The Asymmetry of Life

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

― M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth

I like to paraphrase Scott Peck this way. Life is hard. The sooner we realize this, the easier it gets.

In fact, I’ve decided that growing up is all about learning to do the things you don’t want to do. Some people learn this early in life. Some of us learn it later. Some never do.

I wrote recently about the symmetry of life. How sometimes hardship and blessing can balance each other out. But the reality is that most of us focus on the hardship and overlook the blessing.

Science bears this out. It’s called the Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry. Research consistently shows that we remember the obstacles and hardships that we have to overcome. These are the headwinds in life. Conversely, we overlook the resources that we have and the benefits we may get that others don’t. These are the tailwinds.

The results of studies from Davidai S. Gilovich include:

  • People consistently believe their parents favored their sibling.
  • Pro football fans think the schedule is biased against their favorite team.
  • Both Republicans and Democrats believe the electoral map favors the other party.

In other words, our human nature is that we focus on the headwinds in life and overlook the tailwinds.

I’m a runner. I’ve noticed this as a physical phenomenon. I run faster when I have a tailwind. But I can’t feel it. I’m just going with it. If I don’t think about it, I think it’s all me. I run slower into a headwind. I can feel it. Always. And I know that this is causing me to slow down.

What about you? Do you take your tailwinds in life for granted? Do you think about how hard your life is, but forget the blessings?

This can cause us to think that your church is the only one that is struggling. Or your family is the only one that is dysfunctional. Or that other pastors get better assignments. Or that other employees get favored by the boss.

Rather than focusing on what is good, we focus on what is hard.

The significant part of Gilovich’s research is this, the more someone feels they have been treated unfairly, the more likely they are to approve of morally questionable behavior.

Gratitude doesn’t just make life better for you, it will help you to live life in the way God intended.

So give thanks today for your tailwinds, whatever they may be. Acknowledge the privilege you have that others don’t. Think about the advantages that you have that you so often overlook. Remember the people who have helped you along the way. Perhaps you can even be somebody else’s tailwind. Your life will get easier.

The Hardest Part Is Starting

The worst decision I made in seminary was to ask for an extension on a paper that was due the end of my last semester. The professor gave me a week. It was the just before Christmas and the idea of writing the paper hung over my head the whole time. I had lots of excuses to put it off. I was pastoring a church and it was Advent. We had four young children and I needed to help get ready for Christmas. I procrastinated like a pro, putting it off until the night before the extension deadline. Then I wrote the paper.

If you’re a procrastinator like me, you can relate to this feeling. It’s easy to come up with reasons why other things are more important. There is a gnawing in the back of your mind that keeps reminding you of what needs to be done. And, once you actually get started, you find that it wasn’t actually that bad. Sometimes it even feels good.

That’s the way I feel about writing, exercising and dealing with my inbox. I’ve gotten pretty good about the first two, They have become habits, so I know I just need to get started and once I’m in to it, I’m really glad.

My inbox is another story. It’s a slot in a bank of inboxes that we share as a staff. It’s only about three inches high and it’s usually full or close to full. I cherry pick “important” stuff off the top, which ends up on another stack on my desk. Since my ceiling is 10’ high, there is no limit to how high that stack can get.

Over the holidays I went through the stack on my desk (there were actually two), my inbox and the two stacks on my credenza. It felt great. Once I got started it wasn’t that hard. Much of the stuff was OCE (overcome by current events) and went straight into the recycling bin. Most of the rest needed filing and there were a handful of things that I still needed to act on.

Are there things you put off? The New Year is a time that we think about them and decide we’re going to do things differently. Here are three tips to help you get started.

Commit to a micro-habit.

A micro-habit directly addresses the issue of starting. If you want to start reading your bible daily, then set a goal of sitting in your chair and holding the bible for five minutes. Do that for a week, then add five minutes of reading to the goal. Do that for another week and then add five more minutes of reading. Keep that up and in seven weeks you’ll be reading 30 minutes each day. You can apply this to exercising, eating, praying, writing, cleaning, organizing or any other project that you want to get started. It works.

Pick a time and place.

