The Fourth Word: PERMISSION, or “Go Ahead and Get Started”

 

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The fourth word at our creativity conference with Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell was PERMISSION.

(If you are just getting started, you can go review the first three words: COURAGEENCHANTMENT,or  PERSISTENCE by clicking on the word.)

Every place has a set of rules, a code of conduct and expectations. We find them in our schools, churches, families, and culture. No matter where we are, we know what’s okay and what’s not, what will get us affirmation, or draw condemnation. And if we don’t know, we figure it out pronto.

This was certainly true in my house growing up. We were “good kids” and “good Catholics” and those simple descriptors came with a whole list of “dos and don’ts.” They covered everything from our physical appearance to religious practices, academic expectations to moral obligations, but I’m not complaining. In my childhood home, I learned about hard work, critical thinking, the importance of family and the steadfastness of the Spirit. In fact, I’m trying to pass those traditions on to my own kids as well.

But I’m also trying to leave a couple things behind, like shame about my body, sexuality and femininity, as well as my fear of speaking up to authority. I don’t believe those were values my parents’ consciously chose to give me. For the most part, they were just transmitted from their own cultural and religious upbringing right on down to us.

But what I have learned while making my own home and my own rules is that we will never move forward, or evolve if we don’t transgress the rules and expectations of those around us. Those norms exist to stabilize the social order, not to aid the flourishing of human consciousness. If we want to grow up, become adults in the truest sense of the word, we have to challenge what we are told. We have to decide what works for us and what doesn’t and for that, apparently, we need PERMISSION.

Unfortunately, too many of us think PERMISSION comes from an outside source. We spend years, sometimes even decades, waiting for an authority figure to tell us that we can challenge what we were taught, but it’s not true. We are the adults and we have the inner authority to make those decisions! We are the ones who sign the permission slip, not the ones who have to work up the courage to ask if we can go on the field trip!

In the decade since she published Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert said the single thing people seek from her most often is PERMISSION. She gave herself PERMISSION to shake up her life, and they want her to give them PERMISSION as well.

  • Can I leave my unhappy marriage?
  • Can I not have kids?
  • Can I travel alone?
  • Can I go back to school and pursue my dream?
  • Can I be spiritual, but not religious?
  • Can I listen to my heart and soul and NOT just the people around me?

Obviously, LG says, YOU CAN, but should you? That’s the real question.

But you’ll never ask the real question if you don’t think you have PERMISSION to do so.

Let me just say, along with Elizabeth Gilbert and Rob Bell, you have PERMISSION!

You have PERMISSION to take every belief, value, assumption and stereotype out of your mental closet. You can hold them; turn them over; find out where they came from. Do they still deserve pride of place in your mind and heart? Does the ideal you’re clinging to still align with what you know to be true of yourself and the world around you? Is that belief/value/assumption still serving you? How about those around you? How would your life look differently if you let it go?

LG and RB have both rearranged their mental, emotional and spiritual furniture many times over the last decade and I have never seen two people who live so joyfully and compassionately in such spacious houses. I’m still working on my remodeling job, but it’s getting roomier all the time.

I’ve gotten rid of a fair amount of rigid Catholic doctrine and more than a few pieces of false Christianity – all of which served to keep some people in and put some people out – outside of Love, connection and worthiness, which is totally unacceptable to me today, but totally normal to me in my younger years. I keep pulling out ideas I have about what it means to be a good parent and to raise successful kids. (In both cases, perfection has transformed into intention, effort and execution.) As I reach middle age, I find myself again questioning what it means to be happy, healthy and put-together. (Again perfection has given way to grateful, present efforting) and I keep re-evaluating my relationship to FEAR and how it informs my decisions. (A daily reminder: FEAR is there for risk assessment, not project management!)

Each time I put one of my beliefs back on the shelf, it’s been adjusted. It’s less rigid, more flexible and ultimately stronger. It’s been through a refining process, getting rid of what was unnecessary, or did not resonate with my hard-earned knowledge and experience of the world and the God who made it.

But there’s a caveat if you are going to start a remodeling process of your own! “Waking up,” becoming more conscious, whatever you want to call it – is likely to generate some negative feelings. If you step out of your familial, or cultural norms, you are going to meet  resistance – even if  you are moving towards something that is intrinsically good for you and the world. Think about the first kids to question segregation in the South – not a popular change of view with their parents! Galileo was arrested; Darwin was denounced; Jesus was crucified! Institutions, corporations, and the people you love might condemn you, but you have PERMISSION to break the rules in order to live a fuller, more authentic life. And the bottom line is that you can spend time explaining your process to those around you, or not.

