Lightness of Being

Did you ever hear the story of how the Last Judgment was conducted in the mythology of ancient Egypt? There was a Goddess named Maat who held a golden scale in her hand. On one side she placed the soul of the deceased person and in the other side she put a feather. The idea was that they should weigh the same at the end of one’s life. What an interesting way to picture the goal of an individual life: to become as light as a feather. It is this idea that being should be lightweight that I want to reflect on for a moment.

Lightness of being is another way to say achieving “happiness,” or “peace of mind” in life. This means taking an active joy each day in the basics such as the rising of the sun, the singing of the birds, or the rustling of the leaves in the trees. It continues through the day in the recognition of people we know, realizing their happiness at seeing us, and feeling the peacefulness that our presence adds to each situation we encounter. It comes to an end as we return home after our business and reunite with our families and friends to share a meal together and relax in the evening hours before entering into a well deserved night’s rest.

Sounds great, but you and I both know that it seldom works out that way on a day by day basis. Things interfere with our happiness, many of them beyond our powers to control, beginning with the imperative to grow up. The seriousness of life is thrust on us when we enter school, go to church and generally learn all about the expectations of sitting quietly and behaving ourselves. This draining of joy from us continues right into early adulthood when we enter into more of life’s demanding events such as entering the work force or the military, getting married, raising children and losing more of our personal independence every day, not to mention our spontaneous joy in living.

We necessarily become more self-conscious as we grow up and that usually includes internalizing the voices of others who urge us to be more mature, more self-sacrificing and less selfish day by day. O.K., O.K, but if we aren’t careful we can gradually lose sight of our own freshness, our own spontaneity and the things that basically make us happy. We learn that being adult means worrying, conducting huge internal debates over every possible subject, and setting aside any natural joy for accomplishing our duty. How can our soul become light as a feather in the midst of all that seriousness?

Well, I am going to guess that in the first place we have to become more deliberate in our seeking of personal joy as we grow older than we once did. This means we have to remember to get outside every day and be available to nature so that creation can have a chance to work on us. We also have to learn to turn off the inner critic that we have downloaded into our being and which goads us into responsibility so that we can find times to be free and even carefree.

In particular we have to root out the false pride that keeps us from taking joy in smaller things, in the smiles of children in the touches of our beloved ones, in the flashes of real understanding we receive from our friends. We need to actively encourage these little moments of rest to take up residence inside us, alongside the larger moments of stress-creating difficulties and problems that so often bully their own way into our psychic lives.

There is another reminder from Egypt that can help us with all this. It is the two part question that Maat asks each soul as she weighs them in her infinite scale. “To whom did your bring happiness in your life; and who did you allow to bring happiness into your life?” Doesn’t that just about wrap it up in the area of lightness of being? To whom did we bring happiness to and who did we allow to bring us happiness? Talk about a bottom line.

Doubt and Faith

Yesterday we considered something of the problem of being let down by others. It’s a serious problem and nothing to make light of or minimize. However, there is another problem that is perhaps worse and that is letting ourselves down. Imperfect as we are, we can disappoint ourselves in so many ways. Maybe we were not as strong as we wanted to be, we forgot our resolutions or let our commitments lapse. Perhaps we just plain wrong, our opinion on something was weighted and off-base. We caught ourselves exaggerating our point of view to the point that it became warped and not helpful to us or others. Or maybe we found that our memory of some event was actually flawed and severely edited over time.

Maybe we let ourselves down by giving in to the old self: eating more when we had decided to eat less, smoking again after having stopped or giving in to our private sex obsession when we had chosen to be moderate and in more in control. How about when we find we have indulged in one form of self sabotage or another? How should we react when we discover that we have let ourselves down all over again?

Well one reaction would be to punish ourselves, to first of all get mad at ourselves and then find a way to make ourselves pay for the mistakes we made. Another reaction would be to remain in denial that we did let ourselves down, pretending what happened didn’t really happen after all. Still another would be to simply wake up in the middle of the night and lie there raking ourselves over the coals for whatever did happen. Although all of these options are understandable, still we know they won’t work in the long run because they didn’t work in the past and that continually dredging up the same old anger, denial and worry won’t really address our imperfections in the long run.

