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.

My friend just switched jobs. Don’t make the same mistake his boss did.

9EA40959-48B5-4B09-BB0A-B03156142EE4Recently, a friend of mine was training for a GoRuck Heavy. Most of the training leading up to the event took place late in the night or very early in the morning so that he could maximize his family and work responsibilities. However, once his employer became aware of the grueling training plan leading up to the event he began to push back and demand more time from his employee stating that, “if [he] had time for working out so much, [he] had time to take on more projects.” It’s important to remember that this training was outside of scheduled work hours. In fact, the only time he requested off was the day of the event itself, which was approved months in advance.

In the end, my friend took a position with another firm. This is a huge hit for his old company and here’s why: turnover costs a lot. It costs so much that many companies desperately attempt to retain even low and moderate performers to help mitigate the expense. But, my friend isn’t a low performing team member. Chances are, your fitness minded employees aren’t either. Id go so far to say that if you have these type of folks working for you, you might even want to give them extra days off to train!

There are plenty of articles about how fitness-minded employees benefit companies. Not only do these team members have far less health issues of their own, studies have shown that the overall immunity of the company rises when a workplace is health conscious. This means less people are taking sick time, even the ones with unhealthy habits. More productivity with lower costs? Yay!

There are many additional reasons why it’s a good idea to hang on to those ultra-running, weightlifting, early morning workout connoisseurs.

  • They are more productive. Yep, even the ones who woke up at 5 am for a run.
  • They are happier. Oh yeah, love me some dopamine and serotonin
  • They have less stress (and more fun!)
  • They are safer, filing less than ½ as many workers comp claims

And these are just a few of the many, many reasons that I frequently see in fitness and management magazines. But, I’d like to focus on another, even though it is difficult to measure (at least in the way we can with insurance and healthcare costs).

Here is how I know my buddy’s old boss lost a good one.

Fitness builds community. It is a subculture all its own with various tribes and places to belong. For example, I currently workout with F3. But this is simply one tribe, just like CrossFit is another and community gym classes are another. We often overlap and join Spartan, GoRuck, and various running tribes as well. In these groups you will find interconnected networks of high achievers; People who are building their self-confidence, self-efficacy, and interpersonal skill. This goes way beyond retention and job embeddedness. It is where people have a high probability of thriving not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.

The reason I know my friend’s boss lost a good one is because I was at the event with him. I saw him set an enormous goal and methodically work toward it for months. I saw him endure through pain without complaint and offer to carry the load of his comrades. I was there when he mustered the morale to keep going when his body was pleading for him to stop. I witnessed his integrity with every painstaking repetition, even when he thought no one was looking. I know because he and the others we were with made me a better man who wanted to do more.

More productive, longer-lasting, collaborative team players with high levels of integrity and grit? Isn’t that exactly what you want on your team? Try to keep these folks around! They’re worth it.

Playing For a New Team: Ballad Health

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I do not often make sports references, but in honor of the Super Bowl this last weekend, I decided this was a fitting metaphor…

From a very young age he was infatuated with the game of football. There are stories of him watching games and picking out plays as young as two years old. His father worked him and his brothers hard to fall in love with not only watching, but playing the sport as well.

This was in the days when Joe Montana and Jerry Rice posters covered the rooms of most little football fans in California. Growing up only a few hours north of The Bay, all he wanted to do was play for the San Francisco 49ers.  Throughout high school and during his time playing for Cal, I have no doubt that every time he envisioned himself playing for the NFL, he was wearing red and gold. And in 2005, it looked like that was going to be a real chance, but San Francisco passed him over on the #1 pick and he ended up being selected by Green Bay at the number 24 slot.

I am sure that the next few years were tough for Aaron Rodgers. Not only was he wearing green and yellow and playing in the snow rather than on a beach, he was also playing backup to a superstar. Picture this for a minute. Up until that point, all the early mornings, late nights, the blood, sweat, and tears, all the sacrifice looked a certain way in his mind’s eye. He most certainly envisioned a very different picture.

During that period, Aaron had a choice to make. He was left to decide if the dream was about the San Francisco 49ers or if it was about stepping into his calling. Clearly, he decided that his gifts, training, and effort were for something bigger than a specific team. He understood that it doesn’t matter what jersey you wear when the game is excellence. Leaders give their all regardless of what team they are playing for because they are passionate about doing their best above all else.

