Sunday, February 26, 2012


February 25, 2012

Dear Friends,

Building a bed-rock sense of personal identity shaped by “not-perfect-but-enough” does not come easily. For one reason, acquiring this self-knowledge requires us to think and act in opposition to a cultural myth.

Our American culture insists (at least in our public pronouncements) that in this society there are no set perimeters to self-realization. We say that we can become whatever (or whomever) we wish. In this society, we say, anyone can become President, provided that the individual works hard enough. Privately, however, we are likely to add that powerful connections, the gift of gab, and a well-heeled PAC always help. Personally, when not required to follow the company line, we acknowledge that our own life history has taught us that limitations are an inevitable part of the human experience.

At some levels we are rather fond of this idea of limitless possibility as it exists in our cultural mythology. While the idea functions as a cherished, widely-held belief, in fact it reflects wishful thinking. The concept of unlimited individual potential simply cannot square with the process of human development as we presently understand it, and even less with our knowledge of the structure and functioning of the human brain.

These limitations are embedded in complex, interactive factors that are too great to be numbered, many of which lie yet beyond our ability to identify, explain or to control. Nevertheless, most of us understand that we cannot simply decide to be a world-class athlete or musician (or a saint, for that matter), and by our “deciding” make it so.

Indeed, the very act of “deciding” at a conscious level is in some ways an illusion. In his recent book, Incognito (2011), David Eagleman* describes consciousness as the tip of the iceberg that is the human brain. Eagleman goes on to describe what he calls the secret lives of the brain and the astonishing extent to which our sense of ourselves and our patterns of behavior are controlled by activities of the brain that lie beyond our conscious control. Reading Incognito is an eye-opening experience, and can be slightly alarming for individuals highly invested in seeing themselves as possessing unlimited autonomy. And for the individual committed to living in the light of biblical texts, Incognito raises interesting questions about our understanding of the function of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit’s gift of self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

However disconcerting it may be, it is a fact that all of us carry out our quest for “enoughness” in an environment in which our power to influence and to control is limited. The nature and extent of the limitation may open to debate, but the limitation per se remains very real. Similarly, our search for “enoughness” occurs in bodies in which unconscious processes influence our sense of reality and our responses to a far greater extent than we realize (or may like). In this context our goal of acquiring the bed-rock wisdom of not-perfect-but-enough becomes difficult, but it is not impossible. The challenge—and opportunity—of choice remains, with its risk as well.

Said simply, the first step in self-knowledge requires awareness and acceptance of the limitations of our humanness—acting within the context of understanding that, as an individual, my sense of enoughness must co-exist with the reality of the personally-not-perfect.

How do you define not-perfect in your life? What are your synonyms for not-perfect? Sin? Failure? Just-a-mistake? No-big-deal? Things-to-be ignored? Bummer-don't-talk-about-it? What-everybody-else-does-too?

Thinking with you this week about the temptation to confuse not-perfect with it’s-a-total-disaster-so-I-can’t-do-anything.

I’ll be out of state next week so I’ll see you on March 11.


**David Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor University College of Medicine.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Does what I tell myself matter?

February 19, 2012

Dear Friends,

Did you hear Kevin Costner’s eulogy at Whitney Houston’s funeral? He spoke movingly of her genius, that incredible voice, and her beauty, then, gently, of her fears and insecurities. Speaking out of the deep relationship between them, Costner commented that whatever the heights of Houston’s success and public acclaim, she continued to ask, “Am I pretty enough? Did I do well enough? Do they like me? Am I good enough?” Costner paused, then, near tears, added sadly that the “good enough” question both drove Houston’s climb to a brilliant career and contributed to the tragic disintegration of her career and personal life at an early age.

Another “enough” story continues to circulate in the academic mythology of many graduate schools of psychology.

