Category Archives: Marriage and Family

Avoidant attachment style: Why you might be developing one

Is avoidant attachment style more prevalent than it used to be? It seems so. Many people I meet and counsel have an “ avoidant streak” rippling through their character. I wouldn’t expect a lot of those people to be in therapy at all, since  they don’t usually trust in the good will of intimates (like therapists get intimate), and they generally maintain independence, self-reliance and emotional distance. But there they are.

There they are, more and more, describing their struggles to connect and their overwhelming sense of being put upon and unacceptable. They got me thinking that their troubles, though probably rooted in their childhood reaction to their parents, were being exacerbated or even created by the cruel time in which we live. The leaders and leadership structures of the world right now do not invite trust. Everyone, down to the counter server and the communion server, seems to be playing by a ruthless, negative playbook.  Flip to the macro and Putin is threatening nuclear war while climate change rolls over Puerto Rico. You probably feel at least a little insecure, yourself.

What is attachment style?

I was doing some research on what I was experiencing and came upon a scholarly paper by Mario Mikulincer (Israel) and Philip Shaver (California) which summarizes the outworking of attachment styles  and hints at why I might see adults getting caught in their childhood avoidance or developing levels of avoidance they never had (Title:  An attachment perspective on psychopathology).

Paula Pietromonaco, Nancy Collins, Phil Shaver, Mario Mikulincer, Sue Johnson, Roger Kobak at an adult attachment conference in 2002

You may be quite familiar with attachment theory, by now, since John Bowlby started teaching about it in the 1970’s and 80’s. I appreciated the authors’ succinct way to recount how our attachment experiences result in attachment styles – how we see ourselves and habitually behave in the world.

Interactions with attachment figures who are available in times of need, and who are sensitive and responsive to bids for proximity and support, promote a stable sense of attachment security and build positive mental representations of self and others. But when a person’s attachment figures are not reliably available and supportive, proximity seeking fails to relieve distress, felt security is undermined, negative models of self and others are formed, and the likelihood of later emotional problems and maladjustment increases.

When testing this theory in studies of adults, most researchers have focused on the systematic pattern of relational expectations, emotions, and behavior that results from one’s attachment history – what Hazan and Shaver called attachment style. Research clearly indicates that attachment styles can be measured in terms of two independent dimensions, attachment-related anxiety and avoidance. A person’s position on the anxiety dimension indicates the degree to which he or she worries that a partner will not be available and responsive in times of need. A person’s position on the avoidance dimension indicates the extent to which he or she distrusts relationship partners’ good will and strives to maintain behavioral independence, self-reliance, and emotional distance.

I found it enlightening to see myself plotted on a four-quadrant chart created by anxiety and avoidance axes when it came to my attachment style. The way you can see if you are more or less one way or another is to see what you do when you are threatened or distressed.  People who score low on anxiety or avoidance are generally secure and tend to employ constructive and effective emotion-regulation strategies when life gets hard. Those who score high on either the attachment anxiety or the avoidance dimension (or both) suffer from insecurity and tend to rely on “secondary attachment strategies,” either deactivating or hyperactivating according to their childhood attachment system or the one they’ve recently developed to cope with threats.

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Avoidance

I am mainly interested in the avoidance axis today, since I suspect when the CIA reports how many more assets are being killed than usual and Donald Trump had top-secret papers in Mar-a-Lago for a year it makes you want to avoid something! People who should be trustworthy aren’t. A great many people are so avoidant they trust no one. This is not new to the planet, but it is seismic right now.

According to Mikulincer and Shaver, people scoring high on avoidant attachment tend to rely on deactivating strategies – not seeking “proximity, denying attachment needs, and avoiding closeness and interdependence in relationships.” These strategies originally developed in relationships with attachment figures who disapproved of or undermined closeness and expressions of need or vulnerability.

Attachment style may be mostly about baby you, but not completely. It is too limited to think it is  something an individual carries inside and needs to deal with personally. One’s style arose in a relational setting, in a system, first off, with parents, and our habits can develop in new contexts. A marriage or workplace could change us. Donald Trump lying and calling people losers could change us.

Bowlby claimed that “meaningful relational interactions during adolescence and adulthood can move a person from one region to another of the two-dimensional conceptual space defined by attachment anxiety and avoidance.” Recent research keeps showing how our attachment style can develop, subtly or dramatically, depending on our current context, recent experiences, and recent relationships. There are studies that focus on highly stressful events, such as exposure to missile attacks, living in a dangerous neighborhood, or giving birth to a physically challenged infant which indicate avoidance is related to our present distress and the poor long-term adjustment that contributed to it. Our environment may deteriorate or we may create a dysfunctional environment which develops more avoidance.

Becoming less avoidant

Insecure attachment sets us up for other issues with both mental and physical health and strains all those relationships we hunger to have. Creating, maintaining, or restoring a sense of attachment security should increase resilience and improve mental health. Mikulincer and Shaver say,

According to attachment theory, interactions with available and supportive attachment figures impart a sense of safety, trigger positive emotions (e.g., relief, satisfaction, gratitude, love), and provide psychological resources for dealing with problems and adversities. Secure individuals remain relatively unperturbed during times of stress, recover faster from episodes of distress, and experience longer periods of positive affectivity, which contributes to their overall emotional well-being and mental health.

Whether an avoidant person moves toward security depends on how they travel three significant pathways.

View of self. The lack of sensitivity and responsiveness in your parents may have destabilized your self-esteem, or made you over-dependent on the approval of others. Insecure people are likely to be overly critical, self-doubting and likely to defend themselves by committing to perfection to counter how unworthy and hopeless they feel. Avoidant people praise themselves before someone doesn’t. Or they might deny weaknesses or needs because no one will care. The zeitgeist contributes to their view. Criticism is rampant right now. Perfection is a national obsession.

Emotional regulation. Hopefully, available attachment figures taught you to share your feelings and learn how to regulate them in relationship to others. Relatively insecure, avoidant people tend to cordon off their emotions from what they think and do. They may look secure and composed but they leave suppressed distress bubbling inside, which may erupt when crisis unleashes it. Then they need the coping skills and relational support system they didn’t imagine they needed.

Problems with relationships. It is no surprise that problems with our first relationships lead to learning a relationship style that has or creates problems. The avoidant person’s “deactivation” strategy for self-preservation creates issues. They generally have problems with nurture since that is a basic instinct formed with mom and dad. They may seem cold, may be unreasonably introverted, or may be overly competitive for what they see as the scarce resources of affection.

The neuroscience of attachment processes describes how the human brain evolved in a highly social environment. Our basic functions rely on social co-regulation of emotions and physiological states. So, like I said before, we should not see each other as separate entities whose interactions need to be interrogated and reconfigured according to theory. We should accept our fascinating interrelatedness as our normal starting point. When we do that, it helps us to see why separation, isolation, rejection, abuse, and neglect are so painful, and why insecurity-provoking relationships often cause or amplify our mental disorders. The pandemic left many avoidant people hesitant to ever leave their homes.  Teletherapy is a good option for them, but it may also deepen their avoidance.

Our attachment styles develop. We can change for the better. Great thinkers and practitioners are providing us a lot of help to do that. For instance, I discovered the Attachment Project website a few weeks ago. I probably sent its link to everyone I thought might be leaning toward an avoidant attachment style  (here it is). I would not put TOO much stock in this unattested and anonymous site, but it does some nice work to summarize different attachment styles and explain how people who could be characterized as “avoidant,” for instance, tend to behave and relate – and suffer. Please don’t use it to label yourself, we are in a dynamic process, here, getting worse off and better off all the time. But no matter your style, the site might help you get an inner dialogue going — and mentalizing is fertile soil for God to plant something whole and joyful.

Please people out of love, not defensiveness

Thanks to David McElroy

A man reluctantly agreed to marriage counseling. When he got to the session, resistance was written all over his body language. She predictably got the ball rolling with a string of criticisms which she assumed I would consider well-intentioned facts. I turned to him and wondered out loud what he was feeling. He said, “I’m the one who organized this therapy.” She said, “You wouldn’t have done anything if I hadn’t nagged you, like I usually have to.” He said, “It is impossible to please you.” Their defensive exchange quickly arrived at deeper understanding. But it doesn’t always go that way.

Defensiveness

The Gottmans include defensiveness as the third horseman of their Four Horsemen of marriage apocalypse. They define it as “self-protection in the form of righteous indignation or innocent victimhood in an attempt to ward off a perceived attack.” Many people become defensive when they are being criticized. It might be more effective if they just said “Ouch.” But what they usually do is take an eye for an eye and respond with blame. The husband above did not listen to the legitimate complaint behind his wife’s criticism, he justified himself by shifting the blame to her for not recognizing his efforts.

We have all been defensive. When any close relationship is on the rocks, it is a good time to notice what is important to you and what scares you. You are probably defending it the way you do that. The storms of intimacy have a way of uncovering what we might keep hidden. What is hidden by us or from us is often well-defended.