One of the best ways to develop a habit is to make it a part of a routine that is grounded in a time and place. Over time, the “time and place” will trigger your actions so you do them without thinking. In our bible reading example, if you use the same chair every day, that will reinforce your habit. Eventually, just sitting down in your chair with your bible will make the reading part automatic. Better yet, if you’re doing it in the morning, then grab your coffee and head straight for the chair. The act of getting your first cup of coffee will be your cue that it’s time for bible reading.

I’m writing this blog in my cubby-hole of a desk in the corner of a spare room. Every morning, as soon as I put my journal down, I open up my PC and start writing. Or, if I’m not writing, I’m researching, outlining, proofreading or editing. Sometimes the work goes well. Other times it’s a grind. But, I’m working on my craft, a little bit at a time.

Again, you can apply this idea to just about any habit, goal or project. Over time, your brain subconsciously associates your habit with the time and the place and getting started is almost automatic.

Write down your goal and tell someone else.

Research is clear that the chances of success increase significantly if you do this. It’s using both accountability and support to help you get moving. It’s scary. It’s a lot easier to keep it to yourself. That way if you procrastinate, then nobody knows.

Once you write it down it becomes real. Once you tell someone it is out in the world. Ideally, the people you tell will encourage you and ask you how it’s going. Just knowing that others know about it is often enough motivation to get started.

I’ve just decided that I will spend five minutes each day in the office with the stuff in my inbox. I’ll grab it, then stand over the recycling bin and immediately toss what’s not important. I’ll deal with what’s left in the remaining amount of time. Ask me how it’s going in a few weeks.

What about you?

 

The Symmetry of Life

The drool spot on my right shoulder got me thinking.

It’s there most days.

Some days it’s from my five month old grandson, Thomas. He’s our first. Before he was born, people kept saying, “Oh, being a grandparent is the best! There’s nothing like it!”

Because of the build-up, when people would ask me if I was excited to be a grandpa. I would always say yes. In my mind, I was thinking, “This better be good!”

And, of course, it is.

I get to see Thomas several days a week and I try to hold him as much as possible. When I do, he ends up drooling on my right shoulder. I’ve gotten used to checking to make sure if I need to clean off my shoulder, but sometimes I’ll get to the end of the day and there it is. It makes me smile.

Other days the drool spot comes from my father-in-law. He had a debilitating stroke three years ago that left his right side paralyzed, his speech unintelligible and left him with a condition called dysphagia, which is difficulty swallowing. We take part in his care and, because of the dysphagia, whenever I transfer him in and out of his wheelchair I usually get a drool spot on my right shoulder.

My father-in-law goes by Tom, and Thomas, his first great-grandchild, is his name’s sake.

Symmetry.

The drool spot got me thinking about how precious life is and how we shouldn’t take anything for granted. I’m sure this is not new to you. It’s not new to me. But thinking about Tom and Thomas has deepened my appreciation. Maybe I’m just getting old.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Accept the things you can’t change.

Tom’s stroke came two months after his 78th birthday. He was in great shape. Just before his birthday, he and 11 buddies made a golf trip to Ireland. He played seven courses in seven days and walked every one of them. Tom coached high-school and college football in Delaware and it seems that he knows everyone in the state. The outpouring of love that came after his stroke was overwhelming, especially from his former players. He had made an impact on their lives.

The sentiment at the time was that it was tragic that this stroke had damaged his body so severely in his golden years.

I guess that’s still true, but three years with him has given me a different perspective. I believe everybody has their time to go be with God and it wasn’t Tom’s time. That doesn’t make it easy. And ours isn’t the only family that has to deal with challenging circumstances. In fact, I think most families have challenges that make life hard.

But as a camp staff member said this summer, just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s not good. Tom is still with us and I am grateful. It’s hard, but it is still good to have him.

The Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr puts it best:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Being is more important than doing.

I’m not a Type A personality, but I am a doer. I like to keep things busy and to get things done. Once Jodi and I were on the planning team for a national camp & retreat event. We arrived at the venue two days before to get ready, helped run the four-day event, then spent a whole day afterward debriefing. It was non-stop activity for a week. We had decided to spend the weekend after the event to relax at a nearby hotel with a nice water view before traveling home.

