Serious Hope : it’s for Adults

Hope is a powerful mental perspective, best experienced by adults.

During one of the longer dark nights this winter while watching television, I came across an interview with a well-known criminal defense attorney. It caught my attention, as I recognized her name from one or two famous trials that made news over the years. I listened as familiar questions got familiar answers until one question sparked a pointed response I won’t soon forget.

“What gives you hope for the justice system,” the reporter asked the seasoned, serious attorney. Nothing, said the lawyer. Hope is for children.

I have thought often of that comment as we have been struggling with this continuing pandemic. So much of our common focus has been on the future: what to expect with this virus next, how to plan for changing work expectations, what to make of an interrupted school year, whether to schedule a surgery or vacation. We have things that must be done today to best manage tomorrow. Many of these plans have had to be scrapped as the virus spreads beyond our control, even with helpful vaccines, killing 5.6 million people worldwide since 2020.

Is it a childish thing to be optimistic about the future in a natural world like this?

Even before experiencing this pandemic, some found it helpful to expect regular trouble in life. Bad things happen and continue to happen, despite our best efforts of avoidance or preparation, they say. The best way to get through this life is to expect less so that when the rare positive outcome arrives, we are pleasantly surprised.

While this mental frame may seem like a reasonable concession to experience, it’s a short path to emotional stress and depression. Few really live this way; human minds are not patterned to expect suffering with every breath. When all that ahead is darkness, we experience it as a slow death.

Another way that human beings can move through the world is to assign meaning to suffering and resign themselves to its power. In the face of disaster, they seek peace through submitting themselves to the unknowable will of an unseen God. This submission can relieve the mind of the pressure to understand and respond to suffering. The emotional work is to bend the will to some greater plan. It’s a way to respond to suffering with passive acceptance, to embrace mystery and move on.

What is your natural frame of mind when it comes to considering suffering and expectations of the future? Are you naturally pessimistic, viewing the world as a place of struggle, pain and the occasional sunny day? Or are you more apt to put such ideas aside, trusting that some unreachable power determines our every move anyway?

Serious hope is for adults. I believe that a hopeful view of the future is a mature perspective, adopted by those who observe that within the randomness and chaos of the material world, there is also an observable return to center, to balance, to growth and healing that occurs in daily human life. While we may be swept away by sudden illness, or political turmoil, or personal violence, even these terrors aren’t a permanent state of being.

Everything changes, and as it changes, life has a global orientation that returns it to a new developing state.

As a Christian, I see this life orientation toward renewal a mark of God’s grace and presence in the living world. It’s because I have seen that both joy and suffering are not permanent experiences in this life, that the natural world, us included, is always working to restore and heal itself. I trust that within and underneath this life is an energy far larger than we, the life force that birthed the universe and is still creating it.

Perhaps this time of worldwide suffering has birthed a new life perspective for you. Along with fear, exhaustion and distrust, may you find an optimism that moves you toward hope and renewal. Without it, we are unprepared to embrace the life that awaits us, whatever it looks like, in communities worth living in.

(First published in the Savage Pacer newspaper, 2/5/22)

Is a Vaccine at Odds with the Christian Faith?

The Christian faith is all about loving God and neighbor. Get immune, save and love your neighbor and their children. Get the Covid vaccine.

Perhaps it’s never been possible to have agreement on the definition of a faith tradition; ideas about what it means to follow a religion have always been fluid and contentious. I read a news article this week that a settlement was reached in an employment religious discrimination lawsuit, granting a Minnesota man $65,000 in back pay and damages from his former employer over his refusal to be fingerprinted for a required background check. He said it was against his Christian faith to do so.

Henry Harrington claimed that his employer, Ascension Point Recovery Services (APRS), a debt collection company, had failed to make the required accommodation for his belief and fired him. A similar employment case was filed four years ago in Pennsylvania, when a local school bus driver refused fingerprinting as part of her background check, claiming that the process would leave the “mark of the devil” on her, preventing her future entrance to heaven. That’s news to me.

