Here’s How to Stay Committed to Your Goals

goalHow do you remain committed to your goals?  It’s not easy for most of us and the fact so many people don’t is why we scoff at New Year’s resolutions.  Yet without goals we lead directionless lives taking us to nowhere land.  People need goals.  When we have goals we feel connected to a sense of meaning and purpose in life.  How can we stay committed to our goals making sure that sense of meaning and purpose is experience every day?  Here are some things you can do:

  • The first way to Foster commitment is by making sure your goals are actually connected to what you believe is meaningful. Most psychologists find experiencing meaning and purpose within the small tasks required to reach your goals keeps you committed to what needs done.  Even when unfavorable the belief your work is connected to your purpose in life causes you to commit more strongly to what’s required to accomplish your goals.  Sometimes we unintentionally ingest other people’s goals and convince ourselves they’re our own.  Let me explain how easily that can happen.  I can’t want to be healthy because my spouse insists it’s something I should do, I have to want to be healthy because leading a healthy life has meaning and purpose for me.  For example, I might believe living a healthy life allows me to take care of my family.  That’s something meaningful to me and because of that I’ll stay committed to the goal.  I won’t stay committed to that goal if it’s merely to make someone else happy.  Look over your goals and determine whether or not they’re something you determined for yourself or something you elected to do to please others.
  • Another thing you can do to develop a stronger sense of commitment for your goals is transform your “shoulds” into “wants.” Just like finding meaning and purpose helps you complete undesirable tasks and stay committed to your goals, turning “should” statements into “want” statements transforms how you think about what needs done as well.  When we think of the things we should do we unconsciously identify them with negative experiences.  We like to experience ourselves as free agents able to choose what we want to do in life instead of existing in a world of determinism requiring us to do certain things.  Should statements can’t provide that sense of freedom we long for and which energizes us so we can accomplish our goals.  However, by turning should statements into want statements we experience a sense of exercising our free will.  While what we’re doing may not be ideal, by turning it into something we want to do we’re empowering ourselves to reach our goals through our own volition.  Let’s face it, we may say we “Have” to do something but the truth is we are choosing to do it to get the results we want.
  • A third thing that helps us remain committed to our goals is acting on them. Not only does believing shape our behaviors but behaviors shape our beliefs.  Start behaving like someone who has already achieved his or her goals.  If you want to be a writer, write something every day.  If you’re planning to be a psychologist, you should study human behavior, thinking, and mental experience at whatever level you can.  By acting on your commitments you Foster a greater connection to the end goals you’re seeking to accomplish.
  • A fourth way to deepen your commitment to your goals is to publicly discuss them with trusted friends and family. There are some interesting studies around the public profession of marriage vows demonstrating the value of expressing commitments and goals publicly.   When a couple engages in a public marriage ceremony they’re more likely to stay together and be committed to one another through difficult times.  Couples who don’t have a larger public ceremony are more likely to separate and divorce, particularly when things get tough.  Part of this has to do with the fact the couple making promises and commitments before witnesses develops a subconscious desire to keep that promise because they’re accountable to their social group in some way.  We have an innate desire to keep our promises when they become public.  This same principle applies to commitments you make toward your goals.  If you say you want to be a professional soccer player, publicly stating that goal makes you psychologically more committed to what needs done to accomplish the task.  Making public statements about your goals is an important step for remaining committed to them.
  • A fifth component for fostering commitment is to be ready to reevaluate your strategy for achieving your goals. A willingness to reevaluate your strategy makes you a solution focused person instead of a problem focused person.  Being solution focused means being ready to change what you’re doing and how you’re doing it so you can overcome problems and keep working toward the end result.  Being problem focused means constantly focusing on what’s keeping you from getting to where you need to be and never taking the time to explore ways around the problems.  In a sense you become paralyzed by the problems never finding solutions.  Being solution focused means being ready to reevaluate your strategy and stay focused on your goals.
  • Finally, remaining committed to goals requires finding ways to maintain hope. I’ve often said hope is a seed of life planted in a desert of despair.  When you maintain hope you can overcome the small mundane tasks required to achieve your goals and you overcome any setbacks you experience.  Hope keeps you motivated and enables you to be drawn toward what you want instead of getting stuck in the muck of the present.

Goals are important and when we don’t have them we meander around in a life of instant gratification instead of striving for the greater things God created us to be.  A directionless life often causes us to fall into the trap of living only in the moment which while useful for certain aspects of happiness can become the sole focus of living and destroy the potential we have to flourish.  Living in the moment is meant for us to savor what we’ve achieved, while focusing on and accomplishing goals provides the very achievements required for that process.  Find ways to stay committed to those goals and when you become the person you were intended to be step back, breathe, and savor what you’ve accomplished.

