Archive for category: Aha Moments

The Meaning of Life

05 Aug
August 5, 2015

At the end of my New Employee Orientation presentation on Spiritual Care at our Medical Center, I offered to answer questions from the audience. When they ran out of questions, I threw in one of my own, “Would you like to know what is the meaning of life?” I was actually ready to discuss this topic individually with people, but no one took me seriously in that forum. I was too flippant, I suppose.

What is the meaning of life? The answer I hear most often is to be happy. Maybe I have been reading too much Oprah on line. However, I see advice about seeking happiness everywhere these days. Gretchen Rubin wrote “The Happiness Project” about spending twelve months focusing on marriage, money, friendships, time management and other aspects of life to become happier. She and her screen-writer/television producer sister created an iTunes podcast “Happier.” It gives you practical advice about little things you can do to make yourself happier, like getting more sleep and cleaning out your closet. It may sound mundane, but their ideas do work, once you hear them explained in detail.

Gretchen and her sister give themselves happiness demerits when they realize that some  behaviors detract from their happiness and gold stars when other things lead to happiness. They talk about these ideas on the podcast. I liked this idea so much that I suggested it to my husband Jim. We have been giving each other and ourselves gold stars at the end of the day for acts of kindness, accomplishments, going the extra mile, cooking a good sauce or meal, being creative, exercising, etc. It is a way of sharing, savoring and enjoying our day together. Surprisingly, it does add to our happiness.

Is the meaning of life to be happy? My husband is Buddhist and I am Christian. So, I like to look at both traditions to see what they say. This question deserves a spiritual response. The Dalai Lama said, “The purpose of our lives is to be happy.” The Buddha said, “There is no path to happiness; happiness is the path.” And “Happiness comes when your work and words are of benefit to yourself and others.” This is proof-texting. Yet, happiness is a strong theme in Buddhism, but so is compassion. The Dalai Lama also said, “If you want others happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” I think a Buddhist might say that the meaning of life is to be happy and compassionate.

The parallel to happiness in Buddhism is joy in Christianity. Jesus said, “I have come that you might have and enjoy life, and have it in abundance.” (John 10:10) And, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11) A Christian might say that the meaning of life is to be joyful. And yet, I need to add loving, because it is not all about me, myself and I. Christians need to add the Great Commandment to love God, their neighbors and themselves. (Matt. 22:37-40) So for Christians, the meaning of life is to be joyful and loving.

After New Employee Orientation, I was waiting for someone to approach me and ask, “So, what is the meaning of life?” They never did, but I would have said, “What do you think?”

Prove Your Humanity

31 Jul
July 31, 2015

When I logged into my computer program this morning, I was asked my name, password and a new item. “Prove your humanity. 9 + 9 = __.” To me, the answer to a simple math equation does not prove my humanity. However, what does prove my humanity? What proves yours?

There are many ways in which humans are unique on earth. Humans are made in the image of God and are capable of moral choices. Although humans are capable of great evil (e.g. mass shootings), we are also capable of great good. Humans can appreciate beauty, like the rainbow I saw through the rain showers on our lanai this morning. We can be creative. Witness the world of literature, art, music and theater. Scientists recently discovered how persistent inflammation can promote the development of tumors by studying Zebrafish larvae. That is pretty creative research! Humans are meaning-makers. People survived World War II concentration camps because they had something to live for, such as a planned project, book, piece of composed music or other purpose, wrote Victor Frankl in “Man’s Search for Meaning.” We are made of dust and yet, we are a little less than the angels.

Professor Stephen Hawking, one of England’s pre-eminent scientists, fears that the development of artificial intelligence (AI) may eventually create something that can match or surpass humans. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he warned. Robots with AI could not only hack into computer systems, but also overtake humans because they could act without any of humanity’s values or virtues. Most of all, they would not be capable of love, as we are. So, I think we should heed Hawking’s warning about AI and the future of the human race. Humanity is worth protecting.

For now, to prove that I am human, I will fill in a math equation. However, I think a better test would read: Prove your humanity. Fill in the blank. “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is ____.”

Not My Circus

26 Jul
July 26, 2015

My underwear theory of self esteem goes like this: if your underwear is old and worn out, it is time to work on your self esteem. Step one: Go buy yourself all new underwear and throw out the old stuff. Step two: If you have never been in therapy, get a therapist. People will be glad to refer you to theirs. If you already have a therapist, refer to step three. Step three: Tell the therapist you want to work on your self esteem.

Several times in my life, I have opened my underwear drawer and declared it a disaster zone. I did that again this past week. It was time once again to go shopping and to re-examine my self esteem.

