Monkey Love – What it Teaches us About God


One of my favorite researchers is Harry Harlow.  Harry Harlow completed a number of experiments demonstrating the importance of touch and contact for human flourishing.  The idea touch is important for the development of people seems obvious today but when Dr. Harlow proposed the idea he was battling against a powerful force in the field of psychology.  That force was the predominant school of behaviorism that believed the main reason a mother is important for a child’s development is because she is a primary food source.  Hugs and other comforting acts of human touch were not as important as the fact the child was provided nourishment and therefore had developed behaviors that elicited that reward.  Even early attachment research saw behavior as simply a way to keep the care taker interested in caring for the child.  Certainly, a comforting touch had no benefits for healthy development?  If mom was not a primary food source she would be inconsequential to the development of the child.  Harry Harlow believed there was something more the child needed from its mother that kept her from being reduced to nothing more than a food source.

Harlow tested his theory by taking baby rhesus macaque monkeys and putting them in an environment where they experienced two types of manufactured mothers.  With the first surrogate mother the baby macaques had access to a wire mother monkey that was not soft or comfortable to embrace.  This pretend mother was not warm or comforting in any way and simply served as a food source.  This cold wire mother nourished and fed the baby monkey but provided no source of comfort, had no warmth to it, and was not something the monkey could easily embrace.  Another surrogate mother was placed in the cage as well. This mother was made of wire, wrapped in a soft blanket, and kept warm through a light bulb installed in its center.  No food was provided by this surrogate mother; it was merely a comforting warm source of touch.  Harlow found the monkeys preferred the touch of the warm surrogate over the food distributing uncomfortable wire mother.  He did further studies (Some very controversial) in which he isolated the baby monkeys from any social interactions with others and found these monkeys, even though they were provided food, became withdrawn, unhealthy, and displayed elements of psychosis after long periods of isolation.  His experiments demonstrated social creatures needed to experience connections with others.  In particular, they needed the touch and soothing contact of another warm creature or else they became very unhealthy and some even died.  He successfully created the groundwork for demonstrating the importance of hugging and caressing children for their healthy development.  More importantly he demonstrated you cannot reduce the role of a caretaker to be nothing more than a food source!

What’s most striking about Dr. Harlow’s work is he discovered rhesus monkeys understood the rudimentary elements of love, connection, touch, and the need for social connection.  There was something about them that reflected interdependence and the basic need to love and be loved.  These are the same things people need as well.  I’m not proposing human beings are nothing more than complex rhesus monkeys but I am inferring what we see in this lower class of species is profoundly important for human beings as well.  Why do humans and monkeys share a need for connectivity and what might be inferred to be the basic elements of love discovered in such lovely and cute creatures?  Harlow proved the monkeys did not gravitate to the food producing wire mother, they preferred one in which they could feel comforted even without food.  They preferred the one that seemed to love them, even if it was an artificial and very basic example of loving touch.  People are the same.  We prefer the softer and more loving comfort we get even at the cost of basic nourishment.  You can feed a person’s belly but they will still die of loneliness.  The heart still needs love.  Where does this sense come from?  Why did the monkeys need it and why do we need it? Here are my thoughts.

God created the world out of his pure love and infused it with the seeds of perfect love.  We don’t always see this perfect love, sin has made it a place in which the rule of existence is conquer or be conquered, yet sometimes we see the need to love and give love emerge from the simplest things.  It might be in the social nature of rhesus monkeys or in the desire of a child to love a mother and be loved by her.  Love is inherent to creation and if we ignore it or try and push it away it becomes deadly for us and the other creatures of this world.  This primal sense of love can never be pushed away because as the Christian scriptures teach, God himself is love.  If God is love and God created the world out of love than all of creation in whatever way possible bursts forth with some rudimentary understanding and expression of love.  Human beings are the capstone of creation and therefore we have the potential to be the greatest expression of God’s love when we interact with one another.  When we ignore love, refuse to receive it or give it away, the very thing at our core explodes and we die a lonely death.

