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|Posted on March 26, 2018 at 12:22 PM||comments (44)|
The Question. Often while sitting in the psychological counselor’s chair a very common question emerges:
“Why does God allow these bad things to happen?"
There are many similar takes on this question such as:
“Why does this happen to such an innocent child?”
“If we have such a good God, then why is there so much suffering in this world?”
“If God was on the Cross for so many hours, then why has my relative been afflicted with this or that ailment for so many years?”
The Dilemma: These questions always stop me in my tracks and I even find myself getting tongue tied in trying to come up with a compact soothing succinct answer. After all, in my work, I want to help bring comfort to people’s lives and to teach them how to face challenges and trials.
But ultimately suffering is a sacred mystery of God ---much like the Eucharist and the concept of the Holy Trinity. No matter how we slice it, we cannot wrap our minds around it. Much of the challenge stems from the realization that suffering is a fact of our existence. We all suffer in some form or fashion. People suffer in a variety of ways: physically, psychologically, spiritually, socially, and culturally. We all have a Cross or even Crosses to bear whether we want to accept the situation or not. Truthfully, none of us are left unscathed. And ultimately, we can benefit from our trials. But how?
I have heard it said that suffering is actually the twin sister of love. Just like sorrow and joy can be twins. It is with great joy I discovered St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter “Salvifici Doloris” which was released to the faithful on the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes in 1984. From that great work three words resonant: “Suffering unleashes love.”
“Suffering Unleashes Love.” The Crosses in our lives are those occasions for love to blossom, by interior acts of love, exterior acts, and cultural acts. We have a choice. We cannot choose our type of suffering or calamity, but we do have control over how we are going to react to it. Out of an act of our own free will, we can decide to become bitter, lash out at God, refuse to go to Church, blame others, call everyone hypocrites, and curse the day we were born. Or we can choose to cooperate with the Grace of God. Through prayer and discernment, we can look for the good that can stem from a situation and look for the expressions of kindness and love from others that inevitably abound. Psalm 27 states: “I believe that I shall see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living.” Look for the little acts of love such as the get-well card, the kind word, the sharing of resources, the bouquet of flowers in a hospital room, the new and old relationships that are forged. Don’t see anything good happening? Sure, we can also see the negative fruits. But look hard enough and there are inevitable acts of love abounding.
Jesus Chose His Cross. If still nothing good seems to emerge, one can become that beacon of love oneself, just as Jesus Christ himself did. “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death- even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8).” Unlike us, Jesus suffered voluntarily and innocently to unleash love in a profound sacred mysterious way. He chose to suffer when he didn’t have to do it.
Most of us are not taught the value of suffering. An old Catholic cliché is to “offer it up” and we can choose to become prayer warriors at the foot of the Cross, sharing in the Passion of Jesus Christ. We can take every smidgen of difficulty in our life and transform it into something that has redemptive value for ourselves and others.
The Way Over it is Through It. In psychology, a common phrase that I often repeat to my clients is: “The way over it is through it.” This is extremely true for anxiety, fears, trauma, and grief. Avoidance only intensifies the suffering. For example, being able to stay with the feelings of a panic attack actually helps one to get over it, as counterintuitive as this may sound.
So, stop wasting that good suffering that inevitably emerges in life. One doesn’t have to look far. One doesn't even need to create it (none of us likes to be around those that create their own sufferings!). It is all around us naturally.
Go forth and unleash some love!
|Posted on August 23, 2015 at 3:48 PM||comments (4)|
My husband, my daughter, and I embarked upon the journey of a lifetime early this summer from June 13 through June 23, 2015. In celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary, we set out to walk the last leg of the Portuguese Way of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The route began in Tui, Spain with its destination ending in Santiago de Compostela, traditionally the location of the crypt and remains of St. James, the Apostle. This segment of the Camino is approximately 100 kilometers.
The history of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela dates back well over 1000 years with Christians making this pilgrimage since the Middle Ages. Today pilgrims can walk, bike, or take to the path on horseback with a variety of objectives in mind, particularly spiritual. A minimum of 100 kilometers by is required to obtain a “compostela” or certificate in Santiago. Proof is obtained by having a credencial stamped along the way.
