ta-dah!

When my girls were little, I quickly noticed that they based a large percentage of their feelings and reactions on mine.  This was most evident when they were learning to walk.  Anytime they wobbled, tripped, fell down, or even just startled themselves, they immediately looked to my face for a response.

https://i0.wp.com/www.drgreene.com/wp-content/uploads/Big-Heads-and-Baby-Falls.jpg

If I heeded my natural impulse to rush in and begin fussing over them, looking for injuries and cooing, “Oh, poor baby, are you okay?  Are you hurt?” they would take that as a cue that something was wrong – or should be.  Immediate result: terrified wailing, screaming, and gnashing of what few teeth they had.

It didn’t take me long to see that a better way was needed.  Instead of projecting worry, I trained myself to treat every fall like the world’s greatest magic trick.  Whenever they took a tumble, I would hold my breath, throw my hands in the air, and exclaim, “Ta-dah!”

To everyone’s great relief, it worked.  The girls were distracted, I was at peace, and we were all able to move forward with whatever business had been at hand.

Fast forward to today and the great thorn in my fourteen-year-old’s side: Algebra.  Well, it’s not really Algebra that’s the problem; it’s the teacher’s method.  He’s a super nice guy and his students love him, but he only teaches to one learning style.  He lectures and gives quizzes and tests, and that’s it.

My girl is a visual and kinesthetic learner.  She needs graphics and models and most of all, lots of tactile practice.  In the absence of those tools, she struggled mightily through the first semester of that class, barely passing by the skin of her teeth.  Even though she scored no grades lower than a 98 in every other class, she takes each mistake and under-performance in this one as a personal condemnation.  She must just be “bad” at math.

This week, I had the idea to talk to her about this class in terms of a new strategy.  Among some other tools that we sought out, I dusted off the old, “Ta-dah!” approach and challenged her to use it herself every time she makes a mistake on a problem in this class.

As always, my words to my daughter immediately took on an unexpected resonance for myself.  I get enveloped in self-defeating cycles in my work and aspirations every day.  Each time I miss a task, break my diet, or even just oversleep, I face the choice of whether to pick up and and move on, or take it as a “sign” of futility and an excuse not to try again.

I read just this week in the Harvard Business Review that cultivating a positive attitude toward failure is a great contributor to ultimate success.  “In fact, evidence suggests venture capitalists often see failure as an asset—not a liability—in an entrepreneur’s record. Why? Because failure suggests a tolerance for risk, a perseverance to succeed and, most important, a passion to push the envelope.”

What works for babies and pioneers can surely work for me too, right?

Forgot to put an important date on the calendar?  Ta-dah!
Procrastinated through two-thirds of my writing time this morning?  Ta-dah!
Snapped at my mom, put my socks on backwards, and dropped everything I touched today?  Ta-freaking-dah!  (Also maybe some chamomile tea at that point.  Or a cocktail.)

And now, for my next trick…

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it. -Maya Angelou

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
-Maya Angelou

the big reveal

Halloween costumes have been the subject of much colorful discussion this year in my circles.

First there was this cartoon, which I saw posted on several Facebook pages but most notably on A Mighty Girl:

costume dilemma

Somewhat related, several of my coworkers have loudly bemoaned their difficulties in finding the perfect work-appropriate costume that is fun while remaining firmly within our safety and HR-friendly standards.

And scary clown costumes are making headlines, thanks to some disturbing experimentalists in California and Europe, as well as our freaky friends at American Horror Story.

All this talk of dressing up and what to wear and whom to be and how to be it has me thinking.  I don’t believe we actually cover ourselves up in this tradition of donning the perfect disguise / gag / alter ego for the night.  Rather, our choices reveal much more about us than we intend.

halloween 13For example, two years ago, my oldest daughter, in the midst of a tumultuous inner bout with teenage emotional upheaval, chose that Halloween to become Storm, the X-Men team member with control over any type of weather.

My beloved cousin, who moved away this year to law school, is being the Mad Hatter for Halloween: a kinetic, poetic creature driven mad by his craft, but coping through the whimsical interpretation of a comforting domestic ritual: afternoon tea.  (He also happened to escape an unjust conviction and sentence through manipulation of the “law” and an appeal to the Queen of Hearts, who had condemned him.)

Celebrities often dress up in surprisingly tame choices – surprising until you remember that they are already larger than life.  In that case, a simple cat or garden gnome costume is comforting in the other direction: a reflection of things that are ordinary, simple, and safe.

When you consider that the original purpose of wearing a disguise on Halloween had to do with warding off unwelcome spirits and/or attacks against the soul, the expressiveness of our costumes becomes all the more poignant.

I myself am not dressing up for Halloween, and haven’t done so for years.  Whether it’s due to an excess of honesty (I am who I am and I like who I am), crippling indecision, or mere self-deprecation (I don’t feel qualified to wear the one I really want to be), I will leave to your imagination.

