After writing here about the first anniversary of my being fired from a job, where I believe my boss manipulated me and treated me badly, I’ve been thinking about forgiveness. I said in that post that I’d started the process of forgiveness over this. But I haven’t finished it yet.
I believe firmly in forgiveness as the pathway to inner peace. I don’t know about you but I find peace to be crucial to my ability to access joy.
Peace and joy are occasional but regular themes on this blog. They don’t come naturally to me. I worry about the future and I ruminate over bad memories. Also, I deeply want to right wrongs. There’s a certain power in these traits when I channel them well, but they can also consume and paralyze me.
In my 20s I learned how to let go of unwanted thoughts and how to breathe deeply to let peace in. I learned to accept that in life something is always wrong, and while I should act on the wrongs I can fix I must otherwise lean into what’s good. I’ll always find some good when I look for it.
Even now, in my 50s, I have to deliberately practice these things. They may never come naturally. Who knew a healthy inner life would take so much maintenance?
But when I haven’t forgiven, none of those practices work very well. Forgiveness cleans the slate.
I have suffered this wrong, absorbed this loss, and moved forward in my life. But I still harbor extremely negative feelings toward my former boss. Even though she was fired shortly after I was, I still wish for greater justice. So my forgiveness is not complete. I trust that it will be, in time.
I feel sure that I will avoid her in the future. She still works in my industry in this town; we could easily cross paths again. My forgiveness will not mean that I should behave as if nothing happened. Someone who has treated me this badly earns the judgment of “unsafe.” While it’s not impossible to regain my trust from there, it’s extremely difficult. It should be.
I’m behind on blogging again. Too much of my blogging time has gone to other priorities lately. For the rest of this week I’m going to repost my essays on forgiveness.
I’m anxious, driven. I am always thinking, worrying. Pausing for quiet is hard. I have to really concentrate to shut my brain off and find peace. That’s why I like to wash the dishes.
It helps that I don’t have a dishwasher. I’ve thought about installing one so the house is easier to sell someday. But if the dishes are to be washed, my hands have to get into soapy water.
Most of the time, I end up lost in thought while washing dishes. But have you ever really paid attention to how warm dishwater or a scratchy dishtowel feels on your hands? Have you ever paused to breathe in the scent of your sink as it fills with suds, as the leftover food smells are overtaken by your dish soap?
I iron my shirts, too. I like a clean, pressed look. But have you ever really felt your shirts’ fabric between your fingers, listened to your iron vent steam, felt the humidity building in the air?
When I focus on noticing these things, these mindless tasks become mindful. My worrisome thoughts drift; my mind quiets. I shed stress and I feel calm. And, strangely, these mundane jobs become sensually interesting.
I don’t do it often enough, but when I do I find that now can be pretty interesting and wonderful — and think that maybe the future over which I worry will be too when it gets here.
“The present moment is full of joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” — Thích Nhất Hạnh
This post from 2011, which I’ve freshly updated, deserves another chance.
I hang my most-used kitchen knives on the wall next to my sink so they’re always at hand. Use wears them down, of course. When they won’t glide right through a tomato or when a roasted chicken shreds rather than slices, I know it’s time to visit my father. Dad has mad sharpening skills.
When Dad returns my sharpened knives he always says the same thing. “Now,” he begins, with an air of authority, “these knives are sharper than the day they left the factory. They will cut you deeply. You will probably see your blood before you feel any pain. But they are now safer than when you brought them to me. A dull knife tears rather than cuts. It is more dangerous because it can do more damage.”
It is obvious that a sharp knives work best. On the face of it, it seems just as obvious that a sharp person works best, but that’s been a hard lesson for me. I have pushed myself too hard for too long on many occasions, bringing on exhaustion so deep that recovery took weeks or even months. I’m definitely a type-A personality, and maybe I’ve had a bit of a martyr complex too. But fortunately, I’ve figured out that taking good care of myself gives me the resources to be the man I want to be – kind, patient, giving, involved, and effective.
I guess most people find that middle age brings deeper self-insight, but I’ve found it startling just the same. Happily, that insight tells me how to stay sharp:
I need at least seven hours of sleep each night. I can get by on less for a few nights, max, but then I become very grouchy.
