Good Friday or Ridiculous Friday?

For most of my life, I hated Good Friday.

The name seemed ridiculous to me. The event seemed ridiculous to me. For decades, I thought it should be called Unnecessary Friday.

My Shame

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People way smarter than me used big phrases—like “substitutionary atonement”—and told me it was absolutely necessary. They said Man had sinned against God and now God needed a sacrifice in order to forgive mankind, so he sacrificed his son.

But I never completely bought it.

I mean, what kind of a God is so ticked off he can’t get over himself and his anger without killing one of his children? In the words of Richard Rohr, “Is God that unfree?”

I tried. Believe me, I tried for years to swallow it, but I could never get it down.

And I’m so glad I didn’t.

Because a decade as a psychologist has me wondering.

As a psychologist, you spend every day lowering yourself into the depths of humanity—the depths that exist in your own heart and in the hearts of others. You touch the bottom of existence and you claw your way back to the top and you want to shout to the heavens, “There is something beautiful down there!

It wrecks you. In a really good way. Because it deconstructs all the beliefs you’ve inherited about how people are basically rotten, depraved, and sinful at their core.

You realize people are, at their core, simply humming with beauty.

You realize grace is not just some benevolent tolerance of a corrupt creation.

You realize grace is the accurate reflection of the beautiful creatures buried within us.

And you realize, on a Good Friday, you have to write about it, because it may be essential to turning this whole bloody planet around…

Why Sin Isn’t the First Problem

In August 2012, during an Icelandic bus tour, a woman was reported missing and a search commenced. It was a false alarm. In all the confusion, the woman reported to be missing was actually a member of the search party.

Unbeknownst to her, she was searching for herself.

I think this is the story of humanity and there are three key elements—shame, sin, and grace—and until we get them straight, Good Friday isn’t good and the world doesn’t make any sense.

Shame is misinformation. Shame is the lie that our worthiness has gone missing. Shame is the belief that what is inside of us—the substance of who we are—is rotten and makes us unworthy of love and belonging. Shame is the belief that we must find something outside of ourselves to make us worthy of love.

Sin is the search. As a result of the lie, we search to find worthiness in perfection and achievement and status and the acquisition of resources and the accumulation of lofty experiences and the accrual of power. Much of religion has called this sin and deemed it the first problem, the main problem. But it’s not. Sin is our reaction to the first problem: our shame

And grace is the truth. Grace announces our worthiness was never missing to begin with. And it calls off the search. Grace proclaims, “You believed a lie, but the truth is you are beloved, exactly the way you are.” Grace isn’t preoccupied with sin like we are, because it knows sin is the byproduct of shame. It knows when the darkness of our shame succumbs to the light of grace, our sin—our search—dies with it.

But you don’t need to take my word for it. Or the story of an Icelandic tourist. Because this story of shame and sin and grace is an ancient one.

A Delivery Room, a Playground, a Parent, and a Friday Afternoon

There is an ancient poem that begins one of the most popular (and reviled) books in the world. It’s a powerful rendition of the development of humankind. In the Book of Genesis:

The Garden of Eden is like a delivery room—six days of chaotic, violent, majestic labor, concluding with the birth of God’s children. And he looks upon them and concludes they are good.

Good enough.

They are pronounced to be without shame.

But the babies grow up and the Garden becomes like a school playground and this bully comes along and we call this bully the serpent. And the bully hisses his lie: “You are not good enough. You are not like Him. You should be more than you are.”

And in the playground-Garden, we watch the first shaming.

And we watch as these two people—ratified as good by the Parent of all things—believe the not-good-enough lie.

We watch as they experience original shame.

And the bully continues his lie. He tells them there is something outside of themselves that will make them truly worthy, and he points them toward an apple-of-promise. He tells them, “Go do this, and you will be good enough.”

And like deceived children, they do it. They eat the apple,

and we watch the first search—original sin.

And the search plays out through the centuries: brother kills brother out of jealousy, Babel is built and wars are waged and humanity gets torn apart by its attempts to escape the shame-full lie. And what does God do? He just throws up his hands and gives up on the whole damned experiment, right?

Wrong.

This ancient story doesn’t end there.

Because like a parent with a bottomless love, he sees his rebellious teenage child—but he also remembers the good, innocent, infinitely worthy child he first cradled in the delivery room.

And he knows that child is still in there somewhere.

He’s like a parent with a bottomless love, waiting up into the wee hours of the night for the drug-addicted child to arrive home so he can wrap her in a hug and say, “If I could only convince you of your beauty and your goodness then you wouldn’t need to run away from yourself with all these drugs and all this violence.”

And like a parent with a bottomless love, he knows words will never be enough to get the message across. He knows he has to act. Sacrificially. Not as a reward for finally changing—but as an affirmation of the child’s worthiness, even in the midst of all the destruction and the mess.

And so the ancient story continues…

He comes and—in the words of Rachel Held Evans—he “straps on sandals” and he walks our roads with us.

And it’s no mistake he rebukes those who are searching for worthiness by establishing rules and hierarchies of power and judgment.

It’s no mistake he makes his home amongst those who have stopped searching and are keenly aware of their shame and are ready to hear: “You are worthy, just as you are.”

