Transitioning Into Fall

A time of change…

August is not a month noted for big national or international celebrations, or federal holidays.  But there are still over 50 lesser-known celebrations, some of which are humorous.  I’ll share just a few to give you a general idea:  According to MentalFloss, August 5th is National Underwear Day, followed on the 6th by National Fresh Breath Day. You can celebrate National Tooth Fairy Day on the 22nd, and on the 24th it’s National Hug Your Boss Day.  I’m thinking that many of you won’t find this celebration appealing, unless of course you are the boss!

I suggest we celebrate August as the end-of-the-summer season and our transitioning into fall.

Fall is a special season for me, as it is for many of you.  I love the beauty of the fall foliage, the crispness of the fall air.  While I enjoy the laid-back, less-structured summer days, there is something about the arrival of fall that is revitalizing.  We have had our vacation trip(s), done our outdoor grilling, spent time at the beach or in the mountains, gone camping, and perhaps visited our out-of-town friends and relatives.  Some of us may have traveled abroad.

This is the time when children, parents, and teachers begin to gear up for school.  August means shopping for school clothes and supplies, for selecting new lunch boxes, and wondering what the new teacher/school will be like.  It’s a time when we see some anxiety in both children and their parents. It’s a time when parents make major transitions, changing their own routines, creating a more structured environment for the family, accommodating their children’s study and outside activities needs.  Adults who are not parents may also have to adjust to a change in their routine at work and in their personal life, such as starting the morning commute earlier and possibly changing their work schedules to accommodate coworkers with children in school.  But summer’s end doesn’t have to be a depressing time.  Families can continue in some of their summer activities for a while longer, including cooking out, camping in the backyard, having overnight sleepovers, etc.

My favorite way of looking at August is to let go of some summer activities and begin to anticipate new experiences with the coming of fall.  I encourage you to make a self-assessment about what went well during the summer, what you enjoyed most, what didn’t go so well and what you would want to work on improving next time.  Then let this go while you eagerly await the fall, accepting the transitions it brings, anticipating the changes in the seasons and in your own life. Fall, like the other seasons, brings opportunities for transformation in our own lives.  Integrate this new awareness into your everyday life, and see how it changes your way of being in the world. From this new perspective, decide to add some new adventures to your life as the fall season begins.

For example, learn to play a musical instrument; take up yoga and/or join an exercise class.  Find a book club that interests you and sign up.  Learn to play bridge or other games. Join a choir.  Volunteer some of your time to a community group which is caring for the disadvantaged or feeding the homeless.  Plan to do some traveling, if it’s only short trips.  Commit to spending more quality time with family and with special friends.  Take long walks.  Enjoy the glorious fall foliage.  Resolve to find more time for nurturing yourself.  Embrace the transformation in yourself that the transition of summer into the glorious fall can bring.

If nothing on this list appeals to you, give some careful thought to compiling your own list.  There’s no end to the number of possibilities that can help you move forward into the fall with anticipation, enthusiasm, and joy.  This in turn will help you to grow mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

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Beyond Brokenness

Can Brokenness be Thought of as a Gift?

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” the saying goes.  This advice applies to things, not to people.  All of us share some degree of brokenness and how we deal with it makes all the difference in our lives, and the lives of those we touch.  Ernest Hemingway said “The world breaks everyone, and afterwards, some are strong at the broken places.”

Many, including myself, consider brokenness as being synonymous with suffering. Types of brokenness include brokenness of the spirit, which can lead to, among other things, depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Then there is the brokenness that comes from broken relationships, causing much pain and suffering.  Dr. Richard Swenson says, broken relationships are a razor across the artery of the spirit. (On the physical level, doctors report that when a broken bone heals properly it is actually stronger at the place of the break than it was before.) 

Strong at the Broken Places by Linda T. Sanford is a classic in the literature about survivors of childhood traumas, sexual assault, physical abuse and neglect, and witnessing domestic violence.  She puts a spotlight on the severe, sometimes life-long effects these experiences can have on children and adults, leaving them scarred, broken, and vulnerable.

