Tips to Thrive – or at Least Survive – Social Distancing

I hit a wall this weekend, as the two-week milestone of our family’s social distancing efforts came and went.

I was surprised, somehow, to find myself so out of sorts, because up until this weekend I had been handling the challenge of social distancing pretty well.

It occurred to me that part of my downfall came when I started ignoring the practices I put in place initially to survive – if not thrive – during this time.

I started to get really fixated on the idea that I don’t know when this thing will end – or what a “successful” end to this might look like. I read way too much and talked way too much about various outcomes – including many that sound downright catastrophic.

Photo by Alena Koval on Pexels.com

So today, I want to remind myself of the commitments that got me to the two-week mark. Maybe they will help you in some small way, too.

  1. 1. Get moving every single day. Even in “normal” times, I recognize my mindset is best when I get some form of exercise – preferably outdoors. Some people I know are using this time to push themselves to new levels physically. I’m not one of those people. For me, this feels like a time to be kind to myself, while still moving. That means about 30 minutes to an hour of gentle exercise, like walking and stretching, every day.
  2. Schedule some fun. Working from home, it is easy to have the boundaries between work and home blur. I can easily look up and realize that I have spent the entire day working. Some days, this may be OK – as long as the work feels enjoyable and the people around me have what they need, too. But other days, I need to make sure I plan some fun to avoid feeling frazzled. This week, we have a family bucket list of activities to help ensure we have some fun. These aren’t especially elaborate, and include: cook a meal together, allow a different family member to select the music each night, play Sorry Sliders, and re-watch a family favorite, the movie Up.
  3. Make some phone dates – possibly with video on. I have not been as good at this as I should. I have connected with a few friends by phone, though, and find that when I do, I feel better not just about where I am now, but about the life I will (eventually, Lord willing) return to. I often feel I don’t have as much time as I’d like for friendship. Right now, I do. I need to prioritize that. One thing I know I want to do is look back on this time and feel it was well spent.
  4. Follow the Power of Three rule. I am stealing this one from my church, where I have been challenged to reach out to three people each day – by a phone call, text, note, etc. This is a practice I want to strenghten now, and carry into my day-to-day life even after social distancing ends. It strikes me that if I reached out to three people a day, in a year that would be 1,095 contacts. This is a legacy of connection I would like to leave behind …..
  5. Be Proactive, then Leave it Alone. I have always prided myself on seeing things coming and adjusting accordingly. It’s one reason I left the full-time newspaper business in 2001 – I saw the implications of how the Internet was changing daily print journalism, and I didn’t like what I saw. It’s important to be smart and to avoid being blind-sided by things as much as possible. But right now, if we are honest, all bets are off on what our lives will look like six months or a year from now. I – individually and through the company where I work – am continuing to do some things that seem proactive to me. I am working hard to pivot – possibly in multiple directions at the same time. But beyond that, obsessing over what might happen next isn’t going to be very helpful. And the truth is, even the most insightful among us can’t predict where any of this is going.

On this Monday morning – starting week three of social distancing, things are feeling a little more manageable. I have many questions – and could easily spiral if I wasn’t intentional in how I am spending my time and energy.

Hang in there, friends. Do what you can today to feel good about how you are spending your time and your mental energy.

How will COVID-19 change us?

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

Take it day by day.

I’ve been doing a reasonably good job of this task since we started this whole stay-at-home-at-all-costs social distancing thing. (What day are we on now? Somewhere around day 10,209,106?)

But for some reason, today has me doing a lot of thinking about how COVID-19 will change us as a society – and particularly how it will change this current crop of teenagers and young adults.

First, it seems like there is no way there will not be lasting effects to such a dramatic event. I look at my two teenagers and think about how they and so many others are in their formative years. What lessons are they learning right now – about what is important, what to prioritize, and how they should live?

Here are a few things I think just might change because COVID-19 brought so many of us to a screeching halt.

