catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 22 :: 2004.12.31 — 2005.01.13



Interesting that Matthew should begin his Gospel with Jesus family origins. We don?t normally hear the whole genealogy of Jesus. It?s kind of long, kind of dull. But this year it struck me that each of those family members add a story to our life?something that helped make us who we are.

So Matthew begins right where we all begin, having been begot by someone or another. And in the begetting and all of the stuff that comes afterward?attention, neglect, permissiveness, punishment, praising, scolding, laughing, crying, screaming, silence-we come to be who we are. Who begot you? Not only at conception, but as you grew, as you grow?

I was at a friend?s house last week. I began to admire her Christmas tree?noticing its shape, color, texture, and smell. She thanked me, but then instead of talking about the tree, she began explaining how it was decorated. And in this regard, the tree also was lovely. A rich and odd assortment of shapes and patterns, some delicately manufactured, some lovingly crafted by hand, all interwoven with lights and garland and branches and needles, each carrying with it a story, together creating a beautiful piece of art.

It seems you and I are a lot like that tree, adorned with a jumbled array of relationships, often more colorful and diverse than any odd assortment of Christmas decorations that hang on our trees. Mismatched and oddly shaped, intertwined with the events in our lives that have brought sorrow and that have brought joy, each its own complex story, together shaping us into a beautiful piece of ever changing art. But with one extra complication that the tree doesn?t have to contend with?we don?t have the luxury of putting away the decorations at the end of the season. Nope?they just keep clinging to us so that we?re stuck with them all year round.

We can ignore them or pretend they?re something they never were. We don?t have to nurture them or help them to grow. We can protect ourselves from them. But once a year at Christmas time when there is so much focus on family, we often experience a profound sense of stress as we struggle with the stories of our life.

Of course, in all of our conflicted relationships, someone else is usually the problem. When a family is overwhelmed by prolonged stress and anxiety it usually will identify the problem as a child, as the marriage, or as the spouse who has developed alcoholism, severe depression or some other symptom. But when one person or one relationship is labeled the problem, other issues become clouded from view. The greater our anxiety, the greater the tunnel vision we develop and the more we are likely we are to ensure that nothing will change.

Because in the end the only people we can change are our selves. All of us have ways in which we normally interact with others. We may pursue or distance ourselves, fight or give in, overfunction or underfunction. And whatever our normal style, we will do it that much more when conflict and stress get elevated. Stress makes us reactive. So the answer to stress is to remain calm and intentional. Of course you already know that. I must have seen half a dozen articles in the past week telling me how to de-stress my holidays?

Identify what?s stressing you out, come up with a plan to relieve the stress, and adopt healthy lifestyle choices to better manage stress for the long haul. All good advice. Of course they assume that we know ourselves well enough to know what is stressing us out, and that we are creative enough to come up with some alternative that we weren?t smart enough to come up with in order to avoid getting stressed out in the first place, but it?s still good advice. And since the holiday season is transitory, that may be all we really need to manage our way through.

But is there something more we can do? Can we change the dynamics in our lives so that we raise our resistance to stress in the first place? Instead of applying another bandage to our wounds, can we find a way to go about the work of healing them?

Therapists and counselors are quick to point out that our reactions have deep roots. As we have grown we have been formed and shaped by our experiences and our relationships. Our reactions and the things we react to are an important?but not unchangeable?aspect of who we have become. And who we have become is important. All that we are and do has come about for a very good reason and serves an important purpose. But sometimes those very important traits outlast their usefulness and we find that we need to let some of them go, cull some of them out, prune some of them off, if we are to be the whole self that we were created to be.

If our goal is to be less reactionary, more capable of handling stress, and more effective at healthy relationships we always have to start with our selves. We can choose to silence, sacrifice and betray our selves. Or we can move closer to being our true selves. This means identifying both our strengths and our vulnerabilities, being clear about our beliefs, values, and priorities and then living them. And it challenges us to address painful and difficult issues and relationships that we would often rather ignore; to stay emotionally connected to significant others?including our first family?even when things get pretty stressful.

So I?m thinking about the Joseph of the birth story. Now here is a man under stress! Can you imagine the tension when Mary and Joe get together with the in-laws?on either side? Can you appreciate the predicament at work here? Who would look forward to a family reunion with that kind of dynamic in place? I know I?d be looking for an excuse to get out of it?

But according to psychologist Harriet Lerner, ?Slowly moving toward more connectedness rather than more distance with members of our own kinship group is one of the best insurance policies for bringing a more solid self to other relationship.? And she says, ?The degree to which we are distant and cut off from our first family is directly related to the amount of intensity and reactivity we bring to other relationships.?

And so Joseph hears God assure him that even though the news is distressing, this is not a time to cut off his emotional relationship with her. He is able to find the strength to overcome his initial reactions, his defensive posturing, his concern about what other people will say and his desire to cover his own butt in order to live with his partner in dignity and in love.

Could anything have prepared him to hear such shocking news? Not likely. No matter how successful we are at uncovering and healing old wounds, at changing patterns, at recovering our true self? No matter how well we manage our daily routine, exercise and eat right, learn to say no and reduce our reactivity to others?No matter how calm and relaxed we become?things will go wrong, unexpected events will occur, life circumstances will suddenly change. Divorce, disease, death. We will discover that there is much we do not and cannot control.

We cannot avoid stressful events in our life, but we can learn not to respond with more stress by becoming fearful, anxious and depressed. And we do that not by following the example not of a baby still in need of a self, but of a grown up Jesus who has become fully him self?and in that fullness able to surrender his self.

Jesus repeatedly tells his followers not to worry, not to be anxious. But he never paints an idealized picture of the world. Instead he reveals to us that death is certain, that life is fragile, that dangers abound, and that human beings are full of limitations. And in revealing to us our powerlessness to change these certainties, he tells us not to try to do the impossible. For it is in learning to let go of that which we cannot control that we finally find peace and the ability to live in the/this moment.

There is a Zen meditation koen called ?Tale of the Unfortunate Traveler.? A man was crossing a field when he encountered a tiger. He ran and the tiger chased him. Coming to a ledge, he grabbed a vine and swung himself down the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to see another tiger waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Then two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

What can we do when there is nothing we can do? Jesus and this Zen tale both seem to be telling us that we are to do nothing and everything.

Life is often painful. Every day people like Mary and Joseph and you and I are required to do things no one should have to do?to endure things no one should have to endure. We can let life thrash us as we become increasingly agitated and stressed out or we can take steps to identify the source of our deepest pain in order that it be healed. We can work to uncover our hidden selves, to grow beyond our scars in order to embrace the selves God intended us to be. But we cannot change any one else. Nor can we change the inevitable stresses that come as an every day part of our living and our dying. This realization, acceptance of our own powerlessness is a profoundly spiritual state?and one that leads us to inner freedom, and inner peace. It is in the depths of sadness that we learn the value of joy. It is in accepting death that life becomes more abundant.

My friends? Christmas tree, I realize, has been cut and it is dying. So is mine. Department store trees, on the other hand, never die. And they are amazing to behold. All lights and glitter. Perfectly symmetrical, color coordinated, cold, artificial masterpieces of human design. My wish is that our lives look more like Charlie Brown?s Christmas tree. A few branches broken, needles dropping, ornaments held together with tape and Elmer?s glue ? an honest tree, a genuine tree, that has known life and known it fully. That tree is the most beautiful one of all.

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