Why I Love Libraries

What kinds of places make your heart tingle, the corners of your mouth turn upward, your body relax? Beaches, mountain tops, flower gardens, babbling brooks, cozy restaurants, and for me – libraries. Books have been some of my best friends, and libraries contain my past buddies as well as future BFFs that I’m looking forward to meeting.

Libraries, of course, are not just for books anymore. They now have movies, computers, magazines, photocopiers, scanners, Storytime programs, makerspaces, and meeting rooms. They have Facebook pages and programs about yoga and gardening. Books can now be downloaded onto a variety of devices and may be heard but not seen. Sometimes I even enjoy housework because I can don my earbuds and immerse myself in a suspenseful mystery. At a particularly thrilling part, I’ve been known to dust stuff that hasn’t been touched for weeks – okay, maybe months. 

My favorite thing in libraries, however, remains words written on that old-fashioned material – paper. I can cuddle up with a book and travel to all sorts of distant places, make amazing discoveries, understand different perspectives, comprehend insightful information, all from the comfort of a chair or couch. I can skim boring descriptions and reread passages that spark my imagination. Books are incredibly patient and transform me at whatever pace I choose.

Libraries are full of interesting books and interesting people. There are nerdy folks like me, parents shepherding rambunctious children, individuals seeking a warm, welcoming environment, and people grateful for the computers and low-cost resources a library provides. There are people of all shapes, ages, and sizes, from every income bracket, pursuing a diverse variety of reading materials: romance, history, sci-fi, fantasy, self-help, classics, mysteries, biographies, . . . Oh, the places we can go!

I first fell in love with libraries while growing up in Redfield, South Dakota. The library there began as a reading club with members buying books to circulate. In March of 1902, the town received a Carnegie Library grant of $10,000. Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish-American philanthropist who funded a total of 2,509 Carnegie libraries between 1883 and 1929. At first, he funded only libraries in places to which he had a personal connection, but in later years, few towns that requested funding and agreed to terms of operation and maintenance were refused a grant.

 Redfield’s library has the distinction of being the oldest Carnegie Library in continuous use in South Dakota.  It’s now on the National Register of Historic Places.

I remember the beautiful building and the extremely interesting books it contained about dinosaurs. Like most children, I was a big fan of prehistoric creatures. The Redfield Carnegie Library also contained a plethora of Nancy Drew mysteries. Perfect Nancy, tomboy George, and plump Bess were great friends with three distinct personalities who accepted me just the way I was.

When I was a teenager, Redfield’s librarian, who may have been a hippie at heart, let me check out Catcher in the Rye, which was a scandalous book back in the ‘70s. It was a liberating read for a naïve girl from a small town whose most exotic travel experiences had been to Aberdeen, South Dakota, and the Black Hills. Reading it again as an adult was disappointing though, as I found it more silly than tantalizing.

The classics fascinated me as a teenager because I wondered why certain books had been deemed so special. Shakespeare’s dialect perplexed me, but I was able to journey in my mind to different places and times through the works of authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, James Michener, and Fyodor Dostoevsky.  My vocabulary expanded and whenever I see the word “unctuous” I think of Uriah Heep, the villain in David Copperfield. Western history began to come alive for me while I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and my interest in Russian history sprouted through War and Peace. In other words, Redfield’s Carnegie Library was an enormously exciting place to be.

Local bookstores weren’t available to me when growing up, but I delight in them now, especially if they contain a coffee shop. The advantage of acquiring a book in a store over a library is that, when you pay for a book, you can write in it and highlight the good stuff. If you’re running out of room for all your books, you can become a librarian yourself – loaning books to people or generously giving them away, with the only caveat being recipients should pass the precious words on to someone else.

If you have an addictive personality, I highly recommend becoming hooked on books. Books can give you a natural high. Library cards are generally free, so you can obtain one and have access to all the “uppers” you need – very economical. Charles De Montesquieu said, “I have never known any distress that an hour’s reading did not relieve.” If you’re feeling sad or stressed, finding a good book may be excellent therapy. It has worked for me.

When I finish a good book, I often have to do a little grieving because I miss the characters I’ve come to know. When my daughters were young, together we read the Anne of Green Gables series by Lucy Maud Montgomery and became kindred spirits. Visiting the book’s setting, Prince Edward Island, was on my wish list and several years ago I delighted in visiting the sites set up for Anne groupies like me that so enjoyed the wit and wisdom contained in Montgomery’s writing.

I love libraries because their contents allow me to journey to places I’d never be able to go physically. They expand my mind, warm my heart, give me comfort, and allow me to escape whatever may be troubling me.  Thank you, librarians and authors. I’m grateful for all the joy you’ve given me.

Photos compliments of the Redfield Carnegie Library

Forgiveness and the Easter Story

Inspirational stories can help us forgive. The death and resurrection story of Jesus has provided many Christians with assurance that no matter what sins they have committed in the past or will commit in the future, they will be forgiven.  In brief, the Easter story relates that God sent his only son, Jesus, to earth because he loved his human creation dearly, but was often very mad at them because they were constantly sinning. During the first century, when Jesus was on earth, it was common for lambs to be sacrificed in atonement for sins. Jesus, the son of God, became the lamb of God who was sacrificed for the sins of humankind with the goal of bringing us humans a new relationship with God the Father.  Jesus was crucified by Roman oppressors and died a human death, but arose from the grave, showing his disciples he had been resurrected.

