Wretched and Hope-Filled

What if you are as bad as you think you are?  Let’s talk about that scenario.  


You think you are bad?  You think your life situation is heartbreaking?  Ok.  But here is one other piece of information for your consideration.  There is no need to compare and compete for the worst story.  


But suppose you did compete and won?  Suppose you really do have the worst story EVER?  And suppose you are the villain in the story (at least in part)?


Consider this:


Even if he (GOD) has driven you to the far end of heaven, the Lord Your God will gather you up from there; he will take you back from there.  Deuteronomy 30:4


Our stories do not serve us well when they keep us stuck.  


The 12 steps and the scriptures are in sync on this - we must come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.


A sane perspective understands that God is all about gathering up and bringing us back.  Are you willing to be brought back?  Or are there some areas that remain stubbornly resistant to hope?

Stubborn Hope

Hope is not a Hallmark card sentiment for me.  


It is often a fight to the finish.  The battle is between my stinking thinking and the discipline to believe that if God is who He says He is.  When I practice this disciplined way of seeing and being in the world, I have an inspired way of seeing that ALWAYS allows for the possibility of hope - regardless of my circumstances.


Hope is also realistic.  It believes in miracles AND it accepts reality.  When our dearly beloved friend Will was diagnosed with cancer I hoped for a miracle AND I paid attention to what the doctor and Will were teaching me about his condition.  I so wanted the miracle, but I did not indulge in fantasy living - because that is not genuine hope.


Hope can bear the weight of reality and still be hope.  In 2 Samuel 14:14, it says this:  

We all have to die - we’re like water spilled out on the ground that can’t be gathered up again.  

This in no way gives information about the exact date and time of any of our departures.  But it teaches us a limit to our humanity - we are all mortals.  We will all die at some time.  This is a reality limit that must be factored into my hope.


It goes on like this:  But God doesn’t take life away


I didn’t have to spend any energy wondering if God was taking Will (or any of the other folks we have loved and lost in our community over the past 20 years) because he needed another angel, or to pay for a crime he or someone else committed or to punish someone so that they might repent or to teach others a lesson at Will’s expense.  God doesn’t take life away.  Life is finite.  


Furthermore, instead, he makes plans so those banished from him don’t stay that way.


A parent of another young adult who passed away recently is lamenting her daughter’s “lack of faith”; she is obsessively worrying over this thought that her daughter’s addiction “stole her child’s faith”; this is yet one more thing she regrets and blames herself for.


Someday soon I pray there will be a moment when she can see and hear 2 Samuel 14:14 for what it is - a small but powerful insight into how God loves us.  He makes plans for restoration.  This is hopeful.  How he does it, what it looks like, I do not know.  But any situation that I am tempted to wilt over is an invitation for me to remember this:  we all have to die, but God doesn’t take life away, instead he makes plans so those banished from him don’t stay that way.


Hope is a choice; a spiritual discipline; a partner of reality; a gift from God.

Resiliency Limits

Resiliency is not a universally helpful concept.  Perseverance is not always our best move.  Some objectives are not realistic and should be ditched as goals.  Sometimes resiliency means being realistic and giving up.  I do not like saying this, but it is true.


In my lifetime I have had a couple of humongous disappointments.  Both of which are totally predictable based on how I see the world.  I love collaboration and community building in a world that often prefers to compare and compete.  I idealize the notion that if we all work together our outcomes will immediately improve because a bunch of heads thinking, feeling and doing together is better than a solo operator any day of the week.


However.  This has blinded me to the fact that this is not everyone’s reality.  In both of my most life-altering disappointments I can see how my eagerness to collaborate over-rode my instincts about my collaborators.  I hung in too long in the relationships when I should have acknowledged that my goals were completely NOT the goals of others.  This does not make others bad and me good or vice versa; it means we are different.  It is only a problem when one or the other of us (me in this case) expects someone to be someone they are not.


I was wrong.  I unconsciously asked others to play by my rules.  I pushed.  I pulled.  I moved away from my own core value of collaboration and tried to control the situation.  This is all on me.  It cost me and others who love me a lot of time, energy, and angst.  


