What I’ve Learned So Far

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We’ve just gone through what one of my seminary professors would call a “shit blizzard.”  Everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong.  And it was very expensive.

Whenever things are hard or seemingly insurmountable, I try to think about what I can learn from all this.  This past month, I think, is teaching me a lot.

I’ve stopped trying to figure out why my parents believe some of the things they believed and passed on to us kids.  I hated being analyzed by my Freudian father, so I try not to analyze others.  But some of the things they ingrained in me are coming up again as they face the end of life.  They are 89 and in failing health.

My mother has always believed that if you did all the right things, ate all the right foods, exercised like a mad person and were basically a good human being, that you wouldn’t get sick.  (And you wouldn’t be fat) Our family has been fairly fortunate when it comes to health.  There have been a couple of health scares, but we’re all still here.  No one in our family has had any disabilities or health issues that have limited our ability to function on a day to day basis.  When other people weren’t so fortunate, my parents seemed to assume there was a reason for it, there was a personal responsibility.  It must be that person’s fault somehow.  And there has strangely been little in our family to challenge that belief.

Another belief that was ingrained in me is that if you have problems, you’ve done something wrong.  It’s your fault.  Granted, yes, we bring on some of our own problems.  But the onslaught of bad things happening in the past month that has drained our finances and changed some plans were largely things that “just happened.”  Life happens.  Excrement happens, as the saying goes.  People have said to me, “wow, you guys can’t catch a break!”  And yes, it feels like that.  We didn’t do anything to cause our engine to blow on the one vehicle, and we didn’t invite that deer to cross our path on the interstate and total our other car.  It just happened.

With the idea that having problems or negative emotions is entirely one’s own fault, you get weighed down by shame.  Shame that you’re depressed.  Shame that you can’t get out of bed.  Shame that you didn’t have thousands of dollars in reserve to cover unforeseen disasters.  I’ve carried a lot of shame in my lifetime.  And I’m tired.  I’m putting it down.

My parents are afraid to die.  They are Christians, my father is a retired pastor.  I don’t exactly know what my father believes, he’s strange that way, but I know my mother believes in heaven.  But just as problems are a source of shame and guilt, death, finally is the ultimate failure.  She hasn’t thought this through, of course, because obviously everybody dies.  It’s not rational, just as a lot of beliefs that make us crazy are not rational.  Her fight to keep on living on this earth is a fight to not be a failure.

I grew up learning that feelings are bad.  If you’re crying, if you’re sad or depressed, you’re not in control of yourself.  You’re weak.  You’re hysterical.  My father would give me or my mother a pill when we got upset.  To make it go away.

To this day, I have a hard time crying when I need to.  If something bad happens, I automatically “suck it up,” pretend I’m calm and in control of the situation.  After a while, however, it all builds up and I finally cry.  A lot.  But it’d be helpful if I could cry in the moment.  But it’s ingrained in me that feelings are a sign of failure, a sign of a problem, and problems are a source of shame.

I used to call my parents, years ago, when something went wrong.  But I learned painfully, that that wasn’t going to be a comfort.  It turned into me defending why this bad thing happened and explaining what I was going to do about it.

When my mother’s best friend and a woman I adored died very young of melanoma, we couldn’t cry.  I sobbed at the funeral, but after the funeral, I could not cry around my father.  He’d ask me “what the hell is wrong with you?”  My mother couldn’t cry either.  I had to leave the room when I needed to grieve.  I thought I was going crazy because my sense of grief was earth-shattering and devastating.  I didn’t think I’d ever feel good again.

In a Facebook world, it’s easy to think everyone else has it easier.  No one else is struggling to pay the bills after disaster strikes.  Everyone else had a job that enabled them to save money over the years and live comfortably.  Everyone else’s kid graduates high school, goes on to college, finds the right partner and lives happily ever after.

Intellectually, I know that’s not true.  We only put our greatest hits on Facebook.

I’ve learned that we compare our insides to other people’s outsides.  I assume that everyone else can see my insides– how anxious I get, how shy I can be, how impatient I sometimes am, or critical.  And I assume that what I see of other people is exactly who they are.  If they are always smiling in their pictures, they all have close family ties with extended family, they all have a best friend who will be there for them forever and no matter what, and they seem to have no worries.  No failures.

