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Deepening my Trust in the True, Good and Beautiful Triune God

I feel like I’m in the middle of what may come to be known as “My Awakening 2.0”. The recent trip to Paris triggered an intense period of insomnia and related anxiety that feels pretty awful. I know that my struggle to accept these feelings has exacerbated the issue, but I’m finding it hard to truly let go and cease trying to “fix” my negative thoughts and feelings.

However, unlike back in the summer of 2013, I now have coping strategies to help me get through the day – thank you, Lord! The basis of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is that we have very little control over our thoughts and feelings, but a lot of control over what we choose to do and where we put our attention. Most of the acceptance tools are meant to allow painful thoughts and feelings to be, without struggling with them or trying to change them.

So, in the course of a given day, despite how tired or emotional I feel, I’m able to pray for strength, focus my attention on what tasks need to be done at work or home, and do them. In these moments, I’m not fighting my thoughts and feelings, but letting them be while I carry out life activities in the present moment. Ironically, I’m probably better at my job when I’m in this state because I’m very intentional about my actions and don’t fall into the blind optimism that can lead me to avoid analyzing pitfalls with my Team and our work!

Today I’m seeking God’s peace and faithful guidance as I continue to surrender to His perfect will. Responding to an urging, I picked up an inspiring book that I’d read this past summer. It’s called Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton. One section was dog-eared and highlighted. As I re-read it today, I was moved. It captures my struggle so well:

“… God is dealing primarily with our “trust structures,” especially those deep postures of our being that do not rely on God but on self for our well-being. Here we make the devastating discovery of all the ways in which we are captive to our own anxieties, driven by our need to control God and others and impose our own order on things. We begin to get a glimpse of the false self that functions primarily to keep us safe rather than helping us to know how to abandon ourselves to God. At this level, we must take a hard look: are we really trusting ourselves to God and to the flow of God’s Spirit, or are we bound up by defensive, self-protective patterns that serve only to help us maintain our fragile sense of security and well-being in the world?” (pg. 103).

Oh man, my false self is such a pro at creating an internal world that makes me feel safe and “in control” and totally self-absorbed! As God so artfully orchestrates, I’m currently reading a book referred by another Cambridge mom that deals specifically with the false self. It’s called The Relational Soul: Moving from False Self to Deep Connection. The co-authors Richard Plass and James Cofield describe their use of the term false self as a translation of what St. Paul refers to repeatedly as “the flesh”: For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out (Romans 7: 17-18). Plass and Cofield describe the flesh or false self as “a toxin, corrupting our deepest connections with its self-absorbed, exaggeratedly self-reliant spirit. It is a deep mistrust of the true, good and beautiful triune God,” (pg. 60).

Yikes, is this ever convicting.

I know, deep in my soul, that the process of letting go of my sense of control, accepting my thoughts and feelings, and thereby trusting God above all else was real when I went through my “awakening” back in 2013. All that I learned then is still true today. Unfortunately, my sinful nature twisted these beautiful lessons into a clever way to feel in control of my feelings. My thought process went something like this: If I simply accept my thoughts and feelings, then they will feel under my control (i.e. I’d feel contented and “good”).

Letting go of my need to control my thoughts and feelings is my primary struggle. Accepting my anxiety and fearful thoughts, without striving to fix or change them, requires me to fight all my old urges. There is no positive mantra or reframing that I can do to make these feelings less painful. This is when I have to rely solely on my deep trust in God.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths, (Proverbs 3:5-6).

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Life Lessons from Cool Runnings

Friday nights typically mean “Family Movie Night” and pizza (eggplant mini pizzas for me!) around our house. This past Friday, it was my turn to pick the movie so we searched through all the movies from my childhood on Disney Plus. I picked Cool Runnings, the early 90s movie about the Jamaican Bobsled team. I hadn’t seen it in at least 20 years, but remembered that my siblings and I loved it. Actually, I have a very vivid memory of watching it the Henderson’s house, our dear family friends. It was fun uncovering that memory of childhood!

