Tuesday, 16 January 2018

How Do You Feel When You Make a Mistake?

If your answer is, “Guilty, ashamed, furious with myself, embarrassed, like I want to sink into the ground,” you may be one of the many people trained into an unhealthy fear of mistakes by perfectionist parents and teachers from the time you were little.

I started teaching reading in a school last week. Kids who struggle with reading are sent to me and my team mate, and we work with some as a group and some one on one. One of the things I’ve noticed again and again is that students in the Indian system have been trained to fear failure and to mock those who fail. They’re not bad kids. But the instant someone mispronounces a word or makes a mistake, the whole group explodes into giggles. They’re not trying to be mean. It’s a habit that is hard to break, because they’ve seen it, heard it and done it since they were tiny.

When I was in school, every year there were a few students who were held back and made to repeat the year because they had failed their exams. You know what we called them? I cringe as I recall what seemed like a normal label then: ‘Failures.’ I don’t mean that the students made up that name. No, the teachers referred to them as ‘failures’. They were treated with contempt and disdain. It seemed like the most humiliating thing that could happen to one was to repeat the year. Those kids stuck to themselves, and accepted the treatment because we all thought that was normal.

When I was 23 I started teaching eight year olds in a village school (yes, third school story in a row). I thought I was a pretty good teacher. But to my shock, I found that I was doing the same thing- having unrealistically high expectations, and then getting annoyed with the kids when they couldn’t meet them. One day I decided to do some painting with them for the first time. I prepared well. But of course they were EIGHT YEAR OLDS PAINTING FOR THE FIRST TIME. Messes and imperfection was bound to happen. And yet I found myself annoyed! That was one of my wake-up calls.

The other was the surprise I felt when I saw parents of young children who had dropped or broken something. Not a word of rebuke did I hear. Instead they were reassuring and quickly said, “It’s okay. Let me get something to clean it up.” The fact is, I had rarely ever seen mistakes treated with such calmness and kindness.

How do we usually treat people when they make mistakes?

1. Blame them: The first response is that it is always someone’s fault. It is such an automatic response.

2. Rub it in: Point it out, remind people that they need to be more careful, and that they should have listened to us.

3. Dramatize it: Make it a bigger deal than it actually is, like it points to some character flaw or is a prophetic sign of the person’s future.

4. Bring up the past: Remind them of all the times they made mistakes in the past.

5. Wash our hands off them: They made their bed, now they must lie in it.

6. Judge them: Disapprovingly analyze the person and their actions, while smugly feeling like WE would never do such a thing.

Can we please stop? So what if that’s what your parents did to you? It is NOT helpful, holy or kind. Mistakes are NOT sins. Mistakes are not the end of the world. In fact, being willing to make mistakes and fail is a healthy and good thing. Accepting someone’s mistakes doesn’t mean giving them permission to be sloppy or careless or thoughtless. It’s just saying, “Okay, this happened. Now what?” You know what happens when we are afraid to make mistakes, or when we train the people around us to be afraid of mistakes?

You get people suffering from anxiety and depression as they hold themselves up to unrealistic expectation of themselves and constantly feel like they are never good enough. You get students committing suicide when they fail their exams. You get people who never try anything new because anything new requires a risk and a risk implies potential failure. You get people more focussed on not failing than on growing. Or you get people who just give up on trying and hoping. And you get harsh, judgmental and impatient people who impose the same standards on their children and spouses and coworkers.

If we want something different, we have to do something different. If we want to get over our unhealthy fear of mistakes, we need to train ourselves to respond differently.

1. Practise saying, “It’s okay to make mistakes.” Find that hard, don’t you? That’s exactly why you need to practise it.

2. The next time someone makes a mistake or fails, hold your tongue. Bite back the words of blame or correction or even advice. Most times when someone makes a mistake, they ALREADY KNOW. They’re already embarrassed and upset.

3. Instead ask “Are you okay? How can I help?” Whether it’s a broken cup or a broken heart, people need help picking up the pieces. They need to know there are people who are on their side as they try again.

4. Tell them “It’s not that bad.” No matter how bad a mistake is, there is always hope.

5. If you are in a position of authority over them, and you do need to correct them, do it gently and help them find a way to move forward. Show them you haven’t given up on them. Yup, that does need a great deal of patience. Anger almost never helps people change.