I personally receive comfort and inspiration from the Easter story

when I don’t try to analyze it scientifically or take it too literally.

During the days when the books of the Bible were written, it was common for people to explain difficult concepts through stories, as there was no science as we know it now. Human beings have always sought understanding, meaning, and explanations, but they have not always had universities full of books and laboratories or access to facts that could be scientifically verified. They often used symbolism, metaphors, and teaching stories (parables) to make sense of the world.

I imagine myself back in the days of Jesus. Back then, just as now, it was hard to be human. People struggled with the same questions.  How do we deal with guilt and shame? How can we keep going, knowing we have done wrong? Who could love us, wretches that we are? Who can save us from ourselves? We have always desperately needed hopeful, love-inspired answers to those questions, and the Easter story has provided many people with reassuring, encouraging answers over the centuries.

Jesus’s resurrection represents being forgiven and born again. It is okay that we are human and do things we regret. It’s all good. We can start anew. “Today is the first day of the rest of your life” is a popular saying because we need reassurance that all is not lost when our shame and despair is trying to convince us to give up. We can summon up our courage and keep trying if we know there’s a loving spirit, a divine presence, guiding and supporting us.

I personally don’t have a lot of faith in sacrificial lambs and placating angry father gods, but I don’t think that’s what the Easter story is really about. I think it’s a story that was meant to illustrate the power of love and compassion, the happiness that comes with forgiving and being forgiven, and the transformation that is possible when we have the courage to create a new and better tomorrow.

The beauty of stories is that we can interpret them in different ways

based on what we have experienced and where we are at developmentally.

We can learn by listening to how different people understand the same story.  For example, in my younger years I didn’t like seeing the bloody images of Jesus on the cross with thorns on his head. I couldn’t figure out why people would like to see a disturbing image of suffering and pain. I liked the painting I’d grown up with in my church of a well-groomed Jesus in a beautiful field with cute little children and fluffy white lambs surrounding him.

Then I talked to people whose lives had been filled with bloodshed and thorns of some kind and became enlightened. The image of Jesus suffering on the cross was beautiful to them, not because they liked to see anyone suffer, but because it represented the empathy of a divine being who was willing to sacrifice himself for them. Jesus had been willing to feel their pain. He had been betrayed, unfairly judged, and crucified. He was part of a beleaguered population that was being oppressed by a powerful empire. He suffered and knew anguish and he genuinely realized how hard it is to be human. While enduring the excruciating pain of crucifixion, Jesus was still able to ask that his crucifiers be forgiven because, as he said from the cross, “They know not what they do.”

The people I talked to were comforted and reassured by the Easter story because it illustrated to them that God gets it. God realizes life on earth is hard and we need lots of love and support from the Divine along the way so we can become better people.

I have listened to people who have been transformed by the Easter story because the meaning it held for them was that Jesus, God, really loved them. It’s a wonderful thing to feel loved and some of the people I talked to had never felt anyone cared about them. It was good news that Jesus was willing to die a painful, humiliating death on the cross because he loved them so much.  It was life changing to learn Jesus didn’t care about what they’d done – whether it was good or bad. He didn’t care what other people thought of them or what shameful thoughts or deeds they may be hiding about themselves.

The love that transformed them had to do with compassion, mercy, and hope for a new and better tomorrow. It freed them from worries about judgment and abandonment and allowed them to forgive themselves and whoever and whatever else needed forgiving.

May your Easter be filled with the peace, hope, and joy that comes when we forgive and are forgiven.

This blog was taken from my book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, pages 256-259.

Photo by Mitchell Maglio on Unsplash


The Ungrateful Jar

A friend told me she was going to set up an ungrateful jar for Lent, the season that is observed during the forty days before Easter. “What?” I thought. “Why do that? Do we really need a jar to help us whine and complain more?” I googled ‘ungrateful jar,’ but my words were corrected by the computer and the only thing I could get to come up was ‘grateful jar’ as well as quotes about being ungrateful like, “People are so ungrateful. No one ever thanks me for having the patience not to kill them.” 

So why did my friend think an ungrateful jar was a good idea? The story spurring her plan went something like this:

A young girl we’ll call Sally was excited because her family received a package in the mail.  She was thrilled about opening the gift until her mother told her it was from their church. “Oh, darn,” Sally responded. “I suppose they’re going to tell me to count my blessings and be grateful. They do that all the time and I’m tired of it.”  Her mother responded, “Well, do you want to be ungrateful?” “Yes,” Sally said. “Okay,” replied Mother. “Let’s set up an ungrateful jar.”

Was Sally’s mom being a bad parent? How could depositing words with things we don’t like into a jar be a good thing?

When we have a physical wound, the first thing we do is clean it to get out the dirt and germs. We want to be sure there is nothing in the wound that could be infectious and toxic to our systems. After that is done, we put on the antiseptic and whatever else is necessary to heal the wound.

Mental wounds work in a similar fashion.

