2019: Goodbye Melancholy; Hello Lovely!

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I have to admit I’ve never been a person who was captivated by systems of government or put much faith in politics. While I believe it is a legit calling for many a brave soul, it has never interested me. Long ago, during the early years of marriage, I found myself in exasperation over my husband’s obsession with politics. Though I had never seen this side of him previously, for whatever reason, his life became centered around the daily success of the party to which he was affiliated and the demise of the one with which he wasn’t.  It seemed as if his mood rose and fell with the news story of the day. I remembering challenging him frequently as to whether or not this obsession was helping him live his vocation as a husband, a father, a social worker. Was it helping him to be a vessel of God’s grace to the world? I reminded him that Judas Iscariot also thought that salvation would come through politics–if only Jesus could rise in political rankings, Israel would be saved. Look at how things worked out for him, I would say.

One of the gift of life’s journey is the time and experiences it gives us to grow and change. I am happy to report that after some time, my husband got off the obsessive political train and found a better balance. His focus shifted more to how he could make a difference in the lives of those God had entrusted to his care–us, his family and the combat veterans who suffer from PTSD whom he treats in his work as a psychotherapist. Each day when he goes to work, he lives his life performing what we Catholics refer to as “The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy”, kind acts by which we live out the teachings of Christ by helping our neighbors with their material, physical, emotional and spiritual needs.

But in some kind of weird role reversal, here we are about 20 years later and over the past two years I’ve found myself slowly but steadily becoming the obsessive one. On too regular of a basis, I’ve been drawn like a moth to a flame to the chaos and negativity and sadness and injustice and plain ol’ ugliness playing out in American politics. Ugh. It’s not fun, but some days I just can’t even stop myself.

Back in my college days, as a double major in Theology and Mental Health/Human Services, I was introduced to the ancient Theory of Temperament. Different fields of the sciences have since re-framed it in many ways, but simply it proposes there are four basic types of temperaments found in human beings. Most suggest we are primarily comprised of one type, but others present the idea we are more likely a mix of two or more. Our professor had us take some kind of assessment to determine what our temperament was–Melancholic, Phlegmatic, Sanguine or Choleric. (If interested, you can take a similar quiz here.) Truly, it was no surprise to me when after adding up the numbers, I was deemed as having a melancholic temperament.

I found myself as a Melancholic described perfectly at this site, “Their generally dour demeanor comes from their inner struggle between an imperfect world and a desire for perfection.” BINGO. This is the truth at the core of my everyday experience, for as long as I can remember! One of my earliest memories was watching Jesus Christ Superstar and bitterly weeping over the injustice of Jesus being killed. For days this sadness hung over me like a big, black cloud. Heck, I was only like five years old, people! These tendencies go WAY deep and I have a long and too comfortable relationship with approaching everything I experience as not measuring up to how it should be. God have mercy on the people in my life (y’all know who you are). Thank you for not giving up on me, at least not yet!!

When I take a deep introspective look inside, I still don’t think I am a political person, but I do believe I have a deep commitment to Gospel values. As a teen, one of the qualities about Jesus Christ that made me want to follow Him and know Him and live a life trying to emulate Him was that He was a rebel with a cause. He bucked a system in which the poor and the misunderstood and the disabled and the women and the down-on-their-luck folks were written off. He championed the cause of the marginalized and He dined with sinners. And even more captivating to me was that some of His loudest critics and fiercest opponents were those from His own religious background, even from His own family. WHOA. This was unprecedented rebellion in the name of LOVE.

So fast forward to now and from my melancholic viewpoint, I see the way Jesus lived in the world and the way He loved people as the way the world should be. But as a wise teacher once wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun”.  These past two years have been filled with encounters in which various groups of friends and acquaintances, with whom I formerly shared a vast amount of common ground on this vision of the world, are lining up in accusation against each other, fighting voraciously with words and insults. I find myself in this weird place where some of the loudest critics and fiercest opponents to my vision of a perfect world are those with whom I share a religious background and a shared history of life. Herein lies the dilemma, the drama, the trigger which I allow to dive me into a sea of melancholy for days on end. And I’ve finally decided it needs to stop.

