Sentimentality and Truth

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There’s an interesting paradox that’s emerged in my view of feelings and how they should influence my life. When the anxiety started last summer and I struggled to remain “happy” as I’d told myself I was and would always continue to be, getting in touch with my real emotions was a very important and necessary step. “Feeling my feelings” was my mantra for awhile.

However, as I got a grip on my anxiety and started to reflect on life, I found myself drawn to what I know to be true, namely, Christ’s sacrificial death, resurrection, and the freedom of living as a citizen of God’s Kingdom. One of the things I love about the Lutheran faith, and our congregation specifically, is the way faith and reason are united. As our Pastor once said (I’m paraphrasing):  A leap of faith is stupidity. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that he died and rose for our salvation because of documented, verified, historical accounts in human history. Christ got out of the grave and appeared to hundreds in his resurrected state. That’s why we believe.

So, returning to feelings. Emotions are not logical or reasonable. They are simply feelings passing through our body for a certain period of time. While our emotions can tell us important things like whom and what matters to us, when we need to take action to improve situations, etc., emotions should not dictate our actions without relying upon logic and truth also.

I’m currently reading a fascinating book by Theodore Dalrymple called Spoilt Rotten: The Toxic Cult of Sentimentality. His argument is that modern society (Britain in particular, but with clear implication to America), emphasizes the importance of feelings over logic and reason, to the detriment of all. The definition of sentimentality, according to Dalrymple “is the expression of emotion without judgment.” This statement alone will cause our politically correct trained ears to pause on the word judgment because at the core of sentimentality is the cultural virtue that no one has the right to judge anything.

christChristians are told in Matthew, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1). This command speaks to the tendency of people to point out the sins of others while posing as if they are without sin. When, in actuality, we are all sinful and fall short of God’s glory. However, the current cultural virtue of not judging extends to forbidding any rational thoughts about another person’s actions or feelings. If someone expresses a feeling, it must be accepted without question.

As these ideas have been percolating in my mind this week, I realized that the elevation of feelings above logic and reason is directly related to a secular world that believes there is no truth.  As the secular world rejects the idea that human life is directed toward the ultimate goal of reconciliation with God, there is a huge void of meaning to life.  If there’s not a truth, there are infinite meanings and nothing by which to say one meaning is more true than another. When truth becomes relative, then reason and logic can easily be disregarded. What is left? Feelings. Emotions and their expression reign supreme and the individual is elevated above family, community, or (dare we say) Kingdom.

Dalrymple describes this dichotomy perfectly in another book on my to-read list: Our Culture: What’s Left of It:

“The loss of the religious understanding of the human condition—that Man is a fallen creature for whom virtue is necessary but never fully attainable—is a loss, not a gain, in true sophistication. The secular substitute—the belief in the perfection of life on earth by the endless extension of a choice of pleasures—is not merely callow by comparison but much less realistic in its understanding of human nature.”

I understand this statement to mean: when the truth of humanity’s need for a Savior to reconcile us with God’s perfect Law is rejected, society is left with the hopeless idea that life on earth is ultimate and therefore human happiness is the highest and best goal.

So, the paradox of feelings is that human beings are actually more fulfilled when they recognize the truth that their feelings are not ultimate. Lasting happiness comes from living a life of value. While I lived as if maintaining positive feelings was my ultimate goal, I struggled. Freedom and peace came when I could accept my feelings and redirect my focus on the truth that I am a sinner living in a state of grace that Christ won for all.

Embracing Growth

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As I went through this transformation, one of the ideas I really embraced was growth. When you control aspects of your thoughts, feelings, and actions it’s easy to stagnate in terms of learning and growing as a person. I’d always loved to learn. The thought that there are so many ideas that I haven’t been exposed to yet is invigorating and exciting.

At the end of July, I suddenly had the realization that I couldn’t rush through this process of awakening. I wrote in my journal:

As these weeks have unfolded, I realized something profound… the things I’ve learned in the last couple days were unknowable to the Kelsey of two weeks ago. The things I learned last week were unknown to me just a day prior to learning those lessons. Similarly, everything I’ll learn next week, next month, or years from now, I don’t know today. Growth. This concept has given me peace because it means I don’t have to rush to figure everything out. Lessons, learning, life will unfold for me as it should, in God’s time.

