Sunday, June 26, 2011


June 26, 2011

Hello, friends,

This week the world as text occurred in a distinction made in a card game.

The cousins were staying at their grandmother’s house over the weekend, their annual meeting of the Cousins Club. On this particular afternoon they were engaged in a highly contested game of cards. Grandmother and I were sharing iced tea and a good conversation in the kitchen when the reasonably peaceful game in the family room suddenly erupted in argument.

“Aw, come on, Neil,” growled Robert, the oldest of the cousins. “You know you have to discard,” he insisted in his best now-shape-up voice. “You have to lay down one of your cards. It’s the rule.”

“No,” said Neil, firmly, in his best won’t-be-bossed-around voice. “All of these cards have value. It’s not logical to throw any away.”

Neil, a precocious nine-year old, has recently discovered “logic,” and is busily exploring how this cognitive tool works. In the world as text for Neil, the card game provided a confrontation between the “good” logic of following the rules and the “good” logic of breaking the rules for self-advantage.

And, unspoken, Neil was also grappling with a verbal distinction he sensed but could not yet say. Did the rules specify discard or relinquish ? (Neil’s parents, grandparents and siblings all anticipate he’ll become a noted jurist if he decides to enter law as a vocation.)

In our consumer society, discarding things (and people, too) is a common activity. The general idea seems to be that there is always something new and exciting, something more effective, more interesting, more comfortable “out there,” a bargain as close as on-line shopping (free shipping for the canny shopper), or a relational adventure with a new person from a dating service who may text or call.

In this sense, the act of discarding carries a value connotation. To discard is to dispose of something (or someone) to make place for something (or someone) of superior value. To discard is to get rid of, to cast off, to dispense with something (or a relationship) in which the value does not merit the cost and trouble of its maintenance.

In previous hands in the card game, Neil had discarded without protest. What was it about this hand that raised a point of contention with Robert, the rule-keeper?

In this hand, Neil was confronted with a dilemma: he held no cards that he deemed of little value. How could he discard?

In this circumstance relinquish becomes a helpful word with which to make an important distinction.

Giving up something is not always the by-product of greed or the impatient pursuit of novelty and excitement. Neither does the act of letting go necessarily denote little or no value in the object (or person) given up. There are places in life and relationships when leaving things behind becomes necessary for survival even though the process may be painful and confusing. There are circumstances too in which relinquishing valued things becomes an essential part of clearing the path before the next step forward can be undertaken. Change requires us at times to let go of some things, including some that may be highly valued, before we can pick up that which is essential for further growth and maturity.

As in many board games, the game of life sometimes requires us to discard before we can continue to play. This process, for the most part, is a rather painless piece of business-as-usual, the change process in which the old and less valued is disposed of with (perhaps) a twinge of nostalgia but with little or no regret.

However, sooner or later, like Neil, we find ourselves facing the issue of relinquishment rather than discarding. We must lay down that which we hold tenaciously, knowing its value today, in order to move toward an uncertain goal whose value we know only in part, a shape in the clouded mirror of tomorrow.

Thinking with you of the courage it requires to change when relinquishment rather than simple discard becomes the necessity posed by choice.

See you next week.


Sunday, June 19, 2011

Second steps?

June 19, 2011

Dear friends,

Beginnings are tricky experiences, in part because of the attention that the “first step” phenomenon has received.

Much that has been said about first steps is both true and obvious. We are not likely to arrive if we do not start. Cliché or not, in the journey of a thousand miles that first step does hold a decisive importance. I wish, however, we were as clear and as vocal about the significance of the second (or seventy-second) step as we are about the first.

It was my joy to spend the weekend with a small group of women who for some time now have met together monthly. The group was formed to encourage personal growth (spiritual and psychological) in each individual woman. These women are highly diverse; they have differing goals and differing lifestyles. Consequently, to no one’s surprise, they are experiencing widely differing difficulties in reaching their individual goals.

