Thursday, January 5, 2017

AUTHENTICITY – the real me


Recently I started feeling a little glum about my aging blah hair. I thought I would just change it up a little. Maybe colour it and trim a little. But I was very broke and vain and don't like to admit I need help and I'd coloured my hair in the past and it was okay, so what was the big deal? So I found a box of colour I thought I could trust (not the cheapest and not the most expensive, but a brand I'd trusted in the past) and went to work. 

Perhaps I should have talked to my husband about this first. Because the whole choosing to colour issue was largely due to a need to talk about my self-image and have a real person help me come to terms with what I was struggling with and come up with a plan that would really help. But no, straight to the store for a box of instant pick me up. After all, why talk to a real person or even the professionals about your hair? It would be too expensive. I've got this.

It was okay. Kind of.  But it was really dark - darker than I wanted. Not ugly, thankfully, but just not quite what I had envisioned. Did I stop at that point and talk to my husband to see what he thought? Not really. Do I trust him? Absolutely. So why didn't I? Vanity. So I decided what would fix it would be a few highlights - just a few subtle, tasteful highlights. And I've done them before only a few years ago. What could go wrong? Off to the store again. But remember there's a strict budget at play. So I found a sachet of highlighting powder and opted to buy a small bottle of peroxide developer. I'm not a hairdresser. I have no professional training. But I pay attention and I'm a smart person so I should be able to work this out. I can go outside the box this time because I don't need to spend a lot for too much product anyway. There are two options - a 20 volume and a 30 volume solution. I go with the 20 thinking it will be less harsh and work just fine. I go home congratulating myself on finding an inexpensive solution to the darker than desirable hair and mix up the product. It makes quite a bit more than I realised. I probably should have only done half of it, but it's too late now. I'll just go easy and throw out what I don't use. It was still less than half the cost of the cheapest box kit. 

So the careful parting and sectioning of the hair begins. It's harder than I remember. It takes a long time too. And I know I need to work quickly or some of the hair will be really bleached by the time I get done with the last strands. I have a dumb idea. Isn't ombré a thing? It might look really good. I've still got lots of length to work with and I can always cut off whatever I think I need to. So I go for it. I've got curly hair. It's really forgiving. It'll be fine. (Vanity again) At no point in this process do I remember that my hair pulls red naturally and that there have been serious wobbles in the past. I just boldly go where I’ve gone before.

Not fine. So not fine. Turns out the 20 volume is milder but that also means that it doesn't strip the colour to a true blond the way the 30 probably would have. I get this really distinctive ginger colour happening. And because of the whole ombré thing it's really rather bad. I don't know what to do. So I panic. And trim. And call my husband to go out to a local chemist and find me a solution to make it go away. So my poor husband has to wander aisles of hair product looking for something that will work while seeking guidance via the phone because I'm too embarrassed to leave the house. He ends up with a bottle of toning shampoo and another box of colour as a last resort. The shampoo helps slightly but not quite enough. So the decision is made to cut about four inches at this point. And my husband has to lend a shaking hand to make sure it's even at that back. No one dies, and it becomes manageable. And the second box of colour sits on the shelf waiting until it is needed because I suspect if I colour it again at this point it might all fall out just to round out the learning experience. 

What exactly happened here? I started down an inauthentic path to validate myself. I'm aging. I'm getting grayer. I haven't been to a hairdresser in years. Instead of talking to real people about my real insecurity, I tried to fix it all myself by seeking a way to disguise my reality. And I started thinking about how easy it is to do that in every aspect of our lives. We primp, we pose, we purchase. And most of it is to simply disguise our reality. We want to seem like we know what we're doing, that we belong here with all the beautiful, talented, smart, funny, athletic, amazing people. And we do belong, but as ourselves and not in an edited or augmented version.

So I've been thinking about authenticity lately. We tweet; we Instagram; we hashtag; we blog; we represent ourselves as favourably as we can to be followed/liked/friended. Our world has created selfie addicts and individuals that cannot stop checking their phone to see if someone has reacted to their latest post. Social media presence has replaced the gold star sticker of our first years at school. This isn’t new. There are passages of the New Testament that detail how some of the Jewish leaders believed the Saviour but couldn’t bring themselves to openly follow Him for fear of losing their status within the circles of power and influence. Our world runs on validation and approval. We’re wired to seek respect and approval. But we have a new stage and its being carefully designed to lure. 

Mauricio Delgado is an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He poses the following: 
“The same brain areas [that are activated for food and water] are activated for social stimuli. This can be a smile, someone telling you you’re doing a great job or you’re trustworthy, or you’re a nice person, or even merely cooperating with somebody. All of these social ‘reinforcers’ are abstract but show similar activity in the reward centers of the brain. This suggests that, perhaps, if you’re getting positive feedback in social media—‘likes’ and shares and retweets—it’s a positive ‘reinforcer’ of using social media, and one that allows you to, a.) get the positive effects of it, and, b.) return to it seeking out more social reinforcement… Often, if you have the earliest predictor of a reward—a sign of a social media alert, like your phone buzzing—you get a rush of dopamine from that condition stimulus. That might trigger you to go check out the outcome, to see what it is. That type of reinforcement is something that you now seek out. 
Delgado, M.R. & Dilmore, J.G. (2008) Social and emotional influences on decision-making and the brain. Minn. J.L. Sci & Tech., 9 (2): 899-912.

