Friday, May 25, 2012

Is Gratitude the Opposite of Envy?

This week, Livie cried bitterly all the way home from a friend's house over the fact that the friend had more Star Wars toys than she did.

The most coveted object in little Cameron's collection was a storm trooper helmet and blaster. Livie was sporting both of them when I picked her up, in hilarious contrast to her fluffy pink and black dress that she had on under it.

This was her first experience of wanting something really, really badly that belonged to someone else. She sang a refrain common to all the Jealous on our homeward commute: 

"It's not fair. Why does he have it, and not me?"

I thought of so many wise, practical, spiritual and rational things to say to my small daughter in those long minutes in the car, but knowing that she wouldn't be able to hear any of them, I thought about myself instead. 

Specifically, my 22-year-old self, who once cried the whole drive home from San Francisco to Orange County (much longer than 15 minutes) because my dear friend was getting married and moving to the City on the Bay, while I, already married, was doomed to a life in suburban Orange County, where I had lived my whole life except college. (I had just been to my friend's bachelorete party in the city; so lack of sleep and excess of alcohol probably came into play here, but the emotions were still real.) 

 It wasn't fair. Why did she get the urban adventure we had both discussed and dreamed of, while I got to be living 15 minutes away from my parents and in-laws in the place I grew up?

Flash forward  12 years to today. For the next four weeks, I am co-teaching a class at my church on the book Boundaries by Drs. Cloud and Townsend. It's a difficult and fantastic book about building healthy relationships with clear-cut property lines between ourselves and others. The subhead is "When to Say Yes and How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life." Well, who doesn't want to know how to do that?

One of the most surprising things I've learned as I prepare for this study is that envy is a boundary problem. "The Law of Envy," the authors say, "defines 'good' as 'what I do not possess,' and hates the good that it has. How many times have you heard someone subtly put down the accomplishments of others, somehow robbing them of the goodness they had attained...What is so destructive about this particular sin is that it guarantees that we will not get what we want and keeps us perpetually insatiable and dissatisfied."

Boundaries are about being responsible for one's own desires and getting those desires met. If I am perpetually jealous of someone, what I ought to do is determine where the lack of something in myself is, and work on filling that lack. 

I've often heard that gratitude is the opposite of jealousy, but I don't think that's a complex enough response. To simply take a Pollyanna brush and paint "glad and grateful" over every negative emotion I have is not honest, and moreover, it doesn't allow me to change anything. A more proactive approach to envy is to see how I ended up with the situation that I no longer like and figure out how to change it.

Let's break down the Star Wars example, shall we? Why does Cameron have so much more than Livie? Cam has been "into" Star Wars for years, as have his older brothers. So his family has made a choice to buy those toys over something else. Meanwhile, Livie has wanted Barbies, My Little Ponies, and doll clothes, and Star Wars is a new fixation. 

She could choose to be grateful for the toys she has; or she could decide to sell them at a garage sale and buy a Storm Trooper mask; or she could wait until her birthday and ask for one then; or she could decide that playing with it at Cameron's is almost as good as having it herself. It's not immediate gratification, but it is a proactive solution to envy. And once Livie calmed down, it actually made sense to her.

And then let's look at the apartment in San Francisco that I really wanted (and obviously still don't have). Twelve years ago, after the tearful drive, Hubby and I discussed why we were in Orange County in the first place: our good jobs and the lower cost of living (San Francisco remains one of the only places in the country more expensive than where we live). But as knowing this practical factor didn't dispel my sense that something was missing, we decided we would seriously consider moving, and made our next year's worth of vacations fact-finding missions about other places we might like to live. 

You know what we decided? We really like living in Orange County. We love the weather, the lifestyle, our jobs, our church, and our truly wonderful friendships. We could afford our house, and we didn't pay rent for a parking place. When we decided to have a baby, we really liked living so close to our parents and adult siblings. And moreover, we felt that God had given each of us a calling in our jobs and ministries. We were accomplishing good things. We had chosen a good life.

So many years ago, Jeff and I decided we would visit other places, including that same dear friend from college, who is now living in a beautiful suburb of San Francisco, and whose home is one of my favorite vacation destinations. Having my friend live there (and letting me visit!) is almost as good as living there myself. And guess where she is coming on vacation this summer? Orange County. 

