Challenges can be hidden opportunities
“Jesus turned – caught her at it. Then he reassured her: ‘Courage daughter, you took a risk of faith, and now you’re well.’ The woman was well from then on.” Matthew 9 – The Message
I love to observe people. Postures reveal weariness or enthusiasm. Faces disclose concerns, excitement, or deep concentration. A life time lived with worry can be seen etched in deep lines that expose the battle scars of the soul and spirit.
Some people wear masks woven so tightly they form an impenetrable barrier against the world – emotions denied, guarded and concealed. It is only the eyes that give away hidden pools of pain collected over a life time. While others are like the pages of a book, open to new discoveries, new adventures, a zest for life and an indomitable twinkle in the eye.
Everyone meets life’s challenges differently; our personalities are played out on the stage of life. Some struggle with the simplest demands while others relish the complexity of life. Challenges may be different as well. While some lives are relatively uneventful, others are full of overwhelming tragedies, losses and disappointments.
But it is not what has been handed to us – but what we do with it that makes the difference. We can turn our challenges into a life rich in experience, even if battle scared, or one that is devoid of pleasure and filled with pain.
Life is not perfect – it is not easy. We may be required to give up everything: home, position, status, job, health, and even families. To live means we will struggle. But we can use that struggle to get stronger or allow it to beat us down.
The stress in our lives can be seen as challenges that hold hidden opportunities. Even when the pressures and stress seems unbearable, we can look for and find solutions and ways to profit from it. Even if the gains are small at first, they are steps forward.
In his book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Victor Frankl writes, “To live is to suffer; to survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” In the horror of concentration camps, Dr. Frankl discovered that “what alone remains is ‘the last of human freedoms’ – the ability to ‘choose one’s attitude’ in a given set of circumstances.”
We choose. We choose how we will respond to the challenges in our life. We choose whether we will see opportunity or hopelessness. We choose whether we will try once more or give up. We choose to ask God for strength, hope, faith, resiliency and courage.
We choose how we color our world. Even when the canvas is all black, we hold the paint brush that can add bold color. The canvas does not become the dominant theme in our life – but only the backdrop for what we put on top of it.
The ability to choose is a great freedom.
©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Does stress work for you or against you?
I then asked how they experienced their stress. What were the symptoms they had. As I jotted responses on the white board, I was reminded once again of just how many demands are placed on us today and the heavy toll it was taking in our lives.
There are a thousand scenarios that contribute to our stress, but a basic pattern runs through them all. Thoughts return over and over again to what isn’t working. The list gets longer and longer as we think about what we have to do to survive. As more and more time is spent thinking about what we can’t do, we find it more and more difficult to concentrate and accomplish what we want to do.
New technology increases our work load as we struggle to learn and apply it. We are not only required to work faster and smarter, but improve the quality and quantity of output. The learning curve gets steeper and steeper and we struggle to keep pace. The harder we try the more tense we become. The tenser we become the more difficult it is to stay focused. And the cycle goes round and round and we soon find ourselves overwhelmed and exhausted.
We forget, become disorganized, and confused. There are too many options with no time to think and consider decisions resulting in more and more mistakes. Accidents lurk around every corner waiting to happen. We begin to make excuses – first to others and then to ourselves. And at the end of the day we feel like a violin string that has been stretched so taut that if we breathe we will break.
The day begins and ends with a never-ending stream of things we “have to do” and “must do” to survive. Lists of things we “should or ought” to do have long been set aside: the thank you notes, the call to a sick friend, scheduling a long overdue doctor’s appointment, etc. etc. etc. There isn’t enough time.
We run out the door in the morning, grabbing a bagel or sweet roll to eat along the way and return in the evening dragging. As we drop our keys on the kitchen counter, we look around at the mess left from the morning and wonder where to begin. Our stomach hurts and we grab a cookie to eat. And as it melts in our mouth, we realize we have been snacking on sweets of some kind all day.
And when we finally get a moment to sit down, we zone out on TV, Face Book or some kind of internet game before we fall into bed. Our neck and shoulders hurt, acid reflux starts and we wonder if we will be able to go to sleep and/or stay asleep.
We can’t slow the world down. But we can get off the merry-go-round that simply keeps us spinning around and around out of control. We can take back our life.
It doesn’t mean we won’t be required to learn new skills, work more effectively and efficiently. It doesn’t mean we will find all the answers.
But we can become more adept at problem-solving, more pro-active instead of re-active and in the process take charge of how we respond to our circumstances.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Preparing for a weekend retreat on “Reducing Distress while Maximizing Good Stress”, I outlined ways we can make stress work for us instead of against us. We create a lot of our distress by our responses to whatever is happening in our lives.
