Desiring Greatly

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“So it’s gonna be forever
Or it’s gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it’s over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They’ll tell you I’m insane
‘Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game”

–Taylor Swift “Blank Spaces”

Our problem as a culture is not that we desire too much but too little. We are not creative enough about our longings. But we don’t need to be when those longings are hand-picked for us.

It would be easy to mistake cultural decadence for a robust ability to desire greatly. But the two are, by no means, the same. Take Taylor Swift’s song, for example. The chorus above ushers us into a world of romantic decadence complete with a “long list of lovers,” where she plays at discarding relationships like dressing room clothes. She’s “young and…reckless,” and she’ll “take it way too far”. This game she’s playing smacks of indulgence. The allure is instant gratification, but the appeal quickly wears off, so she goes from one lover to the next, but continues to end up alone and unfulfilled.

This game she’s playing at is one that we dabble with, ourselves, in various forms. We feel discontented so we spend countless hours buying clothes, drinking too much, or burning through a long list of hobbies. All of these attempts are formulaic and predictable. If there’s so little imagination, why are these things so popular and appealing to us?

We’re quick to accept cultural definitions for our desires instead of defining them for ourselves; and culture is ready and willing to take up the mantle of defining our wants for us. If the problem at hand is our unfulfilled longings (that show up in a state of discontent or restlessness), then culture’s quick solution is decadence. But those indulgences only mask our desires; they don’t fulfill them.

Do you know what you want? I mean, what you REALLY want? If you’re looking to culture to identify your holiday wishes, you may “really want” a sleek, ribbon-wrapped car stretched across your driveway and poised to respond to your commanding touch. While it’s appealing, it’s also unimaginative. It’s a temporary patch that leaves little energy invested in desiring greatly. The pursuit of desire, with our cultural capacity for opulence, is something you’d think we’d be good at but we’re not.

Freud coined the term “wish fulfillment” to describe the way our unconscious desires manifest themselves in dreams or fantasies (obscured from conscious view) until they culminate in resolution. Culture offers us plenty of fantasies that we willingly accept as the fulfillments of our every wish. But if our true desires are hidden from us, how can we really know what we want or whether we’re being fulfilled by what we’re offered? We can’t.

The next logical question would be, why do we bury our desires? Because we’re afraid of the intensity of those longings, and equally afraid of the people and things we long for. So we ignore/suppress/repress them for fear of what they might stir up within us: an immortal ache. This fear of aching has the uncanny ability to limit our creativity. But the stubbornness of those desires trumps the strength of our suppression, so they come bubbling to the surface anyway. Our fear leaves us frantically looking for something to tame the desires, so we end up relying on culture to soothe the inner beast.

True fulfillment doesn’t come in ribbon-wrapped packages. When we frantically reach for shiny things we merely placate the longings. We appease and pacify, only to end up restless and discontent. Living this way is like dumpster diving for scraps of food when there’s a sumptuous feast waiting for us just across the way. Fulfillment is available to us in the form of intimacy and connection (the feast), but we choose a “long list of lovers” instead. And those trysts end up “go[ing] down in flames,” as Taylor laments.

I love how C.S. Lewis, the famed author of “The Chronicles of Narnia” puts it: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Indeed, this kind of logic yanks at our core. Who wouldn’t choose the beach over mud puddles?

To move beyond the allure of cultural decadence we must recognize the immortal ache within us. Those desires are not superficial at all. They are deeply personal and intensely real. True fulfillment evokes our creativity, our imagination, our vulnerability, and our love. True desire is only fulfilled when we partake in a lavish and glorious feast, a feast that nourishes rather than pacifying those desires. Have you ever tasted such a feast?

The UnCola

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I’m attending a Psychopharmacology conference this week; that is, a conference where you learn current best practices in Psychiatric medication management. In short, the intellects are expansive and the humors are dry–like, scorched desert dry. But I digress.

I want to better advocate for my clients by understanding the professionals who prescribe their medications and the barriers to success in prescription and medication management. I have many and varied thoughts on this topic, which is what led me to the conference in the first place. I’m excited to share those thoughts, and more excited to withhold until I invest the time to learn first (and to challenge my own assumptions). In the meantime, musings on a fun fact I learned today:

The drink known as 7 Up formerly contained Lithium–a drug prescribed in the treatment of Bi-Polar Disorder as a mood stabilizer. It was removed in the 1950’s when we became aware of Lithium’s side effects. With the nefarious beginnings of 7 Up AND Coke, it leads me to speculate about the main ingredient in all soft drinks (aka. sugar) eventually being banned as a neurotoxin. There’s irony in soft drinks being taken down not by the usual nefarious culprits, but by an ingredient oft-used as a metaphor for a sweet disposition and whitened innocence. Will soft drinks be enveloped in a sticky, sweet demise? If so, infamous songs referencing sugar will take on a whole new meaning.

