Happiness is Not Found Within, It’s Found Holistically

img-guru-homeHelen Keller once said, “External conditions are the accidents of life, its outer trappings.  Success and happiness lie within you.”  I want to explore that idea a little more deeply because I think it can get misunderstood when taken to its extreme.  Helen Keller was a woman who couldn’t see, hear, and speak.  She was “lost within herself” and cut off from the rest of the world.  However, her teacher, Anne Sullivan was able to find a way to enter into Helen’s locked internal world and open the door for her to experience life more fully.  Simply being locked within our own soul doesn’t provide us with happiness.  If we take Helen’s quote too literally we might believe the happiest life is one in which we withdraw into ourselves and ignore what’s outside of us.  That type of thinking reminds me of tales of Eastern gurus who escape life, live on a mountain, meditate continually, and take very little food and nourishment throughout the day.  These are people who ignore the external world and only focus on the internal experiences that deep contemplation and meditation provide.  This is not happiness, this is escapism.  Happiness is derived from an engaged social life where we experience the full range of our emotions and risk our very souls in pursuit of love.  We were created to give and receive love meaning we were created to give ourselves to another and in faith believe the “other” will receive us with care, concern, and affection.  Likewise we receive others who in their vulnerability trust us with their very soul as well.  So we don’t want to fall into the trap of spiritual escapism and misunderstand it as spiritual bliss.

A truly happy person does a number of things.  First, they live healthy lives getting enough physical exercise, eating healthy, and moving, stretching, and using their bodies as they were designed to be used.  More and more studies connect feelings of peace, well-being, and the ability to flourish to having a healthy lifestyle.  We don’t escape from our bodies, we learn to use them as they were intended to be used in service to God.  Another thing happy people do is engage their minds in learning, exploring, and searching for insight and ideas about the world.  Human beings are naturally curious creatures and if we direct that curiosity at what is good, beautiful, and true, we are happier.  Again, studies show older men and women who continues to learn new things, engage in puzzles and challenging reading, all have a healthier and happier mental life.  Another way to be happy is to be emotionally balanced.  By allowing yourself to feel the full range of human emotion and respecting it in other people you’re able to see how emotions are a key element to living and experiencing life.  In particular, we must learn to love well.  So many psychologists and spiritual masters remind us we become what we love and when we love well and properly we flourish.  Happiness depends on knowing and expressing your emotions.  Happiness is also about being a relational person.  One of the biggest fallacies about being a spiritually mature person is you’ve evolved to a point where you need no one in your life and you are the sole source of grace and wisdom for other people.  The implication is a spiritually mature person doesn’t need other people to counsel him or her, he or she is the source of counsel.  People were created to give and receive love which means they were created to be in relationship with God and one another.  One of the greatest sources of unhappiness I’ve ever encountered is when clients come to me and say these two words,”I’m lonely.”  We cannot simply withdraw into ourselves, we need relationships with other people.

So if being a happy mature person requires you to be physically well, mentally acute, emotionally stable, and involved in loving healthy relationships, where does spirituality come in?  In the end, we can never ignore that along with all these other aspects of being human we are spiritual creatures.  We seek transcendent values and experiences.  We long for a connection with the divine, love that extends into eternity, and connectedness with something greater than ourselves.  However, we are not MERELY spiritual so without the other aspects of being human the spiritual would become ungrounded and irrelevant.  It’s because I have a body and I’m incarnational that I find spiritual pleasure in creation.  It’s because I have a mind and emotions I weep at the insights I encounter by thinking about heavenly things.  We don’t find success and happiness ONLY inside ourselves we find it through experiencing what’s outside ourselves and processing it within our spirit.

The wisdom in Helen Keller’s quote is not in the assertion we find happiness in ourselves it’s the fact we have the ability to make choices that bring us happiness regardless of our life situations.  We cannot always control our health, living conditions, or social status.  These are as Helen states, “accidents” we must deal with in some way.  However, we do look within to transform what’s outside.  A well formed soul choosing love, gratitude, kindness, virtue, and peace can take the most horrific conditions and find grace filled moments that lift the human condition to moments of eternal insight.  Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps discovered that within these horrid conditions it was the men and women who could find meaning and purpose every day they suffered that survived.  Those who allowed the outside conditions to control them died.