Right off the bat, Mateo loved the movie because of the ridiculous potty humor! He is a nine-year-old boy through and through. His hysterical laughter got the rest of us giggling over the silliness of it all. Midway through the movie, Sienna exclaimed, “Wait! This is in our movies to see before you grow up book!” “Oh, you’re right!” I replied. Years ago we picked up this very fun little book at our favorite (now closed) bookstore in Seaport Village called Upstart Crow: 101 Movies to See Before You Grow Up. It’s been fun to check off the movies we’ve seen and consult the book to help us choose good films for Movie Night.

I’d forgotten what great messages are conveyed in Cool Runnings. Without giving away the entire movie, the first wonderful message is of forgiveness as the main character, Derice and another sprinter, named Yul Brenner (!) forgive their competitor that accidentally fell and tripped them, causing all three men not to qualify for the Olympics. They decide to use their sprinting ability to form the first ever Jamaican Bobsled team, along with Derice’s best friend (and champion pushcart driver) Sanka.

The team faces a lot of adversity as they select a coach, played by John Candy, who was disgraced twenty years earlier for cheating at the Olympics. He’s ostracized by the bobsledding community, so the team receives a hostile welcome when they arrive in Canada for the Calgary Olympics. One of the teammates poignantly acknowledges a painful truth when he says, “We’re different. People are always afraid of what’s different.”

My favorite moment in the movie brought tears to my eyes. Derice is asking his coach about the cheating scandal, the night before their final heat in the Olympics.

Irv: You wanna know why I cheated, right?

Derice Bannock: Yes, I do.

Irv: That’s a fair question. It’s quite simple, really. I had to win. You see, Derice, I’d made winning my whole life. And when you make winning your whole life, you have to keep on winning, no matter what. You understand that?

Derice Bannock: No, I don’t understand. You won two gold medals. You had it all.

Irv: Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.

Derice Bannock: Hey, coach… how will I know if I’m enough?

Irv: When you cross that finish line tomorrow, you’ll know.

Without giving away the ending, this exchange foreshadows the emotionally charged conclusion of their race. When Irv said of the gold medal, “But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one,” Mateo asked me, “What does that mean?” I knew this could be significant for him, this child that always wants to do the right thing. “Well, it means that your worth shouldn’t be determined by what you accomplish,” I replied. He nodded slowly and I knew this was just a seed being planted, rather than a huge life lesson being learned.

Who knew so many life lessons could be wrapped up in a film about bobsledding! Have you seen Cool Runnings? If not (or not recently), it’s definitely worth a viewing, especially with kids. Although you may have to endure some toilet humor for awhile after!

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The Pursuit of Happiness.

On Monday afternoon, after finishing a book that morning, I went to the library at lunchtime to browse the shelves and find my next book to read. I had a huge stack of “To Be Read” books at home, but a seeking instinct encouraged me to find something else. I headed toward the Christian section and noticed a book on the shelf across the aisle. The title America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks caught my eye. I mean, how could it not?

The author, Ruth Whippman, is a British journalist that moved to California with her husband and baby son when she was in her late thirties. She explains that cynicism is deeply ingrained in the British psyche and she was surprised to discover that Americans seek and discuss happiness constantly. As she was feeling displaced and homesick, she became curious about the American concept of “the pursuit of happiness” and started to investigate. What she discovered is that Americans, despite all the effort they put into pursuing happiness are actually not very happy.

Specifically, she notes that most of the positive psychology and happiness advice focuses on an internal experience that must be pursued independently: “Increasingly, Americans are chasing happiness by looking inward into their own souls, rather than outward toward their friends and communities.” Most of the slogans about happiness support this concept, such as “Happiness comes from within” or “Happiness should not depend on other people” or “Happiness is an inside job”. These ideas are meant to be empowering, but they do not jive with actual experience. Most studies show that the happiest people have deep social connections and spend a lot of time with people in their communities.

