Settling for quick fixes prolongs suffering

Let’s try something different - I am going to tell you what to do for a change! But these are just recommendations. Only try them if you want a healthier, happier life!!! People who study other people have taken note of some helpful and not-so-helpful patterns for how people deal with life. For the next few days, I’m going to compare and contrast them. I hope they help you make changes - if you need to!

The brain likes it if we distract ourselves from our suffering, rather than lean into our suffering. This makes it easier on the brain to go take a smoke and maybe work in a nap. This is NOT what healthy people do when they are uncomfortable.

Healthy people do NOT seek a distraction from suffering or quick and easy fixes to comfort their pain. Instead, they lean in and explore their discomfort. They know that their pain is real and true and appropriate. They do NOT seek instant gratification.

When Scott and Brittany were going through their miscarriages, they did not pretend that this was part of God’s plan for their life. They turned their back on platitudes. Instead, they got counseling, wrestled with their grief and sought support from those who had survived losses similar to theirs. They do not consider Norah, their beautiful daughter, a replacement child. She is their adorable baby girl but no child should bear the weight of replacing other siblings. This requires Brittany and Scott to suffer AND celebrate. Some days that is hard - because there is no pattern being established that provides a distraction or a quick fix. It’s called - healing. But it is long and hard and messy.

Unintended Consequences

I used to believe in the concept of a victimless crime. Maybe coming home late at night and eating peanut butter to soothe my jangled nerves did not directly hurt others - so long as I left enough for Pete to have his nightly snack of Ritz crackers and a smidge of Skippy.

But I was wrong.

If I am not feeding my body with the nutrients it needs (substituting peanut butter for cruciferous vegetables for example), then I am not my best self. I may be more grumpy, sluggish, and catch more colds. I might eventually develop an allergy to my beloved peanut butter through overexposure.

The nutritional framework I need for optimal fueling may not be the same framework others need. But it is my responsibility to figure out how my body operates best.

If I fail to own this responsibility, I am not the only sufferer. My family and friends suffer my bad moods and reluctance to go on long hikes. My work suffers as my brain is not agile and sharp. Strangers who annoy me suffer my impatience and dirty looks.

We matter. You matter. I matter. What do you need to take responsibility for and change? Have you been under valuing your potential to do good (or harm)? What thought projects need your attention?

You CAN deal with the things you can't deal with.

What’s your biggest fear? What do you think you absolutely cannot handle? Guess what? There may come a time when you have no choice in the matter. A day may arise when you have to handle the very thing you think you cannot deal with.

Although I am a big fan of planning, I do not think it is possible to plan but for so much disaster. So, frankly, I’ve kind of let that need to prepare for the worst case scenario. Instead, I am building a life around wellness, joy, and living true to my core values. It’s plenty of work, but it is very satisfying, and much better than toting a survival kit everywhere I go.

I am, instead, building a thriving toolbox, filled with all I need for an abundant life. One of those tools is my thought-o-meter. I use it to check myself and my thoughts out. In yesterday’s blog, I listed a few common thought no-no’s. Today and tomorrow I am going to unpack a couple that I have had to work on changing.

The work of Byron Katie is great for this, you should check her out. But I also have discovered that my lack of creativity in my thought life means that if I pay attention, I notice my self-defeating thoughts without much effort. If I pay attention!! So - you can do this!!

I have learned that I practice habits but I do not regularly evaluate them for effectiveness. I used to think I needed to walk 10,000 steps per day or I might drop dead from a heart attack any minute. Today, I understand that there is no one right way to keep our bodies healthy. 10,000 steps is awesome, but we do not have to get out the nitroglycerine if instead of walking we decide to garden or ride a bike or lift weights.

What habits in all their many forms are you overly dependent on? Are you sure they are accomplishing what you want them to? Are there other options that are equally effective? Variety is indeed the spice of life! Are you spicy enough to have a joy-filled life?

Joy and Belonging

The last thing I’ll say on joy is this: you’ll find it where you find acceptance and total belonging. You’ll find it where you find grace, mercy, forgiveness, and peace.

In the Western world, we live an increasingly isolated existence where our primary sources of connection are digital (social media) and we think of television personalities as the mouthpieces for our views- for the real “truth.” We don’t find belonging on Reddit, or in the comments sections of Facebook posts or news outlets. These things do not connect us- they isolate us. We will find no joy without belonging.

