An Opening, A Turn

Humiliating experiences.
Continual verbal harassment.
Sustained discrimination.
Social exclusion.
Intentional cruelty.
Chronic, ongoing fear and anxiety.
Perception of being trapped.
Feeling powerless to stop an attack.
Repetition of the above.

These are some of the causes of trauma.

Trauma, in the emotional or psychological sense, refers to “experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing, and that overwhelm people’s ability to cope, leaving them powerless” (Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice). According to the nonprofit mental health resource HelpGuide.org,

Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.

The DSM, in its discussion of post traumatic stress syndrome, indicates that while this condition is typically thought of as resulting from one major event, an experience of violence or extreme horror, PTSD can also come about from an “accumulation of many small, individually non-life-threatening incidents.” Bullying is one scenario that is noted as a potential cause of what’s referred to as “complex PTSD” (Psychology Today).

What are some of the lasting effects of traumas of this nature – the subtle (or not subtle) forms of non-physical violence that, repeated over time, deeply wound the mind, the heart, the spirit?

Severe depression.
Sadness.
Hopelessness.
Guilt. Shame. Self blame.
Feelings of disconnection from other people.
Social withdrawal.
Shock. Denial. Disbelief.
Edginess. Agitation. Anger.
Avoidance of things, people, places, activities, etc., that remind one of the trauma.
Emotional numbness, coldness, frigidity.
Difficulty in forming close, lasting relationships.
Difficulty in accessing one’s capacity for sexual pleasure.
Abuse of drugs or alcohol.

I mean.

I read all this stuff, and it is my story. Every word of it is me.

I read it and I feel relief. This is what happened to me. I didn’t make it up.

And then I read it again and another voice inside of me says: Hush. This doesn’t mean anything. This happens to everyone. Who are you kidding? You’re not a trauma survivor. You’re an ordinary person living a relatively privileged life. Trauma is rape, war, having your house burn down. Bullying isn’t trauma. … Well, maybe for some people. But not in your case. You were just a kid in school and that’s what being a kid in school is like. Sucky. Now close that door, shut your mouth and walk away.

I have a Ph.D. in American Studies. My specialization is minority literatures. I used to teach about privilege and oppression in college classrooms. I shared classic works by brilliant artists with students who were adult, educated, intelligent, and in some cases, quite worldly. And it was always this: When a writer described experiences of oppression related to their membership in a group targeted for discrimination due to their race, ethnicity, nationality, economic status, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or anything at all, the students cried out, “They’re so angry. All they can talk about is how they’re a victim. The mean old world did this, that, and the other bad thing to me, my family, my great grandparents, my group. OK, well, bad things happen to everyone. Get over it. Nobody wants to hear that shit.” The contempt, the revulsion, was congealed in and dripping from their voices, their faces, their written responses. Nobody wants to fucking hear it. OK. Point made.

It can be awfully hard for someone who experiences privilege in a certain area of life to understand that some of the things that helped put them in the position they enjoy, occurred at the expense of other people, people they’ve never met, people who may live somewhere else in the world or who may be dead now. That it’s not simply a matter of the lucky-blessed-by-fate and the neutral. Privilege means you got yours BECAUSE something was taken away from someone else. Specifically. And in my experience, just about no one wants to have that kind of responsibility put on them. Especially folks who are privileged on one axis – but oppressed on another.

I’m a fat, lesbian recovering alcoholic whose family background is working class (and back before that, just plain poor). With plenty of serious mental health issues in all the branches of the family tree.

You think I want to say anything that’s going to make someone call me a whiner, a victim, a blamer-of-society-for-my-problems? Fuck no.

And on social media. And among my friends. I don’t want a reputation for focusing on the negative. I certainly don’t want to come across as feeling wronged, limited, or damaged by what I see others as having supposedly done to me. People don’t like people like that – at least people I know don’t.

But yet.

There are these experiences. That shaped who I am. And the way that they shaped me was in the form of trauma.

Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a pioneer in the field of trauma treatment, said, “I think trauma really does confront you with the best and the worst. You see the horrendous things that people do to each other, but you also see resiliency, the power of love, the power of caring, the power of commitment, the power of commitment to oneself, the knowledge that there are things that are larger than our individual survival” (On Being interview).

I don’t want to talk about my trauma as something bad that happened to me, some outside force that stunted my chances for a health and happiness. I want to talk about it as a gift my soul gave me, a core set of lessons in the curriculum of my life, something written into the plan for my earthly journey before I incarnated into this lifetime, one of the cards in the hand I dealt myself before birth – in consultation with the Divine, with my guardian angels, with the highest wisdom and guidance available to my spiritual self.

