Getting over the Rocks (October 14, 2012)

posted Oct 15, 2012, 8:12 PM by Neal Jones

          For someone who enjoys kayaking as much as I do, it's a shame I don't get out on the river more than I do.  But there is one part of kayaking I don't enjoy, and that is when the river is low and I have to get out of my kayak and carry it over the rocks.  This is an apt metaphor for this sermon series on change because the main point I have been making is that we will change if we embrace our life experiences.  That's because life is like a river -- dynamic, flowing, always moving -- and we will move, too, if we immerse ourselves into the flow of life.  Sometimes there are obstacles that block our way and get us stuck, however.  It's easy to identify external obstacles to change, like lack of money, a busy schedule, or an insensitive boss, but it's more difficult to see internal obstacles.  This morning I want to focus briefly on six internal obstacles to change -- all of which are ways we separate ourselves from our experience.  The more we separate ourselves from our lives, the more we remain stuck.

          Blame.  I used to see a lot of couples as a therapist, but I rarely enjoyed couples counseling.  That's because almost every couple blamed their partner for their problems and wanted me to fix their partner.  Nearly every one was convinced that his or her happiness was dependent on their partner changing certain behaviors.  She thinks he needs to work less, and he thinks she needs to spend less.  He thinks she needs to be more supportive of him, and she thinks he needs to be more involved with the kids.  Women hope men will change after marriage, but they don't.  Men hope women won't change, but they do. 

          That's the way most of us see things.  We either blame others for our problems or find the fault within ourselves.  It's either you or me.  When it comes to relationships, however, it's not either you or me; it's us.  Relationships are mutual, interdependent, complementary.  They are like a dance.  We move together because I complement your movement and you complement mine.  For every partner who works too much at the office, there is someone who covers his or her bases at home.  For every partner who spends too much, there is someone who keeps paying the bills.  For every partner who is not supportive, there is someone who plays the role of the self-sacrificing martyr.  Relationships are a dance.  Now you would think that we would not consciously choose to be in relationship with someone who accommodates our dysfunction, and we don't choose so consciously.  We choose our life dance partners unconsciously.  We are attracted to people whose personalities feel familiar to us, who dance the way we learned to dance in our families growing up. 

          So if you want to change, especially if you want to change a relationship, you will stop blaming your partner and start examining your contributions to the dance.

          Habits.  Family therapist Virginia Satir used to tell the story of a little girl who was watching her mother prepare dinner and noticed that her mother sliced off the end of the roast before placing it in the pan.  The girl asked her mother why she did it that way, and her mother said, "I don't know.  My mother always did it that way.  Let's call her and ask her."

          They called the grandmother and asked the same question, and she said, "I don't know.  My mother always did it that way.  Let's go see your great-grandmother and ask her."

          So they all got into the car and went to see the girl's great-grandmother.  When they put the question to her, she laughed out loud.  She told them, "When I was a young mother, I had only one small roasting pan, and when I bought a roast that wouldn't fit the pan, I would slice off the end." 

          This is the nature of habits.  We do something so automatically, so unconsciously, so … well, habitually that we forget our original rationale for doing it that way.  In many cases, that's just fine because we don't need to consciously think everything through, and our habits save us time.  For instance, one of my morning routines is to put a sock on my left foot, then a sock on my right foot, a shoe on my left foot, then tie it, and then a shoe on my right foot and tie it.  If I were to think about it or if I were to change my routine, like put a sock and shoe on my right foot first and then made my way to my left foot, it would discombobulate me and take me twice as long to get ready in the morning. 

          Another way of looking at habits is that they separate us from our experience.  Now my quality of life doesn't suffer if I don't fully embrace the experience of putting on my socks and shoes in the morning.  But habits can be problematic when they separate us from experiences we could and should have.  For example, we can become habitual in our relationships, relating in a routine way without being fully present to one another.  This is one of the challenges of a long-term relationship, perhaps the challenge of a long-term relationship -- remembering that you don't entirely know someone just because you've known them for a long time. 