Marketers are actually increasingly using this strategy to get us to buy their product or service. They are using our brain's natural inclinations to motivate us to purchase and promote simultaneously. And the pattern is intentionally addictive to work effectively to sell product. Here's a pretty good article written by a psychology PhD named Susan Weinshenk who teaches the psychology behind these ideas for a living and advises high profile corporations in the art of manipulating behaviour. She explains our natural addiction to the social media cycle really well. 


I think the saddest thing is recognising this behaviour in me. It happens when I'm bored or disinterested in what's going on around me, and I find myself checking my phone. Several weeks ago I forced myself on my morning commute to not check my phone for the whole trip and simply notice my environment. It was pretty sobering to realise how difficult it actually was. It took more effort and physical engagement. It's so much easier to forego that in favour of the 'quick hit' a Facebook scroll can give us. Because my husband will often text as we head our separate ways in the morning I’m pretty used to waiting for that text. Not responding to the quiet little 'ding' was much harder than I'd like, but I was able to check when I got to my destination minutes later and no feelings were damaged in the process. 

The compulsive nature of this interaction is bad enough, but what has been bothering me lately is the misleading and misrepresentation that we all engage in quite naturally in the process. We say things on social media that we would never say face to face to someone we care about. We voice opinions strongly online that we wouldn't be likely to stand on a crowded street corner yelling at those who don't agree. We engage in online tantrums and heckling that are just mean-spirited. We pretend to be something we're not because the artificial reinforcement of our ideas has become more important than real meaningful relationships. There are few real consequences for our online behaviour in most cases. When you can number your 'friends/followers' in the thousands, what difference does it make it one or two 'unfriend' you? Conversely, we take great satisfaction in unfriending or unfollowing someone that posts something we don't like or agree with. This behaviour isn't new. People have stopped talking to other people ever since time began, and now we get to do it with a powerful sense of righteous indignation and justification. 

There is an egotism and self-absorption to all of this. We have allowed ourselves to believe that what we think or say is important to the world at large. There are 7 billion people on this planet. How many of them will you really meet in your life? How many of them will you really know personally? If one of those seven billion who we're never likely to meet finds our online presence, is it an accurate representation? Or did we go through a whole bunch of possibilities before selecting the most flattering shot for our profile pic even if it's a couple of years old and almost doesn’t look like us? And perhaps sometimes we share links to really amazing articles we may or may not have read entirely, but do we humbly acknowledge that we don't have the eloquence ourselves, or just post and wait for the digital pat on the back for finding it and passing it along?

I'm not entirely sure anyone fully understands how the power of social media works yet. It seems to be a work in progress even now. While it has a great deal of marketing power, I'm not convinced it’s very good at changing public policy or even the world. So many of us think we’re changing the world by liking or sharing or daring our ‘friends’ to copy and paste this statement into their status. We won’t cure cancer, eliminate homelessness, house refugees, defeat domestic violence, end abortions or achieve world peace via social media no matter how much we want to believe it. These are human problems and must be solved by humans. And until our social presence is more honestly human, nothing will change substantially. The truth is that social media is now largely 21st century junk mail and opinion vomit. What I suspect was meant to be an arena to connect and share philosophies, ideas and experiences in a safe, non-judgemental way has become something very different. Too often what we choose to share is intended to polarise and distance instead of educate and inform in a respectful manner. We’re looking for a reaction and the stronger the better because that creates more buzz. But it’s not good buzz. It’s contentious and often misinformed and doesn’t foster understanding. Often we post so others can see how amazing our life is. We post to prove we’re right or smarter than someone else. We post to be seen. We post to belong in an artificial world. And our artificial world sifts it all and then feeds us back information it thinks we should see so it can manipulate us even further. Some days I resent the intrusion and the waste it is gradually becoming. It’s become a like a cluttered digital bulletin board that someone really needs to clean up.

Personally I find that social media is becoming a lot of work to keep authentic in my life. My feeds are being taken over by the marketing. It takes so long to unfollow and hide all the things that I don't care about that I don't even post that often anymore. Lately I tend to just post pictures of things/places and other people, but rarely pictures of me. The fear of someone taking offence (if I post without thinking) is always there, which means I don’t like voicing any opinions. So I'm making some social media rules for myself this year. 
#1 - Primum non nocere - 'first do no harm' - I'm going to try harder not to post or comment until I have thought about how anyone reading it might react. And if I decide to like or share someone else's post, it's because I would be happy to do so in person with someone I've never met who might feel very differently.
#2 - Only share things I have made an effort to authenticate - if I don't know where it comes from, I need to find out and make sure it's actually true. I need to exercise due diligence in my fact-checking. 
#3 - No fishing - this is going to be hard, but I suspect it's important. We like to have others acknowledge our joy/pain/success/discomfort. We really like that pat on the head or that gold star. If I share a photo of food, it will only be because it was delicious. I won't complain about service I received or didn't receive. If I share a success, it will be accompanied by a qualifier giving credit where it is due - I NEVER succeed by myself. There are always others that helped it happen.

