Why You Should Get Rid of Grudges

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Photo courtesy Raul Pachego-Vega via Creative Commons.

Here’s the thing about holding grudges. The person holding the grudge is much more negatively affected than the person whose actions or words caused the grudge-holding. You know it’s true. How many times a day/week/month/year do you spend mental energy on that grudge? A long-term grudge can become so entrenched that it can impact your daily outlook, your decisions, and even your health, both mental and physical. And the sad thing I’ve discovered from my own personal experience holding too many grudges is that many grudges are based upon faulty assumptions about the other person’s motives or feelings, or about the other person’s ability to  be the person you think you deserve them to be. (more…)

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I Feel Bad About Being a Pessimist

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Half empty?

It’s not something I’m proud of, but I am one of those people who see the glass as half-empty. Always have been. Those of you who know me might be surprised by this because I try not to fly my pessimistic freak flag very high. But let me tell you, it takes a lot of restraint.

I try to rationalize that I’m not really a negative person, I just like to be prepared for the worst, in case it happens. Not that I’m necessarily expecting the worst to happen, I just want to be prepared if it does. At least this is what I tell myself. 

For example, when we moved to Fort Worth 15 years ago, our newly built house was fairly close to some high voltage power lines. I was concerned about health consequences but the builder’s sales person showed us many studies showing no correlation between living near high voltage power lines and illness. The house and neighborhood and schools were great so we moved there anyway. But I worried the whole time we lived there in a warped form of “preparation.” I figured that if the universe knew how concerned I was about the power lines, it would prevent anything from happening to my family.

But the universe didn’t seem to get the memo. Because I got cancer anyway. Of course, I blamed it on living near the power lines. But who knows if that’s what caused it? It could have been the small asbestos-tinged pieces of the Berlin Wall I had hammered away on a visit in 1990 and stashed in a closet in the new house. It could have been all those years living in New Jersey. It could have been related to the mononucleosis I had as a 16-year-old. It could have been just a random rebel cell that decided to go rogue and have a party in my lymph system.

It could have been anything.

Here’s what it took me 42 years to figure out: being “prepared” for the worst to happen means prematurely experiencing bad feelings associated with the worst happening – usually for no reason (my cancer episode notwithstanding). But even if something terrible does happen, worrying about it ahead of time doesn’t do any good. For two years I obsessed about getting sick, then I got sick. All the worrying didn’t help a bit. It just made those two years less pleasant than they should have been. And people who believe in the Law of Attraction might say that all my thinking about getting sick caused me to get sick. Maybe they’re right.

My husband’s grandfather, a small-town justice of the peace and rancher in West Texas used to say, “No use worrying about ghosts what ain’t.” He was the most happy, relaxed person I’ve ever met. When I get anxious about something I need to remember to channel his colorful phrase, preferably in a nice, slow, relaxing Texas twang.

Grandaddy Sam hanging out at his ranch

“No use worrying about ghosts what ain’t.” — Grandaddy Sam

Anyway, I’ve come to realize that pessimism is really just an insidious form of fear. And living with fear all the time is not a good way to live.

So I’m trying NOT to be such a pessimist. I’m trying to be cheery and upbeat and happy for the blessings in my life. I’m trying to assume that good things will happen in the world. I’m trying to be optimistic. Gratitude is one of the ways I’m trying to beat back my pessimistic side. And it’s beginning to work.

But let’s face it, terrible things surround us all. Like terrorism. Like the tornado in Oklahoma. Like missing children. Like getting cancer. Like poverty and despair and depression and disease. And the elephants being killed for their tusks. And the sharks being killed for their fins. And global warming and deforestation and AIDS and unemployment and corporate greed and the rising cost of healthcare and the rising cost of education and overpopulation and racial inequality.

Oh my god, I’m exhausted just thinking about all those things. There’s so little one person can do about everything bad in the world. It’s hard NOT to be a pessimist in the face of it all.

How do you optimists do it?

Wait. Deep breath. Focus. Back to positivity and gratitude in case the Law of Attraction actually works.

I am thankful for having the time to write this cathartic little blog post today.

My novel revisions are going well and will continue to do so now that I got rid of Shoulder Frank.

I envision a publishing contract one day popping up in my email.

No use worrying about ghosts what ain’t.

Take that, pessimism.

For The Record, I’m Still Trying: On Unconventional Marriage Vows

Now that nearly two decades have past, I feel like it’s time to set the record straight about my wedding. But before I do, let me just say in my defense that I got married when I was very, very young. Plus, I’d never been to a single wedding before my own.

