We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response, and we get it. We see a grizzly in the woods and our instinct is to run screaming. Makes total sense (though it will get you killed, so don’t do it).
What most of us don’t realize is that we also have this same response to intense emotional situations. Feelings of shame and betrayal hijack our limbic system the same way that spying a King Cobra would.
According to Psychologist Brene Brown in her book Daring Greatly:
“When shame descends, we almost always are hijacked by the limbic system. In other words, the prefrontal cortex, where we do all our thinking and analyzing and strategizing, gives way to the primitive fight-or-flight part of our brain.”
That instinct you have to run and hide after you’ve said or done something incredibly stupid? Yep, that’s the fight or flight response too. In his book Icognito, neuroscientist David Eagleman describes the brain as a “team of rivals.” In other words, in these emotional interactions, it is quite literally a battle between the heart (or our emotional selves) and our minds. That disparity between what we know in our heads and what we feel is a real battle, and whichever wins is going to call the shots in terms of our behavior.
Eagleman puts it this way:
“There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior…the rational system is the one that cares about analysis of things in the outside world, while the emotional system monitors the internal state and worries whether things are good or bad.”
Our response to these emotional confrontations isn’t that much different from the one with the grizzly. In classical psychology terms, Karen Horney’s theory that we move toward, move against, or we move away explains it best.
According to Dr. Linda Hartling’s research while at the Stone Center at Wellesley, in these types of situations, we tend to move away by withdrawing, hiding, and keeping secrets. We move toward by attempting to appease and to please. We move against by attempting to gain power over others through aggression, both verbal and physical.
The reality is, we likely do all of these in different situations with different people at different times. The important thing is to recognize it for what it is, our limbic system hijacking our reasoning.
We need to learn to spot it, take an emotional step back, and give our reason a chance to come back on line.
We all have the uncle (or aunt, or grandparent, or wacky fifth cousin twice removed) who likes to reminisce about how “When I was a kid…” he used to walk uphill both ways to school, or she helped her mama with all the chores before she was asked, or he never disrespected his parents.
We fully recognize that their memory has taken on a tinge of unreality and, in response, we are ready with the prerequisite eye roll or groan, recognizing that “Uncle Rob’s memory is a few bricks shy of a full load.”
We fully accept that their memories are somewhat lacking.
But what if I told you that it isn’t just Uncle Rob and Aunt Cheryl? What if I were to point my finger at you, and tell you that yourmemory is just as false as crazy cousin Wally’s?
We like to think that our memories are ironclad. Often, in disagreements and arguments, we site our recollection of events as solid, irrefutable back up of our version of reality. We don’t pause to consider when our [spouse, parent, friend] refutes our version of the experience with their own version of events that we might be the one who is wrong. We tell ourselves he/she is simply wrong. They are remembering incorrectly. It happened the way we replay it in our heads.
But, if their memory can be incorrect, why do we assume that our own isn’t inaccurate as well? Why do we somehow believe that we simply are better at remembering?
False memories have gotten a lot of attention lately with the documentary series “Making a Murderer.” Anyone who’s on Facebook couldn’t escape the indignation that permeated half the posts several months ago. Many watching the series felt a sense of moral outrage that an innocent man could have had his life taken from him in such a way. How could such a mistake be made! It’s unacceptable! How does this happen?!
The truth is, it happens very easily. Rather than being the anomaly, a little digging shows that it is not an uncommon tale. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has been pointing out this flaw in our memories and by extension our legal system for years. Check out her TedTalk on the subject here
Eye witness testimonies are frequentlywrong. They are wrong, not because of some vindictive purpose of the witness, but due to the inherent flaws in memory.
Through a series of experiments, Loftus found that simple semantics changed the testimony of a witness.
If an individual was asked how fast a car was going when it “smashed” into another vehicle versus how fast a car was going when it “hit” another vehicle, the witness would raise the mph of the car because the word “smash” implies more force. Same accident, different wording equaled different memory of the events.
Loftus decided to take the susceptibility of our memory to alteration one step further. She decided to see if a completely false memory was planted, it could cause a person to believe something that they did not see or experience at all.
Through a series of experiments, she found that, absolutely, we can come to believe that things happened that did not happen. She calls this the misinformation effect.
For instance, if an individual is told that when they were very young he became separated from his parents in a mall and that he wandered terrified and lost, the individual is likely to begin “remembering” details of the event–even though it never actually happened.
Our memories are susceptible to suggestion. They can be altered.
As a Psych professor, I decided that my skeptical students could benefit from a little experiment of their own. They recorded a memory of their own in as much detail as they could remember and they were then told to rate the accuracy of the memory on a scale of one to ten. The memory had to be one in which another individual was involved. They were then to interview that individual and record their version of the memory in as much detail as the individual remembered it. They were then told to compare the two sets of memories.
The next part of the assignment was even more interesting. They were told to try to sew misinformation. The goal was to plant false memories and to see if they were believed. To aid the success of the experiment, they were told that they had to come up with plausible additions, things that easily could have happened.
The result of their experiment was that most of the students realized that their memory wasn’t nearly as reliable as they originally believed it to be. When they compared it to the other individual’s memory, they found things they had forgotten and many discrepancies between the two sets of memories.
Secondly, about fifty percent of the students were successfully able to plant false memories. It was far easier than any of us had believed to warp and change an individual’s memory of an event. In fact, it was a little disturbing to see how easy it was to alter a person’s memories and it left most of us with the uncomfortable reality that rather than looking at our memories as a movie played back in our minds, they should be regarded with suspicion and doubt.
So, what does this mean to you? The next time you are entrenched in your belief that your version of events is the accurate one, you might want to take a step back and reconsider–memory is malleable and downright faulty–and it is certainly not a hill for relationships to die on.
What would happen if you were to eat something unhealthy but believe it was good for you … or something healthy but believe it was bad for you?
I doesn’t matter, right? If it’s healthy, it’s healthy. That’s simply a fact.