The first day there I spent about six hours straight just sitting in an Adirondack chair on the deck, looking at the water. I didn’t read. I didn’t get my laptop out. I just sat. I was so whipped from the previous week that I just needed to do nothing. Jodi kept asking me if I was OK. She wasn’t used to seeing me do nothing and was worried. Like I said, I’m not Type A, but it made me laugh that she was concerned about my lack of activity.

When I see Thomas I just want to hold him. I don’t even talk to him that much. I probably should, to help develop his verbal skills. But I just like to hold him.

One day I was holding him and I realized how different this was than when I was parenting our four kids. I love them and loved holding them. But, I recognized the difference. As a parent, when I was holding my child, all I could think about were all the things that I had to get done. Work, household chores, etc. The classic conundrum was when a child went to sleep, should I take a nap because I was dead tired or should I get something done because I could. It was usually the latter.

Holding Thomas is different. When I’m holding him, I don’t think about what else I need to do. I enjoy the time we have. Perhaps this is age, wisdom, life experience or some combination of the three. But, I hadn’t learned this lesson until now. Being is more important than doing. We are human beings, not human doings.

There is something in me that says I could not have learned these lessons before now. Perhaps that’s true. And maybe the reason I share is so I can remind myself to be grateful for what Tom and Thomas have taught me. Thanks be to God.

How Crowd Publishing Helped My Book Dream Become a Reality

Photo by Jessica Ruscello

The idea to write a book was a dream. I’m not unique. Over 80% of Americans say they want to write a book.

A year ago, I started writing for 30 minutes a morning. Within a month, I knew that I could get the book written. Within four months, I had a manuscript.

But how would I get it published?

I knew that the traditional route is a needle in a haystack proposition. I could try to find a literary agent who could pitch my book to a publisher. Or I could try the direct submission route. Either way, I would need persistence, as it would require persistence to keep going through multiple rejections.

J.K. Rowling was rejected 12 times before Harry Potter was published. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times. Stephen King had to go through 30 rejections with Carrie to get it published.

I had no idea if my book was any good, let alone a bestseller. I didn’t mind getting rejected. But, I have a day job and the amount of time I would have to spend to get through dozens of rejections was overwhelming.

Enter Publishizer.

I ran across this crowd-publishing platform as I was researching how to get published. With Publishizer, you can get the attention of publishers by proving that your book can sell. It’s a radical concept that is getting attention because publishers can less afford to put books out that don’t sell. I read every blog on their website.

But I was scared.

But then I read this blog post by Seth Godin. There’s a difference between “feels risky” and “IS risky.” I realized that I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I knew that even if I got my book published, I would have to do the selling. Unless you are a top-tier author, you can’t really count on your publisher to provide much marketing support.

If I couldn’t get enough pre-orders for my book, then maybe it wasn’t meant to be published. But if I was successful, then instead of spending my time getting rejected, I could let Publishizer pitch my book to any of the over 180 publishers they work with, based on their proprietary algorithm.

The bottom line was this: Publishizer gave me the opportunity to see if I could sell my book BEFORE it was published. If the idea was attractive enough to get hundreds of pre-orders, then it had a good chance of getting published.

So I signed up. Here’s why it was worth it:

  • I got a step-by-step guide on what to do, including getting a book cover, producing a video, writing a book proposal and marketing through my own platform and network of contacts.
  • Publishizer provided a platform that was set up to load all these materials, could email my contacts and accept book pre-orders. It took no time at all to set things up.
  • I got personal support from Lee Constantine, Publishizer’s Director of Growth, throughout the process.

This meant I could focus my efforts on selling my book. I pretty much did exactly what the guide recommended. It’s not rocket science. In 30 days I sold 510 copies and raised $11,500.

I got inquiries from 12 publishers. I’ve ultimately decided to go the author-publisher route. But it wouldn’t have happened without Publishizer. I don’t think I am exceptional. Everything was laid out for me and all I had to do was put in the effort.

Are you one of the 80% who has a book in you? If so, email me. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have about how to make it a reality.

 

Anxious Church, Anxious People: How to Lead Change in an Age of Anxiety will be published in mid-2018.

