Receiving with joy and grace

Heading to work one day last week, I was feeling pretty depleted from my husband being out-of-town, and the morning being filled with getting the kids on the school bus, so I stopped by Starbucks  for a latte.  We are on a tight February budget, but I had a gift card I received for Christmas.  On the way there, I decided to buy some coffee beans with my gift card as well as there was not a lot of room in the February grocery budget for a bag of coffee.

Standing in line with my reusable cup and pound of coffee, I noticed a placard announcing a special:  one $5 gift card when you buy a pound of coffee beans.  “Wow, it’s my lucky day!”

When it was my turn at the front of the line, the barista took my order, handed me my $5 gift card, and waved me away, telling me that my order “had already been taken care of by someone who was feeling generous.”

I…I…was a recipient of another’s Random Act of Kindness.

I’m guessing that the giver had expected to make people smile at the very least – but perhaps even to realize the deep-rooted kindness of humans to each other.

My reaction trouble me more than a little.  Surprise…and then guilt.  “I don’t deserve this.”  “I wish I hadn’t gotten the pound of coffee – I mean it’s one thing for someone to buy me a drink, but this?”  “Oh great!  Now I have to figure out how to pay it forward and I am strapped for cash.”  “But I could afford this – why should I be getting something for nothing?”

I tried to revel in the joy of receiving a Random Act of Kindness, but I was left bewildered and unsettled.  And I guessed that was not an appropriate reaction.

I don’t think I have ever been any good at receiving.  Who teaches you to receive?  Isn’t it “better to give than to receive,” and isn’t it (more than) a teeny bit selfish to think about receiving?  Sure, we are taught to say “Thank you” and be polite, even if we don’t like the gift.  But aren’t we supposed to really focus our energy and get our joy from giving to others?

Brene Brown says in Daring Greatly that we never think we are enough.  “I am not needy enough, not stressed enough, not worthy enough, not grateful enough, not generous enough to receive a gift.  If I have stresses, it is my own fault and I need to figure out how to handle them instead of receiving energy from other human beings.  If I can’t, well, I’m not strong enough either.

When life feels hard or stressful or exhausting, I chastise myself, telling myself my problems are “First World Problems.”  After all, who am I to complain?  Look at all I have to be grateful for!  Who am I to not be joyful all the time?  I have a wonderful family, a steady job, a safe home, and food in the pantry.

Does receiving fully actually require vulnerability?

When we receive, we are not in control.  We are not in control of the gift that is given.  We are not in control of determining whether we deserve it, or how big it is, or whether we are able to pay it back.  To receive from others, we have to believe that we are enough, and that we deserve kindness, just because.  And ideally, there is no expectation that we are able to return the gift in kind.

A well-meaning stranger just wanted to treat the next few Starbucks customers to coffee and a smile, but I am wondering if this person had no idea what I think the real gift might have been:  the emotional and cognitive dissonance that forces me to examine some really hard questions.

May I learn to receive gracefully and joyfully when it is my turn, and give gracefully and joyfully when I have energy to spare…

Not (fill in the blank) enough

In my last post, I reflected on the introduction to Daring Greatly by Brené Brown.  I wrote about how I think of resisting vulnerability as a strong identification with ego, and I identified times when my ego is attacked and I respond defensively so that I don’t have to feel vulnerable.

In the chapter I have just finished (ch 1), Brown discusses the culture a scarcity that we live in.  It’s actually a culture of perceived scarcity – we feel more scarcity than we actually experience; it’s rooted our cultural perspective.  We hear in the media (or have noticed ourselves) that people have become increasingly narcissistic of late, and the cause of this, according to Brown, is not a moral failing.  The cause is a culture that tells us that we must be extraordinary in all that we do.  Our inner dialogue mirrors those cultural messages, and we tell ourselves that we are not, or do not have, enough.

