Category Archives: Reflections

My Football Stadium of Relationships

I was never much into football in my youth. But when I joined a co-ed, intramural flag football team in college, I got totally hooked. All of a sudden, the Saturday collegiate and Sunday professional games made sense. In fact, during the first 25 years of our marriage, my husband and I were glued to the tube on Sundays watching football while eating mass quantities of popcorn. Those were the days!

So, when I started thinking about all of the relationships in my life, it was easy for me to think about them in the context of a football stadium and all the action that takes place on the field.

football field

My “teammates” represent the most important relationships in my life. They’re the folks who’re on the field figuring out how we’ll reach our goals and doing the work to get there. They show up week-after-week, ready-to-go in all kinds of weather. We rejoice together when we make progress toward our goals. We keep one another motivated when we have set-backs. We pick one another up when we fall. And we don’t care how much mud we accumulate in the process.

I cannot do anything meaningful, challenging, risky, or great without “teammates.” And I can’t imagine relishing life as much as I do without them.

The “opposing team” might include challengers or challenges that we intentionally place on the field to stretch ourselves and perfect our skills and strategies. They might include “teammates” who temporarily fill that role to help us become better prepared to address the real thing. And they might include adversaries and adversities that we hadn’t anticipated and for which we need effective responses.

Opposition is not a bad thing. It creates opportunities to expand our horizons while making us smarter, stronger, more experienced, and more vibrantly alive. It also encourages us to deepen connection with our teammates.

My “coaches” are experienced teachers, trainers, observers, and subject matter experts who’ve played the game and know how to succeed. They may excel at strategy, individual training, team building, or all of the above. They are passionately committed to crossing the goal line yet retain the professional detachment to render objective assessments and advice.

Having a coach is not a sign of weakness. It’s an indication that you take the game seriously and want to give yourself the right tools, training, and level-headed counsel to succeed.

In life and on the field, you need to be as adept at playing offense as you do defense. You may wind up having slightly different teammates and coaches to attain mastery in both disciplines. And these “rosters” will likely change many times over the course of lifetime.

Changes in lifestyles, circumstances, goals, shared interests, etc. have a ripple effect on everyone’s lives. If you’re lucky, a precious few will sustain key roles in your life over the years. Yet, you’ll always need to be engaged in community to attract people into your stadium (and be open to entering theirs!)

Everyone else hangs out somewhere in the stands. Some serve as a cheering squad to provide loads of encouragement during the game of life. Some occupy close-in seats so that they can keep a close watch on the action. Some sit farther afield and pay attention from time to time. Others sit in the end zone up in the second tier and spend most of their time talking to their friends while eating and drinking. They may plug in when something noteworthy occurs.

We all make varying investments in the people in our lives. And we all implicitly set expectations for how we expect folks to show up for us. We need to discern accurately where folks “choose their seats” in our stadiums and set our expectations accordingly. As such, we won’t work ourselves into a lather if someone doesn’t notice what’s happening on the field if they’ve opted to sit in the nosebleed seats and drink beer. Just bless them for showing up!

I reserve the right to deny access to my stadium. I’m good to go with constructive opposition that serves a useful purpose for all concerned. But I’ve come to a place in my life where I don’t need relationships that are chronically and incorrigibly negative. That’s my definition of a lose-lose proposition. And why go there?

As you look at your stadium of life, do you have all of the people you’d like to fill the positions you have available? If not, what are you prepared to do about it?

Woman’s Best Friend

Brodie as a puppyHappy birthday, Brodie! Our Scottish terrier turns 7 years old today. Hard to believe that a few short years ago he was an adorable little 8-pound pup. That cuteness still tugs at my heart strings.

My husband and I grew up with dogs as family members, but we didn’t add a furry member to our household until Fall 2011. At the time, my parents had a Scottish terrier named Angus whose care had exceeded their capabilities. So, Angus came to live with us. He was a really mellow dog who enjoyed hanging out with me in my home office and using my husband’s foot as a pillow when we gathered in the den to watch TV. We lost him 6 months later to lymphoma. I was heartbroken and really missed his companionship. We remedied the situation later that year with Brodie.

The Cascade Scottish Terrier Club posted a meme today on Facebook that declares: “All dogs are therapy dogs. The majority of them are just freelancing.” Those statements ring so true for me. We’ve had a difficult few years taking care of my elderly parents – watching their physical and cognitive capacities slip away as they’ve transitioned from independent living to various levels of assisted care. It has been challenging for all concerned. I’ve truly valued having a happy little guy who brings dozens of smiles to my face daily. He also models behaviors that I’d like to incorporate into my life.

He is intensely loyal to his tribe and relishes being with them. He greets us at the door with great enthusiasm whenever we’ve been separated. He wants to be where we are and keeps tabs on us as we move about the house. He loves to sit in my lap or lay down next to the sofa with his head on Spike’s foot. He monitors “intruders” (e.g., squirrels, cats, rodents) and lets us know that they’re on our property.

He’s a low maintenance fella yet knows how to get what he needs. His internal clock senses when it’s meal time; he turns on the charm to make sure that we know it, too! He has a clear and unobtrusive way of letting us know when he wants to respond to the call of nature. And when he needs cuddle time, he gives a look that melts the heart and opens the arms.

He welcomes guests as if they’re family. He LOVES people. Few things get him as excited as a new face at the door. He prances around to get their attention, graciously accepts scratches behind his ears, and runs around the lower level to disperse all that excess energy. He’s not great about detecting when visitors are lukewarm about canine companionship; he assumes that everyone will love him.

BrodieHe loves to play. He stands at the ready to play “chase,” to run around the back yard, or to take on the dreaded “blanket worm” (a.k.a. a moving hand beneath a padded blanket.) He can get so excited that you’d think he’d wag his tail off!

He works for pay. He knows quite a few tricks, but he won’t readily perform them unless treats are involved!

He gets plenty of rest and enjoys “alone time” in his crate. He takes comfort in having the protection of his crate when taking naps or nodding off for the night. He hangs out there when we’re gone unless a comfy spot under the dining room table beckons. He gets a good night’s sleep every night… well, unless there’s thunder or fireworks.

There are times when it’s a hassle having a dog. We’re restricted when going out, being mindful of attending to his basic needs. And we’ve got to arrange caregiving if we leave town for the weekend. But those are minor inconveniences in proportion to the joy he brings to our lives.

Yep. I love my dog.

The Perils of Overfunctioning

My last post brought me back to my experience as a hospital chaplain when I studied family system theory as part of my pastoral care education program. It also got me thinking about an important dynamic that has informed my behavior ever since.

As noted previously, I’m a fan of Dr. Ronald Richardson’s book Family Ties That Bind. A brief section on overfunctioning and underfunctioning hit home for me. He defines these terms as follows:

  • The overfunctioner tends to feel that there is no option but to take on the responsibility and do the work required.
  • The underfunctioner may feel incapable and so allow – or even expect – the other to be responsible, saying: “I can’t” or “You won’t let me.”

In healthy relationships, we take turns being the overfunctioner and underfunctioner… or simply function independently and cohesively without over or under doing it. But in unhealthy relationships, we can get stuck playing one role or the other. We may even allow that way of being to spill over into other relationships.

I’ve spent most of my life being an overfunctioner. I learned this behavior as a small child within the context of my family system. Part of it came from a strong family work ethic. Part of it had to do with gaining approval for achievement, which often entailed doing far more than my share of group efforts to ensure our collective success. Part of it had to do with a sense of responsibility for my mother’s emotional well-being (which she encouraged). Over the years, overfunctioning became a deeply engrained pattern.

too many items on to do listOf course, the world rewards overfunctioners. We’re praised for being strong, hard-working, responsible, get-it-done team players. We get promotions on the job because the higher-ups realize that we’ll make sure that our assignments and those of our subordinates will be completed… even if doing so renders us bone-weary. And we may feel a sense of pride in the skills that we develop and the work that we achieve along the way. But there’s a cost…

When we overfunction chronically, we hold other people small. We’re sending out the implicit signal that we don’t find them capable of doing their work. We’re not giving them the opportunity to step up and grow. And we’re creating a dependency that we may not be able to sustain. They may buy into this bargain and, in fact, enjoy being coddled. But in reality, we’re not doing them any favors long term.