The Journey God Beckons You to Take

Forest

“If we gaze too long at where God wants to take us but never start the journey we never experience his abundant grace. Yet, when we walk with God even the darkest forest and highest hills can be traversed for he guides us through what we can’t see to know him in ways we’ve never experienced before. Don’t fear the journey, embrace the path God beckons you to take and know him more profoundly.” – www.dominickhankle.com

Hope – The Seeds of Life in a Desert of Despair

“Hope is the resilient seed of life allowing us to find within the desert of despair the fresh green evidence of life. This is why Hope isn’t a virtue you cultivate on your own but rather a grace from God one must passively receive. The Christian must exercise “Active receptivity” in which one pursues opportunities to be available to the transforming work God does in a receiving heart. Be open to the seeds of hope and allow God to plant them in your desert of despair and you will see life where it seems only death is found.” -Dominick D. Hankle

Sand

Recapturing the Awe and Wonder of God – The Overview Effect


planet

Psychologists at Penn University have been studying something called the overview effect.  The overview effect is the sense of awe and wonder astronauts feel when they see the earth in the distance from their spacecraft.  The overview effect is said to change an astronaut intensely to the point where he or she experiences a life changing sense of connectedness to all of humanity.  It elicits a sense of transcendence and a whole new way of perceiving existence on planet earth.  Examples collected in this article say things like:

“I had another feeling, that the earth is like a vibrant living thing. The vessels we’ve clearly seen on it looked like the blood and veins of human beings. I said to myself: this is the place we live, it’s really magical. (Chinese Space Program Astronaut Yang Liu, as cited in Chen, 2012, p. 288)”

“You . . . say to yourself, ‘That’s humanity, love, feeling, and thought.’ You don’t see the barriers of color and religion and politics that divide this world.” (NASA Astronaut Gene Cernan, as cited in White, 1987, p. 37)”

“You’ve seen pictures and you’ve heard people talk about it. But nothing can prepare you for what it actually looks like. The Earth is dramatically beautiful when you see it from orbit, more beautiful than any picture you’ve ever seen. It’s an emotional experience because you’re removed from the Earth but at the same time you feel this incredible connection to the Earth like nothing I’d ever felt before. (NASA Astronaut Sam Durrance, as cited in Redfern, 1996, p. 1)”

While the article doesn’t claim this experience is supernatural or spiritual, I believe there is certainly a connection between the psychological elements leading to the overview effect and what happens when people reach a point of spiritual maturity or what’s often called spiritual awakening.  Most striking about the findings in this article is after experiencing the overview effect many of the astronauts maintained their new perspective and lived changed lives.  They felt a new sense of compassion for their fellow human beings and lived lives differently than before the experience by engaging in more pro-social activities.  In many ways the overview effect reminds me of that point when we recognize the profound reality there is a God, he is a God who loves us unconditionally, and we have a new life because of the gift of grace he shares with us.  Yet, like so many of us who simply look at pictures of earth in space never experiencing what it looks like from the window of a space craft, we never have that profound sense of awe and wonder at who God is.

After reading this article I began to ask myself, “Why is it so many people have turned the experience of God into a political agenda or a set of rules one must follow instead of an encounter with one who strikes awe and wonder in our lives.?”  Basically I was asking why we can’t seem to have an experience of the overview effect when pondering the vastness and greatness of God.  Awe isn’t something we only experience in space, there are other times awe strikes the human condition.  While we may not experience the overview effect, many of us have seen something vast and immense such as the Grand Canyon, the pyramids, or any of the other great wonders of the world.  Social psychologists view awe as an intense emotional experience resulting from being aware of the vastness of something combined with the need to mentally accommodate that experience.  Often people have that experience when they see the ocean for the first time or look down upon the earth from the top of a high mountain.  Why is it we seldom have this same experience of awe and wonder for God?

It’s my opinion this spiritual experience of awe and wonder has eluded us because we’ve become obsessed with the details of a life with God and have forgotten how to step back and view the vastness of God.  The psalms do a good job at recognizing the hand of God in creation in a way that provides an overall big picture ignored so often in our spiritual experience of God.  The vastness of God in the world is found in the words of psalms like those in psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice[b] goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
    It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.