And, it is no mistake that in one afternoon of slow, agonizing, humiliating death, he transforms his culture’s ultimate symbol of shame—a cross—into an antenna, broadcasting the ultimate message of grace: You are worthy of love and you have a place to belong—exactly the way you are.

And the first viral message of humankind echoes across the centuries:

For a God

Who.

Is.

Love.

Reconciliation was never required, except in our own shame-filled minds.

Death and Resurrection

I still don’t like the name “Good Friday.” Because, these days, I think it’s the understatement of all time and history.

And the story continues.

With you. With us.

In the story of Good Friday, we have been given a timeless blueprint of death and resurrection. It requires three simple steps:

We must freely choose to venture into the depths of our shame—into all of the ways we have been deceived into believing our worth and our beauty are conditional upon anything—into all the ways we’ve been lied to by the words and actions of parents and teachers and friends and foes and powerful people of every kind.

We must confess the ways we have searched for worthiness outside of ourselves. We must be honest about the ways we have lived in the dark and the ways we have spread the darkness.

And we must embrace the relentless truth of grace: we are worthy of love and belonging, exactly the way we are—all weak and powerless and broken and raw and grieving and dying and scared and despairing and angry and lost…and beautiful.

It’s. that. simple.

I know, for many, this will seem like a bunch of fluffy-feel-good spiritual nonsense. But let me be clear: venturing to the bottom of our shame is the opposite of “feel good.”

It is to feel torn apart from the inside out.

It feels like death.

But to sink to the bottom of it and to touch the Beauty humming at the core of us?

Well, that is, indeed, a resurrection.

This post is not meant to be the “final world.” It’s meant to be the FIRST word. What do you think about shame, sin, and grace? Share your ideas at the bottom of this post

Loved this book: Recovering the Scandal of the Cross by Mark D. Baker and Joel B. Green.

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Free eBook: My new eBookThe Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. You can click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Preview: My next post will be Wednesday, April 3, and is tentatively entitled, “Why Giving Up is Good,” or “Out with the Good, In with the New.” I can’t decide.

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Why Couples Shouldn’t Do Couples Therapy (Says the Couples Therapist)

The number one cause of escalating conflict in marriage is one we rarely talk about. As marital therapists, we focus all of our energies on the conflict between spouses, but we ignore the battle within each partner. And as a writer, I segregate my posts about marriage and my posts about shame. Until now…

A Saturday night with the person you love can go south in a heartbeat, can’t it?

Several weeks ago, my wife and I had just finished another night of one-more-cup-of-water requests, my-legs-hurt laments, and can-I-have-another-kiss rituals, and the rustling from the kids’ bedrooms had quieted.

And a couple of open hours sprawled out before us like an oasis in the desert of living.

Until my wife began to discuss the recent seminars she’d conducted in Guatemala. She looked at me like I had heard the story before, and the truth began to slowly dawn on both of us: I had never asked about her teachings in Guatemala.

I felt a moment of sheepishness. And then I went on the attack—a mixture of defensiveness (“I watched the kids for ten days so you could do the trip!”) and offense (“It’s your fault for not telling me sooner!”).

Listen. I’m a shrink. And I still get surprised all the time by my your-not-good-enough voice of shame.

It can sink a Saturday night in just one quick beat of a shame-shadowed heart.

Marriage Enemy Number One

Our hearts are like a sponge for shame, and most of us are pretty saturated with it by the time we meet our lifelong companion. So when our partner criticizes us, or asks for change, or asks for more, or simply gets a little too close for comfort, our heart gets squeezed and we leak shame all over the place.

Except shame is a lie so it never comes out all honest and confessing. It comes out like barbed wire. Usually, we try to make our partner feel even less worthy than we feel ourselves—with verbal attacks, emotional slander, and sometimes simply with silence.

And in most marriages, shame begets shame. So, when we shame our spouses and squeeze their hearts, their shame oozes out, and they go on the attack.

Usually, when the friendly fire is over, it’s impossible to tell who really fired the first shot. We assume our spouse is at fault and we completely ignore marriage enemy number one: shame.

Why Sometimes Marital Therapy Isn’t the Answer

For many couples, the cycle of shame-escalation in the relationship is so intense the marital therapy hour looks like a weekly battlefield reenactment. The script is written and the players have little interest in changing their own lines. Oftentimes, both spouses are secretly looking for an audience who will cast the deciding vote in their favor.

So, the viability of any couples therapy is dependent upon each spouse’s answer to two questions: are you willing to focus on yourself and face your shame? And are you prepared to do so for an hour a week in the presence of your partner?

If the answer to either question is “no,” the couple should not be in marital therapy. Instead, each spouse should be attending individual therapy. But partners resist individual therapy for at least two reasons. First, the mere suggestion of individual therapy feels like more shame—more you’re-not-good-enough.

Second, the individual therapy room can feel like a prison cell—no distractions, no one to blame, no place to direct the shame spilling out of our hearts. Which is why many people go to individual therapy and use the hour to complain about a spouse.

It is far more painful to look in the mirror.

Fighting for Your Saturday Night

As my wife and I began to go toe-to-toe that Saturday night, she had the wherewithal to step back and say, “You know, right before you got angry you looked embarrassed.”

I stopped mid-fury, and suddenly, the battle wasn’t between her and I, the battle began to rage within me.

Frankly, I think every marriage hinges upon this kind of moment: Do I deny the shame she saw peak out before my defenses were up and go back to shaming her, or do I own it?

