Moving Toward Whole Hearts

This weekend I attended a Wholeheartedness retreat with speaker, author, teacher, & therapist Chuck DeGroat. On Friday night we began our time together with Chuck asking us to consider “scarcity” and also “wholeness.” Yesterday we spent the day considering what wholeheartedness may look like, and asking the question that was ever on Jesus’s lips:

“What do you want?”

We spent time discussing barriers to wholeheartedness and knowing we are known (a concept I and so many in my field—like Brene Brown, Curt Thompson, etc.—have been thinking about a great deal the last few years). Chuck invited us so beautifully into deeper consideration of the necessity of practicing 5 C's that may lead us to greater wholeheartedness: curiosity (toward our hearts and the hearts of others), compassion, connection, contemplation, and communion.

Throughout the weekend, I kept remembering that, as a staff member at a graduate school, I gave a talk on something like this to our counseling students at our fall retreat last year. Following the talk I gave, all 55 of us practiced silence & solitude for the next hour, drawing our thoughts toward who we are innately, simply because we are God’s children, and drawing our thoughts away from the “performance game” (as Chuck called it yesterday) with which we busy ourselves, believing this is what makes us "beloved" and accepted. So...I thought it was appropriate to post this talk given the deeper consideration I was invited to give it this weekend. (On a side note: please forgive the strange formatting; I decided to post it exactly as I wrote and spoke it.)

If you feel moved by this concept and want to know more, please consider reading Chuck DeGroat's new book Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self. Also, as always, feel free to contact me by emailing me at lifeinthewhirlwind@gmail.com

I would also invite you to practice silence & solitude after reading this, even if just for 15-30 minutes. There are a thousand excuses to not practice this, but I would invite you to consider that those excuses are worth ignoring. This is a healing practice that offers time to practice a very different way of being, a way that I have found healing and wholeheartedness-giving in my life.

So come join me, if you will.


We are afflicted with the disease of doing.

How many of you, when you look back over the last week of your life, spent more time in silence and stillness than you did sound and motion? Our culture demands it. The lives we've entered into have begun to demand it. Our coursework demands it. In fact, we're so busy that we usually don't even slow down enough to notice that we're so busy.

Busyness feeds on itself. We speed up, get things done, feel our accomplishments sink into our identity, and get stuck in a cycle where what we do gets confused for what we are. So we start the next thing. Our speed feeds our inner world, however toxic it may be. Speed and accomplishment become how we are known...or so we tell ourselves. We then express anger toward anyone that gets in our way of speed and accomplishment. Think of road rage: yelling at slow drivers when there's no way to pass, because we automatically forget that if we don't get to where we're going exactly when we need to, someone will actually NOT die! We then sometimes find ourselves in a place where this cycle becomes so ritualistic and "normal" that we fail to realize the kind of toxic power we have given performance.

Let me ask you this...

When was the last time you took your time doing something?
When was the last time you strolled somewhere, looking up at the trees, birds, clouds, and sky instead of looking down at the sidewalk with your eyes and inside your head with your mind?
We often don't pay much attention to the things around us––how leaves and acorns crunch under our feet as we walk, how it feels in our noses to breathe in cool air, and how sunshine feels on our skin.

Our minds and our schedules are cluttered with more things to think and do than we have time to think and do them. And yet, how often do we consider what will actually happen if we don't think or do them? Have you ever thought about that? Ever think about what will ACTUALLY happen if you don't read every word of the reading for one of your classes?...

NOISE and MOTION are the gasoline of our culture.

ONE REASON FOR THIS MIGHT BE: FEAR
Fear of what?

Here are a couple of things we might fear...

HAVING TO SEE THINGS WE'D RATHER NOT.

Silence and stillness require us to pay attention to what lies UNDER the noise and motion of our lives.
I invite you to contemplate this: What might make it hard for you to see what's under the busy noise of your life?
I'd imagine some of the difficulty has to do with the scripts and stories about ourselves that start running through our heads--whatever those may be for each of us.

Maybe it's "I'm not enough."
or "Why didn't I get that opportunity?"
or perhaps "I'm obviously not as ________ as that person over there."
Or maybe it's even, "I am so exceptional...why doesn't anyone else see it?"

It's true that by their very nature, STILLNESS and SILENCE bring to the surface the things that we are usually far too uncomfortable to face, let alone accept. 

That brings us to another possible fear...

FEAR OF RELEASING.

What's it like for you to "pull out the chair from under your busy mind and busy life and watch them fall onto God," as one Christian writer, Richard Rohr, calls it? When we invite God into this conversation, this quickly reveals our own personal theology of surrender. It's pretty easy to talk about surrender and instruct our clients how important the practices of release, acceptance, and surrender can be. But we vote with our feet, don't we? Our actions--what we choose to practice ourselves--are the windows to our hearts. We can talk about surrender all day, but in what ways do we truly practice it?