I went for the proverbial “low hanging fruit” by heading to the lingerie section of Macy’s. After trying on a few things with no luck, I asked a gray-haired Asian woman in a long, floral print dress with a Macy’s badge to help me. She took a couple of my measurements and handed me a few items to try on in the fitting room. My little dog Rafa took a liking to her and decided that he wanted to play with her while I was busy. She explained that her dog had died not too long ago and that she loved dogs. So, she began talking to Rafa in a high voice, “Oh, you want to play with Auntie while Mommy’s busy.” (Here in Hawaii, every older woman is “Auntie” and every older man is “Uncle,” as if we are all related.) Auntie and Rafa figured out the right size, going back to the rack and forth to the fitting room and I bought ten of the same item, my year’s supply of that kind of underwear. Rafa jumped up on Auntie one more time and licked her face as she bent down to pet him. I thought I saw tears in her eyes as she handed me the Macy’s bag. “Mahalo,” we said to each other at the same time.

The next day, I attended my second meeting of my estrogen-filled women’s support group. I got hugs from lovely, warm women and Rafa received belly rubs, scratches behind his ears, tickles, pats and lots of affection. He was a big hit. He looked up at each admirer as his new Best Friend Forever, wagging his tail a mile a minute. At eleven pounds, he intimidated no one. After refreshments, when we began to talk, he laid down for a nap under a chair next to me. The topic was “Boundaries: for what am I responsible and not responsible.” As one who can easily get swept up into others’ agendas and lose touch with myself, this is a great topic.

Sometimes, I hear the Divine speak to me through people in groups like this. As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, “Human beings are God’s language.” Well, I heard what I needed to hear. One of the women shared that she worries about things that are not her responsibility and uses this phrase: “Not my circus, not my monkey.” I could easily ask myself, is the thing I am thinking about my circus or my monkey? If not, there is probably some business of my own to which I need to attend. And as I focus on those things, doing esteem-able things, getting my own self straightened out (with therapy), my self esteem will rise. It always does.

True Confession

21 Jul
July 21, 2015

I have a confession to make. I am a recovering quickaholic. I used to arise early and jump on my bicycle, mounted on a wind trainer, and read and respond to my work emails. It was an expectation that managers at our medical center would respond to all emails within twenty-four hours; I received fifty to one hundred emails per day. Each morning, I added appointments and meetings to my schedule in response to the emails. After the biking came a shower and the drive to work, during which I had breakfast and my morning “quiet time.”

Arriving was like stepping onto a treadmill, which I did not step off until I was driving home at night, usually quite late. I entrained to the pace around me, despite my best efforts to escape to the meditation room or the campus work out facility at lunchtime. Every minute was booked. I stayed late to do email, prepare for classes and work on projects, since this was the only unscheduled time. I hurried to maintain these practices under the increasing pressures of deadlines, expectations, the happy expansion of our department and the planning of a new hospital. Leading our department, I sped up to keep up. Our department’s number of people, programs and services all grew, for which I felt grateful and blessed, at Mach speed. My colleagues were wonderful and yet personally, I felt like I needed more hours in the day.

Over the years, the stress from the pace and a few other things took a toll on my body. I was no longer a young person, who could function well without a full night’s rest. I had increasing medical problems, a surgery, and physical therapy – all stress-related in my understanding. In the long run, I was not coping well as a quickaholic.

So, I stepped off the treadmill; I retired early. During my first year of retirement as a recovering quickaholic, I crammed too much into an hour before appointments and was often late. This was an old habit from my working days. I was impatient and hyper vigilant in grocery lines, switching lines to find the quickest one. I still drove quickly through yellow lights to get to my destination, even when there was no urgency.

In When Society Becomes an Addict, Anne Wilson Schaef writes that an addictive behavior “keeps us unaware of what is going on inside us.” Keeping constantly busy is a way of tuning one’s own self out. During my retirement, I have been tuning my self back in like a radio station to which I have time to listen. However, a radio station is a poor metaphor because there is quiet when I am listening. There is also knowing things. For example, life grows fuller while I am being present in the moment – to nature, to my dog, to my friends, and most importantly to my husband. I do not need to achieve anything. I can be quiet and hear, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)

Am I cured as a quickaholic? No, I am still recovering. At times, I find myself rushing around and tuning my self out, but I am also freer to relax and wait at other times. Life will not end as I wait in the grocery line. I spend the time wishing wellness upon the people around me, even the trainee checkout store clerk.

