Silly Break

I’m way behind on blogging. Travel stuff on the way, and also part two of Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame. In the meantime, here is a silly break…a change of pace from the super-serious things I’ve been writing about lately.

As a child, I hated the color of my hair. It’s not fire-engine red, but reddish enough to where my hair was the source of endless teasing in a small town where my hair color was unusual. And given that I didn’t grow up near Dublin (the only place I’ve ever visited where I actually blended in), red hair wasn’t exactly common.

Me 3rd grade

Oh how I hated my hair. And yes, my fashion style hasn’t changed much over the years. I own a strikingly similar shirt now.

I also had a particularly vivid imagination throughout my childhood. Still do, in fact. At one point when I was feeling particularly self-conscious about my hair, I concocted a plan to rid myself of the redheaded curse. OK, so my original plan was to dye my hair black, but my mom vetoed my request. For some strange reason, she didn’t think that an 8-year old should go to such extremes, and her unconditional love for me made it impossible for her to understand why I hated my hair so much.

Then I came up with an even better plan. One that didn’t involve chemicals. (Or so I thought.) I’m not sure exactly how I came up with this idea, but I decided that I wanted to shave my head. But no, my vision wasn’t as simple as me walking around with no hair. I wanted to replace my hair with a whipped cream wig. For some reason, I seem to remember a book that included a picture of a man wearing a very full (and rather ridiculous-looking) shaving cream beard. My imagination ran with the concept….

Me with a beard

Not quite a shaving cream beard, but close…

The conversation went something like this.

Me: “I hate my hair. I want to shave it all off.”
Mom: “No, Cynthia, you can’t shave your head.”
Me: “Why not?”
Mom: “You’re not old enough to use a razor.”
Me: “You could do it.”
Mom: “I would have to shave it every few days, and we don’t have time for that.”
Me: “But I want to shave my head!!!!!”
Mom: “No.”
Me: “I could wear a whipped cream wig.”
Mom: “What?”
Me: “Instead of hair. I could have a wig. But made of whipped cream.”
Mom: “It would melt and run down your face.”
Me: “No, because I could eat it and carry Reddi-Whip with me to put more on.”
Mom: “Cynthia, we can’t afford Reddi-Whip. And we certainly can’t afford to buy a can a day.”
Me: “But it would be so much better than my hair.”
Mom: “If you think you get made fun of for your hair now, you would be picked on even more if you wore whipped cream on my head.”
Me: “Everyone likes whipped cream.”
Mom: “Not when it’s melting all over you in the hot Texas sun.”
Me: “Pleeeeaaaaassssseeeeee?????”
Mom: “No. You’ll thank me for this when you’re older.”

Whipped cream wig

I’m already wearing a cat costume. Why not add a whipped cream wig?

In hindsight, I guess that I can indeed thank her for not allowing me to fulfill all my childhood fantasies. Because, yeah, I would have looked rather silly wearing a whipped-cream wig. Probably…

P.S. I made the mistake of doing a Google search for “whipped cream wig” in hopes of finding an image to include in this blog post. Now I wish that my mom could have had a little talk with Katy Perry before she made her “California Gurls” video. Yikes! For a more whimsical picture (but I’m not posting it on this page because I assume it’s copyrighted), try this one.

Requiem for a Dog

Holly Beard came into the world in 1998, although it would be another year-and-a-half before she would meet her human “forever mommy” Cynthia. She quickly endeared herself to others, becoming the first dog ever allowed to sleep inside the home of Cynthia’s maternal grandmother.

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Holly wearing her Halloween-themed “boo bandana” (one of the very few items of clothing she would cooperate with)

OK, so in reality, after a long night of Holly yelping in the indoor back porch, the conversation actually went something like this:

“Cynthia, where does Holly usually sleep?”
“At the foot of my bed. I know…I tried to get her to sleep in the bathroom or on the floor, but she whined all night and I didn’t want to wake up the neighbors.”
“Well, why don’t we just let her do that from now on.”

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Occasionally she would get dressed up, but not for long. Here she is displaying her confusion about an unexpected Texas snowstorm in March.

