Friday, May 13, 2016

The Road to Resilience By Reverend Tom Capo 5/8/2016



          I have heard the question, when faced with difficult times, with painful experience, with seemingly more than you can handle in your life, do you bend or do you break? I believe that in some measure we all bend, though that bending can take a toll.  Or as singer Lena Horne puts it, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” We have all learned some way to carry the loads we have to carry without entirely breaking down.
            I asked you to reflect on a time in your life when you were struggling, a time when there was some darkness in your life or maybe a lot of darkness in your life.  Let me share one of those times from my life with you.  Martha and I had been married about 8 years.  Aaron, our son, was almost one year old. We had just sold our house in Fort Worth at a slight loss and caravanned to Houston with an ice storm hard at our heels.  I was starting a new job in Houston so that Aaron would have a family experience while he grew up.   We were financially stable, but just barely.  And we were committed to Martha staying at home to care for Aaron until Kindergarten.  We decided to accumulate some debt and live a less extravagant lifestyle, and were determined to keep up the repayment of my student loan plus baby expenses on a single income. 
            Fortunately my brother lived near my new job, so we moved into his guest bedroom, but no real home in sight.  We had not put a down payment on a house.  We had not even looked for a home.  We just took a leap of faith and moved, knowing—or hoping—family, would catch us and hold us for a little while.   Steve and Karen, my brother and his wife, hadn’t been in their house for a year, yet they welcomed us, colicky baby and all.  New job, new neighborhood, reduced income, reduced—significantly reduced—privacy, new routine.  To describe that time as chaotic and stressful doesn’t really begin to encompass how out-of-control everything felt.  And then we got pregnant.  The insurance from my new job hadn’t kicked in and we were afraid if Martha saw a doctor, her pregnancy would be classified as a pre-existing condition and thus wouldn’t be covered.  Given Martha’s history with miscarriages, we were very concerned about this pregnancy and, like the previous three pregnancies, she was bleeding in the first trimester.  Both of us thought: “How could we possibly bring another child into the world when we were essentially homeless?”  And we had nothing saved up to put down on a new home.  If there was a light at the end of the tunnel, it seemed to be a train coming at us.  
            At that point in my life I was a fairly pessimistic person, even without this stress, you know I was a glass half-empty kind of person.  And with all that Martha and I were trying to cope with, my glass seemed pretty well completely empty.  My resources were spent, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and fiscally.   I struggled getting by from one day to the next.  And the baby would not stop crying.
          What are some of the things that help a person in a situation like this?  When you are constantly moving, when you are constantly reacting, you cannot get a perspective on what is happening in your life.  As simple, as simplistic as it sounds, there is real value in carving out a small space for yourself, for your heart.  To stop.  To breathe.  To ask yourself: are you making realistic plans?  Do you feel good about yourself?  Do have confidence in your strengths and abilities?  Do you have effective communication and problem-solving skills?  How are you handling the powerful emotions that are associated with all that you are facing? 
           Stop, Meditate, and Reflect.  They are all counter-intuitive in situations when you are just trying to survive, when all you can do is react to whatever life is throwing at you.  Meditating is the last thing on your mind when you are in crisis mode.  And yet, as people of faith, it is really the first thing we should do when we feel overwhelmed.
           I stopped, meditated, and reflected.  Realistic plans, well there was no money in savings; we had one infant and another on the way; we essentially had no medical insurance; the debt load was rising exponentially, and we still had no home.  {scream here then breathe}  But years of meditation practice had taught me to allow the problems of daily living to pass through me, that is, to know that problems will come and go, and to realize that obsessing about problems would not help me to pull myself out of them, practically or emotionally.  Buddhist meditation teaches that attaching to or rejecting or denying those worries empowers them.  Letting them pass through me can give me some distance, some breathing space, from them. And that is what I was eventually able to do.  All those years of biofeedback and meditation were finally paying off.  Well, it wasn’t like night and day difference to start.  I started feeling more grounded gradually, now and then at first, and over time, more consistently.
           With some distance from the anxieties, I was able to realize that I was not alone in the chaos.  I had my wife, my parents, my extended family, my Unitarian Universalist Church, my newly formed men’s group, my high school friends, and my co-workers giving me support.  So many people I could talk to about these issues, not so that they could fix the situation, but so I could let off some of the stress that built up inside me.  Feeling loved and supported by others makes a huge difference when your heart is heavy and your burdens are threatening to break your back.  Gradually, I found a way to carry the load that came close, but would not, break my back.
          My parents lent us money to make a down payment on a modest home.  The area near my new job had an excellent school district.  While we couldn’t pay down our debt, I was making enough money for us to keep from increasing it. Living with my brother had helped us build up our savings.  And my employer appreciated the skills, talents, and insight I brought to the clinic.  Maybe things weren’t so awful.
