Monthly Archives: March 2014

Facing your fears- Honoring anxiety and courage in children and grown-up children

A New leaf part 3- Facing Fears

 When I was 8 years old, I heard a story on the news about a man contracting HIV through a needle left on a seat in a movie theater.  Panic struck me, and nothing felt safe.  Of course, going to movies was out.  There was no way I would fall victim to the same trap.  Eventually, it went beyond a fear of going to movies to a fear of public places.  If someone could be sick enough to put an infected needle on a movie theater chair, what’s to stop someone from putting a needle in the sand at the baseball field or in my backyard?  The fear became so consuming that one day I found a sewing needle on the floor of our garage, and I started panicking and shaking.  I asked my mom through tears and heavy breaths, “Why would God create a world and allow it to be filled with so much awfulness?” (Still a question that stirs me deeply.)

I was a scared, anxious kid.  When I heard about something bad happening to someone else somewhere else, I immediately assumed it would happen to me, too. (This could also have been the beginning stages of narcissism now that I think about it.)  Once I had a fear in mind, it became consuming and would lead to irrational scenarios where I would be doomed and there was nothing anyone could do to help.  Looking back, I empathize with my mom and siblings. It must have felt so helpless to watch me panic inconsolably.

One of the reasons why I became a child and adolescent counselor is my deep understanding of how small and vulnerable a child can feel and how big and scary the world can seem.  Although I still experience acute fears and high levels of anxiety at times, I no longer exist in that place of constant fear that consumed much of my energy as a child.  As I got older, my fears took on more of an existential focus.  Who am I?  What is my purpose?  Does anything I do really matter?  Are we all just a speck of dust on the top of a flower being carried by a clumsy elephant named Horton?  You know, the little things.  Although these questions could consume me if I let them, I have found ways to re-focus myself from them by connecting with others, engaging in purposeful activities and embracing faith so that the unanswered questions could coexist with what I believed to be true.

I asked my college students to write down alternative words for common emotions like sadness, anger and fear.  A descriptive emotion that came up to quantify fear was the word petrified.  Literally paralyzed; frozen with fear.  Think of the curse “Petrificus Totalus” from Harry Potter.  The victim’s body goes rigid and the only thing he can move is his eyes.  I know that feeling.  And as I incorporate my thoughts and beliefs about fear with my passions and visions for my life, that word seems to be a common reaction to moving forward with my dreams.  Sometimes, I literally feel stuck where I am out of fear.  Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of change… Staying still feels safer, but in actuality, it perpetuates the state of fear- the petrification.

As a parent, it is remarkable to watch your child overcome fear.  My son has a beautiful blend of a cautious and adventurous spirit that I really admire.  I can see his initial concern and fear when he is presented with something he doesn’t understand or hasn’t experienced before, but it is followed by a desire to try.  It’s like he  knows he will regret it if he lets his fear take over.  He has a bit of a formula for how he handles his fears.  He starts out tentative and stays close.  He checks things out for a minute or two and takes it all in.  Then he slowly engages.  He tries this new activity for a few seconds, then looks back and smiles.  *This is my cue.*  “Stay close, but I am going in.”  After participating for a little while, he runs over to me with excitement in his eyes and asks if I saw him.  I answer “I sure did!”, and he returns to the activity, not as a novice anymore, but as a student who is catching on and ready for more challenge.

Josh learning to ride without training wheels

Josh learning to ride without training wheels

josh karate

Josh’s first day at Karate

josh jumping on trampoline

Josh jumping at a trampoline playground

josh climbing

Josh climbing his first rock wall

I want to experience life that way.  I don’t want to miss out on adventures because of my fear.  And I don’t want to model for that my son.  I want him to know that fear is normal and appropriate and even necessary, but that it doesn’t have to win.  Some things are more powerful than fear- like love.  In the third book/movie in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, one of my favorite characters, Eowyn, niece of King Theoden, wants to fight with the men. When talking to Aragorn about fear, she says that she fears neither death nor pain, but rather a cage“To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.”

ewoyn in battle

Eowyn does fight.  In fact, she defeats the witch king, who  touted that no man could ever kill him.  (To which she responds, “I am no man!” Love it.)  And she doesn’t do it for valor or for pride or even for her country.  She does it for her friends.  Her family.  Love.  I have things to fight for.  People to face fears for and take risks for and even get hurt for.  As she rides to battle with the childlike hobbit Merry riding with her, she says the words that I hold on to any time I feel weak and petrified in the face of of my fear.  “Courage, Merry.  Courage for our friends.”

