I’m Not Dead! and Other Small Victories in Managing Mental Illness

here comes the sun

Hey, guys and dolls. I’ve been gone a while. I’m sorry. It’s been rough in patches, but I’m ready to talk about it. I think it’ll help me to do so, and maybe it’ll help somebody else.

Many of you know that writing regular blogs is not my strong suit. I cringe every time my news feed refreshes and I see that people with far busier schedules and far more demanding routines than mine are cultivating a thriving blog and stirring the social media pot with a deft hand. @#$%, I think. I can’t even remember to eat lunch every day.

Don’t worry, I’m not anti-lunch. It’s just part of how my depression and anxiety manifest themselves. Other parts of it include exhaustion or being quick to fatigue, sleeplessness, hypersensitivity and propensity to sadness, fear, or dread, and over-personalizing/taking on responsibility for problems that are beyond my reach and control. Because the depression and anxiety are clinical, it is an ongoing physical and emotional reality. But it ebbs and flows, and in an environment where anyone would be anxious, afraid or depressed, it gets turned up to eleven.

The long and short of it is that I don’t blog when I’m in a depressive low, or when I have been having a lot of panic attacks, and both of those things have been happening on what feels like a continuous loop for the past several months. Here’s part of the reason why.

When the hours at my previous  job started to decline near the beginning of this year, I began searching for something else. But being faced with  ongoing rejection and uncertainty, coupled with the stubborn reality that the hours I did have were not enough to fulfill or sustain me, the job-hunting-while-working was really taking a toll on my physical and mental well-being.

For reasons that are unclear to me, my mental health issues manifest themselves strongest after dark. So, night after night I would feel like the walls were closing in on me. I would get short of breath. I would be nauseated and curl up into the fetal position, weeping and hyperventilating and asking the Virgin Mary to comfort me. I would rage at myself, filled with hateful thoughts about how weak I was, how I was a fraud: I was not the strong, confident, happy self-advocate that so many of my friends and family were proud of. Everything seemed impossible as I lay there in the dark. I would think of job descriptions my friends and coworkers sent me, and I would feel my stomach drop and then say to myself, “I can’t do that job. I’ve forgotten what I’ve learned. The stress would be too much,” and on and on.

So, when I was finally offered something new, at a time when we were really struggling financially- I accepted, thinking I could adapt and thrive in the new environment. What I got instead was a constant spike in anxiety and panic attacks that was so debilitating I couldn’t eat or sleep, and would have to take frequent breaks from my work to avoid coming apart emotionally. So I had gone from having a job, to being under-employed, to resigning to accept a job, to quitting a job, in a relatively short time. Ever since then, it has been a constant- and I do mean constant- battle to remind myself that there is something better out there. I have been rebuilding my confidence, and taking care to measure progress in whatever metric I can.

You’re probably wondering when I’m gonna get to the progress part, because, let’s face it, I am kind of bumming you out and stuff. Don’t worry. Here it comes.

If you have never done so, please read Hyperbole and a Half (at hyperboleandahalf.com). Always hilarious, she does an amazing series of webcomics on what her depression is like and how she copes with it.

First, I had to take responsibility for where I was and who I was. I had to acknowledge that- while I can’t cure my mental illness, and while not every negative thing in the universe is my doing or my responsibility, there are things about my life that I can change, and things about my mental illness that I exacerbate when I don’t take action. There are things that I do and say- and that I neglect to do and say- when I am wallowing in my depression and anxiety, that I can easily change by acknowledging that these out of control emotions aren’t who I am, and that they don’t define me. Yes, they help explain things about me. No, they are not the sum total of all things about me.

Another major step in the right direction was the decision to go back to counseling. I have always been a big believer in getting help when you need it. I just seem to forget I need it every now and then. I was doing “okay” for quite a while there. But when it got to the point where my life was being halted and my relationships affected, I had to do something. I am still early on in my relationship with this therapist, but she has an expectation of change and growth, so I am holding myself to that standard, and have been thankful for the results so far.

I had to get spiritual direction. Therapy is great. But when religion, faith and spirituality are a part of your worldview, a qualified spiritual guide such as a priest, rabbi, etc. can give teachings and coping strategies that can bring a whole new level of peace and clarity, and my conversation with my priest was no exception.

