Why Being Gentle with Yourself Can Be So Hard

“You’ve learned a lot haven’t you, Carlen, over the 17 years you and Martha and the kids struggled with Alzheimer’s. What difference does it make for you now?”   

That’s me at age 40 talking with me today at age 71. Over the past year I’ve occasionally carried on this kind of conversation. It seems like a good time to have another one as we move into 2017.

Me@71: I did learn a lot, Carlen. But I’m unlearning even more.

Me@40: What do you mean?

Me@71: As I grew into adulthood, for example, I became my toughest critic: “Do the best you can, then do more.” “Push for perfection.” “Don’t give up.” “Lead or be led.” “If you don’t win, you lose.” “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” “God helps those who help themselves.” All my younger life I heard and believed such clichéd slogans, either spoken or implied. They echo still in my mind.      

Me@40: What’s wrong with them? Didn’t they help you to keep our magazine alive for 26 years? To keep our kids trekking into their own adulthood? To protect Martha? To write the book that you have?

Me@71: Yes and no. They could be practical guidelines, within bounds, and they did help in those arenas where I had a semblance of control. But one thing I’ve learned through Alzheimer’s is this: there are many realms of life in which I have no control. And in those areas where I thought I had control, it often is less than I presumed.

     Oil portrait of Martha by  our lifelong friend Tom Elliott

    Oil portrait of Martha by
 our lifelong friend Tom Elliott

As Martha and I tried to cope with Alzheimer’s, these emotional drivers often frustrated me. But “frustrate” is the wrong word. I got depressed with my ineptitude in dealing with Alzheimer’s and its symptoms. In my previous life, if I hit some immovable object I would typically find a way around it or over it. It wasn’t always easy, but I usually got past it. Not with Alzheimer’s. Every feint or sidestep or turn, this insidious disease was there, staring me in the face. I could find no way past.

Me@40: How then were you able to survive for 17 years under this kind of pressure?

Me@71: By learning to be gentle with myself. This understanding came slowly, very slowly. This is what I mean when I say I had much to unlearn. It’s at this intersection of my past and our present where I had to let God come into play.  

Me@40: You talk far more about God than I do. I believe in God and believe in praying and reading the Bible and going to church. But why such talk?

Me@71: I guess I do talk more than I did. Some people may think I’ve become a zealot. But that’s not it at all. It was a matter of survival for me to dive deeper into God than I ever had. I learned, not soon enough, that Alzheimer’s was way over my head.

Through much of my life I drove myself hard, even in my younger years. I remember playing ‘Old Maid’ with my family when I was 7 or 8; when I lost, I tore up the Old Maid card and marched to my room in a huff. Yet underneath this compulsion to succeed was an uncertain hollowness. It wasn’t a continuous feeling but it occurred often enough. I usually tried to combat this barrenness by staying busy. But Alzheimer’s exposed the lie in that approach. It and other such crises can destroy the strongest of wills.   

This is where God stepped in. Rather, this is where God came crashing in. By “God” I mean that personal, infinite, universal force that’s far greater than me and my efforts. I guess we’ve got to learn what our limitations are in order to surpass them, and I learned mine.

Me@40: So what have you learned?

Me@71: The operative word is “learning,” not learned. The most radical change for me is my impression of God. I grew up believing God was a distant god, a god of judgment and punishment who passed out mercy if I believed and did the right things. (I suspect that many of us contend with this image of God at some level.) In my childhood church, “God is Love” was occasionally whispered out on the fringes, but I rarely saw that image embraced. And I never felt it.

In caring for Martha, I beat myself up through the early years. I felt guilty, ashamed, anxious, angry, impatient, and frustrated. I felt Martha and I had been stigmatized. At the bottom of it all was an intractable fear. I wanted out, but I didn’t want out—it was my “duty” to care for Martha and our kids. More than a few times I stared at my ego dashed on to the floor, shattered and impotent.  

It was during these lowest moments that I began to permit the God who is Love to flow through me and over me, transforming my cracked ego into a wholeness I’d not felt before. I began to know God as that emotional, mental, physical, creative, spiritual, and merciful Presence who seeks me out, who seeks us all out to embrace us in the most intimate of ways. To experience God in this way is beyond words. In doing so, I began to trust God rather than to believe in Him.

It was out of these transformative moments that I saw Martha, our children, and me lifted out of that ugliness called Alzheimer’s. As I experienced God’s gentleness, I discovered a gentleness within myself—and within Martha. I was learning to criticize less while forgiving myself more, and those around me. With that came a sense of release, a rarely experienced freedom.

I realize now that a “strong” faith is an illusion. To the contrary, I see that a real, practical faith is a receiving faith.

                          My l'il rascals and me

                         My l'il rascals and me

Me@40: So you’ve now gotten past these destructive behaviors?

Me@71: Hardly. My October launch of A Path Revealed has been fun, but on occasion that old obsession of perfectionism has arisen with its many symptoms: fear of failure; self-doubt; worry; fear of rejection; feeling inferior to writers I respect; and too much to do in too little time with all the responsibility falling on my shoulders.

Yet I’m learning, bit by bit, I can do more by pushing myself less and permitting this divine Love, Life, and Spirit to permeate my heart, mind, body, and soul. In doing so, I’m learning to be gentle with myself…as I am with others.

Me@40: Trusting God can be so counter-intuitive, can't it?


Thanks for listening in on our conversation. As we move into 2017, may we all deepen and enrich our trust in a Presence far, far greater than ourselves.   


P.S. My publisher Paraclete Press is starting 2017 in a giving mood. They are giving away 3 copies of my book, A Path Revealed, on Goodreads. If you’re interested, click here to sign up. Their offer is good through January 31. If you’re not familiar with Goodreads, you can follow a step-by-step, sign-up procedure by clicking on my post from last September. Email me if you have any questions. Good luck.

P.P.S. In case you missed it, the Tampa Bay Times ran a story last month on our family’s odyssey and my book. The Times has the largest circulation of any paper in the South. You can read the story by clicking here.

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