religious trauma syndrome

Just because you are having an existential crisis doesn't mean you can't wear some kick-ass mascara.
Just because you are having an existential crisis doesn’t mean you can’t wear some kick-ass mascara.

I’m writing this post at the request of some friends and because I think talking about my experience may possibly help other people facing similar challenges.

In Leaving Mormonism, a post I wrote about eight months ago, I talk about how it was to begin distancing myself from my religion and what I felt at that time. In Stoicism for Passionate People, a guest post I wrote for Stoicism Today, I mention some other major life challenges I went through at the same time I was experiencing a crisis of faith. Within a couple years’ time, my father died young and unexpectedly, I divorced the man I had married at 19, I had a crisis of faith and became inactive in the Mormon church, and I experienced a business failure and large financial loss.

Any one of those events would have been very difficult, and facing them all together was devastating. I cried a lot, I couldn’t sleep, I frequently felt nauseous or exhausted, I had recurring nightmares, and I woke every morning at 4 am to a racing heart and paralyzing fear. I had difficulty focusing. For example, I had always been a voracious reader, and during this time I stopped reading because I couldn’t focus enough to remember anything I read. I had always been a prolific journaler/blogger and I stopped that, too. Now I recognize that what I had was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This lasted for a solid year at least, and then intermittently for a second year. As I explain in Stoicism for Passionate People, discovering ancient philosophy and Stoicism in particular helped me a great deal. It put me on the track toward healing.

After I got home in August from a wonderful vacation in Maine, I had some problems with friends and my reaction to the situation was extreme. For several weeks I felt like I had returned to the dark times of two years ago. All of the PTSD symptoms returned. Crying, insomnia, panic attacks, and even a fight or flight response. I fought with my friends for days and I decided I wanted to move away. I felt attacked.

Now that a little time has passed and I’ve calmed down and gained some perspective, I see that this particular situation triggered the same feelings that I had when I was leaving the church. I felt that my intimacy was betrayed and that my integrity was violated. I felt unfairly judged.

Of all the bad things that happened to me in those two years, the most difficult to deal with has been the trauma of leaving the Mormon church and how that has affected me mentally, physically, and emotionally . I have been reading more about it this past week. It even has a name: Religious Trauma Syndrome. It is with hesitance that I link to Journey Free: Resources for recovery from harmful religion, because I do not share all of this group’s views including their negative attitude toward religion. I do not make the claim that religion is universally damaging to all adherents. I only say that leaving religion has provoked in me an existential crisis and psychological trauma. I only speak from my own personal experience and if people can identify with it, great. If not, great. But maybe those who don’t will understand better those of us who do leave organized religion and develop the symptoms of this syndrome.

I imagine it might be difficult to understand what it’s like to have RTS unless you have it, especially if you haven’t been a faithful believer in a religion that informs totally and completely your self concept, your core beliefs, and every hour of every day of your life, what you eat, do, wear, say. This religion is the lens through which you see your past, present, and future. Actually, it IS your past, present, and future. It’s you. It’s your entire worldview. Now. Imagine what happens when that bubble bursts. Imagine how that is. You are no longer you. You have no core beliefs. You have no past, present, or future, at least not the one you had a month ago, or yesterday, or whenever it was when you were still a believer. That is gone. You find yourself in mourning because your former life is dead. Except you are poorly equipped to mourn, say nothing about moving on with a new life because you are nothing. You have no idea how to relate to yourself and other people and you don’t know who you are in the world or what your place is. You are faced with the task of completely reconstructing your reality from scratch.

As far as experiencing RTS goes, it doesn’t matter what brand of religion it is, what matters is how much that religion controls you though fear. In my religious activity I was not wholly motivated by fear of sinning and going to Hell, and maybe not even principally. I was also motivated by love. I loved my community and I loved helping other people. I loved spirituality and personal growth. I loved God. However, if when you begin to have doubts and you communicate those doubts to a believer friend, and the friend’s response is to tell you to be careful of your choices because some day you will be held accountable not only for your sins but the sins of your wayward children if they stray from the fold for having followed your bad example… Well. Obviously fear is being used to control you and there is little room for any real exploration within the bounds of that religion.

Fear and love are very powerful emotions. Though I have been able to distance myself from the Mormon church mentally, I feel secure in my conviction that it’s not where I belong right now, and I enjoy building my new reality, I am still emotionally attached to some of those ingrained beliefs. There are situations that automatically trigger those feelings of panic, fear, and insecurity that I had when I first stopped going to church. This past week has been about accepting that this is the case and that I have RTS.

