Whenever I hear the radio news anchor telling the story of another Lotto winner, the same thing always happens. Gary Wright’s 1976 song, “Dream Weaver,” wafts into my consciousness along with a Wayne’s World-like fantasy sequence. Through a gauzy lens, I watch my id (Freud’s word for the “guilty pleasure” part of all of us) frolicking with all that money. I never see myself driving around in a sports car. There is a decided absence of techno-bling, like a new computer, my own personal drone, or Google Glasses (I still sport a flip-phone, and an almost allergic reaction to social media). If I got rich, my hair color (mostly white), facial wrinkles (more than a few), wardrobe (lacking in color), and home address would all remain the same. The one thing that would immediately change with my newfound wad, would be my vacations. I would immediately super-size all of them. After collecting my money, I would drive straight to a travel agent to book a bike ride across Italy, and a leisurely tour through France’s wine country. I would snap pictures from the bow of an Alaskan whale-watching tour. I’d visit my wife’s family in the Philippines, on the way to a ski vacation in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Who knows, maybe I’d pay a Sherpa to stick me in his backpack and hoist me up Mount Everest just to spice up future party conversations.
I never thought it would happen to me, but last August, I won something like my own personal little Lotto. Suddenly, the dream sequence was real. My wife’s work required that she spend several days giving a presentation in Hawaii. For little more than the price of a plane ticket, I could accompany my spouse in paradise. In the time it takes a chicken to snap up a June bug, I booked a plane reservation. Next thing you know, I’m wearing a very manly ring of flowers around my neck and drinking something with rum and umbrellas in it.
The main thing I learned about Hawaii last August: every single good thing anyone ever told you about it is true. Years ago, they must have outlawed mosquitoes, bad weather, venomous snakes, and unfriendliness. Every place I looked was a post card. The Pacific Ocean around that archipelago is painted in a spectrum from cobalt to crystalline blue. For a few bucks, you can rent a snorkel and a mask. Three feet off shore, stick your face in, and you are in the salt water aquarium at your doctor’s office. Spectacular flashes of color dart around below you, or simply regard you with lazy indifference.
The native people are as beautiful as the native flora and fauna. Lisa and I got to observe a table full of Hawaiian women, from grandchildren to grandma, get up and spontaneously perform one of their ancient dances. With their bodies, sun darkened hands, and incredibly joyful faces, they seemed to tell the story of a land gently washed in beauty, and grace. This was the kind of place that could make Gauguin paint, and Elvis sing. At the end of our trip I was like one of Odysseus’ men who had to be torn away from the island of the Lotus Eaters.
But there is more to this story than envy-inducing descriptions of a second honeymoon. It wasn’t long before I discovered that I had inadvertently packed an unwanted stowaway. Two days before I was to leave, a clandestine passenger insinuated himself into my trip. A series of unfortunate events culminated in an unfortunate interaction with a colleague. I felt misunderstood and aggrieved. It was clear that there would be no opportunity to sort this thing out. If you really want to mess with a professional sorter outer (e.g. a counselor, psychologist, or social worker) take away his or her ability to untangle a problem that needs untangling. In addition to my flip-flops, and swimsuit, I accidentally packed my work colleague into my backpack.
There I would be, lining up a breathtaking shot of my wife next to a waterfall. Suddenly, from deep inside the backpack that is my unconscious, I would hear my colleague’s voice repeating an ill-considered phrase he had uttered several days earlier. Out to dinner at an ocean-side cafe, I would find myself accidentally replaying that old conflict again. Despite everything I know about cognitive therapy, mindfulness, and resilience too, I could not fully silence my need to psychologically shadow box my opponent/colleague. On that trip, I discovered what so many grand prize-winners have discovered. Even though you win a Lotto ticket to paradise, you can’t escape your human nature.
This Sunday, Christendom celebrates the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. On this feast, we not only celebrated Jesus’ deep dive into the Jordan River. We celebrated God’s choice to take a deep dive into everything of what it means to be human, even to the point of taking on our human nature. With our nature comes that part of us that delivers automatic thoughts that can rob us of our peace, and joy…even in a beautiful place like Hawaii. It seems to me that this Sunday’s feast asks you and me if we, like Jesus, are willing to take a deep dive into our humanity. If we are to embrace the divinity embedded within our nature, we must also learn to recognize, accept, and deal with the difficult parts of our nature as well.
At one point on my trip, I remembered another vacation from three decades earlier in Ireland. I had a terrible head cold, but decided that I was not about to stay indoors and convalesce. I determined to see Ireland with a drippy nose, watery eyes, and a bad cough. Once I accepted my condition, I was able to enjoy the amazing landscape that was 1985 Ireland. In the same way, three decades later, a kind of peace came to me in Hawaii with the acceptance that the scenery inside my psyche would not match the scenery on the outside of my head. In Ireland, I could not will my cold to go away. In Hawaii, I discovered that I could not 100% rid myself of the automatic thoughts associated with my co-worker. With the acceptance of this unwanted condition, paradoxically, I found myself enjoying Hawaii, even with the occasional intrusion of an unwanted inner-conversation with a work colleague from home.
This Sunday marks the end of the Advent/Christmas Season in which God made a home in our human nature. Is there some part of your human nature that you can more fully recognize, accept, and therefore integrate with more grace and poise?