One of the exercises I use with my groups comes from a series produced by Nancy Loving Tubesing, EdD and Donald A. Tubesing, MDiv,PhD entitled “Rest in Peace”. As we take an inventory of thoughts, attitudes and behaviors that hurt instead of help us, we can put them to rest for good.
Most of us act on old beliefs, thoughts, ideas, biases, attitudes and perceptions that may have helped us in some way in the past – but have outlived their usefulness. Many of our defenses, such as anger, hostility, despair, denial, perfectionism, procrastination, resentment, and grievances, create and maintain stress levels.
We need to periodically take an inventory of how we respond to our world. Anger may have helped us make some important changes in our life. Anxiety may have helped us examine our choices and whether we are re-active or proactive. Sorrow and despair may be telling us to grieve, forgive and let go of past losses. Hostility may be holding us in a pattern of resentment that continues to eat us up. Putting a lot of “old stuff” to rest can free up our lives.
Over the next few weeks, my blogs will focus on the many ways that we can reduce stress levels. Take a moment and reflect on your attitudes, feelings, and patterns of behaviors. What old habits and beliefs that you act upon hurt you? Which creates distress?
Take a piece of paper and write down all the things that you believe are keeping you at high stress levels. Your list may include such things as relationships, time pressures, family and marital problems, lack of finances, job search, depression, discouragement, etc. Be honest. What beliefs keep you captive to fear and anxiety? What losses seem overwhelming? What adversities seem insurmountable?
We can’t live without stress. It is the body’s non-specific way of adapting and responding to any demands made on it. It is normal and natural. When it is working for us, we are able to set goals, make plans, go to work, enjoy our family and friends, and solve problems.
All emotions are important and tell us something. When we are on overload, we no longer hear the messages they tell us, but become flooded with feelings that create ongoing panic, fear, and anxiety.
Follow me in the coming weeks, as we uncover ways to make our lives less stressful.
Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
When do you experience rest that heals your soul?
When we find ourselves in the midst of turmoil, crisis and difficulty, we want to quickly find a way out of the anxiety, fear, uncertainty and uncomfortable feelings that hold us captive. We want to be doing something, anything that will take us out of that space.
But sometimes we are asked to do nothing. We are asked to stop struggling; stop running around in circles, stop the frantic thoughts of have to, must and should that exert enormous stress and pressure on us to do something or we will not survive. We are to just STOP.
Years ago, when grieving the loss of my husband, I remember asking God, “What am I supposed to be learning and doing in this valley of tears – this desert of dead dreams and barren futures.” And I heard His quiet by powerful voice say to me, “Rest – you are learning to rest. You are not to do anything or try to make anything happen – just rest.”
I remember thinking, Rest? What does that mean? How can I find rest in the midst of all this turmoil? How am I supposed to find rest when all I want to do is get away as fast as I can from this space and find someplace where I can be happy again?
Since I had asked for and received a directive, I decided I needed to think about rest and what it meant. I knew that when I kept busy the distraction kept my mind diverted so I wouldn’t have to feel my loss. Was that rest?
I thought back over the years. When did I experience rest? As a young housewife my days were filled with juggling schedules of three children, two with special needs, and a husband who worked several jobs. Rest then was a time to quietly finish folding the laundry, do some creative sewing or work in the garden when my children were playing or asleep.
Later, when I went back to school to complete college degrees, the schedules became even more complex and demanding. Rest was those times when I could study for class instead of cleaning the house. Even quick weekend trips away with my husband were often filled with activities giving only temporary reprieve from the pressure of ongoing life and work.
I began to realize that I could make “rest” just another item on my “to do” list, or I could actually rest. I believe what God was trying to tell me during those days when I was coming to grips with my loss, was that I was to just “be”. I wasn’t supposed to do anything. I wasn’t to run away from, ignore, or try to resolve my situation – I was to simply rest in it.
Jesus said, “Come unto me, all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest”. If we bring our heavy bags of pain and troubles to Him we need to put it down and leave it. We stop the resisting, the non-acceptance. We stop the struggling.
Rest is learning that we are still okay within our pain. Rest is allowing ourselves to be in the moment. It is accepting that fact that we might never find all the answers or solutions we want. It doesn’t mean we stop trying to solve problems or look for solutions. It means we are still okay if we don’t find them.
And in that acceptance and rest, we discover peace. In that peace our spirits and hearts are healed.
When I actually allow myself to rest, I can feel God’s spiritual arms around me. I hear His words of reassurance and comfort. When I rest in that peace and comfort, I am letting go of stress, uncertainties, pain, loneliness, anxiety and fear that continues to accumulate when I struggle.