Instead, what we might try to do is begin by simply being honest about our shortcomings. We might also own up to what we’ve already been told over and over by friends and family about our annoying flaws and resolve to be more aware of ourselves in the first place. We can allow ourselves to become more experienced in self understanding, so that we can watch for the signs of how we react to stress.

We can also become even more sensitive to how our bodies react under pressure, including the stress of our own mistakes, instead of continuing to let ourselves just get tighter or tenser. Not that this will keep us from letting ourselves down again at a different time. It will just help us get enough space inside to recover and reposition our psyche for getting on with our imperfect selves.

One of the difficulties of being in a transitional program like this, suspended between what we were and where we want to go, is the problem of having faith in oneself amid serious life changes. The sorts of changes I have in mind include going from being the streets into a place of one’s own; moving from being unemployed to getting a job; and caring again for oneself, getting on with physical, mental or recovery healing. There is a common misperception that everything has to be in place in order for us to have faith in ourselves, when actually the opposite is true: faith is all about what is not complete and evident, even self faith.

Part of the process of having faith in ourselves is a matter of trying to remember where we have come from, recalling our own back-stories. These are our unique origins and the struggles we have already endured in order to become who we are. They usually include a cast of characters such as our parents, or lack of parents, our brothers, sisters and cousins, our first friends and the places where we grew up, our experiences in school and the joys and sorrows that we experienced in our first dozen years of life. Recalling our origins reminds us that indeed our life experiences are different from those of others and our upbringing was uniquely centered in an age, in a place, and with the parameters of those persons we encountered during our formative years.

The second part of having faith in ourselves is paying attention to the trajectory these formative years had in our subsequent lives. Think of an ocean wave. We watch in form in the swelling of the sea, and then watch it break upon the shore according to the force and strength with which it reaches the land. We can then see its trajectory, the predictable expanse of its landing, as we watch it unfold. As it opens on the beach, it will also return to the sea after reaching its full expanse. This is the trajectory of a wave and our lives have something similar in them.

Having faith in ourselves is understanding that we too have a force in life, composed of equal parts courage, fear and circumstance that guarantees we will live out our lives according to our uniqueness, as does each wave. What we longfor, what we have been learning and what how we were made are all a part of our individual trajectory. Faith in ourselves means looking beyond the present moment to the wider horizon of our unfolding lives. It means not getting stuck in any one piece of the puzzle, but being able to envision the sweep of our personal wave acrossthe shores of time.

On Being Let Down

There was a shocking item in the news yesterday describing how several VA Hospitals nationwide were found to have infected persons with HIV and Hepatitis B because of not cleaning their medical supplies. One of the reasons this is such a shocking item is because so many persons here in this program have been depending on the local VA hospital for their medical treatment. How can we absorb this possibility, that the very people we trust to care for us, might be harming us? What does it mean to realize that the very same persons you were trusting may well have let you down. How should we react when those in whom we put our faith end up doing us wrong?

This is of course not only a medical problem, but extends to all those helpers in whom we have entrusted our safety, including –I hasten to add—our case managers and social workers. What do we think when we find out that these helpers are imperfect and unable to keep their commitments to us, when they miss appointments they made with us, when they don’t return our calls in a timely manner, when they don’t know the answers to our questions or when they give us wrong advice or false expectations? Worse yet, how should we to feel when those we are supposed to trust instead seem intent on judging us by their own preconceptions rather than listening to our point of view?

We all know that the institutions that serve us, from the Veteran’s Administration to the local Labor Ready Services often treat us like numbers rather than people. They create long delays while investigating our disabilityclaims, or in scheduling our needed medical appointments or in making up their minds whether or not to help us in our housing searches. Delay brings a demeaning frustration all its own, as any poor person knows. But this is still different from our original question this morning, “How should we react when those very institutions which promise us assistance actually harm us instead; when for example they really do not listen to us, but look instead for our weaknesses instead of our strengths; when they press our triggers instead of supporting our recovery and the rebalancing of our lives?