And that's about it for now, I think. Time to grow up and accept who I really am and avoid misrepresentation. The posts could very well thin out this year because of it, but I'm okay with that. I need to stop checking social media so I can check into real life and work on my authenticity. Because at this stage in my life, I think it's time to be more honest with myself and others. I am nearly 50 years old. I am often tired. I could be in better shape but lack the time and motivation to really commit to that right now. I eat stupid things sometimes because they make me feel better. I read a lot of novels because they help me escape from reality and words are like a drug when they fit together well. I probably believe I’m smarter than I actually am. I often hide from the outside world because it’s so much work to pretend I am an adult who knows what they’re doing. I don’t need to filter or augment that reality to belong. None of us do. We belong because we are here. We belong because we are flawed. We belong because this is our life and we're all living it together. But yeah, it's time to get real. No more pretending. It just makes everyone dissatisfied and unhappy.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Why my husband is so much more than a "partner"

I've had the privilege of being off work the past couple of weeks for Christmas and vacation time and getting to spend a big chunk of that time with Trevor. His new calling means he's going to be quite a bit busier and I'm conscious that once I go back to work next week, our time together will become a lot more precious. We had our 27th wedding anniversary just over a week ago and it made me reflect a lot.

Our world is very fond of the word partner in politically correct circles. Lately I've been conscious that the term is a little too dispassionate and clinical for what's really going on in our relationship. One of my favourite definitions of the term is probably the most archaic - a prudent and thrifty manager. Because ultimately, that's what he does for me. He moderates my excesses, helps me remember that caution can be a good thing, does the practical thing when I don't feel like it. I may be decisive and get things done, but he more often does them right. I need that. He is my balance. He completes me. There are times I worry that he is too good, too perfect. He doesn't seem to struggle with some of the weaknesses that plague me - like eating the wrong things, being a little self-indulgent, needing more sleep than most people. And every so often something happens that reminds me that he needs my balance as badly as I need his, but that I need to make sure I'm doing it in the right way.


More than a month ago there was a mishap in the kitchen involving his favourite spatula. He'd laid it down on the stove to grab something and it slid into the lit gas burner. He was very upset. We have other spatulas, so it wasn't the end of the world. It came from IKEA and cost less than $2. But he really liked that one. He liked the size and dimension of it. It felt comfortable in his hand and so he usually wanted that particular utensil when he was cooking. I would ordinarily just commiserate and then toss the item into the recycling bin and make a note to replace it the next time we were in that neck of the woods. I figured we'd move on. But not my husband. He carefully cut away the damage and persisted in trying to use it anyway. A couple of weeks later I bought him a replacement exactly the same from IKEA. Well, not exactly the same. The new version was green. I should have known at that moment it might be an issue. We took it home and I assumed the old spatula could finally be put to rest. Nope. It miraculously reappeared a few days ago, symmetrically trimmed now. He was so proud of that ridiculous spatula that was somehow still usable. The irritated part of my brain wanted to steal the spatula and make sure it ended up at the bottom of the recycling bin never to return again, but the other part of my brain said wait a minute. What is really going on here? 

Trevor forms attachments that are long-lasting. It's why he doesn't part with things he appreciates until they are well and truly past usefulness. I don't have that mind set. He will persist with something damaged or broken, forcing/willing it to keep going. And when I look at that stupid spatula, I can see that he is willing to do that with the people in his life too. When he decides you are important to him, he will do whatever it takes to keep you in his life in whatever capacity you can manage. For years I have thought it was part of my responsibility to wean him from the broken things he clings to, and perhaps that's true in some part, but I also see that the very characteristic that makes him perfect for imperfect me is also the thing I have to be careful not to destroy. Because I know with absolute certainty that he would never do that to me. There will never come a time when he will toss me to the curb because he wants a new one. 

I see now after 27 years that I need his stability and acceptance more than ever. A partner is someone you choose to work with toward a common objective. A partner tosses out a dysfunctional utensil. Trevor chose me to be in his life forever, and his core deep loyalty and commitment will make him do whatever it takes to keep me there. He is unfailingly patient with me. My challenge is going to be learning to be consistently a wife instead of a partner. Instead of making snap decisions about the things that he's hanging onto, perhaps I should make sure I'm paying attention to what he's really saying in wanting to hang onto something. Because every HUSBAND deserves a WIFE.  

Decluttering the Hard Way

For a while now I've been finding myself trapped wading through digital information I really don't want to see, read or be bothered with. As social media evolves, it seems like they're shifting from the passive provision of a forum to nudging us towards products based on what we've expressed an interest in. Lately it's been really getting on my nerves. Facebook used to be about networking for friends and family but is becoming more about ads and sharing endless links, quizzes, and shifting your interest to what they think you should see. I don't really like that.

My life just keeps getting busier. I'm not needing less sleep. If I'm spending increasing time just scrolling through my "news feed" to get to what I actually care about, that means less time for things that matter. I don't like that. And the underlying issues of social media are still there as well - the pretense of anonimity we all fall prey to, the content that we really don't want to see that comes from people we care about, the endless notifications about nothing which you then have to find and turn off, and the videos that play automatically when you could really care less. It just feels like I've got piles of digital paper accumulating in my head, and clutter is depressing.