But they have experienced in common what I think of as second-step shock (or seventy-second-step shock as the case may be). It is a common experience in the human change process. We start toward a goal, and then, sometimes when we are barely into the process, we begin to realize how far away that intended goal may be. The adrenalin spiked by the opening gun fades, self-applause fades, and we become uneasily aware of an unpleasant pinch in our shoe that could well be the beginning of a blister on our heel. Second steps, so to speak, require us to face the fact that no, we aren’t there yet—we are, in truth, only just begun. The process of getting to goal requires resolve, energy and commitment quite different than the excitement of first steps.

There was wisdom and gentleness in the way in which these women encouraged one another.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” one young woman said. “It’s so hard. I don’t know what to do.” Her voice held a hint of tears despite the strong stubborn steadiness of her chin.

After she spoke, there was a warm comforting silence among the women (the group is not very tolerant of quick and glib responses). After a while, one woman spoke in a calm matter-of-fact way. She said, “I have discovered that if I take the next step, just take the next step, and then the next step that then I sometimes begin to know.”

That is the mystery and the power and the challenge of second steps. They are the necessary prerequisites not only in getting to goal, but in understanding the journey itself. But these second (and seventy-second) steps require moving without the energy of an adrenalin rush, without the cheers of a crowd, and often with a painful pinch of uncertainty in mind and soul.

In the long journey to achieve deep and lasting maturity in our lives, inevitably we reach a flat and characterless middle place that both bores and frightens us. We understand that we are far beyond the excitement and energy of the beginning place, but we can see as yet nothing of the end. In that middle space, all we know of the ending of the journey is our profound awareness that we are not there yet, and our uncertainty that we will ever reach the goal we've set.

A clear understanding of the significance of second steps is crucial here. If we resolve simply to take the next step, and then the next step, and then the next one, often to our surprise, we not only move, we begin to know. We know that are not there yet, but we also begin to know that we can be, and will be. First steps start us, but it is these crucial second steps that get us there in the end.

Left foot, right foot, breathe. Left foot, right foot, breathe.

Thinking with you of the ways in which we must sometimes do our truth before we can fully know it. Let's hear it for second steps.

See you next week.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Thinking about Annie's success

June 12, 2011

Dear friends,

Miss Annie’s dilemma has prompted some systematic thinking about fear. However, today I want to focus on a brief summary of the end of the adventure Miss Annie and I shared and one question that it has raised. (If you are a new reader, blogs for the preceding two weeks explain the circumstances leading to Miss Annie’s panic).

My first conclusion regarding Miss Annie was that her fear was her business indeed, but it was my business as well since it affected our community life together. Miss Annie’s world was smaller—no more interesting moonlight surveillance of the mysterious night life outside her window; no moore lazy naps in the warm sun; no easy respite from the world of humans and their noise; no deliciously difficult hiding places in which she could safely escape human interference in her life. But by a parallel measure, her fear made my life with her smaller as well—no quiet hours with a book knowing that Annie was happily watching her world in the dark; no easy refuge for Annie when the dreaded vacuum cleaner came out of hiding; no interesting private place to which Annie could retire when the world of people became more than she could graciously tolerate. It seemed to me that Annie’s fear compromised the quality of her life and of our life together, and that together we should attempt to do something about it.

After some thought and consultation of an old behavior modification text, I devised a plan for desensitization of Miss Annie’s fear of the garage, using her favorite treats as reward for each step she took in re-approaching her old perch. The process took patience and time on both our parts, and consumed a large jar of treats. However, I am glad to report success; Annie’s surveillance of the night life in our side yard has resumed; and this afternoon, bored with my schedule of time on the computer, Miss Annie has taken herself off to her garage perch for an undisturbed nap, no treats expected or required.

“Success” has itself, however, raised some interesting questions. What difference did it make that the provider of the treat/reward was a human that Annie loved, and who, in turn loved Annie (however inperfectly)? The treats themselves were a significant factor in the successful conclusion of the project, of course. I have no doubt that the whole affair would have ended in a resounding failure had I offered Miss Annie a limp piece of lettuce as a reward for each frightening step she risked. But the crunchy goodness of the treat was not the only factor that influenced Miss Annie.

