The space between my ears

Discipline through Defeating Deception

This is the first installment in a seven-part series on being disciplined. We all would like to be able to think a little clearer, feel a little better and enjoy the things we need to do in life a little more. No matter where you are when it comes to being disciplined, these thoughts can help you better achieve your goals and continue along your path of being disciplined.

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What lies have you told yourself today?

Stop for a few minutes and think about it—in what ways today have you told yourself things that aren’t true?

Maybe this is a difficult exercise. The ways in which we lie to ourselves aren’t usually immediately apparent. In fact, you’ve probably gotten so good at lying that you are seeing these lies as truth.

This is the basis for “Misbelief Therapy” championed in the book Telling Yourself the Truth by William Backus and Marie Chapian. This form of therapy helps you identify the lies you tell yourself and to replace them with the truth. It’s an incredibly helpful book and I’ve gone through it four times in the last eight years.

Misbelief Therapy applies to all aspects of your life and particularly to your self worth as a person. If you struggle with this, I encourage you to get professional help! I’ve met with a few different psychologists and therapists over the course of my life and they’ve been so good at helping me get on the path to better thinking and better living.

Here we are going to look at how this therapy applies to being disciplined. Many other topics are addressed in Backus and Chapian’s book, and you can read at length there if you’re interested.

Lies lie in the absolutes

Let’s go back to thinking about identifying the lies we tell ourselves. Lies are easier to spot when you think about the superlatives you tell yourself:

  • “I’m never going to be able to finish this assignment.”
  • “I simply can’t get out of bed.”
  • “I’m never going to amount to anything.”
  • “My boss is going to kill me if I don’t show up on Saturday.”
  • “If I can’t finish this paper, it’s going to be the worst thing ever.”

These statements aren’t true. They can’t be. For most of them, you’ve already proved them lies again and again. Yet you keep telling them to yourself and worse, continue to believe them.

The first thing you need to do on the path to discipline is to defeat deception. Try this for the next week: Listen for your self talk. Each time you catch yourself using one of these absolute terms, write the entire comment down. Don’t worry about correcting it yet. Before you start arguing against the lies, you need to know what you’re up against.

After a week of this, look over your list. What kinds of absolutes are you telling yourself? Are you often using the word “never?” Or maybe they’re things like, “I would just die if…”

Following the trail of lies

The next step is to think about each of these statements, one by one. Let’s look at one of the statements above—“I simply can’t get out of bed.”

Have you gotten out of bed before? How many times have you successfully gotten out of bed in your life? Are you going to get out of bed in the future? After all, you’ll eventually need to go to the bathroom. It’s simply not true that can’t get out of bed.

“But, I’ll skip work, that’s the worst!” You might answer. “It’s not about getting out of bed, but about what I’m trying to avoid!”

What are you telling yourself about what you’re trying to avoid? Is skipping work “the worst?” Is it really the worst thing you can imagine happening to a person in his or her lifetime?

“If I don’t finish the project today, my boss is going to kill me!”

Is your boss really going to kill you? Do you think he’s waiting at the office, standing in front of his collection of torture devices, trying to decide between the two-handed sword or the piano wire?

And maybe he will really be angry. Maybe he’ll yell and swear. Maybe he’ll fire you. But he’s not going to kill you.

IMG_5314I can’t go out. I’m just going to stay indoors, next to this warm pot of food all day.

Discerning what’s horrible and what’s only unpleasant

Yeah, it’s going to sting a bit, listening to your boss’ angry words. But it’s only unpleasant. It’s not unbearable. You’ve had people yell at you in the past and you’ve survived. You’re still alive, reading this, so it must be true.

When we’re lacking in discipline, we’re often blowing things way out of proportion in our use of absolutes.

  • “I can’t turn in this paper unless it’s perfect.”
  • “I’m always late for everything.”
  • “If I can’t present myself as a perfect person today, I might as well not go outside.”

The truth is, there are very few things in life that are absolute, and there are very few consequences in life that are the absolute worst. The vast majority of your decisions and actions do not fall into this category. The things you think might kill you in reality will probably only sting. Sure, it’ll hurt a little. Getting a D on that paper is not going to be pleasant. But it’s not the worst thing ever and you will survive and have chances to write papers again.