I have felt immensely moved and inspired by the people who are going public about their addictions in an effort to remove the stigma of addiction and raise awareness and funds for treatment. Their example motivates me to write this post. I think there needs to be more awareness about RTS. I don’t think a lot of people know what it is, and yet it is very common. I don’t know very much about it myself and I’m curious to investigate. In upcoming posts I’ll be talking more about RTS and the different things I’ve discovered this past year that help me heal.

what not to say. do this instead

essentialbaby-com-au

I know that everyone has had this experience. In fact, everyone has been on both sides of this experience. You are depressed, or maybe going through a rough time, or maybe it’s just a bad day. You confide in a friend or family member, and the response from that person, though well-meaning, makes you feel… violated. Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? You wish you hadn’t said anything. You feel like closing up, changing the subject, not bringing it up again. You recognize this person’s good intentions, and somehow that only makes you feel worse. Why did their response make you feel this way?

Or how about this: Your friend confides in you that she is feeling upset, worried, depressed, etc… Whatever it might be. You really feel for her! You want to help her, and so you say whatever you can think of that might be helpful. And yet you notice a distancing in her eyes, a closing up. She smiles at you and thanks you, but the smile is not genuine. You feel frustrated because you really want to help. But if she’s going to be like that, well…

What happened here? One person is in need and is reaching out, the other wants so much to help. This should be a moment of love, a coming together, an opportunity to give and receive kindness and empathy. What went wrong?

Any number of things. Here is a list of what not to say to someone who is feeling depressed:

  1. “You are a wonderful person who helps a lot of people. You have all kinds of wonderful qualities. Think about that and you’ll feel great!” This makes the depressed person feel like a fraud. What he is thinking is that on the outside he appears that way, but on the inside he is actually bad. He feels like you don’t understand.
  2. “Look at all the beauty that surrounds you! Go out and enjoy this gorgeous day instead of moping around thinking about your problems.” The depressed person may not be in a place where she can enjoy life through her senses. When you are depressed your sensory perception is dulled.
  3. “Maybe this is all because of that childhood trauma you had.” Practicing amateur psychoanalysis is not the way to go. It’s not what your friend is looking for from you, it’s not helpful and in fact, could be damaging.
  4. “I know exactly how you feel because I’ve been through the same thing…” and then you proceed to tell your story. You do not know exactly how your friend feels. You have no way of knowing that because you are not her. What you know is how YOU felt under what you think might be similar circumstances.
  5. “I know what you need to do to solve this. Let me tell you…” What makes you the expert? What makes you think that your solutions, based on your values, would help someone else? What’s more, where does your need to give advice come from? When you give advice, you are getting yourself off the hook. You can go on your merry way no longer troubled by this friend’s problems, because you “fixed” them. If the friend does not take your advice, well that’s up to him and you are free from responsibility. Who is this working for? For you, not for your friend.

I know I have said some version of all of the above to a depressed friend and I’ve had it all said to me. While I have appreciated the intention behind these words and I’ve had the best intentions myself, I recognize that these responses are not helpful to people who are troubled.

What is helpful?

Something that is very simple, and yet very hard to do. What helps the most is being present with the friend through her difficulty. Accompanying her with your care. Resisting the urge to fix, to scold, advise, “inspire,” to make the bad go away. Being there as she struggles. Listening. If appropriate, hugging. Respecting the integrity of who she is, believing that she is capable of finding the best answers for her within. One of the greatest gifts you can give someone is seeing her in her wholeness. Seeing that she struggles, and yet still caring about her.

And maybe realizing something that will help you do that. Like, that depression, struggle, and bad times have their place. As Stephen Fry says:

It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.

If appropriate, encourage your friend to get professional help and if you are concerned that your friend may do himself harm, read more here about what to do.

weirdness

ET Moon

Mostly, I could tell, I made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t understand me, and he was sort of holding it against me. I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else, just like everybody else. But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness. -Albert Camus, L’Étranger

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here and there are several reasons for that. I’m working on a couple other projects that have me very busy. One of those projects is Co-Active coaching, which I love entirely. It’s great to have found a career that is such a good fit for me. However, maybe the other reason that I’m not writing as much is that I’m going through a weird time.

