See the Monkey on the Pole?

There’s this story that gets circulated around leadership conferences about this experiment involving monkeys. As I understand it, some researchers put a bunch of monkeys in a cage with a pole in the middle and a bunch of bananas at the top. Every time a monkey started to ascend the pole, they would spray the monkey with water making it impossible to climb the pole. In time, the monkeys would help each other out. When a monkey forgot and started to ascend the pole, the others would quickly grab him and keep him from ascending so he wouldn’t get sprayed. Eventually, one by one, the monkeys in the cage were replaced until finally none of the original monkeys were left. And yet still, every time a monkey tried to ascend the pole, the other monkeys would grab him and pull him back down into the cage. 

Today, over on Facebook, lots of people will make the choice to walk away from Facebook as part of the Lenten discipline. (I’m making the same choice.) And later today, some smart ass on Facebook will write some status update making a joke, mocking the people fasting from Facebook.

Today, people will take ashes on their heads, and as a spiritual act, they will choose to give up coffee, chocolate, meat, alcohol, etc. And they will tell their friends, and their friends will laugh, tease them, say things like “well, then I’ll have another on your behalf.”

Today, there will be a conversation in a workplace over lunch, and someone will be wearing the ashes and some wiseacre will loudly say, as if he’s the first person ever to think of this line, “I’m choosing to give up Lent for Lent.” or “I’m choosing to give up (insert something that they don’t actually do) for Lent,” and will be the only one laughing at his own joke.

We’re all a bunch of monkeys who can’t stand when someone else aspires to climb out of the cage.

Here’s what I know, from sitting in my office talking to people, from sitting over beers/coffee/lunch and hearing peoples’ stories. I know that people who choose to willingly give up stuff, who are vulnerable and honest enough to admit that they don’t have their shit together – these are the brave ones. The ones who choose the road less traveled, who choose to swim upstream, who choose to really think about their lives, who choose to chart their own path and not just get caught up in the flow – these are the people who are worth knowing. These are the people who change their worlds because they are first changing themselves.

So here’s to you Facebook-giver-uppers, alcohol-fasters, and coffee-deniers. Today is the first day of your Lenten journey. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. For some, today is a day of freedom, for some, today is white-knuckling-get-through-it-one-hour-at-a-time. Whatever your state of mind, here’s to you. Here’s to the journey you are on, where you discover your truest self as you discover God. My best to you on your Lenten journey, on whatever pathways you may walk – even if they rest of us don’t understand.

Let the monkeys squawk. Let the lemmings walk off the cliff.

 

On Choosing Life for Lent

Today is Fat Tuesday. The culmination of Mardi Gras celebration, the last blast of decadence and excess before the austerity of Lent. In our home, conversations of “what are you giving up for Lent” have been peppering our conversations over the last couple of days.

In the past I’ve given up coffee, chocolate, sweets, all the usual suspects. Sometimes my fasts have been life-giving, other times, meh. Some years I’ve given it a lot of thought and reflection, some years I’ve just defaulted to someone else’s idea, because I didn’t have a clear sense of what I should give up.

But this year, Jennifer and I had a conversation about what we would give up, and post-conversation I’m really excited for Ash Wednesday to start and the giving up to begin. Here was some of what we talked about:

We talked about the idea that sometimes you give up stuff for Lent because it’s about depriving oneself – to help yourself focus on the liturgical season – to identify with the wilderness fasting of Jesus – to prepare oneself for the wild celebration of Easter. (An eight day celebration with champagne every morning, according to N.T. Wright!)

But this year, we talked about those things in our life that suck the life out of us. Sure, I could give up coffee, and that would be the right thing to do some years. Maybe in a different season of life, I would talk about giving up my comforts. But this year, for us, we talked about those things in our lives that we feel compelled to do, compelled to participate in, compelled to pour energy into, that leave us nothing in return. In other conversations, we’ve talked about the same thing in regards to friendships, and our calendar. There are just things/people/events who take energy away and things/people/events who give us energy.

For Lent this year, we are choosing to set aside some things that are the pathway to death for us, and we’re choosing to pick up some things that give us life.

So, for me, one of those things is Facebook. When I look at my Facebook feed it’s darkness for me. It makes me annoyed, short-tempered, angry, envious and petty. I never, ever walk away from Facebook and think, “that was an enriching experience. I’m glad I just gave 10 minutes to scrolling through my feed. I’m glad I know that people, hate Obama, took a quiz, bragged about their vacation, aired a political view, do/don’t vaccinate, breast feed, home school, eat vegan, hate/love Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, etc.”

And so, this Lent, I’m choosing to walk away, to shutter my Facebook page. Of course, my blog will still post to Facebook, but I won’t see any comments left there. I’m deleting the app from my phone and my iPad – no alerts, no notifications, no break from fasting on Sundays. I’m just done with it. I’m choosing better things – things that bring me life.

So, if you’re thinking about what to give up for Lent, maybe ask yourself this question, “how do I choose in this season of the calendar the things/people that are life-giving, and how might I choose to deny myself things that lead me to death?”

