Stop demonizing when there’s so much to learn

My go-to default for almost anything, miserable or exciting, is learning. I would have rephrased Descartes or Hamlet or whomever to say, “If I can learn, I am and that is never a question.”

COVID-19 has opened the door to a slew of learning opportunities. Zoom is now a household word that’s fast becoming a verb instead of a company name.

Learning is better than blaming. Full stop.

Don’t blame the guy who’s sick next door or Asians. It’s a shallow catharsis. I’m deeply offended when people in high places call COVID-19, “The China Virus.”

One, it’s inaccurate.

Second, it’s racist. Asian-Americans in Seattle have already reported hearing more racial slurs thrown at them. Despite the challenges the virus brings, it’s our opportunity to see how all the peoples of the world are connected if racism doesn’t pull us apart.

Third, China virus sounds like another way to demonize the virus–the enemy did this to us.

We’re not effective when we demonize what we need to learn about.

Taking the enemy out of the forest

Last week I was engaged in battle with three ferociously invasive plants: Himalayan blackberries, Lamium, and stinging nettles, a thug team that is trying to take over my entire woodlands.

Weeding them out takes so much time that, in recent years, I practically gave up. I started HATING the threesome. Resenting them. Avoiding them. Dreaming of bringing in tanks, bulldozers, and herbicides (just a fantasy). But doing very little.

This year, I’ve tried a different approach: weeding in small increments. As I stopped worrying about the whole forest and concentrated on a small patch, I relaxed and became INTERESTED in my adversaries instead of hating them.

For example, you have to respect the Himalayan blackberry for being tenacious, even in the harshest of droughts. Introduced to our region by the famous horticulturist Luther Burbank (we all make mistakes), the blackberry’s root ball is a work of art. The plant’s sturdy stalks grow into twenty-foot arches, stunning in their way, when I’m able to forget how the plant’s thorns have slashed my arms.

Lamium is a groundcover, in the mint family, that would be happy to colonize our whole woods. One small plant can send out roots, and bingo, the forest floor will be coated in a mat of pretty silver, green, and purple leaves. If Lamium only respected boundaries, it’d be the perfect plant for dry shade.

And stinging nettles. OK, nettles are natives and will be with us long after I’m gone. I respect them for that. The small hairs on the back of their leaves can sting for a day if you have the bad luck to brush up against them. Once they’ve taken over, no more strolling through your woods. Their tough, thick root systems are more intricate than the sewers of Paris. Yet, if you can manage to harvest and steam them, nettles are incredibly nutritious.

When I stop demonizing these plants, I learn about their ways. Plus, I feel more peaceful.

Instead of feeling like a driven, weeding-monster, I nestle into the woods and enjoy the magic of loam, animal tracks, and bird calls. Last week, I discovered patches of native bleeding heart plants–a surprise I would have missed if I hadn’t been crawling on my knees through the woods.

Bottom line: I don’t minimize the risks of COVID-19, a different order of danger from what I face in the woods. Yet, even with the coronavirus, we learn more when we stop demonizing and start, as good scientists do, observing.

Speaking of learning

During this time of shelter-at-home, incredible learning opportunities are spawning every day. From colleges to yoga classes, everyone’s using online group software like Zoom to reach their constituents and beyond. Free seminars and music performances are offered as gifts to the many who are feeling isolated. For learning geeks like me, it’s prime time.

Here’s what I discovered with a minimum of searching:

Join 1.3 million people in learning about happiness. Yale has just made its most popular course ever The Science of Well-Being” class free to the online world. Study the science of happiness and surprise yourself, while watching the amazement on young Yalies (recorded in 2018) as they learn that the big salaries they crave won’t be their ticket to happiness. Dr. Laurie Santos, the course’s lively instructor, looks young enough to be a student herself. As a self-proclaimed data-nerd, she backs her teachings with lots of research.

Tour the Louvre

After the Louvre, check out these other world museums to enjoy.

Learn to cook new dishes, or survive on what’s in your pantry.

