Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Holidays

They are the best of times, they are the worst of times. While some people anxiously await "the Holidays", looking forward to parties, shopping, gifts, family gatherings, decorations, etc., there are probably as many or more who dread them as the hardest time of the year. Some have no friends or parties to look forward to and therefore experience a loneliness that feels deeper than it does on any other day. For others, the shopping becomes a huge weight because of the pressure and debt -- I must buy the things people expect in order to make them happy. Or perhaps there is no money for gifts or even necessities -- and I feel like a failure. Even the family gatherings cause pain for many because of who has died and is not at the holiday feast, or because there are family conflicts that ruin the good times that were supposed to happen. When one is in pain at holiday time, even the decorations and music do not seem beautiful. They often feel like torturous reminders that go on and on endlessly.

I know no answers for those in pain. I can suggest that usual therapeutic tools: modify my beliefs, my thoughts, my expectations. I can let go of my belief that this is how the holiday should be. I can let it be whatever it is and not let my expectations get too high. I can decide that I don't have to live my life to please others and fulfill their expectations. I can substitute a different tradition or activity that meets my budget or that doesn't emphasize who or what I don't have. I can try to treat it like any other day. I can watch movies to pass the time until it is over. None of these ideas are bad ones. In fact, sometimes they can be helpful ways of coping at this stressful time of year. However, they are not answers.

Let me share a story. One of my favorite Christmases of all times was from my young adult days. Prior to that year, I would visit my family out of town for Christmas, with the usual gift exchange, turkey dinner, trip to church. I certainly didn't dislike that tradition, but often I felt a disappointment that the material Christmas took up so much time and energy that the spiritual one seemed to get the leftovers. The disappointment was not in my family or any individual. It was more like a disappointment in our culture that seemed (and still seems) to emphasize holidays more than holy days. It was also perhaps a disappointment in myself that I hadn't found a way to make it otherwise, at least in my own life. However, that particular Christmas was different. It started out with me developing the flu, complete with fever, coughing and runny nose. Then, there was the heavy snow fall, culminating in the radio announcement that the freeway between Cleveland and my destination city was closed. Suddenly, I was emptied out of my old Christmas self. I could not do it. It was oddly liberating, to sit home by myself in the silence, listening to the snow fall. I got myself out to church somehow, sitting by myself coughing and not really able to think any lofty spiritual thoughts. At a later point, a friend tramped through the snow to visit and we drank tea. I experienced Christmas. 

In recent years, when I have thought about the Christmas story, what I have most identified with is the stable, the barn or whatever that structure was where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. He was born there, because there was no room for them at the inn. He was born there, because there was room there. It surely was not the greatest of places, especially for a baby to be born. It probably wasn't clean. It probably smelled of animal waste and was dark. Most likely there were no family members or midwives to help with the birth. But there was room. My life, my heart, like the stable, is far from perfect. But if there is room... if I could empty it of all of the unnecessary worries, disappointments and preoccupations, there could be room. And if there is room, maybe, just maybe, he will be born there. There, in the darkness ...

"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light..." (Is. 9:2)

Blessings on your Christmas.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

On Feeling Worthless...

One of the cruelest aspects of the disease of depression, I think, is that it has such an insidious way of convincing its victims that they have no value, no worth. People often tell me that they are "bad" or they are "worthless", not just to themselves, but to the people they love, to the world and even to God. When depressed, we feel often feel unable to be around others to draw support. We often feel unable to pray or even feel loved by God. God seems absent or uncaring. We feel like a burden to others. And perhaps the cruelest part of this is that depression convinces us that it is our fault that we are this way: "It's not a disease really", it whispers, "you feel this way because you are weak - or because it's true". Hence, at the times in life when we are most in need of healing, we may feel the most unworthy of or disconnected from the Healer and all of his manifestations.

I recently found a reprint of a verse I had stumbled across when a teenager. It had affected me profoundly at the time. I was babysitting for a single mother who, in retrospect, I believe was depressed. The verse was propped up on her mantle. Like many adolescents, I often experienced inner turbulence, highs and lows, as I tried to figure out who I was and what life meant. When I saw this verse, I knew I had to copy it down, even though I knew nothing about the man who wrote it. Just in the last week or so, with the aid of the Internet, I learned a bit more about James Dillet Freeman. He was born in 1912 and was of Native American, English and Irish descent, identifying primarily with his Native roots. He became a writer for Unity, a transcendentalist movement, of which I still have limited knowledge. What is fascinating though is his account of how his most famous verse came to be. His wife, Catherine, had told him she was ill and he took her to the doctor. He went to a prayer room, feeling "fear and agony", to pray for her. Suddenly he heard a voice that was audible, unlike the inner voice he usually sought when preparing to write. The voice said, "Do you need me? I am there." He related how the voice continued to speak and he wrote down the words, words that eventually came to comfort many people throughout the world. (There is even a copy of his verse, "I Am There" on the moon, brought by one of our astronauts.)

