Wisdom for Times of Anxiety (with bonus playist just for fun)

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A coach colleague recently recommended the wisdom of psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson, who does a lot of work around anxiety. I caught an interview with him on the Anxiety Coaches podcast, which is a decent resource for people who struggle in this way. (There are a TON of episodes.) 

In his interview on the podcast, Hanson offered a mental trick for dealing with anxious moments. As I’ve pondered it and worked with it myself, I’ve come to appreciate it as one of those simple-but-not-easy things: Let Be, Let Go, and Let In. 

Let Go and Let In both made immediate sense to me. When we’re anxious or stressed, to the extent that we can, we should Let Go of the self-defeating thoughts or behaviors that aren’t serving us. Hanson is gracious in his guidance on this one: not everything can be let go of in the moment. Don’t worry about that. We should simply see if there is something, however small, that we can release. (As I like to say, quoting Anne Lamott, “Everything I ever let go of has claw marks on it.”)

Similarly, Let In seemed intuitive enough: when we let go, we create space to let in various positive thoughts and behaviors. What helps us feel calm and centered? Breathing? A walk? Talking with a friend? Laughter? Hopeful words? Welcome those things in, Hanson says, and they can help shift us away from acute anxiety. And even if they’re not effective in the moment, they help us build habits so maybe next time, the positive behavior can defuse the anxiety before it takes over.

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It was Hanson’s first step, Let Be, that was the new revelation for me. Before we can Let Go or Let In, we need to acknowledge where we are and receive it non-judgmentally. “Observe [your experience] and accept it for what it is, even if it’s painful,” he writes

Recently I was talking with someone who had gotten tightly coiled into their own anxiety. I found myself (gently) arguing with what seemed to me like a completely irrational series of thoughts. Of course, at the time I never would have called it arguing. I was “bearing witness to the truth!” or “holding hope when they could not!” or whatever flowery language we use when justifying ourselves for trying to fix someone.

It will not surprise you to know that my assurances did nothing to calm my friend. In fact, they seemed to make things worse. Finally I said quietly, “OK, you’re right. Sounds pretty bad.” 

I wish I could say I was pulling a Hanson and letting it be, when in reality I was simply frustrated and fresh out of arguments. But wonder of wonders, the person visibly relaxed, as if relieved that what they perceived really washappening in their head, and it really was pretty bad. And fairly quickly, they were able to come to a different, slightly more centered place. 

Let Be, Let Go, Let In. 
I’m a believer!

I'd love to hear what this stuff evokes for you.

And just because it’s fun, I put together a three-song playlist on Spotify to help reinforce Hanson’s idea, and to give you a little soundtrack to try this out yourself. See if you can guess what the songs are before you click through—it should be a pretty easy quiz… 

Onward,
MaryAnn

I'm currently booking speaking engagements for fall 2019 and beyond. To find out more, or to see if I'll be coming your way, check out my Events page.

Image is from the movie Inside Out. Sadness was pretty good at "letting be" with Bing Bong. 

On Intent, Impact, and "Political Correctness"

Hey friends. Check my math on something:

This article recently made the rounds: “Large Majorities Strongly Dislike PC Culture”

Most members of the “exhausted majority,” and then some, dislike political correctness. Among the general population, a full 80 percent believe that “political correctness is a problem in our country.” 

And this attitude transcends race, age, and geography. As a 40-year-old American Indian in Oklahoma put it: 

“It seems like everyday you wake up something has changed … Do you say Jew? Or Jewish? Is it a black guy? African-American? … You are on your toes because you never know what to say. So political correctness in that sense is scary.” 

In the extended interviews and focus groups, participants made clear that they were concerned about their day-to-day ability to express themselves: They worry that a lack of familiarity with a topic, or an unthinking word choice, could lead to serious social sanctions for them.

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I have long said that what some people call “PC” really sounds to me like basic kindness. When people share how they self-identify, or how they want to be addressed, it seems like a no-brainer to honor that. It costs me nothing to do so, and it matters. That is basic Golden Rule stuff. 

But I also empathize with those who find it hard to keep up with changes in culture, and who worry about giving offense without meaning to. A new friend of mine is gender non-binary and goes by the pronoun “they.” Despite wanting to honor this person’s identity, I have slipped up many times. I’m also realizing how often I use the word “guys” to describe a generic group of people. It doesn’t bother me to hear the term, but people I care about bump on it. It costs me very little to be more inclusive with my language. I’m grateful for the grace of others to both point out when I fall short, and to understand that I’m trying and will screw up along the way. We could all be kinder to one another.

