Sunday, June 23, 2013

Authenticity

I have a love/hate relationship with the question: "How are you doing?"

  The implied sentiment behind that question is an important part of life though. So I am going to make an effort today to explain why I love it, and why I struggle with it. But here's the catch: expressing my thoughts on the subject in a way that has any hope of making sense to anyone else, is going to require a degree of "authenticity" which I generally find fairly nerve-wracking. I dread the idea of opening up about what I am really going through, and then wondering if someone thinks I am being pathetic or whiny. I like being real with people, but I hate being vulnerable... in other words: I am human. Tah-dah!

  For the last few years in particular, I have found the question "How are you doing?" to be extremely difficult to answer. Why? A few years ago I turned thirty, and the manufacturer's warranty on my body expired. (Does anyone out there know the customer service number we are supposed to call for that?)

  So as a graduation present for surviving my twenties, I have been gifted with a steadily growing number of chronic health problems in my thirties. It's no fun being permanently sick, and it's a surefire way to wreak havoc on your professional life. I turned thirty-one and things did not get any better. My wife and I watched helplessly as a decade of blood, sweat, and tears we had both invested into my career came crashing down. All because my body had a meeting with itself (which I was not invited to), and decided that it was no longer interested in performing superfluous tasks like walking, seeing, remembering things, sleeping, digesting food, or using my hands. Clearly, such demands are preposterous indeed.

At the time, I remember thinking:
  "Alright body, come on now... I need you to work right for forty hours a week, and then you can malfunction all you want the rest of the time! ...Okay, I know, I know-- it's actually more like fifty to sixty hours a week... but that's just until this big deadline at work passes! ...Okay, fine- there will always be deadlines, so maybe that's not going to work. But hey, there is always the weekend! ...Hmm, except for the kids' soccer games, and taking the wife out for date night, and chipping away at the 'honey do' list around the house, and wrangling the baby for a while so Mommy can get away for some 'sanity time', and church meetings on Sunday, and trying to be a good friend to my neighbors, and hanging out with my other friends once in a while, and... *sigh* ...I think I'm in serious trouble here."

  Life was becoming even more of an unforgiving, uphill battle than "normal", and I wasn't sure what, if anything, I could do about it.

  Ever since then, my health has continued on a steady downward slope, which none of my doctors can quite figure out, at least not entirely. After an endless string of specialists, tests, scans, pills, more tests, and even more pills... some of my issues have been diagnosed, but the overall mystery as to why this whole bodily implosion is happening to me, or why years later it won't stop happening, remains a frustrating question mark. Sometimes I honestly feel like someone in one of those documentary specials where they follow a person for like eight years as they go from specialist to specialist before someone finally figures out what is wrong with them.

  A few years ago, health issues would interfere with my life maybe one or two days a week- at most. There were exceptions of course, usually brought on by me doing something remarkably stupid. Like going dirt-biking with my wife's gigantic brothers, all of whom must have found it hilarious watching me try not to die while hurtling down a canyon path littered with boulders, on a motor bike I could scarcely control. Yes folks, pride can get you damn near killed, and yes- I am that stupid sometimes. [sheepish grin]

  But it's not so funny anymore. I just turned thirty-five, and my life has changed so much that it is now the overwhelming inverse of what it was a couple years ago. It no longer requires recklessness on my part to be down-and-out for a solid week or two, or even three. Lately I am lucky if I have one or two days a week where I am relatively 'functional'. Every week... always.

  An existence where you cannot realistically commit to anything much more than a few hours ahead of time, because you have no way of knowing if you will be physically able to keep that commitment, is hard to cope with on multiple levels. And I'm not going to lie- at this point, the practical everyday frustrations that come with facing (seemingly) permanent pain and illness are far beyond "getting old".

  It's really depressing when you can't control what you are going to do today, no matter how smart, determined, or well intentioned you are. Managing your attitude when so much of your life is filled with pain and frustration, is a full time job. And by full time, I mean 24/7, 365 days a year... no holidays, not even for birthdays or anniversaries. Then there is the never ending physical battle with the chronic pain itself. Bracing against the constant pain is honestly so exhausting that sometimes I seriously have nothing left in me by lunch time. Sometimes I don't even feel like I have the energy to chew my food. You may chuckle at that, but unfortunately I'm not kidding.

