Saturday, November 18, 2017

A Life-Changing Mission Experience

In the summer of 2005, I embarked on my very first mission trip, with the local church I'd attended at the time.

Weeks leading up to it, I’d heard testimonies about how the mission field was a life-changing experience, but I still couldn’t grasp what my own experience would look like, nor did I have any expectations to be used by God in any particular way. All I knew was that I was stepping well outside of my comfort zone and into the poverty-stricken region of Galena, Mexico.

The first leg of the journey landed us in Austin, Texas, where we’d spend a few days getting acquainted with our American mission partners. From there both teams would board a bus and trek across the Mexican border en route to our missionary facility in Galena, our base camp.

In the days to follow, what impacted me the most, however, was when we branched out and spent time with the people living in the secluded mountain villages.

I remember our first drive up through the mountains, and how breathtaking it was. But the plight of its inhabitants would soon overshadow the scenic view. Dirt roads. Run-Down shacks with no hydro or running water, to a gentleman greeting us on his donkey, had left the scene before me so surreal; it felt as though we’d time-warped back to an earlier century.

And although it was heartbreaking to see the children and their families living in some of the most desperate situations imaginable, amidst their rugged conditions, I couldn't help but observe how materialism was of no essence to them. What mattered most was the fundamentals of life, such as food, clean water, shelter, and some form of health care. It was all of the things I had taken for granted back home in Canada.

Mother Teresa once said: “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.” This gift was, undoubtedly, present in Galena. Because despite the language barrier, the mutual gift of a gentle spirit and a loving simile was witnessed amongst the local people and us, daily.

I still visualize the children running to greet me with their big smiles, as well as the communicative expressions we all shared with the Mexican people at our evening worship services. It was some of the most memorable interactions that captured my heart and remains with me to this day.

I often think about the impoverished people in the Galena region, and about their spiritual progress and well-being. Because it was evident that the battle against the powers of darkness lurked in the shadows of their city and villages, including the common practice of witchcraft.

In hindsight, my mission experience was indeed life-changing. It not only gave me a new perspective on what it truly means to be content, but it made me realize that whether we're involved in missions abroad or here at home, it's the work that Christ calls us to.

The Christmas season is fast approaching, and as we celebrate the birth of Christ, the Greatest Missionary of all time, let's continue to look for opportunities to brighten the lives of the less fortunate amongst us.

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Everything Happens for A Reason"

I have heard this cliché said amongst Christians and non-Christians, alike. In fact, I have been guilty of saying it myself, without giving much thought to how my words might have affected the other person.

And while this cliché does hold some validity in my life today, I am increasingly aware of how damaging its use can be when referring to grief and human suffering.

Whether we believe that everything happens for a reason or not, the most crucial consideration should be how the one on the receiving end of our words will interpret it.

Because, as humans, we want to be "fixers." We want to sweep in and provide a reason for one's loss, to ease their pain, in an attempt to help them make sense of what happened, and so at times we end up saying clichés such as "everything happens for a reason."

I agree that everything has a cause and an effect, but personally, I don't believe God causes "unreasoned" bad things to happen, or it's His will to inflict pain and suffering on His children. To say otherwise (in my opinion) is to imply that evil doesn't exist, that God is behind every bad thing that happens, and that He has a divine purpose behind every ordeal we face. Not only can this elicit a negative response for the griever, but it can also leave the griever with unanswered questions because, in the midst of their grief, no reason makes sense. There's often no justification or closure as to why certain things happen, here, in this Earthly realm.

Think about it: For what reason does a loving God provoke so much injustice and abuse in the world? For what reason does a loving God incite someone to open fire on innocent people? For what reason does an innocent child die?

While some things are merely beyond our comprehension, we can rest assured that God sees the bigger picture. We can take solace in the fact that He is there in our grief, healing the broken places in our heart so that we can become a pillar of light and support for others.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Compassion Fatigue

“Compassion fatigue is the price you pay for empathy.”

