May 16, 2015

No Man is an Island

At the girls' camp I attended through my jr. high and high school years, we had a tradition that still brings feelings of reverence and a bit of longing when I think of it. We would have campfire every night where all the girls from all over our stake (the regional LDS congregation we belonged to) would gather to laugh and play games and share skits and read "mail" from outside (we had to sing for it) and sometimes end up duct-taped to tree trunks because we snuck into others' campgrounds.... it was great. Everybody loved campfire. You sat with your "Unit" (groups created by the stake girls' camp leader... most often many girls that you didn't know very well before camp started,) and your leader, like a little family, cozy in blankets by the campfire, and laughed a lot, and sang really loud.

Then at the end of campfire, before we were doled out some delicious dessert prepared by a genuis kitchen staff and walked back to our campsites, we stood around and sang "no man is an island." It was a quiet, reverent moment in the middle of boisterous fun and ruckuss:

No Man is an Island.
No man stands alone.
Each man's joy is joy to me,
each man's strength is my own.
We need one another, so I will defend
each man as my brother, each man as my friend.

The words struck me then as powerful and important, and they still strike me that way.

We are not meant to work out our salvation alone. Heavenly Father did not create us that way.

Even if you don't believe in God or a higher power, you have to see, I think, how people can't become, alone, the best self they can be. A person can't reach the highest echelons of their potential without people around them to refine them.

I have been pondering, lately, the refining process. How we become better, and stronger, more patient, more resilient, more capable. I've been thinking a lot about how God has been involved in this process. I feel like, throughout my life, He has carefully and gently brought to my attention, when I am ready, things that I need to change about my behavior, about my environment, about my patterns of thoughts. He is gentle with me because he knows that, once I discover something about myself that needs changing (particularly if it is hurting others) I really struggle with myself as a person until I can change that thing.

My childhood was like a refiner's fire. I felt constantly awkward, constantly frightened, constantly blindsided by how my imperfect (whether because of my clumsiness, or my lack of awareness, or my inability to expression myself properly) actions affected others. I felt a bit like a loose cannon--someone who ran around making others unhappy by accident, who was inherently offensive just by nature, because I seemed to make people sad or uncomfortable a lot when I was trying to be kind and friendly or just trying to follow the rules, etc. It got so that I was afraid to even look people in the face. I remember, after avoiding eye contact in the hallways of my high school one day, realizing that even though my intention was simply to escape notice/be neutral/not make an a** of myself and make someone else upset or uncomfortable, I was *still* making people sad, baffling some who expected a smile from me or at least some small acknowledgement. I remember seeing (out of the corner of my eye) smiles start up, then disappear as I passed by them.

I made a goal then. I was going to try to smile at those who I knew, when I passed them in the hall. No matter how painful it was, no matter how awkward I felt, I needed to smile at people I knew so that they knew, at least, I wasn't mad at them or something. That I liked them.

I tried it. I remember, heart beating wildly in my chest, forcing smiles as I passed the girl who sat next to me in math class, as I passed the people I knew on the ski team (though some of those guys could be real punks, and didn't return any smiles... oh well.) And I remember being completely startled when....

they smiled back at me.

It was inconceivable. I had fully expected a 90% rejection rate at least, but plowed ahead knowing it was more important that people I knew, knew I appreciated them. And instead I got, like, a 90% smile-back rate.

I learned a profound lesson by smiling at people in the hallway in high school, and that is, that we are all fighting our own battles. Quite often we are all stuck deep in our own troubles, our own emotional whirlwinds, and if someone looked upset, it most likely was not because of me. And it takes only a small, friendly gesture to help someone kind of break out of whatever dark emotional place they're in to return a gesture in kind, which then gives you a little bit of hope... etc.

I still struggle to smile at people. Just FYI. It's a battle I'm still fighting. Particularly in situations where my "blundering" feelings come into play. Where I feel like a great big oaf, stepping in other peoples' happiness and well being, when get back into that mental state of "I should just go live in a cave somewhere that I can't hurt other people. The world would be happier."

But the words of that song.

The world wouldn't be happier. What if everybody went to live in their own caves and nobody ever interacted with each other or reached out to each other because they were all like me... worried about blundering, about hurting others, about making mistakes? We'd all be pretty lonely. And, to be honest, we'd all grow pretty self-centered.

I've realized that one of the answers to this problem (and I work through this when I am capable... there are some situations where the weight of negative thoughts and emotions and fears is still pretty heavy, and I find my face turns down in a slight frown automatically when I'm not being vigilant, and to be honest, sometimes I still end up in dark places where I don't care enough to try to be vigilant)is to not focus on what's inside of you, on what mistakes you might be making, and think instead of everyone around you, what their needs might be, how you can make their life better.

I think a lot of us are a lot less forgiving of ourselves than we are others. I will rehash conversations in my head, emails I've sent, text messages I've sent, meetings I've gone to... any form of interaction I have with those around me, and obsess about whether I came across the way I meant to, whether I've accidentally offended someone, whether I made someone's burden heavier by accident, whether I've made people uncomfortable, upset, etc, and inevitably that sort of cycle of thinking will produce evidence to verify fears whether valid or not, and I come away feeling like a terrible person, like I just should not reach out to people at all, I do too much harm to those around me.

I've realized, though, as I try hard to work myself out of this damaging thought pattern, that even if I did accidentally say the wrong thing, or give an awkward hug that someone really didn't want, or in a meeting come across a little stronger than I meant to.... how do I feel when people around me do these things?

