Sunday, November 18, 2012

Book Review - The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene' Brown


Every once in a while you encounter something so unique and special that it stands head and shoulders above the crowd.  That is most definitely the case with Brene' Brown's book The Gifts of Imperfection!  The subtitle of the book says it all:  Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.  I have spent my life smothered by what I perceived as the expectations of others.  So much so that I am, at 62, hard pressed to know who I really am.  And now, at long last, I have someone who gets that and is willing to teach me how to climb out of the trap.

                                                        **   WARNING  **
In the final chapter Brene' warns:  Choosing to live and love with our whole hearts is an act of defiance.  You're going to confuse, piss off and terrify lots of people - including yourself.

I intend to continue with my transformation to living with my whole heart.  If she is right, which I strongly suspect she is, I imagine I will be busy fulfilling her prophecy.  So be it.

That said, I also have expectations of acceptance and encouragement in my quest.  Last evening my wife's family gathered from far and wide on the occasion of the blessing of a new baby in the family.  We gathered at the church cultural hall for pot luck and games and lots and lots of visiting.  Part way through the activities the young girls announced a program they'd put together.  The stage curtains were drawn and we enjoyed dance and drama and song.  After the children had exhausted their repertoire, they invited the audience to participate.  I'd just read Brene's chapter on song, dance and laughter.  While reading it I was jealous of those who can openly express their joy in song and dance and other silliness.  It is a very vulnerable thing to do.  I decided that my time had come to reach inside and resurrect the inner child.  I climbed on stage (not so gracefully) stepped into the wings, and emerging, walked like a chicken across the stage.  The audience called for an encore and I complied with my imitation of an egg beater.  Another round of applause called for my famous fried egg imitation, which rendition I had not done in 30 years!  That was also received with hoots and laughter.

My point?  I had let my need to be cool, suppress all that wonderful joy and personal expression.  For years and years.  One of the things I loved about our visit to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland was the participatory nature of their entertainment.  Everybody sang, everybody danced.  I hope they never lose that.  I hope they never decline to the spectator society the rest of the continent as acquiesced to.

Brown calls the enemy gremlins.  I suspect she does this because most of the shame-based feed back we get, which tends to keep us in our place, is not a maliciously thought out assault, but rather, the effect of an entire culture gone off the beam.  She says:
The gremlins get lots of mileage out of "supposed to" - the battle cry of fitting in, perfectionism, people-pleasing and proving ourselves.....To overcome self-doubt and "supposed to," we have to start owning the messages.  What makes us afraid?  What's on our "supposed to" list?  Who says?  Why?
We get a lot of "supposed to's" in the church.  And some of them make me afraid.  Many of them are not expressed by current fellows in the church but are echos of the lessons and experiences of the past.  Still, friends in my Ward may well expect some "Why's?" and "Who said's" from me.

Now, lest you expect you'll find me more obnoxious as a result of my quest for wholeheartedness; I'll be trying to follow the rest of Brene's advice by seeking to be Courageous, Compassionate and Connected.
By Courageous she means being willing to fully embrace who I am and being brave enough to be that vulnerable.  Obviously, that means my "cool factor" will be in decline.  By Compassionate she means that I must let go of my resentment toward any whom I perceive as trying to shame me back into my old people pleasing, inauthentic ways.  It also means that I must realize that most everyone is just as afraid to be themselves as I am.  By Connected she means that I must seek to develop meaningful relationships along my journey by helping others become authentic as well.

There are Pharisees among us.  I know because I've been one.  I hope I've rooted that out of my system; though I rather doubt that it's entirely gone.  I too am a product of this culture.  The Pharisees like the control their manipulations create and the status that results from it.  They are bound to find me threatening and I'm just going to have to deal with that with all the charity I can muster.  I will most certainly blow it now and again.  This quest for wholehearted authenticity will be, no doubt, a life long journey.  Let it start today!

There are also, wonderful, authentic, exemplary fellow travelers.  One hero was Cheiko Okasaki, who wrote a wonderful book entitled Lighten Up!  I remember her saying in that book:
In principles, great clarity
In practices, great charity
I didn't like that very much when I was a Pharisee.  I'm going to re-read that book next because I strongly suspect that in light of what I've learned from Brene' Brown, Sister Okasaki's book is going to make a whole lot more sense.

Brene' Brown has taught me that:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness.  It's about cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.  It's going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn't change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging. 
E. E. Cummings wrote:
To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight - and never stop fighting. 
It occurs to me that the late Stephen R. Covey's observation is apropos.  He observed that the chief characteristic of those who reach the Celestial Kingdom is being "valiant in the testimony of Jesus."  He then points out that it is quite possible that that statement refers to Christ's testimony about us as well as referring to our testimony about Him.  His testimony, based on everything He was, said or did, is that we are of infinite worth and divine potential.  We are worthy.  Worthy of love, acceptance, belonging - just as we are.  We may not yet be worthy to attend the temple or enter into Heaven, but we are enough, for now, just the way we are.  In so many ways, Jesus said so.  I pray the day soon comes when our message to one another parallels His.