So after catching myself failing to self-edit and using my outside voice in a comment last week I realized something had to change. I decided I needed a time out from facebook. I chose a week to see how it would go. It was much harder than I thought it would be. To make sure I wouldn't lapse, I took facebook off my phone and ipad. I didn't log in on my computer. If anything important happened, I relied on my husband to let me know. It was sobering to realize how conditioned I had become to checking my feed several times a day. And I know that 80% of it is just rubbish. But the little ding that tells me something has happened in that world has me trained. I have realized that I am wasting my time, and time is a very valuable commodity. I have been feeling like I never have time for the things that bring me lasting joy and fulfillment. I just didn't realize I'd been tossing that time away so foolishly.

I've been getting discouraged about not always having time to work out as much as I need to, or steal time for creative outlets that help to keep me sane. There are so many good things that I want to do, and I need to find the time somewhere. I honestly didn't see how much my connectedness was disconnecting me from real life. It was a sobering wake up call.

I'm not putting facebook back on my phone for the foreseeable future. I have messenger so I can contact friends and family that way. I did reinstall it on my ipad so I can try to wean myself from the habit of checking all the time. And I'm going to try and keep my posts to a minimum. I know it's going to be hard, but I need to be the one in control of what takes my time. I need my mental space. I need to learn how to make sure every time I enter that realm I do so in a positive, constructive way. So I'm going to try to avoid falling for the leading bylines like, "You won't believe what happens when...," or "secret food that stumps weight loss experts." We've all seen them, and we've all fallen victim to their sensationalist hook only to discover it's just more junk mail to wade through.

It's not easy. I've loved being able to check in with family and friends and experience what they're experiencing without having to wait for a phone call, email, or letter. But I don't think I can deal with all the padding it's acquired. I don't shop on facebook. There are thousands of other sites out there when I want to research something or go shopping for something specific. Finding it myself is part of the process. Initially I wanted to consider cutting out facebook completely and relying on messaging/blogging/email for my tie to the people I care about. I've always told myself it was about being able to connect with people quickly, and I want to keep it for that. Leaving completely would mean making it much harder for the people I care about to connect with me if they wanted to and that seems a little egotistical. But I'm going to work on it. I can't promise I won't decide at some point in this coming year that I'm done with facebook. I will try to blog more regularly when I have something to say or comment about at length. That way no one has to look at my brain vomit if they don't want to. Because honestly, that's sometimes what facebook can get like. People puking their feelings/opinions all over innocent bystanders. Kind of harsh, I know, but it's true. I want to make a positive change and share the things that make life such an amazing journey. Wish me luck. I'm going to need it. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Really Simple Things

I've been feeling guilty lately over all the time that's passed since I got around to writing something. It's not that things haven't been happening, but probably more that they've been happening a little too much leaving very little time to quantify and assess what's happening in my wonderful world. The busyness has kept me from pausing to really be grateful for this incredible journey and it's time to break the cycle. Thanksgiving will be coming soon in Canada and then a little later in the US. I miss that time over here in Australia. So instead of doing a facebook 3/5 days of things to be grateful for, I'm just going to start and see how far I get. There's an awful lot.

I am grateful for modern technology. It means I can communicate with my loved ones on a daily basis and see exactly how their lives are going. It means I can pay bills and do banking without having to find time to get into the branch during their operating hours. It means I can read as many books as I want at the same time and carry them all with me without renting a trailer. It means I can take pictures and share the memories with people I care about right away. It means I can text my husband as soon as a thought pops into my head without worrying if he's busy. It allows me to live in two worlds quite happily even though my body can only reside in one.

I am grateful for my body. It lets me see beautiful things, breathe incredible air, touch other human beings, taste food that makes me want to sing, dance when I feel like it, sing when I want to, sleep and feel instantly younger when I wake, and experience a myriad of sensations and memories. It is a miracle. I can walk. I can run (slower than I used to). I can feel. I am alive.

I am grateful for words. They can encapsulate the breadth of experience in my existence. They have so much power and they're largely free for the taking. They can take me to places I've never been and allow me to see things in a way I had never imagined. They are precious and strong. How we use our words is one of the clearest indicators of who we really are as individuals and a society. I am always conscious of the blessing and responsibility they represent.

I am grateful for a near perfect husband that accepts a less than perfect spouse with a selflessness that motivates me to do much better. He seems to instinctively do the right thing in nearly every instance. That's hard to keep up with, but I know without the motivation to hold to his pace I would have been so much less. He is one the biggest mercies God has seen fit to bless me with.

I am grateful for water. Not only is it vital to existence, but it manages to be beautiful and lyrical at the same time. It sounds, tastes, smells and feels good. Water can gently caress, swirl and dance as well as being strong enough to cut steel. It adapts with complete fluidity to every occasion. Nothing can put a smile on my face faster than watching waves rolling into shore on a beach or seeing a torrent cascading down a cliff face. It reminds me that real power is so much more than what humans wield so carelessly.

I am grateful for sunlight. I love it's warmth, the way it captures motes of dust in its fingers as it twists through the air. I love the way it transforms every colour it touches to a better version of what it seemed before. I love the way it reminds us to move a little slower, pause a little longer, and let life soak deep into our bones. I crave sunlight sometimes in the depths of winter and that's why when it returns it's such an occasion for joy.