Whippman spends several chapters unpacking aspects of American culture that are embracing the concept of positive psychology such as the workplace, social media, and parenting. The message that all of these pursuits send is that we should be able to achieve happiness through grit and effort. However, constantly seeking to be happy internally often keeps us from experiencing the rich, full life around us.

While a lot of the commentary was a bummer to read, I felt affirmed in reading this book because it echoed a lesson I learned years ago through Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: we cannot control our feelings. Seeking to only experience positive emotions or happiness is actually a trap. We spend a lot of mental energy and focus trying to keep negative or painful thoughts and feelings away, which keeps us from the meaningful life we want to lead.

Happiness comes from the same root as “happen” or “happenstance” which means that it is something temporary and often fleeting. Seeking to hold on to these positive feelings (and avoid painful ones) isn’t a fruitful way to spend our time. Living a life aligned with our values will bring about a sense of gratitude and satisfaction, but also will comprise the full spectrum of human emotions.

At the conclusion of America the Anxious, Whippman write something that sounds like it came straight from The Happiness Trap:

Beyond that, I’ve realized over the last year or so of obsessing over this topic, that if we want to be happy, what we really need to do is to stop thinking about happiness… And really, that’s a liberating thought. For the slackers of this world, the idea that the harder we strive for happiness, the less likely we are to achieve it is good news. Now we can relax in the knowledge that if we concentrate on the life and liberty bits, if we focus on living a connected, fulfilling, and meaningful life, then if we’re lucky, happiness might just hitch a ride.

America the Anxious, pg. 219.

Given my recent bout of anxiety, I’ve been returning to practices of defusion and accepting my painful thoughts an feelings. Reading this book helped me recognize how unhealthy ideas about happiness permeate our society. The belief that we should be happy and maintain positive feelings all the time runs rampant. In order to achieve these feelings, many people turn to distraction, substances, or activities to keep themselves from feeling genuine emotionally ups and downs.

So, if you’re not feeling very happy just now, please know that you’re completely healthy and normal! Our emotions change all the time, like the weather. When we focus our attention on doing things that align with our life values, rather than trying to suppress or change our thoughts and feelings, our life will be much more rich and meaningful. And likely we’ll encounter happiness along the way.

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L' acceptation (Acceptance in French)

The idea of going to Paris, or really anywhere across so many time zones, scared me.  I wanted to go on this trip to celebrate two milestones: Dennis and my 15th wedding anniversary in November and my upcoming 40th birthday on January 31st.  It sounded fun, like something monumental. Plus, Sienna has been dreaming of visiting Paris for a while and we’d celebrate both hers and Mateo’s birthdays while on the trip.  There were many reasons to go on this family adventure.

But, beneath the surface, I was terrified that this trip would trigger a bout of insomnia like the jet lag did in 2001 when I returned from Okinawa.  I told myself that I was “accepting” my fear by not giving in to it.  The very fact that I was going on the trip meant I was “facing the fear and doing it anyway” – right? 

Looking back, I recognize that my fear kept me from engaging in the planning of this trip. My attempt at acceptance actually became repression of painful feelings which caused me to avoid deeply committing to the process of planning and dreaming about this adventure.  Fear caused me to withdraw and go through the motions, without opening my heart to the experience.

Then, my worst fear came true.  I laid awake for hours our first night in Paris.  The second night was the same, though I finally crashed for several hours of interrupted sleep.  The third night, I didn’t fall asleep at all.  The anxiety was acute and I woke Dennis in the middle of the night to sob and seek comfort.  He was loving and supportive, staying awake the rest of the early morning hours to keep me company.  I finally called my sister at 4:30 a.m. local time (fortunately early in the night back in California) where she helped me recognize that my staunch refusal to take a sleep aid was actually a way of trying to control the situation.