And no matter how often you tell yourself that pan of brownies is actually good for you, it doesn’t make it so, right? I mean, that’s common sense.
Wait a minute…what?
I can’t possibly be telling you that you can just think the calories out of your brownies?! What kind of quack am I?! I mean that’s ridiculous! You’re just going to stop reading now. Obviously, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
But wait, just for a minute. Hear me out.
Okay, so you can’t make those brownies into a carrot stick no matter how hard you try, BUT it seems that what we believe matters more than we think. Our body responds to how we view something. How our body reacts and interacts changes based on what we tell our brain is true.
This shouldn’t be as shocking as it sounds. We do things like this all of the time.
Seriously. No joke.
Take phantom limb pain. One of the ways we handle it is through something called mirror therapy. We quite literally trick the brain into thinking that the missing limb is still there–even though it’s not.
By using a mirror, we envision a leg where there is no leg, and the brain responds sort of like this:
“Oh! Dear me! My mistake! So sorry! There is a leg there. I see it now. Well, let me just get rid of this pain for you. My mistake. Won’t happen again!”
And poof! The pain goes away.
Are we still missing the leg?
Are our nerves still sending a static message to the brain?
But we’ve tricked the brain into believing there isn’t a problem.
How about another example: stress.
Are you stressed?
I’m not sure you can live in this modern world and not be stressed.
For years we have been told that stress is bad for us. It makes us sick. It can even kill us.
Many have mistakenly believed that stress can cause cancer. Research has never supported this. Though there is a correlation between stress and cancer, there is nothing that backs up the idea that stress causes the cancer. A basic research principle there: correlation does not equal causation.
We are now finding out that we have been demonizing stress to our own detriment. Stress itself is not bad. It is only the belief that stress is bad that gives stress the power to harm us.
Huh? What kind of psychological mumbojumbo is this? I’m losing you again, aren’t I? Hold tight. It sounds like mumbojumbo, but it’s not.
It’s backed up with research, and it’s pretty amazing. Check out this TedTalk and let the experts say it better than I can myself: Kelly Mcgonigal TedTalk Trust me, it’s worth the watch.
Stress itself is not bad for us. In fact, we need to take our stress response and make it work for us.
I decided to take this concept and consciously practice it recently when confronted with a crisis in my own life.
As a professor of Psychology, I am very aware of the cycle of the stress response and exactly what is happening in my body when the fight/flight response is triggered. I felt the acceleration of my hearbeat. I felt the blood pumping in my veins. I was aware that my lack of appetite was due to my body focusing its energy on more important needs. I was aware of the the cortisol flooding my system to ensure that I had energy despite my lack of nutrition. I was consciously aware of my body’s response to the crisis at hand, and I told myself just what I was told to tell myself: this is a good thing. This is my body helping me to rise to the challenge and to overcome.
Phase two, I called my friends and family. Remembering the second part of Kelly Mcgonigal’s TedTalk, I got the people who love and care about me involved. I didn’t try to do it on my own. I didn’t let pride or embarrassment keep me silent. I knew I needed friends, and I called them. And they came, because my friends and family are awesome that way!
This was the second worst crisis of my life, only topped by the diagnosis and subsequent death of my first child.
It was bad. Really, really bad.
And yet, I handled this crisis better than any crisis in my life. My body empowered me to deal with it, and my very belief that it would, ensured that it did. It didn’t make the situation any less terrible, but I handled it so very much better!
And I am continuing to handle it so much better, because, though the initial crisis is over, the stress and the aftermath are going to take a long, long time to deal with, and the continued stress I feel can sap my energy and will, or it can feed me.
I choose the latter.
I know my body is designed to help me withstand and overcome just such situations, and I’m going to let it do just that.
The Huffington Post puts it this way:
This isn’t exactly new material. Think of Shakespeare’s wisdom that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Or this affirmation by 19th century Christian religious thought leader, Mary Baker Eddy: “Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably to their occupancy of your thoughts.” (See #9 on: “10 Positive Thinking Books That Might Change Your Life.”)
In other words, the more research we do, the more the link between our spirit/soul/consciousness and our physical selves becomes evident. What we think matters. Negativity hurts us physically. Whether it is our inner dialogue telling us how we don’t measure up and how we can’t ever achieve what we want to achieve (for more on this concept see my earlier blog: Queen of Schmucks ) or whether it is telling ourselves that our biological stress response is bad for us, negative thoughts take a toll on our physical bodies.
We need to change how we think.
How do we go about it? Well “Forbes” magazine breaks it down and gives us some practical steps in how we can begin to change our mindset about stress and make it work for us:
Then, follow this three-step process for cultivating a new stress mindset over the next month:
Acknowledge stress when you feel it, notice stress in your body.
Last night I was snuggled in my bed with Arabelle. We were all cozied up in a pile of blankets trying to hold off the last effort of Winter to make any real impression on the north Texans this year. It was chilly, but honestly, I think he failed in his attempt–no real winter here this year.
Arabelle had her head on my shoulder and my face was nuzzled into her hair. It was one of those perfect moments that make life just so beautiful.
Unfortunately, the topic of conversation wasn’t quite so beautiful. We were chatting about all the pre-teen drama that little girls create, and boy do they create a lot!
As I listened to Belle’s tales of woe, I found myself thinking back to my own pre-adolescent years, and I wasn’t feeling very nostalgic! I cringed inwardly as the memories of awkwardness, insecurity, and immaturity came flooding back. Those years are just so hard! Doesn’t matter who you are: the outcast, the nerd, the average, or the popular, it’s just downright awful most of the time.
Everybody is insecure, uncertain, and too often hurtful to others, as they try to transition from a child into this strange new world of the preteen. Too often, out of that insecurity, girls can get really catty and be downright mean. I’d lived it, and now my precious little girl was living it.
