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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How can you mend a broken heart?

What made it especially hard was that my parents really, really loved her.

She was their type: working class, down-to-earth, out-going, happy and uncomplicated. In fact, I felt at the time that my stocks as a good son rose because I was with her, and that they would in fact rather have had her as a daughter than me as a son.

At the time, I was wayward, had no clear path or purpose. And I must have seemed to my folks a kind of broody would-be intellectual, without any real outlet, of course. Pretentious too: I used to carry around a paperback edition of whatever poet or philosopher or playwright I was reading at the time, stuck ostentatiously into the side pocket of jacket in winter, or the hip pocket of my jeans in summer.

After years of being inseparable, still wayward, I felt my way was diverging from hers. I was young, and it was my life, dammit, and I wasn't going to be held back from what I was sure were far horizons. So I left one fine day.

It was the first serious relationship for both of us, and spanned most of our university years. In leaving this lovely young woman, who had done nothing injurious to me, not ever, I created a wound in the very core of her being that I know for a fact has never really healed. And that was 30 years ago.

There can be no sundering unless there was first a union.

Fate is not without a sense of ironic justice. In fact, I often think it is intent on mocking our attempts at directing our lives. For as badly as I did to her, the same was done to me 10 years later. But with a twist: I was left with a small, innocent, girl-child to raise. And so those far horizons I was chasing narrowed to the necessary confines of her needs.

"I'll see your broken heart, raise you a heart to love and shape," says Fate. Any gambler will tell you: the house always wins.

I remember being out in the garden one night as a late summer evening closed in, my little girl sleeping peacefully in her room above, and I suddenly got it. "Okay, " I said. "O-kay." It was more than poetic justice. Life had offered me an opportunity to heal through loving a tender, fragile little girl, and thus to undo the sort of heartlessness in me that so wounded someone else's tender little girl a decade before.

Her heart would stay broken, of course. As with a vase, even if you put it back together so it holds water and flowers, it's still broken, and always will be broken on some level.

My heart has stayed broken too, even though the little girl is now about to be 25 and is far more well-adjusted than I have any right to expect. Raising her taught me, long after I should already have known, what love actually was.

That's still going to leave a mark....

There is a way to mend a broken heart yourself, even if you don't have a child to show you how. I've thought a lot about this over the years, and I can see no practical alternative to forgiveness. What else do you do, seethe and cry forever? Is it really better to keep the anger and hatred locked away and take them out and polish them in the wee hours, savouring the bitterness? Do you really want that flinching reflex every time anything--a street, a song, a particular tree-- reminds you of the one who hurt you? Do you really never want to trust anyone ever again?

Folk wisdom has it that these held resentments become tumours. I don't know. But it is magical thinking to hope that all the scented baths, incense, chanting, yoga classes and elaborate distraction in the world is going chase it completely out of your being, as in an exorcism. And in the end, the only person who can suffer from holding onto the hurt is you.

One of the most fragile bones in the body, but less fragile than the organ below and to the left.

People talk about 'healing', but my experience is that one never actually erases the big jolts. Hearts can be mended, stitched, re-assembled, patched and painted. They can knit back together like bone tissue, but an x-ray will always shown the old breaks, clear as day. Broken bones can be left to nature, with only a slight intervention to set them properly. But you wouldn't want to leave the mending of broken hearts to human nature, though, with its 2-million-year-old fight-or-flight reflex, as well as the clever, neocortical facility for denial. Broken hearts require the hard, daily manual labour of forgiveness. This is not given to us, but has to be acquired and can only be learned through practice.

What can you do to begin to piece your heart back together, into some sort of working order? What are the mechanics of forgiveness?

1. Work to comprehend the motives of the person who hurt you. This involves acknowledging that few people are actually intentionally malicious, who actually undertake to injure others, but instead behave (as we all do) from complex motives and compulsions. Jung had it that in seeking to adjust to the world, we develop a 'persona'--the shiny shop-window we put forth to be socially accepted. But forming this necessary social mask, we also 'enshadow'  those compulsions and needs which are less socially acceptable. This 'shadow' side can be so obscured as to be invisible, even to the owner. And even those who are aware of their own shadow are not necessarily able to govern the sway of its heavy inertia.