Sanford argues against the conventional wisdom that these children are forever doomed to being damaged goods.  She writes about those who have learned, through various paths, how to turn their hurts into assets. Think of John McCain, a prisoner of war who was tortured while in a Vietnamese prison, who came home broken and disfigured, and went on to become one of the U.S. Senate’s most effective leaders and spokespersons as well as a presidential candidate. He is not alone in the pain and suffering he has endured.  So many of our military men and women are returning from battle with unimaginable scars of mind, body, and spirit. These people are often diagnosed with PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder), a serious condition requiring immediate medical and psychological attention as well as a supportive community.  Not all get the help they need and deserve.  For those who do receive good care and loving support, healing and growth beyond the brokenness can occur and the survivors can become strong at the broken places.

Bryan Stevenson says that our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.  Stevenson, an attorney and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, suggests we are all broken by something.  We have hurt others and we have been hurt by others. Stevenson’s book is beautifully written, articulating the connection between brokenness, humanity, and compassion.   According to Stevenson, even when we are caught up in a web of brokenness we are also caught in a web of healing and mercy.

One of the gifts of brokenness is the joy of coming to know a higher Self and the happiness that can come from working to heal this wound.  (Think of the Prodigal son and the joy he experienced when he finally “came to himself,” returned home and was welcomed by a loving, forgiving father.) Many, if not all, of us have had experiences of brokenness.  Some argue that it is a necessary part of our journey.

It is through these cracks and holes at the site of our brokenness that the light shines through.  Leonard Cohen says it best in his song, Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

What kind of light?  The light of knowledge; the light of love and compassion; the light of sharing and being part of a community; the light of joy and happiness; the light of forgiveness; and the light that shines on us to help us recognize our unity, our oneness with the rest of the world. Suffering and brokenness have much to teach us and are invaluable tools for our healing if we reach out and embrace what they offer us.

We can experience this healing light and become strong in our broken places by making ourselves consciously aware that we are broken and accepting that this is part of who we are; by understanding the causes insofar as possible; by seeking help from family, friends, and sometimes a professional to gain knowledge and insight, helping to sort everything out; and through prayer, contemplation, and meditation.

There is no quick fix for healing brokenness.  It can take a long time (perhaps a lifetime) to get to the place you want to be, to live the life of freedom, joy, and serenity you want to live.  But it’s worth the effort we put in because this journey leads us to a place of unimaginably rich, life-changing happiness.

beyond brokenness

Fireworks and Friendships

Celebrate good times…and good friends.

July is a very special month for celebrations.  We start off with a bang – July 4th, Independence Day.

July 4th has been a federal holiday since 1870, but this historic document, the Declaration of Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, as the thirteen colonies claimed their independence from England.  This eventually led to the formation of the United States as an independent nation. For more than 240 years we have paused on this date to celebrate our liberties and our freedom from tyranny.  And we honor and remember all those who gave their lives to give us this precious gift.

How do we celebrate?  Fireworks are associated with July 4th and many cities present a dazzling display of fireworks that light up the nighttime sky.  (The Hatch Shell on the Charles River in Boston is my favorite July 4th place for a concert, with breathtaking fireworks displays over the river.)  Many towns and small communities have their own parades and fireworks displays.  And don’t forget the parades and concerts shown on television.

While I enjoy these celebrations, my favorite part of July 4th is the family and close friends who gather for cookouts and backyard barbecues.  I love the casual, friendly, laid-back atmosphere, the sharing of stories and news, the quickly-organized games and activities, and the aroma of barbecue, hamburgers, and hot dogs.  For me, there is great beauty and intimacy in this aspect of the holiday.  Which brings me to another favorite celebration in July.  We’ll skip over more than 80 other July celebrations – some touching, such as Global Hug Your Child Day, some silly, such as National Raspberry Cake Day, and some perhaps a bit wacky, such as National Body Painting Day.

