Receiving love (Happy Photo)

I’m making a couple changes to my Happy Photo series. First, the photo and accompanying quote will be featured at the beginning of the post, because it seems many of my visitors are actually photographers. I am surprised and flattered by this, and have discovered some inspiring photo blogs through the “likes” I get on my photo posts. (Thank you for the likes!)

Another change may come soon – I like doing Happy Photo so much I’m considering making it the standard form of my blog posts. I haven’t quite figured out how I will do this, though. So stay tuned. Anyway, on to the photo!

Orchid Buds

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“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” (Fred Rogers)

I believe that true goodness exists in some people. All of us are capable of goodness, but once in awhile someone comes along who expresses it in a way that inspires others. They are the ones who are not afraid to show the world that they are kind and gentle. They really see people and really listen. And just through such seemingly simple actions, they bring grace into the world. But these people usually do not see it this way. Because they don’t think of themselves as great or special. While the world speaks of them in terms of the goodness they give to others, these people believe that they are the ones who are receiving goodness. They value the essential humanness in others so much, and love others so much, that being able to serve is their blessing.

Many people express this kind of goodness sometimes, or with certain people in their lives. But it’s rare for someone to actually embody such goodness. I think Fred Rogers comes as close as anyone I can think of. I mean Fred Rogers the man, of which Mister Rogers was only a part. There is a beautifully written profile of him, written in 1998 for Esquire magazine, that will give you an idea of why I think so highly of him.

Fred Rogers came to mind for my photo quote because yesterday morning I received an act of such kindness, a kindness I so needed that it felt like tenderness, it got me thinking about giving and receiving grace. And by grace I mean love.

It happened after a morning coffee with three friends from a writers’ group I used to attend. I stopped going to meetings some time ago, but recently reconnected with one of these friends and she suggested we all get together. The four of us, though we were not the only members of the writers’ group, had been a sort of core of it, and our rapport together is wonderful and has been since the day I first met them. It’s very rare for me to feel comfortable in groups – I’m a one-on-one type of person. So these people are pretty special to me.

We all got caught up, and I told them about the bad feedback I’d received on the dissertation chapter I handed in to my advisor last month. It was a devastating experience, because I’ve struggled for so long just to get anything down on paper, and I was proud of the work I’d done, and excited about it. My friends listened, sympathized, and offered suggestions. They took my feelings seriously. That felt good.

But one of the guys seemed to understand that this was more than just a difficult experience for me. I’m not sure if he knows I’m in a difficult period generally, which makes things that much harder to deal with, but he showed me such sympathy I wondered if he intuitively sensed just how crushed I was by the feedback. As we walked to our cars he said something that really surprised me. He said that he knows this feels not just painful, but embarrassing.

He’s right. I feel very embarrassed that my work was not seen as worthy or good. I feel ashamed. But I hadn’t said that to my friends. I was amazed by this guy’s sensitivity, and overwhelmed by his kindness in telling me he understood my feelings and felt badly for me. He offered to help me in any way he could, and gave me a hug.

This, people. This is what I needed. To be acknowledged. To be seen. To be shown some compassion and tenderness. To have another person name my feelings and feel them with me. As I drove away I realized that I had just received grace from this guy. Love. I was given an enormous blessing. It felt all the more significant because my life has seemed so lacking in blessings lately.

So thank you, world, for giving this one to me.

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Deactivating and deleting, oh yeah

Shortly after I broke up with my bf, I put a profile up on an online dating site. I had no idea what to expect, as I’d never done this kind of thing before. But a friend of mine has done it for years, and he recommended I give it a try.

I figured that at the very least it would distract me, and perhaps make me feel better about myself. And right there, with those two reasons, I sealed my fate with doom in terms of online dating. It did distract me, to be sure. But not in a good way. I found the attention overwhelming, and the responsibility of keeping up, dealing with the numerous jerks/assholes/idiots, and even communicating with the few decent men was actually making me feel worse about myself and my life.

I deleted my account exactly one week after putting it up, mainly because I realized I’m not ready for dating in general. But I’ve also discovered online dating is not for me. It made me feel exposed and unsafe. Even some of the decent guys (the ones who wrote in full sentences and seemed to have actually read my profile) were way too aggressive. I sympathize with mens’ position on these sites – I know they put up with a lot of bullshit too, though probably of an entirely different kind.

