honest wholeness for the holidays
at the beginning of my chaplaincy training program, we had a weekend workshop teacher who shared with us how the tenets of improvisational theater could be applied to the world of spiritual care. as an introvert and contemplative who struggles with being put on the spot, i found the prospect of an improv class to be the stuff of mild (but fairly absolute) GI distress. the older i get, the more i'm able to recognize and even laugh at or relax into that resistance, but it still remains a challenging part of my wiring and likely always will.
as almost always happens, and primarily because my fellow cohort were people with whom i shared trust built through repeated instances of vulnerable openness and connection, i was able overcome my own objections, dig in, and even have a good time. because i was able to free myself (mostly) from the fight/flight/freeze of on-the-spot theater, i remained open to the nuggets of wisdom shared and was able to uptake and integrate a powerful foundational concept within improvisational theater--that of "yes, and".
in order for improv to work, there has to be a relationship between the participants built on the principle of acceptance of whatever has come before. if someone starts a story and hands the mic to you, improv theater says that you don't correct or challenge the previous content... you build on it. you accept it as true and then add to it in a way that forwards momentum, and in doing so, you affirm your partner(s), their contribution, and the dialog (the dia logos, or "words through or across") between you, all at once.
the sentiment "yes, and..." is diametrically opposed to the concept of "yes, but..."(or more strikingly "no, rather..."). its work is that of complexifying--sometimes towards greater clarity, sometimes towards nagging paradox, but always towards a greater wholeness. as i think about the ways that "yes, and..." can serve us as humans, specifically around the holidays this year, i'm drawn immediately to the concept of gratitude, of "thanks-giving", that pulls at our souls as the weather turns (in northeast new england, at least) crispy-cold and dark.
a month of thanks-giving
a common modern practice in the month of november, our cultural month of thanks-giving (i could digress to problematize "Thanksgiving", but that's a sentiment that isn't novel, so i'll leave it for now), is the daily reflection and profession, usually via social media, on and of things for which we are thankful--daily public expressions of gratitude. the exercise often begins, for the first week or two, with the large and the obvious, (our families, good food to eat, steady work, etc.), and towards the end of the 30 days of practice, we find ourselves sometimes digging deep and recognizing our gratitude for perhaps previously unnoticed obscura (ooooo--finding something long lost!) or mundanities easily taken for granted (making it through all four red lights today without having to stop--yesssss!).
it's a common and proven truth that focusing on gratitude rewires our brains towards happiness. as creatures, humans are programmed to more easily remember unpleasant things--a vestigial mental tactic that most likely helped us avoid harm for hundred of thousands or even millions of years. intentionally reorienting towards the positive and focusing purposefully on gratitude bathes our brains in dopamine (hooray for little wins!), oxytocin (hooray for emotional bonding!), serotonin (hooray for serenity!), and endorphins (hooray for smiling!)--and all of that feels really good. it also, amazingly enough, works on a "fake it 'til you make it" basis, meaning that even if we don't actually feel happy/content in any given moment, purposefully focusing on sources of gratitude can get us (at least halfway) there. and it's a practice that improves with, well... practice!
...but we were talking about "yes, and..."
as we americans approach our fourth-thursday-of, our historically messy focus point of thanks-giving, i've been thinking a lot about gratitude, and i've been thinking a WHOLE lot about "yes, and...". i imagine that i'm not alone in feeling as though this year has offered challenges to all of us that have stretched us to, and beyond, our limits and capacities. (if if never have to hear the word "unprecedented" or the phrase "these uncertain times" again, it will be too soon). we have lost jobs, homes, health, friends, family members, access to community, childcare, reliable and effective education... you name it.
we've needed to grieve both individually and collectively but haven't had the opportunity to do so safely because of pandemic circumstances. we've experienced, on micro and macro scales, deep social and political divides widening further as stances on illness have been co-opted by political parties, and we've watched all of this happen against the painfully "ordinary" backdrops of systemic racism, inequity, police violence, poverty...