  1. More than ever, young people will likely view online social relationships as “real relationships.” Like it or not, teens often have online friends that they have not met in real life. They meet them in a variety of ways – through online gaming, through social networking and through friends of friends of friends they know in real life. Right now, one thing that is really interesting is that there is no distinction between young people’s online friends and their face-to-face ones – because all of those relationships are being pushed to a virtual platform. It’s hard to fully know the implications of this, but it feels important.
  2. A brick-and-mortar educational experience may feel less necessary. It’s been striking to me how easily my teenagers have actually had their learning move online. Minus band practices and soccer, they really don’t seem to be missing much in the way of education – minus the socialization piece – and they are compensating there by taking their socialization more online. Because I have a high school freshman and sophomore, we have been looking a lot lately at the cost of college. It’s striking how much money a family like mine could save by having a student attend college online while living at home. While this might be hard for some fields, many students could likely learn very effectively online. The same could be true of middle and high school students. Do they really need to go to a building every day? What would they have time to explore outside of school if they didn’t?
  3. Intellectuals, public servants and creatives are the new rock stars. Think about who is getting us through this time. Have you ever felt this much gratitude for scientists – particularly researchers who are racing to create a vaccine? Haven’t you been impressed by how quickly our public school teachers have pivoted, shifting learning online and through distance learning packets with almost no notice? Have you seen all the parents, newly home with their students and saying something like, “wow. I had no idea teachers DID all of this stuff, and maybe they should be paid more to do it?” How many young people – and families – have enjoyed coming together for virtual dance parties, author readings and free virtual concerts? The creatives of the world are continuing to create, and it is getting many of us through. This experience has given all of these groups a newly elevated status. I suspect they will get to keep it as this current generation comes of age.
  4. Planning to work very hard in a single career for a lifetime may start to feel a little too risky. We still spend a lot of time asking our young people questions like “what do you want to do when you grow up?” We want them to identify a career, get themselves some training or an education, and stick with it. But wow! Did any of us adequately plan professionally for the way that COVID-19 has disrupted our world? Today’s young people are likely going to grow up dramatically more aware that even the best plans are fragile. There is going to be a continued need to be able to adjust – to shift time and time again, as circumstances in this world change. Maybe that means spending less time asking what you are going to DO when you grow up and more time considering who you want to BE? Careers may have a lot less to do with personal identity. That, I think, might be a good thing.
  5. A government that cares for people in a crisis is a good thing. In America, we like to idealize self-reliance. There is a faction of our people who have come to have a knee-jerk reaction against any form of government safety net. Have you noticed that these folks are very quiet right now? We are realizing that we need our public health officials. We need the CDC to be effective and to work well and to be well funded. We need things like unemployment benefits and tax breaks and grants to get us through bad times that we just plain couldn’t avoid. We need shelter in place orders and curfews to help protect us from others around us who might not always honor our health needs, causing hospitals to be overwhelmed. We need policies that are created with the interest of all people – not just a select few – in mind.

I don’t have a crystal ball, of course – if I did, I promise I would tell you when we are going to come out of this thing so you could plan accordingly. But it feels like these are changes that are inevitable.

I don’t think that they are all good or bad changes – just changes. But today’s teens and young adults will inevitably be shaped by this experience – that much seems clear. And the rest of us? We had better be prepared to pivot and shift like crazy. Flexibility and creativity and innovation are what will get us through.

Take care, friends. Stay well. Be smart.

Now, let’s get back to just taking this thing day by day.

COVID-19: Give Me that Old Time Religion?

black and white cemetery christ church

I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with churches and organized religion for decades now.

Some of the absolute nastiest behaviors that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime have happened in church.

Betrayal.

Judgement.

Staggering hypocrisy.

Holier than thou-ism.

I could tell you stories that would make your jaw drop. Odds are good you have stories of your own.

And yet, year after year, I have continued to (mostly) show up (although, admittedly, sometimes I miss more than I probably should). There is a need, deep in me, to not just worship God but worship God in the community of others.

There is a theory evolving in science that maybe some of us have the “god gene” – something in us that makes us more willing to believe than others. If the “god gene” is real, I am certain I have it, I feel a need for God that doesn’t quite make sense. I cannot prove God exists, but for me, He is mostly definitely there. Listening. Wanting me to join in community with him and his people. Wanting me to be that community for someone else.

Others would say that what I am describing is the “still, small voice” inside, convicting me when I stray too far from the teachings of and ways of the church – the holy spirit, they’d say. Maybe they are right, too.

