Cancer

It was supposed to be a follow-up on a precautionary biopsy, and I wasn’t particularly concerned about the results. Prostate cancer runs in my family, which was the only reason they even did the biopsy at all, but no one who had it, had to treat it. I thought, worst case, I would be the same, and best case they would say it’s just benign enlargement. So when the first words out of my urologist’s mouth were, “I’m so sorry,” it was a gut punch. When he followed up with telling me not only did I have cancer, but it was moderately aggressive and I had no option but to treat it, that marked the beginning of a whole new life for me, and not one that I wanted.

Everyone knows cancer is a terrible disease, and everyone knows some of treatments can be horrific in and of themselves. Everyone is sympathetic. But unless you’ve had the diagnosis yourself, you have no idea what an emotional impact it’s going to have on you. I’m sure any serious disease has the same effect, but you start thinking of your life as in two segments: before the diagnosis, and after. Before the diagnosis you were a different person, one you can never get back. Let me tell you, it’s staggering. Prostate cancer is very treatable, and only rarely fatal, and at no point have I been concerned for my life, but that changes little. There is always this measure of uncertainty. I think if I was told, “you have a year to live, arrange your affairs,” it might be easier to deal with. Of course, I didn’t get that kind of news, so I don’t really know, but that’s the realm my emotions have been exploring. There is also the factor of slowness in prostate cancer, which lends a whole other level of uncertainty. My father never treated his, and neither did my oldest brother. They both died of other causes before the cancer was even a factor. But mine was more aggressive. My PSA almost doubled in a year; I went from no cancer to a Gleason 7 in a year. For prostate cancer, that’s quick. Still, if I was the type of person who said I would do nothing, I still probably had a few years before it would catch up to me. But the thing is, you don’t really know. It’s like Death is around the corner, leering at you, and you never know if it’s just going to hang there and threaten, or if it’s going to pounce. My wife’s grandfather had prostate cancer, had it treated and was thought to be fine, but it came back a year or two later, and killed him. So, the bottom line is, nothing is certain. Your doctors will promise nothing, only advise you of possibilities.

Which leads to another observation: you are pretty much on your own deciding what to do. I was given options by my urologist, and he told me to think about it for a week maybe, then tell him how I wanted to proceed. That was right before Christmas (which made for an unusual holiday). Almost everyone in the medical field, including my urologist, told me the best choice in my circumstance was to have a prostatecomy. But friends and acquaintances, that was another story. I knew one guy who had one and said it was the best decision he ever made in his life. I had another, who I never even told directly, call me up out of the blue an admonish me not to do it – I’d be wearing a diaper the rest of my life, and would never be able to “get it up” again. Another quietly (so quietly, it was obvious he knew more than he was saying) told me it wasn’t going to be any fun, but I’d be glad I did it in the end. Another as much as said, “why remove part of your body if there are other options?” It goes on and on, and my head was spinning after a while. So I had to calmly measure the options myself, and decide myself. I decided to have the offending gland removed.

I didn’t waste any time, I wanted to get it over with … and besides, I was getting mortally tired of needing to urinate every hour on the hour. The surgery was scheduled, and I informed my employer I’d be out for a few weeks. The day approached, and I got a call from the surgery coordinator that it would have to be postponed a few days; the assistant’s wife had a baby, and he would be out on paternity leave. This did not please me, I really wanted it over and done. It wasn’t much of a delay, just two days, but I was very upset. Then I got sick, and was terrified they would postpone it again. But the second date came up, and I was well enough in the surgeon’s opinion, so the procedure went as scheduled.

The official name for my procedure is a robotic-assisted radical prostatectomy. It’s laparoscopic in that they use a camera and small incisions, but the robot part makes it non-traditional. I’ve read it’s considered more precise, but not everyone agrees because there is still a person at the controls, and at least one article I read say that surgical centers like to say that just so they can defray the cost. None of that mattered very much to me. I liked the idea that my recovery would be smoother and easier, and that there wouldn’t be as much damage going in. So they slid me onto the operating table, which had a rather ominous seeming gel pad with a strap where they rested my head. Then the anesthesiologist did her thing, and I was out. I was told afterwards that the procedure involved pumping my abdomen full of CO2 to separate all the mushy guts and give the surgeon a clearer view and make it easier for him to leave the healthy mushy parts alone. I was strapped to the table and turned upside down at a 45 degree angle. Somewhere along the line, they inserted a catheter, and the surgeon got behind the console and cut the prostate away. I was told afterwards it went as perfectly as it could have gone. They didn’t have to mess with any of the nerves that control continence or erectile functions, and there is a good chance when my recovery is finished, I’ll be as normal and healthy as a person with no prostate can be. All great news.

But of course, there had to be a hiccup. I was advised that most likely I’d be able to go home the day after the procedure. But as soon as they wheeled me into my room, I had a problem. My roommate was a loud guy. His TV was loud, his phone was loud, and when the lights went out, he snored like a train wreck. I weaved in and out of consciousness, but I didn’t rest, and if I slept an hour total, it was a lot. I didn’t have the presence of mind to call a nurse, though they told me after I could have and they would have done something. But at the time I was too loopy, and I was thinking he was in recovery too, I wasn’t about to give him a hard time. They gave me something deep in the night which magically made every tiny bit of pain and discomfort go away – and I mean completely. It hit me like being kicked by a horse though, I had vertigo if I just turned my head. My single hour of sleep probably came right about then.

In the morning I was so nauseous I could barely move. I had no desire to eat – which was twofold actually: the swill they called food was so vile I couldn’t choke it down if I wanted to, and, I didn’t want to. I had Jello. Lunch was the same: two bites out of a sandwich and some Jello. Dinner was the same. When the doctor came by, he said I couldn’t go home in that state, not until I at least had my appetite back. I was not upset by this. That night was when the real horror began. I have a delicate stomach, I always have, since childhood. It gets upset, and I get gassy at the drop of a hat, especially if I’m hungry. So I fasted for nearly 20 hours, then couldn’t eat after. They also had pumped me up like a balloon to do the procedure, and there was residual gas in my abdominal cavity. I hadn’t slept more than 5 hours total in a 36 hour period, and was having minor convulsions from sheer fatigue. I settled in for the night, and woke up an hour later screaming.

I did not have the presence of mind to call a nurse. I didn’t know where I was, I was exhausted, and I was in so much pain I couldn’t think. Apparently, I was loud enough the nurse came running anyway, two of them in fact. I was somehow able to tell them it was my gut, which roughly felt like I had swallowed a bowling ball. They sat me up straight, jacked up my legs as much as they could, and I started belching copiously. Gas came out of both ends, not to put too fine a point on it, and satisfied, the nurse said, “that’s good, it’s coming out,” and she left to her regular duties. I don’t know how long I sat like that, the gas coming out in volume, but it was no big relief because it just kept coming, and coming, and coming. But even sitting straight up, I was so exhausted, I couldn’t stay conscious and passed out. About an hour again, and I woke, my first thought being, “what a horrible nightmare.” But I soon realized, it was no nightmare; I started belching and passing gas again. I woke into the nightmare, not out of it. This time I called the nurse, I asked her what was going on, and could she do anything to settle my stomach. She said, “let me see,” and walked away. In retrospect I realized there was no way she could do a thing without a doctor’s order, and it was 2 AM, that wan’t going to happen, but I took her at her word. I passed out again, and roughly an hour later awoke again in the same state. I hit the call button again, and this time the nurse didn’t appear, one of the aids did. I asked if anything was going to happen, and he just said, “if it’s gas, there’s nothing to do except walk it off.” He left, and I just cried.

