I Choose Happiness; What are you Going to Choose?

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.

happiness-flowchartThe 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.

(Nolana aplocaryoides) Pan de Azucar National Park

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.

lostgirl05-300x168Sometimes 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.

Bobo-Doll-experimentAll 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.

optimism-pessimismSo, 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.

Blog-Entry-1-AmeyGod 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.choose-happiness

 

 

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What do you do with your cookie, and what does that say about who you are?

hand-holding-cookie-bite-taken-outWe’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?

mouthfulDo 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.

wizardofoz_085pyxurzLily 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.

crying-little-girlShe 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.

support-groups-empathy-signHer 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.

CAM01287-1Thank you, Arabelle, for your kind and generous spirit. I am so grateful God put you in my life.

 

Deferred today, but not Dead

I have found myself contemplating the nature of dreams.

The last unit of this school year was titled “Dream Deferred.” I think it might be my favorite unit of my teaching career. So often, in this technology filled world, we do not give our children (or ourselves) the opportunity to reflect, and that is what this unit was really about.

What are our dreams? Are deferred dreams always negative? Are dreams worth pursuing at any cost? How do dreams, and the pursuit of dreams, change as a result of our society and culture, religion, SES, etc.?

I think our answers to these questions change a lot over time.

dreams4American culture is a highly individualistic, even narcissistic. We ask our children what they want to be when they grow up. We talk to them about their dreams and aspirations, as if it is entirely up to them. We tell them they can do anything if they work for it hard enough (which simply isn’t always true). We send them out into the world, believing that they can do it all–without having realistic conversations with them about what it all means. It’s a dream it–achieve it mentality. It sounds great, but tends to lead to disillusionment when the realities of life–family, responsibility, they need to pay rent–start pushing their way in.

STEM-LogoMy Asian students approach dreams very differently. Their culture is not one that promotes individualism, but rather community. Their aspirations are not a result of personal passions, so much as the dictates of their family and cultural expectations. Very often, their pursuit is not of a “dream,” but rather for status and wealth, which bring honor and prestige to their families. Many of them struggle as, the society they find themselves in and which naturally affects them  (American), comes into conflict with their heritage.

As with so much of life, things on either extreme lead to dissatisfaction. Life tends to be lived in the middle ground, but when our expectations don’t match up with that…someone, or lots of someones, are unhappy.

I, being a product of my culture, started my path with much of the mentality of the typical American perspective. My aspirations were big, larger than life, and I do think that I probably could have attained at least some of them by now–but at what cost?

Years ago, I remember one of my coaches telling me that I could be a truly amazing basketball player if I really worked at it. I was a good basketball player all ready, but not great. If I were to work year round, every day, if I were to dedicate myself to it, I had a chance of being something special.

I was in high school at the time. I remember thinking about what he said, weighing it, and deciding that I didn’t want it that badly. To be truly excellent at basketball meant that I would have to give up theater and music. I would have to give up cheerleading. I would have no time to practice the piano. Would I ever have time to read a book again?

I suppose my coach may have been right, but just because I could have that, didn’t mean that I should.

kiddosIn the same way, the young me, hadn’t thought through the affects that meeting and marrying my husband, and our subsequent children, would have on the attainment of my dreams. Had I never met Aaron, I think I would have been closer to fulfilling, or possibly even have fulfilled, many of my dreams by now…but at what cost?

Are my dreams so huge that I would throw love and family to the curbside to attain them? If I had it to do over, would I change the path I took?

Absolutely not. My family, despite the personal sacrifices I have to make on a daily basis, are worth the deferment of my dreams. I do not exist in a vacuum, nor would I want to.

American society, does its children a disservice when they approach the concept of dreams. We hold the dream up, as if it were worth any cost, without bringing the conversation of family, love, and responsibility into the conversation. This leads to disillusioned young parents as they struggle to make their concept of a dream match the reality that they find themselves in.

This isn’t to say that I believe that the Asian families have hit the mark. I think that they too, have fallen short of what leads us to happiness.

dreams 5If we live life solely for the accumulation of status and wealth, solely for responsibility, we will find that our lives are spent on a hamster wheel, every day the same with no sense of fulfillment. Humans are passionate creatures. We need time to allow the sides of us that feel, that create, to have their time too. To be a lover of art, to create art, does not mean that I must be an artist as a profession. Just because I am a businessman by day, does not mean that I can’t indulge in my need to create art. Our dreams do not need to be synonymous with our professions.