I am still struck by many lines from this verse (which I will copy below) but perhaps the one that has stayed with me the most is, "I am there when you pray and when you do not pray". I think most, if not all of us, long for Someone who will always be there for us, not just in our times of being good or even in our times of greatest suffering, but in the times when we feel we least deserve it. Many of us were raised with religious teachings that were designed to help form our consciences, so that we would know right from wrong - and to fear the consequences of doing wrong enough so as to not go down that path. While certainly we humans do need to learn right from wrong, unfortunately we may have internalized along the way the notion that we can access God by being good, but we lose him when we are not so good, when we don't feel able to pray or when we are not so sure there even is a God. That notion may strike particularly hard when the disease of depression lines up any mistakes we have made as "proof" that we are the failure at life that it has told us we are. It may seem then that even God wouldn't or shouldn't want us, a state that makes us feel hopeless to ever find escape from the suffering that we may think we deserve.

Then again, perhaps depression is a disease that distorts our thoughts and feelings. Perhaps there is a Healer waiting for us, trying to find us and be with us no matter how broken we may be ...

So, let us listen to the words that James Dillet Freeman heard when praying for Catherine, who, it turned out, had Alzheimer's Disease:

"Do you need Me ?
I am there.
You cannot see Me, yet I am the light you see by.
You cannot hear Me, yet I speak through your voice.
You cannot feel Me, yet I am the power at work in your hands.
I am at work, though you do not understand My ways.
I am at work, though you do not understand My works.
I am not strange visions. I am not mysteries.
Only in absolute stillness, beyond self, can you know Me as I am, and then but as a feeling and a faith.
Yet I am here. Yet I hear. Yet I answer.
When you need Me, I am there.
Even if you deny Me, I am there.
Even when you feel most alone, I am there.
Even in your fears, I am there.
Even in your pain, I am there.
I am there when you pray and when you do not pray.
I am in you, and you are in Me.
Only in your mind can you feel separate from Me, for only in your mind are the mists of "yours" and "mine".
Yet only with your mind can you know Me and experience Me.
Empty your heart of empty fears.
When you get yourself out of the way, I am there.
You can of yourself do nothing, but I can do all.
And I am in all.
Though you may not see the good, good is there, for I am there.
I am there because I have to be, because I AM.
Only in Me does the world have meaning; only out of Me does the world take form;
only because of Me does the world go forward.
I am the law on which the movement of the stars and the growth of living cells are founded.
I am the love that is the law's fulfilling. I am assurance.
I am peace. I am oneness. I am the law that you can live by.
I am the love that you can cling to. I am your assurance.
I am your peace. I am one with you. I am.
Though you fail to find Me, I do not fail you.
Though your faith in Me is unsure, My faith in you never wavers, because I know you, because I love you.
Beloved, I am there."

by James Dillet Freeman

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Prayer when feeling lost

There are many different ways in which we can feel lost. We can feel confused about where we are going in life. Where am I headed? Where should I be headed? Why can't I get to where I want to be? We can also feel lost when whomever (or whatever) helped us feel anchored in life now is or feels inaccessible to us. I feel lost without this person I loved. I feel lost without my job or career. We may find ourselves feeling lost when important parts of our own selves no long feel under our control, because of physical or mental illness or injury. I can't relax. I'm in so much pain I can't get myself to do anything. My memory is so bad I can't remember anything anymore. In addition to all of these kinds of being lost (or perhaps because of them), we can also find ourselves "existentially" or spiritually lost: no longer knowing what we believe about the most important questions in our lives, the answers to which give us the strength to continue on through the struggles of our daily existence.

To feel lost can be frightening. I remember a number of times when I have taken walks in the woods or other unfamiliar areas and had moments where I wasn't sure I knew how to get back. As it started to get dark, my dilemma became more and more disturbing. There was always a great sense of relief when I saw something familiar, something that helped me get my bearings again. It strikes me that one of the most frightening parts of feeling lost is that often we feel alone at the same time. Notice that I refer to feeling lost and feeling alone as opposed to being lost or alone. It is the feeling of being lost and alone that overwhelms us, regardless of where we are geographically or how many people there may be in the room with us. In fact, sometimes one of the things that seems to most feed the 'lost and alone' feeling is the perception that everyone else seems to know where they are going. They have somebody with them. Things work out for them. One of the beauties of group therapy, 12 step groups and the like is that they help us get our bearings, to know that regardless of what we are experiencing, someone else has experienced something very similar. We are not alone. And if we are not alone, we don't feel quite so lost because others have been on this path ahead of us and they have found a way. If any of my patients are reading this and thinking, "OMG, she's writing about me!", rest assured that I am writing about what many people have told me and what I myself have felt at certain times in my life. These feelings are part of the human condition and, as unwelcome as they are, they can lead us to a new personal growth that right now we may not be able to imagine.

So now, the promised prayer (for those who might like a prayer), written by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who was also a highly esteemed writer (yes, even he had these feelings):

"My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

More Thanksgiving Reflections...

