Thursday, March 19, 2009

Stress Levels

"Stress is an ignorant state. It believes that everything is an emergency. Nothing is that important. Just lie down."
--Natalie Goldberg

Ironically enough, I had to re-type the above quote four times before the bold command obeyed. Meanwhile, I was thinking, "You stupid computer!! Why aren't you working?!" And then I realized I was consumed by the ignorance of stress... once again.

My dad will be the first to agree that I have issues with control, which lead to issues of stress and anxiety when I'm at my worst. In college, he called me up to tell me a joke:

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Control Freak.
Control Freak who??

Yes, hilarious, Dad.

But in the past four years, I have dealt with my stress in very different ways: playing the piano, crying, eating, watching television, ceramics, talking with friends. Many different ways in handling the repercussions, but never hitting the root of the problem.

And now, as I type, I am dealing with yet another repercussion of my stress. It seems I physically hold my stress in the muscles just behind my shoulder blades. And it seems that life has been just a bit too stressful lately because I have acquired a tight mass at the top of my right shoulder blade which makes any movement of my arm and neck very painful. I went to the doctor on Tuesday, and she said, "Well, you're just a ball of stress!"

I wonder why?

Maybe it's because I'm leaving in June. Leaving Los Angeles, not to mention the community I have spent the past year and a half trying to immerse myself into. I'm looking forward to traveling after I save up some money, but that also means that I will not have the securities of a community as I do now. I will be emotionally homeless.

Maybe it's because I have seen so many flaws in myself lately and have desperately staged a coup over them, trying to perfect myself. The patience and grace that are required to lead such a transition have not, as of yet, come into my grasp. I am grappling with too many flaws and not enough encouragement.

Or maybe it's because of the work I do, the complete surrender I experience when working in the garden, the all-encompassing worry I carry for each person I talk to, and then the heartache I feel when I see pain in one of my friends.

Maybe those are some reasons for the pain in my shoulder.

What is so difficult about all of this is that, unlike Natalie Goldberg's suggestion, I think they all are emergencies. I think all of my problems must be solved immediately for my own sanity, and they must be solved (most importantly) my way.

But in the Catholic Worker lifestyle, and in the peace movement, there is an understanding that the work we do is not for us and we cannot enter this work expecting to see results in our lifetimes. We do the work because it is the right thing to do, because Jesus did this work and because we care for the future of our world. There is an accepted slowness to our projects. While the need peace in foreign countries and even in our hometowns may seem immediate, the reining power of peace as a worldwide phenonenon takes time.

When I compare my own stresses to the problems of the world, and in turn compare my own sense of urgency to the snail-paced spread of global peace, I am humbled. If the world can hold on for peace, and therefore struggle with the discomforts in the meantime, then I can hold on through my own discomforts, as well. So, I will be grateful for my time in Los Angeles and the community in which I have experienced so much love and formation; I will continue to try to see myself through the loving eyes of God; and I will take deep breaths at the kitchen. And one day, I will fully understand the ignorance of stress.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Not Giving Up for Lent

Lent is here again. The season I almost dread because it is a dedicated season in which I am forced to reconcile my benign faith, my faults, my fears, my brokenness. Selfish reasons, I know, especially when the Lenten season is really about Jesus preparing to be sacrificed in the most barbaric sense for the sins of his brothers and sisters--a sacrifice we will never be able to emulate.

Yet, we try. And I almost despise the pressure to find something to "sacrifice" for Lent. What will it be this year? Will chocolate, beer, television, Facebook be enough to parallel Jesus' surrender? I, like many, face the temptation of receiving a tangible result from my Lenten penitence. Weight loss would be nice, or more money in my account. Rarely would my thought process include considering the spiritual repercussions of my choice. So, for the past few years, I have refused (yes, refused) to give up anything for Lent to spite my tendency toward "results." Instead, I led my life as I did through Advent, Pentecost, Ordinary Time--you know, in mediocrity.

This year, however, I decided to redirect myself to a path of reflection, to recognize the blessing within myself. It seems selfish, focusing on myself, and I never like to spend time thinking about how "awesome" I am. In fact, my time is more often spent dissecting my flaws, magnifying my shortcomings, staring intently at the unattainable standards I have set for myself. But after recently reading Henri Nouwen's Life of the Beloved, I came to a new perspective of self-love and self-hatred.

Nouwen insists that we are all broken and incapable of loving others and God until we love ourselves. We must humbly accept our brokenness, yet recognize our lives as a loving honor from God. Life is not a curse, rather the most incredible gift and worth such gratitude and joy which we will never be able to fully express.

It seems the only way we can show appropriate thanks is through loving ourselves despite our flaws--by not looking a gift horse (God) in the mouth. This is where is gets sticky for me. Nouwen's "steps" (although he never refers to them as such) ascend from loving yourself to loving God and others.

I think I've been living my life backwards...

My love has always gone out to others--family, friends, the guys at the kitchen, my community--and I have seen self-love as indulgent, egotistical and unnecessary. If I love others, then I love God. Check. Done. Finished. Next task? But the idea of lifting myself up as I lift up others is a concept not readily available to me. I don't know how to love myself. Sad, isn't it?

This all leaves me with the questions: Does that mean I don't really love my family, friends, the guys at the kitchen and my community? Does my self-hatred mean I also hate God?

I hope not.

These questions are why I'm not giving something up for Lent in the material sense. I am, as said earlier, focusing on a path of reflection. For Lent, I am teaching myself how to love myself because I want to love more. I want to be a peaceful disciple. I want to walk with joy. I need to be in unity with the sanctity of life.

So I'm sacrificing the horrible things I tell myself: that I'm too fat, too mean, too sarcastic, too ungrateful, too ugly, too ignorant. I am laying down my snarling at my flaws and my muted weeping over the unreached goals. I hope to replace this all with joy, forgiveness, some grace when possible and, eventually, love.

Learning the work of love is a lifelong journey, and it was for Jesus as well. He faced the tests of temptation, the bitter hatred of those who deemed him "enemy," and the selflessness of giving one's own life. Yet all the challenges led to the Miracle. The Ressurection. So I am anticipating these vernal weeks to be my first beautiful insight to the intertwined gift of love in all life. Yours. Mine. Ours. And in time, I humbly hope my forthcoming enlightenment will bring the same salvation as the man who, with scarred and bloodied flesh, rolled away the stone to deny death and restore life.