And deferred dreams are not dead dreams. Just because I am a teacher today, does not mean that I can’t be a writer tomorrow.

And as with so much of life, isn’t it the waiting, the dreaming, the anticipation of the dream happening, that makes the attainment of it that much sweeter? Like a child waiting for the gift that he knows is under the Christmas tree…if it were easy to attain, I wouldn’t value it quite so much.

 

We live in a Photoshopped Perfect, Plastic World

emotional vomitI have a cousin who is prone to emotional vomit.

Yes, she spews her emotions (typically rapidly changing from one extreme to the next) all over social media. I know every problem she has. I know when she’s not feeling well, when she’s angry at her boyfriend, when she decides that she HATES somebody–everybody (And boy! She holds no punches, dropping f-bombs and oozing hatred with every syllable), when she’s depressed, when she’s filled with self-loathing, and when she’s ready to give up on it all.

It’s all right there–in black and white–for the whole world to see.

Many times I have thought about saying something, but I know too well how she would respond, so I keep my peace. It’s simply not worth it. She will not hear. She’ll just point her anger and hatred in my direction, and frankly, who needs that?!

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way, because last week, when she posted something especially venomous, people started weighing-in. They told her (and there were many of them) in gentle, and not so gentle terms, that facebook was not the place to air all of her problems.

As I expected, she pointed her canon at them and started unloading. Most of what she said, does not bear repeating. But one thing was telling. “You guys don’t know the half of my f&^%$#@* life, So, until you walk a day in my d*$# shoes. . . Yeah sorry I don’t have 3beautiful kids an awesome husband and a family who supports me.”

Why was this telling?

photoshoppedBecause her assumption is based on a fundamental misconception: that who we are on facebook is an honest reflection of our lives. She honestly thought that the view she was getting of peoples’ lives on facebook was their reality, and when she compared that to her own life, she became angry and bitter.

I’ve blogged about this before (check out The Grass is Always Greener . . . ). Most of us do not do what my cousin does. We do not spew our worst days, our failings, and our heartbreaks all over facebook. We post our special moments, our successes and our good times. We post our best selves. We want the world to believe that we are doing it, that we are living the dream–that we’ve arrived.

This is a cultural failing that we have–this impossible grasping for perfection. Even our models, the most beautiful among us, are photoshopped, because even they are not perfect in their beauty. We, especially the women, live under a continual pall of insecurity because we cannot attain the unattainable–we cannot look like the     photoshopped images we see on a daily basis.

I absolutely love Meghan Trainor’s song “All About that Base,” because it addresses this head on. We are making generations of women feel as if they are inferior because they cannot be, what no one can be.

Facebook can have the same affect. We post only the pictures that make us feel beautiful, the moments that show that we are special, the events that paint us as successful. Our facebook selves are photshopped selves. They are the selves we wish we were, not the selves that we really are.

We are a disingenuous culture. We are rarely honest with anyone, even ourselves.

perfect familyTo the casual observer on my facebook page, I might look like I have it all together (with the exception of the loss of Serena which I am fairly open about). I have a handsome, intelligent husband, three beautiful children, a great house, and a great job. I get to have vacations every now again and do fun things. I look happy.

And sometimes I am.

But there is another picture. Another side.

Facebook knows nothing of my struggle with insecurity. It shows nothing of the days when I hate my body and feel too keenly my fading beauty.

Facebook knows nothing of the years of struggle with depression after losing Serena.

Facebook knows nothing of the shame I walked when Aaron lost his job and for six months we struggled to even pay rent–when, despite the humiliation, we found ourselves walking into the human services office to see about our options with public assistance. It knows nothing of the shame I felt every single time I had to scan that EBT card.

Facebook knows nothing of the resurgence of my temper in the wake of grief and stress. It does not see the ugliness I show when I am pushed beyond what I feel as if I can bare. The times I yell, the times I snap at my husband and children, the times when I end up sobbing from the weight of it all.

