Tuesday, December 20, 2011

When Gratitude Does Not Bring Happiness

"Finish your dinner and be grateful you have something to eat when other children in the world are starving!" Well, we didn't feel grateful. Just guilty.
"No, you can't have a pair of new sneakers. Your old ones are still fine. Be grateful that you have so much when more unfortunate children have so little." No feelings of gratitude resulted from this either - just more guilt and disappointment.
I remember as a little girl, learning that Jesus died a grueling death for our sins and that we were forever grateful to him for that. I felt ashamed and fearful and not grateful at all.
As we grow up, our associations with gratitude and counting-our-blessings often creates very mixed emotions in us. We secretly suspect that there is a great lack of gratitude within us, and a shadow of moral judgment accompanies that suspicion.
There have been many publications and self-help books on the theme of “finding a way to happiness” by counting your blessings at the end of every day and writing down the things you are grateful for. So, if you have had a rotten day, thinking about all the things that are good in your life will make you feel grateful - which equals happiness - and you'll sleep with the innocence of a baby. The idea is that eventually, with continued practice, you’ll focus only on your blessings and will thus able to ignore all the negative and hurtful things that do occur in the average person's daily life.
The problem with these happiness-through-gratitude exercises is that they can feel trite, and even naïve.  There are days when we can't make ourselves feel grateful for a damn thing.  I would like to offer a more genuine, and realistic, picture of  “living a grateful life.”  Let's change the word “grateful” to savor. Savoring comes naturally, without guilt or judgment at any level. Being aware and paying attention to the things you enjoy is savoring your life as it happens.
I remember how every Christmas morning, after all the presents were opened, Mom and I would open the box of chocolates that came every year from my grandmother in Germany. These were always special to us. Mom and I would each choose three pieces, sit one on each end of the couch with our feet stretched out, and very slowly and deliberately savor each tiny little bite with the occasional "yum yum" in testament to the goodness. There was real gratitude to Oma in this, which we experienced through savoring.
I have written before about how much my mother dislikes cooking, and the clever ways she has found to eat well without going to restaurants.  I usually invite her to dinner at least twice a week, and she is - above all others -  my favorite person to cook for. Her face reflects the pleasure she finds in every bite, and she likes to note all the different spices she detects on her tongue. Then she reminds us of a time in history, when only kings and rich merchants were lucky enough to experience these flavors. We all become more aware of what we are tasting and enjoy it more. As Mom savors the meal she didn't have to cook, she is quite obviously grateful. (She says so too.)
Another thing Mom and I share and savor, and I hope to pass this on to my children, is our love for Christmas decorations on the outside of other people’s homes. When I was little, my parents were relatively poor, and glad to have enough for Christmas on the inside. So, to increase our Christmas spirit even more, we would take nightly rides beyond the neighborhood to marvel at the beauty of the lights. We were amazed at the effort people made to bring joy to all who drove by.  We picked our favorites, continuously changing our minds as we came upon bigger and even more complicated displays. We would shout, "Thank You!" to anyone still working outside, as we became infected by the magic of that special time. We felt grateful to the many people who worked so hard and brought us so much joy. We still do.
When you can savor the good company of a friend, conversations around favorite memories, or the flavor of a really good cookie, you are living in gratitude naturally.  That's what it's all about, and that's all there is to it.
Past studies have shown that grateful people are in general happier. This is the kind of gratitude they are talking about -  enjoying to the fullest the things you love and being completely present to it.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What's Happening Now?

Helena was a first generation American with an uncompromising attitude towards time. Her father ruled her home with a loud voice and a clock in his left hand. Being late for anything was unforgivable and severally punished. Helena learned from her mother, who had given up her voice years before her daughter was born, how to do things quickly and well - always keeping one eye on the clock. To have a semi-peaceful family outing, mother and daughter knew it was best to be already standing next to the car, when father was still putting on his coat.

Later in life, always being the first one at work and getting more of it done than anyone else, Helena was rewarded for her ingrained habits by receiving generous raises and frequent  promotions. Her workload was also raised right along with her salary. Well, after all, she had shown she could do it.

By the time Helena had a family of her own, she was in a real race to do things well for her family and her boss. Quite predictably, she started to experience very frightening anxiety attacks which increased over time, both in frequency and severity. Although she came to realize that her perception of time and terror of “lateness” was seriously hurting her, she lacked the insight or courage to seek professional help. She decided that she would deal with her anxiety by budgeting an extra hour into her travel time for appointments or invitations, in case the traffic was bad or there was an accident on the road. (The extra time was usually spent waiting in the parking lot until it was time to go inside.)  To keep from worrying about her family going naked if she got sick, she maintained a habit of having at least seven days worth of perfectly laundered outfits for everyone, ready to wear.

The tragedy of her life, and others like her, is that she was never present to the life she was living at the moment. Her thoughts were occupied with possible scenarios in the future, to remove potential obstacles for being late with, or to, anything tomorrow.

Sadly, many of us live life in an imaginary, sometimes fearful, sometimes hopeful future scenario. Although Helena's case is extreme and she probably would have benefitted from an early intervention, I’m sure many of you can relate to how she felt.

When our thoughts are trapped by worries and frantic plans for tomorrow (Buddhists call this “chasing the monkey,” because it is pointless), we give up the awareness of experiencing our life as it really is, at this moment, in real time. Think of all the arguments you have fought in your mind to be prepared for some future argument that never occurred.  All the potential threats to your welfare you lost sleep over for many nights, that didn't happen. Instead, you lost the experience of a warm bed, perhaps a loving partner, good sleep and the wonderful feeling of gratitude for having all that.

When you are not really tasting your food, or enjoying the sweaty smell of your little boy’s hair because he's been battling the bad guys with his deadly plastic sword, you are away in the future and missing out on the treasures that are here and only right now.

Hurrying through life is missing it altogether. Hurrying is both caused by anxiety, and creates more of it. We make more mistakes and have accidents. Caught in this current, we forget the smell of roses, the goodness of a cozy room on a cold day, and the taste of melting butter on fresh toast.

So, save yourself from the race that never ends and has no winner. Make a devoted effort to slow down! Before getting out of bed in the morning, promise your self, “I will not hurry today.” Leave yourself small sticky notes around the house, in your car and in your desk drawer, to remind yourself to become aware of this moment. Look around and observe, really observe, then go back to what you were doing without a sense of hurry.

Remember that you have begun to rid yourself of an old harmful routine. Each time you remind yourself to be present to your life as it is in the moment, you're ironing out the hard-edged crease of a bad habit. Be very patient with yourself, but stay faithful to your efforts.

Make this the holiday gift you give yourself.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Make Family Gatherings Better

The difficulties that arise at some family get-togethers are often the result of tense relationships between siblings and cousins. This tension - or even outright dislike - can stem from childhood memories of misbehavior and rivalry, memories that set the tone for how everyone gets along as adults. In some cases, differences of opinions, and goals that differ widely from the “family norm” maybe judged as weird, or even disloyal. Not all families grow closer with time.

The fact is that, first and foremost, we are each very much individuals with unique characteristics, who happen to also belong to a family. Our society admires us when we are strong and self-reliant, and our education is geared toward this goal. Ideally, the family supports each member to grow his or her own wings.

This is, of course, not true for everyone. In addition, who we actually have become as adults is more likely to be accurately discerned by friends or one's partner.  “Family” has always known who you are, and they are quite convinced that they are right, because they have known you from childhood. Growing differences in personality can become a point of irritation rather than curiosity.

It is not unusual that for some, sharing accomplishments and financial successes is less about making Mom and Dad proud, and more intended as a poke in the eye for the rest of the clan. Take that!

Knowing the dynamics and undercurrents that maybe present at your family celebrations, and understanding that we really don't  know all about each other, is the only way to achieve a permanent turnaround.

Treat your family members like a new friend, in whose life you are very interested.  You can make a good start by asking questions like, "So what does your day usually look like when you get to the office?" Ask about their favorite Christmas present. What was their most embarrassing moment? What do they like to read just for fun that isn't either educational or for work? To what part of the world would they like go for a month, if everything was free? What other type of work would they like to try, if it was possible?

Give the long answer to a question directed at you. A short throwaway answer will make no one come back for more. Don't be afraid to give a thoughtful compliment.

Make a start for change if your family gathers because they think they should, but not because they want to. They will catch on to the direction you want to take it, things will be more interesting and harmonious, and I bet you will actually have some fun. We are very complex beings, and sharing the little things brings us closer. It’s never to late to start actually enjoying your family!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Have You Found Your Bliss?

My husband and I try to introduce our children to as many activities as we can locally find. So far our daughter has enrolled in Karate, soccer, cooking lessons and a short theater course. We take them along to play golf, swim at the YMCA pool, and do arts and crafts at the farmer's market. 

It is not our intention to discover a hidden talent that will make them stand out from others. We want to let them discover an activity for themselves that they will enjoy doing, perhaps throughout their lives.

Past studies have shown that active people  - people who keep themselves busy - are happier than those that are not, and find more enjoyment in everyday living in general.

But how should you keep yourself busy?  What should you do with yourself? The problem for some of us grown up folks lies in our belief that "idle hands are the Devil's workshop."  It is right to a point, but it's usually taken to mean that we should be busy with work - with something useful. Perhaps a better proverb for today's way too hectic life would be "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!"

Not having something fun to escape to when one is stressed, mentally overworked, bored,or as a way to reward oneself,  has a depressing affect on people.  It makes them listless and clouds their general outlook on life. ( And they are no fun to be around.)

Having something you love to do also gives you a great tool you can use when you are tempted to break your diet with that cookie, or smoke a cigarette when you are trying to quit.  Instead of giving in, walk away and do the thing you love!  It's a terrific distraction.

There are many adults who, for as many reasons, have never discovered what they might do for the sheer joy of doing it.  Sadly, many are of the opinion that any undertaking without a productive result is simply a waste of time. Some of this is due to parental or cultural influence, some to personal ambition ("I simply have more important things to do.")

Doing my own little survey for this post among family and friends, I have discovered a wide variety of activities people engage in for the sole purpose of having fun.  Retirees often have great success in finding a fulfilling hobby. They have plenty of time to check things out, and there is no longer a struggle with guilt about doing something more productive.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find that many of the people working 40+ hour weeks still had found their own little pleasures "just to get away from it all." They hook rugs, play games on the computer, knit, paint pictures by the numbers, do intricate picture puzzles; two had taken an evening class to learn how to play the guitar and someone else had taken a class to make mosaic art. 

Cross word puzzles had several enthusiasts and one working mom was a whittler with great passion. Her Grandpa had been a whittler and in her youth she would sit with him in the old barn where he would tell her stories of the magical creatures he had met in the woods while looking for just the right fallen branches. Sometimes they would leave him just what he needed on the old tree stump, where they knew he always rested for a spell.

I was so charmed by this story that I seriously thought of taking up whittling, just for a minute or two.

All this of course is to inspire you so that if you don't already have "it", you will go and get "it." It's never too late and it needn't cost much. There are many How To... websites on the internet, reasonable prices for evening classes in the local high school,  and the library is an absolute treasure for books on crafts.

When you give some thought to what you might like to pursue, something may come to mind that you were always a little curious about. Maybe you even have an acquaintance  whose hobby you had found interesting.  If it requires a specific skill, perhaps they'll show you how it's done.

Do it! Have fun!  Having fun is very important to a well balanced life - happiness and wellness go hand in hand. The only rule is that there be no judgment of "value"  on the type of activity you choose, and that the joy be purely in the doing of it! Let your whimsy be your guide.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Not Everyone Is Looking Forward To The Holidays

Christmas Day, 11:30 p.m. The house is empty again and all the guests have gone home. The children are asleep on the floor.  You kick off your shoes and fall back on the couch. The house is a mess, and you feel empty and depressed. You are ashamed of your feelings. You accuse yourself of being ungrateful. Everything was as perfect as you could possible make it, but here you are with a big aching hole inside. Just like last year, and the year before that. What did you hope would happen that didn't?

The holidays are a very painful and miserable time for many, many people.  Studies show that most of us are reluctant to share our negative feelings, particularly at this time of the year  - afraid of being judged as not religious or spiritual enough, or being seen as a humbug. These studies also show that people feel more isolated in their sadness when they believe that they are the only one having this experience. The reason misery really does love company is because it lightens with sharing.

Many of us are simply "burned out" by all the decision-making and additional work, and our levels of serotonin are literally depleted. Others are homesick for the "good old days" when they were children and believed in miracles. Christmas was magic then, even when parents were poor. The child in us still expects the feeling of magic, even if we are not consciously aware of it. When nothing happens to let us relive those feeling of childhood, we feel betrayed and depressed, convinced that there is nothing really left to look forward to.

To those of you who suffer through the holidays every year, don't suffer needlessly. Make a plan to change the things you do and how you usually celebrate.  If thoughts of past and better holidays make you unhappy, avoid thinking about them by keeping your mind busy with other activities.

If you can afford a trip, go to a place where the holidays are less obvious. If you are staying home,  you can plan your day around some great movies you can rent, or go to the library and get a couple of books you will love to read. Don 't forget your favorite foods and snacks! If you  have a hobby, start a new project and go shopping for what you'll need.  (Everyone enjoys a good picture puzzle.)  If you live alone and being around people is what you need, volunteer at a soup kitchen or at a hospital.  Perhaps you could read to someone who never gets visitors.

