Letting Love Define Us

They say we learn from our mistakes. This happens occasionally, but more often I observe myself procrastinating or making snap judgements about people again and again.

I think twelve-step programs call this powerlessness. The likelihood of willing ourselves to change is low. I recently read an interview with an efficiency expert who basically said that willpower is not really a thing.

As I understand them, the next few of the twelve steps prescribe looking clearly at what one is doing. This process has multiple levels. It means admitting to ourselves that we are the cause of the outcomes we’re experiencing, but it also means seeing past or through our mistakes, seeing them for what they are.

Our failures don’t define us. Only love has the power to name who we are, as Jim Finley says. If we aren’t seeing our limitations clearly—and clarity comes not with the harsh light of judgement but with the gentle illumination of mercy—we might mistake them for our true nature.

We are limited beings, but none of us is a whole unto ourselves, nor are we intended to be. The astonishing variety in this world reflects the infinite nature of God’s one Love in which we belong as an integral part. Concentrating on our faults leads us to create separation rather than living the wholeness that is.

It’s hard in this culture in the midst of failure to see oneself as part of a blessed whole. We can no more will ourselves to see this reality than to make any other change, but we can live as if it is true, we can have faith. We can embrace ourselves with the love and respect due a manifestation of God and one day, as Richard Rohr says, we’ll live ourselves into a new way of thinking.

Loving Our Failures

I saw a man at a bus stop this week trying to look as if he chose to be there, and I thought, how much time and energy do I spend maintaining that “everything’s OK, nothing to see here” front?

Nadia Bolz Weber in her book Accidental Saints says that we live in a society that only loves winners. In that society, we must ride the bus as a preference, not because we can’t afford a car. That would make us unlovable. In that society, we will be deserted if we fail, and the norms of that society are alive and well in my brain.

This mindset guarantees a life of fear because as long as we’re human, we are going to fail. We’re even going to fail at the same thing over and over again despite our best intentions. I certainly do, and I avoid looking at those failures because they terrify me, because part of me believes that whoever sees them will walk away and never come back.

The first thing to do when petrified in this way is to read this article from The Onion because it is true and on topic and funny, and it’s hard to be afraid while you’re laughing. The second is to consider surrendering, which may initially kick the fear up a notch. I tend to picture my post-surrender life as oppressive, but we’re raising the white flag not to an enemy but to a God who loves us, a God we can entrust with our failures without dreading abandonment, a God who gives life and freedom.

A little anxiety might be reasonable, though, because with surrender comes greater vulnerability. God doesn’t suddenly transform us into the faultless person we’ve always known we could be. Instead we are opened more and more to our own shortcomings, to our and others’ humanity. We let go of needing to appear on top of it and paradoxically find that, even in the midst of failure, we are much more than OK—we are loved.

Which Show Is Going on?

This is the week it all falls apart. By which I don’t mean, this is the only week in my life things have ever fallen apart, but rather, this is a fine exemplar of the type.

Here are some possible distinguishing characteristics of this type of week:

  • The second week back from vacation
  • The second week into trying to establish new habits
  • The week I realize a deadline is much closer than it seemed only a few days ago
  • The week I get caught up in getting things done
  • The week I start to believe I can impose a routine of perfection on my life
  • The week there must be some cosmic explanation—like solar flares—for my moods because I sure can’t figure out why I’m being so difficult

Here is how the script goes: I think I am pretty on top of it, as in, walking around with my own theme music. For example, this week, a friend said she was feeling anxious, and I thought, oh, I have these great new habits that could help with that. Then reality happens. For example, I count the number of days until a deadline. Music changes to Psycho theme.

Act II: This could go many ways. I could look at the week’s distinguishing characteristics and realize none of them are actually a big deal. I could breathe in God loving me through and through and through, Psycho music and all, as Jim Finley would say. I could go for a walk or do something creative.

But I like to save all of that for Act III, heighten the suspense, build dramatic tension. Act II consists of confusing my self—hidden with Christ in God—with any number of exterior, ego-driven criteria. For example, why am I so bad at ironing or keeping plants alive or meeting deadlines?

