Tag Archives: gratitude

Broken

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I recently reread Broken For You by Jan Karon. The last time I picked it up was years ago, when I was living a different life in a different place. I loved it then, but this time it spoke to me more profoundly. I was captivated by the suggestion that things, including people, might be more valuable broken than whole.

Then, in an idle moment, I picked up one of my Mary Oliver books and read this:

Landscape

Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about

spiritual patience? Isn’t it clear
the black oaks along the path are standing
as though they were the most fragile of flowers?

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong, thick wings.

Again, the theme of breaking, this time breaking darkness into black wings.

I’ve been thinking about breaking as I harvest from the garden this weekend. The tomato plants are heavy with fruit, bent and sprawling above the basil and parsley, straggling over the garden borders into the grass. The tomatoes on the ground are gratefully received by slugs and beetles, as well as some kind of gnawer – no doubt a rodent. Our resident chipmunk is my prime suspect.

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I don’t mind, though. I have an abundance, and it gives me pleasure to share. I picked everything that was ripe, harvested oregano and basil, and made a crock pot of spaghetti sauce yesterday, discarding the spoiled tomatoes in the compost, which will, in time, feed other gardens in other years.

As I chopped the herbs into thin, fragrant ribbons and the tomatoes into juicy chunks, I thought about broken things. Well, not things. Not objects. Things are just things. They’re not life. They’re not real identity, although we try hard to make them so.

I thought about broken hearts, shattered dreams, disillusionment, loss of innocence, disappointed hopes, violated trust. I thought about broken promises made to ourselves and others and fractured relationships with ourselves and others.

Objects break, but the more painful breaks are intangible. Objects can be replaced. How do we manage intangible breaks?

Sometimes a broken object can be pieced back together, but it’s never quite the same again.

But what if we made something new with the broken pieces? What if we let go of the old shape of whatever broke and spent the night thinking about what we want to make or be now with the broken pieces of what we were yesterday?

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Some things endure: a seed, a bone, love, life, and death. Death most of all, because without it there can be no seed or bone, and no life. In time, everything breaks, and then breaks down, and then becomes something new.

Breaking then, need not be a catastrophe or a message that we are victims of malign fate, but an invitation to reshape ourselves and our lives into something greater, something wiser, something winged.

Fractures, chips, and cracks are inevitable in life. Nothing stays young and unblemished. Time and entropy sweep us along. As I approach my sixties, I find myself more and more grateful for all my broken places. From those places I write, and from those places I love. Each of those broken pieces has made me into a juicier, more complex whole.

Thinking of what I would like my life to be and making it with the broken pieces. My daily crime.

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Courage

I’ve been thinking for some time about courage.

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Oxford Online Dictionary defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one.”

As I explore definitions, articles, memes, and quotes about courage online, much of what I read seems superficial and uninspiring – nothing I want to write about.

As always, I did find gold. An article from Psychology Today lists characteristics of courage. My comments are in parentheses.

  • Feeling fear yet choosing to act.
  • Following your heart.
  • Persevering in the face of adversity.
  • Standing up for what is right. (Understanding that we’ll never all agree on what is right.)
  • Expanding horizons – letting go of the familiar.
  • Facing suffering with dignity and faith.

Forbes published an article entitled “10 Traits of Courageous Leaders” that also caught my eye. As far as I’m concerned, these courageous traits are not specific to leaders. Again, my comments are in parentheses.

  • Confront reality head-on. (Reality has become subjective. ‘Alternative facts’, anyone? I think of this as the willingness to see things clearly and accept the world (and others) as it is.)
  • Seek feedback and listen. (Refusing to answer questions or hear feedback is a red flag. So is the inability to shut up and listen.)
  • Say what needs to be said. (Authenticity)
  • Encourage push-back.
  • Take action on performance issues. (Ooda loop: Observe, orient, decide, act.)
  • Communicate openly and frequently. (Authenticity)
  • Lead change.
  • Make decisions and move forward. (Ooda loop again.)
  • Give credit to others. (Gratitude, appreciation, acknowledgment.)
  • Hold people (and yourself) accountable. (Integrity)

Most will agree that courage is a good thing, an attribute we want to have, an attractive quality we’d like others to see in us. The hardest part of courage, it appears at first look, is simply overcoming our fear and taking action anyway. Then everyone will admire, like, and respect us.