I went to the U.S. a couple months ago to visit, and since I came back to southern Spain I have felt uncomfortable here. When I go to Barcelona or Madrid I feel light on my feet, joyful, carefree. I’m always smiling. I meet all kinds of interesting people with whom it’s easy to connect. I feel like I fit in there. I’m just another person in the throng, with her beauty and ugliness, her passions and her torpidity. Here in southern Spain, however, I usually feel like an outsider. People put me in a little box and slap a label on me. They switch out the label depending on their mood. For a long time I was in denial about this. Once I realized what was going on, I resented it so much I struggled and fought, accused and cried, and in the end hurt no one but myself.

I have to accept that I am not going to connect in any edifying way with most people here. And that’s ok. I don’t mind feeling alienated here. As one friend said to me the other day, looking me squarely in the eyes: “What is it that you really want? To feel accepted by these people, like you are one of them? You want to be like them? Seriously, Lindsay? I don’t think so.”

Not only am I going to accept that I am not like people here, I am going to embrace it. A few of the people I have had issues with have said to me that I should consider that maybe I am the problem, not them. They are absolutely right, of course. My problems have been the following: Trying to force friendships with people who don’t share my values, making myself small so that others don’t feel threatened, and giving energy to people and situations that don’t give me joy.

I realized last night that the people I most identify with, respect, and admire are people who don’t have many intimate friends. Human friends, that is. When I was growing up I felt like my best friends were books, paintings, and trees. I still feel that to some extent.

When I’m in Barcelona or Madrid I take big, deep breaths. I stretch. I feel like dancing down the street. I am going to feel that here in southern Spain, too. I don’t care if it’s the last thing I do. I’m going to feel as wonderful here as I do in other places. So take that, andaluces!

podcast debut

This is the first podcast at philosofina.com. I’m so excited! And nervous, too. For this first podcast I decided to answer some questions from readers, so here it goes.

What are your most popular posts?

My most popular post has been Leaving Mormonism, where I talk about my crisis of faith and my changing relationship with the Mormon church I was born and raised in. The post was controversial and there was some negative feedback, I expected that, but what most surprised me in a wonderful way was the outpouring of supportive messages I received from others who struggle with their faith, as well as words of love and understanding from nonbelievers and faithful Mormons alike.

The next most popular is a post that was simultaneously published on Stoicism Today, a piece called Stoicism for Passionate People. I’ve been pleased with the positive feedback on that post as well and it seems some of the regular readers of this blog discovered it from that Stoicism Today link.

Why is the blog named Philosofina?

I like philosophy. I think everyone needs to have a personal philosophy of life and this blog is where I develop mine from one post to another. That, and I just like the name. I get a lot of compliments on it.

Who is your favorite philosopher?

Michel de Montaigne, 16th-century French nobleman and inventor of the personal essay. I have this vivid mental image of Montaigne sitting down at his writing desk with a serious topic in mind, but once he started scratching that quill across the paper, all hell broke lose because he had this rich, fertile, imagination that would not be contained. It had its way with him every time. His writing is always fresh and organic, interspersed with tangents where he related funny anecdotes and personal stories, like listening to the best storyteller at the party. I love how playful and irreverent he is, never takes himself too seriously, and yet he has these profound insights on the complexity and contradictions in human nature. Montaigne also had a series of major life challenges in his thirties, at the very same ages that I had the same kinds of events in my life. And those events provoked in him, as they did in me, a time of self-reflection that ultimately led him to make some major changes in his life.  I feel like Montaigne and I have a lot in common and he is a major inspiration.

Why do you write so much about relationships and dating?

Since I married when I was still in my teens, I never dated until three years ago after I divorced. When you first enter the dating world at my age instead of at 18 or 20, you have a much different awareness of yourself and others, you look at it all with some distance and perspective, and you can’t help but notice and laugh at all of these strange things we do in our courtship and mating rituals. I have dated quite a bit because I’m always curious to meet new people. It’s sometimes been fun and sometimes maddening, but ALWAYS fascinating, and I love to write about what I’m seeing and experiencing and the insights I have. Several people have told me I should do a talk show about dating and relationships, and I’m considering it. Sounds fun!

What is a life coach? Is that like a therapist or something?

You hire a life coach if you want to transform your life. Life coaches help you to develop a greater awareness than you would otherwise be able to on your own, providing a better perspective from which to make important choices. A life coach can help move you back into action when you are stuck. You hire a life coach to provoke you, to ask the questions you need to be asked and say the things you need to hear.

A life coach can help you identify your values and create a life purpose, find resources within yourself to make the changes you want to make in your life, help you see the blind spots and hang-ups you have that are holding you back from making those changes, and learn to recognize the voices in your own mind that could be sabotaging your success.