Perhaps this is obvious to other people…? But, for me it felt like revelation, particularly in terms of my own emotional and mental growth. I’d always recognized that continuing to grow intellectually was important (as in Integral’s “education for its own sake”), but in terms of knowing myself and allowing for the idea that I can change and grow throughout my life, this was an epiphany!

girl with booksAs I started reading and implementing the exercises in The Happiness Trap, I’d have stretches of growth and then moments of backsliding… two steps forward and one step back. So, my recurring prayer was for God to “keep me on this path of growth.” Whenever my deeply ingrained habits of trying to stay “happy” would kick in, I’d return to the idea of wanting to change and grow in my dependence and trust in God.

This post started brewing in my mind during a run yesterday. I was running up a long, gradual hill that reminded me of “The Incline” Dennis and I used to run on 6th Avenue near Balboa Park. This stretch of our run always gave me anxiety, and it was a huge accomplishment when I could make it to the top and keep running without stopping to catch my breath. Now that I’ve run for several more years and longer distances, running this type of hill doesn’t bother me anymore.

As I pondered these thoughts, my attention returned to the song playing in my headphones. Pandora Shuffle had chosen a Disney song (from the station I added for the kids!); it was “Go the Distance” from Hercules. The lyrics spoke to exactly this idea:

I will find my way

If I can be strong

I know every mile

Will be worth my while

When I go the distance

I’ll be right where I belong

There are so many different areas of our life where we can grow: artistically, athletically, intellectually, spiritually, as a mother or father, wife or husband, friend, manager, etc., etc. It’s awesome to know that there is still much to learn in any particular area of your life. Also, embracing growth means it’s okay not to know something, not to have everything figured out. It’s simultaneously motivating and liberating.

Growth. It’s a good thing.

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Surrendering Versus Striving – A How to Guide

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happiness trapTo further develop the concept of defusion, Dr. Harris begins the chapter entitled “Look Who’s Talking” by asking readers: when you’re not listening to someone and you claim to be “somewhere else” – where are you?

Haven’t we all had this experience? You’re present in a certain moment, but your mind has wandered. For me, it often happens in the car. I’ll put a song on and intend to listen to the lyrics. A couple minutes later I’ll realize the song is almost over and I didn’t recall hearing it. My thoughts had hooked me and took me “somewhere else”.

His explanation of this phenomenon is that there are two different parts of yourself: the “thinking self” (commonly referred to as your mind) and the “observing self”.  The thinking self is that part of you that thinks, plans, makes judgments, etc. While the observing self is responsible for awareness, attention, and focus. The observing self can observe thoughts coming and going from our minds, but it doesn’t produce thoughts.

Harris provides an illustration of how our thinking and observing selves function by describing the process of viewing a sunset. When you first see a sunset there may be a few moments where you are entirely focused on just observing the view. Then, your thinking self starts the commentary: “Wow, this is so beautiful! I should grab my camera. This reminds me of that sunset on the beach last summer.” Etc. Your attention is now on the thoughts, judgments, and noise coming from your mind and therefore you’re not fully focused on what you are observing.

To experience this dichotomy directly, Harris outlines an exercise that goes like this:

Close your eyes for one minute and simply notice what your mind does. Stay on the lookout for any thoughts or images as if you were a wildlife photographer waiting for an exotic animal to emerge from the undergrowth.

What you’ll notice is that there are two distinct processes happening: the thoughts or images in your mind and your observation of those thoughts or images. You can distinctly say, “There’s a thought and there it goes, out of my mind.”

So, how does this relate to defusion?

First, this realization helps you understand that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go and they don’t necessarily deserve your attention. Attention and focus are from another part of you that can allow you to stay in the present moment, without passing judgment.

Defusion is the state when you can let your thoughts play in the background, like a radio that you’re not really listening to. You know that the music is playing, but you don’t have to listen unless you like the song. In other words, if the thought is helpful and is going to help you live a life you value then you tune in and pay attention to it. If the thought is unhelpful, then you just let it be without focusing on it.

As Harris explained earlier, human minds have evolved for survival, not happiness. Therefore, a lot of your thoughts are really warnings about things that may do you harm, reminders of bad memories, or criticisms about yourself. He calls this “Radio Doom and Gloom” in this chapter. Most “positive thinking” psychology advises you to change your thinking by broadcasting a positive radio show (aka “Radio Happy and Cheerful”) over Radio Doom and Gloom. In my experience, this type of thinking just sets up an internal duel between positive and negative thoughts. When I was in the depth of my anxiety last summer, I’d often experience mental debates where I’d argue with unpleasant thoughts by coming up with lots of reasons why the thought wasn’t true. In the end, the thought wasn’t true or false, and I certainly wasn’t accepting it; therefore, the thought would come back for another round of debate, regularly.