Sure, we aren’t rhesus monkeys, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune to the social comfort these animals needed.  As a creature created to be more than an animal, our need for love, comfort, touch, and relationships is even more profound.  Live and love, it’s what you were meant to do and without doing so is to ignore the greatest potential God has placed in the human heart.  Even a monkey knows that!



What We Do With Suffering


Suffering has a way of forcing us to think about the meaning and purpose of life.  Suffering leads us to encounter the ultimacy of our situation because someone close to us has died, we’re struggling with an illness, or an important relationship has ended.  When this happens we naturally want to know “why” our comfortable life is now filled with pain and struggle.  Suffering is a catalyst for change and hopefully that change will be a positive one.  Suffering should cause us to find people to love and love them.  In suffering we should find people to forgive and forgive them.  Most importantly, from suffering we should find people in despair and show them hope.  In short, we must live life and keep ourselves from sleeping through it and sometimes suffering is the very thing that wakes us up.  In the end, the ultimate question you’ll ask yourself as a result of any suffering is am I loved and do I love others enough.  For the Christian, suffering is something that draws us together in community in order to be helped and to help others.

If indeed suffering is part of the human condition and cannot be avoided what is the Christian response to it?  What do we need to do to work through our suffering and the suffering of others?  The answer is we need other people.  Because of our need to be loved, to love, and connect with others we suffer.  Connecting with others means being vulnerable to them.  The paradox of this spiritual maxim is that in the companionship of  others we are healed.  Suffering draws us together, but to be drawn together intimately with others we must be willing to suffer and be hurt by them.  The Christian realizes they’re not alone in their suffering, even when it feels that way.  We are one body and that one body suffers when any member is in pain.  Some Christians have used a common phrase to describe how they feel when their fellow believers are martyred.  The phrase goes something like this; “When one bleeds we all bleed” and in my experience that has been true a number of times.  Here is an example from the writings of  Aristides, a Greek Philosopher from the second century who gives an account of how Christians lived echoing how one person’s suffering impacts the whole Christian community:

“And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.”

Suffering is a mechanism in this broken world allowing God to be manifest through the grace filled acts of Christians.  This means suffering can become a means for spiritual growth.  It creates a nagging prompt initiated by the Holy Spirit to go and be with the one who suffers supplying whatever relief he or she requires.  Even if that relief is merely being present with someone so they know they don’t suffer alone, the Spirit beckons us to be with the one who suffers.  One can sum up suffering in the Christian life wonderfully by reflecting on this quote by A.W. Tozer:

“Slowly, you will discover God’s love in your suffering.  Your heart will begin to approve the whole thing.  You will learn…what all the schools in the world could not teach you – the healing action of faith without supporting pleasure.  You will feel and understand the ministry of the night; its power to purify, to detach, to humble, to destroy the fear of death…  You will learn that pain can sometimes do what even joy cannot, such as exposing the vanity of earth’s trifles and filling your heart with longing for the peace of heaven” (Tozer, 1977, p 122).

The ultimate things in life help us refocus on what is important.  But we are Christians and cannot merely stay in that anxious and frightful place that is human worry and concern for temporal peace.  We must always see life where there is death, hope where there is despair, and love where it seems like all that surrounds us is hate.  Use your suffering to refocus on what matters; a life lived well in the Spirit of God to give him glory and make heaven a reality in a broken world.


The Way We Suffer – A Spiritual Perspective


Christians struggle with the topic of suffering, particularly when so many of us are falling for the Gospel of prosperity where it’s believed by merely having enough faith you will be healed of all disease, receive great financial success, and live happy healthy lives.  That my friends is not Christianity but rather some strange New Age philosophy wrapped in misquoted biblical verses.  A.W.Tozer once wrote the following about suffering:

“Slowly, you will discover God’s love in your suffering.  Your heart will begin to approve the whole thing.  You will learn…what all the schools in the world could not teach you – the healing action of faith without supporting pleasure.  You will feel and understand the ministry of the night; its power to purify, to detach, to humble, to destroy the fear of death…  You will learn that pain can sometimes do what even joy cannot, such as exposing the vanity of earth’s trifles and filling your heart with longing for the peace of heaven.”

