Stumbling stones and tombs

Stones on the AltarThis Sunday, I noticed a dozen large river stones sitting on the altar. Its the first sunday of Lent and I was reminded of the stone moved from Jesus’ tomb. This started me thinking about stones, caves and tombs, about stumbling and resurrection. Stumbling brought other images into my mind including stumbling block, mental block, writers block, and then start blocks. Can the same block/stone that causes me to stumble also be used to help me push off for a new stronger beginning? What about the stone at the tomb? What does stumbling really look like, when does the stone become a new beginning versus the heavy seal on our tomb? Is the difference between stumbling and starting a matter of perspective?

I was reminded of three writers.

Theologian Father Richard Rohr wrote a book titled, Falling Upward.

The message of Falling Upward is straight forward and bracing: the spiritual life is not static. You will come to a crisis in your life, and after the crisis, if you are open to it, you will enter a space of spiritual refreshment, peace and compassion that you could not have imagined before.

Rohr does not offer a syrupy evasion of this crisis. But he does underline two crucial points. First, God has not abandoned you, even if you are sure that God has. (“All the books of the Bible seem to agree,” notes Rohr, “that somehow God is with us and we are not alone.”) Second, “We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.” That may be cold comfort during the crisis—when your house has flooded, who wants to think about spiritual growth? But later you will notice. You will wonder how you possibly could have come to where you are without that flood. –Read the full review on Christian Century

In Malcolm Gladwell’s new book David and Goliath, he outlines a question that arose for him as he wrote his previous book Outliers. He noticed that many of the people, thought of as exceptional, also had experienced a difficulty. He discovered people rarely felt they achieved in spite of their difficulty. They achieved because of the difficulty. The difficulty acted as a catalyst or reason for learning uncommon strengths.  As an example, he notes there is a high percentage of entrepreneurs who have Dyslexia.

The stumbling block becomes a seal on our tomb, not when we trip, but when we pick up the stone and continue to carry it with us. Trying to fashion a badge of honor, not realizing it has become a stone around our neck. Gather enough of these and we become buried in a tomb of our own making. A tomb defined by our failures and our misfortune. Why do we carry these around? When we recall the resurrection the tomb is empty, the stone is removed. The women leave the tomb. They leave the place where they experienced deep pain, as they buried their friend and teacher AND they leave the place where he was resurrected. 

Gladwell and Rohr are exploring the same depths as Brene Brown, revealing for us how we learn from our vulnerability, from our stumbles, and our difficulties. We learn more than just how not to trip, we learn our true strengths, we learn the depth of our communities, and sometimes gain clarity about our direction. When we look back we see the distance we have traveled. Gladwell, Rohr, and Brown do not shy away from the trauma these failures hold, they simply call us to remember all that we learn and gain, if we are open to that vulnerability.

Looking at the stones I also remembered the tradition where people leave stones to mark places they encountered God, gained an important spiritual insight, and as a guide in the wilderness. The stones act as reminders and as a ritual to mark a moment in time. A moment that may mean nothing to anyone else. Or may guide them through the same wilderness you traveled. When I look back on my life I hope to see many stones, many places where I encountered God and gained spiritual insight. Even though I now fully comprehend the tremendous amount of pain that may accompany those moments.


Read more about Brene Brown and Vulnerability in a previous post.

Black Dog of Depression and Doubt

Washington Post ApplicationI woke up with the black dog of depression and doubt attempting to make a home with me again. Luckily I had an early dentist appointment, so I pulled myself out of bed..

Once I got home from the appointment I did everything I thought to get going. Had a nice cup of fancy tea, started work and got some exercise. Then I decided to make some pumpkin oat pancakes for lunch. While cooking, I listened to this podcast of Brene Brown speaking with Krista Tippett.

As they spoke about Brene’s research on vulnerability some quotes jumped out at me, “Your capacity for whole heartedness is directly related to your capacity for broken heartedness.” The times when people never thought they would survive, were the moments that so thoroughly defined them. This is often a time when your true strength blossoms.  These are the moments when no matter what you have, you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, you just keep moving forward with whatever strength you have. You move forward with whatever hope you can find. She spoke of how hope is directly related to adversity. Those people who faced adversity early in life, especially were blessed with a capacity to find hope.

Another quote spoke to my feelings today, “For most people being brave and being afraid happen in the same moment.” Sometimes I forget that and I think today was just such a day. So when I feel fear and doubt I lose sight of my bravery. Today when I woke up and remembered that I still haven’t heard from two possible jobs, the doubt that had been creeping along the edge of my days decided to sit squarely in my view, begging me to pay attention only to it. It was hard day to stay focused on anything. Luckily a friend reminded me to let the dog pass through but not stay.

A video posted on UpWorthy a week ago talks about the black dog of depression, perfectly framing the specter of depression that so many people live with everyday. Taking this analogy, I decided that I can see my dog as an overwhelming presence, or I can see it as a dog playing fetch with experiences and emotions I would normally not pay attention to, much like a dog bringing sticks and dead birds to their people. I can take a moment to observe, honor, and hold the life that I have in my hands, brought by a loyal friend.  If I do this then I have a chance to learn and know more deeply what is going on for me. I must remember that the black dog of depression can be trained to simply fetch from the depths those emotions and experiences that are deeply affecting me. Those hidden stones and logs that lurk beneath the surface of daily life. My friend Molly, from AmeriCorps NCCC, also wrote recently about struggling with depression in a great post on her blog.

