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So Much

So much of the pain in our spiritual lives, it seems to me, comes down to this:

It is bitterly hurtful to have our spiritual gifts rejected or ignored by the communities we belong to.

And yet, the price of bringing those gifts to those communities is being able to accept their guidance on where we are falling short, in error, or mistaken in how we use those gifts.  And that hurts, too--a desperate, sharp, shameful pain in the part of us that sees ourselves willfully rather than honestly, in ego and not in open-heartedness.

And then, for a lot of us, giving guidance that holds the potential to inflict such pain is almost unthinkable.  We are compassionate; we love, and we don't want to be the instrument of one another's hurts.  (And then, too, we don't want to risk losing the love of those we need to guide.)

And this turns out to inflict another kind of suffering: that of the lack of full and present receptivity and responsiveness to one another's gifts.

It is a rare gift, to offer honest, humble criticism in a spirit of love and kindness.  And it's not one much nurtured.

So there's the pain of rejection and the fear of rejection, the pain of honest feedback, and the suffering of avoiding that honesty.

So much of what hurts us in our communities is rooted in our gifts, and how we master our fears, and give and receive them honestly and with integrity...

...or not.


Anonymous said…
Dear Cat,

Thank you for writing this. It speaks to the heart of some of my experiences lately.

Rebecca said…
Wow.. if your spiritual gifts are not being welcomed in your community then... that's just horrible! I am sorry. I would have a hard time coping in a spiritual community where I did feel welcome and valued.
No, no, Rebecca. It's not my personal experience (at the moment) that my gifts aren't being welcomed.

But I've been there at times, and I am watching friends struggle with this, and with the fear of this, in the present. And as I find new gifts and leadings to bring forward--to my Pagan as well as my Quaker communities--I also wrestle with the fear of seeing my gifts go unused, or be rejected outright.

And as a member of at least two very dear spiritual communities, I struggle, too, with how to convey a welcoming spirit toward what is genuine and brought forward that comes from the Spirit, while also recognizing I have some responsibility for flagging and even confronting times when ego or wishful thinking are what's being offered, in place of a gift or a leading. How do we hold one another in love, and yet hold one another accountable in integrity?

It only looks easy until it's in front of us. Yes, I feel welcomed and valued in my spiritual community--but I know how hard it is for people to hold me accountable, and how difficult it is for me in turn to pass on that challenging and sometimes unwelcoming gift--the gift of saying, "I don't think so," or "Not quite," or even (rarely, thank the gods!), "No, not at all."

People hurt when their gifts are rejected, when they fear rejection, or when they are confronted, however tenderly, when they fall short. To the point where many of us want to deny the legitimacy of ever questioning another's spiritual offering in community... but sometimes, that's the toughest and most needed gift of all to bring to the table.

There's no immediate crisis that's behind my thoughts today. More like, I recognize a pattern I've seen over and over in my years in communities. And I'm trying to see it more clearly, perhaps so I can act with greater integrity and love the next time I'm called on either to give or to receive that Hard Gift.
natcase said…
I heard Atul Gowande interviewed on NPR today, prepping for his new article in the New Yorker, on coaching. It boils down to: having someone in your corner who looks at what you are doing and suggests ways you could improve, makes your work better.

I'm a firm believer in the value of critique, and in the challenge of learning to accept critique. It is really really hard, and getting a start on learning how to deal with it was perhaps the most valuable thing I learned in college.

Why should our spiritual life be any different? I think people think it will be different because they think spiritual concerns and practice "don't count" in the world—because they are special and sacred, the usual rules don't apply.

Thank you for raising this up. We have eldering in our community, we have discernment—I'd love to see some of what we know about how to make critique and coaching work, applied to our spiritual life...
Anonymous said…
Dear Cat,
My opinion in this is that critique is always best spoken kindly and especially straight up and directly to the person who is in a position to receive constructive criticism. I see this very difficult for most communities and triply difficult for spiritual communities that see eachother less often, and rarely know the truth of who a person is when that person is put into an unguided situation. Guidance, eldership, is essential. Just my opinion. . . who knows what is ever in the hearts or minds or spirits of others right or wrong truly. -Anne
John Beckett said…
The simple (overly simple?) answer is that this requires everyone to put the needs of the group ahead of the needs of the individual. If the primary goal is for the group to improve, then giving and receiving honest - even blunt - feedback is a necessity.

The challenge is to be able to separate the true needs of the group from "what I want for the group". This requires humility and an objectivity that is difficult for most of us to achieve.

As a CUUPS leader and occasional Sunday speaker, I crave honest feedback - because I want to get better. But when I look at the feedback I give others, I see I'm not a very good example - I compliment what works well and ignore what doesn't.

I think giving honest feedback is harder than taking it.

