Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Virtue of Relentlessness

I am not much for summer.

For the last 9 years I have lived in a climate with glorious winters and summers that would make Dante add a 10th ring of hell. Oh but it's a dry heat, my friends from the east coast tell me. Yeah, but so is a blow dryer and I wouldn't want to sit under one of those for 3 months. My Irish skin sears like an ahi tuna in the desert heat. The only thing that is supposed to burn my people is whiskey on our throats as we laugh merrily at frigid winters.

People from southern California will tell you that this is the best climate in the world, but odds are, those people live much closer to the ocean than I do, where it's 75 and the living is easy. Here it's 105 from July through September, and if you crack an egg at noon on the sidewalk, it turns into a chicken. Who angrily pecks at you. And then explodes.

I don't know if there is such a thing as reverse seasonal affective disorder, but if not, someone needs to add it to a textbook with my sunburnt Irish face next to it. The Weather Channel will put up my picture, warning "If you see this man on a 100 degree day, use extreme caution. Unless he has a slurpee, then feel free to approach. If he drops his slurpee during your conversation, run far and run fast." I was perfectly normal when I lived in Seattle, when the low hanging winter clouds brought despair and The Shining-like homicidal cabin fever, and the summers returned hope and sanity to a blindingly pale people, until we reached that inevitable day, usually around July 6th, when the Mariners were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. But now a rainy day brings jubilation and a hot summer day makes me believe that there is no God.

That is me during a normal summer in this desert life. But I'll be honest: summer 2013 has been an unusually bad summer. I am inclined to call it the WORST.SUMMER.EVER, but I fear I am setting myself up for a future summer to trump this summer in its worstness. It has been a summer of disappointment, of heartache, and of loneliness, words that we all know barely scratch the surface of the feelings they try to describe.

I have been spending 3 days a week up north in the Santa Barbara area, but my wine country experiment has been a huge disappointment, and it now seems that Santa Ynez will just be a stop along the road rather than a destination. It has not offered me the sense of belonging that I hoped it would. Next week I start my 3rd winery job, in six months, and while I think this will be the best one yet, I do not anticipate a change of heart toward the area. It's just not home. I'm just not small town rural. If a place doesn't have a classical music station, or a jazz station, or NPR, then Adam is not long for that place. Wise people have often said that the only thing scarier than not realizing your dreams is realizing your dreams. I get that now. It's enough to make you stop dreaming.

I spent the last couple of days in Big Bear, in the mountains, hoping to find some flicker of hope in the dog days, and yesterday I wrote this tweet:
Even though I am now back down the mountain perspiring through another sweltering day, there are places in the world that are showing signs of fall. A new season is almost upon us.

I read somewhere that each person is built for a particular season of the year, and if that is true, then the season of my personality is autumn. Every year a thrill runs through my body as I notice that the days are getting shorter, the morning sun is heating the air a little slower, the sunset hues are slightly more somber. Even if summer was unbearable, there is still plentiful harvest. In wine country the grapes are being harvested, row by row, and there is reason to believe that vintage 2013 will be an exceptional one. Perhaps that is because the vines have had to struggle so much in the heat and strong winds. There was virtually no rain and so the roots have had to dig deep to find water and nutrients.

The change of seasons is inevitable. There is no summer too hot to keep autumn from coming. There is no winter that can prevent buds from breaking. No extreme can keep the earth from dancing and spinning to its ancient rhythm. No shackle can keep the unyielding redemption plan from going forward. No loneliness can change your status as beloved.

Perhaps this is a season to praise the virtue of relentlessness. Maybe your dreams of this season have been dashed and maybe you don't have a specific hope for the next one, but the seasons are relentless and for that reason I think we can be relentless too.

There is a moment in the film version of Return of the King that comes to mind. Aragorn addresses the men of Gondor who stand trembling at the Black Gates of Mordor as Frodo and Sam limp toward the fires of Mt. Doom:

I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day!

A day may come when I surrender to the barrenness of the desert life, when I stop anticipating a plentiful harvest and meals shared and wine poured around a grateful table. But it is not this day. 

