Am I Doing My Best?

doing my best

doing my bestSometimes I feel stuck, like I can’t change despite my efforts. From physical afflictions to moods and attitudes, there are parts of me that seem imbedded beyond any self-helping or God-healing reach.

I usually feel better when I spell out my frustrations, either by journaling, conversing, or meeting with my counselor.

At the end of a recent counseling session, I blurted out to her,

“I’m doing my best!”

Then I burst into tears. It was a breakthrough for me to make such a statement.

Why? Because:

 

  • I had spent an hour telling her about all the ways I was trying to be a better person. And how I was failing.
  • I have spent decades trying to become better, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And changing too little.
  • I have often insisted, either silently or as an aside, No-one ever does their best.          

Of course, I include my self in this judgment. My counselor helped me dig for the roots of this damning belief:

For one, as a kid, I saw my dad refuse to control his own impulses even as he commanded obedience from his wife and children.

For two, I learned from the Bible and church to have high ideals. When I miss the mark and do not live consistently, I blame my character flaws.

For three, there’s often a weak part of me that stays in bed a little too long, a bratty part that refuses to be kind.

However, speaking of parts, my therapist pointed out another part of me: my inner child.

I know you’ve heard of that inner child. She or he is the little kid you wouldn’t lift a finger at, let alone accuse of slacking. For that child, we have gobs of compassion. We tell her or him, you are loved, no matter what.

Or do we? Do I?

It turns out, most of us don’t have enough self-compassion. We are hard on ourselves even though we can’t imagine being that tough on our sweet grandchild or the neglected kid next door.

Why don’t we love ourselves better?

doing my best

When I was eleven years old, I was invited to be in a fashion show. Of all the clothes offered for me to model, I chose a plaid suit with snaps on the jacket.

As a young adult, I always smirked at that kid in the photo. I didn’t have much love for someone with such bad taste and bad hair.

But a few years ago, I decided to love that little Chris who felt so good in those snazzy cuffs. She wasn’t worried about how good or bad she was or about what other people thought. She was her best self in that moment. In fact, despite the turmoil of her divorcing parents, she was definitely doing her best.

Christine reads to her 3 year old grandson, Asher                  doing my best                doing my best

Lately, I have more grace for my shortcomings. The passion I have for grandson Asher and granddaughter Callaway trickles down to the hidden parts of my heart. Aided by the panoramic view of grand parenting, I can sense the little girl in me who still needs love, and hugs, and healing.

Today, things are looking up. I feel better about my stuck-ness now that I’ve shared it with you.The changes do come, usually in tiny increments. But one big measure of my progress is the fact that, sometimes, I have compassion for the little child inside me and I say the phrase out loud,

“I’m doing my best!”

God Hasn’t Changed, But I Have

take a break and change like the woman in the willow

Bananas

As a one-year-old, my daughter, Chloe, ate a banana every day. I’d mash up that meal for her like cashing in a guarantee: she’d get a solid breakfast to help her grow, no matter what other foods she’d refuse throughout the day. 

By two she was peeling and eating the fruit as she toddled in the wake of her big brother and sister. Whatever the mood or the weather, Chloe’s days contained bananas. She loved them. 

Until she didn’t. 

One morning when she was three, she refused her staple food. Something inside her had changed. It was as if her body told her brain, “enough is enough.” It needed to take a break. So the bananas went away for awhile.

God Words

I can relate. When my kids were kids, I ate up Christian scripture like Chloe gobbled her bananas. Each day,  I took in the words of the Bible like nutrients for my soul, a daily dose for growth. I loved it.

Until I didn’t.

Unlike Chloe’s sudden loss of taste for bananas, my appetite for studying the Bible dwindled in the span of few years. For decades, I’d heard a sermon every Sunday, read a Bible devotional daily, and often listened to favorite verses on my Bible app. I took in a variety of good theology including books by R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and Tim Keller.

But I seemed to be digesting less and less. I was trying so hard to assimilate truth and see real changes, yet much of life wasn’t turning out the way the sermons promised.

Still, I kept holding out my cup, desperate for any drop of personal touch offered in the Word of God. 

