Playing The Game

“Play ball!” will soon echo over this land.

Baseball Spring training is underway, with the Red Sox in their training home where I work in Ft. Myers, Florida. My Braves are in Venice, Florida at their training camp, and soon will be at my back door at Truist Park in Atlanta.

Spring marks the beginning of the baseball season. For me, Spring also marked the beginning of the golf season. Augusta and the Masters was the “official” beginning of the flurry of golf events. My dad would take me each year to Augusta, me blissfully unaware as to how blessed I was to be on the famed Cathedral of golf at Augusta National, built by the immortal Bobby Jones. In my office, there was a portrait of Thomas Merton, an icon of Jesus as Pantocrator, an icon of Mary, the Theotokos, and……wait for it…Atlantan Bobby Jones, in a painting entitled Concentration. I would love to see a time study of which portrait I looked at the most. I’ve got a hunch.

But, I am not wanting to talk about baseball or golf, but rather, another game. It’s a game we all play. The game of life,

I have been rereading my friend/colleague, Dr. Charlie Palmgren’s books on Creative Interchange. In his book, The Chicken Conspiracy, he writes about the “game” he calls the Vicious Circle. The intriguing title of the book, in fact, kept me away from reading it, as it seemed a bit fanciful, too light-weight for my reading desk, crowded by Joyce, Proust, and philosophy and leadership tomes. When I finally got around to reading it, at the prompting of my crazy engineer friend from Flanders, I found that it was a treasure.

The “chicken” allusion points to an old story of an eagle’s egg that is placed in the nest of a chicken. When it is hatched, the eagle is raised alongside the chicks, learning to scratch in the soil for insects to eat. He lives as a chicken as he assumes that is who he is, because that is how he was raised. The story goes that one day, the eagle looks up in the sky and sees an eagle soaring. Something inside of him is moved by the sight, and the story becomes the path of self-discovery of who he really is.

Charlie’s overall point is that the chicken-eagle story is really our story, our narrative, which keeps us scratching rather than soaring. The key insight is that we are born with the ability to embrace the world in which we live and to creatively learn how to develop as persons as we are transformed in the process.

As infants, we have native curiosity as we see our world and want to explore it. We immediately reach out with our bodies and senses to discover this world that is around us. We learn to walk and to talk, as we practice our skills of being in the world. This is the Creative Self, which has intrinsic worth, as he/she goes about taking in this wonder-full world. In fact, a sense of “wonder” animates us into interaction with others and even internally within ourselves as we seek to understand just what is going on here. This Creative Self is within each one of us and animates a process that is embedded in Creation itself, Creative Interchange, designed to empower our continual development as we interact with others.

This is a natural process that we are natively endowed to undertake and progress in our development. However, something begins to interrupt this process. It’s been referred to as socialization, which begins with parents, extends to family, and eventually to teachers who have an agenda to teach us the “right” way, the appropriate behavior in our culture so that we can survive and “fit in”. The reality is that this intervention disrupts that natural expansive drive to explore, as it teaches us habituated behaviors that offer some sense of control, with a promise of safety. This forms the Created Self which responds to the outer authority, imposed or imagined, as opposed to our inner drive. Various personality theories use different language and terms to describe this process, but it comes down to the limiting of the Creative Self as it yields to outside pressures of the social group.

This pressure is part of a process that runs counter to the Creative Interchange process. It trades on the notion that your worth is not intrinsic, but is up for grabs. This question of value and worth is at the heart of what gets in the way of our Creative Self. Charlie has termed it the Vicious Circle which is a reactive process triggered by our internal questioning of worth. It occurs when we buy into the illusion that our worth comes from the outside, bestowed by others, rather than a given, or more poetically, a gift.

The Vicious Circle begins with us trying to “earn” or gain our worth by what we do, namely our performance. We are “trained” by various people and systems as to what behaviors bring worth to our being, and conversely, what behavior takes that worth away. Remember: in the Vicious Circle, our worth is up for grabs.

This creates a “cage” in which we exist, or more precisely, a cage in which we are kept. We know that we are in the grip of the Vicious Circle when we experience anxiety, hostility, shame, or blame. We feel rejected, discounted, judged, attacked, or scared when this happens, as these emotions clue us into the dynamic that is going on in our consciousness. We can identify the demand or expectation that we have failed to deliver on, which prompts feelings of inadequacy. Our worth is “on the line”. Truth is, for most of us, some unrealistic ideal of perfection is operating just beneath the surface of our Created Self, driving us to unrealistic expectations and opening us to a vulnerability of worth. The key is recognizing the cycle that we have allowed to be installed in our psyche so that we can interrupt it. Easier said than done.

For me, the key notion here is the differentiation between consciousness, which is a function of the left hemisphere of the brain, our analytic capacity, and that of awareness, which is part of the more wholistic right brain function that sees the connection with all things, all being.

This left brain-right brain dichotomy is the subject of voluminous research in neuroscience over the last few years. One of the leading researchers is Dr. Iain Mc Gilchrist, a British psychiatrist, who has stated clearly that our Western society has overvalued the predominance of the left brain which scientifically drives us to slice and dice the human in an attempt to get to the smallest part we can, with the promise of better understanding of who we are. No one would argue that the scientific endeavor has been wasted, as it has allowed us to see the parts that make up the whole. But McGilchrist pushes that in that rush to analysis, we have been reductionistic, forgetting the whole in which the parts live, move, and have their being. This gets complicated as the debate rages around which hemisphere of the brain should be valued the most. Perhaps reactively, Gilchrist argued that the left brain, which had been pushed to the side in our rush to analysis and scientific rigor, should be the favored function, as we have traded our soul for the price of data and the illusion of certainty and control.