A day may come when I give up on dreaming big dreams, when I let disappointments deter me from hoping and believing and pushing forward. But it is not this day. 

A day may come when I stop fighting for relationships that I treasure, when I let the obstacles and distances and problems win out and I forsake people I love. But it is not this day.

A day may come when I give up on rescue from exile, when I stop preparing the way of the Lord that will bring me home, lift up every valley, and bring low every mountain.  

But it is not this day.

It is not this season.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Just" Listening?

You'll have to forgive me for my reticence friends. I am dug deep into my manuscript for my second book, not to mention working through all kinds of career and personal exigencies. All will likely be quiet on the Adam S. McHugh front for a while. I do, however, want to share with you an excerpt of my book, so you don't forget about me entirely. This comes from Chapter 6: Listening to Others.
I got serious about listening when I realized I was missing things. Layers of meaning and opportunities for connection were lurking near the surface of my relationships, but I wasn’t hearing them, even with those people I loved most. I was skilled at saying wise and empathetic sounding things; I was more skilled at holding people at arm’s length. Whenever a conversation turned toward emotions, I started looking for an exit.

My retreats were subconscious. I didn’t realize that I was backing away from conversations and from the people who had the courage, or foolishness, to express emotion to me. It wasn’t like I was walking out of the room. Well, I suspect that if my heart had legs it might have tried. I considered a moment of pain, crisis, or unfiltered emotion an opportunity to impart my insight, to rescue someone from their weakness, to correct distorted thinking, to evaporate the pain. In my mind it was a chance to engage a problem; in truth I was disengaging from the person. Surprisingly, my strategy to fix people never worked. Not one damn time.

A few years later, when asked to write down my personal mission statement, I wrote this:

Above all else, I want the people in my life to know that when they come to me, with whatever is on their mind or heart, they will be heard. I am dedicated to hearing the hearts of those around me. 

It’s unlikely to make the annals of Christian history alongside Saul on the Damascus Road or Saint Augustine’s “take and read” moment, but clearly I went through some kind of conversion experience. The friends I have known since my college days would like to award me the “Most Improved” trophy, which we all know is a way of saying “You used to be truly awful, but we’re no longer embarrassed to have you on the team.” I get the Most Improved Listener trophy. It’s a golden ear.

What changed was this: I had a mentor who wouldn’t let me get away with ducking out of emotional conversations. We met every Wednesday afternoon for 4 months, and she drilled this into me: “Stay in the feeling. Stay in the feeling. Stay in the feeling. Stay in the feeling.” She seized on my tendency to run from feelings, both from the feelings of the people I worked with and from my own. The pattern was unmistakable: every time someone shared a real feeling, I told them, in one way or another, not to feel it.

Sometimes I tried to argue them out of the feeling, sometimes I tried to divert it with humor, sometimes I offered up quick reassurance, like “it will all work out” and at other times, I tried to pray the feeling out of them. I was the feelings exorcist. The way I dealt with the emotions of others, was indicative, as it always is, of the way I treated my own emotions. Every time I walked into a patient’s room, I checked my heart at the door. I had little capacity for entering into the emotional world of others because I was unfamiliar with the terrain of my own emotional world. When that is the case, you have little choice but to practice a ministry marked by standing over people rather than sitting with them.

I suspect it was not a coincidence that I soon found myself in a ministry that centered around listening. I am not sure what possessed me to say yes to a hospice chaplain job. Someone out there must have prescribed listening as a cure for my soul. Day after day, for 4 years, I sat at the bedsides of the dying and the grieving, and I also killed the buzz of every party I attended by simply answering the question “What do you do?”

All ministries are (or should be) listening ministries, but in a hospice ministry in particular, a listening presence is largely what you have to offer, which turns out to be quite a bit. Hospice patients have big feelings. The ones who don’t are usually doped up on Morphine. My patients had surprisingly little interest in any input I could provide for their situation. Apparently even my level of insight couldn’t fix this whole dying problem. So I listened. And I empathized. And I mirrored back emotions. And a few people departed this world in peace. That was when the phrase “I just listened” left my vocabulary forever. Deep listening is too impactful to ever be preceded by “just.”