Until that one Sunday sermon. 

The preacher was parsing a psalm. His three points couldn’t pierce my clogged ears. All I heard was, “blah blah bleh blah, bleh blah, bleh blah.” 

Uh oh.

The drone of his voice, the mincing of minutiae, the glut of information. I couldn’t take it in. The weight of the words made my head hurt. My throat was tight. I couldn’t swallow another bite.

It was as if my body told my brain, “enough is enough.” Something inside me had changed. I needed to take a break.

Trying

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the Christian habit of sifting scripture for wisdom. 

My habits were the problem.

I had devoured the God-words, waited decades for certain prayers to be answered, for certain promises to have their impact. My striving had not yielded the results I asked for. My chronic pain remained. The peace that passes all understanding had not made its way to my heart.

All of my trying began suppressing my hunger. My efforts misled my expectations. All that remained unanswered had soured my search.

Is my faith too weak to work His healing power in me? Are my physical and spiritual disappointments just thorns I have to live with? Is my analytical grip too tight to transfer God’s words to the unconscious parts of me, the parts where the heart beats on its own and opens to joy without effort?

For years, I’ve been trying to answer these questions.

Take a Break

It’s hard to explain and I do not completely understand what was and is changing in me. Obviously the subject is bigger than this format allows. But it’s a start for uncovering what I have yet to discover.

My recent writing doesn’t contain many scripture references because too many God words auto-fill their definitions. For me, their overuse has drained their power, becoming jargon that crowds out the passageway to my heart.

Like many of the lyrics I’ve written, these paragraphs untangle my past to get my story straight. By refusing to use band-aids, I touch upon some unhealed wounds. 

Life is neither static nor settled. The unfinished story leaves room for doubt and discovery.

More than just practical application, I’m looking for a real change. A change of heart. For that, for now, I need to take a break from trying to control my heart’s response. Perhaps I can leave that up to God.

Back to Bananas

 “The last thing any of us need is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned as dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God.”  (Barbara BrownTaylor in An Altar in the World)

My body knows how to digest my food, to absorb the nutrients I need to survive. Thus, I can trust it when it loses its taste for a certain meal.

Chloe eventually returned to eating her bananas. She’d had her break and could begin enjoying the food again. I’m not there yet with my one-time staple although I’ll probably get hungry for scripture soon enough.

One thing I know, God has not changed, no matter my thoughts or feelings. But the vicissitudes of life keep forcing changes in me. So, for now, looking for life in the bigger story includes taking a break.

The Art of Compromise or The Compromise of Art

art of compromise

Gravity and Relativity

Out of the Grey lite. That’s what my husband Scott and I call Gravity, our fourth record. Actually, a fan came up to our CD table after a concert one night in 1995 and bestowed that description.

“I love all of your albums up to this point but this new one is more like Out of the Grey lite.”

Yikes! He was right.

Before recording Gravity, we’d written our ten songs and were ready to head into the studio. Monday morning, 10 AM downbeat. However, the Thursday before our scheduled session, the record label decided we didn’t have enough ‘radio-friendly’ songs.

What?

Scott and I dug in our heels for a short minute then went with the pressure to play the game. Over that weekend, we scrambled to write a few new songs with more pop appeal. Our producer, Charlie Peacock, helped us win approval by co-writing the songs, “When Love Comes to Life” and “Hope In Sight.”

Half of the songs and a lot of the production came out lacking what we thought of as Out of the Grey artistry. We did get some radio play, though.

At the end of the day, did we practice the art of compromise or did we compromise our art?

A Play on a Play

art of compromiseHave you seen the film, Bullets Over Broadway?

You could call it a play on a play. The story examines artistic integrity and how far an artist will go to protect and defend it—or lose it. It poses a question about the sometimes-dirty word compromise, asking if it has its place or if it is always reprehensible.

At the beginning of this 1994 release, David, a young playwright, tries to gather funds and cast members to perform his beloved work of art. Time constraints, human foibles, and money woes assail his stance on artistic integrity. At first, David stands his ground, refusing to give up control over his writing and his role as director. Nevertheless, when an underworld thug with the funds for production materializes and seems a godsend, David compromises. The catch of the money deal is that the gangster’s talentless girlfriend must play a small part.

