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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.

On the Road to Enlightenment

I didn’t realize how many posts I’ve written about Pope Francis until I looked them up just now, in preparation for this one. In one of those posts, I said that I thought Pope Francis was an enlightened human being. And that it was only fitting that as one enlightened being, Nelson Mandela, leaves this world, God would send us another one to restore balance in the universe.

Last week I was astounded by the reception that Pope Francis got in the United States. Apparently, he was, too. He even coined a term to describe his reception in New York: stralimitata–beyond all limits. He was like a rock star, attracting people of all religious and political affiliations. People cried when they saw him–even if it was just on TV.

He was the most popular topic on Facebook and a refreshing change from all the negative posts that I usually try to ignore. Anyone who can make people post about predominantly positive things on Facebook for an entire week has to be enlightened.

I think the most moving thing to me–and Boehner, apparently–is when Pope Francis asked people to pray for him. And, being ever respectful of their religious beliefs, if they couldn’t pray for him, he asked them to send him good wishes. I mean, how awesome is that? The Pope needs us as much as we need him. What a novel idea in a world where leaders seem more interested in proving how powerful they are than in showing their vulnerabilities.

The closest I have come to being in the presence of that kind of compassion was when I went to this conference and listened to the psychologist Peter Levine talk about healing trauma. He didn’t say he practiced compassion, although the techniques he describes for learning to identify the physiological signs of trauma are clearly mindfulness-based.

But when you watched him work, you could hear the compassion in his voice and see it in how closely he paid attention to his clients. It was a palpable, tangible thing that you could feel in the room. I was so struck by his presence that I went to his second talk just so I could sit in the audience and listen to him. The world felt like a safer place when he was around.

In Buddhism, enlightenment is something that anyone can achieve, hypothetically speaking. That seems difficult to imagine in practice, though. Plus it seems like a lot of work. And a lot of pressure. I’m sure my Inner Critic would try its hardest to sabotage my efforts every step of the way. But then again, I guess that’s why you practice self-compassion.

I like the idea that we all have the power to create a palpable, tangible force in the universe. I know how I have felt when I have been in the presence of compassion. And I know that practicing compassion has changed me for the better–both in terms of how I feel about myself and in how I interact with others. So I will keep up my practice and see where it takes me.

Good vs. Evil

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Yesterday there was another shooting, but this time it was near my hometown. By another person who was inspired by Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Charleston. Who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory. And killed two young journalists in the process. Two people doing a feature story on the Chamber of Commerce on the morning news–because he wanted to make sure he got on the news.

In general, I believe that love is stronger than hate. That good trumps evil. But in moments like these, I sometimes wonder. Because one person’s hate has the power to destroy so much love. One act of evil can put an end to all of the good that these two people brought to the world.

The killer got his wish. No one may have paid attention to him before, but now he will be remembered forever. People will know his name. His act of evil has been immortalized. If I were to try to do the opposite of what he did–to perform one grand act of love, of goodness–it would not have the same impact. What does that say about the power of good vs. evil?

Still, in my state of helplessness, I do what I can. I pray. I send compassion. I’m sure it does something, but I’m not sure what. If I ask God to send them extra angels–even some of mine, and just leave me one–will they be surrounded by them? Will angels be there with them while they grieve? Will they sit with their pain? Will they make them feel God’s love?

If I send compassion, if I feel their pain, will it lessen their suffering? Make the pain more bearable? If I cry for them, will it absorb some of their tears? Or maybe sending love and compassion becomes a force that sits side by side with the grief, anger, and confusion. Maybe it helps to balance out the good and evil in the universe.

The people affected in these tragedies always say they feel the outpouring of love. During 9/11. Sandy Hook. And yesterday. During natural disasters. And even during our private tragedies. The friends who bring food when we are sick. The people who prayed for my father when he was depressed. Even though they didn’t know him. Just because they love me. I was deeply moved by how much other people cared about my family’s suffering.

When I went on the self-compassion retreat in May, we did this exercise where we imagined someone we knew who was suffering and we sent them compassion. And then we sent it to ourselves, because we felt their pain deeply. The whole time I was doing this, I thought, is this really going to help? Is sending compassion going to actually make a change in this person’s life? They didn’t even know I was doing it.

The instructor’s response to this question was perhaps one of the most helpful things that I learned in this retreat. He said that he didn’t know if it helped the other person to send them compassion, but it helps him to send it.

That’s a good enough reason for me. Sending angels and compassion helps me feel less helpless. And it helps me to put love and goodness at the forefront of my mind.

