Baker’s dozen: 13 things I learned in ’13

2013-to-20142013 was an amazing year for me, by my own happiness index if not the world’s. No, I did not get a job (though I tried, and I will.) No, I did not travel the world or make a shit-ton of money. No, I did not finish rehabbing my runnerself. But my heart was wide open to beauty and love. I got better at connecting and caring with strangers and dogs, friends and family, God and my beloved. Here’s (some of) what I learned and (some of) how all that happened.

1. Dreams deferred are like a river; you can dam them up, but water finds a way. I’ve been dreaming of a different kind of church and how I want to be part of it for a long time. It hasn’t happened yet. But, like a river moving through a desert toward the sea, I’ve come through a long period of dryness and I can sense the delta opening ahead. In the meantime, I continue to experience a time-and-space-traveling God reaching for me: through my past experiences and the people who were part of them and are still part of me; through the richness of this present moment and how I am learning to dwell ever more deeply in it; and yes, through the dreams that continue to call my name.

And by the sheerest grace of God, I managed to hold this dream loosely enough that I could be blessed by other people’s ideas and gifts and dreams, for me and with me. River life … open to what falls in. That’s the life for me.

2. About that perennial student thing … “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” [Cue rueful laughter.] When I finished my Ph.D., I was okay with being done with the student side of the academic waltz. Long story short, full employment has not come calling. Surprising plot twist: When I did a unit of clinical pastoral education last summer as part of what I hoped would be a path back into parish ministry, I found that I (a) enjoyed the CPE process a lot, and (b) I was kind of good at it. So now I find myself looking at a process for becoming a trainer of chaplains, called Supervisory Education. Sounds dangerously like being a student again. For three more years.

On the one hand, I can feel rather bitter and self-judgmental about this. (Not really interested in paying dues in yet another field, thank you very much.)

On the other hand, I am a lifetime learner, and I particularly love learning about God, other peoples, and my own inner workings (see 6-13 below); so I will probably actually enjoy this process. Which hopefully will lead to full employment … this happens to be a field where positions outnumber qualified position holders. (And I am interested in that.)

So, yeah. I should buy stock in a manufacturer of #2 pencils.

And celebrate making a way … a joyful way … out of what looks like no way.

3. Slow learner. This is not intentionally related to the point above, but then again … Well, let’s just say it takes some of us a long time to grow into ourselves. (There are worse things. Like NOT growing into ourselves.) I have decided I am going to embrace my tree-like nature and just keep growing rings as I move through the awe and awww and ahhh of life.

Child (of God). Questioner. Writer. Lover. Worker. Mother. Pastor. Lesbian. Theologian. Professor. Chaplain as witness/mystic/pioneer.

What’s next? Can’t wait.

4. “I knew that.” Round one: I am around ten years old. I have a thought I am excited enough about to write down. I vividly remember the moment, the thought, and the writing. I was sitting in my bedroom, looking out at the trees, and writing in a top-spiral memo pad with a line down the middle that I had liberated from my father’s desk. I was thinking – probably because of my mother’s gender non-conformity – about how women had some traits that were like men, and men had some traits that were like women. And that that was actually pretty cool, and made us more completely human. I was ten, y’all. Maybe eleven. That was some serious shit right there. I was intrigued enough with the idea to want to get it all down, and clearly.

And I am excited enough about the idea and that I had written it down that I showed it to my mother. Maybe on some wishful-girl-child level I was hoping she would recognize what I was trying to say, and have something of her own to say about it. (Maybe even help me to understand what she was … what I might be.)

She asked me where I had copied this down from. And did not believe me when I said I had written it myself. (Backhanded compliments feel like what they are … the back of a hand.)

Round two: My brother is 14 and smokes dope regularly enough that 12-year-old me is worried. I ask him why he smokes. “Because it helps me feel better.” He explains what he says I don’t know: how hard high school is, how lonely he can feel, what a bummer it is when a girl won’t talk to you.I say what I do know: “I think pain like that burns a hole in your heart that can fill up with love and happiness. If you don’t have the pain, you won’t get the happy.”

We both struggled to get out of our adolescence alive. But at least I knew that much.

Round ∞: Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote Slow Words. I was reminded of it when I read Frank Bruni’s For 2014, Tweet Less, Read More in the New York Times.

Not sure what the takeaway is … either “Believe in yourself, dammit!” or “Get a PR person, dammit!”

I think I’ll go with “Believe, sweetheart. That’s some good shit right there.”