This is another one of those things that’s impossible to understand if you haven’t been through something like it. I felt such an overwhelming horror of despair, I wished I had just decided to die of cancer. But it was too late, it was done. I let them chop me up, I let them drastically change my body, and there was no way to take it back. I was going through this no matter what. I cried a lot. It’s good my roommate had gone home and I had the room to myself. I texted my wife, and I texted my family, even knowing they would all be in bed and no one would see it until morning. I was so desperately lonely. I was in so much pain, I was feeling so hopeless. I passed out a third time, and that time I stayed out until morning. But with the emotional horror plus the pain, I can say with no equivocation, that was the absolute worst night of my life. I don’t know how anyone who is alone gets through such things. Just the thought that I had people who loved me was the only thing that kept me going at all.

That was Friday night. Saturday was nominally better, but not all that much. My appetite remained in abeyance. When the doctor swung by, he ordered some lab work and said he was holding me another night. I didn’t eat much lunch, but to my immense excitement, was able to get down 3/4 of a turkey wrap for dinner. It’s wasn’t bad either. I had turned a corner. My wife was with me all day, and some friends came by and helped me pass the time in the afternoon. My brother hung out with me in the evening. I went for little walks down the hall: little old lady steps, clinging to a wheeled IV rack. The doctor ordered something for the gas – it didn’t quite go away, but it wasn’t so excruciating. I slept. I didn’t sleep all night, but I slept. When breakfast came on Sunday morning, I ate the whole thing. My doctor came by, pulled some nasty thing out of my side that was collecting fluids, and started the discharge procedure.

As I write, I’ve been home for two days. I’m sleeping in a recliner with what I call a diaper pad and an old sheet on it; bed doesn’t seem much of an option wearing a catheter, and I don’t want to ruin my sheets or my mattress if it leaks (which, by the way, it does … not much, just a bit of a dribble from where it goes in, but enough that I don’t want to chance it). Gas has taken second place in my woes to constipation, but that’s easing up too. The catheter is not comfortable, nor is it any fun, but it’s tolerable, and most of the time, I can tune it out. I’m not on any heavy drugs, just Tylenol and Gasex. Every day, the sutures hurt less, and I can walk more, and more steadily. I have to sit on a horseshoe pillow to avoid putting weight on the surgical site, but I can sit without reclining (it’s amazing how fast that gets old). I still have a cough from the pre-surgical illness which was agony just a few days ago, but only just hurts a bit now. But most important, the despair is gone. On some level, I always knew it would, and fatigue, pain, and drugs had a strong voice in that, but it was still there, and it was horrific. Not so now.

And here’s what I have learned:

  • Support from family and friends is incalculable. I cannot in any way shape, or form understate how important my wife has been to me this past week and how utterly lost I would be without her. My brothers and sister as well, and a large number of awesome friends.
  • Things rarely turn out to be what you expect, and you have to be able to adjust. I anticipated soreness, discomfort from the catheter, a few bad nights, but I absolutely had no idea of the excruciating gas pain, the twitching exhaustion, and the bottomless hopeless despair of a single, utterly bad night.
  • And, for that matter, for good or ill, everyone’s different. Someone else in my place might have breezed through this. Another might have even worse of a time. You can’t know. But this much is a certainty, you get through it, or you die, there are no other options in the end.
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Morning Star

The blanket of the evening’s dark falls silently upon the ground,
As branches reach against the sky, a frame before the starry night –
The brightness of the streets has fled, the sidewalks now by lamplight crowned;
With daylight’s vision pared to glowing circles of the lesser light.

In Bethlehem the lesser lights once paled before the Morning Star,
Who spilled His Light and spilled His blood upon the Dark of mortal hearts.
No feeble glow, His morning fell on dim-lit landscapes near and far,
Immortal balm to cure the ills untouched by any human arts.

Though silently the Gift is giv’n, the Light of Heaven blazes bright,
The Morning Star gives Life and Joy; eternal triumph o’er the Night.

Copyright © 2018 David B. Hawthorne

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The Road To Bethlehem

The weary road stretched on beneath their feet,
From day to dusty day along the haggard way,
Their goal a tiny village where their folk must meet
By edict to be counted, then to pay.

But joy would come, a Baby in the hay –
Declared by heav’nly hosts and portents mighty, strong;
A cloud of darkness lifted on a glorious day,
A holy birth proclaimed by angel song.

Like them with guarded step we walk along
From day to hopeful day on life’s uncertain course,
With confidence that in His love we still belong
As holy Promise strips away remorse.

For Christ was born to banish darkest night
And end each journey with His blessed Light.

Copyright © 2017 David B. Hawthorne

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In Dark of Night

In dark of night the shepherds watched, their quiet flocks before them spread;
A simple life, a simple task, no lofty prospects yet ahead …
But angel voice and angel choir broke full upon their quiet eve,
With more of joy and triumph than their hearts could once conceive.

In gray of day we spend our lives, our busy tasks before us cast;
Our aspirations fill our hearts, and dreams of better lives at last …
But oh, so often, hopes fall flat, a crumbling tower built on sand,
And leave us with the stark remains of things we once felt well in hand.

In light of life the Savior came to shatter sin and open doors
The shout of glory in His work an angel choir underscores;
The infant in a manger stall, though wondrous in His time and place,
Was but a prelude to the song of joyful and eternal grace.

Copyright © 2016 David B. Hawthorne
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Ashes Fell Like Snow

I was at work on September 11, 2001, when the call came. I had an appointment in Jersey City that morning, but I hadn’t left for it yet. Our installation manager took the call, and half a minute into it, he turned towards me and said, “A plane just crashed into the Trade Center.” I was stunned, and just stared at him while he walked over to the table radio in the office space we shared. He turned it on, and we were listening to events unfold when the news came that another plane hit the other tower. I remember both of us just standing there, and I looked at him and said, “Two?! That can’t have been an accident.”

Of course, it was not. Everyone in the office stopped what they were doing at that point, and we all stared at the radio. I don’t remember cancelling my appointment, but I must have, because I never went that day. A vendor representative called a bit later, saying he wasn’t going to make it to the appointment he had with us, because he was trapped on the Turnpike spur leading to NYC, and the traffic simply wasn’t moving. Too many people were trying to get out, all at once. We had an installation crew at a job site, and they called in, asking what they should do – the client’s husband worked in the Trade Center, and she hadn’t heard from him. She was beside herself. The installation manager told them to pack up and come back. As far as I know, we never finished that job; the husband died that day. We listened to the news for what seemed like hours, but probably wasn’t. We closed early. It was obvious no one was going to get any work done.

