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Archive for August, 2007

This is my comfort in my trouble,
     that your promise gives me life…
It is good for me that I have been afflicted,
     that I might learn your statutes.
                          Psalm 119:50, 71

Today was a very heavy day for me, following several, consecutive, emotionally difficult days.

While waiting in line to pick up my son and daughter from school (yes, I know reading in the pick-up line at school is not the safest thing, but I do wait until I’ve come to a complete stop again before looking back down at my book. And I’ve not had as much time as I usually like to sit down and read for longer periods of time. So, I try to grab every moment I can.), I came across the above verses in Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, by Kathryn Greene-McCreight. The author is writing in the context of her own struggle with mental illness.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the relevance of the gospel to every person in every circumstance. I am a worst-case-scenario type of person, and I do not say that in a negative way. It is just that if I’m going to believe something about God to be inherently true, it cannot just be true in the cozy comforts of America. It must be true for people who are starving in Asia, for those who are being persecuted, for those suffering the ravages of horrific wars (as if there is any other type), for those who battle with mental illnesses.

Whatever extreme situation I can imagine, I want to grapple with what the grace, mercy, provision and sufficiency of God looks like there, in that place. I also want to think about what it means to be the body of Christ in a world where everything, including our best relief efforts, are affected by the Fall. And yet, where, as believers, we have the opportunity to allow God’s grace to touch and impact people in those same complicated situations. I keep asking myself, “What does that look like?” because I have found that it never looks as simple or obvious or idealistic as I would like to think.

In that context, I am currently reading several books that look at different types of suffering. Some, like the one mentioned here and The Gift of Pain by Dr. Paul Brand, are written from a Christian perspective. Others, like Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and a long way gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah are not.

Since my car reading is quick and sporadic and I am reading Darkness Is My Only Companion in such little bursts, I tend to open it randomly and read a paragraph here and another there. Following the verses above, is this quote from the book’s conclusion:

It is good for me that I have been afflicted? Isn’t there an easier way to learn God’s statutes? How can I agree with the psalmist here? In the midst of all my ills, there have been indeed several concrete things that I can say that I learned, that God has taught me in his mercy and despite my misery.

Tonight, I find myself experiencing gratitude for what I am learning from the author’s deep and very prolonged struggles. Although my situation is different from hers, the lessons she shares are relevant to me. As I read her matter-of-fact observations and advice, which isn’t always directly relevant to my life, I was encouraged. That sounds trite, but let me tell you, in the middle of perpetual exhaustion from burnout, in the context of awful uncertainty about my housing situation, in being so overwhelmed by life and work as a single mom, being truly “encouraged” is very significant. Receiving courage to face the next moment when I’m not sure if or how I’ll survive the whole day–that’s  an amazing gift.

I don’t always know how or why I arrive at the end of some days almost hyperventilating from pushing myself to keep going against all odds and other days, like today, surprisingly, I have a lightness in my spirit in spite of waves of exhaustion and overwhelming feelings that kept hitting me throughout the day. But, is it possible, that in both scenarios–ending the day completely unsure how I’ll make it another day or ending the day confident that just as God has carried me so far, so I can trust Him to continue to help me make it–God’s grace is there? 

What does God’s grace look like when I awaken, literally crying out for help, just to face the day. What does His grace look like when I don’t see or directly feel His help? Reading these stories of survival against all odds, I see His grace, even when it is not acknowledged. And I thankful for how seeing that in the suffering of others has brought me back, again, to a place of worship and joy.

I’m not trying to sound super spiritual here. I do not experience this as a magical formula of “praise God and my troubles disappear.” Despair hits me in waves. There are many days where I am clinging to Him, not because I see His deliverance, but because I do not see any other option of how to get through. This week I have asked God many hard questions, and I do not think He has answered a single one.

Tonight, encouraged in an odd way by the stories I have been reading, I have joy and peace and I am grateful for the respite from battling to keep my head above water that comes with that. And so, in this moment, when it is easier to say, I want to affirm that God’s grace has been with me and active even in my pain, when I haven’t seen it. And I choose to continue to trust His faithfulness although longterm relief does not seem to be anywhere in sight.

Tomorrow, as I was yesterday, I may be back in a place of lament, a place where my heart is too heavy and I am too exhausted to recount the faithfulness of God. I am trusting, again, that His faithfulness and grace will still be there, in ways I do not understand and that do not fit my expectations for how I think God should be at work.

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This week’s prayer focus is up at Kouya Chronicle. The focus is French-speaking Africa.

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More Energy

I’m always looking for ways to address burnout and increase my energy. A lot of the advice I read doesn’t seem to be very efficacious.  This site, however, was different. Way more honest–the author is definitively saying something that DOESN’T work: Pokemon cards.

