Tag Archives: counseling

Vive La Différence!

Once again I have fallen into the extrovert/introvert chasm, which inevitably leads to injuries based in assumptions that are usually incorrect and self-damaging.

Let’s start with some simple information:

Introverts are people who are fascinated by the interior world of thought.  Introverts love to interact with people, but on a limited basis because interacting with others drains their energy. In other words, being social drains an introvert of energy, requiring them to spend time alone to recharge and recoup.  Introverts in conversation tend to listen, think, synthesize and then respond. They are great folks to have in any group because they are incredibly capable of identifying emerging trends in group thought, pointing out inconsistencies in the group’s thinking and problem solving, and they are apt at summarizing and creating solid, useful conclusions.  Introverts are a quiet, thoughtful bunch of folks and that is their greatest strength.

The problem with introverts is that they are a quiet, thoughtful bunch of folks. This can be problematic when they are meeting new people who are extroverts. Introverted behavior is often perceived negatively by extroverts, who often experience introverts as standoffish, judgmental, and rejecting.  In all actuality, introverts are usually uncomfortable and anxious around new folks so they are especially quiet and thoughtful…and of course those thoughts play across the introvert’s face. Extroverts read those expressions and discern that the introvert is thinking quite a bit but they don’t know what the introvert is thinking…and human nature is to assume negative intent.  Consequently extroverts often find themselves perceiving introverts as rejecting and judgmental when the introvert is simply listening and trying to be cordial in a difficult situation because social interaction is draining and sometimes even anxious for them.

Extroverts are people who are fascinated with the exterior world of people and interaction. Extroverts love to interact with people because social interaction is energizing. Extroverts are gregarious and energetic, assertive and talkative. Extroverts can enjoy being alone and doing solitary things like reading and meditation, but in order to recharge, an extrovert will usually spend time with friends and family. Extroverts are great folks to have in a group because they help generate energy and bonding within the group; extroverts tend to be the ones that prevent group activities or group work from stalling and becoming boring or non-productive. Extroverts are quite talkative and they usually prefer to think out loud; this proves to be useful when groups are attempting to brainstorm or generate new ideas.  Extroverts are an outgoing, talkative, energetic bunch of folks and that is their greatest strength.

The problem with extroverts is that they are an outgoing, talkative, energetic bunch of folks. This can be problematic for the introverts in their circle. Extroverts are assertive and outgoing in their interactions with others, which can be overwhelming to the introverts around them. Moreover, introverts are a quiet bunch, which can make it difficult for them to get a word in edgewise when they are with an extrovert. What’s harder for introverts is that introverts tend to speak after they have thought things through; they evaluate their thoughts for validity so that they don’t spout any BS when they speak, therefore a lot goes into each sentence spoken before it comes out of an introvert’s mouth. Extroverts, on the other hand, speak in order to think. It’s not that extroverts are incapable of thought unless they are speaking. It’s that an introvert’s ‘BS indicator’ is located inside their brain and an extrovert’s ‘BS indicators’ are in their ears.  Thoughts in an extrovert’s head can seem perfectly valid and sensible until the extrovert speaks them out loud and then suddenly the extrovert realizes their error…or the BS!  Basically, extroverts speak to think so that they can practice evaluative thought, something that introverts do silently. The problem with this is that introverts—a group of people who only speak after they have practiced evaluative thought—often experience talkative extroverts as feeling like ‘bossy know-it-alls’ who think every one of their opinions are absolutely correct and that everyone should agree with them. This is a false assumption on the part of the introvert, but it can leave introverts feeling as if extroverts are judgmental and unwilling to listen to the opinions of others…which can feel quite rejecting.

In other words, introverts and extroverts encounter each other and both can go away feeling rejected and judged.

And both of them are usually WRONG.

Extroverts need to be mindful that introverts are naturally quiet and thoughtful. That behavior (which extroverts interpret as rejection and judgment) has nothing to do with the extrovert and everything to do with the introvert behaving like themselves.  This is how introverts are created by God…they are wonderful people and you want them among your friends and on your work/ministry team.  Always remember that introverts are busy thinking (and they are not usually thinking about you, Mr/Ms Extrovert.)   If you are an extrovert, remember that you won’t feel rejected or judged by an introvert if you choose to interpret their behaviors as evidence of their quiet, thoughtful nature.  And if you want to hear what an introvert is thinking, stop speaking. Every now and then, spend 30-60 full seconds in silence; many introverts need a break in conversation in order to feel comfortable speaking.  If you (Mr/Ms Extrovert) start feeling rejected and judged, remember that your thinking drives your feelings, and you always have the right to remind yourself that introverts are a quiet, thoughtful bunch who are no more rejecting and judgmental than you are.  Moreover, their BS indicators are in their mind, which means they need to run all their thoughts through the BS indicator before they speak and that causes introverts to be silent for longer than extroverts may be comfortable with. Please, extroverts, give the introverts around you space to be who they are and who they were created to be, and give yourself space to appreciate all the good stuff that introverts bring to the table.

