Aiming for Worthy Goals in the Comparison Game

Do you ever play the comparison game? The one where you measure your worth based on how you stack up compared to the people around you? If this were a sport, I’d most likely have a trophy case filled with dust-coated awards. We must know that much of our comparison game playing is useless as it only makes us feel badly about ourselves. What’s worse is making our comparison game about things unworthy of our attention.

I remember when the hubs and I first moved to the tundra and bought a house. We were eager to make a few cosmetic improvements, including new flooring. But before making a final decision about flooring, the owner of the flooring store suggested we visit a home of one of his satisfied customers. We did and their flooring looked great. But that wasn’t all that looked great. The entire home looked pretty great, i.e. better than mine–newer, bigger, and with amenities we could not afford. Worst of all, those very nice homeowners had the audacity to look several years younger than the hubs and me!

I pouted in the car on the way home. The hubs asked what was wrong and I lamented over how that young couple had a nicer home than us and how it seemed unacceptable since we were obviously at similar life stages. Had we fallen behind? Had we chosen wrong careers? Was life simply unfair?

“Shame on you,” he said. (seriously, that’s exactly what he said.)

When I raised my eyebrows at his remark, he continued… “No matter how nice a home we buy, there will always be someone with a nicer one.” In other words, there is no end to the path of dissatisfaction.

I settled myself, chastened. The hubs is a good man.

The comparison game can still be a struggle for me, albeit less so when it comes to counting other people’s money. We are fortunate in that our economic circumstance is mostly the result of conscious lifestyle choices and we don’t lack for any necessities and many luxuries. Plus, I no longer desire a bigger house to decorate, heat or clean. I’m not even much interested in cleaning or updating the home we’ve now lived in for over 15 years. These days, I’m not much into “stuff” as a measurement of my worth.

But I do believe there are some suitable measurements against which to gage our performance. For example, I follow the work of other editors and writers and when I discover something praise-worthy, like a beautiful web design or a well-written essay, I want to up my game. I want to do my job well, and hopefully, I will continue to get better by comparing myself to those who do it better.

Some of my friends are great cooks. Others exercise more than me, which isn’t hard to do, but is still admirable. Some folks seek lifelong learning opportunities, travel more, read more and volunteer more. I don’t feel it’s wrong to compare myself to these people–not to shame myself or feel badly about my chosen lifestyle–but to be inspired toward living a more useful life.

Like during a recent dinner date with three of the loveliest friends I could ever ask for; I asked each woman what she was currently reading. I love books and believe a person’s choice of reading material to be insightful. (This is also a good conversation starter.)

One of the women talked about how she is trying to read the bible more. Not books about the bible. Not bible studies. Just plain old digging into God’s Word. Not alone at night before bed or during the early morning hours, but daily at times she would most likely be seen by her children. She spoke of wanting to leave, at the end of her life, a worn and dog-eared bible and memories for her children of regularly having seen their mother immersed in a biblical search for understanding, guidance and encouragement. What a legacy–better than any financial success, career accomplishment or dedication to any particular beauty or fitness routine.

I willingly and humbly compare myself to this woman. And I do not measure up. But I pray that one day I will.171587210

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What Kind of Friend Are You?

moms-and-babiesNot long ago, I wrote a post about being a big talker and how I desire to be a better friend and conversationalist by being a better listener and developing genuine interest in the lives of others. But because I’m still a pretty big talker, I have more to say on the subject. This time, it’s about being prepared for what you might hear when you show interest.

I learned this lesson, and something about myself, years ago when I attempted to connect with another mother I met at a mom’s group. We were laundry laden, puke stained housewives whose most connective commonality was a need for social interaction and some brief play-date distraction for our toddlers before naptime.

She invited me over. On the designated day, I packed the kiddos into the mini-van and schlepped my mom gear to her house, which was equally strewn with toys and layers of protective coffee table corner bumpers, cupboard locks and electrical outlet protectors. We set the urchins free to discover the cultural mores of sharing while we sipped coffee and chitchatted about how cute they were.

