Category Archives: Family

Buckets

For most of us a bucket is defined pragmatically as “a typically cylindrical vessel for catching, holding, or carrying liquids or solids”. Perhaps coupled with the colloquial expression “kick the bucket” to describe death, the idea of a “bucket list” to describe a pail full of tasks one wishes to accomplish before dying was popularized by the 2007 movie: “The Bucket List.

This unique list of specific accomplishments that an individual hopes to experience or accomplish before they can no longer do them is probably a product of a free society.  Individuals who struggle to meet their daily needs probably don’t dwell much upon what they want to do before they die.  The priority is making it through each day and waking up the next morning.

When we are young and optimistic about the future we don’t really think much about what we want to do before we die.  So, the entire project holds little interest because we have the whole world ahead of ourselves.  However, in time, our bucket lists can be quite extensive.  Travel to distant lands, financial accomplishments, personal goals and dreams all materialize on this list that has the potential to become ever expanding and inclusive.  At this stage of life our ‘bucket list’ has a tendency to grow as we experience more of
life and appreciate the world around us and within ourselves.

However, in my own observations of human behavior over the years I’ve begun to notice an interesting thing about bucket lists: the bucket seems to get smaller as we grow older.

For some, this may mean that they were able to accomplish most of the things on their lists during their lifetime, meaning there are fewer remaining things for them to keep on this list.  They have stopped adding to the list and, perhaps, establish a final goal of accomplishing everything that remains.

For others, it means that their desires for accomplishment begin to wane as they lose interest in the dreams and ambitions of their younger days.  In fact, it would seem that this list is more easily misplaced or even forgotten as we age.

In one sense this can be very sad.  At one extreme we can imagine someone whose life has become devoted to accomplishing everything on their list.  Once the list is finished, the next logical question is: “Now what?”  At the extreme we can imagine someone finding that their purpose in life has now ceased to exist.  I don’t think there are many people in this category…or, could I be wrong?

The writer of Ecclesiastes–most commonly believed to be King Solomon in his final days–had lived life to the max to experience everything “under the sun” and to uncover the secret to happiness and contentment (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).   His conclusion?
Meaningless!

What a tragedy!  To have lived life to the fullest, experiencing everything the world has to offer only to conclude it was a waste of time, like a crazy man in a field chasing after the wind.  Of course the Byrds version of the popular 1955 Pete Seeger song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” capitalized on this theme based upon Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.  I’ve often wondered if people understood the context within which these words were written more than 3,000 years ago.

CONCLUSION

In the end, it seems to me that bucket lists are useful when they point towards something greater than one’s self.  As we age we begin to appreciate our finite nature. We also begin to realize that the author of Ecclesiastes actually had it right for life lived “under the sun” without a view of what lies beyond.  Having eternity planted in one’s heart is more a source of despair than encouragement leading to a type of epicureanism or existentialistic way of viewing life.

As I, myself, age and begin the process of attending more funerals than weddings I have also had the humble experience of observing my own parents as they have aged.  In fact, mom and I talked about buckets recently and how they seem to get smaller as fewer things of this world capture the imagination.  What is happening is that those things of this world are being replaced by a longing to be where my father is, in heaven, looking into the face of God as He wipes the tears away (Revelation 21:4): the ultimate bucket list for which there is great worth in living and in dying!

 

 

Reboot!

A friend of mine was investigating his home heating system.  It was making a terrible squeaking noise.  Fearing a fan motor that was going Dirty-Furnace-Fanbad he dissected the necessary components, cleaned them, put them back together and then hit the power switch.

Nothing.

Pilot would not lite.  Fan would not come on.  No hum.  No noise.  Nothing.

Concerned that he must have missed some detail he repeated the cleaning process another time or two.  Same result: nothing.

In the dead of winter this is not good; so, he called a technician to diagnose the problem and offer a solution.  When the technician arrived he reached around the side of the fan motor where the reset button was located.  He pushed the button.  Suddenly, everything fired up.  Problem solved…except he was still needing a new motor.  The terrible noise was back.

resetWith computers we call them reboots: “If all else fails, reboot!”

