Imperfect Serenity

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Stress Free

Yesterday in my Christmas stocking I found a note from my nine-year-old son promising “a stress free day” as a gift to be redeemed sometime in the coming year. I was really enjoying this promise until my twelve-year-old woke up and proceeded to explain to her brother that “a stress free day” was really more than he could promise. There might be things that happen during my day that he really had no control over. In fact, she pointed out, he hardly had control over himself, let alone my state of mind. All he could really promise was that for one day he would try not to stress me out, which was frankly all I was expecting. (Does this girl know The Wisdom to Know the Difference or what?)

I’m glad my daughter has figured out that we can’t be responsible for someone else’s feelings. It’s a hard lesson and one I am remembering myself this morning as the nine-year-old is questioning if the gifts he got (which were exactly what he asked for) were really what he wanted. I’m remembering Tamar Chansky’s book Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking and the importance of helping children learn resiliency by working out their own issues instead of rushing in to solve them. (“Is it too late to return that game?” I fleetingly ask myself.) Rationally I know that in the long run learning that no game can make him happy will help my son more than returning the one that seems a bit too hard this morning, but the temptation to fix the immediate challenge is still there. It might be different if I thought there was something wrong with the game. The problem, I think, is that the game is different from what my son expected, so shifting his expectations would solve the problem more easily than returning the game, though that doesn’t seem easy to him—or to most of us, I dare say. As the Buddhists point out, letting go of our preconceived notions can take a lifetime, or several.

It reminds me that letting go of expectations is something I still have to work on, too. I have many expectations for 2009, I realize, which might be unfair to that poor little year. I should unwrap the future with an open mind, ready to accept whatever gifts come from it. That attitude would probably help me to live closer to “stress free” every day, so my children don’t think that my stress is their fault or something they can fix. It would also help me to give them a better example, which is probably the best gift I can give them in the end.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Media Distortions

A theme of this blog has been learning to live with less anxiety, so I just have to plug a new article by my friend Meredith Broussard on The Huffington Post about the exaggeration in the media of food allergy deaths. Last time Meredith wrote about this, she got hundreds of irate letters from parents accusing her of wanting to hurt their children, which makes me wonder why we get so invested in our fears. She isn't saying that allergies are not important or that we shouldn't protect our kids. (She is an allergy sufferer and the parent of a very cute toddler, just for the record.) She just wants us to have accurate data and a little perspective. Funny that this is so hard to come by. This morning I brought my daughter to her allergist and asked about an NPR story on asthma drugs that cause more deaths than they prevent. The doctor refrained from rolling his eyes and sighing deeply, but I could tell that was only because he has good social skills. He patiently explained that the media keeps quoting a very flawed study that came out four years ago and presenting it as if it is new news. "They were comparing extremely sick people who weren't taking medicine regularly with patients who were less sick and better managed," he explained. "We need the government to fund a study with better methods before we really know. I don't know why the media keeps stirring this up."

Well, of course, fear gets ratings, even on NPR, I suppose. That's why I'm cutting back on my news consumption again since every other story seems to be about fear: the fears of auto workers, the fears of Miami millionaires and the charities they support, the fears of Indians and Pakistanis... You get the picture. Not that these fears are not real. Of course, they are. It's just a little perspective that's lacking. And speaking of that, there was a story on TV this morning (I can't resist watching when I'm at the gym) on having a "Green Christmas." It featured a guy whose entire house and front lawn were covered with Christmas lights in various shapes and colors. Last year his display cost him about $3,000 dollars in electricity. So how is he becoming "green" this year? He switched to wind energy, which the reporter pointed out could boost his bill to $4,000. Now, I think it is great that network television is finally promoting wind energy, but would it be too much to ask the reporter to point out that other green possibilities include buying LED lights or cutting back on the amount of lights used? During the commercial break there was a message from PECO (our local energy company which now supplies higher priced wind energy). It wished us "a safe, happy, and energy conscious holiday," which really made me laugh. (Maybe it was "energy efficient," not sure.) The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if PECO makes a greater profit off wind and is influencing the news room, the way Meredith alleges that the funders of the allergy studies make money off of selling Epi-pens. Of course, now I could be accused of promoting fear and paranoia myself. I want to be a savvy media consumer, but I don't want to live in fear of media conspiracies. It's always a balance.