Fmom-chaosacebook does not see when my house is a wreck, and the dishes pile up in my sink, and the laundry starts to pile to the rafters. It does not see the relentless and endless drudgery of cooking and cleaning for a family of five. It does not see the times when I feel reduced to a cook and maid, a faceless, powerless drudge.

Facebook does not see the ways Aaron and I have wounded each other by both word and deed.

Facebook does not see the many times he and I have wanted to give up, to walk away, to say, “We’re done! We can’t do this anymore!”

Facebook does not know, cannot know, because I refuse to show it.

Facebook does not see–so you do not see.

barbieYou see the window dressing. You see the outer shell I choose to show.

Every once in a while, we give a window in, but it is only a window. It is a snapshot. Not the reality.

Do not compare yourself to these Facebook Selves, these shadow selves. They are allusions, projections, phantasms. They are not substantial, attainable or replicable.

Do not compare yourself to me or to anyone else.

Do not compare your life to someone else’s life.

Because, I promise you, you will be comparing yourself to something that does not exist.

How can I know this? How can I promise such a thing?

perfect lifeBecause no one is perfect, no matter what you think. And no one has a perfect life, though to an outward eye it might appear as if they do.

No life is without pain.

We all hurt. We all bleed. We all have moments when we feel as if we can’t possibly keep breathing, keep walking, keep standing.

Not one of us is untouched.

For some, the pain starts when we’re children, and we never know life without pain. For others, childhood leaves us untouched, and we enter adulthood with shining eyes and expectations of a perfect world, but at some point, somewhere on our journey, pain will find its way in.

People die. They get sick. They leave.

Sometimes, the ones we trust the most betray us. Sometimes the ones who should have our back, are the ones who slide the knife in. Sometimes our heart bleeds, it breaks, it shatters.

And everyone, every single person on this planet, will have these moments–because these moments are life.

The amazing thing, the wonderful thing, is our capacity to endure.

I've learned that you can keep going long after you think you can'tWhen we feel like we can’t keep going, we can and we do. When we feel like we can’t possibly take one more thing–when it comes–which it inevitably seems to–we find ourselves somehow battening down the hatches and fighting our way through. Sometimes we cannot run, or even walk. Sometimes all we can do is put one foot in front of the other, and that’s all we have. That all we’ve got to give. But we do it. One. Foot. At. A. Time.

How do I know we can do this, when life pummels us, and people fail us, when we fail ourselves, how do I know we can push through?

Because we exist. The human race is still here.

We live in the height of human existence. We live a life of plenty: plenty of food, plenty of the basic necessities (clothing, house, healthcare) and plenty of leisure/extravagances (entertainment, hobbies, options, etc.).

Historically, people lived in want. They went to bed hungry. They had limited, or no, healthcare. Death was a frequent visitor.

If anyone had a reason to give up, they did–but they didn’t. They kept living. They kept loving. They kept walking. They kept fighting. They gave us a future.

I am an anomaly having lost a child. Most people, at least in the developed world, do not have to bury their children.

In the past, they didn’t just bury one, but instead, usually several.

Men very commonly lost their wives in childbirth. Women lost their husbands, and, when they did, what options did they have to provide for their families? They either married again or were forced to walk paths that they never would have chosen.

keep goingLife was hard. It was ugly. It was survival–but they did just that–they survived. And because they did, we are still here today.

We need to end this delusion that perfection is possible. We need to stop hurting ourselves and each other with this endless striving for what does not exist–the perfect life and the perfect person. We need to stop pretending that it does exist.

We need to give others grace to be imperfect.

We need to give ourselves grace to be imperfect too.

My husband cannot be the prefect man that some writer has created in a book, or that some actor plays on tv. Those men don’t exist outside of words that were created by a clever person and put on a page. My husband can’t be that man. Neither can your husband.

Neither can I live the photoshopped lives that I catch on the pages of social media, the images I see in magazines, or the brief glimpses into others’ lives that I am allowed, when they choose to show me, what they choose to show me.

I can’t live those lives, and neither can you.

They don’t exist. They’re not real.

perfectPeople are not perfect. Our lives are not perfect. . .

And that’s okay.

Let it be okay.

Give yourself a break.

And give the people around you a break too.

 

 

 

You Don’t Have to be Alexander the Great to Change the World

I was very discouraged last week.

