Original Publication: July 31, 2012
“Oh, she’ll be fine!” “She’ll love it there!” “She is so ready for this new stage!” (And my personal favorite . . .) “Honey, it will be much worse on you than it will on her.”
True. Every single statement: absolutely true. In fact, because everyone knows these things are true, you will never need to say them to another mother whose child is going away to college. She already knows this stuff. Trust me (more on this in a later post).
But NOT saying something can be so difficult can’t it?
For example, if someone has a stomach bug, it takes true restraint for me NOT to tell them to drink plenty of water. Everyone knows that gastrointestinal upset in the extreme can lead to dehydration. I know that everyone knows this. But I feel the urge to tell them, just in case they’ve been living under a rock.
Here’s another one. I’ve actually tried not to say this; I can’t do it. My kids leave this house, keys in their hands, and I’m going to say . . . (say it with me now) . . . “Drive carefully!” I can’t help myself.
There are more critical times than these though, when people seriously do not need our comments.
Like when my sister was pregnant. She had a highly uncommon obstetric liver disorder that caused her to itch constantly, from the inside out. It was miserable, plus it was life-threatening to her and to her baby. She finally got some relief from an internationally renowned specialist and both she and the baby managed just fine, but here’s the thing: long before any doctors knew what was causing her symptoms, complete strangers would come to her aid.
“Have you tried lanolin? That stuff is amazing!”
“No, go with cocoa butter. It’s better.”
“Girl you need to get yourself some hydrocortisone cream. That’ll take care of you.”
Naturally, she had tried all these things and dozens more before she got her diagnosis. She knew all that and was painfully tired of hearing such things. In fact, not only did she not need to hear their advice, she really needed not to talk about her maddening condition at all.
The truth is, people usually do not need us to correct, advise, counsel, or admonish them. They need only for us to be with them: completely—silently—with them.
In the monthly newsletter that I send out to subscribers . . . Wait, what? You're not subscribed? Well, you better get on that right away! There's a subscribe form at the bottom of the mobile screen or on the side of the laptop screen. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Okay, got that done? Excellent.
Anyway in my monthly newsletter (it's short, about a two minute read), I offer short info-bites, cute beagle pics, and something I call an "Aileenism." (A friend--shout out to Destiny--labeled my oft-repeated sayings Aileenisms years ago. It stuck.) In celebration of a full year of Aileen Goes On, the Newsletter, I give you all 12 Aileenisms.
Oh also, if you already subscribe, would you comment below and tell me which newsletter feature you like best? Thanks! You're the best. No really: you are literally the absolute best!
I use this daily and I find it quite helpful in stressful situations. For example, it helps minimize my annoyance with such things as slow moving traffic (maybe there's a wreck ahead) gum-smacking cashiers (maybe he's trying to quit smoking), or obnoxious fans at football games who scream at the players even though their team is already 50 points ahead and continue their disruptive behavior through the marching band show (maybe they should stay themselves right on home until they learn how to act right . . . ) Okay so maybe I need to work on this a bit more, but you get the drift.
Saying "I can't" shuts out the possibility of success. Instead, choose one of these options.
It calms the haggard parent, soothes the anxious spouse, and encourages the overworked employee (or employer). What is this wonder word, you ask?
"What can I do to help?"
Or its identical siblings:
“How can I help you?”
“What else can I do?”
“What can I do for you?”
Try it. It's magic!
And once your children, spouse, or co-workers learn the question, all you have to do is remind them. Such subtleties as these are sure to bring about instant results.
I have never thought that I had all the answers. Frequently, when I state my opinion, I add, "I could be wrong." I've been wrong many times in my life--including times when I felt absolutely certain I was right. Realizing that I could be wrong frees me to consider other opinions. In these days, when our opinions polarize us into static affiliations, how lovely it is to enter into balanced dialog. Maybe I'm wrong, but it surely works for me.
As a mom--and okay as a spouse, sister, daughter, you name it--I have, on the (not so) rare occasion, said too much. You?
When we are in the midst of any conflict, what most of us want is to hear some version of, "You are so right. I am completely at fault. Thank you for sharing your wisdom with me. I am blessed to know someone so brilliant and generous." Unfortunately, the fact that this pretty much NEVER happens does not dissuade us from pursuing that end.