5. Bad theology hurts: people, planets, and God. For awhile I kept a folder in my email program titled Bad Internet Theology. After 20 months of chaplaining – also known as “Pastoring People Through the Valley of the Shadow of ______” – I realize the Internet is just a venue for spreading Bad Theology. Bad theology is made of incomplete thinking, power maintenance, crappy Bible reading, and a sheer lack of the most elemental love.

Most people don’t have the time or interest to spend three or four years getting an M.Div. and another five (or more) getting a Ph.D. in theology. Quite normal and perfectly acceptable. So, here are two simple tips for “most people,” which, honestly, I wish more pastors would adhere to so they wouldn’t do so much harm to their sheep.

Tip 1: If you wouldn’t do it to your kids, God probably wouldn’t do it to you. Stop. Engage brain and heart. Stop regurgitating to maintain security at expense of compassion. (I know, this is too anthropormorphic and dangerously reductive, but at least it should stop most of the “God killed Jesus because we did bad things,” and “God let your baby die because He needed another angel in heaven.”)

Tip 2: Actually read your Bible if you are going to think you are quoting it, and consider that it is 2000-5000 year old wisdom. I.e., don’t repeat things it doesn’t say,* don’t believe everything it does say literally (do you subscribe to 5000 year old dentistry? No? I rest my case …), and consider that humanity and the divine may have learned something in 2000-5000 years. I know I have, and it’s only taken me 50 years. How about you?

*The one canard I must dismantle: how many times have I heard someone utter in confounded tones: “Well, God said He** wouldn’t give us more than we could handle.” Sometimes followed by a rueful “I wish He didn’t trust me so much.” The verse people are actually referring to is 1 Corinthians 10:13, where Paul says “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” Note that Paul is talking about temptation, not grief, trauma, oppressions … the many human experiences that approach and exceed the endurable. And, oh, by the way, the only response to a human experience that is not endurable is companionship. To not be abandoned and left alone in our deepest and most unendurable valleys. To wit, chaplain.

** Yes, I use the capitalized masculine pronoun when spouting Bad Theology … because all Bad Theology uses masculine pronouns. Indeed, in my book, it’s a dead giveaway. (Real dead.)

6. People tend to die they way they lived. And people tend to handle death and the death of a loved one the way they handled life and/or life with that loved one. If people have learned some grace, calm, compassion, respect … these will be in evidence at the deathbed of their loved one. If the family dynamic is all about control and “I am making this about me even though it’s you that’s getting born/having a birthday/anniversary/getting a job/other life event” then the deathbed scene will probably play that out as well.

Now, I want to offer a caveat here. I have only been with a couple of people who got to die at home, with hospice or other support. Most of the deaths I have attended have been in the hospital. And that is not a natural death. We get in the way, with our machines and interventions. But a lot of the people who die in the hospital die there because they were not in charge of their lives enough to ensure that did not happen. Or their families did not have the resources or nerve or knowledge of how to create a better death. That’s really sad.

If you are interested in not having that happen to you, holler. I can help. Or if you don’t know me/don’t want to talk to me about it, consider deathoverdinner.org or something similar. Please.

7. You can’t give what you don’t have. I have learned this over and over again, and I can’t complain, because every time I learn it, my universe expands. Literally. In every direction. Every one of these is the headline for a whole journey in an of itself:

You can’t feel compassion for others if you don’t feel it for yourself.

You can’t extend grace to others if you are not extending it to yourself.

You can’t love other people if you don’t love yourself.

Are you wondering how this fits into the “Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself” thing? Good. Comment, please?

8. Buddhism + Christianity = Love. I think Robert Thurman was right when he pointed out that Buddha had 40+ years to work out his techniques, and Jesus only had about 3 years. So, yeah … the more I learn about metta/lovingkindness, self compassion and radical acceptance, the more I find that helps me be a more human being and a Christian. (No, I have not read Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, but it’s on my list!) There are some things that keep me in the Christian camp — the incarnation, mainly — but I’m grateful for what book-based dharma has brought me.

9. The statute of limitations may have run out on your childhood. But you can get the love now you needed then. If you are a recent parent, or know recent parents, you may have heard/read about attachment parenting. The idea is to create a secure base for your child, so they can move out into the world, knowing there is love for them back home. It starts in infancy and gets grounded through toddlerhood and childhood. If you don’t get secure attachment, and many of us don’t, you may not be able to ever completely fill that bucket.

But! You can fill it some. Having a stable and secure relationship with a healthy friend, lover or counselor can help you rewire your attachments and learn deeper trusting and trustworthiness, loving and lovableness. (Yes, those are very different kinds of relationships with different intents and boundaries, and yes, each of those kinds of relationships has the potential to enable you to rewire your attachments.) I learned more about this in Robert Karen’s Becoming Attached. Fascinating and somewhat helpful, though you may find it on the long side.