I want to talk about it as something that really happened.

I want to begin to integrate it. So that I can move on.

Dr. Van der Kolk says that trauma is different from other difficult experiences (even the very most difficult ones of all) in that trauma exceeds a person’s ability to process what’s happening, to cope with the emotions, to sustain a sense of safety and fundamental okayness. This effect is compounded when the social or family environment surrounding the traumatic incident(s) does not allow the person to feel what they feel, does not accept the reality that the person is trying to express, essentially, does not surround the person with love, comfort, compassion, care, and reassurance that they deserve to have healing.

In these situations, a person cannot then integrate the traumatic experience as just another story, even if a painful one, in their self-history. The person can’t create such a story because there is no acceptance for it, neither internally nor externally. The person cannot, then, deal with the consequences of what happened, whatever those consequences may be.

The unintegrated experience remains in the body. In the tissues. In the cells. It is a felt memory, one that a person doesn’t so much recall as relive. The words to describe the experience don’t actually exist – even if the experience itself could theoretically be told about in the most mundane of terms. “He called me this name. Over and over. Everyone else joined in. Nobody would talk to me. It lasted for ten years.”

A few years ago, everyone was talking about bullying all the time, especially in queer activist circles. A lot of attention was being given to kids, especially queer ones, who committed suicide after being bullied. The whole “It Gets Better” campaign was started by Dan Savage, and it became viral. People started to talk about bullying, to take it seriously.

I could not participate in those conversations.

I couldn’t talk about my experiences of having been bullied. I couldn’t talk about other people being bullied, because that might lead to my having to talk about me being bullied.

Being bullied. Being bullied. Being bullied. I am saying it a bunch of times right now because the phrase has such a charge for me, because it scares me so much. And for some reason all of a sudden today, I am ready to, I NEED to, face it.

I shut the door tight on that period of my life. I can talk about my struggles around self love, I can talk about almost killing myself with alcohol, I can talk about depression and economic exploitation and all this other stuff, I can go on and on, I have a lot of passion for sharing these experiences that I’ve had in the hopes that what I have learned through those challenges may be of some help to someone else somewhere. But I can’t talk about being bullied because I am still so ashamed.

When someone else comes out about their experiences being bullied, I think they are brave – and that their sharing their stories helps make the world a better place.

When I imagine myself talking about being bullied, I feel exposed. I am too embarrassed to even go there. I imagine it must seem so terribly predictable, so cliché, so obvious. I tell myself that of course I was responsible for how people treated me; I was too shy, too weird, too unskillful in my social interactions, yes, too unattractive. I deserved it. Deep down, well, maybe not so deep down, I believe that I deserved it, I brought it on myself. In retrospect I think I could have done any number of things differently and my life in school would have been different. If I had known better. If I had tried harder. If I had forced myself to not be so … strange. So fucked up. Such an ass. So goody-goody. So difficult to like.

I don’t get to talk about being bullied. Because I deserved to be bullied. That’s how I felt when the conversation came up. How I still feel. That’s why I couldn’t say anything – why I wanted to run away when people started talking about this. All this shame would well up from the pit of my stomach and I would have to swallow it down and it just made me feel like puking.

Then today. At work. I read a blog post by someone who was coming out of the closet and asking her readers what it was that they were afraid to share about themselves. And I read this post on my friend’s blog, talking about witnessing others being outcast at school. And then I was editing an essay by someone else about the culture of weight hate. And then I was re-reading this other article on our company website about trauma and weight gain. And all these texts were crossing my path talking about what the body does to try to meet our needs for emotional healing when our minds aren’t actually able to deal with our traumas.

And somehow it all came together and I just wondered what energy would be freed up if I was able to actually look this trauma right in the eye and say:

Yes.

I was severely bullied throughout elementary, middle and high school.

Whole classes called me names, loudly discussed my ugliness, threw things at me, excluded me from group projects so that I had to make up my own solo assignments in order to pass.

I hated my existence.

Going to school was a torment. Any time I achieved an honor – such as being selected for the senior show choir – my actual life got worse, as these groups were full of people who missed no opportunity to mock and degrade me.

As is so often the case, telling adults only made things worse, because they belittled my emotional responses and accused me of tattling.

I was a child. I did nothing to deserve the cruelty that surrounded me.

I was suicidally depressed.

Long after I graduated and went on to become a successful adult, I pictured myself jumping off of bridges.

I tried to eradicate myself by drinking.

