Blog by Miriam

Acceptance

After recovering from the flu (barely), I spent a couple of weekends ago in Florida with my family. My niece attends a performing arts high school and plays bass in the orchestra. We attended the Christmas concert. It is nothing short of amazing to me what teenagers are capable of artistically. The music was stunningly beautiful, and the evening was peaceful.

But listening to the traditional lyrics to all the traditional Christmas music made me think about the traditional, generally recognized side of the Christmas story—ya know…Jesus…born of a virgin…savior…light of the world…complete with the requisite down playing or outright ignoring of a more realistic, historic, or factual version of the story…one that more and more people seem to need these days in order to relate…one that considers Jesus as a man born of a real live woman…a woman in trouble…because she actually HAD sex out of wedlock (whether raped or otherwise) and got pregnant…a story that considers Jesus as a Jew, not a Christian, but a Jew… a trouble maker, a husband and father (most likely), a friend, not a man acting as a missionary, but a real friend to the truly outcast, and perhaps a dude who could laugh as hard and loud and passionately as he could preach.

And I wondered as I sat there soaking in the sonorous tradition, how might Christmas be different and how might our world—and your family life—be different if we celebrated, really celebrated (or at a minimum accepted peacefully) the not-so-traditional version of the Jesus story, and thereby the version of all of our stories that’s not so traditional…so cleaned up…so packaged. There is a whole lot to the historical Jesus that isn’t accepted in mainstream religion. There is a whole lot to our own personal stories that isn’t accepted either.

Have you picked a girl's name, just in case?

What if, this Christmas, you worked on acceptance? Acceptance of all that you wish weren’t so or you wish you could hide or you wish others would stop being? How might Christmas dinner be different? How might your conversations around the breakfast table with your teenaged children be different? How might that holiday phone call home to Mom and Dad be different…if you could accept them for who and what they are? Not the cleaned up version or the version you WISH for, but the real one…the full story…the whole shooting match.

The dictionary definition of acceptance…one of them anyway…is “willingly taking a gift.” What is the gift in accepting the not so cleaned up versions of our families or of individual family members? What is the gift in accepting those we love as they are—“weird,” “neurotic,” “immature,” “irresponsible,” “crazy,” “ornery,” or “selfish” as they may be? If you can’t see the gift right away, rest assured. They will. They’ll sense your acceptance immediately.

Maybe you’re the “weird” one in your family. Or perhaps you feel like you are. I wonder what it might take for a little self-acceptance for you this Christmas…or whatever holiday you are celebrating. I can tell you from experience, you are not going to achieve a whole lot of it by staying away from your family. That’s what most of us do, right? Remove ourselves? Shrink? Stay away and hide the not-so-cleaned-up versions?

But consider, that it is the “weird” ones throughout history that have brought change and hope—Jesus, Gandhi, Tutu, Mandela, King…my cousin Greg. Maybe you could be that “Crazy Aunt Mildred”…just the person your niece needs…just what she needs to have a sense there is life out there…that there are perspectives and ways of living that don’t fit a nice, neat package…there is a place for her.

This holiday, may you be the acceptance you hope to find in the world.

Blessings!

Holy Conversations

From a recent sermon by Rev. Greg Ward:

“Does it feel, sometimes, like the whole world is in the midst of a conversation that isn’t finished?  The conversation between who we’ve been and who we are called to be?  The conversation between the certainty of what we know and the humility of all we don’t?  And, of course, within these conversations are the conversations that have needed to happen, but haven’t.  The conversation between the rich and the poor…  Between light skinned people and people of color…  Between Democrats and Republicans?

I could go on…  but our countenance drops when reminded of the many wedges or walls or glass ceilings preventing all the needed conversations.  And a sense of despair for the times we’ve tried to begin them and the first thing we hear is, “As I was saying…”

This world is filled with division… and hungry for communion (by which I mean, communication… community…)… which calls us into holy conversations…”

Holy Conversations

Holy conversations. What do you think of when you hear that phrase? I think of people learning what they didn’t know they didn’t know. I think of people opening to some new way of seeing things. I think of conflict dissolving into a real head scratcher of what-were-we-so-upset-about?

When I hear the idea of holy conversations I think of the larger social, cultural, political conversations that never quite finish or resolve. But I also think of the more intimate conversations between husbands and wives, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters. I’m thinking of all my mother and I haven’t said yet. Whew. What’s missing could fill stadiums. But I’m working on it. I’m working on it.

Regardless of what comes to mind, the idea of holy conversations is an intriguing one. And so is the consideration of what might be getting in the way of us having them.

When it comes to race relations in the US, perhaps it can come down to the mere idea of distance. We are still a highly segregated society. Something like 91% of whites don’t have people of color in their lives–and I’m told the statistic is largely the same among people of color not having any white friends. Distance is how most of us solve most emotional/anxiety based problems, irrespective of race. We simply remove ourselves.

Would it be possible to un-complicate this very complex issue? What does it take to close the distance between two human beings–be it on a larger social scale or on a much smaller one, like in your marriage or between you and your sister? Mother? Grandfather?

What might it take to have a holy conversation in your significant relationships? What part might you play in those conversations that never quite finish? Consider the following three principles to help you assess how you’re doing and to see if there is some way you can improve your part of the equation.