We hate feeling exposed. We rarely start off talking about what we keep hidden because we prefer it hidden or are no longer conscious of what we hide. When someone considered why their mind went blank when certain subjeccts came up, he noticed a little person in a subterranean control room getting a command when he was threatened to, “Shut the gates!” We all have a “switch” of sorts that activates our defenses.

Acting defensively is usually a knee-jerk reaction. We all have defense mechanisms we organized when were very young to make sure we survived. These behaviors usually involve our deepest emotions, which we may or may not be conscious of. But the behaviors are very familiar and feel crucial. We have a childish commitment to them.

When you feel unjustly accused or threatened in some way, you usually first try to get your partner to back off. You defend yourself in a reasoned way. Easy-to-see defensiveness is shifting the blame. We say, in effect, “The problem isn’t me, it’s you.” The Gottman’s have a good antidote for de-escalating a relatively superficial power struggle. They teach us to accept our own responsibility. If you have a problem, check with yourself, first.

If you are activated by certain situations over and over, it is likely your partner is hitting that button in your unconscious where you have a deep need to feel cared for and it is not happening. For instance, if I already feel unworthy and you criticize me, I will get defensive. Actually, if you just point a finger at me and start a sentence with “You!” I will probably feel defensiveness rise up.

Have you noted the last time you were defensive yet? Have you noted the effects of your own and others’ defensiveness in your life? If not, now would be a good time.

A favorite Christian mechanism: reaction formation

In power struggles, it is usually the most powerless people who think they have to exercise the most power and bear the most burdens. Strong people feel fine about being strong and doing things strongly, perhaps with little self-awareness or compassion. Powerless, fragile, wounded, or traumatized people often feel alone against strong forces and come up with all sorts of ways to protect themselves. I wish all this defending were invented by adults; it would be easier to see. But most of it gets built before have much ability to think about what we are doing. We are surviving. But even as asults we often react like powerless children when we are most distressed.

The definitions the Gottmans use above for how couples are defensive are quite accurate. But they are also oversimplified. For instance, I think one of the greatest defenses a child learns is to appear to be defenseless, to appear compliant or pleasing. Rather than expressing themselves to ignorant or inattentive parents they discover a pleasing personage (Tournier)/persona (Jung) which engenders some validation of their worth, or at least gets them fed. You may have tried to be pleasing enough to avoid the violence lurking in the household or to be more pleasing than a sibling to get a better share of limited resources. Many children begin to unleash themselves from this form of defense with the terrible twos when they explore the boundaries of what they are being schooled to obey. Others just perfect their false self and even forget how furious they are with how relationships hurt and shame them.

I think many of my Christian clients are working out this subtle form of self-defense. They have been well-schooled that causing conflict with parents or the church system is a big no-no. So they defend their place in the family or the larger system by looking like they are being good while seething inside (or being depressed because they don’t know they are seething) — this is the seed thought of many semi-autobiographical novels, right? Freud called this mechanism “reaction formation.” You might feel guilt or shame so you act out the opposite of what you feel by looking compliant or self-assured, effectively hiding what you fear to have exposed. The classic example Google will immediately tell you is of the elementary boy who bullies a girl because he can’t deal with the attraction he feels. I think I remember blushing when a playground friend accused me of liking the girl I had just beaned with a four-square ball.

Christians are notoriously seen as repressed hypocrites because they never allow their true feelings to despoil their appropriate behavior. When a child learns they are powerless against their abusive or neglectful parents, they may adopt the persona that works for their best interests, hopeless of ever being truly seen. When such a persona marries, they surprise their partner when a person does not show up. I suffer for people who have a mate pointing a finger at them when all they are trying to do is please them. They’re like the poor man who said, “You can’t be pleased.” Being pleasing was the main weapon he had to use in the power struggle and he is disappointed it does not work.

Roman sacrifice: Suovetaurile

Try not to find your defenses in the Bible

For many church people, reaction formation seems like a tenet of faith. If you want to find it, you can read it into many scripture passages. For instance, look at Romans 15:15: 

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself, but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” NRSV

I think this is easily interpreted to say, “Jesus did not please himself, but others. So you should please others, not yourself. That’s love. And such love will be rewarded. Don’t please yourself if you want to go to heaven.”

When I was young, some teacher taught me the way to J-O-Y is Jesus, others, yourself, and they meant in that order. I instinctively put the three words in an inclusive circle, but my teacher definitely meant it as a hierarchy. Other teachers left off the Y altogether and encouraged me to annihilate or at least severely discipline myself for Jesus; these days some people call that mentality “cruciform.” Even though Jesus says you lose yourself to find yourself, and Paul says he leaves his false self to receive a true one in Christ, many Christians spend a lifetime denying themselves and presenting the same false compliance they did as a child, often feeling the depressing or anxiety-causing effects of resenting how they are never recognized for all they do and are.

Love out of love

We have seen a lot of angry Christians on the screen in the past few years. I think they drive people out of the church with their reaction formation. They are obviously angry, but they think they are behaving in the loving way Jesus would prefer, and saving people from sin. Not acknowledging I am miserable or being curious about why, while I insist I am just trying to please you, quickly undermines trust in any relationship. When you cause such suffering, don’t blame your mate for persecuting you like Jesus was.

If you read the whole account that leads up to the often-misinterpreted snippet of Romans, above, you’ll see that Paul acknowledges the weakness of people who are frightened by pagan meat. He doesn’t tell them to eat it and pretend they like it. To the strong who are just doing whatever they want, eating whatever they bless and feeling blessed, he says to attend to the dark side of the strength they have – the side which would ignore the poor for the pleasure of their own freedom or power.

If, when you please me, you are mainly trying to get loved, I will feel that. If you care for me because you are defending yourself, I will probably know that, eventually, too. We won’t be tuned in to each other because you won’t really be there, just the persona you think pleases me. If you are having a similar relationship with God, same results, by the way. You might not be so aware of it, but I will probably pick up on the anger and resentment you really feel, which you try to hide behind your appropriate behavior. What’s more, I will likely feel like I should be helping you in your project to “love” me, because you will be even more angry or depressed if you don’t succeed at it. Your success means I accepted your sacrifice of your true self for me as of supreme value.

I’d rather you loved me out of love not defensiveness.

Eternal: What does the word mean to you?

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
John 10:10

[T]hose who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.
The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.
John 4:14

Does Jesus mean what I think he means?

Jesus came to find us and give us eternal life. So where is it? Is it off in the future and I just need to gut it out until I die? Or is it resident somewhere in all of us and I just need to  become restful enough for it to well up? Insert your own variation of these questions.

Eternal life sounds like a good idea, but most people I know aren’t that sure about it.  I think the “may have” there in John 10:10 sounds conditional to a lot of us, like those metaphorical sheep who hear the Lord’s voice “may,” as in might, have an abundant life. Some self-described “sheep” are still out there looking for that life, and feeling tentative.

And that word to the Samaritan woman in John 4 puts a lot of pressure on her to “drink of the water,” doesn’t it?  — as if she should have already done it and be someone better already. Other desperate people, like her, are thinking, “What if I didn’t take my drink? What if I can’t find the ‘water’ to drink? Is what I’m drinking the water, or not?”

Most psychotherapy clients are searching for answers to such questions whether they consider themselves spiritual or not. There seems to be some thirst-quenching abundance somewhere beyond us all. We feel its possibility.

Jesus is offering an abundant life. He wants us to have it to the full. To the woman at the well he says this life is eternal. In the famous John 3:16 Jesus is quoted promising whoever follows him — whoever believes him and trusts him, eternal life.

Most Christians probably think eternal life is “immortality;” one will live forever — some see that immortality beginning after you die, some see it beginning as soon as you receive it like a cup of water from the Lord’s hand. Others see eternal life as more of a sense of being fully alive in the present — like eternal is the quality of the life, the very life of the Eternal One, the Spirit-life of God welling up within us.

Without thinking much more, what do you say eternal life is? Are you waiting for it? Trying to get it? Hoping for it? Living in it? Is it living in you? Is it making you? What was your first answer?

Becoming and being eternal

You don’t have to have a right answer. But how we see ourselves, see God, and see life makes a huge difference. Someone told me lately that their life was a curse. To be sure, that made a big difference in how they were moving through the week!

The word eternal invites us into the mystery, the unknown or unknowable reality we sense beyond our present capacity to experience or understand. The mysterious word eternal has two sides to it which some see as mutually exclusive, but I see as two sides of the same coin. However your day flips, you may feel on one side or the other.

The “heads” side of the word eternal might feel more familiar. Some people see eternal life as a long stretch of days leading off into forever. If that’s you and you are ambitious, then you are on a long developmental journey one day after the other. If you aren’t ambitious, then you are waiting out the tribulation you are experiencing because Jesus will overcome for you in the end.

