Friday, December 23, 2011

My Christmas Wish

One Christmas tradition is to tell Santa what you want for Christmas.  Some travel to a shopping mall or event to see a 'Santa', some write letters and send them to the 'North Pole'.  I figured blogging my list was a legitimate as either of those options.  So, here goes:

Dear Santa,
I would like for the people who love and care about me to know how much I value them and care for them.  I'd like for the important people in my life to know that they hold a place in my heart and mind.  I would like to be able so demonstrate this to each of them this year either in word or deed. 

For my family, I would like to give them the gift of my time and presence, both physical and emotional.  Too often, I feel pulled by the obligations I have made that I neglect the desire to become the husband and father I want to be.

For my friends, I would like to give them support and camaraderie we shared in days gone by.  I know that we have all grown and changed and have various claims on our time, but I'd like to be able to stay connected in a more direct fashion.

For my clients and the families I serve, I would like to be able to give them my best efforts in helping to uncover their own strengths and remarkable qualities.  I would like insight to help them to get 'unstuck' and moving toward their goals and dreams again.  I would like the compassion to comfort their hurts and help them heal themselves and their relationships.

Finally, I would like to have the mindset that I need to have to see all of these gifts through a lens of trying to bring glory to God in my life.  I would like to be ever mindful of the fact that I want these things not only for myself, but because I believe that the people in my life matter to God and he is using me to reach them and draw them nearer to himself.

I know people sometimes add in "peace on earth" and the "goodwill toward men" as afterthoughts to their Christmas wish list... so I'll add to my list something that is just as likely: I'd also like an iPhone4s.  Just sayin'

Merry Christmas, Santa!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thoughts on becoming self aware

Today is my 35th birthday.  I've been contemplating the implications and wanted to share some of the thoughts that have been bouncing around inside my head.  They all seem to come back to the idea of knowing myself... so here is a collection of the ideas:

The Matrix (1999) depicted the main character, Neo, as a man who had been trapped inside a virtual world his entire life, never knowing that his 'reality' was just a computer generated world.  When he got out of the Matrix and into the real world, he learned that nothing was as it seemed, not even himself.  By technological means, his mind is able to interact with the Matrix and he learns that he has a 'mental image' of himself, or a way of thinking about himself that affects how he looks and behaves.  It is called his 'residual self image', a kind of  sub-conscious way of thinking about one's self.  In my mind, I'm about 19 years old and 180 lbs.  I've got drive and stamina and the world is my oyster.  In reality, I can't do what a 19 year old can do... I've managed to find an extra 80 lbs or so and my get up and go got up and went. 

Orson Scott Card's 'Speaker for the Dead' (1986) introduces a profession, a sort of Eulogist.  The role of a Speaker for the Dead is to research the life of the deceased and then speak about it.  The speech is not to persuade, but rather to reveal, without bias, the person.  The Speaker tries to describe the life of the person as that person tried to live it, the good and the bad, the sterling moments and the flaws.  The deceased will hopefully have the honor of being seen in the entirety of who he/she was, a person.  In addition to being a key theme in the Ender Series of books, this ability to see past a person's actions and see the person themselves is appealing to me.  I don't know if I'm honest enough to see all of my flaws, but I like to think that I am open enough to be able to accept them when they are revealed to me.  Not to be comfortable with having those flaws, but comfortable enough to own them and be able to work on them to be a healthier person.

In the Eragon Series, the structure of the magic that binds the universe together is such that names of things have power.  This is a common enough theme in fantasy fiction, but Paolini utilizes a deeper structure, giving each item in his universe a 'true name'.  Knowing a thing's 'true name' is a form of power over that thing.  Knowing a person's 'true name' gives the knower power over that person.  Knowing one's own 'true name' gives one a special understanding or insight into one's self.  In 'Inheritance' (2011), Eragon is forced to examine himself so he can discover his 'true name' and, in doing so, learns that at least for sentient beings, a 'true name' is both defining and empowering because it is not permanent.  As a person grows, develops and changes, so does one's 'true name' because it is a reflection of the person.  It is the sum of what a person is: the good, the bad and the ugly.  I recall that in a moment of insight in my mid-twenties, I admitted that I was perpetually fearful that someone would look at me and point out that I had no clue what I was doing in ministry and would call me on it.  Every Sunday was shooting from the hip, every interaction was relying on my talent and education to make it look like I was confident that I had a plan.  I didn't always feel that way, of course, but it was an honest feeling.  It wasn't until I hit about 30 that I felt like I finally entered adulthood, that I belonged among capable, responsible adults.  In reading about the 'true name' idea, I wonder what mine would look like if I was able to really see myself as a person and not try to be what I thought others expected me to be.

In psychology, therapists sometimes work to help an individual gain insight into their thought process and how they learned to see themselves a certain way.  Frequently, I'll ask someone who has come to me for counseling how they see themselves... if they like who they are.  Frequently, I'll receive a reply that no, they don't like who they are.  Some are just unhappy with themselves.  Some hate themselves.  Some think of themselves as undeserving of love or friendship.  Interestingly enough, many of these same people are able to have compassion on others, to be gracious to others' failings or flaws and be forgiving to those who have harmed them while at the same time, not be able to be gracious to themselves or see themselves as being worthy of forgiveness.  And so part of the therapeutic journey to healing is learning to see one's self as a person.  No more and no less.

Biblically, I believe that God has a lot to say about how I think about myself.  My self-awareness begins and ends with my God-awareness.  It seems to me that God said I was a lot like him.  Made in his image, in fact.  So, I am a relational being, designed to be in relationship, to crave it and thrive in it.  In Christ, I am given an even deeper way to identify with my creator.  Turns out, I've done a crummy job of staying in relationship with God because of my sin.  Through Christ, I am able to have my sins forgiven and washed away so I can be restored to relationship!  Actually, I am brought in closer relationship with God.  Not only his creation, now I am his beloved child!  What a way to re-write my identity and ground it in relational language!  As a human parent, I have a small taste of what it means to love a child.  But not only a child, I am part of God's family as the bride of Christ.  Being married, I know the intimate relationship of a spouse.  What a way to re-write my identity and ground it in relational language!  Every time I turn around, God is revealing to me how much he values me.  Adopted child!  Beloved friend! I am bombarded with valuing terminology by which God reshapes me, day by day.  My limited ways of thinking of myself are shattered by the powerful evidence that God sees me, accepts me and refines me for his purposes.

I pray that my 'residual self image' is a projection of how God sees me: a broken vessel, refined by his grace to be used in his service.  My hope is that if anyone researches my life, they will be able to use it as a testimony of God's redemptive power for his beloved creation.  If ever I learn my true name, it will be the new name that I'm promised when God is done with me (Rev 2:17).  At 35, I hope I can remember that I'm not just a human being.  I am a human becoming.  It is a process.


Saturday, October 22, 2011

You wanna fight about it?

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
-Sun Tzu 

I need some help understanding a way of thinking that I run across weekly as I work with teens and their parents.  My supervisor once told me that people's knee-jerk reaction to emotional stress most often is either: avoidance or aggression.  I seem to be accumulating anecdotal evidence to verify this claim.  I am an avoidance person, mostly.

I, personally, recall only one time where I decided to try aggression.  I was about 11, I think, and I got my tail handed to me.  Luckily the kid I tried to fight decided I wasn't worth getting in trouble for and let me go.  So, I really don't understand the whole aggression stance.  I've worked with many teens who tell me about the fights they've gotten into and, from my perspective, they were all avoidable.  Usually, the cause of the fight has something to do with the teen feeling disrespected or hurt in some way.  However, their worldview has validated that physical fighting solves problems and so they don't ever develop other resources or options.  To them, fighting the other person is THE way to solve their problem.  Except that it is not... because there is always another fight about (whatever), so the problem isn't ever really solved.

It seems that Hollywood glamorizes and validates this worldview.  I think about movies like Rocky and The Karate Kid, to name a few (and date myself).  Sure, they discourage out and out street fights, but even with the structure of Boxing or Karate Tournaments, the message is still: beat up the other guy and you'll have respect.

