Every “No” is also a “Yes”

Many people struggle with saying “no.” It is so hard to disappoint people, to imagine letting them down. It feels easier to take on added stress than to refuse someone and upset them. But this attitude can lead to burnout and resentment, and endanger the peace and well-being of the person giving. Boundaries are necessary to protect these things, and having healthy boundaries means being able to say “no” without excessive guilt or worry. 

Perhaps reframing things would be helpful to those who struggle with saying “no.” Within each situation where something is refused, another positive thing is chosen. Saying “no” to taking on an extra work project over the weekend means saying “yes” to quality time with your family. Saying “no” to joining an extra committee means saying “yes” to being able to take care of your own work and family, without getting so frazzled and stressed. Saying “no” to that late night movie means saying “yes” to gettting the rest you need. Every decision involves discerning and affirming your priorities. Decisions are a way to say “yes” to the life you wish to live…and that life requires the boundary of various “no’s” to maintain it. 

I think the key, which I am trying to learn myself, is to allow yourself to say “no” calmly, without the guilt or worry that can lead to harshness or sarcasm in order to protect the fragile boundaries around yourself. It is ok, and even necessary and good to take care of yourself and make sure that whatever you do give is given freely, with a cheerful and generous heart. We need to give this good example to our children and those around us. Love can only be given freely, and that means also having the freedom to say “no.”


Many of these helpful ideas are found in the book Boundaries: When to say Yes, How to say No, to take Control of your Life by psychologists Dr.’s Cloud and Townsend. I believe I have written about this book before because I found it so eye-opening and transformative. After discussing boundaries with various people– family, spouses, children, co-workers, etc– the book ends with various tips and questions to see how you are growing in your ability to maintain your boundaries. The best quick check for responding to a request was this: if you hesitate to say “yes,” the answer is “no.” You shouldn’t have to force yourself into things because of fear of disappointing others or appearing badly. 

Remember, every “no” is also a “yes”…a “yes” to what you are able to do, what you desire to do, what makes your life better, what helps you feel free. Of course we should practice generosity and strive to live affectionately with those around us, but in the security of knowing that their love for us doesn’t depend on our unconditional “yes” to every request. And hopefully by learning to say “no” with confidence, we will also greatly respect the “no’s” of others, and never receive them with bitterness or resentment. 

“Open Wide Your Hearts”

A few weeks ago I wrote about the importance of emotional connection in marriage. Now I’d like to discuss how deep friendships and a wider support network are also an essential element to personal growth and spiritual wellness.

I feel extremely blessed to have many friends who help me grow in various ways. People who are willing to share their passions and talents and help me expand my horizons in so many areas….from fashion to faith, homeschool, writing, healing from grief, forming better habits and growing in virtue, self-care, intellectual openness and more. All of these people help provide the “atmosphere of growth” author Gretchen Rubin claims is an essential part of happiness. They encourage and support me to become a better me, in ways I certainly couldn’t become alone. And I think it’s meant to be this way…that the company of kindred spirits helps one’s unique talents and beauty shine.

In their insightful book, “How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals about Personal Growth,” authors of the popular “Boundaries” series, Drs Cloud and Townsend, strongly emphasize the need for vulnerable, authentic connection with others. Rather than promoting an individualistic faith that is between God and the person alone, they present the love of other people as the lifeline between our hearts and God’s. Thus healing from deep wounds requires not only intellectual knowledge of God’s grace and forgiveness, but real experiences of the heart. We need to feel His love, and the way we can is through the support and love of other people.

To connect with God’s love, however, we need not only people, but also need our hearts to be available to those people. We have to be open and vulnerable for the grace and acceptance to do any good. Many people “fellowship” with others, but they share so little as they fellowship that nothing happens at the heart level. As Paul told the Corinthians, “We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding your affection from us. As a fair exchange–I speak to you as my children–open wide your hearts to us also” (2 Cor. 6:11-13). So for growth to occur, it must include experiences where hearts are open with each other. Otherwise, it is just known in someone’s head and never experienced at the levels God has designed. (How People Grow, p.128)

I think we can all relate to the power of a really good “heart to heart” chat with a close friend. Such closeness and sharing can make the unbearable seem possible and restore hope. The loving mercy of a friend who encourages us gives us the strength to not give up and the inspiration to try better, while knowing we are already loved exactly as we are. Receiving this kind of grace requires vulnerability and courage, and can’t be had by hiding and pretending we have it all together.