Many more of these religious objection cases have been filed across the country in recent years as social and legal changes have pressed up against long held personal beliefs about social responsibility, employment requirements, privacy rights and our own physical autonomy.

Can a life insurance company, considering you for a new policy, require you to release to them your full physical and mental health record, disclose your family medical history, take your blood pressure and a sample of your blood? Might they also review the public filing of your divorce decree from 10 years back? They have been doing such things legally for decades. Can a federal employer take your photo, driver’s license number, Passport information as well fingerprints to screen you for a job? Will it search for any records of arrest or legal charges brought against you in national data bases? Most certainly it will.

As more information about our individual lives is collected and shared, many of us are pushing back. Where does my right to security of person and property end and legal or social demands begin? And when we must make arguments for protecting those intuitive, personal boundaries, it’s no wonder that issues of faith, meaning and core values come front and center.

These same issues, it seems to me, are at the center of the debate around Covid vaccine mandates. For most of 2020, we prayed and hoped for the miracle of a safe and effective vaccine to be created by our nation’s research scientists, folks who have been steadily working on similar virus strains of influenza, bird flu, and SARS for decades. Because of the previous research, the vaccines came quickly, tentatively released after multiple trials with eager volunteers, giving us hope that it would snuff out the pandemic and its possible mutations with our majority immunity.

The vaccine is free for all. Now anyone over 12 can get immunized! And even after weeks and months of pleading and even cash incentives, 20% of eligible Americans have refused this life-saving medicine.

I have come to understand this refusal by so many as the result of all the loss of privacy many of us feel over the last two generations mentioned earlier. Some people, claiming conflicts with the vaccine and their faith practices, have received exemptions from vaccination in the past few months, risking their own health and the life and wellbeing of those around them.  Even when such exemptions don’t seem to be wise or practical, current law does allow such freedom when it comes to boundaries set by a person’s sincere religious practice.

But people are still dying, children are still not protected, and our medical personnel are traumatized by the continuing demands on their health and stamina. As new mandates are announced, reluctant employees are claiming a religious exemption, requesting letters of support from their Christian clergy. I want to go on the record with this admonition: Don’t ask your pastor for such a letter. Your pastor can’t make a coherent faith argument against receiving an approved vaccination that will save your life and the life of those around you.

Why? Because, quite simply, the Christian faith is centered on the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. And if there is a central theme to his life and teaching, it is love of God and love of neighbor. In this, Jesus taught, is all the Law and the Prophets. It’s not about creating a cover for your distrust of government, or resentment that you are expected to take medicine because someone else says so. It is not so you can live your life exactly on your own terms, shouting “freedom” until you are hoarse. Every day of his life, Jesus spoke and demonstrated his gospel, that as God loves us, so we are called to that same love of one another. To take proven medicine when you can, to save your own life as well as the life of the weak, young or vulnerable, is discipleship work. There is no religious excuse that makes any sense to me. Love Jesus? Love your neighbor. And get your shots.

 

(Written for The Savage Pacer, Spiritual Reflection column; Published Saturday, 9/18/21)

 

 

Why Do I Keep Asking you to Journal?

Daily I am asking my clients to take therapy skills with them into daily life – the foremost being the ability to think about our thinking. It builds the critical self reflection muscle that is a key to overcoming the distorted thinking of chronic anxiety, depression, chronic pain and problems with body, self and relationship image and assessment.

Here’s helpful list of what handwriting can do for you and your brain, focused on students and learning, applicable to what we are working on when we do psychotherapy.

https://ivypanda.com/blog/handwriting-good-for-your-studying/

Racism & Me

How I have come to understand my own racism through my life experience of sexism in the church.

            We value learning in our church community. I hope yours does, too. In our small Tuesday night book group we have been reading the new book “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” that is challenging us to see American culture and our participation in it with new eyes. The author, scholar Dr. Ibram Kendi, candidly recalls his own struggle as a young black man to see his own participation in the racist structures in our culture. He then encourages us to become people who stop using the term “racist” as a personal slur and instead see how we all, majority white and minority persons of color, live in a society that has organized itself around the myths and values of white control and racial superiority.