A few years ago after moving with my family back to Mississippi, we got involved in a church that has felt special, somehow. I really, really like the people there (shocker, right?). They are smart, funny and often strikingly honest about where they are – and are not – in their own faith journeys. They work hard to live out their Christian faith and to love God and others. But they don’t pretend they don’t fall short – daily. Their transparency and lack of pretense is refreshing, and it makes me feel safer, somehow.

I’ve even quashed some of my extensive church trauma enough to be involved in some elements of church leadership – something I swore off years ago.

Our church – like yours, I am sure, if you happen to have one –  has had to make some dramatic shifts as COVID-19 has required us to engage in social distancing.

Our services are now online (my church attendance is looking better than it has in AGES!). We also are having to find new ways to really reach out and hear each other, attending to needs.

We have a phone tree, where a little team of us reaches out to people. We ask simple things. “How are you doing?” “What do you need?” “Are you and your family ok?” “Do you have food? Medicine?” “How can we pray for you?” This feels, to me, like the absolute purest thing that we can do in these times.

I was a little nervous when I made my first calls. I thought people might be annoyed at the interruption. But, because we are social distancing, people seemed to really welcome the call.

I heard the people a couple of generations ahead of me reflect on their fears and their faith, and discuss the idea they haven’t seen much anything this in their lifetimes. I have heard people talk about what it’s like to have college students at home, or to work in healthcare on the front lines, or to worry about adult children a few states away.

I’ve done similar things for my neighbors. Many of them don’t actually go to my church, but because church is virtual, the walls between church and community are more blurred than ever. I try to show up for my them, too. I think God likes that.

Today, I decided that I also will start sending out notes to people, using the cutesy cards I have been buying and hoarding for years for no clear reason. If the letters are received like the phone calls, they will be a success. And I will get more from sending them than the recipients will.

These experiences are making me recall my childhood church – a small Southern Baptist church in the county, near where we lived. The church was too small to have the sorts of youth or children’s programs that are popular today. But man, I knew those 90 or so regular attenders loved me – even when I was a messy haired, ragtag middle schooler who frowned too much, was incessantly negative, and made way too much noise whispering to my friends during the service.

They showed me they loved me by talking to me each Sunday. They asked the questions I am asking on the phone tree now. How are you? What do you need? How can we pray for you? Are you eating your vegetables?

They showed up, sending vegetable beef soup to the house when my mom was sick for long stretches of time. They remembered my birthdays and cut out the newspaper articles I wrote to give to me. They asked about my grandmother when she had surgery, even though she lived an hour away. They were a financial safety net my family never quite needed, thankfully, but it was comforting just the same. They were, truly, family.

And my immediate family returned the favor. We asked about others. My mom was part of a little phone tree herself, making calls on Sunday afternoons. She made a point of contacting anyone who was missing from church that day. And every Sunday afternoon, we would “go visiting” – my mom and I. We had no agenda. We didn’t necessarily tell people we were showing up – we just did. We went where we felt most lead. People were almost always there and happy to visit. We listened. We cared. And then the next Sunday, we did it all over again.

In the days of COVID-19, I find myself longing for those visits again. I suppose it’s because it feels like we have returned to a quieter place – a timespan when people have time to talk on the phone, where if we drive by their houses, we know they will likely be home. Things feel fragile, too. There is a hyper-awareness that we need each other – even while we can’t see people face to face. We are supposed to stay separated when we need others the most.

So in the era of COVID-19, I guess I am feeling a need to return to the old ways right now – to that old time religion. Whether it’s in my heart, my genes or the holy spirit, it’s there. I will keep trying to figure out what it means and what it should look like.

 

Dear John, I Hope You Can Keep Learning after COVID-19 (and Educators Will be Here to Help You)

five assorted balloons
Photo by Padli Pradana on Pexels.com

His brown eyes looked at me searchingly, as he took my hand and pressed it to a word I had just written in black marker on the board, where we had been working together to build a word bank students could use to help them write simple sentences about a photo.

“What thiiiiiis?” my new Spanish speaking friend asked, pressing my hand to the word and smiling, revealing two missing front teeth. “What thiiiiiiiiiis?”

“Balloon,” I repeated to him slowly, showing him the word and then pointing to the red balloon in the photo.

“Balloon?” he asked, looking at me for confirmation.