Monday morning I read a Becoming Minimalist blog post that Joshua Becker wrote about his reaction to the messages sent by the advertising played on the Super Bowl over the weekend.  At least three of the seven myths he noticed prevailing in the ads directly relate to the idea of scarcity.  After all, to be motivated to by something, we must believe that we need something we don’t have.  Advertisers feed this scarcity myth and thrive on it.  Not unlike a virus, they insert this bit of information into our minds until we start perpetuating it ourselves and becoming sick from it.

1.  Not happy enough. (Becker’s “Happiness is for sale” myth.)  Advertisers assume that we realize we are not happy enough, and if we just had a Coca Cola, we could “Open happiness.”  If we just had a VW, we could “Get Happy.”  How would our culture be different if we all believe that we were already fully equipped for happiness? 

2.  Not extraordinary enough because we are not confident enough to become extraordinary. (Becker’s “Self-confidence can be quickly found in the right purchase” myth.)  Advertisers tell us that their product will make us into the person that we want to be, because who we are now is certainly not enough.  We are too ordinary, our family lives are too mundane, our jobs are too routine, and our success is too minimal.  If we just had more confidence, we could figure out a way to really shine.  How would our culture be different if we celebrated contentment and human connection instead of longing to stand out and be “awesome”?

3.  Not young enough. (Becker’s “Youth culture represents the pinnacle of life’s seasons” myth.)  Getting older is portrayed as a process of losing worth.  Advertisers sell us skin-firming creams, gray-covering rinses, and wrinkle-fading make-up.  Celebrities, who are also victims and also are complicit in this culture, fight aging with plastic surgery and Botox and thus perpetuate the “not young enough” myth of scarcity.  How would our culture be different if we celebrated the joy in every stage of life?

I work with college students, and find myself walking a tough line when helping young people make decisions about their lives.  They see messages that they should “find their passions” and stand out in the crowd. Some get so caught up in how their resume will look that they forget that they should focus on growing and developing character, not on amassing a list of things to put on a C.V.  Some actually realize that they don’t need to wow everyone to be happy, but struggle, wondering what is wrong with them that they are not shooting for stardom.  Many see choosing a less stressful but more balanced life path as a failure.

I struggled for a long time with accepting ordinariness.  Having been very successful in high school and revered by my peers for my accomplishments and chances for success, I attended a very good private liberal arts college and graduated with high honors.  I was used to feeling that there was something awesome about me, and was told that I was smart all through my youth.  When I hit adulthood and real life happened, I was lost for a long time, wondering why my life was so ordinary now when, before, I was always extraordinary.  It took years before I was content and measured my happiness by how my life looked from the inside out, instead of how I thought it looked from the outside in.

It is a constant battle to fight the culture of scarcity.  My children feel it despite not being exposed to much advertising.  They want a certain fleece jacket that their friends all have, new technology gadgets, a television in the house,  a bigger house, and trips overseas like their friends take.

I’m interested to see where Brené Brown takes this in Daring Greatly.  I think the best antidote is gratitude.  Interesting how two major spiritual issues have already risen from my reading of this secular text:  ego and gratitude.

Control, Predict, Know.

I have spent the past few days exploring an idea presented in the introduction to Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly.  Brown relays her conversation with her therapist, Diane, who asked her what she does when she feels vulnerable.  Brown’s response is that she will:

“Clean the house. Eat peanut butter. Blame people. Make everything around me perfect. Control whatever I can – whatever’s not nailed down.” (p.6)

Hmmm.  This sounds oddly familiar.  How much do I, too, react to feeling vulnerable by attempting to tighten my control over things, to distill a messy situation into certainties I can control, predict, and know?

First, I need to define what I think “vulnerable” means.  Brown says is it the “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (p. 2) that we all face in our lives.  Since vulnerability is uncomfortable, we try to protect ourselves from it – the more we tend think we must protect against it, the more that reflects how much we live in fear and disconnected to others.  This sounds so similar to the concept of ego that I was first introduced to in Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, and that I have learned more about through readings in Eastern thought and Buddhism.  So I see vulnerability as the vulnerability of our ego, and I see how much we try to protect ourselves as a reflection of how strongly we identify with our egos.