My reasons for undertaking this journey were largely spiritual but also for enjoyment and celebration of my marriage. Some of my own personal insights gained along “The Way” include:
The key to accomplishing anything is perseverance. It is not about being the best, the fastest, the smartest, the nicest looking, or even good enough; the key to success is simply not giving up. The fastest person doesn't always finish the race. A slow and steady pace is particularly relevant for the long haul. One can quickly lose steam along the first few kilometers and deplete reserves needed to last the entire 100 kilometers. Drinking up all of the water and eating all of the granola at the first leg doesn’t get one very far. I have often heard of individuals in counseling say to me that it took them “a long time” to accomplish something. I am always quick to add, “But you did it!”
So if it takes several years to get a bachelor's degree or even a doctorate; so if it takes a long time to get a promotion at the job; so if it takes forever to clean through your living space; so if it seems like it is takes forever to find a soul mate. Whatever the situation might be-- don't give up--persevere. I always say, if at first you don’t succeed: Pray, cry, and try again!
Don’t fret falling down but more importantly learn to get back up and carry on. Don't get discouraged at the prospect of a fall, but be encouraged at being able to get back up again. I didn't actually fall on the Camino but the fear of falling definitely slowed me down. There were many slick surfaces, rocks to climb, and paths to maneuver. Life in itself has its series of slippery slopes that need to be conquered. The classic mark of a procrastinator is the fear of failure. These types often do not even get past the starting line. But the fall isn’t the problem nor the worst part of it. Remaining face down in the mud is. The challenge with most addictions is being able to stay the course even after a relapse. A cupcake binge should not get one permanently derailed from a diet. Get back up, shake the dust off, and then proceed the course. And if it happens to be an issue of a sinful nature, Catholic Christians have recourse to starting anew through participation in the Sacrament of Confession. The old saying goes that Christians are definitely not perfect, but they are forgiven. Isaiah 40:31: They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall walk and not be weary. They shall run and not faint.
It’s just as hard going downhill. The hills on the Camino were definitely challenging. Some went on for a couple of miles or so. Climbing a hill can be extremely exhausting especially when the temptation to turn back presents itself. But just as in life, there is no turning back. One thing I quickly discovered is that no matter how tough it was going up, going downhill was not any easier. It is a joy to arrive at the mountaintop. But all roads do not end at the summit. What goes up must inevitably come down. I quickly discovered that a different set of leg and knee muscles were required to make the descent. Life has its peaks and valleys. We are presented with unique challenges in each scenario. Perhaps there are many uphill battles. But it’s never all uphill. And we don’t necessary gain momentum going downhill. Some of the worse crashes occur at the foot of a mountain. Lives can sometimes snowball when we don’t know how and when to put on the brakes. I remember in my days traveling in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee there would be sand banks along the side of the road for runaway tractor trailers. The descent must be made at a slow and steady pace.
It’s not only all about me. One principle taught in running a business as well as learned in walking the Camino is that any group is only as fast and efficient as its slowest member. In our little walking trio-- the holdup would be me. My 52-year-old pace served as a ball and chain for my 17-year-old and even my husband. However later on in the journey another’s upset stomach or someone else’s toe blisters became concerns and affected our progress in other ways. One has to learn to be concerned with the disabilities and shortcomings of each other on the same journey. If one of the members of the group only has the capability to walk 10 kilometers a day, then the maximum for that group is only 10 kilometers a day. Productivity becomes a team effort. If one wins, we all win. If one is incapacitated, we all become incapacitated. It’s in everyone’s best interest to look out for each other.
Be open to the kindness and advice of others. One encounters a lot of strangers along the Camino that become friends along the way. Fortunately these days it is much safer than back in the Middle Ages where pilgrims were often attacked, robbed, and left for dead (thus necessitating the building of the Reyes Catolicos centuries ago in Santiago which began as a hospice to help those who had been injured). Over the course of several days we encountered many familiar peregrines. It’s important to be willing to accept help from others, to be willing to ask for directions, and to be willing to give assistance. But there is one caveat: Be careful about asking directions from a cross-eyed person in a foreign country who doesn’t speak your native tongue. We were trying to locate the birthplace of St. Anthony of Padua when in Portugal and almost became lost trying to find the patron saint of lost things! Something got mixed up and lost in the translation and we found ourselves going in the opposite direction. So the lesson here is to exercise prudence in discerning good advice. On the other hand, when we were in need of a taxi on another afternoon and asked a restaurateur to call one for us, he volunteered to take us himself and he even tripped on the pavement on the way to his vehicle. Upon completion of the journey he refused to accept any form of payment. We were very grateful for his generosity.
