I was at the doctor’s office earlier this week. This doctor is different. He asked approximately 200 questions of me. In a couple different ways, he asked about different stages of my life. When talking about the last ten years, one of his questions was “any trauma? House broken into, burned to the ground, car accidents, deaths in the family?”
In a slightly smart-ass way, I answered “we had twins in 2006.”
“How early were they?”
“Didn’t sleep much that year did you?” Pause. “Or the year after that?”
He enjoyed another quiet moment. Then he inquired of my desire to actually heal: “Can you start getting to bed 20 minutes earlier? This is another in a pattern of events in your life where you didn’t give yourself permission to fully recover. I’d guess you missed out on two year’s of sleep.”
Repentance is not a sexy word in today’s culture. Unrepentant is a status symbol. Unpacking this a bit further, the unrepentant-anything is bound to some cause, yoked to some appearance, internally-driven to a predetermined end-result. Maybe you can smell the language in this, but a lot of what is spoken about here is “Drive.” Another word for “Drive” is “motivation”. What motivates us to live our life with a certain loyalty to a mysterious cause?
What motivates me to deny myself the ability to heal? It sounds so innocent, but it’s absolutely mind-blowing to be told “grant yourself an extra 20 minutes of sleep”. How committed to efficiency am I when I have to ask a follow-up question to that simple instruction… “for how long?”
“Four to six years.”
The way I have allowed myself to be wired, 20 minutes earlier to bed for the next half decade is a nearly intolerable burden. Thank goodness I have a prescription for it, because I might not do it otherwise. It might be the kindest prescription ever written for me by a medical professional. Flonase and prednisone by their very names sound like active participants in the medical world. But neither sound especially kind. A script for “get an extra 20 minutes of sleep for the next… half decade. Please…” that’s kindness.
Kindness is diruptive. Repentance – by association, by history, by liturgy – does not sound like kindness. Yet the two are intricately woven together. For her 40th birthday, my sweet wife Amy wanted to a.) get away with me and b.) engage our stories. If she could somehow do this in an environment that was supportive to healing and restoration, bonus. I noticed a subtle shift in her motivation, emanating from a place of kindness deep in her soul. Something kind was speaking to her young places asking for them to be free. So we began the journey together with a few allies in arms and enrolled in the Allender Center’s Story Workshop. At one of the sessions, Dan Allender said one of the oddest things I’d ever heard said (and this man says a lot of odd things)
“We’d love for you to repent.”
If I was to throw that statement out there and let it hang suspended in the air in it’s own black and whiteness, I imagine a lot of readers would envision sad sermons of brimstone, sackcloth, interrogation rooms, forced confessionals and the cohorts of more suffering and other imposed attempts at behavior modification.
There’s a fair chance you hate cats. That’s fair. Dogs are loyal. Dogs are kind. Cats are fickle. Cats are narcissists. Pistol is different. Pistol thinks he’s a dog. He doesn’t know he’s cat, except for the fact that he gives himself baths and enjoys leaping like a puma. Pistol kennels. Pistol plays fetch. Pistol comes when called. He does tricks. He has to be around people. If we are in the house, he’s beside us. He was potty-trained for a while, but he stopped pooping in the toilet when he discovered that he liked to drink out of the toilet, so he instead would leave a deposit alongside the main level toilet and then gives us a forlorn look like “gosh, I tried. But drinking out of the toilet is so pleasurable. I do hope that was good enough.”
Pistol is the kindest animal I have ever met. I am the first to rise in our house. Every morning, I open my door, and without fail, Pistol awaits. He softly meows once, and then flops over on his side, motioning twice with his chin and exposing his belly. Pistol is a pure-bred, hypo-allergenic, mackereled Siberian who has a double coat of fur that makes cashmere feel like nylon. What Pistol wants in the morning is to be carried like a baby around the house for 5 to 10 minutes. He now weighs 14 pounds. If I had a blanket to swaddle him in, he’d probably dig that, but for now, being held inverted, where his paws can delicately touch my cheek and he can just stare at me, that’s enough.
It’s possibly the least productive way I can start my day, carrying a 14 pound fur ball upside down around the house. He won’t let me operate the coffee grinder as that plainly messes everything up. He’s a demanding love addict, he won’t share me with my iPhone, and if I sit down, well, that’s it, it’s not the same as being transported around the house like a furry baby. Pistol wants me to share in the limbic connection of carrying something soft and warm and fuzzy and cuddly and purring and thankful. Pistol hasn’t evolved neocortically to a verbalizing mammal, but his message to me couldn’t be more obvious: “yes, please. Let me receive kindness today.”
That’s what repentance looks like when delivered by kindness. I’m a different person since we bought this dog disguised as a cat. Kindness isn’t kindness until we repent enough to do something terrifying and awful: receive. Yes, Pistol wants love. But he also wants me to receive the love right back of something that is soft and warm and fuzzy and cuddly and purring and thankful. My world that is 2 years sleep-deprived, the world who’s plates I keep spinning, is not very soft and warm and fuzzy and cuddly and purring and thankful. What am I repenting of? My own self-destruction. My own contempt. So incomprehensible that kindness is the currency of this repentance. In his whimsical, speaks-to-Baptists-wearing-a-Frank-Zappa-t-shirt way, Dr. Allender said in that same session in August, “the Gospel is so hard to believe, because it is so good.” Like him or not, Obama was dead on right in his book’s title: hope is audacious. I fear nothing more than hope.
