The Wrinkled Paper Exercise

The Wrinkled Paper Exercise

The Exercise

Take two new, unblemished sheets of paper. They should be completely clean of any marks, folds, tears, etc.

Now, take one sheet of paper and crumble it up. Fold it over itself multiple times, wrinkle it up, you can even tear it in pieces if you’d like. Take at least a minute crumbling it up as much as you can.

Done?

Now, take a couple minutes and return the piece of paper to its original state. Unfold it, press the wrinkles out, put the torn pieces back together.

Compare the sheet of paper you crumbled up to the piece of paper you left untouched.

They’re not the same, are they? Does the sheet of paper you crumbled up still look worn, used, damaged or even destroyed? Does the sheet of paper you crumbled up look drastically different from the sheet of paper you left untouched?

The wrinkled paper represents a person who we have hurt, offended, etc. The point is no matter how hard we try, there is nothing we can do to restore the offended person to their original state, that is, the unblemished, clean, still new sheet of paper.

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What Does it Mean?

All offenses are eternal because there is nothing I can ever do to completely restore you to your previously unblemished state. Nietzsche and Paul the Apostle were right. Any punishment for an offense could justifiably be eternal. If there’s nothing I can ever do to fully restore you to the pre-offended state then why should I ever be allowed to be in a state in which I am no longer punished for the hurt I caused you? Is that not the only truly fair application of justice?

All have offended and been offended. As I focus on the offenses that have been brought on me, it is very easy to forget that offense I have committed against another. Or at least, it’s easy to minimize it.

The truth that I cannot ever restore a person I have hurt to their original state nor that I can ever be restored to my original state creates a cycle of competing justified punishments from which there is no justified escape.

The only escape then is through a radical means that exists outside of the cycle of competing punishments. The escape from the eternal punishment we bring on ourselves from how we treat each other is forgiveness.

Escaping the Cycle

Forgiveness is a choice to stop the cycle of deserved punishment.

Forgiveness is a difficult choice.

Forgiveness is a difficult choice as it asks the offended person to give up the anger they are entitled. But, forgiveness also allows the offended person to be released from whatever lasting emotional control the offender still has over them (Enright, 2001).

I was speaking once with a person whose father left them at a young age. In tears, this person described how even years later they were still incredibly hurt by their father’s choice. I asked them if they would ever be able to forgive their father for leaving. The answer, at that time, was no. I imagine it still is.

That person is justified to not forgive and they are entitled to the anger they feel. Their father hurt them and has shown no indication that he is sorry for leaving. But, forgiveness is not saying “It was okay for my father leaving”. Forgiveness is saying “I’m not going to let my father leaving control me anymore.”

Forgiveness is a difficult choice as it asks the offended person to examine the depth of the hurt brought on by the offender.

For years, I have harbored anger against the faith communities in which I have participated. Not the faith itself but the organized body of believers who I was supposed to be with in community. I often felt judged and looked down on because of my socioeconomic status, my vocation, etc.; essentially, my identity. Rarely was anything said or done to me directly, but I heard what was said about others with whom I share characteristics (socioeconomic status, vocation, identity, etc.).

What was said was rarely kind.

In the faith communities in which I participated, I have often heard sermons encouraging me to put on the ‘armor of God’ when I go out to face the world. To me, the world was fine. Yes, there are awful atrocities that occur every day in the world, but the world in which I interacted with accepted me as me. It was at church where I most needed the ‘armor of God’.

Even as my faith has grown, anger at my collective faith community has remained. I knew I needed to forgive but I had not yet reached in myself the depths of the hurt that had been caused. I forgave for slights I felt as a child about my socioeconomic status. I forgave for slights I felt for the non-‘normative’ vocational role I took on a few years ago as a stay-at-home father. But, what I only recently realized was, I had never forgiven for slights I had felt towards my identity from early adolescence on to the present day.

It had never occurred to me how deeply I had been hurt. With no real forethought, I recently spoke to my wife about some of these hurts. Her gracious understanding and empathy allowed me to feel the immediate release of the emotional prison my anger had kept me in for so long. For the first time, I felt I could finally fully forgive the offenses my faith community had committed against me.

My faith and my faith community play an important and central role in my life and my family’s life. Rather than living the rest of my life angry and seeking out punishments for slights, real and perceived, forgiveness allows me to move on. The faith communities in which I have participated may never know the hurt they have caused me. But, in terms of forgiveness, there’s not a requirement that both parties be present in the choice to forgive.

I am not excusing their actions against others but I can forgive their actions against me. And, potentially, it starts me on a path to reconciliation. That is, once escape has happened, a process needs to occur to prevent the punitive cycle from starting again.

We can be the ones who break the cycle. It may be difficult. It may at times feel impossible, but it is worth it. For our sake and for the sake of our children.

References

Enright, R. D. (2001). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. American Psychological Association.


Thank you for giving me the time of your day to read what I have written. It is a gift that is appreciated.

You are loved, valued and welcomed here,

JP

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A Grieving Hope

A Grieving Hope

“Life is grief.” I recently heard this phrase spoken by a guest speaker in a class I was attending a few weeks ago. I’ve thought of it often since. I think it is because there is a universal truth in the phrase “life is grief.”

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Life is grief.

Grief is the mourning of what has been lost, the mourning of what could have been. Even for those who have not experienced the loss of a loved one, they have still experienced the loss of a dream, the loss of innocence or the loss of a life not turning out how we had thought it would.