I listened to Arabelle pour out her worries and struggles with a twinge in my heart. I wanted to protect her from these years, but I knew I couldn’t. At best I could help her get through them, and part of that would be helping my very sensitive and insecure daughter to not take things too personally, and to help her believe in herself.
With that in mind, when she began her litany of how she didn’t measure up, I countered with all of the wonderful and unique things about her. And I had a big list that I was determined would help her see her worth.
For every positive I laid out, she counteracted with its negative.
Finally in exasperation she sighed, “I wish I was like you! You’re perfect!.”
“Wait a minute, what?” I turned so I could look into her eyes.
“Well you are!” she answered back to my look of shock, and she began a long list of all my attributes.
I was a bit stunned. I sat up and blinked stupidly at her for a while and then finally said, “But you know how imperfect I am better than just about anybody! You live with me! You see the times that I’m impatient or when I lose my temper. When I’m not as thoughtful or as kind as I should be!”
“But mom, you always have a reason for those things.”
“But that doesn’t make them right! It’s still wrong that I do them!”
She shrugged. “I still want to be just like you. You’re my hero.”
Wow. I’m her hero.
I didn’t ask to be her hero. I don’t think I want to be her hero. But I guess it doesn’t really matter if I asked for it or if I wanted it–it’s what she’s made me–a hero, albeit a somewhat unwilling one.
Rather than feeling flattered by that pronouncement, I felt humbled and a little scared.
My mind flashed back to a conversation we had had earlier that day where I had done something that had so clearly echoed my own mother. “Ugh! Grandma just pulled a body snatch on me! Clearly that wasn’t a Mommy thing to do! How does Grandma do that?!”
Arabelle had laughed and said that being like Grandma wasn’t so bad.
I jokingly teased her that she needed to beware, because when she became my age, she would find herself echoing what I do and say in ways that she never thought she would, even in the ways she had vowed to never be like me. “It happens to us all,” I teased her. “I’ll do something and all of a sudden I’ll see a flash of my father doing the exact same thing in the exact same way…it’s kind of creepy!”
She was going to become just like me, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It hit me with a new clarity.
I’m her hero. She is watching me. She wants to be like me.
What I do and what I say, how I act and how I fail to act, all of these she sees, and many of these she herself will become. And in time her children, and her children’s children. Passed on from generation to generation…
The responsibility, when you really take the time to wrap your mind around it, is staggering.
All parents, at least all the good ones, realize that they are setting an example for their children. We understand that they are learning based on what we model, but I don’t think we fully understand what it means.
When we become parents, we really are like the potter with a lump of clay, but what we sometimes don’t think about is that, even when we are not actively molding that clay, we are still molding it.
In fact, most of the molding of that clay happens, not from our active working with the clay (active parenting), but rather from the inactive moments. The moments observed by those big, innocent eyes. Not only our observed actions, but our observed inaction. When we fail to act. When we fail to fight for something we believe in. When we let lethargy seep in and cause us to accept less than the best from life and the people around us. When we allow someone to ignore us, disrespect us, or knock us down, and we don’t defend ourselves. When we’re confronted with the obstacles in life and we don’t fight back, but instead give in.
All of these too are children see, and they will follow in our footsteps.
I find myself thinking of all the ways that I don’t want my daughter to be like me. Those are the very things that I need to work on. Yes, there are lots of ways I would be happy to have her follow in my steps I do many things well, but that doesn’t discount the ways that I want her to be better than me, more than I am.
And I am realizing in a way I never have before, that the best way to do that, is to be more than I am. I need to become what I hope she will one do become, so that she has an example walking before her, one that I feel like is totally comfortable with her following–and I’m not there yet.
I know I can’t be perfect. I know I will fail and I will fall, and no matter how hard I try, those failures may hurt my daughter and she will carry some of that into her future. But I need to know that I did my best, that I became the best I could be so that she can be the best that she can be.
I didn’t ask to be a hero. I don’t deserve to be a hero.
I’d better do my best to become one though. There is a little girl who is watching me to see what heroes do, and one day she will echo the choices I made.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on happiness lately.
As many of you know, I started a new position as a professor of Psychology this January. It’s been a good ten years since I’ve delved into all things Psych, and I’ve enjoyed diving back in. What I’ve been finding excites me. Some of this I had known, but haven’t thought much of in the intervening years. But much of it is new. The research keeps revealing new information, and the more we understand about happiness, the more I find myself in awe at the intricacy of our biology, our emotions, and ultimately, our spirituality. We are not an accident. Our design is not an accident. We are amazingly and wonderfully made.
The more that is learned about our biology, the more we realize it is wrapped up in our spiritual/emotional self. We are also beginning to realize that we have more control over who we are, what we feel, and even sometimes, the health of our own bodies than we previously understood.
This excites me. We are not at the whim of fate. We are not a pawn in the hand of chance. Our happiness is not contingent on what we have/don’t have or even what happens/doesn’t happen to us. Our happiness is not determined by outward forces, but rather by inward resilience, and everything is indicating that this can be learned. Happiness is quite literally a state of mind.
I’m a bit of a control freak, so I can’t help but love this. I can control my own happiness. I’ve always believed that, but now all the research is backing up that belief. I might not be able to control the random hand of chance as it forces itself into my life, but I certainly can control how I respond to it.
I have often wondered why two individuals can experience the exact same conflict and yet have a completely different response to it. Is this merely the result of personality differences? Is it simple genetics? Are some predestined to be more capable of handling conflict than others? Are they simply, genetically speaking, more resilient? Is there an X factor–some unknown factor that creates resilience? What exactly is resilience anyway?
I’ve always struggled with the idea that it is purely genetic. That simply isn’t fair. Why should some be given the ability to deal with life’s difficulties and others not? It simply feels a bit too Calvinistic to me, stinking too much of predestiny. Would God really stack the deck against us like that?
My husband and I have both experienced a lot of grief and loss in our lives, an exceptional amount, at least by American standards.