I can sit still, breathe quietly and deeply and feel my body relax. In that spot, I do not need to ask for anything. I do not need to do anything. All I need is to “be” – be quiet, listen, absorb the sights and sounds of the moment, and allow peace to permeate every cell in my body healing all wounds.
©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Are you taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves?
Years ago, my husband took a two year sabbatical from the college where he worked so we could take advantage of an opportunity to teach overseas. After the first year, his mother suffered serious health concerns requiring an early return to the states.
Upon our return, I started graduate studies for my master’s degree. Half way through my first quarter, my husband asked, “How would you like to travel with the circus for a couple of months?” He still had additional sabbatical time and had been asked to lead a circus band for a short period of time which required traveling across parts of the United States and Canada.
My first thought: I just started graduate school! I can’t leave now. However, once I knew I could skip a quarter and return full time in the fall, without it impacting my program, I asked myself “Why not?” and told my husband, “Let’s do it.”
I am goal-oriented and once made I faithfully stick to my plan of action to its completion. It was my husband who taught me that while it is important to make and follow through with our goals, sometimes life gives us opportunities we might never have again.
Since my husband was an accomplished professional musician, educator and administrator, I both respected and listened to him. I knew that he looked at opportunities within the bigger picture of well planned goals.
It was opportunity that enabled my husband to travel and play with name bands in major cities and in the recording studio. He was able to perfect his skills as a professional musician that would have otherwise been difficult. He got to travel and learned to fly an airplane.
Opportunity brought my husband and me together. It was opportunity that took us on our first trip to Europe, traveling six weeks on a shoestring to return years later to live and teach in England.
But what is opportunity? How do I recognize it? And when is it a liability instead of an opportunity?
An opportunity is a possibility that offers some kind of advantage. It holds within its tenets the ability to experience something new and exciting. It is not something you plan for, but is an option you are presented with to consider within your preset life goals. It is like a present ready to be unwrapped.
Within opportunities, we find the potential for growth that we might not have had any other way. Sometimes we are required to put on hold what we are currently doing – sometimes we can work it into our existing schedule.
I recently had the opportunity to become a part of a local theater arts production of the Wizard of Oz. I had never acted before, although I had been around the theater with my husband when he played in the orchestra. When a friend of mine, suggested doing some bit parts that didn’t require auditioning, I again said, “Why not?”
Are you taking advantage of opportunities?
Remember, opportunities are not planned and present themselves when you least expect it. Sometimes we have to say no. But if we remain open and flexible to opportunities, we can not only meet our well designed goals, but can expand our life in ways we would not have dreamed.
Are you willing to take the risk of trying something new?
©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC
Getting all the things we think we must have or need in order to be happy, in reality does not make us happy. In fact, “things” in general will leave us wanting, disappointed and unsatisfied. Instead, being happy is a choice and it is only when we make that choice that we will be able to accomplish things in life.
We choose how we respond to what is happening around us. We form beliefs and world views and act upon them. In the process, we can accentuate the positive or remain locked on the negative. We can choose to turn something negative into something positive or become bitter, angry and resentful.
A lot of scientific research into the body-brain connection indicates that our thoughts create a chain reaction throughout our mind and body. What we think and believe has profound physical consequences.
Consider your response when you experience an unexpected kindness. One minute you may be feeling depressed and discouraged. Then someone tells you how much you are appreciated and suddenly, in a flash, you experience a lift of spirit and energy.
Do we choose happiness or is it a result of external events? And if we have so much power and control over our happiness, then why are we so unhappy?
It is where each of us is required to ask the question, Am I happy? If not, why not? What keeps me from being happy? Was I happy in the past, and if so, what made me feel happy? What changed? What would it take to for me to experience happiness again?
Like you, I often go on the assumption that happiness depends on external events rather than a state of being that I create within myself.
Dan Ariely, Prof of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, author of “Predictably Irrational – The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions”, cites many experiments and studies in his book that show how the expectations we hold about life will influence how we experience what is happening. Two people experiencing the same event may experience something totally different based on their expectations rather than what is actually happening.
If our expectations can influence and “shape” our responses predicting the outcome, then holding the expectation that we can be happy regardless of what happens, will have a huge influence on every aspect of our life: physical, mental, spiritual and psychological. When we make a deliberate decision to be happy, it becomes a mindset, an expectation, a belief that we live out in any situation.
We choose our expectations and our attitudes. Changing our mindsets can impact every aspect of our being: physical, mental, spiritual and psychological. We can choose to be happy or we can choose to be a victim of whatever is happening in the moment.
©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC