The best part of these trips were the night-rides. I would lie down in the backseat with my own pillow and blanket and watch the night sky rush, upside down and sideways, over my head. I would listen to my parents talk and sing. My parents often had a tense and difficult relationship. My father was a tense and difficult man. But, for the most part, on these car trips, especially at night, I remember sweet, hushed voices, I remember slow, soft singing. And even as I write about it now, I can remember this deep calm that would come over me. Even though I had no control over the situation whatsoever, I remember feeling completely confident that I was absolutely safe in the backseat.
Recently, this has become one of my overriding analogies for living a spiritual life. I have no control over anything that happens in this world except for my own actions. If The Universe wants to stop at the next rest area, it will. I can either choose to use the opportunity to stretch my legs and use the facilities or I can stay pouty and half-asleep in the car clutching an issue of Smash Hits with Simon LeBon’s face on the cover. The point is, it is not I, but the Universe who is in control of this ride.
Spiritually, that was a hard pill for me to swallow as a younger person. I wanted to be in control. I wanted to decide when and where we would stop, how long we’d stay, if we’d enjoy ourselves or if my parents would stay up all night fighting. But even through this long phase (I think it might’ve lasted until I was somewhere in my late 30s), I relished that deep calm that came in the night, that giving-over to trusting someone else to drive. That moment of grace.
Grace is defined, in Christian terms, as a moment where God intervenes on behalf of someone who does not deserve it. And, in Christian theology, of course, none of us deserve it because we are all sinners. While I do not consider myself a Christian, there is a lot I connect to -- and I think we can learn -- in these concepts.
When someone (or something) else is always in control – and all you can do is control your own behavior while going along for the ride, it is possible to experience a great deal of fear and confusion. The great ride we are on is this: We never know what’s going to happen next. Maybe we’ll win the lottery! Maybe we’ll get hit by a bus. Maybe we’ll fall in love today. Maybe someone will decide they’ve had enough of us and leave. These endless possibilities of change that often seem to come out of the blue, reasonably produce sometimes high levels of anxiety in us.
For me, when I experience a relief in this anxiety, it feels like Grace. It feels like the Universe has reached a hand into the backseat to pat my knee and to say, “there’s no need to worry, JodiAnn. Everything’s going to be alright.” Then I have heard that “still small voice in me” and so has the Universe and I can breathe easy and just love.
Several years ago, the quicksand of my usual anxiety over not being in control of every single thing started to morph into depression. This is not altogether unusual for me. But, I was really desperate this one sleepless night and I started seeking answers from the internet. In a way, it was like hiking to the top of a mountain and shouting out my questions for the Universe. Except, instead of being at the top of a mountain and shouting, I was hunched over the glowing screen of my computer in my bed at 2 o’clock in the morning, punching a keyboard. I seriously asked Google, “Is it possible to be happy?” I genuinely wanted to know. Because when you have no control and you feel trapped in that helplessness, and anxiety and depression feel like totally sane responses, it seems like happiness is a pretty Unicorn in a land of make believe. Google gave me a slew of TED talks on the subject of happiness. Google is really smart like that. I stayed up all night – all night – watching these TED talks about Happiness, and, truly, my life has never been the same. What talk after talk after talk taught me that night was that we have the capacity to cultivate happiness. Grace. Google gave me Grace. And I began to breathe and love easier again.
So, yes, I knew the only thing I could control was my own behavior but, until that night, I didn’t realize the extent to which I could even do that. But here there were neurologists, and positive psychologists and medical doctors and behavioral specialists telling me that I could take certain actions, certain daily actions to cultivate my own happiness. Exercise, gratitude, intentional acts of kindness, journaling about 1 positive thing in the last 24 hours, meditation. So, I started taking these actions and they really really worked. Through the next several months, the depression lifted, the anxiety subsided. And I continued to keep it at bay by continuing to cultivate. Finding these truths helped me live with dignity and let me know serenity. And in this space, I created an online presence called The QueenPrincess. I changed the name of my blog to The QueenPrincess says and started a Facebook page for The QueenPrincess where I could share my journey in cultivating happiness with others.