Luckily, I failed at that.

And here I am. I grew up fine. I have a life that I love, a sweet job, a wonderful home in an awesome city with my beloved partner and my beloved roommate, creative passions, dreams, goals, purpose, service, positions of leadership, a spiritual path. Many friends. Abundant, nourishing community. I’m utterly surrounded by love and support today. There is just about zero bullying in my life, and what bullying does show up is not personal towards me, but simply the outflowing of someone else’s fear.

And I have this trunk in the basement of my psyche that is tightly locked. I stand on the lid so that it stays down, so that I most of the time never even notice that it is there.

But it moves.

It shakes. It vibrates. It is full, full, burstingly full of energy.

I think the energy has actually grown over time.

I think that if I don’t open it, if I don’t look at the contents and see what is in there, I think it might, one day, explode.

So this is me – stepping down off the trunk, pulling out the key that I’d forgotten was there on a chain around my neck all along, putting it in the lock and

turning

turning

turning

to face whatever comes out.

  

Day 27: A Letter to My Belly 

Dear Belly,

Gosh, I’ve been talking about you a lot lately. It suddenly seems a little rude to me that I haven’t actually spoken TO you about my concerns, my fears, my hard feelings or even my love and appreciation for you. 

Like so many relationships, ours is complicated. Sometimes I’m proud to be seen with you. I can walk down the street or dance in a circle with you just hanging out there, all obvious. Sometimes times I feel your creative furnace burning — your escaping steam moving my hips in figure eights, your wood-fired oven baking my gingerbread brainchildren to readiness. 

Other times I wish I could hide you, belly — I work hard at picking clothes that de-emphasize you — or I persuade myself that they do, only to see myself tagged in someone else’s picture of me and realize I was kidding myself. You’re impossible to hide. You’re like Sir Mix-a-Lot’s girls’ butts: “It’s just so round, it’s like, out there, I mean — gross.”

What can I do? I don’t talk to you when I’m feeling this way because it’s not like I can just tell you to leave, I’m tired of you. You are part of me. So I turn those feelings inward to my heart instead of my belly, and I myself become what’s wrong. I berate myself for being so embarrassing. But as I take all that anger and rejection into my heart, guess where it ends up going? Down into you, my belly. 

Yes, I’ve certainly been feeding you a crappy emotional diet all these years. When I was young and didn’t know how to relate to other people, when I didn’t know how to live in a way that would make me happy, when I didn’t know how to process sorrow and hurt and anger and loneliness and fear — I did know that certain foods made me feel better for a little while. I didn’t realize it that those stolen and hidden binges were kind of like the pill-pocket treats I use to give my cat her medicine: Whatever sugary or greasy thing I ate was actually wrapped around a bitter chunk of feelings that I had to put somewhere. Turns out, though, I wasn’t actually getting rid of those feelings — I was just saving them for later.

So now when I look at you and I want to cry, I realize that indeed — you are the stored sadness of three and a half decades, the rage covered in batter and stuffed down tightly under a layer of comfort food; you are all the heartbreaks that my undeveloped heart couldn’t bear. 

I want to release you now. I’m much stronger now. I can hold the space for these emotions now — I want to tell you, tell every cell that makes you up, tell each cell to release whatever it’s holding. Let it come out a speck at a time or in a torrent. I want it now. I can use it now. I can turn that shit into fertilizer for the garden of my spirit. 

And then I look at you from another angle and suddenly all those cells look like little safe deposit boxes, each one holding a single gold coin. There’s a reason why fat is called rich. It’s like money, it’s like power: it is simply energy, no more and no less. It’s raw fuel that has no inherent positive or negative charge. Like a lump of coal can be a disappointing Christmas present or heat for a winter night, what use we make of it is everything. 

Looking at you, I recognize that you are both a physical and an emotional entity, my belly. I honestly have not yet found the keys to open your trillions of tiny drawers, to let each itty-bitty ghost fly out and dissolve into the atmosphere. But I’m looking now, and I promise you I will find the keys. 

We will find them together. 

Love,

Me.  

With lamppost

Day 25: Walking Belly 

A garage wall in Lafayette, CO

Long walks have always been one of my greatest pleasures in life. Growing up, I used to roam around town for hours, for miles — always alone, and normally without a dime, not that there was much of anywhere to spend money. I loved walking every street, making up stories about alternative lives I could be living in that house, or near those fields. 

