Flexibility

Two trees stood together in a deep valley. A breeze rustled their leaves.

“I can tell that a storm is coming, the biggest and fiercest I have ever seen,” said the first tree.

“Yes, you are correct. In my many years, I have never heard the wind speak of a tempest like this,” said the second tree.

It did not take long for the ferocious storm to overtake them.

“We must stand tall and fight the wind! Let us be as strong and as unyielding as the storm!” cried the first tree.

“No! Let your branches flail and your trunk bend in the howling gusts. We only need our roots to hold firm,” bellowed the second tree.

The gale raged.

The unbending tree succumbed to the storm, its rigid trunk and branches snapping against the force of the wind.

The flexible tree survived, its trunk and branches made stronger by their ability to move with the storm’s onslaught. 

Strength and Wisdom

Those who exercise know that strength is enhance by flexibility. If people don’t stretch, they will not run as fast, jump as high, throw as far, or lift as much as they otherwise could. When muscles are not stretched and made flexible, they are more likely to pull, tear, and breakdown when under the stress of a workout.

To grow in wisdom and maximize our potential, we need to know how to stretch ourselves mentally and where to be flexible in our routines. The mind gets sharper when it is forced to consider new concepts and come up with fresh ideas. If we get stuck watching the same shows, reading the same material, and doing the same things, our minds won’t have the opportunity to grow.

Flex in Conflict

One process that escalates conflict occurs when people are so fixed in their perspectives and opinions that they find it impossible to understand or empathize with another. These types of fights often include name-calling. With a stubborn and rigid perspective, anybody who isn’t you is just one contrary opinion away from looking like an idiot, bigot, or dumbass. All of us have fallen into this trap at some point and it is a signal that we have become inflexible and self-centered.

Even if we don’t end up changing our opinion during conflict, we need to be flexible with our perspective in order for a fight to go well. When we are able to convince people that we hear them and are willing to learn more about their point of view, it becomes easier for everyone to maintain their composure. The fight goes way better.

Adapt

It is easy to fall into a comfortable routine. Following a predictable pattern in life reduces the number of choices that we make on any given day, helping us avoid decision fatigue (i.e., mental exhaustion caused by having to make too many decisions). Research has shown that decision fatigue is associated with “…less physical stamina, reduced persistence in the face of failure, more procrastination, and less quality and quantity of arithmetic calculations” (Vohs et al., 2008, p. 883). Decision fatigue may explain why it is particularly frustrating to have our routine interrupted. The irritation we feel when the breakroom is out of coffee or when we drive up to a detour sign on our way home from work may be exacerbated by our body’s limited decision-making capabilities.

Because our mind can tire and have a hard time making decisions, it makes sense to train it to be flexible in order to combat frustration when our routine is interrupted. We stretch muscles and make them flexible so that they function well under stress and our mind can work the same way. A flexible mind expects to have to work through interruptions to a daily routine. A flexible mind expects it to be difficult to make decisions from time to time. When we expect things to go perfectly and they don’t, it’s an emotional disaster. When we expect imperfection and we get it, we can tolerate it. A flexible mind doesn’t help us avoid disappointment, but it does take away some of its sting.

Bend Without Breaking

Like the tree that survived the storm, we need to be flexible in some ways and firmly rooted in others. A values system founded on principles including honesty, prudence, justice, mercy, and kindness protects us from being too flexible and making decisions that have destructive consequences. When we live in a manner that is consistent with healthy values while also being flexible at times in our perspectives, we find it easier to manage life’s struggles and to love those who are different we are.   

Behavior

They knew what they needed to do they just weren’t doing it yet. They had been going to therapy for a while now and they were at the point where they could give the therapist all of the “right” answers as to why they weren’t meeting their goals.

“It’s good that you can tell me what you need to do. When are you going to do it? You two are the only ones who can make your relationship better. I care about you and believe that you are capable of reaching your goals. With behavior change, I have every reason to believe that you can build a more loving and satisfying relationship.”

They knew the therapist was right. He had supported them time and time again and they trusted him.

It was time to either accept the current state of their relationship or push through their discomfort and make significant changes to their behavior.

The great people of history are judged by their behaviors, not by their thoughts and feelings. Thomas Jefferson isn’t praised because he thought about freedom, he is revered because he wrote the Declaration of Independence and helped found the United States. Jane Austen isn’t remembered for her imagination, she is held in high esteem because she wrote down her musings and told wonderful stories. Heroes are honored because they put their intelligence and passion into action.

Getting Unstuck

If we let them, our thoughts and emotions can keep us from making positive changes to our behavior. Overthinking and catastrophizing (i.e., dwelling on worst case scenarios) are just two examples of thought processes that prevent behavior change. Discomfort and fear are emotions that can keep us stuck even when we know we have to make changes to our behavior to be healthy.

When we do begin to move and our behavior changes in healthy ways, there is a strange effect on our thoughts and emotions. Our mind, once focused on worst-case scenarios and the difficulties associated with change, is not as persuasive as it once was—our behavior change has shown it to be an imperfect interpreter of our world. When we take action to better our lives, our feelings, which had been overwhelming us with fear, hopelessness, and frustration, are reshaped by our effort to be a better person. As a result, we feel better. When we force our troubled thoughts and feelings to confront new healthy, loving behaviors, they cannot help but become more healthy and loving themselves.

Love

We can think about love; we can feel it; but the most powerful love is shown through behavior. People have no problem behaving in loving ways when they feel like it; it is the strongest and most admirable people who show love to others even when they do not feel love for them.

I call this deeper kind of love “choice love” because we must choose to behave lovingly even when our thoughts and feelings may be pointing us in another direction. It is choice love that keeps us from name calling and fighting dirty when we have arguments with our partner, friends, or family. It is choice love that allows us to be kind to our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. It is choice love that gets us to rebel against selfishness and instead turn toward serving and caring for others.

The Influence of Values

If we say we want to be a good person, we need to value things like kindness, justice, mercy, honesty, and self-control. When we value these things, we are able to behave well in moments when our thoughts are negative and our feelings tell us to act badly. For example, when someone hurts us, nothing makes more sense or feels better—for a very brief second—than revenge. Yet, most of us would rightly agree that taking revenge is not a morally good response to getting hurt. When our values set a high moral standard for our behavior, they give us direction in moments when we feel tempted to do wrong.

Becoming Trustworthy

To earn trust, there must be consistency between our words and actions. Being honest for a day does not wipe out a lifetime of lying. Drinking responsibly for an evening does not whitewash a reputation for drunkenness. Giving a few dollars to the poor does not make up for a life lived for selfish gain. Because trust is built through consistency over time, we should not let the doubts of others discourage us in the early stages of turning our life around.

Oftentimes I work with clients who are trying to earn back the trust of their loved ones after years of hurtful behavior. The early weeks and months of this process are especially difficult for everyone. The person trying to earn back trust has to overcome the temptation to fall back into bad habits while being watched by the doubtful eyes of others. The friends and family members of this person have every reason to be skeptical and yet they must summon the courage to forgive and offer the opportunity to earn back trust. When people learn how to behave well in in the presence of temptations, doubts, and mixed emotions, they eventually establish strong relationships and a new and healthier life.

Feelings

It is characteristic of human nature that we can face the great crisis-moments of life with honour and dignity, but allow the routine demands of everyday to irritate and annoy us. We can face the shattering blows of life with a certain heroism, but allow the petty pinpricks to upset us. Many a man can face a great disaster or a great loss with calm serenity and yet loses his temper if a meal is badly cooked or a train late.

William Barclay

When we express our feelings, we reveal our strengths, vulnerabilities, and what is important to us. Our emotions give meaning to our thoughts and influence how we behave. Because our feelings powerfully influence what we think and do, we should remember that our emotions do not always tell us the truth. They can cause us to misinterpret—for better or worse—the actions and intentions of others and overreact to situations that are outside of our control.

Feelings are Saying Something

Our feelings are something we should be conscious of and manage. Emotions should not lead us like we’re a dog on a leash. From a scientific perspective, our feelings evolved as a way to help us interpret the world around us: good feelings encourage us to keep doing what we’re doing and bad feelings tell us that something is off. Yet, our feelings cannot be entirely trusted.

There are times to feed emotions with gusto and others when they need to be held in check. If you’re happy for good reasons, embrace it. Enjoy the moment. We all know too well that life can be hard. Don’t spoil good times by thinking about how they won’t last forever. If you’re feeling happy while in a dangerous or unhealthy situation, your feelings can’t be trusted. For example, bad relationships and drugs may make us feel good for brief moments but they cause serious damage over time. Our feelings are designed to be only one part of our body’s navigation system.