“Don’t put on a happy face because you think it’s expected. Grief denied is grief unhealed,” Barbara Bartocci noted in Nobody’s Child Anymore.

Sally felt pressured to put on a happy, grateful face because others expected it. However, that wasn’t working. Her unhappy face needed to be seen and comforted before her happy face could make an appearance. Sally wanted to be genuine and was tired of pretending. She may have needed to talk about her annoying little brother, problems with friends, difficult schoolwork, secret fears she was holding inside.

The Lakota combine sage and sweetgrass in their ceremonies. An Elder explained to me, “In Lakota tradition, burning or smudging with sage symbolizes healing and taking the negative off, while sweetgrass represents blessings and putting on something positive.”

We need to clean our mental wounds before we apply our healing medicine. We name those things we are not grateful for so they can work their way out of our bodies. We count our blessings so they can find their way into our hearts.

There are numerous ways to approach Lent. One way is to reflect upon mistakes and hardships and seek deeper intimacy with God. Historically, people have wept and lamented, seeking freedom from long standing issues and hope for a new beginning. My friend planned to take the notes she’d placed in her ungrateful jar during Lent and, on Easter, a time of renewal and rebirth, have a ceremony to burn them.

My friend and I don’t dwell on our troubles, but we’ve learned it doesn’t do any good to pretend we have no troubles. We’ve learned to sit down to coffee with our hurts and work on understanding them. We advise, “Go ahead and cry. Crying releases pain.” We reassure, “It’s okay to feel resentful instead of grateful, and I’m here to support you while you work on transforming your pain.” We enlist the help of gratitude because we know counting our blessings helps us keep positive and hopeful. Gratitude provides light in the darkness.

There’s a wisdom tale generally contributed to the Cherokee called the “Tale of Two Wolves.” I found several versions of the story and what follows is my adaptation of those versions.

The Cherokee Tale of Two Wolves

A Cherokee brother and sister had been fighting and were struggling with their feelings. They went to their grandparents to ask how to handle their competing emotions. Grandfather advised, “We all have a battle going on inside of us between two wolves. One wolf is mean, angry, and greedy. The other is kind, peaceful, and generous.”

“Which wolf wins?”  Grandson asked.

 “The one you feed.” Grandfather replied.

Grandmother was listening and added, “If you feed both wolves well, they both win.”

“But why would we want to feed the evil wolf?” Granddaughter inquired.

“Our bad wolf will not go away. If we ignore it or pretend it isn’t there, it will just become hungrier, more uncontrollable, and will be sneaky in looking for attention and ways to get fed. Both our good and bad wolves need to be attended to and guided. When we take care of both wolves, they can work together instead of fighting, and we can lessen the burden of internal struggle and find peace.”

We may repress our feelings because we think we shouldn’t feel the way we’re feeling or because we don’t know how to handle our disturbing thoughts and reactions. But if we can safely express genuine emotions, we may be able to better understand them and keep them from hurting both ourselves and others. One woman I interviewed for my forgiveness research described how she felt after confronting her true feelings. “I could finally breathe with a full heart and full lungs. I could free myself from the horrible pain that had been locked inside me.”

Until we know what’s in our ungrateful jar and have been able to let it go, we won’t know true joy. Sally was wise and bold because it’s not easy to throw off society’s expectations and admit everything’s not always fine, admit we don’t have everything under control.

The ungrateful jar is not really about being ungrateful. It’s about being honest and strong enough to confront what pains us, hopefully with compassionate connections supporting us. That’s something we can definitely be grateful for!  

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

How to Win the Blame Game

Fix the Problem, Not the Blame

I hate it when I lose the blame game. It hurts my pride to admit I’m wrong, and it’s no fun suffering the consequences of my bad behavior or thoughtless words.

If I’m playing the blame game, I try to point the blame elsewhere, so maybe I can escape some pain. If I can transfer responsibility to someone else, maybe I won’t have to do the work of finding a positive resolution to whatever disappointing or hurtful event occurred. It seems easier and safer to be a victim of someone else’s errors than an empowered problem solver. However, it’s only easier in the short term – and only if I’m at ease with fooling myself.

We sometimes play the blame game because we want justice. Those who are to blame for what has gone wrong need to be punished. And we certainly do want there to be consequences and accountability when people, ourselves included, harm others. But retribution alone often creates more problems than it solves, as one bad deed leads to another. We may end up like the infamous Hatfields and McCoys, feuding for decades. Better to listen to Martin Luther King, Jr., who left us with a more fruitful legacy, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

There’s a Difference between Fault and Responsibility.

When someone treats us badly – abuses us, lies to us, disrespects us – it’s not our fault. However, if we want to take power over our lives, we must take responsibility for our reaction to whatever happens to us. We can learn to problem-solve instead of blame; seek to understand versus seek revenge; discover how to heal, not hurt.

As a research psychologist, I’ve interviewed people who’ve forgiven major offenses. They weren’t to blame for the abuse they suffered or the pain caused by others. Sadness and anger were their natural reactions and some of them spent time playing the blame game, creating a personal prison of fear, distrust, and loneliness. What they had in common, though, was that they each eventually chose to discard the identity of victim, take responsibility for their thoughts and feelings, and create a courageous, inspiring next chapter in their life story.