As far as how life coaching may be related to seeing a psychologist, for example, I can only speak from my own experience. A few years ago after going through some difficult challenges, I felt depressed and eventually I started seeing a psychologist. After seeing me a couple times, the psychologist told me that we needed to go back into my childhood to see why it is that I have the insecurities and fears that I have. I asked how that would help me feel better, and she said that as we uncovered different layers, I would discover the root of my problems. I asked how THAT would make me feel better, and she said that the knowledge of where my insecurities and fears came from would help me to overcome them. I went a few more times, but I felt bored and frustrated by the process. I didn’t want to focus on my problems. All I wanted was to make my life beautiful again.

I stopped going to the psychologist and started focusing on doing and being those few things that I absolutely knew, regardless of any passing identity crisis, made me feel like me. In other words, I started living my values. I nourished my soul with great music, books, art, and friendships, and I wrote about it all. I got myself into a better place. When I finally listened to my own little heart, it told me how to heal myself. Around that time I discovered life coaching, and I was hooked! Because for me, that is what coaching is, getting the help you need to learn to listen to your own heart and letting it tell you what is best for you rather than taking advice from others. It’s about exploring within and developing new registers you never even imagined were there. While psychotherapy may be more focused on your emotional or mental problems and looking back toward the past, life coaching is focused in the here and now with a view toward the future.

What issues and topics do you work with as a coach?

I have coached people on dating and relationship issues, physical fitness goals, weight loss, self-confidence, friendships, parenting, pregnancy, writing, self-mastery and forming habits, and other things. Right now I am developing personalized programs to help people:

  • thrive as singles
  • emerge from an identity crisis as stronger, better, new versions of themselves
  • feel confident, secure, and empowered in their sexuality
  • discover their passions

I don’t have a niche, but I think I do have a theme that runs through my work with people, and that is helping people discover and live up to the greatness they have within. I think one of the worst tragedies of life is how we allow ourselves to be mediocre out of fear our own greatness and because we don’t want those around us to feel threatened by it. I love nothing better than working with people who want to let their light shine in spite of these fears.

Marianne Williamson says it well:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. […] And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

Have you worked with a coach? What did you work on?

I have definitely worked with coaches and I have a life coach of my own. In the past one thing I have worked on is embracing my sexy side. I’ve found that change isn’t always easy and it takes time, but it happens! I am amazed at the progress I’ve made. It’s also been fascinating to me to see how other aspects of my life have changed now that I have more confidence in this one area. Fascinating and very encouraging! Maybe I’ll talk more about that in my next podcast.

blue moon

20110319-JLB_4506-4041This evening I went for a walk along the beach of Belfast Bay just after the sun had set. The sky was still tinged orange in the west and I started my walk toward the east. I saw that the  moon was just beginning to rise. 2015’s blue moon. It was the palest of whites when it first peeked over the horizon but soon it was a luminous pink and orange, something like this photo I found online. It was much more impressive than this photo. I watched it rise and for some reason I remembered a conversation I had a couple weeks ago.

I was at home in Málaga eating grilled sardines under the stars with a poet who I suspect of being a wise man. I was telling him that my life was very lovely and orderly for many years, and in fact people used to tell me that I had the perfect family and the ideal life, like something out of the movies. I was seldom unhappy or angry. He said, “Well, I think such a life as that is a shit. How are you to appreciate it and really know you are happy if you never suffer, if you just go through life feeling great all the time?” That’s how poets talk. Spiritual gurus are slightly (or very) condescending and poets just say straight out, Your life was a shit.

But I think he’s on to something. For the past couple years my life has been a mess. At first I was embarrassed by it. I was failing all the time and I felt ashamed of these failures and angry at myself for letting them happen. I felt like a loser, like I couldn’t do anything right anymore. The internal work I’ve done through coaching and Stoic meditation has gone a long way in helping me see how wonderful it is to fail. It means I’ve taken a risk, I’ve hopefully learned something, and I’m living my life in a bold way. I can fail quite spectacularly now and feel relatively unfazed by it. It does hurt a bit still, but usually I’m so quickly on to the next endeavor that I’m not down for long.

For example, for the past six months or so I’ve been kissing a lot of frogs. I’m learning that there are many types of frogs. According to this article there are nearly 4000 types, including toads which are part of the frog family. I think I’ve kissed some of those too. I do hope I will find the type that turns into a prince before I get too close to the 4000 mark, but I’m making progress. See, a couple years ago it would have really grossed me out to be kissing all these frogs and it would have traumatized me. But now I take it less seriously and I also see that this experience is helping me to become quite an expert in the herpetological field. I’m now able to identify many types of frogs by their identifying spots or the shape of their nostrils without having to kiss them at all. As in, this is the type who lies, this is the type who doesn’t have a lot going on upstairs, etc.

