Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Garden Hose Perspective

garden hoseMy youngest sister, Emily, received a garden hose for Christmas one year; she was absolutely thrilled. My children, however, were appalled. A garden hose for Christmas? They figured their aunt must be the best actress in the world to be able to pretend to be excited over a garden hose. Why in the world would anybody think that was a good gift to give or receive? After all, wasn’t Christmas a time for receiving cool stuff that you had seen on TV? Well, I guess it all depends on your perspective. You see, my sister and her husband had just moved into their first house and needed all those little odds and ends that come with home ownership, including a garden hose. For her, a garden hose was a much better gift than cool “stuff.”

I’ve been thinking about these two different perspectives on the nature of gifts. In particular, my thoughts have been drawn to the difference between what I might consider good gifts from God and what he considers the best gifts. I have to admit that, like my children, I’m partial to “cool” gifts, things that give me immediate satisfaction. God, on the other hand, is more interested in giving me gifts that, like a garden hose, bring living water to enliven my soul and nurture my progression.

Although the mortal me resists the idea, the most important of God’s gifts are the trials he brings or allows to come into our lives. I’ll be honest—I’m not a fan of trials. Let me rephrase that—I’m not a fan of going through trials. I know both intellectually and experientially the blessings of growth that come from undergoing difficulties in our lives. My family has experienced some really trying times in the past few years, starting with my dad’s brain injury and the subsequent dementia which eventually took his life. And it was two years ago this Halloween when we learned that my husband had prostate cancer. Then of course there was my battle with anxiety that landed me in the psych ward about 18 months ago.

As difficult as it was watching my dad die one brain cell at a time, I wouldn’t give up the lessons I learned during that time. From that experience, I began to understand what it means to unconditionally love someone, to love without any expectation of reciprocation or even acknowledgement. I think back to the last time I fed him his lunch, just four days before his death. There was no obvious reward for me. He didn’t know who I was. He didn’t realize that I was helping him in any way. But I knew I was helping him, and it was a privilege to do so. I remember in particular how much he enjoyed the orange juice I brought to him. I’m not sure who derived more pleasure from that last little delight—Dad or me. While I’m grateful that his terrible suffering has ended, there are times when I miss having the honor of taking care of him.

This lesson in unconditional love has blessed me in other ways, as well. It has made the principle of God’s unconditional love for his children come alive for me. Is it really possible, I have asked myself, that God loves me in that way? That he loves me just for being me and not for anything I can give to him? That he rejoices in taking care of me, in giving me orange juice-like tender mercies simply because it brings him pleasure to see my enjoyment? I have to admit, this has been a really hard concept for me to accept. Knowing my faults and inadequacies as I do, it is hard to believe he can love me in that way. But if I can feel that way about my earthly father, how much more can a perfect Heavenly Father love this imperfect child of his?

Likewise, Craig’s cancer brought its own gifts of growth and understanding. I learned what it means to experience “the peace that passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). After the first week of tears following his diagnosis, that peace enveloped my heart and I knew everything would be ok. That doesn’t mean I knew he would beat the cancer; rather, I knew that I would be content with whatever happened. I also learned the power of prayer offered for others, in this case, for Craig and me. We were carried through the months of treatment on the wave of those prayers. As much as I don’t want to go through it again, I can genuinely say I am grateful for the gifts of knowledge and understanding I received.

Now we come to the trial that has framed most of my adult life—mental illness. To be honest, I’ve had great difficulty learning to be grateful for this experience. Most of the time I have felt like it has hindered my progress rather than helped it, a perception—incorrect, I suspect—that has led to a lingering resentment. Yes, there are things I have learned. I have learned not to judge others because you never know what is going on in their lives. I have also learned empathy and compassion because I know what it is to feel like God has abandoned you. But, I tell myself, there were surely other ways I could have learned these things, ways that didn’t destroy my sense of well-being. Besides that, those lessons have seemed more like fortunate by-products of my experience and not the precise point of the trial.

Although it has taken more than thirty years, I have recently come to understand what I believe has always been the primary purpose of this test—to teach me submissiveness to the Lord’s will. I don’t do submission well; I suppose that’s why the Lord has had to keep repeating the lesson for such a long time. At long last, however, I finally feel like I truly understand what the Lord is trying to do in my life. For the first time, I am beginning to make sense of my continuing battle for well-being. I wish I could say that this knowledge has been an “off” switch for the resentment that has tainted both my mind and heart. Unfortunately, it hasn’t. It’s more like a dimmer switch that goes up and down based on my willingness to accept this test as the gift that it truly is. Some days are good, some aren’t, but there are good days.

I am coming to understand that trials and tribulations are the hose the Lord uses to deliver the eternal gift of living water to the garden of my soul where the seedlings of submissiveness are at long last beginning to take root. I guess a garden hose truly is the best gift.