Thoughts and Feelings Work Together

How we feel about the world is influenced by how we think about it. Emotions unfiltered by wisdom lead to overreactions and poor choices. If not steadied by reason, emotions cause us to prioritize short-term pleasure at the expense of long-term satisfaction. It is a desire for instant gratification, for example, that can persuade us to indulge on sweets and avoid exercise instead of eating healthy and staying active. Feelings do the most good when they work with a reasonable and sound mind. 

Feeling Secure in a Relationship

All of us feel the need to connect with others in meaningful ways. From the moment we are born, our innate desire to feel secure causes us to cry out for the attention and care of our parents. Ideally, as we grow older, we will learn how to self soothe during times of emotional distress while also having access to supportive relationships with family and friends.

Healthy relationships are “characterized by mutual emotional accessibility and responsiveness” (Johnson, 2008, p. 112). This means that healthy couples express their emotions while keeping them under control, allowing them to process information and understand—not necessarily agree with—one another’s perspective. In healthy relationships, partners are able to listen and tactfully respond to one another, preventing conversations or arguments from devolving into harsh conflict. They are able to do this because they have learned their partner is dependable and trustworthy and believe themselves to be worthy of being loved (Johnson, 2008).

Feeling Confident

To feel confident, we need to have a secure sense of self-worth. Self-worth is stable when it is fed by the belief that all humans have value. This allows us to know and feel we are valuable even if others say we are not. Self-worth is also more secure when we base success on effort not outcome. This pushes us to work hard and helps us to feel secure and confident even when we don’t achieve what he had hoped to accomplish.

Accessing Emotions and Responding to Feelings

We are in a healthy place when our thoughts and feelings work well together to guide us through life. In hard times we need to be honest about our emotions. Denying we are feeling bad doesn’t make the emotion go away and, as is often the case with anxiety, it can even make it more powerful. When we are happy, we should think about what got us there and consider what is likely to happen as we take our next steps. Once we become skilled at reflecting on and accessing our emotions, we will find that we have more confidence and a greater ability to endure tough situations.

Thoughts

Two women were walking through a park. The sun was warm as it climbed the sky and there were dark thunderheads of a coming spring storm on the horizon. The ground was wet from early morning rains and the birds in the trees chirped wildly. The two passed a child’s birthday party with balloons and all. They hiked up a steep hill and spent a few moments watching the storm clouds moving closer to the town. Both were careful with their steps as they moved down the slippery slope. Once at the bottom, they quickened their pace to get home before the rain fell once again.

Two Minds, Different Experiences

Let’s imagine we can look into the mind of the first woman in the story as she strolled through the park. Upon noticing the warmth of the sun and the sweat forming on her brow, we see that she took a moment to be grateful for feeling a bit overheated after a long, cold winter. She smiled and thought the cacophony of the birds made for a funny song. She recognized the happiness and innocence in the faces of the children at the birthday party and reminded herself to enjoy the little things. On the hike up the hill, with lungs burning and legs cramping, she made it fun by pretending to be the first person to scale a dangerous mountain. As she watched the storms roll in, she thought about the cycle of the seasons and the connection between the rains and new life and she was humbled. When she saw that the rains were coming on quickly, she made her trip home exciting by calling it a race against nature.

This first woman has a healthy perspective on life.

Now, let’s pretend to read the thoughts of the second woman on this walk in the park. In the warmth of the sun, we notice that she wondered why she was always too hot or too cold and couldn’t just be comfortable for once. At the sound of the birds she thought of the mess they made of the walkways and wished they would fly away. When she saw the children playing in the park, she compared their age and vitality to her own and was discouraged at the body’s slow decline throughout adulthood. By the time they reached the steep hill, she was angry with her friend for not being as miserable as she was. Upon seeing the storm racing in while standing atop the hill, she was certain that the world was somehow out to get her. She became even more irritated when her friend sped up on the way home because she just knew the rain would come pouring down before they got there.

This second woman has an unhealthy perspective on life.  

Interpretations and Expectations

How we think about the world influences how we feel about it. When we think in terms of extremes and pay little attention to evidence, we find happiness hard to come by. When our thoughts are reasonable, we increase our endurance in hard times and find greater joy in simple pleasures.

Miserable people often think small problems are catastrophes or they foolishly hold on tightly to false hopes. Dwelling on worst case scenarios causes them to despair or give up when they come across a problem because they are certain it is just the first a long series of disasters. Believing that things will work out in spite of evidence to the contrary causes people to waste time or to make a bad situation even worse. For example, irrational optimism can keep people in bad jobs and broken relationships when there is no real reason to think they will improve.

Happy people consciously work through struggles and make choices that lead to peace of mind and greater well-being. Rather than catastrophizing or ignoring problems, happy people formulate reasonable plans for managing or working through them. In hard times, happy people deliberately set aside moments to find things to be thankful for in life. They also focus more on things within their control than those that are not. In good times, happy people accept that life can be exciting, joyous, and delightful; they fill their minds with gratitude and allow feelings of glee to wash over them. When we think rationally and make healthy choices, we develop peace of mind, we feel content, and we find reasons to smile more.

Be Both Reasonable and Emotional

“It is a truism that the richness of human experience is a blend of feelings and emotions” (Beck et al., 1979 p. 34). This quote comes from a classic work on cognitive therapy and its authors remind therapists “…to empathize with the patient’s painful emotional experiences as well as be able to identify his faulty cognitions and the linkage between negative thoughts and negative feelings” (p. 35). They teach that effective therapists will also “fan the embers” of patients’ positive and pleasant emotional experiences, which are often forgotten or ignored when someone is in a depressed state. In the decades since this book was written, cognitive behavioral therapy techniques that restructure thoughts and modify problematic behaviors have repeatedly been proven to be helpful in treating a wide range of issues including anxiety, depression, and relational conflict (Butler et al., 2006).

It is comforting to know that we can heal many emotional wounds by making changes to the way we think and behave.

Still

Out in the wilds I had learned to beware of abrupt movements. The creatures with which you are dealing there are shy and watchful, they have a talent for evading you when you least expect it. No domestic animal can be as still as a wild animal. The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take
lessons in silence from the wild before they are accepted by it. The art of moving gently, without suddenness, is the first to be studied by the hunter, and more so by the hunter with the camera. Hunters cannot have their own way, they must fall in with the wind, and the colours and smells of the landscape, and they must make the tempo of the ensemble their own.

Out of Africa, Isak Dinesen

Hunters may love and understand nature more than anyone else. In order to be in position to see their prey, hunters must blend in with the wild, melting in to the bushes and brambles. Hunters take their position well before the sun rises and wait with eyes open wide and ears attuned to every mysterious snap, swish, and stomp. In their stillness hunters bear witness to the awakening of the forest as the sun rises. If you talk with them, hunters will tell you that many of their favorite days in the wild were ones in which they never took a shot.

Observe

It is when we are still that we become aware of our surroundings. Birds flitting about in the trees overhead or the sounds of a neighbor in need grab our attention when we take time to sit still, listen, and see.

Nowadays, it is easy to be distracted, for example, by the contents on a screen, causing us to miss out on the world around us. There is nothing wrong with being eager to see the next picture, watch the latest video, or listen to that new song as long as we don’t lose touch with the people, places, and things that surround us.

Learning to enjoy still moments allows us to grow in ways that a fast-paced life does not. It is tempting to try to rush through things. I know that there are times when I have a hard time sitting still. Yet, all of us benefit from being quiet, watchful, and contemplative. We learn more about who we are when our stillness forces us to explore our thoughts and feelings. If we let them, still moments can relax, restore, and refresh our body and mind.

Be Wild

We should strive to be wild in the way Dinesen described Africa. The world benefits from lives that are beautiful, attractive, gritty, and powerful. If we hold strong to our beliefs while loving those who don’t share them, our lives will even be, like the wild, dangerous at times; we will be hunted by those “civilized” people who do not tolerate opinions that aren’t their own. Our response to them should be unyielding and deeply rooted in a position of love, as strong as a tree standing against a fierce wind.

Discovery

Being still may help us find our way again when we are lost. When I was a child, I spent a week at a camp in the mountains. On a hike with one of the counselors, he gave us tips on how to find our way through the forest. At one point on our trek he stopped and turned around slowly, silencing us by placing his finger across his lips. We listened. Immediately all of us heard the sound of running water. “If you ever get lost in this forest, listen for the river. It will lead you back to camp.” Our way back home was revealed in our stillness.

Purpose

A truly happy life is one lived in service of others. In order to sustain a life of service, we must learn to be still and find out who we are, what we are called to do, and who we are in a position to help. We come to better understand ourselves when we spend time in peace and quiet.

Be purposeful with seeking stillness. Take the time to ponder life’s questions. Listen to the sounds of nature and the voices of those around you. Watch and learn what Dinesen described as the “tempo” of the wild. You will be wiser for it.

Honesty

I will never lie to you.

