Close Your Eyes and Breathe

By Michael W. Raley

Before the coffee begins to brew,

The thoughts come rushing in:

“You need to do this today.”

“You have to do this too.”

“Don’t forget about this.”

“You have to do this on Friday.”

“You’ve been putting this off.”

“You’re out of this, you need to get it today.”

“You should have started the day earlier.”

The list grows well beyond what I planned.

Stop!

Close your eyes and breathe.

Come back to this moment.

Close the mental browsers that don’t need to be open.

Step back and reason through this.

Focus on one and only one task,

Then move on to the next task.

Gradual momentum and gradual goals,

Just as you would read a book:

Words become sentences, sentences become paragraphs, then pages, then chapters,

Then the book will be finished and will be on the shelf with the other finished books.

 

 

 

 

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Managing Our Anger

Growing up, I was a fan of The Incredible Hulk TV show which starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. In every episode, David Banner (Bill Bixby) would warn somebody, “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.” However, the time would come when David Banner would reach the point of getting angry and his eyes would change color. The Hulk was going to show up on screen any minute. (As a side note, in the comics, movies, and cartoons, The Incredible Hulk’s alter ego is Bruce Banner. A network executive did not like the name Bruce, thus Bruce Banner became David Banner for the TV show). The Incredible Hulk is essentially a Dr. Jekyll/Mr.Hyde story, where one person has two distinct personalities. Dr. Banner does his best to control the monster inside of him, but he still morphs into The Hulk. The question becomes how well do you control the angry monster inside of you?

Anger, if not kept in check, can be a destructive force. Anger has been the cause of countless wars, acts of violence, broken homes, broken lives, and suffering. If you’ve ever lost your temper, it does not mean you’re a bad person, you’re human. Even the Lord Jesus Christ lost His temper when he overturned the money changer tables in the Temple.

I don’t like who I am when I get angry because I become a totally different person. I lose control and my thoughts race along with my blood pressure. The rational, collected side of me steps away and the reactive emotional side takes over. One of my personality flaws is that I don’t speak out at first and I choose to bottle up the anger. However, when the stress becomes too much, I erupt like a long dormant volcano and my hulking green monster emerges. My wife refers to these episodes as my “Three-to -six month meltdowns.” After these episodes, I am fine for a while.

The Bible does not say “don’t get angry,” it says “In your anger, do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27, NIV). Anger is like a guest who long overstays their welcome in your home. Anger will eat away at you and could turn into bitterness, wrath, and may even make you vengeful towards another person, where you would want to cause them harm.

When you feel the tension rising up, take a step back and examine why you’re angry. Is this situation within your control? Did you just make a poor choice? Are you mad at something someone else did to you or a loved one? Is your anger a result of depression or anxiety? Is this a temporary or long-term situation? Please don’t act on impulse when faced with these situations, but consider that your reaction is perfectly within your control.

I am relying on my faith in Christ and study of Stoic philosophy to help guide me through the depression and anxiety, which are some of the main causes of my getting upset when unfavorable circumstances arise. If we can discover the triggers for our anger, we will be better equipped to deal with those situations.

Even in our technologically advanced modern age, I believe we can still rely on the wisdom of the ancients to guide us on how to manage our anger.

“Do not hasten in your spirit to be angry, for anger rest in the bosom of fools.” (Ecclesiastes 7:9, NKJV).

“He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” (Proverbs 16:32, NKJV).

“The discretion of a man makes him slow to anger, and his glory is to overlook a transgression.” (Proverbs 19:11, NKJV).

In this short video, the Stoic Philosopher Seneca’s viewpoint on anger is examined: Seneca on Anger.

Anger seems to be an expected emotion in our society. Anger is everywhere. In this age of social media, the “angry mob” mentality can quickly to take over when someone does or says something out of line. There is no doubt that people and situations will make us angry, but we don’t have to stay there. Who really wants to be angry all the time? I don’t believe that’s any way to live.

The biggest obstacle to overcoming our anger doesn’t lie within society, but in the space six inches between our ears: our minds. Emotions lie within our will and our will is within our control. Are you listening to or watching a program that causes you to get angry? Don’t listen to it or watch it. Is job-related stress getting to you? You can always change jobs or even careers. Is there someone who stresses you out? You can always change your reaction to that person. Thoughts rushing through your mind? Take the time to journal, relax, pray, meditate, exercise, or maybe enjoy some classical music. You can walk out of the prison of your mind any time you want. God bless you all.

 

 

 

The Virtue of Fortitude

Ever heard the expression “It builds character?” The “it” is what you are going through at the present moment. Though “It builds character” is often used flippantly and sarcastically, there is a golden nugget of truth we can mine from this statement.

Character is who you are- your mentality, values, beliefs, judgments, perceptions, which shape your responses to life and circumstances. Your character is fully within your control. Much like gold and silver, character will go through a refinement process.

“Take away the dross from the silver, and there comes out a vessel for the smith.” (Proverbs 25:4, NASB).