Image copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_350jb’>350jb / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Changing My Mind

Change of mind whiteStudies have shown that our thoughts actually influence the information highway, i.e., neural pathways, of the brain. The flip side is also true—the brain’s neural pathways influence how we think. Our thoughts, like flowing water, tend to follow the same path unless we intervene. A regularly traveled neural route becomes like a rut in the road—a good thing if it is taking you to a happy destination, not so good if it leads to negative thoughts and feelings. The important thing is, however, that we are not stuck with the pathways we have created; with practice, we can intentionally cultivate pathways that lead to a mind that is happy, loving, and wise. To help me learn to develop those positive pathways, my therapist recommended a book called Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time by Rick Hanson, PhD.

The first practice I chose to focus on was the one I needed most at that particular time: Number 42: Notice You’re All Right Right Now. Fundamentally the idea is to “take a close look at this moment, right now. Probably, you are basically all right: no one is attacking you, you are not drowning, no bombs are falling, there is no crisis. It’s not perfect, but you’re okay.”

I’ve been doing this for about three weeks, and I can honestly say it has helped. The important thing is that I am beginning to intentionally notice that I really am all right in any  present moment. What this is doing is helping me get past the negative assumption that life is the pits most of the time. It has been liberating, to say the least.

The second practice I chose to focus on was Number 1: Be for Yourself. Although most people skip over it, this principle is part of the second great commandment: Love thy neighbor as thyself. As Hanson points out, “How can you truly help others if you don’t start by helping yourself?”

What’s ironic is the impetus for my selecting this exercise was all the negative thinking I wrote about in my last post, “Selfie.” Being for myself has been a hard idea for me to get my mind around. Intellectually I understand the principle; what is difficult for me is the practical application. I don’t doubt the importance of being this way, and unquestionably I want the fruit Hanson describes: “Being for yourself simply means that you care about yourself. You wish to feel happy instead of worried, sad, guilty, or angry. . . . You want to help your future self—the person you’ll be next week, next year, next decade—to have as good a life as possible.” I just don’t know how. But, of course, that’s where the book comes in.

One of the ways Hanson suggests that you learn to be for yourself is to “recall a time when you had to be strong, energetic, fierce, or intense on your own behalf. . . . Open to this experience and shift into embodying it so it is as real as possible for you, and so that you are stimulating and thus strengthening its underlying neural networks.”

As I thought about this, I was stumped. I simply couldn’t think of a time when I was “strong, energetic, fierce, or intense on [my] own behalf.” Hanson suggests that this kind of incident could be as simple as pushing through a difficult exercise routine or staying with a big project until it was completed. I’ve had those experiences, but, probably because of my habit of dismissing the positive, any associated success simply had no emotional oomph for me.

It took me three or four days before something came to mind that elicited strong feelings for being for myself. I’ve written previously about my experience with being bullied (“A Dead Cat and the Joy of Forgiving”). Although I had never thought about it in this way before, I have begun to realize that at the moment my tormentors tried to force me to pick up the dead cat there must have been something deep inside that finally said, “No more!” I don’t remember feeling that way at the time, but as I look back, I want to cheer that twelve-year-old who, so desperate to be accepted that she would endure malicious meanness for mere morsels of acceptance, in that crossroads moment acted intensely on her own behalf. I don’t recall whether or not I associated with those girls after the dead cat incident, but I don’t think so. One way or another, the bullying stopped. I like to think that my taking a stand had something to do with it.

I have decided that truly being for yourself is more than being pleased with momentary successes, although those times are part of it. Rather, I think the self we must be for is our higher self, our spiritual self, that self that is at the very core of our essence. The great Exemplar has shown us what being for this self means.

After his forty-day fast in the wilderness, Satan came to Jesus to tempt him, as described in Matthew 4:2-11. I think too often we pay more attention to the particulars of Satan’s temptations and miss the fact that the greatest enticement was for Jesus to prove to Satan that he, Jesus, was truly the Son of God. In each of the three temptations, Satan tried to plant seeds of doubt in Jesus’ mind regarding his divine nature using that insidious two-letter word if: “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread (v.3);” “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down (v. 6);” “All these things I will give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me (v. 9).” Nonetheless, each time Jesus refused to heed Satan’s lures and instead was “strong, energetic, fierce, [and] intense” in being for himself as the Son of God.

For many years I saw only the detrimental effects that year of bullying had on me; without question it started a flood of doubts about my own worth. However, I am beginning to see that, almost 50 years later, the Lord is using this experience to teach me about my own divine nature. He has shown me that, although I have disparaged myself for allowing myself to be mistreated in an inconsequential quest for popularity, this experience has been essential to my progression. Though difficult, among other things it taught me to be compassionate towards others. And now it is helping me understand the strength and capacity I have to be for the self I have always been, a daughter of God.

Selfie

selfie editLike most children her age, my 14-month-old granddaughter likes to push buttons. (I guess you could say the same thing of older children, teenagers in particular, but that’s a different kind of button.) She especially likes tv remotes and telephones. We have spent literally hours playing with my cordless phone—she punches the buttons to make it beep, and every minute or two I take the phone away and hit the “off” button so we don’t make any phone calls to Timbuktu. We have played this game so much that I don’t even have to take the phone away from her—after hitting a few buttons she simply hands it over to me to do my thing.

