Can I tell you what I learned about penguins?

A friend of mine shared a poignant story this week that I've been excited to pass on to you.

In 4th grade, her teacher asked for volunteers to go to the library to find some facts about penguins to share with the class. She raised her hand, and was thrilled when the teacher picked her for this special project! She spent the afternoon diligently learning as much as she could, and came back excited to share her penguin presentation with the class.

But instead, when she came back to the classroom she was met with shouts of "Surprise!" and "Bon voyage!" -- a special party being thrown just for her, to celebrate a multi-week vacation she was about to take with her family. 

"When do I get to tell people about the penguins?" she asked the teacher.

"Oh, you don't have to do that. We just want you to enjoy the party." was the reply.

"But really, I want to share what I learned!" she persisted.

"No, we really don't need you to do that," the well-meaning teacher insisted. And so she never did.

In fact, she never willingly spoke in front of any group, ever again. Because that day she learned a formative lesson: "People don't want to hear what I have to say."

That wasn't really the situation; nevertheless, the belief became so deeply ingrained that it shaped the next several decades of her life. I'm not really a public speaker, she would tell herself. I get too nervous. I'm much better 1-on-1.

Until this week, that is, when she finally decided to face her fear. She shared that 4th grade penguin story as the designated speaker at our monthly networking meeting, and proceeded to give one of the most honest and moving presentations I've seen.

I've been rolling her story around in my mind for days now, seeing it from all sort of different angles.

I've been thinking about how, even if our intent is good-hearted and pure, we can't ever fully predict or control how we impact other people.

I've been thinking of my own core childhood experiences that taught me pernicious things like, "I don't belong" and "I am unwanted by my peers," and wondering what those situations would look like if I went back in time and witnessed them as an adult. Would it free me to see things differently?

I've also been wondering what leads us to learn the lessons we do from our experiences, and whether our strongest gifts and desires are also innately the most vulnerable to being shut down. Is it possible that those areas where we feel the most wounded and afraid are precisely the ones we must lean into if we are going to feel fulfilled?

Later this month, I am launching my first half-day Happiness Adventure Challenge, encouraging people to work as teams to take small actions to create happiness, and challenge beliefs that get in the way.

If this sounds fun to you, I hope you will join us. And if it sounds daunting to you, I especially hope you will join us, because it is in that willingness to stretch ourselves that happiness lives.

Who knows, maybe you'll even find someone to talk to about penguins.

A simple compassion exercise

During this week's blog-writing time, I found myself thinking about someone close to me who has really been struggling lately, and who has been doing things that, from the outside looking in, seem stupid and self-sabotaging.

The more I focused on the situation, the more scared and helpless and angry I felt -- a downward spiral that had to stop if I was going to write anything honest or valuable.

I tried a number of things to get my bearings back. I acknowledged and listened to my feelings (including the annoyance that they were there in the first place). I thought about what I really want for this person, and wrote out a list of those things. Then I re-wrote that list as things I want for myself, too.

Each of those helped to some degree, but the thing that really clinched it was going through a compassion exercise from the Avatar course, which was printed on a small card that was on the table right next to me. You can find the full text here, but to summarize the instructions:

With attention on a specific person, repeat to yourself the following:

  1. Just like me, this person is seeking some happiness for his/her life.
  2. Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in his/her life.
  3. Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.
  4. Just like me, this person is seeking to fulfill his/her needs.
  5. Just like me, this person is learning about life.

This exercise was such an important reminder to me that just because someone's actions cause pain for them (or others!), doesn't mean that their goal is to cause or experience pain. They may just not know (or have the skills to implement) better ways to get what they really want.  

When I assume that this person I care about wants to cause herself pain, it is really scary, and I can find myself resisting her actions and not trusting her decisions. But when I remember that what she wants for herself is actually the same thing I want for her, that dynamic shifts and I can become an ally. Which feels so much better to us both.

Why it's hard to ask for help

I've been finding myself feeling very needy lately.

Is that as uncomfortable a feeling for you as it is for me?

Never mind that I teach classes with titles like "The Art of Receiving" and confidently tell people that one of the best gifts they can give is to accept another person's help. It can still be hard to put into practice.

One of the things that makes it hard is that it can take me a while to recognize my own neediness. It feels scary and uncomfortable to admit I'm in a situation I don't feel equipped to handle, and so I pretend it's not true. At those times, it doesn't matter how many people are out there able and willing to help me: as long as I'm resisting being needy, I simply won't accept it.

There is a cost to that resistance, though, which is that the neediness starts coming out sideways, as things like impatience, defensiveness and criticism. It feels awful to me, and to the people around me. And it will keep getting worse until I finally say, "Help!" and admit I don't have things handled.

At that point, the thing that can make it difficult to receive help is just the opposite: rather than denying my neediness, I identify with it, and start wallowing in self-pity. "Save me, I can't do this" is the message I broadcast. But when people do try to save me, I resent it -- because the truth is, I don't actually want to be powerless. I don't want other people to live my life or make my decisions for me.

What I really want is to find my own answers. But sometimes I need help figuring out what they are. 

From that awareness, it becomes a lot easier to both ask for help and to receive it. It's just a matter of figuring out the right question(s): What is the situation I'm dealing with? How do I feel about it? Where am I stuck or conflicted? What do I need to know? What do I actually want? What might I do? 

I can ask these questions to myself, to God, to other people... I'm not sure it matters. What matters is my willingness to receive answers that feel good, and get the help I need, so I can be available to others when they need me.

May you, too, recognize your neediness, embrace your desires, find your answers, and be there when others need you.