Is Social Media Social?

Eight weeks ago I gave up social media for Lent and the experience has led me to some pretty interesting insights. A simple Google search will show that some people think social media is the death knell of true social interaction, while others feel it is the gateway to social evolution. As with most of my life experiences, I would have to say I fall somewhere in the middle.

My first reaction was that I really didn’t miss the hours I normally spent texting, emailing, reading and replying to Facebook posts. I found myself calmer, less agitated, and more relaxed.What did I do with the extra time? I slept a bit more, I read a couple of books, conducted a discussion/prayer group, read a few more magazine articles and newspaper stories, spent time renovating a bathroom, and possibly watched a bit more TV.

When I consider that list, except for the discussion group, I replaced social interaction (albeit electronic) with time alone and introspective pursuits. Considering this began as a means of Lenten discipline, I think I have accomplished some of my goals. However, I must admit, I did not increase my prayer time as much as I had hoped and I didn’t find the time to read all the spiritual books I had intended. That was no surprise because I always think I can accomplish more in less time than is physically possible.

I was ready to give up my social media endeavors, including this blog. After all, I felt less stressed, my internal anger wasn’t stirred by conflicting opinions and rude commentary, my heart wasn’t broken daily by all the visual displays of humanity’s inhumanity. I had filled the time with positive and productive activities. So, why not make my electronic “fast” permanent?

Then my husband and I attended the fiftieth wedding anniversary party for a couple we have known for about forty years. I met with other nearly lifelong friends. I found that, in my seven weeks fasting from social media, one friend, who had driven up from Missouri to attend the event, was very successfully recuperating from a stroke. Another friend was preparing to begin dialysis treatments. Still another was living through the loss of a business and home. We reminisced about the friends who had “died too soon,” and shared the joys and sorrows of our growing families. We talked about journeys we had taken and life-changing experiences. I basically spent the night catching up on a lot of important personal information I would have already known had I been doing my usual electronic correspondence.

Yes, social media is a poor replacement for a big person-to-person anniversary celebration, phone call, coffee klatsch, girls’ night out or home visit. We share information in private that we might not, or should not, on social media. Still, the last five times I have set up a face-to-face gathering between more than two people, it has taken many texts, emails, and personal messages to come up with a common available time slot.

The reality of the twenty-first century is that relationships exist across distance and disparate life obligations. We no longer function within tight close-knit familial and ethnic enclaves. Not every family member or friend has evenings and Sunday afternoons free for “entertaining” or socializing. Our society is more mobile and families don’t stay glued to their homes for 12 hours a day or within the same 20 mile radius for fifty years. Our phone lines are no longer private roads of contact with distant relatives. Don’t get me wrong, phones are still a tremendous means of communication. However, ninety percent of my phone calls come from solicitors and salespeople…and I am on the so-called “do not call list.” I am very grateful for caller I.D.

Okay, social media is not perfect. It gives people perceived anonymity and opens the door to soapbox rants, unkind and rude commentary, “alternative facts”, crude jokes and memes and other unsavory elements. It also offers a doorway to prayer requests, global support networks, positive sharing, and interesting (and affordable) daily news from family and friends across the country and around the globe. For example, our daughter will soon be studying in India and our only reasonable means of contact will be via the internet. As with any personal interaction, it is not the hardware or software involved, but the flesh that operates and manipulates those technologies which makes for positive or negative experience.

So today, I return to social media and have decided to continue this blog. My Lenten journey has reminded me that I am not perfect, no person is perfect, so why should I expect more from social media–the interaction of imperfect people? Still, at its best, it is a 24/7 means for reaching out across the miles with news of family and friends, words of inspiration, prayer support, civil discussion and positive encouragement. After all, isn’t that what it really means to be social?

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Lenten Joy?

Are you eager to experience the beginning of Lent? Are you starting to anticipate the opportunities for deeper prayer, reconciliation, and charitable action? Can you feel the joy bubbling up inside of you? I am, but it has been a long journey to reach this sense of love and enthusiasm for the season. When I was a child, Lent was a somber and very negative experience full of sorrow, sacrifice and rules, rules, RULES! The feeling of joy was relegated to the bygone Christmas season. We never gave a single thought to the concept of Lenten joy! Even the elation of “Paczki Day” (a.k.a. “Fat Tuesday” or “Shrove Tuesday”) was marred by focusing on the seriousness of the season ahead.

Maybe I should explain that in our Polish neighborhood, in Catholic school, the religious sisters would fry “paczki,” just for this celebration. These were raised donuts coated in granulated sugar and filled with prune “powidła” or sometimes jelly. On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent), in true Mardi Gras fashion, students would be treated to this sweet delight with a carton of whole milk and sometimes chocolate milk! Lest we become gluttonous as we devoured these special treats, the sisters would remind us that this was the “last luxury” we should have until Easter Sunday. For the next 40 days we were to be following Jesus and mirroring his passion and death on the cross in every thought, word, and action. We would be required to “give something up” and some teachers would have students write a note detailing his/her planned sacrifice to emphasize and ingrain the importance of the practice.

