Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Searching for Serenity: The Road Ahead

I could already feel the anxiety rising through my body as I approached the sign: Road Closed Ahead. I was out in the country in unfamiliar territory. Even my GPS was confused. With absolutely no inherent sense of direction, getting lost seemed inevitable. I tried not to panic and continued on knowing I would soon have to make a decision. Left or right? Another sign appeared near the road block: Follow Marked Detour. I breathed a sigh of relief and followed the giant orange arrow. The answer to my question - left.

Cruising along the alternate route, I silently scolded myself for those few minutes of unnecessary concern. Still, I wasn't the least bit surprised by my overreaction. Thick fog, blinding rain, road blocks - the nature of the obstacle doesn't matter. Once the road ahead is no longer predictable, my emotions settle somewhere between subtle uneasiness and total panic. I begin straining to see the road ahead rather than focusing on what is clearly visible right now. I push forward, jump to conclusions, and anticipate disaster until I find myself reacting to an imaginary future instead of what is actually happening at the present moment.

Too often, I forget that uncertainty can only be successfully navigated by embracing patience and presence - by slowing down rather than rushing ahead. If I stop worrying about what is beyond my grasp, I realize that everything I need for the moment is well within reach. As I progress forward with the natural flow of time, the road ahead opens little by little and the destination becomes clear.

I guess that's what people mean by one day at a time.

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Searching for Serenity

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Lesson in Giving

I approached the doors of Walmart, trying to look invisible as I passed the table outside. A woman’s voice said, “We’re collecting school supplies today.” I assumed she was talking to me, but I avoided eye contact. I muttered a noncommittal response and continued inside, trying to ignore the guilt mounting inside me. I tried to consoled myself, leaning on the excuse that as a one-income family, we are limited in the amount we can give.

Moments later, I stood in the bedding aisle holding a bed skirt - a completely nonfunctional item serving only to add to the aesthetics of my daughter’s bedroom. I pulled my shopping list from my purse. Few things were actual necessities. Instantly, my mind suddenly left the store, floating away and resting on a memory I had long since forgotten…

I was in my college dorm room, flipping through the TV channels when I came to an episode of MTV Cribs. The celebrity, whose name isn’t important (and I don’t remember anyway), paraded the cameras through his custom-built garage. At the end of a long line of motorcycles of varying models and colors sat a motorcycle molded out of solid gold. I thought of all the people who could be helped with the money that was now sitting idly in the form of a solid gold motorcycle. How sad that people are so greedy, I thought as I changed the channel.

The memory evaporated as quickly it came, leaving behind the sticky residue of the bubble of denial that had burst in my face. I was suddenly aware of my own abundance: the 55 inch TV mounted to my living room wall, the Android in my pocket, the appliances, decorations, clothes – everything in my life that is so far beyond the realm of true necessity – my own golden motorcycle.

I started to wonder what might happen if I stopped placing the responsibility on those with obvious, excessive wealth and started focusing on sharing my own abundance as much as possible.

I reached up and put the bed skirt back on the shelf and headed for the school supplies.

This is a Bigger Picture Moment. Share with us at Alita's Place today.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

50 Shades of Judgment

Recently, I’ve been reading some blog posts, mostly by other Christian women about 50 Shades of Grey and the reasons for which people should not be reading it (nor exposing themselves to other sexually explicit material through books, movies, etc). The main reason is tied to the belief that it goes against God’s plan for marriage by glorifying pre-marital sex and raising the risk for marital dissatisfaction and infidelity.

After reading one such post, I had quite the string of comments brewing in my mind. I then made the mistake of reading the comments by readers, most of whom touted their opinions in an obviously disrespectful tone, placing the word Christian in quotation marks (an act I find remarkably offensive), and stating that anyone who read the books had basically committed adultery and was likely not involved in a healthy marriage.

Who do these women think they are? I was angry and offended, but I held my tongue and resisted the overwhelming urge to retaliate. Instead, I backed away from my computer and chose to reflect on my own feelings rather than unleash my disapproving views of theirs. I found that my choice brought me greater peace and satisfaction than anything I could have said to them.