One man, who described himself as “a recovering racist,” said when he was angry and unforgiving he felt “like a rat scurrying around in the dark.” One woman, who was finally able to forgive an abusive parent, said she “could now be a light for others.” A Lakota woman turned to prayer after the murder of family members and before her heart could harden. She knew she wanted to be a good role model for her tiospaye (extended family).  

The people I interviewed weren’t to blame for the pain they experienced, and they needed to grieve, but they knew blaming and complaining made them victims. Taking responsibility for their feelings, thoughts, and actions empowered them and allowed them to move forward in a moral manner that gave them peace.

Individuals, Groups, and Nations Play the Blame Game

Individuals play the blame game and so do groups. Racial and ethnic inequality and discrimination are big, tough problems we Americans face. To escape blame and escape efforts to improve the situation I hear statements like, “I didn’t steal the Indian land. I didn’t have slaves. Don’t blame me. Why don’t those people just get over it?”

Unfortunately, we don’t “just get over” historical trauma, colonialism, and other injustices. Those issues are real, difficult to overcome, and not the fault of those who’ve been oppressed.

But fault is different than responsibility.

It takes strength for the oppressed to beneficially deal with a traumatic past and speak truth to power.  It takes courage for those in power to admit to past wrongs and the need to resolve injustices. But the only way to avoid more oppression and trauma is for all parties involved to acknowledge the harm, combine justice with compassion, and repair the broken parts of our system.

Individuals and groups play the blame game and so do nations. Most people know about the Holocaust and how the blame game was played against the Jewish people and other groups in Germany. What’s not as well known, however, is how the aftermath of the Great War, or World War I as we now know it, laid the groundwork for World War 2. The winners of the “war to end all wars” blamed the losers for the senseless and horrible destruction and death that occurred, and the Treaty of Versailles was all about vengeance. There was plenty of fault to go around on both sides, but the Treaty of Versailles harshly punished Germany and its allies, leading to hardship, feelings of unfairness, and a receptive environment for Hitler and the Nazi Party’s propaganda. Blame didn’t lead to progress, it led to yet more blame.

We can learn from our mistakes, however, and one of the great accomplishments of the post-World War II era was the Marshall Plan. Instead of a vindictive aftermath as in World War I, the United States, blessed with being distant from the combat and economically advantaged by the wartime mobilization, developed an aid package for rebuilding Europe. The goal was creating political stability. Secretary of State George Marshall said, “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” We decided to fix the problem, not the blame, and Germany and Japan became allies of the United States.

Playing the “Who’s Worse” Game

Sometimes we try to escape blame by contending that the other side is worse. I remember asking a German exchange student in my world history class what he was taught about World War II. He replied, “We did some bad things, but the Soviets were worse.”

I can think of many conversations I’ve overheard and regretfully participated in that start with an issue of some kind and turn into a contest to determine who’s worse. For example, let’s say your significant other admonishes you – “You forgot to take out the garbage.” Instead of an apology, you might retort – “Well, you forgot to take the dog out last week and I had to clean up a huge mess.” If we’re not careful, we may spend the evening recounting past wrongs, and adding to a list of hurt feelings.

It’s not easy to abstain from the “who’s worse” game, but in a more constructive scenario we would respond to the recognition of our deficiency with a reply like – “I’m sorry. I’ll put it on my to do list so I don’t forget next time.” Followed by our loved one’s compassionate reply – “That’s okay, honey. I forget things too.”

Political conversations between people from different political parties playing the “who’s worse” game may go like this – “I think Republican Senator Ned Narcissist should be charged with corruption.” Followed by – “Well, your Democratic Senator Sid Sicko is far worse. He lies about everything.”

Again, if we’re not careful we may spend unproductive hours describing offensive behaviors by politicians from the “other side,” uselessly trying to persuade someone their side is worse than ours. We become polarized and the more someone tries to convince us we’re wrong, the more we dig in and defend our position. Our polarization paralyzes us.

If we want to resolve an issue, we need to focus on solutions, not on who’s worse. We need political conversations more like this – “I’m really worried about Senator Narcissist’s actions. I wonder what we can do to reduce corruption in politics.” Followed by – “Yes, Senator Sicko seems to be making bad choices as well. How do you think we could improve the system?”

Unfortunately, no one’s behavior improves just because someone else’s behavior is worse. Neither the blame game nor the “who’s worse” game fixes problems.

So what does? Getting our fears under control, taking responsibility, opening our minds and hearts to others, and working on solutions.

How do you win the blame game? By refusing to play.

Forgiving 2020

The year 2020 has been the most maligned year I have experienced in my many decades here on earth. People were cheering on December 31, 2020, because they could finally be rid of the horrible, terrible, no good year 2020. Good riddance!

Last year certainly wasn’t what any of us expected. We knew viruses could cause pandemics, but microscopic organisms weren’t supposed to outwit modern science and cause such hardship, grief, and uncertainty. We knew politics was becoming more divisive, but our dreadful manners and unfounded conspiracy theories weren’t supposed to result in organized efforts to overturn the democratic process.  We knew natural disasters were possible, but they weren’t supposed to become as ferocious and deadly as they demonstrated they could be in 2020.

