Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Programmed to Receive

A friend recently pointed out the fact that I hadn't blogged in a while. The reason is mostly about laziness, which Natalie Goldberg says is "fear, masked as inertia." I'm not a stranger to resistance about writing, but there were some other good reasons I didn't write about my endlessly fascinating life over the last few months:

* I was busy running. Not long after my last post, I ran the Gulf Coast Half-Marathon, on a warmer-than-expected morning when my stomach was out of whack and my legs felt wobbly. About halfway through, I started running with a young woman who told me her goal was to run the race in under 2 hours, a wall she'd never managed to break through: her closest time was 2 hours and 15 minutes. We ran together through the last 6 or so miles, my stomach roiling, her will collapsing, and I found myself saying things like "If you stop now and walk, you'll hate yourself later." I think at one point I actually called her "girl," as in "Come on, girl, you need to pick up the pace." When we crossed the finish line in 1 hour and 55 minutes she was sobbing, I mean crying hard, and I wandered off in search of beer and Chee-Wees as she fell into her whooping boyfriend's arms. So that was cool.

* I ran some more. 3 weeks after the Gulf Coast race I did the Children's Hospital Jazz Half, on a chilly but not-quite-chilly-enough morning when my stomach felt fine but my legs felt unsure of themselves. I told myself at the starting line that I would take it easy (go ahead, laugh), that I would take my time and run the race slow, not faster than 2 hours. I envy those folks who walk the marathon, who chat with friends along the route and don't worry that the 70-something in knee socks is passing them easily. I wanted that kind of experience, but what I got was this: around the halfway point, I found myself running alongside a young woman who--you guessed it--was desperately hoping to break 2 hours. So of course I stuck with her and bullied her through the 10th and 11th miles, when she wanted to stop and walk, and in the final stretch watched her dart ahead of me, sprinting across the finish line, arms held high in triumph. We finished in 1 hour and 58 minutes. I was so, so tired.

* But seriously, ya'll, I kept running. The Turkey Day race on Thanksgiving morning is my favorite race of the entire year, and this past year was no exception, even though it was warm and humid and I had volunteered to cook just under 1,000 complex dishes for our large family gathering later in the day. But boy, was it worth it: at the starting line I overheard a man tell his buddy that his only goal for the race was to "beat at least half of the chicks," and I will tell you it felt damn good to wait for him at the finish line, beer in hand, slap him on the back and say "I think at least half of them were behind me."

* I finished my 5,760 hours for clinical licensure. That's a lot of hours.

* I got a new job! It's a super cool new job.

* Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, yada yada yada.

And also, I've been ruminating. A really amazing psychiatrist came to the agency in the fall to do a workshop on Mindfulness Practice with the clinical staff, and during one of our meetings he read the following story:

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

I've heard many versions of this story over the years, and the point has never eluded me, but for some reason lately I've been turning it over and over in my head. I have been such a full cup, for most of my life: some of it comes from being small and young-looking, the need to impress people with my wisdom and competence. Some of it comes with the territory of being an oldest child of a divorced family. But some of it is just straight-up hubris which, as I get older, is a quality I find less and less desirable. But true humility is hard, right? And all those athletes and movie stars and politicians who talk about being "humbled" by awards and accolades can suck it, because those sorts of things aren't humbling--they are the exact opposite of humbling. What's up with that, anyway?

I can think of lots of humbling experiences. A humbling experience is one in which you've hurt a friend who is already hurting with your harsh words and impatience and lack of compassion, and that friend confronts you about it and you react with defensiveness and anger and later you realize what an asshole you've been and you ask for forgiveness. That is humbling. A humbling experience is one in which you make contact with your former best friend who you abruptly broke off contact with many years ago and have an open, honest discussion about what went down, where you accept responsibility for your share of the breakdown, where you sift through the awkwardness in search of that little nugget of forgiveness. A truly humbling experience is one in which you apologize to your child for your harsh words, and promise to try harder next time to be patient and kind.

These are humbling experiences, ones that force you to empty your cup and abandon your Ego. But of course these haven't happened to me; I mean, seriously, I was just giving some examples.