Learn something new. I’ve chosen drawing. Time to give up the mantra, “I can’t draw,” and see if I can learn. YouTube has a ton of videos, and Udemy offers these free drawing classes.

Then, there are e-books from the public library, and a host of webinars popping up daily.

No excuse to be bored if you’re a philomath,* (a lover of learning), a polymath,* (someone who loves to learn across disciplines), or an epistophile .* (someone with a reverence for knowledge).

*I just learned these words.

But mostly, enjoy learning because it’s fun and you can make great use of this very odd time.

“All shall be well again” (I hope)

Trust.

It’s not the easiest quality for me to find in these dystopian-feeling days.

So I turned to a fourteenth-century mystic who somehow managed to find hers in the darkest of times.

Julian of Norwich, an anonymous anchoress (recluse) lived during a time in which a third of the population died from the bubonic plague. Julian may have lost her own children. The world reeked of poverty, pestilence, and war. Then, on the brink or her own death, Julian received visions that stayed with her for the rest of her life. She proclaimed:

“All shall be well again.”

Julian spent the remainder of her life living in a cell built into the walls of the Norwich church, with only a window from which to view the world. Not a lifestyle that would appeal to me, but a good way to spend one’s life in prayer and conversation with God.

In researching her famous quote, I learned two things about Julian.

  1. She didn’t invent the words “All shall be well,” but attributed them directly to God. (I use the word God because that’s the word Julian used, adapt to your preferences.)
  2. She didn’t use them lightly. Apparently she first had to duke it out with God. “Dude, can’t you see that’s there’s suffering, pain, and evil everywhere? The world is NOT OK and not likely to be getting better soon. How can you possibly say ‘All shall be well?’ “(My paraphrase.)

God was not forthcoming with an answer.

What Julian received instead was a deep sensing, a trust she didn’t have to understand, that the future would bring wellness.

It fueled the remainder of her life.

“All shall be well” might sound like an invitation for passivity, but for Julian, it was an invitation to work. She spent her days writing reflections and helping the locals who came to her cell window for support, consolation or advice.

Is our ship going down?

Many of us today feel the ticking clock of climate change and the imperative to do something before our environmental ship goes under. We watch our core values being mocked, see greed in action, and observe the stalemate of our political systems. After decades of environmental near-complacency, we risk unprecedented disaster.

How can we believe in the wellness of the future and still act?

We have to trust and feel urgency. When we work out of a negative view of the future, we sprinkle gloom into what we do.

Granted, there’s a lot of data that could justify apocalyptic conclusions.

Trust invites us to dig deeper.

It’s not a matter of making a list of the good and the terrible about our prospects and then adding up the results.

Trust invites us to go within ourselves to discover an inner equanimity that doesn’t preclude sorrow or even rage.

Trust is a stand we take, not a conclusion we draw. 

Trusting creates an energetic container in which to work with goodwill and hope, collaborate, and look for solutions.

Working hard, with hope

Just today, I read about two positive hope-worthy initiatives (among the thousands out there).

My friend Rondi Lightmark founded the Whole Vashon Project, to give her community a way to “stand up to climate change with creativity and hope,” and showcase the positive work being done.  Thus far, over a hundred of local businesses have made green pledges as part of the initiative

76-year-old author, and theologian Matthew Fox teamed up with two activists half his age to create an intergenerational, inclusive community called the Order of the Sacred Earth, inviting people to deepen their commitment to the earth with the vow:

“I promise to be the best lover and defender of the Earth that I can be.” (I signed on.)

Initiatives are everywhere. (What’s inspiring you?)

It’s time to trust and garner hope, without denying our grief.

I still plant oak trees. I wouldn’t do that if I thought the world was like the Titanic.

Staying positive doesn’t require knowing HOW the world will evolve. Julian didn’t.

I can offer no PROOF that “All shall be well.”Julian couldn’t.

I wish I could save the world through my scientific knowledge,  medical training or political acumen, but, like Julian, I have none of these.