It was a crystal clear day, and warm. Pretty near perfect weather for September in New Jersey. All the way home, I kept looking in my rear view mirror, and I could see the single plume of smoke rising in the northeast. When I got out of my car, I looked northward again, to see if it was still visible from my parking lot. I live near the Raritan Bay in NJ, and though I’m not more than a mile or two from the bay itself, all the width of the bay and a good 2/3rds of Staten Island are between my home and the Trade Center. I could still see the smoke, though it seemed more like a cloud from that distance. But I noticed something else as well: it looked like it was snowing. It was eighty degrees out, so I knew it couldn’t be snow, but I could also smell the burning. Twenty-two miles, as the crow flies, and I could smell the towers burning, and could see the ashes falling in my parking lot. The wind wasn’t even blowing in my direction.

One ash floated softly in front of my face. It was roughly rectangular, and riddled with holes, like a bit of lace. It was a tiny thing, and I wept as I realized it was all that was left of someone’s life. It was all that was left of someone else’s livelihood. It was all that was left of a lot of our illusions of safety and strength … just ashes, falling like snow.

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Dealing With Deceit

There are no two ways around it: at some point in your life, you have been deceived, and you will be deceived again. There is something, right now, that you hold in your heart as true, and it is not. Lies and deceit are a part of the human condition that cannot be avoided; they grow like weeds, and they spread like disease.

There are two broad categories of deception, as I see it: deliberate and mistaken. There is some overlap, inasmuch as one may engender the other, but the heart of how I define them is that deliberate deception is when a person means to deceive, and mistaken deception is when the deceiver believes they are telling the truth but are in error. Once the deceit is passed along, a deliberate deceit can become a mistaken deceit when the person who hears it believes it, and repeats it as true. But there have always been those who know better and pass it along anyway, so that it remains, in that case, deliberate. You could, I suppose, break it down further to malicious deceit, where the purpose is to obscure the truth to promote an agenda of the teller, and well-meaning deceit, where the purpose is to shield the hearer from an unpleasant truth “for their own good.” I have some quibbles with that distinction. I don’t think deliberate deceit is ever a good thing, and this includes “little white lies.” If you can’t tell someone the truth without hurting them, don’t tell them anything until they are ready for the truth. Furthermore, that kind of attitude is a slippery slope into a bottomless pit – where does it stop? It doesn’t take very long for a single lie to become a plethora of them, and then they get repeated, and soon no one knows what’s true and what isn’t on that subject. Just try researching something controversial on the Internet if you don’t know what I mean by that.

Let enough deceit proliferate, and it can dominate a culture, and I doubt there has been a culture in the history of humanity where this has not eventually happened. Once a culture is dominated by deceit, the foundations of trust become rotten. When trust is gone, because those foundations have crumbled, so is the basis for authority. Brutal repression is the result of authority without trust, and eventually cultures of repression collapse in revolt, or when the center can no longer hold against outside forces because too much of its resources are spent in the repression. And the sad result, as any student of history can tell you, is that the new culture that arises from the ashes of the last learns nothing, and does the same.

But what is it about human nature that makes deceit so easily take root? I personally believe there are spiritual reasons at the heart of the matter, but even utterly secular psychologists recognize that there are some very concrete and definable limitations to how the human mind works that make it possible. Even a cursory web search of the term “cognitive bias” will provide you with lots of fascinating reading on the topic. Many of the recognized biases provide a genuine advantage in circumstances when those around you are trustworthy. It’s the deepest irony that they also become a horrible liability when those around you are not.

One strong example of this is known as the “bandwagon effect.” Have you ever sat in a group of sports fans and found yourself cheering for a team you normally didn’t care about? Perhaps a die-hard fan would never do such a thing, but I am not a sports fan of any sort. I enjoy watching a good game now and them, but I don’t have any teams of my own. Yet if I’m at a Superbowl party, I’ll root for whoever my host and other friends are rooting for. This is a large part of what gives politicians “momentum,” and can become a driving force behind rallies and protests. It is a defense against error, in that if an outsider tries to foist a deception on you, those around you will reject it and protect you from that error. But what if your group is in fact the party in error? It’s easy to see how you may tend to accept the falsehood because those around you do.

Another is an effect called “confirmation bias.” The effect is described as a tendency to be more accepting of opinions, statements, and expressions that support something you already agree with. You only have to spend two minutes on Facebook to see that one in action. This is what drives conspiracy theories and resistance movements. If your ideas are accurate in the first place, this is a good defense against error. But if you are already mistaken or deceived, it traps you in that deceit, and you will never rise out of it until you see what you have done to yourself.

I’m not sure if there is a name for it, but there is a related effect where people have a tendency to agree with, or support a person who expresses one concept they already accept as true. It doesn’t matter if everything else they say, or even if only some of what they say, is wrong or mistaken. They accept it all. Evangelical Christians seem to be particularly vulnerable to this: if a politician says he is a born-again Christian, they favor him (or her); if a teacher espouses a doctrine they agree with, they look favorably on everything else he says as well. It can be a vicious trap if the person they support is out to deceive, or is mistaken themselves. I fell into this trap myself many years ago when I heard a politician give a very good testimony of his Christian beliefs. I voted for him, and he turned out to be one of the worst to hold that office in my memory. That person was more than likely honest in the testimony he gave, but I accepted other things about him on that basis that just weren’t right. And today, I think many candidates just find out what they think Christians want to hear and repeat it so they can get their votes. That’s a deliberate deception.

There is a host of other biases, and commonly accepted logical fallacies (another great term to look up) that add to the problem, but you could write a book on those alone, which is why I only offer examples of a few of them. But if no one ever thought to deceive, most of them would not be problems at all.

So then what leads people to deliberately deceive? I think it’s simple enough. It gives them an advantage they do not think they would have if they were being honest. Perhaps they will gain power or wealth (though I tend to believe wealth is simply another type of power); perhaps it will get them out of trouble, or help them to avoid an uncomfortable situation. Invariably, it arises from weakness. A strong person, in a position of advantage, does not have to lie or deceive to gain anything. Someone who is comfortable with themselves does not mind if another doesn’t like their opinion, and doesn’t have to lie about it. In other words, the deceiver doesn’t feel like they have the ability to win in a fair fight, so they must cheat. Someone who feels like they don’t need an unfair advantage are perfectly fine with the truth. In today’s social media / Internet climate, a driving force is advertisement revenue. Far too many people latch on to things they see online that are misrepresented, out of context, spun out of proportion, or outright falsified. They click on links, and the parent web site gets additional traffic that they can show to advertisers and get better placement and money for ads. Because a lot of this happens behind the scenes, people simply aren’t aware of it &emdash; they think it’s just an exchange of new, information, or opinion. But it’s nothing of the sort. It’s deliberate deception to gain a financial advantage they wouldn’t have if they were truthful.

Which leads to the inevitable question: if we are so surrounded by unscrupulous and dishonest people, how can we keep from being deceived?