Today, I am more cautious about this collaboration mindset.  I do not just assume that if you say you want to play nice in the sandbox that I need to go out and get us a bigger box and more sand.  I am learning that resiliency has limits.  These limits are naturally occurring if we pay attention to all 11 skill sets associated with resiliency.  If I had paid more attention to self-care, and less attention to this inclination to build a bigger sandbox, then I would not have experienced the heartbreak I did.  BUT I also would not have learned what I learned either - so you see?  


We end up back at resilience - with limits.  Because learning from our mistakes is what?  Resilient behavior!!

Learning to Be Realistic

My lunch date that I referred to in earlier posts felt like a failure on every level.  Instead of trying to jolly her out of her failure mentality I asked her to go home and list all her failures in a notebook and bring them to me in a few days.  She readily agreed to this exercise in shaming because her brain constantly recounted these failures to her all day and night long.  I understood intuitively that if I had asked her to list her successes she would have acquiesced in the moment but I would have never seen her again.


Instead, she showed up with her notebook ready for me to acknowledge that indeed, she was a complete failure.  But here’s the thing that was so predictable and striking about her list.  Pretty much everything on her list was an item she NEVER IN A MILLION KAZILLION YEARS HAVE EVER SUCCEEDED AT!


Sample failings:
1.  I could not get my brother to stop using drugs.
2. I failed at protecting my siblings from my father’s abuse. (She was the youngest child.)
3. I failed to make my mother love me.
4. I have failed to ever have a normal, happy holiday event where my entire family gathered in peace.
See what she did there?  These are all things that are beyond her control.  But the tricky thing about an unhealthy family is members are often made to feel responsible without any authority or right to actually change anything!


Currently she is working on the following perspective shifts:
1. Change is a process not a crisis reaction.  
2. Process takes time.
3. Mistakes are inevitable.
4. Not all mistakes are mine to own.
5. Goals must be realistic and within the realm of my responsibility.
6. Some things are impossible to achieve without the support of all parties.
7. Resiliency and skills like perseverance are only useful if the objective is realistic.

 

Any of this sound familiar to you and yours?

Believing God is who He says He is

When I was taught the roles of an addictive family system, I easily spotted my place in the lineup.  Can you say over-achiever?  Master problem solver of other people’s issues?  Guilty on all counts.


Feeling responsible for a lot of people and things that were never mine to feel or think or do anything about was a real joy killer.  I brought all this over-achieving and people pleasing quite naturally and unconsciously into my life with God.  I had all sorts of unconscious inclinations about how much God would expect of me and how little he would offer in return.  Basically, I had the whole God/me thing backwards.  But I also had his word, which I love to read and study and try to apply.  Here’s a verse that gets me every time right in the heart:


Heaven’s my throne, earth is my footstool.
What sort of house could you build me?
What holiday spot reserve for me?
I made all this!
I own all this!

But there IS something I’m looking for:
A person simple and plain, reverently response to what I say.

Isaiah 66:1-2, The Message


So here’s the deal.  God is not asking me to over-achieve so that he can under-deliver.  He just wants to have a conversation with me from a particular way of thinking about the relationship - he wants it to be non-defensive.  He desires relationship with me to be responsive on my part.  Trusting.  No fancy offerings or sacrifices, nothing showy.  Just me showing up for relationship with him.  That’s amazing.  


God is not hungry, angry, lonely, tired, neurotic, needy, or insecure.  He is God.  He is Big.  He is crazy about me and wants to chat.  My job is to show up.  To believe God is who he says he is and to think about that in my daily walking-about life.  This is a foundational truth upon which we can build a resilient life.

The Problem with Crisis Management

When we have not practiced the skills of resiliency (see this article for a refresher on the concept) our perspective may need a major shift if we are going to get unstuck from the self-defeating patterns of fragility.  This is more than just a psychological construct; it is also biblical.  More on this later, but for now, let me say this:  I believe that the faithful foundations of belief lived out on a daily basis look remarkably like resilience!  With that in mind, let’s compare and contrast at-risk lifestyle perspectives that spring from unhealthy family systems versus the way resilient people operate in the world.