I think this linear, physical, practical view makes sense because we are embodied spirits. I think we will always be aware of time, even in the age to come. From our first breath we are developing. Spiritually, we are becoming full or we are emptying out. I wish we could be serene pools of living water without any evaporation, but I’ve never seen that happen. If we aren’t moving into eternity, we are moving toward death.

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You can see this side of eternity in our marriages. Once we find a person to travel with, we often wish we no longer had to become anything. “Why doesn’t my partner already know what I want and give it to me? How could I have married someone who needs to learn something? Why can’t we just be OK? What happened to the honeymoon?” It sounds kind of silly when those things are written out loud. But that mate you have can set off a longing for eternity, for abundant life, that can’t be quenched very easily. The main characters on Bridgerton develop for a few episodes and enter into bliss. We turn to the lover on the couch and say, “Why are you depriving me? Where is this thing we’ve got going?”

On the other side of the word eternal, some people see eternal life as choosing abundance now. It is living in the present, being fully awake and ready to engage, drawing on that inner spring of goodness.  Richard Rohr calls spiritual life the “eternal now.” The creation itself is a gift of life and by grace Jesus restores its fullness to us. You can hear him calling if you have ears to hear.

I think this nonlinear, spiritual, otherworldly view also makes sense because we all feel the pull of our spiritual awareness – even if only for three minutes when we are touched by a beloved piece of music or when are faced with our mortality. From our first breath we have a sense of being with God.  Jesus comes to us and blows the breath of the Spirit on us and invites us to be refilled, to access what can quench our deep thirst.

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This side of eternity also shows up in our marriages. I wonder if “in touch” people like Richard Rohr might be even harder to live with. If every moment has a deeper meaning than appears, it might communicate to your mate that they are a bit disappointing at times. At the worst, such a seeker can seem a bit tortured, either making sure they are happy or sinking so far into their goodness they don’t really need anyone else. Madam Bridgerton was so blissed out on her late husband that she left it to her unprepared eldest to do the real living.  He almost missed out on his own trip to the well. To his good fortune, he was on Netflix.

Suffering

The bad news about psychotherapy is often: there will be some pain accompanying your change for the better. A lot of people can smell the threat of that suffering even in the Bible verses that promise eternal life. For instance one could reply to Jesus in John 10, “The thieves already came in and stole, Jesus! You know that; they took your life!” A person thirsty for forgiveness and community has surely talked back to Jesus in John 4 saying, “If there is so much water available, why do I feel so dry?”

People come to therapy suffering. They often come to spiritual direction, to church meetings and to dinner the same way. We are all in need of eternal life. I think the sufferers are among the most honest people on the planet. They are asking the all the right questions. Because feeling outside of eternity is terrible.

The way into eternal life begins with welcoming the future or turning into the presence of it right now. We need to move toward or with life day after day. I have been doing that for a lot of days mostly more on than off, I think. I started early, so that’s about 22, 995 days towards death and through it into the promise of eternal life. Like most of you, probably, I’ve recently had a couple of doozies of difficult years. Plus, I am getting old and have to get up and keep moving when my bones ache and heart aches. I have to keep choosing life as things change. I have to change. We suffer.

Before I go, I just want to confess for us that even when I have stumbled into wonderful abundance and when I have turned to swim in the death-quenching water all around me, even when I have done it right and when I have felt at peace, those realities have also caused suffering. I became different, I was different, and I disrupted what others considered normal. I came into abundance and had abundance to share, but people didn’t always take it or even understand it. When I wanted to connect and love, my care was ignored and my chances were stolen. I disrupted myself, too. My opinion of myself had to change because a full me usurped the me who had been protecting against emptiness for a long time.

Becoming and being eternal go together. If you can’t keep going there will be no place to be. If you can’t delight in who you are and who you are in Christ right now, at least a little, there is no motivation to keep choosing and becoming your full self.

However the coin lands, the life and death choices being explored in psychotherapy (and many other places, of course) are about eternal life. We long for the happiness of abundant life. The spiritual thirst we feel implies there is water. Even if we suffer to enter the life Jesus offers, the choosing, itself, makes us more human and more enspirited.

Adele on marriage: Four takeaways from Easy On Me

Adele in 2021

I am not a big Spotify user. I first downloaded the app so I could listen to the Tea Club’s latest album (still highly recommended). I made a visit to the site recently and discovered the lists. I love “top 100” lists of most kinds. And there was the most-streamed songs list on Spotify — and there was Adele with Easy On Me, still on the list after six months. She put out the album, 30, just after the deadline for the 2022 Grammys, so she didn’t get any awards last night. But she might still be in the top 50 in 2023.

On YouTube the official video for the song has 261 million views. I know a couple of people who had it on repeat as soon as they heard it. I caught on to it because one of the repeaters was a client who could relate to her lament of breakup and liberation. As a result, I got interested in Adele for the first time. I even found myself watching her as Oprah dug into what was happening during her years of recording silence.

Mental health issues

She’s been depressed. She’s been anxious. She got a divorce. She became a single mom spending half-time with her child; she had to think about whether to buy a 9 million dollar home in Beverly Hills.

I wonder if she has also been interested in her role as the unofficial poster-person for mental health issues. Like I was saying last time, the WHO says depression is the #1 disability in the world. You may be feeling it yourself right now. It has been a hard two years; go easy on yourself, baby. Adele’s album is all about her pain and recovery; she’s a forthright woman.

I have to admit, I suggested to one client that listening to her might not be a road to wellness for them. It was more likely a way to keep the trauma fresh and deepen the narrative of despair which was creating a canyon in their brain from which it might be hard to deviate when they wanted to move on.

Adele’s guidance

But I might be wrong about Adele being a bad influence. Music is such a natural cathartic and integrative experience. If one sang along with Adele rather than just being formed by her, Easy On Me might be useful.

If we look at the words, I think we can find some takeaways that might help us on our own tragic journeys.

Go easy on me, baby
I was still a child
Didn’t get the chance to
Feel the world around me
I had no time to choose
What I chose to do
So go easy on me

Adele probably said what the words of this famous chorus mean during her extensive publicity tour. I did not hear about it. But here is why I think people love them so much. We feel them. Even if you want to get out of a relationship, breaking up feels terrible: “Please don’t make this any harder than it already is, baby,” And if your marriage or other relationship is breaking down and you can’t see your way back, “Please, baby, go easy on me. I can’t stand any more criticism, contempt, defensiveness or withdrawal” (the four main relationship poisons).

Every one of the couples I counsel are experiencing the childhood wounds with which they arrived when they were married. We could all say “I was still a child” in one way or another, and our inner child is still with us! Adele had the common experience of significantly growing up in her 20something marriage, alongside her young child, Angelo (who will be 10 this year). Many young mothers are depressed after giving birth, and feeling constrained by a child can be a shock to their system. “Where are my choices?” and “Did I choose this?”

There ain’t no gold in this river
That I’ve been washin’ my hands in forever
I know there is hope in these waters
But I can’t bring myself to swim
When I am drowning in this silence
Baby, let me in

I’ve met with many individuals and couples over the years who sang this verse. “Where we are at feels intolerable. I can’t see any hope, even though I hope there is some.” They’re  too depressed or otherwise upset to swim. “I’m sinking. We can’t talk. The isolation and loneliness I feel is overwhelming.”

There ain’t no room for things to change
When we are both so deeply stuck in our ways
You can’t deny how hard I have tried
I changed who I was to put you both first
But now I give up

Adele spent years trying to figure out what to do. Her song is not about a snap judgment! She finally gave up. Sometimes you have to give up. I sometimes think people hold on too long, and sometimes if feel they gave up right when they were dealing with reality for the first time. But when enough is enough will never be my call to make. If you are walking with Jesus, the Lord could turn your greatest loss into your greatest growth. It happens all the time. That miracle could happen in a renewed marriage or a divorce. Either way, there will be pain.

The family at Disneyland

Four takeaways for people who don’t want to give up

Adele gives beautiful voice to our pain and that’s why Easy on Me keeps being streamed. But what if you don’t want to give up? What if you don’t want your partner to give up? Adele alludes to some roads not taken in her song.

1) Go easy on your partner. If you feel bad, they probably do too. Learn how to be taken care of by God and cooperate with his care. Depression is a fight. If you go easy on your partner and yourself, it might make you easier to live with and might give you some space to see some good in your partner — and yourself. You might be able to do something good for the relationship, not just feel bad about what it is right now.

2) It’s a river. If you aren’t finding gold the way you are panning or not finding it where you think it should be, move down the river. Adele can sense hope in the water because things changed. She  changed. Relationships can change and grow when one person has the courage, like Adele, to grow up. No one needs to drown in a relationship. But it is likely the relationship will drown unless both partners are going for gold. There is often a way.

3) Keep talking. It sounds like Adele feels like she did a lot of talking, but her husband withdrew — “Baby, let me in.” When he did that, she got more aggressive and he built more of a stone wall to protect himself and the relationship. This may have made her feel abandoned and made him feel rejected. It is hard to talk about feelings as deep as abandonment and rejection, but marriages are built on the love we make when we keep talking.

