The Capitol asks you to consider…

So, “The Hunger Games” is (are?) upon us, this time in film form!  I read the books over the fall and was taken with the characters, the story, and the way the story was told.  I could probably spend 20 blog posts considering various psychological elements of the book (and plan to dig in with a couple of characters over the next week) but what keeps coming to my mind today is the eerie similarity between the current excitement over the film coming out and the excitement in the book amongst the residents of the Capitol over the annual Hunger Games.  When we sit back and consider, the vast majority of us who read these books have more in common with the vapid and occasionally cruel residents who fill the capital than with the individuals fighting for survival every day in the districts.  This is interesting, because we all read the books and want to be identified with Katniss and her friends (did you see any halloween costumes of Peacekeepers, Game Makers, or President Snow?).  We want to be aligned with the righteously angry, those who rebel against injustice, and those who protect the weak among us.  This is why I love literature; it provokes us to examine our lives and assumptions and can drive us to change.  So, before you pre-purchase tickets to the Friday showing, let’s take a moment to ask some questions:

1)  Consider where the majority of your time, talent, and energy goes.  What does your use of time tell you about what you value?  Is it time for an adjustment?

2)  How does the relative comfort and plenty of the world we live in shape how you view your problems and the problems of others?

3)  We aspire to be people who are heroes to those who are hurting–what are simple ways you can be a “hero” to someone around you?  Are their opportunities to make a difference around you that you may be missing?

The point of this is NOT that being comfortable and content is bad–it would be wonderful if all were comfortable and content.  Instead, the point is to urge consideration of the world outside of ourselves.  There are various times where Katniss remarks on the self-absorption of the people she meets in the Capitol with their abiding focus on clothes, gossip, and the next Hunger Games.  Their downfall is not what they enjoy or the life they happen to have been dealt, but their lack of concern for others and understanding that others are struggling around them.  My readers of Christian faith will recognize that caring for those in need is a call and command in various Bible passages that encourage the church to look after the widows and orphans in their midst (Deut. 10:17-19, James 1:27).

Make sure that you aren’t missing places you can make a difference, even in a small way.  Talk to the quiet person at church or in the office, put some granola bars in your car to give the man on the street corner, use your couponing skills to enable you to give food to a local shelter.  Most of the time being a “hero” simply starts with opening our eyes to the reality of the world around us and having the courage to engage.

Take-out Version: Stay engaged with the world around you–how can you be a hero to someone in need?


Their end, her beginning

Miss Edith Carr.  If the reader finds his or her feelings regarding Kate Comstock confusing in A Girl of the Limberlost, Edith provides an equal conundrum.

We initially meet Edith through the eyes of her fiance, Philip, who has come to the town near Elnora’s house to recover from a long illness.  Philip is devoted her for her beauty and refinement and they have known each other for many years.  Though devoted, we see Philip’s definition of a quality woman expand as he grows to know Elnora and appreciate her vitality, hard work, and love of nature.  He does not fully recognize it himself, but the seeds of a love relationship are being planted.

When Philip returns to Chicago we begin to see Edith more fully and see how she has a carefully cultivated image of self as being irresistible to all comers and worthy of worship by the man in her life.  She occasionally will end the engagement with Philip in a fit, but he manages to soothe the temper and reunite them.  Their relationship is finally broken when she is magnificently dressed in a gown designed in the purples and yellows of the emperor moth for their engagement party and when a live emperor moth appears at the party, Philip leaves her side briefly to send it to Elnora.  Edith then (rightly) understands that there is a deeper connection there than she imagined and is angry that he would try to make her like the moth which represents Elnora to him.  In this she is rightly angry (in my opinion).  However, it seems that another root of her anger is in her pride being wounded due to her belief that she has full power over Philip and that his role is to cater to her every whim.  In her anger she publicly throws her ring on the ground, ending their engagement.

What follows is the humbling of Edith Carr.  In spite of being warned that Philip will not return after so public a break, she fully believes herself irresistable to him and demonstrates this in many ways.  When she fails to lure him back we see her begin to come to terms with the true nature of her attachment to him and how little she actually brought to the relationship.  Ultimately, she is broken to the point where she sends a message to Philip’s regarding Elnora’s location (Elnora having gone away to give Edith time to try out her plans to lure Philip back.  Philip at this point has been hospitalized for “brain fever” due to his distress over not being able to find her).  It is this action that shows that in her loss Edith has come to fully understand what it means to love another.