Holly, ever the iconoclast, proceeded to challenge every established rule of social decorum, and became a constant companion to her mommy, both at home and on the road. Alas, one place Holly was not welcome: Chuck E. Cheese. A sweet then 3-year-old named Iris struggled to understand why Holly was not allowed to attend her birthday party, as Holly was every bit as much of a friend as the other guests.

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Holly’s adventuresome spirit sometimes landed her in predicaments, such as the time that she sprained her leg while jumping up onto the couch. Even while in a bandage, she threw her mommy for a loop by hopping up a flight of stairs and then intentionally entering a neighbor’s apartment. She always considered the entire building to be her extended home, and the neighbors usually obliged.

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A bandaged leg couldn’t slow her down

Although she had the appearance of a luxurious Yorkshire terrier, Holly was a rather scrappy little dog. She wasn’t a fan of costumes, bows, or froufrou haircuts (in spite of being subjected to them every once in a while for charity fundraisers). Her typical scrappy look occasionally led others to eye her with suspicion, including the running joke that she was merely an oversized rat. Joking aside, Holly’s energetic presence could intimidate the fiercest of creatures, and goats in particular would take great pains to avoid Holly’s licks of affection (aka, kisses). Even a Great Dane named Lady was known to hide out of reach whenever Holly visited.

She never intended any harm, and in spite of her breed’s rodent hunting nature, she rarely had the desire to eat anything without explicit permission. One incident with chocolate was enough to discourage her from exotic cuisine. She preferred her fancy dog treats, sometimes using bury them with air, like an invisibility cloak. She didn’t quite understand how her mommy could find these buried treasures, and would then move the treats to more remote locations where it might take several months for them to be discovered.

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In November of 2007, Holly embarked upon her most important job as caretaker and guardian of Cynthia’s mother Linda. Holly had always loved Linda and would stand by the front door staring at the lower corner whenever she heard Linda’s name, assuming that a visit was imminent. When Linda became disabled, Holly took the responsibility of guard dog very seriously and would cuddle up in the at-home hospital bed with her special friend. When Linda passed away in 2011, Holly cried for several hours after watching the medical equipment be hauled away. Even the two rescue kittens who boarded with Holly for the next month couldn’t console her. Life had changed, and not for the better.

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Holly slowed down in her later years, and eventually she stopped trying to lick every creature in sight (cats, ducklings, turtles, goats, even a deer…and in a rather gruesome episode, a dead mouse whom Holly attempted to resuscitate). Her lightning-speed games of chase (or, as she preferred, “I see you, and I’m going to get you!”) were replaced by increasingly long naps.

She accepted with grace that she could no longer jump on furniture or go on lengthy walks and jogs, and when her cataracts prevented her from seeing clearly, she seemed content with the fact that she would occasionally bump into things. Her declining ability to hear didn’t bother her too much, as she was less likely to be disturbed by sudden sounds that had in the past caused her to bark. As her hair thinned, she welcomed the warmth of her doggie Snuggie, and she contentedly curled up next to her mommy during the major ice storm that arrived a few short weeks before she passed.

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Holly was preceded in death by her beloved Linda, as well as two of Cynthia’s grandparents and a cherished aunt. She also lamented the loss of Grandpa’s dog Trixie, even though Trixie never quite knew what to make of Holly. She leaves behind her mommy Cynthia, aunt Sheryl, doggie cousin Penelope, and a huge number of friends whom she loved dearly. Dr. Wuensche also held a special place in her heart for all the loving care he provided over the 13-1/2 years as her veterinarian.

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Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame (part 1)

I’ve been mulling on this topic for a few days. It’s so complex that it could easily turn into a book, but I’m going to try to be semi-brief (well, in two parts, with this as part 1). Plenty of others have written about the complex factors that contribute to long-term poverty, so I’m not going to rehash those discussions. What I want to focus on is how our society shames and judges people who are poor.

A lot of the shaming comes in the form of puritanical super-virtuousness. The comment section of a recent blog post by emergent Christian author Rachel Held Evans was quickly filled with armchair poverty “experts” whose remarks were far removed from Jesus’ teachings that I wondered if we read from the same Bible.

This poster reads (and I cringe) "Welfare: You work hard so they don't have to!"

I hesitated about posting this pic, but I wanted to illustrate the stereotypes about welfare and poverty.