How many of us have made this promise? How many of us have kept it? What would life be like if we were always honest?

Honesty and Lies

Honesty is characterized by sincerity and an absence of deceit. It takes courage to be honest. It is cowardice that breeds dishonesty. Those who pair honesty with a loving heart and communicate with tact are seen as trustworthy, reliable, and caring. Those who tell the truth about honest mistakes earn the respect of others. When we love others, one of the ways we show it is through our honestly, which strengthens our relationships. 

Conversely, a lie is a deliberate attempt to deceive (it is not a lie to unknowingly share false information). Lies present us with the illusion that they make life easier, but true to form, they actually make things harder in the long run. When we lie, we willingly present fiction as fact, frame a falsehood as truth, and mislead people we may otherwise say we love. With great effort, we might get away with a lie here and there, but like walking through a minefield, it is only a matter of time before we have a misstep.

The Prevalence of Dishonesty

Most people are honest and manage to avoid telling even one lie on any given day (Serota et al., 2010). Yet, because some lie more than others (i.e., 5% of people are responsible for 40% of lies), on average, people tell between one and two lies each day (see Halevy et al., 2013 for a review). As encouraging as it may be to know that people are usually honest, it is safe to say that all of us have lied at some point in our lives. Hopefully, we have learned that being honest is a better choice.

White Lies, Trust Killers

Honesty builds trust, dishonesty destroys it. One myth I try to dispel in conversations with clients is that small, white lies are harmless. They’re not. They can be a big deal. Lies, even “little” ones, begin to etch away at trust and affection in a relationship. When we get caught in a lie, we give our partner good reason to doubt other things we say. It becomes hard to believe in the love of someone who lies. Likewise, it is hard to feel love for someone who is proven to be a liar. Though not impossible, it is very difficult to earn back trust and affection after we’ve lost it by being dishonest.

Boundaries

Being honest does not prevent us from protecting our privacy, even if our silence reinforces someone’s inaccurate impression about who we are or what we have done. There is a difference between being honest and being an open book. Instead of lying, honest people voice boundaries in conversations when they are asked questions they don’t want to answer (e.g., “That’s something I’m not comfortable talking about,” “I’d rather we talk about something else,” “I’m going to keep my answer to that question private.”). Being honest about our boundaries keeps us from lying or sharing information we’d rather keep private.  

Peace of Mind

When we are honest, our mind is able to relax; it doesn’t get tripped up by a net of lies, fibs, and tall tales. It is exhausting to try and make lies seem true to those around us. It is much easier for us to remember what is true than it is to remember each and every lie we’ve told. Keeping others from finding out the truth usually requires even more lies, further complicating our deception and increasing the chances of our dishonesty coming to light. The consequences of getting caught in a lie are usually much worse than any discomfort associated with telling the truth. An honest life is simply easier than a dishonest one.

Honest Relationships

Honesty is an essential ingredient of a healthy relationship. Without it, a relationship does not have a stable base. When people are honest, it is reasonable and safe to trust them. If we want intimacy in a relationship, we build it by telling the truth. When we are honest with a partner about our vulnerabilities, their support helps us become stronger. Loving feelings in an honest relationship are magical. Loving feelings in a dishonest one are an illusion. Healthy relationships are not immune from struggles, they just involve people who are honest about them and work together to make things better.

Privacy

“Did Liz ever take a breath?” Sarah thought.

The woman talking at Sarah had been trying to befriend her ever since Sarah started working for the company two weeks ago. Liz apparently thought that sharing office gossip and trying to set Sarah up with various men in the building was the way to go about building a friendship.

“…and I can tell, Sarah, that you’ve probably had your share of experiences with romance in the workplace,” Liz said confidently. “You’ll do fine around here.”

Sarah didn’t know what to say. She was definitely not experienced in the ways Liz thought she was. She didn’t like to date coworkers. The whole situation was uncomfortable for her. She appreciated that Liz was trying to be friendly but was uneasy about her assumptions about her dating history.

How should she respond? Sarah took a beat and decided that there was no way she was going to open up about her love life with Liz, who appeared to have no filter. Sarah did not want to lie, however, either, even though it seemed like Liz was eager to hear about her “experiences.”

“Well if I have or I haven’t, I’m totally not going to get into that here, Liz. I’m still the new girl. Are you trying to get me in trouble around here?” she said lightly with a smile. “Now, please tell me where you got that top, though, it is incredible.”

“Oh, I see, first impressions and all,” Liz said wryly with a wink. “This top is my latest find! I got it for only seven dollars at…” Liz went on delightedly to tell Sarah about her favorite places to shop in the area.

We’ve all had conversations where our personal boundaries are tested. Deciding how to respond to these situations is not always straightforward and requires us to guard our privacy while maintaining our integrity.

Honesty and Privacy

When I meet with clients for a first session, we talk about the importance of being honest throughout the therapeutic process. We acknowledge that if we are dealing with anything but the truth in therapy, it is a waste of all of our time and their money. Being honest does not mean that we cannot keep some things private, however.

My clients and I identify the difference between being a private person and being dishonest. We recognize a lie is a deliberate attempt to deceive whereas keeping something private is simply refusing to share certain information. We define boundaries in our relationship that require honesty and preserve the right to privacy. We do this by agreeing to say “I don’t want to answer that,” or “I’m not ready to talk about that now,” when we are not comfortable answering a question we may ask each other. This keeps us from having to reluctantly disclose personal information or, even worse, from making up a lie. I tell my clients that I value my privacy by letting them know that most aspects of my personal life won’t be talked about in their therapy and I encourage clients to reveal details of their personal life only when they believe it is safe to do so.

Not Correcting Wrong Impressions

In order to guard our privacy, we must be able to make peace with others’ faulty assumptions about us. For example, I once worked with a client struggling with sex addiction who made it clear to me that he thought that I shared some of his sexual tastes. His assumptions made me uncomfortable because I happened to have no experience with or any interest in taking part in the particular sexual activities he was talking about. Even so, in that moment I decided to guard my privacy and not correct his misconceptions about my sex life. Correcting his impression of me would have required me to talk about my sexual interests and experiences. Had I done this, I may have felt relieved for a moment, but I also would have violated a healthy boundary in our relationship (i.e., therapy should be focused on the client’s life and needs, not the therapist’s). I believe that by protecting my privacy, I was able to preserve a healthy working relationship with my client.

Who are You Talking to?

It is unwise to be careless with the personal details of our life. It is important to remember that we can’t unsay something once it has been shared and that some people may misuse information about our private life. We should therefore exercise restraint and consideration before we reveal the intimate details of our thoughts, feelings, and experiences with others.

When You’re Alone

We can learn a great deal about our character by examining our private life. What do we watch, read, and listen to when we are by ourselves? What does our thought life say about us as a person? How would we behave if we knew that our actions would remain private? The answers to these questions tell us much about who we are as a person. The most satisfied and confident people are those who behave in honest, healthy, loving, and self-controlled ways in both their public and private lives.

Endings

Like his other classmates, the graduate had thrown his cap as high as he could. The crowd cheered and many of the smiling faces around him contained eyes filled with tears. The graduate’s heart was somehow both heavy and light. It carried the weight of the loss of the familiar and was lifted up by the possibilities of tomorrow. His mind raced between thoughts of the past and dreams of the future. If asked, he would say that he was happy, but he knew that that wasn’t the right word. Honestly, he was looking forward to what lay ahead, but in that moment, he was also aware of what was slipping into memory. As the caps fell to the ground, he was sure that life as he knew it was ending.

Questions

What happens next? Why is that the case? Where do we go from here? These questions arise when we reach an ending. Scientists ask these questions when they reach the end of the known and are left staring into the unknown. Students ask the same when they come to the end of the school year and ponder the possibilities of life after graduation. Endings are catalysts for discovery; they usher us—oftentimes reluctantly—into new lands, eras, and understandings.

To what end? This is perhaps the most important question to ask ourselves before we strike out on any endeavor. Answering this question requires us to identify our motivations, breathe life into our hopes, and define our goals. If we don’t keep an eye on the end goal we become an aimless wanderer. Living without a purpose tends to go badly over time because poor choices and tragedy are the offspring of an idle and wayward mind.

Goodbyes

When an ending comes in the form of the death of a loved one, its permanence is striking. Someone who we may have talked with every day is no longer there; their love, encouragement, good humor, and wisdom become a part of our history. The gnawing at the hearts the grieved can be agonizing.

Deaths, even when they will remain tragic memories in our past, do not have to keep us from having hope, feeling and showing love, and being happy in our present and future. Yes, memories of a loved one lost will come with feelings of sadness, but sadness doesn’t have to be the only thing we feel. We can protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by sadness by investing time and energy into other areas of our life.

