Friday, March 28, 2014

Helplessness, Prayer, Serenity

The days that hurt the most at my job are the days I feel helpless. Yesterday I saw a family with a couple small kids, and although I can't tell you what was going on I can say that it wasn't good. Best case scenario is that there are a couple of sad, scared, confused little kids out there today, and worst case scenario is that there are a couple of neglected, sad, scared, confused little kids out there who can't get in touch with someone who will help them. Sometimes people just stink. No one I called about the situation seemed to believe there was much that could or should be done, which left me feeling angry, scared, and sad. And helpless.

After a lot of self-reflection and observation of my colleagues, I'm pretty sure that everyone who goes into medicine has two characteristics in common. The first is a desire to help, rescue, fix and save other people. The second is a desire to be always in control, capable, competent, and powerful. Medical training reinforces those characteristics, but as far as I have seen they are present in every medical student, right from the start. I'm sure you can imagine how troublesome this is. Saving others and being in control are pretty much doomed projects from the start. My training has taught me to work with these traits. I do my best to recognize when I'm operating out of these paired desires and to soften myself, my stance, my actions. To accept my limitations, to recognize that rescuing isn't even always wise or right, to know that presence can be enough at times. To be honest, it's an up and down kind of struggle. Those twin pulls can be terribly powerful at times. Particularly when there are children involved. 

There's a prayer that speaks to a lot of people, that I've seen quoted in more books and websites then I can conveniently remember, that addresses this struggle. It's called the serenity prayer and I'm sure you've heard it. "Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." It's credited to Reinhold Neibuhr and it's used in addictions treatment, in mindfulness books, in memoirs, and by pretty much anyone who has ever struggled with a tough situation. Which is pretty much everyone.

I believe this prayer is wise but I'm not very good at it. I find myself more inclined to inwardly scream and rage than serenely accept what I can't change. So, while I pray quite a lot at work, my prayers tend to sound more like this: Please, Lord, please. Intervene. Protect these kids. Do what people won't or can't. Please help. Please be with this person. Please soften that person's heart. Please bring healing, bring comfort, bring grace to this person or this situation or this family. Please give me the wisdom, strength and courage to help. 

I don't know if my praying helps. On my good days, my days filled with trust, I believe it does. I believe that it makes a difference to others. On my not so good days, the days filled with doubt and anger, I at least know that praying makes a difference to me, that it keeps me showing up and trying to help. Even when I can't change things. Even when I'm helpless. I guess the balancing point of serenity for me is to trust (or at least hope) that's enough.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


I ran with my daughter the other day. We were at the local rec center for her variety zone class and the focus for the day was gym time. The teacher set up an obstacle course with all kinds of things to crawl under and climb over and at the end were a series of orange cones to zig-zag around. We were all goofing around and so I started running the cones as well, and then my daughter wanted me to hold her hands and so we were zig-zagging together, laughing like fools. Later she got fidgety waiting for her turn to do a somersault so we took a lap around the indoor track, hand in hand.

Running with a 3 year old is just joyful. It's freedom and motion and laughter, it's chase me and catch me and  it's taking a walk break when she says "I'm tired of running now" and running again when she says "I'm tired of walking now!" There are no timers, no goals, no concerns about pace. It's running for the sheer joy of motion.

My relationship with running has been back and forth over the years. There was a time as a child when I ran the way my daughter does now - just because running was fun, because walking was too slow, because I had so much energy and speed just felt good. I can remember this, but I also remember adults telling me to stop, slow down, walk, don't run. So, I stopped running.

There was a time in my life I would have told you I hated running. I didn't want to sweat, didn't want to be out of breath, didn't want to feel that stitch in my side or the ache in my legs. However the Air Force decided to switch its (at that time) annual physical fitness test to running about 2 years into my 9 year active duty commitment. This required some adjustment on my part. I started to run again because I had to. I bitterly envied those people who could not run all year and then pass the test running fast enough to score a perfect mark. I knew I was not and would not ever be one of those people. The phrase 'natural athlete' does not describe me. So I started running. I used various programs, usually some walk-run variation. I found some couch to 5K podcasts that I really liked and that helped. I never became fast but I got better, and I managed to squeak out a pass on my test each year.

When I was deployed running became something else. It was something to do, something that filled up some of the empty time and felt productive. It was also a way to fit in, to socialize with others. Many of the staff in my clinic were running the monthly 5-K's and so I signed up for those too, trying each time to get better. After the races we would talk about the run and our times. Mine was always the slowest but at least I was out there with them. Running was very slowly becoming easier and more fun. After my deployment I signed up for a half-marathon with my husband and we both finished it. That was hard, but also fun. It felt amazing to say I had run a half-marathon. It felt so cool, so foreign to my self-concept as a chubby nerd, but indisputably something I had accomplished.