Of course, the classroom clown would volunteer, “S’ter, I will give up doing homework for Lent!” Other students would wrack their brains trying to figure out the LEAST painful sacrifice saying,”I’m going to give up Jujubes,” thus leaving the doorway open for consuming every other penny candy of the time. Of course, those of us who had aspirations for the religious life, would take the season very seriously and plan elaborate mortifications like giving up chocolate, soda pop, or “sweets,” which meant cold turkey sugar withdrawal!

As we got older (seventh and eighth grades), along with the reining-in of our gastronomic desires, we were also told to replace “frivolous” hobbies with spiritual reading and participation in various Lenten devotions. It was often during this season that our parish would sponsor a Lenten Mission, which called for a commitment to attend three to five extra one-hour evening sessions of prayer and silence. In high school, we began attending retreats (several days of extended silence, prayer, and religious devotion).

There was only one thing wrong with all these “mortifications,” the only reason we were given was that we needed to counteract our physical weaknesses (our “concupiscence”). Though grueling at the time, I am grateful because this early training and discipline created sturdy foundations for the future trials of life and the resultant spiritual growth. So there is definitely Lenten joy in those memories.

After the Second Vatican Council our Lenten practices became less focused on private introspection and devotion and leaned more heavily toward outreach to our brothers and sisters in need. If we gave up any food, we were instructed to use the saved money to help those who were hungry. When we spent time in silence, it was often preceded by a guided meditation highlighting Jesus’ mercy and forgiveness. Retreats and parish missions included small and large group discussion and much less silence.

Mandatory fasting and abstaining from meat were removed from all Fridays, though they still applied to Lenten observances. Some people chose not to hear, but we were often reminded that those little sacrifices were even more beneficial when done out of love rather than legal obligation. The reasoning behind our Lenten sacrifice became clearer, our physical hunger was intended to point us toward our deeper spiritual hunger. Knowing why we were making sacrifices imbued the action with greater joy.

As years went by, the fervor and excitement which attended the “fresh air” of Vatican II, began to dwindle and sometimes led to spiritual laziness. Since we were no longer bound by a law and the weight of the phrase “under the penalty of mortal sin,” many viewed this penitential season too lightly (if they thought of it at all). More and more people passed up the many opportunities to further their spiritual growth. Retreat houses were closed for lack of participation. But as the Scriptures tell us, “there is a time and a season for every purpose under heaven.”

Today the seats in church may hold fewer people and the world may seem more divided, but Lent still offers everyone a time to step back and examine how we spend our days. It is no longer a time for concentrating on suffering and punishment. Though we recall, in special ways, the terrible suffering that Jesus willingly endured, we also know (as Paul Harvey used to say) “the rest of the story.” As Christians we believe, Jesus is still alive and present in our midst. If that doesn’t make joy bubble in your heart, I don’t know what will.

True, Lent is a time to be honest with ourselves about our own faults and failings, which should cause us to be contrite. However, it is also a time to open our hearts to forgive others as we ourselves are forgiven by God, and forgiveness is always a cause for joy!

Lent is a time of homecoming, renewal, and rebirth which is marked by an increase in prayer, fasting and helping others (almsgiving)! So this Lent I plan to take a break from Social Media (for me that means Facebook and LinkedIn). I don’t know how that is going to go, but it will surely tell me a lot about my inner life. As a Catholic, I will also be observing meatless Fridays. I will tell you that I won’t be giving up chocolate! I learned a long time ago, that only makes me cranky and less like Christ. I will be dusting off some spiritual paperbacks I’ve long been meaning to read or re-read. The time I spend away from my keyboard will be channeled toward prayer and gathering with my parish family. I’m really looking forward to the joy of Lenten introspection, reconciliation, and outward action, aren’t you?

Who Do You Think You Are Anyway?

img_2287Were you born before 1960? If you were, then you probably know where I am going with this title and can skip to the next paragraph. However, if you were born after that, you might need this explanation. When I (and many others my age) were misbehaving adolescents, exasperated adults would often say, “Who do you think you are?” If the adult was extremely perplexed the word “anyway” would be added, as in “Who do you think you are ANYWAY?” This past weekend, the homilist at my parish reminded me of this old parental cliche and it has been rolling around in my head ever since.

That line was always meant to instill humility, though that was seldom the immediate result. For example, when I would return home after curfew my mom or dad would say “Who do you think you are anyway?” Today I realize what they meant was, “Do you think you have outgrown your concern for us? Did you ever give a thought to us? Did you ever think about how frightened we were that something terrible might happen to you? Do you think you are above the need for our guidance?” In my youth, I just became angry, because I interpreted my parents’ question as a desire for control and dominance, and I was too young and immature have a real sense of humility and empathy.

