Living in a World that Makes no Sense

The Boston Marathon bombing is yet another act of violence that we are now metabolizing as a society. I use the word “metabolizing” intentionally. Just as the body takes in what we eat and metabolizes it, we have taken in this senseless violence, we are trying to digest it, and we are struggling to incorporate it into our understanding of the world. We’re doing what we did with Columbine, 9/11, Sandy Hook, and all the other things that we’ve faced in the last years. We are trying now to UNDERSTAND it because then we will know how to make sense of it and what we ought to do with it. We need to find out who did this and why and then figure out how to prevent it happening again. We’ll have more canine bomb-sniffing units at the next marathon and scads more security in other ways, but at the end of the day, are you like me? I still think that senseless things make no sense. Understanding something about it satisfies me for a fleeting moment, but then I’m back with how difficult metabolizing the senseless can be.

The difficulty of metabolizing the world and our lives as they are is what brings many into therapy. Needing to understand and needing to digest are all a part of our humanity. Acceptance of things as they are is very, very difficult. And it doesn’t mean what most people assume—that we approve of it or like it. Acceptance is an important part of successful metabolizing but it is a process of allowing ourselves to see and experience the depth and vastness of reality, whether it is good or bad. As tragedies keep happening, are we able to stay emotionally awake and engaged with all the pain of it?  Sometimes we can live as if we are lactose intolerant and the world is made of milk. In other words, we live as if we CANNOT metabolize the events happening around us.

Metabolizing is a tricky business. There is much that I want to reject—throw up, if you will. But somehow, this is our world and we live here. How is your worldview or your faith helping you with the difficult process of metabolizing this attack?

Perseverating on a Power Outage: Why vs. How

There has been a lot of buzz about WHY the power outage happened at the Super Bowl. I have an answer to that one. Here it is. Get ready. Because stuff like that happens. It’s part of chaos theory, right? It’s evidence of the “s*%^ happens” clause. Whether a Niners fan sabotaged the power box or Beyoncé blew out the circuits or the convention down the street gobbled up the electricity, it’s still part of the surprising, unpredictable, and disruptive quality of this thing we call life.

Sometimes asking WHY is not the most helpful question. One of my spiritual teachers, Dr. Marie, called WHY the question of the inner toddler. It is the question that voices our demanding need to know and that is rarely satisfied with the answer. In fact, that child-part of us often asks WHY simply to find a reason to be angry, entitled, or victimized. Often, there is not a truly satisfying or productive (in terms of handling the situation) answer to WHY questions.

The more helpful question is HOW.

Think about it. When the power went out at the Super Bowl, two teams were undoubtedly asking WHY it was happening. But here is the HOW question. HOW do we handle this power outage happening in the middle of the most important game of our lives? Clearly, San Francisco did a better job with this HOW question during the Super Bowl. Asking WHY would have been a waste of mental/emotional resources during that moment. How often are we spending our energy on WHY when we ought to shift to HOW?

  • Why do I eat so much junk food? vs. How do I live healthier with these overwhelming urges?
  • Why is God allowing this to happen to me? vs. How is God meeting me in this and how can I utilize my spiritual resources?
  • Why is my spouse so annoying? vs. How can I handle my irritation?
  • Why does my boss give preference to the younger employees? vs. How might I best present myself to my boss and ask for what I want?
  • Why am I like this? vs. How do I deal tenderly with myself when I’m so moody?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that developing insight about your motives is a waste of time, but staying in the WHY sometimes leads to bitterness and avoidance of the present-day work. The best psychotherapists know when to lead clients to address which question. Too often, the HOW is ignored and the WHY is overemphasized, leading to months in therapy with no evidence of life change!

Doing well with the HOW question almost enabled the San Francisco to take the Super Bowl from the Ravens. Thankfully, it seems that in the fourth quarter, the Ravens may have shifted from WHY to HOW:

  • Why did this momentum shift like this? Vs. How do we turn the tide on this momentum shift?