He helped me to understand that  I had to make priorities and set boundaries regarding what I exposed myself to mentally/emotionally, and what parts of my thoughts and emotions I exposed. This meant stepping back when I really wanted to bare all on an issue or event on this site or via social media. I plan to go into greater detail on this in a future post, but the crux was that the things we feel strongly about are often things that make us feel vulnerable to share, and doing so on a public forum rarely if ever guarantees a kind response.

So all that work means I’ve been away for a while. And the fact that the work is constant, and the foe unpredictable,  means I have no idea how things will be a month or two or three or six from now, but I’m still here. And so are you. You’re worth fighting for, and I’m in your corner.

Til next time. Which will hopefully be soon.

Edit: The steps discussed are intended to provide ideas and strategies only. They are not meant to replace or usurp any treatment that has been recommended by your doctor, psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist. Please keep all helping professionals in the loop of any changes to your routine.

Also, it is possible that they may be helpful guidelines for people who are experiencing short-term sadness, stress or melancholy, and I hope that’s true. Sharing my experiences is not meant to serve as any kind of diagnosis or comprehensive list of symptoms. Mental illness, stress, depression and anxiety are different for everyone, though there is some common ground. If your systems or struggles are consistent, chronic, and long term [beyond a difficult or stressful circumstance], please seek the opinion of a qualified professional to figure out what’s best for you.

**

P.S. For those reading this post who face mental illness, I encourage you to read/bookmark a Self-Care Checklist such as the one linked here [if you want a more language-neutral one, there are plenty out there, but this one is simple and straightforward]. It might also help to show it to a friend who can hold you accountable and make sure you’re okay.

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Open for Service: an Opinion

If you are interested in one of these stickers for your business, go to openforservice.org

If you are interested in one of these stickers for your business, go to openforservice.org

I have tried writing many blog posts about this, but they have become too convoluted with legalese and political nuances. So I am going to start fresh.

It is my opinion that a refusal to serve someone on Christian principle is an oxymoron, and that it is not the most fruitful way to bear witness to the Faith. While Jesus certainly has standards that He expects people who choose to follow Him to observe, His service and love for others (from breaking bread to feed them, to healing their sons and daughters, to giving His life for them on the Cross) was never conditional on their belief.

In fact, it is likely that many of the people He fed, served, and healed were later in the crowds of onlookers screaming “Crucify Him!” Remember the 10 lepers? He healed all of them, even though He knew only one would return to thank Him. He did not withhold service or love, and did not expect His followers to do so, either.

The wedding cake scenario is being used as an example where the business owners believe that to provide a good or service is to participate or in some way sanction a marriage that is different from their own belief in what marriage is. While that decision is between them and their spiritual guide, my opinion is once again different. I would consider it a business transaction and nothing more. If sharing my understanding of marriage was a prerequisite for allowing people to buy and eat my cake, I might as well stick to putting up flyers in the fellowship hall, because the only people who share my understanding of marriage are other Orthodox Christians. But if I decided to serve the public, it would be just that, a decision to serve, without condition.

Many of the friends, family and loved ones who attended our wedding were not Christians. Some attended with their partners of the same sex.  And while I always rejoice when a friend shows interest in Orthodoxy, I fully recognize, respect and understand that their attendance of my wedding, giving of gifts, and participation in my wedding party were not statements of agreement with my theology or my understanding of marriage. They were there because of their respect, love, and friendship toward me. I am deeply grateful for this, and it carries a lot of weight in my discussions about these topics and issues.

I don’t own a business, of course. I know that decisions have a context, and actions have motives, and it’s exactly zero% my perogative to judge or condemn anyone. And I recognize that business owners are going to continue to make decisions without my input, as they have always done.

My view is admittedly simplistic, but it is essentially that businesses are civil entities. They are a part of a community, and access of all members of a community to the goods and services of a business is a civil right that should not be dependent on religious belief, sexual orientation, disability, racial/ethnic identity, and so on. (I have similar views on the right of everyone to obtain a legal, civl marriage.) For a business to claim they serve the public, but to exclude some parts of the public is discriminatory by nature. And while businesses can choose their customers, and discrimination may not be their intention, I believe that the refusal-to-serve approach will end up giving the businesses a negative reputation and doing more harm than good to their bottom line.