On a small scale this week: one of my best friend's is moving to a new house, and I began to envy the opportunity she had to recreate her living space. I felt badly about it for about 24 hours, and then I decided to repaint my downstairs bathroom.  My envy was just a sign that I needed a little change; a can of paint is a pretty quick fix.

I am grateful for my life, not just because God commands me to be, but because I regularly track the way both God's will and my own choices got me here. My life isn't an accident, it isn't something handed to me by an unfair twist of fate. So I don't have to want someone else's life, or worse -- criticize or demean someone else's out of envy. I can make changes any time. Even move to San Francisco. Now that's something to be grateful for.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dethroning the Drama Queen

Narissa: Don't you think you're being a bit melodramatic? 

Prince Edward: I don't know what melodramatic means, but you'll be removed from the throne, Narissa, I swear it.

Sleepy Dog went missing today. Loyal Scraps of Soul followers might remember Sleepy Dog as the little flax-seed stuffed eye pillow that went into the swan pond in the Santa Barbara zoo two summers ago. Because Livie was extremely attached to him, S.D. was rescued by fearless Mommy, who was almost pecked by a vicious black swan, and who then went home and replaced all of the damp flax-seed stuffing. 

Since she realized he was gone, Livie has been very sad, shuffling around moaning that Sleepy Dog is her very favorite animal and now he is lost. It has been taking the very best of my will power not to say something scathing like, "If it's that special to you, maybe you should not have lost it," or "If you haven't seen it in a month, it can't be your very favorite." I've learned from experience that uttering such statements never improve the situation. Some moms might call it a "teachable moment," but in my case, it would just become a melodramatic moment. 

Melodrama is the word of the week around here. Not that anyone knows what it means (just like the dim but handsome prince in Disney's Enchanted, quoted above). Both my daughters are riding some unseen emotional wave that's making the 45 minutes before breakfast look, feel and sound like a week on "Days of Our Lives."  This is either the best day ever, or the end of the world as we know it. And it changes every 20 minutes or so. With my eldest, she's just going through some kind of emotional transition (its not manipulative, she's just upset a lot). With my youngest, she's testing her power in our household.

Needless to say, Mommy is exhausted and Daddy is mystified. My next door neighbor, whose kids have moved out and whom I asked today if I could come and live with, is laughing at me and telling me to just wait for the teenage years.

As I've been writing this, Liv suddenly remembered that she gave Sleepy Dog to her little girlfriend Alana. I suddenly remembered she was right. It was at least a month ago, and Liv hasn't thought about it since. So I texted Alana's mommy to see if S.D. is indeed in their possession. Here's our correspondence: 

Me: Hi. Sorry about yesterday [I had to abruptly hang up on Friend yesterday, probably because of melodrama.] I'm not calling right now because kids are in upheaval over here. Did Livie loan Alana her Sleepy Dog? Yet another of our treasured possessions is missing. 

Friend: Ha ha. Yes, actually she gave it to Alana. Lol. Livie wanted to give it to her because she used to not let Alana play with it, so now she wanted to give it to her. It was a few months ago. Does she want it back? 

Me: Yes but I don't know what to do. Help me, wise mommy!

Friend: Hehe. Well, it depends, if you want to teach her a really hard but important lesson. If not, I'm sure I can talk to Alana and we won't judge. 

Two thoughts are predominant right now. Number One: Friend is a keeper. Number Two: I do want to teach Livie a hard but important lesson. I just don't want to do it right now.

If you don't have children, let me tell you why so many children whine and act bratty. It's because whining is really really annoying, and so it works. Melodrama works too. It is very hard to stand your ground on issues big or small when you know your child will take it like the end of the world is coming. It's not even that I feel sorry for her. I know much of it is contrived. I feel sorry for me. I'm the one who has to listen to it. 

The Drama Queens must be dethroned. Particularly the youngest one. And as far as I can see, it's my job to take them down. 