I nodded, grinning.

John (not his real name) repeated the word at least 15 times as he bounced back to his seat. Then, he scrunched up his nose, twisted his green marker top off, and started writing.

“Ballooooooooonnnnnnnn,” he said, lips puckering as he made the ending sound.

He wrote his sentence and read it to me, slowly. Deliberately. Proudly.

“I see a red balloon!”

He clapped and waved his hands over his head, smiling. Always smiling.

His excitement — the unbounded joy he showed while learning this new English vocabulary, took my breath away.

It was a sacred moment. Nothing in the entire world felt more important than the two of us, face to face, sharing words. Connecting.

“Balloooooooooon.”

Pure poetry. Beauty. Energy. Power.

When it was time for John to go, I gave him an elbow bump, saying something vague and child-friendly about this new and crazy idea that maybe we shouldn’t high five or shake hands because of germs, social distancing, all that.

“John! You keep working hard, promise?”

“PROMMMMMISSSSSSE,” he said, bouncing out the door.

It was a more innocent time, six days ago. Care-free.

I had no idea, blissfully naive.

I didn’t know he was about to lose at least five weeks of precious classroom time – probably more – because of the COVID-19 virus.

Today – on the heels of the governor announcing that Mississippi schools will be closed until at least April 17 – I’ve been working hard by Zoom and email and phone with a smart, capable team of school leaders. Districts have called and emailed, asking questions. Good questions. Hard questions.

We are talking about important things. Solutions – at least the early stages of them.

But I keep wondering what things will look like for John while he is out of his Mississippi public school classroom and away from face-to-face contact with the teachers who love him. Will he have an adult with him who is patient – and stress-free enough – to answer him when he grabs and points and asks, urgently, intently, “what thiiiiiis?”

Will his caregiver know enough English to be able to answer his questions? Will she have enough energy in reserve for the sacred moments, which can be beautiful but also draining.

Deep down, I believe that with his enthusiasm and eagerness and focus, John will likely be OK. He will probably get through this, because it’s who he is. He will learn, even with tremendous challenges.

But I also know that all the educators in his life – including me, in my ever-so-small role as the red balloon writing lady – need to work really, really hard – and very creatively – to get this thing right.

We will all be working hard, John. Promise.

 

COVID-19: What I’ve Learned So Far

While experts continue to remind us that in the U.S. we are still very much in the early stages of this COVID-19 outbreak, I can say that this challenge is teaching me vital lessons.

man wearing face mask
Photo by Korhan Erdol on Pexels.com

Here are three things I have learned so far:

  1. Fretting Truly Can’t Prepare You

As much as I might fret and try to plan for challenging times, it is often impossible to anticipate the challenge that actually stops you in your tracks.

I have always been a person who feels better trying to prepare for the worst.

At any given moment, I can typically rattle off some sort of contingency plan for challenges including job loss, illness, death of a loved one, or even natural disaster. (At least those natural disasters most common in the Deep South, where I spend most of my time.)

And yet, despite spending all that time and precious energy diving deeply into frightening “what ifs,” this particular crisis was not something that I had fully considered until it was bearing down on us. That is how life goes, it seems. The things that end up sidelining us take us by surprise.

It’s Helpful to Focus on What You Do Know – at Least Right Now

My mind can click into overdrive with little to no preparation. This is apparently especially true in crisis. There have been moments in the past few days where I have analyzed the “what ifs” of this situation to the point that I mentally have myself  struggling to breathe, staggering penniless through the streets of New York City searching desperately for food, water and life saving medical care. (Don’t ask me how I’ve come to be on the streets of New York, panicked and alone, while also sheltering in place at my home in the Deep South. I just am. My fretting is rarely rational.)

Just like you, I do not know what tomorrow will bring. But I know that in this moment, I can breathe. I don’t have symptoms. Those closest to me don’t have symptoms. I know that I have supplies to last a few days. I know that the sun is currently shining outside my window, my dogs are getting a smidge sick of my nagging at them for barking, and my teenagers are engaged in a water ballloon throwing contest with each other on the back patio. In this moment, that can be enough.

It is Relationships – Both Close and Not So Close – that Matter Most

OK. I already knew this one – at least in theory. But I have received a powerful reminder in the midst of this outbreak. I have been surprised by some of the relationships that have brought me comfort these past two days.

