Sunday, April 10, 2011

It's Lent -- and it's not pretty

And so today begins the last countdown, the last Sunday before Palm Sunday.  These are the dark days of Lent, and it's no wonder this odd photo called to me this morning.  Because it's not pretty.

By now most of us have forgotten or betrayed the promises we made at the beginning of Lent, and all that's left of our fine visions of ourselves and what we might be capable of are the dry bones of broken intentions.  And it's not pretty.

We cannot bear to open our hearts to God, and all we hear when we try to quiet our restless souls is the litany of penitence: all the ways we have not loved, all the ways we have not served, all the false judgments, uncharitable thoughts, self-indulgences and waste, temper, envy, impatience...  It's serious burnout -- and it's not pretty.

And into the ashes I walk this morning, thirsting for insight and longing for hope.  It comes, in a way, but in unexpected guises.  The first is in the words of Parker Palmer, from Let Your Life Speak.  It's an indictment of sorts, but a kind one:  the trouble, he says, is that those broken promises result from our attempts to be noble, trying to give something we don't have to begin with.

"When I give something I do not possess, I give a false and dangerous gift, a gift that looks like love but is, in reality, loveless -- a gift given more from my need to prove myself than from the other's need to be cared for.  That kind of giving is not only loveless but faithless, based on the arrogant and mistaken notion that God has no way of channeling love to to the other except through me... 

Though usually regarded as the result to trying to give too much, burnout in my experience results from trying to give what I do not possess.. Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place."

I get a little more clarification of this from Martha Beck's book, Finding Your Own North Star.  She's talking about the social self -- the one that makes all those promises and holds out all those high ideals -- and the essential self, the one that knows exactly who we are, what we're capable of, and what we were born to do.  And she reminds us of the terrible twos: that time in our lives when we learn the power of the word NO.

"We call this behavioral stage the "terrible twos" because our job is to socialize children, and socialization does not work well when individuals run around screaming 'no' all the time.  In fact, socialization basically consists of learning to say 'yes' to all cultural demands, whether you want to or not.... and if you were forced to say 'yes' when you meant 'no' time after time, you stopped even feeling your inner resistance.  Your social self no longer knows what you want; it's fully focused on forcing you to fit in."

But the good news is that "your essential self cannot be corrupted.  It knows from 'no,' honey, and it will fight you like a trapped tiger -- or a trapped two-year-old -- every time you make a decision that takes you farther from your North Star."  Beck then lists all the ways our essential selves have of derailing contracts our social selves have made that are actually not consistent with our true path: energy decline, sickness, forgetting, making stupid mistakes, social faux pas, fight or flight, addiction, depression...

Sound familiar?  What's your essential self's way of saying no?  And have you been embarrassed by that lately?

I think the message in all this is that we just have to sit with it.  We have to walk into this picture, and look at ourselves, stripped of all the promises and good behaviors, and understand that it's not that we're bad.  We've just gotten off track.  And until we can hear that, see that, feel that, and see through to the good essential-self bones that lie at the heart of being, we've little hope of getting back to that which nourishes and feeds us, puts meat on the bones of our good intentions and clothes us in righteousness and purpose.

Really.  You just have to stop and take stock.  No, it may not be pretty.  But they're good bones -- really they are.  We just have to see them for what they are.  Only then can we begin to put our lives back together and move forward.

Yup.  It's Lent.

And it's not pretty.


Louise Gallagher said...

And there is beauty in it not being pretty. And that is good.

Maureen said...

So many thoughts arise in reading this post....