I asked myself, Why do those views strike a nerve with me? Well, because as someone who has enjoyed books and movies with sexual content, I felt personally attacked and offended, as if the writers of these comments had reached through the screen, pointed their fingers in my face and shouted, “your marriage is doomed, you filth-watching non-Christian!”

Personally attacked. That’s the answer. I felt personally attacked. Why? Another’s belief that marriages like mine are doomed does not doom my marriage. Another’s belief that women like me are not real Christians does not make me any less of a Christian. Their realities are separate from mine. I’m the one who combined them.

These women didn’t offend me. I allowed myself to feel offended. My anger arose from a place of ego-induced pride, a desire to defend myself and my beliefs, to shout back at them, “My view is right and yours is wrong. You should believe what I believe!” Yikes. Isn’t that exactly what I hear them saying to me? Did I just judge them for judging me? How does that make me any different?

Actually, I am not different at all. I carry strong views and judgments of my own on this and other issues involving issues like lifestyle, parenting, marriage, politics. Other people would likely react to some of my opinions with the very same anger I feel rising in myself right now. Does that make me less entitled to my opinion? Does it make others less entitled to theirs? Isn’t it possible for us to have our own separate convictions? Isn’t it possible that we are all right in own realities?

I issue myself a silent warning.

Be careful when you say “don’t judge,” for you are judging as you say it. Nobody is entirely nonjudgmental. The less judgmental you are, the more harshly you judge the judgmental. Rare is a situation where a true moral high ground exists. Two people might disagree, but neither's view need be labeled "bad."

I close my computer screen. No response is necessary. I am at peace.

Friday, July 20, 2012

What is Our World Coming To?

I awoke today to disturbing headlines, my expectations of a peaceful morning suddenly shattered. Another senseless act of violence has rocked the nation. Before I even bow my head in silent prayer for all those involved, I shake my head in disgust and wonder, What is our world coming to?

Then I pause. I rethink my question. Our world. If it is ours, then it is partly mine. And if our world is coming to something bad, then it is our responsibility to fix it. And if the responsibility is ours, isn't it also mine?

My immediate reaction to my own thought is one of resistance. Yeah, but what can I do? I am bound by my insignificance in a world so big with forces so strong. What action of mine could possibly make a difference in places so far away full of people I am unlikely to ever meet face to face? Besides, I’m one of the good ones. I’m part of the solution. The problem lies in others.

With that attitude, I am likely to respond with my typical reaction to news of violence: lock my doors, watch my back, and live in fear. That fear turns to suspicion. The suspicion turns to anger - anger toward those whose deliberate acts of violence rob me of my peace. I start to find faults, point fingers, place blame. Suddenly, I am living in fear of the very world I helped create. A part of the problem now lies in me. My actions, my words, my attitude, my choices, they all matter. They all send an energy floating through the air, an energy that has the ability to affect people I may never meet face to face in places far away. Suddenly, I realize that I am not insignificant at all.

I am not insignificant because I believe in the interconnectedness of every person on earth by the power of the life-giving energy that flows through each of us simultaneously. Good or bad. Rich or poor. Family member or total stranger. That’s why no event can occur in isolation. That’s why our problems are referred to as “global issues” no matter the country from which they originate. That’s why we shed tears for people we don’t know in circumstances we’ve never experienced first-hand. That’s why something you do or say today can impact a place you’ve never seen full of people you’ve never met. It really is a small, small world.