Introverts need to be mindful that extroverts are super-comfortable when they are with others, and that causes them to think out loud even more than they do when they are alone. (Yes…extroverts often talk to themselves when they are alone so they can practice evaluative thinking.) That behavior has nothing to do with the introvert and everything to do with the extroverts behaving like themselves.  This is how extroverts are created by God…they are wonderful people and you want them among your friends and on your work/ministry team.  Always remember that extroverts think out loud so those sentences they are speaking are NOT usually conclusions and are probably just thoughts that will hopefully lead to a wise and thoughtful conclusion.  Extroverts are as open to changing their opinions as any introvert might be, and if you share your opinion with them, you might discover just how much extroverts love spirited conversations. Their energy may make them appear argumentative…and some extroverts are argumentative, just like some introverts are argumentative.  Don’t mistake energy for argument, and never mistake statements for conclusions. Also, remember that extroverts do not expect you to agree with them no matter how energetically they share their opinion.  Again, don’t mistake energy for argument. If you (Mr/Ms Introvert) start feeling rejected and judged, remember that your thinking drives your feelings, and you always have the right to remind yourself that extroverts are an outgoing, energetic, talkative bunch who are no more rejecting and judgmental than you are.  Moreover, their BS indicators are in their ears, so extroverts need to talk so that they can evaluate their own thoughts for fallacy or error and that can cause extroverts to talk more than introverts may be comfortable with.  Please, introverts, give the extroverts around you space to be who they are and who they were created to be, and give yourself space to appreciate all the good stuff that extroverts bring to the table.

Most important in all this is to remember that God created as we are, and while we can learn from each other and grow as people, we cannot change our basic personality. Introversion/Extroversion is a component of basic personality that God determines (or you could say ‘installs’) when He creates us.  While I thoroughly encourage each of us to grow and become more and more of what God created us to be, I want to remind you that first you must embrace that creation fully.  Extroverts don’t often become introverts; not without the kind of injury or trauma that changes us by force.  Introverts are not supposed to become extroverts either, and any injury or trauma they sustain often only serves to increase the level of their introversion. In the end, we need to embrace our creation and then seek to use it to the best advantage of the Kingdom.

And when it comes to understanding and accepting each other, we need to remember that our perceptions of each other drive our feelings about one another.  As individuals, we are always free to challenge our perceptions in order to grant the other person some grace…like maybe trying not to automatically ascribe negative intent to their behaviors…like maybe perceiving differences as helpful and accepting others for their particular weirdness without deciding that their particular weirdness renders them less acceptable or ‘good’ than we are.  Finally, I encourage you to consider that the person who is closest to your polar opposite will likely be the most irritating person you meet…and also the person who has the biggest gift to offer you.  After all, their perspective might not even be visible to you because of how different you are from each other…and do you really want to be blind to the experience of another person? Probably not.

The hardest path is often the best, and the most unfamiliar thing, the most valuable.

Vive la différence!

Here Comes The Truth

Honesty.

I always tell my clients that honesty is at such a premium in this world that being a truth teller is a skill worth developing. People thirst and hunger for truth, for words that are plain and simple, without sugar coating or gentle couching or even padding. Basically, there is so little honesty in this world that we are starving for it.

Don’t believe me?  Just think for a moment about how many times you have talked to one of your friends and had them read you a text or email to see what you think it means.  We have been become experts at analyzing words and phrasing in texts and emails, hoping to decipher what the person really means, what they are actually saying…which makes it painfully obvious that we don’t trust people to speak the unadulterated truth.

I mean it when I say that truth is so rare that we are starving for it.

However…I have to distinguish being truth-telling, and beating someone with the truth.

Sadly, I have heard plenty of people speak sentences full of barbed words, swinging sentences like a bat aimed at the other person’s head. After they finish speaking, these people all say the same thing: I’m just telling the truth, that’s all.  And they are, kind of, but not really.

You see, the truth—if you want it to be heard and accepted—needs to be spoken in love.  The kind of truth that sets you free is truth that is given as a gift, delivered directly and bluntly without sugar-coating…and without any barbs or knives.

I call it the open-handed truth.

Basically, I tell my clients to hold out their hand, palm up, whenever they speak the truth. This is to signify to them and their listener that the truth they are telling is offered as a gift. The listener is free to take that gift or leave it, but there it is: honesty and truth, offered to them as a gift.

I ask them to do that because any move away from giving a gift to delivering a barbed truth will cause their hand to suddenly shift from an open palm to a pointed finger. You know what I’m talking about: that finger-shaking, “I’m going to give you a piece of my mind” gesture that we use when we are slapping someone across the face with our words.  I tell my clients that the difference between an open-handed truth and a finger-shaking truth is the difference between honesty as a gift and honesty as a 2×4 upside the head!  It’s an effective metaphor, because who the hell wants to speak the truth as a 2×4 to someone’s head?

The answer to that question is: any member of the media when speaking to Donald Trump, but that’s another blog post entirely.

Why am I busy talking about the truth?  Well, when I started as a counselor, I found it very hard to speak certain truths to my clients, especially if the truth was particularly ugly. I also shied away from telling my clients when they were engaging in unhealthy behaviors, even when they were engaging in unhealthy and unwise behaviors right in front of me.

In short, I have been an incredible wuss for years.

And then recently I decided to try something for my stress. Being a counselor is very stressful. Clients can be very demanding, and the need to help them can leave you feeling like the weight of the world is resting on your shoulders. It can be overwhelming, and it does overwhelm me occasionally. It really wouldn’t matter that much, but I have chronic health issues, and stress makes them worse. I am at a point where something has to change or I am not going to be able to keep up with my practice. I am not willing to let stress derail my health…and I’m not willing to let my health end my ministry.

