the necessity of Sadness

Like many movie-goers, I recently spent 94 minutes of my Fourth of July weekend watching Inside Out, the story of 11-year-old Riley’s move from small-town Minnesota to San Francisco — as told by her emotions.

The narrator and primary protagonist is Joy, who introduces viewers to Disgust, Fear, Anger, and my favorite — Sadness.

In one poignant scene mid-movie, Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong, whom some of the emotions have befriended, watches as his treasured imaginary rocket ship is shoveled out to the dump. Joy and Sadness react in distinctly different ways.

Joy, with characteristic gusto, tries to fix the problem (“Hey, it’s going From Inside Out movie 2be OK! We can fix this!”) and distract Bing Bong from the problem (“Hey, who’s ticklish, huh? Here comes the tickle monster!”). But, Bing Bong doesn’t budge.

Sadness, with uncharacteristic initiative, slowly sits down next to Bing Bong and says, “I’m sorry that they took your rocket. They took something that you loved.” Sadness reflects what Bing Bong is really feeling, giving him permission to feel it and express it too. Indeed, he starts to speak. Then tell stories. Then cry. Then brush himself off and get up. (Isn’t that rather like how grieving goes? Isn’t that a miniature model of healthy grieving compressed into one minute of a Pixar movie?)

It’s the first time that we see Sadness as something — a significant something, at that — more than a buzzkill in the background. Joy expresses this surprise:

Joy: “How did you do that?”

Sadness: “Oh, I don’t know. He was sad, so I listened to what…”

It’s quick. It gets cut off by continued dialogue.

But press pause: “He was sad, so I listened…”

There’s so much more that could be said about Sadness. But to avoid spoiler alerts, suffice it to say: We need Sadness. We need her calm presence; her absolute empathy; her reflections and affirmations; her listening ear.

But we don’t think we need Sadness. We’d prefer to skip to Joy. We’d prefer to “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know” — to quote another popular Disney movie. (No offense to “Let It Go.”)

So it’s a beautiful thing, I think, to see a children and family film communicate the necessity of Sadness.

Maybe this message could mean fewer parents telling children that “big kids don’t cry.”

Fewer teenagers (and adults, because let’s be real) hiding in their bedrooms or cars or offices late into the night, refusing to let their Sadness slip out into society.

Fewer awkward silences. More empathetic silences. The kind that says, “Wow. That’s hard. I can’t even imagine. But I’m here.”

More people embracing Sadness.

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7 Ways to Be A Good Mentor

Apparently January is National Mentoring Month! 

And I love that. I love pausing to acknowledge that I wouldn’t be at all who I am today personally or professionally without my mentors. I love that they’ve offered far more nuggets of wisdom, cups of coffee, listening ears, and respect than I deserve. And I love paying attention to what they’ve done, because then a) I can write a blog about them b) maybe I can be something of a mentor for others.

Based on my observations, here’s a few ways to be a good mentor:

1. Be available. And make it known that you’re available. The best mentors I’ve had have been folks who’ve chatted with me even very briefly, say, after a meeting and said very specifically: “I’d be interested in talking more about that if you’d like. Do you know how to reach me?” Once that connection is made, offer up a phone number or business card — and, believe it or not, you’ve just done a beautiful thing. You’ve just told me I’m not alone. Thank you.

2. Don’t be available all the time. Sure, a mentor could be available all the time — especially in case of emergency. But, mentors aren’t the same as parents, peers, or pals. Especially if you’re mentoring a young person or an emotionally volatile person, these relational distinctions can be something to work on. (I know because I’ve been that young, emotionally volatile person before.) In the long run, I’ve appreciated mentors being available on a limited, defined basis. Knowing they’re available to meet at certain times and places has forced me to practice some self-assessment and self-care (journaling, pro-con lists, meditation, prayer, whatever works) rather than seeking help excessively.

3. Share your story. Really. It might not be much like my story; in fact, it likely won’t be. But I want to know that you’ve made it from a Point A to a Point B (or even Point Z!) and that it sucked sometimes and that you nonetheless survived to tell me the tale.

4. Listen to our stories. I repeat: listen. Listen without judging, interrupting, or acting too surprised by what I say. (For more on this, try some of my past blogs on listening or on mental health first aid.)

