squishy skin and other unmentionables: a path toward belonging

Sitting on a beach near Miami recently, I was struck by all the beautiful bodies. South Florida: land of sensory overload. Bodies seem sculpted, perfected through multiple interventions. Couples look so perfect, so fashionable, that it is easy to believe every other person must be someone famous, right? In a place like that it is tempting to lose your self in the watching of others.

The striking image of one couple is seared in my mind. I have not forgotten seeing them together, and although we did not speak, they taught me a great deal about how to live a meaningful life. I was not struck by their perfect chin lines, yoga arms, mirrored glasses, bangled wrists, or loafers covered in the sheen of wealth. I was not tempted to think they were famous, and I did not envy the perfection they displayed to those around them.

In fact, they were old and flabby, and our only interaction involved me watching them as they put sunscreen on each other.

The man wore swim trunks, pulled up high, just below his rib cage in the way that elderly gentlemen often do. His wife’s face was framed with white frizzy curls, her body in a floral one piece that had seen many a season. They shuffled onto the pool deck together, like so many other retired couples in South Florida. As they began to settle in to chairs, getting out their books and bottles of water, she seemed struck by the ocean before them, and paused, taking it all in. Meanwhile, he reclined, and soon she sat and began putting sunscreen on. She used the good stuff, thick, and so hard to apply one can only hope it created a formidable block to all those carcinogenic rays. Done with the places she could reach, she handed him the bottle, held up her hair, and, without a word, turned around.

He rose from his chaise lounge, poured sunscreen into his hand, and then began to rub it all over her back. She was chunky, so his fingers squished the skin, pinching and rolling her excess, rubbing every square inch, in full public view. In a place where every body is perfect, such a scene felt almost offensive. How brave she was to stand there with her squishy skin exposed! It was a little gross, but I was mesmerized. They were so clearly comfortable together, so aware of their imperfections and their need for each other just to get through a day at the beach, that the eyeballs of the world were irrelevant to them.

It was ugly, but it was also beautiful. (As life often is).

 Here is what they taught me: if we want to be known, to walk through life growing in meaningful connections with others, we have to expose our ugly parts. Many of us can access our desire to belong, to be in easy community, to be a part of an “us.” When told it will require vulnerability, honesty, and exposure, however, most of us decide to pass. We want the easy comfort of being known and loved despite (or, dare I say, because of?) our infirmities, but we don’t want the daunting challenge of admitting we need another person to get all up in our business in order to do life.

We do though. Watching this anonymous older couple forced me to pose a hard question: If I share a lot of life with someone else but s/he never gets to lay hands on my ugly squishy parts, then what am I doing with my time? Moreover, are meaningful, life giving relationships possible if I am always mindful of how much I share, deciding when to be authentically honest and when to hold back just in case it is not safe to go all in?

If we long to be known, cherished and held onto, we have to expose our vulnerabilities.

The hard to reach places on our backs are small reminders that we were made to depend on others. We thrive when we belong, when we are reachable. Interdependency works best when we are open about the parts of us that aren’t camera ready.

As I often find in the beautiful truth of an image that imprints the soul, I also noticed that when we allow ourselves to be touched in the most embarrassing parts, we might find ourselves helped and even protected. Truth be told, the sweet old man was not particularly loving in his sunscreen application; still, he was willing to get messy, all up in his wife’s business, to protect her. The truth is that we can’t make it on our own. We need each other in ways we can’t even imagine. What a worthy thing to know, to say out loud, and to try to live by.

Of course, the best part about all of this is that those places we love to hide are also the places that long for an embrace. When we are touched there, in the spots we want to ignore, we know, deep in our bones, that we are not alone. Such a connection with others is incredibly beautiful, and worth exposing ourselves for. In ways small and large, I suspect we could all benefit from a little less curated image, a little more here I am, in all my (damaged) glory.

 Believing, as I do, that we all carry the imprint of God in our created selves, I suppose the lesson here for me is that we diminish our capacity to thrive in community when we hide any part of our being. While it is true that it is scary to expose ourselves, I suspect it also feels really lovely to be seen, touched and known.

Kindness: a brave act of resistance

A month ago, in the midst of a government shutdown, with a second missed pay check looming, with fights over border walls and locations for Presidential addresses escalating, with angry, blaming tweets flying, with despair climbing, I caught a glimpse of one of the ways we might retain our sanity and affirm our shared humanity. I participated in a ceremony in which a young woman became a Bat Mizvah, and it was so beautiful that I could hardly believe the world didn’t radically change for the better during the hours I spent in the synagogue.