 

Where are you asking WHY when you would benefit from shifting to HOW?

The Day My Life Didn’t Change

I got the call all women dread on a Friday afternoon after a routine mammogram—they needed me to come back for more pictures, can’t tell me why over the phone. I scheduled the follow up for Monday, and settled in for a weekend of normal activities with a very disturbing subtext.

Follow up mammograms are all scheduled for the time the radiologist will be at the Breast Center. This is a kindness because women are given a result before they leave. They either get an OK, they are asked to stay for an ultrasound, or they are given even clearer bad news. “We can see a mass”, “we’ll need a biopsy in this area…” So the day I was there, this meant that everyone in the Breast Center was either actively getting treated for breast cancer or was wondering if they were about to begin. At one point there were three of us, all in our pink gowns, finished with our repeat mammograms and waiting for the result. We couldn’t get dressed because they may want even more pictures or an ultrasound. One woman sitting with me had been with someone I’m sure was her mother in the outer waiting area. She was visibly nervous now. I thought, “that was smart….bringing your mom”… but it made the experience far too serious for me to have asked someone along. And so I sat, wondering what the odds were that all three of us were going home with good news.

Waiting to hear if life is going to turn upside down. Have you had this experience? Waiting for one line or two to appear on a pregnancy test, receiving a college acceptance or rejection, or hearing the jury’s verdict. One way or another, this day was going to be the day that my life changed or it was going to be the day it stayed the same.

What I experienced in those moments of waiting was a mixture of fear and serenity. I felt acutely alive and present to all I was thinking and feeling. I sensed God’s miraculous involvement in the minute-by-minute unfolding of my life. And I felt a palpable identification with these two women who would not look up at me from their magazines.

In the end, one of us had to stay for an ultrasound, I got to leave with a clean bill of health, and I don’t know what happened with the third woman. For me, it was the day my life stayed the same. But I’ll have my day when life changes too. We all will, in some way. I suppose that the way we walk through the unchanging days somehow prepares us for the day life changes. In faith, I hope that when it comes, while I may not feel prepared, I will be ready. In the meantime, what does it mean to live the other days present and fully alive?

Thanksgiving Skills

It’s Thanksgiving and if your gathering is like mine, family members are applying their Thanksgiving skills to our holiday in a delightful way.  What is a Thanksgiving skill, you ask? Well, I have an emerging theory that those individuals who do not regularly actually host the dinner, do well to develop a Thanksgiving skill: one thing they can make with confidence that contributes to the traditional meal. In my family, my husband makes the pies, my stepfather makes the whipping cream and some kind of traditional Southern greens, my brother-in-law makes the gravy. If you do not already have a Thanksgiving skill, I suggest you choose wisely. You will have this job every year for the rest of your life.

If everyone plays their part appropriately, what develops is a smooth, well-functioning, and meaningful family celebration machine, right? But why is it that so many of our family celebrations are neither smooth, well-functioning, nor meaningful? Perhaps its because most of us have developed an additional Thanksgiving skill; sliding right back into our emotional automatic pilot. Whatever growth and maturity has come to us in our adult years, however we’ve learned new ways to relate in our years of psychotherapy, most of us regress to our silliest, most rebellious inner teenager when family holidays come. It is a type of turkey-induced trance and it is most difficult to WAKE UP out of it when we are with our family.

Skills can be functional and helpful, but they can also be defensive and protective. When we “go home” we tend to guard up against old hurts that may or may not need protecting any more. But intentional effort to stay out of the trance is usually required to do anything but revert to our lifelong Thanksgiving skills.

In my years of working with college students, and now as a therapist, I often ask, “When you are with your family, what of the new things in your life do your want your family to see?” Then we make a plan about how to show those things. It’s a way to be intentional about STAYING AWAKE and avoiding the trance of the inner teenager.

So, when you’re mashing those potatoes, will your family get to see your new, growing, adult self this holiday season? How are you trying to stay awake this Thanksgiving?

