I sometimes feel like a juggler who is barely keeping up, but is constantly having bowling pins thrown at him. Or perhaps they’re chainsaws.
I wrote about that sense of overwhelm (yes, that’s a verb that needed to be nouned) in a recent post, Failure to Adult. Yesterday I had yet another minor freakout about some stressful things going on–I won’t bore you with them, because they’re mundane. But I realized that I was in dire need of some perspective: my basic needs are being met, my family is healthy, I have gratifying work and a loving family.
Perspective comes in all kinds of ways… like this sign:
In case you’re having trouble reading it, it’s a sign alerting people with nut allergies to the fact that chestnuts would be displayed in open bins. This sign went up in early December–the “holiday season” in question–and was still on display as of May 20 at 11:30 a.m. when I snapped this picture like some weird grocery-store stalker. Unless chestnuts are the hot new Memorial Day item, this sign is five months out of date.
Barbara Brown Taylor likes to ask groups she speaks to, “What’s saving your life right now?” What’s saving my life right now is that dang sign–or at least, what the sign represents. This is the grocery-store equivalent of having your Christmas decorations up until spring. Or it’s like the friend of mine who dropped off her kids at school today and saw other kids piling up supplies for an upcoming event on a table and realizing she’d completely forgotten.
I’ve decided that pretty much 100% of people feel this way–and apparently, some local businesses too.
I find it oddly comforting that, whether consciously or unconsciously, the various store personnel who pass this sign every day have determined there are more important things to worry about than getting the sign down. It’s not hurting business. It’s not in the way. And hey, come November they’ll be ahead of the game.
The Hubble Space Telescope in a picture snapped by a Servicing Mission 4 crewmember just after the Space Shuttle Atlantis captured Hubble with its robotic arm on May 13, 2009, beginning the mission to upgrade and repair the telescope.
Our family’s Sunday night tradition is pizza in the basement and a TV show together. We mix it up between Mythbusters, So You Think You Can Dance, Dirty Jobs, and nature/science shows. Sunday it was NOVA’s episode “Invisible Universe Revealed,” commemorating the Hubble Space Telescope on its 25th birthday.
I had no idea how much scientific knowledge I take for granted was made possible by Hubble: the age of the universe (13.7 billion years), for example, or the fact that black holes lie at the center of galaxies.
I remember the Hubble debacle. It didn’t work when it was first placed in space–the images were blurry and useless. I also recall lots of self-satisfied comments about how it just goes to show that “the government can’t do anything right.” According to the NOVA program, however, it was a government contractor, a private company, that made the flawed mirror, that did not let NASA view their manufacturing process since it was proprietary, and that certified the mirror as flawless and ready for installation on Hubble. That’s not what this post is about, but ahem.
Anyway, I was struck once again how much improvisation is at the center of problem-solving. (We think of improv as something musicians or actors do, but see the movie Apollo 11 for a master class on improv in engineering.)
First, the woman who helped spearhead the project, Nancy Grace Roman, the so-called Mother of the Hubble, wasn’t even supposed to be on that project. She began her career in academia, and as a woman in the 1950s, couldn’t get tenure. Instead, “In 1959 when NASA was formed, one of the men there asked whether I knew anyone who would like to set up a program in space astronomy. And I decided the idea of influencing space astronomy for 50 years was just more than I could resist, so I took the job.”
What Roman demonstrates is what theologian Samuel Wells has called overaccepting—of taking what is offered and adding to it. Instead of beating her head against the wall of academia to try to get tenure, or accepting the crumbs from their table in the form of less prestigious positions, she pivots. She pursues a job at NASA… and the rest is history.
Nancy Roman, now 89 years old. Respect!
What I like about improv as a metaphor is it doesn’t fall back on some chintzy-cheap theology that says “See?! It’s a good thing she didn’t get tenure, otherwise she wouldn’t have gotten a job at NASA! It was all meant to be.” Sorry, sexism in the academy is not and was never “meant to be.” After listening to this interview, I have no doubt she would have kicked butt and taken names in a university setting, because that’s the kind of woman she is. Instead, what Roman demonstrates is a posture of overaccepting one’s circumstances (aka saying “yes-and”), even if they aren’t ones we might have chosen. Just because we say yes to something doesn’t mean we like it. It means we’ve faced reality and refused to let it be a “No” that defeats us.