            This is not a comfortable critique. I grew up in the 1960’s in a solidly middle class, white Protestant, small town family, with two working parents and a public-school education. I was taught to believe that we are all equal though different. That with the right skills and education anyone can succeed. That we may have different skin color, but that somehow, we should overlook that and carry on. I remember my parents and their friends saying things like “We don’t see color” as evidence of racial sensitivity. The only persons of color in my high school classes were foreign exchange students. Racial issues like Jim Crow segregation, civil right demonstrations, lynching and race riots were far removed from my day to day experience in Connecticut: those were the terrifying problems of the post-Civil War south and impoverished inner cities, where true bigotry was on display.

            When I spent a couple of summers working at a church camp in the lakes region of New Hampshire, I didn’t anticipate the tension and fear that descended upon us one week when two busloads of children from majority black Roxbury, Massachusetts were dropped off. Years later I wasn’t sure what to think of the dozen or so black classmates at my very white Lutheran college who stuck together like glue everywhere they went and who seemed to shrink into the background when in class, or my black friend who became his class president and seemed to hold that same group of black kids at a distance and with some distain.

            I take my education and spiritual life seriously. I never in my life have consciously belittled or spoken words of hate toward a person of another race because of their skin color. But I have participated in the way our majority culture can’t or won’t see the way we have historically created a rigid racial hierarchy; whites at the pinnacle of this value system, and persons of various shades of skin tone, from light to dark, in descending rank. I didn’t spend much time wondering why Native reservations or black urban neighborhoods were chronically poor and underserved. I have not been seriously concerned that my Lutheran denomination is the whitest church in America or why. I have given modest intellectual ascent to preferential hiring of persons of color or college admissions while wondering if it does any good.

            Until I became a woman pastor, that is. I was ordained into public ministry 35 years ago. A young, idealistic, energetic minister, eager to begin serving Jesus as a preacher and community leader. But I immediately began to understand in my bones what systemic prejudice looks like and how it functions every day, in every situation, because I was now the unwelcome minority. I was the female body, the female voice, the female profile, who was getting up every morning to lead an organization that was founded, organized and imagined at every level by white men. Many welcomed me and cared for me. But that welcome was a weak counterweight to the attitude, comments, assumptions and barriers I faced every day in the church. It became clear to me quite quickly that in virtually every way, women are not conceived to be legitimate religious leaders. And that men and women, of every age, economic status, educational level and perspective participate in this gendered culture. I am still amazed I lasted 20 years in this system. It became such a personal burden and just wasn’t getting better the longer I stayed, I finally decided to leave the pulpit, change careers, and re-enter the pew.

            It has taken me years to better understand the ways race and gender have organized everything in America from neighborhood real estate and poverty, educational disparity and health care, pregnancy leave and lack of childcare support to the lack of diversity in corporate boardrooms. I am still learning and repenting. I believe these are the groans of our culture, struggling in these days of amazing political polarity around issues of race and immigration, to recognize the hierarchical systems we live under and must reorganize if we are to become a real democracy. My prayer is that if you have read along this far, you will join me in this continuous personal and structural awakening.   

            It takes a commitment to be open to experience we don’t share. To put down our automatic defenses and listen to voices who are trying to express their experience. To tolerate the discomfort when we feel unsettled. Where can you begin? Try listening to new podcasts like “1619,” watching videos like “13th” on Netflix, reading recent books like “Between the World and Me” and “How to Be an Anti-Racist”, and innumerable fiction works by minority authors like “Medicine Walk” and “Indian Horse.” We can help make our country better for everyone if we begin to understand that racism is built into our society, and it is going to take some deconstruction before we heal.

(originally published Savage Pacer, Online/print 11/13/19)

Gendered: “girl culture”

One of the recurring themes in my therapy room for my female clients has been the reluctance and even fear of emotional conflict.