But it is a necessity if we're going to learn and grow.
Hystery said…
As Beverly Crusher said, "If nothing is wrong with me, then something must be wrong with the universe!" There are times when the community is in the wrong. There are times when the community is neglectful, shallow, or conformist, times when the community fails to open their eyes and ears to the gifts and potential gifts of the individuals within it. When I consider Quaker history, I note just many Friends worth remembering swam upstream against a current of stubbornly uncooperative communities. Not that eldering isn't important. It is. But so is recognizing that it isn't the individual's willingness to submit to the group's will that makes a good Friend, but rather the creative tension between a community and an individual in loving conversation. Sometimes what is happening isn't truly eldering but may be cranky conformity, kneejerk emotional reaction, or dismissiveness.
Wow--some really good conversation here. I especially like Hystery's comment, that the right relationship between communities and individuals shouldn't be simply submission to the group on the part of an individual (though a little humble reflection might be useful for many!) but rather, "the creative tension between a community and an individual in loving conversation."

I especially like the fact that you flagged the importance of it being a loving conversation, Hystery! There's a tendency on the part of many Quakers to equate eldering (to use the Quaker lingo for a moment) with scolding, and there are plenty of folks out there willing to live down to that reputation!

On the other hand, I well remember from my days as a psychotherapist, that one of the first things they taught me in my graduate program was the importance, before engaging in any confrontation of a client, to reaffirm the relationship... to make clear the loving root, in a spiritual, rather than a clinical context.

Of course, eldering is not about criticism only. It's also about nurturing, encouraging, and being willing to take the risk of being fully present with one another as we share our perception of Truth. If the person doing the eldering fails either in speaking from love, or in being present and vulnerable to correction themselves (as many stubborn and complacent communities may do, I fear) then they lose that power of relationship that gives their words (positive or negative) their meaning.

I like what John Beckett says, too, of focusing on the group's needs--or on the Work given to us by Spirit--as a key to making this kind of dialog work.

In fact, you've all got me thinking about this more, and more deeply, and I'm realizing today that there's a place for individual confidence and self-knowledge occupies in this relationship, too. I've noticed many times that those whose gifts are new, or who feel uncertain of how much they can be a part of a group or its work, are far more sensitive to the sting of even slightly negative feedback. Sometimes this is something the group needs to consider: for instance, think about what happens to the newcomer to a group whose first offerings of ritual or of ministry are met with criticism. How many times do groups lose talented newcomers because one or more members take it upon themselves to be overzealous in critiquing someone who has no reason yet to feel secure in being loved or included in a group's work?

And there's a part that the individual must play, too. I'm thinking just now of a particular Pagan leader, who in all the years I've known her, has been almost unable to sustain a relationship with anyone who is a peer. Despite years of caring, nurturing service of newcomers, this woman is pretty clearly insecure in some deep ways that makes anything but unquestioning adulation from other leaders feel like a terrible threat to her: I've watched many relationships crash and burn in her life as they've hit the wall of some unshakable self-doubt, and it's really a tragedy, because she obscures her own gifts.

Not that that's always the reason why someone might be especially vulnerable to the more critical side of nurture by a community. I know from my own life how my own inability to really name and claim my own gifts, what I've been loaned to offer to my communities, has gotten in my way. It is only this past year that I've begun to feel like a "spiritual grown-up" among Quakers (though I feel quite secure among Pagans) and I know it has gotten in the way of my ability to deepen in relationship with elders who could guide me in nurturing as well as in bracing ways.

Food for thought! Thank you all!
Tom Smith said…
I too like what Hystery said. (Not an uncommon reaction) I would like also to add the concept of ignoring someone as a way of negating any gifts or leadings. In a community which says that it is very welcoming you would think that someone, especially from Ministry and Council (Quaker jargon), might ask about someone and where they are from if that person spoke in Meeting at least 6 or 7 times in a year. It is not so much that I want affirmation, questioning, or other in response to the message shared, but at least some recognition of me as an individual who has joined the community. Due to my own personality, I do not feel comfortable in putting myself forward by approaching the "officialdom," but I have approached several members of the Meeting that seem to be "leaders," but have not received any further contacts.
When is an individual responsible for interacting with a community and when is the community or members there of responsible for the interaction?
Hystery said…
Tom, in my Meeting for Worship, if one speaks during meeting, the other folks pretend it didn't happen. I've often felt that they respond to spoken ministry the way one might respond to someone with gas. Everyone seems mildly uncomfortable but pretends not to have noticed.
Beautifully expressed. I relate to this post, on a very deep emotional level. Thank you for sharing.
Anonymous said…
this conversation touches on something I am going through right now. I don't know that I can add much to what has already been said. But, it has me thinking about what I feel is the paradox of the human condition.

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