I wrote a blog, pouring out some of the greast lessons I feel like I have learned in life, and I crafted them with great care. I wrote, I paused, I pondered, I wrote, pondered some more, and rewrote. The end result was a blog that I felt captured the heart and soul of what I wanted to say. With a feeling of accomplishment and pleasure in a job well done, I posted it and waited. And waited . . . and waited some more.

A handful of friends and family read it and appreciated it. A handful. I was discouraged. As so many writers, I blog because I have so much inside myself that needs to come out, but also, because I am a writer–I have things to say and I hope that they are worthwhile things that can speak to the human soul, the human angst, the human experience, and thereby, that my influence, my voice will be appreciated by the masses, not a handful. I was discouraged.

As so many of my fellow bloggers have wondered at some point in their blooging lives, I couldn’t help but wonder why I even bother? Why do I spend my free time writing for an audience that doesn’t emerge when I could just as easily simply put my thoughts and ideas into a private journal? Why spend my time agonizing over word choice and turn of phrase, putting my thoughts out in the universe, when no one is going to bother to read them?

But then I began to remember something. It started with a comment a friend who I haven’t seen in ages wrote on my facebook page. She read my blog, and it impacted her. It helped her. It spoke to her in her present pain, and helped her see that she was not alone, that what she was living, is normal. I cried.

In that moment I remembered a truth that so many of us tend to forget.

I have always wanted to change the world. It has always been a burning passion in me. I want to leave this world a better place when I leave it. I do not want to simply take up space, but instead, to know that my living will have an impact, that my time spent on this planet will mean something.

I’m not alone in this desire. It is a somewhat comman desire, that we leave our footprint, our fingerprints, on this world. I think however, that sometimes we look at that and think to change the world we must do so enmasse, in one fell swoop. We have the misconception that we change the world by personally affecting the lives of many people personally, but that is not how most of those who change the world, change the world. They do so one person at a time.change

I have an absolutely wonderful grandmother. She is smart, she is kind, and she pours into the lives of her eight children and her many, many  grandchildren.

She poured into my life. In so many ways, I am the person I am today because my grandmother instilled within me a moral compass, a compassion for others, and a will do to the right thing because it is, quite simply, right.

My grandmother is getting older. As she is walking into the twilight of her life, she spends a lot of time reflecting on the life she has lived. More than once she has spoken with me about her struggle as she contends with a life that, she feels, has not had an impact, has not been important, has not left an imprint.

She was a stay at home mom in a generation of stay at home moms, and now she wishes she had done something great. Something important.

What she doesn’t understand is that she has changed the world.

Behind every world changer, there are many individuals who have changed them.

Martin Luther King Jr. did not change the face of our country alone; he had behind him all of those who impacted him, who encouraged him, all of those who believed in him and told him not to give up. Every great man or woman does.

My grandmother doesn’t think that she changed the world, but she changed me, and I am determined to change the world, be it one person at a time. Every time I impact one of my students, every time I write a blog that changes someone’s outlook, every man woman or child I helped in my times overseas–my grandmother was a part of that. She changed me, and I in turn changed them.grandma

She impacted her children, who have gone out and impacted others. And she has impacted her grandchildren, directly and indirectly. She helps cancer patients through my sister, she reaches countless adults, women and children through my Uncle Mark, and she has touched almost every continent in this world between her various children and grandchildren. By changing one, we change the world.

And so, though my blog is not read by many, and though my impact is negligible, I will not be discouraged. If I impact one, I have made a difference. As a writer, as a teacher, as a citizen of this planet, I will never be able to impact everyone, but, just like paying it forward, if I can give of what I have and of who I am, and if those I pour into will also pour into others . . . then that is really enough, isn’t it?

The Sharp Jagged Edges of Reality

“It is strange that absence can feel like a presence. A missing so complete that, if it were to go away, I would turn . . . stunned . . . empty, when before . . . at least [there was] something.” Adapted quote from Crossed by Ally Condie.

I’ve been radio silent for a while. Bad blogging policy, I know. The thing is, August is hard. August is full of memory—the greatest of joys and the sharpest of agonies. August is always a journey of what was, what I wish had been, and a bitter contending with what is. August is the sharp reality that part of myself has died, and the overwhelming acknowledgement of the presence of loss caused by what should have been, but what isn’t.