As the QueenPrincess, I learned the habits of cultivating happiness but it also became abundantly clear to me that my past propensity toward self-hatred was of epic proportions. Like my mother before me, if I made a mistake – like taking the wrong exit on the highway or cooking pasta too long – I inundated myself with a slew of mean names (“idiot” is my favorite) as punishment. But this habit is mild compared to the hatred I can heap upon my own body. I would be terrifically ashamed to divulge the hateful things I have said to myself about myself, when it comes to my body and my appearance. But I admit this openly to you today, because I doubt very much that I am alone in this camp. My guess is that most of us say some things to ourselves about various aspects of ourselves that we would feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit. We say things to ourselves we would never say about anyone else. We give love to others that we refuse to give ourselves.
I used to do the same. Then, at a certain moment during a certain day, I watched my daughter playing dress-up. She put on her favorite “dress” which is a generic superhero costume. We call her cape girl, when she wears it. I watched the effortless relationship she still has with her body. The way she doesn’t even worry or think about how she looks. She is concerned only with what feels good and what she can move in. I have bought her countless pairs of “cute jeans” in her seven short years and she flat out, refuses to wear them because they just are not comfortable. I admire this about her. It dawned on me, though, this day, that if I didn’t stop heaping hatred upon my own body and in general, talking myself down at every turn, this vibrant little badass would one day not feel very vibrant or badass-y. It was an epiphany. But you could call it Grace. It was a moment dividing song from no song. It was daybreak. Usually, we can’t see when feelings and thoughts begin in our lives. We evolve so gradually toward ourselves. But this was one of those moments that I knew things had to change.
I never want my children to hate their bodies or their minds or their lives. I never want them to feel trapped or helpless. I want them to brim with confidence, to trust that they are exactly who they need to be and what they need to be and where they need to be. I want them to love themselves. But self-love is like an oxygen mask on an airplane. You can't help anyone else with theirs until you've got yours on.
And then, lightbulb! I realized, this is exactly what The Universe wants for me as well. While it’s up there doing all the driving, making all the decisions, it needs me to do my job: Cultivate happiness and love myself.
On the topic of the connection between self-love and spirituality, Nathaniel Branden writes:
“For many people, one of the commonest associations with the idea of spirituality is the longing to feel at home in the universe – to feel benevolently connected to all that exists and to the ultimate source, whatever that might be, of all that exists.
Whatever else may be required for the fulfillment of this desire, peace and harmony with oneself is a precondition of peace and harmony with anything else. A spirit cannot be benevolently connected to the universe ahead of being benevolently connected to itself. However, there is a sense in which the reverse it also true. The relationship is reciprocal. A spirit cannot be benevolently connected to itself if it is in an adversarial stance to reality.”
Being in an adversarial stance to reality means, we are trying to jump in the front seat and take the wheel – when we should know this is impossible. We are not in control of everything. Only ourselves. But, when we take the actions we need to take to cultivate happiness, science tells us that our brains function better. We actually become more capable human beings. And at this higher level of efficiency, we are able to connect better to others. The same is true with self-love. If we take the actions that are necessary to demonstrate love to ourselves, we are then more capable of loving others. If the purpose of spiritual practice or having spirituality is to “feel benevolently connected to all that exists and to the ultimate source” – the simple, useful, everyday acts of cultivating happiness and self-love create that very connection. We have happiness and self-love. We do not need to drive.
But let me give you a concrete example. I am a compulsive overeater. This is my addiction. I eat compulsively because I hate myself. I hate myself when I overeat compulsively. Addiction works exactly this way with self-hatred: it’s a monstrous reciprocity. When I am actively “using” food to numb my pain or calm my nerves or pick me up when I feel down (or any of the other 1,000 emotional reasons I have for using food), I am no more useful to the world than a drunk or a drug-addict. I am almost totally focused on how much I hate myself.
See, we think that cultivating self-love sounds selfish or narcissistic but it is actually self-hate that is selfish and narcissistic. When I am hating myself, I have no real time for anyone or anything else. I am too busy focused on myself. But when I am cultivating self-love, I am engaged in behaviors that allow me the clarity to focus my attention on the world around me, the people around me, and the most positive way that I can interact with this world. When I am loving myself, I am actually loving the world. I am able to grow spiritually as I create that connection.