It’s all good. My life is no longer picture perfect, nor is it a shit. It’s a beautiful mess. I’m a beautiful mess.

 

the untethered soul

UntetheredSoulMech-#1.inddAccording to the reviews on Goodreads, reading The Untethered Soul by Michael S. Singer has changed thousands of people’s lives. I’ve seen this book referenced on many blogs as a must-read. I finally read it. Reading it did not change my life but it did make me want to write a book about my philosophy, become a spiritual guru, and get on Oprah.

This book reminds me of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, but where I think Tolle’s book could have been easily and happily condensed to about five 500-word blog posts, two would do for The Untethered Soul. Supposedly people are not reading books anymore. They have no time for verbiage, preferring their spiritual enlightenment to come distilled in meme form on Tumblr or the like. Well, I find that hard to believe after reading these two number one best sellers. The Power of Now has 10 million copies in circulation worldwide. If millions of people will read these incredibly repetitive books, they are not looking for conciseness. Strunk and White are spinning in their graves.

To become a spiritual guru, you pick and choose what you consider the best beliefs and practices of the various spiritual traditions, mix them all together, and present them in your own words and as your own philosophy. When you write your book, the more repetitive, the better. The more conceptual and less practical, the better. Throw complexity, contradictions, and beauty out the window. Also, be a tad bit condescending. I suppose that lends a sense of authority to what you are saying. Seems that’s how enlightened people talk.

Reading these books made me long for Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Lao Tzu, Buddha, and Jesus. I wanted Dostoevsky, Thoreau, and my beloved Flannery O’Conner. I wanted Edna St. Vincent Millay. William Blake, please! I wanted something real, vibrant, hot, crazy, beautiful. I wanted to read personal accounts of spiritual journeys that pulse with life. Or that inspire me or take my breath away or shock me.

So, I was kidding about wanting to become a spiritual guru. I wouldn’t say no to Oprah, though.

I started this post with the intention of jotting down what it was I DID like about The Untethered Soul, but it looks like all that other stuff had to come out first. So, here is what I liked. The concept of identifying with the part of you who is an aware observer of the thoughts that are constantly passing through your mind and the resulting emotions that well up in response to those thoughts is liberating. It keeps you from getting caught up in the drama that your mind constantly creates because it needs something, anything, to worry about. I liked the first few chapters of the book that talked about awakening this consciousness. The ability to take a step back from your thoughts and emotions is a valuable skill. However, realizing this is one thing. Developing the habit of practicing it is another, and there are no suggestions for how to do this. I know from experience that your consciousness may be wide awake one day only to go into hibernation the next.

I also liked some of what was said about managing internal energy. I do believe what he says about the abundance of energy that we contain within ourselves and have access to whenever we need it, and that we block it with fear. However, I have a problem with his overly-simplified solution for removing these energy blockages. He says that every time we feel that our energy is blocked, we must “relax and open.” That’s it. Either that or not allow ourselves to “close” in the first place, that we should allow our hearts and minds to be open no matter what happens. Maybe it’s just me, but I for one need more instruction on how to keep my mind and heart open no matter what life throws at me. That’s the book I would like to read.

What can’t you stand?

It was an intense weekend. I did CTI’s Process course which is about expanding into the present moment, having curiosity about it, being able to name whatever’s going on inside of you at any given moment, and slowing down to appreciate and enjoy the journey. It’s about being fully alive.

We also learned how to recognize blocked emotion, bring it to the surface, and help clients be with their emotions. One exercise we did to explore blocked emotion was to name what it is we absolutely can not stand and recognize what it is within ourselves that is causing us to fixate on this issue. For example, people who loathe hypocrisy may have difficulty reconciling contradictory elements within themselves. “You spot it, you got it” is the idea.

After completing the course on Sunday, I decided to text this guy I had been seeing. We were getting to know each other but I started to see things I didn’t like and I didn’t feel comfortable at all the last time I saw him. I think he realized it and maybe felt the same. We just weren’t compatible for a relationship. Over a week had gone by without communication between us and I felt awkward. I wanted us to be friendly acquaintances at least, if not friends, so I started what I thought was a friendly, neutral conversation with him. That was probably my first mistake. I should have waited longer to contact him. Anyway. Somewhat out of the blue he said he was really really sorry, but he just didn’t think it would work out between us, but that I’m a beautiful woman and I shouldn’t let his rejection of me upset me too much or make me feel insecure or inferior.

