To All You Ordinary Heroes

The following is a portion of a blog post from Lisa-Jo Baker at Tales from a Gypsy Mama website. It speaks so truthfully about finding the heroic in ordinary lives that I wanted to share it. To read the full post, click here

Mountain LionTo All the Heroes – yes you, the ones up to your elbows in ordinary

We all want a hero…

We all want a hero to stand on a stage or a white horse or a battlefield or a football field or a bridge and declare to the darkness, “you shall not pass.”

We want to believe in courage bigger than us and the role models willing to leave their footprints behind for us to tentatively step into.

Prophets and rock stars, preachers and teachers and bloggers and poets. We want them to pour their words and point their lives like warning signs to the tired who come behind all bended over with our ordinary and expecting that others will triumph so that we can live in awe…

We want heroes with grand lives to sweep us up into their stories and propel us out to save the world through their endeavors while we stay home and fold the boring laundry.

And what if we are the heroes we are waiting for?

What if we can change and mold and challenge and fight back the darkness from our own corner of the Kingdom.

What if ordinary is heroic?

Most heroes I know wear jeans and T-Shirts most days and fight fevers more than Hercules.

Most heroes I know don’t have or care about blog platforms or their readership. They are too busy figuring out how to love their kids through a meltdown.

Most heroes I know are sitting right there in the pew behind us with their broken down daughters, their aging parents, their newborns who won’t sleep through the night, their singing off-key.

Most heroes I know are so ordinary we wouldn’t give them a second glance in the checkout line. They reek of homework and figuring out the taxes and how to squeeze a date night into another crazy week of car pool and sports and getting one more stain out of the carpet.

Most heroes I know are brave because they keep going in the face of their overwhelming fears, their worries, the voices in their heads that tell them they aren’t good enough, diligent enough, calm enough, prepared enough, or any other enough that can spit up out of the “perfect-o-meter.”

Eight women spend a morning cooking food for the friend who’s house was trashed by a hurricane, for the single parent who doesn’t have enough, for the family who will likely knock on the church door tomorrow…

There is no showmanship in heroism. There is just the next thing. Sometimes that thing might feel small – like helping your kid with his math homework. And sometimes it might feel big – like standing on a stage, or writing a book, or helping build a school or raising a million dollars or hosting a global webcast. But my guess is heaven uses a very different yard stick than we do.

So keep on, you.

Yes, you. The one up to your elbows in what feels like ordinary.

Lisa-Jo Baker believes “motherhood should come with its own super hero cape.” If you subscribe to her blog posts at www.lisajobaker.com, you’ll get her free eBook The Cheerleader for Tired Moms.

Live More, Fear Less: Test Anxiety (Can Work for You)

TestTaking2School has been back in session now for several months, and for many people that has meant lots of reading, studying, homework, studying, essays, studying…and the dreaded test days. When I was in school, I loved teachers who gave multiple choice tests – give me a list of answers to choose from and I’m in heaven. I probably don’t have to mention how I felt about math and essay exams.

Everyone knows the basic steps to prepare for test days: Study. Sleep. Eat.

  • If you know you suffer from test anxiety, you’re going to have to be more diligent than those who aren’t afflicted. Keeping up with reading assignments and homework is the first and best way to get ready in advance for an exam. Going into a test as prepared as possible will give you confidence and help ease anxiety.
  • Finding the time to get enough sleep every day is hard enough for those who aren’t going to school, for students it’s even worse. But if you don’t get at least six hours of sleep every night, you’ll be running on a sleep deficit, and that can affect your concentration. If you can’t do it on any other night, at least get a good night’s sleep the night before a test.
  • You have your own morning routine that may or may not include breakfast, but do your body and your brain a favor – eat well on test days, and include protein and not too much sugar.

If you’re not one of those (strange) people who thrive on the challenge of taking tests, you’ll need to take a few steps to make your test anxiety work for you.

Muscle tension, headache, faster breathing, increased heart rate and perspiration – these are some of the physical manifestations of fear related to the natural fight or flight response (see my post on survival instinct). If you have test anxiety, your mind has perceived your test as a threat to you and has prepared your body to stand and fight or run away. These physical changes can help you think more quickly, but they can also lead to restlessness because your body is now ready for action. If this is how your body normally reacts on test days, give these few things a try:

  • Be good to yourself. When you first start feeling these fight-or-flight symptoms, try to remember that your body’s natural defense will help you focus on what’s to come. Don’t fight it and don’t beat yourself up over your “silly” fears.
  • Arrive early at the testing place. Give yourself enough time to do some kind of physical activity like walking around the building or up and down the halls for a few minutes to help release muscle tension. (Arriving early is also essential to allow a bathroom break for those of us whose symptoms manifest themselves in that way.)
  • Breathe slowly and deeply to help you relax, before and during the test. This has a calming effect and sends oxygen to the brain.
  • To ease tension during a test, do some subtle stretching of your arms, legs, and shoulders. If you notice others tapping pencils/pens or nervously tapping their heels, realize you’re not the only one feeling anxious.
  • When taking the test, ponder the questions for only a few seconds and skip those you can’t answer immediately (math questions take longer, of course), and then go back later. Staying on one question for too long can cause even more anxiety and a loss of focus. In my student years, I found that as I moved through a test, my initial freak out/brain freeze cleared away enough that I was able to answer most of the questions on the second pass through.

These suggestions can be adapted to many situations where you’re being tested. Whether for a job interview, a presentation, or a talk: study in advance, get enough sleep, eat right, relax, release muscle tension, remember to breathe. And be good to yourself. When you don’t have the choice to flee, use your natural survival instinct to stand and fight.

How do you combat test anxiety?

Consult Not Your Fears…

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You Can’t Finish What You Don’t Start

I’m presently in the throes of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) – along with over 250,000 people worldwide. In case you haven’t heard of NaNo, it’s “thirty days of literary abandon” where insane people commit to writing a 50,000 word novel in one month (that being November). Besides the obvious hurdles this kind of commitment will throw in many people’s paths – finding the time to write 1,667 words per day (especially with a job or school schedule), doing everyday chores (laundry, housework, bathroom visitation), cooking for the family, taking care of children, running errands and shopping, spending time with friends/significant others, sleeping – there is one major hurdle to contend with first.

But “hurdle” isn’t even the right word to describe this other barrier – it’s not the same kind of frame-like structure that a runner has to jump over but is easily kicked down. It’s not even a wall. It’s the mountain of the first step. Excuses are the foothills, they should be the easy part to overcome, but we often make them the hardest: I don’t have enough time or what if I can’t make it work or what if I’m not smart enough, and so on. What it all adds up to – this mountain, this dragon – is fear.

On the field of the self stands a knight and a dragon. You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon. The battle must be fought anew every day. ~ Steven Pressfield

By the end of today, I expect to have a total of 30,000 words toward my 50K goal. And because of my commitment (which many nights has left me asleep at the keyboard after midnight) and the sacrifice of all kinds of things for the cause, I’ll have the bones of a novel when November 30th rolls around. This first draft will need months of editing, revising, and rewriting. It will take a lot more work to finish…but I don’t want to think about that right now. I still have two weeks left that need my chained-to-the-keyboard-and-no-editing attention. I have to focus on this one step (broken into smaller 30-day bites) toward the greater goal of publishing the novel that this manuscript will someday become.

If I hadn’t pushed through all my what-ifs and decided to step up and give this everything I had, I wouldn’t be feeling pretty good about my writing goals right now. Life has a way of tossing obstacles in my path, things that can throw me completely off course. If for some reason I don’t make my NaNo goal by the end of the month, I will still be closer to finishing my first draft than if I hadn’t started at all. No matter what, I will have established a writing routine, and proved to myself that I can do what I set my mind on. And I’ll have a good start going into the new year.

We often let our fears and our excuses get in the way of even starting a thing. The first step toward doing something worthwhile can be the hardest to take, but it can also lead to all kinds of unexpected rewards along the way.

Bullying: You Are the Boss of You

Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

 As long as there are people who enjoy being cruel and have a need to dominate and control others, there will be bullies. Unfortunately, that also means there will be those who are the recipients of their physical and/or emotional aggression. Years ago, only two options were usually offered a child suffering from being bullied: fight back or ignore it. Adults tended to think it was a normal part of childhood. Nowadays, awareness of the extreme result of bullying (such as suicide) has caused parents, teachers, and school systems to take a more active role in preventing and dealing with schoolyard bullies through special programs and education.

There is also an abundance of books and movies for kids and young adults that deal with this issue. Books for parents and teachers, such as The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso give understanding and guidance regarding bullying – with insight into the role that a bystander (active or not) plays in supporting such behavior. In the book, suggestions are given on how to raise a child to have the compassion and strength of character to act on what is right if they find themselves as a bystander “even at great cost to himself.”

Eventually we all grow up and leave school behind, but schoolyard bullies often grow into adult bullies. This kind of behavior is less in-your-face physical and more subtle, but still just as harmful. It can manifest itself in its simplest form in a relationship where one person continually takes advantage of another through manipulation, often using the friendship (and the possible loss of it) as a weapon.