I knew that acceptance of this situation would bring peace, but my struggle switch was firmly in the on position and I couldn’t release my need to fix what was happening.  My mom, kids and me found a Pharmacie and purchased a sleep aid (basically Benadryl) to take the edge off my insomnia fear.  That fourth night in Paris, I had to take multiple doses to finally rest, but somehow that night, acceptance slowly creeped in.  I’d experienced three days of exploring this beautiful city and I had been present.  Yes, there were painful feelings and nagging thoughts about this inability to sleep, but I was able to defuse them and refocus on the experience of being there, with my family, taking in these new sights.  

Fear of not sleeping had been replaced with the actual experience of not sleeping.  I could handle these feelings in the moment.   

By the end of our trip, I slept a restorative 8 hours straight without a sleep aid.  Acceptance brought peace and relief.

Coming back home, the nine hour time-change meant that we didn’t see daylight for 24 hours. My body clock was so thrown off and I felt the fear creep back in.  As I laid awake the first night home, I kept telling myself that I would not take a sleep aid.  I would not give in to the fear and try to fix the situation. No sleep came that night and my anxiety was again extremely high.  I practiced my expansion skills observing the painful feelings in my body, breathing deeply, and giving the pain all the room is needed to move on.  I prayed and found moments of peace.  At one point, I thought, “Maybe it would be wise to take a sleep aid tomorrow night” and I felt such relief at this simple idea.

At Target the following day, I purchased a box of ZZZQuil, figuring it looked pretty basic and would do the trick.  That night I took one dose and about ninety minutes later, a second dose.  When I was still awake another hour later, I Googled the effectiveness of ZZZQuil and discovered a message board full of insomnia suffers claiming that ZZZQuil did nothing to help them sleep and in fact felt like a stimulant!  It’s ironic how validating these strangers’ comments felt.  I dug out a dose of trusty NyQuil and finally crashed that night. 

I threw the box of ZZZQuil away the next day with a sense of satisfaction.  There wasn’t some magic pill or solution to fix this deep fear.  I felt so much closer to acceptance in that moment.  In the end, taking or not taking a sleep aid was not the critical piece of this story. Sleep aids have their usefulness and are most effective when taking when a spirit of acceptance.

I struggle with wanting to control my feelings.  I want to feel “positive” feelings and fuse with “positive thoughts”.  This is the “Happiness Trap” – the idea that only “positive” feelings and thoughts are acceptable.  The actual experience of lying in bed awake is not painful, it’s the feelings of anxiety and racing thoughts that tell me: “You’re broken” or “You should be able to control this” that cause me distress. 

I’ve been through this pattern of insomnia fear and acceptance several times since my awakening in 2013.  As such, I’d learned that true acceptance brought relief of fear and anxiety.  Therefore, I started to tell myself that I “accepted” the feelings in an attempt to control my feelings.  In The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris cautions readers again and again not to use acceptance techniques as control techniques because they will eventually fail.  True acceptance means that you allow your feelings to be, without struggling to push them away or change them. 

Another huge realization of my awakening was how frequently my mind creates dichotomies between good and bad, right and wrong.  These judgments are another way of trying to control my thoughts and feelings.  So, deciding that I “would not take a sleep aid” prior to the trip and again upon returning from Paris, I made a judgment that sleep aids indicated weakness and I shouldn’t need one.  Acceptance could actually involve recognizing my body’s limitation and the impact that a 9 hour time change would have on it, and taking along a sleep aid in case it could be helpful.  

This post describes an intense inner experience, that doesn’t come across in the sharing of vacation photos on Instagram and Facebook.  It requires vulnerability to share the hard and painful parts of myself.  All this to say, our trip was also fun, rewarding, full of good memories and new experiences.  Life isn’t good or bad.  Experiences are not completely highs or lows. They are a mix of both, all the time.  Memories of feeling fear and anxiety will be there when I reflect back on our Paris trip. But so will memories of the places we saw and the experiences we had: moments of silliness, watching the kids taking photographs, and exploring a beautiful city with the people I love.  

Growth for me involves not having to judge or label this trip as either good or bad.  It was a great trip that also involved a lot of hard emotions for me.  This is acceptance.