Maria’s Musings & Advice: Done with the griping

Dear Maria,

How do you graciously and lovingly leave a longtime group of friends when the current situations no longer interest you? We meet once a month, and it’s the same-old, same-old stuff! Gallbladders and sick husbands and politics and weight issues. Blah, blah, blah. What makes it hard is the long history. Much love and dedication and goodness there, but no one wants to grow and talk about new ideas. Yikes! And when I get with them, I notice I fall right into the trap as well. So, I’m part of the decline, too. I just don’t want to go anymore, at least not every month. What can I do?

By the way, I love your column so much. It’s always good advice and creative ideas.

Signed,

Love My Friends, Just Not the “Old” Part

Dear Love My Friends,

It’s amazing how relationships evolve, or not. There’s no way around outgrowing friendships that once fit at another time in our lives. It’s bittersweet. There’s grieving the loss of comfort and connection, coupled with excitement for the new life, insights, and perspectives we’ve discovered. We’d love to share these with our friends, but maybe they’re not at the same place? Everyone grows at their own rate, and makes their own choices in their own circumstances. Sometimes we are in sync, sometimes not.

This is a tough situation. The tone of your letter suggests that this has been building in you for a while? Do you all share a common interest, like a hobby or game? Or maybe you are alums of the same school or workplace? Whatever your connection, the conversation habit is hard to break.

Bravo to exploring new things and getting out from under the sad stuff! My husband and I know a couple who, when they go out to dinner with their friends, allow 10 minutes for everyone to talk about their health issues. They sometimes even set a timer! When time’s up, they change the subject. Facilitating one’s social life is awkward, but they’d commiserate with you. They got creative about spending time with people that they love, without rehashing sad news and griping.

Do you pick up on any signals from others who might be frustrated, too? If you think you have some allies on this issue, you might try introducing something new. Maybe change the meeting place? Or the time of day when you meet? Set a timer for venting? Reach out to those who might be feeling restless and brainstorm ideas to switch things up.

For now, how about taking a break from the group for a month or so? Make alternative plans when they intend to get together, and encourage them to meet without you. See how this break feels. If you’re relieved, or sad, or feel like you’re missing out, pay attention to your feelings. Also, there’s nothing wrong with dialing back on your commitment. A monthly meeting is a significant gift of time. Might you be comfortable suggesting that the group get together less often? Or just telling them you aren’t available to meet so often anymore? Tell them you love the group and want to stay in touch, but a monthly gathering has become too difficult to schedule. See how they respond. Your question may help others who’d like a breather, too. Maybe it is time to renegotiate the ground rules. Exploring option takes courage, but it doesn’t have to be too painful. You don’t necessarily need to tell them about your growing dissatisfaction with the group’s conversations.

If you do decide to go there, however, you might say something like: “I’m finding it more and more unpleasant at our get-togethers. It seems like all we talk about are health issues and politics. After a while, those weigh heavily on me. I’d like to talk about other things that are more uplifting. How do you all feel about that?” (Phrase your comments in “I statements”, that is, in terms of how you feel. Beginning a statement with “you” can put others on the defensive.) If there are allies in the group, this conversation will be easier than you anticipate. I have a hunch you’re not the only one in the group who feels this way. On the other hand, people don’t like getting called out on their stuff. Holding a mirror up to the group is a brave and risky thing.

The restlessness and dissatisfaction you feel is evidence of growth and new life in you! (Some thoughts on a related question are in an earlier column, which you might like to read here.) If you do indeed decide to leave this group or cut back on your time with them, I have full confidence that new opportunities will come your way. It is difficult for new things to enter our lives when it’s cluttered with what we’ve outgrown. The brave part in stepping out is that we don’t know what that new thing will be, yet. It doesn’t reveal itself to us until we take action. “Leap, and the net will appear” – John Burroughs. Good luck! And, thanks for your kind words about my column. Please share it with your friends…wouldn’t that be a conversation starter?!

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Sometimes the Question is the Answer, and St. Paddy’s Day

Dear Maria,

I read The Shack a few years ago, and in a recent discussion in a group I am in on Facebook, I said I liked the book and hoped I would like the movie, too. 3 or 4 readers posted that the book is heretical, and some offered links to reviews of the book from evangelical websites or pastors blogs. I am still on the search for what God wants me to do, and I don’t have a faith that I call my own. The book was helpful to me in that I got to imagine how Jesus could talk to me if I let Him in my life more.

I am wondering what your thoughts are on the novel, The Shack? I was raised Catholic, but am kind of in limbo (so to speak) on where I fit in the Christian worldview. I used to think in a black and white way: “Thou shall do all these things, or be damned to hell.” But, I don’t see how a merciful God would be as concerned about a book I read, more so than my response to what I got out of it. Do you think I should get rid of the book? Do you think I should avoid the movie?

Signed,

To Shack or Not to Shack

Dear To Shack or Not to Shack,

Do I think you should get rid of the book? No.

Do I think you should avoid the movie? Read some reviews before you decide.

