Missing Max…

Easter holds a great deal of significance to me as a Christian because it commemorates Jesus’s death and resurrection.  But, last year, Easter unexpectedly took on an additional significance.

On the first Easter, Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday, and rose from the dead on Easter Monday.  He went from death to life.

Last Easter, my dog Max became suddenly and severely ill on Good Friday, and had to be put to sleep on Easter Monday.  He went from life to death.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot once before that weekend did he show any signs of the massive intestinal tumor that would claim his life.  He had even been given a clean bill of health by a veterinarian at his annual check-up just a few weeks prior.

Max entered my life just as unexpectedly as he left it.  The decision to adopt a dog from a rescue shelter was made on a whim right after Christmas in 2009.  There were only five dogs in the shelter that day but it was love at first sight for me.  But, even though I knew there was something very special about the dog I named Max, it took me a long time to fully let  my guard down with him.

I had been given a beagle for my thirteenth birthday that I had named Sue.  Our family wasn’t able to keep her very long, in part because the three of us kids were allergic to her.  We found her a good home outside the city but she was struck and killed by a car shortly after giving birth to her first litter.

Max & Me - August 201035 years later, I finally had another dog but my answer this time was to not get too attached.  I loved my dog but I kept him at arms length.  And he knew it.  But, slowly but surely he went to work at breaking down my defences.

I had Max for a total of 2 years, 3 months and 6 days but it was a full year before my guard fully dropped.  Max’s death totally devastated me but my main regret is that it took me so long to love him to the ‘max’.  It was time wasted.

It seems to me that we should just love unreservedly, without thought for the future, because we will never know the future until we get there anyway.

I really believe that Max was my guardian angel.  He was my best friend when I was isolated from family, friends, and civilization.  And, his sudden passing became the inspiration for radical, necessary, and overdue change in my life just two months later.

By how Max lived his life, he showed me how important it is to:

  • always make time for hugs
  • do things with the people you love, even if they’re doing nothing at all
  • stay connected to the people you love, even if it’s just a nose bump to their hand or back of their knee
  • have fun every day
  • see the humor in life, even and especially at your own expense
  • be kind and gentle
  • be friendly with everyone you meet, even if they’re not always friendly in return
  • love lavishly
  • live with abandon
  • always save the yolk for last

This Easter, and every Easter, I’ll be missing my Max to the ‘max’.

Max

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My good name…


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We have no control over the name we were given at birth but we have every control over what we will do with it.  The following story perfectly illustrates the truth of that statement.  I read it years ago and have never forgotten it.  It’s the true story of two brothers that was published in the Chicago Tribune in July of 2002.

“One son was named Loser, the other Winner.  One became a cop and eventually was promoted to detective–shield number 2762.  The other fell into the life of a small-time crook, racking up at least 31 arrests before being sent away for a two-year stretch in state prison–inmate number 00R2807.

But for the brothers Lane, it wasn’t a case of their unique names sealing their fates.

“I went a totally separate route right from the start,” said Loser Lane, 41, a detective working in the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx of New York City.  Loser, a star student and athlete, went on scholarship to an elite prep school–Pomfret in Connecticut–and to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. Then he joined the police force because “my mom really wanted me to do this.”

Winner Lane’s life has gone the other way. Now 44, Winner got out of jail in June after spending two years in Southport prison outside Elmira, N.Y., for breaking into a car. He sometimes lives in Camp LaGuardia, a homeless shelter in upstate New York, shuttling back and forth between the camp and the city, trying to get his life on track.

Why did he commit so many crimes?  “It’s just some situations I got in,” Winner said. “It wasn’t really for the need.” He declined to talk further about his trouble with the law.  The brothers rarely see each other now. Winner will call Loser when he’s short on money, but they’re no longer close.  “I’m a cop,” said Loser, who is known as Lou on the job. “And I have a way with me where I don’t tolerate a lot.”

It wasn’t always that way.