So, find a place to belong. Truly belong. Find a place where the people, when you expose a dark piece of yourself, do not react. A place where people do not tear you down but build you up. A place where you are not rejected because you haven’t grown fast enough or, even better, where you are not rejected because you’ve gotten worse! Sometimes we will get worse- and we need a place that allows us to belong even then.

There is no joy where there is no belonging. All of the rest of the posts this month are moot if you do not belong.

Find a place to belong and you will discover joy.

Faithfulness and Joy

Practicing the act of living out of our certain way of seeing creates joy. There is a certain indescribable, but good, sensation that results from staying dedicated to our core values, particularly when it would have been easy enough to do the opposite.

I went to Target one night about a year ago to purchase some supplies for our new baby and to buy a blu-ray copy of Phantom Thread. Brittany and I were in the middle of seeing Phantom Thread in the theatre when we got the call about Norah’s arrival into the world and our viewing experience got cut short. In my sleep deprived state, I thought it was a Tuesday night (it was a Monday). This is significant because movies are released on Tuesdays so, technically, it should not have been available until the next day. Anyway, I went to movie section and found a single copy of Phantom Thread- it did not strike me as odd. I took it up to the register and scanned everything in and noticed that the total was a bit less than I was expecting. I paid, got my receipt, and walked out. When I sat down in my car, I noticed that I had not been charged for the movie. Here’s what happened. That copy was put on the shelves by mistake and the store’s database was not setup to sell that item until the next day, so when I scanned it in at the register it simply did not recognize it. You could look at this one of two ways. One: the store made a mistake and I benefitted with a “free” movie. Two, I unintentionally stole something.

I thought about this while driving home. Target is a large company. Mistakes like this happen all the time. They’ll never “feel” the consequences of this error, they’ll never notice it, and they probably won’t even care if I try to rectify it. It’s okay, view it was a gift.

But I couldn’t view it as a gift, primarily because it wasn’t a gift. Nobody intended for me to have it. And, as a person of faith, I’m called to model God’s love in all I do. Part of love is fairness, living up to one’s word and agreements.

Now, it felt really good not to have to spend $30 I was expecting to spend. We need that $30 whether it’s for food or for supplies for our little girl. That isn’t a throwaway amount of money for us. All the more reason to take the gift, right?

Again, no. If we can’t afford to spend $30 on a movie then we shouldn’t buy the movie. It is not an excuse to steal (whether intentional or otherwise, whether it’s a victimless crime or not). So, I went back the next day, carried the movie in with me, explained the situation to customer service, and paid for the movie. They treated me like I was insane.

I walked out happy. Why? Because for once in my life, damn it, I knew I acted as the person I’m called to be.

That’s joy.

Impractical suggestions for joy

The past few days I’ve given you the most obvious, yet most practical, lifestyle changes that create possibilities for joy and flourishing in our lives. Does this mean I’ve earned a few days where I can talk about impractical matters? I hope so!

In addition to caring for ourselves physically, we need some kind of spiritual exercise in our lives to ground us in our way of seeing and we need concrete ways to display our spirituality in the real world. These, too, open the door for joy.

Now, perhaps the terms “spiritual exercise” or “spiritual discipline” seem a bit too formal, maybe even unhelpful. Here’s what I mean by that: We need to find practices that excite us about the possibility of maintaining conscious contact with God and encourage us to practice these principles in all of our affairs. Find something you actually want to do! Of course, all practices turn into disciplines and they will not always excite us, or enliven us, or awaken us. There will be days where it will feel like work. The point is, you don’t have to start off with an exercise you dislike.

Some of the things I like that fill this hole in my life are: silence, playing music, spiritual reading (something that stimulates my mind a bit), and time in nature.

What are your favorites?

Where are you willing to start?

Let’s return to this question: Are you willing to make changes in order to create opportunities for joy?

It’s my opinion that we should start making changes where we’re willing to make changes. Sometimes we try to make changes that are so large that they aren’t sustainable simply because it’s too much change at once. Figure out where you’re willing to make some adjustments and start there.

Are you willing to make a gratitude journal? Start there. Are you willing to make the journal and meditate over your gratitude? Great. Do that. Are you willing to sleep more? Start there. Are you willing to change eating habits? Do it. Are you willing to change both sleeping and eating habits at the same time? That’s great but, if not, start where you can.

