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Good Grief

May 25, 2012

Watercolor by Tim Timmerman

Grief is the flip-side of love. It is a voice saying, “Love is buried here.” It is the feeling we have when something in our past visits our present. Grief is a patient teacher that waits in silence until we are ready to listen. Grief is not pushy. It does not force itself upon us.

But if we ignore it for too long, suppress it, or try in vain to flee from it… it will hunt us down. It is sneaky. It will jump out from a photo or ride the voice of a stranger to splash our eyes with tears. It will follow us silently for decades until we are ready to turn, face it, and listen to what it has to say.

That’s my story at least. For most of my life I have fled from feeling. The sadness of my childhood was so deep that I spent the first ten years after I left home running from it. I tried never to look back. I believe I’m like most people. I use busy-ness to keep myself distracted from feelings and truths I would rather not ponder. I’ve avoided my own sadness for too long.

So today, as my children finish another school year and grief puts a heavy arm across my shoulders, I choose to listen to what it has to teach me.  Today’s sadness is about my lost childhood and the pain I ran from when I graduated High School. But I no longer run. I sit with my grief and see that it is really love for my family who I have lost and for my children who are growing into young adults themselves.

I don’t have to fix my sadness. I needn’t use “the power of positive thinking” to overcome it. I choose to welcome it and let it embrace me like a lover in the night. As it takes me, it kisses my broken heart and whispers into my soul, “Let go. Feel. You are love.”


The Thinker

May 1, 2012

Thinking Animal

“There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.” Buddha

I am addicted to thinking. My brain is quite the busybody and is constantly ruminating about something. It takes effort to push the “pause” button and interrupt the incessant chatter of my mind. And I am getting better at it the older I get.

I am one of those people who finds it challenging to practice spirituality on a daily basis. By practicing I mean having a dedicated quiet time or daily meditation practice. I have learned some good techniques to avoid the worst pitfalls of the day (e.g. deep breathing instead of losing my temper, listening instead of trying to fix) but I am not making the progress toward “Enlightenment” that I want. Or am I?

I have taken the first step toward Enlightenment or Peace or whatever you want to call it. The first step is to realize you have been asleep and to wake up. Some people call it Awareness or Being Present. I just call it waking up.

Waking up isn’t all that hard. Life pretty much forces it on you when you realize the common factor in all your problems is you. There are some people who never seem to get it of course, but I’m pretty sure that “eureka moment” comes to most of us at some point in our lives. We wake up and understand our power to create our own reality. The hard part is staying awake. How do we keep from going back to sleep?

It is oh so easy to blame others or circumstances for our unhappiness. We use the “If only…” excuse. “If only I had… more money, a different job, a different family…then I would be happy.” This is the human condition and it is the rare person who escapes this misery trap. As someone said, “Happiness is an inside job.”

We are all self-fulfilling prophecies. This is the secret of The Secret and The Law of Attraction. Our thoughts are terribly important for we become what we think about. So, for now, I am content to catch myself when I have fallen into negative thinking. It is enough, for now, to turn off the incessant brain chatter and just breathe.

Enlightenment and Peace, like balance, is something that doesn’t come once. It is something we learn and maintain as we go along. It is a practice. Aw snap! I thought I had gotten out of that whole daily spiritual practice thing. O well. I think I will go meditate now.

Religious Hope

April 4, 2012


The Judgement

In my hospice ministry, the majority of people I serve identify themselves as some sort of Christian. And most of those are Protestant. It may have been 30 years since they darkened the door of a church, but they believe in God and heaven and express hope in going there. When you are facing death, this belief is quite helpful. When you life is measured in days or hours, there is not much left on earth to hope for.

About 20% of my patients are Catholics. They may be active in a parish, or may not have attended mass since their Confirmation, but either way they often want “last rites” when the end is near. By the way, if you are Catholic and reading this, please tell all your friends that since Vatican II the rite is has been called “The Anointing of the Sick” and is a blessing and prayer for healing. It is risky to put it off to the last minute. Not only is the sick person is missing out on what can be a beautiful sacrament, you may have to scramble to find a priest. If it is outside business hours, Good Luck! Many parishes don’t have answering services. And even if you do, not all priests are willing to make the visit if they don’t know you.

