Self-care for the full catastrophe

What if a person is really clear about what his purpose is, and what his values are, but is blocked from putting them into action? What if unremitting stress is the result of that conflict and loss of control? What can be done?

Those were questions I was faced with yesterday while giving a presentation on stress management at a government agency in Washington. Over the past 16 months, the career employees who work there have had their life’s work come under fire, putting everything they value under assault. It’s practically impossible to do their jobs as they believe they should be done. How do they deal with that frustration day after day? For some, the answer is to walk away, take retirement if they can. For others, the choice is to remain on the job, struggling to promote the work they believe in.

Selfishly, I want these good and dedicated people to stay in their jobs, fighting the good fight for the rest of us. But with what we know about the long-term consequences of chronic stress — higher risk of heart disease, mood disorders, and musculo-skeletal problems; weakened immune systems, premature aging and more — what will the personal cost be for them?

If ever there was a stressor that’s not going away, or not anytime soon, this is it. As I continued my discussion with these employees, I realized that they would need every tool in the stress management arsenal to keep themselves emotionally and physically healthy for the time ahead. The problem was too big for any one of the strategies I had to offer them. And yes, the word “arsenal” seems highly appropriate when talking about this kind of assault on values.

MC900383136So my overall message was that if they want to be around in 4 years or 8 years to start doing good again, they need to practice self-care right now. Here are some of the things we talked about:

  • Support groups — In any kind of stress, social support provides both a buffer and a direct antidote to its negative effects. Studies show, for instance, that mothers of children with disabilities who participate in support groups have fewer cellular signs of premature aging than similar mothers who don’t. We need both the emotional support and the informational support that can come from a group, along with the ability to laugh and cry with people who know exactly what we are dealing with.
  • Becoming more resilient — People who can adapt well to changing circumstances do better in the long run. Certain people are born with this ability and others have to practice it. Some ways to do that are by having good relationships with others, being able to make and carry out plans, having a positive self-view (i.e. monitoring negative self-talk) and developing good communication skills.
  • Gratitude practice — Focus on what’s going right instead of what’s going wrong. I was delighted when one of the group brought up the movie “Pollyanna,” a favorite of my kids when they were young. Pollyanna changed the people around her by always finding something to be glad about, even in the face of adversity.
  • Everyday mindfulness — Slowing down and focusing on just one thing at a time can help with some of the physical effects of stress and bring down heart rate and blood pressure. Listening more to others, giving them the full benefit of your attention, brings benefits such as increases in understanding, empathy and intimacy. And setting aside device-free times and places helps us disconnect from the grind of work and news, allowing space for silence or connection to others.
  • Relaxation breaks — Even 5 minutes of attention to the breath is a respite from the stress of the work day, and brings many more minutes of benefit. True relaxation only requires 4 elements – a quiet environment, a mental focal point, a comfortable seat and setting aside judgment.
  • Joy, fun and play — We forget how good it feels to laugh and play. It’s so important to build something into each day that gives you joy, if even for a few moments. Dancing, shooting hoops, jumping on a trampoline, playing a board game with your kids –carve out some time to do something for no other reason than that it’s fun. Lifestyles

In the introduction to his book, “Full Catastrophe Living,” Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that his title came from the movie, “Zorba the Greek.” Zorba describes his married life as “Wife, house, kids….the full catastrophe!” But as Kabat-Zinn points out, Zorba’s way is to:

“dance in the gale of the full catastrophe, to celebrate life, to laugh with it and at himself, even in the face of personal failure and defeat.”

For those who are living the “full catastrophe,” perhaps my best advice is to follow Zorba’s example, riding the waves and celebrating what you can each day.

 

 

 

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Reaching for gratitude amid chaos

One year ago, in the aftermath of the election, I wrote here about values, attempting to make sense of what had happened in our country. From my perspective, many of our country’s shared values had been put to the test and failed. Twelve months later, I’m no closer to understanding and my head is still spinning.