There really wasn’t any place in Derry where I didn’t like to walk, but some favorites were: the lake; the cemetery; the railroad tracks; the path under the bridge that connected my street with “downtown” (in Colorado we’d call it “old town,” which would be much more accurate, but we called it Downtown Derry when I lived there); any alley; a blind curve near my house called Ash Street (I think) that led to some cool sheep farms. 

I also did not hesitate to “off road” it. I was deeply in love with a semi-cleared swath of land that followed the power lines up a hill. Large belly notwithstanding, I had no qualms about climbing chain link fences if they stood between me and where I wanted to go. Once, thinking I could surely get to the tracks by cutting through a fenced-off tract that seemed to contain only some overgrown frog ponds, I ended up climbing straight down into a steep ravine, through a bunch of thorn bushes, and up the other side — very scraped up but extremely self-satisfied. 

When there was nothing else to do, I walked. And most of the time there was nothing else to do. 

I don’t mean that my town or my life were boring. I almost never felt truly bored. I’m someone who is easily entertained by a book or a notepad or a leaf floating down a stream. I mean that I didn’t know what to do with, how to handle, my inner life. 

In those days I wore out many a mix tape in my Walkman. At one point, when I was in college, I realized that I often couldn’t stand to be alone with my own thoughts. I mean I could think — but without some buffer, I was in danger of plummeting down a very dark hole. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what thoughts I had that were so intolerable in the years before I got real help for depression. All I can recall are the feelings of hopelessness and despair, the conviction that I had already (as a teenager/twentysomething) failed at life, the belief that I didn’t really deserve to live or to be happy or to be loved. I did not honestly think I had what it takes to create a satisfying life. These fears rose up all around me, submerged my spirit, and led me to take reckless chances with my existence. 

Luckily, and thanks to the protection of some hard core guardian angels, I survived that period of life. And although it took a while for me to trust that I really could spend time in silence with myself, as I got older and my life became more and more filled with activity, I’ve come to crave those chances to mull things over, to integrate my experiences, and to cleanse my cells with fresh air. 

Back on the streets of Derry, I feared my shadow — not because I thought it was someone or something else’s, but because I was terrified of being so wide. I hated seeing my broad body with what looked to me like a disproportionately tiny head silhouetted on the ground (especially if there were other, skinnier shadows nearby). Like everyone at that age, I wanted to look cool. But whatever “cool” meant in my mind (basically some blend of urban and hippie style), I knew I could never be that with this body. The conflict between what I wanted to look like (on some level, the image I had of what my “true self” should look like) and what I believed I DID look like (a warped perspective, as should be clear, from depression and a bunch of damn lies provided by my environment) made it hard for me to be okay with existing. The disconnect was too vast to process. Mentally, my self image could do nothing but collapse into panic. It was truly unbearable. 

Well, and how am I now? All cured? I’ve gradually given up more and more of my arsenal of self-destructive habits as I have started to feel more and more like I deserve to live and thrive. Now I’m down to the nitty-gritty: the deeply ingrained beliefs about my body as failure. But recovery has momentum, and the more I heal, the more committed I am to healing. I’ve become downright fierce in my drive to uproot the habits of self-hate. Insecurity, sure, we all feel that from time to time, and it’s ok: like weather, all moods pass. What I’m talking about is the inner campaign of self-sabotage. 

So, ok, that was a long story, but the gist is this: pictures like these are hard for me to look at, and I NEED to look at them. Adolescent me wanted to lean against cool paintings found on garage walls — but didn’t want to have this body, and in the gap between “want” and “is”, nearly broke down. 

Adult me is learning to accept that what is, is all it needs to be. I mean I am MAKING myself learn this, like a class I don’t want to take because I secretly think it’s too hard and I’ll never pass — but I need it to graduate. 

I guess I’m about tired of holding myself down. 

I guess I’m ready to take the freaking class already and get it over with. 

I’m ready for a larger life. 

I’m ready to be and own and embrace what I am: large in body. 

Large in heart. 

Large in vision. 

Spacious. Full. Abundant. Powerful. Big. 

And — in my own way, according to my own values — finally, cool as shit. 

  

“American Tune”

A couple of days ago, I was listening to the last episode of the NPR call-in show Talk of the Nation.  I’ve never been a huge follower of the show because I’m not usually driving around listening to the radio at midday, but I did always enjoy it when I heard it, and even though I’ve been accused more than once of being unsentimental, I did feel a slight welling up of emotion at its going away.

