Today marked the end of both the semester and of my Christmas “doing” for this year. All gifts have been made, purchased, and given (or at least shipped). Cards have been given or mailed. Baking is done. I can now rest.
And as I settled in tonight to rest from the busyness of the last couple of weeks, I had a startling realization: I actually enjoyed my gift giving this year! This probably sounds odd to most people, but gift giving occasions (birthdays, Christmas, etc.) are usually times of intense anxiety and stress for me.
“If you are not afraid of the voices inside you, you will not fear the critics outside you.” ~Natalie Goldberg
The past few years have been hard on me. They have involved an awful lot of very big changes for me and that has meant spending a lot of time putting myself out there in new ways that were risky and often did not have much support. And I’ve done a lot more failing and encountering devastating criticism* and subtle undermining doubts from others than I had expected.
I’ve been realizing lately just how much this experience is leading me to focus on safety and hiding. I increasingly measure everything I do, every decision I make, and everything I say by how likely it is to provoke criticism (direct or indirect) from others. I spend a lot of time hiding—my gifts, my knowledge, my abilities, my preferences, my self—from people around me in an attempt to stave off more criticism and thus feel safe again.
I love nature. I love to be out in the woods, walking among the trees. I delight (mostly) in the changing seasons. (Although I wouldn’t mind if winter was a bit shorter.) I learn so many lessons from the plants, trees, animals, and bugs that I find in the natural world.
Spending time in nature is one of the places that I find greatest peace. Except when I am forced to deal with the reminders that nature itself is ultimately not peaceful. It’s all about survival out there.
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. Security does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than exposure.” ~Helen Keller
I have koi ponds in my back yard that I inherited from the former owner. This past weekend brought our first freezing weather, so I had to take the first step of starting to prepare the ponds for winter weather by bringing the tropical plants that normally live in the pond inside to live in big plastic tubs of water for the winter. As part of this process of transferring the plants indoors, I drag them out of the water to let them drain, cut them back, trim away the excess roots extending out the sides of the pots, and clean out dead leaves, algae, and other debris from the surface of the pots.
As I was doing this for one of the biggest of the plants, I discovered an area on the surface of the pea gravel in the pot that was shiny. A little investigation revealed that this was a small frog that had taken refuge in the dead leaves that had collected at the base of the plant stalks.
I’ve been thinking lately about how often I keep my emotions bottled up inside me waiting until I am alone to fully let them out because it does not feel safe to me to let them out around others. Even when I do show my emotions in public, it’s always an edited version of the emotion, carefully squeezed down to fit inside the box of what feels safe and acceptable.
My true rejoicing and my true grieving always happen in private. But this effort to keep myself enclosed tightly in a “box” of acceptability is exhausting, and it prevents me from ever being fully me (except when I am alone). I feel like there’s a little girl inside me who is always peeking out of the edge of the box wondering whether it is safe yet to honor my soul’s cry to bring all of who I am out to play in the world.
This poem grew out of these musings and my questioning whether I might be able to find a place that feels safe enough to emerge from my self-imposed hiding place.
“Maturity, one discovers, has everything to do with the acceptance of ‘not knowing.’” ~Mark Z. Danielewski
I think the hardest thing for me to cope with over the last few years of so much constant change has not been the change itself; it’s been the constant ‘not knowing’ of where I am headed or where each change is going to lead me.
Of course, none of ever know what tomorrow brings. Everything in life is uncertain. But most of the time, we can shield ourselves from facing that uncertainty because there is enough in our lives that is stable to make the chances that we know where we are headed (at least short-term) reasonably high. For most of my life, I’ve had a fairly well planned out trajectory through my education and career goals. Although those did change from time to time, they were more course adjustments than radical departures from the planned course.
Have you ever had one of those times when you’ve struggled and struggled and struggled to solve some problem, and when the answer finally appears, it’s so obvious that you can’t believe you didn’t see it before?
Yeah, me too. I had one of those moments yesterday. I’m thrilled to have an answer, but my initial reaction was still to say, “Well, DUH!”
You see, I’ve been struggling for a couple of years now to figure out what exactly it is that I want to do with my life. I have all of these disparate interests—writing, yoga, working with people one-on-one in some kind of coaching/spiritual direction/pastoral care/counseling role, perhaps some public teaching or speaking—but I haven’t been able to find the thread that tied all of these things together to form a cohesive whole. I knew without a doubt that this thread existed. I could feel it, but I couldn’t name it.
“I’m not sure one can remain safe and grow at the same time.” ~Judith Hanson Lasater
I participated in a yoga teacher webinar with Judith Hanson Lasater tonight as part of my ongoing continuing education as a yoga teacher. This particular class was about teaching beginning students, and she made the comment above in the context of encouraging students to continue to stretch beyond the comfort zones (within reason) in order to grow in their practice of yoga. However, it struck me as a very powerful truth about life in general.
Growth is always about pushing beyond that which we already are. This is inherently risky—and therefore is never safe. To grow is to risk, so I can’t stay safe and grow at the same time.
“There’s a reason that you can learn from everything: you have basic wisdom, basic intelligence, and basic goodness. Therefore, if the environment is supportive and encourages you to be brave and to open your heart and mind, you’ll find yourself opening to the wisdom and compassion that’s inherently there. It’s like tapping into your source, tapping into what you already have. It’s the willingness to open your eyes, your heart, and your mind, to allow situations in your life to become your teacher.” ~Pema Chodron
“You will never know abundance by holding back your heart. You will never realize your wingspan by decorating your cage. You did not come here to make do. You came here to make a difference. It’s time to fly. It’s time to try” ~Tama J. Kieves
I’ve talked many times about the way that a chrysalis provides a safe space for the caterpillar to be melted down to be recreated as a butterfly. The past couple of years have been an intense time of learning to surrender to the process of being melted down. During this time, I’ve lost just about everything that I would have pointed to on the outside to define who I was. Just like the caterpillar, I have become no longer recognizable as the creature I once was.
However, as I encountered this quote from Tama a few days ago, I realized that I have become attached to my chrysalis as my safe place in this space between who I was and who I will be. It has become my new definition of who I am. It has become the cage that I now decorate.
But the point of the chrysalis has never been a stopping point. Yes, it is a safe space during transformation, but it is a temporary one. The point has always been to prepare for the coming emergence of butterfly to soar free, leaving the chrysalis far behind.