Thursday, March 31, 2011

Worth More Than Diamonds

Can money buy happiness? Maybe, if we invest it right.

I remember reading a Readers Digest story many years ago called “Wealth Beyond Diamonds.” It was about two people in love who were working their way through college during the Depression. The couple decided that instead of buying a diamond for their engagement they would use the money to help a friend with the tuition he needed to stay in school.

Turns out this friend went on to do well for himself, and was so grateful that he in turn became involved in helping others with similar needs, multiplying the effect of the original gift. All of which made the couple feel so rewarded for their original investment that they decided to make a lifelong practice of helping deserving students.

In their old age, they felt enormously rich in the satisfaction, the friendships, and all of the other rewards they experienced from the way they had invested their money. The best investments, they came to believe, were in assets that truly last, like people. Which may be what Jesus had in mind when he taught us (Luke 12:33) to store up treasure in the "bank of heaven" (through giving to the poor) rather than in things that moths can destroy, rust can tarnish or thieves can break in and steal.

In the end, what better legacy could we leave behind? The dividends are priceless, worth far more than diamonds.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Still Face Experiment

As a part of her lecture on YouTube promoting a March 31 to April 2, 2011 Conference on Attachment at Eastern Mennonite University, Dr. Annmarie Early includes a video segment of an experiment based on the “Still Face Paradigm.” It is conducted by attachment theory researcher Dr. Edward Tronick, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and the Chief of the Child Development Unit at its Children's Hospital.

In a segment about 30 minutes into the video Tronick has a mother interacting face-to-face with her six-month old. They are smiling, “talking,” making sounds together, and generally responding to each other in affectionate ways. On cue, the mother turns her head away, then back to the child, but this time with a totally blank stare. Mother goes from being highly animated and engaged to making  no sound and showing no facial expression whatsoever.

The child almost immediately initiates a series of actions designed to get back her mother’s attention. At first the child seems puzzled, then smiles winsomely at her mom. When this doesn't work she tries pointing, gesturing, making various noises, raising both hands, throwing herself back against her infant seat, and finally gives a loud shriek of desperation as if calling for emergency help. The infant then cries inconsolably to tell the world how awfully distressed she is.

This two-minute clip vividly illustrates how important parents’ interactions are with their children at a very early age. Dr. Tronick’s continuing research demonstrates the importance of going back and repairing ruptures that occur in our everyday interactions. These same patterns of rupture and repair happen throughout the lifespan, he says, and our capacity to repair with our significant others--children and adults alike--makes all the difference between security and insecurity in our relationships.

Incidentally, Annmarie Early is to be the keynote speaker at the Family Life Resource Center's annual Spring Fundraiser Banquet held at 6 pm Saturday, May 14, at the Virginia Retirement Community's Hartman Dining Room. Dr. Early's topic is "Secure Relationships: Strengthening Our Connections Within, With God And With Others."

Annmarie is an engaging and down to earth speaker who uses stories and illustrations to emphasize the importance of our being truly there for each other when we are needed.

Attendance at FLRC's spring fundraiser banquets has been on the increase, so early registration is encouraged, at 540-432-8450 or at The Center (where I work) hopes to raise $12,000 to help us continue to provide services to people regardless of their ability to pay.

We just hope you won't respond to this invitation with a blank stare :-).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Disturbing Dreams

Last night I woke up from another of my scarier dreams, a recurring one of being caught unprepared for an important assignment.

In this one I am about to bring the morning message at my former church, only to realize I have left all of my well-prepared notes at home. Since there is no time left to retrieve them, I’m in a state of near panic. And to make matters worse, I can neither remember my text nor get my thoughts together on another suitable topic I might speak on extemporaneously. My mind is blank.

A variation of the same theme involves my coming to a class I am to teach (usually at Eastern Mennonite High School, where I worked part time for many years) and being completely unprepared. In one case, I am without my class outline or any other introductory material, and the students in the class simply walk out. I am powerless to do anything about it.

Another dream theme has to do with my suddenly realizing I have neglected, often for days or weeks, some important responsibility. This may involve taking care of someone’s farm animals, in which I become aware that cows haven’t been milked, chickens haven’t been fed, major chores haven’t been attended to, and I’m totally at fault for failing to do what I had promised. Or I am supposed to teach a class or lead a seminar somewhere and somehow fail to show up.

Some experts believe dreams simply result from random firing of neurons in our brain, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Others assume every detail in a dream has revelatory meaning.

The truth probably lies somewhere in between. The characters, setting, emotions and actions playing out in our late-night “theaters of the mind” may each have something separate to say about what’s weighing on us, but the way they are put together may have little coherence or relevance.

Some believe dreams provide much needed release of distressed emotions for which we’re not finding suitable outlets. Studies in which subjects have been deprived of the REM sleep associated with dreaming, for example, tend to develop highly disturbed and even psychotic symptoms, suggesting that dreaming serves a therapeutic function.

In my case, I’m sure my scary dreams represent some of my very worst fears, like those of being humiliated, shamed and/or disgraced. So if occasional nightmare dreams can help flush some of those out of my system, I can live with that.