We heard all sorts of advice about preparing and going on the Camino. My advice: it is all relevant and helpful. Just like in life those who have gone before have something to say to us to help along the journey. It is prudent and wise to take their insights into consideration.
Small things matter. For instance see how long one can walk with a tiny rock in a shoe. Paying attention to detail is very important along the journey: the weight of one’s daypack is can make a significant difference. Someone I know on the journey decided to bring three books along the daily walk. After a day of lugging all of that extra weight, that same person decided that only one book would suffice.
Be prepared but also be willing to embrace the unexpected. Getting lost once in a while is part of the journey. The best laid plans can run amuck. Fortunately most of our journey was under sunny skies and the paths were well marked. But we did have to contend with a heat wave that hit throughout that part of Spain and dealt with temperatures that approached near 100 degrees F. We carried extra rain ponchos in our packs but never had to use them along the Camino. Most of our meals and lodging were planned ahead of time but we did have occasions when it was difficult to find a place to have a bite for lunch and dinner was often past 9 pm when we were used to eating at 5 or 6 pm at home. I have often heard that the most successful people in life are those who are willing to roll and adapt to the curves and changes in life.
Don’t expect to lose in 7 days what accumulated over 7 years. One hope in walking 100 km was that I would lose a lot of weight. But the Camino is like in life. A temporary change in one’s physical activity might cause a temporary weight change but permanent results don’t occur unless there are permanent changes. This can apply to whatever changes one wants to make in life. We have to be committed for the long haul.
Have a goal. Figure out what motivates you. Having a goal and dividing it up into smaller accomplishable tasks is helpful. We would walk so far in the morning and then have a pre-determined amount of distance to go in the afternoon. Often as the morning dragged into the day, I looked forward to stopping along the way to have a cappuccino or charcuterie at a certain milestone. Taking small breaks along the journey is important. We often would pop into Churches to cool down, admire the architecture of the buildings along the way, take in a breathtaking view, or engage in a water break under a shady old bridge.
But finally don’t forget that the process of the journey is just as important as the destination. For some reason the Camino brought back memories of my pregnancies. I carried two healthy children to term. Although each pregnancy was not easy and was full of challenges, I enjoyed each moment of the process. Thanks be to God, at the end of those two pregnancies I experienced the full joy of giving birth to my beautiful children. But at the same time I experienced some nostalgia at the remembrance of the precious time of carrying them in my womb. I felt the same way about the Camino. With my Compostela in hand, I was excited to have reached the final destination but simultaneously was a little bummed that the journey had come to a conclusion. There were so many sites, experiences, and friends that were encountered along the way. I actually wouldn’t mind going on another Camino!
The Good Walk. There is a manner in which Pilgrims greet each other along the Camino: “Buen Camino!” Which in Galacian translates as” have a good walk” or can even take on deeper meaning in signifying, “follow the right path.” Fortunately it was a very good Camino indeed! Much can be said about discerning the good path and following God's will in our lives!
|Posted on January 14, 2015 at 5:51 PM||comments (141)|
The Best Laid Plans…
We’ve all experienced it. We make plans and nothing seems to go the way that we anticipated. “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” is an often repeated quote from the Scottish poet Robert Burns. Wiktionary states that it is an “expression used to signify the futility of making detailed plans when the outcome is uncertain.” The truth of the matter is that nothing is certain. Sacred Scripture states that the “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” (John 3:8, NIV). With all of this in mind some might conclude: “Why even get out of bed?”
I often encounter clients who are hesitant about undertaking new endeavors for fear of failure and/or rejection. There are those who recoil at the idea of being a trailblazer. I have heard many a young person who are not willing to take on college courses because “no one in their family has ever done it before” and that they lack having anyone to “encourage them to do so.” I have had clients who are anxious about entering into relationships. Some even excessively labor over not only the decision to marry but to date or even ask someone to an event. There are also those who are textbook perfectionists. They don’t want to make a mistake. They conclude, “If I can’t do it perfectly then I don’t want to do it at all.” Some refuse to take on any type of risk. But unfortunately, doing nothing is also a decision and has its own inherent risks and shortcomings.
The Joy of the Process
The misfortune is what is being overlooked about the process and what can be gained from it. The journey can actually be just as important as the outcome. The insights, things learned, and the experiences along the way help us to grow and to develop in ways that we not have otherwise. Many insights can be gained on that first day of entering into a college class. Even in relationships that turn sour one can learn a lot about oneself and others. We can create memories. Roadblocks in our paths can cause us to look around and to even sometimes take time to smell the roses. Some things can also draw us closer and into a deeper relationship with God.
