You Are Not a Victim, Overcome Your Situation – Spiritual Transcendence

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There was an interesting study done by a psychologist named Martin Seligman that explored the impact feeling helpless has on one’s sense of well-being.  Seligman took three groups of dogs and ran them through a set of experiments.  The first group was harnessed for a period of time and then released with nothing else done to them.  A second group was harnessed like the first group, however this group received an electric shock at random times which they could only stop by pressing a lever.  A third group was intentionally yoked to the second group so the shocks felt by the dogs in group two were also experienced by the dogs in group three.  The one difference between the two groups was the dogs in group three didn’t have access to a lever to stop the shocks from coming.  For all intensive purposes the dogs in group three had no control over their situation.

The second part of the experiment is probably the more interesting.  Seligman changed the situation to give all the dogs a chance to avoid being shocked.  He placed the dogs from group one, two, and three into a cage where one side was wired for shocks and the other was considered “safe”; a place where shocks could be avoided.  The dogs simply had to jump over the partition to the safe side to avoid being shocked.  The dogs from group one that were merely harnessed in the previous experiment immediately jumped over the partition to avoid being shocked.  The dogs from group two who in the previous experiment were able to escape from being shocked through the use of a lever did the same as group one in this experiment.  They had little trouble recognizing they had a way to avoid being shocked by simply jumping over the partition in their cage to the safe area.  What about the dogs who were yoked to the second group in the first experiment having no control over whether or not the shocking stopped?  Well, they did nothing.  They simply laid there taking shock after shock, abuse after abuse, demonstrating they felt no sense of empowerment to overcome their situation.

The experiment above and others like it demonstrate something interesting not just about dogs, but about us as well.  When we’re placed in a disempowering situation for a prolonged period of time we feel stuck.  We feel like we can’t do anything about our situation so we just lay there and take whatever is thrown at us.  This learned helplessness is something I frequently address with clients in therapy and in spiritual direction.  We easily buy into the lie we’re victims of our situation and can do nothing about it.  We’re like the dogs in Seligman’s third group who’ve simply found other people control whether or not we get shocked so we may as well just give up.  That’s a powerful lie that some people perpetuate just to keep us from being empowered.  Evil at its heart is a voice in our head constantly  saying, “Just lay down and take it, you can’t change your situation anyway.”
We can always change our situation.  We’re always in control of at least some factor in our environment, we just need to be creative enough to find it and use it for change.  God created us to transcend our situation in ways no other creature can!  To do so requires we ignore the evil lie keeping us from exercising that transcendent power.  If there’s any spiritual strength you need to be convinced of it’s that you are by the grace of God a person who doesn’t need to remain stuck in your current situation and can choose to do something to move forward and become the person you were intended to be.  You deserve to know love and to have the opportunity to share love with others.  If you’ve been in an environment too long telling you otherwise, change the environment.  I’ve often wondered what it’s like to see ourselves as God does instead of the way sin shapes our self-perception.  No matter how good we have it now we were created to be so much more.  Unfortunately many of us buy  into the spiritual lie that we have to be content with where we are, take abuse from others, and remain stuck in our current situation.  Grace is God’s answer to this skewed picture of life.  Grace says no matter how stuck you feel there’s a way out.  Grace says no matter how unloved you’ve been made to feel, there’s an ocean of love to receive.  Grace says no matter how marred and ugly you feel, there’s another who sees you for the beautiful person you are.  Don’t allow the sin in the world to leave you laying in that cage taking the shocks of evil over and over again.  Know that there is Grace in this life to encourage you to leap over that barrier and find the peace each of us deserves.  Love is powerful, just believe you’re worth it and allow that power to help you transcend whatever situation you find yourself in.

Are You Running Away From Intimacy?

January 25, 2007. Madrid, Spain. The writer Jose Saramago during the presentation of his new book in spanish 'Las pequenas memorias' In the image, the wife and translator of Saramago, Pilar del Rio, holds the hand of the writer.

