission statement preamble, which says:  “We maximize the expression of the perfection within.”  We approach everything we do (ideally, of course) with the idea that we are removing the interference to the optimal expression of our potential, which allows us to thrive and even flourish.

So, how cool is it that LIFE’s philosophy is now intersecting with the growth of positive psychology, a model for human consciousness also based on fulfilling potential and creating possibilities rather than on finding problems and treating dysfunction?  It’s so cool, that we’re engaging in the Happy LIFE.  It’s also so cool, that the course I’m able to take this quarter, on my way to completing the prerequisites for a soon-to-be-offered masters in positive psychology, is “The Psychology of Excellence.”  I can tell you, being part of a psychology class that will explore how human consciousness and performance can consistently reach new heights – rather than all the ways they can consistently malfunction – is making me Positively Happy.

Public Speaking

Nothing along the positivity path as part of The Happy LIFE has surprised me more than the fact that it has led me to the opportunity to speak to a group of people in New Zealand who, for the most part, don’t know me.  I’m also feeling profoundly grateful to the people who do know me, especially those who’ve heard me speak and haven’t booed me out of the front of the room.  Because of your generosity, I’ve managed to scrape up the nerve to invite myself to speak in front of people who don’t know me.

It’s also because, six years ago when I said “Yes” to doing work I’d never done before at Life University, I never dreamed that I would find a way through crippling stage fright to public speaking.  I have my friend, Brian M., to thank for the opportunity to say yes to a job that scared the soup out of me and learn that, if you work really hard and continue to say yes, you’ll amaze yourself at what you can learn to do.  After all, in the age of information, ignorance is a choice.

I have another dear friend, Jennifer V., to thank for the first opportunity to discover that, if you know and care about the material – and infuse your PowerPoint with the same kind of goofiness you have in ordinary conversation – it’s OK if your stomach’s in your throat, you can hardly breathe and your hands are shaking so bad you can barely work the clicker.  It won’t kill you to put yourself out there and you’ll probably discover that people are more accepting and gracious than you think you deserve.

Thanks, also, to all the poor, unsuspecting brand new LIFE students who have listened to – and even laughed in all the right places- the ridiculous Croc(k) Pit story as part of their Orientation.

The Marietta Kiwanis Club and its members’ generosity played a role as well when Pat H. invited me to give the “Sunshine” address that the members so warmly received.  I’d like to think it was the brilliance of my “Top Ten Reasons Kiwanis Decided to Include Women” but I think they’re just an easy crowd.  Clearly, they are as generous with their laughter as they are with their hearts.

I’m also learning a few other things, with the help of gracious people like my friends Chris N. and Shelia W.   Foremost among them is this:  It also won’t kill you to ask for help, especially when you enjoy being helpful “yourownself” (as we say down home).  Why do we so often think it’s OK to deny others the pleasure of doing something for you that you would so gladly do for them?

I’m also grateful beyond words to Guy R. for the Happy LIFE and to the entire psychology department of LIFE U for reinforcing what positive psychology has to teach us:  that the more we understand about our inherent negativity bias, the more we open ourselves to focusing on the positive.  And, finally, many thanks to the dear and darling Phil M. for providing me with the ability to soon say, legitimately, that I’m an “international speaker.” Let’s just pray no one expects an extensive list of international engagements to back up my claim.  It only takes the one time to be accurate, right?

Most of all, I’m grateful to Phil (and scared) beyond words for saying yes when I invited myself to New Zealand to share my passion for living authentically as a function of trust in the perfection with which we were created.

Thank you, one and all.

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. 

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.