I imagined the rest of her life, much like her home, mirrored mine. But I inquired anyway in order to make conversation. Whoops!

She began by telling me her husband was between jobs; that their home was leased and they were facing the possibility of having to move in with parents if they continued to struggle to make the rent; that their financial distress was causing her husband to become despondent, and her to become fearful and frustrated. Wait. What?

I was shocked, completely unprepared to hear her tales of woe. Worse, I was attempting to befriend this woman in order to get my own needs for companionship met. I was not prepared, and honestly not much interested, in bearing anyone else’s burdens at that time. (I know the face you’re making while judging me. I’ve made it myself plenty of times.)

Anyway, the moment passed. I surely found some seemingly polite way to escape being a real friend and limit future conversations to superficial meanderings about potty training or thumb sucking.

My point is not to highlight what an insensitive baby wipe I can be; it’s to share what I’ve learned… that not all friendships are meant to be equal. That before entering into a relationship, we should honestly consider not only what our own needs are, but also attempt to evaluate what the needs of the other person may be, and then ask ourselves, “Am I equipped to be this person’s friend?”

The same is true in reverse. Before we begin detailing our struggles to anyone who read a blog post about being a better listener, we should ask ourselves, “Is this person capable of dealing with what I’m about to say?” By capable, I mean in a mentally healthy place, having demonstrated a bit of wisdom, isn’t currently overwhelmed by personal challenges and appear to actually give a fat frog’s fanny. Hint: if your friend frequently changes the subject or shuts down completely whenever a conversation delves into unpleasant territory, this is not a person prepared to hear your laments. And that’s okay.

I’ve come to believe friends tend to fall into a few categories and it’s helpful to thoughtfully identify what the purpose of each relationship truly is. Some people are our friends in the deepest sense, equal partners in a mutual to-and-fro of emotional support, laughter and companionship. Others are simply acquaintances that we should not burden with personal struggles, and still others are people we are mostly meant to hear, support and pray for without expecting them to meet any of our needs in return, because for whatever reason, they can’t.

Maybe if we give the real purpose of our presence in someone’s life more thought, we won’t be caught off guard and miss an opportunity to be the kind of friend we ought to be.

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Holding Your Breath in Denial by Jane Dibbern

Let me introduce you to today’s guest blogger–my friend, Jane Dibbern. Jane has been a mentor of mine for many years and I wrote about her in a blog post titled, Chicks I Dig. I love Jane’s ready laughter and willingness to dish about episodes of Downton Abbey or Mad Men. But more importantly, Jane is a teacher gifted with biblical wisdom; a strong-minded leader with a heart for women, parenting, strengthened relationships and a healed world. I thank her for sharing a bit of her wisdom here, in her own words…

photo by Angela Johnson

photo by Angela Johnson

Growing up, I lived in towns that sat beside the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers. When you live in a river town you spend a lot of time on bridges. Back then, bridge decks had metal grids. That meant you could see the river running below and your tires made this humming sound of danger as you drove across. Because of that, bridges made me a bit anxious. To combat the anxiety, I decided that as soon as the car hit the bridge, I would hold my breath. In my 5-year-old brain, I thought if I held my breath, I wouldn’t weigh anything and that would mean there would be less weight on the bridge and the chances the bridge would fall into the river would be lessened. Okay, I was an anxious kid, alright? Anyway, for many years I held my breath every time I crossed a bridge. Even today, when I drive across the Wakota Bridge over the Mississippi River, I wonder if I should hold my breath.

I think I held my breath because I wanted to deny feelings of fear. Denial gave me a sense of control. I was able to rationalize and then justify my breath-holding decisions. Denial is easy to slip into. We want to believe all is well and not acknowledge or face our problems. There is a great term for that. It’s called idealistic distortion, meaning we believe it is easier to hold our breath and hope that we’ll get to the other side. The only problem with breath-holding denial is that the bridge is still there, the river still runs underneath and holding my breath only leaves me breathless, not weightless.