Here are some of the lovely exchanges I had and my responding feelings in italics:

  • A quadriplegic man asked me to have babies with him after an exchange of a few messages (sad)
  • A guy dismissed me with “eh” when I told him I was not interested in doing the dirty in public (eye roll)
  • Several men implied that I had no right to set up the boundary of wanting to talk for awhile online before meeting because even putting up a profile was suggestive that I was “available” (so just me being a woman means I should be available to you when/how you want? ANGER)
  • A kid nearly half my age asked me to cuddle and smooch with him (okay, I won’t deny this was flattering – but I was surprised how many younger men/boys contacted me)
  • A guy who lives a hundred miles away said he didn’t mind driving up to see me when I told him I was looking for people in my own town (you would drive a hundred miles just to have coffee with me? Really?? And then what would you say to me when I thanked you for the coffee and told you to drive on back home? Scared)

Okay, enough of that rant. Like I said, I know enough really good guys who do online dating, and met a couple myself in the one week I did it to know it’s tough for them, too.

My ultimate feeling about online dating, though? It really freaked me out.

After deleting my account, I felt tremendous relief. Not just because I had removed something from my life that made me far too vulnerable to bad things in a number of ways, but because I no longer had all that contact with people. It was too much for an introvert like me. Even messages in an inbox can feel like an invasion of my space and sanity (such as it is at the moment).

Then you know what I did next, after deleting my online dating profile? I deactivated my Facebook account.

I have no idea why. I really don’t. I just felt like I should. There has been a lot of discussion on the Internet, or at least the small corner where I hang out, about compulsive, addictive use of technology, too much screen time, to much me me me with all the Instagram photos, too much lying about our lives by only posting the attractive stuff. None of that resonates with me. Personally, posting happy, positive things on Facebook was a major way I celebrated the good things in my life – it was akin to practicing gratitude. Sure, I did check the stream compulsively, but people have always been attracted to distractions. Facebook is just the latest iteration. Is technology changing us and our culture and even our brains in some qualitative way? Probably. But it’s the nature of things to change.

None of those reasons were why I deactivated. I just did, suddenly and without really thinking about it. And it felt good. I can always reactivate at some point, but for now I have ejected a bunch of people from my headspace – people whose headspace I’m sure I rarely made an impression on.

Like many things in my life right now, this is an experiment whose outcome I cannot predict. I’ll do an update later if it brings me any great revelations, but I have a feeling there won’t be anything like that. Just a bit more peace, maybe.

I never played team sports

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A good friend of mine grew up playing team sports. He often uses this analogy when talking with me about his approach to life: In sports, you learn how to get back up and brush yourself off. And he often jokes with me: If sportspeople all had your personality, we’d have mass team suicides after every loss.

I am a tad bit on the emotional, sensitive side (haha). My emotions often dominate me, and they are incredibly strong. So strong, they come on like an attack. Sometimes they prostrate me.

I grew up skiing. I skied with my family, but skiing, at least at the recreational level, is an inherently solitary sport. It’s you and the mountain, and the overseeing sky. It’s you against yourself, seeking to do better on the next run. There are no losses or wins, just you trying to feel that bounce in your turns. Sure, you fall. But once you reach a certain level, you do so rarely if ever. Which is a good thing when you’re going 20 miles an hour.

Skiing frees me. Team games, when I did them in gym class, were like playing a sport called “extreme stress.” I worried about making mistakes and being made fun of. Which is an almost certainty when you are a pale, shy, nerdy little girl without much skill. Even the gym teacher despised me. He was a buff, macho guy who was, it was rumored, biased against honors kids. He once called me out during a basketball game in a tone clearly meant to convey both disgust and dismissal: “You can’t run with the ball like that, little girl!”

