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Creating a New Beginning After Losing a Loved One

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When we lose a loved one, the way back to a normal new life often feels as though we are climbing a perpetual mountain with steep trails and unmarked paths full of uncertainties. We are required not only to mourn our loss but create a new meaningful beginning. This piece epitomizes such a journey.

Learning new skills requires perseverance, dedication, and hard work. It seems at times we are pushing that proverbial stone that doesn’t want to move. And then, one morning, we wake up and find ourselves sitting on top of it! We haven’t moved it… we haven’t gone around it… we have climbed on top and are on our way over it!

That’s how I feel this morning. I have reached the top! I don’t know how I got here, but here I am. Every morning I have written about my struggle to believe, make sense of what happened, let go of the past and move forward. I was developing a new skill.

Now, as I sit on top of this mountain, my proverbial rock, I look back and see the black canyons, deep abysses and steep trails that challenged me. I see what I couldn’t see while climbing those treacherous paths: the guardrails God put up for my protection; the “angels” He sent to comfort me and the green pastures that were sweet resting places along the way. He put people in my life for assistance and support and to be there for me. He provided protection, love, and strength to endure.

Since death toppled me off my comfortable perch in life, I have been reconciling to a new reality. I asked myself some challenging questions. Mental, emotional, and physical resources were stretched to the max and at the end of the day I fell into bed, exhausted. The next morning, I rose from a pool of tears and started all over again.

Creating a New Beginning After Losing a Loved One | focuswithmarlene.com

At times, the trail seemed endless or too steep. How would I make it through another day? But standing still was not an option, and with steel resolve and determination, I moved forward.

Yet, I was never alone on this journey. Not only was God with me every step of the way, but He gave me new friends to comfort and support me. He enriched old friendships. Those who loved me walked with me. Others pulled away.

This morning, as I sit from this new vantage point, I am captivated by the view extending far into the distance, revealing the many options available to me. As I reflect on the dark, deep, and narrow canyons I traveled, I am reminded that along the way there had been patches of blue sky.

When I had looked up, those walls expanded, and I felt new life and a new surge of energy and hope. And when the way out of those dark canyons of grief and sorrow seemed to disappear, God gave me toeholds, branches to grab hold of and hang on to until the path became clear once more.

Learning to Live Again in a New World, by Marlene Anderson | focuswithmarlene.comMy book, Learning to Live Again in a New World, offers information and guidance to healing and rebuilding your life after the loss of a loved one. Available on Amazon.com.

Yes, I Can – Three Powerful Little Words

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Just three little words – Yes. I. Can.

Within them, they hold the energy and power to make monumental changes, overcome the largest of obstacles, stay on course, and never give up. We can take time out to evaluate and make appropriate corrections, but we don’t give up. We continue with reflection, purpose, and intention.

I first discovered how powerful those three little words were years ago when my husband and I listened to doctors tell us that our ten-month old son was “A-mi-tonic quadriplegic,” a term I never heard before or since, but it basically told us that our son would have little to no control over his muscles. Oh, and they didn’t think he had much intellect, either.

For five days the doctors had performed intensive tests, trying to discover why our son couldn’t hold up his head. Phrases like “cerebral palsy,” and “little to no intelligence,” were spoken as casually as if they were a weather forecast. My husband and I struggled with the enormity of it as we left the hospital and tried to think of ways we could share this news with our other two children. How would we meet the needs of our family?

Growing up in a Christian home, I believed in God and the power of prayer. While I had always said prayers, I rarely said them on my knees. I learned a lesson in humility that day. At home, alone in my bedroom, I sank to my knees in prayer. I knew I couldn’t simply ask God to make everything return to normal – my son obviously had a serious muscular and structural problem, even if I could not agree about the lack of intelligence. He was unable to hold up his head, after all.

So, my prayer was for strength, courage, and wisdom to raise our son and to find ways to make his life as normal as possible. As soon as the words were spoken, I was flooded with an incredible sense of peace and confidence, and I rose from my knees energized, hopeful, knowing we could do this.