I have hated the word “repentance” because my association with it has always been more contempt. Surely, repentance looks like more and more bouts with my old colleague contempt, something I pre-program my day with, something Pistol won’t let me mess around with at 6:10 in the morning because he needs upside-down-two-handed-stroking. But actual repentance has nothing to do with contempt. Actual repentance is the complete opposite. The only way to overcome contempt is through kindness. Repentance is not something for my fully-evolved, neocortex; it’s something for my deeper, more mammalian, limbic brain. The only thing that actually motivates my repentance is receiving kindness. I have historically associated repentance with my action. There’s no action from me. It’s all about the heart. Again, the dude with the hair and the Zappa shirt.
“Do you want to see repentance? What would it cost you to join the party? You don’t repent to resolve. You join the party, instead.”
My hard-wired system wants power, control and pleasure in the giving. Receiving is pure terror because it removes me from the equation of being in control of the giving.
Kindness is aloha. A friend of a friend took me out to lunch at a hole in the wall I would have never gone to. The reason was no reason at all. It’s just the way this guy rolls. Somehow, his mission was to be a sherpa in my story of provision and self-sustainment. I’m a wonderful financial provider. I wear provision as my badge of honor. I asked him about provision in his life and in the lives of others:
“Provision. Yeah. Now there’s an addiction.” was his reply.
He had spent the better part of two decades hanging with some of the largest power brokers on the planet, and he illustrated a simple nugget of truth: the financially wealthy find it impossible to receive. They’re always used to being in control of their situation. The P&L. The hiring and firing. The expansion. The takeover. Try and give them something. Just try. They want for nothing. I’m no billionaire, but I live my life with the same degree of self-regulated inaccessibility. A billionaire is a hard person to shop for at Christmas. This sage of a man therefore, operates like a snake. He comes through a door these billionaires didn’t even know they had. He might arrange a canoe ride at dawn that somehow has an escort of a mother humpback and her calf. It may conclude with a perfect 11′ wave that is ridden a quarter mile to the shore. Maybe he plants a seed and has a certain towel guy spritz their sunglasses just so. Or a bartender who has an unusual capacity to actually listen, and somehow, for some reason, doesn’t have any other customers and yet nothing seems to be awry. But how these people ultimately were touched was through that Hawaiian word of aloha, which seems to have more and more meanings unfold the longer I know it. Most people know that aloha is both “hello” and “good bye”. That’s the trite stuff of haoles and Hallmark cards. What would it cost to dive into the mystery of that contradiction and paradox? Hello… and good-bye? In “hello” there is love and expectation. In “good bye” there is grief and loss. The same word is love and expectation and grief and loss. Same word. Hawaiian hospitality is the ultimate in kindness. The reason so, is because it doesn’t avoid the pain while embracing the love.
This same man who took me to lunch lives aloha. He was very comfortable with all the meanings of this word. I asked him what I thought was a deep question, “do you compartmentalize? I mean, how do you take this home with you? It sounds awesome, canoe rides and surfing, but it’s got to be so taxing and strenuous and sometimes the stakes are so high.”
He paused. He was also exceedingly comfortable with no words. “Yeah. I like hot tubs” he said.
We’re talking about a 20 second pause. My smile muscles tried to do some productive action out of their own provision-wiring while my soul was deeply troubled by both the simplicity of the answer and the extended silence that followed. What zen koan was I missing here? Hot tubs? I glanced over at his son sitting across from us. “If ever there was a time I need to ask Dad for something, that would be the time.” He leaned back and grinned the grin of a son. Tan. Hurley shirt. Giant plate of loco moco annihilated and mopped clean. He just nodded at me, 20 years old and already so far down the path of life and goodness. And kindness.
Think about this for a family liturgy: Every evening, the sun has set, the stars are out overhead. The children are present. Everyone is vulnerably in their swimsuits. They steal out onto the starlit deck, and without words, they slip into warm water that reaches to their necks. Every one. Every night. You slip down beneath the surface to get warm water on your face. A long breath, through the nostrils, finding the diaphragm that’s gone unused the entire day. A second one. Maybe a third. A family that nightly receives that kind of goodness. How does this man practice compartmentalization? Radical self-kindness.
Kindness has the courage to engage what is going on. “Niceness” is equivalent to Cheetos. Niceness lacks courage. Kindness has courage. Nice is tolerable and anemic and zero impact. Kindness is not a catalyst. Kindness suffers and changes in the metabolic reaction that is human transformation. We are meant to have lives of impact.
“Worry is regret for the future”
The same thing could be said about the self-sabotage that is shame. The currency I’ve spent for years has been one that cancels out goodness in the name of control, the one that places me in the driver’s seat and make it impossible to receive.
At the end of our Story Workshop in August, I participated in an event that re-programmed the way I barter and trade on my life. It was a communion in name, but unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was aloha. And by aloha, hopefully by now, you know I mean kindness. I had done some incredible story work with my cohorts and we fed each other the bread. I mean, we fed each other, the bread. I had to receive that bread from another man who placed it in my mouth. Another man that I had spent 12 hours in group time with, wrestling like Jacob with an angel, for four days. I had to receive, vulnerably. In this context, Dr. Allender said thank you to all the people who helped make the event happen. To say thank you took almost an hour. Every individual was called by name. Personally he addressed each individual and regardless of gender, presented a splendid bouquet, and spoke deep connecting words of how they had sacrificed their own well-being to impact his life in the previous six months. These were not employees. These were not even sojourners. These were blood-participants. These were self-selected brothers and sisters that chose lives of impact and atunement, rather than passivity and perpetual sameness.
This Christmas, I’d like to undo the modern cliche of “it’s in the giving, not the receiving.” It has cost me a ton to learn to receive. It’s almost unbearable, this kindness.