In life, we are constantly walking through grief. We often walk this path alone and completely unaware of the depth to which our grief permeates the entirety of our being. When events occur that force us to face our grief, we are often told to get over it or get through it. If we take too long, according to an arbitrary standard, there must be something wrong with us.

Life is grief.

Grief forces us to face the finality of life and the permanency of the past. What is done is done and cannot be undone. What I have lost I cannot ever get back. The experiences of my past have permanently affected who I am and will be. We were on a path and our trajectory was forever changed by what we do and what has been done to us.

Grief comes after the change and it is always present, though often subtle once the initial shock wears off. It is a sadness that can overwhelm any peace that seeks to comfort. A sadness that drives us to newer and riskier heights of attainment as we seek to ignore its effects on us.

Last year in the late fall, I realized I was sad. Deeply sad, a sadness that could only be accurately described as grief. I was grieving the loss of what I had thought my life during a certain time was going to be. In the realization of this grief, I experienced an onslaught of related emotions to such a degree that my only response was to use all the inner strength I possessed to shut them off and push them away.

I did not want to deal with my loss, I did not want to deal with my grief. I ran from it and tried to ignore it. But, eventually I was forced to deal with my grief. I was unaware at first, simple steps my unconscious mind prodded me to take that became conscious thoughts and actions I deliberately chose though until recently, I was unaware of why.

I still feel grief in my life. I feel overwhelming sadness at loss I have experienced, loss of loved ones and loss of dreams and loss of innocence. I mourn and feel incredible grief for the injustice and inequality found throughout our world. I carry grief with me everywhere I go. I will always carry grief with me everywhere I go. As much as I try, I cannot deny grief its place in my life.

But, I can learn to live with grief, to accept its presence in my life and to be open to what the pain of grief gives me.

That is, grief allows me to have hope. Hope that what has been done and what could have been will not always be what is.

But, hope does not restore what grief mourns. Hope does not take away the painful presence of grief. What is the point of hope? I don’t know. A shallow and contrived coping mechanism that allows us to have some semblance of peace during our short time in this world? A means by which we can ignore the fear that is an eternity of death and the lament of perhaps there is no point, no meaning to our life? I don’t know.

Perhaps, hope is just hope. A belief that there is more to this life than what we have experienced. That we can live in our grief because we can make life better for those who come after us.

In this season of my life, I have felt intensly the tension of soul-crushing grief pushing and prodding and overwhelming. But, this grief is not trying to destroy me, rather it is nurturing a flickering flame of hope that so desperately wants to go out.

Without grief, I cannot have hope. The absence of grief implies one of two realities. One, life is perfect, injustice, inequality and other such atrocities have ceased to exist. Or two, I am in denial. I am ignoring the reality of life. Both realities disregard the need for hope. For, if life is perfect, whether in reality or in my head, what more would I hope for?

Grief allows me to recognize the reality of what life often is. Life is tragic, life is painful, life disappoints. But, only through recognizing life for what it is can we hope to change life.


This is part two of two of reflections on a journey I have been on to improve my emotional/mental health. The first part, on anger can be found here. I can’t honestly say I set out with the intention to write these reflections in the way that I did. That would have been easier, of course. But, sometimes life works out in spite of our intentions.

Thank you for giving me the time of your day to read what I have written. It is a gift that is appreciated.

You are loved, valued and welcomed here,

JP

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A Winter’s Fast

A Winter’s Fast

Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline writes about how when someone fasts (intentionally goes without something for a time) they will quickly become aware of what darkness plagues their inner self.

Fasts are most often associated with not eating for a pre-determined length of time such as for a few hours to a day or more. I have done food fasts before and found that when done in a safe and healthy way, they can be very beneficial for my physical and mental health. A person can fast from other things than food though.

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Recently, I have come to realize that I have been participating in an annual fast that goes on for much longer than a few hours or a day. For me, by nature of living in the Midwest, the winter season is a several months long fast. The days are short and often overcast, vegetation is sparse or has died off and the temperature is bitterly cold. Forced inside more than I would like, I am left with more time than in any other season for introspection and self-evaluation.

Over this latest season of winter, I have re-discovered a somehow forgotten truth about myself.

I have noticed I am often angry.

Not at any one person or any specific event that occurred. More so, it’s just a general feeling of frustration that is consistently present somewhere in my mind. It is usually a small irritant that does not prevent me in any way from going about my day at work or at home or elsewhere. Nor, does it prevent me from having good healthy relationships with those around me.

It really would not be worth mentioning at all save for the fact that sometimes my underlying anger becomes more than that. Sometimes situations or something someone says causes my anger to grow and grow until I can concentrate on little else. It becomes a battle between justifying myself and trying to stop myself from getting angrier.

In a certain sense, my anger is like a lit candle on the mantle above my home’s fireplace. It can burn for hours with little attention given to it. I know it’s there but there’s nothing to worry about because it’s a small flame and it’s under control. In fact, in some instances, it’s even useful. But, then, when I’m not looking (or even perhaps when I am) a draft of wind comes through and blows a piece of paper into the flame. The paper catches fire and falls to the floor, the flame spreads and suddenly what was moments ago was a small, easily put out flame is a raging fire threatening to destroy my home.

There is sometimes an assumption that anger is wrong or ‘bad’. But, in and of itself, anger does not have a negative value any more than it has a positive value. It is a naturally occurring emotion whose function is to serve as a heads up from the body to the brain that something may be off-kilter. Its inherent value is arguably neutral. Why it is often assumed that anger is wrong or negative is because anger is often used as a justification to act in way that is highly negative, destructive and harmful.