Talking to a kid about his fighting, I tried to help him think through the consequences of his worldview.
Me: So, let's say you felt like some guy was talking smack about you... how would you handle it?
Him: I don't let people talk about me like that!
Me: Yes, I know... we're just pretending right now.
Him: I'd let him know he'd better stop. (an attempt to preserve his self-image as tough and fearless)
Me: Or else...
Him: I'd whoop his @$$!
Me: Okay.  So let's say that you fight him and teach him the lesson.  But... he's just like you and doesn't want people to think he is a wuss.  What might he do in return?
Him: Probably get his homies and try to jump me.  But it wouldn't be a fair fight (there seems to be a misguided attempt to believe in some sort of honor code among tough guy teens) and even if he beats me, people will know he's a chump because he couldn't take me one on one.
Me: Let's pretend that even in a two-on-one scenario, you manage to beat both of them.  If he still feels wronged, what might he do?
Him: I don't know, use a knife or something like that.
Me: So, if he used a knife on you, what would you do?
Him: I would make sure my homeboys got my back.  It'd be on!
(I draw a quick flow chart noting the escalation of the argument)
Me: So... when does this scenario end, if it keeps escalating?
Him: With someone dead, I guess.  But it wouldn't be me...

So, I have a meeting with his dad...
Me: So, in talking with your son, I noted that he seems to have a way of thinking about solving his problems that gets him into a position where he thinks the only way out is to fight with someone else.  I'm trying to challenge that thinking and plant some seeds that there are other options.
Dad: Yeah, I know.  I mean, I try to help him with that, too.  I guess he learned it from me.  I mean, he has seen me fight before when I was drunk.  I mean, I don't always fight, but sometimes.
Me: Well, I wanted to let you know so you could give him support and talk with him about looking at other options.
Dad: Well, yeah.  But sometimes, you know, you have to fight it out.  I mean, if you try and the other guy won't back down...
Me: I'm not advocating that he doesn't need to defend himself if someone attacks him, but I think that you're hitting on the mentality he's demonstrated.  It is one thing to say that when faced with the choice of defending yourself or letting yourself get beat up, you shouldn't fight.  I'm talking about making choices BEFORE you get to the point that some guy is angry enough to fight with you.  For instance, choosing to drink to drunkedness is a good way to put yourself in a situation where you might be forced to defend yourself against an angry drunk.  But if you make the choice NOT to drink, or hang around with people who get drunk and fight, you are less likely to have to fight.
Dad: Well, sure.  I try to make sure that he makes good choices and support him.  One time, this boy and his whole family came to the house and wanted to fight my son.  Their kid was bigger then my son, so I told him it was his choice to fight or not.  I knew my son could fight well, though, because I taught him some good boxing, so he started to fight anyhow.  By the time the cops showed up, he'd got in some good hits.  The cops stopped the fight and was all asking everyone questions.  One cop said, "The next person to say a word, except to me, is going to jail!"  Well, this guy from the other family was all flipping me off and stuff so I cussed at him and I ended up getting arrested.  Anyhow, I try to tell my son, that you'll never know how things are going to turn out.  Him and that other boy are pretty good friends now, so I told him he should find out other ways to solve problems than fighting.  Because, if they'd hurt each other somehow, they wouldn't be able to be friends now.
Me: ...
Dad: But also, I get you.  I stopped drinking because I know it is bad for me.  The last time I drank was this weekend. (It was a Thursday and he'd missed a session with his son on Tuesday because he was hungover - according to his son, anyhow)

I understand that I am not going to change a person's worldview in a short period of time, but I am still astounded from time to time.  So, I looked up some stats on teen fighting:

A survey asked teens to identify the causes of fights they'd seen:

  • Someone insulted someone else or treated them disrespectfully (54 percent).
  • There was an ongoing feud or disagreement (44 percent).
  • Someone was hit, pushed, shoved, or bumped (42 percent).
  • Someone spread rumors or said things about someone else (40 percent).
  • Someone could not control his or her anger (39 percent).
  • Other people were watching or encouraging the fight (34 percent).
  • Someone who likes to fight a lot was involved (26 percent).
  • Someone didn't want to look like a loser (21 percent).
  • There was an argument over a boyfriend or girlfriend (19 percent).
  • Someone wanted to keep a reputation or get a name (17 percent).
 These assumptions fit with my anecdotal evidence and go to reinforce that worldview of "might makes right".
Further, the website mentions: 

Teens who are frequently involved in fights often don't know how to control their anger and prevent or avoid conflicts. They often believe that fighting is the only acceptable solution.

For example, students who fight at school are much less likely than other students to believe that it is effective to apologize or avoid or walk away from someone who wants to fight. They are also more likely to believe their families would want them to hit back if someone hit them first.17
Students who have trouble controlling their anger or who are predisposed toward fighting (agreeing with statements such as, "If I am challenged, I am going to fight," or "Avoiding fights is a sign of weakness") are at least 50 percent more likely to get in fights.18

Anyhow, there are all sorts of ways to think about this sociological phenomenon.  I'm just curious, dear reader, what is your worldview or how would you go about convincing someone who has this worldview to adjust their way of thinking?

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called Children of God" Matthew 5:9 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Discipline, Correction and Punishment

In my line of work, I often work with families who are experiencing some disruption in their household functioning.  I get called in to assess and help them develop their strengths and resources so they can self-correct.  When the issues revolve around the relationship between the parent(s) and the child(ren), we often have to discuss their parenting skills and philosophy.

Parenting philosophy?  Who ever sits down and thinks through what their philosophy of parenting is going to be?  We just kind of "do" parenting, right?  With few exceptions, people mostly learn how to be a parent because of their "starter kid" (kid #1).  We go to birthing classes to make sure we can survive the trauma of childbirth, but no parent comes through the process of child-rearing unchanged. 

So, most families I work with have never considered their parenting philosophy.  Particularly, the model used for discipline in a family is usually either 1) I know how I was raised and it seemed to work pretty well OR 2) I will never do (insert parenting action) to my child!  Either way, the main approach to parenting seems to be reactionary rather than proactive.

Now, I know that the dictionary definitions will list the following words as synonyms, but I believe that they have distinct connotations (that is, we have other thoughts and feelings that are attached to our usage of these words beyond what the dictionary says).  The words are: Discipline, Correction and Punishment.  I often hear people use the words interchangeably, as having the same, or similar meanings.  This is because their usage reflects their mentality about their parenting philosophy, ie it is reactionary.  It means, I primarily respond to how my children are feelings and behaving rather than being proactive and teaching them how to behave and feel. 

Here is the distinction I make between those concepts:
Discipline: Comes from the Latin root discere, which means to learn (we get the word discern from it) and from the Latin word disciplus, which means pupil. So, someone who disciplines (the parent) is someone who teaches.  This word, properly used, then should have a positive connotation.  Teaching and learning are associated with growth and development and strength.
Correction: This concept has to do with setting thing right (also from the Latin, corrigere, from which we also get the word corrigible: the ability of something to be changed, reformed or improved).  From a systems perspective, it can mean "to reverse a trend or pattern".  Again, this has a very positive connotation.  Making things right is empowering.
Punishment: This is the act of inflicting penalty on someone who has done something wrong; to treat roughly, to injure or hurt, to cause a loss of freedom or money or to provide physical pain for wrongdoing.  This clearly carries with it negative thoughts and feelings.  Inflict, withhold, deny, punish, penalize... all words that indicate that one would want to avoid what is connected with them.

So part of a healthy philosophy of parenting (in my experience) would be: Children deserve to be disciplined and corrected.  Children do not deserve to be punished.  If it is true that children are in the process of being formed and developed and growing, then naturally, they deserve to be taught how to feel and behave and corrected, or set on the right path, when they deviate. 

Discipline, then, is a long process that evolves to meet the changing needs of a developing child.  A parent who disciplines a child is a parent who teaches a child how to manage their emotions and control their behaviors.  When a child grows with that sort of teaching and guidance, the child should naturally develop a confidence in his/her own ability to self regulate those emotions and behaviors and very little correction should be necessary.

Why is it then, that the topic of discipline and correction of children such a challenge for parents?  Here are some possible answers:
1) Parents have inadequate coping skills for their own anxiety and thus are hindered in their ability to help their children cope with theirs.
2) Some children have experienced traumas which makes understanding rules and expectations challenging.
3) Many parents have inaccurate knowledge of how children grow and develop so they respond inappropriately to their children, based on their stage of development.
4) A common mindset for parents is that discipline = punishment and so they end up RESPONDING to inappropriate behavior, but never teaching and guiding to right behavior.
5) Humans learn by observation and some parents end up teaching their children, by their own behavior, how to cope with emotions and relationships in unhealthy ways, and then blame their children for not knowing better.

