Aug 072013
 

The following will appear in the September/October edition of Neighbors of Batavia magazine.

The truth of who we are is betwixt and between…and we need courage to find it.
The St. Charles middle schools recently hosted an Operation Snowflake event. Like Operation Snowball, which is for high school students, Snowflake is for 6th, 7th and 8th graders and is intended to be a place where students can be with peers who want to live a healthy lifestyle. I was asked to be the “motivational speaker” speaker that afternoon.
I thought long and hard about the message I wanted to impart; I wrote and rewrote my remarks many times. The night before the event, a teen at Operation Snowball spoke of the debilitating bullying to which he had been subjected during his years in middle school. I was so taken by his remarks, I found it difficult to sleep and awoke early the next morning and reworked my remarks one last time.
Either bullying was not the cultural tsunami it is today, or I was simply fortunate to have escaped its devastation…at least from other teens in my life. Yet I recall 7th and 8th grades as two of the loneliest years of my life. Episodes that seem trivial today, 50 years ago as an insecure and fragile human being, seemed large and unrelenting…their consequences insurmountable.
I remember a Jungian psychologist who suggested that, throughout the early years of life, we get messages from parents, family and friends about who we need to be in order to be loved or even lovable. What we must eventually discern, if we ever hope to liberate ourselves from the assault, is that few, if any, of those people know who we are at the core of our being. What makes those years terrifying and lonely is that we fall short in our attempt to be who others demand we become. Since we are someone else, it is easy to wedge a knife into the gap and twist it in such a way the pain becomes excruciating.
So that afternoon I touched on bullying. We agreed that bullying is—whether physically, mentally or emotionally—to make someone feel badly about who they are in the world. When I shared how the teen who became the man who pens these words, seldom had kind words for himself, I asked if they thought I was bullied…and who the most hurtful perpetrator was. Many realized I was, in fact, the most unforgiving bully I had to face every day.
My maternal grandmother was a woman I adored; she loved me greatly. If only I had the wisdom and courage, in moments of despair, to seek her counsel. “What I see of my life, and what I see of me, often leaves me sad and lonely. Would you be willing to tell me what you see?” She would have had amazing words of encouragement and affirmation.
And so, my final admonition for the young people of Snowflake was, in the moments when life seems unrelenting and insurmountable, find an elder who loves you and will walk with you into the truth as they see it. Tell them of your angst, fear and loneliness and ask what they see. That can be very difficult—I never had the courage to try. But the far more arduous task is to believe what they tell you. Trusting another to help us express who we are is one of the most courageous things we can attempt.
Trying to get 6th, 7th and 8th graders to sit still long enough hear my message just may be the second most courageous thing I have ever attempted. I left Operation Snowflake feeling as though I was unable to connect with those young people in the way I had hoped. And yes, many subsequent moments have been consumed beating myself up over the perceived failure. Fortunately, other adults who were in the room have said very kind things about my attempt.
Since we are often unable to see our gifts, we must look to others in the community to help us discern them. The truth of who we are in the world is betwixt and between our self-deprecation and others’ generosity. We just need the courage, when we are betwixt and between, to listen more attentively to the generous, loving words available to us. I wish now I had had the courage to ask my grandmother what she saw.
Aug 092011
 

 

At Operation Snowball, the teens call the exercise “Sex in a Fishbowl,” but it’s not some weird, erotic game. They divide the room sending males to one side with females facing them from the other. Everyone scribbles questions they would like their counterparts of the opposite sex to answer, and places them into a fishbowl to be withdrawn randomly and anonymously.
Anxiety fills the room as the questions emerge, and becomes especially ubiquitous when they migrate from the mundane to those that swirl around relationships and how we can test them for validity and legitimacy. “How do you know when a girl likes you?” “How do you tell the guy you are dating that you like them?” These are among the questions that cause the most squirming…and elicit the most embarrassed answers. On the surface, simple questions in search of straightforward answers.
But, I wonder if the answers sought are themselves in search of far deeper questions. I wonder if the unasked questions that lurk in background are not about how acceptance bounces from one to another, but how acceptance resounds within me. Could it be that the real questions are “Do I like and value myself, and how do I know?”
Perhaps I am unusual, but, for most of my life, and certainly as I raced through puberty, I have been in search of a self worthy of my respect. Can I tease from my being a self deserving of the resources it consumes, a self that leaves behind greater value than it finds, and most frighteningly, a self that someone might love. To this very day, it is possible, often easy, for me to fall into a place of deep questioning of self-worth and value…and let’s not even get into questions of lovability.
The need to be loved and valued is, I believe, deeply rooted in the human psyche. I know many people who are responsible for meaningful change in the human condition and they still question the meaning of their lives. One dear friend I grew to love and admire for her lifetime of work said, as she approached the end of her time on Earth, “I don’t want my life to have been a throw away line.” Another of my teachers reflected that, “When you ask people about their gifts and you get platitudes…ask about their faults and you get poetry!”
Each of us has gifts and an inner beauty; each of us has value and is lovable. But those qualities can be difficult to see in good times. In our darker moments, they can become impossible to touch. Or feel.
In the Zen Buddhist tradition there are cautions against this kind of attachment to “self.” The Buddha suggested that the root of all suffering is attachment. Nirvana is that place where we free ourselves from wishes that we, and the world around us, could be different. Freedom is the complete acceptance of what is. But I wonder if the path to Nirvana requires us to traverse the valley of doubt. Could it be that it is only after we discover a valuable self that we can finally let it go and end the search?
Human relationships are complex, difficult and often break our hearts; but if they were otherwise—easy to understand and incapable of touching our hearts—of what value would they be? They are the gateways into the valley of doubt and self questioning.
So, as you ask me about the validity of our relationship—whether I like you and you like me—I ask for your understanding if I squirm. To entertain those questions is to invite you into a deeply personal, and sometimes frightening, introspective dialogue. The answers to those seemingly simple questions are waiting for me to answer the larger question of how much I care for myself—questions that emerged long before a fishbowl appeared in the middle of the room. And those deeper answers are nearly sixty years in the making.