Good grief has boundaries. Grief without boundaries becomes bitterness and depression. When we allow ourselves to express our sadness in safe spaces, with safe people, for a safe amount of time, we are engaged in good grief. This means that we should not let our grief overcome our lives. We should honor feelings of sadness by giving them time to show themselves but we should not let those feelings grow to the point where they put an end to all things good in our lives. We need to make room for happiness and love by doing things we enjoy with the people we care about, even after a loved one passes away. When we choose to live healthy, well-rounded lives after the death of a loved one we honor our past with them by living our best in the present.

New Eras and Lessons Learned

All of us who have gone through hard times know that some endings are welcomed. It is a relief to reach the end of any trial and it is important to take note of what got us through. Too often, we forget how resilient we were during our last test by the time we are faced with another. Dark and shadowy valleys are not as scary when we remember to carry a light with us and it is the lessons we have learned and the wise counsel we follow that can brighten our path.

In the End

In this life, in this world, all things must come to an end. When wars end we cheer. When a life ends we cry. When night ends, we receive the gift of dawn. Endings are inevitable, and we should be prepared to experience their emotional highs and lows with a commitment to move forward in a healthy way. 

Beginnings

In the beginning…

What does that phrase make you think about? The dawn of the universe? The first day of summer? The thrilling start of a new relationship? Those words make me think of sunrise, growth, and the innocence that comes with youth, fresh starts, and inexperience. 

I love beginnings. I don’t think this love makes me unique. Beginnings are full of wonder and potential. Their newness gives them a purity that is uncommon in this world. Those of us who have searched for a “new beginning” believe they have the power to forgive a broken past. Most of us have experienced the joys of beginning of a new relationship, when everything is fresh and each moment is filled with anticipation. When parents look upon their newborn child, they bear witness to a purity reserved for the beginning of life. Few experiences cause the adrenaline to rush through our veins like knowing we are at the beginning of something special.

Youth

Beginnings offer delightful possibilities that are embodied by the joys of childhood. Children find fun and adventure around every corner. I have watched small children laugh hysterically at sneezes and become enraptured by Tupperware. We cheer children on simply for being alive. When they laugh, we cheer. When they stand, we cheer. When they walk, we cheer and tell everyone how wonderful they are. The world is never so dark when we begin to see it through the eyes of a child.

Opportunity

The opportunity to start afresh is one of the more appealing aspects of beginning a new phase of life. We all benefit from a clean slate because we have all made mistakes—we all have regrets. At the beginning of something new, we may not forget our past but our ties to it are loosened. A new city, job, or opportunity gives us a chance to reshape our present in a way that could have far reaching effects on our future. The chance at a better life has its roots in a new beginning.

A New Relationship

Beginnings are unsullied and thus they are mysterious and exciting. At the start of a new relationship, our hopes are high and it is easy to idealize our new partner and the relationship itself. The unknown can be thrilling and because of this getting to know a new boyfriend or girlfriend is intoxicating. Our minds swim in the experience of first dates and first kisses and our hearts are quick to fill with love.

Of course, no relationship ends up being perfect—they all have their trying moments—and in this sense beginnings are a magnificent illusion. The excitement of having a new boyfriend or girlfriend is caused, in part, by the lack of any history of disappointment in the relationship. Without any frame of reference for negativity, it is hard to imagine how an incredible, unbelievable, how-lucky-were-we-to-find-each-other, relationship could ever have trying times. The inevitability of troubling moments should not make us cynical about relationships (i.e., long-lasting, loving relationships aren’t uncommon), but it is that much more reason to enjoy those unspoiled first days with a new partner. 

Perspective

One of the sad things about beginnings is that we often don’t appreciate them until they are over. Somehow the passage of time repaints those periods in our life into our “Golden Days.” Teenage years when you couldn’t wait to get out of the house become cherished memories of simpler times. The days when you were broke and living in a run-down apartment become the opening chapters of young adulthood that you love to reread in the annals of your mind. Perspective changes things and allows us to appreciate stages of life in ways we could not when our focus was on speeding our way through them.

It’s Just the Start

Not every beginning is the hopeful, idyllic time that I’ve spent most of this blog writing about. Rough starts aren’t uncommon and for many, their early years of life, work, or a relationship are tough. No matter how difficult a beginning has been we can take comfort in knowing that it is a temporary stage. A beginning will become a middle, which will ultimately come to an end. If we learn from the trials we face in the beginning, we have a real opportunity to make it something better in the end.

Satisfaction

I can’t get no satisfaction.

Mick Jagger, The Rolling Stones

As a marriage and family therapist, I have had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of people about how they define “good sex.” These discussions have taught me that defining and understanding satisfying sex is not easy. My clients’ answers cover a broad spectrum of physical and emotional factors that work together to determine the quality of a sexual experience.

Research mirrors my clients’ complex definitions of sexual satisfaction. For example, Brody and Weiss (2010) found that orgasm and sexual satisfaction were associated with greater life, relationship, and mental health satisfaction. Studies like this one reveal how interconnected sex is with other aspects of life.

There are also differences in how men and women rate the importance of the various factors that lead to sexual satisfaction (see Schwartz & Young, 2009 for a review). For example, men attribute greater significance to sexual frequency than women do (although a majority of both sexes report wanting sex at least twice per week). For women, relationship factors such as emotional connection and commitment are more strongly associated with sexual satisfaction than they are for men (but men still identify them as important).

Sexual satisfaction is not only defined by how well bodies fit together. It is also a product of a healthy mind and strong relationship.

Emotional Attachment

Human emotion plays an important role in determining sexual satisfaction. Attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) explains how humans develop emotional bonds with one another and decades of research has shown that emotional attachment styles are linked to a myriad of outcomes including sexual satisfaction. The various attachment styles are distinguished by the degree to which we perceive ourselves as worthy of being loved. A secure attachment style fosters love and connection and is formed in relationships where we receive and give consistent and sensitive care. When securely attached partners have sex, they are more sensitive to one another’s needs and engage in sex as a way of expressing how much they value one another. Unsurprisingly, this attachment style is associated with the highest levels of sexual satisfaction (Peloquin et al., 2013). An anxious attachment style is defined by an excessive fear of rejection and abandonment and is reinforced by personal insecurities and relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable. Given the strong association between anxiety and sexual dysfunction (McCabe et al., 2010), it is not hard to understand why an anxious attachment style can lead to less satisfying sex. An avoidant attachment style is characterized by discomfort with emotional intimacy and is often a consequence of broken promises and mistrust in our relationships. People with an avoidant attachment style tend to be less sensitive to the needs of their partner during sex and their motivations for sex are often unemotional and selfish, leading to a dissatisfying sex life overall (Peloquin et al., 2013).

Sex Ed

Having a working knowledge of the human body and the mechanics of sex helps us overcome insecurities and learn how to have satisfying sex. For example, men who wish they had a larger penis (the average erect penis is just over 5 inches in length) may be comforted to learn that 85% of women are satisfied with their partner’s penis (Lever et al., 2006). This is unsurprising because a larger than average penis is longer than the average woman’s vagina and can cause discomfort and pain during sex. Women frustrated by orgasm difficulty during sex should know that research shows this problem is often temporary and that many learn to reach orgasm more consistently during sex through masturbation and improved communication (see Graham, 2009 for a review). Because it dispels myths and improves technique, sex education plays an important role in increasing sexual satisfaction.

Sexual Satisfaction

Good sex is multidimensional: more than just arousal and orgasm, it is an offshoot of relationship quality, emotional well-being, and mental health. With so many ingredients included in the recipe for sexual satisfaction, we tend to rate sex like we would a five-course meal. Some of us will prefer the entrée while others will favor the appetizer or dessert. Fortunately, partners don’t have to agree on their favorite course in order to be mutually satisfied with the meal as a whole.

Sex

Three couples had sex after spending an evening at the pub. The first couple had met for the first time that night. They desired each other sexually, not emotionally; in truth, they did not like each other all that much. The sex they had was physically satisfying and emotionally disconnected. The second couple liked each other very much, having dated for several weeks. The sex they shared that night was their first together and it was caring; they went to sleep that night feeling closer than they ever had before and knowing their relationship had changed. The third couple loved one another deeply and had been married for over a decade. The sex they had that night was physically thrilling, emotionally fulfilling, and psychologically comforting, the product of years of open conversation and practice.

Sex is a big deal. It is the closest two people can ever get to one another physically. The sex drive is the strongest urge we have as humans after our need for food and shelter. Evolution has designed sex to fulfill two purposes: to create new life and to promote emotional and social bonds between partners. Humans are one of a small percentage species that have sex for pleasure, with half of all Americans adults having sex at least two to three times per month (Blanchflower & Oswald, 2004).