In my youth my response to “Who do you think you are anyway?” was usually silence and anger. First of all, because I didn’t dare to “sass back.” Secondly, because I believed their motivation was to prevent me from enjoying life. Their actual desire was to instill a concern for others, but that didn’t become clear until years later.  Today I realize, if I had only been able to be calm, honest, and humble, I would have said, “I’m sorry! I was selfish. I didn’t mean to hurt or worry you. I’ll do better next time.”

I realize that the way I acted as a young person, was due to my own self-centeredness. Like the Grinch in the Dr. Seuss tale, my teenage heart was “two sizes too small.” As I moved through life, became a parent, and now a grandparent, my heart has been growing and I have a better understanding of the importance of humility and empathy. Still, life can present some challenges which cause my heart to shrink like wool in hot water!

In the political atmosphere of recent years, I’ve had this shrinking experience many times. The lack of cooperation among the various levels of my government, and example of my legislators, have sent me back into the smallness and immaturity of my youth. I find myself often devolving into fear, anger, and resentment. It is not until I ask myself, “Who do you think you are anyway?” that I can honestly say, “I am an American woman. I am disappointed with the adolescent in-fighting of my legislators. I am afraid for the future.”

I know the ideal of a multi-party system is, at its finest, to give voice to differing opinions and promote discussion and debate in order to work toward a compromise by which the majority of the nation’s people have their needs met. In recent years, the political pendulum is swinging wildly toward terrible extremes. Suddenly, I hear my concerned parental voice asking my government officials, “Who do you think you are anyway? When my heart tells me it might be more helpful to say, “Have you outgrown your concern for all of us? Do you ever give a thought to others? Do you ever consider how frightened we are? Do you think you are above the need for our guidance?”

It is precisely at these times that I realize I need to become more grounded (the true meaning of humility). It does not help my heart to grow when I focus on the greed, power struggles, and self-aggrandizement of the politicians. It disturbs my soul when I consider the wild claims of their supporters and their detractors. Fear does not help me to reach out in love to my brothers and sisters in need. Anger prevents me from being a good listener. Resentment closes my heart to empathy.

In order deal with these moments of fear, anger, and resentment more effectively,  I find it helpful to read (and re-read) Max Ehrmann’s prose poem “Desiderata.” It reminds me who I am and who I want to be. I believe that if more people focused on these “desired things,” we might be able to find common ground. I am reprinting it here in the hope that Mr. Ehrmann’s words may uplift you as they have me, no matter what the political climate.

DESIDERATA

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.

And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

Max Ehrmann, 1927

Take Heart!

Have tears been falling a lot lately? Are you experiencing a tad of melancholy? Have aches and pains prevented you from enjoying the day or kept you awake at night? Has illness impacted your life so that each day seems more trial than treat? Is worry bearing down on you?

I’m here to tell you “Take heart!” Please know that I am not making light of your pain. I have been there. The pain is real! It can be debilitating! It can feel as if you are in a dark tunnel that has no end. You push yourself through each day, as if you were walking through ankle, knee, or even waist-deep mud. What I am telling you is that you are not alone, that you have everything you need to deal with this, and that the darkness will never overcome the light.img_2125

Whenever I find myself being dragged down by the trials of life, I look to the examples of the many people who have graced my life with their wisdom. It is then I realize each sorrow in my life has taught me something and has truly made me stronger, more resilient, and more compassionate toward those who are being challenged. The dark clouds have also taught me to be more appreciative of all the silver linings.

In my youth, my Mom taught me a great coping skill. Whenever I would wake up feeling less than energetic and mumble, “I’m too sick to go to school.” Mom would take my temperature. If it was a healthy 98.6 degrees this was her advice, “Get up. Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Comb your hair and get dressed. If you do all that and you still feel bad, we’ll reconsider you going back to bed and staying home.”

The lessons I took away from that experience are many. First, I learned that I am not a morning person. I do not normally pop out of bed delighted to face the day. I need to stretch, tap the snooze button a few times, yawn, and allow my body to awaken slowly. With that in mind, I set the alarm 1/2 hour earlier than necessary. So take heart, the adage “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” does not work for everyone!

I learned to be aware of my health. Sometimes, I really was sick, running a fever, and needed to stay in bed. When I was sick, the rule was rest in bed for at least 24-48 hours. In my childhood, we only had one TV and one telephone, both in the living room. So this rule meant the activity for the day would be light reading, coloring, eating a light meal, or sleeping.

It also meant that this protocol would not change after school was dismissed. In other words, I could not suddenly “get well” and go out to play with friends. What I learned from this is that one should not try to rush healing. Sometimes, 24 to 48 hours of REAL rest is the best medicine. A day or two away from TV, phones, and social media can be good for the mind. Eating simple foods like tea, toast, broth, crackers, and gelatin can be good for the body. Quiet restful contemplation and sound sleep can be good for the soul.

But most importantly, I learned that, when I’m physically well but feeling blue, it helps to just put one foot in front of the other, take care of minimal physical needs and, deal with only the immediate task in front of me. Take heart, know that occasionally it is enough to rise, you aren’t always obliged to shine as well.