Your experience in that online forum makes me sigh. There’s a lot of that going around these days—quick judgments from strangers. The good news is that your encounter is prompting deep questions about the materials you’re reading, and if they are of benefit to you and your spiritual life. Here are my thoughts:

I had the opportunity to work with William Paul Young, the author of The Shack in 2011. He spoke at The Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows, and I led a brief retreat in conjunction with his talk. I asked him about the criticism he’d received since The Shack was published, about 4 years earlier. Based on the critiques I read online at the time, I understood one concern to be that the theology behind the story in The Shack suggests that heaven is open to anyone. Including those who do not follow the Christian faith. Some do not prescribe to this open-door policy of eternal life.

Young has offered us a fictional story in The Shack. Using his imagination, he’s offered us his reflections on big issues concerning life, death, and the afterlife. While his story has sparked heated discussion, he does not offer it as a doctrinal statement on salvation. He explained that his story presents a new image and understanding of God, through the relationship of the Trinity (the Christian doctrine of three persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). He portrays these three in unconventional ways. Young’s purpose here is to make God more accessible to seekers. Young also places healing and forgiveness in the context of relationship. By depicting God as a relationship of persons, he has offered his musings on where we might find God’s grace in our own lives, as well. To me, the story reflects a profound understanding of spiritual healing in the face of great loss. Once we get past the book’s heartbreaking premise, we accompanied protagonist Mac on a marvelous journey. His entire belief system is shaken by tragedy. This is the case when trying to survive such a devastating loss. As the layers of pain and regret peel back, Mac experiences profound healing and forgiveness. The story gives me hope that, as Anne Lamott says, “Grace bats last.”

A major part of my spiritual formation has been through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order of Catholic priests and brothers. I posed a question like yours to my dear Jesuit spiritual director one day. His response came from the heart of the central teaching of Ignatian Spirituality, the Foundation and Principle. In it, we recognize that all in life is a gift from God. These gifts have the potential to either draw us into deeper relationship with God, or to move us away from God. The invitation in life is, as these gifts are presented to us, (such as The Shack book or movie), to evaluate them in light of their impact on our relationship with God. So, I ask you what my director asked me: Has your experience of this book drawn you into deeper relationship and understanding of God? Listen to your heart. Attend to your feelings. These will help to discern your answer. I would not trust an online forum to give you the understanding you seek.

The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises have been in the news recently, via the movie Silence and one of its stars, Andrew Garfield. Garfield did the exercises, and Fr. James Martin, SJ, was his director through the process. Check out this video of him discussing the film and his experience with Stephen Colbert:

As troubling as this time is, The Shack has served you by raising these questions. My humble observation: This is your call. Keep going. The answers will come.

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. ― Rainer Maria Rilke

 

The Big Picture: The Contributions of Irish Americans, and the Haze of St. Paddy’s Day Revelry

By Maria Rodgers O’Rourke This column was originally published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat online, March 18, 2010

Top of the mornin’ to ya!

As the fog clears from our heads following the St. Patrick’s Day revelry, it’s fitting to take a moment and remember why we do what we do every March 17th.

Irish Americans have had a visible presence in the St. Louis area for nearly a century and a half, in urban settings and Catholic parishes.  Today, as in many major cities, most Irish Americans have migrated to the suburbs and have blended into the mainstream of American life.  The transformation from “oppressed people” to “mover and shaker” has been quite remarkable.

Lawrence McCaffrey writes: “The fact that 20th century descendants of 19th-century tenant farmers and cultural laborers have become university professors; elementary and secondary school teachers; distinguished novelist, playwrights, and poets; important figures on stage and screen; physicians; political leaders; and corporate executive officers classifies the Irish American Catholic experience as a tremendous success story.”

The rise of Irish nationalism in the U. S. has been a complicated mix of a search for identity, a cry for vengeance against the British, and a quest for respectability.  Many linked their “American destiny to the sovereignty of the homeland,” McCaffrey says.  Thus, Irish Americans have many overt expressions of Irish identity and pride.

These expressions have become key symbols of the Irish American culture, namely: the Irish Flag; St. Patrick; the shamrock; the claddaugh ring; and the “most sacred” of all rituals, the St. Patrick’s Day parade.  The Irish flag, of course, is a symbol of Irish nationalism, and is proudly displayed on many homes, tee shirts, and parade flag polls.  St. Patrick, though not a native son of Ireland, is hailed as the missionary who brought Christianity to the Druid land.  Legend holds how Patrick utilized the native-grown shamrock leaf to explain the Trinity to King Laoghaire (circa 432), converted him to Christianity, and obtained permission to preach the gospel throughout the land.

The claddaugh ring, named for the oldest fishing village of Ireland, is also a popular Irish American symbol.  Medieval in origin, the ring shows a heart and two hands clasped in friendship.  Many Irish Americans wear the ring as a symbol of their heritage, and others use it as a wedding band.

Perhaps Irish Americans are best known for their grand display of pride on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.  “No other ethnic group [in the U.S.] advertises its ethnic character” in the way the Irish do, especially with the St. Patrick’s Day parade, writes Thomas Day.  The parade has its genesis as an outward sign of the advancing status of Irish Americans in the early 20th century, and as another means to give the immigrants a heightened sense of their ethnic identity.  Organizations, such as the Irish Catholic Benevolent Union, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), local Catholic parishes, and family groups marched in the annual parade.  Today in St. Louis the celebration continues, with two St. Patrick’s Day parades celebrated downtown last weekend and the AOH-organized parade held on the 17th.  These events are chock-full of Irish symbols, festivity and music.