I think we might value "understanding" (the actions of our minds) and "doing" (the actions of our bodies) as much as we do because    they     are     a     lot     easier     than     surrendering     our     wills     and     our     hearts to a process. And a heck of a lot easier than surrendering our loyalties. I have found, however, that the things we find "easier" to do tend to be a lot more costly over time.

What's another reason we may avoid silence & stillness?

Perhaps...

FEAR OF FEELING INADEQUATE. 

I remember this one morning I spent with one of my mentors while I was a student in this program. I remember sharing with her my struggles of feeling like I was "falling short." She said, "Falling short of what, exactly?"

[silence.]

She was quite good at using the skills of silence, I assure you. Then after waiting a while, she said one sentence that I'll never forget:

"Remember, Heather: when it comes to the Kingdom of God, appearances are very deceiving."

She had recently pointed out to me Acts 19, which is a GREAT chapter to read when you believe that NOTHING you're trying to see through is actually happening...
But here's something to consider:
Whenever we are spending most of our energy CLIMBING the ladders of this world (the "success" ladders, the "achievement" ladders, performance-based things like this), we end up missing JESUS, because He is always going DOWN the ladders of this world. When we spend our efforts trying to make a NAME for ourselves in a performance-oriented world, we miss out on the names He--our loving Father--gives us.

CHOSEN.
BELOVED.
PRECIOUS.
ANCHORED.

GOOD.

When we practice silence and stillness,

we are forced to stop DOING being, and commit ourselves to STILLNESS being. We begin to pay closer attention to what and who we are, not what we do.

Still sound scary?

Let me encourage you with this: as you choose to practice this (which we're about to do) and you get past the burning fears, I believe that --just like Jesus when HE practiced silence, stillness, and contemplation-- you will begin to find that you have nothing to prove or protect about yourself in His presence, and that it costs so much less than performing.

Colossians 3 says that your life is now hidden with Christ in God. You've got nothing you have to prove or protect.

Here's what Paul says there...

Colossians 3:1-4 (the Message translation):
If you're serious about living this new resurrected life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don't shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things that this world is concerned with. Look up. Be alert to the things going on around Christ -- this is where the real action is. See things from his perspective.
Your old life is dead now. Your new life --- which is your real life, even though it may be invisible to spectators! --- is with Christ in God. HE is your life. When Christ, your real life, shows up again on this earth, you'll show up, too -- the real you, the glorious you. In the meantime, however -- to get there -- you must be content with obscurity, like Christ was.
"Content with obscurity..."

Anybody feeling comfortable with that?

Who here is thinking, 
"I WANT TO BE OBSCURE!
I WANT ALL THE GREAT THINGS I DO TODAY TO BE HIDDEN FROM THE PEOPLE AROUND ME!
I WANT TO NEVER BE NOTICED EVER!
I DO NOT WANT ANYONE TO TELL ME I DID A GREAT JOB AT MY LIFE TODAY!"

That's what obscurity is: it's getting no attention for doing "the right thing."
And Colossians 3 asks us to be content with obscurity, like Christ was, knowing that your REAL life that you're being born into is invisible to spectators... He asks us to be OKAY with being invisible because Jesus appeared pretty invisible (maybe even irrelevant?) by the world's standards. But let me remind you: appearances are very deceiving.

You know what's obscure? Silence and stillness are obscure.

STOPPING -- stopping the sound and motion of our lives -- means the cessation of all the things in life that gets other people's attention. That gets YOUR attention. And yet in the STOPPING, in the STILLNESS and the SILENCE, this is a place where we are finally able to recognize more fully that we are hidden with Christ in God, that we don't have to spend any energy PROVING and PROTECTING ourselves --- BECAUSE HE SEES US --- AND HE ACCEPTS US. When we stop proving, protecting, and hiding we get the names and inheritance He gives us, which make us more precious than anything in existence.

This morning is about the practice of silent prayer, stillness, and contemplation. Being still in the presence of God, I think, can be like looking for your keys when they're already in your hand. We're so busy looking for God or His attention (maybe with our good deeds our striving AGAINST obscurity) that we don't realize: we already HAVE Him. OR...we're so busy looking for US (or who we think is US) that we miss the fact that who we are is already there...in our hand.

So go receive from God for the next hour. Fall into Him. Stop the motion and listen.

I heard that a visitor once asked Mother Teresa, "What do you do when you pray?"
She said, "I listen to God."
The visitor asked, "What does He say?"
Mother Teresa said, "He listens."