We can try to understand bullies. Most have a need to control because they have little control over their own lives – and those they perceive as weak or different become easy targets. Many are raised by dominating, controlling parents, and bullying can become a natural path. But no amount of understanding can excuse this behavior. Whatever the reasons, a bully chooses to treat people a certain way, just like the rest of us do.

As adults, we have choices that children may not have or may not know they have, or don’t have the strength to make. We can choose not to be bullied, deciding instead to avoid or ignore those kinds of people without harm to our once-fragile childhood hearts. We can end an unhealthy relationship with a controlling partner or friend. The power to change a situation that we’re unhappy with is within each of us.

The trick is remembering that change is as easy as you make it. The trick is remembering that you are the boss of you. ~ A.S. King

But things become more complicated when encountering bullying in the workplace. Our job might depend on getting along with that awful person giving us the stink-eye from the desk across the room. And if it’s your demanding supervisor…that’s an even tougher situation. We still have choices, whether it’s being nice to the person to keep the peace, confronting the person in an assertive but non-aggressive way, or taking the problem through the chain of command. If bullying turns into outright harassment, most workplaces have rules in place to deal with it. In any case, moving on might just save your physical and mental health.

But no matter what, keeping in mind where the fault lies is key. You do not deserve to be treated with scorn or disrespect. No one else is the boss of you, but you.

October is National Bullying Prevention month. What do you think is the best way to handle or prevent bullying?

Dealing with Fear: A Logical Approach

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows; it empties today of its strength. ~ Corrie ten Boom

Worry is a first cousin to fear – a wasteful, sneaky, whisper-in-your-ear kind of cousin. In my own quest to be less fearful, I’ve found the following strategies to be the most helpful:

Allow Yourself One Big Fear (and/or several small ones). And don’t beat yourself up over it. Fear can be normal and helpful (see my post on survival instinct). Everyone is afraid of something, even big, burly manly men – they just hide it better. I say, if you can carry on your daily life, moving forward more than you move backward, then your fear is not a problem.

Rehearse/Prepare. I don’t suggest we think about our fear or worry continuously – that might already be part of the problem. But consider what you’re really worried or fearful about. Afraid to talk to someone in person or on the phone? Write out what to say ahead of time. Are you actually afraid of the unknown in a situation rather than the situation itself? Before going on a job interview: research the job, the company, and ask yourself/answer possible interview questions.

Share. Don’t go it alone. If you’re worried about raising your kids, find mothers in your neighborhood, at church, at your child’s school to hang out with or talk to. Whatever the situation, talking to someone can help work through our fears. And chances are, someone is going through the same kind of thing or has already made it through the other side.

Pray. Some people don’t consider prayer logical. But belief in Someone greater than yourself, who cares for you and has the power to do anything, is a necessity of life these days. Prayer can chase away worry and bring peace to a troubled soul.  

Get Involved. Helping others, helps yourself. It takes the energy that your worry wastes and channels it toward someone or something that needs it more. There are people all around us that need help, many of them in worse places than we are.

Be Grateful. It’s been said that the fastest escape from worry is appreciation. Imagine how good we could feel if we spent our time appreciating what we have in life instead of wasting it on worry. For ideas on making gratitude a habit, go to my post Have a Grateful Day.

Act. Doing something is really what this list is about. Anything that causes worry should be acted on, not just thought about. Even the smallest action can alleviate fear. Make a list, make a plan, make a phone call. Go on the internet and do research.

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit at home and think about it. Go out and get busy. ~ Dale Carnegie

These are just a few suggestions, but if worry or fear has taken over your life to the point that you can’t leave the house or if you’re overwhelmed/depressed and are having trouble carrying on, please talk to someone – seek out a listening ear at your church or with a health care professional. Sometimes we do need help outside ourselves, and that’s okay. We weren’t meant to go through life alone.

How do you deal with worry?

Live More, Fear Less: Imperfection

beauty in imperfectionI’m not perfect, but I want to be. I accept imperfection in others because I know no one is perfect. But for some reason, it’s hard to apply that acceptance to myself.

I strive for perfection, not in my physical appearance (that’s beyond help), but in most things I do in my life. This does not include housework, however. I decided years ago to take on my mother’s philosophy that there are better things to do than clean one’s house everyday. My nagging – no, my screaming – perfectionism deals with just about everything else.

When I do something for someone, like complete a job or make a gift or cook a meal, I strive to make sure it’s done perfectly, and beat myself up if it’s not. Perfection is, after all, what others expect from me, right? It’s taken me years to realize that people don’t expect perfection from me, any more than I expect it from them. I need to remind myself of this truth just about every day.

