Getting Ahold of Your Fears

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If you follow my posts on social media, you probably saw at least one or two pictures of my recent encounters with some scorpions. If you’re a long time resident or native of the desert, you might be rolling your eyes at this quirky hillbilly who keeps behaving like a tourist. Maybe you’re wondering why I have this new silly fascination in the first place.

First off, poke fun all you like. I don’t cut slack to all the flatlanders who check every tree for bears and who are enamored with snow either, so I’m good with being the foreigner who sometimes mistakenly calls a single cactus a cacti and takes pictures of common pests.

Second, there is a specific reason for my scorpion fascination and I think it makes a great blog topic. When I first told others I was moving to the valley, many of them brought up one of two things: heat or scorpions. For whatever reason, my announcement incited their almost automatic warning about these two things. I heard these cautions so much that I actually began to feel a bit of angst and I was even inclined to read about desert survival. Of course, heat and scorpions exist everywhere I have lived, but I still developed some trepidation.

There are a few primary ways we can approach fear or things unknown. We can freeze and let them have their way with us, we can run away and hide, or we can confront them head-on with boldness. As a person who lived with debilitating anxiety for many years, I am committed to the latter. In short, I have gone on my little scorpion hunting expeditions specifically because they made me uneasy. I purposely exposed myself to these creatures, not just to desensitize myself, but also so that I could learn about them.

I do this sort of thing frequently, actually. For example, scuba diving when I felt queasy around open water, skydiving when I was uncomfortable with heights, spelunking to move past a fear of enclosed spaces, and actually doing that GORUCK even though I might have failed in front of men whom I respected. You’ll notice this last one isn’t a specific phobia, but actually a fear of vulnerability, which is probably my biggest fear of all.

Believe it or not, social interaction used to be very troubling to me. Not only was I absolutely terrified of public speaking, even a simple one on one conversation would cause my heart to pound and my stomach to turn. At the most difficult point of my teens, my doctor prescribed several medications to help quiet my overwhelmed mind. As an adult, I still confront this old beast, but I have since become familiar with him and I am no longer afraid. Just to be sure, I choose a path surrounded by others full of public speaking to help bolster my courage.

Real talk, those are the easy ones…

Other major points in my life when I have intentionally faced off with myself include reading parts of the Qur’an and going to a mosque when I realized I feared Muslims and attending an all-black church when some friends brought some blindspots to my attention.

My point is that when we shine light into darkness, it loses its power over us. If you are angered by a republican, might I suggest taking him to lunch. If you are disgusted by your gay neighbor, maybe its time for a pride parade. If you’re a vegan, ask a hunter about his hunting trip. Go ahead and attend a fiesta, or a Hanukkah celebration, or spend some time with children, or older adults. Whatever your growing edge is, go there and confront the darkness!

(Social) Media Matters

Several months ago I took to Twitter and pitched a softball to the marketing, Commerce, and tourism departments of several communities. I simply asked, “what are the top 5 reasons for a young, ambitious family to move to ___.” Only one community played along. That little tweet ultimately helped us decide that Gilbert is a good fit for us.

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For the last several years I have been working in Kingsport, TN and during my time here I have gotten to know many of the people who work for the city and our chamber. One of my favorite things about this community is how much the people here love their city. This is what prompted me to send that first tweet. I wanted to live somewhere like Kingsport.

I started following the social media of Gilbert back in May. I’ve seen their creativity, compassion, and sincere effort to serve their community members. It may seem crazy to choose a city based on something as silly as a tweet, but really it is based on the things we have seen since…

So, here are the top 5 reasons why we picked you, Gilbert:

1. It is important to us that our city is engaged and proactive.

2. It is important to us that our city remains relevant, willing to adapt, and enjoyable.

3. It is important to us that our tax dollars go toward a strong infrastructure as well as improving lives.

4. It is important to us that our city will partner with us in business and nurture the soil so that we can grow together.

5. It is important to us that our city is a place where our children can thrive.

We think you have these things to offer us and we are excited about the future. Let’s do great things together!

