On an episode of the TV show The Good Place, we’re introduced to Doug Forcett, a former stoner who, during a magic mushroom trip, figured out the formula for the afterlife (ie. how to make enough points to get into the Good Place). Doug is living a “perfect” life, ensuring each choice he makes gains him points. He lives on a farm in Canada where he is kind to a fault, treats every plant and animal with respect, and never fails to recycle.
It doesn’t take long to discover, though, that Doug is living a paralyzed and tortured life. He goes into spasms of guilt and fear every time he makes a misstep (ie. he steps on a snail and kills it), he eats nothing but radishes and lentils and drinks his own filtered urine, and he allows himself to be victimized by the neighbourhood bully who takes advantage of his extreme altruism and forgiveness. In the last scene that we see Doug, he is about to walk hundreds of miles to make a donation in atonement for killing the snail.
Yes, there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good. That shadow deepens when, in the next episode, it is revealed that every “good” choice has dozens of ripple effects that are “bad” (ie. buying an organic tomato that has to be shipped a long distance from another country where there are no ethical labour practices) and even Doug hasn’t made enough points to get into The Good Place.
The torture suffered by the Mennonites under Stalin was brutal. Because they were identified as ethnic Germans, they were treated as the enemy during the first and second World Wars. Their villages were destroyed, their land and/or harvested crops were taken from them and they were left without food, many women were raped, and in some villages, all of the men over sixteen were killed or put in prison. For twenty-five years, until they eventually fled the country, they were treated to unimaginable horrors. About half of the families that left were female-led because so many men had been killed.
As I read through the accounts of these atrocities, this paragraph landed the most heavily on my heart:
“What complicated these traumatic experiences for Mennonites was the fact that they did not defend themselves against such assault, upholding their 400-year pacifist stance. In many cases, husbands and fathers witnessed the brutal rapes of their wives and daughters and did not retaliate.”
I re-read that paragraph several times, overcome with the horror of what it must have been like to be a woman who was not only brutally raped, but whose husband or father did nothing to stop it. What utter betrayal that must have been to know that someone you loved chose their need to be “good” according to their faith over protecting you, their beloved!
That deep-seated value of pacifism – a core tenet of the Mennonite faith that is, in many ways, quite beautiful – has the ironic potential to create the conditions for the greatest form of betrayal for the most marginalized among the community – the women. Much like the fictional Doug Forcett, they were paralyzed by their belief in what it means to be good, and the result of that paralysis was betrayal of those they loved most.
(Side-note: As I’ve written before, after my own rape in my early twenties, my own pacifist father responded by admitting how he suddenly saw in himself a capacity to kill my rapist. That was both surprising and comforting for me at the time. I don’t know, though, what he would have done had he been given the opportunity to defend me.)
There is a shadow side to pacifism, just as there is a shadow side to trying too hard to be good, and far too often, it’s those with little power who are most impacted by that shadow. An insistence on goodness, in fact, can become a tool of oppression, by which those with power can keep those without power in line and silent.
Here are a few other shadows worth reflecting on:
The Shadow Side of Gratitude: While there has been much written about the values of living a grateful life (ie. having a gratitude practice can build resilience and hope and help us live in greater freedom), the shadow side is that it can be a form of spiritual bypassing. When we force ourselves (or others) to be grateful, we ignore the very real pain and grief that we need to process and hold space for in order to heal and transform it. Those darker emotions that we bury when we turn too quickly to gratitude will find more destructive ways of surfacing later on – as trauma, addictions, physical ailments, emotional breakdowns, etc..
The Shadow Side of Forgiveness:Much like gratitude, forgiveness can be a form of spiritual bypassing in which we rush past the complexity of our genuine feelings of rage, pain, betrayal, etc., deny ourselves the right to justice, repair and healing, and let the other person off the hook before they’ve shown genuine remorse. Forgiveness, if there is no remorse and atonement on the part of the person who’s done harm, puts the burden of emotional labour on the shoulders of the victim, and while it may be personally healing for them to forgive, it may also serve to re-victimize them and deny them of their full humanity. In the case of domestic abuse, for example, forgiveness may lead to further abuse. In order to extricate themselves, the victim may, instead, need to hang onto to rage at least long enough to propel themselves out of the situation and establish the boundaries that protect them.