We were not only given strength and courage that day, but many other blessings as well. Several days later, we were told by an intervening doctor that Don did not have cerebral palsy, nor was he mentally challenged, and he was not a quadriplegic. But he had been born with missing and weak muscles in his neck along with other muscle weaknesses in his body. Although the diagnosis was less severe, his life was going to be a challenge for him and for us as parents.

We created a home environment where he could maximize his talents and abilities. He was extremely creative and had incredible drawing skills.

While the muscle weakness affected parts of his back and shoulders, it did not affect his arms or hands. Don was fitted with a specifically designed brace so he could walk, and he started drawing as soon as he could hold a pencil.

Later in life he had surgeries on the Achilles tendon in both legs and a back fusion when he became a teen. As an extremely gifted and talented artist, he went on to college and lived an independent life as a conceptual artist.

I share this personal life event because I learned two important things.

First, the importance of prayer.

And second, that if God gives us hope and strength, we need to put them into action.

And that is where “Yes I can” became a permanent part of our vocabulary.

Because without a “Yes I can” attitude, it would have been impossible to give our son the independence and freedom it took to live life to the fullest. It meant allowing him to fall, get hurt, and try again. It meant trusting God in the process and believing in our son.

Without a “Yes I can” mindset, Don would never have gained that inner strength and confidence to become a conceptual artist and independent contractor in one of the most difficult industries and cities in the U.S. – Los Angeles.

Throughout his life, Don believed in himself and his ability to do things. He did not let anything deter him from creating a successful career as an artist. Although it wasn’t easy, he never questioned his ability to make things happen. And he never looked at himself as handicapped. He was loved and respected by many and developed a large circle of friends who never saw him as disabled, either. Cancer took my beloved son in 2009.

“Yes, I can” is a mindset that takes whatever life has to offer and turns it into something positive and productive.

Surrendering to God in prayer is an understanding that we can’t do it all by ourselves. It frees up our energy to move forward with confidence in meeting whatever challenges we face. It allows us to be pro-active, resilient, flexible, and roll with the punches instead of becoming resentful and angry. God gave us peace and strength so we could turn that initial shock into a will to make life happy and normal.

“Yes, I can” sets us free from self-incriminating doubts, uncertainty, and on-going anxiety.

Yes, we will doubt. Yes, we will feel overwhelmed. Yes, we will have anxiety and fear. But we can turn all of these into something productive when we choose to focus instead on what we can do instead of what we can’t do. It gives us the will to look for solutions, and the energy to carry them out.

Try it – you might be surprised. We choose our thoughts, our mindsets, and attitudes. These influence our responses to whatever challenge life throws at us.

Make Stress Work For You by Marlene Anderson | focuswithmarlene.comMy book, Make Stress Work for You! 12 Steps to Understanding Stress and Turning it into a Positive Force, outlines ways to overcome obstacles in life.

For a limited time, get the ebook, audio recordings, study guide, and four bonus resources for only $19.99. Available exclusively from my website.

A Deepening Peace: Discovering Peace in Tranquil Settings

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“And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
-Philippians 4:7

Once again I gather my cup of coffee, Bible and journal and step out onto my deck brimming with potted plants. The orange and yellow nasturtiums along with green vines and shrubs create a privacy screen, a secret garden. This is my oasis, a place of solitude and quiet where I come to find renewal.

The sounds of the bubbling water fountain soothe my heart and bruised spirit. The questions about an uncertain future melt away like the early morning mists and I feel strength and confidence returning.


One moment my spirit is dejected and feeling despair, the next I am feeling calm and serene.

What has changed? It isn’t just the hodgepodge of plants and colorful flowers that are scattered around me. It is more; I feel the spirit of God meeting me here.secret garden

I am comforted through the timeless tranquility and harmony of creation, from random flowers sprouting where least expected to the massive mountains towering in the distance, forming a backdrop for the lush forests and valleys.

Within the covers of the Bible, I find reassurance that I am not alone. My distressed spirit is calmed when I find within its simple truths the working out of healing. I am reconciled to my troubles and my losses. Here the remaining remnants of grief are comforted and soothed.