I hope that we at Ballad Health choose to be just such a people. I hope that we focus beyond mere details and consider a bigger picture. I know I repeat myself, but I stand by my belief that we will do well to consider scriptures such as Colossians 3:23 which reads, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as though you were working for the Lord and not for people.” I promise you that if we live in just such a way, we have a much better chance of finding supreme peace and accomplishing so much more than we even know. No matter who may come or who may go, who our specific coach is, or even what color scrubs we’ve got on, if we play for the sake of excellence than we are sure to win.

 

Change, Mergers, and Leadership

just married

We’ve merged. Two large organizations, full of some of East Tennessee’s most talented, compassionate healthcare teams, tied the knot and have become one. For better or worse.  Some may think of it as a “happily ever after” story and others might be thinking more in terms of a shotgun wedding or a tragic drama. Being a constructivist narrative guy, I happen to believe that the genre is, and will continue to be, up to us, the storytellers.

I was not in the meetings when decisions were made about Ballad Health’s organizational structure. I did not participate in the business plan, marketing strategy, or legal process. I am not an executive spokesperson, so I cannot speak to such things with any authority. And I don’t specialize in business or finance, so I can’t say much about the economic ramifications of this union either.

What I do specialize in is people. My world is the human experience of interconnected systems and the behaviors that these relationships produce. My function is to place my finger on the heartbeat of our organization, analyze our spiritual and emotional health, and offer interventions that improve our ability to deliver compassionate services to the families of our region. This is what I can speak to.

I began with the metaphor of marriage because, as a Minister and a Counselor, this is also my world. Based on the work of Edwin Friedman et al., I understand teams in the same way I do families- systems that are more than the sum of individual parts. As we become this new, complex organism, there will be a lot of growing pains. Much like when two partners leave one way of being (single) and become something entirely different (married). It is exciting, confusing, scary, frustrating, joyful, and a whole gamut of other feelings all at once.

Our merger is similar to getting married in a lot of ways. We face learning new ways of doing certain things. We will learn a new language and develop a whole new culture. We will have a period of negotiating space and time. Unlike a marriage though, we are more contractual and less covenantal. This is business, after all. But, it is not just business. These are real life people with real life callings who are being negotiated! So now, more than ever, it is important that we keep our wits about us and take special care to honor one another in thought and deed.

Here are a few simple tips I’ve been sharing with Team Members to help ensure that our transition is ethical, respectful, and as healthy as possible:

1. Recognize and lean into your grief. Loss is loss and the best way to honor it is to talk about it. Some transitions will mean wonderful people shift out of important roles. This is painful and it is ok to feel whatever it is that you’re feeling and to seek guidance. It is not ok to sabotage or disrespect others.

2. Step up. Don’t confuse authority with leadership. Authority has to do with your role, but leadership is influence and everyone has a circle of influence.

3. Go with the flow. The current cares not which direction you swim, but you’ll get a lot further if you decide to travel downstream.

4. Pay attention. Consider where things were and monitor where they are going. You may just find new opportunities!

5. Celebrate and choose joy. Any lazy thinker can criticize. It takes courage and effort to find what’s going well and express gratitude.

6. Offer solutions. The world doesn’t need any more problem finders, we want solution makers.

7. Remember your why. I always encourage folks to do this. This is your calling- it is what will get you out of bed in the morning.

8. Pray for the decision makers. Lord, give our administration, our boards, and our managers wisdom and peace as they make difficult decisions. May these choices strengthen our communities and bring healing to our region. Provide us with just and fair solutions for complex problems and guide us to deliver health to all.

True & False Alphas

nature-animal-playing-wilderness.jpgChances are that you have seen it; the Instagram or Pintrest pic featuring the so-called “Alpha Wolf” ferociously baring teeth with some leadership quote across the bottom. Surely you at least casually learned L. David Mech’s early theories about pack behaviors that gave rise to the myth of strong, aggressive wolves rising in “rank” through violence to become the leader of the pack. 

By now, you know that I am suspicious of these ideas. Like me, you may have even read a blog or two pushing back against this outdated understanding of pack behavior or seen Mech’s own about face in more recent literature. But, this piece is not really about wolves. 