So. At this point I should have said, that’s fine, thank you for your consideration of my feelings and just let it go. Right? That’s what I should have done. But his passive aggressive ass-hattery riled me so much that I couldn’t. I fell into the trap headfirst. I had to get into it with him. I will spare you all of the mean things we said to each other. It was not a pretty sight. It made me feel terrible, in fact. Even though I recognized that his attacks were obviously ego-based, the things he said still hurt me. (You know what his answer was a few weeks ago when I asked him what he couldn’t stand? Egocentrism. I think “you spot it, you got it” is right.)

I do not like it at all that I couldn’t just let it go. I felt disappointed in myself after that exchange. I felt like I had lowered myself. Why did it have to bother me in the least that he wanted to feel superior by “dumping” me? Who the hell cares? Well, it seems that my ego did. I don’t want to be the kind of person who let’s my ego dictate what I say and do. I want to love. I want whatever I do in the arena of romantic relationships to be loving and kind. Ego, you are not welcome here, even when sorely provoked! I want to be a big enough person that those kinds of remarks are just water off a duck’s back.

So, what do I do? The next time something like that happens, I need to sit there with that feeling of humiliation and just let myself feel it without striking back. I can see from this incident with this guy that it would have been MUCH better to just let it go. That would have made me feel good about myself. I need to remember that.

Are you thinking about what it is you can’t stand, and what that indicates about you?

keeping it fake

montaigne-heykeli

I write to keep from going mad from the contradictions I find among mankind – and to work some of those contradictions out for myself. -Michel de Montaigne

I haven’t yet read “Keep it Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life” by Eric G. Wilson, but that will not keep me from commenting here on Clancy Martin’s NYT review of it.

Martin cites at the beginning of the review an anecdote Wilson relates about the time when he was trying to be a good father and also struggling with depression, overwork, and drinking too much. Wilson began referring to himself as “Crazy Dad” instead of “Super Dad.” Once he let go of the “Super Dad” ideal of being conscientious, responsible, and square, he discovered other fascinating possibilities for inspiring fatherhood within his reach. He was able to play to his strengths and saw improvement not only in his role as a father, but in other aspects of his life as well.

That reminded me of a time two years ago when I was going through a bad spell as a parent and in every other way. I found out one day that a mother at my daughter’s school wouldn’t let her daughter come to play at our house because this woman didn’t think I controlled my children. She was right. I have never seen the need to control my children. They appear to thrive, in fact, without my meddling. Even so, this woman called me an “irresponsible mother” and that hurt. There is nothing like someone criticizing your parenting skills to fill you with self doubt. Though I didn’t worry too much about what this lady thought of me, I wondered if maybe I was irresponsible and if my children needed more from me. I asked my 11-year-old daughter, “Do you think I’m an irresponsible mother?” She thought for a moment and replied, “You’re… an interesting mother.”

With these words, it was as if my daughter suddenly turned up my resolution. I wasn’t like her friend’s mothers. I wore stiletto heels and sometimes came home at 5 am. I had crazy friends. I ate and slept at odd hours. I danced in the kitchen alone or with my children and made them laugh until they cried. I had boy trouble. I was even invited by my daughter’s friends to slumber parties. I was interesting.

The fact that she didn’t outright deny that I was irresponsible did give me pause and I realized I needed to tighten up the ship a bit. However, she taught me that you don’t have to buy into a certain standard or ideal way of being in any given role. And that not only are there different ways of being a good mother, for example, there are different points of view on the same mother. Seeing myself as the “Interesting Mom” opened me up to “enjoying a more zany, capricious, playful, capacious, love-charged, creative existence,” as it did Wilson.

So all of this is great. What confuses me comes next in Milton’s review. He talks about how we “act our way through life” and that we are different people in different contexts. I’m different with my children than I am with my friends, than I am in my job, with strangers, with my sister… And then he says:

But there is an undeniable tension between that observation and the nagging feeling we all share that behind those masks there is a “real me,” a “genuine self,” some kind of master narrator who stands behind, informs, controls and even unifies these other selves. After all, if I am not one self but many selves, can I ever tell the truth about myself? […] That sounds like a threat to all kinds of things we hold dear. Self-knowledge, telling the truth about how we feel, sharing frightening aspects of ourselves with loved ones, developing intimacy, cultivating a coherent, reliable personhood: These virtues seem to be threatened by the idea that we are merely playing the game of being a person.

