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Archive for October, 2008

I’ve received a lot of e-mails regarding my last post. Friends who think that I’m in a bad place and in need of some encouragement. I’ve been thinking about why this is. Why is it that my friends were concerned after my last post about feeling lost, even if for a brief moment? Their concern shows me how great my friends truly are and how lucky I am to have them in my life.

But my last post was written about a month before I actually posted it. I wrote most of if for me, not the blog-reading world. I wasn’t in a bad place but in one of those moods, thinking about my life and where I am in that life. As I mentioned in the blog, it was a moment that I didn’t want to pass without thinking about its importance. Obviously, I think those moments are important in life. It’s so easy to ignore them, to think that they are something to be dismissed, repressed, or remain unspoken. As I sat thinking about that moment, I decided that times like these give us an opportunity to reflect when we are most vulnerable. It gives us a chance to look at ourselves and reflect.

Reflection is severely underrated. Reflection provides us with an opportunity to, well, reflect. When we do this we are able to peel away the layers of self-preservation, self-loathing, and self-importance that so often, at least for me, characterize the version of myself I want to believe is real. This isn’t to say that it’s not real but I like to think of myself in a particular way and often disregard the things that I don’t like about myself. I do recognize that reflection could easily turn into self-loathing. The difference between the two, I believe, rests in how they compel us to act. Self-reflection forces me to see the good and less than good as all part of my wonderfully broken self. It requires me to ask difficult questions with an attitude of change. I reflect because I want to become the best version of myself.

Self-loathing on the other hand is little more than self-hate. It’s a trap in which all our our bad characteristics become magnified to such an extent that we no longer see any good in ourselves. We see a distorted view because we obsess about slivers of ourselves. Hmmm. Maybe self-loathing is a form of radical self-centeredness.

A few weeks ago I spent an hour talking to one of my students, a freshman struggling with adjusting to college. At least that’s how he tried to paint it in the beginning. The more we talked, the more it became aparent that he is one of the most self-hating people I’ve ever met. It’s hard to describe this situation because I’ve never seen anything like it. It was new for me, which is saying a lot because I’ve talked to a lot of people of all different stripes. But he was different. He thinks that if you don’t have high expectations, “you don’t have as far to fall.” At the same time, however, he really wants to take over the world in an authoritarian kind of way. Yet he is so self-hating. If he can’t be perfect, he just stops. When he has more than one thing to do, more than one paper to write, he will wake up realizing that he has been staring at the same computer screen for five hours. He wants to be perfect yet he knows he can’t be. And that paralyzes him.

I asked him what it means to be perfect and what he said astonished me. I’m not talking about the kind of astonishment that comes from shock, rather it’s from complete disbelief. He wants others to see him as perfect even though he realizes that he is far far far from it. He wants me to see him as perfect even though he thinks he’s the scum of the earth. His words. He wants others to see him as perfect, as the standard by which others should be judged, yet he sees himself as the most vial human being to ever inhabit our planet. This kind of dichotomy may seem odd to me, but for the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about this conversation and how his struggles are so familiar. He’s paralyzed by what others think of him. He’s so desperate to perform perfection yet in those quite moments he knows that he’s not perfect, nor can he ever be. What others think of us can overtake our life. Everything we do and say can, at times, be traced back for a desire to be recognized by others. But what we seek is more than recognition that we exist, we want to be special. But what drives this desire for uniqueness? What drives us to want recognition in this way? What drives us to self-hate? And, more importantly, how can we escape it? Do you have answers?

I see reflection as a healthy way to live life. When those moments confront us we can swing to either self-importance or self-hate. Reflection helps us manage the two, keeping our eyes fixed on who we want to become while embracing our humanity.

I’d be very interested in hearing what you think about self-reflection and self-hate …

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Lost

I think it might be a requirement for one in ten cars in Indiana, or at least where I’m living, to have the bumper sticker that says “Not all who wander are lost.” I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately. Not because it’s a clever or profound cliche, but because I don’t think anyone who wanders is lost. When you wander, you know exactly where you are. It’s easy for other people to see someone who’s trying to find out what they want in life, not living with a particular goal or plan, and think that they are lost, rudderless, hopeless. I don’t think this is the case. Being lost is far more traumatic than that.

When you think you have life figured out, that you know what you want to do, where you want to go, and who you want to be, that’s a perfect time to realize what it means to be lost. You began walking down a road you thought would take you to a specific destination only to realize that it leads to nowhere, or at least it leads to a place you didn’t know exists. You’re lost. You don’t know where you are. You don’t know what to do. And all you can do is sit down, look around, and wonder. And now, I’m sitting down in wonder. It would be easy for me to tell myself that this moment will pass, which it will. It would be easy for me to think about all the things I need to get done in the next two weeks and how the past month will seem like a cake-walk in comparison. But I don’t want this moment to pass just yet.

I don’t know why I think it’s important that I think about where I am right now. I’m not talking about where I am in life or rethinking all the things I want to do in life. Instead, it’s about a moment that doesn’t come often, that moment when I’m forced just to stop and look around, paying attention to things I may have neglected. Remember past relationships that didn’t end as well as I’d like to tell myself, understanding my complicity in the situation and self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Or how I allow friendships to slowly slip away if for no other reason than I’m busy or, quite honestly, because I feel like I’m the only one trying to make the effort to stay in touch across the distance that now separates us. Then I think about people that I’ve hurt by words that I have or haven’t said because I have a difficult time thinking about the good things they bring to my life, rather than those times of complete frustration and self-pity. Moments like this give me a chance to be free to be lost.