Now that I’m aging – the proof of it in graying hair, wrinkles, and body parts that droop (yippee) a little bit more each day – I’m facing even more personal imperfection. Oddly, this lack of being perfect doesn’t bother me so much.

I look at nature. Often, the most beautiful trees are those that have grown a bit crooked, off-centered but somehow still balanced. Their imperfect shadings of leaf and bark catch my eye. And smooth, shiny stones are certainly beautiful, but it’s the ones with cracks and interesting veins of impurity that I’ll turn over in my hands and look at the most.

If I understand the concept right, the Japanese call it wabi-sabi, which has to do with finding beauty in imperfection – those things that are simple or unrefined, not quite symmetrical, that have attained beauty or serenity through age or wear.

If we live long enough, we will all be old someday. Our youth will fade, but will our beauty, really? Or will that which we think is beautiful change? If we allow ourselves, will we see the beauty in how time changes us? We cannot be perfect but we can be beautiful.

Let us strive to accept the imperfection in ourselves and in others. What do you think is beautiful but imperfect at the same time?

Live More, Fear Less: Living with a Purpose

I’m the kind of person who roots for the underdog. I like movies where the little guy comes out on top and books where the hero wins in the end.

The thing about underdogs and heroes is they DO something. They’re working towards a goal, often while trying to overcome a personal shortcoming along the way. Even if they give up at some point, they always end up getting back on track. Heroes and underdogs don’t always get what they start out wanting. They might have to shift focus to see what’s really important. And usually what’s really important is something or someone outside of their me-world or I-want way of living.

Another thing that heroes and underdogs have in common is facing their fears. And deciding at a particular moment that something is more important than fear. You can bet firefighters are afraid just about every time the alarm sends them out on a call. They have a purpose in life that is beyond themselves, and so they push through.

Not everyone knows what their purpose is. Some people know early on what they want to do with their life, but some of us are still searching. For me, my faith tells me I’m here in this world at this particular time in history for a reason. God has a plan for me and he knows what it is even if I don’t (yet).

When I start letting my “not knowing” get the best of me, I search out an underdog or hero story. Nick Vujicic is one such person who fits into both categories. Born without arms or legs in 1982, he tried to drown himself at 8-years-old and then fought depression for many years afterward because he didn’t know why God made him the way he is. Then Nick found purpose in his faith. For a truly inspiring story, I hope you’llcheck this out.

Who inspires you to live more and fear less?

Live More, Fear Less: Perspective

There are so many things to worry about in this life: the state of the world with its pollution, wars, natural disasters, famine. There’s human trafficking, drug cartels, economic collapse. Some mothers watch their children waste away through starvation. Some fathers are beaten and killed for their faith or beliefs. Closer to home are the very real problems of putting food on the table, juggling bills, trying to keep a job, and deciding between paying the rent or going to the doctor. And then there are more personal worries like living alone or being lonely, growing old, and being forgotten.

It’s easy to worry, and it’s something I’m very good at when I practice. When I feel myself slipping into that place where I need to print business cards that read “Cate Macabe, Professional Worrier,” I stop and try to put things in perspective.

If I’m living in a car or a bombed-out building, do I worry about how fat I look in my jeans? While I’m sitting by my child’s hospital bed, do I care that my roots are showing? What is the fear of growing old compared to the fear of having nothing to feed my children? How does the fear of crowds or heights or giving an oral presentation compare to facing the devastation of a hurricane or a flood?

When I got the news that a friend of mine lost her only daughter to the hands of a murderer, the first thing I did was cry, and then I wailed. I was devastated for my friend, the heartbreak she felt, the horror of the crime. And I cried out for her daughter. There was so much she didn’t get to do. She was too young to be taken from this life. The next thing I did was look at my own teenage daughter and my life with her. Did all my rules, and nagging, and too-high expectations create the relationship I wanted? Did I want to push her away or look at each day with her as a gift to cherish? I decided, on the day I got my friend’s awful news, what was truly important and began making choices accordingly.

Don’t wait for a disaster to give you a new perspective. Decide now what is most important and take practical steps to follow through.

If living longer and enjoying your family as you age is what you worry about – walk a little everyday, make better food choices, exercise your mind. Is getting a job or holding on to one a concern? Update your skills, work for a temporary agency, volunteer in your field of interest.

Doing something for someone else can shift our focus and also change how we look at our own lives. Visit an elderly neighbor, hold the hand of someone’s who’s grieving, watch a busy Mom’s kids to give her some alone time, send thank-you cards and letters to soldiers serving overseas (especially in combat zones).