6. If you are the one who has made the mistake, follow all the steps above. Every time I make a mistake, I tell myself, “Well, at least I learned something.” If it involves money, I tell myself, "Well, I just paid for a lesson." :-)

How should you feel when you make a mistake? Hopefully, after the first moment of frustration, just acceptance, humility, and a desire and willingness to try again.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Three Everyday Situations That Stress Socially Anxious Introverts Out

I promise I’m not a complete mess. The calm and capable Sue that many of you know is not just a facade. I’ve learned over the years to deal with anxious and awkward feelings and for the most part, I don’t find the world at large scary and intimidating. That said, I still have remnants of social anxiety and a lot more self-awareness than I used to, and a willingness and desire to talk it out (sorry, fam). So here are some of those situations, just so we Socially Anxious Introverts can feel less alone (while still actually being alone as we read this post on our phones).

Usually only for female introverts: Beauty Salons 

Or as we used to call ‘em, beauty parlours. You know, the place we go to get hair removed from various parts of our bodies as dictated by society (why aren’t unibrows cool yet?), not to mention get our hair trimmed, cut and coloured, our nails manicured and polished, our faces.. um.. treated.. whatever. I’m no beauty expert. In fact, I probably go to these places a lot less than most women I know. Why? Not because I don’t like looking pretty (according to current social norms of pretty). Not even because I’m a sissy who can’t handle the pain of having hair extracted from my forehead. I grit my teeth and offer it up, while pondering whether suffering for the sake of beauty can simultaneously have any spiritual value, and concluding that ‘nothing offered to God is wasted’.

No, my real problem is that every trip to the local beauty salon is a scary adventure fraught with socially awkward situations, kind of like crossing a minefield and trying very hard not to blow up. Extroverts probably think I’m crazy. “Yay! People I might know and can chat too!” Introverts instead think, “Aaargh! People I may know! People who may know me! Not very well! People who know my mum. People who don’t like me! Or my mum! Any and all of these combinations of people could be there when I walk in, or walk in as I sit there defenseless. Small talk! To talk or not to talk? Did that person just not notice me or are they ignoring me? Or do they think am I ignoring them?”

I kid you not, I once went to a beauty salon, saw someone who I thought I knew and had not parted on good terms with. However, I wasn’t totally sure it was her. She looked different. Perhaps a different haircut? Or was it a totally different person? Since we didn’t part well, if it WAS her, I needed to say hello so as to make peace. If it wasn’t her, er... that could be awkward. The awkwardness was compounded by the fact that she was totally ignoring me. But I couldn’t just let it go. I had to do something.

So this is what I did. I said “Hello” in her direction in a not very loud voice. My rationale was that if it WAS her, she would be aware of my presence, would hear me and look up. Common courtesy would compel her to respond to my greeting, and even if she still bore me ill will, well, at least we had said hello. If she was a stranger, she would think she misheard or that I was talking to someone else, and she would just continue staring ahead at the mirror.

She didn’t respond. Okay, maybe she was a stranger? Or maybe she just hadn’t heard me because I wasn’t loud enough? Or maybe she hated my guts so much that she was ignoring my small attempt at reconciliation? AAARGHHHH! So much tension and anxiety! I still don’t know to this day if it was her or not.

This is what I think would be a great idea. Beauty salons with individual cubicles. Why is this not a thing yet? C’mon, I’m sure I’m not the only one with this problem!

Only for Catholic introverts: Receiving Communion 

You think I’m joking, right? I’m the Catholic who can wax eloquent about the beauty of God becoming bread so that He can satisfy our hunger, of the privilege of receiving Him in the Eucharist, of the very real transforming power I experience after receiving Him in this way. And yet, I am not immune from the very real awkwardness connected with actually physically getting into a line and receiving the Host into my body.

First of all, hand or tongue? Lots of Catholics have lots of strong opinions about this, but the fact of the matter is that the Church allows either as long as Jesus in the Host is received with reverence and faith. So then it comes down to practicality. I used to feel like there was more likelihood of it dropping if I received it on the tongue, so I took it in my hand. But then in recent years I decided that I would try receiving it on my tongue. As long as I made up my mind beforehand, and didn’t debate with myself all the way to the front of the Church. (Yeah, I told you my mind is nuts.)

But even after deciding to receive on my tongue, there are so many factors. Like am I opening my mouth right, sticking my tongue out far enough, at the right angle? Because if I get it wrong, the gross and awkward result is that the priest or extraordinary minister’s hand touches my tongue euggh euggh eughh. And then goes on to continue to distribute to Host to hundreds of others. Euggh.

What about the many times I have to figure out whether the priest of extraordinary minister has forgotten to say, “The Body of Christ”, or whether it is merely his timing that is off? Because there I am waiting to say “Amen”, while the impatient priest is waiting for me to open my mouth and stick my tongue out. It is a very delicately timed operation with too many potential ways to fail. I salute you, distributors of Communion, for bravely facing the awkwardness day after day for the sake of spiritually feeding the followers of Christ.

