Mr. Rogers Is My Hero

I will confess that while I grew up with Mr. Rogers, I was more of a Sesame Street fan. Maybe I preferred its pace to the more methodical pace of Mr. Rogers. But this isn’t a comparison of the two. It is merely to point out that it took me almost 50 years to recognize the brilliance and prophetic nature of Fred Rogers.

I took my daughter to see the documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I left that experience realizing how hungry I was for kindness, which seems to be in short supply these days. Rogers was a man who lived his convictions beautifully and sacrificially. He respected people and acknowledged their whole selves, which included their thoughts and feelings. He knew their value wasn’t in what they could do or who they had been born to, but simply by being themselves. Fred Rogers embodied the command to love God, and to love neighbor as oneself. And he didn’t ever have to quote scripture to do so.

I have since immersed myself in the theology and philosophy of Fred Rogers. I am finding so much inspiration for my spiritual journey. I see now that it was his simplicity that caused me to miss his depth. I could write about it. Or you could see if for yourselves.

Click here to watch this clip of Mr. Rogers from his television show, introducing Jeff Erlanger to his neighbors. It is long in this day and age of 10 second clips. But I encourage you to watch it in its entirety. And listen to what is shared and explored. Imagine what this meant to Jeff and to the many children (and adults for that matter) who may look different or do things differently, and yet aren’t so different.

Now click here to watch another clip, years and years later, when Mr. Rogers is inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. Watch him climb to get to Jeff. Listen to his words of gratitude. See his face of appreciation and care. You can’t fake that level of love and selflessness. Mr. Rogers was the real deal.

While he received many accolades, Fred Rogers was also often the butt of many jokes. Perhaps it was his singsong voice, his methodical approach, or his childlike enthusiasm that invited these jokes. But when we laugh too quickly, as I believe I used to do, we miss the truth he embodied. And let us note, and be thankful for the fact that he never wavered. I suspect it wasn’t easy. There are glimpses of his doubts and fatigue, when you look closely enough. But he forged ahead anyway. And how wonderful to hear that he did so with his real family in addition to his television family. As I said already, Mr. Rogers was the real deal.

I wish I could say thank you to Mr. Rogers, for his message, his courage, his resilience, his convictions. I am glad so many people over the years did just that. Mr. Rogers, you are my hero.

Milestones

This past week my daughter graduated from high school. I was able to spend time with my adult son and both of my parents in addition to my husband and daughter. I had lots of time with friends too. One of the things that struck me was how many of us had different takes on this milestone’s meaning, what was important or not as important, what to celebrate and might come next.

I got to thinking: Who is right? Should I have been sadder than I felt? Should I have enjoyed the pomp and circumstance more? Was I wrong to relish most the time spent with those I love? What did I miss? What will I think months from now when I look back? The process of exploring my perspective along with the perspective of others is another reminder of how much I value diversity of thought.

We live in a time where most of us find diversity scary. Our ideological differences are at odds with what feels like potential significant changes in outcome. And when we think of those differences in big arenas such as politics or religion, diversity doesn’t seem feasible. One side must be right and the other side must be wrong. One side must be chosen and the other rejected. There will be winners and losers. But the reality is, most of life isn’t spent in a large arena. Most of life is spent doing our jobs, loving our loved ones, talking with our neighbors, spending time with friends, raising kids, taking care of pets, supporting those in need. Most of our time is a collection of small, seemingly insignificant acts, decisions, thoughts and responses each and every day.

I was reminded of this poignantly with the suicide of Anthony Bourdain. He was a man who spent time understanding and learning from others. I admired his approach, which felt both simple and profound.

“We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions,” [Anthony Bourdain] said, “we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”

His questions allowed anyone to enter into the conversation, regardless of background or experience. That in and of itself is noteworthy. But then, and probably more importantly, he listened. Listening – really listening, deeply hearing, staying curious, open, respectful – is what allows diversity to not only be feasible but rich and rewarding.

