20 Things I’m Learning From Relationships

I began this list for another blog but in 2016. That feels like an entire life ago, but it was sometime around the birth of my second son. I aimed for 25 lessons but stopped at 20. I haven’t edited this “draft,” though I’ll post it and, likely, return with an updated, five-years-after-divorce version. Maybe after I’ve those other five lessons.

Sons, relationships are tricky things. I define relationships as those lovely interactions which turn into friendship, companionship, and the regular engagement of my life with someone else’s life. I have in mind as I work up this list my relationships from before, from now, and from the future. My early attachments, friendships, romantic relationships, working relationships, and basic acquaintances are all a part of the learning environment here. To follow is a brief reflection of what I’m learning about me, about people, and about the world. I’m included necessarily in all three.

I’m learning:

  1. I am complete. I am a whole person, with likes and dislikes, most of which I can explain, some of which I’m still learning, and I’m whole.
  2. I am different. I’m not the person most people think I am, and a large part of developing a relationship is in presenting who I am in the mirror or face of who someone thinks I am.
  3. I am needy. While I don’t think of myself in this way initially, I’m more convinced that at an essential level, I need others, and I’m committed to the recovering work of being in quality relationships, committed to being needy and being okay with that.
  4. There’s a “but.” I only need others insofar as they are participatory in the salvific, constructive, overarching redemptive work of me being my real self. I think there is a small number of people who are willing to be in this type of relationship with me.
  5. I’m not a morning person. I wake up slowly to the world, and this characterizes how I let people in, how I engage people, and how committed my significant others must be to be in relationship with me.
  6. I do what I like. I work a lot, and I’ve systematically chosen to enrich myself with power (and been blessed with such a gift) so that I can choose to do what I like, not what I’m told–mostly.
  7. I don’t like to be told what to do. Others can tell this story as good as I can, but I’m really good at doing what I think is right, at being self-directed, so being in any true relationship is, at first, a testing of my ability to be interdependent.
  8. I know how to quit. I don’t quite know how to lose, but I know how to quit; this is an ever-present switch in me that enables me to cut-off those who no longer matter and it’s a lifelong temptation, the notion that people don’t matter.
  9. People want to be loved. This is trite truth, and it’s just as challenging because loving is very hard when it has to be consistently offered in murky, uncomfortable, or otherwise difficult circumstances. Indeed, most of love has to be applied in such circumstances.
  10. People have a hard time choosing¬†themselves. A lot of people put others before them–consciously or unconsciously–and that behavior repeats itself in choices against the self. The slow work of healing is about saying yes to yourself, your wholeness, your being saved, your being true. You cannot choose another if you haven’t chosen you.
  11. People want others to know them. I think this is a divine desire, wanting to create in order to express self-knowledge; wanting to be in order to be known. When a person ends a good relationship, there’s destruction in deep places. That’s normal and it’s normal to feel it.
  12. People want to be supported. The most beautiful testament to love is in showing up after a long drive or after a fight or after some ending in order to express that some things don’t change, that love endures, and that love is displayed by supportiveness.
  13. People want to be heard. When a person talks too much, whatever that is, it just may be because they haven’t been adequately heard.
  14. People grieve. As foundational as is the reflex in people to love is the reflex to lose those loves, and when we lose, we grieve–consciously or not.
  15. People are inconsistent. This is one of the most basic abilities in people: to change and, therefore, to be inconsistent. It colors the best of relationships.
  16. People disappoint. Because we have our stated and unstated expectations of each other, disappointment is inevitable, and unfortunately forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is a series of choices that is hard to come by.
  17. Most people in relationships seldom know what they really want, ask for what they really want, or show what they really feel. This is wisdom from David Richo in How to be an Adult (p 84).
  18. Love and respect go together. Claiming to love a person has to pair with regularly allowing that person to choose, in other words, respecting that person’s choice. This is wisdom from Grammie Joseph.
  19. Telling a person ‘I love you’ is completely restorative, redemptive, and settling. Most people don’t say ‘I love you’ enough. Wisdom from Jonathan Alvarado.
  20. The¬†most helpful, honest¬†relationship is the one that is both alluring and scary. I have in mind a relationship with God but it’s true about the other real ones too. Healthy relationships carry a quality of the known and a quality of the unknown. When you’re in it with a person, you should humbly accept that there are so many potentially lovely unknowns to be discovered, and that’s nerve-rattling!