There are probably more reasons, based on specific circumstances, but that is sufficient to prove my point about how most parents don't ever stop to consider *how* they do their parenting.  We take it for granted that we will be in relationship with our kids because, well, they are our children.  So we tend to ignore the skill and maintenance that goes into regular relationships.  Skills like; spending quality time together, building trust, fostering communication, caring for the other...

I could go on and on, but the point I wanted to make with this post is this: "Children deserve to be disciplined (taught and guided in what is right) and corrected (set straight when they make poor choices).  Children do not deserve to be punished."


Friday, September 16, 2011


Working as a chaplain at the hospital, I was regularly summoned to be present for traumatic events: removing someone from life support; delivering news to waiting family that a loved one did not survive a surgery; responding to a multiple-car wreck ambulance call... and the worst kind of all: fetal demise.

Just thinking about having to endure any part of those situations is emotionally difficult for many people.  Medical staff, emergency responders, and law officers are trained to deal with them, but most folks just crumble when they think about it.  Of course, those situations are devastating for the families and individuals who have endured them.  Many times, a family member would comment to me, as everyone was leaving to mourn in their own way, "Chaplain, I don't know how you do your job."  It is easy, in a way, to remain compartmentalized in my thinking, my feeling about grief and loss.  Today, however, there was no way I could keep from feeling the enormous sense of sadness and emptiness that accompanies the death of a child.

This morning, we learned that the daughter of one of Amelia's lifelong friends died in her sleep, likely of hypoglycemic shock, or low blood sugar, and complications with her Type 1 Diabetes.  I was stricken with grief on several levels.  First, my heart broke as a parent, for our friend and her family.  Second, anxiety and fear for my own children, two of whom have T1D, gripped me and wouldn't let me go.  I shifted into crisis mode to make it through the day.  I went to my wife, to offer comfort and to be with her in joint grief as partners/parents/friends and we wept together.  Amelia took the rest of the day off work to tend to her grief and her friend.  I went to see my mom, because that is what moms are for.  Where I felt I needed to be strong for my wife, I felt I could just be a scared boy with my mom, so I got some more of my anxiety out.  Then I went to work, where I tried to be productive.  While I was helping other families deal with their dysfunctions and crises, I was fine, but I couldn't focus to do any of my paperwork.

I spent the evening with my kids, going to a play practice and then a homecoming football game, but now, as we get ready to put kids to bed, I'm faced with doing battle with a wicked team: Diabetes and Anxiety.  Although we live daily in the shadow of the specter of Diabetes, we are protected by an illusion of normalcy that allows us to believe that we have things under control.  Tonight, the veil we rely on to help us function has been ripped away by the death of our friend's daughter.  Tonight, we can't ignore or pretend that this reality doesn't exist for us: Death is always at our doorstep.  No matter our vigilance, our precautions, our education, our habits... Diabetes stands ready to claim the lives of our son and our daughter.

Earlier today, I asked a dear friend and fellow T1 sufferer, Sarah Ray, for some advice.  She has lived with the same issue, the same disease for many years.  She helped me to be able to come to terms with today:

"...Sarah, just wanted to let you know that _________'s little girl, _____, died in her sleep last night. I am not sure if you know them or not, but ____ was Type 1 and she had difficulty with seizures and such from her lows. _______ and Amelia have been friends since they were little girls. We are all pretty sad right now. Haven't told the kids yet, as they are at school, but would appreciate prayers and maybe even some pointers on how to help MH and Ethan not have anxiety over going to sleep.
love you,

Sarah Ray
"... I am praying and very sad as well I had seen posts on Amelia's wall about her but had never gotten to meet her and I believe u guys have talked about her to me. Not sure how I did not connect with her. I am sorry its so close to home and I will try to think of some thing for MH and Ethan but I am just as scared some nights all I can have is faith that God is not done with me yet. I know having the Cgms will maybe help for MH and Ethan to feel safe sleeping. It scares me too,
Love Sarah..."

Sarah reminded me, helped me remember what my grief and fear caused me to lose sight of... God is in control.  He is in control not only of the life and death of my children, but of everyone's life, including my own.  I am not saying I believe that God caused the death of this precious child, rather, that God is ruler of life and death.  I agree with his servants the prophets who declared that his ways are higher than our ways and his thoughts, our thoughts.  I take comfort knowing that despite the tragedy we experience living in this broken world, God is a god of redemption.  He works to redeem not only people, but situations.  Tragic, awful, devastating situations.  Nothing is beyond God's ability to redeem for His glory.  So, while I mourn for my friend's loss, I rejoice knowing God is at work.  While I grieve for our sadness, I also sacrifice my anxiety on the altar of faith.  I think tonight, as I struggle to sleep, I hear God's voice whispering to me, "Dear child, things will never be the same, but trust me... it will be alright."  Come, Lord Jesus.  I'm ready for some tear wiping...

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Despite Malcolm Gladwell's assertions his book, Blink, I think it is far too common for people to get in trouble when they go with their gut feeling.  On a regular basis, I converse with therapy clients who are describing their anxieties, fears, neuroses, joys, obsessions and other issues.  At some point, we begin to discuss how they manage (or don't) their emotions.  Anger, for instance, is an emotion that kind of gets a bad rap.  Some of my clients have been court-ordered to attend "Anger Management" therapy or group sessions for the same.  The problem isn't primarily anger, in and of itself.  Anger is just an emotion like any other.  Any clinician will tell you that a great deal of the time, anger is actually a masking emotion.  The real cause of a person's anxiety lies in another uncomfortable emotion which is covered up by angry behaviors.  That is because angry behaviors are predictable.  When one chooses anger and angry behaviors (yelling, screaming, blaming, accusing, aggresssion), other parties tend to respond in kind.  Then the person doesn't have to deal with the real feeling... probably something like shame or embarrassment or hurt or guilt.  So really, what we are talking about is how we manage our emotions in general, not just anger.

So, we talk about what skills the client already possesses and uses to manage their uncomfortable emotions.  Ironically, angry behavior (which is distinct from angry feelings), IS in itself a method by which many people try to manage their other uncomfortable emotions.  Let me clarify: I often raise my client's awareness about emotions by pointing out that there are some emotions that we feel like we need to regulate and some that we do not.  Comfortable emotions are ones like: Happiness, peacefulness, calm, love, joy, pride, serenity.  We're okay with those feelings.  When we are feeling those things, we try to make those feelings last as long as possible.  Contrariwise, when we feel things like: guilt, disgust, shame, embarrassment, hurt, betrayal... we consider those to be quite uncomfortable and want to get rid of, or change those feelings.

I believe that one way to begin to change how we manage our emotions is to better understand how they should function in our lives.  Many people seem to believe the notion that if we feel something intensely, it has greater veracity.  That is to say, that the stronger we feel something, the more we think we should act on it.  While it is certainly true that strong feelings CAN indicate the right behaviors, it is not universally true.  Consider the following scenario: A guy goes out with a group of friends on a professionally guided backpacking trip.  One part of the trip takes the group to the top of a steep cliff face.  They break out the gear and get ready to rappel down the face of the cliff.  They anchor to a strong tree trunk at the top, have all the proper items: ropes, locking carabiners, harness, gloves, etc.  One of the guides rappels down to act as the belay person and everyone is ready.  So, our guy steps up and gets connected in his harness and is shown the technique.  Every precaution has been taken, and yet... he is about to step off the cliff and descend ... and he's never done it before and his heart is pounding and he's ... afraid.  His fear is almost palpable.  He decides to back down.  Better safe than sorry, right?  That is an example of allowing his emotion, fear, to dictate his behavior.  Now, what if he decides that, despite being fearful, that he wants to take the risk.  He recognizes his fear, but reminds himself that he has done every reasonable thing to ensure that he will be relatively safe in this endeavor and he hops backward off the cliff and enjoys the thrill of his (somewhat) risky behavior.  That would be an example of allowing his (justified) fear to guide his behavior (going with a group which includes trained guides, proper equipment, etc) but not control it.

In my opinion, this is what our emotions are for: to inform us.  Our emotions should guide us, but ultimately, they should not control us.  I like to think of a person's functioning as being similar to the President.  A good President surrounds himself with advisors.  Their function is not to make the ultimate decision, but to inform the President.  A military advisor may caution that a bordering country is becoming aggressive and needs to be dealt with by a show of force.  The agriculture advisor and domestic advisor may team up and offer critical information about that same country's trade status.  A military show of force would likely result in a loss of needed foodstuffs.  The President weighs all the available information and makes the decision that is best for the whole.  Things quickly become unbalanced when one advisor is allowed to decide for the whole based on that advisor's perspective.  In our emotional governance, this is all too often the case.