People run from intimacy.  Most of us don’t realize we’re doing it, but in a very unconscious way we all run from it.  Intimacy is scary because it requires us to love other people unconditionally and in a way requiring us to disclose the very person we are without any masks or fronts.  Love means being vulnerable and sharing some of the most personal and “naked” elements of our being with another person.  Too often we associate intimacy with sexual behavior.  While sexual behaviors are most powerful when we share an intimate relationship with the person we make love to, intimacy does not require sexual relationships.  In fact, sex can be one of the many ways we avoid intimacy.

We learn to run away from intimacy over a lifetime of hurt.  From the moment we’re born we’re reaching out to other people and sometimes they reject us and hurt us.  Most of the time they do it without intending to but sometimes, because people are people, they do it intentionally.  When we’re old enough to seek deeper relationships, we draw on our past experiences and therefore we hesitate to become intimate with others because of this pattern of rejection and indifference that’s ingrained in our subconscious mind.  In short, we develop mechanisms to keep us from being intimate with others in order to protect ourselves from the pain that comes with rejection.

There are a multitude or ways people avoid intimacy.  Some choose pornography or emotionless sex.  Some choose to drink themselves to the point of numbness, never completely drunk or stoned, but just numb enough to avoid connecting with other people on a deeper level.  Some people will talk a great deal without intention or purpose avoiding deeper matters making their conversation hover at a very shallow level.  As a therapist, I spend a great deal of time helping people recognize much of what they do is merely a coping mechanism which allows them to avoid intimacy.  They need to be aware of this emotional escapism because the truth is we were created to be intimate with each other and when we don’t do that we suffer and struggle to flourish.  We thrive on deep intimate friendships and without them, we cannot function well.

An interesting facet of intimacy avoidance is frequently found in spiritual and religious people.  People will claim a type of spirituality that draws them into themselves and proclaim it as a sort of “gift” in which they come to know the divine in a more profound way.  They avoid people and intimate relationships so they can spend time dwelling in the presence of God.  These hyper spiritual people have forgotten that the greatest way to know and love God is in service to other people; by fostering intimate relationships with other people.  Even more disturbing are those religious people who use moral laws and codes to avoid spending time with people who had or are considering an abortion, dealing with same sex attraction, or going through a divorce.  Instead of being intimately involved with these people they stand at arm’s length from them and dictate laws and moral precepts.  This speaks more about our fear of intimacy with other people than our moral righteousness.

Intimacy continues to be something we avoid.  Through smartphones, Facebook, religion, spirituality, and the myriad of human vices available to us we find ways to run away from intimacy.  However, the most fulfilling experience you can have is to intimately connect with God through other people.  I am convinced you can tell how deeply spiritual a person is based on how they treat other people.  If you can’t make yourself vulnerable to the love of other people you’ll never know the love God desires to share with you.  Don’t run from intimacy through the many human vices available, just find a way to love someone unconditionally.  You may find God more profoundly in that experience than from sitting in a great ancient cathedral separated from other worshipers by the empty distance buffering you from them.

Suffering and Being Present – How to Help Others Overcome Pain

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Struggles are tough.  Sometimes someone we love get sick or dies.  We might lose a job or experience a number of life’s disappointments.  We can be certain that pain, suffering, disappointment, divorce, accidents, and health issues will touch us at some point in this life.  In a sense, to live is to suffer, perhaps not always, but often suffering finds its way into our lives.

Different religions do different things with suffering.  Buddhism professes that suffering isn’t real.  They teach suffering is an illusion we experience because of an inordinate attachment to our self.  Through meditation and contemplation one can escape from the trap of suffering and transcend the cares of this life.  While I know Buddhism is a compassionate religion I often wonder what love looks like if one has no “self” to give to the “other” in the transcendent act of selflessness love requires.  There must be more to suffering than simply writing it off as an illusion.  In fact, for those who suffer (and we all will at some time) it’s a very real experience.  Our emotions have a real impact on our bodies.  We experience emotional suffering physically because our being is holistic; one consisting of body, mind, emotion, relationships, and spirit.  An experience in one part of our being impacts all the others.  This observation brings me to the main point of this short post.  How can we help someone we know who is suffering?  Over many years as a therapist and working in pastoral ministry I’ve found the answer tends to be the most difficult yet simplest thing we can do.