I tend to bounce. That doesn’t mean that I never feel depressed; I most certainly do at times. It doesn’t mean that I never get angry or feel twinges of bitterness; I’m no stranger to either of these feelings. What it does mean is that, no matter how horrible the circumstances, the sun peeps through the clouds. I see a solitary flower growing in the desert. It might be scraggly and undernourished, but I still find that flower. The weak ray of sunshine somehow manages to find its way past the cloud cover.
In other words, I always find hope. Hope in today. Hope in a better tomorrow. Hope that if I keep fighting, there will be something good at the end. Hope that there is a purpose to all the pain.
Sometimes I feel like a prize fighter. I scrape myself off the mats, still sore and bruised and bleeding. I’m barely able to stand, but by golly, I’m going to stay in the ring and give it another shot. I’m going to keep fighting, and when I feel like I can’t fight anymore, I’m going to dredge up some more chutzpah and somehow keep going even if it’s on will alone.
Sometimes I question my sanity. I know I’m going to get knocked down again. I know that by putting myself in the ring, the blows are inevitable, but I do it anyway. One would think that after being beaten to a pulp, I’d have a better sense of self preservation than that.
Or maybe, at an elemental level, I understand something hugely life altering…that life doesn’t exist outside of the ring. That life, with it’s blood, bruises, and broken limbs, is still vastly superior to a life lived in the bleachers–observing, but never participating.
All I know is that, no matter how many times I get knocked down, something inside of me makes me bounce back up again. I just keep getting up like one of those bobo dolls, no matter how hard you hit them, no matter how hard you try to keep them down, they somehow keeping getting up.
Sometimes I’ve compared myself to a buoy. Buoys can be submerged, but they always rise. I know that no matter what life throws my way, I will rise. Life will be good again. And the hope of that sustains me in the periods of drought and famine.
Aaron, on the other hand, doesn’t bounce. He reminds me of a rock thrown out on the water. He tends to sink. When things get dark, they tend to be black. He can’t find the sun. He begins to wall himself off, protecting himself. He is like a turtle that crawls into his shell and no amount of coaxing will get him to come out.
We are polar opposites in this. I am an optimist and he is a pessimist. I bounce whereas he sinks.
So, does he just throw in the towel and say that, “Well, since I’m genetically pre-disposed to sink, I guess I’ll go ahead and lay down and die. What’s the point anyway?”
Obviously not. Giving into hopelessness and depression is never an answer.
What the research shows us is that though it might be much more difficult for the self-professed pessimist to rise back to hope and happiness after a huge blow, it is still in the realm of possibility.
God made us all capable of great resilience. It just comes easier to some of us than to others.
Over the next few weeks I’m going to share the tools I have, along with some of the new research out there. I haven’t figured all this out yet–no one has. I am not claiming to be an expert, but more a pilgrim. I am pooling my knowledge of psychology, my understanding of God and the human spirit, and my own hard-won experience in an effort to share the the wisdom I’ve learned and the tools that have proven to work.
If you’re an optimist, you probably do some of this instinctively, but we can always get better at how we manage stress and crisis.
If you’re a pessimist, don’t throw in the towel and consign yourself to a glass half full mentality. It’s a lot of hard work, and it takes some dedicated cognitive therapy, but you too can begin to experience the buoy experience of resilience.
This morning, after dropping the girls off at school, I headed straight for the coffee pot to get a warm up on my now cooled coffee. I picked up the pot and stared at it blankly. It was empty. I blinked stupidly at it for a moment. It was empty…how was it empty?
I went through my mental list…Aaron grabbed a travel mug full before he left…still should have been a cup or two more…I had made a full pot, right? Of course I did! When would I not make a full pot in the morning? Silly thought, that! Well, then where did it go…
Gavin hadn’t headed to the bus stop yet when I left for the girls… Gavin?! My 11 year old son, 6th grade… coffee?!
I headed for the front door, and peeked out. The bus hadn’t come yet. Gavin was still there. I pseudo shouted (didn’t want to be too loud with still sleeping neighbors) and pantomimed toward him and my coffee mug. He pretended ignorance. I tried again. A distant, “Maybe…” was his response.
A maybe from Gavin means “Yes, but I don’t want to full out admit it lest I get into trouble.”
I stood blinking at him as he lifted my Starbucks travel cup and shot a hesitant smile in my direction.
My son helped himself to a cup of coffee, and as I watched I saw he was really drinking it.
I didn’t know how I felt about this. Too much change. My baby was just changing way too much for comfort. It was just such an adult thing for him to do!
He brushed his hair this morning. On his own. Without me having to tell him to do it, or more likely, just having to do it myself. He didn’t just wet it down and call it good—he brushed it.
Obviously there is a coffee drinking girl in the picture and she obviously takes the same bus he does. My kid is growing up.
If this wasn’t enough evidence of the ticking of the great clock of time, the fact that my two best friends just turned forty is irrefutable evidence of that darn clock. They’re forty, which means, I’m next. Granted, I have to turn thirty nine before I can turn forty, but it adds the sense of impending age, as if it is hanging over my head ready to swallow me into that group of officially past our prime, not yet elderly, but showing signs of wear and tear humanity.
And it doesn’t help that I keep getting invitations to join AARP in the mail. My husband, less than a year my junior, doesn’t get invitations to join, nope, not a one. But they keep rolling in for me! Maybe it’s because his man bun makes him look young and hip, maybe it’s because he still looks about thirty despite the slight graying at his temples. Maybe it’s because I’m starting to look fifty, sixty…what’s the age to join AARP anyway! Surely it’s not 38! Geesh! They could at least wait until I turn 40! Come on already!
All of these factors are combining to force me to confront the reality that my life is about half over. That reality floats on the edge of my consciousness.
It’s not a vanity thing (though that’s there). It’s not the new wrinkles or the pudgier figure I now sport. It’s not that the face in the mirror sometimes doesn’t see like mine.
It’s all about the time.