2. See your own role in your heart-break. Two are required for this dark tango, one of whom is you. Were you naive? Too unguarded? Careless? In what ways did you set yourself up for this? Were there warning signs you ignored? This is not, I stress, to commit the age-old churlishness of blaming the victim, but merely to discern why we have become a victim. Unless you were a child at the time of the injury, you must bear the responsibility of protecting yourself, yet still remaining open to others. Forgiving yourself for your part in it, you may be more able to move toward genuine forgiveness toward the other.

3. Pray for the heart-breaker. Whether or not you believe there is a God who hears, needs to be told, and can be persuaded by human intercession, you can still undertake a deliberate practice of wishing the heartbreaker well. This may be the hardest part, the bending of your own emotional reflexes toward understanding and compassion, based on the above two steps. It's much more than cheek-turning passivity, it's more like seeing that the blow came from, must have come from, a place in the other that knows no other way to express itself, under the circumstances. What may help in this effort, is a serious personal moral inventory of all the times you yourself have injured the heart of another. If you would have others understand your motives (and who wouldn't), it follows that you must do likewise .

4. If it's appropriate (and only if), undertake to do acts of kindness toward the heart-breaker. Again, this is not to change them, but to change you. Their responses are irrelevant. There is a kind of wonderful bio-feedback in us that ensures that we can become what we do, that outward actions create appropriate inner states of feeling.

5. Let go of the desire to see the heart-breaker acknowledge guilt, responsibility, or even awareness of the hurt they caused. With the best will and all the compassion in the world, you will probably never be able to engineer this. How often we fantasize about a scene in which the one who hurt you wakes up to themselves, gasps in a remorse of conscience, and abjectly begs your forgiveness. Understand: this will probably never happen, satisfying though it might be to imagine.

6. Be patient and steadfast. Forgiveness is not easy, and so the only effective process of mending the heart is not for sissies. It may require years and never feel complete. It's taken me decades and still doesn't. Nevertheless...

I probably don't need to cite all the biblical references on the subject of forgiveness; they are many and legion. I only point out that the pesky Galilean also didn't say it was easy, just completely necessary if we're to evolve our natures and live in a world worth living in, not awash with vengeful, wounded souls. When asked how much we should forgive, he said, extrapolating Jewish law, "Not seven times, but seventy times seven."

By which, I think he meant: a whole lot.

In my most hopeful moments, I imagine a world where all of the people who loved us and that we have loved in our lives are able to come together in warmth and fellowship, shriven, forgiven, and forgiving, and remain a part of each other lives--lives we were at one time so deeply inter-pentrated with, and whose absence feels like a missing limb.

This is a dream of heaven, I know. And pity it is that the two women I spoke of at the beginning of this entry will almost certainly never read it, such is the alienating bitterness that comes from heartbreak and heartbreaking.

But if they did, I'd say this: "I forgive you. Please forgive me."

And to take us out....the bonus track. The Leisure Society's poignant "Our Hearts Burn Like Damp Matches".  Lyrics below the clip.

Take a walk through scattered trees

To the place where no one dreams
Serve my sentence and be done
All human life here is scarred
Posture slipped and ill-attired
We should all be redesigned
Hollow words sit silent in my mouth
Reasoned voices idle on the ground

Our hearts burn like damp matches
Turn then attack us, burst and then break
Embers plucked from the ashes
Glow to attract us, lure us away

Every day arrives too late
Every morning seems the same
Stale regrets and dull routine
Know at last your weathered soul
Know your tethers clung with soil
And the reasons for it all

Trust in me and I will trust in you
Hold me close and I will hold you too

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Familiar, if not trite, but do yourself a favour and read it again...


IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

--Rudyard Kipling


As a bonus, here's Harvey Keitel reading it:

Until that closing line, this could be from the mouth of Marcus Aurelius or Francis Bacon (the writer not the painter). This oft quoted piece by a bully old Victorian repays re-reading time and again, but not without a few difficulties.