In unhealthy family systems, we are made to think we should know more than we do.  “I am surprised you did not know that!”  “How could you be so stupid?”  “Everyone knows…” are examples of too high expectations with too low parental nurture and guidance.


A healthier perspective - which is appropriate for our entire lives - includes the humble reality that no one knows everything!  There is always more to learn.  This does not make us stupid or “less than” - it’s called the human condition.  Out of this perspective we can become curious, inquisitive, have a sense of humor about our limitations, expect to make mistakes, on and on and on.  


In sick family systems making a mistake can have dire consequences.  In reasonably healthy families everyone makes mistakes, even the grown-ups.  No big deal.  This allows us to learn at an early age to take risks, helps us figure out how to assess risks and provides us with a better attitude when failures inevitably pop up.  


In stressed out families, successes are either overly emphasized or ignored.  In a shaming family, good is never good enough.  In a family desperate for a win, maybe the family hero gets TOO much attention for the good they do and TOO much blame for their inevitable and completely appropriate mistakes.  Healthy families celebrate large and small victories but without communicating that these victories are what holds the family together.  


In summary - stressed out families are in such a crisis mode that they are not thoughtful about their responses to one another.  Healthy families are thinking strategically; applying their core values consistently; feeling each event as it comes, not in a manic or depressed reaction to all the situations that surround that event.


Crisis management is not a good daily practice.  Can you see ways that crisis management has not been helpful in your life?  What changes could you make to give yourself wriggle room for a less chaotic life?

Victimization vs. Victimhood

It turns out that people get stuck when they believe that they are the victim in a situation - helpless and hopeless.  This is rarely true.  Victimized?  You bet.  Happens all the time.  The world can be a jungle and we can get badly hurt.  Victimization is when we are (objectively) hurt as a result of someone else's misdeeds.


But if we take on the identify of victim (victimhood) - part of that is our responsibility to stop.


When we act like we are victims, then we make a fatal mistake:  we give up our freedom to act in our own best interest.  Look, if you are one of those people who has been victimized, you have suffered enough.  Do NOT add insult to injury by allowing a past hurt to define you.


Here’s what we can DO:
* Act in our own best interest - this is not selfishness, this is self-care.  This does not preclude us from being kind and generous and giving.  But we are our own best advocates and we must act accordingly.
* Live consistently within our own core values.  This is hard work.  It means we have to decide for ourselves what those values and OWN them.  I have a friend who is working too many hours and drinking too much in order to fit in with the young up and comers at work.  This is not who this guy fundamentally wants to be.  He doesn’t realize it yet, but his wife is getting increasingly unhappy with him.  He is making a fear-based decision that is going to create big problems in the long run.  And it in no way guarantees that his work productivity will improve just because he is mastering the fine art of the bar crawl.  I think he might want to consider looking for a company to work in that fits his core values.  He is stuck, afraid this is his only option.  
* Think about consequences without getting overly concerned with what others think.  (See the example above.)  
* Figure out that it is human to make mistakes but divine to accept responsibility for our problems and without judgment or blaming others learn from them!


If you didn’t grow up learning these things, it is never too late to learn them today!

God was there before I knew I needed Him

Once I worked with a couple who had enjoyed a life of mutual pleasure in participating in the porn industry.  Then they both had a spiritual awakening, which is good news except for this one little problem:  they woke up with different dreams.


The guy thought that he could love Jesus and prostitutes; the wife thought that if she loved Jesus her husband had to stop loving on the prostitutes.  Eventually the marriage collapsed.  But I kind of understood the both perspectives.


“Hey, she used to be a willing participant!  Now she acts like I am a sinner of all sinners but she never mentions that this is a major shift in her perspective!  I feel duped. The bible says she should submit to me.  I feel like she is ridiculing me with this sanctimonious BS and demanding a divorce - which I personally think is a sin.  What’s up with THAT?”