A Christian response to suffering touches the very core of human experience, it doesn’t transcend that experience by providing hyper spiritual or cognitive philosophies to dismiss what we feel.  Some religions and philosophies try to make suffering nothing more than an illusion because of earthly attachments, or they try to convince us we can eliminate suffering by merely chasing life’s pleasures.  In the book “Competent Christian Counseling” the authors explain suffering in the Christian life is none of these and can be viewed as an opportunity for growth.  Here is what the authors say:

“Life is not a question of whether or not we suffer; that is a given for everyone born on planet earth.  The more crucial question is how we respond in the midst of suffering.  The reality of heartache and hardship should not lead us to the false and twisted belief that God causes suffering.  Since we cannot escape distress in this life, we are better off finding a way to live with it, finding meaning and redemption through it.”

The reason we suffer is a direct result of the fact we love in a disordered and improper way, and often we do that unintentionally.  In Genesis chapter three we read about our disobedience to God and how it reflects the improper exercise of our free will causing the harmonious structure of creation to be fractured.  Our desire to be something more than we were intended to be (We desire to make ourselves God instead of loving him) makes us vulnerable to the lies evil whispers in our ear.  Our disobedience to God destroyed our access to paradise and continues to destroy any good we seem to do in the present.  Yes, God could have created a creature that only did as he commanded but that would mean we could never truly love him since love requires an act of free will.  God gave humanity the gift of free will fully knowing the ramifications of its misuse.  When we misuse our free will loving in a selfish and self-centered way the world becomes something it was never intended to be.  We have forgotten how to love God first, one another in selfless acts of love, and care for creation in a responsible way.  Suffering occurs in the world because the very distorted love that followed from the fall continues to perpetuate itself today.  We suffer, because disordered love destroys relationships, people, and creation.  It separates us from God keeping us exiled from the bliss of being aware of his continual presence and love in our lives.  Disordered love separates us from one another leaving us to see other people as objects to fulfill our needs and desires, not fellow creatures on a shared journey of living Godly virtue in service to one another.  Lastly, disordered love causes us to make created things into idols taking the place of God.  Disordered love views creation as something to be used; an endless supply of material things to fulfill our selfish desires, needs, and entertainment.  Suffering occurs because we have elected to break the harmony of God’s creation, a harmony established through properly ordered love.

Sin perpetuates itself on people and creation.  Someone hurt by another person doesn’t learn what love truly is and perpetuates that hurt on others.  The land is stripped by one community to meet their energy needs and another community hundreds of miles away suffers when mudslides kill thousands of people living in the path of destruction.  Illness, natural disasters, and a myriad of other problems may not be caused by one person’s sin, but these maladies do exist because all the brokenness in this world accumulates and bursts forth wherever it can.

Yet suffering can have a purpose.  In psychology this is often understand as “Post Traumatic Growth” a type of growth in which an individual develops strength.  I’m not proposing God desires us to suffer in order to grow spiritually, but only that suffering exists in this world because we have elected to be disobedient people who distort love.  God, in his infinite mercy and grace can use this broken condition to reveal himself more profoundly as the God of love, peace, mercy, healing, and strength when we most need it. In a very dark time in my life a wise friend showed me God can use the difficult and painful events in our lives for a greater purpose and path to peace.  He said to me, “Always remember Dominick, God writes straight with crooked lines.”  Suffering is the crooked lines in which God delivers a message of love to us.

Suffering in the Christian life reminds us of the temporal nature of human existence.  Its root is in the fact sin has entered the world and at the heart of sin is its divisive nature.  Sin divides us from God, one another, creation, and finally from our very selves.  We are separated from our bodies in death because of sin.  Other religions attempt to understand suffering and often write it off as nothing more than an illusion, but the Christian recognizes it for what it is, a reality found in a broken world.

If you suffer I know you feel trapped.  Sin is a powerful force that lies to us and tells us we’re all alone.  Yet remember, we never suffer in vain because God enters into our suffering and helps us find a way through it.  He doesn’t always eliminate it, and that is indeed a mystery, but he most assuredly helps us walk through it.  In fact, Christianity believes God so profoundly humbled himself that he entered into it and experienced our suffering in a more profound way than we can imagine.  Have hope, see your condition with eyes of faith, and know you are loved.  This is the Christian walk, one that sees the eternal and transcendent in the temporal and broken.