I think that any law that allows businesses to refuse service should also have provisions that guard against discrimination, and that  allow patrons who feel they have been discriminated against to take appropriate legal action (many RFRAs have this language, and some who do not- such as Indiana and Arkansas- are in the process of getting theirs changed).

What a business does is their business (just as the decision whether or not to support a business based on their practices is a choice I can and do make). But this debate has a lot of important questions driving it, including: what makes a business a Christian one? I would venture (perhaps with some repercussions) to suggest it is their service, and whether or not that service is provided with grace, kindness, and respect.

Every business and every owner will approach these situations differently. But in my own life? I believe I do not have the right to refuse service to anyone, but an obligation to serve, love, pray for and respect everyone.  The rest is up to God, and my neighbor. And in this I have peace.

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You Can Do This

“Be nice to yourself” is something I say all the time, both to myself on a never-ending loop, and to others. And every time I say it, I have a simultaneous cringe-and-agree-wholeheartedly response. I totally get that it sounds very self-helpy. I used to be very uncomfortable with the whole idea of self-help [they call it self-improvement now, because a lot of people hate the term self-help, and apparently those same people are also extremely gullible]. But then I realized that part of the human existence is needing help, needing improvement, and wanting to get better. And while I am a big-time advocate of getting professional and/or peer support (because the human experience is communal), I also think that leaving ourselves out of the process is not a realistic way to go about making a positive change.

One thing I have chosen to work on within self-care or self-kindness is changing the way I talk to myself. Whether internally judging our rogue eyebrow hairs while brushing our teeth, or screaming, “I’m so stupid!” when we forget something, we talk to ourselves all the time. The things we say have different sources. Here are a few I have noticed when thinking about the things I say and think (especially when forming and giving opinions about myself):

-Social norms [i.e. the daily emails spamming my inbox about how to get a flatter belly, the Facebook sidebar ads telling me about the next big company to work for, the next degree to get, the next magic bullet to buy]
-Negative past experiences with others [for some reason it is a lot easier for me to remember the negative experiences than the positive ones!]
-Comparing myself to others in terms of “what they’ve got that I haven’t got”

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Does positive self-talk work?

Yes. While scientists are not certain exactly how it works, they are sure it is effective in every area where it is practiced. Some experts think it’s because you are actually changing interactions in your brain [re-wiring it, relearning what is true about yourself], while others think it’s based on something simpler: the more often we hear something, and the more confidence with which that something is said, the more likely we are to believe it over time [Cable news, anyone?!]. Either way, it works.

Not only is audibly saying positive things to yourself really beneficial, there is a best practice for doing so. Another study about affirmation found that the best way to get positive messages to stick is to use second or third-person when making the affirmations themselves. In other words, when looking in the mirror in the morning, or preparing for the big test or meeting, it works better to say “you can do this!” than it does to say “I can do this!” The same study offered a few examples of public figures or celebrities using this tactic before making a big speech or announcing a major change in their careers.

What I like the most about this strategy is not only that it works, but that it is one of the easiest to practice and maintain. I don’t have to start out believing that I can do something in order to say I can, and doing so takes a couple of seconds. I still have a long way to go, but I can honestly say that pushing through and discarding the negative and almost exclusively false messages about myself to practice courage and positivity is off to a great start for me.

goodenough

I say practice because it’s not easy, I can’t do it perfectly, and it doesn’t come naturally, but the more it’s done, the more I will be able to see the benefits.

But why does it work better to use second or third person, even though it sounds more than a little weird? The reason is believed to be that doing so creates distance. By saying “you can do this” instead of “I can”, we are mimicking the way we would address another person who is struggling. The results of the research seem to back up what a lot of us know to be true: we are much more often a lot kinder to others than to ourselves.

This may be the only case where pretending to be someone you’re not actually has concrete psychological and emotional benefits.

So, if you battle with being unkind to yourself, there is a way to start making it happen. You can do this.

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A Letter to Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls

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Dear Amy and the Smart Girls:

I just visited your website where I read- with the same disappointment one might read the phrase “Sorry, we’re all out of pizza”- that Smart Girls has no contributor/intern/job openings at this time, but to check back later. I can assure you I will check back later, but in the meantime, I hope you will take a few minutes to read this letter due to your general awesomeness, your interest in story-sharing, and my bone-deep conviction that I am your long-awaited best friend. I have been trying to be more courageous lately, and this is borderline crazy, so I thought I’d go for it and see what happens.