After David softens his stance regarding talent and economics, taking the production money plus the girl, his agent leads him into other small compromises. As the play unfolds and rehearsals progress, David’s artistic integrity slips so far that he rewrites dialog at the behest of the manipulative lead actress. However, the playwright’s climactic sin is letting the goon who babysits the talentless young actress make changes in lines, scenes, and the plot. David recognizes that this mobster hitman is more talented than he. In the end, David is not an artist who is willing to stand by his original work.

This play about a play never reveals what the playwright’s play was actually about. We get the gist, though, that more drama, sex scandals, and realism are what the people want. Are the characters speaking our language? Does the plot mirror our own struggles? Have we left off the lofty and abstract so that the crowd can get the message point blank? Bullets fly at movie’s end when the story descends into an action-filled thriller.

Popular Art

The population at large loves what it can enjoy and comprehend without extra effort. As a pop music snob, I pooh-pooh much of the stuff that seems all fluff. I prefer a more complicated theme than, say, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” Having said that, I’m aware that other types of music-lovers wouldn’t call pop music ‘art’ at all.

To be sure, inside a fine art gallery, I might lift my eyebrows at the abstract and inaccessible. Impatient and ignorant, I don’t take the time to find the deeper meaning, moving further along the wall in search of served-up messages. When it comes to Art, I dig in my heels in relative places, drawing my own particular lines in the sand.

For example, I have written some artistically obscure songs like, “Becoming,” not caring whether anyone heard them or at least not worried that some might miss its message. However, I have certainly written songs with radio play in mind. Economic forces drove my compromise in the form of pressure from the record company and the mortgage company. One argument for concession goes something like this: if some of my art compromises its beauty for popularity sake, it will expose my more artistic pieces to a wider audience.

Mass Appeal

Many an Out of the Grey fan found us first on the radio. Before Gravity, our popularity had been growing. A lot of people told us they liked our fresh, left-of-center sound. Record sales were adding up and we wanted to capitalize on the momentum. It’s an old story.

art of compromise

The pressure to compromise can sideline even the best of intentions. When something good gets more popular, getting more becomes the modus operandi. For example, in the 1990s, Starbucks was just a cool cafe on the west coast. Scott and I had to mail-order their exotic blends and dark roasts. Nowadays, there’s a Starbucks on every corner, the McDonald’s of coffee some say. Compromising quality for quantity some complain.

However, mass-appeal has its appeal. It allows me to find a cheap knock-off of the expensive version of something or other I could otherwise not afford to purchase. As Meryl Streep schools Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada about the origin of the color of her cheap cerulean blue sweater, so I should take a lesson and remember that design is a gift with a steep price.

Mob Mentality

I am an artistic snob when I care to be and part of the mob when I don’t. If I don’t sink my toes into certain artistic fields of expression, I am tempted to pass by quickly with a quick judgment. I may think you are crazy if you only buy a carefully curated olive oil while you may drop your jaw at me for spending so much time choosing between “a” or “the” in a song lyric. You may secretly judge my mall clothes as fashion mongrels while I am arguing internally that you can’t possibly enjoy the ‘music’ of Florida Georgia Line.

art of compromise

From Nicholas Sparks and J.K. Rowling to Feodor Dostoevsky and Charles Dickens, with so many in between, who decides what is good art or bad, high quality or low? Certainly, mass appeal isn’t a consistent measuring stick because watered-down art proliferates even as the cream rises to the top.

Relative Obscurity

Positively speaking, compromise is a humbled move toward peace. It need not always be an act of artistic cowardice.

What’s my point? Humility, I guess. If pride in my fine taste stiffens my stance in one corner of the rug, someone will surely pull it out from under my feet with revelations of what I am missing. More than likely, what appeals to you has merits I haven’t investigated. Maybe you love every song and sound on Gravity. I’m glad if you do!

In keeping my knees unlocked and soft, I can walk your way and experience the view from your side of the room. You can show me what I’ve missed in Picasso and I can point out the genius of Sting. We can meet at Starbucks, maybe stop to shop at the mall, and go from there.