As adults, only we can help ourselves, because only we know how and why it hurts.  Do make a plan that changes your experience - don't dwell on the past. Prepare well ahead of time.  And share your feelings with others -  it may well lighten things for all of you.

Think of everything you enjoy throughout the year, and fill your holidays with it.  If the old traditions don't bring you joy, it's about time for some new ones.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Live A Life That Fits Your Nature

An old friend of my parents’ is a physician by profession. He is a first-generation American and was the first one in his family to go to college - a super, super smart guy. What else could his family wish for him but to become a medical doctor in America? He had listened to their dreams all his life, and was convinced that it was his dream as well. Everybody’s dream came true. He shared a very successful practice with a partner, was kind to his patients and even made house calls.

It would have come as a great shock to everyone except his few close friends, had they discovered, how deeply unhappy Dr. D. (let's call him that) was as he went through his daily work routine. He was really only happy in his little greenhouse in the backyard, were he raised orchids, and very few knew that his real dream was to own a fruit orchard some day.

Dr. D. was by nature very shy, and I suspect that he suffered from a mild form of social anxiety. Seeing as many as 30+ patients a day was a genuine struggle for him that never eased. Not to disappoint his parents and appear ungrateful for the sacrifices they had made for him, he resolved to stick with it until their passing. His parents are still well and in their 90's, and Dr. D., although retired to some extent, still goes to the office -  living out a self-inflicted sentence instead of a happy life.

The dentist in my home town (I grew up at the shore) had the right idea – he sold his practice and bought a marina instead, which was more suited to his temperament and natural inclination. You may also remember an article I wrote a few months ago, in which I mentioned my husband’s personal struggle with a career change from a teaching professor of philosophy to a career in the medical industry. Again, the previous job had become an uncomfortable fit.

There are actually many people pursuing careers and goals that they are ill suited for, and they too will remain stressed and unhappy until they make a change. But many feel trapped by the need to keep up a certain lifestyle, family expectations, and accumulated financial responsibilities.

The only way out of this unhappy state is to make a change in line with your true nature, or what the Buddhists call one's "suchness.” Your "suchness" or true temperament will never allow you to feel comfortable, happy, or content, when you are engaged in activities that are alien to who you really are. Maybe you don’t  really like carrying a cell phone that keeps you 'on call' 24/7, deadlines make you feel stressed, wearing a suit and tie everyday, following orders that are clearly misguided, and having to say, "Yes Mr. Johnson" when you really want to scream, "Are you nuts??!!!".  And that’s okay.

The point is, when you live and strive for a goal, an inner ease and balance must be your partner. Hard work and challenges don't rock that boat when you know who you are, and that what you want will be a good “fit” for you.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Are You Working On Your Self Image?

Thanks to reality television, we are well-informed on how to pursue an external image that the world will admire. We must own a house that requires a sizable staff for upkeep, numerous garages for our car collection, and several rooms to fit our designer wardrobe, shoes and etceteras. Of course we must also be stunningly beautiful, so we have facials, plastic surgeries, personal trainers, hairdressers and make-up artists. (Ideally, he latter come to our homes so that we don't have to mingle with the nobodies.)

Let me make it quite clear that I am not anti- anything that makes for a happier life. The problem with external improvements as a means for happiness is that after the initial thrill of a new acquisition, the human brain adapts to its presence fairly quickly, and it becomes just apart of the norm. (To paraphrase a wise individual, “personal ownership of the Mona Lisa would eventually make her just part of the wall.”) The brain cannot maintain a constant state of “awe.” 

So, the individual whose self-image is attached to impressing others is committing themselves to “ever more and bigger.” Unless there is some revelation that happiness may lie elsewhere, the race will continue unless the money runs out. Keeping up with the Joneses plays out differently in Beverly Hills than in rural Iowa, or when you’re working your way up the ladder at Goldman Sachs versus a small law office in central Pennsylvania. The scale and resources are different, but the driver is the same.

Without the necessary resources to follow the rich and famous, we have devised another scheme to deny the "nobody little self" that we have decided we are. If we can't be important, at least we will be popular and liked. Depending on the audience, we like what they like, and dislike what they dislike. 
After testing the water, we are politically liberal or conservative. When asked our opinion, we ignore our inner voice and the answer becomes the suspected “right” one. No matter how many times we do the dance to try to please others, it never really stops feeling icky.

Lying without cause – pretending you think or feel something you don’t for someone else’s benefit - demeans us, and it has a devastating effect on our sense of self worth. When you first confront yourself about this, you may feel shame and be uncomfortable, but it is literally another necessary peel off the onion toward genuine self acceptance!

(Not telling the truth to protect someone, or telling a 'white' lie that comes from kindness to prevent a hurt, are not generally the kind of lies that do us harm.)

The lie that demeans us, the one that is meant to hide our truth, is literally an attack
on the self, again and again. Who needs enemies when we do such a fine job?

And after all, what could possibly be wrong with us? Why do we feel we have to hide what we have come to believe, and what we really enjoy doing? So many of the choices we make in life come down to apples and oranges. A good decision can only come from the real self – the kind that makes you truly happy and keeps you going in the right direction for you.

Self-respect is never measured with someone else's yardstick. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why Respect Still Matters

I was recently at a three-day convention were research psychologists presented their latest studies and findings. One topic caught my particular attention, and I guess it has always been close to my heart. This research looked at how people are affected by being ignored, left out, or disrespected. These experiences impact us at the level of our self esteem, in addition to creating anxiety and depression, from light to severe.  Even small slights can do a great deal of damage.

We would all benefit from becoming better aware of the occasions that make people feel left out and ignored.  

For instance, it is easy to feel uncomfortable and excluded when one is invited to a special event and the host or hostess makes no effort to include everyone in the party. That is – or at least should be - their most important job.

Large weddings can become very awkward, and anything but a celebration, for guests who are not part of the family or the close circle of friends. Often the tables are too large and the band plays to loud to make audible conversation. Rarely does anyone introduce stranger to stranger sufficiently to give them some common ground to ease into a chat.

It is disrespectful to the “outer tier” guests to invite them (at a very high price these days) to simply come and watch the show. Forget the food. It is the perfect setting for feeling excluded, uncomfortable and unimportant. Wedding planers and parents of the bride and groom, pay attention. Make it someone's job to include everyone receiving an invitation to feel a part of it all.

Another disrespectful behavior (one I am sure we have all fallen victim to) is when the person talking to you at some event seems to be looking in every direction but yours.  This gives off the very clear impression that he is looking for someone more important than you.

