Sunday, August 7, 2016

Safety, Ambiguity, Expectation and Balance

As a child, in an effort to comfort me, an elderly woman at my church would encourage me to read what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Philippi. Basically, he says that he learned how to be contented with whatever situation he faced. One of the primary ways of coping with bad situations, according to what he wrote, involves thinking about good things as opposed to dwelling on the bad ones. 

Unfortunately, much of what he wrote requires a pre-existing and healthy sense of self, and it seems to take for granted that people have some pre-existing sense of moderation and balance. I still struggle with this aspect of life and thought. While I know now from experience that I misinterpreted a good bit of what I think he meant to communicate, I still must work a bit harder, pondering things regarding expectation.

How does a person find contentment while enduring abuse? When I started back into therapy with a therapist a number of years ago, this was indeed my goal. I know what I wanted. I wanted to maintain or create a healthy place for myself within a very unhealthy relationship. Together, the therapist and I would chase down my unreasonable expectations and beliefs about how the world worked – but every time, I was astonished. My mind could identify what was right and reasonable to expect, but when it came to me, my heart saw things differently. My heart wanted to change things that I had no power to change. With every vanquished lie I believed, I would realize afterwards that the goal was never to endure unmerited treatment or abuse. The goal was liberation from abuse which was based on my intrinsic value and upon that which was real and true in life.

I've lived many places, and in a place that I didn't particularly like, I joked about that quote from Paul where he said that he learned to be content in “whatsoever state” he found himself. I said that he'd never lived in the particular State in the United States where I'd found myself. I would laugh, but I was truly unhappy and desperately wanted to be content. The means by which one thinks on goodness that I saw modeled for me growing up was one of unviable fantasies. If you believe and pray and whatever enough, you'll get some happy ending.

I often find myself wondering and working hard to balance the optimism Paul talked about with reasonable expectations for situations and relationships. Relationships with people turn out to be messy and complicated. People change. We change. We can succeed and we can fail. Perhaps that isn't easy for anyone, but I know that I find that part of life to be challenging. Hope involves risk, so I imagine that it must be a gamble for everyone.

For me, this idea went hand in hand with another quip that Paul wrote about self-esteem. He qualifies first that we shouldn't think more highly of ourselves than we do of other people. Not only should we see people as our equals, we should also be self-sacrificing. Today, I understand this as “taking the high road,” but my original path of least resistance was one of shame. Not only did I have to be content with whatever lousy hand I was dealt, I had to debase myself in the process. It didn't take me very long to realize that these beliefs were untenable and pretty much guaranteed failure in everything in life.

I still find myself trying to figure out who I am. I was taught to play to my weaknesses instead of my strengths. As many people learn in Christian fundamentalism, I also developed the idea that if I was not struggling, I was doing something wrong. How does a person set reasonable expectations for themselves if they don't understand who they are? What if they are undervalued by those around them? I could play life safely and aim low, accepting a life that placed me where I didn't belong, resigning myself to something attainable.

People so often quote the Prayer of Serenity – that we might discern that which we can change from those things we cannot and to accept that which is outside of our power. The platitude sounds simple, but if our vision is cloudy or distorted, how can we manage such a feat? If we were fed only lies about who we are, how the world works, and how we fit into it all, how can we build reasonable expectations?

I've found myself thinking of oncology patients in the hospital when I'd just begun working as a nurse. How does one lend their spirit of encouragement to a person who fights for their life against impossible odds? I believe that a part of my heart expected everyone to get well, though I knew in my head that this could never be true. It feels much to me like the false expectations I had for myself when I worked with my therapist. How could I make abuse no longer painful or abusive? How could I turn death and disease into life and wellness? I could do neither, but I did have a role in the process. How would I find it? Where did I or where should I fit?

I had to learn to live in the moment, separating hopes from reasonable expectations from dreams and flights of fancy. There was and is place in my life and my heart for all of these things, but it's not as easy to figure out how to manage all of them. I want the guide to help me figure out how to navigate the process, but what a shock it is to learn that I'm writing my own as I go along. Ideas meet experience. My best hopes meet up with my humanity. In the middle of all of that ambiguity comes clarity and a meaningful life, but none of it is easy.

Does one stay where they are to bloom where they're planted? Ah, that stretch of the maze of healing will blossom in a post to follow this one.

For further reading until the next post: