My Self-Indictment

It’s been a while since I’ve posted something on my blog. This was not my plan. But in my own defense against my accusatory self, my life has been unusually full over the past few months. My sons have entered new schools, my wife has begun in earnest a new school program for herself, I’m finishing up a book project and preparing for a Kickstarter launch (stay tuned), and doing my very best to prioritize healthy eating and living practices. All that speaks nothing of my day-job in pastoral ministry which continues, full of joy and frustration, privilege, and very, very heavy weights of responsibility.

Believe it not, however, I think my own tendency toward self-indictment is principle cause for my lack of blog-material production of late. I’m very often my own worst enemy. And that’s the topic of this post: my accusatory self.

A couple months ago, I began writing a piece on despair. I couldn’t perfect it. So, it remains locked on my laptop hard drive. I do hope that it will eventually reach the light of day, but I haven’t yet built the courage to put it out there. At every turn during the writing process, I could hear my inner critic reminding me that that last sentence tapped out on the screen could be interpreted in not-so-flattering ways. I heard its gentle but frantic voice whispering about the few who would take offense at me expressing my thoughts in that particular way. And then, after having re-written it, I heard that troll criticize the new material from the perspective of a hostile community in the opposite extreme.

It’s a curious dynamic.

Precious few of these private voices have ever been spoken to me by others directly (or indirectly). I’m primarily aware of them because of having read the comments (don’t ever read the comments by the way ) on other pieces, or through unbridled conversations in person regarding other people or subjects. Their voices echo and morph in my psyche.

A friend of mine taught publicly this last year on a theme that has great discord among church people. Before the lecture even began, opposition to the presentation began to mount on online message boards. Angry and frightened religiously devout people wrote fanciful conspiracy-theories about the speaker and associated communities of faith. Facebook-grandmas indiscriminately forwarded emails to their tribes. My friend’s best intentions and considerable skill did not save them from attack; and that was only the beginning! Once the material was out in the open, recorded and published for all to see, the attacks began in earnest from other, opposite, perspectives on the spectrum. Many things, from the choice of topic itself, to the speakers’ past, to their credentials, to their race and gender, were brought into focus and thoroughly deconstructed. Before it was all over, the very motive of the speaker, their heart, their intentions, were twisted and interpreted as pure evil. My friend, despite a solid and conscientious attempt at addressing a difficult and contentious topic, had been thoroughly eviscerated from all sides – not self-prophylactically as is the subject of this article, but in the frantic court of public opinion.

It can be terrifying to stand up and say something, anything; to put thoughts to paper or film and post them for the world to see. Even if the critics don’t come calling as they did my colleague, some of us, yours truly included, make sure their voices are felt none the less. Creating in the shadow of self-indictment has been a paralyzing, deconstructive, and obsessive loop for me. It has not been healthy for me or for those I have the privilege of influencing.

"Creating in the shadow of self-indictment has been a paralyzing, deconstructive, and obsessive loop for me."

Now – I could play the victim here. I could finish this article by writing about how terrible those people are who served up oversized helpings of opinion on message boards and blogs. I could write about the anti-social and community-destroying nature of 21st century social media. But I don’t think those tacks would either be constructive or truthful. The fact is that my creative incapacity has far more to do with me than it does with outside forces.

My own story has taught me to make too much use of inner critic. While this dynamic might not be true for everyone, I’m sure I’m not alone. I have experienced very real rejection at certain points in my 36 years, the most hurtful in traumatic ways that were both boundary breaking and therefore outside my control. As a child, adolescent, and even as a young adult, I learned to cope with some of these experiences by exerting control in what little ways I had less. In my mind, I came to believe that the more in control I was over life, the less likely I was to re-experience such painful injuries. Often this hyper-attention translated into me choosing to disengage preventatively: refusing to even try throwing my opinion out or participating in the conversation. My unexamined reasoning held that if I just meekly listen, without taking a position, I can’t be attacked, I can’t be pushed out, I can’t be left behind. Over time, my uber-precaution fed and developed a well-trained inner critic.