Things get crazier by the day.  Lying is an everyday occurrence in the White House. We now know that the Russians meddled in the election in a big way, enabled by our own social media companies. Powerful men are dropping like dominoes in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. Evangelical Christians, the group who used to most strongly believe that moral character was important in our leaders, are now the group least likely to profess that belief. Hypocrisy reigns supreme. Maybe there are no shared values.

In some ways, the Thanksgiving holiday tomorrow gives us a pass on seeking shared values. Because it centers around the family and the table there’s no requirement to celebrate with someone who looks different or has opposite beliefs. Sure, there can be plenty of dysfunction and strife within families, but we accept that. They belong to us.

So this Thanksgiving when I consider what I’m grateful for, I think it’s important to look outside the cocoon of my own family and my personal life. Not that I don’t have plenty to appreciate – all the people closest to me are happy, healthy, and doing pretty well. But as Gilbert K. Chesterton once wrote, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” Here are just a few of the people and organizations that we can’t afford to take for granted anymore:

Our free press. Under a constant bombardment of tweets calling them “fake news,” our major news organizations continue to do a mostly good job of reporting things just as they are. For about a year, The Washington Post has used the slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” on its masthead. That about says it all.

The ACLU. Perhaps no organization is more important when it comes to defending our liberties under the constitution. Whether it’s LGBT protections, sanctuary cities, people with disabilities, or aggressive policing practices, the ACLU is on the front lines.

Planned Parenthood. With women and their health needs under attack, Planned Parenthood is continuing their 100-year history of providing care and advocating for women, from their local community health centers to their global partnerships.newspaper

The women who are coming forward. It takes a lot of strength and bravery to speak out against powerful people and to discuss painful and uncomfortable incidents. My hope is that the women who are speaking out now will put predators and misogynists on notice, so that our children and grandchildren will live in a safer world.

The Southern Poverty Law Center. With hate crimes at a 5-year high and a president who is reluctant to fully separate himself from extremists, the SPLC’s mission to fight hate and bigotry is more important than ever. Their Teaching Tolerance project helps educators reduce prejudice and sow understanding in schools.

Local food banks. Too numerous to name them all, local organizations who focus on food insecurity are the angels in every community. From the Capital Area Food Bank and Martha’s Table, who I work with in Washington, to the Houston Food Bank, which was there for people after Hurricane Harvey, these groups provide critical support 365 days a year.Fairchild Airmen volunteer at local food bank

Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed by the news of the day, it’s difficult not to feel something like despair. Can we get through this time? Will people learn to trust again? Will civility return? But then I remember all the good people and organizations who are powering through, and I have a little bit of hope and a lot of gratitude. Thanks to all of you, from the bottom of my heart.Cloud White Blue Love Heart Sky Loyalty Luck

 

How to forgive, even if you can’t forget

Is it possible to forgive and forget? While a few lucky people seem able to embrace the idea as part of their “live and let live” philosophy, most of us have a tendency to hold on to hurt. For us the question becomes how to transform the experience enough to allow forgiveness.

Forgiving and forgetting have been on my mind since reading two different books dealing with love and war. In “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Saxons and the Britons have been at peace with each other since the time of King Arthur – but the price of the peace has been a near-total erasure of their memories of the past. A spell was cast upon them, so they live almost entirely in the present, with only occasional fragments of memory appearing out of the mist. They have blessedly forgotten the massacres of their families during the war, but they have also nearly forgotten that they had children at all. To awake “the buried giant” means that memory will be restored and people will renew their quest for revenge.

The second book dealing with forgiveness and memory was “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The story involves two sisters who have had a falling-out because of an infidelity, and are barely speaking to each other. But when the Biafran war breaks out, they are driven together for support amid the chaos, uncertainty and death around them. The wronged sister says to her sibling, “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.” The larger wrongs have helped her put her personal pain in perspective so that she can forgive her sister.

Psychologist Charlotte VanOyen Witvliet says that the act of forgiving doesn’t mean we literally forget what happened. Instead, “Forgiveness involves remembering graciously. The forgiver remembers the true though painful parts, but without the embellishment of angry adjectives and adverbs that stir up contempt.” Remembering graciously may mean re-telling the story of the painful event. If we strip the story of the angry words, what are we left with?