To practice defusion, Dr. Harris gives readers another exercise that can be done anywhere, at anytime.  It’s simply called Ten Deep Breaths:

Take ten deep breaths, as slowly as possible. (You may prefer to do this with your eyes closed.)  Now focus on the rise and fall of your rib cage and the air moving in and out of your lungs… Now let any thoughts and images come and go inthe background, as if they were cars passing by outside your house.  When a new thought or image appears, briefly acknowledge its presence, as if you were nodding at a passing motorist… You may find it helpful to silently say to youself, “Thinking,” whenever a thought or image appears.

From time to time a thought will capture your attention; it will “hook you” and “carry you away” so that you lose track of the exercise.  The moment you realize you’ve been hooked, take a second to notice what distracted you; then gently “unhook” yourself and focus on your breathing.

This process of unhooking myself from thoughts was transformative!  I’d previously given my thoughts to much power and importance.  Being able to accept a thought without having to struggle with it, prove it wasn’t true, or otherwise reason it away, has been fundamental to my growth and awakening.

As I reread this chapter, it occurred to me that the thinking self and observing self align with the struggle of control versus trust. When you are thinking, judging, and planning you are striving to control your inner experience. This state leads to anxiety and that phenomenon of being “somewhere else” mentally. In contrast, the observing self is able to accept what is given and be present in the moment. The concept of surrendering versus striving was significant for me. And ultimately, because of my faith, this state of accepting, being present, and ceasing striving meant that I was trusting in the Lord for everything. I imagine that without faith in God, it would be much more difficult to embrace the concept of surrendering.

start where you are

The Baby Stage

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Sienna and mommyIn my experience, parenthood has been the most fulfilling and transformative stage of life. After Sienna was born, I recall thinking “What in the world did I do before she arrived? What mattered this much?” Becoming a mom put everything into perspective; as long as my kids were healthy, everything was okay. Loving my kids is the closest I can imagine to the unconditional love that God has for us.

In light of all that, I suppose it’s natural that moms would mourn the passing of the baby stage. My kids are six and three now. We’ve been blessed to have a girl and a boy. Our little house fits us just right (like Goldilocks and the baby bear’s porridge, chair and bed!). My diabetes makes pregnancies high risk and no one is getting any younger! Practically and logically, I know we’re not going to have any more babies. We even sold the crib and all the baby gear, without much thought, let alone heartache.

Sienna babyOn the other hand, I routinely ask Dennis, “Maybe just one more?” When Sienna plays with baby girls at church I’ll ask her, “Would you share a room with the baby if we had a girl?” I toy with the idea of having another baby on a fairly regular basis. It’s like I can’t completely let go of the possibility of having another baby; though I’m not doing anything to actively plan a pregnancy (something I have to do in terms of blood sugar control).

Teo baby

 

Other moms I’ve talked to echo this sentiment. It’s hard to let go of the baby stage.  Having a new baby is exciting, surprising, and sweet. Maybe it’s partially because it’s over so quickly that we want to hold onto infanthood. Even with the sleeplessness, pains, and challenges it’s lovingly remembered and missed.

Teo big baby

 

Looking ahead, I imagine that these longings for another baby will lessen as my children grow up and the baby stage is further behind me. Moms – has that been your experience? How did you cope with the transition from having babies and toddlers to preschool and school aged kids?

 

Love and Basketball

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basketballEleven years ago today, I went on my first “date” with the man who would be my husband. March 22nd was a Saturday in 2003 also (did you know you can search for that info online… how cool!).  Date is in quotation marks because our outing wasn’t intended to be a date.  We were co-workers who’d become good friends over the previous 8 months – sharing a love of sports and a fondness for one another.

The Friday before I asked Dennis what he planned to do the next day.  He said, “Going to bar-hop and watch the NCAA tournament.”  I enthusiastically invited myself along by saying, “I want to go do that!”

I picked him up at his apartment downtown and our day began.  Dennis was so cute; he approached the day like he was being my tour guide, since I’d moved to San Diego that summer.  We ate lunch at this awesome Mexican restaurant in Barrio Logan called Cheuy’s (it’s sadly not there anymore).  Our day also took us to Trophy’s in Mission Valley (another place that’s gone!), On the Boarder, Seau’s, Top of the Hyatt on the marina, a bar at Horton’s Plaza, and the Hard Rock Café.  Several times Dennis expected that I’d be ready to head home – I lived in Oceanside at the time, a 45 minute drive north of downtown San Diego.  But, I was having the time of my life and kept saying, “Where next?”