So pray for me, friends, because it's a big job. Here are my hopes for my daughters: 

In place of drama, let there be self-control. 
In place of selfishness, let there be generosity.
In place of envy, let there be gratitude.
In place of manipulation, let there be honest communication and kindness. 
In place of upheaval, let there be peace. 

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to teach a hard lesson. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Love Can Be Annoying

My husband is trying very hard to give me a nice Mother's Day. He has formed "the Mother's Day Committee" and members include himself and our two daughters. This morning the committee's mission was to eat breakfast, get dressed, count their money, and go out shopping for a couple of hours so I could baste a quilt on the kitchen floor, a project I've been wanting to get to for six weeks or so.  I believe the committee has also been exhorted by the Chairman to avoid complaining, be obedient, and be kind. 

I decided to celebrate the start of Mother's Day weekend by picking up the upstairs of my house. I put away my own laundry and ironed two of my husband's shirts. I made the bed, put away all the hairbrushes in the bathroom , and cleared the hallway floor of clutter. Downstairs, Jeff made the girls their first bagel and turned to, and just as I was sitting down to eat mine, I had to get up to make them their second because they didn't like the first. 

All these necessary things having been done, I announced (first mistake) that I was going out to drink my coffee and read a devotional in peace. Livie immediately wanted to follow me, and when Daddy said she couldn't she began crying and pounding on the sliding door.

"Hey, the Mother's Day Committee doesn't throw temper tantrums," my husband says. That didn't work. So  he locked the sliding door (not sure what purpose that served, since our daughter knows how to unlock it), and took her upstairs. I read my devotional to the soothing sounds of birds chirping and my four year old yelling "I want Mommy" from her bedroom window. 

Scripture and coffee both having been consumed, I got up to go get my second cup of coffee. And found my family had locked me out of the house. 

Upstairs, Livie was no longer crying, but was now in the shower with Daddy. Well, I wanted to be alone in the backyard, and now I had no other choice. 

When they finally came down and let me back in, the girls emptied their piggy banks out on our echo-producing laminate flooring, and spent 15 minutes clanging quarters and having melt downs because they had lost count. I would gladly at this point have given them each a quiet $20 bill and sent them out the door, but they really wanted to buy my gift with their own money.

When finally they left the house, I wished them luck on their shopping trip and told them to take their time.

The quilt is now basted and they are still not back. So I'm taking a moment to reflect on the fact that my children love me more than anything else in the world. So much that they often can't seem to live without me for even the time it takes for me to take a shower, go to the bathroom, or read four lines about peace and joy from the Bible. So much that they want to buy me something with every last penny in their piggy bank.

And my husband, chairman of the Committee, loves us all so much that he is trying to make every one of us happy, even though he ends up doing things like locking me out of the house.

The Committee made a bit of a mess of things this morning, but they've been gone about 90 minutes and I miss them. I'm learning to accept their imperfect attempts to please me, for what other choice do I have? And I certainly pray that they accept my stunted, fractured haphazard attempts at loving them. 

There may be a perfect moment in the next 24 hours: when we are all clean and smiling, have full bellies and I have hot coffee in my hand. No one will be kicking anyone else, or talking too loud or chewing in anyone's ear or refusing to share or be locked in the back yard or shut up in their room. And it will last about three and a half minutes. But it will be enough. 

Imperfect love may be annoying, smothering sometimes, even. But until I get to heaven, it's the only love I get from my family, and certainly the only kind I have to give. But it is precious, and it is enough.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Life of Losing

Somewhere in my house is a half-drunk cup of coffee in a purple Fiesta mug. I have lost it for the second time in 15 minutes.

I had planned to go upstairs and get the book I'm reading (One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp...I'll let you know how it turns out), and then settle down in my red chair to read it with the last of my morning caffeine. But between the kitchen and my room, I picked up two toy fairies and a pair of black leggings and put them away. Then I replaced the roll of toilet paper in the bathroom (went in their to blow my nose), then decided to put the ironing board away so I could get to my bedroom window and open it.

Somewhere in there, I set down my coffee.

I blog a lot about losing things. It's a way of life for me, really. I live a life of losing. It's very frustrating, particularly because I am Mom. And Mom is supposed to find things for other people.

