We Become the Stories We Tell

This is an excerpt from my new book on self compassion. Hope you enjoy it!

The camera company Canon conducted a social experiment they called The Lab Decoy. They brought in an actor named Michael.

Several photographers were prompted ahead of time on who Michael was, but each was given a different fabricated story.

One photographer was told that Michael was a self made millionaire.

A second was told that Michael was an ex convict.

The next was told that Michael was a fisherman.

Another was told that Michael was a hero who saved someone’s life.

The photographers were asked to take pictures of Michael that would “flesh out the essence of who he is.”

They came in one at a time to a expansive room with big windows and eclectic furniture where Michael was waiting for them. He wore the same clothes in each occurrence, but people related to him very differently according to the story that they were told about him.

Michael and each photographer did not go into deep conversations about his life. He was simply asked a few questions and then photographed in whatever part of the room the photographer chose.

After the shoot, the photographers were interviewed about their experience.

The photographer who believed Michael was a millionaire said that he was “intimidating” so he didn’t go for a beautiful, perfectly lit portrait.

The photographer who was told Michael was an ex-con said “it was really intense.”

The photographer who thought Michael was a hero said “what I learned from him is that he’s incredibly brave.”

Then, each photographer was asked to choose a photograph that best summed up Michael’s essence. 

In the picture the photographer chose of Michael as a millionaire, his face is blown up to become the focal point, with a look of aloofness and smugness.

The picture of Michael as a fisherman has him in a warmly colored armchair, with a friendly grin on his face.

As an ex convict, Michael stands in the darkest part of the room. His body is away from the photographer, and he looks intimidating.

In the picture of Michael as a hero, he stands tall next to a large window in the room. His countenance is glowing with light.

The video documenting the experiment ends with this quote:

A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what is in front of it.

Here is a video of the experiment if you would like to watch it:

How could all these photographers portray such different pictures of the same man?

That’s easy. The story behind the camera was more important than the story in front of it.

The story the photographers believed became the picture they took. 

When I read about this experiment, I thought about how it related to my desire to be an observer of my inner world, my quest of self compassion. My mind was like a camera to the world, a filter through which my life passed. Just as the pictures of Michael were shaped more by the story in the photographer’s mind than the picture in front of it, my world was shaped more by the stories that I built up in my own mind than the stories in front of it.

As human beings, we are immersed in story. Stories have been a part of the human existence since we learned how to scratch drawings on the wall of a cave. From books to songs to movies to TV to plays to Facebook to stories told around the table and around the campfire, stories became a part of our life when we were young, and will be a part of our life until the day we die.

The most important story by far is not the one we see in front of us, but the one inside of our own mind, the story that we learn and tell and believe about our life.

The story that we are told about ourselves often becomes the story we believe and tell about ourselves. 

We have no choice in the story we are told about who we are, but we have all the control in the world over the story that we believe and the story we tell.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a group foster home in Idaho. It was a place that was both harrowing and holy. These were beautiful paradoxes of children: covered with stardust, cloaked in suffering. I would read them Anne of Green Gables at bedtime and sing them to sleep. As they began to trust me, they would tell me their stories. Stories that were so haunting that I would often get home and weep, praying that I could pry open the their neglected hearts and let a little light in there. Maybe flowers would grow in the asphalt then.

Many of these kids influenced me, but one changed my life. Let’s say that her name was Alicia. She was fifteen. She had a tall, broad frame with short cornsilk blonde hair and big watery blue eyes. While most of the kids there wore oversized black hoodies, she always wore long skirts and bright colors.

Alicia would hold her head up high, yet she would speak with gentleness to everyone. She seemed so confident, which didn’t match her backdrop. Like a dove sleeping in the dirt.

That’s why I was shocked when I found out that her mother had been a prostitute. When they needed more money, mom would take Alicia her with her to lure clients. After years of this, she was finally taken in by social services and sent to this foster home.

One day, I overheard another foster child that struggled with jealousy of Alicia yelling at her. She said “I know what your mother did!” Alicia steadily replied “I know what she did, too. But that’s not all that she is. She is a child of God.” There was not a trace of venom in her voice.

“Well, I know what you are too!”

With the security of someone who knows that they are loved, Alicia said “It’s true that I have had some hard things happen in my past. But when God looks at me he doesn’t see those things. He sees me beautiful.”

