Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Integrity of Ambivalence

Ridha Ridha “Normal Ambivalence”
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15, NRSV)

Honesty is telling the truth—in other words, conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words... This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life. (Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, pp. 195–196).

A beloved preacher used to say, "We are living in the In-Between-Times." He was speaking of our place in the unfolding Biblical narrative: between Gospel and Revelation; creation and reconciliation; light and shadow.We live in an age of ambivalence.

The past week's news is packed with affirmation of his message. A mass murderer receives mercy from the families of his victims. A nation of equals is forced to confront the racism brewing just beneath the surface of even our best intentions. A law designed to protect the weakest among us barely survives a relentless assault by the strongest. And finally, a day of great celebration and great grief over the affirmation of a love that so many people find to be hateful.

Frank Gorshen as Bele of Cheron
(Star Trek, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield")

As it is with our world, so it has been in my life this week. Almost daily, I have found that my actions are not consistent with my principles. At times, my principles have not even seemed consistent with each other. I want to serve, but grasp at praise and approval. I shed tears of compassion for suffering  neighbors, then cut them to the heart with sharp words.

There is something comic in Paul's struggle to articulate the conflict. "I do not do what I want to do... I do do what I do not want to do..." Doo-bee-doo-bee-doo. Comic? Yes, but like all true comedy, there is pain behind the laughter. Who among us has not experienced the gap between the person we are, and the person we want to be? The shame of actions that fall short of principles?  haven't we all whispered in spirit, Paul's prayer, "[Wretch] that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Rom 7: 24)

I'd like to offer an easy answer. I wish I knew the magic words to comfort a devoted mother who lashes out at her demanding child, or a shame-filled son who obediently pees in a bottle so his father can pass a drug test. What peace there would be in whispering away my own conflicted feelings of love and anger; desire and apprehension.

Disintegration of Earth, (Sebikus)
How do such deeply flawed people walk in integrity through a disintegrated world?

For Paul, the comfort comes from God's Grace and the promise of Glory yet to come. And that would be a perfect answer if we were  standing in the perpetual light of Heaven. But we live in the cracks of the In-Between-Time. What are we supposed to do until our story ends happily ever after? What's the secret?

Maybe by undertaking the difficult task of forgiveness: offered, sought, and accepted. And by showing kindness and mercy to ourselves: the most difficult task of all. Believing that our failure is not final. Ambivalence is not the end of hope. 

There is something seductive about a Heaven of black and white. Heaven knows, plenty of people have grown rich and powerful peddling such a place. And maybe one day we will live there. But until then, we can only do our best to be our best in the world we have: a world of light and shadow where all the boundaries are gray. This is not a time for indignant, easy answers. This is a time for compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. This is the In-Between-Time.

Friday, June 26, 2015

If I've Seemed a Bit Weepy Lately...


The doctors left the port in her chest, so that she wouldn't need a new IV every time she got a chemo treatment. Some days, her left arm is so weak, she can hardly bend her elbow. Last week,they told her that the disease was not responding, and is much worse than they thought. She needs radical surgery, but they can't do it until she is stronger. She works out as if her life depends on it. Which, in a way, it does. I was spotting her in the weight room this week. Shoulder press with dumbbells. Hard for anybody. Nearly impossible for her. Our faces were inches apart when I saw the tear roll down her left cheek, same side as the tumor. "It hurts." "What hurts?" I asked quickly. You don't take pain lightly in my business. "Everything." I was about to stop her, then my glace fell to her jaw. It was set steel cable tight. "Two more reps," she growled, her lips barely moving. She ground two more presses out like an NFL linebacker, then dropped the weights to the floor, leaned into my chest, and soaked my shirt with tears of courage.


He was my best friend for a long time. A class mate. An ordained minister. A Christian education director. A flamboyant, joyful man, trapped behind the barely latched closet door that his church forced him to hide in. He was the one who reassured me that in spite of my curiosity, artistic temperament, and unsettling dreams, I was most definitely not a homosexual. One night, just after Thanksgiving break, he passed a joint and rubbed his eyes dry with the heel of his hand as he told me about coming out to his fireplug of an ex-Marine father. He trembled in fear as the old man smoked quietly for a long time, finally breaking the silence when he asked, "Ok. So, what is it that you do, exactly?" They talked long past midnight, gradually unpacking fears, truths, and a couple of stories about life in Greenwich Village in the 70's that still make me cringe. My friend was prepared to be disowned. Instead, he found a father's confused, but unconditional love. By the time he finished telling me about it, we were both crying tears of gratitude, cross-legged on the floor of his dorm room.