In an era that often sees love as something that you seek to get and earn we can learn from Edith’s struggle with her distorted view of what a marriage relationship should look like.  In her distortion, she believed that love was built on being something that others adored and expected that adoration to be shown in indulgences of all kinds.  When she has come to terms with her own imperfections we then see her wrestle with accepting that she is worthy of being loved.  Both of these are fallacies that many embrace.  The first is that love is about me having exactly what I want and desire and the second, that I have to be deserving of love to obtain it.  Both of these distortions belie the fact that healthy love is a gift.  It is not a commodity or something to be demanded.  It is not earned (if so, what infant could ever account for the depth of parental love).  Love requires the sacrifice of the giver–sometimes of time, sleep, comfort, or even sacrificing the safety of invulnerability.  In a healthy relationship there will be mutual care and sacrifice (we can discuss another day the difference between love and co-dependency) leading to both parties having their needs met.

Edith is at peace with herself, Elnora, and Philip at the end of the book–she is worn from her emotional struggle, but ready to move forward.  She struggled with whether she was still lovable after discovering that she was selfish because her original view of love was built on a concept that certain people earned it, fortunately we see her embrace a broader view and allow herself to be loved in a tender and deep way.

Take-out Version:  Love is something we should seek to give, not earn.  Take time to consider both how you give love in your relationships and your beliefs about who you have to be to receive love.

Free to dance

Its time for Part II of our Limberlost series!  I actually find Elnora’s mother, Kate, to be one of the most intriguing characters in the book.  Those of you who commented that you plan to read the book, this will contain some plot spoilers so you may wish to wait and read it in the future!

We meet Kate Comstock as she is sending her daughter off to her first day at the High School in the nearby town.  She is critical of Elnora’s appearance and we later learn has intentionally witheld information from her in hopes of souring her educational dreams with reality.  Her bitterness is mystifying for the reader.  We know throughout the tale that she lost her husband while Elnora was an infant and that she has memorialized him by refusing to cut timber on their land, keeping his clothing in place in her room, and on many nights weeping openly and loudly for him at the edge of the swamp where she helplessly watched him drown.  We eventually learn that her weakness from childbirth left Kate unable help her husband when he was drowning, leading to the wedge of grief between her and her child–a grief that she has nurtured and kept alive over the years.

The author does a wonderful job of allowing us to see that Kate is not merely driven by bitterness but also exudes strength as a woman who values self-reliance and wisdom.  Most likely she would always have been austere and practical in how she expressed emotion, spent money, and related with others.  We are given glimpses into the good parts of Kate–the woman who is secretly hurt when her daughter seeks out others for comfort, who is surprised at the magnitude of her daughter’s accomplishments, who is slowly softening towards her daughter, though she barely recognizes it in herself.  It is tempting to hate her and yet we see how not all that she does for her daughter is misguided, even when it stings.  The reader is not allowed to be comfortable in bitterness either.

The turning point in Kate’s life comes when her sister-in-law finally reveals the truth that Kate’s husband died because he was trying to avoid being seen returning from the house of another woman.  This truth shatters Kate’s glorified image of the man she was married to for barely one year and frees her to reach out and love the living.  We see Kate become free to enjoy life, enjoy her daughter’s talents, take pride in her appearance, and cease living in fear.

There is a beautiful image in the book where Kate asks Elnora to play the violin for her, (Elnora having hidden the talent she inherited from her father for many years), and we see Kate begin to dance in the moonlight.  Whether it is intentional or not, it brings to mind the well-known passage from Ecclesiastes 3 that contrasts the time for mourning with a time for dancing.  Learning the truth about her husband was a catalyst, but she had made many small changes along the way that had chipped away at her bitterness and had the humility to let go when she realized her grief was hung on a hollow image.

She stands as both reminder and warning to examine the grief and resentment we hold close to our hearts.  Grief is normal and will be part of certain seasons of life.  It is healthy to walk through the sadness and anger with the understanding that there is a new life on the other side–one partly shaped by the grief–but life indeed.  Kate chose to keep the grief alive rather than to walk through it and resume emotionally connecting with others.  Be aware if your grief begins excusing you from engaging in life and loving those around.  The good news is that there is always space for healing and for claiming the future years for many a dance in the moonlight.