It’s in the heavens God is proclaimed.  Time echoes the story of salvation; the story of a God who loves us and bursts into time and space as Jesus Christ to show us deep profound and abundant love.  The presence of God strikes awe in our soul to the point no words are necessary and like a bridegroom the sun comes forth as a sacramental way of reminding us Christ, the bridegroom of humanity has come to deprive no one of his warming love.  The psalms, when meditated upon, can strike awe and wonder in the human soul because they are intensely focused on God’s vastness and reframe our experiences to remind us how much bigger he is than the confines we place on our God encounters.  The Psalms focus on grand experiences of encountering God as demonstrated in psalm 63:

You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water

It ‘s my hope that we can begin to develop a deeply profound spirituality by recapturing the vastness of God and I think a good place to start is by meditating on the psalms.  At a time when we’re bickering about the minutia of the Christian faith we need to recapture the awe and wonder of God.  You do that by having a personal encounter with the vastness of God and the profundity of what he has done.  Remember what Astronaut Sam Durrance said about his encounter with the earth in the distance.  He said, “You’ve seen pictures and you’ve heard people talk about it. But nothing can prepare you for what it actually looks like… It’s an emotional experience because you’re removed from the Earth but at the same time you feel this incredible connection to the Earth like nothing I’d ever felt before.”  It’s this firsthand experience of being of the earth yet also disconnected from it that gave him this sense of awe and wonder.  That’s the same experience we have with God.  We’re deeply connected to him and in fact as believers he dwells in us.  Yet, because of sin we feel his distance.  His imminence and transcendence are always present as a type of spiritual paradox.  If we believe this and allow ourselves to enter into this spiritual paradox, we can experience the awe and wonder of God.

The article explored how these astronauts had a personal encounter with something profound.  We have that same opportunity.  We can recapture a sense of awe and wonder for God when we simply step back, look at the created world, look at human beings and what they can accomplish, gaze into space, and in its simplest form, look into the eyes of a new born child.  When we see God in all things we can have some sense of what the overview effect does to an astronaut.  We can personally encounter our world in a way that speaks to the magnificence of God.  To do so we must be willing to be vulnerable to a personal encounter with the greatness of God.  We can’t protect ourselves by over intellectualizing the faith.   While thinking about God is indeed a way of worshiping him, we must allow that personal experience of his vastness to overwhelm us first.  If we never reach that profound sense of awe and wonder for God we can never fully appreciate the intellectual details of the Christian life.  Without awe and wonder for God, the intellectual details become rules and dogmas never blossoming into intellectual experiences of the divine mystery.  Christ asks us to have the faith of a child and perhaps by starting with that type of faith we can become enamored with the God of wonder and awe.

Can Children Survive Divorce? Here’s How To Help

Crying Child

Divorce is never a good thing but sometimes it’s a necessary thing.  Anytime a relationship between people breaks apart we should grieve.  We’re made for relationships and when they fall apart never reaching the heights of common happiness and affection they promise something in us is unfulfilled.  Even volatile and unhealthy relationships should be mourned at some level.  Not because people should stay in an unhealthy and harmful relationship but because the hope and desire to love and be loved generally found in a relationship was never made possible.  I believe people need to divorce when the relationship is poisonous, but I also know they need to process the unclaimed love they wanted from it and find a way to forgive the person who treated them poorly to move on with their life.

The most difficult aspect of divorce, even when necessary, is the collateral damage it creates in the family.  In particular, children have to deal with emotional situations they’re not necessarily developmentally equipped to handle on their own.  Yet, people are resilient and children are people who when given the proper skills can survive a divorce just like anyone else.  To help them overcome divorce we have to recognize going through a divorce for children involves moving through three stages over a period of time. Each child deals with these stages in unique ways and it’s the parent’s job (or some other trusted adult in the child’s life) to help them through them.  These stages include the following:

  • The immediate crisis – In this stage children often act out aggressively, experience high levels of depression, sadness, and conflict.  This stage occurs right after the decision to divorce and is often the most volatile for the whole family.  Children are like thermometers reflecting the temperature of their parent’s relationship.  Additionally, when a child goes through any crisis he or she looks to the parents to see if everything is okay.  Unfortunately, during this initial stage both parents are generally unable to offer much support because they’re dealing with their own emotional turmoil and frustrations.  During this stage it’s often helpful to have another adult who can provide the support and stability the child needs to navigate the emotions being experienced during this initial crisis.
  •  Transition and Short-term Aftermath – About a year after the divorce/separation, the family moves into a period of transition.  Emotions have subsided and the “new normal” has become a part of the child’s life.  The family is being restructured to reflect one parent living outside the home and perhaps another adult such as a grandparent or aunt living with them.  Economic and social changes are evident.  The child has to visit the non-resident parent and makes new friends in this second neighborhood but also loses other friends for numerous reasons such as attending different churches or schools.  Money might be tight since the child’s parents are maintaining two residences and no longer pooling funds together.  This period lasts between two to three years and requires developing a new level of comfort with change.  Children need to be coached regarding how to deal with change and depending on the child’s temperament this might be a very stressful time.
  • Restabilization Stage – After about five years a family begins to experience a restabilization.  The economic ramifications and social changes have become a part of daily living.  In some instances a stepfamily may even have formed because of remarriage or the family has found a way to function as a single parent family.  The child has has processed and adapted to his or her new family norm and can function within that context without issue.