Sex and Happiness

Blanchflower & Oswald (2004), a large study of 16,000 Americans, showed that there are strong links between sex and happiness. Unsurprisingly, this study revealed that people who reported having no sex in the past year were not as happy as those who reported having sex in the past year. When the researchers looked at the relationship between number of sexual partners and happiness, they found that the happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners in the past year was one; this means that people with two or more sexual partners in the past year tended to be less happy than those with one sexual partner.

Risk

Sex can have serious consequences that are far too easy to forget in the heat of the moment. Pregnancy is the most obvious consequence and it creates new life for a child and changes life forever for the parents. Of course, sex also carries a risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Given recent advances in medical treatments, it is easy to fool oneself into thinking that STDs are not life changing but this simply is not true for millions of people living with incurable STDs such as herpes or HIV.

The use of contraceptives that reduce the risk of pregnancy and acquiring STDs is fortunately increasing; however, even amongst single adults, condoms are used in only 1 in 3 sexual encounters (NSSHB, 2010), highlighting the need for everyone to seriously consider the physical risks before engaging in sex.

Whereas the physical consequences of sex receive the most attention in public health contexts, the emotional consequences of sex, though often significant, are less commonly considered in discussion of high risk sex. Research shows that the interplay between sex and human emotions can be powerful (Birnbaum, 2006; Péloquin et al., 2013). In fact, two of the three most powerful predictors of sexual satisfaction (i.e., relationship satisfaction and the quality of sexual communication) require a significant amount of emotional connection, security, and commitment (see Péloquin et al., 2013 for a review).

Three Types of Sex

As a marriage and family therapist, I have an ethical obligation to help my clients make informed decisions about their sex lives when they decide to talk about them. Over the years, I have talked with hundreds of people about their sex lives and how to make them as healthy and satisfying as possible. One of the ways I frame these conversations is by talking with my clients about three types of sex. These sex types are distinguished by their degree of health risk and the partners’ level of commitment to one another, not the style of sex itself (i.e., position, duration). In my discussion on the three types of sex, committed couples are defined as those who are sexually monogamous and share an emotional attachment.

Type I.

Type I sex is had between partners who are not committed to one another. One-night stands are one example of Type I sex. The first couple in the vignette had Type I sex. As exciting as Type I sex can be, it carries the greatest risk because partners likely know little about one another: they can be less confident about their partner’s STD status, the devil-may-care nature of their relationship exacerbates emotional distress in the event of an unplanned pregnancy, and their lack of commitment could lead to confusion and heartache if one partner forms an emotional attachment and the other partner does not.

Type II.

Type II sex is had between people who are in a relationship but remain uncertain about their willingness to make a long-term commitment to their partner. Couples who are sexually active in an exclusive dating context are having Type II sex. The second couple in the vignette had Type II sex. When compared with Type I sex, Type II sex is less risky. If partners do not have STDs and remain sexually faithful, they can rest assured that they will not be infected. However, because couples in committed relationships are less likely to use condoms than couples in non-committed sexual relationships, there is an increased likelihood of pregnancy (Corbett et al., 2009).

Type III.

Type III sex is had between people who have made long-term, often lifelong commitments to one another. Sex in the context of marriage is an example of Type III sex. Type III sex has the lowest level of risk because these couples are likely to know their partner's STD status, they are comforted in knowing they are with person they want to raise children with in the event of pregnancy, and they desire strong emotional attachments with each other.

Three Questions

Having an understanding of the pros and cons of the three types of sex helps us make informed decisions about our sexual behavior. Because most of us will place considerable importance on having a healthy, satisfying sex life, we should not enter into a sexual relationship before we take the time to consider the consequences of our actions.

Before any of us engage in sex, we should ask ourselves three questions: (1) Am I willing to create and commit to raising a child with this person? (2) Can I trust that this person is not infected with an STD? (3) Am I prepared to potentially form an emotional attachment with this person? When answering these questions, we should remember that the human psyche evolved long before the invention of the highly effective contraceptives we have today. So although these contraceptives may prevent pregnancy and STD transmission, we may not be spared from the emotional effects of sex. Thus, we should not even consider having sex with someone if we cannot answer yes to all of these questions. These three questions take into consideration the three most important characteristics of sexual health from an evolutionary perspective and remind us that problems seem to crop up when a couple’s physical relationship is more intimate than their emotional commitment to one another.

Satisfaction

In my next blog, I continue my discussion of sex by considering factors that distinguish a satisfying sex life from a dissatisfying, dysfunctional one.

Romance

Juliet: Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.

It was the nightingale, and not the lark,

That pierc’d the fearful hollow of thine ear;

Nightly she sings on yond pomegranate tree.

Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

 

Romeo: It was the lark, the herald of the morn,

No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks

Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day

Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

 

Juliet: Yond light is not day-light, I know it, I;

It is some meteor that the sun exhal’d

To be to thee this night a torch-bearer

And light thee on thy way to Mantua.

Therefore stay yet, thou need’st not to be gone.

 

Romeo: Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death,

I am content, so thou wilt have it so.

I’ll say yon grey is not the morning’s eye,

’Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow;

Nor that is not the lark whose notes do beat

The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.

I have more care to stay than will to go.

Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.

How is’t, my soul? Let’s talk, it is not day.

 

Romance is the intriguing, mystifying, dramatic, and arousing side of love.

This is probably my favorite scene in Romeo and Juliet. In denying the coming of morning, Romeo and Juliet, members of rival families, were putting themselves in grave danger of being caught and quite possibly killed. Why did they do this? All for the sake of a few brief moments together. It shows that romance can bring lovers together and also compel them to act as fools. Wonderfully, most of us have fallen under the spell of romance.

The Good and the Bad

Romance is exciting and mysterious. Its promises are thrilling and it makes a relationship that much more enjoyable. Romance causes hearts to race and the mind to dream. It feels good to get caught up in romance.

Many of us love romance so much that we want to feel a part of a romantic relationship, even if we’re not in it. One of the ways we enjoy romance-by-proxy is through film. For example, the top 200 romantic dramas and comedies have grossed over 18 billion dollars since 1980. That’s a ton of money spent on the thrill of romance. Another way many get a dose of romance from afar is by feeding an interest in celebrity. Grocery store checkout aisles are lined with dozens of magazines with stories about the latest celebrity couplings. If famous couples draw huge amounts of attention, royal couples may be even more magnetic: when Prince William married Princess Katherine, over 300 million people worldwide tuned in! These figures tell us a bit about the widespread appeal of romance.

As intoxicating as romance can be, it also has its trappings. Romeo and Juliet teaches us that romance, when allowed to run amok, can lead us to tragedy. Romance produces powerful emotions that could cause us to overlook key areas of incompatibility that ultimately contribute to a less than satisfying relationship.

In an analysis of the relationship between emotional intelligence and relationship satisfaction in romantic relationships, Malouff et al. (2014) found that the way we perceive and understand emotion is linked to how satisfied we are in a romantic relationship. When we accurately recognize emotions, understand the causes of emotional experiences, effectively regulate emotions, and harness our emotions to help us make decisions, romantic relationships tend to be more satisfying. This tells us that romance alone does not lead to relationship satisfaction (even unhealthy relationships have their romantic moments, after all); rather, our emotional intelligence, and its role in helping us make healthy, relationship-enhancing choices, works with romance to build a strong relationship.

Too Much or Too Little

Romance is meant to compliment love’s other faces such as fidelity and reliability. It should not be the only or primary way we experience and express love in a relationship. Valuing romance too much could lead us to act unwisely (like Romeo and Juliet) or cause us to underappreciate other important characteristics of a loving relationship. Is there such a thing as too much romance? Yes. Imagine how out of hand it would get if someone sent you flowers at work every hour on the hour, day in day out, as a symbol of love. Romance like this is absurd. On the other hand, valuing romance too little can lead us to neglect the intoxicating and provocative, making a relationship monotonous, boring, and platonic. Couples who forget the importance of romantic gestures like love notes, gifts, sensual kisses, and moments of passion are likely nothing more than good friends. Even though romance has a tendency to ebb and flow, it should always play an important role in defining and sustaining a romantic relationship.  

Responsibility

He couldn’t remember a span of more than a few days between times when his dad would take him into his study to play his “games.” His earliest memories were of them playing checkers. Dad would pull out the checkerboard and every time he captured one of his pieces he was “rewarded” with a kiss, hug, or "special" touch. All of this was very confusing. He did love his dad, and honestly—horribly—some of the touching felt good. It piqued his interest but he also hated it, and the secrecy, and the inescapable feeling that something was very wrong.

When he got older, his father didn’t bother with the checkers anymore. What they did together instead was drink. At nine or ten he remembers his dad mixing vodka and with orange juice so it wouldn’t burn his throat. The alcohol made it easier to make it through what happened next.