Think about the phenomenon of lovesickness.  Even this pleasurable emotion of love can be destructive if it blinds a person's reason.  A lovesick teen may be told by friends, "That guy is a jerk and treats everyone badly."  Being flooded with emotion toward her beau, she minimizes his behaviors or explains them away, "Well, he's only mean to people who are mean to him.  He treats me like a queen!"  Before long, the lovesickness wears off and she changes her mind.  It is important to recognize our feelings and even listen to them, but not to allow them to make the decisions that our reasoning mind should be making. 

Have you ever been on a roller-coaster of emotion?  Know someone who has acted on their intense feelings and been burned?  Consider doing things differently: allow your emotions to serve in an advisory capacity and slow things down so you can think about your decisions.

Some famous quotations for your consideration (I neither support or decry these quotes, I just found them interesting):

All great movements are popular movements. They are the volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotions, stirred into activity by the ruthless Goddess of Distress or by the torch of the spoken word cast into the midst of the people.
Adolf Hitler

How fortunate for governments that the people they administer don't think.
Adolf Hitler 

Comfort in expressing your emotions will allow you to share the best of yourself with others, but not being able to control your emotions will reveal your worst.
Bryant H. McGill

Emotions have taught mankind to reason.
Marquis De Vauvenargues 

Feelings are not supposed to be logical. Dangerous is the man who has rationalized his emotions.
David Borenstein

I can't say I have control over my emotions; I don't know my mind. I'm lost like everyone else. I'm certainly not a leader.
Richard Gere 

I loved her. I still love her, though I curse her in my sleep, so nearly one are love and hate, the two most powerful and devasting emotions that control man, nations, life.
Edgar Rice Burroghs

I think the smartest thing for people to do to manage very distressing emotions is to take a medication if it helps, but don't do only that. You also need to train your mind.
Daniel Goleman 

I understand that it's hard for everyone, but one cannot give in to emotions... we'll have to draw lessons from the current crisis and now we'll have to work on overcoming it.
Boris Yeltsin

I'm just basically spillin' out my emotions to the world. 'Cause rap is about emotion. And I want you to feel what I'm feelin', 'cause that's what it's all about.

If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.
Daniel Goleman

Just as your car runs more smoothly and requires less energy to go faster and farther when the wheels are in perfect alignment, you perform better when your thoughts, feelings, emotions, goals, and values are in balance.
Brian Tracy

Markets as well as mobs respond to human emotions; markets as well as mobs can be inflamed to their own destruction.
Owen D. Young

One is certain of nothing but the truth of one's own emotions.
E. M. Forster

Romantic love is an illusion. Most of us discover this truth at the end of a love affair or else when the sweet emotions of love lead us into marriage and then turn down their flames.
Thomas Moore

The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray.
Oscar Wilde

Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions will never lie to you.
Roger Ebert  

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


In our Bible class the other day, we had an interesting discussion about 2 Corinthians 3.  In that chapter, Paul the Apostle is talking about how one goes about getting known by others.  He rhetorically suggests that some sort of 'letter of recommendation' is the worldly standard.  However, those who are in Christ, he asserts, don't need some letter written in ink.  No, those are insincere and easy to fake.  A follower of Christ should have the Spirit of God writing spiritual information on those that we are surrounded by.  In effect, those who know us ARE our living letters of reference for those who do not know us.  And it is not ourselves, but GOD who writes about us on to others' hearts, when we are walking in the spirit.

Wow... what a heady thought.  The passage emphasizes the difference between the outward and the inward.  The written Law vs. the inward changes of the human heart, shaped by God's spirit.  So, as the Bible class was wrapping up, the facilitator mused something to the effect of, "I wonder what it would take for us to really incorporate this type of living.  To be totally infused, taken over, changed by this idea so that every moment of our lives allows us to be that aroma of Christ..."  Immediately, I knew the answer to her question.

There are a few situations in our lives that, ideally, should change how the think, act, and feel about life.  Worldview changing events that usually happen suddenly.  For instance, getting married ought to be one of those events.  Done right, the marriage relationship reshapes how one thinks, acts and feels.  From "I do" onward, every waking moment, every decision will now be filtered through a new filter.  Married persons should throw away the "What is best for me" filter and be prepared to use the "What is best for us" filter from here on out.  That is... until one has children.  Then, the world shifts again.  Or it should, anyhow.

Anyhow, my point is... those events become what I have termed, "Central Organizing Principles".  The fact that a person has become married means that he/she should no longer consider him/herself as an individual, but as a unit.  You don't have to throw away the 'self', but you DO have to incorporate your "other" into your oneness, or things are bound to go wrong.  Every decision made will be made with the new situation in mind.  If a person goes around making decisions based on the old standard of simply 'self'... see how long that organizing principle works for you.

Sometimes, people are blessed/cursed with other life situations that become COPs for them.  Just ask anyone who has ever been in a debilitating accident and lost a limb.  Everyday, they have a physical reminder of what has changed for them.  For my family, we had a COP enter our lives in December of 2004, when my 18 month old son was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes.  Quick recap for those who don't know: Type 1 is different than Type 2.  It is an autoimmune disorder where one's body attacks one's pancreas and basically shuts it down, preventing your body from making the hormone: insulin.  Without daily injections of artificial insulin, a Type 1 diabetic will die within days.

So, our lives began to be shaped by this COP, diabetes.  We don't eat a bite without being aware of how much insulin to give.  We don't leave the house without supplies to manage diabetes: insulin pump, extra syringes, candy for quick sugar boosts, ketone strips, apple juice, etc.  We don't sleep without checking blood sugar levels.  We buy clothing based on what is comfortable to wear over the insulin pump so not too many people will notice it.  We don't go on dates without knowing that someone who is knowledgeable about diabetes will be watching the kids.  Although it isn't real to them just yet, diabetes will eventually have a say in who they choose to marry because it takes a special someone to deal with the added stress and health risks; my oldest daughter, who was also diagnosed with T1 just a few years ago, will also have to worry about whether to have children because of the added complications of her diabetes.  It doesn't go away, but it does fade into the background.  It is normal for us to check blood sugars before we eat... our COP has become normal for us and, thankfully, it is not often that we feel oppressed by it.

But, as I considered the question from my Bible class, it struck me that the Apostle Paul was writing about how Christ should be the COP, the Central Organizing Principle in the lives of those who claim to follow him.  One's decision to follow Christ should be a commitment that is life altering and should permeate every aspect of one's being.  What we eat, what we wear, how we treat others, even how we THINK of others... who we marry, how we do what we do, how we take care of our health... That is why I said earlier that some people are blessed/cursed by other situations that become COPs for them. 

In one line of thinking, it is certainly a curse.  I wouldn't wish diabetes (or any other chronic illness or debilitating accident) on anyone.  However, there is a lot of redemption that goes on for those who are willing to view it as a blessing.  Diabetes has taught my family to be strong in many ways.  Diabetes makes us rely on each other more, look out for each other, be more aware of each other's limits and abilities.  Diabetes has forced us to rely on God's blessings of family and friends, and in doing so, has exposed us to the influence of some amazing people.  As much as I would willingly and immediately throw off the oppressive influence of diabetes as a COP, I am grateful for the effect it has had in drawing us nearer to the heart of God.

My desire is to allow the influence of the Spirit of God to become more of a Central Organizing Principle in my life and in the life of my family.  Unlike diabetes, which forced it's way in... God waits to be invited in.  Once he receives that invitation, he begins to write my life on the hearts of others with whom I am in a relationship.  I hope to expand my portfolio of 'letters of reference' as God's love becomes my central organizing principle.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Double Standards

I experienced an odd juxtaposition of double standards recently.  Strife between parents and their teenage son for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the youth is under 18 and, reportedly has gotten his 21 year old girlfriend pregnant.  Secondly, because the father grounded the youth for stealing weed from the father's stash.  Interesting, no?  Relationship repair is going to be difficult here because of the father's "do as I say, not as I do" policy in parenting.  The other double standard is a societal and legal one.  A law enforcement friend, who knew the details of this case noted: "I don't know whether to advise the parents to pursue sexual assault charges against the 21 year old girlfriend because, frankly, the cops probably won't do anything because it would never go to trial, because he's a boy.  It would be different if a 21 year old guy was having sex with an underage girl."

