Monthly Archives: July 2014

To See As We Are Seen

mirrorA number of years ago, my husband and I went to visit my son and his family who were living in northern Virginia at the time. We did some of the usual Washington, D.C., touristy things—Holocaust Museum, Smithsonian, the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, Lincoln Monument, etc. My husband is something of a Civil War history buff, so after we finished visiting the historical sites in D.C., my husband and I along with my son, his wife and their 18-month old daughter took off on a three-day excursion through Pennsylvania. The first day we drove through the beautiful Pennsylvania Dutch country of Lancaster County, the second was spent at the chocolate-themed Hersheypark (where my husband bought strawberry flavored Whoppers—a product that, as far as I know, never went to market), and finally ended up at Gettysburg on the third day.

We left Gettysburg in the afternoon and headed back to my son’s home in Virginia. Dinner time came so we stopped at a random restaurant along our route. When we entered the restaurant, a young man took us to a table, gave us menus, and informed us that our server would be along soon. A few minutes later, this same young man—I’m guessing he was about 17—returned to our table. He nervously explained that, because they were short-staffed that evening, he would be taking our order, something he had never done before.

Most of the conversational interchanges took place between the young man and my husband, Craig, who has this incredible gift of being able to talk to anyone and make them feel comfortable. In that context, Craig had taken to addressing this young man as “Chief”—“Thanks, Chief.” “Chief, could we get a high chair for our granddaughter?” “What do you recommend, Chief?” “What’s your favorite, Chief?”

“Chief” took our order, and we received our food without any mistakes on his part. As we were finishing our meal, which was satisfactory but unremarkable, the young man returned to bring us our bill. My husband had one last question: “So what’s your name?”

Our substitute server got the strangest look on his face, almost as if he didn’t know the answer. I don’t know if he was thinking that the customer is always right or what, but he hesitatingly and with a question in his voice replied, “Chief?” I think we held it together until he was out of sight before we started laughing. As you might imagine, this incident has lovingly been incorporated into the Sorenson Family annals.

I thought of this story when I heard the following quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Our nervous novice server was apparently willing to be whomever the customer wanted him to be.

There are so many voices telling us we should or shouldn’t be one thing or another that being yourself is not an easy thing. For starters, in order to be yourself, you first have to know who you are. This is a project I am still working on.

Many years ago I went to a conference for women and attended a class on self-esteem. The speaker asked us to visualize ourselves dressed in layers of coats. Each coat represented a role that we played in life—wife, mother, daughter, neighbor, etc. He then asked us to imagine taking each coat off one at a time, putting aside each role or label in an effort to discover our “real” selves. This was during the early years of my depression when my self-image was at an all-time low and, while I know the intent of this exercise was to help us learn to think of ourselves as something other than our roles and labels, for me it was a disaster. As I took off the last coat, I saw . . . nothing. Quite frankly, it terrified me. I realized I had no idea of a self beyond the ways others defined me.

I think that more than not having a concept of myself, the problem was that I was afraid to define myself. What if I characterized myself one way only to have someone tell me I was wrong? After all, in my thinking, my opinion had no value and being wrong was simply evidence that I was as insignificant and valueless as I felt, and I didn’t need any more proof of that.

Another problem I have had in defining myself is the fear that thinking positively about myself is somehow, if not a sin, at least inappropriate. There are things that I know I am good at, but I never feel like I can take any credit for them because they just come naturally. For example, I have no problem speaking or teaching in front of others; it’s is something that is both easy and enjoyable for me. But it’s always been that way. Consequently, it’s an ability I don’t feel like I can take credit for any more than I can take credit for having blue eyes.

Compounding this perspective is my habit of discounting the positive. It is still difficult for me to believe others would think highly of me if they knew what I am really like. It’s like my 10x mirror I use to put on my makeup. While it works great when I’m trying to get my eyeliner on straight, it also magnifies all my blemishes and chin whiskers in the process. I often use the same kind of internal mirror to look at my character, and, unfortunately mostly I see the things that I think I should be that I’m not or the things I think I shouldn’t be but that I am. And even more damaging, I see all the things I assume others think I should or shouldn’t be that I’m not living up to.