So what things do I deny? Many things. My pride drives part of my denial. But if I pretend my marriage, my kids, my work, my house, and my family are all under control, then I am a fool who is almost out of breath. As a Christ follower, it’s not easy to admit the days and weeks that slip by without a single glance at God’s Word, or that sometimes I have negative, judgmental opinions about people. What if my friends knew that some days I get too busy to pray?

I believe the biggest driver of denial is fear. Therapy taught me to think differently about fear and to catch it before it makes me want to hold my breath (or deny its existence). I’ve had to learn to be brave and courageous and learn to ask for what I need from the people around me and from God.

photo by Angela Johnson

photo by Angela Johnson

From God’s Word (Bible), I’ve learned strength and trust from the Psalms, boldness and confidence from the writings of the Apostle Paul, and encouragement and forgiveness from Jesus; something I’ve also learned from family and friends.

“Therefore we will not fear, though the earth (or bridges?) give way, and mountains (bridges?) fall into the heart of the sea (the Mississippi?) though its waters roar and foam and mountains quake with their surging.” -Psalm 46:2-3 New International Version (and Jane)

Oh yeah, about those fears I had about rivers; listen to this~

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her (a bridge?), she will not fall ; God will help her (Jane) at break of day.” Psalm 46:4-5 New International Version (and Jane)

Okay, theologians, I know I may have stretched scripture a bit, but if those verses helped me breathe and face life without denial – I think God is probably okay with that.

Think about the denials in your life next time you cross a bridge. Don’t hold your breath—instead take a deep breath, say no to denial and trust the bridge.

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Genuine Friendship vs. Being a Big Talker

Photo credit: Sarah Dibbern

Photo credit: Sarah Dibbern

Twenty years ago my ears were opened to the possibility I wasn’t a good conversationalist. I wouldn’t have believed it had it been said straight up–as I’ve always been a talker, someone who can fill most any awkward pause with a random story, quip or observation. But I’ve learned something that maybe you’ve known all along; genuine conversation should consist of more than the sound of our own voice, whether it’s out loud or rambling inside our head while others are talking. Real conversation involves intentional listening, questioning and a genuine interest in the lives of others.

How did I discover I wasn’t doing it right? Welp, I was at work and had wandered into a colleague’s office to share a story. He seemed to welcome the interruption and smiled broadly at whatever I was saying. I carried on, holding court for several minutes until I finally said, “I’ve been talking so much and you haven’t said a word.” His frank response, believe it or not, was, “People like to talk about themselves; so I let them.”

Imagine the gobsmacked expression on my face. My temptation was to be insulted and defensive because I believe my banter to be entertaining and even informative. But the truth is, I want to be more than a verbal performer. I want to be a better conversationalist, colleague and friend.

Getting beyond small talk…

It may seem like a no-brainer, but for people like me, who’re apt to plunge into any conversational lull in an attempt to keep things moving–try not to monopolize a discussion. Whether you’re talking about family, fashion or current events, be sure to pause and ask about others’ thoughts on a topic or switch the focus completely to another person by inquiring about what’s going on in their life.

Ask questions and actually listen to what you’re being told. If people don’t open up right away, be patient. Some folks need a few seconds to build courage and those seconds of silence only seems painful to a talkative person. Plus, be sensitive to whether your opinion or response is invited or if your friend simply wants to talk about what’s on his or her mind. Shockingly, I’ve learned not everybody cares what I think about what they say. Sometimes people simply want to talk. And in my wise friend’s words, we should let them.

Questioning forces our active interest in others, and the deeper a relationship, the more important reciprocal interest should become. Sometimes I practice not volunteering information about my life unless I’ve been asked. This seems like a good way for me not to monopolize any given conversation. But I’ll warn you–by doing this, I’ve discovered that some people don’t ask. Maybe they’re so used to windbags like me freely offering up information that the need to question doesn’t occur to them, or maybe, {gasp} they don’t really care. I know that seems a harsh assessment, but it’s why I’m trying to be better about questioning and listening, because I do care. Well… not about everybody or everything. But I’m working on it.