And yet Mr. Bourdain failed to find the hope to live one more day. The stories poured in following his death, of how he made people on the margins feel heard and valued. What he was able to do for others, he was unable to receive for himself. I wish his life hadn’t ended with suicide. I wish he could’ve let someone in, really let them in, the way others let him into their lives.

I could mark the milestone of my daughter’s graduation by how the ceremony went, by who came and didn’t come to various events, by the event in and of itself. Or I could commemorate it with the nearly 18 years of life and all of the countless, insignificant decisions that led us to this milestone. All of the good things and all of our failures and everything in between brought us to this place. I had prepared for the milestone as best I could, was present in it to enjoy it as much as I could be, and I learned from others through their thoughts and experiences.

Graduation is a big deal. But when you think about it, isn’t every day a big deal? An important milestone? Each day has value. Life is an ongoing, marathon-style, do-your-best-because-that-is-all-you-can-do kind of experience. Be proud of what you do well. Learn from and let go of what you wish you had done differently. Listen to others. Share with others. Don’t measure your life or worth against another. Instead, celebrate what is worth celebrating and work on what could be better. I’m not suggesting we diminish the value of a milestone but rather we see the countless opportunities in every day to take one step forward, which is in fact a milestone.

This picture was taken right after her graduation ceremony. But honestly, with the exception of her attire, it could have been taken on any given day. And whether graduation ever came or not, that is one of the most important milestones of all.

34716268_946846368810772_2252487244675809280_n

 

 

Friday Favorite, 3.23.18

There is an unsettling story in which Jesus tells a potential follower to sell all that he has and give it to the poor first, if in fact he wants to follow Jesus. Some cite this story as what it costs to be a christian. Many christians are quick to say that the story is but one facet, and to make this the litmus test of faith is taking that story out of its context.

Robert Gundry has a different take, and it is his words that I sit with today.

” ‘Jesus did not command all of his followers to sell all their possessions’ gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command.”

When I use my conviction of faith to diminish or judge another, I have missed the point of that conviction. My convictions should make me uncomfortable, not be used to make you uncomfortable. Your convictions belong to you, and are yours to do with what you choose. When we come to different conclusions in our convictions, one does not diminish the other. They are simply different.

I don’t think giving away all that I have would be the most unsettling question asked of me. What I hold onto the tightest, what would be nearly impossible to give up if asked, that is what I am pondering today.

 

Today’s Goal: Underachieve

We live in a competitive culture. And on most days, I love it! You say “A friendly game of Words with Friends?” I say, “Game on!” For me, it is typically not about winning. It is all about the competition. When my kids were young and we would play a game, I would try to come up with a way to handicap myself in order to make it more competitive. They didn’t know what I was doing because it was strictly for my enjoyment. I love a victory, but I have to say I also love a loss, when it was well fought and the match remained competitive to the end.

I love competition so much that I am always seeking opportunities. Can I make the sourpuss barista laugh? Can I find a quicker way to get from point A to point B? How close can I get to spending $50 at the grocery store without going over? Can I diagnose my cat’s ailment before the vet tells me what is wrong? Just thinking of these examples has quickened my heart rate. I LOVE a competition, even if I am the only competitor.

Yet I know that I need to not be competitive from time to time. While competition has its value, it also has a dark side. Winning can easily become the point. And when that occurs, no longer is it about the enjoyment of a competition or the lessons that could be learned. It is solely about beating one’s competitors. And when we find ourselves there, we become masters of justifying our actions for a particular outcome. We not only forget the humanity of others, but we lose our own humanity as well.

I have learned how important it is for this competitor to step out of the competitive ring on a regular basis. I make no apologies for the opportunities I take to sleep in when I am able, to periodically be non-productive, to simply rest even I am not feeling that tired. I remind myself that I do not need to excuse my underachieving days. If I find myself feeling guilty with what I am doing (or not doing), I remind myself that this is not the norm for me. It is on these days I remember some things I may have gotten fuzzy on: I am human. I have limitations. Competition can sometimes counter intimacy. Winning/losing isn’t what defines us; how we “play the game” i.e. live our lives, does.