Double standards. We experience them when we have a sense of unfairness or unjustness occurring.  However, the idea of a double standard is dependent on a sense of equality.  Gender equality, class equality, social equality.  If you asked a peasant in medieval times if he was aware of the double standard placed on his life, to be ever toiling but never benefiting from his work, while the tribute for his work and labor went to a nobleman who never worked or understood his condition, he would likely think you were crazy for even talking that way.  He accepted his lot in life as what it was and didn't quibble about equality.  Add the idea that everyone deserves equal treatment under the law and suddenly, you have to deal with issues like why women can't serve in combat; why mothers are more likely than fathers to gain custody of children in a divorce; the effectiveness of affirmative action, etc.

We often hear the phrase, "Well, life isn't fair..." as a way of taking into account the double standards we experience and can't change or influence.  Because, you know, "you can't always get what you want" and "Sometimes you're the windshield and sometimes you're the bug."  But you know, we all fall victim to double standards when we don't apply the same perspective to ourselves that we do others.  There is an old joke that highlights how we tend to see what is happening to us in a different perspective than we do when the same things happens to another: A recession is when a friend of yours loses his job.  A depression is when you lose yours.

I bring this all up because, as a parent, I believe that I often foster a sense of unfairness in my kids because of how society tends to push this idea of equality to be applied where it doesn't make sense to apply it.  For instance, how many times have you heard an exchange similar to this:
Dad: It is time for you to go to bed.  You need a good night's sleep.
Kid: I don't want to go to bed yet!  My show is still on.
Dad: I don't care, it is time for bed, so get a move on!
(Dad sits down to watch the rest of the show)
Kid: How come you don't have to go to bed?  Don't you need a good night's sleep?
Dad: I'm the adult, don't argue with me, now get to bed!

or how about this one:
Kid: We learned at school today the effects that alcohol have on a body.  They showed us a video of how it impairs your judgement after just one drink.
Parent: Well, I don't drink that much, you know that.
Kid: Well, if it isn't good for you, how come y'all drink every weekend with your friends?  I want to do that, too.
Parent: No, you're not old enough to handle it.
Kid: (sulking) You always tell me that I'm not old enough.  It's not fair.  I'm 16.  My friends are already drinking and nothing bad is happening to them.

Obviously, comparing a child with an adult is not comparing two things that are similar enough.  As adults, it makes sense to us that the comparisons are dissimilar enough that there is no real basis for comparison about a developing child's need for sleep and structure and an adult's ability to manage their own schedule and get adequate sleep, or cope accordingly.  As adults, it makes sense to us a 16 year-old's cognitive reasoning and judgement (which are still developing, until about age25) aren't adequate for handling the effects of alcohol (and even then many adults probably shouldn't drink for various other reasons, but it remains a popular pastime).  However, society is pushing kids to think of themselves as adults, with capabilities and privileges accordingly.  If kids think of themselves as adults, then a lot of their angst makes sense.

I worked with a kid not long ago who described a teacher who sent him to detention because he had a water bottle before school.  Now, I don't know what situation in the past prompted the school to have a rule that kids couldn't have water bottles out in public as they waited for the school day to begin, but they did.  This youth was instructed to put it away.  It had one swallow of water left in it and he drank it before he went to put the bottle in his backpack and the teacher claimed that he defied her and so he spent the rest of the day in ISS.  Could it be that he was rude to her and said something to her that ticked her off?  Sure.  Could it be he was a repeat offender who was just looking for a fight?  Possibly.  Whatever the exact reason, I doubt that this situation was about a water bottle.  It was about power and authority.  The teacher issued a directive.  It was not answered with an acceptable level of cooperation, so she used her power in a punitive way.  If it had been another teacher who was sporting the water bottle, would that teacher be made to follow the 'rule' or be so harshly treated if they failed to comply with another teacher's directive?  Probably not.  Unfair?  Double standard?  Only if teachers and students are equal. 

Anyhow, double standards bother me.  Not because they exist.  I can deal with that.  It bothers me that we tend to deal so poorly with that concept.  I think that the real problem is that people, in general, lack humility.  We lack the ability to look beyond ourselves and assess a situation from other perspectives.  Would our parenting be different if we saw our children as people instead of as pests or trouble makers when they got in trouble?  When they are reacting to what they see as unfairness in our actions or attitudes, instead of working to justify our actions, can we see their perspective and address the situation as someone who understands where they are coming from?  I don't mean we have to agree with them, or cater to them, but if, in humility, we can understand them... would it make a difference in how we respond?

So, to be a better parent, I need to not only respond to my children's sense of unfairness with humility, I need to teach them properly how to discern between unfairness, injustice and just not getting one's own way.  They're not the same, but I hear people, especially teens, use those concepts interchangeably.  I need to model for my children what fairness looks like when they see me interact with others and I need to model how to cope with unfairness when it occurs to me.  Humility is harder than it looks.


Saturday, April 30, 2011

Switch the ratio

Widely noted for his studies on marital success, Dr. John Gottman has identified what he calls the 'golden ratio' that can help predict the long term stability of relationships. To sum up, he notes that relationships that are stable and have high satisfaction are characterized by a 5:1 ratio. That is, during conflict, for every 1 negative interaction (criticism, invalidation, hostility), there need to be 5 positive interactions (asking questions, showing kindness, affection), just to achieve balance.

I have a hunch that although Gottman's research is directed at marital relationships, there is a lesson to be learned about our relationships in general.  I frequently have the opportunity to visit with parents about parenting issues.  I sometimes ask parents to evaluate the ratio of their interactions with their children, especially during conflict.  When we honestly look at how we react to our children, we frequently find that as parents, we allow our frustration, anger, and annoyance to mar our interactions.  We criticize, put down, subtly invalidate, and otherwise behave in ways that our children interpret negatively.  Consider this scenario:

Kid: Dad, can (best friend) spend the night on Friday?
Dad: I don't think so, sweetie.  We've got a lot going on Saturday and it would mean we had to do a lot of rescheduling.
Kid: (pouting) You *never* let my friends spend the night.
Dad: (feeling disrespected, speaking sarcastically) Oh, right.  You *NEVER* get *ANYTHING* you want to do. 
Kid: (changing tactics) Please, Dad?  I promise we won't stay up too late and I'll be good for the rest of the weekend...
Dad: (not willing to negotiate) What? You think I'm going to change my mind?  How about you be good all weekend and THEN I'll decide whether (best friend) can stay next weekend?
Kid: (resorting to pouting) Ohhhh... that's not fair!  (Sibling) gets to have friends over all the time!
Dad: Quit being such a whiner!  I'm tired of having to tell you over and over that whining doesn't work.

On the surface, it sounds like a pretty typical exchange between a parent and child, right? Dad is sticking to his guns and kid shouldn't be so disrespectful.  Tally up the negative interactions, though.  Sarcasm, rhetorical questions to make his point, invalidation, hyperbole... If we apply the golden ratio, Dad would need to offer about 20 positive bids just to balance out his words.  Now, you may note that the kid in that scenario was inviting Dad to behave that way.  There was probably some past history that led Dad to reach his conclusions.  However, Dad had a choice in his responses and chose to respond the way he did, so even though the kid's behavior wasn't ideal, we need to keep ourselves accountable for our example as parents.  How will we ever expect our kids to learn about healthy relationships unless we are willing to be responsible for our own feelings and behaviors toward our children?

What if we were willing to try an experiment in our homes.  Just for a day or two, whether we have conflictual situations or normal interactions... what if we strove to overload our relationships with positive interactions.  What if we looked for what our kids were doing that was right and good and commented on those things?  What if we overlooked every minor infraction (there are a bunch of those, right?  From being messy to fidgeting when they are supposed to be still) and just let them go without undue attention?  What if we went out of our way to set up situations where we know our kids will do well and then praise the heck out of them?  Here are some things I brainstormed in just a few minutes that my kids did today (and I didn't even get to see them very much today) that I can praise them for:

Mary Hannah: woke up and got dressed with no fussing, packed her own backpack and lunch, encouraged her siblings in the car on the way to school, entertained herself on the computer at (an appropriate and fun website), used earbuds to listen to her music when she was in a room full of other people so she wouldn't bother them with her music.
Ethan: Woke up with little prompting this morning, remembered that it was waffle day and reminded me, didn't argue with Ele when she claimed it was her turn to ride shotgun (it wasn't), played with Timothy without incident, accepted redirection when he got up and didn't want to go back to bed.
Ele: cuddled with me for a few minutes in the morning after she got dressed, greeted me at the door tonight and showed me that she'd cleaned up her room and made her bed without being told, shared space with her brother when they both wanted to sit in the same chair at the same time, cleaned off her plate this morning without being asked.

Now, I could let those incidents go by without comment.  Honestly, most of those things are normal expectations.  I could just wait for them to stop doing something or to mess up and do something wrong and then fuss at them for messing up.  But that happens all too often.  I'd like to spend less time trying to fix what I think is going wrong and more time helping things go right.

I also want to point out that most of those things I listed were accomplishments, something they'd done.  I want to try and praise them for those things, but also (and more importantly), I want to praise my children for who they are, for their character traits which prompt that behavior: initiative, kindness, generosity, helpfulness, affirmation, encouragement, patience, consideration.

I wonder what my household would look like if I changed the ratio?  I wonder if I'd notice that before asking my children to change, I needed to change how I looked at things and handled things.  I wonder if anyone is willing to assess their family functioning and see if their ratio could stand to be adjusted a little more to the positive side.  I'll admit it is challenging.  In fact, outside (and internal) stressors constantly pick away at my ability to accomplish this feat.  Than again, most things that are worthwhile aren't very easy, but they are usually very rewarding. 

Thanks, Dr. Gottman, for doing the research that gives us a goal.  Thanks, parents who challenge me to do better by my own kids. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

re*la*tion*ship - what it really means

There are many ways to define the word, "relationship". To many, the connotation it brings to mind is that of the association between a male and a female, that is to say, a romantic relationship. However, if you stop to think about it, the word 'relationship' is much less emotionally connected that one would suspect. For instance, when my cell phone is sitting on the table, they are in relationship to one another. The function of the table is to keep my phone at an elevation above the floor. The function of the phone is to utilize the table, giving it a purpose other than decoration. See? They have a relationship.

Here is a more workable definition of the word 'relationship': 'Relationship' is a word we use to describe how two or more entities interact and influence each other.

Using this understanding, we can see that the phone and the table are 1) interacting and 2) exert influence on each other. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive. One cannot be in relationship to the other without interacting and each is mutually influencing and being influenced by the other.

I used a mundane example in order to highlight that very concept, so that I could make an application to the idea of human relationships. If it is true that things (people) in relationship, by definition are interacting and influencing... what does that mean for us? Even when we are not communicating, that our non-interaction is actually a form of interaction and that it influences each party in one way or another. By extension, even people who do not directly appear to be interacting, if they are in relationship with even ONE person who is involved with another person, they will be influenced, by proxy. Confused? I hope not. However, this simple concept has some profound implications.

One thought I heard expressed from a divorcing couple: "This is between me and their mother (me and their father), it shouldn't affect the kids." How naive!

A thought I've heard from an individual who'd been dumped, "I don't know why this continues to bother me so much... I thought I'd moved on!" Remember, even non-interaction can be a form of interaction, which exerts influence.

Even professed indifference is actually still affected by and affects us: "I don't care if she likes me or not! I'm her mother and I'm going to do what is best for her!" To say it differently, when you don't think it matters, it does. The degree to which it influences us may vary, but not the fact that it does indeed influence us.

Give it some thought: ask, "How do I interact with (X) and what ways to we influence each other?" It might surprise you to see how interconnected everything is.

A quick internet search about this concept provides this link with a great real-world example of an unhealthy dynamic in relationships: collusion. The author of the blog deals with it really well, though. Click HERE to visit Collusion: What's Your Payoff? on


Friday, March 18, 2011

But I won't do that...

Here is an example of an oft-heard phrase in couple's therapy:

Man: I would do anything for her! I'd go to the ends of the earth for her...
Therapist: She's not asking you to go to the ends of the earth, she's asking you to go to the end of the driveway and take out the trash.

Do you ever find it odd that people will express their love in lavish and extreme verbal ways, but their physical follow through is piss-poor?

In teaching a parent recently about a parenting philosophy, I mentioned that it is difficult for us to influence our children if they do not like us. The parent responded, "I don't need her to like me. I don't need to be her friend. I love her and I would do anything for her, anything in the universe, whether she likes me or not. I won't let her throw her life away."
I replied, "If you would do anything for her, then would you stop talking over her and take time to listen to and understand her? That is what she's asking for from you. I'm not excusing her bad behavior, but it stems from not feeling cared about or valued by the person who matters most to her."

Next time we feel hurt by a loved one's actions or inactions and we are tempted to justify our feelings of anger and hurt by declaring how loving WE are and what we would do for our love... pause a moment and ask, "What is the other person really asking me for?" My wife doesn't want me to walk 10,000 miles for her, she wants me to respect and appreciate her in all the small, easy ways.

Why is that so hard for us knuckleheads?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Forgiveness and YOU

The broken soul sat on my couch and cried. She told me of an interaction with a friend who had reminded her of a past transgression. "You've got to take responsibility for what you did. Quit acting like you are the victim and realize that there were others who were hurt by what you did!" The broken soul protested, "I don't know what I was supposed to say... I know I did wrong, but I thought things were getting better. I thought I was doing better. But all it took was that one thing to make me feel this big (she gestures with her thumb and index finger close together)! How long will it be until this doesn't hang over me any more?"

I stayed quiet, trying to think of how to reframe the interaction. I had no doubt that the broken soul was trying with everything she had, to make things right again. "Do you feel like you haven't been forgiven?" She shrugged. "Have you forgiven yourself?" She stares blankly at me. She says, "I don't know. What if they are right? I thought I was doing better, but I guess I'm not. I have prayed about it. I can't tell you the number of times I've prayed over and over that God would forgive me..."

My question for you, dear reader... how many times should one have to ask God to be forgiven? If we ask once, in faith, should we not expect to receive it? If we pester God with shows of deep remorse, it is more convincing? I mean, after all, He does know our hearts, right? So he should be able to see inside us whether we are really, really sorry for what we've done, no?

I'm interested in how Christians view forgiveness, both from God and from others and from themselves. In the Old Testament, there is the expectation that in order to receive forgiveness from sin, a sin offering is made. A sacrifice is offered and blood is spilled. The death of an unblemished animal was a required prerequisite in order to gain divine forgiveness. Jesus changed all that. The Son of God, himself an unblemished innocent, was offered up in sacrifice so that his blood would satisfy the requirement. It was done, once, for all. Christ's death changed it all... now forgiveness is freely offered to all.

So... with that in mind, let's talk about forgiveness. The way I see it, it is a package deal. When we accept the forgiveness offered by the blood of Christ, we enter into a holy covenant. Not only do we receive forgiveness, we also receive redemption, reconciliation and renewal. Forgiveness means we are no longer culpable for the guilt of our sin, nor the shame. Forgiveness means we are also gifted with a peace that transcends earthly understanding.

Now, I want to be certain to point out that receiving forgiveness does not erase consequences of sin, just guilt. If we really understand that God doesn't require us to ask for forgiveness in order to offer it, we would feel silly about asking again and again for what he has already given. The broken soul I mentioned earlier might feel differently toward her friend if she understood and accepted this forgiveness. I imagine the conversation would have gone differently if she had the peace that comes along with a removal of guilt and shame.

Friend: You need to stop whining about the bad stuff that YOU caused and admit that you did something wrong and quit denying it.
Broken Soul: (calmly) You are correct. What happened was a terrible thing and I have many regrets. I am dealing with the fallout of those actions right now and could use all the support I could get.
Friend: Well, 'the fallout' would never have happened if you hadn't done what you did!
Broken Soul: (unruffled) I hear what you're saying, and although I regret those things, I'm looking for ways to make things right nowadays. I am not doing those things anymore, and that should be evidence that I am trying to turn things around. Things won't ever by the same again, but I trust that, with God in charge, things can be okay again.

What a difference it would make if we could face that sort of criticism with peace instead of anxiety and guilt. My assertion is that instead of wondering whether God has forgiven us, we ought to consider whether we have forgiven ourselves.