She knows. Her kids sneaked a set of banned cards into the house and she immediately confiscated them. Before putting them up for sale on eBay, she tried carrying around the Energy cards in the pack. Nada. No more energy.

Vicariously, however, the laugh I got out of reading this story (including the amount of money the Mom got from selling her kids’ cards), gave ME enough energy to go exercise. So, ciao. I’m taking the energy I got and hoping to use it to generate some more at the gym.

Go to the original article. It’s way funnier than any synopsis I could give of it.

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I should have called this post, “Frog and Toad, Improved and Wherever Else That Train of Thought Leads Me”. Because, I’ll warn you ahead of time, I do some stream of consciousness rambling as one topic leads to another:

I didn’t think Frog and Toad could get any better. When I read those books, there is some serious code switching going on! They have the coolest friendship, and when I read about it, I always feel grateful because I have known (and still do) what it is to have friendships like theirs. However, even though I wouldn’t have thought you could make Frog and Toad even more likeable to me, I must admit that there is something very appealing about   Sapo y Sepo Inseparables. It makes me want to buy the Spanish version, even though I speak Portuguese, not Spanish.

Speaking of which, The Cat in the Hat in Latin makes me wish I spoke Latin! Here’s a fun review of the Latin version (you have to scroll down the page as the first half of the review is about the movie.)

It almost makes me want to teach my kids Latin. But, I guess that is one of the ideas I’ll not get around to, as I actually have Hey Andrew, Teach Me Some Greek book 3 that I picked up from a used curriculum sale, and I’m more confident teaching my kids something I sort of know than something I don’t know at all (I know there’s always the philosophy of “learn it together”. However, when I know NOTHING of the subject at hand, I feel like it’s the blind leading the blind).

As for Andrew, well, he’s four years old, so, from what I gather, books one and two are really, really basic and repetitive–mainly focusing on the alphabet. And then the alphabet again. I think Andrew sings a Greek alphabet song on an accompanying CD with book 1.  If anyone is actually interested in using this series with older children, there is a review of the alphabet at the beginning of Book 3, so even if you don’t know any Greek, I think you could start at that level without a problem.  In any case, the workbook I have  looks fun (I like workbooks anyway, although I realize there are people who believe that workbook and fun have to be opposites) and I’m looking forward to trying it out with one or more of my kids.

Another thing tipping the scales in favor of teaching my kids Greek is that I want them to be able to sing with understanding  Lingamish’s Greek Song, “Axios”.  Maybe since Lingamish is all about making Greek learning fun, he’ll be the one to translate Frog and Toad or The Cat in the Hat into Greek. With Suzanne’s editing and proofing help, I think those would be some great additions to the LLIFE (Language Learning is Fun-damental & Easy) approach to 2nd language acquisition!

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"Code Switching"

Certain words and phrases fascinate me and send me off on a thinking trip that lasts all day long. The above phrase did it for me today. This phrase was waiting for me in my Feedblitz email update with a post from Think Christian.

I linked over to the original post being referred to and enjoyed reading Toddled Dredge’s take on When a Woman Reads Pilgrim’s Progress.  There were a lot of thought provoking things in the post that my mind could have tripped out on. But the trail I went down was that of “code switching.”

Women have always managed a kind of code-switching with literature. Women seem better able to see themselves in male characters than men can see themselves in female characters. It is probably the inevitable result of literary history. More writers were men, writing male characters, and if women were going to read, they had to be able to identify with a male character. Men have had less practice at this, simply because circumstances have not required it.

I understand the concept, but I don’t know if I agree that one gender is better at it than the other (the author of the original post suggests that women may be becoming less adept at code switching these days, leveling the gender playing field of code switching.) I just know that, for whatever reason, code switching is something I do. And not just in stories about men. I identify with Frog in Frog and Toad. Owl of Owl at Home is so much like me (or I like him) that I asked me counselor to read the book just to understand me better. I laugh at rabbit in The Cow Buzzed (one of my absolute favorite children’s books–if you ever find a cheap used copy for sale, PLEASE let me know!) because he is so much like me. I identify with Sloth’s delayed and wordy response to all the creatures who have been misunderstanding him in Slowly, Slowly, Slowly, said the Sloth. 

Whatever I read, I connect to the characters. I not only learn from them–I see the connections with my own life and applications to my own life. I love it that I can end a book feeling like (1) I’ve been understood (even the author will never meet me, to have someone create a story with such insight into aspects of my life that are hard to put into words makes me feel understood), and (2) I understand people who are different from me a bit better.

It has become a bit of a joke among my friends how eclectically I read. And even more of a joke how, no matter what I read, I find something in the story that connects to my own life. It might look self-centered, like everything revolves around and connects back to me. But how I experience it is that every connection I make with someone or some group that I would have thought of as different, makes me LESS wrapped up in myself and more celebratory of connecting to and understanding others.