Instead, we’ll go to the end of the month and, on July 30th, let’s celebrate International Friendship Day.

Established in 2011, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared July 30th as an International Day of Friendship.  This was designed to foster friendships and to bridge the gaps between race, religions, and other divisions which keep us from enjoying friendships with each other.  It was designed to support communities and to work towards world peace.  Woodrow Wilson said, “Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.”  And, in studying the importance of friendships and social contacts, researchers in recent years have discovered that people with strong social relationships live longer.

We need only watch TV or read a newspaper to be aware of how little attention seems to be given to building bridges, making friends, drawing all-inclusive communities.  When we try to think of what we could do to promote friendship on a global scale, the task feels too daunting.   But, on individual levels we can do and accomplish a lot.  We can begin by nourishing our own friendships, by letting our friends know how important they are to us and that we do not take their friendship for granted.  We can organize friendship groups in our churches and communities.  We can broaden our circle of friends and offer support when they need it.  We can plan fun activities with our friends and celebrate our mutual caring.  We can reach out to the lonely, friendless people in our community, offering them support, comfort, and, whenever possible, lending a helping hand by connecting them with appropriate community resources.

So, on July 30th, call or send a card or email to a long-distance friend, thanking them for their love and support.  Arrange for lunch or coffee with a friend close by.  Look at everyone you meet for the first time that day as a possible new friend.  And, finally, don’t forget to be the very best friend you know how to be.  Be the kind of friend you would like to have in your life.

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In Praise of Involved Fathers

It’s time to celebrate involved fathers…

In addition to welcoming summer, June reminds us to celebrate fathers. The third Sunday in June is Father’s Day, which celebrates the contributions that fathers and father figures make to their children’s lives.  Sonora Dodd was influential in establishing Father’s Day.  She wanted to recognize the work her father had done in raising six children by himself, after the death of her mother.  She wanted the same recognition for fathers that Anna Jarvis had been instrumental in establishing for mothers.  The first celebration of Father’s Day was in 1910 but Father’s Day was not officially recognized as a holiday until 1972, with President Nixon’s signing it into law. Several attempts were put forth throughout the years to make the celebration official but it was feared that, like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day would devolve into nothing more than a commercialized event.

Why is this day so important?  According to the U. S. Census Bureau, there are an estimated 72.2 million fathers in the U.S.  More than 39% of fathers were younger than 25 years old when their first child was born, and some 17% of single parents are men.  In other words, fathers are a vital part of children’s lives and those who take their job seriously and show up each day to be a good role model for their sons and daughters need to be respected and honored.

How should we celebrate this day?  Many people send cards or gifts to their father.  If children live far from home, calls are made to wish their father a happy Father’s Day.  Traditions also include large family get-togethers and/or backyard cookouts.

What makes fathers so important?  Joshua Krisch writes ( about The Science of Dad and the ‘Father Effect’. He notes that there are data-driven biological and psychological reasons why children seem to do better with supportive fathers in the home.  He summarizes many of the findings about the impact fathers have on their children’s lives: Children with involved fathers are less likely to drop out of school, or to break the law. Guided by close, loving relationships with their father, children disproportionately grow up to avoid risky sex, pursue healthy relationships, to hold down higher-paying jobs, and later in life have fewer serious psychological problems.

Being an involved father makes it less likely that his teenage daughter will take sexual risks, or become depressed.  It is important to remember that girls develop their sense of the ideal mate from their interactions with their father. As a result of having such a father, girls have a better self-image, higher self-esteem and less depression.  The presence of a strong, loving father improves his son’s school performance, and directly impacts the emotional and behavioral stability throughout his son’s life.

Fathers can’t get a ‘pass’ on these responsibilities, nor minimize their impact.  It can’t be said too often: dads need to realize that their children are always watching them, learning from them. Researcher Paul Amato suggests that fathers might ask themselves: “What are my children learning about life, about morality, and about how family members should treat one another, from observing me every day?”