Oh, the music!  The Irish’s quest for identity and the experience of loss are perhaps no more dramatically portrayed than in their music.  Irish Musician Van Morrison said: “All of Irish writing, whether it be literature or songs, is based on going away and coming back.”  He made these remarks in a PBS documentary entitled, “Danny Boy: in Sunshine or in Shadows.”  Presenting an historical and musical analysis of the famous Irish ballad, the documentary hailed “Danny Boy” as perhaps the greatest gift Ireland has given to the world.  The enduring lyrics and haunting melody capture the profound loss the Irish have experienced.  The singer shares with his /her beloved Danny Boy the great sadness of their separation, a loss so many Irish shared.  Danny, along with his fellow immigrants, must have felt complicated contradictory emotions –hope for the future in America, and sorrow for the land and family left behind.

This past week Danny’s descendants and gangs of honorary Irish joined the festivities—a remarkable mix of pride, passion, and a great excuse for a drink. In the haze of green beer, tacky beads and slurred sing-alongs, let’s hope we haven’t lost sight of the faith, resilience and accomplishments that were cause for celebration in the first place.

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Get Me Outta Here

Dear Maria,

I just quit a job that didn’t work out. I got along great with my customers, but not my coworkers. I didn’t feel supported by them, and when I tried to work things out with my boss, he didn’t back me up. I hung in as long as I could, but eventually realized that the situation was not going to change. I was way too stressed, and it was affecting my health.

Here’s the thing: I don’t have another job lined up. I’m single, and have some savings, so it’s not super urgent that I have another paycheck right away. What do I tell people who ask me what I’m doing next? I’m angry at my coworkers. If they ask, I imagine telling them off. Plus, I hate leaving my customers with this crew. So, it’s hard to say good things about the company. I mean, if it’s a good company, they why am I leaving? Can you help me?

Signed,

Get Me Outta Here

Dear Get Me Outta Here,

I’m sorry your job is ending on a sour note.

This in-between time is tricky in job transitions. I totally get the temptation to tell your coworkers what you really think. Wouldn’t it be great to make a dramatic exit with no repercussions? Our big screen alter egos get to:

Though satisfying in the moment, you’ll regret it eventually. Practically speaking, you might cross paths with one of these folks again, or worse yet, need their recommendation/approval/referral in the future.

I recommend taking a light, noncommittal approach. Is there an aspect of your industry that you’d like to pursue further? Tell them you’re interested in that. When they ask, your reply can go something like this: “I’m looking forward to seeing how an offer in the (blank) field will play out.” Period. Sometimes, we over-explain ourselves because we don’t want to look like we don’t know what we’re doing. Are you concerned they’ll judge you for not having another job lined up? Cut that loose and be grateful you don’t have to rush into the next one. (A lot of folks don’t have that option.) Be upbeat, but mysterious. You owe them nothing except politeness. Same for your customers. The way you represent your company, even one that let you down like this, is an extension of how you present yourself. Smile through your disappointment, and avoid the temptation to get snarky.

Readers: How have you handled leaving a job that didn’t work out? Share your suggestions for our LW in a comment.

Some unsolicited advice: Don’t take too long to start networking again. Your pride may be wounded from this episode. The truth is, you have experience that’s of value to prospective employers. Rest, recuperate, and get back in the game. Identify the aspects of your work that you enjoy, and focus on opportunities that will allow you to do them. Talk to people who are doing what you’d like to do. Move forward with confidence, and the right opportunity will open up for you. Good luck!

In the meantime, think of a little reward you can give yourself for making it through each of your last days. Meet a friend for happy hour? Catch a movie? Get a massage? Make a playlist of your favorite goodbye songs and crank ’em on the way home. Get your head in a good place, and the busybodies won’t bug you so much.

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: No trivial regret

question marksDear Maria,

I LOVE to attend trivia nights and go to many of them throughout the year with the same team. We are fairly good: we have won some, were middle-of-the-road for others, and most importantly, we have a BLAST! Last week we attended a trivia night at a Catholic Church. One of our regular team members could not attend and one of our table regulars invited her niece to join in. (The niece was about 15 years younger than all the rest of us at the table.) All was well until my friend sitting next to me noticed the “new gal” cheating by looking up the answers on her phone. My friend did not bring it to my attention until midway through the game, at about the same point when I noticed the cheating, too.

I know I should have said something to her, but didn’t want to cause a scene. Obviously, my other friend didn’t want to cause a scene either, so it was never mentioned. I feel terrible now for not doing anything about it. I feel like I did the cheating as well by not confronting her on the spot. I know I need to confront her, but I don’t have her contact info so would need to go through someone else to get it. It is eating at me. I can go to confession and get this off of my heart, but how should I handle this? Part of me wants to let it go so as not to hurt the family members at the table.

Signed,

My Cheating Heart

Dear My Cheating Heart,

Oh, there’s plenty of guilt to go around. Don’t carry more than your share.