I read a book by a surgeon (better, by Atul Gawande, M.D.) and am delighted to see connections with my life and things I think about. It makes me appreciate doctors and how they operate (oops, not the literal “operate”; the “function” kind!)

I read The Gift of Pain, by Dr. Paul Brand, and connect to the struggles that people with leprosy face. Not only am I moved to compassion, but I love learning from them–seeing connections to my own life, which help me understand their situation, but also think about my situation in different ways. I appreciate hearing the stories through the eyes of a doctor and being able to connect to his challenges and the ways he overcame them. Some things I read and think, “I could never do or be like that, but I love understanding how he did that and celebrating that he could and did accomplish such and such.” Other things I read and think, “Wow, I can see how that connects to my life and that gives me an idea I could try in a different situation.” Or, by connecting to real people through his stories, I’m challenged to consider how I dehumanize and look down on certain people who are “different”, so I can begin to make changes in how I talk or act.

I read Women of the Silk, by Gail Tsukiyama, and as I connect with the various characters, I feel their pain deeply in a way that helps me forget about my own for a moment and brings perspective to my suffering for even longer than a moment. I don’t own the corner on suffering and I remember that as I enter into another person’s pain by the means of “code switching”. (Am I using this phrase correctly? Well, if not, I am still glad for this line of thinking prompted by the phrase!) In Women of the Silk, I am drawn towards understanding (that I don’t want) for the father, who I just want to despise. That understanding doesn’t change how wrong I think what he did is, but it does make me pull back a step and see connections between him and me. I can’t help but feel his pain and understand it. It doesn’t matter that he’s a man. It doesn’t matter that he’s Chinese. The author, in my opinion, is  good at helping me see and feel each character and look at things from that person’s perspective, even though their lives are outwardly so totally different from mine. (Her book The Samurai’s Garden impacted me the same way.)

When I read Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet, I’m thrilled to understand autism a bit better because of connections I see to my own life. I’m neither autistic nor a genius, but by reading a book by someone who lives in the context of those realities,  I can no longer easy categorize people with autism  as totally different from me, in a category of “them” (meaning “us” vs. “them”, where “them” is a category of people I can talk about patronizingly and feel better about myself because I’m not like “them”……)

I once read an article written by a therapist who had battled Disassociative Identity Disorder. Entering into her world, I couldn’t put myself on one side of a line of emotional health and me “safely” on the other. Instead, by reading about things from her perspective, I gained insight into a struggle in my own life. Outwardly the struggle might have seemed totally different, but, inwardly as I identified with her, I not only felt a connection, but out of that connection came application to my own life.  

Do I identify with almost every person (and animal) I read about, because I’m a woman, or  is it because “empathy” is one of my strengths (and incidentally, also a weakness that sometimes feels like it borders on a curse)? Is the ability to code switch a personality trait? Something my Mom nurtured in me? A gender thing? Or some neurotic, hyper-identification “sickness” in me? (Ha! I had to add that, because I find that sometimes the things I like most about myself are the things that other people think are my biggest “problems” It’s fun sometimes to by intentional about that and come up with a “neurosis” explanation for things I do before it’s given to me as a label!)  

For me, if I’m going to read, I have to be able to identify with a person from another culture or a person with a disease or a person in a different profession from mine or a person with mental illness or a person with a handicap or a person of a different socioeconomic class or a person from a different religion or a person of a different gender than mine or even with an animal (real or pretend 🙂 )…

Seldom do I read a book where some serious code switching is not necessary (assuming I’m understanding and using the phrase “code switching” correctly.) And that is part of why I love reading: Being able to see and understand people from perspectives I never would have conjured up on my own. Being able to identify with people who seem so different from me.  I can’t tell you how many times something I’ve read has stretched my brain and added new cognitive domains so that, at some later point, I’ve ended up being able to understand a “real” person better and connect to them in lovely ways because of something I read and identified with.

Because I have been forced to think about a different perspective ahead of time without all the social pressures that stress out my introverted self, I can more easily connect to and interact with people who, previously, I might have written off as impossibly different. I’m not saying I do this perfectly or consistently, but being able to identify with authors and characters in books helps a lot.  

Am I wandering in circles with this post? Here at the end of my wordy mental rambling, I’m wondering which comes first: the ability to code switch, which helps me read and enjoy a variety of books? Or reading and enjoying a wide variety of books, which makes it easier to code switch?

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From The Gift of Pain, by Paul Brand, M.D.:

[P]ain is not the enemy, but the loyal scout announcing the enemy. And yet–here is the central paradox of my life–after spending a lifetime among people who destroy themselves for lack of pain, I still find it difficult to communicate an appreciation for pain to people who have no such defect. Pain truly is the gift nobody wants.