Jesus tells the parable of unmerciful servant (Matt 18:21-35) where he acknowledges that we have difficulty with forgiveness. Peter asks a pretty Pharisaical question: how many times should we forgive someone who wrongs us? Jesus uses hyperbole to answer him: Seventy times seven! (Read: as many times as is needed). So we get a sense of how we ought to forgive each other from this passage. Elsewhere, we are told that our forgiveness of others is a prerequisite for God forgiving us (Mark 11:25). But the Bible doesn't really help us out much on the issue of how to forgive ourselves.

I believe that we can walk more closely to Him when we consider that when we are in relationship with Christ, forgiveness is a daily process. The sin I committed last week was atoned for on the cross. The sin I will commit next week was atoned for on the cross. Not that I continue to sin so that I can continue to receive forgiveness! (Romans 6:1-2) What I mean is that more than wanting me to live in the swamp of depression and guilt and shame because I constantly need to be forgiven, Jesus calls us to right living and repentance.

Me: So, let me recap: You've told me what you are doing to turn things around and be the person that God has called you to be. You've stopped the behavior you were guilty of and are actively trying to do right?
Broken soul: Yes, of course! I feel like I've been trying so hard.
Me: So, if God has forgiven you, and you are answering his call to repent (live differently than before, in accordance with the Spirit), why do you keep asking to be forgiven?
Broken Soul: (shrugs) I guess I don't trust God enough.
Me: Could it be that Satan is distracting you by causing you to be caught up in the guilt and shame that were actually removed long ago? Satan doesn't have to get us to keep sinning. Sometimes he just has to convince us that we aren't forgiven in the first place.

Questions to ponder:
*When does Christ's forgiveness kick in?

*What is impeding your ability to forgive yourself, as God forgives you?

* How should Christians respond to others who seek to pull us back into guilt and shame of a sin that has already been atoned for? With anxiety and self-doubt OR with peace and confidence in the power of the blood of Christ?

And now... may you experience the freedom and peace that accompanies true forgiveness through the blood of Christ Jesus.


Monday, February 28, 2011

Practicing what I preach... further thoughts

Okay, so my last blog post was Friday and I enjoyed the experiencing of processing my thoughts and feelings and coming to a good conclusion. Apparently, I was resting on my laurels too soon.

Monday morning rolls around and it turns out that my rededication to shoring up my paperwork weakness was short-lived. Despite my best efforts to make sure all my paperwork was up-to-date (I even stayed late on Friday to accomplish it!), I somehow failed to note that my end-of-month billing was due by 8AM on Monday.

Monday+end of month billing+audit+Murphy's Law = bad day. At about 9 am, my phone started ringing. My supervisor... wanting to know when I planned on getting my billing turned in. I had to rearrange my entire morning, drop two clients and reschedule two others, go back to the office and knock out the billing. Fortunately, because all my files were in order because of last week, it didn't take very long. But... you guessed it... because I missed the 8AM deadline, another write up for my HR file.

I found myself feeling and behaving much the same as on Friday, when I was confronted with a similar 'deadline' that I missed. I was a little angry, I found myself doing the justifying self-talk. My supervisor behaved exactly as I expected... just a reminder that my billing was late and that I had another disciplinary sheet to acknowledge when I turned it in. When I interacted with my supervisor, I was short, abrupt and with none of my normal pleasant demeanor. I didn't want to be lectured and I didn't want to be forced to offer up a wimpy excuse for my billing (also, I didn't have one). To be blunt: I was rude.

So, if someone is having a bad day (whether it is of his own making or not)... do they have a right to be ugly to others? Should they be given a pass because of their circumstances?

Looking back on my conclusions Friday, I reaffirm, being responsible for one's own feelings and behaviors is TOUGH. It is harder than I expected even. I felt good about myself that I was able to do it, even if I didn't do it very well. But I think something is missing. Even though I was processing some difficult emotions, even though, I was able to let go of my anger and blame, even though I was a little embarrassed ... I still damaged my relationship with my supervisor by my behavior. I can be completely out of the box toward her (Arbinger language) yet ignoring that I need to repair and reconnect.

It reminds me of the following story: There once was a boy who got angry very easily. Often, when he lost his temper, he would say, shout or scream things that were very hurtful. In an effort to help him learn some skill in regulating his anger, his grandfather, who he loved very much, instructed him to take a hammer and nails and pound a nail in the back fence each time he lost his temper. The first day, the boy went through almost an entire bag of nails. Over time, he learned that it was easier to cool down before reacting than it was to go and get a nail and pound it into the fence and he learned some skill in keeping an even temper. Finally, after a time of demonstrating his emotional skill, his grandfather instructed him to pull a nail out of the fence each day he went without losing his temper. After a while, the boy had removed all the nails he'd pounded into the fence. He told his grandfather about it and took him outside to show him. His grandfather pointed out, "Now, look at the fence. Even though you have removed all the nails, the damage to the fence remains. So it is with our anger. Words spoken in anger, leave scars. They will change your relationships.

Now, I don't believe that is the end of the story for me, but I think it highlights the tendency of most people: Once we've stopped the behavior, we expect that things will just be normal. We fail to follow through with what needs to be done to make things right again. So... the component that I was missing in my conclusions was: Ask myself what I need to do in order to make things right again.

There is a shortage of that line of thinking in this world. Again... I teach this stuff to other people! I should be able to apply it to myself, right? Argh! This relationship stuff is harder than it looks.

Full circle... let's make a spiritual application! God does the hard work of maintaining relationship with us. If ever there is distance between us, it is sure to be of our own doing, as God is constantly working to draw us near to Him. And far from wanting to destroy us, hurt us or punish us, God offers grace, mercy and forgiveness. And more than just putting it in the past, God renews and restores! Revelation 21:5a, "He who was seated on the throne said, 'I am making everything new!'" What can I do, but follow His example?


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Practicing what I preach

Okay, full disclosure here... I am a work in progress. I do not feel like I often get to the point that I actually have to use the tools that I advocate in my therapy practice. I would like to think that I am self-aware and practicing enough discipline in my everyday life that I hardly ever get to the point that I enter the blame-game and the justification for anger cycle. But I did this last week. Here's what happened.

The company I work for holds a contract with the State of Texas to provide crisis counseling for at-risk youth and their families. Because it is a state contract, the company is required to undergo an annual audit to make certain that the contract is being carried out. Our audit starts next week. This year, I resolved to recognize that anxiety, like so much other stuff, flows downhill and that I would decline any invitation to be as anxious as the administrators about the audit. I would just keep doing my job the way I do my job and let them worry about whether the i's are dotted and t's are crossed.

The past few weeks, my email inbox has been busting at the seams with emails about meeting our numbers, documenting our work and efforts to meet with Youth and Primary Caregivers. "Best Practice" dictates that we should complete paperwork in a timely manner and with the looming audit, that has meant increased scrutiny on our files. I can be quite honest about my attitude toward paperwork: I hate it. (Therapist Jeff says: Jeff's feelings about paperwork reflect his insecurity with his own efforts. Because he projects self-confidence, his lackadaisical performance in keeping up with his paperwork reflects his fear that people will see him for his true self: lazy and lacking internal motivation concerning small details) Yes, I hate paperwork. I justify my hatred of paperwork with a complex series of arguments about small minded bureaucrats who developed the guidelines for our program without any insight to what the actual job entails. Anyhow, the short story is that I have my own timeframe for getting my paperwork finished that does not always match up with deadlines that I have been given.

I feel that because it has been previously established in supervisory sessions with the people who are in charge of my program, that this should be taken into account when evaluating my efforts. Read: it has caused problems before. Truth is, my supervisors have all been reasonably flexible in allowing me leeway with my paperwork deadlines. However, with the added anxiety and desire to present the best possible filing for the auditors, the grace extended to me regarding my timeliness vanished. And that is what it has always been: grace. Now, understand, I am a good worker. I believe the outcome of my efforts readily reflect that I am a great therapist and gifted clinician. I get my work done, and I do make most of my deadlines, but paperwork and time management continue to be growth areas for me.

I was up at the office late on Thursday making sure all my paperwork was done, all my files were in compliance. I looked over the bevy of emails regarding requests from my supervisor and, confident that I answered them all, I stumbled off to bed to get a few hours sleep before I got up to do it all over again. Friday morning, I attended several meetings and then prepared to go meet with some more of my families, I stopped off at my supervisor's office to show off at how caught up I was on all my paperwork. "What about those extra notes I'd asked about on your closed files? The ones the auditors requested...?" D'OH! I'd somehow overlooked those! Despite the fact I was on my way out the door to a school to meet with a family, I promised I'd get them done immediately.