In order to not “use” food, I need to engage in a handful of behaviors. I need to exercise regularly and relatively moderately. I need to keep a sane schedule and not overextend myself. I need to get a decent amount of sleep. I need time to play and snuggle with my family. I need to plan what I’m going to eat ahead of time. I need to have lots of really healthy food in my house. I need to cook. It’s also helpful if I’m writing and meditating regularly.
But when I don’t engage in these behaviors: when I don’t set good boundaries and I overextend myself; when I stay up all night long and never catch up on my sleep; when I don’t have any time in my schedule for family; when I don’t go grocery shopping or don’t cook; when I don’t exercise – I will overeat compulsively and I will hate myself. Though sometimes it’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing and I’m not sure that hating myself doesn’t come first.
So, I work hard to cultivate happiness and engage in the self-care I know I need to demonstrate self-love. I put my own oxygen mask on first.
But I have two children, two dogs, a spouse, a (more-than) full-time job, two small businesses, a desire to write more often, friends I’d like to stay in touch with, family to visit, several physical activities I’d like to be even more involved in, a church community I’d rather be more involved in, and the need for a relatively clean home. Sometimes, I’m just not going to get enough sleep. Sometimes, I’m not going to have time to cook. Sometimes, it’s impossible to set good boundaries. Sometimes I’m going to compulsively overeat. Sometimes I’m going to hate myself…
or am I? Enter Grace again…
We tend to think of self-love in relatively shallow terms, actually. To be honest, we think of “love” in general in relatively shallow terms. But Love is really tough. Unconditional love, “profound love” as theorist Paulo Freire calls it, “cannot be sentimental” he says. Freire’s concept of “profound love” is the same as “radical acceptance.” Radical acceptance is the act of embracing everything without judgement, not just the parts we like. This is truly hard work.
Look at this world. There is so much to love. Babies. Spring. Lake Michigan. But there is also so much to hate. Creepy politicians who make really poor choices. Disease. Traffic. Death. It’s so easy to love spring. But loving disease? Loving traffic? Who can do that?
So, okay, instead of the world in general, let’s look at people. So much to love: friendliness, generosity, courage. So much to hate: greed, anger, cowardice. It is easy to love courage. But how do we love cowardice? How do we do that?
So, let’s think about radical acceptance of self. And I’ll use myself as an example. I am generous with my time. I love to entertain people. I am affectionate. But I am also almost always late for everything. Though I eventually get things done, I will likely get it done at the very last possible moment or even ask for an extension. I am hot-tempered and I often speak before I think. I am addicted to facebook. I am a compulsive overeater. It is easy for me to love the fact that I am affectionate. But how do I love… how do I accept that I am a compulsive overeater. Just like that. I accept myself. I don’t have to forgive myself (yet). I don’t have to make excuses for myself. I don’t have to like these unlikable behaviors. I just have to accept them for what they are. Part of me.
Now let’s go back to people. We don’t have to love greed, anger or cowardice. We don’t have to forgive them (yet). But to engage in “Profound love” or “radical acceptance,” we have to see them for what they are. The behaviors of people who are struggling to do what they think they should or they can do. Just like us. This is where: We seek to understand the shyness behind arrogance, the fear behind pride, the tenderness behind clumsy strength, the anguish behind cruelty. To believe that some people are just evil or are just wrong, is to lack all humility. And we lack humility when we are not radically accepting of all that makes us who we are. We are not always good. Good thing we don’t have to be. And we are not always right. In the Christian perspective, remember, we are all sinners. When we feel moved to fight against others who we believe to be evil or wrong, we are only fighting against ourselves. Once we love ourselves, and radically accept ourselves, once we have cultivated our own happiness, we have our own oxygen mask on THEN we can look at someone we feel is “wrong” and reach toward “radical acceptance” of them. Once we are reaching toward “radical acceptance” of them, we can create real, lasting change. This was the kind of work Ghandi, MLK, Dorthea Day, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa did. Can we be like these people every moment of every day? Probably not. They were who they were. The Universe needed them to be who they were. And the Universe needs us to be who we are, right where we are, in the way that we are. We can reach towards “radical acceptance” and creating, real, lasting change but we must also radically accept that we can only do what we can do. And we do enough.
