About Thor’s Thoughts

I studied Catholic Theology as an undergrad, thinking this would answer all my questions (and explain my upbringing by a dad who joked about what he’d do if he were Pope!) At midlife, I write in search of understanding rather than answers.  I’d rather live in the Mystery than deconstruct it.  But I want a foundational, orienting touchstone to return to again and again lest I stray into the inflations of too much spirit or the despair of too much ego, defense mechanisms and brain science. Spiritual health and well-being form that touchstone.  TT addresses current social issues from that base. Continue reading

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The COVID Files: Things I Am Not in Control of, #2: other people’s suicides

Sometimes taking on guilt feels better than accepting our powerlessness.  Guilt can protect us from how small we really are in the face of nature, life and death. Guilt holds us accountable for our freedom to do willful harm and make mistakes. Guilt is supposed to remind us we’ve trespassed our own values and ethics, so we can learn and do better, make amends and love better. Guilt is a measure of our recognition of having autonomy and self-control and choosing to act badly. Owning my guilt should serve my learning and healing, reconciling and forgiving, and seeking forgiveness. If it doesn’t, perhaps what’s happened is, I’ve moved from guilt for not doing enough, to shame, that debilitating sense of not being enough. Guilt cannot be taken on for things we have no control over: this induces shame.

It is important for those who’ve lost someone to suicide, that we examine the awful guilt we take on.  We feel guilt when those we tried so hard to protect manage to escape our efforts to manage their depression, addiction or self-hate and despair. We feel guilt for what we could not control: their inability to keep themselves safe and have hope, for perhaps years of suffering.  Sometimes we know we could have ‘been there’ to prevent suicide in a particular moment or bad day. More often, we mistakenly assume we could have ‘stayed there’ for all such moments and every difficult day of their suffering, and could have prevented their suicides.

When I was learning to become a psychotherapist, I heard a famous therapist tell a family of a suicidal teen, to make sure a parent stayed with him every moment of the day, even sleeping in his room on the floor, or keeping the bathroom door a bit ajar. Therapist Jay Haley didn’t mean to make the parents ultimately responsible and knew they could not be that powerful day in and out for weeks and months. At most, he figured that in a crisis, parental love would be communicated in these powerful actions to the depressed teen and would inspire hope in that teen, hope of being lovable and valuable and held in safety until the emotional storms passed.  Haley was an idealist whose methods were for those with considerable inner and external resources, stamina, and self-control. But didn’t the parents have to sleep too? Go to jobs? Tend to their other children?

How much guilt occurs when we think we could have been …super-human? Inappropriate guilt is the price we pay for being human while expecting ourselves to be gods.

I like this passage from George Howe Colt, author of the book “November of the Soul: the Enigma of Suicide”:
“Guilt is a way of bringing control back into a situation that seems out of control…It comes ftom the perception that you could have done something to prevent it. There’s something narcissistic about that because it suggests that you could single-handedly have changed the outcome. It’s not rational because you don’t take that kind of responsibility for anyone’s life while he is alive—otherwise, you don’t allow him to be a person. But when someone kills himself, you feel you should have been around him every waking minute. Everyone does. Everyone suddenly takes one hundred percent responsibility for that person’s life.”

I have lost loved ones to suicide.  I  know what suicide loss feels like and how essential it is for me to carefully self-monitor for the guilt that gives no quarter for daring to live on. In this time of COVID, I am reminded of how little power I have over the suffering of those I love. How humble this should make me, and how able it should help me to let go of guilt! So far, the best I can do to be compassionate to myself and to those in my life, is to make the efforts I can make, as imperfect as that is, to lovingly tell someone I care, to help with the material resources I have, to stay up all night with someone if needed, and to recognize I cannot stay up all night forever. It takes a village to help keep someone safe, and I am but one villager. I am not made of infinite endurance.  They are not made of infinite endurance. That is the tragedy of suicide. For that, I have to ask, in prayer or meditation or ritual,  for their forgiveness. And I must forgive myself. I have to give myself permission to move forward, not move on, not away from them and the love I bear for them, but forward, carrying that love into the life I am given to live.



