The Comparison Trap

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On a recent Saturday I had the chance to fill in for a running coach friend, overseeing a training group she’s been leading. These were mostly new runners, some of whom are training for their first 5K or 10K, out for their weekend group run and looking for guidance and encouragement. I mainly coach individuals, so it was great (and a little daunting) to stretch my skills and try something new. 

I ended up sticking with the brand-new runners—as in, this was their second week of training: run 90 seconds, walk 2 minutes, repeat for 25 minutes. It was gratifying to go at their pace, remembering a time when that was really, reallydifficult for me—as it was for them that day—and reflecting on just how far I’ve come. (Marathon #4 in four weeks!) Who knows where this process will lead them, but it was joyous to contemplate what’s ahead of them, and hold out hope that they will gain as much strength and empowerment from their journey as I have from mine. Or, perhaps, that they tap into that strength and empowerment in other ways.

The next day, those lofty happy feelings came crashing back to earth when I read a Facebook humblebrag from another runner who ran her very first 5K the day before… and placed in her age group.

Sigh. 

After almost eight years of running, I’ve seen great personal progress, but remain stubbornly on the slow side of average. And on my good days, I’ve made my peace with it. Talk to a runner long enough, and pace will usually come up in conversation, but often it’s the least interesting part of a run. How you felt, what you saw, the peace of mind, the pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other, or even pushing yourself—these are the measures of a good run. Getting out there is what matters most... and if you’d told the seventh grade me, who gasped and seethed her way through the mile in PE class, that one day she would voluntarily do mile repeats at the track—at 5 a.m.—you would have gotten a big eye roll.

On my worse days, though, the comparison trap grabs me in its sharp, unforgiving jaws, holding me in place as the voices of Not Enough ring out: You’ve been at this for so long. Why aren’t you faster? You’re not a real runner.

Later that same weekend, my 10 year old, James, decided to put together one of the Raingutter Regatta boat kits we had left over from Cub Scouts. Margaret, always up for arts and crafts, joined him. Now, what you need to know about James is that he always opts out of the Raingutter Regatta. Hard to say exactly why, but I think our tender-hearted kid, who marches to a different drummer, doesn’t really care for this event, in which children go head to head in competition for the best boat, along with all the trash-talking that goes with it (however good-natured that chiding might be). 

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So I was touched by this spontaneous act of creation. It wasn’t about designing the best boat and winning the race. It was simply about having some fun on a Sunday afternoon: no evaluation, no benchmarks. 

Our world has an abundant supply of yardsticks, and no end of volunteers to wield them with perverse glee. Some of us are better at disregarding those evaluations than others, and social media sure doesn’t help. I don’t blame the new runner who dominated her age group; she should be happy and proud! My reaction wasn’t about her; it was about me: a sign that I need some self-care, some perspective, some kindness toward myself. Goals are great, but radical self-acceptance is some of the best fuel out there to help achieve them. (And if you don’t achieve them, you’re still beloved of God. Whew!)

Yesterday this Anne Lamott quote came my way: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” The comparison trap is most potent in an atmosphere of scarcity: for one person to win, another must lose; their good fortune is my misfortune. But the trap also snaps tight around us when our expectations are out of whack—when we’re too focused on “should,” when we grasp at unattainable and punishing ideals rather than loving what is.

You are a wonderful work in progress… and you are already who you are meant to be, right now. And so am I.

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Use Your Talent, Cast Your Patronus

Over the summer my kids hosted a Harry Potter movie marathon. They chose their four favorite films (out of the eight total) and invited friends over for themed food, decorations and fun. 

I happened to catch what is probably my favorite moment from the entire series, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Near the end of the story, at a moment of extreme peril, Harry looks into the distance and sees what he thinks is his deceased father casting a spell that helps save Harry’s life.

Through the quirks of time travel, he and Hermione are later able to go back to that same spot. They find a good vantage point from which to watch, where Harry crouches with anticipation of his father’s arrival. He watches, as if viewing a play, as a group of sinister wraiths called dementors swirls over him and his godfather, Sirius Black. (Yes, there are “two” Harry Potters. It’s time travel; don’t try to figure it out.) 