The best thing we can do for one another when suffering is send the clear message, “You’re not alone.”  Those words resonate with the human heart and speak volumes in those situations where nothing else is appropriate.  We believe we need to address the head of our suffering friends by helping them make meaning out of their suffering but the truth is, when we’re suffering it’s usually the heart that needs comforting first not the mind.  The difficulty with comforting the heart is the heart doesn’t speak the language of reason, it only understands the non-verbal experience of “presence.”

I have had the honor of sitting with men and women on their death bed, in their hospital rooms, or in a church pew who are experiencing a great deal of suffering.  While with them I didn’t reason through their painful situation trying to provide deep theological and psychological reasons for their pain.  I merely sat with them, cried with them, listen to them tell their story and let them know, “I hear you, your experience matters to me, and you are not alone.”

Never fall into the trap of believing you can give someone meaning in regards to their suffering.  They need to come to that place on their own.  Suffering is not an illusion, rather it’s a moment of redemption in which the human person comes to terms with the fallen and broken world in which we live recognizing “Things are not as they were meant to be.”  Be present with others and allow for that relationship to be a healing moment in which God makes himself know where “Two or three are gathered.”  The transcendent nature of relationships is a healing bond all on its own.  Be present to one another’s suffering and allow the Holy Spirit to do the healing.

Two Key Psychological Characteristics to Succeed in Anything

successYou hear a great deal in psychology about the ability to be resilient and its impact on living a healthy flourishing life.  Resilience is indeed a powerful asset, particularly when you combine it with a growth mindset.  If you want to be a successful person you need two important psychological characteristics.  First, you need to be growth minded and secondly, you need to be resilient.  If you’re a growth minded resilient person you can do most anything.  Let me enlighten you to why this is the case.

Having a growth mindset is important because it shapes your understanding of failure.  Carol Dweck, a prominent social psychologist at Stanford University has done a great deal of research on what makes some people more successful than others.  There’s a great ted talk she did on the power of believing you can watch here if you like.  The basic idea of her theory is there are two ways we process failure.  The first way of processing failure is referred to as having a fixed mindset.  Someone with a fixed mindset tends to see failure as a judgement about who they are.  If they fail a test that failure isn’t just a judgement about how well they learned the material, it’s a judgement about who they are.  People become fixed mindset oriented because over the course of their life they’ve been told “you’re really smart”, or “You’re a great musician” which psychologically links one’s self-identification with achievement.  Who they are is affirmed by what they do.  If they fail at anything that failure is experienced as a loss of part of themselves, not just an assessment of their ability.

People with a growth mindset view failure in a completely different way.  When they fail they want to know how to do things differently the next time they try to accomplish their goals.  For them failure is one step in learning to do something better.  It’s only one point of data in a lifetime of becoming accomplished at some task.  Sure, they don’t like failing, but they don’t experience failure as a statement about who they are.  Failure is only an assessment of how well they performed something and a potential key to performing it better.  People with a growth mindset have generally been complimented on their work effort.  They’ve been told the work and effort they put into things makes a difference in their performance.  It’s not that these people work harder than those with a fixed mindset, rather they’ve been assured the reason they’re successful isn’t because of who they are but rather how hard they work.  For them, failure isn’t a judgement about who they are but rather the work they’ve done.  Growth mindset people understand failure simply means they need to adjust how and what they do, not become something other than who they are!  If you want to be successful become someone with a growth mindset who recognizes failure is nothing more than a hint on how to do things better the next time.  If you see failure as a step towards success you’re less likely to give up.  Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” Fixed mindset people are afraid to try “one more time” because that might be one more time they hear how they’re a failure.  Growth mindset people try “one more time” because it helps them adjust their strategy and get one step closer to succeeding!