To successfully navigate these stages requires good communication and affirmations of love between the child and his or her parents.  So often we hear that divorce has a terrible impact on children.  However, the research regarding the effects of divorce on children vary significantly and are often skewed to support an already preexisting set of values making it hard to discern what’s most accurate and reflecting what really happens with young people as a marriage breaks apart.  For example Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote a book called The Divorce Culture and suggests children suffer in multiple ways after a divorce and the effects linger significantly into adulthood.  Stephanie Coonts wrote a book called The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America’s Changing Families that paints a more optimistic view of how children fare in a divorce situation and proposes the negative results aren’t as far reaching as other studies imply.  So, while there’s no consistent data to describe divorce’s long term effects on children, there are some consistent themes to consider when helping a child navigate a parental separation.  Here’s what the research does say regarding how divorce impacts children and the best way to minimize its effects:

  • How a divorce is communicated is most important to a child’s ability to come through it well.  If there’s little to no communication from both parents a child might blame him or herself for the divorce negatively impacting their sense of self-esteem.  A child may also begin to find fault with one parent and develop a negative relationship toward that parent.  Parents need to communicate two important things to the child: First, the divorce is not the child’s fault and the child is loved by both mom and dad.  Secondly, while mom and dad may not love each other any more, it’s not mom’s fault nor is it dad’s fault, mom and dad just cannot find a way to live together and love one another.  Don’t tell a child sometimes people fall out of love.  That communicates to the child it’s possible mom and dad will fall out of love with him or her.  Again, clearly communicate mom and dad being apart doesn’t mean they don’t share a common love and concern for what’s best for the child.
  • Divorce impacts younger children more than older children and boys more than girls.  Younger children are developmentally and emotionally at a stage where a significant attachment is being formed with his or her parents.  Divorce causes that attachment to sever to some degree because one parent isn’t in the home to support, encourage, comfort, and care for the child as much as the other.  This can cause a fracture in the relationship.  Additionally, even though there’s one parent in the home that parent may be struggling with depression, anxiety, and a myriad of psychological issues making them less responsive to the child’s needs.  With one parent gone and the other dealing with his or her own distress the child doesn’t get the attention and care he or she needs to develop emotionally.  Younger children who don’t create secure healthy attachments could have issues later in life establishing romantic relationships according to some research.  Boys tend to suffer more than girls because the parent who usually leaves the home is the father thus limiting the boy’s contact with a male figure.  Without that contact gender roles and expectations may not get communicated or can become distorted because the primary source of understanding what it means to be a male comes from media exposure.  This is why it’s important to include other stable people in the healing process for the whole family.  Other men and women who are trusted family friends are an important asset for the family recovering from divorce.

While studies seem to imply divorce can impact a child negatively, it’s important to note  the divorce by itself isn’t the problem, it’s how the child internalizes it and the parents manage their child’s emotional reaction to the separation.  Like anything parents do they must remember their first obligation is to raising their children as best as they can and put their personal needs and ambitions aside until those children are grown up enough to do well on their own.  That can be done when two people live in separate homes, it just takes effort, planning, patience, and maturity.  On a final note, divorce does have one benefit in certain circumstances.  In situations where there’s great discord in the home and that turmoil and unhappiness is evident to the child, he or she will fare better if the parents divorce and some semblance of peace can be provided in the home environment.

Divorce is never an ideal situation but sometimes it’s the only situation that accommodates the well-being and health of two people who can no longer make their relationship work.  However, two people divorcing with children in the family system  have to remember the divorce is not just about their emotional experience, it’s also about their children’s emotional experience.  If the family can still communicate love, concern, care, and the fact there’s hope for a better life after the divorce, things can work out just fine.

So You Want to Make Better Decisions? Here’s How!

decision_making_process

I spend a fair amount of time helping people make better life decisions.  I’m humbled they find me a trusted counselor when deciding on some very important aspects of their life.  Because I spend this time helping people learn to consider their options I’ve developed an understanding of decision making that’s holistic in nature.  My experience and education has taught me we are not merely cognitively detached creatures who can reason our way into a perfect decision.  In fact I would argue being overly rational will NOT lead you to the best decision you can make.

