Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

May you enjoy the peace of this season as you contemplate the gift that is the birth and life of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

BTW, you can see my Christmas post at Real Intent, "My Children and the Traditions of Their Father," here.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Do You Feel What I Feel?

One of my favorite Christmas songs from my childhood was “Do You Hear What I Hear?” which I’d listen to on the living room stereo as often as I could, hearing the news of the Savior’s birth spread from wind to lamb to shepherd boy to king and finally to people everywhere. I love the swell of the music and the message as it grows throughout the song.

Now it makes me tired.

In fact, a lot of Christmas makes me tired.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Christmas. It really is my favorite time of the year. I’d start playing Christmas music in October if my lovely wife would let me. (My mother used to tell of her father who would whistle "Silent Night" all year long.) I like to start baking Christmas cookies at the beginning of November (though my lovely you-know-who tries to make we wait until Thanksgiving).

We have cherished family traditions that I don’t like to let go of – cookie plates to deliver to friends and neighbors, a shopping day with my lovely wife to go in search of certain special goodies, lots of Christmas music, singing with the ward choir in the Christmas program, our own Christmas Eve Swedish smorgasbord (one of the most wonderful traditions coming from my wife’s family) followed by a quiet family devotional which includes some reading of the New Testament accounts of the Savior’s birth. And on Christmas morning, our children wake us with Christmas carols at the foot of our bed.

Of course we also have the normal stress of gifts and parties and school events, package preparation and mailing to faraway children and siblings, wrapping and hiding of gifts at home, not to mention the steady flow of everyday life on top of it all.

I have improved in many areas. A number of years ago I realized I was hating Christmas Eve because I ended up locked away on my own wrapping presents – something I really don’t like under the best of circumstances. I learned to spread my wrapping duties over time, to invite children to help with some of it so it’s a together experience, and to play Christmas music while I wrap, so at least I can feel a little holiday spirit in the process.

And we’ve streamlined the cookie plates to friends and neighbors just a bit, and we no longer try to do them on Christmas Eve at the same time we’re setting up the smorgasbord.

But the fact is, no matter how much we streamline, we’ll always be busy at Christmas. And I will be tired. The older I get the truer this seems to be: I tire more easily.

Of course I try to focus on the most important things like remembering the Savior, working on relationships rather than things and so on. I made the leap a few years ago from trying to have everything perfect for everyone. Now we do what we can and hope for the best. Fortunately our kids are very kind-hearted.

I still toss and turn on Christmas Eve in fear that I will fail to bring a smile to one of my kids on Christmas morning. It’s never happened that I can remember, but I still worry. (It’s never happened in part because my kids have learned well from their lovely mom’s example of gracious appreciation for my feeble efforts, and because their lovely mom has a lot to say about gift selection.)

I remember years past when we stayed up late to assemble gifts with far too many pieces or to wait for the living room to clear so that we could do what needed to be done before we went to bed. And I’m glad we are not there anymore. Our gifts these days, thanks to the ages of our kids, don’t require assembly by me.

So, I do feel tired this Christmas. And maybe some of the details will slip away this year compared with last. But that’s ok. We’ll still wake to Christmas carols on Christmas morning, and we’ll still have many of our children with us and be close at least electronically with the others. And then I’ll still feel tired. But I’ll feel happy, too.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Mourning with those who wear pants

I had no plans to write about pants. In fact, were it not for the internet, I would know nothing about the pants thing from this past weekend.

But after church as we drove to my BIL’s home for a second thanksgiving dinner, my 16-year old son brought it up. He had seen it on Facebook and read gazillions of comments.

My 12-year old daughter was totally flummoxed. Why would women want to wear pants to church anyway? So we talked about some of the issues they were trying to address and what we all thought about this issues and how they were being raised.

What irked my son is what irked me, and that is how supposedly otherwise faithful Latter-day Saints were talking to one another about the issue on line. The vitriol, while no longer shocking to anyone who spends more than 10 minutes reading comments on anything online, was disappointing among those who covenant to mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.