Many traditions recognize the power of a ceremonial marking to guide families through a transition. In Judaism, a young Jew makes his Bar Mitzvah, or her Bat Mitzvah, to acknowledge the transition from childhood to adulthood. The event can be simple or lavish, but it always contains chanting in Hebrew from the Torah, family and mentors who help guide the young one by participating, offering words of affirmation, and praying, and the presence of friends to help the Bat Mitzvah celebrate her hard work and maturation.

 As I watched my young friend step to the lectern, I realized she was invited there by a fiercely-loving Rabbi, who had been working with her to prepare for this experience. Even though the young teen had to rise, chant, speak, and present herself to her community, her Rabbi and mentor stood with her, encouraging her, laughing, guiding her along. Isn’t that wonderful? She didn’t have to walk alone, and neither do we! We can both look for guidance from those who have walked the road before us and provide guidance, space, and an invitation to those who come behind. The Rabbi’s embodied solidarity—her standing with-ness—was stunning in its simplicity. What if we all became people who stand with tender others?

The pinnacle of the ceremony is when the child comes to the Torah, with reverence, and, in this case, some playfulness, to chant a portion heard all around the world from every young person becoming a Bat Mitzvah. There was beauty in the solidarity, in knowing that even on this day geared toward celebrating her, she was one of many. We interact with and document our histories in such performative ways now. Our reliance on social media, on images to demonstrate our worth, has given us importance but also left us alone. Reading a portion of Torah shared globally reminded me that it does not have to be so. We can live in our own skin while resonating and belonging to so many around us. My story is mine, but it becomes meaningful when it is contextualized with the stories of so many others.  

Early in the ceremony her grandparents, brother and parents spoke words of life over her. Her grandparents adore her and were radiant with the pride of folks standing on the sweet side of raising kids to hold on to their faith, their history, their people and their community. They spoke words of blessing, intertwining the legacy of the past with their hopes for her future. Watching, I thought we all have the chance to be people who know the past and what it offers, even as we walk into the unknown ahead. Still, how lovely to pause and hear it. To acknowledge that we don’t spring into existence out of nothing, but we join a living river of souls in stress and at ease, ascending and descending as they find their way.

 Even more poignant, I wept tears of gratitude as I watched my dear friends speak words of life over their daughter. A mom and a dad, each invested in their communities in so many ways, thoughtful and fun, passionate and, above all, present for the long haul in the lives of dear friends. They welcomed their daughter into such friendship. They let her know, with great specificity, that they see her. She got to hear her mom and dad not just celebrate how fabulous she is, but to know deep in her heart that they see all that she is learning to offer the world. They didn’t speak of some hypothetical daughter, but instead of her very self, in her unique wonder.  Watching them speak over her, and then watching her big brother come and chant part of the Torah with her, left me marveling in the beauty of telling each other the good we see, out loud, face to face. This young woman’s life will forever be grounded in the words she heard. Rather than speaking up when we notice the worst in someone, what if we find words to call out the good?

In this era of accusation and assault, this holy moment in time felt like a miracle of kindness to me. Every element offered an alternative for how we might live well with one another. We do not live in scripted times, and we can’t control how others will play their roles in our current national or personal dramas. This ancient ceremony reminded me, however, that while protest and speaking up and advocacy are necessary, they alone will not save us. We need more than resistance, and must go further than merely rejecting the bad. Watching a brave and beautiful young woman become a Bat Mitzvah offered us a beautiful alternative as we created space to affirm the good.

Consider this an invitation to name the bad, to resist hateful evil, while also speaking the good you see into the world. Evaluate your own energy and behavior. Use your voice to resist through challenge and through lifting up beauty!  In dark times, the presence of light is an act of brave resistance. As Dr. King famously argued, hate cannot defeat hate, but love can. We are transformed in the sharing of hope, not just in the resisting of evil. How much more effective might we be if we call out the good we see in others, if we name our hopes for those who come after us, if we honor the best in those who came before us? Advocate for a better world by creating it in the spaces you share with others.

all is not well: hope and despair in an age of rage

One could be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed in this particular American moment. No matter your vantage point, we live in uncertain, hateful times. To quote a local pastor, “All is not well among us.” Each of us has felt the creeping anxiety of uncertainty, or the erasing sadness of marginality, or the confusing alienation from people once trusted, or the ambiguity that comes from no longer knowing who represents what to whom. Perhaps if we contextualize our own frustrations with those of our neighbors we might find that we belong—unsure but hopeful—together.