At some point, I learned that if I stop before I'm finished, I have much better results. By not backing my loved one into an ideological corner, I create the opportunity for continued dialogue. Additionally, I give us both a chance to think about what has been said already. Of course, it is not easy for me to quit talking before I've said absolutely every single solitary thing I could say on the matter. But I try to remember that a few well-chosen words are always more effective than a monotonous lecture. When I do, I bite my tongue, and stop talking. Even if I'm not finished.
In this time of extreme opinions and divisive conversations, I find it helpful to ask myself the question, "With which part of this can I agree?" Like this:
Comment: Majoring in History is stupid. You'll never get a job in that!
Response: Yes, some people do say that. That's not my opinion, but I can see why you think that.
Comment: University of Academics is the best school in the country! You'd be crazy to go anywhere else when you can go there!
Response: Yes, University of Academics is considered an excellent school and I am pleased I was accepted there.
Comment: Low fat diets are better than low carb ones.
Response: Yes, I know a lot of people have succeeded using that strategy.
In time, you can begin to disclose more details of your opinion, but start by naming something you can affirm; then move into the more contentious aspects of the conversation. Return to this method frequently throughout the discussion.
Admittedly, it was Dr. Phil's idea; his life law #8 is "We teach people how to treat us. Maya Angelou is quoted as saying something something similar: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time."
In any case, when my kids were young, I used the statement above to stop unwanted behavior. As in, "You are acting so ugly right now. Did you meant to teach me that you shouldn't be allowed to stay up late?" Or "I'm learning that I should not let you go on sleepovers, because when you come home you are grumpy."
Over time, the statement morphed into a sort of shorthand that stopped the kids before their actions got the better of them.
"You sure you want to teach me that?"
"You're teaching me something."
"Oooh! I'm really learning right now!"
In no time, they got pretty good at hitting reverse just as soon as they heard those words. A beautiful thing for a parent, that's for sure.
I can't remember if someone else taught me this saying or if I read it in a children's book or something. There's even a slight chance I came up with it myself--doubtful, but possible. In any case, it's a great question to help kids (or adults) deal with bullies. It works like this.
Bully: "You are a poo-poo head!"
Person to self: If this bully says this 1000 times, will it make it true?
Person realizes that there's no such thing as a poo-poo head & that the bully can't change that no matter how many times the statement is made.
Person dismisses insult.
For me, this kind of exaggeration shows just how impotent the bully really is. In fact, it strips all their power away and turns bullies into nice, regular people. Well. Maybe not exactly nice, but better anyway.
Children go through a phase when they are absurdly preoccupied with what is and is not fair. Parents, it's a battle you cannot win once your frontal lobe is fully developed. Just don't try. Here's what I came up with to combat the inevitable.
Question: "How come he gets to do it and I don't? That's not fair!"
Response: "True. But then the fair only comes once a year. It's not September, so you are out of luck."
Sarcastic? Totally. Flippant? Absolutely. But the response doesn't leave much room for discussion.
Otherwise I'd get caught in a loop like this.
Child: "How come he gets to do it and I don't? That's not fair!"
Me: "Well his friend invited him, and yours didn't."
Child: "Well I could invite my friend."
Me: "Then I would have to drive."
Child: "You always drive Favorite Child of the Day! That's not fair!"
Me: "That is inaccurate."
Child: "It is not."
(And on and on until I finally give in and let the child do what I don't want them to do while setting a precedent that whining is okay.)
So when your beloved says, "That's not fair," be sympathetic and be genuine when you respond, "Yep. You're right, it's not. But then the fair only comes once a year." At the very least the kids will be stymied by your reply and have to take a minute to figure it out.
In keeping with the message of this Aileenism, I confess, this is not an original idea. I mean, Moses had it engraved in stone, so there's that. Also, it's one of those "DUH" things that everyone knows, right? But the thing is, we so often fail to comply. We tell little white lies or half-truths (which, contrary to popular opinion, are not truth). We say things like . . .
I emailed you! You didn't get it?
You should have gotten that by now--stupid USPS.