First off, you have to learn to recognize your own weaknesses and be aware of them. Look up “cognitive biases,” and “logical fallacies.” Determine which ones you are vulnerable to, and rethink your opinions. This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, simple enough as it sounds. It can be a lifelong process of self-revelation. But you need to start somewhere, and if you have determined in advance that you can’t be mistaken about something, you have already lost. This is a particularly hard thing for people of faith to do, because they feel that challenging one thing they have already accepted is tantamount to challenging the very basis of everything the have ever believed in. That, in itself, is a logical fallacy. You can be wrong about one thing in a particular sphere of knowledge, and right about others. For those who may struggle with that, I offer this insight: true faith has nothing to do with what you believe or how you feel, and everything to do with the object of your faith. You do yourself no favors if your faith is misplaced; and if what you believe is really true, then examining it more closely won’t hurt anything, and can only strengthen it. But you owe it to yourself to be sure that the object of your faith is, in fact, worthy of the trust you have placed in it. Else, you have just become another victim of deceit.

In today’s world of misinformation, there are some other skills that are needed. One very important one touches upon what I have said before: never accept that everything you think you know is fully and completely correct. You invite deception when you do that, and make yourself more vulnerable to it. It is not an expression of strength to steadfastly deny the possibility that you could be wrong. It is a weakness. A strong person can question and affirm themselves. A weak person can’t even consider they might be wrong. Going back to what I just said about faith, consider the fact that you can only confirm your knowledge as you discover more truth … and if what you uncover denies what you have previously accepted as true, you have done yourself a great service by eliminating a matter of self-deception. A corollary of this premise is that even if the object of your confidence is 100% reliable, it doesn’t mean your understanding of it is 100% correct. A good scientist understands this, because they constantly revise theories based on new observations and understandings (and let’s leave off the discussion about bad science for another day, it certainly exists). But people have a rough time doing the same with personal beliefs. I want to pull my hair out every time a Christian says, “the Bible says such-and-such, and I believe it, and that’s enough for me.” There is even a popular Christian song based on that drivel. Just because the Bible is true, it doesn’t mean your understanding of what the Bible says is correct. You have to be willing to look harder and deeper all the time, or you are going to lock yourself into falsehood by your inability to question yourself. I cannot emphasize enough, however, that once again, this is a lifelong process. I call it growth; and if you stop growing, you are already dead.

Another vital skill is the ability to question what you hear. It is remarkable how few people actually do. They trust the news, they trust their peer groups, they trust what’s published online or in print, and not once do they stop to consider that the source, or the source’s source, may not be trustworthy. Or, they fail to recognize their understanding of what the heard or read is mistaken. This is epidemic online. I regularly see an outrageous statement online, and when I look into it, find everyone is quoting the same source, and the source had an obvious bias or agenda. I have seen people repeat things as fact that, when researched, I find the original statement was satirical. I have researched things repeated as fact and discovered the source completely made it up … yet it was repeated because the hearer had some measure of sympathy with the statement. They wanted to believe it, then spread it around as worthy of confidence when it never was. I have researched things repeated as fact that were based on statements pulled completely out of context, so that even though the literal quotation was accurate, the intent of the original source was not even remotely what the person repeating it said it was. Again, we have a mix of deliberate and mistaken deceit, but deceit is the end result either way. Questioning what you hear is frequently an exercise in finding out whether anyone else says the same thing, and whether any or all of them can be considered trustworthy. Sometimes, you simply cannot be sure, and you have to file it away as “undetermined.” Which leads to another thought: it’s OK to accept something provisionally, as long as you are open to re-visit it when you have better information. But it’s also OK to reject it provisionally, or just be neutral about it provisionally. We can’t all know everything (which goes back to my first point). If it matters to you at all though, you absolutely must be willing to look into it, not just jump on the bandwagon.

You also need to be able to disassociate your emotional reaction to something from your acceptance of it. Emotions are a shortcut our minds use to help us filter data, but almost all the cognitive biases and logical fallacies that exist hinge on an emotional response. If your emotions are trained wrongly, they are going to react wrongly. In short, not being deceived requires that you not be lazy about what you believe. Just because you always accepted something, and your peers and teachers taught it to you a certain way, it doesn’t mean they got it right and it doesn’t mean you have it right. It is normal and natural to reject a concept that opposes what you already have accepted. But if you do not want to be deceived, you must set aside this emotional response and do your best to verify your beliefs. I started this article saying that everyone holds something in their hearts as true that really is not — and I do mean everyone. Myself, those who have taught me over the years, experts who have made public statements, people who trusted by many … everyone. The question is, are you willing to challenge those things, look at them squarely, and find, to the best of your ability, the truth of the matter? Are you willing to accept you might never get the whole truth, and that’s OK? Are you willing to challenge your own beliefs? If you are not, you have already lost. If anything at all you hold as true is a deception, everything else you base on that belief will be untrue as well.

The bottom line on dealing with deceit is that you can never let yourself become complacent, and you must be willing to keep growing in knowledge and wisdom for as long as you draw breath. Frankly speaking, it’s a bit frightening … some may even find it terrifying. But sticking your head in the sand and denying it is no help either. It is a sad fact that some would rather be deceived than entertain the thought they have to work out the truth themselves. Their fears and insecurities bring them to that place, and they simply do not have the courage to do anything but hide within their house of cards and hope the wind never blows it down. But any sense of security they might feel in that is a false security. And that thought leads to an inevitable conclusion: what if the truth you find is something horrible? This is where people of faith have a huge advantage: they already have some measure of confidence in something bigger than themselves to help. But remember what I wrote earlier: truth faith does not depend on what you feel or believe, it depends on the trustworthiness of what you believe in. A true, real faith has reasons behind it that are more than feelings or self-deceit. It is true that it is easy for people of faith to be deceived in their faith, but it’s also true that if their faith is not misplaced, they can work out the truth and not be deceived by other things. But anyone, whether a person of faith or not, must be looking to find the truth, and not just to appease their own fears, biases, or desires. And everyone needs to ask themselves if that is what they are doing, because if you are unwilling to seek truth and set aside your preconceptions to find it, you are doomed to be deceived and to suffer for it.

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The Age of Misinformation

This article was originally published in 2012 in the “Focus on Grace” church newsletter. I thought I posted it here long before, and I want to write a followup, so t was important I put it up now. I’ve updated a few of the references so they weren’t as dated, and made some minor edits, but in essence it’s as originally published.

“If you tell a lie often enough, people will accept it as true.”

The above statement, and variants of it, has been attributed to the likes of Goebbels, Hitler, and Stalin. One particular variation even suggests that if the lie is big enough, people are more likely to believe it, because honest people can’t imagine someone would lie about something so important. But the sad truth is some people would, and they do – and those as monstrous as Goebbels, Hitler, and Stalin could not have accomplished the evil they did if people hadn’t believed them. Wicked men lie to gain power, to influence people, and to gather acceptance for their agendas. They lie big, and their lies are often accepted without question.

But a lie needn’t be big for people to accept it either. The NPR radio show “This American Life” once retracted a segment they previously aired that purportedly spoke about abuses in Chinese factories that make Apple products.1 It was broadcast as non-fiction, and many took it as a journalistic documentary. But when someone belatedly checked on the facts, it was found that the presenter never so much as visited some of the places he talked about; events he claimed he witnessed personally he wasn’t really there for, or were embellished. When challenged, he said that the essentials of his story were true, but that he was an artist, not a journalist, and therefore, his “tools” were different. In other words, he made stuff up, lied, so he would have a deeper impact. The abuses he reported might have happened, but they didn’t happen where he said, or exactly in the way he said them. They were relatively small lies perhaps, but they were lies all the same.

