Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Grace Deeper Than No

“It’s whether you say yes or no to the serpent, to the adventure of being of alive.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Last week I attended a beautiful Vespers service at my church. Dimmed lights, silent reflection, and quiet music set the mood for a meditation on the 23rd psalm. The minister took the image of the cup that runneth over as the focus of his talk. He read a quote from Martin Luther that I haven’t been able to track down, but it spoke of the grace that comes when we stop resisting the troubles and difficulties that are a part of life, when we stop saying ‘No’ to hardship. There is a Grace that is deeper than that No, says Luther, if only we are able to affirm all that happens to us, good or bad.

In the quote, Luther describes his own experience of being “crushed in the spirit.” By enduring his anguish, by surviving it, but, more than this even, by saying Yes to it and affirming his suffering, he discovered that Grace awaits on the other side of such pain, and he knew the experience of the overflowing cup talked about in the psalm. Listening to this meditation, I was moved by the idea of a Grace deeper than No, which I take to mean that to resist a part of life is to resist the whole of life, and that pain and sorrow are not barriers to living, but are also bearers of life’s secret.

When I was in theater school, we would take classes in improvisation. One of the cardinal rules of improvisation is that you can’t say No. That doesn’t mean that you can’t actually use the word no, but that you must avoid blocking the suggestions made to you by the other actors. So, if someone says, “Gee, your sex-change operation went really well,” you can’t say, “I didn’t get a sex-change operation!” You would have to go with the suggestion. In other words, you have to adapt. But it is about more than that. To say No is to cut off the creative possibilities of the moment. As Keith Johnstone, an improvisation teacher and the creator of Theatresports, once put it, “There are people who say Yes and there are people who say No. Those who say Yes are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say No are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

Saying No, or blocking, is not just a problem in improv, it is a problem in life. In many ways, we have become people who are unwilling to suffer any kind of discomfort, let alone pain and suffering. Our collective mantra has become “I can’t deal with this,” or sometimes, “I don’t need this right now.” And yet we don’t always get the option to decide whether we will deal or not.

There have been many times in the past two years when I have been confronted with the question of whether I could deal, whether I was willing to face pain and loss. After my wife, Allison’s, cancer treatment was done, and she began to look and feel healthy and whole again, I realized I was having trouble opening up to her and allowing myself the emotional intimacy that was always so easy and natural for us. I had come too close to losing her and I recognized that in opening up to her, I was recommitting myself to the possibility of experiencing that agony again.

I have experienced something similar with my sister, Carla, since she was diagnosed with ALS. Beside the instinct to be near her and get every moment I can with her, there is a counter instinct in me to stay away. Pain in this situation is not just a possibility. It is a certainty. And something in me wants to run far away from it. With both Allison and Carla, there is a strong No in me that does not want to have to feel my grief. But, the thing is, the alternative is unacceptable, because it would mean not having the experience of loving and being loved by these two incredible people in my life. It would mean saying No to happiness and joy. I believe that there is a Grace deeper than No.

In my work as a psychotherapist, and in my personal experience, it has become ever clearer to me that one of the most important qualities a human being can develop is the willingness to tolerate pain and suffering. I have found that a person who has a capacity for grief usually has an even greater capacity for joy.

To deny pain and suffering is to deny life. It is to choose a less than human life. Because there is no life that will be free of difficulties, that will be spared the encounter with sorrow. To accept this is not to give in to despair. Quite the opposite. It is to develop an important strength, a strength born of an honest vulnerability. And this becomes a doorway to joy, because when we are faced with loss we remember that each moment is a gift. Life is a gift. Love is a gift.

This is not just a nice idea. It is literally true. We do not and cannot will life and love into existence. They are given as part of the condition of existence and it is our task to learn to receive them. And this is the heart of the matter. To receive these gifts means that we agree one day to let them go, to give them back, to lose them. This is what it means to say Yes to the adventure of being alive. Yes is a small word, but its implications are immense. To accept love means to accept loss. To fully accept life means we must fully accept the fact of death. But the opposite is also true. If we accept loss, we will know love. If we allow death, we will truly be alive. It is only in saying Yes that we finally come into the fullness of our true being.

Saying Yes takes courage. It takes courage, says Paul Tillich, simply to be. It can be a trial and a sacrifice, but the reward is great. Deeper than No is Grace. Passing through pain we discover joy.

At Vespers, as the minister spoke, I knew that this was a service I needed to hear. I knew as I heard about the Grace beyond No, that I was blessed to know love that caused me pain, and to know pain that taught me also about joy. At the end of the service, the sanctuary was lit only by candlelight. Everyone lingered a while in that glow, in the still silence, before, one-by-one, we each got up to leave. I wandered out into the cold, dark New England night thinking about Allison, and Carla, God, my life. At that moment, I was the cup that runneth over. Everything seemed to be exactly in its place.

If you had asked of me anything that night, I would have had only one answer: Yes, yes, yes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wrestling With Joy

"If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us... We are far too easily pleased." ~ C.S. Lewis

A friend posted this quote on Facebook and I felt it added such a great new dimension to the topic of rewards that I had to pass it along.

Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, are often imagined as populated by figures such as the prudish moralist or curmudgeonly ascetic who are concerned that somebody somewhere might be having a good time and are out to put a stop to it. But this remark of C.S. Lewis turns the whole thing on its head.

It's not that we are creatures carried away by our desires. Rather, our desires are "weak." We are "half-hearted." We don't want enough! Is it possible that we talk about pursuing happiness, but are really seeking something less? We look for admiration. We want to be entertained. Many just want to be numb and not feel at all. For me it's comfort (which includes all of the above) for which I trade the possibility of joy.

The poet, Rilke, knew that we asked for too little. He wrote:

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.

So many live on and want nothing
In another poem he uses the image of fighting, but the message is the same. We set our goals too low:

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I don't know why "we are too easily pleased." Rilke suggests that our perspective is too narrow. We want to reduce the "extraordinary and eternal" to a manageable, consumable size. But if the joy that is offered us is truly infinite, we need to take on some of the quality of that larger world. When we "let ourselves be dominated," we grow. Rilke goes on to say that being defeated by the eternal changes us at a fundamental level. We become ready to give up the ambitions of the ego and to accept the promises of the Spirit:

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
Letting go of our "half-hearted" wants can sometimes feel like a defeat. But perhaps it is our little self that is being overcome to make way for a much larger life.

I, for one, am ready to stop wrestling with infinite joy. It's time to cry "uncle!"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Following After Rewards

“to the humble and faithful, to those with compunction and devotion, to those anointed ‘with the oil of gladness,’ to the lovers of divine wisdom who are enflamed with its desire, to those wanting to be free to magnify the Lord, to be in awe of him, and even to taste him.” ~ Bonaventure (from The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism)

PsyBlog has an interesting article on how rewards can have a negative impact on motivation. The article points to research that shows that when people are engaged in an activity they like, their interest in continuing that activity will diminish as soon as they start to expect a reward for doing it. At first this seems counterintuitive. Surely, if you like doing something and you get a reward for it, that should increase motivation. Shouldn’t it?

The problem is that when rewards are introduced, it doesn’t so much add motivation as shift it from one location to another. That is, an activity that used to be fueled by an intrinsic motivation—you just liked doing it—is now driven my extrinsic motivation—the external reward. In other words, pleasure becomes associated less with simply doing a particular activity, and becomes attached to the reward itself.

The authors of the article suggest some other reasons to be wary of rewards:

“Not only this but rewards are dangerous for another reason: because they remind us of obligations, of being made to do things we don't want to do. Children are given rewards for eating all their food, doing their homework or tidying their bedrooms. So rewards become associated with painful activities that we don't want to do. The same goes for grown-ups: money becomes associated with work and work can be dull, tedious and painful. So when we get paid for something we automatically assume that the task is dull, tedious and painful—even when it isn't.”

Back in July when I entered into the Beliefnet blogging contest, I did so because I loved writing, and I loved exploring the idea of God and of religion. It was a chance for me to engage in the “love of divine wisdom.” It was for me a form of prayer and devotion, a way to focus my thoughts and feelings about God, not to mention a chance to think about and share my enthusiasm for the works of people like Rilke, Rumi, Abraham Heschel, Carl Jung, Paul Tillich, and Alan Watts. A chance to dive into the scriptures of the Great Traditions and be enlivened and enriched.

I was honored and excited to win the contest. It was truly a thrill. It is a great gift to be recognized for doing something that you love to do. It is a great need that we all have to be seen, to be given some kind of positive mirroring, to have the things we offer be received and welcomed. I will always be grateful that I had a moment of having those needs met through the writing of this blog.

But rewards also have consequences.

Somewhere along the way, my enthusiasm for writing was overshadowed by my concern for the aftermath of the contest. Where was the blog being promoted? For how long? The fact that it was being promoted at all created such a pressure to come up with new material that my inspiration all but dried up. Then the blog stopped being promoted and my desire to write all but vanished. A lot of this was exacerbated by some miscommunication with the Beliefnet staff, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, left me feeling hurt, abandoned, and a little resentful. (This has all been cleared up, by the way. The people that I have dealt with at Beliefnet have been very helpful, very professional, and very gracious. I’m aware that the feelings I experienced are in large part due to my own psychology, of which I’ll spare you the details.) In short, my thoughts and feelings about this blog became distorted and disconnected from the simple joy I experienced when I first started writing it.

And that brings me to the quote from the mystic, Bonaventure, with which I prefaced this post. When I read this quote it reminded me of the things that initially inspired me to write. These posts are my acts of devotion, and this quote highlights all the qualities that I want to be present in my writing – humility, joy, desire, freedom, and awe. I want this blog to “magnify the Lord,” and, yes, I hope through my writing “even to taste him.”

And so I rededicate myself to writing as an act of love, as an act of devotion, as an act of prayer, and as an act of play. I want to remember the intrinsic pleasure that I get from engaging in these extended meditations and allow that to be my motivation to create. Of course, I still like recognition and I still like rewards. But I believe the true “oil of gladness” with which we are anointed comes from within, and being connected to the world within, teaches Jung, gives a person dignity and certainty in this life.

That said, I still want you to like it.