“Crap,” I thought, “This is going to hurt.”

The shame began oozing up from the cracks in my heart, and I began to share with her the multitude of ways I had felt not-enough in the past week.

It hurt to feel it. It hurt to admit it. But it felt so good to share it.

And with no shame to defend, I felt free to apologize for all the ways I bungle my priorities and lose my focus on the most interesting thing in my life—her.

It wasn’t the Saturday night we had hoped for, but I think it was the Saturday night we needed.

How to Fight Within Marriage Ourselves

You don’t fight for your Saturday night by fighting with your spouse. You fight for your Saturday night by fighting with yourself. By fighting back against your shame. Except in our fight against shame, we don’t wield weapons toward others, we lay them down.

We breathe deeply, giving ourselves just enough space to make a wise decision—the decision to look in rather than shouting out.

We cultivate a quiet-still attentiveness—it pulls the covers of anger off the bed of our shame and reveals the aching, hurting kid underneath, who just wants a place to call home.

We use a graceful self-compassion. Until we can be gentle with ourselves, we can’t be gentle to anyone else. So, when we discover the hurting kid within us, we speak to him or her like we would to any kid with a skinned knee or a bloody elbow—with an embrace and a whispered, “Hush…”

We use courage and vulnerability to reveal it all to the person we love. We say things like, “This isn’t about you; this is about me. I’m terrified I’ll never be good enough for you, but I bluster as if you are the one who isn’t good enough for me, because that feels way safer.”

And we insist on being with people who can receive this kind of confession gracefully and receive us within their embrace.

So, as the marital therapist, I often find myself saying, “I can’t help until you have faced your shame. But if you are willing to do that first…

…I don’t think you have any idea what kind of radical, life-altering, world-changing love the two of you could create together. Then, marital therapy will be a rebellion that turns this world upside down.

How has overcoming shame improved your marriage? Share your thoughts, or any other ideas, in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

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Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

The Mess: The messy places in life—and the messy places within ourselves—present us with a choice. Because the mess is where our shame collides with grace, and we can choose to succumb to shame, or we can fight to receive grace. Come visit The Mess, and join the rebellion against shame. And as always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Preview: It’s spring break! No mid-week post this coming week. The next post will be on Friday, March 29, and is tentatively entitled, “Why Christians Can’t Stop Sinning.”  

DisclaimerThis post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

The One Thing with the Power to Bring Us All Together

Pain and conflict

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On a frenetic Monday morning, I arrived at my office with my thoughts whipping and cyclonic, scrambling to stay ahead of life. When I opened my office door, I practically tripped over my surprise.

Sitting in one of my office chairs was an enormous beach ball, with a note attached: “Just a visual reminder. We love your blog!” (Have I ever mentioned if you can work with thoughtful, caring people you should work with thoughtful, caring people?)

As my laughter died away and my smile lingered, my mind returned to problem-solving mode: the beach ball needed to be deflated before my first appointment.

I sat on the ball and the air began to hiss in expulsion. Slowly. So slowly. As the ball hissed and the clock ticked, I looked around my office at all the trappings of my effort to stay ahead in life:

Three diplomas—representing ten years of my life.

A framed clinical psychologist license—representing another two.

A shelf full of books—representing years of information consumed in an effort to feel interesting.

And I realized: “No amount of schooling, studying or scrambling gets this done faster.” As the ball slowly deflated, I sank to the floor, but I also sank into my own humanity. And I thought: this beach ball is a lot like our pain.

It’s an equalizer.

Competing to Be Unequal

The dictionary defines “equalizer” as anything that makes us alike in value, rank, or merit.

We spend most of our lives avoiding equalizers like the plague, and I think our favorite way of fleeing from equalization is competition.

Competition is our way of saying I’m up here and you’re down there and we are not equal.

And yet.

Regardless of how hard we try, in the end, pain and loss and suffering come for every one of us and they expose all of our competition as one big game of charades. Our pain eventually topples our sense of power and inverts our sense of control.

Suffering is the great equalizer. From herniated disks to surprising loneliness to shocking divorces to unexpected diagnoses, every single one of us will eventually be equalized by pain and suffering—our hierarchies will be erased and the truth revealed: we’re all just humans existing on the same level playing field.

Most of us live in fear of this eventuality. Many of us get depressed when faced with the prison of mortality and our frail humanity. But I think there is another way.

I think we can allow our pain to lead us home. Several nights ago, my sons showed me the way.

Two Equalized Little Boys

The snow was coming down all heavy and slushy and darkness had descended, when our doorbell rang. Standing on our front porch—looking wet and tired but still hopeful—was a young man from the local college. And he carried a shovel.

He told us he had walked many blocks, knocking on doors, hoping to work for a few extra bucks. He told us we were the first door that had opened to him. He asked if he could shovel our driveway for five dollars.

With a grimace, we pointed to the driveway and said, “As you can see, we shoveled recently, and we actually don’t have any cash on us right now.” His eyes got sad—but his smile only flickered—as he wished us well and turned away.

But as he stepped off our porch, my five-year-old son leapt off our couch. Tears welling up in his eyes, he asked frantically, “Can I pay him?” And without waiting for an answer, he ran for his bedroom, returning moments later waving a ten-dollar bill and desperately asking, “Is this enough?”