  There are countless secondary challenges people experience because of long term illness and/or chronic pain, and the sad part is many of them are invisible and therefore do not get recognized for the dream-crushing hardships that they are.


  Now keep in mind, when I use the term 'functional' these days, I use it loosely. Compared to what is generally expected of worker bees in our capitalist American society, my current personal definition of 'functional' can't possibly keep up. I have discovered the hard way, that our culture in the United States has no real, working, mainstream place for people who can't be a reliable cog in the corporate machine for forty to fifty hours a week. Oh sure, there are special programs here and there, but that's exactly what they are: special. They are not the norm, not by a long shot. And since we are ALL mortal, and ALL susceptible to illness and injury, I find the fact that the core of our civilization still casts aside those with disabilities, absolutely infuriating. I could write a whole article about that by itself, but I have a lot I want to get to here, so I'll move on.

  These days I am grateful if once a week I feel healthy enough to go to the grocery store and pick up a few things. Not browsing around for an hour, mind you- I'm talking about fifteen to twenty minutes and then my body begins a full scale mutiny. On a particularly good day, I feel awesome if I can succeed at doing some light housework without winding up so spent afterward that I am completely useless for the next week.

  Most days, when someone asks me how I am doing, the truth is such a long, complicated, and boring answer, that it's much, MUCH easier to lie and say: "I'm alright." But here's the ironic part: despite my own awkwardness when asked such a common, and yet surprisingly frustrating, question- I have to admit that I would much rather have people ask if I'm okay, than to feel like nobody notices me or cares.

  And I'm not always guarded about what I am feeling, I have my moments where I open up. Like writing this article! And those moments feel really, really good. Feeling like someone is listening, and maybe, just maybe they might even understand some of what you are going through- is like standing outside in a cool spring breeze, right after a rain storm, and taking a big breath until your lungs are full... Ahhhh.

  Simply asking someone how their day went, can give you a window into their life. That may sound a bit dramatic, but let's be honest: how nice is it when you've had a hard day, and someone takes the time to let you talk about it, and maybe offers some encouragement, or a simple hug? The 'little things' really do mean a lot.

  But here is the challenge: typical human behavior is for us to take the little things for granted. Therefore, "How are you doing?" can become a rhetorical question. We may not have time for the real answer, not right now anyway. So it winds up being a formality, a meaningless greeting. We ask in passing, with little or no intention of actually having a conversation. I have been guilty of this myself at times! We may mean well, but we allow ourselves to be satisfied with a superficial answer.
 Person #1: "Hey, how are you doing?"
 Person #2: "Oh hey- I'm pretty good. You?"
 Person #1: "I'm good, thanks."
[Both force a smile, then quickly break eye contact and walk away.]

And that is about as far as we often get with people. Sound familiar?

  There is nothing wrong with simply being friendly. Friendly is better than oblivious, and there is plenty of obliviousness in the world. But it takes more than scripted greetings to be able to say we know someone. Of course, sometimes we really don't have time to stop and talk, but there are plenty of instances where we could and yet we don't... that is what I am talking about.

  And what about when someone takes the time to talk to us, and we don't feel like reciprocating? I recently read an awesome article in the New York Times by Tim Kreider, about the significance of being truly okay with letting others get to know us. He writes:  
----------
"THE operative fallacy here is that we believe that unconditional love means not seeing anything negative about someone, when it really means pretty much the opposite: loving someone despite their infuriating flaws and essential absurdity."
----------
That is so fantastic, and SO true!!!

  It's amazing what we can learn about someone just by spending a few more minutes talking with them than we normally would have. And guess what? That other person is simultaneously learning more about us as we demonstrate what our priorities are, and what kind of person we are on the inside- beyond our outward appearance. We are getting to know them, and we are letting them get to know us! Little by little, those bits of "extra" time spent with someone can really add up, until you wake up one day and have something that resembles a real friendship. And don't forget, real relationships deal with the negative experiences too, not just the superficial "I'm doing fine." WE CAN make a real difference and be a positive influence in someone's world, by being conscious of the quality of our interactions.

  A good antidote to all things superficial, is a healthy dose of authenticity. Whether we are the one answering the questions, or the one doing the asking, we can and should strive to be more authentic. In fact, my motivation to write this article came from a conscious decision to push myself to practice more authenticity! I won't pretend that it doesn't scare me to 'put myself out there' like this, to write in such a transparent fashion. But having life change so significantly, against my will, has (not surprisingly) taught me to appreciate living in the now.