I never speed.
Traffic! Sorry I'm late.
And the ultimate lie we've all told: "I don't have time!" What we usually mean is, "This is not my priority." But then that's next month's Aileenism: "We only have time for our priorities." True statement.
"I don't have time!"
"I wish I could, but I'm too busy!"
"You're [fill in the blank]? I don't have time for stuff like that!"
Have you ever said something like that? I know I have. But the thing is, we make time for the things that matter most to us.
People argue this point with me saying things like, "I have to work overtime or I would lose my job!" And I say, "Maybe. But not going to your kids' orchestra concert or school play could cause you to lose your relationship with them." In this case, the fear of unemployment is greater than the fear of being estranged from your children.
Another argument I've heard is, "You do not understand! I am slammed from 5 am until 10 pm 7 days a week. I cannot add anything into my schedule!" To that, I answer, "No you cannot. Your schedule is already full of your priorities." This person would need to downgrade something, remove it from the daily schedule, and then add the new obligation.
Me? I read a lot. That's because reading is a priority for me. I don't clean my house as often as I should. Not a priority--not when there are books yet to be read.
See what I mean? We only have time for our priorities! So, if you're spending time on things you don't consider valuable, then think about making some changes. Priorities--they're what come first.
Back in the 90's, I worked for a small regional college: University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma--Oklahoma's ONLY public liberal arts university! (I was a recruiter.) At my suggestion, we held the college's very first visitation day for potential students. The event was well attended and was considered a success by the university. Me? I was still reeling from the mistake I had made six weeks previously.
We had designed these way cool invitations and though we had a shoestring budget, we got permission to have them printed professionally. They arrived and looked perfect! Well, mostly. One problem: when I okayed the proof, I had failed to notice the incorrect date emblazoned in the middle of every invitation.
My mistake cost the university money we didn't have; we had to trash the originals and reprint them with the correct information. Today, I literally cannot remember much of anything about that event other than those flubbed-up invitations. I could describe those down to the font size! I was absolutely mortified by my error.
Here's the thing, though: I have NEVER done that again. Whether I am ordering t-shirts or announcements, for work or for personal use, I check the proof carefully and have another person or four check it as well. I learned from my mistake. The successes I experienced that day are forgotten. But my failure? That lesson has stayed with me forever.
Messed up lately? Consider it a life lesson. Value your mistake as a step on the journey to a better you. Mainly, be sure that you don't waste it! Cause that? That'd be a huge mistake!
Having battled depression since I was in the first grade, I’ve gotten lots of suggestions and advice over the years on how to “get over it.” Here are just a few of those and the responses I would love to have given.
See, me, I think you just don’t take things seriously enough. Have you given any thought to world hunger lately? Poverty? Abuse? Because I have and it’s pretty serious stuff. You see me getting upset because of one (so-called) minor incident and you think I’m overreacting. What you don’t get is that, I’m not just responding to this occurrence. I was already thinking about the world’s pain and suffering. Then this thing happens and I’m catapulted into a thought process that attempts to take into account all sadness, all pain, all brokenness of all time. You try thinking about that without getting serious.
Oh okay. If you’d just hold my brain for a minute or . . . I dunno . . . a decade.
What you don’t understand is that I do not have an emotional epidermis. Think of me as a hairless cat. Wait no. No one should think about that. Ever. Think of me as . . . well . . . think of me as someone who doesn’t have an emotional epidermis. Best I can tell, my filters are super permeable. More stuff just gets to me.
Also, I’m not consciously choosing to be “too sensitive” as you seem to think. I’m trying to handle emotional difficulties better; but when you say “You’re just too sensitive,” what I hear is, “You are broken. Fix yourself.” Your not-at-all-well-thought-out advice reinforces what I already believe about myself. And that makes me want to curl up and sleep for a week. Which just makes people say, “You take things too seriously.” (See above.)
I promise you, I’m working on it. You can’t imagine how hard I’m working on it. This time, I just didn’t have the energy to use the coping strategies I’m developing. And I’m tired of picking up the mask every time I face people. So when you see me like this, please refrain from giving me your pithy solutions; instead of reducing my depression, they actually inflame the condition.