The next time you think about avoiding your fears, ask yourself, “Who needs my courage right now?” And “Who could suffer if I don’t stand up and fight?”

The most uncomfortable day of my life

A New Leaf Part 3- Embracing Discomfort

Our comfortable life

Our comfortable life

My husband and I sat on our couch, stunned and speechless.  The last big barrier in our process of whether or not we could adopt Josh had just been removed.  “Talk to each other about it, and let me know what you decide.” the lawyer said.  What we decideOur decision.  We had wanted to be parents so badly, and now we were faced with the reality of it, and we were scared.  Petrified.  I remember feeling like my body was on fire.  As I sat on our couch and looked at my husbandI could see in his eyes the same feelings in my own heart.  All the fun thoughts of parenthood fled and we were left with the intense and uncomfortable thought: life as we know it will never be the same. 

Are we ready for this?”

Hard things happen to people every day.  Horrific things in some cases.   We hurt, we struggle, and (hopefully) we grow.  But I have found that, for me, there is a huge difference between hard things happening and choosing hard things.  When Dave and I were faced with the decision either to adopt Josh and completely change our lives or to opt out and maintain our stable, comfortable lives, my flesh cried out to stay the same.  But my spirit knew that the comfortable choice was not the right one.  And in that moment of desperation and clarity, my heart longed for discomfort.  I couldn’t go back to the comfortable life I had lived before that moment because I knew that, after seeing a glimpse of something more meaningful and significant, my old life would never be enough.  I would never be satisfied where I was.  Despite fear and panic and a million “what ifs?” that filled my mind, I was ready to be uncomfortable.  Nothing had ever felt more right.

As human beings, we desire comfort.  I would choose a hot shower over a cold one any day.  I turn my air conditioning on when I am warm and my heat on when I am cold, and I don’t think twice about it.  I eat when my body tells me it’s hungry (and often even when it doesn’t) and I surround myself with people I like and agree with most of the time.  But then something will happen that will momentarily shake the foundation of my comfort, and in those moments, I have a choice- to seek to return to comfort at all costs or to be adventurous.  To continue existing or to really live.

Historically, I have sought the road leading to comfort.  As a child,  it was a joke in my family that I was the cautious one who would dip her toe in the water before getting in and who couldn’t stand it if my sock had a wrinkle in it.  My sister, on the other hand, was free-spirited and a bit wild (compared to me).  She would dive headfirst into a freezing cold pool without a second thought.  She would act first, then think, and I both envied her carefree attitude and feared for her safety.  By not taking many risks, I knew what to expect from life and I felt secure- until life would act on its own accord, leaving me helpless and confused.  This led to a lot of anxiety and fear that was debilitating at times.  Gradually, I learned that, although I can control some variables in my life, I can’t control them all.  But I still desired to maintain my comfort at all costs.

Fast forward to that night on the couch with my husband, as I am faced with the most uncomfortable, overwhelming decision of my life.  All of a sudden, in the midst of such discomfort, I felt more present than I had ever felt before.  Every part of my mind, body and spirit was responding, and I felt alive.  Being uncomfortable was exhilarating and liberating.  By not choosing comfort, the world was wide open to me.  Everything in my bones knew what I wanted to choose, and I was ready to lean in to my discomfort.

Over time, I settled into my routine as a working parent.  Life is pretty predictable and stable, and I am grateful for it.  But when I think back to that night on the couch, that moment of pure discomfort, I have to admit that I miss it.  I miss the sensations of uncertainty and the flood of emotions.  I miss the intense connection I felt to God, my husband, and my own passions and visions that day.  I know that I cannot exist in that place all the time.  It would be too much.  But what would it take for me to be that uncomfortable again?  What are some daily ways that I can push through my desire for comfort in an attempt to live more courageously and less carefully?  I want to be like my sister and do a cartwheel into the swimming pool and say, “Ta-da!” with my arms raised high.  I want to teach my son to be thoughtful and use common sense, but also to be uncomfortable and take risks and face hard things head on.

What makes you uncomfortable?  I mean really uncomfortable.  How can you lean in to that discomfort?  I am discovering as I pursue my dreams that fulfilling one’s passions and life visions is the epitome of uncomfortable.  But it’s worth it.  And in the end, I think it’s the only way to really live.  So let’s lean in to our discomfort together.