We are raised in contemporary social norms to maintain pleasant relationships. Taught as children to “get along” rather than assert ourselves physically or verbally when encountering trouble (as most boys are), we become evermore sensitive to emotional energy in the people around us. While this can become what I call a female superpower, it is an emotional preference with a great shadow side: we are often paralyzed by bullying in our families, at the neighborhood bus stop, on the playground, at sleepovers, anywhere someone with an urgent need to assert their dominance lurks. We easily become victims of other people’s inappropriate power.

Does this feel familiar? it is completely familiar to me. By the time we are deep into dating or full time jobs as young adult women, we have reinforced this emotional bias so many times we can struggle to know what appropriate personal power looks like. A large majority of women never fully heal from this expectation and gendered socialization: they become adept at sending their anger inward at themselves, sideways to those who don’t deserve it, and passively with those who do.

Bad romantic partners, bad family members, bad neighbors and bad bosses all cause enormous stress to those of us raised to not kick up a fuss when we are slighted, injured or even abused. At the far edge of this impulse to be forever pleasing is the extreme automatic adult responses of freeze and dissociation when threatened, enduring trauma or physical or emotional assaults. We have simply never given our bodies and minds the chance to push or fight back when threatened.

To become whole, happier, less anxious and perfectionistic people, we need to grow our toleration of social awkwardness, conflict, distain and stand up for ourselves when we need to do so. The need to be the people who are forever soothing others comes at such an enormous cost to us and to our relationships. No wonder women have such high rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia, body image issues, food addictions and eating disorders, emotional dysregulation and suicide attempts.

Any kind of emotional conflict is the kyrptonite of people pleasers and perfectionists. Time to see that superpower as an incomplete strategy, turn it into wonderful intuition that is BALANCED by the strength of your strong voice, confidence and skills at problem solving. But we must first become unafraid of wading into those turbulent waters. I promise you already know how to ride out that rip tide: speak up, hold on and ride it out.

Do You Have Enough Friends?

            Do you have all the friends you need? Chances are that you are among the majority of American adults who recognize that they are struggling with fewer close friendships than they want. As emotional beings, all of us are biologically designed to connect to others in and outside our families of origin. While we may be surrounded by others at work, or sporting events, in our neighborhoods or churches, few of us feel that we have a core group of steady, supportive, mutually caring same gender friendships. We are friend hungry. And we don’t know how to fix it.

            This emotional scarcity can come on quite slowly. While we are progressing through school, the constant shifts from playgrounds to classrooms to new schools provide us with an ever-replenishing sea of faces from whom we may find sympathetic chums. But just as quickly as those people move into our lives, they can move out, as new environments and opportunities sweep our time and attention elsewhere. Our friends and we may marry. And right before our eyes, our emotional circle becomes instantly smaller and more fixed.

            It becomes harder and harder to stay in regular, meaningful touch with people. Phone calls help but don’t completely replace in-person conversation. Getting together can take enormous scheduling and financial efforts not everyone is able to sustain. When was the last time you hand-wrote a distant friend a letter? Many of us have tried to find less isolation in the connections we make on social media. They soothe us with easy digital connections to people across the globe. But unless those relationships are mutual and sustained, they won’t fill the emotional gap that face-to-face time with people provides.

            This scarcity of friendships seems to hit American men even harder than it does women. We have a culture that still assumes men need to be independent, stoic and in competition with one another. Generations of this gender ethic have led to families that raise boys to dismiss healthy emotional dependency and under-value one another, even within the same family. This places men in emotionally vulnerable positions, overly dependent upon their romantic partners for support. Women shoulder this by becoming the emotional centers of their families and becoming adept at managing everyone’s interpersonal relationships. It leaves men empty and women exhausted. While many of us reject these old models, they still shape the way we live. What are we to do?

            I don’t think we should give up on being and having good friends. The emotional cost of loneliness is a true mental health crisis for many, and there are no quick and lasting solutions. Over a lifetime, we need many real friends with whom we can share common interests, new experiences, shared struggles and spontaneous laughter.