*****

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Review - Daring Greatly by Brene' Brown



Brene' Brown has helped me find a missing piece to a puzzle I've been seeking to solve for a very long time.  I first learned about her work from a TED talk.  And, being inspired by that, sought her books.  This being the first I read.  Brown has done extensive research in to Wholehearted Living and has drawn some fascinating conclusions.  Foremost is strong evidence that wholeheartedness requires the courage to be vulnerable.  Something I hardly suspected.

I was struck by her discussion on the difference between belonging and fitting in.  Here are three definitions she drew from countless interviews:
  • Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you.  Fitting in is being somewhere you really want to be, but they don't care one way or the other.
  • Belonging is being accepted for you.  Fitting in is being accepted to being like everyone else.
  • I get to be me if I belong.  I have to be like you to fit in.
Based on those definitions, I don't belong much.  I didn't even belong in my own family as a child.  I had to spend all my efforts fitting in.  I wasn't allowed to be me.  I was expected to be a carbon copy of my Dad; which I was totally incapable to doing.  Much of the time I feel the same way at church, as do most of us I think.  In my High Priests Quorum, for example, we have a lot of great men, who are fitting in, but seem to have no sense of belonging.  Our Quorum is supposed to provide a sense of brotherhood.  I doesn't seem to.  We meet together for three hours every Sunday, but then have little or nothing to do with one another the rest of the week.  Of 20 or so men in that group, I can think of one who has ever been in my home.  Now, I'm not pointing fingers and casting blame, yet.  I'm just making an observation.  

So, what has this got to do with vulnerability and courage?  If Brown is correct, which I believe she is, the blame doesn't lie necessarily with my High Priest's Group, for example; but with me.  In trying to fit in, I am guarded and withdrawn; lacking the courage to present myself as I really am.  Instead, I want to be accepted and culturally have come to the conclusion that they don't want me; only the person I am pretending to be.  According to Brown the responsibility for the fix lies entirely with me.  Now, you can probably see how putting my true self out there might be pretty scary.  That's a pretty vulnerable place to go.  It will require courage.  It might be tempting to remain with the status quo, except; (and here's the rub) we can't really connect at a meaningful level with others if we're are not vulnerably authentic.

I don't think I have to do a lot of persuading to help you realize that connection is one of the things we humans crave the most and often enjoy the least.  Many of  us disconnect out of fear.  Fear of being found lacking in some way.  None of us are perfect, but we get pretty obsessed with presenting ourselves as such in order to fit in.  Certainly it would be nice if those around us from parents and teachers to employers and associates created an environment in which we didn't think vulnerability was so dangerous; but that is often not the case.  That's where courage comes in.  If we really want whole and meaningful connections with those around us, we have to have the courage to present ourselves honestly, despite how vulnerable that makes us feel.  

Fitting in is a hollow substitute for really belonging.  I know from experience.  Still, going for the real deal can be difficult and scary.  Especially, when we have little experience with it and have such an intrinsic fear of rejection.  It is vulnerable to be first to say, "I love you."  One of my favorite literary characters, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, spends important effort teaching his subordinates to be vulnerable.  He teaches them four things they must always be willing and prepared to say:  I don't know.  I was wrong.  I am sorry.  I need help.  All expressions of vulnerability.  Can you see how they might assist us in making connections with others?  Can you see how their opposites might push others away?  

Part of the fear comes from failing to distinguish between guilt and shame.  For purposes of this discussion:  Guilt means:  I did something bad.  Shame means:  I am bad.  Too often our culture is shame based, both at home and in our institutions.  Shame is destructive.  Guilt is constructive.  If I am shame based, if I see myself as bad, instead of a worthwhile person who's done something bad, I am not likely to be willing to vulnerably present myself in an authentic way.  However, if I feel like I am intrinsically good and have the courage to admit my failings, I am much more likely to improve and to have the help of others in doing it.

Here's a wonderful quote from the book:
"...in an uncertain world, we often feel desperate for absolutes.  It's the human response to fear.  When religious leaders leverage our fear and need for more certainty by extracting vulnerability from spirituality and turning faith into "compliance and consequences," rather than teaching and modeling how to wrestle with the unknown and how to embrace mystery, the entire concept of faith is bankrupt on its own terns.  Faith minus vulnerability equals politics, or worse, extremism,  Spiritual connection and engagement is not built on compliance, it's the product of love, belonging and vulnerability."
That is so true!  I have even thought of changing one of the Primary songs since reading this book.  Perhaps a more accurate lyric would be:  I try to fit in to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  It currently says, "I belong.."  Brene' Brown has made it plain that belonging is far more than membership.  One of my daughters, who no longer attends church once told me that if she was treated at church the way she is treated at home, she'd still be attending.  In other words, she's not currently prepared to fit in, but she'd like to feel like she belongs.  Clearly, her church experience, which included ostracism, was shame based.  "You don't belong here."  This has been troubling to me for a long time.  Ostracism is a false and political consequence.  She, like each of us, has been guilty of sin (which always has it's own consequences) but being rejected or pushed away for it is not an appropriate one of them.  (See Elder Dallin H. Oaks' talk, General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, October 2012.)  Even though, she may be a cultural victim of less than perfect, yet worthwhile, Latter-day Saints, she remains responsible for the solution.

