I have a hearing problem. An old hearing problem. It kicks up whenever someone says something nice to me about me. Perhaps you also have this hearing problem.
One of the side benefits of working in a chaplaincy education program is that you get to — as some of us put it — work on your shit. Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh sort of puts it, the trash that the lotus grow out of, without which the lotus would not exist. (Got that part? she asks with a grin …)
So, one of the things I am working on at present is the question of why I have trouble hearing feedback on my strengths. (I’m all about hearing the criticism, and internalizing it … which of course is not the same as learning or growing from it.) Here’s where I’ve gotten so far.
When someone offers feedback on my strengths, part of the “hearing problem” has to do with old patterns of compliments being related to, followed by, or even presented in ways that undermine the truth of the compliment, therefore rendering the words untrustworthy and perhaps painful. Accordingly, I don’t want to – and may not – hear the compliment in the first place.
Another hearing problem arises when the feedback conflicts with my self-concept. I will tend to hold onto my self-concept over against the feedback, particularly if the feedback conceives of me as more skilled or more capable than I (want to) think I am.
This pattern holds in my spiritual life as well … I have trouble holding onto the feeling of being loved by God, even though I intellectually assent to the notion that God loves me.
Resting in that sense of belovedness is difficult; I kick myself out of God’s lap with guilt or shame or by moving into behaviors that don’t reflect strengths. (“See? I was right about me.”) I will become more difficult, particular in intimate or important relationships.
What does this get me? It limits my own expectations for myself, and is a way to try to limit others’ expectations of me. It is familiar. It helps me maintain invisibility and the feeling of (relative) greater safety that comes with it. It moderates risk. It creates or maintains privacy, or distance.
What does it cost me? It constrains my dreams and my ability to achieve them, and what others might gain from those achievements. It prevents me from exploring new or growing edges. It keeps me invisible. It hides my authentic heart and reduces my availability to myself and those I would provide care to. It puts my wellbeing – current and future – at risk. It isolates me, from myself, from God, from others.
Whew. That’s kind of heartbreaking.
Well. I’d sure like to grow a lotus out of that trash.
How lovely that this desire is right on time. Like the spring. Which also seems to have taken a long time get here. I do know others have had it and will have it colder — and for longer — and I do know that a late spring can be the flip side of a long and glorious autumn.
But … it’s cold. And will be for a while yet.
So, during morning and afternoon prayers, I’ve been gazing out at the trees around our house, admiring the stark grays and twiggy calligraphy against the sky, and checking every day for the green fuzz that means all glory is about to bust loose.
Aaannnddd, yesterday, there (a little bit of) it was. New leaves so fresh they haven’t even cranked up their chlorophyll yet — more fresh yellow than green. In this moment, the day-long balancing act of the vernal equinox, I can feel us sweeping through the season’s swinging door.
How apt, then, for me and for the whole springing hemisphere, to reflect a moment on this reading from last Sunday, the fifth Sunday of Lent:
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise. — Isaiah 43:16-21
Something had to pass away for God’s new thing to bloom into view … the old way of expeditious victory, of violent conquest, God has laid these to rest. Now a new thing is springing forth. We may have trouble seeing it, but God is making a way. The River of that life will flow through me, and through you, reshaping and reforming my desert wilderness and yours into an oasis.
Tear down the dams, Beloved … let the River run!