Sunday, July 31, 2011

Miss Annie and the plastic mat

July 31, 2011

Hello, friends,

Have you ever asked yourself what gets you up in the morning?

When we ask ourselves a question like this we are not usually thinking about the alarm clock or sunlight through a bedroom window. We are thinking about the basic motivations of our lives. As we grow older, this question leads further to a second question: what keeps me up all day? We discover that the life issue is not just about getting up—it’s about staying up, and, in a larger sense, staying the course in life no matter how difficult the circumstances.

In such times an inner voice sometimes scolds us for our failure to guard our hearts from ourselves, others, and circumstances. We sometimes say to ourselves, “And what were you thinking about? How did you get in this place of loss and pain anyway?”

Said simply, what we were thinking about (although in a language without words) was a plan to meet our instinctual needs for security and survival, for affection and esteem, and for power and control. We were seeking in some form to meet our basic human needs.

This fact is not comforting.

We feel unfairly blind-sided when we grasp the fact that what seems like a disaster to our conscious minds occurred while we were attempting to meet some instinctual need (or a derivation of it). This seems particularly unfair when we consider that, as we noted last week, the energy sources that drive our search to meet these needs lie, for the most part, in the deep centers of our being not readily accessible through language and logic. How can it be, we ask ourselves irritably, and somewhat anxiously—how can it be that basic human needs intrinsic to life itself can put me in harm’s way? How can it be that my deepest needs can put me at risk to myself and to others? What kind of a basic design flaw am I dealing with?

Actually—and this is comforting—the problem does not lie with the basic needs themselves. The problem lies in the goals and the methods through which we may choose to seek to meet these needs.

Miss Annie provides an interesting example. I placed Miss Annie’s new watering bowl and food dishes on a new plastic mat. I wished to aid Miss Annie to meet her need to survive (food and water). I also wished to meet my derivative need for the hardwood floor in the kitchen to survive without damage.

Miss Annie refused to step on the plastic mat. It seemed dangerous to her, and she choose not to risk. Her need to stay safe was, of course, quite correct. Her method—do not step on the mat even if it is clear that food and water can be found there—was highly counterproductive. Nothing wrong with Miss Annie’s basic need neither for survival, nor, in this case her goal for immediate safety. However, Miss Annie’s method [refuse under all conditions to step on a strange plastic mat] was in clear need of revision if she were to meet her need to survive.

We have both ability (and responsibility) to shape and direct the goals we set and the methods by which we seek to reach these goals. This is no simple process, as we will see in the weeks to come, but it is doable. Many of us think, however, that we can do this process well only in the context of community and a commitment to a power greater than ourselves.

Do you sometimes confuse your needs and your goals and your methods? Unlike Miss Annie, can you see, for example, that you can still be safe and at the same time step into a new and frightening situation?

Thinking with you about acceptance of basic needs and discipline of goal setting.

See you next week.


The idea that I need to protect myself from myself is disconcerting, to say the least.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What if I live in a zoo of bears?

July 24, 2011

Good afternoon, friends,

As several of you commented this week, there are indeed times when people prefer to be frightened by the bear under the bed rather than face the reality of their inner worlds. Sometimes, however, we are unreasonably anxious about that inner world simply because we know so little about it. We are afraid of the stranger within.

One helpful way of thinking about that inner world comes through the work of writers who have lived a significant part of their lives in the contemplative community. These writers (Thomas Keating, for example) view our inner self as motivated by three “energy” centers that drive our efforts to insure security and survival, affection and esteem, and power and control. These energies lie for the most part in the deep centers of our being not readily accessible through language and logic. They drive our ‘cosmic dance,’ however, and underlie the ways in which we manage the struggle and unfolding drama of our lives.

Viewed from this context, we experience a need to protect ourselves from relationships ‘out there’ in which others may seek to use us to insure their security and survival, to satisfy their need for affection and esteem, and to serve as the object over which they exert power and control. In this context, there may well be, so to speak, a whole zoo of bears out there—individuals who seek to meet their needs without regard for our well-being and welfare.