In my teen years, when I was preparing for my senior prom, my hair would not cooperate and I was convinced the style was going to be an embarrassment. I was such a drama queen back then!! My mom said, “I think it looks fine, but if you think it is THAT bad, why don’t you just wear one of your wigs?” (I must say that my prom was in 1970 and hairpieces and wigs were as common as hair extensions today.) I told myself, “NO ONE else is going to wear a wig. I’ll be the only one!” When I arrived at the prom MANY girls were wearing hairpieces and wigs!

That experience taught me that, when things don’t turn out the way I planned, it is important what I say to myself, and there are always other options. It also taught me to be aware of my own tendency to blow things out of proportion. With each year that goes by, I get a little better at keeping things in perspective and reminding myself that most perceived trials in life will eventually prove to be insignificant.

So take heart! When you are feeling that life is not going the way you’d like, say to yourself, “calm down,” then look for other options. Smile, it changes your body chemistry. Call a friend. Go for a walk. Take a drive to someplace beautiful. Take a box of cookies to a nearby firehouse or police station and thank them for their service. Write a note to someone who might be lonely. I’m sure you will think of many other things that can help turn your focus outward. You may find that just thinking of someone else actually helps you feel better.

As I grow older, the thoughts that weigh me down are largely fueled by fears of the future. The “what ifs” can really raise my blood pressure. In those times, I’m training myself to concentrate on my breath. Ten long slow inhales and exhales, with all the concentration on the movement of my abdomen, signals my body to relax. I remind myself that tomorrow is never guaranteed and I have absolutely no control over what will happen. Since I am a Catholic and believe in the power of prayer, I do my best to give my concerns over to God by repeating the phrase, “Jesus, I trust in You.” For others, it might be helpful to imagine the challenge as a helium balloon, hug that balloon, and then release it to the power of the universe.

Again, I say, take heart! Keep your eyes, mind, and heart open. Experience has taught me that, in some unexplainable way, I am never alone, and in my deepest, darkest hours, when I have held my worries up in prayer, I felt supported and loved. I must add that after sixty-four years I understand that every experience, whether I labeled it as “good” or “bad,” has made me who I am today. I know anything that happens tomorrow will offer opportunities for growth or stagnation, depending upon the meaning I give it.

In this moment be gentle with yourself in thought, word and deed. Breathe deeply. Before bed it might help to write your concerns in a journal. When you physically put the book away, you can say to yourself, “If I need, I can reexamine this concern tomorrow, but for now, I relinquish it to God/heaven/the universe.” This practice may just give you a more restful night. Sleep well and take heart!

Let Charity and Love Prevail

“It’s on the internet and so it MUST be true!” I was recently at a luncheon when the man next to me sarcastically voiced this cliche to his companions. My first reaction was an internal giggle, but because I am who I am, it was a simple statement that got me thinking about how much “fact checking” I do whenever I am going through e-mail and social media (which is A LOT). I would say that at least half the time I spend on the internet is spent fact checking. This leads to checking the fact-checkers and questioning the agendas therein.

Add to that the many articles written about “fake news” generators and the difficulties involved in differentiating truth from fiction. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO for Facebook, along with other social media experts have been dealing with ways to combat or, at least, make “fake news” more obvious.

The veracity of the internet and the abundance of fake news led me to consider the current political battle taking place on social media. No, I’m not talking about the the Democrats and Republicans. What I AM talking about is the “Merry Christmas-Happy Holidays-Season’s Greetings” debate.

My social media and email have recently been overrun by memes and graphics that insist the TRUE greeting should be “Merry Christmas” and any other is wrong. Yes, for Christians, Jesus is the reason for the season. Still, I believe Jesus would be a bit disappointed with the anger and hatred that is being promoted in an effort to honor Him. A hymn comes to mind, “Where charity and love prevail, there God is ever found.”

Yes, the truth is that in our current time and among many cultures, the reason we have days off from work, collect holiday pay, decorate our homes, and make major changes in our schedules is because, since the fourth century, December 25th has been the traditional date to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. I am a Catholic-Christian and therefore I say “Merry (or Blessed) Christmas.” However, I rejoice when someone takes the time to smile and wish me happiness and peace, no matter what words they use. I am also glad that, even for non-Christians, this time of year calls us all to ponder the goodness in life and extend our hands in generosity.

img_1927History tells us that fourth century Christians used the winter solstice (the astronomical observance of the shortest day/longest night of the year) to teach others about Jesus as the “coming of the Light.” It is important to note that scripture never tells us the date of Jesus’ birth. Using the lengthening days to teach theological concepts makes sense to me for educational and evangelization purposes. Still, I wonder if the pagans of the fourth century were upset that the early Christians were raining on their parade by using the solstice in this way. If the internet was active in the fourth century, I suspect there would be dueling memes about “Happy Winter Solstice” vs “Blessed Christmas” greetings!

