Awareness and change

I’ve spent most of my adult life in various disability advocacy circles with a wide range of disabilities at their focus and I’m beginning to see a pattern. Many groups focus very hard on spreading awareness and giving out information so that a certain level of knowledge is obtained. While their efforts were great and much needed, something was lacking. While these groups operated under the umbrella of awareness, what they really sought was a societal change. They visioned a society where people with disabilities were given the same chances as everyone else and not looked at as “different”. Where I’ve seen many groups fall short is their inability to move beyond awareness. Enter in the cycle of change:

Most social issues fall somewhere on this model. The groups I mentioned above were stuck somewhere between contemplation and preparation, unable to move towards action. Some even to venture into modified behavior with a short span of maintainability until they relapse back to where they were. Regardless of where they fall on this model, the end goal of change was not achieved.

My question now, and the purpose of this post, is how do we move out of awareness towards change? We live in an age of technology so I would argue that lack of knowledge is not the problem. I truly believe there are more caring people than not caring people around us, so a willingness to do the right thing is there. Where I believe the disconnect lies is our inability to branch outside our social circles.

In 2017, Penn state released an article in which they dove into the findings of a social psychologist, Robin Dunbar. Dunbar stated that human beings have the capacity to create and maintain roughly 150 close friendships even though they may have had thousands of casual connections through people on social media. I would argue that in our current society that number is much lower than 150, which therein lies the barrier hindering change. We’ve seemingly lost the ability to connect with those around us, which is crucial in understanding someone’s situation which then would hopefully develop empathy which would push us towards change. I can’t give a number to the amount of people who approach me and say something like “I don’t know how to phrase this” or “I don’t want to offend you” after which I coerce them to be honest and upfront. This honesty has led to some great conversations and a different level of understanding which I have seen change peoples attitudes and actions towards myself and people like me. This is where true change can be found. Are we willing to really open our social circles to those who need us and be willing to empathize with some people who are in situations we may have never been in? I would argue things will not change until we are able to empathize with those around us.

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:5-8

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Happiness is a choice

We are mere hours away from closing out 2018 and ushering in 2019. The last 12 months have been a roller coaster of life events that have taught me many things. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it.

I learned that some things have to end in order for better things to fall into place. I made the difficult decision to leave a good job in an effort to be closer to family and my closest support system, and looking back it was Gods hand pushing me down the path He wanted me on. I’ve gotten to connect better with family and friendships spanning over a decade, which that alone is priceless. I’ve also gotten to see my niece grow and hit different developmental milestones, as well as being the most adorable human being in my life right now (I’m not biased I promise). Life was hard living long distance and I’m excited to see what 2019 brings in this new yet familiar setting.

I’ve also learned that happiness is a choice. I’ve spent many moments of 2018 praying and asking God to change my situation, when in reality I needed to change how I reacted to situations. We can’t control how our environment treats us but we can control how we react to it. That’s a valuable lesson I’ll be taking into 2019.

Lastly, I’ve learned that sometimes you have to act to get where you want to be. For too long I lived doing the same things expecting different outcomes, which is literally the definition of insanity. Sometimes you have to risk something to get something better in return, but it won’t just happen unless you’re willing to take that risk.

In 2019 I want to be bold, take risks, choose happiness, and trust God will put me where I need to be. What do you want from the coming year and what are you willing to do to get there?

Mask-ulinity

Men from the beginning of time have been tasked with being the provider and source of stability for the rest of society. Much, if not sometimes all, of a mans self worth is placed on his performance. Not only are men expected to climb the corporate ladder in order to provide the latest and greatest things for themselves and their family, men are expected to be the pursuer of the opposite sex if they stand any chance of gaining a meaningful romantic relationship.

So, what happens when that performance begins to drop? What happens when a man misses out on a promotion due to his superiors playing favorites? What happens when a man stops hearing from the woman he saw a future with only to find out she’s now with an athlete who makes seven figures and drives a Lamborghini? For him, his world has momentarily ended. Yet we as a society turn a blind eye to the smoke signals men are lighting when their world is crumbling. It’s time that has changed.

According to governmental studies, men are more susceptible than women to use any sorts of illicit drugs , and such drug use has shown to result in hospitalization of men at a higher rate than women (1). Along those same lines, The Journal of Adolescent Health notes a connection between college aged men drinking alcohol and abusing prescription drugs while no such correlation was found in women (2). Furthermore, the National Institute of Health notes in their article titled “Sex differences, Gender and Addiction” that while certain individuals are more prone to addiction, it is not a foregone conclusion that those prone to addiction will surely become addicts (3).

Todays media is riddled with stories of men who experience trauma which leads to any number of addictions. One would only need to watch an episode of Cops to see such behavior displayed. Ladies and gentlemen, we can do better to help our men, and we desperately need to do better.