Compassion fatigue wasn’t something I'd paid much attention to throughout my 25-year career in long-term care. But looking back now, I can certainly attest to experiencing it, to some degree, especially the last few years while suffering from back pain and trying to cope with an ever-changing work environment.  

Empathy, first of all, is about feelings; it's about being able to slip into the shoes of the sufferer and see the world from their perspective. 

Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, affects the quality of care we give, because something has interfered with our ability to radiate the compassion and empathy we once felt. 

When I began my career in long-term care, empathy and compassion were something that came naturally to me. I didn't have a problem slipping into the client's shoes, to help them transition through whatever emotions they were feeling. It was empowering and energizing to uplift the face of a dear elderly, to say the least, and it still is!

During the last few years of my career, however, I began to feel exhausted, both physically and emotionally, which, in turn, had affected my zeal on the job. It wasn't that I’d stopped trying to provide the best possible care for the elderly, by no means, but there was a decrease in my empathy and compassion, nevertheless.

In retrospect, I was witnessing firsthand how the health care system—in an attempt for more oversight—had refocused its efforts at the administrative level. The organizational shift was meant to streamline the workforce. But it had indirectly dealt cuts to what I’d term as CARE (Companionship Always Restores Empathy) hours out on the floor, leaving less time for client/caregiver interaction, which left me frustrated and dissatisfied because it had hindered my ability to provide the same level of care to the clients.

For our compassionate heart to continue beating an empathetic rhythm, in sync, with those in our care, we must first maintain a sense of well-being for ourselves. And to preserve this wellness state, it may require stepping back to rejuvenate and replenish both body and spirit, or setting emotional boundaries, or whatever personal means works best.

It's been three years since I've retired from my career in long-term care. And while I believe that compassion fatigue can be the price we pay for empathy, the rewards of being a caregiver (for me) far outweighed the cost of caring.


Monday, August 21, 2017

Postive Change and Relationships

“When you stop trying to change others and work on changing yourself, your world changes for the better." Author Unknown 

Sometimes life calls us to do a self-analysis, to "right the ship" (so to speak), and cut ties with the things that are dragging us down. 

For years I felt trapped in a “woe is me" attitude. I blamed my past and others for my erratic emotional state. And even in my marriage, I thought it was somehow Derick's responsibility to make me happy. 

But my happiness came as a result of marching to the beat of my own drum. Mind you it took a lot of years swimming upstream—through a multitude of changes— to do the deep, inner work of building a better relationship with myself.

It takes courage and strength to continue swimming against the current, to let go of the familiar, and create the life we so desire. For one, fear shows up, as a barrier, to try and keep us in stagnate waters. And two, the upstream journey always accompanies some form of loss, whether it's a sense of self, a relationship, a career, or by some other means. Why? Because we have to let go of something to move forward, to swim out of the old and dive into a life of new perspective. 

For example, when I became a Christian in 2004, I lost friendships. Many now saw me as a boring churchgoer, and so we drifted apart. Then when I retired from my career in 2014 (on account of back issues), I lost a big part of my identity. I lost my salary. And I lost co-worker acquaintances. These changes were both frightening and uncomfortable, at first. But both have benefited my overall well-being today. Both have redefined me as a person. In short: My faith has given me inner peace. And my retirement has afforded me the means and time to write. 

Once we change our lives for the better, we need to be mindful of any unhealthy changes that try to creep back in, especially with regards to relationships. Because it's so easy to take on the negative characteristics of those whom we hang with, and by allowing their negativity to seep into our lives, it could damage our core being.

But having said that, we cannot make this journey alone, either. Just as negative influences can be harmful, an inner circle of trusted family and friends can be the gifts that keep us grounded, giving us the feedback we need to stay on the straight and narrow. 

I guess the key to anything in life is to have a balance, right? 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Public Speaking

I've had my share of embarrassing moments with regards to public speaking over the years. One that vividly stands out occurred in my early thirties.

