gratitude

Dissonance

I remember attending my first Twelve Step recovery meeting ever. It was an open meeting, and I attended with a friend. I listened. I learned a lot and felt that even though what people were sharing didn’t totally apply to me, there was something warm and familiar about it all the same. I couldn’t put my finger on it.

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With my friend Nicole in 2009, not long after I began working the Steps

A few months later, I understood that warm and familiar feeling to be home. I related to the feelings shared, even though the details were different, because I had been affected by similar problems and situations.

I never stopped the Twelve Step movement in my life after that. This summer, I celebrate my eleventh year in recovery. When I attended my first meeting, I was dating an alcoholic (I later married him, and subsequently divorced him). He insisted I find my own program of recovery because I was driving him crazy. Truthfully, I was probably driving him completely nuts, regardless of his behavior and his contributions to the chaos in our relationship.

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How I spend my time today

Fast forward 11 years. A lot has happened in the gap, but one thing has remained steady and constant in my life–my relationship with God and my growth in recovery. Divorce, financial ruin, relocation, grad school, pregnancy, major health concerns, marriage, legal stress, parenthood, entrepreneurship … you name it. Life happens to us, right? That doesn’t change just because we choose to align ourselves with healthier people, attend Twelve Step meetings, and pursue a better path for ourselves. Life keeps happening. Will we avoid as many potential pitfalls if we’re making better choices? Probably. But life rolls on, and we cannot prevent that.

I’ve observed something interesting over the past decade which sometimes seems strange. A dissonance, a distinct difference, even tension between the way I view (and choose) to view the world, and the way others view and choose to view it.

Why the dissonance? Why the difference? Why the vast chasm?

Yes, I follow Christ, and that certainly sets me apart from a large group of people who do not. But it’s not those people I’m referencing here. There are many of my friends and family members, most of whom follow Christ, who truly seem to be unable to relate to my perspective and worldview. What’s changed? Me or them? If it’s me, what is it about me that’s changed so much?

I’ll never get inside others’ heads to figure this out entirely–and honestly, I don’t want to–but I do find it interesting. Here’s one thing God brought to my attention a few weeks ago: When two people have experienced reality entirely differently, it is nearly impossible for them to perceive the world similarly. 

I chatted with a friend of mine who works in Christian ministry a few weeks ago, and that’s when this really hit me. He shared with me a situation that occurred years ago when many folks in ministry conflicted over changing a denominational policy. Some of the people stood by their beliefs without becoming petty or criticizing individuals (maintaining a polite, cordial attitude toward others involved). But a few people lashed out at the group, posted hateful messages online, and demonstrated the exact behavior that makes Christians cringe in embarrassment. We lamented about the situation together.

“I don’t know why, but that’s just one of those hot button topics that always gets people going,” he mused.

“Yeah, I guess so. I can’t relate to that anymore. I think there was a time when I had an opinion about that stuff… not now. I can’t even muster an ounce of concern about that if I try.”

I wasn’t being sarcastic. I was serious. My entire perception of what really matters has completely changed. I really did join in on splitting doctrinal hairs in the past, and I enjoyed those conversations and would defend my soapbox to the bitter end. And not just that–I used to pride myself on serving as vigilante of almost everyone or anything. I loved that stuff. I LOVED THAT STUFF. If you’d asked me the question, How important is that, really? I would have responded, It’s VERY important!

Then I lived in alcoholism for a decade. And I faced PTSD during that time from multiple incidents of sexual assault and other situations. I finally sought counseling and help through the Twelve Steps, but not until my life began to crumble into bits at my feet. It was not the best time of my life.

When your reality has been lived in mire, in fighting dark spiritual battles for quite some time, your perception changes. First world problems aren’t problems at all. You don’t have room on your plate for things like bickering, gossip, and scandal.

Yet even when you move from darkness to light–and thank God, that has happened for me–you may still feel permanent dissonance between the way you see the world and the way others see it. Does that mean those who don’t see it the way you see it are wrong, or that something is inherently wrong with you?

Not at all. It’s just a reminder that the world is varying shades, that not every human experiences trauma, and that God works through each of us differently. It’s a reminder that we cannot go to the bakery expecting to purchase hardware. That we can’t expect people who’ve never been in a pit to feel comfortable sitting next to us in the bottom of one while we work our way out, one Step at a time. It’s a reminder that God goes before us, plans in love, and converts what was meant for Evil into our Ultimate Good.

 

 

gratitude

How to move

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI woke up humming a tune.