Pregnancy put a major stop to my running for a while. I was completely wiped out the first trimester and then I was uncomfortable trying to run with what felt like a bowling ball inside my pelvis. I scaled back to slowly walking a few miles a day. Once my daughter was born finding time to run became more difficult. My husband and I had always run together, but now one of us had to stay home with our daughter. We considered a jogging stroller but the obstacles we discovered were 1) you aren't supposed to use one until a baby is 6 months and has better head and neck tone, so you don't hurt the baby with the jostling and 2) jogging strollers with a 6 month old baby inside are heavy and not much fun to run with and 3) you'd have to be insane to wake up a sleeping baby to take her running with you early in the morning. I didn't like running alone in the dark so we got a treadmill and I slowly started getting back into shape.

I ran another half marathon when my daughter was about 18 months old, which was a little less fun than the first since my husband was watching our daughter and didn't train or run with me. I wanted to run it to show my daughter that women can run and that fitness is fun. I trained hard (ok, well, harder) and ran a littler faster than I ran the first half-marathon. My husband and daughter met me at the finish line and I felt incredibly proud but after that I fell off the running wagon. It wasn't much fun to get up before dawn to run alone on a treadmill before heading to work. I still feel anxious running alone in the dark outside. So I stopped. I gained weight, which made running slower and less fun when I did take a stab at it. Then I broke my ankle, and I couldn't walk or run for 7 weeks and could only walk in a boot for another 6 weeks after that. Once I was released from the boot I tinkered with running again, but not in a serious way. I would try the first few segments of a couch to 5K app and get bored, get tired, get sore, get sick and give up.

It's really fun to run with my daughter, though. It makes me smile. It makes me laugh out loud. I don't want her to stop running the way I did as a child. If I run with her it's the opposite of telling her to stop. Which I think means I need to start running again in general, since she's just getting faster. I know she's going to outstrip me someday no matter what I do, but I'd like keep up with her for a little while longer. So I ran on the treadmill today. I tried to keep myself loose, mentally - running for fun, for joy, not for a particular speed. I'm not sure - it's not as much fun, definitely. I'm not making any big promises, to myself or anyone else. But I did run. And maybe I'll get back on the treadmill in a couple days and do it again.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Celebrating Spring!

Yesterday was officially the first day of Spring, when hours of daylight and hours of night were approximately the same. However, Thursdays aren't great days for celebrating in our house. For some reason I often end up working late on Thursdays. Add that to work and preschool the next day and it's just another hectic mid-week evening. So yesterday wasn't a great day to celebrate the arrival of Spring.

Fridays, though, are good for celebrating. The weather today was quite cooperative at a sunny 65 degrees, finally. It's going to snow again on Tuesday, according to the weather report, but today I don't care. My crocuses survived the last snow and now even more crocuses are blooming in my yard from the bulbs we planted last fall. We have purple ones now alongside the yellow. I wonder why the purple ones are all blooming later? It could be random chance or perhaps there is something different in the flowers themselves. The nice thing about bulbs is that I'll have a chance to see again next year if the pattern repeats. I hope they spread, too.

After work I sat on our back porch in my swing and knit for about 30 minutes. I listened to all the different sounds of kids playing, birds chirping (about 4 different ones that I could hear, although of course I don't know what they are), traffic on the nearby road, and the wind through the pines. Then my husband and daughter arrived home and we had dinner on the porch too. Our first "picnic" of the year, as we call our outside warm weather meals, although we eat at a table. Then it started to get chilly so we went inside. My husband made toaster s'mores (the real ones will have to wait until we start using the grill) and we watched the first half of a movie before our daughter's bedtime.

The cherry trees are supposed to be in peak bloom in about three weeks, sometime around April 8-12th according to the news report. In about four weeks, on April 16th, the sun will be rising by 6:30 AM, which will make it much easier to get up in the morning for work. Hopefully by then the daffodils will be blooming as well. The tomatoes and peppers we started inside are growing larger and by mid-April we should be able to move them outside. The sunflower seeds my husband and daughter planted haven't sprouted yet, nor am I certain where they will fit in the yard, but I'm sure we will figure it out. Hooray for all things green and growing!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Cheerful (Determinedly So)

 This winter seems to be going on forever. Logically, I understand that it is still winter and that snow in mid-March is not unreasonable. However, it feels quite unreasonable to be dealing with six inches of snow on St. Patrick’s Day. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way either. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to has just had enough winter for a while. We’re ready for Spring. We were ready for Spring about three weeks ago.