As I step into my new reality, I continue to seek words, phrases and places that feed my spirit and soul. It is in that constancy, that never changing stability, where I find ongoing and deepening peace and contentment.

There are so many losses we experience throughout our lifetime, each having an impact of some kind on our lives. It isn’t just the death of a spouse or child. It comes through divorce or when kids leave home to start their own lives.

Our way of life is altered when best friends move away, or as we get older, and age isolates us. In some way, all losses require a reframing of our world, what we can expect and what is now gone. There is some element of sorrow and the need for reflection connected with all of them.

As we retreat to a calm and welcoming space to gather our thoughts and calm our spirits, we recognize our need for God and for others. And in those moments of calming tranquility, we pray that that peace will remain when we step out of that space into the active world.

With a faith and belief that God will continue to uphold us, we can become confident as we take those tiny, sometimes faltering steps away from our past to a new beginning, where gradually what was lost is replaced with a new meaning and purpose.

As I step out of the sanctuary of my garden, I pray that the peace I was given will continue to go with me throughout the days and weeks that stretch before me. I pray that you too will find that tranquility in a sanctuary of your life.

Learning to Live Again in a New World, by Marlene Anderson | focuswithmarlene.comMy book, Learning to Live Again in a New World, offers information and guidance to healing and rebuilding your life after the loss of a loved one. Available on Amazon.com.

The Cost of Resentment: Becoming a Victim

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Throughout this month, I have been sharing stories about the consequences of hanging onto anger and resentments.

When we have suffered injustices, especially in our personal relationships, it is hard to let go and forgive. We struggle with our desire to get retribution or justice versus letting go. Retribution or payback seems so necessary.

Therapists often hear about egregious events that people have endured. Some started early in their childhood. Unprocessed, they keep injecting themselves into our lives and color our attempts at happiness.

In this article, I share one more story from a therapy session that might help you understand the cost of hanging onto resentment.

“The lady arriving at my office had a pinched, hard face, even when she smiled. Her eyes were combative and her demeanor and stance defensive. Her vitriolic words were indicative of a long-held bitterness.

The toxicity of her resentment could no longer be covered up with expensive suits and immaculate dressing – her very physical being had been changed. She had been referred to therapy because she was experiencing more and more physical problems for which her doctors could find no organic cause.

“I don’t know why I am here,” she said. “I live a good life and do what I am supposed to do, which is more than I can say for those doctors I go to.

As I listened and gently probed her background, it soon became apparent that she held a lifetime of resentment against an older sister who hated her, stole her rightful inheritance, and tried to destroy her name and reputation. This resentment had played a major role in her health problems.

The resentment was legitimate. The grievance was deserved. Yet a lifetime spent as a self-righteous victim, rehearsing over and over how she had been wronged, was gradually destroying her – bit by bit.”

The cost of resentment had affected her entire life.

woman looking resentful with man in background

It made no difference what salary she was getting, how much power she held, whether she was the elite CEO of a major company or a secretary – everything she did was affected.

What she didn’t realize was that this long-held grievance was affecting every part of her being: physical, mental and psychological. It had become such a normal part of life that she no longer could see the correlation between these thoughts and her health.

She only looked for things that confirmed her anger and distrust. Everything that might have held a promise of happiness or joy was obstructed or blocked. She found ways to excuse herself from any wrongdoing, finding and focusing instead only on the faults of everyone else. She was a very unhappy lady.

Righteous indignation – anger turned to bitterness and hatred – will eventually destroy you.

Every part of your life becomes tainted by that hatred. Grievances worm their way into every fiber of our being.

Your Choice – Your Happiness

We select and maintain the memories that make our stories grow. When we tell it over and over again, whether to others or to ourselves, it keeps the hurt and injustice alive. We cling to a standard of rules that we cannot enforce, and automatically blame others for everything that goes wrong.

While there are many egregious wrongdoings, most offenses are committed without the intention of hurting someone personally. When they are intentional, the people committing these acts are usually ones who themselves have been mistreated and hurt.