Blunder, Bet and Boast Your Way to Significant Achievements

Photo by Rawpixel.com

You want to make a difference, do something significant, but you feel that you mostly do the same old, same old.

Maybe you have a book in you. Or an idea to start a ministry in your community. Or a way to help others improve their lives. Or you want to start a business.

But you’re going nowhere.

It’s human nature to want to know all the steps before getting started. It’s natural to want to have it all figured out before making the big move. And that’s what will keep you stuck.

I was discussing starting a training program for camp and retreat leaders recently. I said, we just need to try something. Perfect is the enemy of done.

Here are three strategies for getting started.

Blunder

Bonnie Blodgett calls herself the Blundering Gardener. She uses the term blunder because she will start a project without knowing how to do it. It requires learning along the way, which will inevitably lead to some blundering.

When you take on something new it will take longer than you expect. You’ll encounter obstacles. You’ll get stuck. But that’s part of the learning curve. Achievement nearly always includes learning. In the real world, that means blundering.

If you wait to become an expert at something, you’ll never get started. If you start something and learn along the way, then you’ll get something done. You won’t become an expert, at least not right away, but you WILL get better as you go. Blunder.

Bet

In his book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, Peter Sims makes the case that experimentation is the key to finding big ideas. This sounds obvious when I say it this way because when we think of scientific discoveries, we automatically think of experimentation. But how often do you think that way in ministry? Or in business?

If you’ve ever had to make a proposal to a church council or a board of directors, you’ve likely been pressed to have thought through every task and contingency. This takes a tremendous amount of time and effort. The reality is all that planning can’t prevent unforeseen challenges.

Sims argues that instead of having everything planned out in advance, you try “little bets” toward what you think might be a positive outcome. He cites high achievers such as comedian Chris Rock, Steve Jobs, Pixar Films and the Army Chief of Strategic Plans, as well as Ludwig van Beethoven and Thomas Edison, as having achieved great things through little bets.

If you’ve got an idea, don’t wait until you have the entire plan to get started, otherwise you never will. Instead run a pilot project and see what happens. Make adjustments and do it again. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can get to something significant.

Boast

Boast is not the correct term, but I love to alliterate.

What I mean is to put yourself out there. Tell others what you are doing. Not to boast, but to make your effort a reality. When you do this, you are much more likely to follow through.

When I started writing my book, the only person who knew about it was my wife. But I read that it helps to tell people, so I started sharing this when appropriate. It’s scary, but it works.

If you keep something to yourself, it’s no big deal if you don’t follow through. Although you’ll probably feel bad about it. When you share with others, you not only feel accountable to something beyond yourself, you also enlist the support and prayers of those who care about you. People will be pulling for you to succeed.

Which brings me to a final word about the life of faith. My experience is that when I feel God leading me to do something, I don’t get a clear picture. It’s usually a nudge or a glimpse of what’s possible. Then I know it’s time to take a small action. Sometimes it’s a bigger idea, but I have no idea how to get there. I know I’ll blunder. To me, that’s how faith works. If I knew everything at the outset, it wouldn’t be faith. The prayers of others make it more likely that I’ll discern what step, what action, God wants me to take next. It’s an exciting way to live.

Sidezoomers, Lineuppers and Surrounding Togetherness Pressures

I was listening to a recent Freakonomics podcast where they discussed the issue of what to do when a highway merges from two lanes to one. As Cynthia Gorney writes in her New York Times article, The Urge to Merge, this situation presents an ethical dilemma.

Do you line up in the remaining lane well before the merge or do you drive in the disappearing lane until you are required to merge?

Gorney coined the term lineuppers for the former and sidezoomers for the latter. She is a lineupper.

According to Freakonomics economist, Steven Levitt, the lineuppers are actually slowing things down for everyone. The most efficient use of the highway is for drivers to use both lanes completely and alternate merging into the remaining lane. This is called the zipper merge. This actually gets everyone to their destination sooner than politely lining up for the remaining lane.

Levitt contends that to change driver behavior, we need to change the instructions. And, in fact, I occasionally see the sign “Alternate Merge” where two lanes permanently go to one.

But until then, what will YOU do?

