Keeping God at Arm’s Length – The Mystery of Relationships

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I teach a class called counseling skills to undergraduate psychology students interested in pursuing a career in the helping professions.  I love to teach the class because the content is about mastering intimate communication, helping people understand themselves differently, and empowering clients to overcome what they perceive to be impossible situations.  In this course students learn how to use language to help someone see their situation differently, use body language to communicate with people, and many different ways to develop intimacy with a client.  Students develop in a multitude of areas and it’s fun to watch them do the difficult work of therapy with one another even if the problems we use in class aren’t as severe as what a professional counselor experiences in an actual counseling session.

In the course, we watch a number of famous therapists execute their style of therapy in different sessions.  It’s fun to watch the student become enamored with their favorite therapist.  Some gravitate to Carl Rogers, others to Fritz Perls, and the list goes on.  When they’re done watching different films of these so called, “Masters” of the trade I ask them what theory of counseling seems to be the best and why that might be the case.  Of course, this usually leads to a good debate and students quickly entrench and defend their favorite approach to helping people.  Then, when the dust settles, I give them the hard facts.  The truth is no theory of counseling has been proven to be significantly better than any other.  What matters most is the relationship that develops between the client and the therapist.  The simple gift of human interaction at an intimate level is the most significant factor regarding whether or not a client will experience any benefit from therapy.  Relationships matter.

This information is an eye opener for counseling skills students, but it also speaks volumes about other human experiences as well.  One of the first significant frustrations these future therapists experience in their practice sessions is sometimes the person playing the role of client doesn’t want to make a deeper connection with them.  They simply want the therapeutic encounter to stop at a particular level of intimacy limiting the person playing the role of therapist from delving any deeper in the conversation.  This intimate road block occurs because of an important universal truth about human relationships.  A relationship will only be as deep as the person who wants it the least.  No matter how much you may want to enter into a deeper relationship with another person, it will only be as deep and intimate as the person who wants it the least dictates.  You cannot force intimacy and that’s why new therapists have to learn the skills that foster a deeper sense of intimacy.

This truth about human relationships is reflected in so many circles of human life.  You cannot cause your marriage to be more loving, it’s only going to be as loving as the person who loves the least within the relationship; you cannot have deep friendships with people who don’t want to have a friendship as deeply as you want; you cannot have a deep relationship with your parent if your parent is incapable of loving you more deeply.  Every human relationship is only as deep as the person who wants it the least.  There is only one relationship a human being will ever enter into that will always be deeper and more loving than they can go and that’s the relationship they have with God.

This week the Christian church begins its annual journey called Lent.  There’s a great deal of hype around Lent regarding what to give up, what spiritual practices it should include, whether or not it is biblical or even Christian to participate in, etc.  If ashes imposed on your forehead, fasting, praying, and almsgiving are keeping you from the true spirit of this holy season, give them up.  More important than any of these things is to use this time to ask yourself this one question.  What keeps me from entering into a deeper relationship with Christ that I’m not acknowledging?  You know a relationship can only be as deep as the person who wants it the least and in the “God-Person” relationship, it isn’t God who keeps it at a surface level, it’s you!  Are you embarrassed of God?  Do you keep him at a distance through the use of Christian words and themes causing you to sound like a recording of Christian clichés instead of a real person struggling with doubt, shame, sin, and pain?  It’s time to be real with God.  It’s time to ask yourself how can I be closer to God?  What must I remove from my life so I can be closer and more in love with God?  How can this Easter be a life changing experience for me so that the resurrection of Christ is more than just a past event and a real imminent profound truth causing me to be different than I was when I entered into this thing called Lent?  Remember, it’s your idol making heart that keeps the relationship with God from going deeper than you can imagine.  What idols have you put in the way of the true God to keep him at arm’s length?  This is the challenge of Lent and I hope all of you spend these forty days exploring your soul so that you may have life abundantly as God promised those who draw close to him.

 

 

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Seven Dimensions of Living Well – Do You Have Them in Your Life?

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I write about things people can do to create resilient, passionate, fulfilling lives.  I draw on the work of psychologists and the great traditions of Christianity that speak to behaviors and transcendent values people can embrace to truly live well.  Living well doesn’t mean being rich, never experiencing physical pain, or living a worry-free life.  I’m not a prosperity Gospel preacher nor am I someone who thinks happiness can be obtained by following a few simple life rules.  Life is complex and most likely includes struggle, failure, pain, and hurt along with joy, success, pleasure, and peace.  Because it’s a complex human experience it means we can’t oversimplify how to live well.  If someone is giving you a simple solution to living life well, they’re probably not giving you something that works.

There are some things you can start doing to be a better person and I want to share them with you in this post.  I call these “things” dimensions of living well because you can’t oversimplify life; you need to understand it as a multidimensional experience.  These dimensions are supported by Christian spiritual masters and research psychologists.  For now, just ponder them and we can explore them more deeply over the coming weeks:

The first dimension of living well is learning to love well.  Love is a powerful force in our lives.  We were created to love others and to be loved.  Yet, in this broken fallen world we seem to withdraw love from others and get hurt because others take love from us.  Additionally, we seem to love in disordered ways.  We love people as objects and objects as people allowing ourselves to accumulate unnecessary things while people struggle to find a place to sleep and food to eat.  If we want to live passionate, resilient, and fulfilling lives we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and walk in love.

The second dimension is learning to exercise self-control.  Too often we allow situations to control our behavior instead of taking charge of ourselves regardless of the situation.  Self-control means being able to direct all of who we are toward more fulfilling, healthy, and inspiring experiences instead of allowing mindless unconscious drives dictate what we do with ourselves.  Another important aspect of understanding self-control is understanding what we mean when we say “self.”  The self is not just some cognitive entity, it involves your body, mind, emotions, relationships, and spirit.  Learning to master all these areas of your self can help you be a much more fulfilled person in control of your life.