Now, let’s look at the world. We don’t have to love disease or traffic or death or creepy politicians who make bad choices. But we can accept the reality of these things. We can see them for what they are. Various aspects of the human experience; our human experience. No more. No less. We can radically accept the fact of their existence. We can remember that "ALL Life flows into a great common life, if we will only open our eyes to our companions."
When we radically accept, that’s Grace too. Radical acceptance is a gift The Universe wants to give us but WE have to do the work. And when we do the work, when we radically accept ourselves, other people, the world, we can calm down a little bit. This doesn’t mean we stop working on problems or issues. On the contrary, it seems to me that we can only truly begin to work on problems and issues if we first have this attitude of radical acceptance because until then, we are just railing against something that is likely not that moveable.
When I first agreed to deliver this sermon, this talk, whatever it is, I was in a great place of self-healing. I was in full self-love swing, cultivating happiness and radically accepting all that was in my world. I was THE QueenPrincess. I was blogging about self-love and radical acceptance and trusting the Universe and cultivating happiness. Then, all the things I do conspired against me to steal all of the time I had for the behaviors that keep me in that place.
This has been the hardest thing I’ve written in a very long time. I must have started 20+ different drafts because I haven’t felt very QueenPrincessy for a while. For a long time, self-love has been gone, compulsive overeating has been going gangbusters and I haven't been accepting of a damn thing.
But day is breaking again, I am slowly and surely getting back to those behaviors that I know bring me Grace; those behaviors that alleviate my anxiety, calm me down and connect me to the Universe. Most importantly, now, I am also finally accepting that this will be an ongoing process. I will fumble. I will stutter. Then I will hustle again. Then I will plow through. And it will go on and on.
And this is my work. While the Universe drives. While the world rushes by my window, up side down. And as long as I do my work, I can lay in the backseat filled with the absolute confidence that I am safe. I can risk having faith. I can risk Trusting the Universe. All of this work is risky. Cultivating happiness, self-love, radical acceptance. It’s hard work that requires intense introspection, time, vigilance over one’s inner life, vulnerability, willingness. To love is a risk. To live is a risk.
To sit in the backseat and do our own work, while we trust the Universe to drive, we must accept certain facts that the Universe is constantly trying to teach us:
We don’t have to do a single thing to be 1,000 percent Perfect. Of course, we will do things anyway. We will do amazing things. We will be kind to people – even people who might seem to not deserve that kindness. We will work and that work will have a tremendous effect on others – even if we never see that effect. We will laugh and set the wings of the world around us sailing. We will love. And loving is the most important thing we can do. We will do all of these things but we don’t have to do anything, any of this, to know that we are worthy of love already, that we are worthy of our own love and our own respect and our own good care.
I am not promoting self-love only; self love at the cost or to the detriment of all other action. I am promoting self-love FIRST. BECAUSE without self-love FIRST, everything we do -- however much of an impact we make, however good our work is—we will feel empty, we will feel lost. We will wonder why the good work we do isn't enough for us. We will feel selfish and ridiculous and desperately sad. Eventually, perhaps, we will even grow to resent the work we do or the people for whom we do it. We will wonder why everyone else gets our love, but us -- even if we are never able to articulate that confusion precisely. We will never stop trying to drive – even when we know we will never be allowed to. But if we work toward self-love FIRST then everything we do grows organically from a deep, sustainable, lasting love. Our happiness will give us the ability to truly make others happy. Our self-love will give us the ability to give others deep, sustainable, unconditional love-- radical acceptance-- because we are not relying on anything back from them to make us feel loved. We are loved. We’ve got our masks on already.
But self-love is also a process. No one has perfect self-love. Everyone doubts. Everyone gets scared. Everyone fumbles. But being true to the process of self-love means that in these times, we know we have to FIRST readjust our own masks, and get breathing steadily again before we can move on in our work.
Cultivating Happiness, Self-love and Radical Acceptance is about recognizing The Universe's deep and abiding love for us. Engaging in the actions required for this cultivation is Trusting The Universe to drive. Only when we trust the Universe can we lie down in the backseat, beneath the half-opened window on a summer night watching the dark velvety blue of a sky speckled with stars rush by, with the soft voices singing into the hush up in front and feel truly calm, truly safe, and grace. So much abundant amazing grace.
Lie down in the backseat with Love, my people.
-(something like) the QP