I am grateful for the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is an imperfect world, full of imperfect beings trying to overcome all that imperfection as best they can. The gospel, however, includes a way for all of us to transcend that imperfection in Christ. Yes there are rules. No, not everyone likes them or understands them. But that's okay. Because Christ and his gospel are infinitely perfect in patience too. We start where we are and we place ourselves in his hands and ask him to help us see our way forward. And in his perfect love he does. We live in a time where we are clouding the lines between obedience to His law and the acceptance of everything and everyone. That's very difficult to reconcile, but if we really listen to our Saviour he can teach us how love and accept without needing to condone or embrace. That is remarkable.

I am grateful for music. I appreciate how it can capture exactly what I'm feeling with far more eloquence than I possess. It has the ability to change a bad mood for the better in a just a few measures. It can motivate us to do hard things. It can allow us to touch the divine. It can build bridges between cultures and soften broken or even angry hearts. It can revive memories we had lost and give us release for emotions we cannot contain. It is one of the things that glorifies our intelligence and gives it voice. It makes us smarter. It is magic.


I am grateful for little things. Tiny reminders of where I've been. Little mementos of my life to date. I cannot carry them all with me, and often they get lost or discarded,  but we all have them. Those small objects that we rediscover and then sit back for the flood of memories and sensations they carry into our hearts with them. They are often unremarkable to anyone but us. A ticket stub for a concert. A particular marble. A rock or shell from a beach. A scribbled birthday card from a toddler. They are like acquaintances that we run into once in a while and thoroughly enjoy catching up with. For example, I have a pair of opera glasses on a silver gilt chain. They come from a trip to the Sydney Opera House to watch Carmen. They were kind of an extravagant purchase at the time, but every time they come out of the box I can see that performance, feel the seat, touch the music and remember exactly how I felt that night. And that makes me smile because I understand what a privilege that memory is. I love my memory tokens, because that's what they are. An instant trip into cherished moment of the past.

I love my family. They are unique and diverse. They understand my mindset in varying degrees, but they all love freely. Each one is a miracle in my life with something incredible to contribute. When I look back on things in my life I want to count as my successes, my family is one of them. Because they are nice people. That's a precious thing. They are funny, they are smart, they are beautiful, and they are part of me. Each person has influenced who I am and the way I see the world. They have taught me so much and asked so little in return.

I am incredibly grateful for the people the Lord has sent into my life. I have met and known so many incredible people who have shared so much of who they are with no demands. They have made me want to stand taller, speak more kindly, share more freely and love with abandon. They have brought colour and music into my existence at every turn. They are teachers, confidants, exemplars. They are bosses, coworkers, playmates, students. They are the best and brightest stars in my past, present and future skies. I owe them everything.

I suspect that's enough for now. My list could probably have chapters if I kept going. That's the wonderful thing about gratitude. The more you think about it the more you realize there is to be grateful for. Thank you, life.






Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Exceptional

One of the saddest bi-products of our digital age is the prevalence of inflammatory prose. It’s everywhere we turn. Individuals tweet their opinions, blog blatantly, or post their statuses with impunity. Their words cut and maim and disillusion with complete apathy. Some individuals even profit from the sensationalizing of their bogus views through the hits the ads on their blogs receive each time someone checks out what they have to say. Television does the same as networks concoct “reality” situations to hook viewers who have to tune in just to see what those “real” people will get up to this time. We think we’re getting somewhere as a civilization when in reality we’re still showing up to watch the beheading/hanging/feeding of the lions for the cheap thrill it is. We can pat ourselves on the back for not being the victim/contestant/subject matter before our eyes. And it makes all of us a little less than what we should be. 

Yesterday I let myself get a little incensed after reading a blog written in reaction to another blog that was truly offensive and obviously staged for effect. That made me angry. That anyone could put such words out into space knowing they were blatant untruths was painful. And then I disappointed in myself for falling straight into the trap. I found myself reading the offensive blog and felt ill. In wanting to see the cause of the all the upset I probably earned the woman a few dollars of revenue via her blog ads and that really hurts. So, as I explain I will not put a link to her site. She doesn’t deserve it. But I will share what she said.

“You will never have the time, energy, freedom or mobility to be exceptional if you have a husband and kids.”
Amy Glass, Thought Catalog, Jan. 15, 2014

Wow. You only have to take a look at history to see that exceptional married women with children are there in number. Marie Curie, Queen Victoria, Emily Murphy, shall I keep going? That anyone could write something so ridiculously self-absorbed and argumentative then publish it as their enlightened opinion is pitiful proof of the prostitution inherent in sensationalism. And our society seems to thrive on it. We sell our integrity, thoughts, private lives for attention and money. We want to be seen and talked about.

What exactly is exceptional? It’s the remarkable, the unusual, the noteworthy, the uncommon, the atypical, and the extraordinary. And in a world increasingly preaching the need for identity outside of marriage and motherhood, the choice to embrace motherhood and marriage in an exceptional way is gradually becoming all the more exceptional, especially when people are continually taking time to attack and deface it.  Because we only attack and belittle the things we fear or don’t understand.

The very exceptional Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, wrote this in 1746:

“Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well.”