He was the first to acknowledge that any online discussion seems to attract the highly opinionated and the trolls, and that most people who argue in those forums have no interest in listening to another point of view. They seem instead to seek support for whatever viewpoint they bring with them to the fight.

My lovely wife had some interesting observations from her own experience. She’s served in a number of Relief Society presidencies, and is now in our stake Relief Society presidency. She’s been a part of ward councils in wards on three continents, and has consistently felt her voice has been heard by the bishops and stake presidents with whom she’s served. Furthermore, she knows that the Relief Society presidents in our stake are key to the successful running of their wards; their bishops seek their counsel and listen to it.

She also acknowledges that not everyone has the same experience she does.

As for pants in our ward? I have no idea. We often have one or two or three sisters in pants anyway for one reason or another. But I don’t really pay much attention. As I mentioned in another conversation on the subject, I tend to pay attention to what my lovely wife and my daughter are wearing, and I don’t pay attention to others.

When I think about those who feel like they are standing on the outside looking in, I hope we treat them with love and kindness. I’m reminded of an experience I had as a young married man:

We lived in a Provo family ward just after we were married. I was soon called to be the Sunday School president (at the time that Sunday School opening exercises was done away with), and I felt my calling to be increasingly less important. Still my counselors and I made a good effort to attend classes, provide feedback, hold in-service meetings, and so on. I never could, however, figure out the value of the stake Sunday School organization. The one stake training meeting I attended seemed totally useless to me, and I felt we were doing just fine on our own.

I’m fairly certain I was not shy about my contempt for the stake organization (since I wasn’t shy about much in those days). And yet, every time the stake Sunday School president visited out ward, he’d put his arm around me, give me a warm handshake and tell me how much he loved me and appreciated the work we were doing in our ward.

I don’t remember anything I taught in our in-service meetings, but to this day I remember the warmth and kindness I felt from this man who was doing his best to magnify his calling, despite my hubris.

I hope that if I met any of the pants-sympathizers (or any of the pants-haters, for that matter), that I would respond to either with love and kindness, just as my stake Sunday School president did with me.

(Photo credit: SL Tribune)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Controlling Behavior: Rules & Boundaries

This is the third in an occasional series on control. Click the links for parts one and two.

Part of our charge as parents is to train up a child in the way he should go. We want to rear our children in righteousness. We hold Family Home Evening, family prayer, family scripture study and family counsel in the hopes that our children will feel the love that surrounds them and grow up sharing our gospel-centered values and our love of the Lord.

The stakes are high for us, and often we are tempted to try to control our children so much that their outward behavior complies with our image of what it should be. In our hearts we know we shouldn’t do that; we know that it is more like the Adversary’s plan to force us all back home. We know our children need to learn to choose the right, but sometimes we just want them to sit quietly in church!

As a parent, I’m better off focusing on what I can control. I can establish rules and I can establish boundaries, and I can enforce consequences in the event that rules are broken or boundaries are crossed. Rules and boundaries are not the same thing to me, though they may look similar.

A rule is there to control behavior: a speed limit is a rule; “no hitting” is a rule; “do your homework before watching TV” is a rule. These all are there to control behavior, and the consequences will either punish violations or reward compliance. All ordered societies, including families, have rules. And every member of the society gets to choose whether to obey the rules or not. When someone disobeys a rule, he suffers a consequence; when he obeys, he gains a reward.

Consequences for violating or adhering to rules are best when they are proximate, consistent and clearly related to the rule. I had friends when I was growing up who had to help with the dishes in their home after dinner. A favorite trick was to let Sister wash while Brother (my friend) played outside, and then Brother would come in and put the dishes away after they had air-dried. Sister and, more importantly, Mom found this creative solution at odds with the idea that Brother and Sister were to work together. So if Mom saw the dishes air drying in the rack, she’d call Brother to the kitchen and then pour a pan of water over the air-dried dishes so he could have the full experience of drying and putting them away. The consequence was clearly related to the rule; it was linked in time to the offense, and it could be implemented with minimal drama on the part of Mom.

