Resisting New Patterns

…What if I become something I don’t like, what if I become one of those people that I never want to be, whatever that might look like… I am willing to take the risk at the thought that maybe it is better than what I am…

~From the video series By the Book. Click here to view.

If we have ever felt the need to make a change, in order to actually accomplish a life realignment, I have news….IT WILL REQUIRE ACTUAL CHANGE. And it turns out that our brains hate change. Our brains love habits and patterns. Habits reduce the energy it needs to produce to do what our body is asking it to accomplish. When I walk, I do not have to think about how to walk. I’ve practiced walking so long that I just do it. Meanwhile, my brain can go smoke a cigar and sit on the porch rocking away in contented abandon to thought or action. My granddaughter is not at the stage where her brain can smoke and rock while she walks. She has to concentrate. She has the tiniest, cutest little feet ever. She isn’t tall either, but the girl is solid. When she walks, she spreads her legs wide to maintain balance. She works so much harder to walk than I do. She takes long naps in response to her walks. I can walk for hours and not grow weary.

When our brains identify a pattern, it rewards us for this identification with a shot of dopamine. This feels good. Is the brain just over-producing dopamine and doing a dopamine dump to rid it of excess? No! It is rewarding us for identifying a pattern, because patterns, once learned, allow the brain to rest. Here is the really interesting fact - the brain does not care if we have correctly identified a pattern. The brain doesn’t care how well I walk, so long as I walk well enough to do so without conscious thought.

Does the brain like change? No! If you do not like the way your life is shaping up, you are going to need to override your brain’s desire to smoke and sit on the porch. You might need more naps. I’m totally serious - change is stressful. But it may be necessary in order for us to live the life that brings us peace. Are you ready and willing?

…I don’t know what is hurting me and what is helping me... I don’t know about any of it, not just the using but all these other things in my life. I’ll just say here’s the whole deal, I’m willing to let all of it be changed by this process…

~From the video series By the Book. Click here to view.

Seek Out a Fresh Perspective

During my years of viewing food as my enemy, I knew something was not quite right with me. I did some research. This was over forty years ago. No one seemed to know much about anorexia except that it killed this amazing singer named Karen Carpenter. But people were more than willing to present their theories of what was wrong with me.

“She is exerting control in the only way she can.” The implied blame here is that my parents somehow caused me to do this by being over-controlling. Ha. This was NEVER the issue in my house.

“She is vain; she wants to be the next Twiggy.” This was sarcasm. No way was weight the ONLY issue that kept me off the cover of Vogue.

“She is insecure and is trying to fit in.” I was insecure. But none of my friends were living off of twigs and coffee. Why was this my coping strategy?

In the end, I batted away all their theories with a barely lifted hand. My eating disorder baffled me and no amount of theorizing made me well. Today, researchers have tools that allow them to study our brains in amazing detail, with the added bonus that their subjects are still alive. They can watch the brain function, tracking damage and repair in real time. Researchers have learned, for example, that excessive use of alcohol shrinks the brain. This shriveling effect literally leaves the person with less brain to work with than a brain that is not pickled by alcohol. It matters where the brain shrinks too. Addiction is particularly rough on the cortex, the outer layer of the brain. The frontal lobe plays key roles in memory, judgment, impulse control, problem solving and other intellectual skills. It also serves as a regulator for both social and sexual behavior. Can you imagine how challenging it is to make decent recovery decisions with a compromised frontal lobe? I am not sure about all the technical effects of starving one’s brain - but clearly it was not making me smarter, faster, or wiser. The longer I used, the harder it was to THINK. But I did not know that and if I had, I would have not known how to stop the chatter! I believed I was in control; I thought I was making choices; I did not realize that it was the disease doing all the talking.

Getting help usually involves finding a fresh perspective. Who can help you?

Getting Our Affairs in Order

A few months ago I received word that some blood work I had drawn during a routine physical came back with some “anomalies.” Further tests were conducted and I waited to hear more news. The news could be good - no problems detected. It could be annoying - we need to run more tests. It could be manageable - here is what we found and this is how we fix it. It could be bad - you have an un-treatable condition, get your affairs in order. These were my options. It turns out it was all good news and there is no reason that the blood work would indicate that Pete should go shopping for a replacement wife.

This was not my first rodeo with a “get your affairs in order” speech. When my eating disorder was at its worst and my heart began to have issues I did not get my affairs in order despite dire warnings from my cardiologist; I continued to compulsively starve myself for months. I can say from personal experience that when I was at the “get your affairs in order” stage of sickness, the nature of my sickness meant that I was poorly equipped to follow advice and heed warnings.