Take-out Version: Grief is normal, grief is good, grief can bring change, but grief that isolates and embitters should be examined.



Struggle is just one part of the story

Did you ever read “The Girl of the Limberlost” by Gene Stratton-Porter when you were growing up?  The blurb on the back of the book boils it down to a tale about a girl with a harsh mother creatively providing for herself to obtain an education, but it is a tale of grief, pain, selfishness, and ultimately, healing.  I’m going to spend the next few posts considering the arcs of Elnora (the main character), her mother Kate, and Miss Edith Carr and how each woman struggles and grows through the story. 

Elnora Comstock falls in line with many quintessential “American” hero stories.  She comes from a difficult life and through creative thinking and hard work is able to be successful in the world, much to the surprise of her mother.  She is kind and always open to helping others, which quickly gains her the love of those who know her–her mother being the one exception.  She would be welcomed by modern women for her self-reliance and determination to find her way in the world on her own, but she then surprises the modern reader though in her eventual reconciliation with her Mother.  Our culture is often so greatly focused on leaving unhealthy relationships that we forget that there is the possibility for healing in certain circumstances.  The modern reader may also be surprised by Elnora’s personal faith and how this sustains her in difficult times.  We see her reaching out in prayer during times of need and being surprised at how God responds.

So what do we learn from this?

1)  Pain is a double-edged sword that can make people both stronger and weaker.  Elnora did not give up in the face of her pain and found strength.

2)  A little love and caring can go a long way in a hurting person’s life.  Elnora did not receive the emotional care she needed from her mother as she was growing up, but others in the community took the time to provide emotional comfort and to help her care for her other needs.  Though she may not have known it, this helped shape her into a loving person.

3)  Focus on goals rather than limitations.  This led to many opportunities for Elnora.  Certainly she mourned and occasionally despaired over how to achieve her goals, but she never fully gave up hope and (again) she engaged with those around her who were able to offer advice and assistance to help her keep moving forward.

4)  Keep your eyes open to see how God may be working, even in difficult times.  Elnora puts her faith in the Christian God and is surprised by how her simple faith is rewarded via answered prayers.  I realize not all my readers will believe there is truth to this, but I encourage you to be open and look for the influence of God’s providence in your life.

5)  Always remain open to relationships being healed.  Elnora’s mother eventually realized her misguided grief and anger and sought to reconcile with Elnora.  Because Elnora accepted this change in her mother they were both rewarded with healing and reunion.  (Note: this does not mean that all individuals who have been harmful must be accepted with open arms.  Elnora had come to an understanding of her mother’s personal pain and how it drove their separateness, therefore she was prepared to accept the change.)

Take these as points to ponder to see how they might apply to your life.  Is there a child you can give some extra care and support?  Is it time for you to allow healing to melt the resentment in a relationship?  Do you need to focus on hope to help you keep your eyes open for good opportunities?  Elnora’s world had many idyllic outcomes, but we can  aspire to emulate the hope and healing demonstrated in the book.

Take-out version:  Keep your eyes open for hope and healing as you walk through the pain, you may be surprised what you find.

A new story for St. Valentine’s Day

It seems like Valentine’s Day elicits strong emotions all around whether they are happy, angry, or sad.  I’ll admit to not being sure what the origin of its celebration is in U.S. history, but it has become a holiday focused on romantic love, particularly its sexual expression.  We are trained to ignore the other loving relationships in our lives and to feel sad and mopey if we don’t have a date (I’ll admit it, I’ve been there!).  I encourage all who are reading this to take a moment and consider the many individuals in your life who care for and love you–friends, parents, nieces, nephews, co-workers, and beyond.  How would today be different if you focused on the varied ways that you are loved outside of a romantic relationship and expressed your care in return?  If you are in a romantic relationship, what if you focused less on having the “perfect valentines” and more on giving a great valentines?

My main point is not that its bad to be sad or mopey if you don’t have a date or didn’t get a valentine, but that you have the ability to write your own story for today.  We know very little about the actual St. Valentine, so be free to write your own “love story” and let it include the breadth of love and care in your life.  Invite a friend for dinner, fix your pets a special treat, send a valentine to your grandmother, create your own V-day tradition–you might be surprised how much love you have around you!