So worth it.

So worth it.

Why I am giving up multi-tasking for Lent

multitasking

A New Leaf Part 2- Minimizing Distraction by eliminating Multi-Tasking

I am beginning to believe that multi-tasking is just a fancy way of saying “I do several things at one time because nothing is worth my undivided attention.”

Yesterday morning, I was sitting on the couch with my son.  He was watching Garfield (his new obsession), and I was half-watching/half-checking emails while snuggling in our pajamas.  The title crossed the screen for the next segment of the show, and Josh excitedly asked me to read it out loud.  I looked up, but the title had already come and gone.  “I missed it, honey.” I said.  His response was a gut check and a reminder of why I am writing this post.  “You missed it because you were on your phone again.”

Technological distractions are insidious for me because I am not even aware I am engaging in them sometimes.  It has become instinctual for me to to pick up my phone and mindlessly scroll to fill any moment of downtime I have.  I feel compelled to check my emails and text messages in my car at stop lights because those moments feel boring and unstimulating, just sitting and waiting.  And here lies the root of the problem.  I feel entitled to be entertained and stimulated at all times.  This mindset impacts every area of my life, from my relationships to my productivity to the fulfillment of my passions and life visions.

Until recently, I may not have put this together, but now I see that the core issue of wanting to be entertained and stimulated at all times is directly related to the fulfillment of my visions and goals.  For one, these distractions have become huge time-wasters in my life.  What starts out as a quick scroll on Facebook becomes 20 minutes of my life that I can never get back.  Secondly, these distractions cloud my mind with thoughts, images and values that are not connected to my passions and visions, leading to psychological distractions.  Instead of thinking about the needs of my local community or the character traits I hope to instill in my child, I am thinking about the best way to style my hair or what Downton Abbey character I am most like (it’s Sybil, by the way).  I am focused on the exotic trips my Facebook friends are taking rather than the beauty of the park down the street.  I am psychologically distracted from my visions, which makes it more difficult for me to stay focused.

And then there’s television.  I love tv.  I always have.  It has served as a medium for meaningful conversations between friends and a fun way to experience community when others are invited to participate in it with me.  It is not all bad.  In fact, watching tv throughout my life has honed my ability to empathize, modeled healthy and unhealthy communication and interactions, and generated thoughts and insights about life and relationships that have helped shape who I am.  “And that’s why everyone should watch television!”

Wow, I just made tv sound like a day at the soup kitchen.  Okay, it’s not all good either.  Television has become a psychological and a relational distraction in my life.  After a long day, I look forward to spending some time with my tv.  When I am bored, I mindlessly turn it on instead of engaging in the world somehow.  As a child, if I couldn’t sleep at night, I remember taking comfort in having the television on because I felt a connection to the outside world, making me feel less alone.  But it’s a tease.  It’s an almost-connection, not a real connection.  The characters on my beloved shows don’t ask me how I am doing or pray for me or tell me to turn them off and go to bed.  And often, they serve as a distraction from deepening relationships with those in my life who could do those things.

So where does this leave meI am not prepared to give up technology completely or move my family to an island.  Even if I did, I would still find ways to distract myself from living my life and fulfilling my dreams because it’s just in our nature.  The psychological and relational distractions will find us wherever we are.  So if it’s not total avoidance, it must be something else.  I think for me it comes down to this- be intentional.  About everything.  All the time. Don’t give mindlessness any room to run.

It sounds exhausting, being intentional all the time.  But here’s the thing.  I think it may be more exhausting not to be.  Being mindless makes me lethargic, tired and numb.  So being the opposite of that may just lead to energy, focus and engagement.  It’s worth a try.

What does it mean to be intentional?  I need practical things.  I am too abstract for my own good, so let me try to be specific.  I am going to try to only do one thing at a time.  It sounds simple enough, but think about how often you actually do it.  Our society’s values of being entertained and being productive often lead to the pressure to multi-task. Why stop at killing two birds with one stone when you can kill a whole flock of birds with a grenade?  There is a time and a place for multi-tasking.  But right now, as I evaluate the distractions in my life, I realize I have put too much emphasis on this term and used it as an excuse not to be intentional.  So I am going to try to go the other extreme for a little while.  Multi-tasking is now my enemy because it leads to distraction and distances me from my passions and visions. My hope is that if I can focus on being intentional (abstract) and only doing one thing at a time (practical), I will be more prepared to combat the temptations of technological distractions and stay on task.  What keeps you from just doing one thing at a time?