In other words, I believe I tend to avoid sticking my neck out there today not because “people on social media are mean” or because of “the trolls,” but because I am only recently learning how to coexist with debate opponents (or downright nasty people) with love in my heart and a skip in my step. I’m only recently developing the skills to be confident in my own identity, my own sense of calling, and in my own convictions – regardless of the push back. I’m only recently learning to allow these to shape my public voice instead of the inner critic. 

For those of you who have gone through this process as an adult, you know how challenging it is. But just as disengagement leads into cycles of paralysis, courageous creativity and expression multiplies into cycles of positive action.

I do also have to admit in all this that at times, my critic has (and still does) serve me well. He’s like my body-guard, looking out for me, and trying to protect me. He’s trying to help, truly. And there are many moments I can point to in the past where he, full of anxiety, has pressed me to produce something much better than I initially made. There are moments where his insistence on refinement, harder work, more hours, something like perfection, created something more beautiful than I had originally accepted. It is simply fact that some of my work has been excellent because of this “bouncer” at the door.

And yet, now, as a grown man, I’m beginning to learn that I, as the artist (to keep the metaphor going), hold the creative power in this relationship. It’s my choice. It’s my decision. It’s my risk to take. I’m old enough to know that wisdom is absolutely irreplaceable, even from the inner critic – and also that cycles of immobilized depression are possible in the absence of all gambles.

In the end, I have hope that my experience with the inner critic will lead me not only to produce better material, but even more, to be a more empathetic reader of others’ material as well. I want this voice I’ve honed over the years to serve me positively. I want him to help shape the tone I take when I comment online and the angle I use when in conversation with friends. I don’t always succeed. But at its best, my critic can be a useful guide.

"We, as a society, have the capacity to be charitable...to assume the best...to interpret with generosity and kindness."

In fact, at times I find myself feeling defensive of others who create – like my speaker friend I mentioned above -- but also of those with whom I disagree. Not only did that person’s experience lead me to self-reflect, and self-critique, it also opened up a path of (for right or for wrong) righteous outrage for me. For many of us, especially those like me, it takes courage to put your work out for all to see. I think the act of bravery alone deserves at least a modicum of respect. We, as a society, have the capacity to be charitable in response to opinion shared publicly. We have the capacity to assume the best, even when the execution is off. We have the capacity to interpret with generosity and kindness.

As a writer myself, I certainly long for that from my readers!

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Often when I feel this sense of anger rise up in response to a public disembowelment, my mind is drawn to a scene of the 1995 Michael Douglas and Annette Bening film, “The American President.” At one point, Douglas, who plays the president, finds himself in a heavily critical conversation with his chief of staff. I don’t recall the details of the political situation, but it seems that there were no good options for the administration – no set of actions that yielded minimal political or real-life ramifications. In the conversation, the president’s chief of staff is unvarnished in his criticism; it was a moment of truth. The heated exchange grows to a head as Douglas shouts to his friend, “Is the view pretty good from the cheap seats AJ?”

The insinuation is that it’s easy to pick and poke, attack and deconstruct, from a position of having little to lose, from a place of little to no investment. Without “skin in the game” as it were, critique can really fall flat. Unless you’re actively engaging with the issues, tangling with problems, attempting solutions, putting yourself at risk, your criticisms can come across to those at the table as more than a little hollow. In fact, some of the greatest allies for your cause might be the ones you so easily dismiss as evil, deluded, committee automatons.

After having served on a great many committees and leadership boards, I know all too well how those tasked with making decisions agonize about the many, many factors and consequences that go into them. And I have also been privy to the casual and ignorant conversations critiquing those decisions with great force and ostensible authority, but with not an ounce of empathy, and truly without comprehensive understanding. The “cheap seats” might seem like a perfect place from which to be an expert, arm-chair quarterback. But unless you have or are engaged in the issue, your critique is more likely to be myopic at best. In fact, sometimes our inner critic (and by now you might accurately be renaming this as EGO), from the cheap seats, likes to express him or herself simply to feel bigger, more powerful, and more in control.

There is such a thing as injustice. Wrong is wrong. Evil is evil. Sometimes views are expressed or actions performed that simply are not ok. No amount of self-mind-ninjitsu, or insider self-justification, will transform them into constructive or beautiful actions. But I think the list of truly un-just leaders might be shorter than the frantic voices of social media can lead us to think.

