Friday, December 31, 2010

A Secret To Success

            All week Nan has been handing out “homework assignments” to clients as an end of the year exercise. It consists of writing a letter to God detailing all the things that one is thankful for in 2010 and prayer requests for 2011. The purpose is to be able to look back sometime in the new year and see which prayers have been answered as a way to build faith.

            But I was thinking that for some the thankful list is a lot shorter than the prayer list. 2010 was not a joyous year – and neither was 2009, perhaps not even 2008. After a while hope begins to fade and cynicism begins to creep in. What then?

            The temptation here is to fold up and withdraw, to slide into a pessimistic stupor and surrender to a soul-killing negativity. And I would by lying if I was to tell you that I have never gone down that path. In some ways it is very appealing. But I can assure you that it is not very helpful.

            At these times I have to remind myself of some solid research that produced this conclusion: Pessimists see the world more realistically, but optimists have better lives and are usually more successful. Why is that? Well, who would you rather spend time with? People tend to isolate from those who are pessimistic by nature (or choice). It’s as if somehow the condition is contagious. And, actually it is. But so is optimism.

            Those who can stay positive, even in the midst of difficulty, are most likely to draw people towards them who will often be part of the solution and become cheerleaders for their success. For example, if unemployed, optimists are more likely to be recommended for a job – and they are more likely to attract people willing to help them in the task of searching.

            So how do I stay positive? It is mainly an act of the will – feeding my inner thought life with hopeful, but truthful messages. I have to remember to be aware of my body language, my facial expressions, looking outward instead of inward and limiting my complaining, even when I’m feeling otherwise.

            The beginning of a new year is a time marker for many of us – we are much more apt to spend time reflecting on the past and projecting for the future. Even if you wish your circumstances were massively different, you can still choose your attitude as you move through the challenges that face you, holding on to hope, because the story of your life isn’t over yet.

Happy New Year


Friday, December 24, 2010

Meaningful Rituals

             I have always thought it interesting that places of worship see increased attendance during holidays. Do people suddenly “get religious”? I don’t think so. But people obviously see a value in making time to be present at these gatherings.

            For some it is simply tradition. In some fashion it connects us to our history, our culture, family, and childhood. It has no more meaning than that – perhaps a vague hope that there is something bigger than us controlling things. But for others, there is a deeper significance, specifically spiritual. It signifies that there is a semblance of stability in the world and it gives them comfort to know that God is watching over them. And then of course, there are the devout, always in attendance (most of the readers of this blog).

            Regardless of where you might fall in the spectrum of belief, one thing stands out: rituals add value to our lives. They build a sense of connectedness with others and therefore we feel less alone. I think that is why there is an increase in joy for so many of us during the Christmas season. We are reminded that we are part of something greater than just our individual journeys as we celebrate together.

For some, this time of the year reminds us of losses past and present – but even in the midst of the sadness there is opportunity to form new bonds as a way of moving beyond the grief. If we intentionally do not isolate, but remain open to the community around us, this season in particular offers more prospects for connection. People are more likely to gather, to invite, to notice us as they turn their attention outwards. Although we may not always feel like participating, our willingness to both initiate and respond opens up possibilities.

            2000 years ago God initiated in a way that has changed the course of humanity forever – and wise people are still responding. It is our joy that we are a part of that response, and our prayers are for all the broken people, just like us, past, present and future that join to celebrate His birth. Merry Christmas!  

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Sleep Deprived – Joy Challenged

 Until just recently I have been suffering from a lack of sleep. I tried to do all the right things to correct the problem, but somehow it just never seemed to work. So what changed for me? I have no idea, I just thank God that I am now able to fall asleep in a timely manner. For those of us (and there are many) that are sleep challenged, we truly understand what a gift a good night’s rest is.

The sleep studies I have seen all agree that a minimum of 7 hours of sleep is required to function properly – and 8 hours is better.

The mental impairment from four hours or less sleep is just like having no sleep at all.

Can we oversleep? Well, yes, but usually that is a sign of depression unless we are engaged in ‘catch-up’ sleep. Most clinicians agree that we have one week to catch up on lost sleep before the effects take its toll.

What are the effects of being sleep deprived? Aside from the obvious tiredness, we are much more likely to get into car accidents, relational squabbles, make bad decisions at work and at home and generally have reduced productivity.

But from an emotional and spiritual standpoint, the worst part is that we are going to be joy challenged. Life will feel like a heavy burden instead of a great adventure. I will have an attitude of ‘just getting through the day’ rather than looking forward to what the day will bring.