Some falsehoods don’t start out as lies, but become them. An expert can make a statement about something, and a person who hears it may try to simplify it so others can understand it better. Not being the expert, this second person is bound to repeat his version with some things left out, or maybe a few things added to “clarify” the matter. Often, the omissions and additions simply are not true and instead of clarifying, create a false report. But they can be well-intended. The next person who hears it does the same, and before you know, the story going around bears only passing resemblance to the original statement. It has become a lie, and everyone who repeats it thinks they are telling the truth. Other times, someone simply makes a mistake, or takes a guess at something, even saying right off the bat that it is speculation … but the person who hears it repeats it as fact, and all of the above apply. It’s a pernicious thing, and given enough time, even when presented with cold, hard facts, people will insist on believing the lie instead.

This is the world we live in. Television specials and infomercials spew half-baked stories into the ether, and millions accept them as truth. The ancient Mayans made a calendar that stops at the year 2012, and people were afraid the world was going to end, because someone suggested that perhaps the Mayans knew something we don’t. As I post this, it’s 2016, and the world is still going strong, but right before the turn of the year to 2012, people were genuinely afraid. Preachers and evangelists take passages of scripture out of context, and draw false conclusions from them, then go on to teach those conclusions to their followers. People outright make things up, throw it on a web site somewhere, and get worldwide attention for their “amazing” insight or discovery. Scientists publish theories based on scant facts, and incomplete observations … and all these things get repeated and passed around; heads nod in agreement, and it goes around and around again. Much of what we think we know about our world is wrong, and the better portion has become unknowable. It’s all swirling around in a morass of misinformation that has passed through so many hands and minds, that no one has any idea what the real facts were in the first place.

It is no accident that our world has become this way. The Bible teaches us that Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44), and is the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2). What do you suppose that latter statement means? I think it’s a reference to the fact that he works through rumor and innuendo, and all the nebulous things you can’t quite lay a finger on. Like the air, his lies are everywhere, and get into everything. Eve was deceived by him (2 Cor. 11:13), and Adam outright disobeyed God because of it; the average man has been fighting a losing battle ever since. Satan wants us to be muddled and confused, and he wants us to be deceived, so that we will be trapped in sin and never find our way to the mercy of God.

It is very well for us that God has that quality of mercy. He has given us a source of truth we can always turn to, and that truth is the Bible. Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31, 32). The Bible teaches us that we need a savior, and it teaches us how to find Him.

Which isn’t to say we can’t still be deceived, even when reading the Word of God. But look at what the Bereans did in Acts 17:11 – “… they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.” Are you searching Scriptures daily? Are you measuring what you hear with what is written in the Bible? Are you praying about the passages you don’t understand (James 1:5), and not trying to force what you don’t understand into a form you can? In other words, are you actively seeking the truth always, or are you just taking in everything you hear without question, assuming it to be true? Or, even worse, have you already made up your mind what is true without ever measuring it against what the Bible says?

If we are to be undeceived, if we are to survive in this age of misinformation … which is to say, this age of lies, we must abide in the truth. And, as He promised, we shall be free from the snares of deceit, and have His blessing:

Mercy and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed.
Truth shall spring out of the earth, And righteousness shall look down from heaven.
Yes, the LORD will give what is good; And our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before Him, And shall make His footsteps our pathway.

(Psalms 85:10-13)

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Explaining the Gospel

There was once a set of young friends: two boys and two girls, of an age when gender pressures didn’t matter yet. One day, they were playing tag in a playground next to the primary school they attended, and having fun. Eventually, they stopped for a rest and to chat a bit, but one of the boys, suddenly serious, asked his friends, “Did you guys know you have to be saved?”

“Saved from what?”, one of the girls replied.

“Saved from hell!”, he answered, “You have to ask Jesus to save you, or you will go to hell when you die.”

“Oh,” she said, “I’m OK, I go to Mass every week.”

The other girl shook her head, and rolled her eyes. “I’m Jewish, we don’t have to worry about that.”

The boy, somewhat confused, tried to steer the conversation back towards what he thought was a very serious thing, but he failed. The girls were not impressed. They believed they had it covered. He dropped the subject.

Later, he had a private chat with the other boy, who asked him what he needed to do. Warming up a bit, the first boy earnestly explained, “You have to ask Jesus into your heart, and you have to really mean it!”

“OK,” said his friend. “I’ll do it tonight.”

The next morning, the second boy called the first, and simply said, “I did what you said, but it didn’t work.”

Nonplussed, the first boy replied, “But did you really mean it?”

“Sure I did, it just didn’t work.”

And that was that. The first boy never raised the issue again. The friendship with the girls didn’t last as long as middle school, but the boys hung out together until they were sophomores in high school. They didn’t talk about religion much, and when they did it was neither deep nor involved. His attempts at sharing his faith failed.

That first boy was me. Those were my first real attempts to share my faith, and they were dismal. I’ve come to recognize that the Lord can work with a lot less, but I don’t think I even managed to plant a seed. If the Lord worked in any of my friends lives later, He surely had to bring in someone else to finish the job. And sadly, that is also the case with a lot of believers. Many do not have a clear grasp of what the Lord has done in their own lives, much less how to share it with others. And it could not escape me, that to be able to share one’s faith, a believer has to both understand the process he or she went through, and also be able to reasonably tell others about it.

First, let’s define some terms. When I say “believer,” I mean someone who has fully placed their trust in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sin, and their future in heaven. Furthermore, their faith has been ratified by the presence of the Holy Spirit in their heart and life (in other words, you know their faith is real by the way their life has changed). When I say “saved” (as I did to my young friends, without explanation), I am referring to the state someone is in who has placed their faith in Christ in such a way. When I say “sharing one’s faith,” or something similar, I mean the process of explaining to a person about the work of Christ so they can make the decision to place their trust in Him, or, sadly, reject the message. The “gospel” literally means “good news,” and by it I mean the news of Jesus Christ and what he has done, and exactly what it means to place one’s trust in Him. By “faith,” I mean the certain knowledge of the gospel that leads to full trust in Christ. That term is in itself an issue with many, because they think “faith” means conviction on the basis of a gut feeling that may not have anything to do with fact. But when I say faith, I mean a certainty based on real facts one has been convinced of, but isn’t based on things that can be perceived directly (see Hebrews 11:1 … something that warrants a study all its own).

So, on to my thoughts about sharing faith.

One of the biggest difficulties, I think, is that there has been a concerted attempt to create a ritual of acceptance of the gospel. We want a series of steps to follow, a set of conditions to meet, an outline to share. The first method I was taught was the “Romans Road.” Later, when I was with Child Evangelism Fellowship, we used something called the “Wordless Book.” Campus Crusade uses a method called “The Four Spiritual Laws,” and many others have adopted that method as well. All of these have a place and can be effective, but all of them pose a danger that if all that is done is guide a person through the prescribed steps, and pray the prayer at the end. The person sharing thinks the person who prayed is now automatically a believer, and so does the person who prayed, but it won’t necessarily be so. It’s entirely possible that all they have really done is satisfy a ritual, and their heart may or may not have actually followed. It is a trap far too easy for the lazy, or simply timid, to fall into. Sharing faith is an intimate and sometimes very difficult thing, and the temptation to run through a list and call it “done,” is far too easy to fall into. In the worst of cases, the ritual is treated as if it was the gospel, and not just a way of illustrating the gospel.