Celebrate, Grieve, Celebrate

These are three motions, three commitments, three postures – all worth living into. If you’re into making commitments in the first month of the year, consider them.

Celebrate what was. One of my plans in the first weeks of this year is to a write list or create a word cloud of all the things I got to do last year. So far, I’ve been writing the list in my head but I’m aiming for paper. It’ll include all the things I got to be and all the gifts I received. It’ll be my way of celebrating what was. The celebration is inherently an act of remembering.

Grieve what’s gone. We don’t grieve enough. I don’t grieve enough. I’m convinced that we’re taught how to end grief not welcome it. So, a lot of my work is around nurturing this soul gesture, building this emotional skill, and opening myself up to doing what the world often has little room for. We need to say goodbye and to grieve those goodbyes.

Celebrate what remains. Seeing what’s still present is another beautiful and clarifying gift. When a role or a job or a relationship or an ability ends, the ending needs to be felt. That’s the grief. But there are things which remain and those still-present things require their own celebration. What’s current needs to be enjoyed. The more we refrain from appreciating what’s present, the more we fix our focus upon the past or the future, and we miss what’s right now. This second celebration powers life and thriving.

There’s more to say but the more falls within those three postures.

All You Have

When I had covid, I didn’t know it.

It was June. I was finishing an accreditation review of a program I was launching. Staff meetings, interviews for students, supervision of students. I was home with my oldest son who had covid and I was waiting for it. But I was good.

My oldest has always been generous with sickness, and I’ve gotten every sickness, with one exception, that he’s had in his life. Including allergies somehow.

So, when it came to covid, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I was testing with 24 hours in between after the appropriate number of days two and three times. My at-home tests coded negative.

I had been vaccinated and boosted as had my boys. The oldest had been to a birthday party of a friend who also had made it through much of the strange days without contracting. The party was a celebration.

I drove him knowing he had it after a couple days. Since it was a week the youngest was at his mother’s, we stayed home as soon as his test confirmed it. So, his quarantine became mine. I had no symptoms.

Then, I ate something that I love, a four-chocolates bread pudding from a spot in town. I knew how it smelled in the microwave, knew the notes on my tongue from all four of those chocolates. I looked forward to it. It was the household favorite and I’m unashamed how much I support that business.

It was after bedtime. It was my time. I was settling in for my treat. I thought nothing of the fact that I hadn’t smelled it. I was moving from the front room to the kitchen. I was in motion. You miss things when you move.

Then, I ate the pudding. I felt everything. Every texture. As I chewed, it was so physical that I felt the dessert like I had never felt it before. I chewed slowly, my colleague would say mindfully. All the bits on my tongue and along the path next to my teeth where I need the dentist to clean, all the grooves where I’d floss and rinse sweet brown before bed. And I couldn’t taste a thing.

I felt what I couldn’t taste. I remembered the taste. I knew what it was to be. I searched my tongue for what I remembered in my mind. And as I chewed, I felt sad and I knew that I had covid. The next morning, I went to immediate care where they confirmed what I knew.

I’ve thought about that many different ways. The point I’ll lift here is how necessary it was for me to remember what I couldn’t taste, to recall to mind what I couldn’t detect on my taste buds, to enjoy the memory of my treat when I couldn’t fully enjoy it as accustomed. I enjoyed as much as I could.

Sometimes, all you have is what you have. Enjoy it. Enjoy yourself. Your tastes will be satisfied soon enough again.

Nourish Yourself Anyway

In July, I reached out to an old friend from grade school. She’s a bodybuilder, trainer, and lifestyle coach and I wanted her to help me with a specific need in preparation for an exam this coming April. I’m testing and am aiming at my conditioning.

I wanted to lose fifteen pounds, the same pounds my doctor has been repeating I should lose for a few years. I wanted a couple other elements in my fitness. Right away, she gave me a lifestyle plan and 5 weeks from starting with her, I met my initial goal. I’m happy I’ve maintained what she taught me as well as the weight.

Among the things Venetta said in that first conversation was, “Let’s talk about what you’re eating.” She wanted to know what I ate that day. It was 3pm and I was heading for lunch, my first meal that day.