Whether intentional or not, we can choose to continue the pain, or tell ourselves there is more to life than hanging onto offenses.

We convince ourselves that if we let go, then what happened wasn’t important. Instead, letting go is declaring that your life will not be defined and ruled by what has happened.

Forgiveness doesn’t say you were not wronged. It says, I don’t want my life to be ruled by what happened. I want to create a happy and purposeful life.

In the book of Genesis, we read the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is a classic example of favoritism, jealousy, and being wronged. Joseph was hated by his brothers and they tried to get rid of him. He was taken into slavery, thrown into prison but was released because he was able to foretell dreams.

The ruler of Egypt put him in a position of power. When the dream of an impending major drought came true, his brothers, along with others, came to Egypt to get a handout. They did not recognize Joseph, but he recognized them. And after a few transactions, he told them who he was, forgave them, and rejoiced that they were together again as a family.

Forgiveness opens the door for reconciliation.

It allows the possibility of a new relationship. It is not condoning inappropriate or hurtful behavior or even forgetting a painful past. It is choosing to let go of the hurt and pain.

Forgiveness does not change the past, but changes the present. You are choosing not to allow the past to continue to hurt you, allowing you to heal and put in place new boundaries.

Forgiveness is for you – not the offender.

It enables you to re-claim your personal power. Forgiveness does not mean you condone, deny, or minimize inappropriate and hurtful behavior or that you will automatically reconcile with your offender.

It does not mean you give up feeling, become a passive doormat or give up claims for justice or compensation.

It does mean you can become a hero by choosing not to allow your stories to be as important as you once thought they were.

When asked by his disciples if seven times was enough to forgive another, Jesus’ reply was to forgive seventy times seven. How often do we take this as a harsh command or a duty impossible to do? Yet if we flipped forgiveness on its head, we would see it as the blessing it is.

It is not easy to let go of wrongdoing.

But if you want to live a productive and happy life, resentments and bitterness will only get in the way. It might be the greatest gift you ever gave yourself.

Read Marlene’s story in Heaven Touching Earth: True Stories of Angels, Miracles, and Heavenly Encounters, stories compiled by James Stuart Bell of people’s encounter of God in tough times. Available on Amazon.com.

7 ways to Make Forgiveness a Gift, Rather Than an Obligation

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“Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun.

Top lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in more ways it is a feast fit for a king.

The chief drawback is what you are wolfing down is yourself.

The skeleton at the feast is you.”

-Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

Jesus said, “Forgive seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22). We take it as a moral imperative.

But it isn’t just Jesus who tells us how important forgiveness is; science confirms it as well. In fact, not to forgive is putting a slow death sentence on ourselves,as the theologian Frederick Buechner so aptly describes.

Most of us deal with the sins and transgressions of others in the moment. We get mad, pull away, and then make up and go on. When we are the transgressors, we do the same. With minor goofs and slip-ups, we feel bad in the moment, apologize, and then continue with life.

Grievance stories

Forgive for GoodWhen we personalize indiscretions or offenses of others, however, we are setting ourselves up for the creation of a “grievance story” as detailed by Dr. Fred Luskin, in his book, Forgive for Good.

When we hang on to resentment, it becomes more toxic over time.

The suggestions offered by Dr. Luskin can help us better understand how and why we are so quickly offended and what we can do to change such a trajectory.

7 ways to make forgiveness a gift, rather than an obligation

7 ways we can make forgiveness a gift rather than an obligation

1. Don’t make “unenforceable” rules.

Unenforceable rules are expectations and assumptions that everyone must follow, or we will be personally insulted and offended. Associated with such rules are the words, should, must, have to and ought.

When you hear yourself saying these words, ask what you are demanding from either yourself or another. How are you eliminating personal choice?

2. Own your feelings.

We blame others for how we feel. People can’t make us feel a certain way unless we allow it. We can choose other ways to respond that doesn’t involve escalating anger, ill will or hatred.