The truth is that the side of the brain we favor, consciously or unconsciously, calls the tune of how we frame the game we are playing. If we emphasize the left, analytic brain, we are focused on control as the Created Self is in “survival” mode, funded by fear. If we favor the right, wholistic brain, we are open to our curiosity and willing to explore the world we are given as the Creative Self, secure in our intrinsic worth. As an Anglican, my heritage is that of the “via media”, the middle way, trying to balance the two sides in an artful dance. I see the value in both ways of going at the world, and pray for the ability to hold the two in what I call Creative Tension. Suddenly, I am reminded of the colloquial quip of folksy Texan, Jim Hightower, who said that the middle of the road is for yellow lines and dead armadillos. I would playfully add Anglicans.

Let me make this tension real by bringing it home to my world. In my work with clergy participating in the Spiritual Leadership Development Intensive (SLDI) we use an exercise developed by my colleague, John Scherer, referred to as “peeling the onion”. It is a surprisingly simple process, with deft results, sneaking up from behind, revealing a depth of insight in terms of how we are wired. I joke that it like two years of Jungian analysis in one hour.

We begin by asking the participants to list 8-12 characteristics that they would want someone to use to describe them as a person. What character traits would make you proud to hear being referred to your being. After they complete that task, we then ask them to list 8-12 characteristics that would be cringe-worthy if they were described in those terms, aspect of personality that would be devastating to you if you heard it. If you want to try this on, pause here and make your own list.

I’ll wait.

Okay. The list of positives begins to get at your persona, that is, the mask you developed over time and now wear to get what it is you want from the world. It gives you a glimpse of how you present yourself to others so that they regard you well. The bonus question is “what is it that you are wanting?” or more powerfully stated, what are you craving? An even deeper dive asks: what is your addiction?.

More than a few clergy types have admitted that, most of all, they want to be loved. Perhaps that’s why they signed up to do this particular job with the unconscious hope that they would receive that love. And yet, the work of being a clergy person often puts one at odds with the popular culture, which makes the person vulnerable in several ways. Some clergy, in a moment of rare honesty, even admit that they hope to be “adored”. We all have our reasons for why we do what we do, right?

The negative list names the aspects of life that are particularly threatening to one’s sense of being. Often for clergy, top of the list is “selfish” which would be antithetical to the servant model of ministry that Jesus taught and incarnated. You can guess some of the other characteristics that show up on this list. We call this list “the Shadow”, and we spend a good bit of our life trying to avoid, suppress, or deny these characteristics that we see as negative.

The surprising part of this exercise is that it is in the Shadow where we can identify some opportunities for growth. By the time we have hit mid-life, we have pretty well maxed out the skills of the persona, our “good side”. However, we may have missed out on some bets by not developing some skills that we have neglected because of our fear of not “fitting” the persona that we are selling to our world. In a rush to not appear “selfish”, we may have ignored the needs of self-care, a problem that vexes many of the clergy I know.

For me, at the top of the list that we call the Shadow, was controlling. I did not like being micro-managed, controlled, and certainly did not want to do that to others. My psychoanalyst would say that it came from my struggles with a controlling mama, but that’s another story, and another couple of thousand dollars. The trick we try to teach these clergy is to put a “rheostat” on the Shadow aspect that we have been avoiding and to turn the intensity down. For “controlling”, my “turn down” was to be directive. I could tell the people that I supervise where I wanted them to wind up, without micromanaging the details. It was a major breakthrough for me coming to this insight when I first submitted to the Onion exercise. When I got back from my original experience of this format, my staff threw a party in that I would finally be clear about what I was hoping they would accomplish in their work. Instead of being vague, being evasively laissez-faire in style, I would be clear, relying on their talent to figure out how to get there. This insight changed my supervisory approach and made a world of difference in my effectiveness as a leader.

This exercise helps people to look reflectively on their Created Self, which is the egoic vehicle we construct in order to survive as we go through life. This vehicle is effective and valuable as we move into life. But eventually, it hinders our growth and full development as a person of creativity and joy, living out of protective fear rather than curious wonder. It enables one to see the “game” that one has been and is playing. It frees us to reflect upon how one may be trapped within the cage of a Vicious Circle, stuck in habituated patterns of behavior that dead-set on striving to “earn worth” and avoid rejection. We experience a prompting to soar rather than merely scratching in the dirt. We recall the joy and wonder of life as we look to the horizon in hope. It opens the possibility of rediscovering the potentiated child within and then reconnects with the spirit of one’s Creative Self. The awareness of this Creative Self liberates us, unleashes us to engage the world in joy and wonder, like that curious child we once knew.

This is a process that is not easy but is doable, especially when approached within a community of folks that are willing and able to interact with authenticity and understand appreciatively. It’s what I was trying to describe last week when I wrote about the Tent of Meeting. My hope is that this season of Lent, of self-reflection and awareness, may prompt our Creative Self to reemerge from our winter’s sleep, just as the flowers do in Spring, filled with life and possibility. Blessiings.

4 thoughts on “Playing The Game

  1. I remember you and Kevin doing “The Onion” with us at Camp Allen back in the day…incredibly powerful stuff! Good to be reminded of it ❤


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