Hi, My Name Is Joe

As a kid, I learned this song about a stressed-out guy named Joe. It went something like this:

Hi, my name is Joe
I got a wife and three kids and I work in a button factory
One day my boss came to me and said, “Joe, are you busy?”
I said, “no.”
He said, “Then push the button with your right hand.”

We would then begin to push a pretend button with our right hands and launch into the song again, ending this time with “left hand” and the addition of right and left hand pretend-button pushing.The song could continue ad nauseum, requiring participants to “push the button” with both hands, both feet, head, nose, and the optional silliness of tongue and backside. I remember trying to teach this song to my dad in the car once and wondering why he wasn’t getting into the spirit of things. (Oh, right, he was holding onto the steering wheel and keeping us alive.)

I haven’t sung about Joe the Button Pusher in years. But I haven’t forgotten about him. Because sometimes I am Joe — juggling work that I’m passionate about with the right hand, work that pays the bills with the left hand, and family, friends, church, hobbies, and health with my remaining weary appendages.juggling

Juggling. It’s a picture I keep coming back to when I think about life lately.

So I wonder: What are you juggling? What do you do when you start to realize you’re juggling? (No, really. What do you do? Help me out here!)

I’ve seen basically 3 options:

1) Keep juggling. Except that this is unhealthy, leading to burnout and manifest in an array of potential psychological, physiological, social, and spiritual consequences. (Even Joe the Button Pusher doesn’t keep juggling forever. Eventually, after probably an unhealthy duration of time, Joe’s Button-Pusher Boss asks Joe if he’s busy and he belts out yes.)

2) Say no. This is so healthy. And so hard. Resources like Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend’s best-selling book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life have helped me get a bit better at saying no. Making a list of what I’m juggling and then prayerfully prioritizing the items on the list has helped me too. But, let’s be real. It’s still so hard. If for no other reason than sometimes we really can’t say no — can’t say no to a true emergency, to a child or elderly person who needs help, even to a task that’s stressful but we feel utterly called to do nonetheless.

3) Be like Benedict. This is a middle way, a via media, that I’ve been dabbling in recently using the Rule of St. Benedict. This is a way of not only saying a black-and-white “yes” to some things and “no” to other things but saying “with God’s help” to all things. This is a way of practicing the presence of God while working and even by working (although not to the exclusion of rest). St. Benedict upholds as his highest priorities ora et labora: “pray and work.” In fact, as Benedict writes, “he who labors as he prays lifts his heart to God with his hands.” The contemporary writer and Benedictine oblate Kathleen Norris helps us see this in modern life in her writings like Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women’s Work. Benedict could see prayer happening in daily labor. Norris has seen prayer happening in daily laundry of all things.

What exactly does Benedict have to do with juggling many tasks? What would he do — what can we do — in Joe the Button Pusher’s situation?        

We can pray and work. We can pray while working and even by working. The juggling may continue, but it will continue with God’s help — a little steadier, a little stronger, a little sweeter.  


We Need To Talk

“We need to talk.”

What do you think of when you hear those words?

I’ve been realizing over the last several months that, when I hear something like that, I immediately assume the worst. I worry, sometimes for days, that either a) I’m in trouble or b) someone close to me is in trouble. But usually that I’m in trouble.

Why? Probably because I have a somewhat neurotic personality and have experience, unfortunately, with unhealthy workplaces led by unpredictable supervisors. Sometimes, the supervisor would call me in to his office to praise my job performance, other times to threaten my job security. The praise and the threats may have happened 50/50; I’m not sure. But, as I learned in a psychology class once, there’s this thing called the negativity bias that makes negative experiences impact us more than neutral or positive experiences. For example, if my supervisor criticized me 5 times a week (true story), he might need to affirm me, say, 10 times a week in order for me to come away with an unbiased perception of our interactions. And I don’t think that’s asking too much; it’s what we call “constructive criticism” or maybe “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). But my supervisor didn’t seem to go that route.