Try not to interrupt even if you think you have something important to say. I never realized how bad I am about interrupting until I lived away from my hometown for several years. Then during a return visit, a bunch of relatives got together, and at the end of the evening, we attempted to play cards. Oh, how I remember the many members of my beloved family chiming in to give instructions on how to play the game, each louder than the last so as to be heard without actually waiting for anybody else to stop talking. I became overwhelmed by a layered cacophony of boisterous know-it-alls competing to be heard. Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. But it was in that moment I recognized a learned behavior I must work to reign in. Well, unless I have something really important to say, which of course I often do. I suppose discerning the importance of our words is probably best left for another post.

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It’s Elementary: Thoughts on education…

photoIt’s official. Summer is over. The kiddos are back in school and I’m back to espousing my mental musings here and there. This week, education is at the forefront of my mind. I’ve attended open houses, met teachers and reviewed curriculum pertaining to my children’s education. I’ve also read some interesting articles about the future of higher education, and I’m beginning to prepare a presentation about how certain elements of education have impacted me. I suppose, growing up in an urban environment with a single working mother who didn’t have the time or inclination to hover over my homework is why I’ve been asked to reflect on such things. Some thoughts about what’s as important as the 3 R’s…

Instill Confidence over Cynicism:

I was never taught that my gender, economic situation or rather smallish stature would impede my success. I was never told the deck was stacked against me even though at times it may well have been. That naiveté was most likely a blessing in my younger years. I’ve been the only female in some classrooms and conference rooms only to reflect on the curiosity of that fact afterward. I don’t come from money and didn’t attend an exclusive university. But since I wasn’t taught to lament inequality, I’ve rarely felt intimidated or unable to compete. In fact, my confidence has often been a few steps ahead of my ability–which is not all bad since faith inspires action.

Provide Access to Information:

My mother and grandfather, the most influential people in my life, were readers. They modeled curiosity about the world and often read for pleasure. Both accumulated stacks of books on varied and interesting topics. Also, a public library was within walking distance of my childhood home. Access to information is a vital education component. Today, access for young people should include digital as well as print material. And parents, let your children see you reading a book, newspaper or essay on your phone, instead of only utilizing technology to check Facebook or email.

Seal the Cracks:

My high school counselor was paying attention. When I hadn’t applied to any colleges by senior year, she called me into her office and practically insisted I do so. I applied to only one school, was accepted and became the first in my family to obtain a bachelor’s degree. (Well, technically, the second if you count an uncle on my father’s side, but you catch my drift.)

Now, I’d always been a good student and enjoyed learning but college was not discussed or even on the radar screen for most kids in my community. So that one visit to a high school counselor’s office most likely impacted the trajectory of my life more than anything else in my high school career. She couldn’t possibly know that, and I don’t remember her name to thank her. So instead, I’ll encourage any educator reading this post–what you do, sealing even the smallest of cracks that a kid could fall through, makes a difference!

Be Patient and Teach Patience:

In this era of instant gratification, reinforcing a long-term view can help young people overcome most short-term setbacks. But patience and humility are intertwined, and humility has only begun to develop later in my life. A healthy dose of humility may have helped me be a better learner, less concerned about appearing to have all the answers, softened the edges of overconfidence. That said, humility also might have helped me ruffle fewer feathers along the way. Something I’m still learning…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Seeking Shelter in a Storm

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Life is difficult. This is what I often tell my children. That life isn’t all about things coming easily but that it often can be about rising to challenges, overcoming obstacles and mustering courage until things get better. What I forget to tell them is that we aren’t meant to suck it up and power through life’s challenges all on our own. That we should be cultivating friendships that provide more than just a gang to go to the movies or lunch with, but relationships that become a framework of stability made up of people whose ears listen, whose arms embrace and whose hearts desire only the best for us.

