The Road Less Traveled

Are you at the liberty of choosing the thoughts that cross your mind? Do you struggle with mild anxiety and melancholy, or lack of focus or depth? I promise I’m not selling something. I just think this is an increasingly common problem. As a culture we’ve lost any sense of mental discipline. We don’t cultivate silence, we think we are the victims of our brains, and have no control over our thoughts.
Many people believe they are at the mercy of their brains and thoughts. Of course, in some ways you are. What you have been given in terms of the physical apparatus of your brain as well as the experiences you’ve had are the machinery you’re working with, but you are the engineer, the mechanic. You can change a lot, tune it up and improve it. You are more than your brain, and therefore, and you can start exercising it to shape up the way you want. That is, there is a method to the madness of pruning your thought life.pathway-to-cloud-computing
Basic neuroscience has taught us that our brains respond to repeated behaviors by pruning the neural pathways that aren’t used and reinforcing the ones that are. If you think of it as a highway, the lane that is most heavily used develops ruts. Your tires easily stay in the lane in the rut, and sometimes it can take a little effort to get your car our of the ruts. Heavy traffic reinforces these ruts. It’s the same with your brain – if you repeat a thought or habit it will develop a “rut” and you’ll sort of automatically go there. It may even feel as if you don’t have control over it – you can just set up cruise control and go.
It’s pretty simple, really, to change thought patterns and behaviors. Simple, but not necessarily easy. Your brain is going to want to keep going back to the well traveled rut, not because you’re a weak, lazy idiot – but because that is what’s normal and easy. It will just take some initial effort to start smoothing that out and creating new neural pathways.
Now think about this in terms of changing a thought pattern or habit. It feels so hard because it takes a little effort and mindfulness over an extended period of time to make the change. But it will start getting easier as you develop new habits. To add complexity to the process, your brain also rewards you with a hit of dopamine when it’s something you want – say, sugar or getting on your phone. So that makes it even harder when you’re trying to change the habit, because your brain is enticing you with reward to just go the easy route.
The point of all this information is just to illustrate that even though at times it feels we are victims of our brains, we aren’t. Believing you are a vicim of your brain is just a lie to keep you small and stuck. I’m not promising that lifting mental patterns – especially anxious and depressive tendencies – is easy, but knowing that you have some control over the process is crucial to healing. Knowing that it will take time and smooth out the ruts is essential to not getting discouraged. Some of these patterns are learned from an early age, so think of the time you’ve spent traveling those roads. It will take time and patience and a large dose of grace to change them. Some of these patterns reward us with pleasurable feelings and emotional comfort, so they require grieving and envisioning a new way of life. Sometimes the path to healing doesn’t feel like healing. It feels like torment and it feels cold and lonely. We’re letting go of all these hindrances, but they were like little friends that are hard to say goodbye to. Throwing off the old man is painful, but it’s the road to freedom and joy. I know it is, it has to be. I’m on the road now, too – just a fellow traveler. But I keep working to throw off the things that are unnecessary and my load is getting lighter. We’ll get there together friends.

Scarcity and Abundance: Money, and other things

I have long struggled with the Gospel teachings on money, and I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what formula to use to handle money the right way. Sometimes it seems that we’re called to live without any possessions or money, but then I would wonder – if God was asking us all to live in poverty, how would the world work? How would we have children and jobs, food and shelter? I do think he asks some of us to live in voluntary poverty, but I don’t necessarily think that God’s economy is one in which we are all impoverished. However, I do think that if we’re following Christ authentically, it won’t lead us into a life where stuff is the focus of our existence.

On the spectrum of money, most of us perceive ourselves our to be somewhere in the middle: we’re not wealthy, but we’re not poor. Although many of our perceptions are skewed, and many of us who perceive ourselves to be middle class may actually be wealthy, a large portion of approaching money in a healthy way is assessing our perception about how much we have. Most of us think, if we were actually wealthy, we wouldn’t have to worry about money. But many wealthy people become so obsessed in the pursuit of money that they are still worried about it – keeping or losing it, having enough for their increased needs and hedonistic adaption.