Many years later, I got an email from her. She had searched for my address, and wrote saying “Are you the wonderful lady that used to sing us to sleep?” When I realized who she was, I wrote back saying “yes I am. And you my dear, you changed my life.”

She recounted what was going on with her: she was now living in Texas, married to her sweetheart, a mother of two kids. She sounded happy.

Alicia was told one story as a child, but she chose to believe a better story. And in turn, she chose to tell a better story.

She took a jackhammer of hope and busted up those sidewalks. She clawed at the ground with her dirtied hands, pulling up the rocks and the clumps of concrete until she found the soil. And then she planted. New seeds, better seeds. And the flowers that came up made that neighborhood a different place.

She knew that the only way to have a new story was to tell a new story.

She realized that the only way to get unstuck was to reach.

 

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Not An Orphan

Finally sharing one of my new hammered dulcimer songs. I am still learning as I’ve only been playing since November but it’s super fun! Kind of crazy to play piano at the same time but I am getting the hang of it slowly.

I have written this song, Not An Orphan, over and over but I think I finally like it.

Lyrics:

When you found me there I was left for dead

Alone and abandoned
But you cried out to me live
You bent down and you gave to me a promise, a destiny
Can you say it again? Can you say it..

Tell it to my soul and I’ll tell it to the world
I’m not an orphan any more
I’m not an orphan any more

I was numb to anything that looked like love
But would end in pain
‘Til your love changed everything
And now I’m coming to believe
That you are mine and you’ll always be
Can you say it again? Can you say it…

Believe it oh my soul
You are not alone- you were never alone

 

The You In Beautiful

Note: Hello friends! Those of you who know me from The Sexy Celibate blog will see a lot of changes here, especially the name. I have realized the last few months that singleness is not on my radar quite as much as it used to be, and I have kind of exhausted that topic. I still want to be a voice for single people, and I will still have posts about my process with this, but I wanted to change the identity of my blog so that I wouldn’t be pigeon holed into that topic. I also want to reach people who are outside of the single circle. 

I decided on the name Resilient for my blog because it encompasses a lot of what I want my life to be about: living a good life despite it looking different than I had envisioned and embracing the healing God has given me in my spirit and my mind.

I thought I would start out the new name with an excerpt of my new book on self compassion. The working title of the book is The You in Beautiful: A Journey Towards Self Compassion and Reflection.

I hope you like it! Thanks for being so faithful even through a long period of silence from me.

On with the post!

“You have suffered enough

And warred with yourself

It’s time that you won.”

From the song Falling Slowly by Glen Hansord and Markéta Irglová

If someone were to stick an antenna to my head to create a radio station, that would be a bad idea.

Because it is a big box of weird in there.

Right now, the show would sound like this…

“Okay, Kate. Put some words on the page. It’s time. Book time. Words. Upwords. Isn’t that a game? Don’t get distracted…I think I like club soda.

Club soda, grapefruit. Grapefruit, bananas, big monkey. Big monkey wearing socks.  Thirteen socks in the laundry today. Only eight were matching. Where did all those socks go? Perhaps this is proof of a spirit realm? Sox, baseball games, baseball games with Dad…

Kate, earth to Kate! Time to write….

Nanu Nanu.”

This radio station is quite disorganized. While most stations have a policy of putting commercials on only during the breaks, mine interjects jingles, often from my childhood, right in the middle of the talk show.

You have a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. The best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup. . .You should put an alarm in your iPhone so you don’t forget. The best part of waking up is Folger’s in your cup. . .”

There are several voices that sound off in that small but important piece of real estate called my mind. There is a lot of drama, a smattering of ego, and glimpses of beautiful in that place. But one thing is certain.

It is not often peaceful there.

It’s the kind of neighborhood that you would never want to walk through in the dark. There is too much hostility there to be safe. Pieces of myself are often battling other pieces of myself. In fact, most of my selves have quite dysfunctional relationships with each other. Some part of me is frequently bullying another part of me about my choices or my failed relationships or my thighs. Always the thighs.

With all the drama, it feels more like a telenovella than a place that I would like to sit and have a cup of tea.

More often than not, the good hearted, worn out creature that I inhabit puts her hands up in the air and takes the mistreatment.

Recently, though, something happened that made me realize that my role as a helpless bystander needed to change. It was time for an intervention.

