Cafeteria Line

I originally published this in June of 2012.  Re-posting for those who follow my blog and may have missed this and for new followers to consider.  

Hospitals, Doctors’ offices and diagnostic centers are places people go for help with some kind of medical condition—usually one that they don’t understand.  The emotions carried into these physical spaces are varied but, most of the time, some degree of fear underlies all of them.  And fear knows no limit.  It accompanies all of us when we face the unknown.

In my teaching, I emphasize stopping as an important practice for those of us who are privileged to serve in these sacred places.  I say ‘sacred’ because in a healthcare environment, we are meeting people who are at their most vulnerable and the opportunity to heal begins the moment we encounter them.  Whether in the parking lot, the lobby, the halls and waiting rooms, not to mention the exam and patient rooms, every healthcare professional can, if they stop long enough, touch and contribute to our guests’ sense of wellbeing.

For now, forget about risk, compliance, HIPAA and whether you have all the right words.  Just stop, observe, listen and be willing to respond to a frightened person’s (usually) unspoken concerns.  I did this once in line in a hospital cafeteria.  A woman paying for her meal was distracted, hurried and the cashier was having difficulty ringing up the order.  I simply told her that I would pay for her meal so she could get to where she was going without delay.  At that moment, the woman broke down, sobbing.  She apologized and explained that she had just been told that her husband of 50 years was being transferred to Hospice.  That’s it.  In the blink of an eye, a person was able to share heartbreaking news with someone who until that moment was a complete stranger.  I didn’t plan to do anything ‘special’ with this stopping event.  Honestly, I was probably more anxious to keep the line moving.  But I was blessed and as it turns out, I was also a blessing to this very special person.

Stopping isn’t necessarily heroic.  But it is necessary if we want to touch others in a way that makes a difference.

Be Still and Know

I am no expert on meditation nor am I a contemplative.  However, I think deeply about the place God occupies in my life and the implications that has for me as seeker, doubter, and finder.  This afternoon, I was troubled by news of a former high school classmate’s serious health condition.  We had been together for the first time in decades during a reunion last month.  Today brought news of two, sudden heart attacks in 24 hours.  Open heart surgery has, by now been completed, I pray, successfully.

On this same afternoon I read a Facebook post written by one of the dearest, most loving men I know about the utter physical fatigue he now feels as he cares for his Wife of forever in her final days with him.  This is a time for prayer.  For me, it is also a time to remember God in God’s most majestic and mysterious.  I opened myself to God through a favorite passage that I use to meditate, Psalm 46:10:

“Be still and know that I am God”

It is familiar and new every time I consider it in meditation.  Familiar, is the way I recite it.

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know.

Be still.

Be.

New, this afternoon, was direction.  I allowed these phrases to take me ever more inward to the place that was the authentic me.  With each pause for reflection, and “hearing,” I was being invited by God’s assuring voice to embrace all that God created me to BE.  Here, I am released from external expectations and stripped of the masks I so comfortably wear.  Here, I am encouraged to be one among many who can love these friends of mine who are suffering.

My meditation doesn’t end with the single word, “be,” however.  Rather it ascends, phrase by phrase, ultimately to the fullness of who I am with God.

Be.

Be Still.

Be still and know.

Be still and know that I am.

Be still and know that I am God.

I share this because I love my friends, both those whom I have known and others whom I will meet.  I love you.  So does God.

I Shouldn’t Be Surprised

This morning, I was reflecting on a couple of recent encounters with my Starbucks community.  Of the three ‘regulars’ I visited with, PJ (not his real name) was the first to arrive.  He doesn’t usually come so early and that made me curious.  After completing my writing for the morning, I went over to check in.  We exchanged the usual niceties about the holiday but it was what followed, as I allowed time for listening, that was memorable.  PJ, it turns out was early because he and the rest of his family had been sick all weekend.  And even more meaningful information followed as we discussed the state of mental health care in the community.  TJ disclosed some of the most intimate facts about a close family member who had been hospitalized and required constant care for a serious mental illness. He went further: the family member died only a few months ago at much too early an age.

