Tag Archives: Tough times

Emotions are Contagious

As I read about the world’s mourning rituals I notice that you can catch a cold, you can contract the flu, but you can also get a case of sadness or joy from another. Emotions are contagious, which is not such a bad thing.

Burkina Faso traditional home

Burkina Faso traditional home

When I was pregnant, I didn’t think that the viral nature of emotions was good. I couldn’t watch intense dramas; “Shindler’s List,” “The Joy Luck Club” or “Life is Beautiful,” were far from my viewing list. I could bearly watch a happy sitcom on TV since there might be one of those “times of your life” commercials that could set me into tears. In that state, my emotional radar was so strong that I could sympathetically cry about just about any moment. It was embarrassing.

Now far away from the prenatal stage, I recognize that there are still times where being exposed to another’s grief or hardship can get me weeping. For example, when I’m struggling, I’m leery of situations or films that will bring up sadness. I want to hide out and be entertained with fluff. Yet, I am hiding, not truly coping, and in that lies the core reason for communal grieving.

Around the world, we can find long lasting rituals that push us to face and move through the sadness of loss. In Ireland and Scotland for example, the practice of keening or a vocal lament over a corpse was popular from the sixteenth century on. Women, often paid for their services, would recite list the lineage of the deceased, poetically describe those left behind and literally sing his praises. This practice continues in parts of rural Greece where elder women of the community sing laments at funerals, memorial services and during exhumation.

These songs appear to have the same effect as watching “P.S. I Love You.” Those grieving are moved to tears. Yet, they are expected to stay relatively under control so they can follow the singing. In Greece, if a widow were to lose control and begin shouting for example, the rest of the mourners would move her back to her seat so that she can listen to the laments and quietly weep.

In tribal culture of western Africa, communal grief rituals are created when a major loss occurs. Meanwhile during the ritual, others in the community are expected to describe their own tragedies and sadness so together the tribe can move to the other side of mourning. You might begin by recounting how you miss your deceased aunt, yet I would be expected to add how I am suffering with the loss of my grandfather and the sadness I feel that life is so short. Here too people lament until they are moved to face the source of suffering and allow it to be seen and processed.

Ritual seems to be created to keep the grief on track. We are required to stay with our sadness instead of being distracted by the injustice of the loss and running down the path of rage or blame. What is gone, is gone and we are to simply face it.

So how might I translate this knowledge to my drama vs. romantic comedy dilemma?

Lately, I have been watching what type of emotion I am trying to avoid. Is it I don’t want to witness sadness? Do I want to run from others who are afraid or anxious? Struggling with facing the reality of injustice in the world? Starting there, I try to identify which emotion has me on the run.

Then I attempt to just allow that feeling to be within me. For example, I was avoiding the natural sadness that comes with sending another son off on an exchange program on Friday. It didn’t seem right, since it is mixed with huge joy for his next adventure; I didn’t want to be sad and happy at the same time. However, I noticed that I instead had been wanting to hide from anything emotional…generally, not a good practice.

I realized I had some internal clean up to do. To push myself along, I looked at pictures of when he was a toddler and thought of our dear boy as a baby…a bit masochistic I know, but it really helped. Essentially created my own little lament. After allowing happy/sad/nervous to be fully present, I now find I can better participate in his last week home.

What is equally important for me is to be comfortable enough with my own grief, so I can show up for another in a similar circumstance. We really need community when we are struggling. As in my last post on Job, it is when we can stick with someone as they experience scary emotions that we shine as friends…and as parents.

Dinner with Job

Last week I had dinner with Job.

Book of Job by William Blake

Book of Job by William Blake

Thousands of years after the legend was born, the biblical character Job continues to incarnate in my pedestrian life. On Friday, he visited in the form of a father whose twenty-year-old daughter recently died of a brain tumor. I also met him last month as a young woman about to lose her home. He shows up from time to time as a friend who after being fired cannot find a new job.

To recognize him, let me pass along Job’s story:

Once upon a time, there was a successful father who was a respected member of his community. He had land, possessions, a big family and a wife who loved him.

Then things began to fall apart. In his times, it would have been the gods, or God depending one’s religious background, who ordained the mess. Regardless, Job loses members of his family, his business bankrupts and the good stuff he owned is taken away.

At first, he is tough and takes the setbacks gracefully. “It is the will of God,” he proclaims. But then things go from really bad to worse. He becomes ill and is covered with oozing sores. Then, he’s had enough.

Depending when you meet Job, you migth find him yelling at God or not believing that there is anything remotely divine in the universe. At this point in the story, he hates life and wishes he could die. If we harken back to my post on the four seasons of tough times, Job experiences one of the coldest and cruelest winters of his life.

As I sat at dinner with the deeply suffering parent last weekend it was to Job’s story I went for guidance on what to do. Three friends visit Job at his lowest point. They model both how to support another well and how to really screw it up!

