Tag Archives: authenticity

The Insufferably Cheerful Server

A few weeks ago, I was at one of those restaurants where you order at the register and they buzz you when your meal is ready. The guy at the register was really, really cheerful. You would have thought I was his long lost friend he thought had died, now miraculously appearing before him alive and well, ordering a margherita pizza. As he greeted me with robust enthusiasm, I found myself grinning like an idiot, attempting to somehow meet his cheerfulness in equal measure, as if we were in a battle for who was the happiest. I’m pretty sure he won the battle by a long shot. Even on my most boisterous days, I could never match that kind of enthusiasm. Plus, it turned out that day happened to be a challenging one for me, so my attempt to engage at that level was not only unsuccessful, but also inauthentic, exhausting, and painful.

I walked away from the encounter feeling oddly irritated, sad, and empty. I struggled to make sense of why I felt so awful after encountering such a cheerful man. It wasn’t that I felt he was being inauthentic, although whenever anyone acts that way my cynical side does tend to wonder if it’s some sort of facade. Even if it was a facade, though, I knew it was something else—something deeper—that I was struggling with.

At the time I came to conclude I was upset because we had completely missed each other in that brief exchange. There was no genuine connection. I wasn’t able to come up to the clouds to meet him where he was, and it seemed he did not notice my somewhat quiet and somber mood. And so it was yet another vacuous encounter, all too common in this often superficial culture.

Then I had another experience which deepened this realization further. I watched a recording of one of those online webinars where a presenter/guest comes on to share her wisdom. In a way, the woman on this webinar reminded me of the insufferably cheerful server. She smiled and giggled for at least an hour straight as she shared about her passion and offering. It seemed that a permanent smile had been plastered on her face. Don’t get me wrong—the joy beaming off this woman was powerful and contagious. I could immediately understand why thousands of people flock to her workshops. Just being in her “virtual” presence felt comforting, like somehow her joy would seep through the screen into my bones.

The group who hosted this event consists of people I love and highly respect. I must admit to being morbidly curious about what would happen when she finished and the group had a chance to ask questions. Surely this brilliant and highly conscious group would bring forward insightful, probing questions, right? Wrong.

Instead, I was stunned to watch most of these articulate, brilliant people react to this woman in much the same way I had reacted to the insufferably cheerful server. They smiled strangely fake smiles. They giggled and laughed and heaped praise upon her. As I witnessed this strange scene unfold, I must admit to being shocked and somewhat mortified. But now, thinking back on my reaction to the cheerful server, I realize that almost certainly I would have acted similarly if forced to interact with that woman in those circumstances. After all, only weeks before, I had behaved in pretty much the same manner in an ill-fated attempt to somehow connect with the all-too-energetic server.

We human beings have a deep and profound need to connect in a meaningful way with one another. As I imagined myself in the position of having to interact with the webinar woman, I felt this sort of frantic, panicked energy arise. What would I say? How would I act? How would I—a mere mortal with a full range of human emotions and failings—connect with someone who seemed only willing to expresss a mix of giddiness and delight while subtly denigrating the “lower” emotions as unenlightened? Trying to connect with her would have been like trying to connect with a whisp of smoke. No depth. No real connection.

We cannot connect with another person at a human level if we are unwilling or unable to be real. An important way we connect is through vulnerability. Vulnerability starts with being real with ourselves, and then slowly moving into being real with others. Spiritual bypassing—which is what I believe this webinar woman was doing—is by definition ungrounded and simply a way of avoiding the messiness of being human. Yes, being human includes joy, but it also includes grief, and longing, and confusion, and despair, and a million other things. If a plastered-on smile and cheerfulness is all that is welcome in an interaction (and we know when this is the case, have no doubt), then we will not connect at any real depth because we are limited to sharing a teaspoon of who we really are.

It takes two to tango, as they say. I once heard a story of a check-out lady at the grocery store who noticed a man in line was looking sullen. Rather than meeting him with a blast of cheerfulness, instead she said, “Hey, what’s wrong, honey?” He told her a bit. She responded empathetically and gave him a piece of wisdom to boot. They connected at a real level. It was the man I heard this story from years after the encounter. We remember connections like this. It is what we all want. It’s what I wanted with the insufferably cheerful server; it’s what I want with everyone I meet.

It’s simple, really. All we have to do is be real with one another, listen, and respond with humility, authenticity, and vulnerability. Piece of cake, right? It may not be easy, but we have to learn to meet each other in this way to have the depth of connection we all want and need.

AFOG — Another F*&%ing Opportunity for Growth

One day, a little over ten years ago when I was feeling suicidal, I was explaining to my sister and her husband my rationalization for it being perfectly okay for me to commit suicide. I was sharing how I had realized that if I killed myself, everyone would move on and be fine. People die every day, I said. People move past these things all the time, I explained. I was so deep in my own misery that I then went on to say one of the most cruel and hurtful things I ever remember speaking out loud. You see, my brother-in-law’s little brother had recently died in a car accident. He was a teenager or at the most in his early 20s when he died. In my utter narcissistic despair and obliviousness, I proceeded to point out to my brother-in-law that obviously he had moved on from the death of his brother, and that that was the proof of my undeniable logic. A deafening silence followed. My sister glanced at her husband. Then she locked her eyes on mine, and I’ll never forgot what she said to me: “Yes, people move on. But nothing is ever the same again. Their lives are changed forever.”