It’s my hope the spiritual life you practice is one drawing on all you are; body, mind, emotions, relationships, and of course your spiritual self to engage the world around you.  Yes, the conditions themselves are not what give you peace, happiness, and success, it’s the fact as a transcendent incarnational creature you’re able to bring heavenly things into earthly experiences.  It’s because you do have choices on how to react and process your external conditions that happiness is as Helen notes, “within” you and not outside of you.  Never forget a key element of living the spiritual life is allowing who you are to inform what you choose.  That is the key to happiness.

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How Do I Know I’m Dating the Right Person?

dating

When you work in ministry, psychology, and teach at the university level, you get asked some interesting questions.  One of these interesting questions I’m often asked is, “Do you think I’m dating the right person?”  People want some assurance they’re not wasting their time with someone who in the end will just not be right for them.  That’s quite a question to be asked and I’m humbled people think I can provide a wise answer.  While I’m certainly not in the matchmaking business, I’ve studied a great deal about human behavior so I can provide some basics to guide the continued assessment of a suitor’s eligibility.  Psychology has a great deal to say about why people come together and why some stay together, but there’s no guarantee what I tell anyone provides 100% assurance everything will work out.  That’s why getting married requires faith!  It’s trusting oneself to the other and hoping God will give each of you the grace to maintain the relationship in a healthy loving way.  Having said all of that, let me share some thoughts on what may help you know the person you’re with is right for you.

My first piece of advice is ask yourself this simple question: “Is the person I’m interested in a loving person.”  Before you answer appreciate the fact this question is complex because along with asking if your significant other is a loving person you have to know how he or she  communicates love as well.  If your partner communicates love in a way you don’t understand, he or she may be loving but you’re just not picking up on it.  I wrote about how to be a more loving person on my blog here so it might be good to read it and ask yourself whether or not the person you’re thinking about spending your life with exhibits these characteristics.  Ask yourself if he or she empathizes with you when things are tough, gives you the benefit of the doubt when you do things he or she doesn’t understand or disagrees with.  Is your partner a forgiving person, someone invested in your life and the lives of other people, and finally does he or she encourage and challenge you to be a better person.  You know you’re loved when you feel supported, that your success matters to the one you’re in a relationship with, and that you matter as well.  You may be in a relationship with someone who displays all of these characteristic but you might not know it simply because they haven’t communicated it in a way you understand.  Get to know how your partner communicates these things and invest in understanding their language of love.  Likewise, teach them to understand yours.  In the end, if the two of you cannot communicate love to one another just being a loving person is not enough.  You have to be able to communicate love and sometimes even good intended people can’t do that.  It’s important you marry someone who is loving and communicates love to you in a way you understand.

The next thing to ask yourself about your relationship is how well you fight with one another.  I know, I’m asking you to think about something negative and you want to focus on the positives.  The truth is you’re probably going to fight with someone you marry for the rest of your life.  The fact you fight is a sign you’re invested in one another, and that’s a very good thing to be!  The key is learning to fight in a way that’s productive and not destructive.  John Gottman is a well known social scientist who did a great deal of work studying why some marriages last and others fall apart.  He can predict with 90% accuracy whether or not a couple will divorce just by watching them interact with one another  One thing he believes very important for keeping a couple together is how well they fight.  He suggests couples avoid the following when arguing or fighting:

  • Making excuses for the problem and being defensive.
  • Placing responsibility on the partner to make things better instead of thinking about how you can contribute to the solution.
  • Trying to read the other person’s mind and attributing blameworthy thoughts to him or her.
  • Being stubborn and contemptuous toward one another.
  • Being a whiner and complainer.

Healthy fighting is key for solving problems, learning to compromise, and releasing anger and frustration instead of letting it build up.  Couples need to discover how to fight and each couple does so differently.  The key is to do so in a helpful way that gets the problem resolved and doesn’t perpetuate the issue.  Another aspect of Dr. Gottman’s research is his finding that successful couples have more positive interactions with one another than negative.  He found couples need to have five times as many positive interactions than negative interactions.  This 5:1 ratio keeps couples moving forward and stops them from having only negative encounters with one another.  So, as you think about whether or not you’re with the right person ask yourself how well the two of you fight and whether or not you have more positive experiences together than negatives.  Fighting is important but so is making up!