Along with a growth mindset, resilience is a key characteristic of successful people.  If you want to be able to get past the adversity of failure you need to be resilient.  Resilience is the process one uses to adapt to and overcome adversity, trauma, tragedy, and any other stressful life event.  Failure is stressful even for growth mindset people.  Resilience isn’t something you’re born with it’s something you develop.  You develop resilience through strong relationships that provide you with a solid emotional support base.  You need to avoid seeing failure as catastrophic, accept that change is a part of life that should be embraced, as well as view life as an opportunity for self-discovery and growth.  Resilient people keep things in perspective, maintain a hopeful outlook on life, and take decisive action.  In short, resilient people are solution focused people not problem focused people.  While life involves pain and suffering, pain and suffering are opportunities to learn, grow, and develop into better people.

So, do you want to be successful in whatever you do?  First, become growth mindset oriented and see every failure as merely an assessment on what you did as well as an opportunity to do something differently.  Secondly, become resilient.  Don’t give up; go after your goal again drawing on the people who make up your support system for help.  Take what you learned about yourself when you failed and apply that knowledge to succeed the next time.  Don’t turn your failure into some big scary monster, look at it realistically and with a solution focused orientation.  Resilience keeps you rebounding and a growth mindset keeps you in the race.  If you can develop these two psychological characteristics you’re on your way to being a successful, flourishing human being.  Try it today.  Set your goal and go after it with passion, resilience, and a growth mindset and see what you can accomplish!

Being Loved Until Your Eyes Pop Out – Being Real According to the Velveteen Rabbit

rabbit 2I have never read the book The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams the whole way through.  Yet, occasionally, someone will post a quote from this children’s book that strikes me as so profound I tell myself I have to read it.  The other day I came across one of these quotes and wanted to reflect on it with my readers because of its simple yet profound wisdom.  The story is about a velveteen toy rabbit that wants to be “real.”  The rabbit was a gift to a little boy who at first didn’t pay it any mind, but later latched on to it and took it everywhere he went.  The rabbit loved being with the little boy and enjoyed being played with.  There was another older toy known as “The Skin Horse” who gave the rabbit sage advice at times in the story to help him understand what it means to be “Real.”  Here is the quote that resonated deep within me that I just have to share:

“He said, “You became.  It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.  But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

That’s some powerful advice that applies to people as much as it does toys.  Let me explain.  The toys that are most real, that is the toys that have entered into a relationship with the children, are the ones who get dirty, beat up, are rugged looking, and simply worn out.  Yet these are truly “real” toys because they’ve entered into a relationship with a child and allowed themselves to be vulnerable and open to the adventures and surprises that living requires.  The quote also reminds us the toys most easily entering these life affirming relationships are those that don’t break easily, need careful storage and care, or have sharp edges keeping children at bay.  The toys that become “real” are the toys that are inviting, soft, squeezable, friendly, and hearty.  Why do I think this description of a toy is applicable to living life well?  Because we need to be like these inviting, relationship building toys.

I hope I’m a velveteen rabbit.  I hope I invite people into relationship with me.  I want to be inviting, not too sharp keeping people away.  I want to be the kind of person people are comfortable embracing, not the kind of person easily broken or requiring a great deal of work to love.  Most of all I want to be the kind of person comfortable making myself vulnerable so I can experience love.  Yes, that means my hair may be “loved off” and my eyes may “drop out” but oh what a beautiful life it will be.  The fact I may walk away from life with a number of bumps, bruises, and scars only says I am “Real” and I have lived with passion and commitment to what’s most important.  I never want to be the kind of toy that gets placed on a shelf so collectors can gaze at me in a showcase.  I want to be touched, engaged, and loved which means I have to realize I’ll look very shabby and worn by the time I come to my life’s end.  But I will have lived and as the Skin Horse in the story says, “But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”  Living life well means getting down and dirty with other people and being willing to meet them in the mess of life.  When you do that, you get dirty yourself.  However, the joy and love emerging from these relationships is powerful and worth every popped stich you experience.