And so today, I proudly share that it is 5:30pm and I am still in my pajamas. I have less than 1000 steps on my Fitbit. My back is a little sore from spending a lot of time lying in or sitting on my bed.

It has been a good day.

29261607_10156235743539299_7500326677772238848_n.jpg

Hello. My name is Jennifer and I’m a Friendapist.

For years I had the luxury of time. I was raising kids and not working outside of the home. I had flexibility in my schedule and I had a fair amount of free time. Over the course of those 12+ years, I developed the practice of having meaningful one-on-one conversations. I appreciated the depth and the adult connection. I enjoyed the challenge of problem-solving. And the food and coffee that went along with the conversations were icing on the cake. Over the years, I became a friendapist.

Yes, it’s a real thing. There is no formal education required. I didn’t try to do this. It evolved over time. I got better at listening and talking things through. People would call and schedule another coffee to continue the conversation. I had some friends on a monthly rotation, ready to pick up where we left off to discuss what they were struggling with or working through.

I should’ve known this was happening. My husband would say to me, “If you were paid every time you met someone for coffee, we would have our kids’ college education paid for!” But I wasn’t getting paid and those 529’s needed funding somehow. Plus I always intended to go back to work.

And so about 8 years ago I went back to work full-time. Since then I have become increasingly busy professionally. I don’t have the flexibility I used to have or the time I had. But I realized recently that I still was trying to maintain my side gig of friendapist. I was continuing a therapeutic kind of relationship with several people, which is very different from simply being a person’s friend. It’s hard to fully explain, although I imagine the friendapists reading this know exactly what I am talking about.

I think this change will be good for me. My tendency has been to be what others needed me to be, which is what made me a good friendapist. But it’s time for my friendships to be friendships. That means I get to be me, which includes the surly, tired, salty, selfish side of me that is sometimes there. I get to fall apart when I need to. And most importantly, I get to say “No” – “No” when I don’t have the energy to be a listening ear or a theological/philosophical sounding board.

And so the breakup begins. I imagine some relationships will fade while others will take on a new structure beyond the friendapist connection. We’ll have to wait and see. It’s probably going to be hard to do. But it is time.

What Is Normal Anyway?

normal |ˈnôrməl|

adjective

conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected: it’s quite normal for puppies to bolt their food | normal working hours.

I think the idea of what is normal or what should be normal messes a lot of people up. “Normal” gives the impression of certain guarantees. As one prone to analytical thinking, I recognize predictors of outcome. But I rarely see a solid 100% guarantee on any outcome. When an expected outcome doesn’t occur, it can cause a person to question who is to blame for what went wrong. After all, wasn’t the person entitled to a normal outcome?

If I love a certain way, I will be loved in return.

If I save a certain amount of money, I will retire the way I want.

If I parent a certain way, my kid will become the kind of adult I hoped s/he would be.

If I work hard enough, my efforts will be acknowledged and rewarded.

I could go on. Maybe some come to mind for you?

There are several religious systems that support this kind of thinking. In my faith tradition it goes like this: “If I obey God, God will bless me.” Even if that is true, I don’t know that we do much work to wrestle with the ideas of what it means to “obey God”, and what “God blessing us” means. Rather we tend to define it in ways that suitably fit us. If or when they don’t, we go somewhere else.

Normality makes dealing with anything perceived to be abnormal as difficult or worse yet, a failure. The goal tends to be to pull or push or force or squeeze or shove what was happening into some kind of “normal” explanation. For example, when my friend died tragically, I couldn’t reconcile her death. “It shouldn’t have happened!” I cried out to God. Her death had no part in my perception of normalcy. Part of my journey through the grief was having to face the reality that there is no normal. I became increasingly aware that tragedy exists everywhere. I started to see how sheltered I had been from it up to that point. It didn’t make my loss easier, but somehow it made more space for the loss and all my feelings that went with it. Instead of judging whether or not it should have happened, I learned to deal with what had happened.

