Monday, September 22, 2014

Head Space vs Heart Space

When you are working alongside people, in the midst of their mess and muck, it is inevitable that you will start to be worn down. As a social worker, we call this "vicarious trauma," or what the rest of the world commonly calls "burn out." That feeling of: "I just can't take one more terrible story of someone's life being ruined." That sense that maybe the world is more bad than good, and that last glimmer of hope slowing slipping away. 

Processing these feelings is so important when working alongside people for any extended period of time. One simple turn of phrase a coworker and I developed was moving from "head space" to "heart space." In our head, we try to figure things out, search for a solution, ask "Why?" and despair when we can't find the answers. Head space engages our brain, and our brain and our brain doesn't have enough capacity for all the experiences we undergo when working alongside people. Very soon our head begins to fill with the despair that comes from unanswered questions, unhappy moments and unfinished journeys. Head space is not a place in which we can sustainably exist for very long. 

Heart space is very different. Heart space consists of things like forgiveness, gratitude, presence, acceptance, and love. Yes, in heart space there is also hurt, regret, shame, fear, and many other deeply painful feelings. But ultimately in heart space, there is hope. There is hope because that is what has brought us to work alongside of people in the first place. There is hope because we have seen it before, and hope naturally takes root deep inside, in the heart and not in the head. That is the elemental nature of hope - it comes from the heart and not from the head. 

So when the burnt out is on the not-so-distant horizon, when the trauma feels less secondary and more primary, when it feels like hope is lost, the challenge is to move from our head back to our heart. 

This is not a "touchy feely" or solely emotional task. It requires focused reflection, cognitive skills of reframing, catching thinking errors and reminding oneself of what is really true and what can really be known. But once that move is made - from the head to the heart - we will find more than enough space, more than enough love, and more than enough hope. Not only for those persons with whom we have already had the privilege of journeying alongside, and who we have lost. But also for those persons, those challenging journeys in the future whom we don't even yet know. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Trying to Draw

"In the process of recreating with our own hand what lies before our eyes, we naturally move from a position of observing beauty in a loose way to one where we acquire a deep understanding of its parts." John Ruskin (quoted in this article)

Over the past year, I have been focusing my writing in my journal (hence the more than year break on this blog). Hand-written, ink on paper, daily if possible, but typically only 2 or 3 times a week. I find that journaling forces my mind to slow down, to get out of my head onto paper some of the thoughts, ideas and memories that float around in my conscious and subconscious mind. 

This week, while sitting at the park near our house, I wrote a few paragraphs, and then tried to draw the scene in front of me. I am a terrible drawer. I have never considered myself an artist. This is why when I discovered digital video editing I really enjoyed it, because it was a way for me to create art that looked half-way decent without having to draw. 

My drawing that night was awful. Even though it was mostly straight lines, a few wispy bushes and an attempt at a cobblestone path, I recognized that I was being forced to really pay attention to detail. To really look at the scene in front of me. As Ruskin states, "acquiring a deep understanding of what lies before our eyes." 

In the same way that journaling has forced my mind to slow down and engage with the physical world, I think that drawing could do the same for me. I have always resisted drawing because I am so terrible at it, but Ruskin also says, ‘A man is born an artist as a hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus; and you can no more make yourself one than you can make yourself a giraffe.’ 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

An Apophatic Bent

Something about the apophatic tradition has always intrigued and called to me. This quote from Rilke, found in a letter he writes to a friend near the end of his life, has the same impact on me: 

"Now you would hardly ever hear me name him [God], there is an indescribable discretion between us, and where closeness and penetration once were, new distances stretch out as in the atom which the new science also conceives as a universe in little. The Tangible slips away, changes; instead of possession one learns the relativity of things, and there arises a namelessness that must begin again with God if it is to become perfect and without deceit." 

There is an honesty that attempts to find perfection, recognizing it can only be realized in the spaces, not in the tangible. And the distance can be as beautiful as the closeness. 

Friday, June 7, 2013


For the last few months, I've grown more of an interest in poetry. Every since high school, there were a select few poets that I loved - John Donne, for example, and of course Shakespeare. But mainly for the sappy, romantic qualities. They provided good sources of quotes to put in my future-wife's high school locker in order to convince her to go with me on a date that weekend. 