I can’t tell you how to react, but what I might suggest is what not to do. In the first place I’d strongly advise you to not let your discouragement with the institutions and persons who let you down define you. What I mean to say is take care not to let strength of your angry or sad reactions in these situations, righteous as they might be, dictate all of your responses to such situations. To put it another way, we simply can’t let the imperfection of others push us over the top and lock us into an unhealthy extreme reaction. Although it is understandable that we would be upset, it is not understandable that we would let one wrong drive us into hurting ourselves or damage our ability to navigate life even farther.

So the very first protective reaction we need to develop in times of disillusion is to take a deep breath or two and try not to let ourselves to be totally overwhelmed by the incompetence or lack of consideration of others. This is not to suggest that we do not acknowledge our strong feelings of disappointment or rage at the sorry ways we have been treated. It is to suggest however that we do not allow ourselves to drown in these feelings and thus add more negative weight to what is already a stressful burden on our mental health.

Then I would suggest applying some perspective to our view, expanding our consideration of our situation, enlarging the horizon of our disappointment in order to give ourselves enough of a context for relaxing some of the tension that has caught us. Meditating on the many, many imperfections of humanity, including our own imperfections, would be one way to do this. Praying that the party which offended us will not continue to bring harm to others is another example. Trying to distinguish between purposeful mistakes and glitches or accidents is another. The general idea here would be to move beyond dwelling on and amplifying the magnitude of the harmful event but rather to begin processing it and allow ourselves the open psychic space to just move on.

What Happened?

What just happened last night down the street was a good example of one of the most horrible types of violation that can occur in life: that of senseless violence. A disturbed young man in his twenties walked into an underage social club and killed four young people he had never met. Then he went back outside and killed himself on the street in front of the club. To repeat, he had never met these young people, two of whom –according to the morning news– were exchange students from France and Argentina. So when we say he never met them, we mean to say not only that he had nothing personal against them, we also mean that the only reason he shot them was because they happened to be there — in the way of his anger.

How sad for the young victims and their friends who were with them when the tragedy occurred. How sad for the devastated host families and especially for their own helpless families so far away. How sad for all of those new teachers and classmates who had welcomed them to this foreign place, here in the land of the free. How sad also for the young man who took his own life in such a meaningless gesture. And how sad for his helpless family and for his former teachers who told the press that he had been an unhappy, disturbed young person, who was given some counseling for his personal problems while in high school, although evidently not quite enough. How sad that he withdrew from counseling, even as he avoided the concern of his family. How sad that he ended up a drop out and a loner rather than face the demons that were tormenting him.

How sad for all of us, only two blocks away from this tragedy, and for our poor already beat up neighborhood, this Old Town, this Skid Road with its bars, liquor stores, porn palaces and flop houses on every corner. How sad for us aswell as for our homeless neighbors sleeping on the streets and already struggling with the negative ions that assail them every day. Now we add another stain to our daily existence, the memory of this darkest of possibilities, the random violence, against which even our best efforts can evidently never protect us.

In the face of this kind of reality, what can we do to honor the memory of those four innocent children, and to resume our day to day lives? Well one way to continue on might be to pay some attention to the difficulty embedded in this sadness. Not to deny it or downplay it, but to acknowledge that this did happen here in our own backyard and that it has shaken us to the core.

This is the meaning of the memorial card from our VETS program which you are invited to sign this morning to accompany the blood red rose we are adding to the shrine that has been forming on the street in front of the Club. Our card and rose will be placed alongside the other mementos that have been gathering there: the candles, the notes, the balloons, the teddy bears and the flowers.

There is a second and even more important thing we can do at this time. Before signing the card we can each take a moment to search down deep inside us and try and locate the exact same unacknowledged secret that precipitated this entire event: the anger hiding deep inside each of us. This act was, if anything, the explosion of the young man’s unacknowledged inner anger. This is a reminder to us that we cannot afford to let our own inner anger rage on unchallenged.

What unacknowledged anger? Well, that is as unique as each of us. The ways we were disrespected as children, before we could defend ourselves or understand the cruelty of adults, might have something to do with it. The harsh ways of the military and the harsher ways of enemy combatants might have added significantly to our angry cores. The ways we were misunderstood or perhaps even ridiculed upon discharge by former friends or even relatives might have contributed to our anger. The stupid things we subsequently did to ourselves, the mistakes we made, the miscalculations, the foolishness and the shortsightedness that led us into error time and time again might have also contributed to our self anger.