When you’re young, it feels like time spreads in front of you unending. There is so much of it, and you don’t really have a sense of it running out, ending–EVER. It feels like you have forever to do all the things you want to do. Years and years tumble before you in an endless string, all of this time to accomplish your dreams.
When you start nearing that forty mark, when your face shows the signs that your youth is fading, when your children start approaching their hero days and you begin to realize that you really are just a supporting character in their stories, the reality that the road does end, that time does run out, that it is limited and finite, starts to come home to roost. And that is uncomfortable to say the least.
As I have a tendency to do, I was reading a fantasy series the other day and was contemplating all the things that I would do with my time if, like a vampire, I didn’t have to worry about an aging body and an eventual death. As I contemplated, (and oh, the list was so long) I started to think of all I wouldn’t have the time to do. The books that will go unread, the countries that will go unseen, the languages I will never learn to speak, the things I will not have the time to learn…
I didn’t think of these things when I was twenty, because, though my time was limited even then, it didn’t feel limited.
This line of thought, rather than depressing me (though it does sadden me that, though I do happen to believe that there is life after to death, I don’t know that the things that matter now will matter then…will I want to read piles of books, or with immortality, does our need for knowledge disappear because we will know all things?) lit a fire under my oh, too comfortable derriere. If my time is finite, and quickly moving through the hour glass, I should not waste it on a treadmill (the figurative one).
I don’t want to spend the last half of my life simply seeing the same scenery, living the same days over and over again (sometimes life feels a bit like “Groundhog’s Day,” doesn’t it?).
I need to get a move on it. I need to take some risks, and dare to make my dreams happen before it’s too late, before I run out of time.
It’s so easy to get comfortable, particularly as we get older. We surround ourselves with all these things that make us feel safe, cozy and well, comfortable. Our routines, our houses–all this stuff. We settle in. How could we risk all of this? It’s not practical.
Hmm…I think we give up more than we know in the name of practicality.
Many dreams have died a slow death in the names of comfort and practicality.
Dreams, by their very nature, are at odds with comfort and practicality. They require guts, and risk, and daring.
No one is going to come and hand you your dream. The pursuit of dreams requires something from you–room for possibility–room for impossibility.
This idea has been coming at me from several directions all at the same time, and, being that I have been spending a lot of time in prayer about this very thing, I have chosen to believe that all of these are a confirmation that I need to get out of my comfort zone, stop being so practical, and start giving possibility a bit more room in my life.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained…
The pastor who spoke at our church on Sunday said something that really rang true with me. Sometimes we eliminate the possibility of the miraculous. If we are continually living within the box of practicality, of only what we know we can [afford, do, be] we never give the miraculous a chance.
I want the miraculous. I want to not just live comfortably, but live passionately knowing that I’ve made the most of the 80 or so years I get on this planet. I’m not going to get that by playing it safe.
When I read the Bible, I don’t see anything that leads me to think that we are supposed to live our lives in the pursuit of comfort. Show me one disciple who lived comfortably. You can’t.
The truth is, the Bible again and again tells us that life will be uncomfortable, or even more, if will be downright HARD. A continual test of faith.
Is your life a continual test of faith? Are you comfortable? Do you have a pretty good idea what your days are going to look like from today to the end of your life?
If your answer is yes, I believe you’re doing it all wrong, and I dare you to dare yourself for something MORE.
I’ve stepped out and taken a chance. I’ve given up my reliable, steady fulltime position at a job I didn’t really like and have accepted a job as an Associate Professor of psychology in one of our local colleges. I’ve always wanted to be a professor, though I always envisioned English, not Psychology. This is a dream of mine. A dream that requires an amount of risk.
I’m excited–and terrified.
It’s a risky move. The biggest risk factor that is killing my controlling nature is that, like most associate professor positions, it is part time, not full time, and so I’m going to have to supplement my income. I am going to need to make up the difference via tutoring, piano lessons, and hopefully, eventually, the odd writing job. Lots of uncertainty there.
Is it risky?
Yeah, that is definitely there. Giving up a sure thing is always risky.
But does it open the door of possibility?
The time and opportunity to make a go of it as a writer is there. If I ever had a chance to do it, to make it, it’s now.
Not to mention the opportunity to be more present in the lives of my children, to capture the moments in these swiftly fleeting days.
Not to mention…I get to be a professor!
There are times when the uncertainty of it is very scary.
There are times that I want the security of the comfortable.
But I confront these with the assurance that living life means taking risks, and with the firm belief that, if it’s what I’m supposed to do, it will work out. Somehow. And I do think it’s what I’m supposed to do.
So, I’ve stepped of the ledge. It’s time to see if I can fly or if I fall. Either way, I think it’s the right decision.
I had the worst first grade teacher ever. She was a cranky old bitty who thought I was stupid, who broke all my pencils, and who threw my shoes in the garbage. I hated it her.
But I owe her a huge thank you.
She was my introduction to difficulty. She was my very early initiation into the practice of not perseverance, but of overcoming.
I could have accepted her early analysis of my intellectual capabilities. I could have started the inner monologue of my incompetence, my inability, and my general suckiness, but instead, despite my immature, impressionable six year-old mind, I made my very first decision to overcome, to confront her analysis head on, and to prove her wrong.
That was the first time I confronted an obstacle, and I believe it set the precedent for how I would handle all the obstacles to come.
Where did my courage to deal with the difficulties that have come my way over the last several decades come from?
I believe that it came from that very first experience with her. She had told me I couldn’t. She had told me I was dumb. She had labeled me and written me off. But I didn’t accept that, and by third grade I proudly walked the long hall to her room to hold my report card full of A’s to her startled face. Dadgummit! I had done it! I had proven her wrong, and if I’d proven her wrong, why couldn’t I overcome the next obstacle, and the next one? I had overcome, and that overcoming gave me faith that I could do it again.