I have received encouragement from my husband, my teenagers, my father-in-law, my parents, and a handful of friends that have been important to me for a decade or more. Their honesty about where they are emotionally, what they are thinking, and how they are getting through have been great comforts.

But I also have had people I am not quite as close to to reach out and say hello. There have been neighbors beyond my immediate ones (who are awesome, by the way) that I don’t communicate with as regularly. They have texted or called just to say “Hey, how are you? Are you guys at home? Do you need anything?”  Some new friends have checked in with me in ways that feel important and I can feel our connections growing, even with this social distancing mandate in place.

My church is still formulating plans for how we are all going to stay connected and love each other during this weird, admittedly frightening time. I have enjoyed those updates – even when they didn’t carry much in the way of actual news because there is so much we don’t know.

I have taken comfort in knowing that teachers and our new youth pastor are all working hard to figure out how to keep supporting our kids. That has made me grateful and also taken a bit of pressure off – that even in a crisis like this where we are hunkered down at home, I do not have to be all things to anyone, even my own kids.

This morning, I took some time to email or text with most of the educators I am fortunate to serve through my work. We bantered back and forth a bit about the craziness and stress of this moment. We shared movie, book and podcast recommendations. Multiple people told me that – like me – they are currently binge watching Parks and Rec and have found it oddly helpful. I offered them an idea or two about things they might want to think about next in their schools. We were of use to and service to each other. And in these moments, that feels downright sacred.

There will be more lessons, of course. And by tomorrow, odds are good that my stubborn, prone to worry self will need to relearn some of the lessons from today, too. But I hope this is helpful to someone out there.

What are YOU learning during this strange season? How are you?

 

 

Ditching My Blind Spot: Eating Better

red apple
Photo by John Finkelstein on Pexels.com

I have never felt fully in control of what I eat – and that’s something that’s always bothered me.

The truth is, I’ve spent more than 40 years having what can best be described as a sugar and caffeine addiction.

In tough – and not so tough – times, I have used a mixture of sweets and caffeine to bolster my energy and my mood.

Feeling a little sick? Eat some ice cream.

Stress? They make Reece’s Cups for that.

Celebrating a strong work week? Start Friday with donuts and, maybe, Cocoa Pebbles, too.

Want to wallow a bit because the week wasn’t so great – at home or at work? Fruity Pebbles, Count Chocula and brownies, anyone?

I’ve had a nagging sense that my eating was a problem for a while now. But I grew up in a household where the focus of diet and nutrition was never on wellness – it was always on how I looked and what size I wore. So, as long as my favorite pants still (sort of) fit, I decided I was just fine.

All that changed about four months ago, when I started noticing that I had a headache every weekday afternoon at about 3 p.m. At first, I thought it was a stress-induced phenomenon. Was I working too much? Did I not like my job as much as I thought I did? Was this just one of the harsh realities of getting older?

A colleague and friend of mine mentioned in passing that she had given up soda, and I decided to do the same (again). I also cut my coffee intake back to just one cup each morning. Throughout the day, I also was intentional about drinking water – something that felt difficult, since I am in a classroom all day most of the time.

The first day, I honestly felt scared and insecure. Was this something I could do? This fear carried into day two.

By day three, all I wanted to do was sleep. My headaches were worse than ever and my body ached so much I initially thought I might be getting the flu. But I hung in there, recognizing I was likely in withdrawal. By the afternoon of day four, I was headache-free. Instead of lending the school day with a headache, I felt energized.

That one change got me thinking – if eliminating soda and scaling back coffee could make such a big difference, what would actually changing the foods I eat do? Could I feel better than ever, even in middle age?

My curiosity led me to an (admittedly) quirky nurse practitioner, who recommended a detox effort to determine what foods made me feel good, and which ones harmed my well-being. This led me to a whole foods focus. No grains (I had already given up gluten due to an allergy). No milk. No sugar. No processed foods of any kind. If it didn’t come from the ground, I didn’t eat it.