The Lane boys ran in the same circles growing up in Harlem’s Wagner Projects. Their names never aroused even curiosity, much less ridicule, from the kids in the neighborhood.  “When you’re young you don’t know that it’s a bad name, and by the time you hit grade school, everybody knows you. It was a regular thing,” Loser said.

The story of how Loser got his name is simple. On the day he was born, their father, Robert, asked his daughter Dinelda what to name the new baby.  “My dad comes home and asks my oldest sister what to name me, and she said, Well, we’ve got a Winner, why don’t we have a Loser?’ And there you go. That was it.”

In any case, by adolescence the lives of Winner and Loser started down routes as divergent as their names.

Around the time Loser entered prep school on a scholarship, Winner began his descent into the criminal justice system.  He was first arrested at age 19, in September 1977, on a charge of recklessly causing physical injury. His first conviction came five years later, a burglary case on Long Island. A steady stream of arrests followed: domestic violence, car burglaries, trespassing, resisting arrest and at least nine arrests for jumping subway turnstiles.  In April 1999, he was arrested for breaking into a car–weeks after serving 135 days for another auto burglary. This time when he pleaded out, the judge gave Winner 1 1/2 to 3 years.

After graduating from college, where he played football and wrestled, Loser joined the New York Police Department in January 1984.”

A wise man once said…

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I was fortunate that I wasn’t given a name that I had to live down.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve done my name justice.  When people hear my name, what’s their first reaction?  Positive or negative?

That answer is solely up to me.

Think of names such as Billy Graham, Mother Theresa, Tiger Woods, OJ Simpson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Kim Kardashian, Lance Armstrong, or Angelina Jolie.  Some have always had a good name… others not so much.  Some changed a bad name to a better name by virtue of a lot of hard work.  Yet others started with a good name but lost it along the way, perhaps not realizing its importance.

I hope my name is a good name because it is a reflection of the person I’m endeavouring to be.  I don’t mean my accomplishments… because accomplishments are not always a true reflection of a quality person.  I want the things I do to be a reflection of the kind of person I am, and not have them define me.

Motive matters.

I only have one life to live, and one name to live it with.

Here’s hoping it’s a good one…

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Gently please…

I was reading my Bible the other day and this verse stopped me in my tracks…

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Gentleness…

Mild mannered.  Even-tempered.  Pleasant.  Kind.

Consistently…

After all, if our gentleness is supposed to be ‘evident to all’, it has to be consistently displayed.  Not just brought out for special occasions.  Or special people.  Or special situations.  Or only when we feel like it.

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We all know people who are consistently the opposite of gentle.  They aren’t pleasant to be around.

I know there have been far too many times where I haven’t shown gentleness.  I feel terrible about it almost immediately.  I always wish I could turn back time just long enough to do it over.  To do it better.  To do it right.

It’s always easier to do it right the first time than it is to fix the damage done by doing it wrong.

And doing it right the first time isn’t easy in the first place.

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Gentleness means making a conscious choice to be kind every single day.  Sometimes multiple times a day.  It means choosing and practising self-control.  It means doing the right thing, and being the right kind of person, no matter what the situation.

I recently started working with troubled young people living in family group home situations.  I’ve only worked a few shifts but I’ve routinely been defied, cursed at, insulted, taunted, punched, kicked, and even bitten.  Gentleness is not the order of the day.  Each time, I have a choice… respond in kind or respond with gentleness.  Firmness, tempered with gentleness.

I don’t know about you but I need help with that.  I need God’s help to do in me what I’m unable to do on my own.  That doesn’t mean I don’t participate in the process, it just means that I lean on a perfect God to do in a very imperfect me what I’m unable to do in myself, by myself.

Gently, of course…

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Keeping a handle on my insecurities…

blog 5There are few, if any, people on this planet who do not have insecurities of some sort.  Insecurities about their looks, their bodies, their talents, their weaknesses, things that don’t come easily to them, their fears, their failures.  The list is pretty much endless.