The message of “The Buried Giant” was that remembering graciously is impossible, that reconciliation is not an option, whereas “Half of a Yellow Sun” held it out as a possibility. In writing about reconciliation, Thich Nhat Hanh says that you must “begin to see that your enemy is suffering,” and while we sometimes “need indignation in order to act…the world does not lack people willing to throw themselves into action. What we need are people who are capable of loving…”IMG_2325

Forgiveness holds significant benefits for the person who extends it. When we let go of the angry narrative and negative emotions, blood pressure drops, the immune system gets a boost and we have fewer circulating stress hormones. Forgiveness heals us from the emotional pain that attaches itself to the constant replaying of a painful event. If you can stop the loop and retell the story, you don’t need to have your memory wiped clean in order to come to terms with the pain of the past. But that doesn’t mean forgiveness is easy either.

WebMD has some useful strategies for cultivating forgiveness, including practicing gratitude, using meditation and breathing to quell anger, and cognitive reframing (retelling the story). But they also make it clear that the first step in forgiveness is giving up the desire for revenge, and sometimes that is as far as someone can go. If one is able to move on from there, emotional forgiveness involves replacing emotions like anger, hatred, resentment and bitterness with empathy, compassion and love. Forgiveness becomes something that we have to commit to and maintain on a daily basis, much like sobriety.

Ultimately, emotional forgiveness means that you can begin to “see” the story of the person who hurt you. To do that it’s useful to remember one of my favorite quotes from Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”

Who would I be without my sisters?

At the end of each semester, I receive a packet of narrative comments that my students have submitted as part of the course evaluation. Leery as I sometimes am about reading them, they provide an opportunity to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and how I can improve the course. One of the things that my students most appreciate is the opportunity to heal through writing, and easily the most valuable assignment to them is the letter of gratitude that I ask them to write. The gratitude letter doesn’t just say “thank you,” it is a full acknowledgement of what someone has done for you and an appreciation of what that gift means.

But while assigning the gratitude letter to my students year after year, I have only rarely written one myself. Reading their comments recently made me realize that I have a group of people to whom I owe tremendous gratitude:

To my sisters:

Thank you for being my first friends, for teaching me about loyalty, the importance of relationships, and how to care for others. With you, I never felt alone – someone was always a step ahead and a step behind, protecting me. Being with you was like being in a private club with its own secrets and rituals. I think that’s why I hated camp, dropped out of Girl Scouts and never wanted to live in a dorm. My sisters were, for the longest time, the only group I needed to be part of. Remember how, no matter how old we were, Dad always referred to us collectively as “you girls”?

Thank you for teaching me how to share, no matter how reluctantly. Thank you for giving me the freedom to be myself. I know I can still be my most authentic when I am with you. Yes, we judge, doubt and second-guess each other sometimes, but we also accept each other, no matter how many flaws. We have learned through each other’s mistakes, and we have made mistakes together.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrenda Shaughnessy has a poem called “Why I Wish I Had More Sisters”, where she writes, “I wish I had more sisters, enough to fight with and still have plenty more to confess to.” Over the years, we have fought and we have confessed; in fact we have experienced a full range of human emotion. When I was cruel to one of you, I learned shame. When one of you was cruel to me, I learned forgiveness. We have carried anger, jealousy and resentment with us at times, but also love, kindness and compassion.

I am never at a loss for conversation when I am with you. We can laugh and cry, celebrate and grieve, in equal measure. Shaughnessy writes, “None of us would be forced to be stronger than we could be.” We have proven this to be true over and over again, as we have gone through difficult times together. When one of is hurting, there is someone to hold her up. We don’t always understand each other, but we never give up on each other.

Finally, thank you for making my husband part of the family, for loving him and our children almost as much as your own. We are stronger as a family because of the support and safe space you have provided. There is a synergy to love that is shared.

You continue to inspire me, to be my collective North Star. You are smart, dedicated, curious, funny and accomplished women. You keep me honest, you force me to grow, and I love you for it. I don’t wish I had more sisters – I realize I have just enough.