My life changed that day.  I recall sitting next to Dennis and thinking, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life! I want this to be my life.”

Nearly ten years of marriage later – I still can’t imagine a more fun day than watching the NCAA tournament with my husband.

Love this guy!

Love this guy!

 

The Art of Defusion

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happiness trapPart 2 of The Happiness Trap is where Dr. Harris outlines the Core Principles of ACT and thoroughly describes the practices that will improve your mental health and psychological flexibility.  The first of the core principles was perhaps the most beneficial for me.  It really helped me break the cycle of obsessive thinking and overanalyzing.  Principle one is called defusion – a way of “relating to your thoughts in a new way, so they have much less impact and influence over you.”

Let’s back up a bit… thoughts, according to Harris, are just words passing through your mind.  People typically give their thoughts way too much power.  Harris calls this chapter “The Great Storyteller” because our minds tell us stories all day long, and then we believe these stories and assume our thoughts are truth.   Actually, our thoughts are sometimes true (called “facts”) and sometimes false.  But, most of the thoughts that run through our minds are neither true nor false. Harris explains, “Most of them are either stories of how we see life (called “opinions,” “attitudes,” “judgments,” “ideals,” “beliefs,” “theories,” “morals,” etc.) or about what we want to do with it (called “plans,” “strategies,” “goals,” “wishes,” “values,” etc.).”

Personal note- When I reflect on my life pre-awakening, it’s clear that a lot of my thoughts were in these categories.  Planning, goal setting, and dreaming about the future were my go-to thoughts.  Believing that these thoughts were true and the essence of my life was the coping mechanism that hurt so much to lose.

Harris describes that thoughts should not be given such power because “stories are not the event.” There’s a difference between witnessing an event and recalling it in your mind later.  When folks are dealing with thoughts that are stuck to the event they refer to – they are experiencing fusion.  It works like this: thoughts are reality, truth, important, wise, and can be threatening.  Therefore we believe them, take them seriously, obey them, give them our full attention, and feel the need to get rid of them.

Say someone is dealing with painful thoughts like, “I’m never going to succeed at this” or (in my case) “I cannot stay in the moment.”  When you’re experiencing fusion, this thought is reality and truth.   In order to reduce the influence of this thought, you must learn to defuse the thought and the event (fact) itself.  Harris repeatedly points out that the goal in ACT is not to “get rid” of the thought – that just leads you back to the control strategies that don’t work (remember we don’t have control over our thoughts).  Instead, through ACT, you’re learning to accept your thoughts and let them come and go on their own.

Here are the techniques I found most useful for defusing your thoughts:

  1. Add the words “I’m having the thought that…” before the thought that’s bothering you.  For example, if you think “I am not a good mother.”  Change that to “I’m having the thought that I’m not a good mother.”  Then try, “I notice that I’m having the thought that I’m not a good mother.”  With these phrases, you’re creating distance between yourself and your thoughts. The thought is merely words passing through your mind; they’re not necessarily true.
  2. Thanking your mind.  When your mind starts to tell you stories that are bothersome, just acknowledge that your mind is trying to catch your attention.  Saying, “Thanks mind!” and letting those thoughts come and go helps you to accept what’s happening in the moment but also stops the process of ruminating on the thought or arguing with yourself about whether the thought is true or not.

There are several other techniques in the book, such as setting your thoughts to music, not taking your thoughts seriously (by replacing key words with other words, kind of like Mad Libs), and restating your thoughts in silly voices.  All of these exercises basically help you to see your thoughts for what they are – just words passing through your mind.  Harris also likens thoughts to the cars that pass by your house.  You don’t usually stop to acknowledge that a car is driving by your house, they just pass by. That’s how you should view your thoughts when you’re in state of defusion.

Defusion is one of the principles that lead to acceptance within ACT.  Harris explains that acceptance is “about embracing life, not merely tolerating it.”  As he describes the true meaning of acceptance, he quotes the Serenity Prayer.  I was so excited to see this because I’d previously made the connection that this book was a practical application of this prayer.  Both illuminate that you should take action to change the things that they can, accept the things you cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.  Awesome.