With that said, it was not my intention to embarrass my  husband during our wedding ceremony. It just kind of happened. In the midst of all the fun I was having that day, being the center of attention and all, I temporarily forgot that a wedding ceremony was supposed to be a serious play, with all the actors sticking to their lines, rather than an improv comedy show.

Here’s what I’m referring to: When the minister said, “Will you have this man to be your wedded husband, to live together in marriage, will you love him, comfort him, honor him, and keep him, in sickness and in health, in sorrow and in joy, so long as you both shall live,” I was supposed to say, “I will,” like I had practiced at the rehearsal the day before.

But for some reason I didn’t.

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My feminist mother thought it was ridiculous that only my father should get to walk me down the aisle. He knew better than to argue.

“I’ll try,” I said, smiling and shaking my head like it was going to be quite an ordeal, all that trying.

Nervous laughter filled the chapel. My husband-to-be gave me a “behave” look. Then he got me back during the kiss scene of our wedding by being mortifyingly amorous. Touché, Honey, if I’ve never properly acknowledged that move.

Some of you might be gasping in horror at my nonchalance on such an important occasion. You might even call me blasphemous for distorting the intention of the solemn marriage vow. But hey, it was a Unitarian church. Unitarians are open-minded and embrace improv. Or at least they should.

So have I ever regretted saying, “I’ll try” instead of “I will?”

Nope.

Here’s why: I’ve seen a lot of marriages fail. And all those marriages began with the traditional, oh-so-confident words, “I do” or “I will.” The divorce rate for first marriages in the U.S. continues to be around 50 percent. So the odds of success are not that great.

My parents’ marriage really threw me. They told me on three separate occasions that they were getting divorced. “Sit down, we have something to tell you…”

Three times I prepared myself for two houses, awkward visitations with my father and general emotional upheaval. But then, with the help of a marriage counselor, my parents tried harder and took trips together and the threatened divorce never happened. They began laughing again. I’ve never seen two people try so hard in a marriage. Despite my lingering psychological damage, my parents’ marital perseverance made me realize that it’s possible for some nearly hopeless marriages to rise from the depths of despair if both parties are willing to try.

I wonder if my impromptu “vow” during my wedding came from my protective unconscious since I had seen first-hand both the power of trying in a marriage and the failure of many marriages I thought to be impenetrable. I also wonder if I have tried harder in my marriage than I might have otherwise because I never felt trapped or constricted by rigid, no-room-for-doubt vows.

“Today you’re making it a little difficult, but I’m still trying,” I sometimes joke with my husband.

Every time I attend a wedding I always secretly hope the bride and groom will say, “I’ll try” during their vows. Of course they never do. But wouldn’t it be more honest? Because, really, that’s all any of us can do: try. And sometimes we will fail. But at least we will know that we didn’t give up without trying really, really hard.

I’m grateful for my patient, kind husband. I realize that some grooms probably wouldn’t have responded well to improv at their own wedding. Yet mine shrugged off my antics like a secure, seasoned pro.

Still, like any marriage, it hasn’t been all roses. When September 4th rolls around I think I deserve a great anniversary gift for all that trying, don’t you?

Teaching Teenagers to Drive is Not for The Anxiety Prone

I just want to go on record to admit that I am a horrible driving teacher. And I don’t think that my son would argue with me. As a parent, here’s what I’ve realized from the terrifying experience of having a teenager with a driver’s permit: If your own first memory involves anxiety and fear, you probably having no business teaching a teen to drive.

Exhibit A: When I was three years old, my older brother got to go to real school while I had to stay home with mom. On his first day of school, I was seriously pissed off that I couldn’t get on the bus with him. To stop my incessant whining, my mother and I struck a bargain: she would let me walk my brother down the driveway to the bus while she watched out the window. (That probably wouldn’t happen today, but it was the ’70s after all). Once the bus pulled away, I began a tortured trudge back to my boring house with no teachers or show and tell or recess with monkey bars and swings.

Suddenly, I noticed dark, wiggly tentacles extending across the pavement. Slithering. Like they wanted to wrap around my legs and drag me away. I considered closing my eyes and making a run for my house. But I feared the tentacles might catch me and drag me down below the earth. My heart galloping, I screamed and began to cry, frozen in place.

My mother rushed outside and, once she figured out the problem, proceeded to explain to me what shadows were. Yes, that’s right. I freaked out over a bunch of shadows. And I still remember it.

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Don’t these shadows look kind of like tentacles?

