Archive for April, 2013

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Adoption As An Evangelical Problem?

April 29, 2013

Adoption As An Evangelical Problem?

Ed Stetzer helps to address a problem that may not be a problem. To summarize:

1. According to writer Kathryn Joyce, some adoption agencies use their auspices to traffic third-world children.

2. Evangelicals adopt children overseas more than the average population.

3. Joyce sees connections between those two items; others do not.

Read it yourself and be informed.

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A Look at Suicide: An Outsider’s View

April 12, 2013

yellowribbonBy age 12, I thought about a lot of morbid things and, regrettably, these included thoughts of suicide. I was both depressed and full of anxiety, and the thought of ending my life gave me a sense of power over events and a promise of relief from my inner turmoils. I even made a few plans on how to do it, though I never carried any of them out.

By age 13, I never thought about suicide again. I was fortunate. Many are not.

From Roger Establet, and his book “Suicide: The Hidden Side of Modernity” I learned I would have fit into the prototypical suicide demographic had I gone ahead with it. I was male (men commit suicide 4 times as often as females), I was young, and I had an alcoholic parent. The only demographic I didn’t fit was the birth order: More suicidal males are the youngest among the siblings. I am the oldest.

Three weeks ago, one of my childhood friends contacted me and let me know his youngest son had taken his life. Two weeks ago, I had lunch with a college friend who told me one of our professors had taken his life after finding out he had cancer. This past weekend, one of America’s best-known pastors announced to their congregation that his son had committed suicide.

This horrific subject of suicide rears its head in the forefront of my brain again.

One of my closest colleagues experienced the agony of his son’s suicide ten years ago. The last time we talked, it was just as painful as year one.

In the 33 years I have been a counselor, two of my clients took their own lives. The first was a 42 year old woman with a lifetime history of depression and suicide attempts. The second was a 27 year old man who had kicked a cocaine habit, but was arrested for possession a year later in a bizarre circumstance. Out of shame for how this would look to his family and friends, he hung himself in jail.

Both suicides made me want to give up counseling. Even though I resisted this thought, both lives convinced me I needed to understand as much about suicide as I can. Yet, I found very few helpful resources on the subject. There is good reason for this.

Only the dead know what really happened inside of them. And they aren’t talking. If we could just ask them to describe the downward cycle right before they ended it all, we might know how to prevent this.

Yet no one wants to talk about suicide. Very few people feel they can ask the questions that niggle at our brains. Even fewer will allow their emotions to surface when we discuss why and how someone took their lives. Why is that? Do we all fear somehow by talking about it we will dishonor the person or their family?

Perhaps we all fear the power that suicide vainly offers us to end all our miseries. And we all have some misery at some time.

I was asked many years ago to officiate at the funeral of a police officer who had shot himself. I had actually been called on the scene of his death as the police arrived, primarily to support the mom and step-daughter who were part of our church community. The step-daughter and the man had been fighting. He excused himself, went upstairs, took his service revolver and ended his life.

In preparation for the funeral, I met with his family. He and his four brothers were all police officers. This was the second brother who had taken his life. I asked their permission to get direct and serious with everyone at the funeral. I looked the other three brothers in the eye during my homily and told them how selfish the act of suicide is and can be. I wasn’t being unsympathetic; I was trying to prevent a third suicide.

Malcolm Gladwell in “The Tipping Point” highlights a sociological study done in Micronesia in the 1970s. Suicide on that tiny chain of islands was almost non-existent before a particular date. After that date, for ten years, Micronesia had the highest teen suicide rate of any country in the world. Then, just as quickly as it started, suicide was rare again. As Gladwell studied the statistics, he found that near the beginning of the epidemic, two very prominent young men had committed suicide. This led to a rash of copycat behavior and many young people died copying these examples.

One of the things that Gladwell concluded is that suicide is one of life’s most difficult decisions; but unfortunately, it gets easier to make if people you know have done it.

In 1995, in Kalispell, Montana, 18 teens made a suicide pact with each other. They had a crazy notion they would die and then haunt each other’s funerals and get even with their enemies. Anyone who broke the pact would be haunted for the rest of their lives. Four of the students actually took their lives and then one of the still-living students spilled the beans to her parents. The entire town was shaken to the core. Pastors, counselors, social workers and teachers were brought in from a great distance to counsel every student at that high school of 1800. We were trying to prevent an epidemic.

Some of my colleagues interviewed the surviving girls who signed the pact. Strangely, these girls did not have a bad life. They were not depressed or particularly angst-filled (at least, not more than any other teen). They had signed the pact because they wanted to be part of something esoteric and supernatural. They were toying with eternity and knowing that others were joining them made death less scary. Unfortunately, the real death of four friends struck them with an emotional punch. They couldn’t go through with it.