That was quite a stunt the niece pulled. Cheating takes the fun out of the competition. Unless winning is everything. Then, I guess she was enjoying herself. Whatever. If alcohol was permitted, she had to have been 21 to play. She should have known better.

Smart_phone_clip_artWhat’s up with the aunt? Giving the niece the benefit of the doubt, we might suppose that she didn’t know onsite research via cell phone was not allowed. Or, maybe, as the youngest at the table, she felt intimidated and the phone boosted her confidence. Pshaw. It was up to her aunt, a team regular, to tell her to put the phone away. The silence was tacit approval.

The folks hosting the trivia night also dropped the ball. They’re all volunteers, but there still should have been enough eyes on the tables to guard against anyone tapping into a lifeline. Granted, it’d be tough to see: the tables are crammed with snacks and 8-10 people, elbow-to-elbow, with hardly space between tables to squeeze by. An honest contest, however, is crucial. Any hint of foul play or unfair advantage spoils the game and sullies the host. If this church hopes for a good turnout at a future trivia night, they better clean up their act.

Last, but not least, your team allowed the cheating to go on for the entire game. At least two of you saw it and did nothing. This is an example of groupthink. According to Psychology Today, “Groupthink occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over accurate analysis and critical evaluation.” In the interest of not making a scene, no one spoke up. One of you could have taken the aunt aside during a break. Or, those sitting closest to the “new gal” might have asked her to stop. In short, the collective silence ruined the night.

I was unconscious, half-asleep
The water is warm till you discover how deep
I wasn’t jumping, for me it was a fall
It’s a long way down to nothing at all – Stuck in a Moment, U2

Reading your letter on a computer screen in my quiet office, it’s easy to judge. But, I know the stress you must have felt that night. (FULL DISCLOSURE: My husband and I love trivia nights, too. They can be disorganized, loud, messy events. I often serve as team scribe. Oy, the pressure!) For you, several factors were in play: the usual team was disrupted; the familial bond of aunt and niece and not knowing if/when to interfere; the fast pace and high energy of the event; and, perhaps, fatigue and alcohol. These all conspired to keep you from doing the right thing. Groupthink comes on in a flash. Objective observers might shake their heads in disbelief, but participants know: “You had to be there.” We’ve all been on all sides. Let the one who hasn’t be the first to cast a stone.

I don’t recommend contacting the niece directly. Something needs to be said, but it shouldn’t come from you. Speak with her aunt. You might say, “Ever since our last trivia night, something has been nagging at me. I couldn’t help but see your niece checking her phone for answers to the questions. I feel badly that I didn’t do anything to stop what I saw.” Her response will tell you lots. Consider inviting the person who sat next to you to join the conversation. Your teammates owe it to each other to clear the air before your next gathering. Your trust has been shaken. Even with the old gang reunited, the groupthink regret will linger. Gather your courage now, and speak up. Think of it as a sort of do-over. As for going to confession, may the sacrament’s grace lift your burden and heal your heart. You’ve carried this long enough.

And if the night runs over
And if the day won’t last
And if your way should falter along the stony path
It’s just a moment, this time [too] shall pass
Stuck in a Moment, U2

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Boundaries

Defend Your BoundariesDear Maria,

I wonder why it’s so hard for most of us to have firm boundaries? In last week’s column, the letter writer was having a hard time with that. Why is it so hard to do?

Signed,

Muddled

 

Dear Muddled,

Remember when the toughest boundary to find was the one between the couch and the “hot lava” floor? Or keeping the ball in play, or the safe space between cracks on the sidewalk? Our parents and teachers were charged with making boundaries clear for us — play/eat/sleep here, don’t touch this, don’t get too close to that. Through their guidance, and plain old experience, we learned where the boundaries are that keep us safe.

That learning curve extended to relationships, too. As children, we had a keen intuition about who was safe to be around, or not. Yet, we were encouraged to “play nice.” We had to mind adults and others in authority, whose dictates could be arbitrary or unfair. We were encouraged to show affection to people we didn’t particularly like. As we grew, we lost touch with that inner guidance. Pleasing others and getting along were praised, encouraged, and rewarded. Speaking up and stepping away set us apart, and being accepted is critical to social beings like us. Our boundaries got trampled on like a muddy path in the spring thaw.

and-the-day-came-when-the-risk-it-took-to-remain-tight-in-the-bud-was-more-painful-than-thAs grown-ups now, we find ourselves in situations like last week’s letter writer. Perhaps she wonders how it got this far, when all along she was working hard to keep everything pleasant. Maybe that’s the core of the issue. Boundaries are tough, because we’ve learned to place other’s needs — or our own need to be perceived as kind — ahead of our own. Women, especially, are expected to do this. We’re so used to it, that we can’t even see that we’ve made keeping everyone else happy more important than our own health and well-being.

That’s backwards. Just as the flight attendant will tell you to secure your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else, so too we need to tend to ourselves before we have anything to give to others. LifeEsteem.org writes:

One feature of a healthy sense of self is the way we understand and work with boundaries. Personal boundaries are the limits we set in relationships that allow us to protect our selves. Boundaries come from having a good sense of our own self-worth. They make it possible for us to separate our own thoughts and feelings from those of others and to take responsibility for what we think, feel and do. Boundaries allow us to rejoice in our own uniqueness. Intact boundaries are flexible – they allow us to get close to others when it is appropriate and to maintain our distance when we might be harmed by getting too close. Good boundaries protect us from abuse and pave the way to achieving true intimacy. They help us take care of ourselves.