 We all carry a responsibility to be part of the solution. That responsibility doesn’t always have to be carried out in mission work, worldwide travel, or hefty donations to have a significant impact. Don’t ever underestimate the power of love shown through the simplest gesture - a smile, a kind word, a helping hand. Don’t ever believe that the negative energy emitted by angry words, disrespectful comments, and sour attitudes doesn’t penetrate deep into the heart of society. And don’t ever say, what is our world coming to, while looking out the window. Say it while looking in the mirror.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Lessons from a Summer Drought

The air was dry and humid, almost too thick to breathe. Reese and I were less than halfway through our morning walk around the lake. As I panted along, I felt as tired as the withered vegetation surrounding me. I am twenty-five weeks pregnant and although we were armed with ice cold water and sunscreen, my better judgments warned me to turn back. The lush green grass of early spring looked more like desert sand. A steady stream of crisp brown leaves trickled down from the trees above as they began to prepare for an early death. The plants drooped in despair, giving up hope for the much-needed moisture that still hasn’t come. Sweat rolled down my back - another warning sign. Go home. Reluctantly, I headed for the shortcut that leads to our backyard.

As I trudged back, my feet crunched through dead leaves and grass and I started to think about the many times I cursed the rain – when outdoor events were marred by its presence; when family outings had to be rescheduled; when simple trips to the grocery store became a major inconvenience. Even on days when I didn’t curse it, I certainly didn’t welcome it. Sunny days induce happiness. The gray skies of an impending storm have the opposite effect. Rain is sad, depressing, negative. “Rain, rain, go away…”

And “go away” it did. Only recently have I begun to check each week’s forecast eagerly hoping for a wet, muddy day. A thunder roll in the distance now produces excitement rather than dread as I think of the many life forms that would benefit from a good hard rain. In the midst of a sudden downpour, I would gladly stand with outstretched arms and embrace its life-giving power rather than cover my head and run toward the nearest shelter. Until the rain stopped and the world around me began to wither and die, I had never thought beyond the inconvenience of a wet shopping cart or the disappointment of a cancelled picnic. Now, as I walk through the dying landscape, I absorb a new appreciation for the rain and the lessons I’ve learned in its absence… 

1. Look beyond yourself. I am often guilty of living in my own little world. How will this event affect my day, my space, my life? On a rainy Sunday morning, I don’t stop to thank God for the life-saving water that nourishes our crops and restores our trees because I’m focused on the inconvenience of hauling a wet umbrella into church. When I widen my focus to the bigger picture, I see the true insignificance of my little complaints. Sometimes life seems to rain on my parade, but maybe that rain has a much higher purpose.

2. It's easier to see the good in something once it's taken away. I overhear people everywhere saying, “maybe it will rain today,” with an oddly upbeat, excited tone. These are probably the same people who, like me, have cursed rainy days in the past. I suppose it’s true that we don’t know what we have until it is lost. When I think about how I miss the rain, I am reminded of so many other events in my life that I didn’t cherish until it was too late. I remained focused on the negative, never thinking that I would someday wish for another day in those circumstances just so I could fully appreciate the positives to which I had somehow been oblivious before.

3. Sometimes positive events wear a negative disguise. When I look out at the rain, I tend to focus on the depressing gray clouds looming overhead, murky mud puddles pooling in the driveway, water droplets falling like tears. I forget that under the earth, the roots of our plants dance with glee as they absorb the moisture and that all around me a happier, greener world will ultimately result from this seemingly “depressing” day. How often do people emerge from a rainy season of life only to discover a rainbow that wouldn’t otherwise exist? Dark days often seem to have no purpose, but when rain falls on the branches of our hearts, courage grows in the roots of our souls.

Someday the rain will return, the drought will clear, and the many facebook statuses that begged for rain last week will no doubt complain about it next week. I hope I always remember this dry season when I inevitably begin to curse the rain again. I hope that as the thunder rolls in and the first drops begin to fall, I will look out the window and smile because the rain brings so much of the world to life and so many reasons to be thankful.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Road to Gratitude

Something happened to me recently that I have not yet shared – mostly out of embarrassment because it violates so many lessons I thought I had already learned. The few people who know the story have attempted to reassure me with the “it happens to everyone” consolation speech. That may be true, but it didn’t eliminate the sporadic, intrusive, unforgiving thoughts about what almost became the worst day of my life. I’m sharing it now because I have finally started seeing it not as a mark against my parenting skills but as a window to stronger faith and deeper gratitude.

