Friday, March 30, 2007

Finding Contentment With Help from the Scriptures

Our Relief Society lesson last Sunday was on scripture study. While reading the lesson I realized that my personal scripture study has been lacking. One sister in my ward suggested that for more meaningful scripture study it’s often helpful to pick a topic and look up the scriptures relating to it. Seeing as how I’m constantly struggling with contentment, I chose it as my topic. Here are a few references and how I’ve learned from them.

1 Timothy 6:6-8 “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.”

In other words, don’t focus on material things. Be grateful for what you have. Having food and clothing is enough to be content with. In the food category, I enjoy Dannon Light ‘n Fit yogurt, crisp gala apples, crunchy carrot sticks with fat free ranch dip. And about raiment. Just this morning I realized that I get to wear my favorite clothes every day – jeans and tennis shoes.

When I find myself making mental lists of what it would be nice to have (new furniture, high- speed internet, a dog crate), I’ve found it helpful to repeat a simplified version of verse seven to myself – “you can’t take it with you.”

Jeremiah 29:7 “And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”

A little background information first: Jeremiah is a prophet to the Israelites during their captivity in Babylon. In prior verses he was instructing them to build houses, plant gardens, and marry and raise families. So what verse seven is saying is . . . make the best of a challenging situation. And because the world we live in is often referred to as Babylon, we can follow Jeremiah’s advice too. I liked how he said, “pray unto the Lord for [peace].” I learned that contentment and peace are worth praying for.

At the end of verse six, Jeremiah gives an explanation of why it’s important for the Israelites to make the most of their challenging circumstances . . . “that ye may be increased there, and not diminished.” Can’t we say that about ourselves too? When we go about our lives in peace -- building houses, planting gardens, raising families – aren’t we increasing? But doing the same things in a spirit of discontent – keeping up with the Joneses or Jones-itis, as I like to call it –
causes us to feel diminished. And if we go into debt to feed our discontent, we can literally become diminished -- spiritually and financially bankrupt.

Alma 29:3,6 “... for I ought to be content with the things which the Lord hath allotted unto me.... Why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?”

Like Alma who wanted to cry repentance with angelic zeal, I too have some grandiose desires. Mine run along the lines of . . . write books to captivate and energize young readers. . . speak at EFY retreats and inspire youth to greatness . . . publish a book for women that helps them feel better about themselves. Those are the things that I dream of doing, but yard work, laundry, and running errands seem to eat all my time. Reading verse six, where it says, “Why should I desire more than to perform the work to which I have been called?” made me wonder if I’ve been called to do house work.

I decided to find out. First, I sat down with my patriarchal blessing and a sheet of paper. I read through my blessing and wrote down anything that it gave me instruction to do. Next I read through a journal where I write down spiritual impressions. I looked for instances where I felt like I’d received answer to prayer on what direction to take in my life. Finally, I compiled the two lists into one.

I won’t share the entire list of what I’m called to do, but here are some highlights:

bear children and be a content at-home mom

write about my experience with depression

serve my family

be a partner to my husband

be happy and cheerful

develop and enlarge my talents for my benefit, the benefit of my family, and the benefit of others.

As I read the entry “serve my family” I felt something. I think it was the Spirit trying to tell me that the things I do to serve my family, the things that seem to eat up all my time, are actually important. For just a moment, it’s as if I saw my daily tasks as the Lord sees them – necessary jobs that accompany raising his children.

Seeing things as the Lord sees them as helped me feel better about my life. I've begun to realize that the things I do as a mother to serve my family are part of my life’s calling, and instead of discounting them, thinking that they don’t count in the grand scheme of things, I need to recognize them for what they are and be content to perform the work – yes, even house work – that I’ve been called to do.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Patience Report #4 -- I Lost it

Ugh! Grrr! And *&#$*!! I lost it today. Just a few minutes ago, actually. Remind me why I wanted to try to be patient. Because apparently I’ve forgotten.

I suppose it started with the puppy. Lately when she’s been inside she hasn’t been behaving. I say, “Off!” (meaning keep off people, or off furniture) and “No bite!” but it doesn’t seem to phase her. She’s not allowed downstairs on her own, but at least three times a day she dashes down the stairs to make mischief exploring or peeing. It’s the peeing that really bothers me. I guess she thinks it’s far enough removed from where she usually spends her time that it qualifies as a good potty place. Wrong!