The experience reminded me – a lot – of my caffeine detox effort. On day two without sugar, I felt both achy and irrationally emotional. On day three, I honestly questioned whether it was worth getting out of bed without sugar in my day. (I knew this was completely insane but couldn’t fully stop thinking it.) Driving to my school for the day, I felt myself swinging irrationally between a sense of deep despair about my breakup with sugar and exhilaration at what this newfound discipline might bring to my life.

By day four, I could feel my symptoms subsiding. At the end of the first week, I had a strong resolve. This really could be a new way of life for me, I decided. It turned out that I actually could control what I ate, when, and how much!

Through the experience, I have identified some stumbling blocks I have had with diet before and I’ve addressed them. I am sharing these in case they might help you:

  1. I don’t pay attention to the scale. Instead, I pay attention to how I feel when I eat various foods. This is a more effective incentive to me because it’s clear that my dietary changes are a radical act of self-care – not something I am doing to meet the expectations of others.
  2.  I have replaced fast food and unhealthy snacks with a new type of “fast food.” This was probably my biggest stumbling block before. I thought I didn’t have time to eat healthy. But I keep it simple. It turns out it is just as easy to throw fruits, raw vegetables and almond butter in a lunch bag as it was to throw chips and rice crispy treats in one.
  3. I have identified go-to meals I can eat when I go out to eat. Almost any restaurant offers salads.  Chicken or (occasionally) steak or salmon are found in most restaurants, along with a basic vegetable. Once the habit is built, it doesn’t really feel that hard.
  4. I have let go of feeling responsible for how others respond to what I am eating. Sometimes, people can feel strangely triggered when they see someone making healthier choices. While I still sometimes recognize this discomfort, I remind myself that I was the only one who could change my choices, and it had to happen in my own time. I really don’t have that much influence over how most other people eat, so why should I worry about their reactions?

I have been living this new lifestyle for about three months now. I recognize more challenges will come – one of the reasons I waited this long to share. But right now, I am very focused on how good eating this way makes me feel. And that is an amazing reward.

What lessons have you learned about healthy eating? What are your stumbling blocks? How do you overcome them?

 

 

 

 

 

Our Kids Still Need Us – Even When they are Bigger than We Are

You know that saying – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck?

Well, it doesn’t necessarily apply when dealing with teenagers – and that’s a difficult lesson I re-learned this week.

My two teenagers have both been taller than me for more than two years now.

attractive beautiful beauty black and white
Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

They are skilled at dealing with everything from waitresses in restaurants to angry parents at the soccer fields where they referee to tech support staff on the telephone – and have been for a couple of years already. They handle most social issues themselves, without my hovering. My daughter even has the same driving freedoms that I enjoy as an adult, minus a state-imposed curfew for new drivers.

When I listen to them speak, they often sound just like I do – especially when they are making a case for why they should be allowed to do something.

In so many ways, they appear to be adults. And honestly, that appearance has lulled me into a state of complacency at times.

Because the reality is they are not yet adults.

Their brains will continue to develop and form new, important connections for several more years. They do not always have the capacity to understand when they are in a dangerous situation, and the fact that they have successfully navigated childlike problems in the past does not mean they are fully ready yet for the grown-up world.

That hit home for me in a big way this week, when we realized that our kids had been shouldering a very difficult – and adult – situation for several months now without our boundaries and support. While I had heard bits and pieces of the problem, I failed to fully connect the dots and it made them less safe as a result.

They and some of their friends were in over their heads and needed help from us – even if they didn’t quite ask for it.

When I realized how long I had let them grapple in relative silence, it hit me like a punch to the gut. They might seem OK on the surface, but these teen years are difficult, and our kids still need our help to process things – a lot.

It is our responsibility to loan them our fully developed adult brains and to give them structure to process problems they aren’t quite ready to handle alone.

We are admittedly regrouping a bit at our house right now – talking more about safety and being realistic and candid about some of the dangers in this difficult – and ultimately broken – world of ours.

I share this with you as a gentle reminder: We can’t operate in a place of paralyzing fear. We should not over-protect our children at this age, since very soon they will be called upon to fully function in the adult world, often without us.

But we have to continue being vigilant, even if we feel our kids are mature and (mostly) responsible. We have to listen like crazy, trust our gut (I ignored mine for a little too long on this one) and support as needed.

Our kids’ very lives may be at stake. Hang in there, friends. These years are both beautiful and achingly difficult.

