Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Dying of the Sun and Other Thoughts

I’ve been thinking about death a lot lately.

I know, it’s not Samhain or the dark of winter, so why on earth this preoccupation with the cessation of life?

We’ve just passed the Summer Solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere. Even though it’s bright, sunny and blazing hot, this is the point in the year when the sun starts dying. The days reach their lengthiest and begin shortening. Though the weather will remain hot for some time, the angle of the sun will start shifting toward the south, and those afternoon sunbeams will start to feel tired, like they’re ready to be done with it all.

To me, Midsummer feels like a deflation, a sudden turnabout from the waxing year to the waning year. From the moment of the solstice, I’ll be looking down a long slope into darkness. Of course, this is as it should be. Dark balances light, always.

Sunrise over the Caribbean, Belize City, Central America. Photo by Ray Mathis.

What really got me to thinking about death right now is this: I have several friends whose fathers have just passed away, or are in the throes of doing so right now. That’s a hard thing. But somehow, even though I can feel all the very human sorrow and pain, I also feel like there’s a bit of myth wrapped up in these events, making them into something greater than they might at first seem. It may be a coincidence that the dead and dying are my friends’ fathers, but then again…

In Celtic tradition it’s at Midsummer that the Holly King battles the Oak King, vanquishing him until the darkest night of winter. One aspect of the god retreats to the abode of the dead while the other rises up among the living.

Now, none of the lovely men my friends are mourning is going to miraculously come back to life at Midwinter. But it’s not wrong that they died. It’s not wrong that we all die, eventually.

So much of our modern western culture is based on Judeo-Christian precepts that it’s sometimes hard to unravel them. The attitude toward death, however, is pretty obvious: It’s a bad thing. We should do everything we can to avoid it, to escape it. Dying is a failure. This ‘Death Is Evil’ attitude has followed us into the Scientific Age, urging our doctors to keep patients alive at all costs, to force their bodies to continue functioning under the power of machines and gadgets, even when all quality of life is gone.

Though it’s a hard choice, my friends and their families have given their fathers the blessing of dying peacefully, without extreme medical measures, without prolonging their pain. To me, this is a way to respect our loved ones.

We don’t let terminally ill animals suffer; why do we force our own family members to do so? I’ve thought long and hard about that question. It’s all wrapped up in cultural expectations, religious undercurrents, and primal fear. It’s a hard issue to deal with. But we all have to face it, sooner or later.

So here it is Midsummer, and I’m pondering death. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Monday, June 3, 2013

How I Learned a Hard Lesson

I’ve occasionally blogged about how, over the years, I’ve fought against early conditioning that encouraged me to please everyone else before considering my own needs (or even to pretend I didn’t have needs). Some families stress this kind of be-a-pleaser attitude more than others, and society pushes women toward it more than men, but we’ve all experienced it to one degree or another, and it can be very damaging. Today I want to share a story that demonstrates how this kind of need-to-please can hurt others as well as yourself.

I can’t say I never fall into the old rut of doing what others want me to regardless of my own desires any more; I still occasionally find myself straying back into that pattern. But for the most part, I’m far happier and healthier having learned to say no, to determine what I really want and work toward it, and to recognize when people are trying to manipulate me into doing something I don’t want really want to do.

So I figured, I’m past having to worry about the effects of that kind of behavior except for the rare occasions when I backtrack into a bad habit.


I discovered how lasting the repercussions of being a pleaser (putting other people first in an inappropriate way) can be when an old college friend contacted me after more than two decades of not hearing a word from her.

The view out my dorm window sophomore and junior year of college.
A little background: I was in full ‘pleaser mode’ all through college. I had never considered what I might want out of life, either educationally, professionally or personally. My parents trained me to put other people’s needs and desires first, always, and that carried over into every area of my life. So when my first college roommate suggested things for me to do with her – join the student musical theater group, hang out with members of the university chorus – I meekly followed along, keeping right on track with my ‘pleasing others’ programming.

I never stopped to think about what I would really prefer. If I had, I would have realized that, while I enjoy musical theater, it’s not how I would choose to spend most of my spare time. But my roommate was a true Broadway geek, playing show tunes on her stereo when she wasn’t participating in rehearsals or hanging out with the cast and crew. And because she wanted me to, I did those things right along with her.

This went on for the first three years of my college life. She led, I followed. I even took a couple classes along with her that I wouldn’t have chosen on my own. She was pleased, so I thought I was doing the right thing, even though I occasionally felt a twinge of sorrow that I wasn’t pursuing some of my own interests.

Then suddenly, about halfway through my junior year, she turned on me. I had no idea why. Almost overnight we weren’t friends any more, she barely spoke to me, even though I was stuck living with her for the rest of that academic year. She found someone else for me to room with my senior year. Though she was rarely rude to me, she avoided me, and I often wondered what had happened.

Fast forward more than twenty years. Out of the blue I received an e-mail from her; she had found my contact information on the university alumni website.

She sent me a long, rambling message about what was going on in her life, telling me she wanted to get back in touch and get together sometime, since we both lived in the same city.

She wrote to me. I just couldn't believe it.

I can tell you, I was shocked and confused, and I definitely didn’t want to get together. She had married a fundamentalist Christian man and now spent her spare time with him and their children, on missions to Central America to convert the locals. (The damage that Christian missionaries have done to indigenous cultures makes my blood boil, but that’s another post.)

So I wrote back, told her a little about my life, and said I really didn’t feel like getting together. I figured that would be it.


Instead, I received a second e-mail from her, an impassioned, tearful request that I forgive her for being so horrible to me during our junior year of college.

Turns out, she considered me to be her best friend back then, and she felt betrayed when I found a boyfriend (whom I later married) and spent more time with him than I did with her.

Well, knock me over with a feather. At least I finally knew what precipitated her about-face all those years earlier.

The problem is, I never considered her to be my best friend. Not even close. She got that idea because I did so many things with her (at her request), because I was following the ‘pleasing others program’ with her. So for more than two decades she had been carrying the guilt of turning on her best friend out of jealousy, and beating herself up about it. This burden was so heavy on her that she finally broke down and contacted me in order to ask my forgiveness.

I couldn’t bear to tell her the truth - that I never considered her to be my best friend in the first place - so I sent a short reply explaining that of course I forgave her, that I never was truly angry with her in the first place, just surprised and confused. That was the end of my contact with her. I hope she took my response to heart and was able to release that burden.

Now, I’m not one to play the ‘what if’ game: What if I had spoken up for myself instead of blindly following her lead? What if I had spoken with her honestly during our junior year so I could understand her actions better?

I didn’t take those actions; all I have to work with is what actually happened. So I’m taking this as a lesson: The repercussions of our behavior, for better or for worse, are far-reaching and long-lasting. That makes it all the more important to be honest with ourselves and others, and learn to do what’s right and best regardless of what anyone else wants.

Bottom line: I’m the one who has to live with the consequences of my actions. And those consequences can be difficult, if not impossible, to predict. So I’m better off making choices that consider my own well-being and forthrightness first, and dealing as necessary with the dissatisfaction of others when I don’t make the choices they would prefer. If I do my best at every turn, that’s all anyone can expect of me, and that’s all I can expect of myself.

I hope your road is a little less bumpy than mine has been. Blessings.