The turning point came when I went on a solitude retreat in the mountains of Julian near San Diego. I was reading the book Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning and came to this paragraph

That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ, all these are undoubtably great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ.

But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself- that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindnessthat I myself am the enemy that must be loved– what then?” 

My soul rattled inside of me. I breathed in and out slowly for a few moments, and then I began to cry. I asked God to cradle me, and I hugged my arms to myself. I sat in that position weeping for a good twenty minutes. 

I was the beggar in need of my own alms, the enemy that I needed to learn to love.

I realized in that moment that I have had a profound sense of self doubt from the time that I was young. An uncertainty that I am really worthy of love. When I began questioning my value at that young age, these voices started to develop- the bully,  the orphan, the perfectionist- and they often rivaled the compassionate friend in me.

I have almost always seen the good in people. I have spent a large portion of my life writing songs and books and teaching seminars about how valuable people are. I have volunteered for years with homeless people and at risk youth, always with the message that they are beautiful no matter what the world tells them.

What I realized that day, surrounded by the mountains, my arms wrapped around my knees, is that the only person in my life that I don’t always see as valuable or beautiful, the only person that I am often unkind to

is me.

Later that day, I came across a verse that I had read dozens of times before. But this time, through the eyes of self compassion, I read it differently.

“One of them, an expert in the Law, tested him with this question: ‘Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?

Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.

And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:35-40, NIV.)

That’s when I saw it: Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, not more than yourself.

I was stunned. With this new way of looking at the verse, I realized I was not obeying this command the way I thought I was. 

I had two thirds of the command down. I had followed Jesus’ teaching to love God with all my heart. My love for God was my lifeline. I had worshipped and churched and listened and prayed and memorized and hiked and retreated and loved.

I had also followed Jesus’ command to love my neighbor. Loving my friends and family and people in need had been one of the core values of my life. I had volunteered and forgiven and cooked and and taught and served and charitied and sang and written and given and given and given.

But what kind of history did I have with loving myself? That list was very different. I had screen timed and regretted and worried and overeaten and undereaten and ran ragged and looked on as unattractive and unworthy. These actions did not indicate love. They indicated an attempt to anesthetize a deep seated sense of shame.

Perhaps I inwardly believed this was how it was supposed to be. In my twisted way, I thought that’s what it meant to be humble.

And yet, right here in the Golden Rule, Jesus asked me to love myself. Just as much as I loved my neighbor. My habit of not loving myself was actually going against what God had commanded me to do.

In pondering this, I realized the brilliance of Jesus’ words. There is a triangulating relationship between God and neighbor and self. The more I love God, the more I learn to love my neighbor and myself. The more I love myself, the more I learn to love my neighbor and my God.

It is a sacred balancing act.

It seems that it’s really difficult to have compassion and connection with others and God when we’re not even kind to ourselves.

I realized that the way to solve this problem was not to hate the parts of myself that were being hateful. That would just spur on the vicious cycle. Instead I needed to give myself the gift that I would want to give to a good friend. . .

The gift of listening close.

I need to ask better questions and to search out the better answers that are already in me. I need to become a compassionate observer of the voices inside. To understand where they came from and how to bring them the love they so desperately need.  And to ask them, please, to make peace with each other so that I no longer have to carry this war inside of me.

It’s time to put the sticks down.

It’s time to rewrite the story line.

It’s time to offer myself the alms of my own kindness.

It’s time to make this neighborhood safe again.

Let’s find our way home together.

Rewriting Our Shame Narrative

Adam and EveRecently, my community was eating a meal together and sharing the best and worst parts of our week. We got to Naomi, the thoughtful and wise seven year old that I live with.

She said “This week, I had a performance in front of the entire school and I had an accident right on the stage.” We all took a breath, feeling sad that our dear little friend had to go through that.

But then she finished her sentence with: “And I knew that God was with me.”

It seems that, miraculously, she wasn’t telling us the worst part of her week, but the best part.

My housemate pressed her, “how did you know he was there, Naomi?” Naomi replied “I could feel him on the stage with me. It was like he was right there next to me.” Her eyes were steady. There was absolute certainty in her voice.

It was obvious that she was not disturbed by what happened. Her faith had turned what should have been a moment of humiliation into a moment of communion with God. 

Naomi’s shame narrative was replaced by a storyline of total acceptance. Her resilience has made me wonder if the narrative that I live my life into is based more on consistent shame or on relentless love.