A third thing to think about is whether or not the two of you share what I call “Transcendent Values.”.  Do you both value things that transcend merely surviving every day together?  So many couples fight over money, sex, in-laws, and kids, but it’s usually not these things in and of themselves that matter, it’s the transcendent values behind them.  Sex isn’t usually about simply feeling good biologically (Although for some it might be), usually it’s one way people show love.  A couple may value deep companionate love but one of them shows it primarily by being available to the other for counsel, working on the house together, and just sharing a meal at a restaurant, while the other primarily feels loved when they’re sexually intimate.  The problem isn’t sex (although it might be something you need to communicate about with your partner) it’s the fact you’ve not identified the common transcendent value of companionate love and friendship to one another nor have you discussed how to express and live out that value as a couple.  What do you value?  What does your future spouse value?  Do you value religion, friendship, security, adventure, romance, community service, or something else at the core of who you are?  Does the person you want to spend the rest of your life with value these things as well or at least support you in pursuing these values?  It’s very important to identify what these are and see how your significant other resonates with them.  Transcendent values are very spiritual and often make up the core of who you are and what drives you.

The next thing to consider is whether or not the relationship takes priority over personal ambitions.  While each of you has to have your own identity to maintain a healthy relationship there’s also a point each of you has to equally sacrifice what you want so the relationship can thrive.  The key word is “equally.”  That equity is negotiated by the couple and not something anyone outside the relationship can describe.  An analogy I use in marriage counseling is that a couple needs to think of their marriage as if it were a small garden planted in the backyard.  One person has potting soil and fertilizer the other has a watering hose and other elements required for growing the variety of fruits and vegetables planted in the garden.  Each must share the resources in their possession to make the garden flourish.  If they don’t, they may have an abundance of these resources but they’ll never have a garden to enjoy.  While each of you has your own gifts, talents, and interests, if all you do is spend time refining these and partaking in your own activities you’ll never have the benefit of a loving relationship.  You have to make the relationship a priority over your own personal ambitions.  That doesn’t mean you can’t do the things you like or pursue certain career goals, it just means you have to have balance and consideration for the other person in the relationship.  I once heard someone say “You can have it all, just not all at once” and I think there’s a great deal of wisdom to be garnered from that statement.

My last piece of advice is trust your intuition while using your head.  Too often people say, “If you want to know if you’re with the right guy, make a list and write down the positives and negatives about him.  If the positives outweigh the negatives then go for it!”  Ummmm not really.  The problem with this advice is it assumes human beings are driven purely by their rational minds.  Well, that’s just not true.  We’re driven by a number of things besides reason.  Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist demonstrated over and over again in his research it’s our passions and loves that drive us, not our minds.  We simply use our minds to come up with reasons to explain what we already intuitively know.  It doesn’t mean our minds are useless, it just means we tend to have an intuitive sense about something first and then we think about that intuition later.  So, it’s important to develop your intuitive sense about things and trust it.  You develop intuition by intentionally learning to love and develop good relationships first and let what you know and identify in them become second nature for you.  Look at the people in your life who you believe have a good relationship.  How do they love one another?  Is that something you want?  What can you do or who can you become to love and be loved in that way?  This is why it’s so important you spend time knowing yourself before you invest yourself in another person.  This will develop your intuitive sense of what a good relationship is like and then you can allow it to guide your attraction.  Let’s face it, if there’s no intuitive attraction no matter how well these other things work, you still won’t want to be with that individual.  The romantic spark at first becomes a burning fire, but even after the fire burns away, there’s something keeping you drawn toward the person you love.  That other thing is the intuitive attraction you have for them because of how they love you back.

 
So while these aren’t bulletproof ways to insure you’ll have a lasting relationship they are important things to consider when deciding if you’ve found “The one.”  Above everything else ask yourself this simple question, “Is this someone I can love even when things are tough?   Is this someone who will love me during those tough times as well.”  When the right two people come together they’re better individual’s than when they were apart.  I ‘ve always said I’m the man I am because of the woman I married.  If there’s anything good in me it’s because the woman in my life took the raw material I gave her and made it something special.  You can find the right person, just be patient and think about these five things I have shared with you today.  Who knows, maybe you’ve been with the right person all along and just never took the time to appreciate it!