The news of Robin Williams’ suicide shines a light into the shadows of depression. It’s not that his passing is any more tragic than any other loss of human life, created in God’s image and deserving of love. But the shock of it, the reality that no amount of money, fame or success can insulate a person from the prowling lion of despair, demands a shift in thinking. How do we defend against hopelessness?

I once heard it said that depression can be like missing layers of protection necessary to guard the windows of your heart, mind and soul. So when the winds of calamity blow in, carrying heartache from around the globe via network news, or spin up like spontaneous tornados in our own personal lives, it’s impossible to draw the blinds, slam the sash or secure the shutters. It all just pours in unfiltered, overwhelming our coping mechanisms and churning up emotion void of perspective. I can only imagine that a similar unfiltered awareness of the world is also part of what makes an artist able to portray great depths of reality or an addict more prone to seeking shelter in the numbness of self-medication.

And when the storms come, to the depressive and non-depressive alike, why do we feel the need to hunker down alone? Do we really believe nobody else understands? Or cares? Are we embarrassed by our suffering or our seeming inability to improve our own condition? It’s probably this and more; cultural heritage, family history, fear of difficult or unwanted advice. Silent suffering is why we never seem to know when friends are getting divorced until the papers are filed or when someone has lost their job until the house goes into foreclosure. Lips remain sealed and those who are supposed to be our friends languish alone in a crowd.

I am blessed to have fairly well functioning “window coverings”, and yet I’m not immune to episodic bouts of gloom. Sometimes it’s hormonal or seasonal and I know from experience it will pass. But other times, a life event, like a storm brewing on the horizon with angry black clouds, can threaten the integrity of my otherwise good mental health. And when that happens, I am tempted not to tell. If it’s a recurring struggle, I don’t want to rehash an overplayed complaint. If it’s an embarrassing situation, I’m tempted to resist any exposure at all. And if my story would be a buzz-kill at a dinner party, I may simply lift my glass among the revelers, smile, remain silent and sip until I feel less…

But, No! I will not let the lying lips of despondency convince me to close off from those who love me. I will not avoid opportunities to talk about what’s bothering me. I will not refuse to at least consider well-intentioned advice or encouragement. I will affix blessings on my doorpost and I will not be deprived of the power of prayers offered up by the God-fearing people in my life.

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

I will be honest. I will admit when I’m afraid or sad or in pain. And I will remind my children, my husband, and my friends that I love them and that although we are to have courage, we do not stand alone.

 

 

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Travel Tips from Our Family Vacation in Washington D.C. & NYC

We live on the tundra. This means I prefer to vacation someplace warm in winter and sit around sipping beers and reading books on my front porch during summer. We typically head to SoCal sometime between January and March because we have family in that area. But as our ducklings get closer to leaving the hubs and me to waddle around the yard alone, we’ve decided to be a bit more adventurous and take a few family vacations to previously unexplored destinations.

We made a list of locales we’d like to visit and began to plan. First on the list was Mount Rushmore since it’s not far from home. But when the oldest went on a church mission trip to the area, South Dakota was demoted from priority status. Next was Washington D.C. because the middle school sponsors a student trip there. I convinced our sons, (decided for them) that it would be more fun to go with family. Plus, I’d never been there and was excited to see our nation’s capital for myself. So for the first time, we ventured east for a summer vacation. Here is some of what we learned along the way…

TRANSPORTATION

We flew and decided not to rent a car when we arrived. (We also packed light, each with only a backpack or small carryon suitcase.) I was told the Metro rail system around D.C. is easy and efficient. This proved to be true. Once we deciphered the fare machine and route maps, we became pros at navigating the city by subway. This may have been one of our kids’ favorite vacation activities.

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Re-loadable fare cards also work for the bus system and twice we used a combination of train and bus service to visit more distant attractions: the Washington National Cathedral and Mount Vernon. But, the subway isn’t necessarily quicker than taking a taxi­–and for four passengers, riding the metro isn’t a lot cheaper either. So, if you’re in a hurry, are traveling in a group and don’t have far to go, a cab isn’t the worst decision. If you plan to drive, the traffic didn’t look horrible but I have no idea how much it costs to park.