The thing was that no matter what I was doing, nothing was reducing my stress level.  Exercise was helpful, but not enough. Diet changes were helpful, but not enough. Hobbies, vacations, meditation…all of it was helpful, but not enough.

Then I remembered something I learned from watching my daughter get sober. The 12 Steps are powerful and deeply spiritual, and without them people often fail to overcome their addictions because the biggest problem in addiction is that we keep trying so hard…instead of relying on a God who is so much more powerful than we are.

And that was my epiphany.

I began reciting the first three steps (as best as I could remember them) in relation to my clients.

I admitted that I am powerless over my clients—powerless over mental illness and trauma—powerless over my client’s lives—and that trying to be a healer is becoming unmanageable.

I remembered that there is a Power greater than myself who can restore both me and my clients to sanity.

And then I made a decision to turn myself…and my clients…and their problems…and their healing…over to God’s care.

I cannot tell you how liberating that felt. Every time I’d start to get stressed about my clients or my practice, I’d remember that I am powerless over mental illness and trauma, and utterly incapable of healing anyone. Then I’d remind myself that God is more than capable of handling all that and is willing to use me along the way to bring that about…and I’d calm back down and my stress level would drop and I’d start to feel less overwhelmed and exhausted.

But there was this funny side effect of all this: I’m not a wuss anymore!

All of a sudden, I find myself saying things in session that are blunt, open-faced truths that I was unable to say before.

Dare I say…I have become strangely bold?  And I’m not talking 2×4 bold, either. This is calm, open-handed truth that is popping out of my mouth without hesitation or even the slightest twinge of guilt.

Jesus said that the truth would set us free, and the truth I discovered is that I am powerless, and when I accept that powerlessness…suddenly I am far more free to share the truth with others.

The truth about me became the truth recognized by me and spoken to others becomes the truth that sets them free.

If this is powerlessness, sign me up. And we will all be free together.

Amen.

God in the Grocery Aisle

I spend a lot of time with anxious people.

Some of them are anxious because they have anxiety disorders. Some are anxious because they are dealing with PTSD and trauma. Some are anxious because they have an addict in their household and they are exhausted from trying to save that person (and their entire family) from the consequences of addiction.  These folks have really good reasons for their anxiety, and learning to deal with the anxiety is about learning to accept what can’t be changed and address what can be changed (usually the answers to those two questions are ‘other people’ and ‘your own behaviors and attitudes’…but that’s another blog post entirely.)

Lately though, I have been seeing a woman who is anxious because…well, because…

Of life. She is anxious because…career, boss, bad friends, what now?  She is anxious because of life.

She’s a great lady and I love working with her. She’s really serious about the change she’s trying to achieve and actually remembers what we talk about and tries to work on it between sessions. She is what we counselors call a YAVIS client: young, attractive, verbal, intelligent, and social. Personally, I’m guessing she’d be really thrilled to know that I label her as a YAVIS client, first because she’s a little older than I am, and second, because YAVIS clients are usually there to see a counselor because they are having an existential crisis instead of serious mental health issues.

existential crisis:  a moment at which an individual questions the very foundations of their life: whether this life has any meaning, purpose, or value.

During our last session, my client brought me a list of what she thinks she needs to be working on in counseling.  One of her goals was to work on finding a purpose for her life, a larger reason for being. She felt like her current career, while it earned her a good living, was not very meaningful and did not provide her with sufficient purpose.  She wanted to find her purpose in life so that she could get busy living out her purpose.

That was when I put on the brakes.

You see, what I heard my client saying was that God’s purpose for her life was something other than what she was doing right now and that she wouldn’t really be living out her God-given purpose until she found that purpose and then began to fulfill it, daily.  In other words, “I’m not doing what I need to be doing and my life has no meaning or purpose until I do the thing I need to be doing.”

Wow…that’s a troublesome idea.  And I’m betting that my client is not the only person who has this idea.

The problem with this idea is the way we tend to define purpose.  Purpose is a big, weighty word that implies something deeply meaningful, something incredibly impactful…our purpose is supposed to be the thing we do that makes a difference in the world.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? And for most of us, our purpose is tied in pretty heavily with our careers or our daily jobs.  I’m guessing that any job that helps us fulfill our God-given purpose is going to be something impressive, like a teacher, a civil rights lawyer, or a doctor; a trauma counselor, or a pastor or maybe a person who works with the disabled.  There are plenty of careers that will fill our lives with purpose and give us a chance to make a difference in the world.

Actually, it doesn’t matter what you are doing as your career or as your current job…if you are out there, living your life, doing your best to be good human being then you are fulfilling your purpose right there, where you are, and that’s all there is to it.

Personally, my favorite job that makes a difference in the world is…

The cashier at the grocery store.

Yep…you read that right. The cashier at the grocery store.

A couple of years ago, I went grocery shopping and was just overwhelmed with the sheer amount of stuff I needed to get done that day. I was harried and in a bad mood, wishing that I could clone myself so that the work would get done quicker.  When I got to the front of the checkout line I immediately started writing out my check (okay…it was probably closer to 20 years ago) and didn’t even look at the cashier. He greeted me with a casual “How are you today?” and I answered truthfully “Harried.”   He immediately replied “I know! Doesn’t it make you feel really alive when you’re busy like that?”