Out of the Grey’s fan base fell off sharply after the release of Gravity. Our follow-up, See Inside, never found the listeners we thought it deserved. Scott and I sometimes wonder what would have happened if we’d held our ground on how we wanted to shape our sound. The question will remain: does gravity suck or is it just a natural force that no artist can escape? The answer lies in the ears of the beholder. The rest is left to relative obscurity.

Finding the Blind Spots

rear view mirror

I looked in the rear-view mirror twice to be certain no one was in that lane.

Turn signal on, I made my move across that dotted white line.

“Watch out!”

My husband had been looking in the same direction as I had, but he saw the car I had not seen.

An angry horn blast added to my addled nerves as I swerved back to my side of the road.

“I never even saw that car. Must’ve been in my blind spot,” I muttered, hands shaking slightly on the wheel.

Defensive Driving

We all have them.

Not that we know what they are exactly.

Blind spots are elusive but we’ve made enough dangerous moves to know they’re out there. Shouldn’t we conclude then, that there are things other people see that we are blind to?

My husband, Scott, and I made a deal early on in our relationship: When safety is on the line, we can say anything to each other.

We made this pact when we started having babies. Safety was tantamount back then, especially when driving around in vehicles. For example, if I saw some moves he was making that didn’t seem safe, I could tell him so. And he wasn’t supposed to get defensive.

Conversely, if he thought I was driving too fast, even if I didn’t agree, he could say it without fearing my justifications.

Or so it went, in theory.

We tried to acknowledge areas where we could be in error, not seeing straight. We agreed to stay open to another perspective.

The question is: What are my blind spots?

I don’t know exactly. But some of my friends and family do. Hopefully, I’m open enough to invite honest revelations from someone who cares: Christine, you’re over the line, with eyes off the road, and headed the wrong direction on a one-way street.

“OK,” I say, “thanks for letting me know.” Or so it goes, in theory.

Three Ways To See It

We approach the intersection of what we see clearly versus what remains murky with three choices:

1. We Can Help Others: Identify and point out the blind spots that others have.

Have you ever dared to tell someone what you see that they do not?

A dear friend of mine, who will remain nameless, was what I call a ‘nay-sayer.’ He’d often respond negatively when I first presented an idea to him. I did not think he was aware of this negative habit.

For example, I once asked, “Do you think we should try putting the couch on that side of the room?”

“No,” he said, “it won’t look right there.”

“Well,” I suggested, “can we at least try it?”

Minutes later, he admitted, “Wow, that does look pretty good over there!”

“You know, you do that a lot, saying no automatically before opening up to a possibility,” I mentioned.

He did not like the remark but took it to heart. A few days later, he responded to something affirmatively instead of a knee-jerk no.

It worked! When I dared to point out his blind spot, my ‘nay-saying’ friend reined in his bad habit.

Mostly though, people do not respond well to these types of observations and instead, they feel judged, threatened, and downright defensive. Honestly, it’s rarely worth the risk to help others by pointing out their blind spots.

2. We Can Help Ourselves: Another choice is to just notice others’ blind spots and learn from them without attempting to correct their vision. Spotting other people’s headlong rush to self-destruction, or just their annoying habits, is easy and we may even have a plan to get them straightened out. But usually, we do better to keep our observations to ourselves.

For example, I had an acquaintance who related to her teenage daughter more like a friend than a mother. I was certain they were headed for some rough roads if she didn’t step in and act like a parent. However, I decided not to go poking my fingers into their business. As the years unfolded, the girl grew up and turned out just fine. They did not need me to set them on the right path.

In other good news, my angst and my judgment did cause me to take a look at my motivation and try to find my blind spot in that situation.

3. We Can Humble Ourselves: The best choice I know for finding blind spots is to admit there’s always more than meets the eye. When looking at others and ourselves, humility is key to breaking us out of our pride and insecurity, two-sides of the same prison cell.

If I look for my own log jam and give the benefit of the doubt to others–also known as compassion–I’m on my way to finding freedom.

Consider the Blind Spots

Why do we defend first before considering assertions? I have noticed how I leap to justify myself when someone questions my moves.

