Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Gift of Silence

Somewhere in the first half of our marriage Nan and I took a vacation break and drove up the coast of California for a weekend getaway. You might call it a sanity break. Los Angeles is noisy and busy most of the time. It was on this road trip that I became aware of something for the first time. There was an undeniable intimacy between the two of us. How did I come to this conclusion? We had just spent 2 hours driving in the car without talking. And we weren’t mad at each other, just content with being together.

We did not need constant conversation to reassure ourselves that everything was OK.  

As I sit here by myself on another sanity break, I am up before anyone else, watching the sunrise. I am listening for God’s voice. I realize that the world is never silent. I can hear a cacophony of birds, the crash of waves, the rustling of trees. But this is as silent as the world gets without locking myself in a soundproof studio.

Why is silence a gift?

It’s a gift because it is so rare.  If you have kids you really know what I’m talking about. Kids are not silent except when they are sleeping (or maybe mad). My workplace is never silent and I’ll bet yours isn’t either. But in silence I can really tune in to my thought life, my inner conversation, in a way that I can’t when the world around me is too noisy. Only in silence can I really hear.

I want this for Nan, not just for me. I need her to hear from God, to sort out her thoughts in order to make good decisions for us. She can’t do that effectively in a constantly noisy environment. That is one of the reasons we gave up television a number of years back. It was hard for us to control its pull on us, so we got rid of it. (OK, we have Netflix)

Silence in counseling is powerful. I ask a question and wait – and wait – and wait some more. It feels awkward for the untrained, but for a seasoned counselor it is an important tool. It allows a client to search deeper and more comprehensively. I compare it to a search on my computer’s hard drive – sometimes it takes a while to come up with the information I am seeking.

Does your anxiety or insecurity keep you talking? Is this a habit that needs to be broken or are you already good at this? Being a good listener requires the ability to endure silence.   

If this is a struggle for you, try this exercise with someone you care about. Agree to be together in silence for a period of time. You choose the amount of time – 10 minutes, a half hour, whatever. Be aware of how you are feeling, and then discuss it with the other person. Ask the person how it was for them.

Silence is powerful when it is not used to punish, or avoid or shut out another person, but rather to offer a precious gift. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Busy or Hurried?

I was reading this morning in Soul Keeping (John Ortberg) about the difference between busyness and hurriedness. He described the difference as one is external (busyness) and the other is internal (hurriedness).

How true that is. All of us have lives that are busy. It is almost unavoidable in today’s western culture. We cannot escape all the things that are required of us to function in this way of life. Even if we decided that we wanted to be a hermit, there is still the need to procure food to feed ourselves, the resultant work that is required at some level, and the personal care for our physical, emotional and spiritual circumstances. But the moment we step into marriage, family, community and a robust work life, we complicate our daily existence and multiply our busyness.

But, as Ortberg writes, hurriedness is a product of our mindset or the condition of our soul. It is an internal pace that we have control over. 

Either we allow it to rule us, or we intentionally manage it.    

At this moment I am not busy. I have an abundance of time available. But internally I have a feeling of drivenness, or hurry if you will. What it does to me is to steal away the present, to be fully “in the moment”.  

As I write I find myself being distracted. I get up and walk around although there is nothing that requires my attention. It is not a pressure from the outside in, but rather from the inside out. A couple of little yellow birds catch my eye – I get up and throw some bread crumbs to them. I am present for a few seconds, and then I focus elsewhere.

How do I control this internal pressure? I must cultivate it intentionally – practice it by taking my thoughts captive. 2 Cor. 10:5 says making them obedient to Christ. Obedient in what way? Perhaps it implies obedience to rest, to pursue peace, to be available to God and to others.

In counseling we often talk about changing our thoughts, our inner conversations. All of our outward behaviors begin with our inner thoughts. My reactivity in relationships begins with my inner conversations. When that inner dialog is not hurried, I have time to process and make good decisions. But when my anxious mind tells me that I must make a quick decision, I can really blow it. It has nothing to do with being busy, but everything to do with the state of my soul.

The apostle Paul was probably plenty busy warding off trouble and being involved with the business of evangelism. But I suspect he was in control of his inner life. Otherwise he couldn’t have written the following:
2 Cor. 4:8-9 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
 I think there is a message in there for us as well.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Running With Persons of Quality

When you think of the word ‘quality’, what comes to mind for you? I think of concepts like value, excellence, worth, weightiness and the like. These words all describe positive or desirable characteristics. I easily apply the concept of quality to the things in my life that I want to acquire. What I am really saying is that I desire ‘high or good’ quality in the things that surround me.

It is the same for the people in my life. I want to be in healthy relationships with people of substance that can help me reach my goals in life. It is far more difficult to push through life’s issues when the preponderance of my acquaintances are always self-destructing from bad choices. I am not advocating avoiding all these people. God often appoints us to enter into the lives of hurting people to be salt and light. But I must be careful when choosing my closest friends.

When it comes to choosing a life partner I want to be particularly diligent. No other decision will affect me as completely as the person I marry (at least in this life). That is why Nan & I encourage dating people to take their time and do the critical preliminary work before making a permanent commitment.  

So how do I locate these quality people?