I am a 29 year old woman (or Girl, to stick with the vernacular) from Nashville, TN. I have grown up here, and- apart from an internship for the Federal Government in DC and about 15 months of graduate school in Athens, GA- I have lived here all my life. Doing the best I could in school was a good decision; I was able to go to both undergrad and graduate school with several scholarships in tow, and to receive honors over the course of my education. Because I have always loved learning and put a great deal of pressure on myself to succeed, I started college at 17, finished my bachelor’s shortly before 21, and completed my Master’s within a few days of turning 23. [I realize that not enough people get an opportunity for an education, so I am profoundly grateful to have had it]. It is uncomfortable for me to write this part of the letter, because I was raised to be modest, which I kinda took to an extreme by never talking any of about my accomplishments with my friends. I am also leaving some stuff out because I am terrified that someone reading this will think I’m- gasp!- kinda braggy, or even worse: that I’m no fun at parties. Anyway, bear with me, I promise that not only do I have a point, it’s on it’s way. Also, I’m super fun at parties. Ask anyone.

My bachelor’s in Sociology [“Oh, wow. This world is kinda messed up for all these reasons that seem to be cemented in the social and economic fabric, and here are a bunch of depressing books and papers about just how bad it is.”] paved the way for my Master’s in Nonprofit Organizations [“Maybe it’s more like peanut butter than cement: it’s sticky and messy and gross when it gets on you, but malleable. We can change it, we will change it, as soon as we get enough grant money.”], and I have been working in the nonprofit field as a volunteer, intern board member or staff member, for about 10 years now.

But a traditional education and list of 9 to 5 jobs do not necessarily a Smart Girl make. We have all met plenty of people who have the appearances of success that are really just Mean Girls [“One time, she punched me in the face. It was awesome.”]. And of course there are plenty of Smart Girls who are so because they have found joy, success, and contentment and human connection by their own unique and innovative means. There is so much room in this world for Smart Girls, and so many Smart Girls looking for voices. I know this not just because I have met those girls, but because I am one.

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I was born with Cerebral Palsy, a disability with onset at birth that affects everyone who has it in ways unique to them. Most commonly, mobility, motor skills and speech are affected first, with other secondary effects. However, just like with any other experience of disability, the challenges faced when living out that experience are not merely physical. Beyond my own story, I know that many people experience intellectual disability, and many have a disability that is not visible but still plays a great part in the challenges they face [such as Autism Spectrum Disorders or Traumatic Brain Injuries, among many]. And while a life with a disability is certainly just as full of joy, blessing, talent and strength as anyone else’s, there are also many other factors at play that too often silence the voices of so many Smart People out there. People with disabilities face far more hurdles to employment, education, and acceptance in community life than their typically developing peers. People with disabilities are almost entirely absent from popular culture and media, with the few exceptions still placing all the focus on their “otherness”. And the rate of depression, anxiety, and similar emotional challenges amongst people with disabilities is extremely high.

Here I’ve spent a decade working for people with disabilities, with many of my peers working twice as long as I have, and it is still remarkable to people that I have an education, a job and a partner. While I am not in any way downplaying the very real work myself and so many people I know have done to reach such milestones, I dream for a world where stories like mine are no longer the exception, but the rule. And I am at a point in my life where I am realizing that sometimes in order to do big work, you have to think big. You have to try something new; you have to leap and see where you might land.

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Why Smart Girls, you ask? Why not one of those spiffy nonprofits I alluded to like a hundred paragraphs ago? Well, because the Smart Girls are all about acceptance, celebration, and inclusion. They’re all about having a voice that gets heard, not by shaming and negativity, but by affirming, by celebrating and building connections. Yes, nonprofits serving people with disabilities crusade for all these things, but the whole point of doing so is for our story to be heard, and not just by people who already know it. To make lasting change, I have to tell the story of disability experience in a way that causes someone to snap out of their comfort and familiarity zones and realize, “This is not just a cute, inspirational article. This is my story. These are my neighbors and friends. This is my family member or partner.”