It is no use pretending that our lives have been rosy; we wouldn’t even be here in a homeless recovery program if we had not been severely wounded by our loss of a job, a relationship gone wacky and most often by our own addictive attempts at self-medication. There is no doubt that some sort of angry feelingsreside in each of us here, even as it did in that miserable young man who lashed out with his gun for relief last night. We can do what he was unable to do, own these angry feelings and refuse to let them boil up within our souls. We can be strong enough to name the inner Devil that sometimes wants to ruin us and others, and then — having called a spade a spade– exorcise this anger with some deliberate self-understanding. We can practice a little self care here and perhaps even forgiveness where appropriate.

How is this to be done? I don’t really know for each of you because this is all so individual and tricky. But I sincerely believe it begins in general with our realization that an underlying hurt most often fuels our angry responses. Some psychologists say that anger is actually a defense mechanism, protected a wounding in us. Therefore if we are trying to deal with our anger, we must begin by owning up to the underlying hurt that originally gave rise to the angry response. If the young man who did this senseless killing could have backtracked from his anger to face his hurt, he might have had a chance at dealing with himself in a whole different way. He might have accepted the help that was once offered by his concerned teachers. He might have been able to listen to his family. He might have even listened to himself and actually saved the four innocent lives. No, five innocent lives.

Gratitude List

There is a spiritual practice encouraged by A.A. groups that could benefit us all, especially while we are enduring the stress of basic transitions such as looking for a job, seeking housing and learning to leave our homeless situations. This is the making of a Gratitude List, which can be described as making an inventory every night before going to sleep of the things that happened in our day for which we are grateful. Did we meet someone and have an uplifting conversation even for a moment? Did something go right for us, either according to plan or unexpectedly? Did we notice something about the weather that lifted our spirits, such as the beauty of the sunrise or the relief of an afternoon breeze?

Did we read a book or an article that made sense to us, or helped us to reflect more deeply on our lives? Add another item to the list. Gratitude lists can contain many basic topics, including both items from the world outside of us and entries about our inner world. Did we receive a sincere compliment from someone we respect? Did we manage to keep our mouths shut at a critical moment today? Either event can bring us to gratitude, whether it was caused by someone else or by ourselves. These two realities, the inner and the outer, may offer very different occasions for gratitude, but together they share a couple of commonalities which might be worth taking a moment to consider.

On the one hand, these events, persons or ideas from within our without which waken in us feelings of gratitude are actually nourishing moments, feeding our Inner Child. That is to say, any gratefulness that reaches down inside us touching and supporting us has the ability to quicken our desire to relate to the world with more appreciation, with feelings of freshness and anticipation. The place of the Inner Child in us is a place of directly relating to the world without exerting the mental control of predetermined expectations about joy or satisfaction. This is the actual residence of our feelings of gratitude.

On the other hand, any of those events, persons or ideas from within or without which bring us feelings of gratitude is an opportunity for restoring and healing our weary, wounded souls. No matter how small these moments may be, they are nonetheless real and can massage the heavy, cynical knots of inner stress we carry around with us. What I mean to say is that even if our reasons for thankfulness are small, they are nonetheless real agents in our life experiences. They influence us by relaxing some of the tension that makes us catch our breath. Our feelings of gratitude provide us with space where we can breathe deeply and even sigh with relief.

We don’t want to forget to include on our gratitude lists some thankfulness for what didn’t happen. This summer we might well begin any gratitude list with how hot it did not become today. Especially with the recent run of days over 100 degrees, we could be grateful that it was only in the mid 80s and not over 99 again.

More importantly, we could be grateful on any given day for the bad things that did not happen: that we did not stick our foot in our mouths today, or that we did not lose our temper today, or we did not make a fool out of ourselves.

We could be grateful that we were able not to pretend to know it all, so we were able to ask for help from someone today. Or, we could be grateful that our backs did not hurt so much, our arthritis did not cripple us, or our diarrhea did not take over today. We could be grateful that our depression was not as powerful over us as it could have been, that our self-critical minds gave us something of a break today, or that our anxious feelings did not stop us from getting out and doing what we needed to accomplish.