Psychological Hand Sanitizer

I have a habit of––whenever my kids eat food they’ve dropped on the floor––saying, “No Crohn’s disease for you!” In the last decade there have been plenty of studies out there which indicate that young humans who have too clean an environment don’t have very well-trained immune systems and get sick more often. Not eating enough dirt can even lead to autoimmune diseases. The body has nothing to fight, so it starts fighting itself. Also, over-cleanliness kills all the good organisms in our bodies that help keep us healthy. This theory is called the Hygiene Hypothesis.

This whole problem is itself a paradox, no? You douse your kids in hand sanitizer every half hour (or every 30 seconds if you’re on the subway in February) hoping they won’t get sick. It’s well-intentioned. But an immune system that has seen very little action gets bored and too much cleanness can end up actually making kids sick. Like, really sick. Life-long struggle sick. Secondly, an inexperienced immune system is unlikely to have any clue how to fight illness when it does come (and it will). This is a major backfire situation. What was meant for good turns out to be harmful.

For the last few years I have been wondering how this theory may have some psychosocial implications. I’ve been thinking, Maybe there is such a thing as the Mental Hygiene Hypothesis. When humans don’t face struggle and troubling situations because someone (maybe oneself) is trying to protect them, what happens? When trouble comes (and it will), these people have little to no tools in their emotional/mental tool belts. They reach for a memory of “this is what helped me last time I faced this situation” and they turn up empty-handed. They reach for “this is what my parents helped me integrate when I was young when this kind of struggle comes” and they’ve got diddly with a side of squat.

Here’s another analogy that relates to this: When a muscle in your body experiences no resistance, what happens to it? (I think you see where I’m going with this.) It atrophies! It's too weak to use until it is built up.

So here’s a question:
Even when we mean well, is protecting ourselves and others (especially kids) from struggle actually helpful, or is it depriving us and them of opportunities to learn the necessary skills and strengths that can only develop when there is resistance? Is our mental/emotional/spiritual immune system, as it were, left to fight only itself?

Just when I thought I had a grand, original idea that I could share with the world, I received an email from someone with an article attached to it. “I thought you’d enjoy this,” it said. The article was from The Atlantic and it was called, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods” written by Psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb in 2011. (Click the title of the article if you'd like to read it.)

It was a long read, and every sentence was great. As I read it, I started gasping and groaning out-loud. This was my mental hygiene hypothesis!

“Many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment...with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.”

It excited me that someone who’s been practicing (psychotherapy and mothering) longer than I have was thinking near-identical thoughts. This was a truly wonderful article, one of those that you pass along to all your friends and colleagues.

Gottlieb introduced a helpful question I had not yet considered: When thinking about why parents protect their children from emotional pain, we have to ask the hard question of who are they most trying to protect––the child or themselves? For me personally, it is infinitely more painful for me to watch my child climb a massive twisty ladder at the playground than it is for her to climb it. The chance of me experiencing fear while watching her climb: 100%. The chance of her falling off: probably 10% or less.

So is there any solution for this mental hygiene problem? How do we help ourselves and others become resilient, healthy copers? How do we become people who conquer difficult situations instead of running away or avoiding them altogether?

Here are some of my thoughts. And these three points build on each other...

  1. We have to get our hands dirty.
    For instance, with the playground scenario I just listed above, how can I get psychologically “dirty” even when I imagine my kids will get fatally injured (and probably won’t)? I have a friend who says, “Your kids are going to do things that terrify you whether or not you watch, so you might as well close your eyes.” Too true. Instead of letting my anxiety stop my kids from learning how to be proficient climbers (and therefore much safer overall), I need to bite the bullet. The mind bullet, that is. I need to make myself okay with this, do some good self-talk (“She probably won’t fall…”), and then tell her she’s awesome when she gets to the top.
     
  2. We have to let our kids get their hands dirty.
    Doing work on point one makes point two easier. I am obviously not saying we should create scenarios that cause our children pain to "toughen them up." (That's called abuse.) Life naturally offers plenty of difficulty. We don't need to make opportunities for our kids to struggle, we just need to stop stopping them. Here’s an excerpt from Gottlieb’s article that helps us understand this point…
    "Consider a toddler who’s running in the park and trips on a rock, Paul Bohn says. Some parents swoop in immediately, pick up the toddler, and comfort her in that moment of shock, before she even starts crying. But, Bohn explains, this actually prevents her from feeling secure—not just on the playground, but in life. If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life. These toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with an SOS if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves. If, on the other hand, the child trips on the rock, and the parents let her try to reorient for a second before going over to comfort her, the child learns: That was scary for a second, but I’m okay now. If something unpleasant happens, I can get through it. In many cases, Bohn says, the child recovers fine on her own—but parents never learn this, because they’re too busy protecting their kid when she doesn’t need protection.”
    `Nuff said. Still, easier said than done. But important!
     