What I’ve found is that my insecurities have changed over time.  I used to have insecurities about how I looked and what I weighed, and it grew to be an obsession for many years.  To say it was easy to overcome would trivialize the agonizingly difficult and time intensive job of countering the negatives with positives, and then following through until I reached the point of physical and emotional health.  I could never go through that again, ever.  I still like to look my best but how I look no longer has any power over me.  I’m on to other things.

My main insecurity has to do with whether people will like me or not.

I’ve had this insecurity for most of my life and, once upon a time, I would change myself as much as possible to try and be other people’s expectations so it would minimize the chances that I would have to experience their rejection.

There were two flaws with that plan.  God made me who I am for a reason, so why should I think I have to be someone else in order for anyone to like and accept me?  And who was going to like and accept me if I didn’t even like and accept myself?  Then, there was the matter of it not even being possible to have every single person like me no matter who I presented myself to be.  So why not just be myself and let the chips fall where they may?  So, I resolved to just be me.

The problem was I didn’t even know who me was so I had to figure that out in therapy.  It was tough but worth it.  Now I’m thankful to be me, and I don’t ever want to be anyone else.

So, here’s the scoop for where I’m at today.  I don’t necessarily care if everyone likes me, only that certain people like me.  If they seem to, my main insecurity is that, at some point, they’re going to come to their senses, change their mind, and go away.  This insecurity has been a particularly huge struggle over the past 9 months because 99% of the people I’ve encountered are people who are new to me.  And, since I have the same insecurity with people I’ve known for ages, it’s that much harder with people I’ve known for a much shorter period of time.

I’m working on hurdling this insecurity.  Some days are easier than others but other days are tough.  What I need is a little perspective, starting with the greatest counter to this (and every other) insecurity.

Truth.

We need truth because insecurities are lies we tell ourselves that we choose to believe.

So, what’s the truth?  Well, I’m me.  There’s nothing wrong with being me.  Not everyone is going to automatically like me.  Sometimes people won’t like me when I take a stand for something, in which case the principle is more important than the person (although I would still hope we could agree to disagree).  The people who truly like me will like me, flaws, imperfections, and all.  They’re not going anywhere.  The people who change their minds… well maybe they weren’t the best people to be in my life in the first place or maybe they were just in it for a reason and for a season.

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What it comes down to is that I just need to concentrate on being the very best me I can be (channelling Dr. Seuss…), living my life the way I believe I’m supposed to live it, and striving to make a difference no matter where I am or what I’m doing.  The rest I need to leave to God, trusting that He knows best.  I also need to leave my insecurities with God because I’ve seen with my own eyes that He can heal them and change lives.  He did that for me, and He’ll keep on doing it for as long as I’m in work in progress.

Right now, I’ve got a handle on my insecurities and I’m about to show them the door…

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Gaining strength…

Lately, I’ve noticed that people seem to equate strength in a person as being tough.  Tough, meaning ‘in your face’, ‘don’t mess with me’, bravado.

That’s not how I see it at all.

blog 4Everything I’ve been through has made me tough, but tough in the sense that I don’t just collapse and fold when things get hard.  I’m not saying that I don’t get upset, cry, or struggle with life but I can be strong when I need to be.  My mother used to tell me often that I was stubborn.  She never intended it as a compliment but I’ve learned that stubborn with the proper focus and determination is positive.

My stubbornness has helped me in life.

I’m too stubborn to give up.

To me, true strength is when someone shows strength of character.  Consistency.  Refusing to let negativity win.  Pushing through obstacles.  Having faith.  Being an example of grace, kindness, and forgiveness.  Showing that strength sometimes means simply walking away.

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I think one of the best reasons to show strength is that other people are watching.  My son has been an adult for many years but I know he still watches.

Our lives are a living example.  We never know who’s watching or who we will influence, either for good or for bad.

I want my life to show that strength sometimes means showing weakness.  That being tough means sometimes showing vulnerability.  That being imperfectly strong is better than not being strong at all.