The point here is that grace can be available to us, but we might not be available to grace. We can be around a lot of acceptance and grace, but until the hurt and guilty places of our heart are exposed, we do not experience grace, and the gap between our head and heart continues.

To confess one’s greatest failures and sins, and then still be embraced with love and encouragement, is to experience the unconditional nature of God’s love. This kind of mercy has the power to be transformative. Deep suffering can break one’s heart open, but if we allow it be be exposed it to the healing love of trustworthy people who will comfort us, it can enable us to grow.

When we lost our baby Josephine, we were immensely supported. We could feel ourselves being held up by the prayers of friends, loved ones, and even strangers who heard our story. We experienced the emotional equivalent of a train wreck, but we got up and kept walking. This is not because of our strength, but because of our acceptance of our weakness…we weren’t afraid to lean hard on others so they could help us up again. To me this was a kind of miracle–a sign of God’s love–lavished on us by so many of His children, all participating in one way or another in the communion of the saints. By this I mean not a club for the ‘saintly’ but a vast family of imperfect people struggling to live with hope and love even in the midst of tragedy.

We experienced this all grace because we were open to it…when in pain my natural tendency is to reach out. Some people shut down and hide. It is hard for the warmth of affection to reach them. Recovery can be much slower, and on top of that, hidden wounds are very lonely.

A dear friend told me once she thought I was brave to be so vulnerable at Josephine’s funeral, letting tears fall as we carried her tiny coffin out of the packed church. Honestly, though, I simply couldn’t help it, but exposing my raw grief enabled others to reach out and comfort me. I could receive their love, and my heart could start to be healed, even as it lay broken and shattered.

I hadn’t really meant to go into all this, but I guess my point is, whatever your suffering, don’t try to do it alone. Let God love you by letting others wrap their arms around you so you can feel His nearness. Stop hiding your face under a protective veneer of pretense, as if huddling under a dark umbrella. Throw it aside and let the rain of grace pour over you and wash away your tears. And with your hands now free, reach out and hold the hands reaching towards you.

3 Steps to Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions

It’s almost mid-January, and as we struggle to get back into the routine of the New Year after the Christmas holidays, it can be easy to get discouraged about our New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps, like many households, you’re been hit with the flu (yup, us, too) and have been living in your pajamas for a week. This is not the time to be harsh with yourself! It’s been a “put your money where your mouth is” challenge to my desire to be more aware of my mood and conscious of being happy, but just cause I got a little grumpy around 5 pm a few times doesn’t mean it is time to give up. The only real failure is giving up forever!

I think that rather than seeing January as the beginning of a race to a ‘new me’, it should be seen as a month of reflection and planning for a great year. December is way too packed already to plan then. Furthermore, as Maria, a young woman I know put it, “Making New Year’s resolutions while you’re stuffing yourself with Christmas cookies just feels stupid.” So I propose we see January as the time to dig deep and see where we could make our lives better, happier, and more joyful by improving our habits and character. If happiness is a project, it surely requires some planning!

Here are three steps to help you make good resolutions and keep striving to achieve them:

  1. Reflect: What makes you happy? What drains you of joy? What would you like to change? How can you become a better version of yourself, more truly you? Author Gretchen Rubin says that “to be happy, you need to consider feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” Being reflective helps us open up to positive change.
  2. Plan: Break down your goals into concrete, doable steps. Be specific so you can easily measure how you’re doing with them. It’s better to be faithful to a small resolution than to periodically do something huge when you feel like it. So “I will eat a salad every two days,” rather than the vague “I will eat more healthy food.” Or “I will turn off my iPhone at 10 pm,” rather than indeterminate “I will get more sleep.”
  3. Be accountable: To a friend, a group or yourself. I have a few close friends I check in with to every few days to discuss how it’s going.  But especially if you’re going it alone, make sure you have a tangible way to keep yourself on track, like a resolution chart, with some fancy gold star stickers you hope to put on most days. Have something or someone outside yourself so there is a kind of consequence if you stop trying, and also an encouragement to continue. It’s easy to give up on goals because we simply forget…make to harder to do so.