And he waits for a glimpse of his father. He watches Sirius’s life (and his own) slipping away under the dementors’ attack, and he waits. Any minute now. My father will be here to save the day.
 

Finally Hermione says quietly, “Harry. Nobody’s coming.” And that’s when Harry realizes—there will be no hero galloping to the rescue. HE was the one he saw casting the spell. It’s up to him. So he steps up and conjures the life-saving patronus, a spell he'd been struggling with for a year.

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He explains to Hermione later in the story, he knew he could do it, because... well, he’d already done it. 

But I believe he also knew he could do it, because he had to do it. There was no other option.

Whether it’s news of another mass shooting, or reports that there are still some 700 children who have not been reunited with their parents at the border, or a wistful feeling at the death of John McCain and wondering where the principled leaders in Washington are, things can seem quite grim. Or maybe the wistfulness is more localized—broken relationships, fear and uncertainty, sadness that things aren’t “the way they used to be.” 

The thing is, though... nobody’s coming, folks. It’s up to us, whatever “it” might be. So we curse the darkness and cast our spell, whatever that looks like. But we cannot wait for someone else. We're it. One of my running mantras is, “If it’s to be, it’s up to me.” (It applies to more than just running.) 

But, like Harry, we know that we have the strength to survive this terrible threat, because people just like us have done it before, and we don’t do it alone.I’ve long loved the old Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” And for those of us who identify as Christian, Teresa of Avila nuances this point even further:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good...

Recently I heard my colleague Jim Atwood offer remarks at the Presbyterian Writers Guild luncheon, where he received this year’s Distinguished Writer Award.

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Jim has spent some 30 years writing and advocating for more sensible gun laws; it has become his life’s work. In his reflection, he talked about the parable of the talents, the story told by Jesus in which a landowner gives three servants varying amounts of money, called talents. 

Jim looked around him and saw people with what he considered to be five talents and two talents, and kept waiting for one of them to lend their gifts to the issue of gun violence. Their writing gifts were so much greater than his, he said. They had a larger audience, more influence. He waited and waited… and finally realized that he needed to stop waiting for someone else to pick up the cause that he felt so convicted about. 

He stepped out in faith and conjured his “patronus.” He used his talent to say what he believed, and to be a voice of conscience in the church, and beyond. 

...Somebody oughta. 
That somebody is probably you.

Onward,
MaryAnn

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When You're Tempted to Give Up

I'm on vacation this week, so in lieu of a post written by me, I want to pass along a story that's been resonating with me lately.

Many of us know and love Humans of New York, the book, website and social media presence. HONY is the brainchild of Brandon Stanton, who took a simple premise and made it a huge phenomenon: to photograph ordinary New Yorkers, telling their stories. It's a testament to the power of attentive listening and radical empathy, and has become wildly popular--an outpost of kindness on the Internet. (HONY is now nomadic, with recent trips to Pakistan, Brazil, and more.)

 Brandon Stanton.

Brandon Stanton.

But have you ever heard the story of how HONY began? Here is Stanton talking about the tumultuous--and lonely--early days. I'm not going to offer any commentary or pithy summary at the end of this--I'm simply going to share it, so we can rest in these words and let them do whatever they need to do, for each of us:

“I’m in New York, and I’ve been trying to make it work for 6 months. I worked every day, including Christmas and Thanksgiving. All I did was photograph all day long. I had gotten thousands of these portraits and not many people were paying attention.”

“The hardest part about it was especially when I got started, and Humans of New York didn’t have any fans, and it wasn’t made into any books, and my family didn’t believe in it, and my friends thought I was crazy. I had no photography experience. I’m in New York City stopping random people and asking them questions. I’m feeling insecure.”