It’s super easy to allow our inner critics to condemn what others are doing. I want to be someone who gives the benefit of the doubt – who gives common courtesy – who lives under mercy as a first policy; this for myself as well as for others. I strive to keep my own inner critic in check: granting both me and you with unearned kindness. I want to be quick to listen, quick to grace, quick to curiosity – slow to criticism. I want to be brave and thoughtful, daring and humble, considerate and precise.

May God grant me the courage to give myself grace - even for this imperfect piece. And may he grant you the courage to give grace just the same. May God bless us all in our creative work that pushes the ball forward, and welcomes into reality the Kingdom of God.

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For additional reading and reflection on some of this subject matter, I recommend the following:

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1.     For artists and creators, I’ve recently finished a book by Julia Cameron called “the Artist’s Way.” Many of you will have already heard of it. It’s a classic in the field; I think it’s worth every minute. https://www.amazon.com/Artists-Way-25th-Anniversary/dp/0143129252/ref=pd_lpo_sbs_14_t_0?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=419VCH8E0Y6KG4KGVDP5

2.     Rob Bell’s podcast has been a blessing to me personally. You likely won’t agree with everything he says, but as I’ve outlined above, I think he models the kind of courage our world needs – the willingness to express ourselves in dialogue, without letting those inner voices shut us down prophylactically. His most recent post on “everyone is your teacher” (episode 166) is particularly apt with regards to this post. https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-robcast/id956742638?mt=2&i=1000392953150

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3.     Finally, I’d also recommend a book recommended to me by a good friend. It is really a transcription of a speech given some 20 years ago, but I found the material both touching and challenging. Again, very closely related to the above article. Anthony DeMello’s “Rediscovering Life.” https://www.amazon.com/Rediscovering-Life-Reality-Anthony-Mello/dp/030798494X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1507133578&sr=1-1&keywords=rediscovering+life

 

 

Grandpa Wayne's Eulogy

 [My grandfather passed away recently and the folllowing is what I wrote and read at his memorial service, Sunday, July 16, 2017]

Harold Wayne DeMoss was a man of duty, excellence, and integrity. He was born in 1933 on Halloween, October 31, to Lawrence and Millie Stanton DeMoss in Walla Walla, Washington. Over his 83 years of life, he served his country, community, and family with distinction and honor. Wayne (as he was known by his family and friends) died in Spokane, Washington on June 13, 2017 at the conclusion of chronic medical challenges.

A lifelong citizen of Walla Walla, Wayne grew up as a hard working child of hard working parents. His family owned a grocery store located on 2nd Avenue in Walla Walla known as DeMoss Grocery. Wayne grew up living in an apartment “in the back” of the store and learned to work hard at an early age. By the time he was attending Walla Walla High School in the early 1950s, he not only worked for his parents in the family store, he had also taken a job at Young’s Dairy driving milk truck (also a family business, owned by his uncle).

It was only prospect of serving his country in wartime that pulled Wayne from his work. Soon after graduating from Wa-Hi in the Class of 1952, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, in 1953. This, he chose, instead of likely being drafted into the Army. Wayne served as a marine for 3 years, all on the tail end of the Korean War. At boot camp in North Carolina, a drill sergeant questioned Wayne’s platoon, “Who here knows how to type?” Wayne was an excellent typist and skilled at drawing. He raised his hand. That action proved to be something like volunteering. Instead of going overseas for the war with half of his platoon, Wayne joined the other half in California. He would spend his entire military career at Camp Pendleton, working in a high-ranking officer’s office. A poem Wayne wrote and sent home to his mother during this time, is printed as an insert in your program, just as it appeared in its original form. In 1956, Wayne was honorably discharged with a rank of sergeant.

While still in military service in 1954, Wayne married his first wife Sherril Downing. They welcomed his first three children into the world: Kevin, Steven, and Mitzi.They divorced in 1962. Couple years later, in 1964, he married Dorothy Saxby, the woman who would become his wife of 53 years. Dorothy too had been previously married and brought with her four young children into the relationship: Shirley (10), Sheryl (9), Sharlene (8), and Scott (6). Wayne quickly took to the role of step-dad and regarded the four as his own.

