The Playlist

hqdefaultWhat if you attempted to create a playlist for your life. What songs would be there? Would the collection describe you or would it be composed of music designed to motivate and inspire you? How would the selections actually apply to the person that you are? I decided to attempt such a project and it was a bit more difficult than I at first imagined. There is so much music that I love just for the pure fun of listening to it. Finding songs that really speak to who I am, who I have been and who I want to be is a bit more difficult.

While I am a big planner I have found that life is full of surprises, many of which seem intent upon challenging us in ways that sometimes seem insurmountable and even unfair. The kinds of traumatic things have have happened to me made my first choice of music to be You Can’t Always Get What You Want by the Rolling Stones. The most important idea in the lyrics has always been one of my mantras, namely that while I may not always get the things that I think I should, sometimes I get exactly what I need. As Garth Brooks so beautifully reminds us in Unanswered Prayers we sometimes fail to realize that a plan even better than the one that we have imagined is unfolding even as we struggle to free ourselves from pain. It is in our darkest hours that we often come to realize what that we are made of sterner stuff than we may have thought or as Kelly Clarkson notes in Stronger what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

I wouldn’t wish some of the tragedies that have befallen me on anyone, not even myself, but they happened and I only had two choices when facing them. I might either have just given up and let them defeat me or I might have attempted to find a way to carry on. Each time I somehow embraced the will and the courage to keep going, usually With At Little Help From My Friends as the Beatles say. Like Learning to Fly by Tom Petty I took a leap of faith in myself and dared to do things that I never imagined, often because I was forced by fate to do so. I generally emerged from such experiences feeling pretty good about myself, even a bit proud. I was actually a better person for having to stare into the darkness and defeat it. I feel that I have become a warrior over the years and so another of my theme songs should be Roar by Katy Perry. “I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter dancing through the fire.” The Mother of Dragons has nothing on me!

I suppose that the key to my victories over difficulties has been my unswerving faith that somehow, some way I will always overcome my problems or at least learn how to make the changes needed to deal with them. I’ve always loved Don’t Stop Believin by Journey because my mantra has always been to keep on trucking regardless of how dire a situation seemed. The crazy thing is that I have seen and endured great suffering but because I truly believed that I was never alone I tended to Always Look On the Bright Side of Life just as the guys from Monty Python. That tune has always made me laugh even when things looked rather grim. In fact, I suppose that without humor, sometimes of a very dark nature, I doubt that I would have made it this far. A good chuckle can make a difference in even the dreariest of days and I so love being around beings who know how to help me to release my feelings with a good old fashioned joke, especially when that bit of comedy pokes fun at me and my worries.

I truly learned from each of the happenings that almost seemed unbearable at the time. I became wiser and more compassionate. I realized how much spunk I actually had and my confidence soared. I have always loved I Can See Clearly Now by Johnny Nash because it encapsulates my evolution from being a more self centered, silly and frightened child to becoming someone who manages to feel brave most of the time and to understand that everyone is burdened with struggles. I know now that I am not unique in my cares and woes. It is part of the uncertainty of living. One thing of which I am certain is that eventually things always get better which makes my next song one of great hope. Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles makes me smile and lifts the weight from my heart each time I hear its lilting optimism. Ironically another Beatle’s composition is also one that brings a smile to my face every single time that it is played, particularly as I grow older. Good Day Sunshine reminds me to be grateful for the blessings that I have and to see the good in the world rather than focusing on the many hardships that still plague all of us. I consciously choose to be Happy and so I dance away when I listen to Pharrell Williams’ tribute to feeling lighthearted. 

The world is still so imperfect and there are serious issues that are cause for concern, but I am still convinced that in the end we humans will choose good over evil. I tend to agree with Sting in his lovely creation Russians that people of all societies love their children just as we do. As such they will ultimately strive to build a future that will be better for all of us. We just have to Imagine as John Lennon says and continue to look for leaders and ideas that take us into a more perfect version of life. We might begin by reflecting on ourselves and asking what we may each do to help eliminate injustice and hatefulness. Man in the Mirror by Michael Jackson should be an anthem for everyone. We should start each morning by repeating, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.” It is only in attempting to perfect ourselves that we will truly impact the rest of humanity.