First, the three friends sit in silence with Job for a week. This has been carried forward in the Jewish ritual of sitting shiva where a grieving family stays at home for 7 days and friends come to support them. During these times, we are to witness the other’s suffering and not try to fix it. The three friends shine here as they love Job enough to allow his pain to pierce their hearts and feel compassion.

But, next the friends fail. I try to remember them as a cautionary tale. It appears they couldn’t take the depth of Job hating God and turning away from life. It was just too scary for the three. So, they try to figure out why all this bad stuff had happened to Job. One friend tells Job he must have sinned and God was punishing him. Another adds that he must be a bad person. As you can imagine, this does not make Job feel better. Trying to figure out why a friend is suffering is generally a bad idea. For example, if I had followed these misguided souls, I might have mistakenly stammered, “Perhaps your daughter was only supposed to be here for twenty years,” or “Now she is in a better place.”

The story of Job reminds me that we don’t get to understand the full “why” of a situation and, as Buddha agreed, that life contains suffering. It is very uncomfortable to sit with someone who is miserable. I always wish I could help. I would love to relieve the pain not only in the one suffering but also my own sympathetic sadness. Yet it doesn’t work like that.

I can remind another that I care about him and I would miss him if he wasn’t around. I can say I’m sorry that he is going through terrible times. In the depths of another’s misery, that’s all I know to be absolutely true.

Play Each Day

A half a dozen years ago, I found myself in a rough patch. Looking at the four seasons of tough times, I had a good four to six months of what in my last post I would have called “winter.” I wasn’t happy with what life had dished out in the early months of 2003, nothing was earth shattering, but nonetheless very disheartening. Discouraged and unsure of the future, I was weathering tough times’ dark, messy middle when luckily, I received some good advice. “Even if you don’t want to, do something that you enjoy each day,” my husband told me.

Children Playing 1941

Children Playing 1941

He had reminded me to play; to do something that might not have any obvious purpose other than to make me smile. Trusting him, I took his advice and made sure I did something that had before brought me happiness. I ran around the neighborhood, spent time with friends and danced around my kitchen. I played games with my children and traveled with them. Play time helped me to recover my bearings and after studying tough times for the next half a decade, I understand why.

As expert Dr. Stuart Brown explains, play keeps us healthy and thriving. “By its nature it is uniquely and intrinsically rewarding. It generates optimism, seeks out novelty, makes perseverance fun, leads to mastery, gives the immune system a bounce, fosters empathy and promotes a sense of belonging and community.”  The following video clip from a three part PBS special describes the importance of play:

I now try to remember to log in some good old fashioned fun whenever I can. So, please play. Play hard and play often, and I hope it will allow you to “play well.”

The Four Seasons of Tough Times

To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the sun… Ecclesiastes 3:1

The belief that every challenge has four distinct stages has occupied a ridiculous amount of my attention over the past dozen years. This is because I am convinced it is one of the most helpful truths for navigating difficult circumstances. Yet, when I seek to explain (stage 1) how tough times begin, (stage 2) what the middle of the journey looks like, (stage 3) how to adapt and (step 4) how to get to the end…I feel like I get too many blank stares. I want to exclaim, “Trust me! This is important, it will save you,” but instead I wonder if I’m making as much impact as the ill-kempt man wearing the sandwich board on the street corner pronouncing the end of the world. Both passionate and neither of us getting our message across.

So, to not lose you, my fair readers, as I try to pass along this jewel, I’d like to propose the following analogy to describe the four-phased journey concept and its importance:

Just in the northern climes of North America, tough times can be seen as moving through four distinct seasons. During difficult circumstances, we start in the autumn. Things begin to “fall” apart — leaves break away from the trees, plants freeze and die and what we had counted on to feed us all summer ends. In tough times terms, the trees we had been going to for fruit could be a marriage, a friendship or good health — we watch them crumble and hope that we can find a way to make it last — but if it’s time is up, no amount of vigilance will stave off the end.

So, then comes winter, or the messy middle of tough times. It seems impossible that something will grow again during this season. It’s dark, inhospitable and can be really depressing.

If can wait out winter, spring comes again with a promise of new beginnings. There is more light and optimism. Time to till the soil, decide what to plant and ready for the growing season. And, if we are courageous enough, we will plant seeds and do the work to create a new garden (i.e. work to create a new relationship, job, or home). We must care for the new seedlings, get rid of the weeds to get back to a stable place once more.

Earlier this month, after presenting a keynote lecture on thriving through tough times, a soft-spoken grandmother approached me. “When you talked about approaching tough times like an old Montana rancher, I got it,” she said. After raising children and crops in New Mexico and northern Canada, she told me that recognizing the stages of each difficulty had saved her. “When the kids were young I copied and pasted a passage from Ecclesiastes on my cupboard to keep me sane through the years,” she added and began to recite, To everything there is a season, time for every purpose under the sun. A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck up that which is planted…”

During bad circumstances, it really helps to remember that there is a time for sowing and a time for reaping. For each set of tough times there is a minimum suffering period. With a death of a grandparent, it might be a year for example. But, not acting appropriately during each tough times “season,” you can maximize your imprisonment in difficult circumstances.