Well, the list could go on and on, and I am sure that some of you could write a book.

The important point I want to make is that respect still counts as much as ever, even though it's not that frequently on display. But, as ample research shows, people are just as sensitive to being excluded or slighted as ever, and if you behave disrespectfully to others you will not be liked. Your relationships will suffer, and it will be more difficult to get ahead in the world and get people on your side. Everyone responds to courtesy.

I think a big mistake is often made by working parents and the well-to-do. They, understandably, aim to give their children everything they desire, and don't want to spoil the precious little time they have together with discipline and lectures. The result of this kind of parenting, however, can be an overly-privileged and entitled sense of self-importance, and a lack of respect for others. Teachers and other adults may instinctively dislike these children, and odds are good that their peers will feel the same way.

This is not what I want for my children. I love them, but I also want other people to like them, too. These are some of our family rules:

     Say hello to everyone you encounter

     Always use “please,” “thank you,” and “may I?” (very, very important)

     When speaking to adults or friends, look at them while they are talking to you and don't interrupt.

     When calling a friend, first identify yourself to the parent, then ask to speak to the friend.

     Be nice to everyone in your class or group, even if others are not.

     Never eat candy or cookies in front of anyone, unless you have enough to share.

     Don't say mean things to anyone, or about anyone.

     Don't interrupt adult conversation, unless it is very important.

And of course, for all of us in general, the "Golden Rule" still is the best recipe for a wonderful life!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Eventually, I Would Like To...

An old friend from college finally came to visit me, and after some 15+ years of not seeing each other, there were lots of hugs, compliments and laughter. Shannon (not her real name) had brought her four year-old little boy, who made the perfect playmate for my two children, freeing us for some good catching up.

Shannon and her husband Erik (not his real name) live and work in northern New Jersey, where they bought an old Tudor-style mansion some three years ago. Owning a big old house had been Shannon's dream since she was very young. The only fly in the ointment: it was very much a fixer-upper.  When they first saw the house, Erik had been less than enthused. Shannon was relentless in convincing him that this was a great opportunity for their little family (Shannon is in real estate), not to mention the investment potential when it was fixed up. Erik is an accountant, so that argument appealed to him and the deal was done.

I wanted to hear all about this because we live in an old Victorian home, which is in a perpetual state of “being fixed up.” As she talked about her house, Shannon became visibly tense. "You know,” she said, "this whole thing was pretty much all my idea. When I saw the house and I knew we could afford it, I was simply on fire. All the work ahead was going to be an adventure. I could clearly see the lawn parties I would give, and my children would grow up in a house like those in the old English romances."

She paused for a while, looking at her hands. "Heidi (my real name), it's become a nightmare." She looked very unhappy. "Erik is an accountant for God's sake. He just doesn't have the skills to move us along, and he is less and less willing to do anything at all. We have terrible fights on the weekends when he wants to catch a ballgame. I don't play enough with Billy, because I'm always painting or scraping something. I don't want to get out of bed in the morning, because all I can see is work. I have never been so depressed."  Looking around my newly-decorated living room (rarely used for living in) she asked, "How did you do all this without losing your mind? Or did you have the money to have it done?"

"No, no," I said. "We did it ourselves. But come with me,” and I broke my forever-rule of no one but family allowed upstairs and showed Shannon all of the second and third floors. Only my children's bedroom and neighboring bathroom are finished and decorated. The other rooms - there are four more including the master bedroom - hold a jumble of furniture. Some of it from my old New York apartment, and also quite a few parental hand-me-downs. There isn't a hint of a decorating scheme to be discovered anywhere.

I could see that Shannon was shocked - her gaze had locked onto the peculiar shade of green with which the previous owners had painted all the walls in the hall. Some was peeling off on the broom closet door. "Eventually, I would like to paint those a creamy eggshell color,” I said, leading the way back down.

Not only did I want Shannon to see that a large part of my house was also still “not done,” and that I hadn't become undone with it, but I also wanted her to hear the philosophy expressed in my last statement. It’s the reason why I am happy now.

I will eventually have a beautifully decorated bedroom. But making the time for that now would rob me of all the fun I have with my family. My husband likes to plan adventures for us on weekends and I would rather be able to be a part of that than live in a show-worthy home. But I will get to it, eventually.

When working on a personal goal causes you frustration or becomes an obsession that pushed everything else aside, not only will you suffer, but everyone around you will, too. You will start hating the tasks it takes to get done, and chances are the results will reflect your state of mind as well. When you feel well, you do well.

Above all others by far, my first goal in life is happiness and contentment - the kind that comes from inside, and being with the people I love. I selfishly want to feel good while doing work of any kind. If time or financial pressures interfere with doing something, it goes on the "Eventually, I would like to..." list. (Emergencies, such as a leaking ceiling, toilets that don't flush, or a swarm of wasps in the attic, go on the FIX IT NOW! list.)

Eventually, I would like to... is a wonderful tool for those of you who are too keenly aware of “things that need doing” - like peeling paint, fading shutters, or a couple of cracked tiles -  and are made very unhappy by it day after day. Time or money may not allow for a quick fix. Eventually, I would like to paint the shutters takes the pressure off for now. You are not saying "To hell with it!" and putting yourself in danger of becoming  one of those people. You know it will get done.

Oh, and if it's about what the neighbors will think, come on - you know better than that by now!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Worried About People Behaving Badly During The Holidays?

Take a trip down memory lane to the last few years of your family gatherings on Thanksgiving and the Winter Holidays. Were they as warm and happy as you had wished for?

Perhaps you have taken over the role for your mom, at whose house they had always taken place before, and your home is now the place where everyone meets. You are very serious about keeping the old traditions, and passing them on to your children as well.

So, basically, you knock yourself out, doing all the shopping while your spouse helps with the unpacking. You clean the house from top to bottom and decorate to make it perfect. You spend hours in the kitchen preparing the food, ignoring the mutterings of your family, as you dole out some of the tasks.

Finally, it's Thanksgiving Day. You’re a little tired, but also excited. The table looks great and everything is cooking on schedule. Your guests start to arrive and you hope that there will be no arguments this time, and that Bob will wait until dinner before making his martinis. "Keep your eye on Bob,” you whisper to your husband. "And do what?" he whispers back.

Helen and her husband arrive with their four unruly children who run past you to the kitchen to raid the refrigerator for soda. They are “dying of thirst” from the fifteen minute ride over to your house. Things are crashing to the floor in the kitchen, but Helen has made her way to the sofa and sits down with a sigh. She is now a guest and passes the responsibility for her kids to others. Grandma is wiping up the floor.