  The definition of authenticity is:
1. of undisputed origin or authorship; genuine

2. accurate in representation of the facts; trustworthy; reliable

So what can we really do to be more authentic? Let's take a closer look.

1) Be Genuine!

  Being genuine, being accurate in representation of the facts; these are all ways of saying: be real. In the book The Velveteen Rabbit, Margorie Williams penned a beautifully profound, yet simple description of what it means to be real:
----------
'Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'

'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit.

'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.'

'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?'

'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.'
----------

Wow... I need to believe this. I really do. We all do.

There are more complex interpretations of what the pursuit of authenticity entails philosophically, but I believe the Skin Horse knew what he was talking about. Unconditional love is at the core of being genuine. When you are Real you don't mind being hurt, because you understand that a genuine life is one that values the comfortable and the uncomfortable as equally meaningful and important. Of course, this is not to say we should be masochists, but being at peace, being comfortable in our own skin, and being receptive to the humanity of others; are all part of being healthy, both mentally and physically.

2) Be Trustworthy!

  Consider the following questions. Do we let ourselves think of a person as ugly because they appear "shabby"? Have we thought about the difference? Are we "people who understand"? Can we be trusted with the genuine reality of others? Can others trust US to be genuine? Being trustworthy means we are reliable. On a daily basis, I rely on people I can trust to be Real with me. So I should ask myself if other people can reliably trust me to be Real with them.

  Authenticity obligates me to answer the question "How are you doing?" honestly! (Which I am admittedly really bad at, lol.) Now, this doesn't mean we have to spill our guts all the time and cross over into being super annoying, but we can find ways of letting people know who we really are and what we are really experiencing. The goal is to faithfully represent our Real self, and most importantly: learn to be okay with that transparency.

Another quote from Mr. Kreiger's New York Times article:
----------
  "Years ago a friend of mine had a dream about a strange invention; a staircase you could descend deep underground, in which you heard recordings of all the things anyone had ever said about you, both good and bad. The catch was, you had to pass through all the worst things people had said before you could get to the highest compliments at the very bottom. There is no way I would ever make it more than two and a half steps down such a staircase, but I understand its terrible logic: if we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known."
----------

  We need to be brave in order to experience love. But if something hurts, it's okay to say it hurts. We don't have to pretend. We can be brave AND honest at the same time! It requires great courage to be honest in the face of adversity. The most heroic and trustworthy people I have ever known personally, have all had something in common: they are sincere about what life feels like to them. That sincerity makes their courage, kindness, and dedication all the more inspiring. I treasure these types of relationships more than I can possibly describe.

  Like the wise old Skin Horse, we can do our level best to always be truthful. Not unkind, not rude, but truthful. There is a difference. We can rejoice in the natural beauty of living with an honest heart. Those who understand this beauty will naturally appreciate each other, I have seen the truth of this for myself.

  One example of natural authenticity is an amazing young woman named Carly Fleischmann. She has non-verbal autism, meaning that among other things, she cannot talk. Most of her life, everyone including the medical community, assumed "the lights are on, but there's nobody home". Even her loving parents would talk about her, right in front of her, as if she didn't understand what they were saying. Then one day Carly sat in front of a computer, and began typing with one finger, one letter at a time. Carly started writing coherent and even eloquent messages, proving that she had been "trapped inside a body I can't control", and she had indeed been listening the whole time.

  Now Carly has her own Facebook page and Twitter account, a YouTube channel, and has co-written a book with her father. Most recently, she created and appeared in a short film called Carly's Cafe, which won the silver medal at the Cannes film festival in France last week. The movie was filmed in the first-person perspective of Carly herself, and is meant to give us a peek into what it is like to be her for a few minutes. When I first watched the film, I was stunned with a sense of gratitude that someone was attempting to show the world how different one person's experiences can be from another, even though they are sitting in the same room.

  I challenge you to observe the communication coming from this incredible girl. Watch her Facebook page, keeping in mind the magnitude of what she is accomplishing with each and every word she types. She is an inspiration to me, a hero. Carly has feelings, and experiences frustration just like you and I. Yet she displays the courage to be known, despite the fact that she is "different", despite her trials and obstacles. She is authentic. She is Real.

3) Be Reliable!