Five Things You Can Do to be A More Loving Person

helping

Do you think you can be a more loving person?  Do you think you can walk through a day demonstrating love and acceptance rather than indifference and contempt?  I hope so, and I think if we’re intentional about living life as a more loving human being we can make a huge difference in people’s lives, including our own.  We should want to be loving people because after all, that’s what we’re created to do.  We were made to give and receive love.  A study I read many years ago claimed when a person dies there are really only two questions they ask.  First, did I love the people in my life enough.  Was I a loving person.  Secondly, was I loved.  Did people find me lovable.  Certainly these questions are with us our whole lives as well, and therefore we want to explore what loving and being loved involves.  From the time we’re born we evaluate how our primary caregiver interacts with us.  Attachment theory is based on this very idea and is a well respected approach to understanding human connection and love.  Basically, if we feel cared for and attended to we feel loved.  If not, we become anxious or ambivalent about  how others treat us.  How we’re loved is exceptionally important and I would argue so is how we love others.

I believe there are five things we can begin to practice to help us become more loving people.  Sure, these five things aren’t the ONLY things one can do to become a more loving person, but they’ll help you become more intentional in developing a loving disposition.  These things may feel awkward at first but I promise they’ll transform who you are and the relationships you have if you just make an effort to practice them more and more each day.

  • Practice Empathy – Empathy is our ability to feel and experience another person’s emotional and contextual situation.  We’re all empathic to some degree.  For example, if you’re watching television and they’re demonstrating how eye surgery is done you probably squirm and cringe as you watch the needle get closer and closer to the patient’s eye.  Or maybe you just watched a guy hit his thumb with a hammer. Most of us react with that gut feeling screaming, “Ouch!”  We’re wired for empathy.  We have these things called mirror neurons that create a sense of what’s happening to someone else within our own neurological experience.  This basic biological experience can expand and develop your brain’s empathic system just like learning a musical instrument develops deeper neural patterns.  The key is to practice understanding how other people feel and experience the world around them. Love requires us to be invested in other people and one of the most basic things you can do is develop a level of empathy which when it matures can become compassion.  Compassion is a great word.  Its latin root means to “suffer with.”  When you have compassion for another person you don’t only feel what they feel, you’re willing to suffer what they suffer.  Practice empathy and become a more compassionate human being.  That’s the root of being a more loving person.
  • Avoid Snap Judgements -Let’s say you’re driving down the road and someone cuts you off.  Your first reaction is to scream some expletive at the driver as he or she drives past.  You immediately believe the driver did something rude just to tick you off.  However, what you didn’t know is in the back seat of the speeding car was a child passed out from having seizures and the driver needed to get his or her child to the hospital as quickly as possible. Social psychologists call this quick attribution of negative intentions the fundamental attribution error.  In everyday life we call this the unwillingness to give people the benefit of the doubt.  We immediately believe people do things we judge inappropriate because they’re ignorant, being stupid, or careless.  Yet, we always give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.  If we want to be more loving we need to avoid making snap judgements and work a little harder at giving people the benefit of the doubt.  I know what you’re thinking.  You’re saying to yourself, “Isn’t that just making excuses for people?” Sometimes it is, but other times you’re extending an act of kindness that develops into love for others.  You’re better off erring on the side of love than harboring anger and indifference toward other people.
  • Practice Forgiveness – Forgiveness is a complex topic we could talk about forever. While I can’t go into any great detail about its specifics because of the brevity of this article, it’s really important we become forgiving people for many reasons.  Forgiveness is difficult to exercise because our minds are wired to alarm us when equity and justice are ignored, particularly when we haven’t been treated fairly.  If we’re hurt we need recompense for being hurt.  We don’t like letting someone off the hook for something they did to us, they owe us something and it’s only right and just we get it.  Trust me, I’ve worked with many clients struggling to forgive people who’ve hurt them.  However, the more forgiving we can be the more we can love.  We don’t have the emotional room to harbor feelings of anger and love.  One can easily squeeze the other right out of your emotional world.  Anger is enslavement to the person who hurt you so when you can forgive them you recapture your freedom.  Yes, there’s a time to be angry, it’s a good emotion and has its place when you’ve been treated unjustly, but when it becomes the bedrock of your emotional world you need to do something about it.  Anger should be a transitional experience released over time.  Love must be a permanent intentional dispositional emotion carried within you constantly.  By becoming a forgiving person you make room to fill your emotional self with love.  Learn to be a forgiving person.
  • Choose to be Invested in Others – Love means telling other people both verbally and non verbally “You matter, I’m interested in your life, and I care about what’s happening to you.” Some people think hate is the complete opposite of love but I believe it’s indifference.  Showing people you care is showing them love.  Being invested in other people means honestly listening to them, being fully present to them, and choosing to share your life with them even when it’s difficult.  Carl Rogers, a famous therapist called this unconditional positive regard.  He believed it was essential clients felt they were being heard and the therapist was invested in their well-being.  It’s a non-judgmental approach to being with others.  Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “If you judge people you have no time to love them.”  Her point is when we’re invested and care about people we find ways to show them they’re loved.  If you want to be more loving find people you can invest in and help them flourish.
  • Be an Encourager and a Coach – Loving people means making sure their successes, regardless of how small they may be, are celebrated.  People need to see others care about their success and feel encouraged to continue in that path.  Basic behavioral psychology demonstrates when behavior is rewarded we continue in that behavior.  We want to encourage what others do well and help them do it better.  That’s where being a coach makes a difference.  You need to be more than a cheerleader, you have to want them to do better.  Sometimes that means critiquing what they’re doing.  When you have a good relationship with someone and they feel you care they’ll allow you to tell them what they need to improve.  We critique behaviors not people; we love people so make sure you discuss what behaviors need improved and how to improve them.  I do this all the time as a counselor.  The reason people accept critique from me is because they know I’m critiquing what they do to help them achieve their goals.  There’s a saying I use when I teach counseling skills courses or do workshops for ministers regarding pastoral counseling that states, “You can critique and challenge someone only as well as you have supported them.”  If you really want to love someone you must be an encourager and a coach helping them become the best person they can be.