When to be a Hypocrite

When do you find yourself with competing hypocrisies in your life? I was intrigued by one of the comments on my blog last week. Dan wrote, “I have learned in life that a case can be made for a good kind of hypocrisy: doing the right thing on the outside even when our desires or motivations on the inside do not match.” I liked the way this comment challenged the view I hear so much today; that I’ve-got-to-be-true-to-what-I-feel-or-I’m-a-hypocrite feeling. It stands in contrast to the kind of hypocrisy that comes when we don’t live  externally according to values we claim to hold. At times we may find ourselves torn between the kind of hypocrisy that comes when inner feelings and outer actions are misaligned and the other kind of hypocrisy that comes when we don’t live what we believe in spite of our feelings. In the tension between these hypocrisies there is an invitation to deep inner work.

I heard of a therapist who challenged a married client around his genuine feelings of love for another woman. –You’re doing a great job feeling, she said, but now you need to think. And you really need to consider what you are going to do. Are you going live with the tension of this inner feeling and maintain the commitment to your wife? Or are you going to break the commitment to your wife to pursue the feeling?– The client needed to decide which hypocrisy to tolerate: living with a misalignment between inner feelings and outer actions or living with undoing a promise made: commitment to the genuineness of an inner experience or commitment to a vow.

Is it an easy choice to make? No! Because either choice may feel hypocritical. One feels internally disingenuous and the other feels like a rattling conflict of interest. This is where many folks rely on religious and faith institutions to lend us some boundaries in difficult situations like this. The Christian tradition is no exception. Some clear answers are provided for situations when inner experiences threaten to undo us. Jesus called his followers to all sorts of uncomfortable behaviors that may have felt (or feel) out and out unnatural to many folks. And his disciples ranged in their reactions, just like today. But it can be easy to punt to the answers our faith brings (and thus avoid religious hypocrisy) without really looking at and facing the sometimes agonizing tension of the other hypocrisy.

I have seen a lot of clients start with an insistence on not being a hypocrite, only to find out that it isn’t that easy a state to avoid. Often, the therapy process helps the client develop clarity around what the choices are and then choose based not only on the wish to avoid inner or outer hypocrisy, but on values, principles, commitments, and yes, sometimes feelings too. At its best, therapy supports the client in living in the tension that results. And that is the very place where we can crack open the deeper mysteries of gritty, uncomfortable relationship with God that leads to authentic humanity.

So, are you willing to face the tension of hypocrisy?

 

I investigated, and Dan’s comment was inspired by NT Wright’s book, Small Faith Great God, p.96.

Survival Tip for the Worst Mood Ever

I have been unreasonably grumpy the last couple of days. No….worse, I’ve been cranky, dispirited, and whiney. There are decent explanations for this mood; it could be a reentry adjustment or it could be that letdown after big projects are completed. Whatever it is, I’m sitting in a really bad mood. So my mood got me thinking about motivation. When I feel this cranky, I don’t feel motivated to do anything; including things I know might help my mood. When I am in the worst mood ever, I have to draw on something besides motivation to do the things I need to do to run my life and to feel better.

Russ Harris says a couple of really interesting things about motivation in his book, The Confidence Gap.

  • “’Motivation is the desire to do something. And that’s all it is. It’s not some magical drug that gives us the power to do whatever we want…” (P.210).
  • “(Most people understand_ motivation to be primarily a feeling. If we feel good about something—if we’re positive, excited, enthusiastic, revved up, or inspirited—then we say we ‘feel motivated’. And if we don’t have those pleasant feelings, then we say we’re ‘unmotivated’ or that we’ve ‘got no motivation.’”(p. 212)

A lot of my psychotherapy clients fall prey to the idea that they actually need to feel motivated before doing this or that. Or that something is always necessarily wrong if they do not feel motivated. If I could just bottle the stuff ~“Motivation Brew”~ I’d be in big business!

