aim higher: forgive often

Grace is a tricky thing.

 I have a weakness for wild Italian Catholic women who are fiercely loyal to their friends and family. The ones I have known through the years are, at turns, heartbreakingly tender and almost cruel when they feel wounded. I love the way they cuss a blue streak, saying they have had enough as they storm through the house to violently pour a glass of wine. I used to think we offenders had finally crossed THE LINE, and there would soon be no way back. Now I know that as they stomp through the kitchen, cussing like a sailor, they are finding a way to bend and shift, making room to forgive so the relationship can survive. 

These Italians seem to know that humans only come in one variety: the broken kind. Even the most loyal among us eventually betray. We want to be generous, but sometimes selfishness wins. We want to be magnanimous, but holding a grudge sometimes feels justified. All of us make mistakes, and eventually, some of those mistakes hurt the people around us.

Forgiveness is always necessary, often intentional, and present in any lasting relationship.

Knowing this, why is forgiveness hard to muster? If we are certain that our actions will eventually hurt those around us, why is apologizing such a hill to climb? (Maybe because, as Bono sings, “It’s not a hill, it’s a mountain, when you start out the climb.”) In this series in which we explore the gaps between what we know to be true and how we behave at times, it is helpful to think about what relationship actually require of us. 

There is a divide between what we hope from each other and what we receive. There is a gap between what we thought we could allow and what we must endure to love our people. Our lines have to move if we hope to maintain friendships. Relationships require resilient flexibility.

We already know this in select friendships. Consider the notion of “free pass people.” These are the folks who have found their way into my heart and soul without me having placed them in that privileged category. I care deeply about choices people make, and I live by a code that demands I own my own choices and acknowledge how those choices impact others. Logic would say that I have the same standards for my nearest and dearest. I don’t though. My free pass people don’t have to perform. They don’t have to be consistently and thoughtfully congruent. They simply exist, and I instinctively respond to their wins with celebration, and to their failures with grace and understanding.

I am for them. Everytime. Without question.

Hard conversations still happen—motives and actions are explored and thought through—but all of that occurs on a bed of compassion and hope. The beautiful reality is that such challenging conversations are productive BECAUSE they occur in the context of forgiveness and love. Forgiveness comes easy for these folks, as if there is a deep well of grace that simply pours over them before either of us know such an act is required.

One of the sadnesses of my life, a reality that reveals my internal life is wildly incongruent with the person I want to be, is that my free pass people are very few indeed. Sadly, the folks I claim to love but silently judge, measure or withhold affection from are many. When my children fight I remind them that forgiveness is the bedrock of every human relationship. It is a muscle that must be developed if it is not naturally strong. Forgiving others (and forgiving ourselves) allows us to live with hope and to practice living in the present. We know our kids have to learn this, and I think we all might benefit from closing the gap between what we teach them and demonstrate ourselves.

Perhaps the best way to increase our access to fierce and frequent forgiving is to pay attention to our own dependence on grace. I am a mess, so if anyone is gonna stick with me through life, I will have to be one of their free pass folks. Knowing this, the work of my adult life is to expand my own number so that more and more of my community gets my forgiveness, grace and presence before they even ask.

This is a high bar, yes. But we are already meet it abundantly! We just have an incredibly difficult entrance exam before we grant such privileges. We are very good at seeing the good in a person behaving badly if we deeply love them. We can do better. We need to do better.

My favorite Italian in Nashville has for years noticed that I often use the word, grace. The first few times, she cocked her head as confusion flickered across her eyes. Soon after she would ask me why I chose that word in the instance in which I had used it. “Grace” is not a word she hears a lot. But here is the marvelous truth: She issues me grace on the reg. She finds the word awkward, and is never sure why I talk about it so often, and yet it flows out of her instinctively when I need it.