For example, a few months ago, my daughter challenged me about a certain attitude of mine that boiled to the surface:

Two high school boys approached us as we were leaving a store. They had a box of candy which they were selling to raise money for something at school. Or so they said.

I was immediately suspicious and just told them, no thanks. The store manager had come out by then and asked them to move away from his storefront. As we walked to the parking lot, I told my daughter they were probably just scamming us, not really raising money for their team but for themselves. Her jaw dropped and she asked me if I might be judging them because they were African-American boys.

My feathers ruffled, I said, “no, I just didn’t see any official looking stickers on the box or have any sense that they were legit. I’m not prejudiced!”

She suggested, however, that I could have been reacting to them based on their skin color without realizing it. “They did have an official-looking document explaining it, Mom. You just didn’t see it.” Blind spot. Ouch. I had to reconsider my reaction.

(I found out later that, before she went to where her car was parked, she found the two young men and apologized for how the store manager had treated them and she wished them the best in their endeavor. That’s my girl!)

Poor Judgement

Jesus told us to remove the plank in our own eye before trying to nab the speck of dust in someone else’s. He says I will be judged in the same way I judge others. Is that really what I want?

No way!

My judges won’t see all of the extenuating circumstances or hidden situations in my life. They’ll make projections and false accusations. This gives me pause–a long inhalation of introspection–before I dare go pointing and poking.

Jesus’ point, I believe, is to focus us on our humility–or lack thereof.

Humbling myself is a slow-motion scenario. It involves an interlude of reflection before reaction or projection. Check the mirrors. Check them again. Ask what my fellow-travelers see. Look over my shoulder and proceed with caution.

Cultivating this sort of honest accuracy in your self-assessment will help you to know where your talents and limits truly lie, saving you from embarrassment in some situations while ensuring greater success in others. Meanwhile, you will have an honest and accurate sense of which areas you truly need to improve.

We know blind spots can crush us. If we refuse to look where we’re going, examine bad habits, and listen to what people are trying to tell us, then we’re headed in the wrong direction.

Three Best Case Scenarios

Here’s what we should do when it comes to blind spots:

  1. Give the benefit of the doubt to those we’re tempted to correct. Assume we don’t see the entire picture.
  2. Stop being defensive when someone points something out to us. Consider their perspective.
  3. Humble ourselves by taking an honest look in the mirror. Be willing to really see what’s there.

Through meditation, introspection, journaling, and just journeying, we can find some of our own blind spots!

But don’t stop there. Especially when you’re already in the car and picking up speed.

Ask for help from another set of eyes. Invite others to tell you some things about you. Seek another perspective before you make a lane change. Who knows, maybe if you drop some of your defensive maneuvers, the people around you will do the same.

 

*A word about Self-Compassion: This article is not meant to be one more way of beating ourselves up or driving ourselves to do more. Self-compassion is at the heart of a beautiful life. The instruction to love others as we love ourselves implies that we love ourselves. It is not a given that we actually do. In fact, some of us despise ourselves and it shows in the way we live. If we start with love and acceptance of ourselves, we can then find the freedom to live an honest, open, humble, and joyful life! More on this in another article.

Check out my related article: Making Connections, Not Projections.

Vulnerability’s Voice: See Through Me

As a grubby little tomboy climbing trees, I longed to be seen. vulnerability

“Watch me, Dad!”

He didn’t see me because he wasn’t around. My mom was always there but the “Bad Dad” impact seems to override a lot of the “Good Mom” effect.

Once when he was there, I had run crying to him because my kitten was trapped between two tool benches in the basement. As I remember it, (sorry, Dad, if my recollection is wrong) he rushed with me back downstairs to rescue the trapped cat. When he saw how she had gotten her head caught and was not hurt, he laughed and lifted the poor little thing up and out, showing me how easily I could have done it. I had made a stupid mistake and he teased me about it.

I think I dimmed the light in my heart a little that day, afraid to risk the feeling of exposure and vulnerability. After that, I grew smaller, wanting to be invisible for a while.

