Taming the Beast

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Worry is common to all humans. We think about things that concern us, sometimes mulling over solutions in our heads. Worry can a positive motivator that helps us to do things well, but it can also become so unleashed that we find ourselves in a state of anxiety that interferes with our ability to perform even routine tasks. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders often become unduly depressed. Life becomes so stressful that it actually physically hurts.

I have felt those pains of anxiety at different times in my life. I generally assumed that there was something defective in me whenever I reached the point at which events piled up on me with such a vengeance that I felt as though an enormous elephant was sitting on my chest. I’ve experienced such attacks during the times when my mother was in the throes of her bipolar disorder, or whenever my schedule became so filled that I was rushing from one task to another. I was especially prone to such feelings back when I was a student juggling family and work with my studies. I had to learn how to “tame the beast” that threatened to leave me drained of my energy because I knew that I had responsibilities to shoulder. Mine was a long journey to understanding just how much I might push myself so that I would not break like my mother had done.

I began to realize that keeping myself healthy was my top priority in spite of my tendencies to want to be a servant to others. I likened my situation to being on a plane when the oxygen masks come down in an emergency.  I had to secure my source of air first and then help those around me. That meant being able to read the signs in my mind and body that told me that I was heading for a fall. It also required a kind of restructuring of my daily rituals. I had to set limits for myself with an understanding of exactly how far to push. 

Long after I had graduated from high school one of my former teachers admitted that the faculty had experimented with my class. They had attempted to determine just how far they might drive us before we fell apart. He confessed that they went too far in some cases and did a far better job of challenging students without breaking them in subsequent classes. It was a revelation that stunned me because I had literally thought that there was something wrong with me because it had been so difficult to stay on top of all of the work that we were required to do. He insisted that I had passed with flying colors at the same time that some of my classmates were crashing and burning. What he didn’t realize is that I sometimes studied far into the night, feeling exhausted beyond measure and worried that I was intellectually deficient. Nonetheless, I learned how to balance my week day marathons with inestimable amounts of sleep on weekends.

When I went to college I first attempted to carry eighteen hours of coursework but learned that it was too much. I scaled back to fifteen hours and carefully selected a variety of difficult and easy courses. I immediately created calendars outlining my daily duties for studying as soon as I received my syllabi. I literally parsed out every hour of every day and stuck with my plan religiously. Doing this helped me to manage my worries because I even allowed for unforeseen emergencies and still met every deadline with ease. I almost never found myself cramming at the eleventh hour, and I came to realize that the crazy demands of my high school had been largely responsible for helping me to craft a plan that worked for me.

I have carefully and meticulously followed this kind of regimen throughout my lifetime. It has carried me through times that threatened to undo me and my family. Still some events are so horrific that not even a steadfast plan will work. In those moments the old familiar symptoms of insomnia and weight on my chest often returned. That’s when I would glance at my calendar and create a “mental health” day. I knew when to sneak in such a luxury and did so without guilt. It might end up being a day in bed catching up on much needed sleep or I might spend it enjoying pleasures like watching a movie marathon or enjoying a day at the beach. Such pleasures always seemed to be enough to clear my head and help me to focus on whatever I needed to do rather than on my concerns about what might go wrong.

I hide my worries well. I find that there is a time and place for them during which I revel in them and allow them to wash over me. Then I walk through my “magic door,” an entry way to the tasks at hand. I have learned to work hard and then play hard. I am able to compartmentalize each of the segments of my life. It is a survival skill that I suspect I first discovered when my father died and I felt as though I would never again be the same. I realized then that work was actually a kind of panacea for all of my worries both real and imagined. If I concentrated on doing other things my anxiety was held at bay at least temporarily.

I do indeed feel for anyone who is paralyzed by fears and worries. I have deeply felt their pain and know how debilitating it can be. I understand that they do not wish to be held captive by emotions that steal their energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes not even the best of intentions or efforts can still the voices that take away their joy. In those moments they must reach out for help beginning with the people who love them most. Other times the most courageous thing that they may do is to seek medical guidance as well.