But they still had contemplated it. And that is the danger of suicide in a culture: Once one person takes that route, it gets marginally easier for others to do the same. That is why I preached the message I did at the police officer’s funeral.

However, here is my point. Suicide comes in flavors and it would be good for us outsiders to understand that as we intelligently discuss it. To be helpful for your understanding of this real tragedy of people taking their own lives, let me give some reality checks about what may be happening inside a person who ends their lives.

1. Not all Suicide Is for the same reason. This excellent article from Psychology Today lists the six reasons people attempt suicide. To summarize, they come down to these:

  • Depression
  • Psychosis
  • Impulsive behavior
  • A cry for help
  • A philosophical desire to die
  • They made a mistake (as in, they didn’t intend for their action  to end their lives).

2. Not all self-destructive behavior is suicidal behavior. For instance, a girl who cuts herself with a razor blade may not be trying to kill herself. More likely, she is cutting herself to relieve stress by triggering endorphins when the pain starts. People sometimes like to hurt themselves to relieve a sense of shame also.

3. Mental illness is not a spiritual disorder or a sin problem. It is a malformation of the brain. We would never say a Down Syndrome child has a sin problem. They have a misjoined chromozomal pattern. Yet when a man has a Limbic system that has been malformed since birth, causing him to have depression and suicidal thoughts every day, we often associate this with a lack of faith or bad behavior. It is revealing how many times the family of suicidal men describe their lost loved ones as kind, thoughtful and moral. This is not the profile of a sin-obsessed person.

4. Some suicides are copycats. Having said that, the best thing for someone who is contemplating suicide, being spurred on by another person’s example, is to talk about it. Once it comes out of their minds and into the arena of discussion, it will sound differently to them.

5. Never call their bluff. If a person says they are thinking about suicide, it may be a call for attention. But it may not. Even the most skilled professionals are unable to tell the difference between a serious cry for help and a call for attention. If someone tells you they are thinking about suicide, ask them if they are willing to go to a professional for help. If they aren’t, ask them if they want to talk about it. NEVER, EVER say “Go ahead.”

6. Some suicide is rooted in selfishness; some is not. There is no way as an outsider to tell the difference. I suggest you don’t try.

7. Suicide is almost never the result of someone else’s actions. Romeo and Juliet aside, most people are not driven to suicide; it is completely their choice. It is a decision of course, but there are always alternatives. If you are one of that tragic group of people whose friends or family members have taken their lives, you may be tested by the thoughts of what you could have done to prevent it. Or, conversely, you may wonder if you were one of the causes. If you are even thinking that, it means you are not one of the causes.

8. Remember, you don’t see the world the way they see it. If you could see the world through the eyes of someone with psychosis, suicide may make sense. If mental illness had caused you to construct a psychological world where you are the superhero and your death would save hundreds of people, it looks noble, not meaningless. To wit: Do not try and evaluate someone who kills themselves. We do not have their internal point of view. Grieve for them certainly and find a way to move on. You will never fully understand.

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Exercises That Will Help When You’re Offended

April 2, 2013

OffendedSeveral years ago, I was counseling a woman who had severe depression marked by suicidal tendencies. After a month of counseling, most of the depression had lifted. But every time we made progress, she would return to issues regarding her sister. She could not let go of the pain her sister had caused.

She refused to talk about it. She would get choked up, and the knot in the center of her brow tightened. Finally, after we had exhausted every avenue of getting past this hurt, I told her I didn’t think there was anything else I could do to help her.

I could see her struggle internally – and then she decided to tell me.

“She told everyone in the family I was always going to be fat!” As she said this, her skin became flushed, she knotted her hands together in the middle of her chest and she bent over in pain. This hurt so badly it even caused somatic symptoms. It had happened 27 years before, when the girls were teenagers.

John Bevere, in his book “The Bait of Satan” calls this “personal offense”. He believes that personal offense is the root cause of almost every relationship problem on the planet. I have taught on this truth in seminars and no one ever disagrees with it. Unfortunately, the solution most people recommend is to “gut it out” and “just forgive them.” I really wish it were that simple.

But it isn’t. You cannot  just will away the hurt others have caused you.

But I have found we can dig up the root reasons for why personal offense burrows into our soul and eats away at our peace of mind. Here are eight exercises (and one final healthy response) I recommend to my counseling clients when they struggle to let go of past pain and move forward into forgiveness.