Well did Jesus admonish us to be "circumcised of heart."  I think by that He meant to be clean, sensitive and vulnerable. Think about it.  Too often, I have been trying to fit in with Him too.  Telling Him what I thought he wanted to hear, instead of vulnerably, honestly presenting myself before Him, just as I am.  I cannot grow from where I ought to be.  Only from where I actually am. He has made it plain that I have value with Him, that I belong and that if I will let Him help me, He will.  To Him I must also be willing to say:  I don't know.  I was wrong.  I am sorry.  I need help.



Book Review - Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny


I've been re-reading the entire Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series in anticipation of the eighth novel.  Updating my recollection is only part of the motivation though.  I don't ordinarily re-read much fiction.  I've found Louise Penny's work to be too important for a single run through.  Her novels teach me so much about myself, my flaws and vulnerabilities as well as my strengths, opportunities and potential for joy.  I am certain to read them all a third and fourth time and fully expect to glean more strength, wisdom and insight with each visit.

Some classify Penny's books as cozy mysteries.  They are quite cozy and can certainly be enjoyed as such, but for the contemplative seeker; they can be so very much more.  

This seventh novel is about frailty, about making and living with mistakes.  About living with or even in, the past.  Set in Quebec City, one of my very favorite places, the novel explores the city's past while Gamache and a few other characters explore their own.
     "I sometimes think we're a rowboat society."
     "A what?" asked Jean.
     "A rowboat.  It's why we do that."  He jerked his head toward the window and the dot on the river.  (Someone in a canoe crossing the icy St. Lawrence in a re-enactment race.)  "It's why Quebec is so perfectly preserved.  It's why we're all so fascinated with history.  We're in a rowboat.  We move forward, but we're always looking back."

For them, the past was as alive as the present.  And while forgetting the past might condemn people to repeat it, remembering it too vividly condemned them to never leave.  He was a man who remembered, vividly. 

It happens in societies and it happens with individuals as well.  This story is really three stories in one. Three stories which are so expertly woven together to express the underlying theme as to be utterly astonishing!  Penny's work gets more compelling and amazing with each book.  Gamache makes the perfect hero by being imperfect; by showing us how to deal with our own imperfection.  And by contrasting that with those who are unable to.

     To be silent in hopes of not offending, in hopes of being accepted.
     But what happened to people who never spoke, never raised their voices?  Kept everything inside?
     Gamache knew what happened.  Everything they swallowed, every word, thought, feeling rattled around inside, hollowing the person out.  And into that chasm they stuffed their words, their rage.

      Why was he still investigating the Renaud case?  Was this his private misdirection?  Was he trying to take his mind off something he might otherwise have to see?  And hear? and Feel? Was his whole career like that?  Replacing one ghost with a fresher one?  Racing one step ahead of his memory?

     That was the danger.  Not that betrayals happened, not that cruel things happened, but that they could outweigh all the good.  That we could forget the good and only  remember the bad.

And so we remember.  It is not so much that we remember; but what we choose to remember, and how.

Je me souviens. 

*****

Book Review - The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny


Number five in the Chief Inspector Gamache mystery series, The Brutal Telling keeps me captivated!

This one's a story of fear and greed, best explained by a couple of quotes:
     "The Hungry Ghost," said Gilbert.
That roused Gamache, who twisted in his garden chair to look at the dignified man next to him.
     "Pardon?"
     "It's a Buddhist belief.  One of the states of man from the Wheel of Life.  The more you eat the hungrier you get.  It's considered the very worst of lives.  Trying to fill a hole that only gets deeper.  Fill it with food or money or power.  With the admiration of others.  Whatever."
     "The Hungry Ghost," said Gamache.  "How horrible."
     "You have no idea." said Gilbert.

 Gilbert glared at him.  His rage back in full force.  But Armand Gamache knew what was behind that rage.  What was behind all rage.
    Fear.

Fear is also behind the lies we tell and this story is full of them.  The interesting part is that it is not just the murderer who cannot tell the truth.  So many others for greed and fear cannot come up with the truth.  And since Chief Inspector Gamache is all about finding the truth and exploring the deep dark places where it too often hides, we get an exciting, interesting, stunning peek to some pretty frightening places that may not be all that unfamiliar.

And what a tale those eyes told Gamache.  In them he saw the infant, the boy, the young man, afraid.  Never certain what he would find in his father.  Would he be loving and kind and warm today?  Or would he sizzle the skin off his son?  With a look, a word.  Leaving the boy naked and ashamed.  Knowing himself to be weak and needy, stupid and selfish.  So that the boy grew an outer hull to withstand assault.  But while those skins saved tender young souls, Gamache knew, they soon stopped protecting and became the problem.  Because while the hard outer shell kept the hurt at bay, it also kept out the light.  And inside the frightened little soul became something else entirely, nurtured only in darkness.

I have been exploring honesty and authenticity a lot lately and The Brutal Telling has been a classic case study that has helped me greatly in my own quest to understand and break out of my own protective, stifling shell of fear.

*****


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