We can learn a great deal from the velveteen rabbit.  I hope in some way I’ve inspired you not to worry so much about how shabby you look or being afraid of getting broken in some way.   Rather I hope I’ve inspired you to desire getting in the mix of life so you can love, laugh, cry, and weep with the people you meet.  Otherwise your life is nothing more than a safe shadow box in which you hide from the very thing you were created to be, an icon of love in a world full of hate.  A creature of loving relationships in a world of isolation.

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.

 

 

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.

Can’t We Just Be Friends -Ask This Before Marriage!

coupleIf you’re thinking about marrying someone you probably ask yourself a lot of questions.  Is this a stable person, are they able to contribute equally to the relationship, do they have a good job, are they kind, are they good looking, etc.  None of these are bad questions but interestingly enough we seldom ask ourselves, “Is this someone I could be friends with the rest of my life?”  I understand it’s a hard question to answer because people can change over time.  But as a psychologist I can tell you they don’t change so drastically that they become a totally different person.  In fact, personality theory argues personality traits are pretty consistent across different life situations and over a lifetime.  What often happens is people ignore certain traits or live under the delusion they can change someone they marry after they’ve been together some time.  The fact is most people don’t change so significantly that they’re a totally different person, you may just not have known them that well before you married them.

Beyond all this the most important question you need to ask yourself is about friendship.  All love finds its roots in friendship.  In fact, when you ask yourself if you love someone you should really be asking yourself if the love you feel has its roots in friendship and not romance and passion.  Friendship love is a type of love that seeks nothing as its end other than a relationship in which two people can honestly share themselves with one another.  If its true friendship you’re not trying to get something from being in the other person’s company, you’re merely in a place that’s comfortable and facilitates the free sharing of who you are while receiving the gift of another person.  This is a truly fantastic type of love.

The reason most couples seem to shy away from friendship as the core of their marriage is because it seems so very ordinary.  Romance has “fire” and gets our hormones moving.  Our heart beats tremendously fast and our breathing becomes heavy and short.  Our senses are much more aware of the other person’s touch and our mind is taken over by our emotions.  That sounds really fun and quite honestly, it is!  Yet, that type of experience is most enjoyable when you trust the person you share it with.  Passion is at its best when there’s little inhibition between you and your spouse.  If you’re not friends, passion can be a scary feeling that appears more like anxiety than love.  Friendship on the other hand is ordinary.  It doesn’t make our physiology turn into a volcano and it certainly doesn’t have the same addictive features romantic love has.  In fact, our culture is so blasé about friendship we often tell those we aren’t romantically interested in we, “Just want to be friends.”  That really is a shame because the truth is after years of marriage you end up hoping you and your spouse can “remain friends.”

I’m reading a book about love called. “Love’s Sacred Order” and in it the author says this about friendship love:

“Family affection and romance, for all their beauty, humanity and necessity, are nevertheless tied to very specific functions whether or not we want them to be: people’s need for stability and “settling down” and having a purpose in life, the human species’ need to procreate and thus fulfill its God-given vocation, the urge to foster the growth and well-being of one’s children, the desire to fulfill the obligations of one’s state of life, and so on.  Friendship, by contrast, ought to be wholly gratuitous, freely given and freely received, disinterested in the sense of having no ulterior motives, lacking a specific exterior purpose for its existence.”

One might argue there is a purpose to friendship.  That purpose is to be truly human.  No other creature can merely enter into a relationship with another for the sole purpose of being in communion with each other.  Romantic love draws on the passions that lead to the biological need to procreate but friendship love has no other purpose than to allow two human beings to enter into a true relationship of equals.  Two creatures made in the image of God are able to reflect the divine to each other simply because of who they are.  This is something marriage can carry into eternity unlike the passing experience of romance that doesn’t survive our youthful existence on earth.

So if you truly want to know if the person you’re dating is someone you should marry ask yourself this simple question, “Can I be friends with this person?”  If it’s yes, you’re on your way to a satisfying and healthy relationship.  If not, or you’re not sure, wait.  Find out if you can because in the end that’s what matters most.  All other aspects of your relationship with each other most likely have a purpose and have a reason for existence, but friendship exists for itself.  As the author of this book states, “If you will, friendship is one of those human realities that is only fully itself when it is an end in itself.”

