From Fear to Possibility

Of all the people with whom I’ve worked, Rosie is someone who left a clear impression on me.  If you saw Rosie on the street, you’d probably give her some extra room and avoid eye contact.  But if you had the opportunity to know her, she was a kind and endearing person.

Rosie suffered from severe anxiety.  Her anxiety was so severe that she walked hunched over, looking down, and was very stiff.  When she’d sit, she’d just rock back and forth.  As I said, her anxiety was severe.

More than a quarter of people experience anxiety disorders in their lives.  Most of us experience anxiousness at times, like before a speech or a job interview.  But when it begins to interfere with how we live, then that’s a sign of a real problem.  That happens to a lot of us.  Rosie was much more anxious than most.  Her anxiety made other people uncomfortable.

Rosie was a client in my private practice as a therapist nearly twenty years ago.  In working with her, I often used hypnosis.  She’d sit in a reclining chair and without hypnosis, she’d rock and bounce and couldn’t be still.  But once in the trance of hypnosis, she was quiet, peaceful, and calm.

I learned that Rosie loved classic movies, especially musicals.  Her favorite was The Sound of Music.  While she was in hypnosis, I invited her to join Maria in the Sound of Music.  In the privacy of my office, Rosie would run with her arms extended singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music!”  She’d gently sway in time to other songs.  She experienced great joy in those moments.  Unfortunately, she couldn’t hold that comfort when not in trance.  She’d quickly revert back to an anxious state.

Most people are able to learn to control anxiety.  While there are a variety of ways to treating anxiety, including medications, a typical approach is to learn to identify the cause of anxiety and to learn to respond in other ways to what’s happening.

We live in a world in which many people are anxious.  The possibility of nuclear war seems possible in ways that it hasn’t for decades.  The future of countries and governments is unsure. Many people face huge amounts of debt. What about drugs, terrorism, random violence and so many other worries?  Yes, anxiety is probably a rational response to many of the problems that face the world.  On top of that, most of us feel powerless in resolving any of these problems.

When our anxieties get the best of us, they lead us to fear.  Ultimately, fear immobilizes us and prevents us from finding ways to address our anxieties.  Fear is paralyzing.  We want to hide and not be seen or somehow escape.  When fear becomes pervasive, we find that, much like Rosie, we behave in ways that cut us off from others and prevent us from appreciating life.

We live in a time when people experiencing fear often characterizes life.  There are personal fears and insecurities, like wondering if one will find love, happiness, or health in the future.  But there are other fears and anxieties related to political chaos, random violence, and economic stability.  These fears need to be acknowledged and faced.

In the face of fears and anxieties, I remember the many times Jesus told his followers:  Do not be afraid.  Instead, he admonished his followers by saying that fear is useless; that what is needed is trust.  Further, love overcomes all fear.  In other words, we get past our fears when we engage with others, build trusting relationships, and learn to accept others out of loving respect in the midst of our differences.

Perhaps the best antidote to the fears and anxieties that pervade life today begins with a simple affirmation.  In his first inaugural address as President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt immortalized a profound affirmation about fear:  “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”  Affirming this perspective, we then have the possibility to reach out to others for both companionship and community.  By creating connections with others, both those who are like us and those who stretch us beyond our usual levels of comfort, we are empowered to embrace life and be people who live in ways that create possibilities for the future.

 

Photo credit: pixabay.com

 

© 2018, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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Leaning Into Gratitude

One of the lessons many of us learned at a young age was to say please and thank-you. While teaching a child these simple words is meant to help the child learn to be polite in their interactions with others, expressing thanks — gratitude — is a significant attribute for our well being.

Extensive research has been conducted on gratitude. Living with gratitude, expressing gratitude, even keeping a “gratitude journal” all correlate with greater happiness in life.  But gratitude is more than “feel good” stuff.  People who report “an attitude of gratitude” have less frequent visits to doctors, have better health outcomes, and have lower rates of psychological stress.  Gratitude positively impacts relationships with others.  People whose lives are characterized by gratitude are more likely to exercise often and eat in a healthy way.  Gratitude has an amazingly positive effect on every dimension of a person’s life.  (If you’re interested in some of the research, here’s a place to start:  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3010965/)

While gratitude seems simple enough, to be grateful in the midst of the varied circumstances in life can be very difficult.  Yes, it’s easy to be happy when sitting at the beach with the water rolling over your feet as you look out at the horizon.  But what about being grateful in the midst of the painful situations in life?  Does gratitude make sense when experiencing the death of a loved one, domestic abuse, or the loss of a job?  Should a person consider being thankful for the horrible things that can happen in life?  Isn’t being thankful for tragedy masochistic?