Many people I have encountered have bragged about how little sleep they get and wear it as a badge of honor or strength. I feel sorry for them because I know that they are tearing their bodies down slowly. They will eventually pay the price.

For some, the solution may just be changing lifestyle habits to make room for and begin to value sleep differently. We dumped our TV cable and gained hours of our life back every day. For others it may require being intentional in other ways – like talking to a doctor to determine if the problem is physical or a counselor if anxiety related.

For all of us we can adjust some things in our lives to increase the joy factor. I suggest the following:

  • Decrease your negative or controversial news intake.
  • Connect with people who care about you.
  • Listen to uplifting (worship) music.
  • Limit time with emotionally draining people.
  • Increase time with optimistic and life-giving people.
  • Volunteer for something that matters.
  • Guard your quiet time if you have any, if not make room for it.

And get some sleep if you need it!  

Friday, December 10, 2010

For Leaders (and others)

So the other day I heard, once again, an exasperated leader talking about counseling people in their care.

“I don’t get it. It’s should be so easy. You listen to their story, tell them what they need to do, and then check back with them to make sure they did it. That, along with getting more into the Word and being transparent with a small group for ongoing accountability.”

Of course, then I ask how it’s working for them. And you can guess the answer. Not so very well. So I ask what they think the problem might be.

“People just don’t listen very well” is usually the answer.

Now, I agree with the above synopsis in principle. It’s the distillation of the process down to a neat package that has me shaking my head. I’m afraid people are just a lot more complex than that.  

I really don’t think that people aren’t listening so much as not trusting. It takes time to establish a bond strong enough for someone to be willing to take your advice. And leaders that are exhorters by nature may be operating in that blind spot – underestimating what is required. Sometimes it takes a great deal of investment in a person before their ‘hearing’ improves. Leaders must ask themselves whether they are operating outside of their spiritual gifts when offering counsel.

Romans 5:8 says this: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

It is this establishment of love that draws others towards us and gives us credibility when attempting to speak into their lives. We have another saying that closely relates to the scripture.

“People don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

Some people are harder to love and care for than others. It may seem like not worth the effort. But as Christ demonstrated, it is the job of a true leader to be sacrificial. However, the scope of the sacrifice has to be carefully considered. We can only have a limited amount of people drawing on our strength at any one time. Overestimating our emotional capacity can be another blind spot.

I don’t want to discourage leaders. You provide vision and security. Your abilities are a gift to us. Whether you lead solely in your family, or on a much broader platform, you are needed. So don't give up if you find yourself struggling in this endeavor -- but do check for blind spots.   

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Scrapbooks & The Thanksgiving List

“Grateful, Grateful, Grateful” sung by our Generations Choir stuck in the hearts and heads of so many of those who attended our Thanksgiving services. That phrase was posted over and over again on Facebook the next day.

There is something so powerful about maintaining this attitude that it became a foundational principle of the 12 steps of AA and other recovery programs. Being spared a life of permanent bondage is certainly a reason to rejoice.

“As a man thinks, so is he” is a well known Proverb. Keeping our minds focused on the good and positive in our lives is a way to maintain our balance even during tough times. It is a potent tool to use for staving off depression and bitterness and finding our equilibrium when challenged by life’s uncertainties.

So how do we sustain this thanksgiving attitude all year long?

One way I have found very helpful is keeping a ‘gratitude journal’. It is an exercise that I often assign to clients that are struggling with life’s challenges. When we are going through hardships it is particularly hard to hold on to the good things that are part of our lives.

It seems most helpful for me to keep an ongoing list of the good things in my life rather than looking to find them when things are not as I wish they would be. My journal is a way of having tangible evidence of those realities when I am not feeling them. In my journals I do not shy away from recording the anxieties and stressors that I face, but I do not let them have all the real estate.

One other tool I use that is similar is an affirmation scrapbook. Nan has made up a couple of them for me on my birthdays, but I also have assembled one on my own. It contains prayers, cards, emails, letters, pictures and other indications that my life has meaning and purpose. I pull it out and read through it when I am feeling discouraged because of a current situation I might be facing. It is particularly needed when the circumstances are beyond my control.     

I have found the secret of a joyful life and it is this: Being grateful for what I have rather than angry or bitter for what I do not.

I am not talking about killing our desires, for within them are contained our hopes and dreams. I am just saying that the fulfillment of those desires should not be the determinant of our happiness.

So start a journal, or get out paper and pencil (if you still have them) or create an electronic list and post the results in a prominent place. Then read it and add to it often. It will make a difference – I promise.