I’ve been toying with ideas of what I could write for weeks. I’ve had several good ideas, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t want to wear a brave face or find the silver lining. I wanted to feel the sharp, jagged edges of my pain and remember. I didn’t want to sugar coat, when I was tasting nothing of sugar, but instead the sharp, acridness of bitterness.

The truth is, I have lived for so long with my loss, that I can’t imagine life without its presence. It really is strange that absence can feel more tangible and more real than things I can hold in my hand. That pain can feel more like living than happiness.

One of my favorite songs, even before the loss of Serena, is the Goo Goo Dolls song “Iris.” “You bleed just to know you’re alive.” Pain, sadly, is what makes us feel the most agonizingly alive—it’s not just me, it’s the human condition.

When our heart is breaking, when our soul seems to be splintering into shards of brittle glass, the very agony of it seems to leave us wide awake. We are pulled from the monotony, the apathetic, the mundane drudgery of daily living, and we feel mind crushingly alive.

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When I was young, the concept of this intrigued me. I recognized the reality that our capacity for joy seemed to be in direct proportion with the extent of our pain . . . aka Great Sorrow=Great Joy.

What I, in my naivety and idealism failed to understand was the great chasm, that black void of numbness that separated those two places. I had no inkling of the “zombie” years that follow intense grief. How could I, never having experienced any real loss? I was blissfully ignorant and so could love the theory, the philosophy of it, without being touched by the reality. The philosophy seemed deep and wise, almost compelling. It had the allure of the bad boy to it–you knew he wasn’t good for you, but there was something so darn seductive about that very darkness . . .

Cathleen Schine puts it so well through the thoughts of one of her characters in her book, The Three Weissmanns of Westport.

As a girl, she had affected despair and emotional pain in an attempt at depth. Now she had no need of affectations. The despair was real, the pain was real. And depth? It no longer beckoned, that rich, worldly dimension of sophistication, of adulthood. Depth spread itself out before her instead, a hole, a pit, a place of infinite loss.

I’m a fan of “Vampire Diaries” and in one of the first seasons Caroline Forbes, one of the main characters, makes a comment of how she wants to be deep, but she’s coming to the realization that she is anything but deep. She makes the comment: “I’m worse than shallow. I’m a kiddie pool.”

That quote has always resonated with me. When I was young, I desperately wanted to be deep. I thought I was, but the reality is, until you’ve lived a little, lost a little, and hurt a lot, you don’t have much capacity for depth.

Now . . . now, however . . . it’s a different story. Now that I am old, my depth spreads out before me like the pit that Schine alludes to and a part of me would give anything to go back to the ignorance that was my kiddie pool self, but that wouldn’t be real. It wouldn’t be authentic. It wouldn’t be living. It would be pretending, acting, going through the motions without allowing LIFE to touch me, impact me, change me . . . transform me.

We hide our pain because others are uncomfortable with it. We don’t want to be reminded that life has a dark side. We close our eyes to it, until it is undeniable—until it sinks its teeth into us and won’t let us go. Only then do we acknowledge its presence, the very real fact that life is as much pain as it is happiness, as much ugliness as it is beauty.

We want to believe that this is not so—that if we do the right things, we can have all of the happy with none of the sad, but life isn’t a simple mathematic equation where A +B=C (A being-if I work hard, B being, if I treat others kindly, then C, life will be fair and give me good things). Sometimes A plus B is going to equal X or maybe Z. In the words of Dan Allender in his book The Healing Path

        Most of us presume that if we work hard, play fair, and keep on doing what is required, life will work out well. And if it doesn’t, then we simply need to find out what we’re doing wrong, correct it, and presto—life works. But that formula doesn’t always get the predicted results.

I often think of the line in “Princess Bride” where Wesley tells Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness! Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Pain is a part of life. It is the reality. Why do we try to pretend otherwise?

So for today, this is my nod to my own pain, and a nod to your pain. This is me not pretending that I am okay. This is me acknowledging that, though I heal, I will never be complete, for a piece of my heart and soul went with my darling girl when she left me. I will not pretend that that can happen and that I will not be forever changed.

I wish we didn’t have to break. I wish we didn’t have to face betrayal, illness, and death. I wish life could be lived in the happy moments, without the sadness. I wish that the horrors of ISIS, the child sex trade, and abuse were not a reality in our world. I wish that there was no such thing as cancer or SMA.