  A reliable person is one who takes personal responsibility for their own choices. But this does not mean that all our choices are going to turn out how we want them to. Dr. Kent M. Keith wrote a poem, famously a favorite of Mother Teresa, called The Paradoxical Commandments. It reminds us of our individual power to choose:
----------
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you'll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
----------

  I would like to point out that being reliable doesn't mean you will magically be there for someone 100% of the times that they need you, it means you will be there 100% of the times that you *can* be there. Again- if we can help someone, and we don't, that is where we need to examine our priorities. We should care, and we should strive for improvement, but we also need to keep our expectations realistic so we have a shot at achieving our goals. You and God are the only ones who truly know what your 100% looks like. It's a matter of being honest with yourself, and though that may sound uncomfortable, it can actually wind up being the most healthy, positive thing you have ever done.

  Finally, here's an important question: are we graceful receivers when WE are in need of help? I personally have a lot of work to do on this one. I am a very independent spirit, and I often have a hard time accepting help, particularly when I feel like I "should" be able to do that thing for myself. People who can help us, and want to help us, need to be able to trust us to receive the help that they give. It might sound strange, but it's true. I have needed a lot of help over the last few years, and so I've had to learn about being truly grateful for that help, and not resentful.

  We all have the need to learn and grow, who are we to judge from one person to another whose spiritual needs are the most important? Perhaps the growth a loved-one would gain from helping us, is priceless in the eyes of God. We can be a humble servant who gracefully and reliably accepts the opportunity to let others who desire to serve... serve.

So anyway...

  We must choose to cultivate a heart that loves and is loved fully, a heart that trusts and is trustworthy. We can be someone who takes the time to know others, and embraces being known. As we honor authenticity in others, and exercise the courage to be our authentic self, we develop mutual respect with those around us, and build relationships of trust; not perfect relationships, but valuable relationships that are Real.

  If I am having a hard day, and someone asks me how I am doing, these days I just might tell them I am having a hard day. And if that's not what the other person was expecting, then the quality of that particular human interaction just got upgraded... free of charge! ;)

  To love one another simply for being human souls, simply because it is the right thing to do, regardless of our individual perceptions... is a sign of true authenticity being practiced.

  As we fill our souls with the healing power of serenity, focusing on what we CAN do, our authenticity grows, and it's natural to want to share that positive energy with others. We really can develop a kinder, less assuming attitude. Life has shown me a different way of looking at things over the last few years, and if I can do it- so can you! When we are focused on being genuine and trustworthy, it becomes easier to be kind and generous toward others. We will naturally exude what we fill our heart with. It is only when we are motivated by pride, judgment, or envy that we will struggle to see why we should respect (and ultimately love) another human being.

  So perhaps you are wondering at this point: "Hey Chuck, why are you so interested in this whole authenticity thing in the first place?" Well thanks for asking, I'll tell you! ;)

  During the last five years of my life I have been gifted with the chance to completely reshape my view of what it means to live happily. And I do mean gifted. I've had to redefine my concept of success. I have had the opportunity to learn difficult, elusive lessons that would have taken much, much longer to understand otherwise. Had I not been thrust into the humbling gauntlet that my personal existence has become, and experienced everything that comes with it, I would have remained under the illusion that focusing on being "strong enough" to endure suffering was just as good as having real peace in my heart. Spoiler alert: it's not. There are plenty of things in this world that nobody is strong enough to defeat.

  My childhood best friend lost his mother to cancer, and she was one of the kindest, most reliable people I have ever known. Does that mean she simply wasn't "strong enough"? No!

  Life is unbelievably hard, and there is nothing wrong with praying for the strength to survive. But if you are praying for the strength to handle something difficult, and you feel like it's not working... may I offer a humble suggestion? Try praying for peace... real peace.

  What do I mean by "real" peace? The peace to be okay, come what may. The kind of peace that is not tied to anything that can be destroyed by anything other than our own free will. Take a moment and think about that. Ask yourself: is my sense of peace tied to anything temporal? I believe we have a natural human tendency to take something desirable but intangible, like peace- and attach it to something tangible that is easier for us to conceptualize and focus on. It makes sense, really. But when we attach a spiritual principle like peace to a lesser concept, or to something physical, we are bound to be disappointed... it's just a matter of time.

Authenticity cultivates peace, and peace is better than trying to be strong enough to handle mortality. That is why I am so interested in authenticity-- because I value peace.