Those words and the energy behind them pierced through the veil of my despair to shake me awake. Needless to say, I didn’t commit suicide. But more than that, never again did I trivialize the depth and breadth of what we experience as human beings in this life, including the deepest grief, despair, and pain. The experience of loss, for instance, is not trivial simply because all of us must endure and move through it at some point in our lives. In fact, the experience can be utterly transformational in the most horrendous and most beautiful ways. Indeed, we will never be the same again.

Recently I ran across an article written by Mark Sandlin called, 10 Clichés Christians Should Stop Saying. Some of these clichés are said by more than just Christians and are generally used in an attempt to comfort ourselves or others going through a challenging experience:

Everything happens for a reason.

God (the Universe) never gives us any more than we can handle.

We could debate (endlessly) whether or not these statements are even true. But more important is how these statements are often used as a subtle way of trivializing our own or another’s experience. I cannot tell you how often people start to share with me the depth of their pain only to stop themselves with a “but” followed by a version of one of these statements. Another common sentence to follow the “but” is, “I’m seeing this as an opportunity for growth.”

It is fantastic to see that everything happens for a reason, or that we can handle whatever is in front of us, or that every situation is an opportunity for growth and evolution. But when we start to use these ideas as subtle ways of avoiding and trivializing our own pain, then we are bypassing the very path we must travel to grow, transform, and heal in the most profound ways.

What is needed for true transformation and healing is the capacity to hold and feel fully both sides of this coin — both the horrendousness and beauty, the pain and the transformative power, the grief and the love. A friend of mine once shared that she calls these situations AFOGs — another f*%&ing opportunity for growth. I love this because the f-bomb acknowledges the pain of the situation, and “opportunity for growth” speaks to the transformative potential. I find that all too often, we want to leave out the f-bomb. We want to avoid the pain at all costs. But when we do this, we are denying an aspect of life itself. As Vera de Chalambert says:

“We must not send suffering into exile — the fear, the heartbreak, the anger, the helplessness all are appropriate, all are welcome. We can’t dismember ourselves to feel better. Difficult feelings need to be given space so they can come to rest. They need contact. We can’t cut off the stream of life and expect to heal.” ~From Kali Takes America: I’m with Her

The capacity to be fully present with both the pain and the inherent transformative power in these situations is often not easy. It takes an ability to differentiate and dis-identify from powerful energies which can be so overwhelming and all-consuming that we literally think they are us. For me, this is a journey. It is a continual discovery that pain and transformative power are often inseparable. It is a journey I embrace because, in that moment when my sister looked me in the eyes, I decided to live.
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“There are kids starving in China.” Huh. Yep, I still hate peas, but now I feel guilty for hating peas!

As a youngster, I despised peas.  Peas were the enemy.  But for some reason, my parents insisted I eat them.  I accomplished this horrific task by attempting to swallow them whole as quickly as possible so as to hardly taste the awful things going down.  I also tended to drench them in butter and salt, which basically counterbalanced any nutritional value they once had, thus making the whole exercise fairly pointless.  I’m not sure if it was my parents or someone else who then pointed out that there are kids starving in China, so I should be grateful I have food on my plate at all.  We’ve all heard this line of reasoning in one form or another.  The problem was that I still hated peas.  Now, on top of being forced to eat peas, I was also horrified that there were kids starving in China.  I wondered why I was such a bad person to hate peas when those kids in China would be grateful to have them.  Ah, sweet, sweet guilt!

Even though most of us know by now the ridiculousness of that argument, the truth is we still do the same kinds of comparisons every day in hopes that we’ll suddenly feel better and grateful for what we have because someone else is supposedly worse off.  Lately, I’ve been noticing a somewhat disturbing tendency in my friends and clients to dismiss their feelings by comparing themselves to those “less fortunate.”  For instance, a client might spend five minutes pouring her heart out to me about how she just doesn’t feel passionate about her job anymore and is actually quite miserable.  Then, suddenly, she goes on to exclaim in an unconvincingly chipper voice, “Well, at least I have a job!  I know so many people who don’t have work.”  While it’s true that many people don’t have work and that situation certainly presents its challenges, this fact has absolutely nothing to do with my client feeling miserable in her current situation.  So why do we do this?  Do we actually feel better by comparing ourselves to people we think might be more miserable than us?  In the long run, I don’t think so.  I think we actually feel worse.

I believe the reason we feel worse is because all we succeed in doing is adding guilt to our misery, and guilt + misery only equals more misery.  The fact that we are feeling miserable for whatever reason doesn’t change, but now we also think we shouldn’t feel miserable because, after all, someone else would clearly feel grateful (or so we think) to be in our situation.  Sure, for a short time, we might feel better as we realize how lucky we are in so many ways.  That’s fantastic!  Gratitude is a wonderful thing.  Unfortunately, though, the problem is that after only a few hours or even a few minutes we often revert back to our original feelings, only now we are also disgusted with ourselves for not being able to stop those feelings.  I remember many times in my depressed states hating myself because I would look around the world and see the absolutely horrific atrocities happening to millions of people, and then I would look at my cushy little life and feel that I simply had no right to be depressed.  I ended up dismissing my feelings as invalid and had added yet another reason to hate myself.  You can imagine how well that worked out for me!

So the next time you are tempted to perk yourself up by comparing yourself to some poor, suffering soul like Kim Kardashian or Charlie Sheen, remember that being grateful for what you have has nothing to do with what other people lack, and your feelings are valid regardless of your situation compared to others.  For me, this realization was one small step toward loving and accepting myself just the way I am, pea-hater and all.

Aloha & blessings,

Penny