Scriptures themselves never spell out a complete and specific series of actions to take. In fact, the gospel is explained in several different ways in the Bible, depending on who is speaking, and whom they are speaking to. But it’s usually very simple in Scripture, like “believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,” (Acts 16:31) and “repent, and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). This is because the scriptural accounts leave out the fact that the people spoken to weren’t completely ignorant; they had a certain body of knowledge already, and what was said was what they needed to hear to pull it together. In fact, the first chapters of Acts were addressed mainly to Jews, who had a very good concept of sin and propitiation. They just needed to hear that Jesus was the one making the final propitiation. It wasn’t until Paul came around that they had to start dealing with those who did not, on any larger scale than just a few here and there. So we don’t find a succinct and simple explanation of the gospel in one place the Bible. Instead, all the particulars are spread throughout the various historical books and epistles, and it is necessary to put them all together. I believe this is an important clue as to how God wants the gospel shared. He does not want it to be a ritual, as many have made it. He wants people to understand and make an informed decision. If he had outlined some list in Scripture, people would be simply running through the list and saying, “I’m good” (like my young Catholic friend), without really being “good” at all.

So, what are these pertinent facts? I think it important to mention that what follows is my opinion, based on my understanding of Scripture. There will be those who disagree on some, or perhaps all, of my points. Some will think my emphases are in the wrong places. My goal is not so much to lay down something definitive as it is to make my readers consider what they do when they share their faith, and not carelessly assume things about how it is received. The Holy Spirit can and will fill in gaps in both what is said and what is heard; He can also deal with error, and error is certain to creep in anyone’s attempts to share their faith at one point or another. But it is foolish to turn it into a mere act of the flesh by creating a rote formula that may hinder the attempt.

First of all, there needs to be a knowledge of sin and what that means. In my own case, there was little need to expound on it, I already had a firm grasp on my unworthiness and a need for salvation. But many need it pointed out that their best efforts are not enough, and as good as they may be, it isn’t good enough. In Romans 3:23, it says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Not some, but all (see also Rom. 3:10-18). What we consider good, God does not (Isaiah 64:6). Many believe we are born essentially innocent, and you have to do bad things to become a sinner; this is entirely wrong, because sinfulness doesn’t have to be active. It is a broken state of being that all humanity is born into (Rom. 5:12, 1 Cor. 15:22). In other works, sinfulness is a state of being, not a tally of what you do and don’t do. Your behavior may illustrate your internal state, but it is not what is really important, your internal state is. The penalty for this sinful state is death (Romans 6:23), and in this context, death means eternal separation from God, commonly known as hell. There is some debate on exactly what hell will be like, and I’m not going to get into that too deeply here. But it will be eternal (Matt. 25:46), and it will be unpleasant, (Luke 16:28), and God will not overlook your sinfulness to spare you from it. There is again a fair amount of discussion on this particular issue, but the way I think of it is that God is perfect, and demands perfection. If you also aren’t perfect, you cannot co-exist with Him in eternity.

But God created humanity to share eternity with Him, and he does not want to exclude anyone, especially when that exclusion means eternity in hell (2 Peter 3:9). So how is that conflict resolved? Christ’s death on the cross was the payment for sin, and the propitiation to satisfy God’s wrath over sin (1 John 4:10). Again, that alone is a big topic, but it boils down to this: Christ died for humanity’s sinful state, and took any judgment or punishment for it on Himself. Because He is God, this is no trivial or incomplete thing, and it is sufficient for all people, for all eternity (Hebrews 9:11-28).

That is the heart of the gospel: that humanity in generally, every single person, is born in a state that God cannot countenance, and Christ’s death on the cross can repair it (there is, in my view, some element of mystery here – why did God choose this particular method, why was it necessary, what exactly transpires? – but there is more than ample scriptural evidence that it suffices). However, the question remains, how does a person avail themselves of what Christ did? This, by the way, is where so many of the rituals and rote formulas come from – they are attempts to codify this requirement. But the simple truth is, all you need do is ask for it from the provider, Christ himself. “Jesus, save me,” is all you need say, and there is nothing you need to do. Christ did all that was necessary. But, you may ask, if God doesn’t want anyone to perish, why isn’t it just automatic? Why didn’t Christ’s death on the cross just “fix” everything for everyone, all at once? That answer isn’t so easy. Some believe exactly that — it’s all covered and everyone is “good.” Others feel they have to heap requirements on the process that are never spoken of in Scripture; for example, you must “make Him Lord of your life,” or you must fulfill some sacrament, or satisfy some ritual. Yet none of those are true. The answer is faith. Remember what I said about faith earlier? It’s a recognition that these things are true, and that Christ’s death both satisfies God’s requirements, and that it applies to you. It’s not a daydream fantasy, it’s an acknowledgment of something you are convinced is true. When you are able to recognize this, and are able to come out and actually trust Christ it is so, then His sacrifice applies to you and your life. If you can’t get there, it will not.

I was once criticized that my view of the gospel amounted to “easy believism.” In effect, I was told that I was promoting one of the very things I am speaking against in this article, and if all people had to do is ask, there would be this rush to buy “fire insurance,” and people would just do it and be done so they would escape hell. Christ spoke of something similar in Luke 3:7 . But though I think the gospel is simple, I don’t for a minute believe it is easy. And this speaks to the question about “why isn’t it automatic for everyone.” You see, you have to utterly depend on Christ. You can’t say, “hey God, I’ll do this much, and You do the rest.” He has to do it all. My view, and I think Scriptures support it, is that one of the essentially broken things in every human being, that God cannot allow in His eternal presence, is pride. If you can’t lay aside the pride that insists you have something to offer Him, you aren’t truly trusting Him, you are trusting yourself. And that’s just a non-starter. It’s the very essence of the brokenness God is wanting to fix. But He doesn’t force it on anyone either (I just lost some readers, I know). He will help you get to that point (in fact, evidence is you can’t get there without His help), and He will help you take that step of faith … but He doesn’t push you over the line. And unless you are a five-year-old (Matthew 18:3) this is not an easy place to get to, and it’s not an easy thing to do. Pride is one of the big human motivators, and laying it aside to depend utterly on God is insurmountable to a vast number of people (Luke 18:25-27, Matt. 7:13-14).

Now that I have explained how I see the gospel, we are left with “how do I share it?” But once again, I think this is something we can’t boil down to a formula or one-size-fits-all summary. As I mentioned earlier, this is a very intimate thing, and you have to get a person to accept a very vulnerable mental state before they will hear it. There are those who have a gift for getting there with others and can seize upon the tiniest thread of opportunity and still get the message across. I’m not one of them. I have to work for it, and I have to work hard. Part of that is because I tend to overthink things, and sometimes over-explain. That said, if you don’t understand what Christ has done for you, you are going to have difficulty sharing it in a meaningful way with others. Secondly, if you are in a heated rush to share your faith, get a favorable reaction, and call it done, you are very much at risk of providing false assurances. God can work in those situations — I have seen it happen. But it’s not ideal. If all you can manage is, “trust in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,” by all means say it and trust God will do something with it. But don’t fill someone’s head with vague and misleading terminology they don’t even understand. At that point, you are just getting in the way, not helping someone along the way.