While a sustained lack of motivation can be a symptom of clinical depression, we have to make sure that we don’t think too much of motivation or lean on it rather than our own willingness to make commitments and follow through on them. For me, I have needed to work, love my family, run errands, exercise and cook all while I lacked motivation. If I were waiting for motivation to come this week, I might have stayed under the covers.  I look forward to hearing what you think!

If you like this, check out the book the quotes come from. The Confidence Gap is my resource of the month.

Discovering I’m a Relic

Well, I’m back from China now and it seems that I beat my postcards home! Postcards. When is the last time you received one? The experience of sending them began with realizing that my language partner had not learned the vocabulary for all matter of snail mail realities in her first few years of English. Now that I’ve navigated the system I see why. She shouldn’t waste her time after all. I may very well be the only person she encounters in her lifetime who is practicing the ancient ritual of mailing postcards. After utilizing her translation app on her smart phone, I got my request across. It was then that we made our journey to the post office.  A few things I discovered:

  • Postcards may only be purchased in post offices.
  • Purchasing postage for an overseas postcard involves nearly all of the post office staff. Since the ritual is so outdated and unusual, no one knows the rates. A consultation is necessary to determine the cost.
  • Stamps—another outdated vocabulary word—are no longer to be found in the post office.

This was probably my biggest disappointment. On my previous trips to China, collecting stamps had been a great joy and an artistic delight. The delicate Chinese paintings depicted on stamps were exquisite! I had hoped to find some in the style of the minority population that we were learning so much about. But, I was told that there are no longer any stamps in the post office. I wonder if they were considering giving me the address to a museum!

My local friend very sensitively explained to me that all communication now takes place over the internet….that no one she is aware of sends postcards in China. It was frustrating to so clearly understand this and see this in the US while still expecting that I’d find something different when I was traveling overseas. Don’t get me wrong, I was deeply grateful for my Internet communication this summer, but I wanted to put my hands on a card, write words with a very nice pen, affix an exotic stamp to it and drop it in a mailbox!

Me and my ancient rituals. I hope that my postcards do, in fact, arrive at their destination. The mail that my mother sent to the various hotels where we lodged never got to me.

I suppose that being a relic has its built in disappointments, no?

The View From Here–Part 4

I’ve been way laid with some tummy issues for a couple of days during my travels in western China, watching Chinese coverage of the Olympics in my room while the rest of the group is gallivanting about. I bowed out of our group’s activities after a trip to the famous K-town livestock market where we bought a sheep. After I took a cab back to the hotel, the others in our group slaughtered it (our local friends who have experience, that is) and then everyone spent the day hanging out in the traditional countryside home of one of our group members and prepared it. Our little sheep went from bleating cuteness to lamb soup/noodles/rice pilaf all in one day. An experience in reality that I’m glad my children got to have, but that was a tough sell.

The juxtaposition of watching Olympics while my group slaughters a lamb mirrors the combination of old and new in K-town. The people here cling to beautiful traditions and old style homes in the midst of a nation that is forging ahead, straining to develop as quickly as possible. There are traditional mud-walled homes in one block and then apartment buildings in the next. There are street vendors selling goods like they have for centuries across the street from the cellphone store. In this photo I took, you can see the door of a traditional home with the rubble of the recently demolished next-door home at the doorstep.

It can feel jarring, warming my eyes to the ancient while cranes strain to build the city higher….like cutting out from the livestock market and zoning out on the Olympic air rifle competition. If I ever come back here again, I imagine more of the traditional K-town will be changed. A traditional home was razed some 50 feet our hotel room in one hour the other day. It makes me grateful for the times we get see this world before the next alteration takes place. I was fortunate to get to float down the Yangtze River the summer before it was dammed back in ‘97—perhaps this trip is something like that. Sometimes we, as humans, don’t really know what to do with the ancient. How do we both honor tradition and develop at the same time?

 

What have you seen that no longer exists in its traditional form? And what does it mean to you that it’s gone?