Wolf pack behavior is fascinating and I once considering pursuing a career that would have me do such research, but I chose a different path and decided to study human behavior. It is true that our “packs” often parallel the behaviors of wild beasts, but our systems are far more complex. So, any comparison I might offer is nothing beyond a simple metaphor, mostly because it’s pretty sweet to think of ourselves as burly wolves. Plus, an Instagram picture of me baring my teeth is not nearly as cool as one of a wolf.

Let’s turn our attention to the marketplace and the False Alpha. This person, often male, scores supremely high on dominance when he takes the DiSC profile and strikingly low when it comes to EQ (emotional intelligence). He is who Patrick Lencioni describes as “The Skillful Politician” in his book The Ideal Team Player. Unfortunately, this person is often able to manipulate or bully his way into positions of authority. He might even be your boss. 

The False Alpha plays a dangerous game of cut-throat. And while it is true that the more “subordinate” types might turn their belly up and put their tail between their legs, the trouble comes when this person would benefit from their team the most. When one uses fear and intimidation to get ahead, his or her team learns to cower. When real danger presents itself, the team stays hidden, all too pleased to watch the False Alpha get what’s coming to him or her. Once the False Alpha is cut down, the team scatters. 

The tough lesson learned is that when you stab everyone’s back to get to the top, there are no shoulders left to stand on when you are looking for a boost. 

The old myth of the Alpha doesn’t work in the office or in the wild. If you get rid of all your strongest players because you don’t want to risk someone outperforming you, the whole team suffers. Think about it- the leader of a wolf pack wants the best hunters. If the strongest are taken out, everyone starves, even the leader. 

The True Alpha is a servant leader. She or he rises because the team has trust and admiration. The True Alpha wants the strongest to get even stronger. She or he is comfortable when the team is high performing. At the same time, True Alphas recruit a team that intimidates them a little. If you are always the fastest, strongest, or smartest on your team, then it’s probably not a great team and you’re probably not ready to lead.

Being a True Alpha doesn’t mean that you’re a weakling or that you are not fierce. On the contrary, it takes guts to lead in this way, precisely because you will always know that your team can overtake you if you begin to abuse them.

A True Alpha comes in many varieties. She or he can score high in any of the quadrants of the DiSC or have any of a wide range of personality types. The one thing all True Alphas have in common is an exceptionally high emotional intelligence. The good news is that we can build this part of ourselves. In other words, True Alphas are made, not born.

It Is All About Me

I was born in 1982, so I’m part of the micro generation between X and Y that some call the Xennials. I identify more with the Xers, but empathize with the experiences described by a lot of Millennials too. One of the things this generation is most ridiculed for is the so-called “it’s all about me” attitude. But, maybe the problem isn’t that we think it’s all about us too much. Maybe it’s that we don’t think this enough! I’d like to set the record straight here and now: it is all about me.

This first popped into my mind when I was thinking about the well-known Southern phrase, “Bless your heart.” While this is sometimes expressed sincerely, it is more often a way to insult someone without, as they say, “Bein’ ugly.” This reminds me of another rhetorical expression, “If you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.” The problem is that my judgements and opinions about another have little to do with him or her and everything to do with me. Just putting a little sugar on it doesn’t mean that my heart is open. In other words, it is all about me.

This isn’t the only thing that is all about me either. In fact, most of what bothers me about the world it’s all about me. When I hold a grudge, the choice to forgive is all about me. When I get jealous about another’s accomplishments, it’s all about me. When I grow impatient at another person’s pace, it’s all about me. When I feel socially uncomfortable about my children’s behavior, it’s all about me. When I’m frustrated with how my wife loads the dishwasher, it’s all about me. You get the picture. My emotions are my responsibility, not someone else’s. So it really is all about me. If I don’t take ownership of that, then I won’t have much to offer the community.

There is more though. It is not just my feelings that are all about me. Whatever circumstance I encounter today is all about me as well. For whatever reason, God placed me there to take action. And I can assure you that is was not so that I could shake my head, roll my eyes, or mumble that “somebody should do something about that.” If it is in front of me, I am the somebody. When I see someone who is hungry, that is all about me. When I come across injustice, that is all about me. If I see that someone else is in pain, that is all about me too.

Just because it is all about me, doesn’t mean that it is not all about you either. In fact, it is all about you too. Don’t buy the lie that your shining light somehow dims someone else’s. I happen to believe that everyone can indeed deserve a trophy. Each of us was created with innate value and carries a divine light within us. Let’s spend a little more time letting ours shine and a little less trying to put someone else’s out.