Even as I seek to do my best to honor others, people of color who are friends and colleagues have helped me see that impact matters more than intent. People can mean well—can intend to act in a positive way—but the effects of their actions are what matter most. I get that. As a woman, I can think of times when a man has tried to stick up for me in a way that goes beyond being an ally and tips over into paternalism. They meant to help, but their actions had the effect of portraying me as helpless and needing a man to rescue me. Impact over intent. 

But I also think that, in Maya Angelou’s words, when you know better, you do better. What if one genuinely doesn’t know better? What the survey about PC suggests is that many people want to do the right thing, they just don’t know what it is. I have long loved Thomas Merton’s prayer/poem that begins, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.” He writes, “the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.” We are flawed, limited, imperfect human beings, often fumbling to do the right thing. I can’t dismiss the power of intent. 

I’ve long wondered, then, is there a way to deepen our cultural conversation beyond impact and intent?

I recently attended a conference for coaches, where I attended a workshop on building trust in teams. The presenter offered four aspects of team trust, gleaned from the book The Thin Book of Trust:

  1. Sincerity: do you mean what you say?

  2. Reliability: do you honor commitments?

  3. Care: do you hold others’ interests in mind?

  4. Competence: do you have the ability to do what’s asked of you?

A lightbulb went off as I considered whether these four traits might help us bust through the impasse I see over what many call “PC culture.” If someone has shown themselves to be generally sincere, reliable, and caring, I will be less inclined to take instant offense when they do something that has a harmful impact. That’s not excusing their behavior, that’s viewing it in a larger context. 

A person is sincere when they say, “I’m really trying here,” and you know that they truly are.
A person is reliable when they set a course of action and you see them follow through on it. 
Care is demonstrated in any number of ways, but an overall relationship of care can be a container to hold the many missteps and screwups we make because we’re human.

As for for the fourth quality, competence, well, some folks are willfully ignorant, and don’t care to learn about the world around them and how it’s changing. But others simply don’t know what they don’t know. The goal, then, is to help one another develop cultural competence, in ways that flow from our own sincerity, reliability, and care. (It’s also why social media can be so detrimental to dialogue about these things. How do I know how sincere, reliable, caring, and competent random person on the internet is? Instead we blast first, ask questions later.) 

What do you think?

Traffic Jams

I love the speaking work I do, because even when I’m presenting about a topic I’ve addressed before, I always learn something new. 

I was recently with a group of church leaders, exploring improv as both a spiritual practice and a tool for good leadership. We were talking about the pace of change and how overwhelming it can seem. As a visual parable for this, I showed the short video Rush Hour. In this clip, a normal intersection has been creatively edited to heighten the traffic congestion, with lots of near misses and narrow escapes. (Click on the video below, or use this link.)

People usually resonate with the video immediately, with most folks feeling some level of stress at all the close calls. One person in this group loved it, though, as an example of a well-run system: Congestion is inevitable, but if nobody collided, and traffic kept flowing, that’s a GOOD day indeed! 

We reflected on the ways in which ministry leaders must manage complex systems involving staff, volunteers, church members, the community, and more. Then one person made a point that will forever change how I see this video. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but here’s what I heard and have continued to ponder:

We deal with other people all the time in our work. And it’s easy to imagine each of us as one car, or truck, or pedestrian in that intersection. But actually, each of us is our own intersection. Each of us is managing untold roles, responsibilities, and relationships. Our traffic is both internal (did I lock the front door? why is my teenager ignoring me this time?) and external (I’m two days late on that report; the dryer is making that weird sound again). 

Boom!

I felt the deep truth of my colleague’s observation. At the same time, I felt that familiar “ker-plunk” in my gut as I realized how much more complicated this makes our task. It’s hard enough to navigate the perils of leadership when you see each person in the group as its own moving part. But team members are all a network of moving parts. And leaders are their own intersections too. I imagined one intersection superimposed on top of another, endlessly, like those clear plastic pages in science books that show individual systems of the body.

I’m still pondering the implications of this insight. I also know that, as a leader, I can’t be other people’s internal traffic cop. The best I can do is keep my own intersection running as smoothly as possible—and keep an eye out for potential fender benders—even as I try to be compassionate toward other people’s internal gridlock, collisions, and close calls.

I’ve long loved the quote, attributed to countless writers and philosophers, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle.” I recognize the truth of it, though I’m not always the best at living it. Maybe we could alter it slightly, to “Be kind, for everyone is fighting traffic.” 

