So much of the way we experience the world is dictated by our minds. Let me give you an example. A number of years ago, I was sitting in my backyard with a friend. We both lived in a lovely town which had modern conveniences and natural beauty. In my mind, it was a great place to live. While we were chatting, he turned to me and said, “I can’t take living here a minute longer.” We were living in the same place, but our minds experienced it differently.
This happens all the time. Two people will see the same movie, and one will love it while the other will hate it. It happened to me just recently. My husband and I hosted a dinner. He thought it was a rousing success, whereas I thought it was a train wreck. It was all a matter of perspective.
Of course, there are certain experiences that are objectively good or bad. Winning the lottery is an objectively good experience. Being the victim of a crime is an objectively bad experience. But in-between that, there is a wide range of experiences that are either good or bad depending on how our minds perceive them.
That is why in order to be happy, we need to learn to manage our minds. So, if a situation is not enjoyable for you, you need to find ways to think about it differently. For instance, let’s say that you don’t like your job. Consider focusing your mind less on the actual work you are doing, and more on the friendships that you are making with your colleagues. And while you may not like your work, remember that you are developing skills which you likely will use in a future job. If you decide to start looking for another job, enjoy the process. Feel hopeful that there is a world of opportunities out there, and that someone is looking for your special talents.
Certain aspects of your life may need improvement – your relationships, your home, or even your finances. But you nevertheless can train your mind to see even what is imperfect in a positive manner. “Yes, I may be getting divorced, but now I have the opportunity to live the life I’ve always dreamed of.” “Sure, my house is small, but that means that I can live within my budget and still have money to take trips.” “I may not have a big salary, but I am debt free, and I pay off my bills every month.” So much of our life experience is based on where we focus our thoughts.
It is well worth your time to train your mind to focus on what is good in life. So, if you start to feel irritated or overwhelmed, turn your thoughts to what is going well. When you feel frustrated, aggressively redirect your thoughts to something positive. When we take control of our thoughts, we take control of how we experience the world. And if that isn’t the key to happiness, I don’t know what is.
One of the unfortunate truths is that we only grow in character and maturity when faced with challenges. If we went merrily along without conflict, frustrations or obstacles, we would be immature. We probably would be arrogant and think that we are better than other people who have problems. And if we encountered the slightest opposition in life, we would crumble because we hadn’t developed the quality of resilience.
As a result, challenges are not completely bad things. Rather, they are opportunities to learn and to grow. For instance, if someone is rude to me, I have two choices: I can be rude in return, or I can walk away from or ignore that person. Now anyone can respond by being rude. That is the immature response. But if I don’t engage with a rude person, then I have the opportunity to develop qualities like self-control and patience.
When we encounter challenges, God is looking to see how we will handle them. He wants to see how our characters are developing. And He wants to identify where we need to improve.
Like everyone, I have challenges in life. For instance, I have to deal with people who test my patience. So, I do my fair share of walking away from people or just ignoring them. And I have family members and friends whom I worry about. So, I have to think of ways to encourage and support them, as opposed to simply wringing my hands.
As I grow older, I find that my challenges don’t decrease. Some fade away over time, and then new ones arise. So, just when I think, “Wow, I’ve overcome my insecurities,” lo and behold, my patience gets tested. Or just when I think, “Hey, I’ve stopped procrastinating,” life tosses me the challenge of having to learn to do something new.
No one wants to be faced with challenges in life. We all wish life could be nothing but smooth sailing. But none of us are immune from hardship. That is why it is important to learn how to transform our problems into blessings. And the only way we can do that is to learn from them.
If you are facing challenges this week, ask yourself, “What does God want me to learn from this experience? How can I handle this problem in a way that will improve my character? Does this problem expose a part of my character that needs work?” Consider how you can use your challenges as the means by which you grow in maturity and wisdom. Turn your challenges into blessings.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2
The holidays have built in stressors. During the holidays, people tend to spend more money than they should. There are extra social events to attend, in addition to our everyday responsibilities. And some of us spend our time in forced family gatherings, instead of with the people whose company we truly enjoy. It is a time when all of us truly need to be in this world, but not of it.