But lately, I've found a love for religious poetry, for reflective, contemplative and - what I have found to be - gripping poetry. When I try to explain this, either to others or myself, I can't find the words to describe why I am enjoying poets like Mary Oliver, Rilke, Rumi, or lately Marie Howe. 

But then I read these words from Stephanie Dowrick: 

"The heart is dangerous territory to enter and difficult to leave. Heading in that direction it is, again, not change ins ome external sese that is risked ut transformation...This is the place of the wound and of healing; of abandonment and of reconciliation. Yet, to insist on this same point, what is a poem for if it is not potentially transformative? 

...Be earth now, and evensong. 
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you. (Rilke)

The reader is, or should be, shaken." 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Primitive Spark

"Is there not in every human soul; was there not in the particular soul of Jean Valjean, a primitive spark, a divine element, incorruptible in this world, immortal on the next, which can be developed by good, kindled, lit up, and made resplendently radiant, and which evil can never entirely extinguish?" - Victor Hugo (Les Miserables)

The social worker would respond to this question: Yes, yes there is such a "primitive spark" in every person. And that is why we do the work we do. In fact, that is even *how* we do the work that we do. It is what we call a "strengths-based perspective." It is the fundamental belief that there is at least a little bit of "good" - or a "strength" - in any situation.

Kellye and I have been talking at length about being thankful. Many of our friends post daily in the month of November things for which they are thankful. And Kellye is reading a book that aims to unveil the thousand opportunities for grace that can be discovered every day just by being thankful. So we have started a list of things for which we give thanks, and it forces us to look for the good in any and every situation.

Because if you can give thanks, if you can find a strength, if you can see the "spark," then you have a starting point. You have a focus, a place to begin, a first block on which to build a sense of hope and faith for your life.

This is really the heart of the work that I do every day with my clients. Although the rest of their world, and everything around them, sends the message of hopelessness, we talk and search for a spark of life. And then we develop it, kindle it, until it is fully lit and the individual is radiant in their world, living as they were always meant to. That is an incredible challenge, but also a great joy.

In the story of Jean Valjean, it is society that has snuffed out that spark in his life. He was condemned to 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. The rules of society broke him and drove him to a point of hopelessness.

There are times when I wonder about the role of my work in society. Is the money well spent? Does everyone really deserve a second (and third and fourth) chance when they have made mistakes? Is there truly a "primitive spark" that can ignite positive change in a person?

Maybe. And maybe not. But we won't know unless we look for the strengths, unless we give each person the opportunity to surprise us, and unless we are thankful for the opportunity every moment of the day.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Slow Work of Change

I'm in the "change" business. As a social worker and counselor, I am continually helping clients identify areas in their life that they want to change, and helping them find ways to make that change happen. Sometimes, it's even a little more confrontational - I point out specific areas that need to change, otherwise their life will be very unpleasant. Either way, change is something I talk about every day. In fact, the "tag line" for my university graduate program was, "Be the Change"- a quote that is attributed to Ghandi, but is often repeated by social workers. 

The more time I spend in "the change business," I am realizing that it is a slow work. Change doesn't come overnight, and it doesn't come easily. Real, lasting change, is a slow and steady process with as many downs as ups. But it's still a process that I believe in. It's a process I witness every day. 

My supervisor for my internship once helped me realize how difficult it is for clients to change. She asked me if I had ever really tried to change a habit in my life - what I eat, exercise, or something even more deep to my character. For me, the answer to this question is my anger. In college, I realize that I was a deeply angry person, and this anger spilled over into my personal relationships, most notably my marriage. I'm ashamed to admit that more than once I punched walls, yelled, cursed, and stormed out of the house. 

I'm also proud to say that I'm no longer an angry person. But I had to have many conversations with many different people - friends, professors, counselors, family, and my wife. I had to make promises to myself, and deal with the fact that I broke those promises as often as I made them. I had to want to change more than I just wanted things to be better. 

And I had to pray. A lot. Sometimes every day. Sometimes what seemed to be every moment of every day. The change took a long time. But I believe that God was deeply involved in that slow work of change in my life. 

