Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Price of Kindness

We like to praise virtues like kindness, gentleness, and understanding. We want to possess those traits and we want others to exhibit those traits. We instruct our children to walk those ancient paths. Most church services, in one place or another, will instruct us to live out those traits or encourage us to confess how we have failed in living those things out.

What we don't talk about enough is the cost that we have to pay in order to be kind, gentle, forgiving, and understanding.  There is a steep price, and the reason why the world sometimes seems starving for kindness and gentleness is because many people are not willing to pay the price. Kindness requires us to absorb pain.  The famine of kindness does not owe to lack of exhortation; it owes to our unwillingness to absorb pain. In order to be the kind of people we wish to be, we must absorb the pain of others and we must absorb our own pain and hurt.

Gentleness and kindness do not magically flow out of us; they are the spoils of battle. Every time someone approaches us with their pain, or hurts us, we have to choose what we will do with that pain. Will we strike back, inflicting their pain back on them, magnifying the pain, or we will do the hard work of absorbing it? Will we channel that pain into escapist pursuits, or will we confront what is inside ourselves?

No one told me how much intimate relationships and ministry have to do with absorbing pain. No one told me how success and happiness in this life are directly related to how I would handle pain. Not in trying to avoid pain, because good luck with that, but in how I would handle the pain that would inevitably and frequently come.

Angry people, who take out their anger on others, have not learned how to absorb pain. People who regularly engage in escapism have not learned how to absorb pain. I learned a few years ago that whenever I am regularly procrastinating from a project, it is because I am processing pain, and usually the fear of failure.

It seems that the easy and natural way to deal with pain is to inflict it on others or to channel it into escapist pursuits. I have a theory that the huge problem that our culture has with pornography is not because of voracious sexual appetites, but because people do not know how to absorb pain. Pornography addiction, in part, comes from pandemics of loneliness, depression, and relational brokenness.

If we want to truly be kind, gentle, and understanding people, we have to be willing to do the hard work of absorbing pain and finding healthy outlets for releasing our pain. Sometimes you have to punch a pillow a few times. More often you talk it through with a trusted friend or pay a therapist a visit. Always you pray. I am also convinced that Protestants would do well in emulating Catholics in the discipline of confession, not only releasing sins but the power that pain has over you.

Sometimes absorbing pain feels like an overpriced good, and we will handle it poorly. Then we will hope that others will pay the price for us.  The best relationships are not ones without pain, but ones where people are willing to pay the price of kindness and forgiveness for each other, again and again.

It is insufficient to say "be kind and gentle." We must pay the costs to be kind and gentle people. Truly kind people are those that have shown a willingness to pay the price, because they know that a kind and gentle response is worth it.

Friday, February 21, 2014

On Having Dreams

Last year, I believed in having dreams. I believed in taking risks to pursue those dreams. I believed that if you loved your dreams enough, and stared at them long enough, there was a magic in there that could change your life. So, in the searching words of that weird looking kid from Love Actually, I said "Let's go get the shit kicked out of us by love!" 

One year ago, I left ministry. In the early pages of Ezekiel, the glory of God up and left the temple and flew out into the wilderness. Last February, my sense of call, sounding clearly for 12 years, up and flew north. Or so I thought.

Posts like these are extremely uncomfortable for me to write. I do not enjoy sharing the details of my life en route; I would much rather write from a destination. I want to tell you the story of how my life was hard once, how I tore an ACL two years ago, but I have since rehabbed and recovered and am now competing for a gold medal. I want to tell you that I moved to wine country, immersed myself in a community of passionate and adventurous friends, and that we all feast continually on nectar and ambrosia like a pantheon of gods, presided over by Bacchus, the god of wine, ritual ecstasy, and getting it on. 

Instead, my pantheon of gods turned out to be more like the seven dwarfs. I had dreamed of a big life in a small town. I found myself living a small, boring life in a tiny town. I thought I was moving home; instead I was more of a stranger than ever. After 3 jobs in 6 months, each more disappointing than the previous, I returned to L.A., a city that I have never had great fondness for but that somehow felt more like home than where I had been.

If you have a retreat place, think carefully before you decide to make it a permanent home. There is a reason it is a "retreat," and there is a good chance if you decide to move there, it won't be the "advance" that you think it will. You want to sit for a spell under the shade of a tree, not settle there like the Swiss Family Robinson.

The last year, without hyperbole, has been the hardest year of my life. It has brought with it bouts of depression, when I didn't want to get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes I have been sad and other times I have been angry and often I have felt lost, still wandering in the wilderness, trying to find where the glory of God went. One morning in November I sat on a bench at the beach, the sun shining radiantly, and just felt utterly abandoned and bereft. One afternoon I sat at my favorite coffee shop in Los Olivos reading, and an old man, not knowing I was there behind the tree, threw the remnants of his coffee on me. It's been a throw-cold-coffee-on-Adam kind of year.  My heart has been pierced, again and again.

I had hoped that once the calendar flipped to a new year, life would get easier, as though the milestones of the Gregorian calendar have any real efficacy over the trajectory of our lives. It's 2014, and life is still hard. Most of my best friends are settled into careers and are raising children. When we get together they talk about raising newborns and buying houses. Their lives seem to have a shape that mine does not. I dismantled my life last year, and I am still searching for new parts so I can rebuild.

My spiritual director likes to ask the question, "Where has God been in this situation?" Last time I met with him, I answered "Beats the hell out of me dude." I know God is there, like the wind whipping through the trees, but I cannot see him.

Maybe God is in the fact that I survived the last year. You know what? It didn't kill me. I uprooted my life and took huge risks and put myself out there and made myself vulnerable to the point of heartbreak and shattered dreams, and I'm still breathing. Suck on that, death. This morning I got up early and poured myself a cup of coffee and read a great book. Later today, I am going to work. I do not regret leaving ministry. It was the right call. I have two jobs in the wine industry, am applying for a third, and will be taking the first level sommelier exam in May. There is something for me there that I must continue to explore. There is life and truth in a great glass of wine.  

There is something to be said about not being dead. About going to work every day, even when it's tedious or unfulfilling. About having a heartbeat and working lungs. There is a great deal to be said about taking in moments. I think often of a phrase out of Full Catastrophe Living, "You only have moments to live." We devote so much energy to cycling through the memories and regrets of the past, or to what will come in the future, that we miss what is right in front of us. This morning I woke up before my alarm clock, yet again, and as I lay there frustrated and too tired to fall back asleep, I decided to tune my ears to the life around me. I heard an owl hooting outside my window. I listened to him for at least 10 minutes, letting his vigilance protect my heart.

I still believe in dreams. I still believe in taking risks. I won't be someone who chooses comfort and security over going for it. I won't let the pain of lost dreams and lost love deter me from dreaming and loving. I believe in long meals with great wine and people you love and laying it all on the line.  I believe in angels and demons and angels who are ridding themselves of their demons.

After three long years, I finished my manuscript for The Listening Life yesterday. I still have much more work to do before I send it in to my publisher. But I finished a full draft. I still believe in writing and bleeding all over the keyboard. It's how I make sense of this life. I won't give up on writing a great story full of heroic deeds and great collapses.