Host Neal Conan had Ted Koppel on as a guest on this series finale, doing a look back over the hosts’ lifetimes (since 1940) and speculating about whether America as a nation is better or worse off than it has been at other points since World War II.  The question on the table, for both Koppel and the callers-in, was, are you hopeful about the future?  Are you optimistic or pessimistic?  How bad are things now, compared to other times in the history of the nation, and what’s “bad” about what “things”?  One way they asked it that seemed to resonate with a lot of people was, “What keeps you up at night?”

Koppel stated in no uncertain terms that he was not hopeful about the future.  He had a series of reasons why he thinks the nation is in great danger at this moment, in some ways more even than in the Cold War days of Mutually Assured Destruction.

While listening, I thought of a friend who’d recently brought up this topic, from a different perspective.  She’d heard a speaker at a community gathering who’d totally changed her thinking on that question.  This speaker (whose name I don’t know) had listed many OTHER reasons why he saw things as getting continually BETTER, and noted that globally speaking, we humans are living, on average, much safer, healthier lives than we did earlier in the 20th century, with many fewer of us dying violent deaths or succumbing to epidemics.

Interestingly, the same debate came up in my class the other night.  It was an extended tangent away from the original topic of violence and competitions for dominance in society, where those forces come from, and whether or not they should be read as any sort of problem.  One guy, a returning student and Iraq war veteran in his 40s, stood up and insisted that first of all, humans are nothing more than animals with a VERY thin veneer of “culture” or domesticity, and we are inherently and appropriately violent beings, right down to our genetic cores; and, second, those elusive “things” in this country are going to get worse, and worse, and worse. “The world is never going to change,” he said adamantly.

As the class split up at the end of the evening, he lingered to wrap the conversation up with me.  He mentioned something that he would do when he ran for Congress.  I asked him if he really planned on running for Congress, because I could imagine him realistically doing so, and I like to encourage people to pursue their dreams.  He said yes, maybe someday, and would he have my vote?  I laughed and said I would have to see his whole platform; that I would have to reserve my judgment.

This is how I feel about the “what’s going to happen to us in the future” question, the debate over whether things are getting worse or getting better.  I do not really know, and anyway I suppose the standards of measurement are fairly suspect (“things”).  Many of my students, and others around me, express their anxiety about the future in terms of whether American will be able to keep its status as “number one.”  They see the possibility of other national currencies supplanting the dollar as “strongest” as a harbinger of future humiliation and economic hardship.  Meanwhile, others frame the problems of the present in terms of the United States’ refusal to prioritize the survival needs of the people and the planet over the survival needs of corporations.  So the jury is still out on whether we humans WILL make things better.  But I do wholeheartedly believe that we CAN.

I am hopeful about the possibility that humans can evolve, make new choices, and become less harmful to each other and to the planet.  There are other parts of us, besides our animal instincts, which give us the drive, in the face of extreme inconvenience, to create ever more just and compassionate social systems and ways of interacting with each other in every area of life, from the family to the industry to the market to the international stage of diplomacy.  I don’t know where this human journey is going, but I know it’s going somewhere.  I believe it’s our destiny to evolve.

It has also been many other species’ destiny to evolve—and some of them did so to the point where the original species became unrecognizable.  In a sense, thy evolved themselves out of existence.  And in at least some cases, I’m okay with that.

I’ve been called unsentimental because sometimes I have the ability to let go, without too many tears, of things that are no longer functioning, or no longer the most beneficial, or no longer meeting the need they were created to meet because the need is no longer there.  At least sometimes, I can recognize that it could be better to have a vacant space, into which something new and better suited to the present moment might come, than to hang on to the old thing, which, though it might still be providing some benefit, when weighed in the balance is really doing more harm than good.

So I’m led to ask, could this idea about America always being number one in the world be one of those things?  To question this assumption, I know, sounds bad.  But I’ve always believed that to hold someone accountable for their failures is an act of love.  Maybe it’s more the idea that America must be number one in the world–in everything–for us to feel secure that needs to go.  Because first of all, we’re not.  We’re not handling our internal affairs in a responsible way, and corporate preferences continually triumph over public good in our political, economic, educational, and cultural spheres.  And second of all, “the winner of everything” is a very insecure spot to be in.  When one’s sense of self worth is tied to beating everyone else in everything, one has to be constantly on the defensive and pour all one’s energy into maintaining one’s status.  And then one ends up forced to endorse the idea that all others are, in small and large ways, lesser than oneself.