Believing in a norm can provide comfort. However I find the people who have deeply immersed themselves in normalcy to be fragile. They wall themselves off from anything or anyone that might challenge their norms. Their worlds get smaller as their voices get louder regarding what is acceptable, or what is right, or what should be normal. The thicker their walls, the more demanding of others they become. This is where their fragility becomes most obvious. The demand isn’t, as they surmise, for the betterment of others but rather an ongoing “Hail Mary” attempt to protect themselves. The problem is, superimposing one’s norms onto another can be ignorant, and even quite hurtful at times.

I have seen walls obliterated with one tragic event though some have the luxury of maintaining those walls for a lifetime. And honestly, I guess we all build walls to a certain extent. But for most of us, walls eventually fall down or get torn down. The conclusion I have come to is that “normal” is entirely overrated. Instead of building more walls or repairing old ones, maybe we could pour that energy into what is actually going on in us and around us. Rather than spending time wishing for what we have defined as normal or telling others what should be normal for them, we can spend time navigating what is meaningfully and healthily. That, for me, is the “new normal” or in other words, there ain’t no such thing as normal.

A Letter To My Kids

Dear I & L,

As 2017 comes to an end, I thought I would write to the two of you for my year-end reflecting. While my role as your mom continues to evolve, my love for you deepens as it shapes me. And so my letter to you today is an effort to explore some of the convergence of my life with lessons learned as your mom.

For the last ten years or so, I have spent time observing others of all ages to see how they live life. Some questions I ask myself: Are they happy? Are their relationships strong? Do they know who they are? Do they know what they want? Do they have the strength to endure life’s difficulties? Do they have the wisdom to make good decisions? Do they know how to have fun? Do they laugh often? Do they cry? What are they afraid of? What are they avoiding? Can they express how they feel? Do they love well?

In my search, I also looked within myself to answer these same questions. My search brought me to counseling for understanding and healing. It led me to seminary, chaplaincy training, and the work I currently do. I let some relationships go while I worked hard to strengthen others. I have found myself in places and situations that scared the hell out of me, yet I got through them and learned so much. I laugh harder and I cry more than I used to. You two know that I make mistakes often. But the point isn’t being perfect. This work is leading me to a deep and fulfilling place of contentment. And that right there is the big “aha” moment. Did you miss it? Many do.

Your work, and yours alone, is to find your contentment. No one can give it to you just as you cannot give someone else theirs. I don’t think it is meant to be found in your teen years or your twenties, or even your thirties. These are the years for you to be bold and dream big. A little discontentment is good if it enables you to have the audacity to believe that anything is possible.  But remember that at some point discontentment becomes an illness. Over time it fosters emptiness and loneliness in ways that leaves its owner increasingly hopeless and burdensome to others.

When we meet others from a place of contentment, we are able to offer love without condition and receive love in ways we never could have imagined. But contentment needs to be learned. As I sought to parent well, a paradox emerged: my heart had to become both fragile and strong. Holding the paradox rather than choosing one over the other was difficult. As you have grown and become increasingly independent, more space exists between you and me, and rightly so. To not allow for that space or encourage it would be to your detriment. I have had to consciously step back at times despite my desire to move towards you to protect you or hold you. But I knew that my goal, my job has always been to help equip you to live your life, and to live it well. And so I have always meant to work myself out of a job. This, you see, is bittersweet. It requires both fragility and strength.

Perhaps hold onto this idea of contentment somewhere close, like a token kept in your pocket. Periodically you will come across it, more often by accident. Take time to look at it, consider it, before returning it to your pocket. And remember that it requires both fragility and strength. Then I believe it will grow with you as you grow in knowledge and wisdom and experience. This will enable you to learn to love well and grow in kindness, generosity, patience and joy.

As I think of you both, my heart aches for the overwhelming love I feel, and flies because of the gratitude for you two. May 2018 be a year filled with adventure, love, gratitude, and learning, with a seed of contentment planted.