That was when I looked up at him, thinking I was going to find myself face to face with Happy Elf, or The Grocery Unicorn, or some other mythical creature of that sort.  Instead I was greeted by a man obviously going through chemo. He didn’t have a strand of hair anywhere on his head and he was bone thin and pale.  He was grinning at me, genuinely happy to be ringing up my groceries and talking with me. He radiated joy.

It was an instant attitude adjuster.

I didn’t feel guilty or shamed. I didn’t feel like a bad human being. I just suddenly recognized how profoundly lucky and blessed I was to be standing there, totally healthy, buying groceries for my growing family. I was blessed with sufficient funds to feed my children without worries. I had a list of tasks as long as my arm because my children were healthy and active, and because both my husband and I had full-time jobs which meant that I had to do all my errands and shopping on the weekends.  I was very busy…and it did make me feel alive. Burdened, but gloriously alive.

Talk about making a difference in the world!  This guy had his purpose nailed and he was living out that purpose, right there, ringing up the groceries at the Albertsons.

The key to fulfilling your purpose to know, first and foremost, that you are able to fulfill your purpose in life exactly where you are, doing what you are doing…right now.  You don’t have to wait until you finish your degree or until you change careers or until you get married or get divorced or…anything.  You are valuable where you are right now, doing whatever you are doing.

If you want to fulfill your purpose in life, start by being yourself…be who God created you to be, all the time, and give your gifts to the world whenever you can. Be the best version of you that you can, and do your best to draw out the best in others.

And if God calls you to a bigger purpose, or to express your purpose in a different way, know that you have been living a meaningful, purpose-filled life every minute until now and are about to go on an adventure to see what other great things God can do through you.

Enjoy your adventure!

I’m sure enjoying mine.

I’m Gonna Build Me A Wall

I am one of those people who loves metaphors.

God knows, I am plenty verbal.  (Ask anyone who knows me: I will talk your ear off!) Nonetheless, when I need to learn something or teach something to someone else, I look for images or metaphors that will help explain the concept.  Visual images that represent a concept are great because they can gather meaning as time goes along, representing multiple things as you learn more about the concept/subject.  Images that can do this are “multivalient.”   It’s a bizarre made-up word that I learned in seminary that means “more than one meaning” and it only reinforced my desire to use images to represent concepts.

On to our subject for today: WALLS.

I’m a counselor, and when counselors talk about walls, we are usually talking about emotional blockades that people use to keep others at a distance emotionally.  We talk about refusal to be vulnerable and to “let people in” so that they can know the “real you”.

That’s not what I’m talking about today.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about walls, mostly with the focus of keeping undesirable people OUT; walls as a means of keeping the ‘good people’ safe from the ‘bad people’ who want into our country and our economic system.

That’s not what I’m talking about either.

I like to talk about walls when I talk about relationships, especially romantic relationships, and most specifically marital relationships.  The reason that I do that is that so many people have misconceptions about what it takes to make a marriage last, to truly succeed as a couple.  I tell the couples that I am working with that a good love connection is going to be a lot like a really good brick wall.

Here in Arizona, most of our fences are concrete block walls or brick walls, so you see freestanding brick walls in almost every neighborhood.  Every now and then you find a block wall that has collapsed, scattering bricks or concrete blocks as well as chunks of mortar all over the sidewalk and the yard.  On a rare occasion you will find bent rebar (the metal bars used to reinforce block walls) still sticking up out of the ground with a few blocks still intact at the bottom, held in place only because of the rebar.  That’s a rare occurrence, mostly because walls reinforced with rebar don’t ‘collapse’ per-se…usually something happens to bring them down, like an uprooted tree falling on the wall.

What does that have to do with relationships?

Well…block walls are usually built of bricks and mortar, and occasionally rebar. Each of those things represents something crucial to a successful marriage. Let’s start with the bricks.

When it comes to relationships, the bricks represent the common morals, values, and priorities of the couple.

It is very important to have shared morals because it means that behavior that is forbidden for one of you is forbidden for the other, and behavior that is considered laudable for one of you is considered laudable by and for the other.  For instance, the animal rights activist is never going to want a fur coat as a gift from their spouse, no matter how cold the climate they live in, or how much of an expression of love their partner might think that would be.  You might think that shared morals is a given, especially when your partner seems like such a good person, but it takes exploration to suss out the finer points of morals.  Do you cheat on your taxes? Do you take office supplies from work?  Do you lie…to anyone? When is that acceptable and why? Do you support abortion rights? Would you ever opt for an abortion in your own life? What do you do if your child is profoundly intellectually disabled? Would you ever put a child in an institution?  What if you become really rich?  Do you give a bunch of money to charitable organizations? Do you ever give money to family members?  What do you think about helping out adult children with financial issues?

See what I mean? Morals aren’t as easily determined by daily behaviors as we think they are.  Of course, your partner’s daily behaviors say an awful lot about who they are and what their morals are, but you have to ask the hard questions…and answer them yourself as well.  I am consistently shocked by the things my clients reveal that they didn’t discuss before they married…and that topic always comes up because of the problems they are having in their marriage now.