We might on another level feel some gratitude for the fact that someone we were talking with (say, our social worker) could not actually read our minds. We could be grateful that we are not where we were only one, slim year ago. Grateful that we are not still entangled in that defeating relationship that strangled us for so long. Then there are all the near-misses we could be grateful for: that we didn’t get hit by that car when we stepped out into the street without looking; that the flower pot which fell off the apartment ledge while we were walking by didn’t land on us.

Gratitude for what did not exist can be as powerful as gratitude for what did happen. Gratitude itself all depends on our willingness to notice it, to feel it and to let it in small but true as it may be..

Eulogy

Last time we reflected on the man who jumped out of his hotel room to his death on Fourth and Pine Streets. I found out a little later that he was not the only person who died that day in our neighborhood. It turns out that someone we all knew fairly well, M., a very recent graduate of this VETS program, also died that same morning, and was found in his bed, taken by a freak heart attack. M. was one of the Vets I case managed here in our program, and I got to know him fairly well over the months we worked together. Many of you knew him fairly well: a short, blonde tough little guy with a great sense of humor and a Southern drawl that escaped through the tightness of his always heavily guarded smile. I’d like to offer a small tribute to what I learned about him, a brief eulogy to his life and his struggles.

M.was only 54 years old when he died, still a young man by today’s standards. Born in Kentucky, he was raised on a farm and taken out of school after the 6thgrade by his father, so that he could work full time on the farm to support his family. He never learned to read or write very well, although he was considering getting a GED when he left this VETS program. M. went into the army at age 18, and he told me that one of the first things he learned there was how to drink. “Well you get there and everybody says ‘Come on, we’ll take you out for a drink….make a man out of you…’ Then later on things start happening and you get to drinking some more just to get your mind on something else. Pretty soon it’s kind of a daily habit, a way of dealing with everything.”

M. said he did not look back after leaving home, and never returned to Kentucky after his discharge. In fact he said that once he got away, he never wanted to see the farm or his family again. Lots of painful memory there. Instead he stayed out here on the West Coast where he became a roofer for the next 25 years. Eventually he got married for a short while, but had no kids. Then one day he started to have back spasms which finally got so bad that one day he fell off a roof, breaking most of his teeth.

Between the new pain medication and his ongoing self medication and drinking, he eventually lost his job, his wife and his housing. He found himself broke, homeless, and on the street with only a bottle to his name. He became a candidate for this Veterans Emergency Transition Shelter (VETS) Program, and that’s where I met him nine months ago. By the time he entered VETS, he had 7 months of sobriety under his belt, and with the help of the V.A. and the Salvation Army he was starting to work his way back into the world.

He graduated from the Substance Abuse Treatment Program at the VA Hospital, and was attending weekly AA meetings here in the neighborhood. It then turned out that he had Hepatitis C, and he began to undergo Interferon treatments. He also got dentures, which improved not only his ability to chew but his looks and his self esteem. Eventually he received a non service connected disability pension for his severe sciatica, compensating him for not being able to return to work. And on leaving our program he located some subsidized housing which allowed him to start life over in a new key.

And there was one more very crucial part of his overall recovery that I want to mention. One of the most important turning points in M’s. overall self-restoration had to do with coming to accept that he had suffered from depression for years. Partly because he resisted the idea that his mind was in any way wounded, or as he put it, “that I might be crazy.” Even though he had been abused as a child and ended up carrying the effects of PTSD around for a lifetime, he resisted any attempts to suggest that he might benefit from any counseling in his life.

Even after losing his wife, and his ability to make a living he was still determined to go it alone without any psychological support or assistance, simply because he once learned somewhere that it was not manly to see a counselor or admit any mental wounding.

It was one of the young woman counselors at the work re-training program who got M. to trust her and finally share his life story with her, and who then suggested that he consider seeking help for the damage and stress his mind had suffered over the years. Although at first he was very resistant to the idea, her continuing encouragement slipped under his defenses, and eventually led him to reconsider his deep suspicions of what psychology was all about and how it might be able to help him.