The Loneliness Epidemic – It’s Not About the Smart Phone


I heard some powerful news a few days ago regarding the impact of loneliness on the health and well-being of people.  It was reported that people who struggle with loneliness deal with increased stress hormones, inflammation, and a number of factors that lead to heart disease, type II diabetes, arthritis, and numerous other physical ailments.  Loneliness is indeed awful for human beings.

It’s important to differentiate what I mean when I say “loneliness” because we often confuse it with something psychologists call social isolation.  Social isolation is a condition in which someone has few social connections.  Loneliness is a condition where the person may have many social connections but feels like they’re alone regardless of the number of friends they have.  People who are socially isolated may not feel lonely.  So, what I want to focus on in this discussion is those people who regardless of the number of their friends, feels like they’re alone.  I want to share with you how I think the fear of connecting with others is the main culprit in this growing epidemic of loneliness.

In the past a number of psychological studies focused primarily on the elderly since it was assumed they were the ones struggling the most with loneliness.  However, recent studies show the peak of the prevalence of loneliness occurs in adolescence and young adult hood.  It then decreases through our middle ages only to emerge again for some in their twilight years. Loneliness is a pervasive and dangerous condition for some of our youngest people.

A difficult part of the loneliness problem is how to make sure people in our lives don’t “feel” lonely and know we’re there with them, for them, and a part of their lives.  Just because we’re “with” someone doesn’t mean they feel it.  Loneliness in many respects is a silent killer because we can never be totally sure that someone in the company of others feels like they’re loved.  While loneliness is not an actual psychological problem, it is a negative condition caused by the fact those of us made to give and receive love feel like we cannot.  We need to know we matter, people care for us, and we belong.  Yet, we live in a world of “Disconnected Digital Existence.” Disconnected digital existence is what I call a state of being in which we develop most of our primary relationships through social media never really knowing the individuals we call “friends” at an intimate level.  These are shallow relationships that tend to keep our real human need to connect with each other starved.  I often say an overabundance of digital relationships is very much like having a diet of nothing more than junk food.  Sure, it kills the hunger but it never provides the nutrition your body needs.

Many people believe taking technology away from people is the answer, but I’m not sure that makes things better.  The same technology that’s creating a sense of isolation and loneliness among a world of connected people helps those who do have deep intimate relationships stay in touch.  It’s not the technology that’s hurting us, its fear.  We’re afraid of intimate relationships.  We’re afraid if we share something about who we are with another person we’ll be criticized, made fun of, or mocked.  Why do teenagers and young adults having a myriad of “friends” on both social media and in their many social activities feel lonely?  Because they believe if they share something about who they are with someone else it will be used as a weapon against them.  With our current technology that “weapon” can become nuclear in a matter of minutes by being shared on twitter.  We can understand why this fear of intimacy has grown among adolescents and young adults because when they watch adults disagree or interact with someone different from them they see these individuals degrade and humiliate one another.  Yes, intimacy and the friendships it develops can be scary.

We must become people who can trust one another again with our deepest concerns, ideas, and needs.  While some of my readers are not much for religion, I can say my faith has given me the courage to be authentic in regards to who I am and to fearlessly share that with others.  It also reminds me that I must first love someone and know them before I have earned the right to challenge them on what they believe.  My faith has taught me challenging another person on their beliefs, behaviors, and ideas isn’t about “winning” its about loving, and loving isn’t necessarily about changing the individual, it’s about understanding the individual.  By being in a loving relationship with someone, you allow for any change to occur naturally and in God’s time, and for God’s purposes.  The Holy Spirit teaches me this: Love one another, care for each other, invest your lives into one another, then the two of you will be transformed.  When one person enters into a relationship with another the individuals who walk away from that encounter are never the same people who entered that encounter because love has fused them together.  Who could be lonely in this world when people begin to do exactly what they were created to do, love and be loved.  That’s the answer to loneliness, to love and be loved authentically.  To be loved for who you are and for what you can become.  Why don’t you try doing that today and be the solution to an epidemic that’s easily cured.  Invest your life in someone else.