I know that this is a thing and that philosophers have been agonizing about it forever. One reason I love Montaigne is the absolute glee he takes in contradicting himself within the same essay. I love it because I identify with it and so do most people. People are infinitely complex and full of contradictions. The more people insist on defining themselves a certain way, the less I trust them, and the more I think they are repressing the part of themselves that is not “that way.” Shouldn’t self-knowledge, truth, and authenticity take our complexity into account?

For example, as far as developing intimacy goes, the closer you get to someone, the more a certain part of you wants to get the hell outta there. I love the Civil War’s “Poison & Wine” lyrics for this truth about all romantic relationships:

You only know what I want you to
I know everything you don’t want me to
Oh your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine
You think your dreams are the same as mine
Oh I don’t love you but I always will
Oh I don’t love you but I always will
Oh I don’t love you but I always will
I always will

I wish you’d hold me when I turn my back
The less I give the more I get back
Oh your hands can heal, your hands can bruise
I don’t have a choice but I’d still choose you

 

sunlit souls

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There are souls that one desires to draw near to, like a sunlit window. -Federico García Lorca

A few days ago I met with an Argentine friend who lived many years in Spain but moved last year to Manchester. I went to visit her in Manchester last fall and she seemed to be adjusting well. When we’ve spoken since then, she’s always been upbeat about the experience. This friend is one I’m always thrilled to get together with because she is unfailingly positive.The shortened version of my friend’s first name means “light” in English, and her last name is similar to “ray.” Every time I see her I think how much she resembles a sunbeam. Yesterday I finally got to see her again because she has come down to Spain to visit. I hadn’t realized that this entire past year she has been unable to leave England because of a visa problem that has just now been resolved. She told me about this and other difficulties she’s faced this past year as well as the measures she took to keep herself in a positive frame of mind. I had been taking my friend’s sunny disposition for granted. Though she does lead an enviable life in some respects, she has difficult trials and fears and disappointments just as we all do. She is naturally good-natured, but obviously some days (or months, or years!) it requires a lot of effort to maintain good cheer. She is always radiant because she chooses to be.

IMG_7469Cheerfulness is not the only way a shining soul makes itself known. I think of my grandmother, Bea. She was a simple country girl, not at all fancy or sophisticated. And yet she had a powerful presence. A neighbor who was raised on a farm next to my grandmother’s house (on the legendary River Road, where I grew up!) once told us about the skating parties they used to have there in the winter. In that group of children there were some quarrels and rivalries that came out whenever they got together. But then my grandmother would arrive (late of course–Bea knew how to take her sweet time), and suddenly all would be well. There was something about her that made everyone want to get along and have fun together. She radiated peace and contentment.

Another sunlit soul I am privileged to know is my friend Mariló , she of the Bridge People wisdom. Mariló is an artist in everything she does. Everything. In her relationships, her interactions with patients as a nurse, her meditations, her paintings, her dinner parties, the decor of her home, and in the way she talks and moves and dresses. She can not help but constantly express beauty and joie de vivre. I first heard about Mariló from some mutual friends and then I kept seeing her comments on their Facebook content. I longed to meet her, but couldn’t figure out how. One day I started chatting with a man on Facebook I don’t know personally, but we had other friends in common. He is a successful and inspiring violin teacher and we were talking about that. All of a sudden he said, “You should meet Mariló. She lives down near you and you have a lot in common.” I didn’t even know he knew Mariló! And I thought it must be fate that she and I meet. We didn’t finally meet in person until about a year later. We’ve had many conversations about how people don’t always make it easy for you to be yourself if you are not like everyone else. Mariló is constantly making the choice to be true to who she is and to let her light shine brilliantly.

When I was in Barcelona recently for two weeks, I felt radiant. I was in a magical city far from my woes and cares where no one knows me. I felt completely free to explore different versions of me and I discovered within hidden talents, ambitions, and strengths that I never knew existed. This post is indicative of how I felt before I went to Barcelona. In this post and this one, I mention some discoveries, though not all. I will write about more discoveries, and some I will keep to myself. Anyway, now that I am back home, I have struggled to maintain that high. Friends have told me that that’s what happens when you come back from vacation. You are faced with the reality and routine of your life and, Hello! It’s not vacationland. Well, I’ve got news for them. I was BORN in vacationland. If I want to feel the same freedom, creative inspiration, and joie de vivre here in Málaga that I felt in Barcelona, then I will, damn it. And no one is going to tell me that I can’t. I will choose to be a radiant, sunlit soul. So there! Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

new moon elegance

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What it is that brings you the deepest joy? What motivates and inspires you? What gives you a sense of rightness and satisfaction? What is essential?