Because of her, from the very beginning, I was only too aware of my imperfections. I never labored under the false perception of perfection, so when I screwed up, as I inevitably did time and again, it was not the end of my world. I did not label myself as a failure, but instead, I recognized that I could do better, be better.
I was very aware of my ability to change and to grow, because I had proven that ability from the tender age of six. I had proven to myself that I could be better tomorrow than I was today. I never thought I was perfect, but I knew that with effort, with tenacity, I could be more than who I was currently.
If I had stepped out of the gate with straight A’s, if it had come easy to me from the very beginning, if I hadn’t had the very early lessons in difficulty, would I have had the courage to confront obstacles instead of just avoiding them? Would I have been scared to risk failure and take chances if I wasn’t thrust into it so early on?
According to Carol Dweck, author of “Mindset: the new Psychology of success” I very well might not have. How we deal with failure early on, predicts how we are likely to deal with it our entire lives–unless me mindfully make a decision to deal with it differently.
If, when we are confronted with difficulty, we choose to overcome it, we will keep daring, keep risking, keep pushing our limits to see what we are capable of doing.
If, when confronted with difficulty, we back away, and stay in our comfort zone of what we know we do well, in our zone of tried and true success, we are likely to never find the true potential of what we could do.
And it all starts when we’re just little peanuts. If we allow our failings to be an impetus for growth, rather than a label of who we are–a failure–we can become so much more.
It is that very willingness to confront the obstacle that I learned way back then that keeps me blogging. I have blogged for years, and yet my following consists mainly of my mother, a couple of loyal family members, and a handful of faithful friends. Logic says that I should have given this up long before now, but am I going to quit? Nope. I’m going to keep doing it, becoming better, working out the kinks, until one day, I firmly believe, someone (hopefully lots of someones–and this isn’t to say I don’t appreciate you, my faithful few!) is going to notice.
And my novel. I know it’s going to get rejected. Probably many times. Is that going to stop me from writing it, or from sending it out to the inundated world of agents and publishers?
Absolutely not. It didn’t stop Stephen King and it didn’t stop J.K. Rowling, and it’s not going to stop me. I will keep working on it, tweaking it, taking the advice and suggestions I am given, until finally, one day, someone says, “Yes. I’m going to take a chance on you.”
Sometimes, this mountain I’m trying to climb seems insurmountable, and I am tempted to throw in the towel, but I just can’t do that.
Thank you, Kelly, for the nudge I needed through the book “Mindset” you sent my way, and thank you Chris, for the nudge you gave me with the book “Daring Greatly.” It is a good reminder to keep going, keep trying, and keep believing, that by daring to it, and myself out there, I am doing something worthwhile.
And thank you Cassandra for telling me you “want to be [me] when you grow up.” You say that to me now, not as a published author, but as one who is daring to try to become one. It reminds me that it’s not the success I achieve, but the willingness to dare to achieve it that is truly admirable.
So, if it’s the willingness to try that sets us apart, what is it that you need to be willing to risk? What is it that you need to dare to do? Aren’t you curious of just how much you can achieve?
Daring to risk and failing, does not make you a failure. It makes you courageous. I dare you to dare with me.
I don’t know if this is a result of living in Texas where December is more in line with the fall of my childhood, or perhaps it’s from the general chaotic pace my life has taken on, or maybe it’s some other factor that I have yet to identify. Whatever the reason, I’m staring Christmas in the face, and I feel totally unprepared.
I used to put my tree up on November 1. I figured that, so long as we had passed Halloween, it was fair game. It wasn’t a matter of finding the time, but more a waiting a respectable amount of time before putting up that first sign of Christmas. I was ready and waiting, a runner poised for the blast that singled “Let the games begin!”
My Christmas shopping used to be done by December 1, and the only thing I needed to scramble for were a few extra stocking stuffers. I leisurely wrapped the gifts while listening to Bing croon about the white Christmas I could already see outside my window. I savored the season: enjoying the moments, admiring them, fingering them one by one.
Now it’s more of a mad scramble, a dash from one event to the next–a chaotic sprinting, not a leisurely stroll.
The tree is put up in stages. First there is the bare tree, then days later it acquires some lights and maybe a ribbon or two. Finally, when we can all fit in a spare couple of hours together, we add the ornaments. And then at last the tree bedecked in all its glory to remind us that, yes, Christmas is coming (like a freight train), despite the blue skies and sunshine outside my window!
Gifts are bought in a helter-skelter, often last minute fashion these days. Presents are wrapped only to be opened moments later–literally moments later. No enjoying that pretty wrapping paper peaking from beneath the tree branches. No children having days to wonder about the mysteries wrapped and waiting beneath the tree. There’s no shaking of the boxes, wild guesses, and the peeled back corners of gifts that sit under the tree to tantalize the little people in my life. Nope, there is a still puffing Mama who did a wrapping marathon only to thrust the presents into the eagerly waiting hands. I barely wipe the sweat from my fevered brow before the little people are tearing that pretty paper off and all my efforts are now crumpled in a heap on the floor…
And then there is the Christmas baking…don’t let me get started on the Christmas baking!
I used to love the smells wafting through my kitchen, the strains of the Trans Siberian Orchestra in the background, and the cup of Joe or the glass of red in my hand (depending on what strikes my fancy at the moment). I relished my role in my husband’s family as the maker of delectable desserts (it probably helps that their idea of a Christmas spread is cookies and pie bought at the local supermarket, but never mind that, I relished my role as the Martha Stewart of Christmas yumminess). They waited with anticipation for me to walk in with my homemade oreo cookies, my peanut butter bonbons, and what ever else I decided to throw into the mix that year.
They start anticipating early, at Easter, throughout the summer (never mind that I have spring and summer versions of dessert decadence), already anticipating the Christmas treats that are to come.
Oh, the pressure! I created this beast and now I have to feed it!