Carl Rogers was a gifted psychologist and a brilliant therapist. To the frustration of his students, however, Rogers was unable to explain precisely what it was that he did that permitted his clients to make such extraordinary progress toward healing. At length, Rogers’ colleagues and students videotaped a number of hours of Rogers’ work with clients hoping to catch on tape the elusive secret of his clinical success. The results were disappointing. Tapes made clear Rogers’ ability to set his client at ease and his empathy with their pain, but other therapists also demonstrated these skills. Peers and students (and Rogers himself) were little closer to identifying a unique quality of interaction that would account for Rogers’ effectiveness.

However, the tapes did show that as a session began, Rogers would characteristically still himself for a moment, sitting silently. Watching the tapes, it was clear that in that moment Rogers’ focus was not on the client but on himself.

“What are you thinking about when you do that, Dr. Rogers?” asked a curious student.

Rogers sat thoughtfully for some time before he answered. Then he said with his characteristic humility, “I suppose I find it necessary to remind myself that while I am not perfect, I am enough.”

Jesus pointed out that what we say (and the questions that we ask) flows out of the deep wells of the heart. That is why what we say to ourselves matters—we are shaping into language the reality of our hearts, our deepest sense of being. And it is this deep sense of identity that serves as the essential foundation for relationships. How we think about the “enough” question shapes decisively our expectations and longings in relationships, and, in subtle but powerful ways, influences the relational skills we seek to develop.

Thinking with you about the necessary bed-rock wisdom that is required to be able to remind ourselves in times of serious relational process, “I am not perfect, but I am enough.”

See you next week.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Living in light through the cracks

February 12, 2012

Dear friends,

The “not enough” sense that we sometimes experience has a dangerous potential to lead us into obsessive self-condemnation. Self-blame is not the only option, however. The sense of "not enough" can serve as the precussor to significant growth.

A friend reminded me this week of lyrics by Leonard Cohen:

            Ring the bells that still can ring.
            Give up your perfect offering.
            There’s a crack in everything.
            That’s how the light gets in.

Utilizing the light that filters into our lives through the cracks requires, however, that we choose to stand where that light falls.

Gaining self-knowledge is, I think, a life-long responsibility. Learning to live into that self-knowledge without shame is a life-long challenge.

Seeking with you to embrace and live into those slender shafts of truth that come as light through the cracks.

See you next week.


Sunday, February 5, 2012

Am I enough?

Feb. 5, 2012

Dear friends,

It is disconcerting to learn that goodness does not prevent us from operating out of a blind spot in self-knowledge.

In the cultural context of the Matthew 20 story, introspection and self-examination were not common cognitive activities. I expect that the workers that started at six o’clock thought throughout the day about grapes, and the stubborn mules, and the heat, and, in anticipation, about the denarius each would receive at the end of the day. I doubt that any of them gave much attention to their inner world.

These were good people. When the five o'clock latecomers joined the work crew at the vineyard, I’m sure that a number of them thought kindly, "I'm glad to see John; he won't get much this late, but at least they'll have something at their house tonight for food." I seriously doubt that any one of them consciously thought, “I am certainly superior to that fellow who just came to work."

I doubt even more that any of the good workers could have verbalized the unstated expectation that the employer-worker relationship would support not only their economic need but their need for a sense of personal worth as well. I think they were caught totally unaware at the intensity of the sense of offense they felt when a gift as large as the wages they had earned was given to the "undeserving" five o'clock workers.

At times we are surprised at the anger we feel when conflict strains and eventually breaks a relational connection. Sometimes this unexpected anger startles us into aggressive behavior that we regret and often find difficult to explain.

For the most part, these unwelcome surprises are rooted in the unrecognized expectations that we have invested in the relationship.

If we unconsciously require a relationship to demonstrate that our goodness makes us superior to others, we will inevitably find ourselves angry and disappointed even when the relationship, so to speak, may be “paying” us a fair wage.

We can have no peace with ourselves and no lasting satisfaction in relationships if we have hidden under our goodness the conviction that “I am enough only when I am more than my neighbor, my partner, my friend.”

Thinking with you about the ways in which we ask (and answer) the haunting human question “Am I enough?”

See you next week.