On Being Overwhelmed
Sometimes people get overwhelmed from the prospects of opportunities. They have difficulty envisioning a plan from start to finish. They can’t see the trees for the forest or the forest for the trees. However, it is important to remember that many baby steps can make up one giant step. Often it is all about one step at a time and perseverance.
Often the first step, point A, is the hardest. Anyone who has ever tried to write a paper or a book can tell you that the first sentences are the most difficult. Fortunately, unless we are stone masons, most of the time, the first step isn’t “written in stone”. Changes can be made. The paragraphs can be revised. We can even start over.
When God intervenes
“Man proposes, God disposes” is a quote from Thomas A Kempis in his classic Christian work, The Imitation of Christ. When going from Point A to B, a very vital part of the journey is to allow God to be involved by seeking out His will. I was once telling my sister that “God can draw a straight path through our squiggly lines” when my 6-year-old niece interrupted and said, “No Aunt Nat, actually He draws a Cross.” I have been pondering this thought. From the mouth of a babe she is correct. If “Man proposes, God disposes” then often the proposal comes in the form of a Cross. Sometimes we find ourselves taking many right turns along the straight and narrow path. Rather than ranting and raving about the wrench in our craftily designed plans, we can choose to accept the obstacles as opportunities to grow in ways that we would not have otherwise. The Cross in our roadblock is something that can actually make us much stronger and even more humble. In the overall analysis, the squiggly lines that we create with our mistakes actually can take on characteristics more beautiful than just a straight plain sketch.
Most importantly it is not that we fall down, but that we learn to find the grace to get back up. It is not such a terrible thing that we make a mistake. In spite of the circumstances, we have to be willing get back up, to get out of bed, go to confession, back to the Sacraments, or do whatever needed to keep on going in whatever direction God has pointed. It is also important to realize that we are never completely alone-- that God can have our back and direct our way. Even though at times we may think that in going from A to B we are “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”
|Posted on July 20, 2014 at 3:49 PM||comments (1)|
“I Want to Forgive But I Still Have Pain.”
This phrase frequently comes up during in the course of counseling. Many have injuries from past and even current relationships that continue to cause pain thus hindering advancement to fuller productive lives. The desire to move on is present but former feelings of being hurt, mistreated, ignored, and/or neglected keep cropping up causing re-injury. The desire to eliminate these sensations and memories is strong but for some reason there is an inability to move on. Efforts to “stuff it down” and “forget about it” just don’t seem to work. Exasperated, they conclude that they are unforgiving simply based on the remaining sensation of pain and recurring memories. The feelings can snowball by adding layer upon layer of frustration, guilt, and anger.
Emotions are the GPS system given to us by God.
One big misconception is that all emotions are bad. But truthfully emotions are a type of natural GPS (Global Positioning System) given by God to help figure out where we are, where we have been, and what is going forward in our lives. It can be viewed as a warning device when we are getting off course. Emotions are meant to flow and not to be blocked. According to Karla McLaren, the author of The Language of Emotions, every experienced emotion contains a message and we must learn how to read the message. Mistakes are made when instead of properly “reading a message” we decide to ignore it or impulsively overreact to it. No one likes the feeling of being angry, hurt, sad, anxious, guilty, etc. But in reality we must learn to be mindful of what we are experiencing and be able to take away from it useful information to help us have fuller lives and better relationships.
Common emotions that appear to block our ability to forgive
A common emotion associated with an inability to forgive is that of fear. Another one is anger. In some ways these two go hand in hand. Fear is the most primal of emotions and is a trigger for the need for protection. Fears can be real or unfounded due to habit. Anger is a response to the threats that cause fear. According to McLaren, the message of anger is basically one of protection and contains two main questions that we must ask ourselves: (1) What must be protected? And (2) What must be restored? Anger is the result of some type of event/stimulus that threatens one’s sense of self, standpoint, or voice. Another common emotion is that of guilt. The message associated with guilt is the feeling that we ourselves might have violated someone or compromised a code of ethics. Shame is very similar in that one feels lessened by being untrue to the community with which they identify or to their own personal set of core values.