After writing my reflections on Thanksgiving, I went back to work on Friday. While seeing patients and hearing of their troubles, many of them serious, the thought came to me: all of those words of mine from yesterday are fine and good, but can they stand up in the face of real suffering? Do they really have any meaning when someone is hurting badly? Do they offer hope? And the answer, of course, is no. I cannot give people hope because I am not the Source of Hope. Sometimes when the pain and confusion are bad enough, there are no words that can be offered that will make it feel better, at least in that moment. It occurred to me that to name my blog, "findhope" might seem a bit arrogant as though I thought I had the answers to the despairs people encounter in their lives. Certainly I know that I do not.

However, let me tell a story. I never thought much about the traditional hymn, "Now Thank We All Our God" until sometime a few years ago when I learned a bit of its history. Martin Finkart was a Lutheran minister in Germany during the time of the Thirty Years War. The town to which he ministered was overrun by invading armies three times and there were various plagues through that time period (17th century). After awhile, he was the only minister left in the town and, in 1637, it is said that he sometimes performed up to 50 funerals a day because so many were dying of injury and disease. In fact, that year, he is said to have performed more that 4,000 funerals, including that of his own wife. Yet he was a prolific writer of hymns and he wrote the lyrics to "Now Thank We All Our God". Now, whenever I hear that hymn, I picture this minister, a fellow human being, creating such a thankful hymn and I am stunned. How could he be thankful to God, living through such circumstances? I cannot imagine being willing to keep living after facing such horrors, muchless still believing in God and even thanking him. Obviously, I could try to explain this to myself by saying he must have been a better person than I am. While likely that is true, what I believe to be even more true is that he was given a gift. To still be hopeful, to still be thankful, he must have been given a Gift. It seems that Martin himself knew that he didn't understand it all because he included the line, "guide us when perplexed" in what was essentially a joyful hymn. So he knew he was perplexed, but apparently he didn't expect to find the answer to his confusion in himself or even in another human being.

When we are suffering, the Giver of Gifts may seem to be absent or to have passed us by. So what can we do at such times? The answer that comes to my mind, oddly, is "to be open". To be open to receiving a gift when and where we least expect it. When I wrote earlier that I cannot give people hope, that does not mean that Hope cannot be given through my words or actions - or through yours. I am certain that Martin had no idea that the words of his hymn would still be instilling hope and thankfulness in millions of people (and me) more than 300 years later. I know that often I have almost missed gifts because I was so absorbed in a worry or a dilemma that I simply wasn't open. I was walking to my car, re-analyzing the events of the day, and I almost didn't look up and see the deer bounding away over the hill...  I was looking out the window and almost failed to notice how beautifully golden were those few remaining leaves on the tree in my yard... And there are so many more gifts that I am sure I have missed and never known it because I wasn't open. We may not know how to be open or we may feel too afraid or too angry or too busy to be open - and yet we can learn. Wanting to learn is the first step on the path....

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving, 2009.
Thanks + giving.
It strikes me as important to always be thankful, even when it is hard to find anything to be thankful for. Perhaps it is during the hard times in life that it is most important to give thanks. It is easy to be thankful when it seems like everything is falling into place but, when one feels overwhelmed by disappointments, hurts or feelings of failure, it can seem almost impossible. And yet there is always something to be grateful for. I am grateful that I can see. I am thankful that I can walk. I have clean water to drink. I have someplace to live.....Expressing thanks to other people, even for little things, strengthens our bonds to them as family, friends or fellow human beings. Expressing thanks to God strengthens our bond to that loving Power who is greater than we are. God certainly doesn't need us to thank Him. But we need it. When we are giving thanks, we are turning our focus away from our ongoing complaints about the painful realities of our lives and facing the gifts that we have been given. As we start to look more closely at those gifts, we can begin to consciously accept them. In accepting them, we begin to realize that we are loved by the One who gave them to us. Acceptance of love teaches us how we too can be lovers. What could possibly be more important than learning to love and be loved? What could ever strengthen us more for our journey through life's challenges?

After thanks comes giving. Once we have started down the road of accepting the gifts and the love, we discover that we want to be part of that dance. We want to give and we want to love. We may not think we have anything to give or we may think we don't know how to love. Or we may fear that no one wants what we have to give or that no one will accept our love. The reality is that we are always able to give. No matter how little I have, in a material sense or an emotional sense, I can give. I can smile. I can say a kind word. I can put a bread crust out for the birds. If we are not sure that we know how to love, we can open ourselves to being taught by the Source of Love. It is the desire to love that is important. The learning how comes in time, if we are open to the gift of wisdom. We also cannot worry ourselves too much about whether others will accept or respect our love. Certainly on an interpersonal level it is important to protect ourselves emotionally and physically. I am not suggesting opening one's heart, body or wallet indiscriminately. I am talking more about learning to live life in a loving manner. Sometimes that will mean saying yes, sometimes no and sometimes that will mean not saying anything at all. Taking a step down the path of giving may be, for now, as simple as feeding the birds.

Happy Thanksgiving.