Knowing who I am continues to be a problem for me, one to which I have as yet to find a satisfactory solution. However, I read something a few days ago that has given me a tool for resolving this internal dilemma. In his book Increase in Learning: Spiritual patterns for obtaining your own answers, religious leader David A. Bednar speaks of the spiritual gift of discernment. Quoting Stephen L. Richards, he offers the following description of this gift of the Spirit:

First, I mention the gift of discernment, embodying the power to discriminate . . . between right and wrong. I believe that this gift when highly developed arises largely out of an acute sensitivity to impressions—spiritual impressions if you will—to read under the surface as it were, to detect hidden evil, and more importantly to find the good that may be concealed. The highest type of discernment is that which perceives in others and uncovers for them their better natures, the good inherent within them. (Stephen L. Richards quoted in Increase in Learning, David A. Bednar, p. 58, emphasis added)

The author goes on to explain that one way in which this gift operates is to help us “find and bring forth the good that may be concealed in us.” (Ibid., p 59, emphasis added)

How encouraging this counsel is to me. Not only does it suggest that there might be hidden goodness within me, but also that there is a way for me to discover what it is. It gives me hope that maybe there is more to me than the magnified character flaws that fill my vision. Most important, it gives me courage to ask God to show me the true nature of who and what and how I am, “to see [myself] as [I am] seen” through His eyes (1 Corinthians 13:12).

There is one truth about myself that I already know—my name isn’t “Chief.”

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Playing Binoculars

My youngest daughter is pregnant with her fifth child and has morning, noon, and night sickness. While I was at her house a few days ago to help with the two youngest children, my three-year-old granddaughter said, “Gwaamaa, I want to play a game.”

“Okay,” I said. “What do you want to play?”

“I want to play binoculars,” she replied. At least, that’s what it sounded like. Problem was, I wasn’t sure how to “play” binoculars.binoculars clip

“Where is that game?” I asked.

“Up there,” she answered, pointing to the closet where they keep their games.

I opened up the closet and saw Candy Land, Twister, Rummikub, and something called Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, among others, but nothing that I thought might be related to binoculars.

“I don’t see it,” I told her.

“It’s right there by the colored one.” Didn’t know what the “colored one” was, either.

“I’m sorry,” I apologized, “I can’t find it.”

“Okay. Let’s play Candy Land.”

I must digress here and note that being willing to play Candy Land is, for me, perhaps the ultimate test of my grandmotherly love—I cheered the day my children outgrew that game and I could throw it out.

Anyway, as I pulled Candy Land out of the pile, Monopoly Junior fell off the shelf.

“There it is,” she said, pointing at the Monopoly game. “That’s binoculars.”

Monopoly—binoculars. Close enough. Unfortunately, I never got to play “binoculars;” by the time she got it all set up, her dad was home and said he would play with her.

I find I often play my own version “binoculars” with my life. I, like most people, I think, have had a certain set of conscious and unconscious expectations of what I thought my future would look like. For many years, the fulfillment of those expectations was so far off that the only way I could see them was through the lenses of anticipatory binoculars. It all seemed so clear then. Some of those expectations have been met—I graduated from college, taught school, got married, and had children. Some of them have partially come to pass—I went to grad school but didn’t finish. But, in the middle of it all, life happened with its totally unexpected experiences—struggling with mental illness, dealing with my husband’s cancer, seeing my dad transform in an instant from a vibrant, creative individual to someone who didn’t remember the names of his children. However, harder to accept than the unexpected experiences are the expectations that are seemingly going unfulfilled, things I have looked forward to for the entirety of my adult life.

So what do you do when the reality of your life doesn’t match the picture you had painted in your mind? Of course, you can always turn the binoculars around so that those unmet expectations are the only things you see. I have to admit, I occasionally have a pity party and do exactly that—not exactly a productive way of looking at life.

I recently read a piece from advice columnist Carolyn Hax that I found helpful as I face my own dilemma over thus far unmet expectations. A reader had written to her saying that the advice she gave was easier said than done, an assessment that Ms. Hax readily agreed with.

Everything, everything I advise is easier said than done. Figuring out ourselves is hard. . . . Figuring out how to trust ourselves is hard. . . . Accepting what we’ll never achieve, whom we’ll never be, what we’ll never be given, what we can’t expect, is hard. . . . It’s not about being unruffled. It’s about retraining ourselves to use more productive behaviors than the broken, maddening, ineffective, self-destructive old ones. . . . It’s stuff that can take decades to get right, if then. . . . Doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. (Salt Lake Tribune, 14 July 2014)

I realized that Ms. Hax was talking about what my granddaughter instinctively knew how to do—if one thing doesn’t work, try something different. If we couldn’t play “binoculars,” she was just as happy to play Candy Land.

I guess what I’m learning is that my expectations need to be flexible. I need to learn to expect good things without dictating what those good things must look like. I need to make the most of what I have instead of focusing on what I don’t have. I need to reexamine the unexpected events of my life with the intent of seeing how they have enriched my life rather than limited it.

Candy LandJust because life isn’t exactly the way I expected it to be doesn’t mean that I can’t expect good things in the future. After all, who knows what might fall out of the closet when I reach for Candy Land.