My faith in the world was shaken a little bit that day and has remained somewhat wobbly ever since.

If you have any fear-based formative memories like that and you still harbor a bit of anxiety today, I respectfully submit that perhaps you should outsource your teen’s learning-to-drive process to save your sanity. Asking an anxious person to teach an impulsive teen with poor direction skills to drive is like asking someone who faints at the site of blood to become an EMT for a year. Some things, especially those involving life or death, need to be left to professionals, or at the very least, non-panicky adults.

My son got his permit last summer but since he goes to boarding school, he doesn’t get a lot of driving practice. The last time we drove together was in December. It was raining and holiday shopping traffic in Dallas had built up to a crazed frenzy. My son was home from school for winter break and was eager to practice driving. I let him drive to a bookstore, determined to give calm, patient, wise instruction. The short trip went something like this:

Me: two hands on the wheel, please.

Son: I know, mom.

Me (seeing brake lights ahead): Be ready to stop.

Son (rolling eyes): I know, mom.

Me (slamming hands to dashboard as car cuts us off): Stopstopstopstopstop! Did you even see that guy?

Son: Can you please just say stop ONE time? Oh my God! I need to be medicated to drive with you!

Trembling younger son: Can I get out and walk?

Me: Can you just pull over and let me drive for now?

Son: Fine, forget it, I don’t even want a license.

Obviously, this is not a recipe for my son’s driving success or my family’s mental health. I have no idea how other anxious people teach their kids how to drive and survive the process. I’m all for persevering through fear and meeting life’s challenges but I’m also a believer in realizing when you are outgunned, so to speak.

My horoscope today tells me to “Ask for help and get it.” So before my son comes home for the summer and asks, “Can I drive?”, I want to submit this official letter:

Dear Son,

With minor exceptions for country roads, I respectfully resign from being your driving instructor, effective immediately. I am gratefully transferring the reigns over to Dad and to the capable people (regardless of whether or not they pick their nails during your drive time) at the local driving school. I hope you understand this is for the good of all involved. 

Love,

Mom

Phew. I feel calmer already.

Don’t Forget the Advice Asterisk

IMG_0020I am falling short in the advice-giving department of parenting, especially with regards to gratitude. I realized this after my teenage son broke his arm skiing recently when he was with friends. A man and his daughter stopped to ask if he was OK.

“I think I need ski patrol,” my son said, grimacing in pain. “My arm feels broken.”

“Your legs still work, right?” the man asked.

“Right.”

“Then you can ski down yourself,” the man said.

“Oh. Yeah. Right. Thank you so much for your help. Thank you!” my sweet son gushed to those super helpful people before getting up and skiing downhill with the broken arm. “And don’t worry, Mom, I thanked them, like, the rest of the way down,” he told me from the emergency room right before the orthopedic surgeon set his bone. Luckily, he didn’t fall and make the break any worse. But he could have. And it would have been partly my fault.

I have always told my kids to be not just polite, but the MOST polite people in a room. To always thank people who help them because gratitude and appreciation are so important. But now I realize that I may have gone overboard and failed to prepare them for situations where common sense needs to override gratitude and good manners. Of course I warned them about overtly threatening situations, such as the well-dressed man who randomly offers candy from his car. But what about more subtle situations where people appear to be helping but may not have the skills or judgment to provide legitimate assistance?

In short, I forgot the advice asterisk.

And now that my kids are teenagers, they usually ignore any advice I give them and do the opposite of whatever I suggest. So, I’ve probably missed my window. But for the sake of other parents whose children are still young enough to care what they think, here’s how I would have modified some of the advice I gave my kids:

1. You can make up for a lot of shortcomings by being nice and polite to people. *But don’t be so nice that you fail to stick up for yourself when needed.

2. Live as if you were to die tomorrow. *But don’t make risky choices like doing drugs or driving recklessly or you actually might die tomorrow.

3. Learn as if you were to live forever. *No asterisk needed. Really do that.

4. To thine own self be true. *Unless your own self has become someone with questionable morals. If so, change into a better person.

5. Apply yourself diligently to the task at hand because you never get back the time you waste. *Xbox is actually the wasting time part of that one, not the task, unless you’re legitimately planning to be a surgeon, in which case you should play more Xbox to develop your fine motor skills.

6. Assume nothing. *Except that your family will be disappointed if you fail to remember their birthdays or Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.

7. Offer to help others. *But don’t get so sucked in to other people’s problems that you ignore your own health or your own problems.