If you can practice empathy until it becomes compassion, avoid being judgmental and give people the benefit of the doubt, become a forgiving person, choose to invest yourself in people, and care enough to encourage and critique those you’ve developed a relationship with, you’re showing love.  Sure, it’s not that “fluffy” love you see in movies or television shows nor is it that romantic love you read about in trashy novels.  Rather, it’s what I call real practical love that says to the people in your life, “You matter, I care, and I am here for you.”  Start practicing these five things today.  I assure you it will make the lives of those you meet better, but ultimately, it will also make you a better healthier person as well.

How to Improve Your Mental Health

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

Scanning of a human brain by X-rays

What can you do every day to maintain good mental health?  Are there exercises or practices you can adopt to be sure you’re in great mental shape?  Actually, there are a number of things you can do, but let’s start by discussing what we mean by mental health!

To define anything well, you need to describe it in concrete terms.   The term mental health is no exception.  I’m a firm believer it’s difficult to separate mental health, physical health, relationship health, etc. from one another, but for the purposes of the article we can say a mentally healthy person exercises solid cognitive functions as well as solid emotional expression.  That means if you’re going to do something on a daily basis to maintain mental health you need to focus on habits that keep your cognitive abilities at their maximum and facilitate positive emotional experiences throughout life’s ups and downs.  Here are some suggestions based on my work as a psychotherapist and pastoral minister:

Cognitive exercises:

  • Maintain a daily exercise program – Physical exercise keeps blood flowing to your brain allowing it to work at its optimal performance level.  In particular, cognition requires the use of memory and physical exercise keeps blood flowing to the hippocampus, an essential physical component of the memory process.  To keep that system working well be sure you exercise everyday.
  • Learn something new everyday – By reading challenging material or watching educational programs you’re constantly stimulating your cognitive abilities.  A number of daily activities you can engage in to create a regiment of active learning includes starting a new hobby, working on puzzles like sudoku or other tests of mental acuity, learning a new language, visiting historical sites and museums, or if you’re really ambitious, become a student.  The key is to engage in daily activities that create an “aha” moment for you because these experiences continue to develop your brain and challenge your mind.  If you start any of these activities make sure every day you’re learning something new and stretching your current knowledge base as far as you can.  Don’t get comfortable with what you know, always explore what you don’t know and learn something new everyday.
  • Reduce stress in natural ways – Start some form of a daily contemplative practice.  I practice an ancient Christian form of prayer called lexio divina.  That works for me but might not work for you so find something you can do every day.  Other things that naturally reduce stress might include taking long walks, a soothing bath every night, or listening to your favorite type of music.  You need to find natural ways to reduce stress in your life.   Don’t rely on medication because medication only address the symptoms of stress not the core stressful condition.  Engaging in natural stress reducing activities lowers the amount of cortisol in your system.  Cortisol is a stress hormone which keeps the body running at a maximum fight or flight capacity and negatively impacts your ability to think well.  You want to avoid medication because the side effects keep you from thinking well and interrupt your cognitive strengths.  Do your best to engage in daily natural stress relieving activities and avoid taking medication if at all possible.