Here is an example from the blog comment section: “The poor fall into two categories – those without knowledge and the lazy.” During my childhood, my mother typically worked at least three jobs and still struggled at times to make ends meet. The blog reader’s declarative statement resembled childhood messages that I absorbed from the culture around me.

But generalizations sound quite different when we attach them to specific people. A rephrasing of the above comment might go like this: “Your mother’s struggles revealed that she fell into one of two categories – she lacked knowledge or she was lazy.”

Now, I have indeed encountered those who would have been so brazen as to insult my mother directly…or any other random person who has had financial difficulties. In general, though, a lot of these blanket statements are generic, and when pressed, the person doing the judging would most likely backtrack if I were to call out that kind of insult with a reminder that most of us know and love people who have faced financial challenges.

"Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." James Baldwin

This leads to another type of comment (here, I’m paraphrasing things I’ve heard frequently): “Your mother [or someone else we personally know] was different. She was doing the best she could, unlike those other lazy people.” My internal response: “Really? Are you absolutely sure about that? How do you know whether or not others were trying just as hard as she was?”

And then a typical followup from the armchair poverty expert: “I know this person who is collecting welfare and is on Medicaid, but she uses her food stamps to buy junk food, and she has an iPhone. She is always bragging about how she doesn’t have to work and can just live off the government.” (It’s usually a woman, thanks to the 1980s “welfare queen” myth.)

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There’s a lot to unpack in that kind of statement, but again, others have tackled the sociological aspects of this topic much better than I can here. A couple of things in the “I know this person who…” argument stand out to me, though. For one thing, there is an assumption that if one person in a particular situation is exhibiting a particular behavior (such as “taking advantage” of the system), it must be the norm, even when there is a lack of evidence to support such a questionable logical leap.

But I wonder what would happen if this same type of rhetorical formula were used in a different context. It might go something like this: “I know this person who speeds on the highway, but he has a radar detector and texts while driving. He is always bragging about how he never gets tickets and how he’d rather pay for a ticket than slow down anyway.” For whatever reason, speeding (which regularly endangers a whole lot of people’s lives, including children) is considered more socially acceptable behavior and far less dangerous than the possibility that someone might collect food stamps without actively looking for a job.

Another thought also comes to mind with the “I know this person who…” statement. Maybe the anecdotal woman really wishes that she could find a decent-paying job, and she is embarrassed that she can’t. There are times when we as humans might not want to admit to our own disappointments, so we minimize or dismiss our feelings in order to save face.

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It can be as simple as saying, “Well, I was going to break up with him anyway,” when the reality is that we weren’t expecting to get dumped. Or perhaps after getting passed over for a promotion, it’s justified with “I didn’t want the extra workload,” when in fact we were excitedly anticipating the challenge of new responsibilities. Or for women who have had no luck conceiving: “I love the freedom of not having kids,” when we secretly picked out baby names years ago.

Vulnerability is difficult stuff. We don’t always handle it well, and a lot of us will go to great lengths to avoid letting others know how we really feel about things that are emotionally painful. This is especially true about poverty. When someone says, “Poor people are lazy” (or “parasites” or “bums” or “stupid” or any number of other negative words that are often associated with poverty), maybe it’s just easier not to admit how difficult poverty really is.

When someone has applied for countless jobs, only to be rejected again and again, it’s demoralizing. But when that same person has to listen to judgmental comments from total strangers (not to mention supposed friends and family), it’s even worse. Because these insults might be confirming the deepest, darkest fears that many of us carry inside us: that there is something inherently, horribly wrong with us. Taken a step further, when these attitudes are taught in church, or articulated by those who claim to be Christian, this is what might be heard (whether or not it’s intended): “God does not approve of you. Poverty is your punishment.”

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But poverty is not a punishment. Regardless of what our worldly, materialistic consumer-driven society might tell us, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Shame can drive us to do all sorts of destructive things to ourselves (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), and in my experience, I haven’t found a single beneficial value in shaming others. I’m going to continue this topic in a future post, but for now, I want to end with a message to the many friends I have who are struggling right now: I believe in your goodness. You matter. And no matter how difficult life might seem at times, I’m cheering you on.

Black Friday and American-style Materialism

I’m appalled at how Black Friday has evolved in recent years. Truly appalled.