Others arrive in a steady stream now and the conversation becomes lively. Beer cans are popping and the guys are talking football while the ladies are paying compliments due to each other on outfits, new haircuts, etc.  Back in the kitchen, your husband is opening the wine bottles, while Helen can be heard from the living room,  "Has everybody forgotten my drink?” Her husband stopped hearing her requests years ago.

While bringing in the wine for the ladies, you see Bob at the bar mixing martinis. Your stomach tightens a little. Bob becomes The Victim Of The Government when he drinks, and does not suffer in silence. Jane came late, and now approaches you with a tray of homemade sweet potato chips which you gratefully accept with thanks as she follows you into the kitchen. "Do not make me sit anywhere near that woman!" "What woman?” you ask, feeling your stomach getting more tight. "Helen,” she says rather loudly, and  you know better than to ask why.

There will be trouble at the dinner table, you already know it. And with a captive audience. Your husband puts the best looking turkey ever on the table and you follow with the rest of the dishes. "Time to eat!" he calls out beaming with pride as the "oh, what a feast" and "it smells so great" are expressed by everybody now taking their seats.

Jane gives Bob's wife a conspiratorial poke as they both glance at Helen and giggle. You look at Grandma, and yes, she saw it too and looks tense. If only you could relax and enjoy all your hard work. Grandpa says the prayer and asks for the blessings.
Everything is peaceful while the platters are passed around and plates are being filled. You and Grandma fill the children's plates, who are set up on a small table in the family room. Helen stays seated and asks for a refill of wine.

Finally everyone is eating and your husband is refilling glasses where needed. Bob is taking care of himself. The general conversation starts pleasantly enough and you want to keep it that way. "Mom, do you remember the year our oven broke down before the turkey was done?" - hoping that she would tell that now funny story with it's unusual ending. She did and everyone listened - some nostalgically, because they had been a part of it. "Wow, I remember that,” says one of your siblings. "I remember a thing or two, myself” says Jane loud enough so all can hear. Her face now flushed with anger, she begins her attack on Helen for grievances endured for too many years.

You get up to check on the children's table and Grandma is right behind you. "I think Thanksgiving is over,” she says, "but let's get the children their desert." You close the door to the dining room, but it's impossible to shut out the angry voices. As you're serving the children you can clearly hear, and so can they. "You stay out of this!" "I will say what I want and when I want. You gonna stop me?" "I wouldn't even have come if it wasn't for Grandpa and Grandma, it means so much to them!" Helen shrieks at somebody.

Upstairs Grandpa is putting on his coat and comes down the stairs with his wife's coat and purse in hand."Mother, we have to go home, I forgot to bring my medication." They both look at her purse and know exactly were his medication is. She smiles as she puts on her coat and hugs everybody near her. "Oh, Mom," you say as you squeeze her tight, unable now to stop your tears.

You now know why Mom stopped having the holidays at her house. When they were young, her children had better manners. The aunts and uncles that came in those days brought with them gratitude and good will as well as wonderful stories of their “good old days.” The whole experience was entirely different. But it is what you wanted to bring to your family, especially your children.

When everyone is finally gone you sit down at the table you had set with such pride and hope, but had become a battlefield instead. You cry for a long time before you get to the
 clean-up already started by your husband, and hit the bed just before midnight.

If you can identify with the host and hostess, and have had similar experiences on your holidays in the past because of people behaving badly, you owe it to yourself and your children to do things differently from now on.

Everybody readily agrees that family is important, and everyone wants to belong to something close knit with ties that never break, no matter what. The reality is that most families experience plenty of strife, and not every member values family to the same extent. Quite often, there are periods of non-communication, and sometimes, sadly, complete rifts. Family dynamics do not only consist of shared values and wonderful memories, but also of sibling rivalry about achievements and status that can tear all that apart when egos are big enough. Who are Mom and Dad most proud of? Who got preferential treatment? The addition of new in-laws adds another whole dimension of potential discord. Are they good enough for us, or are they looking down on us? Will they try to fit in with us, or pull their spouse away?

When you consider all those dynamics coming together for dinner, it takes a commitment from everyone to be respectful to each other and not allow good-natured teasing to slip into insult. There is an additional sense of betrayal when a family member exposes another's weakness or a past mistake. My advice is, observe the Golden Rule.

My mom told all her married children, after suffering a few awkward dinners, "If you are fighting on the way to my house, turn around and go home. No questions asked.” We got the message loud and clear.

If you still want to host that big dinner, decide now what type of behavior is acceptable in your home and in front of your children. Remember the memories they will carry. Don't invite anyone with a drinking/behavior problem, no matter how closely-related. They'll be welcome again when the problem is under control.

You can e-mail everyone now, telling them that your family is looking forward to a joyous and peaceful time, and that you are asking anyone with a grudge against anyone else to please stay home. Please come only if you want to help us celebrate the day!

If you are not the host, but instead a guest who feels loathe to go to that type of family free-for-all, bow out and tell them why.

Being an advocate for respectful behavior will not cause you to lose anyone who truly cares about you.  Stand up for your right to enjoy your holidays, in peace.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

It Is Not Too Soon To Think About The Holidays!

If your response to this headline was oh, please!!, you probably need to read on and consider my advice with an open mind, because the advice can help you keep your nerves in check when other people's go haywire. (For all of you who are by nature prevention-focused and therefore have a solid system in place for this approaching time, this article is not for you.)

In general, it does not take a psychologist to notice the high stress levels people experience preparing for A Peaceful Holiday Season, not least of all the birth of the “Prince of Peace” himself.

Seriously, it boggles the mind to think of all the work, down to the minute details, it takes to make it all come together in the end. Well, I have a solution for you that will help keep insanity at bay and have you actually enjoying the process. The secrets are organization and taking more TIME, and that means starting earlier.

Time management is a tricky thing for some, especially when the calendar tells you that you’ve still got four weeks before Christmas. Seems like plenty of time. In real time you do not have four weeks to get everything done -  with a full-time job and/or children to care for, you only have three weekends, or six days, with a few evening hours here and there. If you have an average-size family, having only so little time to get it all done will certainly make your blood pressure go up!

In addition, to borrow from John Lennon, "life happens while you're making plans.”  You must consider the possibility that you may get sick with a virus or a cold, or that a member of your family will, because it is that season, too.

So, for a few years now, I’ve been starting to prepare earlier - because all of the above has happened to me, almost spoiling my favorite time of the year.

There are many things that you can get done earlier than your friends may do them. I start entering my holiday “action items” into my calendar around October 15th each year. I never give myself more than one task a day. I do this in pencil, because inevitably things will have to be moved around for other appointments, school and activities for the children, and for the holiday parties we don't want to miss.