And the baking, no longer the savored Christmas experience, is something that I smoosh into my hectic Christmas Eve morning somewhere between the candlelight service (which they now have early in the afternoon which allows us to maintain our scavenger hunt tradition in the evening) and the scant few hours of sleep I’ve managed to cram in with all those last minute Christmas errands the day before the stores begin to close up shop and tell us procrastinators to “go the hell home! We have families too!”
Ah, Christmas. Still my favorite time of year, despite how quickly it comes and how quickly it’s over! How I miss the time to savor you as you so deserve!
My house may not be decorated to perfection, my array of treats might be appallingly scant, and the gifts might yet be crammed in shopping bags in the corners of my closet, but somehow, I don’t think that is what my children are going to remember (I know that’s not what I remember, though I’m pretty sure my mom was probably the chaotic, sweating, marathon running mess that I am today!).
My children will remember, not the presents or decorations, but the time spent together. They will remember the traditions, the games, and the warm fuzzy feelings that Christmas will bring their way for years to come (until they have kids of their own and the chaotic insanity becomes their very own!).
I find myself reminding myself that it’s not about perfection. It’s not about a beautifully set array of cookies and perfectly wrapped presents. It’s not about the perfect kids’ craft that results in perfect little treasures for grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles.
The kids won’t notice the clutter around the house. They won’t notice that there are only two kinds of cookies this year. They won’t notice that the handmade presents are a bit less spectacular this year.
And I shouldn’t either.
It’s time to stop running around like a crazy person and settle in and just enjoy being with my family.
And it’s time to remember what this season is really all about. Not the great commercial rush it has become, but something so much more–infinitely more.
Sometimes I need to remember that.
You can only do what you can do, and really that’s not the point of it all anyway.
Merry Christmas from my chaotic family to your own! May it be perfect in its imperfection!
When you are young, as with so much of life, you look to motherhood with a strong shot of romance and a healthy side of idealism.
A co-worker brings a new baby into work, and everybody crowds around, oohing and ahhing at that amazing little miracle of life…and all you see is chubby cheeks and warm baby snuggles. (Not the tears–your own not the babies–and the 10th dirty diaper of the day or the growing mound of poo bespeckled laundry–again, not just the babies.)
You see the proud glow of a mother who watches her child achieve the winning goal, the special award, the winning medal…and you think of how brilliant your child will be and how proud he or she will make you. You see the look of pride you will wear and the look of envy the other mothers will shoot in your direction. (You don’t see the stress of playing chauffeur, the many dinners eaten in the car, the tears and arguments when said child doesn’t want to go to practice or is over-tired when practices translate into late, late nights of homework)
You see the mother soothing an adorable toddler’s tears away…(aww…isn’t she cute? —No, not really. After the fifth meltdown of the day, that cute baby voice is starting to sound like nails on the chalkboard and that little, red, howling face is the thing of nightmares)
To the young (and naïve) all of these inspire feelings of longing, a desire to be a participant in that moment, to be the mother, to feel the tenderness and pride. The rest of it is unknown or ignored. The rose colored glasses are on and the pictures of family bliss overshadow the known realities.
Maybe not everyone feels it, but many, even most, do. I sure did.
I remember, before I was a parent, the longing I felt for a child. I remember the fear that I would never find a man I wanted to marry, or who would want to marry me, and the fear that I would never experience that–that I would be left on the outside looking through the shop window at what I couldn’t have, watching other women experience those moments. I would be on the sidelines–watching, wishing, but not participating.
For me, I got to experience this not once, but twice. I did meet a man, and we fell in love, and we had a beautiful, gorgeous, perfect little baby, and I felt the joy, the tenderness, the rush of pride, only to bury my beautiful little girl a year later.
Those moments on the outside looking in were all the more painful after that. Those mothers had what I had had, only it had been stolen away from me, and I feared that I would never have it again (the risk involved was just so great). I felt by turns angry and bitter, but most often, I despaired. What if, having known what being a mother was, I never got to be one again?
I remind myself of that frequently these days, so many years of chaos later. I remind myself of how much I wanted this, and how I almost didn’t get it.
When I lost Serena, I thought I knew what being a mother was. In fact, I thought I had a better picture than most, because I had experienced the joy being a mother was, but also the devastation it can bring. But the truth is, I didn’t really understand what being a mother was at that point.
Despite losing Serena, I still wore rose colored glasses. My eyes and my heart were full of the tender moments, the warmth. My mind was filled with remembered snuggles, and the memory of that unique baby scent, the soft cheeks and that perfect little nuzzle spot just between the edge of the jaw and the neck…
I had not yet experienced the daily grind of parenthood. I hadn’t faced the discipline and arguments, the tears and “I hate yous,” the endless emails to teachers to try to turn zeroes into passing grades, the wrappers on the floor and bookbags in the doorway. These were not something I knew.
I didn’t yet understand that to be a mother was to put one’s self in the back seat, to place another completely and entirely above oneself. I did not know that it meant that my life would be filled with mundane moments of caretaking, or that the peacefulness of silence would be something I only fondly remembered, but never experienced.
I did not know that my wants, my needs, my own desires would be in such subjugation to the needs and wants of others.
I didn’t understand.
I wish I could say that I always handle it with grace, but I don’t.
I wish I could say that losing Serena makes me always remember to appreciate the gift I have in my children, but it doesn’t.
I wish I could say that I never feel angry, or bitter, or resentful of all that I have given up for this dream of motherhood, but that would be a lie.
I do feel resentful sometimes. Sometimes I’m angry. Sometimes I lose patience. Sometimes I wish that I could travel the world like I did before. Or I think fondly of a time when my to-do list wasn’t so long that it went straight out the door and wrapped around the block. There are those moments.
But there are also the other moments. The love, the tenderness, the laughter. There is the knowledge that I finally understand what the Bible is talking about, to truly put someone above yourself, to be willing to lay your life, not your death, but to lay your life down for another. That is so much harder.
That is motherhood–day in and day out.
It is grace. It is selflessness. It is sacrifice.