From an economic perspective, I understand why stores market the way they do. Corporate number-crunchers in fancy suits worry about how stores will perform between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when retailers attempt to make up for lackluster sales throughout the rest of the year.

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I listen to Marketplace on NPR enough to know that retail numbers are considered to be very important for our economy. Whether or not that’s how our economy should be measured, the reality is that this is the way we do things here in the US.

Our grandparents rationed. We shop.

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So it’s only natural that Black Friday has become what it is. A chaotic day in which hoards of people rush to the stores and literally fight over who can get out alive with the cheapest “Made in some country on the other side of the world where factory workers get paid less than a dollar a day and might even get trapped inside during a fire and die” merchandise.

‘Tis the season for fist punches and gun shots. Deck the hall…or deck your fellow shopper.

Walmart is ground zero for the War on (for?) Christmas. Or, at least, it looks like a battleground. Yes, other stores are complicit, but none seem to exploit violent shoppers as some sort of bargain-branding strategy.

People of Walmart indeed.

Wait…Friday isn’t soon enough. Now Thanksgiving evening is the new trend, because the pre-Christmas shopping season can’t get here soon enough. Yes, we’ve become accustomed to seeing Christmas decorations on display in July, but it’s not truly the season of buying until pre-post-Thanksgiving sales are upon us.

So this is Christmas. I hope you have fun.

As for the brave employees who leave their families on a national holiday to work these sales? Most of them are getting paid next to nothing for enduring the mayhem. How else can Walmart make a profit while selling electronic tablets for $29? Certainly not by cutting executive pay, even when the company’s performance is less than stellar.

“You shop at Walmart.”

That’s what kids said to each other when I was young. It was the worst insult you could possibly say. The only comeback I could think of at the time was, “How would you know? Did you see me there?” This was before the 24-hour super-duper-centers and Black Friday madness. Aah…to be young and picked on again…

We’re living in a material world

As I’ve been reflecting on what Black Friday has become, a particular childhood memory has come to mind. We didn’t have much money when I was growing up. Out of sheer budgetary desperation, mom considered putting my sister and me on the school free lunch program at one point, but I told her that I would rather starve than be subjected to such a horror. The reason was simple: everyone knew who was on free lunch, and given that I was already a bit “different” from my classmates, I just knew that I would be ridiculed for it…because we all know (or thought we knew) that kids are directly responsible for whether or not their parents can earn enough money (yet kids pick up on what they hear their parents say, which contributes to bullying and mockery).

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Because of my stubborn willfulness, my mother struggled to buy food for us. Sometimes this meant going without electricity for a couple of days, or walking around in bathing suits in the summer when the air conditioner was out for an extended period of time. But kids are cruel, and I didn’t know how much more cruelty I could handle.

If your doll’s butt doesn’t have a factory-stamped autograph on it, it’s not good enough for the playground.

As if the lunch situation wasn’t bad enough, I also had to deal with the fact that we couldn’t afford an “authentic” Cabbage Patch Kid. 5th grade. Back when 5th grade wasn’t the start of puberty for half the kids. My classmates brought their expensive dolls to school, and I was so happy when Mom bought me a lovely handmade Cabbage Patch knockoff. Mom couldn’t afford the real deal, but this one was actually nicer with its hand-stitching and one-of-a-kind clothes.

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I excitedly took my faux-CPK to school, feeling that I would “fit in” that day, only to discover that my doll was yet another source for me to feel inferior. You see, it didn’t have the official Xavier Roberts stamp on its tush, which meant that I definitely should not bring it back to school. I went home in tears, angry at my mother for not being able to afford the more expensive foreign-factory-made version, and I couldn’t even look at the doll for a month. I still have it, as it’s been something of a symbol of my childhood, keeping me in check whenever I start to feel pulled toward a more materialistic bent. Mom didn’t place a high value on expensive things, and now that I’m old enough to have a better perspective, I’m so thankful for that.

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“I live to shop.”

That phrase was plastered all over t-shirts, coffee mugs, and whatever other cheap merchandise was popular during the materialistic ’80s. And it’s still with us to a certain extent. There have been times when I’ve felt really judgmental toward those who become absorbed with the stuff of the world, but I have been trying not to be so judgmental about it. I could easily slip into an anti-consumer elitist mentality, looking down on those who rush to the big box stores and malls on Black Friday.