Why the 2% Matters – Becoming a Better Student


As a professor, therapist, pastoral minister, workshop facilitator, and spiritual director I spend a significant amount of time “teaching” even if it isn’t always in the traditional sense of the word.  Sometimes I’m more a facilitator than teacher, but I do spend time sharing what I know, my experience, and what life has taught me in the hope it becomes a transformative experience for others.  I enjoy doing this and believe it’s part of my calling.  It’s a way I can encourage people to be the best they can and reach the heights of the human condition.  What always fascinates me is even when I’m well prepared and willing to twist myself into knots, do a wonderfully choreographed dance, or sing a song that lights the stars in the sky in an effort to convey the depth and meaning of the material I’m presenting, there are just some people who will not learn.  I’m not negating my responsibility in the educational process, I’m merely stating one can desire to give all they are until they’re exhausted, but if those individuals in your classroom aren’t willing to learn, you cannot teach them.

Given this truth about the educational process I will still argue that 98% of the responsibility falls to me.  I must create an environment in which the individual in the classroom, counseling office, workshop, etc. knows they are respected, loved, important, and safe.  Only when an individual understands they are welcome, supported, and valued can I as the one responsible for challenging them do so.  However, that last 2%, while small, is exceptionally important.  That 2% is a willingness to be changed.  It’s a willingness to be taught which means a willingness to take risks.

Learning, growing, becoming more than we are requires a willingness to be vulnerable.  We must be receptive to the one who is counseling us, teaching us, or ministering to us.  It means being willing to fail, to put yourself on the line, and most importantly, to realize we really don’t know as much as we think we do.  It requires humility, confidence in oneself, and trust in the one who is teaching and or mentoring you.

There are plenty of reasons someone can’t fulfill that 2% commitment to the process.  Dr. Carole Dweck did a significant amount of research on the power of a “Growth Mindset” in comparison with something she labels a “Fixed Mindset.”  People with a growth mindset find learning to be a process that’s fun and challenging.  Failure for them is merely a way to learn how to do things different the next time.  Most importantly, failure doesn’t make a statement about who they are, it merely gages where they need to direct their effort in a more accurate and targeted way.  A fixed mindset is the complete opposite.  It assumes the reason one is capable of doing whatever they do well is because these skills are fixed in them and their effort has very little to do with how good they are at the things they excel in.  The worst aspect of a fixed mindset is failure becomes a judgement about who the person is not a way of understanding how to do things differently.  Because of these features fixed mindset people are not willing to be taught.  They spend much of their time showing you what they know, not allowing you to transform them.  In the end, no matter how much of the 98% I give to the process, that 2% can derail the whole thing.

While this can be frustrating for many, it’s also important to remember Christ dealt with the same thing.  God himself knows how we feel.  He was charged with the transformation of others in ways we could never imagine.  God gave humanity a free will.  That free will is very powerful.  It can stop the power of God from doing the one thing he desires most and that’s to save us from our sins and enter into a deep and profound relationship with those he is willing to die for.  Free will is that 2% and it’s free will that keeps us from saying “Yes” to God.  If you are an educator, pastoral minister, counselor, or any other individual tasked with investing yourself into the life of another person, give that 98% like your life depends on it.  If you’re a student or someone who has entered into an educational relationship with someone else, give that 2%.  Yes, your 2% does not seem like much, but it can be the one factor that leads you into a fulfilling, transforming, and challenging experience in which you grow to be a better human being.  You have the power to be transformed by those God places in your life, just trust the process enough to be vulnerable to the learning experience.  Amazing things can become of it.

A Sandy White Christmas – Celebrating Christmas in the Carribian

Merry Christmas with santa hat from the tropical beach

This year I did something different for Christmas; I took a cruise through the southern Caribbean islands.  I went begrudgingly, mostly because the last time my family went on a cruise we hated it!  In fact, I thought we’d made a “blood pact” to never go on a cruise again, but I was wrong.  My wife and her sister decided we were going on a ten-day cruise that ran until the 28th of December.  Being away for that amount of time meant we would be in the Caribbean for Christmas eve and Christmas day.