I need to talk through things that trouble me, even small things. Just telling them to a friend helps, but it’s even better when my friend can ask questions and give feedback. I find that when I talk through these things, I am more likely to resolve them rather than let them molder and become big problems.
I need to hang out with bright, articulate people with whom I can have meaningful conversations.
I need to spend time with my sons, who are my favorite people in the world. I like to hear their stories and just hang out with them. Nobody makes me laugh more than my sons.
I need to spend quality time at home almost every day. My home is the center of my world.
I need regular quiet meditative time. My thoughts and feelings run at a hundred miles an hour. They need a break, even if it’s for just ten minutes.
I need to have personal projects that I can work on at my own pace. My career is full of discussing strategies, planning projects, building schedules, leading people, and driving deadlines. The pressure can be very high. I need little things I can do with my hands and finish them at whatever pace I choose. It feels freeing to work on them whenever I darn well please, and when I finish, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
I need hobbies that let me explore and learn. This is why I taught myself how to write code as a teenager and why I take pictures with old film cameras today. I find it exciting to build deep knowledge by discovering it through direct experience.
Sometimes life conspires to keep me from these things. Sometimes I fool myself into thinking I don’t need them. When it happens, I soon find myself tired and irritable. If I let it continue, my reserves are soon tapped and I risk depression and exhaustion.
Do you know what you need to be whole, loving, and full of grace? I’d love to see your list in the comments or, even better, on your own blog with a link back here.
When something you don’t like happens to you over and over again, at some point you have to look hard at the part you play in it.
At the beginning of this year a larger company bought the company for which I work. Most acquisitions seem to be about neutralizing a competitor or reducing overall costs through layoffs, but this one was different. The company that bought us wanted our products and our people and treated the acquisition almost like a merger of equals. At about the same time I got a new boss, which would have happened merger or not. So on top of merger activities – new processes and systems, getting new computers, a switchover to the acquiring company’s computer networks and IT policies – we also embarked on a very aggressive project, and I had to figure out how to work for my new boss.
The scene of my stress
The stress was intense. By the time the project ended in early August, I was teetering on the edge of burnout. My boss comped me an entire week off to recover, but it wasn’t enough. I’m still feeling aftereffects of the exhaustion, and am trying hard to get my head back into the game.
The thing is, I’ve been here over and over again. I took an inventory of just the last ten years and counted six times I’ve been exhausted like this, and some of those times have been for long periods. This has unintentionally become a theme on this blog; check out the stories here and here and here and here and here. I tended to finger external causes – it was the divorce, or a lousy project at work, or too many commitments. While external forces certainly played in these stressful times, I was overlooking the common denominator: me. As I took stock, here’s what I learned about myself.
I love to start new things. I am excited by a new venture’s potential and tend to say yes even when I’m already plenty busy. This is how I came to manage three separate departments and own a few side initiatives – the opportunities sounded exciting, so I said yes. I juggled these responsibilities well enough until the merger, when expectations and workloads spiked, and then I couldn’t handle it all.
I want to look like I can handle whatever is thrown at me. While all this was going on, my new boss wanted me to start several other side projects. I wanted her to see that I was in her corner so I took them on, but I was already behind the eight ball and this only made it worse. I ran frantically from meeting to meeting and watched my e-mail inbox fill faster than I could respond. People who worked for me could never get five minutes of my time.
I think that unless I’m killing myself, I’m not working hard enough. This has to come from my parents, because they both will work ridiculous overtime and go in even when they’re so sick they can hardly stand, as if their health and sanity is less important than their work. I’ve never been one to work overtime unless someone holds a gun to my head, but I multitask like a madman even though all the research says multitasking doesn’t work.
I am a perfectionist. Actually, I’m a recovering perfectionist. I know that what I consider to be my best work is often far more than what the situation calls for. But it still bothers me when I have to deliver less than my best. I had to do a lot of that just to survive this year, and it added to my stress.
I’ve finally had enough of this repeated exhaustion. In April, I asked my boss to narrow my responsibilities. She’s worked steadily on it and now I have a workload doable by a mortal man. Here are some things I’m working on so that I don’t wind up back in this mess again.
It’s time to learn to say no. My new mantra is, “I’d love to take that on, but something else has to come off my plate first.”
