Monday, July 13, 2015

The Wise Use of Failure

One of the greatest fears anyone has in life is the fear of failure. It’s true. Failure for some people is the very worst thing that could ever happen. Some people are simply paralyzed by the fear of failing, imaging what terrible consequences will result in a failure – public humiliation, eternal shame, smokelightningfire – real end of the world stuff.

 It makes sense to be afraid of failure. It feels terrible. It sometimes has undesirable consequences. Sometimes failure means life is no longer going in that direction. Failure might even mean the end of that important relationship or living here anymore. It can get pretty bad.

But if your relationship with failure is all bad, then you’re missing out on the benefits of failure. Benefits? Of failure? Yes, the benefits of failure. We don’t like to fail and we fear failure because we think it is all bad, but we determine it is all bad because it feels so bad.

While failure feels bad, it is not all bad. There is a baby somewhere in that bathwater, so don’t throw it out. When wisdom is applied to failure, some interesting things happen. In the movie Elizabethtown, (one of my all-time favorite movies) Drew tries to explain to Claire why his failure is so huge that it is impossible to get out from under. He is committed to failure being all bad. Claire has a different relationship with failure. Her relationship with failure is that it is linked to true greatness.

Claire: So, you failed.
Drew: No, you don't get it.

Claire: All right, you really failed. You failed, you failed, you failed. You failed, you failed, you... You think I care about that? I do understand. You're an artist, man. Your job is to break through barriers. Not accept blame and bow and say: "Thank you, I'm a loser, I'll go away now."  You want to be really great? Then have the courage to fail big and stick around. Make them wonder why you're still smiling. That’s true greatness to me.

What Claire knows that she tries to help Drew understand is that when wisdom is applied to failure, there is no greater source of learning, growth, and ultimate greatness. There is a greatness known only to those who have failed that cannot be known by those who have never failed.

 But how do I get at that greatness? What is the wise use of failure?

·        Learn: Ask failure what it is so generously trying to teach you. And don’t be simply satisfied with “well, I’ll never do that again.” Go deeper. Find out how to do better knowing that each failure is something to stand on top of in order to get a better look at things. Some people call this “failing forward.”

·         Look within. Search your character. What kind of person did this failure expose you as being? What are your areas of weakness, blind spots, and gaps that need attention? Then strategize how to fill these in.

·         Look within again. Search your character for what you did right, how you maintained yourself in the context of failure, how you succeeded within the failure. Nothing was completely a failure. Then strategize how to highlight these strengths.

 The only thing worse than failure is to fail to find its hidden wisdom. Mine your failures for wisdom, understanding, and insight. You will never regret it.

Discernment in the real world: How am I supposed to decide?

Everyone makes millions of decisions in a life time, probably billions. Each day is lined up with hundreds and hundreds of decisions. Most of those decisions are simple and easy, like brushing your teeth in the morning. Other decisions are huge and life altering like whether to go to college, getting married, or what you might do for a living. Although every decision you make deserves your attention and wisdom, the more substantial the decision the more wisdom is needed. Huge decisions come with huge consequences (for better or for worse), so making the best decision you can make is pretty important. Although some decisions must be made in an instant like I’m getting robbed what do I do? Most decisions, however, provide some lead time before having to be made.

But how does someone go about making a good decision? Do good decisions just come out of thin air?

Well, sometimes people just get lucky and accidentally make great decisions, but most of the time that is not the case. Luck is a poor decision-making strategy. Most of the time people make good decisions not because of luck, but because of discernment. They have learned how to make good decisions because they have cultivated discernment.

 So, what is discernment?

In its simplest form, discernment is using wisdom to make choices. 

Ok, so how do I get me some of that wisdom?

·         Self knowledge. Knowing yourself, your experiences and having a clear understanding of what happens when I do that. Learning from experience is a great pathway to wisdom.

·         Other people’s experience. Look, you can’t just experience everything. You’ll never live that long. So, learning from other people’s experience is good. If Jimmy throws his Axe spray can into the fire and it blows up, maybe I don’t need to throw my Axe spray can into the fire to know what is going to happen.

·         Scripture – relationship with the Bible. The Bible has the richest deposits of wisdom in the world. No other book even comes close. Read the Bible with the question, “What wisdom is trying to find me here?”

·         Relationship with Jesus. Most people know Jesus is loving, good and kind, but what a lot of people don’t really get is that Jesus is the smartest and wisest person to ever walk the Earth. The Bible does not report his IQ, but it was most certainly higher than Einstein, Plato, and Edison combined. Learning the ways of Jesus and what he was thinking and how that motivated his actions will result in wisdom.