To live with gratitude doesn’t mean that a person should be thankful for the tragedy in life.  Life is indeed a mix of good and bad events.  Some events are truly horrible.  Gratitude isn’t about being thankful for them.  Such a view is overly simplistic.

Instead, to live with gratitude is to live with a sense of appreciation for being alive, for the opportunity to experience something positive even in the midst of hardship, to be open to the possibility even when options seem dim.

Gratitude is about an outlook for living.  To live with gratitude is founded on the affirmation that life itself is worth living no matter what experiences come our way.  Gratitude leads us to affirm that our lives are something for which we give thanks no matter the circumstances.

To live with gratitude requires intentional cultivation.  Yes, it is a spiritual practice with far-reaching implications for mental and physical health.  The simple practice is to pause even momentarily throughout the day, to step back and gain perspective.  In the momentary pause, one looks and considers what is in that moment for which we can be thankful.  With a momentary awareness of thankfulness, we are able to continue in a spirit of gratitude.

Gratitude is cultivated over time.  But as we learn to be grateful as a habit, it becomes a way of life.  Rooted in gratitude, we have the opportunity to live healthier and more whole lives.

Perhaps it’s a good time to pause and consider:  what is your experience of gratitude in this moment?  What are you thankful for today?  Keeping asking yourself those questions.  In time, you’ll experience greater happiness and well-being.  Indeed, that’s something for which you can be thankful.

 

Photo by gisele13 on Foter.com / CC BY

© 2018, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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A Comedian and Racism: Wow!

A familiar tone sounded on my smartphone.  An email arrived.  I glanced and saw that it was from the public library.  I had been on a waiting list for a book.  It was now available.  As soon as I could, I went online and had the copy sent to my reader.  I couldn’t wait to begin Trevor Noah’s biography, Born A Crime.

South African born Trevor Noah is a stand-up comedian.  After John Stewart retired from The Daily Show on the Comedy Central Network, Noah became the host.  When he began, his humor was a bit sophomoric.  But over the months, he became deeper and more insightful in his comedic critique of current events. He often compared current events with the life he knew growing up in South Africa.

Noah was born during the Apartheid rule of South Africa.  This system of institutional segregation was woven into every aspect of South African life for approximately 50 years.  By being born mixed race, to a black African mother and a white European father, Noah’s birth was a crime in the Apartheid system.  Both of his parents should have been jailed and he should have been placed in an orphanage.  But his mother was creative in working around the system.

Most striking to me about Noah’s writing is his clear understanding of the dynamics of oppression.  Apartheid legislated different rights for each group based on their skin color.    There were major groupings like white, black and mixed race.  But even within these groups, there were something like subgroupings.  Perhaps most bizarre to me was this:  an official could change your racial designation so that a person who was clearly black could be designated white.  Asians didn’t have their own grouping.  Instead, Chinese were black but Japanese were white. What made Apartheid so effective was that groups were taught to distrust each other and learned to hate each other.  For decades, members of the various groupings spent their time working against other groups effectively keeping each other down.  Black speakers of one language would work to oppress black speakers of another language, and so forth.  Organizing together to stand against the oppression was very difficult because people were trained to want to be designated as “white.”

I remember during the years of the Apartheid regime knowing about the systematic oppression.  I boycotted companies doing business there to help be part of the resistance movement.  But I never realized until reading Noah’s book how finely crafted the oppression truly was.

As I thought about the experience he described, I considered our current political context in the United States.  A few friends have commented to me that they were getting tired of hearing about “identity politics.”  I did my best to listen to their concerns but my liberal perspective was trained to think about the uniqueness of each group in society.  Yes, African-American rights were important to overcome racism. Native-American rights needed to be restored to overcome centuries of genocide.  There are Muslims, Jews, immigrants, trans people, and the list goes on and on.  Then it became clear:  our thinking in the United States is focused on the rights of individual groups.  While these groups aren’t taught to hate each other as in Apartheid, they are kept separate and don’t work together.  Rather than advancing the cause of the common good of all, we focus on one group or another, often at the exclusion of the others.  We miss the vital sense that all the “minority groups” together make up a majority of the country.

Keeping people separated into small groups which were antagonistic toward each other is what made the Apartheid system work. It’s also what enables right-wing people with money to maintain control of the country today.  As long as “rural whites” see themselves as different from “inner-city blacks” who are both different from newly arrived immigrants, then those in power are able to rule the masses and take advantage of them.  People in Appalachia chanting “Build the Wall!” only serves to strengthen the power base of wealthy oligarchs who will do nothing substantive for economic development.

In the case of Noah’s biography, Born A Crime, I think that we Americans have a chance of better understanding the politics of “divide and conquer” at home by reading about how it worked in another country and culture.

 

 

© 2018, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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