To help me minimize relational distractions, I have two phrases I want to tattoo on my hands- be present (abstract) and minimize background noise (practical).  This may mean turning off the television when I am trying to connect with an actual human or  when I have work to do (I am the queen of doing work on the couch with the tv on), but it can be other things for me, too.  If I am in a room full of people and a friend is trying to have a conversation with me, I often get distracted by the stories and interactions of others, keeping one ear up and one ear in the conversation.  I may need to ask that friend to sit down with me away from the crowd.  Minimizing background noise may also mean turning of the music in the car occasionally if I need to spend some time with my own thoughts.  What are some ways you have trouble with background noise and being present?

Coincidentally, today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of the Lenten season for those who celebrate Easter.  When it was first observed in the fourth century, its focus was on self-examination and self-denial in preparation for Easter.  In honor of Lent this year, here is my commitment:

No multi-tasking.  I will spend this season being intentional by only doing one thing at a time and being present by minimizing background noise By denying myself the ease of multi-tasking, both practically and relationally, my hope is that it will be a season of self-examination and reflection that will lead to a clearer focus about how to honor my passions and fulfill my visions.  Feel free to join me.

The Evil Villain of Passion

san diego coastline

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to their graves with a song still in them.” Henry David Thoreau

This week, I will be writing a series of posts about honoring our passions and fulfilling our visions.  They have been inspired by my recent journey to the West Coast to attend the Storylines Conference in San Diego.

A New Leaf- Day 1: The Realization

I have come to a painful realization.  I waste a lot of time.  It’s aggravating to me because I feel busy constantly, but often when I am thinking back on my day, I feel unproductive and guilty.  I may have seen 5 clients, but I didn’t get any papers graded.  Or I managed to cook dinner for my family, but I can’t remember spending 10 solid minutes just playing with my son.  I keep finding myself in a place of constant stress at all the things I am not getting accomplished instead of feeling satisfied with and even grateful for my day.  But when I think about how much time I waste, I feel resentful.  “Don’t I deserve to sit down for a few minutes and watch tv?  Isn’t it enough to work and take care of my family?”  This mindset has led me down a path of entitlement and pride that has made it hard for me to notice how misguided I have become.

Somewhere along the way, I have actually villainized my passions and my visions.  They have become the enemy to my comfort, and instead of embracing my passions and visions, I feel pressured and forced to act instead of motivated and inspired to bring them to fruition.  But here’s the catch- they didn’t ask for that role.  They didn’t demand it.  I have personified them and given them authority over me.  They have become the disapproving parents in my life who may not overtly punish me, but who shake their heads and sigh a lot, communicating that I am just not living up to potential and not really worth their energy anymore.  I feel guilty for not being enough, then resentful that I am made to feel that way.  That’s where the ego kicks in, and I decide to stop being a punching bag and feeling bad all the time.  I am a rebellious teenager who says, “It’s my life, and I can live it however I want to!” 

The problem is that I am not talking to anyone when I take this defiant position.  I am not standing up to an abusive government or finding my own voice apart from my authority figures.  I am declaring war on my own heart- my personal desires and hopes and dreams that have taken shape in my visions and goals.

I don’t want to do this anymore.  I want to walk intimately alongside my passions and visions again, feeling out what works in the relationships and what doesn’t, openly receiving feedback from them and from others, and honoring their presence in my life.  So this is my new vision- To honor and embrace my passions and seek out opportunities to act on them that will both challenge me and support others.  God has placed these passions on my heart, and I want to be thoughtful and respectful of that.  I want to handle them gently and warmly, creating an environment for them to flourish and grow.

In order for my passions and visions to be lived out, action must take place.  And that’s the hard part.  I can dream constantly, imagining organizations I want to start and people I want to work with and books I want to write, but eventually, for those dreams to become reality, I have to get to work.

Now that I have shifted my perspective by seeing my passions and visions as friends instead of foes, I have to be honest with myself about what holds me back from taking action; from putting ideas into motion and living out my passions and visions more fully.  I have narrowed it down to three main hindrances in my life: Distraction, Comfort, and Fear.  I will delve further into each one this week as I continue on my quest for a more meaningful and productive life.  For now, I am going to go for a drive and have a talk with my passions.