Back in May, we discovered that some mice were living in our garage. We ended up catching them, but not before they left a trail of droppings around the perimeter of the floor. Reese’s birthday party was scheduled for that weekend, and we use our garage as the main entrance to our house so I decided that it needed to be cleaned up before the party. I never do anything without a predetermined schedule, so I picked a day (Thursday) and decided to clean the garage during naptime. Of course, Reese took a short nap that day and I was in the middle of my project when I heard her voice over the baby monitor. A more flexible, laid back person would probably have realized that vacuuming the garage while watching a toddler is not a good idea, but I have neither of those qualities so I hauled Reese outside and fired up the shop vac.

She made several attempts to get my attention, but I was bound and determined to finish the job. On her fourth attempt, she asked me to take her for a walk. Instead, I roller her toy stroller toward her and said, “Mommy’s busy right now. Why don’t you take your doll for a walk?” She seemed content with that idea and I returned my focus to the never ending trail of what I pretended were black rice pellets.

When I finally looked up, I couldn’t see her. Every parent knows how immediately the panic rises from your gut to your throat when your child is out of sight for even a second. My eyes darted around the front half of our two-acre yard thinking that she couldn’t possibly have gone that far in under a minute. I widened my gaze beyond what I thought was a reasonable distance and that’s when I saw her at the end of our driveway pushing her stroller off of the gravel and onto street.

Our house sits at the bottom of a hill on a country road, and I knew an oncoming car would never see her in time. I screamed, “Reese Margaret, stop!” and took off in a full sprint, but our driveway is long and it took almost 10 seconds for me to reach her. My eyes were immediately blinded by tears as I repeated, “Please let me get there,” down the full length of the driveway. I tackled her in the middle of the street and my screams startled her into a fit of sobs that mirrored my own. Her toy stroller went sailing into the ditch leaving her Minnie Mouse doll sprawled on the pavement. We cried in unison as I scooped her up and headed back toward the house.

We were less than halfway up the drive when a car flew over the hill and barreled through the empty air where Reese stood just moments before. I fell to my knees in the gravel, not noticing the pain of the rocks digging into my skin. I cradled my baby in my arms, looked up at the sky, and thanked God out loud between sobs. The car continued on into the distance, its driver completely oblivious to what might have been if he had left his previous destination just one minute sooner.

By the time we returned to the house Reese was already calm. She grabbed her pink teapot and poured me a fake cup of tea as if the events of the past five minutes had suddenly been erased from existence. My recovery was not quite so immediate. For the rest of the day and through that night I struggled to keep my thoughts from wading through horrifying alternative outcomes. Two days later our friends and family came to celebrate Reese’s second birthday, and the possibility that we could all be gathered for a very different reason stewed on the back burner of my mind.

As the saying goes, “When you know better, you do better,” only that’s not what happened. I know better than to take my eyes off a toddler. I know we live on a dangerous road. I know it wasn’t necessary to clean the garage according to my preferred timetable. But my actions on that day didn’t reflect what I know. Instead, they reflected a deep-seated, subconscious belief that I am somehow immune to the life-altering, split-second tragedies that seem to only affect “other people.” I never stopped to think that to everyone else in the world, I am “other people” and I am not immune to anything.

I’m not sure that vowing for greater attentiveness, higher awareness, or better future decisions wouldn’t just reinforce the belief that I can somehow safeguard my life against the tragedies of fate. Instead, I am humbled by the realization that no amount of preparedness can do that. Of course, I will never repeat the same incident again, but that doesn’t mean she will never wander away from me at the mall or choke on a nickel while I’m in bathroom. 

As moms, we feel as though we should be able to protect our children from all of the world’s dangers, and the guilt that results from our inability to foresee every accident and evade every mistake can be deeply painful, whatever the outcome. I believe the events of that Thursday afternoon were not the result of anything I did or didn’t do as a mother. They happened because I am human, as human as every other parent who can’t possibly lead an infallible life.

