Thursday, 25 March 2010

Time for a Change

Last weekend I had the good fortune of attending a service at New York Unity church on what was literally the first day of spring.  Spring took its time arriving this year to say the least, with the east coast being battered by rain and wind just days before the spring equinox brought with it near record temperatures in the 70's.  It was a dramatic change, and it seemed as though the first leaves on the trees appeared literally overnight.

During the sermon the minister asked, "Did you ever doubt that Spring would arrive?"  Of course no one did - Spring always arrives!  But then he said, "So do you ever doubt that healing will arrive?  Or success?  Or a change in circumstances?"  There were knowing mumbles all around.

I like to think of myself of an enlightened gal, but it's amazing how easy it is to get swept up in the drama of my life and forget that "this too shall pass."  Of course I don't just mean just bad stuff, but the good stuff too.  All of life is cyclical, but sometimes the cycles move too slowly for me to notice.

Years ago an astrologer told me that astrology is just the study of very large cycles - the orbit of planets around the sun - and their affect on earth and its inhabitants.  These cycles are imperceptible and their effects too subtle for the average  person to notice.  Likewise it is easy for days, weeks and months to roll by without noticing the inch by inch progress made in one direction or another.  Then one day our eyes open and we realize we are in a new space entirely - be it a crisis or a triumph - and we didn't even see it coming.  Just like spring arriving in New York with a skid last weekend.  

So how can we learn to stay poised and unruffled when things are either changing too slowly or too quickly for comfort? Jean Houson said, "Change the story and you change perception; change perception and you change the world."  If that's true then there's no fighting change, just our thoughts about it - our story.

If I tell myself, "I'm stuck and there's no way out!" no doubt I will be miserable.  But if I gently remind myself that life is in constant flux and the next phase of my life is already on the horizon (whether I can see it or not) then I can remain calm and attentive and welcoming to change.  I might even enjoy the "stuck" bits where it feels like change might never arrive!

Plato noticed that, "everything flows and nothing can't step into the same river twice" and you can't fault his wisdom.  But I prefer a more modern reminder of the same truth, from the great sages of Monty Python's Flying Circus:

"And now for something completely different!" 

Happy Spring, everyone.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

How Pessimism Can Save Your Life

I am a wide-eyed optimist at heart, but from time to time it's important to remind myself that things do not always turn out for the best. Sometimes the worst does happen; we hit the end of the line; the party's over.

My father was an Army man.  He was sent to Vietnam in July 1965.  A couple of years ago I decided to learn more about that part of his life.   Thankfully my mom had saved a cache of old reel-to-reel tapes that they used to send back and forth to each other.  She also had a box of their letters.  As I began sifting through their correspondence and listening to the tapes, an image of my dad began to form - not some romanticised vision of a heroic soldier and his one true love (although their love was overwhelmingly present), but of a man trapped in a situation that he hated and who was tortured by the fear that he may have screwed up his life.

Dad loved his country, its democratic system and the principles for which it stands (once stood?) and he wanted to go to law school to do his part in preserving its greatness.  But, as one particular tape made clear, he was disgusted with the military and it's culture of authority-over-decency.  He abhorred the tendency toward shame and bullying which his superiors made clear was the way to get ahead.  He spoke and wrote of his desire to refuse a Captainship, should it be offered - his way of sticking to his principles. My grandfather said he was "intolerant of injustice and unfairness, but was always tolerant, understanding and forgiving of human weakness."

Oddly, he did not seem at all afraid of being in Vietnam.  As an officer he was stationed in Saigon and worked at the large field depot on the outskirts of the city.  The war was still young, and the city still relatively safe.   What did seem to worry him was that he might have ruined his chances of getting into a good law school by not taking his undergrad years seriously enough; and he couldn't shake the gnawing sense that going into the military was a big mistake.

As it turns out, he was not safe in Saigon.  On the morning of April 1st, 1966, a Viet Cong terrorist drove a van full of explosives into the lobby of the Victoria Hotel where he was billeted.  Captain David Marshall Davies was the only American soldier killed in the blast.  He was a few weeks shy of his 26th birthday. 

Next week I will turn 46 - I'll have had 20 years more than my dad had.  I feel a bit sick when I realize how many aspirations I've filed away for someday.   We like to believe that we will always get another chance to step up in life, but my father's short life is a sobering testament to the fact that that is not always the case. 

Being an optimist is fantastic, but perhaps an equal dose of pessimism is what we all need to keep us moving towards our dreams.  As the say goes, "If not me, who? And if not now, when?"

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Not nice...and proud of it!

Someone once asked me how becoming  a Psychosynthesis counselor has changed me.  I hesitated only a moment before answering, "I'm not as nice as I used to be."  But, I hear you thinking, isn't is good to be nice?  In a word, no.  Let me explain.

A few years ago we had a heatwave in London - really hot, almost 100 degrees.  On this particular day I had arrived at class in my trusty VW Beetle with 10 minutes to spare.  I left the engine running so I could enjoy a few minutes gathering my thoughts in the coolness of the air conditioning.  I am not normally the sort to condone such wanton burning of fosil fuels, but following a fraught morning I felt I deserved a moment of cool peace. 

After only a minute or so, a woman walking by rapped on my window.  With a start I snapped to attention and cracked the window to see what she wanted.  With a friendly smile she asked if I wouldn't mind turning my engine off.  I was horrified at having been "caught" in my selfish act, and without hesitating I said, "Of course!" and switched off my car.  As she walked away I felt the red rise in my cheeks and I realized how angry I was.  But I wan't angry with the busy body, I was mad at myself!  My "niceness" had become habitual to the point where I was on people-pleasing autopilot.  

Thus began the process of untangling the difference between nice and kind - two very different things.  After all, giving robust "feedback" (critcism to some) with kindness can be extremely valuable, whereas niceness just for the sake of it evokes images of the smarmy Eddy Haskel on Leave it to Beaver.  (Didn't you just want to punch him?!)

I don't remember where I found the following quote, but I can't resist including it:
"The truth spoken is a gift given. Truth withheld is more than a gift denied, it is an arrow aimed at the heart.

It has been said that "the truth hurts," but the exact opposite is true. No truth is too hurtful, and no lie is harmless. Because every truth opens your heart to another, and every lie separates it.

Yet know this: The way you say your truth can be hurtful.  So speak your truth, but soothe your words with peace."
Many times I have replayed the scene in the car and imagined what I could have said to that lady - something like, "I'm sure you have your reasons for asking me to turn my engine off, but I have good reasons of my own for keeping it running, and it's really none of your business."  (The expression "firm but kind" comes to mind.) 

I'm more honest in my interactions these days, and I have discovered that  I can do all sorts of "not nice" things without a guilt trip, like saying no to my kids, or letting a waiter know the truth when they ask how the food is.  Stepping into my true self may mean that I'm not as nice as I used to be, but, ultimately, I am far kinder, especially to myself.