That was a bad thing, she explained. She told me then and a few times since then to eat in order to nourish myself and in order to lose the weight I wanted to lose. She had me introduce about a hundred ounces of water in my daily intake. She had me remove specific things from my plate.

I’ve done these consistently because, well, Venetta knows what she’s talking about. She’s taught me to nourish myself even if I wasn’t hungry, taught me to drink when I wasn’t thirsty in a sense. She’s explained to me that I have to eat even when I don’t want to eat.

You don’t eat because of desire. You eat for nourishment. Of course, you get hungry and that’s another post. I’ll distinguish between desire and hunger. For now, think of the balance of proteins and vegetables and carbs. You need to eat to nourish.

When I get stressed, I get out of bed, even if I’m unrested, and I go. When I’m most stressed, I move by a schedule and not by a feeling (a desire). I’ve trained myself mostly to live by a structure that, to my mind, is reliable in the midst of unreliable circumstances or changing emotions–also another post.

If food isn’t in the structure and schedule, who needs it? I didn’t. So I thought. Not eating was costing me. Not nourishing was hindering me.

I encourage you to nourish yourself. Especially in stressful seasons. It’s when your body is most tested, most examined, when the curriculum is closest. Give yourself what you need even if you do want it.

In the long term, being nourished is better than giving yourself what you want in the moment. Drink some water. Go to the bathroom. Eat some chicken. Walk. All of it.

Considering a Sermon on Suicide

I am not a preacher these days. In fact, I’m pretty rusty at it because I haven’t preached consistently in a while.

Indeed, I spend most of my days as a clinical pastoral educator suggesting to students that the point of spiritual care is to say less and listen more. I try to suggest that the most important person speaking is not the chaplain or the minister or the caregiver.

The most important person is the one in the crisis, the one who is sick and trying to tell you about it, the person who is known as the care-recipient, not the caregiver.

Still, I humbly offer these as considerations for friends who preach, speak, or communicate to publics that hear you. If you’re thinking about responding to the latest loss of a person dying by suicide (Stephen Boss’s death is among the most publicized), here are some thoughts to consider, in no particular order.

Write your words this time. If you’re an extemporaneous speaker, be who you are, but prepare by writing what you want to say, scribing what you want to relay, and penning what you want to verbalize. The written text can be a friend and reminder. It can be there to return to if things wobble or stray as you speak.

Start with you. Say something about you and your health. Tell your listeners about the first time you felt depressed or off or confused. Maybe you won’t talk about a mental illness or about your own emotional health, but you can tell your audience about how hard it was to prepare your sermon and why you think that was. Tell them that you were afraid or annoyed or moved to tears. Before getting to them, get to you.

Start and end with vulnerability. Say something that is inherently risky because it’s engaging. Being vulnerable opens you to the possibility that you will say something so clearly that you will be heard completely. Read over your preparations with a view toward vulnerability. “Have I been vulnerable?” is a good question as you pray and prepare. If you’re not used to vulnerability, you won’t have to worry about whether you’re oversharing. If your habit is to say a lot about yourself, take it down a notch and say more with less. Perhaps you can consider a story that you’ve never been able to share.

Say nothing about God’s will. Unless you’re saying something about God being in the same posture as your listener, in the same confusion as your listener, in the same pain as your listener. You may do this regularly but, when you’re finished preparing in your study, ask God how well you’ve presented the Holy or how reflective you’ve been of the divine nature. Listen for an answer. And, humbly, revise.

List your personal issues and questions and unresolved pains. Let those be part of your preparation and place them somewhere so that they don’t hijack what news or message you share. If you engage your questions in your delivery, do so with the best wisdom available to you.

Access the wisdom available. Call a spiritual director, a pastoral care professor, or a therapist and consult with them. Contract with them and see if they can sit through your sermon. Invite them or, better, pay them to offer you feedback once they’ve heard your message. Take in their wisdom as if God were speaking to you.

Leave your doctrines if needed. Some of your official teachings will help you and nourish your people. Some will not. In those cases, your doctrines will leak through but your intentions may get lost if you try to promote teaching. Make a decision to be guided by your faith community’s values, especially if you’re not used to discussing topics related to health. Be guided by hope or love or safety rather than official teachings on this or that. Teaching is seldom helpful when souls are torn. Patience lands better. Silence is more skilled.