Ultimately I see the beauty of life. Like the Beatles’ In My Life I have seen so much love that I truly feel that it will be the power that transforms us. I would like to think that the most optimistic song that I know becomes a reality for mankind. When Louis Armstrong sang What A Wonderful World I don’t think that he realized what hope it would give us. Listening to its strains and stanzas describe all that is lovely and wonderful reminds me to look for the beauty that is everywhere. My hope is that others will find that moment of contentment that I seem to encounter more and more often as I look back on a life of which I am proud. I Hope You Dance just as I now do. There is great joy in the most unexpected places if only we learn how to look for it. If we are lucky we find also the most Amazing Grace which is ultimately the greatest gift of all.

The Very Best Way

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There are so many things in life over which we have little or no control. Rain may ruin the outdoor party that we planned. A loved one may die leaving us feeling alone and bereft. We may not get the job that we so wanted to land. The candidate that we worked so hard to get elected loses. Someone we thought was a friend betrays us. We may be diagnosed with a life threatening disease. A criminal steals from us or even worse murders someone about whom we care.

Each of us will face terrible moments throughout our lifetimes that have the potential to leave us feeling devastated and powerless. We will find ourselves wanting to whine or cry or rage about our bad luck, but the truth is that we are not alone in facing great challenges. It is part of the human journey to encounter difficulties. It is our reaction to such things that determines how we will feel about ourselves and the people around us. If our only thoughts are of anger or self pity we may be continually whining that life is unfair. If on the other hand we accept that everyone faces disappointments, we might instead think less about our misfortune and more about what we might do to deal with the realities of the situations.

Last fall I learned that one of my favorite cousins was dying. He had battled heart disease for decades and had tried multiple medications, surgeries and life style changes. His doctors told him that he had run out of options. His heart was failing and there was nothing anyone might do to change that reality. He was sent home to spend his final days. Amazingly whenever I spoke with him he kept his ever present sense of humor and made me laugh in spite of wanting to cry for him. He spent his last days saying his goodbyes to the people that he most loved. He prepared for his passing in every possible way, and made it clear that he was ready for what was to come.

I always loved my cousin. We had shared our childhood together and had so many stories of the fun times that we had experienced. I knew that he was a very special person, but I found myself nonetheless in awe of his faith and the way in which he so unselfishly gave so many of us the gift of peace and comfort. He had taken what might have been a horrific time and somehow transformed it into something beautiful and inspiring. In the process he had actually seized control of his life rather than allowing his circumstances to dictate his reactions.

My own life has been disrupted on so many occasions. Losing my father was life changing, but my mother demonstrated so much courage and determination to keep our family safe that I was able to keep moving forward with a sense of security. Later when she was overtaken by bipolar disorder I was  given a role that I did not want. I was put in charge of her care by default. I made a number of mistakes, but ultimately learned how to get her the help that she needed and how to monitor her progress. It was neither fun nor easy to spend four decades watching her go up and down again and again, but I knew that I would always be able to get her back on the right track if I did what I had to do. Eventually my brothers joined me in keeping her as healthy as possible. As a result our memories of our mother are filled with far more happiness than sorrow. We found a sense of accomplishment in knowing that we never let her down.

Now I’m faced with a new challenge. My husband had a stroke that was quite serious. My first instinct was to cry and feel quite sorry for myself, but ultimately I understood that the only aspect of the situation that I might control is my own attitude. I’m doing whatever I can to encourage him to adopt a healthier lifestyle, and I’m determined to enjoy each minute of each day. I’ve quickly learned that true joy comes from within myself, and I am finding ways to bring it into the open in the very simplest of ways.

We all get those terrible blows that seem to be so unfair, and it is only natural for our first reactions to be negative. Sometimes it appears to us that other people have it so much easier than we do. The truth is that when we begin to learn more about others we generally find that everyone is dealing with pain, illness, problems. The people who seem to be the happiest are often that way mostly because they have chosen to smile rather than to wallow in negativity. They understand that they have choices about how to live, and they choose joy.