  3. When we talk about difficult experiences with others, it helps us integrate our ability to overcome them.
    A really helpful book that has taught me about this point is The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel Siegel & Tina Payne Bryson. This book is not just about children it’s about every human, since we are all––as the poet John O’Donohue once said––“ex-babies.” All of our minds have developed certain ways whether we like it or not. This book helps us understand methods for healthy development which leads to greater integration between our thoughts & feelings. That’s just a long way of saying, Talking about our thoughts and feelings when something bad happens to us makes us stronger, healthier people. Despite some people’s belief, a hurting child who is told, “Don’t cry, you’re fine!” or “Get used to it, this is what life feels like” does not, in fact, become stronger. This may be an uncomfortable lesson to learn if you yourself are not familiar with talking about your feelings, but I can tell you from experience it is a very worthwhile one.

Food for further thought: Think honestly about some of the ways you protect yourself and/or others from struggle. In what ways has struggle taught you about your substance/strength and made you the person that you are today? What is one way you can face struggle in a healthier way today?

The Best Four Dollars I Ever Spent (Twice)

On a cold rainy night my sophomore year of college, my roommate was out of town. I decided to be my best introvert-self so I headed to the video store in search of a good story. This particular video store had a bin near the front that was full of old discounted VHS movies they didn't see fit to rent out anymore. This was always my go-to spot, and I went digging.

There were some really terrible movies in that bin, like the kind of movies that are not quite bad enough to fulfill the so-bad-it's-good movie requirements, but bad enough that you wonder who in their right mind would fund its production. But that night the bargain bin had a treasure for me: Good Will Hunting, $4.00. I hadn't seen it before, and it was only a dollar more to buy this copy than to rent it. So I headed out with my new movie in hand.

I don't remember the exact details of what happened inside me after I pressed play, except that some thoughts like these that ran through my head: "Why aren't more people like this Sean Maguire character?" (played by Robin Williams), and "I bet doctoral degrees cost a fortune," and "How on earth did a couple of 20-something-year-olds write this??"

Though I remember those thoughts being fast and fleeting, I remember one thing very clearly: that was the night I decided I wanted to pursue being a counselor.

For lots of reasons too personal to mention here, it took me ten years to get my masters in Professional Counseling, but every job I've ever done since that moment has included some form of walking alongside people in a lot of pain. Arguably, the innate gifts needed to be a counselor lie within a person, but meaningful stories like Good Will Hunting can awaken such gifts in a person and open our eyes to new desires and aspirations. (In my mind, this is one of the purposes of story-telling.)

I remember this film revealing to me some of the differences between popular mental health/person care and quality mental health/person care. This was pretty big considering when the story was written, the mental health field was just beginning to shed its stigmas. The subtle commentary made by this film about the importance of the quality of care may have even helped the field of counseling become what it is today. Who knows.

I also remember this film busting a myth for me. It made me realize therapists don't have special powers, they are not superhuman. Quite the opposite in fact.

One essential quality of a "good" therapist or helper is a clear awareness of one's own strengths & limitations without being more focused on these things than he/she is on the person directly in front of them.

A "good" therapist isn't using the person he is helping to make him feel good about himself or good at his job. When I heard Curt Thompson (a deeply dear and wise helper) speak in Philadelphia last Spring, he invited us to ask ourselves this question: Do you ever unconsciously categorize a therapy session as a “good session" simply because it makes you feel like a good therapist? (Ouch. But also, thank you.) This is a lesson well-taught in Good Will Hunting. The main character, Will, cycles through several "shrinks" before meeting one who cares more about Will than he does about feeling like a good therapist.

Fast forward several years.

Last Monday (quite poignantly, a day before the one year anniversary of Robin Williams's death) I was running errands and came across my old friend, the video bargain bin. I went digging. And before I knew it I had a DVD in my hand and I was headed for the register with a smile that must have made it look like I just heard an inside joke.

Good Will Hunting, $4.00.

How does anyone get this lucky TWICE in a lifetime?!, I asked myself. That night my husband and I watched it, and I realized that I appreciate this film more every time I watch it. I also pondered just how ahead of its time it was. And how ahead of my time it was, and how surprisingly formative it's been in making me the therapist I am today.

I may not have realized this as a sophomore in college, but when I watched this film it may have been the first time I realized (before I even really realized) how much being a good listener and helper requires a total revamping of one's measuring stick for and definition of “success.”

Have you ever stopped to consider what may be happening in moments where there is what we may call deafening silence? At least in the Western world, we seem to be programmed to automatically believe that nothing is happening when there is no sound or motion. It makes people feel awkward and compels them to fill the silence, perhaps believing silence and stillness is a waste of time. I disagree with that, however.