Setting and maintaining these boundaries is a daily challenge. It takes time away from our busy lives to reconnect with that inner sense of self. Then, once that discovery is nurtured, we venture into our relationships protecting that sense of self as we would our own child. It takes courage to ask for what we need in relationships. The people we encounter will be at varying abilities to honor these requests. Some will go. Others will understand, and stay. We run the risk of losing the people who don’t get it. But, ah, the freedom on the other side. It’s like launching ourselves over the family room floor, clearing the hot lava below, and landing on the couch, safe and sound.

Readers: Tell us about what works for you in setting boundaries. Let’s support each other in these efforts!

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Not His Valentine

Dear Maria,

I became friends with someone I go to church with. I appreciated his company in the months I was adjusting to being single again and to spending time alone when my daughter was with her dad. But over time he developed feelings for me that are not mutual. Our interactions have become awkward because: 1) he’s socially awkward on a good day, and 2) I don’t want to hurt his feelings.

He’s resorted to avoiding me and then sending me long emails telling me he’s sorry and listing all of the things he wished he’d said in person.

I responded to his email with a firmer response than I have mustered in the past. I reiterated that I was not going to change my feelings about being more than friends, and that I wanted him to stop avoiding me and sending long emails later. I also expressed concern that he was navigating a lot of things alone and suggested he seek the help of a professional.  I feel good about my stance and the kind way I conveyed it.

My question is: What do I do now? I want to remain kind and sensitive to his feelings. His strange behavior has strained our friendship. I want both of us to feel comfortable in our congregation, but it’s still awkward.

Sincerely,

Not His Valentine

Dear Not His Valentine,

Mutual attraction is like a sharing a sense of humor. You either get it or you don’t.  This could be a meet-cute, he hopes, with every email:

Instead, he just doesn’t get it:

He came along at a vulnerable time for you (thanks!), but you both came at it from two different directions (awkward!). What do you do now?

You’ve done all you can. You’ve been honest about your feelings, in a kind way. Your earlier fuzziness, however, unintentionally encouraged him. He focused on the little non-verbals that fueled hope that his feelings might be reciprocated. As you healed from your separation and divorce, your new-found clarity and emotional strength helped you be brave. Your reply to his email, and his reading of it, were painful moments on both sides of the screen. Yours in summoning the courage to press “send”; his in facing the truth of the written word. It was the right thing to do. There was no way around hurting his feelings. That’s a casualty of unrequited love. As you move ahead, continue to keep your words and actions in alignment with your truth. Integrity, m’dear. To thine own self be true. And all that adult-ing stuff.

You may have some grief going on, too. You may not like him that way, but his support and companionship were there for you at a critical time. This may be your work for now: to grieve this loss, and to maintain healthy boundaries with him. By doing these, you’ll come into greater alignment with yourself, and you’ll release him so that he can move on.

I caution you in your efforts to help him through this break. You mentioned that you advised him to see a professional. That could be very helpful for him; he needs to lean on other people now. Any further counsel from you runs the risk of being misinterpreted. At church, keep a kind but polite distance, and keep other people around when you interact. Hopefully the awkwardness will diminish in time. In the long run, though, it may be too much to ask that you resume your friendship. He will probably not be able to go there. If he continues to contact you via email, or you feel threatened in any way, take the necessary steps to be safe. Here are great guidelines and resources from the Office on Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

I couldn’t find a decent break-up song that is sung from your perspective. This one was about as honest and grown up as it gets:

Congratulations on emerging from a difficult life passage as a stronger and wiser woman. That’s a happy ending!

Dear Readers: what music helps you through difficult, but necessary, losses? Let us know in the comments!

 

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Is This My Big Break?

Terrifying and amazingDear Maria,

I have an opportunity to make a career change. I have been in administration and marketing for most of my career. I am not too far from retirement, but still want and need to work for several more years. I have an opportunity to get involved with an artist’s studio, leading classes, conducting workshops, and also doing art I love. I’m kinda scared. This would be a big change for me, and even though I love the work I would be doing, I feel intimidated by all I need to learn. I feel like I should be a real expert before I become a teacher. What would you do if you were in my place?

Signed,

Is This My Big Break?

Dear Is This My Big Break,

Do it.

This is something you’ve wanted to do for a long time. You’ve put in your time in a structured, reasonable, safe work environment. You have pursued your art in your spare time. If you can swing this from a financial standpoint, do it! Whoever is offering you this opportunity has seen your work, and is confident you are up to the job. Trust them.

Creating art is tricky. We put so much of ourselves into our efforts, we wonder if anybody else could ever love and appreciate our work as much as we do. Then, the funny thing is, when they do, we push away the compliment and can’t believe it could be true. But it is. This person recognizes something in you, and wants to help bring it into the world.