And waking up after one of them offers such sweet relief.

P.S. I'd welcome your comments on dreams!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Million-Thousand-Million Earthworms

Our six-year-old and four-year-old grandchildren could hardly wait for spring to come this year, looking forward, among other things, to helping me plant the season’s first seeds in our garden.

Today was the day. It was actually a day before the official start of spring, but the weather here along Hamlet Drive was as spring-like as one ever dream of, and before long we had two long rows of sugar snap peas and some onion sets carefully covered with humus-rich Valley soil.

That mission accomplished, for the next hour-and-a-half our Madelyne and Ian, now joined by their very active 18-month-old younger brother Keaton, amused themselves by digging around in some freshly dug garden soil and backyard compost for earthworms. You could have thought they were in Disney World, or had just discovered a back yard full of new Fisher-Price products, but here they were, delighting in earthworms.

“Look grandpa, I’ve found a million-thousand-million of them!” Ian, the four-year-old, exclaims.

Life doesn’t get much better than that, seeing your grandchildren relishing simple pleasures like kneeling in some good dirt and enjoying a soil full of God's humble earth-workers, all devoted to making creation everywhere more fertile and productive.

It was Ian's older sister, at five, who told me last summer, after helping me harvest some of the vegetables we all enjoy, “You know, grandpa, I don’t think I’ll go to college when I grow up.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, I already know how to do so many things, I don’t think I’ll have to go to college.”

“So what would you like to do when you grow up?” I asked.

“I’m going to be a ‘nature helper,’” she said. “I want to teach people about nature.”

I’m sure she’ll  change her mind many times between now and when she gets through high school, but if she were to be able to fulfill her dream of being a “nature helper,” even without going to college, I would feel truly blessed.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dressed for the Weather

   “There’s no such thing as bad weather,” someone has said, “only inadequate protection.”

    My mother was big on protection. She convinced us we’d catch a terrible cold or die of pneumonia if we didn’t put on our caps and several extra layers whenever it got chilly outside.

    You can learn from your mother. Dress right and you can take your own good weather with you.

    But “adequate protection” not only helps when it comes to facing the elements. It’s also great when dealing with difficult people in our lives--the folks we feel uneasy with, who create an unpleasant chill or even an emotional blizzard around us.

    Consider the case of 40-year old “Harry.” He describes his 75-year old mother as downright vicious in the way she keeps delivering zingers like: “You never come see me anymore.” “You only think about yourself.” “You look awful.” “You’re such a disappointment.”

    Harry is devastated. “She cuts me down, makes me want to stay as far away from her as I can. When I do have to be with her, I just lose it, that’s how much she gets under my skin.”

    Poor Harry. In spite of the fact that his Mom is now an aging invalid, to him she’s as powerful as when he was only five and she was 40. There’s no question in his mind--Mom is his number one problem.       

    But all mother does is create bad weather. She’s depressed and miserable, and has the unfortunate habit of taking out her unhappiness on others. Harry’s problem is inadequate protection. How can he stop focusing on Mom’s unpleasantness and simply begin “dressing accordingly”?

    A familiar scriptural metaphor is that of putting on spiritual “armor” and using a “shield of faith” and a "helmet" to ward off attacks. That kind of protection can sound pretty welcome when we think of all the people who intimidate us, get under our skin, raise our blood pressure. But is feeling safe actually possible?

    Let’s go back to our weather analogy.

    All of us prefer being with balmy, Florida-like folks. But the next best thing is putting on the mental equivalent of good rain gear, having a suitable wardrobe to help us ward off others’ wintryness. It doesn’t change the climate any, but it makes it more bearable, maybe even half-enjoyable.

    Here are some tips for braving harsh weather:

    1. Dress up in a robe of courage. Shed your fear, and see yourself, by faith, as a fully empowered person, a competent parent, a capable worker, a confident and mature adult. This doesn’t mean being powerful over others, but powerful with others. It doesn’t mean having to be perfect, but being OK based on doing the best you can.

    2. Wear God’s “uniform” of equalness. Think of others as being very much like yourself-- fellow human beings who are a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Being equal doesn't mean being identical, of course, it just means our worth is the same, that we are neither above nor below anyone else.

    3. Use extra insulation as needed. Picture yourself with Teflon-like protection when experiencing unfair criticism. Add warm layers of clothing as necessary to maintain a stable inner temperature.

    These forms of protection don’t have to result in shutting other people out. In fact, being “dressed for the weather” means we can be even closer to people. We can dread them less and love them more, connect with them more closely without fear of catching our death of cold.

    Your mother would like that.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


Every year I get a magazine-size copy of the program for the annual national five-day Psychotherapy Networker Symposium, a glossy catalogue of the hundreds of seminars, workshops and symposiums offered there each year.

Some are intriguing, and could certainly be helpful to any counselor like myself, covering topics like dealing with borderline personality clients, overcoming compassion fatigue, understanding the anxious brain, etc. If only I could afford the the $500 or more registration fee, the pricey $200 plus per night rate for the hotel, and meals with after dinner speakers at $39-$62 a plate.

