Everybody Needs a Creation Story

For mental security, you have to know whence you came. In the disintegration of shame, in the free fall of self-worth, in the evaporation of self-confidence, there must be some kind of backstop, a place past which you can descend no further. Beyond the backstop is the abyss, a word used in ancient scripture for pre-creation (Gen 1:2). The backstop is thus creation itself and to make it real and “sensible,” you must have a story around it. Creation is a big deal, so your story must be grand.

The Creation of Adam (detail) – Michelangelo, c. 1512

Here is my creation story. I rely heavily on it.

My creation story is an appropriation from, and an expression of, my chosen spiritual tradition, which shares its basic outline (the philosophia perennis) with the mystical branches of most of the world’s enduring religions. Starting from Aristotle and continuing through Thomas Aquinas, I believe in the “ultimate source, first cause or unoriginated origin,” which has many names or no name, but which I will simply call “God.” God is infinite and ultimate. From these qualities we can distill the more practical values of goodness, truth and beauty.

God is abundant and overflowing. God wants to express Godself. The known and unknown universe is God’s self-expression. God speaks and creation happens, not just once but in every moment. Some call this God’s Word (Jn 1:1-3), but perhaps “encyclopedia” is also a useful term, because the universe covers all that God wants to say. Just on this planet we are amazed by the plenitude of flora and fauna. Occasionally there is a news story about some new creature discovered at some remote location. Another entry in God’s encyclopedia.

jelly-fish

 

Not just forms and species have entries in the big book. Every instance of every species has a separate entry. God’s expression has a different nuance in this jellyfish versus that jellyfish versus the one that lived a million years ago. And so it is with human beings.

Who are you? You are a unique expression of God. What God has to say in and through the totality of you has never been said before, is not being said elsewhere, and will never be said again. Even the human embryo that spontaneously aborts before the mother even knows she is pregnant was a unique, once-and-for-always piece of God’s self-expression. All of this, seen and unseen. And yet, the world is finite; the universe is finite; neither will ever fully express the infinite God.

Everybody’s default creation story is their family of origin – mom, dad, siblings, whoever your early caregivers were. The trouble with this story is that it is at best, wounding and at worst, toxic. We are all wounded by our families because they, like all people, are wounded themselves. In more severe cases, the wounding amounts to developmental trauma and chronic shame, causing significant personality and relationship issues in adulthood. How can you hold yourself together if your mother always tore you down or your father abused you?

Interestingly, adopted children, even those in best-case families, eventually want to know about their biological parents. They have an unshakable sense that a foundational chapter in their creation stories is missing.

The causality of how I got here obviously runs, in part, through my mother and my father. Maybe my “self” would not have existed without them and the random events that brought them together. They are my “entry point into history.” However, God was clearly going to express “me,” one way or another. God is intentional. Thus, I am not primarily my mother’s son or my father’s son, and my children are ultimately not all about me. The greater truth is that my father is my brother and my daughter is my sister, all gazing back to the One who speaks (more specifically, loves) us into existence.

“God does not love you because you are good. You are good because God loves you.” God, the infinite source of goodness, is the necessary and sufficient condition for your goodness. Contra Descartes, it is not “I think, therefore I am.” It is “God loves me, therefore I am.” This is what is means to be “created in the image of God.” If God doesn’t love you, you are not going to hell; you never existed in the first place.

A unique image of God, like a facet of an infinitely cut diamond, is your True Self – who you really are. We spend our lifetimes trying to buy into this ultimate reality. Our False Self, which is not bad (more like sad), seems to be both the means and the obstacle to our self-realization. We wrestle and struggle with it. Sometimes it feels like we are losing (the False Self feels more real). Compassion and mercy are always needed to cope with the low points. The question of your goodness, your worthiness, however, is a fake question if you have an adequate creation story.

 

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Marriage: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Renewing or reneging on the marriage commitment is, for most people, their biggest discernment ever. Many factors go into the decision, but the core dilemma is often integrity versus suffering. Commitment means something; it has enduring power within conscience (though its limits are rarely explored). Marriage highly structures social and private life, thereby creating family. Will anyone recognize me once I am suddenly single? Will I recognize myself? A commitment to a central structure largely constitutes integrity for the married person.

farmer-and-bird-1923

Farmer and Bird – Norman Rockwell – 1923

On the other hand, divorce presents an escape hatch for a world of hurt. Humans instinctively look for the first available exit from suffering. Do I work indefinitely to improve the relationship with no guarantee of success or eject now? Ending the immediate pain and dealing with any side-effects later sounds like a big relief. It might even be the most charitable move in the short- and long-term for all concerned.