It is not perfection, but being able to admit when we’re wrong, and to keep trying when we want to give up, and sometimes loving the unlovable until they are lovable again.
I am not a perfect mother, but my children are perfectly loved, and everything I gave up cannot come close to everything I have gained from having them in my life.
I am lucky to be their mother. It is a privilege–sometimes I have to remind myself of that, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
We’ve all had that moment when we’re about to take a bite of the last chocolate chip cookie, and we’re anticipating the burst of flavor that will come with it when our sister/brother/friend/son/daughter/etc. comes on the scene and says, “Oh! A chocolate chip cookie! I want one! Where are there?!”
What we do in that next moment is a window into who we are, a window into how we live our lives, and it is a window into our heart.
Do we, scarf down the cookie quickly, and only then admit it’s the last one?
Do we shrug and say “last one” and then take a huge bite from the cookie?
Do we break the cookie in half and cheerfully offer the other half?
Do we offer the other half, but feel a tug of reluctance, begrudging the loss of half of the cookie?
Or do we cheerfully hand the last cookie to the person we love because we’d rather make them happy than have the cookies ourselves?
It’s such a simple thing, a simple test, and we have moments like these every day of our lives. How we respond in these moments defines who we are on a basic level.
I’ve watched this played out among my children. Gavin would scarf the cookie down without a thought, fearful that I would tell him he had to share. Arabelle would hand you the cookie. Lily would struggle somewhere in between.
Every year for Halloween (or almost every year–we made an exception last year) the kids pick a theme and we all dress up, even mom and dad, according to that theme. This year the kids chose Wizard of Oz, or rather the girls did, and Gavin graciously deferred to them this time. We spent weeks discussing who would be which character from the very first days of October.
Lily wanted to be Glinda, the Good Witch, so Arabelle agreed to be Dorothy. I went online and found a Glinda costume, purchased it, and two days later Lily excitedly tried it on. She postured through the house, admired herself in the mirror–she was thrilled.
But then, a couple of days later, she changed her mind. She didn’t want to be Glinda anymore; she wanted to be Dorothy. Arabelle graciously said she would be Glinda (luckily the costume also fit her) so that Lily could have what she wanted. No harm, no foul. Great.
But then a couple weekends ago, I promised Lily that we would go to the store to buy her Dorothy costume, and as we were browsing the costumes, we came to a beautiful Wicked Witch of the West costume. Arabelle’s eyes lit up. “Mom, can I be the Wicked Witch instead?”
I was stuck. We already had the Glinda costume (and Lord knows I can’t fit into it!). I had promised Lily the Dorothy costume…
“Well, hon, I guess that’s up to Lily. If she’s willing to be Glinda, you can be the Wicked Witch.” Remember, just a few days before, Lily was thrilled with the idea of being Glinda.
When Arabelle asked Lily if she wouldn’t mind being Glinda as they had originally planned, Lily started balling, “But I want to be Dorothy!”
Arabelle patted Lily on the back and put her arms around her. “It’s okay, Lily. You can be Dorothy.” Great response from Arabelle. I wwas so proud of her, but…
But it wasn’t okay. I watched as Lily, without a thought, accepted her sister’s change of heart. And I watched the disappointment bloom on Arabelle’s face.
I pointed out to Lily that she hadn’t even considered for a moment what it was her sister wanted and whether or not she should let her have what she wanted instead of Lily getting her way.
She began crying again, “But I want to be Dorothy!”
“Yes, I understand that. But Arabelle wants to be the Wicked Witch. Why should you get what you want instead of Arabelle getting what she wants?”
“I don’t know.”
“You need to think of what your sister wants too, Lily; you’re being selfish.”
There in the middle of Target she started wailing, “You called me selfish!”
“No, Lily, I said you were being selfish. You have a choice in whether you are selfish or not.”
But the problem was, she didn’t want to choose to not be selfish. Though Arabelle tried to pretend that she was okay with it, she had gotten quiet and was obviously sad. Lily cared enough to ask her what was wrong, but when Arabelle told her, Lily would start crying again, stating, “But I want to be Dorothy.” She didn’t want Arabelle to be sad, but she didn’t want to give up what she wanted to take away that sadness either.
The whole exchange really bothered me, and stuck with me. Later that night, I pulled Arabelle aside to tell her how proud I was of her, that her heart, her love and care of people, was something rare and beautiful. I marveled at how she always put others before herself.
Her response humbled me. She said, “If I have a choice between someone else crying, or crying myself, I’d rather be the one crying.”
Wow. I felt like that statement shined a light on my own shortcomings, my own failure to live up to the example of my nine year-old daughter.
Would I willingly take on pain and hurt to spare someone his/her pain? I would do it for my family. I would do it for my husband, my children, my nieces and nephews, my brother and sister, but would I do it for anyone? Arabelle would. I’ve seen her do it. And even if I was willing to do it, would I do it with the grace and openness of Arabelle, or would I begrudge the action and feel resentful?
I fear it would be the latter.
And then I thought more of Lily and her reaction. She doesn’t want people to hurt, but she doesn’t really want to give up her wants and needs to take away the hurt of someone else. She feels compassion, but it doesn’t translate to action.
How often are we like that? We see the pain of others, we feel badly, but we don’t reach out to them, we don’t try to ease their pain. We see what ISIS does to children, and we feel awful about it, but not enough to try to find a way to help. We know that there are motherless and fatherless children all over our own country, and we feel so badly, but we don’t want our lives rocked or altered by the needs of a troubled child in our own home.
Compassion without action is nothing but a mask concealing selfishness.
And my little daughter has held a light up to my own selfishness. I am humbled.
What kind of person are you? Do you give the cookie away or do you keep it for yourself?
I fear that I split it in half, but give it away with a twinge of regret or even resentment.
I need to do better. I need to learn the lesson my nine year-old is teaching me.
Thank you, Arabelle, for your kind and generous spirit. I am so grateful God put you in my life.