I believe that with all my heart. It is part of the reason I chose to be a stay at home mother. I’m not a stupid person. I could have chosen to be anything if I wished. None of it really seemed worth the effort. So I got married and became a wife and mother. And every day I woke up and chose it again and again, and I was determined to do it as well as I could in the process. And while feeding, clothing, caring, teaching, laughing and loving may increasingly seem unexceptional to our society, the things I have learned and mastered along the way are definitely exceptional.

I learned you cannot force another human being to do anything without destroying part of your own humanity. I learned that yelling to get your way is selfish and lazy. I learned that words are some of the most powerful things we possess. I learned that children are entire worlds unto themselves. I learned that love is priceless and eternal. I learned that it’s easier to become your best self when your focus is on someone else’s well-being. I learned that joy cannot be bought or even engineered. It happens when we least expect it and surprises us every time, and we can miss it if we aren’t there when it occurs. I learned that when we try to be the best mother and wife possible, we usually become so much more than just a wife and mother. Parents acquire a multitude of skills by necessity during that journey and become truly exceptional, because a stay at home mother creates a single income family, and money is tight. You cannot afford to buy your solutions to everyday problems. You must teach yourself things that professionals pay other people to do. It doesn’t always come easily. But we learned as much from the failures as we did from the successes. And the amazing thing is that our children learned it at the same time. We took that journey of discovery together. And now that our children are all adults, they have the basic skills to find solutions to their own problems. That is rather exceptional.


I became a stay at home mother because I felt a sense of responsibility to these small people I had helped to create. I did not trust the world to do a competent job of teaching and nurturing them to their full potential. Deep inside that choice felt right. And I wanted my children to know it was completely possible to have a stable, loving, nuclear family with two committed parents – a mother and a father – in this world. I wanted them to know that their lives were worth taking 20+ years of mine to focus on their needs. I do not have a university degree or a high-profile career. But I can do a myriad of things very well and they bring me joy. And I do have an amazing family of incredible, gifted, talented people who make my soul sing. There are five other people on this planet whose lives I changed as they changed mine and that’s beyond exceptional. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Finding Christmas

Christmas has always been a magical time of year. I remember the excitement fluttering through my body as a young child, desperate for that last few days to pass so it would finally be Christmas morning. I remember the gatherings with family, the endless parade of things to nibble and snack on even when you had no room left. I remember the reluctant trudging through the snow with family in the dark on Christmas Eve to sing on doorsteps only to be happy we did it because of the smiles it brought and the way Christmas was that much closer when we came home. I remember plates of treats dropped secretly on neighbours’ porches before running like made into the darkness before we were caught in the act. I remember wrapping presents in a secluded location so little eyes wouldn’t see the surprise in store. I remember barely being able to stay awake Christmas Eve until everyone was finally asleep and stockings could be filled. I remember waking up at the crack of dawn to get a turkey into the oven so we’d be able to have the big dinner later that day and eating chocolates for breakfast with a mandarin orange(healthy?) chaser.  I remember laughing about nothing and simply celebrating being part of a family. I never thought it would be any different.
This year, thousands of miles away from all our family, Trevor and I are struggling to capture that magic. So many things are different. This year will likely not be our best effort at recapturing the traditions of the past. Less than a week before the big day, we have yet to get our cards sent. There is one wrapped gift under the tree. Today it reached 40 degrees Celsius (which is 104 Fahrenheit). That is decidedly unfestive. Neither of us really feels like shopping, baking Christmas treats, playing board games…any of it. After searching for an inexpensive turkey, we finally found one last weekend and we are determined to bake it next week no matter what. I will make some pies; we’ll prepare all the usual feast trimmings and share it with some friends. But it’s not the same. We are realizing there are some key elements missing in our celebration model.
#1 FAMILY – this is the big one. Christmas is meant for sharing. Without family, particularly children, it’s hard to get excited. We get hooked on their imagined excitement over the gifts we have carefully selected to show our love. We plan our activities around their enjoyment (and interests/attention span). This year it will phone calls and possibly skype, and some rather late packages once the rest of the parts required finally arrive.
#2 SNOW – Never thought I’d miss winter. But I’m realizing a lot of our Yuletide abandon is a product of the cabin fever we have just remembered is starting. We want to show the world that even though it’s bitterly cold, our car doesn’t want to start, and the sun is suddenly allergic to our planet, we will not go without a fight. We will push back the darkness with lights and decorations, parties and presents. We will celebrate the knowledge that life is so much more than winter and the sun will come again. Over here, the sun is in abundance right now. We’d almost like a brief reprieve. Cooking a turkey in my house/brick oven seems ludicrous. On a day like today I’d like Christmas dinner to be ice-cream, followed by floating in an unheated pool.
#3 FOOD – This is also weather related, sadly. One of the staples of Christmas is all the baking. As we ease into summer that really isn’t a powerful urge. Without the caloric demands of winter, overindulgence seems like a recipe for indigestion and discomfort. It would be messy and sticky. But we’re going to keep our fingers crossed and make an attempt next week anyway. I’m starting to think a spatch-cocked turkey cooked on the BBQ would be genius. Perhaps next year. Of course, that would mean finding a BBQ by next year, but we’ll see what the New Year brings.
#4 MUSIC – For the first time in decades we are without a Christmas concert to attend. No recitals. No choir performances. I find myself craving the outlet. I used to get tired of the Christmas carols in Canada, the incessant repetition of Christmas music in the stores, on the radio, even at church. Not this time. We’ve got a serious Christmas music deficit happening and I find myself craving each chance to sing a carol. I almost bought myself a ukulele the other day because I wanted to learn to play it and be able to sing some carols to lighten the mood. There is something affirming in making music that celebrates the Saviour and the love of Christmas. I’m missing the outlet desperately.