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From the bottom of my scarred heart, I wish that was so. Maybe it is so for others, but my experience with courage is that the people closest to me, whose opinion I’ve most cared about, have called some of the most courageous choices I’ve ever made cowardice, and I’ve paid a steep and ongoing price for those choices, even though from my perspective they were the right things to do.

Perhaps the most powerful way to think about the traits and aspects of courage listed above is to consider whether they are present or not in our own relationships, groups and communities. Most of us will pay lip service to the idea of courage, but when it comes to taking courageous action, we are severely discouraged from doing so, and we often do all we can to prevent others from doing so as well.

Let’s face it. Courage is damned inconvenient and uncomfortable. In fact, for many, it’s a frank threat.

This is a shadowy aspect of courage few talk about directly, with one major exception.

Artists.

For example, John Steinbeck wrote, in East of Eden: “An unbelieved truth can hurt a man much more than a lie.” To tell the truth, make courageous choices out of that truth, and be invalidated and/or disbelieved by those close to us is a terrible kind of pain. When others call our courage selfishness, cowardice, malevolence, irresponsibility or hysteria, relationships shatter.

Then I found this poem by Mary Oliver, one of my favorite writers:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
Kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

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It’s one thing to be a member of an in-group that provides support as we make choices. It’s a whole other thing to be cast out, scapegoated, or tribally shamed because others do not accept or believe in our fears, dreams, and authenticity, and thus cannot appreciate our courage.

Courage, I find, takes enormous courage.

As I contemplate courage, my relationship to it, and these points, two aspects stand out: The terrible loneliness of courage, and how subjective it is.

Fear is, of course, subjective, too. This came home to me particularly this week as I had a conversation with a young student about concerns and plans for schools reopening. I realized afresh, during our brief interaction, that we all fear things in the coming months. Some are afraid they’ll be forced to take a vaccine for coronavirus in order to attend school, or forced to wear a mask all day. Others fear equally there will be no vaccine, at least not a safe and effective one, and students won’t wear masks.

To be human is to know fear. We all have that in common. I wish we could stay rooted in that commonality and work together, but instead most people take it one step farther and fight about which fear is real and legitimate; not a successful strategy for problem-solving.

There’s an old proverb: “Fear and courage are brothers.” Most of us understand that courage can’t exist without fear. This is an aspect of courage that’s heavily underlined as I research. It doesn’t help us much now, though, when we fear so many different, if not opposite, things.

If fear is subjective, then courage must be, too. Right now we see a mad scramble as different groups work to legitimize their fears and invalidate those of others. Contempt, violence and broken relationships are the result, and we wind up more thoroughly divided than we started.

Courage, then, becomes something we each define for ourselves, rather than a concept we all agree on.

Because our culture has such low emotional intelligence, and fear is such a loaded thing to talk about honestly, the idea of courage becomes equally difficult to address and remains nebulous and elusive, a thing in the shadows.

Who would have thought how complicated courage is?

I have no grand conclusions. What I will say is that thinking about courage has softened some of my certainty that I can recognize and appreciate it in those around me. What do I know of what lies in the hidden places of others? I’m also reminded that, at the end of the day, the best friend and support we have is ourselves. Nobody can walk in our shoes but us, and that means nobody has access to the full truth of our experience, our fear, or the fullness of our courage. Our own love and approval may be all we get, and that needs to be enough.

Practicing courage, in spite of the price. My daily crime.

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Gratitude

This post has been simmering in the back of my mind for some while. I’ve taken my time approaching it because it seems to be something of a landmine for some people.

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In simplest terms, to be grateful is to be thankful.

It’s easy to be thankful for the things we enjoy and make us happy. Thankfulness can also be a matter of routine or ritual, as in the case of saying grace before meals, or a display of good manners, like thanking a service person.

Those are the smiling, kindly faces of gratitude.

But gratitude can also wear the aspect of a hag, and then we’re in darker, grittier territory.

Part of the experience of life and relationship includes pain and trauma, there’s no getting around it. We all have a haunted cellar in our soul in which we have suffered. Sadly, many people live in that cellar, picking their scabs, reopening their wounds, and competing with others to win the Most Victimized and Best Haunted Cellar awards.