Because that’s one way that I won’t let that guy win. I won’t let him fill me with hatred.

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Adam Ward and Allison Parker

Depression vs. Sadness

Motivation 2

‘Tis the season to be jolly. Unless you are prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder like me. Don’t get me wrong–I still love the holidays. But there’s a better than average chance that I’ll be depressed in the midst of them.

Sometimes people ask me what the difference is between sadness and depression–especially if you have been depressed and are worried that you might be getting depressed again. In a previous post, I admitted that I don’t always know. It’s not like a pregnancy test that you can take and find out that you’re either depressed or “normal.” There are degrees of depression, and I have experienced almost every point on the continuum.

Last year after my breakup, I was alone for the first time since I was 14, and it was tough. I was sad that my phone rarely rang. That I did not automatically have plans for the weekend. That I was helpless when it came to things like changing my air filter.

My sadness turned into depression over the holidays because in addition to being alone, I had to be around my family, which stresses me out, tennis season was over so I wasn’t exercising and didn’t see friends, and my sleep was out of whack because I was off for 2 weeks. Still, it was nothing like the full-blown major depressive episode I had several years ago.

If sadness vs. depression were an SAT question, then sadness is to a cold as depression is to the flu. You can barely get out of bed. You do not have the energy to do simple tasks. You are in pain. You feel like you may die. But the difference is, when you have the flu, you may blame yourself somewhat for not getting your flu shot or for kissing a sick person, but you don’t hate yourself for being sick.

One of the ways I distinguish between depression and sadness is in how I respond to the “think of people who are worse off than you” strategy. When I was too exhausted to do anything the past few weekends, I would think about all of those people who are bedridden and how awful that must feel. And then I wanted to do something about it. So I said one of my neurotic prayers: God, if there’s any way that my praying for these people who are sick and bedridden can help them feel better, then please let that happen.

When I’m depressed, I think about people who live in war-torn countries, and how that’s far worse than being depressed. So who am I to complain? This is nothing. I don’t even have a good reason for being depressed. I’m just lazy and irresponsible. So get off the couch and do something, damn it!

Since this is the time of year when I am vulnerable to depression, I am hypervigilant of possible signs. So far I’m tired and stressed, but no self-loathing. And I haven’t missed any work (knock on wood). Maybe I’ll make it through this year unscathed.

Hard Core Fan, Part 2

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Sometimes being a loyal fan is downright painful. Today UVA and Roger Federer are both playing. Right now I’m excited about it, but while I’m watching, if the games are close, it will be torture.

A few nights ago Federer came back from 2 sets and 2 match points down to beat Gael Monfils. If I just wanted to see a good match, I could have enjoyed myself. Instead, I was praying the whole time, asking God to let Federer win. I know this probably isn’t a good use of prayer, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Thank goodness he won.

The only problem is, the chronic pain in the back of my neck due to stress returned the following morning. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Hopefully, I will watch two more matches before the U.S. Open is over. If they’re close, I may have to schedule a massage next week.

UVA had an equally stressful match last week when they played UCLA. Even though it was the season opener, we had the lowest attendance ever because we only won twice last year. But my brother and I were there, being the loyal fans that we are. UCLA was #7 in the country and have a quarterback who was a Heisman candidate, although he may not be any more. Even though we were 21 point underdogs, we had a chance to win at the end, so of course I resorted to prayer to help the team along.

We lost 20-28, but it was as close as you can get to a win without actually winning. In fact, UCLA  dropped to #11 in the polls. I have never heard of a team dropping so far after a win. Apparently barely beating UVA is equivalent to a loss–which makes us look good and bad at the same time.

Despite the pain in my neck and the time spent in fervid prayer, these are the moments you live for when you’re a hard core fan. Sometimes your loyalty pays off and you get to witness a spectacular comeback. Sometimes you drive 2 hours and sit in the rain for 4 hours, only to watch your team lose the 8th game in a row.

But as with all things in life, the joy is in the process. In the anticipation of the match up. The possibility of an 18th grand slam win or a bowl game bid. And regardless of the outcome, you get to start all over again, with another game to look forward to.

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Mental Hygiene

Negativity is like a virus. Even if you are vigilant about taking your meds, challenging irrational thoughts, praying, meditating, and practicing self-acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion, it just takes one negative comment–one careless psychological sneeze–and you’re contaminated.

I’ve had 3 people sneeze on me today. In an effort to avoid contaminating you with too much negativity, I’ll just tell you about the most egregious of the 3 incidents.