Ultimately, my goal is to use any feelings of anger I have in a positive way. Or as I prefer to view it, in a way that is helpful to myself and those around me.

How then do I use anger in a way that is helpful?

First, I need to determine what in mere seconds triggers my anger to go from the manageable flame of a candle me to the roaring housefire.

To do this requires some forethought. That is, at a neutral time, it is helpful for me to think through what past experiences have created pathways of anger in me today. For instance, I have a strong aversion to injustice. Specifically, I do not like bullying. If I perceive in a situation that either I or someone else is being bullied, I get angry quickly.

When I become angry quickly, I usually have one or two potential responses that pop into my head. For me, it’s a string of unprintable words I would like to say or a physical action I would like to do. In all honesty, neither of these responses are helpful over the long term. This is especially true as the clear majority of bullying I have seen in the last few years is on Facebook and Twitter between ‘friends’. To respond in an aggressive way would only serve to spread more anger.

(Now, this is not to say that I have an excuse to ignore behavior that involves bullying or belittling others. Rather, I am saying there are more helpful ways to push back than adding more fuel to the fire.)

Second, I need to have a plan.

Again, anger in and of itself is neutral. It’s merely a warning mechanism. Once I recognize my anger is growing, I need to do something about it. If not, two outcomes are likely to occur. Either I will shove it away, never to deal with it and risk remaining on edge for an indefinite amount of time or I let my anger explode out in an uncontrolled burst of aggression and fury. Both options risk hurting myself and those around me.

By having a plan for how to manage my anger, I am minimizing the risk of acting in a way that I will later regret. To be perfectly forthright, currently, I do not have a great plan on how to manage my anger. I feel as if I have been at step one for years. I have spent a lot of time thinking about my triggers to the point that I feel I have a decent grasp on what some of the specific causes of my anger are but the next step of managing my anger in a helpful way has thus far eluded me.

This is not to say I am out of control or act in a harmful way towards others. I’m not and I don’t. In fact, friends, family and colleagues generally describe me as very calm and congenial. But, despite my outward calm demeanor, I often have anger on my mind as I try to put it out or egg it on.

Over this winter fast, as I examine the world around me and my place in it I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the anger I have. It is a part of who I am. It shapes how I see the world and the injustices, inequality, and inequity found throughout it. But, I often let myself be controlled by anger rather than the other way around which leaves me mostly ineffective and unhelpful.

As I have come to this realization, I have decided to attempt to do something about it. I recently read The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen in which Nouwen writes about the practices of silence, solitude and prayer. Silence is not ignoring injustice, it is speaking to it with wisdom and discernment. Solitude is not isolating myself, it is intentionally giving myself the space to wrestle with the tension of who I am and if that is who I want to be. Prayer is not the often meaningless words of condolence is has so often been turned into, it is a lament, a choice to be vulnerable and a recognition that help beyond me is needed.

Silence, solitude and prayer are not acts to be done only in the moment when anger, tragedy or hardship occurs. These acts are a way of life to develop so that my response is helpful and compassionate when anger, tragedy and hardship occurs.

I encourage you to take a few minutes to examine yourself for anger as well. Our world certainly seems filled to the brim with it. Be honest in your introspection. As the famed psychologist Carl Rogers once said, “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” Identify what makes you angry and then come up with plan so that you can handle anger in a way that will be helpful to you and those around you.


Thank you for giving me the time of your day to read what I have written. It is a gift that is appreciated.

You are loved, valued and welcomed here,

JP

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Middle Childhood: The Feeling of Never Being Enough

Middle Childhood: The Feeling of Never Being Enough

The Lost Middle Childhood Years

Early childhood and adolescence gets the bulk of attention in regards to developmental stages that occur before adulthood. This is not surprising as lots of obvious changes do occur during early childhood and adolescence. But, this does not mean that the years in between these stages (often referred to as the elementary years, middle childhood, the ages generally between 6 – 11, etc.) are not equally important.

Middle childhood consists of a number of developmental experiences that, in a sense, set the stage for later developments in adolescence and adulthood. Between early childhood and adolescence is when children first begin to reason and show signs of abstract thought. Likely for the first time, children have to navigate social situations with their peers without direct supervision of an adult. How children perceive themselves during these years and their success and failures becomes vital in determining the type of person they may grown to become.

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How Middle Childhood Shaped My Life

I recently went with my family to see the movie musical, “The Greatest Showman.” It was an overall enjoyable movie-going experience. The lyrics of one song stuck out to me.

“Towers of gold are still too little, these hands could hold the world, but it’ll never be enough, never be enough for me.”

When I became a stay-at-home parent, for the first time since my late childhood, I had to slow down. As I have written elsewhere, my world shrank and the needs of my kids became a greater priority than anything else in my life. This slow-down also forced me to have to work through several hard truths about myself that I had previously been able to ignore by filling my days with activity after activity as a teenager and more and more work as an adult.

I stopped playing with toys around the age of ten. I can clearly remember taking the time to set up several GI Joe action figures in preparation for some imagined battle. After setting them up, a thought occurred to me that I wasn’t a kid anymore and I needed to get on with my life. I never really played with toys again. Even now I have a hard time playing with toys with my children. I’ve gotten better I think but I wouldn’t ever say it comes naturally to me.

Several factors that I have only recently connected contributed to this decision, all of which relate to the developmental stage I was going through. Like most children in middle childhood, I was becoming more aware of myself, the world around me and how I fit into that world. In my world, socially I was considered smart. Teachers praised me, my parents were proud of my good grades, etc. But, to me, smartness meant responsibility and heightened expectations. A responsibility to work harder than my peers and an expectation to accomplish more than my peers faster than my peers. I needed to live up to my hype so to speak.