Watching the scene, my nine-year-old cracked, too. He ran to his room and pulled out his own ten-dollar bill. He returned, shoving it into the hands of his little brother, and said, “Let me pay him.”

Together, they raced to the front door, shouting at the young man to stay, terrified he would get out of ear shot.

My five year old carries a lot of pain. We see it in his deep-solemn eyes all the time. And much of the time, I think, he ends up competing to keep the pain at bay.

But on a snowy March night, he let his pain lead him home.

Going Home By Making Our Home Here

Our pain can lead us home by leading us to create a home, right here in the middle of this broken humanity.

We don’t have to wait until our pain is inevitable and unavoidable—we can choose to let it out of the dungeons of our hearts.

Now.

And we can let in the pain of a fractured humanity.

Now.

And we can let the pain be the common ground upon which we meet each other, separate but equal, different but equally broken, unique but sharing in the suffering of life.

Pain can make little children empty piggy banks for a stranger who doesn’t feel like a stranger anymore because they share the common ground of disappointment and loneliness.  It can lead us home by making every stranger a brother or a sister in this struggle we call living.

When we allow ourselves to feel our pain—when we allow ourselves to feel at home in a world riddled with pain—it will not make our pain disappear. But it will redeem it.

Because redemption isn’t always about making our pain go away—sometimes it’s about choosing how to live it.

My boys showed me how I want to live it…

like a welcome mat,

like a front porch light on a dark night,

like a lighthouse on a stormy sea,

like an invitation on a lonely day.

I want my pain to invite everyone else home.

Can you imagine a world of people equalized by their pain? Can you imagine a world where our sense of home doesn’t end at the front door? Can you imagine a world where every painful moment is redeemed by an ever-expanding community of people surrendered to their humanity?

Can you imagine?

Has pain ever equalized you and drawn you closer to the people you love? Share your experience or any other thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

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Free eBook: My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. Click here to subscribe, and the subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly 

The Mess: The messy places in life—and the messy places within ourselves—present us with a choice. Because the mess is where our shame collides with grace. We can choose to succumb to shame. Or we can fight back. Come visit The Mess, and join the rebellion against shame. 

Preview: My next post will be this Friday and is tentatively entitled “Why Couples Shouldn’t Do Couples Therapy (Says the Couples Therapist).”  

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Why Grace Gets Angry (And Sometimes Starts a Fight)

The Wizard of Oz

Photo Credit: twm1340 via Compfight cc

All mature writers have a “voice.” Or so I’m told. I’ve also been told my “voice” is gentle, compassionate, and hopeful.

Several weeks ago, though, my writing voice changed for a paragraph or two. When I was explaining my shame and wanting to “kick it in the teeth,” my tone got a little angry. My language got coarse. The vibe got a little feisty. I started using words like “war.”

It wasn’t an accident.

In our rebellion against shame, we’re going to have to get a bit sassy, a little feisty. Act a little spunky. We might have to play a little rougher than usual.

The Wizard

In the words of Alice Miller, shame feeds on “weaker creatures.” This is a fundamental characteristic of shame, and its importance cannot be overemphasized. We have two options: we can deal with our shame, or we will pass it on to someone we deem weaker.

Shame has been passed down through the ages like an infection, and it is always transmitted from powerful people to those deemed to be “lower creatures.” You see, people in positions of power usually have plenty of shame—in fact, the powerful often strive for influence and control as a way to deny their own shame. (There are probably a few exceptions to this rule. Probably.) And so people with power shame the weaker creatures under their control: 

Parents do it to children. (Yes, I even do it to my own children.)

Bullies do it to the weaker kids on the playground.

Teachers dominate students with it.

But what does that same parent do when his boss is ticked? How does the middle school bully act when confronted by his victim’s parents? What do shaming teachers do when the principle calls a meeting with some upset parents? What does any shaming person do when faced with someone who has more authority?

I’ll tell you: the person who uses shame from a place of power begins to cower when there is no weaker creature to feed upon.

And the same is true of the shame that weighs down our fragile souls.

It’s dependent upon us remaining small and abdicating our authority to it. If we fight back, it wants us to do so quietly and politely. It wants us to remain dignified and serious and solemn—reverent in the face of shame.

Because our shame is like the Wizard of Oz. If it can keep us feeling small, it can retain it’s big and ferocious facade. It can dominate and intimidate with smoke and mirrors. Our shame is an illusion—it lacks substance and maintains its power by putting on a great show.

And as long as we remain in the audience, trembling and quiet, it can take more ground inside of us.

The Bank

After a decade as a psychologist, this is about as close as I can come to making a guarantee: when we get feisty and fight back, pulling back the curtain on shame’s blustering lie, we will begin to discover it is all bark and has very little bite.

But the curtain is a stubborn one. We can’t pull it back delicately. We have to yank it.

Swear at your shame, and I can almost guarantee you it begins to shrink down to its actual size.

Personally, when I’m battling my shame-ghosts, I prefer a combination of pissed-off-and-funny.

I remember the first time I yanked back the curtain on my shame and told it what to do. Someone had just planted a dagger in my heart—they had just said the one thing they knew would make me feel the most worthless. But suddenly there was a new voice in my head, and it had an edge to it. That tenacious voice said, “Sorry, the shame bank is closed today. We’re not taking any more damn deposits.”

Them were fighting words.