In the winter, or the messy, chaotic middle phase, trying to plant new seeds wastes your resources. Ask any rancher. Winter is when you rest. You sharpen your tools and nurture your stock. You want to slow down, take care of yourself and your home. You can’t plow the fields and trying would be silly. Rushing around is a foolish, and in the depths of January, can be a dangerous activity.

The advice for the winter of difficult conditions is the same. When something has ended, be it a job or a relationship, trying to quickly create something new is counterproductive. We need to recover. We need to take stock in where we stand. Rushing around and using up our resources is foolish and can be dangerous as we exhaust what collateral or energy we have in a harsh, dark climate.

There is a time to rest and there will be a time to risk. During a challenge’s spring and summer, we will need to be rested and ready to act. Where after a loss, we must be brave enough to wait through the winter, we must also be bold enough when the time comes to choose to try again.

Each season presents unique tests. Not acting seasonally appropriate circumvents the process. Rushing around and trying to plant in winter means that we won’t have any reserves to take advantage of spring. Not getting to work in the spring will also have us missing or not taking advantage of prime growing season.

Meanwhile, we live in a culture focused only on action. It believes that when things are not going our way we need to think positive, roll up our sleeves and get to work. Yet, this is not global wisdom. For example, like Ecclesiastes, Taoism is based on discerning in which season we reside and acting accordingly. It is said that by going with the natural flow of each challenge, Taoist masters exert minimal energy and are able to live well past a hundred years old. There is a time to wait and a time to move. Knowing the difference allows us to flow effortlessly through each major change back to stability.

So, when tough times hit, notice:

1) Are structures or relationships ending (1st stage of disruption or “autumn”)

2) Are you in dark times, dealing with loss and no new solutions in sight (chaos or winter)

3) Can you see new possibilities, is it “time” to get moving again (adaptation or spring)

4) Are you called to try new things, be bold, act (stability or summer)

Then ask, what would a wise Minnesotan or Montanan farmer do? For every thing there is a season…

The Creative Process

My creative spirit can be quite moody. Sometimes she wants to play for weeks, dropping by at all hours with seductive ideas and pretty accoutrements for what I’m developing. I can’t keep up, she jostles me awake at 3 am or rallies me on to write for 10 hours straight. Like that friend in college who would knock at your door at 11 pm during finals to go for a run in the first snowfall of the year, I love but get a bit nervous about Creativity’s visits. Her presence is surprising, fun, but demanding.

Apollo and the Muses by Raphael

Apollo and the Muses by Raphael

After a creative binge, she can “sleep it off” for months…this spring I wanted to finish my latest book, Thriving Through Tough Times. I’d sit down and try to wake her. If I nudged her hard enough I would she would mutter a phrase or two and I could create a blog post. But, then my fickle companion would roll over and start snoring again. A post a week I was allowed to produce, but the book I couldn’t get complete.

In the 2002 movie Adaptation Nicholas Cage portrayed a protagonist tasked with completing a screenplay for The Orchid Thief. He struggles to sit long enough to actually write a coherent page. We watch him bouncing up and down and becoming obsessed with wanting a banana nut muffin. My friend novelist Marcus Stevens and I often respond when asking one another about book progress, “Banana nut muffins.”

Sometimes it’s the cookies calling from the pantry or the dishes screaming from the sink. Then there’s the laundry, the emails I’ve neglected or a lunch date I’ve scheduled since “I’m free.” Frustrated with my own lack of progress, I really appreciated the following TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert about the creative process and its fickle nature.

I resonate with Gibert’s description of writing being a long, slow slog and fussing at her muses that she is holding up her end of the bargain. At her virtual urge, I decided to “do my part.” To ignore the siren song of groceries, friends and the Internet, I hid out in a cabin for a week…perhaps you noticed the blog lull in the later part of June? With few distractions I sat down at 9 am and made myself work til 5:30 each day without fail and finished a rough draft of book #3.

I shouldn’t be surprised, it was the only way that I could complete Worst Enemy, Best Teacher. Some can get up at 5 am each day and diligently go straight to their office; Miss Creativity and I don’t seem to work that way. She wants me all to herself and as long as the cell phone and emails can garner my attention, she treats me with the same level of affection that I am affording her.

I’ve now got a book, but there is much more work to be done. I have reached the culling, combing and cutting stage of its development, but, next week holds a family vacation and I won’t bring my laptop. I need time with my wild invisible girlfriend, but since she doesn’t share well, I need to postpone our date. It is time instead for focusing on incarnate friends, family and a devouring good banana nut muffin or two.