I am thinking, of course, about the relationship of love and fear. In the adventure that Miss Annie and I shared, did love somehow shape the environment so that the treats became effective? Is focusing on aloneness—no matter how hidden or denied it may be—the first step in dealing with fear? Is dealing with fear one of those life tasks we cannot successfully complete alone?

One aspect of spiritual growth and psychological well-being intersect at this point. Human love, and/or a trustworthy therapist can (and do) make a significant difference in the ways in which we can face our fears. But no human love or human therapist can provide perfect love. So I wonder: do we sometimes excuse ourselves from the life task of dealing with our fears because we are not “perfectly” loved?

Was John (I John 4:18a RSV) suggesting that since human love is imperfect, that there are fears so intractable and paralyzing that human relationships per se are not enough—that relationship with God too is necessary in order to undertake the risk necessary to cast out these fears?

Wondering with you if risking love (human AND divine) is the first step in dealing with fear?

See you next week,


Sunday, June 5, 2011

The relationship between love and fear

June 5, 2011

Dear Friends,

As I explained last week, during the last day of my vacation Miss Annie had an unfortunate experience. While climbing up to her favorite perch in the garage, she fell, and a rug fell on her.

The experience taught her new empathy for Humpty Dumpty (appropriate training for a therapy cat). Unfortunately, Miss Annie also learned to be afraid of the garage, afraid of the approach to her perch, and afraid of the perch itself. When I attempted to carry her to her perch, she growled (a serious, no-nonsense growl with teeth showing), and sank her claws into my shirt in a “Won’t be moved” position that left some marks through the shirt into my shoulder. Miss Annie had experienced major trauma, and my soothing sounds made absolutely no impact on her fears, nor did my presence.

Miss Annie had decided apparently to handle her fear by never entering the garage again. I suspect that she said to herself (in Kat, of course), “I should have known better than to go into that garage. That garage door always made a terrible sound, and I saw with my own eyes that garage door go up and down without any human present. It is likely that whole affair was the fault of that mysterious garage door—the door hit me and threw that rug on my head. A terrible experience that no therapy cat should ever be required to endure. I am not going back there again.”

What to do?

“What to do?—Why, do nothing,” my friends said. (I suspect they were secretly amused by my concern for Miss Annie.) “She’ll get over it or she won’t. It’s no big deal.” Their reasoning appeared to run something like this: after all, charming and special as she is, Miss Annie is just a cat. Let Miss Annie be afraid or figure it out. “Why in the world,” my friends appeared to wonder, “are you giving this a second thought? Surely as Miss Annie’s human, your responsibility for her care does not extend this far.”

But as you know, I think that the world is indeed text.

What could I learn from Miss Annie’s experience and her response? What, if anything, could I do to change Miss Annie’s response? And what, if anything, should I do? What made Miss Annie’s fear any of my business anyway?

Examined carefully, that question turned out to be more complex than I expected. Fear had come to shelter under my roof, to take up residence in a space that, so far as I am able, I have committed to peace and love. Was this fear meaningless because it was bundled in the senses and synapses of a small four-footed creature whose feline language and logic made her inner world significantly removed from my own?

What did I think about fear? Do only my own fears merit concern? If not, why not?

You know from last week’s introduction to Miss Annie’s theology course that I eventually devised a plan to help Miss Annie to regain access to her much loved perch. The “how to help” was preceded, however, by my effort to work out a logic of caring. What does love compel me to do when I am confronted with fear, even when that love is as simple as affection for a pet and the fear as primitive as Miss Annie’s panic in the garage?

The apostle John, considering the relationship of love and fear, wrote: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:18a RVS).”

What happens if I assume that both the biblical record of John’s thinking and the world I experience with Miss Annie are both texts for living, although texts of vastly different kinds and validity? Can these diverse texts taken together lead to logic of caring that incorporates Miss Annie and her fears? Since the fear is Miss Annie’s is the responsibility for dealing with it solely hers? Is the solution just for Miss Annie to love me more? Or for me to love her more?

Thinking with you about and love and fear and the ways in which in daily life we are changed by both.

See you next week.