And the beauty of it was, I didn’t need to fight the person who had shamed me. After all, they weren’t the one who needed to hear those fighting words. I was. Or even more accurately, my shame was.

The Yellow Brick Road

We are all traveling the yellow brick road of our souls. Whether we like it or not, all roads lead to Oz—all roads lead us back to our shame. The question is: what will we do when we get there? Will we let the Wizard bluster, or will we yank back the curtain?

If we decide to yank it back, we won’t be alone. When we decide to fight the voice of shame, the voice of grace will be our companion—it is usually a gentle whisper, but the voice of grace will exercise its authority and do what is required to drive out our shame.

Sometimes, the voice of grace rebukes hypocrisy and tips over tables and starts a little trouble and it drives the shame right out of the sacred places within our hearts.

And when, in tandem with the voice of grace, we have pushed back our shame (for now), we will notice the voice of grace gets quiet again. It returns to its whispering reassurance: “You are beautiful and beloved.” And it won’t stop there.

It also reassures us of the beauty and belovedness of everyone around us.

And this is the great irony of battling our shame: when we begin to fight it—to kick it in the teeth—we no longer feel the need to fight anyone else. We no longer need to pass on our shame to a weaker creature. We are more compassionate to those around us. We reconcile with our communities. We forgive our enemies.

By tenaciously exercising our authority over shame, we gain the power of belovedness, which allows us to be weak and vulnerable with everybody else.

In the end, the war on shame is, indeed, the war to end all wars.

Acknowledgement: Thanks to the young lady who stopped me in the gym and challenged me about the “war on shame” verbiage. You know who you are. I went home and wrote this post. Without dialogue like that, I would have nothing new to say.        

How do you get tenacious with your shame? Share your experience or any other thoughts at the bottom of this post.

———

Free eBook: My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. Click here to subscribe, and the subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

The Mess: The messy places in life—and the messy places within ourselves—present us with a choice. Because the mess is where our shame collides with grace. We can choose to succumb to shame. Or we can fight back. Come visit The Mess, and join the rebellion against shame.

Preview: My next post will be next Wednesday and is tentatively entitled “How Pain Can Lead Us Home.” 

Other Posts Related to Shame and Grace:

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

What Madmen, Drunks, and Bastards Know About How to Live

“If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success…If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”

—Thomas Merton, Love and Living

fire starter

Photo Credit: Dean Ayres via Compfight cc

The January night was moaning with a cold-dark wind. And our fireplace was talking back in hisses and pops of disappearing wood.

When a small voice inside of me said, “Three years of fires in this fireplace, Kelly, and you’ve never just sat. You’ve never just watched.”

So I settled in to gaze into the firelight.

Yet a mind on fire can burn hotter than wood, can’t it?

Within seconds, my eyes glazed and my thoughts blazed—blog ideas begging for a keyboard, voicemails to be checked, books to be read, texts and emails to return, a world to be kept at bay, a life to be conquered.

The desire for success can mangle the beauty in almost anything.

The Success Deception

As a psychologist, I feel like I’ve been let in on one of the most important secrets in the history of humankind: success doesn’t make us happy.

Each week in the quiet solitude of a psychotherapy office I hear some version of this story: “I wanted to prove everyone wrong and I worked like mad to reach the pinnacle of my profession and I’ve got it all—the spouse and the kids and the house and the cars—and I’m still not satisfied.”

Peter Rollins has said success feels like Wild E. Coyote the day after he catches the Road Runner—it feels like, “Is this all there is?” and “What now?” Every lottery winner describes the same kind of despair, because they’ve stumbled onto success and its dirty little secret: no amount of success can make us happy.

I think joy and contentment may be available to us all the time, in every place and in every moment, but the search for success keeps us looking in all the wrong places. Because the search for success keeps us thinking about the future—planning, organizing, anticipating—while joy and contentment are the qualities of a mind anchored in the present.

Anxiety and stress are not only caused by fear of the future—they are also caused by coveting the future. The bottom line is, whenever we invest our mind and spirit in a moment not yet arrived, we pave the way for anxiety and stress and their close cousinsanger and depression.

The search for success robs us of this moment and replaces it with endless moments of yearning.

Every Bush is Burning

Perhaps Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it best when she wrote:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware.

If we can quit searching for success, we can start plumbing the depths of what is, right here and right now…

On a January night moaning with a cold-dark wind, the firelight danced in front of me. I struggled to be still, as I felt within me a storm-surge of just-do-something-for-crying-out-loud! It felt like panic and I rode that wave of ego and insecurity with one steady breath after another. The wave crested and my mind’s tide slowly receded.

I turned my attention to the fire. I turned my attention to the moment.

I watched as orange-purple tongues licked the air in every direction. I felt my cheeks tightened by heat, and I felt the coolness of the dark behind me. I saw shadows dance, and I smelled smoke like an ancient messenger. Somehow, the fire seemed to transcend time—present at the birth of the universe and enduring agelessly, warming hands before language and now warming hands that hold iPhones.

I felt time burn away, and without time there is nothing to aspire to, nothing to work toward. There is only being, and only one place to be: in this moment.

To Become Like Children Again

And I became aware of how timeless we feel when we’re playing instead of striving, and how foreign it must be for my playing children to have parents ranting about getting out the door on time. And I wondered, could all things become play if we sacrificed our “successful” futures at the altar of our ordinary—and extravagantly beautiful—present?