My secret for making shopping fun is to start early, and only shop for one member of my family at a time. The advantage is that you can really focus on that individual, their likes and dislikes, resulting in more satisfaction with your purchase. Also, you get to go home before you are exhausted. I do combine shopping for others when there are only one or two gifts involved. For books and CDs, I shop online.

I keep all receipts and tags with the name of the proposed recipient in an old shoebox decorated by my daughter two years ago, in case something needs to go back.

In the past, I have waited to wrap everything when shopping was done. It took too long, it was boring, and my back and legs ached miserably. Ho, Ho, for that routine. Now I wrap things as I buy them (and shop early for the wrapping paper). I lay out a sheet on the floor of a spare room, gather the wrapped gifts there, and cover with another sheet to keep the dust off. Bows go on the day I give them away. (Another thing to shop for early are the toys for the children's charities - those pick ups come fairly early.)

Here are some of the other things I deal with sooner than later so I can check them off the list:

·      Inspecting and trying on the outfits I would like to wear at the parties and the feast days at home. Dry clean now or buy something new? The children's clothes will surely be too small and there will be pictures, so I’ll have to get new outfits for them.  (My husband is on his own.  He prefers it that way.)

·      I buy holiday cards very early, along with the necessary stamps. The cards we received last year are still in a shoebox. Is there anyone new to join the list? I start writing a few every day, stamp them and pile them up on my desk until my daily calendar says “mail.”

·      I wash and iron all the holiday linen two weeks before Thanksgiving. All the wine and mixers to last through New Years Eve are in my cellar by that time also. Window lights and string lights get inspected after Halloween.

Having my calendar handy to see what is checked off and reassure me that I am right on track, gives me time to watch all my old favorite Christmas specials with my children, and keeps the stress and strain to a minimum.

So, have a Happy Season, spread out the work, and start now!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tell Yourself A New Story

“Our virtues are habits as much as our vices…our nervous systems have grown to the way in which they have been exercised, just as a sheet of paper or a coat, once creased or folded, tends to fall forever afterward into the same identical folds”
 --William James, one of the founders of scientific psychology (1899)

I have always loved a good metaphor, particularly those that give a deeper and clearer insight to an old truth. A lightbulb goes on and we say, "Oh, that's why!” or “that's how!”

With the scientific study of brain function, we now know that learning happens much the way a paper is folded – as the groove becomes more deeply creased, the paper naturally refolds in that same spot, even when you lay it flat on the table.  Our unwanted “automatic” reactions  - the ones that cause us pain or get us into trouble – are the result of the way our paper has been folded by past experiences.  We have learned to look the world as if this is the only way the paper can be folded.

Some old folds - truths accepted in childhood - can haunt us more than fifty years later if they were never quite ironed out.

When my mother was a child in postwar Germany, it was one of her daily chores to go into the cellar and get the potatoes for the day’s meal. It was an old house with an ancient deep cellar. The walls were black with coal dust and only one sad and sooted light bulb gave a glimmer of light - just enough to throw long shadows in the cavernous space, until you went around the corner into an open chamber were the potatoes laid on shelves in complete darkness. Being raised on the old Christian chestnut, “the Devil will get you if you are bad,” and knowing she wasn't always good, this became Mom's daily childhood nightmare. She had convinced herself that one day the Devil would come through one of the big cracks in the floor and grab her in the darkness. She couldn't tell her mom she was afraid the Devil would get her because her mom would then know she had been bad.

Moving to America and living most of her life on an island at the Jersey Shore, Mom never had a cellar again. Actively pursuing a more liberal spiritual path, the Devil too was left behind with the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales.

Retired for some time, Mom recently bought a small 100+ year old cottage near us in Pennsylvania. It also has a 100+ year old cellar with one lightbulb, cobwebs and debris. The first time she went down those barely lit steps, she felt "an eerie creepy feeling take a hold of her," turned around, and quickly went back up. Standing in her kitchen and calling herself a coward, it dawned on her that she was still afraid of cellars, after all this time. (The fold in the paper had never been ironed flat.)

She went down the steps again and got the same feeling, only this time she kept going, telling herself, “this is my house and my cellar and I love it and it loves me!” She doesn't remember how long it took before she felt normal in her cellar. She now uses it as her laundry room and for extra storage. Other than a good cleaning, nothing else has been done down there and Mom is quite content to have it as it is. She has flattened the old fold by retraining her brain.

A friend of ours stopped smoking by frequently telling himself that he was a non-smoker. When the urge to smoke became strong, he would go outside into the fresh air take a few deep breaths and repeat to himself three times slowly that he was a non-smoker. On the weekends, when football games on TV made things especially challenging, he would still go outside and do his usual “I am a non-smoker” routine. Then he would go into another room, where a hard puzzle was in the works and stay there until he felt ready to rejoin the game. He has remained a non-smoker for many, many years.

Over time, the beliefs we accept as “true” become set (like the fold in the paper) and our reactions to our world become predictable and routine. A certain situation will arise, and we respond by becoming fearful, very angry, volatile, stressed or depressed.  The idea that these painful emotions are occurring because of what we believe to be true, rather than what may actually be true, would not cross most people’s minds.  But in many instances, the way out is to iron out the fold, and refold the paper in a new way – to retrain your own brain.

So, when you find yourself unhappy with an old habit, or repeatedly reacting in a painful way to the same situation, you can do something about that. Find the thought you believe is true in “that” specific situation. That's the old fold in the paper. In the above examples it was:

1) The Devil is in the cellar.

2) I am a smoker.

Then replace it with your new truth, repeat it and act on it as often as is needed, to iron out the old belief that you no longer want to accept. Be patient - some creases are old and sharp, but you will make progress. It may be subtle at first, but once the mind has been opened to something new it will never quite close again, unless you wish deliberately it too.

Each effort in the new direction is a step forward, and you cannot fail, if you don't give up!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Never Say Or Think “I Should Have…”

Living in the present and being content with who you are is the foundation for a good life. Everything else is extra.

Having said that, however, we all know that most people have not yet made peace with themselves. They judge themselves harshly (creating guilt) for their decisions and actions made in the past, and now seek to find their worth in worldly achievements, fame, and exchangeable relationships. None of it gives them lasting satisfaction. Some succumb to depression and withdrawal from society, and frequently self-medicate through substance abuse. I shouldn’t have done that is the theme that underscores this misery.

Sadly, they are unaware that the reasoning behind that thought is misguided, and even illogical. Here is why:

1)  All decision and actions are based on what we believe to be true, at the time they are

2)  Some psychological studies show that people have a very difficult time remembering      
what it was like when they didn't know what they know now. For example, at some
point in our lives we learned that the world was round and the moon traveled around it, but we don't remember what it was like not knowing that.