In an unexpected and wonderfully surprising turn of events, last spring quite an extraordinary person entered my life through a common loved one. After a few blessed opportunities to encounter her over a period of nine months or so, I have decided that simply, she is the embodiment of the word lovely. If we still relied upon printed dictionaries to learn the meaning of words, it would be entirely appropriate for her picture to appear next to the word lovely. And this isn’t just because she is outwardly beautiful, which she is. But it goes so much deeper than that. There are a few different definitions of lovely found in the Free Dictionary, which aptly apply to my new friend. They are as follows:

  1. loving and attentive
  2. inspiring love
  3. having a beauty that appeals to the heart or mind as well as to the eye 
  4. highly pleasing; delightful
  5. of a great moral or spiritual beauty: lovely character.”

Lovely is who she is and what she is about. No one can fake this. In a world filled with reasons to be melancholic, her simple presence in a room lifts up and illuminates all that is beautiful. Even before she speaks a word, her heart is open and welcoming, her eyes communicate love and attentiveness and are always looking for beauty. She finds the good in people, in the world of nature, in the world of great thinkers, writers and poets and she searches and finds the good in ugly situations and difficult experiences. Spending time in her company is delightful, pleasing and it makes me want to be a better version of myself.

What I’ve come to learn from my friend’s example is that becoming lovely takes a lot of work. It takes years of mindfully choosing to find the lovely over and over and over again in people, in places, in things, and in situations and then to respond in kind with loveliness over and over again to people, to places, to things and to situations. For her, the journey to lovely started from the darkest and lowest place of her life and recovery was the road she took to get there.

With the commencement of a new year, I have been inwardly searching for a single word to guide me forward in 2019.  The reason I really like the idea of choosing a word, rather than a specific resolution for a new year is because one word can inspire a multitude of positive actions as I unpack it and embrace it and live it over the months ahead. It has been brewing within me for weeks, but was crystallized yesterday when I caught sight of the photo above from the Instagram account of MagnoliaLovely.

Cooperating with God to focus on all that is lovely will most definitely require hard work and choices and mindfulness. I will need to find balance and stop giving power to politics and pundits and the online arguments between my friends. When I am tempted to turn back, I will need to ask myself if such an obsession helps me live my vocation as a wife, a mother, a vessel of God’s grace in the world. I will need to remind myself that the salvation of the world will most definitely not come through politics, but through Love incarnate.

Like my new friend, I can use the tools of recovery to strengthen me on the way to becoming lovely. Arguably the best prayer ever written in the 20th century is The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr. It is the antithesis to my melancholic way of seeing. May it become my new daily anthem…

God grant me the serenity 

To accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

And wisdom to know the difference.

 

Living one day at a time;

Enjoying one moment at a time;

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;

Taking, as He did, this sinful world

As it is, not as I would have it;

Trusting that He will make things right

If I surrender to His Will;

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life

And supremely happy with Him

Forever and ever in the next.

Amen.

Without further adieu, let the adventure begin…

“Goodbye Melancholy”; “Hello Lovely!” 

Embracing the Unlikely Culprit that Unshackled my Soul

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It was at a very young age when I first began to hate physical activity. If I had to pinpoint the year, it was probably in first grade, circa 1975, when I was introduced to the President’s Physical Fitness test in gym class. It was a yearly assessment that consisted of crunches, pull-ups,the V-Sit Reach, a couple of sprints and the event that most tortured my soul, year after year, the dreaded mile run. This annual test was created in the late 1950’s by a guy who was concerned that children were losing muscle tone because of “the affluent lifestyle of 20th century America”. During President Kennedy’s term in the White House, the President’s Council on Youth Fitness created a Physical Fitness Curriculum for schools. Kennedy himself wrote two articles for Sports Illustrated in support of the program. One was entitled, “The Soft American”.