What if, in the midst of silence, an internal something that is far bigger and more important than any external counterpart is occurring?

In the film, Will and Sean (his "shrink") have at least two sessions where literally no words are spoken. Does this have any value or is this a huge waste of time and money? I think we're inclined to say, "This is a waste. No progress is being made." This story, however, gives a very realistic example of the power of silence. These dead-silent sessions end up being crucial moments where the therapist earns Will's trust. The movie never comes out and says this explicitly, but I think when Will’s therapist shows him he can handle the silence, he also shows Will that he can handle a lot of other things that normally make people uncomfortable.

Sean, the therapist, chooses the person over an attempt to have something clear to “show” by the end of session. This builds a bridge between them that leads to actual change instead of just “results.”

Now, I know this is just a story, and one story at that. But it’s a really good story. And I can now say after many years of experience with people, it's actually pretty realistic. If you are a therapist, a social worker, a professor, a helper of any kind, please watch this movie again and again. You will see new things each time. It will open up new hidden things in you, I would bravely bet. And if nothing else, you will get a taste of what good listening looks like.


Food for further thought: If you are in a helping profession, what are some barriers for you as you seek to find balance between empirically-sound care for people and the kind of care that can’t necessarily be measured in an hour? Who helps keep you in balance?

100 Day Project, Here I Come

A few days ago I stumbled upon a Medium post on something fun called the 100 Day Project. It came to me like a beam of light in the darkness--in the midst of my post-Rwanda adjustment period. It comes to me as a gift because of the length of time it requires. 100 days. This is how long the 1994 Rwandan Genocide took place. 1,000,000 lives lost in 100 days.

 a morning view from one of the guest houses at which we stayed last week (Copyright Heather Drew 2015) 

a morning view from one of the guest houses at which we stayed last week (Copyright Heather Drew 2015) 

For two decades now, the mourning period occurs during those same 100 days each year. This period of time is very important for those who survived. It is a time and space for deeper memorializing and feeling, grieving and paying honor.

The 100 days of mourning mean something very different to me. It is perhaps a second degree grief. I mourn with and for those who I love in Rwanda who still remember everything. I consider my friends and colleagues in Rwanda some of the most courageous people in the world.

As I considered what to do for my personal 100 Day Project, I knew I wanted to make it about Rwanda since I am fresh off my most recent trip there. And what better way to process this learning experience I've just had than to take 100 days (so appropriate it's almost palpable) and every day document one brief lesson I have learned from the Land of a Thousand Hills and friends there who serve as my teachers.

 photo courtesty of  The Great Discontent , where I first discovered the 100 Day Project

photo courtesty of The Great Discontent, where I first discovered the 100 Day Project

So without further ado, I bring to you 100 days of "Lessons I've Learned from Rwanda." One lesson per day starting August 1, 2015 (tomorrow) and ending November 9, 2015.

I hope you'll journey and process with me, however that looks. I'll be posting each day's entry/lesson on my Twitter account (@hlhdrew) with the hashtag #100daysofRwanda, then will highlight a few per month here on my blog, maybe ellaborating on them a bit.

If you plan to come with me for this process, thank you. I am grateful for the space to do this in a creative, special way and look forward to sharing it with you.

A Correlation Study (According to Heather): Expectations & Anger

Snow days make me a not-so-great mom. Well, okay. A not-so-great person. I notice that on days where everyone is stuck inside, I am so unhappy with everyone. It’s like I get frustrated about the stupidest, littlest things for which I usually have plenty of patience. I have these sort of out-of-body reactions to it – like I see myself being snappy with everyone and I think, “Who IS that monster?” but can’t seem to stop myself. When I think back afterward about why I got so snappish, I think my frustration has one primary cause: I have certain expectations. I expect on a snow day that everyone will want what I want, will do their own thing quietly while I play my "World Flutes" Spotify playlist on the stereo while the house fills with the smells of soup and baked goods (made by kitchen fairies perhaps?). I expect that no one will fight, no one will complain, that no one will ask me to fix anything or make lunch, and that when I ask someone to pick up the mess on the floor, they’ll say, “Of course, Mommy!”

(Sigh.) Alas, this has never happened in 8 years.

Where else does disappointment (and its aftermath) come from other than disappointed expectations? I expect in my heart and mind for something or someone to be a certain way, then it/he/she isn’t that way. I’m disappointed. Then comes anger, frustration, sadness, loss, etc. The more creative I am about what I expect, the more disappointed I am when the expectation isn’t met. Though expectations (maybe we could even call it hope?) are definitely not wrong, they hold a lot of potential for leading down painful roads.