Peace In The Flow

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Last week my children left for Arizona after saying farewell to all of their friends. Many of these goodbyes were full of tears and the bittersweet reminder that love can sometimes sting a little. I stood back and marveled how each of them navigated these age old, but new to them waters. On the last day they played outdoors going down the slide on the fort we built together, crossing the stream to their Terabithia, and hanging from the climbing tree’s limbs one last time. This house is the first that they remember. Its where first BFFs were made, first teeth were lost, and first crushes developed. It’s where the little hash marks scar the corner indicating children’s growth and tiny hand prints can be found in the cement. It truly made a wonderful home and it was obvious to me that it hurt to say goodbye. As their father, part of me wanted to take all their pain away and somehow make it so they’d never have to say goodbye again, but I knew better and let them experience the changing of the season for themselves.

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We have been at the “in between” stage for a while now. It started with us telling the kids we were thinking about moving. After that, we started downsizing and packing. Next came moving things into storage. Finally, we were allowed to let the secret out once the house was on the market. The days since have been a whirlwind of emotion and the perpetual stress of the “hurry up and wait.” For 45 days these children were told to not touch the stainless steel, drip water on the polished floors, or leave any sign of us living within the house. When a show request came in we could hide the beds, wipe down counters, sweep, mop, fill the air with febreze, and load the animals into my truck in less than 30 minutes flat. We had the drill down so fast that even Seal Team 6 would be impressed.

All of this transition has been excellent for reflection and pondering questions of ultimate concern. While I can’t say that I’ve kept my cool every second, I can most assuredly testify that it is well with my soul. The very essence of my theology is finding peace amongst the flow. My sermons, writings, and daily conversations are bursting at the seams with the motif of change and process. Rather than a longwinded exploration, I will offer just a few of beautiful reminders my children have given me in the last few weeks.

  1. As Richard Carson says, “don’t sweat the small stuff.” When bigger stuff is going on, we can better see how small the small stuff really is. It’s been cool to watch my children let the little things slide off.
  2. Ask for help and be willing to lend a hand. I am much better at the latter, but this project has simply been too big. My kids have been remarkable at expressing their needs and chipping in.
  3. Share boldly. My children have been so incredibly open and honest during this process. I’m not going to suggest that hearing a teary eyed “Daddy, I don’t want to move” is easy. But, can you imagine how awesome it would be if you weren’t trying to guess what others are thinking and feeling?
  4. Empathy is the oil in a well-oiled team. After we ask about another’s experience, we are able to connect and grow even closer. Because my children have been so open asking for help and stating how they feel, I can identify potential hot spots and better assess how to come alongside them.
  5. Remember that everything has a season and even death can be beautiful. On the day I returned from the airport after dropping off my children, I noticed the first turned leaf on the big oak in the front yard. Every year I watch these leaves transform in glorious splendor and marvel as they die and slowly drift to the Earth. They signal that all of creation will soon join them in sleep and stillness until their resurrection come spring.
  6. We are not our things. Our things are not a part of us. The more we learn this important lesson, the more we will find peace in the now. How does one decide which of his children’s pieces of art to save? Capture experiences and let things go.
  7. Plans and expectations are the thief of joy. We priced our house competitively in a hot market. There is no good reason that it didn’t sell in the six weeks it was listed. But, each time there was a showing and no offer wed simply say, “the family whose prayer is still yet to be answered is out there somewhere.” I see it nothing short of providential that some friends were looking to rent a house at the time we were ready to rent ours.

Last one, but this one I learned more from my friends: Dig your well deep. Invest in relationships, your spirituality, and your community. Even if you are only staying for a short time, when the time comes and you grow thirsty, you will be glad that you did.

Work Hard, Rest Hard

I have worked in healthcare long enough now to see my fair share of burnout and compassion fatigue. It is difficult to watch talented, compassionate caregivers lose their edge, wither back, and harden their shells. Especially since it’s preventable. A few days ago I facetiously posted on my Facebook wall about how doctors had discovered the proverbial fountain of youth in basic diet and exercise, but that the general public rejected it because it didn’t come in a pill. I think it would have been funnier if it wasn’t so true. It is remarkable that even minor changes in these things really are the most effective way to not only prolong life, but to make it better as well.

The same is true with our emotional and spiritual health. Even the smallest adjustments can exponentially improve our wellbeing. Multiple studies have revealed that mindfulness and meditation can help reduce anxiety, tension, and depression, control metabolism, and lower blood pressure. Research also demonstrates that we can improve our attention, memory, conscious perception, awareness, and overall functioning. Virtually all the literature supports the position that peak performers are able to achieve wildly ambitious feats largely because, in addition to working hard, they rest hard. In other words, if your team isn’t a top performer, it might not be because they don’t work hard enough. It very well might be that they haven’t developed or been allowed to practice the skill of respite and self-care.