Take, for example, a man who has shown to exhibit violent anger outbursts. Anger is often called a secondary emotion because it is often used to mask other feelings we wish to hide. These suppressed emotions can range from guilt to fear to feelings of being unimportant or devalued. In these kind of situations my first reaction is to ask myself “what is the underlying emotion behind the one displayed?”. Once we can see the root of the anger we can begin to address it. In this situation taking the angry outburst at face value would be like plugging a hole in the Hoover Dam with chewing gum, it may work for a minute but eventually the underlying issue will surface.

So, what can we do? I believe we need to start looking for the reasons behind behaviors. Nobody wakes up and decides they want to become an addict that day. Nobody decides it is a good idea to lash out in anger at those they love and risk alienating them. However, our brains are powerful and capable of causing us to act out in ways we think are protecting us when in reality we are sinking deeper into more undesirable emotions and behaviors. Only love can halt the negative effects of such thinking and often men cannot do it under their own power. It’s time we stepped up and helped each other become better people.

 

(1) https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/substance-use-in-women/sex-gender-differences-in-substance-use

(2) https://americanaddictioncenters.org/adult-addiction-treatment-programs/gender/

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5120656/

Mental Health: More than just a phone number

It seems like everywhere we turn these days we see someone who, when faced with dire mental anguish, decides to hurt themselves or hurt those around them. During the past 7 days alone we have seen the self inflicted demise of two world renowned people. The sobering fact is that depression and suicide does not discriminate but will devour anyone it can get its hands on. We as a society have started the conversation to bring mental illness out from under the rock it had laid under for too long. But at what point will we move from talking about it to taking meaningful actions to remedy it? Ever since the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain I have seen plastered all over social media phrases such as “if you are struggling please reach out to 1-800…” or “help is only a phone call away, 1-800…” and while I applaud what the suicide hotline does, it’s really only a band aid when we really need a tourniquet. I see dozens if not hundreds of people I associate with wanting to do the right thing and wanting to make lasting positive changes in the realm of mental health, but they simply do not have the tools to make those changes. So, today I pose the question, how do we move from words to actions to stop the harmful actions of the Anthony Bourdain’s or the Dimitrios Pagourtzis’ of our world who have not acted yet? Lets explore some of what, I think, are good places to start.

Don’t rely on someone else to take action for you. People need you. Yes you, who are reading this right now. They need not some doctor or psychologist, they need you, a non-threatening safe place to express their hurt. Far too often we hear those who were close to a tragic situation say “I never saw it coming” when in reality they were trying to see things from a mile away. Suicide and mass shootings would decrease if we were willing and able to be there before the poo hits the fan. It’s not easy. It’s not fun. But it could save lives. Specifically in the case of Anthony Bourdain there were signs. I’ve never met the tall and grey haired man who is best known for shedding light on different cultures other than our own, but I could tell he was hurting years ago by how often he spoke about his battle with drugs and alcohol. I’d be willing to bet those closest to him waited on someone else to take action for them to save Anthony. Let this be a lesson that we need to move on past that way of thinking.

Another step is to bring the goodness of life to the surface for those who are struggling. If you know someone who has experienced trauma then I would suggest trying to show them that the bad experiences they had do not have to shape the experiences they will have in the future. This takes a willingness to know what a persons love language is. Find out what makes them feel loved and do it. Depression often suppresses our ability to express fully 1) what is hurting us and 2) what would make us feel joy again. That is why it is crucial to be there in the good times and bad to see people in various stages of life. Consistency is key.

Lastly, don’t stop knocking on the door. Keep checking in. Keep reassuring those around you they are loved. Never lose that sense of repetition that is so crucial to help people get out of the dark pit that is depression. But I also caution us against going too far and leaving those we are tying to help feeling smothered. Sometime’s people need space, and that is alright. Giving space becomes an issue when we lose sight of what is happening though so we also should be mindful to never be too far away that we seem out of reach to those we are trying to help.

These tools are just the start of what I feel is real change in the area of mental health, but if we don’t start here where will we start?

Lessons from It the clown

In the not so distant past I had the worst nightmare of my life. I woke up from it 3 hours before my alarm was to go off and I was beyond exhausted even after sleeping for several hours. I’ll spare you the minute details but suffice it to say it involved me being murdered twice, losing my current job I have in Iowa, It the clown appearing out of thin air then vanishing, random body parts of mine growing faces and talking to me then detaching from my body and floating away, and multiple hallucinations. I’d never wish that on anyone no matter how much of a terrible person they were. That one dream taught me a lot about myself. That one dream was ironically a wake up call both physically and figuratively. 

I learned that it’s healthy to be open about how you are feeling. This had happened during a time in my life that I was extremely stressed. I was in a new city in a place where I barely knew anyone with a job that I was struggling with at the time. Me being the macho man that I am didn’t want to admit how I was feeling and played it off as nothing. But even the strongest men have weaknesses and mine caught up with me that night.  

The first thing I did the next morning was call my mom and we talked about what I was going through and created steps I needed to take to bounce back. Having a plan when life isn’t working is critical. I was at a low point and needed to make changes. 

That brings me to another lesson that night taught me. Having support is key in building and maintaining emotional health. We need people in our lives that can speak truth over us like my mom did that night. If you’re reading this and feel like you need someone then reach out to me. I’ve had times where I felt isolated and nobody needs that. You’re not alone. 