Ok, he has a point.  His wife had made some shifts in her core values; he had made some shifts in his - but they were at odds. Should they or should they not get a divorce?  Is this an issue of a wife not submitting to her husband?  Or is this a husband committing adultery and thereby voiding the covenant of marriage?  


I do not know how to parse all this out on most days, but I know this, and it is a pretty important truth:


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 1:5


All of us have issues; and sometimes these issues compete for our attention.  Many days they feel insurmountable.  But through it all, we need to take into account that God is not keeping score and he is willing to give us wisdom.  This is a huge promise.  No matter where we come from, not matter our past, God gives wisdom to all people without a second thought.  I think this encouragement speaks to us about the promise of a future hope if we allow our heavenly father to do for us what perhaps we haven’t received from other mortals.

I must be missing something

The lovely luncheon with the lady who was languishing in old, stuck patterns did not have all those wonderful supportive opportunities growing up with an alcoholic father and a mentally ill mother.  If she had, then getting stuck would have been less likely.


When we experience encouragement, validation, support and all the other wonderful qualities of living in a reasonably healthy family, we tend to grow up becoming our own motivator.  We can rely less on others to tell us who we are and what to do and instead, have more clarity about our own dreams and capabilities.  This is important for realistic goal setting.


I regret not being a private investigator or maybe a detective.  I wish I had pursued my dream to become a doctor and go on to do brain research in an attempt to figure out how we humans work.  I THINK I had some ability to be athletically strong, if not particularly graceful, and I wish I had been given the opportunity at an early age to test that theory.  It didn’t happen.


Today, I understand why I wasn’t particularly dream-oriented in my twenties - I was in survival mode.  But by the time I was in my 30’s, I had acquired mentors, a husband who believed in me, and a best friend who thought I was capable.  I would say that I had some catching up to do, but I plugged away at it and today I am not only reasonably happy but completely passionate about my calling and my opportunities to dream and dare to participate with my tribe in trying to make the world a better place.


I swing for the fences sometimes - and it’s true - rarely has my ball made it over the far wall.  But I’m ok with that.  Because I am realistic.  I keep messing up, but I do NOT keep messing up in the same way!  This, my friends, is the best I can do and I am ok with that.


How about you?  No support?  Maybe you are hanging out with the wrong people.  This is a problem that you can solve.  You can change who you hang out with.  I encouraged my lunch date to think about who she was allowing to speak into her life.  I invited her to change the dance by changing her dance partners.  It really helped me and I do not think I am unique.


May you remember your dreams, your limitations, and your capacity.  May you push yourself a bit more than you are comfortable.  May you trust God to provide for the gap between what you think you need and what you believe you have at your disposal.  Now, go take on the day!

I bet you think this song is about you...don't you?

Whether you are a spouse, a parent, an employer, or a friend, there are some healthy ways we can encourage others that will NOT come natural if we haven’t seen others encourage us.  This is what we can aim for in our relationships - check them out!


* Some parents only encourage their children in areas that the parent has interest in.  Dad likes fishing for example, but the kid wants to play soccer.  Dad buys the kid a fishing rod.  This is selfish.  And tricky, because kids want to please their parents.  We have to be careful to elicit from others their dreams and desires without coercing them.  To this day I have trouble figuring out my preferences for almost anything.  I didn’t practice this skill set as a child.  Listen to folks; listen up for their preferences;  don’t fall for the old, “I don’t care, what do YOU want?” line.  
* Help others gradually figure out their own ways of being in the world.  This pretty much starts with listening to others’ thoughts, feelings and ways of doing things.  Of course, there need to be age-appropriate boundaries AND we must encourage realistic goals.  But beware of trying to manage your own anxiety by forcing others into your way of being.
* When children, employees, spouses, and friends object to something - pay attention.  If we have been controlled by others, we might mistake this natural way of being for someone trying to control us.  That’s not it!!!  It’s ok for children to be ready to “get down” from their high chair if they have eaten lunch.  Their attention spans are short!  Sometimes a person states a preference and we cannot accommodate them.  That’s ok, just say so without getting defensive or blaming them for asking.
* Encourage one another to go beyond our comfort zone; take risks; push the boundaries of our dreams.  When a family is not well, there is too much drama and chaos to accommodate trying and failing.  