At the end of her life my mother had little of material consequence. She kept her life quite simple  often out of necessity. She had lost her husband at the age of thirty. She battled mental illness for decades. She was told that she had lung cancer that was too far advanced to treat. A lesser person might have felt beset upon, but she continually spoke of how blessed she had been throughout her life. She was proud of her accomplishments that included raising three children alone all of whom had advanced college degrees. She loved the members of her family and was confident that they would always stand beside her, and she was absolutely correct in that assessment. She spoke of her adventures and travels with a big smile. She felt that hers had been a full and remarkable journey. She was as satisfied and content as she might have been if she had accumulated vast amounts of power and wealth. She had all that she ever needed, because she had chosen to be the mistress of her thoughts.

I have a friend who is attempting to simplify his life. During the month of July he began to remove many of the possessions that seemed to be occupying far too much of his time and attention. Each day of the month he donated the number of items that corresponded to the date. By the end of the cycle he was scrambling to find thirty one things that he no longer needs. It was such a freeing experience that he plans to repeat the process in August and until he no longer feels as though possessions are impeding his happiness. I think that his is a delightful idea that all of us might consider, and we might also begin to apply it to our attitudes as well.

If we feel as though life is terribly unfair and that we are continually on the wrong end of luck, then maybe it’s time that we begin to change the way that we think about our situations. We need to ask ourselves what we might adjust or do to reorient ourselves. Perhaps we might begin with small steps and then slowly accelerate our efforts as time goes by until our attitudes begin to lean toward the positive exponentially. To do that we will need to be as good to ourselves as we are to the people around us. We have to be willing to extend our sphere of kindness to everyone.

It may take time for the dividends to pay off, but when we begin to see that we really do have the power to determine our own destinies everything becomes more beautiful, even in the midst of trouble. We will learn how to refocus our fears and our pain and our anger in ways that make us feel good about ourselves. We will begin to view the world from a perspective that makes us feel powerful rather than powerless. Those who have mastered this art will tell you that it is the very best way to live.

When Children Lose Hope

Sad ChildA recent study reported that for the first time ever more middle school students are dying from suicide than from car crashes. Not only that, but the number of suicides among children as young as eight, nine or ten years old is also increasing. Researchers are only guessing as to why so many of our children and teenagers are ending their lives in such record numbers. The trend has become an epidemic that is rarely mentioned and far too many parents are unaware of the signs that there is trouble.

There are a number of possibilities suggested as to why suicide has become such a problem. Young people today increasingly see the world as being a dangerous and violent place. News stories often make them feel as though they are living under constant threat of harm. In addition there has been a breakdown of healthy relationships in many families leading children to feel insecure and sometimes even unloved. Ours is a fast paced world that stresses hard work and excellence. Some kids feel unrelenting pressures to excel in every aspect of their lives. Television and movies all too often depict suicide as a good way to end problems. Of course there is also the specter of social media which sometimes serves as a catalyst for bullying and the creation of unrealistic expectations of beauty, luxury and unending happiness. There is also a problem with adults, particularly parents failing to acknowledge the signs of depression and its power to lead their children to suicide.

There have always been young people who decided to take their lives, but never in the numbers that are being recorded today. When I was young virtually everyone sat down together with members of the family to share dinner. We took that opportunity to talk about the days’ events and to reinforce the idea that we cared for one another. All too often today the tradition of gathering around the table has been replaced with meals quickly consumed in front of the television or on the go. Members of the family are often moving in so many different directions that opportunities to actually talk with one another are brief or rare, especially once children become teenagers.

Latch key kids are abundant and they spend their afternoons unsupervised. They may become isolated by hours of playing video games or may even find inappropriate television programs to watch. They spend hours texting friends with their parents rarely being privy to what kind of messages are being exchanged. They may be engaged in dangerous situations for which they do not have the maturity to react in a healthy manner. In a sense they often lead secret and disturbing lives apart from their parents without anyone knowing the extent of the treacherous paths down which they are travelling.