We want to be free from worry about money, but feel we need lots of it in order to have peace. Or, if we don’t have enough, we may be consumed with worry over how to get more, how to keep some for ourselves, and what we would buy if we had some. I think our perception about how much money we have is almost more important than how much money we actually have because it determines our attitude about money. Perceptions can be skewed, we may have plenty but feel we need more – meaning we have a scarcity mindset. But I believe we are called to live from an abundance mindset – “as we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen.” If we perceive the abundance of God, then our perceptions will be different – we may not see the abundance, but we have faith that it is there. How do we live with money -not materialistically but not overly obsessive, not in denial of our spending but not hyper aware of money?

I used to think the best way to approach money was to have as few needs as possible. I thought if I didn’t need much, never bought anything new, tried not to drive my car, never did anything fun and kept an obsessive budget then I was living how he wanted me to. I wasn’t being a “rich” person; I was using my money “wisely” and trying to never “waste” a cent. It was borderline obsessive and mentally unsustainable. I started realizing that not even poor people lived like that (although I believed that they should so that they wouldn’t be poor).I felt like I couldn’t move, couldn’t have fun.

You see, I can’t get my head straight about money. I was riding my bike in the heat of summer pulling my infant in a bike trailer to save .60 on gas, and the next day buying myself a $4 cup of coffee. I was obsessive on one day, and excessive the next. Heather King talks about this phenomenon in her book, Loaded, where she writes on her own disordered money issues and how she was a chronic under earner and underspender. She brings up an interesting point – that we all think in black and white when it comes to money, and for those of us who only know how to live as if we don’t deserve anything, that can be a problem. She explains that we have to get honest and come out of denial about our spending – be clear about how much is coming in and how much is coming out. But also learn to provide for ourselves when necessary. Don’t dissociate when you buy yourself something; don’t live in denial that you need something.

Our families influence our fears and patterns when it comes to money, and as we venture out into adulthood we have to reconcile all these fears with our own materialism and greed, and the gospel teachings. It’s all a bit confusing, and I would find myself just giving up and spending money excessively and then making up for it in stupid little ways. Its all a little too reminiscent of my relationship with food. All these things in life we end up using in ways that they aren’t meant to be used. Whether it’s food, money, alcohol, love – there’s a certain detachment that’s necessary in order to have our lives appropriately ordered. It’s not about having nothing, it’s about having everything without anxiety. God will be enough; God will provide. Heather King calls this the spirituality of enough.

The things is, even when I was spending way too much money on clothes and shoes, I was consumed with finding the next new thing, or finding the perfect purse. Living in excess or having too much money isn’t the panacea most of us fantasize about – it just leads to a whole other kind of anxiety. At least having less money is simpler in that way. When I had no money, I didn’t even think about what I was going to buy because I couldn’t.

When it comes to specifics I would guess that God has different calls on each of us. But, I’m starting to understand that approaching money from a gospel standpoint is more about how we approach God in general. We are asked to have an attitude of trust in the abundance of God, not a white knuckled fear of the scarcity of the world.

I don’t think we’re ever given a formula for the Spiritual life, and especially about money because that would miss the whole point. If I had a formula for how I was supposed to handle money then, conscientious as I am, would go off on my own and fulfill my obligation in isolation from God and others. My life would just be a series of transactions between duty and God. A formulaic model doesn’t invite relationship, mystery, or community into our lives. If I had it my way that’s how life would look – hyper-efficient, sterile, and controlled. I do what I want so long as I check the boxes.