Another truth is that for centuries before the Christian Era, Hanukkah had been celebrated by Jews in the month of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, which translated to late November thru December on the Gregorian calendar. I can only hope that, when I say “Merry Christmas” to someone, who just happens to be Jewish, that they accept the good will that undergirds my greeting rather than berating me for not wishing them a “Happy Hanukkah.”

Still another truth is that, since the 1960s, African-Americans have felt the need to honor their African heritage by using this time of year to celebrate Kwanzaa. So, do I wish every African-American “Happy Kwanzaa”? Do I just keep my mouth shut and wait to hear their greeting? I opt for extending a greeting from my own heart and my own experience, “Merry Christmas!” Thus far, this approach has served me well.

To me the heart is more important than the head in these matters. When my heart is overflowing with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, I am honoring the ongoing life of Jesus. At those times, I have confidence that the words that come out of my mouth will be promoting peace on earth and good will. It is at those times that I am the best conduit for the spirit of Christ alive among humanity.

With all of this in mind, with complete sincerity and veracity (no fact checking necessary), I use this little part of the internet to extend greetings and prayers for blessings and joy in your life throughout this holiday season, whether you call this time Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or the Winter Solstice!

Vote for Hope

Are you one of the many people who have been disappointed with the tone of our recent political debates and the general state of our local and federal government circumstances? I can tell you that no matter which side of the divide, you are not alone in your discontent.

I have been reading a lot and trying to figure out how to keep my chin up and courageously prepare to cast my vote in the strangest election of my life. I have also spoken to many people who, like me, are dismayed by the fact that none of the candidates are morally upright and worthy of the voters’ trust and neither major candidate supports all the issues important to me.

I have found it helpful to communicate with people about the generalities and not the specifics. Chicago’s Archbishop Cardinal Bernardin and Pope Francis have been my inspirations in this search for “common ground.” It did not surprise me that, when we agreed to leave out the whys and hows, we all wanted the same things: respect for all human life, safety for ourselves, our children and our families, the ability to seek medical assistance when needed (without having to sacrifice food and shelter), the possibility of improving our circumstances through meaningful labor, protection and provision when health or abilities fail, respect and care for our natural resources, and protection of the freedoms detailed in our Bill of Rights, Constitution and related amendments.

The concepts which separate us are always the specifics. What is your definition of “respect,” “safety,” “life,” “need,” “protection,” “meaningful labor,” “natural resources,” and “freedom?” HOW do we stimulate the economy? WHAT responsibilities come with our freedoms? WHO will provide for those who can not support themselves? HOW do we interact on a global scale? WHAT is enough? WHAT is our role on the global stage? HOW do we financially provide for goods and services?

This most recent presidential campaign has really showed me that the greatest need of our age is the rebirth of the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” without trepidation. Unfortunately, fear makes many people twist the adage to “do unto others BEFORE they do unto you.” Hope is in short supply.

Fear has become the key emotion in too many hearts. So many people are launching preemptive strikes in an effort to protect their own interests. Threats, or perceived threats, are creating impulsive shots (physical, verbal, and emotional) between people. Police are fearful for their safety and may use deadly force too soon. People of color are fearful of racial profiling and when confronted, quickly lash out in an effort to protect themselves. Women are destroying the very life within them because they feel abandoned and threatened by lack of financial, physical, medical, and emotional support. People with physical, psychological or emotional instability are left to fend for themselves out on the streets. Those who are blest with a living wage are fearful of being generous because of future uncertainties. Many young people, including our veterans, are resorting to suicide because they fear the future and have lost hope.

I have lived through the administrations of eleven presidents, three wars (“police actions”, call them what you will), a “cold war,” two threats of impeachment, several recessions, major energy crises, several scandals, and an assassination. I am still here and our political union is still here. After 64 years on this planet I am certain of these three things. 1. Life is all about change. Like a Midwestern winter, if you are uncomfortable now, just wait and be patient, this too shall pass. 2. Fear is useless. If we act out of love and NOT self-aggrandizement, courage will arise. 3. The only thing I have any chance of controlling is my attitude. I am a conduit. If I allow negativity and hopelessness to fill me, that is all I will be able to convey to others. When I feed myself with positive, loving, grateful, generous thoughts, I have a better chance of influencing the actions of those around me.

I’m not saying it is easy! I often raise my voice and lash out against the injustices of this world. However, I generally discover that my anger is fueled by fear and accomplishes nothing but the raising of my blood pressure. Just because I am not successful in being a source of peace 100% of the time, does not give me the excuse to give up trying. Whenever I fail to be a channel of calm and balance, I pick myself up, look to the Golden Rule, and renew my determination to try again.

I wish I knew all the answers. God knows I don’t! Still, as we all move through these final days before the elections, I hope we can open our hearts, stop the name calling, conduct serious research to get beyond the lies, exaggerations, and political “spin,” and sincerely pray over our decision before we cast our votes. I can be certain that if the people of this country choose a candidate other than the one I would hope for, I will continue to face each day with perseverance, hope, and most of all courage, because as Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” Besides, in four years we will be faced with new political decisions and choices!