I rushed back to my desk and banged out the four notes. Now, my files were not incomplete or in bad shape. The notes were simply to assist the auditors and invite them to not scrutinize the file and nit-pick it. It took me about 25 minutes to update the files and I carried them back to my supervisor, feeling good that I was being a team player and done my best to be helpful. My supervisor thanked me for my efforts and then handed me a note to sign. It was a written notice that I'd been given a verbal warning due to not having those extra notes by 11:00 AM. It would go in my HR record. It had been emailed to the program director.

Suddenly, my feelings of helpful pride shifted to seething anger that I was being reprimanded for missing a deadline by an hour and a half. In my mind, my self-talk went something like this: "Why? I know that I missed the deadline, but it was an arbitrary one made up for this occasion... it is not like there were dire consequences... This doesn't have to be done, I'm being singled out for this... It is unfair... It is mean spirited... I would have handled this totally differently if I were the supervisor... this is how you go about ruining morale... I'm being set up to fail..." and on and on in this fashion.

For several long minutes, I stared at the paper, weighing whether to make a big scene about it or suck it up, sign it and let it go. The minutes stretched out and I knew that my silence and inaction were communicating to my supervisor that I was struggling about how to respond. I knew that anything I said would sound defensive and self-justifying. I knew that my supervisor had the technical truth to support the reprimand. I had a choice to make.

Now, I want to point out that this whole thought process took several minutes. I stood there like a idiot while I literally thought all this through and came to my decision point. I surrendered the thought that my supervisor was responsible for my anger. I swallowed the blame I wanted to level and let go of the self-justifying arguments that popped up in my head. I signed the form and left the office.

I decided to not be angry. It was harder than I thought it would be! I kept wanting to step back in my anger box and allow it to dictate the rest of my day. But the more I thought about it, the more I clung to the notion that if I teach others this stuff about being responsible for one's own emotions and behavior, then I better be able to back it up with my own experience.

Was my supervisor wrong to reprimand me? Technically, no. Subjectively? Maybe. It is possible to do the right thing but to go about it in a way that invites defensiveness. Was it within my supervisor's power to let it go and to not document the incident? Yes, but that is not the point. Truth is, by not being more proactive with my own behavior and attitude toward the paperwork, I was inviting my supervisor to see me as lazy with my paperwork. Doing my part to help out with the audit was all well and good, but really has very little to do with my own previous behavior. It is just a handy self-justifying argument I tucked away to allow me to blame someone else for my angry feelings.

My point in posting this is not to gain sympathy or even admiration for my self-analysis. I wanted to point out that handling one's own emotions can be difficult. If I had entered into a blame cycle, who knows where it would have ended up? I can guess at some outcomes: I might have decided that being a team player wasn't worth it if I was going to be treated so badly. I might have started subtly sabotaging efforts to meet our numbers or do things that would put my supervisor in a bad position. I might have subtly started undercutting the management by my own way of being toward the company. I might let bitterness suck the joy out of the job I love.... etc. The end result is that I would also have diminished myself in the process. That is not the person I wish to be, or become.

This experience is another reminder that grace is an amazing gift. I'm thankful that God invites us into His kingdom, where we experience no accusations or blame or guilt, despite our continued deservedness. Over and over, God invites us to be better, accept His perfection and clothe ourselves with it. God's redemption of my broken, sinful heart is not a one-time event, but a continual process whereby I (hopefully) become more like Him each cycle. This time, I hope that I've picked up some pointers about being gracious... not only to myself, but to those that I feel have wronged me (whether they actually have wronged me or not). God is gracious. Thank God.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

It is not my fault! Playing the Blame Game

When certain themes reoccur in multiple therapy sessions, sometimes it helps me to write about them and shake the cobwebs off my thinking. Today's theme is : Blame.

Assigning Blame. Finding fault. Pointing fingers. Whatever term we use, it is about accusation. Although, on the surface, assigning blame seems to be about holding someone responsible, in reality, it is often used to justify one's own feelings or behavior. It is a little ironic that a person may really think they are doing the right thing by holding someone accountable, but when we use 'blame' to do it, we are going about it the wrong way.

Dictionaries and common usage often equate 'blame' and 'responsibility'. The two terms are often used interchangeably. However, if you take a look at synonyms, we can begin to see the negativity associated with 'blame': criticize, censure, condemn, denounce, dispraise, fault, knock, pan, reprehend. By contrast, look at the definition of 'responsible': able to answer for one's conduct and obligations : trustworthy : able to choose for oneself between right and wrong. I won't argue that it is possible to read the other dictionary entries and conclude that even the dictionary includes the idea that the two concepts are interchangeable. I will contend that most people use the two in the negative sense.

Is it wrong to hold someone accountable or to uncover responsibility? No. However, there is a categorical difference between the two ideas: Blame and Responsibility. Blame accuses and invites defensiveness. Blame is connected to shame and guilt. Blame is usually also connected to anger and bitterness. Responsibility, on the other hand, is about growth. Being responsible allows a person to be proud of him or herself. Being responsible means owning one's own actions and feelings, good or bad, and allows a person to have integrity.

So, even in those rare occasions when it is socially acceptable to blame, I expect it is not very helpful. Blame is usually more about making the blamer feel justified in being angry, hurt or bitter than it is about helping the blamed accept responsibility. Can you not hear it? Listen to this conversation (paraphrased and slightly embellished):

Me: What it is about your parent's separation that hurts you the most?
Client: Well, it is my fault that they split up. I just want them to stop fighting and be a family again.
Me: Whoa... what makes you think that it was your fault?
Client: Well, my mom told me that she blames me for their decision to separate... and she's right. The last big fight they had was because of my stupid decision to disobey the rules of my being grounded.

Here, we see the client accepting the blame that the mother asserts. Now, while it is true that the client broke the family rules about being grounded, the conflict between the parents predates the youth's behavior. The youth's behavior influenced the parents' feelings and actions, but did not cause the separation. The parents had plenty of actions they could have taken, but for various reasons, they chose to separate. At a later date, the mom is hurt and angry and in order to feel better about being angry, she blames her decision on the youth. In this case, the blame did not invite the youth to be defensive. Instead, in accepting the blame, the youth also accepted undue guilt and shame. Should the youth feel bad about the behavior that the youth is responsible for? Sure. Should the youth feel the burden of the parents' decision? No.

Of course, there are other details I am not sharing about this situation. I have cleaned up and sterilized the messiness of the relationships involved in order to highlight my point. Blame, even when you can make a case for it, is never helpful. It is hurtful. Blame is about accusation and justification. Blame invites defensiveness, shame and guilt. Blame seeks to allow the blamer to put off the responsibility for his/her own emotions on another person. "You make me so angry!" and "If you hadn't ******, then I wouldn't blah, blah, blah."Can you hear the accuser, the blamer, divesting himself of emotional responsibility? Even if the blamer can make a good case for blaming, the end result is that the blamed feels defensive, accused, ashamed, and either defiant or broken. None of those feelings is conducive to healing, restoration or emotional health.

So, what is the alternative? Is it possible to assign responsibility without resorting to the accusing nature of blaming? How does one go about inviting another to accept responsibility without heaping shame and guilt upon them? What does it look like to act, in love and respect toward the responsible party, and firmly and with assertiveness allow them to own their fault? On the other side of the coin, how does a person avoid accepting unfair blame while still being responsible for one's own feelings and actions? Can it even be done?

I do not have definitive answers for the questions in the last paragraph, but I do know that I am done playing the blame game. It is tiring sometimes, because others constantly invite me to see others in an accusing way, to see others through their eyes of hurt and blame. I have a secret, though. I have another who invites me to see others through His eyes. He has a point of view that is unique in all creation. Instead of a lens of blame, He sees through a lens of grace, of undeserved mercy. Every day, I have the choice to accept the invitation of the hurt, broken souls that I serve to see others as blameworthy. Ironically, we are all blameworthy. Instead, I strive to choose what is helpful and healing, which is to see everyone through the eyes of a merciful, gracious God. The Great Physician has some wonderful insight into how to begin the healing process for the souls of men.

And now, may you have the courage to offer grace instead of blame. It is not an easy task, but it is a way of reflecting the image of a gracious God instead of the Great Accuser.