 

Leave room in relationships for some healthy failure!!

Skills for the Road

Whether or not your family of origin had issues, here are two lists.  Notice if you are doing the first, be kind to yourself and run as fast as you can to list 2 and change your ways!!


DO NOT:  FORCE, IGNORE, SUPPRESS, TEASE, DISPARAGE the needs and dreams of others.


DO:  LISTEN WELL, COMFORT AND VALIDATE THE UNHAPPY, MEET LEGITIMATE NEEDS (provide a basketball for a kid playing basketball), HELP WHEN APPROPRIATE TO SOLVE A PROBLEM (school bullying needs adult intervention), ENCOURAGE PASSIONATE DESIRES (lessons, coaching with organic chemistry if you want to go to vet school but find the class daunting),  BE REALISTIC, all WITHOUT SHAMING (“You sure are costing me a fortune.”) or PUNISHMENT (“I got you that basketball but now we do not have money for you to go to the movies.”)


We all have our limitations.  We can be honest about that without somehow making the kid feel responsible (this also applies to other relationships with our spouses, or employees or whoever we are in relationship with) or guilty for a legitimate need or big dream.


When our daughter was going to college it was during an economic downturn.  My husband was our sole provider and he was part of his company’s leadership team.  They worked hard to not have to layoff anyone and this meant some pay cuts while the economy rebounded.  Our daughter wanted to study finance.  She considered out-of-state schools.  Her dad explained that we could pay for in-state tuition, but not out-of-state.  She could get loans for the difference but being a person who loved to study finance, and seeing as how we were alum of UVA and they had an excellent business school - she chose UVA.  Sometimes she was disappointed that she didn’t get to go somewhere adventurous and far away.  But as an adult, she understands.  Part of supporting big dreams is ALSO developing the capacity to be realistic.  


If no one ever did this for you, please do not beat yourself up if you have trouble doing it for others.  That’s ok, awareness is key.  If this is a problem for you, find someone who can mentor you so that you can move from the DO NOT list to the DO LIST.  It’s far more satisfying!

Take your ordinary life...

So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.
Romans 12:1 The Message


The sacred is made real in the mundane.  I do not have to be a Super Hero of the faith; I do not have to go to some far off land as a missionary or spend all my time at church in order to be a faithful person.  


So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you (this is a sacred dance, there is stuff I am to do but it is with the awareness that God is always helping me do it).  Your sleeping, eating (good self-care), going-to-work (not some special kind of work in some mystical quest for spiritual significance whatever the work I am doing is the work I am doing), walk-around life (no compartmentalizing - I am not one person at church, another in the stands at my kids’ ball games).  Place it before God as an offering (just living life is an offering).

 

You’ll be changed from the inside out. (There will be some internal shifting that may precede my ability to express this in my daily living.  Patience!)

 

Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (I need to understand how God wants me to be in the world so that I can respond accordingly but most important I need to understand that God is my biggest advocate, my greatest supporter, he’s crazy about me and wants to support my maturation.  He’s in this out of love for me, not in an attempt to get something from me.)

 

In the next few days we will talk about the ways that healthy families validate, support and nurture one another.  But what helped me the most was first seeing how God went first and did these very things for us long before I was aware of his presence and provision.

Hope for Change

Somewhere in my late 20’s, early 30’s, I was sitting in a classroom and my instructor was talking about the biblical concept of love.  I turned to my friend Sandy and said, “I have never loved like this; I have never been loved like this - and if I am wrong about that it means I cannot recognize love if it smacks me on the head.”


Turns out I was wrong.  I had been loved just like the bible talks about but I had not realized it.  


Up until this time I operated under the assumption that love was conditional and that some relationships are unconditional (some relationships we are just stuck with for one reason or another) - again, wrong on both counts.  There are a million reasons for this but I won’t bore you with the details.