Back home in Walla Walla after serving as a Marine, Wayne took to work once again at Young’s Dairy. This career path shortly transitioned to a long-term commitment of selling and delivering food in the Walla Walla Valley for “Walla Walla Produce. Many of his family and friends remember him reporting inside knowledge about the purchasing habits of a variety of area restaurants. In particular, he found it amusing to joke about how certain eating establishments, although they had chicken on the menu, only ever had “the largest possible turkeys” delivered. I, for one, have shared a great many meals of pineapple turkey with my grandfather. :)  After more than 20 years of early mornings (work began at 3am) in that job with Walla Walla Produce, Wayne jumped on the opportunity to purchase his own personally owned retail milk route from a friend, Bob Swenson, who was retiring. Before finally retiring himself due to health challenges, Wayne delivered milk on own route for about five years.

Although he worked very hard, Wayne played hard as well. Before purchasing the property he and Dorothy still own on Priest Lake in Northern Idaho, the family had made it a habit, beginning in the late 1960s, of spending up to two weeks per summer camping on the sandy shores of the Lake. Their forays began at the state campground known as “Indian Creek.” But after purchasing a boat, the family transitioned to more remote camping on one of Priest Lake’s large islands. Groups of up to 100 people from the Walla Walla Valley congregated for these camping escapades on the islands year after year. My cousins and I, our parents, and even our extended families, have strong memories and many emotional ties to that part of the world, in part because of the tradition of play Wayne helped prioritize, and the sacrifice of time and money that Wayne made to make it possible.  Although the future of the cabin, situated adjacent to 8-mile island, is now in some doubt, none of us will forget the formative experiences we all had at “the lake” — and I’m sure many of us will continue the tradition for future generations.

Sometimes people slip into paid work that represents an area of personal passion for them. Other times, as was the case for Wayne, work was a means to pursue his true interests. As an adolescent and young man, Wayne developed an interest in drawing, and even a fleeting desire to pursue architecture. His commitment to military service precluded that education course but he didn’t let his duty keep him from stretching this muscle. When, in 1984, he and Dorothy purchased a small rustic cabin on the shores of Priest Lake in northern Idaho, Wayne began carefully drafting plans to add a second story to the structure. Although it began as a casual creative outlet and fanciful dreaming, it would prove to become reality. When the opportunity presented itself, Wayne’s plans to make the space more accommodating for his growing family were shortly realized when he and Dorothy hired builders to follow his lead in the renovation. Wayne’s craftsmanship and attention to detail came into focus again and again during that process as he hand paneled the interior of the entire addition with beautiful knotty pine.

Because his delivery work began so early in the day, Wayne was off work early enough in the day to frequently catch a round of golf with friends at Walla Walla Veteran’s Memorial Golf Course, where he had his own garage and golf cart parked inside. A lefty, Wayne developed his natural talent for the game to match all his other endeavors: nothing short of excellence. In fact, Wayne scored at least one hole-in-one during his golfing career. All the way to the very end of his life, he remained a fan of the game, following the professional tour almost religiously — and this with a great deal of insight (and opinion) on the skills and strategy of his favorite golfers. I wasn’t old enough to get to enjoy this passed-time with my grandpa — at about the time I took it up, in the early 1990’s, he was in the process of shutting it down. But he was always more than willing to give advice, and ask me about my sketchy game. It was one of several areas we connected over during his life.

In retirement, Wayne took up quite a number of other hobbies in addition to golf. And like most things he did in life, he poured himself into becoming his absolute best. As a woodworker in his basement shop, Wayne remodeled he and Dorothy’s kitchen, outfitting it with new cabinets. He crafted wheelbarrows for every member of his family, designed funny signs for his home and cabin, built dozens of Adirondack chairs (most of which he sold on the side), squirrel feeders, and other furniture and Krick Knacks. When I was in High School, he and I built a wall clock together for a class project — and later for a wall in my mother’s house. I’m certain he did the same for several of my cousins. Just over a decade later, he spent several years learning how to build model airplanes. With great care, patience, and precision, he spent many hours crafting and painting them; always excited to show visitors his latest project. In every case when it came to Wayne’s hobbies, it was health challenges and limitations that led him to hang it up.