I think I could have kept control if I just had a puppy to deal with today, but I also have a boy home from school because it’s the end of the quarter. Something like that. And he’s been Mister Attitude this morning. I warned him that if he didn’t start talking to me with respect he’d have to find another place to stay today, that I’m not going to put up with his lip. My warning produced marginal results.

Prior to losing it, I went to retrieve the dog from the basement and noticed she’d made a puddle in my son’s room. Great. I clipped her leash to my belt loop and trudged back upstairs to get a towel and pet cleaner/deoderizer. Just as I started to clean up her puddle on the carpet, the phone rang. I asked Mr. Attitude to answer it. He didn’t. Meanwhile the puppy thinks that biting at the rag I’m using to clean up the puddle is a great game. As I head to answer the phone, the puppy nips at me. Trying to get the puppy from jumping on me, I answer the phone and cradle it between my cheek and shoulder. “Hello?” I say. “My friend just barely has time to get a complete sentence out before I accidentally cut her off trying to deal with my rambunctious puppy. And that’s when I lost it.

All the books I’ve been reading about puppy training say not to hit or yell at your puppy. I haven’t hit her, but she definitely got yelled at. She also got a scruff shake. She continued to bite at me and pick up a watch from the carpet that I’d told her to drop. I guess you could say that I gave her a loud lesson on the “No,” “Leave it,” and “Drop it” commands.

Since my meltdown Annie has been perfect. A little leery of me, but 100% obedient. At present she’s asleep on her mat by my chair, and I’m feeling guilty about my outburst. I’ve reminded my son again and again that Annie is a puppy, that her nipping and jumping are part of puppy play and that with patience and consistency she’ll learn to not bite and jump. He’s had a hard time being consistent when he interacts with Annie, and sometimes when I’ve been patiently re-shaping her behaviors he’ll say, “Just beat her.” Or if she whines a little when I’ve held her muzzle closed while calmly telling her “No bite,” he’ll say, “How do I get her to make that noise for me?”

So what do I do? I lose it with the dog in front of the very person who has his own issues of patience with the puppy. (How’s that for modeling appropriate behavior as the adult in the situation?)

Based on Annie’s response to my outburst, I’m guessing that my training has been a bit too light. A bit too cheery. A bit too fun and not enough firmness. My plan is to apologize to my son for losing it with the dog in front of him. Just now he’s gone with some neighborhood boys to pass out bags for the Scouting for Food Drive tomorrow. When he gets back I’ll explain to him what mistakes I’ve been making in Annie’s training and hopefully help him see that I’m committed to firm, calm, and consistent puppy training.

And parenting too. Ever since I’ve begun to pay attention to whether or not I’m being patient, my parenting has improved. For the most part I’ve done a better job of expressing my frustrations with the kids early on – before their behaviors have gotten under my skin and begin to drive me nuts.

I think part of my problem is that I expect too much from my kids. For example, I’ve been expecting Loula Belle to be able to take a shower when she needs to without my having to remind her. But yesterday when I was at my friend’s house, she said that her daughter that’s a year older than Loula Belle still needs near-constant reminding. “Every time I tell my daughter to take shower, she thinks she just took one the night before. It doesn’t matter if she hasn’t taken one in three days. I guess to her it feels like she just took one last night.”

I needed to hear that. Part of my problem is I get tired of nagging. I tell myself that I shouldn’t have to. That my kids should know by now what they need to be doing without being constantly reminded. But I guess that’s not a realistic expectation. Looks like I’ll have to take a page out of my mom’s book and make peace with nagging. She prefers to call it “spaced repetition.”

So I’m going to start thinking of nagging as spaced repetition. Instead of having unrealistic expectations of my kids, I’ll remind myself that they’re still growing up. Like my puppy, they’re just exhibiting common behavior for their age. And like puppy training, my kids need firm, calm, and consistent training too.

How do you cool off when you’re about to lose it? I know I can’t be the only mom to blow her top. Please share your tips on how to maintaining composure during stressful flare-ups.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

In Search of Contentment

I don’t know about you, but I have a problem feeling content. And I’m beginning to think that it’s part of our American culture. We hear again and again about the American dream. Own a home. Start a new and successful company. Climb the corporate ladder. Be at the top of your class. Focus on productivity. Be all that you can be.