Curiosity

Curiosity is the desire to know something. When you’re thinking of your relationship with your spouse or your children what do you desire to know about them? Perhaps you feel you know all there is to know about them when it comes to problems and conflict. Perhaps you recognize you know very little. Can you think of 2 or 3 things you really don’t know about their perspective or about where they are coming from? Can you think of 2 or 3 ways you can approach them that aren’t demanding or emotionally laden? Inherent in the principle of curiosity is a lightness of spirit—a nice alternative to the heaviness we often feel in our relationships.

Detachment

Detachment gets a bad wrap in our culture these days. It sounds cold and unfeeling, but it’s actually part of the foundation of warm, open, and caring relationships. Detachment is all about calm—not acting calm or faking it until you make it—but actually being calm. And I’m not talking about being calm when you’re by yourself and not being challenged. I’m talking about walking around in the midst of conflict or chaos in a state of chill. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? How might you assess what your current level of chill is in your most important relationships? Here are a few questions from therapist and writer Lorna Hecht-Zablow to ask yourself to begin to understand where you are on the continuum between chill and kill. Answer each question with a number between one and ten, ten being an extreme ‘yes’ and one being quite low.

  1. How aware are you of each other’s moods?
  2. How easily do you “push each others buttons”?
  3. To what degree do you have the feeling of “walking on eggshells?”
  4. To what degree do you try to avoid controversial topics?
  5. How concerned are you about hurting others’ feelings?
  6. How easily do your own feelings get hurt?

If you’re scoring on the low side, don’t worry. You’re in good company with the rest of us 7 billion or so human types. One of the most powerful and direct ways of getting to a more chill place (and staying there) has something to do with how far we can get practicing the third principle below.

Meaningful Connections with Multiple Family Members

How possible is it, in your extended family, to have a holy conversation? One where you are really curious about another, one where you can learn something you didn’t know you didn’t know. One where old conflicts turn into  what-were-we-so-upset-about? The reality is, the chances of having a holy conversation with your mother or great aunt or whoever won’t be increasing if you don’t even show up. Keeping your distance, for sure, is highly adaptive in keeping the peace for a time. But it tends to escalate things over the long haul because it makes relatively small issues seem bigger and bigger–kind of like how our fear of the little monster in the closet turns it into a fire breathing dragon before we’ve been properly introduced. As the theory goes, the more we are able to succeed with our original families, the easier it is to live with more calm and curiosity in our chosen families and in society.

Check out this article written by leadership consultant John Engels about connecting with difficult family members, especially over the holidays.  He’s got 7 great principles that can really prepare you for those just-around-the-corner holiday visits.

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The Highest Animal

“Man is rated the highest animal, at least among all animals

who returned the questionnaire.” ~Robert Brault

Dog In A Hoodie

 

It is a commonly accepted belief that dogs have similar feelings to humans. A broader perspective might ask us to consider that humans have feelings similar to dogs – that many, if not most, of the emotions we feel are as mammalian and automatic as they are for our beloved pups. But the similarities between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom extend well beyond just emotions or emotionality. Even unto ways of relating in a “pack” mentality where behavior is governed less by individuals and more by characteristic group dynamics.

Our feelings aren’t what define us as distinct from the animal kingdom. Not really. What distinguishes humans from the rest of the animal kingdom is our potential to develop the ability to think about our feelings and how they may fit a larger, dynamic, group pattern.

Therapy that focuses on our feelings often times makes us feel like the most automatic parts of us (our emotional reactions) are the most important or relevant parts of us. Putting our automatic natural reactions into perspective is more beneficial. More often than not, our feelings have us. We don’t have them. When we spend too much time ruminating about our emotions, we become like a dog chasing our tails…only we’re not nearly as cute.

But what is it in one family that gives emotions more power than in other families? What makes one family implode with the intensity of emotion while another family, facing the same stressors, seems to be more resilient? What are the invisible forces that organize a family’s reaction to stress?

Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist who developed Family Systems Theory in the 1960′s, described these invisible, organizing forces in detail. He wrote about dynamic group forces that, unless observed and dealt with, prevented individuals from dealing effectively with stressors, leading to too intense automatic emotional reactions.

What does this mean for you? It means there’s only so far you can get by “learning to cope” or invoking “positive thinking” or by trying to “slow your life down” or by “learning to say no.” It means unless you are aware of the dynamic group forces acting upon and around you, you’re not going to make the process you’d like to make.

Dynamic group forces in a family trump anything else we do. Which is why date nights, extra sex, communication techniques, and love languages don’t make a lasting difference in our relationships. There are larger, systemic realities extending back to your great grandmother, if you will, that mitigate the process.

I have found in my own life that studying about the family emotional system makes an important difference in how I handle arguments or illnesses or individual dysfunctions as they inevitably come to pass.

Most of the folks in my industry are trained to help people grow distant from their family emotional systems, in a stance that blames parents for either being too much or too little or too toxic or what have you. This only intensifies problems in the long run. It is better to re-enter the emotional field of one’s family system in order to learn what makes your group tick. You might be surprised what it can tell you about how you tick and how you contribute to the problems you are now facing in your nuclear family.

Chances are, whatever problem you are dealing with in your own nuclear family has happened before in some shape or size. These things repeat themselves, over and over and over across the generations. So…yeah…you and Grandma, and Great Grandma…even if you’ve never met…you know something about each other. You have more in common than you may think, and knowing a little something about them can really shed some light on your current stuckness.

The advantage we have over our four-legged friends is we can do more than just feel. We can observe and think. We can educate ourselves about how emotional systems function, and when we have that knowledge, we can make a difference.

Check out Roberta Gilbert’s books to get your education started: The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory and Extraordinary Relationships.