            One of the most helpful resources I have found that helps to describe how we make good, close friendships is the 2016 book, “Frientimacy” by Shasta Nelson. Nelson has created an online community around friendships, speaks around the country to groups and corporations about her research, and was a featured speaker at TEDx in 2017. What she has to teach us about the qualities of good friendships is inspiring to me as a relationship therapist and someone who wants to be and have close friendships throughout my entire lifespan.

            The core qualities we must cultivate within ourselves and our key intimate relationships are Positivity, Consistency and Vulnerability. In other words, our key friendships should feel good, be mutually maintained, and let us be our real selves. These are high standards, and they take time, good boundaries and mutual intention to develop. Not every friendship can or will experience all three qualities. There are all kinds of people in our lives who may be able to sustain one aspect, like positivity, but can’t meet other aspects like consistency or real-life sharing. Or we may be more interested in someone as a friend than they are in us, and the relationship never grows. I’ll point you to Nelson’s book for more details about these key aspects, but you get the point. Real friendships take work and commitment to one another. When they work, they make us feel fully human.

            No matter who we are, we need good friendships. Perhaps the last good friend you had was someone you knew years ago but with whom you have fallen out of touch. What did that friendship teach you about how to recreate that small, essential, positive human community of two close friends? Perhaps it’s time to discover more about how you can be a friend and welcome new friendship in return.

(Written for/published 5/28/2019 The Savage Pacer)

What Every Husband Ought to Know about Marriage Conflict

Nobody likes to hear someone close to them be critical, blaming or shaming. It feels bad. And sometimes scary. It turns out that when women talk like that to their husbands, contrary to popular opinion, most men feel this intense criticism very strongly in their bodies. And because male bodies “rev up” faster than women’s in stress (heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, tunnel vision), in order to protect themselves and their relationships from too much emotion, men frequently, readily, as a default, go into Defense mode.

It’s vital for happy, flexible marriages to have partners who know how to manage difficult conversations. There will be many of them over the years.

As I said in my last post, women have to learn how to bring up their complaints softly, gently, and with a caring touch.

Men need to recognize their usual default of Defensiveness, and learn to lower their emotional walls quickly.  If men can do this, while at the same time women practice being more gentle, the best situation for a positive interaction around difficult topics happens.

The most successful couples work on this communication posture change together. Trusting that the other is doing their best to move out of their “automatic” thinking/behavior/posture and tone to a more couple-friendly communication strategy.

Because I talk about these automatic couple missteps every day in my therapy practice, I know this is one of the most common couple problems. No one part of the couple can fix the problem completely on their own : each person in the marriage has a piece of the solution!

What Every Wife Ought to Know about Marriage Conflict

If I had the opportunity to share one essential marital tool with every wife in America, I know exactly what I would say:

Learn to bring up difficult topics with your partner in a calm, quiet and focused voice.

Marital researcher Dr. John Gottman has studied tens of thousands of marital conversations over 30 + years. He has found that there are 4 distinct communication habits that are poison to happy relationships. He calls them the “Four Horsemen,” like the biblical horsemen that bring in the end of times in the book of Revelation.

He has learned that men have a faster body response of adrenaline (increased heart rate, blood flow to the extremities, tunnel focus of attention) than most women to partner conflict. That means that when many women are just getting into the meat of their problem, their partner has become ready to run, fight and defend. It makes it very hard for men to stay focused and listen calmly without enormous effort.

If every woman could develop the personal skill of bringing up difficult discussions with their partner in a calmer way, their male partner is less apt to “flood,” focus and defend. And the conversation is more likely to be productive and problem-solving.

It’s a skill we practice in therapy all the time. Are you able to bring difficult topics up to your partner in a calm, cooperative way? If not, you may want to start working on this skill.

What is it that I wish I could tell every husband in America? Well, that’s for next time.

I Need Help NOW

Several of my clients are suffering with destructive moods, relationships, jobs or unemployment at the moment.


