Shit Happens

Why do people question their faith when shit happens? Why do we get angry with our sources of comfort at the very time we need them–when we suffer?! Why does bad stuff even happen? I have some friends who are struggling with serious health issues right now. We all know folks in similar circumstances, or suffer the same afflictions ourselves. There are certainly times we think we have exhausted our “rope,” with little left to hang on to and life has seemingly left us hanging (out to dry). The very people and sources we look to for answers and comfort often let us down. The preachers and the clichés and the well-meaning friends do not always help. In fact, they often create or magnify the very struggles we encounter. To be honest, they are no help at best and disgustingly annoying at worst. There is a lot of bullshit out there. And when shit happens, the last thing you need are some bullshit explanations or pat answers. I think a lot of the stuff we, and others, struggle with are just really stupid ideas. Here are a few I have identified that perhaps you can identify with. First of all, shit happens. We live in a really messed up world where even good intentions often result in lousy situations. We have a great need for answers. And when we can’t find answers or struggle to make sense of senseless situations, we make up stuff. The human mind is outstandingly creative, and when given time and thought, can come up with all sorts of answers, whether they’re true or not. We buy into myths. That’s right, we believe all kinds of stuff in an attempt to make ourselves feel better. The problem is, these contrived...

Your Plastic Brain

With the airing of a new television series on the brain, I decided to repost my previous article on the plasticity of the brain. The Brain With Dr. David Engleman is a fascinating series airing on PBS in the U.S. that helps explain who we are and why we do what we do. This neuroscientist shows how brain research continues to give us answers, and also to show that our brains are constantly changing depending on how we live and how much we expose ourselves to new ideas and experiences. He shows how you really can affect your aging process. The series airs on Wednesday evenings in my locale; check your local listing to see if and when you can catch the series. Meanwhile, check out the trailer. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I think that assumes it’s been while since the dog has learned anything. Researchers have known for awhile that the brain is very plastic. It is always changing. It is always responding to stimuli. The latest research was just released in the May 10th issue of the journal, Science. Researchers put 40 genetically identical mice in an elaborate maze with many toys and lots of places to explore. They put other mice in a less complex environment with less to do. After three months, scientists found that the mice who were exposed to more stimulation generated more brain neurons. In addition, some of the mice explored more than others. These most adventurous mice generated even more neurons than those who lost interest. The more the mice explored, the more brain cells were produced in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for short and long-term memory and navigation. This shows once again, how important it is to be adventurous,...

Ugly Duckling

We have all felt like ugly ducklings, misfits, fish out of water, ugly stepchildren; use the analogy that works for you. We’ve all known rejection, the struggle to fit in, the desire for unconditional love. These are the themes in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, The Ugly Duckling. Take a moment to watch the classic 1939 Disney animated version, or read the original story. All our stories are similar yet different. Despite being born into a loving home, I grew up thinking of myself as an ugly duckling. A handful of life events were devastating. My first grade teacher actually told me I was stupid. Kids made fun of my looks in middle school. I even had a boyfriend who begged me to let him see me without makeup, then laughed hysterically when I did. These are not the kind of events that make us into healthy, happy, well adjusted individuals with appropriate levels of self-esteem. You have your own stories, your own memories, your own pain. In the story of the ugly duckling, we find a creature that was born happy and healthy. The pain he endured was the result of rejection, not fitting in, and being misplaced. He was not a duck at all, but rather a graceful and beautiful swan that was hatched in the wrong place. We all have to work through our crap. We have to do the hard work of the soul to regain our true selves and find out place. We have to come to a place where the past no longer defines us. I will never forget the day that I realized I was not stupid or ugly. It was a lightbulb moment when my world changed. It was also a milestone in a season of tremensous personal...

Light Bulbs

“Imagine yourself sitting in a dimly lit room, reading a book with wires connected to your brain, and every time you understood a new concept or made connections between the book and your personal life, light bulbs literally lit up.” So wrote one of my students after reading a particular textbook chapter in my interpersonal communication class. I thought, what a great analogy that perfectly illustrates my topic! How long has it been since you’ve had a light bulb go on in your head? How long has it been since you had a new thought, asked a question, or ventured into a novel experience? I think we are always growing. That can mean many things: Growing up Growing mature Growing fat Growing old Growing younger Growing stale Growing cobwebs You get my drift. So even if you’re not growing as a person, you are growing somewhere, even if it’s towards decay, rigidity and death. I think a central law of the universe is that growing is good. That is if it’g going towards better. Every time you have an “ah-ha” moment, something in your mind and soul lights up. You discover something you didn’t know before, see something from a new angle, or generally get transformed. Imagine sitting in a dimly lit room, when suddenly, your personhood lights up. Everything in you says YES! Different analogies have been used to describe this experience throughout the ages. Jesus used the language of “born again” to describe a transition from what was to what can be. Though the term has been bastardized in recent years, the concept behind it is very real; it’s about opening one’s mind and heart to new things. Its about getting unstuck and embracing growth. It’s like being born again! Some people...

Self-concept

Who do you think you are? Who are you (really)? How do you think others see you? Your self-concept is likely a combination of all of these. It is, in essence, your identity. If you ask a Westerner (someone from North America, Europe or other whites in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) who they are, they will likely to tell you what they do for a living and what they like to do in their spare time. That is great, but fairly shallow. This of course if very different than non-Westerners (the rest of the world’s population) whose identity is much more tied to their group (ethnicity, tribe, region, etc.) yet sometimes lacking the specifics of an individual. Your self-concept is something that changes over your lifetime, or it should be if you are growing as a person. So your self-concept is obviously fluid. Who you think you are is a subjective view of yourself, including strengths, weaknesses, personality, abilities, talents, character and so on. And it may actually (unfortunately, too) be tied to who you used to be. It is also a subjective view of who you think others think you are. So if you think about it, your self-concept has nothing to do with who you really are. It’s the perception of who you are. We could break it down like this: Who you are Who you think you are Who others think you are Who you think others think you are Good grief! According to academics, your self-concept is influenced by personality, culture, biology, gender roles, and of course what we’ve already mentioned, self-reflected appraisal, and social comparison. It completely makes sense. I tell my students all the time that they have to figure out who they are and what...