Life in 2020 wasn’t predictable and stable for any of us. Change happened rapidly and severe suffering and death occurred that no one knew how to prevent. And that naturally made many of us anxious, confused, and distressed. Those twelve months contained a lot of pain that we won’t soon forget.

I don’t think we should forget 2020, but I do think we should forgive it. Forgiveness means letting go of the desire for a different past and accepting whatever happened that wasn’t supposed to happen. It means having the courage to talk honestly about why we’re justifiably upset with 2020, but also being mature enough to take responsibility for our hurt and pain instead of spreading blame and spending useless hours feeling sorry for ourselves. We have every right to be unhappy with 2020, but if we want to pave a heroic path forward in 2021, we need to learn from our disappointments.      

The Buddha used two words together to describe forgiveness: forbearance and compassion. Forbearance means patient self-control, restraint, and tolerance. When we don’t choose forgiveness, we give in to our default setting – our instincts – and forbearance exits while anger and bitterness rush in. If we’re not careful, schemers and tyrants will use our fear, confusion, and victim mentality to manipulate us because they seem to have the power and control we crave. They appear strong and certain and provide simple solutions we can easily buy into. Unfounded conspiracy theories take root, creating what the World Health Organization calls “infodemics.”

Forbearance is needed so we can calmly and rationally find a positive path forward, but we also need compassion if we want to create a year of healing, not hurting. Sometimes compassion is thought of as pity, but that is not the definition that helps us beneficially forgive. The compassion we need to make 2021 better than 2020 is an active process. A compassionate 2021 means a year in which we are energetically working to understand different perspectives and alleviate pain. Author Glennon Doyle Melton described compassion as, “a choice we make that love is more important than comfort or convenience.”

If we’re not careful, we can be persuaded to restrict our compassion to those who think and look like us – who are part of the “good” group. The “bad” group is deserving of blame and derision, not compassion. However, compassion means caring about others – all others. Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” He didn’t make exceptions.

The year 2020 was disappointing and sometimes tragic. People lost jobs, lost elections, and worst of all lost loved ones. I help facilitate a grief group and one of the women in the group commented. “In 2020, people have been grieving so many things and not everyone knows how to grieve. We are so fortunate to be in a supportive group that allows us to express our genuine feelings and learn how to deal with loss.”

We need time to grieve when life deals us painful situations, and there is no timetable for grieving that works for everyone. When we suffer loss, we have to enter what is sometimes called “The House of Sorrows,” but at some point in time we want to leave that house so we can feel joy again.  

Losses make us sad and they may also make us angry. The good news about anger is that, if we do it right, we can channel the energy it provides into productive behaviors.

Angry feelings are like alarm bells that tell us there’s something wrong in our lives. Our instincts may tell us to fight or flee when angry energy surges through us, but we can upshift our thinking to our cerebral cortex and problem solve instead. We can practice forbearance and convert our fury into creativity, discovering ways to advocate for our causes peacefully – sharing solutions and responsibility, not hurt. We can surf the internet for verified facts and heart-warming stories of people helping people, not fear mongering. We can control our anger, so our anger doesn’t control us.         

We are naturally yearning for normalcy, but I agree with the cartoon that says, “Normal is only the setting on a washing machine.” When I’m struggling to adjust to change and find some vestige of stability, I like to think of myself as a turtle. Turtles have been around for millions of years and are notoriously slow paced. I watched mother sea turtles giving birth on a beach in Florida last year. They had to dig holes for their eggs before birthing them, but they rested in between surges of energy. The work was exhausting but they didn’t give up as they covered their eggs with sand and then made their way slowly back to the ocean, ready to start anew.

I also like to remember that what makes life exhilarating, as well as challenging, is lifelong learning. Singer Nia Peeples said, “Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is, in fact, constant transformation.” Forgiveness is all about learning from our past struggles so that we have the courage and capability to move forward with hope, not fear.

If we can journey through 2021 like a turtle, keeping calm and resilient, pursuing admirable goals but letting ourselves rest and recover when needed, then we’ll be able to keep moving forward. If we truly are all in this together, we’ll strive to be compassionate and will give just as much attention to our responsibilities to others as to our own personal rights. We will forgive 2020 for the pain it caused and be grateful for the lessons we learned as well as the many acts of courage and generosity that occurred. The year 2021 will bring us new challenges, but we can resolve to greet them with a spirit of optimism, innovation, and fortitude.

 (Photo by Nagatoshi Shimamura  on Unsplash)

Left Wing Loves Right Wing

What if I told you the left wing and the right wing belong to the same bird?

– Author Unknown

My husband and I have been married 38 years. My husband is a Republican who is quite content being part of South Dakota’s majority party. I’ve been a Democrat since I registered to vote at age 18 and am quite content to remain part of South Dakota’s minority party. What is perhaps surprising is that we both are also quite content to stay married to each other until death do us part.

Have our political party labels caused some problems? Yes.