How does this type of sharing occur between two men who only know each other from brief exchanges at Starbucks?  I’m sure that there are a lot of factors at play here but I’m equally sure—certain, in fact—that if I hadn’t stopped and waited for a full conversation to take place, I would have missed the opportunity to enter this sacred space. 

God speaks to me in so many ways and I am thankful for His voice.  I am also humbled that He has chosen me to be a vessel for sharing stories like this one.  I wrote not long ago that, for me, Jesus is the ‘real deal.’  Jesus had the most important mission ever and it was fulfilled not by hurriedly going to places his advisors and handlers (read: disciples!) urged but rather, by stopping and listening to the least influential and those who suffered silently, regardless of time  or location.  His was an itinerary informed by His Father’s love. Emulating Jesus’ love and following His path is what I seek in my own imperfect journey.

Treadmills and Other Things

When we refer to life as a Treadmill it’s usually considered negative. It connotes routine, endless and repetitive.  I propose an alternative, while acknowledging generally the concept.

Isn’t everything that we do in this present, mortal state, circuitous?  Staying with the exercise/activity theme…golf always end up at the clubhouse; a hike begins at a trailhead and often  ends in the same place regardless of how far you go; basketball requires running back and forth along a 94ft long court and soccer is the same thing, except on a 100 yard field (with very few points scored for all of the effort!).

But the benefits of these and all forms of exercise are many. Some benefits are obvious like improving one’s health, having fun, and enjoying the satisfaction that comes as a result.  Additionally, I contend that exercise is a form of stopping and can be used to regain control.  For example, yesterday while swimming, I progressed from trying to get a Garth Brooks song out of my head (“If Tomorrow Never Comes”) to thinking of my Wife and Son enjoying worship together in NYC to an even clearer mind that allowed me to think creatively about a project I’m putting together at work.  One hour, 4000 yards swimming in a 25 yard pool.  If you do the math, that’s 160 laps (159 flip-turns!) during which, I was able to clear my head enough to reflect on blessings in my life as well as plan for the coming week.

Oh, and one more thing that came to me during my pool time:  The content of this blog. That’s a lot to happen while on the proverbial treadmill!  So, regain control doing whatever form of back and forth, circuitous, seemingly non-productive activity that you enjoy.

And, as always, let me know how it works out for you!

Prune and Park

Idea #3: There’s a lot about life that is beautiful: nature; people; architecture; work; play.  Regaining control isn’t about excluding things.  It’s more about being conscious and intentional about how much beauty we can enjoy at any one time.  Marigolds are beautiful and they provide a wonderful accent to landscapes.  Left untended, however, they’ll take over!  Just like the necessity of periodically pruning marigolds back, for me to effectively manage my busy-ness, I have to make sure my commitments don’t cause me to overextend and, thus, take over my life.  So, keep your life’s landscape beautiful by pruning the activity vines regularly.

Idea #’s 4&5: Everyone I know wants to find the closest parking place and get in the shortest line.  This isn’t a “Type-A” phenomenon.  It’s human nature.  I offer these ideas, though, especially for the Type-A’s amongst us. Park farther away and get in the longest checkout line.  Doing these two things consistently is guaranteed to improve the quality of your life and actually save time.  Your life is better because you’ve just eliminated two of the sources of DAILY frustration.  When you park farther away, there are many more choices, making parking easier and faster. As an added bonus, you’ll get a little more exercise and avoid the competition for that ‘perfect’ spot!

When you get in the longest checkout line with the expectation that it will take longer to get through, you won’t be obsessing over that person who is actually writing a check (!?) for the purchase!   Adopting these practices will slow you down, metaphorically, but will not actually delay you by more than 1 minute and 25 seconds per event (I made that up but I’ll bet I’m not too far off!)

Three more ideas for regaining control:

  • Prune the activity vine
  • Park farther away
  • Get in the longest Line

Let me know how these work for you, OK?