Investment or cost?

I jumped on a John Maxwell Team mentors conference call this morning as my family and I made our way to Asheville so my wife could speak at a leadership event. As we went over the mountain, the call kept dropping, but we made it to the city just in time for me to catch the tail end of Roddy Galbraith as he delivered some incredible insight that has been bouncing around in my mind since. He said something to the effect of: “highly successful people view personal development as an investment, whereas lower functioning individuals see it as a cost.” Mic. Drop.

I’ll confess, I have spent more time in the latter group than I would prefer. There have been many times that I wanted to take the easiest, cheapest, or most conservative road possible. Sometimes this has been from laziness or skepticism, but most often it has been fear. A fear that it wouldn’t pan out–that I wouldn’t rise to even my own expectations. Well, who would bet on a leader who won’t even bet on himself?! The good news is that I reframed this when I joined the John Maxwell Team. I decided to hedge my bet on the one thing that I have the most control over: myself.

We have incredible power over the outcomes of our goals. It doesn’t matter if these goals are fitness, academic, vocational, relational, financial, or anything else. If we see working out as an investment toward health as opposed to a cost of our free time, there will be a return on the investment. If we frame higher education as an investment rather than merely a hoop to jump through, we will gain more insight. But, so long as personal development is framed as a cost in our minds, there won’t be any return.

This doesn’t mean frivolous spending on every next big thing pitched. What it means is that we step out with an abundance mindset. Real talk: when my wife wanted to hire an assistant to help manage her office, I certainly saw it as a cost; I was afraid that production would stay the same as the expenses climbed. I let fear and judgment assume that my wife would drop to half the work now that she had twice the hands, but she saw it as twice the production because there would be twice the hands. She was living in abundance while I was living in poverty.

How about you? Do you live in abundance or poverty? Do you see your own development as a cost or an investment? I can pretty much promise you that flipping this switch will change your life and that you will never be freer than the day you decide to bet on yourself.

Thin Places

Years ago, a colleague of mine told me about thin places. As soon as she started describing them, I knew just what she was saying because I had visited thin places before. The term “thin place” was first used by ancient Celts to describe places like the isle of Iona in Scotland or the rocky peaks of Croagh Patrick, in Ireland. The pagan peoples in these areas believed that Heaven and Earth were always just three feet apart, but in a thin place, that distance was even closer. Often these thin places are considered sacred by the various religious groups indigenous to their location and one can find a monument or shrine erected, but other times these locations are plain and unmarked. They can even be dirty or unrecognizable.

I believe that sometimes these places were part of creation; God made them to touch humankind and restore their souls. A thin place is where one finds their Self and is at peace with it. I also believe that a thin place can appear at any location when Heaven touches Earth in some way. Another way to describe this type of thin place would perhaps be a holy moment, maybe along the lines of what the Greeks thought of as a K airos moment. As a chaplain, I am privileged to bear witness to these instances quite frequently.

Many times I have been present as life arrives in our world and when it has departed. In both of these moments Heaven and Earth are just a little bit closer to one another. The joy and sorrow are immeasurable and the experience is indescribable. Although it looks very plain and sometimes appears chaotic, when I stop and close my eyes to pray I can almost tangibly feel the light of Heaven approach. It is not just at birth or death that this happens in a hospital. It can also happen as community gathers together around an ill loved one. It sometimes happens as we grieve or celebrate the news brought by physicians and nurses. Other times it comes as these same caregivers act as God’s conduit to perform miracles and save lives. We never quite know when these holy moments will happen. They cannot be planned or forced and sometimes they are even missed if we stop looking.

It has been an honor to be a guest among communities experiencing these moments in time. I cannot express my gratitude to the families who have invited me in and shared these moments with me. They have taught me more about myself and about how to approach my creator than I ever learned in my many years of training. It is my most sincere hope that I do not ever get too busy, or too jaded, or too tired to stop, close my eyes, and just be as Heaven meets Earth

Grief

The first time I encountered her, I was still a child.

hardly recognizable, she was an ethereal mist, a cool breeze who caused my insides to shutter

she was a disorienting darkness that upset the tangible world of my existence;

what once was, was no longer.

throughout my youth she’d visit again: a beloved pet, a first love, a childhood friend.

oh, how it ached; I thought she’d kill me or perhaps drive me insane,

but I learned that no such relief would come.

as we became acquainted, she became more recognizable.

always coming in like the tide,

with waves that would crash down, disturbing the peaceful sands,

carving small canals into the flesh and scarring the land.