Change begins with me.

The thing is, though, that smugness, superiority, and disdain are not compassionate. I’m saddened by what this time of the year has become. I grieve when I read about the fights and the gunshots in retail stores. But I might also “get it,” just a little bit. I’m thankful that my mother taught me not to place so much value on objects, but I also remember what it was like to want to be included. “Stuff” is one of the ways we bond as humans. For better or worse, it’s a big part of our world. Only through intention can we change course. We can decide to live life differently, modeling to children that the stuff we accumulate is not what defines us. Perhaps then the media won’t be consumed by reporting on the latest toy, gadget, or fashion trend…and the people who are willing to physically assault each other in order to consume it.

Autumn leaves (for everything there is a season)

I’ve finally decided to write about a topic that has been hard to formulate into words. This post might offend some people, but there’s nothing I can do about it. Everything I’m saying here is what I honestly feel, and this is not a topic that I want to debate or be “persuaded” to take a different position on.

[Note: this is indeed a sensitive topic, and if you are dealing with the recent or imminent death of a loved one, you might not want to continue reading.]

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A friend of mine is grieving the impending passing of her mother, and she expressed her frustrations about how our society treats our elders. In particular, she commented on how it’s illegal in most states to perform physician-assisted suicide, yet perfectly legal (and mandatory) to sit by watching a terminally ill patient struggle to eat, drink, or even breathe. Even if the patient would prefer the dignity of not being forced to go through that extended, difficult, pain-filled process.

I’ve written about my mother’s death, but there is so much more I’ve wanted to say, especially as time has given me the ability to detach a bit from the emotionality of our journey. I’m still incredibly grateful for the gift of spending Mom’s final years with her, but I have also wondered about how things would have been different if she had died sooner. This kind of self-reflection could be dismissed as “shoulda, woulda, coulda,” but I’ve still found it useful because it’s helped me to formulate a better sense of my own moral and ethical views.

To be blunt, I’ve questioned whether we made a responsible decision in allowing Mom to remain on the ventilator so long. I’m not writing this to seek other people’s approval (or disapproval) of that decision…I honestly don’t want or need that. In fact, I really, really don’t want to hear statements like, “You did the right thing,” or “You did the best you could.” Those conciliatory comments are right up there with “God is in control,” “There’s a bigger plan,” and that sort of thing. I don’t know many people who find comfort in those words.

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So back to the point: there are times when I wonder if we should have taken Mom off the vent sooner. When she first decided to go on the vent, we had no idea that she would survive for as long as she did. We were expecting maybe six months if we were lucky, and we learned the statistical prognosis that less than 50% of long-term vent patients survive for a full year.

Mom wanted more time for us all to adjust to the reality of her terminal illness, and she was especially concerned about how one particular family member would handle the situation. She felt that “buying time” for a few months would make a difference.

But once you’ve elected to go down that road, it’s really hard to slam on the brakes. For one thing, vent removal must be done by a doctor, and for another, it’s really hard to identify the circumstances under which such a drastic change should occur. There is an institutionalization of sorts that happens with long-term acute medical care, and it can shape our thought processes. I found it difficult to transition from life-saving “rescue” care to palliative care because the two are so different. Once we finally found a hospice agency that would take on Mom’s case, they were incredibly helpful in that regard, but we still also had non-hospice nurses in the home who struggled to accept the change in approach.

One of the biggest conflicts I’ve had is questioning whether the amount of money spent on Mom’s healthcare (I haven’t added up the numbers from Medicare and everything else, but I estimate that it was several million dollars) was a responsible use of limited resources.

This is where the issue gets emotional: what would we be willing to give up for the benefit of others?

I experience this from simultaneously different angles. I’m so thankful for my mother’s presence in my life, and we grew so much closer (even though we’d always been close) during her illness. But then I think about how that money could have been used to help hundreds or even thousands of children who have no real access to healthcare.

In high school, I participated in competitive debate, and this was a sub-issue of our debate topic one semester. I remember having very strong opinions on the issue and quoting everyone from Kant to Aristotle to Ayn Rand (those who know me now might be surprised to learn that I was an avid fan of hers in my younger days) to defend my views.