I want to put in a strong disclaimer here that in any particular marriage, the question of “should I stay or should I go” is a personal one. Family, friends, spiritual advisors and marriage counselors cannot answer the question for you and should not judge your answer afterwards. With that proviso, as an example, here are my criteria for remaining in my own marriage.

My Non-Negotiables of Marriage

The dignity of the human person has primacy in all human affairs, including marriage. You are the final guardian of your own dignity, which is the object of an appropriate self-love. If you do not love yourself, you cannot really love anybody else (and vice versa). Any kind of abuse, by definition, attacks dignity. Physical, emotional, sexual, or spiritual abuse cannot be permitted.

Marriage obviously requires active engagement from both spouses. The absence of engagement is abandonment. It is clear that if your spouse does not come home one day and is never heard from again, you’ve been abandoned. There are other ways, however, that  one can leave a marriage. When your spouse refuses to work towards mutual satisfaction in the marital relationship, you no longer have a partner and likewise, you have been left alone. Infidelity or betrayal is also a form of abandonment. You cannot be in two places at once.

Two engaged people with basic respect still have a marriage. If both parties choose to stay, there is hope. However one person may find the challenge too great and choose to go. May there be mercy either way.

Marriage Requires Accommodation

If we have been trusted to look at the depth of our partners’ wounds and through empathy touch their pain, we cannot help but be moved to compassion (unless we are completely blinded and numbed by our own pain). Without a compassionate response, your partner will immediately retreat behind old defenses and you probably won’t get a second chance. Assuming that your heart can look outward, what is your next move?

billiards is easy to learn

Billiards Is Easy To Learn – Norman Rockwell, 1920

Here are some thoughts leading to responses that are not going to work:

  • Eureka!, I thought. She finally admitted that it is her problem. I knew I was right!
  • Now he has to change and he knows it.
  • I’ll do everything I can to help her fix that problem.
  • Poor thing. I guess I’ll give him another chance.

A better idea is to participate and reciprocate, as in:

  • Gosh, if we’re being that honest here, I could share a few things.

Seeing Through the Heart Space

Still, a direct response to your spouse’s wounds is invited. Empathetic acknowledgement is the action in the moment. Beyond that, do understand that these wounds likely have roots in childhood and are not disappearing anytime soon, if ever. Your partner’s radical change is not right around the corner. The difference in your relationship is that you now have the interpretive key for his or her out-sized defenses and aggression. With this key, you can take less offense, dampen irritation and stay cool, for more of the world’s pain is caused by taking offense rather than by giving offense. Remind yourself that what is really happening is that his/her wounds are crying out and then recall the innocent one who received them and the powerless one who confessed them.

Accommodation Is an Act of Mercy

Then you make a series of accommodations. The word means “towards a fit.” You go out of your way to avoid the irritants and positions that are uncomfortable for your spouse’s wounds. You exercise greater patience. You act this way not because of any requirement of fairness or honor. You accommodate as an act of mercy. It is needed, so you provide it, with no expectation of recompense. Henri Nouwen wrote of healing friendship:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.

You want to be that friend for your beloved.

Convincing Employees to Quit

If you have been practicing personal management, you know your direct reports on a personal level. You have a good sense of their strengths, their interpersonal style, their values and priorities. You even have some idea about what’s going on in the rest of their lives – the larger context of their work performances.

eps_sdma_2011__a_dream_about_my_ideal_job____by_cindistine-d64qxeb

Thus, when there is a downward performance trend, you’re in a good position to assess, collaboratively, whether this person needs help (resources, counseling, encouragement, motivation) or if s/he is (no longer) in the right job. Often, he is not even in the right profession.

Instead of firing this person (adversarial and often too much trouble) or waiting to cull him in the next lay-off (disingenuous), put the effort into convincing him to quit. “Guided quitting” is positive for both parties. How do you execute it?

  1. Maintain an attitude of total positive regard. The problem is with fit and both parties are losing. However, the employer has survived less-than-optimal employees in the past, so this is really all about what’s best for the employee.
  2. Do the help versus placement discernment in collaboration with the employee. Work until he agrees that the issue is placement. He’s in the wrong job for his strengths and/or his desire.
  3. Emphasize authenticity in the employee’s career. “Do what you like and like what you do.” Moreover, “play to your strengths; nobody else has quite the same set.” Also, authenticity is the argument against simply compensation-driven job calculations.
  4. Highlight opportunity cost. While he stays here, his better placements are left undone, unattended, unfulfilled.

Sure, there will be many/most that you will not convince, but they will have an alternative storyline for their dismissal that they cannot easily discard. It may just change their lives later on.