Working in the disability services field the power of connection is apparent. We work hard to cultivate a spirit of empathy, and an attitude of saying “you can do anything you set your mind to, and I’m here if you need any help or support in making it happen”. I was very fortunate to have a community, a support system, a means of finding my voice. But in this age of information overload and lack of true connection, I have often wondered: are there other people out there needing that community, that sense of voice? I believe the answer is yes, and I believe that need will always be present. I also believe that Smart Girls can be one of those voices

Recently, I re-entered the job market. My husband suggested I contact you guys (because he’s smart, too), and I considered that suggestion a huge vote of confidence. Of course I realize sending this letter provides no guarantees of a response, or of any action on your part. I am just reaching out in hopes that perhaps somewhere in my story, you will see an opportunity, or that when one arises, you will remember this letter. If you want to think of ways to make your curriculum more accessible to people with disabilities, if you need help finding great stories of people with disabilities to tell, if you ever want to make sure that eliminating ableism is a clear part of your values, or if you just want to eat some nachos, you know where to find me.

Thank you for all you do, you beautiful unicorns of the sea.
Beth H. Thielman

Aspiring Smart Girl

Nashville, TN

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Fear & Shaming in Nashvegas

Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Hello. I’m Beth.  And I am afraid.

I am afraid I am not really a writer because a real writer wouldn’t be afraid to write, or wouldn’t wonder whether or not she was a writer.
I am afraid that other people don’t think I am a writer, either, because anyone can blog.
I am afraid I am not a writer because writers are artists, and sharing your opinions, struggles, or personal stories is not art.
I am afraid of my own opinions about social and cultural issues: that they are too too lax or too controversial for my religious friends, too intolerant for my friends who are not religious or who are not a part of my religion, incorrect, inaccurate, biased, or in some other way wrong.
I am afraid when my opinions are popular, because that makes me a conformist, a sheep, godless, or one of those weirdo Christians (depending on the day, and the issue or topic being explored).
I am afraid when they are unpopular because they might be off-base, informed by some unknown bias, or outright wrong.
I am afraid to have conversations or to post writing about these opinions on social media because I am afraid of being judged, criticized, or proven wrong in a way that makes me feel small.
I am afraid to send my posts to Huffington Post anymore, because one piece that took me months to write drew pages of criticism and trolling.
I am afraid to post to my own blog anymore, because who calls themselves a blogger that never blogs, or: who the heck wants to read a blog about someone who just talks about how afraid she is of literally everything?
I am not a good enough writer because I am not a strong-stable-or-together enough woman, an independent-enough advocate, or a smart-enough blogger.

***
I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.- Nelson Mandela 

“There is no fear in love. Perfect love casts out fear.”- 1 John 4:12

I realized recently- after a series of debilitating panic attacks and depressive episodes- that so much of what I did (or don’t do) was driven by fear and its close cousin, shame. This realization wasn’t due to some philosophical epiphany or accrual of great wisdom, but because whenever John or another loved one asked me what was wrong, my answer would invariably start with either “I’m scared [or worried] that. . .” or with a litany of things I disliked or even hated about myself.

Then I started connecting the dots. I hadn’t produced anything creative in months upon months, in spite of yearning to write to you all to share my stories about my totally rad new marriage, my struggles with the unpredictability of nonprofit sector employment, or my resolution to read more books (which I am actually keeping, because I barely read any books last year: score!).  I had stopped stirring the pot in conversations and on social media, and was posting way less satire or evocative writing from others I admire. People were asking me questions like “How are you doing. . . really?” and making their best concerned faces.

“Fine,” I would say. But I was really just a time bomb composed almost entirely of frustration, tears and calling myself names that I would never call someone else.

In my rush to keep my negative emotions and struggles with shame, fear, and self-loathing a secret (so I wouldn’t burden anyone, or be perceived as a weak, weepy, weirdo, etc.), I kept the joys and triumphs a secret, too. I numbed and closed off all my emotions (because you can’t pick and choose what you numb), and kept connection and intimacy at bay across the board.

I finally got to the point where I was afraid of how ashamed I was, and ashamed of how afraid I was. “That’s enough. This has got to stop.” I actually said those words aloud, and that was when the clouds began lifting.