It makes the entry requirements for mere manhood seem staggeringly high. I mean, find me a guy with all these qualities, and I'll marry him, and I'm not normally that way inclined. It calls for courage, perseverance, rock-ribbed robustness, and an ability to discern a perfectly balanced approach to the world, one's fellow man, and oneself. Good luck with that.

Plus, what kind of man is it that gambles all he has on one game of chance?

"He who risks nothing, is nothing," the French saying goes. And, be honest guys, who has not known the thrill of the "awful daring of a moment's surrender, which an age of prudence can never retract" as Eliot put it? We've all taken risks--partners, jobs, investments--without a crystal ball to foretell the outcome. How much we venture on faith! And that requires a certain daring.

But these are quibbles.

What this is is a piece to read after you've survived a difficult time, seen it through with your values and character more ore less intact, and afforded yourself the luxury of a faint smile, knowing you comported yourself well in the face of the tempest. It says, "Stay steady, old boy, stay cool, stay true to yourself, and this too shall pass." If you lose yourself, you lose the lot.

This doesn't mean that life, and our fellow lost souls, won't grind you down, little by little, over time. This is the fate of us all. But let the grindstone of this tough and perplexing world we neither made nor willed, grind us like an old knife, sharper, keener, more scalpel-like, the better to finely pare away reality from illusion, good from ill, truth from falsehood. Pare it all down until what remains comprises something resembling the furnishings of a just and dignified life.

What passes for the outward signs of manhood--wealth, children, achievements, sexual conquest--is often counterfeit. Wealth may be ignobly obtained, achievements equivocal, sexual conquest a fool's paradise, and as for children....anyone can make a child. It takes a man to raise a child to responsible, compassionate adulthoood.

It impossible to read this poem without seeing the soul of your own father rising like vapour through the words. I often think of mine and what he would make of me, of the work I'm undertaking, of the man I have or haven't become. Now there was a guy as solid and steady as the earth underfoot.  His son, rather less so.

But reading this Kipling poem stiffens my resolve to reach down and find what of him is in me. It does that to me every single time.

For more on this poem, visit http://www.allthingsif.org/

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Minister as Narcissist

It was one of those newspaper articles you read in the blur of airplanes and transit lounges, and I wish I could have saved it to nail down the reference. Never mind--my subsequent research has also revealed the same depressing fact: public ministry is a profession with one of the highest incidence of narcissists among its members.

Who's the holiest of them all?
To add insult to injury, would you like to know the only other profession that comes close? Yes. It's acting. Followed by teaching, medicine, law-enforcement.

Of these professions listed, I have now been in three of the top four. I am gripped by a sudden urge to cut my throat (if only that such histrionics were not a symptom of narcissism itself, which they are).

Without going into the clinical details of traits and behaviours (which are easily available via a google search), public ministry's congregational setting provides a perfect environment for narcissism to thrive. The congregational setting provides a warehouse of what is called 'narcissistic supply'--needy souls looking for something outside their own inner resources to give their lives shape and meaning and balance. The lonely, the vulnerable, the searching, the depressed and demoralized. Gone are the days when church was an indispensable social institution and a church-going a matter of tradition and family life. Now, it's mostly those who are in a position to feed a narcissist, if it happens to be their fate to walk into a church led by a real charmer.

Oh, very well....I will fix you.
Ministers in the Christian tradition will argue that that's just as it should be--the reality of broken humanity that creates the pre-conditions for loving community, God's kingdom on earth. What you give these seekers, they'll say, is God through the more knowable Jesus. But that's not quite true, because all the congregants will know of God or Jesus is mediated chiefly through the minister, his/her pious tone and churchy timbre in reading scripture, his/her homilies where the medium and the message become easily conflated. Their exalted and special status, which even the most stubborn skeptics readily defer to. Robed like wizards, they enchant and become an object of veneration themselves. A quantum of lost souls comes with the job, and their immediate experience of church is the person of the minister.