Take-out Version: Love comes in many forms beyond the romantic–what will your Valentine’s love story be?

Small problems are problems too…

I’ve been trying to finish this blog post for over a week now and I keep struggling to bring it to life.  This is ironic because I’m writing on the topic of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and book about, ahem, the undead.  In order to not bury what I want to say too deep in this post, this book presents a stirring picture of the dangers of avoiding our problems and assuming that when an overarching goal is reached, the problems will disappear.

Here’s a quick recap:  In the tale, the main characters become deeply acquainted with the work of Dracula when they see their friend Lucy transformed into a hardened creature of the undead.  These men then become so focused on destroying Dracula himself, that they ignore the small signs of his preying on the other woman of their party.  She (Mina) ignores the signs as well even though she watched Lucy’s demise.  We see how the group’s knowledge from observing Lucy leads them to feel safe, but their focus on pursuing Dracula blinds them to what is in front of their eyes (Mina being targeted).  They almost lose Mina to the same fate as Lucy from their tunnel vision.

Going back to my original point, the character’s assume Mina’s fatigue is due to stress and will be resolved when their task is over.  We walk around saying, “well, when I get promoted I won’t have to spend so much time at the office and my marriage/relationship with kids/money problems will improve.”  Sure, sometimes changes in jobs do help with these problems, but if you are focused on the wrong issue (a better job will solve this) rather than the real issue (I need to tend to my relationships) then by the time the goal is reached the other problems have created deep damage that is difficult to repair.  In the story above, the difference between Mina’s survival and Lucy’s was understanding and intervention.  Once they acknowledged that the problem was more than Mina’s tiredness and intervened, they had the possibility to prevent her transformation as well.  The lesson we can take away is to acknowledge the problems in your life that seem small and deal with them.  You can work on relationships, debt, personal emotional health, etc. while pursuing other goals.  You may find that your goals are easier to reach with out the small problems weighing you down!

Take-out Version:  Don’t assume solving the big problem will resolve the smaller ones–take time to resolve issues as they arise!

A story has many pieces.

We focused in the last post on shame and how our culture potentially over-uses job and career as a source of value.  I wanted to take a moment to look at the other point the Parrot quote touched on, which was the aspect of guilt in job loss.  I would venture to say that most who have lost a job (and have a sense of responsibility and realistic view of self) can also point to areas of job performance where they had not done their best or had been slacking off in some capacity.  This can lead to a sense of guilt for having contributed to the job loss—or even precipitating the event.  I am not going to pretend that this is always an erroneous thought.  It is possible that your actions (or non-actions) contributed to the loss.  It is important to be honest in acknowledging that you were not the perfect employee (who is?), but don’t jump to writing that as the story’s end.  Guilt is a double-edged sword that can equally spur us towards change or towards a morass of self-loathing.  In lieu of gross misconduct, generally the job loss is situational, a reflection of a much broader situation than just your work as an employee.  Many counselors believe that it is best to look at situations individuals face as being one part of a system.  If you apply that to your job situation, then you, and consequently your job performance, are only one element within the job “system”  There is also your boss, your co-workers, the clients, and so forth.  Consequently, when the client loses money and cuts your company’s contract, your company also loses money and then has to decide how long they can continue to carry their current costs.  Perhaps last month your performance was adequate, but now they can’t afford to keep paying you–performance aside.  Or, when you were hired the company agreed to provide training to prepare you for your work, but then they lost that account and no longer had the ability or resources to bring you up to speed.  Or, your work was fine, but so was Suzy’s and they decided to keep her around in a toss-up decision.

Guilt is fueled by the thought of “I should have done X…”  You may be correct in your assessment (you could have done your job better/more faithfully/more consistently), but you also may be taking on too much responsibility for a decision that was not yours.  Your employer made the decision—they could equally have made a decision to make a different budget cut/find a different way to train you/let Suzy go/whatever scenario applies to your situation.  Remember that you only know the story from your perspective.  Step back, take a breath, and realize that you were one piece of the broader story, not the whole.