What I can do is strive for a sense of equanimity and then do what I’m called to do.

Today, I sing in the spirit of Julian’s vision. Here are her words set to music by the late English poet and songster, Sydney Carter, and sung in one of my favorite old recordings by Anna Mayo Muir, Ed Trickett and Gordon Bok,

Join me. It couldn’t be easier to sing.

Loud are the bells of Norwich and the people come and go.
Here by the tower of Julian, I tell them what I know.

Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go
All shall be well again, I know.

Love, like the yellow daffodil, is coming through the snow.
Love, like the yellow daffodil, is Lord of all I know.

Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go
All shall be well again, I know.

Ring for the yellow daffodil, the flower in the snow.
Ring for the yellow daffodil, and tell them what I know.

Ring out, bells of Norwich, and let the winter come and go
All shall be well again, I know.

 

Eight tips to interview like a pro (and have more fun talking with people)

These ideas come from four years of interviewing a captivating group of guests on my Vital Presence podcast. If you’re not recording interviews, adapt these ideas to when you’re being interviewed (it never hurts to know what your interviewer is going through). Or, use them to have a more interesting chat over coffee.

1) Be (really) interested.

I genuinely want to learn about the guests I invite on the show. When I think of my favorite interviewers: Oprah, Krista Tippett, Mark Matousek, they always sound fascinated by their guests. One of Oprah’s great gifts is her ability to make her guests feel special and valuable, and not only because they’re talking with one of the most famous interviewers in the world.

In contrast, I remember being interviewed by a government panel where the interviewers did not make eye contact, the questions were all rote, and no one was allowed to respond to what I said. Talk about nightmarish. My brain froze over!

Being interested in others will also serve you in conversations in gatherings and dinner parties (although parties, alas, are not my forte).

2) Prepare for the interview.

My fabulous friend M. can ignite conversations with total strangers using her boundless interest in others and skills in journalism. She’s also a raving (delightful) extrovert. I like to do extensive preparation–reading an author’s book or researching her or his background. I’m a good improviser (see below) but not that good.

3) Remember the improvisational theatre principle, “Yes, and.”

Conversations are like good tennis volleys–you try not to drop the ball. I never want interviews to sound staged and I don’t give out questions in advance. Very occasionally I may ask guests for suggestions, but I make their questions mine before I use them, if I do.

On the other hand, if a guest rambles on too long, it’s hard to keep up the volley (remember this at parties!).

4) Another improv principle: make your guests feel great.

You aren’t obliged to do this as an interviewer, but hey, people are giving you their time, so why not acknowledge the cool thing they said? Fortunately, you don’t have to be moribund and “objective” like those government interviewers.

Follow your heart. When you’re moved, say so. Laughing, I’ve discovered, also helps!

5) Steer clear of spiel.

Super-interviewer https://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/ (who, in my book, represents the gold standard for interviewers,) stays away from interviewing politicians because they almost always are wedded to their campaigns and talking points. One of my least favorite interviews was with a very articulate guest, who never gave me anything he hadn’t said dozens of times before.

I try to steer a conversation that drags or goes off point, without abruptly interrupting a guest, though I’ve been tempted. Instead, I rely on post-production editing to shorten a ramble. I don’t want guests to be marketing themselves mid-interview; I always leave time for them to promote themselves at the end.

6) Sounding natural is unnatural until it gets natural.

One of the high bars I strive for is to sound like myself: positive, interested and relaxed. The great podcast interviewer https://onbeing.org/series/podcast/said it took her five years before she felt “natural” on air. After four years, it’s finally becoming easier for me. Funny to have to work on becoming “natural,” but that’s how it’s been.

When you’re recording, you’re in a forced situation. Nothing is natural about wearing a headset, speaking into a mic, asking a set of tentative questions, keeping the conversation going without sounding dumb, and worrying about the barking dog outside. The more you interview, the more these worries go into the background.

When you’re not recording, you have an advantage. Remembering to relax, breathe, smile and pause will take you far.