Second: There’s an improv game I’ve done as both a participant and as a leader, called “What Else Could This Be?” The premise is simple: you pass around an object–a pool noodle, or an eggbeater–and ask people to pantomime another use for it. (The pool noodle can be a set of horns; the eggbeater, a very tiny unicycle.) Indeed the church I used to serve turned its underutilized sanctuary balcony into a worship space for children because we asked the question “what else could this be?”
I was reminded of this game when optical engineer James Crocker described a breakthrough–THE breakthrough–in fixing Hubble. They had discussed all kinds of scenarios and solutions, most of which stunk, and the ones that didn’t stink weren’t feasible because of the logistics of working in orbit, which means they stunk in a different way. After a long discouraging day in meetings, Crocker went back to the hotel to take a shower–and noticed one of these:
The shower head can be raised and lowered on a bar. And that’s where the idea came from to put corrective mirrors on robotic arms that could be extended into the telescope and retracted again.
That story is so amazing, it may be too good to be true. But in any case, it’s a great twist on “what else could this be?”
Third: Improv is a process of letting go and taking risks–which may be the same thing when you get down to it. Astronaut Mike Massimino was one of those charged with giving Hubble some final tweaks in 2009. Unfortunately, a handrail got in the way of some of their repairs, and they realized they’d have to pry it off. Folks back home did a simulation, and the astronauts on the Shuttle did what they could to cut down on the number of shards that would fly when they removed it, and then… they let ‘er rip.
The handrail had to go, but what a chance they took! But it was their only option.
It should also be said–improv is not the same as spontaneity. Astronaut Story Musgrave (what a name!) and the team that did the original Hubble repair spent 20 months preparing for their mission, including 400 hours underwater simulating zero-G. Musgrave called their process choreography, a “ballet.” But that, too, is part of improv, and life. You prepare, you do your work, you think through different scenarios, and you practice, not because you expect everything to go according to plan, but because you know it won’t, and you’d better be ready.
I was “bequeathed” a few of my father’s writings, which are precious artifacts to me. Some were written for publication; others are more personal. One of the more personal ones dealt with a simple home improvement project that went wrong. In addition to feeling frustrated, my dad began hearing his own father’s voice in his head, berating him for not knowing how to do something so simple. The louder the voice got, the more my dad tried to hammer away at the problem, making it worse and worse, literally knocking holes in the wall in his shame. No matter how he tried, he could not silence the voice: You should know how to do this. What kind of man are you?
The people involved are all deceased, which is one reason I feel I can share those bare-bones details. The other reason is this: Don’t most of us struggle with shame scripts from time to time? Brené Brown wouldn’t be a bestselling author if we didn’t.
Even if your parent didn’t speak this language, you have probably picked up some of the basic messages of shame. Brené articulates them as: Not good enough. Who do you think you are?
Robert and I have been slowly making headway on some long pending home projects. (Long pending.) Sunday morning I went on a long run and when I got back I decided to take advantage of my already-sweaty status and tackle the garage. Over the next several hours I sorted a bunch of items for donation, boxed up little-kid toys for the attic, and collected all the outdoor toys into a single place in the garage. As I left for Goodwill with the back of the van piled high with stuff, I proudly announced to Robert that we were probably one weekend away from being able to park our van in the garage for the first time in James’s life.
It was an amazing feeling.
Late in the afternoon Robert and I set about putting the boxes of Christmas decorations back in the attic. (Yes, mid-April… and that’s not even our record. June 25 is the magic day on which the next Christmas is closer than the previous one, so why bother putting the boxes away?)
As I started to hand up boxes of ornaments and ceramic figurines, I heard him say “Umm… hold up a second. Yeah, stand back.”
Then down through the hole came a shower of debris: empty box after empty box, large styrofoam pieces–old storage for computer monitors, desktops and other household appliances we don’t even own anymore.
I began to hyperventilate, and it wasn’t from the dust.
Here I had spent the entire day getting the garage in order, and we were trashing it out again! This wasn’t a rational response, of course. I knew intellectually that one trip to the recycling center would do it–and that’s exactly what happened. And it’s great to have more space in the attic.
But with each cascade of boxes came this voice in my head: You call yourself a competent adult? Look at this stuff you haven’t dealt with… for years! You will never conquer the chaos and clutter in your life. There will always be more–more than you can ever handle.
I realized that keeping up with the Joneses can take many forms. Some people are lured by the Joneses’ shiny new toys, or the Jones children’s impeccable manners and shelf full of trophies.
My trigger is competence. I often feel like there’s this body of knowledge about adulthood that I somehow missed. Our dishwasher recently started leaking and it turns out we needed to clean the seal from time to time. Where in the heck were we supposed to pick up this information?