There are ways that adults should more closely monitor their children rather than just assuming that all is well. When my own daughters were teenagers a very good friend advised me to find out as much about what they were doing as possible. I did so in both overt and covert ways. I talked with my girls constantly and observed their behaviors, watching for even subtle changes. I also listened to their friends and the parents of their friends to find out more information about their habits. I enlisted the help of an army of caring people to make sure that all was well. Even then I missed cues now and again.

My youngest daughter suffers from depression just as my mother did. She began to exhibit more and more isolated behavior and seemed to be in a continual state of tears when she was in high school. I remember the night when I found her sitting in the dark in her bedroom rocking back and forth while crying. I sat on the floor with her and held her in my arms as though she was a toddler, coaxing her to tell me about her feelings and what was driving them until she finally admitted that she felt lost and confused. I made an appointment for her to see a doctor the next day and began to engage in more and more frank conversations with her. She made it past that valley of despair, but she often told me that ultimately it was her profound belief in God and the sanctity of life that had prevented her from harming herself. Ironically my mother had often told me the same thing about her own moments of mental distress. Needless to say I rejoiced in knowing that by providing my child with a religious foundation I may have saved her life.

If parents see dramatic changes in their children it is dangerous to simply assume that the new behaviors are hormonal or typical. Warning signs come in the form of falling grades, difficulties sleeping, headaches or other physical manifestations. Children who lose interest in hobbies or friends are sending signals that something is very wrong. Changes in personality are another clue. Frequent tears, outbursts of anger, long periods of isolation inside a darkened room may all be pointing to problems that must be addressed. While teenagers are infamous for their constant texting, if this habit also appears to be associated with aggression or a lack of self esteem there may be a need for getting to the bottom of what kind of information is being exchanged.

We’ve always had bullies but never to the twenty four seven extent that some kids now endure. Social media all too often becomes a minefield for attacking youngsters. Sometimes those participating in the emotional assaults don’t even know the people that they are intimidating. For them it is just a sick game, but for the teenager who is the butt of their commentaries it can become unbearable. There is nowhere to hide, no way to stop the misery. They all too often hide what is happening out of a feeling of shame. Being so alone bears heavily on them. They need help but don’t know how to find it. It is up to adults to be conscious of such situations and work to assist the victims in retrieving their sense of security and self respect.

It’s become popular for some adults to refer to youth who struggle to adjust to the many challenges that they face as “snowflakes” as though they are simply so delicate that they cannot adjust to the realities of life. This is akin to the people who would urge my mother to get control of herself when she was in the midst of a psychotic episode as part of her bipolar disorder. At the time the chemistry of her brain was so askew that she did not possess the power to stop the madness that engulfed her. She needed the help of caring family members, friends and medical professionals to get her life back on track. The lack of understanding that she continually faced made her challenges even more difficult than they needed to be. Such it is for youngsters who are in crisis. Shaming them for falling victim to depression so debilitating that they have suicidal thoughts is not an answer. Instead we all must be vigilant in assisting anyone whose ideation becomes dark and worrisome.

Teachers are often the first to notice problems with a young person. Instead of ignoring such concerns it is paramount that they contact the school counselor, the nurse, the parents or all of the above. Sometimes kids are so good at hiding their pain that their families are the last to know that there are difficulties. Honest conversations have to take place, always punctuated with love and concern. At the same time we should teach our kids to be good friends who are willing to let us know if someone is struggling more than normal. We must then either contact the school or the parents to alert them to what is happening. Those are difficult conversations, but they may save lives. 

Rescuing our children from thoughts of suicide should be of paramount concern to all of us. We need to spend more time talking with them and helping them to feel safe in confessing their problems. We need to watch for the warning signs and take aggressive and loving action before the worst happens. It is up to all of us to bring down the distressing suicide statistics among the youngest in our society. We need to begin some difficult discussions with ourselves, each other and our children. Nothing else that we do is more important. 