As I mentioned above, defusion can easily become another control strategy, if you use it with the expectation that it will make your bothersome thoughts go away.  I fell into this trap several times when I first attempted defusion techniques.  My desire was to get rid of the thoughts that were making me anxious and unhappy so I defused them hoping they’d leave quickly.  Harris says that it’s okay to want to get rid of the thought, but that’s different than actively struggling with it.  Accepting that it’s there and, most importantly, seeing it for what it is – just words in your mind, means that you can still not like it but you’re not fighting the thought.

 

 

Why I’m Lutheran

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My religious experiences growing up were eclectic.

Born and raised in a progressive Catholic church, I was baptized as a baby, had my First Communion in second grade, and was confirmed in high school. However, my parents didn’t teach us many of the Catholic “rules” such as not eating meat on Fridays during Lent. Hence my embarrassment years later when I ordered a burger on Ash Wednesday amongst a group of friends at St. Mary’s College!

Along with the Catholic upbringing, my parents were also involved for many years with an ecumenical Christian retreat called Cursillo. They grew close to many families from different denominations. The impact of these retreats and the relationships with all these people of different faith traditions was that our faith became a hybrid of doctrinal beliefs.

Another factor that shaped my Christian understanding was the several years of summer camp my siblings and I attended. Instead of sending us to the Catholic camp in our county, my mom signed us up for the non-denominational Triumphant Life Camp. Our counselors came from a Baptist college in central Oregon. This was where I was introduced to praise music and was encouraged to “give my life to Christ”. Even in my early teens, this seemed a little odd since I was already baptized. My Catholic friends and I had to deal with explaining that we didn’t worship Mary and respell other misconceptions of our religion. But, it wasn’t a big deal and as kids, we just loved being at camp with our friends!

When I met my husband, we shared a religion. As co-workers, even before we starting dating, we went to an Ash Wednesday service together. We also shared similar disillusionment with the Catholic church. Although we believed in the sacraments and loved the liturgy, many of the doctrinal aspects of the Catholic Church didn’t sit well with us. I remember leaving a mass one Sunday, fairly enraged, after a long homily focusing on praying for the repose of the souls of deceased loved ones. Basically, this means we’re praying for their time in purgatory to be lessened so they can fully enjoy peace with God in heaven. Purgatory was definitely something I couldn’t embrace. Isn’t God powerful enough to purify us because of Christ’s sacrifice and our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection? I couldn’t subscribe to the idea that God had to put people through a purification process or that we were powerful to reduce the length of that process.

Dennis and I chose not to be married in the Catholic Church. We continued to practice Catholicism during our first few years of marriage (although I later learned that we were not supposed to be taking holy communion because of our unsanctioned marriage!) – but we often talked about whether we’d actually want to have our children baptized in the Catholic Church. It had become clear to me that my major disagreement with the doctrine was the issue of salvation through grace or works. The Catholic Church holds that both grace and our works are necessary for salvation (hence the need for purgatory to finish what our good works could not accomplish). From all of my experience with protestant Christianity, I believe that God’s grace through Christ’s death and resurrection is sufficient for salvation.

When Sienna was born, we dicussed baptism with our priest.  Our choice for godmother was my sister, Sarah.  During this process, we learned that Sarah could not be Sienna’s godmother because she was married – although not married within the Catholic Church.  Apparently, our experience with a more progressive congregation growing up, meant that we’d missed the nuances of these rules.  Turns out that godparents are supposed to have all the applicable sacraments. Since she was married outside of the church, she was technically disqualified.  This was the last straw.

So, we embarked on a quest to find the right denomination for us. We knew that the liturgy and sacraments were most important, so we sought faiths that share the orthodox doctrine. For several months we attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church near our home in Hillcrest. We met a lot of nice folks and my mom and I joined a group class on Simplicity, which was really interesting. In the end, it wasn’t the right fit for us, mostly because we found a much better one.

Sienna was about to start attending daycare so I began the hunt for a church preschool that was also a place we’d want to worship. The first and only school I visited was Grace Lutheran. It felt like coming home.

As soon as I met Pastor John, saw the beautiful sanctuary, and met the loving teachers I knew this was where we were meant to be.  We studied up a bit on Lutheran doctrine and knew, for sure, that this would be our religion. I loved the beautiful simplicity of Luther’s doctrine of justification “by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone”. As my understanding of Lutheran doctrine has grown, my appreciation for it has only deepened.

Given all the faiths I have been exposed to, Lutheranism feels like the perfect blend.  We have the ancient liturgy, the sacraments – where God pours out his grace for us, and the proper understanding of justification through Christ’s death and resurrection alone, without any meager attempts by me to manage my sin or improve my standing with God.

I feel richly blessed to belong to this church family.