So, back to my question.  How much do I, when I feel my ego being under fire, react by attempting to tighten my control over things, to control, to predict, and to know?  And, if I do, what does this mean about how much I identify with my ego and how much work I have to do?

Let’s look at the evidence.

Exhibit A:  I felt vulnerable when faced with chronic digestive issues.  My ego did not like the uncertainty and the possible dietary implications, especially when eating in social settings.  I responded by purchasing multiple books and iPhone apps and spending hours poring over websites about using diet to control and prevent IBS-like symptoms.  When control and certainty both proved utterly elusive, this caused me terrible frustration and led to even more fanatical obsession with finding a silver bullet (no wheat? no grain at all? no sugar? probiotics? no dairy? grazing instead of large meals? no coffee?).  Add on the sobering realization that all this frustration, obsession, and anxiety probably has a lot to do with how my digestive system is working in the first place.

Exhibit B.  I feel vulnerable when visiting family members who have a lot more material wealth and disposable income than I do.  My ego does not like feeling like my lifestyle is not up to par with others, or at least that they might not think so.   I respond with irritation and stubborn unwillingness to participate when the conversation turns to about home improvements and expensive handbags and designer children’s clothing.  I respond by feeling more resentment than gratitude for their generous gifts beside which mine seem mere tokens (not so proud of this!).  I respond by coming home and wanting to go uber-minimalist in my lifestyle as a rebellion.

Exhibit C.  I feel vulnerable when in a room of people I don’t well and I am unsure how to strike up conversations.  My ego does not like the riskiness of trying to connect and possibly failing.  I respond by clinging to my self-imposed label of “introvert” and sticking to the safe and predictable:  talking to people I know well, getting snacks, pulling out something to busy myself with.  (Yes, this means I miss a lot of opportunities for connection with others…)

Exhibit D.  I feel vulnerable about laying all this stuff out where anyone can read it.  My ego asks, “Why am I not just doing this in a private diary?  Why online?”  It does not like the idea that I might blow my cover and people might see that I am human (surprise, surprise).  I might respond  by eventually deleting all these posts and pretending they never happened and hoping no one read them.

Not surprisingly, it looks like I respond in a very, very human way to vulnerability.  I don’t think I am the most disconnected and fearful person out there, but I have been aware (more so at some times than at others) of my ego and the fact that when it feels threatened…well, that’s when I am not at my best to say the least.  I’m excited to start looking at this ego issue through Brown’s lens of vulnerability…it’s a slightly different angle, and perhaps one that might help me in my journey to let go.

All in: “Daring Greatly” by Brené Brown

Last night, my husband picked up his long-awaited copy of Daring Greatly by Brené Brown at the public library.  (He’d requested it weeks ago).  His big mistake was walking in the door and handing it to me.  Hey, it was his choice.  I don’t think he’ll be seeing it again for a while.

As I often do with books that resonate with me, I immediately began gobbling it up and thinking this woman was writing just for me.  By bedtime I had plowed through 100 pages.  And read lots of random passages aloud to my husband (so it’s not so bad that I totally stole his book, right?).

This morning when I woke, though, I started reflecting on what I had read and realized that this book might be better savored than gulped.  Sure, I could tear through it in two days, remember how awesome it was, and recommend it as a great read, but never actually have any lasting benefit from the wisdom it contains.  So, I am slowing down.  And I am going to share as I go.

The book is, after all, about being willing to engage and to share and to be authentic and be “all in.”  To fully engage in the challenging information on the book, I plan to move carefully and thoughtfully through the book, spending a few days focusing on the lessons of each chapter, and writing about what I see in my everyday family life and work that resonates with what I have read.

This is an experiment…so we’ll see how it goes!

Buy Nothing Season

A recent trip to IKEA to buy a bookcase ended like oh-so-many trips to IKEA can end.  Hours later, I arrive home with nearly an entire day behind me, exhaustion creeping in, and, of course, more than just the bookcase to show for it.