          This is dramatized in the movie "Hope Springs."  I know it was billed as a comedy -- and it has its comedic moments -- but it's not a comedy.  It's a very realistic portrayal of a long-term married couple, played by Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones, whose relationship has long ago lost its magic.  In fact, there are some scenes that are downright painful to watch because they are so realistic.  Their habitual way of relating to one another is captured by the repeated scene of their morning routine.  She prepares his breakfast, two eggs and two strips of bacon, and she sets his plate on the table just as he arrives in the kitchen in his business suit.  He places his briefcase on the counter and picks up the newspaper, unfolds it, and reads it while eating his breakfast.  When he finishes his breakfast, he places the paper back on the counter, picks up his briefcase, and gives her a peck on the cheek as he leaves for work.  They never speak.  Their marriage has become a sterile routine.  I suspect that a lot of long-term marriages become a sterile routine. 

          When you relate to another out of habit, you are separating yourself from the experience of your relationship, from the experience of your partner, and even from your experience of yourself, and your relationship becomes a habit.  Habits are comfortable because they are familiar, predictable, safe, secure, and unchanging, but whatever doesn't change, dies.  To have a vital relationship of any kind, you have to be fully present, fully involved, fully engaged, open to being surprised, and willing to risk change.

          Stories.  One of the things that distinguishes the human animal from other animals is that we are story-tellers; that is, we don't just experience life -- we interpret our lives with stories.  These stories we tell ourselves are quite powerful because they tell us how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we see life in general.  These stories are powerful because they are deterministic: they determine what we see and what we hear.  For instance, haven't you known some people who believe in and live out the story that they are victims?  No matter what happens, they will see that they are being exploited, they will hear that they are being taken advantage of, they will smell that they are being used, even when their experience is not confirming their conclusions.  That's because they are living in their stories more than they are living in their lives.  It's something all of us do to some degree, whatever our story happens to be.  So our stories about our lives can become substitutes for living our lives.  Another way of saying this is that our stories can separate us from our experience, and the more we are separated from our experience, the more likely we remain the same because our experience will disconfirm our stories if we are open to our experience.

          Most of the important stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about others, and about life in general were given to us by others.  We didn't choose them.  Our parents, our grandparents, our teachers, our preachers, and all the other authority figures in our childhood told us their stories of life, and because we were young and impressionable and because they were older, wiser, and authoritative, we believed these stories were truthful.  But here's the deal: none of these stories we inherited are entirely truthful because life is too big to be captured by a story.  Life is full of surprises, even miracles, that cannot be explained by our stories about life.  There is always something waiting around the bend, my huckleberry friend. 

          You don't need a degree in psychology to understand the weight of these childhood stories written for us by others when we were too young and inexperienced and vulnerable to question their truth.  Steve Martin was his family's and his school's class clown long before he became a professional comedian.  Bill Clinton was forced to play the peace-maker between his mother and his abusive, alcoholic stepfather long before he became a seductive politician who could charm and appease all parties.  These stories were written for us early in life.  They were our reality as we knew it, and as far as we knew, these stories would be our reality for the rest of our lives.  Some people were taught the story "You're stupid" or "You're ugly" or "You're a nobody," and these stories become deterministic.  They are like blinders that prevent us from seeing other possibilities for living. 

          So one of the tasks of our spiritual growth is to become conscious, to ask ourselves, "What story am I living, whose story am I living, and how can I make it my story of my choosing?"

          Predictions.  Predictions are stories we tell ourselves about the future, and they provide a lot of false comfort because we think that if we can foresee what will happen, we have some control over what happens.  That's a false story in two ways:  we cannot predict the future with 100% accuracy, and even if we could, we certainly cannot control the future. 

          Predictions stifle change because they separate us from our lives.  Instead of living in the here-and-now of our present experience, predictions get us living in the then-and-there of an imagined future … and it's always imaginary because it hasn't happened yet.  For example, I have a friend who has been burned by a series of unsatisfying relationships.  Based on her past, she predicts with a great degree of certainty and even stubbornness that she will never meet someone with whom she can share her life.  Mr. Right might show up on her doorstep tomorrow, but she would not give him the time of day because he doesn't fit her prediction.  The bottom-line is that the past is just in our memory and the future is just in our imagination.  We can live only in the present moment, and if we do that, we will change.

          Judgments.  Judgments are another kind of story we tell ourselves that separate us from our lives.  When we pass judgment on others or ourselves, in that moment, we are living more in our judgments about our experience than in our experience.  This is so easy and tempting to do because we live in an extremely judgmental society.  In our politics and in our personal lives, we have a lot invested in being right and declaring others wrong.  It feeds our egos to be right, but it doesn't help us get beyond our egos. 