7) Keep an easy tempo.

I once found myself in conversation with someone who spoke a mile a minute. My memories of living in Manhatten kicked in and it was off to the races. Listening to that interview, I became exhausted. These days, I may alter my tempo a little to match a guest, but I still need to use the tips above: relax, breathe, smile and pause.

8) Distractions matter, but not as much as you think, if you stay focused on the guest.

I used to be SO worried about distracting noises–my chair squeaking, the cat meowing, or my guest making some bizarre rattling noise (always a concern). I’ve discovered that I can either splice out most distractions and interruptions or figure that my audience won’t mind when my guest’s dog barks or their kids arrive home from school.

That doesn’t apply, however, to my dog Winston, who, without a moment’s notice becomes a barking, canine tornado. Mr. W. now sits out interviews in his crate.

If my guest was sitting in a sound-proof recording studio with top equipment, and I was, too, my standards might be different. But then, we’d call ourselves NPR (National Public Radio).

Whether it’s on-air, or over coffee, interviewing is fun. As with any skill, you get better with practice.

Just be curious, follow your nose, have fun, and (always) listen to your heart.

(If you have specific questions about translating these ideas into conversations, drop me a comment.)

 

Three crazy super-easy ways to add thanks to your life

Many of us in the United States are preparing for the November marathon known as Thanksgiving. While not as intensive as Christmas, it still involves (assuming you’ve invited people over): inviting guests, scanning recipes, cleaning the house, buying and preparing food, and of course, the big clean-up–among other tasks.

If you’re going out for dinner, the burden might be a little less. In any case, you still have to ready your stomach for the big day when you’ll eat more at one meal than would feed a small village in Somalia.

Normally, doing a marathon requires training in advance. Nobody I know goes out and says, “I haven’t been running at all recently, but maybe I’ll run 26 miles today.”

Don’t wait to train! With under a week to go, you can start your Thanksgiving training NOW. Because at the heart of the day (I hope!) is the act of giving thanks.

I love the T-day ritual of inviting guests at the dining table to share one thing they are grateful for. Usually, it’s big stuff: “I am grateful we’re all together,” or medically-related happy news – “I’m grateful that Emily’s knee has healed,” or “Mom has recovered from her stroke,” or the almost-too-personal, “I’m grateful that I met Ted last year.” (Spoken with suitably dewy eyes.)

Then, it’s your turn to share–which is why you should go into training today. You don’t want to panic, go brain-dead, and resort to saying the only thing you can think of: “The brussels sprouts?”

Or, perhaps worse, you let loose a flood of appreciations that you’ve been meaning to say but haven’t:

“I’d like to thank Rob, the produce guy at the Thriftway for teaching me how to recognize a ripe mango, and for Don (name changed to protect the innocent) for always having a pun-in-need, and for that woman on the bus who gave me the biggest smile when I sat down and seemed to know that I was having a terrible day, and for the fact that Winston’s limp did not require a trip to the vet and for…”

Unfortunately, at this point guests will be staring at their plates, discovering, with less than delight, how gravy congeals as it cools and how mashed potatoes harden. The smiles on their faces are melting faster than an ice-cream cone on a hot August day. The person waiting her turn next to you has gone to sleep.

The point is: you need practice at finding and expressing your thanks.

Gratitude is a muscle that needs development, like any other.

To get you on a roll, I’m offering three unusual but crazy-easy ways that you can use today to start developing that muscle.

Appreciate and thank a service worker.

Service workers are often found at the bottom rung of the pay ladder in our culture and deserve a lot more respect than they typically receive. The Somalian and Filipina aides at my mother’s assisted living center were my heroes, regularly touching me with their kindness. Paid barely minimum wage, they provided the care that allowed the facility to run. (I’m teary-eyed thinking about them).

Appreciating a service worker puts you in touch with the eco-system that was created to enable you to have or buy the things you need.