“When you walk up to somebody and you ask them if you can take their photo and they respond like you’re some sort of freak or that you’re weird, it’s hard to not internalize that because you’re so insecure at the moment about whether or not what you’re doing is weird and if it’s something that – am I weird for asking these people for their photographs? I’d go out some days, and ten people in a row would make me feel like I’m some sort of freak.”

“Like, “Do you know what city you’re in? You can’t be stopping random people. Get out of my way. What are you doing? No, you can’t take my photo. Get out of here.” And during my formative and impressionable early days when I’m trying to figure this out, five reactions like that in a row when nobody’s paying attention to your work, and you’ve been trying for months, and you can’t figure it out, psychologically was very tough. There’d be days where that would happen, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I would just go home and lay in bed.”

“It was all of the doubt, and not having any money, and nobody’s paying attention, and I’m just doing this all day long for months. The loneliness too, I didn’t know anybody in New York. I knew two people. There was a Christmas break where those two people went home, and for two weeks, I didn’t see anybody that I knew. I remember I spent Christmas Eve alone at a diner. Then I just went out and photographed because it was the only thing that would keep me from thinking about how unlikely it was and how stupid of an idea it might be.”

“The only thing that I think kept me from thinking about the possibility of failing was doing it, was just photographing. Whenever I started to think, “Is this gonna work? Is it not gonna work?” I’d just go out and photograph. That was my only way of keeping those wolves away of, “Is this ultimately going to be a success? Am I wasting my time? Am I stupid?”

“The only way to keep those away was to go out and work. So that’s what I would do just all day long and do it and do it and do it. These negative things like the rejection of people and people saying no that I was talking about, all of the negative stuff, the thing that was counteracting that all the time was just loving it so much. I just loved it so much.”


Onward.
MaryAnn

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Kick With Your Left Foot

I recently caught an episode of the Slate podcast, Upon Further Review, while out on a run. The program, and book by the same name, look at pivotal moments in sports history and ask, What if it didn’t happen that way? (Example: What if Richard Nixon had been good at football?)

The episode I heard considered the 1999 World Cup, in which the U.S. Women’s team beat China in a penalty shootout. The program used the “what if” format to highlight the fact that, despite the World Cup victory, women’s sports still struggle to achieve the same prestige, audience, and financial support as men’s sports. 

A particular detail in the story stood out to me. Brandi Chastain was the last of the US players to attempt a penalty kick, and when she prepared to walk onto the field, coach Tony DiCicco gave her a last-minute instruction: Take the kick with your left foot, not your right.

She did, and the U.S. won the game. You probably remember Chastain’s iconic celebration photo! (I covet those arms and abs... but I digress)

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Imagine if it had gone the other way. There was a lot riding on that kick, regardless of which foot she used, but think about what it must have been like for Chastain and her coach: she had never taken a penalty kick with her left foot in a professional game. Ever.

Chastain explained the rationale for switching feet: the Chinese team was surely well-schooled in Chastain’s moves, and would have be able to anticipate where the ball might go. Changing feet made that kick less predictable. But with my improv lenses on, I also wonder whether switching things up was a way of getting Chastain out of her head, allowing her to be a little looser, less mechanical, more grounded, as she executed that historic kick. 

As I am often fond of saying, I practice and write about improv because it doesn’t come naturally to me—I like my backup plans to have backup plans. And I’m a good planner. I could probably live the rest of my life making good solid plans and carrying them out. It would probably be a fruitful life. But… it also sounds a little boring, even to me. 

I’ve been wondering what it would mean for me to “kick with my left foot”—to intentionally introduce some unpredictability into my life. To do the opposite of what I’m conditioned for and comfortable with, just to see what happens. To surprise myself. What would it mean for you or your organization to do the same? What would we learn? What do we have to lose? And best of all, what do we stand to gain?

I went looking for more information about this World Cup story, and unsurprisingly, Chastain had practiced kicking with her left foot a lot. A lot. Yes, she’d never deployed that move in a game, but she’d practiced and prepared and conditioned. And when the moment came—the decisive moment—she was ready. 