3. An injury does not create a “grievance story” – we do.

We can reframe our situations, become less critical and balance troubled times with humor.

4. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing.

Forgiving prepares the way for reconciliation; it doesn’t automatically say it will happen. Forgiveness is letting go of trying to get retribution. Forgiveness of self says, I can admit when I am wrong, apologize and ask for forgiveness and stop beating myself up.

5. Forgiveness does not mean condoning unkindness, inconsiderate or selfish behavior or excusing bad behavior.

It does not deny or minimize the hurt, pain or injury done to us. It just refuses to make it into an ongoing resentment story that becomes toxic over time. We are the ones hurt by not forgiving.

6. Coming to terms with unpleasantness in life helps us understand we are not perfect or flawless.

We will make mistakes and need grace and forgiveness. Although people will hurt us, they are often unaware that they have offended us.

7. Forgiveness is a choice.

We make the conscious decision to let go of the hurts and wrongs. Forgiveness requires that we first define our grievance. When we can articulate the details of the hurtful event, we will know exactly what we are forgiving.

Acknowledge, accept your feelings, and then make that conscious choice to forgive and let go. Forgiving helps us from getting hurt in the future.

Forgiveness allows me to let go of the pain and experience peace. I choose to forgive. How about you?

Read Marlene’s story in It’s A God Thing: Stories to Help You Experience the Heart of God, by Freeman-Smith. Fifty real-life stories that demonstrate the real grace that can only come from a kind and loving Heavenly Father. Available on Amazon.com.

The Unwanted Package: An Allegory

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Once upon a time, a package was delivered to a young woman. When she opened it, her eyes blazed, and she became very angry.

Although infuriated over receiving this parcel, she nonetheless took it with her wherever she went. Soon other packages arrived, and she had to get a larger bag to put them in so she could continue to carry them with her.

Every morning, she dutifully picked up her bag, which was growing heavier and heavier. She took it with her on the bus to work and when she met with the girls for coffee or a glass of wine.

It went with her to family gatherings and remained on her back as she fixed meals and adjusted her load to make the beds and do the laundry.

Every once in a while, she received another unwelcome and unwanted package, which she stuffed in the bag with the rest.

There were moments when she put her bag down and went for a walk in the woods or on the beach where waves gently lapped her ankles. At such times she felt free and alive. She enjoyed the sun and sweet smells of the forest and breathed deeply the fresh salt air.

She felt weightless and at peace and was tempted to leave the bag behind when she left these peaceful environs.

young woman carrying heavy bag and walking on path

But it called to her, and she would pick up her load once more. The sweet moments she had just enjoyed became burning coals of sadness, regret, and despair.

One day as she walked down the path of life, an old man stopped her and said, “I have been watching you. Every day you carry that big bag. I can tell it is heavy by the way your body sags under the weight and the strain of effort that shows on your face. You must have something very valuable in that bag.”

The woman, who was aging more rapidly because of the constant strain, set the bag down for a minute and reflected before she replied. She had been carrying her load for so long it just seemed natural to do so.

“Sir, the packages in my bag are things I do not want, have never wanted, and I carry them with me so I never forget how much they have injured me. If I lay them down, I might forget. For you see, in this bag are all the betrayals, rejections, insults, lies and humiliations I have received – things that have cut and wounded my spirit and soul.”

The man responded with shock, “Why would you want to keep carrying them around with you? Why don’t you put them down and leave them behind?”

With tears in her eyes she replied, “Because I don’t want to forget what was done to me. I don’t want them to get away with what they did to me. I want them to remember the pain and suffering they inflicted on me.”

The old man looked around and slowly said, “But they don’t know you are carrying this bag of grievances and resentment. They are not around. Whatever was done to you, you continue to do to yourself. You are not exacting punishment on them, but on yourself. Others may have injured you, but you continue to inflict pain on yourself. “

Amazed, she said, “But if I put it down, won’t I be saying that what they did was okay? That they got away with it. As long as I carry this bag, I can be thinking of ways to get even.”

The man kindly and compassionately said, “Is it worth letting a lifetime of joy and happiness pass you by?”