4) If you are defensive, your shame button may have been pushed. When she says, “You can’t deny how hard I have tried,” I am sure I believe her. But life is not failure proof if you just try hard enough. Behind that defensive statement there might be some shame about not being good enough, capable enough, lovable enough, or not trying hard enough and failing — any of which is intolerable to feel. It is easy to imagine her partner saying, “I can surely deny how you tried hard enough. What is your standard? Are you blaming me for what you have done?” Now he’s defending against feeling shameful.

I hope Adele and her husband got the best marital therapy money can buy, since she’s worth $190 million. Having a third party listening with compassion and noting the unique patterns of your relationship can help. Most of the time a therapist helps partners “go easy” on someone who has hurt them whether they make it through to the next steps of the marriage or go their separate ways. Many times the therapist helps them build something new, now that they are over thirty, or starting from wherever the river has taken them.

Our disposition towards the world makes all the difference

Much of psychotherapy is listening to stories about relationships. When married couples are with me, they are having their relationship as we speak! The quality of these relationships often hinges on the dispositions of each person, specifically toward the people they are talking about, but, more important, to the world.

You may have never used the word “disposition” in a sentence. I think the word should be more popular than it is. Since it is an inherently relational word, it has fallen out of fashion in an age in which people are mainly interested in their identity, their self-hood, their personal power. Just this week, Michelle Goldberg wrote a op-ed about the movement in feminism away from meaningless sex towards a restoration of relationality. Relationships might make a comeback! I hope so. If they do, disposition might get into one of your sentences!

You may have heard the word “disposition” used to mean the inherent qualities of mind and character that give someone their unique way of being in the world: “Your sunny disposition has a way of rubbing off on those around you” — temperament, nature, makeup, the grain of them that might cause them to go against the grain. In a less individual sense, someone’s or something’s “disposition” is the way someone or something is placed or arranged, especially in relation to other people or other things: the disposition of infantry on the battlefield, the disposition of trees in an orchard, the disposition of the parts of this blog — arranging, ordering, positioning, relating.

When a couple moves into therapy, each has a personal disposition which their mate will learn to understand better and, hopefully, to respect and even love. Their relationship will also have a disposition of its own — its own character and a sense of how it relates to the world, how it arranges itself and how it has been arranged by various forces and its own history.

Since this word and all its synonyms are built into the English language, one would expect us to understand it. But during the last 50 years or so, the relationality of words has not been not assumed — we no longer assume words relate to something more than themselves. This blog post is for exploring that oddity in the hope that things are changing, just like Michelle Goldberg is exploring how sex is trying to regain human connection and love.

La‘amea Lunn and helpers on Oahu, Hawai‘i

A deeper knowing

A lot of what makes people “indisposed” when it comes to relating is the “left brain” dominance which accompanies the present domination of machines and technical skills. You may have friends, like I do, who have dropped off the grid and bought a farm so they can restore their relationship with the earth and feel all the parts of themselves in a natural setting (new farmers above). Most people have done the opposite and spend most of their time indisposed, in the sense they are unavailable for relating to others, the world, something or someone Other than themselves. This is so true that China recently passed a law to restrict video game use by minors. Chinese kids have been dwarfing themselves by attaching to a machine.

My favorite book of the year, so far, is The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In that book Iain McGilchrist exhaustively shows the difference between the left and right brain and how the left is meant to serve the right, contrary to much of western philosophy since Descartes. He says:

If one had to encapsulate the principle differences in the experience mediated by the two hemispheres, their two modes of being, one could put it like this. The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care. The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of other things already known. It can never really “break out” to know anything new, because its knowledge is of its own re-presentations only. Where the thing itself is “present” to the right hemisphere, it is only “re-presented” by the left hemisphere, now become an idea of a thing. Where the right hemisphere is conscious of the Other, whatever it may be, the left hemisphere’s consciousness is of itself.

I meet up with people who are dwarfed by their left brain disposition. Their relationships are especially difficult. In the case of men, their sexual relationship with their partner may be difficult to maintain, since they have been having sex with themselves via internet-delivered porn for much of their lives. When it comes to intimacy, they are often indisposed.

The deadly disposition of control

In an out-of-control society, in a state of perpetual warfare, on an outpost in the warming atmosphere, it is easy to see how one could conform to the illusion of control the left-brain-dominated, corporate world promises. For instance, below is a Lexus commercial from this past summer by a student in Oklahoma which tells a young man that it (the car) needs a fellow dreamer to experience the “power of the spirit of now” together. This is a popular idea; a Cadillac ad from this year depicts the growing “light” within a woman climbing the corporate ladder as resonant in her Cadillac.

The philosophy the video neatly expresses in thirty seconds promises that the “spirit” can be reduced to a relationship with a car. I hope the student was being ironic, but I suspect he was angling for an advertising job one day.

Longing for what a car ad promises is healthy humanity. But actually attaching to representations of meaning within the limits of scientific, consumer capitalism reduces one’s will to managing the elements of a merely material world. McGilchrist explains the philosophical necessity of thinking beyond the boundaries of that kind of representation of reality:

Philosophy being a hyperconscious cognitive process, it may be hard to get away from the left hemisphere’s perspective that will is about control, and must lie in the conscious left hemisphere. But if our disposition towards the world, our relationship with it, alters, will has a different meaning. The disposition of the right hemisphere, the nature of its attention to the world, is one of care, rather than control. Its will relates to a desire or longing towards something, something that lies beyond itself, towards the Other.

The relentless teaching about “the spirit of now” is all about power and control. Even the search for the beloved community often descends, these days, into a fight about power and one’s share of spoils of capitalism.

When people with a “left hemisphere” disposition enter into the self-exploration of psychotherapy (or spirituality) they often feel confronted with a terrifying choice to make. Will I leave my “zone of control,” aided by all sorts of machines and society’s present philosophies? Or will I moved with my right-brain empowered longing for what is beyond the left brain’s frame? Will I leave my porn world for a real relationship? Will I desert the constant, anxious monitoring for what I dread and my anesthesia against that anxiety in order to move with the desire I have neutered in honor of my fear of betraying what dominates me? If I change my disposition, I will have to care and become respons-ible.

I believe in you

When I was in high school I played the lead in one of the more unpopular musicals my director could have chosen for us: How To Succeed in Business without Really Trying. [Harry Potter tried it]. I did not understand the tongue it had in its cheek. But I got sort of famous on campus for singing the signature song: “I Believe in You.” It is a left-brain hymn to looking sincere and believing you are good at looking sincere.

How to Succeed was lampooning what happens when advertising execs become the advertising (nowadays when we are all our personal brand). Robert Morse is singing a right-brain idea in a left-brain environment. He is climbing the ladder by performing the representation of a man who can succeed in a left-brain world devoted to selling right-brain dreams. He is literally singing to his representation in the mirror! I did not get it. But after a life of believing, I do now. As a result, I found this quote from McGilchrist compelling.

Believing is not to be reduced to thinking that such-and-such might be the case. It is not a weaker form of thinking, laced with doubt. Sometimes we speak like this: “I believe that the train leaves at 6:13,” where “I believe that” simply means that “I think (but am not certain) that.” Since the left hemisphere is concerned with what is certain, with knowledge of the facts, its version of belief is that it is just absence of certainty. If the facts were certain, according to its view, I should be able to say “I know that” instead. This view of belief comes from the left hemisphere’s disposition towards the world: interest in what is useful, therefore fixed and certain (the train timetable is no good if one can’t rely on it). So belief is just a feeble form of knowing, as far as it is concerned.

But belief in terms of the right hemisphere is different, because its disposition towards the world is different. The right hemisphere does not “know” anything, in the sense of certain knowledge. For it, belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of “responsibility.” * Thus if I say “I believe in you,” it does not mean I think such-and-such things are the case about you, but can’t be certain I am right. It means I stand in a certain sort of relation of care towards you, that entails me in certain kinds of ways of behaving (acting and being) towards you, and entails on you the responsibility of certain ways of acting and being as well. It is an acting “as if” certain things were true about you that in the nature of things cannot be certain. It has the characteristic right-hemisphere qualities of being a betweenness: a reverberative, “resonant,” “respons-ible” relationship, in which each party is altered by the other and by which relationship between the two, whereas the relationship of the believer to the believed in the left-hemisphere sense is inert, unidirectional, and centers on control rather than care.

Marriage is the queen of all adult relationships, where we create more care in the world, daily – at least the opportunity presents itself. In marriage we are called upon to see “the other” and relate ourselves to it in the person of our mate. Friendships and church covenants do much of the same kind of work, of course — that is, they do the work if we are disposed to it, if we turn into it, if we hold on to the love.