One of the hardest things for most believers to accept is that it isn’t their job to convince anyone. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job (John 166:8). It’s simply their job to tell the gospel to others. Some may require more explanation than others; some may have more questions than others, or more false impressions to overcome. God can deal with all of that. That was one of my errors as a young believer – I thought I had to work at getting people to accept what I was saying, when all I really had to do was say it. Something that follows from this kind of attitude is the conviction that you must “share” the gospel all the time, for any reason or none, in any circumstance. That’s tantamount to planting seeds on unbroken pavement. You aren’t likely to see anything grow there, and you are probably giving others an excuse to talk badly about you and what you are saying. Sometimes (sometimes), it’s better to let it go and wait until you have some fertile ground to plant that seed on. And sometimes you cast those seeds to the wind and they take root outside all reasonable expectations. My point is, you don’t force it, one way or the other. This is one of those times where I think you just have to go with your gut … because your gut is often the place where God is leading, and not your own imperfect ideas of Him.

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Prisons of the Mind

Note: I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any other kind of mental health professional. These are personal observations, not clinical studies (which would take volumes to cover properly anyway). They need to be taken in that light: I am sharing what I believe I have seen, in the hopes it may give my readers something to think about. My conclusions are my own, you can take them or leave them … or even better, make your own observation in the comments.

 

There is a type of person who is nearly always melancholy; they tend to look at things in the worst light, and can find the cloud for every silver lining. Others say they are being negative, but they believe they are just being realistic. They focus on unpleasant truths, and fail to consider that those are not the entire story. They may brush off unwarranted optimism, but they also brush off the reasonable version of optimism that gives people hope and a will to overcome. They do not overcome things, they endure them.

They are trapped in a prison of the mind. Often, they honestly can’t see past their negative viewpoint. Those not afflicted in the same way don’t understand: they think it is just an indulgence, something they could snap out of if they only tried. But it is a mental and emotional prison; not only do they not have the key to the prison door, they usually aren’t aware there even is a door. Offer them an escape, and they’ll tell you why it’s not possible, or why perhaps someone else can do it, but they cannot. They only see the world and their lives through this filter, and it has become their reality. A psychiatrist might call this mindset clinical depression, and mental health professionals will tell you it’s treatable. But often the afflicted isn’t looking for treatment, they are so caught up in their prison that they consider it their lot in life … it is how they are, and how they will always be.

 

There is another type of person that is relentlessly cheerful. They believe that if they have a positive attitude, it will create opportunities … and it works out that way often enough that they consider it axiomatic. But even when it does not, they believe their attitude will change the facts. They face the world with a bright and smiling face, and they laugh in the face of trouble. But it isn’t because they are especially brave, it is exactly the opposite: it is because they don’t want to admit that bad things might even happen. When a situation appears that they cannot gloss over, they avoid it or pretend it doesn’t exist. They flit through life like a butterfly tasting flower after flower without ever considering the dark things that lurk on the ground, or the hungry spider that could trap them at any time.

These are also trapped in a prison of the mind. Their world is circumscribed by denial, and they cannot face ugly truths. Their good cheer and positive attitude is a construct, and not healthy optimism. They typically cannot be budged from their “don’t worry, be happy,” attitude because they think the moment they stop being “positive,” bad things are going to happen. They cannot look beyond it, because to do so might bring their entire world crashing down.

 

Among Christians (and I imagine this exists in other faiths as well, but I have little experience there, so I’ll mainly stick to the Christian flavor), there is yet another type that I consider an odd mix of both of the above. They say “praise the Lord,” and “Amen!” to every good thing that happens, and “the Lord’s will be done” for every event that is bad or unpleasant. They cultivate an attitude and a lifestyle that matches what they believe constitutes being a “good Christian.” They do all the right things and they say all the right things, and if they slip up, they have an answer for that too. In some, it manifests as a strict and overbearing reaction to sin and repentance; in others, an overly carefree and indulgent attitude to behavior in which almost anything can go, as long as the proper forms are observed afterwards. I cannot possibly list all the observations I have made on this: it varies with every creed and denomination, and every church culture within those denominations. But each local gathering has its particular way of looking at things, and within those groups, variants of this type of person proliferate.

These too are in a prison of the mind. They have decided in their head what a Christian (or whatever their faith may be) looks like, and they bend themselves utterly to fit the mold. They will not challenge the way they see things and the way they react to things, because that might rock their very faith. This is the mindset that produces fanatics and hyper-zealots … it is not at all that they are strong in their faith and steadfast in their devotion, it is that they are afraid to stray from the path they have set for themselves, and they defend it like their very life. And to really be inclusive, even atheists can be like this – some are downright militant against people of faith, even when those people’s beliefs can’t possibly affect them. But whatever the system of belief may be, there are those who mold all their behavior around it, and can accept no challenges. Many Christians might take exception to me saying this, but it is not the object of their faith I am challenging, but the way they live it out.

 

All of these types of mental prisons have one thing in common: at some point in their lives, the people affected have come to an erroneous conclusion about life and how it works, and they have incorporated it into their personal world view. Enough has happened to reinforce that view and strengthen it, to the point they cannot see outside it. I have given just a few examples really; it is prevalent almost to the point of being universal. Think of your conspiracists, anti-whatever crowds, fanatics … even seemingly innocent things like brand (or organization) loyalty. People are trapped by this, all the time. And some are trapped so utterly that it would take something cataclysmic to snap them out of it.

But what is the answer to dealing with this problem, short of such a catastrophe? Simply put, if not simply realized, it’s right thinking. The start is in realizing your thinking has somehow gone wrong. In many cases, you cannot do this without outside opinion: someone besides yourself, and not in your normal circles, pointing it out to you. Then, when it is pointed out, you have the obligation to yourself to evaluate what was said, however unpleasant, to see if it’s true. It’s always possible that this other might be the one that’s wrong, so you have to be careful, but you must accept the possibility they are seeing something you cannot. Then (oh, this is so easy to write, and so hard to do), determine where you have gone wrong and correct it. You must actively seek the truth, and not simply rest on what you currently perceive as true. And only then can you even begin to break out of the prison and truly live free.

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Making a Change

It’s traditional at the start of a new year to think about making changes in one’s life, but it’s been my experience that people seem to concentrate on relatively trivial things when the last digit on the date changes. The big changes, the ones that redirect lives, aren’t likely to be limited to the new year. And often, people seem to want to make them all at once, in a wrenching cataclysm that upturns their entire life. they say things like “I want to make a fresh start,” or “I need to re-invent myself,” then they systematically upturn everything they have build their lives upon so far, so they can do, or be, something different.

In 1965, Eliot Jaques coined the term “midlife crisis” in his article for the International Journal of Psychoanalysis titled, “Death and the Midlife Crisis”. We don’t hear much on the topic these days, but I remember it being a hot topic in the 80’s and 90’s. I knew a man at the time who had a beautiful young wife and a new baby. He had just built their dream home, completely customized exactly how they wanted it. Only a few years later, I found that he had abandoned it all and was living in a trailer. He had a new sports car (a Ferrari, no less), but his wife he left struggling to raise their child and pay for the house on her own. When I talked to him about it (I never asked, he volunteered the information), he never tried to justify his actions or even explain them, he only said that he needed to make a change. He clearly thought that was justification enough. To me, it exemplified what people are talking about when they speak of midlife crises, and I have thought about him a lot.