Around this age, I also became more aware of dysfunction within my family and my role within that dysfunction. In short, I always felt my role was the diplomat or the peacemaker. I failed at this role, over and over. It wasn’t my fault, but I felt it was. It was not really anyone’s fault other than the randomness of the combination of genetics, intergenerational trauma and a million other environmental factors. I didn’t then, and I don’t now blame anyone for how I felt or how I perceived my world. Eventually though, after determining I had failed enough, I decided I would avoid failure and focus on those things which made me feel good about myself.

The tension of being successful in school and a failure at home led me to decide I would use my success in the school realm to escape my failures at home. As mentioned above, I spent my adolescence and early adulthood years escaping to avoid personal failure. By most reasonable standards, I was successful, too. I had a high GPA, graduated from college, received promotions at work, got consistently good reviews from my bosses, etc.

The difficult truth though was that no amount of success was enough to dispel the failure I had carried with me since my late elementary years. In fact, in my adolescence and early adulthood, I only added to the failure I already felt I was. Nothing was ever enough for me because the goalposts were always being set further and further back.

The difficult truth was that though I did not engage in the same patterns of dysfunction I had grown up around, I had my own patterns of dysfunction that were just as destructive to relationships I had with my wife and my children. When there was conflict or stress at home, I escaped to my patterns because they made me feel good about myself. At least until, reality set in again. Then my patterns of dysfunction merely served to add to the failure I felt as a husband, a father and a person.

From the time in middle childhood when I began to understand the world around me, I had been running away from myself. The years I spent as a stay-at-home parent were crucial to helping me to stop running.

Providing a Safe-Haven 

My oldest is at the beginning stages of middle childhood. Though I have raised teenagers, she’s the first child my wife and I have raised from birth. It was always incredibly rewarding to see our teens reach that moment of ‘getting it’. The same is true for our oldest as she has recently started to become more aware of herself, the world around her and how she may fit into that world in a helpful and positive way.

I often think about how my children will perceive me as they grow up and become more aware of their world. Will my parenting lead them to enjoy success and manage failure? I hope so. I am by no means a perfect parent, but then again, my goal is only to be a good parent to them.

The reflection above was an easy way to show how some of my experiences in middle childhood directly influenced later stages of my development. Overall, I have mostly positive memories of my childhood. My needs were met and my parents cared about me. Those two factors contributed heavily to the success in life I have been able to have despite my weak moments. Thus, the point of what I’m shared was not to condemn or give anyone else the opportunity to pass judgment but rather merely to show how even in stages of growth that seem relatively benign, experiences can affect a person across their lifespan.

For parents, the take-away is that being attentive and sensitive to your child’s needs in middle childhood means paying attention to how their moral and social development is going and how those developments relate to them having a positive sense of self. We won’t get it perfect, but perhaps we can provide more of a safe-haven for our middle childhood children than we ourselves experienced. Sometimes, that is the best we can hope for as parents – to contribute to a generational pattern of healing, each generation just a little brighter than the one that came before.

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Teaching Our Children to Stop and Think

Teaching Our Children to Stop and Think

I recently read Flourish by Martin Seligman. In his book, Seligman presents research related to his theory of well-being. Overall, it’s a good read which I would highly recommend to anyone. One section briefly touched on the concept of intelligence and what factors may go into determining what intelligence truly is.

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Intelligence is a notoriously difficult concept to define. Often when the topic of intelligence comes up, what is meant is how successful one is in a setting such as school (as determined by standardized testing). But sometimes, intelligence refers to social ability – one’s ability to be attuned to their emotions, or the degree to which a person can handle difficult situations. Charisma, savviness, insightful, perseverance and grit are all words often used to describe these other types of intelligence.

It has also been argued we are all intelligence in our own ways. Generally, this statement is attached to a quote often (likely falsely) attributed to Einstein about fish not being judged for not being able to climb trees.

Seligman presents an argument that what is often called intelligence would be more accurately described as speed, slowness and self-discipline (Seligman, 2012). Persons who are considered to have high intelligence process information at a faster rate than what would be considered normative. Slowness allows a person to process in a meaningful way what they have just learned. Self-discipline allows a person to use speed and slowness well.

A person may be naturally fast, too fast to be able to settle their mind long enough to fully consider the applications of what has been learned before moving on to a new area of interest. Self-discipline enables a person to develop the ability to stop and think.

Or, a person may not be naturally fast. But, as a person takes longer to learn new information they may gain a deeper understanding of the information giving them more time to fully consider the material before moving on. Self-discipline again enables a person to not give up when they feel they are not understanding what they are trying to learn.

An argument can be made that intelligence is made up of two steps.

Step one: Process the new information as efficiently as possible.

Step Two: Thoughtfully apply the new information in a helpful way.

Step one seems to be highly valued in our culture while step two is often an afterthought. Processing information quickly makes a person seem intelligent, but intelligence only goes so far if a person is unable to have the self-discipline to think well and act with integrity. On the other hand, being a slower learner is often seen as a weakness. But, being slow does not mean someone can not learn, it just means adjustments might need to be made to how the information is taken in. Some people take longer to finish college but that does not make their degrees any less valuable.

Middle childhood is the time of a person’s life when they begin to determine if they are ‘smart’ (Eccles, 1999).

In early childhood, every little step is celebrated. We celebrate our kids’ first words, their ability to count to 10 and identify colors, successful usage of the bathroom, etc. The bar of expectations for kids in early childhood is super low, and it should be.