and lest i drown in "we's", i have my own personal losses and sorrows, as i'm sure do you. i've lost employment as the pandemic last-strawed an educational institution where i've worked for the better part of a decade; i've acted as an academic advisor for students in deep and sometimes irreconcilable personal, spiritual, physical, and emotional crisis; i've lost a friend to covid-19 after an agonizing touch-and-go week on a ventilator; i've had young, healthy midwifery clients on ventilators and colleagues who have lost clients to the disease; i've been harassed for my own personal health choices by clients who think i'm going to "shed vaccine and make their kids sterile"; i've been verbally assaulted in consultations by people who told me that requiring masking during close contact medical appointments was "discrimination against the disabled" (with pregnancy as the "disability"); i've held space for friends in healthcare languishing under the weight of the intense moral injury involved in thankless and adversarial provision of pandemic healthcare...
the list is long. and this only includes highlights of pandemic-related struggles, not run-of-the-mill hardship.
the truth, for all of us, is that our november-selves, in pursuit of integrity-based wholeness, can only ever be the spiritual equivalent of "yes, and...". i invite you, if it feels real, true, and whole, not to push away or ignore the parts of life that are hard right now in search of an inauthentic blanket focus solely on the positive. you can invite in gratitude (please do!), but you're under no moral obligation to drown all the other real and true parts of yourself in "love and light", in a cognitively dissonant act of spiritual bypass. you do not need to pretend that you're all ok when part of you is not. all of these parts of you can coexist. they're all real. they're all you. they're all welcome here.
“spiritual bypassing is a superficial way of glossing over problems in a way that might make us feel better in the short term but ultimately solves nothing and just leaves the problem to linger on” kendra cherry
you can be grateful. you can push through and find gratitude even when it seems impossible. yes, and, you can also be hurting, broken, scared, angry, lost, or uncertain. we, in all of our messy, holy complexity, are and can and should be all of these things if they reflect our truths in a given moment. as you roll-call your gratitude this november (yay for happy brain chemicals!), also make time to speak aloud or acknowledge in your heart the yes-ands, the things that are also true and present and hard. pass the mic to that part of yourself--keep the story going. connect with other people around you, and if you have the capacity, also hear their yes-ands, and do so with a mind towards listening rather than solutioning (harder than it sounds, but profoundly transformative).
when the yes-ands become too much
i say all of this in acknowledgment that sometimes and for some of us, the darkness can be overwhelming, and the hardship that makes up part of our wholeness is perhaps not something we actually have the capacity to face, hold, or experience. i'm not a fan of the "god/the universe doesn't give you anything you can't handle" mentality. that absolutely happens, and it's not rooted in any sort of personal moral failing when it does. if your wholeness is too much to hold, this or any other month, please reach out to a trusted friend. if you're that trusted friend, be a conduit between your love and the resources that they need to be safe but likely don't have the capacity to find or take for themselves. i've provided just a couple of those at the end of this post.
ending with gratitude
despite the wild west of the past two years, i have so much to be grateful for. i am healthy, i have access to vaccines, my family have avoided covid-19 and also have access to vaccines, i have meaningful work in the form of midwifery and budding chaplaincy, my partner didn't lose work (his industry actually thrived!), i've re-entered education as a student and am joined to several wonderful groups of humans as a result, i've left an administrative job that was swallowing my soul, i've acquired a sassy black cat familiar named banksy, i've decided to take a year off of midwifery later in 2022 for IVF (in vitro fertilization) so my partner and i can have a baby, i have a steadfast pod of friends who have seen me through the intense social isolation of pandemic life.
so much gratitude. not only gratitude, but yes, and gratitude.
be well, keep growing, keep going.
abby hall luca
the hearth chaplain
maine crisis line
national suicide prevention hotline
the trevor project
lgbtq suicide prevention hotline
national domestic violence hotline