My approach to decision making flows from my belief  human beings are “discerners” more than “deciders.”  Taking that one step further, we are holistic discerners.  The best decisions are made when we listen to our physical response, cognitive processes, emotional feelings, social input from others, and our spiritual sense.  If our decision negatively interacts with any of these elements it’s not a good decision.  Because we’re physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual creatures everything we do and everything done to us impacts these elements of being human.  So, if you want to make the best decisions make sure you’re as physically well as your condition in life allows, mentally strong, emotionally healthy, socially engaged, and as spiritually disciplined as you can be.  The best decisions are ones made when we’re working at our maximum capacity in all these areas.  Here are some tips to help you maintain good health and proper functioning  in all these areas to make the best decisions you can make:

  • While it sounds redundant and I know it’s something you hear all the time, be sure you exercise, eat well, get the proper amount of sleep, and take good care of your body.  If you’re not taking care of yourself doing so is only a decision away.  Here are some things I do to stay at least functionally healthy.  Walk for 30 minutes everyday.  Studies show walking 30 minutes a day will at least help you cut down on your chances of diabetes and heart disease.  Your body was made to move so make sure you move it regularly.  Along with daily walking stretch every day.  If we don’t stretch our muscles they tighten up and limit our range of motion.  You have to stretch everyday to keep your body limber and your blood flowing.  Be sure you cut out sweets and only enjoy them once a week.  I’m not saying you have to get rid of them completely, but limit them to a Sunday treat, not an everyday part of your diet.  Get rid of soda as your regular drink choice.  Water is what your body needs, not more sugar.  Go to bed at a regular time and wake up after a good eight hours of sleep.  Make sure you eat something God created every day  like peppers, carrots, beans, etc.  You need vegetables and fruits so be sure you get a good daily supply of them.  These are simple things you can start doing to make sure your body is at least in minimal health.  Your brain depends on your body so make sure your body is functioning well.
  • Be familiar with what I call your “cognitive profile.”  A cognitive profile is a pattern of thinking you demonstrate when asked to think about things.  We all think a little differently.  Some of us are very systematic analytical thinkers requiring a review of all our options and the data for each option before we make a decision about anything.  These people are called “maximizers” because they need to make sure they’ve made the maximally beneficial decision before moving forward.  Generally maximizers make the best decisions BUT they’re usually never happy with their choice because they always believe there’s a better option out there they haven’t had the chance to consider.  Other people are called “satisficers.”  Satisficers make decisions quickly and don’t feel compelled to go through EVERY option.  Rather, after reviewing a few, satisficers choose what they believe is best based on this short list.  Satisficers make decisions using cognitive shortcuts referred to as heuristics and rely on “gut feelings” more than rigorous analytics.  Satisficers tend to be more happy with their decisions but of course without the rigorous analysis they sometimes make poorer decisions than maximizers.  Know your cognitive profile so you can understand why you’re paralyzed in decision making (i.e. you need to go through every option when deciding) or why you’re rushing a decision instead of taking your time to be more thoughtful.  Sometimes it’s helpful to consult with someone who has a different cognitive profile than you to make a better decision.  That leads me to the next tip I believe important in decision making which is to include other people in decision making.
  • If you want to make good decisions discuss them with people you know and trust.  My circle of trusted advisors includes my wife and one or two other people at the most.  Generally this group is small because you want input from people who really know you and aren’t afraid to tell you the truth even when you don’t want to hear it.  We need to talk with other people because we’re social creatures and function best when engaged in healthy relationships.  Because we can get stuck within our own cognitive profile we need someone else to help us step outside of it and show us another way to look at things.  Additionally, we were created for relationships and people work best when they have healthy, encouraging, and loving relationships.  Most individuals suffering with depression and anxiety find if they engage in relationships with other quality people their symptoms become less severe.  From the time we’re born we were meant to exist in relationships with other people. When we have decisions to make we make them best with the support of people who care about us and our well-being.
  • Too often we think our emotions get in the way of making good decisions.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Our emotions are often a good indicator of whether or not what we’re doing is in line with our values and with what matters most to us.  In fact there’s more and more research demonstrating our emotional gut feelings provide a better indicator of what we should or shouldn’t do than the exercise of pure reason.  Decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, they’re made in the context of lives lived in the midst of many things.  If you only rely on reason for decision making than you may ignore the need to consider other people when making that decision.  Sociopaths are actually very good at reasoning to get what they want.  However, because they’re emotionally disturbed and experience no emotional empathy, they’ll readily disregard people to reach the results they desire.  Empathy toward others and developing properly ordered love can be the best guide for decision making.  You want to be sure you develop a good sense of how and what to love.  You want to develop a better understanding of your emotions and those of others to be a good decision maker.
  • Finally, never forget you’re a spiritual creature and therefore your spiritual life impacts your decisions.  A spiritual person is one that understands meaning and purpose in life and knows their decisions transcend the immediate and have eternal ramifications.  I’m not merely saying your decisions determine whether or not you go to heaven or hell, I’m saying there’s a transcendence in everything we do that impacts the world in numerous ways.  Martin Luther King Jr decided to start a movement to raise the consciousness of America in regards to the rights of black Americans.  His decision was transcendent and reflected the meaning and purpose he believed God placed on his life.  Everyone needs to know the “why” of his or her existence.  Too often we focus on what we want to do in life and how to do it, but you need to discover the “why” of your life.  This is the spiritual transcendence I’m talking about and when you know this each decision you make will either bring you peace or trouble your soul.  This is a perfect guide for making sure you’re living the life you were created to live and your decisions are reflecting that purpose and meaning.