In that same Talk of the Nation interview, Koppel and Conan talked about Nelson Mandela, who was at that time in the process of dying at age 94 in a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa.   The journalists were calling him an exceptional leader, a great leader in a historical period that’s been mainly absent of noticeable greatness.  The source of Mandela’s distinction was the way he approached nation-building and national healing in the years after apartheid.  He and his party promoted a policy of “Truth and Reconciliation,” through which those who had benefited from the regime and brutalized the Black South Africans took responsibility for their actions, while those who had been oppressed and terrorized were treated with respect, and their suffering and grief and anger were given space to be heard.  It was not a reversal of the existing hierarchy, with the formerly colonized group now ruling over the old colonizers.  Instead, it was a process of actual peacemaking.  I daresay it involved everyone courageously forcing themselves to see everyone else involved as humans, attempting to find out what they all needed as humans, and seeking to meet those needs when possible, thus allowing each other to let go of some of their fear and defensiveness and pain.  It was a process whose goal was to lay a framework for lasting and continuing peace in that nation.

Voices around the world have been practically unanimous in acclaiming Mandela as a hero and visionary.  Yet none of our leaders have been willing to follow in his footsteps, rejecting the path of revenge on those who have been constructed as our enemies, those who we believe have done us harm.  None of our leaders, when faced with other nations, groups, or individuals behaving towards us in a hostile way, have stepped up to begin a discussion by taking responsibility for the many actions of the United States that have undermined the liberty, autonomy, and well being of people around the world and within our own borders.  In interpersonal relations, this would be the stance of a strong person, a brave person, a person trying to do what is right to the best of one’s imperfect ability.  In international affairs, such an approach is trivialized and called weakness.

I saw a meme on Facebook once that posed a question similar to this: The war in Iraq has cost the US government over 800 billion dollars so far (that’s according to CostofWar.com as of 6/30/13; click to see what it’s up to now).  What if, instead of going to war, just half of that money had been spent addressing as many of the needs of the Iraqi people as possible, that is, building sustainable civilian institutions to bring the best possible public services to underserved regions?  Would there be a conflict now?  Would there be an unstable situation?  This scenario is unimaginable to most people; it’s outside of the currently dominant paradigm.  And I’m not saying there has been none of this, but I am saying that the investment in really meeting the people’s needs has been tiny compared to the investment in fighting the people.  For all the dozens of military veterans I’ve met in my community college classes over the past three years, I’ve never met one person who’d been in Iraq or Afghanistan on any kind of peace mission.  The US has approached the situation from a military point of view only; our nation, at the government level, is just not capable yet of looking at an international conflict from a healing point of view.  But if they could, I’ll wager they’d see a lot more progress, a lot more resolution, a lot more stability and security, a lot more freedom for both “them” and “us.”

That would be greatness, America.  Living in fear that the dollar may not be the international standard any more is not greatness.  We’ve had that distinction for a while, and we should feel honored; but there are other countries in the world whose citizens know something about economics, and maybe have been doing some things better than we have lately.  What’s so bad about that?  Don’t capitalists supposedly love competition?

If we follow the line of reasoning that says that in world politics, one nation must be permanent leader (and it must be us) out a little ways, we begin to sound suspiciously like the sort of people who get called “dictator” in the mainstream media when they are in charge of other countries.  And if we look inside of that argument, we realize it depends on the assumption that if there is a permanent top dog, then everyone else must necessarily be an inferior dog, at least in the eyes of the top.  In other words, the culture of dominance in which one group has to be on top implies that all the other groups are 1. submissive, 2. subservient, 3. dependent, or 4. enemies to the ones on top.  Is that really the relationship we want to be in with ALL of our neighbors on the planet?

As you may be able to infer from this blog, I’m a terrible one for picking favorites (favorite word? favorite book?  I just can’t answer).  But I do have a favorite songwriter: Paul Simon.  After I listened to that Talk of the Nation finale, his 1973 song “American Tune” came into my head.  What I love about that song is that, for me anyway, it perfectly captures the frustration and the optimism, the quiet necessity of moving forward even with a broken heart.  I hate to quote a single line or verse, because the song is such a complete whole, but here’s the bridge:

And I dreamed I was dying

Dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly

And looking back down at me

Smiled reassuringly,

And I dreamed I was flying

And high up above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea

And I dreamed I was flying …

The mystics of all religions teach us that when we become something new, we do die.  Indeed, as we are continually changing, we let go of what we were, continually dying and being reborn while still living this life.  When we transform into something really different, when we take a big leap forward in our evolution, our old selves die in a more dramatic way, and that’s one reason why it’s really really scary, and takes huge courage, to allow ourselves to grow in those important ways.  As we reach toward the best that we can be, we necessarily shed old identities that no longer serve us.  Those identities may have served us for a long time, and become full of routines, relationships, ways of doing things, answers.  Letting go of them can be really damn hard.