Will you politely line up as sidezoomers fly by you? Or will you make the most of the available asphalt real estate? If you do the former, will you seethe at the injustice and nearly kiss the bumper of the car in front of you to prevent a lowly sidezoomer from squeezing in? If you do the latter, will you zoom by without feeling guilty, knowing that you are actually doing a service for those who come after you or will you refuse to make eye-contact with a lineupper for fear that you may lose your resolve?

For most, the presence of this situation creates surrounding togetherness pressure. I certainly feel this. Even though I know that sidezooming is legal and is more efficient, I am often a lineupper because I don’t want to appear to be a jerk to people I don’t’ know. That’s surrounding togetherness pressure.

What does this have to do with being a non-anxious leader?

A non-anxious leader is comfortable with the decisions she makes and is not worried about what other people think or do.

Here are two scenarios. Feel free to choose either one.

Choose to be a lineupper. Own it. But, don’t get resentful when sidezoomers go by you. It’s their right. And when the merge comes, let a car in, knowing that they zoomed passed you because they could. You can even say to them silently, “Have a nice day.”

Or, choose to be a sidezoomer. Own it. Don’t feel guilty. But, don’t get angry if there are lineuppers who don’t want to let you in. They’ve got their own issues.

It’s your choice. And that’s the point. A non-anxious leader is able to own her position while giving others the freedom to disagree.

Finally, we can all agree that “fake-exit” guy is wrong. You know, the one who bypasses gridlocked traffic by running up the exit lane, then merges back into traffic at the last minute. That’s just wrong. Of course, if you’re that guy, feel free to disagree.

Train Your Brain to Better Handle Stress

Photo by Tim Gouw courtesy StockSnap

When anxiety strikes, it can consume you. It not only takes over your thoughts, it takes over your body. Your breathing gets shallow, your chest gets tight and your muscles tense. It’s not fun.

I wrote this post with some practical steps on how you can cope with stress, in the moment. However, I recently attended a lecture at the Center for Family Process that was given by neuropsychologist, Angelo Bolea, PhD. The lecture was “How the Brain Processes Stress.” He demonstrated that understanding how the brain functions can help you practice techniques that will help your mind, body and spirit function better when you feel stressed.

What we call stress begins in the part of your brain called the limbic system. This is in the oldest part of the brain, from an evolutionary standpoint, and mediates emotion, learning and memory. It also triggers the “fight or flight” response that has kept humans alive whether the threat was a saber-tooth tiger, war with a neighboring tribe or avoiding cars when crossing the street. The limbic system naturally responds to loud noises, scary animals and fast-moving objects to create “stress,” which keeps us safe and alive.

Over time, you can train your brain to respond to other stimuli in the same way. You add other situations to the list of “threatening” events.

Taking a test, attempts at romantic love and asking for a job may be added earlier in life to the list. There are situations from work and the church that you can add to this list, as well. In family systems, we would also add encounters in unresolved relationships. The parent with whom you still can’t take an emotional stand, the sibling who always bullied you or the adult child who still holds you emotional hostage are a few examples. You can fill in the blank with your own anxieties. Nobody gets the problem they can handle.

The idea is that stress, feeling anxious, is a primal response that starts in a part of the brain that is pre-conscious. It is a physical reaction that happens automatically in situations where you feel threatened. Over time, most of your threats are emotional rather than physical.

The limbic system treats every “threat” as if our very survival is at stake.

In most cases our survival is not in question. But the physical sensation, the neurochemicals that are released, create the feeling, whether valid or not.

Here are four things you can do to train your brain to better handle stress.

Breathe

Bolea, says, “If you can control your breath, you can control your brain.” Deep breathing quiets the fight or flight sensations in your brain. Bolea says that most people breathe improperly when stressed, which makes things worse. Shallow breathing increases feelings of stress. So when you feel stressed, start by trying to hold your breath for as long as possible. Your next breath will be a deep one. Then breath in, hold your breath for five seconds. Breathe out, and hold it again for five seconds. Doing this for several minutes will counteract the fight or flight activity in the limbic brain.

Practice this when you are not feeling stressed. This will better prepare you to respond quickly when you feel anxious.