Then again, that might tell you everything you need to know.

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person.  Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.  -Oscar Wilde

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth. -Oscar Wilde

 

pica

Last week, I got a name for a behavior that has long afflicted my youngest daughter.  The behavior is craving and /or consuming substances which are not food – recently it has been crayons and pencil erasers – and the name is pica.

Lots of people manifest it, but no one knows exactly what causes pica.  Some theorize that it is a symptom of nutritional deficiency, others that it stems from a low level poisoning such as of lead.  Many people who are diagnosed on the Autism spectrum experience it (though of course, there are some who believe Autism itself results from mineral poisoning, so that may be redundant).

Whatever the cause, the universal consensus is it’s not good for you.

My daughter is diagnosed with PDD-NOS and has eaten non-food substances off and on nearly all her life.  When she was a toddler, it was dirt and sand.  By preschool she favored play-doh and plastic toys.  Now that she is eight, apparently she has graduated to school supplies.  Until now, we as a family have tended to shake our heads at her cuteness and shrug it off.  We know it’s unhealthy, and we certainly discourage it, but every time she successfully phases out the behavior, then later it becomes something to joke about.

The thing is, she knows it’s not good for her.  Her mind responds well to rules, and she has memorized the reasons for not doing it, can quote them for you endlessly.  She even has put to memory some alternate choices to help her not do it, such as twiddling her thumbs or eating a cracker.  Yet the minute her brain turns elsewhere – for perfectly good reasons such as doing school work or playing pretend – back in the mouth goes the pencil.  Knowledge is not enough.

In my ideal world, I will sniff around and research and think through it enough to discover the root cause.  Then I will fix it, and she will have conquered the problem forever and can move on to grander pursuits that are not socially awkward, such as becoming an astronaut or saving all of the lost kittens.  My ideal world eludes me every day, unfortunately.  In the meantime, I am working on creative solutions involving things that are okay to put in her mouth (dental hygiene tools, perhaps?) and praying for guidance so that we can truly beat this thing for good.

Pica is a very visible faulty behavior.  It’s easy to look at the kid shoveling sand in her mouth and think her either silly or defective for doing it.  Yet in this case, once again, the little children lead me and I have to ask: Am I so very much more evolved myself?

I consume things that are not food all the time.  Facsimiles for reality have more of a place in my daily routine than truth.  A burger with fries is not a meal (depending on where they came from, it might not even be actual food!), and a full belly is not satisfaction.  Showing up for work is not doing a good job.  Waving to my neighbor is not being a neighbor.  Facebook is not friendship.  Attending a weekly church service is not righteousness.   Quoting scripture is not speaking for God.

I am rather convicted by this picture of filling up on falsehood and potentially hurting myself in the process – all in the name of relieving a damage that I can’t quite even define. 

My Sunday School class yesterday discussed a similar topic while studying the book of Micah.  In the final chapters, the prophet chastises the people for practicing ritual without heart and lists among the consequences always eating, yet never being filled.  That’s spiritual pica right there, and I totally have it.

There’s more to my life and call than this.  I know there is.  Today I am praying to move beyond knowledge and into active pursuit of real life.  I would rather suffer now for what will feel better later than forge relief now with what will hurt me later.

Plus, I’m tired of wiping this dirt off my mouth all the time.

 

feedback

I had a classic parenting moment this weekend.  My ten-year-old came to me with a problem – mean girls – and I spent about half an hour with her explaining the phenomenonWe covered everything from the art of recognizing knuckleheads in the wild to rooting herself in the knowledge of how God sees her.  I was firm, I was eloquent; we ended the session laughing and I was excited for the new strength I was sure she would carry with her for the rest of her life.  Problem solved.

Later, I set myself up for a writing session…and I completely froze.  The reason: a bad opinion some one had expressed about me a couple of days earlier.  I became fixated on the insult and utterly failed to produce so much as a single sentence, all because I knew that somewhere out there, at least one person would call B.S. on anything I had to say.  Defeated, I found some other diversions to pass my time staring at the screen, then closed down for the night.  Negativity wins.

It is disappointingly easier for me to talk than to walk.  Convicted on this point, I decided to cope in my typically nerdy fashion: research!  Here’s what I learned about negative feedback, and how I am planning to beat it next time.

1.  The most common image I associate with the word feedback is the horrible, spine-decalcifying squeal that sound systems emit by accident in a concert or speech setting.  This type of feedback occurs when sound waves from speakers pass into a microphone and are re-amplified and cycled through the speakers again.  I’m not sure that this is a perfectly technical application, but to me, it is a reminder that allowing my thoughts to loop and process around the opinions and words of others only creates increasing dissonance.

The solution is so simple: Move away from the source!  Put some distance and intelligent boundaries between myself and destructive voices around me.  Of course, simple is not the same as easy, and it takes practice.  Until I get good at it, I can always try the time-honored tradition modeled for me by the girls of Friends: get the words out of my head and onto paper…and then burn them.