Then came middle school and high school and I cried ‘watch me!’ to all the boys willing to look my way. Exhilarated to be noticed, I clambered up the pedestal which displayed the gold plate inscribed: “talented, pretty and smart !” I got good at balancing up there. Whenever I came crashing down, I climbed back up and fell again many more times.

What Women Want

Have you seen the movie called What Women Want?

I like it because it’s about how people, how women, hide their vulnerability, their true selves. It’s a story that makes us imagine what would happen if we could read each other’s thoughts.

Mel Gibson plays a typical male chauvinist (do we use that description anymore?) who runs an advertising firm. After a strange event involving a hair dryer, nail polish, and lightning, he wakes up able to literally hear women’s thoughts.vulnerability

One of the minor characters in the film is a mousy office worker who gets stepped on and ignored all day long. She is nondescript and sad but no-one notices. Mel Gibson’s boss character doesn’t even know she exists in his workspace until he hears her thoughts in passing. Her perspective of life in the office surprises him as he recognizes her mute cries for help. She wants to be seen.

Her scenes, including the one where the boss discovers she’s been missing and goes looking for her at home, remind us to be attentive to those overlooked people in our lives. People so unassuming and ordinary that we see right through them, like an old shower curtain just doing its job. This actor made me think of all the quiet characters in my periphery whose thoughts might shock me if I could overhear the stories swirling there. Their vulnerability is hidden by invisibility.

What We All Want

On the other hand, we all know those other characters who stand out and rarely get missed. The confident, beautiful women who seem to have what every woman wants. The men with unquestioned charm and confidence. Picture the models in fashion magazines displayed on every page. Imagine the actors and artists and entrepreneurs interviewed before the camera. The powerful ones unafraid to voice their thoughts, able to stand tall in front of us all.

We put these types on pedestals and tell them how much we love them. We do it because we hope their fairy tale lives are true and we want to believe in them.

Of course, it’s not all castles and happy endings. When their worlds come crashing down, the surprise lasts only a moment because we know these posed and powerful are just like us…fragile, unsteady. Their vulnerability is hidden by the brave part they’ve been playing.

What I want

I want you to think I’m smart, talented, and pretty. But I also want you to see through my masks and tell me you really see me and love me.

What’s funny is how we do a disservice to one another by refusing to see through the masks both types wear: the hidden characters and the pedestal people. Vulnerability is scary.vulnerability

I am always worried about what they will think of me. How can I imagine that they are not more focused on what I will think of them? Crazy.

Every once in a while, I glimpse a freedom in which I am completely vulnerable and unselfconscious. Sometimes when I walk my dogs in the neighborhood or meet friends at a restaurant, I forget to care how my hair looks or what my clothes say. Other times, I don’t worry about saying something dumb or being less than special. In those moments, I am neither magnificent nor unremarkable. I am alive and loved in the world.

So Ordinary

I still want to be seen.

As a not-so-young-anymore person, I do not want to get lost in the crowd.  Yet I also sense there’s a peculiar freedom that comes with being ordinary. Have you felt it?

Aging teaches lots of lessons about being ordinary. As I have gotten older, I realize I can hop down off of all my pedestals. I can stop posing to be noticed.

On the other hand, I can step out of the crowd wearing some crazy outfit and wave wildly to my family and friends. I am becoming free to be exactly me!

See Through Me

I wrote this song, See Through Me, because I can relate to being in both positions of vulnerability: the invisible girl and the pedestal girl.

When others see through me as just another face in the crowd, I trust those who love me to notice everything about me.

When I’m feeling proud and tall, I trust those who love me to see through all of my posturing and love me for who I truly am.

When I do fall, I know they’ll gently lift me up again.

When I say, “watch me,” they do!

See Through Me

Look at me, I’m oh so ordinary

Just a face to lose in the crowd

Can you see me clearly unremarkable

Like the shadow of a passing cloud

      I’m paper thin, light as a feather

See through me

 

On this pedestal I look so steady

See my skin, the finest porcelain

Should you dare to shine a light my way

See the shadow of the shape I’m in

      So paper thin, fragile as glass

See through me

 

Another song I sing related to this idea is Closer to Free, also found in my new 5-song EP, Closer to Free.