Eventually, reluctantly, I began the healing process but it was messy and slow and relapse-prone. Eventually, my metaphorical blood work began to improve. The level of insanity was down; not normal, but down. I heard others speak about their own experiences and I opened up to the possibility that I did indeed have a condition I would manage for the rest of my life. I was reasonably confident that I could not handle it on my own. I was absolutely certain that my best efforts were not enough to save me.

I had a decision to make. It needed to be a different decision than all the other times I had made promises to myself and others and made commitments I was incapable of keeping. What was I going to do this time that I had never done before? Have you ever been at the end of your rope? How did you climb out of the pit? Are you there today? Who could you ask to help you start the long road back to wellness?

Meditation Moment

Then Jesus turned to the Jews who had claimed to believe in him. “If you stick with this, living out what I tell you, you are my disciples for sure. Then you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.”

~ John 8:32 The Message

Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired? Take this step for you. You are worth it. Find some quiet time to sit and breathe. Imagine what it would be like for you to stick with your faithful pilgrimage. Dare to dream of what it would be like to be a spiritual being in an earth suit. What would your day and evening look like? Just imagine. No pressure.

Recovery is a puzzle

“To me, recovery is like trying to put together this puzzle. There are all these different puzzle pieces. They are not the same for everyone, but for me, those puzzle pieces have been therapy, medication, fellowship and 12-Step. All of these puzzle pieces come together to allow me to stay sober, and they are all really important. However, they are different for everybody. I wish there was one solution that worked for all people, but unfortunately, that is not the case.” Excerpt from Beautiful Boy: An Interview with Nic Sheff, John Lavitt 10/12/2018, thefix.com.

You were created by a loving God with great intentionality. You are not alone in figuring out your puzzle.

Oh yes, you shaped me first inside, then out;

you formed me in my mother’s womb.

I thank you, High God—you’re breathtaking!

Body and soul, I am marvelously made!

I worship in adoration—what a creation!

You know me inside and out,

you know every bone in my body;

You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,

how I was sculpted from nothing into something.

Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;

all the stages of my life were spread out before you,

The days of my life all prepared

before I’d even lived one day.

~ Psalm 139:15-16, The Message

Seeking wholeness in all the wrong places

Dr. Carl Jung, a noted psychiatrist, once said that addiction is an unconscious quest for God. Restated, Jung believed that we are seeking wholeness for ourselves through artificial sources. Obviously, there are tons of ways to journey through life. Some have more side-effects than others. But Jung believed we cannot escape this primal quest for wholeness - nor should we!

Nic Sheff began his quest through an absolute commitment to drug use. His favorite was methamphetamines, but he was not too picky. Nic’s story is laid out for the world to see in the books, Beautiful Boy, written by his father David and Nic’s book Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.

“Smoking pot for the first time felt like the first real answer that I had ever found. I kept turning to drugs to cope with everything from success to failure to shyness and everything in between. Thus, when I wasn’t using, I really developed no skills to handle what life threw at me. I kept going back to the drugs because they were the only coping mechanism that I’ve ever learned.”

If smoking pot was the answer, what was his primary question?

Long before he [God] laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son.

~ Ephesians 1:3-6, The Message

The quest is a sacred pilgrimage. But in Nic’s case, and mine, my brother’s and maybe yours - we stumble upon an answer to the wrong question that does not hold up for the long haul. In recovery, we can choose to embark on a healing journey with intentionality. This will lead us into a whole new way of being. Recovery does not return us to who we were before we started using, it breaks us out of the prison of our mind, clouded by dysfunctional thinking, feeling and behaving. Maybe you think this does not apply to you. Are you sure? Is there any person, place or thing that you absolutely believe you cannot live without? You might just have a dependency!

We want to do dangerous things...without dangerous consequences

There’s an old substance prevention commercial with a line that goes like this: “‘When I grow up, I want to be an addict!’ Said no child ever.” Well, of course that is true. Sort of.

But many of us do end up becoming addicted to things that we absolutely did want to use. My brother said the first time he drank he thought it was magical. When I learned how to not eat for days at a time, which did take quite a bit of practice, the chemicals this kind of starvation released in my brain made me feel powerful and in control. My friend Doug says that drinking and using made him feel funnier, more likeable. Has anyone ever gotten addicted to broccoli? I don’t think so!

What we never, ever want is consequences. We do not want the things that once soothed, empowered, normalized us to turn on us and take away our power to choose, our capacity to have a normal life and the right to vote. No one actually signs up for this stuff.