By the time he was 13, he was in the habit of picking fights with his dad so his younger siblings could avoid their father’s wrath. These moments reminded him why he hated his mother, who should have been there to protect them but had left the family years before. Although his dad never confirmed it, he had heard rumors that she overdosed not long after abandoning them.

At sixteen, he had had enough. He left a note with the school counselor informing her that his dad had been abusing him. Immediately after, he got scared, packed a bag, and ran away, believing that his father would have killed him as soon as he found out.

It wasn’t long after he left home that he made friends with a woman who taught him how to survive on the streets. She also introduced him to heroin, which had the magical ability to make him feel good and forget his past. That was nearly three years ago. He has stuck with her—and heroin—ever since.

In order to keep up with their need for dope, they turn tricks and rob someone when they are in especially dire straits. The hooking doesn’t really bother him but the robbery sometimes does. He isn’t proud of how rough he was with a woman they robbed recently. He just loses his mind sometimes when he gets dope sick. That’s why he’s decided to stick to the hooking. For him it is a means to an end. Even though the Johns reminded him of his father, they’re not all bad. They make it possible for him to get the dope that takes him to the only place where he feels no pain.  

If you read last week's blog on judgment, you have probably figured out this story is about the same young man who played a part in that post’s vignette. If you were tempted to judge him before, hopefully you’re over that now.

Morality

Because there is a difference between judging a person and judging a behavior, we can say that humans in general have a moral responsibility to do good and still refrain from judging a particular person who does evil. We are able to do this when we understand that people can have very different understandings of right and wrong. For example, the young man in the vignette, because of horrific abuse and lack of loving care, is likely to have a distorted sense of morality compared to someone raised in a loving, supportive home. We need to remember that there are people who have no idea what is morally right or wrong and should therefore be judged differently than those who know better.

My first job in the mental health field was as a residential treatment counselor for severely abused children ages 5-15. It was in this setting that I worked with sexual predators as young as five years old. Yes, that is correct. I have worked with clients as young as five who have raped another human being (usually a younger sibling). Now, every single one of the child perpetrators I met was a survivor of horrific sexual abuse. I am open to the idea that some—if not all—of these children had a warped understanding of right and wrong. If this is true, I do not believe they were born with a perverted sense of morality; I believe their upbringing had robbed them of the opportunity to learn right from wrong. Do I think any one of us is capable of judging the hearts and minds of those children? No. Does their potential lack of moral responsibility change the fact that their behavior was wrong? No.

Accountability

When I have personal and professional discussions about judgment and responsibility, I am commonly asked something like, “Are you saying we should let terrorists, murderers, and rapists off the hook because there’s a chance they didn’t know what they were doing?” No, absolutely not. If by “off the hook” they mean allowing them to freely roam about terrorizing, murdering, and raping, no way. It is not loving to let people hurt others. I believe there is a place for punishment and prisons. What I am saying is that when we have to do something drastic like imprison someone, we should do so with sadness and empathy for the person we put behind bars.

A Responsibility to Love

My hope is that we would all feel responsible for making the world a better place. When we accept this responsibility, it is not enough to love our neighbors, we must also love our enemies. Taking on this responsibility is not easy. We need to lead by example and teach others what it means to live a life of love by fighting for justice, being eager to show mercy, and never judging someone’s heart.

Judgment

Two prostitutes stood on the sidewalk looking for work. One was a young man not more than nineteen, the other, a woman in her thirties. Both were angry at life and carried that burden on their faces. They were lost in an addiction and had long since stopped trying to hide the track marks that raced along their veins.

An old man walking down the road noticed them and immediately crossed the street to get as far away as he could. He thought, “Filthy, disgusting people. Their souls must be as black as the bruises on their arms—it’s that junk they inject into their veins. They’re the ones who attacked that woman the other day. The boy shoved her to the ground and threatened to beat her while the other one grabbed her purse. What a couple of animals. They are why this neighborhood has gotten so bad. I’ve seen them around. I’ve seen how they lie, cheat, steal, spread their legs, get on their knees, and bend over. They’ll do whatever it takes to get them their next hit. I hate people like that.”

Another old man walking the other direction noticed the young man and woman. He thought, “Oh my, there they are again. I guess they didn’t get caught after hurting that woman the other day. That was brutal. How’d they get to this point? It seems obvious they are on drugs, their bodies tell me that much. I wonder what their back stories are. If they’re hooking and using they’ve probably had it pretty rough. Is there anything I can do? Would they even let me help if I could? Gosh this neighborhood is hurting. What should I do?"

At this point the second man reached the young man and woman. He summoned up some courage, looked them both in the eyes and said, “This may sound crazy but know that I care about you. I can’t pretend to know what you’re going through—can’t even be sure you want or need my help. What I can say is that I walk this street every day and if you’re looking for someone to talk to, I’ll be around.”

Neither the young man nor the woman said anything. The second man continued walking, having no idea if he had done more harm than good. The first man, having overheard what the second had said thought, “Now there’s an even bigger idiot than the other two.”

None of us wants to be judged by others. It hurts and it does us no good (it doesn’t benefit the person who judges, either).

All of us need support and guidance at times. This requires others to judge our behavior and teach us how to live healthier, happier, more loving lives.

People

To judge people is to condemn them in our heart and mind, to write them off, to think of them as less valuable than someone else. When we judge people, we do not leave room for grace, mercy, and reconciliation. In this way, judgment fuels division and conflict. When we judge those who are different than us and do not share our values, we become intolerant, guaranteeing our misery in this diverse world. Racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice and discrimination are examples of ways we judge other people. From the Christian perspective, judging is equivalent to sending someone to heaven or hell in our heart or mind, and Christ told all his followers not to judge others (Matthew 7:1).

The effects of judging others vary. If those who are judged are particularly sensitive to the opinions of others, the judgment they receive can be devastating; if someone who is judged is highly confident and has a strong sense of self worth, any negative effects of being judged are often fleeting. When the person doing the judging is particularly powerful or if it occurs at the societal level, even the most resilient people suffer damaging effects such as the denial of their civil rights and violence.

Behavior

To judge a behavior is to decide if an action is healthy, beneficial, or consistent with a moral standard. The tools we use to judge behavior include science, philosophy, and (for some) religion. For example, we can use science to assess the harmful effects of drug abuse, philosophy to help us formulate our argument explaining why drug abuse is dangerous, and religion to help us understand why drug abuse is morally objectionable. In this way we can judge drug abuse to be unhealthy and wrong without judging the person who abuses drugs.

When we decide whether or not to voice our judgment of someone’s behavior, we need to be careful to choose words that communicate loving concern, not criticism or condemnation. Before speaking up, we should ask ourselves if our words are likely fall on deaf ears or if they will keep someone from wanting to be in relationship with us. We should do everything we can to respect others’ free will and preserve a relationship with them. When we do speak, we need to avoid using harsh language like “You make dumb decisions” and instead say something like, “I’m worried you will end up hurting yourself.” It is easy for people to confuse judging a behavior for judging a person and we need to be sensitive to this.

Intent

Without the ability to read minds and hearts, it is impossible at times to tell if someone is judging the person or the behavior. For example, the first man in the vignette could have told someone, “Those two are sick,” as a way of reinforcing his judgment of them as people. The second man could also have told someone “Those two are sick,” as a way of empathizing with their addiction and softening his heart. It is the intent behind words and actions that ultimately determines if someone is judging a person or a behavior.

Love and Judgment

When we love others, we take notice and make judgments about their behavior. It is impossible to be a good parent, spouse, or friend if we do not talk with our loved ones about our concerns from time to time.

In my next blog, I will discuss responsibility and how it relates to judgment.

Rule

That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.

The Eloquent Peasant, Egypt, c. 2160-2025 BCE

Do not do unto others whatever is injurious to yourself.

Shayast-na-Shayast 13.29, Zoroaster, 660-583 BCE

Do not to your neighbor what you would take ill from him.

Pittacus of Mytilene, c. 640-568 BCE

Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

Udanavarga 5:18, Gautama Buddha, c. 563-483 BCE

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.

Analects, Confucius, c. 551-479 BCE

In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self.

Mahavira, 540-468 BCE

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18, 538-332 BCE

One should never do wrong in return, nor mistreat any man, no matter how one has been mistreated by him.

Socrates, c. 470-399 BCE

That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

Talmud Shabbat 31, Hillel the Elder, c. 110 BCE-7 CE

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6:31, Jesus Christ, c. 3 BCE-33 CE

None of you have faith until you love for your neighbor what you love for yourself.

Sahih Muslim, Muhammad, 570-632 CE

Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself.

Tablets of Baha'u'llah 71, Baha'u'llah, 1817-1892 CE

The golden rule of conduct is mutual toleration, seeing that we will never all think alike and we shall always see truth in fragment and from different points of vision.