Replacing deception with the truth

Now you have a list of the lies you’ve been telling yourself. This is a big step in shedding the weight of all the untruths that have been pressing down on your and wrecking havoc in your life. When you believe a lie instead of the truth, you learn to act and behave as if that lie were true. If you tell yourself you’re no good at cleaning the bathroom and that it’s icky and gross and you’re going to contract an unknown-to-medical-science disease, it’s going to be pretty easy to avoid cleaning the bathroom.

Instead, recognize this as a lie and replace it with the truth.

  • “It’s icky and unpleasant to clean the bathroom. But I’m not going to die. I do have a pair of gloves and I can wear them.”
  • “It’s ok if this paper is not perfect. Perfect doesn’t exist, anyway. I’ve put a few hours into it and that’s good enough. I can be happy that I finished a project.”
  • “I’ve amounted to a lot already. I have family and friends who care about me. I’ve had a couple different jobs already and those bosses decided to hire me so I do have desirable skills. Someone even liked one of my facebook posts yesterday, so I accomplished something. And even if no one does recognize me, I still like what I do and I can enjoy the work.”

After you’ve practiced writing out truth statements for each of the lies you collected throughout the week, try combining these steps. Over the next week, each time you hear yourself lying about a situation, recognize it, identify the lie, and then replace it by telling yourself the truth.

This is not an easy thing to all of a sudden start to do. You need time through lots of truth telling to work out of the habit of telling yourself all the lies you’ve been listening to for so long. But with small steps, you’re on the path to thinking truthfully about your life and the areas where you want to have more discipline.

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This is the first installment in a seven-part series on being disciplined. You can read each of the posts by clicking below:

How to be happy

There’s no guarantee of happiness.

“Wait—but I thought I was going to be reading about how to be happy?” you say, “And I’d like you to give me back the energy I just expended clicking on your post.”

I’ll send some via e-mail, if you shoot me one first. (But you’ll have to cover e-mail s&h energy yourself.)

Life goes sideways, and fast. Many times in my few short decades I’ve found myself flipping over the handle bars and in that slow-motion moment thinking, “Damn. This is going to hurt.”

The secret isn’t in knowing how to always be happy. You won’t be. You can’t be.

Happiness is about knowing the final outcome.

And only one thing in all of human experience promises a perfect ending—faith in Jesus and forever life with him.

“That’s fair enough for you to say, if you buy into that stuff. False hope I guess is a kind of hope,” I hear some of you saying, “but the first mention of that spiritual stuff is where I sign off.”

But hang on a sec—it’s true, but not only that, it’s truly hopeful.

If it were up to me to create my own happiness I’d end up in one of three places: extremely selfish, surfacely ignoring the hurts of the world and smugly assertive while being hopelessly aware of how sideways my life and everything else was going; or, humble as a doormat and miserably depressed about my own failures, shortcomings and lamenting how life just wasn’t fair for…pretty much everyone; or, at some uncomfortable and uneasy spot in the middle, never being quite sure where it’s all going or why anything matters.

Luckily it’s not up to me. It’s not up to you. It’s not up to the efforts of anyone, except for one man, Jesus. Luckily for us we’re living in an age where he has already come and done the work and we have the opportunity to hear about it, welcome it and live by his life.

What does that mean, to “live by his life” and how does that make us happy?

It’s not about doing. It’s about being.

The fear of what might happen next and just-what-am-I-supposed-to-do-about-it is the biggest killer of happiness. Fear of an unknown future robs our peace, gnaws at our nerves, and holds us hostage to ever stepping out into green pastures by quiet waters. Without an assurance of the final score, we’re just wandering along, hoping to catch our own sort of happiness and hang on as long as we can before it dissipates and we’re left searching for the next oasis of comfort and emotional security.

When we focus on simply the state of being in right relationship with our creator by relying on what Jesus has already done, it no longer matters what happens in life. We can be “content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

Life with Jesus means simply living by the thought that his life and work takes the place of your life and work. At that thought there’s no longer anything to do. No ten steps to follow. No qi to absorb. It all comes down to one solid truth:

In the end it’s all going to be ok.

This is one of the most freeing thoughts that can occupy your mind. I challenge you to dwell on this for awhile. Meditate on it. Close your computer, walk outside, look up at the sky and say to yourself:

No matter what happens, it’s all going to be ok.

Living in this truth melts the outer crust of our timidity. It allows us to be happy with situations, with people, with life.