Which is all to say, team sports and I never got on. I don’t think that’s the only reason I didn’t acquire much emotional resilience, though. I was sensitive and shy, and my parents did not press me to do things that were so obviously against my nature as team sports. Nor did they send me marching back to piano lessons when a mean teacher made me cry (actually they did make me finish out the course of lessons they’d paid for, but then let me quit). Their reasoning was probably that I was not very interested in piano. All I wanted to do was read. Read and read and read some more. And they let me. But I would have benefited from some lessons on not giving in to feelings of hurt and victimization. (I must stress that I do not intend “victimization” here to mean I often feel victimized by others – I am more of a self-blamer; it’s typical of people with depression to internalize anger at being hurt into self-loathing and, well, depression. However, it cannot be denied that I do place myself in a position of emotional victimization – again, not so much with regard to other people, as to my own reactions to traumas.)

Yes, as a child I was coddled emotionally. To my detriment. Not that I blame my parents – they are simply very gentle people who believed children should be allowed to pursue their own interests and didn’t quite understand that children must be taught discipline and endurance in the face of failure.

The end result, however, is that I’m not very good at getting up and brushing myself off. Not that I’m a quitter – I am still hammering away at a seemingly unfinishable dissertation, after all. But I do tend to let feelings of failure roost in the self-worth part of my brain until it resembles an overcrowded bat house. A loss, to me, feels permanent. My friend may be exaggerating when he says sportspeople with my personality would kill themselves after losing, but they might miss practice for awhile because anxiety makes it impossible to get out of bed. Or they might develop a phobia of their sport that makes it difficult for them to enthusiastically engage in it thereafter.

And how ridiculous would that be? Even as I write it, I roll my eyes. What kind of self-indulgent, self-important sportsperson would react this way? And yet, it’s often my reaction to traumas in my life. (Hmm…I detect some self-loathing in this paragraph.)

But I want to be fair to myself. My struggles with depression and anxiety do make dealing with things so very difficult. I am most decidedly disadvantaged by this when compared to people without these particular handicaps. And I do always eventually drag myself to my feet. Brush myself off with lacerated hands. Stumble forward and profess my faith through debilitating pain. (I’m not exaggerating – this is exactly how it feels.) Again and again. And then again. Honestly – just to balance this admittedly dramatic and dire picture with some humor – it’s a little like that soccer goalie who keeps getting hit in the face. Except without a bunch of people cheering me on.

It may appear to someone like my friend that I missed out on some important life lessons, such as resilience, that children learn through participating in team sports. I can’t argue with that. But I’ve learned some of those lessons in other ways. Life itself can sometimes feel like a team sport to which I am not naturally suited but required to play. It necessitates a kind of strength and endurance that my friend, who lets things slide right off his back, might not be able to summon despite all his team sportiness. I don’t really know, though. Perhaps all of us, or most, are born with the capacity for such strength and endurance, and just use and express them in different ways. I wish my friend could appreciate that I, too, have these qualities. Even though it often appears that I do not.

And, I must add, while he no longer plays team sports, I continue to ski.

When loneliness isn’t loneliness, or not exactly

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I’ve always been lonely. My first memories of feelings are of being lonely. And this loneliness has never left me. It is my everyday companion, closer to me than any person has ever been.

I remember crying, as a very young child, several weeks after my guinea pig died not because he had died, but because we all must die, and all must be alone in death, and I was unable to comfort my pet in his current loneliness as I had failed to comfort him in life. And no one could comfort me. I went and found my parents, and though they tried, I knew they could not fix what I understood as the essential condition of existence: time passes, winds blow, darkness comes and then light and darkness again, and perhaps nothing really matters.

Existential depression, I’ve heard it called. It’s common in highly sensitive, thoughtful, creative children.

As an adult I understand that meaning will be found where I seek it, that I create my own meaning and that this has to be enough for me, because I will never suddenly be enlightened as to the “real” meaning of things. I accept this condition of existence.

My loneliness is not the same as that felt by people who need the constant presence of others in their lives, and miss others when they are not around. I understand this loneliness, and sometimes feel it – even an introvert needs friends! But this kind of loneliness does not define my life.

My loneliness is also not the same thing as depression, although it is probably linked to it. But I had this loneliness long before I had depression (of a debilitating nature), and while I seek to manage my depression, I am friends with my loneliness.