Rubin wrote a book called: Better Than Before about making and breaking habits, and in researching it she discovered 4 basic ways people form habits. You can take her quick and easy quiz to see what kind of habit former you are, and get her tips on how to help yourself succeed in building the habits you desire: Four Tendencies Quiz. If it peaks your curiosity to know them, the options are Upholder, Questioner, Rebel and Obliger. I found it really helpful to know that there are different ways people respond to internal and external pressure to change…maybe I am not a terrible new habit former after all, I just haven’t been approaching it the right way! Hope!

The Power of Positive Speech

Do you remember the childhood rhyme, “I’m rubber and you’re glue; whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you”? Well, apparently there is some truth to this. Happiness author Gretchen Rubin describes this phenomenon, called “spontaneous trait transference.”

Studies show that because of this psychological phenomenon, people unintentionally transfer to me the traits I ascribe to other people. So if I tell Jean that Pat is arrogant, unconsciously Jean associates that quality with me. On the other hand, if I say that Pat is brilliant or hilarious, I’m linked to those qualities. What I say about other people sticks to me–even when I talk to someone who already knows me. So I do well to say only good things.” (The Happiness Project, pg 156)

No wonder we don’t like spending time with people who complain about others a lot! To solidify this image in your mind, think of it this way: every adjective that comes out of your mouth sticks to your face like ketchup (so hard to get off!). So saying: “My boss is so annoying, demanding, and thoughtless etc”…means all those characteristics are stuck on your face. Yuck. Really gonna need some baby wipes.

I started thinking about all this recently after noticing my older kids picking at the younger ones at the table. Like little parent parrots they repeated things like, “Chew with your mouth closed! Are you finishing that pickle? Eat your food and stop being fussy!”

Hmmm, if that’s the kind of parenting talk they hear a lot, that’s what they’ll imitate. Since it takes three positive comments to combat one negative one, I better up my ratios of positive comments dramatically! So as they griped at each other about fussy eating habits, I started talking about all sorts of things I liked. “This is good. I love pickles. It’s nice we’re having lunch together. I am so glad you got the groceries delivered; now we’re all set for the weekend. It will be fun to read stories after lunch,” etc. It felt a little silly but you’ve got to start somewhere!

I want my kids to be people who speak well of others, so I need to be a good example, even at home. Actually especially there, even though the long 24/7 shift makes it the hardest place to do so consistently.  Possibly my mother-in-law is now running to the store to buy me a year’s worth of duct tape…oh, well, perhaps there’s a back to school sale? 😉

 

 

The Million Dollar Question 

The most important question each day

is not so much how much we received

but how lovingly we gave all we could.

If we see things this way, 

then each day hands us a blank cheque

on which to write the amount of our generosity,

the value of our loving work

offered as a gift to God

and to our fellow man.  

How rich life is when we live to give!

  

Why good values alone aren’t good enough in parenting

My husband and I went to a really great parenting talk last week by educator Andrew Mullins from Australia… I liked it a lot, and not just because of his charming accent, which made everything sound so friendly and hopeful! It was very positive and practical, and focussed on 15 specific parenting tips or goals to consider in helping prepare your child for adult life.

One of the things that struck me was that he emphasized the need to help your children build specific good habits, or virtues, that put together would give them strength of character and the ability to live well as adults. Rather than focussing on trying to make them happy now, he encouraged parents to look ahead and help kids acquire the skills they will need to live as happy adults…things like honesty, courage, perseverance, generosity and a spirit of service.

These virtues aren’t aquired simply by parents having good values themselves, although of course that’s important, too. But values without specific expectations to live up to them are like good intentions…nice but not necessarily effective. “I meant to finish the dishes…but I got distracted…” So it’s important to let your kids know what you expect and to follow up and make sure it happens. Inspecting their work makes sure it gets done and also gives kids a chance to feel proud when they’ve done it well and impressed you. It can be a lot of work to get kids to do chores, but feeling useful actually makes them happier in the long run.

Habits, Mullins explained, are formed by repeated actions, so if you want your kids to acquire them, you need to help them practice those good actions (like making their beds, completing a task, helping others) over and over. It’s also good to explain to them why these things are important, so they can make their actions their own, and form their minds. So the key combination is a solid explanation and many opportunities to repeat the good action. Whether or not they like this action, for example helping with the dishes, doesn’t matter that much. What matters is that they get used to it, so that later, when they grow up, getting them done will be automatic.

Good parenting, explained Mullins, requires a balance between being affectionate (very important) and being sufficiently demanding. Usually we can lean more towards one or another, but a balance is important here. We want to help our kids grow and strive for greatness with a lot of affection and support, knowing how to help them do their best…without being either harsh or overly indulgent.

Mullins, who I believe did his thesis in neural development and virtue acquisition, described how mirror neurons in young children help them learn by copying or mirroring what they see. He joked that to see our kids worst defects, we had only to look in the mirror! But this goes for their virtues as well. Kids will copy what they see, therefor it’s of utmost importance that we strive to live well ourselves, and to do it with a smile!

I really encourage you to check out his book, which has many more helpful tips, written in short, straightforward chapters for busy parents! My husband and I have been reading this book a little at a time together, and then taking a few notes about a concrete way we could apply this advice in our family life. We even had a family meeting to talk about it and make a plan together.

Parenting for Character: Equipping your Child for Life

Perhaps some of you were also there at the talk…what did you find the most helpful? Or what is the best parenting advice you’ve been given…whether there or elsewhere?

Mystery and Loss: International Bereaved Mother’s Day

So for some reason things were hitting me harder than usual this week, and my perceptive friend noticed and decided a mommy date was in order. Some time to decompress. So we both arranged babysitters (small miracle) and took off to a fancy part of town to have tea and scones at a classy café. Creamy earl grey tea and a heart shaped cheese scone with Devonshire cream and raspberry jam. Very civilized!

We settled in our cosy wicker basket seats by the window to talk. After some chit chat we got into discussing the mystery of suffering. I say mystery not problem, because as philosophers explain, problems are things that can be fixed, like a broken clock, while mysteries are things to be entered into. The heart cannot be fixed simply by turning certain screws or thinking certain thoughts. Some wounds remain forever…not in the sense of being deadly, but in the sense of forever transforming a person’s heart. 

 Having both experienced deep suffering and loss, we agreed that there is really no answer to the “problem” of suffering….in the sense of a solution that makes it all go away or become fine. To treat sorrow as a problem to be fixed is to trivialize grief. Sometimes the worst thing a person can do is to try to make it all better by explaining it away or giving little pat answers to the great mystery of suffering. 

The pain of losing someone (a child, a spouse, a best friend), is not something that needs minimized with band-aide phrases meant to make you feel better. Instead, suffering needs to be entered into, acknowledged, faced. So my sweet friend, noticing me a little discouraged, suggested a visit to my little Jo. We hadn’t been to the graveyard to see her since we moved, and I was feeling it. After our tea we bought her the prettiest little pot of flowers we could find, did some therapeutic window shopping, and got take-out to go have a picnic with her. 

  

I told my friend, as we sat with my little daughter, sleeping beneath her flowers, about a poem I had written shortly before she was stillborn, back in those innocent days when I had no idea what was going to happen. It was called “Mama’s waiting to hold you.” Of course it hurts to read it. But there’s a kind of prayer at the end, which I do feel was answered, just in a radically different way than I expected. I ask that my daughter be blessed, and through her for God to bless the world. 

You could say, “How awful, how ironic…” but I don’t think of it this way. I feel she is very blessed…very safe, happy, free from any sadness or danger…that she is glowing like a little jewel in the Heavens, and so fully her little sweet self. And I know that she has brought many blessings, and continues to touch many lives. She continually transforms me, and helps my heart to grow. 

It is hard not to have her with me in my arms. But …

There are no shadows

Without the sun,

No darkness of the cross falling upon my soul

Without the brilliance of glory

Shining behind it,

Awaiting me

With hidden brightness…



There is mystery. There is sorrow. There is hope. I cannot explain it. I can only embrace it, and do so strengthened by the love of those people willing to share this journey with me. To all who do so, thank you. 

Good Friday

Today I want to tell you about my sorrow
But words catch like thorns in my throat.

    
Today we mourn the loss of someone we love deeply. Today there are no words. Only tears. And so for all who have lost someone they love deeply..heart of their own heart, flesh of their own flesh, I offer you my silent company. I mourn with you. I weep with you. And I hope with you. The hope of one who has been broken-hearted and again seen the dawn. 