 

Awe and Children

13 Jul
July 13, 2015

This morning, the rain stopped long enough for me to walk our dog Rafa. We strolled out to the main road to see a different view of the Ko’olau mountains, where I counted five waterfalls in the two-thousand-feet verdant green cliffs a half-mile away. Rafa’s sniffing nose was buried in the grass while I stared at the falls. The mountains and the gushing waters were awesome.

Several years ago, one of my chaplain students was a rabbi, who experienced God as awe. Any experience of awe was an experience of God for him. This opened me up to the same interpretation. (Of course, there are many other interpretations and experiences of God available too.) I saw this in our shared sacred text as well. At the burning bush that was not consumed, Moses recognized that he was on holy ground. At the Jabbok river, Jacob wrestled with a stranger, a messenger from God, who lamed him and renamed him. Jacob said, “Surely, God was in this place and I did not know it.”  Elijah experienced a huge wind, earthquake and fire, but recognized God in a still small voice which spoke to him. Each of these people were awe-struck in encountering the Divine.

What does it take to experience awe? My rabbi (Jesus) said that the Realm of God is for those who become like little children. I think that takes some willingness to pause and be open, like Moses who turned aside to see the burning bush, instead of marching right by it, preoccupied by his own thoughts. Little children are willing to be open to the world.

Madeleine L’Engle advocates for being childlike, not childish. She writes this in Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art:

“Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of this writing I am sixty-one years old in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and…and…If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.”

So, we need our child-selves to be open to the experience of “Wow.” As I am writing this, I am sitting at my desk looking out our sliding glass doors at our garden and polished coral walkway. A brown and black gecko just stopped on the walkway and puffed out his throat in a perfect red balloon, out and in, out and in, out and in. Wow! What a show off! The delighted four-year-old in me is alive and well. The fifty-eight-year-old says to herself, with a smile, “I know who made him.” Yeah, awesome.

 

 

The Civil War is Winding Down

07 Jul
July 7, 2015

My family did not fight in the Civil War. My mother was a fourth generation Californian and my father was from the Crow Nation reservation in Montana. So, it came as a surprise when I moved to North Carolina and was asked, “Are you a Yankee?”

“No, I’m from California.”

“Oh, a Western Yankee!”

I was not from the South. I had moved to Raleigh in Wake County in 1981. There on the county border between Wake and Johnston counties, a billboard had just been removed, which had proclaimed, “Welcome to Johnston County, Home of the KKK!” You might think you would not see things like that today. However, when two of my friends moved to a little town next door to Charleston, they received a visitor on their doorstep. It was a friendly white man passing out flyers, inviting them to a KKK barbecue, not the neighborhood Welcome Wagon.

I experienced the black-white racial tensions in the South when I lived there for ten years as a clergyperson. Internalized racism eroded the self worth of some of my African American friends and colleagues. The injustices they suffered on a daily basis far outweighed the sexism I encountered. (Though such comparisons are rarely helpful, I felt overwhelmed by my friends’ stories at times. The dynamics of racism, sexism and homophobia are similar.) As a trauma center hospital chaplain, I heard the grief and rage, saw the victims of abuse and violence, and sat with those who wept. Systemic racism, poverty, incarceration, lack of education, poor nutrition, and minimum wage jobs or unemployment all created cycles of insurmountable problems in a whole strata of society. I felt small and powerless before such a magnitude of difficulties.

The South Carolina Senate voted today to remove the Confederate battle flag from Charleston’s Capitol grounds. One of their own senators, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, had been murdered along with eight other African American Christians at a Bible study at Emanuel African American Episcopal Church. The racist gunman had repeatedly depicted himself with the Confederate battle flag on the Internet. The senators have finally done the right thing and the harder work of reconciliation must go on.

New York Times editorial today “The Civil War is Winding Down” on this subject reminded me of a theology class, which I took in Western North Carolina. The visiting professor from Drew University in New Jersey had taken a walk in a nearby cemetery. He returned to class very excited, “I came across a headstone which read, ‘The last Yankee soldier shot in the Civil War!'” A Southern classmate replied, “Yeah, that was 1989!” We laughed. Well, the Civil War is still winding down.

 

 

 

 

Letter to My Younger Self

03 Jul
July 3, 2015

Dear twenty-three-year-old self,

Congratulations on your Masters degree. Now, you are headed to a “tall steeple church” as the associate minister in North Carolina, where the population is growing. You are so fortunate to have found what you are called to do with your life. Many folks spend half their lives in jobs that never suit them. You listened to the inner voice and the outward confirmation of other people that led you to this place and time. You did the work, listened and the door opened. Nonetheless, you had many advantages in life for this to be so: being born into a white, progressive, middle class, educated family, who encouraged you along the way. You had a decent public school education.  Those are things for which to be grateful.