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Having More

Except for the fact that we held it on the fifth of July, our Fourth of July backyard barbeque was nothing out of the ordinary. No fancy decorations—just grape vine on the fence and apricot tree branches overhead. No fancy entertainment—just nine grandkids, a swing set, and a ball. No fancy food—just chicken, hot dogs, and hamburgers on the grill, chips, potato salad, veggies and dip, watermelon, and vanilla ice cream with Mom’s chocolate sauce for dessert. Although there was nothing spectacular about our celebration, it is one I hope I never forget.

ice cream croppedLike I said, we had vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce for dessert, one of my favorites. I love the contrast of solid and liquid, of hot and cold. The grandkids, however, had a different idea of the best way to enjoy their dessert. Instead of enjoying the contrasts appreciated by my discriminating palate (yes, I’m being sarcastic), they stirred the ice cream, with or without the chocolate, until it was the consistency of a milk shake. I have no idea why kids think this is such great fun, but I remember doing it when I was young, as well. The biggest problem with “eating” ice cream this way is the increased likelihood that someone will spill their milkshake-in-a-bowl—which is exactly what my three-year-old granddaughter did. While a three-year-old spilling food isn’t usually a potential life changing event, my granddaughter’s response turned this incident from mundane to memorable.

First she had Daddy help with the stirring. When it became the correct consistency, she began drinking her ice cream from her bowl and, of course, promptly spilled some. Her response? “Oops. That’s okay. I still have more.” This is a typical response from this little girl who came into the world with a built-in abundance mindset. We call her our “glass half full” girl—she sees life as an adventure to be enjoyed and savored, whatever it brings.

So what’s the difference? Why do some people see the glass half full and others see it half empty? I believe our perceptions stem from the stories we tell ourselves as we try to make sense of the world and our place in it. Think about it. Half of the volume of the glass is filled with liquid and half is filled with air. The glass of half liquid and half air has no meaning in and of itself; meaning is arbitrarily assigned by the observer. So what stories are we telling ourselves regarding the state of the glass? In other words, what is our explanation of how the glass came to be in that state? Furthermore, what is our prediction for the future state of the glass? (I know I’m getting kind of philosophical here, but stay with me.)

It seems to me that saying the glass is half empty implies that it was once completely full but has now lost half of its liquid. When we adopt this perspective, our expectations for the future are not happy ones. If we have less now than we had previously, that means our resources will be even more limited in the future than they are in the present. Conversely, the implication of seeing the glass as half full is that what started out as empty is in the process of being filled. Thus, the expectation is for greater abundance of resources in the future.

The apostle Paul tells us to “covet earnestly the best gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:1). I think my granddaughter’s abundance mindset definitely qualifies as a “best gift,” and I, for one, covet it earnestly. To be honest, when I experience an adult version of spilled liquid ice cream, my observation isn’t “That’s okay. I have more.” Rather, my response is envy of those who now have more “ice cream” than I do. I doubt most of my acquaintances would see this in me, but in truth, I’m a closet glass-half-empty person. Rather than contentment with whatever I have, my default reaction is comparison. Unfortunately, I usually judge the situation as my having received a fuzzy lollipop while everyone else has been given Godiva chocolate. Logically, I know this isn’t true—I have been INCREDIBLY blessed—but emotionally, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

So how do I obtain this gift that I so desperately covet? I have two quotes hanging on the wall in front of me that I think apply. The first comes from Albert Einstein: “I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.” Am I willing to give up my limited mindset? The answer seems like a no-brainer. Why in the world wouldn’t I want to give it up? Well, first of all, it’s familiar, and, in its familiarity, it’s safe. As I wrote in my previous post (“Heavenly Immunizations”), for whatever reasons, I have issues with feeling secure about the goodness of my future. Secondly, I perceive the process of giving up what I am to be so daunting and difficult that I’m not sure I can do it. I mean, what if I fail? What would that say about my worthwhileness as a person?

The second quote comes from religious leader Gordon B. Hinckley and just might hold the answers to the fears stirred up by the thought of giving up what I am in order to become more. He said, “The faith to try leads to direction by the Spirit, and the fruits that flow therefrom are marvelous to behold and experience.” The faith to try—what a hopeful perspective. There is no expected evaluation of one’s performance, no mandate for immediate expertise, just an invitation to attempt, to experiment, to investigate. One cannot fail in trying; the simple act of trying is success. Moreover, when we try in faith, we enlist the grace of God to magnify our efforts. With that power aiding us, “the things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” (Luke 18:27)

I’m lucky—I have an example of the abundance mindset running around my house on a regular basis to remind me that even if I lose some of what I had, I still have more left. The trick for me will be recognizing when I’m looking at the world through the lens of limitation and challenging myself to identify and adopt an abundance perspective. All I can do is try—and that’s enough.

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