Right now relationships are under a barrage of criticism all day and night, left-brain radicals think justice is exactitude in speech and action, and the generation raised with a cell phone in the aftermath of 9/11 is sure they are saddled with the personal power to succeed in their business. I bring it up to give another opportunity to choose see the Other and to turn a new eye on the world which might develop a more holistic disposition toward it. As the world disintegrates under the weight of its left-brain foolishness, surely it is time to listen to the voices within and without, even built into our brains, that lead us deeper.

* Belief, like faith and truth, etymologically implies a relation of loyalty, and has the same root as love (and as the German words Glauben and Liebe).

Criticism is undermining relationships like never before

Some of my clients are especially adept at honestly describing their motivation. In couples therapy, one marriage partner said it was important to be the kind of mate who could pop an inflated ego. So their mate has to endure coming home with a story about some victory or blessing only to have their partner sift out some fault or problem to criticize. I could relate. I grew up with parents who were sure they should “take me down a peg or two” when I needed it and told me so. They thought criticism was an important way to develop me.

This “peg” thing appears in literature starting in the 1500’s, but no one quite knows where it came from. It might be about someone hoisting their own flag above another on a ship. Its appearance coincides with the rise of individual freedom and responsibility in Europe and the new scientific examination of everything that is now the basis for most thinking. By now, “taking people down” or even “taking them out” is seen as a virtue, as if expertly examining someone is a favor to bestow.  Everyone is a critic, like grumpy old Muppets in the theater box taking down Miss Piggy a peg, or Jerry Seinfeld teaching us to take down everyone.

So it is not unusual to have a couple committed to criticism as if it were a right or an obligation! One partner may not always be as vocal as the other. But their resentment and withdrawal as they “try not to be critical” still gets the point across.

Criticism infects love like a virus. Through their enormous research, the Gottman’s identified the “four horsemen” of marriage apocalypse. Criticism is the first one on their list. On their blog they say,

Because criticism is the first horseman, fighting off your urge to criticize can hold the other horsemen (defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) at bay. And behind every complaint lays a wish, a longing. To work towards constructive solutions and mutual fulfillment, you must both make an effort to let go of grudges and bitterness. You must give your partner the opportunity to try to “fix it” or to make a repair attempt. Instead of attacking with “you” statements and immediately putting your partner on the defensive, you must allow them to do something that may make a positive difference.

Many of my clients are not deeply Christian, but it would help them fight off the urge to criticize if they were. Marriage is a wonderful laboratory for personal development if you see it that way — as opposed to a constant affront to justice and proper thinking. When Paul talks about marriage he sees it as the same kind of relationship Christ has with the church – a relationship of unwarranted submission to the self-giving glory of love.

Pastors are run out by criticism

I am happy this did not happen to me when I was a pastor (maybe I was not listening), but, like in the churches Paul planted, people in the church judge each other mercilessly these days, often in the name of righteousness. The poor pastors, and other leaders, are like lightning rods for the storms of criticism that sweep over communities in the United States like an aspect of some kind of spiritual climate change.

Tom Ranier who has been writing about church leadership for decades, now, says in his blog

Criticisms against pastors have increased significantly. One pastor recently shared with me the number of criticisms he receives are five times greater than the pre-pandemic era. Church members are worried. Church members are weary. And the most convenient target for their angst is their pastor.

Just like you might want to stop taking down your mate instead of building them up, you might want to love your leader and the members of your church like Christ loves you.

My clients who are professionals working in the church or Christian nonprofits often complain about feeling like fish in a barrel getting injured by someone taking an easy shot. Their critics should be out changing the world, but they abuse the easy intimacy of the church to vent their angst on people who love them. There is an ongoing debate about whether criticism motivates people in the workplace better than praise. But I think most therapists see how criticism mostly causes entrenched defensiveness and silences people. It is best used for coercion, not liberation. Church leaders don’t want to quit, but if someone shoots at them every day, they probably will.

Crítica, engraving by Julio Ruelas, ca. 1907

It is often a projection of the inner critic

Several times I have heard of a client’s dream in which there was a plot going on to murder someone. One good man said the message they got from such a dream was that they really needed to “step up their game” and stop being so critical. They were killing people with words! I thought that was a good takeaway. But I also thought they could see their dream as an interior process by which their unconscious thoughts were getting sorted. It was possible that they were considering killing unaccepted elements of themselves!

In fact, an inner critic is  hard at work in most of us all day (and night) telling us our flag is hoisted too high or too low, or maybe both. The feelings caused by that voice are so intolerable we often “project” them on some situation or person. We can’t stand it, so we put it on someone else. We can’t stand the blame we feel so we blame someone else. We don’t want to need forgiveness, so we produce a logical justice issue we think we can work out without it.

We’re often in a tragic cycle. We criticize ourselves for having an overactive inner critic! We end up in charge of dispatching this malady, or hiding the fact that we only appear to have done so. One of my clients said, “I feel like I am cheating if I stop criticizing myself.” Jesus did not say from the cross “You’ve got to step up your game.” I am surprised I have to make an argument that the cross represents self-giving love, that forgiveness is a gift which cannot be deserved, that resurrection is the final statement that the powers are not in control and neither are you.

The internet is an echo chamber of criticism

Why has this period of relentless criticism come upon us? It is connected to COVID-19, of course, but the pandemic just accelerated trends already in place. We would have likely gotten to this point in the next three to five years regardless.

Maybe when we started ordering all that take out food and as we read even more Yelp reviews it became that much more evident to us that we, personally, might be liable to  negative reviews ourselves if we made ourselves known. It is what people do. Maybe our inner critics were at work harder than ever. We were more likely to anonymously get ourselves out there and project some blame on Facebook. Some of us got canceled and most of us talked so much about people getting canceled the Republicans made “cancel culture” a campaign issue.

I ran across The Geeks Under Grace talking about the spread of internet criticism. They are Christian gamers and into everything about computers and the internet. On their blog they were trying to get meme warriors to stop raking over every presentation of Christianity in media for evidence of inaccuracy they should criticize. I appreciated their obscure (for some of us) reference to Dwight Schrute:

I do understand the temptation to offer criticism to everything you see. It can come from a virtuous heart in wanting to ensure the God we love is accurately portrayed. In our minds we sound intelligent for (what we perceive is) correctly understanding theology, but when we do this with insignificant details, we come across looking like Dwight Schrute from The Office. We all love to watch Dwight for his quirkiness and how he interacts with problems created by his coworkers, but I hardly think many of us want to be perceived as Dwight.

For those who don’t watch The Office, the Christian Dwight would be the one who comments on everything pertaining to Christianity with rhetoric that they’ve heard from others. Any misuse of anything must be corrected at that exact moment. “False! There are basically two schools of thought.”

An 8th grader friend recently took themselves off Facebook altogether because they just could not stand all the criticism. Some people have stopped watching the commentary on MSNBC and Fox for similar reasons. The internet makes everyone an expert and no one an authority. The criticism floating around in it is not grounded in relationship or community and feeds on words like cancer. I think that is another aspect of the left-brain bondage that has overtaken us.

What to do?

This piece is not another call to “step up your game.”  It is mostly a call to stop killing yourself. If you follow Jesus and you think God is looking at you critically, I think you might need to look at the cross more closely. You are the beloved of God, not innately an object of contempt. Not cooperating with your inner critic would be a good first step to releasing everyone from your criticism and gaining some resistance to the waves of criticism the society delivers daily.

Askers vs. Guessers: Where is Jesus on the spectrum?

A  dialogue about Ask culture vs. Guess culture has been going around the internet for about ten years, now. I finally caught up with it when one of my friends posted a note about it on Facebook. The material kind of hit me like a brick. As more of an asker, I have been having misunderstandings with guessers for a long time! It would have helped to name these distinctive ways to relate earlier. So I hope my lesson helps you, in case you also missed the dialogue.

Identify Askers and Guessers to Request Favors More Effectively

Ask and Guess Culture

The dialogue got started with a web posting by Andrea Donderi which achieved “legs” and still maintains a following. We are raised, the theory says, in one of two cultures. In Ask culture, people grow up believing they can ask for anything – a favor, a pay raise, an overnight at your house – fully accepting your answer may be no. “There’s no harm in asking” would be their proverb. Or maybe “Better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” People who are assertive like this can seem aggressive or careless to guessers.

Because in Guess culture, one avoids putting a request into words unless you’re pretty sure the answer will be yes. A key skill in Guess culture/families/relationships is putting out delicate feelers. If you do this with enough subtlety, you won’t have to make the request directly; you’ll get an offer – like when I enter the room with a banana and my granddaughter says “I like bananas.” Even if one gets an offer that requires no request, the offer may be genuine or pro forma. (“Oh,” I say. “You would like the banana I got for myself.”) So it takes yet more skill and delicacy to discern whether you should accept what might be an offer. “Don’t ask and you won’t be disappointed” might be the guesser’s proverb. Or maybe, “I shouldn’t have to tell you to be considerate.” Less assertive people can seem passive-aggressive or critical to askers.