In middle childhood though, we begin to more stringently measure our kids’ abilities against specific learning standards and their peers (and our children pick up on this). The bar of expectations raises dramatically in a relatively short amount of time. By the end of middle childhood, most children “know” whether they are ‘smart’ or not due to their developing ability to think critically about themselves and the world around them as well as the reinforcement they receive from their support system (Eccles, 1999).

Those children who do not feel they are smart have been shown to be at greater risk for depression, social isolation, anger and aggression (Eccles, 1999). For those children who do feel they are smart, this belief could potentially lead them to putting undue pressure on themselves to live up to their own expectations and the expectations of those in their support systems. Culturally, being smart often gives a person a tremendous amount of value.

Right or wrong, middle childhood is much too early in life for a person to have to deal with self-defeating thoughts of “I am smart enough to be valued.”

What then can parents do to help their children maintain a positive sense of self that will enable them to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and use these insights to become successful, thoughtful and intelligent adults?

1. Don’t praise your kids for being smart. Praise them for how they understand and use the information they take in. Being smart, as the phrase seems mostly commonly used, is the ability to take in new information quickly. As explained above, processing new information is only half of being smart. The ability to process information is (mostly) a skill shaped by genetics and environment. It is not something a person has much control over, especially in middle childhood. To praise or condemn a child over an ability they have little control over whether they possess or not seems frivolous at best and harmful at worst.

2. Teach and model self-discipline to your child. Self-discipline is the ability of a person to maintain focus on a reasonable goal. No matter how naturally gifted your child may be, they will eventually fail. If they have good habits of self-discipline, they are more likely to be able to see the failure as a learning experience and not a reflection of their worth. If they do not have good habits of self-discipline, failure is likely to dissuade them from trying again or to at least consider why the failure occurred.

The ever growing role the Internet serves in our society highlights the need to expand our definition of intelligence to include not just taking in information but also having the self-discipline to be able to understand and use new information in a helpful way. One of the great benefits of the internet is the relative ease of access to information it gives to the billions of people who use this technology.

Unfortunately, as access to information has grown, our collective ability to patiently examine and respond in a helpful way to each other has not grown at the same pace, if at all. We take in information, but we don’t process it well. We passionately (but often ignorantly) argue with our friends and family before quickly moving on to new information. Further, more importance is placed on being the first to have an opinion than on having a good and well-constructed opinion.

Richard Foster, in his book Celebration of Discipline, says ““The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” This quote speaks well to why we do our children a disservice when we limit our definition of being ‘smart’ to only how well they take in new information. That is, what is the point of giving our children access to all the information in the world if we’re not at the same time teaching and modeling to them how to use it in good and helpful ways?


References

Eccles, J. S. (1999). The development of children ages 6 to 14. The future of children, 30-44.

Foster, R. J. (1988). Celebration of Discipline, rev. ed. San Francisco: Harpers.

Seligman, M. E. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Simon and Schuster.

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Whose Hand Did You Shake?

 

Whose Hand Did You Shake?

About a year ago, I shook hands with a convicted rapist.

I didn’t think about it at the time. It occurred to me later that evening. It made me think of others whose hands I have shaken:

Kids in foster care. Kids in prison. Co-workers and colleagues. Drug Addicts. Friends and family members. Undocumented immigrants. Community leaders. Sex workers. Soldiers. Leaders of faith communities. Convicted murders. Politicians at all levels. Famous athletes, celebrities and musicians. Billionaires. Victims of human trafficking. CEOs and VPs of Fortune 500 companies. Former President Barack Obama back when he was campaigning for the United States Senate.

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An incredibly diverse group of individuals. Some of whom are widely regarded in society, some of whom are reviled and rejected in society. They all shared one characteristic though.

They’re all human.

They all have or will make decisions I would vehemently disagree with and condemn. Yet, those decisions never stopped me from shaking their hands.

In a handshake, there is an implied value of acceptance.

Not acceptance of what someone does but an acceptance, a recognition of the others’ humanness. Sometimes a handshake is used to convey strength, power or something else but none of these remove the acceptance that is inherent in the act. (And, of course, other cultures have their own actions that physically convey the same message of recognition of humanness from one person to another.)

I feel it is hardly controversial to say our society has forgotten or is intentionally ignoring how desperately we all need to recognize each other’s humanness, the inherent value found in all of us that cannot be taken away.

In Me You Us, I advocated for three intentional steps to help create healthier communities. Steps that aren’t earth-shattering in themselves but rather are steps an individual person could reasonably do.

Once again, I don’t have an exciting, new solution to fight the abyss that seems to be doing more than just staring back at us. I can only suggest the command that is found in so many faiths around the world, including the one I follow. A command that is thousands of years old yet still is not being heeded.

Love one another.

It’s not a call to accept and tolerate injustice and inequality. It’s a call to accept you as you and me as me and for me to try my best to be better for the greater good of you.

It’s not a flippant, naïve or pithy phrase that glosses over the depth of depravity which we humans are capable. Love takes work.

Saying “love one another” and stubbornly believing that is enough is outrageous nonsense. Every day. Every single day, I must make the decision to love those around me. To accept their faults and hope they accept mine.

What if someone takes advantage? They have taken advantage and will continue to. What if I fail to live up to this calling? I have failed and still often do.

What if? What if? What if? What if is a question rooted in fear. A fear of what? I can’t answer that for you. (Though, I would suggest your worldview as a starting place to determine where your fear is rooted.)