That said, grumbling about the weather doesn’t seem to be doing much useful. It’s certainly not changing anything and it’s not making me feel better. I am choosing to be determinedly cheerful instead. So in the spirit of cheerfulness I thought I would list five things I am grateful for today.

1. I arrived home from my church retreat BEFORE it started to snow yesterday. We were up in the mountains about 2 hours west of home so I was worried. I am not comfortable driving in snow at all and avoid it whenever possible, so this was definitely a blessing for me!

2. I ate corned beef sandwiches for lunch with my family to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day instead of eating a sandwich at my desk while I continued to work. I also got to wear my comfortable green T-shirt in honor of the day instead of scrounging something more professional to wear. By the way, why is it that vivid green is hardly ever the “in” color?

3. My husband, daughter and I went sledding together this afternoon and the snow was perfect. We had several really good runs on the family sized sled before my daughter got too cold to continue having fun. Then we went inside and drank hot chocolate, built a fire and watched a movie together.

4. The snow was light and not difficult to shovel off the driveway, sidewalk or car. Hooray! No sore back tonight!

5. Spring is coming. I can see buds on the trees. The bulbs we spent an afternoon last fall planting are starting to sprout green leaves. There are even yellow crocuses blooming in my yard! I admit, they are currently under a blanket of snow, but I am thinking (perhaps optimistically) that this blanket will actually protect all the plants from the 20 degree temperatures tonight so that they live through the freeze.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Freedom of Lent

When I was a little girl, Lent (the six and a half weeks before Easter Sunday) meant giving up dessert for weeks at a time, with only a reprieve on Sundays. Then we had a huge load of chocolate on Easter morning. My mother was raised Catholic and I know she had switched to Protestantism by that time, but I suppose some things held on. I don't think I really understood the whole thing very well, I just resented not getting cookies. Later in my childhood my mom seemed to give up on the whole thing and my sister and I were not about to volunteer to give things up. So I stopped giving up anything for Lent.

In college I had friends who would give up chocolate for Lent. I remember thinking at the time that chocolate would not be a big deal for me (unlike now, I'm sorry to say) but that I should probably give up salt or something I really liked. I think I actually did try once to give up salt, lasted about  6 hours, and gave it up as a bad idea.

Somewhere in my early twenties I engaged much more seriously with my faith. I became more regular in my church attendance, started attending study groups, read quite a few books and in general really dug into what I believed and how I wanted to live my life. Around that time I revived the practice of giving something up for Lent, but under the guidance of my church I started thinking beyond food. What could I give up that was impeding my spiritual life? What could I sacrifice that would really be a sacrifice for me? At various times I chose to give up unnecessary spending, but my most frequent Lenten sacrifice became fiction reading.

Admittedly this is an odd choice, but you have to understand that I read a lot. I mean, really a lot. Usually at least 100 books per year, and probably about 80 of them are fiction. I value reading, and I know that I have learned a tremendous amount even through fiction reading. I believe there is nothing wrong with reading and many, many things right with the habit.


I am a person who gets lost in a book to the exclusion of everything else. When I'm sucked into a novel it's hard to go to bed on time, hard to pay attention to my family, hard to make myself go to work, hard to exercise, hard to accomplish anything else at all until I finish that story. It's really a problem when the story extends over eight to ten books. I can lose whole weeks at a time to reading. Even when I force myself to put the book down I'm often only half present in what I'm doing. The other half of my brain is mulling over my story and impatient to pick the book up again. Particularly when I am stressed or unhappy, fiction reading becomes my escape but also my addiction. Clearly at times reading is too much of a good thing for me. So I've developed a Lenten discipline of fasting from fiction in order to interrupt that cycle. I don't commit to it every year, as my own spiritual tide ebbs and flows, but when I do it helps for that time.

This year I'm starting to think about Lent a little differently. Instead of just a practice of giving something up (in solidarity with suffering, to release things that impede spiritual growth) I'm wondering what freedom I can find in this period of time. In the discipline of not engaging my usual patterns of behavior, can I find the freedom of new choices? In the practice of being out of my comfort zone, can I find new joy and peace? Can I turn to G-D for comfort, can I give my family my attention, can I be fully present in my own life? One of the paradoxes I am slowly coming to understand is that we need structure to be truly free. In the structure of Lent this year, I am hoping to find the freedom of new ways of being.

Also check out Rachel Held Evans 40 Ideas for Lent 2014

Monday, March 3, 2014

Confronting Sin?

I was troubled during the sermon at church yesterday. It wasn't the sermon itself, exactly. The sermon was very nice, part of a little series of sermons talking about how G-D is personal, how he cares personally about us. The whole service was very nice, very pleasant, with worship music and communion and prayer. I guess maybe that was the problem.