Those who are anxious are often the most caring and responsible individuals among us. Their feelings are so deep that they can become paralyzed when the world is too much with them. We can all help, but the worst possible response to their pain would be to provide them with platitudes about getting a grip on themselves. What they are experiencing is so very real and painful. Their journey to healing begins with love. Only then can they begin to “tame the beast.”

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Quiet Dignity

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I suppose that many of us long for an ideal society in which we all get along and work together side by side for the common good. We’ve had very few moments in history that worked out so well. There have been some events that have drawn us together, but for the most part there is no place on earth where people are continually in general agreement with one another. It’s a sad fact that those who attempt to be kind and understanding are often misunderstood and thought to be weak and wimpy. So it was with George H.W. Bush, a man so recently revered for his sterling character who was in many ways reviled as someone who did not have the backbone to be a leader when he was in office. The same was true of Jimmy Carter. Sadly both men were one term presidents because the voters saw them as ineffective when the truth was, and still is, that it sometimes takes far more courage to stand for honor and conviction than to wield power like a bully.

I was struck by the Bush family’s ability to bring disparate sides together in the hour of their sorrow. It was apparent that every great leader was ultimately in awe of George H.W. Bush’s character, charm and humility. He understood the need for our leaders to support one another and to put petty grievances aside for the good of the country. He was a man who always did what he believed to be best for all of us rather than for himself. That is a somewhat rare trait in today’s super charged political atmosphere where political grudges run deep.

I loved that the Bush family was so willing to take former President Clinton into their fold, treating him like a member of the family. It made me smile to see George W. teasing Michelle Obama even in his hour of deep sorrow. I was deeply moved that former President Carter and his wife came to honor a man who had once been his competitor. Even President Trump managed to maintain his dignity for the occasion, and the Obamas set aside their differences to show him respect. This was as it should be, not just at the end of someone’s life, but in all instances.

We seem to have lost our way, but occasions like the funeral of a great man reminds us of who we are as people and how we should behave. It was the hope of our founding fathers that we would find ways to compromise and get along for the sake of the nation. We have struggled with that concept again and again, even going so far as to split into a civil war. If not for the determination of another good man, Abraham Lincoln, we might not be such a prosperous country today. We might never have become a haven for people searching for better lives like my grandparents.

While I saw a glimmer of hope in the unity on display at the Bush funeral, I also witnessed the cracks that still need to be filled. I was disappointed that Hillary Clinton was unable to find it in her heart to be somewhat civil to President Trump. It would have been a triumphant move for her to demonstrate that she was the better person, but instead she refused to even acknowledge him. I was also disturbed by commentaries that took place almost before Bush was even buried that continued the rabid fighting between our two political parties. I realized that there is still so much rancor in our country that it will take some rare individual or event to pull us back together. Perhaps somewhere in our midst is a George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt type figure who will one day bring us the kind of leadership that we so desperately need. I shudder to think that it will require a tragedy or a war to bring us back together.

I believe that most of us desire a quiet, kind and gentle way of doing business. We have instead allowed fringes on the left and right to call the shots. They are the loudest because the rest of us don’t operate their way. They are encouraged by pundits and journalists hoping to make names for themselves rather than finding the courage to be fair and honest. We have been emotionally manipulated for some time now, and I suspect that most of the people of this nation have grown weary of the tactics, but don’t know how to make them stop.

It is sad that we sometimes have to be faced with tragedy before we are able to see truths that are right before our eyes. We are not better off with extremes. It was never the intent of those who created this country to accept incivility and unwillingness to compromise as the way of doing things. We have to take a deep breath and think about how we really want to be.

It was said that George H.W. Bush was a great manager, but not quite as good as a politician. In truth this is exactly what a president is supposed to be, the person who helps to run the many systems of the country. We have far too many executive orders and ways around the intended processes these days. Our Congress should be making the laws, not a single individual. We desperately need to be reminded that the running of our country should not be the domain of a one person, no matter how charismatic or strong willed he or she may be. The president should be striving to be reasonable with all sides of an argument, not just the ideas of a political party. Always decisions should be made with a wide scope of opinions in mind.

