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Meddlesome Voices

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MEDDLESOME VOICES

I know a few folks for whom meddling in other’s lives is a full-time endeavor. They are certain that they know best, and they become frustrated or angry when their targets don’t follow their wise guidance on everything from the best butter substitute to a choice of careers to what one’s relationship with the Divine should look like.

You know these people, too. Perhaps you are one them. You may think you are being helpful or kind or even a martyr on someone else’s behalf. But if you are doing for someone else what they could do for themselves or trying to influence choices that are not yours to make, you are meddling.

Manipulating, even.

Ouch! Isn’t that an awful word? When I discovered that many of my interactions with others could easily fall under the category of manipulation — trying to get someone to believe or act in a way that might make me more comfortable — I cringed. I’ve worked hard to overcome this trait, which I learned from my family. I now have a permanent groove in my tongue where I bite it. This practice will remain necessary unless and until I finally believe that I do not, in fact, know best.

I have enough challenges managing my own life. I do not need “extra credit” for managing the lives of others. Even if they seem willing or eager for me to make their decisions for them.

Which brings me to something that can be even more destructive than those who meddle in other people’s lives: those who allow others to meddle in their own lives.

Letting Your Life Speak

I’m in the midst of making an important decision that could affect me heavily for the next few years at least. It’s a vocational type of decision: how do I spend my daily-dwindling time here on earth? Where do I invest my emotional energy? How do I employ the expertise and experience I’ve garnered thus far?

As Quaker author and activist Parker Palmer writes, “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding, ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’”

Whenever I’m faced with a major decision in this realm, I re-read Parker’s book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. There’s an astonishing amount of wisdom in this little hundred-page book, and it’s one of those reads that offers deeper and different wisdom with each visit.

One of Parker’s main points is that we are all born with a true self, a true nature, and then sadly, “From our first days in school, we are taught to listen to everything and everybody but ourselves,” gleaning who we are  “. . . from the people and powers around us.” Meddlesome voices. 

All of our institutions train us “away from true self towards images of acceptability . . . we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.”

This is a great weakness of mine, a painful “thorn in my flesh.” I know I’m not the only one with this need to please and a burdensome desire for recognition and esteem. Millions of true selves are being trampled by stampeding egos chasing the values of others rather than discerning and honoring their own.

My first inclination when faced with a big decision is to read books, talk to friends, and ponder possible scenarios to imagine how they might appear to others. In other words, to look outside myself. That’s all fine. It’s raw material.

But I must be careful that I don’t end up using another’s navigational system rather than my own inner compass. My “inner light,” as the Quakers call it. I need to get down to the business of prayer, meditation, journaling, and connecting with God in nature, because those are my channels for a voice that is “different than the ‘I’ of daily consciousness, a life that is trying to live through the ‘I’ who is its vessel,” as Parker describes it.

This means tuning out all the well-meaning (or not) meddlesome voices — past, present, and imagined future — and letting your own life speak.

 

“Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”  — Parker Palmer

End of Chapter One: Substitute Teacher

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END OF CHAPTER ONE: SUBSTITUTE TEACHER 

My first stint as a substitute teacher — with absolutely no training, mind you — ended as painfully as it began.

Fortunately, nobody got physically hurt. But after a week of wrestling (sometimes literally) with a gaggle of rowdy second grade boys who were testing every limit they could find, something had to give.

My back was the first to go, then my weak ankle, and finally my patience. Consequently, I started my fateful last day with an apology to a little girl I had screamed at the day before. I explained to the whole class that I had never been a teacher before and they were my very first class.

“So I’m trying something new, and we are all doing our best, right?” I concluded.

“But you have kids, don’t you?” asked the precocious little girl to whom I had apologized. I told her I did not. This seemed to shock them all into silence as they reflected on their discovery that not all grown-ups are parents. What on earth are big people for if they aren’t parents?