And this effort did really work for him, as I heard yesterday from one of neighbors at the hotel. It turns out that just before he died M. had been sharing his plan to return home this coming Christmas to Kentucky, to spend the holidays with his family for the first time in 35 years. He wanted to touch base with his elderly parents before they died, and to show off his new teeth.

I don’t know how you would estimate the success of anyone’s life but surely this one decision to return home and reconcile after such a long time away is a definite sign of great personal victory on his part, one that speaks proudly about the triumph of the human spirit of one man in overcoming long term adversity.

Yesterday

Yesterday morning, while we were here at this meeting, what were you thinking about? No doubt you had one ear open to the conference, but what were you really thinking inside? Were you considering your day, planning how to get everything done you wanted to do or perhaps feeling the blessed coolness of the morning after yesterday’s heat wave?

Well while you were thinking about finishing your resume or applying for yet another housing list or whatever it was you had on your mind, not more than four blocks away a man was thinking about jumping out his 6th floor apartment window, and he did. Right around 8:10, while we were all up here together. We know all about this because a couple of veteran graduates from this program saw it happen. It was just across the street from their hotel, and they were outside smoking when they heard the double thuds as first he bounced off the apartment awning and then hit the pavement.

Do you have any idea what he might have been thinking about yesterday morning at this time? Sure you do, the same kinds of things we all think from time to time: how he had reached a dead end in life; how he couldn’t stand it any more; how miserable living had become. He certainly wasn’t admiring the cool turn in the weather, or planning to finish a new resume or to find housing. Heck he already had housing, that’s what he jumped out of; he was fleeing his housing.

He probably wasn’t thinking about anybody else, any friends he had or once had; his parents or siblings, his AA sponsor, or his neighbors in the hotel. No doubt he felt alienated and cut off from any human interaction. We know what that’s like too. Sometimes we just can’t even imagine that anyone cares at all. He was probably thinking about how much his sorry life hurt. How meaningless it had all become, after all the effort, all the pain, all the resolutions and promises to be better. He probably felt that he had finally come up against a huge wall, and how that the wall had become the only reality for him, rather than just cipher of his intense depression, of his impaired interpretation of reality.

Was he even in his right mind, or was he spaced out on drugs, legal or not? We don’t really know for sure if he was even thinking at all, or simply reacting to the throes of his addiction. I want to remind us that I am of course only guessing here. We cannot know what is really in the mind of another person, although we can often imagine some of their story based on what any human being might be thinking at such a final, decisive moment. And although you and I may not know what he was thinking when he took that plunge out the window, I do know one sure thing and so do you. The big difference before and after this act of final desperation is that once he hit the sidewalk all his thinking was over. He had no more arguments with reality and no more hard decisions left to make. He absolutely stopped all the mental conflicts that had been tormenting him.

So I offer you one, slender insight as we continue on with our lives today. No matter how difficult the ideas and plans we are balancing in our brains today seem to be, no matter how hard our struggles to get on with life appear to us, no matter how demanding the things we have to put up with or how crazy the delays that stymie us, no matter how maddening the hypocrisy that confounds us as we try to move on to a better place, still any and all of these thoughts are a part of being alive.

And there definitely will come a day when the troubles of living will depart from us, as they did from that anonymous man who died yesterday, and on that day we will not have to struggle with any thoughts or plans any more. But let’s not rush it, and let’s not allow the complexity of our lives to rage out of control. Instead let’s just try to take one day at a time, one task at a time and one thought at a time.

Bad Habits

From time to time we all experience the effects of those “bad habits” we have accumulated, knowingly or not, inside the old kit bag we carry around on the shoulders of our psyches. The kinds of bad habits I have in mind are the self-defeating kinds, those that lead us to participate in our own downfall, in the collapsing of who we were becoming. They include at the very least a veritable trinity of horrors: Self Doubt, Losing Our Way, and Self Sabotage. Let’s consider each of them briefly.

Self Doubt could be considered as the direct result of the kind of poor self image we developed unconsciously in childhood due to all kinds of conscious and unconscious influences. Perhaps we were told that we are not good enough, imperfect in our basic constitution, and somehow lacking some of the invisible, basic elements that other, “good” children exhibit. These criticisms came from family, church, school or neighbors when we were young and impressionable, unable to defend ourselves. The direct source of these criticisms doesn’t actually matter because if we were put down or misinterpreted often enough by anyone, we end up etching a groove of negative self conviction into our self concepts. This groove in time becomes a rut that we fall into whenever we fell stressed or unsure of ourselves, especially during moments of change or upset. Self doubt thus became a habit, a negative but comfortable default –simply because we have known it for so long and with such intimacy.