As the Internet leaves its infancy and adolescence, we’re seeing more and more studies on the effect of social media on happiness. I’ve read a lot of it and it’s a mixed bag–there are net positives and net negatives. But I do know that Facebook and other sites have given us insidious new ways of comparing every one else’s outsides to our insides, which is never a formula for a wholehearted life. Our real-life messiness will always lose out to everyone else’s carefully curated personas. Blessed be those who will post the graphic like the one above. Blessed be the pockets of radical honesty where a super capable person I know can say, “It’s April 18 and my taxes are a mess. I have done nothing. Help.”
I talk to many friends and colleagues recently who struggle with some version of impostor syndrome: If people found out how screwed up I was, I’d be fired/ridiculed/judged. A woman and pastor colleague who serves a large church told me several years ago, “I feel like I’m always fifteen minutes away from complete embarrassment.”
Not good enough. Who do you think you are?
As I continue to reflect on Sunday’s experience of cascading boxes, I’m trying to confront those messages in my head as the shame-poisoned lie that they are. Yeah, life is chaotic, and I’ll never have it figured out. But I’m trying to practice radical kindness toward myself in the process.
Last week at The Well, one of my colleagues quoted that beautiful line from Ram Dass: We’re all just walking each other home.That’s what I’ve been trying to hear over the din of not good enough.
These conversations need to leave the quiet moments behind closed doors. I hate that our culture doesn’t reward this kind of truth telling. But you know what? We are culture. We have the power to move toward greater authenticity with one another. I hope we will.
Last week was Spring Break, and I’d promised the kids I’d take them to the local trampoline park. They love the place… though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the National Association of Orthopedic Surgeons is a major shareholder.
Anyway, the morning we were going to go, a Facebook friend posted a 50% off coupon. I had actually opened my laptop to find the trampoline park website, Facebook was open, and the coupon caught my eye first.
I was tickled and felt a jolt of gratitude.
And God had nothing to do with it.
That may seem like an obvious statement to some, but there’s a strain of theology out there that claims God is guiding the large and small details of our lives. That’s what many people mean when they say that God is sovereign, that nothing happens outside of God’s providence and plan.
In my experience as a pastor, the most commonly held theological belief among both youth and adults is that everything happens for a reason. For most people, this means that God has a plan and that everything somehow fits in it. We long to believe that our lives and human history are not a series of random coincidences. We want to trust that God is in control and that deep within every situation—good or bad—some kind of meaning can be found.
He ultimately can’t go there, and neither can I.
Some people find comfort in the idea that someday the curtain may be pulled back and we’ll see how everything fit together, like some cosmic Rube Golberg device. I don’t know. If God really is all-powerful, surely God can work God’s purposes out in ways that don’t involve children getting cancer or thousands perishing in a tsunami.
If God has a plan, I don’t think it’s being petulant or faithless to hold God accountable if that plan doesn’t correspond to who we know or believe God to be.
Instead, I don’t attribute bad things that happen to God’s will. But there’s a problem there too: we end up giving God none of the blame and all of the credit. When something good happens, we thank God. When something terrible happens, we say God grieves with us and can make good come from it. That makes it sound like God has a plan for the good stuff, but washes God’s hands of the bad stuff. This is unsatisfying too.
Instead, I believe life isn’t a matter of plan—God’s or ours—but of improvisation. The basic rule of improv is “yes-and,” to accept what’s offered and build on it. Like this recent StoryCorps piece on NPR. Jeff Wilson accidentally hit Tammie Baird with his car when they were both young adults. The experience had a major impact on them both, as you would imagine. He ended up becoming a surgical technician who does a lot of orthopedic work. She became a stuntwoman, of all things, and has been “hit” by countless cars since that first collision 30 years ago.
Plan, or yes-and?
The former may be comforting to some, but the latter more accurately reflects a world in which drivers just get distracted sometimes. And cells grow uncontrollably. And plates shift under the oceans, creating massive waves.
Plan has the virtue of rationality, but yes-and has the virtue of creativity. It also reflects our lives. We improvise all the time. We work within constraints. We are called upon to be flexible and creative. And if we are created in the image of God, I think improvisation is part of God’s nature too. I certainly see it in scripture all over the place.
So if God doesn’t have a plan, what does God have? A direction. An orientation. God seeks to move, and seeks to move us, in the direction of love and wholeness, no matter what the circumstance. All of this reminds me of Martin Luther King’s arc in the moral universe, bending towards justice.