People want to make good decisions and for some that means making purely rational decisions based on hard cold facts.  Computers do that, humans don’t.  In fact, thank God we don’t because if that were the case we might make purely rational decisions negatively impacting the needs, feelings, and concerns of other people.  If you want to make good decisions then make holistically informed decisions.  You make holistically informed decisions by making sure you’re physically well, you know how your mind reasons and makes decisions (i.e. cognitive profile), you develop your emotional life and love things properly, you’re embedded in good social relationships, and you have a strong understanding of your transcendent purpose in life.  If we continue to develop every one of these elements of who we are we can make good decisions that serve us well and make the world a better place.

8 Principles to Live By – An Address to the Class of 2016

graduates

Graduation

I will probably never be asked to give a commencement speech at a major university.  However, as a college professor I’m subjected to hearing them year after year.  Not long ago I was asked to share my thoughts on what it means to be a Christian leader.  I was reviewing my responses and thought if I had the opportunity to share some nuggets of wisdom with my graduating students, these eight principles are what I would share:

  1. Love unconditionally.  Even when it’s difficult, find a way to love even those hard to love.  Leadership is never about what others can do for you, it’s always about how you can serve the people in your life helping them fulfill the Gospel as it uniquely relates to them.  The Gospel must be preached in love otherwise it falls on rocky ground never taking root transforming their lives.
  2. Teach by example, the use of metaphor, story, analogy, and creativity.  People don’t need to be told what to do they need inspired.  Christ inspired others to lay down their lives for God’s kingdom by doing so himself and inspiring the hearts of his disciples.  Simply telling people what to do is not leadership it’s dictatorship and that has never changed the world for the better.
  3. Sacrifice yourself for what’s good, holy, and true.  When you pour yourself out for what is Godly you can never exhaust yourself.  God always pours more of himself into you to accomplish what he asks.  It’s only when our agenda takes precedence that we get exhausted.
  4. Live relationally.  I have a colleague who often reminds me of this important principle.  We were created to draw strength and inspiration from one another, not live as isolated superhumans.  Our greatest resource is the body of Christ; our fellow believers who encourage and lift us up when things are tough.  They’re also the people who applaud our successes and celebrate with us when the job is done well.  Man was not created to live alone therefore we should not attempt to lead as one above human company.
  5. Love to learn.  Even Christ spent time in his human condition pursuing the wisdom of the Father.  Growing in wisdom and knowledge is important for everyone, even those who have college degrees, and it must be intentional.  Never tire of learning new things.
  6. Take care of your physical body.  By living as an incarnational human being and taking his resurrected body into heaven Christ reminds us our physical well-being is essential to doing God’s work.  We’re intended to have bodies and it’s through these bodies we will engage the world now and live in paradise later.  We must care for our physical well-being to be the serving hands of God in a hurting and broken world.
  7. Allow yourself to experience human emotions, don’t be a stoic.  Christ expressed the full range of human emotions so it’s quite appropriate for us to do the same.  Denying emotions and not allowing ourselves to learn how to express them is denying part of what makes us human.  No one wants to spend time with a robot.
  8. Pray.  Pray always and walk in communion with God.  It’s one of the very first acts Adam did while living in Eden, and it’s what Christ did while living on earth.  Walk with God in prayer, hear his small still voice whisper to you, and always recognize his presence.

So, to the graduating class of 2016 I charge you to make these eight principles a part of your life.  These will guide you in everything you do and help you become the wonderful creation that God made you to be.  Congratulations to my dear students and may the Lord bless all you do in this life to make the world a better place.