Monday, December 15, 2008


My daughter has introduced me to the soundtrack of Wicked, and I’m hooked. I haven’t seen the Broadway hit, but I like the challenging messages in the lyrics, starting with the implied questioning of the labels “wicked” and “good” applied to the two main characters. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Wicked is the story of the witches of OZ in their youth—long before Dorothy arrived on the scene. We learn that Glinda “the good witch of the North” cares about being popular more than being good. She is pretty and knows how to tell people what they want to hear. Her roommate Elphaba, in contrast, isn’t afraid to speak up for what she thinks is right, and she isn’t afraid to fly, something that is apparently frowned upon in Oz (as elsewhere). She sees the wizard for the sham he is long before Dorothy, and for speaking an inconvenient Truth to power she gets labeled “wicked.” The fact that she is green, and people in Oz are prejudiced against green witches (as elsewhere), only encourages the Ozians to believe the worst about her and ultimately to blame her for all their city’s problems. The fact that many of the songs are funny reminds me of the power of art to make us think and smile at the same time.

My husband pointed out that the lyrics were written by Stephen Schwartz, the composer for Godspell, which also presented spiritual teachings in a challenging way. In Wicked, shallow values are subtly critiqued in songs like “Popular” and “Dancing through Life,” which advises: “Why invite stress in? Stop studying strife and learn to live ‘the unexamined life.’” But the unexamined life has its problems, of course. Glinda gets everything she has always wanted and proclaims that she “couldn’t be happier,” except that she clearly isn’t. The wizard is acclaimed by Oz and can’t resist the unearned praise: “Where I’m from, we believe all sorts of things that aren’t true,” he explains. “We call it—‘history.’” Elphaba, the character who is true to her self is also the one who sees life most clearly, but there is no glib message that being true to your self leads to happiness any more than being conventional does. “Don’t wish. Don’t start. Wishing only wounds the heart,” Elphaba sings in a line that is either wisely Buddhist or depressingly pessimistic. I’m going with the Buddhist interpretation because it seems that much of the trouble that comes in the story comes from what Buddhists would call “attachment.” 

The part that seems most Quaker about the play is the implication that there is good and bad in everyone, so we shouldn’t write people off or make them scapegoats. Just listening to the soundtrack I noticed the word “good” jump out in phrases like, “I’ll make good,” “goodness knows,” and “thank goodness” which in their context subtly remind us to question what is really good. Near the end Glinda and Elphaba sing to each other, “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, but because I knew you I have been changed for good,” and we have the sense that the conflict between them really has made them better people. If any one who has actually seen the play wants to correct me, I am certainly open, but just based on the soundtrack, Wicked seems to offer the kind of message I’m glad to have my (almost) twelve-year-old listening to when so much other music encourages the unexamined life. And given the prohibitive price of Broadway tickets, it seems the producers are doing well by questioning good.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Recession Response

This morning on CNN I saw a clip of a Detroit church that had three SUVs up on the altar while the congregation prayed for the recovery of the auto industry. Another mega church called to the altar all the members who needed financial help, and then the congregation raised $50,000 on the spot to help them. I can’t quite imagine either of these things happening in my Quaker meeting. For one thing, if we put three SUVs in our meeting room there would be no room for the people, at least some of whom are praying for the demise of Sports Utility Vehicles anyway. As a congregation, we don’t collect that much more than $50,000 in an average year, and when we do help our members financially, it’s a quiet, confidential process. We do collect canned goods every month for the needy, but with the implied assumption that the needy are a few miles down Germantown Avenue and not among us. Still, the clips got me thinking about what our faith community’s response to the recession might be, or more to the point, what mine might be.