Perhaps I need to clarify a few things before this becomes a pathetic sombre plea for rescue. It’s really not. We’re doing pretty well. We don’t have the resources to go mad with the décor this year on a student budget. But I did find a cheap little tree and it’s adorable. I did my best and it really helped bring some Christmas cheer into the house. And I did find a beautiful nativity that makes me smile each time I see it. And I remembered the tiny nativity I squirrelled away in a tin for the journey over here after having completely forgotten it. It was the best surprise ever. And we’re finding ways to gradually choose which traditions we can manage over here and which ones need to go into storage for a while. Adjustment is always hard. The things we will miss most are not easily remedied. We cannot hug our loved ones. We cannot stay up late with them watching Christmas specials. We cannot gather Christmas day and work on crafts at the table, laughing over our efforts. But we can remember. And be thankful we have been so blessed to have such wonderful memories and loved ones. And we can do better next year.  Because that’s the magic of Christmas. We get to do it over and over again, getting closer to perfect each year. And simple is always a good starting point.


 

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Grudge Not That Ye Be Not Grudged

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about relationships and how we are warping their nature in our society. Through the advent of social media and reality TV we are shifting our attitudes and communication focus. Somehow we are allowing ourselves to become desensitized to the power of our words and the damage they can inflict. Reality TV showcases alliances adopted and then discarded for power/influence/standing with no perceived emotional repercussion. The audience is captivated by this vicarious freedom from social morality and can’t help but watch the trainwreck. Social media gives us the power of instant reaction. It allows us to parade our opinions and even our need for validation to a mass audience. Then it invites that audience to pass their own judgement and agree or disagree on the basis of a single statement. It can be like putting a loaded gun in the hands of a child without explaining what will happen if they pull the trigger in a room full of people they love. This is the world we are creating.  

We have always had misunderstandings in this world. They can be as insignificant as a poorly phrased compliment or comment or as serious as a global conflict. They are everywhere. But I worry sometimes that we are creating an absence of accountability in our media choices that we’re going to have to pay for someday. If we are not careful, we will become a society plagued with grudges, vendettas and poison. I want to talk about the little ones we’re all familiar with.

Sometimes they seem to be a simple case of miscommunication – a “he said/she said” kind of situation usually involving the misinterpretation of something that ends up wounding one party while the other can’t understand what happened. Often a quick apology would resolve the situation (whether or not justified) and it would be old history, but too often it takes on an ugly life of its own, becoming a grudge.

We’ve all been there. We’ve been hurt and felt like it came out of nowhere from one of the people we hold dear. We’re blindsided by this sudden attack and like all good mammals, we pull the survival card and become defensive, angry and aggressive. We usually feel justified in our emotions, convinced that we have been treated unfairly. We often lash out, trying to redistribute the pain to where we think it rightfully belongs. And we are behaving naturally in our reaction, but we cross the line when it enters “judgement territory.” 

In a court of law there is something called “burden of proof.” The burden of proof is often associated with the Latin maxim semper necessitas probandi incumbit ei qui agit, the best translation of which seems to be: "the necessity of proof always lies with the person who lays charges."[1] That means when we choose to lay a charge of cruelty at someone’s feet, we are obligated to first prove the validity of that charge. If we want to attribute a perceived attack on our character to someone, we have to make that claim stick. Instead we allow our feelings to become the proof and rush straight into passing judgement. The flip side of burden of proof is benefit of assumption. This is often completely ignored. It means that until proof exists, the other party is innocent and cannot be judged guilty. That almost never happens when a grudge is in force. In our social media age, a reaction is instantaneous and splashed before myriad eyes in a split second. We cannot take it back. Our spears are launched before we even realize we’ve thrown them. We don’t even begin to bother with proof or real justification because we’re just flinging feelings, right?

There are some very important things to remember. We have a right to our feelings. But they are feelings, based on our background, perception, emotional health, environmental stress, personal morality. They are only truth for us. They are a marker of our emotional state. They are not proof. They are a message to our brain that there is information that needs to be processed and put into its rightful context. They are a valuable personal diagnosis tool for our benefit. Properly used and analyzed they can help us have healthier relationships and perceptions. They can teach us empathy and compassion. But used as a weapon, they create confusion, mistrust, and more emotional and physical stress. One of my favourite plays is a comedy that speaks some poignant truths.

“She speaks poniards, and every word stabs. If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the North Star.”[2]

Words are weapons. They can cut deep. So why do we do it?