Take-out Version:  Guilt might be based on partial truth, but it shouldn’t be allowed to paralyze you.  Acknowledge your mistakes, but realize they are only one part of the story!

If I’m Not My Job, Who am I?

In the process of preparing to lead a group that focuses on the emotional impact of job loss I was recently reading sections of Les and Leslie Parrot’s “The Career Counselor.”  The book lives up to its title and addresses many topics surrounding career counseling, but a section highlighting the various stages of emotion an individual may experience at the time of the job loss particularly stood out in this reading.  I’ll refer directly to the author’s words:

 Shame occurs with the loss of a job because the disapproval is from some authority with power to judge.  When a worker has been fired, it feels as if everyone disapproves.  Guilt comes from what I do.  Shame comes from who I am.  If I am fired, I must be an  unworthy person (Parrott and Parrott, p. 177).

Now, the CBT therapist in me wants to point out that you think everyone disapproves, leading you to feel sad/ashamed/ rejected, etc.  That point aside, this cuts to the heart of why a job loss is difficult, regardless of the circumstances.  The loss demonstrates to individuals that they are no longer good enough for the thing that took up the majority of their waking hours for months and (possibly) years—the thing that they were once recruited for, promised would be long-term, sacrificed for, and struggled to hold onto—this thing now sends the message, “sorry, you’re expendable.”  As the quote points out, being fired, regardless of the circumstances, can drown out all previous positive feedback in its finality.  As noted by Parrot et. al., the reaction to this feedback is often shame.  Naturally no one likes negative feedback, but why is job loss so powerful that an individual can become deflated overnight?  Isn’t a job a merely a tool that enables you to feed your family, afford shelter, perhaps even to afford fun vacations?  Don’t we all complain about having to go to our jobs week in and week out?  Logically, we might expect the first reaction to be fear for how to provide rather than a sudden loss of confidence.  Logically we know a job can be replaced and that the loss does not negate the years of experience and successes, yet it is a struggle for individuals to hang on to that knowledge–a truth echoed by those who minister to individuals walking this path.  Sometimes I wonder if the experience of shame is heightened by our society where we are trained to compare ourselves with others by our work.  Would you know how to start a conversation with a stranger without asking about his or her career?  This is taken as normal, yet other cultures do not necessarily look to this as the first point of inquiry.  Valuing job as a marker of status may be neutral, but it is important to consider that we can define ourselves by other things.  The unemployment period can be beneficial in that it allows an individual to consider values around work, relationships, self-care, and more.  Perhaps for you this is a time to explore where your identity is grounded.  Do you look to your work, your relationships, or your accomplishments to find value?  Or do you base your value on an acknowledgement that you are a person of worth regardless of your external trappings?  For my readers of faith, do you take time to realize your value to God?  Losing a job will always be a time of uncertainty, fear, and lead to struggles with self-worth but it does not have to be a time where you become lost in these struggles.  If you are struggling with shame after job loss take a breath, reach out to a friend, and consider your value as a person apart from your work–you might be surprised what you discover!

Take-out Version:  An identity based on what you do crumbles easily.  How would it be different if you weren’t defined by your job?  How would you define yourself?

New Year, New Blog

I am glad that you have found your way to my blog!  Blogging is everywhere these days and as I began forging my way in the world of counseling I wanted to offer a blog as a way for individuals to obtain helpful thoughts on life and relationships.  I soon realized that this was great–but every other counselor was writing about the same thing!  As I put down the book in my hand to think up a solution I realized that my love of literature might indeed be the answer.  In the world of counseling we often suggest books and movies to our clients that we anticipate will either bring help or illumination to a concept.  I think sometimes people are more open to the lessons of stories because they come to them to find escape and entertainment and then accidentally find help, whereas they may be closed off to other voices of wisdom surrounding their situations.  So, I bring to you my thoughts on life lessons within books, articles, movies, and more as I encounter them, with the hope that you will learn and grow from these observations.  This is not a blog where you will find the “5 steps to better ____” but the lovers of the bullet point may skip to the end of my posts for the provided summaries!  For the story lovers, this blog is designed to bring together my love of literature and my desire to promote healthy relationships both with self and others.

I hope for this to be a place for both depth and fun, so feel free to smile or laugh when you think you should!  Look for posts about once a week (initially), and I hope that you will follow along on this journey!