Making Sense of My Life

I have been in finals mode for the last couple weeks: staying up late and sleeping in, showering only when I remember to, not keeping my beard well-groomed and, much to the chagrin of my bride, not doing a great job keeping the house in cleanly order.  But I always like this time of the year, especially when the final projects involve a synthesis of learning and reflecting back on the content of the semester.  One of the projects I completed this semester was a Genogram, which is sort of like a family tree but with therapeutic details like relationships that are distant or fused, mental health and substance abuse issues, loss and grief, etc.  Along with the assignment I wrote a reflective piece and I thought I’d share part of it here.  It feels slightly odd to share something this personal in a publicly visible place but I decided long ago that part of my writing and career would always be to maintain a brutal sense of honesty and genuine vulnerability.  Besides, it’s not like anyone actually reads this thing.   

I spent some time on the phone with my father as part of this project and gained a fascinating perspective about my motivation to build a career in the field of psychology.  I was raised in a fairly conservative evangelical Christian tradition that I later rebelled against.  I felt forced to believe something that never made sense to me.  This has created an occasionally contentious relationship with my father as I struggle with the faith tradition to which he has committed his life’s work.  One of my lifelong concerns has been a desire to build a career and accomplish things that would elicit pride from my father, the desire of any son.  I tried both of his career paths, church ministry and teaching public school, and neither one of them fully made sense to me.  One of the biggest things that excites me about a career in psychology is that my job will never be to convince anyone of anything.  Rather, my role will be simply to listen, provide education, and try to objectively empower and guide people toward making their own decisions.  I was raised in a faith tradition that taught me the only way to truly save people was to convince them to believe in Jesus.  That was so exhausting for me and I lived under a constant state of chronic stress that I wasn’t doing enough to save the world in the name of Jesus.  It has been hard for me to understand how my father could be happy in that type of ministry.  I was inadvertently projecting my own baggage onto him and his life’s work.  

I learned that a few years ago my father completed a similar project as part of one of his classes in a Doctor of Ministry program.   In talking with him about the project, I understood why Christianity is so important to my father.  It’s the same reason Psychology is important to me.  It helps to make sense of life.  My father saw multiple people in his family experience redemption through Christianity, leading to more healthy and fruitful lives.  The story of and belief in Jesus was redemptive for him and he has helped many other people throughout his life to experience that same healing and redemption because it also made sense for them.  What was redemption for him, however, resulted in feelings of bondage for me.  I felt bound to behave a certain way, to believe certain things, not ask certain questions, and get everyone in my life to think and believe the same way even if it didn’t really fully make sense to me.  I just needed to have faith and press on.  

As it turns out, my father and I are quite similar though our paths may look different.  His job is to meet with people individually and provide counsel, share teachings to larger groups on a regular basis, and publish his thoughts in writing.  That is exactly what I want my career to look like.  The process will be the same but the substance will be slightly different.  Conceptualizing my relationship with my dad in this way allows me to move beyond my boyhood desire for his approval and begin to learn from him as a fellow adult.  As I move beyond those boyhood insecurities and feel confident in my career choice for myself, I begin to see that there is much I can learn from my father.  He has spent the last 20 years ministering to people and has countless lessons from which I can learn in my quest to build a successful career in Psychology.  I hope that we can continue to learn from each other.

Like a Child

I was listening the TED Radio hour today (as I’ve become accustomed to do lately while attempting to get my ass into shape on runs).  This particular episode was called “Unstoppable Learning” and featured a discussion with a Psychologist named Alison Gopnick who introduced herself by saying “I study babies and young children and what they can tell us what it means to be human.  After all, we’re just babies and young children that have been around a little bit longer”.  I was fascinated to hear Dr. Gopnick describe her research, which suggests that the minds of babies are like the minds of “the most brilliant scientists”.  It reminded me of some reading I did back in undergrad about the activity in a young child’s brain and how they are capable of more learning at that stage than any other but do not yet have the adaptive skills to communicate it in a way that we as adults are able to understand.  I was most fascinated when Dr. Gopnick started to talk about an experiment she ran in which she presented a baby with crackers and broccoli.  She made facial expressions and used vocal inflections to communicate a distaste for crackers and a preference for broccoli.  When she asked the baby to share with her, to give her some of what she liked, he gave her broccoli.  Dr. Gopnick stated that this shows the child going beyond empathy; it suggests a journey into altruism in which the child is actually taking the perspective of another person into consideration.

At the end of this particular interview, Dr. Gopnick said something that really hit me, “if what we want is to have open-mindedness, open learning, imagination, creativity, innovation, maybe at least some of the time, we should be getting the adults to start thinking more like children”.

What was it that Jesus said about letting the little children come to him?  Only children can enter the kingdom of heaven?

What if heaven was when we all saw the world like little kids, without the rigid boundaries that we have set up for ourselves?  What if we could truly understand other people’s perspectives?  Lion laying down with a lamb?  What if heaven could happen now?

Just wondering.