But as the song suggests, I do believe we individuals have souls, and our souls are on a rising journey.  Our souls are heading upward; the more we get our egos out of the way, the faster they rise.  And I do believe that’s the way forward for groups of people, too.  There has to be a desire to become better—when the fire of passion for being the best one can be is awakened, we find the courage to let go of old paradigms that no longer serve.  We find the will to push ourselves to do difficult things, or things that scare us because we don’t already know what the outcome will be (because we’ve never tried them before). We can do it because we come to want so badly to become better than we are.

The concept of “hitting bottom” is illustrative here; an addict, after all, is just someone who’s become extremely dependent on a way of coping with life that’s actually much more destructive than beneficial, though it may at first seem otherwise.  Hitting bottom, losing or being truly threatened with the loss of something that it would feel unbearably painful to lose, is the most tried-and-true way that addicts have found to begin the sincere search for recovery.  Hitting bottom puts us (not just drug or alcohol addicts, to be clear here; we might include people addicted to bullying, or to being in control) in a humble frame of mind.  It gives us a yearning to transform for the better, and makes us willing to do anything it takes to heal ourselves and our relationships.  Ironically, hitting bottom can be the most powerful source of courage.  Maybe we reach this place when we finally look around and see all the suffering we’ve caused – something happens that’s so dramatic, it becomes impossible for us to continue to be willfully blind to our role in the destruction.  Maybe we reach it when we take a big hit from the world, get knocked out, see stars.  Suddenly we see ourselves with clarity and realize that our ways are not sustainable.  We need to change or die.

And, out of utter necessity, our minds become open to receive ideas from a new paradigm.  What was impossible to conceive of doing before now becomes a lifeline.  This is one way in which I can imagine nations like America evolving.

Of course, some addicts go through their entire lives without ever hitting a bottom that makes them seriously question their habits.  Many nations have risen to power and fallen to the next in line for dominance.  There’s no guarantee that anyone will ever “change” in the sense of becoming willing to undertake a difficult process of transformation—from the inside out—in order to bring their life into greater accord with their soul’s purposes.  But some do suggest that the more of us individuals undertake those efforts, the more collective energy will build, ultimately lifting and carrying along others who might not have come to that process on their own.  So that, for me, is a starting place.  It’s not an end.  I’m actively seeking ways to support and promote my nation’s process of healthy self-examination and change for the better.

Happy Independence Week, y’all.

Finding Courage Through Surrender

This post may be a little woo-woo-sounding, but it’s about something I’ve been going through and how I’ve been dealing with it — including looking to God for guidance, and the guidance I received, and where it may take me.

I’ve been struggling with this one class. Of the eight that I’m teaching right now (four college, four ACT prep), there’s just this one that I can’t seem to get into the flow on. It’s one of the ACT prep classes that the district has made mandatory for every kid in certain schools designated “underperforming” (code for all kinds of other adjectives having to do with disparity of resources).  Most of the classes of this type that I’ve taught have been challenging but ultimately rewarding for me as a teacher, and the kids have seemed to get something out of them too.  For this one, though, uh-uh.  Even though individual sessions may go well enough, given that the kids didn’t choose to be in this class and most don’t want to be there, there’s this palpable antagonism coming from the students that goes beyond mere not caring.

I had this group before. I get them for eleven days at a time, not all in a row, and I haven’t been able to shake the role of outsider. They hated the (pre-set) material and I felt like they hated me.  Their classroom teacher didn’t seem to like me, either, and that didn’t help.  She seemed to have sized me up in the beginning and dismissed me as ineffective and not worth her time.  I tried not to take it personally, but it took a lot of emotional energy to keep going in there, to keep smiling, to keep looking for ways to get them engaged.  I rotated out to another class for a while — a great relief — but I knew I would be going back. Man, I sweated it. I seriously did not know how I was going to get through the hour each day, let alone offer the students something that would actually be useful or helpful to them.

But it turned out that this was actually a good place for me to get to.  Because when I realized I was at the very end of my power to get through something that I knew I had to get through, a light finally came on.  If I recognize my powerlessness over life circumstances, I know my only choice is surrender to God.

