I am going to back my way into this week’s blog. I had a birthday last Wednesday. (a big one, a decade one, a decade I am not sure I want to be entering. Ugh.) It was a crisp, cool, blue-skied morning and a friend came over and had coffee with me on my porch. She asked me this question, a question we usually ask each other on our birthdays:
” What is your birthday wisdom this year?” Translation: What have you learned this year?
In my office, as a way of starting a session, I often ask a question that is some variation of this: “So, how are things going?” Or “What are we working on today?” Translation: What are you learning? And the conversation may go like this:
Client: Things are better.
Me: How are they better?
Client: I don’t really know. They are just better.
Me: Well let’s slow down and look at this, be good detectives, or if you prefer archeologists, and see if we can figure out what has been different lately.
I do not do this because I want to be obnoxious, but because I would be doing a great disservice if I didn’t continue the line of questioning, of searching. If things are better, it is probably not magic. Usually people are engaging in a different behavior. Or they are choosing to change their thought patterns and habits. Perhaps they have been in therapy long enough that a rigid, habitual response has loosened and they are now able to be more flexible, or have more boundaries, or speak clearly, or not be triggered. Maybe they have rallied the support of family, friends, and community. They may be less isolated and more engaged. If medicine has been tried, the medicine may have kicked in and be working. They may have stopped drinking too much, or started exercising. But if they don’t name what is different and what is working, then they will not really learn it, assimilate it, repeat it, fine tune it, and be able to claim it as their own. I want my clients to know what they have learned from session to session. And to claim it. And practice it. And share it with others. Because when we change, the world changes.
When we change, the world changes.
So when my friend asked me, “What’s your birthday wisdom this year?”, it took me a long time to even start to put words on what I have learned this year. In fact, it scared me just a bit because I could not find the words to name it. Yet I knew I had learned so much this year, perhaps more than any other year of my life, (except for maybe when I became a mother because that year the learning never stopped, ever, not even for a second, not even when I was asleep because then I was dreaming what I was learning because everything was new and challenging and life-changing.) As I tried to get words on it, I began to feel the depth of what I had learned. I just needed to be asked, to be a good detective or archeologist, and to slow down enough to let the wisdom bubble up.
Slow down enough to let the wisdom bubble up.
Here’s some of what I learned this year:
Honor your mother and father isn’t just an old-fashioned, out- of- date biblical commandment. And not only do we need to honor our parents, but as parents, we need to raise our children to honor parents.
This commandment, the 5th of the 10 commandments, is not just found in the Old Testament (Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16) but again in the New Testament in no less than 10 places, so it must be really important. It is the only commandment that comes with a promise. It reads, “Honor your father and your mother, so that you will live long in the land the LORD your God has given to you.”
This year there were times when it was difficult to honor my father as he journeyed closer and closer to his death. He could be stubborn, cranky, and at times irrational. He was scared and humiliated and was being asked to make more changes than he seemed to be able to handle. But I, and all of my siblings, worked very hard to be respectful, even when we had to challenge him. We tried to listen deeply to what he was saying and what he wasn’t saying. We all gave deeply of our time, money, and energy to make his time on earth as fruitful and comfortable as it could be. And in the end, all I can tell you is that it mattered. A good friend of mine wrote me a note and put it this way:
Amy, please know what treasures you are storing up in these days. I don’t really understand the “economies” of how this works. I suppose Bowen Theory would claim these blessings are the result of the imprint of one generation of a family on another. Karma might tell us that “What goes ‘round comes ‘round.” But I truly believe there is more than that at work here. In a mighty and mystical way, the manner in which we treat, and protect, and care for our parents ends up bequeathing to us an abundance and fulfillment of life which often goes beyond human understanding. I know that while this season is difficult, in ways you cannot begin to imagine you will be blessed because of it.
I and all of my family have already been blessed beyond measure in and through the process of my dad’s death, memorial service, house disassembling, and grieving. I am grateful that this commandment stayed close to my heart during my life. I have had to struggle with what it means to “honor” your mother and father more than a few times in my life, but the struggle has been worth it, time and time again.
Never underestimate the power of community.
My husband was unemployed last year for five months. This situation came as a complete surprise to both of us, and we decided immediately that we would “lean in” to our friends, family, and community to help us navigate this difficult time. We wrote letters and sent them out to our community, letting them know the situation and asking for support and help. We accepted invitations for dinner. We borrowed a car from someone. We asked for counsel a few times when we got overwhelmed. We also were determined to stay grateful, another lesson we have learned over the years, and we took care to not allow despair or cynicism to have their way with us. Those two things never help. Today we are thankful for his new job, for the people that supported us in that difficult journey, and for our love and faith that got us through that time.
Also this year I have served on a search committee at my church. This was a commitment I almost did not make because I knew the largeness of this task and I was already stretched thin with care for my dad. For 8 months this committee met every week and sometimes more than once a week. We worked hard, prayed together, struggled together, and asked searching questions. While it truly was a serious commitment, working with that community of people has been life-giving and in many ways has supported my own faith journey this year. I have become closer to people I already knew and have met new people. I am glad I accepted the invitation to serve. Again, never underestimate the power of community. It was worth it.
Ask yourself this question frequently: What does Love look like/feel like right now?
In addition to the situations I mentioned above, this year has been difficult for personal reasons too intimate for this blog. I have had to dig deep more times than I really wanted to. And this is the question that helped me over and over again. What does Love look like right now? What does it mean to act lovingly to myself, to others, to the world. And what will Love feel like? As I write this I am being reminded that I heard Robert Johnson ( Jungian therapist, speaker and author) speak at a conference after 9/11. He was asked this question: What do you think is the greatest danger America faces right now? His answer: Sentimentality. Think about it, because it is brilliant. I am not talking about a sentimental love as I am sharing this birthday wisdom with you. I am talking about Love which asked me to go deeper and work harder than I ever have. Love which met me there in the depths. Love which required of me clarity, conviction, and boundaries. Love which taught me about forgiveness again and again and again. Love asked me to work hard this year. Very hard. It did not always look like what I thought it would look like. But that’s ok. Because it, too, was worth it.
What does Love look like right now?
So dear Friends and Readers, that’s a bit of what I know I have learned this year. What do you know you have learned? Perhaps as we share it, we can make our messy lives more marvelous.