The crazy thing is that this is not a secret! There are books upon books about this stuff. And it’s not because folks don’t have a methodology either. There is a multibillion dollar industry around how to take good care of yourself. Just try and count the number of blogs, books, DVDs, articles, and audiobooks on the topic. At our hospital the leadership team has offered an entire room specifically for the practice of self-care. They know the cost, both financial and human cost, of burned out Team Members. So, why is it still happening? If it’s not an education or resource problem, what is it?

I think it’s a cultural problem. I think that our poor self-care is merely a symptom. The disease, if you will, is embedded in our ethos. Westerners are largely independent. We take great pride in hard work, pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, and blazing the trail. These values have become so important to us that we have social pressure to always be on, giving our all. We simply don’t celebrate rest. We barely celebrate innovation or creativity that make things easier. I’m convinced that if the pulley was invented in the United States today the poor inventor would be run out of town for trying to cut corners. We have very little empathy for struggling persons and we give badges of honor to individuals who martyr themselves and their families under the banner of hard work.

I know because I’ve been there. When I was in grad school the second time, it was not uncommon for my schedule to be full from my 4:30 wake up to my 10:00 bed time. Each week I ran nearly 25 miles, worked more than 40 hours, was at my internship for 10, attended several classes, completed my coursework, stayed engaged with my faith community, and remained a devoted husband and father. It was rigorous to say the least and I am proud of how hard I worked in each of the arenas to which I had committed. Most of the time people would affirm my efforts and applaud all that I was able to dependably accomplish, but every once in a while they would ask how in the world I had that kind of energy. I was always happy to share that it wasn’t magic and it certainly wasn’t that I am any more special than anyone else. I was excited to let them know that it was intentional self-care and boundary setting.

What my peers often overlooked was that my early wake up time was to exercise in a supportive, encouraging community. They might have missed that I kept a regular coffee appointment with a good friend who would attend to my challenges and pray with me before I went to work. They probably didn’t know that I was listening to inspiring, informative audiobooks during my 30 minute commute or taking that time to quiet my mind and pray. Surely they missed my daily commitment to 20 minutes of meditation and scripture reading. I religiously practiced self-care as if my life depended on it because, quite frankly, it did. Everything in my life that was not moving me toward my goals or was preventing them from being realized, was reduced or removed; I didn’t watch TV, I ate well, I took out toxic things, and I invested in relationships that were empowering.

When I tell people about the importance of self-care they kind of chuckle. Some will take it to heart and others will put it into practice in their own lives, but far too many roll their eyes and get back to the grind as quickly as possible. I hope they make it, but I know some of them will not. I don’t think we will have an award for “most well rested” any time soon. For now, the reward will have to remain uncelebrated mental health and longevity. However, I do hope that we can feed into a culture that honors others who honor themselves and make space for self-care. Perhaps we will slowly see a shift where hard work is in balance with hard rest

I Guess This is Good-Bye

FF8C1CF2-11EB-4904-97B5-1B03FA83808E.jpegWhen I was nearing the end of one of my chaplain residencies my supervisor asked me how I was planning to say goodbye to my colleagues. “I don’t know,” I responded, “I kind of thought that residents just sort of disappear into the sunset without telling everyone that they’re leaving.” My response was met with some funny looks from my peers and in true CPE fashion, I was encouraged to explore if I might be avoiding the discomfort of a goodbye.

In a hospital setting there are a lot of people coming and going. The reality is that most of our contact with others is temporary. Students and contractors come for a season, ambitious leaders continue up the career path, burnout and fatigue are common, and perhaps the most obvious, patients are discharged. As a result, many hospital employees arent great with goodbye. I don’t think this is isolated to healthcare however; avoiding goodbye is a human thing, the hospital just makes for a good excuse.

If I’m honest, part of why I didn’t announce my departure from the unit where I served was because I was afraid that no one would say anything. My negative self-talk had caused me to wonder if perhaps my absence wouldn’t even be noticed. Furthermore, as an introvert, any kind of event with me as the center of attention also sounded quite uncomfortable.

What I was missing was an incredible opportunity to connect. Saying goodbye in an exercise in trust and intimacy. It is a chance to grieve and have our grief absorbed by relationship. It’s funny that I missed this. After all, I am in the grief business. As a chaplain I sojourn with others every day in their grief and as a counselor, I specialize in the topic. In my professional role, termination is intentional and mandatory. When done well, it is healthy and part of the therapeutic process.