Overfunctioning introduces tension in a relationship. No matter how noble our intentions might be at the onset, we may resent doing all the extra work and get irritable with the folks who we deem underfunctioners. And they may grow resentful of us for creating a dependency… even if they’ve agreed to it implicitly or explicitly. Furthermore, by failing to bring forth the richness of our compatriot’s wisdom and talents, we miss out on a level of greatness that accrues to a genuinely collaborative effort.

Overfunctioners can fall prey to pridefulness. We can feel as though our ways are the only ways. We may see ourselves as indispensable when, in reality, the world will continue to spin on its axis whether we participate in its daily rotations or not. Beyond the arrogance of it all, we can run ourselves into the ground keeping up with a needlessly hectic and overstuffed workload.

I’m hardest hit on my overfunctioning tendencies in volunteer roles. In most not-for-profit organizations, there are a handful of people who do a lion’s share of the work and a whole lot of folks who enjoy a free ride. I usually count myself among the lions, especially when I see the burden that the stalwart volunteers bear. However, I am learning to pace myself and do my share (and then some) and let others choose how much they’re willing to contribute. That may mean letting the organization come to terms with how much work it is willing to take on and how many things it is willing to let go undone.

It’s a life-long challenge for me… but I’m working it every day.

Two Years of Blogging

on-line learning

I launched this website by asking myself the following question: What changes can I make today that will increase the likelihood that I’ll enjoy good health, strong mental acuity, a positive attitude, and warm social relationships as I age? I challenged myself to write a weekly post on that topic for 1 year. On my first anniversary, I re-upped the challenge for another year. And I’ve decided to re-up again.

I’ll confess. I usually grumble and groan when my self-imposed deadline crops up and I’ve got to come up with something about which to write. Most of the time, the task is also accompanied by a call to read a book and make it the focal point of my piece. Yet there have been clear benefits to taking up the mantle.

I’ve learned an awful lot about the human body and how it can be kept in good working order. For me, knowledge is power. Knowing how my body works provides the impetus for adopting healthy behavioral patterns. I’m also a far more effective dialog partner with medical professionals who are charged with my care. I ask better questions and press them (appropriately) for their rationale regarding treatment plans. In today’s environment, I believe wholeheartedly that we must become our own healthcare advocates!

I’ve developed a healthy skepticism for “nutritional experts” given the disparate advice served up by the panoply of published authors. To be sure, some advice finds resonance among them all – e.g., eat whole (not processed) foods, focus on high-quality protein, get plenty of servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, avoid sugar, drink water, etc. But there are some big differences in opinion – e.g., Paleo versus Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet aficionados. My approach: Lean into the evidence-based science, put my money where my mouth is (i.e., free range poultry, grass-fed meat, organic/non-GMO produce), and make my own food so that I’ll know what I’m eating.

I’ve explored the discipline of “change management” by understanding how the brain works, how habits are formed, and what strategies increase our likelihood of instituting healthy behaviors. I’ve realized that no matter how badly I want to get rid of bad habits or practice good ones, I diminish my ability to succeed unless I’m attentive to the ways in which I go on “autopilot” and develop concrete plans to disrupt those cycles.

I’ve read quite a bit about positive psychology along with research on what makes people healthy and happy over the long haul. The findings aren’t so much earth-shattering as helpful “litmus tests” against which to gauge how I’m currently living my life.

I’ve devoted a fair amount of attention to the enneagram, a personality typing system through which I’ve gained insights about myself and greater compassion and understanding for others. It’s a subject matter that I find interesting and useful.