The Road Less Traveled

In yesterday’s post, I offered a definition of stress and continued my advocacy for Stopping.  Stopping requires making choices.  Stopping in today’s blurry existence is essential for peace and true fulfillment.  I committed to offering 12 ideas to help us regain our focus.  Today, ideas one and two:

1. Learn to say No

If you’re like me, there are a hundred different things vying for your time and attention.  Many are good things; things that you could do and make a positive contribution.  But there is only so much time and if you fill that time saying yes to everyone and everything, there will be no time left for YOU. No time to reflect, regenerate and revel in the sweet things in life.  Saying ‘Yes’ to 10 requests means saying ‘No’ to 90.  After about number 46, it should get easier.

2. Turn off the devices (Create a Screen-Free Zone)

PC’s. Phones. Pads. We all have them and they’re on and in front of us nearly every waking minute of our blurry lives.  Create a ‘screen-free’ zone (yep, including the TV screen!) and declare it off limits to all these electronic gizmos.  The screen-free zone is not devoid of stimulus, however.  Consider a good, old-fashioned book or magazine.  How about a sketch pad for drawing or jotting down things you’re thankful for?  And it doesn’t have to be a solitary cell.  Invite your spouse, kids or a friend to enter this sacred space with you and share stories of the day/week.  And instead of caving to the temptation to plan your future (holidays are upon us, eh?), think about or share memories of favorite holiday times, past.  This is reality.  This is stopping.

I remember hearing someone say not too long ago that Poetry “slowed me down.”  I like that and I have experienced it.  I’ll leave you with a classic by Robert Frost.  It’s fitting because these ideas for stopping and de-stressing are totally about making choices, just as described in “The Road Less Traveled.”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

It’s About Time!

Hans Selye, the late Canadian endocrinologist and “father” of stress research, defines stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it.”  Some people use the term stress only to describe unpleasant circumstances, such as doing taxes, the daily commute or the sound of screaming children.  Stress is not the circumstance, it is our response to the circumstance.  It is not ‘out there’ but rather inside us.  Stress, as a term, is neither negative nor positive.  The word simply describes an entirely normal psychophysiological process without which we would die.

Distress is the appropriate term to use in describing something negative or destructive.  So, in the words of Forest Gump, “Stress happens” (I know.  The T-Shirt and bumper stickers used a different “S” word but work with me here, ok?).

We are living in a time of unprecedented stress inducers:

  • Exponential change
  • Universal indebtedness
  • Hurry and noise
  • Complexity and overload
  • Working Parents and one or both holding down more than one job
  • Greater career insecurity
  • Aloneness

In times like this, Stopping would appear to be counterintuitive if not suicidal, metaphorically speaking.  I would argue however, that there has never been a more important, lifesaving act for us to embrace than calling, ‘time-out.’  So, “stress happens” and Stopping is hard.  As we enter the crazy, hectic, fun, meaningful, memory-making holiday season, I will offer 12 ideas for regaining control and balance in our lives.  Individually and collectively, these ideas will address stress and emphasize going all-in with our friends, family and co-workers.  I’ll post 2 ideas per day in order to have them all out there before Thanksgiving Day.  For now, and in preparation for consider the blessing of allowing ourselves to be interrupted by God.  This is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in a wonderful book entitled, Life Together:

“God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions…It is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.”

Happy Stopping!

When the World Says, “Don’t!”

When I describe the concept of Stopping, I say that we live in a world of constant motion and ‘busy-ness.’ Everything is a blur. I show participants photographs that I’ve taken with my camera’s shutter speed set a little slower–but not much. Even if the shutter stays open a tenth of a second longer, the image I capture is not sharp and may even be unrecognizable. That’s perfectly analogous to our lives. Even when we think we’re slowing down, our interactions, communication and attention is not as sharply focused as it could be if we came to a complete stop.

