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.

 

Outdoor Challenge: #1 of 12?

After my hike this past June and the realization of its benefits to my mind, body and soul, I decided that I want to be outside more. I don’t just mean in my backyard. I want to experience the elements: wrestle with them, enjoy them, care for them and be nurtured by them. But wanting that and doing that are two very different things. I have a long list of great ideas that slowly (or quickly) sank and thus disappeared in the quicksand called “everyday life”.  I knew that just wanting to do this wouldn’t create change. I had to come up with a goal and get some accountability. My friend who had taken me on that fateful hike was in the middle of a goal she had set for herself.  In 2017, she and her husband determined that they would spend one night outside each month for the entire year. While we hiked, she talked about how the first half of the year had gone. These weren’t just a series of six overnights thus far, but an unfolding story that was taking a year to tell.

Within a week following that hike, I decided I want to do the same, only with my daughter who was going to begin her senior year of high school. I had the summer to plan. If we started in September, we would get 12 overnights in before she left for college. One year, 12 overnights, her last year at home – this could be good for us as individuals, and as mother and daughter. I thought the idea was both brilliant and ambitious. I was excited and I was nervous. I texted my daughter.

Me: “What do you think of doing one overnight, outdoor excursion each month starting in Sept, including winter months? It will be tough but I think it will be a great experience for both of us. We would be able to get 12 in before you go off to college.”

Her: “YES!”

When she responds in all caps, she is excited. I didn’t ask her why she said yes. I think I was avoiding delving into any details that might cause either of us to change our minds. She was excited. I was excited. That was all the buy-in I needed. I began to share my plan with others, starting with my husband. He was surprised yet supportive. He was excited to participate with us on some of our trips.

I started researching equipment, locations, and backpacking know-how. People were supportive, enthusiastic, and even awed by what we were taking on. And it didn’t take me long to think perhaps I had bit more than I could chew. But I kept coming back to this idea of having one year left with my daughter before she leaves home. I have been through this with my oldest child. While his dependency didn’t end the day he left for school, starting college changed things and rightly so. I know that her departure will be a big deal. In feeling overwhelmed by both how quickly August will arrive and the goal I had set, I didn’t want to lose the forest for the trees. Even if we have three great outdoor adventures, that would be something worth celebrating. But neither do I want to miss the forest because of the trees. I decided I will do my best to plan and execute 12 outdoor adventures for us, from September 2017 through August 2018.

This past weekend, we did our first overnight outside. We didn’t venture far. We camped with my husband along with some friends. The planning and carrying out took time and effort. I have had many, many, many moments in this process where I thought to myself, “11 more times???” But we did it. And I think we can do it 11 more times. Some things will get easier. But even so, it will still take time and effort, which is why it probably wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t keep coming back to this goal. The idea of one trip per month would have become one trip every other month. Winter trips would have probably been cut out altogether. “How much would we enjoy in this cold anyway?” I would tell myself. (I have been down the road of The Best Of Intentions Blvd far too many times.) However the point isn’t weighing pros and cons and choosing the more reasonable option. The point is a year-long, unfolding experience for me to have with my nearly grown daughter; an experience that will be as good for her soul as it will be for mine as long as I remain attentive to our souls in the process.

In our overnight this past weekend, I woke up in the middle of the night. Our tent was near a creek and I heard something cross the water. I suspect it was a deer. I smiled and thought, “This is where I want to be, need to be every now and then.” To be in the elements and part of the elements felt good and life-giving. Lying between my husband and daughter, I felt love for them and an appreciation for their willingness to be next to me in this adventure.

Maybe my goal is too ambitious or maybe it is right on target. Only time will tell. But the point isn’t the destination, of saying at the end of 12 months that we did 12 overnights. The point is the journey towards next August. The point is the journey I will be taking with my nearly grown daughter. It will be hard and it will be rewarding. I believe it just might be life-changing for both of us. Time will tell.

Home

As I headed out to run some errands, I felt an affection for my house and neighborhood. For the first time in my life, I thought “I think I’d like to grow old in this house.” I have lived in 11 states. I lost count with how many cities and homes there have been over the years. Somewhere along the way, I learned to see moving as an adventure. Home wasn’t a house or stuff. Home was where my family was. When we bought our current house back in 2000, I remember thinking its set up would be conducive for our life then and would work later too. It was big enough for our young family at that time. And with a first floor master bedroom, we could close off the upstairs when it became just the two of us. It’s not that I was planning to live here into my retirement, but that’s the way I think, exploring all options, benefits, and disadvantages.

We bought a house well within our price range. And we have rarely had the ability to do more than pay our bills, save some money, and take a vacation that most often was to visit relatives. That means that we haven’t done much with our home in the 17 years we have lived here, other than repair what breaks, periodically paint, and occasionally do an upgrade that coincided with a visit of my very handy father-in-law.