Could we forsake the compulsion to succeed in everything we do?

Could we turn every moment of work into play by gazing deeply into it and finding the beauty of the ordinary there?

Could we get lost in time, rather than losing our lives to time?

Could we run late because joy doesn’t wear a watch and giggling doesn’t always stop when we need it to?

Could we fail brilliantly if that’s what it takes to reclaim the awe and wonder of every person and smile and grimace and laugh and sob and breath?

Could we simply get messed up by the awesome-ordinary?

And could we take off our shoes and behold that every common bush is burning? 

Have you every been struck by the bottomless beauty of our “common” world? Share your experience in the comments section at the bottom of this post.

———

Free eBook: My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary reality of marriage. New blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy, by clicking here to subscribe. The subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly

Preview: My next post will be this Friday and is tentatively entitled “How a Little Anger Can Set You Free.” 

Other Posts Related to Mindfulness and Gratitude:

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Winners Anonymous: Breaking Our Addiction to the Extraordinary

When I write about becoming rebellious losers or embracing loss, I often hear the question, “Why do I find it so difficult to embrace being a loser?” I think the answer is a complicated one, but I believe our fear is a big part of it. Specifically, I think we are scared of being ordinary

Revelations

Photo Credit: ilmungo via Compfight cc

Confession of a Psychologist

I have a confession:

I sometimes regret adding the “Dr.” to my web presence. I sometimes cringe when I see it in the URL. Because I think it’s awfully easy to hide behind those two extra letters and a wall full of diplomas. It’s easy to be the expert. It’s easy to be the guy with the answers. It’s easy to let others assume I have it all together.

Psychotherapy is a strange animal: we pay to consult with an expert but, ironically, if the expert pretends to have it all together, it actually interferes with the process of healing. Because hiding behind the “expert” status directly conflicts with some of the fundamental goals of therapy:

To fully embrace our humanity.

To accept we are all messy-beautiful creatures.

And to settle into the peacefulness of this conclusion: we’re all pretty ordinary, and that is blessedly good enough.

Fear of the Ordinary

In her new book, Daring Greatly, Brene Brown suggests our refusal to lose is the result of “…the shame-based fear of being ordinary.” She describes it as “the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose.”

We don’t hate to lose because losers are failures. We hate to lose because losers are ordinary—ordinary humans who make mistakes and advertise their brokenness in a million different ways—and we have allowed “ordinary” and “worthless” to become dangerously intertwined.

I think we’ve become convinced extraordinary is the only acceptable way to be:

Ordinary people with a skill for acting are elevated into celebrities. Young men with a skill for putting a ball through a hoop are marketed into multi-million dollar gods. Entrepreneurs with a skill for innovation are put on magazine covers and a pedestal we call affluence.

It destroys them—celebrities overdose, athletes develop God complexes and go rogue, and innovators work themselves to death—but we ignore the effects of our obsession with the extraordinary. Instead of calling it what it is—a disease—we scrape and claw to participate in the epidemic.

In our kitchens and living rooms, marriages crumble beneath the weight of each spouse’s need to feel more extraordinary than their partner. On playgrounds, our kids compete for the mantle of the Most Extraordinary with basketballs and words and fists. And in the public square we turn politics into religion and religion into politics and we battle to the bitter end, claiming our group is extraordinary and everyone else is a loser.

We run from ordinariness like we would run from a ghost. And, indeed, we are running from a ghost. It’s the ghost of shame whispering in the quiet recesses of our hearts, and the lie on its tongue is this: “To lose is to be ordinary, and to be ordinary is to be nothing.”

“I’m Just a Dude”

Several months ago, I was at a pub with a friend, enjoying a late dinner. The televisions on every wall were advertising the extraordinary in various forms of athletic endeavor.

ESPN like a drug dealer of greatness.

My friend and I talked about our temptation to have eye-catching careers, to be model husbands, to be exalted fathers. We talked about how easy it can be to get lost in the adoration when things are going well, and to get lost in despair when they are not. 

And then he said something that was a game-changer for me. He said, “Kelly, I say to myself, ‘I’m just a dude,’ and I remind myself that is enough.”

I’m just a dude.

And that is enough.

We must uncouple “ordinary” and “inadequate.” We must remember that all of us are human. We have hearts that beat, lungs that breathe, and souls that are hungering for a sense worth. We must feel this in our bones: I’m just as ordinary as everybody else. And we must love ourselves and the people around us, not in spite of it, but because of it. 

Winners Anonymous

Most 12-step programs begin with a confession. In Alcoholics Anonymous, the initial greeting goes something like this: “Hi, my name is So-and-So, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Well, I have a confession: I’m just a dude.

What would you think about starting a new 12-step movement with me? We could call it Winners Anonymous. We’ll confess our addiction to winning. We’ll admit we’re all craving the drug of victory and the euphoric feeling of “extraordinary” that comes with it. We’ll embrace that we are all ordinary losers. And we will resolutely insist that we are ordinary, messy, and beautiful people, all at the same time

I’ll go first:

“Hi, my name is Kelly. And I’m an addict. I fight to win so I don’t have to feel ordinary, because I’ve confused being ordinary with being not good enough. I want to break my addiction to winning. I want to remember ‘I’m just a dude.’ And I want to experience the peace and freedom that come from being ordinary while swimming in grace.”