My husband has been asked questions like, “How can you be married to a Democrat?” Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and powerful politicians say all sorts of horrible things about me based on my political party label. I know because I listen to KOTA radio and I read their tweets. Since I live in South Dakota, I don’t hear as much criticism of Republicans (unless they’re criticizing each other), but I realize nasty, demeaning name calling plagues both political parties.   

Marriage and relationships are difficult enough without certain politicians and media maniacs doing their best to hinder our efforts at understanding and unity. Powerful people are encouraging us to distrust and disrespect each other. It’s frightening because it wasn’t all that long ago that we had a horrible civil war in our country in which family members, neighbors – fellow Americans – fought and killed each other over issues that continue to plague us today.

I’m an educator and have spent my career in the service sector. My husband has spent his entire career as a businessman. I love teaching and the community service work I have done and do, but I count myself lucky to have fallen in love with someone who could show me a different perspective. I’ve studied and taught economics but being married to a businessman has helped me better understand the complexities of a sector I wasn’t previously connected to. My husband gets to hear from me about the education and service segments of our nation. Ideally, we will always appreciate the insights and awareness each of us brings to the relationship and use our diverse experiences to make wiser decisions and produce more intelligent opinions. And often (not always unfortunately) that is just what happens.

There’s a myth out there that we can’t talk about politics or religion in polite company. We’re just too different and can’t agree. It’s true that our pride, egos, and lack of self-control can really derail a conversation and ruin a dinner party. But if we don’t communicate, we’ll never understand those with different life experiences and concerns. We’ll never see the whole picture and we’ll be stuck with our limited vision, unable to let in the light of knowledge and empathy, unable to courageously explore new ideas and adapt to an ever-changing world.

Another myth is that it’s weak and wishy-washy to change our minds or consider compromise. If we believe it’s weak to admit uncertainty or seek balanced solutions, we certainly won’t listen to anyone who challenges our self-declared righteousness, especially if they’re from a group or political party we’ve been told is inferior and trying to ruin our country. We cover ourselves with a shield of defensiveness and pride and attack those who disagree with us. Just as detrimental can be hiding behind a shield of shame and denial, afraid to challenge lies and injustice.

Tolerating uncertainty, listening to different perspectives, and striving for cooperative, win-win solutions isn’t just kind and nice; it’s productive, intelligent, and wise. Imagine if we tried not to impose our views on others and not to conform to the demands of others. Instead, we shared our thoughts freely and respectfully, without fear or manipulation, and listened to the stories of others with open minds and open hearts. That behavior could result in genuine dialogue that focused on solving problems and finding answers that unify, not divide us.

If we want to fly, we need our right wing, our left wing, and everything in between working together. We can trade in our shields of defensiveness and denial and pick up the shield of love and compassion. That takes courage and effort.

My husband and I may be labeled differently when we go to vote, but we, like most Democrats and Republicans, have so much in common. Both of us support equal rights, affordable health care for all, clean water and air, parks and wilderness areas, freedom from unnecessary regulations, sensible gun laws, responsible fiscal policies, child protection, and the list goes on. We value generosity, honesty, hard work, conscientiousness, compassion and respect for others, and the list goes on.

There will always be conflict and struggle because we’re humans who have different needs, experiences, and personalities. We’re not always logical or rational and we get emotional about issues that matter deeply to us. But we don’t have to be enemies, and we don’t have to listen to people who try to convince us that we are. We can dare to fly using both our wings.

The Gift of Forgiveness

Wondering what to get and give for Christmas and the holidays? I suggest the gift that fits every budget: forgiveness.

2020 has been a tough year for many of us. COVID-19, divisive politics, natural disasters and more have created mental and spiritual anguish. We may find ourselves with relationships that need mending, regrets that need healing, and anger that needs to be transformed into more thoughtful, productive energy. Forgiveness has been a method of lightening our burdens and spreading joy for millenniums and is a caring, priceless gift to give ourselves and others.

Forgiveness Is the Gift of Freedom from Past Pain and Hope for the Future

When I was young, I was uplifted by hearing Janis Joplin singing, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Those words helped me accept my past mistakes and losses, plus reminded me to lose my expectations and desires for a perfect life so I could experience freedom. Freedom to create new ways of thinking. Freedom to just enjoy being me.

We experience freedom when we let go of rigid beliefs as to what we and others should be. Life is inevitably full of struggle with detours and wrong turns along the way. Shoulding all over ourselves and others is rarely beneficial.

When Plan A goes amiss, we don’t have to beat ourselves or anyone else up about it. We can instead free ourselves of unworkable expectations, accept and make peace with the past, and embrace the opportunity we have to learn, grow, and create a Plan B, C, or D (whatever it takes). We can break free of the personal prison we create when we become entangled in destructive thoughts and emotions. The gift of amazing grace is waiting for us to graciously receive it and extend it to others.  

We’re All a Little Crazy Sometimes and Need the Gift of Forgiveness

If you’re feeling a little crazy, you’re not alone. We all deal with tough stuff at some point in our lives and 2020 has been a challenge for most of us. You don’t have to be hard on yourself even if life is being hard on you. Give yourself some love and forgiveness and pass it on.