I think this is why I love my Italians. Their sacrifice and support of others is predicated on their commitment to the people they love, not on our worthy behavior. We can learn a lot from this kind of expansive love. Call it grace, or just call it Tuesday, but allow yourself to acknowledge that every single relationship in your life will demand flexibility and an expansion of what is forgivable. Throw a dish, stomp and cuss, and then get over yourself and offer grace to the people around you who need forgiveness. (It might soon be you.)

aim higher: how we think about men

“I know how to do it at school, but I don’t know how to do it at home.” Our four year old daughter loves to yell at me, perched atop the toilet near our kitchen. Yesterday, after telling her I could not leave the stove to watch her pee, she demanded I come wipe her. I reminded her she knows how to take care of herself, and does it at school all the time. That’s when she whine-yelled the sentence above on loop for several minutes.

Her reasoning was ridiculous, but I have a feeling she learned it from us. Many of us have standards for behaviors that vary based on our setting. For instance, I am more likely to yell at someone who angers me at home, but I have yet to do so at work. My kids’ behavior at home reminds me of wild elephants that are occasionally affectionate but always leave a wake of destruction in their path. I sincerely hope they do not behave that way in other people’s homes. My own mother has wished for years that I had different standards of clothing for home and public. Alas, I continue to baffle her, rarely looking in the mirror before I grab my keys.

Her hope that I will dress up for the outside world reflects a larger cultural acceptance that our behavior and habits change depending on where we are.

This is certainly true in many areas of my life, but at times it all seems rather absurd to me. Why do I use restraint or fully engage only in certain arenas? Why do our expectations of others fluctuate dependent on place? My favorite iteration of this type of thinking is when married women disparage their husbands, laughing as they complain that their partner is genetically incapable of picking up his shoes, returning his glass to the sink, lowering the seat, or remembering when the kids have choir. The deficits of males who live in interdependent households shared by others are widely mocked and accepted by women and men alike.

Often the party pooper, I loathe this type of thinking for at least two reasons.

First, these stereotypes totalize our gendered experiences in ways that I find unobservant. The basic construct that ALL MEN do any one thing strikes me as ridiculous. We know plenty of slobby, disorganized women, just as we know type A, neat freak men. Given this, why do we agree to pretend like there are no exceptions to the rule that men mostly function as needy, additional children?

I think the answer is imbedded in the question. We love to think we are exceptional, while often painting others with the broadest brush possible. I am more than a product of my gender or cultural norms or habits, but those other people are all the same! We offer ourselves the dignity of agency, choosing how we live and how our actions impact others, but we easily slide into assuming the people around us are just the way they are, and we might as well get used to it.

We might be less likely to dismiss others if we notice the unique individual standing before us rather than seeing them mostly as a product of the group to which they ‘belong.’

The second reason I think humorous stereotypes about men are unintelligent and maybe even dangerous is this: We expect and allow men to rule the world while treating them as incapable slobs around the house. The boldness of our society-wide cognitive dissonance is staggering. How do we simultaneously view men as natural leaders, effective visionaries who complete tasks while improving systems as they go, and—at the same time—as utterly incapable of getting their laundry to and from the washing machine? In my view, we mostly give them far too much credit in the public sphere, and far too little credit in the private one.

It is tempting to treat men like extra-large problem children. It is often all in good fun, and many men seem to enjoy the banter and revel in the labels placed upon them (Maybe they have discovered that such incongruent stereotypes work in their favor. These widely mocked behaviors pave the way for men to kick ass at work and do little at home. Sounds like a sweet deal, but I know better). Even if it is socially acceptable to belittle the function of men at home, it reduces us in toxic ways.

I need look no further than my partner and husband, who is a physician. He is, in fact, prone to leave his junk wherever it lands at home, he often forgets who goes where when, and his instincts for tidying up are lackluster. However, he has never, to my knowledge, forgotten about a surgery or left medical instruments inside a person’s body. He is, in fact, incredibly organized, decisive, dare I say tidy?, at work. He is a fabulous leader and detail oriented in all the right ways. Knowing this, why on earth would I treat him as an incapable slob at home, preventing him from engaging our family in all the helpful ways that only he can?

When we reduce folks to a stereotype, locking them into a tribe or a group rather than seeing them as individuals capable of growth, we limit our ability to hope for better. We choose to deal with the status quo rather than to challenge it in order to improve.  