But that is life. And life, despite the pain, is worth living. And I am glad to be alive—to FEEL alive—and to know, when I hug my son and my daughters, how lucky I am to have them here and healthy, and how incredibly grateful I am that I get to watch them grow.alive

What are we doing? Technology: the curse of this generation

When I was a kid and I got to school early, I hung out with friends. I talked. If I was in an anti-social mood, maybe I read. If I was in a waiting room at the doctor’s office and there was no one to talk to and I was surrounded by dull magazines, I thought. I thought about the world and my place in it. I thought about God, who he was and what I believed. I thought of the future and who I wanted to become. I rifled through my past mistakes and thought about what I might do differently next time.

Of course, that was in the age before cell phones and the brainless activity that is always at the tips of our fingers these days. You know, eons ago before this new technological age. At least, that is what it seems like to so many of my students. How in the world did we do without technology?!

I teach Freshmen. I think there are few who are so in touch with the trends of culture and the shifts of our youth as a high school teacher. And what I see lately disturbs me greatly.

When my students get to school early, the vast majority don’t hang out with their friends, and even if they do, they aren’t talking to them. They are too busy texting the friends who aren’t there or tweeting about some inane something or playing a game or . . . well you get the idea. Too often, when my first hour class comes in, I will have 20 kids all sitting their quietly with cell phones out in their own little worlds. They are disconnected from their peers. They are losing their ability to communicate effectively, and, so many of them, as a result, feel isolated and alone.

Group Of Teenage Students Sitting Outside On College Steps Using Mobile Phone

When this generation (and so many of us in the Gen X generation as well as Millennials are falling into this as well) has down time, out come the phones. No small talk with strangers that teaches how to interact and learn from others. No self-reflection so that they grow as individuals and wrestle with the higher concepts of the world and their place in it. When I ask my students to reflect or write an essay about what they think, so many of them don’t even know how to reflect and have never even thought about these philosophical or existential concepts. All great thought and great deeds come from moments of reflection. What are we doing to our future?

We started “The Odyssey” in my classes a couple of weeks ago. Along with it, the kids need to read a modern epic. It was horrifying to hear the number of my students who asked if their book could be found on spark notes and when I said that, no, I didn’t think any of these would be on spark notes, they followed up by asking if there was a movie made from the book. When the answer was no, the kids panicked. “Mrs. Graham! What are we supposed to do?”

I gave them a blank look and responded, “What you are supposed to be doing– you read it.”

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They were flabbergasted. They don’t read. They hate reading. There has to be an easier way. Can’t I just let them pass without making them read? Why do they have to do anything at all? The number of students who seem to think that just sucking air should be all they need to do to pass is staggering. If there is not a short cut provided through some technological means or another, they simply don’t want to do it anymore.

It’s not that any of my classmates didn’t cheat when I was growing up. Many of them did. It’s the fact that the number is rising incredibly because of the ease of cheating. Plagiarism actually took some thought and effort in my day (and I’m not that old btw!!). Now every kid has a computer or access to one and all they need to do is google spark notes or some other comparable website and, bam! They don’t need to think at all; someone has already done the thinking for them. If a student wanted to plagiarize when I was in school they had to go to the library or even a bookstore to hunt down spark notes or something comparable–now it’s at the tips of our fingers and so many of the kids don’t see anything wrong with that at all.

plagiarism

I can’t help but wonder what this is going to mean as this generation hits maturity. They are the generation of entitlement. They are used to not being held accountable. They are used to doing the bare minimum to get by and when it’s not enough to get by, too often, we simply lower the bar to accomodate them.

Obviously, not all of them fall into this. There are many great kids out there who are hard workers. There just aren’t as many as there used to be and the number of kids who want to coast through life playing video games, watching youtube videos or pretending that life is just one big party, well, there are just SO MANY of them. If the few strong ones have to support the rest of them, well . . . quite frankly, we’ll go belly up.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. Technology is wonderful in so many ways, but as with so much in life, anything out of balance can become destructive.

My 2nd and 4th grade children are continually complaining because all they have is a flip phone between them (for emergencies only) and all their friends have iphones (I don’t even have an iphone!) and ipads, kindles and nooks (again, I don’t even have one of these!).