Commonly held values and priorities are also important and act as the bricks in your marital wall.  Let’s use work as an example. Work should hold the same value and your careers the same level of priority for both members of the couple.  This doesn’t mean that one of you can’t stay home to take care of the children, because that is another thing entirely and has to do with your beliefs and values (and priorities) around raising children.  However, a lack of common values and priorities around work can lead to one partner frustrating the other by working long hours for an extended period of time, or by repeatedly changing jobs or careers.  The first illustrates a difference in the how work is valued as a priority, and the second a difference in the value of stability and commitment to career.  Money is another area where common values and priorities are really important, because money is frequently a subject of conflict for couples. One partner usually wants to save and invest and the other partner is more prone to spend and the truth is that there needs to be a balance of both saving and spending as well as financial responsibility focused on a saving for retirement and aged years. This kind of stuff can create major rifts for couples and long term resentment, and these are two things you never want developing in your marriage. In the end, having similar values and priorities allows you to act in concert and support each other as decisions are made and changes occur.   Both of you will feel equally respected and equally committed to each others goals, since after all, those goals will be driven by common values and priorities.

So…you’ve got the bricks to build your wall because you share morals, values, and priorities.  Now you need mortar, and sex and intimacy are the mortar in a relationship.  What separates a partnership/ marriage from a regular friendship is the level of intimacy.  Friendships might have a great deal of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy and the more there is of those three things, the closer and longer lasting the friendship will be.  I frequently tell couples that the best thing they can do is become really good friends as well as lovers, because their friendship will get the relationship through difficult times when they don’t feel as ‘in love’ as they used to be.  The ‘in love’ thing is what brings the flush of sexual intimacy to the fore.  Sexual intimacy takes the other three levels of intimacy and deepens them significantly, and then it ices the cake, so to speak.  Sexual intimacy creates an incredibly strong bond because it’s hard to hide from your partner when you are naked and being sexually expressive. It is the deepest and most private form of intimacy, and I truly believe that it is sacred. Maybe I’ll blog more about that another day, but for now I just want to say that sexual intimacy becomes the mortar that holds all the bricks in place, that brings the wall to a level of cohesion and stability that other relationships cannot reach.

We’ve all had friends who were really good at the sex thing but who lacked commitment to the other person in the relationship. You can call this commitment issues; you can call it “friends with benefits.”  I call this an example of someone trying to build a wall out of mortar alone.  You can do it…you can mound up your mortar and try to build a wall, but it won’t last through any serious storm.  The difficulties that life brings will inevitably cause the wall to slowly disintegrate and crumble.  This is why marriages based in chemistry alone don’t work for very long.  The sex is great and for a while the couple can use the sex to cover up the growing divide between them, but eventually no amount of sex is enough to cover for what isn’t there: real friendship, along with common morals, values, and priorities.

So what’s the rebar for? Well…rebar is there so that the wall can’t be toppled easily.  Like I said, my neighborhood is full of block wall fences, and occasionally they collapse…usually due to harsh weather.  Walls with rebar in them, however, tend to remain standing until something specific happens—something like a car crashing through the wall, or a tree falling in a monsoon, or someone purposely trying to tear the wall down. This is because the rebar is driven into the ground below the wall to anchor the wall and the rebar acts as an internal support for the bricks and mortar.  In a relationship, rebar is made from a common spirituality that often establishes many of the common morals and values.  In my marriage, the rebar is our Christian faith.  When life gets rough, my husband and I turn to God for support and we openly discuss the evidence we see of God’s action in our lives.  We encourage each other in our faith, and when we are struggling, we pray together.  I’m not saying that a couple without a common faith will fail; that simply isn’t true, since those couples have shared values, morals, and priorities and hopefully deep levels of emotional and intellectual intimacy, as well as a robust sex life that builds their wall tall and strong.  However, having gone through quite a few “storms” that tried to tear down the wall of my marriage (a child addicted to cocaine and opiates, the death of both of my husband’s parents, a severely ill child, etc.) I can tell you that a common faith will strengthen the union in ways the common morals, values, and priorities as well as sexual intimacy simply cannot achieve.

Having said all that, my mind wanders to a certain politician that thinks that building a wall will solve some of our problems with Mexico and its citizens. Perhaps he’s right, but only in the sense that focusing on our commonly held values, morals, and priorities might bring us to a much closer relationship that could change everything.  It would be a wall built of bricks alone, as many friendships are…and honestly, it could change everything.   Maybe he’s right. Maybe we should build a wall, one that no one would have to ‘pay for’…but wouldn’t it be worth everything?

Oh my aching heart…

I mentioned in my last two posts that being tenderhearted can cause problems, that it can make it hard not to interfere where you shouldn’t.

The thing is that I should have said that it just doesn’t work to have strong feelings about things that you just cannot change: other people’s choices, other people’s lives, other people’s consequences, etc.  It doesn’t matter if the other person is your coworker, your neighbor, your sibling, or your adult child…if it is happening to another adult and you can’t do anything to change it, you probably shouldn’t be getting all worked up about it.

But what if you are worked up about it? What are you supposed to do now?

Let me start with an example out of my own life.

My youngest daughter K. had just turned 17 when she graduated from High School…a full year early.  She had worked hard to get through school and we were very proud of her.  She had a full ride scholarship to a local college and was certain to move on to great things in the coming years.

Or so we thought, her father and I.

And then K. met L.  He had long hair, no ambition, and fewer brains.  He was a nice enough boy, but dang that child was brainless and it made us crazy to see our daughter so smitten by him.  We figured she would quickly move beyond him…but instead K. became more and more involved with him, taking on some of his habits and beliefs, hanging out with his family, and taking up his habits…including the one where he smoked marijuana.  We were horrified!