Be realistic about what you’re willing to do. That’s the bottom line. In the long run, that honesty will pay off.

More on creating opportunities for joy

What else creates opportunities for joy?

Be in the habit of knowing what you need in life, and voicing that when necessary.

I’m not talking about want’s here. I’m talking about true needs.

In my case, there can be a blurry line between “want” and “need” and the only way for me to discern it is to be, well, discerning. In order to avoid going off the absolute deep end, I need time alone. I need to be quiet. I need silence. I need time to gather myself, time to evaluate my life. This is a legitimate need and so, when it’s not happening, I have conversations with Brittany about how we can create space for that.

However, I also very much enjoy being alone. Sometimes I like it so much that I’ll ask for more of that time than I really need. This is when a need becomes a want and evolves into something selfish and potentially destructive.

Spend time identifying needs. Also spend time identifying what it looks like for that need to be met, so that you know when you’re crossing over the threshold into risky territory. This will not only create opportunities for joy, it maintains balance and relational harmony with those you love.

What else creates opportunities for joy? Let us know in the comments.

Are you willing to pursue what is good no matter the outcome?

Yesterday we asked the question, can we pursue what we know is good for us even if it isn’t a magical cure for all of our pain?

So, we know the importance of taking care of our bodies physically and practicing gratitude. What else do we need to pursue?

Depth of relationship. I have a hard time believing that anything is more important than this. You need relationships where you can expose the totality of who you are as a person, and what you do as a person, and open yourself to feedback and wisdom.

How do you create this?

Sometimes it can happen on accident, simply by spending time together. In order to create opportunities for that, make sure you spend regular time around the same people. Sometimes, though, it requires intentionality. You may have to plan what you are going to tell a person in advance. Sometimes, before I meet with someone who I have this kind of relationship with, I literally plan out what stories I’m going to tell about who I’ve been and what I’ve done. If I don’t plan it, it’s just as easy to allow the opportunity to slip by.

Don’t allow yourself to be in the habit of letting opportunities slip by.

Do you believe you deserve joy?

If you aren’t willing to make changes, do you really want to flourish? Do you expect to? Do you think you don’t deserve to? Are you afraid changes will have no impact, therefore you’d rather do nothing so as to avoid disappointment?

So often we do not take care of ourselves because don’t view ourselves as people who are worthy of being care for. Perhaps this is a message that has been sent to us time and again in relationships. Perhaps it’s merely a perception. Either way, why continue to perpetuate the myth? If there are things that you can do to improve your chances at joy and flourishing, then give them a try.

But what if they don’t work?

What does it mean for a thing like this (the pursuit of joy) to work? That’s an important question. What are our expectations? What outcomes do we anticipate?

Again, I can’t promise you any particular outcomes, necessarily. I can’t give you the easy path towards joy and flourishing. There isn’t one. The real question is, can we pursue what we know is good for us even if it isn’t a magical cure for all of our pain?

What makes joy possible?

What makes joy possible?

Let me be clear that I’m not totally sure, but I am spending a few days pointing out the practical things that we know help.

We’ve talked about gratitude a lot over the years at NSC, and in particular each time we meet for our weekend services. Certain studies suggest that gratitude habits can have a greater impact on a person than an anti-depressant (if you want to know more about that then send me an email).

We like to take medication, as a culture. Sometimes it’s absolutely necessary. Sometimes we can’t return to our body’s baseline without it. Sometimes, though, we want to take medication because we hope it’ll create change without demanding that we make any changes to how we’re living.

It’s worth considering in this conversation, then, what are you willing to do differently? If you’re struggling and can’t see a way out, are you willing to make any changes? If not, why not?

Give yourself a chance at joy

What are the kinds of things we need to be doing in life in order to give us the best possible chance at joy?

This is an important question. There are certain forms of living that take joy off the table. There are certain forms of living that create the possibility for joy and flourishing. Now, this doesn’t mean there is a guarantee. I can’t promise that if you do three easy steps that you’ll be filled with joy and meaning and purpose. I think, though, that there are certain things we can do to open the door and create opportunities.