Brene Brown, an expert in this area, defines shame as the deeply painful belief that we are not worthy of love or belonging because of our flaws. Shame is rooted not just in our behaviors, but in the very core of who we are. While guilt says “I did something bad,” shame says “I am something bad.” Guilt says “I made a mistake,” while shame says “I am a mistake.”

The belief that no one would love me if they really knew my deepest self is one of the most prevalent ugly beliefs in my life.  Whether it be my weight or my failed relationships or leaders rejecting or me or the “best friend” syndrome that seems to happen with most men I am interested in, I wonder if I am truly worthy of love.

I am not alone in this predicament. Shame seems to be part of the human condition, going all the way back to Adam and Eve.

Etymologists have linked the modern English word shame with the indo-germanic root kam/kem meaning to cover. The idea of hiding and covering ourselves because we don’t deserve love is one of the central themes in this, the most ancient of narratives.

You know the story: Adam and Eve eat from the tree of Good and Evil after God ask them not to. 

After this, Adam and Eve don’t want God to see them. They cover themselves because they think  they no longer deserve to be seen. The fact that they are now naked is mentioned five times in only a few hundred words. It is a central theme.

Before the sin, they feel no insecurity at all. Afterwards, all they can think of is that the way they were originally made (their nakedness) is somehow shameful. They begin a storyline that says that something is intrinsically wrong with them.

Instead of reacting to the situation by admitting “I did something wrong,” they cover  their nakedness, the very essence of their being, saying “I am something wrong.”

It would be appropriate for Adam and Eve to respond in guilt, saying “I made a mistake, will you forgive me?” Instead, they take it a step further by responding in shame, proclaiming  “I am a mistake. I am not worthy of love or belonging. I can never be close to God again” which leads to the inevitable familiar lie that says, “from now on, I will be an orphan. I am alone.”

Like Adam and Eve, we start out with a clean slate, firm in our identity. But for many of us, messages start to come forth that tell us that we are not loved for the essence of who we are. The message is I have to do something in order to get love rather than I am someone who deserves to be loved.

Sometimes, religion can confuse us with many paradoxical messages. You are a sinner vs. you are a new creation. You are not worthy to tie the straps of his sandals vs. you are so valuable that Jesus paid his life for you.

Sometimes, I tend  to hold on to the everything in me is bad theology more than the one that says I am beautiful in God’s eyes. Even when I do believe God sees me beautiful and that he makes me worthy of love, I have a hard time translating that the way that the people in my life see me, the way that I see myself, the storyline that I write.

I want to rewrite the narrative of my identity, changing it from I am a sinner who is occasionally a child of God to I am a child of God who occasionally sins. 

After hearing Naomi’s story, I wondered if I could learn from the wisdom of this child. Could I face my own audience of shame, the mocking voice that tells me that I am not worthy to receive love?

In my most vulnerable moment, the moment of total exposure, can I stand on the stage hand in hand with God, unscathed by the scoffing because God’s voice is so much bigger…the voice that says there is nothing you can do to make me love you any more, and there is nothing you can do to make me love you any less? 

Can I believe that I am beautiful and worthy of love because he gave everything to make me beautiful and worthy of love? Perhaps this is the new storyline I need to rebuild the landscape of my interior landscape with. 

Now I turn the question to you: Have you struggled with believing your are intrinsically valuable? What are some of the messages that made you believe this? Has religion made this better or worse for you? Has your friendship with God changed anything?

Living a Labyrinth Life in a Ladder World

labyrinth1

My former pastor Brad Riley (who started the fantastic organization iempathize which fights to eradicate child exploitation) has a tattoo of a labyrinth on his forearm. With this information alone you can discern that

1) I am the kind of person who is ok with having a pastor with tattoos and

2) There are a lot of people wearing skinny jeans at my church.

Brad’s tattoo is based on a real labyrinth in the basement of our church. During one service, we all went downstairs and walked the labyrinth together silently as an act of worship.

The labyrinth looked a lot like a life sized maze painted on the floor with one difference: there were no dead ends. All labyrinths have one path to the middle, and one path out. 

We walked this together as a community and it was fascinating. Sometimes I thought that I was almost to the heart of the labyrinth, only to find myself at the outer edge again within a few more strides. Even though some people entered sooner than others, we were all walking a similar journey, and it would be very hard for an onlooker to to know who was “in the lead.”