Long story short, her grades weren’t terrible but they also weren’t high enough to maintain her scholarship, which meant that suddenly she had to find a way to pay for school.  Her father and I told her that her failure to maintain her scholarship was not going to become the occasion for us to be punished by having to pay for her tuition.  She had earned a scholarship that covered two full years of community college and she lost it because she wouldn’t focus on her schooling instead of her boyfriend… so we told K. that she would need to pay for her schooling herself. Let’s stop right here for a moment and take notice of a non-codependent behavior: my daughter’s consequences are not mine to absorb.  K. isn’t 12 years old anymore, and if she lost the scholarship, then she’s the one who has to find money for tuition now.  And isn’t it great that I didn’t behave codependently?  Uh, yeah, sure…but I still was all codependent emotionally.  Behaviorally I had gotten better.  Emotionally…not so much, and so the saga continues.

The problem was that K. had no job and wasn’t really interested in getting a job.  We told her to get a job as soon as possible, and she pretended to apply to places and assured us that she was working really hard to get a job.  We weren’t fooled at all and expressed increasing amounts of frustration with her bad attitude and failure to get a job, and K. became more and more belligerent.  As soon as the spring semester was over, we told her that she had until August 1 to get a job or she would have to move out.  K. called our bluff and moved out before July 1st, choosing to move with L. and his brother N. to their grandfather’s abandoned home in a remote city we’ll call Crapville.  Gee…do you think I have negative feelings about Crapville?  Yes…yes I do.

Literally, my daughter was living rent-free in an unused home that had electricity but no hot water because they couldn’t afford to pay the gas bill.  Neither my daughter, her boyfriend L., or his brother N. had jobs, so they did their grocery shopping at the local food bank.  Essentially, K. was living by choice in relative poverty, in a home that lacked some of what I considered to be basic necessities.

My husband and I were horrified.  What could we do? They didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have hot water, they didn’t have enough food.  You cannot imagine how badly it messes with your head when you know that your daughter doesn’t have enough food!!  The more I thought about it, the more upset I became.

But I had to admit: K. had chosen this life.  She didn’t have to move out.  All K. had to do was get a part time job, which she steadfastly refused to do.  She could have gotten a part-time job and lived at home with free room and board while going to school. Apparently K. had decided that she’d rather live in poverty and skip the job.  Any time I thought about what she was doing, I became so upset that I got sick to my stomach.

I knew that I had to let it go.  Getting upset wasn’t solving anything.  Getting upset wasn’t changing K’s choices and it wasn’t helping me any.  Even worse, my attitude about K’s choices had the potential to do damage to our relationship.  I didn’t want to become one of those mothers who complained and criticized every time I had any interaction with my daughter.  I was upset enough that I knew my attitude would bleed into my voice whenever we spoke and I didn’t want to risk my relationship with K. for any reason.

In an attempt to get control of my feelings about K’s choices, I started forcing myself to admit that I had no idea what path God might have for her, and admitted to myself that perhaps my daughter’s time in Crapville was a major part of God’s plan. Parents often think that we know what is best for our children, and while they are under the age of 18 we are usually right (usually…not always).  However, my lovely daughter was over 18 and her life and future were in God’s hands, not mine.  After a bit of prayer, God assured me that He was more than capable of handling my daughter…and suggested that I might want to handle myself.  After that point, whenever I found myself thinking of her or complaining about K’s choices to another person, I would force myself to say out loud “I don’t know God’s path for her.”  It was a true statement: I truly didn’t know what plans God might have for my daughter, or what paths those holy plans would cause her to take, but I needed to trust that God could get her to where she needed to be. I found myself saying “I don’t know God’s path for her” over and over, sometimes multiple times a day, and to be honest it was soothing.  I actually felt a little better every time I said it.

Here’s the deal: lots of us start feeling all sorts of strong emotions when we start thinking about what is going on with our kids, or with our parents or our siblings, and sometimes even when we think of what’s happening to our friends or to our neighbors.  It’s easy to let those emotions run away with us and get us all worked up…but it’s incredibly UNWISE.  Remember, I’m not talking about a situation that actually impacts you, like when your best friend is diagnosed with cancer, or your spouse up and quits their job, or your children move across country.  Those things impact you quite a bit…and it’s still wise to be careful not to let the emotions you feel about those situations get so big that you forget that a) you don’t control the other person’s life, and b) they have decisions to make and your opinions and feelings don’t figure in those decisions.

What self-soothing phrase do you need to help yourself let go of your emotions? What do you need to remind yourself of so that you can stop being anxious/controlling and just let things happen naturally?

Here’s some ideas to get you started:

Ask yourself where God is in all this.  Ask yourself what responsibility you have regarding the issue.  Ask yourself if the issue is still unfolding (not yet finished.)  Questions like these may illuminate what you need to self-soothe and stop freaking out.

Here are a few suggestions to help you start calming yourself down.  It won’t stop you from being upset immediately, and you may need more than one phrase, but if you keep reminding yourself of the truth and of God’s presence, you may find yourself less upset about things than you think you are right now.

Try these:

God is still in control, no matter how bad it looks.

I don’t know what God’s plan is for them.

I am trusting God to somehow bring blessings out of this crazy situation.

Not my circus, not my monkeys.

This is not my problem to solve.