Being “in this world” means that we need to participate in the holidays. So, we should be buying presents for our families and friends, and we should be donating to the poor. We should be reaching out to those we care about through cards, calls and emails to let them know how important they are to us. And we should be decorating our homes to make them more cheerful for those who come to visit.
But we don’t need to be “of this world.” That means we need to withstand social pressure. We don’t need to accept every dinner and party invitation. We don’t need to go into debt from gift giving. And we can limit how much time we spend with those who we see only out of obligation.
Being not of this world means periodically removing ourselves from it and, as Paul says, “renewing” our minds. We all renew our minds in different ways. My renewal occurred this weekend when I sat down in the church pew on Sunday morning. When the organist began to play the prelude, I had a feeling of peace and relaxation sweep over me. That feeling lasted through to the benediction. I hadn’t felt so at ease in days. I may have physically been “in” the world on Sunday morning, but for at least one hour, I was not “of” it.
Church isn’t the only way that I break away from the world to renew my mind. Reading is another way. When I read, I am transported to other worlds. Reading gives me the opportunity to think about things in a new way. Listening to music and making music are also ways that I refresh my mind. Beautiful music soothes our souls in a way that nothing else can.
Now that the holidays are in full swing, consider the ways that you can give yourself some necessary breaks. Think of the ways that you can enjoy what is magical about this season and limit the irritations. This December, try to be in the world, but not of it.
Once you become an adult, the holidays are challenging. You may be alone and missing the company of family and friends. Or perhaps you are having to entertain too many people. Some of us feel overwhelmed by the amount of cooking and shopping there is to do. And for many, the expense of the holidays is stressful. So, by the end, a lot of us are just happy that we survived Thanksgiving and Christmas.
That is why at a certain point, the holidays need to stop being about merely food and presents. Don’t get me wrong. Food and presents are important. Feeding people is one way that we take care of them. And giving presents is an important way to show people that they are special to us. But if we make the holidays solely about food and gift giving, it feels hollow.
During this season, we need to do things to feed our souls. Those things will be different for each of us. For some people, it helps to “put Christ back into Christmas,” as the saying goes. One way to do that is to spend the month of December reading and reflecting on the four gospels. Others might enjoy reading something thought-provoking, like Harold Kushner’s classic book, “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?” Or you might spend the holidays listening to Bach’s organ works or enjoying traditional fare like Handel’s Messiah. The options for soul-nourishing activities are vast.
What is critical is that we affirmatively choose how we will spend our time during the holidays. Otherwise other people will choose for us. And then we will end this beautiful season simply being relieved that it is over.
The holiday season admittedly has “built-in” irritations. The commercials are noisy and some of the music is crass. And if you don’t shop online, you are interacting with people in the stores who are tired and frustrated. For some of those people, trying to make ends meet during the holidays is no small matter, so their stress is understandable.
The key is to eliminate as many of the holiday irritations as possible. Turn off the television so that you don’t have to hear the commercials. Instead read a good book. When in the car or at home, turn off the radio. You may as well listen to your own CDs instead of being subjected to the poor musical taste of some of the radio stations. And do as much shopping as you can online. In this day and age, there really is no need to ever go to the mall.
Then focus on making this season meaningful. Send a Christmas card in which you thank someone for the impact that he or she has had on your life. Give gifts that don’t just have a hefty price tag, but that have sentimental value. Read books with a positive message. Listen to inspiring music. Go to religious services to connect with God. Pray daily.
You have the ability to make this holiday season something beautiful. You just have to decide in advance how you want to spend it. Don’t let the world dictate how you will spend your holidays. Instead, create a plan to make the holidays meaningful for you. Use this very special time of the year to feed your soul.