Do It Anyway

I attended a meeting yesterday of a group called Koinonia; a greek word that connotes meanings of community and participation.  This particular group is a weekly gathering of graduate students at Loyola University Maryland to discuss issues of faith and spirituality.  Yesterday our topic of conversation was the notion of forgiveness.  At the end of the hour-long meeting, the leader shared a prayer that I thought was quite profound and hit me square between the pockets.  It is called “Do It Anyway”, and is reportedly attributed to Mother Theresa.

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.  Forgive them anyway.  

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.  Be kind anyway.  

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.  Succeed anyway.  

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.  Be honest and sincere anyway.  

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.  Create anyway.  

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.  Be happy anyway.  

The good you do today will often be forgotten.  Do good anyway.  

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.  Give your best anyway.  

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.  It was never between you and them anyway.

Finding My Silence

IMG_0052We all know how important it is to find silence in our lives, time and space to step back for a moment and put things in perspective.  It keeps us from rash emotional responses and helps to make better decisions.  It seems that discussions of the need for silence take the forefront at this time of year, during the season of Lent as we await (depending on your faith tradition) Easter, the spring season, and new life taking root after a cold winter.

I always had trouble with finding silence and have often struggled to grasp what this concept really means.  I tend to live continually in my head.  My wife gives me a hard time because of my selective memory.  I remember some things crystal clear while others bring no recollection for me at all.  The truth is, I am usually hearing so much noise in my head that at times there is simply no room to process anything else.  I have always had a difficult time living in the moment.  I am usually functioning in the moment but living in the regret of the past or the fear of the future.

People have found many ways to be in the moment; some healthy, like meditation or exercise; others not so healthy, like excessive use of drugs and alcohol.  Either of these paths could lead to trouble in excess, I suppose.  If working out begins to interfere with your daily life functioning, perhaps you have a problem.  The point is that we have a basic drive to find ways to silence all the noise in our head so that we can live and thrive in the present moment, not worrying about tomorrow as it will have enough worries of its own.  And not living under they oppression of past mistakes but rather allowing them to teach their lessons and then move on.

This all sounds remarkably similar to teachings I grew up with but didn’t make much sense to me.  Didn’t Jesus talk about this?  Also Buddha, I’m pretty sure.  Maybe Muhammad as well?

I was on a hike with my dog Oliver yesterday in Gunpowder Falls State Park and I experienced what it feels like to be fully present in the moment.  It was incredibly refreshing.  As I stood on the bank of the river, slightly off the beaten path, I was fully consumed by listening to the sound of the river flowing over rocks, smelling the brisk winter air and feeling it invade my nostrils and brush harshly against my skin, admiring the way in which the water move so effortlessly over rocks and around turns.  Nothing else mattered in that moment.

I found my silence.

Wheels

My parents recently moved out of state and gave me their 1999 Chevrolet Prism as a parting gift.  Two years ago I would not have even considered accepting such a gift and thereby making my wife and I a two-car family; but things change.  So, when they made the offer, I took them up on it and hitched a ride with my brother to pick it up.  As I drove home along a Pennsylvania state highway with my dog in the backseat, I felt like I did after getting my first car in high school.   I felt free.

There is a concept in family therapy called differentiation, first touted by a psychiatrist named Murray Bowen who was one of the first in the field to study and treat entire families as opposed to simply the individual who was suffering from some type of disorder or disturbance.  The notion is that the ideal developmental context will allow a child/individual to develop a strong sense of identity within the context of the family unit.  There is a tenuous balance that must be walked between exaggerated emotional reactivity on one end and emotional fusion on the other.  Too far in one direction leads to an overdeveloped sense of independence and little emotional connectivity in relationships.  Too far in the other direction leads to an underdeveloped sense of self and an over-dependence on relationships for emotional validation.  It seems clear that this is a balance we continue to walk throughout our lives, not simply a deterministic chain of events that happens in our childhood.

Many people talk of “losing themselves” after being in a marriage or committed relationship for a number of years.  When my wife and I hit a rocky patch 7 years in, I realized that I never really had an strong sense of myself to begin with.  In fact, I always thought that having a sense of your own identity was a bad thing; my identity was supposed to be found in Jesus alone.  Only problem was, I never really knew what that meant.  So instead of having a strong sense of identity as part of a cause or movement or church community, I simply looked to those with whom I was in close relationship to give me direction in who I should be and what I should do.  Wrong answer.

What happens when all of those relationships are stripped away?  Even for a short period of time?  Then you’re left with nothing.  Except for hurt, which is a strangely comforting but miserable companion.

Over the last couple years, I have often felt imprisoned by my own psychosis, cut off from relationships for reasons yet unexplained to me.  At some point I began to see that the true prison was the dependence that I felt on validation from my closest relationships.  When I began to understand that being alone with myself was not the miserable prison that I often thought it was, I felt more free to enjoy relationships with those closest to me because I no longer felt I needed their approval in order to stay alive.

I’ve realized how important it is to have a well established sense of identity and some confidence on which to stand.  And it feels good.  But it is a daily struggle.  And it helps to have things to call your own, spaces that are sacred.  Like your own set of wheels.

Call it my own little sanctuary.

How do you walk this balance?  Where do you find your freedom?  Where do you find your sanctuary?  Would love to hear your thoughts!