But sometimes the benefit of a “shit blizzard” is that you realize that other people do, in fact, understand.  That bad things happen to good people.  I admit that when we hit that damn deer, the first thing I thought of was the fact that another car just bit the dust.  It wasn’t until the cop came and looked in on us and asked us if anyone was hurt that I realized, Oh!  One or all of us could have been hurt.  One of us could have died.  It was a holiday weekend with heavy traffic, and yet in that moment, there were no other cars in our atmosphere that we could have swerved into, cars that could have been hit by the flying deer, or cars that could have hit us from behind when the deer stopped us so abruptly at 75 mph.  So I felt a strange thing in the midst of disaster:  gratitude.  I don’t know why some people die in a freak accident and others don’t.  I will never say it’s God’s plan for that person to die.  I’m just grateful in that moment that on that day, it wasn’t me or my loved ones who died.

I have no idea what’s going on in the hearts and minds of the people around me.  People in Walmart who are rude.  The cashier who doesn’t look me in the eye and is distant.  The woman with the screaming child.  Even the guy who puts all the carts away in the parking lot.  They are human beings with lives going on.  They’re not working because they love work necessarily.  They’re trying to have a life, like me.  To be able to pay the bills, to have a working vehicle, to get along with their parents or partner, to get through whatever is facing them.  I try to see them now.

And the people who seem to have no worries at all, I try to remember that that’s probably not true.  Jim Carrey said recently that he wishes everybody had the chance to be rich and famous so they could see that that’s not the answer.  As Gilda Radner said in her memoir, “it’s always something.”

I’ve been very fortunate.  I’m relatively healthy at almost-53.  I have asthma, I’m a bit hard of hearing, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety all my life, but I have ways of coping with all of that.  I’m married to someone so precious that I couldn’t have made him up.  I have a wonderful daughter who I’m very close to.  I have two terrific step-children who I have good relationships with and two lovely step-grandchildren.  Not everyone has all that, and it’s not necessarily their fault.  I’m remembering to be grateful.

My faith in God has been challenged and wounded by a lot of painful experiences in the Church.  However, despite that, I can’t deny that it is God’s grace that has given me strength and love to get through the tough stuff.  The stuff that brought me to my knees and kicked me in the gut.

I’m still learning.  I love my parents, but they were wrong about a lot of things.  They didn’t know better.  They couldn’t give what they didn’t have.  I pray that when they do die that they will somehow be comforted that it’s not a failure at all.  It’s a part of life.  I pray God can get through their terrors and assure them of the faith in eternal life and renewal and love that they lived their lives espousing.

Meanwhile, I’m learning.  Life isn’t fair.  What is fair?  According to what?  Crap happens.  Evil exists. Mean people reproduce.  Crazy people get elected and are given power.  We just have to do the best we can with what we’re given.  And not compare what we have or what happens to us to someone else.  We don’t know what people are going through or who they really are, unless they trust us enough to give us a glimpse.  And when they do, that’s a little part of heaven, I think.  A little eternal life in the moment.  But I do believe in God and I do love Jesus, and I believe that the main thing that all good religions share is the challenge to use our lives to Love.  To love however and whenever we can.  To have our lives be about love.  And we will struggle.  No one ever said we wouldn’t.  I don’t know where we get the idea that if we’re good we won’t suffer.  Even Jesus said that we’d struggle a lot.  He never ever said life isn’t painful.

So that’s my life lesson for this insane spring.  Life is hard.  But it’s worth it.  I’m doing the best I can.  When I mess up, I try to learn from it and move on.  I’m trying not to be afraid.  Fear doesn’t make bad things go away, it just makes it harder to deal with the bad things.

Right here, right now, life is good.  I don’t have to know how the story turns out, I just have to do my very best with each moment, each day, and try to be kind to each person I meet.  Because I have no idea what they’ve been through, what fears they carry, what wounds they have that are causing internal bleeding.

We’re all just doing the best that we can.

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