I have dreamed up many projects over the years, much to my husband’s chagrin. I enjoy doing so even though we were never in the position to be able to do them. But now that our children are almost grown, I think some of these upgrades might actually be possible. Granted, life tends to throw curveballs and we aren’t there yet. But there seems to be a real possibility of doing some of these projects. The ideas, some big and many not-so-big, now seem like projects we might be able to do in the next 17 years of our life here. Add to that the memories of raising our children and growing a lasting marriage, and this place becomes quite special.

There is no right way or wrong way to grow a home. Most of my friends have had the ability to build their dreams earlier in life. They are grateful for that and I am happy for them. Gratitude is seeing the good in one’s own circumstances regardless of those circumstances. I am now grateful for having had to wait. I am grateful that even if these projects never get done, there has been so much gained through the waiting. At the end of the day, it is just a building and we are just talking about stuff. My home will always be with those I love and the memories I treasure. But this new found sense of being settled and appreciative of my house and excited about what it might bring in years to come – I am grateful for that too.

Mind, Matter & Hurricanes

This summer, a good friend of mine took me out for a day hike on the Appalachian Trail. The experience was somewhat challenging and totally exhilarating. In the midst of a very busy time in my life, I was reminded of how time spent outside was so good for my mind, body and soul. What normally takes effort – recalibrating the mind to a sustainable pace; broadening my perspective beyond my problems; connecting with something larger than myself – seems to occur naturally and without mental effort when out in nature. It’s like the physical challenge of navigating a natural environment helps reset my mind to what is healthy and natural and sustainable. Maybe that is because the environments we build tend to be unrealistic, unsustainable, and unhealthy…

Perhaps a counterintuitive idea to consider in light of recent events. Two major hurricanes devastated parts of the US, putting nature’s power on full display. People lost their homes and all of their belongings. Some are without food and water. Others lost their lives. Maybe what differs between physical challenges and the mental ones is that the physical challenges are straightforward. The line between life and death is clear. But when we delve into our minds, the line between life and death blurs. What aids in our wellbeing can be ignored. What kills us – mentally, emotionally, spiritually – does so slowly, and without notice at first. And by the time we do notice, we might be too numb to change anything. Or too deep in denial. Or too entrenched in what we have always done and perhaps will always do. To help someone devastated by a hurricane is much easier to navigate than to help a person who is overcome with anxiety or depression. Identifying excess in nature is not debated, while we rarely agree on how much is too much when it comes to our own excesses. Physical malnourishment is significantly easier to recognize and address than spiritual malnourishment. The mind cannot cover up signs of under eating. But the mind can be quite good at hiding the signs of a dying soul. As human beings we rise to the occasion in the wake of a natural disaster. And on a daily basis we cause great destruction to ourselves and others through our thoughts, attitudes, and opinions.

I know not everyone responds to nature as I do. And I don’t believe that being outside equals healthiness. But there is something about the natural world, however that might be experienced, that differs from the world we tend to create.  And that might be worth pondering for awhile. Maybe we have taken the expression “mind over matter” too far. In our admiration for the power of one’s mind, have we forgotten the limits and sometimes the destructiveness it also holds? I am beginning to see, deeply see, what it means to find the answer beyond my own self. The mind is a wonderful gift. And the mind has its limits. Finding that space where mind and matter intersect seems to be where I find my whole self.

Dear Family of Origin

Perhaps it is strange that I write to the three of you in this format. But I realized this morning that I have a few things I want to say to you collectively. Part of my chaplaincy training was spent reflecting on my family of origin: what part I played in it, what parts you each played, and how my growing up within this family prepared me to deal with conflict, pain, joy, relationships, and countless other adult-life stuff. This process was enlightening, painful, and gratifying. I thought I would share with you some of my take-aways via my blog. (You can thank me later.)

First, we each bring a unique perspective to what it means to be part of this family. Our perspectives may overlap, and they seem to at times. And where they differ, I have the ability to see our family from a different angle or point of view. Our needs may differ. That is okay.

I recognize and affirm your thoughts, ideas and experiences regarding our family.

Second, beyond the four of us, no one can lay claim to being part of our family of four. That makes this group an elite one. Out of 7.5 billion people, only 4 of us make up the Peter-&-Carol-Flink-Party-of-Four. Certain situations remind me of the importance of this little family cult of ours. Neither time nor divorce nor death removes this fact for me.

I recognize and affirm the value of being part of this family.

Third, I am grateful to be loved by the three of you. You have known me longer than anyone else. Through good and bad, thick and thin, my good qualities and not-so-good qualities, you love me. Thank you for that.

I recognize and affirm the gift of being loved by each of you.

Fourth, you set the foundation for who I am today. I am keenly aware that Jennifer Potter – wife, mother, pastor, chaplain, blogger extraordinaire – originated as Jennie/Jennie Bugs/JB Flink – daughter, sister. Sometimes we try to splinter ourselves from where we came from, particularly when hurt is involved. But this seems to only result in the splintering of oneself. I am both Flink and Potter, each contributing so much richness and depth to my collective self. Exploring and appreciating that truth seems to bring together the best from each world I have lived.