I understand what that vortex feels like: overwhelming physical tension, unclear thinking, rushed or confused decision making, hair-trigger temper, uneasy sleep. During times like this in life, it’s very hard to trust that you can find a way to hang on. The present is so unpleasant it seems endless.

When times like this come to us (and believe me, they will come to us all, at one time or another), I like to focus on two aspects of help: making the NOW better each day, and focusing on the small decisions we make so that we can create a more hopeful FUTURE.

The Now: There is a great deal we all can do every day to soothe our bodies and minds for optimum wellness even when in an emotional storm. They are aspects of daily self care, but few of us practice them with enough patience that they make a difference. Here are the basics I talk to all my clients about. What are you willing to work on each day to improve your own functioning?

1. Exercise. Absolutely, the most important addition to the self care tool box. The benefits of moving our bodies regularly, at a moderate level, for 30 minutes a day include lower blood pressure and blood sugar, a lowering of muscle tension, clearer thinking, better sleep. If ever there was a “magic potion” for wellness, daily exercise is it.

2. Nutrition. Along with exercise, what we eat has an immediate and lasting impact on our body’s ability to get through the day with less stress. Less processed foods, less alcohol, and more real foods like vegetables, fruits, dairy, whole grains, lean meats, beans and fish will better nourish the body and brain.

3. Meditation/relaxation/guided imagery/breathing/prayer/ritual. A stressed mind and body needs to practice being relaxed. At times of high stress, the nervous system doesn’t easily recover from tension. 20-30 minutes, every day, of quiet time that helps the mind quiet, slow, and focus will create a relaxation response in the body that promotes healing. Many people complain to me that they have tried meditation, breathing, or imagery and “it doesn’t work.” These are skills that take time to practice and learn. If you are patient, these skills can change your life.

4. Core relationships. When we are stressed by terrible strife at work, home or community, we can turn inward and neglect the other relationships that support us. We don’t want to burden others with our struggles, yet it’s exactly at this point we need the love and support of friends, extended family, pets, neighbors and healthy colleagues. Make time for these happier relationships, and don’t spend every minute talking about yourself. Listen, laugh, relax with others. Relationships need to be balanced, even in stress.

Taking time to focus on what can be done TODAY will help lift the weight of life’s struggles off your mind. Commit yourself to helping your body, mind and relationships be healthy, flexible and strong. It makes the now so much less destructive. In my next post, I’ll talk about the mental skill of hopefulness that can draw us forward.

In the meantime, be well.

 
 

What Exactly is Closure?

Convicted mass murderer John Muhammad was executed this week in Virginia. He and a teenage accomplice went on a three week killing spree in October, 2002, that left 10 people dead and a whole region of the country afraid.

Reports of the execution included select comments from some of the victims’ survivors. Many spoke about getting or not getting, a sense of “closure” with his death. I have been wondering, as I often do when people use this popular emotional term, just what they mean.

I think that closure, in this context, has come to mean this: I can’t forgive, and I can’t forget. But at least I have some sense of justice done, and that closes the book on that nightmare. I can sleep at night without endlessly spinning on the fact that the one I love is dead, and the one who killed her is alive. I think that closure in the case of state execution may be a soft, acceptable term for vengeance.

But people say they find “closure” when some hidden secret is revealed, or when they find the answer to some perplexing mystery, like the disappearance of a loved one. People don’t say “I have closure” when they forgive someone, or when they have attended a funeral for one lost to cancer or accident.

“Closure” is a contemporary image which means, I think, I can put this part of my life to rest. I can close the door on this room and finally walk away. I can shut this window, this file, this book, all the images we conjure of things that are open and unfinished that once closed, we can put down or away or forget.

But in the end, it’s a mirage. Because we will always have our whole life within us, and the whole of us to contend with from day to day. Nothing is ever really completely finished, is it? until the day we die. And even then, even then, God is not finished.

So, is closure just a wish for an end? That is my best guess on how we use it. Yes, we wish for our nightmare to end. And we call down closure upon it. Knowing, perhaps, it’s just a dream. But we call for it, nonetheless.