Stopping is intentional. It takes courage. In stopping, we are doing something seemingly counterproductive and certainly counter-cultural. I’m borrowing the following from Dr. David Kuntz, author of Stopping-How To Be Still When You Have to Keep Going.  It’s a list of assumptions that we hear (and say?) about the concept of Stopping:

  • Leisure is a luxury you can’t afford
  • Pleasure-seekers end up in hell (love that one!)
  • To get ahead you must work more hours
  • You have to keep up with the Joneses (oops)
  • Doing nothing is slothful and lazy
  • If it’s faster, it’s better
  • Growth is always good
  • Money is always the bottom line
  • More is always better than less
  • Play is only for children

Everything in the list above contributes to our living a blurry life. If we Stop and think, we know these statements are not true. But that’s the point: We have to STOP and think!  I was able to do that this past weekend while attending a ministry of writing colloquium at Earlham School of Religion www.esr.earlham.edu in Richmond, IN. I basked in the warmth of stories told and poetry read. I cleared my head and, with the help of some really capable leaders, was able to think and write.  During worship Saturday morning, in a time of stillness, I was given a poem that came so easily that I was caught off guard.

Stopping is good even if only for a moment. Ignore the world’s demand and just say I WILL!

Socrates Would Like the iPhone

The iPhone 5 has been out for about a week now and, according to reports, over 5 million have already been purchased.  That’s good for Apple and for all of us techno-geeks that love new gadgets.  It’s faster, lighter and allows owners to take really cool panoramic photographs!  I won’t be buying the new phone but only because I have the 4S and my contract with AT&T isn’t ‘up’ yet.  Yes, I’m one of those techno-geeks and I love all of my gadgets!!  But I am also more aware than ever that the central reality of having all of this connectedness is that I am more deeply imbedded in the CROWD than ever.  The crowd surrounds me, informs me, distracts me and entertains me.  The crowd includes close friends and family along with people I never physically see.

Why would Socrates love the iPhone?  Because he was a connector.  He cherished his friends and was intensely curious about their lives.  He lived in and was energized by life in the city.  The city in Socrates’ day was where learning happened!  So, when his friend Phaedrus suggested that he join him on a stroll outside the city walls, Socrates was incredulous.  ‘Forgive me, friend,’ says Socrates.  ‘I am devoted to learning; landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me–only people in the city can do that.’  Well, who am I to argue with Socrates?!  But, he’s dead and I’m not so I am going to assert one thing about the importance of separating ourselves–whether by going for a walk outside the city or simply turning off some of our gadgets–from the crowd periodically.  

William Powers, whose work, Hamlet’s Blackberry, I cited in an earlier post, offered this bit of wisdom:

“Everyone needs to create a gap between themselves and the screen–the gap that opens up when you turn it off.  When you do that, something miraculous happens.  You regain the best part of yourself and the best part of life, the human part.”

Enjoy your gadgets.  I certainly do.  But remember to take a little time (Stop) and regain (Discover) the best part of yourself and life…the human part!

On Optimism

Matt Ridley, author of the best-selling book The Rational Optimist, had his work summarized by the Reader’s Digest on March 21, 2012, and updated on Saturday, April 14, 2012, in an article titled “17 Reasons To Be Cheerful.” Here is his reason No. 17 that stated “optimists are right:

For 200 years, pessimists have had all the headlines — even though optimists have far more often been right. There is immense vested interest in pessimism. No charity ever raised money by saying things are getting better. No journalist ever got the front page writing a story about how disaster was now less likely. Pressure groups and their customers in the media search even the most cheerful statistics for glimmers of doom. Don’t be browbeaten — dare to be an optimist!

I know that I’m not as optimistic about things as I was when I was younger.  Today, I use words like ‘realistic’ and ‘pragmatic’ more than I ever used to.  However, not too far beneath the surface so as to be completely lost, I still look at folks and think they mean well and do good.  I am intentional about noticing the nice things that people do and the very good things that happen in our world.  To do this requires Stopping, though.  I have stopped watching Cable TV with its non-stop negative news.  I have stopped following politics closely because politics is the farthest thing from anything approximating reality.  I have stopped looking at the homeless as ‘losers,’ which they most certainly are not.  In fact, on that last item, I have gone way outside my personal comfort zone and sat with folks on the street to engage them in conversation.  It’s my way of bringing this concept of ‘Noticing‘ to reality.

So, to be an optimist requires a few changes–most of them pretty easy to implement.  Stop.  Notice.  And, for the record, I believe in you, your service to others, your love of family, country and God.  I just do.  No apologies from this optimist!