Turns out the anxiety and stress I experienced while submitting the applications for 2 writing internships, is now just hanging on me as I wait to hear word. The opportunities will determine my direction for the next year, and possibly longer.  This intense emotion reminds me of just how important this new direction is to me.

Another reminder in the podcast, reminded me that for whole hearted people the judgement between good work and good you is always separate. I may not get the internships and that does not mean my writing is not good, or that I am unworthy of love and belonging. My family and friends remind me of that love every moment of every day, even if I am far away.

Thank you black dog for reminding me of that love, of that passion for a career that aligns my talents and concerns, of my capacity for broken heartedness and wholeheartedness.

Vulnerable Strength

Looking at the tankers moving past the coast at Dar es Salaam

Tankers moving past the coast at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

On my last couple days  in Dar es Salaam, I was trying to find what one feeling I could identify from my time in Uganda and Tanzania.  After some thought the one feeling that continually rose to the top is vulnerable.  The feeling of vulnerability pervaded the 2 1/2 months, in retrospect, it seemed to invade every aspect.

The feelings lived in the fact that while, almost everyone spoke English, everyone also spoke a tribal language that I couldn’t speak or understand. I didn’t understand the cultural cues and rules that dictated the conversations and relationships that I formed. Before I left I was so prepared and warned about the “dangers” to my health, that I was hyper aware of every thing I ate or drank. The traffic and driving conditions were such, that cars frequently drove too fast, dodging potholes, pedestrians, and animals. The traffic related death rate is more than 2x that of the US.

I’m told by volunteers and expats who have lived in Africa for an extended period, that some of these feelings subside as you become used to all the cultural intricacies, and perhaps grow numb to the dangers of traffic and disease.  Its possible this alertness to everything helped exhaust me such that I was very ready to come home. My witnessing of the woman dead on the road after being hit by a car, contributed to the feeling of vulnerability.  I reflected then, and still hold, you have no idea what day will be your last day.  And when you begin to fully comprehend this, how is your life changed?

Being back in the US makes me question whether we have by necessity, culture, or technological advances eliminated the feelings of vulnerability.  In reality I could get, and have had, food poisoning here in the US, and the death rate from car accidents is still at about 90 people per day. The physical vulnerability we have here is just as real as in any country in Africa.

I think we and, I suspect, most people worldwide, have necessarily negated the threat of vulnerability from our daily thinking.  In a TEDx talk the researcher-storyteller Brené Brown began exploring the feeling of vulnerability, while trying to discern between various feelings of shame and fear.

Brown discovered that among people who described experiences of shame there were two camps of people, one that still experienced joy and strength and one that did not. Her research and talk is fascinating, I highly recommend watching the entire 20 minutes.  

The main point that I will highlight is that while vulnerability is the source of shame and fear, it is also the birthplace of joy, creativity, belonging, and love. In the very act of revealing our true selves and experiencing the breadth of emotions, experiencing our vulnerability, we find true connection with others.

It is when our true selves are seen and held with compassion we feel true acceptance and peace. It is numbness to our own vulnerability that has created  a mask which covers our true selves and the true depths of love available to us and from us. While I know this realization of vulnerability came at the end of 2 and a 1/2 months of travel, it was really at the end of a year of upheaval and living into vulnerability.

I sat in a rooftop cafe in Dar Es Salaam with the word vulnerable and thought of the women in Liberia who threatened to expose their nakedness to men if they did not reach a peace agreement to end the Second Liberan civil war. The women were successful in getting the men to negotiate and their movement inspired the movie “Pray the Devil back to Hell.” I thought about the strength that can be gained from such a vulnerable position?  What strength can we gain in our most vulnerable selves? What strength can we gain when we realize our true psychical frailty? I wrote this poem while I sat on that rooftop and pondered these questions.

 Naked, I walk among the elephants, breathing slowly as they lead the way through the forest towards water.  Naked, I drink, letting the water drip out of my cupped hands, flowing down my arms.  Naked, I stand on the river bank watching life’s endless flow towards the sea.  Naked, I dive in,holding my breath and finally emerging from below the surface.  Naked, I float watching the clouds in their endless cycle of birth and death. Naked, my heart cries.  Naked, my eyes long for the stars, an ancient map towards Jerusalem, Mecca, and the new world.  Naked, I emerge dripping with the rains of a thousand years.  Naked, I hold my heart in my cupped hands letting it warm me.  Naked, I am lead to your warm embrace.  Naked, I hold my heart for you, for me.

My take away from the 2 and 1/2 months and from the year, is if I’m going to be vulnerable, I am going to do it being brave. I am going to live knowing I may be rejected, fail, die, but I will still be loved and will still love.  There is an abundance of love and strength available to everyone, wherever we find ourselves.