Those of my patients that are not religious are typically secular. Despite what you hear in conservative churches, most people are not turning to “New Age” religions. People just sort of end up “undefined” without a formalized worldview. They either believe in God or a Higher Power or they don’t. We die the way we live.

It doesn’t really matter to me what people choose to believe. I just hope they have some hope. I find our thoughts are often our greatest source of pain. Sometimes  religious thoughts cause suffering. Even religious people can have an idea “I hope God forgives me.”

One man recently told me, “I’m so afraid. My girlfriend is not right with the Lord.” This image of God, as judge, is consistent with the Bible. The Bible promises a final righting of the scales. The wicked (unbelieving goats) will be sent to the left into eternal fire and pain, the just (believing sheep) will be sent to the right into paradise.

I join people where they are. I don’t try to change anyone’s religion, but point them to some source of hope within their tradition. Christians need to be reminded of God’s mercy and love. They don’t need to hear anything about God’s wrath at that point.

What I do say to people is this. What you see now, what is important to you now as you get close to life’s end, is what is really important. Don’t forget what you learn here. Don’t ever go back to “normal.”

At the end of your life you won’t be thinking about how much you made or what you did. You will be thinking about your family and friends. And hopefully, they will be there for you when it is your turn to die. It all depends on how you live between now and then.

Religious vs. Spiritual

March 30, 2012

I just got off the phone with Paul, one of my oldest friends. We have been out of touch for many years and it was good to hear his voice. But I leave the conversation saddened and bemused by how far apart we have grown. Back when we were in our 20’s we were quite close. I looked up to Paul because he was so knowledgable and confident in his religion. I was just starting my religious phase and Paul was going strong in the faith tradition into which he was born. I considered joining his religion. We both went off to seminary (different ones) and both struggled with elements of our theological training. Whereas I responded by questioning what was being taught, he responded by questioning himself. He blamed himself for failing to conform to the norms: I questioned the norms. We both earned Masters of Divinity degrees and spent time in ministry.

Fast forward to today. He is further entrenched in his religion. I have changed mine. His spiritual position is Fort Religion in God’s Land which has been overrun by sinners.  He struggles to love the sinners while hating the sin. I see us all on the same path seeking freedom, balance and happiness. I live in God’s country where everyone is loved, even the haters. He sees Democrats as servants of the devil. The current president has horns, a tail and a pitchfork. Republicans aren’t much better. He will vote for the least evil candidate:  Ron Paul.

We are both logically consistent with our presuppositions. This is soteriology (the study of why we believe what we believe) at its finest. The world into which he was born is at constant war. God and the forces of good (his religion) are fighting to overcome the devil and his servants (everyone who does not hold his worldview.) Souls are the ultimate prizes of war. The fate of the world, and history itself, hangs in the balance. His is a compelling argument that, if you completely buy it, motivates you to pray, work, strive, and fight the good fight all your days. Religious people get stuff done!

My sadness comes from realizing how far apart we have grown. He has hardened his position over the years and become more convinced of his “rightness.” I envision Paul standing, yelling at the world from the top up of his fortress, shooting his verbal cannon at his ideological enemies. (He is tempted to use real guns.) His ego is subsumed into the collective ego of his church and he derives ALL his identity from it.

But he is also a man in pain who clings to his religion and guns with an eye to future salvation as a reward for his noble struggle on earth. I prefer to end my suffering on earth by letting go my attachment to any idea, concept, or worldview that does not pass the test of logic. Paul, and all my religious friends for that matter, begin their beliefs in the Bible. They see the Bible as a sacred text given to us from God himself. I can’t talk to them about it because, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” This is true for any faith based on an inerrant sacred text: Muslim, Mormon etc. If there are logical inconsitencies or alleged “problems” with the text then these are items of faith to be surrendered to God. I look at these same issues and conclude if it sounds like a myth and looks like a myth it is probably a myth. The Bible makes way more sense if you compare its texts to those of contemporary cultures.