Maybe it’s Facebook for you too, I’ve had a lot of conversations to know that I’m not the only one. But maybe not. Here are some ideas that might get you thinking:

  • What about alcohol? Does drinking bring you life, or when you drink does it always (or nearly always) lead to regret, shame, guilt, etc.?
  • What about food? In my life, there have been seasons where certain foods (looking at you chocolate ice-cream) at certain times (late at night) lead to excess and then guilt, shame, and regret. There have been times, where setting aside particular patterns of eating is a pathway to life for me.
  • Here’s maybe a strange one, but what about people/places? Maybe there are certain people that when you hang out with them you find yourself becoming an uglier version of yourself. Maybe for this season, there are relationships that you might need a break from. On the flip side, maybe there’s a person that you need to pursue, a person who when you’re with that person you walk away feeling enriched, excited, affirmed and whole.
  • One of the emphases of Lent has traditionally been almsgiving. Maybe God is calling you to sacrifice some of the ways you spend your money and to give it away – to your church, to an organization, to someone that you know could really use it. Maybe try this experiment: during Lent give up one meal out a week and give that money to someone else. See what it does to your soul. See whether it brings life or death to you.

 

There are so many ideas, so many sites you can find that will help you find the right way for you to journey through Lent. I wish you the very best. One final programming note: If you want me to see comments, you need to add them here, on the site as I won’t be seeing any comments after my Fat Tuesday celebration ends this evening!

5 Choices Towards Emotional Health

This has been a dark season of my life. There have been a lot of restless nights, tearful conversations with Jennifer and our closest friends, lose-lose decisions and angst. And while I won’t air my grievances here, just understand, it’s a really hard season in my life.

And as much as I would love to stay curled up in bed most days, buried under my comforter (which I’ve only done once), that’s not the way things work. I have to get up and move forward. Like mile 22 in a marathon where all the “sexy” about running has gone and you just have to keep choosing to put one foot in front of another, I have to get up and keep taking steps. I have to keep being the best husband I can to Jennifer, I need to be the best version of myself that I’m capable of for my boys, I need to give my best to the church. Stuff just has to get done. Period.

But, I’ve been thinking a lot about good emotional health, and asking myself, “how do I live in an emotionally healthy way?” I’m sure you all have more ideas – and I hope you leave them in the comments section – but here are 5 ways that I’m choosing to move towards emotional health in the midst of a tough season of life:

I’m circling the wagons. 

I’m an extrovert, and I’ll almost always choose to be with people. And, I tend to be an over-sharer – I’m too quick to spill my guts. Sometimes this is good. I think it was Anne Lamott who said that a writer’s job is to open a vein and bleed for her audience. I think she’s right, and it’s true of pastors as well. But right now, in the midst of a lot of rawness, I’m circling the wagons. I’m choosing to play some of my cards close to the chest. I just can’t cry in every meeting. I’m choosing when and where to talk about my stuff these days.

I’m being truthful about my feelings.

There are a few people with whom I’m trying to be as honest as I can about my feelings. This is a discipline. I’d rather minimize, deflect, and not talk about my neediness or my hurts or my anger. I like to help people. I don’t like the feeling of needing. But, I think it’s an important thing to be as truthful as we can about our interior life. So, in carefully chosen settings – where I have established relationships of trust, where my vulnerability has been reciprocated – I’m trying to say what’s truest of me without gloss and thoughts of image management. Thankfully, the silver lining in an otherwise cloudy season is that I have the best people in the world who – for reasons I don’t entirely understand – have demonstrated over and over again that they love me and are “in it together” with me.

I’m eliminating rent-free space in my head.

When you’re a public figure – even in the small, small pond of Peoria, IL – and you get up every week and publicly share your thoughts and ideas and when you blog and share your thoughts and ideas, you naturally become the subject of other people’s thoughts and ideas about your thoughts and ideas. And I get that. It’s part and parcel with what I do. And most of the time, I can brush it off, but especially in times where I’m just trying to keep my head above water, other voices can get stuck in your head.

I learned this phrase just this past weekend and I’ve been thinking about it the last 24 hours because it really captures an important part of emotional health: I’m trying to eliminate rent-free space in my head. That is to say, the people in the paragraph above have “paid the bills.” They’ve invested profoundly in my life and as such, when they speak, I listen to every word they say and I weigh it and it matters. It matters a lot. But when someone chooses to speak into my life and they haven’t made the interpersonal investment, then it shouldn’t matter. And so, I’m trying to filter. Who’s paying the rent? Who gets to speak? Whose voice gets incorporated into my inner dialogue, and who need to be shown the door?

I’m managing my expectations (especially of myself).

I have unrealistic expectation of beauty, sentimentality, and meaning all the time. (I blame the 25% of me that is Italian-American for this romantic approach to the world.) But in this season especially, I’m trying to walk into everything with little to no expectations. I’m trying take life as it comes.

This is especially true as it pertains to myself. I’m trying to realistic about what I can accomplish in a day, what I can take on, what I volunteer myself for and who I give my best energy to. This is hard because I’m generally a “yes” guy and a “people pleaser,” and I’m goal driven and love success. But, I’ve had to be more realistic about goals. I’ve had to dial back expectations of myself. I need to give myself the permission to tend to my own soul that I give to nearly everyone else. (Giving myself grace is always the hardest!)

I’m keeping an eye on the dials.

And finally, I’m keeping an eye on some of the dials. I’ve begun to notice that given my emotional state, my eating patterns have grown increasingly unhealthy. And I’ve justified too many late-night beers and late night television watching, and I’m starting to feel a little “chubby,” and I’m often overly-tired. And that leads me to feel more depressed, because it’s just one more area of my life that I’m not happy about and it really leads to a viscous cycle. So, in the last couple days I’ve started to talk to Jennifer about how I need to start paying attention again to the other dials in my life – especially the physical health ones.

 

Here’s the thing…

Don’t read this and think, “wow, he’s a model of good emotional health.” I’m not. But I’m trying. There’s a lot of things in my life that I don’t feel like I have much control over right now, but I can choose to aim for good emotional health. So I’m trying.