On it! Thanks for the suggestion. Wow. Wish I could have known you 45 years ago. Would have saved lots of money in counseling and pharmaceuticals. Gosh, really! I’m all fixed now. Thanks!
You are so right. I don’t. That’s why I don’t understand why I feel this way. Nothing is wrong. Except for everything. And also nothing. But everything.
Here’s the way things go down inside my brain:
Brain: You have no real problems.
Me: Then what’s wrong with me?
Brain: Lots of people have it worse than you! You have no reason to be depressed.
Me: You’re right; I’m such a loser.
Brain: Think about all the people who have truly difficult struggles. Victims of assault or abuse, people in poor health, those who are bereaved. You literally have no problems.
Me: You’re right. I have absolutely no right to feel this way.
Brain: Then stop feeling.
Me: Okay, how?
Brain: Ummmm. Yeah, I got nothing. Not my expertise.
So I hear you, I do. I even quote you to myself all the time. As a matter of fact, there’s no need for you ever to say this to me again. I say it to myself plenty.
Is that a question or an accusation? If it’s a question, settle in friend. I’ve got lots to say. Most people, though, don’t really want to hear the “why.” It’s not really a question at all. It’s an expression of frustration and I get it! It is hard to live with or around someone who is chronically sad. But if you really want to help, give me compassion not judgment. Compassion is infinitely more effective in reducing depression’s symptoms. So instead of making the above statement, why don’t you just create a safe place for me where love is plentiful and mercy is abundant, k? Thanks.
Here’s the thing: if someone you know or love is suffering from chronic depression, resist the urge to give offhand advice. Instead, offer grace: because grace, like love, never fails.
When my kids were younger, around the first of each January we'd sit at our kitchen table together and make our New Year's Resolutions. We've gotten out of the habit, but what we did back then was shoot for five resolutions, one in each of five categories.
After making these initial five resolutions, break each one down into little goals, small steps, that will help you achieve your resolutions. For example, if the physical goal is to run a marathon, then running shoes might be in order. (Or in my case, a lobotomy.) These short term goals help measure success and help us stay motivated to keep our resolutions. Try to come up with at least three mini-goals for each resolution. Maybe you can break it down even smaller--setting micro-mini goals for each mini-goal. Each time you achieve any of these goals, make sure to reward yourself with at least a pat on the back and maybe even a latte.
In my opinion, goal setting is always good. Even if we fall short of our own expectations, I suspect we accomplish more than if we didn't aim for anything at all. So gather up your kids, family, or friends and plan now for a successful year.
Do you have tips for making resolutions? Share in the comment section. Already made yours? Tell us about them!
See, whether we like it or not, we often learn more from our failures than we do from our successes. Failure underscores the lesson, highlighting it for future reference. It points to areas of growth and opportunities for improvement. Success feels good in the moment, but failure can benefit a person for a lifetime.
Still, the mother in me—and the aunt for that matter—hates to see children I love experience the pain of disappointment. I’ve seen it plenty of times though. Here are just three of examples.
In each case, though, my children learned more from these failures than they ever would have from succeeding in the same situation. My oldest learned that careful research is actually its own reward, no matter what an impartial judge may say. My son has developed persistence that is unrivaled; loss never diminishes his resolve. My youngest, still spunky and opinionated, discovered that true conviction is more important than academic assessment.
None of those valuable life lessons could have been acquired through success. It took failure to teach them the hard lessons.
Knowing this does not mean I want my kids to fail. I don’t. I never celebrate when my beloveds fall short of their objectives. (Frankly, if I had my way, my kids would never even have a bad hair day, let alone a true heartbreak.) When things don’t go their way, I grieve with them and share their disappointment.
But over time, as tears dry up and emotions settle, I do my best to uncover the blessing in the setback. And it’s always there. Always.
I killed my laptop. It was an accident, more computerslaughter than murder. But nonetheless, the thing is as dead as if I'd shot it. Luckily, Charlotte Street Computers (all hail the mighty CSC!) resuscitated my hard drive and transplanted it into a new, more compact, body. I am eternally grateful for their expertise, really I am. But still, I'm having to go through a usb cord to get to all my files, using my work computer--a desk top that resides 20 minutes away from my home. (#firstworldproblems) Also, I'm loading all the files up to Google Drive so I can access them elsewhere and it's all going to be fine. I have other technology and I'll just use those to write until I decide what to do about a new laptop.