Engaged, active, involved fathers are important in every stage of development.  The earlier the father gets involved, the stronger the early attachment to the child.  Dads living away from their children (divorce, military service, etc.) have little opportunity for enjoying fatherly interactions.  But writing letters, making phone calls, and, these days, video conferencing using the internet, let a child know that his/her dad cares and wants to be involved.  Financial support of his children goes a long way in demonstrating a form of caring and involvement.

When we speak of the impact a father’s involvement with children has, we do not mean just any type of contact.  Low-quality parenting is not helpful. Warmth is a key factor.  Krisch says that fathers who are critical, dismissive, or insulting have only negative impact.  Being verbally, emotionally or physically abusive is incompatible with being a good, engaged, loving father.

Father’s Day provides an opportunity for expressing gratitude, for healing old wounds, for making and accepting apologies for past hurts and disappointments, and for practicing the art of forgiveness.  This is not always easy, but it is important to do, and the rewards for this successful effort are immeasurable.

It is never too late to create a happier, more loving and supportive father/child relationship.  This Father’s Day would be a good time to start!

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It’s Spring!

Time for Renewal…

For many of us, spring is our favorite time of the year.  And the arrival of April allows us to welcome a period of re-birth or renewal.  While this is the Easter season, you do not have to believe in the resurrection of Jesus to see nature’s own transformation, re-birth, and renewal right before your eyes.  Spring is the season we talk about these terms and often they are used interchangeably. ( defines renewal as re-birth; re-generation; revival; resurrection; recharging; refilling.)

Nothing is static or unchanging.  Today, every academic and professional discipline recognizes change, development, growth, and some kind of evolving phenomenon (Richard Rohr).  Each of the four seasons has distinct attributes that can teach us something about our own personal growth and development.  Spring provides us the opportunity to look closely and see new opportunities for letting go of old habits and patterns and embracing new ways of being.  Spring tells us that the dark, cold winter is over.  Now, trees are blooming, flowers are showing off their beautiful colors, and birds are singing their joyful songs. The sunshine is brighter, the grass is greener, and we are putting away our heavy winter wardrobe in exchange for lighter garments which give us a wonderful degree of freedom, literally and figuratively.

We approach this season with openness, hopefulness, and optimism.  It is a period of re-awakening in nature and in our own lives. At this time we find courage, hope, and strength for our journey that lies ahead.

I experience a healing growth in springtime as I watch nature clearly renewing itself from the barrenness of winter. Each spring, nature continues to create and recreate itself from the inside out.

For me, renewal is also about the re-birth of the soul.  Spring can brighten your outlook on life.  It’s a good time to challenge yourself by learning something new.  If you do not observe the Lenten season, instead of giving something up, try adding something new that makes you happy, contributes to your growth, and enriches your life.

Some of you may remember the old milk commercial, “There’s a new you coming every day.” I believe that’s true.  We live, we grow, we make tiny little changes every day, leading someone to say, “At the cellular level, I’m really quite busy!” Those who do not fear change but instead embrace it as a normal part of life, can find this idea reassuring.

Spring allows us to see more clearly that every day is an opportunity to change our life.  Every morning starts a new page in our personal story.  A Buddha said, “Each morning we are born again.  What we do today is what matters most.”  Springtime helps us see and remember this.

The dramatic changes that spring brings allow us to see that the key to successful self-renewal is the willingness to let go of our existing self-image and our current outlook on life, if we desire change.  Spring can provide us with the inspiration to create, to renew, to liberate ourselves from old ideas that no longer serve us well.  It allows us to experience the gift of letting go, and making way for new life to ‘blossom.’  What we thought was ‘dead’, in the spring, shows new life.

Nature teaches us so much, if we are open to seeing and listening.  I like to think about the seasons as metaphors for the ‘seasons’ of our lives.  From re-birth/renewal in spring, to a more relaxed playful summer, with vacations to the mountains or the ocean, and backyard cookouts, to the glorious fall colors showing off their brilliance before dropping their leaves as winter approaches.