The Shadow Side of Civility: As a recovering conflict-avoider, I’ve long believed that civility was one of the highest goods, but then I started to learn (especially through BIPOC people whose wisdom I value) that an insistence on civility can have harmful consequences. For one thing, it’s almost always those who already have more power who get to decide the rules about what is civil and what is not. For another thing, asking for civility when people have a genuine right to have strong emotions related to their oppression and victimization can be to silence, shame, and further oppress them. And for a third thing, an insistence on civility can often lead to more insidious and underhanded forms of communication (ie. passive aggressiveness, manipulation, tone policing, etc.) rather than more direct and truthful forms.
The Shadow Side of Charity:When I used to work in international development, we used to have long debates about the best ways to support people in need. One of the things that often came up was the way that charity, if it isn’t nuanced and offered with care and respect for people’s dignity and sovereignty, can be destructive and further contribute to an unjust world. For example, much of the charity we saw in international development comes from a place of “white saviorism” where more privileged white people think they know what’s best for less privileged people of colour, and it makes them feel good to impose that charity on them. Misplaced charity can also be disruptive to the local economy (ie. dumping used clothing on Kenyan markets means that much of their local clothing industry has disappeared) and can be disempowering to those who’d be better served by justice.
The Shadow Side of Peace: As I mentioned above, I was raised in a long lineage of pacifism, and so “keeping the peace” was one of the highest goods. But the result of that kind of a belief system was that it took me a long time to leave an abusive situation, I often remained silent in the face of injustice, I let people I loved get hurt, and – to this day – I often have a trauma response when voices are raised and conflict bubbles. When peace is valued too highly, it is largely the most marginalized who suffer. In the book Women Talking, Miriam Toews writes a fictional account of the true story of a Mennonite settlement in which women were being drugged and raped and none of the male leaders were listening to their cries for justice. The male leaders were more intent on keeping the peace (ie. forgiving the men who did it and restoring them to community) than they were in caring for the victims of the rapes. “We are not members,” says one of the women, “. . . we are commodities. . . . When our men have used us up so that we look sixty when we’re thirty and our wombs have literally dropped out of our bodies onto our spotless kitchen floors, finished, they turn to our daughters.”
The Shadow Side of Good Intentions:The problem with good intentions is that we often hide behind them and think that they are enough, even when those good intentions have undesirable outcomes. But what about when the impact is different from the intent? What if, for example, we extend charity (as mentioned above) that results in disempowerment or further injustice? Can we simply say “well, that wasn’t my intention” and go on doing what we’ve always done? No, not if we want to live in a just and ethical world. Especially when we have more agency than the person negatively impacted by our good intentions, we have to be willing to take responsibility for the impact, learn to do better, and make necessary repairs and/or change our future behaviour.
The Shadow Side of Positivity: In the self-help world in recent years, there’s been a lot of talk of the value of positive thinking and the power of attraction (ie. if we think positive thoughts we attract positive things), but there’s a lot of shadow that’s usually not discussed by the self-help gurus. For one thing, insisting that people are responsible for what they attract is a convenient way of overlooking the injustice of the world and blaming a person for the bad that comes their way (ie. if you lose your job, it must be your own fault for your bad attitude rather than the racist behaviour of your boss). For another thing, just as gratitude can be a form of spiritual bypassing, positivity can also deny and shut down the full expression of our humanity in a way that short-circuits healing, growth, and justice.
I write this not to say that we should toss aside our civility, pacifism, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. No – quite the opposite. I think we should embrace them more fully and with more clarity, holding them up to the light so that we can see them for ALL of the shades of complexity contained within. I think we should examine each of these good things and use our discernment to help us see when we’re slipping from the light into the shadows.
To embrace these good things blindly rather than examining them is to choose to stay in an immature, binary spirituality and worldview.
Sometimes, when we witness the shadow side of the good, we’ll need to make choices that make us feel like we’re deviating from our values, and, especially when those values are attached to our sense of safety and belonging (ie. part of our religious upbringing, social conditioning, and/or community values) that can feel like self-betrayal and can result in a trauma response. But perhaps what it really means, when we pause to reflect on it, is that we have developed a more nuanced and robust values system that’s indicative of our growth.
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” ― Søren Kierkegaard
Last year, as the year ended, I shared a special mandala prompt for reflecting on the passing year before you invite in the new year. In that prompt, you were invited to divide your circle into 4 quadrants, with the words “grace, grief, growth, and gratitude” in each of the four quadrants. Then, with some reflection of the year that had passed, you filled each of the four quadrants with the things that happened that were connected to those four words.