 

 

Check with Your Strong Friends, They Are (Probably) Not OK, No Matter What Social Media Says

 

 

“Check on your strong friends, they are not OK.”

I have seen this reminder a lot lately, including from my (very strong and awesome) friend and Atlanta area educational entrepreneur, Ty Lewis.

The reminder has always made sense to me on some level. As someone who fancies myself strong, I know that I can sometimes feel a smidge overlooked when people start offering up support. People think I am OK because I work so very hard to make that true.

This has been a really, really tough season for a few people around me. People are dealing with everything from illness/death of loved ones to ailing parents to teenagers who have somehow gone off the rails, despite the very best parenting efforts.

And while I have tried to be intentional about reaching out, I also don’t want them to feel that I am hovering or over-supporting, somehow. “Maybe,” I think, “they really are ok? And maybe they already have more support than they can handle.”

So, I’ve offered some very basic support in the way of check-ins, a few dinners here and there, and phone calls.

These friends, as a group, are absolute rock stars in their day-to-day lives. They are fiercely independent, calm under pressure and more likely to be found supporting others than needing help themselves.

And so, when these friends have posted photos on social media of themselves seemingly carrying on with normal activities – and even exceling – in the face of hardship, I have stopped checking in quite as much.

“Wow,” I’ve thought to myself, scrolling through photos of them leading with heart and love and grace. “I know they are in a hard season, but they don’t seem to need much from me at all.”

Deciding to send kudos to one of my friends after an especially strong post, I reached out.

“Wow! You are amazing,” I told her. “You’ve gone through so much, but here you are rocking it and leading others.”

But the messages that came back let me know I’d been misleading myself: my friend was not, indeed, OK. She was in a very dark place, wondering to some extent how she was going to make it through the day.

“There’s been a lot of darkness,” she told me. “A lot.”

Several friends, actually, have referenced a darkness lately, despite their track records of being quite strong. Maybe it’s middle age. Maybe it’s LIFE.

It brought me back to the admonition my friend Ty shares so often.

Check on your strong friends. They are not OK – and often, their portrayal that they are OK on social media is part of their baseline strength – an opportunity to rally themselves and to try to look to the positive, even in achingly difficult situations. But attempting to be positive doesn’t mean you are positive. And sometimes, we all need a little help getting past the darkness.

I know better. I need to do better – a lot better.

 

Advice from the Field: Sometimes You Just Stop the Next Ball

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My sophomore daughter hung in the goal, on high alert during Tuesday’s high school playoff game against a rival team. She and her team made it through four over-time periods, with 20 minutes of overtime and 10 minutes of sudden death.

Neither team flinched.

It came down to penalty kicks – the ultimate in high stakes and high pressure for a keeper (and yes, also for all those who love that keeper).

Hannah got loose and stepped into the goal, looking calm.

Ball after ball came by. Some went in, some did not. She continued to look eerily calm, staring with intensity at each kicker, ready to explode with force in a hair trigger moment, a split second after the ball made contact with cleat.

The kicks continued, both sets of parents screaming maniacally. Some people chanted our daughter’s name. “Go MAVERICKS!,” could be heard echoing through our side of the stadium, as though if we screamed loud enough, we could influence the outcome through sheer desire.  Others, mostly moms, couldn’t even bear to watch, the tension so high for both teams.

My girl stopped the ball. One of our players scored. Sudden death penalty kicks. The game was over.

Fans started to rush the field, screaming and waving their arms. “MAVS!!!!”

Hannah stretched and for a second, got back in the goal.

The referee looked at our daughter, puzzled.

“The game is over,” the referee said, smiling at her.

“Wait, you mean we won? That’s it?” she asked, a broad smile crossing her face, her eyes focused now on the friends and family pouring through the gate.

After rounds of congratulations from teammates she came to find us.

“I didn’t know we’d won,” she said after a moment. “I was just focusing on stopping all the balls.”

I smiled widely. Sometimes life is like this. In moments of high pressure, confusion, tension or anxiety, we have to step back from the big picture and focus on the next right thing.

Stop the ball.

Love your family and friends boundlessly.

Do ridiculously good work.

Care for and serve others with abandon.

You will look up one day and see that the game is over. And you’ve won.