Being away on a Caribbean cruise for Christmas generally elicits two types of responses.  The first is, “Wow, I would love to do that!” and the other is “I would never want to be away for Christmas, particularly if there’s no snow to make it feel like that special time of year.”  I can appreciate both sentiments, particularly since I have now experienced both ways of celebrating Christmas.  Those thinking it might be a great idea to spend Christmas in the Caribbean appreciate the beauty of this part of the world.  They enjoy celebrating Christmas in a place with white beaches and pure blue water.  It does change the whole perspective of a “White Christmas.”  Those who would never do it think Christmas is meant to be celebrated in cooler temperatures around the family tree with a nice fire burning in the fireplace.  Trust me, I can appreciate both these perspectives now that I’ve celebrated Christmas in both climates.  The Caribbean is magnificent and now that I’ve been there I must say it was a wonderful place to celebrate Christmas. I never imagined a Christmas eve celebrated with friends and family on a ship nor did I ever think I would celebrate Christmas day watching my children enjoy snorkeling and seeing rainbow colored fish that no Christmas lights could compete with.  These were both fantastic experiences.  Yet, coming from the North East of the United States, I know Christmas is special when that nip in the air, snow on the ground, and warmth from the inside of the house greet you and your friends as they walk into a home filled with the smell of cookies, wonderful home cooked meals, and the sound of Christmas music coming from the television. These are both wonderful experiences of Christmas.

Having experienced both these experiences I’ve discovered one very important thing about Christmas.  No matter where you are Christmas is always about the same thing.  It’s a holiday in which we celebrate the grace of God manifested in his incarnation.  Whether in the warmth of Aruba, the chilled air of Virginia, or the snowy mountains of western Pennsylvania, Christmas is still about the birth of Christ and what that means.  It’s about the fact God in his infinite power chose to suspend that power to take on the form of a weak and frail human person.  God chose to be one of us from the abundance of his grace to show us what love truly looks like.  He came as a human being to show us love is about emptying oneself and selflessly giving oneself over to others that they may live more fully. This is what Christmas really is; it’s the celebration of love incarnate, God in human flesh coming into the world that we may have life abundantly.  I pray all of you had a wonderful Christmas day and are enjoying the remainder of this Christmas season.  Peace be with you all!

The Christian Vocation of Forgiveness Living a Life of Peace and Grace BY Dominick D. Hankle

9781532605680“Every soul carries within itself pain caused by the hurtful words and acts of another human being. How can you find peace and heal from these wounds? How can you live a Christian life reflective of Christ’s command to be a forgiving, loving person? By integrating the work of psychologists and the deep theological truths of the Christian faith, Dr. Hankle answers these questions and more so you can live a healthy, flourishing, resilient life. He provides you with practical steps to incorporate in your daily spiritual practices so you may love and be loved as God intended.”

Available at Wipf & Stock the Publisher at:

Endorsements & Reviews

“Dominick Hankle has given us a moving narrative of what it means to be a forgiving Christian. Dr. Hankle’s empathy and concern for others from his years of psychological counseling and Christian ministry is compelling. His deep theological perspective throughout the text from his training as a theologian orients our actions. And his clear and accessible presentation of every aspect of forgiveness keeps us reading and moves us to a life of forgiveness. The Christian Vocation of Forgiveness is as practical as it is insightful.”
C. Eric Jones, Associate Professor of Psychology, Regent University

“In his comprehensive new book, the Rev. Dr. Hankle thoughtfully addresses the subject of forgiveness, providing relevant biblical, historical, and theological perspective throughout on this vital topic. Most importantly, Hankle offers practical insights as to how his readers can apply the principles presented in the book to their everyday lives. I can say without reservation that through this very readable and engaging book, I’ve grown significantly in the virtue of forgiveness. I highly commend this work to laity and clergy alike!”

Doug Gray, Episcopal priest and chaplain in Virginia Beach, VA

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.

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


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?