Move

Bolea says one of the worst things you can do when stressed is to tell yourself to relax. If you do, you are more likely to try to still yourself physically and that’s a mistake. It’s harder to keep your muscles still than it is to keep them moving. Trying to still yourself makes you more likely to tense up. Movement will do more to relax your muscles and when your muscles relax it sends feedback to your brain that there are no threats present.

How you move is up to you. You can take a walk. You can stretch your arms and back. You can touch your toes or shrug your shoulders repeatedly up to your ears. What’s important is that you are moving muscles and that will relax them more than trying to be still.

Engage the right brain

When the limbic brain sends out stress signals, it is the right brain, which is the creative and imaginative side of the brain which processes the message. Do you create horrific scenarios in your mind when stressed? If so, your right brain is out of control with the stress hormones it’s receiving. The answer is to take back control by engaging the right brain.

You can do this through creative activity. Try drawing, doodling or playing music. Another approach is through imagery. Close your eyes and go to your happy place. This can be a cherished vacation spot, the place of a happy childhood memory or your spiritual home.

Whatever you do, prepare in advance. Know what you will do when you feel stress.

Use the left brain to re-frame

Bolea says that with stress, the left brain, which is the logical side, is the last to know. He also says that when you say, “I can’t…” which is a typical left brain response to stress, it is your left-brain misinterpreting the doomsday scenarios created by your right brain. So, once you breathe, move and engage your right brain, it’s time to take back control of the situation. In fact, the difference between a problem, which creates anxiety, and a challenge, which creates excitement, is the degree to which we feel in control.

The first thing to do is to de-personalize the stress. Turn “I feel stressed” into “There is stress.” Stress is a part of life. How you handle it makes it good or bad.

Then, state what you CAN do. Instead of “I can’t…” try

  • “I can…” and think about what you can do, not what you can’t.
  • “I will…” and focus on the next thing you can do to address the issue at hand.
  • “I need…” and affirm what you need to ask for or obtain to move in a positive direction.
  • “I’m no longer…” and decide what needs to stop to improve the situation.

Finally, ask the question Brene Brown suggests in Rising Strong, “What is the most generous interpretation of this situation that I can make?”

Engaging your left brain to re-interpret the stress will, over time, re-train your limbic system to remove the specific situation from the list of threats.

Like anything else in life, preparation can improve things. Prepare yourself for stress. Practice the steps. Re-train your brain. You can do this.

Which Do You Feed, Anxiety or Hope?

Photo by Rufus46 CC BY-SA 3.0

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside of me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

Cherokee Legend, from First People

I was holding my grandson last night. He’s not even three months old. But when he’s older I will tell him this story.

The legend doesn’t mention anxiety. But I’m the anxiety guy. For me, everything comes back to whether or not something feeds anxiety or reduces it. You can’t always choose your circumstances, but you can choose which wolf you feed. One will breed anxiety. The other will breed hope.

The wolves are hungry to influence how you function in your family, work, church and the world around you. Here are some thoughts about how to feed the good wolf.

Listen without reacting.

The worst thing you can do in an anxiety-producing situation is speak. You are likely to introduce more anxiety, which creates a downward spiral. Keep your thoughts to yourself and just listen. Saying, “Thanks for sharing,” followed by phrases like, “Tell me more” or “What makes you feel this way?” is simple, shows respect and enables you to self-regulate. They feed the good wolf. Getting defensive and trying to convince the other that he or she is wrong will feed the evil wolf.

Say what you believe while giving others the freedom to disagree.

Listening doesn’t mean you have to stuff your emotions. But you need to self-regulate. The key to being a non-anxious presence is being able to say what you believe while staying emotionally connected. This is hard to do. You WILL feel anxious inside. But if you can do this calmly, even humorously, you can bring down the tension in the situation.

Here is a phrase you can practice. “Hey, I respect your opinion. I’m just saying what I believe. You don’t have to agree with me. I just feel I need to be honest because I value our relationship.”

You’ll need to practice it a lot. The higher the emotional stakes, the harder it will be to do. So if you’ve never taken an emotional stand with a parent (or fill in the blank, i.e. sibling, spouse, pastor, congregant, boss, co-worker, etc.), it will take a lot to be able to do this. And, the likely result is things will get worse before they get better. But, if you can maintain a non-anxious presence, you will feed the good wolf. For both of you.

