Human beings are strange creatures, often waiting until we are forced to change rather than choosing to change before we "hit the wall." We see signs--irregular sleep, discord with others, regular illness, excessive drama, acting outside of our values--but we ignore them. We don’t act or we don't act consistently. Each time we ignore a sign we place a brick in the wall we eventually hit when all those signs add up to crisis. Sine qua non is Latin for indispensable element or condition. I call it "readiness." This blog seeks to connect those who are searching for or have found the sine qua non of change. What makes you or keeps you from taking off? What keeps you from flying or helps you soar? What do you know about change that can help others?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What William White knew about Hercules

“Blessed are they who heal us of self-despising. Of all services which can be done to man, I know of none more precious.” 
William Hale White, British writer and civil servant

I found this quote one day while looking for something else and was struck by its audacious insight. I wrote it on a post-it note and stuck it to my monitor where I could compost it, although I wasn't sure why.

Its proximity caused me to think about the work I do teaching and coaching, and pressed me to investigate White’s context and self-image.

In a treatise written after his death it was said about William Hale White (penned as Mark Rutherford) that he wrote peculiarly well about, “misery of diffidence and self-distrust . . . an extraordinary knowledge of loneliness and depression, and of self-deception and humbug . . . his pity for the poor and oppressed, for the lonely and the sensitive, for the unhappily married - for all the world, indeed, except hypocrites and landlords.” White was kicked out of seminary for the meagerness of his faith, and spent the better part of his life moving around looking for the perfect home. It’s not difficult to image White’s primary diagnosis as a lack of self-worth. No wonder he wrote about such things.

Fast forward some months to the Oregon Coast and our fall offering of Creating The Life You Want—eight people joined in community to find where they strayed off the path they thought would be their lives. In a group of high achieving, lovely people I was struck once again by the roadblocks they fashioned using fear and shame and guilt and unworthiness. I thought of White and his quote.

Because over the years it has been a constant theme among our learning communities, I wondered about universality. In our work even those who rise above self-doubt to pursue their dreams are haunted by “monkey minds” that chatter about their lack of worthiness. I concluded there must be an origin of fear, shame and guilt, some epic, mythological origin.

Mythology, for those of you who have forgotten, is a collection of stories that help us explain our beliefs and history; beneath their story-lines they confront major issues such as the origin of humanity and its traditions, and the way in which the natural and human worlds function on a profound, universal level.

Enter Hercules, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman named Alcmene. Hercules was born a great hero with god-like strength. Unfortunately the goddess Hera (Zeus’ wife) was furious about the birth of this child belonging to her husband and another woman. Hera made it her business to make Hercules’ life miserable. Hercules was able to overcome all of Hera’s challenges, until the day she cursed him with madness that caused him to kill his beloved wife Megara and his two children. Hercules was tormented by self-despising for his actions.

There it is--epic reasons so many come to us with the same issues in slightly different, very personal iterations. The foundations for self-despising weren't White’s alone. They belong to all of us beginning with Hercules (even though his evil behavior was not of his own making). I felt relieved to find some explanation for the existence of self-despising as a human trait.

In order to be absolved Hercules had to use his strength for the good of the Gods by completing twelve labors: slay a lion, a multi-headed serpent, a flock of birds, a bull and a herd of man-eating horses; capture a sacred deer and boar, clean a behemoth neglected stable, steal the cattle of a three-headed beast and capture a three-headed dog. And you might remember Hercules overcame his self-despising by repeatedly doing the impossible. He married again and eventually became a god.

There is no contemporary version for how we rid ourselves of our own self-despising since most of the three-headed creatures are long gone. But I do have an idea, and I actually like this rendition because all of the labors are intrinsic in nature, actions aimed at being our best (what greater service can be done for the gods), affecting our outlook and all of our actions. And there are only seven labors, though each must be attended to daily, weekly, relentlessly. All seven are within our control.