 

In the full moon’s reflection

Like it or not, we are formed by all of life’s experiences. Sometimes our faces or bodies hold the story; other times it stays hidden in the recesses of our hearts. But how often do we stop to feel gratitude for the bad experiences, the things that “don’t kill us, but make us stronger”? The full story of a life contains all that can be held of both past and present. So when the moon is at its fullest, it’s a fitting time to celebrate everything and everyone who helped us get to where we are, says yoga teacher Jo Tastula.

Tastula’s full moon yoga practice inspired me to explore the abundance of my existence. The poses are expansive and opening, sweeping in the totality of what I have observed, encountered, undergone or remembered. To celebrate our fullness, she says, we must include everything and exclude nothing. That means that all of the pain, the missteps, the bad judgments and embarrassments must be a part of the whole. We cannot selectively acknowledge just the joyful moments, successes and correct decisions that have made up our lives.image

Whenever I even remotely start to regret some of my youthful mistakes, I remind myself that I would never have met my husband if I had done things much differently. We were from opposite ends of the country, living in dissimilar circumstances, at very different places in our lives, when we met by chance in a foreign country. We really only had one chance to meet. The song “On My Way to You” beautifully expresses the idea that even the crooked roads we’ve traveled contribute to the goodness of life:

I relive the roles I’ve played

The tears I may have squandered

The many pipers I have paid

Along the roads I’ve wandered

Yet all the time I knew it

Love was somewhere out there waiting

Though I may regret a kiss or two

If I had changed a single day

What went amiss or went astray

I may have never found my way to you

The falls along the road help us find our way. Hardship and hassles round us out, hone our appreciation for the good times, teach us patience and tolerance, make us smarter and more interesting. So when we practice gratitude, why not give thanks for them too?

This week, for example, I had a lovely visit with my sister, read a good book, enjoyed phone calls with my kids, and did some meaningful volunteer work, all of which I loved. But I also got bug bites all over my body, had to deal with some issues in my house, and was screamed at by two separate people who didn’t like the bumper sticker on my car. Much as I might like to exclude those negative experiences,  I can’t. They are part of the whole picture of my week.

The full moon is visible to us when it is completely illuminated by the sun, as seen from Earth. It is something we perceive only because of the light shining on it. The full moon gives us the opportunity to illuminate all the nooks and crannies of our lives, to take a look at what’s in there that we’ve tried to hide, and to be grateful for our capacity to hold it all.

 

Thanks for…well, everything

Even on a bad day, I try to remain grateful. And the thing that I am most grateful for is opportunity. It is opportunity that’s given me the education to get the job that puts me in the traffic that frustrates me. It is opportunity that led to success that bought the house where things break down. It is opportunity that widens my experience so that I go to the concert that disappoints me. So I accept the bad with the good, just grateful that I have choices. thanks

Acknowledging all the good that I have immediately puts life in a different, more favorable perspective. Maybe that’s why having a day devoted to giving thanks is so appealing to everyone. For one day, we put aside our worries, and sometimes our differences, to come together in appreciation, and see things in a positive light.

Here are a few of the other things I give thanks for this year:

Gardens; the gift of friendship; goodness;  grace; room to grow.

Insight; ideas; my ipad; my in-laws; interesting conversations.

Visitors; vacations; Vinyasa yoga; the view from my window.

Eating with friends; the feeling of empathy; my eighty-something mother; having enough.

Time for the things that bring me joy; traditions, old and new;  the taste of good food; the touch of a loved one.

Happiness; good health; a helping hand; my husband.

Acceptance of differences; fresh fall apples; ancestors; the aroma of pie.Thanksgiving_16

Nature; new friends; naps; physical and spiritual nourishment; my neighbors.

Kindness; kisses; my wonderful kids; knowledge; holding a koala.Brisbane_122

Stories; my sisters; the sight of a sunrise; solitude when I need it; stars in the night sky; songs, especially when my daughter sings them.

Tecumseh said, “When you rise in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food and for the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”

Thank you for reading!