20 November 2006

How I Became Vanna White

Speaking of life getting in the way, I got a letter from the historian of my last church. Actually it came a month ago, asking for me to correct and add to her on going history of the church. She is a very meticulous scholar, bless her, and there were but a few typos or missteps to mention. What makes it worth mentioning is that looking back conjured up lots of memories. And in those memories a pattern arose. Not the only pattern I am sure, but the one I am noticing is how often I am watching someone else. As I told a therapist some years ago, I am often not the main character in my own life.

Just to be clear, I have no need or desire to be at the center of your life. In one’s own life, though, you ought to be at the center, the main actor and actee as it were. “Who’s life is it anyway,” to quote a play of that name some years ago. Yet there in my reminiscences was a wild fact that others have been more central than me.

For example: Over ten years ago I officiated at a memorial for someone sort of famous, a poet who inspired Pete Seeger to write a song. Pete, being a New Yorker and available, sang at the service I conducted. A few years later the same thing happened when a church member who composed a hit show years before died. It had recently been revived and a young actress who made her Broadway break out in that show, Kristen Chenoweth, sang at the service. Not only would people remember their music more than my words, I remember their music more than my words.

I looked back and saw that often the dominant presence in my life at a given moment is someone else – parent, sibling, friend, teacher, sweetheart, and so on. They are the ones whom memory tells me shaped the course of my life almost as though I had delegated the task to them.

A psychologist I know observed that the Buddhist principle of extinguishing the self requires that there be a self to extinguish. Or to put it psychologically, even if we need to overcome ego centrism, the ego must first be at the center. Somewhere early in life I got the message that being self centered is bad, so I took myself out of the center, going too far I guess by deciding that it was best to let others define me. My path for the last thirty five years has been to create an ego that stands on its own rather than in response to others.

I am a slow learner it turns out.

There is a clich├ęd idea is that everything in life is a lesson, and we only move on to the next one once we learn the one in front of us. For lots of folks, including me, some lessons take a very long time. Here’s hoping I get to one more before class lets out.


Anonymous said...


You sound like a "White Knight" who is looking for recognition. The White Knight part is admirable; the desire to be understood/recognized is quite a burden to carry.

I identify and empathize with that role. I have spent years trying to find a way to help others without tearing myself to shreds in the process. There are good days and there are bad days....

The change of thinking that benefited me most so far was to stop trying to please people and start thinking of whether this person is pleasing me. In dealing with people, I am trying to change my thought patterns from one of "I hope they like me, or at least understand me" to "Do I like them? Do I want to spend any more time trying to work with this turkey?" That thinking puts me in the drivers seat of my emotions; changing the focus from the other to me. Strangely enough, I think I do a better job interacting with people by taking on that way of thinking too.

I read a Tom Waits quote one time that also typified the way I want to think of myself

"I ain't no extra baby, I'm a leading man."

One of your sermons helped bouy me in that way of thinking as well. You described death as someone "who doesn't knock, they just come right in and take a seat." That's the sort of authority or gravitas I'd like to carry with me through the day.

I hope you find a paradigm shift that puts your thought and feelings on the same footing that you put others thoughts and feelings....

"Be a little more selfish, it might do you some good." - Talking Heads, "Psychokiller"

WFW said...

Thanks for chiming in. Now who are you? Am I being churlish to think that it is at least ironic to be given advice by anonymous about being more forthright?

Of all the things I do well, reading myself out in public is one of the best. Learned it long ago at the foot of my mother whose anger could be deterred if I went in flagellating myself.

See, that was easy.

I am motivated to think about this right now because of retrospective experience and also because I am revisiting Augustine's Confessions (via a new biography of the man), a document I have read twice and one that has the paradoxical power to increase personal authority by decreasing personal standing.

Confession is a form of exorcism. You name the demon in public and you ever after have to take responsibility for dealing with it.

Presuming you are a member of my current congregation, you have no idea how far I have come in the last two years. Better late than never, right?