I can only pray that we will one day remember who we are as a nation, admit to our mistakes, and move toward a more all embracing way of doing things. The fighting and snubbing and name calling will ultimately do us no good. Dignity must become our goal again. George H.W. Bush and his family have shown us the way. Perhaps it is time to follow.

The Power of Thankfulness

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I rarely ask other people for favors. I have a tendency to just gut out difficult situations on my own. I suppose I’ve always been that way. Perhaps I picked up that trait from my mom who was an exceedingly independent woman. Amazingly I save any requests that I may have for God. In fact, I suppose if my prayers were recorded they would sound a bit too much like a wish list. Mostly my supplications are for people that I know who are sick or suffering in some way. I never actually mention things that I need. Still, I recently realized my heavy reliance on favors from the Lord when a friend posted a meditation suggesting that we all spend one day simply thanking God for the blessings that He showers on us. I decided to accept the challenge and it was truly life changing.

I happened to be in Colorado taking a mini-vacation when I set out to notice my bounty rather than to focus on my wants, so it was rather easy to find wondrous moments of appreciation. I began with a thank you just for waking up on that day. Then I expressed my gratitude for being in the company of my loving husband, my best friend. Suddenly I the idea really caught hold and I was feeling joyful over having nice warm clothes to wear and fresh food to eat for breakfast. I was on a roll before I ever left our hotel room for which I also felt great cheer because I knew that there were homeless folk on the streets of downtown Denver who might have been thrilled to stay in such luxury.

And so it went all day long. I thanked God for the gloriously magnificent mountains that provided a majestic view. I was happy for the sun and the blue sky. I began to notice all sorts of tiny things that I might otherwise have overlooked or taken for granted, like the smiles that people exchanged with me. I began to see the glory of the world around me with new eyes. It was as though I was a newborn child experiencing life for the first time. I can’t even begin to describe how calm it made me feel. My normal tendencies toward anxiety melted away and I felt a happiness that was pure and without any conditions. Not even little irritations that might normally have made me a bit irate were able to touch me.

I have to admit that I even found myself feeling particularly thankful for the friend, Paula, who posts daily prayers and meditations that I scan but too often don’t take fully to heart. I was so glad that her passage for that day had somehow caught my attention just enough that I had decided to take the challenge. It provided me with the kind of awakening that I genuinely needed in that moment. It also taught me to take the time each day to be as fully aware of the bounty of my life as I am of the problems that I must face. I have literally changed my approach to God and to each day and found that it feels so good.

I suppose that it is only human to dwell on worries and concerns. There are even times when the world crowds in on us with such force that it is difficult to ignore the tragedies and horrors that come our way. In those moments we need help from God and any person who is willing to step forward, and we should not hesitate to reach out for any assistance that we might find. Nonetheless, we still would do well to take note of our blessings even in the most terrible of times. Focusing only on what we need rather than taking stock of what we already have can leave us feeling depressed and incapable. When we take the time to notice the gifts that we have, we realize that many of the tools that we need to survive are already in our hands.

My mother was always filled with joy and gratitude. She cherished the most utterly simple moments and didn’t seem to notice how much she lacked in material wealth. If I took her to visit her sister she was as happy as if I had given her on a grand vacation. She thought that a glass of milk and a few vanilla wafers was an extravagance. She constantly insisted that she was one of the most blessed individuals in the world even though she was a widow with bipolar disorder and an income so low that it barely covered her expenses. She read her Bible every single day and never failed to point out how generous God had been to her.

I sometimes felt irritated that she was so childlike in her appreciation for life. It seemed almost nonsensical that anyone with the challenges that she had should be so happy. I suppose that I did not truly understand the power of being thankful for the most basic blessings that we enjoy. I thought of her on the day that I was purposely looking for good things and realized that such optimism is incredibly up lifting. I knew then that it had been the secret to my mom’s ability to survive. It was the key to her selflessness and contentment.

I’ve been more and more careful to spend my days celebrating the glory of my life. It has completely changed my outlook for the better. When something bad happens I find myself looking for the silver lining. When I feel overwhelmed I take a deep breath and feel thankful that I am alive enough to still be in the race. Instead of feeling sorry for myself because so many that I have loved have died, I speak of how lucky I have been to have known them. My world is now filled with more rainbows than dark clouds. I have more energy for dealing with the inevitable worries and tragedies that come my way.