In contrast to my vision for the world, the whole Gospel message is one of interdependence. God wants us to work with Him. That’s what he asked in Eden “subdue the land and animals”, in the desert “I will give you the land if you trust me”, in the New Covenant “eat my body, drink my blood”. He doesn’t just come rescue us without our participation, because what’s the point if our hearts don’t change? If we don’t change then we’ll never see things as they really are – we won’t love in truth, we won’t have faith in the goodness of God, we won’t hope in the beauty of eternity.

In every area of our lives God asks us to live inter-dependently with Him. It’s not so much that he wants us to have nothing (although maybe He does ask that of some of us) but that he wants us to trust Him to take care of us. He doesn’t want us to go off on our own and turn our backs on Him – he wants us to see that if we would loosen our grip on our stuff and our accounts, then he would just give us what we need. Sometimes that means letting go of our fear and spending, sometimes it means selling everything we own to give to the poor, and sometimes it means trusting that God will provide. In whatever situation you find yourself, when you trust in God’s abundance, there will always be enough.

Most of all we’re asked to have a heart that is not consumed with money, whether there is a surplus or a deficit. Being detached from preoccupation with money is distinct from pretending we don’t have needs or living in excess of our true needs. We’re not necessarily called to be ascetics, we’re just asked to have enough detachment from things of the world to be able to trust our needs to God and share with one another.

We ask for what we need, and God either provides it or gives us the grace to adjust to life without it (King, 2016). My mantra has become “there will be enough”. There will be enough – money, food, time. There will be enough emotional energy to have patience with my children. There will be enough of me to be a loving wife. There will be enough time to take it slow, to rest at the appropriate times. There will be enough energy to do one more load of laundry and to prep dinner. I have found that although I say I’m a Christian, my faith tends to reveal a belief in scarcity more than God’s abundance. I especially tend to veer into an emotional scarcity model – I don’t believe there’s enough, so I hoard whatever is left for myself in the name of sanity and respond harshly to my kids because “I’m just done”. How could I forget the parable of the five loaves? I think I don’t have enough energy left to be kind and patient, but I haven’t even asked for help. I haven’t even tried to have faith that God could supply me the energy I need. I tell God I can’t exercise patience and kindness, or any of the other ways love is operationalized, because there is just not enough of me.

But when I take an attitude of “there is enough” emotionally, and trust God first that he will provide the grace for me to be who I am supposed to be, then there is always enough. In fact, I find that I am overflowing with peace and joy, and that life wasn’t so dark as I thought it was when I presumed that emotional scarcity was truer than God’s graceful abundance.

“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”IMG_2022

Thoughts on Daily Sufferings

I have spent so much of my life trying to get someone to understand whatever it is I’m going through. No matter how good our lives are, there’s always some element of suffering or painful giving of ourselves. For goodness sake, I’m sitting here living this beautiful, privileged life and feeling nostalgic over parts of my past, parts that were actually quite miserable – and yet in my head those memories have a glow, a golden backlight. Nostalgia is like Instagram: it makes life look a little better than it actually feels.

We all have our own brand of suffering that no one will ever fully get, but how we choose to handle the suffering is critical. Most of us go around either pretending our hurt and questions don’t exist, or, getting so stuck in our hurt and questions we’re searching strangers’ eyes to see if they feel it, too – to see if maybe someone gets us and the way life kind of hurts even when we’re not sure why.  The only way I can figure to live life wholeheartedly is this: don’t invalidate your own suffering, but don’t get hung up on it either.

Two summers ago I was going out running in the morning before my daughter woke up. It was too hot to go outside at any other point during the day, so I was trying to get exercise in before the heat really set in. I would always get to about halfway through my run, turn the corner, and start feeling tired. It was always at the same point, and I always thought I wasn’t trying hard enough and that I needed to push through it so I could get in better shape. Basically I thought the reasons it felt hard had something to do with my own lack of discipline and effort. One day as I hit that spot again, the narrative in my head was interrupted as I realized there was a slight incline for about half a mile starting at that halfway point. It instantly connected to my life, as I always tend to blame myself when I’m struggling through a season, but I realized that in life, a lot of times we’re running uphill without realizing it. We don’t see all the reasons it’s a difficult season, but you’re not making it up and it’s not your fault. It doesn’t change the fact that it feels hard, and that it’s going to take extra effort, but it’s still nice to know it’s not all in your head.

The truth is, in an objective sense, my life is pretty wonderful. Although I still have conflicted feelings about where I am and what I’m doing there’s nothing I would actually change. What I keep finding is that there is so much grace in this life. It would be dishonest to say that I always love my life, but after the tough moments pass, I feel the beauty of God seeping in through all my cracks. And yes, we need to follow Christ with our crosses, but he is also a God of hope.  Without a comprehensive theology of both suffering and hope I can’t live wholeheartedly, both acknowledging the suffering and also not getting hung up on it.

Part of the problem is we can never see it all clearly. We can’t hold life all at once and get a good look at it. Even the past, with 20/20 hindsight, is limited to the narrow scope of our limited perspective. But occasionally I have a moment of clarity, and I’m comforted to see that there was meaning to my struggle, that the questions I had did resolve, and that I am in a better place now than I was then. I am grateful to have enough years under my belt at this point to finally start feeling like I know something about myself, but I imagine in another thirty years I’ll look back and know for certain that I knew nothing. Except maybe the enduring love of Christ and that He is certainly our hope.

Generosity of Self

I never loved nobody fully, always one foot on the ground.

-Regina Spektor

Generosity usually conjures up ideas of sharing money or material goods, but recently I’ve started thinking of generosity more in terms of sharing myself. In counseling psychology, resistance is conceptualized as being uncooperative with change. I think it could also be described as psychic stinginess – an unwillingness to open up and share our selves. Either directly or indirectly the individual pushes back against the therapeutic goals in order to avoid the work they probably most need to do. Resistance in therapy can take on many forms including being late to or missing appointments, incomplete homework, finding excuses for being unable to do something, being unwilling to talk, or flat out refusal to change. It isn’t necessarily intentional – in the example of incomplete homework, the individual may not have had much time and so didn’t complete the task, but that still reveals something. Perhaps it wasn’t a priority, or something else is taking up a lot of time, or maybe they were afraid of what the work would reveal and decided to do the laundry instead. In whatever forms it takes, our resistances reveal our secrets.


Family life has a way of pointing out our resistances, the parts of ourselves we hold back or are unwilling to change. Most of us are good at loving until the beloved comes up against one of our resistances. When I’m asked to give something I don’t want to share I tend to pull back and keep a little something for myself. In a Catholic marriage we believe in not holding back any part of ourself, which is one reason that we don’t use birth control. It’s an interesting dynamic in which to explore a relationship because using contraception doesn’t allow a fully self-giving marriage. In our culture we think of contraception as smart and practical, and the point here really is not about contraception, but how much of ourselves we’re willing to give to someone else. The idea of not using contraception at first filled me with panic (and often still does), but when I started understanding the reasons why, this reason in particular struck me as beautiful.

In secular psychology most clinicians and researchers would suggest there is a point at which we should hold something back for ourselves. After all, if you don’t hold on to yourself you won’t have anything left to give, they might argue. But the idea is more nuanced than it appears; of course we should have healthy boundaries and learn appropriate self-care, but that is different than being stingy with ourselves. We have to be careful what ideas we adopt about love and self-giving – there are a lot of misguided ideas that promise fulfillment, but really only lead to isolation and the building of walls between people. It’s this idea in our culture that self-actualization should be prioritized above self-sacrifice.