I was drawn to a little book of daily meditations by Hazelden called In God’s Care for a message from my higher self.  The message was this:

“A consciousness of God releases the greatest power of all.”Science of Mind Magazine  ~~ Just thinking of God as we go into situations we’re uncomfortable with or perhaps even fearful of will relieve our troubled mind and lessen our anxiety.  Carrying God in our thoughts means we don’t have to, for that moment or hour or day, feel alone.  Quite miraculously, we’ll know that God can help us handle what we could not handle alone.  Most of us dwell more on negative thoughts than on thoughts of God.  And our life is far more confused and complicated than it needs to be as a result.  To replace one thought with another is really quite simple.  A quiet reminder to stop negative thinking and remember God is all that’s necessary.  We may have to repeat the process many, many times, but patience brings the result we want.  God will strengthen us and take away our fears if we remember to remember.  ~~ I will keep God in mind today.  I will concentrate on remembering.

Whew!  Yeah.  As soon as I read these words, my heart remembered and knew their truth.  I felt the blessing of them immediately.  So I did this.  I clung to that message as to a lifeline.  The first day that I went back to this class, I concentrated on remembering that just thinking of God would release a new energy into the situation.  When I went into the school, I inwardly spoke God’s name.  In the classroom, during a lull, I tried to turn on my spiritual awareness, to sense God’s presence — and of course the presence was there, as it always is, everywhere. And here’s what God showed me when I tuned in to God’s perspective: the stress, the distrust, the shields, the fear, the worry, the isolation that these students carried.  I felt the atmosphere as one of tension, of deep, deep guardedness. I knew that I could never know what types of circumstances and home lives they had experienced.  And all I could feel toward them was compassion.

And toward the teacher, I simply felt friendliness, a new openness that surprised me, that came to me without my trying.  If there had previously been a power struggle, my end of it dissolved.  I felt no hesitation about going up to her at every opportunity and asking her for suggestions, or what she did in her own classes.  I couldn’t make her like me, but I could send the message that I liked her, respected her, and wanted to work together.  After this, the vibe definitely shifted.

Since then, I have relied on God to get me through each class. I’ve been giving it everything I’ve got in terms of teaching ideas — there’s pretty much nothing I won’t try at this point to make the class worthwhile for the students.  But at the same time, I’ve surrendered the outcome and my own will and effort to the power of God — and I’ve needed to, because finding the courage to face it continues to be a daily challenge.

Yesterday, I was still having a tough time.  As I walked into the school, I imagined God walking with me, throwing an arm around my shoulder, encouraging me.  I got through the class; the activity I’d come up with was semi-successful (which is really saying a lot, compared to past experiences!).  And as I left the class and headed out of the building, I found myself still connecting to that feeling that God was right there with me.

God as I meet God through recovery literature is a lot like God as I meet God in the Baptist church: Real. Personal. Walking beside me. Speaking in direct and unmistakeable words, right into my heart. The Infinite One who still has both the time and desire to talk to me, the lowly straggler. I guess that must be part of the Infinity. This is the expression of God that I can have a conversation with, the one that will give me guidance, straight up.

So I asked:

Am I doing all right?

God answered:

You are doing fine, kiddo. That feeling of security and warmth that lets me know when I’m hearing Spirit’s word welled up under my rib cage.

I asked: Am I doing what you want me to be doing?

The answer came instantly: Honey, I don’t want you to have to be working so hard.

I felt the beginnings of tears as I climbed the long hallway ramp, heading out of the building.  My current seven-days-a-week teaching schedule has been taking a toll, and I’ve been feeling depleted of emotional energy.

I asked: What can I do to change this? I’ve been so stuck in this rut, working so hard and not making a living wage.

God answered, gently but firmly: You need to respect yourself. All the guidance about publishing your work is part of this.

Me: (Silence; reflection.  It’s been an ongoing crisis all spring.  I’ve been doing a daily practice to “remove obstacles” between me and the sustainable and creative work life that I want to manifest.  The practice had led me strongly toward writing.)

God: And when you learn to respect and value yourself and the unique gifts I gave you, I will place you where I want you. Don’t worry about figuring out the “right” job to pursue. I’ll put you there when you have learned this lesson.

As I passed through the door and walked to my car, I noticed the warming, fresh-smelling spring air.  I reached up to touch a branch of one of the gorgeous, thick-trunked pine trees that ring the school grounds. God will place me where God wants me, eh?  I felt a smile begin in my heart and extend across my whole body.

I know I don’t respect and value myself as God does, or as God wants me to.  And sometimes I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to.  But I’ve grown in this area, certainly, over the past many years.  It’s one of my life lessons.  In my family, it’s transgenerational.  Part of the purpose of my life is to heal this wound of self-unlove that has stretched so deep and wide.  This conversation with God made me feel like I had the inner permission to take another step, or more, into self-value, which would really be a step of greater closeness to God.

pinecone