For the people I Love and whom I know Love me, I take the time. My mother and I have had many heartfelt conversations about the teachings of the traditional Catholic Church, especially those I no longer agree with, like their stance on homosexuality, female ordination, and the legitimacy of patriarchy. My father and I talk quite frequently about the US educational system, white privilege and politics. Tim and I battled for years over how to parent out kids and we still debate our family finances, marital expectations, and professional goals. Over and over again, we take out our positions and try to identify what needs to stay, because it is of ULTIMATE IMPORTANCE to both of us, and what needs to go, because it is simply a carry-over from our family of origin, or cultural expectations. These aren’t always easy conversations, but I can’t imagine not having them. When we make a decision, it has both of our signatures on the bottom line.

Elizabeth Gilbert made it clear that she is happy to keep handing out PERMISSION slips to people who ask for them, but what she would truly love is for people to find the inner authority to write their own PERMISSION slip. Each and every one of us can set ourselves free from the messages, beliefs, and narratives that limit us and keep us from living authentically.

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To that end, the fourth letter LG asked us to write was from the Boss, the greatest authority figure in our lives. It could be our father, mother, priest, rabbi, pastor, or elementary school principal. When we do something that we know “they” won’t approve of, who is the “they?” That’s the voice we’re channeling here. There is no greater, or higher authority than the person who is writing this letter and this person is giving you a PERMISSION slip to ask questions, to be who you are, to keep growing up so you can live the fullest life possible.

This is how the letter begins:

Dear _______________:

I am your Principal and you have PERMISSION to:

While I hate to disappoint, I cannot transcribe my original letter here in full. I have finally reached my threshold for vulnerability and embarrassment. A few lines are all I can offer.

Dear Ali:

I am your Principal and you have PERMISSION to:

Be yourself and Love yourself. …

You are free to NOT listen to all the voices in your head about what is worthy to do.…

You are free to be thin-skinned and not muscle through. ….

You can move at your own pace….

Everything does not have to be “just right” for everything to be okay…

Sincerely,

ALK,  The Boss of You

At first I didn’t think I needed another PERMISSION slip. I signed my first one long ago, when I was nineteen, single and pregnant. I had transgressed all the rules about what it meant to be a good, Catholic girl, so I started making up my own and guess what? They all began with Love and still do to this day. (You can catch up on part of my adoption story here.) But I have to admit, writing this letter was helpful anyway. Anything we can do to step into greater freedom and away from fear is a win in my book. And I hope you will write yourself a PERMISSION slip and see what you get to do next!

The Third Word: PERSISTENCE or the Art of Showing Up in Three Parts

 

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I feel a little sheepish to be introducing the third word in this series, PERSISTENCE, after a three-week delay. However, without PERSISTENCE, there would be no #Signs of Love at all, much less this much-delayed post.

(You can catch up here with the first two words: COURAGE and ENCHANTMENT .)

Part One: The Background

I love the practicality of this word. According to Rob Bell, PERSISTENCE is the engine of just about everything. Nothing in the world would get done without it. Books wouldn’t get written; companies wouldn’t last; marriages would fall apart. The fact that we exist at all is due to our evolutionary drive to just keep going. A spark might get us started, but without PERSISTENCE, we’d stay right where we are.

Of course, we need to find that spark in the first place, that particular something worth our time and effort. Rob Bell introduced the word ikigai, a Japanese word for “that which gets you up in the morning” to describe that impetus. Once we find that passion, or purpose, PERSISTENCE will follow. Sure, setbacks make us want to give up, but when we find ourselves lagging, we can return to that original question. What gets me up in the morning? People give up, because they are pursuing something other than their ikigai, or they don’t what it is yet. It is living out of your purpose, that makes you PERSISTENT.

Now, if you are thinking this sounds a little “pie in the sky,” you might be right, which is why it was helpful to have Elizabeth Gilbert there to hit us with the reality stick.

For her, PERSISTENCE is a total grind most of the time. That’s why we call it PERSISTENCE! If it were easy, we would call it “Fun!” and we would do it all the time. But things are hard, so we don’t. Each of us has a history of not following through on people and projects. Our lives are littered with unfinished things – personal and professional – and we can carry a lot of shame about those things. But when we beat ourselves up over it, we tend to believe that we are undisciplined losers, who have never persisted in anything in our whole lives, which LG assured her audience was NOT TRUE!

The third letter LG asked us to write at the creativity conference was from our PERSISTENCE. “Ask it to give you a pep talk,” she said, “and remind you of all the things you have accomplished together – the mundane and the momentous.” That letter would help us counteract the story we tell ourselves about our ability to follow through: “There are many things you do DO. Look at them all.”

Part Two: The Letter

So here is my letter from PERSISTENCE. Much like the others, I find it embarrassing and if I didn’t believe in the power of vulnerability, I wouldn’t be sharing it with all of you.