2. In medical terms, negative feedback is one of the control systems used by an organism to regulate internal functions regardless of external conditions or circumstances.  In this system, the organism will automatically make changes in  order to reduce something it is producing.  For example, if my body is producing too much heat, it knows to excrete sweat to try and reduce the temperature.

Similarly, I can develop a set of pre-determined responses to negativity.  Good examples include reading the Bible, calling a friend, creating a music playlist around the theme (not to include only revenge-based hits like “You Oughta’ Know” or almost anything by Linkin Park), etc.  If I am prepared ahead of time, I’m less likely to lapse into bad habits or succumb to paralysis – no matter what is going on around me.

3.  Feedback has become a popular concept in the workplace, indicating a form of ongoing training that helps employees learn what to do and how.  Positive feedback involves praising the person for her strengths; negative feedback focuses on what the person is doing wrong, and then creating a strategy for how to change it.

This reminds me of a former pastor of mine, Rev. Tracy Saletta, who taught me to view difficult people as “life coaches.”  By their very existence, antagonists create boot camp-level real-world experience in practicing the example of Jesus.  Loathe as I am to give any credit to them, I know that there is value in this training, for character development if nothing else.  I do not, of course, mean to indicate in any way that the life of a believer is best served as a doormat, because that’s not the model Jesus laid out at all.  But can I pray for the ones who hurt me even as they are jeering and beating me up?

Or rather, will I?

fallow ground is HARD

Hosea 10:12

It’s the first Monday of the New Year – how are those resolutions coming? 

When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, the people I know tend to fall into one of three categories:
1. The super-disciplined, who can and do make self-improvements on a regular basis regardless of the season.  These guys see goals as personal challenges, and weakness as a nemesis to vaporize.

2.  The adamantly content, who spend the first week of every new year actively and loudly eschewing resolutions.  They know that they’re not going to change, so they’ve decided not to want to – and they really want you to be free as well.

3.  The earnest but struggling, who go through a self-imposed cycle of shame every year.  I tend to be among them.  December 31st, for me, is a day of hard assessment.  January 1st brings elated motivation and an illogical sense of optimism.  Then somewhere around January 15th, when all of my efforts have come to few if any visible results, I begin to slip.  By February, I am publicly mocking myself so that everyone knows I failed again – but I’m really okay with it!

That’s because breaking up my fallow ground, as the Bible puts it, is hard work.  In fact, gardening is the perfect metaphor for my efforts, because it is equally deceptive.

Gardening magazines and books all feature lovely, idyllic photos as their centerpieces, don’t they?  Most display peaceful images of cultivated yards complete with bright, healthy blooms and lush greenery, outdoor furniture staged in relaxed positions, and perhaps even a bonus water source or bird house.  Catalogs of gardening tools show us smiling ladies patting the dirt with grace and surrounded by shiny, clean instruments – all artfully arranged to demonstrate how simple and rewarding the task is.

Lies.

I’ve seen farmers and gardeners at work, even helped a family member or two with their horticultural endeavors, and it is not pretty.  The picture we should see, if some one truly wanted to prepare us, would be of a profusely sweating gardener, gritting her teeth, armed head to toe with heavy duty garments and implements.  Her skin would be sunburned and spotted with calamine lotion, her hair a tousled mess under her protective headgear of choice.  She would look more like a soldier heading into battle than a relaxed grandmother.

We rarely see pictures of the work, only of the results.  Therefore, our expectations are skewed and when we don’t see those results right away, we believe it’s a personal failing.

There is good news for us, and bad news, and they are both the same: It’s supposed to be hard.  People, like plants, don’t grow overnight, and we need a lot of help and cultivating to come out right.  We will do well to stop comparing ourselves to the rest of the world’s yards and instead dig in where we are.

To that end, here are three resources I am using to stay motivated in the battle.  I pass them on, hoping you will find encouragement, too.

1.  Almost anything that Steven Pressfield has to say, but especially his book called The War of Art.  Best quote:  “The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.  Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance. Therefore the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.”

2.  I am reading the Bible all the way through for the first time in about 15 years.  My aunt gave me a wonderful schedule for doing this, available by subscription through Samaritan’s Purse.  Instead of slogging through chapter by chapter in order, it breaks it down into different sections daily (Tuesdays are history, Thursdays are poetry, etc.) – so much more conducive to success.  You can find a similar breakdown here.

3.  Tim Ferriss is my go-to guy for goals involving radical life changes / pursuits.  He’s a maniac for health, and his approach is not for the faint of heart – but if you can stick with it, it will get you where you want to go fast.

Here’s to a productive 2013 for us all.  May we yield at least a few blooms or fruits for ourselves and our loved ones by the end.  If so, all that sweat and grime will be totally worth it.