Why do we act certain ways in some contexts, and abandon those standards in others? We know how to be compassionate in many spaces, but we thwart those instincts in others. We know how to speak up, using our voice to raise a different point of view or to protect a vulnerable person in some moments, but we remain silent in others. For the next few weeks, I’ll explore the ways our habits demonstrate my daughter’s thinking as she hollers incessantly from the bathroom. Let’s think about all the ways we “know how to do it at school, but don’t know how to do it at home,” and then dream together as we imagine how to remind ourselves that we already know how to care deeply about the growth of those around us, if only we will pay attention.

PSA: choose silence

Sitting on the front porch as the sun closes the day, the cicadas are deafening. My mother is nearly deaf, and the deficit she experiences seems impossible to me. She is so beautiful and charismatic that most people don’t notice; nevertheless, she works really hard to understand, and it is a massive hill she commits to climb every morning when her feet touch the floor. She will sometimes mention what it is like to remove her hearing aids, to tune the world out, and to allow herself, her silence, to be enough.

Sometimes she retreats to this silence, but other times she chooses it with relish, and I think she has something to teach us here. She might slink along, furious at the frustration she must carry, head lowered, falling into silence. More often though, she dances into her room after a full day of engaging, and sinks into silence, happily spent and ready for rest. Either way—slinking or sinking—she knows the silence will restore her. She has learned to trust that although words come and go, silence resonates, connecting us to ourselves and those around us in deep and wonderful ways.

If an honest look at the day reveals a yearning for restoration, then silence is worth leaning into.

There is a reason our earliest literatures explored the meanings of life and depicted comedies and tragedies. Our lives are studies in both, and these are the stories offered us as we try to make sense of it all. We come to the end of the day broken, or we collapse with full hearts. We are foolish to think our story will mostly follow one path. An authentic accounting of the week usually reflects highs and lows, and it takes space and time to reflect on our experiences of both in order to discover the center holds.

 Silence. Stillness. Quiet. Whether we need replenishing because the world is too much and everything feels hard, or find that our very lives are wonderfully exploding with happy demands, it behooves us to find a way into quiet. People are wonderful and terrible. Work is engaging and mind numbing. Friends are invigorating and exhausting. Life is mind blowing and soul crushing. Love is ecstatic and excruciating. We need a minute, damnit! There is a reason that most yoga studios now offer ‘restorative yoga’, that weed is prolific, that tv binging and bottles of wine usher in so many nights. We are desperate for stillness.

Consider this your PSA to instead walk outside and sit with yourself for a spell. Whether you’re ‘going through’ or crushing it, silence will deepen and contextualize your experience, clarifying your voice and elevating your belief in the importance of the life you’ve been given. Silence reintroduces us to our own voice, reminding us that we never want for company when we cultivate our own ways of thinking and learning. Silence teaches us that distractions often detract from the productivity of sitting with a thought or a feeling for a long time. Silence reveals that the chaos without is often matched by the chaos within, and that stillness clarifies.

Silence is a good idea.

 As July ticks along, life can fall short of expectations. Dreams of longer days, of time with our beloveds, can turn into weeks so full of “moments” that we are left breathless, spent. Intensely curated vacation plans can instead yield broken arms, or marking fights, or crippling depression. On the other hand, moments can be so precious, so clearly eternal, that a yearning to stop time consumes. July can be a manic time of activity, but I want to remind us that the silence calls to us as well.

 Being with my mom reminds me that choosing to spend time in silence prepares us to reengage those around us. Keeping our own company opens our eyes to beauty, to wonder, to small things. Each of us is #livingmybestlife and #cursed, depending on the day. Pulling away allows us to find our breath, to remember that the comedy or tragedy of today does not dictate the entirety of our existence. I treasure the gift of having watched my mom step into silence over the course of her life, slowly learning that sitting with herself allows her to sit well with others.

 Find a porch or a park as the heat gives up for the day, and feel the pleasure of being deafened by the cicadas. Their pulsing volume encourages silence from the rest of us, and offers space to listen, to be still, to find a blank mind, and to be restored to the quiet living within. It is worth suspending the noise, the activity, the engagement, the productivity, and the time to become reacquainted with the divine imprint within. Restoration lives there, waiting quietly to awe us into silence.