I must attract them. And the way I attract them is by being the kind of person that I desire to have in my life. After all, birds of a feather do flock together. Over the years I have had to eliminate people from my life that were not good for me. It is never easy, often painful to leave these relationships. But I will be identified by the people that I choose to associate with.    

Few of us would probably think that we are not a person of quality, yet it’s probable that all of us could use a good “housecleaning” time to time.  Some of us might even need a full remodel – but one from the inside out, not just patching and painting the exterior.

Of course what we are talking about is character.

I really struggle to tell the “most honest version” at times. I love to dress up my flaws in such a way as to present myself in the best light. But I am really messing with my character. I love comfort, but often preserving my character means being uncomfortable, taking the hits.

What are the qualities that you most value in a person? Are they those deep characterological traits that are enduring, or are you more concerned with superficialities and “window dressing”? As a youngster I was much more apt to chase outward beauty, the trappings of success, and things with temporary value. Now, not so much.

As John Ortberg says in a book of the same title; (referring to our life) “When the game is over, it all goes back in the box.”

The question is – will we cheat our way through the game with partners of the same mindset, or play with integrity, no matter the outcome.

 Hebrews 12:1-2 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

I Am Better Than You

As I listened to our pastor talk about feeling superior this morning (and why it is a sin) it triggered a thought about counseling and one misunderstanding that can occur. We often dig through a client’s personal history in an attempt to find root causes of certain behaviors. It is very helpful in making sense of why we do the things we do. But there is a danger, particularly when it comes to issues relating to our family of origin. What is that danger? It is possible that we can use this discovery to excuse our bad behavior and/or not make necessary changes. After all, it’s not our fault that we act the way we do. We were victims of a bad childhood, bad parenting, etc. Right?

And we can use psychological posturing to act superior to people in our past and present.  

I have seen this attitude when one spouse has had more counseling than the other. There is a smugness that emerges that communicates “I know better than you do because of my past experience with this process”. These clients will often try to form an alliance with the counselor in order to get the upper hand. Certainly familiarity with counseling can be helpful when it is not used as a way to gain power or advantage, when it is understood that we are all broken and in need of healing.

Understand that I am talking to myself as well. I can assume this stance too easily since I wade in deep psychological and emotional water during many of my days. If I am not careful I might not allow enough time for clients to fully express themselves before I start forming my opinions. That arrogance leaves me vulnerable to errors and perhaps a lack of accurate empathy – and that’s the last thing I desire as a counselor.  

It is not easy to call someone out on their sin. It is much easier to talk about psychological issues resulting from someone else’s behavior. The risk is joining in a blame-shifting party which is not helpful for a client or a friend. It’s also easier to blame a disorder for everything toxic in a person’s life. I am not minimizing the effect that a disorder has on someone’s life, but it does not usually cover everything. There is still a degree of choice involved with most people – free will, if you will. The condition of my heart will affect the way I deal with situations and people.

We are made up of mind, spirit and body – and they interact to make up who we are as a whole person. To ignore one aspect is to forego an essential element of our being. Each part helps keep the other parts in balance. That is why I must allow my spirit to inform my mind, my emotions, and my behaviors. Integrity means integrating all the pieces of me into one cohesive self. When I submit myself to God, He instead becomes superior in my life and I do not assume that posture, but rather one of humility before Him and others. And at that point I am free.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


I am usually pretty good at empathy in the counseling room. I am focused and listening at a deep level. But when it comes to Nan, well, I could use some help. The “man gene” kicks in and I begin leaning toward the “analysis and fixing” mode. Nan is not impressed with my skills in those moments.

Worse yet, there are times when I offer criticism or judgment instead of empathy. Now I have entered the relational danger zone.

The ability to understand another person’s experience and feelings is what creates a bond between two people. When we feel empathy in the small and large sufferings we go through in life, somehow we feel less alone, and therefore more resilient to the painful stuff life dishes out.

This is a generalization, but often when couples try to communicate awkward or emotionally painful feelings, they miss each other. Men will often show understanding for each other by joking, or giving advice, while women will express feelings of support and concern. If she is met with humor, or advice, she can feel unheard or uncared for, even as he is attempting to connect. And for a guy, too much empathy might make him feel uncomfortable, but too little will communicate disinterest in his concerns. It’s an intricate dance that has to be learned.

So, how can couples connect at a deeper level? How can they show understanding to one another in a way that is meaningful to their partner?  The first thing is to ask your partner if he/she wants to talk about this issue, then to let them know what you need.  Both people need to be open to change for the sake of their partner.  All change feels awkward and out of character at first. If you see your partner making an effort to be more empathetic, encourage him/her; the behavior will become more natural with time and understanding.

Often people will confuse sympathy, with empathy. The former will create distance, while the latter will produce closeness and emotional connection. Brene Brown has a wonderful illustration of the difference on YouTube. It is a short animated clip – and if you haven’t seen it, I would recommend you watch it now.

After watching the video it occurred to me that we should change an entire classification of greeting cards from “sympathy cards” to “empathy cards”.  Does that sound weird or a great idea?

So how do you respond when faced with someone else’s pain – with sympathy or empathy?

Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2.