Until then, enjoy your refreshing UnCola (as it was once named), and think of me while I navigate the world of dry humors.

Musings: How’s It Going?

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For those of you working your way through the Fall Reading list challenge, you’re probably about half to three-quarters through by now.

How’s it going?

As you think back on those twenty minutes a day, what are your takeaways? What has surprised you, frustrated you, disturbed you, or enticed you?

I quickly noticed an emergent theme. Those thoughts and feelings I normally tuck into the back recesses of my mind were unearthed quickly. They would surface in different shades and textures with each new word, but they were the same themes nonetheless.

I unearthed problems that I need to make decisions about but would rather avoid, and I uprooted beliefs about myself and others I would prefer to ignore.

Uninterrupted self-evaluation tends to do that. If we allow it to, it acts as a homing beacon, drawing us directly to the source of our inner tension that we’re so prone to run from. It draws us to beliefs like “I’m not okay.” “I can’t handle this.” “I’m a failure.” “I’m helpless.” Etc.

As I’ve been sitting with that tension for an uninterrupted twenty minutes every day, something surprising has happened. Those beliefs, when I face them, begin to lose their power. The distortions they create start to fade away and are replaced by truth. That truth is unsettling and beautiful, simultaneously, and most importantly it’s healing.

We’ll talk more next time about truth and decisions. At certain points in our lives, truth is harder to see, feel, and taste, and we may need guides along the way.

For now, a couple thoughts. If you’re trudging through the list and finding no benefit, or no emerging theme, consider if there are ways that you are blocking/protecting yourself from facing that self-evaluation? What would it look like to embrace what you’re afraid of?

If you’re flying through the list and find superficial interpretations emerging, but nothing of substance, what would it look like to slow yourself down and really savor the list, rather than viewing it as another task to be conquered?

Finally, if you’re savoring the list, facing fears, and are uncertain of how to make decisions with what you’re uncovering, ask yourself, “what’s holding me back from those decisions?” What would it look like to do something different, to allow a break in pattern?

There are many ways we derail ourselves from truly facing the things we fear most. Courage is elusive and intangible at such moments, but it is still available to us.

We’ll revisit truth and decisions after you’ve made your way through more of the list. For now..

I’ll ask again, how’s it going?

Musings: On Seaside Ports and Lobster Roll

A lot of basic schemas in life are incredibly inefficient: Marriage…Sleep…Eating…Sex (not in that order)…Caring for anything from goldfish to elderly parents. Relationships, at their core, are inefficient.

I savor these inefficiencies, for all of their flavors.

One of my inefficient quirks is that I name the wind. Not by breeze, or gust, or hurricane, or whisper, but by geographic location. A warm whisp is Carolina. A robust, autumnal blow is Boston. A summer chill is New Hampshire. A spring Nor’easter is Rehoboth, and a wintery tantrum is Alaska.

Today is a Boston day. It smacks of seaside ports, lobster rolls, and frothy accents.

These inefficiencies make my day. These quirky, extraneous details are the very ones that delight and revive.

Without them my world (on a good day) might be supremely efficient. But it would never be savory–all of the substance, none of the season.

The Courage To Be

I’m taking an unanticipated few weeks off from writing.  I have some speaking engagements coming up that will require my full attention.

It dawned on me today that in order to do the necessary work, I need to carve out space for being. Before I can do, I first have to be. Like the plows carve out pathways through the snow, I have to forcibly create space for the stillness to emerge.

As I do that, I’m reflecting on a timely quote from Thomas Merton:

We are so obsessed with doing that we have no time and no imagination left for being. As a result, men are valued not for what they are but for what they do or what they have – for their usefulness.

I hope you find this quote as meaningful as I do. And until next time, instead of looking for value in the product, may you just be, unmistakably, who you are and watch the awe-inspiring imagination that emerges from the undertaking to exist without acting.

 

With thoughts of stillness,

Amy

A Benediction

This is my last post of the year.

Over the next few weeks, I hope to spend the moments that are typically carved out for writing, reflecting on good endings instead. I want to finish well. I eagerly anticipate the restful time of learning about that closure from my mentors.

This marks the end of my first year of writing posts.

I’m grateful for the flawed journey. It has been so many paradoxes: risky and comfortable, abstract and tangible, weighty and light.

To celebrate those paradoxes and how they’re reflected in the Christmas story, I want to share a poem by one of my respected “mentors”. She’s a woman who writes far better than I, and makes the intangible, tangible.

This poem illustrates the timeless beauty of that intangible story.

As a benediction to the holidays, this Christmas season may you find risky love born out in the tangible moments–a peaceful and contemplative Christmas to each one of you.

The Risk of Birth, Christmas, 1973
by Madeleine L’Engle

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn –
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

Lessons From an All-Star

He’s got a Griffey-esque stance, the power of Babe Ruth, the humility of Lou Gherig, and an M356 bat.  This season alone, Chris Davis has delighted Baltimore with 37 homers prior to the All-Star Game, quickly defining himself as the league leader.  Endearing himself to the fans, he has been affectionately nicknamed “Crush Davis”, for his powerful swing and return on investment.  And he’s been rewarded with a spot in the heart of the order (3rd, 4th, or 5th), to boot.