I began to hate her.

white-knuckled, with strained screams of why into the empty canyon,

would only return the faint and futile echo: “why, why, why.”

I thought if I fought her, she would let me be.

but I discovered what the soldiers and crusaders had already seen: she cannot be conquered.

I thought if I fled, she would let me be.

but I discovered what the drunkards and addicts had already seen: she cannot be outrun.

I thought if I understood her, she would let me be.

but I discovered what the scholars and philosophers had already seen: she cannot be outsmarted.

so I turned toward her.

I wrap myself in her cool cloak and ease myself to the ground

she steadies my trembling knees and somehow keeps me warm

as I look more intently, she is not as wicked as she once appeared

in fact, she is quite beautiful; she is merely the shadow of true love,

her name is Grief.

Filled With Power

My daughter recently had the opportunity to sing a solo in a church production. A day or two before she came to me and shared that she was a little nervous about the show. Now, I’ll be honest with you, she probably had good reason to be nervous- in my mind she hadn’t practiced enough times and she’s never had any kind of voice lessons. And this is the first thought I had. I wanted to say, “Well, maybe if you had practiced a little more you wouldn’t feel that way…” Thank God I didn’t blurt out that first thought. Instead, a bit of coaching insight seemingly dropped out of the sky from my training. “Honey, those butterflies you feel are just excitement. It’s kind of like the night before Christmas. Your body knows that something awesome is about to happen, so it’s filled with energy.”

This is a classic reframe. I actually started using it myself before any public speaking that I do. I remember reading about it in Mel Robbin’s book The 5 Second Rule. She explained how similar the emotions of excitement and nervousness actually are- how our bodies don’t really know the difference. And there is some truth to that- Its all the same automatic system, the same cortisol and adrenaline. The parts of our brains that light up just before skydiving are the same as the ones that light up when we get ready to present or have a tough conversation. Think about that- what would it be like to reframe your next crucial conversation? Instead of feeling nervous, racking your mind with everything that might go wrong, what if the thoughts were, “I feel so excited about the possibility to transform this relationship that my body is filled with energy.”

On a spiritual level there is a lot going on as well. Most faith perspectives include ideas about the energy that is around us. Many writers of The Bible use the word δύναμις (dü’-nä-mēs) to describe this energy. You might recognize the word- its where we get the word dynamite. Its most often translated into English as power. As in Acts 1 where the author writes: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” Most often, Biblical authors attributed δύναμις to God and even when it is about humans, they are mostly referring to God’s power flowing through us.

Some of the other connotations include ability, excellence, and influence. I absolutely love this word. John Maxwell says that all leadership is influence; nothing more, nothing less. So, if δύναμις is influence, it is also leadership. The great news is that means in a way we are let off the hook. See, we are called to lead, but that is a pretty heavy burden. If others are waiting on me and my ability, my power, and my excellence, then we’re in trouble. But, if I read this right, my leadership is based on the δύναμις, the power of God. I am just a conduit. I am the vessel to transport the dynamite.

My job then is not to lead but to be open to God’s power to lead through me. In fact, if I get in the way, if I try to contain or restrain the δύναμις we’d have a problem. If I or you start to believe that any sort of influence that we might have has anything to do with us then, well we cap the other end of the pipe and the ramifications become explosive. Disastrous.

God’s design has always been flow. What we receive was always meant to be poured back out so that we might receive more. Our gifts, our leadership, work like a stream. If we dam up one side or stop bringing freshness in, we go stagnant, we lose clarity, the ecosystem we once fed starts to parish and fill with the benthos (the bottom feeders).

So, in this season of freshness and newness, let us search ourselves and consider if we have stopped the flow. Are we still asking for more? Are we afraid that there might not be any left? Have we hoarded some for ourselves thinking we might not get our share? Has our ego capped the end under the false belief that we can somehow contain that kind of power? It is my prayer for us in the New Year that we allow the δύναμις to flow freely. May we be filled so that we can pour out. May our bodies tingle with the anticipation of knowing something awesome is about to happen.