The view from here…


After approximately 24 hours on planes (4 different flights) over the course of 2 and a half days, we have finally arrived in U-town, China. I would say that most of us in my travel group (including children) are experiencing the adrenaline rush of being in a completely unfamiliar place for the first time. The experience can be likened to the bonding that can take place between mother and child in the first hours after birth. It is a unique time when hormones are surging in just the right way. Even with jetlag we are all feeling something like this. We see this place like we never will again, with totally fresh eyes. And the view is amazing.

I have traveled in China before, but never to this region of the country, which is far, far west of Beijing. Here, we are steeped in You culture. The You are an ancient people and an unintentional minority here in China. And now we can see with our eyes, ears, and mouths the uniqueness of this culture. Everything looks bright and different, every new flavor is strong on the tongue. We are open and receptive in this particular window of time as every sensation is experienced and processed as different than anything we’ve seen, heard, smelled, or tasted before. In even just a few days, we will grow accustomed to parts of this place and our senses will quiet.

All the things that delight and disappoint us are things we couldn’t have predicted; a hot cup of tea when it’s 85 degrees, a successful transaction with a street vendor, a smile on my kids’ faces when eating a new treat–like lamb dumplings, deep-fried bread, or vegetables for breakfast. Even the disappointments feel like they have an upside; our windowless hotel room felt like a gift after I heard the story our local friend told of his attempts to find us housing.

Windows of time like this are worth noticing, because you don’t have to go to the other side of the globe to have them. In college student work, we have noticed that the first days of freshman year are something like this. I’ve already mentioned the time after a baby is born, and what about other transitions? Times when we see with sharper eye and more sensitive ears are a gift. Let’s notice them.

I look forward to hearing about your view.

Toiletries and Global Justice

I forgot my toiletries bag when I went to lead a 3-day training event this week. The other women there were gracious and offered to share necessities, but being young, natural beauties they did not pack nearly as much as I normally bring. I bought a toothbrush at the conference center office, but they didn’t sell much else. I’m one of those people who got her toiletries pulled out of the carry-on for a search, not because anything was bigger than 3 ounces, but because I had SO MANY 3-ounce containers! All filled with products that go everywhere with me. There’s some essential for everything and it seems that I own it. I’m always asking people what the deeper invitation in life situations might be, so I decided to heed to my own annoying question and suppose there might be something for me to notice in a few days without my toiletries. I took it as a good Lenten practice to abstain and so, I borrowed toothpaste and shampoo, but decided to live without everything else.

The first thing I noticed was that my lips were getting chapped. No lip stuff. Then there were strange clicks coming from my baseboard heater. No earplugs. I did my training in my much-more-natural-than-usual state. No make-up or hair goo. Things started to cascade after that. My run left my cheeks sunburned and my foot sore. No sunscreen, no Advil. My eyes started itching. No allergy drops. I even noticed my legs getting prickly and dry. No razor, no lotion. I was getting grumpy.

This short foray into simplicity had exposed my insistence on a life free of discomfort. I realized how much I avoid feeling annoyed, irritated, or self-conscious. All are unwelcome feelings and I would prefer not experiencing them. I was surprised how much I noticed and felt irritated by these seemingly small things. If I have this luxury of being able to live without discomfort, what more significant discomforts am I avoiding simply because I am able?

I can avoid thinking about the plight of the city because I live in the suburbs.

I can avoid considering racial injustice because I am often surrounded by people like me.

I can avoid wondering how products that increase my comfort are manufactured because no one’s holding me accountable.

Truth be told, I hate feeling uncomfortable. But if I don’t insist on it, what will become of my soul? And….what kind of therapist will I be? After all, the work of therapy is often inviting people into various kinds of discomfort. Perhaps little experiments like these are more critical than I supposed.

What discomfort is covered over by your life’s comfort?

Shame and Vulnerability

Shame has toxic power. It can cause us to withdraw, aggressively defend, or viciously attack. Nothing has the power to get people stuck quite like shame. I have seen shame drive people to near total isolation, to almost complete denial, deep deception, and life-wrecking substance abuse.