To act or not to act
Validating one’s emotions is important, but on the other hand, interpreting the message in our emotions doesn’t give a license to blow one’s stack or fly into a rage. We must understand a couple of important points. First, even if an emotion exists, our interpretation of what it means might not always be correct. There is a time and place for “righteous anger” and some persons/relationships in our lives might even be dangerous or pathological to continue. Even Jesus became angry at the money changers in the Temple. However, prudence and discernment must be used so that we are not flowing with unbridled destructive passions and become like a volcano ready to blow. Fear is one emotion that can very often become out of control and manifest as chronic anxiety as a result of habit. Fortunately the brain has plasticity and can unlearn such patterns. Secondly, being able to set clear boundaries and to restore one’s sense of self without offending the dignity of ourselves, another, or others are better indications of success, particularly when dealing with forgiveness. Without realizing it, more injury can be caused to ourselves and others by improperly reacting to an emotion. It is important in the cycle of forgiveness to not perpetuate re-injury with others and particularly within ourselves.
How to check the reliability of the message in our emotions
The basic principle behind cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is that our perception and belief of an event effects how we will feel and behave. Checking in with ourselves is essential. Looking for cognitive distortions and exaggerations are important. Asking further questions such as “Have I really been violated?” ; “Am I blowing this out of proportion?”: “Have I really violated someone or some code of ethics?”; “What have I really lost?”; and “What is the worst thing that can happen?” are examples. Challenging our own perceptions can sometimes be quite revealing if we do it with complete honesty.
Remember that past emotional wounds leave scars just like physical injuries.
A cut or a broken bone can leave a scar, so it is with emotions. I still have a scar on my knee from when I was 6 years old when learning how to ride a bike with training wheels on it. I also have a mark on my finger from a cut from a can of tomatoes after making stew when I was in my early 20s. These cuts no longer cause me pain but the memory of the event is still there and I can see the scars. If they had not healed properly in the first place, they could have potentially caused me much more difficulties down the road. If anyone has ever broken a bone, they can tell us that the place of breakage is prone to arthritis in later years. But on the other hand, some physicians will tell you that sometimes the place of healing of a broken bone can become much stronger because of the abundance of scar tissue.
Forgiveness is an act of the will.
Sometimes when we have made the effort to forgive, the recurring emotions are remnants of earlier wounds that have not had a chance to heal or require longer time. Forgiveness is an act of the will that occurs most often way before the feelings subside. The emotions are the baggage that still can drag behind. In most cases it takes patience and grace from God for the pain to go away long after the commitment to forgive has been made. It is important to remember that it is always possible to forgive in spite of how grave and difficult the situation. This is possible only because of the example that Jesus gives us. If we attempt with the best of our human intentions, our feelings inevitably get in the way.
Forgiving with the Heart of God
The key to forgiving is actually with God’s heart. A look at the Gospels shows that Jesus put a lot of emphasis on forgiveness. In fact, often when healing a person physically many times Jesus also said, “Your sins are forgiven”. The whole point of His dying on the Cross was to atone for sin. He who was not sin became sin. It is important to leave the door open when considering forgiveness. That means the door to our heart. If we approach the situation with a closed heart, we might miss out on someone’s attempt to reconcile with us. Also when dealing with persons, often it is a matter of swallowing our pride and taking the first step to repair a relationship. This is like being a sacrificial lamb. If efforts are met with rejection, don’t feel defeated but rather pray for the oppressor then go in peace knowing that you have given it your best shot. Don’t be surprised if by praying you find your heart softening. That is a healing by-product of prayer.
Remembering without the pain
Persons challenged with post-traumatic syndrome can testify that recurring memories and flashbacks are frequent obstacles in trying to heal from a past hurt. Fortunately there are some psychotherapeutic techniques that work well in eliminating the emotional charge from bad memories. One can learn to remember without feeling the hurt. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a method that is very helpful in assisting clients to properly reprocess emotions that have become stuck in parts of the brain. There is also help in various mindfulness techniques through meditation and prayer. Prayer not only helps a person to solicit help from God but also teaches discipline in ways to quiet the soul and helps one to achieve greater control over unbridled emotions.
One final note is that in order to be able to receive and give forgiveness one must be able to forgive oneself. Just about everyone has difficulty with self-compassion. Even the narcissist has a wounded inner sense of self. True humility is not being a doormat but acknowledging one’s self worth in relationship to God. It is realizing that one is created in His image and likeness and as such is loved by God unconditionally. True self-compassion is different from self-esteem. Self-esteem has worldly overtones of competitiveness in that one has to do things better than others in order to have value. Self-compassion is different in that it acknowledges that everyone has shortcomings and imperfections but they still have worth. Forgiving oneself allows one “to get over it” by realizing that it is normal to sometimes make mistakes.