Today, this minute, we can’t help a starving child or love an orphan on the other side of the world, but we can contribute money or time to organizations that can. And if we have the heart for it, we can foster or adopt and change the life of such a child.

Unless we do something with our worry, it becomes a waste of our time and energy because it’s really only a useless exercise of the mind. Don’t let the worries of life get you down for long. Take one step back if you have to, then two steps forward and keep looking ahead.

What do you do to stop worry from getting out of hand?

Live More, Fear Less: Deep Water

This is the first of my Fear Less Friday posts. Writing This New Mountain and seeing how AJ Jackson faced her fears everyday has helped me deal with my own fears. With these Friday posts I plan to talk about the things that grab hold of us and keep us from living fully, and in doing so I hope to help others take a look at what makes them fearful and maybe inspire them to take a step onto another path.

Here is a photo of me on the coast of Maine with a treasure I found washed up on shore. Seeing the not quite picked-clean bones of this huge fish reminded me of similar encounters at a time when I was young and innocent, playing in the sand with my silver spoons and plastic bucket, trying to dig to China. Sand crabs would skitter about while I dug deep holes that filled with ocean water seeping in under the beach. I remember the shield-like remains of a spiny horseshoe crab with its stiff dagger tail. And I remember watching two men drag a large thing through the surf and onto the beach. A sleek, grey, smooth-skinned body with a long tail, and side and dorsal fins. I was little, and the thing was huge and terrifying, and it was a shark.

That creature laying on the sand made me wonder what else swam out there in the deep, among the rushing waves, just beyond the shore. What else was out there that I couldn’t see? Close enough for swimmers to capture, and close enough to swim among the swimmers.

I decided I didn’t want to be one of those deep-water-swimming-with-creatures kinds of people. I’m perfectly happy to watch the waves for hours, feel my toes leave impressions in the hard sand, smell the salt in the air, hear the gulls cry. At peace with the forever cycle of sea meeting land in a rush and swell, a falling back, and a reaching out once more. The sea and me, we have an understanding. I’ll even splash in ankle-deep surf. But I’m not afraid of drowning – I can swim just fine. No, it’s the things in the water I can do without. And I’ve always been okay with this perfectly logical fear I have.

And then I took my oldest daughter on a Caribbean cruise for her 21st birthday. We explored Mayan ruins in Cancun, hiked through a waterfall in Jamaica, visited a place called Hell. It was all wonderfully normal, until she wanted to swim with stingrays. AND she wanted me to go with her. How sweet of her to think of me. The water would be warm and clear, she said. Clear enough to see all those creatures that live in the ocean.

In doing research for This New Mountain I came across the following quote by Ambrose Redmoon:

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”

At the time of the cruise, I hadn’t been introduced to AJ Jackson and her head-on approach to dealing with fear, but I knew deep down if I let go of this chance to share something remarkable with my daughter, I would always regret it. And a part of me actually did want to – [shudder] –  swim with stingrays.

I talked myself into, and out of, doing it dozens of times. I was still talking to myself as I followed my daughter down the ladder on the side of the sightseeing boat. I changed my mind again, but someone was already on the ladder above me coming down. My heart pounding, I tried not to look at the water below as I stepped onto the bottom rung. I had been breathing deeply for a good fifteen minutes before this to keep from hyperventilating. I took a few more slow, even breaths, told myself to just do it, and dropped into the warm ocean. I expected to have to push off the bottom and swim to the surface but instead I touched solid “ground” after a few feet. The water resting over this pristine reef was only armpit-deep. The sand spread out at my feet soft and white and unmarred as far as I could see. No shells, no seaweed, no creatures, nothing but sand. It was as if someone had swept it clean just for me. This wasn’t so bad. I could do this.

A murmur started from a group of people bobbing about farther away from the boat and me, and closer to the open sea. Then shadows slid through the water, dark cloaks winging toward us. I screamed along with everyone else – tenor and soprano voices mixed together, men and women alike.

But these stingrays were not there to hurt us. They were more like dogs racing in for the treats the tourist boat always brought along to bring them close. The rays hugged our legs and spun around us. My daughter, the adventurous child, hugged one back. I stood as still as possible and took photos of rippling cloaks and tiger-eyes unblinking. Soon the creatures turned and swept back the way they came.

I still don’t like deep water, won’t go in it, preferring slow walks along the edge of my mind and the surf. But now I can say I swam with stingrays – and I never have to do it again.

As AJ likes to tell me, “You just have to have a little courage.”

Is there a fear that keeps you from doing something you’ve always wanted to do? Is it time you took a few deep breaths, pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, and jumped in?