Query gently. Ask your people about their views of the Divine. Offer questions that probe how their experiences and non-experiences of God help them understand what’s occurred. Invite them to question, even if a little, about the possibility of grace or goodness in the face of mental, emotional, and existential hardship.

Answer first. If you ask your audience a question that assumes honesty, consider answering first. If you ask a question about the last time they couldn’t pray because of their intense anger or disorientation or fright, tell them how you lived when you couldn’t pray. If you challenge them to a step to improve the emotional awareness within your community, tell them what it was like for you to take the step yourself.

Don’t ask and don’t tell. This is a different approach, one where you don’t ask questions. And where you don’t offer answers. Maybe answering anything will lead you into telling people how to think and how to act. Maybe that’s not helpful for you–or them. If that’s true, go beyond questions. Go beyond saying what the answer is, and unroll the thick, bruising questions plaguing us. Preach about the questions and not the answers. Resist the urge and need to know everything when what exists is large unknowing.

Practice individuality and community. Health is more than an individual experience. Like life, we need communities to fill our days the way we need air to fill our lungs. Lean into the power of others, into the complexities of being alone and with, isolated and accompanied. Lead your people into an exercise or ritual that requires others.

Involve your people in the listening. When I took preaching in seminary, I learned about congregational exegesis and it framed how I think about preaching, development, and growth. We talked about listening to sacred texts and preparing to preach but doing so as a congregation or community and not as an individual interpreter. What if you weren’t the only preacher preaching? What if everyone in the room read the texts together, all week, and studied or listened? What if you were one of the people with the microphone but not the only one?

Other resources exist and they lead to even more:

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: https://dbsalliance.org

Mental Health America: https://mhanational.org

National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://nami.org

National Education Alliance for BPD: https://www.borderlinepersonalitydisorder.org

Psychological Support at Naseeha

Finally, grace, peace, and strength in your work. We need you. We need you whole. We need you broken. We need you healing. We need you.

Bloom

One of my CPE residents gave me a blessing in group yesterday. She was giving feedback as part of the group’s mid-unit evaluations and when she wrote of me, she indicated her perspective around my blooming. My reflection is a consideration of the compliment, prophecy, and clarity she offered.

May you bloom during the times of aridity and in moments where dryness, undernourishment, or poverty of imagination have convinced you they’re winning.

May you bloom when your roots are parched, splitting, and cracked, volunteering opposing visions of who you are.

May you bloom when the petals of your best production have browned or wilted.

May you bloom when the winds have blown by you to give breath and life to other places, when you’ve felt forgotten by the winds which have nourished you before.

May you bloom when tending has changed, when your life has required more than you’ve had, when you’ve been so empty that you’ve seen seasons ending rather than beginning.

May you bloom when your place has felt so familiar that you’ve lost vision for the particular miracles that make you who you truly are.

May you bloom when you’ve tired of standing where you’ve been, when you’ve felt like the ground of you has offered you little instead of your absolute beautiful, God-blessed life.

May you bloom when you’ve been watched, so observed that the eyes have closed you down to the spectacularity of every soul.

May you bloom when you’ve felt tethered and not rooted, when you’ve felt limited and not skyward.

May you bloom when the particles around you have left you heavy and may you see them as friends in the ecosystem of what the Creator is giving you in every specific season of your wondrous existence.

May you bloom when you convinced you’re finished and may the surprise of it all humble you to be, singularly, the gift of yourself to the world.

May you bloom when you know who you are and when it takes the community to tell you, remind you, convince you, and admire in you who you are.

May you bloom in night times when the only observer is the occasional pedestrian lurking in their own dark places and may, in their lurking, you sense the work of God.

May you bloom when you’ve felt like winter is brutal.

May you bloom when you’ve been trampled, under the feet of people who have intended you harm, under the recklessness of others whose thumbs are intent on your devastation.

May you bloom when you’re conscious of who you are, close to yourself, and filled with vitality.

May you bloom when it’s murky, your is-ness, when the whisper of a breeze is what you have to wait through the brightness or the wetness or the ordinariness of being.

May you bloom when nothing happens, connecting the power of rest with the unfurling and the opening of tomorrow.

May you bloom when it’s time to meet your earth in that basic way, when you’re days are ending and when you must return to give in presumably ultimate ways so that others may continue.

Bloom. In it all.