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How much like God are we allowed? First in a series

I find there’s no coincidence, but plenty of serendipity, and even Jungian synchronicity, that when I start noticing an event of hubris in the news, I see it in myself, in the Torah portion that week, or in something the Pope says. Currently we’re in this COVID crisis, and   there’s lots of news of human attempts to control our endangerment by wearing masks and social distancing. Our safety is limited to controlling our behavior, not the virus’s natural inclination to spread. In time we may have made a vaccine, again creating control between ourselves and the virus, but not ending or controlling coronavirus itself.

How human and necessary it is for us to adapt to dangers in the natural world. The anti-vaxxers decry our attempts to create a barrier between us and the virus, because they believe the former is far more dangerous than being exposed, taking the consequences, and letting herd immunity develop. I’m not here to examine that. What I do think is important to us spiritually is to explore how much control I am allowed to take over natural events, rather than over myself in response to those events. On the one hand, I can’t control a tornado; I can only take cover. On the other, if science finds a way to send a drone into a tornado to blow it up from within itself and stop its power, I suppose that’s a good thing. But I’m no scientist and maybe there would be an unforeseen negative consequence to doing so.

Trouble is, we tend to prefer any short term solution and ignore the potential for sacrifice of the future good. Climate change, for example, is caused by our preference for extreme independence over communal responsibility. The blue skies over China as car traffic ceases and factories close down shows us this. Here in Denver, there’s less smog for the same reason. Less commuting hassle, less stress, nice behavior…more patience…a kumbaya of community feeling due to our discovery that, even with the devastation of the virus, it’s sort of nice, this lengthy Sabbath we’re forced to accept.

Meanwhile, our Torah portion today focuses on a bizarre story. God has given Moses rules for making appropriate ritual sacrifices to bless the people, and Moses teaches these to his brother Aaron and all. But his nephews alter the recipe with their own original incense, and ZAP! they are burned up, by an act of God, leaving only their tunics behind. Our natural reaction to this narrative is, WTH? Why would God be SO ANGRY? What about divine love, forgiveness over a little mistake?

In the discussion in our shul this morning, we all began our reflection in agreed that this is bizarre divine behavior from a God we like to think of as a creative, loving force and source of life. But as usual in contemporary reflection on biblical texts, we know we have to dig deeper and not take the surface as the whole meaning. We know God’s character is not the main focus here; the focus is on our hubris. Even though I like incense and think, how cool of Aaron’s sons to BYO to the party, it’s clear they trespassed against rules that, not surprisingly, have to be followed or there are consequences. Kind of like lots of things in life, some rules seem arbitrary, like God’s rules here. Like waiting at a stop light even when it’s 2AM and no one else is on the street?

This week I’ve been reading a book that’s fairly over my head (why do I do this to myself?) about humans and making things. The Craftsman, by philosopher Robert Sennett, begins by recalling his conversation with his teacher, Hannah Arendt, in which she warns against human beings doing whatever they find they have the power to do without a care for the consequences. She was speaking post-atomic bomb. (Without going into discussion about how it ended a war and saved American solders’ lives and whether that justifies the ending of millions of Japanese civilian lives, lets’ stick with the issue at hand.) Sennett cites how Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Los Alamos project, had remorse after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, recalling the words of the Hindu god Krishna: “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

A human being, appropriating the breadth and depth of mechanized destruction that ought only to belong to a superhuman power: that’s what we become if we do too much making without enough thinking. Without care for what happens to the innocent. In the past few days, having grown too tired to endure social distancing, some folks have protested with public gatherings and no masks, demanding to get back to business as usual. I understand and feel sorrow for all those unemployed, the businesses likely to never re-open, to real human suffering because for a long time forward, the best science tells us a second wave of innocents will die in the virus otherwise. We are not in control of that, only of our response to limit exposure to it.

For me as a psycho-spiritual therapist and spiritual director, I lean into the weird but wise idea that for often unclear reasons, we have to follow the rules. Or at least, we need to understand the rules and how to follow them loyally, before we ever dare, over time and with care and prayerful intent, to break them. We are to co-create our lives with the Sacred and its values, but we cannot fly too close to the sun or, like poor Icarus, our wings will meant and we’ll plunge to earth without a parachute big enough to cushion our landing.