The third dimension for living well is commitment.  People need to have meaning and purpose in life and once someone has found it, they need to commit to it.  Laser focus, fortitude, and being driven toward healthy living activities such as exercise, learning, loving, friendships, and spiritual practices not only gives you a sense of fulfillment it creates mastery in your life.  Learn to be a committed person and watch how you become competent and successful in numerous areas of life.

The fourth dimension important for our topic is generating a healthy self-respect while growing in humility.  We have to recognize while we may fail at things, behave badly at times, and allow our sin nature to show its ugly head, we’re still loved by God and other people.  We have to find ways to respect the person God created (us!).  We need to look in the mirror each morning and say, “You may not be perfect, but you’re uniquely created and loved.”  Humility is important because it keeps this self-respect from becoming self-elevation.  We would probably think pretty highly of ourselves if we didn’t seek out the virtue of humility.  Yet, if all we did was act humbly we might not just rid ourselves of overblown self-respect, we’d probably become self-abasing door mats everyone has the right to step on.  Neither is good and that’s why these two virtues need to be fostered as one dimensions.

The fifth dimension has to do with hope.  People need a sense of optimism in their lives.  They need to know even when things are tough there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.  Hope turns struggle into an exercise of growth instead of a reason for giving up.  We want to be hopeful people in order to become better people.

The sixth dimension important for healthy flourishing lives is friendships.  We’re not meant to live as isolated islands of flesh, we need other people.  It’s important we find people who want to be our friends but also to become a friend to someone else.  Sharing ourselves is exceptionally important because a life poured out for others is not a life that becomes empty but rather a means to be filled with something greater than ourselves.  We need to develop and foster friendships.

The seventh dimension of living well is learning to be a forgiving person.  This is a topic I spend a great deal of time exploring because as a therapist and spiritual director I’ve seen the great results forgiving others has in the lives of hurting people.  When we learn to forgive others not only do we benefit from the release of that emotional weight, but so do the people we love.  Without forgiveness, we have nowhere to place the anger and hurt we feel except on the backs of those closest to us.  When we forgive, we learn to release that anger and hurt so it no longer impacts us and the people we love.

These seven dimensions I’ve discussed help people live resilient and flourishing lives.  The biggest lie you’ve been told is you were meant to be happy all the time.  Happiness comes and goes, it isn’t the perpetual state of human living.  However, in the end, the sum total of a passionate, resilient, and flourishing life is happiness.  When you add everything up, the pain the suffering, the joy and pleasure of living, you will find happiness if you work on these seven dimensions.  When you lay down on that bed for the last time, what criteria will you use to say you lived your life well?  I want mine to reflect how well and who I loved, the manner in which I controlled my life instead of the circumstances around me, the commitments I made and kept, the self-respect and humility I demonstrated, the hope I lived by, the friendships I made and fostered, as well as the way I forgave those who hurt me.  This is a life lived well.  This is living instead of merely existing.  Which do you choose for your life?

 

The Pathological State of America!

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I think America has forgotten how to be entertained.  In many ways, the current overall state of the collective American conscious is in an almost pathological one.  I shuttered when I read online that Lady Gaga was going to politicize the half-time show at the Super Bowl this year.  It reminded me of the message packed half time show last year with complete overt references to gay marriage and numerous other special interest themes.  This year the commercials were even worse.  Not only were they not very entertaining, but so many of them wanted to make political statements it just bored me.  The 84 Lumber commercial in particular made me just want to get up and eat another wing.

Before you judge me as anti-immigration (and I’m not, my mother is an immigrant) or anti anything stop!  This is not about any political stance or moral high ground.  This is the observation of a psychologist who fears the collective conscious of America is now in a complete pathological state and has forgotten how to have fun!  What happened to the commercials that made us laugh like some of the Dorito commercials from last year?  How about those horses playing football, anyone miss those guys?  We laughed, we sat around and joked about them, we even got to the point we were rating them to see which commercial was the best.  Now what do we do?  We watch commercials that perpetuate our gloomy brooding national conscience to the point we’re numb to any emotion other than depression.  We ‘ve become a collective conscious akin to an angry teenager.  We’re dark, overly serious, intense, and believe every cause in the world is ours to challenge and take upon our shoulders carrying this heavy weight everywhere we go.  It seems like the only mood America wants to experience is one of subtle depression.  Clinically, we’re a collective diagnosis of “Dysthymia.”

There was a time when America watched football because they just wanted to be entertained.  There was a time where gay, lesbian, Christian, straight, immigrant, native born, as well as strangers and friends got together to simply watch football so that even if it was just for a short period of the year, they could be distracted.  Dwelling constantly on your gender, sexual preference, legal status, and whatever deep heavy issue you claim as your own is never healthy.  It’s downright pathological.

So, I know some of you reading this will label me as one thing or another; we seem to enjoy doing that these days.  However, instead of finding things wrong with me, let my message challenge you to find some joy in life.  Have some fun and allow yourself to be entertained (and to the entertainers of the world, entertain us!)  In the end, it’s the best thing for us during these intense times.  Psychological research demonstrates laughter and savoring good things in life reduces our stress hormones and reverses many of the effects high stress intense situations cause.  Come on America, find some time to have fun.  All these other deep, dark, troublesome, intense issues will be there for you in the morning.  Life is short.  Before you know it the things you think are so important won’t be that important when you breathe your last breath.   Rather these “important” things that consumed so much of your mental energy will be remembered as the missed opportunities you had in life to just have fun.  What a sad way to live in a country that has so much beauty for us to enjoy.