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Monthly Archives: July 2016

Stargazing

Sometimes the best things in life emerge from our biggest disappointments. Last month I took my nieces on our 1st annual vacation, which we decided to call The Barongan Girls Take D.C. This trip would not have been possible if the trip to Germany that my niece Paloma and I were supposed to go on hadn’t been canceled due to the craziness in Europe. A friend suggested that I take a trip with her and go somewhere else, but I wasn’t sure a trip with me would be as appealing as a trip to Germany. Fortunately for me, it was, and since my other niece Sadie was there when I brought it up, I figured I’d invite her, too.

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A Monumentous occasion

I have found that in life it is rare for things to turn out exactly as you expect them to. When I imagine the worst, things often turn out better than I expected. And when I think something is going to be great, I often end up feeling disappointed. But this was one of those rare times when everything was as perfect as I imagined it would be. We enjoyed some great meals…

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Sadie and Paloma enjoying a light dinner

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Anxiously awaiting our cheesecake at The Cheesecake Factory

and took in the sights of the city….

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Sadie enjoying some high end window shopping

But surprisingly, the best moments were the ones between the museums, the monuments, and the meals. They were the times when we were hanging out in the room, and Sadie and Paloma were building a fortress with the couch cushions. (Remember how fun that used to be?) The times when they sang, danced, talked about friends and boys, and discussed how many children they wanted. They were the unspoken ways they expressed their desire to be together all the time–like the fact that they wouldn’t put their luggage in their bedroom, preferring that we all get dressed in the living room instead.

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Sadie’s fortress of solitude. And my bed.

As a fitting end to a perfect trip, on the drive home I saw a falling star. And then a few hours later I saw a shooting star. In my entire life, I’ve seen one other falling star and shooting star, so this seemed significant to me. My nieces were asleep at the time but when I told them about it later, they assured me it was lucky.

And truthfully, I was going to need some luck. All of the problems and decisions I had left behind were awaiting me. Frantic phone calls and intense email discussions were about to ensue. I was going to be expected to perform miracles. The magic of the trip was fading, and feelings of helplessness and hopeless were returning.

I was telling a friend about the shooting star and falling star, and he asked if I had made a wish. Which I totally forgot to do. He thought it still counted if I made the wish a week later. I’m not sure what the rules are on wishing upon stars, but I didn’t want to miss this opportunity to capitalize on the possibility of miraculous solutions.

But then the scientist in me wanted to know what the difference was between shooting stars and falling stars, so I looked it up and found out that they weren’t stars at all. They’re meteors! And even though it’s all make-believe anyway, I was disappointed, because I was pretty sure that wishing on meteors didn’t count.

But then I saw my niece Sadie last weekend for my dad’s birthday and broke the bad news about how I saw 2 meteors instead of stars and now my wishes weren’t going to come true. She assured me that my wishes still counted. And then she asked me if I had wished I could meet Federer. Damn! I can’t believe I didn’t think of that myself!

But perhaps the point of seeing the shooting star and falling star at the end of our trip wasn’t about meteors and wishes and luck. Perhaps it was meant to be appreciated as is, in the moment, as something rare and wondrous. Which still made it a perfect end to a perfect trip. Because my nieces are like stars to me–beautiful, brilliant, and awe-inspiring. Whatever the next moment may bring, in this moment, I am thankful for my time with them.

But I still hope my wishes come true.

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On Being Good

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I worry a lot about being good. I know we don’t have to be perfect because God loves us as we are, but that message is hard to reconcile with the idea of earning our way into heaven.

I think a lot about the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I’m not trying to criticize God or anything, but it sort of seems like it was a set up. I mean, any parent who put some forbidden object in a room and said, you can play with any toy you want to except for that one, they would probably not be terribly surprised if their child disobeyed them.

I remember reading a book by Harold Kushner called How Good Do We Have to Be? a while back in which he gave a different interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve, but I can’t remember what it was. So then I almost bought the book again, but I think it’s at work. I’m off for the summer, and my office is 45 minutes away, so I don’t want to drive all the way to work to get it. But I don’t want to spend money on a book I already have, either. So I decided to buy his latest book, Nine Essential Things I Learned About Life. Hopefully the answer is in there.

And since I’m apparently on some spiritual quest, I also started reading Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh, which a friend recommended, and Everything Belongs, by Richard Rohr. I figured between a Jewish rabbi, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and a Franciscan priest, someone would have the answer on how to be good.

Surprisingly, they do all have a common denominator. And the answer is, our task in life is not to be good: it is to know ourselves. And it is only through self-knowledge that we can know God. And it is only when we know that God is within us and within everyone that we can love everyone and everything.

That’s deep. Too deep for me to fully comprehend at the moment. But then again, I’ve just started reading all 3 books. But I have to say, in a time where some kind of act of mass violence seems to happen every day, it’s comforting that there is something specific we can do to bring about peace.

But self-knowledge? How does that work? How can self-awareness lead to some kind of radical change in how we treat one another? Today I read from Richard Rohr, and here are some quotes that I found particularly thought-provoking:

You cannot prove yourself worthy of this God. Feeling God’s presence is simply a matter of awareness. Of enjoying the now. Deepening one’s presence.

Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters?….Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies….If we try to exclude some (sick people, blacks, people on welfare, gays, or whomever we’ve decided to hate), we’re not there. We don’t yet understand. If the world is a temple, then our enemies are sacred, too.

So today I have been reflecting on these words. I’ve been trying to get to know myself, accept all of the things that make me who I am–especially the parts I don’t like, as these wise men suggest. Which is the purpose of my blog, anyway.

It’s funny, when I started this blog, it wasn’t meant to be some kind of spiritual quest, but it seems like it’s turning out to be one.

Normal is Never Done

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I’ve been thinking about the question that people often ask me about therapy–about how I can listen to people’s problems all day. I realized just a moment ago that there is something about being in the presence of suffering that is transformative; therapy changes both the client and the therapist in the process. It is a gift to have so many opportunities to take part in their personal growth.

Today I have a guest post from one of my favorite clients. He is truly wise beyond his years, and he is perhaps the best example I have seen of how much growth can come from pain and suffering. I was honored to be able to witness part of his transformation while he was in college.

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Dr. Barongan, at the end of a few different sessions, asked me to write something for her blog. She said I could write on any subject of my choosing. I started several drafts, each with their own thesis, before realizing that the best topic comes from the title of this blog, “Normal-in-Training.” I like the title, because it’s aware of two related points essential to caring for oneself. The first comes from “Normal” – this suggests there is an expectation of what “normal” is and the second, the “in-Training,” denotes that the actualization of normalcy is always a work-in-progress.

Throughout my life, I have carried varying attitudes towards the state of my mental health. Sometimes, when I’m doing all the “right” things (eating healthily, exercising, etc.), it’s easy to feel good about myself. Other times, when I find myself slipping into “negative” behaviors (poor eating habits, not exercising, nicotine use, etc.) it’s easy to feel bad about myself. The obvious solution is to always be doing the right things. But, that’s easier said than done and unveils a harmful expectation of what one must be doing to feel good about oneself. I’m not suggesting one should not care about living a healthy life, but that creating a checklist of to-do’s in order to feel good isn’t healthy either. It’s sort of like creating a prison in one’s own mind or giving too much authority to the inner-critic we all know.

Part of caring for one’s mental health, I believe, is accepting one’s current situation. Right now, I’m in a situation where I am using lots of nicotine (not to mention caffeine) and not exercising, because my job leaves me little time and energy to workout which means I’ve turned to easier methods of perking myself up throughout the day (i.e. smoking, coffee). The critic in me sees this as a failure and commands me to wake up earlier, shortening my time for sleep, to workout. To quit tobacco cold turkey. To go on a strict diet and shed some of my chub. Only then, the critic says, will I deserve to feel good or “normal.”

The irony, however, is that even during the periods of life where I have done all the right things, I still haven’t totally achieved that normalcy I crave. Depressive thoughts still arise, suicidal ideation still becomes a problem. The point is that feeling good about oneself is always a work-in-progress, regardless of what type of lifestyle one has. Again, this does not mean one should just give up on living healthily, but rather that one must have a flexible spirit which allows happiness to not be tethered to an ascetic regimen of “you should do this” or “you need to do this” or “you ought to do this.” If I am feeling depressed, suicidal, I do need to reflect on my daily choices, but I also need to reflect on the external limitations my current situation (i.e. work) have on my freedom to do all those healthier things.

Lately, I’ve been feeling down. And, I get frustrated with myself for feeling down. My inner-critic says that all I need is a good kick in the ass to get me up and going. But, finding that sense of normalcy is about more than being hard on oneself. We do need that inner-critic, but we also need that inner-forgiver who is understanding and loving. Because there will always be circumstances where it’s too much to expect too much of ourselves. Normalcy can’t be limited to those expectations, because it’s unrealistic, abnormal to think the to-do’s will always be able to be checked off.

In a month, I will be in a very different situation than I am now. I will be home and have more time to do some of those healthy things. And even though I will do those healthy things, I’ll still have times when I’m feeling down like I am now. I’ll still have to care for myself, because that inner-critic can be a terrible master that is never satisfied. Normal can never be finished, completed. I’ll never reach a point where I say, “Ah, now I am normal, good.” It’s a constant work, (ironically) unique to each person.

“Love is patient, love is kind.” Note how patience comes first. We need to give ourselves time, all the time, a lifetime, to work towards normalcy and that’s love.

My advice for anyone who feels as though they aren’t doing all the things they are supposed to do, and feeling depressed about it, is to give themselves some slack and leniency. Normal looks different from one moment to the next. The “kick-in-the-ass” approach sounds good in theory, but not in practice. Because it assumes that normalcy is just a checklist of items away. And, that’s an assumption which deserves its own kick-in-the-ass.

Josh Gross is a graduate of Washington and Lee University, where he majored in philosophy and religion. He currently living in Black Mountain, NC. His plan is to become a writer and to help other people in difficult situations.