Binary comparisons are more fun than accurate. So let’s avoid forming too many conclusions and let the reality sink in. We are all probably leaning into one of these camps most of the time. My mother was a committed guesser. She drove down the road shouting at cars, “Couldn’t you see I was here? How inconsiderate!” Lack of consideration was probably the first deadly sin on her list. She thought we should have imagined how she would react before she entered the living room and saw a frosty glass making a ring on the end table. I think I am considerate until I run into Mennonites (and I love them so I do!) and maybe Canadians, I’m finding out.

An asker won’t think it’s rude to request two weeks in your spare room, but a guesser will probably hear such an ask as presumptuous and resent the agony it causes them to say no. Your boss, asking for a project to be finished early, may actually be an overdemanding boor, but maybe they are just an asker who’s assuming you might decline if you need to. If you’re a guesser, you might hear many requests as a demand. You can tell already that it would be a mistake to make this trait either/or. We’re likely all on a spectrum. You can see how true that is when you look at the varieties of cross-cultural awkwardness we feel. Brits and Americans get discombobulated doing business in Japan, because Japan is a Guess culture, yet they often experience Russians as rude, because they’re diehard askers.

I was speaking to a therapist friend about this dialogue and we pondered whether the “pursuers” in a marital relationship are usually askers and the “withdrawers” are more likely to be guessers. Neither way needs to be labeled “wrong.” But either way usually feels wrong to the other way. Self-help writers try to solve the problem by insisting we all become askers, training us to both ask and refuse with relish. The mediation expert William Ury  recommends guessers memorize “anchor phrases” such as “that doesn’t work for me.” They think everyone needs to figure out a key transaction in all relationships: what do you want and how much is someone willing to give? So, to them, Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. Why should the rest of us be waiting to see what guessers think or feel about us without them telling us? — a good percentage of us are not that emotionally intelligent, so we are often wandering into a minefield of awkwardness and rejection set up by guessers.

The distinctions need to get some nuance to be helpful

The general categories: askers and guessers, resonate with me. But the application of the traits vary, according to one’s context.

  • Maybe we ask strangers and close friends.The polite indirection of Guess culture is a way of preserving a deliberate ambiguity. We preserve ambiguity in social relationships when there’s an intermediate level of intimacy. Relationships at the poles, with either close friends or strangers, tend to be governed by more direct asks. We do this precisely because those intermediate relationships are ambiguous We need to make a “bid” and see if we are bidden. Like animals circling one another, we need to negotiate where we fall on the intimacy gradient. To ask too directly before we know where we stand can seem rude because it effectively demands a final verdict on a work in progress.
  • Like I said, it is not so black and white. Perhaps we should have a more situationally-fluid approach. The problem with assuming one way is better than another is it ignores that in almost everything “it all depends.” The “requester” (whether of asker or guesser type) is more in need of a “yes” or “no” response from the “requestee” (again, of either type) at some times more than others. I’m not sure how you asked for your first formal dance date, but I blurted it out like the asker I am. Likewise, a requestee is more likely to say “yes” or “no” at some times more than others. If I find out someone just lost their cat I won’t be bringing up the personal issue I called to talk about. It makes sense that for some things we’ll need to be an asker and a guesser at other times. Sometimes I need to act and sometimes I need to wait, whether it feels right to me or not.
  • Sex tends to complicate the dialogue. With sex there is a lot more guessing. People do small things that are “bids for connection.” John and Julie Gottman coined that useful phrase to describe how we  attempt to get attention, affection, and/or acceptance. These bids are rarely direct “asks.” Maybe it is just human or maybe it is society shaping us, but we are often hesitant to ask for our emotional needs to be met in an open and vulnerable way. Sometimes we are more direct than other times. But most of the time we might share a story to see if our partner is listening, or say “Hey, look at that!” to see if we are on the same page, or say, “Hey, look at what I just did or am doing” like your child going off the diving board. Maybe the bid is sending a text or giving a “like,” or reaching out for a hug or a squeeze, or talking about a common interest, or expressing a concern. These are all very subtle asks, guessing (and hoping) our loved one will respond favorably. Maybe we are all doomed to be askers while our hearts are always guessing.
File:The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes, from The Story of Christ MET DP855490.jpg
The Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes — Georg Pencz (1500-50)

What does Jesus say? Ask or guess?

I think Jesus is with us all along spectrum, from assertive askers to passive guessers, as usual. But he’s moving us toward ASK. On the one hand he definitely commands us to “Ask, and it will be given you” (Matt. 7:7). But I know he is not telling us to ask out of our natural capacity. For most of us, in one context or another, being vulnerable enough to ask for what we need feels like we’re risking our lives. If Jesus wanted to condemn us, he would tell us that the criteria for receiving his love is to ask for it, and ask properly. But Jesus does not want to condemn us. In his grace is the place we become askers, because we come to believe we are safe enough to ask.

Because, on the other hand, Jesus operates a lot in Guess culture fashion. He asks a lot of people who have given up: “Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6) and “What would you like from me?” (Mark 10:51) And he says to those who don’t think they need to ask for anything or wouldn’t dare ask, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:40). But for most of us Jesus hangs out with us all the time putting out one subtle bid after another which do not confront us or scare us into being defensive. The askers are often up in front of the church asking Jesus to return quickly and asking us to do something. Meanwhile the Spirit of Jesus is moving through the rows comforting resistant and doubtful people with hope that what they fear will not be required of them today. The askers think they are waiting on Jesus; the guessers are more likely to appreciate how Jesus waits on them. And since we are all askers and guessers at times, isn’t it great that Jesus will wait just long enough to bring everything to right?!

I think I am more of an asker, but that’s because of Jesus. I still roll around the freeway irritated with inconsiderate people, like Mom did. And I am fairly resolute in waiting for my intimates to accept my tiny bids at connection, even though I don’t approve of myself for not trusting their love! I think Jesus is frank about calling us to boldly ask because our true selves are especially underdeveloped in that area. We either don’t ask or we ask with wrong motives. Like prodigal children the best we can think to ask is to be God’s  day laborer, the lowest worker there is, not a restored child. So we have a lot to learn and a lot more to feel about these distinct movements in our hearts and the interactions that tend to trap us every day. What a blessing that Jesus asks us to follow Him and then follows us along our way, guessing our every need, as we learn to do it!

Anxious children: Help for the long days of the stay-at-home

4 ways to help your anxious kid
Nan Lee in the NY Times

Now the quarantine seems like it has gone on too long, and April 30 may not be the end of it! People with jobs are longing for them. People without jobs might be getting more anxious all the time. And the children don’t know what to make of it all. People even report disoriented pets who have trouble finding their own space with everyone home all the time!

Hopefully last night’s soothing music and meditation helped.

The breath prayer in today’s Daily Prayer has many applications: (inhale) Cause me to see (exhale) beyond the cross. We are definitely getting better acquainted, every day, with the “cross” and more of us are literally facing death in our relationship circles. Resurrection may seem like a long way away and it might seem silly to mention it. But hanging on to the life we were given and the life we’ll be getting is the core of health.

People are saying lots of good things that Jesus followers can use to help their families cope. Here’s a bit of advice adapted from the New York Times.

Build on the foundations you have

What the parents bring to this situation is what the children will get. Doing fun things and having a creative, consistent schedule is important. But the most important thing is you, the parent, and you all, the marriage, and everyone, the relationships beaming in on the screen and nurtured in the imaginations.

“The most important thing is for children to have caring adults that they’re engaged with.,” — Sherrie Westin (president of social impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street)

Long-term studies on children in England found that kids who were separated from their parents during World War II (to keep them safe from bombings in London) were more likely to have insecure attachment styles and lower levels of psychological well-being decades later, compared with those who stayed with their parents, even while being bombed.

Children who are prone to anxiety may find this period especially challenging. But all the experts emphasize that stable routine and simple affection make a lot of difference. Even in the healthiest families, “You’re probably going to see increased tantrumschallenges with sleep or behavioral issues as folks acclimate to a new normal for a while,” said Dr. Rahil Briggs (Psy.D., national director of Zero to Three’s HealthySteps program). But, we need to “trust in the foundation we’ve built with our children,” she said. “It will help us to ride this out.”

Dandelion and orchid

You are probably familiar with the “dandelion and orchid” metaphor to describe children. It was developed by Dr. Thomas Boyce, M.D., a pediatrician and researcher. labels are always dangerous, but they can help us consider how to love our child as they are and not according to who they should be. The theory says the vast majority of children are “dandelions” — meaning they are pretty resilient and able to deal with stress as it comes. So worrying about them too much might actually diminish their resilience and make them overly dependent on you. The balance takes discernment, so we might need to help each other see how we parent.

Dr. Boyce estimates about 20 percent of children are “orchids.” As he described them on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in 2019, “the orchid child is the child who shows great sensitivity and susceptibility to both bad and good environments.” They may be more sensitive because of a combination of biological and environmental reasons. No one really knows why we turn out how we do, everyone needs the Savior.