I have a new daily goal of not coming home from work feeling fried. This means I will pace myself every day, and this actually scares me. I’m afraid that if I don’t work ridiculously hard (or at least look like I’m working ridiculously hard) I’ll get bad reviews or end up fired. I’m going to face this fear head on. Logically I know that if I slow down it won’t result in unemployment, but I don’t feel it. But I’m already thinking about the extra energy I’ll have for my sons when I come home.
I will relax in the evenings. I feel like I need to work when I get home, too – cleaning, writing, cutting the grass, paying bills, or any number of other things. From now on, every evening will contain at least some time to read or watch TV or sit on the deck and watch the lousy golfers on the course behind my house hook balls into my back yard.
I’ve taken up meditation and yoga. The meditation helps me relax; continuing to practice it will help me cultivate staying present even when stress naturally occurs. The yoga is helping me accept my limitations – I’m unathletic and have terrible balance, and so many of the poses don’t come easily. But however well I can do the pose is inherently okay. And I find that without striving, over time the pose comes a little easier. Maybe life’s the same – stretch gently, listen to yourself for signs it’s time to stop, and try again next time to find you can stretch just a little bit farther than before.
I tried out for basketball in the fifth and sixth grades. I didn’t make the cut either year, but Coach Bottorff always encouraged me. “You learned some fundamentals in here,” he said. “You keep practicing them and maybe you can play next year.”
I didn’t really want to play basketball. My mom made me try out because she thought it would make my dad happy. So of course I didn’t practice my layups or do my Maravich drills. No wonder I never made it onto the team. Playing basketball took commitment to fundamentals that would build my skills, and I certainly didn’t have that commitment.
When I came to Christ, I wanted do whatever it was Christians did, but I had no idea what those things were. I had commitment, but no coach to teach me the fundamentals. I went along like this for several years. I could tell I wasn’t growing. It frustrated me, and I wondered, “Is this all there is? This isn’t any better than my life without Christ.”
Fortunately, I didn’t give up before I encountered a few key people, spiritual coaches if you will, who showed me some fundamentals. Here’s the guts of what I learned.
James 4:7 says, “Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” I think it’s interesting how submitting to God is mentioned in the same breath as resisting the devil. I think that it tells us that submitting to God is a way to accomplish resisting the devil. Not that we shouldn’t resist in other ways. I don’t know about you, but I was able to put away some of my sins by my own will power. I resisted them through force of will. My will power was not enough, however, to overcome some of my other sins, and I kept doing them. Those kinds of sins are what lead us, in our dark moments, to doubt our salvation. Those sins, I think this verse tells us, we must submit to God and let him take away.
James reinforces this point in verse 8. He says, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Notice how drawing near to God is mentioned in the same breath as cleansing your hands and purifying your hearts. Again, where we can cleanse our hands and purify our hearts through force of our own will, we should do it. But we all have sins where will fails, and there only drawing near to God will make us clean. But this verse adds a thought not present in verse 7. It says that as we draw near to God, God will draw near to us. Could it be that God’s drawing near to us is what makes our sins diminish and disappear?
In verse 9, James says, “Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.” This is a verse of repentance. Interesting how James speaks of repentance in the next breath after talking about submitting to God and drawing near to him. I think James is drawing a relationship between repentance and turning to God.
Repentance is just turning away from sin. Sin is just actions that miss the mark, fall short of God’s standards, and, most importantly to this discussion, show that we have turned away from God and are going in the wrong direction. So repentance is just turning back toward God. You know, submitting to him. Drawing near to him. God loves it when we do that, and draws near to us in return.
Finally, James says in verse 10, “Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” Repentance is an act of humility; it involves admitting failure and trying to change ways. I think James is saying that submitting and drawing near are acts of humility, too, because he talks about them in the same context as repentance. So what is the result of this humility? God exalts you. The Greek word hupsoo (hup SO o), translated as exalt here, means to raise to dignity, honor, and happiness. This, then, is the result of submitting to God and drawing near to him: He lifts you up and gives you dignity, honor, and happiness.
Can you imagine it? The more you turn to God, the more he gives you his grace and makes you holy. This is a gift from God, but you have to go to him to get it. And it is not a once-and-for-all gift. You have to keep turning to God, because you need his grace every day!