How to Apologize Well

Apology

As many of you know I write and present workshops and retreats on a number of subjects.  One of my more popular retreats has to do with forgiveness. Forgiveness is a powerful psychological and spiritual tool.  It can free you from the anger and hurt you feel in the present because of something that happened in the past.  It’s probably one of the most useful psychological and spiritual practices anyone can develop to live a flourishing and healthy life.  While there’s a great deal written about how to forgive people, there isn’t much written about how to ask for forgiveness.  Asking for forgiveness is an important step toward reconciliation, the potential outcome of the forgiveness process.  While forgiveness stands on its own and is completely separate from reconciliation, the two are closely related.  However, we can forgive someone even if they never ask for forgiveness.  You can’t reconcile in a healthy way with someone if he or she never asks for forgiveness.  Therefore, if we’ve hurt someone and desire to repair the relationship we need to ask for forgiveness.

If you’re reading this and thinking you need to ask someone to forgive you for something you’ve done that’s impacting your relationship with that person here are some things to consider:

First, make sure you’re clearly communicating you’re sorry.  If the apology comes across as insincere or a tactic for dropping the subject you’re arguing about it will never lead to forgiveness.  You want to be sure you’re clearly communicating regret for a harm you committed.  In fact, if you really aren’t experiencing regret you may want to look deep into your own heart and make sure you’re not simply apologizing to get past a difficult experience.  Be sincere, really think about how you’re going to communicate that sincere regret, and speak from the heart.

Secondly, show empathy.  Make sure the person you’ve upset understands you know how they feel.  Be intentional in your effort to understand their feelings.  This isn’t easy because often we struggle to understand “why” the other person is upset.  You must empathize and communicate that empathy in a sincere way.  Try and put yourself in their shoes and understand what it might be like to feel the way they feel.  Think of times when you’ve been hurt by other people and use that as a way to empathize with them.  You have to try and experience what’s going on in their mind to apologize in an empathetic way.  When you empathize with the other person you’re communicating that his or her emotions are valid, important, and matter to you.  Don’t ignore the power of empathy in your apology.

Thirdly, Avoid being overly “heady” when apologizing.  Rationalized apologies come across as lectures and distanced soliloquies never reaching into the other person’s heart.  You’ve hurt someone and that person is feeling emotional pain.  You can never reason something like that away.  Simply tell the person you’re sorry and avoid justifying your actions as if you’re on trial.

Fourth, ask for forgiveness.  If you merely say “I’m sorry I hurt you” but never ask for forgiveness the hidden message is “I’m sorry I hurt you and it’s not really important if you care.” That might not be how you really feel but it’s something the missing words “Will you forgive me” imply.  Remember, forgiveness is a gift the other person extends to you in good faith and love.  It releases you from a debt caused by an injury you inflicted.  If you don’t ask for the gift of forgiveness you may miss out on an opportunity to repair the relationship.  That’s always something we should grieve.  We were meant to live in relationships with other people and when they cannot be reconciled something about being human is always negatively impacted.

These four tips can go a long way in helping you communicate regret, sorrow, and the desire to reconnect with someone important in your life.  Too often we let our own pain and anger get in the way of reconnecting with someone we love who offers us a healthy and loving relationship.  If you want that reconnection, apologize with sincerity and love and ask with all humility for forgiveness.  You may find whatever caused you and the other person to argue can be something that also allows your relationship to grow and deepen. You just need to talk about it in a way that shows you understand each other, love each other, and care enough about one another to work it out together.

 

When Spiritual Maps Go Wrong

americatsures_the-original1

I recently re-read a book by Grinder and Bandler called, “The Structure of Magic” in which they created a meta model based on how successful therapists use language to understand what’s happening in the minds of their clients.  It’s a fascinating book demonstrating how the language a person uses to explain what they’re thinking and feeling isn’t always the most accurate or complete expression of the experience.  A good therapist is able to pick up on the manner in which the client’s description is incomplete or poorly formed and clarify it.  When someone experiences something they create a type of “map” of that experience and when they retell someone about the experience they aren’t explaining what actually occurred, they’re describing a representation of the experience through language.  Therefore, a therapist can only understand the client’s experience as well as the map the client provides describes it.  If the therapist wants a better understanding of the client’s inner world he or she has to recognize when the map is insufficient and help the client create a better map.  Once the client and therapist have a better understanding of the client’s world there’s an opportunity for the client to choose something previously missed because of the ill formed map.