My purposeful vulnerability and honesty — a big risk — seemed to help. Everyone calmed down and paid more attention to my directions. We got on famously for about ninety minutes. We were all excited about going to watch the sixth-grade class doing a dress rehearsal of Beauty and the Beast.

This break in the routine meant I did not have to teach math (yes, I even have math anxiety about addition and subtraction), and I thought it would be a treat for the children.

The Saint and the Beasts

I did not realize what “a break in the routine” means for kids this age. It is not a good thing. I learned the importance of routine when my Mom had dementia, and the same rules apparently apply to kids, especially those struggling with behavioral and emotional problems.

When we got back from the play, one of the boys raced to the classroom, pushed in the button on the door knob, and slammed the door. We were all locked out in the hall. Mortifying substitute-teacher moment. The children thought this was a major crisis and got all riled up, but the head of the lower school came to our rescue, unlocked the door and calmed them down.

She also told the class they were lucky I was a saint.

The rest of the day was a test of my sainthood as the kids got increasingly loud and aggressive. Several boys got in trouble for fighting on the playground at recess, and the “take a break” corners were full all afternoon. Then, as we prepared for dismissal, two boys strapped their backpacks to their bellies and began charging into each other like bulls, careening around the room and endangering the other kids who were obediently sitting in our “closing circle” on the floor.

I did not yell this time. I merely took both boys by the shoulders, escorted them to the door and told them to go to the front office and tell them why they had been banished.

Another student told me that those boys “are not known for doing what they’re told,” so I looked down the hall and saw that they had been collared by the woman who had dubbed me a saint. I guess her patience was thin, too. She suspended both boys.

I was devastated.

Who suspends a second grader?? This could scar them for life!! They were already struggling! They would end up in jail or drug addicts or worse!! What had I done??

I knew the teacher I was replacing would be unhappy. She loves those kids. And so did I, as it turned out. 

Perspective

I came home feeling like a total failure.

“I almost made it,” I wailed to my neighbor J, relating how I had sent the kids to the front office a mere ten minutes before the end of my six-day adventure.

“No, you *did* make it,” she said. “The boys are the ones who almost made it.”

“But I got them suspended!”

“No,” J said again. “They got themselves suspended.”

Oh. Right.

Last night, I dug out my books on codependency, a mindset which among other things causes you to think that you know what’s best for everyone else and that you can “save” everyone and are responsible for doing so.

“My God, I’m completely codependent with second-grade boys,” I said to a friend. “I just felt so powerless to help them.”

“You did help them,” she said. “You kept them safe, and you taught them that there are consequences for their actions. You gave them time to think.”

Thank the Lord that I have time to think, too.

I need some distance and perspective. And if I’m going to teach, I need some much stronger emotional boundaries.

A Funeral

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I haven’t had much to say lately, so lucky for you I haven’t been blogging. I thought I might do a glimpse into my journal — those are always popular with the voyeuristic among you. But as I flipped through the pages, I found a lot of body aches and pains, house de-cluttering, financial musings, and angst about my writing pursuits. So I’ll spare you that.

Still, woven throughout the January dross I discovered a golden thread. (It may be just tarnished brass, but it’s all I’ve got, guys.) I wrote about a funeral, the first I’ve ever officiated in my new role as pastor. I hope you can relate to something.

January 8, 2016

I am not sleeping well. It’s not so much the cough now, it’s stress dreams about a funeral I’m doing in a week. My first. Strangers contacted our church: they want “spiritual but not religious.” Our senior pastor said, “You would be perfect for this.” But it turns out I don’t really know what spiritual but not religious is. Can I say God? Can I pray? I wonder if the family even knows what they mean. Wonder why they came to a Christian church for an officiant?

I’ve dreamt about this several nights. Don’t know why it’s so much in my subconscious. I hope I gain more confidence because I’m going to be doing graveside services regularly for {xx} cemetery. Now I’ve got myself all agitated right before bed, researching eulogies, chaplaincy certificates, and hospice programs. It’s midnight.

