It’s been an amazing semester here at Penn State. We’re in week three of advanced writing, and so far, students designed stunning professional portfolios that included a resume, cover letter, and personal mission statement (all with vivid, shimmering verbs!). Now, we move on to the professional “signature story”—a short single-event memoir that showcases the student’s transformation in some way. These stories work well for personal statements, interview settings, or for personal confirmation about career paths.
We talk about creating an authentic written voice. We talk about rhythm. We talk about how semicolons and colons powerfully direct the reader’s mind; they make arguments. I show examples of the best, most memorable lines in literature and how, essentially, writers arrange words in particular patterns to create that elusive concept called “voice.” I point out, too, the power of the two to five word sentence. It lets voice in. It’s musical. It’s a way to talk in the paragraph.
My favorite lesson today, however, involves conflict, tension, and enemies. We transform through opposition. But the enemy doesn’t have to be another person; it appears in various forms: time, psychological barriers, philosophies of living, nature, or one’s own body.
We begin sharing our stories of transformation that reveal why we do what we do now, what we want to do in the future, and what we aim to inspire others to do as well. We think about our writing as changing something in the world around us. We consider our role as change agents. We’re reading Mary Pipher’s book, Writing to Change the World, and we enjoyed sharing our favorite quotes from her first chapter as our name game.
Such fun over here!
Today I read about cultivating “inner certainty.” What a beautiful phrase! In the midst of so much uncertainty—not just in our political climate but also in something so precarious as weather–we move about our days lacking any certainty. With so many students shaking in my office out of fear and uncertainty, I wonder how to best help others develop a lifestyle of inner certainty.
What would it feel like to make meaningful decisions based on God’s word, the leading of the Holy Spirit, and your own sound mind and then rest in certainty that you made the best choice you could, with the knowledge that you had? How do you teach someone to cultivate wisdom and discernment in decision making? Can you imagine going about your day without nagging, anxiety-producing uncertainty? Uncertainty gathers in doubt, suspicion, misgivings, great apprehension, and fear. The brain does not like uncertainty; it generates a reactive, high-stress response.
I like collecting “certainty” phrases like this:
I am certain God will orchestrate these events–even my failures within them–for my good and His glory.
I am certain that if I made a decision that helps me love God and love others more, then it is the right decision.
I am certain that God’s work in my life is not limited by my bad decisions.
I am certain that God is not tricking me and making it hard for me to decide; I know He gives wisdom generously and provides the Holy Spirit as a counselor.
As I learn more about the psychology behind certainty, I’ll share my research. And when I lack confidence, I remember this little picture. It makes me laugh every time.
Last night during a church dinner, I sat next to a leadership consultant. I asked her to summarize her absolute best advice for any leader.
She said: “Be helpful.”
Indeed. Great leaders serve. Great leaders help. I think about her advice and how most of us characterize our leadership with other words like visionary, decisive, confident, inclusive, empathetic, or any other word but this simple one: helpful.
The advice changes how I go about leading classrooms, seminars, and meetings. When I’m leading, I’m conscious today of what it means to serve and to offer help as my primary leadership task.
On the partial walk to school, we watch the acorns grow as the leaves begin to change color. We’ll gather these large acorns and paint them for autumn decorations. This year, we’re thinking about painting autumn scenes on the oak leaves. But for now, we marvel at a new season almost here.
When temptation comes our way, remember that Jesus offers greater joy than this thing. Stop and consider Psalm 4 and how the writer proclaims, “Who can show us any good? Let the light of your face shine upon us, O Lord. You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound.”
We don’t need to chase things we imagine will bring life and happiness. We rest in Jesus’ promise that He has come “that [we] might have life and have it abundantly.”
It’s so tempting to believe that abundant life comes about differently than in the life God has ordained for us, so we travel down dark paths to find a joy that doesn’t exist there. We consider new locations, new relationships, new addictions, new purchases, new careers, and new experiences as we hope for that elusive thing we seek but never grasp. We compromise in countless areas all because we want something that we truly believe satisfies the longing of our hearts.
What we seek is found in God–the fulfillment of all our hopes and dreams and the giver of the shalom peace our heart needs. Trust Him in this, the one who “richly provides all things for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). Trust in Jesus who was so great, so amazing, so utterly fantastic that Peter left everything–everything!–to follow Him (Luke 5:11).
Sometimes students come to my office to talk about depression and anxiety, and they ask the same question: Why are you so happy?
It wasn’t always this way! Oh, if you only knew the dark places and the long years of feeling estranged from myself, of wanting to die, and of feeling hopeless despair! If you only knew! But let me help you on the journey!
I love talking to students about mental health and my own long journey to take care of my mind and body. I tell everyone that I’m not an expert in mental health, but I am an expert in my own story. Sometimes just knowing that folks exist who live normal adult lives—who finally wake up joyful after battling depression—encourages their hearts.