It would be selfish of me to allow my ego to prevent others from having the opportunity to say goodbye if they chose to do so. Because my mission is to courageously live an authentic life that influences others to do the same, I have been open with my own process and practiced vulnerability, even in things that seem silly or mundane. This post is no different.

So, my Appalachian friends, this is goodbye. My wife and I have placed our house on the market and begun the process of loosening our tent stakes so that we can move back West to be closer to our families of origin. We have done this once before, when we moved here from California, but this time is harder. We have sunk roots deep into this community, purchased our first home, and watched our children grow out of diapers here.

The last eight years have been chock-full of relationships and personal growth that is really quite daunting when I reflect back.

I have obtained two graduate degrees, completed internships and residencies at several facilities, and participated in hours of continuing education which built my skill and self-confidence as a professional and a leader. I have partnered with several agencies and worked with various organized faith communities to address issues of poverty, addiction, abuse, and justice. I have joined multiple civic clubs to build relationships and serve others. The work has been rewarding, but the relationships move me to tears. From professors to peers and supervisors to clients, so many have poured into my family that I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

My circles of community are broad and make a diverse tapestry of beautiful humans doing beautiful things in the world. I was ordained and baptized all three of my children in front of First Christian Church, Johnson City. The members of Leadership Kingsport befriended and trusted me to tell our story. My CPE groups helped give me the courage to confront my inner demons and continue healing from my past. The professors at Emmanuel and Milligan opened my eyes to vast new areas of academics and poured into my excitement to learn and grow. My friends at Covenant Counseling helped expand my clinical skills. And the PAX of F3 Northeast Tennessee have held me accountable to rising up as a leader in all areas of life. I will dearly miss being in the immediate space of so many of these brilliant and compassionate people. I will especially miss my Indian Path family. I cannot imagine a better place to spread my wings. The leadership team has invested much in my development and the clinical team has received me with open arms. I am daily affirmed, nurtured, and encouraged in ways I cannot even begin to repay. Even more, these ones have trusted me with their stories. So many in this building have come to me and shared their deepest fears, hopes, pains, and tales of triumph.

It has been an incredible honor to minister to this community. I appreciate the hospitality and each person who has welcomed us to these mountains. May you be blessed ten-fold what you have given to me.

Know Thyself

“Know thyself” is a beautiful aphorism that is often attributed to the ancient Greeks. One can also find early inscriptions with a similar phrase created by the Egyptians. Personally, I believe it is one of those universal concepts written on the souls of all humankind, so its origin is not really important. What is important is the sheer vastness of philosophy that can be crammed into these two little words. Volumes upon volumes have been and will continue to be written about our search for self, but I would like to zero in on one specific piece that might just be the key to unlocking some of what is holding you back from your greatest potential.

First a little background. Early Western concepts in psychology began with the idea of psychoanalysis, which is basically examining the conscious and unconscious roots of our thoughts and behaviors. The theory was that insight would produce change. One of the major criticisms of psychoanalysis is that insight alone does not actually cause transformation. This is pretty straight forward- I can be aware that running makes me healthy, aware of how to obtain the necessary gear and the proper technique for going on a run, and I can even be fully aware of all my excuses for staying on the couch, but if I don’t get up, all that insight is useless.

As the field of psychology evolved, behavioral models emerged, which are action oriented and approach pathology from a completely different perspective. Overtime, practitioners have developed hundreds of approaches with varying focus on thinking, feeling, and behaving. Technology and advances in neuro science have opened new doors to better understanding, but the field remains in conversation about how best to help humans function at higher levels. The funny truth is that the tool we choose to help us get better isn’t nearly as important as just grabbing one and getting to work!

In the world of personal development and performance psychology, one of the major theories that undergirds coaching is psycho-cybernetics. Developed by Maxwell Maltz in the 1960’s, this theory is all about changing self-image and examining the messages we replay over and over in our minds. There are dozens if not hundreds of excellent books out that were clearly influenced by Maltz and his school of thought. In fact, you probably apply some of his theories without even knowing it.