In Search of the Supreme, Vol. 3, Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948 CE

It is easy to get discouraged by the stories of pain and evil we read and see in the media, but we would be happier to remember that throughout history, there has been a vocal minority who has chosen to live life by the Golden Rule. Those heroes have known that the world is more beautiful when people from disparate religious, racial, ethnic, political, and ideological backgrounds choose to treat others the way they want to be treated.

How do We Want to be Treated?

In order to know how to live by the Golden Rule, we need to understand what most of us value and how we want to be treated. In the context of intimate relationships, research shows that we want emotional accessibility and responsiveness from others (Johnson, 2008) and that we thrive in relationships where we express and experience positive emotion (e.g., “I love you”) far more than negative (Gottman & Gottman, 2008). At the societal level, we want political rights and freedom and low corruption (see Diener et al., 2012 for a review).

There are individual and cultural differences in what people value and how they would like to be treated, but these differences tend to be in weight, and are not evidence that what is valued by one group is not valued at all by another. For example, financial satisfaction is more important to people living in individualistic cultures than in collectivistic cultures, but people from both cultures still see financial stability as an important component of life satisfaction (see Diener et al., 2012 for a review). 

The Means Matter

It is the Golden Rule that teaches us that the end does not justify the means. If we truly believe that we should do to others as we would have them do to us, then our response to enemies should be self-controlled, measured, and whenever possible, peaceful. Yes, there are times when we should confront an enemy in battle, but we should not revel in war or use excessive force. This is why we charge our own soldiers with war crimes when we find out they have persecuted, tortured, and used other dishonorable means when confronting the enemy. The Golden Rule does not direct us along evil paths on the journey toward a better world.  

Diversity, Intolerance, & Persecution

Sadly, all of us have had moments when we do not live by the Golden Rule. During these dark times, we respond to disagreement and diversity with intolerance and persecution. The world becomes evil when we oppress, hurt, abuse, berate, marginalize, hate, and disrespect those who are different from us.

Ideological diversity may provide the most difficult test of how much we value the Golden Rule. Nicholas Kristof, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, in an article on the challenges brought on by ideological diversity said, “We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.” He made this confession as a political liberal, but the struggle to abide by the Golden Rule in the face of ideological diversity is shared by people across the political spectrum.

Love Your Enemy

Yes, I am saying that it is possible to disagree without persecuting. To do so is a deep act of love and it is impossible if we do not value the Golden Rule.

When we do to others as we would have them do to us, disagreement can be passionate without being hurtful. The Golden Rule gives us a path to peace in a diverse world where irreconcilable differences between people groups and belief systems are inevitable.

Friendship

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Jesus Christ

Friendship is a love of choice. We are not born into it or bound to it by blood. We laugh and cry with friends. We confide in friends. We go to war with friends by our side. We seek out friends in times of joy and they come to us in moments of trouble.

How Many Friends Do You Have?

If you’ve ever thought that your friends have more friends than you, you’re probably right. Feld’s friendship paradox states that for most of us, on average, our friends have more friends than we do. This is the case because popular people are overrepresented when averaging across groups of friends. This phenomenon is dramatically illustrated on social media platforms. Hodas et al. (2013) found that the Feld friendship paradox rang true for more than 98% of Twitter users. Because the average Twitter user will follow celebrities, athletes, and popular friends who have huge followings, the size of the average user’s social network will be much smaller than the size of the average social network of the people they follow. This means that when we are trying to decide how likable we are, we should put little value in the comparative size of our social network; chances are, we are just not one of the rare popular people who have a huge group of friends.

Friendship is Good for You

Friendship is good for our health. The health benefits of friendship are primarily linked to the social support we receive from our friends. In the context of relationship science, social support most often refers to assistance, encouragement, and resources given to others that promote health and well-being. For example, a friend who encourages another friend to exercise is providing social support, a friend who encourages another friend to smoke or drink too much is not. In a review of the literature, Uchino (2009) found that social support received from friends and others has been linked to lower mortality rates, healthier diet, and a greater sense of well-being. When friends give good advice and try to help each other in ways that are not too pushy or controlling, they have a powerful and positive influence on one another’s health.

Making Friends

People most often become friends when they have regular contact with one another and they have overlapping interests. Although the same can be said of many acquaintances, what distinguishes our friendships is the level of intimacy and closeness in the relationship. The intimacy that makes a friendship strong and healthy must be established and maintained with considerable investments of time and energy.

The good news is that there appears to be friends out there for anyone who puts forth the effort to make them. Making friends just takes time and a willingness to get to know someone. In today’s internet age, finding friends is easier than ever (Amichai-Hamburger et al., 2013). No matter who you are or what you do, there is reason to hope that you will find others who like you and share your interests. For example, conducting online searches of niche hobbies such as restoring electric generators and soap making brings up videos with tens of thousands of views and comment streams filled with people ready to talk about their unsung interests. In a world with over 7 billion people, even relatively obscure tastes are shared by thousands. Of course, online friendships lack face-to-face companionship, and life circumstances such as moving to a new city or changing schools can negatively affect intimacy, but these barriers tend to be temporary for those who put the effort into building and maintaining strong relationships with friends.

What Kind of Friend are You?

Friendships will be as strong as the foundation they are built on. When friends are honest, trustworthy, loyal, and supportive (i.e., they encourage one another to make healthy choices), the friendship thrives. The friendship suffers if we leave out any of these qualities. For example, friendships may be high in trust, loyalty, and honesty but low on support; this would be the case for friends who spend a lot of time together doing very unhealthy things like doing drugs, getting into fights, and encouraging promiscuous sex. If we love our friends, we need to do our best to base our friendship on those values that will sustain and strengthen it over a lifetime.

Week Off

Next week I will not be publishing a blog post. A dear friend is getting married and we are going to get together and celebrate.

Mercy

Mercy cannot get in where mercy goes not out. The outgoing makes way for the incoming….

But the demand for mercy is far from being for the sake only of the man who needs his neighbor’s mercy; it is greatly more for the sake of the man who must show mercy.

George MacDonald

Last week, I wrote about justice and how it is a cure for many of the evils that can plague a society. Justice, and the fair play and equal opportunity it promotes, are wonderful. There is another virtue, however, that forces us to ignore justice in order to make the world a better place. This virtue is mercy and it is on display when someone shows compassion and forgiveness to anyone who is guilty.

All of us have wished for mercy at times in our lives. As children, we hoped our parents would go easy on us when we were in the wrong. When we were pulled over for speeding, we knew justice would serve us a ticket and mercy would give us a warning. Our desire for mercy shows us that we do not always want to be treated fairly and that we know the world would be much worse off without it.

Mercy Softens Hearts

Augustine said that mercy drives us to be compassionate towards the misery of others and compels us to help them if we can (The City of God, IX). If we are focused on fairness, balance, and neutrality, we will never show mercy. In order to be merciful, we have to imagine we are wearing the shackles of the guilty and ask ourselves how we would want to be treated if we were in their place. When we empathize with people in this way, our hearts soften and we are more kind and compassionate. Mercy comes from a place within us that remembers we are all imperfect and that the sinner and the saint are one in the same.

Some Wrongs Cannot Be Righted

There are wrongs so damaging that nothing can be done to restore justice. Lies cannot be unsaid. Memories of abuse are not forgotten. Fortunes lost are rarely recovered. Time wasted is never returned. The debts of human wrongdoing must often be cancelled because they can never be repaid. When receiving justice is unlikely—if not impossible—we are left with two options: to feed bitterness with revenge or to show mercy through forgiveness.

Granting mercy does at least as much for the person who shows it as it does for the person who receives it. When we show mercy through forgiveness, we unbind ourselves from anger. We become happier. We are able to look forward to the future instead of being fixated on the past. We also find that compassion teaches us lessons that discipline cannot.

Mercy Is No Fool

When mercy is shown, it is to the benefit of not only the guilty party, but to everyone. This is one of the realities that differentiate an act of mercy from enabling. When we enable others, we make it easier for them to make poor choices by robbing them of the opportunity to learn from the consequences of their actions. For example, giving money to teenagers who are wasteful spenders teaches them nothing about the importance of making shrewd financial decisions; it reinforces their faulty notion that money is something to be spent freely rather than wisely. Mercy saves people from consequences that would do them and others little good. Enabling not only lets people escape from the consequences of their actions, it encourages bad behavior. Mercy benefits all and makes the world a better place because it teaches a powerful lesson of love and forgiveness.

Room for Two

The guilty are more likely to learn from an act of mercy if they have also, at times, been justly punished. In this way, mercy and justice work together to make the world a better place. This means that we should encourage cries for justice but not let them drown out pleas for mercy. We should bless ourselves with mixed emotions and allow our desire for justice to contrast with our regard for mercy. This juxtaposition of justice and mercy is a characteristic of a righteous and humble heart.

