Teach me….

oakTeach me to love all things, big and small; clean and dirty: the burr oak massive with age; the silent worm that threads the earth; my fellow beings, rich or poor, sung or unsung.

Teach me to be patient, learning first to forgive my own infidelities, that I may love others more.

Teach me the wisdom of the past, of hope invested in the future–but best, the gift of this new day.

Teach me to persevere up the mountain, to resist the stitch in my side that urges quitting and with it, forfeiture of the runner’s prize.

Teach me never to love anything so much that I cannot accept its loss; the inevitability of change and ending and, someday too, my own.

Teach me the right of others to discover themselves and walk a road different from my own; to listen that I may hear and not judge.

Teach me what true freedom means: to choose without the weights of culture or tradition; the courage to revoke what inhibits happiness; the right to self-knowledge and to live in accord with it; a resolve to accept the bottom line cost in living free

Teach me to discern between having and being; to know the folly of the former, the ecstasy of the latter.

Teach me courage in a world with dark valleys; boldness to speak for those who grieve, the excluded poor, oppressed minorities, women and children, and the animals too.

Teach me to love our wounded earth, to nourish it wherever I am as though it were my own garden.

–by rj








A lingering malice that kills

To be happy in life comes down to feeling good about yourself. It isn’t about money, popularity, power, or other commonly assumed indicators of success. In fact, these may actually be forms of over compensation, masking our sense of unworthiness or inferiority.

Unfortunately, most of us think we have to earn our self respect by proving ourselves worthy in ways others will approve. Consequently, we allow others to become monitors of ourselves and miss living authentic lives. We are what we think about ourselves.

Where does it all begin, this failing to accept ourselves? Clearly, much of it comes from our childhood experiences, or the voices of the past, as these lay the foundation for self-esteem and the confidence it fosters–our ability to view others as friends, not rivals; colleagues, not conspirators; ourselves as lovable, attractive, and admired; not difficult to like, be around, or embarrassing.

Surprisingly, these voices often find their sources in the “friendly fire” of parents, teachers, siblings, and even playmates, who label us as unworthy through physical abuse, verbal assault, neglect, abandonment, and the social apartheid of cliques.

As a consequence, it’s been estimated that nearly 50% of us suffer from anxiety in its myriad forms–worry, panic, dread, phobias and defensive rituals. Unsure of ourselves, we relive our childhood trauma whenever we encounter people or circumstances echoing the voices of our past, or what we’ve assumed to be true about ourselves. The past colors our perceptions, often resulting in a paranoia that we aren’t liked, are being talked about, even plotted against.

Ironically, our negative attitude may turn our suspicions into reality, driving away the very people whose friendship can reassure us that we have worth. We can’t chance our being rejected yet again.

I’m struck with how many of those who get caught up in violence, frequently mass shootings, are unable to handle perceived rejection and, accordingly, act out. The recent killings of six young people in Santa Barbara by Elliot Rodger, age 22, can be added to a lengthy list. The focus of his anger shows the pattern–he aimed to get even with the women who had rejected him and the men they chose instead.

I’m aware that it can be argued that a good deal of such violent outbursts stems from mental illness. What normal person could possibly do such things? The fact is, they do, and what constitutes mental illness is often shrouded in legal ambiguity with court appointed experts often unable to agree. The vast majority of those with mental illness do not commit such acts anyway, and every day people we often live or work with often do.

Unfortunately, a good many of us are passive-aggressive, hiding our inner turbulence, only to have it spring like a panther into the open, suddenly, surprisingly, and vehemently. “But he seemed so quiet, always said hello, and sometimes offered help.”

By the way, you can find a good deal of what I call “angst poetry” online. Take this poem, for example. Appropriately, it’s titled “Rejection.”

 What are we so afraid of?
Afraid of wanting, but not being wanted
Afraid of feeling, but not being felt
Afraid of asking and being denied

 We all need love–and some of us, because of our childhood ghosts, require it even more.














Women are better lovers

byronThere is this passage in the poet Byron’s Don Juan that has always impressed me as one of the keenest observations concerning women to be found in literature:  “Man’s love is of his life a thing apart,/’Tis woman’s whole existence” (Canto I, 194).

In my thinking, most men lack women’s capacity to love fully.  I write this knowing the tendency of stereotype to overlook exceptions, which are often many.  Still, I think my observation holds.  And thus I count women superior to us men, for surely love is the noblest of human emotions.