I love you,

Mom

xmas2017

Honesty Isn’t Easy

A close friend recently said to me, “Some people will say something like, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ You on the other hand are more likely to say, ‘I don’t know if it’s going to be okay, but we are going to get through it together.'” Initially I was surprised by what she said. As I continued to think about it, I realized this was an insightful observation.

Some people – maybe many people – don’t want to deal with the reality that life is fragile and unfair. Instead we want to believe the age-old adage that if we do the right things, it will all work out in the end. I am not pessimistic or overly cynical. I have simply learned that life doesn’t often work that way. People die prematurely. Bad people sometimes win. Health-conscious people develop cancer. Some are born into great families while others are born into terrible families. Poor decisions can sometimes have no negative consequences and good decisions can sometimes lead to trouble. And on and on and on. You can imagine how popular I must be, especially at parties.

The downside to being honest is that one then has to face the implications of this honesty. And this is why I believe many people prefer the easier-in-the-short-term answer of “It’s going to be okay.” They can keep doing what they have been doing and believe at some point that the outcome will be different. But what if the outcome never changes? What if you wake up tomorrow and things are exactly the same?

Believing everything is going to work out alright is really just a procrastination. Acknowledging everything might not be okay invokes decision-making. Instead of waiting for change, one seeks to change what one is able to change. We see this in nearly every survivor story, nearly every heroic story: letting go of the outcome and do what one can do in the here-and-now is often how we see a person make a difference for the better. But that takes work, painful work often.

I imagine all of us from time to time are too tired to really be honest, especially with ourselves. But if we avoid honesty altogether, we will find ourselves living superficial lives. And the superficiality is the first thing to go when life throws us a curveball. Maybe this is why I have found it helpful to be honest when things are relatively calm in my life. What do I like about my life? What is missing? These questions help me to see how I might reprioritize or what I would like to change. That begins with an honest look at how things are actually going. No bullshit. No excuses. What is working and what isn’t working? In this process, I am exercising the mental, emotional and spiritual muscles needed when tragedy does hit. Tragedy is still incredibly hard and painful. And it is a lot of work. But I have begun the conditioning that will help me through.

I don’t fault those who walk away from honesty. Perhaps if I could believe everything will always be okay, I would choose that too. But I have noticed that those who walk away take their pain with them. I have also noticed that the folks who espouse everything will all be okay rarely get their hands dirty, so-to-speak. They are supportive from the sidelines. I have been left behind by “supportive” people. I want people in my life who will stay beside me no matter how uncomfortable that space is. Hopefully you know what I am talking about: The friend who will sit with you as you ask the unanswerable questions. The partner who will hold you even when you are inconsolable. The family member who doesn’t take it personally when you lash out in your darkest moment. These are the people who will inhabit that difficult space with you. These are the people who provide love and hope when it is most desperately needed. I suppose that is why my mantra is twofold: I don’t know if it’s going to be okay and we will get through it together.

Yeah, I believe my friend was right in her observation. This has been a guiding principle of mine for most of my life, and I couldn’t really name it until she stated it so simply and matter-of-factly. I am so grateful for her honesty, which she has demonstrated time and time again. May we all have at least one person who chooses honesty over ease. Or better yet, may we be surrounded by many who do.

A Great Divide: Challenge or Impasse?

There is a lot of arguing going on lately. We feel deeply and find offense quickly. The thing is, most of us know which side of an argument we will stand pretty early on, and that rarely changes no matter what evidence we hear. And yet we keep trying to convince others to join our side, our cause, our “right side of history”. Instead of seeing change, all we seem to do is stoke the fires of our own side and further the divide from those who disagree.

I have little tolerance for an impasse. I don’t mean a challenge; I love a challenge. A challenge is when the road from where one is to where one wants to be is difficult, or is non existent and needs to be built. An impasse is when every inch of progress is countered with destruction. It takes time to determine whether one is experiencing a challenge or an impasse. But eventually that impasse becomes clear. Most successful individuals will tell you that learning to recognize failure is essential to success. Remaining in the impasse is guaranteed to be continued failure. Most of us, with our views and convictions, remain at an impasse.