We may give thanks for the turkey on our plates, but do we really consider what farmers put into buying, raising, vaccinating, feeding and delivering livestock? (Not to mention the turkey’s contribution.) Or the chain of marketers, distributors, planners, grocery stockers, and cashiers whose work is essential for us to have our feasts or any other meals we might choose? They all deserve our thanks.

As you advance in thanks-training, more and more eco-systems will be revealed, and you will discover how thousands of people are working for you. Time to appreciate them.

But today, keep it simple. Just thank someone on the service frontline who may not receive adequate thanks for the hard work he or she does.

2) Thank your food and play with it.

Yes, your mother probably wouldn’t approve. But play isn’t just kids’ stuff. Play gets us out of our heads, into our senses and opens our imaginations. Play can increase our appreciation for what we might otherwise take for granted. Touch your food, move it around on your plate, roll it around in your mouth, and then taste it VERY slowly. Imagine alternative uses for your food, like becoming a projectile missile, although you don’t need to activate that one.

Explore the delight of slurping your noodles, best done in private unless you’re in Japan, where you’ll be welcomed like one of the gang. Enjoy the feeling of drops of broth running off your lips or a wayward noodle stuck to the edges of your chin. Your senses will be grateful for the extra attention.

Why play? It slooooows me down and invites me to notice what is before me with more appreciation. Instead of sit-cut-talk-eat or other forms of fueling while on auto-pilot, I activate my senses of touch, taste, smell, and sight when I play. A world awaits me as I roll my pea. My plate becomes a playground. What a pleasure that is!

Now you can give thanks, both for the magic of your food and because you may have rediscovered what it is to eat with child-like imagination.

3) Appreciate you being you.

If you’re like me, you may have a two-column chart in your mind: left column–failings; right column–what you appreciate about yourself. I bet the results are skewed. Today, dump the left column. Because you’re in gratitude-training, your job is to acknowledge and appreciate how much you have given, tried, failed but tried again, learned, offered the world, etc.

Although this practice might seem self-indulgent, I assure you that the larger the reservoir of self-gratitude we have, the more gratitude we can share with others.

This exercise can be surprisingly hard because we often fail to acknowledge what we do naturally well. My husband forgets that his kindness, generosity towards others, ability to really listen, and concern for the world are amazing gifts. He tends to write them off by saying “That’s just what I do,” as if only banner-worthy accomplishments matter.

Whereas accomplishments in the newspaper headlines quickly fade away, simple, often unseen, acts of kindness warm our hearts and make the world go round.

Please take a moment to note and appreciate any small, even seemingly mundane parts of the greatness that goes into “you-being-you.”

I could keep going with the list–and offer you lots more training opportunities. But I’ll hold for now (Check out the very fun e-book The Game of Thanks by Lynda Tourloukis–part of the inspiration for this blog.)

Just one more thanks. I’m so grateful for you. You read this blog. I can’t tell you enough how much that means to me.

Finding fiery hope

“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.”

Rebecca Solnit

How do we join our hope and rage together? 

Isn’t it time to join Greta Thunberg and rage about the insufficient attention being paid to the planet’s impending environmental disasters?

At the same time, how do we heal our souls from infiltrations of despair invading our hearts?

How can we move with urgency, and, at times when needed, move slowly, consciously, and with great care?

These times call for urgency

Urgency, though, can carry a shadow. We may rush into the fray, without sensing what individual contributions we’re being called to make. We may be tempted to push hard, while leaving an unwanted wake behind us. We may move fast, with determination, yet end up disrespecting others, exerting our power, and writing off anyone who disagrees with us.

As we face the enormous crises at hand, we risk hardening the very hearts that we need to help us heal the planet.

Keeping our heart opens

I’m not an in-the-streets activist these days. I’m a writer, thinker, stay-at-home-with-nature kind of gal. I try to conserve, don’t live an extravagant lifestyle, vote, financially support causes as I can, and grow lots of kale.

It doesn’t feel like enough. (Then again, “not enough” is a phrase my inner critic frequently throws my way.)