Here’s one way this happened for me. My husband and I saw U2 in concert in 2001, just a few months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We’d never seen them live. I can now tell you: Bono is one of the most charismatic performers I have ever seen. My husband said: “This isn’t a rock concert; this is a spiritual experience.” (Read Steve Braden’s take on the concert. He got it.) During the show, my heart full, I asked myself (and it’s always wise to pay attention to what you ask yourself), “What can I do with this?” The still voice within answered: “Write.” From that moment on, nurturing and developing my writing became a priority. Later, I confessed to a wise friend, “I’m drawn to Bono, but not in a romantic sense.” He replied, “What is awakened in him, is awakening in you.”

On a creative, spiritual, emotional, intuitive, however-you-want-to-describe-it level, my experience at the concert summoned my inner writer/artist. Perhaps you’ve had a similar encounter. There is a creative connection between you and this person who has affirmed your art and talent. They showed up at the perfect time to midwife your work.

And we need it! Our culture is rife with mistrust and misinformation. This darkness breeds fear. There is, however, a counterbalance of artistic expression and creativity on the rise. I’m surrounded by people who feel called to create. This movement is blessed. Our nation needs to be reminded of the “better angels of our nature” as Abraham Lincoln said. Beauty lifts us. Your creative efforts are not selfish, but a public service!

no time to think smallElizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is all about “creative living beyond fear.” Creativity invites us into the unknown, so fear is a natural response. Fear protects us from harm, but it can also immobilize us. Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that we view fear as a companion on the creative journey. Fear gets to come along for the ride, but it doesn’t get to drive, read the map, fiddle with the radio, etc. “Above all else,” she tells her “dear old familiar friend [fear], you are absolutely forbidden to drive. Then we head off together—me and creativity and fear side by side by side forever—advancing once more into the terrifying but marvelous terrain of unknown outcome.” Dig into her book for directive permission to make this change.

If you expect to be fearless in this creative endeavor, cut it out. Courage is fear that has said its prayers. That might be where you are. Say your prayers, and walk into your new life. We’ll thank you for it.

courage-is-fear-that-has-said-its-prayers-dorothy-bernard-53-20-85

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: No Complaints!

wpid-IMAG0889.jpgDear Maria,

A friend of mine complains a lot. She talks about problems at work, with her husband, even little stuff like bad hair days or when her computer locks up. I try to bring up more pleasant topics, like movies or a break in the weather, but she ends up gossiping about an actor, or predicting that more winter is on the way. I’ve gotten to the point where I avoid her calls, or seeing her. What can I do to help my friend cheer up?

Signed,

Get Over It

Dear Get Over It,

There’s a lot of this going around these days. I wonder what’s behind your friend’s attitude—was she always like this? Or has she slipped into a rut of negative thinking? If she’s recently turned to the dark side, you might say: “Dear One, I’ve noticed lately that you’ve been dealing with a lot of junk. Things are really getting to you. What’s really going on? Maybe we can come up with some ways to help make things easier for you.” There could be some deeper issues at work—grief, fatigue, hormonal changes, feeling restless or bored, financial concerns, for example—that she hasn’t discussed. Underlying stressors like these make it harder to take day-to-day annoyances in stride. Try to dig down to what’s going on under her crabbiness, and if she can process some of her feelings with you, things may lighten up.

If your friend has always been this way, however, you may be the one who has changed. Perhaps you were going through a stressful time when you met your friend, and she was a willing sounding board for your complaints. Misery loves company, the old saying goes. Did the two of you enjoy good b**ch sessions? For me, there was a time when I based friendship on shared criticism. That is, we hated the same people, music, movies, politics, etc. Bonding was about complaining together. If someone didn’t share my snarky or cynical take on things, I didn’t make much effort to get to know them.

Then, when adulting set in, as a wife and parent, so did the anxiety. I mentally rehearsed, over and over, exactly what I didn’t want to happen. Stuck in that rut, conversations with close friends became dumping grounds for my frustrations, anger, or regret. Somewhere in my middle age-ness, I realized that focusing on the negative wasn’t really helping me, or those I loved, very much. Worry disturbed my sleep, and the dark imaginings of “What if?” just created more anxiety. With the help of some counseling and spiritual practice, I’m now aware of this pattern of thinking and can make better choices about where I focus my attention. I sleep better these days. It’s easier to let life’s slights go. It takes practice, but things are getting better. The power of positive thinking, a phrase I once sneered at, is true. You get what you’re looking for.

Perhaps you’ve experienced a similar shift of your own. You’re bothered by your friend’s complaining, but deep down, there’s growing awareness that a relationship that once fit no longer does. There’s a mix of sadness, impatience, and powerlessness underneath your frustration with your friend. These are symptoms of personal growth. Be patient with your feelings. Maybe the space you’ve put between you is what you need right now. You don’t have to take what she’s dumping. In the end, our one obligation is to be kind to each other. Be kind to your friend, and to yourself. Focus on the good in you, and in her. See where that leads.

 

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Hiding Out

Dear Maria,

These days, I’m staying away from friends who don’t share my political views. It used to be okay to hang out with these people, but now everyone is on edge. It’s just easier to not see them than being in a conversation that might get ugly. Is it okay for me to avoid these people? I feel bad, but relieved, when I do.

