A Whale of a Tale that Misses the Point

Last week I finally took down the remaining Christmas decorations, including this glass whale ornament. It reminded me of the Biblical story of Jonah, which most people know but few understand. What is the actual point of the story? You may recall that Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh and proclaim that God is going to wipe out the city unless they repent of their thuggish ways. Jonah, an Israelite, loathes these violent oppressors and hops on a ship going the opposite direction.

Soon a whale of a storm arises, and Jonah fesses up that he's the likely cause of it. The sailors reluctantly throw him overboard, and the seas calm. If not for a great fish swallowing him whole and subsequently puking him onto dry land, Jonah would have drown.

After cleaning himself off, Jonah trudges to Nineveh and delivers the message. Shockingly, the king and the entire city believe Jonah's message and repent of their wicked ways.  God decides to have mercy on the people of Nineveh and does not destroy them.

The End, right? Not so fast. There's one final chapter, and without it, we easily miss the punchline.

After delivering his message,  Jonah sets up camp just outside the city, finding shelter under a fast-growing shade plant. And Jonah starts to pout: "God I should have known you'd do something like this. I wanted fireworks. I wanted you to exterminate them. But God, You're a soft touch. You're gracious, compassion and overflowing with love. This isn't fair!" Jonah grumbles himself to sleep.

The next morning, Jonah awakens to discover that a worm has eaten his beloved shade plant. Jonah rails against God over the plant: "I'm so mad. I wish I were dead."

God's reply: "You're this worked up over a plant? And yet you gripe at me because I have compassion on 120,000 people and their animals? Get a grip!"

The story of Jonah is really a mirror. Insert your own loathsome group for Nineveh: bigots, terrorists, Republicans, Democrats...and see how the tale morphs if you then put yourself in Jonah's place. However far your mercy extends, the message is to stretch compassion and forgiveness until no one is left out, especially your enemies.

It's easy to make this a miracle story about a big fish that saves a man by swallowing him whole. It's far more difficult to take a serious look at the limits of our compassion and forgiveness. Perhaps that's why few people make it to the final chapter.

Is Lake Tahoe Good Enough?

Lake Tahoe. Lying in a hammock last week overlooking the placid waters, I wondered what could be better. Of course, my mind quickly had an answer: "The two jet skis could be silent. If only the sun would move off my face, I'd be more comfortable. I wish I had brought something out here to drink." My bliss was turning into a disappointment. Here I was lazing away an afternoon in one of the most beautiful locations on the planet, and I felt dissatisfied. How did this happen? Fortunately, I remembered something. I was at a retreat center where the theme of the week was gratitude, compassion and forgiveness. The guest facilitator was Dr. Fred Luskin, Director of Forgiveness Studies at Stanford University. (Check out his YouTube videos and his book Forgive for Good.)

Dr. Luskin's basic take on forgiveness is that it is making peace with not getting what we want. When I wasn't getting the perfect "Lake Tahoe viewed from a hammock" experience, I recalled what we had learned as the first step toward making peace with what is: gratitude.

Gratitude begins with: “I am not the center of the universe.” I can see Lake Tahoe without feeling that I own it and that it owes me something. I am part of it. It is part of me. What created that lake observes it through another part of itself (me). This is humility. When I quiet the screaming mind that always wants more, I notice what I’m already given. Then my suffering shifts to gratitude.

Our biology/neurology predisposes us to find problems in order to keep alive, but not to make us happy. We have well-developed threat monitors. For most of us, the part of us that finds good has atrophied.  We need balance. Wholeness is to appreciate the goodness without pushing away the suffering. Yes, there are real threats and suffering. Most of the time, however, in the midst of this unpredictable, dangerous world, we are ok. That in itself is reason for gratitude.

Fred Luskin shared an easy way to monitor whether we are cultivating gratitude or suffering. In any moment we can notice if we are responding to life with “Thank you!” or “It’s not good enough.”

Studies show that 75-80% of our day is consumed with “It’s not good enough.” No need for judgment. It's a biological survival mechanism. It's just not conducive for happiness. For happiness we need to balance that problem-obsession with gratitude.