An exception is social media.

When it comes to social media, don’t do anything. It is not a place where people can have a reasonable discussion. So, just keep your thoughts to yourself and let go of it. If you get into a “discussion (more like argument)” on social media, nobody wins. You feed the evil wolf. If you let go of what bothers you, you feed the good wolf. It might be hard at first, but it will get easier with practice.

Finally, attend to the things that matter.

Invest in your spiritual life. Here’s my post on that. Connect with your family, however it is configured. Work through the issues in your family of origin. Learn to take non-anxious, emotional stands with those who are most important to you. If you do these things, your good wolf will grow strong. You will live a life filled with hope. And the evil wolf will starve.

Intensity Is the Mother of Dissension

Photo courtesy Active Garage blog

ost of what I’ve learned in family systems is counter-intuitive. Dealing with anxiety is no exception. A big takeaway is that the anxiety I feel about a situation has more to do with me and how I function in my family of origin than it does about the content of the situation.

This is true of seriousness, as well. Seriousness presents a paradox. You have to be serious about things, but if you get too intense, it will consume you. That’s when anxiety can become uncontrollable.

It’s this sort of intensity that makes a small problem a big problem and a big problem an overwhelming one. Its main characteristic is persistence. You would think persistence is a good thing. But not when it comes in the form of trying harder and harder through serious, intense efforts. This results in greater anxiety, a lack of flexibility and, paradoxically, the greater chance that the problem will become chronic.

So what do you do?

Lighten up. Stop thinking about the problem. Stop trying to fix it. Get some perspective.

(You’re now thinking, “That’s easy for you to say, it’s not your problem!”)

Here are some things you can do.

Pray

Of course, you can pray. But don’t pray about the problem. That will make you anxious. Pray for others. Pray for world peace. Pray for your church (unless that’s what is making you anxious). The idea of this kind of prayer is to get outside of yourself and your problems and connect with God. It will make God bigger and make the problem look smaller.

Meditate

OK…this is sounding like another blog post I wrote on spiritual practices. But, the reason meditation works is it has physical affects that will help. It lowers stress levels and increases your ability to focus. This will make you feel better, but it will also help you to be intentional about thinking about things other than your problem.

Exercise (especially outside)

You don’t have to get intense about this. Especially if you don’t exercise regularly. Just increasing your activity level will help. It will be even more effective if you are able to spend some time in the beauty of Creation. There is nothing like the proverbial walk in the park.

Do Something You Enjoy

This is the thing you’re least likely to do in the face of chronic anxiety. What makes anxiety chronic is you can’t stop thinking about the problem and ways to fix it. Having fun interrupts this kind of intensity. It will help reduce anxiety and create perspective. It doesn’t matter what you do. It’s whatever gives you joy. It could be reading, playing or listening to music, playing or watching sports, cooking, ad infinitum. It’s process, not content. The process here is to get your mind off the problem, to reduce the intensity.

So, whatever your problem, get some perspective. Work to keep it from consuming you. It might not fix it, but you might just put it in its place.

Trouble Managing Anxiety? Talk to Your Family

The Lord passed before Moses, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7 (NRSV)

This passage is part of the second giving of the Ten Commandments. In the first, God provided two tablets and wrote on them. But, while Moses was with God on the mountain, the people got anxious when Moses was delayed. They begged Aaron to fashion a god that would be with them. Aaron collected their gold jewelry and made a golden calf, which they worshipped. The Bible describes the people as running wild. When Moses came down from the mountain he was so angry, he threw the tablets down and broke them at the foot of the mountain

The second time God tells Moses to bring his own tablets and God will write on him. It’s like when I was in school they would give me a composition book, but if I lost it, I had to buy a replacement.

What is significant about this passage is the explicit nature of God’s grace. God’s character is revealed as forgiveness, mercy, grace and steadfast love. Despite the transgression of an entire people, God will forgive and continue to love to the thousandth generation.

But there is a consequence for iniquity.