·         Prayer to God. Prayer is, for some people, an unexpected location of wisdom. Seeking God is always a good idea. Sometimes just sitting and asking God for wisdom results in getting more of it.

·         Relationship with older people. People older than you have had more time in their lives to learn from their own mistakes and the mistakes of others as well as their good choices and the good choices of others. They can really give you some great advice on some things and help you avoid the mistakes (and the consequences) they made and model the good choices (and positive consequences as well) they made.

 What are the individual conditions under which wisdom could thrive? There are some conditions under which wisdom can thrive. Each person must create within herself or himself conditions in which wisdom can take root and really grow.

·         Humility. Wisdom and pride (arrogance) cannot co-exist. They are oil and water. In the ears of a person filled with pride, anything wise sounds stupid. Seriously, the wisest counsel will sound like foolishness, judgment or oppressiveness. Pride sours wisdom, but humility makes it grow rapidly. Humbling oneself results in space for wisdom to dwell.

·         Desire. You have to want wisdom to get wisdom. It is not hard to find if you actually go looking for it. Hunger for wisdom. Thirst for wisdom. Go looking for it and you will most certainly find it.

·         Space. It takes some intentionality to carve out space in one’s life for wisdom. There is so much in our lives that will take our time and space from us. If we do not devote time and space to the search for wisdom, something else will take that time and space from us. Right now a lot of people are experiencing “The techno-timesuck” in the form a smartphones. When we are bored, lonely, or whatever, our “go-to” is our phone. What boredom and loneliness are telling is that there is something lacking in our lives. One of those things is wisdom. Rarely is wisdom found in getting sucked into “10 things your doctor doesn’t want you to know” or “These mind-blowing pictures will change your life forever - #3 just about did me in.”

·         Preparation. Gaining wisdom before you need it is essential. When a decision comes upon you, that is not the time to consider getting some wisdom any more than when you need to run away from a wild animal is the time to start the discipline of running.

 How do I make wise choices? Getting the wisdom-generating processes into place will result in making much better decisions. Some decisions you know are coming up and some you do not. Either way, setting into motion the time, the self-reflection, the relationships, and the relationship with Jesus through scripture and prayer are going to set you up to be a wisdom accumulating person.

 How do I make unwise choices? People make unwise choices for lots of reasons. They are unique to each person. I will share some of the ways in which I make unwise choices. Feel free to learn from my shortcomings.

·         Anxiety. When I make decisions motivated by anxiety or by fear, it puts me at risk for making poor decisions. When I make decisions in this way, I am usually doing it for the sole purpose of relieving the anxiety or resolving the fear. In short, these decisions are usually self-centered or simply self-absorbed. When I am fully and completely focused on myself, I am helpless to make a wise decision.

·         Insecurity.  Sometimes I get insecure, especially when someone is going to evaluate the work I do. When I start making decisions to appease my insecurity, I make poorer decisions. Again, this is selfish.

·         Affirmation lust.  I admit it, I want everyone in the universe to like, me, a lot. Too much. This is not good. When I make decisions with goal of getting more and more affirmation, even if the thing I am doing is the right thing, it is for the wrong reason. I can get sucked into a weird “Christian” looking narcissism that is real trouble in the end.

·         Anger. Decisions made in anger almost always s result in revenge. In short, I become a worse person and other people get hurt.

·         Regret. When I make decisions out of regret, it never goes well. I cannot change the past, and that is all regret really wishes could happen. When I make decisions based on regret, I am the one who ends up getting hurt. 

 Discernment is the use of wisdom to make decisions. Get wisdom, whatever you do. Begin a wisdom-generating way of living and a wisdom-accumulation way of being and you will make much better decisions than you do now.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Objectification of Adolescents: Monster-making, Trophy-making, and Colonization

I have spent a lot of time in my life with adolescents. In fact, most of my life has been spent in this is stage with these people. I have spent time with so many individuals in their second decade of life as well as with the social systems in which they are embedded – families, churches and schools.

First, I spent quite a bit of time being an adolescent, taking some bonus time in my 20’s really getting to know this stage very well. I spent several years as a public school teacher and youth minister investing lots of time into being near adolescents and their families and working with them. Then I became a marriage and family therapist and worked with families with adolescents in a therapeutic setting. Then my own children entered into adolescence and I am now getting a first-hand education on parenting teens. I am now 45 years old and have been in some level of engaging with adolescents since I become one over three decades ago.