In addition to leaning in to the rigor of the Lenten services and prayers, I began reading and discussing (amongst a few loved ones) Daring Greatly by Dr. Brené Brown.

[Note: although my theology shares a lot of common ground with the principles in the book, it is research-based and practical in nature: I would highly recommend it for your personal enrichment, Lenten or otherwise.]

I admit, I was embarrassed to buy a book from the self-improvement section, but to say my self didn’t need any improvement would mean I should also be buying books about lying.

Anyway, Dr. Brown gets into the nitty-gritty of shame and vulnerability and how they cripple creativity, relationships, and self-worth. She unpacks over a decade of research, and suddenly I found myself saying “I am scared of everything, and that is a problematic situation in several ways. It’s science!” That was when I really started to grasp that fear and shame were not only holding me back from being creative, but were suffocating and hiding entire parts of myself and my struggle through the joys and the difficulties of life. I was fed up with who I had become, and the fact that I neither knew nor recognized her.

So I decided to take baby steps by posting a detailed account of this battle for you and God and everyone else to read about and weigh in on via the Internet.

This doesn’t mean I can say I will blog every week or every month, or that those fears I listed up at the top have stopped, or will stop anytime soon. I haven’t figured it out, I haven’t vanquished any foes. I have just realized that all of these things, even if they are huge and scary, can be pushed through, can be voiced, and their power over me can be diminished.

I don’t want to deprive anyone of my creativity or my individuality, or of my regular ole weird self, because I would rather look back and say, hey, my writing was worth it to me. Or, hey, at least I pushed through it. Being brave doesn’t mean that you’re not scared of the monsters under the bed, it means you call them out and fight back. This is a vulnerable process and we have to do it in some way every day. But I’m starting to see just how “worth it” the fight is.

What we give to the world out of our uniqueness is our art, whether it is a painting, a blog, an academic paper, a good meal, or an honest connection to another person. Whatever you do to be your true self is worth it, even though doing it is scary. You are not alone. Success is not having no battles to fight, it’s fighting and and strengthening and pushing through that makes us better in the long run.

There’s no way I could end this post saying “That’s it, I’m done with fear.” But I am done with being ruled by fear (and shame). I’m done with making excuses, with disconnection. I want to be myself, and for people I encounter through my writing or in my life to actually know who that is.

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You Just Got Served: the Good Samaritan Edition

As I was ruminating on current events, and the discourse surrounding them, I kept coming back to the famous parable from the Gospel of Luke:

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 

He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?”  

So he answered and said, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘[love] your neighbor as yourself.’ And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” 

But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed,  he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ 

So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”

And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, NKJV)

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The term “Good Samaritan” has become synonymous with helping people in need or distress, with the moniker especially applied to those who do so without expecting anything in return (i.e. giving to charity, helping someone stranded on the roadside). Of course, these are good things to do and to continue doing. But the actions of the Good Samaritan can teach us a lot more once we think about how he overturns some of our most entrenched attitudes. Here are a few of the most toxic ways of thinking about people and situations that the Good Samaritan reverses with his acts of love:

Us vs. Them

Samaritans and Jews did not get along, and that’s putting it nicely. They despised each other (a very brief explanation of why can be found here). Jews would travel far out of their way on journeys to avoid passing through Samaria. They feuded bitterly with each other over their ethnic, cultural, and religious differences. So for a Samaritan to not only be characterized as a good man, but to help someone who was presumably a Jew (while a Jewish Priest and a Levite passed by), would have been a stark example of love, compassion, and empathy.

Our society, and sometimes our own choices and attitudes, often perpetuate an Us vs. Them mentality. What creates this otherness? Perhaps it’s because we lose our sense of  community.  Consider the religious law expert asking Jesus “Who is my neighbor”. This falls into the category of “You can’t make this stuff up”. A religious law expert was seriously questioning Jesus to find a loophole in the “love your neighbor” commandment?! News flash, dude. If you have to ask that, you either don’t know who your neighbor is, or you don’t want to know.

Of course, he got served when Jesus pointed out through the Parable that everyone we meet is our neighbor, and that to be a neighbor is to have mercy on everyone we meet. There is no us, there is no them, there is only our responsibility to each person, to all of our neighbors in this human community. It got me thinking: have I ever tried to find reasons not to love my neighbor? Because, surprise! None of them are valid!