So, I became scared of his office. Scared of the desk phone that so often summoned me into his office. Scared, sometimes, of just waking up in the morning and driving into work. Long after shaking off that situation (with Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” playing as I drove away; no joke), it seems I’m scared of someone saying “we need to talk.”

But here’s the thing: sometimes we just need to talk.

A few days ago, someone in a supervisory position over me suggested that we go to lunch. I swear, the hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. Lunch time came around, we ordered salads, and after several minutes of small talk and sipping sweet teas, I asked her, “So, did you want to discuss something in particular?”

“No,” she said with the simplest smile. “I just thought we hadn’t touched base in a while, just the two of us.”

I sat down my fork and breathed in deep (note to self: do this more often).

Hours of anxiety released like a deflating balloon.

Suddenly, the small talk seemed sufficient rather than suspenseful, as if maybe we’re meant to just be together rather than just be together until some ticking time bomb goes off. Suddenly, I wasn’t so scared. I was just there — fully, freely there. I cared more genuinely about her toddler’s antics and approaching anniversary, and I could accept that she cared quite genuinely about my roommates and writing.

We need to talk. We really do. And I’m resolved to redeem that phrase.  

First-Week Fatigue

Calendar ScreenshotFirst week of school. First week of a new job. The first week of a new experience almost always, to some extent, overwhelms me.

And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way.

Dr. Nancy Schlossberg, who specializes in the study of life transitions, says that “even with a desired change there is disruption in your life. Until you establish a new life you will feel bewildered” (emphasis mine).

For instance, the Fellows Program that I started this week is a very desired change. It comes with new roles, relationships, and routines. This is beautiful. But it’s also bewildering.

Why? Because we want clear roles, close relationships, and consistent routines as much as possible and as soon as possible. Until that happens, every day can feel like a kaleidoscope. Dizzying. Disordered. Different from second to second.

To deal with this, I’m recalling strategies I’ve heard over the years for dealing with first-week fatigue:

  1. Maintain at least one core routine that was consistent before your life changed and that you’re deciding to keep consistent despite your life change. If you’re used to going for a run in the morning, knitting in the evening, or blogging once a week (my routine of choice), find a way to keep doing it. You might have to do it at a different time or place than before, and you might have to ask someone for advice on when/where/HOW ON EARTH to keep your routine alive through the life change. But a life-giving routine is deeply worth the effort. (For help with identifying your life-giving routine/s, I recommend this old post “What Are Your Life-Giving Questions?” by Eugene Cho.)
  2. Rest. And this does NOT just mean vegging out in front of the TV. It blew my mind when a mentor once pointed to my media-mired perception of “rest” and said, “That’s not rest! That’s mindless. Rest is mindful.” It could happen in different ways for different people — so long as it makes you mindful of how your mind, body, and soul are doing.
  3. Say no. In order to keep routine and rest in your life, you have to say no to some demands. I want to help people (good intention) and be liked by people (not-so-good intention) so badly, that I always want to say yes when people ask for advice, a favor, a ride, you name it. But, with practice, I’ve started learning to consider my needs, consider the other person’s needs, weigh their urgency, and sometimes say no. If you couldn’t realistically be helpful to the other person because of your own physical, emotional, or spiritual fatigue, it’s time to say no.

How do you deal with first-week fatigue? If you’re experiencing or approaching a transition right now, how do you feel about it?

How to Tell Sad Stories: With Humor

“You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice.” – Hazel Grace Lancaster

This is my favorite line in all of John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars, slipped in subtly on page 209 right before the climax is about to arrive and the reader’s Kleenex box is about to come out.

Why? What are the key ideas here?fault in our stars

Choice. Good characters are active, not just acted upon. They make the conscious choice to interpret their circumstances in a particular manner. In the case of Hazel and Augustus of Fault In Our Stars fame, they’ve flown across the world to meet an author who they’re sure will offer wisdom and answers — and (spoiler alert) the reclusive writer is utterly disappointing. Naturally, they’re angry at the time. But, afterward they choose how to interpret the experience, and they make “the funny choice.”