Women think with their hearts, though not at risk of their intelligence, for they know how to discern; witness any shopping outing and you’ll catch my drift.  They’re no less so when it comes to sorting out men.

Women frequently assume risk, or gamble on love, unlike many men who prefer the safety of the status quo over commitment.  While marriage in the West continues its decline, given opportunity, most women prefer it; less so, men.  As the late Toronto Star columnist Merle Shain reminds us, “Men opt for security in lieu of feeling and call their decision maturity” (Some Men are more Perfect than Others, p. 6).

 Sometimes women lose heavily, having bet all, and thus they grieve; yet they excel even in their loss, since we’re defined more by what we attempt than what we lose.  The ancient Greeks had it right: assertion validates identity.  Far better to enter into your feelings and chance possibility than to awake one day to numbing emptiness, the sorrow of not having loved and wishing you had.

They say women adore intelligence in their males, and they do; but what really seizes their hearts are the courageous kind, who accepting their vulnerability, refuse to let fear foreclose on happiness.  With brave men such as these, love offers its amplest bloom.


Love as a many splendored thing

Recently one of America’s favorite singers, Rihanna, reconciled with her on and off again boyfriend, Chris Brown.  You’ll remember he had beaten her up several months earlier.

In a similar vein, about a year ago I got to know a girl in her early twenties who complained of her uneasy, abusive relationship with her boyfriend. While she didn’t tell us of any violence, she made it clear she was undergoing daily verbal abuse.  All of us, puzzled by the dynamics, wondered why she didn’t bang the door shut on the guy.

When it comes to this kind of thing,  I can be pretty sensitive.  My mother, after all,  endured an abusive relationship with my father across the years that sometimes included violence.

The poet Sylvia Plath, shortly before her suicide,  wrote famously of the masochism underlying such manacled couples as “a love of the rack and the screw.”  As a professor who taught this poem for many years, I take it she had in mind the role of culture in nurturing feminine subservience in a patriarchal world, the “for better or worse” syndrome of  the traditional marriage vow.   Women, however, were the only ones taking it seriously, as may still be the case.

But I think Plath’s conclusion errs in its reductionism.  In those days, few women had access to employment and thus independence.  And then there is evolution’s maternal instinct that still kicks-in, the children to be protected at all costs.

Today’s scene, however, is vastly different and still changing as women have secured options earlier women perhaps never thought about, since they were precluded possibilities.  And yet a good many women, and some men, still cling to demeaning liaisons.

The truth is that many relationships should never have had their genesis.   We live in a culture that dilutes love by conceiving it falsely, with our movies, harlequin novels, and music playing out the theme of lovers “as the luckiest people in the world.”

Romantic love, or ”being in love,” has a fixity about it, a must have it now and abundantly; a possessiveness centered in emotional absolutes.  Root bound, it cannot grow and lacks a future.   At best, it turns habit.

“Loving,”  on the other hand, is like a fine vintage that gets better with the years.  Here lies the advantage of postponing life choices until the grapes are ready.  I was raised in a world that told me that first love was true love.  This may be so for some, but I think not for many.

Unfortunately, a good many relationships pose a latent psychological component, or dread, that the late psychiatrist Reuven Bar-Levan nailed down persuasively when he wrote that “what holds people in destructive  and humiliating ’love’ relationships, and what makes them plead and even beg to be ’loved,’ is extreme fear of abandonment.  The force of this fear is so great that people degrade and humiliate themselves to avoid it”  (Thinking in the Shadow of Feelings, p. 145).

This dread, overwhelming and prevalent, primarily traces back to our parents and whether they succeeded in making ourselves feel lovable.  When missing, it pursues us, like a shadow, all of our life and through mistrust we prove quite capable of driving genuine love away in wanting rather than giving, demanding and not allowing.

Again, authentic love lacks stasis or rigidity.  As such, it maturates and transcends love’s vicissitudes because, with time, it grows in wisdom, acknowledging flux in all relationships, and allows even for exits, since loving abounds in the context of freedom, or ability to sometimes let go.  Genuine love has its ending ultimately in our mortality if from nothing else; but whatever its source, its loss results in sadness, not fear or anger.  Free from fear,  love thrives.

Removed from anxiety, love is, indeed, “a many splendored thing.”

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