But the biggest thing I learned that night is the community you keep is a major factor in the level of emotional health you maintain. If you only have people in your life who take and never give, or isolate yourself and don’t let anyone in, then you’re destined to hit rock bottom and it’s never an enjoyable place to be. 

I guess my point of this is to say you are loved, people want to support you if you let them, and there’s always an escape from the hole you’re in no matter how deep it seems. I love you all.

Ableism and The Church

Having had a physical disability all my life has caused me to look at life and the people around me through a certain lens. I see things easily through the lens of doubt, fear and unfairness. Everyday I encounter people who doubt my intellect and my abilities. Everyday I see people who are scared of me and people like me because we are different. I feel that out of this fear has grown an inadvertent, and sometimes blatant, mistreatment of those who have disabilities on any point on the spectrum of severity of disability. People are overlooked for jobs, excluded from social circles, and sadly even the safe haven of churches has become an environment of exclusion for people with disabilities in some faith communities. I myself visited one church in which someone told me “we don’t have any people with disabilities here”. I have to admit that I was hurt by that statement. I wasn’t so much hurt for myself, because I’ve learned to let things slide and treat people with the same grace I wish to receive. But I hurt for those who have disabilities who may not know Christ, in which statements like that drive a wedge between them and The Gospel of Jesus. Few things make a person feel more unwanted than being in a room where few, if any people, understand them or are making effort to understand them. I can tell you first hand that’s what happens when people with disabilities are overlooked. Here are a few signs your church may be guilty of ableism:

If your church facilities make it hard for people with physical disabilities to navigate to places where activities are held, you may be guilty of ableism. 

If your church body on Sunday mornings is disproportionately not representative of people with disabilities compared to other demographics, you may be guilty of ableism. 

If your church body views the disabled community as a group that needs to be ministered to only and fails to see the spiritual gifts people with disabilities possess, you may be guilty of ableism. 

If your Sunday Bible Class curriculum is not constructed with a disabled audience in mind, you may be guilty of ableism.

Statements like “we don’t have people with disabilities here” is ignorant and frankly is costing people with disabilities their souls because someone doesn’t want to take the time to realize the intrinsic value of that person. People with disabilities need Jesus just as much as their able bodied counterparts, and The Church needs people who are willing to share The Gospel with people with disabilities. I pray that The Church will one day look past this hurdle, because if we don’t then The Church will never be complete.

Message to the class of 2019

We’ve entered the time of year where many kids and young adults are going to be heading back to school and it’s caused me to be reflective on my collegiate journey. I’d first like to say that I’ve been blessed on many different levels by choosing to go to a Christian college. My faith was tested during college but ultimately I came out stronger than I went in. I’ve met many people along the way who have given me advice I will cherish forever, and I hope my advice in this post will help you as you begin this new chapter of life. Here are a few tidbits I hope you will take with you.

College might be the best years of your life, but it might not. My decision to leave the town I lived in and move 3 hours away to attend college came with lots of fear and doubt. I only knew a handful of people in the town I was moving to and had little awareness of the opportunities that awaited me. I honestly had very little idea of the career path I wanted to take once I got to college, which made my future uncertain and caused me to be anxious. It was also at college where I experienced the death of two of my grandparents within a week of each other (which happened to occur during finals week). While in college I wrestled with things such as finding love, feeling accepted as I was, and being able to live up to expectations I myself and others had put on me. My views about who God was started to change, and I knew that shift would upset people very close to me, but I let the shift happen anyway and I’m better off and happier because of it. I encourage you to not let the challenge of change be a source of long lasting sorrow and pain. God is molding you to be who He wants you to be.

You are capable of doing far more than you think you can. I’ve been given challenges my whole life, and a large one has always been to be able to succeed in school. My cumulative GPA for my first three semesters in college was a 1.8, which ultimately landed me on academic suspension my sophomore year. I could have easily given up, moved back home and searched for employment but by that time I was a firm believer that college was the path I was supposed to be on, and I never gave up on that journey. Roughly only 7% of the worlds population has a bachelors degree or higher. And of that 7% only roughly 13% are people with a disability who have a bachelors degree or higher. If you asked me in high school if I had a chance to beat the odds that only roughly .7% of the worlds population has done I would have said no way. Until I actually began college and ultimately graduated with my bachelors degree you would have had a hard time convincing me that I would graduate in spite of my disability. Sometimes God asks you to walk up the staircase that is life even if you can’t see the step in front of you. Take that step anyway. 

You don’t have to journey alone. Some of the best things I’ve come away from college with are the relationships I have formed while in college. Those relationships were with me when I needed them most and help me navigate through some dark times, but also were by me to experience the joy and success I had in college too. You, like me, will probably meet some lifelong friends.  Find a community whether it be religious, athletic or whatever it might be that pushes you to be the best person you can be. Find a community that gives you as much as it takes from you. If you are having a hard time finding those people then be  that person who gives as much as you take and who brings out the best in others and that community of people you seek will find you.  

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

Romans 8:28