“Whippoorwills in the willows…” I love that little song. It takes me back to a sweet time in my life when I had fewer cares and responsibilities, a time when love enveloped me like the warm comforter I nestled in as I awoke with the June sunshine streaming in through my bedroom window.

I have always heard “be where your hands are.” My mentor wrote this line to me this week, “Let your head be where your hands and feet are.”

Same essential meaning, but it hit me differently. Yesterday morning, I found myself nearly paralyzed in bed. This inability to move (and unwillingness to get up–it was half inability and half desire) only lasted for about five minutes, thankfully, but it was long enough for me to pause and reflect on the cause. I was unable to get up and make my daughter a cup of strawberry milk and to make my coffee for five minutes because I was humming a little sad tune from a movie I watched during a beautiful time in my life. I was reminiscing. And I was grieving.

When my head and thoughts are reflecting on the past and meditating on memories, I am completely incapable of being in the present. I’m unable to move. I’m unable to go forward. I’m unable to take actions. I’m unable to do stuff. I’m unable to have fun with my kid. The entire time I was floating through the memories of hearing that song then—and humming it again 18 years later—my daughter tugged on my arm, jumped in my bed, and even told me jokes. I half-listened, half-smiled, and half-replied to her. I was half-there. But I’ve been taught that half measures avail me nothing. And living a half life isn’t really living my life, either.

If I’m grateful for the RIGHT NOW, I’m capable of getting up, getting out of bed, and making strawberry milk and coffee in the morning without any problem, without any hesitation. I can do that when I switch my thoughts and focus from back then to right now.

Sometimes I do that easily, as I did yesterday morning, by simply making a mental choice to stop thinking about the past. Sometimes it’s not as simple, quick, or easy. I need to reach deep into my toolbox for help. I pray and work through the Steps of recovery, admitting I’m powerless over my desire to live in the past. I admit that I’m incapable of being where my hands are and ask for God to restore me to sanity. That’s expressing willingness. I say, “Help me, God!” I’ve never known a time when I’ve asked God desperately for help, and He’s pooh-poohed my genuine, unselfish request to make a change.

Another practical way I focus on what I’m grateful for—which switches my focus from then to now—is by paying attention to what I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. And I give thanks to God for those things right away, and usually aloud. Does that make me seem like a weirdo? Maybe, but usually I’m home with my daughter, so who really cares? I’ll thank God for the smell of hot coffee as it’s brewing, for the warm sunshine on my blanket, and for the sparkle in Maggie’s eyes every morning. When I’m thanking God with my mouth, my mind doesn’t have as much control over me.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m then capable of reading, praying, and meditating and putting first things first. I can make homemade muffins for the cutest four and a half year-old girl in the world. When my head is where my hands are, I’m grateful for where my hands are. When my head is living in 60-second snapshots from the past, I’m not able to see our gray kitten’s fur standing up on end, chasing a bird. I’m unable to hear Maggie giggling while chasing him across the yard. I can’t laugh in response. I choke down fresh farm eggs and homemade chocolate cake; food is bland when I’m in a time warp, either reliving something sad and beautiful or wishing I’d made different choices.

Thankfully, I’ve been taught how to live here. I’ve been taught how to live HERE, where my hands are, where I exist, in reality, where the clock is ticking on the table next to me.

gratitude

Mighty kind

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Kindness is the mightiest force in the world,” according to One Day at a Time (299).

In the past, I didn’t feel kind. I didn’t even feel like being kind. I felt like stabbing my ex-husband’s eyeballs with a handful of forks. If you know me now, you may be laughing and trying to imagine me doing this. You may be thinking, “Now Bethany… surely you’re exaggerating!” No. I am not.

That anger and resentment masked my disappointment, bitterness, depression, anxiety, sadness, and fear. I was in pretty sad emotional shape a decade ago (and in the preceding years as well). Thankfully I chose to reach out, get help, and get better.

I have learned I have a choice in every situation. The truth of this notion made me sigh (or gag) for a few years. Martyrdom had become a way of life. I couldn’t see the efficacy in changing my ways because it was tough to take actions and let feelings follow, and I was afraid to admit my part in problems, particularly in relationships. It was much easier to let men, bosses, or relatives take the blame, allow all of you to feel very sorry for me, and go on with life.

I didn’t just omit the truth of my mean part in situations. I also behaved in mean ways. Just ask one of my exes. I’ll spare you the details, but trust me… I’ve been cruel, cold, and calculating.