Gratitude is saying “thank you”. If we are the center of the universe in our own experience, then everything must be perfect…otherwise we complain. We can even turn abundance, even Lake Tahoe, into a problem. We have so many choices, and every choice makes us count the missed opportunities of options not chosen. It’s like online dating, which creates anxiety about what is lost/missed by the innumerable choices not selected. “I deserve to get more/all”. This is the polar opposite of gratitude and "thank you".

So in that moment by Lake Tahoe, I chose to say "thank you". I inhaled appreciation for my surroundings, relaxed my tensed belly, and exhaled. I kept doing this until my self-absorbed compulsion for more/better subsided. "Thank you" was enough. (Mystic Meister Eckhart said that if "thank you" is the only prayer you ever learn, that's enough.)

A deep, in my body sense of gratitude turned an agitated moment into a happy one. Nothing had changed. Except me.

Ain't That a Shame

I've been a bit prickly lately. Negative internal chatter. Knee-jerk emotional responses. What's going on? Ah yes, one of those old issues which I had totally resolved (right!?!) was rearing its head again. It's the return of ye olde perfectionist streak. It goes deeper than just avoiding mistakes. It’s more of a feeling that I am personally wrong, that I'm not enough. I notice anxiety emerge whenever I sense that I might make a mistake or even be perceived as wrong.

I remembered a TED talk from a few years ago by Brené Brown, a researcher on shame and vulnerability. Her work focuses on the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt says, "I made a mistake." Shame says, "I am a mistake." Guilt apologizes for errors, learns from them and moves forward. Shame paralyzes with judgment and blame and is highly correlated with addiction and self-destructive behavior.

All of us have "shame triggers", those identities that we try to avoid at all costs but which persist beneath a thin veneer. To identify your shame trigger, complete the following sentence: "Above all, I don't want to be perceived as..."

Shame thrives in secrecy, silence and judgment. It withers in openness, compassion and empathy. When we bravely tell our stories, shame dissipates. "You're not good enough" and "Who do you think you are?" loose their oomph. We might even have a Stuart Smalley moment: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggonit, people like me!" I think my version is, "Yes, I'm imperfect dammit. I make mistakes and often don't know what I'm doing. Thank heavens I'm enough, loved as I am and have nothing to prove."

Brené Brown's followup TED talk explores how creative innovation arises from the willingness to be vulnerable. We'll never shine unless we risk failure and imperfection. Here's the link to her latest TED talk:

Welcoming our failures and imperfections with an open door airs out our humanity. No longer expending energy on pretense, we are free to live wholeheartedly as a whole person. We lose concern for who might be watching and how they might perceive us. Playful enthusiasm bubbles to the surface. Even old Scrooge couldn't help giggling and dancing a jig after he faced his ghosts. The final words of Dickens' classic tale says of Scrooge that:

"Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them...His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him."

P.S. Please join us the first three Monday nights in June for Mindful Photography: The Art of Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes.

Stratego: A Poor Strategy for Life

My Uncle Frank came to visit my grandparents every summer when I was growing up. He and I would play games and cards hour after hour. I particularly liked Stratego, a board game in which two players pit their armies against each other. I developed a strategy that I employed every time, which almost always resulted in a win. Basically, it was a defensive posture focused on protecting my flag and setting traps in which the parts of my defenses that seemed weakest actually obscured hidden dangers.  I rarely went on the offensive, trusting that the way I set up my army usually guaranteed victory before the first move was even made. By the time my uncle figured out where my flag was, he usually did not have enough resources left to capture it.

Looking back now, I realize that I also began to employ this same strategy with life. Prepare thoroughly in advance, survey the board and plan for every possibility, control everything you can, and then trust that things will go your way because they should go your way. For the most part, this strategy worked well in school. (Isn't school essentially a prolonged board game?)

When entering the world of work, relationships and adult problems, however, this strategy simply did not work anymore. There were too many variables. No matter how hard I prepared and planned, the unexpected happened. Life turned out to be a Mystery that could be neither controlled nor understood.

Somehow this didn't seem fair. Why shouldn't life function like Stratego? If I did my part, shouldn't the world do its part and cooperate? Through all my hard work, have I not proved my worth and earned some sort of reward?