Here’s what emerged out of this existential crisis of faith.  I found a passage of scripture that pretty much gave me hope for the future even as I was dismantling the assumptions and firmly held beliefs of my past.  I am convinced that this biblical framework for seeing how God relates to me began a journey that continues to this day.  This journey is one that helps me become more resilient.


So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
3 I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.  
Romans 12:1-3 The Message

What do you notice in these words?  I’ll unpack my perspective tomorrow.

Listening and Being Heard

There are some particular ways that children can become stuck in patterns of thinking, feeling and acting as a result of growing up in an unhealthy family system.  This is predictable.  


#1. NEEDS AND DREAMS are for someone else.  I have two grandchildren at the moment and my intention is to listen to their needs and dreams, not constantly correct how they communicate them.  I am loving this job of Meme!!  There is a fine line between training a child to not be obnoxious and teaching a child that their needs are not a problem.  When an adult is insecure they want control and this often means caring more about what others are thinking about their child’s behavior than they are studying what their children need at each developmental stage.  The terrible two’s, in my opinion, are only terrible if a parent wants a baby that acts more like a doll than a son or daughter.  Sure, the loudly voiced “NO’S!!!” and frustrations that come from not being able to communicate what their little brains are already capable of processing is tough - but it is developmentally appropriate.  


In unhealthy families, parents are stressed out about other things.  They often are inattentive, do not have time to to do the hard and patient work of listening and providing.  This creates an early memory of feeling unheard.


One of my brothers tells a story of wanting to play football when he was a kid; instead, he was allowed to sign up for basketball because he could walk to the sign up station.  The coaches provided him with a practice basketball because my mom sent him with a kickball or some such non-regulation ball.  My mother probably didn’t know the difference.  


She meant no harm; but my brother has vivid memories about this story, including his gratitude for a coach who was kind.  I think it is no mistake that my brother is the guy who shows up for all his kids events; he supports their dreams.  But that is also not a particularly predictable response.  He is one of those wonderful men who learned from the past without getting stuck in the spin cycle of his memories.


My niece Kaitlin, my birthday twin, was a preschooler when she announced she wanted to be a Veterinarian.  My brother made her a vet clinic.  Last spring he pulled that 20 plus year plywood clinic out, repainted it and used it as a photo booth - AT HER GRADUATION FROM VET SCHOOL!!!


So here’s the deal - we can learn from the mistakes of others, even the unintentional ones.  But this requires us to “get unstuck”!!  For the next few days I’m going to take a timeout from talking about getting unstuck and provide some biblical context.  Stay tuned!

On Being Stuck

Today I had lunch with a woman who asked the most heartbreaking, utterly sincere question:  “Why am I stuck?”


I probed, asking what she meant by “stuck” and she pretty much meant what it sounds like.  In spite of years and years of earnestly seeking answers and possessing the uncanny ability to criticize herself mercilessly, she continues to make choices that her intellect disagrees with on a regular basis.


I can relate.  How about you?


Lunch with her was like eating with a tape recorder stuck on “play fast”.  She reeled off stories and incidents and insults and abuses from her past that sounded like well-rehearsed lines rather than a vulnerable conversation.


Eventually I had to ask her to just sit in stillness for a minute.  She couldn’t do it.  I asked her a question.  She couldn’t answer it. The best she could manage was to pause for a second, grab a deep breath and continue with her story.  


I can relate.  How about you?


We were not connecting.  She was not present.  Her eyes were not tracking with mine.  It was like she was reading out of a well-worn book that she never enjoyed.  She is stuck in the story she has been telling herself for ages. 


How about you?  Do you have any stories that you tell and retell about things that you did, were done to you, past offenses and so on?  If these stories do not change, or if the details just get exacerbated in the retelling, this might be contributing to your sense of stuck.


Finally, I interrupted AGAIN and asked a ANOTHER question:  how long has it been since these stories have provided you with insights that helped you change your own thinking, feeling and doing?


She was flummoxed.   But she is also a woman who grew up in a very sick family and she is stuck in a very familiar, particular way.  We’re going to explore this particularity for a while - see if you recognize yourself in any of the descriptions.