She looked into his eyes full of wisdom and grace and realized for the first time that by carrying her bag full of resentment and grievances, she was unable to build a constructive and meaningful life. She was unable to see the beauty around her.

She thanked the man and went home. She put her bag down beside her and pondered the things he said. What could she do with all the packages she had been carrying around for so long?

She opened the bag and looked inside. She discovered the packages had turned to stone; not only all the injustices and wrongs she had endured, but her anger that had flamed into a deep simmering rage. As she sat there weeping, she realized she no longer wanted to carry them around with her. But what would she do with them?

As she looked out the window and gazed at her garden so ordinary and plain, she had a brilliant idea. Filled with an energy she hadn’t experienced in years, she began removing the stones, using them to create a new pleasing design for her garden.

stone wall with ivy and pond

She built a large mound of stones and dirt and planted beautiful flowers and plants in between. Other stones became low walls for beautiful ivy to tumble over. Some became the perimeter for a water pond that held the tears she shed, and others framed pathways that wound around the beautiful sculptures she created.

Her garden was no longer ordinary and mundane, but inviting and pleasurable. She invited friends and family to gather with her for lunches, teas or dinner parties. And when she wanted to enjoy the peace and comfort that fed her soul and spirit, she chose one of the benches to sit and rest.

It is so easy to accumulate the bundles of betrayals, rejections and lies we have received that become resentments and grievance stories. And like this woman, we carry them around without thinking of the cost.

When our focus remains on how badly we have been treated, we become a victim to our own story. Forgiveness allows us to put our heavy burden down. Forgiveness allows us to make peace with any bitterness in our past. It allows us to let go of the pain and experience peace.

Don’t you want to set your heavy load down, choose to forgive and be free?

Read Marlene’s story in It’s A God Thing: Stories to Help You Experience the Heart of God, by Freeman-Smith. Fifty real-life stories that demonstrate the real grace that can only come from a kind and loving Heavenly Father. Available on Amazon.com.

The Last of Human Freedoms: The Ability to Choose Our Attitude

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“What alone is ‘the last of human freedoms’ – is the ability to ‘choose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”

—Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl was a psychiatrist and a Jew who lived during the Nazi regime in Germany. He, along with his entire family, was sent to Nazi concentration camps. He ended up in Auschwitz, one of the most dreaded WWII camps.

Except for his sister and himself, his entire family perished in one of those sites. Every possession was taken from them, and the Jews who weren’t shot or sent to the gas chamber endured years of unspeakable horror.

Man's Search for MeaningIn his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl wrote:

“In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitives of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen…”

As a psychiatrist, physician, and author, he was now a student in the cruelest of life’s classrooms, struggling to survive physically, mentally, and spiritually.

He discovered that men could be compassionate to others who were dying and that apathy “…could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physic stress.”

Why is this important to you and me today?

For one, it puts into perspective the problems we may be experiencing.

And for another, it is important to understand that nothing can take away our ability to choose our responses to whatever life throws at us. In the midst of unimaginable conditions, Frankl evidenced the indomitable human spirit. He discovered that prisoners faced with death and unexpected daily torture could focus their minds on things that were good.

They could even see the beauty of God’s earth around them. They could “rise above any situation even if only for a few seconds” when they found and expressed humor. He and another prisoner daily invented at least one amusing story to share with each other.

We make choices every minute of the day.

feet wearing red shoes with arrows pointing different directions

In fact, we cannot not choose. When we accept what is happening, we are then able to make conscious decisions as to how we will respond. We can choose to respond with anger and resentment or retreat into fear and anxiety.

Or we can choose to find meaning in what is happening, for it isn’t the situation that is as important as how we react to it.

We may be going through what seems like overwhelming circumstances. But we can learn and identify with those prisoners who “…were able to retreat from their terrible surrounds to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.”   

Finding meaning in suffering

Frankl discovered that those who would have a chance to survive were those “who held on to a vision of the future.”  They had to find meaning in the suffering itself. We can also find meaning and purpose in whatever we are facing. And we can decide on a response that will enable us to learn, benefit and rise above any situation.