Apart from the awkwardness of the Communion line, there is also the awkwardness of reacting to liturgical abuse, like when the priest passed the communion bowl around at a chapel Mass while communicants ‘took’ Jesus instead of receiving Him. I just wanted to focus on receiving Jesus, instead my mind was racked with questions like, “If I know this is abuse, should I just pass the bowl without receiving? Or go up to the priest and ask that he gave it to me (in the way the Church requires)? Or just take it as it is HIS abuse, not mine, and no matter what, it is still Jesus?” I know, I know, I should stop over-thinking things I can't control, and not sweat the small stuff, and let things go, etc, but more easily said than done.

I wish I could just be caught up in ecstasy like St. Catherine of Siena when she received Communion, but alas, I’m not there yet.

For all introverts: Shopping 

I’m not talking about big supermarkets where you can wander down aisles picking things off shopping racks and popping them into shopping carts. That’s a dream situation for introverts, second only to online shopping. I’m talking about the average Indian shopping experience that involves plenty of conversation, interaction and relating.

When I was a kid, I had such a horror of shops that I would go to extreme lengths to offer any of my siblings bribes to go to the shop for me. If my love of junk food surpassed my fear of shops, I would reluctantly drag myself there practising all the way what exactly I would say, what the shopkeeper’s possible responses would be, and what my response would be in each situation. This phobia was probably caused by the fact that I didn’t speak Hindi as a child, and most shopkeepers didn’t speak English. Also little kids usually got ignored, and were made to wait the longest. Also, my parents hate shopping so that may have had something to do with it as well.

But as an adult who has mostly learned to get around, there are varying degrees of annoying and stressful shopping situations.

Exhausting: Being overstimulated by all the people, options, colours, noise and making rash decisions or no decisions as a result. Or in one unfortunate case throwing up in the middle of a shopping center because it was all too much. (Shout out to my resourceful sister J who rushed into a shop and asked for a plastic bag just in time.)

Annoying: Shop assistants who hover and keep asking you questions or shoving various items of clothing at you (this is usually a clothing store problem). Usually I walk out very soon after this happens.

Awkward: Male shopkeepers at lingerie shops whom you have to converse with about bra size and panty style eeshk.

Frustrating: Having a limited budget and having to try on shoes after shoes after shoes that are not your style and then feeling so stressed out that you just buy the least ugly of the lot, which are still pretty ugly and then you go home and vow you will never go shopping again.

Upsetting: Having a shopping companion who hates shopping just as much as you, and hangs back at every shop y’all enter so that you have to do the talking, but then gets frustrated with your indecisiveness and starts pushing you to make a decision which leads you back to the previous situation.

Stressful: Having to shop on behalf of someone else, try to figure out what exactly they meant when they described a particular style, and hope against hope that if you make another stress-induced extravagant purchase they won’t be mad at you, and hopefully can exchange it and never ask you for such a favour again.

This, friends, is why I thanked God when online shopping came to India about six years ago. But don’t get me started on communicating with online shopping delivery men.

So yes, being a Socially Anxious Introvert is a thing. If you identified with any of these scenarios, you just got yourself a new label! Congratulations!

Other awkwardness and social anxiety related posts:

Social Awkwardness: The Confession Stories 
Awkward Comments in India 
More Awkwardness 
Let's Talk About Awkward Hugs
An Indian Catholic in Catholic America 
Thoughts of an Introvert at a Party 
An INTJ's Guide to Praise and Worship

Sunday, 7 January 2018

The Antidotes to Anxiety

So you know how I've talked about my struggles with anxiety in the past? Apparently, they don’t totally go away, much as I wish they would. Everything seems peaceful and happy and normal (ish), and then suddenly the monster rears its ugly head again.

A small problem – someone mad at me about something, a plan that goes awry, an unpleasant task that I’m avoiding, news about Trump, or hearing about reasonable people who are suspicious of Pope Francis – suddenly begins to feel like a huge problem, a symptom of a larger disease, a doomsday scenario, with everything crashing and burning and pointing to the truth that there is no hope and things are never going to change.

But yesterday at Mass as I struggled with a racing heart and a sense of impending doom, I realized something. This battle, this drama that I am aware of, and is freaking me out, is not happening ‘out there’. It’s happening right here, in my heart and in my mind. It is a battle for my peace.

I am being lied to.

I have been reading an excellent book called ‘Divine Renovation: Bringing your parish from maintenance to mission’ by Fr. James Mallon, and he draws an insightful analogy from The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

‘In J. R. R. Tolkein’s great work, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we see... Denethor, the high Steward of the ancient Kingdom of Gondor. He is a steward, not the King. The line of kings had ended centuries before to leave the Kingdom under the management of a steward, but Gondor was maintained by an almost supernatural hope that the King would return to reclaim his throne once again, a hope that Denethor has lost… 

Denethor made mistakes that led to his utter loss of hope. First of all, he had forgotten that he was but a steward, not a king, and not the King. In truth, he had forgotten about the King who was promised to return. We in the Church are also but stewards awaiting the return of the King. We are managers whose very role is defined by the fact that the King is coming back to claim what is his own… 

The second mistake is that Denethor has a distorted and edited view of reality… he had been using one of the lost Palantir stones… that let him see what was happening all over Middle Earth. The problem was that the evil Lord Sauron controlled what he saw… Through his edited version of reality, Denethor was manipulated into his loss of hope. We, too, can easily fall prey to viewing what is always an edited reality as being the whole story.’ 

When I hear a voice that says, “This is all hopeless. These people are never going to change. The Church, your country, the world, those people… they are all doomed. They are sinful, angry, closed and wilfully blind. And it’s your fault. There must have been something you could have done. Or something you should have done differently. But it’s too late now. Everything is sad and bad and scary and you have to deal with this scary world alone,” I can be very sure whose voice that is.

The voice of God is never accusing, never despairing, never angry. The voice of God is filled with hope. There will be a challenge, but never condemnation in His words. Those who speak words of cold accusation and condemnation do not speak for Him, but for His Enemy.

Anxiety, negativity and hopelessness spring from believing the lying, insidious voice of Satan. So what’s the solution?

1. Acknowledge the lie: It was such a sense of relief when I held up what I was feeling to the light, and found that it was NOT true. It was all in my head- the magnitude of the problem, the dark despair of the problem. But as long as I clung to the lie, it had power over me.

2. Speak the truth aloud: Say it- “Everything is going to be okay.” “I am loved.” “I am not alone.” It’s not just a platitude. Everything really IS going to be okay. All suffering on this earth is temporary. Social stigma, the failure of our life's work, loss, betrayal, disappointment, persecution, loneliness seem like the worst things in the world, but they're not. They eventually end. Death will come to us all, but suffering and death do not have the final word. The King will return. God is till God. One day He WILL judge the living and the dead, and only what was done in love and for love will remain. No scary outcome can take away that truth.

3. Live a surrendered life: If it is true that I am a steward, NOT the king, or the saviour of this world which for some reason I sometimes think I have to be, and that there IS a true King and Saviour, then I need to let go of that control I cling to so tightly. I don’t need to wait for a big crisis to surrender, but to give to him the little obstacles, problems and fears as they come. Someone has a problem I can’t solve? Instead of letting it escalate in my mind, I need to bring it to Him, ask Him if there is anything I need to do. If there is, I need to do it, and then let it go. If there isn’t, I need to let it go, and trust that He can save the world, and that particular person and their situation. I've seen Him work miracles when I give it to Him, working things out in ways I could never have done myself.

Living anxiously is not a normal or healthy way to live. Fighting for peace is one of the most important battles I will ever fight. It’s a battle for truth, for freedom to see the world and its people the way they are- broken, but not irredeemable. I have to choose to keep fighting. But I trust that it’s a battle that can be won, because I have the Prince of peace who is fighting with me and for me. ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?’

Saturday, 30 December 2017

New Year’s Resolutions for the Motivationally Challenged

You’re trying to avoid it, but you just can’t. Why yes, it is indeed that ‘New year, new me’ time when everyone starts posting inspirational messages about the new year, making resolutions, and setting goals. But not you. You know it’s all a gimmick, just another way to set yourself up for failure. Whose new year’s resolutions last past the first week of the brand new shiny year? Not yours, by George. So why bother? Let’s just post a couple of witty but cynical New Year’s memes and move on. Realistic is your middle name. Any of that sound familiar?

Well I’m here to tell you that’s a load of baloney. Cynicism and negativity don’t look good on Christians. The very concept of new beginnings and second chances is at its heart Christian, the reason Jesus came at all. If we scoff at new beginnings, there is no place in our hearts for salvation. 

Here’s the truth. People CAN change. You can change. I am one of the laziest, least motivated people I know. I could lie on a couch all day every day and do nothing. I am full of faults and weaknesses. (I won’t list them all here, that’s what Confession is for.) I still struggle with many of them. And yet, I too have grown and changed. Change is possible! You can do this!

Here are some tips that might help you.

1. Make a resolution: ‘You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?’ If you aim at something, you may fail. But if you don’t aim at anything, you’ve definitely failed. ‘And you ask “What if I fall?”Oh but my darling, what if you fly?’

2. Small, achievable goals: You can’t change everything overnight. You don’t have to try to do everything that sounds like a good idea. “I’m gonna eat healthy, and start exercising, and go for daily mass, and read the Catechism and all the works of Shakespeare, and be patient and spend less money and help the poor and start volunteering and DO ALL THE THINGS!” Don’t be crazy! Pick one, two or three resolutions, and then break them down to manageable, specific chunks. So rather than saying “I will be a more positive person”, decide to say one encouraging thing to somebody every day whether it is in person, or by text. Instead of deciding to ‘grow in your faith’, decide to read a spiritual book every day before bed for at least 15 minutes. If it’s achievable, it gives you the satisfaction of success which is enough motivation to keep going. It’s okay if it’s so small that it sounds stupid to someone else. You do what you need.

3. Tell someone: The only way I know for sure I am willing to change is when I am willing to humble myself and tell someone the decision I have made. It helps with accountability, and it uses your pride to your advantage (you’re more likely not to take seconds if you’re eating with someone who knows that that is what you have decided). Tell someone to check on you and ask you how you are doing. Or get together with a small group, and share your goals, and decide when you are going to re-meet to share your progress. Just knowing I have to tell someone helps me stay motivated.

4. Remind yourself why it matters: I have a picture of Saint John Paul II on my cupboard in my room. It says, “Are you capable of risking your life for someone? Do it for Christ.” Sometimes when I don’t want to get out of bed, I see it there, and tell myself, “Do it for Christ.” I used to mumble to myself during one challenging Lenten sacrifice, “Remember what you really want.” Ask yourself why it matters, and when you feel like it doesn’t, remind yourself why it did. “Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods,” says C.S. Lewis. Growth and discipline need that kind of faith.

5. Be patient with yourself: “Always forget the past and never worry about your falls, many as they may be. So long as you get back on your feet, no harm will have been done; whereas, a great deal of harm will occur if you lose heart, or if you berate yourself too much for your failures,” says Ven. Francis Libermann. You get a new chance every time you fall. Just don’t stay down. Don’t give up the fight. If you are fighting for holiness until your last breath you may be assured of heaven, even if you failed that very morning. If God is patient with you, you can afford to be patient with yourself.

6. Be around the right people: Choose to spend your time with people who will help you become the man or woman God has called you to be. If your friend circle or social circle are the ones doing all the stuff you are trying to avoid, or mocking your efforts to grow or change, perhaps you need new friends. '

If you’re still a little nervous about this, here are some ideas for small achievable goals. Don’t forget- don’t pick more than three!

1. Go to sleep on time. Set an alarm for 30 minutes before you want to go to bed, and put away anything that tempts you to stay awake longer- cell phone, books, laptop.

2. Switch off your phone data for a specified amount of time each day (perhaps 10 pm to 8 am).

3. End your day by writing your goals and to do list for the next day, with tasks written in order of importance.

4. Delete time-wasting apps from your phone. Instead, choose one book to read every night before bed. Make a list of books to go through, and make sure they are easily available to you- put them on your bedside table, or on your kindle. (I have plenty of recommendations- Something Other Than God, Searching for and Maintaining Peace, He Leadeth Me, Time for God, Sober Intoxication of the Spirit, the Prayer section of the Catechism, Fill These Hearts.)

5. Every time you catch yourself criticizing someone, or complaining, force yourself to say three good things about the person or situation.

6. Start a prayer journal and write three things you want to thank God for every day.

7. Memorize one bible verse every day. Send it to a friend, or illustrate it it or write it on a white board so you can see it all day.

8. Visit an Adoration chapel for 15 minutes every day before or after work.

9. Go for weekday Mass every day or twice or thrice a week (on pre-assigned days, and tell someone you’re going. It’s too easy to change your mind last minute if you don’t.)

10. Draw a picture every day. Or write every day.

11. Do some Zumba every day.

12. Go for a walk with a friend three times a week.

13. Plan to meet up with or visit one person every week- a friend, family member, or someone who needs a friend.

14. Add Confession to your monthly calendar.

15. Do an Examen at the end of each day.

You have your life ahead of you. It is full of possibilities, full of potential! You CAN become the person God has called you to be! Let us begin.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Five Christmas Gifts- Stories of Hope

As we fight the good fight against negativity, and strive to not just survive but thrive this Christmas (yes, I really just did that), it helps to notice and share the little and big signs of hope that we see. I constantly see signs to panic, signs that people are weak and judgmental and cold, that the world is going to hell and I want to scream, “Stop the earth, I want to get off!” But that’s not a true reflection of reality, is it? Love continues to fertilize and water the dry earth, and wherever it does, the seed that God plants sprouts and grows, and I catch a glimpse of hope and beauty. These signs of hope are my Christmas gifts to you.

-The Gift of a Birthday Sacrifice- 

A young wife and mother that I know comes from a humble and far from wealthy background (she recently moved out of the slum where she lived with her husband and his family). Most people cling to their hard-won privilege. But this young woman heard that we were raising money to send groceries to poor families from a school we work with. She texted me and told me, “My birthday is this month, so we plan this year that I will not buy new clothes and we will not have a party at home, and that money my husband wants you to give to two families which will help them for Christmas.”

Wow. I had tears in my eyes as I read her message. Mother Teresa said, “Love to be real, it must cost – it must hurt – it must empty us of self.” I don’t think I give very often with that real sacrificial heart.

-The Gift of a Home- 

Another friend and relative casually mentioned last month that she had practically adopted a young boy who they had rescued from the streets in the town where her family lives. Her family had befriended and tried to help his mother who was homeless and troubled, and they gave this young boy a part-time job around their property, put him in a better school (than the public one where the teachers never showed up), and eventually he began to sleep in their home, sharing a room with her son. He adores her, and follows her around.

Again, wow. I know lots of people who want to help the poor (as I do), and come up with projects or programmes or make donations. But how many of us are willing to care enough about anyone enough to be personally inconvenienced by them, to open our homes to them, and love them? I’m inspired. I think the key seems to be open your eyes to the people in front of you, and start there.

-The Gift of Literacy- 

I stopped by my great-aunt’s home the other day to drop off something. She lives next door to us, and we have a very friendly middle-aged maid who cooks for her and stays with her during the day. But when I opened the door, I saw my mother and the maid sitting side by side, heads buried in a notebook. That’s when I realized my mother was teaching her how to read and write. She practises in her notebook when she is free. Again, what a simple and small way to love someone, without a big fuss or drama about ‘look at me HELPING THE POOR’. Part of my work requires that I share the projects that we do, because our benefactors need to know what the volunteers are up to, and it helps people get involved. But it is a very simple and beautiful thing to love and serve without taking a photo to share on Facebook.

-The Gift of Music in the Slum- 

A couple of weeks ago, a friend’s brother texted me. He told me that his group of friends and their spouses and kids go carol singing every year to an orphanage. He asked me if there was any group of people that we volunteer with whom they could do it for this Christmas. These are all well-to-do professionals, who have every excuse to make their Christmas wholly about themselves- parties and gifts and good food. I’m sure their schedule could be filled up with decorating their own homes and buying their own families gifts. They don’t belong to any group that requires them to do any social service activity at Christmas. And yet they choose to make this a part of their lives and schedules. 

When I was a teenager I was part of the church youth group that went carol-singing to all the areas of the parish. But for us, it was mostly about having a good time, flirting with each other, and hoping the areas would provide good snacks. On the days when we visited the wealthier areas, all the youth would show up, but on the days we had to go to the poorer areas of the parish, the group would be a little scantier. Yeah, we were pretty shallow.

But this group of young families headed to the slum where our local parish has a tuition class, and made a fun evening for a bunch of kids who probably appreciated it far more than our little rich kids would. They brought their kids too! I once invited a teenager to help with a summer club we were doing in the slum and she told me her mother wouldn’t allow her to, because she thought it wasn’t safe. We can’t help people if we don’t go to where they are, and meet them there. And we can’t teach our kids to be different if we bubble wrap their existence so that they don’t even have to ever face other people’s sufferings and difficult lives.

-The Gift of a Family- 

A Salesian sister, a friend of my sister, came to visit two days ago. She was warm and kind and friendly, and chatted easily about her life. As she shared, she mentioned two young men, brothers, who were orphans and who she had met some years before. They were Protestant and had grown up in a Protestant orphanage. She said that she decided to befriend them. She took them home to her family, and over the years her family became their family. When they married, her family were the ones to buy the brides sarees and gifts as representatives of the young men’s families. She told us how much the young men loved them. The younger one told her, “You are an answer to my prayers for many years. I told God that everyone else has someone, except for me. I told Him, please send me someone to be MY family. It wasn’t a coincidence that we met, God sent you to me.”

Those of us come from warm, close-knit families often take it for granted. Or we feel bad for those who don’t have anyone. But how many of us are willing to open up that circle of love, and draw others into it? This Sister and her family did it. Now that Sister is posted in a different state, her family continues to love and welcome the young men who have become a part of their family.