If you are caring for an orchid (and some of them are fully grown and you married them!) he or she may be struggling more than usual right now, with all of the changes this pandemic has wrought on their daily life. Plus they are watching inspiring dandelion stories on TV all the time. Dr. Boyce’s research shows that orchids thrive on regular routines — routines that have had to be rejiggered considerably in the past month or two.

Help for the orchids that helps dandelions, too

Experts have some common sense ideas to help your anxious children right now. Though these methods are geared toward orchids, they can work on your upset dandelions as well (and maybe your mate!).

 Label what’s happening. Just acknowledging the recent changes to your children’s lives can feel validating. With young kids, you can keep an ongoing list of things that have changed and things that have stayed the same. Brainstorm this list verbally with your kids — for example, “You used to go to a school building, that has changed, but you still have Mommy tucking you in every night, that’s the same.” By doing so, it will make them feel less alone in their feelings, because they’ll know they’re not the only one noticing that things aren’t the way they used to be.

When we were zooming with the grandchildren the other day. I wondered how Paul was doing with all these changes. Not only did his day-to-day get disrupted, he actually moved to a new apartment in the middle of it all! That is a lot for a six-year-old to feel. I thought he seemed a little tired and it took a while for his ebullient self to emerge. Seeing his grandparents (with whom he had been living) and being with his cousins was good tonic. Dad needs to help him label it all.

 Resolve your own anxiety. This is ongoing, good advice. It needs to be said again because  parents’ anxiety can make kids feel unsettled.

“Our kids are brilliant emotional detectives of their parents.” — Abi Gewirtz (Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota, and the author of the forthcoming book, When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents and Worried Kids)

If you are showing your anxiety it leaches into your relationships. The Times put together 10 tips for easing your anxiety, but our church has tons more in Daily Prayer: WIND and WATER every day and all through the Way of Jesus. Plus you can call up you cell leader or pastor and avail yourself of Circle Counseling. We don’t need to go it alone.

Teach children to meditate. Basic mindfulness techniques can be learned at a young age. Progressive muscle relaxation — where you tense and then release individual groups of muscles — can be helpful for anxious kids. The University of Washington has a progressive muscle-relaxing script just for little ones that you can read to your children. Here is a YouTube video that does the same.

Some people have been actively including their children in the Holy Week offerings, including the breath prayers. If they don’t get the prayers intellectually, they can probably get the breathing physically. Learning how to consciously breathe deep is helpful in itself. Having Jesus with you as you do is much better. Try teaching them, “I am loved…by God and my family.”

Create a schedule with pictures. Predictability is very important for anxious children. One way to soothe kids who don’t read yet is to make a schedule that has images depicting the routine of the day. Really detailed schedules are not necessary or even helpful. We’re all overwhelmed right now, so don’t worry about making some elaborate plan that would be impossible to execute.

The schedule can be as simple as, here are four things we do every day: breakfast, lunch, dinner, cuddles. You can add in special events like walking the dog, watching another episode, playing a game, Zooming with Papa (A must! He’s feeling stuff too!). We want to have a simple life. Here is our chance, for a bit. It is OK to slow it down.

We’ve been doing a good job at sharing our good ideas (leave some comments here of on the Parents List). But now the quarantine is losing its novelty and our first bursts of enthusiasm are growing thin. Now is when we develop that great patience God has with us all as we make our way through our natural lives.  Faith, hope and love make it through the fire and into the age to come. Providing an environment for those core characteristics to develop, in the middle of a pandemic, when anxiety is rising, is something we can all do as we keep turning toward Jesus and His people.

Everything is canceled: How to help each other deal with the disappointment

Now that everything is shut down for us and the kids, the new reality may begin to sink in. They are missing that much-anticipated birthday party, the gymnastics meet and pajama day; plus the school is trying to turn home into school while mom and dad are trying to work in the next room.

Parents are getting mixed reactions from their kids that range from joy over extra time off to confusion and sadness over missing a canceled event — and often fear of the unknown.

Whether they’re forced to skip a musical performance, a tryout for a spring sport, a visit to their grandparents or a family vacation, simply telling children that disappointment is a part of life won’t cut it. In fact, just thinking about breaking the news may deepen anxiety in parents.

So how can parents help kids process their disappointment? Here is some advice from Jesus and some experts. (Annotating this article from the NY Times).

In Atlanta I saw families headed for Disney right before it was shut down.

Mom and Dad, check your own emotions.

Checking our emotions does not mean evaluating ourselves. Let’s sit down and feel with Jesus and get some encouragement about our value and future. Check in with Jesus and your emotions. The other night I asked our cell, “What encouragement would you give yourself?” Several people gave themselves an admonition to get it together, which did not sound too encouraging. A nonjudgmental look at ourselves would be more helpful — “How am I?” not “How am I bad?” We need our time with Jesus more than ever, so we can be reminded of our value and our future. Jesus is our peace.

Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and art therapist in New York City says. “Fear can be contagious, so above all, parents need to monitor and manage their own worry, especially in front of their children. The good news is this also means that calm is contagious.” Jesus is our calm.

Be calm and honest

The government, the president in particular, were deceptive from the beginning about Covid-19. Senator Burr was selling off his holdings while helping to delay letting the public in on what he knew! Jesus is frank: “Woe also to you lawyers! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not lift a finger to ease them” (Luke 6:46).

I’m not recommending having a house full of fury. But breaking down the situation into a child-sized narrative can help. Denying that something big is happening is dishonest. Trying to make things “normal” might create more anxiety than going with the abnormal flow. If we are not honest, the big unknown gets bigger and imaginations run wild with one’s own interpretation.

Gayle Cicero, Ed.D., a clinical assistant professor at the Loyola University Maryland School of Education says, “Regardless of a child’s age, honesty is the best approach.” But don’t throw out adult concepts children can’t handle. “Terms like ‘the right thing to do’ or ‘think about the elderly’ or ‘for the greater good’ are hard to grasp when, developmentally, kids are in a stage when their worldview centers around them, their family, and perhaps their neighborhood and friends.” That doesn’t mean we should dumb things down disrespectfully, but it does mean we may need to teach our kids what we are talking about when we say things like “trust God” or “even if I die, I will live again.” Our forced Sabbath would be a great time for a daily check in with the family to reinforce our common understanding, narrative and affection.

Image result for jesus compassion

Let everyone feel what they feel

Maybe you could ask the kids to illustrate the story you tell about Jesus feeling compassion for sick people, or the time he wept over the whole city of Jerusalem. Christianity first flourished among people who were disempowered and had little hope. Teens, in particular, may be facing all sorts of disillusionment, now that the society’s over-confident sense of power and control is falling apart. The pastors keep telling us our church was built for times like these. We have a place for and answers for the questions our feelings arouse.

Dr. Neha Chaudhary, M.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital says, “When breaking the news of cancellations, parents should focus on validating their children’s emotions, whether that is disappointment or fear or something in between. Kids often gain comfort in knowing that they are not alone. It may help for parents to say that a lot of kids are feeling the same way and even admit that they are a little worried, too. At the end of the day, the most important thing that parents can do is to send their kid the message that it’s OK for them to feel what they are feeling. These are the interactions that help a child feel seen.”

Naming your child’s emotion (for example, saying, “That must be so disappointing”) helps them begin to realize what they are feeling, said Leighanne Scheuermann, an educator based in Dallas. “In the long term, your child is more likely to remember how you respond to their emotions and also will recognize the efforts you made to make the situation better for them.” The process of naming helps us all feel like we have choices we can make and feel like we are not completely helpless.

Learn about managing stress together

Many families in the U.S. are feeling the shock of not being in control. Their careful schedules are nonsense, their finances are shaky and their future is uncertain. In many ways this gives us all a new way to hear the Bible. The New Testament, in particular, is mainly written to people who were threatened by the authorities for following Jesus, and most of them were not that well off to begin with. 1 Peter, especially, takes on new layers of meaning, right from the beginning. (Try reading it every day for the rest of Lent):

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Some believers turn this into “Don’t worry, be happy” and turn their faith into another defense against feeling or facing what they fear. I read it as encouragement to let our faith ground us when the whole earth is being shaken. If you talk this over with the kids, you may find they have more natural faith than you expected. They might not have been trusting God because they were trusting you as you trusted your own power!

Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Ed.D., a psychologist and pediatric mental health specialist psychologist in Connecticut  says, “Disappointment can be linked to a feeling of loss of control in children. When you have to talk about canceled events that kids were looking forward to, think about it as a learning opportunity to manage disappointment. We often are so worried that our kids will get upset when we should be thinking: ‘What can my child learn here? Can they learn about managing stress and feeling upset?’”

It helps just to be a listening ear so your child can freely vent her frustration. It is tempting, as parents, to swoop in and wipe out disappointment. But, Dr. Cicero said, parents can actually get in the way of a child’s development when they do this. “Plus, there’s something so therapeutic about a person willing to hear you out and just be with you,” she added.