That our past might have shaped us but how we’re moulded is up to us.

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Keeping the right consistency…

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It seems that people either like to cook or bake.  It’s rarely both.  I fall into the middle category.  I do like to cook but I really like to bake.  The difficulty a lot of people have with baking is that it demands a lot more precision than cooking.

The key is consistency.

If you don’t use the right ingredients or the right ratio of ingredients, if you substitute the wrong ingredient – or in the wrong amount – if you don’t measure accurately, if you don’t closely follow the recommended baking times, you will get the wrong consistency.  And the wrong consistency practically guarantees a poor result.

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I was thinking about that in relation to consistency in my life.  How every aspect of my life determines what kind of result I will get.

I recently moved, and just spent the past week or so dealing with a lot of the minutiae that goes along with that.  Unpacking, sorting, unstoring, re-storing, changing my address with a seemingly endless list of businesses and people, dealing with government bureaucracy, reading manuals, etc., etc.  So tedious.

I also recently started a new job and, with that, came the biggest manual of all.  It’s seriously huge.  And I’m manual phobic.

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So, with just those things, have I been unfailingly nice, patient, thorough, disciplined, kind, outward focused, positive, caring?  Have I been the same person when I’m by myself that I’ve been in public and vice versa?  Have I handled interruptions, unexpected events, and unexpected outcomes with grace?

I wish.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t try, it just means I wasn’t as successful as I would have hoped.

Which brings me back to baking.

When I bake, I don’t just throw everything into a bowl without thinking, and then hope after the fact that I got it right.

That would be a recipe for disaster.

I plan for a good result from the very first moment, and then everything I do from that point on is intentional toward getting the right consistency and the best possible outcome.

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That’s how I want to live and that’s who I want to be.  My life lived consistently can make a big difference in my range of influence.  Which may be larger than I realize.  But, whether big or small, all I know is this…

The last thing I want is to be half-baked.

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Upping the praise…

praise 4I recently started working for a not-for-profit organization that provides supervision and treatment for at-risk youth referred by Child and Family Services.  The children are placed into community-based teaching homes where a treatment plan is created with the resident teaching parents to identify important skills that will benefit the children in learning how to deal with others, as well as skills for school and work, being involved in the community, and for living independently.

What’s interesting is the key to effectively building those skills and influencing positive behaviors.

Praise.

Positive reinforcement.

The minimum ratio of positive reinforcement to instruction or correction is 4 to 1, and increases to 10 to 1 whenever behaviors are heightened.  Praise is never arbitrary.  Tolerance for negative behavior is always low.  Negative behavior always has a consequence.  But the catalyst for change is always praise.

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Consider it this way.  All these children know is their shortcomings.  They’ve been reminded of them at every turn.  They’re documented in reports.  The majority of them have been labelled.  Out of control, attention deficit, problematic, delinquent, anti-social, suicidal, volatile.

But, has any of this ever motivated a child to change their behavior?  Has criticizing, punishing, and labelling a child ever been a catalyst for change?  Has any of it helped them understand how to change?  Why to change?  How changing benefits them in the long run?

Not if we do it the doom and gloom way.

I know this firsthand because I grew up in a home where corporal punishment, criticism, and  labelling were the norm.  To be honest, I didn’t understand most of it.  I still don’t.  All I understood was that something was wrong with me.  And that’s the way I went out into the world.  Deeply flawed.  No sense of self-worth.  No self-esteem.  It wasn’t the best start, and I paid a price for it.praise 2

If we really pay attention to a child and take the time to praise them for the things we see, both big and small, we will make a difference in their lives, in their self-perception, and in their self-esteem.  If we explain why the things we see are good, they will come to understand that too.  And, when their behavior needs correction, they will be more open to understanding the need for the consequence, and what the benefit is to changing their behavior… if they are being praised and positively reinforced each step of the way.