One major component that has come from Maltz’s work is confronting “self-limiting beliefs.” This is where knowing thyself comes back into play. The idea is to examine the beliefs we have about ourselves, our abilities, our value, etc. and then to change the negative tape or re-record a new message. There are many effective techniques for how to do this. One on one coaching or counseling is very useful in this process. Truthfully, you can do much of this work on your own without even knowing what you’re doing.

I would like to offer a word of caution before you jump in head first:  many people might encourage you to go in guns blazing to wipe out the enemy. But, what I have found in my own journey and when working with clients is that the expression “we have met the enemy and he is us” holds true. While we are not our beliefs and what we believe about ourselves might indeed be inaccurate, there is a part of us holding on to that belief. Don’t let this part of you become collateral damage. Instead, approach with curiosity and compassion.

You can start a dialog with this part of yourself. For example, when she says to you, “you’re not good enough,” you might simply remind her of your innate value and state the reasons why you are lovable. If you merely beat this part of you down and shame it into submission, you will likely expend a tremendous amount of energy. Even worse, the shame will likely produce more inner distress and symptoms. I have found that when I treat my own inner bullies like I would treat an angry youth, I make more progress. That is, these parts are hurt and scared- not evil or even looking to harm me. They are working hard to protect my ego and keep me safe from the perceived threat of vulnerable relationships. Once I acknowledge their efforts and assure them that everything is going to be OK, they calm down and I can move on.

I will give you a real life example. For a long time public speaking has been tremendously uncomfortable for me. This is terrible news for someone called to preach and speak regularly. There is a part of me who remembers embarrassing public blunders. Every time I get ready to speak this part reminds me of previous mistakes. And I hear things to the effect of, “you’re a phony. You’re unoriginal. You don’t do this or that well enough. You don’t deserve an audience.” This part of me is simply trying to avoid embarrassment by talking me out of taking a risk. Instead of ignoring this voice, every time I get ready to speak I thank him for what he is trying to do. I also remind him that others have helped me up every single time I’ve slipped. After all, here I am. Standing. Then I remind him of the times things went great and the wonderful affirmations others have offered. It is only after this whole process that I move on to my visualizations and inner rehearsals. I always make peace with myself first. This is a win-win because even if I do bomb, I have shown compassion to myself and instead of an “I told you so,” I am given compassion in return.

Knowing thyself is some scary stuff. It takes tremendous courage and resolve to confront yourself, but it is liberating in indescribable ways. You will be more present, more at peace, and more effective. I hope you take the time to get to know you a little better. You’re pretty great.

Pain is Inevitable. Suffering is Optional.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

Recently a friend and I were having a conversation over a cup of coffee and this enduring adage came up. If I remember correctly, we were talking about exercise and how some people erroneously believe that once a person reaches a certain level of fitness, he or she won’t ever get sore after a strenuous workout again. We were laughing about how “it never stops hurting; you just get used to it.” As our early morning musings are apt to do, this turned into a much deeper theological conversation, ripe with the sort of existential quandaries best served in the early morning hours with a cup of joe or late into the night in the corner of a pub.

As our conversation went from aches and pains to pain and suffering, the topic of my role as a Hospital Chaplain came up. I shared with him that I believe one of the biggest problems in the Western World generally and healthcare specifically is that there is a pervasive expectation that we can and should live with no pain. This too is an erroneous belief; there is no such thing as a pain free life. Even the very best practitioners and the most powerful medicines cannot prevent all pain. Part of the human condition is that we will all experience varying degrees and manifestations of pain throughout our lifespan. In other words, pain is inevitable. Thankfully, the latter half of our adage is also true: suffering is indeed optional.

Though somewhat difficult to fully articulate due to its conceptual nature, physical pain is basically a combination of biological and psychological responses to a stimulus. Suffering, on the other hand, is the physical, emotional, and spiritual distress caused by a dysfunctional response to that pain. In short, there is an automatic cause and effect with pain, but with suffering, we have room to intervene. Viktor Frankl, a brilliant psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor who authored Man’s Search for Meaning wrote, “between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Chaplains live in the space between pain and suffering. So do many other healthcare practitioners. It is where compassion and true healing takes place. This is how there is hope when the prognosis is hopeless and how faith remains when all seems lost. I tell clients every day that it is futile to fight against all our circumstances- it is much more productive to make a decision about how we will respond to them. That is not to say we are completely powerless and must allow ourselves to be tossed back and forth helplessly, but I do believe that we would do well to courageously step into the space between stimulus and response where we can claim our freedom.