Modems and routers, power tools and electric motors…many appliances have reset or reboot buttons.  Why?  Well, sometimes commands get crossed, power brown-outs or surges occur and the engineers build in a simple mechanism that shorts out before the motor or appliance is destroyed; the computer reboots to straighten out software conflicts or memory overloads.  It is a means of putting everything back on track and to protect more expensive components from destructive overloads.

Rebooting Life

Life is filled with resets or reboots as well.  Personally, we need new year resolutions to help kick us off the couch and into healthier living.  New days offer new opportunities to change routines, alter bad behavior patterns, create new opportunities or to simply settle down and center our lives to face new challenges.

Many changes we can do on our own, privately.  Other changes may require another friend with whom to confide, to hold us accountable,  to give us alternative ideas or suggestions or to just listen as we work through our own thoughts and feelings to get motivated.  Some changes are best made in a group setting with others to cheer us on as we reboot aspects of our lives to lose weight, stop a bad habit or instill a new value that changes the priorities of our lives.

The truth is that rebooting or resetting seems to be a consistent reality in all areas of life.  From the changing of the seasons to the ‘circle of life’ there are times when it is good to start over, to refresh and to give it another shot.

Hence, this dynamic can be true for individuals, groups, couples, families, etc.   It’s just good to make a fresh start now and then.  When the challenges seem more complex than expected or when those changes effect other members of a family or one’s partner it is sometimes good to consult with someone who specializes in communication and behavior change such as a marriage and family therapist.

 

Preparing For The Holidays

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Preparing For The Holidays: For Those Who Grieve

Holidays can be tough after losing someone, especially during the first year since their passing.  So many adjustments must be made every day; but, as the holidays approach the challenges can be overwhelming.

On Thursday evening, November 10, from 7-9 p.m. we are hosting a seminar at the Church of Christ of St. Joseph entitled “Preparing for the Holidays.” Our purpose is to provide a place and time where we can share stories, tears, and ideas for making it through the tough times ahead.

The seminar is free and open to anyone who grieves.  If you know of someone who may find this time helpful please invite them to come with you so they won’t have to come alone.

The seminar will be led and facilitated by Stephen Pylkas and Russel Hicks, both of whom have experience in leading grief groups and guiding discussion.

A grief support group will be available through the holiday season.  A sign-up sheet will be offered at the seminar.

For more information, to let us know of your interest or for any questions or comments, please fill out the form below and Steve will reply.  Registration is not necessary so you can wait until the last minute to decide.


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Stephen “Steve” Pylkas is the minister of the Church of Christ of St. Joseph where he also has his private practice (Southshore Counseling, LLC) as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.

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Since losing his wife, Carol Jean Hicks, to cancer in 2008, Russell Hicks has led grief groups at Lori’s Place for several years.

 

Family Time

FamilyVacationAs summer begins to make way for the fall a whole host of challenges open up for many families.  Preparing for school and all of the activities associated with sports and other special opportunities present all kinds of scheduling challenges.

During the month of August many families squeeze in their vacations and special activities and events before the rigors of the new school year’s demands begin.  As the end of summer breaks approach there are a few things to keep in mind that might be helpful.

  1. Quantity versus Quality – Family quality time often happens spontaneously and  unexpectedly.  So, quantity time makes quality time more likely to occur any time, not just during summer vacations.
  2. Communication Is Critical – It is impossible to not communicate.  Therefore, it is important to be consciously intentional of what we are communicating to increase the likelihood that people are hearing the messages we are wanting to send.  This is especially true as family members work to navigate through times of transition.conflict-in-family
  3. Golden Rule Rules – Treating family members as we wish to be treated will go a long way towards fostering considerate behaviors.  Power moves such as raised voices, belittling comments and other forms of intimidation may bring immediate compliance; but, the long-term consequences are often less desirable.
  4. Loving Listening – In all of the hustle-bustle at this time of year a listening ear can go a long way towards helping family members work through their own difficulties on their own.  Just listening to ourselves out loud can help strengthen our reasoning abilities and self-governing behaviors that will internalize over time.  In an age of instant messaging and electronic noise, we all need a good listener who will take the needed time to actively hear what we are trying to say.