Creating a Blockbuster Life

As November approaches and the political rhetoric and social media frenzy amps up, are you feeling as weary as I am? I think of myself as a pretty positive person, yet I am having a tough time remaining that way surrounded by the many prophets of doom and gloom.

So this Sunday morning, in the lazy lavender hours of dawn, as I snuggled with my youngest grandchild (who had spent the night), I pondered life’s many blessings, and decided to share a few snippets of those morning musings and hopefully raise your mood.

I am old enough to remember pre-digital movie theaters wherein noisy machines up in a elevated booth would clickety-clack and pass perforated film in front of a bright bulb so that images could be projected onto the screen at the front of the theater. Sometimes the images were clear, other times the scene was blurred and the projecting lens would need to be adjusted. Occasionally, the sprockets would fail and the bright light would burn right through the fragile celluloid. Sadly, this malfunction would cause vociferous protests in the audience.

Those memories lead me to analogies between that process and how our brains function. Some ideas we project to others are crystal clear, others are blurry because of some difficulty with our lenses and call for adjustments on our part. When we are not functioning at peak performance, some ideas get stuck, we can’t move forward and the jam can cause irreparable damage.

In a similar vein, our lives are much like a long movie that has been produced throughout our length of days. Sometimes the script we have been given has some challenges. As the directors, we end up shooting some scenes over and over again, as we endeavor to achieve a certain emotional outcome. On occasion the others we work with are contrary and even opposed to our artistic vision. We often let our own pride get in the way of asking help of more experienced people. Some events “end up on the cutting room floor,” and are forgotten, because we deem them superfluous or in conflict with the story we are weaving. Ultimately, the “movie” we release is based upon the screenplay we’ve been given, our perseverance, our willingness to seek out the help of other talented people, and our ability to let go of unnecessary scenes.

What does this have to do with the current political climate and the divisions we are experiencing in the United States? I think some of us approach life and endeavor to tell our story like Wes Anderson, others like Kathryn Bigelow, still others like Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, or Penny Marshall. Our childhood, teen and adult experiences, our education, socio-economic strata and religious upbringing, form the physical, emotional, and psychological foundations for the content (or screenplay) we have been given. If we are fortunate, diligent, and have people who believe in us, we are more likely to project a positive influential message to others. While hereditary deficits, brutality, misfortune, and abandonment may spur some to greatness, these “production hurdles,” more often, create a cycle of hopelessness and self-centeredness that enrich no one.

We need to keep in mind that some of us are good at producing “summer block busters,” some excel at romantic-comedies, others show skills with docudramas, animated classics, epic histories, or independent films. Each director’s deepest desire is to somehow impact society by influencing the thoughts and actions of others. The best movies are those that uplift the audience and inspire greater happiness, energy, compassion, or social responsibility.

Have you ever noticed how good directors compliment the works of their colleagues? Likewise, I feel our world is a richer place when we focus on the good in each person and refuse to elevate ourselves at others’ expense. Difficulties develop when inflated egos interfere, when one no longer empathizes with or appreciates the complexity of each person’s endeavors and becomes convinced that his/her own “movie” is the only one that deserves public attention.

My promise to myself, and to each of you, is that I will always strive to produce and project a message that promotes confidence, hope, compassion, understanding, and love. I pray it may brighten your day, encourage your own endeavors and help you to make your own movie Oscar-worthy!

Life Goes On

My sincerest apology to my readers. I have not posted here for most of the summer. As many of you may know, I have experienced three significant losses that are impacting my life in ways I could never imagine. The deaths of my brother-in-law, my favored pet, and the 43-year-old son of long-time friends, have broken my heart open in entirely unexpected ways. The pain of those losses had, for this intervening time, stifled my desire to write. However, life has called me forward and this morning I feel the need to share some observations with you.

I recently celebrated our youngest grandson’s seventh birthday. I gathered with friends and family and, as is the norm at our family gatherings, several conversations took place simultaneously. During one of those merry-go-round conversations, a family member said, “Life does go on!” They were words that I have heard hundreds of times, but in this instance they lit the bulb of deep inner revelation. In that instant, a wide variety of life experiences coalesced in an aha moment. Suddenly, I had a better understanding of purpose here on earth.

Humankind moves forward with a very linear sense of time. We think in terms of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. When someone we love dies (including animals we have loved as pets), in one sense, time seems to stop. The linear sense of time becomes temporarily truncated. Our minds get caught in a whirlwind. We roll the moment of loss around and around in our heads. Sleep patterns are disturbed. Yesterday’s joys and sorrows play out like mental movies. We become preoccupied with “what-ifs” and “should haves.” It becomes a real challenge to focus on the present moment because the pain seems unbearable and we can not imagine a future without the object of our love and affection.