Like Hazel says, you — we, all of us — have a choice in this world. We might make multiple interpretative choices that shift as our circumstances shift, but no matter what we can be in control of the choices.

Stories. With an interpretation chosen, Hazel and Augustus shared their experience verbally with Hazel’s mom. Stories have tellers (e.g. Hazel and Augustus) and stories have listeners/readers (e.g. Hazel’s mom). I’m convinced that we need to be tellers and we need to have listeners/readers for our stories — especially sad stories. This is why therapists exist, why so many people “vent” into cyberspace via social media, and why Maya Angelou so truthfully said that “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.”

I realize that getting the untold story out of you, when it’s a sad story, can be a pretty great agony too. (Can’t keep it in; can’t get it out.) So, I wonder what would happen if we asked ourselves this: “If my circumstance was in a book/movie what genre would that book/movie be? What genre would I want it to be?” Then, gently guide your sad story over to the aisle where it would belong in Barnes & Noble.

Funny. Hazel and Augustus chose to place their story in the comedy aisle. In the scene I’ve been describing, they role play their frustrating experience to Mrs. Lancaster, turning it into a sort of SNL sketch with grand gestures and embellished accents.

The “funny choice” is a wise and healthy choice, encouraged by philosophy and psychology. According to John Morreall, professor of religious studies at The College of William and Mary (my alma mater!), comedians and philosophers actually have a LOT in common. They both appreciate cleverness, think critically, and ask questions (e.g. “What’s up with that? Why do we do that?”). And psychologically, humor lowers epinephrine (adrenaline), boosts the immune system, helps us be mindful of amusements in the present, and helps us put aspects of the past and/or future into perspective.

I hope to write at least one more blog post about other approaches to how to tell sad stories. If you have suggestions, let me know!

Above all, I hope you make the choice to tell sad stories — and at least consider placing them in the comedy aisle. 


Anniversary Reactions

I’m currently walking through a couple days that constitute a mild “anniversary reaction” for me. Basically, something somewhat traumatic happened one year ago, inciting temporary shock and sadness. Though that shock and sadness wore off over time, it’s trying to come back one year later. The National Center for PTSD, among other websites, describe the whole phenomenon in a much more thorough, evidence-based manner than I can.

What I can describe is some things that are helping in dealing with this.

Be proactive. Just by keeping an eye on the calendar, I saw this reaction coming. I’ve been journaling and praying about it for a little while. I called a friend a few nights ago, went out for frozen yogurt then focused on some work last night as the anniversary reaction was beginning, and approached a trusted co-worker today when the reaction was picking up.

Don’t be alone. Notice most of those things in the above “be proactive” section involve people. Most of the time I spent with those people, we weren’t actually talking about the traumatic experience that was on my mind (though we did some). We just talked about our lives, jobs, where we grew up, where we went to college. We were just together.

The National Center for PTSD also includes people in many of its recommended coping strategies, such as visiting a grave together, donating to charity, helping others, or spending the day with family/friends.

Read poetry. Or listen to spoken word. These have an incredible power to tell the reader/listener: “I understand. You’re not alone.”

Fortuitously, I stumbled across these gems in the last couple days:

From Jane Hirshfield’s “The Envoy“:
“For a year I watched
as something — terror? happiness? grief? —
entered and then left my body.

There are openings in our lives
of which we know nothing.”

From Donald Finkel’s “Sonic Boom“:
“Nothing has happened, nothing has been broken,
everything is still in place, including yourself;
even now the juice of alarm begins to settle”

Talk kindly to yourself: “Nothing has happened, nothing has been broken, everything is still in place, including yourself.”

Yes, at some point a year or two years or many years ago something did happen, something was broken, everything was not in place, including yourself. But now? Now you’re here, safe, loved.

Now you’re here…