So Long, Sad Lent

Holy Saturday, 2014

Hello my friends!

It has been six long weeks since the Lenten season began. Five long weeks since I last wrote. Perhaps you thought I had added “writing my blog” to the list of distractions I was giving up for Lent. I didn’t, but it might as well have been.

Since I am banned from Facebook, this is what I had to say on Instagram last night.

Sayonara Lent 2014. I love the color purple but I won't miss you a bit.

Sayonara Lent 2014. I love the color purple but I won’t miss you a bit.

I will not miss Lent 2014, AT ALL. In fact, Sunday can’t come soon enough, because, for me, this Lenten season was a debacle.

I set out with high standards and even higher hopes, but I stayed put in the reality of my life.

Though I couldn’t articulate it when Lent began, I think I had a subconscious idea of what would happen over these six weeks. By stripping away so many of my “distractions,” I would open up more time and space for silence and contemplation. I would become more centered. My writing would flourish and so would my relationships. I would begin to attain the holy grail of sevens, what enneagram scholar Russ Hudson calls “sober joy;” joy created not by a circus of stimulation, but by the simplicity and beauty of the present moment, satisfied with and who and wherever you are.

There was nothing wrong with the vision, but the goals I set for myself are a life’s work, not something that can be attained on demand, or through a sheer force of will and self-discipline in a pre-set period of time. It took me a while and some help from Tim to see it however.

For the first several weeks of Lent, I had vivid nightmares. The details were varied, but they shared the same theme: bad things were happening and I had no control. I couldn’t fix anything, or affect a positive outcome. I simply had to experience the chaos in a visceral manner. I would begin my days in a cold sweat, mourning the losses I experienced the night before.

Though the dreams eventually abated, the days I thought would open up before me quickly filled with other challenges. I could explain them all here, but the bottom line is that they were just part an every day, ordinary life – the one I didn’t magically escape on my way to my desired “mountaintop” experience.

Last week, Tim and I needed to have a talk. After dinner, we drove to the beach and watched the sun go down and he told me what I already knew. I began this Lenten journey, hoping to become a different person. The problem was that I didn’t consult the person who always journeys with me. This Lent was not a picnic for him. He slept next to me while I tossed and turned at night. He woke with me in the morning and saw the fear in my eyes. He came home at night to someone whose stressful days were unrelieved by the innocent pleasures of a diet soda, two chapters of a good book, or a funny story on Facebook. He lived with a struggling, sadder version of his normally happy wife. The changes were largely of her own making, in the name of her God and ironically, they were intended to make her a more “joyful” person.

Tim reminded me that he loves me “as is,” not that I can’t grow and change, but that I don’t need to be different than I essentially am. Giving up one or two of my “go-to” distractions might be a healthy practice, the equivalent of a Weight Watchers plan for the soul. Giving them all up worked on me like a crash diet. Like an anorexic counts calories, I counted every distraction and every moment I wasn’t soberly joyful as a shortcoming. The guilt and sense of failure continued the downward spiral.

Don’t get me wrong. In every week, there were moments of joy, peace and laughter and I tried my best not to be legalistic about the process. When food poisoning laid me out for 36 hours, I read A Fault in Our Stars, one of Keara’s favorite novels. When Tim and I went out, I would join him in a beer. I looked over Keara’s shoulder a couple times so she could show me a great picture on Facebook.

On Thursday, I continued my Holy Thursday tradition of washing the feet of my family members, while they read a love letter I have written just for them. Here is a portion from the one I wrote to Tim:

“Dear Tim,

What a Lent it’s been! I am so grateful that this symbolic time of struggle, darkness and solitude is almost over, but of course, life isn’t over, so all those things will still be here on the other side of Sunday. But, we will get to remove the little extras we’ve been adding to it and I hope to turn a new page mentally. I look forward to Sunday, to singing “Alleluia,” to being reminded that we are an Easter people. Where there is death – of any kind – there is the possibility of new life and if we trust in and act out of Love, there is the surety of it.”

My Lenten experience is one I won’t soon forget. Like most failures, it was brought on by a confluence of good intentions and arrogance. I thought I could manufacture my own resurrection experience by knocking off some version of me who relied on little things to make her happy. On our sunset walk, Tim reminded me that the world could actually use a few more of those kinds of people; I shouldn’t be in such a hurry to get rid of her. Besides, it doesn’t really work that way. He quoted Richard Rohr who often says, “Don’t try to engineer your own death; it will be done unto you!” Starting tomorrow, I’m going to believe him.

A #Sign of Love I found and held in my hand on Good Friday.

A #Sign of Love I found and held in my hand on Good Friday.