Emotional Exercises:

An emotionally healthy person is a person who develops the virtue of resilience.  Psychologists define resilience as the ability to bounce back from trauma, adversity, and stress.  Resilient people cope with difficult situations and maintain a positive outlook by being flexible, creative, and productive in both positive and negative situations.  Here are some things you can do every day to develop an emotionally healthy and resilient life:

  • Do things for others – By serving others we develop a sense of value for who we are which develops our self-esteem.  A big part of being emotionally healthy is feeling a sense of purpose and meaning in your life.  In fact, Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist who lived through the holocaust wrote a famous book called, Man’s Search for Meaning illustrating when human beings find meaning and purpose in life they can survive some of the most horrific situations ever imagined.  Helping others provides concrete experiences of meaning and purpose solidifying our self-worth and sense of personal value.  Volunteering at local food banks, hospitals, etc. on a daily basis are the types of activities that foster meaningful emotional experiences and contribute to our ability to be resilient people.
  • Practice self-control on a daily basis – Perhaps you’re on a diet or trying to overcome some unhealthy habit.  By practicing daily acts of self-control you develop the emotional sense of hopefulness which allows you to overcome negative feelings and emotions.  Yes, it’s difficult at first, but self-control is like a muscle you develop by using it over and over again.  The better you are at mastering yourself the more sense of control you have over your life and the more you develop a sense of hope for the future.  Self-control provides the experience of self-mastery and a sense that you can control a world that sometimes feels completely out of control.  Practice self control regularly.
  • Enjoy beauty and art – Take daily walks in a pleasing environment like a park or a garden or spend time attending a concert or listening to soothing music.  Studies indicate art and the enjoyment of beautiful things aren’t just good for your mind, they improve your physical health as well. By inducing a low stress levels your body, mind, and emotions experience a greater sense of well-being.  Aesthetic pleasure is good for the soul and allows you to discover among the very hard and cold aspects of life there remains warm and beautiful things as well.  Daily appreciation of beauty is important for emotional well-being.
  • Maintain supportive healthy relationships –  Make lunch dates with good friends or plan to have coffee with someone who affirms you and the work you do.  Make time with people who stand by you when things are tough and applaud you when you’re doing well.  You should invest yourself into these relationships because they help you maintain a healthy sense of who you are, what you can do, and what to avoid.  These relationships include people who cry with you, laugh with you, and walk with you when the world seems dark and lonely.  In the late 1980’s Joyce Landorf Heatherley wrote a book called, Balcony People that perfectly describes individuals who provide this sort of support in your life.  They’re the people who cheer you on when you’re succeeding but also help you through difficult times.  Perhaps one of the first things you can do is get the book and read it every day.  Then, go find these people and make a point to interact with them every day of your life.  Often these relationships are the lifeline you need when you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of self-pity.
  • Spend time savoring life and being grateful everyday –  Psychologists have found  gratitude is exceptionally beneficial for an individual’s emotional life.  People who make the time to be grateful and express gratitude are generally happier and not prone to negative emotions.  Something that can help you maintain a sense of gratitude include  keeping a gratitude journal in which you write down the things you’re grateful for and reflect on them with sincerity and depth.  This is something everyone can do on a daily basis.    Additionally, tell those good to you and supportive of you that you’re grateful for how they’ve invest themselves in your life.  Find daily ways to show gratitude and reflect on the good things in life.  When you do that you build a solid foundation of positive emotion to help maintain a disposition of resilience.  Practice daily acts of gratitude.