No description of Wayne’s life would be complete without mentioning his animals. I know my mom had a little chihuahua-mix dog named BigBoy in the early 1970s. This is an animal that I really can’t imagine Wayne would claim. A second dog is one I actually have memory of from early childhood - “Midge” was a small, pig-like creature that was undyingly beloved by her family - but perhaps yet again, not so much by Wayne. “Heidi” was a miniature doberman pincher that Wayne loved, and who loved Wayne — and I’m not sure anyone else. I remember long caravan travels up to the lake in my grandparent’s red Chevy Suburban; wherein Heidi was granted a custom-made bed that fit snugly in the vehicle’s center console. Later in life, “Cocoa” came along. She was a Siberian Husky, who always had more energy than either of my grandparents, or honestly than anyone else. Wayne loved Cocoa, despite her faults.

As I think about the influence my grandpa DeMoss had on my life, I think about the sheer time and dedication he had, looking out for not only me, but my cousins as well. For years, I remember walking to my grandparents’ house after school let out. Depending on the day or the given year, upwards of 6 or 7 of my cousins would descend on the joint, ransack the cereal cupboard, drop their supplies and baggage all over the house, and blare obnoxious early 90s kids’ television for hours on end. Because his work started so early, he was there to hang out with us in the afternoons. I can scarcely imagine what it’d be like to put in a full-day’s work only to have a clan of rambunctious children descend on my peace and quiet. His quiet dedication in the chaos of our family was a gift.

As a freshman in High School, my grandpa Wayne drove me across town for football practice every single afternoon for three months. He drug me to appointments, fixed stuff when I broke it, and cracked the whip when I was out of control. He more than once commissioned me and my cousins to fill up the basement with cords of firewood passed down to him to stack through a hand crafted wood chute installed in the window. To this day, I see in myself the same unbridled perfectionism he routinely demonstrated while working away in his wood-shop on long school-day afternoons. I can’t help but think of my grandpa Wayne when I hit my head on the cabinet door and mutter at the idiot who built it in such a way.

When I was in college, I sat at my grandparents dinner table once a week - and often more - where we talked about golf, his dogs, school, and the ancient past of Walla Walla. Once Paige and I married, the two of them hit it off talking real estate and architecture. No matter the subject over that table, Wayne could be coaxed to give his opinion. As a great grandfather, he always paid attention to my boys, gave them high fives, teased them, hugged them, welcomed them into his home, and treated them kindly. Toward the end of his life, in pain because of a variety of medical challenges, frustrated at his loss of mobility and function, he could come off as gruff. But even in that state, he still found time and energy for these happy greetings with my sons.

The last day I saw him was a Tuesday in June, he was in the hospital in ICU—but was still alert and oriented. No one anticipated he’d pass away later that evening. Although he was in rough shape, the prognosis seemed to be that he’d be back to normal after some time in rehab. When I left the room after visiting with him for a half hour or so, I told him I’d be back the following day to check in again. “I know you don’t feel well,” I said nodding to his impressive mutton-chop sideburns, “but you look great.” He smiled, and I went back to the lobby to join my 6-year-old son. In the weeks since that day, I’ve had the recurring feeling of regret, for not taking more time, for not asking more questions, for not stopping by my grandparents house for more conversations. This is part of the nature of loss I have come to believe—when those we love die, we never had enough of them. We long for more time. We wish we had taken one last opportunity.

I didn’t know my grandpa DeMoss as well as some - and in some ways, he might’ve been difficult to know, like any American male from his generation. And yet, some things about him strike me as quite clear.  I define integrity as “doing what you said you’d do” - or - “doing what you believe should be done, even if you don’t feel like doing it”. And when I think about my grandpa Wayne, I think of a man who lived with this quality. While we all inherit a great myriad of habits and patterns from our family systems, my hope is that, from grandpa Wayne, I inherit this honorable gift.