And that’s how life works, isn’t it? We do what's ours to do, day by day. We pursue our “craft,” whatever that might be; we explore what it means to be our authentic selves; we learn, we engage in rituals and traditions, we practice—so that at moments when we are most needed in our communities and families, we are ready to give our best effort for the sake of tikkun olam, the healing of the world. As Danusha Veronica Goska writes, “When we study the biographies of our heroes, we learn that they spent years in preparation doing tiny, decent things before one historical moment propelled them to center stage.”

Tiny, decent things. 
Tiny, decent, surprising things. 
Tiny, decent, surprising things… so we’re ready to jump in, with either foot forward.

Onward,
MaryAnn

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When the World is Overwhelming

Greetings from St. Louis and the Presbyterian Church’s General Assembly, a biennial meeting of pastors, elders, young adults, advisory delegates and more, who will deliberate and make decisions about the church, its mission and its future. I’m here on behalf of NEXT Church, talking up our coaching initiative, and offering free coaching sessions for people throughout the week. Some people are feeling stuck in their lives or ministries; others just want to debrief the events of this week. It’s always a holy task, this ministry of deep listening and asking important questions. 

The decisions made at GA include plenty of picayune insider stuff about the Presbyterian Church’s governance and structure. But we will also take stands and make statements addressing a number of issues facing our world, hopefully in ways that lift up justice and liberation. Yesterday we marched en masse to the St. Louis City Justice Center, carrying $47,000 to bail some 36 people out of jail. These are folks who are simply awaiting trial, but because they are too poor to afford bail, they are languishing in jail. 

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It was inspiring to put faith into action, and to do something public and specific to set captives free. 
It also feels like not nearly enough. 

It’s surreal to observe committee meetings and have conversations in hotel lobbies and a fancy convention center, knowing there are children along our southern border who have no idea when or whether they will see their parents again. News broke just last night of so-called “tender age” shelters for infants and toddlers. It is projected that some 30,000 children could fall victim to the family separation policy before the end of the summer. There are various proposals floating around Congress to end the practice, and as I write this, there are reports that the president will be signing a statement to that effect. Time will tell.

Immigration is a tough, tangled issue, befuddling countless presidential administrations, both Republican and Democrat. But as a Christian, this one isn’t hard. Jesus said in Matthew 25, “that which you did to the least of these, you did to me.” And he didn’t stutter. 

Many people I talk to are numb right now—the onslaught of news feels relentless, and it’s hard to even figure out what’s accurate, let alone what to do about it. And the actions of an informed citizen—writing a letter, casting a vote—feel so paltry in the wake of political forces that are much bigger than all of us. 

In the midst of this numbness, I keep thinking about an interview I heard with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail, the creative team behind the musical Hamilton. They were reflecting on the early days of working on Hamilton—writing, editing, and refining it—and how overwhelming it seemed. They adopted a motto, co-opted from Jerome Robbins when Fiddler on the Roof was in previews in Detroit. Things were not going well for the fledgling production. Kail says:

There’s this moment when Fiddler is really struggling, and Austin Pendleton, a young actor at this point, said, “What are we doing to do?” and Robbins said, “Ten things a day.” 

Just do the thing. Do the stuff that’s in front of you: “What can we accomplish today?” So we would come in after a show, and Lin and I would talk to each other… and we’d say OK, what can we accomplish at this time. And you just start chipping away.

 

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In my experience as a coach, many clients know where they want to go, but they’re paralyzed with the tremendous size of the task. So we work together on the principle of “ten things a day”—small, bite-sized pieces that slowly but surely move us forward. It's a way of staying present to today's work instead of tomorrow's results, which we can never control.

We live in chaotic, perilous times. Regardless of your particular convictions and beliefs, numbing out is a luxury we cannot afford. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something. At times, the “something” is to pull back and rest—but always in the service of a deeper engagement, one small act at a time.

What might be today’s “ten things” to help bring about the world for which you hope?
Five things?
One thing?