I had enrolled in an evening course (at a nearby college) to obtain my certificate as a Personal Support Worker (PSW); a newly enacted requirement that was essential to maintain my job in long-term-care.

On day one, while discussing the course overview, our instructor casually announced that one of the demands would be a 20-minute in-class presentation. I was panic-stricken: I can’t do this. I will embarrass myself. Maybe I'll find a way to opt out of it.

I know most people—if not all—feel some degree of anxiousness when it comes to public speaking. It’s a typical reaction to stress, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But it was much more than the universal feelings of anxiousness for me. Although my social anxiety disorder didn't have face years ago, it was what intensified my fear of public speaking.

Social anxiety is performance based and differs for everyone. For example, some may suffer from social awkwardness. I am a very sociable person. However, up until a few years ago, if I were in a situation where I had to read aloud or speak in front of a group, it'd send my body into a reactional state, resulting in sweaty palms, a racing heart, and shakiness. The thing was, I knew there was no imminent danger, and that my fear was unreasonable, but what I believed and what my body felt were two different things.

I had gone to class on the evening of my presentation prepared, and when my name was called to speak, I gripped my sweaty palms around my project and reluctantly walked up to the podium. I began with a personal background introduction and a brief statement on my chosen topic of discussion. But what kicked my anxiety into overdrive was when I took a few seconds to gaze out at my classmates: I saw eyes fixed on me. I saw smiles on faces that I mistook to be judgemental smirks, and, then, the worst-case scenario happened. I bolted from the classroom.

It was an experience that not only left me embarrassed, but it also plunged me back into the shadows, deepening my fear of public speaking, and I'd spend years avoiding it, or anything else that'd triggered intense anxiety, for that matter.

But this “avoiding” mindset was crippling. It held me back from reaching my full potential, which is why I have been doing a lot of soul-searching in the last decade. And—amongst other things—I've learned that the onset of my social anxiety disorder manifested itself in elementary school.

As a child, I was shy. I lacked confidence. It was painfully hard when I was called upon to read in front of the class. I'd stumble over my words, and it provoked some of my classmates to ridicule me. But I had no idea how much it'd impact my life as an adult.

And my college experience, many, many years later, would prove this to be true. That night wasn't so much about the fear of speaking in public; it was more about a sense of déjà vu; an overwhelming feeling, a flashback, to the ridiculed little school girl, which, ironically, became the core resolution to understanding my intense fear of public speaking, in the first place.

For years my social anxiety felt like a fight that I could never win. For years it fed the voices (the lies) inside my head, which lurked in the shadows, waiting to defeat me. I am happy to say that it no longer has a stronghold over my life today. Mind you; I don’t, by any means, jump at the chance to speak in public. But through more self-awareness and diligence, as well as a belief that with God all things are possible, I'm learning about my fears, and how to triumph over them. And it has helped me move out of the shadows and offer encouragement to those who are struggling with anxiety.

P.S. I did eventually go back to class and complete my presentation that evening. And the instructor awarded me a B for my efforts. Phew!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Pit of Comparison

Falling into the pit of comparison began at a very young age for me. Having grown up in a low-income family, I’d envy those who were popular at school, who wore the latest name-brand clothes, and who appeared to have a fairytale home life.

The lingering insecurities from my youth—that dreaded feeling of not being good enough or smart enough or talented enough, left me feeling like I always had to prove myself to the world. And no matter how hard I tried, I never felt like I measured up. I now know it was why I spent so many wasted years falling into the pit of comparison.

Whether we do it consciously or unconsciously, we all from time to time fall into this pit. And if we aren't careful, it can generate a notion that if we had more money or a better home or better marriage or a better body, we'd, somehow, be happier or more content.

But comparing oneself to others doesn't bring happiness or contentment. What it does is breed a philosophy that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence—one that can promote an envious, resentful attitude toward others successes. Or, on the flip side, a fixation of pride on our own.