If we think everyone else has the glorious life we often see on social media or cherry-picked holiday card narratives, our stress is compounded by shame, confusion, and loneliness. Sometimes just knowing we’re not alone helps us understand and accept ourselves better. A person once told me, “I found out other people were feeling what I was and so either I wasn’t crazy, or we were all crazy together. Either way, I was comforted.”

A long time ago, a book called I’m Okay, You’re Okay inspired me to work towards more humility and acceptance of what I am and what others are. I don’t like being burdened and in pain due to bitterness, resentment, pride, or fear. The joy I receive by letting go of troublesome, detrimental thoughts and emotions motivates me to forgive myself for being less than I’d like to be; to forgive others because they’re just being themselves and doing the best they can; to forgive the Creator because there’s good out there, all the time, and I can work on becoming a small part of that.  

Forgiveness Is For Giving

Forgiveness is a wonderful gift to give ourselves, and once we do, we can give more of ourselves to others. Unforgiving people tend to be angry, bitter, distrustful, and arrogant.  They may create headlines and add a lot of drama to life, but at what cost? At times, it does feel good to vent about the things that frustrate and disappoint us, but a steady diet of rage and stress creates a cortisol overload that damages our physical health as well as hardens our hearts (figuratively and literally).

When I’m being unforgiving, I don’t have much good to give. It’s likely I’ll add to my list of regrets and shameful behaviors, not my list of generous gifts of kindness. I realize my naughty list will inevitably grow, but I do try to keep my numbers down. Accepting myself and others, reminding myself that the world doesn’t exist just to please me, and evaluating a painful situation with curiosity and compassion, rather than self-righteous indignation or pity helps.

When we unwrap the gift of forgiveness, we are delighted to find freedom from hostility, resentment, and shame. We discover the compassion needed to accept and understand human weaknesses (our own and others) and the strength and courage needed to create a brighter future.

Give yourself and others the gift wise philosophers and spiritual leaders throughout history have advised generously sharing: forgiveness.

(Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)

Fuel Up On Gratitude This Thanksgiving

I’ve been celebrating Thanksgiving all my life by eating a big turkey dinner and then making myself slightly miserable by topping it off with pie and whipped cream. When I think Thanksgiving, I often envision food, which fuels my body. However, I’ve learned that fueling my spirit with gratitude and thankfulness empowers me in ways turkey and mashed potatoes never will, plus there’s fewer calories involved.

The Thanksgiving holiday was officially declared in the midst of the Civil War (1863) by President Lincoln. Sarah Josepha Hale is known as the Mother of Thanksgiving because she lobbied to create an official day of thanksgiving which she hoped would help unify the nation and reduce tensions between the North and the South. People across the world have long desired a special time to be set aside for thankfulness and celebrating the harvest season. All the major world religions emphasize the importance of spending time appreciating whatever blessings have been bestowed upon us, whether large or small.

Gratitude Is Especially Important When Our Lives Are at Their Worst

I’ve known factually that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, but it has only been in the last decade or two that I’ve truly realized what a wonderful blessing gratitude and giving thanks is to our spirits. I’ve become truly grateful for the opportunity to spend time thinking about what’s good about the world and my life. And I appreciate gratitude time the most when my life is a horrible, painful mess and the world seems to have gone crazy.

I try to take regular thanksgiving breaks in which I allow myself time to focus on the delightful things I appreciate about life. Worries and fears are placed in temporary storage while I count blessings. My personal list includes morning coffee, chocolate, loved ones, kind words, birds, dogs, humorous videos, dancing, singing, sunshine, naps . . . the list goes on and doesn’t include anything extravagant or difficult to achieve. It’s based on gratitude for being, but not for being anything in particular.

Being grateful doesn’t mean worries disappear or we become Pollyannas, oblivious to hard realities and inconvenient truths. It doesn’t mean overindulging in things we’re grateful for – like chocolate chip cookies or an excellent merlot. It does mean being aware that even though much in our lives might be no good, terrible, awful; digging deep and finding that which can light our paths will keep us from despairing. Gratitude is the fuel that empowers us to move forward, especially when times are tough.

I’ve been researching forgiveness for the past 7 years. When I first started, I wasn’t too impressed with studies that showed a relationship between gratitude and forgiveness. Why was that significant? Then I had a very painful experience and became more aware of how essential gratitude is to forgiveness. When I found my mood sinking, my thoughts becoming bitter, and my body losing energy, I found the nourishment I needed to keep going down a positive path through gratitude breaks. I picked a calming place and counted my blessings instead of my worries and hurts. It was a mini vacation away from shame, regret, anger, and resentment. Gratitude breaks can energize us, change our perspective, and provide the lift we need to create new and improved chapters in our life story.

Gratitude Improves Relationships

The people around us are grateful when we take gratitude breaks. Sharing smiles, laughs, and kind words – even for a short time – can improve relationships and change the atmosphere in a home or workplace.

If we really want to go all out with the gratitude theme, we can make a point to tell family, friends, and anyone else we’re thankful for, how much they mean to us. There may be all sorts of things that annoy us about someone, but seeking to find that which we respect and admire can smooth out many bumps in our relationships. Especially if we’re willing to tell the person we’re annoyed with. Would you rather cooperate with someone who appreciates your strengths or someone who constantly reminds you of your weaknesses?