We do end up off course. Recovery allows us to re-remember. It gives us time to get out from under the obsession and compulsion to keep using things that once made us feel great but no longer do - choices we once thought made our life better until all of a sudden they were no longer a choice. Most of us struggle to accept the reality that the early promises our bad habit of choice no longer delivers.

So, my very dear friends, don’t get thrown off course. Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures.

~ James 1:16-18 The Message

The best advice anyone ever gave me when breaking old habits and forming new ways of living was simple: Hold on. One day at a time. Corny? Only until you understand what you are up against in the fight to regain your footing and find your way back to your real self.

God is willing to start over

1-2 God told Jeremiah, “Up on your feet! Go to the potter’s house. When you get there, I’ll tell you what I have to say.”

3-4 So I went to the potter’s house, and sure enough, the potter was there, working away at his wheel. Whenever the pot the potter was working on turned out badly, as sometimes happens when you are working with clay, the potter would simply start over and use the same clay to make another pot.

5-10 Then God’s Message came to me: “Can’t I do just as this potter does, people of Israel?” God’s Decree! “Watch this potter. In the same way that this potter works his clay, I work on you, people of Israel. At any moment I may decide to pull up a people or a country by the roots and get rid of them. But if they repent of their wicked lives, I will think twice and start over with them. At another time I might decide to plant a people or country, but if they don’t cooperate and won’t listen to me, I will think again and give up on the plans I had for them.

11 “So, tell the people of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem my Message: ‘Danger! I’m shaping doom against you, laying plans against you. Turn back from your doomed way of life. Straighten out your lives.’

12 “But they’ll just say, ‘Why should we? What’s the point? We’ll live just the way we’ve always lived, doom or no doom.’”

~Jeremiah 18:1-12, The Message

In what ways does this story move you? Are you in danger? Are you grateful to the potter? What’s up with you in this process of creation?

God forms us

Editor’s note (from Scott): My apologies on the absence of the devotionals over the fast few days. I forgot my computer when I went on vacation. If you need to a refresher, click here to access all posts.

Recently I completed a massive project. I had made a decision that if I completed said project, I would treat myself. I carefully thought this decision out. My treat wasn’t going to be a new pair of shoes or a gelato. This treat needed to compensate for the time I spent with my nose to the grindstone in order to churn this baby out. In other words, my treat needed to serve as a realignment of sorts, an adjustment to a brief season of over-working.

I chose to take a pottery class. It TOTALLY fits the bill of self-care. It is something completely new with no promise of competency. It will require humility and concentration. It breaks my routine. It fits a dream to learn how to use a potter’s wheel that I have had since childhood.

I am taking the class. It is hard and wonderful and thus far, I have not crafted one use-able item on that darn wheel. But I see the need for the clay to cooperate with the process. It has to have certain properties - it needs to be moist, centered and balanced on the wheel. The hands of the potter can only do so much. The clay must be malleable. It is the wonderful synergy of the clay and the potter’s hand that makes the lump morph into something use-able and lovely.

As my teacher says all the time, “We only learn by doing and as we do this work, we are constantly pushing the edge - how much can the clay take of our pushing and prodding? It is at the limit of tolerance that we find the beauty of the object.”

Are you tolerating the pressure of the potter’s hand? Could you cooperate a bit more in the transformation process?

Patience and process

When we focus more on “getting it right” than “being right”, it is easier to align ourselves with our core values as people of faith. We can know, for example, that God is a big fan of patience and process.

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure.

~ 1 John 3:2-3 NIV

Because we expect transformation without requiring it as a prerequisite for God to love us - we can work on “getting it right” without performance anxiety. We are not trying to win God’s approval, we are acknowledging his love and eagerly cooperating with his transformational work.

How can you shift from “being right” to “getting it right”? What would change if this was your perspective?

We may not change

We’re one week into a new year. What are you going to do about it? Set resolutions? Give up and NOT set resolutions because it’s too discouraging when you have failed by the third week in January? Yep. Me too. I have a love/hate relationship with resolutions. I love to make them; I hate it when I cannot live up to their promise.

In 2019 it is possible that you may not change in any significant way. Are you ok with that? Is it okay to be okay with that way of living? Is this acceptance or nihilism?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless.

I am not okay with not changing in 2019. I want to keep growing and I assume that means that change is required.

I am not giving up on the possibility that I can get better with age. Like a fine wine. Or Helen Mirren.