I actually don't mind so much. And I appreciate their effort. If I don't really want a hug and someone offers one, I don't mind a two-second awkward hug. It's the thought that counts. If someone stumbles over their words when talking to me, I don't leave the conversation thinking how offensive or embarrassing the person is. I kind of appreciate them more, actually, because I realize that, in that moment, they were being real. Being vulnerable. Trying to reach out. And I understand, fully, what an effort that is... and it overwhelms me with gratitude that someone would care enough to make any sort of effort. In a meeting, when someone is visibly perturbed and trying to work something out, I don't resent them or think poorly of them, I sympathise because I have been there, and I respect them for caring so much about what they do.

I need to apply that level of forgiveness and tolerance to myself as well.

I've realized that thinking of what others might be thinking or feeling can either be a damaging process or a redeeming process, and the key is the focus... am I thinking of what others might be thinking or feeling about me? Thoughts stemming from that sort of self-focus are almost always damaging.

Or are my thoughts born of concern for those around me, wanting to make people happier, make their burdens lighter, noticing needs and pondering ways I might or might not be able to help? Thoughts stemming from that sort of others-focus are almost always freeing, if I can manage to believe myself capable of helping. I have to talk myself into trying. I remind myself that, for someone who is struggling, having no effort at all from those around them, nobody reaching out to them, is far more damaging than blundering, goodhearted efforts that show that people around them actually do care.

When I apply this concept, No Man is an Island, closer to home and think of the refining process that occurs between husband and wife (we become better because we love each other so much, we want to be better people so we can be better spouses) and between parent and child (we love our children so much and are so concerned for their well being that we become more patient, more longsuffering, more willing to deal with inconvenience and sleep deprivation, etc, and start finding hard-to-swallow duties actually becoming sweet), and in church callings (we step out of our bubble and our self-isolation, even if we're terrified of blundering, to teach passionately and offer service and cultivate friendships because we care about the people we have stewardship over and those we work with and we realize that *we* are the ones that have to do it, we were put in that position, so it has to be us)....

We realize that God (or, the universe, our biology) didn't create us as creatures of isolation. We cannot grow and adapt and become what we're meant to be, alone. And if we isolate ourselves, if we aren't willing to blunder, we never get refined. Everybody blunders a bit when they're learning something.

There are a few people out there who will make fun of you for your blunders, who will gossip about you, who seem take pleasure in making fun of the awkwardness of those around them and gather people into tight-knit, usually mutually emotionally abusive groups called "cliques".

Those people are hurting. What kind of emotional pain must someone be in to have such a giant defensive wall around them, to have to gather people as weapons to defend them? I think that often what we find most distasteful in others is actually what we dislike about ourselves. These people also deserve smiles. They also deserve patience. They need help. They might snicker after you walk by, but the smile couldn't have failed to warm their heart, just a little. I have to believe that. I haven't gotten good at that yet, to be honest. I bet many of you reading this are much better at that.

No man is an island. That's not just a concept meant to motivate, it's also a reality--spiritually, biologically, we can't help but be affected by the emotions and efforts (good or ill-willed) of those around us. That's how we were created--to be affected and refined by each other.


May 11, 2015

Steady in Your Goals

I made a goal, on this blog, one year ago this last January. If you don't count rewrites, I accomplished that goal by November. If you do, I completed it today. I wrote, rewrote, and polished two novels. One Epic Fantasy and one LDS Contemporary.

I'm going to just come out and say it... Fantasy is grueling to write. Grueling, and perhaps more wonderful than anything else. The LDS contemporary came so much easier and quicker and the rewrites were not nearly so extensive. Of course, it was also about half as long. The grand total: about 290,000 words in eleven months, and then polishing and rewriting in another five.

Man. What a trip it's been :) Two thousand words take me about two and a half hours to write each day. I think it's important and worth it and all that, but I'll feel better about it when it starts giving back to my family. That's where I'm at right now, but I'm not hanging my writing on it. I'm a writer, period. I keep writing. Right now, I have three polished (I believe, wonderful) as-yet-unpublished manuscripts. One of them (LDS historical fiction) failed to find a publisher. I'm setting it on the back burner for now. These two will be in the process of submission for quite a while... several months, even if I get a quick "yes" on my LDS contemporary novel from somebody. And it's possible that both of these will not find publishers as well. They're both kind of outside-the-box. Epic fantasy is hard to sell when you don't have big sales to back up the fact you can sell books. And the LDS novel isn't your typical romance-or-inspirational-fiction... it's kind of complicated.

But right now I can say, these are good books. ANd I know that some day people will read and enjoy them. In the meantime? I try the next idea. I've got quite a few ideas to try. I'll try them all, one after another, and become more and more accomplished at writing, and somebody will want something sometime. The odds of being picked up get better the more you have to offer. It becomes increasingly likely that someone will want something of yours if you continue to produce a variety of quality products.

(I don't like to think of my books as products. That's my marketing brain kicking in. As a writer, though, I have to think like that if I'm ever going to sell anything to anyone.)

I guess, to sum up: goal accomplished. I feel wonderful. In a way, even more wonderful because I've kept going with little encouragement from those I'm selling my books to. That means I'm a writer. That I do it for the creativity, for the love of storytelling.... not for the audience and (ha!) certainly not for the money.

I think that the best way to be lucky, if you need luck, is to keep steady in your goals. To keep working hard. The longer you work hard, the more you do, the more likely it is that someone will notice and appreciate your hard work and decide you're worth taking a chance on.

This week I will be writing summaries, chapter outlines, and query letters. And then I will be submitting, everywhere. Faith is the other part of it. You work hard, and you have faith in yourself, and you put yourself out there.