Now, every time we walk through a parking lot or see cars passing on a nearby road, Reese repeats the lesson she learned on that day, “Mommy, me not walk in the street. Cars go really fast.” Each time she says it, I can’t escape the stinging reminder of my susceptibility to human error or the stabbing guilt over what might have been. But something else happens to me in those moments, too. As scary as it is to admit that I am not invincible, the fear is overshadowed by the comfort of knowing that my life is in the hands of a God who is. The guilt over what could have been gives way to deep gratitude for what is and I am reminded that life is precious and too often taken for granted. 

None of us is guaranteed a completely safe passage through life, and the events that lie ahead can never be known. Instead of using that knowledge as a reason to be imprisoned by guilt from the past or worry for the future, use it as a reason to cherish the blessings that come with each single day and to be overwhelmed with gratitude because, in this very moment, life is good.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Searching for Serenity: Why Not Now?

Not long ago I was reading a book that included a list of life regrets written by Erma Bombeck, a popular newspaper columnist, after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. There are actually multiple versions of this list circulating on the internet (some of which are attributed to different writers), but the overall message is the same. Here is an excerpt from one version:

“If I Had My Life to Live Over”

“If I had my life to live over, I would have talked less and listened more.
I would have invited friends over to dinner even if the carpet was stained and the sofa faded.
I would never have insisted the car windows be rolled up on a summer day because my hair had just been teased and sprayed.
I would have burned the pink candle sculpted like a rose before it melted in storage.
I would have sat on the lawn with my children and not worried about grass stains.
I would have cried and laughed less while watching television - and more while watching life.
I would have gone to bed when I was sick instead of pretending the earth would go into a holding pattern if I weren't there for the day.
Instead of wishing away nine months of pregnancy, I'd have cherished every moment and realized that the wonderment growing inside me was the only chance in life to assist God in a miracle.
There would have been more "I love you's".. More "I'm sorrys" ...
But mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute... look at it and really see it ... live it...and never give it back.” -- Erma Bombeck

Things like this really make me think – not because they are oh-so-true or because they remind to take my own life a little less seriously, but because I find it sad that so few people ever find themselves in a truly carefree, regret-free, loving-every-minute-of-every-day place in their lives. Instead, we tend to plow through life complaining about the weather or the traffic or gas prices. We worry about what other people think of the condition of our homes or the size of our butts. We stand in judgment of others’ political views, religious beliefs, and life choices while turning blind eyes and deaf ears to our own contributions to the world’s problems. We choose anger and resentment over forgiveness and compassion, and we fear uncertainty more than we trust life. Then one day a terminal illness or tragic loss stops us in our tracks and the only thing we can do is look back and say, “I wish I would have…”

Unfortunately, by the time we get to “I wish I would have,” wishing is all we’ll ever be able to do about it. I don’t want that to be me. I don’t want my wake up call to come at the end of my life, and I certainly don’t want to sit down one day and write a list of all the things I wish I had done. That’s why I’m doing this. That’s why I’m putting so much effort into reprioritizing my life and growing a more positive mind. And that’s why I’m willing to talk about it so openly. I hope it holds me accountable to my commitment to this change and I hope it inspires someone, anyone, to join me on the journey.

It’s never too late to change your perspective on life, and you don’t need a personal tragedy to kickstart your desire to do it. Every day is a new opportunity to banish the underlying worries, fears, judgments, and frustrations that undermine your ability to live fully in the present moment.

So why not start today? Try to worry less about stained clothes and messy hair, even if you’re out in public. Support your child’s goals, even if they’re not what you had in mind. Sing your way through a traffic jam, even if you’re running late. Let your kids play with fingerpaints and play-doh, even if the table is oak and the carpet is white. Forgive your brother, even if you think he was wrong. Let your guard down, even if you’re afraid. Dance in the rain, even if it’s your wedding day. And start taking your life from “I wish I would have…” to “I’m glad I did…”

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