Signed,

Hiding Out

Dear Hiding Out,

There’s an old saying about not talking politics or religion if you want to enjoy a conversation. Who knows when that phrase was coined, but it seems relevant now more than ever. We’re all weary from a vitriolic, divisive campaign, and the business of governance seems to have lost the civility it once had. Kind of like the get-togethers with friends—there was a time when you could agree to disagree. Now, hot button issues are front and center for many people. It’s hard to be with people who don’t share our views. We can avoid the tension by avoiding them. I understand, and have done it, too.

The way I see it, there are people we cannot avoid, like coworkers and family, and those we can, like neighbors and friends. At work and with family, focus on what you have in common rather than what sets you apart. Perhaps some of your anxiety comes from pre-interaction dread. Do an end run around potentially tense conversations by bringing up safe topics. If you feel trapped in any situation, consider my earlier advice to a letter writer with a very difficult mother-in-law (reprinted, below). With neighbors and friends, it’s important to keep a good vibe going, but not at the expense of your peace of mind. Be discerning about the time you spend with them, and when you do, follow the suggestions, above and below.

Whatever you decide, try not to make it an all-or-nothing proposition. Some days you’ll have the energy to risk the conversation, other days you won’t. Pay attention to your instincts and let them guide you case by case. We’re in for more turbulence ahead, I’m afraid. So, buckle up, lead with love, and respectfully speak your mind when you’re ready to engage. Take a nap when you’re not.

Dear Maria,

My mother-in-law is the quintessential thorn in my side. She says awful things about people she doesn’t know, based on her naivety, judgmental heart, and sometimes based on her racist beliefs. It is beyond difficult to see her, to do anything with her, to listen to her hatefulness (which usually comes out as a passive aggressive and arrogant). At times I offer suggestions on trying new things, she always says no. She says she doesn’t like such and such. But she never tried whatever it is, I cannot understand how a person can blow off trying things, and then say they don’t like it. How would you know if you didn’t try? I asked her as much, and then got rudely trounced on. She in effect blames me for things and presses my buttons to the Nth degree, and she is worse about it lately more so than ever. I don’t know how to reason with her.

I don’t want to be her friend, I just want to be able to not feel uncomfortable every time I have to see her, for my husband’s sake. He’s an only child, and to her, he’s still her baby. She makes everything about him, which is frustrating, because he isn’t perfect, and she acts like he is.

What is the best I can do to help this situation? Should I convince my husband to intervene? What if he refuses? Do I think more about my own peace of mind first, my husband’s? I am sure I have said some things over the years where I sounded judgmental of her with her racist remarks. Do I apologize for things said long ago? What would you suggest?

Signed,

Not Happy with Mother-in-law

Dear Not Happy with Mother-in-law,

She sounds like the inspiration for all bad mother-in-law jokes, ever. If she reorganizes your kitchen without permission, or conspires with your husband to keep secrets from you, run for the hills!

Difficult relatives are an issue in every marriage. There’s extra tension when it’s one of the moms, and your visits have become stress minefields. Your letter doesn’t give much detail on how your husband reacts when she goes on a rant, but I suspect he’s very practiced at remaining mum during the tirades. He may think you ought to behave the same way: avoid the bully and hope they’ll go away. Instead, you’ve tried to engage her as an adult. But, she doesn’t see you as a grown up, just as she still sees her son as her baby. She holds the floor because she’s the matriarch, pure and simple. There is no changing your MIL. Accept this as a given.

IMG_13091759670007Talk to your husband about this situation. Instead of enlisting his help to change your MIL’s mind, strategize ways you can make the visits more bearable. Is there an activity you can do together—play a game, go to a movie, scrapbook family photos—to take the pressure off of making conversation? If she starts in with the negative comments, leave the room. It’ll be uncomfortable at first, but keep at it. (If you both do this, you may affect some change in her behavior.) Perhaps your husband feels he’s caught in the middle. Do you both need to visit every time? Send your husband on his way and skip a visit now and then. I think part of your resentment may stem from feeling trapped and obligated. The visits are primarily your husband’s responsibility, so give yourself a break.

I consulted my friend and colleague Kenneth Pruitt for additional insights on handling racist remarks. He is Director of Diversity Training at the Diversity Awareness Partnership. He reminds us that “being firm and convicted about issues of race will cause conflict…it just will.” You’ll have to decide how much you want to engage her on these issues. As Kenneth suggests, those who are racially conscious “have to determine for themselves what their work is and what others have to work out for themselves. I may not argue with my grandmother, for example,” he writes, “but I’m sure not going to be vague about where I stand. And if that makes her uncomfortable, perhaps that’s a really good thing.” For more resources on this issue, visit the Diversity Awareness Partnership website.

Bottom line, we recommend that you take self-care really seriously. There are some important boundaries that need to be set with your husband, and with your MIL, for you to gain health and well-being. Minimize your contact with her, and when you do visit, don’t engage the negative comments. When you’re with her, pay FB_IMG_1441171138385attention to how the sunlight streams in the window, or the song playing on the radio, or the cool drink of water in the kitchen. In other words, be very intentional about finding beauty in the moment. Work on your own head by identifying one or two things you appreciate about your MIL—they could be as simple as her tasty cherry pie, or that she gave birth to your husband. Think on these things when you think of her. Practicing appreciation can help soften how you react to your MIL, and that will bring you peace of mind. Remember: All of us are doing the best we can with what we know. Use what you know to take care of yourself.