In the Christian faith specifically, we are not called to ask, What if?

We are commanded to fear not.

In the Christian faith specifically, we are not called to judge and condemn.

We are commanded to reflect the image of God by way of the two-fold path of justice and beauty. To be a light in the world, a pocket of heaven, a refuge of good harboring others from the darkness of human corruption and evil in our world.

Let us remember to love, to forgive and to be better than that which our inner demons allow us to be content with.

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Me. You. Us.

Me. You. Us.

We all exist in the world. We all affect one another. This reality cannot be avoided. The question is, how do we attempt to live, knowing we live in a populated world. Do we live in isolation, in unhealthy community, in semi-healthy community, or in healthy community? How do each of these look, and how can we work toward healthier community?

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Isolation

In isolation, my harmful thoughts can easily overpower my rational mind. I begin to believe the worst in others and in myself because there is no one to say differently. Everyone becomes an ‘Other’ to me. I lose any sense of belonging. My mind becomes a battleground of blaming others for who I have become, blaming myself for what I am.

Loneliness, despair, anger, what is wrong with me that I must be alone? It’s their fault, it’s my fault. They think I have no value, they have no value. I have no value.

Unhealthy Community

In unhealthy community, my harmful thoughts are refined and encouraged, no matter how depraved they may be. The ‘Other’ becomes anyone who does not agree with us.

We are right, they are wrong. They hate us, so we must hate them first. It’s their fault we’re unhappy. They think they’re so great. We don’t know them, we don’t trust them. They would do it to us, so we must do it first.

Semi-healthy Community

In semi-healthy community, my harmful thoughts are challenged and mostly kept in check. I am accepted as a part of the community but only if I abide by the rules. The rules aren’t too hard to follow though, mostly just get along in a sort of uneasy truce to engage in mostly reasonable behavior. But if I break the rules, I’m thrown out.

We don’t agree with you. Those thoughts, that behavior won’t fly here. Chill out, you’re fine. That’s strike three, we can’t have you here anymore.

Healthy Community

In healthy, loving community, my harmful thoughts are turned away because I know the value I hold as a fellow human being is equal to the value of any other human being. I know because the members of my community treat me in such a way. While they do not and should not accept moral failings, they still accept me. Though my status, my beliefs, my actions may change, the base value I am born with never changes. The community knows and accepts this and always tries to find a place for me regardless if I am trying to find my place or not.

Love begets love. I may never lose my harmful thoughts, but I can deny myself in the face of the overwhelming grace of others.


Healthy, loving community is the goal. It rarely, if ever occurs. At best, semi-healthy community is sometimes present in our culture. More and more, unhealthy community and isolation seems to be rampant and growing stronger. Advances in technology, poor policy, misappropriated funds and a variety of other reasons are given as the reasons why unhealthy community and isolation is growing. These are mere symptoms of the root problem, tools which we use to make the problem worse. There is a much deeper cause of the growth of hate, intolerance, and division.

The problem is Me. You. Us.

We are all victims and oppressors in our families, in our communities and in ourselves.

We are all afraid to look past the trespasses of others to protect our own self-interests. (And often justifiably so. This is not a critique on those who have been victimized. If any critique is necessary, it is directed to those of us who are in a powerful or privileged class for not doing more to build a society in which there are not victims as opposed to relying on an absurdly see-through belief in the pseuedo-morality of the free market to bring about ‘natural’ social reform but which often only brings more power and privilege to those who already have it.)

How then do we build healthy, loving community? How do we properly account for justice, for equality, for reasonable fear, etc?

By taking intentional steps that increase our individual and collective awareness, build empathy and grow our ability to live in community with those who are different from us.

Accept that you are not special, yet you are uniquely special. I am, like everyone else, unique. Through a combination of genetics, environments, experiences, and relationships, I am and will continue to be an individual different from everyone else in the world. But, my uniqueness does not mean I matter more than my neighbor or my enemy. To paraphrase an old saying, from dust we all came, to dust we all will return.

View your community through the lens of who is being left out rather than who shouldn’t be here. One viewpoint is an isolating perspective while the other is an inclusive perspective. This isn’t to say you have to believe what others believe but rather that same beliefs shouldn’t be a requirement for being in community with another person.

Don’t just listen to others, hear them. Often when I am frustrated or upset, I don’t want a solution from the person to whom I am speaking. I am a mostly rational adult, I can generally figure out how to fix whatever problem may be hindering my life. If I needed help, I would specifically ask for it. I do want to be heard though. I want someone to understand the injustice and hurt I feel from whatever may have occurred. And then, I need to be willing to do the same for someone else.

Healthy community sounds like a Utopian ideal. It probably sounds impossible in our current increasingly divisive culture. I don’t know that I’ll see a healthy community in my lifetime. But, why should I only be concerned about what benefits my life? If I can do something today that will benefit the world seven generations from now or beyond, should I not at least try?

I will try. I hope you will too. Like it or not, we are all in this together. Our actions affect one another – for better or worse. So, let’s try love. let’s try listening. Maybe we will fail, and maybe we will fall short.

Every bit of light, even if it is quite dim, dispels a bit of the darkness. Even if all we can do is brighten one person’s day for but one moment at a time, I venture to say it is worth the effort.

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On Doing the Right Thing

On Doing the Right Thing

‘Do the right thing’ is a phrase that has stuck in my mind since watching the Spike Lee film by the same name during a seminar class I took my freshman year of college. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. I thought it was an important and still relevant commentary on racial injustices that are still regrettably common in our country.