That’s what happiness is. Happiness is the freedom to feel all things and go through all things and to know that it’s all going to be ok. Happiness is allowing yourself to go to the places where all emotions lie and all circumstances dwell and to know that nothing can happen that will change your final outcome.

It allows you to live boldly, love deeply, laugh timbrously, and enjoy thoroughly. It allows you to cry when you mourn, to pray when you hurt and to fall on your knees in those crushing times. God is there in it all, is with you through it all, and no matter what happens in this life, is there at the end to welcome you home.

A task from God

Everyone needs a purpose. A cause to champion. A journey to undertake. A reason to wake up in the morning. This week, mine happens to be feeding sheep.

Through two years of living in villages I had never once been responsible for any animal—save chasing two wanderers from the flock back down a hilltop—and now that I’d come to the “big city center” the lives of four sheep and five chickens had been suddenly thrust into my hands.

Living here at the “Doctor’s house” with running water, a washing machine and 3G internet, I pictured a life of privilege, a life of ease. There was going to be none of this getting-my-hands-dirty stuff.

So it was I found myself, not two steps through our gate having returned from a mini-vacation on the golden shores of the mountain lake Issyk-Kul, wandering back to the sheep pen in my flip-flops.

My host dad, or Ata, was taking the family that afternoon for a week of wedding parties in the capital and it was going to be my task to look after the animals. He started immediately into the details—how many grams of jem a typical sheep ate per day, how full to fill the water trough, where the extra chicken feed was kept. I pulled out my notebook and started furiously writing so as not to mistakenly forget something and end up with a dead $100 bill on my hands.

We made our way over to the grass pile and a home-made grass chopping table. Operated with your right hand as you pushed the grass through with your left, it was essentially an enormous paper cutter where you could lop off your own hand before you realized what was happening. I took small condolence in the fact that I would be operating this thing at a groggy hour and made note to boil coffee before emerging into the morning air.

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“Do you know why I like you, Luther?”

The question came abruptly as I was chopping the grass.

“Huh?” I answered, wondering if I had heard the question right.

“Do you know why I like you?”

“Uh, no, why?” I stopped cutting.

“You’re like my son. You’re my uulum. You know I had a son—he was your age, born in 1983. He died though. And now you’ve come to our home.” I saw a single line of water fall from the corner of his eye.

I nodded somberly, trying to find the right words to say. They had told me the story before, during one of my first days here in June. It happened three years ago. Their son had become ill suddenly and the doctors didn’t know what to do. He had been flown to Moscow, but the respiratory illness had taken hold and nothing could be done. He left behind a wife and a daughter he would never meet—his wife was pregnant.

Now their daughter-in-law and grandchild live in Bishkek but they don’t get to see them often. Not having remarried, she spends most of her time with her parents.

“Do you think about him every day?” I asked stiltedly, hoping I had phrased it respectfully.

“Of course. Of course.”

I looked down and fidgeted with the chopping table.

“You’ve been tasked by God—taking care of these animals,” he said.

I tried to swallow the lump that was forming in my own throat and continued chopping.

After a moment he added, “And don’t chop your fingers off. We don’t need any of that.”

We moved on to the chicken coop and Ata pointed to where the chickens laid their eggs. There was a single one waiting to be placed—unwashed—in our refrigerator.

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My family took off later that afternoon and I had a quiet house to myself. In the evening I slid into my now muck covered flip-flops and trudged back out to the pen. The sheep sprinted in circles to clear away from this new force in their midst, vacillating wildly between distrust and the animal instinct of an empty belly.

Poking its head out into the light, a thickly brown sheep hobbled up to the feeding trough. I gasped in horror as I saw my God-given task’s leg dangling loosely from the knee. I immediately called my host mother—the only one to whom I felt I could break the news—and was told not to worry. It had been sick. I texted my brother thinking maybe she hadn’t understood my fervent Kyrgyz—butu syndy!—but he replied back that yes, the lamb’s leg had broken a few days before.

I felt awful. I didn’t know what the procedure was for a broken leg—was this what we did? Just leave it until it fell off? Or was the lamb to be the next sacrifice to our pantry? Could you even properly serve a sheep with a broken leg? And what about it’s own misery? And if not for the sheep’s sake, then maybe would the adrenaline surging through its muscles make it taste strange? These wonderings washed through me as I watched the pitiful thing struggle on its three legs.

“The world is broken,” I thought.