Want to join a bunch of ordinary, beautiful losers?

Questions: What false narratives do you have about what it means to be ordinary? How do they prevent you from embracing your own beautiful, ordinary life? Share your experience in the comments section at the bottom of this post.        

Free eBook: My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary reality of marriage. New blog subscribers will receive a free PDF copy, by clicking here to subscribe. The subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. From one ordinary loser to another, Kelly

The Mess: The messy places in life—and the messy places within ourselves—present us with a choice. Because the mess is where our shame collides with grace. We can choose to succumb to shame. Or we can fight back. Come visit The Mess, and join the rebellion against shame.

Preview: My next post will be this coming Wednesday and is tentatively entitled “What Madmen, Drunks, and Bastards Know About Beauty.” 

The 5 Barriers to Empathy in Marriage (And How to Overcome Them)

Empathy is the foundation of any authentic connection. It’s the bedrock of togetherness, it’s the fuel of compassion, and it’s the mortar of grace. We must hone our ability to feel it and to give it. But empathy can be elusive. Even psychologists, who are skilled in empathy, can struggle with it when they walk out of the office and into their homes…

Separation

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Sernicola (Creative Commons)

Dusk is closing in when the shrink arrives home from work and walks in the back door. Some nights, all is well. His wife is smiling, the kids are happy. But on other nights, all is not well.

Some nights, his wife is tired and worn-thin after a long day at work and the onslaught of the children’s cries for food and attention. Some nights, his oldest son is anxious and fretting about the upcoming standardized tests, which his teachers have been hyping more than the Superbowl. Some nights, his middle son is sad and distraught about the various injustices suffered by any middle child. Some nights, his youngest daughter is bouncing and bubbling with joy and eager for a Daddy mirror, for someone to reflect all that effervescence.

Some nights, everyone wants a little empathy and the therapist is feeling stubborn.

Some nights, he gets home, and he knows what he should do. He should remember that sometimes the people we love act in such a way toward us that we begin to feel exactly what they are feeling. He should get quiet and notice that just beneath his stubbornness are his own feelings of fatigue and frustration and anxiety and injustice…and maybe even joy. He should notice this and offer himself up, reach out, find the common ground. 

He should. But he doesn’t.

Because even for psychologists, empathizing with the people we love is so hard to do. And I think it’s particularly hard to empathize with our spouses. After all, we don’t expect much empathy from our children. But we expect an awful lot from our partners.

The Five Reasons We Don’t Give Empathy

I think there are at least five fatal barriers to establishing empathy in our intimate relationships:

1. I don’t want to go first. In any relationship, both members need empathy. But at any given moment, empathy is unidirectionalit can only flow in one direction at a time. Which means someone has to go first. Someone has to be willing to meet the needs of the other, before their own needs are met.

2. I don’t agree with you. Empathy requires us to place ourselves in another person’s shoes, to allow our hearts to beat to the rhythm of theirs. We often fundamentally disagree with their perspective, and so we are tempted to debate them intellectually, rather than join them emotionally.

3. What if I get it wrong? When we try to place ourselves squarely inside of someone else’s emotional landscape, it can be a little scary. It’s unfamiliar territory. They are inviting us in, but what if we get it all wrong? Empathy can be terrifying if we have any perfectionism within us.

4. I don’t want to feel that. On the other hand, you might know exactly what your partner is feeling. It may bring up thoughts and feelings in you that you would prefer to avoid. If we don’t want to feel our own sadness, we won’t want to feel sadness on behalf of the person we love.

5. It’s not my job to fix you. We confuse empathy with “fixing.” We think we have to do something to take the emotion away, and we don’t want to be put on that hot-seat. Or some of us will have the opposite reaction: I’m going to fix you. But this undermines our ability to provide empathy, as well. Because empathy is not fixing. Empathy is joining.

Climbing the Barriers 

If we want to give empathy in our relationships, we will have to sacrifice some values we hold dear:

We will have to be willing to lose, because it will feel like losing. It will feel like our partner’s needs are being met before our own. But there is no other way.

We will have to put aside all of our intellectual debates. Empathy is not a matter of deciding who is right and wrong. It is simply a matter of finding an emotional common ground.

We have to be willing to get it wrong, because we will get it wrong. Empathy is messy. There are no three-easy-steps to accurately understanding the person we love. We have to be okay when our partner tells us we’re not getting it. And then we have to try again.

We need to embrace our discomfort, because empathy will take us into some uncomfortable place within ourselves. If we are unwilling to go there, we need to quit talking to our spouse and start talking to a therapist of our own.

And we have to quit trying to fix things. There will be a time for that later. For now, empathy is about connecting within an experience, not making the experience go away.

Empathy is for Everyone

Some nights, I know that stubborn-grumpy therapist, because he is me. I wish I could tell you he always finds his way to empathy, but I can’t. Some nights he does. Some nights he doesn’t. And you won’t always find your way to empathy, either. But that’s okay. That’s not the point. The point is that we begin to try.

Because empathy isn’t just for therapists, it’s for all of us.

Questions: What makes it difficult for you to empathize? Share your experience in the comments section at the bottom of this post.           