So this is truly NOT a tragedy. It IS doggone inconvenient though.
As a result of my mounting frustration, I'm reminding myself of what a tragedy is.
Nope, this situation here is an inconvenience: a frustrating, annoying, time-sucking one. But I will not promote this to tragic proportions. I will not allow this to be devastating, because for heaven's sake it is a thing not a child. I can be annoyed, but not overwhelmed; irritated, but not destroyed.
Now. As I wait for my files to load to Google Drive, I'll keep re-reading this until I get the message.
The workers building a retaining wall at my house had only talked to my husband and hadn’t yet met me. That particular day, I’d been gone when they arrived and got back after they were hard at it. The foreman saw me pull up and waited for me to get out of the car.
“Hey there!” he greeted me, “You Jay’s wife?”
“Well,” I told him, getting the groceries out of the car, “I’m his first wife.” I walked on towards the house.
“Um,” the man clearly wanted an end to the awkward silence, but couldn’t seem to form any actual words.
“I’m also his only wife,” I said, as the poor fella started breathing again. It’s one of my favorite gags. I introduce my husband as my former boyfriend, my ex-fiancé, or as in this case, my first husband. (I make my own fun.)
Indeed, back in the late eighties, I finished my bachelor’s degree and married my college sweetheart. Coincidently, so did my roommate and my two closest girlfriends. Today, more than two decades later, all four of us are still happily married. Talk about non-traditional marriage: according to today’s statistics—at least two of our four couples should be divorced by now.
No matter what Americans believe about marriage, surely we can all agree that the rapid dissolution of so many families is alarming. I know a number of couples who have suffered divorce and listen, they all have valid reasons: chronic unemployment on the part of one spouse or the other, affairs, addictions, and just plain irreconcilable differences. Without question, marriages often fail despite the determined efforts of one or even both of the partners. And sometimes, marriages should be terminated long before they are: I’m talking about abuse here—physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional. Seriously, if you are in an abusive relationship, get out immediately. You and your children will be better living in a shelter than with an abuser. No exceptions.
But back to my college friends & me. What has held our marriages together?
One could argue that church-going is one thing. All four of us go as couples with our children to church on Sunday mornings and every other time the doors are open. But you know what? So do a lot of other couples who have faced divorce. Going to church is important, but it doesn’t guarantee a long-lasting marriage. The divorce statistics for couples in Sunday school are the same as for those who skip it.
All eight of us are hard workers. Among us are three teachers, a couple of business people, an engineer, a scientist, and a minister (who also happens to write compelling blog posts). But none of us would be considered wealthy by American standards. In fact, each of our families have been through lean years in which one of the two spouses was laid off, under-employed, or in school for further education. Financial distress is often cited as the primary cause of divorce, yet our relationships have persisted through such troubles.
Not that it’s been easy; none of us would be the millennium version of Ozzy and Harriet or Mike and Carol Brady. No, our marriages have included real-life frustrations; plenty of times it would have seemed easier to give up. So why didn’t we? I don’t know all the reasons, but I know one.
See, while the divorce statistic is the same for church-goers and party-goers, church-going does not equal faith. In all four of our marriages, we’ve either found or sustained a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. Over the years, despite our struggles (or maybe due to those difficulties), we’ve all grown closer to God. All eight of us have aspired as individuals, as spouses, and as family members, to know God better and to be more like Christ. All eight of us have also failed resoundingly many times; but we’ve managed, by grace, to return to the path of spiritual formation, even when detours have distracted us from our objectives.
Marriage. You can hardly check a news feed without stumbling upon some so-called wisdom about it. Too bad Jesus isn’t on social media. If he were, he might say something like, “Strive first for the kingdom of God & his righteousness, & all these things will be given to you as well.” #Matt6:33NRSV #lovealwayswins.
*This piece was first published on June 29, 2015, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I’m delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing monthly at baptistnews.com.