I hope these suggestions help you improve your mental health but also your overall health as well.  I believe we’re created as physical, emotional, mental, relational, and spiritual creatures.  By developing healthier minds and emotions we also improve our relationships, bodies, and spiritual lives.  So now you know my little secret.  By improving your mental health you also   improve other aspects of your life.  Live holistically and love radically, that should be every human beings motto!  God created us that way so we really need to live that way.

How Can I Make the World a Better Place?

Change

I was talking to an older gentlemen after preaching at a local church a few weeks ago and he shared with me a story about an encounter he had with God.  He told me when he was a young officer in the Navy he remembered praying at a beautiful chapel and as he prayed a light was beaming through the stained glass.  This was a purely natural occurrence and he described it as something simple yet beautiful. The sun bounced off of the colors of the glass creating a rainbow of images capturing his eye.  He didn’t claim any divine mystical experience, just that this was something which added to his already prayerful state making his experience a memorable one.  He was praying and admiring how nature and man could create such an effect when he claims God shared with him a profound insight.  In this peaceful place this gentlemen remembers God giving him the directive to make the world a better place before he died.

Perhaps it was because this gentleman was living through the tail end of World War II or thinking about what he might do after retiring from the military.  Whatever the reason, he felt God was urging him to take the world as he received it and make it a much better place by the time he took his last breath.  As this much aged gentlemen shared his story with me I thought what a very simple yet profound vocation God shared with him those many years ago.  How important it is we take whatever we receive and in some way make it better for those coming after us.  In fact, that’s the Christian mandate.  Take the world in whatever condition you find it and make it flourish for the kingdom of God.  We may live among the wealthy who have no sense of profound and transcendent ideas. These fellow sojourners may be caught up in materialism and earthly pleasure.  We need to meet them in the midsts of their materialism and help them know a better way of life; a way demonstrating meaning and purpose, a way that shows them Christ.  Some of us dwell in the most destitute and war torn parts of the world.  We have to transform that part of the world by being living icons of peace, faith, forgiveness, love, and concern for others.  We don’t get to choose where we’re born or the conditions surrounding it but we do get the choice to do something with it.  Our mandate is the same as this gentlemen’s,  make the world a better place than when you entered it.

After pondering the profound simplicity of what was shared that Sunday morning, I started thinking how one might begin to make the world a better place than when they came into existence.  Here’s what I came up with:

  • Learn what’s important to love and how to love it well – We’re driven primarily by love.  Even when we’re provided with the most logical and conclusive argument for doing something we often fail to do it.  Most of the time we fail because we aren’t passionate about what we’re asked to do or it conflicts with what we love.  In the writings of Augustine of Hippo one reads love is the motivating force in the lives of people and when love is disordered sin emerges.  Instead of loving God first and our neighbor as ourselves, we love in a disordered way causing pain for ourselves and the people in our lives.  Augustine writes in the Confessions, (book 13.9), “My weight is my love, and by it I am carried wheresoever I am carried.”  We should be very mindful of discovering how to love well but even more so what it is we should love.  We leave the world a little better when we love what we should in the proper way.
  • Learn to think well and be careful what you think about- If we form our hearts well our minds follow, but our minds aren’t simply robots executing the heart’s desire.  While we may initially react with our intuitions, our minds can slowly shift our focus and change our hearts.  If we fill our minds with rubbish, poor thinking, and ponder upon the negatives, we can’t recognize what’s good, beautiful, true, and worth thinking about.  Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  Often it’s a well formed mind helping us counter ill formed love and passion.  If we think about that which lifts the human condition to the heavens the world becomes a better place than if we dwell in the baseness of pure animal pleasure desired by an undisciplined soul.  Pleasure is good when it’s directed toward heavenly things and the world is a better place when people think well and deeply about great ideas and values.
  • Care for the eternal within the temporal – Too often we look around and view the world  with temporal eyes ignoring the transcendent that lies within it.  Creation becomes nothing more than something to use and throw away for immediate purposes.  People become nothing more than cogs in a system and all that matters is what I need, desire, and want to fulfill my present ambitions.  By caring about the eternal within the temporal, the present world becomes a conduit to God’s grace and the spiritual lights up the earthly in a magnificent way.  God is no longer distant and uninterested in our present situation, he becomes an approachable reality through creation.  When we understand temporal things from an eternal perspective we’re more intentional and careful about how we use the things we’re blessed with and engage the people we live with.
  • Discover ways to serve others constantly – If we truly desire to be agents of change we have to focus on how we can meet the needs of others with the gifts and talents we have.  When serving becomes second nature we immediately look for what’s best for others and often find ourselves fulfilled and at peace when we help.  If you’re doing things for purely selfish reasons you never really make a permanent change in the world.  You may be rewarded with money or popularity, but the peace a fulfilling life of service provides slips away and eventually what you thought you did so well becomes mere dust.  Often it’s within the anonymity of our lives we have the most impact on others.  It’s not your legacy that matters as much as the fact you cared enough to help another human being regardless of the cost or recognition that came with it.  Develop a love for service and let your work become one simple drop of water in an ocean of grace God pours into the world.
  • Encourage others to care – The more we convince others caring is important the more people will help us change the world.  The process begins by letting them know they’re loved and were created to be agents of love in a broken world.  Remind your fellow human beings they’re more than the limits they’ve let others yoke them with and can do incredible things in the midsts of their very ordinary ways of living.  Encourage them to care; care for others, care for what’s sacred, care for creation, care for themselves, but most importantly inspire them to develop a love for caring in general.  There’s nothing more dangerous than a mass group of people who become indifferent to the suffering, abuse, and coldness surrounding them.  It’s this attitude of indifference that creates atrocities like genocide, violence, war, and prejudice.  We must be people who care about a great many things.