It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, and I don’t hear anyone singing.

If it’s not over, God hasn’t had His say yet.

And finally:  I didn’t cause this and I can’t fix it either.

 

And if you are wondering: K. lived in Crapville for two years. She ended up getting a job and actually doing quite well at her job…then lost that job and really hustled to get another job so that she could pay her bills.  After two years, she broke it off with the guy she started dating after she kicked L. to the curb and moved home.  K was so much more mature I couldn’t believe it!  She was so helpful around the house and so incredibly calm and wise that I loved having K. live with us.  She learned a lot from those two years in Crapville…and I never could have seen that coming when she first moved out.  Truly, God did use that time to grow and mold K. into a wonderful woman!  She moved in with her sister almost a year ago now and is engaged to be married to a sweet young man.  I did not know God’s path for her and God knew far better than I did what K. needed.

Sometimes a Little Fire Is a Good Thing

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.       Genesis 11:1-9

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs–in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”        Acts 2:1-12

Today’s scripture is a funny balance: Pentecost and the Tower of Babel.

One represents the birth of the Church and the other the defining event that separated the nations from one another.  Both are acts of God.  At least, Scripture represents both of these events as acts of God.

I’m not sure I buy that idea when it comes to the Tower of Babel.

Do you really believe that God looked down on humanity, saw us doing something massive and accomplished, and utterly freaked out?  I have trouble believing that God, who created us in imitation of His very powerful self, would get weird over humanity doing incredibly powerful things.  Especially when you consider that the Tower of Babel was essentially a very tall building, not something like the hydrogen bomb, or unraveling the mystery of DNA, or cloning sheep.  If God is going to get His panties in a bunch over something, I’m guessing that nuclear bombs would have trumped a giant building, hands down. (There is no veiled reference to the presidential candidate there, I promise. No. Really.)  So I’m calling BS on this story in the Bible.  Sometimes you read the scriptures and you realize that the writers cannot possibly be describing God’s action as much as they are trying to explain why things are such a mess here in Humantown—and things are a mess here in Humantown.

Humans have been struggling with division from our inception, and I think that’s because God divided His image into two genders and created us male and female. Having two separate genders in humanity has created so many problems all by itself that I’m pretty certain that God did not expect unity to exist naturally within humanity…ever.  Add in a few more divisions like race, nation, culture, sexuality, and socioeconomic situation…holy smoke!  Trying to squeeze unity out of all that division is a fine task indeed.

Before you get all twisted up about how I’m accusing God of causing all our political and racial problems, let me point out that the same God that created us to be different and experience conflict and division also created us to have moments of clarity, unity, and profound experiences of connection with each other.

Today’s evidence of this is that God created Pentecost.

This is the point is when I would normally blather on about how Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit is a powerful sign that we are empowered disciples of an Almighty God who builds the bridge that helps us cross the barriers that separate us so that we can spread the Gospel.

But that is a post for another day, because today, something else popped out at me.

When I read about Pentecost today, I suddenly focused in on the verses starting at Acts 2:5, where the “Jews from every devout nation under heaven” suddenly start asking how it is that they are hearing the Gospel in their native tongue.

Simulcasting is cool, but it isn’t the point of this passage of scripture.

What I realized is that at that moment, a group of very diverse people were suddenly having the exact same experience at the same time.  A very diverse group of people—a group that probably included women and men, adults and children, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free men—all heard the Gospel at the same time, in their own language, and the scripture says that “all were amazed and perplexed.” (2:7)

Another thing you may not have noticed is that while the disciples were “all together in one place” (2:2) that the diverse crowd of people who witnessed the event were not gathered in any way at all before Pentecost started.  As the tongues of fire appeared and the disciples began to speak, “…there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” (2:5-6)  In other words, the group of observers were going about their own business, totally uninvolved with each other, until the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and then suddenly the people began to draw together, drawn in by the Spirit.

Well, hot dog!  There it is!  Unity in the midst of total diversity, created by the Spirit.

God didn’t create humanity as a unity.  Our very creation makes us divided because we weren’t created like cookie cutter people.  We were created to be divided and to be divisive.  And yet at the very same time, we were created in God’s image, bearers of our own spirits and the spark of His Spirit, and therefore so very succeptible to the movement of the Holy Spirit and its unifying power.

And this is the best news ever.

Today, this news is giving me hope. Lots of hope.

Because I believe that the Holy Spirit will always be more powerful than the details that divide us.  

It gets easy to get lost in the details of our identity and our daily lives, but the Holy Spirit always has the power to sweep us up in experiences far greater than our individual details.  It only takes a moment to remember experiences like the 9/11 tragedy and the Paris bombings, and suddenly you know without a doubt that nation, culture, and race all fall away and we find ourselves in solidarity with victims we cannot know and have never met.

The Holy Spirit will always be more powerful than the details that divide us.

This is the gospel/good news for today.

 

On a personal note: Lord God, as the worldwide United Methodist church meets in Portland, may the spirit of Pentecost come to each and every delegate.  May the flame of your Spirit create understanding and respect where division once existed. May the flame of your Spirit illumine minds and create clarity, so that the Church may follow Your will.  Unite us Lord, for we cannot do it on the strength of our will alone.  Amen.