"A grudge is an anger that won't quit," says Robert Enright, PhD, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "When someone wounds you, it's natural to get angry. Like a turtle pulling into its shell, you harden your heart to protect yourself from further injury," says Frederic Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002). "For grudge-holders, grievances are like planes on an air-traffic controller's screen, circling endlessly and taking up precious air space." We hold grudges, Luskin explains, because we lack the self-confidence as well as the communication and resolution skills for dealing with a hurtful situation in the first place.[3]

Perhaps we are misled by this counterfeit confidence of “righteous anger.” That initial burst of power and indignation can be pretty heady. And if that feels so good, imagine if we could get others to back up our opinion. And off we go to blog/post/tweet our injustices. But we have little control over the damage it can create or the following downswing in our mood once the carnage is apparent. Families are fractured, marriages are wounded, children are emotionally scarred, and trust is often obliterated. People stop talking and retreat to their respective corners because they don’t want to be hurt again. And love is lost.

"If your parents nursed grievances, or consistently treated you badly, you may be hyper-vigilant to affronts as an adult," says Luskin.[4]

It’s unfortunate that what we experienced as a child can reappear in the way we deal with others as an adult, especially when it was deeply hurtful and left us never wanting to feel that way again. Our programming often runs very deep, and unless we teach ourselves a different way to resolve our conflicts and become less prone to grudges, we will continue to hurt ourselves and others.  There are some things we can do:
      Acknowledge your hurt. Put a label on it. Admitting we are angry/betrayed/sad means we know what we’re dealing with.
      Control your natural stress reaction. Question what we’re feeling. Ask ourselves what’s going on. Why are we reacting this way? Are there external factors affecting our perception. It could be as simple as sleep deprivation or low blood sugar. Find our context.
      Communicate with the other party. This is the hard part. We actually need to talk with the other person and establish what is actually happening. Perhaps they’re having a bad day too. Perhaps they didn’t mean their actions to be perceived in the way our brain is reacting. This is where we must establish “burden of proof.” To continue without it is unfair to everyone. Notice that this part happens after we calm down and identify how and why we’re reacting. Then we give the other party “benefit of assumption” and let them help create a better version of the real situation with us. We cannot off load this responsibility to anyone else. It is our relationship to make or break. Involving others creates only more misinterpretation and confusion, adding new viewpoints and flawed contexts.
      Find out what relationship rules you are using. It can be surprising to discover what some of our internal rules actually are. Sometimes they were established as a reaction to a slight when we were children and no longer apply. We can give ourselves permission to rewrite them and eliminate any that create stress and unhappiness in our lives. If we really can’t play board games with our siblings without fighting, we give ourselves permission to let go of that until we have learned how to overcome the triggers that make us cranky (yep, that’s me). We want to win relationships not games. Relationships are not games. This step is ongoing and can happen at any time. It is not dependent on a conflict. It is about becoming emotionally healthy and breaking the cycle.
      
       
      I try to remind myself two things whenever I feel hurt by someone. 
      No one is perfect. I am definitely not perfect. I say stupid things. I don’t always pay attention or self-edit properly. Because of that I shouldn’t expect someone else to meet a standard of behaviour I am not able to meet.
      I am not omniscient. I don’t know what is happening in someone else’s life and have no understanding of their personal context. Until I do I am not allowed to judge their actions. Even then I cannot judge. My brain is not their brain, and judgement is not my right. And that means I have to talk to them. 

      It’s not easy. I screw it up often enough that I need constant reminders to think before I act. Hopefully by the time I am old and not completely deaf I will have figured out how not to judge/grudge others. It’s a lot of work, but it is definitely worth it. We all want to feel safe and trusted in this world. But we have to be the first to try. In this social media heavy, entertainment plastered world we need to be doubly careful. The immediacy of our reactions and perceptions can seem to be rewarded and become addicting. If someone “likes” our attitude we can believe we are right. We can find ourselves holding that smoking gun with injured friends and family at our feet without even realizing we pulled the trigger. I really don’t want to be that person. Learning the skill set that prevents these accidents and focuses on forgiveness is so much safer.

      A servant of the Lord, President James E. Faust put this alternative much more clearly than I can:
Dr. Sidney Simon, a recognized authority on values realization, has provided an excellent definition of forgiveness as it applies to human relationships:

“Forgiveness is freeing up and putting to better use the energy once consumed by holding grudges, harboring resentments, and nursing unhealed wounds. It is rediscovering the strengths we always had and relocating our limitless capacity to understand and accept other people and ourselves.”[5]

We all want to belong. We want to be part of this enormous human family and feel accepted and wanted. But we have to be the first one to accept, welcome, trust and think before we act. That’s just how it works. We need to remind ourselves to ask a few important questions before we react to any situation, real or media-staged.
            Is what I am about to say really the truth or just a snap reaction to my feelings?
            Who will this hurt?
            Does this help to make me the person I want to be?

No one knows what you’re actually seeing and feeling in your head. When we give them a sliver of our reaction to it and expect a truthful response we are being unfair. We are paving the way for another grudge to burst into life. We have to stop that. Our loved ones deserve nothing less.




[1] Transnational principle of law: Trans-Lex.org
[2]“ Much Ado About Nothing,” William Shakespeare, Act 2, Scene 1
[3] Winning the Grudge Match,” Marjorie Rosen, Ladies Home Journal, 2013
[4]Winning the Grudge Match,” Marjorie Rosen, Ladies Home Journal, 2013

[5] With Suzanne Simon, Forgiveness: How to Make Peace with Your Past and Get On with Your Life (1990), 19.