Winter offers a time of hibernation, of meditation, reflection, and regeneration.

During winter, some of us stand in awe as we look at tall, stately trees stripped barren of their leaves, presenting their nakedness to the frigid elements.  Throughout what seems like a period of darkness, these trees are preparing themselves for the green leaves and fruit which will come forth from their branches in the spring.

Out of darkness can come light.  I find lines from the song The Rose quite comforting: “…just remember in the winter/ far beneath the bitter snows/ lies the seed that with the sun’s love/ in the spring becomes the rose.”


Optimism: Do you see the doughnut or the hole?

Let Your Thinking Change Your Life…

One of the classic definitions of optimism and pessimism is that the pessimist sees the glass as half-empty, while the optimist sees it as half-full. Many argue that this distinction is important because it affects the way we see life and the meaning we find in it.

One of my favorite examples of optimism came when my twin godchildren were young. It was the Christmas season and there was much talk of Santa Claus. My godson said to his sister, “Don’t you think it’s strange that one person can come down all the chimneys in the world in one night?”  Without hesitation she said, “No, I don’t think it’s strange.  I think it’s amazing!”  Now an adult, she continues to maintain her optimism, in the face of several losses and disappointments.

Are optimism and positive thinking the same thing?  They are similar, but positive thinking has been described as optimism plus gratitude and happiness. Let’s look at some of the advantages of optimism as described by many researchers. Some see optimism as the key to success, helping us to gain confidence, to overcome problems, and to bring positive change to our lives. It can help us see failure as an opportunity for a new start.  Optimism does not mean that we always see puppies and rainbows, but it does help us see new opportunities.

By way of contrast, pessimism doesn’t achieve much and doesn’t have any known benefits. Pessimism can make us unusually hesitant and shy, reluctant to try new things, or seek new opportunities.

Interest in this concept is not new.  In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peal wrote The Power of Positive Thinking, a kind of how-to manual for finding happiness and fulfillment through thinking and acting positively. His book has sold over 5 million copies to date.

More recently, psychologist Martin Seligman (the “Father of Positive Psychology”) says these two ways of looking at situations are habits of thinking that can lead to very different outcomes.  According to Seligman, pessimists tend to give up more easily, feel depressed more often, and have poorer health than optimists.

On the other hand, optimists tend to do better in school, work, and extra-curricular activities. They often perform better than predicted on aptitude tests, have better overall health, and may even live longer. For me, optimism is not just about feeling positive, it’s about being motivated to change.

Sherrie Bourg Carter writes about the mind-body benefits of optimism. Her suggestions include capitalizing on the power of positive thinking; daily recording of positive experiences; re-framing negative thoughts into positive ones and reducing negative language from your vocabulary; avoiding negative people and focusing on spending time with positive folks.

Your body will love you for your optimism!  Why? Because research (reported by Harvard Health Publishers) shows optimism is associated with lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart disease, and can increase your chances of living longer.  DeSylva and Kern tell us in song that a heart full of joy and gladness can banish trouble and strife.  Now, scientists tell us that such an attitude can help the heart itself.  We now know that optimism helps the heart and circulation.  It contributes positively to overall health.  Such is the power of optimism!

Some say that we are hard-wired for optimism and a sunny outlook.  Others see the influence of environment as the major contributor (nature vs. nurture).  I believe that heredity can play a part, but that changing our attitudes, our beliefs, and our outlook on life rests largely in our hands; on our early life experiences; on our willingness to let go of pessimism and embrace a positive outlook, an optimistic view of our world and our position in it.

In my years of clinical practice, I have found that optimism is one of the best predictors of successful therapy. Recently, a colleague referred a middle-aged woman to me.  After speaking with me on the phone and offering several reasons why she couldn’t commit to therapy she ended the conversation by saying, “You sound like a very nice person, but my problems can’t be fixed.”  This pessimistic attitude has kept her from finding out that her problems might well be ‘fixable’.