The answers to these questions inevitably indicate something about your values. Your values reflect what you most care about. Your values are not your morals, ethics, or principles, though it could be that you have a value of acting ethically, for example. Living a life in accordance with your values is what brings you fulfillment in life. It may not always feel pleasurable or make you constantly happy like popping a pill, but living your values gives you satisfaction, meaning, and joy.

Yesterday I wrote about my Lady is a Tramp value, which is largely about freedom. The freedom from other people’s expectations and the freedom to fully enjoy life on my own terms without being cool, apologizing, or conforming. When I think of the words “Lady is a Tramp,” all of that immediately comes to mind, but I also feel it in my body, deep inside. In this way I’ve made this little cluster of values tangible. It has much more power and impact than if I just think of the words “freedom” or “unconventionality,” etc.

A leader in my coaching class told us that he calls one of his values the “elegance of the new moon.” For him the image of the new moon represents a certain kind of under-appreciated beauty. Everyone admires the full moon, but no one talks about the new moon with its barely-there sliver of light, promising and hopeful. That really struck me, and I realized that I share that same value. Or at least, the image of the new moon evokes values for me, too. A kind of over-looked beauty that has its quiet, minimalist elegance. A beauty of fresh beginnings that come on gradually and require a careful attention and patience to fully appreciate. Simplicity. “New moon” says all of that to me.

Here are two more of my embodied values:

I value luxury, but not the luxury of a sleek, expensive car or a designer-made dress. I value the luxury of slipping newly-shaven legs between freshly-washed, line-dried sheets. I value the luxury of sitting on my terrace with a book and an herbal tea. A homemade hair mask of honey, egg, and argan oil. A bud vase with a few wild flowers. These several-times-per-day moments of quiet connection with beauty and my senses make life meaningful and lovely.

I value forget-lunch passion. Yesterday I was so wrapped up in my writing that by 3:30 I still hadn’t had lunch. When I’m so interested in what I’m doing that I forget to eat, it must be passion because I love to eat! While exploring my values in coaching class, a fellow student told me, “I can see that passion is the motor of your life.” Passion touches everything that I most care about. I can see it in my relationships when I stay up all night talking with friends. I see it in my appreciation for music and dance. I feel it when I visit museums.

Why does it matter what your values are? Why even think about it? Why not just live your life and let things flow? Just as there are people born with perfect pitch, I’m sure there are people who are born with the ability to live a life in constant and perfect accordance with their values without even thinking of it. However, most of us have to practice to become good at living our values. And in a world where the media constantly bombards us with its values, many of us don’t have our own values clearly defined.

How do you determine what your values are? With the examples I’ve given, I’m sure you’ve already come up with a few of your own. If you dare, ask your friends or family members: What would you say my values are? This exercise could provide useful information about what your values really are, but also ways that you may be acting or spending your time that don’t reflect your true values. Someone could tell you that you seem to value being traditional and conformist, for example, and you are surprised because that’s not at all the idea you have of yourself.

One way to determine your values is to ask yourself what annoys the hell out of you. What is it that just bugs you so bad? What makes you indignant? When I asked myself this, I immediately thought of the lunch program at my children’s school. Buying the school lunch is compulsory. Students are NOT ALLOWED to take their own lunch or go home for lunch. The reason given for this is that the school wants to ensure that the children are getting proper nutrition for their long day of learning. The problem is, the school lunch is dreadful. It’s not made on site. It’s brought in by a catering service and reheated, so the texture is unappealing. My kids will barely touch it, so when they get home from school they are ravenous. We pay A LOT for this stupid school lunch they won’t even eat. The campus and buildings for this school are probably the most expensive and technically cutting-edge in the region, so I was confused as to why they couldn’t provide a proper cafeteria. I found out that the owner of the catering service is the school director’s cousin. Ok, now it all makes sense and it makes me SO FRIGGING MAD. I could not be more indignant, and the covering up of this nepotism with the enraging lie that they are forcing me to pay for this nasty lunch FOR MY CHILDREN’S NUTRITIONAL GOOD… I can not even.

Now I am hopping mad. What values of mine are being offended here? Tell me in the comments. And what are your values? I’m curious!