Self doubt leads directly to Losing One’s Way in the World, losing sight of one’s place in creation. Set backs, when things do not go according to plan, mistakes we inevitably make all can contribute to the loss of balance in our lives. So it is that our errors, the times when we let ourselves down can take us into a spiraling downturn. Instead of learning from our mistakes and moving-on, we take our imperfections as indications of an ultimate disgrace, of a complete loss of face, of the actual disintegration of our place “in the family of things” (Mary Oliver).

In these self defeating moments, we can simply forget any of the good that others have ever seen in us. We do not appreciate how the faith of those who know us is also true, and when it is appreciated can help us bring back into balance away from the overwhelming sense of our imperfection. Self-doubt reigns sovereign only when we lose track of why it is that others do respect us and feel grateful for our presence in their lives.

The final member of this destructive trinity is the resultant Self Sabotage we can engage in to make sure that the self doubt and loss of our way do indeed come true. This amounts to being an unconscious effort on our part not to act in our own best interests. And so it is that we “forget” to put the check into the mail or “miss” an important housing appointment. We “space out” an meeting with our boss or “forget” one important detail or another affecting our lives. And these are only some of the most superficial of mistakes we can make to insure that we disappoint ourselves or others. Much self-sabotage is more destructive, such as giving free range to that inner paranoia which creates suspicion and mistrust of others, serving only to isolate us just when we most need help.

However let us not forget that all this bad news is in a real sense the good news. These bad habits we have developed to cope with hurt and stress in our lives are not the final word in the unfolding of our lives. After all they are only habits, and thus susceptible to change. That is to say, they are not inevitable, but only one of several possibilities. We can change habits as we come to understand ourselves better with each passing experience. Simply knowing what we are up to is often the first step in changing any psychic habit. The second step would be to not only name them, but to critique them, to evaluate their effect in our lives. Does this way of thinking we have been nurturing really help us, really bring us satisfaction or inner peace? Once we have analyzed and critiqued our self destructive habits, we can commit ourselves to changing them by substituting something more positive in place of the self defeating thoughts we have been employing.

For example, we can challenge any irrational thoughts that have been holding us captive, the sorts of thinking which psychologist Albert Ellis says determine how we will react to life’s difficulties. Ideas like: other people should always be perfect, and never let us down; we should always be perfect and never let ourselves down. Once we have taken a closer look at the kinds of irrational thoughts that support our self defeating bad habits we can then go on to repairing our damaged souls by learning new, positive ideas with which to reconsider the world.

Living As-If

This morning I want to remind you that often, especially in times of transition or difficulty, we often need to live “as if.” “As if” what? Well, certainly not “as if” things were perfect, when they obviously are not, but maybe “as if” they could be better one day, or at least better than they are now. Living “as if” things were better for example than they were a year ago. Living “as if” although things are still imperfect they are nonetheless “good enough” to allow us to slog on through another day.

Sometimes it means living “as if” we actually did understand these lives of ours that in reality we are only coming to understand. Living “as if” it were enough to have a sense of the truth that lies ahead, rather than to know the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about why we live and breathe.

At other times it means living “as if “it didn’t hurt so much, or feel so bad, at least not enough to stop us or cripple all of our efforts to live out our one, fragile life. In other words, even when our lives don’t have a clear, strong meaning, living “as if” they had at least as much meaning as a tree does, with at least as much happiness in it as does the little bird sitting on the tree branch singing; or at least as much beauty in it as does the sunrise on a foggy morning. Often it means living “as if” we’d finally learned our lesson, even though we know in our hearts that there is a lot more confusion than clarity going on inside us.