My action these days involves reclaiming my appreciative relationship with the garden, and through that, with nature.

I spend time giving thanks to the trees and plants. I think they understand even though we don’t appear to speak the same language. Still, all too quickly in the face of an onslaught of weeds, my connection to the garden can become task-driven and mechanical, even aggressive. I understand why people still reach for chemicals to keep weed invaders at bay. When I’m under siege, I want to take back control!

Then the light comes on. I’m losing the love and with that the magic living in my relationship with our land. I need to slow down. Go off task. Rekindle the joy. Find the respect. Perhaps that will be my small step of environmental activism today.

My small deeds won’t save us from climate change, but they help keep my heart open.

That way, I can bear to read (some of) the news and listen for the whispers of what I will be called to do next.

Challenging despair with action

My friend Rondi has taken a different path. Her Whole Vashon Project  Is “Standing Up to Climate Change…” by making the environmental commitments and initiatives happening on our island visible to all. Her passion stems from a deep source within her and a sense of being called to do this work. The fire that she carries is catching. Thus far, after only a few months, 100 island organizations have stepped up and announced their “green goals” to the community.

Her work inspires me. For one, she offers islanders a concrete vehicle for action and the exchange of ideas. Just as important, she provides an alternative to the despair that threatens to disable many of us.

Bearing the chemo/healing the wound

I spent time this week with a friend who is facing a challenging situation in her battle with cancer. After the first rounds of chemo, she had an operation that successfully removed most of the remaining cancer. Unfortunately, post-surgery, the deep wounds became infected, causing her great pain. She requires additional chemo to kill any last cancer, yet that chemo diminishes her immune system, making it harder to heal her wounds.

She needs to destroy cancer while she tries to heal her body.


Photo credit: National Cancer Institute Author: Linda Bartlett (photographer)

We face a similar dilemma.

Our global systems have cancers that are destroying the environment.

We need to find an equivalent to chemo that can eliminate invasive elements, which have fostered waste, neglect, greed, overuse of resources, gross inequities, and deliberate or inadvertent harm to the environment.

Our rage, trying to burn away what is toxic, is like chemo. We use it to ignite action, burn through indifference, and make people pay attention to the plight of the world. We then operate to take apart and repair the structures in our broken systems and refocus our priorities.

At the same time, we must heal.

How do we bring rage and fire, hope and healing together?

We need to burn with rage and heal with hope.

David Spangler, one of the great sages of our times, speaks to this when he writes about “fiery hope” in his new book Holding Wholeness: (in a Challenging World).

“Hope isn’t a wish; it’s an inner capacity, first to be open to possibilities for action and vision that refuse to be circumscribed or defined by circumstances and which thus can be transformative in the moment, and second, to add our energy to bring those possibilities to life through action of some nature.

“Fiery hope” is an affirmation that we are a source of hope because we are—or can be—a source of change and new vision.”

“It is “fiery” because it taps into our passion, our commitment, our intentionality, our spirit.”

Spangler says this hope can open us to new possibilities while changing us from the inside out, positively affecting how we respond to events and each other.

With fiery hope, we save ourselves from the downside of urgency that results in our forgetting the power of connection with ourselves and with others.

“Hope can make us resilient as well as creative. It is “fiery” because in honoring ourselves and what we are capable of doing both on our own and in conjunction with others, we can burn away hopelessness and the sense of helplessness that comes with it.”

Let’s burn and heal

I pray that my friend’s chemo will burn the remaining cancer cells from her system while her wounds heal and her being recovers.

Let’s burn away our planetary diseases of indifference, greed, and environmental destruction.

Let’s seed the hope that allows us to get bigger, see more possibilities, and find the strength to heal ourselves and the planet.

Let’s join our rage about the planet with the fierce love that demands that we care.

 

What if, sometimes, there is no reason?

Does everything happen for a reason?

Even if you believe this to be so, would you say it to someone who’s grappling for her life?

I suggest not.

Like most of us, I’d like to believe that my life is under control, I want to believe that if I do my best, life will work out, my way.