Report from the Lonely Planet: Lent, Week One

We are just over a week in to Lent 2014, and I have to say, it’s been a rough week, a really, really rough week. Here is a reminder of what I am trying to do without:

  • My daily Diet Coke
  • My almost-daily alcohol intake
  • My multi-time-a-day Facebook check
  • My weekly novel
  • My bi-weekly bargain hunting at Target, Costco and other, mind-numbingly overstocked stores for little things I really don’t need

I knew I put a lot of things of things on that list, but I felt called to all of them, because they center on a common theme: distraction. Distraction is a dragon I have to face and I felt encouraged recently after watching an interview with Steven Pressfield, the author of The War of Art. He said that when face our dragons, our greatest fears, they go “poof.” They disappear before our very eyes and we get to the treasure on the other side.

Facing the dragon? Harder than I thought.

Facing the dragon? Harder than I thought.

Steven, you were wrong. I’m a week into facing my dragon and it hasn’t even blinked. If anything, its hot breath on my neck is starting to make me sweat.

I deleted the bookmarks for Facebook on my phone and browsers, but every time I sit down to work, I am conscious of the fact that only eight keystrokes separate me from a broken promise and the Promised Land. I think of the articles I’m missing and the information I’m having to do without, the pictures of adorable kids I don’t get to “like.” Sigh. I find myself at the market and the library (the two “stores” I’ve let myself enter), perusing each and every shelf for just the right thing, the thing I don’t need, but that would bring me joy to consume. On these unusually warm winter nights, I long for a cold glass of white wine. Finally, and perhaps funniest of all, I find myself daydreaming of Diet Coke. I have actually caught myself fantasizing about pulling through the McDonald’s drive-thru and taking my first sip through their perfectly calibrated straws.

I have felt bereft this week, mourning the loss of my first level addictions, the habits that give me the quickest highs. But I’m also saddened by how quickly and easily I’ve turned to other distractions. Instead of going deeper into my work and writing, I’ve revamped powerpoints I made for classes just weeks ago. I’ve swept and dust-bustered every room in the house.  I spent an entire evening researching a new broccoli recipe, and several hours the next day preparing it, and my family doesn’t even like broccoli. Neither do I. What am I doing?

I know exactly what I’m doing. If I want to put a positive spin on it, I’m acting on a desire to keep busy, to find something new, joyful and fun. If I want to be realistic,  I’m acting on a compulsion to get out of my own skin. Whatever you call it, it’s something I’ve struggled with for as long as I can remember.

My parents, who have always been seekers, found a book in the late eighties called The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert. The enneagram is an ancient tradition that introduces nine patterns of thinking and behavior that most of us, despite all our illusions of being unique, free and mysterious, actually fall into fairly neatly.

9-ways

The Nine Personality Types of the Enneagram

1. The Reformer. The principled, idealistic type. Ones 
are conscientious and ethical, with a strong sense of right
 and wrong.  At their
 best: wise, discerning, realistic, and noble. They typically 
have problems with resentment and impatience.

2. The Helper. The caring, interpersonal type. Twos are
 empathetic, sincere, and warm-hearted. At their Best: unselfish 
and altruistic, they have unconditional love for others. They typically have problems with possessiveness and with
 acknowledging their own needs.

3. The Achiever. The adaptable, success-oriented type.
 Threes are self-assured, attractive, and charming.
 At their Best: self-accepting, authentic,
 everything they seem to be. They typically have problems with workaholism and
 competitiveness.

4. The Individualist. The introspective, romantic type.
 Fours are self-aware, sensitive, and reserved. At their Best: inspired and
 highly creative, they are able to renew themselves and
 transform their experiences. They typically have problems with melancholy,
 self-indulgence, and self-pity

5. The Investigator. The perceptive, cerebral type. Fives 
are alert, insightful, and curious. At their best:
visionary pioneers, often ahead of their time, and able to 
see the world in an entirely new way. They typically have problems with
 eccentricity, nihilism, and isolation.

6. The Loyalist. The committed, security-oriented type.
 Sixes are reliable, hard-working, responsible, and
 trustworthy. At
 their best: internally stable and self-reliant, courageously championing themselves and others. They
typically have problems with self-doubt and suspicion.

7. The Enthusiast. The busy, productive type. Sevens are 
extroverted, optimistic, versatile, and spontaneous. At their best: they focus their talents on worthwhile goals, 
becoming appreciative, joyous, and satisfied. They typically have
 problems with impatience, impulsiveness and distraction.

8. The Challenger. The powerful, aggressive type. Eights 
are self-confident, strong, and assertive. At their best: self-
mastering, they use their strength to improve others’ lives,
 becoming heroic, magnanimous, and inspiring. Eights
 typically have problems with their tempers and with 
allowing themselves to be vulnerable.

9. The Peacemaker. The easy-going, self-effacing type. 
Nines are accepting, trusting, and stable. At
their best: indomitable and all-embracing, they are able to 
bring people together and heal conflicts. They 
typically have problems with inertia and stubbornness.