These simple guidelines may help make this hectic time of year less trying as everyone works together to make the new school year the best ever.

Last Time: “I love you!”

goodbyeWhen our kids would ask why my wife and I would always say “I love you” every time we parted, we would tell them: “One day, there will be a last time to say, “I love you.”  Only God knows when that last time will be; so, we still hedge our bets, making sure the final words we say affirm our eternal love for one another.  How comforting it is to know that “The last time I saw him, he said, “I love you! ‘”

This haunting phrase becomes so important to us when we lose a loved one.  Sometimes, recalling someone’s final words brings a smile and a quiet sense of assurance.  Of course, this is how most of want to be finally remembered when our time comes.

However, sometimes those words are filled with pain and heartache.  In a heated argument words of parting can bring pain years later when neither party seeks reconciliation or attempts to affirm the positive aspects to a relationship.  Many times people say hurtful things without restraint due to alcohol or drugs that end up being the last word spoken.  While they may not remember what they said, the scars left on the recipient can be a source of pain that outlives the one who did not filter their words or seek forgiveness.

Discussing the concept of developing a mission statement, Steven Covey recommended beginning with the end in mind.  To illustrate the principle of “Beginning with the End in Mind,” he suggests that we imagine being in a dream, walking into a funeral home where we recognize the people in the funeralchairs as they quietly wait for the service to begin.  Meanwhile, a line of people stand behind the podium, waiting for their opportunity to speak a word about the person in the open casket at the front of the room.  As you walk to view the person there to pay your respects, you suddenly realize that the person in the casket is you!  Now you have an opportunity to hear what the people who knew you have to say about you.  No doubt someone will say, “The last time we met, he/she said these words to me….”

The question is, what will they have to say?  The answer is to proactively start working, now, on helping shape their message by your own words and behavior based upon your own principles, values and sensibilities.

 

 

Rhythm And Relationships

metronomeThere is a rhythm to relationships that is often taken for granted.  Yet, rhythm is such an important ingredient to making healthy conversations work and for helping diagnose problems when something is wrong.

For example, someone who is not rhythmically inclined in music or a coordinated activity will not be able to keep the beat of a simple metronome or marching steps.  In contrast is the person who is highly rhythmic in their perceptions who can clap out a complicated, syncopated accompaniment to the regular tick-tock of a clock’s pendulum.

Butterfly
1974 Harding Yearbook

Swimming is another example.  My memory of swimming the butterfly stroke in High School and College 40 years ago feels very different when I try to duplicate the stroke today at 57 years of age.  Finally working out to build up the muscle strength and stamina to try again I must have gulped half of the pool at first just trying to breathe because my rhythm is off.  Now I’m starting to get the timing back so that I can start working on my endurance again.  Without a sense of timing the stroke is a painful struggle in which muscles get pulled and water goes up my nose.  When the timing comes back the stroke becomes easier, making it possible to swim longer, smoother and more efficiently.  Before long I don’t really think about it anymore.

Our personal rhythm has to do with the day-in/day-out activities we do in an average day as we rise in the morning, greet family members, go through our normal routines to get ready for work, travel to our workplace, engage with other employees, return home, conclude the day and wind down to rest in preparation for the next day.  With the routinized choreography of the day we develop a rhythm that helps us stay emotionally stable, organized and behaviorally predictable.

The baseline or our daily rhythms also allows us to be flexible and adaptable so we we can choose to introduce measured changes that we can evaluate and decide whether or not they will fit into our established routines.   When the daily structure and systems are suddenly challenged by sickness, car accidents, or other uninvited calamity, we can step outside of ourselves, knowing that we will return one day to the regular rhythm of new routines, patterns and structures.

conversationsThere are also rhythms in relationships that contribute to predictability, regularity and security.  Boundaries are clear and normalcy characterizes the ebb and flow of life. Changes are planned and mutually agreed upon so routinely that we often take them for granted.   This is as it should be.  For marriages, families and other close relationships, these regularities provide stability in a world that is often unpredictable and chaotic.