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They can complain away, because I’m just no willing to go there. I want them to talk and play, use their imaginations and think about life. I don’t want them glued to a glowing screen. I know I can’t keep them from it forever, but first, I want to teach them to use their minds, to enjoy a good book, and how to make friends–and keep them–real friends, not just the text variety that seems to be so in these days. It would be easier to give them the phone, but, well, isn’t that the problem right there? The best is rarely the easiest.

“Who ever said life is fair? Where is that written?” (Grandpa from The Princess Bride)

             As a young person you have expectations. You expect the world to work in certain ways. You expect life to be fair. You expect good things will equal good things. You expect things to make sense. The world is mainly colored in black and white. Your dreams are attainable and the world is what you make of it.

            Some, the lucky few, continue on believing this because they have never been forced to acknowledge the unreality of it. The rest of us, we step from the idealism of youth into reality, and reality is not what we expected it to be.

            Life is not black and white. It is filled with shades of gray. You almost never get what you deserve and often get what you don’t deserve (often in a not so good way!). Good deeds often do not lead to good things even though they should. And bad things happen even to the best of people.

            Like so many others who have tried to do the “right” thing, I find myself in a place of disillusionment. My idealism wrestles with reality and I look for answers to life size questions but no answers seem to be found. You can hear the question echoing through the centuries from untold numbers, “Where is God in the midst of this pain (injustice or substitute whichever word fits your life)?”

            I was a good girl. Not perfect, but I always tried to do the right thing. Not only that, I went the extra mile. I went to some of the darkest places on the planet trying to do the little bit I could. Did this stop my daughter from dying? Did it stop my world from falling apart? Did it put me on a path of gumdrops and lollipops where everything is happy and the sun never stops shining? Absolutely not.

            Even after our daughter died, we were hit by more hard times. The church where we had found our life’s meaning didn’t know what to do with us. Our daughter was not a great testimony to God’s miraculous healing powers, but rather our testimony shined the light on the still unanswered question of the ages. “Why does God allow bad things to happen to his children?” The church, being uncomfortable with questions they cannot answer, became uncomfortable with us as reminders of those unanswered questions. And so, when we needed the church the most, we became invisible.

            I wish I had the answer. Sadly, even after wrestling with this question for eight years, I am no closer to coming to an adequate answer. Still, existence without God makes no logical sense to me. I have looked at it from every possible angle. God MUST exist.

             Adding to this the fact that most of us will know pain and suffering at some point in our lives, I have to come to the conclusion that this too has its purpose. Why some have so much more pain than others I cannot say, but the fact that there is something essential to human nature in suffering seems undeniable to me.

             I have to conclude that it is not profitable to avoid pain, no matter how badly we may want to do just that. Instead, I think we must accept the pain when it comes as best as we can and allow the pain to morph us into something better and more useful than untried “pie in the sky” optimism.

             I can’t help but think of the line from the Princess Bride: “Life isn’t fair highness, anyone who says anything different is selling something.” (Wesley)

             Though we know this cognitively, we still expect that life will be fair anyway. Because it should be.  And when it isn’t . . . well, it leaves us disillussioned, disappointed and filled with angst.

             I miss my idealism. Sometimes, I actually long for it. And I hate pain. Asolutely.   Hate.     It.    And yet, I will not allow its presence in my life, and all the unanswered questions that go with it, to delude me. My life has a purpose, and this pain that I feel is not anti that purpose or God would not have allowed it.

             I’ve grown up enough to know that most of us have pain we have shoved (and tried to hide) in the closet of our lives. It is not unique to you and it is not unique to me (though I sometimes have to remind myself of that!). It is part of the human experience. I wish I had the answer to why He hasn’t made the universe fair, but I don’t. What I do know is that you are not alone and it certainly does not mean that God does not see you or that He does not care. He does, even if our circumstances make it feel otherwise.

UPDATE: Ironically, I wasn’t writing this from that place of pain. I was more writing it because I know there are people out there who feel what I felt and I don’t want them to feel alone in that place. Most of us visit that place in different seasons of our lives. I guess I was hoping that maybe someone could gain from what I’ve learned. Apparently I didn’t do a good job of getting that across. Thanks everyone for your kind thoughts, but I’m okay right now. Really. 🙂