In fact, if God is love, maybe it’s not accurate to say that God has a direction or an orientation or an arc. Maybe God is those things.
This idea of an improvising God makes people uncomfortable. Isn’t God supposed to be all-powerful? What kind of God isn’t capable of dramatic intervention? Answer: the Christian God. Folks, we just went through this last week. An improvising God, working within circumstance, isn’t a heretical idea. In fact, in the crucifixion, God voluntarily puts on human weakness and shame. Herod and Pilate and the high priest and the rest of that corrupt system come after Jesus and seek to silence his message about the kingdom of God here on earth, not because they’re doing God’s bidding according to The Plan, but because that’s what powers and principalities do.
And yet… Holy Week is full of yes-and.
Yes is “she has anointed me for my burial.”
Yes is “put away your weapon, Peter.”
Yes is standing there when Pilate asks, “What is truth?”
Yes is “Father, forgive them.”
And the resurrection? I don’t know what the resurrection is. Except that it’s the ultimate And.
Not long ago I was speaking to a group of pastors and church musicians. The focus of the conference was on small congregations–their particular gifts and challenges.
It’s easy sometimes for small churches and their leaders to feel down about themselves. They often feel an abundance of the family vibe, but a scarcity of resources. They may have lots of down-to-earth authenticity but lack the programs and “flash” of larger churches.
After the presentation a man came up to me, thanked me for my comments, and handed me a small piece of paper. “This quote has really helped me keep things in perspective,” he said.
Here it is:
Avoid adjectives of scale. You will love the world more and desire it less.
This is former poet laureate Robert Hass, paraphrasing the poet Basho. And I can see why this colleague has been carrying it around. It’s been working on me for the past couple of months. I love the distinction between loving the world and desiring it. To love the world is to love what is, to experience contentment and joy. But desire… desire is insatiable. We are never satisfied.
Love is a hand, relaxed and open. Desire is a clutching fist.
Through the lens of this quote, I’ve been seeing anew how much of consumer culture centers around comparing ourselves to others—usually in a way that draws us up short.
Too old. Not wealthy enough.
Not white enough. Less popular. Not as talented.
Or we compare ourselves to our past selves:
I wish I had that body back. Look how many more wrinkles I have! My marriage was more romantic back then.
Of course it’s fine to want to better ourselves. Last year I had only one running goal: to get faster. I didn’t have specific time goals, I just wanted to improve. And I did: I achieved PRs (personal records) in three recent races of various distances recently. There’s lots more room to grow, and I hope to finish the Marine Corps Marathon faster than I did Disney, even though it’s a tougher course.
But why? If I’m pursuing these goals out of desire, I will never be satisfied. I will always be slow compared to someone. But if I set goals out of love for the sport and for discovering what this 43 year old body can do, I can’t lose.
The running group I belong to uses Facebook to set up group runs and share running successes and challenges with one another. Without betraying the confidentiality of that space, we constantly check each other when using words like “slow.” Slow, compared to what? To whom? Everyone’s slow compared to Shalane Flanagan. Everyone’s fast compared to someone sitting on the couch.
Part of what adjectives of scale do is put us in our place. Many of you know Brene Brown, professor of social work, writer, researcher on shame and wholeheartedness, and big sister I wish I’d had. She told Krista Tippett not long ago that shame hinges in two basic thoughts:
1. Not good enough. 2. Who do you think you are?
I wonder whether these messages are at work when the mama runners (including me) share a happy milestone, but feel compelled to add a qualifier: “I hit a great pace on this run–for me.” “I ran X miles this month—but I know others are running even more.” It’s the tendency to downplay our own belovedness and to be much kinder to others than we are to ourselves. Other people’s achievements are celebrated. Our own come with an asterisk.
Much better to say, “I felt strong on the hills.” “I’ve improved a lot.” “That was a crappy run, but I’ll try again tomorrow.” “I’m running X miles at Y pace this weekend; who wants to join me?” Much better to see ourselves as we are, and to describe that as faithfully and graciously as we can.
Captain Obvious: I’m not just talking about running anymore.
Sooner or later, whether due to age or other physiological factors, I will plateau and decline. And that’s as it should be. Continuous growth is not sustainable for our planet; continuous improvement is not sustainable for a body, either. So I’m working on embracing the spirit of Gandalf, whose cheeky comment to Frodo (above) feels a lot like radical contentment. I am neither slow nor fast. I am the speed I am meant to be right now.