Dear Readers: In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.

Maria’s Musings & Advice: Online Harassment

hands-typing-7Dear Maria,

I’m wondering if you have suggestions for helping your teenager handle online harassment from peers. My high school-aged kid has a former friend who regularly posts things about her on various social media sites. Sometimes it’s direct, using my teen’s name, making negative comments about her, and encouraging others to do the same. Sometimes it’s thinly-veiled, stuff that someone else may not know is about my kid, but she knows and their peers know. Regardless, it all hurts and is doing serious damage to my teen’s confidence and social life. It’s hard for my daughter to defend herself online because anything she writes in response gets shot down by this kid and their peers. As parents we can see that over the long run, the kid who is harassing our teen is on a path for self-destruction, but in the short-term we don’t know how to best support our kid.

Thanks in advance for any suggestions you have.

Signed,

Mom Who Wants to Support and Empower Her Teen Against Online Harassment

Dear Mom,

Remember, back in the day, when the circles of people our children interacted with were small? When they were little, we could easily connect the dots to who-said-what, and call on other adults (teachers, troop leaders, sitters) to help with hurtful situations. Now, teens interact on so many different platforms. The connections can be amazing, and damaging. It makes my head spin. Here are a few hard-learned insights of mine, and the wisdom and guidance of Tavi Gevinson, speaker, actress, and founder of Rookie magazine.

Tavi shares your signature sentiments, but she’s 20 years old! She’s a cultural critic and feminist advocate who’s smart, savvy, and stylish. Here’s sage advice in a Rookie magazine article on gossip. Two takeaways: One, in many cases, the gossip is best confronted in a social media-free exchange. Believe it or not, when the telephone was first invented, critics feared it would lead to the decline of civil conversation, due to the loss of face-to-face interaction. They had a point. Today, I wish teens would use the phone, not just texting or online forums, to clear the air. Two, with malicious gossip (page 4 of the Rookie article), the author suggests not reacting to the gossiper, and enlisting the help of an interlocutor, if possible. My daughter has survived a few rounds of online gossip and lies. In two cases, my husband and I called the parents of the gossiping child. It stopped immediately. In another case, school administrators intervened and counseled the students involved to dial down the drama and call a truce. Our daughter resisted the help, at first. We let her handle things on her own, until it became clear that intervention was necessary. (She was relieved when we did.) You’ll know when the time is right to step in. Plus, it’s an opportunity to model for your daughter how to take a calm stand in an escalating situation. With my maternal super audio and visual powers, I can tell there have been other instances that she hasn’t let us in on. I trust she’s handling it as best she can, and learning along the way. (Additional resources can be found through the National Center for Victims of Crime website.)

wpid-IMAG0722.jpgIt’s painful to see our children suffering. I wish I could download all my life lessons to my daughters. But, they’ve taught me that they learn best through their own experiences. What we can do is model what real friendship and love looks like, especially while they are hurting. We can listen and comfort, and shore up their strength as their own, best advocate. It’s okay to be hurt, but not to succumb to anonymous potshots. Their true self is not the broken person their critics portray them to be. For every person who doesn’t appreciate them, there are dozens who do. As moms, we’re in a key position to reflect to our children their innate goodness and worth. When I praise my daughter, she shrugs it off with, “You have to say that—you’re my mom.” But I’ll keep on praising, trusting that I’m contributing to a reserve of inner strength that will come in handy throughout her life.

In the midst of their hurt, let’s give them space, but not let them become isolated. Teens want to be left alone, but sometimes I think it’s a test to see how hard we’re willing to work to get to them. They’re worth the effort, and to be loved by people who are proud to do so. Our homes can be a haven where feelings are safe and they feel loved and accepted.

Learning to take the long view is part of adult-ing. Continue to counsel your daughter to keep her eyes on the horizon, all while offering Kleenex and hugs. Be with her while she’s hurting, but lift her gaze to the healing. Share, where appropriate, your own experiences. She may shrug it off as, “Well, that’s the way it was for you, but it’s different for me.” Still, you stand in testimony to the fact that a person can and will survive mean gossip, and emerge a better person. Our challenge and charge as mothers is to nurture our children into capable, confident adults who live with integrity. Unfortunately, that formation includes painful experiences. Check out Tavi’s powerful TED talk for guidance on self-image, and empowering young women to make their own decisions:

Thank you so much for your letter; I’m in solidarity with you, and welcome our readers’ comments. Moms, what do you suggest? What works to help your child with online harassment?

Dear Readers,

In a quandary? Life got you down? Need some perspective? If you’d like to submit a question, click here. I look forward to hearing from you, or “for a friend.” Please add your thoughts, and suggestions in the comments section, below. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist.  This column, its author, and the publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice in any given situation. You, and only you, are completely responsible for your actions. We reserve the right to edit letters for length and clarity, and all comments are moderated.