Our Unitarian preaching tradition is the most autobiographical, and thus arguably the most vulnerable to the self-aggrandizing enchantment of the narcissist. We do not locate religious authority solely in the Bible, which all might read for themselves, We prefer to locate it in the individual conscience. However, the reality is that if people were that self-sufficient, they would not turn up weekly for the consolation or inspiration that emanates from the pulpit. On the contrary, they rely on ministers to discern for them. And since we feel free to draw from any source, that means only those sources we know. Thus, our worship can become a week-in, week-out installment of "meet my mind." What is required of the congregants is compliant respect for, or at least respectful attention to, whatever the robed figure at the holy end lays out.

I've seen this in action. Ministers who tweet pithy feel-good, new-age vacuity in order to receive 'likes' about how wonderfully spiritual they are. Ministers who pretend to encyclopedic knowledge on arcane issues of faith, when all they've done is sex-up a wikipedia entry for nods of veneration at how wise they are. Ministers who use their personal charm and charisma to create acolytes and disciples, rather than autonomous, adult human beings. Is it any wonder that sexual and financial misdemeanors result from clergy who have lost all sense of themselves as mere human beings, whose regular supply of mono-focal attention and adulation has reinforced their need for specialness?   Not surprisingly, most shatter or lash out when challenged or confronted.

I suppose this rehearses the old trope that people's selection of professions buttress their personal deficiencies. You know--psychiatrists are mad, doctors are the biggest hypochondriacs, teachers are rather dumb, and ministers need to be ministered to. But, really what do ministers get out of a profession with low pay and long and unsociable hours, other than status and attention and (usually) uncritical veneration? Narcissism stems from a terror of abandonment, and the attentive numbers in the congregational setting can create the illusion that the minister is essential and central and indispensable. And so the narcissist minister actually preys on the congregations needs. The end-game is domination rather than mutual, cooperative relationship. Charm, usually thought essential to ministry, cannot free; it enslaves.
An excessive investment in self comes at the expense of investment in others.
Of course it is not true to say that all ministers are narcissists, any more than all actors are. A friend on a  recent film shoot, however, noted the difference in behaviour between two well-known Australian actors-- Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. Weaving came to the relatively low-budget shoot alone, kept a low profile, learned his lines and hit his marks, even learned the names of the un-famous, journeyman actors he did scenes with, as well as the grips and hands. Wenham, on the other hand, came to the same remote location shoot with an entourage--bodyguards, a personal assistant, and a makeup artist/stylist--kept aloof, learned no names, and disappeared into his trailer whenever he was not required. Now, which little bunny is well-adjusted, and who would you rather work with? Says it all, really.

I have also known ministers who are clearly in it for the humble service rather than the self-aggrandizing. These tend to be the less flashy, and interestingly, the most unaffectedly devout, those whose pastoral care rather than pulpit performance (and it is a performance) was at the center of their ministry. The quiet achievers of the denomination, and there are many. Maybe it is true, as a recent study showed, that genuine believers (in the traditional sense) are just nicer people.

Now, of course, I can only spot this, because I've got this. It's not some anomaly that I've been in three professions which all virtually guarantee that I can be king of the company if I want to be. And, from what I've read, the self-aware narcissist is not automatically exempt from his narcissism. What would be required to undo these reflexes is fearless and searching personal inventory through on-going reflection, and trying to have the values I would wish to have brought to the forefront of my thoughts regularly. It's a process, in short, of spiritual practice.

All spiritual practice aims to transcend the narrow prison of the self, and there are many paths of practice--through prayer and meditation certainly, through ritual, through music and art, and also through genuine, self-effacing service to the needs of others. This last one is the transcendence offered and modelled by Jesus, that pesky Galilean, that first leader of the loving community we call 'church', whose undoubted charisma was sublimated to his larger work of binding up a broken world. It is still perhaps the only viable, if remote, alternative to the world we have.

If religion is about anything at all, it is about transformation of people like you and me into the people we would wish to be. The word 'minister', after all, means 'servant'. And so, for this narcissist, the choice of ministry is an aspiration to become a better man.