You see, I knew that one of the people leading the service was doing something hurtful to others. Nothing illegal, and nothing I can be specific about because the situation was shared with me in confidence. But clearly hurtful and clearly outside the boundary of behavior that would generally be considered acceptable. I would go so far as to label the behavior sinful, which is not a word I use casually or lightly. And I am not certain, but I suspect that at least some church leaders know about the entire situation. It really bothers me.

One of the things I think we have lost in the church is a shared sense of accountability. We no longer hold each other to any standard, although many of us are plenty quick to attack those outside the church. However, we seem curiously blind to the sin within our own communities. But I don't really know what could or should change in how we address this. I don't like that this person is leading services but if we say only people whose behavior is completely right can lead then we won't have anyone to lead services at all.

Coming home from church I was imagining a sermon series on sin, which is not something you would typically hear in any of the churches I have attended. I can understand why. Sin is a tricky problem within the church; no one wants to blame or hurt others (well, at least not in any congregation I'm willing to be a part of) and everyone's list of sin is probably different. For example, I would list murder, slander, gossip, adultery, gluttony, greed, environmental destruction, exploitation of the poor, bigotry and prejudice, rape, abuse and violence as sins. Some of those things would get broad agreement but plenty of others would not. My exclusions (homosexuality, believing in evolution, abortion - to name a few) would also upset a lot of people. So, preaching a sermon on sin would be hard for a pastor. The most likely outcome would be that you would just upset everyone and no one would listen. It would be a waste of time because everyone would be too defensive and angry to hear anything useful.

But I think we need to do something, to have some way to talk to each other about wrong actions. Sin is a problem, not just for other people but for the individual. I think G-D's rules are like an owner's manual and user's guide; instructions for operating the vehicle of a human life in a safe and effective way. I'm pretty sure the individual whose actions are bothering me is also in pain, also struggling and hurting and needing some help. As I said, I suspect some of our church leaders are familiar with what is happening in this person's life. I would like to think they are trying to help this person and the other people involved. In general, I would like there to be a way for those of us in a church community to talk to each other and address this kind of wound.

Catholic churches have confession, but that doesn't seem like a good solution. Recently I've been talking to some women who were raised Catholic, and they have told stories about going to confession which sound awful. The story that upset me the most was that one of the women as a young girl couldn't think of anything to confess, but she had to confess something otherwise she would be in trouble. So she made something up, something she thought wouldn't be a big deal, and then received a pretty extensive series of prayers she had to say. For an act she hadn't even committed. The utter wrongness of forcing a little girl to lie and be punished for something she never did because of the rigidity of the rules about confession and communion just shocks me. It seems antithetical to healthy spirituality and growth. I don't think a forced, structured confession with prayers as punishment makes much sense. I don't think prayer should be a punishment. I don't think it does any good to force people to confess even if they did actually do something wrong. I read an essay recently that talked about repentance as turning back towards G-D, towards light and love and relationship with G-D. I don't think that's a move that can be dictated by anyone else.

At the same time, other people can help. I don't like to be reminded about what's right and wrong and I'm not usually gracious about it when I'm wrong. However I have been reminded at times, usually by my husband who has incredible integrity and thoughtfulness, and I've been better for it. I think the key factor there is that his reminder comes in the context of a relationship. He knows me, he loves me, and so when he speaks to me, even something I don't want to hear, I listen to him. There are a few other people in my life who can pull me up short when I need it, and all of them are people I trust. No one ever wants to hear a correction, to hear that they are wrong. Our egos immediately leap into action, bringing up barriers of excuses and rationalizations and going on the attack with counter accusations. It takes an enormous amount of trust, comfort and acceptance within a relationship to get around those obstacles. It takes long term, invested, committed relationships. In a word, it takes love.

Perhaps that is what is needed within the church. We need relationships where people feel loved enough to not be defensive when someone challenges their behavior. We need to be close enough that we can see when someone else is hurting and when they are hurting themselves and others. We need to trust each other enough to be vulnerable, to be honest, to offer and accept correction when it is needed. We need to love and love and love, and to show that love over and over again. Then maybe we can start to deal with sin.

Admittedly, this isn't very specific or prescriptive. I suppose that love isn't. There isn't a formula or a plan for loving relationships. There's just time and showing up and staying committed and working through hurt and being present and bringing food and helping out. There can't be an agenda with love. To be real, to actually be love, it can't be about getting close so you can point out sin. It just has to be about getting close, about being with someone else because you care about them, because you love them.

For some other reflections about the need for love within the  community of Christians click here.