The goal is to have the children learn to both calm themselves and to acquire the ability to self regulate independently.  To do that, they need more parameters, couched in more of our presence, praise, and positive reinforcement.  It takes time, consistency, commitment, dedication, and patience.

But, it’s worth it.

Pushing a child down will never build him or her up.

Never.

We can either do things the easy way or the hard way.  I would rather do the things the hard way, to positively invest in a child and to potentially give them the building blocks to go out into the world with a better sense of who they are, better equipped to successfully navigate in life, relationships, and society.

“When virtues are pointed out first, flaws seem less insurmountable.”  – Judith Martin

I’m upping the praise.

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My self-esteem is not on the table…

blog 1I recently read this about self-esteem…

“Childhood experiences that contribute to healthy self-esteem include being listened to, being spoken to respectfully, receiving appropriate attention and affection and having accomplishments recognized and mistakes or failures acknowledged and accepted. Experiences that contribute to low self-esteem include being harshly criticized, being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, being ignored, ridiculed or teased or being expected to be “perfect” all the time.”

I agree with that analysis.  It also explains why I have struggled with self-esteem for as long as I can remember.

blog 6But, I’ve come to these conclusions…

– My self-esteem depends on me and not on others.  People play a part in building my self-esteem but I shouldn’t have to be dependent on it.  It’s up to me.

– I don’t have to fix everything in order to have good self-esteem.  I will always be a work in progress so, if I wait until I get to where I want to be, I will never have it.

– The Bible says I am “fearfully and wonderfully” made.  It doesn’t say that only certain people are.  It means everyone is.  My self-esteem should be rooted and grounded in who I am in Christ.  God doesn’t make mistakes.

– Having good self-esteem doesn’t mean I don’t have insecurities or fears or doubts.  It just means I don’t give those things the power to negatively impact my self-worth.

It’s easy to see the deficits in myself.  I think too much, worry too much, I’m too hard on myself.  I’m afraid of failure, of rejection, of not measuring up.  Of spiders, thunder and lightening, and being alone in the dark.  I’m pretty good at a few things but not particularly great at anything.  I’m far, far far from being perfect.

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But…

Those things are only a part of my life.  They’re not my entire life.  I am so much more than the sum of my deficits.  And I refuse to be defined by them.  I refuse to let them determine my self-worth.

I can honestly say that I have better self-esteem now than ever before.  It wavers from time to time but I still have it.

I’m glad I’m me.  I wouldn’t want to be anyone else.  I might have my faults but I also have my strengths.  I have self-worth.

So, sorry… if you want my self-esteem, you can’t have it.

It’s mine.

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It’s all about me…

For as far back as I can remember, I’ve wanted to make a difference.  I haven’t always known what that would look like but I’ve always had the aspiration.  But, for a very long time, I think I got the concept all wrong.

1.  I thought that, in order to make a difference, I had to do something on a grand scale.blog 2

2.  I thought that making a difference was something I could only do in the future.

3.  I thought that making a difference depended on how my life was going.

4.  I thought that, in order to make a difference, I had to do something intentional.

Don’t get me wrong…

You can make a difference on a grand scale, or in the future, or by doing something intentional but I’ve come to realize that isn’t where it starts.

It starts with me.

In fact, it’s all about me.

blog 3I can make a difference every single moment of every single day by who I am as a person.  By the things I say, the everyday things I do, and by living the courage of my convictions.  I can make a difference by doing and saying the opposite of what people would expect  when things are going badly or when things are going well.  I can make a difference by living a consistent life.  The Bible calls it living the fruit of the Spirit.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Every single thing that is opposite to human nature.

What I’ve seen is that I’ve made a difference in people’s lives when I’ve only been able to successfully live just a fraction of those things.  Things I thought no one noticed but they did.  Things I had no idea even made a difference until someone told me they had.  It humbles and encourages me, and makes want to be better.

I think the times we touch people most are when we touch their hearts.  And that takes a personal connection.  Maybe that’s why we’re called human beings and not human doers.

My motto?

Be first, and do from my being.

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