My resentful attitude reminds me of a character in a story Jesus told, which is commonly known as "The Prodigal Son". Both sons in the story are actually lost. The younger son wasted his inheritance on partying. The older son stayed behind on the farm as he thought a good boy should, yet he resented how his life was turning out. He worked hard every day, followed the rules, and was the poster child for responsibility, yet no one seemed to notice. No one even gave him a "like" on his Facebook page. Yet, his irresponsible partying brother comes home, and his father throws him a ginormous party. And the kicker: the older son stays out in the field all day working while the party is underway. No one even bothers to tell him about his brother's return and the shindig.

The father's words to him as he sulks in the unfairness of it all still resonate for me today: "All I have is yours already." This is the message the older son and I both need to hear:

By all this hard work, you are trying to earn what is already yours. You are innately worthy and beloved. No amount of strategy or work can earn what must be received as a given. Receiving your "belovedness" as a given, life starts to feel more like a gift and less like an imposition. A joyful balance of responsibility and freedom emerges. Yes, your brother needs to learn responsibility, and you need to learn freedom. Wholeness is the balance of both. And the balancing point is compassionate self-acceptance.

Life is far more mysterious, complicated and glorious than a board game. Perhaps the greatest mystery is that I am already worthy and forever ok without doing anything! Living from a sense of being irrevocably loved, that resentful sinkhole of compensating for the feeling that I'm never enough...that sinkhole starts to fill from the inside out.

I'm learning a new approach to this board game of life, and living from my "belovedness" may turn out to be the riskiest yet most rewarding strategy of all.

P.S. Beginning in mid-April, a new group will meet every Tuesday night to experience and explore together this mysterious freedom and "belovedness". For more information, go to: Tuesday Night Live.

Reflecting on the Colorado Shootings

Last week, a 24-year old, whose deranged motives are still unknown, killed 12 people and wounded 58 more. Truly, a horrific tragedy that naturally and appropriately breaks our hearts wide open. The most common response to last week's shootings in Colorado has been compassion and prayers for all those impacted by the massacre. Even removed by great distances, we feel sorrow and shock when tragedy strikes people we have never met. What I'm curious about is what moves us to compassion and what doesn't. The terrible violence in Aurora, Colorado pales in comparison to what people around the world experience on a daily basis. From Afghanistan to Mexico, from the Northern Caucasus to Sudan, each day brings new losses and grief. The violence in Syria has claimed over 19,000 lives including 2,752 in July alone (as of this past Sunday). Of those 2,752 killings, 1,933 were civilians. Or said another way, the average daily death toll is 131 people, and the overwhelming majority are civilians.

I realize that much violence occurring around the world stems from broad political, religious and economic roots and that what happened in Colorado was an isolated act perpetrated by a crazed science student.  But are they really that different? Is verbal or physical violence in the name of one's religion any less crazy? Is there anything sane about "preemptive wars" that create more enemies than they eliminate? Is it not equally mad when economic policies make the desperate poor even poorer so that a privileged few can live more comfortably?

The path to sanity requires that we take responsibility for starting to move the human race from fear-based violence to hope-based interaction. We, imperfectly and progressively, can move from a narrow, biologically-imbedded focus on "me, myself and I" to a primary concern for the interconnected, highest good of all. We can choose to be more than we have been. Why? Not only because it's our best hope of survival, but also because it's the compelling pull of evolution.

It's also the compelling pull of  the spiritual path. When asked "who is my neighbor?", that is, who counts as someone I should care about, Jesus told the story of a Samaritan, a despised foreigner, who took care of an injured Jew. You can substitute any individuals or groups at odds with each other, and the meaning is clear: no one is to be excluded from your concern.

What if we had as much compassion, prayer and outpouring of support for people in Syria and Sudan as we do for people in Colorado? Cultivating a more expansive concern for "my neighbor" awakens a felt connection like the world briefly experienced after 9/11 or like that experienced between a wounded Jew and a kind Samaritan.

I don't know how many future killings could be prevented by expanding our understanding of who counts as a neighbor. Perhaps in a world where more of us became our brother's keeper, caring intervention might reach a troubled young man before it's too late. I don't know. What I do know is that until we open our hearts to a wider segment of humanity,  nothing will change.

We can choose to be "like-hearted" even when we are not like-minded. When frightened or frustrated, instead of reaching for a gun we can reach for a sacred text, a deeper understanding, our highest aspirations, or another hand extended in potential friendship.

It's not magic. It's not impossible. It's a choice. A daily choice.