 

 

 

Beware the Mirror Friend

We came to an ugly realization this morning: our family parakeet, Beignet, has developed an unhealthy attachment to a 2×4-inch mirror mounted in his cage.

We installed the mirror a few weeks ago, thinking it would provide our feathered friend some entertainment beyond his orange, star-shaped swing and adjacent dangling, multi-colored plastic keys.

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Initially, this seemed like a good decision. Our yellow and green little bird occasionally sidled up to the mirror to have a look and chatter a bit.  But in the last two weeks, his fixation on the mirror became obsessive. He soon lost all interest in his keys, his swing, and even in interacting with us. He spent the entire day perched on top of the mirror, chattering and looking at his reflection.

After a little reading, we learned that Beignet’s reaction actually isn’t unusual. Apparently parakeets — innately very social creatures — can easily develop unhealthy attachments to their own reflections. In time, the mirror can make them both more territorial and agitated. The mirror seems like an entertaining toy that would satisfy a bird, but because it’s not a natural relationship, things can quickly become unhealthy.

Realizing the dysfunction of Beignet’s “relationship” with his fake friend, we made the painful decision to remove the mirror from his cage early today. This evening, he spent some time back on his swing. He’s pouting some – understandably – but seems to be on the way to becoming himself again. He even took a little bit of seed from my hand a few minutes ago. We are hopeful tomorrow will be an even better day.

Still, the whole experience was more than a little sad – and it got me thinking about the danger of fake friends – the sort that don’t look back at us from actual mirrors, but from figurative ones.

We have probably all had them – friends – and even family members – who we can get along with as long as we are the “perfect mirror.” These people, who claim to care about us deeply, will embrace and even celebrate us as long as we mirror them.

The fake mirror friends expect us to make the same choices they do and to have the same beliefs – even about trivial things. These are the people who will be our friends as long as we meet their expectations. In all our interactions, we must serve as mirrors, reflecting back their own decisions. They seek validation through our mirroring, and their expectations may require that we:

  • Go to the same church
  • Work the same level of or type of job that they do
  • Live in housing similar to theirs
  • Live near them geographically
  • Make the same decisions about marriage and family
  • Vote as they do
  • Like – and dislike – the same people they do
  • Dress like they do and make other purchases similar to theirs
  • Have the same hobbies they do
  • Have the same diet and exercise regimen they do

In some cases, we not only must mirror them  – we must mirror a slightly stunted version of them. We can never outdo them – in our job performance, our finances, our commitment to health. In doing this, we cause them to feel uncomfortable. And if there’s one thing mirror friends don’t want, it’s to endure discomfort.

As long as we meet their expectations, we have peace. We are accepted and even praised for our decisions. But the price we pay for these relationships is steep. Conforming can come at a high price – particularly when it determines decisions about important things like our core beliefs, where we work or worship, where we live, and who we accept.

With maturity, these relationships often deteriorate. We reach a point where we start to ask ourselves: Is this person really a friend? What will happen if I am my true self? Am I able to ask questions? Can I be honest about my spiritual or intellectual doubts? Do I have the freedom to change?

The imploding of a relationship with a “mirror friend” can be painful. Unlike a real mirror reflection, these fake friends can turn on us, berating and criticizing us.

But often, as we mature, we realize that staying in fake friendships causes more damage than it is worth. In ending our bogus relationships with mirror friends, we realize that we are more free to be ourselves. Growth and freedom come.

If we are really lucky and work hard at cultivating our authenticity, in time we will be able to move past our mirror friends, and realize that they have been replaced by true friends – people who do not require our mirroring in order to accept us.

These people see us for who we are – and also are willing to accept us if we change or if we question. They understand that we can vote differently, have different beliefs about religion, or have different friends and still be bonded together.

With these friends, we can ask the scary questions: What would happen if I changed career paths? Moved? Visited a different type of church? Voted differently? Changed my eating habits? Befriended someone that others in my social circle actively dislike? Picked up a new hobby or abandoned an old one?

Unlike our bird, we don’t usually have someone else who can come along and remove the mirror entirely. We have to deal with it ourselves. And while that’s a painful decision, it’s typically worth it.

What are your experiences with “mirror friends?” How did things change between you? How are you doing now?