5. Find out what we love and make sure we keep doing it. One of the best questions a mentor ever asked me was: “Have you been writing?” The answer: no. The result: change. Good, good change. I knew that my mentor was onto me and would be “checking my homework ” so to speak. So, I started writing. He almost never asked the question again. But I kept on writing, because I never knew when my mentor might throw a pop quiz my way!

6. Ask questions. I used to think mentorship boiled down to this: mentor bestowing wisdom upon the mentee. But now I think it boils down to this: mentor drawing wisdom out of the mentee. One way this can happen is by asking questions. Challenging questions. I’ve had a mentor, for instance, tell me about a challenge he was experiencing at work and then ask how I would handle the challenge. After getting over the shock of my mentor apparently asking me for advice, I offered some hypothetical solutions. Only later did I realize he wasn’t needing my advice but making me think. And all that thinking made me remember the challenge and its solution far more than if he’d lectured me about it. (Touché, mentor. That was a good one.)

7. “Keep calm and mentor on.” Something about a mentor who remains calm in the midst of my anxiety makes me inexplicably, physiologically calm. I could be explaining why my world is in the process of falling apart, but a calm mentor can say with body language alone “no, the world is not falling apart.”

To all the mentors out there: thank you. Thank you for being available (though not all the time), sharing your stories, listening to our stories, holding us accountable, asking questions, and keeping calm.

Making Tough Decisions (a.k.a. How A Raisin Box Changed My Life)

Parker Palmer famously wrote in Let Your Life Speak that “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.”

1801367_10201853561170315_4216587264078755501_oI might also add that I must listen to my raisin box telling me what to do.

Sound strange? I’ll explain in a minute. But, what it boils down to is that we not forget to listen to unexpected sources of direction, to the “still small voices.”

In the last year or so, I’ve had a lot of choices to make that could each have shifted my life, personally and professionally, in very different directions. Complex decisions are a reality of life and certainly a theme of emerging adulthood, which psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett calls “a period characterized by change and exploration for most people, as they examine the life possibilities open to them.”

Long story short, a decision has finally been reached (insert sigh of relief here), and three surprising sources of direction helped make that possible.

Listening to childhood. Recently, when talking with a friend, who I’ve known since we were about 14, we came to the conclusion that our childhood dreams cannot and will not ever really go away. My friend, for instance, spent years wanting to be a doctor, got burnt out during undergraduate pre-med classes, considered other career paths, and has recently returned to considering medicine. Personally, I spent years wanting to be a writer and minister, got discouraged and confused about how on earth to go about doing that, tried to escape the dream, and just recently — and joyfully — started dreaming again. (Still discouraged and confused sometimes, but maybe that’s a post for another day.) I think we all have to ask ourselves if we had a childhood dream. And, as long as it’s a realistic goal (i.e. not “become spiderman”) we have to at least take it into consideration.

Listening to gut feeling. Someone once taught me this trick: For at least one full day, “try on” one of your choices. After that, switch and “try on” the other choice for the same amount of time. Go about your everyday life believing that you really have chosen whichever option you’re “trying on” and asking yourself, “How do I feel about this? Excited? Sad? Scared? Do I regret taking this option?” When I gave this a shot, let’s just say I spent one day excited and one day rather sad. The gut feeling was clear.

Listening to little things. Even with a dream DSC00262and a gut feeling identified, I somehow wasn’t quite ready to face down fear-of-commitment issues and take action. That is, until snack time came one day and a little Sun-Maid raisin box, which always comes with a fortune-cookie-esque saying on the flap, said this: “Know whether it’s time to act or time to wait.” Every now and then, I believe in miracles — especially raisin-sized miracles, the kind we often don’t even notice. And right then I believed. It was time to act.

 

How to Hear Sad Stories: With Mental Health First Aid

Well, I took my own blog’s advice recently and shared a sad story with someone (not with humor, alas, but perhaps with some holiness).

Gratefully, the person listened well, joining the handful of other effective listeners I’ve experienced and observed. So, now, I’m turning to the topic: How should we hear sad stories?

Mental Health First Aid training teaches 5 steps (A-L-G-E-E) for responding, in particular, to signs of mental illness. After going through A-L-G-E-E training in 2013, I’ve realized I have some favorite ways to respond to others and be responded to, described below.

