Sunday, September 27, 2020

Paving the road

Today's Mass readings (link)

If the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and the streets of Heaven are paved with gold, what about the road to Heaven? Mud. Mud and potholes, and the signposts are faded, slanted, and often printed in some totally unfamiliar script. And it's uphill! Hell is "down there" somewhere, and good intentions are so slippery you can just sit down and slide to Hell on your sofa cushion. Heaven is a hard climb. 

OK, I'm in danger of getting hopelessly lost in this metaphor, so let's just move on.... 

This is what I want to say: Always we begin again. It's a motto of the Benedictines. My spiritual director used to repeat to me a quote from one of the desert fathers, who when asked how the monks lived, answered, "we fall down and we get up ... we fall down and we get up." The Mass readings today are all about the possibility of change -- for the better or for the worse. It's a really important theme for me! 

I wrote a few weeks ago about ADHD. It is still my hot topic. I'm learning loads about it, reading and reflecting and getting to understand myself better. Not too surprisingly, something that people with ADHD (especially people diagnosed later in life) commonly struggle with is discouragement. We're out-of-the-box thinkers, coming up with genuinely creative ideas and often getting really enthusiastic about them. The down side is that once we've come up with that brilliant idea, we're still out of the box, which can make it really, really hard to follow those creative ideas all the way through to completion. We can imagine an end goal, but we can't figure out how to get from here to there, with a workable plan, with realistic, sequential steps. Even if we come up with a plan, we are incapable of keeping the shiny goal, the overall plan, and the current step in that plan, all in mind simultaneously. Then, too, coming up with a creative idea doesn't stop the flow of other creative ideas, which get more and more distracting as the excitement fades and the implementation work starts to drag on. We get bogged down, we lose interest, we quit. It happens over and over. Failure to achieve, starting strong and dropping out, becomes a pattern. We start to think it's no use trying, because we're bound to fail. It ends up being "I always fail ... I am a failure." And that's a bad place to be.

In today's gospel, Jesus is talking to people, "the chief priests and the elders," who have the opposite problem: they're complacent. Or maybe they are just too good at keeping their dirty laundry private, they can't grow because they can't admit -- to others, maybe even to themselves -- that the righteous mask is a mask. The people who do change and grow are the prostitutes and tax collectors (which in the New Testament context really means "traitors") who heard John the Baptist's message of conversion and believed. They believed -- it's not about believing that they'd better repent before God comes and casts all their sinful souls into fiery Gehenna. It's about believing that they aren't defined by, or limited to, their past sins. It's about believing that they CAN change, that they have the potential within them to be better than they have been so far.

It's not only about believing, of course, but it's a surprisingly important piece of the puzzle. There's a concept called "self-efficacy," that means something like your belief in your ability to rise to a challenge, to learn new things, to perform hard tasks, to accomplish big goals, that kind of thing. It's narrower than self-esteem, but of course it feeds into it. My battered self-efficacy has gotten better over the past year and a half in solitude, for a few reasons. One, I am now living a lifestyle that largely cushions my weaknesses and gives scope to my strengths. Two, I have been focusing a lot on getting to know myself better, to have a much clearer understanding of my strengths and weaknesses, separating what's innate from what's learned from what I only wish were true. And three, I've learned more about how to learn, how to grow, how to change, a step at a time. How to take a step at a time without losing sight of the goal, how to keep my eye on the happy goal without stumbling over the steps. 

My bell has just rung for Compline, so I'm going to stop trying to hammer this blog post into perfection and let it go public. That is, in fact, one of the big lessons I've been learning for self-efficacy. I'll leave you with two books I've found really helpful, both by author Stephen Guise: How to be an Imperfectionist and Mini-Habits. OK, make it three: Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin. 

Good night and God bless you. 

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