Onward,
MaryAnn

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World's Okayest, Japanese-Style

Happy June! Summer is here… almost. My kids still have two weeks of school left. As I watch Facebook friends post about vacations and lazy afternoons, we’re still in the thick of exams and projects. We’re so ready to be done. It feels like we limp across the finish line every year. Meanwhile swim season has begun, so the house is cluttered with backpacks and math packets AND goggles and wet swim suits. It’s chaotic and cluttered—not my favorite mode of being.

I wrote to you a couple months ago about #WorldsOkayest, which is my latest spiritual challenge. As a recovering perfectionist, it’s a constant struggle to remind myself to accept, and even love, the ragged edges of my life. Hence my interest in improv, as a way to confront that tendency in myself and transform it in a playful way. The fact is, perfectionism can keep us rigid and stuck. As I write in God, Improv, and the Art of Living: “Given the choice between the perfect action that remains in my head and the imperfect action that’s actually lived out, my natural inclination is to choose the former almost every time. But improv doesn’t allow for such theoretical perfection—messy reality is always the better course.” 

Turns out there’s an ancient Japanese philosophy at work here, known as wabi-sabi. It’s more of a sensibility than a doctrine, but as I understand, it’s about seeing beauty in simplicity, the ordinary, and the imperfect. 

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A friend recommended the book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers, and I’ve been reading and re-reading the slim volume as I consider the wabi-sabiness of my own life. Here are a few nuggets that resonate with me right now: 

“Greatness” exists in the inconspicuous and overlooked details.

Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.

A wabi-sabi state of mind involves acceptance of the inevitable and appreciation of the cosmic order. 

Wabi-sabi is exemplified in that which is irregular, intimate, unpretentious, earthy, and murky. (Oh how I love the sound of the word “murky”!)

Where do you see wabi-sabi in your life? Here are a few of mine:

  • The raggedness of my son’s hair. He refuses to get it cut and it’s driving me crazy… except it’s lovely and thick and perfect for ruffling, which he still lets me do at 10 years old.
  • The remnants of a pedicure I should really get redone, but I got it the week I was with my beloved clergy group, and it’s a sweet, imperfect reminder of that time.
  • This post. I feel like I should write more, write better, write meticulously. But it’s bedtime for the kids, and a glass of wine with my husband is waiting, so for this moment I will trust the spirit to speak through quick words.

Onward,
MaryAnn

Image is from the charming children's book Wabi-Sabi by Mark Reibstein. Wabi-Sabi is the name of the cat.

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Surf the Problems

Recently I read an interview with George Miller, co-writer and director of 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, a phenomenal but brutal-to-watch film. Miller was talking about a pivotal scene in which Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, receives some devastating news: the Green Place of Many Mothers, where Furiosa had lived as a child, and the place to which she and Max (Tom Hardy) have been trying to escape, no longer exists. Furiosa had been clinging to hope that they could find refuge there from the dystopian hellscape that had bound them. The destruction of the Green Place is also the destruction of her hope.

How would Miller capture Furiosa’s reaction to this news? He knew he wanted to film her from a distance, with barren sand dunes all around her. Unfortunately, the wind in the African desert where they were filming that day was blowing, well, furiously.

“Instead of cursing the wind,” Miller says, “I looked behind us and saw that the dunes had this wind blowing sand across them and the sun was getting low in the sky. I thought, ‘She could walk across the bridge of the dune and into the sun and just respond however she would, having completely lost all hope.’” 

With that vague instruction, and not much of a plan, Theron staggered onto the dune like a wounded animal, dropped to her knees, and screamed into the sunset. In an epic film, full of bizarre and arresting images, this one may be the most iconic—and wrenching:

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What struck me is that Miller called this approach “surfing the problems.” The expression resonated with me instantly. I also realized, it’s probably my biggest growing edge as I think about what it means to improvise life.

I know people who surf the problems well—I’m married to one, in fact—who come alive amid a certain amount of chaos, who are at their best when things are at their worst. Sadly, that is not me. In my good moments—in my very good moments—when life is going well, I can approach my life with flexibility, playfulness, and intuition. But what about when everything’s going haywire? That’s when improv is needed the most, and that’s exactly when my resistance takes over, when my need for control and my sense of justice flare up. (Who cares what’s “fair”? What’s happening is what’s happening.)