I listened to a talk last week (link below) about vulnerability and shame. The speaker, Brene Brown, made a couple of brilliant points. First, she said that shame is highly correlated with anxiety, addictions, depression, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. Interestingly, she followed up by saying that guilt is    inversely correlated to those things. In other words, shame drives people into dysfunction and guilt drives people away from it. Are you surprised? Shame is about personhood. Guilt is about actions. With guilt, an apology or repentance might offer some relief. But what about shame?

Another of  Brown‘s great points was that shame thrives on secrecy. The antidote to shame’s toxic power? Empathy. Empathy absolutely kills it. If you think about it, you’ve probably experienced bringing a long-held secret to someone who responded with empathy. Perhaps it was a friend, a lover, or God. In the gospels, Jesus gives us a model for this by confounding shame several times by knowing peoples’ secrets and responding with empathy and kindness.

What does it take to receive empathy? A willingness to be vulnerable. If I could inject my clients with this willingness, I would be one successful shame-therapist. And honestly, for many people, the therapy relationship is the first place to test out vulnerability and see what happens. But the willingness to take the first step is, for some, like taking a swan dive into the Grand Canyon.

If this wisdom can touch our culture, what will be unlocked? What if women don’t have to look perfect and men don’t have to hold it all together? What if failure becomes acceptable and vulnerability is seen as strength? What would the world be like?

Take 20 minutes to listen to Brene Brown’s 20-minute TED talk, (CLICK HERE) or if you’re short on time, check out the last 7 minutes when she focuses on shame. It could be the most important click of your week.

Displacement

I grew up in Alabama and moved to a DC suburb in Northern Virginia the summer before my sophomore year. I got ready for school the first day like I always did in Alabama. After a month-long process of weighing current fashion trends, I put on my pleated jeans, a pink plaid shirt, pink tennis shoes and—forget a real belt—I tied a pink bow around my waist. I rolled my hair (remember hot rollers?) and loaded on my eye-make-up like always. I looked awesome in the way that any 15-year-old trying to look like a sorority girl does.

I was the only one on my route doomed to actually need bus transportation, so when we pulled up to my school I was a little nervous about exiting the bus solo. As the driver slowed in the circular drive my nervousness shifted to shock.  I saw kids with ripped tank tops, spiked collars around their necks, cut-off jeans with frayed edges, and people spinning on skateboards and trick bikes. No one was in long pants or a shirt with a collar, both of which were standard issue, if not dress code, at my public school in the south. Somehow, these kids hadn’t gotten the same fashion memo I had. It dawned on me that I was going to step off the bus and look like a fool.

There was nothing else to look at but me. And in this context, I looked…ridiculous, as if I were trying for the cover of Teen Magazine (which I had been) at grunge punk concert.  And so, all activity stopped. All the conversations, the bouncing bikes, the spinning skate boards, everything but the music.  I was relieved when the principle walked out to greet me (also wearing shorts) until I became painfully aware that everyone’s attention was riveted on my phrases punctuated with “sir” and flourished by my southern accent that trumped Daisy Duke’s by about 20 times.

Besides my teachers, no one spoke to me that day and I didn’t speak to anyone. But I noticed everything. I noticed mostly myself, feeling acutely displaced. My clothing and make-up, which had seemed my greatest asset, were my biggest barrier. My southern accent, which I never noticed in Alabama, was a bullhorn that blurred any content I might speak. At the time, I couldn’t quite grasp the arbitrariness of image management or see that all of those other students might have been just as invested in their “look” as I was. All I could see was that I had moved somewhere as different as the moon and the rules were all different.

I can see now that I’ve managed to displace myself more than a few times since then. I’ve migrated coast to coast twice, joining already established ministry teams both times. I got my theology degree at Howard University, a historically black university. What prepared me for these things? Might have had something to do with one pinked teenager walking off a school bus one day? You never know what uncomfortable experiences will empower you to do later. I will posit that those of us in the majority culture actually need experiences of displacement to help us understand that our perceived norms can be out and out arbitrary. I’m grateful now that I had this and other displacement experiences to show me that the world was bigger and much more diverse than I’d been led to believe by Teen Magazine.