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But the challenge is that philosophy and politics can’t really answer these questions for us. Philosophers can ponder the meaning of life in an intellectual fashion without ever getting to the heart of the human condition. Then politicians invent ridiculous concepts like “death panels” to exploit the fears of a public that relies on the internet and cable news pundits in order to raise campaign funds and manipulate voters. They might even act righteously concerned about ensuring that everyone has access to healthcare, even if they can’t seem to offer any viable solutions that move beyond sound bytes. Yet, neither the philosophers nor the politicians usually address the experience of sitting with a loved one who is dying, or the process of accepting one’s own mortality. That’s left to the mystics, who are often viewed as a New Age threat by religious fundamentalists more concerned with “thou shalt nots” than with experiencing God in the world.

I started this post by saying that I don’t want this to turn into a conversation where people who haven’t been through my experience to try to persuade me to adopt a different opinion. Perhaps that’s because I hold seemingly contradictory positions on the matter, almost in tension with each other. The tension is good, though. It’s through the “in between” spaces that we grow, whereas absolutist-fixed attitudes have a tendency to collapse when faced with the complexities of life.

As we move forward with necessary discussions about healthcare policy (not just governmental policy or private insurance guidelines, but also how medical institutions and practitioners interact with patients and families), it would be beneficial to spend some time reflecting on our own attitudes about end-of-life care. It’s not fun or comfortable, but ignoring the issue won’t make it go away.

In one way, this means taking the emotion out of it (I’m speaking specifically about fear-based reactionary emotions). But it also involves sitting in the sometimes intense emotions of what it means to be a human being who can’t survive forever, questioning what exactly we’re clinging to in this world, while acknowledging that death and dying can be painful, difficult, and grief-filled. We also need to be mindful that everyone’s situation is different, and one person’s decision might not be the best option for others.

For me personally, it means evaluating whether I would want millions of dollars to be spent on my healthcare, at the expense of countless others who have been dismissed as “not important enough” to receive even basic care. My mother made the best decision she could under the circumstances. But I wonder if she would have made that same decision if we lived in a society that isn’t so scared to have deep discussions about our own mortality.

Come on people now, smile on your brother

I contemplated about whether to write about this, but decided to in spite of my trepidation. My hesitation is because I want to avoid this coming across as a “look at how open-minded/tolerant/fill-in-the-blank I am” story. That’s not what this is about. It’s a reflection on how we interact with the people around us on any given day, and what we gain from those encounters.

This evening after I had finished hanging out at a coffee shop getting some stuff done, I decided to stop by one of my favorite restaurants for takeout. (I’m traveling at the moment, so I find myself dining out more frequently than normal.)

As I was walking back to my car, a man asked me if he could have my leftovers. It’s pretty common around here for people to give their leftovers away, so this didn’t catch me off-guard. I explained to him, though, that I hadn’t actually eaten any of it yet, and that my vegan meal might not be particularly appealing to him.

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Then I asked him if I could buy him dinner. He looked at me with surprise and said that I didn’t have to do that. I told him that I would be glad to if he wanted something to eat, but that if he just needed some money, I could do that instead–and that I didn’t want him to feel like I didn’t trust him to make his own decisions about what to do with whatever I gave him. He took me up on the dinner offer, and after asking his friend/traveling companion to watch his stuff, we walked a couple of blocks to another restaurant.

We looked at the menu, and I asked him if any of it looked good. He responded that it had been so long since he’d been to a nice sit-down restaurant that he couldn’t really process the number of menu selections. I pointed out a few popular options, and he settled on a burger and fries. Not a low-quality fast food burger, but real, actual meat.

When we walked in to the restaurant and up to the bar, he was surprised that no one told him that he had to leave. He wasn’t used to being accepted in such an environment. I asked him if he felt uncomfortable, and he said that he was fine.

It took about 20 minutes for the order to be prepared (in the middle of happy hour), and we visited at the bar while we waited. He told me about all the states he has visited (he travels by train), and I found myself fascinated by his adventures. No one gave him a hard time, and I didn’t even notice if anyone stared at us.

