Good Work on a Gray December Day

Over the last couple of years Jonathan and I have done several podcasts and a few television and radio shows.  Most of the time the hosts want to focus on how my transition affected my son and our family, with a secondary focus on how the churches we serve handled it all.  Jonathan is always articulate, honest and gracious.

In December we were interviewed for All the Wiser, a podcast featured by Apple Podcasts last week and listed as one of the top 50 social and cultural podcasts in the nation.  The host of the podcast is Kimi Culp, a former producer for NBC, ABC, and the Oprah Winfrey Show.

On the day of the show the Denver sky was gray and the air felt more like a winter day in Seattle than a typical cold sunny day in Denver.  My mother had passed away two weeks earlier and I was fighting a terrible cold.  As we went into the studio where we would be connected to Kimi in LA, I was out of sorts, thinking more about the TEDxMileHigh event Jonathan and I would be leading that night than the 90-minute conversation we were headed into.

Jonathan and I sat across a table from each other, mouths close to the windscreens of our microphones, only our eyes visible to each other.  Kimi deftly switched back and forth between us with her probing and thoughtful questions.  I’d heard Jonathan answer most of the questions before.  On Red Table Talk I watched as both Jonathan and Jana articulately and emotionally spoke of the journey of the past six years.  That show has been viewed over 3.5 million times, our family story out there for the world to dissect and judge as each viewer sees fit.

On this particular December day I was emotionally exhausted.  When the interview was over I felt like my responses had been perfunctory at best.  Jonathan, as always, had been articulate and poised, honest and gracious.  While I know that telling our story is for the greater good, it is hard to hear over and over how your calling was someone else’s nightmare.  Of course, my calling was my nightmare too.  We virtually never experience a call as a moment of joy.  A call is always to a deeper and more difficult journey, more akin to a nightmare than a sweet story.  But as any Jungian therapist knows, nightmares are necessary.  They bring difficult subjects to the surface and demand that we pay them mind.  Telling and retelling our story is always exhausting, but it is also always cathartic.

Yesterday Kimi sent me the link to the podcast. It went live earlier this week. http://bit.ly/ATW_PaulaJonathanWilliams  I had no intention of listening to it last night but decided to listen to the first minute or two to see if I sounded as tired as I was that day.  Before I knew it, I had listened to the entire podcast.

Kimi asks questions as one acquainted with pain, unafraid of delving into its depths, whether it be in her own life or the lives of those she interviews.  Her questions were compassionate and thoughtful.  When it ended I thought, “All the people on that podcast were trying to get it right, to tell the truth as they understood it, clearly, succinctly, and redemptively.”

I closed the podcast and turned to one of the books I am currently reading, Living an Examined Life, by James Hollis.  I opened to page 61, where I had stopped earlier in the day, and immediately read these words:

“There is no going forward without a death of some kind:  a death of who we thought we were and were supposed to be; a death of a map of the world we thought worthy of our trust and investment; a death of expectations that by choosing rightly we could avoid suffering, experience the love and approval of those around us, and achieve a sense of peace, satisfaction, arrival home.  But life has other plans it seems; indeed, our own souls have other plans.  And there is a terrible price to pay for ignoring or fleeing those intimations and summons to depth.”

Just before that paragraph Hollis said, “If there is such a thing as the soul, then it is the soul that ultimately tips the balance toward change, toward a more authentic stance in the world.

Every day we must decide whether or not to move forward, whether or not to encounter life as it meets us and make the most of it.  At the end of the podcast Kimi asked my favorite quote.  I did not hesitate.  It is a quote from Dag Hammarskjold.  “For all that has been, thanks.  For all that shall be, yes.”

Always Forward, Through the Desert

William Butler Yeats said, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”  Years ago I borrowed the quote and exchanged “Being Irish” for “Being a Mets fan.”  If you look up “longsuffering” in the dictionary, you will find there are no words defining it, just a picture of a group of Mets fans.  The Yeats quote still resonates.  Nowadays I might say, “Being human, she had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained her through temporary periods of joy.”  Life is good, but it is not easy.

James Hollis suggests that the two great existential threats faced by humans are overwhelmment and abandonment.  The first arrives in childhood and reminds us of our relative powerlessness in this capricious world.  While that feeling never fully dissipates, our capacity to deal with life’s capriciousness increases with age and maturity, though it is an easier journey for white males who unknowingly enter a world tilted in their favor.  Women and minorities have a tougher time.

Regardless of race or gender, we all struggle with the fear of abandonment.  It causes us to chase after achievement so we can experience the reassurance that comes from the accolades of others. The fear of abandonment is also why people remain within the confines of fundamentalism.  We hold onto outdated theologies in ways in which we would never hold on to outdated medical procedures.  We acquiesce to all of those primitive rules and prejudices because we want the security the tribe provides.  In the process we might be selling our intellectual integrity, but at least we won’t be abandoned.

For many who remain in fundamentalism, intellectual freedom is not worth the price of abandonment.  I understand.  Having been abandoned by my religious tribe (though not by all the individuals within that tribe), I know the psychological, spiritual and emotional toll of having been abandoned.  It reenforces that abiding sense of tragedy Yeats was talking about.

The fear of abandonment can cause us to stay loyal to that which we have outgrown.  We only move beyond those boundaries when something beyond the need for security  demands our attention.  We move beyond those boundaries when we finally realize we have been called to something larger and that if we ignore that call, it will be at our own peril.

We cannot answer the call to authenticity without a death of some kind.  We have to leave behind the world that has become too small for us.  We must abandon the maps that lead to decisions that diminish our lives and develop new maps that lead to decisions that enhance our lives.

It is paradoxical that even though we may really, really want to grow, we are still reluctant to abandon those old maps.  They no longer work and leave us stuck, but they are our maps dammit, and we cling to them.  That is why as much as we might want to grow, usually we do not move forward until our old maps are taken from us through an unwanted divorce, or being fired from a job, or forced out of a career.  Even though we know it is past time to abandon them, those maps have to be ripped from our hands by a force greater than our own egos.

No one changes maps without spending time in the desert.  While those of us who really want to grow might willingly undertake a few brief forays into the desert, we will always return to the land we know until returning is no longer an option.   An old adage says suffering is the fastest course to completion.  Authentic suffering forces you forward, through the desert.  No wonder it is a journey we resist, given the virtual guarantee of overwhelmment and abandonment.

If you read this blog, there is a good chance you are a person who has said yes to the desert.  In the desert I sometimes awaken with a feeling of overwhelmment and the abiding sense of tragedy Yeats wrote about.  But as the sun rises over the ridge east of my house and slowly makes it way to the mountains of Roosevelt National Forest, I am reminded just how sacred and holy this journey is.  And as I so often say, it is for the greater good.

Living authentically is the best gift we can give our children and grandchildren and the generations still to come.  It is courage and endurance that allows us to make our way forward, through the desert, in the direction of the warm and life-giving sun.  And yes, we will experience tragedy on the journey, but I dare say that if we are willing to go through the tragedy, we will discover that it is joy that truly abides.