Free eBook: My new eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available for free to new blog subscribers. Just click here to subscribe, and your subscription confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also available for a low price on Kindle and Nook. As always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Blessings, Kelly

Preview: My next post will be this Friday, March 8, and the working title is, “Winners Anonymous: Breaking Our Addiction to the Extraordinary.”

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It Takes Two to Tango (But It Only Takes One to Love)

For most couples, conflict involves a gradual—or not so gradual—escalation of hostilities. But there is another way to dance through our love, and it contains some pretty “unexpected” steps…

Photo Credit: Rick & Brenda Beerhorst (Creative Commons)

Photo Credit: Rick & Brenda Beerhorst (Creative Commons)

I’m a mixture of several stubborn-blooded ethnicities, including Irish and German. My wife is mostly Portuguese, so her blood tends to run a little hot.

I have to admit, when we were first married, we had no idea what to do with all of our hardheaded energy.

In my eBook, I describe one fight that ended with a door slammed so hard it cracked right out of the plaster wall. My wife and I were experts at “negative escalation” of conflict. Most people are. 

The Dance to Divorce

Negative escalation is a cold, clinical term describing the very hot kind of one-upmanship that happens during most conflict, both within marriage and without:

You yell—I yell louder. 

You put up walls—I lay my walls with brick and mortar. 

You insult—I sling back an even more painful zinger—So you insult my mother—So I insult the way you mother our children. And so on.

Each iteration of the conflict is like climbing the rungs of a ladder. Except it’s the ladder of vengeance, and when you finally reach the top and fall off you don’t bust your skull—you break a heart or two. 

But here’s the really counterintuitive and disturbing fact revealed by decades of “sequential analysis” research: positive escalation is also damaging to marriages. That is, couples who engage in a quid pro quo exchange of positive behaviors also report less satisfying relationships.  

When our behavior in marriage is dependent or contingent upon what has been done to us—regardless of whether that behavior is positive or negative—it results in the destruction of relationship.

In high-conflict marriages, we obliterate our love with hostility and anger. In polite marriages, we smile our way into saccharine staleness. It takes two to tango—two people executing all the expected, eye-for-an-eye steps in relationship—and we can dance ourselves all the way into divorce.

Love is In the Unexpected

It takes two to tango. But the the good news is, it only takes one to love.  The very same marital research has revealed negative escalation can be disrupted when just one partner chooses to do something different and new.

As it turns out, love is doing the unexpected. Love is refusing to read from the script. It’s refusing to play the usual games. Love is laughing at yourself when you’re supposed to be yelling at your partner. Love is snuggling in when you would normally be choosing a night on the couch over a night in the bed. Love is a cup of coffee on the bedside table the morning after a big fight. Love is a surprise, and it only takes one.

And sometimes, the biggest surprise of all is when we respond with empathy instead of a retort. 

Transforming Conflict into Common Ground

Empathy is a place of common ground where we understand the interior landscape of the other because we feel it, too. I know what you’re wondering: How in the world can we find that kind of common ground when we’re cut and bleeding from the daggers being thrown at us?

The answer is deceptively simple but painfully hard: the daggers lay the foundation for common ground. When our partner is hurting, they behave in ways to make us feel exactly the hurt they are feeling. They want us to “know what it feels like.”

I see it happen every day in marital therapy: Husband hurls an insult and wife gets hurt. I stop the interaction and I ask the wife how she feels and she says, “I feel hurt and alone.” And the angry husband fires back, “Well, that’s exactly how I feel.” They often look at me in stunned disbelief when I say, “Good, now you are both feeling the same thing. You can make that the common ground where you meet and have real empathy for each other. Or you can keep fighting. The choice is yours.” 

And the truth is, it is up to each spouse. Either partner can be the one to do the radically unexpected—to transform that hurt into a place of empathy, to put down the verbal weapon that will move the conflict to the next rung of the vengeance ladder and instead to take a step down.

The surface of our conflict is loud, so we rarely become aware of the quiet and shared emotions beneath the surface. The gentle, vulnerable emotions whisper instead of screaming. They sob instead of shouting. They feel hurt instead of spreading hurt. They go completely unnoticed, and yet they are the common ground in which we can all exist together, look each other in the eye, and say, “Yeah, me too.” 

Climbing a New Kind of Ladder

Our best research has revealed that love thrives when we stop giving our spouses what they deserve and start giving them the unexpected embrace of all that they are—when we give them, in a word, grace

Ironically, in this regard, our scientists sound a lot like some of our theologians.

Let’s be still and quiet, and let’s listen for the pain beneath our anger. And when we finally notice the quiet common ground beneath the surface of our conflict, let’s go there. Let’s put words to it. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s connect within it.

And let’s start climbing an entirely different kind of ladder together.

Comments? What makes it hard to de-escalate conflict and to empathize in this way? Your ideas may make it into the next post post! Share your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of this post.   

PreviewTransforming our conflict in this way can be even harder than it sounds. My next post on Wednesday, March 6, will unpack some of the barriers to doing so and is tentatively entitled, “The 5 Barriers to Empathy (And How to Overcome Them).”    

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

The Mess: The messy places in life—and the messy places within ourselves—present us with a choice. Because the mess is where our shame collides with grace, and we can choose to succumb to shame, or we can fight back. Come visit The Mess, and join the rebellion against shame. And as always, thank you for reading; it’s a gift. Sincerely, Kelly