          As I calmed myself, I regained my self-confidence and realized that I had the skills to manage the powerful emotions that plagued me.  I also realized that I needed more sleep, more exercise, and more time to meditate and reflect, again, counter-intuitive responses to the pressure-cooker life I found myself in.  I would not make good decisions when I was exhausted, scattered, and anxious.  Taking care of myself had to become at least one of my many priorities.
          Things were starting to move forward, I was slowly beginning to get some perspective on the situation.  Then I drove into the side of my brother’s garage, creating a huge hole in his garage wall.  One step forward and ten steps back.  All the old thoughts and feelings were coming back with a vengeance.  I would need to use my savings to fix the wall and my car, putting us that much further from getting out of my brother’s house and into our own home.  Our child would be born homeless.  All the plans were falling apart, the glass was emptying out again, and it was all my fault.  My mind spiraled. 
          Time to stop.  Take a deep breath.  Meditate.  What I needed to do was talk to my brother about all this.  When I did, he said the hole was no big deal and we could fix it together.  He went on: it did not need to be fixed right this moment anyway.  And my car, well it was 1970 VW bus, and I had been repairing and restoring for many years.  I just needed another trip to the junk yard.  I realized that I could still easily slip and fall emotionally and spiritually.  I realized I was still fragile, too close to the stress and our new lives were still too new to feel comfortable and, more importantly, stable.
          As I continued to take care of myself and stick to my vision, I gained some new insights into myself.  I realized that money issues triggered something inside me—fear, insecurity, failure—I was not entirely sure at the time where those came from, but I knew they were issues from my past that were coloring my present and could easily overwhelm me if I let them.  I also learned that Martha and I could deal with some extremely difficult situations together.  The first 10 years of our relationship we had not really faced this kind of stress.  It was just the two of us.  We could go where we wanted, when we wanted.  We both worked and had plenty of income.  We had great church community that gave us tremendous support and really empowered us.  Martha and I were teaching New Member classes and helping to build a new sanctuary within the first year of our joining the church.  The world had been our oyster.  We had not had to deal with much in the way of difficult change. 
            Now we were in the midst of seemingly everything changing in our lives:  our relationship—having to figure out how to maintain our connection with one another when there was so little time for us to spend together; and now we were responsible for two new lives—we had always wondered how well we would parent our own children having both grown up in dysfunctional homes.  I had come to realize that life was really about change and I had to build up my resilience muscles to cope with it.  I realized I was changing, too. 
            I understood, maybe for the first time, how important a spiritual practice is.  I started a practice of reflecting on my blessings—attending to the many positive things in my life.  I found this helped me see my glass as more full and less empty.  I would be lying to you to say I was great at this practice initially.  And it was many years before I was consistent.  But reflecting on the many positive things in my life occasionally made difference. 
            And I needed new friends.  My old high school friends lived far from me, and while we could talk on the phone, I needed friends near me.  I made some new friends at the gym playing Racquetball.  Life was getting better and better. 
            As you probably have figured out, Martha and I bought a nice older home, Jacob was born, and life settled into a lower level of stress.  I got through a situation that seemed insurmountable, overwhelming, traumatic. 
            So, what did I learn?  Why am I telling you this story?  First I learned the importance of recognizing and celebrating having gotten through a really lousy time in my life.  This week I talked to my Spiritual Director and I realized that I still have a tendency to say “Woo, that’s over” whenever I go through a really difficult time, and get back to living life, without recognizing and celebrating my resiliency.  I also learned that I need to bring back the memory of getting through tough periods, because it reminds me that I can get through tough periods. So often we forget that we have fallen and have gotten back up.   That’s resilience.  The capacity to get back up, eventually, and keep going.  And we don’t do that alone.  That interdependent web we keep talking about?  That is what helps us be resilient.  That acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth you keep hearing about?  That’s what helps us be resilient.  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations?  Yup.  That too helps us be resilient.  “We gather as an inclusive community to grow in character, mind, and spirit and to transform the world toward fairness, love, and compassion.”  The willingness, the capacity, to be transformed is the willingness, capacity, to be resilient.  The willingness, the capacity, to grow in character, mind, and spirit, is the willingness, the capacity, to be resilient.  


            Life is very much like the Hopi Elders described; it’s a river: “Here is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid, who will try to hold on to the shore. They are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore. Push off into the middle of the river, and keep our heads above water. And I say see who is there with you and celebrate.”  This past couple of weeks have been hard on this congregation.  The budget gap and the possibility of having to lose staff or reduce staff’s compensation or benefits resulted in fear, pain, hurt, stress.  We could have been torn apart or suffered greatly from hanging on to the shore of our anxiety.  But instead, this resilient community pushed off into the middle of the river, found a way to keep our heads above water by raising the money needed to more than fill the gap.  Take this time to look around see one another.  Be grateful for one another.  Celebrate. 

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