If I choose to argue with the voice asking that question, I’m doomed. We’ll never make it to Act III because the voice will not have a logical conversation. It will simply place me again and again at the beginning of Act II.

If, on the other hand, I can remember that my life is not about me, that I am part of a much bigger Whole, then I can see that the show is already going on and inviting me to join in.

What Grit Will Get You

I learned from a friend this morning that new Marines take three tests: intelligence, fitness, and grit. The greatest indicator of success is a recruit’s score on the grit test. (Caveat: I didn’t check this fact for the Marines, but I did find this article in The New York Times that says something similar about West Point cadets and college students.)

A few days earlier I had re-watched Little Miss Sunshine, one of my favorite movies, whose moral could be summed up as: things may not work out as you hoped even if you score 5 out of 5 on the grit test. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t watched the movie and don’t want to know what happens, stop reading now.)

A thousand pushups won’t help colorblind Dwayne become a pilot in the Air Force. Frank has forever lost the pinnacle of Proust scholarship, and Olive will certainly never wear the Little Miss Sunshine crown.

But the movie is very much about how grit matters despite all that. From the eternal pushing of the clutch-less VW bus to stealing grandpa’s body from the hospital, this family epitomizes the refusal to give up.

Not the refusal to fail. They do nothing but fail, as measured by society’s standards and their own goals, in the entire movie. But they never give up.

Olive doesn’t win the pageant; Richard doesn’t get the book deal; and Frank doesn’t get the boy. I think life is like that sometimes: grit doesn’t necessarily get you what you’re aiming for, but it might get you something better.

What’s better than winning life’s many beauty pageants? Dancing to “Superfreak” on stage surrounded by those who love you.

Note: My friend Anne Ford will be guest blogging while I’m on vacation for the next two weeks. Anne is the author of Peaceful Places Chicago and is wonderful and funny and by the end of two weeks you will wish she had her own blog.

Spectacular Fail

I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to swear at the cat and the computer the day after returning from a retreat, whether or not they both deserve it. Luckily I discovered a mantra over the weekend that accounts for such moments: “spectacular fail.”

I spent the last three days at a Camaldolese hermitage on the Big Sur coast. At the hermitage you get your own room with a small garden overlooking the ocean. They feed you well—the best spanakopita I’ve ever had—and all you have to do is sit and walk and be quiet and go to services if you want to. It is fabulous.

Now, of course, in the Great Holiness Competition, one must strive to use every moment at a place such as this to its maximum holiness potential. I believe there’s an equation that will calculate that potential for you. Unfortunately, during the entire drive up, my brain insisted on thinking about work, which as we all know has an enlightenment quotient of zero. (All of us except the monks. It is actually in the monk directions—otherwise known as the Rule of St. Benedict—that working will help them get to know God.)

After arriving I looked out my window at the hills dropping into the ocean, one of the most dramatic scenes nature offers, and commenced worrying about my mental obsession with my job. It is particularly useful to worry about obsessing. At this moment, “spectacular fail” came to me. I thought, what’s the worst thing that could happen if I did that? Rock bottom would be spending three days surrounded by peace, eating good food, and listening to Gregorian chant. That’s it. That’s as bad as it could possibly get.

Then I went to vespers, or evening prayer. There are a lot of things to do wrong at monastery services. If you’re a non-Catholic and have found all the kneeling, sitting, and standing at a Catholic mass clearly designed to make you feel more in touch with your inner idiot than with God, multiply that by at least a power of ten. I have been to New Camaldoli four or five times now, and I still have visions of singing the wrong psalm, forgetting to bow, or in some other stupendous way making it clear to the monks that they should put an asterisk next to my name to remind them to say, “Sorry, we’re full.” next time I call for a reservation.

When these thoughts came rolling in, I stopped and said to myself, “spectacular fail.” After giving myself permission to mess up in a big way, I realized the monks might have witnessed a mistake or two in their time.

My mind did quiet down. The peace, silence, and beauty of the hermitage seeped in. I didn’t do anything irretrievably stupid, or if I did, the monks were much too kind to notice. And next time the likelihood of my doing something world-ending feels overwhelming, I have this handy phrase to help me out.