I recognize and affirm the contributions you have made to my life, silly nicknames and all.

Fifth, as the only introvert in this group, I would like to point out how much communication I have endured and continue to endure. Seriously. You all love to call, text, and email, particularly the introvert who happens to be a damn good listener. It has taken me time to learn how to sustainably manage all of this. Thank you for understanding my decision to participate in approximately 42% of your communication. If I miss anything big in the remaining 58%, please let me know.

I recognize and affirm the ability for introverts and extroverts to healthily and peacefully co-exist.

Sixth, we as a family unit are a paradox. We are so very different from one another. We are so very much the same as one another. I am both giddy about and horrified by this truth. (You know what I’m talking about.)

I recognize and affirm our differentness and our sameness.

Seventh, we are a unit and we are individuals. This is a tricky one because the unit is so deeply engrained that acting within it is almost involuntary. I can be with one of you and the other two are somehow also in that room whether I am aware of it consciously or not. I can be in a room without any of you and am often impacted by this family unit nonetheless. This is the strength of a family of origin. It is also its curse. I am learning to be both myself, and one-fourth of this family. The first part of that learning was to make space for me as an individual. The second part has been to make space for each of you as individuals.

I recognize and affirm the space we each need to be our whole selves.

Finally, I am choosing to move forward holding this family unit with gratitude for who it was, is, and will be, warts and all. I learned that I have been carrying you with me throughout my life in so many ways. I find there is something important about consciously choosing to carry this family unit with me, in ways that are both appropriate and healthy. In doing so, I believe I take the best of what we as a family created and the important lessons learned along the way.

I recognize and affirm my gratitude for you, my family of origin.

Thank you. I love you.

With great affection,

me

 

Gently Woke

After four days at the beach, my husband, daughter and two dogs were heading home. I have the luxury and privilege of staying behind for a few more days all by myself. My husband wanted to get on the road early in hopes of avoiding as much holiday traffic as possible. Before my daughter got in the car, we hugged and said our goodbyes. She then added, “You may as well stay up and watch the sunrise.” I watched them leave and waved, then headed back into the house looking forward to a few more hours of sleep. I am not a morning person and in the nearly 30 years I have been coming to my mom’s beach house, I don’t remember ever getting up to watch the sunrise. I think what my daughter was trying to say was, “The only way you are ever going to see the sun rise is if you are already up. So stay up and watch it.”

I went into the house and checked my phone. It was just after 6 and the sun was supposed to rise at 6:44. That felt like a long time away. I filled my cup with coffee and checked the view from the deck. I wasn’t 100% sure where the sun would first appear, but I have seen plenty of sunsets here and assumed it was 180 degrees away from that point. That means I would not be able to see the sun from the deck due to shrubs and trees. I would have to venture to the dunes. I put on some shoes and headed down the path. It was dark, but not pitch black. I got to the walkway which goes over the dunes, and stood with the house behind me and the ocean in front of me. Crickets were still chirping. My coffee tasted good.

Slowly light began to appear.

As it did, birds began to chirp. Dragonflies began to flit about. The light was soothing. I was grateful for being eased into its presence. I thought of how often waking up is rarely a gentle process. Waking feels more often startling with my mind trying to rationalize how to get out of my morning obligations and my eyes squinting, longing for the darkness to return.

The light continued to grow, slowly and softly.

Birds began moving to the waters edge, looking for their breakfast. The crickets were beginning to quiet down. I noticed a few people on their deck a few houses away. I looked in the other direction and saw a man on his deck with a camera. “Do people get up every morning to watch this?” I wondered. I found my heart beating a little faster as I began to anticipate the arrival of the sun.

And then it appeared.

What beauty! It was magnificent and bold and stunning. No wonder ancient civilizations worshipped this big ball of burning gas. Its appearance was a religious experience. My eyes teared up. This actually happens every morning? Of course people get up to watch! Perfectly orchestrated in every way imaginable.

As my heart rate returned to normal, I continued to process what I had just witnessed. I was struck by the lack of fanfare leading up to the sun’s appearance. It was gentle and sweet. I could have missed it if I was lulled back to sleep, which was my first instinct. But I stayed, waited and watched. I was moved by how simple it was to witness an event that felt nothing short of miraculous. I found myself feeling particularly hopeful that each day begins this way, whether or not we are awake to bear witness.

These days, very little seems subtle. In our efforts to be heard or validated, we scream and cry. Sometimes we bully or dismiss or ignore those who are different or who disagree. Even our piety and humility are feeling larger than life lately, in a way that seems to counter these qualities. I hope I have the fortitude to get up for a few more sunrises while I am here this week. I think there is a lot more to learn about being gently woke.