  • Physical—fill up our bodies by sleeping, eating and exercising well.
  • Social—hang out with people we love and people who help ground us.
  • Emotional—learn about why we think, feel and do what we do; take responsibility to improve our actions accordingly.
  • Occupational—find and do our life’s work.
  • Environmental—keep our surroundings healthy (guard our home and the earth).
  • Spiritual—connect with a higher source and with all beings.
  • Intellectual—continue to learn and grow our knowledge, skills and abilities.
When we labor this way we become whole human beings, able to be our best selves, the source of our own peacefulness. I wonder if poor myopic White was so focused on the environmental labor searching over and over for home that he abandoned his own physical, social and emotional health. It's no wonder he knew so much about self-despising.

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The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice--
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do--
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I mourn for you

I cry because someone important once degraded you, carved a mark on your soul that colors your lens, distorts your thinking. I ache because your head has built a wall around your heart that protects you from people you long to know. I grieve because you serve others, settle for less than you want, sit with that lump in your throat and ache in your heart that leaks tears when you speak. I mourn for the signs you saw and ignored, parasites sucking you dry of money and emotions, of goodwill and compassion until you cannot put a sentence together any more than you can repair your life because you are clueless about where to start.

Awareness before change

Awareness November 2008

“I was hoping to come back and join you in bed,” my sweetie said clearly disappointed as he walked past me on his way to the bedroom after spending the night in the guest room where his back finds respite. “Too late,” I retorted, fully clothed, brewing a cup of coffee and unfolding my buttermilk pancake recipe. He continued to our bed, surely hoping I would change my mind. Standing my ground meant we missed out on the irreplaceable morning “spoon”—a defiance way beyond the occasion and very much out of character.

I had nothing to say on this Pancake Sunday--a ritual we started to bring the family back to the fold once a week, even after Mom arrived; even when my sweetie tried to get me to leave my post at the grill to come see the critters converged on the deck enjoying the morning’s banquet of seeds and suet. I ignored him. “I’ve got pancakes to turn,” I growled under my breath.

I could feel myself slipping over the edge as Mom poured syrup and detailed the lives of her neighbors and their little girl whom she cannot forgive for going without underpants, and the impending birth of twins, and the small house they live in, and the Mom’s favorite coffee and their latest conversation encased in a “Then I said,” and “Then she said,” recalling every word. “I don’t care,” I thought, through my blank stare.

That was the first time I realized my heart hurt. Not the “I’m-having-a-heart-attack” kind of hurt, but an ache in the anterior. I breathed deep into the pain and sighed.

Luckily only Mom had joined us on this Sunday after Thanksgiving. Instead of the usual group of friends and optimistic chit-chat, we ate with an uncomfortable quiet. It didn’t take long for her to pack up and go home after breakfast, leaving me alone to dwell on the status of my relationship, the recent and untimely death of a friend, my floundering career. My heart hurt. I breathed deep and sighed and relieved it for a moment more.

Awareness October 2009

Darkness had not yet dissolved on the Saturday morning I awoke anxious and sad and inconsolable. The contrast was stark to the usual song in my head. The frenzy prevented me from turning and breathing and willing myself back to sleep. What? I wondered.

The channels flipped on my internal tube, exposing trailers of unfinished business, the chasm I feared growing between me and my daughter, the class the previous day that produced two negative evaluations, conversation with the neighbors at dinner the night before where we talked about elders and our turn, Thanksgiving plans upended again in a phone call.

I paused and hit replay. Decades of chaotic Thanksgiving scenes montaged through; my Dad’s death on the holiday when I was 5, yelling and swats with the hair brush over dresses and curls, a major riff in the family where half split off to celebrate elsewhere, Mom insisting on celebrating one place or another creating the necessity to “pick sides,” my daughter throwing up to avoid choosing, the ache in my heart the year before. Years of chaos and drama created by ancient sadness and suffering disguised itself as current reality and visited me there in my bed to me to remind me to move on.