Grinder and Bandler propose clients do three things when mapping their experiences which keeps them from seeing things clearly.  These three “map deformers” are deletion, distortion, and generalization.  These processes are neither good nor bad, they’re simply things we do when encoding experiences in our minds.  While often helpful they can also impact our ability to see beneficial options which provide better choices for overcoming problems.  For example, deletions are important because we have a great deal of information entering our conscious at once that can be confusing if processed all at the same time.  Deletions allow us to filter out what’s unimportant so we can concentrate on what’s most important at the moment.  We may need to focus on a conversation we’re having with someone in a crowded room so we completely blank out what other people are saying around us.  At a therapeutic level this can work against us.  An employee might believe he or she is unappreciated because the supervisor never compliments his or her work.  Yet, the supervisor might give this employee extra time off, a bonus, etc.  These acts of appreciation are “deleted” because the employee believes appreciation is only demonstrated through words not actions (i.e. This is an example of how a limited map about how appreciation is demonstrated can impact someone).  

Distortions, another process we use when creating maps, can also be helpful or harmful depending on how they’re executed.  A  positive aspect of distortions is they facilitate creativity.  When we use our imagination, we take everyday normal experiences and think of them in different and new ways.  However, this creative ability can work against us as well.  Take the employee mentioned above.  If we share with that employee it seems he or she really is appreciated because of the many extra benefits the supervisor provides, the employee may distort that nonverbal message and remark, “He just does that so I’ll keep working hard, not because I’m appreciated.”  There’s some element of truth to the the fact the supervisor wants to keep the employee motivated, but it’s also an act of kindness and gratitude the employee continues to distort to maintain the opinion he or she already has of the supervisor.  

The last way we encounter these “map deformers” is through generalizations.  For example, we may have had the experience of being bit by an angry dog as a child.  As we grew up however, we generalized that all dogs are mean and bite.  This is helpful for protecting ourselves, but can be a problem in other cases.  For example, a man is rejected by a woman he asks out on a date.  This experience causes him to believe he’s unlovable and therefore destined to be lonely.  We generalize the experience and create a limited map about dating and our own like-ability.

At this point you’re asking yourself what any of this has to do with the spiritual life.  I think these three map deformers are also things we do when experiencing God.  So often the spiritual life doesn’t reflect an accurate understanding of God and therefore cannot be a transformative agent in our lives.  Remember, our minds and souls are interconnected therefore how we think often impacts our spiritual experiences just as our experiences of the mystical and divine impacts how we think about things.  The two are not detached from one another.  We need to spend time with a trusted friend or spiritual director to reflect on how we may have deleted, distorted, or generalized our spiritual experiences in such a way they no longer reflect what’s true, beautiful, and good.  For example, we may have experienced the death of someone we love even after praying feverishly for them.  Because it seems this prayer wasn’t answered we generalize the experience believing God doesn’t hear the prayers of his faithful servants.  Maybe we delete something from our spiritual experience at this difficult moment.  Maybe we delete the fact when praying for our loved one God provided a sense of peace and comfort to both you and the one suffering.  We delete this positive element of the experience because of the overwhelming sense of grief and loss we feel.  Perhaps we distort our experience of God to the point he’s no longer the God revealed in scripture but rather a god we create from our own imagination.  I’ve seen my clients do this again and again.  When they’re angry with someone they want the vengeful just God of the Old Testament; the God who will vindicate them.  When they’ve done something they know is wrong they focus on the God of forgiveness and mercy and delete his just nature.  In each case the client deletes, distorts, or generalizes who God is and how the spiritual life works to create their own spiritual map.  Then, they use this map to accommodate their experiences.  However, just like in the natural world, when a map is inaccurate it limits your options and you can’t make important choices that allow you to flourish.

Let me close with this example from my own spiritual life.  I felt the call to ordained ministry for many years.  When I reentered the spiritual life I did so through a church denomination that didn’t allow married men to be ordained.  The spiritual map I created said this was the only church I could ever be a part of and therefore I had to accept the fact I will never be ordained.  That vocation burned in my heart and I tried to push it away for many years.  Then, my spiritual director read the parable of the talents when we were discussing vocations  and he asked me to reflect on it until our next meeting.  In that parable, the servant who took what the master gave him and hid it (actually buries it like I was doing with my vocation) is the one who is chastised the most.  I soon figured out the spiritual map I created had deleted some options and distorted my understanding of other churches to the point I wasn’t doing what God wanted me to do.

 
If you’re in spiritual direction work with your director to identify where you distort, delete, and generalize spiritual truths to the point it limits you from fulfilling the life God desires for you.  If you’re a spiritual director, look for these in your directees as well.  It’s only when we embrace life as it truly is we find the many options we have to live it well.  Become masters of your spiritual lives by developing a well formed spiritual map and allow God to give you the grace of a thriving, peaceful, fulfilling life.