3)  So, going back over the past armed with what we know now, it is difficult if not impossible to judge ourselves fairly. What happened then was based on what we knew then, the circumstances then and our feelings and beliefs then.

Therefore, it follows quite logically, that we should not judge from our present circumstances, from our knowledge and the beliefs we hold now, decisions made in another time and place.

That is not to say we can't learn from the painful and unfortunate events in our lives. When presented with similar circumstances now, it would be wise to say, "What could I do differently?” Should is always a judgment of some kind, could opens up possibilities.

If you are someone who carries pain and self-hatred from the past, remember that you truly don't remember the person you are judging now, it's quite impossible. Instead have compassion for his experiences, no doubt he did the best he could with whatever knowledge was available to him then. All you really need to think about is what you could do from now on.

It's all about learning anyway. So try to look at the past with a more gentle eye from now on.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Who Do They Think They Are?

Have you ever said or thought it? I know I have, plenty of times. "Who does he think he's talking to?"  It's our gut reaction to someone crossing the boundaries of courtesy, getting too personal, or making an inappropriate request.

If you are not someone who quickly loses his temper when feeling put upon (not recommended), or aren’t able to take the high road with a classy response, you may need some help when dealing with an overly “entitled” individual.

Jenny (not her real name) is my best friend in town. Everybody knows her and her husband Joe (not his real name) for the wonderful neighborhood parties they give. They are also the go-to couple for help and advice on anything home and garden.  They are softies, always willing to lend a hand.

The day before hurricane Irene went over our town, everybody was rushing around with last minute errands, bringing in the outdoor furniture and everything else that could become airborne and battening down the hatches. Lots of phone calls went back and forth. The anxiety in the neighborhood was palpable. The threat of flooding, and having one of the old trees along the sidewalks crashing down on our houses was real and imminent.

It was getting late into the evening. Their family fed and everything secured, Jenny, Joe, and their three young children along with grandma were huddling in front of the TV, watching the Weather Channel. Then the phone rang again.

It was a neighbor who rarely occupied the house next door, preferring to live up state in a home over-looking the river. She informed Jenny that they had just decided to leave the river house after all, and would she please strip and wash the sheets on their beds, because they themselves would be too tired to do so when they arrived. Thank you very much.

Jenny said yes. She felt slightly nauseous and upset. "What do they think they are?" Looking at Joe for support. In reality, Jenny was very angry at herself. She gave a lot of thought to what had just happened, and why she had agreed so automatically.

Was it just that she had failed to come up with a better response quickly enough? Although that might be partially true, as many people are momentarily stunned when confronting the unexpected, Jenny readily admits that she may not have the “stuff” to say "no."

If you, like my friend, doubt you could say "no" when an improper request is made of you, then the answer to, "Who do I think I am?"  is what you need to explore.

"No, I would be uncomfortable doing that," is an excellent reply. Any follow-up "Why?” can be answered with, "I already answered that'.  Of course, silence is also an option. Do what feels more comfortable to you. Do not explain yourself more than that.  You never need to justify treating yourself with respect.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ideal Friends

When I was young, the times I spent with each of my friends usually centered around a particular activity we both enjoyed doing. For instance, I loved going to the movies with “A”. We were joined at the hip for seeing every funny movie that came to the local theater. Our standards were very low -  the dumber, the better.  “A”  and I had the same funny bone, and watching something silly together was always more hilarious than watching it alone. Often people in the audience would shush us for being too loud, but trying to suppress our laughter in that setting only made everything twice as funny. I'm sure we were very annoying. I'm sorry. We were very young.

Around that same age (10 or 11), a few girls from the neighborhood and I formed a private club. Meetings were held in the attic above our garage. We were all fans of the Judy Blume books, and Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was our favorite. We learned a lot about our approaching womanhood from Judy Blume.  And even though we were at least a year or two away from getting our first periods, we decided it was best to be prepared, and voted at one of our meetings that each member should stock up with the required provisions now.

All my pocket money went to the local pharmacy for the next few weeks. We proudly compared our purchases at meetings, evidence of our advanced maturity.  I remember feeling greatly embarrassed when my Mom found some of my stash and couldn't keep herself from laughing. When she finally stopped, and said it was all really very cute, my complete humiliation was achieved.

There were friends I liked to hang around with because they were funny, and others who made good phone palls when the weather kept us in. I realize now that I had no real “bosom buddy” friend, someone I could trust with my innermost secrets, until I went to college.

I met “C” on moving-in day and “J” just a few days later. The three of us became roommates a year later, and lived together until graduation. We grew to trust each other completely. We shared in our disappointments and small triumphs, and told each other the most intimate details of our lives. I don't think any one of us quite appreciated at the time how precious our friendship was and how hard it would be to duplicate with someone else when we grew older. After graduation, we became distanced by miles, but a phone call or a visit brings us right back to where we left off. I value that very much.

In my professional and social adult life I have made some casual friends, similar to the kind I had when I was very young. But sadly, too many of the people I meet seem to find it impossible to let go of an image they have created for themselves, and their conversations circle around what they own. The latest car, the biggest home (at the best address of course!) and simply the best designer, darling!!  When bragging becomes apparent in stories of travel, charity work and encounters with the rich and famous, I am so turned off that any type of true friendship becomes out of the question.

Another person I try to avoid is the “advice giver.” I met a classic example of this type recently at someone else's home at a housewarming party. Our host and hostess took their guests on a tour of their newly renovated home with some justified pride, telling funny little anecdotes about their mishaps and miscommunications with the contractors and workers. The aforementioned adviser took every opportunity to interrupt the stories we enjoyed with, "Oh, honey, you know what I always do?" followed up with whatever it was she had done.

We all began to hate her quite openly, and tried to discover who had had the nerve to bring her. The last room to be shown was a redecorated guest room. Holding the arm of our hostess, the lovely lady told her, “You know, this could be a pretty room, if you painted it light green and changed some of the furniture." Enough said.

Every morning at my daughter’s preschool, a small group of happy children along with their sleepy parents gathered in front of the school, waiting for the door to open. It was very early in the day, so I usually just waved a weak hello to the other moms and kept quiet, thinking of the coffee waiting at home. "Do you give your kids a bath everyday?" someone asked over my shoulder one day. With a haughty “I beg your pardon!” on my lips and one eyebrow raised to underscore the point, I turned around to face the offender. I was greeted with a big smile from one of the moms I had casually chatted with at one of the many preschool birthday parties. Still smiling at me she added, "I don't."

I knew immediately that I could be friends with this women, and we have in fact grown to be very close – the first new bosom buddy I have made in a long time. There is no pretense in my new friend, despite her impressive credentials. She has the same casualness talking about her goof ups as she has about her accomplishments. I find that so attractive.