I doubt that McLandburgh Wilson pondered such weighty questions when he explained optimism in 1915:

“Twixt the optimist and pessimist

The difference is droll:

The optimist sees the doughnut

But the pessimist sees the hole.”

Each of us has the power to change how we view our experiences.  Rather than seeing yourself as a helpless observer in your journey, see yourself as an active participant.  You can begin flexing your optimism ‘muscle’ by being consciously aware of your current prevailing attitude. Is it negative or positive?  Each of us needs an ‘attitude adjustment’ from time to time. You can practice positive ‘self-talk’ and cutting down on negative thoughts and comments.  You can hang out with optimistic people.  Optimism is contagious!  You can practice looking for blue skies; seeing the glass half-full; and always seeing the doughnut rather than the hole. It takes some work but I am optimistic that you can do it!

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How Do I Love Thee?

From Crush to Agape: How Do I love Thee?

In Sonnet 43, Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning pondered this question.  Using space as a metaphor, she went on to say, “Let me count the ways: I love thee to the depths and breaths and heights my soul can reach…”  Browning dedicated this poem to her husband, Robert Browning.  Most of us aren’t that eloquent in our expression of love. But, can we all aspire to that kind of love in our daily lives?

For starters, we need to understand that there are several different types of love or ‘love’. These can quickly be broken down into:

  • Crushes
  • Erotic
  • Storge
  • Phileo
  • Agape

I wrote about crushes in The Knack of a Happy Life. Many of us developed crushes in adolescence and thought that was love.  This feeling can play an important role in adolescent development, but it’s not the stuff that real, long-lasting love is all about.  A crush is an intense and, usually, passing infatuation.  However, if a crush continues for too long it can become obsessive and take up more time and energy than we can spare.  At its extreme, crushes that become pathological create stalkers. Our goal is not to deny or ignore these types of emotions but to learn from them and grow into a higher form of love.

Erotic comes from the Greek god Eros, the god of sexual attraction. A love that is an emotional involvement based on body chemistry.  Eros looks for what it can receive.  If it does give, it gives in order to receive. The basic idea of this kind of love is self-satisfaction.  Though directed towards another, it actually has self in mind.  “I love you because you make me happy,” is one way to think of it.  Obviously, this is a conditional type of love.  Many of us get stuck in this phase. Erotic love does not produce a deep feeling of connectedness and/or belonging.

Storge is a wide-ranging form of love and includes many relationship types. It is arguably more a feeling of attraction for a person (or even a pet) than strictly love. When we experience a quiet, abiding feeling for someone close to us that we feel good about, we are experiencing a form of storge love. It is a natural movement of the soul towards spouse, parents, children.

Somewhat similar to storge love, phileo love can be thought of as brotherly love. This is most often seen with close friendships. Phileo is a love that responds to kindness and appreciation. It involves giving as well as receiving but it can collapse when greatly strained, as in a crisis. Phileo love is a higher form of love than erotic love because it is about our happiness, not just my happiness.

Agape love is the highest form of love. Some say agape love is the love God has for man and man for God. It can be thought of as a universal, unconditional love. For example, the love a parent has for a child. Agape love does not depend on the merit or worth of its object. This is a love that delights in giving.

These different forms of love are not to be considered static for each of us. While agape is the highest level, most of us have experienced all of these different types of love from time-to-time and moment-to-moment. We shouldn’t think of any of these levels as automatically better or worse (good vs. bad) than the others. It is a sign of a healthy individual to assess where all of their relationships fall along the love spectrum and decide if some type of movement is necessary for personal growth and a more fulfilling relationship.

February is the month we focus on love.  Valentine’s Day invites us to tell others how important they are to us; how much we love them.  It is a good time to stop and take assessment of the kinds of love we embrace and to seek the highest form, a mature love that is strong enough to run the risk of losing the person who is loved.  It’s not easy, but it’s doable and the rewards are immeasurable.

Give love a chance!

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