The process of filling those four quadrants helps you see the year for ALL that it was, not just the happy things and not just the hard things. Sometimes we get stuck in only one story and we assume that that story defines us, but each of us walks through many stories and each of those stories teaches us something. Life is never a perfect balance, but it’s also never only one of those four things.
The Reflection Mandala is a useful process to do every year at this time. Take some time this week to create your own simple four quadrant mandala for 2014. Many of us have kept gratitude journals, and that is a beautiful practice that has been transformational in my own past, but sometimes that’s not enough. This practice offers an extension of that, where focusing not only on the gratitude, but on the grief and growth and what may have been really hard to walk through helps us recognize all of the complexity of our lives and all of the things that change us and stretch us.
Here’s an idea for extending the practice of reflecting on grace, growth, gratitude, and grief throughout the year…
Find, buy, or make four containers that you can keep on your desk, bookshelf, or nightstand. (I purchased 4 small jars at the dollar store for $2.)
Write (or print stickers, as I did) the words grace, grief, gratitude, and growth on each of the containers. Embellish the containers however you wish.
Cut up small pieces of paper that you can keep in an envelope close to your containers.
On a regular basis throughout the year (daily or weekly), reflect on how grace, grief, gratitude, and growthhave been present for you. Write notes on slips of paper and slip them into which ever jar that reflection belongs in. You can do all four each day, or just do the ones that most apply to that day. Try to maintain a reasonable balance, filling each jar instead of focusing on only one.
Here are some prompts for the four categories:
This one is simple – what are you grateful for today? What made you happy? Who showed love or compassion? What did you have fun doing?
A simple definition of grace is “anything that shows up freely and unexpectedly that you did nothing to earn”. It can be a beautiful sunset that catches you by surprise as you’re driving home, an unexpected kind gesture from a friend, or forgiveness that you don’t feel like you deserve. What was unexpected and unearned? How did the beauty of the world stop you in your tracks? How did friends extend undeserved forgiveness or offers of help?
What made you sad? Who do you miss? What feels broken? What old wounds are showing up? What did you lose? What disappointed you?
What stretched you? What did you learn? What were your a-ha moments? Who served as your teacher? How did you turn hard things into opportunity for growth?
Fill your jars with meaning throughout the year.
It’s quite possible that some items will show up in multiple jars. For example, something that causes grief will probably also offer you opportunities to grow. And sometimes (like when friends show up to support you) grace shows up in the darkest of moments.
Keep the containers in a place where they’ll be visible and easy to access and where you’ll remember to fill them up. You might want to do this as a morning practice before you start your day or an evening practice as you reflect on the day that passed.
At the end of the year, create a new four-quadrant mandala, take all of the pieces out of the jars and write or glue them onto the mandala. Reflect on your well-balanced year.
Start filling the jars again next year.
Once you’ve reflected on the year that passed, you may want to continue with a variety of other processes that will help you welcome and plan for what wants to unfold in 2015. A Soulful Year may help.
If you’d like to receive a mandala prompt every day in January 2015, consider signing up for Mandala Discovery.
It’s Thanksgiving in Canada. It’s the first without my mom, so there is some sadness in the midst of the celebration. Two days ago, for example, the grief snuck up on me when I was at my favourite fair trade store and an elderly volunteer was talking to me about the christmas gifts she was starting to buy for her grandchildren this year, and suddenly I found myself resenting her simply for having the audacity to still be alive to celebrate with her grandchildren. My children (and I) should be so lucky. After the encounter, I went to the van to have a good cry.
The grief comes and it goes, it shape-shifts into anger and resentment occasionally, and then it subsides once again into a gentle whisper of remembrance.