We are the silver. The dross is our impurities or imperfections. The vessel is what we will be and the smith is God. It is the smith who helps shape the silver into what it is supposed to be.

Our character can also evolve over time, much like how a writer may go through multiple rewrites before the novel, script, or comic book is complete. (For instance, in the original draft of Star Wars, Han Solo had green skin and gills).

The Stoics also believed in the importance of character. The Stoics believed that we can improve ourselves and that we should strive every day to be better people. In his discourse, “On Providence,” Epictetus discusses the proper perspective we should have in life.

“It is easy to praise providence for everything that happens in the world provided you have both the ability to see individual events in the context of the whole and a sense of gratitude. Without these, either you will not see the usefulness of what happens or, even supposing that you do see it, you will not be grateful for it.”1

Epictetus also links our character with fulfilling our purpose:

“And so for the beasts it is enough to eat, drink, sleep, breed and do whatever else it is that satisfies members of their kind. But for us who have been given the faculty of understanding, this is not enough. Unless we act appropriately, methodically, and in line with our nature and constitution, we will fall short of our proper purpose.”2

Since we are created by God for a purpose, we are called to acknowledge God:

“Man was brought into the world, however, to look upon God and his works- and not just look, but appreciate…Come to look upon and appreciate God’s works at least once before you die.”3

Take a moment to watch a sunrise or sunset. Look at the stars. Travel to the mountains. Look at the oceans. Take a breath and enjoy the moment.

One of the things that attracted me to read about Stoicism was the pragmatic and realistic nature of the philosophy. For the Stoics, it’s about the process. It’s acknowledging that bad things will happen and being prepared for them when they happen. Because you have lived through previous trials, you have built up a reserve of character, or what Epictetus referred to as “the virtue of fortitude.”

“Furthermore, you have inner strengths that enable you to bear up with difficulties of every kind. You have been given fortitude, courage, and patience. Why should I worry about what happens if I am armed with the virtue of fortitude? Nothing can trouble or upset me, or even seem annoying. Instead of meeting misfortune with groans and tears, I will call upon the faculty especially provided to deal with it.”4

Epictetus goes on to mention about how we do not realize that we have the resources to conquer whatever we are facing. When circumstances do not go our way, we become bitter, complain and resent God, but God has provided a way out. You have the tools, you have to work with them. You might get greasy or hit your thumb, but keep working. What good is a toolbox of the best tools if they are never put to use?

God bless you all.

1Epictetus, Discourses and Selected Writings. Translated and Edited by Robert Dobbin. London: Penguin Books (2008): 16.

2Ibid, 17.

3Ibid, 18.

4Ibid, 18-19.

The Pursuit of Progress

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” – Frederick Douglass

The ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes is credited with the statement, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.” While Archimedes’ statement applies to the world of math, getting from point A to point B in life is rarely, if ever, a straight line.

One step forward, two steps back. Previous generations pave the way only for the next generation to fight their own battles. The rules change, but no one communicates that to you; well-deserved and earned freedoms and rights can be hindered on the whims of those in power. That is why you must keep going. Wake up every day and put on your battle armor because you will be in for a fight.

In our pursuit of personal progress, whatever that may be, we must manage our perceptions and our perspectives. “There is nothing new under the sun,” as the Bible tells us. Life is cyclical. The trials and tribulations we face have been faced by previous generations. When problems arise, remember that flowing through your veins is the blood and DNA of survivors. Your ancestors lived through threats to their survival, poverty, heartache, disaster, war, famine, and disease- they passed those survival genes onto you.

Though you may not be at the finish line, have you started running? What steps are you taking to make progress? Are you passively waiting for the right circumstances? Are you swimming against the tide of the conventional wisdom of the naysayers? As children, we do not allow dozens of falls deter us from learning how to walk, we go forward despite circumstances. So why as able-bodied and able-minded adults do we shirk back in defeat when we stumble?

If you are progressing closer to your goal, no matter how small, keep going. You must build energy and momentum to overtake your current circumstances and to prepare you for the next circumstances. There will be struggle, rejection, struggle, pain, it will seem as if the universe has conspired against you, but keep moving. If you have to conquer your mountain inch by inch, continue to do so. God bless you all.

Name Your Price

“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”

-Henry David Thoreau

Unless you are independently wealthy, costs matter. In an age where numbers such as millions, billions, and even trillions are thrown around in political speech and casual conversations, many still have to account for every cent.

I believe Henry David Thoreau outlines the missing piece in the typical cost-benefit analysis: the amount of life and time we are going to exchange for our new home, the new job, or even an athletic goal. While it is a blessing and a noble effort to work hard and provide the best life you can, have you considered the long-term wear and tear on your body? If you are an athlete, will that small window of glory be worth it when the aches and pains remain after the cheering crowds have left? I believe in going after what you want in life, but we must factor in everything that comes along with it.

As Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher put it:

“If you wish to win at the Olympic Games, to prepare yourself properly you would have to follow a strict regimen that stretches you to the limits of your endurance. You would have to submit to demanding rules, follow a suitable diet, vigorously exercise at a regular time in both heat and cold, and give up drinking. You would have to follow the directions of your trainer as if he or she were your doctor.” 1

Epictetus also goes on to discuss the possibility of injury and losing the competition. Epictetus is encourage the reader to take a look at “the big picture” in order to test ourselves and our motives.

“By considering the big picture, you distinguish yourself from the mere dabbler, the person who plays at things as long as they feel comfortable or interesting. This is not noble. Think things through and fully commit!…Unless we fully give ourselves over to our endeavors, we are hollow, superficial people and we never develop our natural gifts…but consider first the real nature of your aspirations, and measure that against your capacities.”2

Jesus also encouraged us to consider the cost of discipleship in Luke 14:25-35. One example Jesus uses is someone who considers building a tower:

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.'” (Luke 14:28-30, NIV).

Before we embark on anything in life, let us ask ourselves if we are truly willing to pay the real price to undertake it. God bless you all.

1Epictetus, The Art of Living, as interpreted by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (2006): 38.

2 Ibid, 39.

Psalm 13: How Long, Lord?

Albert Einstein theorized that time is a relative concept. Whether time moves fast or slow is a matter of perception. Children cannot wait to become adults in order to achieve independence.  The eighteen years in between our birth and adulthood may as well be a 1000 years for as slow as time moves. However, as we age, time seems to speed up. You hear a classic song or re-watch a favorite movie and you remember how old you were when you first heard it or watched it. You shake your head in disbelief at how fast time has come and gone.

Perhaps nothing slows down time like a severe trial or test of our faith. No matter the trial- the unexpected death of a loved one, a broken relationship, sickness, job loss, an avalanche of debt- life can sneak up on us or just walk up to us and punch us in the stomach. Once we are in the trial, we in essence become frozen in time, as the trial and pain slowly consume our lives and thoughts. The discouragement gives way to the depression; the depression makes way for the despair; the despair evicts the last tenants of hope and faith.

HOW LONG, LORD?

How long, Lord? If you have ever asked God this question, did you get a response? Probably not. Believe it or not, you are not alone in asking this question. David was many things in his life- giant killer, warrior, king, prophet, shepherd, poet, musician, and a man like us who had his character flaws.

Although Psalm 13 gives us no context of the trial David was facing, it is clear David begins the Psalm in utter despair and is accepting defeat:

“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

And my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’ and my foes will rejoice when I fall.”

(Psalm 13:1-4, NIV).

David’s words are of a desperate man in a desperate situation. David is essentially saying, “God, if you don’t do something, I might as well lay down and die.” It seems that God is silent in the midst of our trials. When we seek God for answers and He does not respond, we are left alone in our thoughts. Our thoughts will run wild like a caged animal who has escaped its pen. We begin to question everything we believe about God and we begin to feel as if our flaws are beyond redemption and we sink into the depths of despair.

However, between verses 4 and 5, David experiences a turning point and the Psalm pivots back to hope and praise.

“But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” (Psalm 13:5-6, NIV).

It is difficult for us to see past the pain of our current situation. We look at the immediate failures and forget the past victories. We forget that we have the proper tools to demolish our obstacle and rebuild the foundations stronger than ever.

Faith, like our bodies, must be exercised to reach our full potential. When we lift weights, our muscles become sore because we have broken them down. However, our bodies are designed to rebuild itself after injury. When we go back to the weight room, our muscles will be better equipped to handle more weight than before. Trials, in the same way, can strengthen our spirits and make us stronger.

Psalm 13 does not give us an indication of how long it took David to come back to himself, but it probably took time. How long will it take you? Are you willing to allow this giant trial to mock you night and day as Goliath taunted the Israelite army? Are you willing to look back at what worked and what you have overcame to get to this point? Are you willing to accept the fact that the length of your trial is completely out of your control? Are you willing to look at your faith and trial in a realistic and pragmatic manner? Remember, David took down a giant with a slingshot and a well-placed rock. You got this.God bless you all.

 

 

 

 

The Hand You’re Dealt

The Hand You’re Dealt By Michael W. Raley

Swimming under a bridge that I’ve already burned;

It’s amazing how quickly your life can turn.

One small misstep or stumble

And down the mountain you go to be humbled.

The deck is stacked against me,

But, I’ll break even when I get to eternity.

These times have no rhyme or reason,

No winter, spring, summer, or fall,

It’s just one long and confusing season.

It’s high time to steady the weary knees and stand tall.

Trying to keep aflame the Divine Spark

Is a tall and mighty task

When you’re enveloped by the dark.

I seek the true way, in the Light I want to bask.

When the cards of fate were dealt,

I wasn’t asked what I thought or felt.

I’m learning not to complain,

Because it won’t change the circumstances or take away the pain.

Though this path I didn’t choose,

I will have to accept times of victory and a loss or two.

This is all part of a Divine Plan

That after ages still remains a mystery to every woman and man.

The only constant is change.

Thus, we must learn to adapt and rearrange.

Time is our most valuable resource,

So, take what you have left and plot a new course.