And what are we supposed to do about these expectations/hopes? In my snow day scenario above, for example: you’d think I would have learned to adjust my expectations and hopes after 8 years. After all, isn’t the recipe for psychosis doing the same thing and expecting something different? You can’t just tell yourself to “STOP WANTING THAT! You’re being stupid!” Expectations are like children in this way; they’re driven by our deepest feelings and desires, and they need to be creatively convinced that something else is better if they’re going to shift from the current path they’re on. They need to be shown. So maybe it’s helpful to “go in through the back door,” as I like to call it. Examine first which desires and feelings these expectations are made of. After all, expectations seem to be the conduit for our desires and feelings, so perhaps they can be satisfied without one particular set of expectations occurring. While we don’t have a lot of immediate control over changing our expectations, we do have control over what is influencing them.

From where do our expectations come?

I think expectations mostly come from whatever we are steeping our minds in at the time. Maybe this is partially why they can change. If I’m watching a really emotional, relationship-driven TV series on DVD, taking in 3-4 episodes per day (I, of course, have NEVER done this................), I’m steeping my mind in conflict that often gets resolved in unrealistic ways. My mind and emotions are steeped in all-or-nothing, dramatic reactions because this is what shows like this offer us. If I’m watching this TV series for a few hours a day, I begin to have expectations that this is the way the world works, and the best way to respond to a relational problem is to give a big speech and then storm out the door for effect. People always come running when you do that...right?

Or if I’m reading a book with epic themes, deep meaning-filled relationships, and intense battles, it will probably activate some epic part of my personality that makes doing my kids’ laundry feel like a prison sentence (more acutely than it already does). I may grow bitter and cold as I fold those little socks and t-shirts because THIS IS NOT WHAT LIFE IS SUPPOSED TO BE ABOUT! I’m supposed to be part of something bigger! I’m supposed to be saving lives and carrying the Ring to Mordor, for goodness sake! Why do these little hobbit-like creatures keep asking me to make them breakfast?!

In contrast, however, if I steep myself in a less “sexy” scenario, a narrative which tells me that accomplishing justice and loving people is more like standing in line at the DMV for 8 hours to accomplish what feels like very little, I begin having very different expectations. I begin realizing that while I will never get an adrenaline rush from doing laundry, I can almost train my deepest self to find a weirdly deep satisfaction and joy in knowing it just needs to be done and this is an invisible, thankless way of loving my children, and that’s okay. And it’s not just okay, it’s even good.

A long time ago, a very controversial guy handed over this reality to us in word pictures. He told people their normal ways of doing things was accomplishing the opposite of what they thought. He told them to love their enemies, put down their weapons (which was often their own tongues), and do some things that were counter-intuitive. Ever since Jesus introduced a different type of reality to us humans, in a very real way, folding socks, writing clinical progress notes, and cleaning off my neighbor’s snowy car IS carrying the Ring to Mordor. In this reality that He revealed through His life, He proved that appearances are very deceiving. The reason this changes us is because it steeps us in the truth that love, hope, patience, and joy really have little or nothing to do with our feelings.

Feelings are INCREDIBLY important (this coming from a 99% “Feeler” on the Myers-Briggs). Without feelings, we wouldn’t be capable of empathy, compassion, and grief, among many other things God calls healthy & important. But when it comes down to the dirty-work of life (love, hope, patience, joy), feelings aren’t to be trusted above the knowledge that something else – something almost invisible – is going on that is way more important.

As always, I need to insert the caveat here that I do NOT under any circumstances support someone staying in an abusive situation because they believe that this is their calling or their “labor of love.” Abuse is not a labor of love. Jesus never said that. Abuse is evil and no one deserves it. You’re made in the image of God and you are loved and made wonderfully.

But just consider this: What do you steep your mind/heart in most often, and how might it be forming your expectations? Do you find yourself more disappointed than you do grateful? Which expectations might those disappointments be rooted in?

Another crucial note: Don’t judge yourself while you’re thinking about this, just observe what's happening. This is a very humbling concept for even those who appear most "together," I assure you. Though we will never “arrive” in this or any other area of life, it’s important that we face and observe these deeper things watchfully so we can live with our eyes wide open – live on purpose, not passively. By doing this we have a shot at battling how much power our expectations control our lives without our permission. I encourage you to talk to a safe friend or loved one about disappointments you face and about how the things in which you steep your mind and heart may be affecting you on a deeper level. I hope you find some freedom in sharing this, and move toward a path of finding joy even in folding socks and shoveling snow.

More Yoga, Less Spinning

This isn’t the first time some of you have heard me say this phrase, and it certainly won’t be the last! I have sort of a mantra for 2015: More Yoga, Less Spinning. I have to give credit for this phrase to my dear friend, Kelly Martin, who coined it while we shared with each other our intentions for this year.