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA

I have thought a lot about this experience because I would love to live a “labyrinth life.” A life in which I recognize that everyone around me is on the same level as me, on a similar journey. A place in which I may be led by people that are more experienced than me, but they still see me as an equal and a comrade. A place in which I validate my life journey just as much as my neighbors, and vice versa.

Unfortunately, the world we live in is a world of ladders. Clunky, falling over ladders, with people scrambling to get to the top, stepping on each other in our constant movement up or down.

Humans by their very nature rank things.

-We rank people by gender, race, wealth, or intelligence.

-We rank people by seeing who is appointed “above us”, which often isolates on both sides. I have heard that head pastors are often lonely because they don’t have anyone to talk to about their own problems.

-We rank our own worth compared to others saying “She’s so much prettier than I am” or “he’s a better athlete than I am.”

We rank each other’s happiness. We look at smiling Facebook pictures and think  “I wish I had their life.”

-We rank when we look for a partner, discerning sometimes within a few minutes whether that person is on about the same level as us in their attractiveness, job status, religion, level of education, likability, and confidence level.

-We even rank our grieving processes, saying things like “Why is she so sad about that? What I am going through is much more difficult.” (This is a topic I will explore further  in future posts.)

Rene Girard, the anthropological philosopher, has a theory about humans and their ladder like ways. He coined the term mimetic desire. The basic theory is that there is a triangulating rather than a direct relationship that humans have with most things in the world.  We rarely ever directly want anything…we want something because someone else has it.

According to this theory, our motivation often stems from an inward desire to be like someone else or to compete with someone else. Comparison is almost always a factor. We see this pattern even in the first years of life when a child wants the toy of another child vehemently more than any other in a room full of toys.

An adult example of mimetic desire is the aforementioned trend of skinny jeans. When people started wearing them years ago, I thought they looked silly. “Those may be all right for slim people, but they look awkward on any other figure.”

Within a few months I found myself in a trendy dressing room, squeezing my curvy frame into said skinny jeans. I distinctly remembered thinking “I’m too old for this crap.”

And yet, I have worn them ever since. Any hint flare in my jeans makes me feel like I am in the wrong decade.

In fact, I will probably be wearing skinny jeans until I see the upcoming “Yuccies” (who evidently are replacing the dying out class of hipsters) convince me that I should pin roll my non skinny jeans like I did in middle school.

This is a classic case of Girard’s theory. 

The next step of the theory states that in order for similar people groups to escape their competition towards one another, they will find a “scapegoat” outside of their group to dehumanize and retaliate against in order to bond with each other.

First they wanted the same object, now they want to fight against the same enemy. You can see this in things as innocent as a football game and as tragic as a genocide.

We have seen this phenomenon of scapegoating explode in the modern digital age, where social media has become a mutual agreement/ scapegoating machine.

This system of competition, rivalry, and classification inevitably puts us on ladders, where we rank everything from our gender to our attractiveness to our shoe choice.

How do we escape these ladders encircling us telling us that we are not good enough, that we are better than, that we are deserve more, that we deserve less, that we are all very separated and very alone?

To bring this into my personal life, the most difficult church experiences I’ve ever had have been when hierarchal leadership has been in place, in which it was obvious that I was not as important as other people in my community and my leaders had more say over my decisions than I did.

No leaders at all can result in spiritual anarchy, which is not healthy. But power hungry leaders can quickly lead to spiritual slavery. The trick is to find a balance between the two and to look for servant leaders, to be servant leaders. 

After many years in that dance, I now look for situations where my leaders lead me, but they also see me as walking on the same level that they are, where we can learn from each other. 

Galatians 3:28 says “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Do you realize what a potent statement this was, especially in a time where religious, economic, and gender rankings were even more stark and volatile towards each other than they are now? Much of Paul’s writing is based on his revelation that the message of Jesus was a message for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.

If we were to live by this verse and truly see the people in our lives as one, it would empower us to bring value and validity both to our neighbors, no matter how different they looked than us, and even contribute to our own self worth.

Here are some questions I have for you:

How has ranking been detrimental to your own self worth?

Are there people that you have scapegoated or you have seen other people scapegoat?

Have you ever been in ladder leadership situations that were harmful to your well being?

How has Christ’s love taught you to love people beyond their gender, ethnicity, lack of Tom’s shoes, etc?