Sometimes the person we’re annoyed with is ourselves, but giving ourselves credit for what we do right may be a better path to self-improvement than scolding ourselves for what we do wrong. And we can work on being thankful for all those things we’ve done wrong because we can learn and grow from those experiences. (I know – that’s easier to say than do.)

Gratitude Breaks Are Like Living in the Moment

Gratitude breaks are like the current advice to live in the moment. We can’t forget the past; we need to learn from it. We can’t forget about the future; we need to plan for it. We can, however, treat ourselves to joyful, peaceful moments in which we simply bask in the delight of whatever brings us happiness.

Take time to be thankful. It’s advice that’s been given to us through the centuries and throughout the world. Gratitude enables us to see the light in dark situations and empowers us to face our worries and fears with courage and hope. Giving thanks is like letting the sunshine come in and clear away the dark clouds that inevitably appear from time to time, leaving us with a rainbow of possibilities and brighter days.

Embracing Uncertainty

In times of rapid change and conflict, we long for certainty. We want to predict and plan for the future and clearly see the path forward. We need something to believe in that will carry us through tough and confusing times when we feel out of control and fearful.

It’s natural to yearn for certainty, but we are better off if we can learn to embrace it. Tolerating uncertainty is good for our thinking as well as our mental health.

Tolerating Uncertainty Improves Our Thinking

If we cannot tolerate uncertainty, we risk being manipulated by tyrants and charmers who reassure us that they know all the answers. It’s easier to just follow someone who appears to be extremely confident than to ask questions, listen to various viewpoints, and make decisions on our own that we may be unsure of. We can calm ourselves, for a short time at least, by picking a person or a news source that tells us what we’re comfortable hearing. Information that challenges our chosen beliefs can then be ignored or labeled fake news. We’ve found a story and we’re sticking to it.

Tolerating uncertainty, however, guides us to good thinking and is an important characteristic of a critical thinker (someone who analyses and evaluates an issue before making a judgment). When I first heard that I thought, “Tolerate uncertainty. That’s strange advice.” But, with further reflection, the wisdom became clear.

When we’re certain we’re right, and totally confident that we know what we’re doing, our minds close. We shut down our curiosity and our willingness to listen to and examine new ideas and creative solutions.

How many people have been hurt because some group was certain their political system, their religion, their territorial claims, their way of doing things was right and the opposing group’s wrong?  “Of course God is on my side and supportive of the pain and ruin I plan to cause proving it!” Off to battle we go, leaving a trail of devastation and destruction instead of renewal and restoration.

Admitting we’re uncertain can be tough because it may be seen as weak instead of wise. Once we say we’re certain about something, we may refuse to change our minds because, unfortunately, we often would rather be right than know the truth.

Embracing Uncertainty Is Good for Our Mental Health

Accepting the uncertainties of life is good for our thinking and also for our mental health. Therapists now call our tendency to react negatively to uncertain situations and events “Intolerance of Uncertainty” or IU. Excessive stress and fear, plus uncontrollable worry can result when we doubt and feel indecisive. We naturally like norms we can count on and people we can trust.

How can we lessen IU and create more peace of mind? First, we must be comfortable with uncertainty and accept that there are many things in our world we personally can’t control – like nature, family, friends, politicians, viruses, etc. Acknowledging that we are not in control of the grand majority of what goes on in our world can be scary, but when we embrace uncertainty instead of fight it, we lay the foundation for the next step, which is building up our ability to cope with uncertainty.

Embracing uncertainty helps us tone down the fearful part of our brain (the amygdala) that helps us quickly remove our fingers from a hot oven burner, but that also leads us to saying and doing things we regret when we’ve had time to calm down and think things through. We can keep our fearful instincts in check by avoiding excessive negative information and angry voices whose purpose is to manipulate us. Choosing to focus on constructive, calm voices, beneficial events, and productive problem-solving efforts allows our higher order, logical brain areas to guide us. It prevents paranoia and unfounded suspicions from surreptitiously weaving their nasty web into our thinking.

When we relax and become more at ease with life’s inherent uncertainty, our health improves. Our life’s journey becomes more peaceful and enjoyable when we let go of the idea that life should be a certain way, and instead just let it be. We quit fighting against the waves of life and learn to ride with them.

When my world seems chaotic and confusing, I work on calming my fears through time in nature, music, and reading. Charles De Montesquieu said, “I have never known any distress that an hour’s reading did not relieve.” I pray, believe in love and kindness, turn my attention to helping others, and commit to conquering my fears instead of giving into them.

I don’t think IU is a mental disorder. I think it’s simply our human condition. It’s hard to be uncertain, but we can improve on how well we deal with the fact that there is no fail-safe recipe to follow in creating a happy life.

I’m inspired by the ponderosa pines of the Black Hills. They have learned to thrive under very uncertain weather conditions. They encounter vicious winds, snow that bends and breaks their branches, droughts, fires, and a vast array of temperatures. I see them curve like acrobats, flourish in rocks and sheer cliffs, and rise up after forest fires. The ponderosa pines remind me that although we can’t force life to follow our will, we can resiliently adapt to life, appreciate its beauty, and embrace its uncertainty.