Lamentations 3:22-24 says, “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘Therefore I have hope in Him.'” Every day we can turn again to God to seek his grace, to be close to him, to feel and see him acting in our lives.
How do you build a relationship with anyone? A best friend? A spouse?
You do it through discipline. I’m not using this word in the sense of punishment or of military precision, but rather in the sense of training yourself to do something or of making something a habit.
I used to have lunch with my oldest friend about once every other week. We stayed up on what was going on in each others’ lives, shared a few laughs, that sort of thing. We felt close because of it. But he moved away two years ago, back to the town we both grew up in, and now I see him only when I’m there visiting family. I don’t know what’s going on in his life very well anymore, and he doesn’t know what’s going on in mine. If I call him, he is happy to hear from me, and we will catch up, but we haven’t built a habit of calling each other. We lost the discipline of contact, and so we drift.
The Bible mentions many disciplines that God’s followers have practiced. Richard Foster explains them in his book, Celebration of Discipline: Meditation, prayer, fasting, study, simplicity, solitude, service, worship, confession, and celebration. These are all ways of drawing near to God. Practiced in the ordinariness of life, they can provide the closeness to God that transforms us.
So get Foster’s book and try these disciplines. Stick with the ones that work best for you. I find fasting to be difficult and unrewarding, but I feel like I grow steadily closer to God as I practice study, meditation, prayer, and solitude. When I let these disciplines fall away, I feel my closeness with God fall away, too. It’s because these are things I have to keep doing, habits I have to maintain – fundamentals, like those infernal Maravich drills for a kid who wants to play basketball.
I taught my Sunday school class about meditation last Sunday. As I gave them a Bible verse to focus on and walked them through a meditation technique, I was the most nervous I’ve ever been while teaching, and not by just a little bit.
I teach the seniors, those 60 and older, in our congregation. Some of my students are almost 90. Most of their years in the church were during a time when obedience was held up highest. Now, I’m not sniffing at obedience. But as I’ve watched a few class members move to their life’s final phase, I have come to see how many of these people still worry about their salvation, even after having been Christians for twenty and thirty years longer than I’ve been alive. One 88-year-old woman I know says she knows God has made his promise to her through the Bible, but she knows how she has continued to fall short all her life, and she worries. It’s as though God has been a remote taskmaster in her life. I think they may know God, our judge, but maybe not Christ, our counselor, and the Holy Spirit, our comforter.
So I have stepped out of the safe harbor of teaching various Bible books and am now teaching about drawing closer to God through spiritual disciplines, practices such as meditation, prayer, fasting, solitude, and study. God’s followers have been practicing these disciplines through the ages, and much has been written about how to do them. I am still a novice at these things and do not practice them consistently, and I wish I were more experienced to teach them. But I know that when I have practiced them, I have experienced greater closeness to God in which I felt safe and secure in his love for me, accepted regardless of my failings. Even better, I have found that the closer practicing spiritual disciplines brings me to God, the less I sin. So I decided to try to offer this to the class, hoping it might meet the spiritual need I think I see.
Meditation has a long and illustrious history in Christian practice, and the Bible even mentions the practice on the order of 20 times. From what I’ve read, meditation was once as common a practice as prayer among believers. But I think Christians such as these, for whom the old saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” is a prevailing attitude, are suspicious of meditation because Eastern religions seem to own it today. I’ve heard people in my congregation speak with contempt of Zen meditation (and yoga, that’s the other big one) because of the belief systems from which they come. I know (but do not wish to debate) that adapted techniques do not supersede beliefs and faith.
You see, I adapted many of my meditation practices from Zen. I learned them in my early 20s, when I flirted with Buddhism. I had read a whole bunch of books by Thich Nhat Hanh about living peacefully when somebody loaned me a book on Zen mediation, which I tried. It took a lot of practice, but to the extent I had success, I did find a greater sense of well being in it.
And because I wanted to teach something I could vouch for, I introduced the class to some of those practices on Sunday. I tried to hide my anxiety as I spoke. Everyone sat quietly and patiently as I explained these techniques, but I read nothing on their faces and so don’t know how they took it. I told them I’d ask them the next Sunday how meditation went for them. I can tell I’m going to be nervous this Sunday morning, too.