I know there’s more to making the world a better place than these five simple suggestions encompass, but the truth is change starts with you and these suggestions can be a starting place for that to happen.  If you can foster a sense of proper love, good thinking, finding the eternal within the temporal, a life of service, and an attitude of care, you can begin to fulfill what my good friend believed God asked him to do in that small Navy chapel so many years ago.  You can leave the world a better place when you take your final breath and in doing so leave something good behind for others to build upon.

At 50 Years of Age, All That Matters is I love

loveSometimes it’s so easy to get lost in the mess of life and forget how blessed you are.  I turned 50 today and for the most part I just thought of it as another day.  Then my daughter did something so special I was reminded of what life is all about.  My daughter loves acting and the visual arts.  She makes short films that are often humorous and highlight her acting skills.  For my birthday she decided to make a short film of people in my life recalling stories about me and wishing me a happy birthday.  I watched the film she made and I cried like a baby.  Over the past week all I could think about is how at 50 years of age I seem to have had little impact in any one area of my career and the future didn’t look like it was going to offer me much more.  I was feeling trapped, unimportant, and like I really haven’t accomplished much in my life.  Then, I watched her video.

In the video my children, my wife, my good friends, and some of the best people I’ve ever worked with wished me a happy birthday and said some of the kindest things about me I ever heard.  It reminded me how much I love them all.  More than that however, I was reminded what really matters in a person’s life.  It doesn’t matter who reads my work, who hears me speak, and who rewards me for what I’ve accomplished.  When I die my tombstone will look like a myriad of other tombstones and  I’m actually okay with that.  Let the tombstone reflect  I was nothing more than another human being who walked the earth for his allotted period of time.  What mattered most is that I walked it in a way people felt blessed I was part of their lives.  I walked with them as someone who cared about them not as someone who thought he could do something great for them, impress them, or make them better people.  What mattered most is they knew I cared for them and valued them as fellow sojourners in this journey of life.

After living fifty years I can say with some confidence what matters most is that I’m choosing to love the people God places in my life.  The video reminded me what people most like about who I am is I care enough to be with them, share my life with them, and love them.  I can’t thank each and everyone of them enough for simply pointing out this is what matters most.  It’s not what a man or woman does or builds that matters most in this life it’s how frequently one chooses to show others how much they’re loved.  I now know in my heart what St Paul meant when he wrote, “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.

 
I pray the Lord continues to teach me to love first and foremost above everything else.  If all that’s ever written on my tombstone is “Here are the remains of Dominick Hankle, a man who truly tried to love all those he met.” I will have fulfilled the vocation God gave me.  I pray all of you reading this will go home, embrace those in your life, and just love them.  And if I have in some way ever not loved you, forgive me and let me do so now. Perhaps if we all choose to love one another we can change the world.