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Recently I have been reading After You Believe by NT Wright. I have not finished the book yet, but the basic premise thus far is an argument for an increased focus on transformative character and virtue in Christian faith communities. Reading through this book has led me to recall often the phrase ‘Do the right thing’. Not as much in the way Spike Lee had applied it to his film (though there are parallels) but more so in reflecting on my own attempts to develop character and if I generally choose to do the right thing.

As I have considered these thoughts, two conclusions have come to mind.

One, doing the right thing is hard.

I can think of multiple times where I failed someone and had to take responsibility and apologize. My initial thought in every single one of these situations was to try and find a way in which my failure was not my fault. I wanted to blame someone else or minimize my involvement in the failing. I wanted to explain why I also was wronged in the situation, often by the person to whom I was apologizing. But, in those times when I so desperately wanted to avoid blame, other thoughts quickly followed the initial one.

“What is the right thing to do in this situation?”

“What decision best reflects the philosophical ethos I attempt to follow?”

I can think of multiple times when cutting corners was easier. Cheating was easier. Doing what was best for me was easier. But, always, every single time I felt the temptation to act in bad character, I was faced with those same questions.

“Is this the right thing to do in this situation?”

“Does this decision reflect the philosophical ethos I attempt to follow?”

Sometimes the questions were enough to deter me from acting in an immoral or unethical way but often they were not.

Two, we, as a society, generally do not do the right thing.

Our complex system of laws and subsequent punishments is ample evidence of the degrees to which we do not do the right thing. Further, as we continue to not do the right thing, rather than teaching to individual and society-wide rehabilitation of character, we create more laws and punishments to better classify the wrong things we do. In certain ways we actively encourage doing the wrong thing by upholding those who have ‘gamed’ the system (I.e. lying to get out of jury duty, diverting your money to a tax shelter or an offshore bank account to avoid paying taxes, etc.).

This critique is just as (if not more so) valid within our faith communities in which our lives should reflect an attempt no matter how poor at reflecting the ethos we claim to follow but instead our lives generally reflect little difference from those who are not trying and make no pretense that they are.

The question can be asked though, why does character matter? Especially within the context of faith, in which we accept the fallibility of humankind and resist calls to perfection, to what degree should we care about having good character and doing the right thing?

For me, simply put, I’m tired of the way we treat each other. I’m tired of feeling like considering doing the right thing is an optional afterthought of action rather than the action itself. We each have so much potential to affect positive change in our lives and in our communities yet we settle for a default setting in which we act mainly out of fear and self-preservation.

Doing the right thing is not easy. Is it worth it then? In our current culture of individualism and fear of the ‘other’, it is temping to suppose it is not. But, perhaps, some day if enough of us are willing to reject the status quo, doing the right thing will not only be worth it but also the norm.

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#You,too?

#You, too?

In the aftermath of recent revelations regarding men in Hollywood’s decades long abhorrent actions towards women, the hashtag #MeToo was trending on social media. #MeToo was a movement that had begun years earlier by Tarana Burke when Burke founded Just Be Inc., an organization whose purpose is to support victims of sexual abuse (Garcia, 2017).

Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter, it was impossible for me to miss the posts of my friends who had experienced some form of unwanted sexual advance, sexual harassment and worse from men in their lives.

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“My God, you too?” “No, not you too?” were the initial thoughts that kept running through my head followed quickly by “Who? Who did this?”

I have worked in the social work field for over ten years now. It does not surprise me anymore the horrific depths of cruelty in which we humans treat each other. But, what does surprise me, is the breadth to which we humans bring destruction and harm upon others. It’s easy to rationalize away that child abuse is not the norm. It’s easy to rationalize away that some people are evil but that those people are outliers not the norm.

“Me Too” destroys the argument that it is only an outlier group of men who are behaving in an detestable way towards women.  On Facebook, in one 24 hour period alone, there were over 12 million posts and reactions using the hashtag “Me Too” (Garcia, 2017). It is reasonable to conclude there are millions more women who did not speak out but have suffered similar experiences.

As a man, the MeToo movement forces me to ask an uncomfortable but absolutely  necessary question.

Was it me?

No, I have not sexually assaulted anyone or anything along those lines. But, have I ever made a woman uncomfortable because I clearly only viewed them through the lens of physical attraction? Yes. Have I ever perpetuated a culture of objectifying and demeaning women? Yes.

To be fair, I have spent a significant amount of time in my own social circles pushing back against these destructive and demeaning viewpoints men hold towards women. As a teenager, I often pointed out the idiocy of my friends’ belief in “Bros before Hos”. As an adult, I often challenge patriarchal thinking that is so rampant in our faith communities. But, again, when being honest, I cannot say my own actions have been always great or enough.

I have always considered myself a normal guy. I’m not perfect but I’m not awful. But, therein lies the mistaken thinking. To paraphrase an oft-used quote; all it takes for evil to continue is for us normal people to not do anything about it.

The purpose of introspection is not for self-flagellation. It’s to accept responsibility and move towards positive change. Men need to take responsibility for the culture of acceptance they have created and make it better. Women are not “asking for it,” “just playing the victim-card,” or whatever other excuse we as men like to make to defend and justify our behaviors and patterns of thinking.

To the women who may be reading this – I’m sorry. I wish you hadn’t had to experience what you did. Words probably do little to heal but I hope they can convey the anger and frustration I feel with myself to have been a part of continuing the culture of manhood that only seeks to oppress and destroy rather than lift up and value you.