Significant losses induce a psychological, intellectual, and emotional paralysis. It becomes difficult to make decisions. Normal intellectual function gets short-circuited. Internal questions about faith, hope, and life after death are brought to the forefront. Simple tasks become complex. Emotions are extremely fragile and can send us through stomach-wrenching barrel rolls of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance over several months (years) and almost on a daily basis. It can be the emotional equivalent of walking onto quicksand. If you struggle and fight the experience, it can suck you deeper and deeper. As with quicksand, the best action is to remain calm, breathe deeply, relax as much as possible, attend to immediate physical needs, and accept any help that is offered. One article on escaping quicksand advises to think in terms of “floating” rather than power swimming.

If we are patient with ourselves and others, our internal clock eventually resets itself and a sense of “future” reappears. Somehow we realize that we are being called to rebirth and, though life will never be the same as before the loss, we are simultaneously becoming a new person in a world without the physical presence of the loved one. We become aware of how we have internalized the very spirit of the beloved and they are present in each moment at a much more intimate level. Their existence has helped to mold us into the person we are and their memory continues to influence our thoughts and actions, until the day we too leave this physical plane behind.

Over time the journey through grief brings new wisdom and compassion. We become more empathetic to those who have lost someone. We develop a greater appreciation for all loved ones who are still here. We learn that each moment of life is a precious gift and not to be squandered. As my friend grieving the loss of her son said to me, “Hug your loved ones while you can, because it can all change in a single heartbeat!

Days may go by when you feel as if the light is returning and you glimpse a new “normal.” Then suddenly that vision disappears and you get plunged back into the internal chaos of loss. Still, each time the light reappears, the sensation lasts just a bit longer. If you remain patient and open, and if you are honest about your emotions, eventually you too will be able to say with confidence, “Life does go on!”

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Being a Good Listener

My comment to an online presentation began something like this, “I am frustrated by the natural process of watching my body age. I am glad my health is improving, but I’m struggling with the cost of that improvement. My husband no longer enjoys my cooking, and I’m bucking up against our doctor’s recommendation for a low sodium, calorie controlled eating plan. Though I’ve tried literally hundreds of new recipes, the vast majority fall short in flavor and/or texture. The joy I’ve always experienced with good home cooked meals is gone. Eating is now practical and functional, but all the enjoyment is gone.”

There were very few respondents who truly understood what I was saying, instead most comments gave advice or answers which worked for them. “Eat more organic food.” “Use more herbs and spices.” “Try the THM diet.” “Get a different doctor.” “Your vision is tainted by old feelings that you are not good enough.” Though much of the advice was good and everyone was honestly trying to be helpful, it was not what I was needing. Skilled psychologists, nutritionists, and physicians are easy to find, I was seeking a friend, a comforter, an ally and good listener…a more scarce commodity.

I know it’s a common habit, I have done it myself, all too often. In an effort to be helpful, I’ve given advice, passed on what has “worked” for me, and related my own experience with a similar circumstance, but did I truly LISTEN? The brutal answer is “Not really!”

Years ago, I participated in a week-long seminar in Epworth, Iowa as part of the Counseling and Learning Institute. The whole week was focused on “understanding and active listening.” I guess I never truly mastered what they tried to teach me, though I’ve been practicing for almost forty years. As I get older, I am realizing how important that process is. I guess it is a step in the right direction that I recognize when I haven’t been a good listener, even though it has usually been an after-the-fact recognition.

I believe it was Steven R. Covey who said, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand. Most people listen with the intent to respond.” It is extremely difficult to listen with the intent to understand. The ego must be disengaged, control must be relinquished, and one must be willing to admit powerlessness. The listener tries to hear the emotion and real message undergirding the words, in an effort to become a mirror so that the speaker can better understand the process taking place within. The listener begins with the belief that the person speaking already has the best pathway and just needs another person to help uncover that direction.

This ability to “let go” is especially difficult for people like me who have come to think of themselves as helpers and healers. We become very uncomfortable in situations where we feel helpless or out of control. Our desire to make things better is challenged by the realities of life and death. Sometimes improving a situation is physically impossible, and we don’t like to admit that truth.

In the statement at the beginning of this blog, the responses which were the most helpful were simple. “It is very difficult to age gracefully.” “You’re feeling angry and wondering if all your sacrifice is worth the results.” “You wish there was an easier route to accepting life as it is.” “Change is always a challenge.” “I’m sending positive energy in your direction!” “It’s a struggle, but you can do it!” They didn’t solve my dilemma, but they let me know I was not alone, pointed the way to hope and helped me find my own courage and perseverance.

As I type this blog, my husband and I are on our way to spend time with my sister and her husband. My brother-in-law is very ill and has been in the hospital for over two weeks. He has recently been given the news that his time on this earth may encompass a year or less. Much of that time, may be filled with doctors, medical procedures, tough treatment decisions, and restrictions.

They have been married 54 years! The stark reality of being separated is leaving their emotions raw. They are frightened and overwhelmed. These same concerns are always lurking in the back of the mind as we age and recognize that we have more years behind than ahead. But the word “terminal” and the shortened window of time brings those issues to the forefront and creates an urgency which batters the psyche and causes disorientation and confusion.

My prayer, as I travel, is that I might be a peaceful presence, that I may truly listen and surround them with love and support in this time of few answers.