10. Good news: you have three brains. Bad news: they don’t have a good connection. But thanks to recent research into neurobiology, you can – see above – do some new wiring. You may have heard of your “reptilian brain”: i.e., the part of your brain wired for fight, flight sex, or eating anything handy because you are hungry (including your babies, well, because hungry). This is the earliest-to-evolve brain that we do in fact share with reptiles.

Then there’s the mammalian or limbic brain, the second to evolve brain which we share with mammals and which is where our emotions live, and which is why we don’t eat our babies, because cute and love.

Finally, there’s the neocortical brain, which is where we do math and logic, so we can figure out that too many babies is in fact not cute or love and that sometimes hungry is necessary. For a while.

Downside? Because they evolved at different points in our history and (if I remember right) actually have different cellular structures, these three brains don’t have great wiring among them, so – for instance – sometimes the fight gets to fist without connecting with feeling or (wise) words.

Upside? We can increase the wiring among the brains with our thinking. Frequently and intentionally and differently. Frequently thought thoughts become neural pathways that can be grooved into easier access. Intentionally thought thoughts become intentionally grooved pathways that improve our feeling and thinking. Differently thought thoughts can become patterns and values that improve behaving and living. (Step one? Awareness meditation. Sit. Breathe. Repeat as needed.)

Good resources here include Love 2.0 and A General Theory of Love.

11. Introverts FTW! This blog post is getting really long. Let me just say Susan Cain. And that I have come to love my introverted temperament even more, that I can extrovert myself when I have to, and that sometimes I can enjoy it (!) and have that extroversion enrich my life. See 10 and 12.

12. Deep calls to deep; just not using words. See 10 again, and note that the limbic brain is not only the seat of our emotions, it is NOT the brain for language or talking, which is why images and music and art and smells bring up our feels, usually by surprise and accident. (Although this is something we can cultivate, by meditating with images or music or art — not too sure about smells — and reflecting on what they bring up.)

It’s also the place where we literally, emotionally, and sensorially connect with other human beings: babies, lovers, friends. Feels are contagious, right? Our agitation can agitate another person, and our sense of calm can calm another person. If you cultivate your ability to do this, in micromoments of eye contact and friendly or meaningful interaction, you will improve not only the quality of your life, but also quantitative measures of health (including every system in your body: cardiac health, blood pressure, stress levels, endocrine systems, everything! Talk about a life hack!). This is what’s being called interpersonal neurobiology. Interested? See Love 2.0 (silly name, great book) by Barbara Frederikson. I am planning to write about how this links up with mysticism and theology, so please don’t beat me to it.

13. Your kids and other people you learn with, live with and love with will make many of the mistakes you made, and some brand news ones of their very own (that you see coming), and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. I have learned to learn, and come to realize I have a lot left to learn about learning with others. But I’m hopeful … and with the roll of the odometer, I am thankful for a little more time and plenty of room to roam!

What about you? What did 2013 teach you? What are you hoping for in 2014?

This entry was posted in Clinical Pastoral Education, Love, Parenting, Spirituality, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Baker’s dozen: 13 things I learned in ’13

  1. Tam, I adore your writing, most especially the way your gorgeous mind works through bigthoughts/experiences/learning/growth/allthethings. And I’m really enjoying your listings that correspond with ’13 and ’14. I just wanted to leave a little love via comment because I always delight in getting your latest posts in my inbox on my phone but am rarely in front of an actual computer with sufficient time on my hands to come over to your actual blog and actually comment. :)

    Oh, and regarding that whole you-can’t-love-someone-until-you-love-yourself philosophy. I think it’s a crock. I’ve seen the contrary time and time again (particularly among mothers), although I definitely believe that there’s a whole different practice of love/how one is able to love once one embraces self-love. In my mind it has to do with love as a spiritual practice.

    • tam121 says:

      Yay for actual comments! And thanks for the love … it’s sweet to feel the connection through the ether!

      Amazing how one feels taken seriously when a reader says something is a crock. :D Most absolutes break down when you look closely at them — particularly when we’re talking about emotions [and what do we mean when we say love anyway?!?]. I think I hear some of what you are saying. Interestingly, it was in my experience of mothering that I began to learn how love for another shifted as love for yourself shifted. Mothering my young daughter drove me crazy until I got clearer with myself about myself.

      In hindsight, until I did begin to learn to care for myself, I think much of my “love” for others was something else. Sacrificial, self-protective, hiding, dutiful …

      And now, some years into a journey of greater self-awareness, I have to say I feel like a beginner all over again, with every lesson learned and layer plumbed. But that’s not all bad!

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