Them Unicorns

And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.  I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day–and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.         Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

Lately there has been a great deal of us and them rhetoric.  You hear it in the arguments over what restroom transgendered people should use; you also hear it in discussions about illegal immigrants, and sometimes even when we discuss immigrants in general.  Us and them distinctions show up when we talk about terrorists, even though the United States has suffered more from domestic terrorism than we have from foreign terrorism.  Us and them are distinctions that allow us to separate our friends from our enemies, our familiars from the strangers, and our own people from the outsiders.

Maybe I should refine that statement I just made.  Us and them are distinctions that allow us to separate our supposed friends from our supposed enemies, our assumed familiars from the supposed strangers, and the people we are told are our people from the people we are told are outsiders.

Let me give you an example.

I am a trauma therapist, and many of my clients are women who have been sexually abused by men.  Most of them were abused as children, and all of them were abused by family members.  I know that some people are abused by people outside their family and even by strangers, but I have been practicing since 2005 and I have yet to work with a client whose abuser was not a family member.  For many of these women, talking about the abuse is an act of betrayal against their family.  After all, they have spent years keeping silent to protect the public image of their family; others have spent years keeping silent because revealing the abuse to another family member led to repercussions and punishment instead of assistance and rescue from their abuser.  While I do all that I can to help my clients recover from their abuse so that they can live full, joyous lives, many of them find that they continue to have a deep distrust of men, whether those men are family members or not.  These are women whose male relatives—the men in their lives who were supposed to be their protectors while they were children—violated one of our society’s biggest taboos.  Their deep distrust of men can make it difficult for my straight clients to find life partners because they are not willing to expose themselves to the risk of dating.  Many have difficulty identifying men who are ‘safe’—men who will never commit acts of physical or sexual violence against a woman because it is not in their nature.  Some of my clients have trouble believing that there is any such thing as a ‘safe’ man, as if ‘safe’ men were something like unicorns, existing only in stories but not in real life.

Then I tell them about the unicorn that I met several years ago.

My unicorn shared with me about what it means to be a member of the ‘tribe’—the tribe of people who have been sexually abused as children. The tribe has certain ways of being, certain scars that are dead giveaways to the pain and loss they have suffered.  Whenever this unicorn recognizes other members of the tribe it reveals itself and speaks the magic words: “I understand.  I was sexually abused for years.”

Turns out that unicorns are for real.

You see, men get sexually abused as well, and those men…well…they understand what it is to be afraid.  They understand what it is to not be believed when you try to tell the horrible truth.  And they understand what it is to doubt that it is possible to be safe.   They understand that an entire gender can come to feel unsafe and remain that way no matter how much therapy you get.  And men who have been sexually abused know that the fear that the tribe has of their perpetrators is not unreasonable and not unrealistic because they know what it is like to be made into a victim.  They know what it is to fear half the world’s population, and what it is like to be unable to trust men.  Sadly, unicorns know all too well what it is like to be constantly afraid, and some of them fear…

Women.

For years the politics of sexual assault has told us that men are the perpetrators and women are the victims, and statistics will tell you that this is true most of the time.  But ‘most of the time’ is not the same as ‘all of the time’ and nothing is quite that cut and dried or that black and white.  In the end, it is not so easy to separate the world into us and them, to create two groups where one is good and the other bad and then create a worldview that supports that understanding of humanity.

I remember my own moment of us and them, when I found myself baffled because a woman was tried and convicted for her participation in the atrocities against prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison.  I did not want to comprehend that a woman would agree to sexually humiliate male prisoners, that she would agree to abuse them and violate them physically and sexually.  How could she possibly agree to such violence knowing the damage it has done to her sisters in the human race? How could she participate in something so degrading when things like that happen to women all over the world every day?  Most of all, how could she possibly consent to becoming one of THEM??!  I struggled to accept Lyndie Englund’s choices because I could not conceive of the reality that women can be abusers and men can be the victim.  I believed in the us and them dichotomy that makes it so easy to vilify the other side, to hate them with impunity and ease, and to treat them as less than human.

I’m so glad that something challenged and made me abandon my us and them thinking before I met a real, living unicorn because if I hadn’t I might not have believed him when he told me his story.  I might not have been able to help him overcome his trauma so that he could live a sober, productive, joyous life…at least the best life that he can have in the face of all the abuse that he lived through.  Most of all, I would never have had the opportunity to let my other clients know that the world is not so neatly divided into us and them, women and men, victims and abusers.  In the end, the lines are far more blurred and our chances to redeem the entire situation far greater than we realize because unicorns are real and that means that some of them are our our team…and we aren’t alone in this struggle after all.

God never intended for the world to be separated into us and them.  God’s will has always been for unity and healing no matter what side a certain person fell on, and this is evident over and over in the Bible:

Joseph, who saved the Egyptians from famine

Elisha, who healed Naaman the Syrian

Jonah, who saved the people of Ninevah (Assyrians) from destruction

Jesus, who healed the son of a Roman centurion

Jesus, who healed the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman

Jesus, who healed a Samaritan leper

Peter, who preached to many Gentiles

Paul, who preached to many Gentiles

And then there is always Jesus, who died for the sins of an entire world.

There is no us and them.  There is only God’s children and God wants us all to come home, no matter who we are or where we are from or what group we claim allegiance to.

“On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”     Revelations 22:2b

The leaves of the tree are not for the healing of God’s chosen people, or the healing of the faithful, but for the healing of the nations.

That’s all of us.

All.

Amen.