There are probably many, many more stories like this. Not everyone is gossiping and slandering and criticizing and complaining. There are many, many souls who have opened themselves not just to the true 'spirit of Christmas', but the true GOD of Christmas- the God of love. Like Jesus, they give priceless gifts- gifts of love, mercy, kindness and acceptance. If He comes back today, I hope I may be counted among them.

Finding Myself in Each Downton Character

For the Downton fans. Everyone else, move on.

I've been re-watching Downton Abbey, and going through all the emotional upheaval all over again (though I cheat and fast-forward through the unpleasant bits). But while feeling all the feels (why did you die, Matthew?), my INTJ brain was identifying with several of the characters, and not always in the most flattering light.

Am I Lady Mary with her cool, calm, emotionless manner, a T (of Myers-Briggs) with all a T's faults and strengths- logical, the opposite of a drama queen, keeps her head in every circumstance, and capable of expressing her thoughts forcefully and confidently. She seems to be unable to resist nasty digs at her sister's neediness and weakness, flowing no doubt from the biggest flaw of an extreme INTJ- a lack of empathy. But she has a streak of softness brought out by love, and a battle between her softer and harder sides.

Or am I the Dowager, a very similar character to Lady Mary with her biting wit, her sarcastic tongue, her skepticism, and her boundless confidence? No slip will go unnoticed or unremarked when the Dowager is around. There seems to be nothing that would shake her, no social situation she is not in command of. And she will ALWAYS have the last word!

Or am I Lord Grantham, with his authoritarianism, his love of the way things are, and his dislike of change? He likes to get his own way, always thinks he knows best, and is rather high handed about making decisions for others. He gets annoyed when people challenge him, and doesn't give in very gracefully. Not that much of a team player.

Or how about Mrs Crawley with her high-minded idealism, wanting to not only save the world, but be personally involved with every aspect of saving it? She has a knack of trying to making people feel guilty, not hesitating to point out injustice, and people's complicity in it, regardless of tact or diplomacy. But she truly has a good heart, and would never shirk an unpleasant duty if she believed it to be right. And if ever anyone was in need, everyone knew she could be relied on to help, and to fight for the underdog.

I'll tell you who I'm not- Lady Sybil with her sunny, sweet, kind nature, unruffled by other people's nastiness. Or Lady Grantham also with a sympathetic and warm manner, quick with a friendly word and a charming smile to bridge awkward silences, a little gullible in her sympathy for Thomas and O'Brien. I don't think I'm like Thomas, who is just needlessly nasty all the time, and loves plotting and weaving webs of deception.

I will say I'm occasionally like Miss O'Brien, when I feel sour and bad-tempered and want to pour cold water over everyone else's enthusiasm. But hopefully I control myself a little better. Most of the time. I don't feel at all like Edith, who just seemed bitter and resentful most of the time, because she hasn't received the love and affirmation that she craves. I'm not like Bates, he's far more of a brooder than I am, and seems to have an anger problem, even though he is a man of integrity.

But who would I really like to be like?

I wish I could be a little more like Matthew- he's just kind, down to earth and wholly himself. He believed in Mary, and loved her into the best version of herself. He wasn't overly dramatic in his love, but just HAPPY and unashamed to be so. He was balanced, good-tempered, and while he wanted to do what was right and just and helpful (like asking Tom to be his best man, and encouraging Edith to write for the papers), he did it with a much lighter touch than his mother.

I wish I could be a little more like Anna, who is truly kind, dependably so. She had a genuine good-will to all, and was willing to get involved to be kind. She never seems to be moody and rarely has an uncharitable word for anyone. I would consider my life well- lived if that could be said for me at the end of my life. She went through so much suffering, but it sweetened and deepened her goodness, instead of turning her bitter.

But you may be surprised who I think the real hero of the show is- Mrs Hughes!

To me, she embodies one of the most central maxims of the Christian faith- mercy triumphs over judgment. She has a strong sense of right and wrong, but that never makes her judgmental or unmerciful. On the contrary, she has such a strong sense of mercy that she innumerable times gives second chances to those who have done nothing to deserve it. She always offers a way out, a way to move forward. Unlike Carson, she won't rub it in when someone messes up, nor will she dole out quick condemnation or a word of blame. What a gift! If only more of us were like that! Compassion does not require that we betray or water down the truth. But love for truth does not require that we be harsh, cold or rigid when it comes to people. The sooner Christians learn that lesson, the sooner the world will be transformed.