And I thought about God’s glory and the mystery of his sovereignty over all things. Of how his greatness shines forth in the handful of barley scattered on the ground, of chickens scratching the earth and eggs hidden among the grass. Of God’s knowledge of the broken leg and how much more he cares for his two-legged sheep, wandering upright on the earth. How we too are wayward and sprint erratically, choosing between his glory and our own.

Here I was, placed in responsibility over one, tiny little sliver of the world and I already felt the weight of it, pushing down between my shoulder blades, seeping into my heart, a heart still beating three years beyond my brother’s. I wondered if this is not a tiny bit of how God feels for his earth, his heart beating for the world, his own body broken for it, his blood spilled out over the same earth that we, his little creatures, tread.

Without difficulties, there’s no reason to live

“Makal” in the Kyrgyz language means “proverb.” Kyrgyz is full of wonderful and puzzling little proverbs – some that match common proverbs often heard in English and some that are real head scratchers. Most Mondays I’ll post one of the more fun ones for you. Let’s see if we can’t make some of these commonplace in America by the time I get back!

Жизнь без трудности проживать не стоит

Кыйынчылыксыз жашоону жашап кереги жок

Without difficulties, there’s no reason to live

In this version of Makal Monday, we find ourselves in the middle of a Russian idiomatic saying. Russian culture has had indelible influence on present day Kyrgyzstan, and many of the truisms uttered in Kyrgyz have their origin in the Russian language.

My friend Maksat is yet another king of the proverbial turn and can match almost any circumstance to an image rich phrase. After spending 4 days and 5 nights with him up by the mountain lake Song Kol selling our souvenir Chuko Bones, I too found myself waxing poetic.

Our sales trip didn’t turn out to be the raging success Maksat had hoped. Dreaming of being able to pay off his car with a few short days of selling out of a tent, our long stretches of waiting in between customers gave him plenty of opportunity to reflect on life and just what it means to be going through it. What does it mean to struggle? What is resiliency? What have I learned? What did my father used to say? Where is it all going?

IMG_9655Standing over it all

Maksat’s had his share of difficulties. He lost his father while an undergrad and had to quit school to come home and take care of his mother and household. Shortly after his brother-in-law passed away and so he took on the added stress of helping support his sister who had two children and a third on the way. Because of the cultural duties of the funeral, they had to slaughter many of their animals further adding financial stress. In honor of his father, who had been a math teacher, Maksat enrolled in a long-distance learning program to obtain his teaching certificate and step into his father’s old position. But a teacher’s pay is meager and so Maksat’s been diligently searching for other forms of income.

“The hardship is good in some ways,” Maksat says, “You’ve got something to fight against, a problem to solve, a reason to keep on living.”

Maksat is torn in so many directions—should he try to find work abroad? If yes, where? How much does he want to push against the grueling application processes? How about getting set up with some credit and a new herd of animals? After all, he had scratched out a year and a half long plan of buying and selling cows. Would it be worth it? Or he could go back to school to pursue a PhD in mathematics and work at a university. And what about this Chuko Bones company? Could he make a go of it? Start exporting? Expand into other products?

Maybe it’s his mathematical mind that causes him to search for the proof that life is good and life has meaning. Or maybe he’s just trying to find the most logical path through it all.

During our conversations I chided him a bit on a few of his kemchilikter, or shortcomings. Why didn’t he just choose a path? He had “too many irons in the fire” (he liked that one), was putting “all of his eggs in one basket” (that one not so much), and somehow simultaneously.

IMG_9642Keeping us alive through the protestations of our gasoline heater was certainly one of Maksat’s good traits

We talked about “knocking on doors” and seeing which would open. I told him that sometimes though you just have to put your shoulder to one and push until it gives.

Maybe it’s that I see myself in that place of decision. Here Maksat had an especially good thought: “When you have a difficult decision to make, it’s not the decision that’s problematic. It’s the problem. Your difficulties stem from the problem you’ve found yourself in and making a decision is the way out.” Yet for me, I’m choosing between so many good options rather than trying to figure out how to get out. I’m not sure if that’s supposed to make it easier or harder.

Maybe it’s that we’re blessed by our difficulties. That the lessons we learn by going through them and emerging on the other side enrich our lives in ways we never could have imagined. Maybe it’s the fight that cures us, refining us as in a fire. Maybe that’s the answer, that through it all we find our purpose.

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