Justice

The most dangerous thing you can do is to take any one impulse of your own nature and set it up as the thing you ought to follow at all costs. There is not one of them which will not make us into devils if we set it up as an absolute guide. You might think love of humanity in general was safe, but it is not. If you leave out justice you will find yourself breaking agreements and faking evidence in trials ‘for the sake of humanity’, and become in the end a cruel and treacherous man.

C.S. Lewis

Life is not fair. Not everyone is born with health and beauty. Some amass wealth while others live in poverty. The most fortunate are born into a loving home and yet so many others must get through life with little support from others. There are many reasons why the world is unfair; a few of these are within our power to change (e.g., political corruption), but far too many are outside of our control (e.g., genetics, natural disasters). Intelligence, strength, artistic ability, and valuable resources are certainly not spread evenly across the population and they never will be.

In response to unfairness in this world, humankind has sought justice throughout its history. The call for justice is a righteous one. The ancient Jews, when harmed, cried for a “…life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” Confucius said “Recompense injury with justice and recompense kindness with kindness.” Justice is a virtue and it has been highly valued across cultures and eras.

Intent Matters

It is difficult at times to distinguish a virtue like justice from a vice like revenge. In action, they may look identical. Revenge puts a murderer in jail hoping he is tortured. Justice puts a murderer in jail hoping the community is a safer place because of it. It is the intent behind the action that differentiates justice from vengeance.

A bitter heart will seek revenge and call it justice. If we are honest with ourselves, most of us will admit that we have masked resentful demands for retribution as cries for justice. Mistaking vengeance for justice feeds bitterness and prevents us from moving past moments when we have been treated unfairly.

The noble pursue justice through considerate, determined, forthright, and loving means. The quest for justice is motivated by a desire to do what is right for others and ourselves. Vengeance is focused on the past, whereas justice is concerned with the present and the future. When we seek justice, we do not look back in anger; we look forward in the hope that our actions will bring more peace and fairness to the world.

Social Justice

Justice is related to fair play and equal opportunity. It is not a synonym for equality. A fair race does not always end in a tie. A just society provides equal protection under the law; it cannot guarantee equal wealth, equal health, and happy lives for all.

Justice is Elusive

If we are going to strive for justice, we need to be patient and determined, even if we never see the fruits of our labor. Tyrants often outlive the people they persecute and corrupt systems can take generations to topple. History is full of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln who were struck down during their campaigns for justice. Not all of those who battle for justice will live to enjoy it, but many of their children do. We should seek justice because it is the right thing to do, not because we are certain to find it for ourselves.

Justice has a Drawback

As wonderful as justice is, we should remember that it is only one of the virtues, and that there would be problems if it alone directed society’s actions. For example, justice leaves no room for mercy. All of us at some point in our lives have wished to be shown mercy. Mercy, though by definition unjust, is nonetheless beautiful. This shows us that even justice shouldn’t stand alone as the virtue that supersedes all others.

Next week I will be writing more about mercy and how it plays an important role in building a better society.

Power

Creatures so close to each other as husband and wife, or a mother and children, have powers of making each other happy or miserable with which no public coercion can deal.
 

G.K. Chesterton

Power has many faces. It exerts itself through avenues including politics, relationships, art, science, and nature. Power itself is morally neutral and can be used to further causes for good or evil. Political power is often hard to ignore; it is loud; it is in your face. Power in relationships is shared to some degree between lovers, friends, and family members. It can intensify feelings of love just as easily as it can deepen a sense of betrayal. Power is displayed through paint and song, rousing both tears and laughter. Power lifts rockets to other worlds and emits blasts that level cities. The awesome power of nature directs atoms and galaxies alike and never ceases to amaze those who seek to understand it.

Desire

We should be very careful how we seek power. Feeding a desire for power is like tending a fire. If we respect the power of fire, we light a small amount of kindling and slowly add sticks and logs to gradually build a fire that stays bright and warm. Likewise, a healthy pursuit of power is founded in respect for others, humility, and a desire to bring light and warmth to dark and cold places. If we don’t respect the power of fire, we may take a match to huge amounts of straw, sticks, and wood doused with gasoline, igniting an explosion that burns and destroys. Similarly, an impatient, greedy, lustful desire for power brings devastating ruin.  

Power Processes

Happiness and misery are not the products of power, rather, they are consequences of how power is pursued and wielded.

The parent-child relationship offers a telling context where we can observe how power can be used to bring harmony or conflict. The best parents realize they do not have control over their children, only over their children’s access to resources. Parents who understand this use power to influence their children, not to micromanage them. In the marriage and family therapy field, we call this an authoritative parenting style. Authoritative parents are warm, loving, and set clear boundaries by helping children understand the consequences of their actions. Authoritative parents of a fussy eater would say something like, “I love you and want you to eat healthy. If you don’t finish your vegetables, I won’t give you any dessert.” Authoritarian parents, on the other hand, wield power like a dictator. These parents will engage in power struggles with their children because they forget that their kids cannot be forced to bend to their will. Authoritarian parents of a fussy eater would say something like “You better eat those vegetables before I make you eat them! Do you want a spanking? That’s it, give me that spoon, I’ll feed you myself. Hey, don’t you run away from me! GET BACK HERE OR ELSE!” Authoritarian parenting increases distress through unproductive conflict whereas authoritative parenting increases understanding through boundary setting.

All of Us Have Power

We should not forget that everyone has power. Even the most helpless among us, an infant, reminds us of this with the power of a cry. Admittedly, it is easy for many of us to forget we have power when we compare ourselves to the few among us who live in the public spotlight. Yet, we must remember that power comes in many forms. And if we want the world to be a better place, the worst thing we can do is convince ourselves that we have no power and do nothing.

When we are discouraged by the world, we can show strength by setting a good example. If we are oppressed, we can display power through resilience. If we are privileged, we can use our position to partner with the persecuted. If we are wronged, we can show strength through forgiveness. If we have wealth, we can feed and thus empower the hungry. We need to remember that power has no agenda and it can be used even more effectively for good than for evil. Using power to effect change for the better is not without its trials, but it remains a holy and noble calling.

The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender.

In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor.

G. K. Chesterton

Influence

This declared indifference, but, as I must think, real, covert zeal, for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world, enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty, criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.

Abraham Lincoln’s Reply to Senator Douglas at Peoria, Illinois, 1854.

Everyone has the ability to influence others. The size and scope of one’s influence does, of course, vary greatly, but the fact remains that all of us have the power to influence those around us.

Lincoln saw it as his moral responsibility to try to influence others to embrace freedom and justice for all and end slavery. He knew that influence itself could be used to effect change for good or evil and did his best to use his influence for good. When Lincoln shared these thoughts in 1854 he did not hold a political office and that would be the case until he was sworn in as president in 1861 (he lost bids for the Senate in 1855 and 1858). He could have allowed his lack of political position to silence his voice, but fortunately for all of us, he used what influence he had to shape policy from afar and put himself in position to be nominated as the Republican candidate for president in 1860.

Systems and Influence

In this age of celebrity and social media, it is easy to become enamored with the individual. Entertainers, athletes, politicians, and other dominant personalities take center stage and we can be quick to forget how interrelated the world is. If we are not one of the few who have developed a large following, we may feel powerless, as if we have no influence on the world around us.  

In the 1940s, mathematicians, physicists, engineers, and scientists developed a theory that recognized the world was made up of complex systems, not isolated individuals. Systems theory has since become foundational to work that cuts across disciplines including psychology, cybernetics, biology, sociology, and engineering.

One of the assumptions of systems theory is that all members of a system influence one another. When we look at humanity as a huge interrelated system with billions of members, this means that even the youngest, oldest, and quietest people influence those around them. Babies compel their parents to action with a cry. A child redirects classroom conversation with the raising of a hand. The artist alters a gallery’s perspective with a splash of color. The politician sways public opinion with words spoken from a lectern. If you weren’t aware that you influence others, it is worthwhile to ask yourself what kind of impact you are having on the people around you.

Values

Our values play a significant role in determining what kind of influence we have on the world. If we think highly of hard work, we will do our best in all things while exhorting others to do the same. If we appreciate beauty, we will likely lift the spirits of our friends with paint, clay, poetry, or song. If we do to others as we would have them do to us, we cause love to grow in the hearts of not just our neighbors but also our enemies. When we value love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, we influence others for good. When we live a life of love, we cast light in the darkest parts of our home, neighborhood, city, and world.

The Election

This November, many of us in the United States will influence the outcome of the presidential election. It is difficult to grasp, but history teaches us that every vote is important. I admit it has been discouraging at times to see how candidates treat one another and to hear the vitriolic din of some of the electorate. Still, I am grateful to live in a country where freedom of speech lifts the voices of its people and democracy allows the individual to influence the direction of the nation.