I still know that I can petition God for favors if need be. I understand that my requests may not always be fulfilled in the ways that I had hoped. I have learned over a lifetime that I don’t always get what I want, but sometimes I get what I need. I thank God just for being around to hear my complaints and my pleas. Then I move forward with thankfulness. 

Peace On Earth

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We have a human longing for peace on earth, goodwill toward all people. Somehow it feels as though such sentiments are little more than an ideal, a dream, and yet we are driven to at least try to make the world a better place. Ironically much of the rancor that occurs as we do our best to create harmony arises from our differing interpretations as to how to achieve such a lofty goal. We are only too aware of limited resources and the role that they play in our everyday relationships. We desire to be fair, but we also have tendencies that drive us to protect ourselves and those that we love. The tension between wanting to be magnanimous and satisfying our need to feel safe has been the enigmatic force that pushes and pulls us, and often leaves us quibbling rather than working toward a common good.

History has demonstrated time and again that there are indeed very good people sacrificing themselves in the service of others, but there are also evil doers who care little for anyone but themselves. Somehow we have to be astute enough to identify who is who lest we fall for propaganda and promises that rely on our fears and our darker sides. At the same time we cannot be naive about the ways of the world lest we become martyrs to noble causes without the grit to overcome the darkest aspects of human nature. Progress toward the peace that we so desire sometimes requires defensive measures that invoke violence. Thus is the conundrum of human history.

Watching the news these days makes it very difficult to believe that we will ever again find a measure of calm. There are hot spots all over the planet, and they have nothing to do with climate but rather everything to do with our grievances. We have battles between rich and poor, this religion and that, the powerful and the powerless, male and female, the educated and laborers, one nation and another. It’s difficult to find a place anywhere on earth that is immune to the disagreements that result from our diversity of opinions. It can be quite disheartening to watch the rancor playing out even as we pray for love and kindness to be the order of the day. We wonder and worry about the future and what it may bring.

Then we witness the death of a very good person like George H.W. Bush. We have the opportunity to see the entirety of his life. We hear his philosophies and mull over his words. We realize that there is indeed reason for optimism. We see that in spite of sharing our own tendencies to make mistakes and wrong choices he managed to live a life mostly comprised of forgiveness, compassion and a willingness to adjust his course when he needed to rethink his ways of meeting the world. We realize that qualities like honor, service, devotion to family never really go out of style. We see that true courage is not brash or insulting, but rather quietly committed to a cause. We learn from a man like President Bush that being a leader means cherishing those that we lead. We find that embracing defeat makes us champions. Somehow in viewing the life of such a man we find the hope that we have been seeking.

I doubt that we will change overnight simply because we have been reminded of how to bring out our better natures, but somehow I suspect that we will pause long enough to rethink the course of our nation and our world. We will begin to remember what is most important and we may even learn to get along again. We will search for the good rather than focusing on grievances. We will ask not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them. Then we will be back on the path to peace.

Somehow we humans keep repeating the same choruses over and over. We fight for a time and then grow weary. We work together for a time and then grow jealous. We forget those who struggle and then remember to work as hard for them as we do for ourselves. The patterns seem to repeat themselves with regularity, but we don’t have to be caught in a wheel of fortune over which we have no control. We can become more peaceful bit by tiny bit, but it will require a willingness to open our minds and to be more forgiving,

I read a profoundly wise article recently that spoke to the idea that it is often our self righteousness that leads to the battles between differing factions. We fail to see the reasons why people believe as they do. Instead we condemn them for what we see as faulty thinking. We spew epithets at them and posture as though we are somehow better. The anger between each side only grows. Sometimes the most difficult stance that we may ever take is simply to be nice even when we are being misunderstood.

I think that this is the essence of the message left to us by Jesus Christ, and whether or not we believe that He was indeed a savior and the son of God His example shows us exactly how to behave toward one another. In this season that celebrates His birth we should learn about and think about His life because it was a model of what is best in each of us. If we do nothing more than celebrate Him as a great historical figure we should still emulate His way of life, for it was profoundly wise. He demonstrated how to find peace on earth good will toward men by embracing and forgiving even those who have wronged us. It’s a difficult task, but one that will lead us closer to the world we desire.