Choose love – choose life – choose an attitude that rises above your circumstances.

Whatever you focus on, that is where your energy will go. That energy force can be either positive or negative. We choose where to place it.

Will that be a force of hatred, resentment, and revenge or a vitality force of patience, commitment, and love?

Choice frees us to look for positive, productive ways to use our power.

When we understand that we always have alternatives, it inspires us to keep looking for possibilities and opportunities. This attitude encourages problem-solving and negotiation while offering grace to ourselves and others.

Whatever situation you find yourself, you are the one who chooses how you will respond.

You can live by your principles and values or simply remain reactive.

You can explore alternatives and communicate your needs, wants, and desires and offer the same respect to others.

Read Marlene’s story in Heaven Touching Earth: True Stories of Angels, Miracles, and Heavenly Encounters, stories compiled by James Stuart Bell of people’s encounter of God in tough times.  Available on Amazon.com.

Words to Encourage When Life Dumps Its Worst on You

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Psalm 18 begins:

“I love you, God – you make me strong. God is bedrock under my feet, the castle in which I live, my rescuing knight. My God – the high crag where I run for dear life, hiding behind the boulders, safe in the granite hideout.”  (The Message)

When everything around us seems to be crashing and we think nothing else could possibly happen, it invariably does.

Problems have a domino effect

One problem creates another and so on. At such times, we reach out to friends for help and support and turn to God for encouragement and hope.

Reading Psalm 18 this morning, I am reminded of children playing hide-and-seek among rocks. I envision hideouts and imaginary castles and moats, protective walls and strong defensive armor on knights. I feel a sense of protection and safety when I read those words.

But when life continues to dump the worst on me, in the middle of confusion, exhaustion, and despair, I ask, Is there a safe place where I can hide? I need to remind myself of these words – God, strength, bedrock, castle, knight.

knight in armor in front of castle

Words, spoken or written, allow us to identify with the human experience. As a writer, the words we use enable readers to envision places of safety, strength, and rescue. They can become a source of solace, protective walls from a harsh world. Like the knight in fairy tales, we can envision putting on a strong defensive armor.

Sometimes we write about what we have experienced – sometimes we write about the struggles we see others going through. Within these images, we get glimpses of ourselves: our struggles, our joys, our temptations, our frustrations.

When we write, we are not just writing to entertain, but to inform, to clarify the human condition. Within both fiction and non-fiction, we are offering encouragement and hope.

I love books.

Perhaps the books you enjoy are similar to mine. While I am not just interested in one genre, I have my favorite areas of reading. I don’t just want to be entertained. I want to be able to connect in some way with individuals I find running across the pages of my books. I want to know they are genuine and real – not lofty and unreachable.

The words I read need to connect me on a human experience level. While the setting in novels is important to understand time and historical context where the characters exist, it is the characters themselves that I need to be able to relate to. Within their cries for help, doubts and fears, struggles and shouts of joy, I can relate and identify at some level.

“Mind the Gap”: Overcoming Obstacles and Distorted Beliefs

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In London’s underground stations you hear a mechanized voice say, “Mind the Gap,” as you prepare to board a tube train. That “gap” between platform and train is usually quite small and as a tourist, after the novelty wears off, you take for granted the need to watch your step and the recording simply becomes one of those endearing facets of the London experience.

Neverwhere by Neil GaimanNeil Gaiman, in his book, Neverwhere, artfully creates a more sinister reason for “minding the gap” in his fantasy story about London above ground and the London below.

The “gap” no longer is a small precautionary hazard but one of lethal danger as an invisible cloudlike “black smoke” rises out of the crack, wrapping around the ankles of its targeted, unwary traveler, ready to drag him into oblivion.

It is easy to develop complacency about the gaps that occur in our lives, most of which are simply little daily obstacles we step over. But sometimes, those gaps can take on the proportions of huge chasms, larger than life and so threatening that we remain rooted in place and stranded on the station platform while the train moves out.