My esteem for pain runs so counter to the common attitude that I sometimes feel like a subversive, especially in modern Western countries. On my travels I have observed an ironic law of reversal at work: as a society gains the ability to limit suffering, it loses the ability to cope with what suffering remains.

The average Indian villager knows suffering well, expects it, and accepts it as an unavoidable challenge of life. In a remarkable way the people of India have learned to control pain at the level of the mind and spirit, and have developed endurance that we in the West find hard to understand. Westerners, in contrast, tend to view suffering as an injustice or failure, an infringement on their guaranteed right to happiness.

Two thoughts:

1. This is an example of where I’m not sure that “better” is unconditionally better. There is a price/consequence/fallout to relief of pain, which is not exclusively positive in a world that will always be tainted by sin. In saying that, I do not mean that we should not continue to do our part to make things better or fight for relief of suffering. I do think, though that we might deceive ourselves by thinking that we can “solve” the problems of pain or suffering if we try hard enough. We work hard, we fight the effects of the fall, but even our best solutions will still be tainted by the effects of the fall.

2. There are profound implications, if Dr. Brand is right, to our viewing suffering as:
injustice
failure
an infringement of my guaranteed right to happiness.

When suffering becomes the ultimate enemy and relieving suffering the ultimate goal, relief can become a god and an obsession. If that is all that drives us in our fight against suffering, when we fail to relieve suffering, we have failed. Also, I think if we fight suffering as the ultimate evil, we will take or demand relief regardless of the price that comes with it.

Is it possible to accept and embrace pain and suffering, while simultaneously fighting valiantly to relieve it? Mother Teresa comes to mind.  Jesus, too. He did make a tangible, physical difference against suffering. For many people. But many more people, it seems, were frustrated, disappointed and disillusioned because he didn’t do all he could have done (or they thought he should have done) to overcome injustice and suffering under an unjust government.

I apologize that my thoughts are garbled on this. I admit that I am randomly flopping around to other types of pain, suffering, injustice, when Dr. Brand is talking primarily about the gift of physical pain. I don’t know if I’m even making sense, but it is good for me to try to sort my thoughts out into words. All of this is my attempt to sort through and try to make sense of what I see and experience. Any input is appreciated.

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Ever since reading the book better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande, M.D., I have been asking myself the question expressed in the title of this post.

On the one hand, I am deeply  moved by the stories in the book where people (mainly in the medical field) refused to settle for the status quo and kept pushing themselves and those around them to do and be better.

On the other hand, I have seen people do harm to themselves and others because they are so driven to betterment–always striving, never satisfied.

Depending on which way you look at it “Always striving, never satisfied” can be a compliment or  a criticism.

Is there a place for both approaches to life? Are we wired differently? Some of us who can’t help but strive, while others seem gifted in settling into the space and context where they are, content in embracing their own realities, including limitations, without any urge to “rise above”?

I think about this, because as I mentioned in another post where I quoted extensively from this book, I saw many parallels with the author’s philosophy and how I often approach my vocation as a parent. As a parent, I feel the weight of how I parent. I feel the consequences of my parenting mistakes and also experience an earnest desire to do better. Yet, somewhere along the way, I have come up against a weariness in  trying to better my parenting skills. I read a lot, I talk to a lot of people, I take in what I observe other people doing. The list of ways I could improve and do “better” is endless. But, so it seems, are my limitations.

What I have to offer to my children is me–as is, strengths, weaknesses, weakness. I do want to become better as a parent, but I think my fingers have been loosening their grip on “better” as a goal. For me, when “better” is the goal, I seem to miss too many opportunities to be “okay” or “good enough”. 

At the same time, while I’m learning to settle for okay and good enough, I can’t seem to justify a solid, one-size-fits-all philosophy of “good enough”. There’s a place for it. But there’s also a place for better. Even for perpetual striving for better. I think where I’m at is being able to embrace my “good enough” tendencies without having to feel so pressured or less than when I’m surrounded by people who are “strivers for better”. 

I’ve seen (and read biographies of) people who have sacrificed everything–money, reputation, health–to do and be better. And I have incredible admiration and often personal gratitude for them (as their sacrifices have often made my life and life in general on planet earth better). I couldn’t be or do that, I don’t think. But neither can I condemn them in a blanket way, because I see the value and the gift and the large scale contributions they have made. Is it worth it? I guess one can never answer that question for another person.

Another question would be, “Is it worth it to NOT strive to be or do better?” As an American, it almost sounds blasphemous to answer that in the affirmative. But I want to say that sometimes I think it IS worth it.

I suppose it sounds waffly and very postmodern to say both perspectives are equally valuable and have their place. Both perspectives are good. Can they both be right?

Answering that with a “yes” makes me feel (yet again) the cognitive dissonance that is a regular companion of mine these days.

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