If you find yourself still looking for a really close friend, allow yourself to be vulnerable with others. Sharing our foibles makes us relatable, pretending perfection does not. Take a chance. Your instinct will tell you who that contender may be.

After reflecting on the friends (and non-friends) of years past, I’ve concluded that a good friend is a true treasure because,

He will listen to you when you need to be heard.
And will not judge you harshly because she knows your heart.
He will never cross boundaries.
She will not give unsolicited advice.
And he won’t keep track of how often you call, or how long it's been.

Genuine friendship does not require “work,” nor is it in any way related to the words “should” or “ought.”   It simply is.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Passive Aggression Anyone?

One of my dearest and closest friends - my children call him Uncle Shawn - is hands down our favorite guest. He is a great storyteller with a bit of the devil in him. Quite a bit, actually. He makes us laugh until we cry.

Shawn lives in New York City. After teaching for a few years he is currently working on his Ph.D. For as long as I have known him, Shawn has suffered from two great shortages in his life, one being spendable cash and the other is patience with his mother. This very proper lady flew into JFK one day for an impromptu visit with her son, and very naturally expected him to come and fetch her from the airport. Shawn, like most New Yorkers, does not own a car. Resenting her visit in the first place, and minding very much the cost of a round trip cab fare in the second, he settled his inner conflict by picking her up in a U-Haul - the cheapest option available to him.

This is the only funny instance of passive aggression I know of. However, his mother didn't think it very funny at all, which of course was his point.

A familiar passive-aggressive scene (perhaps all too predictable to some) is the husband who does not want to visit his in-laws this weekend, according to the long-standing plan. We will find him sitting in front of the TV until his wife and children are fully dressed and ready to go. His wife, having learned from experience that he will make them late again, had shouted reminders to him in regular intervals, while working on the kids and her own outfit. Not hearing any movement from the TV room, her shouts become more angry. At the door a furious argument ensues, or she may be crying about his indifference to her feelings. Either way, he is content. Making her miserable was the price she had to pay for “making him go.”

Passive aggression can often be seen in young children who are told to share their toys with siblings or other children. They will throw the wanted toy in the opposite direction, or hand over some less attractive substitute.  Or, among adults, it can be the recently cooked meal - now sitting in the trash can- waiting for the hungry person who forgot to warn he would be late. Or the colleague at work who drags his feet, because he doesn't like to work on a team.

All these different behaviors occur when the perpetrator knows he or she really ought to do a specific thing or go to a previously agreed-upon place, because it is the right thing to do. Now they just resent having to do it. They will hold someone responsible and make them pay.  Payment can be extracted by making you late for something important to you, through digs and low-blows to your self-esteem, or even by deliberately embarrassing you in front of others. P**sing on your parade in some way will make things even!

The closeness of your relationship to someone who behaves this way toward you, the frequency with which it occurs, and the extent to which they will go, will be the deciding factors in your response to it.

For the valued long-term relationship where this behavior is infrequent and only annoying, I recommend simply ignoring it.  Don't take the bait! If you don't give them the satisfaction they seek, they will eventually see it as a fruitless endeavor.

In other, more serious situations, ask yourself, "What is at stake here?"  Ignore it, or take a permanent walk?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Peacekeepers Beware!

It is my privilege to know some extraordinary people in whose company I feel especially relaxed and peaceful, and to whom I say a reluctant goodbye when the time is up.

What these friends have in common is a generosity of spirit, an openness to life and adventure, and a great sense of humor. I have never known them to have a petty or nasty argument with anyone, although they very much enjoy a heated discussion on principal or on an educated point of view. They are also the voice for reason among quarreling friends and colleagues, and each in their own way exudes a presence that inspires one to stretch oneself, as if to somehow become more noble for the sake of all mankind.

I think that most of us have, on occasion, facilitated peace in our immediate world by clearing up misunderstandings between family members and among friends. Or perhaps by diffusing a tense situation at work. It comes naturally to people who don't shy away from confrontation for the right cause. If you count yourself in this group, you're doing well.

I have chosen my friend *Lisa's story to warn peacekeepers of another kind. Lisa is married to Bob and has children from a previous marriage to Frank. Frank was physically abusive whenever something didn't go his way, or when Lisa gave him a “look” he didn't like, or when the wrong music was playing on the radio. In order to keep the peace, Lisa obeyed her husband in everything and tried to avoid anything that might cause him to become violent. Frank though of himself as having “class” -  he always apologized after he beat her up, sometimes there were even tears in his eyes when he proclaimed that “he could never live without her.”  On occasion there were flowers.  Every time was the “last time,” and Lisa kept the peace until the next time. She finally ran away with her children when the violence had escalated to the point that she believed he would kill her.

She married Bob a day after she divorced Frank. At first, Bob seemed different. He was highly educated and espoused strong views for women's rights. He welcomed her children, as long as they obeyed the rules in his house. It was always his house, even though Lisa worked a full time job. (So much for women's rights.)  Bob had a temper, and it became evident very quickly that it became much much worse when he drank alcohol.

Lisa, being an experienced peacekeeper, tried to cover all the bases that could start trouble. Her boys were teenagers at the time and she did their chores when they “forgot,” covered their tracks when they broke things in the house by wrestling and rough-housing while Lisa and Bob were working. To keep the peace, she wouldn't punish them for anything they did. To make a long story short, Bob's anger with the past, present and future, grew steadily worse with time as did his drinking. After calling his wife every obscene name in the book and accusing her of not contributing s--t, he, like Frank, apologized. She accepted to keep the peace. Lisa started having severe anxiety attacks with bouts of depression, and kept them secret for fear of being called crazy.

Bob left Lisa. Lisa's sons have left her as well. One doesn't speak to her at all, and the other has just grown distant. Lisa tried to stay close with them as they grew older and never criticized or gave an unwanted opinion. She knew how to keep peace, but not how to get respect or keep love.

The purpose of the story is a warning to all women who seek peace at home at all costs. Know that you will be bearing all the cost, but you will get no peace. The problem with Lisa's life is Lisa. Whatever the reason for her low self-esteem may have been, she gave no cause for anyone to treat her better. Instead, she gave the men in her life the power to grow more and more violent in their outbursts to her, because she became ever more afraid. And stayed!

If someone you are close to has a bad temper and you tolerate it to keep peace, ask yourself, “Do I really have peace or am I just afraid to stand up for myself? What do I think would happen if I spoke my mind? What if I threatened with consequences?"

You maybe in a very dangerous place if you are experiencing fear.  Leave while you can and seek counseling.  Feeling less important than someone else will make you a victim over and over again.

Learn to be a peacemaker for yourself.  All good things come from that.