I’m going to sound like a broken record on this first one, but we need to take care of our bodies physically. I struggle with this. I’m a horribly unhealthy eater (though I’m making changes). I don’t get enough sleep. I don’t eat breakfast. I don’t drink enough water. I break a lot of rules- don’t follow my example. But, regardless of my flaws, we know that each of these things goes a long way in establishing a mental health baseline. What does that mean? It means that we can’t see what level of thriving our body is capable of until we care for it properly through food, sleep, and physical activity. It’s important to know how our body adjusts to being properly cared for so that we know what additional measures are necessary to pursue wellness of whatever kind. For instance, if you haven’t established your baseline, then you don’t really know whether you need an anti-depressant. There are still plenty of doctors who will put you on one, though.

If you’ve never taken this part of life seriously, and you’re struggling, consider it. At the very least, you’ll learn what your baseline is and that will help guide your path forward.

Learn to enjoy a process

It takes bravery and self-discipline to practice living out of your certain way of seeing under difficult circumstances, but there’s a certain joy that comes from bravery and discipline.

Last year I started a new workout plan. I see a trainer 3 or 4 times per year and he gives me a regimen that it takes me 10 to 15 weeks to complete. At first, I hated it. I had a gym routine that I liked- even though it wasn’t particularly giving me any benefits anymore. The new routine means I have to workout in areas in the gym that I hate. I had to learn to lift weights- which meant lifting very lightly- much lighter than some of the middle and high schoolers in the gym. Embarrassing stuff.

Over time, I began to enjoy the process. Is it because I became so strong and buff that I liked how I looked? Nope. That hasn’t happened. It’s because I was exercising discipline in doing something that I knew was good for me, even if the activities themselves were difficult to get through. Some days I finish a routine and sit down on the floor in a puddle of sweat and try not to pass out. That isn’t particularly pleasant, but I know it’s going to give me the opportunity to be a husband and father who is around for the long haul.

I want to take care of myself for the sake of my family and community. I do not enjoy the act of deadlifting, but I have learned to appreciate what the act does for me such that I can do it without being irritated. I have learned to enjoy the process of taking care of myself because I can see how the process contributes to what I want for my life: to be a person who is healthy and available for family and community.

There is a certain joy that comes from exercising a little discipline, even if it isn’t that much, and even if the outcomes of the discipline aren’t that large. Sometimes you just have to trust the process and hope that joy will arrive on its own time.

So, what is the process?

Flourishing is not about having a "better" life

Flourishing isn’t just about finding more satisfactory life circumstances or outcomes. It’s about radical interconnectedness with God, self, and others, and everything that comes with it.

So often we associate joy and flourishing with success. How often, for instance, do we associate joy and flourishing with a restful family day? I would guess not much. Joy and flourishing can be the product of giving or receiving love, of being merciful to a friend who has hurt you, of forgiving someone who humbly asks for it.

It can take a great deal out of us, of course, to practice any one of these actions when things are not going well. If you’re out of work, if you’re over-worked, if you have an abusive co-worker, or if a family member is nearing the end of life, then you may struggle to give or receive love, to show mercy, to extend forgiveness (there are many other stressors that make life hard beyond these examples).

It takes bravery and self-discipline to practice such things under such circumstances, but there’s a certain joy that comes from bravery and discipline.

More on this tomorrow.

Flourishing is never completely out of reach

Let’s take a step back for a second. We’ve been talking about the fact that positive experiences in life are not completely shut off from those who are struggling. Flourishing is never completely out of reach, though of course it will feel that way at times.

What if things are going well in life?

What a curse it can be for things to go well. Of course that sounds horribly offensive to the hurting. However, I can’t get even remotely close to being able to count the number of times I’ve seen people utterly and completely crash and burn because they replaced their disciplines for more fun stuff because things started to go well. When things go well, we stop going to meetings, we stop integrating with community, we lose touch, and we disengage. This is a dangerous place to be.

If things are going well for you, don’t assume you are flourishing simply because you are happier than usual or because your soul feels lighter than it used to. You may just be distracted. Flourishing isn’t just about finding more satisfactory life circumstances or outcomes. It’s about radical interconnectedness with God, self, and others, and everything that comes with it.

There’s always more to come.

God gives wisdom so you may find joy

2 My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. 3 After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing. 5 But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.

~ James 1:2-5

Alright, let’s get technical for a second day. I know, you didn’t agree to this.