Onward,
MaryAnn

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Ten for Tuesday

Hello friends! I’m writing to you from Kansas, where I’m leading a retreat for some warm and intrepid pastors, all of whom have been willing to learn and laugh and play and reflect together. Has been a great week.

Here are a few links that I’ve been collecting lately, both serious and silly.

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FIGHT BACK WITH BEAUTY

First, a 21-year-old air traffic controller gave his life so that the last plane could take off safely before the recent earthquake in Indonesia.

Also, from the New York Times, A Year After Las Vegas Shooting, a ‘Survivor Wedding’ Takes Back the City. Lovely:

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IT’S TIME TO BECOME A TIME REALIST

Julie Morgenstern offers some simple-but-not-always-easy tips to get a better handle on your overwhelming life. I’m a sucker for time management stuff, even though I recognize its limitations. (Many people whose minds work this way are often already doing these things; if yours doesn’t, the tips won’t help.)

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D-BAG GENIE

A Reddit thread in which a jerk genie grants wishes, but the letter of the wish rather than the spirit. Clever:

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Dear dads: Your daughters told me about their assaults. This is why they never told you.

From columnist Monica Hesse. Ouch:

A man emailed recently in response to something I’d written about street harassment. He was so glad, he said, that his college-age daughter never experienced anything like that. Less than a day later, he wrote again. They had just talked. She told him she’d been harassed many, many times — including that week. She hadn’t ever shared this, because she wanted to protect him from her pain.

For all the stereotypes that linger about women being too fragile or emotional, these past weeks have revealed what many women already knew: A lot of effort goes into protecting men we love from bad things that happen to us. And a lot of fathers are closer to bad things than they’ll ever know.

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BETWEEN SOLITUDE AND LONELINESS

Poet Donald Hall died earlier this year; here he beautifully considers the depth and breadth of loss, and the difference between solitude and loneliness.

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ZERO TO SIXTY, PROPERLY UNDERSTOOD

I’m not always great at recognizing when my emotions are amping up—just ask the people who live with me—so this was helpful:

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SUFFOCATION OF DEMOCRACY

As a historian specializing in the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, and Europe in the era of the world wars, I have been repeatedly asked about the degree to which the current situation in the United States resembles the interwar period and the rise of fascism in Europe. I would note several troubling similarities and one important but equally troubling difference.

Read if you dare.

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COURAGE THROUGH SMALL THINGS

And then the antidote to the despair that the previous link might evoke: the power of the small faithful action. Thank you to friend Carol Howard Merritt for writing exactly what I needed to read.

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THANK YOU SHAKESPEARE

My husband was recently in London for business, and sent along this placard from the Globe Theater:

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Onward!

My Friends Make Stuff: Three New Books to Check Out

I’ve been meaning to share about these books for a while—each deserves its own post—but in the spirit of #WorldsOkayest, here’s one quick post that introduces all of them to you. Check them out and give these writers some love!

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First is Patrice Gopo’s All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way. I met Patrice at a writers’ workshop in the summer of 2017 and was blown away by her wonderful writing. These essays explore issues of identity, race, and immigration, which makes them super zeitgeisty, but with such beautiful prose that the book feels timeless. Patrice is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, who grew up in Alaska, spent some time in South Africa, married a man from Nigeria, and now lives in the American South (Charlotte).

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Second is Kevin Cloud’s God and Hamilton: Spiritual Themes from the Life of Alexander Hamilton and the Broadway Musical He Inspired. Kevin moves thematically through Hamilton’s life and looks at major events through the lens of big themes such as grace, sin, forgiveness, etc. He weaves together aspects of the musical with vignettes from Ron Chernow’s book. (Sadly, copyright issues prevent him from quoting from the musical directly… though you can sing the songs in your head for free as you read!) Anyone who’s been intrigued by Hamilton, not just because the mega-blockbuster musical is catchy and brilliant, but also because his story has such deep resonance, will want to pick up this one. And if you’re a preacher toying with the idea of some Hamilton sermons—and really, why not?—this one’s essential.

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Third is Grandpa’s Tent, a lovely picture book by friends and fellow clergywomen Mary Davila and Sarah Kinney Gaventa. This book explores death and dying in a thoughtful yet age-appropriate way, as a young girl comes to terms with her beloved grandfather’s illness, death, and memorial service (which can be a scary and confusing ritual for young children to witness). The illustrations by Paul Shaffer are warm and distinctive, and I love that the family happens to be bi-racial and not a thing is said about it—representation matters; kudos for that. My children are out of the age range for picture books, but this one will stay on my shelf, because you never know when you’ll have a little one in your life who needs these compassionate words.

What are you reading these days?