It’s part of the great American myth.

A version of this “You can get it if you really want”  thinking has even been codified and embedded into Evangelical religion in the form of “The Prosperity Gospel.” While it’s hard for me to tolerate televangelists who make millions of dollars off people like your Aunt Kate in Wichita, who believes that her prayers and donations will fix her emphysema, install a new roof on the house, and put a turkey on the table at Thanksgiving, some of the ideas behind that gospel sound suspiciously like the American dream.

Here’s the core idea: One’s good fortune is a blessing from God (and a sign that you believe and are doing things right). Misfortune, though, is a sign of His disapproval.

If you’re not religious, that might sound far fetched, but maybe you’ll recognize the secular version which goes something like: if we 1) stand up for ourselves; 2) have character; 3) make goals; 4) commit; 5) just do it; etc., we can control what happens to us. If we work hard, affirm good thoughts, and eat extra kale (aka healthy living), we’ll be able to manifest what we want.

Whether spoken by preachers or motivational speakers, these pseudo-promises have a lot of appeal to people who want more control and certainty in their lives.

And given these crazy times, who doesn’t want a little more of that? 

Maybe it doesn’t all happen for a reason

I love the title of Kate Bowler’s funny, straight-talking, and highly-readable book: Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved.

Bowler comes across as religious, blasphemous, vulnerable and able to pack a punch.

She spent years researching the prosperity gospel as part of her divinity school doctoral research. She hung out with preachers, televangelists, and congregations to understand the heart of the philosophy and the role it has played in North American culture.

Bowler didn’t drink the Kool-aid, but parts of the philosophy did appeal to her, For example, earlier in her career, she had overcome a medical issue and went on to complete her doctorate and start a family. She even became a professor at Duke University. Wasn’t this proof that she was being blessed?

Unfortunately, her world changed with a phone call notifying her that she had an advanced case of colon cancer. At the hospital, she learned that her odds were not good.

Where then was that prosperity gospel? What happened to the idea that because she was a good person, lived a decent life, took care of her family, and went to church, she’d be spared such horrible, human stuff?

She kept moving forward, even as the control and certainty she had felt about her life dissolved. She’s alive today, but her remission isn’t a part of the book, and she’s not trying to convince us that she did the right thing. What she can offer these days is empathy, along with thoughts about what to say or not say to someone facing a difficult condition.

Here are a few from her reject list:

“Everything happens for a reason.” (Imagine hearing that when you’re in the midst of acute pain.)
“Well, at least…” (as in “You’re eighty” or “You’ve had a family”.)
“It’s going to be better, I promise…” (Isn’t it nice to play God for a few moments?)
“I’ve done some research and…” (Who doesn’t want to star as life-saving Dr. Marcus Welby, even though auditions closed a while ago/)

What she doesn’t offer friends is certainty. Promises. 

“We want to tell ourselves a story–any story–so that we can get back to certainty.”

Phrases she prefers:

“Can I bring you dinner next week?”
“Can I give you a hug?”
Silence….

What has helped in her recovery is touch, Friends offering to do tasks. Empathy without platitudes.

Promising certainty, as tempting as it might feel, does not help.

For many of us, sick or healthy, religious or not, it may be time to wean ourselves from our addiction to certainty.

There are certainly days in which I’d like to feel like the world was under control, especially when I read the news and wonder “what the heck?”

I haven’t stopped hoping that we can bring about some overdue changes. I’ll try to do my part. Pray. Manage my mind as much as I can. Help when there’s something I can do. And yes, eat a lot of kale.

I’d still like to think that somewhere there are reasons for what is happening, just not simplistic ones that I can understand.

I’m with Einstein in believing that God does not play dice with the universe. 

But when it comes to being with a friend who is suffering, all bets are off. Forget reasons. What I’ll probably say is: 

I don’t get it and I don’t understand why this is happening, and I don’t like that you’re suffering. But I love you, and you can count on me to care, no matter what.”

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