Today’s reflection doesn’t have a pithy wrap-up, because it really is something I struggle with. Instead I’m wondering, what comes to your mind when you think about “surfing the problems”? When have you done this well? What resources helped you along? Who are the people in your life who show you the way? And what might the world around us look like if we embodied this approach more fully? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

~

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The Friday Loaf

It’s hard to believe it’s been more than five years since Sabbath in the Suburbs was released! I still hear from organizations who want me to come and speak on the topic, but I’m doing way less of that than I used to... (and more on improvisation as a spiritual practice!). As important as a regular time of rest and renewal is, I’m just not invested in the sabbath stuff at the moment. Part of that is to be expected—spiritual themes loom large in our lives for a while, then fade away in favor of other things—but my reluctance to speak about sabbath is about something else. Sabbath has been really, really hard. For a while now.

Whenever I speak to groups about sabbath, I hope I’m crystal clear that while it’s a simple practice, it’s far from easy. The reason our family devoted ourselves to it for one year is because it took a concerted effort (and bounded time) to make it happen! Now our three kids are much older—one of them in high school, with all the projects and extracurriculars that entails, not to mention the fact that she’s not super into mom and dad these days.  When parents of teens would come up to me and say, “Yeah but…,” I knew they weren’t just rationalizing. It is hard. I knew it must be. But now I know it first hand. Add in a vocation that has me on the road many weekends, and getting into a regular rhythm is tough.

What to do? The answer, at least for now, has been bread.

Last fall, I spoke at an event for the Women of Reform Judaism—my first interfaith speaking event, but I hope not my last. The event took place prior to a Friday Shabbat service, and was preceded by dinner, a joyful affair with ample loaves of golden braided challah on each table.

Heaven!

Friends know that whereas some of us live gluten-free, I like to joke that I am gluten-full. I run specifically so I can eat carbs, and I’m only half kidding about that. I adore bread, and challah is the crowning achievement of that ancient technology.

That night last November, sitting at table with the Women of Reform Judaism, I loved the sensory experience of breaking that bread together, smelling its yeasty goodness, and pulling apart spongy pillows of the stuff. "Taste and see that God is good," indeed! (If you don't love or can't eat bread, I trust that you have other sensory and gustatory experiences that provide similar satisfaction and well-being. I'd love to know what they are! Coffee? Chocolate? A good nourishing soup?)

I recently found a bakery close to my home that makes fresh challah each Friday, so it’s been a weekly practice to go and grab a loaf. Some weeks it’s a frenetic challenge to get there in the afternoon. (I’ve also been known to buy a second loaf and freeze it if I suspect I won't make it to the bakery.)

It feels very old fashioned, even extravagant, to run this extra errand to a specialty shop, a place where I can’t cross anything else off my list. Sometimes I chafe against this inefficiency, self-imposed though it may be.

But all of that falls away on Friday evening, which has become our family’s default sabbath time, and the challah is our sabbath marker. It’s the sign that family time, holy time, is beginning. I put out the loaf, on a cutting board with serrated knife, and children and spouse cut themselves generous slices when they come home from school and work. We have a simple meal, usually leftovers—often out of a can or a freezer container, to be honest—but the challah sets it apart.

In fact, maybe this practice of buying and savoring bread is a place where sabbath and improv come together. Our lives are always changing, and our practices must change as well. Improvising life means responding to things as they really are, not the way they used to be... or the way we wish they were. We're finding our way into a new way of being, one loaf at a time.

Sometimes, Friday night is all we can muster in terms of family sabbath. Sometimes, not even that is possible. When I’m being unkind to myself, I think a loaf of bread seems like a cop-out after how seriously we used to take our sabbath time together. But I have no use for an unkind spirituality. Bread it is. Reheated food, table conversation—it is all enough.


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