I’ve lived my entire life striving for perfection -- reaching for the American dream. I was the valedictorian of my high school class, one of the top three English graduates in 1994 when I graduated from college. Because I’ve chosen a career as a family manager, I often wonder if I’m doing enough, being enough. I tell myself that I should have a successful writing career in addition to my job as an at home mom. And I often berate myself about my homemaking skills. Because all my children are in school, I should have spotless mirrors, vacuum lines across the
carpet, clean windows, and perfectly prepared and balanced dinners every night. Sigh.

In my quest for a happier life, I’m getting professional counseling. My therapist has pointed out that I’ll feel happier if I can appreciate what I have. Keeping a gratitude journal is one way to acknowledge the haves instead of the have-nots. Another thing I’m trying to do is to acknowledge my pampered lifestyle.

Take this morning, for instance. I’m not sure why, but I was in the mood to listen to opera as I got ready for the day. “The Worlds Greatest Arias” played as I showered and put on makeup. I began thinking about Mozart and the royals who could afford to have him perform for them. That’s when I realized that, hey, Mozart plays for me any time I want him to. Sure, it may be a CD recording, but digital technology is probably as good or better than what some listeners heard at a live performance hundreds of years ago.

I’m a big fan of books and movies like, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Wurthering Heights . . . you get the idea. I’ve imagined what it must be like to have nothing to occupy my time except making social calls, sketching, riding horses, preparing menus for the staff to prepare, attending balls. I’ve even gone so far as to put myself as the heroine in the setting of my favorite books and movies. Coming back to the realities of my own hum-drum life always seems anti-climatic.

When moments like this morning happen, however, I’m amazed to realize that my life is as pampered as the lives of my favorite heroines – maybe even more so. For example, I enjoy central heating. I also have a large jacuzzi tub with lumbar jets. When I get the whim to soak in the bath, I don’t have to summon servants to heat water and fill my tub. I simply turn a knob. Two water heaters in my basement are my servants. Very efficient servants, I might add.

This fall my dad took me and my brothers hunting at a local pheasant farm. We trudged through the frost-covered fields as his dog locked onto the scent of a pheasant hiding in the underbrush. Up flew a large rooster. We raised our guns and locked onto the bird. Boom! Boom! It fell to the ground. And for some reason my mind flashed to a scene from Pride and Prejudice (the six-hour version) of Mr. Darcy hunting as his servants pounded the undergrowth with sticks to flush
up game fowl.

I remember thinking, “I’m more spoiled than Mr. Darcy.” I hadn’t even paid for the privilege of shooting the day’s game, my dad treated us. I even used one of his guns. And we’d arrived for the hunt in style -- a club cab 4x4 pick-up truck with power windows, heating, and satellite radio. As the other hunters spread out along the ditch bank, I began to contemplate the ways in which my upbringing was perhaps more privileged than Elizabeth Bennett’s.

For starters, I got to go hunting with the men. I bet Elizabeth didn’t. Our family had horses and 10 acres of land – probably less acreage than the Bennetts, but still a large estate by today’s standards. We may not have had carriages, but we owned both a car and a truck. And although I never spent the summer in London, I did travel to Centerville most summers to spend a week of fun and sun with my cousins. We also took trips to National Parks, hiked into the Wind River wilderness, and played at Disneyland. They didn’t even have amusement parks in Elizabeth Bennett’s day. What does that say about the time in which we live?

My counselor advised me to adopt the following motto:

Use it up,
Wear it out,
Make do
Or do without.

I can’t say that I follow it perfectly yet, but I’m beginning to see its benefits. When I’m not trying to remind myself what I want to buy next (furniture, a new computer, a new bed spread), I’m more at peace. Using what I have instead of acquiring more frees up a lot of time. Time to spend reading instead of shopping. Time to spend with friends instead of poring over glossy mail order catalogs. Time to spend laughing at comics with my kids instead of trolling the aisles of Wal-Mart listening to them whine for treats.

Contentment remains elusive. I’m not there yet, but I can see it on the horizon.