I had my follow up appointment with my psychiatrist today. Thank goodness I only have to go twice a year. It’s a 3 and 1/2 hour drive round trip for a 30 minute appointment, and there’s very little about that 30 minutes that is therapeutic. While my psychiatrist knows his drugs, he’s not a particularly good therapist, to put it mildly. Which is OK, I guess, because I have a therapist. But I have to talk about something.

Because I have chronic sleep issues due to my night-owlness, I confessed that I’ve been struggling with regulating my sleep cycle now that I’m not working. Every time I tell him what time I go to sleep and wake up, he makes this judgmental face that looks like he just sucked on a lemon. Then he proceeds to tell me what the research says about the importance of waking up at the same time every day, especially when you have a history of depression. How I need to get morning sunlight, I shouldn’t take naps, I need to be more disciplined, blah blah blah.

I am not good at constructive criticism, but I did manage to say that I’m trying. That I spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about sleep. So much so that it probably interferes with my sleep. He can read my blog if he wants proof.

But I wish I could say something more honest. Something like, you make me feel like crap when you make that stupid face and give me a lecture on sleep hygiene that I already know by heart because I am a clinical psychologist, in case you’ve forgotten. Every time I see you, you just give my inner critic ammunition to tell me how I’m failing at sleep hygiene and that I suck. You are supposed to be helping me with my mental health–not making it worse. Oh, and by the way, your waiting room smells like mold and you need to clean your freaking office and water your damn plants. It doesn’t reflect well on you that your plants are dying! 

But I don’t want to come across as being too negative.

Does anyone ever give their doctor honest feedback when they do something unhelpful? I try to imagine what my reaction would be if a client brought to my attention that my facial expression conveyed blatant disapproval of what a terrible job they’re doing of trying to get better. It would be a shock, no question. But I don’t want to convey disapproval and judgment, so I think I would want to know. I think I would try to be more aware of my facial expressions. But as I mentioned in a previous post, we are terrible predictors of how we will act in the future. So maybe I would just be pissed off.

Maybe I can think of this as an opportunity to practice constructive criticism. Maybe I’ll talk to my therapist about it and see if she thinks it’s worth it to say something. Not what I wrote above, of course. But something.

Or maybe I could just tell him that my latest blog post is dedicated to him so he should read it. That would be hilarious!

I’ll let you know what I do. In the meantime, I encourage all of you to do your part in preventing the spread of negativity. Please remember to cover your mouth before your criticize. (And not in that passive-aggressive way where you cover your mouth while you fake cough and mumble something critical under your breath, either. You know what I’m taking about.)

I think this doodle looks like germs.

Interventions, Part 2

In the book Stumbling on Happiness, psychologist Daniel Gilbert gives multiple examples of how we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the studies. How people who are paraplegics from car accidents and people who win the lottery both return to their baseline level of happiness after about a year.

I often tell clients the same thing when they’re catastophizing about what will happen in the future. How they’ll be flipping burgers at McDonald’s because they got an F on their chemistry exam. How they will never find love. How they will be depressed for the rest of their lives. We don’t know what the future holds. We know that we don’t know, but we still act like we do.

So how are we supposed to make decisions if we’re so terrible at predicting the future? Gilbert recommends that we ask someone who has made a similar decision and find out how they feel about it. Psychologists say that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Still, there are no guarantees. Ultimately important decisions often come down to a leap of faith.

A few weeks ago I shared my anxiety about having to do an intervention. I asked for advice from my psychiatrist, my therapist, and from God. They all said I had to do it. But I couldn’t make myself do it. Because based on the two suggestions above, the forecast looked pretty gloomy. But a promise is a promise.

I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s “No Man Is an Island,” and he says that God is involved in every aspect of our lives, guiding our every step, trying to move us closer to where we need to be. I wasn’t sure if I believed that, but it was comforting to think that it might be true. That perhaps God was moving me closer to this conversation, even though I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

I decided to blog about it because that always seems to help. One reader said that perhaps the opportunity would naturally present itself. She was right; I got my opportunity. I did my part, expecting that my concerns would be completely dismissed, but they weren’t. My words had an impact. Things are in motion, moving in the direction they’re supposed to go. And I am thankful.

When I pray for courage, I feel like God tells me that if I do my part, He will do his. And while that has always been true, I’m always still afraid to take the next step. Will it happen this time? Was I just lucky before? Will God really be there on the other side?

Sometimes it takes awhile, but I usually take that leap of faith. I may not know what is on the other side, but I know I can’t stay stuck on this side forever.