I’ve read lots of books that espouse the benefits of healthy eating, regular exercise, restorative sleep, detoxification, deep relaxation (e.g., yoga, meditation), and de-stressing. Again – not earth-shattering news but well-worth the reinforcement.

I recognize the value of stimulating the intellect, pursuing meaningful work, and surrounding myself with loved ones and a caring community. It’s not just pleasurable; it’s good for the body!

While most blogging pundits serve up loads of strategies for promoting one’s sites and increasing readership, I’ve never once been concerned with pursuing those disciplines. I’ve never checked to see whether or not anyone reads what I write (although I hope they do!) Rather, I consider this practice a kind of “spiritual discipline” through which I pursue self-improvement. Absent the internal deadline of a weekly post, I probably wouldn’t be as proactive in learning new things and applying what I’ve learned.

What subject matter grabs your attention at a level that might spur a weekly blog post?

Empathy in a Fractured World

Effective October 1st, I stopped reading the morning paper and scanning news stories on the Internet. It has been a substantive break in my habitual patterns, but one I deemed necessary for my well-being. I’m still a dedicated citizen and plan to vote in the upcoming election. I will research the candidates and issues thoroughly before casting my votes. Thereafter, I’ll turn a deaf ear to the commentary… at least for the foreseeable future.

It’s not that I don’t care. I do… perhaps, too deeply. With every acrimonious comment from either side of the political divide, I ache. I cringe at the loss of civility. I long for a resurgence of our better angels.

The political upheaval has caused me to reflect on my time at the Duke Divinity School. Religion, like politics, has always been subject matter with the potential to engender conflict. As I set foot into those hallowed halls 15 years ago, I wondered how the institution would forge community out of a collective characterized by disparate ages, ethnic backgrounds, and religious upbringing. How would we find common ground on which to build a productive and life-affirming learning environment?

understanding

Dr. Warren Smith provided the answer in his introductory lecture on church history. The course was designed to explore the historical framework underpinning the development of Christian theology and doctrine. To that end, we’d revel in his expertly crafted lectures while reading original texts by the great theologians of the early church. The latter demanded a “close reading” of each classic text. As he explained:

“In your Bible courses, this ‘close reading’ is called exegesis. The basic aim of exegesis is to uncover what the text itself means, rather than reading into the text our own ideas and beliefs. Exegesis tries to prevent the all too common impulse in the Church, making the Bible say what we want it to say.

“As students of Christian theology, we have the same goal when we are reading Athanasuis and Augustine, Bonaventure and Aquinas, Luther and Barth. This ‘close reading’ I often call sympathetic reading. By ‘sympathetic,’ I do not mean that you accept as true the presuppositions and conclusions of the thinker. Rather I mean that you try to understand his argument within his own framework. In the end, you may not be persuaded by his arguments, but you will be able to level your objections more effectively if you have given a detailed and accurate description of his view.”

Were we to institute this practice in today’s political climate, there’d be far greater emphasis on listening instead of casting aspersions and assigning blame. It would call upon us to learn about our erstwhile opponent’s formative years, family relationships, professional development, interests, concerns, and world view so that we might ably walk in his or her shoes. We’d then sit quietly and attentively while absorbing the main arguments and taking note of the supporting details to sustain them.

Of course, we’d probably need to spend time together to develop the kind of trust that this level of communication demands. It would help to share stories and laughter over sumptuous meals or warm fires while getting to know one another and our families. On the surface, that time might seem “unproductive.” But it would enable us to see one another as thinking, breathing, caring, passionate human beings worthy of respect. And it might encourage us to have patience while we cover the same ground over and over and over again until a level of understanding and compassion can break through our differences.

Of course, modern day campaigning doesn’t lend itself to that depth of conversation. It ties up candidates with the demands of campaign financing and encourages them to go for the jugular.

I’d love to relieve our elected officials of the burden of fundraising. I’d like to see the country adopt provisions that limit campaigning to a relatively short interval before Election Day. And I’d love to see all this recaptured time devoted to extending hands across the aisle toward mutual understanding and a commitment to finding common ground.