Picture it. Have you ever been part of or peeked into a spinning class at the gym? In my opinion, it is the definition of intense. It’s like marine bootcamp on stationary bicycles. You hardly stop the whole class. You’re spinning from the beginning until the bitter end. And then the next day you pretty much immediately become a puddle on the floor when you try to step out of bed. I’m not saying spinning is all bad. I have a lot of respect for it – for those who choose to take part in it. But I feel like in many ways what I’ve been doing most of my life is spinning (metaphorically speaking). I am really good at pushing myself, not letting myself rest, feeling the burn, as it were. I haven’t been very good at resting, closing my eyes, and breathing.

In 2013, something in me changed and it’s really grown over the last year. As a mental health counselor, I began hearing clients & colleagues tell me personal stories of how mindfulness and intentionality had given them a significantly different perspective on life, and in turn markedly decreased their anxiety and mental & emotional pain. The proof was in the pudding. I didn’t love it first then saw it prove its worth, I saw its obvious worth and I grew to love it.

I’ve committed to doing a lot of yoga in the last several months. I have a teacher who I admire, respect, and adore. Yoga is–among many things–about being intentional. Every move you make is on purpose. You’re listening, smelling, thinking, realizing, observing the entire time. You move slowly and carefully. My favorite phrase my teacher Jake uses (especially after a challenging pose) is, “Let it go and feel what you feel.” That phrase is how I might sum up yoga and sum up the importance of mindfulness – and it’s the complete opposite of what I always thought “letting go” meant.

I grew up with the belief (for reasons I still don’t fully know) that “letting go” meant you have to shut out what happened to you, ignore its impact on your whole self, pretend that something didn't change you when it obviously did. This is (thankfully) completely untrue, so I've learned. It is a too-common belief that it’s impossible to hold two opposing truths together in the same space at the same time, but I’m here to tell you that just isn’t true. Something incredibly painful can happen to you, you can feel it cut you to your core and be speak very realistically about that experience...AND you can release it (after due process) so that you are empowered over it, not the other way around. One crucial step to this kind of release (however paradoxical it may seem) is to acknowledge and say out-loud/write, “This is how these experiences and people impacted me, made me who I am. This is how deeply I felt them and still feel them, how much they hurt me and heal me.” And release comes when you realize that saying those things out-loud somehow frees you into a place where you no longer need to control the outcome of things, that you are bigger than the experiences you’ve had, and that for better or worse, they are all quite important. And part of their importance is that in spite of them – maybe even BECAUSE of them! – you go on living, breathing in and breathing out.

Just tonight during my class’s Savasana (rest pose, complete stillness & release – one’s reward at the end of a yoga practice) I was visualizing two roads. I was thinking, “I wish I could see how two separate paths differ and how they will impact me before I make a choice about which one I will take.” As I thought about that and visualized it, I clearly saw that walking down one road necessitates releasing the other – that choosing one automatically means I can never know what happens on the other road, because choosing one means the second can never be. For so long I believed it impossible to choose one road and release the other. But now I see that this is absolutely the way it is. And that it's okay to not have both.

Making choices without knowing how it’s going to turn out and growing toward acceptance of things in our past are two of our most difficult yet important human jobs. No matter which paths we choose, there will be innumerable things we will get to experience that we have never heard, seen, smelled, or tasted before, and we have the privilege of experiencing them and absorbing them. And we get to enjoy these things without the pain of fruitlessly struggling for things we can never grasp or have. It's okay to feel sad or grieved about that. It's okay to also feel joy about what we chose. We are blessed to be allowed the freedom to both let it go and feel what we feel.

So whether or not you’re into “new years resolutions,” toward what are you more naturally bent: spinning or yoga? Do you like this about your life, about yourself? What are the barriers around intentional stillness in your life? What are the things in your story that you feel most fearful of releasing? Why?

Who Will Hear the Cries?

I vividly remember a day in early high school one English class in which we discussed what the opposite of love is. We all fell right into our teacher’s scheme–we chuckled knowingly because we infinitely-wise-high-schoolers knew it was OBVIOUSLY “hatred.” He said okay, then asked us to list all the qualities of hatred. We came up with descriptors like “passionate,” “powerful,” “distracting,” “consuming,” “blinding.” It was a pretty thorough list of adjectives. When we were done our list he said, “What does this list describe?” I felt confused. Hatred, obviously. (Didn’t this man have his masters degree?) Again, scheme-fallen, we didn’t understand what he was asking. He erased the title of the list–”HATRED”–and instead wrote “LOVE” at the top. He turned to us and said, “Do any of the words on this list not also describe love?” Silence.