Not My Problem

Often times–because the Us vs. Them mentality takes hold, it is easy to detach ourselves from the troubles of others, or of the world at large: that’s not my problem [because it affects “them”]. Whether “them” is a social group we don’t identify with, or just someone other than ourselves and our inner circle, it takes work- a series of intentional decisions and actions– to go from detachment, to compassion, to action– which is exactly what made the Good Samaritan so “good”.

He had absolutely no reason to stop and help. In fact, he had every reason to keep on going. He didn’t know the guy, and it was someone who he was completely different from (in ethnicity, religion, culture). Not to mention it was a graphic scene, it would cost him money, and it would require him going out of his way. Why should he invest time, energy and feelings in this guy? Clearly he was in a bad way– what if he deserved it? Wouldn’t it be better for someone else to handle this?

Served again. Along with “his neighbor”, the Samaritan had a broad definition of what counted as “his problem”: it seemed to be any problem he noticed affecting not just himself, but his neighbor [essentially anyone who crossed his path].

I can’t help.

Even if we recognize that all mankind is our neighbor, and their hurts and needs are our problems, it is easy to feel like we can’t help. The problems we observe might affect many of our neighbors, or one neighbor may have many problems we don’t feel equipped to solve. Here the Samaritan offers more wisdom: you can help. Just use what you have, do what you can, and reach out to others when needed. Sometimes we can’t solve an entire problem for our neighbor, but there are always ways we can help. It may be as simple as listening, saying a prayer, or affirming and validating someone. In any of those cases, a little bit goes a long way toward healing.

I can’t relate.

So, if our neighbor is supposed to include everyone, there are going to be times we don’t agree with our neighbor, or have so little in common with our neighbor that it feels like we can’t relate to them on any level. How can we help, how can we heal, if we don’t see something of ourselves in them? If we don’t feel like our neighbors are in the right– are we off the hook? If there is nothing about their problem or their situation that we feel deserves our time and attention, is that person still our neighbor?

Although the Samaritan was obviously kind and generous and did many things to help the man by the roadside, Jesus spotlights one characteristic, one attribute above all that made him a neighbor more than any single act: he showed mercy. Mercy is defined in two ways:

1. kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly

2. kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation

Both of these apply to the mercy shown by the Good Samaritan: he was being kind to someone in dire straits, and the person he showed kindness to was someone who he could–in a social context- have every reason to treat harshly.  His example is one we should all follow: in which the world is our community, every person in it is our neighbor, and in which we are called to help one another heal through [both kinds of] mercy.

***

Food for thought:

What is the most challenging lesson of the Good Samaritan?

What is one way I have been shown Mercy (when I may have had reason to be treated otherwise)

How can I “go and do likewise”?

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You have a great body.

It’s summer time, so you might be wondering: do I have a beach body? What about a bikini body? Is my body amazing enough to be flattered or shown or celebrated in broad daylight by myself or others?

Yes.

you look fine

You want a beach body? Place yourself squarely on the beach, and you shall have one.
How about a bikini body? Place a bikini on your body and. . . voila!

Men, are you worried about your body because you don’t have the build of an Avenger? Don’t worry. They look (and are) electronically and (might be) pharmaceutically manipulated. You, on the other hand, look great.

Women, are you worried, because you don’t see someone who looks like you on the cover of a magazine? Don’t worry. They’re not real. But you are. And you look great, too.

Some of you may be thinking something like: I’m ugly. I’m fat. I’m skinny.

I’m not ________________ enough.

Nonsense. You are perfectly _____________ enough. You’re rad. You’re awesome. You’re beautiful.

In the Psalms, David says, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful. I know that full well”. And the first chapter of Genesis, when talking about how we are made,  says that we all look like God (1:26-27).

flawless

That means that no matter what it looks like, no matter what it is struggling with internally or externally, whether you can change the things you want to change about it or not, your body is a beautiful, wonderful, awesome thing. Take care of it, treat it well. Be nice to it. Definitely don’t be ashamed of it. In fact,  strut down the street inviting others to bask in the glow of your fabulousness.

Because you only have one body. There is only one that looks like yours. And it’s great.

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