Sometimes I feel lost. This might be an odd thing to hear from a 31 year old man. I think I have things together. I have a good job. I’m living my career dream. Reached the highest level of education one can achieve. Those who know me might think this is an odd thing coming from me, from a person who seems so together, who has a level-head, and enjoys life. But sometimes I feel lost.

I just moved to a new town. No friends. No people who I can call if I need to move a piece of furniture or grab a drink. The lonliness and isolation that comes from the reality of my present moment seems to be catching up with me. I work at least twelve hours a day. I’d always thought of people who are workaholics as those who are trying avoid something but now I know that it just magnifies everything. In those still quite moments between things that have to be done, I realize where I am. Lonliness magnifies all the things about me I don’t like. It leaves me with nothing but myself. It’s almost as if all the things I’ve always thought about myself have come rushing to the forefront of my mind and there’s nothing I can do about it. We’re all insecure. We have our own issues that creep up on us when we least expect it. We all wish we could be someone else because to escape who we are would release us. But it wouldn’t. We would just be exchanging one set of insecurities for another. One set of problems for the ones that have come to haunt us. We would be exchanging the known for the unknown, and this is one of the only situations in our life where uncertainty is preferable.

Moments like this give me a chance to be free to be lost–that sentence just seems weird to me. Maybe this is why I’m focusing on this moment right now. Why I stopped grading papers. Why I realized I just need to let my fingers do the talking and wonder. The thought that being lost is freeing still sounds weird to me. Free to be lost. It has an odd ring to it but it keeps whispering to me, and that whisper has now turned to a scream. Be free to be lost. Be free to wonder. Be free to just live. I really don’t know where this is going. I’m just writing what comes to my mind. But that’s maybe what being lost is like. Maybe being lost has more to do with realizing that all the things you’ve planned. All the calculated choices you’ve made has led you to a place you no longer recognize. It might be exactly where you thought you’d end up but something has changed. You’ve changed. Or maybe you haven’t changed. Maybe you just need the chance to sit down and take it all in. Maybe you just need to sit for awhile and rest and wonder and let yourself be taken in by whatever comes to you.

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My M.A. thesis advisor once told me, “Jeff, if you find yourself laughing at a comment by a leader of a group, you’re no longer part of that group.” At the time we were talking about a paper that I presented in my department about Jerry Falwell and Pat Roberton’s comments after 9/11, claiming that it was the result of God’s judgment for America’s wickedness. If you find yourself angry by what the leaders of the Christian right are saying, you’re part of that group.

This comment has stuck with me for the last seven years as I oscillate between anger and laughter. I hear people talk about the “emerging” church as a sort of heretical aboration akin to a wolf hunting for ignorant sheep. I hear Christians angry that we’re “no longer a Christian nation” as if we were one to begin with. But, most importantly, I hear the word “orthodoxy” tossed around like a ball in a game of four-square. Yup, I bet you didn’t expect me to go to four-square there. Ah, the best post-church game of my youth.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m “in” this group or not. While I want to identify with their common faith I find myself repulsed by the way that faith is articulate by so-called leaders. Yet my repulsion has turned to cynicism, which can now only be described as hysterical laughter. I’m not going to talk about the difference and division between emergent christianity, whatever that means, and the more conservative 20th century kind. I’m not going to talk about how claims to “orthodoxy” is a particularly American cultural phenomenon attached to a history of every group claiming the “true” historical tradition while inventing it anew. Those posts will come later.

What I’m thinking about right now is my struggle to identify with those who I call brothers and sisters. With the 2008 U.S. Presidential campaign in full swing and the recent pick of a pentecostal Christian as the GOP VP nominee, I can’t help but wonder why I just can’t identify with that attitude toward our faith and the application of that faith in everyday life, including politics. I just can’t relate.

It seems as if we are more concerned with forcing the world to be Christian. To embody and perform Christian values by law seems to be the only way some believe this can happen. This troubles me because we divorce our own lives, the way with live, from our small part of the world. We find ourselves battleing the faceless pagans around us, who we presume are trying to eliminate God from our hearts and mind. Our focus has shifted from redemption and reconciliation to re-creating the Christian nation we have told ourselves once existed.

I wonder why this happened. I wonder what when wrong to make us more concerned with our own preservation, constantly claiming persecution, rather than participating in the kind of community that compells people to join us. Maybe our own self-preservation is part of a much larger problem in American Christianity in which we are so consumed with not being pushed aside that we push ourselves aside as others run away. And run they should.

I’m always encouraged to hear from old and new friends about the way their life looks differently from the faith of their mothers and fathers while remaining thankful that faith was a part of their youth. This isn’t about rebellion but a desire to have their faith be, well, their own. The depth and breadth of faith it takes to question, to doubt, to live a life that doesn’t conform to what is considered a “normal” faith. To take a chance by living a life you believe should be lived, rather than the life you are told to live.

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