Today, though, as I prepare to feast with my family, I am feeling mostly gratitude. Grateful for:
a blissful two week journey that opened my heart in new ways (see the video below)
opportunity to sit in the physical presence of so many of the people I’ve grown to love in the online world (Skype just can’t replace the value of a hug)
authenticity, vulnerability, and all of the beautifully imperfect ways people dare to show up in the world
the community of friends whose gifts made my journey possible
circles – whether they show up as mandalas or labyrinths, or the way we sit together and look into each others’ eyes
the gold and green and brown, set againts the blue, outside my living room window right now
the many people who have embraced Mandala Discovery in this first offering, who are sharing their transformation stories, and who are affirming my belief that there’s something magical about this process of mandala journaling
the new people who are already eager to step into the November offering of Mandala Discovery (registration opening tomorrow)
the nine new coaching clients who are opening their tender hearts to me and trusting me with their old stories as they step tentatively but courageously into their new stories
my three daughters and the faltering but courageous ways they are growing into their beautiful, authentic selves
the team of people with whom I will have the pleasure of co-hosting the upcoming Art of Hosting training – they make teamwork so easy
my mom and dad who taught me so much about humility, grace, gratitude, and God, and who loved me so much I can still feel it after they are no longer physically here
the undoubtedly delicious food I am about to feast on at my sister’s house
you, my readers and clients, who make this work possible, who share your own vulnerable stories, and who send me lovely notes of gratitude and grace that make it all worthwhile
Happy Thanksgiving! May you find much to be grateful for.
Here’s a video compilation of the pictures I took on my trip…
I won’t pretend that things are easy right now. It’s not the way I walk in the world. I won’t dump every sadness on you every time we meet, but when it comes to my writing, I choose not to plaster a shiny happy mask over a broken life. I believe that’s what you come here for – a tiny light that struggles to shine even when the dark clouds roll in.
No, life is not easy. There are some really good days now and then, but mostly life continues to be hard and I continue to cry a lot of tears over a lot of wounds and disappointments.
BUT… that doesn’t mean that life is not beautiful. Beauty is not dependent on ease or perfection. Beauty emerges through (and because of) the pain and the brokenness, the storm clouds and the rain.
We wouldn’t value light if we didn’t see shadow. We wouldn’t know joy if we didn’t understand sorrow. We wouldn’t have flowers if we never had rain.
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. – Leonard Cohen
And so, in the middle of my darkness, I look for the crack that lets in the light.
To add another metaphor to Leonard Cohen’s wisdom, my rock balancing has also taught me that there is a rough edge on everything – it’s what helps it keep its balance.
Exactly 12 years ago this month, I was in the hospital hoping my son would survive a compromised pregnancy. In the first few days, when the surgery failed and I had to resign myself to weeks in bed away from my busy career-driven life and my two beautiful little girls, I gave in to despair, fear, and anger. WHY couldn’t the doctors have taken me seriously the week before when I told them something was wrong with my pregnancy? WHY did they have to botch the surgery? WHY was I stuck in a bed when other people were walking around blissfully enjoying their pregnancies? WHY was I being yanked out of my life at the pinnacle of my career when my staff needed me most? WHY, WHY, WHY?
Then one day I realized I had a choice to make – I could continue to stay mired in the despair and bitterness, or I could accept what was happening and begin to see the tiny specks of light shining through the crack.
I chose the light.
It all started to shift the day I started a gratitude journal. At first the journal was simply a place to keep track of the things I’d need to send thank you cards for – the flowers sent from a friend in Ontario, the pyjamas sent from my sister-in-law in California, the food delivered by family, the care provided for my children, etc., etc. Soon, though, it began to take on a life of its own. It was my life-line, holding me close to shore when the storm threatened to toss me out to sea. The simple act of recording all that I was grateful for shifted my attitude from despair to hope and reminded me what I still had to live for.
Because of that gratitude practice, I was more prepared to handle my son’s death a few weeks later.
I think it’s time to start recording my bits of gratitude again. I need to reach for the specks of light seeping through the jagged ugly crack that is consuming my life. I need a life-line to hold me close to shore.
Here is my beginning…
I am grateful for:
– a river that runs within a block of my house
– the discovery that balancing rocks on the riverbank brings me peace and comfort in this time of imbalance
– a husband who sees my tears, sends me to bed, closes the door, and promises that he won’t let the supper burn that I’ve left on the stove
– the 46 years worth of love I’ve received from my Mom
– the little bit of wilderness I can find in the park down the street from my house
– the circles of women (both physically near and far away) who give me safe places to fall apart
– the early signs that a diet change and the supplements from my naturopath are beginning to address my fatigue
– green tea with ginseng and honey
– a make-it-yourself kaleidoscope from a friend
– butternut squash soup
– a long, meandering conversation with a friend at the river’s edge
– endless games of dominoes and rummicube with my mom and her husband
– siblings and siblings-in-law who love Mom as much as I do and who are so easy to get along with in this time of grief
– daughters who are grounded and wise
– a laundry room that’s clean enough that I don’t feel waves of failure and guilt every time I walk into the room
– you, my readers, clients and friends