These elements are so important to the day-to-day functioning of relationships to the point that, when people begin to shift their behaviors others begin to ask ‘Why?’ questions, looking for cause and effect explanations.  Divergence from the rhythms of life that have provided the basis for trust and freedom can suddenly become sources of discomfort, fear and anxiety when the answers do not satisfy the one who has started to notice the changes.

The security of sameness is threatened by unexplained changes that introduce dissonance between the way things should be and the way things have become.  The changes can be subtle at first or suddenly dramatic.  Either way, the development is noted by those who have grown accustomed to the sine wave rhythm of their relationships…but they are not ready to talk about it or are afraid of the answers.

So, the questions begin on an innocuous level, probing for logical, simple answers that reassure without being confrontational. Here are some examples of how these unilateral changes can introduce dissonance, addressed indirectly:

THE QUESTION

WHAT IS REALLY MEANT

You didn’t kiss me when you came in the door. Are you upset with me about something I did or said??
You stayed in the basement until after bedtime. Are you surfing porn sites again?
You sounded strange on the phone this evening. Have you been drinking?
Why so sensitive? I’m just trying to have a conversation…. What are you  hiding from me?

One of the faulty beliefs of addicts is that “No one will notice if I keep it under control.”  The reality is that someone has already noticed but they are not sure they want to risk the relationship by confronting.  They want to maintain the rhythm of the relationship.  So they have decided that they, themselves, must avoiding-conversationbe mistaken or over-sensitive.  “It’s probably nothing.”  The key is that the change is noticed but not being addressed until confirmed by repeated behaviors or collaborating evidence.

As the dissonance persists and the answers fail to satisfy one’s partner, real challenges to the relationship can begin to emerge.  Communication patterns begin to shift as questions start leading to suspicions and the breakdown of trust becomes an important issue to address.

When a partner begins to withdraw, conversations begin to escalate into arguments, when partners begin assuming the worst in their partner and when the simplest disagreements become a painful re-hashing of past hurts and perceived offenses, it is time to ask for help before erosion sets in and the sense of hopelessness and helplessness descends into a relational numbness.

Marriage and family therapists are specifically trained to help couples work through the issues and disparities that often lead to relational breakdowns in a mutually respectful way.

Family Change In New Year

The new year brings opportunity for change in our family.  Where those changes need to occur can be identified by clarifying areas of our lives that need to be kept in balance.  In his book, Making Room for Life: Trading Chaotic Lifestyles for Connected Relationships (2003), Randy Frazee notes three things that get out of balance in our daily lives (pp. 71-83).

1. Work Imbalance – The increase in part-time work as a present trend in America means people are working more in order to have less.  Straddling the tension between the demands of work and the expenses at home can mean that one or the other will need to be trimmed in order to enjoy the family we work to support.  Learning how to bring those two forces into balance is the challenge of the day.

2. Relationship Imbalance – Significantly connected close friends are difficult enough to make and maintain primarily because they require time that we don’t have.  Between work, school, extra-curricular activities and other social engagements, time for simply enjoying each other without distraction is often absent from homes.  Even when it is just us, alone at home, we are on the computer, watching tv, texting friends, listening to music or playing video games.  When texting or social networking takes the place of face-to-face encounters something is lost and may need to attention to get back into balance.

3. Sleep Imbalance – Frazee postulates that the epidemic of sleep disorders in the western cultures could very well be tied to both the work imbalance and the relationship imbalance.  The normal work day is supposed to involve working and resting in preparation for sleep.  Often, during that resting period, our lives are meant to decompress with significant others as we talk about the day’s events, both positive and negative, process them together and settle what we can.  When work carries over into the part of the day meant for meaningful relationships, the unwinding time is not available to process the day and settle down to sleep; instead, that time begins to edge into the time we have reserved for sleep.

As we consider the new year why not take a few moments to consider re-balancing our average day’s activities as it relates to our work, our relationships and our sleep schedule?