The conclusion I came to is a bit different than what the psychologists believe. I think this man had built his life around a whole set of expectations and cultural pressures: he married, started a family, and built his home based on what he believed was right and proper for a person of his station to do. But once he had it all, he realized it wasn’t what he wanted, and he wasn’t happy with any of it. So he tossed it all aside, not knowing any better way to change things, and started over. It only happened to occur in his “midlife” years because that’s how long it took for him to realize how miserable he was living what amounted to a life constructed around things that didn’t actually matter to him. This is common. Well-meaning parents, teachers, and mentors impose on their charges the things that worked for them, without considering how different both the person and their circumstances are, or how different the times are that they live in.

What is more in vogue today is to talk about “re-inventing” yourself. Browse the Internet on issues of self-help, stress management, or anxiety disorders, and you will find story after story of people who gave up good careers and high-rolling lifestyles to pursue their “real” dreams. Maybe they became artists or craftsmen instead of bankers and executives, but they all amount to the same thing: they were unhappy and made a change. All these stories have a similar theme: “be true to yourself.” But I think all of it is exactly the same as the “midlife” crisis I described. People spend their formative years and early adulthood trying to attain the lifestyle they were taught was good for them. When they have it, they realize they were taught wrong, and they want to change course. It doesn’t strictly apply to career and lifestyle changes either, it could be religious practices or relationships, it could be dealing with a health issue. But they have come to the conclusion that what they have isn’t working, and they want or need something different.

Change is not a bad thing, and, in fact, it’s, more often than not, a necessary thing. But I can’t believe that it always needs to be a cataclysmic thing. There are times when a person needs to make a clean and complete break from the life they have in order to start a new one, but that circumstance doesn’t describe most people’s lives. In fact, it’s rare, unless the situation is dangerous or abusive. Most life changes only require a measured and incremental response … and even more so when others are involved. I’m willing to bet the man I described who abandoned his family could have found a happy and fulfilling life without running away from those who depended on him (and the jury is out whether he ever found it at all, I lost contact with him years ago). It would have taken more time, and more work on his part, and there would have been no instant gratification, but he could have done it. Most of the time, when a person thinks the change they want must be dramatic and must be complete, what is really happening is they lack the knowledge and skills to change any other way. And that, in turn, almost guarantees that they will either make the wrong changes, hurt themselves in the process, hurt others in the process, or any combination of the three (the exception, of course, being that when not making an immediate and complete change will hurt themselves or others). And more likely than not, it won’t be a real change, and the things they thought they were leaving behind wind up following them in every endeavor they engage in afterwards.

So then, how do we change our lives? I don’t claim expertise on this subject, but I do have some ideas I think are valid. And I am very convinced that meaningful change can only happen if we do it carefully and responsibly.

First, we have to change how we think. I had a dog when I was a teenager that we kept in a fenced pen along the back of the house. There was an eight-foot fence at the edge of that pen, and that dog could make a standing jump and be head and shoulders over the top of the fence. Our yard, on the the other hand, had a four-foot fence around it. On the occasions that we let him out of the pen to have the run of the yard, he never once tried to jump the smaller fence. If he could almost clear an eight-foot fence from a standing jump, he could have certainly, and easily, cleared a four-foot fence from a running start. But he never tried. He sometimes put his front paws on the edge and leaned over it to bark at the neighbor, but he never tried to jump it. He didn’t believe he could. Likewise, we often limit the things we attempt in life because somewhere along the line we determined we could not succeed. Now matter how badly we want to get To change that, we have to carefully and reasonably measure what we really can do, and what is just a false belief that we can’t. We are never going to get over the small fence if we refuse to consider it’s any different from the big one. If we can’t change how we think about our ability to succeed, we will never change that the facts of our success either. That goes for less lofty goals too. We can never be successful at anything at all if we never attempt it because we are defeated before we even try.

I feel it’s important to add that I am definitely not saying that you can do anything you set your heart on if you just believe in yourself. Hollywood would have you believe that, and it’s escapist fantasy. I’m talking about the way you look at yourself, and the actions that grow out of it. My dog probably could have learned to get over both of those fences with a bit of guidance, but he never would have learned how to open the gate that I strapped closed with one of his old collars. His paws did not have the dexterity to undo the buckle, and it was in too tight of a space for him to get his jaws around to chew through it. No amount of belief would have overcome those things. When it comes to what you can do, your beliefs have to be based in fact. How you feel and act, however, you have much more control over.

Second, we have to change the way we react to things. This is a bit more subtle, but I think it’s closely related to the change of thinking. It isn’t enough to tell yourself you are capable of succeeding in an endeavor, no matter how true it is that you can, if every time you are faced with an opportunity to do so, you turn away. Consider a person with a volatile temper, and let’s say they have gotten far enough to understand that they will be more pleasant to be around if they stop snapping at people. That’s a necessary start, but every time someone annoys them, their engrained reaction is going to be to blow up at them. When that happens, it reinforces the old thought habits, and pretty soon they are back to believing they just can’t do it. Personally, I think this is the hardest stage, but when the temper flares, they have to recognize what is happening and shut that reaction down before it takes hold. There are going to be a lot of failures here, but a person with a temper has to fully understand that their reaction isn’t always appropriate, and trust themselves that they really can deal with it in a better way. It’s doubly hard when anger is the appropriate reaction, and they need to go ahead and be angry, but still not lash out at the things that don’t warrant it. But when you can learn to change the way you react to situations, you know you have truly learned to think about them a different way.

Last, we have to change what we do. If it’s a behavioral change we are looking for, we change how we act. If it’s a life change we want, we carefully plan how to make the change and start doing the things it requires. If we get the cart before the horse and start changing actions before changing our thoughts and reactions, it’s possible to manage the change, but it’s much more likely we will only change our circumstances, and not what we didn’t like about them in the first place. But the converse is also true … if we only change our thoughts, but not our actions or circumstances, then we haven’t really changed, have we?

Another essential consideration is that many changes, especially the big ones, require us to have help: good counsel (sometimes professional counsel), support, encouragement, etc. No one on this planet can do anything more than simply survive, and often not even that, without the aid of others. We are social creatures, and we need each other (some more, and some less, and as a person who tends very strongly towards being solitary, I do not say that lightly). Many, many, times a person won’t even consider changing if not for the influence of someone they love or respect. Very often, an objective perspective is what is needed to overcome a personal roadblock, and your own view of it, by definition, can never be objective. Even more often, others have resources that you do not, but you need to accomplish your goal. The list goes on and on, but I can’t emphasize this enough: don’t try to go it alone, or you’ll almost certainly fail.

The bottom line is, we have to be smart about making changes. Thoughtful and gradual changes are most likely to be effective in the long term, and less traumatic to get through. We can all be better than we are, and no one is going to get there who is unwilling to change. But no one is going to get there by doing it badly either.

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