The “gap” becomes an insurmountable obstacle; a hollow place empty of inspiration and motivation; a place that threatens to swallow us up in mediocrity and depression.

What creates the difference between a small gap we easily step over and one that literally sucks out our confidence and energy?

Usually, it is our interpretation.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy teaches us to challenge our thoughts and beliefs in order to change the emotional and behavioral responses that follow. When you feel overwhelmed, find and challenge the connecting thread to the thoughts and beliefs attached. Often you will find patterns of thinking that prevent you from believing you can make it.

Maybe it is the “all or nothing” thinking that locks you into an “either/or” way of looking at the world; inflexible and rigid.

Maybe you have over-generalized the situation, so the obstacle becomes too large and any efforts on your part are measured by past unsuccessful attempts. Therefore, to try is useless because you just know you will fail.

Distorted beliefs about one’s worth filter out any positive attributes, exaggerating failures while minimizing any accomplishments. The future becomes hopeless. As possibilities and opportunities are filtered out, we no longer see a minor gap, but an impossible impediment ready to swallow us up. Our interpretations of the past are used to predict the future.

We can choose to hold onto unrealistic expectations about ourselves and the world or decide to try again, looking for alternatives to make our dreams happen.

We can empower our thinking or believe we are a failure – a powerless victim.

We choose our locus of control. We have the ability to choose our thoughts and beliefs and their subsequent emotional responses.

We can choose to accept setbacks and seemingly impossible obstacles and then explore other options. We are not the center of the universe. We cannot predict the future, but we can make choices. We can give ourselves grace to fail and start over again.

Without challenging our thoughts and beliefs, our feelings will produce reactionary behaviors. If we believe it is impossible, it becomes impossible. But we can accept the fact that as humans we will fail.

Perfection is an ideal that can keep us spinning our wheels. Wanting to do our best points us to a multitude of choices to make things happen.

Seagulls on the Wind: How Contemplation Can Expand and Reframe Our Circumstances

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This is a piece I wrote some years ago when I was reflecting on the changes occurring in my life. It defines how a moment of contemplation can expand and reframe our circumstances.

My thoughts and feelings ebb and flow like the tides of the ocean. I close my eyes and pictures from the past flood my mind.

Seagulls wheel and soar above the ocean waves. On the sandy beaches below, patterns and ridges are being shaped and molded by incoming tides. Sea grasses dance in the wind at the ocean’s edge, weaving shadows of beauty and grace on endless sand. The sun’s kisses on the tips of waves turn them into sparkling diamonds that dazzle the eye.

An eagle soars high above an inland river, laser eyes focused on the ripple of water and telltale signs of fish swimming upstream. In one determined and skillfully executed dive, he retrieves a salmon for his dinner.

seagulls flying above the ocean

I let go, and in my imagination, become one of those seagulls carried by the wind over cresting waves, soaring high above the earth’s parameters. A sense of freedom and lightness permeates my being as I soar above and over my troubles and sorrows.

As I look down on God’s world, I see His creative love sprinkled everywhere. It leaves a residue on the sands of my soul just as the surf leaves a residue of foam and seaweed on the shore. It is that love that reminds me that He is as faithful as the tides.

While my thoughts and feelings ebb and flow, the consistency of his creation becomes the residue of memory on my mind reminding me that I will be carried during tough times when the night is at its blackest and the storms crash over me with such intensity, I think I shall die.

As I go through periods of loss, uncertainty, and insecurity, I am allowed to soar high up and over the horizon, taking in a broadened perspective, a new awareness and fresh understanding. While my mind ebbs and flows like the ocean, I see the world differently up here. I am more than my individuality. I am alone – yet a part of. I can look over the horizon and see possibilities and opportunities to connect with life once more.

Unwanted change threatens our view of the world. The familiar is gone and we only see destruction. It is here I take to the wind, spread my wings and soar like an eagle or seagulls surveying the domain below.

I see the promise of beauty, love, hope, strength, and endurance. My world is reframed and expanded. And I can return to my life and rebuild.