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That’s a choice.

I’m not suggesting our feelings of disillusionment, pain, rage, fear, shame, betrayal and self-pity are wrong or inappropriate, nor am I victim blaming or shaming, taking some kind of high moral ground, or minimizing the tragic challenges and traumatic experiences we face in life.

Our inevitable wounds are not the point. The point is what we choose to do with them. Do we heal them or not?

It’s important to acknowledge that some people don’t want to heal. Some find the payoff for chronic bleeding too seductive to want to stop it. I don’t understand this, but I know it’s so, and I respect that choice.

We can be a motionless victim or we can practice gratitude and allow it to sweep us forward. We can’t do both.

If we do want to heal, we have to give up blame. This is a big thing to let go of, and some will choose not to. Again, that’s a choice I can understand and respect. It’s also a dead end. If we insist on holding tight to our blame, we’ve cut ourselves off from the possibility of full healing. As long as we blame others or ourselves, we’re refusing to acknowledge our own responsibility and power.

Blame and responsibility are not the same thing. When I say responsibility, I don’t mean we’re necessarily responsible for our trauma. I mean our responsibility for how we handle it, and our responsibility for our feelings. Taking responsibility for our lives is empowering. Blame leads us into an endless loop of victimhood and/or self-hatred.

We can use addiction, compulsion, and other self-destructive behaviors to numb, distract, or forget our wounds, but none of those coping mechanisms help us reclaim our power.

Healing takes time and patience. Sometimes it takes years, or even decades. There is no shortcut around our feelings. We often need support. Healing can be a messy, exhausting, ugly, extremely vulnerable business.

Healing, like relationship, is a crucible, a dark womb in which we transform our wounds into scars. Gratitude is one of the agents of that transformation, but it can’t show up until we’ve begun to actively work through our feelings.

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Gratitude and forgiveness are often hand in hand. Note I did not say forgetfulness, but forgiveness. Scars are permanent reminders of our journey, but they need not be a matter of shame. We can choose to view them as medals of honor. We can choose to relate to others out of the empowerment and wisdom our scars represent rather than the wounds that caused them.

In every experience there is something to learn. We learn about ourselves. We learn about others. We learn about the way the world works. We learn about power. Learning makes us bigger, stronger, wiser, more effective, and more powerful in our lives. If what we learned is bitterness, we’re still blaming. We haven’t taken enough time, or found the right support, or finished the journey from wound to scar. Bitterness does not grow gratitude. It’s not empowering. It makes us small and shrivels our hearts.

We can’t control what other people do, but we can choose to see those who hurt us as teachers, learn the lesson, graduate, and be grateful. We can look back on the most uncomfortable experiences in our lives as the most meaningful and growthful.

Our culture encourages us to be dissatisfied with our lives as they are. We’re trained from childhood in longing and envy rather than in gratitude. The truth is that if we can’t be thankful for what we have right now, this minute, we won’t be thankful for more money, a different body, a different job or house or car.

Thankfulness is acceptance of whatever our circumstances are in the now, even if they’re difficult and we need to change them. Especially if they’re difficult and we need to change them. If our lives aren’t working and we know it, we can be grateful for accepting what is (we’re miserable) and take advantage of the opportunity to learn to manage our power in such a way that we can make positive change. Misery is highly motivating.

So often we have an ideal in our heads, or a set of expectations, that keeps us reaching for more, or different. The practice of gratitude requires us to settle down and take a good long look at what we have, what we are, and where we are. What is there to learn? What can we be grateful for? Expectations are devoid of gratitude, because they don’t reflect reality.

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Gratitude takes strength and courage, especially during dark times of pain, fear, and despair. It’s also one of the most powerful choices we can make. It leads us into the light. It comforts our raw feelings. It keeps us focused on joy, and the simple gifts in each day.

In seeking gratitude, we go deeper than we’ve gone before, far beyond the fact of our wounding. We reclaim our power, not over what happens to us, but how we use such events and circumstances to water and feed our best selves. To feel gratitude is to come fully into peaceful alignment with our lives, whatever they have been, whatever they are now, whatever they might be.

Thank you.

My daily crime.

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