Then when the food was ready, I asked the bartender if we could have some ketchup for the fries. The bartender came back with a full bottle of ketchup and told us that he’d like for us to have it. I’m not quite sure whether this man really wants to carry around a bottle of ketchup everywhere he goes, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless. And I’m sure it will be passed along to someone who will use it.

We hugged, wished each other well on our journeys, and parted ways. As I continued on my walk to my car, I thought about how our encounter is such a rare occurrence. Even for me, this seemed different. I’m usually in a hurry when I’m approached by someone who asks for money or food, and while I might spend a few minutes visiting, part of my brain is still caught up in my own little world. This evening I wasn’t on my way to an appointment or event, and it was nice to have a lengthier, more meaningful conversation.

Back to my lead-in to this blog post, I don’t want to make this story all about me, and yet in a way it *is* about me…and all of us. The man I met today isn’t a prop or accessory. So many times, those in poverty are used and exploited for having homeless people wear a brand

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…as you love yourself

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In my previous post, I wrote about the ways that we do unloving things in the name of love. As children, many of us didn’t have the best models for how to love, and as a result we were conditioned to be ashamed of and hide our true selves. We received the message, at least by some adults, that we were unworthy, undeserving, unacceptable, and that nothing we did would ever be “good enough.”

One of the big criticisms I hear about childhood education today is that kids are taught that “everyone is a winner.” While it’s true that there are times when one person succeeds more than others in a particular event, I cringe when I hear rants about how children are being overly coddled and not taught “the truth” that they can’t all be proud of their accomplishments. Those sorts of critiques sound a lot like that same old message I internalized in childhood regarding the aspects of myself that I knew adults wouldn’t approve of…my sinful heart, sinful mind, and sinful ways.

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When we constantly hear that there’s something intrinsically wrong with us, we do indeed absorb that message. It can lead to all sorts of self-destructive behavior that impact us for the rest of our lives. Children who are abused physically or sexually might be told that it’s their fault or that they’ll be hurt even more if they tell anyone…that is, if anyone would even believe them over an authoritative adult. Wives put up with various forms abuse (physical, sexual, emotional) as well, with reinforcement by some misguided church leaders who instruct them to submit to their husbands no matter what.  Teenage girls (and increasingly boys) develop eating disorders that cause long-term health problems, in an attempt to have a “perfect” body. And some at-risk kids even take their own lives after enduring physical and emotional bullying from peers, often with accusations surrounding their sexuality, with teachers and principals silently refusing to intervene.

And yet, Jesus told us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” I mentioned before that a lot of my own childhood shame stemmed from conflicting messages that I received at church. For a large portion of my life, I’m not even sure that I really knew that I should love myself. I was more preoccupied with what was wrong with me than what was good in me. One way I masked that was to overcompensate and be super-virtuous in my behavior, something that I still catch myself doing at times. I might shy away from talking about unpleasant feelings, such as times when I’m angry, until it finally bubbles over and I can’t contain it anymore.

God loves you

I’m still learning how to love myself, but I do know it involves acknowledging both the good and the ugly. I can strive to make peace with the world and people who have hurt me, but there will still be times when I feel angry, frustrated, impatient, and judgmental. Rather than push those feelings down and hide them (even from myself), I try to find healthy outlets to express them. My work with children has taught me that anger in particular benefits from a physical outlet because it is a form of energy that needs to be released. That might involve going on a long run, playing the piano, writing a poem, dancing, crying, eating lunch at the local soup kitchen with friends I’ve made there, praying, or meditating. Sometimes I do all of those things.

I also try to treat myself with loving-kindness by eating healthy and nourishing food, stretching and strengthening my body through exercise and yoga, creating art and music, traveling to and discovering new places, reading to stimulate my mind, learning new things, laughing, getting enough sleep, and taking a break when my introverted self needs some quiet time. And when I’m at my most vulnerable, I surround myself with friends and family who treat me with loving-kindness as well. Those are not times that I want to be around people who are vicious, nasty, or abusive.

Travel light, live light, spread the light, be the light

The self-care that I’ve learned as an adult differs from what I had internalized as a sometimes timid child. Where I was once afraid that I couldn’t be loved for who I truly was, now I realize that I must first love myself. Only then I can extend love toward others. The way I look at it, we’re stuck with ourselves no matter what. We can try to escape by self-medicating or engaging in self-abusive behavior, but we’re still there from the first breath to the very last. Sometimes we enter into relationships as a means of avoiding the a-lone-ness of facing our true selves, but those types of relationships create other problems. When we’re finally comfortable with ourselves, we can form relationships that are affirming, mutually respectful, and loving.