The thing is, the greener grass view only allows us to see what's directly in front of us, which is merely a perception of someone's life. Because how can we possibly know their story from the other side of the fence? And, more often than not, when we do get to know another person's story, either face-to-face or through social media, we realize their challenges are, or somewhat, similar to ours.

Even though I am free from the pit of comparison today, it still beckons me to fall prey to it. For instance, it will often creep into my writing, causing me to doubt my abilities as a writer. But unlike before, I refuse to allow myself to linger in self-doubt; I refuse to fall prey to the lies that I am not good enough or smart enough or talented enough to achieve my goals. Instead, I strive to approach life with a positive attitude. I accept my flaws and embrace the uniqueness of Me. Because if there's anything that age, wisdom, and faith have taught me, it's that life has enough humbling experiences for us all.

How about you? Do you spend too much time comparing your life with others?

As the wise Dr. Seuss once said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

Embrace your uniqueness.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Approaching Thirty Years-Forever Connected

August 25th will be thirty years since Mom’s death. She died one week after her 56th birthday. I was only 28 years old at the time.

During my younger adult years, Mom and I didn’t have a great mother/daughter relationship. But when I became a mother to our first child, Heather, in 1983, my desire to build a closer bond with her was rekindled. However, given the fact I now lived in Ontario, and she was still in Newfoundland, the face-to-face conversations weren't always possible. Skype and FaceTime were unheard of back then, but through frequent phone calls, we had managed to build a great rapport.

I was pregnant with my second child when Mom and I had a conversation about my deceased brother, Patrick. In a matter-of-fact tone, which had caught me off guard, she'd mentioned how she would love to, someday, have a grandson named after my brother. Needless to say, this revelation must have tugged at mine and Derick’s heartstrings because Mom would get her wish. And four months after Patrick was born, she'd get to hold her grandson for the first time.

Patrick turned thirty this year, on March 11th. Each year his birthday is a reminder of the significant role his namesake had played in his grandmother's life before she died. And it all stems back to our last vacation we had spent with her.

I grew up in a little coastal town along the southern shores of Newfoundland. Our two-story home was situated forty feet from the ocean’s edge. The prevailing summer winds always left a smell of salty sea water in the air, and I distinctly remember its scent when our family arrived in my hometown on July of 1987.

I vividly remember Mom standing in the doorway that day. Her beautiful smile and outstretched arms would send our four-year-old daughter running toward her. And her smile would only double as I placed Patrick into her arms. But how could we have possibly known it’d be the last week we would see her alive?

One month after our wonderful trip home, one week after Mom's 56th birthday, I'd receive the dreaded phone call that she had died suddenly of a massive heart attack.

I would now board a plane to, once again, head back to my hometown. This time, it'd be without my immediate family. This time, shock and numbness would accompany me. And this time, I'd have to say goodbye to Mom in a way that would rip my heart open.

Entering our home with some of my siblings that day was the worst day of my life. Mom’s birthday cards were still upright on the living room table. Her blueberries that she had picked a few days prior were still on the kitchen counter. I remember how I walked down the hallway to her bedroom, where I climbed into bed and sobbed into her pillow. I could still smell her scent. Oh, how I wanted her back, but I couldn't turn back the clock. I now had to find a way to live in a world without her, which hasn’t been easy. Grief forever changes us, and it changes the way we view the world around us as well.

I've been learning and writing about grief in the last decade. And it has brought much healing; it has taught me to let go of the things that aren't in my control; it has given me the wisdom to know what is normal grief and what isn't. But more important, it has taught me to embrace those I love, more deeply.

The trivialities of life can hinder our relationships. Don't leave things unsaid, because tomorrow may never come. I know all too well that it isn’t easy to ensure the cycle of life is one of love and forgiveness and not one of regret. But it’s a cycle that, in time, will lessen the burden of grief’s grip, and forever keep us connected.

Heather and Patrick with grandma in 1987
Heather and Patrick today.