Sometimes, in its less virulent form, it feels somewhat like melancholy of a bittersweet variety. It is tinged with nostalgia both for past times in my own life and for things I have never personally experienced. C. S. Lewis’s concept of sehnsucht defines it nicely: it’s a yearning for something that cannot be defined or attained. I believe it is the feeling that comes when one deeply grasps the impermanence of things, and yet at the same time does not want to still the fleeting nature of time. It is the feeling one has when it becomes clear that beauty and perfection are contained only in single, ephemeral moments, are only reflections in a drop of water before it falls away.

My loneliness, then, is the knowledge of the unattainability of sustained happiness, love, security, or any other state of goodness humankind desires. Such sustained goodness seems always to exist in another time and another place. In the past. In the future. In a different city or even on a different continent.

And I imagine it existing in other people. Because I know that not everyone lives with this kind of loneliness.

I’m grateful for it, though, because I believe it gives me the ability to experience and feel life deeply. Sure, that means I must deal with some very difficult emotions. But there are those moments, especially when I am out in nature, when I’ll see the way the pieces of sunlight lie across the ground or rocks, or the wind will make the trees speak, and I feel a painful joy that is bigger than those moments and just as wild. And I share something with the universe then that is ineffable but real, and I seem to exist beyond myself in a place that is boundless.

I am in Rumi’s field “beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,” where one lies in the grass and comprehends that “the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”

Photograph taken in Keystone, Colorado.

How an introvert handles longterm houseguests (she doesn’t)

Being an introvert can make things harder than a non-introvert would think they should be. I say this based on my boyfriend’s mystification at what he views as my extreme sensitivity to certain stresses in my life. As an example, let’s take the recent two-week visit by my parents.

This visit was planned far in advance, and I was excited about it. I spent a number of evenings prior to their arrival discussing with my boyfriend what we would do with them.

Then, the week before their visit, I sank into a deep despair. Why? There was nothing I could tell my boyfriend, who felt no such despair, other than it must be because I was nervous. Why would I be nervous? My parents are great. They are easygoing, polite, and loving. They do not possess annoying political or religious views, and they accept and support my life choices. What could I possibly be so nervous about that I spent a number of days in near agony?

Let me tell you. For an introvert, the mere presence of others for an extended period of time is horrifying. It doesn’t matter how awesome those people are or whether they let you stay shut in your bedroom for hours at a time without comment (as my parents do, knowing that from childhood my favorite Saturday activity was reading alone in my room). Just knowing those people will still be there when you exit your bedroom and that some kind of interaction will be required (even silent interaction such as being in the same room!), disallows any recovery from the build-up of stress.

You see, that week before their visit I already knew how things would turn out. Ultimately, it would come off fine. I would do what was necessary to treat my parents as well as I could. They would be gentle and thoughtful toward me. However, I would suffer immensely, not in the least because I would spend the whole time feeling guilty for not being able to enjoy my wonderful parents’ presence. And indeed, this is exactly what happened. It did not help that this trip was the one in which they discussed “end of life” arrangements with me. Not that they’re close to that (hopefully), but as you can imagine, this did not help assuage my guilt feelings.

By the middle of the second week I was so overwrought and exhausted that I could barely speak. My boyfriend accused me of making him uncomfortable. This is a standard extrovert reaction: he could not see or fathom the extent of my own discomfort, which was so extreme I was incapable of any normal interaction at that point.

If you are thinking to yourself right now, “This girl needs to stop being so narcissistic/negative/selfish/sensitive/boring” or something of that ilk, you are not an introvert. Which is fine. I forgive you, just as I continually forgive my boyfriend for not understanding, after over ten years with me, why I have the reactions I do.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, for extroverts to truly comprehend an experience so alien to their own. And because extroverts are the privileged ones in our society, they are not required to understand the introverted experience. It’s the introverts who must explain themselves, apologize for their inborn natures, and try to fit in.

I attempted to come up with an equivalent experience for an extrovert to explain what the last two weeks were like for me. Perhaps, though I can’t say for sure, it would be similar to a two-week solitary confinement with no TV. If I had to spend two weeks shut up in my home without human interaction of any kind, I might find aspects of this difficult but at the end of it I’d be like, “Eh, it was fine. I got through it. Parts of it were really nice.” There would be no serious damage to my psyche. My boyfriend, the extrovert, would come out of it saying,”OMG I wanted to kill myself by the second day never make me do that again it was the worst thing I have ever been through give me the rum.”

Love you, Mom and Dad!