He’s a clutch hitter on a very promising team, and the energy his hitting brings just ramps up the capability and momentum of his fellow players including Jones, Machado, Hardy, and Markakis—all of whom already stand on their own merits.   I love watching these guys play, rippling with the enthusiasm of youth and glory, and anchored by Buck (the juxtaposition is key).

While I’ve appreciated seeing Davis’ maturation over the past season and a half, it hadn’t struck me what that metamorphosis really meant until this week.  As Davis was going up to bat at the Home Run Derby, the announcers began to craft their dramatic story arc as the backdrop for his impending, much-anticipated performance.  Throughout the two days of all-star festivities, the commentators talked about the debate over Roger Maris vs. Barry Bonds, as home run record breakers.  They discussed the ongoing question of steroids and the scrutiny he would be under should he continue to be successful.  But what they mentioned, nonchalantly, caught my attention as an emblematic and overlooked piece of the story.  A piece that has implications for how each one of us has to forge our way, if we’re to authentically reach adulthood.

Davis got his major league start on the Texas Rangers in 2008.  He came up from the farm system in Oklahoma, with a batting average of .318, nothing to sneeze at.  Since he was from Longview, Texas, being drafted into the Rangers meant returning to play on his home turf.  He came back for his major league debut to a home town full of hopes and expectations.  For any performer, to share their craft in the place where they grew up can be a daunting task–an act of being caught between the world of childhood perceptions and adult expectations.  This type of perspectival conflict is enough to rattle the best of athletes.

Davis’ major league debut did not live up to his minor league promise.  It varied greatly from 2008 through 2011 with an impressive 2008 start that had waned by the following year, and some trips down to the minors.  By the end of 2009, he had a batting average of .238 with 150 strikeouts, which was a significant regression from his major league start.  As the announcers unpacked this part of his story, they shared what seemed to be a blip on the screen of the making of an all-star: Chris Davis was tormented by the fact that his ongoing failure was disappointing his family and friends.  He was working under the constant observation, and proximity, of those he cared about most, and simultaneously hearing their questions, their looks of concern, or maybe even doubt, as he continued to regress.

According to his testimony, he felt overwhelmed by the weight of expectations.  “I didn’t realize how much pressure I was putting on myself to play at home.  I had people at every game – my family and friends.  It really felt at times like I had the whole state of Texas on my back because the hometown boy had to do well.  I didn’t have a chance to breathe.”  His confidence was eroded.  It was whittled away to the extent that he’s been quoted as saying, “I was skeptical, at times, if I was ever going to be able to make it translate” (referring to his momentum and power being translated at the major league level).  By the time I had processed this description of his major league initiation, the announcers had already moved on.  But I was left mulling over something very curious.

Fast-forward to mid-season 2011.  Davis was traded to the Orioles.  He gained momentum over the rest of the season and by the end of October 2012 he had 33 home runs and a trip to the playoffs under his belt.  While the Sabermetrics would point to a variety of statistical data to bolster support for the transition in his performance from Texas to Baltimore, I can’t help but consider that there’s an underlying emotional element that plays an equally pivotal role.

I don’t want to wrongly assume that Mr. Davis was influenced so strongly by performing in the presence of family and friends that it affected his debut.  I do find it interesting, however, that he has communicated, on multiple occasions, the difficulty of being initiated in his home state as he worked to carve out his place in the world.

Whether my view of the story is accurate or not, this metaphor provides a rich context for understanding our own differentiation. Dictionary.com defines differentiation as “to form or mark differently from other such things; to distinguish”.  For developmental psychologists, differentiation is considered an important marker of human development by which an individual transitions the dynamic of early attachments to become his or her own unique, or distinctive, person thus defining the essence of the proceeding maturation.

It’s often said that we can’t stay too closely intertwined with family and friends if differentiation is to occur.  If we remain enmeshed (emotionally entangled), our own gifts, talents, values, and offerings become overshadowed by what our loved ones want, hope, or expect from us.  It’s much like a sapling taking root under a mighty oak and struggling to find the sun and water necessary to ensure its own mature development.  Our loved ones are integral to our growth.  They help to shape the individuals that we become.  But for the person who struggles with differentiation, we can remain absorbed in who our loved ones are, or what they want us to be, rather than in pursuing our own key talents.  There comes a time when we have to find a way to disentangle our gifts, abilities, emotions, thoughts–our lives– from theirs.  Maybe, for Chris Davis, the physical distance provided the context within which that differentiation could occur.  Maybe, what followed was the necessary environment to inspire the dawning of an all-star.  Welcome to Baltimore, Mr. Davis, and welcome to the emerging realization of your dreams.