  1. Assess for risk of suicide or harm. My favorite assessment response: SPECIFICITY. Like this: “Are you having suicidal thoughts?” Some people say that asking someone about suicidal thoughts might cause the person to start having suicidal thoughts. But, mental health professionals say that it’s a highly effective question. And I say it’s a highly beautiful question. It says to the hurting individual: “I so truly believe that your life is valuable that I want to make sure you believe it too.”    
  2. Listen nonjudgmentally. My favorite listening response: AWKWARDNESS. (Not in the sense of middle-school-cafeteria awkwardness but in the sense that mental illness just isn’t talked about very often, so it’s guaranteed to be a bit uncomfortable, and we have to accept that.) Ask an open-ended question like “Why are you having suicidal thoughts?” or “What are you thinking right now?” then sit back, make some eye contact, and let the silence settle in. Give the person time to identify their thoughts/feelings, ascribe words to those thoughts/feelings, and muster up the courage to share those words with you. As they share, keep up the eye contact, try not to look surprised by what they share, try not to interrupt, and occasionally re-phrase things they’re saying. Like this: “What I hear you saying is…”  
  3. Give reassurance and information. Favorite reassurance response: PRESENCE. The key is to say: I’m here, I’ll continue to be here, and you can continue to find me here. Like this: “Thank you for trusting me with this part of your life; I know that took courage. Let’s make it an ongoing conversation. You can reach me at _phone number, email address, etc._.”   
  4. Encourage appropriate professional help. Favorite helping response: SPECIFICITY again. Don’t wait for them to bring up the topic of professional help; chances are they won’t bring that up, so go ahead and say it. Like this: “Would you like a referral to a mental health professional?” See #1 for why this is great. It’s specific. It’s tangible. It’s a gift.
  5. Encourage self-help and other support strategies. Favorite strategizing response: INDIVIDUALIZATION. Generally, people really do know how to help themselves — they just might need some leading questions to realize it. Like this: “What’s helped you in the past?” or “How could your hobbies be used to help you in the future?” Individualization puts people in control of their self-care plans and increases the likelihood that they’ll follow through on implementing them.

 

You don’t need to be a licensed professional to listen well. You need to be a friend (or pastor or teacher or whatever you are).

As a friend, the best thing you can do is be specific, be willing to feel just a little bit awkward, and be very present.

How to Tell Sad Stories: With Holiness

How can we tell sad stories? Whether in conversation, in therapy, in writing, or otherwise, this can be a terrifying task.

I think the characteristics of Christ described in Hebrews 12 have something to say about this. Here, the apostle Paul advises “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

God is Author. God is the Author of the Universe. He got the Story of life started, making it very “good” (Genesis 1). But his protagonists, Adam and Eve, faced the conflict of being deceived, tempted, disobedient, and ultimately separated from God.

It’s important to note that God isn’t the cause of the conflict any more than J.K. Rowling was the murderer of Harry Potter’s parents (she wasn’t; Voldemort was). Rather, God is the author of our stories, meaning they’re holy stories. Happy? No, not always. But holy? Yes. 

God is Finisher. I might even take a little poetic license and say that God is Editor. He doesn’t just throw words on a page (like I sometimes do). He doesn’t just give us life and then leave us alone to live it. Rather, He works on stories to make them sanctified, redeemed, used for good in time. As Joseph put it, talking to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “you intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

Christ was unashamed. Even on the cross, having been betrayed, mocked, whipped, and crucified, he “despised” (alternatively translated as disregarded, ignored, or scorned) the shame. Perhaps followers of Christ, following in his example and filled with his strength, should despise shame too.

God is  alive. Because Christ rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and “sat down at the right hand of the throne of God,” he is still alive (Hebrews 12:2, Nicene Creed). What’s more, he sent the Holy Spirit to be Helper/Advocate/Counselor, dwelling with us and in us (John 14).

When we have to tell sad stories, we can remember:

  1. Our stories are holy.
  2. Our stories are useful.
  3. We don’t need to be ashamed.
  4. God is with us and in us.

 

If none of those things seem true, we can look — look for holiness, for ways to make our stories useful, for reasons to be unashamed or for confidantes with whom we can be unashamed, and for God’s abiding presence.

I’ll be looking. I hope you will too.