**These descriptions were excerpted from the Sukha Wellness Center blog in Avila Beach, CA. For longer descriptions of each type, you can go to their blog by clicking on their name. 

Although the list at first glance might seem like fodder for cocktail party conversation, or a cheesy pick up line, the enneagram is actually brilliant psychology. Rohr often says in his work that, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.” In other words, our vision is shaped by our own personal experiences, prejudices, and default settings. Two people can experience the same behavior, the same opportunity, or the same outcome and perceive it completely differently. Too often, we think that means the other is wrong. In contrast, the enneagram offers us a way to see the reactions of others more compassionately. It  doesn’t mean you give in to their wishes, or desires (unless you’re a two), but that you understand and acknowledge their position, which is simply the basis of good, interpersonal, communication skills.

My parents were immediately able to identify themselves in the numbers (my dad’s an eight and my mom’s a three) and became more conscious of the choices they were making. In some ways, they literally became different people, because they saw themselves for the first time, as they were, not how they had imagined themselves to be. I assume their conversations also included psychoanalysis of their four kids, but they didn’t project their ideas on us. Rather, they left the book open on their nightstand, which I took as a personal invitation to join in.

When I was seventeen, I thought I might be a nine, because I’m pretty easy-going and flexible. I wanted to be a four, because really, what teenage girl doesn’t think of herself as an artist? But when it came right down to it, I’m a seven at heart. I can turn any time into a good time. Bad things are never really that bad. If something is fun, my first question is, how can we make it funner? (If you need any proof that I am a seven, look no further than my use of that word. I’m an English professor, yet my lexicon would be incomplete with out the grammatically-incorrect adjectives, funner and funnest. Tim says you should look no further than me on the dance floor, our summer vacation plans, or the stash of candy in my car.)

Being a seven has brought me through some of the darkest days of my life, from my mother’s cancer, to my unplanned pregnancy and adoption, to the miscarriage of our first child together and even this long recession that has so decimated our small business. But in every dark night, I discover a patch of moonlight to dance in. I instinctively locate the pinprick of brightness and worm my way in. Once there, I push against the boundaries of the night that try to hem me in. I force back the darkness, sadness and pessimism, with hope and humor and joy, until the ones I love are standing in the light again.

That’s the bright side of being a seven.

The dark side is what I am facing this Lent. Sevens are easily distractible, frequently bored and hard to pin down. We don’t like to make decisions, or stay put for too long. We knew FOMO long before it became a “thing.” It’s in our DNA. (For readers over 40, FOMO is the Fear of Missing Out and it’s sweeping the nation.) If a seven isn’t careful, the consequence of their shadow side is a history littered with abandoned people and projects, a life that stays on the surface of everything, because depths always leads to darkness.

Enneagram teachers make it clear that there is a whole range of health and maturity for each person within their own number. An unhealthy, or unredeemed person of any type does a lot more damage (unconsciously and frequently with good intentions) simply by following their instincts, than someone with more self-awareness and control.

Giving up so many of my favorite things is not about self-denial, asceticism, or weird Catholic guilt. It’s about self-awareness and freedom. When I feel an overwhelming urge to do something new, I want to do it for the right reason, not because I am running away from something else.

One of the highlights of my past week was talking to my little sister.  I was telling her how I was trying to give up my distraction patterns for Lent. She laughed at me, since she doesn’t drink Diet Coke and hates to shop. She’s pregnant, so booze is not an option. She is not a seven, so my struggles are not hers. After she had finished teasing me, I asked her what she does when faced with Blaise Pascal’s realities of existence: boredom, inconstancy and anxiety.  She is an eight, like my father, so after a moment’s pause, she admitted that she picks a fight with her husband, not consciously of course, but she’ll see what he’s doing and find something to criticize. If nothing appears, she’ll bring up an oldie, but a goodie from the past. She’s not being mean, she’s quick to explain; she’s just looking for an “out,” a place to put her energies. Then it was my turn to laugh, because it would never occur to me to create conflict as a stress-reliever.

But we all do it.

In our own way and in our own time, we act on compulsions that are as natural to us as breathing and as unnatural to others as breathing under water.

Are you curious about yours? This is my best advice when trying to figure it out. Which type do you want to be? That’s for sure not you. Which one gives you a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you read about it? Bingo. You might be on to something there.

At the bottom of the blog are a couple links to websites about the enneagram if you want to learn a little more about it. I can’t recommend them highly, because I haven’t used them on my journey, but they are certainly a place to start. The names I’ve found to be helpful are Rohr, Hudson and Riso, but I am sure there are others, who have come after them. My one caveat is this: working with the enneagram isn’t a parlor trick, or something you do for a feel-good experience. As my dad likes to say, “If it doesn’t bring you to your knees, you’re not doing it right.”

The Enneagram Institute.   The 9 Types.  International Enneagram.