It comes down to how much faith one puts in science. Most conservative religious people are inconsistent with their acceptance of science. They trust the science of medicine with their earthly lives, but reject science that contradicts their religious beliefs: archeology, paleontology, anthropology, pyschology, etc.

Anyway, there is much much more to say on this topic, but in case you wonder about the difference between being religious and spiritual, I hope this post helps.

Growing your Archetypes

March 15, 2012

You know there are four basic archetypes, right? There is the Warrior, Lover, Magician, and Sovereign. Wisdom comes from knowing when to access which archetype. And it is your inner Sovereign who knows which of the other three to call on  when the need arises. The following story illustrates what happens when you are undeveloped in one or more of the archetypes.

I met Jane just after her husband John had died. She was tall, intelligent, and at 60 years of age, was still a very attractive redhead in her blue jeans and black blouse. Sitting on the foot of the bed with John’s body laying in it, Jane wasn’t crying, she was panicked. She said she felt lost and didn’t know what she was going to do. Her story revealed her dilemma and what forty years of dependency had cost her.

She met John when she was a teenager and he was in his late twenties. When she hit 18, he was 30 and determined to sweep her off her feet. Now, 42 years later, he was dead and for the first time in her life she was on her own. She related she had always stood in his shadow. She was an old-fashioned wife who lived to support her husband. They never had children and her thoughts had only ever been toward helping him be successful.

But his illness had started five years ago and was a steady drain on their finances until now, it was all gone. The house, the car, the savings, everything was sacrificed for his treatment. His decline had started with a stroke which impeded his reasoning and speech. He was a big man and so when he couldn’t walk or care for himself anymore, he had to go to a nursing home. She had spent everything for his care. And I guess that was the right thing to do. But now she had nothing and was faced with trying to re-invent herself at 60.

The long-illness had given her plenty of time to grieve. That was good and she was very comfortable with this role of the Lover archetype. She knew she had more grieving to do, but her primary feeling now was of “lostness.” So we talked about that. And I had the feeling I was talking to a child. She lamented she couldn’t make decisions because she was used to having John make them for her. She had totally abdicated the Sovereign role to her husband.

I tried to help her believe in herself and that, as an adult, she could accomplish anything she wanted. She responded with, “I don’t know what I want.” I identified some of her positive qualities (intelligent, well-travelled, savvy) and she responded, “I have a hard time believing that.” I pointed out her whole life was in front of her and she was free to do anything she wanted and she responded again with, “I don’t know what I want.” We were back to where we started.

As I sat with her waiting for the mortuary staff to arrive, I pondered her situation. She had lived her life in Lover-land. In her love and support of her husband, she had never developed her interior Warrior, Magician, or Sovereign. She very much needed them now. Her inner Magician would help her formulate a plan and discern what needed to be done and her inner Warrior needed to step out and execute the plan. She had given all her power away to her husband. He called the shots, she lived as his dependent, and so she remained a child inside. She had zero Sovereign energy. There is something uniquely sad about an adult who lives as a child.

I empathized with her and did not judge her. But I did help her see her situation and the possible solution. What she needed most now was support. And because she had no inner Sovereign, she could not give that support to herself. She needed to find it outside herself. I encouraged her to plug back into her church, to talk to her minister friend, and to take advantage of the free Grief Support our hospice could offer her. Sometimes, when we can’t believe in ourselves, others can model that belief for us. Sometimes, but not always.

I am hopeful she will grow in the next year. And she is too. The last thing she said to me before we parted was, “Now that John is gone, I don’t have anymore excuses. I need to stand on my own two feet. If it is going to be, it is up to me.” That was her Sovereign speaking and it was refreshing.

How about you? How balanced are your archetypes? How comfortable are you making decisions? Do you know what you want? Are you able to find the balance between asserting your will and releasing your agenda in order to serve others? Think about it and drop me a line to let me know how it is going for you.