Also read: The Downton Abbey Episode That Made Me Bawl My Eyes Out

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Eight Tips to Surviving Christmas

You may be one of those crazy people who starts counting down to Christmas from October, who gets dreamy at the thought of Christmas gifts and traditions, hot chocolate and carols, Midnight mass and fluffy socks. But most likely once the season is upon you, that illusion comes crashing down. You suddenly have too much to do, too many commitments, nothing to wear, you’re tired, and everyone expects too much of you, and more and more corners of your house need cleaning. Your family members still push your buttons, and the more tired you are, the more you remember everything in your life that is going wrong, like the fact that you’re STILL single, or your marriageable children are, or your marriage is not picture-perfect, or you are childless or you just lost someone close to you… and it’s all too much to handle, and Christmas is not dreamy and charming, but frustrating and exhausting and can we go back to normal life already?
So is there any way to avoid this cycle of pain? Is there any way to redeem Christmas? Here are my best tips:
1. Make room for silence: Somehow or the other, prayer is relegated to the way way bottom of our to-do lists during Christmas. “Hold on, Lord, I know, I know, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’ etc, but really it’s super-important that I spend another few hours online shopping for the perfect gift for everyone I know, I’m sure you understand.” 
Just put it all to one side, put your phone in another room, quiet your heart and your mind, and be with the One who loves you best. 
“The best time to make a holy hour is in the morning, early, before the day sets traps for us,” said Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Schedule it in, or it won’t happen. Personal prayer is important, and so is family prayer. I remember a Christmas Eve a few years ago when my family was in the middle of all the typical bustle of decorating, gift-wrapping, looking for matching clothes, shoes and jewelry for Midnight Mass, fighting over the one ironing board… and then we stopped everything, switched off all the lights and sat quietly before the crib, with its one light on, and prayed together. It was exactly right, but how easily we could have missed that moment.
2. Make room for love: Plan a visit to a poor family, or an elderly relative. Those are the kind of plans that won’t automatically happen unless you choose them. Christmas dances, family parties and big meals will happen one way or another, but the less glamorous appointments must be deliberately prioritized. But it’s not just the big gestures of love, but the little ones too. Plan each day to something encouraging or kind to each member of your family. Wash the dishes for your mum. Thank your maid. Tickle your kids. People over tasks.
3. Don’t over-commit: It’s easy during Christmas season to want to do it all. And there’s usually a LOT to do - parties, visits, home-decorating, errands, cooking feasts, an array of different types of sweets. But if you’re tired, it’s okay to say no. If you don’t have time to pray, it’s okay to say no.  if you’re over-stimulated, your room is a huge mess and you’re surviving on five hours of sleep every night, it’s okay to say no. It doesn’t really make a difference if you make three types of sweets instead of five. It’s okay if you skip a few social engagements to spend a quiet evening at home. make good choices. Don't spread yourself too thin.
4. Don’t over-eat, drink too much or spend too much: It’s embarrassing that Christians celebrate the birth of our God in the dwelling of a poor and humble family by reveling in the sin of gluttony and alcohol abuse and greed. Of course, celebration and feasting is good - Catholics love their feasts! But feasting is not equal to gluttony or drunkenness. Plus you know you feel bloated, unhealthy,  lethargic or hung over after overdoing it too many times. Why not enjoy the good things of life without letting them destroy us? Maybe you could give away the extra food, or the money saved by eating leftovers or buying less alcohol or other stuff, in the true spirit of Christmas.
5. Feed yourself with something satisfying: Read a good book. Read the bible. Listen to a good podcast. Do some art. Feed your soul and your mind, don’t just put them on hold while the body takes over. The bubble of this life is going to burst one day, and what will you have left on that day?
6. Play some beautiful music: Not just poppy Christmas-themed music, but music that calms you and feeds your soul, helps you remember who you are and who God is, that there is more to life than this frenzied pursuit of pleasure. Do your chores to the soundtrack of beauty.
7. Go for Confession: I have never failed to have my soul-cobwebs cleared out each time I have been to Confession. Yes, it’s hard, yes, I don’t feel like doing it and can think of any number of other things I would rather be doing, and yet I go – because it clears out the junk and once again I see myself and the world with the eyes of Truth… and hope. I went for Confession three days ago, and it was about time.
8. Fight the urge to compare: Envy creeps in at times like this, a dissatisfaction with the way things are, with the imperfect life we have been given. Nostalgia, an imperceptible sense of “If only…” pervades everything, and steals our joy. Reality doesn’t seem to satisfy. Wake up, friends - it’s a lie! No one has that perfect life. It awaits us in heaven, when every tear will be wiped away. Meanwhile, the imperfect, messy life you have been given holds beauty. But you might need to stop and look for it. And when you find it, give thanks!
I pray that each person reading this article finds joy this Christmas, that you may judge wisely the things of earth, and hold firm to the things of heaven, and that you may find your security in the gentle arms of our Lord who gave up heaven just to be ‘Emmanuel’.