Learned Optimism

optimism

It is amazing to me how we often define words like “optimism”.  To the optimist, the word means that you believe the best.  To the realist, the optimist is still in touch with reality; but, just barely.  To the pessimist, the optimist has totally broken with things as they are and is slipping into delusional thinking.  Seeing the glass half-empty or half-full is a more considerate way of explaining the difference.

Martin Seligman has spent a lifetime studying the contrast between optimism and pessimism.  You may remember his early studies on “Learned Helplessness“.  He contends that optimism is a learned behavior that can help people overcome depression, anxiety and a host of other disorders.  In the second edition of his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Seligman, 2006), Seligman takes on the ‘self esteem’ movement in our culture and its shortcomings.  Just a quick read of the preface to this edition is both insightful and convincing.

Optimism is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is: “an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome.”

I believe that God is an optimist.  A primary example is His relationship to Israel.

“For he remembered his holy promise given to his servant Abraham. He brought out his people with rejoicing, his chosen ones with shouts of joy; he gave them the lands of the nations, and they fell heir to what others had toiled for—that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws.” (Psalm 45:42-45)

In this psalm the author recalls the great works of God as He brought His people out from the land of Egypt, concluding with the prequel to their entrance into Canaan and the result. Canaan was a land that had been prepared for them on account of at least two things: 1) God’s promise to Abraham and 2) the wickedness of the nations that had lived there before them.  Moses made it clear to them that it was not because of Israel’s righteousness or because they were better than anyone else (Deut. 9:4-6). Yet, he gave them this land to that they would “keep his precepts and observe his laws.”

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Anyone who is familiar to Israel’s history knows of the difficulty they had keeping His precepts and observing His laws.  How many times did God, the eternal optimist, tell Israel, in essence: ‘C’mon, trust me.  You can do it.  I’ll help you.’  Knowing that they would fail, that they would pursue other gods and that they would disobey Him, He still chose to believe in them.

Parents often beat themselves up because their children chose to live in ways that disrespect their upbringing.  Plagued with guilt, they wonder what they did wrong, how they missed the boat and what they could have done differently.

Sure, there are things we could have done differently.  Sometimes things work out beautifully, in spite of a child’s parents whose parenting skills were horrible.  Sometimes ‘perfect’ parents have children that just do not seem to have any regard for their family’s beliefs, values and morals.

In the midst of that, all parents have an opportunity to make a choice: “Am I going to deal with my disappointments and hope for the best or anticipate the worst?”  Without going into all of the reasons, in the end, I would recommend TrumanQuotethe course of optimism because that is the course God has chosen.

In other words, when you hope for the best, even when your kids demonstrate that they presently have no intention of moving in that direction, you are in good company with the God of high hopes and a broken heart:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

Predictability

IMG_0542Change is one of those love/hate necessities of life that, right now, I don’t like very much.  It really messes with my environmental predictability engineering!

To explain, I switched health clubs a couple of weeks ago because the new one has a lap pool.  From 7th grade through college I have been on swimming teams; so, naturally, I have been excited.

However, the change has meant more than a simple adjustment in wardrobe.  Because they don’t rent lockers I now have to carry all of my gear to the gym every time.  Forget one thing and you have to make a decision about whether to continue on without that one thing or go home.

We dislike change because it means we have to do things differently.  Some of us find adapting easier to do while others will fight and resist to the bitter end.

The key is that, at some point along the way we usually adapt to the change and make it part of our daily routines.  Then life becomes, once again, predictable.  This is nice because it means I won’t be forgetting things as much and that my routines will help me mindlessly stumble through packing my bag and getting dressed at 4:30 in the morningFamilyHomeostatis.

Families go through natural, predictable changes and adaptations over time.  Family life cycle examples include when a couple marries, has children, changes locations or jobs, deals with aging parents and struggles through their own aging and health issues.  At each of those points of adaptation (among so many countless other adaptations we are called upon to make) every person in the family must go through the tension of new situations.  This includes their attempts to deal with them, the attempts of other family members to deal with them, and their final acceptance of the changes that were required.