As I read and watch the latest divide, the #TakeAKnee/NFL/National Anthem controversy, I find myself tired. Not of the issues I believe in, but in the engagement with others over those issues. I am tired of trying to find meaningful dialogue. I am tired of the nasty dismissals of differing thoughts and ideas. I am tired of everyone talking and no one listening. I am tired of the ignorance, the lack of respect and love, the self-preservation. I am tired of being those things and I am tired of encountering those things. I am tired of the divide that seems to deepen and widen in this country.

This morning I took my coffee to my back porch. It is a beautiful fall morning, significantly different from yesterday’s nearly 90 degrees and very humid weather. The birds sang and the sound of leaves from the breeze blowing soothed my tired soul. How does one move from impasse to progress? As I sipped my coffee, I began to think about how my mind has been changed over the years. It wasn’t solid arguments or clever soundbites that I thought of. It was some of the people I have gotten to know and their stories I have heard. That is what has changed my mind, my opinions, my beliefs time and time again.

I thought of Dana, my friend with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). Through her journey, I have learned how little has been spent on stage 4 research. We celebrate the progress we have made with treating breast cancer. But there is significant and serious work we aren’t doing enough of. The progress we have made has been largely in the shallow end of the pool, so to speak. We have much work to do in the deep end of the pool and can’t claim victory until we navigate those deeper waters. Those with MBC are dying in the deep end. The pink ribbon campaign isn’t venturing out there enough yet gets most of our attention and funding. I now give differently because of Dana.

I thought of my friend Terry. As he shared the story of teaching his son to drive, which included how to safely be pulled over by the police (my friend is black), a bubble that I was living in burst. I had recently taught my son to drive and never once did I worry for his safety if pulled over by the police. Terry was one of the kindest men I knew. If he experienced injustice because of the color of his skin (and he did often) then I knew the world wasn’t quite as evolved as I thought it had become. I now see my privilege because of Terry.

I thought of John, a pastor and friend I knew years ago. When he told me he was gay, I expressed love for him and gently reiterated my position that I didn’t agree with his “lifestyle”. I didn’t hesitate in wanting to continue my friendship with him. And I felt it was my responsibility to be clear about where I stood on the issue of homosexuality. A few weeks later I received a letter from him. In it he said, “Do you think a moment goes by that I am not aware of what most Christians think of my being gay?” Navigating different convictions is difficult. Making someone feel loved shouldn’t be. What we do with our convictions is as important as the convictions themselves. I now see my self-righteousness because of John.

I thought of Kim, Jocelyn and Angie, women I went to seminary with who are lesbians. They are serious about their Christian faith. They challenged my views of homosexuality simply by living out their faith meaningfully. I had been taught homosexuality was a sin. These women (and many more friends since) taught me that their being gay is as much a part of who they are as being christians. And I wouldn’t want them to be anything other than who they are. I now see my ignorance because of Kim, Jocelyn and Angie.

I could go on. So many examples of people I got to know who by their being who they are challenged my ideas and perceptions. This is how we move from the impasse. We get to know people who are different from ourselves. If I have made any kind of impact in this world, it hasn’t been through my blog or Facebook status update or Instagram photo. Hashtags don’t change lives. If I have had the ability to make any kind of difference, it is because I am a better person having learned what I have learned along the way and am interacting meaningfully with others who differ from me.

I love to engage in conversations with diverse opinions being expressed. The point in doing so isn’t to convince others to see things my way. My hope is that each of us participating leave that conversation having taught something and having learned something, not with that as an agenda but with that as the outcome. But that is a choice we must make. And that is how we bridge the divide. When was the last time you learned something that surprised you? When was the last time a conviction changed, even slightly? These questions will help to determine whether you are up for the challenge these days require, or are part of the impasse that is getting us nowhere.