There are many voices that call throughout life. In discernment, you need to follow the way where you most need to go and where you are most needed, as theologian, preacher and writer Frederick Buechner says. He talks about the voice of your own gladness:

“What can we do that makes us gladdest, what can we do that leaves us with the strongest sense of sailing true north and of peace, which is much of what gladness is? Is it making things with our hands out of wood or stone or paint on canvas? Or is it making something we hope like truth out of words? Or is it making people laugh or weep in a way that cleanses their spirit? I believe that if it is a thing that makes us truly glad, then it is a good thing and it is our thing and it is the calling voice that we were made to answer with our lives.
And also, where we are most needed. In a world where there is so much drudgery, so much grief, so much emptiness and fear and pain, our gladness in our work is as much needed as we ourselves need to be glad. If we keep our eyes and ears open, our hearts open, we will find the place surely. The phone will ring and we will jump not so much out of our skin as into our skin. If we keep our lives open, the right place will find us.”

You can trust this to make decisions at turning points in your life. You felt like you needed to help people at the intersection of faith and real life. You became a United Methodist minister, particularly to do pastoral care. It will lead you into the crisis work of hospital ministry and end of life care.

Later on, there will be a desire in you to seek the approval of others and neglect your conscience or listen for that still, small voice. Pay attention to that still, small voice. Pay attention to that still, small voice. Pay attention to that still, small voice. Got it? Your own judgment is not always trustworthy.

Seek the advice of wise people, usually older than you. Understand that you are not wise; cultivate humility. Listen to those around you. Everyone is your teacher and can be an example (positive or negative). Demonstrate curiosity. Reflect upon experience. Spiritual direction and therapy can help you. You will even go back to school while you are working!

As a clergywoman among clergymen in your day, there will be death threats, tokenism, pay inequity and discrimination. Have courage in your faith. There will also be much joy and satisfaction in chaplaincy, spiritual care research and teaching Clinical Pastoral Education. Teaching in medical school and nursing school, speaking before audiences, writing academic papers and publishing will be so exciting. Your friendships with good colleagues along the way will make it all so rewarding.

Most important of all, regarding love and marriage, do not be ashamed of making mistakes. You are human, not perfect, and will be more empathetic as you learn and grow. Be as compassionate to him as you would like him to be to you. After all, the things you find fault with in him are often your own character defects. You will learn the most in this 1:1 relationship and become more generous, less self-centered.

As the Buddhists say, you are fine as you are and you could use a little improvement. You are right where you need to be right now.

Love,

Your Older Self

 

 

Only Love Can Do That

28 Jun
June 28, 2015

“I do not forgive Dylann Roof, a racist terrorist whose name I hate saying or knowing,” wrote Roxanne Gay, an Op-Ed writer for the New York Times, on June 23, 2015. She had no connection to the racist massacre of the nine African Americans in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Yet, she said, “I do not foresee ever forgiving his crimes, and I am wholly at ease with that choice.”

She raises a good point. As a child, she was raised a Catholic and taught that “forgiveness requires reconciliation by way of confession and penance.” That is true of the process of reconciliation between people. Where relationships have been broken and wrongdoing has been done by one party, the wrongdoing needs to be acknowledged. Nadine Collier, whose mother was killed by Roof, said, “You took something very precious away from me. I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again.” This is a call to confession in which the wrongdoing is named and the impact upon others is stated. Then, a confession with real remorse is the next step in the process. If the hearers do not believe the remorse is real, it may signal that the contrition is not deeply felt by the wrongdoer. This is often where the process is derailed, when the confession is insincere or meant to gain some advantage for the wrongdoer. The next step is penance or new behavior in the opposite direction from the wrongdoing, such as restitution or amends. Oftentimes, forgiveness only follows after such new behavior is performed because seeing is believing. Seeing a wrongdoer perform new behavior is more likely to convince others that he or she has changed.

The Process of Reconciliation looks like this:

1. Call to Confession

2. Confession with Contrition or Remorse

3. New Behavior or Restitution or Amends

4. Forgiveness

So, I can see why Roxanne Gay was unwilling to forgive Dylann Roof for nine murders under the current circumstances. She said that he had shone no remorse or interest in reconciliation. “I do not believe there has been enough time since this terrorist attack for anyone to forgive.” Although she wrote that she respected the families of those murdered, she also said, “I cannot fathom how they are capable of such eloquent mercy, such grace under such duress.”