God says that the iniquity of the parents will be visited upon offspring to the third and fourth generation. I don’t believe God is promising to punish future generations. I believe God is stating a fact that the dysfunction of our families gets passed on from generation to generation.

We know this was true for the Israelites. Even when they made it to the promised land, they couldn’t stop worshiping false idols. It led to their eventual downfall as a nation. What started in the wilderness continued well beyond the third and fourth generation.

This is a bedrock principle in family systems theory.

We know that all kinds of issues get passed from generation to generation. There are very visible and destructive ones like physical, sexual, emotional and substance abuse. But just about everything about who we are comes from our family of origin. This is true about how we deal with anger and conflict, raise children, handle money, celebrate holidays and a host of other behaviors, good, bad or indifferent.

Some things that are passed on are known and celebrated. We call these traditions. Others are unspoken.

This is especially true of anxiety.

In her article, How Trauma Is Carried Across Generations: Holding the Secret History of our Ancestors, Molly S. Castelloe references the work of M. Gerald Fromm. She writes,

The transmission of trauma may be particular to a given family suffering a loss, such as the death of an infant, or it can be a shared response to societal trauma.

Maurice De Witt, a sidewalk Santa on Fifth Avenue noticed a marked change in behavior the holiday season following 9/11 when parents would not “let the hands of their children go. The kids sense that. It’s like water seeping down, and the kids can feel it… There is an anxiety, but the kids can’t make the connections.”

“This astute man was noticing a powerful double message in the parent’s action,” Fromm says. “Consciously and verbally, the message was ‘Here’s Santa. Love him.’ Unconsciously and physically, it was ‘Here’s Santa. Fear him.’ The unnamed trauma of 9/11 was communicated to the next generation by the squeeze of a hand.”

Psychic legacies are often passed on through unconscious cues or affective messages that flow between child and adult. Sometimes anxiety falls from one generation to the next through stories told.”

How do you deal with life when it makes you anxious?

My mother was born in Seattle in 1923. Her father and his brothers owned a fish-wholesaling business. They were the first non-Anglo business on the Seattle waterfront. But my grandfather sent the family back to Japan in 1933 to help the business survive the depression. Her mother came back to Seattle a few years later to be with her husband. My mom and her four siblings stayed with their Aunt in Hiroshima until 1947.

I grew up hearing my mother’s stories of life in Japan. Most of them centered around what life was like being separated from her parents while her own country, the US, and her country of origin and residence, Japan, were at war. Some of them were about the A-bomb. Her family was fortunate. Of the five children, only the youngest, Nobu, was killed in the blast. She was 15. She is front and center in the photo above. My mother is back, left.

I don’t know if the stories transmitted anxiety or not. I do know that I’m glad they were told.

If you have anxiety about a situation at work, the church or at home, the best thing you can do is talk to your family of origin.

It doesn’t have to be about your anxiety. Just ask about their life. What was hard? What was good? What do they remember? Hear their stories.

Do this with anyone who has a memory of your family’s history. Your parents. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Anyone who has a story to tell.

The anxiety that is transmitted from generation to generation is not inevitable. You can stop the transmission of anxiety. That starts with hearing the untold stories.

Six years ago my Aunt called me on my birthday. She doesn’t usually call. When she did, she said, “Happy Birthday! Same birthday as Nobu.”

I wanted to say, “What?! I have the same birthday as my aunt who was killed in the A-bomb and nobody told me?!”

I thanked my aunt for telling me and told her that I had never known this, using the best non-anxious response I could muster.

Then I called my mom and asked her about it. “What? Hmmm. Oh yeah, I guess you did have the same birthday. I guess I forgot about it.”

I wonder what anxiety was transmitted by not telling me. I wonder what anxiety was released when I found out. I can’t really answer it, but I feel like it’s a good thing.

It’s not really a big deal. But it is nice to know this. It binds me in a special way to my family heritage that I can’t even explain.

I wrote in a blog post a year ago about my experience going to Hiroshima with my mom, my siblings and our spouses. Again, I can’t pin down exactly how it helped me or our family, but I know it did.

So, talk to your family. Whether that’s the people who came before or those who came after. Listen to the stories. You will learn things that will communicate the truth about who you are and where you come from.

And the truth will set you free.