          Judgments give us a false sense of certainty.  Our judgments of another make us think we know someone else, and our self-criticism makes us think we know ourselves.  But there's always much more to a person than a label can capture.  Once you've declared another wrong and yourself right, that's the end of the matter.  It brings a kind of closure.  There's nothing more to say, and there's nothing more to consider.  And that's why judgments suffocate change.  They end dialogue.           They end dialogue with others.  "You're close-minded."  "You're stupid."  "You're insensitive."  "You're a racist."  "You're a socialist."  In other words, "You're wrong, and I'm right."  When we pass judgment on others -- "You're cold-hearted" -- we are not inviting dialogue; we are inviting the other person to get defensive and disprove our judgment.  But we do invite dialogue when we immerse ourselves in our experience and share our experience with others.  "When you got quiet, I got uncomfortable because I didn't know what was going on with you.  I was afraid you were angry with me."  That invites dialogue, and dialogue offers us the opportunity to learn and change and grow. 

          Our judgments end dialogue with ourselves.  "I'm too old to do that."  "I'm too inexperienced to speak up."  "I don't deserve to be happy."  "I'm not smart enough."  "I'm a screw-up."  In others words, "There's something wrong with me."  When we pass judgment on ourselves, we are not inviting dialogue with ourselves.  We are closing ourselves off from our experience and what our experience can teach us.  For example, I could pass the judgment "I'm fat," but that judgment only makes me wallow in guilt, regret, and helplessness.  It shuts down any possibility of change because it doesn't allow me to have a dialogue with myself:  "What feelings do I have about my body?  What is my relationship with food?  Am I using food to feel certain things or to cover up certain feelings?  What do I really hunger for?"  That's a dialogue that would give me the opportunity to learn and change and grow. 

          Trauma.  Thanks to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, we know so much more about PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) than we used to.  We understand that our brains act as circuit breakers.  If too much current tries to enter your house, the circuit breaker opens, interrupting the flow of current before major damage can happen.  When you experience a trauma, you are overloading your brain with stressful experience, so it causes you to separate yourself from the traumatic experience and any similar experiences by giving you intensely distressful feelings, intrusive thoughts, and physiological reactions.  We have evolved this circuit-breaking capacity to enhance our survival.  It protects us from life-threatening situations.  The problem is that it's much easier to interrupt the circuit than it is to reconnect the circuit once the danger has passed. 

          It appears that all animals, not just the human animal, has evolved this adaptive capacity.  In lab experiments, rats that have been exposed to painful electric shock will avoid that area of the cage until they forget their fear.  However, if the initial shock is strong enough, the rat will never approach that area of the cage for the rest of its life. 

          One of the ways trauma uniquely impacts the human animal is that it threatens our core beliefs.  In most cases, we are able to adapt our beliefs and go on with our lives.  For example, a drunk driver runs a red light and narrowly misses your car.  That experience may threaten your naïve belief that the world is safe and bad things do not happen to good people.  Most of us would be able to modify those beliefs:  the world is still generally safe, and by and large, bad things will not happen to you because you are a cautious driver, but operating a motor vehicle requires some level of care and vigilance.  If, however, that drunk driver slams into your car, killing your partner and your child, then your core beliefs about yourself and the world may be shattered.  You may no longer believe that any part of the world is safe or that you are protected from harm at all merely because you are a good person.  You may never risk getting back into a car again, or if you do, you may never feel relaxed and confident about driving again. 

          I use the example of a car accident because PTSD symptoms are not just experienced in warfare.  Fifty thousand people die each year in this country in motor vehicle accidents -- as many Americans as died during the entire Vietnam war.  Most of these deaths were random; they had nothing to do with whether the driver was being a good person. 

          So traumas separate us from our experience, specifically from the traumatic experience itself and from any experiences that resemble the trauma.  Ironically, this natural response to trauma that protects us also hinders our healing because in order to recover from trauma and modify our core beliefs so as to go on with our lives, we have to immerse ourselves in the very experiences that are traumatic.  War veterans have to recall and revisit their traumas in order to recover from them.  If you are involved in an auto accident, the way to recover from your anxiety is to face your fear, get back in the driver's seat, and let your experience show you that it's generally safe to drive.

          Conclusion.  Life is a classroom, always presenting us with lessons to learn, and we never cease being students.  The lessons come to us directly from our experiences, and if we are present and open to our life experiences, we will learn and change and grow.  I have to agree with Winston Churchill, however:  "Personally, I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught."

                                                                                                                                          Rev. Dr. Neal Jones