Try This!

A moving car is much easier to steer than a parked one. So says the cliché about moving forward in life. But personally, I think it’s a good one. While some of us thrive on change, others of us would rather get a root canal. That said, it seems all of use can be resistant, closed or even defensive to opportunities for change. Our egos can get in the way. I firmly believe we all need outside influences to get us moving. On our own we get stuck. We resist. We balk. Oh how often we miss out because we remain in our comfortable lives. We hang out with the same people, eat the same foods, watch the same TV shows. I think the following from Franciscan priest, Richard Rohr, is worth sharing. “The Dalai Lama said it well: “Every change of mind is first of all a change of heart.” I would add: ‘Every change of heart is soon a change of mind.’ This is the urgently needed work of mature spirituality…Many folks over the years, even very good-willed people, have read and listened to my presentations of the Gospel yet have actually done very little–in terms of lifestyle changes, economic or political rearrangements, or naming their own ego or shadow selves. After all, “Isn’t church about believing ideas to be true or false? Isn’t religion about attending services?” Most people just listen to my ideas and judge them to be true or false. They either “like” or “don’t like” them. But thinking about ideas or making judgments about what is moral or immoral seldom leads to a radically new consciousness. Transformative education is not asking you to believe or disbelieve in any doctrines or dogmas. Rather it is challenging you to “Try...

What do you see?

What do you see when you see people? A problem with living in a world filled with judgments and classifications is that we don’t always look at others in positive ways. We have a tendency to not only compare, but stereotype and make strong conclusions about others. We don’t always deal well with different and messy. Most of us are socialized to have strong opinions about others. So it is often challenging to look upon others in the best light. We fail to see the Divine in them. We fail to celebrate the uniqueness. I recently read this quote by the mystic, Thomas Merton from his Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being [hu]man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now [that] I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this!”* This reminds me of a similar experience I had; I could have written Merton’s piece myself one day while visiting Kuala...

Excellence

Last week I went to an awesome concert. It was at one of the top venues in the world, the Red Rocks natural amphitheater in Colorado. The setting was almost perfect. The sun set as we watched distant showers over the Denver skyline. Our skin enjoyed a perfect temperature. And then we got to hear musicians who are the best of the best perform from their hearts. The bands? Eclectic Pink Martini from Portland, jazz pianist and vocalist, Diana Krall and her band, and the Colorado Symphony. Wow. The audience was treated to mind-blowing performances by exceptionally talented musicians. The genres played were diverse: jazz, bossa nova, opera, pop. I was on row 48 clapping to the beat, mouthing some of the lyrics and kept saying wow, wow, wow. Excellence has a way of blowing your mind and leaving your speechless. There is something special about being around people who are doing what they were made to do and have perfected their craft. Would anyone question whether John Lennon and Paul McCartney were meant to write songs, or Steve Jobs was to innovate technologies, or Michelangelo was to paint and sculpt? My 16-year old niece is visiting. She’s a competitive swimmer, so I asked her why she swims. She said being in the pool is not only a stress reliever, but also a place where she can be alone with just her and the water. She competes because it helps her work towards her goal of getting a college scholarship and maybe even going professional. She competes against others, but I think she mostly competes against herself. She is convinced she was made to swim. She’s got three things that are necessary: talent, motivation, and discipline. She’s probably still working on her 10,000 hours,...

Pain Lessons

You can’t always get what you want. So said the great musical poet, Mick Jagger in the Rolling Stones classic song. How do you respond when you don’t get what you want? How do you respond to obstacles, or what best-selling author, Seth Godin, called “the dip?”* When you hit a roadblock (which could be an illness or any tough situation), you have choices. Do you ignore the problem, go around it, push through it, surrender to it? These past few weeks, I’ve had a health issue that has seriously cramped my style. And by style, I mean it has made it impossible for me to get much done. I am a doer and tend to judge the success of my day by how much I accomplish. At the beginning of the summer, I made a long list of tasks I wanted to accomplish during the warm weather and while I was less occupied with teaching. But time got away, and I’m not sure where the summer went. As a result, as the summer started to wind down, there were extra expectations I put on myself for one last push before school starts. And then I got a foot infection. Not only did it swell up, hurt and make me limp around. It also made me incredibly tired, and feeling like I had the flu. It’s been a real drag—for what seems like a long time. I realized I had a choice in my response. I could do the usual and stress about what I hadn’t accomplished. I could get angry at the illness. There were various emotional states and thoughts I could engage in. However, through this, I found myself mostly able to let expectations go and do what I could from my chair. After...

Stop Saying You’re Fine!...

According to motivational speaker, Mel Robbins, one of the worst words in the English language is, “fine!” We get stuck and fail to move forward because we tell ourselves (and others) we are fine. We fail to lose weight, make more money or all the other things we never achieve. The solution, says Robbins, is to stop screwing yourself over and activate your energy. It’s simple, she says, but not easy. Watch this very liberating and encouraging TED Talk video to help you get unstuck. Robbins principles? Force yourself: Out of your head Past your feelings Outside your comfort zone Practice the 5 second rule (act within 5 seconds of getting an idea)             You can purchase Mel Robbin’s book, Stop Saying You’re Fine here. Royalty-free Stop image by Pat Herman. Retrieved...