“So if love and hatred fall on similar sides of the spectrum, what’s on the other side of love and hate?” This conversation and the wise lessons that followed mark the first time in my life that I remember understanding the meaning of indifference. (A deeply appreciative shout-out to Mr Jim Favino, by the way – a man who changed my life in countless ways, indeed, and will always be too humble to take credit for it.)

This lesson in indifference was Mr Favino’s introduction to the book Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. This book remains one of my all-time favorites. It is a poignant, insightful, and challenging book telling just one of many stories of a South Africa rifted by its escalation into apartheid. At the very least, it’s a story about the dialectical experience of accepting what is, yet ever-longing for what should be. As the book deals with this dilemma, it also remains honest about the power of both fear and indifference, which shows up in one famous quote from the book:

Cry, the beloved country, for the unborn child that is the inheritor of our fear. Let him not love the earth too deeply. Let him not laugh too gladly when the water runs through his fingers, nor stand too silent when the setting sun makes red the veld with fire. Let him not be too moved when the birds of his land are singing, nor give too much of his heart to a mountain or a valley. For fear will rob him of all if he gives too much.

Prejudice of any kind is fueled by tumult and discord. It also perpetuates tumult and discord. It is passionate, powerful, distracting, consuming, it is blinding – the list our English class made. The two grand jury verdicts we have heard in the past month in America are fiercely troubling because of this. While I don’t claim to have a solution to racism or prejudice, I have experienced that one antidote for prejudice and injustice is to actively choose to listen well to the cries of those who suffer.

A Christian reporter called Jonathan Merritt wrote a piece yesterday on the power of listening to one another called “It’s high time white Christians listen to our Black brothers and sisters” (click the title link if you'd like to read it). Not only was it a chilling read (ultimately, in a good way), it inspired this very blog entry! He talks about how his own sense of urgency to speak out against injustices has been recently converted to a sense of urgency to listen instead. Merritt shares how the Eric Garner verdict has solidified this shift in him. He says:

In one sense, I don’t have to speak in such a moment because Garner has already said enough. His final pleas fell on the deaf ears of those who claimed to be his protectors: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

This part of Garner’s story makes it a crystal-clear picture of injustice: he cried out and those who had the power to help did nothing. Doing nothing just isn't an actual option, however, if anything is ever going to change.

Ann Voskamp visited Rwanda around the same time I did last summer. She visisted the Genocide Memorial while in Rwanda, and on her way home happened to also visit the Anne Frank Annex in Amsterdam. In her blog about this poignant juxtaposition, she addresses this "do nothing" tendency so well I almost melted:

Whenever we demonize and dehumanize anybody, we can legitimize anything. And whenever we want to break the bonds of prejudice and injustice and indifference, we begin by breaking a loaf of bread together.... History could stop repeating itself — because we could realize neutrality is a myth and the notion of a non-response is a universal scam. [There is no such thing as] non-response. We’re either responding with indifference or with intercession, either with apathy or aid, either with coldness or care. You can’t turn from the face of suffering and just plead the fifth amendment. Your life is always your answer.

Indifference. That thing that I first began to really understand when I was 15 years old in English class. That passive non-response that is the opposite of both love and hate.

Between what I learned (and am still learning) from Cry, the Beloved Country, Jonathan Merritt’s article (including the incredible Dr John Perkins’s thoughts in that article), Ann Voskamp's blog, and my own personal observations of soul-rattling injustice as a trauma counselor, I’ve learned that indifference is not a workable option. Crying out is a workable option. Listening to the cries of others is a workable option. Indifference just isn’t. It keeps things exactly how they are or makes them worse.

Honestly, this is what astounds me about Jesus. One of the first things I learned on my road to becoming a trauma counselor is that what the world typically calls “unspeakable” must be spoken (credit: Judith Herman). One name for Jesus is “the Word of God” (John 1). Jesus is God’s palpable response to the “unspeakable” fracturedness of injustice, His active response in a non-response world. This is why the season of Advent is so nurturing to me–we waited (and still wait) with deep anticipation for God’s response to injustice. And we didn’t and don’t wait in vain. He delivers.

When we think there’s no word, He sends His Word. When we think He doesn’t hear, He gives proof He’s been listening. This is His work, His way. When racial injustice is happening, it’s not happening because He isn’t listening. It’s happening and He’s listening. And so should we. As Richard Rohr says in my very favorite Advent book, “Suffering and solidarity with the suffering of others has an immense capacity to ‘make room’ inside of us. It is probably our primary spiritual teacher.”

So. What can you and I do in times of great injustice, in times when we are tempted by indifference and/or fear? Is there one person whose cry you can listen to today? What fears present themselves inside you when you think about listening to the cries of others? What will happen when you listen? What has happened in you when others listened to your cries?