The View From Here…Part 3

Our six-hour bus ride to a mountain town from K-town turned into 12 when a rock and mudslide had to be cleared from the winding mountain road that is the only way through the Pamir mountains. After watching tractors scoop and scrape a few tons of rubble from the road (and about 25 games of Uno, impromptu swing dancing lessons, and several short hikes around the place our bus stopped), we were on our way.

Our bus was full to capacity, so I had the front seat in the bus. And when I say front, I don’t mean the front seat in the front row. I mean the extra pull-down seat in the doorway that places your nose about 24 inches from the front windshield. I was seated closer to the front of the bus than the driver. So, my big window view was wonderful for snapping pictures but perhaps more enlightening about Chinese road rules than I cared to experience.

In China, the lines marked for lanes and the shoulder are really just suggestions. Everyone weaves around on the road with some set of bewildering guidelines that confound the Western mind. Most notably, passing on blind turns is considered safe as long as the driver is honking the horn while doing it. Seeing and experiencing this in the city is one thing, but on a winding mountain road with washed out sections and gigantic boulders teetering overhead is quite another. However, by the time we got to the 12,000 foot pass, I was convinced that our bus driver was a driving genius; he knew how to navigate the system, both the human element and the natural one.

But what we got to see on this journey was just astounding. It was like driving through red mountains in Arizona, desert mountains in Mongolia, the blueness of Lake Tahoe and the snow covered peaks of British Columbia all in one day. And all of it so untouched! When the extreme rock climbers discover this place, there will be people ballaying down the sides of these mountains, but they aren’t there now. When the ski developers get permission to create resorts, there will be a whole new landscape on the snowy peaks, but those things aren’t there now. Along the way on the side of the highway, you see people living in homes made of mud and straw stationed here and there to tend the road, watch their goats or camels, or, well…..I don’t know what they may do for a living in those mountains. But they are hanging laundry and calling after their children just like any of us would. The look of the place is spare in a way that pulls the imagination to those travelers from Central Asia who traveled this very highway to get into China and buy precious silk in K-town. Driving the traditional Silk Road was a once in a lifetime joy.

The trip began with a 6-hour delay that made us wonder if we ought to turn back. The harrowing drive made me feel we were half crazy to embark on the journey. But now to imagine if we had turned back! I would have missed what I think may have been the biggest visual pleasure of my life. This snapshot is just one of so many breath-taking views! I didn’t even know to put seeing this place on my bucket list, but it definitely belonged there.

Perhaps that makes it a more extraordinary gift…that I only vaguely knew it existed and I never even asked to see it.

What unexpected pleasures have come your way lately?

The view from here…Part 2


It was very likely the first time in all of history that German Opera was sung by an African American man at a traditional “You” wedding. This historical event happened here in K-town, China, the last stop at the end of the traditional Silk Road. It was a 26 hour train ride to get here from U-town and what a delight to have our group unexpectedly invited to a wedding the very next day. The portion of the festivities to which we were invited involved 2 meals, dance lessons, witnessing the traditional arrival of the bride, men’s dance and women’s dance, and food, food, food. The hosts’ only request of us? That we offer some music for their 500+ guests to enjoy. Our group pulled together a very mediocre, yet enthusiastic rendition of “Lean on Me”, which was graciously received. But the real treat was that we could offer true talent in the form of our friend singing German Opera.

To put this in context, black folks here, and we have two in our group, draw all kinds of attention. Walking through the streets with them involves constant stares, people taking photos, frequent stops for stilted conversations….so, having a black man sing at the wedding was a spectacle of some magnitude.

The wedding was probably the biggest wedding I’ve ever attended. And these folks took having a videographer at their wedding to a whole new level. Their outfit was complete with a dolly track and a full sized camera jib that sent a camera sailing around us during our musical number. The dancing was highlighted with rock concert lighting and a booming sound system. The whole experience was very exciting.

Overall, being at that wedding felt like one of the greatest gifts of my life. Oh, and did I mention that this all happened on my birthday??? What unexpected gifts have you been given on your birthday?

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