It can also mean living “as if” we were well on your way to becoming the better person we were in actuality still only “trying to” become, even when we suspect that our own backsliding and inner teeter-tottering could at any moment become counter productive to the personal resolutions we had made for ourselves. Maybe it means living “as if” we do have the strength to accomplish those things we want to do, even when we feel particularly weak or incapable of moving forward with our dreams. Sometimes it can mean living “as if” our lives were every bit as much of a miracle as anyone elses, every bit as worthwhile as we have been told by those good friends who really loves us and believe in us and rely on our love of them.

For some of us it might mean living “as if” our recovery was actually rooted in a comfortable place deep within us, and that we had not simply stopped using substances but were actually getting on with living our natural lives. For others it could signify living “as if” we had already made the amends and restored the major ruptures which our former addicted habits had wreaked with our family and friends.

All in all, it might mean living “as if” we were actually en route to becoming the basically good person that someone else might come to accept and love, even when we might actually feel ugly and unlovable. It might well mean living as “if we” realized we were the actually children God made us to be.

And why should we live “as if”? Isn’t that kind of false to be pretending that things are really healing even when they are obviously broken, that things are getting better when they don’t really feel that way? Well, I’m not really suggesting that we live “as if” everything was perfectly resolved or “as if” life was nothing but a bowl of cherries. What I am suggesting is that we need to include some poetry in our overall self-assessments. We need to introduce some breathing room into our hard-eyed self analysis and even a touch of “as if.”

The Basics

So what are the basics of life that we can all accept, regardless of creed, race, age, education or any other factor that distinguishes us from one another? What is it that we all can agree we know for certain? Where is the place where can we stand together looking the world we share, trying to puzzle out our place in it? What could we acknowledge as our common “bottom line,” where “the rubber hits the road” in our human understanding? Is there anywhere at all where we can begin together to philosophize about life, to make some basic sense together of this great one-time adventure we are all experiencing?

It seems to me that there are at least two true things we could all agree on, no matter whether we grew up in rural Montana, or New York City. The first is that we were born; the second is that we will one day die. Just about everything else is what journalists call “spin.” From these two very straightforward truths –that we were born and we will die– several other truths can emerge if we think about it. That we are born also means that we are born alone, in other words, we are not alike in our birth. We are in fact individuals from the get-go. We are not the same, nor can we presume that others are just like us, or that they think like us, or that they will act like us. We are distinct persons, and this means that as we continue to grow up, we can be counted on to mature in distinctive ways. Although we all pass through somewhat predictable human life stages, we will only do this according to a unique inner timetable.

As we grow up and become more and more interconnected with others, we can apply this first basic truth of our own lives to the situations of others. For example, if we really are unique in our being then it follow that we cannot presume to read other’s minds or know exactly what they are thinking at any given time about any given thing. In fact, we have to make an effort to listen to others in order to really understand them. Depending on how well we do this, they in turn will come to trust our perceptions of them and perhaps allow us to understand them even more intimately.

This leads us directly to another basic truth we might all agree with. We will eventually come to understand each other to the extent that we actually make an effort to do so. No, we don’t know it all, no matter how cozy the idea might be. We don’t know it all about our neighbors, our world, or even our most intimate companions. But we can learn more and more about all of these persons and conditions as we reach out and try to understand one another.

That we will one day die is the second basic truth I imagine we can all agree on. What does it teach us? Well at the very least it teaches us that ours is not the only story in town; our individuality is not the end-all and be-all of either the solar system or our own neighborhoods. We are not ourselves the sun, although we are made up of the very same stuff as the Sun. This second simple realization is that we are indeed organic; realizing that we are mortal can lead us to understand that our desires and our dis satisfactions are not in the long run all important, even though they drive us onward and fuel our basic efforts at living.

This truth says that even though we are unique and one-time collections of thought, feeling, desire and intention, we are not in and of ourselves the absolute measure of Life. We are yoked alongside one another in a community of being, along with every plant, animal and star, all of us functioning within a given arc of timed and timeless experiences. Our situations are commingled in the biology of earth in such a way as to co-create reality and support the one existence we share together.

So when we consider these two simple basics of our human existence we find that we need the virtue of humility, an understanding our self-proportion that allows us to properly estimate ourselves, our neighbors and this biosphere in which we live, move and have our breath. By humility I do not mean breast beating or self-devaluation, but rather simply standing by those few true and honest things we do know for sure: that we were born and that we will one day die.