I see I won’t get to what Pope Francis, alone in Vatican Square, is teaching during this crisis of faith and purpose and lack of control of danger. But I’ll close for now with an interpretation of Torah that works for me. In Genesis, God creates us in the Divine image, called “tzelem,” and likeness, called “demut.” Tselem doesn’t mean “we look like God” because, duh: what does God look like, not having a physical body? Instead, we are like God in that we are makers of things, of machines, of bombs, of art, of love. Unlike God, though, we can not make things out of nothing. We need raw materials. Demut means, like God, we consider what and why we make what we make. And unlike God, we cannot see ahead into all the future consequences of our making. There are limits. We are not given that power. We have to try to imagine, and to submit to our lack of seeing clearly and far into the future.

There are rules we just shouldn’t try to break.

Within that structure of our finitude, we are pretty much free to enjoy making.

(More later.)

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Age-ing into Sage-ing (I hope)

I knew I’d be frustrated and challenged embroidering the Mayr Corbet “The Leafy Tree” kit. I ordered it anyway. And when I saw the printed pattern was only 5″ tall, I knew I should just mail it back. Mary had said: this kit is not for beginners. But I haven’t been a beginning embroider since I was 7 years old when I won a prize for my satin stitch. So I decided to keep it, and traced the pattern at 150%, thinking that would let my glaucoma’d eyes navigate the fine outline.

Then I noticed that while all the other stitchers in the FaceBook group were showing off their handiwork, with their tree trunks nicely outlined, I had not begun. I was only admiring the colors of the thread packets, and fretting about all the stitches I hadn’t ever mastered. I decided my tree would likely look like…something a 7 year old could manage. So I haven’t begun The Leafy Tree. But I sure do admire those colors and the pretty circle shape of the tree pattern.

Meanwhile, the other day I participated in a gathering of other spiritual directors to spend a morning in engagement with Death. We explored our individual, tiny losses as ways to prepare, as the Tibetans do, for our own eventual deaths.

The first exercise had us recalling pleasant things we did the day before.  And then, imagining that yesterday was the last time, forever.  Sitting with the “never-again-ness” was not easy. I imagined my daily morning routine: sitting with a cup of coffee with milk, in the sunshine across my dining table, the dogs sleeping nearby, the house quiet. I love this routine. “Routine” is not a euphemism for “rut.” Routines can be blessed rituals, expressing a basic trust in the day-to-dailiness of our lives. Having a routine creates orderliness, comfort, and a familiarity with oneself and one’s surroundings that gives continuity to our days. It makes us, us.

This morning, while engaging with my coffee I thought, “there will come a time when I can no longer have coffee with these dogs, in this house.” I noticed a mix of sadness, gratitude and appreciation. I’m looking at The Leafy Tree kit with a bit of sadness, realizing the window of good-enough sight has closed. Trying so hard would not be fun, or rewarding,  only frustrating and disappointing. It is OK, I decided, to send it back. It’s OK to find a new routine for my creative outlet this coming winter. It is OK to not yet know what that will be.

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Making peace with my imperfection

Like most of us, I fret about what’s ‘good enough’ far too often, and it costs me confidence and creativity. I can get rigidly addicted to the idea of how my efforts should turn out. Then I fail to give something deep and rich and from my heart and mind. I still can be fearful of giving a talk (even when I was invited by a warm, eager audience!) lest I forget my speech, make a poor word choice, speak too fast, and so on. But I’m getting too old to fear my imperfection! And I’m learning that although we live in intolerant times (both on the Right and the Left), being authentic is essential or I’ll never take any risks.

Last holiday season, I made my Dad a very imperfect tabletop Nativity creche. He had just the people and animals, and the Baby Jesus, but no little barn for them. I had, serendipitously, collected small pieces of tree bark over the summer, and got an idea. I knew I could never do a perfect job, and was making this for a man who built our family home from scratch. Having his spirit but not his skills, I had to give myself permission to enjoy the project. And without the burden of my ego running the project, I really did have a lovely time, hours of it, at my workbench. I hope you enjoy my video! And I hope you give yourself permission to create from your heart.

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