For the next few days or so, I’m going to blog about some of the issues in my own life that have stymied my capacity for growth and as a by-product, change.

I hope that by visiting my past mistakes, I might find a path forward for meaningful change, i.e., transformation. We can fake change or submit to the process of actually doing the work of change. I am too old to fake it. How about you? Are you willing to think about what is holding you back?

Transformation is Un-intuitive

From yesterday:  Success, from the standpoint of faith, means learning to accept this new version of the self that God is trying to offer.  We learn to prioritize grace, mercy, forgiveness, love, gentleness, patience, and so on, because there is no more worthy calling than to point, in small, humble ways, to the new, hopeful reality God brings to the world. Click here if you need to get caught up.

 

Can I back up for a moment?

 

Let me just say "accepting" this new version of ourselves, the version God is trying to give us, is not an easy or simple task.  We do not pray a prayer of submission and find ourselves overwhelmingly filled with meaning and purpose nor do we find our desires instantly transformed.  (Well, to be fair, some people say they've experienced this.  I do not find that experience to be particularly common, so I'll try to speak to those who have not been instantly transformed.  If you were instantly transformed, you probably aren't reading this anyway.)

 

Our culture has (wrongly) taught us that anything intuitive is authentic.  Intuitive can mean a few things in this context.  It can mean something either "feels good" or "comes naturally" to us.  I have heard any number of people express bewilderment at why, after their baptism, they felt exactly the same as they did before.  If being welcomed into God's people is an authentic act, why am I not instantly transformed? 

 

The answer is as simple as the question is confounding:  Transformation isn't intuitive.  And, that does not mean our efforts to live into our humanity are not authentic.  We learn to accept the new version of ourselves God is trying to give us.  Some of the work happens mysteriously through his spirit, and some of the work happens through the process of being in community with others who are trying to discern what it means to follow God with their lives. 

 

One Day at a Time

One famous phrase that sprung out of AA is “one day at at time”; this is incredibly hard advice to accept.  When my friend got outed for her adulterous ways, she wanted to hurry up and get on with it.  

 

 

She grew impatient with her husband’s “unwillingness to forgive and forget since he’s a Christian” - her words exactly.  I was more amazed that he stayed quiet and didn’t retort, “Well, I’m a little surprised that you, being a Christian and all, forgot to not cheat on me with every Tom, Dick and Harry within the city and four surrounding counties.”  

 

Transformation is no small thing and it is more like a marathon than a sprint.  This is no excuse for complacency, but there needs to be room for rest (as opposed to relapse) as we work.  

 

My friend had the nerve to suggest that maybe I wasn’t trusting her enough to suggest more “assignments” so that she could move forward in her recovery a rate that was more fitting to her drive to succeed.  But I heard all this as true signs that her journey back to wellness had barely begun.

 

Rest.  Figure out how to do so.  It’s important.

 

Here are a few suggestions:  workout but not like a maniac, take walks without worrying about if you get in 10,000 steps, draw, color in a coloring book, read fiction, clean out your garage, mow your lawn, keep a puzzle going, if it’s winter build a fire in the fireplace and enjoy it, use good mugs for your coffee,  go to the movies….what else?  See - this recovery work isn’t all work and no play!!

 

We are all doing the best we can

At NSC we try to bring a variety of voices to the table of reckoning.  One voice that has been amazingly helpful is the work of Brene Brown – who is amazing.  We could do far worse than reading every word she has written and watching all her Youtube videos like any decent rabid fan would do.

 

She’s the one that introduced the language that we are all doing the best we can.  It helped that she fought against this concept tooth and nail herself in order to accept its premise and mostly true.  We certainly resisted the concept. 

 

But after wearing this slogan for a while, most of us agree with her.  We are all doing the best we can – and sometimes it isn’t very good. 

 

One of the things I like about this reminder is what it doesn’t say.  It doesn’t say that someone’s best even when it is awful needs to be tolerated.  If we’re in a relationship that includes someone’s “best” as being abusive, ugly and inappropriate OUR BEST might include having the courage to walk away from the relationship.

 

Her phrase fits nicely with another slogan:  when we know better we do better.

 

Understanding that people are doing the best they can is an invitation to find our empathy and compassion NOT a directive to tolerate unacceptable relationship practices. 

 

It also doesn’t suggest that the best we can do today is our highest achievement in “bestness.”  Surely our pursuit of inspired vision and following God compels us to pay attention and learn new ways of being better more decent human beings.

 

How can we continue to remind ourselves of the “both/and” of compassion paired with the commitment to continual transformation?