Dear Ali:

I am your PERSISTENCE and this is damn sure what I want you to know about me: I exist! You are fiercely persistent. I may not be bombastic and loud, but I show up every single day! I get you out of bed in the morning to pray, to learn, to stand before God, to make breakfasts and healthy lunches for your family – all before 7:00 am. To kiss and hug your kids, even when they are bugging the crap out of you. You make your family food – you shop and prepare it. You take care of the house and the laundry. You exercise. You raise good kids, the hard way, in ways that no one else sees. You remember other people’s stories, even the details, and you follow up with them to see how they are doing, because it matters to you. You write thank you cards for goodness sake! You read hard books most people haven’t even heard of and then you connect them to your life and try to make them relevant to others. You prioritize your marriage and the romance that sustains it. You willingly choose to hang out with 14 year old girls on Tuesday nights and you do it all with a smile on your face and Love and joy in your heart. You are disciplined enough to know that your own happiness doesn’t mean a damn thing if you can’t contribute to the happiness and wholeness of others.

You’re welcome,

PERSISTENCE

Sigh.

At the time, I felt proud of my list. Today, it feels silly.

In part, that’s why it’s taken so long to publish this essay. I was all set to go, then Alton Sterling was killed, then Philando Castile, then the Dallas police officers. I didn’t know what to say. What difference in the world does my own little PERSISTENCE make in the face of a world gone mad? Last week, new waves of terror began: Baghdad, Nice, Germany, and then more violence in our own home: Baton Rouge, Kansas City, Miami. Where will it be tomorrow? What could I possibly say?

Almost nothing, except this.

Part Three: The Love

Through obstacles and distractions, victories and heartaches, PERSISTENCE is the virtue of showing up; it is the ultimate act of “keep on keepin’ on” and it doesn’t get nearly enough credit. That is what I re-learned about PERSISTENCE last week while Tim and the kids and I were at Family Retreat.

As I prepared my talk for Thursday morning, I remembered my true ikigai. My purpose on earth (and yours too ultimately) is to Love. Over the course of my lifetime, my ikigai will take a hundred different forms, but currently it means making meals, hanging out with teenagers and writing this blog. And as much as my FEAR and ego like to tell me otherwise, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. Thank God PERSISTENCE is there to remind me that I just have to show up and do what I do.

The theme for this year’s Family Retreat was “Love is…” and I had asked them to call my talk, “Love is Fearless,” but with everything happening in the world that title didn’t really work for me, because choosing to Love is actually pretty scary and no matter how much we Love, we will still be afraid. The world is a scary place and bad things happen to good people –Loving and kind people. But Love allows us to face our fears and act in spite of them. Love means doing what is necessary to create more wellness, more wholeness, more HOLYNESS for ourselves and those around us – in our own home and in the world.

Love is what we were made for and Love is what we are here for.

And we know that to create those things – health, wholeness, holiness – we have to show up! Of course, we’re happy to show up for the good things, but we’ve got to stay put for the hard things too – the things we’d rather NOT show up for, the ones that involve pain, disappointment, embarrassment, and hard truths we’d rather lie to ourselves about. There are many things in our lives we’d like to run away from, but that’s not Love, because it lacks PERSISTENCE.

On the first day of Family Retreat, I read the passage from 1 Corinthians 13 on Love. Maybe you’ve heard it before? It goes something like this, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast… It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” If you’ve never read the chapter, dig in, because it is good stuff.

The Love that Paul describes is not the wimpy kind of Love we’re used to giving and receiving. This is next-level Love. This Love is MUSCULAR. It is ROBUST. It is HEARTY. It is PERSISTENT. This Love is COURAGEOUS.

We need look no further than Jesus on the night before he died to see the COURAGE and PERSISTENCE of Love. Was he afraid in the Garden? Absolutely. He sweated blood. I don’t think any of us has ever been that terrified. And what did he ask of God, the ultimate source of Love he had come from, drawn on and trusted in his whole life? In that moment, Jesus asked for a pass! He was afraid, like you and I would be, and he asked to not have to show up. He said, “If it is your will, let this cup pass from me.” And then what did Jesus do?

He showed up! He got up and he walked out – unarmed, and vulnerable – knowing he was going to lose his life, his reputation, his friends – and he trusted in LOVE to see him through it – all the way through the pain and the fear and the trauma of rejection and the hardship that he would face in the following hours.

And Love let him walk through it. That’s the part we wish weren’t true. When Love wins, it can still feel like losing.

Love doesn’t excuse us from anything, but Love allows us face ALL things – with our heads up, even as our hearts and sometimes our bodies are battered. When we choose to Love as Jesus did, all things can be redeemed. I believe that with all my heart.

Thank you, PERSISTENCE, for reminding me what I’m here for.

Today, if nothing else, I will show up to Love.