This same principle can be applied to how we relate to our communities and larger world around us. If we are cruel to others (even those we’ve never met), it’s a sign that we don’t know how to love ourselves. Even with the purchases I make, I find myself questioning whether it’s a purchase that helps or hurts others. If child labor was involved…or people halfway across the world being forced to work in an unreasonably hot room without sufficient breaks or adequate pay…or the materials were sourced in a way that caused destruction to the habitat that others must live in…or the profits will be used to fund wars, discrimination, human rights violations, or other atrocities, I must acknowledge that the harm could be happening to me just as easily as it is to others.

For if I wouldn’t want to subject myself to such conditions, then I can’t in good conscience contribute to systems that harm others. That’s not how I would love myself, so that’s not how I want to “love” others.

Bringing this back in to smaller day-to-day interactions, when we condemn others by telling them that they are “going to hell,” we’re acting as if the Bible as if it’s a “social improvement manual” (credit to Don Lee, the lead pastor of my church, for that brilliant phrasing) instead of a message of love. Some might still argue, “But love involves calling people out for their sins and not condoning ‘evil’ behavior.”

My response: Is that how you “love” yourself? If someone physically attacks you because they disagree with your identity, do you sit there and allow them to continue the attack? Do you hurt yourself, kick yourself out of your house to live on the streets, yell at yourself, or flat-out stop speaking to yourself? Do you demand Biblical canonical perfection from yourself? (If you say yes to that last one but omit a single instruction from the Bible then you’re not being honest…and that kind of self-dishonesty is not love.)

Now, I’d like to add the caveat that there are times when we do indeed need to step in and address the self-destructive behavior of our loved ones. One common example is in the case of addiction, when we witness a dangerous downward spiral due to chemical or behavioral dependency. But if I mention my concerns to a friend about excessive alcohol consumption and encourage that friend to seek treatment, my stance isn’t “You must stop drinking or you will go to hell.”

Rather, my worry is that my friend will develop cirrhosis or be involved in a car accident that could kill others. If that friend continues to prioritize alcohol over personal and public safety, I might decide that I need to stay away from the friend for my own self-protection. That’s a far cry from invoking God in an attempt to control the friend. Similarly, if someone abused me or otherwise intentionally hurt me, I would not spend time around that person because I love myself too much to subject myself to an unhealthy and abusive relationship.

I’ve been writing this from a Christian perspective because that’s my own cultural experience. Plus, it’s the religion that I most frequently see used as a justification for treating people unkindly. But everything I’ve said here can be applied to other religious and spiritual (and non-spiritual) traditions. The question still remains: how do we love ourselves, and by extension, others?

At the end of my last post, I suggested that we might reflect on the times in our lives when we’ve felt most loved. If we could rewrite our histories, what would we want love to look like for ourselves? Imagine the best possible childhood, and how a parent (or other adult) could have responded differently at a time when you were hurting. What would have made you feel safer?

Then do those things for yourself. Perhaps if I came home crying because I had been picked on at school, I would hear these words: “Others might not see how beautiful you are, but I do. Even if they are mean to you, I love you.” Or when I didn’t advance in the spelling bee: “Yes, you misspelled a word, and I’m sorry that you didn’t get to continue in the competition. But I still love you anyway, exactly as you are. My love for you isn’t based on your ability to spell.” Those statements acknowledge that bad things happen, that we don’t always “win,” and that we can’t escape feelings of disappointment or anger. But love is still at the heart of those statements.

Once we’ve reconciled the past, we have the freedom to move forward with self-love. Rather than clinging to the pain that we experienced in childhood, we can make peace with it or maybe even release it. And then…we can go forth and love others. I think of that mystical word Namaste that is often uttered at the end of yoga classes. “The divine light in me honors the divine light in you.”  If we don’t see God’s imprint in ourselves, we can’t honor it in others. And if we don’t acknowledge its presence in others, we’ll never truly see it in ourselves.