As I think about best practices for mental health, I note these seven practices based on research:
- Begin daily writing in a journal (or blog!) about joyful, beautiful, curious, funny, hopeful, or kind things. Keep a “Gratitude Journal” and even write thank-you notes to people expressing gratitude. To learn more about the research linking gratitude to happiness, you can read “In Praise of Gratitude” from Harvard Health. If you remember, my own blog often recorded five things a day that I loved or was thankful to God for. After a few years, I couldn’t believe how I woke up with anticipation on most days.
- Recalibrate toxic relationships. When relationships make you feel bad about yourself, or if you feel controlled or steamrolled, you can distance yourself from these relationships in loving ways to preserve your mental health. Codependent or enmeshed relationships lead to depression, and finding ways to relate in healthy ways is the next step on the journey of healing. For more information about how codependency leads to depression, you can read more here.
- Build your identity in Christ. My entire life changed when I started to truly believe and apply God’s word–especially through the book of Ephesians–about who I was. Rather than living in sadness, regret, or a sense that I was living the wrong life, God enabled me to see the “real me” through reading the Bible. My books on being Seated, Guarded, and Included document how I have, over the last few years, strengthened my identity in Jesus. As I read the Bible and prayed for years, I experienced increasing peace and joy in my heart.
- Seek out professional help. My therapist, primary care physician, and endocrinologist saved my life back at the University of Michigan. Finding a team of people to care for you makes all the difference. My counselor helped me with great coping mechanisms, spiritual practices, and tools to understand sources of depression, while my doctor found problems in my blood work including the wrong levels of thyroid stimulating hormone and low vitamin D. My endocrinologist helped me understand how my body was working and why anxiety and depression were happening to me. For two years, we worked together to find a good medication for anxiety and the right thyroid medication. After those two years, I never needed medication again for anxiety and depression, but I still take medication for my thyroid every day.
- Take a walk and eat foods that aid mental health. If you’re like me, you don’t have the luxury of doing nothing to help your brain work better. We can’t! We have to support our mental health more rigorously! Exercise, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and plenty of water work to make you feel your best. I also take a multivitamin with all the Vitamin B’s.
- Focus on other people, pets, or even plants. Sometimes, depression and anxiety turn us inward on ourselves, and we forget the biblical joy (Isaiah 58:8) of serving others. Volunteering at a shelter, teaching the youth group kids in Sunday school, making meals for neighbors, or joining an organization to serve others is part of a happy life. Pets, according to scientific research, do increase happiness (I have three cats!). I also find great delight in gardening and watching plants grow.
- Think about cultivating all the areas of your life–relational, spiritual, physical, and mental. Think about what’s missing or what’s out of balance. For me, learning new skills makes it hard for me to feel depressed in that moment. I also try to do things with my hands, like bake or clean the house, because so much of my life is mental activity like teaching, writing, and speaking.
On your journey towards mental health, I pray God gives you insight and understanding that will aid your path to joy. In the meantime, you’re not alone.
The dried out pumpkin patch’s leaves stand at attention in the day-long rain. I sneak out, like I’m spying on them. What a joy to see such rapid growth each new day! What a joy to see how the leaves that once withered on the ground spring to life with vital rain!
I’ve been telling my daughters about the phenomenon that every system naturally moves towards chaos. It’s true! It’s true! Without applying some organizational pressure to our systems–environment, work, emotions, body, spiritual life–we move towards chaos.
As I note how, in just one day, I see piles of books and papers and early signs of disruption, I think about what it takes to put things in the proper place, declutter, and reset the space each new day.
I think about applying pressure to the system when choosing to daily exercise, compose a gratitude journal and spend time with God in His word, or simply organizing the pantry.
It’s part of daily life to resist chaos and apply pressure to create order, beauty, harmony, and peace.
My seminary professor once said, “Nothing mattered more to God’s people than securing His blessing. There was nothing more important. Everything was about being blessed by God.” Today I thought more carefully about what it means to have the blessing of God and why people would do anything to have that blessing.
I ask my daughter, “Would you rather have a million dollars or one blessing from God?” She said, “The blessing! I’d take the blessing!” She knows that when God blesses, it’s everything we’ve ever needed because with God’s blessing comes His power, presence, and favor. It comes with fulfillment. A blessing means that God pours His love and purpose out on that situation. Lately, I’ve expanded my view of God’s blessing to mean that God has moved in this situation in a way that will honor Christ and work for our good.
I think about sharing in this character quality of God. He is a God who blesses, and we partake in bestowing blessings on others. We invite God’s blessing into the lives of others through us, in our work, in our speech, even as we prepare meals for our family. When we give of resources, I pray that it carries more than just that financial or material provision. I pray it carries a true blessing from God.
This week, my literary agent decided to represent a novel I wrote six years ago after significant revisions. What exciting news! I’m learning this about the whole world of writing and publishing:
You keep steady. You write. You do what you do. If something doesn’t hit the market in the right way, you consider revising or waiting for a change of the tides. You realize that others have more wisdom than you. You don’t let either the emotions of acceptance or rejection overwhelm you. At the end of the day, what matters is that you’re still writing.
You keep steady. You keep writing.