8. Be careful what you post. *And guard your passwords and devices with your life so other people don’t post “for” you.

9. Find your passion. *In life. There’s plenty of time for the other kind.

I’m sure there is a lot more advice that needs an asterisk. Good luck with figuring that out. I’ll be dealing with the fallout of my inadequate advice giving for years to come and my kids will probably blame me for most of their problems. Oh, wait, that should be included in my list:

10. Take responsibility for your mistakes. *Your mother is not always to blame.

When Survival Gratitude Leads You Astray

As a cancer survivor, I feel like I have been given a second chance to live. And I’m truly grateful to be alive.

But am I taking my Survival Gratitude too far? Has it turned into a sort of warped emotional crutch that is negatively affecting the very life for which I’m thankful?

It recently occurred to me that I use Survival Gratitude as an excuse to avoid doing some of the unpleasant work of the living. Specifically, I allow myself to avoid conflict in my personal relationships because I don’t want to ruin the magic of this beautiful second life. Compared to the prospect of death, whatever minor interpersonal conflicts existing in my life I know I can deal with. But here’s the problem: I’m not always “dealing” with them. Because dealing with issues implies taking an active role in addressing or at least acknowledging them rather than just choosing to ignore them.

Survival Gratitude is a very sneaky avoidance technique. For instance, it’s easy to overlook something by thinking, compared to cancer, this isn’t really that big a deal. I should just let it go. After all, I could be dead. But then that little thing grows and festers and eats at me until I am ready to explode, proving it was a big deal after all.

What about having to say no to helping someone who is very persuasive and good at laying on guilt? Survival Gratitude can sneak its golden claws into that situation too by shooting dangerous “shoulds” into my head. I should help him/her because I got the privilege of living. I should drive an hour on a weeknight to support his/her cause even though I don’t feel comfortable driving at night because I received the gift of life and need to give back whenever I can. I should, because if I don’t spend all my time giving to others, maybe the cancer will come back.

I wonder if Survival Gratitude as a warped form of emotional torture is common. And if so, why?

Do survivors feel so fortunate to be alive that we don’t want to “sweat the small stuff” but we sometimes lose track of just which stuff is small enough not to sweat over? Does it relate to guilt about all the emotional stress our cancer put our loved ones through. Does it relate to survivor’s guilt? I’m not sure. And I’m not even sure this is a problem for anyone other than me.

But I am going to make a vow today not to let my Survival Gratitude trick me into being a pushover or extending myself too much. Because I’ve already expressed my gratitude for surviving. Now I need to get down to the more difficult work of living. Authentically. Unapologetically. And also gratefully.

Note to self: Anyone who can build a sand "foot" can learn to use gratitude the right way

Note to self: Anyone who can build a sand “foot” can learn to use gratitude the way it’s intended!

A Simple Way to Ease Travel Envy

Are you one of those people who linger over the travel section of the newspaper on Sundays? Do you have a long bucket list of destinations to visit? Me too.

Number one on my list is Alaska. I want to do exactly what my friend and her family are doing this summer on their Alaskan cruise: kayak near the glaciers, hike the national parks, cruise the Inside Passage, appreciate the whales and sea lions, photograph bears and bald eagles, and explore Sitka and Juneau. I’m not proud of this, but hearing about their trip is excruciating.

I’m convinced  that the whole state of Alaska might just disappear under melting glaciers if I don’t get there soon. But I’m prepared. I’ve researched cruises and tours. I’ve priced airfare. I’ve proposed camping in tents and eating only one meal a day (filling in the rest with energy bars) to reduce expenses. I’ve filled a manila folder with so many ideas, places and potential itineraries that I’ve had to switch to an expandable folder. Alas, even with rustic accommodations and gastronomic sacrifice, neither of which my family is in favor of, it’s too expensive.

I have a debilitating case of Travel Envy which is interfering with my goal of living a life of gratitude.

So instead of lamenting all the wondrous places I will not be touring any time soon, I am “revisiting” the places I’ve already been. After all, great memories are just a click away on my computer. My current background photo is from a family trip to the Grand Canyon in March 2012. My husband and I got up before dawn and left our teenagers to sleep in while we took in the sunrise from the South Rim. It was so peaceful and beautiful and vast that I still shiver with awe just thinking about that morning. I’m grateful that I got to see The Grand Canyon. It used to be number one on my bucket list and now it is checked off.

I guess Alaska will still be there when I’m able to go. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the Grand Canyon sunrise every time I boot up my Mac. And I’ll feel grateful.

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