 If you have children, school shootings, drug use and soaring rates of anxiety and self-harm can be terrifying. If your skin is brown, or you appear ambiguously ethnic to others, you might be reasonably fearful of overt acts of hate or of chronic suspicion from law enforcement. If you advocate for the sanctity of early life, recent laws passed in Virginia and New York can make you question how our society can tolerate such evil. If you love a person with a terrible medical diagnosis, the repetitive trauma of watching them struggle to live is compounded by the fear that lawmakers who “represent” you might eliminate their healthcare. If you think of yourself as a good person who is kind to others, you might feel accosted by the possibility that others might think you bigoted or racist.  If you are wealthy, trade wars and a stock market based on the feelings on investors erodes security. If you are poor, hearing about a strong economy while working full time without access to healthcare or a living wage might feel like slowly drowning. If you believe America should protect its natural resources, and has traded long-term global viability for access to fossil fuels, you are stunned that we seem to be making it worse on purpose. If you believe that black lives often don’t matter in America, hearing about elected officials who thought it was fun to reenact a racist practice from the Jim Crow days likely feels disorienting and demeaning. If you understand the way trauma works in kids, then the idea that our government can’t or won’t reunite children with their families feels like slow motion horror. If you try hard in your life to live at peace, serve others and stay out of trouble, then all the outrage, eye rolling and accusation might feel like an assault.

Nearly everyone has a good reason to feel abused, to be angry or to worry. Many of us seem to think the best path forward is to blame others, to raise hell in an effort to get others to care, or even to try reaching across lines of difference to learn from another perspective. In addition to these, I wonder if it also helps to name our grief? The laundry list above can feel like whining, or worse, like an attack. Those of us who avoid complaining, who take pride in “owning our junk”, who fancy ourselves people of action, likely have trouble sitting with the sadness, pain, anxiety and anger such concerns bring to the surface. Nevertheless, it is good to name our grief.

Our religious traditions would agree. The Jewish people know lamentations usher the lamenter before God, who is the only true source of hope. Islamic tradition makes space for memorializing the hardships and sufferings of the faithful as they seek to end corruption and live generous lives. Christianity offers both worship and lament as viable paths to recognizing the hope of the Messiah. These ancient Abrahamic traditions remind us that uttering the ways that we cause pain—and grieving over the actions of others that cause us pain—are genuine expressions of our humanity and genuine pleas from our humbled states that connect us to one another.

Accusation and guilt often feel like more satisfying alternatives, but they fail to move us toward healing. Accusation keeps our feet planted on the ground while we jab at those around us. Guilt sinks us deep into our souls, paralyzing us and preventing us from looking out or up for the hand of an ally. Naming our grief is different. It allows us to move past both accusation and guilt until we come face to face with our disappointment. It allows us to feel sad without blaming that emotion on ourselves or someone else. When we name the things we have done alongside the things done to us we eventually find our selves.  By this I mean we come to remember we are people whose hearts get broken living around other people whose hearts get broken. This affirming of our humanity, this gazing inward at our sadness instead of pointing outward at our blame, prepares us for gratitude and, finally, for meaningful action.

One of my favorite admonitions in the Bible is when Paul, from prison, reminded friends to be “watchful and thankful.” He knew that if we only watched the world around us we would despair. He knew that paying attention can be dangerous work for the soul. He also knew that if we only focused on our own gratitude we might reduce our ability to see that hurt in others. The antidote for anxiety, selfishness and despair, according to Paul, is to pay attention with gratitude.

 My sister and her husband are living through a type of hell on earth as they love their older son through terminal brain cancer. Coping skills and belief systems tend to fall apart when smashed against the anguish of watching a kid you adore suffer in relentless, soul-crushing ways. They are watchful. They see it all. And it nearly kills them. They speak their grief, naming their suffering until they run out of words. And then they find gratitude even when they don’t want to. When we pay attention, gratitude wells up, and our souls, almost in an act of defiant betrayal, are lifted. Watching and thanking, we find a way to make it through the hour.

As I learn from them, and others I know who have every right to be angry and to despair, I find myself following in their wake. Pay attention to all of it. All is not well. Watch anyway. Name your grief and lament your way into hope before a God who can hold it. And then allow your soul to be lightened by gratitude. Thankfulness lifts us out of ourselves so that we see those around us. We find empathy and connectedness when we notice the many ways we hope in the midst of overwhelming pain. Then, and only then, are we able to take action, to challenge the forces that cause our pain, to speak against systems of unjust power, until we are heard. If we want to find light in the dark, we need to see and name the dark, reach out to hold other reaching hands, and give thanks that we are not alone after all.