An unhealthy alternative to Mom’s dousing of the dishes might include Mom’s calling Brother to the back porch and loudly enumerating all the times that day or week he had skipped out of his chores with a promise to administer a “real” punishment when Dad got home later in the evening or grounding him for days at a time. Brother would quickly learn to let the yelling go over his head before he returned to play. And he could count on Mom’s forgetting that he was grounded within a day, or that the promised more serious punishment from Dad would never come.

Mom’s plan of action to douse the dishes, however, gives her something positive to do instead of losing her cool. And the consequences so administered are more meaningful. He gets to choose what he does, but he also chooses the consequences.

Boundaries are different: they are there to protect the person who sets them. And they are all about what the boundary setter will do in the event the boundary is crossed. A boundary is particularly important for a person who is a victim of abuse or a person who has an addict in the family. The boundary is not an expression of what the other person must do. It is instead a positive statement of what the boundary setter needs, and what the boundary setter will do if the need is not met.

For instance, a parent of a teenager may say, “I need to go to bed early tonight so I can be ready for a meeting tomorrow. For that reason, I need you home by 10 pm. At 10 pm I am locking the door, and if you are not home, you’ll need to spend the night somewhere else.” Or: “If you don’t have the car home by 10, then you may not use it this weekend.” A spouse who is tired of verbal abuse can say, “I need to have people speak to me with respect. If you cannot meet that need, then I will exit the conversation. I will go to another room until we can talk more calmly. If I need to, I will lock the door.”

Boundaries are much more difficult to administer in my view, because when someone crosses the boundary, the stakes are often much higher than when a child breaks a family rule about washing dishes or cleaning a room. And our actions that we have power to take are really limited. But understanding what we really do control is also liberating. I will never be able to control my teenager’s mood. I cannot force him to agree with me, nor can I ensure that he is happy with what I want him to do. If I release myself from that expectation, then I am free. It will, ironically, be easier for me to remain calm and inviting without the expectation that he react in a certain way, and so I am more likely to get the reaction I want (but wisely no longer expect).

I can make rules and I can set boundaries. I can be consistent in my behavior. I can meet out consequences in an even-handed and fair way. I can say what I mean, mean what I say, and not say it meanly. The twin concepts of rules and boundaries can provide me a hedge against assuming a false sense of control that will only frustrate me.

Monday, December 10, 2012

I won! I won!!

Ok, I can’t contain myself. I actually won something.

Ardis over at Keepapitchinin had a little contest around a Utah alphabet primer . She invited her clever readers to imagine what the alphabetized list might be. And with eight correct answers, I won.

Ok, so ignore the fact that I got 8/26. And focus on the fact that I got more than anyone else! No, wait, that’s not right.

Focus instead on the cool contest that Ardis sponsored and get on over and check out her blog if you’re not already a frequent reader.

I should point out that in pondering this self-congratulatory post, it occurred to me that this is not my first win in an LDS blog contest. I also won a haiku contest at Jeff Lindsey’s Mormanity a while back. (We wrote haiku about tattoos. Cool, huh?)

I might think that I had a streak going here, except that I lost the contest at Middle-Aged Mormon Man’s blog last week. I tell you that lest you all think I had something going on. Of course, MMM’s contest involved no skill; it was a luck of the draw. As opposed to Ardis’ contest that required significant higher-level thinking to remember the order of the alphabet.

Anyway, now you know some of my favorite blogs (and they’re not just my favorites because they give stuff away). Check them out.

And while you’re at it, my latest post at Real Intent is up: “Jared, His Brother and Spiritual Gifts.” Read it here.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Expectations of Control

This is number two in a series of I don't know how many installments, and I don't know how long it will take for me to tire myself out on this subject. I promise I won't only cover this topic over the next while, but it so happens this one follows the introductory post, here.