But equally unsettling—or perhaps even more so—is the parallel truth that we may need to protect others from ourselves—from our driven needs to be secure and to survive, to be loved and admired, to be powerful and in control. Most of us learn, at times through bitter experience, that we have the capacity to act in ways that seek to satisfy our own needs at the expense of others, and that in doing this we contribute to our own self-injury. It is possible to get what we want only to discover that we’ve arrived in a place we do not wish to be. When uncontrolled, there is valid reason to fear the stranger within.

When are you most dangerous to yourself? To others?

One of the radical ideas of Jesus was that God meant by the Spirit to empower us to know ourselves and to love and be loved in the context of Spirit-enabled self-control. Paul had this idea, too.

What do you think?

See you next week.


Sunday, July 17, 2011

Bears under the bed?

July 14, 2011

Hello, friends,

Half a century ago (well, almost), Barbra Streisand sang “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” Many of us admired her voice, but even then a great many of us had a serious dispute with the lyrics—people who need people are the luckiest people in the world? Thinking about the life stories I know prompts me to say, “Well, Barbra, not so much in my part of the world. People do need relationships, but that need is part of the human design we can’t change rather than a matter of luck. And all too often people find themselves needing a relationship that injures them. That’s luck?”

By what cosmic absurdity can we need something as dangerous as we know human relationships to be? This matter of guarding one’s heart is not straightforward, is it?

As we considered in an earlier blog, we can initiate a program of shutting down or shutting out, but neither works well. Either tactic may reduce the frequency of injury from relationships for a short time, but ultimately both produce failure-to-thrive in the authentic self at a level that can become fatal. Most people with whom I talk have an intuitive sense that this is so. Trying to work it out, however, confronts us with the “rock and a hard place” dilemma. No easy options, no free lunch.

Developing constructive methods of self-protection is possible, however. Doing so requires us to consider carefully what dangers face us relationally, and to identify the source from which they come.

Shutting down and shutting out presupposes that what injures, the unnamed danger to us, is out there, in others. But what if this is not so?

As we grow up we learn eventually that the thing that makes us afraid in the night is not really a bear that lives under our bed—it is something in us, not something out there.

What if in order to guard our hearts constructively, we have to learn a parallel truth in adulthood? What if a part of the danger in relationships lies in me—not just out there in others? What if when we meet the real source of relational danger we discover, as the cartoon character Pogo said, that we have met the enemy and it is us?

What happens if, at least in part, guarding our hearts requires us to face and master something of potential danger in ourselves?

Thinking with you that the possibility of bears under the bed is much more pleasant to deal with.

See you next week.


Sunday, July 3, 2011

Controlling the cost of lunch

July 3, 2011

Dear friends,

What do you think it means to guard your heart?

People set up walls and barriers—social, emotional, spatial, geographic—to protect their inner world from relationships. Approached this way, guarding one’s heart becomes focused around finding ways to shut out potentially hurtful experiences. This approach brings mixed results—some helpful, some destructive, most a frustrating combination of both. Unchecked, this approach leads to refusal to risk, reluctance to love, and, ultimately, rejection of relationships since life offers few experiences that come with guaranteed immunity from pain.

When we learn that there is no free lunch, most of us are neither blessed nor pleased. When this principle becomes unavoidably clear, as it inevitably does, we do considerable grumbling about the cost of the items we want to place in our lunch box. However, some individuals, when they discover that there is indeed no free lunch, simply decide not to eat. This decision may appear economically advantageous, but the relational consequence of such logic is disastrous. If we structure life’s choices into an arbitrary dualism—free lunch or nothing—we discover that slow relentless diminishment begins to erode away the essential self. Relationships, like lunch, are not free, but they are essential. This cost, while unavoidable, can be influenced. While it remains true that there is no free lunch, we all can choose how much, and in what coinage we choose to pay.

Neither shut down or shut out appear to work well as general principles of relationship.

What does work? What does it mean to guard one’s heart?

Thinking with you about choosing the cost of change through relationship.

See you next week.