  I have learned more in a few years of not being able to control certain aspects of my life, than I ever did when I had the ability to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. It turns out that the serenity prayer is not just an old cliche after all. Thanks to my challenges, I learn something new every day about how to be a more authentic me. Even if today's lesson is something small and simple, it still matters, and I still want to learn it.

  I frequently fall flat on my face trying to apply the things I have learned. (Sometimes literally!) But that's okay. One step at a time, I am a little better off than before. Sometimes it's  actually one "crawl-on-the-floor-because-it-hurts-too-much-to-stand" at a time... but I digress.

  The simple act of living in my body makes every day a battle. Even the "good days" are challenging in their own way. Imagine having just a few days a month to be present in the lives of everyone you love, or get anything on your to do list done... and you can't over do it, or you might wind up losing some of your precious "good days" and be even worse off than before. It's more complicated than it seems.

  It's not glamorous living this way, and to be perfectly honest I really don't like hurting all the time. I don't like dropping my cereal bowl full of milk on the kitchen floor just because my hands decide, for a split second, to stop doing what I am telling them to do. I don't like winding up writhing on the floor just because I sneezed.

  When I've been "toughing it out" for so long that I can't go any further without some help, I do have some medicine I can take to make life less hellish. But sometimes the contrast between the pain and the relief is so drastic-- I suddenly realize I had actually forgotten what it's like for my body to feel good... and I can't help but cry. My wife has learned to recognize these moments before I do, because I will suddenly smile, heave a sigh of relief, and then burst into tears... with a smile on my face. (lol)

  Maybe that's why Carly Fleischmann is such an inspiration to me, she reminds me of how brave someone can be, against all odds, especially when it seems like no one else understands what you are going through, or that the very fabric of your humanity is being torn at.

"Once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

  How weird would it be if my friends and family had no idea what my life is actually like, or how I actually feel about it? My life would be a hollow charade. And for what? So people will like a version of me that doesn't really exist? I don't want that. I want to love and be loved, which means I must embrace being known by others.

  Being authentic brings with it great opportunity. The opportunity for others to better appreciate your victories, because of the context provided by your honesty. I love sharing the cool new things I am learning from life! Some of these lessons come at a heavy price, but they are meaningful, and important, and worth it. There are many, many reasons to be your Real self. You might even wind up helping someone else by sharing your experiences.

  I realize however, that it's not practical to be completely open all the time. I still catch myself saying I'm "okay" when I'm really not. Then I try to make myself feel more honest by dwelling on the fact that I didn't say I was doing "good", I only said I was "okay"...even though the whole thing was misleading from the start. (I need to stop doing that.)

  Once in a while I can't hide what I'm going through, even if I wanted to. My body takes control, and it's game over. But even then, I try to smile anyway. Most of the time it's a Real smile too, because I have a Real need to be happy. I need the positive energy I get from smiling, or having a pleasant conversation with someone. Laughter in particular really lifts my spirits. I have a goofy sense of humor, and it turns out- the ability to laugh at life, and to laugh at myself... saves me. I get a lot of joy from focusing on the simple good in life, especially at times when it seems like there isn't much to get joy from.

  When I choose to find something to be grateful for, I always feel better about myself, and about the kind of energy I am passing on to those around me. We have a responsibility as fellow human souls to do what we can to uplift each other, and be good to each other. Gratitude is a powerful tool which invites peace to enter our hearts, and soothe our minds. Being grateful for what makes us uniquely special is the foundation of authenticity!

If my attitude matched my circumstances, no one would ever want to be around me..

  Instead, I work on having my attitude be fueled by my gratitude. There is ALWAYS something to be grateful for, we only need to choose to see it. And if you can't see anything to be grateful for, that's okay-- choose to start building a habit of looking for things to be grateful for. You will find what you are looking for.

  Authenticity can be tricky, but it is a beautiful way to be mortal, live in a world full of joys and pains, learn the things we are meant to learn in this life, and be truly happy. I like to try and think thoughts like this:
----------
"We believe in you, your parents and brothers and sisters believe in you, and God expects the best from you. You must believe in yourself.

Don’t give in when the going is rough, for you are laying the foundation of a great work, and that great work is your life, the fulfillment of your dreams. Never underestimate what you can become or how your talents may eventually be used."

- David B. Haight, A Time For Preparation
----------

I know this was long for a blog post, thanks for reading. :)