Love is a multifaceted human experience but at its core friendship is what connects all the different elements of that experience.  If you cannot be friends with the one you want to spend your life with, the rest will merely fall apart.  Why not try “Just being friends” and see where that takes you.

The Hard Work of Obedience

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No one likes the word “obedience.”  I think it’s safe to say most people give that word lip service, particularly in a country like the United States where we value independence and individuality.  Yet obedience is a deep spiritual virtue that can help us become more profoundly spiritual and transformed.  In a little book written by a saintly man called “The Rule of St. Benedict” once can find profound advice on being obedient.  First, Benedict establishes who we obey because it’s quite easy to trap ourselves in obedience to the wrong source of authority.  That’s one reason obedience isn’t so popular, because we’ve seen how people become abused at the hands of poor leadership and illegitimate authority.  The paradox of the situation is by only being obedient to ourselves we become subject to a tyrant just as bad as the twisted preacher using people’s faith to get what he or she wants.  When we make ourselves an authority of its own we place ourselves under the rule of someone who can’t view themselves objectively and is not accountable to the truths and realities of a world outside themselves.  Much of the work I do as a therapist is helping people realize they’re their own worst enemy.  They set up rules and demands for themselves only to discover they can’t live up to them (and quite frankly no one in the world could either).  Benedict reminds his readers they are to be obedient to one source of authority and that authority is God revealed through Jesus Christ.  In the prologue of the book he says we are choosing to do battle (Spiritual battle) for the Lord Christ, the true king.  This is the source of legitimate authority we must obey.  Anything else only leads to sorrow, spiritual decay, and death.

The next question most people, ask is “How can I know when it’s Christ I’m following and not some preacher twisting Christ’s words around to suite his or her purposes?”  That’s a great question!  This is why it’s so important to dwell within the scriptures.  Read your bibles with a desire to know Christ.  If you seek him with sincere desire in the pages of the bible you will find him there.  The first place to start in the bible is within the gospels.  Read them and take note of what Christ actually says.  His direct teachings are found there and are an important source for knowing him.  Once you saturate yourself with the gospels read the epistles written by Paul and the other apostles.  These are letters written to communities trying to actualize the teachings of Jesus within their local context.  Use these as examples of how to live what Jesus taught in your life today and in our present time.  Lastly, read the old testament.  These help you understand what led up to the coming of Christ and how humanity was being prepared to receive him.  All of these writings bring you into the presence of God who is the ultimate authority in your life.

Now that we know who to obey, Benedict reminds us that obedience is hard work.  It takes effort to be obedient.  In the prologue of the rule he reminds us “By the labor of obedience you may return to Him from whom you have departed by the sloth of disobedience.”  This is another reason we dislike obedience, it takes effort.  Like all the other virtues, to obey God means we have to counter our natural inclination to do what our sin nature tells us and participate in the life of grace.  While nothing we do earns grace, or can save us, the one thing required of us is the most difficult for us to do.  That one thing is to give ourselves over to the work of God.  We must surrender ourselves into the hands of God and allow him to take the clay that we are and form us into what he desires.  Benedict writes in his prologue “To you, therefore, my words are now addressed, whoever you may be, who are renouncing your own will….”  This is the work; this is the difficult task of obedience, to surrender ourselves to the rule of Christ and allow the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts.

Are you ready to be transformed?  Do you desire a life different than you live now?  Will you trust God and give yourself over to him?  Follow the advice of this sage man from the 6th century and willingly give up your will to follow Christ.  Obedience is a virtue acquired by the hard work of surrendering yourself to the legitimate authority of God.  Don’t fall into the trap of believing you can just live as you want and be happy, that’s falling under the rule of a whole different type of tyrant.  Trust Christ, know him in his word and the breaking of bread, and follow him wherever he takes you.  Obedience to God is the first step in living a transformed life.