God is All in All

I just had a wonderful meeting with my “spiritual companion.” After much relaxed conversation, empathetic interchange and lots of laughter, he said, “Geez! We get together and talk about food and so many other things, and never seem to get to the spiritual stuff.” To which I replied, “I think God is IN all these things!”

I really do believe that…God IS present in all circumstances, but not necessarily in the way we would like that to be! As human beings we tend to think in terms of either/or, this vs. that. We can’t conceive of a God who is all-powerful AND all-loving. We have a tough time reconciling the matters of justice and mercy. The questions I often ask myself are, “Is my mind too small to comprehend God?” or “Do I try to make God small enough to fit my understanding?” To both questions I vehemently respond, “YES!”

In the historical record there are thousands of labels and stories humankind has used to try to explain the encounter with the unexplainable. Billions of people have come to understand that there are experiences beyond words and beyond current science. Because humankind has been given the gift of reason, those experiences prompt theories, explanations, dogmas, and doctrines that are then used, by those same humans, for good or evil, as a springboard for heroic service and sacrifice or self-aggrandizement (erroneously labeled as righteousness).

I doubt any of my atheist friends invest any time in reading this blog, but if they happen to be checking in, I know they would admit that there are observations beyond scientific explanation. Those friends and acquaintances would be quick to add the word “yet” because their “god,” (though they would never admit it) is science. They rely on the belief that someday, our human experiences will all find empirical explanation through scientific discovery (if we don’t destroy ourselves first). Interestingly, I too believe that all knowledge will someday be revealed. However, I believe that revelation will take place on the day I die, when I am face-to-face with my Creator.

The debate that often stirs around these beliefs, was beautifully and lovingly discussed by Rabbi Harold S.Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The answers he poses are touching and faith-filled. If you’ve never read that book, it really is user-friendly and worth your time. Because I am a Christian, and a Catholic, I have some additional theories and answers to those quandaries. Those remedies are centered on the person of Jesus Christ, His example in life, death, and resurrection (whatever that may mean) and His living-presence in my life today.

Let me admit, I lean toward “theology of incarnation” and have my own uncertainties regarding “redemptive theology,” but many very deep thinkers throughout history have debated those questions, so I am happy to leave the nuances of those arguments to them. All I can say is the curtain will not close on that discussion until one shuffles off this mortal coil. I can only speak from my experience, and much of that has left me without adequate words.

The God I believe I have come to know throughout my life has given me free will to be inside or outside of a relationship. As with anyone or anything I have come to love, sometimes their actions have left me frustrated, angry or confused. Sometimes I think I have the solutions to every dilemma and can’t figure out why “the other” seems unaware or uncaring. Still, the deeper I become connected through my earthly relationships, the more I understand and am open to being overwhelmed by a deeper understanding, delight, wonder, and overflowing love. There have been times, when all was said and done, I even came to realize I was completely wrong. The perseverance in and resolution of the struggle made the endeavor all the more sweet. I believe the same is true for my relationship to God.

My experience of parenthood has also given me a tremendous, though still very limited, understanding of myself as God’s daughter. My grown children don’t always choose paths I would have chosen. Ironically, sometimes they even make decisions counter to what I believe I taught them. Still, they are adults and I loved them enough to relinquish control of their lives. I’m sure they love me dearly, but there are also times I’m sure they don’t truly understand me or my motivation. There are times my heart breaks because I want to protect them from some tragedy, but life happens! One thing they can always count on is that when times are tough, I will be beside them as soon as I can to offer any comfort and all assistance humanly possible, and we are simple finite beings, I can only scratch the surface in understanding the love of God.

No matter what I face in this world of free will, foolish choices, and downright evil intentions, I know, from experience, I have been put on this world for relationship. As Neil Diamond said, in Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show, when someone is troubled I have to reach out my one hand because “that’s what it’s there for” and when my “heart is troubled,” I reach up my other hand in prayer and, when I am still and listen, there is an all-encompassing comfort and, as an old spiritual said, “blessed assurance.”

Call me a fool, if you have the need or desire, I will not be false to my experience. This earthly life may pose many questions and predicaments, pain may be extreme and, all too often, I do not live up to my potential. There are times I question my own beliefs and the doctrines of my faith- heritage, but somehow, just then, beyond my human comprehension, I am granted a glimpse of radiance and feel an all-encompassing love drawing me and accepting me, with all my faults and foibles, while simultaneously urging my honest response.

When I am conscious of this relationship-beyond-mere-existence, every moment becomes spiritual. The sharing of a recipe, the frustrations expressed because of human interactions, expectations, and shortcomings, the sunshine or rain, sorrows and joys, a relaxed laugh or understanding word, pleasure and pain, all take place in the loving concern and embrace of that which permeates and animates all creation.

Maybe, if we all recognized that Love was the glue and Life Dynamic at the heart of all existence, we would treat ourselves, each other, and all creation with greater reverence, empathy, gentleness, and compassion.