Bear Hug

The week before your first Marathon is not the time to discover a lump in the shower. No time for this shit right now. That Sunday, he broke four hours, and hoped the nub would go away. Three months later, he joined the 1%: only 2200 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. "Lucky me."  In spite of his initial denial, the docs said that they caught it early. Minor surgery seemed successful, but left enough doubt room for error that several rounds of chemo followed. Hair loss. Sunken eyes. Disappearing muscles. See-saw emotions. Weight gain. "Less than a year ago, I finished a marathon. Now I have to stop and rest when I walk to the john. I have to run again You have to help me run again." "I'm only a trainer," I told him the day we met. "I can't take a step for you. But as long as you're willing to run, I'll run beside you." For months, he was always early to class. inundating me with questions about nutrition, and exercise. He banged out reps in the weight room. Rocked the rowing machine. Made the stationary bikes hum. Soaked the treadmill belt with sweat before the rest of us were even warmed up. He was dragging through the front doors as I was clocking out after teaching an aerobics class this morning. "What's with you?" I ribbed. "You look like you've been pulling a plow." He glanced around the lobby with a weary sparkle, as if to be certain we were alone. "Last night. 3 miles in 32." Runners and cancer survivors: we have a shorthand all our own. We wrapped our arms around one another in the sunlit lobby: a big, back-slapping bear-hug that quickly became the kind of long embrace a proud father gives his son just before it's time to leave for college. "You son-of-a-bitch," I whispered. "Guess you'll have to run by yourself. I can't keep up with you now." He punched me in the arm, laughing. I was careful not to raise my head until I could duck into the men's room. I soaked a brown paper towel with salty pride.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Lessons from Coach Dad

Yesterday, I was asked to help a group of personal trainers at the West Side Y in New York City to  prepare themselves for leadership in the LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA program. I doubt that anyone who has ever been a teacher will be surprised to hear that I learned a lot.

I told them my cancer story via a speaker phone . I've told it so many times that it has grown a little stale to me: the discovery; the preparation for treatment; the faithful, tireless support from my wife and my mom and my friends. How I didn't die. Started walking, running, fighting for my life. How finding the Y and the program gave me a source of focus and encouragement to achieve things I never thought possible.

Blah, blah, blah.

But I am not only a survivor, I am also a coach. I had something else to tell them. I told them that they were not ready.

They were not prepared for the tears they would shed as a room full of men and women told their stories of suffering and courage. How no PowerPoint presentation could get them ready for the miracles they would witness as victims became survivors and warriors and victors. And nothing on earth could prepare them for the funerals; for saying good bye to a heroic warrior whose battle had come to an end.

What advice could I offer them, these deeply compassionate, well-trained caregivers who were about to have their hearts broken with joy and sorrow on a daily basis? I told them to take care of themselves. To maintain professional boundaries. To never forget that their job, no matter how consuming or holy it might be, must never become their whole life. I told them to get their own workouts in. To stay in contact with friends. Read. Go to the movies. Go on dates. To have a life that mattered OUTSIDE the Y and the program.

It was good advice from a veteran of the cancer wars who had learned it the hard way. It is advice I need to take more seriously myself.

This Fathers Day one of the things I remember about the great man who was my Dad is that he did not take that advice either. He worked. He volunteered. He sacrificed. And he never did a damn thing to refresh himself or his own life's energy. He would have considered it selfish. He was 58 when he died. He maintained his automobiles with his own skilled, powerful hands, but drove his own tired body until the wheels fell off.

I guess my Dad taught me as much about being a Coach as my YMCA mentors did. Be a good steward of the God's gifts to you: your body, your mind, and your soul. Courage is a great virtue, but it only if you have the Strength to carry it out. Don't just do your best; BE your best.

So thank you Coach Melissa, for inviting me to help welcome the next generation of trainers into the program. Thank you to the five new trainers whose faces I never saw, but whose hearts and minds I did my best to reach through the wires. And thank you, Dad. In life, you taught me how important it is to serve. And in your death, you taught me the price of losing yourself, no matter how holy the work you are doing.

I'm going to imitate the best parts of you, and learn from the rest. It's the only way I can make sense of the way you lived, and the way you died. I think you'd be proud to know that you are helping cancer survivors learn to fight for life on the streets of Manhattan.

Because I sure am proud to have had you for my teacher. Thanks, Dad. Live Strong.