The passage seems kind of random. It talks about tests, joy, maturity, and endurance, and then shifts to talking about wisdom. Why so random? Well, it’s not really quite so random. Basically, endurance and maturity create wisdom. And, when we know that endurance and maturity are on the horizon then we can experience joy. So we know that joy and wisdom are closely related. And, better yet, God will freely give wisdom to those who ask. And, if wisdom and joy are related, this means God will freely give joy (the hope that there is more to come) to those who ask.

So often the message that is sent when talking about resiliency, or flourishing, or joy, or gratitude, or whatever, is that this thing must simply be done. Just do it. Be resilient, people!

I always think, “Oh, yes, I wish I had thought of that.” I wish I had just thought to be resilient when my wife was in physical agony during her third miscarriage in an 8 month period. If I had thought it, surely I would have felt better?

That isn’t what is happening here. What is happening here is that God freely gives to those in need. I am imaging that verse 5 is addressed to those who do not have wisdom, who have lost hope that there is more still to come. The word “but” implies a contrast. It would be great if tests led to joy, but, if they don’t, then ask God for wisdom. He will give it, and with it you may find joy.

There’s always more to come.

Suffering and Joy

2 My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. 3 After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing. 5 But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.

~ James 1:2-5

Let’s get technical for just one day, deal?

The logic of the passage goes like this: joy is a product of maturity which is a product of endurance which is a product of suffering. It’s important to take a step back and actually consider the logic because a too-quick reading suggests that suffering itself creates joy. Joy is the byproduct of hindsight, after many years of pursuing a certain way of seeing and, at last, gaining perspective. In other words, tests are occasions for joy in the sense that we know tests will lead to some kind of perspective, to wisdom. This is not the same thing as saying you’re happy about tests or suffering, it’s more like saying you hope and trust that there is more to come. Joy, then, is trusting that there is more to come.

The ability to flourish is intertwined with our ability to hope and trust that there is always more to come. God is not yet done.

Joy and Pain

2 My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. 3 After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be fully mature, complete, and lacking in nothing. 5 But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.

Yesterday we talked about perspective as a component of a flourishing life. Perspective is about recognizing that we have multiple types of experiences available to us at all times, even if one type (i.e., suffering) dominates at a given moment. The passage above talks about joy and suffering simultaneously. That requires perspective.

It’s not easy to talk about joy in a world where there is so much obvious pain. To even voice the word “joy” can seem pollyanna-ish, like an attempt to bury your head in the sand and pretend that heartache is not real. And yet, according to this passage in James anyway, joy can be found amidst suffering. Joy and suffering are not mutually exclusive. There can be overlap. The ability to recognize that is in itself a sign of flourishing. It is perspective.

Perspective is the ability to see that life offers us a myriad of experiences at the same time. When one experience is dominating, it can be easy to block out or ignore other important experiences, and we may miss what’s there. This is part of why it’s important to keep a gratitude journal when we’re struggling.

If you have questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section. More on this tomorrow.

Perspective and Experience

Yesterday I wrote that one aspect of flourishing is the ability to maintain perspective. This means, essentially, that though one type of experience may dominate our lives at a given moment, we acknowledge that it is not the only type of experience that exists or that is available to us. That sounds vague, I know, so let’s deal with an example. Families in recovery often have very tense interactions when they gather together. We see many families in fact who share a house with someone who is in active substance use disorder, and the house is not a pleasant place to be. The fear, the anxiety, the frustration, the anger, the resentment, and the tension can dominate the experience, but they are not the only experiences available to us.

There are ways to find moments of happiness and moments of joy, even if they seem fleeting by comparison at that moment. We can both actively struggle and find breaks from that struggle if we can be disciplined in setting aside the dominate feeling for a moment. One way we recommend doing this is to go to a movie, or go bowling, or go out to eat, without talking about anything serious.

How do you find breaks from your struggles while in the midst of the struggle?

What helps you flourish?

We’re going to be talking about flourishing for a few days. What do I mean by flourishing? I don’t have a good definition, so let me instead point to a few types of things that define flourishing. Flourishing is about acknowledging and accepting our life circumstances. It is the willingness to do difficult things in order to stay faithful to our certain way of seeing (we might call this courage). It is about finding perspective, even when our circumstances are so oppressive that it is difficult to see beyond the darkness of the present moment. It is about pursuing hope, which is the art of living as if God is not yet done transforming his creation.

What would you add to the list?