I haven’t just struggled with being kind in intimate relationships. I still find it tough to be kind—even courteous—to family members who don’t live life the way I do. When someone interrupts me repeatedly, or when a relative tells racist jokes in front of me, I absolutely do not feel motivated to treat them as God’s precious children or want to pinch their adorable cheeks and bless their little hearts. It’s really my problem because “when I am disturbed, it is because I find… some fact of my life… unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment” (Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, 417).

Kindness blooms from acceptance.

Acceptance really is the solution to all my problems.

Another root of kindness is gratitude. “When I focus on what’s good today, I have a good day” (Big Book, 419). Three long years of creating detailed, original gratitude lists helped instill this principle in my heart, but it’s still easier when I feel disgruntled to focus on the problem rather than the solution. When I choose to focus on the solution, I feel better. Many times the quickest way out of a grump is to create a gratitude list. Sometimes I write the items on paper. Many times I pray aloud and say, “Thank you, God, for the chance to stay home and spend time with Maggie right now. Thank you that she cared enough about my reaction that she asked me to quit writing and to come see her new space heater. Thank you for the 30 minutes to write this morning before James left for work.” Hearing myself express gratitude verbally brings me back to where my hands are; the present is where I find the solution.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I am thankful, I treat people around me with kindness and compassion. When I am thankful, I am more likely to accept others as they are. And lastly, when I am thankful, mindful, present, and accepting, I like myself. This is something I struggle with but am willing to grow toward today. In moments when I like myself, I’m kind to myself. I don’t lash out in my head with judgmental and critical statements. I smile more often. I relax. I listen well. I laugh. And when I love myself, I love others well.

And kindness and love really do cover a multitude of sins.

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Abundance of gratitude

Today’s guest blog post is written by my friend Jeri Wright, a beautiful, free-spirited soul. Thank you, Jeri, for sharing your heart.

As I drove down the street today the sun-kissed my skin through an open window. The perfectly warm breeze gently caressed my cheek and tousled my hair. Every breath was a rush of energy and renewal. On a day like this, you just can’t help but to put your hand out the window and let it surf the wind like you did when you were twelve. Up and down and side to side, there is no resistance. I wonder, could this moment be any more perfect or this day any more beautiful?

A smile grows across my face and tears even think about welling up in my eyes for a minute. The awe and wonder I feel from a simple ten-minute drive on a nice day is almost overwhelming. I feel completely connected. This feeling, this emotion, has happened in my life before.

It happened when I was very young, at an age of total oblivion–that small window of life where all the world is a stage to entertain you. There are no scary things in life, other than monsters under your bed or in your closet. The age when you share pinkie swears with your best friend, and your best friend is either your mom or your cousin. When the biggest challenge you face is choking down your veggies at the dinner table.

12963511_609965423102_1062520607317924890_nMy swing set was a magical place in those early years. At around four, I would settle myself in the swing seat with no one else around. Mother would be inside cleaning or folding something. I had no siblings, and the cousins were too scared to play with me. After being sick for years, I had become the family glass doll. I would spend hours on that swing, amazed at how powerful my little legs felt while they shot me off into the never-ending Oklahoma sky above me. I imagined sailing among the clouds, the breeze in my hair and the sun kissing my skin.

This is my happy place. This is where my gratitude lives. Every moment when I recognize a gift in my life, I feel my happy place. Thankfully, as I acknowledge those gifts, I seem to recognize even more of them. My gratitude used to be reserved for “big” things like I’m glad my son’s cancer hasn’t returned, or I’m grateful that the police officer didn’t give me a speeding ticket. But now I feel gratitude nearly everywhere. I feel it in letting others go before me in traffic. I feel it in an uncomfortable situation because it gives me an opportunity to stretch and grow. And I feel it in the simple pleasure of watching my children play.

That abundance of gratitude has made it possible for me to relive my swing set magic every day.

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The mind’s freedom of movement

Today’s post is written by my lifelong friend Mark Egan. I’m sure you’ll appreciate this thoughtful reflection on the deeper meaning of life and love as much as I do.

Nothing in life progresses on some linear path. Everything–happiness, health, love, achievement, motivation, self-worth–ebbs and flows throughout life. The valleys are labeled their respective peaks’ opposites.

11008850_936616623055175_297026962_nAchievement’s path is not confined by some imaginary X-axis with moments below the axis. Failures are viewed as separate and distinct points when our memory calls on them. That’s how we often view progress.