How has displacement helped you grow? Or tempted you to shrink?

How To Be An Adult

Do you suffer with SAKS? That’s Staying-AKid syndrome. Do you ever find yourself desperately wanting someone in your life to take over your more troublesome problems or reassure you of your unending irresistibility? Or are you ever tempted to exaggerate your problems, even just a little, so that you get a bigger share of sympathy from a friend or loved one? “Then the trainer made me do 500 push ups after I’d been on the treadmill 5 hours!”

To some degree or in some situations, I believe that we all struggle with staying-a-kid-syndrome. SAKS.  Being an adult is just so hard sometimes! And we remember all too well when whining, blaming, and endlessly needing were somewhat acceptable behaviors! Most of us are more sophisticated now, we whine and blame with real savvy so that our pleadings and blame sound like well-reasoned treatises. In our worst moments, most of us can be just plain manipulative. How about the wife who blames her husband that she has no personal time? Or the person who says he is lonely because his friends are selfish with their time? These are tough issues, because they are real hurts, but they are unowned.

For those of us who suffer with SAKS, learning the distinction between healthy interdependence and SAKS-motivated need is a critical adult task. In counseling, I find that this is a core problem that many clients bring, whether it is spoken or not. Figuring out what one’s responsibility is in life can be a difficult pill to swallow but a very empowering journey to begin. Think about all the things that we can be tempted to think are someone else’s job in our lives: creating stability, providing security, building our confidence, or even making us happy. The more we learn to accept what is our own responsibility, the better we will be at enlisting true support from friends and spouses.

How do you see SAKS in your life?

For more on this topic, check out my new “Resource of the Month”. It’s David Richo’s book, How To Be An Adult.

The “Fit” in Therapy

I’ve been through three rounds of therapy in my life. The first time I was a young adult and needed help understanding what it meant to become my own person, apart from my parents. My counselor helped me through that process by very practically coaching me on being myself as an emerging adult in my relationship with my mother. She was a great listener, but she was actively leading me through a process that she could see more clearly than I could at the time.

Another time I had received feedback that disturbed me. I stumbled into therapy bewildered and angry. My therapist was immensely helpful in helping me receive and reject parts of this input. I did great work around some past relationships and did some soul searching around my vocation and calling. My counselor was provocative, yet safe and full of wisdom.

The other time I went to counseling I was in a more confusing, core-rocking phase. Nothing was working spiritually and I was suffering in ways I never imagined I would. My counselor listened to me…..and listened and listened and listened. I grew increasingly frustrated until she finally had the courage to admit that she was not the counselor I needed. Basically, she fired herself. Something I should have done myself.

The reasons to seek therapy are as varied as chili recipes. And how things go depends much on the fit, or alliance, between therapist and client. But it also depends on the particular skill set of the therapist and whether they will work well with you. Every therapist is not going to work well with every person and some therapists just won’t fit the bill for your particular issue. Allow yourself to explore, listen to others’ referrals, read how counselors describe themselves, and listen to your intuition. Likely, you’ll know when you’ve found that fit.

 

Shifting Focus

I painted my kitchen the day after Christmas. I’d been wanting to do it a long time, but with all the dangling details related to Christmas preparation, it was impossible. With the completion of all the Christmas festivities, I could shift my focus. I know a lot of people would find it overwhelming and tiring to tackle something like that right after Christmas, but for me, it was rejuvenating. Concentrating on painting is so different than concentrating on people. It requires a whole different kind of creativity and a fresh, unused energy reserve, so it served to renew me.

We all need shifts like this, but, if you’re like me, the shifts require some planning and intention. If I hadn’t already picked the color and bought the paint, I would not have been painting the day after Christmas. For other renewing things, I have to put it on a list and plan for it, whether it is starting a project, having people over, or making an appointment with my spiritual director.

With the completion of the holidays and the coming of the New Year, it is the season for shifting focus. What shifts do you notice or need? What plans do you need to make to have that shift? Take a moment to share your ideas for shifts in focus here. Maybe we can help each other figure out how to find some much-needed renewal.

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