To the men who may be reading this – We have to be better. Our failure is obvious and widespread. I am just as complicit as you are. We all know for every #MeToo there should be a corresponding #Imsorryitwasme.

What are we going to do about it?

Stop the locker room talk. I have often heard the argument made that men have some sort of inherent right to make crude and demeaning comments about the women in their lives and that any push back on locker room talk is merely a result of our overly PC culture. Yet, if I were to make those crude and demeaning comments about someone’s mother I’d probably have a fight on my hands.

Be the example. It’s not easy to be the one to push back and challenge commonly held beliefs. But, what I have noticed in times when I have challenged cultural injustices is often I am not the only one who feels that way. It just took saying something for others to say something too. By giving voice to injustice, you empower those who don’t have the means or ability to speak out.

Don’t be dumb. I’m not arguing here for a sexless culture in which we should all feel guilty and repress natural, biological attraction. I actually think there are a number of ways in which a group of guys can talk about who they are attracted to without it devolving into a demeaning and objectifying conversation. Figure out those ways. Or, if you can’t, just talk about sports or video games I guess.

These are all very simple ways in which a normal guy can begin pushing back on how our culture is okay with the harmful ways in which men view and treat women. Though widespread, overnight success may be desired, I recognize it’s not likely to occur. It may take generations of healthier attitudes for any real change to take hold. And even then, constant vigilance is necessary to ensure oppressive and demeaning attitudes do not agan become the norm.

My challenge to you today is to focus on what step you can take today to end the need for the hashtag #MeToo. It won’t always be easy but I imagine it will be infinitely easier than having to go through what your mom, sisters, wife, daughters have been through due to the passivity of normal guys like you and me.


References

Garcia, S. 2017. The woman who created #metoo long before hashtags.

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More Than Self-Determination

More Than Self-Determination

In studying the effects of trauma, working with people who have experienced extensive trauma and even in considering trauma I, myself, have gone through, I often wondered why some people are able to have successful, relatively normal lives despite what they must overcome.

Resiliency is the official name for the phenomena I am referring to but other words work well. Grit. Determination. Purpose. Or in the words of my 8th grade basketball coach, moxie. In regards to the study of trauma, resiliency refers to the “ability of an individual, family, or community to cope with adversity and trauma, and adapt to challenges or change” (SAMHSA, 2016).

Some of what makes a person resilient is inborn. It can be attributed to a variety of genetic influences which affect individuals differently (Marano, 2003). But, this is not to say, resilience is completely genetic. Researchers have found several external influences which affect the degree to which one is able to be resilient during and after traumatic events occur (Marano, 2003).

One external influence is the quality of relationships one has with other people. In simplest terms, those persons who have positive and supportive relationships in their lives may be more likely to overcome a traumatic experience (White, 2017). These positive and supportive people are sometimes referred to as buffers. This is not to say a positive and supportive relationship will always mitigate trauma but only to say positive and supportive relationships may be a mediating factor in lessening the long-term effects of trauma (Craig, Baglivio, Wolff, Piquero, and Epps, 2017).

I have experienced a chronic traumatic event. I’m not going to go into details as the event ended long ago and the persons involved have taken positive steps to reconcile with me and others who were affected. I only mention it because I always wondered why this trauma did not bring me down. By most indicators, I have so far led a successful life. Even when controlling for privilege, why have I been able to overcome where others have not?

I have never found myself to be particularly ‘special’. I work hard and try to do the right thing but I am by no means perfect. I struggle with depressive states, extreme cynicism and distrust of others, and avoiding addictive habits. Obviously, I can easily identify a number of areas in my life in which I need to make improvements. But, a lot of people work hard and are, unfortunately, unable to break free from the lasting effects of trauma so again, why have I been able to overcome where others have not?

In studying trauma, I have come to two conclusions regarding how I have been able overcome my own traumatic experiences:

One, I had an incredible support system which I was mostly unaware of but which continually challenged me to trust that I already possessed what it took to be a better person than what my inner demons wanted to me to believe.

Two, I believed (and still believe) in a Good and Loving God, a God from whom I took confidence that no matter how bad things seemed I was loved and I ultimately had a purpose in being in this world. Without these two factors intervening in various points in my life, I am unsure how well I would have been able to overcome the traumatic events I experienced.

As I reflect on the people who are currently are or in the past were a part of my support system, I am reminded again of how fortunate I have been while also feeling the positive obligation to self to serve others in the same way. I have often felt helpless to affect change on any sort of broad level. But, I can be a good father and help protect my children from the after-effects of the often-random occurrence of traumatic events. I can encourage and support the friends of my children who may feel hopeless because of the trauma they experienced. I can encourage and value friends, family and others who struggle to overcome their own traumatic experiences.

You can take the same approach.

Trauma can occur in a moment while taking generations to fully work through. Healing does not occur in a vacuum, rather it takes a community of empathetic and compassionate people willing to set aside prejudices and assumptions and instead focus on the greater needs of our current world. Your serving as a buffer could help the person who has directly suffered the traumatic event, but even if there’s no noticeable difference, perhaps it will help the person’s child or grandchild or great-grandchild. How many generations removed does it make it not worth it to help now? Perhaps seventy generations times seven is a good place to start?

 

References

Craig, J., Baglivio, M., Wolff, K., Piquero, A., and Epps, N. 2017. Do social bonds buffer the impact of adverse childhood experiences on reoffending? Thousand Oaks, Ca: Sage Publishing.

Marano, H. 2003. The art of resilience.

SAMHSA. 2016. Trauma resilience resources.

White, C. 2017. Putting resilience and resilience surveys under the microscope.

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