But doesn’t God also ask that of us? Doesn’t he ask us to give our whole selves in loving trust to Him? And then, if marriage and parenthood are our vocations, then doesn’t he also ask us to devote our whole lives to those people? This is how God works – he always asks us not to hold back any part of ourselves, only so that he can give us something better in return. If we’re holding onto something then our hands don’t have room to hold what he wants to give us back. And that’s the example he has set for us. The Trinity is the complete self-giving of three divine persons. And Jesus, one of those persons, gave himself fully in service to the Father, and fully in Love to us. Many people believe that the path of self-actualization and self-sacrifice diverge, but in truth they are the same for the Christian because total self-sacrifice (without gain) is the height of self-actualizaton.

Even many of my favorite psychologists would say that at a certain point relationships should be sacrificed for self-actualization. Love is more important, and a higher calling, and the true path of sanctification. The tragic thing is that these writers don’t understand that self-sacrifice is the highest form of actualization. Looking at Christ as our example, he died a tragic death that appeared to be a failure. But it wasn’t a failure at at all, and was the height of love. Sanctification and self-actualization are the same path in the Christian life.


It’s an incredibly seductive idea, that we have to prioritize our personal improvement, and has all the airs of being mature and wise and prudent. But it will lead to an empty life in which you are living only for yourself. I don’t think most people really, truly want that. I think most of us have this holy longing to be in a total self-giving, loving relationship with ours spouses. Most of us, on our good days, want the community of family and tolerance to have children and parents and friends closely involved our lives. The problem is not that we don’t want these things, it’s that in practice maintaining close relationships is really hard. So we give up on it, and we tell ourselves we’re “growing”, and instead of taking a look at what we’re unwilling to give up for others, we pack our bags and head off on our own. Or we close off part of ourselves, maintaining physical proximity but emotionally going on alone.


And so we have to learn how resistance clothes itself, because we will run into it in ourselves and those whom we love the most. Resistance is not something to be feared, but it is something to respectfully dialogue with. We must pay attention to our resistances, and then, challenge them. Whether it is a doctrinal issue, a relational issue, or a matter of taste even – get curious about it. It can usually be reasoned with, so long as it understands that the end will be better if it cooperates. It clothes itself sharply with all the tools of our defenses: rationalization, sublimation, denial. It might look like “how I grew up” or “just the way I am” or “I’ve been hurt before” or “I’m too tired” or “that’s not my personality”. Resistance has a large wardrobe. We must face our resistances so that we can be generous with ourselves without hindrance and can follow the path of sanctification into greater unity with one another and God.

Patience With Ambition

I was driving yesterday listening to The Lively Show podcast, and she was interviewing Gary Vaynerchuk – a successful entrepreneur and writer. At the end of the interview, like Jess always does, she asked, “What would you say to someone just starting out on this journey?” And he said “Be patient with your ambition.”


Being patient with my ambition is something that has never really occurred to me. Especially now, as I’ve decided to stay home with my kids and not pursue traditional success, I’m not finding myself being very patient with my ambition. I find myself worried I’m missing out, that everyone else is getting ahead, that I need to do something NOW so that I don’t lose the ability or the idea. I don’t think that’s the prominent cultural message about ambition, either. I think the cultural ideal is to make a buck, and not lose any time wasting it on extraneous, non-efficient ideals like a quiet life at home with children.I’m letting this idea seep in. I think I do need to be patient with my ambition. The time is not quite right.


This morning I was about make some cookies I’ve been excited to try. Right as I was getting everything out, my daughter woke up from an extra short nap – I had been planning another hour of her sleeping. I let her cry for a few minutes to see if she would go back to sleep, but it started becoming one of those cries where you know they’re awake and they’re mad.  I thought I’d just get one more thing done. It’s in those moments, where our children thwart our agendas, where it is hard to be patient with our ambition – whether to make cookies, or start a business, or anything you feel you’re being held back from. I finally went in to pick her up, and she immediately calmed down and eased into my chest. She ran her chubby eight month old fingers through my hair and sighed, just happy I had come to be with her. I was struck by the moment – for all my plans, for all the things I think I want to be doing, it’s really this. This is what I really want and where I am so so happy.