IKEA is two and a half hours away, so the trip to the store itself lasted nearly as long as my time inside.  It was an all day affair.  The best part of the day was, hands down, an entire day with my friend Claudia.  Both of us have two daughters, and we get our families together regularly, but having a whole day to chat without interruptions was a luxury indeed.

But, back to the bookcase and all its tag-along items.  I think the fact that neither of my credit cards would work when I got to the check-out, and that Claudia had to spot me the money and talk me down as I went into full panic mode trying to write her a check while wrestling with my purchases and worrying about my bank accounts, was the first sign.  Realizing once I got home that many of the purchases (other than the bookcase) would not work for me, or I did not need them and would have to return was the next sign.  My buyer’s remorse, coupled with the knowledge that Claudia would have to return the items per IKEA’s return policy, inspired me to have a “That’s it!!” moment:  I was going to embark on a Buy Nothing Season.

I’ve heard of others taking on challenges not to buy things (by “things”, I mean non-consumables) before, and it seemed interesting but not too compelling.  I’m not a big shopper anyway, so I felt that taking on such a challenge would not be that significant for me.  But I have started, even in just the two weeks since my “That’s it!” decision, to see the benefits, some more anticipated than others:

  • Saved money.  Obviously.  Even though purchases don’t make up a big part of my monthly budget, I can already tell that there will be a difference – the $20 here and $20 there adds up!
  • Saved time.  There is no need for me to poke around Target when I go there for toothpaste.  No need to see if there is something on clearance that I could get for a good deal.  No need to browse my favorite online stores for mark-downs or to “get ready for Spring.”  I did not realize until now how much time I spent browsing, even if I did not purchase anything.  There was always the possibility I might find something that made sense to buy.  Now, there is no possibility, so I can spend my time other ways.
  • Ease of saying no to the kids’ wants.  I’ve told them of my pledge, and they actually respect it.  They know that this time they won’t sway into buying something for them that they don’t really need.  I did not see this as a huge issue before – they’ve never been kids to beg.  But the absence of even their occasional nagging is delightful.
  • The spiritual benefit of discipline.  I have been an on-again, off-again participant in Lenten fasts, but during my on-years I have felt that it was a very edifying practice.  One year, I resolved to have water be my only beverage during Lent.  Every drink I took reminded me of my pledge.  I used those reminders to center myself and think for a moment about my spirit, which is not something I do regularly enough at other times.  My current pledge did not start out as a spiritual practice, but I anticipate it becoming one naturally as I have to remind myself of to consider needs vs. wants.

With only two weeks into this Buy Nothing season, my temptations have been few.  There will be the time when I have to decide if the pair of shoes the kids outgrew needs replacing just yet or if they can make it in the others that still fit until my buying fast has ended.  Maya is in a huge growth spurt, so she may outgrow her clothes overnight and I’ll have to weigh whether a few weeks in high-waters will damage her, or if I should buy her some more jeans.

This Buy Nothing Season will last until April 1, when I will address any needs that have arisen, assess the state of spring wardrobes, and perhaps cycle back into a Buy Nothing Season until summer.  In the meantime, don’t expect to run into me in IKEA, REI, Ten-Thousand Villages, Great Outdoor Provision, or any of my other usual browsing hang-outs.  I’ll be spending time with my friends in the woods or having tea or playing games…instead of panicking in a check-out line!

Andersons Christmas Tree – part deux

“Vegetarian” no more…

Yesterday afternoon, I walked into the house, plopped my Whole Foods bag on the counter, and asked my husband, Scott, “OK – what do we do with THIS?!” as I pulled out a 5 pound chicken.

This, coming from someone who has adhered to a vegetarian diet pretty consistently for the past 17 years, and who has occasionally ventured into a vegan lifestyle. What in the heck was I doing with a chicken?