Halfway through our trip, we boarded an Amtrak train to New York City. Friends had tied these two destinations into one vacation and it seemed like a good idea. Amtrak is much different than air travel: no security line and no assigned seats. I’d pre-purchased tickets online. From there, you just show up, wait for your track to be announced and rush the platform to ensure getting seats together. Not particularly scenic. Not luxurious. But easy enough.

ATTRACTIONS

We spent a total of eight days in D.C. and three days in NYC. This seemed adequate for seeing most of what we wanted to see. I did minimal pre-planning. Outside of the Amtrak tickets, the only pre-purchased tickets were for a visit to the Statue of Liberty, which was totally worth it. Getting to the ferry was a short cab ride from midtown. Security was tight but tourists were moved along efficiently and quickly.

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While in NYC, we also visited the 9/11 Memorial and museum. I’d been advised to purchase advance tickets but didn’t. No problem. We were able to walk right up and get tickets for the same day.

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Other NYC vacation highlights included a full day exploring Central Park (probably the kids’ favorite place with its large outcroppings of stones for climbing adventures), and a double-deck bus tour around Manhattan (this type of excursion was better in Chicago where the quality of our tour guide was superior). There is surely more to see and overall, everyone agreed we’d like to return to NYC sometime.

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In Washington D.C., we visited most every monument and museum as well as Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Vernon. We did not coordinate tours for the White House or the Capital building, which require advance planning. But we saw SO much, I don’t feel as if we missed out on anything. Some of our D.C. highlights were:

Going inside the Washington Monument. (The hubs got in line at 7:30 a.m. for free same day tickets.)

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Strolling around the National Mall monuments at night.

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Resting my weary body after walking MILES each day.

FOOD

I’m not a trinket buyer so most of our pocket money went toward food. And I must say, I was disappointed by the lack of decent restaurant fare in D.C. Again, maybe my lack of proper pre-planning and research are to blame. But a simple Google search should have turned up something filling, healthy, moderately priced and within walking distance from the National Mall. But alas, our days were filled with fast food, cafeterias and bags of Combos. The museums have a great racket going with free admission, IKEA-style exhibit paths that make it virtually impossible to exit until you’re exhausted and famished, and then–a cafeteria filled with tourists and $40 family lunches not including beverages as we carried our own water.

Dining was easier in NYC with its wide variety of dine-in and take-out restaurants and delis. Many also had lovely patio seating.

We treated the kiddos to a meal in New York’s Little Italy one night for funzies. This was by far the most expensive dinner of our trip. But it was relaxing. The food was fresh and tasty. And of course, mama slowly sipped a wonderful glass of wine. (Most nights, I sipped my evening allotment of resveratrol back in the hotel room, poured from a bottle I picked up for $10 at a nearby drugstore. Don’t judge.)

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ACCOMODATIONS

We have been saving Marriott reward points for years thinking we’d use them to take the family to Europe someday. But that day may never come and if travel companies decide to change the rules before vacationers like us get the chance to use those precious points, we’re screwed. So we decided to start using points now. This meant ‘free’ hotel stays but limited us to three Marriott properties based on availability: the Marriott Courtyard and Marriott Gateway in Arlington, VA and the Marriott Marquee in Times Square.

Arlington is a bit farther than I would have preferred for daily treks into D.C., but it was easily managed via Metro rail. I was really excited about staying on Times Square in NYC and the hotel is very nice. But, a room with a view costs extra and the tourists packed onto the street just outside the hotel made Times Square one of my least favorite places to wade through daily. I only needed to see it once.

Overall, the biggest surprise of the trip was being less overwhelmed than I anticipated. “Would a big city make us anxious?” Nah. Both cities seem pretty much the same as anyplace else, only bigger. Oh, and D.C. smells better than NYC. Gah! (More photos on Instagram @wordsbyangela)

Next on our list, Yosemite National Park!

If you have questions or additional travel tips for readers of this post, please add them to the comments section.

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