In fact, as I've reflected on my career, and "the change business" in which I work, I've realized that it's the same work of God. A slow, committed, more-downs-than-ups, process of changing lives. 

The result is what theologians call "transformation." Paul talks about this transformation in 2 Corinthians 5, saying, "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" As Christian, we sometimes mistake this transformation as being immediate. We forget that it's a slow process of change. Because, as Paul explains through the chapter, it is an immediate message of the change-work of God

Paul writes: So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.

It is a message of reconciliation. And even that word itself - reconciliation - connotes a deeper, ongoing process of change that involves more than just the individual. It involves the community and the relationships the individual engages every day. 

The real problem with my anger wasn't that it affected me. It was how it affected my marriage. It was how it impacted my prayers and my connection with other people in my life. And I needed to change my anger, not just for myself, but so that I could experiences reconciliation. Transformation. 

But it was a slow process. And God knows that. Mistakes, set-backs, stumbles and falls are all part of the process of change. It is a process - a work - that God is committed to in the life of each person, even dare we say, the whole world. And we are part of the ministry of reconciliation, bearers of the message that God is working a process of change in the world. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Queer Faith

I attended a cultural competency training a few weeks back in which we discussed the use of the word "Queer" in the LGBTQ community. If you didn't know, "Queer" is the "Q" in LGBTQ, and although when I was growing up it was used as an offensive term, the gay community is re-claiming and re-appropriating the use of the word. There is still some controversy and disagreement about this move, even within the larger gay community. Wikipedia offers this explanation of positive use of the term: 

"For some queer-identified people, part of the point of the term "queer" is that it simultaneously builds up and tears down boundaries of identity. For instance, among genderqueer people, who do not solidly identify with one particular gender, once solid gender roles have been torn down, it becomes difficult to situate sexual identity. For some people, the non-specificity of the term is liberating."

In other words, those who identify as "queer" are admitting that they are discovering their sexual identity, and will continue to do so throughout their lives. They reject the traditional boundaries provided by gender identity or sexual orientation and recognize that each individual is truly unique in their expression of life and sexuality. This non-specificity is liberating in that the person is free to be who they feel they truly are, and the person doesn't have to adhere to expectations provided by a certain label or identity. 

Of course, "queer" itself is an identity and a label, and so the whole attempt at reclaiming the word may seem at least ironic and self-contradictory at most. The "Q" can also stand for "Questioning," and the idea that a person can self-identify as "not totally sure about my identity" struck me as profound, and also a bit familiar. 

I wonder if I could identify as having a "queer faith" in the sense that I'm not totally sure what I believe, and I'm rather uncomfortable with the labels that are applied within religious traditions. I was raised as an Evangelical Christian, and I still believe strongly in many of the faith statements of the Evangelical Church. But I don't feel comfortable identifying as an Evangelical. I don't feel like I am that kind of Christian. 

I also find myself finding great truths and insights in other religions. The poetry of Rumi, the wisdom of the Tao, and the peaceful acceptance of Zen meditation have all given me insight into myself, my world, and the God who calls my name every day. But I'm hesitant to share this with some of my Christian friends, because such an admission falls outside of the boundary of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian. 

Again, "the term queer simultaneously builds up and tears down boundaries of identity." In a "queer faith," the boundaries between religion are torn down, but with an individuals faith, boundaries and a sense of identity are built up - namely an identity that is comfortable with questioning and searching. 

Perhaps a "queer faith" could say, "I'm not entirely sure what I believe, and I'm pretty sure my beliefs will change. I don't really know where I fit in, and everywhere I try to fit in, I realize that I'm a little bit different than those around me. But we're all different, and we all have different beliefs, and that's beautiful." 

I recognize that the use of the word "queer" in this way might be somewhat shocking or disconcerting. In fact, at the training, our instructor joked that she couldn't send an email with the word "queer" because it was blocked by the IT department! While this is a new and challenging idea, and there are certainly passionate opinions regarding LGBTQ issues, I find a certain liberation and connection with the idea of a "queer faith," - a faith that is non-specific, that is questioning, that is finding something new about myself, about the world, and about God every day. That's a faith that I can identify with.