And a moment of silence for Elvis’s birthday, Jan 8.

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January 9

Went to sleep with tears on my cheeks last night for the first time in months. I somehow ended up back in that hospital room with Biff (my deceased brother). Still very near the surface. Why? Is it preparing for the funeral? I guess. So many connections beyond our ken.

This funeral will be good practice at emotional boundaries. Caring for and serving this family without entering their pain. This is not my loss, it’s theirs. Is it just human nature to want to connect? Deep calls to deep, as the Bible says? Or is it my dysfunction & codependency?

I need to trust God with all my pain and loss if I’m going to help them. I want peace and serenity and confidence that “all is well and all shall be well,” and I want it to be real, not just the appearance of peace. I feel I have so far to go. I know I over-think, over-fret, but I also do *not* want to be caught off-guard, ambushed by emotions I can’t control.

January 13

I met with the family. Wow. Just wow. {Here for privacy’s sake, I will leave out the incredible struggles this family has been through.} I really am in the right place. Trying to watch my boundaries. I’m feeling privileged to help with the service. What an honor. God, make me an instrument of your peace.

This funeral is a challenge on so many levels. I want to be needed. I want to “do well.” Surprisingly, those unhealthy motivations are way less clamorous than they sometimes are, but I’m afraid they could creep in and knock me off-center.

And there’s this fear that I’ll identify too closely with the family and lose my composure at the service. Yesterday, I felt the opposite, afraid I’d be one of those distant, uninvolved, uncaring pastors: “I didn’t know the dead guy, but I wish I had.” I hate when they say that. So I looked into the son’s eyes and thought, “He just lost his father, I know that place.” But then I realized I do not need to take myself there, to pursue empathy. I err on the side of over-involved; there’s no danger of my being distant.

January 17

Surprised by tears again, bereft. I miss Biff so badly, even after two years. Did the funeral yesterday; today lunch with a new friend who didn’t know Biff’s story and asked a lot of questions that took me back there; Sunday grocery shopping *still* gets me — it’s when I used to shop for him and visit.

Then I was listening to music tonight and had to turn it off. Classical, sitar, and chants seem to be the only music I can safely listen to. And — Christmas, New Year’s, the two-year anniversary. I was braced for all that and felt I’d survived, so I guess my defenses came down. Mom’s birthday yesterday, same day as the funeral. Perfect storm.

I can’t begin to tell you how much I miss him. I fear I may be entering a time where the reality of the huge hole in me is becoming more clear. I’ll never love anyone that much again, and no one will ever love me like that again. A big chunk of my heart has been ripped out.

Heart wound

Heart wound

January 19

Better today. Maybe those waves of grief just need to happen. Life is not an easy thing.

I’m glad the funeral is over.

Today I read a quote from a guy saying that Martin Luther King was a saint because he was drawn to suffering; King said he was glad to be alive when things were such “a mess.” Well, maybe a saint. Or maybe codependent, like me. Needing to be needed, like me. Maybe a personality-type thing. Maybe all of the above.

January 20

Watched a great movie last night, one of Biff’s videos. “The Way” with Martin Sheen. It’s theme resonated, as he walked “the way” to Saint James’s traditional tomb in Spain to finish a pilgrimage started by his deceased son. Beautifully done. You can feel him walking towards closure and forgiveness for himself and his son.

I would like to out-walk my grief, “get beyond it.” I keep wanting to be free of some burden, some weight. But now it’s more like a shadow, and it will always accompany me, walk alongside. And I suppose from time to time it will overtake me or overshadow me — the rest of me. But I hope that in time the shadow will get lighter, fade somewhat. Or maybe it will integrate into me. My metaphors are confusing me. 🙂

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A related post: this powerful post from my blogging pastor-friend John Coleman starts out, “I’m used to burying strangers.” It gave me inspiration in the days leading up to officiating my first funeral.

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