After all, Tracie is less than 200 points shy of a perfect 2400 on her SAT; she’s made the highest possible score on all five AP Exams she’s taken; she has a solid GPA; she has studied abroad; and she’s even started her own small business. No one thought Tracie would be denied admission anywhere.
Yet, she’s heard from all four schools to which she applied. She was admitted to one: her last choice, her safety school. She’s wait-listed at one and denied—flat-out rejected—by the other two. Crazy.
Caveat: All along, I’ve thought Tracie should choose the state school closer to her home. It is an excellent university and I think she will thrive there. And anyway, I never have cared for those exclusive schools with the skinny little admission rates.
Still, I cannot believe she did not get into the schools she dreamt of attending. It makes no sense. But then, the fact is the admissions process is not fair. It’s just not. You can do everything nearly perfectly, as Tracie did, and still not make the cut. (You can also do very little right and get admitted, but that’s another blog post.) At many schools, when it comes to the final decision, it is almost random selection.
So students (and parents) dealing with college admissions disappointments, listen up. I have something to say (I do go on). You may feel free to read these aloud. Preferably while looking in a mirror.
*Name changed for privacy.
Recently, my sister reminded me of a family story that I hadn’t thought about in years. It happened back when we were in college, working in restaurants over holidays and summer breaks. At the time, she was waiting tables in our hometown in South Carolina.
Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the South, you need to know this tidbit. In South Carolina, when you order tea, it is assumed that you want your drink served over ice and—unless otherwise stated—sweet enough to pass as a dessert. It’s the rare Southerner who would choose hot tea to go with a meal. Even then, it would be requested with a touch of embarrassment or a word of explanation. “I’m coming down with a cold, you see, or I’d have the regular.” At which point, the waiter would say something like, “Oh! Bless your heart! I’ll getcha some iced tea for after you finish that stuff. No charge. You can take it to go.” In the South, iced tea is serious business, and it’s just not something you want to go messing around with . . . .
As my sister recalls, it all started because one night during the supper rush, a fella complained to the management because he had to request a spoon for his glass of sweet tea. According to him, the tea wasn’t quite sweet enough and he wanted to add more sugar. Not having a spoon readily available (and apparently unable to make do with either his knife, fork, or straw), he made quite a stinker of himself, frustrated that he was made to wait even momentarily for the required utensil. His nastiness threw the staff off kilter and made for a rotten night for everyone.
By the time the servers arrived the next day, the restaurant owner had devised a solution to this customer service conundrum. Incidentally, this was the first time in memory someone had requested more sugar for the sweet tea. Never mind that though; on to the solution.
“From now on,” the owner told the wait staff, “We will put teaspoons in each glass of tea. That will solve the problem.”
The staff just looked at her, apparently waiting for her to see the obvious flaw in the plan. She didn’t; someone spoke up.
“Well . . . umm . . . we put the spoons in the glasses of unsweetened tea so we can identify them. How will we tell them apart if we put spoons in all the glasses?”
The owner thought for a minute, came up with the answer, and said, “Okay, in the sweet tea, put one spoon. In the unsweetened tea, put two.”
“Yes! Two spoons.”
Well, you can imagine how this played out. The first really busy night, they ran out of teaspoons early on and the plan was scrapped. Which was fine really, because the problem wasn’t the system in the first place; the problem was a grumpy man who had probably just had one inconvenience too many that day.
We always get a big laugh out of this story, but in reality, I’ve overcorrected plenty of times in my own life. Have you? Tell me about it in the comments below. I’ll be having a glass of sweet iced tea while I wait to hear from you!
I ask myself this question whenever I am faced with difficulty or conflict. The answer I give points to where my control lies.
Here lately, I’ve been asking myself the question, “What part of eliminating racism is my responsibility?” As a result of this self-evaluation, I am developing the following habits.
Those are just a few of the things I do in my life to help make a difference in the race problem in America. Here’s what I don’t do. I don’t list things African American people can or should do differently to reduce racial tension. As a white woman married to a white man and the mother of three white children, I really can’t participate in this method of eliminating racism. I just can’t.
So I do what I can do, what I should do, the things that fall within my scope of responsibility. What about you? What do you do to help eliminate racism?