I Gotta Have Faith

3437383987_3ab93e21d0_bIt is seemingly becoming less and less popular to adhere to religious beliefs. We live in a world of great scientific knowledge that offers the possibility of precluding something as abstract as blind faith in a supreme being. To some the idea of God is primitive and silly, a concept that belongs to another era. Faith is intangible and never easy to explain. It requires a leap of trust that is both frightening and exciting. For those of us who are true believers it is impossible to consider a life without God, but for those who question His very existence those who depend on Him are foolish.

I recently had an extended conversation with a young woman who is not quite an atheist but who is tending in that direction. She finds it downright silly to think that there is some spiritual element watching over us. She posed the usual arguments about the hypocrisy and downright hatefulness of some religious sects as well as the observation that people suffer. She asked how a loving and generous God would be capable of simply watching as we humans struggle.

I have to admit that in spite of twelve years of Catholic education and a stint as a Director of Religious Education I was not particularly effective in counteracting her arguments. Saying that God gives us free will and does not interfere in our choices carried little weight with her. Nor did she accept the idea that we humans often impose our own thinking onto our religious institutions rather than adhering to the teachings of God.

I have long believed that as people we sometimes become a bit too enamored with religious rules rather than simply accepting the new covenant of Jesus that states that our focus should be on loving one another. I also think it more than likely that God has revealed himself to humanity in different forms to different cultures. Therefore it would be presumptuous of us to decide that one religious group is better than another.

We also forget the difference between faith and religion, too often equating the two. It is my faith in God that sustains me. My religion provides me with a vehicle for praising Him and reminding myself of His presence in my life. I cannot prove that He is real but I fully trust that He is constantly with me. I feel Him in my very soul, and I know for certain that His spirit has guided me for all of my life.

I seriously do not know how anyone who does not have faith in God is able to navigate the rocky roads of living. There have been so many times that I have felt as though the very ground beneath me was melting away and that I was in free fall. Being human is like that. Rarely does an individual have a lifetime without pain or suffering or loss. Without faith in God I would never have made it this far. Just when I sense that I am about to explode with negative emotion I sense His presence. He may not take away the challenges that I am facing, but He provides me with the strength that I need to face whatever is happening. I truly feel his arms embracing me, His fingers locking with mine. He is and always has been a best friend, a counselor and a consoler. I don’t have to see Him to know He is there.

Just a little more than a week ago my husband had a stroke. It was a terrifying time. Had my children and their families not been with me in that moment I am not sure how well I would have done. In retrospect I believe with all of my heart that it was God who provided me with the love and support that I needed. Call me foolish if you will, but I am convinced that this was His way of helping me. He continues with His merciful goodness even as we visit doctors and learn of the dramatic changes that this event will make in our lives.

I have never believed that God gives us everything that we want just because we wish it. We all have to face the realities of living in an imperfect world. His promise to us is not that we will never have to endure hardship, but rather that He will help us to do whatever we have to do at any given moment. If we do our best in this world, the perfection for which we all wish will one day be ours. 

There are indeed religious sects that appear to have perverted the very word of God. They engage in self righteous behaviors and pretend to know who is beloved by the Lord. They inflict hateful and sometimes even violent dictates on their fellowmen. I pity them because I sense that they have misinterpreted the intent of God. I do not however presume to judge them because I will never really know what is in their hearts, or why they behave the way they do. It is not up to me as a fellow human being to inflict my own thoughts on others.

This is what I believe. In my own feeble way I attempt to model my faith from day to day. I don’t always succeed in being as good as I wish to be. I backslide, become jealous, say and do ugly things. I have to continuously ask for forgiveness both from people and from God. It is the way of things so I try not to be too hard on myself. Luckily my faith in God is so strong that I know without a scintilla of doubt that He never betrays or abandons me.

I see God everywhere. He is in the colors of the sky and my backyard. He is on the faces of the people that I encounter. He is in the remarkable human intellect that finds ways to heal and teach and feed and create and love. Our power as people does not come only from ourselves. It is from the spirit of God that lives within us. He always believes in us even when we do not believe in Him.