I let her play with my cell phone the other day. I figured I would be safe because you have to swipe the screen before you can punch buttons. Silly, silly grandma. She hadn’t had the phone in her hands for more than two minutes when I heard the shutter on the camera start clicking. Actually, I was rather impressed—it takes me about twice that long to find the camera button. As I quickly retrieved the phone to put it out of her reach, I saw that she had taken a couple of selfies. Granted, it’s a picture of her foot, but I think it qualifies as a selfie none the less.

I’ve been taking and posting selfies for years—in my mind, at least. They are the pictures by which I define myself. Unfortunately, most of them don’t present me in a very flattering light. I have a whole wall dedicated to “Bad Mother” selfies, such as the one where I could never follow through with a job chart when my children were little; the one where my children never came home from school to the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies; or the ones where I rejoiced rather than felt sad when my children went to school, including when they left home for college. Then there is the wall of “Bad Person” selfies. These include the ones where I feel inadequate because I’m a night person and don’t get up early in the morning and get right to work, the one where I got fired from a job, and the ones where I procrastinate something I should be doing by vegetating on the couch while watching Castle reruns for the umpteenth time. Most recently, I have posted “Bad Person” selfies of myself feeling anxious along with ones of my feeling anxious about feeling anxious.

Not all of my selfies fall into the “Bad” something category. There are some that should show me in a good light. The only problem is, I have mentally Photoshopped myself out of most of these. As my therapist could tell you (which, of course, he won’t), I have a deeply ingrained habit of discounting the positive, particularly when it comes to my self-definition. Despite my inability to stick with a job chart, my children have grown into productive, hard-working adults, but I tell myself that I had little, if anything, to do with their success. Despite having continued writing this blog for more than a year now, I erase myself from the picture because I don’t write as often as I think I should. Even though I have called my mom almost every day since my dad fell down the stairs and suffered a traumatic brain injury, I magically remove my image from the picture because I tell myself it’s no big deal. And the list goes on and on.

Although it may seem like this post is all about beating up on myself, it really isn’t. It is actually about the opposite.

Last Sunday I was at a meeting where the speaker was talking about the nature of truth, particularly the fact that every truth is independent in its own sphere. In other words, truth is truth without regard to individual interpretation. As he spoke, I suddenly understood in the deepest level of my soul that I haven’t been living truthfully for a very long time, if ever. Instead, I have been allowing my life to be dictated by mental and emotional selfies based on unproven, mostly faulty assumptions rather than on the truth regarding my nature as an imperfect, but progressing, human being who is also the child of a perfectly loving, perfectly patient God. I realized that I have been judging myself according to only half of my being—the imperfect half. Though I intellectually understood my child-to-parent relationship to God, until that moment I just didn’t know how, or was simply unwilling, to fully accept that truth about myself.

The lesson didn’t end there, however. Yesterday I was led to a 1993 speech given by religious leader F. Enzio Busche called “Truth Is the Issue.” He spoke about the imperfect human being / child of God dichotomy that challenges each of us.

The issue is truth, . . . and the only way to find truth is through uncompromising self-education toward self-honesty to see the original “real me,” the child of God, in its innocence and potential in contrast to the influence from the other part of me, “the flesh,” with its selfish desires and foolishness. Only in that state of pure honesty are we able to see truth in its complete dimension. Honesty may not be everything, but everything is nothing without honesty. In its final state, honesty is a gift of the Spirit. . . .

One of the great tragedies we see in our lives is that the adversary, through the influences of our “flesh,” can cheat us into establishing images of truth or perceptions of truth. Our brain, the great computer where all the facts of life’s memories are held together, can also be programmed by the “flesh,” with its self-centered ideas to deceive the spiritual self. Without the constant striving through prayer and contemplation to reach the ends of self-awareness and honesty, our so-called intellect can, therefore, based on look-alike truths, play many games of reason, to impress, to get gain, to intimidate, or even to manipulate truth with the vain results of deceit. (https://www.lds.org/ensign/1993/11/truth-is-the-issue?lang=eng)

Reading this, I realized that I have been living according to the perceptions of my flesh rather than the truth of my spirit. Unfortunately, hearing only the voice of the mortal flesh is the hallmark of living with depression. Knowing this, the adversary continually bombards the mind with messages of inferiority and incompetence, of helplessness and hopelessness. The light is always there, but the pain of depression and anxiety distracts to the point that one is unaware of the beacon which, if perceived, would guide the beaten and battered soul into the peaceful harbor of God’s love.

Busche also observed, “With this enlightened understanding of the deadly battlefront inside of us, we are painfully aware that we can only ask for and receive the help of the Lord, as the God of truth, under the condition of complete and relentless self-honesty. . . .”

In my case, relentless self-honesty is mostly about acknowledging and fully accepting the goodness of “the original ‘real me,’ the child of God, in its innocence and potential.” In no way do I think that I have won the fight for my mind. Rather, I feel a heretofore dormant willingness to do battle with the lies and false assumptions which I have allowed to define who and what and how I am for far too long. I am at long last willing to live truthfully, whatever the implications and wherever the destination. My future selfies will, to the best of my ability, be captured through the clear lens of heaven, with God at my side, rather than through the cloudy lens of solitary mortality.