Love is viewed no differently in time. Should love fail us and recede below the X-axis like an unstoppable morning tide, we pick up the pen, tracing love’s progress, and we forever view the experience as a distinct point. That we instinctively view and recall in this manner can lead to tragedy.

Above this imaginary line, we ebb and flow. Below it, a single point or points hover. Our mind, just like a pen, is free to move above the axis. Below, our minds are stuck. We lift the pen to fill in a little black circle to indicate our “points of intersection.” There is no flow or movement. We are stuck, forced to abide by the laws of our own memories and how experiences are viewed. Movement simply makes the point bigger and darker on the page until we stop, lift the pen, and begin a new path above the axis, or until tragically, the intensity of our own efforts wears the paper-thin and the pen rips through the exhausted and unrecognizable fibers.

The answer, of course, is to allow the pen to move freely through experiences regardless of the emotions and label we assign them, without the pressure of an imaginary, self-determined X-axis. The key to success, love, and joy is not the absence of failure, hate, and misery. The key is the mind’s freedom of movement.

Maybe our X-axis exists because of the way our minds remember and recall events. We arbitrarily set our own X-axis based on experience. The diversity in outcomes for all of us has more to do with location, not intensity or duration of the struggle or memory. Rather than aiming to temporarily get someone unstuck and hope for fewer negative events to impact someone’s life, the goal should be to slowly lower the axis line so that fewer of the same number of negative events are viewed as singular events at all.

Or maybe, for some of us, the lines on our graphs transcend the page. Perhaps we reach a point in life when the points and specific dots and moments matter much less, and we begin living life in real time—again, free to remember the points on the X-axis when they benefit us but free to transcend them as well.

And perhaps when that happens, we have the freedom to live life off the page, removed from this restrictive two-dimensional Cartesian plane, on a spiritual plane, in which case explaining the past or the points on the X-axis becomes less crucial. Because after all, life—and certainly love—are gifts. And when given a beautiful gift, the best option is to accept it—hold out your hands, bow your head, and cherish it.

–Mark D. Egan

gratitude

Day 18: Dear Perfect Baby

*Day 18 of the Dear Gratitude project is really special; my former boss and friend, Jenny Cannon, shares her reflections on her decision to forgo having an amniocentesis procedure prior to delivering her daughter, Claire, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome at birth.*

It has been six months.  Six months since I anxiously timed contractions and took a warm bath to ease the pain.  Six months since my husband and I nervously laughed and joked about my labor starting one day before my scheduled c-section.  Six months since I delivered the most beautiful baby girl I had ever laid eyes on.  And six months since we received the diagnosis– Down syndrome.

Claire DSI have a lot to be thankful for in the last 6 months:  a healthy baby, no medical complications, an amazing husband and the love and support of my friends and family.  But one thing I’m surprisingly thankful for is that I did not have a prenatal diagnosis.  Don’t get me wrong; I did not feel this way in the beginning.  In fact, initially I was angry that I didn’t have a prenatal diagnosis.  I had 3 high-resolution ultrasounds–how did the doctors not know!?!  I said many times “if only I had known, I would have…”  But when it comes down to it, what would I have done if I had known that my precious little angel would have 47 chromosomes? I can say for certain I would not have terminated my pregnancy, but that’s where my certainty ends.

Would I have let the myths and stereotypes of Down syndrome negatively affect the remainder of my pregnancy?    Would I have let my tears and disappointment get in the way of the love growing in my heart?  Would sadness and depression have stopped me from decorating the nursery or buying every piece of baby gear available?  Would the nervous laughter and excitement I felt on the way to the hospital have been replaced by dread and fear?  Would grief have prevented me from truly celebrating my pregnancy or Claire’s birth?  Would a prenatal diagnosis have caused me to give up without giving her a fighting chance?  I don’t know.

What would have been different if I had a prenatal diagnosis . . .  I will never know, and for that, I’m thankful.

Claire pageant picA prenatal diagnosis could not have convinced me that my little baby would be perfect.  Or that her smile would light up every room she enters and that she would immediately calm all my worries and fears.  Or that the love I would feel for her and the pride I have for her accomplishments would equal the love and pride I have for my firstborn child.

Today I say thank you to the doctor who discouraged me from having an amnio; thank you to the nurse who emphasized the risks involved with having one; and thank you to the sonographers for maintaining their belief that there was nothing wrong with the little girl growing in my tummy.  They were right—there is NOTHING wrong with Claire.  She is perfect just the way God made her–all 47 chromosomes!