Monthly Archives: March 2012

Cutting Slack, Doing Our Best

In the past year I’ve heard from two friends who were disappointed in me because I didn’t meet their expectations or show up in the ways they wanted me to. In one case the friendship was already fading and I took the opportunity to own up and disengage. The other friend’s accusations were harder to hear and laced with anger, but I tried to have compassion for the fact that she was going through an incredibly difficult time.  I also acknowledged that, even when my actions fall short, I try my best to be there for people I care about, not to mention occasional strangers in need.

But the lessons didn’t stop there. A few days after that upsetting conversation I read a passage from author Wayne Dyer in his daily Everyday Wisdom calendar:

“Instead of judging others as people who ought to be behaving in certain ways, see them as reflecting a part of you, and ask yourself what it is you are ready to learn from them.”

And there it was. These friends were holding up a big ol’ mirror to me, and it reflected something I didn’t want to see, namely, my own tendency to be hard on people when they fail to meet my expectations.

I used to be a champion grudge holder, and I still harbor resentments against a few key players in my life. I’m praying for guidance with those, and always hoping for a shift. The good news is that when new resentments crop up I catch them pretty quickly, recalling the words of author Malachy McCourt, who once said that, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

Indeed. All the energy I expend being judge and jury against my perceived wrongdoers (from that person who never returned my emails, to those who’ve rejected my precious friendship, to the people who didn’t acknowledge my thoughtfulness, value, etc.) is energy I’m taking away from my own life. It keeps me in a very unattractive “victimy” state, too, which is super unpleasant to feel and rarely a source of inspired action.

So here’s a radical thought: What if I imagine that we’re all doing the best we can with what we know?  Walking around with that kind of assumption, I’d certainly cut a lot more people a lot more slack, starting with my husband.

Since arriving in the United States to start a new life with me, my husband has faced innumerable challenges and obstacles, not to mention serious slights and heartbreaks as a proud African immigrant trying to make his way in this culture. Add to these stressors a wife who tends to point out his shortcomings (for his own good, of course), and you’ve got a man who’s often behind the eight ball. One of his favorite mantras is “I’m doing the best I can.”

A few months ago I attended a weekend workshop for women who want to have more satisfying relationships with men. We learned a lot about winning strategies for dealing with the opposite sex from our female instructor, but the most poignant moment came at the end of the workshop, when we heard from a panel of real, live men. The final question to these brave guys was, “If you had a megaphone, what message would you shout for all women to hear?” One answer that pierced my heart came from a white, successful, upper middle class man going through a divorce: “I’m doing the best that I can!”

The demands of this modern culture are squeezing the life out of so many people, and we’re all doing our best to try and keep up. Last year I got all bent out of shape because a girlfriend hadn’t replied to my calls and emails for a while. When she finally did I learned that she’d been privately grappling with a cancer diagnosis. Likewise, I once got testy with a student who showed up chronically late for my classes, only to learn that her husband was coming home chronically late from work to watch the kids—on the one night that my student had to herself. I’m humbled and shaken awake by these kinds of revelations.

Like death and taxes, disappointment in relationships is 100% guaranteed in this life. It’s what we do in response that matters. If we want forgiveness, compassion and understanding, we have to give it. I suggest starting with ourselves, by the way, because most of us are the least forgiving there. And I know that when I cut myself slack for my own human failings, I see others through a kinder, gentler lens.

Building Risk Muscles

One year ago I left a full-time job to rejoin the ranks of the self-employed. While the job provided wonderfully steady pay and health insurance, it was in no way related to my vocation as a writer, teacher and creativity coach—things I’d been doing “on the side.” And so I took the leap, not knowing exactly how, or whether, things would work out.

It’s not the first time I’ve done that.

At age 18 I left cozy Cape Cod for the streets of Philadelphia to join the freshman class at the University of Pennsylvania. It wasn’t the Ivy League cred that sold me on Penn so much as the chance to explore urban living for the first time in my life. I went to jazz clubs and nightclubs, wandered the Italian markets and Chinatown, ran up the steps of Philly’s art museum like Rocky and walked the downtown streets with glee. I felt at home in the city, and the feeling was exponentially magnified when I chose to spend my junior year in London, an experience otherwise known as The Year I Found Myself.

After college I followed some leads to New York, where I spent ten years in public broadcasting and had lots of daring adventures (not all of which are fit to print). When my work as a radio journalist ceased to inspire me, I left it to live in a yoga center nestled amid green hills. Two years later I missed the buzz of city life and headed to Boston to try and make a living as a yoga teacher. I had no jobs lined up, but I had a bed in my friend’s guest room.

The point is that I’ve taken many risks in my life to follow my desires in the direction of what promised greater fulfillment. At times I was moving toward something concrete, but more often I was simply moving away from what no longer fit. Both are valuable practices, but it’s the latter that really builds risk muscles when we dare to step off metaphorical cliffs and hope that a net will appear.

I once had a powerful dream about this. It found me making my way across tall rock formations in the Grand Canyon (I’m not even a hiker in waking life, but you know how dreams are…). At one point in the journey I came to a place where the next rock was too far away for a safe leap and I froze in fear. Suddenly, part of me split off and jumped, falling hundreds of feet to the ground—splat. As I peered down in horror, I saw a crowd gather around my fallen self. To everyone’s amazement, she/I got up, brushed off the dirt, and walked away, unbroken. Up above, the frightened but emboldened me shakily stepped forward into the air. Immediately, a kind of magic carpet appeared under my feet and transported me to the next rock, Aladdin-style. And so it went, all across the canyon.

This vivid dream came to me twelve years ago during a time of great change and uncertainty. It told me: 1) You may fall/fail in front of other people, but it won’t kill you, and 2) When you take a step forward despite your fears, help arrives. I like to tell my creative recovery students that God/Spirit/Higher Power/Universe is always ready to assist us, but we have to take the first empowering action. As the saying goes: Pray to catch the bus, and run as fast as you can.

Each time I exercise my risk muscles I grow in courage, faith and self-confidence, which are the real rewards of risk-taking. And let me be sure to say that it’s rarely comfortable to embrace the unknown. Most of my riskier life changes were accompanied by many wide-eyed “What the hell am I doing?!” moments at 3 a.m. By the light of day, if my inner convictions were stronger than my fear and anxiety, I forged ahead.

When I asked others about risks that paid off for them, I heard stories about daring to leave unhappy jobs and marriages, taking a chance on love, and “following my own path against the odds, which in some ways proved my worth, at least to myself.”  A former student who’s moved around the country to follow her dreams says, “It seems that the more something scares you, and the higher your resistance, the more you should actually take the plunge.” Another writes that, “Taking a recent trip to Europe meant emptying my bank account at a time when my work hours were being cut in half, but that trip broke me out of what I later recognized as depression and woke me up to possibilities again.”

A friend of mine echoes my own aspirations when she says, “The greatest risk that I take on a daily basis is being true to myself. We live in a culture that feels better poking, pushing, and prodding people into conformity. By being true to me I cultivate positive resources for a calmer and more joyful life experience.”

It’s been a year since I had a full-time job, and I’m still paying my bills (with, I must add, some help and health insurance from my husband’s job). I’m also much happier, and even more daring. In the end, I believe that the things we don’t try to do may haunt us more than our so-called mistakes and failures. As the poet Mary Oliver suggests, we have just one “wild and precious life” to live, and it’s not a dress rehearsal.

So go ahead, take a risk and do something that scares you a little today. I’ll be rooting for you, perhaps from somewhere over the Grand Canyon.

This essay was also published at www.JasminBalance.com/building-risk-muscles/