1. Think of a time when you did something similar to the thing you are offended by. Part of the ache we experience comes from a sense of injustice. It is not fair that others lie to us, gossip about us, take advantage of our trust. It is fascinating though, if I ask people to think about a time recently when they did something similar to the way they have been mistreated … people often feel the internal knots start to loosen.

Most of us commit offenses on a semi-regular basis, but we often don’t see the troublesome nature of our actions. It is only when it is done to us that we get upset. As we go through the exercise of thinking how we have done the same thing, it gives us a measure of empathy for those who have sinned against us.

2. Ask God to show you how He sees the situation. Several years ago, a friend of mine made a list of things I needed to improve upon. It was not a pleasant list; many of the items called into question my intelligence and choice-making. I was deeply hurt by the list. After marinating in my inner irritation for several days, I asked God to show me how He saw the situation.

First, God pointed out how some of the list items were actually true. Second, he showed me how my friend had been feeling cut off from me and didn’t know how to express his own hurt. This gave me enough solace so I could forgive him and set up a meeting. During our time together, I expressed my regret at how I had cut him off recently. Then I proceeded to tell him how some of the items on the list were very true. I also ended by helping him see how he had gone beyond the truth in some items as well. We re-established our relationship at the end of that meeting. (By the way, I have his permission to share this story).

3. Ask yourself who the person who offended you reminds you of. If the same person keeps offending you, and especially if your reactions to these offenses seem more intense than they ought to be, ask yourself if this person reminds you of someone else you were hurt by in the past. Often, we have trouble letting go of a personal hurt because the person reminds us of a person or situation we have not forgiven years before.

4. Put yourself in their shoes and ask how they would want others to react to the situation. If we can begin to see how it probably looked from the point of view of the person who hurt us, we may perceive the incident differently. Perhaps what we interpreted as a criticism was just a simple question. Or maybe the attack was motivated by fear for our safety. Even if the offense was truly offensive, we may discern how it was motivated by something we had done. Seeing things from the other person’s perspective softens the blow.

5. Keep short accounts. Wherever possible (and it’s always possible) try to let go of the hurt before the end of that day. Each day you coddle an offense, the larger it grows. Think of it as a debt. The longer you take to pay off a debt, the more you will have to pay and the more onerous the burden.

6. If feasible, talk to the person who offended you. Don’t just assume they know what they did or how you reacted to it. I can’t even begin to count how many times couples have said to each other in counseling, “You know what you did”. The reality: they often don’t.

7. React in the Opposite Spirit. One of the great teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) is this concept of giving people back the opposite of what they give you. If a person speaks hurtful words, speak a blessing. If they take something from you, give them even more. If they force you to do something you don’t want to do, help them in love. This will completely leverage your own soul and feed it while they witness you are not affected by their hurtful behavior.

Early in my walk with God, a man cheated me at a local business. The details are unimportant. I made plans to go to the local Better Business Bureau with the hope of causing him some kind of grief. My roommate in college offered to pray with me about it. As we prayed, I had a sense I was supposed to go into his shop and ask if I could pray a blessing over it (even though we both knew he had broken something of mine). When I went down there and asked him if I could pray, he mumbled that I could do whatever I wanted. So I prayed God’s blessing on his business. I left that place a free man.

8. Forgive and Release. When you have done some of the exercises above, then meditate on this question: Do I feel free now to forgive them? If you don’t, do some more exercises. But keep testing the water of your soul until the release comes.

9. Set boundaries that are safe and healthy. If a person keeps on hurting you, and if there is something you can do to prevent that hurt from happening, do so. The best medicine, after all, is preventative medicine. I have a friend whose husband had cheated on her four times. At one point, as she concluded he was going to keep doing this, she asked him to move out and get his own apartment. She told him not to tell her about any of his extra-marital relationships. In the end, she fought through her personal offense and decided not to divorce him. She often had him over for family dinners with her and the children.

So why did she ask him to move out? He had truly broken the marriage bonds between them and she didn’t want to keep hating him. If he stayed in the house while continuing to trample their marriage vows, the pain would not end. She truly forgave him, but she put a boundary so she didn’t have to keep looking at his offense.

The woman I mentioned at the beginning of the article did several of the exercises written here. What finally helped was going to God and asking how He saw her sister. God showed this woman that the sister was jealous because the mother favored the older sister. She got revenge by criticizing her sister in public. My client realized she had carried all this pain for years and had no idea what her mother’s favoritism must have done to her sister. Within a year, they had reconciled and now have a healthy adult relationship.

This works wonders if you’ll allow it.

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