  

Habit Building: How always is easier than sometimes…

So I’ve been pondering the virtue of order again, as I always seem to be, because I’m not what the homemaking guru the Flylady calls a B.O. (born organized). So this Lent, more than focusing on giving up something, I’ve been focussing on aquiring something, namely the virtue of order. I’m hoping to bring more rhythm and smoothness to my week, so that certain things can happen more naturally, because that’s now simply when we do them, rather than waiting for them to happen in a fragmented and haphazard way…

So this scatterbrained poet is cleaning bathrooms on certain days, and doing laundry on certain days, and things like this. But how did this come about? Moving and Lent. Moving was a great way to have a fresh start…to hit the reset button and begin again. And this happened to coincide with a great spiritual impetus for interior growth and change for the better, which is the season of preparation for the joy of Easter. 

These things complement each other well, because as when more things are planned (like meals, daily topics for homeschool, some daily and weekly chores) my mind is freed up to be more contemplative. I can read or pray without being quite as distracted by my revolving to-do list spinning about my head. I find those tiny household decisions take up a lot of brain power, and prevent me from being as peaceful as I’d like. (Who feels peaceful at 4:45 pm if you don’t know what’s for dinner and the kids are gnawing on your ankles?) So in this sense, knowing when I’m going to do certain things, rather than restricting me, has actually made me more free. 

 
One of the things I’ve been trying to do this Lent is do the dishes right after each meal, instead of getting distracted by the kids, phone, next project (squirrel!) and letting them pile up. I’m actually generally doing better with them than I did when I had a dishwasher! And often it’s over the kitchen sink that I think of new blog posts…my little reward!

Both the routine and a spiritual motive make it easier to do my work promptly. Somehow it’s easier to make myself do certain things when they are simply part of the routine, instead of something I might do now…or maybe later…when I feel like it (because honestly, when will I feel like cleaning a toilet?). 

The kids agree that stuff you do always is easier than stuff you do sometimes. My 9 year old told me, “It’s like making my bed…when I do it every day, it’s easy, but when I used to just do it sometimes, it was really hard each time.” So each week I am trying to add just a few more little things that we do on scheduled days. I don’t have really specific times for each thing, because too many details would set me up for failure…and be too much pressure. But little by little, I’m hoping to make this ship run more smoothly, with the idea that more pirate adventures can be had with mended sails and a swabbed deck!   

Do we live with reverence for creation?

What strikes me when I listen to Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” (find it recorded here) is an attitude of reverence…both for nature as created by God, and for every human person as part of that same creation. The poor, the humble, the sorrowful sinner, the bird with the broken wing, the glorious sunset…are all beautiful manifestations of God’s infinite creativity. As such, all can be approached with a gentle reverence that inspires respect and care, rather than judgment and selfish dominion.

So what resonates deeply with me, is the Pope’s assertion that the way we treat nature is a sign of, and even affects, how we treat people. If we take all created things for granted, as items to be used for our own pleasure and financial benefit, it leads us to also objectify our fellow  human beings…to use and abuse them as well. We become disconnected from creation, and unable to relate to those who suffer because of our selfish actions; our vision becomes microscopic, and we only see things as they affect us. 

We forget that everything we receive is gift…air to breathe, the sunrise, fresh food to eat, laughter, joy. When we see such things as rights instead of blessings, we fail to appreciate them. We get caught up in trying to cram our souls full of new gadgets, acquisitions to fill the emptiness that should be filled with gratitude for all we already have. 

  
But what if we tried to live with more simplicity? What if we tried to make our money stretch a little further, so we could have more to share with those who really need it, for whom every dollar counts? We had a Lenten meal at our parish in Sunday, and ate a simple meal of soup and homemade pretzels. All the donations for the meal were given to help build a school for poor children in South America. We watched a little video of these beautiful kids with great big brown eyes, smiling and full of hope as they shared their ambitions. “Yo quiero soy un professor,” (I want to be a teacher) said one little girl. (Forgive me if I spell the Spanish wrong!)

That soup tasted like a million bucks. I wish I had a million to send to those kids. They are the little ones whose world we must take care of. The ones for whom we need to lift our eyes behind the screen of our iPhones to look into the future. Let’s tread gently, and live generously, so that as many of them as possible can grow up to fulfill those dreams, and in turn also make the world a better place.