Then there are always descriptions of sessions that make me shake my head and wonder where my profession is going. For example, there is the seminar labeled “The Power of the Field,” in which participants are to be ushered into “a vaster, more liberating field of awareness,” and will be able to “experience feelings of aliveness, connection, creativity, and flow,” and “draw on the collective psycho-physiologically energetic field of the entire group, to experience a state of relaxed readiness and deeper intuition of this awareness.”

Or if that doesn’t induce enough puzzlement, there is another one on “integrating breathing techniques into psychotherapy.” Here we get to practice a variety of breath practices, including Qigong movement, Coherent Breathing, Breath movement, “Ha” breath, and Open Focus meditation.” At which I shake my head and ask, "What?"

I don’t begrudge anyone doing whatever meditation or breathing exercises they find helpful, but I question how how far we should stray from applying good research-based and faith-based common sense when it comes to offering help to people dealing with inner distresses and relationship problems.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Giving up for Lent

A confession: I have a weakness for reading (and occasionally writing) letters to the editor of our local newspaper and of other publications I subscribe to. I love a good debate, but if someone can help me understand more of why I do this, I'd welcome your comments.

Recently, thanks to the availability of the online version of the Daily News-Record, I’ve all too often found myself spending time following long threads of readers’ comments on articles, editorials, opinion columns or letters on subjects of interest to me.

Sometimes there are over a hundred responses to a single piece, many of them straying far from the original point of the writer, and degenerating into a rancorous conversation among the respondents. Since most writers use screen names rather than their real identities, they tend all too often to become rude, disrespectful and unsubstantiated rantings. Of course there are also the occasional thoughtful entries (like my own!) that attempt to introduce some reason and civility to the discourse.

I’ve rationalized that spending some part of a day on this may be a small way to help build bridges of understanding among people prone to rejecting the views and motives of everyone who disagrees with them. But I’m realizing its hard to have any meaningful influence on people who, as just one example, refuse to believe that the current president is a native born American, in spite of the fact that even his potential presidential candidate rivals know better. Then there are the climate change deniers, the climate change defenders, members of the far right and the fringe left, evolutionists, creationists, homophobes and homophiles--the list of controversies generating more heat than light goes on and on.

At any rate, I’ve concluded I’m spending way too much time on such sites, and that I have more important things to do.

So I’ve decided to give up all dnronline reading and posting for now.

At least for Lent.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

caveat emptor

"Let the buyer beware" is a bit of wisdom I've always thought I practiced reasonably well.

But I also have a weakness for bargains--as in the case of a recent coupon I got for a $19.99 oil change, complete with a free 19-point vehicle inspection.

Somehow, saving $15 sounded so good I forgot to apply another wise saying, "If anything sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

Anyway, soon after leaving my Nissan pickup at an unnamed tire dealers, I got a call from the pleasant and very nice person I had just spoken to. 

"Mr. Yoder, did you realize your vehicle is due for an inspection?" (I had failed to notice) "We could do that for you for a standard $16. And by the way, your left front wheel has worn bearings, and the tire is wearing unevenly. We'd be glad to fix that up for you, too, get your vehicle realigned, and you'll be good to go until your next inspection."

I was having a busy afternoon, and while I hesitated at first (I had just had an alignment done), I was assured that the work on the wheel bearings was necessary and that the alignment was indeed required. So, trusting and ignorant as I was, I agreed, figuring it would be convenient to just get all this out of the way.

Later that afternoon I had serious second thoughts about my choice, wishing I would have waited and gotten a second opinion. But by then I figured it was too late to change my mind.

Do I ever wish I had. That evening I was hit with a serious case of sticker shock and buyer's remorse when I was handed a bill totaling over $300.

I asked for my old wheel bearings back, just to check them out, and when I inquired about why this required a realignment, I was told it was because the tie rod needs to be removed in such cases (which could make sense only to a mechanically challenged person like myself).

The next morning, I showed the bearings to a nearby mechanic, along with my bill.
Here's what I learned--the hard way, of course:

1. My left front tire wear was normal.

2. The wheel bearings showed no significant wear (also confirmed by a second mechanic I took them to).

3. It is not necessary to remove a tie rod on the front wheel of a two-wheel drive vehicle to replace wheel bearings.

4. Therefore no wheel alignment was necessary.

Needless to say, I registered a complaint with the overly helpful folks who did all this, and am waiting to hear what adjustment they are willing to make. Or whether I need to take my case to the Virginia State Inspection folks to enlist their help.

Meanwhile, I'm posting this embarrassing tale to warn others to exercise more care than I did, and I will P.S. an update on this post as soon as I know more.

A March 17 P.S.: The manager and the lead mechanic at the tire dealer spoke with me today, and while they still insist the wheel bearings needed to be replaced they conceded on the alignment issue, offered me a full refund for that ($115) plus a free rotation of my tires, which leaves me at least 90% satisfied. 
So, case closed, lesson learned.