We will need more imagination than Netflix

I have been heartened by the amount of creativity and connectivity people have poured out this week. Some people have spent all their energy hunkering down and feeling shocked, of course. But others jumped right on it and shared their ideas and love.

Now we know the infectious atmosphere is apparently going to be around for a while. So we’ll eventually need to do something but watch TV. The other day one of our cell members got on our video text app and got us to sing encouraging songs to each other! That helped. Maybe you could have a family theme song for this new depth of Lent we are experiencing. Here is one from the deep Circle of Hope archive about waiting (Ps. 40): I waited for the Lord. (This is also good dance music for stuffed animals).

When a child’s emotions are really starting to disrupt his usual disposition or he seems stuck in a funk, it’s time for some creative direction from the parents. Alexandra Friedmann Finkel, L.C.S.W., a licensed clinical social worker and therapist in New York says, “A fun technique to distract younger kids is a color game. Have your child choose a color and look around the room to point out everything he can see in that color. This can help a child break the worry spiral and calm the body and mind,” she said. A mother was playing “I spy” with her kids on my final subway ride.

Dr. Goodman says, “Once your child is in a good place emotionally, don’t make any promises about rescheduling events or making up for lost time.” Instead, focus on what you can do now for enjoyment or to support your community. For example, rather than the planned movie party with friends, maybe you can improvise and celebrate a birthday at a park by flying kites and riding bikes with children who are present on Facetime.

Scheuermann suggests if your child is upset about missing the chance to star in a play, ask if she wants to put on a play with the stuffed animals. Maybe you can Zoom with Grandma for her birthday or support a local business by having a cake sent to her. Maybe you can film the stuffed animal play and send it to Grandma! If a vacation has been canceled, have the kids create a poster board of activities they wanted to do on that trip. Essentially, find a way to modify the missed activity so it can be creatively executed at home.

Dr. Capanna-Hodge says routine is crucial when tackling school closures, whether the teachers sent home a lesson plan or not. “Just by putting a routine in place can help alleviate stress for children and their parents. Create a homeschooling schedule and go over it every morning with your children and teens. Make sure to have consistency in your day-to-day and incorporate breaks, exercise and snack time.” Keep a physical copy of the schedule your child can look at, too. Watch out, of course, lest you interpret a child’s stress-induced resistance as a reason to get tough or give up. We can ease into it and build up our capacity. We’re facing enough losses, we don’t need to create more.

Dr. Capanna-Hodge says research shows those with a positive outlook can manage stress better and actually live longer. So this is a time to help foster resilience in our children. “While some kids have a glass-half-full outlook naturally, others need to develop that over time, and these kinds of disappointments are great opportunities to do so.” Obviously, making a crisis into a long lesson on religion and human development is not likely to feel that great — and merely knowing lessons does not breed enough resilience. But taking our best shot at wisdom enacted in love will bring hope to the whole household.

The regions of the internet I inhabit were filled with good people inventing helpful things for their kids to experience. Part of my motivation for writing this was to stoke the fire of that creativity, hope and sharing. The Circle of Hope Parents Listserv, Facebook, and your neighborhood email list (better create one!) are all good places to keep sharing. I don’t think the government is going to do a great job at saving us (again!), and I don’t think we will do that great a job at saving ourselves. But I do think we can cooperate with our Savior and humbly receive (and wisely judge) input from experts as we navigate these uncertain waters. I don’t know a better way to get home.

Use the comments section here or the Parents List to share what you are feeling and learning!

Show up for your kids: Let go of your “helicopter God”

In a recent article for the NY Times Parenting section, Daniel Siegel, along with Tina Payne Bryson,  uncannily explored the gospel again. I’ve read Siegel’s books, seen him speak, and have often been surprised by how I resonate with his spiritual wavelength.

This time he is taking some loving swipes at how parents, especially people of means, are raising their children. The picture I lifted from the article shows the problem clearly, I think. He asks us to:

Take a moment and fast forward in your mind to a day in the future when your child, now an adult, looks back and talks about whether she felt truly seen and embraced by you. Maybe she’s talking to a spouse, a friend or a therapist — someone with whom she can be totally, brutally honest. Perhaps she’s saying, “My mom, she wasn’t perfect, but I always knew she loved me just as I was.” Or, “My dad really got me, and he was always in my corner, even when I did something wrong.” Would your child say something like that? Or would she end up talking about how her parents always wanted her to be something she wasn’t, or didn’t take the time to really understand her, or wanted her to act in ways that weren’t authentic in order to play a particular role in the family or come across a certain way?

Francesco Ciccolella, NY Times

The power of showing up

Of course, Siegel is going to say something brilliant that makes you wonder how you could have ever parented without him. For the most part, he thinks he can explain everything and make it all work reasonably well, even in territories as complex as the brain and your family system. But in this case, I think he is asking the right question,

Do our kids feel seen by us? Do they feel truly seen for who they are — not for who we’d like them to be, and not filtered through our own fears or desires?

I think the answer is probably, generally, “No.” And I doubt that when Siegel was thirty-two, and trucking kids to little league games and such, he was asking the right questions, either. Now that he is sixty-two, he has better questions than “How in the world are we going to get through this week?” Or “How are my children going to survive their next twenty years?”

He is trying to help us all with his new book, The Power of Showing Up. The main point is something you may already know:

Showing up means bringing your whole being — your attention and awareness — into this moment with your child. When we show up, we are mentally and emotionally present for our child right now….The idea is to approach parenting being present and aware in your interactions with your child — and to make repairs when that doesn’t happen.

As usual, I think he has a great idea. But, as usual, I think it would be even better if he had Jesus to make it happen.

Where does one get the power to show up?

The power of showing up is great if you have the power to show up. Doesn’t it seem a bit grandiose to suggest in a parenting section article that people should simply change their mind and show up? — they should bring their whole being — their attention and awareness — into this moment? Buddhists have suggested that philosophy for centuries and some great people have practiced it well. But most of us are having trouble with our “whole being,” not to mention “attention” and “awareness.”

His advice has a lot of merit, in my opinion. But he does not give a lot of help with where to find the power to follow his advice unless you happen to have it already. Helicopter parents may communicate a lot of their anxiety to their child because they feel powerless, not because they intend to exercise a lot of power. I think the reason most people hyper-parent is their fear of doing a bad job. Many people in the United States are driven by the fear of missing out or failing and they don’t want their kids to miss out or fail. They are hyper-responsible, since they believe whatever life is, it is up to them to get it and live it. Their world is a competition for scarce resources and everyone needs to be their best self to get what they need or want. Siegel has deeper things to say than that, but I think even he would say that is a realistic assessment of what drives people.

Those fears drive Christians too. A hyper-responsible worldview may drive you when you are parenting, even if you don’t admit it. You may want to believe that trusting God is a live option for your child, but, in fact, and in the schedule, life is all about preparing them to succeed in the world as it is, according to the stranglehold the “economy” has on most of us.

Our view of God matters when we parent

To be honest, most Christians have a “helicopter” God who is the main example for their helicopter parenting. For many, God is the hyper-parent who does not see them for who they are, but sees them for who they ought to be (and who they have never been). As a result, Siegel’s book will just add more pressure to “show up” properly. You may already know about this demand to “show up” and have not fulfilled it yet, either, just like all the other things you have not accomplished.

The power to show up will be a result of trusting God the Parent who showed up in Jesus and continues to show up Spirit to spirit. I’m not sure how much Siegel’s reparative idea will help unless parents are Parented by the God revealed in Jesus. We love because God first loved us, not just because we had a good idea and implemented it well.

Our view of God, our Parent: Father/Son/Holy Spirit in a loving family system, Jesus as our pioneering older brother, makes all the difference in the world when it comes to showing up. We show up for our children and have the spiritual and emotional depth they need because we experience God showing up for us in Jesus. If we show up as weak examples of God showing up, we still know that God will, personally, show up — and that is a lot better than whatever I might provide.

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Last week many of my friends were talking about Ron Reagan. The old atheist advertisements from the Freedom from Religion Foundation were rerunning during the Democratic Party debate. He notably signed off in them by saying he is not afraid of burning in hell.

His view of God is faulty. He got the message that God is the ultimate helicopter parent scrutinizing people and weighing how well they have matched up to the ideal set before them – an ideal of which they are well aware yet to which they are still not conforming. The people I talked to knew what he was talking about, since many of them have that God, or know people who do. I think Siegel has a similar “god” when he is giving his good advice.

It is hard to make sure your children feel safe, seen, soothed and secure, as Siegel advises, unless you feel safe, seen, soothed and secure. I, personally, see no hope for myself feeling or offering those vital experiences to anyone unless I have a constant relationship with God who saves me, sees me, soothes me, and makes me feel secure in a world which constantly demands more of me than I have. So that is where I am starting again today, giving over to trusting my trustworthy Savior, rather than mostly trying to get good enough so I can trust myself. Then I can hope to show up.