Some do well with the changes while others struggle with their own attempts to cope…which requires that the rest of the family figure out how to cope with the one who has had trouble coping.  As a result, an open ended, system failure begins to heighten the tension and remove the balance for which everyone is striving.thermostats

In Family Therapy we call that the struggle for homeostasis.  Like a thermostat that turns on the air conditioning when it’s too warm in the house or turns on the heat when it is too cold, so, also, interpersonal relationships go through the same struggle to maintain a ‘normal’ environment.  When people start pressing through the boundaries things can really get uncomfortable, troublesome and terribly dysfunctional.  In families, not only does the one who has started coloring outside of the lines create problems but the family’s attempts to control the family member can lead to problem behaviors as well.

This dynamic is all part of marriage and family systems theory.  While there is value in trying to understand the genesis of a family member’s ‘bad’ behaviors, how they got started, how they maintain themselves, families usually are most interested in making them stop…or change…or adapt so everyone can get on with life.  Marriage and Family Therapists specialize in helping families work through these transitions, overcoming the obstacles that often arise.  The goal, of course, is helping everyone move to the new level of functioning so that predictability can emerge and people can be liberated to reach out for their potential once again.

Heavy Holidays

happy-holidays-greeting-santa-claus-17263657Holiday advertisers would have us think of this time of year as a happy, care-free time to live extravagantly, to buy things and to eat well.  This is supposed to be a time to kiss the blues goodbye, to celebrate family, to be filled with good cheer, to let go of the past and to look to the future with joy, hope and a sense of glorious anticipation.

For most, this is a time of celebration and good cheer.  For others, however, this time of year can be filled with heavy challenges that contribute to the holiday blues.  What’s more, having a tough time when everyone is expected to be happy can increase the sense of isolation and intensify  the depression.  Here are some examples.

Death and Dying – Hospitals and funeral homes don’t close over the holidays because people still have accidents, get sick and pass away.  It is not necessary to detail all of the things that can go wrong; we all know too well that struggling through the first Thanksgiving or Christmas without a loved one can turn a festive occasion into a time of mourning.

Unproductive Conflict – Sometimes conflict is a good thing when people obey some basic rules and focus on learning to appreciate differences of perception and opinion.  At other times conflict can be painful and very difficult.  Old family issues, deep personal wounds and other skeletons in the closet can surface when families come together.  If those matters are not addressed in an open, healthy dialogue, they can often deteriorate into painfully predictable patterns of conflict that dishearten those who ‘just wanted everyone to be happy.’

High Expectations – During the holidays it is easy to get hopes up that this year it will be different than it has been in years past.  When anticipations for joyous homecomings border on wishful thinking, the let down can be particularly discouraging when reality shatters hopes for change.  We all have a sense for how things ‘ought’ to be….

Divorce and Step-Family Tensions – So many issues can arise when families have to cope with child visitation agreements and step-family dynamics.  Broken agreements, unilateral pronouncements and favoritism–whether perceived or real–can introduce real pain in situations where anger, resentment and bitterness already hang over a home like a dark thundercloud.  Forced smiles mask the deep hurts that lie beneath the surface where kids fall victim to a couple’s ongoing retaliation against their former spouses.stressful-family

These and other matters can uniquely arise with interpersonal relationships as best intentions are misinterpreted and reality shatters hopeful anticipations.  The holidays can, indeed, be discouraging; even heart-breaking.  Even when everyone is relatively happy, one family member who struggles with depression–whatever its root cause–can cast a pall that brings everyone else down.  This, in turn, can add to the sense of isolation, guilt and even shame that already burdens someone who ‘just can’t get over it.’

Marriage and Family Therapists are specially trained to help couples and families discover ways to cope within the context of interpersonal realities and individual differences.  Many times a simple listening ear of someone who stands outside of the family dynamics can clarify issues, foster an inner resolve and fortify coping skills that, many times, clients already possess but may have forgotten or got lost in the fragmentation that is happening around them.  So many families become locked into dysfunctional patterns that sometimes need  ‘simple’ interventions to get back to the normal patterns that are familiar, helpful and hopeful.