A writer friend whose work is about empowering people told me last week that rather than worrying about the recession, she was thinking of all that she has to offer people in tough economic times. It's a good question, so I’ve been wondering how my work might be “well used,” as Quakers sometimes put it. One of the central messages I try to convey in my writing and workshops is trust—trust in God and trust in one’s own ability to hear and follow God’s guidance. It seems a message especially needed now as people fortunate enough to have them frantically check their IRA balances, despite the fact that getting anxious about your retirement isn’t likely to help anything. News reports harp on job loses and low consumer spending, while people I know have been looking for work and pinching their pennies. It feels a bit smug to say, “Trust. All will be well”--especially to auto workers in Detroit--but it’s the message I’ve been given to share. Of course, trusting doesn’t mean that you sit back and wait for God to type your resume for you. The Wisdom to Know the Difference after all is about doing what you can and letting go of a the rest. A few people have asked me if I’m worried that no one will buy my book (which comes out next fall) because of the economy, but I have a sense that the opposite is true—that my message will be more needed in tough economic times, so I’m trying to practice what I preach.

Of course, it is easy to understand why people get anxious. Another CNN story this morning was about a town that is turning off its Christmas lights in response to the recession, but this reminds me of another message which Quakers have to offer—that old testimony of simplicity, which means many things to many people. To some it means old fashioned frugality, not buying more than you need or can afford, a message that does seem timely, or a bit overdue, to be frank. To some limiting consumption is connected to a concern that our earth cannot sustain the levels of consumption considered “healthy” for a capitalist economy. For these Friends, turning off the Christmas lights and retiring the SUV are signs of progress, not omens of impending disaster. Another take on simplicity is that it is primarily a spiritual practice. Simplifying your life means having your priorities in order—not wasting your time, money, or emotional energy on things that are not essential. It seems to me that all these views of simplicity could be helpful to the country now as we look at our spending priorities, as families and as a country.

And then there is compassion. After initially laughing at the SUVs on the altar, I was humbled to think about the lives of the people in that church and how much they depend on auto industry jobs. Transitioning to a greener economy will be painful for many people, and not necessarily the folks in my congregation, so we shouldn't be too smug about it. It would be nice to think that all our Quaker simplicity gives us more money to share with others, but since we do our charitable giving so discretely, it's hard to know. We also tend to avoid conversations about class and money, so we might not even know what need exists among us.

I want to try to remember to bring canned goods to the collection next month, for I’m sure they are truly needed. But I also want to think about what unique gifts I am called to share and how they might be used. After all, it is supposed to be the season of giving.

Monday, December 01, 2008


On the long drive to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving, I read a book that made the time pass quickly: Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference). For those who don’t know Gladwell’s work, he is a journalist who takes a big idea and then illustrates it with interesting stories. In the case of Outliers, the idea is that our assumptions about successful people are all wrong. Instead of asking what they are like (how brilliant they are or how hard they worked), we should ask where they are from. No one makes it alone, Gladwell argues. The successful are often smart and hardworking, but they were also the recipients of opportunity, sometimes because of when and where they were born, sometimes because of the values they inherited from their families or an exceptional school. “It is impossible for a hockey player, or Bill Joy, or Robert Oppenheimer, or any other outlier for that matter, to look down from their lofty perch and say with truthfulness, ‘I did this, all by myself,’” he concludes.

I found the anecdotes fascinating, from the reason why so many Korean air planes have crashed to the reason why the smartest man in American couldn’t get through college. But one of the things I appreciated the most was Gladwell’s emphasis on meaningful work:
If I offered you a choice between being an architect for $75,000 a year and working in a tollbooth every day for the rest of your life for $100,000 a year, which would you take? I’m guessing the former, because there is complexity, autonomy, and a relationship between effort and reward in doing creative work, and that’s worth more to most of us than money.
I’ve had a number of experiences recently that have affirmed my own decision to put meaning over profit in my career choices, though I wonder if Gladwell is right that most people would choose being an architect. I seem to know more than a few people who feel stuck in the equivalent of the tollbooth job, and once you have that six-figure income, it is hard to imagine how you could do with less. Harder still when the creative career you desire averages much less than $75,000 a year. Personally, I feel grateful that I lived at Pendle Hill during my transition from full-time job to writer. Not only did I have the support of a spiritual community that values following inner guidance, I had models of people living simply so they wouldn’t need the big salary. They provided a different picture of success, being able to support oneself with meaningful work, which seems to be Gladwell’s implied definition, despite his references to people like Bill Gates.

At its heart, Outliers poses a challenge that goes beyond our individual career decisions. Gladwell asks how many more people might be successful if we expanded opportunity by, say, making every school an excellent school. It’s a good question and makes one think about how we want to measure whether our country is a success.

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