Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Animal You Need

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the August 30, 2009, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

In the shamanic work I’ve done, it’s very common when journeying on someone’s behalf to bring back what’s known as a power animal. A power animal is a kind of spiritual ally and friend who shows up to help you by providing protection and guidance. Sometimes it’s with you for a short time, and sometimes for a lifetime.

Some people find they’ve always had an affinity for their power animals, even if they hadn’t noticed it consciously. For example, from where I slept when I was very young, I could look up across the room at a lamp I used as a nightlight every night. At the base of the lamp was a stuffed animal, which decades later turned out to be the same as my power animal. When I remembered this, I knew it had been watching out for me for a long time.

It’s important to note, though, that the power animal chooses you – it’s not about what animal you want, or think is cool, or believe is “good,” or even the animal you’ve always been drawn to. The one that shows up is the one with the gifts you need.

The majestic eagle. The awe-inspiring jaguar. The powerful bear. The playful dolphin. The mighty skunk.

Now, I’m guessing a few of you didn’t see that last one coming. “A skunk?” you may be thinking. “What kind of gift is an animal that sprays my dog in the face and gets its stink all over the neighborhood?”

The example might sound a little silly – unless what you need is to learn more about self-respect. There are few better teachers, because anyone who knows anything about skunks shows them considerable respect.

Think of it like having a friend with an incredible sense of humor who happens to use a wheelchair. If what you need is cheering up, there’s no one better. But on a day when you need to move furniture up two flights of stairs, she’s probably not the person best suited for the job. And that’s no reflection on how awesome your friend is. It just means that sometimes, the issue you’re facing is a couch.

We get into trouble when we decide there’s something wrong with what we need or who we are. We get these ideas of how things “should” be, and then judge ourselves when reality doesn’t match. I once made a list of the “shoulds” running around in my head, because I was so tormented by all the ways I felt I didn’t measure up. It was instructive to see not just how I beat myself up over things that were out of my control, but also to realize how many of my judgments were directly contradictory. “I should be less intense.” “I should be more engaged.” It was a setup for failure.

But just seeing pages and pages with line after line starting with “I should” – and how there was literally no way to satisfy them all – blew open the cognitive dissonance, exposing my internal critic for the saboteur that it is. I haven’t been caught in that kind of “should” avalanche since.

So what do you do when faced with the disappointment of expecting a deer and having a rat show up? The way you answer is a good measure of how you treat yourself.

I start by remembering that judgment doesn’t help. I may not want to admit that I can get cranky, or that my sarcasm sometimes bites harder than I intend, or that my recovery from perfectionism is an ongoing process, but those things are in me. When I reject those parts of myself, I’m failing to accept the totality of who I am, in all my human mess and glory. When I admit they’re there, though, then I can learn from them, just as I can learn from a rat, or a skunk, or an armadillo, or a three-toed tree sloth. And then I have the power to go about changing them if I want to, and from a place of self-love rather than self-hatred. A place of radical acceptance.

The good news is that like the tiger and the horse and the owl and the skunk, I also have gifts that are uniquely mine to offer. And while I’m definitely not the right person to call if you need to learn idiomatic Inuit, I just might do the trick on those days when you need a good laugh.

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Hidden Costs of the Healthcare Crisis

I wrote and delivered this piece as the Credo for the August 9, 2009, service at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco.

Horror stories about the healthcare system are disturbingly commonplace at this point. Families bankrupted by hospital bills. Seniors taking less than their prescribed dosages because they have to make their medications last. That guy in the Michael Moore movie who had to decide which of two severed fingers to repair after an accident because he didn't have insurance and couldn't afford both; even the "cheap" one was $12,000.

Growing up, my family only went to the doctor if it was serious. If that cough wasn't a likely symptom of tuberculosis, then you took some Comtrex and got back out there. It wasn't until I lived in Germany that I even imagined another possibility. I'd been hanging out with a friend who twisted his ankle, and he decided to go to the doctor, just to make sure it was okay. "Just to make sure it was okay." This was a foreign language to me in more than one way.

But what I want to focus on today are the hidden costs of our healthcare crisis. They're not financial, though. I'm talking about the reluctance to spend political capital on anything else while health insurance reform is on the table -- and the spiritual cost of doing so.

One example I take very personally is the backpedaling on Obama's promises to the LGBT community. With everything this administration was handed, I was willing to have some patience. But things started to go off the rails pretty quickly. A blatant homophobe invited to give the inaugural invocation. No stop-loss order to prevent more "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" discharges. The Department of Justice's horrendous brief supporting DOMA and the White House's tone-deaf reaction to the justifiable anger that ensued.

There are other examples, but the most stark one -- and as an American, I take this personally as well -- is torture. We've already got evidence that war crimes were committed under the previous administration. Dick Cheney has done an entire media tour admitting to it. Yet the White House has focused on "moving forward" and wants us to believe that a new policy about not torturing people is sufficient. By this logic, any crime that was committed in the past shouldn’t be prosecuted. "Well, that jewel heist was last year, and we're not stealing any more, so let's just move forward."

I hope the Attorney General will end up making a different choice, but think about that: the special interests fighting health insurance reform are so entrenched, the opposition so intractable, the fear of repeating the failure of the Clinton Administration so great, that just one line item in the price we're paying is not even investigating documented torture.

This is a nation composed of people who time and again have shown deep compassion when faced with human suffering. So how have our priorities become so warped that affordable and accessible healthcare isn't the default? Isn't that exactly the kind of help a government should provide its people? And how has torture, the absolute opposite of compassion, become an acceptable bartering chip for anything?

I see us in danger of becoming a country that's willing to sell off parts of our soul as the cost of getting things done. The thing is, though, souls don't work like that. I can't use parts of your essence to fill holes in me -- it's like the frequencies don't match. Similarly, we can't excuse torture to gain points for healthcare. All we're doing is creating another rupture in the spirit politic.

Soul loss is serious. It's a spiritual illness that can manifest in physical and emotional symptoms. You can hear it in the language people use when they've suffered soul loss: "I feel like part of me is missing." "I don't feel like I'm really here." How do the consequences multiply when this illness strikes not just an individual, but an entire nation? Healthcare is a critical issue, but it can't be an altar upon which we sacrifice our very essence.

I believe the hunger we saw for change last year was our country's collective soul reaching towards healing. After the spiritual damage of the previous eight years, it couldn't come a moment too soon. But I'm also seeing signs that warn of more soul loss -- like people are watching their hope headed for a major car crash, and they're starting to leave so they won't fully experience the pain.

I know that if I allow myself to fall away into cynicism, I'll be giving up part of myself. And I'll have even fewer resources to draw on as we deal with the crises in front of us right now.

As a first but vital step, I invite you to ask any parts of your soul that have hidden themselves for safe keeping to return to help you. The gifts they bring back will be immeasurable, and are immeasurably needed, not just for your sake but for all of us. Creativity. Integrity. Energy. Joy. Vision. What will yours bring back?

All healing starts right here. I hope it won't be the only healthcare plan I can afford, but it's one that will help me mend everything else.

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