Other things currently lost: two Mother's Day cards that I bought for my two best friends (early!) and then put away in a special place. Also, a blue notebook that says "Blessings" on the cover, in which I would like to begin a list of things I am thankful for (thanks to Ann Voskamp, above, for the inspiration).

My husband says the reason I'm chronically losing things is that I'm always thinking of other things while I am cleaning up. Well, of course I am. For one thing, I am constantly cleaning up, and who wants to think about cleaning up? And for another, there are lots of things to think about.

What should I make for dinner tonight? 
Is Sophia's soccer uniform clean? 
I wonder if that comment I made in mom's group hurt any one's feelings? Should I ask someone? Do I need to apologize?
What was that great idea for a blog I had in the shower? 
I think I might make the 9:45 Zumba class today...
Must buy plants for my mom for Mother's Day...

And in the meantime, I'm writing a blog in my mind, a lesson for the Bible study I'm teaching in two weeks, and pondering the meaning of life in some way or another.

No wonder the coffee cup has gone missing.

I will say that even though I'm losing cards, notebooks, coupons and 50,000 ballpoint pens as I go about my business, I'm also finding sudden bursts of inspiration and things to be thankful for. On the other hand, pondering the meaning of life while vacuuming, I'm likely to remember for the thousandth time that the Bible as well as every other source of wisdom in this world says I should strive to be in the present.

As I've been writing this, the sun has come out in my backyard. I think I'll go look for that coffee cup one more time, and then go and enjoy it. Let's hope I don't lost on the way.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Hummingbird and I

This morning, I caught a hummingbird trying to drink from the heavy white fringe of my 1960s-era yellow patio umbrella. She was very persistent in her fruitless efforts. She tried first one strand and then another, eventually setting about a dozen tassels swinging. I have seen hummingbirds try to drink from my Christmas lights before, but never from fringe.

She was moving so fast, as hummingbirds do, that she didn't pause to look elsewhere in my yard, where there are several nectar-rich succulent blossoms, and an actual hummingbird feeder. So she buzzed away, undernourished.

I immediately felt that this hummingbird and I had something in common.

I, too, move rather fast. Recently, a friend rather unflatteringly referred to me as a jet engine. I like the hummingbird analogy better. Moreover, it's accurate. In my constant search for personal fulfillment and productivity, I often look in the wrong place. And the faster I'm moving, the busier I get -- and therefore the more nourishment I need -- the less likely I am to go to the right source. Busyness creates fatigue, fatigue creates vulnerability, and emotional vulnerability leads to unwise decisions.

I look for emotional lift in a Diet Coke can.
I seek sustaining energy from a drive-through window.
I try to find levity and entertainment in TV shows that are either vapid or down-right dark.
I look for approval and encouragement from the people in my life least likely to give it.
I seek validation of my effectiveness in the moment-by-moment behaviors of my over-tired children.
I try to find connection and intimacy on facebook.
I attempt to find satisfaction in crossing yet another thing off my ever-lengthening list.

Many people believe that food cravings are clues to what our bodies actually need. This is far from true: people often crave things they are allergic to because eating these foods creates an endorphin high. The stressed and fatigued body cries out for fat and sugar, which will get you through an hour, but not even a whole afternoon. Emotionally, I find my cravings are equally off. When anxious, I gravitate toward more anxiety-provoking busyness, rather than the rest I need.

When I'm in balance and in my right mind, I might seek these sources instead:

Exercise as an emotional lift.
A protein smoothie or a sandwich for afternoon energy.
Levity in a tickle fight or a dance party with my daughters.
Encouragement from a safe friend who knows me and sees me for my whole self.
Validation in the long arc of my children's character development and the feedback from their teachers and peers.
Connection and intimacy with my husband, who's across the couch from me every single night.
Satisfaction in being God's loved child, and the knowledge that if I seek His kingdom and righteousness, all these other things will be added to me. ( Matthew 6:33).

The hummingbird by nature is not capable of moderation. She cannot walk or hop, but has only two speeds: perch, and full tilt. By nature I might be the same, swinging between breathless pace and breakdown. Thanks be to God that I have a higher calling than my broken nature. And thanks to the hummingbird for the reminder to seek the higher sources.