In 12-step programs, one of the hallmarks is identifying through a personal inventory the sources of resentment in a person's life and working through them. Often, the resentments lead a person to the behaviors that bring him to the 12-step program – substance abuse, eating disorders, co-dependence and so on. It stands to reason, then, that helping to sort through the underlying resentments helps a person to have the strength to deal with the addictive behavior in his life.

(Most 12-step programs will not try to cure a person of his addictions; indeed Step One makes clear that the addicted person cannot resolve the addiction on his own, and most people acknowledge that addiction is a life-long condition that requires management, like diabetes, rather than a cure.)

In my case – and this is true for many people who work through the steps (and I believe that most Latter-day Saints would benefit from working the steps, even though most of us are not addicts) – I discovered that nearly all of my resentments came from unmet expectations.

More specifically for me, I had an expectation about the outcome of events, I tried to control those outcomes, and I failed; resentment (and often more powerful emotions) followed.

One of the hallmarks of the “Anon” programs designed for family members of addicted loved ones (for instance, Al-Anon) is the giving up of expectations. It’s not unusual for a frustrated parent to say, “I expect to be treated with respect,” or “I expect my son to clean his room.” That construction raises a red flag because unmet expectations lead to resentment, and our lack of control over other people leads to unmet expectations. By establishing un-meetable expectations, we set ourselves up for recurring resentments.

A popular saying I’ve heard in 12-step recovery is this: You have a right to be treated with respect, but cannot expect it to happen. What that really means is that one has the right to choose how to react when he or she is not treated with respect, for instance.

Parents sometimes couch their family hopes and dreams in terms of expectations: We expect our children to study hard, to go to church, to serve missions, and so on. Experienced parents learn over time that they do not own their children’s future or their dreams. Just because I think my daughter should be a doctor does not mean she thinks she should be a doctor. And in the end, she will be the one choosing.

When I am successful at curbing my expectations, I am calmer about outcomes that are different from what I may have hoped for. I am more accepting and tolerant of other points of view. And I am happier.

Monday, December 3, 2012

I'm outta control!

So, I was out of the country last week, as I mentioned in last Monday’s post. And I missed posting on Thursday. Let’s say, I’m getting behind in a lot of things. I’m being clearly reminded how much in my life is out of my control.

The trip to Europe, for instance, came out of a business phone call the Wednesday before Thanksgiving – a call I should not have had, by the way. But I did have the call, and I did get sent to Europe. And, yes, I could have refused to go, but my agreement with my employer is that I will work and he will pay me, so I went.

Thanksgiving weekend revealed other things that were out of my control. For instance, on Friday evening, I ran up on the curb outside my sister-in-law’s home in New York. And the side wall of my tire blew out. And my new car has no spare. (As a cost- and weight-savings, automakers often put in a can of compressed air with goop to plug a puncture in the tire rather than fitting the vehicle with a spare tire. If you blow out the side wall, the goop does no good.) So I called roadside assistance (came with the new car, thank goodness) and had the car towed to a dealership where I bought a new tire the next morning. But that delayed our departure, and got us home that much closer to my departure for Europe.

I am not a big fan of being out of control. In fact I hate it. It’s more than an annoyance for me, and I know it. And I’ve taken and am taking steps to deal with it. I’ve been to counseling, which was very helpful. And I participate in a 12-step program.

My need for control is Natural Man writ large. And the remedy is simple, yet very hard for me. In order to deal with my need for control, I need to give up control.

King Benjamin said,

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.
That idea of submitting is all about giving up control, or rather recognizing one’s lack of control.

Here’s a partial list of things I don’t control:

1. The weather
2. My wife
3. My children
4. My boss
5. My staff
6. Any other human
7. My dog

And here’s a complete list of what I can control:

1. My reaction to events around me.
There are even parts of me I cannot control, but what I can learn to do is to control my reaction to what happens around me.

Over a series of posts (maybe the next few, maybe over the next few weeks) I’ll talk about ways I’m learning to control my reactions to things around me. Maybe that discussion will help you as it does me. Hope you’ll come along for the ride, but, of course, I have no control over that. ;-)