On the other hand, I can see why the families of the nine Christians were willing to forgive. The grace came from a Higher Power. Only Love can do that. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral,
begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

By responding to hate with love and forgiveness, the families were driving out hate and racism. Many in the community came together in grief, support and solidarity in response to this racist hate crime. They were inspired by love and a desire to care for the families, church members and all those touched by this tragedy.

At the same time, I know that the voices of fear and hatred still speak. Individual and systemic racism is alive in us Caucasian people (while I am part Native American) by virtue of growing up in United States culture. White privilege is granted to us, whether we Caucasians recognize it or not. So, it is primarily our responsibility to de-construct racism in all its forms. When I begin to feel overwhelmed, I remember that only the power of Love can do that.

Where does this kind of Love come from in my understanding? It comes from God; God is Love. (1 John 4:7-8) This was also true for the nine people studying the Bible at Mother Emanuel, who welcomed Dylann Roof into their midst on the night they were slain by him. This was probably true for their families, who spoke of forgiveness and mercy even before Roof confessed with any remorse or made any kind of restitution. Nadine Collier said to Dylann Roof,  “I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.” Only Love can do that and God is Love.

Play

24 Jun
June 24, 2015

Running through the edge of the surf on the hard-packed sand, I looked up where the miles long beach met a lush green mountain. I smiled from pure pleasure. There were about two hundred of us racing on the beach at six thirty this morning. The early sun was rising in a blue, blue sky. I soaked it all in through my very pores. It reminded me of this poem “In Awe of Blue” by Ben Gieske:

“This morning the sun spattered the world with blue
Skies and from their resting places the winds blew…

The birds scatter from here and everywhere
And we’re in awe of what comes out of the blue.

What do we detect above the mountain tops?
Could there be aliens beyond outer blue?

Happy those who tan themselves on sea shore sand
Having salt-water waves washing them with blue.

Sometimes I wonder about this color too.
How can some ever be saying “I feel blue.”?

I want to take the sky, wrap it around you
and me. We could be enrobed in peaceful blue.”

When was the last time you enjoyed playing, having just plain fun? We all play differently. So, it might not be time at the beach for you, as it was for me. It is what we choose to do for enjoyment, rather than what we have to do. Play refreshes and de-stresses us. Play is the opposite of “working too hard,” the number one regret of dying people, as I wrote in my last blogpost.

It seems like being busy and working really hard are badges of honor and distinction in United States society. We ask, “How are you?” and regularly hear, “Oh, I have been so busy at work!” We never hear, “My life is really well-balanced between work and my home and social life” or “I’ve really been enjoying my free time!” The amount of work increases over time and expectations rise, in my experience. So, taking time to play needs to be an intentional effort. Improving our mood, relationships, productivity and mental health make it worthwhile.

I would write more about the benefits of play, but I think I need to go to the beach now.

Top Five Regrets

22 Jun
June 22, 2015

When I read the list of the top five regrets of dying people, I was not surprised. As a clergyperson and hospital chaplain for thirty-three years, I served many people at the end of their lives. These regrets sounded congruent with what I had heard from church members, hospital patients and palliative care outpatients. The top five regrets are:

1. “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”

2. “I wish I had stayed in touch with friends.”

3. “I wish I had let myself be happier.”

4. “I wish I’d had the courage to express my true self.”

5. “I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of doing what others expected of me.”

Sometimes, people work through the shock of receiving the prognosis of a terminal illness and remarkably, treat it like being given a permission slip to begin living a different life. Sylvia (not her real name) became grateful for each day and more present in the moment. She had to stop working due to her cancer treatments. Yet, she focused on the time when she did feel good and savored her gardening, poetry writing, and time with friends. The courage to express herself more fully grew. She was invited by her palliative care physician to read some of her beautiful, angry and instructive poems about her own patient experience to the interdisciplinary team of doctors, social workers, chaplain, psychologists and others. In this way, her life became more satisfying to her, even while her health declined and she became more physically limited. She made the most of the time she had, when she was well enough to make some changes in her life. Not everyone is so fortunate.

At this point in your life, do you regret any of the top five things? Assuming that you are not actively dying, or even if you are, maybe you have the chance to change. You might not work so hard. What about playing more? You could get in touch with old friends. I have recently enjoyed reaching out to old friends through Facebook. What would it look like to let yourself be happier? What would you do? I recommend the iTunes podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin” for ideas. Who is your true self? Express it, unless it is dangerous to yourself or others! What are your dreams and what would it take to realize them? Are there baby steps you could take today toward your dreams? I know an adult learning to sing gospel music for a choir audition. Hooray for her!

I would rather change than look back with regrets. How about you?