What’s In A Word?

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I get a big kick out of looking at all of the cute t-shirts in tourist spots like Estes Park, Colorado. Some of them are quite hilarious. On my most recent visit there I saw a shirt that made me roar with laughter. It featured two bears gazing down at a human camper who was unknowingly the subject of the bears’ conversation. One remark was, “Let’s eat. Bob.” The other was “Let’s eat Bob.” Thus noting the importance of punctuation.

Of course I chuckled over that one and would have instantly purchased the shirt but for the fact that it came in a putrid green color that made me look as though I had some kind of serious disease. Nonetheless, it made me think about how easily our words can be misinterpreted, especially in these days in which misunderstandings are so commonplace. One unfortunate word choice or misplaced comma can make a world of difference in how people view remarks. When dealing with the written word from times past it can become even more unsettling. We have a tendency to view commentaries from our own perspectives rather than taking the time to consider that there have been different ways of expressing ideas in different places and eras. What may seem just fine in a certain place or time, my appear to be rude or out of style in today’s world.

I’ve been reading all sorts of ridiculous claims from people who are finding offense in the strangest places. In one instance a national news and editorial outlet noted what they saw as blatant racism in the old Charlie Brown Thanksgiving special. The source of the angst was that Franklin, the little Black child, was sitting all by himself on one side of the table. I suppose that one might draw some conclusions about that, but the fact is that the character was introduced into the Peanuts family by Charles Shultz in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The intent of the cartoonist was to demonstrate that we are all one big family, not to discriminate. I feel relatively certain that Mr. Shultz would be appalled to think that his always loving cartoon might have offended someone.

I’ve also heard of people becoming upset with some of the classic Christmas stories and songs. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has come under particular fire for featuring bullies and because Rudolph’s father was ashamed of him. Those who complain about it miss the point that Rudolph eventually became a hero, demonstrating that differences are powerful, not something of which to be embarrassed. Even a small child seems to understand the moral of the story, but some adults are fretting over ideas that I don’t think there are really there. What I would suggest is that those who don’t like the story or the song simply choose not to watch.

I saw a number of comments on Facebook about how virtually every well known Christmas carol might be misinterpreted depending on one’s point of view. Santa Claus Is Coming To Town might actually show Santa to be a peeping and a stalker according to one way of viewing the song. I even read a story about someone who thought that White Christmas is a homage to far right extremists. Maybe those who think such things should watch the movie with Bing Crosby and Danny Kay to set the record straight. And so it goes,,,Deck the Halls insults gays, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus is too suggestive for children, Santa Baby is about gold diggers. It’s enough to make one run screaming from the room.

It all makes me wonder how often I have unwittingly insulted someone. I write lots of word all the time. It seems certain that I have probably made people angry when my intent has never been to do so. We live in very sensitive times.

I appreciate the classes that I took as part of my college studies. Most of my professors in English, History and Psychology classes emphasized the necessity of learning more about the lives of the people in particular places and times. Without that important background information we have no context for their actions and remarks. The world has definitely changed from one decade to another and with those evolutions have come different ways of understanding the exact same words and ideas. Grass used to refer on to the green stuff that grows on lawns. By the twentieth century it was commonly used to speak of marijuana as well was the term “pot.” The word gay once only meant a form of happiness, now it is used to refer to a group of people and their sexual orientation. We add words and meanings to our dictionaries constantly, but we too often ignore the original ways that people spoke. We forget history and react as though we are the first and only generation to inhabit the earth.

I suggest that people take a chill pill unless utterances are egregiously vile and meant to be that way. When I don’t like something I simply choose to eliminate it from my world, abut I also attempt to be understanding. It doesn’t bother me that some people do not believe in the same meaning of Christmas that is mine. I’m all for wishing people Happy Holidays, Happy Kwanza, Happy Hanukkah or whatever works best for them. Diversity is a beautiful thing, but so is a “live and let live” attitude. Let’s just spread love during this holiday and everything will be so much better.