Let’s back WAY up to my choice of a vegetarian diet in the first place. I first gave up red meat, or all animal flesh but fish and poultry, in college to make my diet healthier. I grew up on southern food which included lots of fresh vegetables but quite a bit of meat and fried foods as well. In college, there was no other option for beef or pork (or I knew of no other one) than factory-farmed meat.

Then, the summer between my junior and senior years in college I spent at a research station where all meals were prepared for me, and I had to choose between vegetarian or non-vegetarian meals. Knowing that the non-vegetarian meals would likely involve red meat, I chose vegetarian. After nine weeks eating vegetarian, I adopted the label. Later, learning about factory farms for egg-laying chickens, poultry, turkeys, etc. strengthened my resolve.

“I adopted the label.” That sentence says a lot. In our society, we love labels, and we apply them to ourselves and others liberally. I often struggled with the “vegetarian” label I had adopted. When I was pregnant and was dying for protein and ate chicken, I facetiously wondered ,”So how long after this meal before I can claim to be vegetarian again? Is there a statute of limitations?” My older daughter, who also readily claimed the vegetarian label in the steps of her mother (bless her little heart), proclaimed on a recent beach weekend with friends, “OK, I am not vegetarian for the next 5 minutes because this bacon is GOOD.” Last night when I brought home the chicken, she asked me, “So are you not a vegetarian anymore?”

You know what? I’m not – in that I am refusing to be limited or tied to or judged by a 10-letter label.  In reality, who was most likely to limit or tie me down or judge me?  Yeah.  Me.  So I feel like I am setting myself free.

I am not denying all the important issues that kept me eating vegetarian for years (the main ones eventually being the horrific nature of factory farms and the environmental impact of them). I am not going to start believing I must have animal flesh at every meal.  I may go for months or years without choosing to eat anything from an animal.  Or I may not.

What I am doing is freeing myself up to make a deliberate decision based on some good, old-fashioned critical thinking (which flies in the face of a black-and-white worldview).  How does my decision reflect critical thinking and comfort with this decision?

  • I listened to my body. I have been craving chicken for a few days, and I believe that is because I recently stopped eating many of the whole grains on which I had based my vegetarian diet on for years. (Wheat and some other, mostly complex, carbohydrates have been giving my digestive tract a lot of difficulty lately.) Grains were a big source of protein for me, and cutting them out has left my energy levels very low and my meals very unsatisfying.
  • I did not buy cheap chicken. I spent nearly $19 on this bird, the highest-rated chicken available at Whole Foods. (For more on their rating system, see here.) This bad girl was rated a 4. I’d have paid more for a 5 or 5+, but they had none.
  • I made sure I used the whole doggone thing…well, except the liver and heart. I wanted to buy a whole bird because I could then know just what was thrown away and what wasn’t. Throwing away usable parts would disrespect the life of this animal. We roasted the chicken, and I used the carcass and neck to make a broth last night, even setting my alarm to get up once during the night to turn the stove off, and once to move the broth to the fridge when it was no longer boiling hot.
  • I got my hands (at least a little) dirty. Literally a little dirty, by handling and experiencing the texture and feel, the weight and anatomy, of this animal I was about to consume. I think it is important to be as close to the animal as you can if you are going to eat one. On one end of the spectrum of chicken-eating, you have raising, butchering, plucking and cleaning, and cooking the bird before consumption. On the other end, you have buying pre-cooked chicken that may or may not resemble in any way the animal it came from. Ideally, all animal products I consume would be either wild game or locally sourced meat from a farmer I can meet. (Here’s keeping my fingers crossed that Scott is able to harvest a deer this year).

Where does all this leave me? With gratitude. Gratitude to this bird whose flesh nourished mine. Gratitude for the movement that has made it possible to find ethically sourced animal products. Gratitude for the many meals I have enjoyed and will enjoy – whether rich with vegetables, fruit, and grains, or supplemented with animal protein. Gratitude for the satisfied, healthy feeling in my stomach after a nice meal – something that so many people in our world cannot know.