In these three decades, I have explored, experienced, and examined how these humans in the second decade of life live and move individually and how they are treated in their social systems. I have learned a lot in these three decades, but I also know that I have much to learn.

One thing I have learned in these three decades is how much loved these adolescents are by the adults that exist in their families, churches, and schools. I have also learned that sometimes that love is expressed in some ways that are not so healthy. And frankly, sometimes it is not love that motivates the adults in their lives, but something less generous.

One of the processes I have seen frequently between adults and adolescents is adult objectification of adolescents. Adolescents are sometimes objectified by the adults in their world. In short, adults may intend to be protective, engaged, and supportive of the adolescents in their lives, which is a good thing, but what ends up happening sometimes is that the adults treat the adolescents more like a possession than a person.

I have identified three objectification processes that take place between adults and adolescents. For the most part, these emerge from good intentions, but devolve into dehumanizing processes. Here goes:

Monster-making. Sometimes adults and parents of adolescents make all adolescents into monsters. It is generally done as a response to fear as these adults hear horror stories of terrible things done by adolescents and fear that the teen they love is at risk for being the next one to do such a thing. Here are four ways adults engage in this process:

Obsessing negative. Sometimes adults and parents hold mistakes or imperfections against an adolescent. This process happens when an adult highlights only the negatives, the mistakes, and problems of an adolescent while obscuring, ignoring or dismissing anything good about the adolescent.

Overgeneralization. Sometimes adults and parents hold the worst in any adolescent against all adolescents. This process happens when the negatives, the mistakes, and the problems of any adolescent are generalized to apply to all adolescents.

Sympathy magnet. Sometimes adults or parents magnify adolescent’s imperfections as a way to gain attention or sympathy. Sometimes the insecurity or selfishness of the adult or parent becomes central when communicating about adolescents. There can be a sense in which parents or adults compete for who is suffering the most from their adolescent. Parents, teachers, youth ministers, and therapists are all vulnerable to this process.

Scapegoating. Sometimes adults scapegoat adolescents based on the problems of the adolescent in order to obscure their own problems. This process occurs when the adult or parent has significant issues of their own that they want to protect or are ashamed of and use the problem of the adolescent to absorb the attention of others.

Trophy-making. Sometimes adults and parents overemphasize the successes of the adolescent and obscure or dismiss the negatives, problems, or mistakes. In short, they set up the adolescents in their lives to be trophies of their own success rather than celebrating the legitimate success of the adolescent. Here are three ways this process plays out:

  • Self-esteem. Sometimes adults and parent use the success of their adolescent for their own self-esteem. Being associated with the adolescent reflects well on the adult and therefore the adult exploits this process.
  • Self-promotion. This process is the next step building off of exploiting the adolescent’s success for their own ego, it drags that process out into the public to demonstrate their own greatness.
  • Superiority. Stage three in this process is when this trophy-making process is leveraged against other parents or adults to demonstrate who is the better parent, teacher, youth minister, or therapist.
Colonization. In an effort to be or to appear to be (or to relieve guilt), parents and adults may over-engage so much in the projects, activities, or events of adolescents that they edge out the adolescent partially or completely. Here are three ways this process plays out:

  • Take-over. Sometimes adults or parents completely take over the success of the adolescent. They see an opportunity to be supportive, but end up commandeering the whole thing such that the adolescent becomes secondary to the success, project, or event.
  • Projection. Sometimes the adult or parent engages with the adolescent in the event, project, or effort so much that the original effort of the adolescent disappears and is remade in the image of the adult or parent.
  • Overwhelm. Sometimes the adult or parent offers so many ideas and contributions to the adolescent’s initiative that there is no room left for the adolescent to develop their idea, project, or effort. In the worst cases the adolescent just quits the project and the adult or parent continues it to completion.

Becoming aware of these processes is an important developmental component of the adult or parent. Awareness is the first step to stopping these objectifying processes before they become entrenched. If you find yourself engaging in any of these processes, here are a few tips:

·        If you can see a way to stop and it makes sense, then stop. Replace the objectifying process with a more humanizing process.

·        For some it might be more difficult to just stop. Talk it over with other parents or adults. Tell them that you might be inadvertently objectifying the adolescent’s in your life. Just talking with someone else might help highlight ways to make a shift in how to engage with adolescents. Make sure you talk to someone who can listen well and not dismiss your struggle.

·        For some it might take talking to a professional marriage and family therapist. The process might be so entrenched that it requires a family level shift.

It is never too late to make changes in how you engage with the adolescents in your life.