Children with low muscle tone, soft Americans; the words paint a descriptive picture. I could have been the poster child for the “why” such a program was needed in the schools of America. Apparently when I was being knit in the womb and the Creator was dealing out the metabolism genes, I was dealt a bad hand (at least according to the standards of the culture into which I was born). Pictures of me at the beach in my early years reveal a round and happy girl. Best of all, she is blissfully unaware her chubbiness, considered cute and sweet at 2 years of age, will one day soon become the source of lifelong struggle.

At five it became glaringly apparent that I was considered a not-so-good kind of different in comparison to others. In the kindergarten classroom, I didn’t measure up favorably in regards to the physical attributes girls are taught to highly esteem. But it was the day each year I was forced to run that mandatory mile when I felt at my most vulnerable. There was no way to hide my inability to keep up with the others. Finishing dead last, even after trying my hardest, was utterly demoralizing. Running became the embodiment of everything I despised about the unmanageable parts of my life. I felt as if I was a helpless victim of its mockery.

Born forth from these early experiences of failure, shame & embarrassment was the dominating need to control my environment and the people in it. In her article, “8 Signs You’re a Control Freak”, Dr. Shelley Prevost identifies some of the exact beliefs and behaviors I developed to function in life. Over time they grew in power and succeeded in achieving total control over me.

  1. You believe that if someone would change one or two things about themselves, you’d be happier. So you try to “help them” change this behavior by pointing it out, usually over and over. Check! [√]
  2. You micromanage others to make them fit your (often unrealistic) expectations. You don’t believe in imperfection and you don’t think anyone else should either. Check! [√]
  3. You judge others’ behavior as right or wrong and passive-aggressively withhold attention until they fall in line with your expectations. Sitting in silent judgment is a master form of control.Check! [√]
  4. You change who you are or what you believe so that someone will accept you. Instead of just being yourself, you attempt to incept others by managing their impression of you. Check! [√]

To think I somehow navigated through life in this condition, my soul confined by these heavy shackles, all the while managing to graduate from college, meet and marry my husband and become a mother; it still shocks and surprises me. But truth be told, it came at a high price. My husband felt judged and shamed; my anxiety was completely out-of-control and avoiding it dictated my every move; I was exhausted at working tirelessly to please everyone in the hopes I might be accepted and loved. The toxic repercussions of living as a control freak had infiltrated my mental, emotional and spiritual life. And the culmination—I could no longer hide that I was also in the worst physical shape of my life. The report following the mandatory physical in the pursuit of life insurance was filled with ugly words such as “obese”, “high cholesterol”, “elevated blood sugar”. It confirmed my worst fears and made me again feel like a helpless victim of life’s circumstances.

In the midst of this mess, my old enemy had the gall to show up into my life without an invitation. I hadn’t encountered it since the last Physical Fitness Test was done Senior year of high school. Out of nowhere, my husband began running, day and night, for miles on end. He had decided to train for his very first marathon after a long hiatus from running and became unstoppable. In the process, without even making major alterations to his eating patterns, he dropped 60 lbs. and the transformation wasn’t only physical. There was a confidence that returned to him and an overall sense of well-being pervaded his days.

Two years and two marathons later, living with this invader in my home as a regular part of his daily routine served to slightly weaken my defensive stance towards it. I too was looking for a way to achieve health and transformation, but nothing I tried seemed to be working. It was the one last thing I had not embraced. Coincidentally while in the midst of an interior wrestling match, I was reminded of the story of St. Francis and the leper. Francis abhorred lepers, but one day while riding on his horse, he met a leper on the path. Rather than turn away as he was naturally inclined to do and had always done, he conquered his aversion, stopped, climbed off his horse and embraced the leper, giving him alms and a kiss. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

And the Lord himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body.”

(Testament of St Francis 1-2).

Desperate to be freed from the shackles of perfectionism and control, longing for sweetness of soul and body, I conquered my aversion. Rather than turn away, as I was naturally inclined to do and had always done, I climbed off my horse and I embraced that which I most abhorred—running. I gave it alms and a kiss. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

Continued…